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Connections (September 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

We’re at it again, after what seems like a whirlwind of a month. September is coming to a close. The most important thing that happened this month was my 6-Month progress report and presentation (some actual work output was required this month!). During a PhD, there are moments in the program in which members of your thesis committee (or in this case, academics in the Department of Microbiology) attend seminars given by trainees where they can assess how your projects are going. It’s an opportunity to not only demonstrate that you know what your project is about, but also forces you to dive deep into the literature and pick out important aspects that might be useful. Anyway, this went extremely well, and my committee seemed pleased. This actually occurred near the beginning of the month, marking the start of the new Fall 2021 semester. The campus is surprisingly full of life, and I can’t decide whether I enjoy this lively atmosphere or the more peaceful environment of the summer months. Additionally, I’ve been networking like a madman, joining a PhD support group, meeting a fellow CV reviewer as part of my work at Trinity Career Services, and having a pint with other graduate students who received the PhD Provost Award that funds their projects. As the world opens up again, it’s interesting to observe habits you’ve obtained during the past year and a half. If anything, physical distance is certainly something I am going to continue doing. Otherwise, outside of the academic/professional sphere, it was my mother's 68th birthday (looking younger than ever!). I launched Season 4 of the Metaphorigins Podcast, kicking it off strong with “Speak of the Devil” and an interview with Dr. Megan Hanlon about, well, podcasting! If you’re reading this (and kudos to you), make sure to listen to weekly episodes happening all the way towards the end of the year. I was also notified that my short story "Pandemonium" was published in the student-led Health Science Inquiry (HSI) Journal based at the University of Toronto. It’s about pandemic-fuelled cancel culture, so please do give it a read on their website or mine (ie. this one!). Lastly, I participated in the last FameLab Ireland National Finals, ever. FameLab is the world’s largest science communication competition where trainees can spit science for 3 minutes with props. It was an interesting experience and definitely helped me build on my idea of what science communication should be. Check out the broadcast on Facebook Live this Thursday, September 30th at 6pm (register for free on their website!).

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Pints after the gruelling 6-month assessments.

Top Local News

In local news, as of the 17th of this month, HSE (Ireland’s public health department) announced that Ireland had the highest vaccination rates in the EU, for both first and both doses. Ireland is currently at 90% fully vaccinated adults, followed closely behind by Malta with 89.9%. The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has given the ruling government the go ahead for the next phase of the country’s reopening, likely expanding crowd numbers in both outdoor and indoor settings. Well done Ireland!

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Obtained from the Irish Mirror.

Top Global News

This month, there were a few stories I’d like to briefly touch on. One is the Canadian election that occurred on the 20th of September. Long story short, Canadians weren’t happy. After much debate about whether the Liberals handled the pandemic well, and if Justin Trudeau should lead, the results of this election were… more of the same. In fact, Trudeau’s plan to expand his agenda after the worst of the pandemic by calling this election and aiming for a majority government had failed. They continue to hold a minority government with perhaps the only change being somewhat equal seats between the NDP and Blocs in the House, as well as the dismantled Greens. In my view, with the pandemic slowing down, the next issue should certainly be the economy and equally the climate crisis. We need to pass strict policies that truly enact change, and perhaps a majority government would better do that. Moving onto another big story: the coup d’etat in the West African country of Guinea. In retaliation to ousted President Alpha Conda’s plans of extending his position passed the constitutional duration, the military junta took him into custody and has now taken over power. A similar event occurred in neighbouring Mali last year, where President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was also ousted in a coup d’etat, despite still having some time left on his elected role. Due to the frequency of these military coups, many are questioning the stability of the West African region, and for those currently in power, it's difficult to determine whether they should fear a military uprising and perhaps gain as much control as possible (in other words, advancing their powers as quickly as possible now). Only time will tell, as well as international sanctions to impact their economy of course. The worst part is that innocent people are always caught in the middle of this power-dance, and often pay their lives for it. This is easily illustrated in the story I would like to specifically highlight: the ongoing genocide of Tigrayans in Ethiopia. The whole situation is a clusterfuck, like many things in the world today, involving the infamous Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and now faces international criticism and accusations of war crimes. Without going too much into the last 50 years of Ethiopian history; Ethiopia is divided by many different ethnic groups. Eritrea, a country just north of Ethiopia, was an ethnic group before departing and becoming an independent state. Around that time, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ousted the Ethiopian dictator that was ruling and created the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Tigrayans, having most of the power in this coalition, only represented a small part of the entire country’s population. This led to mass protests in the country and Tigrayans mainly took northern land just before Eritrea. Along this border, war broke out between Tigryans and Eritreans, which I will return to in a bit. Now, with the TPLF reduced to a smaller power, the current Prime Minister was appointed who introduced many peace talks and reforms that hoped to bring Ethiopia together. This included, as mentioned, an end to the war with Eritrea, leading to winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, COVID came, and thus elections for new party rulings and position changes were postponed. The region of Tigray went against government rules and held their own elections towards the end of last year. This sparked a series of events that led to suspicion of Ahmed to make political decisions that seemed like he was accruing more power. He claimed Tigray and the TPLF attacked Ethiopian government bases, leading to increased tension and conflict, escalating to a more recognized civil war (see BTN video describing the situation here). Yet instead, this is more of ethnic cleansing. There is evidence of torture, work camps and many other atrocities made by the Ethiopian government in response to Tigrayan attacks, as many Tigrayans have fled to neighbouring countries like Sudan to escape the conflict. Many of these refugees are now facing hunger, as the United Nations recently estimated that 400,000 Ethiopians are on the verge of starvation. This was all consolidated by a joint effort by the ruling country’s government and the Eritrean government, in which it is believed the latter are seeking revenge for the border war suffered over decades. Again, we in the safety of a developed country, wait for a reversal of fortune. What will you do with this information? See the full CNN article here.

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Obtained from CNN.

Most Interesting Article of the Month

“Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare” published in the New Yorker by Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino. Back to referencing old articles, I know, as this was actually published at the beginning of July (two months ago!), but I only was able to read it now. This article really does a great yet painstaking job of helping us understand what the #FreeBritney movement is all about, as well as what the legal fuck is a conservatorship. The article goes into a deep dive into how Spears’s father has such control over her daughter’s life and expenses that it seems like she literally cannot make any choices (personal or professional) without the approval of her father. This includes having relationships, time with children, who to meet with for business deals, what to buy, etc. It’s such a deep dive, that there’s absolutely no way to do the article any justice in a small paragraph. If you have the time, read the full article here.

Most Interesting Video of the Month

This month’s video “The Universe is Hostile to Computers” is by the science communication channel Veratasium hosted by Derek Muller. It frames the video by an election vote count error happening in Brussels, Belgium, in which a specific number of votes was over counted in a unrealistic way (ie. it was impossible to account for this many votes). In essence, the universe is full of particles that can actually impact bits in computer microprocessors, going through material hardware and “flip” bits to the opposite binary digit. Insane! You can watch the Youtube clip here.

Monthly Book Club

“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Written by the Nobel laureate, this fiction story follows an artificial intelligence named Klara, who seems to be solar-powered and thus has a strong deity feeling towards the sun. Starting in the store she is being sold it, she astutely observed the world around her, particularly the people who happen to cross her path at the store. She is eventually chosen and bought by a young girl who brings her home. Without spoiling it too much, Klara was chosen for a reason, and her strong observation abilities allowed her to be an objective examiner to different relationships around the girl’s life, and the different ideas of what love could be. Love from a parent, a close friend, a school acquaintance, a housekeeper; these are all explored throughout the storyline. It’s a solemn story towards the end, however it gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on love in their own relationships, with AI precision. You can read the book online here.

Movie/TV Show of the Month

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. This is an Anime show (accessible through non-anime streaming platforms like Netflix) based on the manga of the same name by Hirohiko Araki. This show solidified my notion of Anime, in that this genre has such insanely original plotlines that I am left completely curious and further drawn in. This particular show reminds me of fairytale thinking, or even Greek mythology, where main characters think of solutions to problems that absolutely no human being would come up with. Give it a try and check it out. See the trailer here.

Podcast Highlight

This month, I’m highlighting a big podcast that you are probably already listening to, and if you’re not, you should! And that podcast is Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend. Typically regarded as the number one comedy podcast available, Conan O’Brien is simply a blessing to this world. And with him leaving late night on TBS to focus on other endeavours (perhaps away from show business altogether?), the podcast with his assistant Sona and producer Matt involves interviews with other funny human beings. It’s a shift from the toxic shit you often see on news outlets and social media. Find the episode with your favourite comedian and literally laugh out loud while on the bus to work!

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Obtained from Earwolf.

Monthly Earworm

“Industry Baby” by Lil Was X and Jack Harlow. Watch the music video here.

Quote of the Month

“I am not very much interested in leading Canada.”

- Yves-Francois Blanchet, Bloc Quebecois Leader (from the English debate; watch here)

AND

"Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah"

- Greta Thunberg , Climate Activist (at the Youth4Climate Event; see Bloomberg video here)