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Extrapolate (August 2021)
by Kevin Mercurio

Welcome to my monthly blog series. As a way to catalogue the happenings of the world, this blog will serve as a memento for its state at the time of publication. What I hope is that by clearly writing out top personal, local and global news, along with resources that can help us to develop skills, we can sift through the noise together. Let’s grow into our greatest potential.

Top Personal News

Allo ladies and lads! August has come and gone. I will begin with the most important news: it was my 28th birthday this month. I am happy to be alive, truly. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a year in which I felt more alive. With reduced noise, both in regards to direction in life and happenings outside of my current goals, this ability to focus on what makes me happy is no longer taken for granted. Be okay with your current state and always strive to improve. Next, on Friday, August 13th (exactly three weeks since the first) I received the second dose of the Comirnaty Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine. It’s amazing, if you think about it, how far the world has come since the pandemic began in early 2020. The pandemic makes me believe we’ve all aged a significant amount, matured into new versions of ourselves that we never would have become if circumstances were different. Don’t believe me? Check your social media; people expressing love with reduced-capacity weddings, or bringing life into this world; people expressing dismay with mental health crises, business loss and death of family and friends. It could all also be a front too, showcasing a reality they desire rather than the ones they are currently in. What’s important is to always empathize, in happiness or sadness, with the people in your life (or in your social environment). For other personal news, I took a solo trip to Waterford-Tramore-Cork-Blarney! If I know my Irish trivia, Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland, Tramore contains the secret Metal Man Statue (now inaccessible due to being surrounded by private property!), Cork is Ireland’s second biggest city and holds the famous English Market, and Blarney has (of course) the Blarney Castle & Stone (yes I did kiss the very non-COVID friendly stone, they do sanitize it after each kiss, which makes me sort of question what they were doing before 2019…). ’Twas a grand, very Irish trip, with half of the time being tempestual weather and the other half being warm and sunny. For academic news, I attended another virtual conference by the League of European Research Universities where around 50 graduate students come together to discuss the role of experts and early career researchers. It was a lot of contemplation with waves of interesting ideas from current experts, and a very popular chatbox throughout the week! Additionally, I was hired as a tutor for Scholars Ireland, an incredible initiative to reach underrepresented populations around the Dublin area and teach topics revolving around my PhD subject (always happy to share science on microbiology and immunology!). I am very much looking forward to reflecting more as I’ve reached the age where not only do I need to do math(s) to figure out my age, but to learn from each experience and become better.

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Gimme them 600 year old germs!

Top Local News

In local news, schools planned to have in-person lectures again for the upcoming Fall semester. This was the plan promoted by Minister of Higher Education Simon Harris, where in-person will be the primary source of learning. However, the government may have spoke too soon. Now, universities have been asked in secret to hold only lectures that have over 50 people in virtual format. Perhaps it’s best not to play around with the emotions of students, particularly those who are patiently waiting for the true university experience.

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Obtained from The University Times.

Top Global News

This month, there were two powerful stories that emerged which I would like to highlight equally. On Sunday, August 15th, the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, fell to the Taliban army. This was a consequence of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the region, with the hard deadline set by the Biden administration for complete withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Major Afghan cities surrendered power to Taliban fighters throughout August; first was Zaranj, capital of the Nimruz Southern Province on August 6th, all the way to Jalalabad and Kabul on August 15th, now controlling the majority of the country’s territory (see Aljazeera's complete timeline of events here). Currently, there is still a resistance stronghold in Panjshir Valley of the Northern Afghan region, where government and anti-Taliban fighters retreated and are holding firm. By announcement on Twitter, Taliban spokespeople have stated they will be sending hundreds of its soldiers to take control of the space (see Yahoo News article here). So the question on everyone’s mind is, undoubtedly, why is this happening and could it have went any other way? Sadly, nobody knows the answer. Biden himself, frustratingly stood by his administration’s decision for a rapid evacuation of forces in the region stating this only one day after Kabul’s demise. He reiterated in his speech, “If anything, the development over the past week has reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan, now, was the right decision.” A statement that, if anything, could be stated for any development, no matter the outcome (see The Guardian video here). Nobody without lived experience of Afghan history anticipated the speed at which Afghanistan’s government fell, except perhaps Afghan people themselves. The population has lived generation after generation through war and conflict, with Soviet invasion during the Cold War, the CIA before the millennium, the full US government after 9/11 along with its invasion of Iraq, Pakistan-backed expenditures and negotiations with governement and Taliban representatives, and Iran and its allies. This is yet another global humanitarian crisis, at the very least put in the forefront for the world to see (unlike North Korea or Yemen), that Western interests either caused and/or made worse, with geopolitical issues affecting Western powers for years to come (see a great New Yorker interview with Steve Coll describing the situation here). Now, onto the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 6th Assessment report released on August 9th (see the complete ICCC report here). It is now disgustingly laid bare how much humans have contributed to climate change since the industrial revolution (like it wasn’t already…). The tone of the report, rather than being hopeful and optimistic (the report sort of does when discussing what can/should be done) takes more of a somber approach, displaying the latest analyses in carbon emissions and unprecedented weather/environmental patterns in not just developing nations but also developed countries as well. There is a great summary simplified by editors at Vox News, emphasizing many of the report’s major conclusions. For one, we are now likely to overshoot the Paris Climate Agreement’s maximal global temperature increase of 1.5C, an understandably ambitious goal, but all the more spotlights the fact that many of the 195 countries who signed this agreement failed to accomplish their own set goals. Extreme wildfires, unseen flooding and record-breaking heat in regions where this should not be happening have, indeed, happened. To further summarize, the report emphasizes four conclusions of the IPCC report: 1) Scientists are even more confident that climate change worsens extreme weather, 2) Climate change is global, but the effects are local, 3) Carbon dioxide is not the only villain, and 4) There’s no more room for wishful thinking. The sad reality is that it all comes down to what people do with this information, and in my view, the problem is not the lack of information out there, it is the unknown actions that individuals could take to spearhead change against government and corporate policies dreadfully ruining the planet we love (and evidently need to survive... Currently anyway). What will you do with this information? See the full Vox article here.

Most Interesting Article of the Month

“A Top Virologist in China, at Center of a Pandemic Storm, Speaks Out” published in The New York Times by Amy Qin and Chris Buckley. Holy shit this was published on August 3rd, hellz yeah. This article comes in light of a now growing narrative that SARS-CoV-2 could have been leaked (intentionally or unintentionally) from the Level 4 Virology Lab in Wuhan. The interview is with top Chinese virologist Dr. Shi Zhengli, who heads one of the major groups within this lab. It’s interesting to see the perspective of someone with merit, who by solely conducting research within a communist regime, has been broadly labeled suspicious by Western media, unconsciously or not. The unfortunate reality is that we will likely never know whether this was a natural viral jump from animals to humans via Chinese wet market culture, an unintended lab leak in the region’s own Level 4 virology lab by extracting natural coronaviruses from bats or secret gain of function studies, or, my own conspiracy theory I thought of that no one has mentioned yet, a strategic planting of a dangerous coronavirus in the region almost too good to be true by Chinese enemies (ie. most of Western societies). Read the article here.

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Obtained from The New York Times.

Most Interesting Video of the Month

This month’s video by the Globe and Mail goes back to the Afghan humanitarian crisis, showing the events that unfolded at Kabul airport prior to the takeover of Taliban forces. Disclaimer: this may not be easy to watch, but demonstrates the lengths some will go in order to escape Taliban rule, or perhaps more broadly speaking, demonstrates the reliance on the Afghan people that Western societies provide them with better lives. You can watch the YouTube clip here

Monthly Book Club

“Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull. A 2014 autobiography of the events of the past Pixar President’s life that led to the start and rise of perhaps the Film Industry’s most highly regarded animation studio. From his love for Disney movies, to his education in computer science, to developing technologies for 3D animation, to meeting with John Lassetter (Pixar’s long time Creative Director), to meeting investor and tech-pioneer Steve Jobs, to succeeding with its first blockbuster hit "Toy Story" starring Tom Hanks, the book laments to its readers the steps Catmull and his team took to manage creativity and innovation. My expectations were that this would be an overall general conversation of how creativity can be inspired in yourself and your team members. However, its long-winding prose and unrealistic anecdotal reflections make it fall short of a broader goal about discussing creativity, unless you are hell-bent on a career in the Film Industry. What I expected was a book that could translate to all creative fields, but what was provided were thought-trains about how Catmull and his team members attribute meaning to cliche dreams and metaphors. Perhaps I’m being harsh, as I do like a good dream or metaphor, however I never would attribute expressions to the success of my company’s innovation or my own creativity. Read more about the book here

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Movie/TV Show of the Month

Cities of Last Things. Premiering in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and winner of the Platform Prize, the movie details the life of Zhang Dong Ling who (SPOILER ALERT) commits suicide near the beginning of the story. The interesting directorial take was that the movie goes in reverse chronological order, showing the audience a crude, belligerent, suicidal man and the events in his life that created this person. In fact, the story could not have been told any more elegantly, as the audience is forced to reverse its initial thoughts on this heinous human being, and asks us to sympathize with him because of his upbringing. He was not always like this, as many “bad” people are, and the life he led drastically changed his morals. The only innocence the character seems to keep is his love for the vulnerable, for himself when he was arrested by living a life without his real mom, for his community when he was a police officer in his early life, and finally his daughter when he discovered that his wife cheated on him and now lives a soul-less reality. It’s thought provoking. See the trailer here.

Podcast Highlight

This week, I’m highlighting Cassidy Swanston’s SciComm School Podcast. A MSc in science communition with incredible experience in the space, Swanston elaborates on her experiences and supports those who want access to this fantastic community. She is also the Communications Director for the Pelling Lab at the University of Ottawa, former Executive Director of Pulsar Collective, past TEDx speaker, and previous events organizer for the Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. Definitely give her episodes a listen during a stroll through your neighbourhood park!

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Obtained from SciComm School Podcast.

Monthly Earworm

“Stoned at the Nail Salon” by Lorde. From her new 2021 album Solar power, see personalized performance here

Quote of the Month

“Have you ever taken nude photos?” 

- Mike Richards, who stepped down as Jeopardy’s newest host amid posing sexist questions/comments on his Randumb Show Podcast (see Daily Beast segment about comments here)