Inside the Citizen Lab

Earlier this semester, I attended a very interesting lecture series on cyber warfare. The director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, Ron Deibert, spoke to us about the lab's work. The center focuses on digital security issues that arise from human rights concerns - this involves surveillance, censorship, mobile privacy, and many other topics.

What was very interesting for me about the talk was the intersectionality: the Citizen Lab combines methods from computer science, political science, area studies, and law to properly explore its work. Dr. Deibert made sure to emphasize that the lab is not an activist or advocacy group but rather a center for generating peer-reviewed research. The effects of this research have been impressively far-reaching, and reports are published and highly regarded by the community.

In addition to relaying some very interesting (and concerning) stories about real people affected by foreign-government-sponsored surveillance, Dr. Deibert left us with three observations about the current state of global affairs that appear threatening:

  1. The capacity to connect is outstripping the capacity to secure.
  2. Democracy is in retreat, and authoritarianism is resurgent.
  3. Today sees a booming surveillance industry with proven abuse potential.

These three ideas combined make for a pretty dismal view of the future - if nothing is being done to provide matched security to the heightened number of connected devices around the globe. For me, this event combined two huge interests for me - computer science and international studies - and brought up interesting questions about the ethics of computing, questions I will be pondering for a while to come.

 

Well-Tread Paths

It's done - I've bought the tickets, made nearly all the plans. After two years, I'm coming back to Europe! Planning this trip has been special and difficult. I was fortunate enough to travel a good bit with family when I was young, but that also means that the meaning of travel has changed for me. I still enjoy the novelty of visiting a brand new place to explore, but I would now much rather go somewhere to see friends or family.

That, however, leaves me in a quandary - do I go somewhere new or rehash the same places with familiar faces? The former choice might be pricier, scarier, and disappointing - but it could also help me explore new places and therefore parts of myself. The latter choice is comfortable, predictable, and almost certainly cheaper - but the people I know have their own lives, and visiting someone's home during your vacation time can cause some strange disruptions and not meet expectations.

To get past this, I've been lucky enough to plan this trip to hit both points. One of my oldest friends lives in Holland but graciously invited me to tag along to her trip to the South of France. I'll be making a pitstop to visit old friends in Dublin, but will be slowing down along the way to explore more of England, the long lost home country that I never really got a chance to get to know. Hopefully somewhere in there I'll be seeing more of Holland itself and new places in Italy - again, to visit a friend. So, for the majority, I've found ways to combine new places with familiar faces - truly the best of both worlds.

The Cold War & Beyond

Several weeks ago, I attended the second installment of a Cold War lecture series hosted by the College of International and Area Studies. I wasn't quite prepared for the type of lecture it turned out to be, but by the end I was able to appreciate its uniqueness.

The tagline was "Personal and Professional Reminiscences of a Scholar/Soldier" - I didn't pay too much attention. But a few minutes into listening to Dr. Fishel speak about his highly personal involvement in the happenings of the Cold War, I realized this really was unlike any lecture I had attended at the university. Here was someone who had not only studied the subject on which he spoke, but had lived it. Granted, at times this made it hard to follow. I myself am no expert on the Cold War, and following the multiple threads of his story - often interrupted with another - while keeping count of the handful of facts I knew about the period was taxing at best. Dr. Fishel, in simply recounting his life story, impressed with not only the intrigue of moving from one position to the next within the greater background of this historical period, but also with the pinpoint accuracy of his recollection. Dates, names, detailed visual depictions of certain scenes, all drew us into the story, enraptured.

I left with a little more knowledge and a lot more respect for this man along with countless others who lived a difficult and interesting double life during the 20th century - scholar-soldiers everywhere.

Global Engagement Day: Spanish Survival Skills

Today was the highlight of the semester for GEFs (Global Engagement Fellows) on the OU campus: Global Engagement Day. All of us gathered to attend events organized and hosted by our peers - everything from advice for applying to Fulbright to student stories from studying abroad.

I want to focus on an event I attended - Survival Spanish Skills. You may ask why a native Spanish speaker chose to attend this event; well, aside from a two-week trip in 2016, I haven't been immersed in Spanish culture much if ever in my life. My language learning came from my father, and constant practice speaking with him has kept me in touch with those skills. However, there are many cultural nuances and details I get rusty with - or never learn - by living in the United States and not Spain.

Although the focus of the event was probably too basic for me to learn anything, I could see how it was extremely helpful as a quick guide. What you could learn from that 30-minute lesson (who-what-when-where-why, cognates, and general "please" and "thank" you type phrases) would be enough to get you through a short trip to Spain intact.

But I was also reminded that there is always something new to learn, whether you've been speaking Spanish for 2 years or 20 years. Today, I learned that to say "How are you" in Argentina, you use the word "vos" instead of "tú" to mean the informal singular "you."

Above all, it was a good refresher and a chance to meet some new friends.

Media as a Mirror

I have always strived to keep up with world news. It is important to me that I remain aware and ready to discuss recent and vital happenings. The media helps me do this. Over the years, I have pared down the multitude of sources big and small to only the ones I trust the most. Some of these have even been deemed "fake news" by a certain world leader, but I have found their mission and motivations to be relatively pure - the best news organizations have a mission of truth, to educate the populace on events with no distortion of that truth. And when they're wrong, they admit it.

As I said, I used these news sources to keep up with events abroad. While I was taking a course earlier this year on the events of the Arab Spring of 2011, I was able to read the news each day and connect the events of today with those of 6 years prior.

Since the end of last year, however, I have increasingly noticed those top headlines being more relevant to me than not. My friends from abroad would ask, How is everything over there since the election? Mass shootings, incendiary Tweets, seeming threats to "unalienable" rights, a mass reckoning for sexual harassers everywhere.

More and more, I have seen the lens on the world turned back in towards my own country. We're in every news cycle, always for a new (and usually worse) reason. The lens has turned into a mirror, reflecting back on myself and my surroundings.

I am forced to consider my role in society like never before. Each challenge brings up memories of times I have been witness to microagressions that contribute to the larger whole. How many times have I let a questionable joke slide? Forgotten about instances of gender discrimination without reporting them? Hoped something would get better without putting the work in myself?

Reading about other places helped me idealize my own home - because it didn't seem that bad. But things have to change. And I'll be here to help change them.

IAS Involvement Fair: Fulbright

Last week, I volunteered to help out with the Fulbright informational table at the International and Area Studies Involvement Fair. Although the ~three hours was quite long, I am so glad I did.

After having gone through Fulbright the "wrong way" (beginning my application very late; changing my entire essay and plan a week before the deadline), I was fully equipped to give everyone who came to our table some solid advice.

First, I gave them the spiel; by the halfway point all their faces were beginning to meld together and I wasn't sure who I had said what to.

Next, though, I gave them what I hoped they couldn't get anywhere else: brutally honest advice from someone who's been there.

  1. Start researching... yesterday. Fulbright offers so many programs that their website can be extremely overwhelming at first glance. It will take several days just to get your bearings.
  2. As soon as you choose a program, start sending out emails. Having an affiliate in your host country is either required or highly encouraged, but (surprise!) people don't check their emails. Throw out as many darts as you can, and see what sticks.
  3. Draft, draft, draft. Don't leave your essays til the last minute. They're pretty much your entire application.

Speaking to students was super inspiring; many of these have already started their research about Fulbright, and some have great project proposals already. It was a really great afternoon, filled with good questions, great conversation, and an overall satisfaction from having helped a few of my peers down the scary but thrilling path that is applying for the Fulbright Scholarship.

International Involvement: Baccano

Although I have not been as involved in international life on campus as I would've liked to be, I told myself I would stay involved in Baccano.

A shortage of time this semester meant I was unfortunately unable to continue taking Italian language classes, a fact that pained me a lot. It was a reality I had to accept, that the importance of finishing my major-specific coursework meant that some things had to take a back seat. As is life.

Baccano was my escape this semester. From the Caffe e Conversazione event detailed here to our hour-long organizational meeting to plan a budget for the semester, I loved getting to hang out with the people who make this club amazing to be a part of.

It's truly a different breed. People believe in stereotypes for a reason - they usually arise from at least a grain of truth. Yes, they can go too far and be harmful, but they often turn out to be a teensy bit accurate. I have noticed this difference distinctly, being an internationally involved STEM major. The two parts of my personality are worlds apart. In the latter, I have become used to introversion and an overall awkward quietness. In the former, I simply have to accept that I may not get a word in edgewise - but only because every moment is filled with fascinating and lively conversation.

The members of Baccano personify this perfectly. They are excited by life itself, ready to speak a passionate and beautiful language, drink coffee in the smallest of glasses, and mull over dinner as a three-hour affair.

I absolutely love it, so I am happy to maintain this thread of a connection to Italian language and culture by participating in Baccano.

Distance, Time, and Choice

What I'll relay here is not new to any of you. Every human has experienced this feeling before, and countless have doubtless written about it.

I'll throw my thoughts out there regardless.

I have been fortunate in my life - in countless ways, but especially this one - to have acquired enough confidence to be comfortable speaking to new people. Don't get me wrong - all of these encounters terrify me to my core, and I still have to talk myself into them, each and every time. I see or hear someone doing or saying something interesting, enumerate the options in my head, and sometimes decide on putting myself in the most vulnerable position: reaching out for the first "Hello." More often than not, this strategy has allowed me to form a path to getting to know some of the most intelligent, kind-hearted, fascinating people I have ever met.

There's a caveat (isn't there always?). In the case that I meet these people in, say, another country, or on a short trip from one foreign land to another foreign land, maintaining our glorious new friendship presents some challenges.

I can speak about this on the micro and macro levels. I have friends in Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, England, Portland... and two miles from my apartment in Oklahoma. Both distances prove difficult to traverse, and why is this?

Our time is limited. Like, super limited. In fact, I belong to the group of people (we aren't well-formed; we don't have weekly meetings or anything) who are a little bit nihilistic, believing that not a single moment on this earth is guaranteed to us. So those hours watching Netflix or staring at the ceiling or napping in a coffee shop transform into something a lot more precious.*

*That, of course, doesn't mean I stop doing these seemingly pointless things, because relaxation is important too. 

How then, do I choose between all these beautiful people in my life? Our shared experiences form a web of memories that are brought to the forefront by the strangest of triggers, or sometimes wholly by chance. I'll send a text and tell that person I miss them and we'll reminisce and walk through a three-message catch up and promise to Skype. And then life happens, deadlines loom, and that Skype session gets delayed further and further.

It's not for lack of love, simply time and coordination. But there's another factor mixed in, and that's the idea that my self - my essence, my personality, my witty (cheesy?) quips, my love - sometimes feels like an exhaustible commodity. It takes energy, mental strength, and, most of all, time to build up those parts of myself that form a sociable human being.

We tell ourselves that the Internet and social media make it so easy to connect with others, stay in touch, share our lives with those we love. But what we didn't consider was what didn't change at all:

Us.

We're still human. We experience love and joy and euphoria on even the tiniest of scales. We also have pain and exhaustion and mental strain. No amount of Snapchatting can surmount the problem of stress and too little time and shifting lives. That last one is tough - the idea that not only do we just "get busy" but also drift apart in our most core similarities. People come to us when we most need them, and those shared experiences I spoke about bind us together in a manner that, at the time, seems unyielding and everlasting. But our paths diverge, be it by miles or continents, and gap widens before we even realize it.

I think reconnecting is possible and beautiful.

But the choice remains: when will be the last Snapchat be sent, seen, and go unreplied? Do we leave the ephemeral last "goodbye" to fade away when our phone reaches its storage limit? The state of technology makes us hyper-aware of a phenomenon that has always existed - the last goodbye (only now it's called "ghosting").

I argue that the last goodbye can be a beautiful thing, rather than a sad affair. Perhaps in twenty years you'll run into your old friend at an airport and know that the randomness of the universe brought you together again, and that's a lot more profound than maintaining a Snap streak just for the sake of it.

Caffè e Conversazione

Anyone who has gone through the process of learning a new language knows that it is a huge commitment. Even a week without practice can set you back a month in terms of understanding, so constant practice is necessary to improve and retain what you learn.

So, imagine me - strolling into a conversation group after 6 months of no Italian (aside from the occasional arbitrary thought in the language). As a member of Baccano Italian Club here on campus, I am expected to be a leader, a teacher, etc. But as I sat in Crimson & Whipped Cream sipping on hot tea, I could physically feel the mental strain of trying to remember vocabulary words and conjugations, piecing together thoughts in strange fragments. I found myself filling in gaps with words from Spanish, my second native language. I essentially created my own language, Spanglishtalian.

On the positive, I had a fabulous time. It was neat to reawaken the part of my brain associated with language learning, to refresh my memory by crowdsourcing knowledge from the new friends surrounding me. My own favorite part of conversation groups is the mix of people, everyone from native speakers and professors of Italian to those who haven't yet conjugated a verb in their beginner class. It fosters a great notion of collaboration, helpfulness, and the pure joy of learning and conversing with other humans.

We do our best, switch into English when necessary, and experience the odd sensation of telling familiar stories with new words.

The group at the most recent Coffee & Conversation event.

Different state of mind

A lesson I learned in Ireland: you can't escape your own head.

As much as you may wish that the presence of fresh baguettes or drizzling rain or cafes on every corner will free you of worry and woe, the truth is that it may - and probably will - not. I had this mindset. A change of scenery does you good, they say. And though this is certainly true for those who are simply bored of their well-traveled circumstances, it is not for those whose discomfort arises from their own inner demons. Maybe I didn't realize it till I was on the plane. Or till I laid in bed for three days straight during winter study week, surviving on biscuits and water.

This new bedroom, this new city, this "new me" (I had chosen a brand-new nickname with which to call myself) was not doing the trick. I still had the same negative thoughts as before, the same self-punishing mental tendencies. Just in a new place.

The world - in its purest sense, as a malformed sphere on which to exist - can't save you. Moving away and coming back nine months later helped me realize what I really needed to thrive. Motivation, companionship, sunshine. Talking out my thoughts on forums such as these (I'm bad at keeping a journal), decorating my room with everything that represents me (I couldn't accumulate stuff abroad - that would be silly), going for late night drives with an epic soundtrack (I didn't have a car in Ireland).

Distancing myself from what I thought were causes of my restlessness and lack of motivation also left me stranded from the very things that made me happy. And I was left a little bit broken, of my own doing. I suppose the lesson here is to firstly, count your blessings and secondly, realize that being in a new place will change you - just perhaps not in the way you expected or hoped for. Which is not to say you shouldn't do it; quite the contrary. Leaving parts of myself behind in Oklahoma meant I learned more about myself abroad than I thought I could've. And those parts were still waiting for me when I returned, ready to be pieced back together to make me whole again.