Jordan Snyder

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Jordan Snyder is the Editor-in-Chief for the Niner Times and has been working with the newspaper since October 2013. He is a communications major with a minor in film studies.

Caught between Iraq and a caliphate

Maybe you’ve heard about this little conflict in the Middle East. A group of extremist Sunni militants called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have taken control of several Iraqi cities as well as the country’s biggest oil refinery, and, surely, they’ll be attempting to take Baghdad in the near future. The Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has requested U.S. assistance in pushing ISIS back, but, thankfully, President Obama has exercised caution in formulating a strategy.

If the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world were in charge, “Operation Iraqi Freedom Again” would probably have been enacted by now. Say what you want about President Obama, but we’re lucky he’s in the hot seat instead of some impulsive neocon with a fetishized view of the military.

Fox News anchors might be quick to criticize Obama’s slow action, but exercising caution is the smart option. The last time our country rashly took military action in Iraq, we got sucked into a nearly nine-year war with barely anything to show for it. What is to be gained from meddling in Iraqi affairs once again? Is anybody still so naïve to believe that Iraq is just anxiously awaiting our help to transform into a happy, democratic wonderland?

In President Obama’s statement on June 19, he detailed the latest U.S. strategy for the conflict but emphasized the fact that it will ultimately require an Iraqi solution. The sectarian conflict plaguing Iraq is too volatile and culturally enmeshed to be fixed by air strikes or the diplomatic hand of the United States.

The Sunni-based ISIS wants to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region. Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, wants to stay in power but might be marginalizing the country’s Sunni citizens in doing so. The country is bordered by Shiite majority Iran and Sunni majority Saudi Arabia. It’s a recipe for devastating civil war.

In addition to fortifying the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the United States is prepared to expand intelligence operations and send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq. Obama reiterated that American forces would not be participating in combat roles.

We know from very recent experience that the United States playing “world police” would inevitably lead to more disruption. ISIS might even be hoping for U.S. involvement – even the illusion of the United States supporting Shia over Sunni could be the spark that ignites the powder keg.

Luckily, Obama has made clear that the nation’s sectarian divisions are the roots of the problem. Iraq’s problems don’t end with ISIS. As long as there is inequality among the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, there is motivation for unrest. But outside of urging the Iraqi government, especially Prime Minister Maliki, to practice more inclusive politics, this solution should be completely out of the United States’ hands.

E3 2014: Nintendo digital event wrap-up

Nintendo’s E3 digital event proved that the company is still reliant on their own franchises and development studios to support the Wii U and 3DS.

The only third-party game shown was “Bayonetta 2,” the sequel to Platinum Games’s 2010 third-person action game. It’s one of five games presented that will be released in 2014.

The big-hitter that’s most likely to sell more 3DS and Wii U systems is “Super Smash Bros.,” set to release on Oct. 3, 2014 and holiday 2014, respectively. Game director Masahiro Sakurai revealed two new playable characters: Mii fighters and Palutena (a goddess from the “Kid Icarus” franchise). With Mii fighters, gamers can introduce literally any character to the fray, taking on one of three specific fighting styles (Brawler, Swordfighter or Gunner).

"Super Smash Bros." for Wii U and 3DS will have a more varied character roster than ever before. Photo courtesy of Nintendo
“Super Smash Bros.” for Wii U and 3DS will have a more varied character roster than ever before. Photo courtesy of Nintendo

In addition, Nintendo unveiled “amiibo,” a set of figurines (similar to “Skylanders” and “Disney Infinity”), which will be recognized by the Wii U gamepad, sending and receiving data to and from the video game console.

For example, placing a Mario amiibo on the gamepad while playing “Super Smash Bros.” will cause the character to pop into the action. Your specific character’s data will be saved in the amiibo, so you can take your information wherever you plan on playing. Nintendo hopes for amiibo figurines to be used across multiple games, including “Mario Kart 8.”

Three other games that Nintendo fans can expect this year are “Pokemon Omega Ruby” and “Pokemon Alpha Sapphire,” remakes of the old Game Boy Advance games; “Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker,” an adorable, full-fledged adventure for the tiny Mario character; and “Hyrule Warriors,” a Zelda-themed “Dynasty Warriors” game.

The six other games showed off by Nintendo are currently slated for release in 2015.

“Yoshi’s Wooly World” is a side-scrolling platformer in the vein of “Kirby’s Epic Yarn.” It features adorable (forgive me for overusing the term) visuals of yarn landscapes and knitted characters.

We also got brief looks at “Kirby and the Rainbow Curse,” “Xenoblade Chronicles X” and “Mario Maker,” in which players can create their own Mario levels in the style of both the original “Super Mario Bros.” and the more modern “New Super Mario Bros.”

“Splatoon” is Nintendo’s foray into the online multiplayer shooter genre, but, of course, it has that totally unique Nintendo touch. It’s a four-on-four match, and the team that covers the map with the most ink wins. As a human, your character can shoot ink, but transforming into a squid allows you to move much more quickly throughout the level. It sounds unusual, but you can’t blame them for trying something new in an online landscape saturated with military shooters.

Here's the first look at the visual style and open world of "The Legend of Zelda" for Wii U. Photo courtesy of Nintendo
Here’s the first look at the visual style and open world of “The Legend of Zelda” for Wii U. Photo courtesy of Nintendo

Arguably the biggest unveiling, though, was the next installment of “The Legend of Zelda” for the Wii U. Lead designer Eiji Aonuma said that the team has been rethinking the conventions of the past “Zelda” games – trying to figure out what gamers have always wanted from the franchise and how to give it to them. As a result, this entry will feature an open world that will allow players to fully explore the game in a nonlinear fashion.

Fans of Nintendo franchises have a lot to look forward to, but those that hoped to see more support from third party developers will probably come away disappointed.

E3 2014: Sony press conference wrap-up

I like to think of Sony’s E3 press conference as a sandwich – a sandwich with perfectly toasted, delicious slices of bread, but filled with bland, boring meat. The company opened and closed the show with worthy, attention-grabbing games but lost momentum around the one-hour mark. Sony failed to match Microsoft’s pacing in that regard, opting for talking numbers and services over showing more games.

The conference began with a trailer for “Destiny,” the hotly anticipated new series from Bungie, the creators of the “Halo” series. Despite the fact that the game is multiplatform, Sony smartly spent lots of time associating the game with its brand. PlayStation gamers will have access to exclusive content and a multiplayer beta, and Sony will also release a white PlayStation 4 (PS4) bundled with “Destiny.”

Sony showed off numerous other big multiplatform titles.

The “Far Cry 4” gameplay demo proved that it would be just as chaotically violent as its predecessor. Interestingly, the game will allow you to invite friends to play online co-op even if your friend doesn’t own the game.

The conference featured trailers for “Dead Island 2,” the next installment in the popular zombie survival game; “Battlefield Hardline,” which shifts the focus of the “Battlefield” brand from military to cops versus criminals; “Grand Theft Auto 5,” a remastered version of last year’s game; and “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain,” which was as long as it was confusing.

We also got to see some bloody, brutal “Mortal Kombat X” gameplay, featuring the mainstay characters Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Not long after that, we saw the sprawling open world of “Batman: Arkham Knight,” being quickly traversed by both Batman’s gliding Batsuit and the destructive Batmobile.

One multiplatform game that is sure to turn heads, though, is “No Man’s Sky,” an indie game that you really need to see to appreciate. It takes place in a procedural sci-fi universe, and every player starts the game on a different planet so everyone’s experience is unique. The developer on stage kept referring to the universe as “infinite,” so it will be interesting to figure out what that actually looks like.

It looks and sounds like "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End" will be the final game in the "Uncharted" series. Photo courtesy of Naughty Dog.
It looks and sounds like “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” will be the final game in the “Uncharted” series. Photo courtesy of Naughty Dog

Sony didn’t skimp on showing off PlayStation exclusive games, though.

We saw gameplay footage of “The Order: 1886,” a gorgeous, anachronistic third-person shooter, in which the player tries to kill a menacing werewolf-like creature. There wasn’t much to go by, but just the atmosphere itself was compelling.

Four other exclusive new intellectual properties solidified the fact that Sony is not just resting on sequels and proven franchises. Pixel Opus, a studio composed of university students and recent graduates, developed “Entwined,” in which the player controls two souls (one with each analog stick) who long to be together.

“Bloodborne” is coming from “Dark Souls” developer From Software and “Let It Die” from Platinum Games. Furthermore, “Abzu” was unveiled as the first project from former Thatgamecompany artist Matt Nava.

“LittleBigPlanet 3” received a warm welcome as it was demoed on stage. Despite the handful of mess-ups and accidental deaths by the four players, the charm of Sackboy and his new companions (each with unique abilities) would not allow the crowd to be soured.

But Sony, of course, saved the most important reveal for last: “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.” Developer Naughty Dog has been experiencing some behind the scenes turmoil in the past few months, which led many to wonder if we would even get a glimpse at the game. Well, we did get a beautiful glimpse. The trailer definitely features a darker tone than previous games in the series, and the dialogue between lead characters Nathan Drake and Sully makes it out to be one last hoorah, set to be released in 2015.

Despite the lulls in Sony’s press conference this year, it’s clear that PlayStation fans have plenty to be excited for.

E3 2014: Microsoft press conference wrap-up

After Microsoft’s showing at last year’s E3 press conference, they received immediate criticism for shifting the focus of the Xbox One from a video game console to an overall entertainment box. There’s a video compiling the conference’s numerous mentions of “TV” and “sports” – poking fun at the unfortunate lack of games coverage.

This year, however, Microsoft did a complete 180. Right out of the gate, Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, said that the following hour and a half would be comprised of games, games and more games. Xbox fans will be happy to know he wasn’t exaggerating.

The first hour of the press conference was dedicated to games that would be released for Xbox One by holiday 2014.

Not surprising for anyone who has seen an Xbox E3 press conference before, the show started with “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.” The live gameplay demo showcases new futuristic, sci-fi elements to the series, like jet boots, mech suits and smart grenades.

A demo of “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” showed off slick 4-player co-op set in Paris during the French Revolution. There has been a new entry in the “Assassin’s Creed” series almost every year since 2007. Introducing co-op looks like Ubisoft’s attempt to ward off malaise in the fan base.

Access to the "Halo 5: Guardians" multiplayer beta will come with "Halo: The Master Chief Collection."
Access to the “Halo 5: Guardians” multiplayer beta will come with “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.” Photo courtesy of Xbox Wire

In terms of exclusive games releasing this year, Microsoft showed off “Forza Horizon 2,” “Sunset Overdrive” and “Fable Legends.” But the announcement that received the biggest response was “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.” This collection will include the entire Master Chief-based “Halo” catalogue (“Halo: Combat Evolved,” “Halo 2,” “Halo 3” and “Halo 4”), access to the “Halo 5: Guardians” beta and “Halo: Nightfall,” a live-action digital series.

The last 30 minutes of the conference showed off games that will be released in 2015 or later. They showed off their support for indie game development, showing a sizzle reel of numerous digital games and revealing the next game from Playdead, the studio that created the critically acclaimed “Limbo.” Called “Inside,” it has a similar eerie atmosphere and a young male protagonist.

In addition to gameplay demos of “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” and Ubisoft’s “The Division,” we also saw trailers for “Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Crackdown.”

Microsoft’s fast-paced, game centric showing truly proved that they learned from last years mistakes and that the Xbox One is going to be well-supported at least through the end of the year.

Former mayor Patrick Cannon pleads guilty, publicly apologizes for not watching ‘American Hustle’ sooner

Disclaimer: In this work of satire, all quoted sources are completely fictitious and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is coincidental.

On June 3, former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon pleaded guilty to a public corruption charge for taking bribes from undercover federal agents.

Only days earlier, Cannon’s personal assistant Terry Andrews was seen renting “American Hustle” at a local Redbox. The Best Picture-nominated film from last year is loosely based on the FBI sting operation Abscam, which led to numerous convictions of U.S. public officials, including a New Jersey mayor.

“Ever since his arrest in March, Patrick Cannon has constantly heard his name associated with ‘American Hustle,’ but he had never even heard of the movie,” said Andrews. “He hasn’t had much free time lately, but after he finished season two of ‘House of Cards,’ he asked me to go pick up the film so he could see what all the hubbub was about.”

Shortly after entering his plea at the Charles Jonas Federal Courthouse, Cannon addressed the public to apologize.

Photo courtesy of MCT Campus
Patrick Cannon watches intently, moments after slipping “American Hustle” into his Blu-ray player.

“First and foremost, I’d like to apologize to the people of Charlotte,” said Cannon. “I have heard your uproar and outrage for months, and I just want to ask for your forgiveness for waiting this long to watch ‘American Hustle.’”

“American Hustle” was released in theaters December 13, 2013. Cannon did not watch the film until June 1, 2014.

“To David O. Russell, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and every other cast and crew member, I express my deepest remorse,” Cannon continued. “I regret having hurt all of you and damaging our trust.”

Cannon then went on to praise Russell, calling him his “favorite director of all time.”

“Listen, we can discuss the man’s filmography all day – ‘Three Kings,’ ‘The Fighter,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’ I love all of them, and I love David O. Russell,” said Cannon. “I acknowledge that this was a major screw-up, especially for a self-proclaimed Russell fan.”

A number of perplexed reporters asked how he happened to miss the latest release of his favorite director for so long.

“I guess I was just caught up in all the ‘Wolf of Wall Street,’ Scorsese hype,” said Cannon. “The story of money and excess was too tempting to turn down, not that I’m trying to excuse my actions in any way – they were simply inexcusable.”

Cannon closed his address with a direct appeal to Russell, saying that if he could find it in his heart to forgive him, maybe he could “pull some strings” and arrange filming locations in Charlotte free of charge for his next film.

‘Filth’ is a roller coaster ride of depravity

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is vile. He’s repugnant. He’s amoral and bigoted and drug-addled. He’s just plain filthy. And when a desirable promotion to Detective Inspector is on the line, he pulls out all the stops and fully embraces his Machiavellian self.

The film is an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s darkly comedic novel of the same name. It opens with a murder case, which Bruce is assigned to take the lead on, but that’s not what the story is about. This movie is all about getting into the head of this despicable Scottish police officer as he mischievously sabotages his coworkers efforts for the desired promotion

He sleeps with his coworker’s wife, makes sexually charged prank phone calls, spreads lies to turn the other officers against each other and does loads of other dirty deeds, some of which are too filthy to mention here.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Observing Bruce’s depraved escapades and damaged psyche is like watching someone bend a plastic ruler – How far can it possibly go before it snaps? It’s clear that he has some serious issues at home – we hear about his wife and daughter several times but they’re not around.

The success of this movie entirely rides on McAvoy’s performance, and what a mesmerizing performance it is. You could probably recast every other role, and the movie would be just as enjoyable. There’s nothing bad about the other performances, but they all pale in comparison to McAvoy’s.

The film and McAvoy’s talented acting makes the viewer experience an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance. You should absolutely and definitively not like Bruce Robertson, but there are times when a little bit of humanity shines through and we see why he’s so broken. For a split second, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for him, but it vanishes when you remember all the demented stunts he’s constantly been pulling.

It’s a fast-paced thrill ride, carried along by snappy, slangy dialogue (often with a heavy Scottish brogue) and intentionally cheesy pop tunes. Don’t expect anything particularly profound – just enjoy watching McAvoy’s powerhouse performance and his character’s gripping descent into mental breakdown.

Apathy is no excuse for ignoring course evaluations

In the last couple weeks of class, you were most likely inundated with requests from your professors – both in person and via email – to fill out your course evaluations. “It will only take 10 minutes!” they urged.

Now, many members of the student body thought that 10 minutes would be better spent in some other way. But the truth is that these evaluations are more important than you think.

A survey published by the American Association of University Professors found that 99.3 percent of colleges surveyed consider classroom teaching a “major factor” in evaluating performance. Furthermore, 94.2 percent of those universities “always used” systematic student ratings when examining a professor’s classroom teaching abilities.

Of course, there are many other criteria for evaluation, but student ratings were the most popular measures among the surveyed colleges. We students have a serious impact on the futures of our professors’ jobs, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Don’t be a sadist who wants all future students to suffer the same negative experience as you. If you found a professor’s teaching style particularly ineffective, let them know. If enough people voice the same or similar concerns, something will have to be done – their job depends on it.

Similarly, professors who are doing things right need to be reassured that their teaching methods are working. How would you feel if you spent several painstaking hours writing a brilliant essay, only for your professor to toss it in the trashcan when you turn it in? We all enjoy praise and a pat on the back when it’s deserved.

But more than just praise, we students actually have a big hand in determining whether our professors improve their standing, retool their methods or reshape entire courses.

The Division of Academic Affairs website explains the numerous ways in which course evaluations are used. “The results of these evaluations are used to provide feedback to instructors and to assist with assessment of teaching during considerations for merit raises, reappointment, promotion, tenure, and scheduling and revision of courses.”

As tempting as it might be to reward easy grading professors with high marks, it’s better in the long run to provide honest feedback and constructive criticism. Grade inflation – an unspoken and possibly even unintentional relationship where easy graders are buffed by positive reviews – diminishes the quality of education.

Obviously, it’s too late for spring 2014 evaluations, but be sure to take initiative the next time around. Now that you know how important they are, there is no excuse for slacking off.

The issue with implementing “trigger warnings”

In recent months, the idea of implementing “trigger warnings” – prior notices that inform readers or viewers of upcoming subject material that might be upsetting or cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related attacks – in college courses has sparked intense debate. It’s a delicate issue, and both sides raise important points. The key to the compromise is helping survivors of sexual violence, war veterans or other sufferers of PTSD to avoid potentially triggering content while not constraining professors or their curricula.

The ambiguity of potential triggers is the biggest flaw in the argument of trigger warning proponents. As such, professors should not be responsible for listing potential triggers in their syllabi. Typically, if a course covers particularly violent material, the course description will mention that, but there is no way for a professor to objectively determine what is and isn’t a trigger. There is no set list of images, sounds, words and themes that can cause an anxiety attack.

But what professors can do is remain open to hearing the concerns and questions of students. It makes more sense for a student to approach their professor, inform them about their condition and discuss their subject material that could potentially trigger their individual condition. If such material exists, the student might choose to skip days when that specific content will be shown or discussed, work with the professor on coming up with an alternate assignment or switch from the class altogether.

This method is simple and effective. It carefully considers the mental and emotional health of students with legitimate conditions without affecting the course content for other students.

I say “legitimate conditions” because that prevents people from manipulating the trigger warning system to essentially censor subject material that conflicts with their personal feelings or beliefs. A student suffering from PTSD is a serious issue. A student experiencing discomfort is not. Higher education is meant to challenge students’ minds. Sometimes, that involves testing firmly held beliefs or experiencing uneasiness.

It’s no wonder that the idea of trigger warnings sweeping the nation’s colleges evoked a threatened response from many working in academia. It’s not that professors speaking out against the trigger warning initiative are coldhearted and have no empathy for survivors of traumatic, scarring events, but so far, the proposed methods present a landscape where censorship seems like a real possibility and professors will have to constantly worry about the works assigned in their curriculum.

Instead of instilling our nation’s professors with fear, we should keep censorship at bay. If the common sense course descriptions aren’t enough, all it takes is encouraging professors to be accommodating to students with serious conditions.

Take religious studies courses to feed your curiosity

Although the number of Americans who don’t identify as religious is consistently rising, the majority of citizens still do. I was raised into that majority, and remained a part of it for most of my life, but, ultimately, I moved away from it.

That journey away from the majority was filled with research, reading and learning. To this day, despite the fact that I am an atheist, I still enjoy learning more about the religion that I left (Christianity), as well as the ones that I was never a member of (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.). That’s also why I decided to take religious studies courses at UNC Charlotte.

If you study a religion – especially your own – you will discover things that people never told you. I’m definitely not saying that people are maliciously withholding information, but your parents and your preacher certainly have a bias. For that reason, I would recommend that any religious person, or anyone remotely interested in religion, take religious studies courses – not to shake their faith, necessarily, but to open them up to interesting new details.

Despite what some Fundamentalist believers would tell you, the professors at this secular university aren’t going to try to brainwash you, turn you away from your particular faith or sway you towards one. According to the homepage of the Department of Religious Studies, its “mission is to foster critical understanding of the historical, cultural and textual dimensions of religion in human societies and cultures.”

Once you set aside the Sunday school perspective and start critically examining religions, you’ll make some fascinating discoveries.

For example, have you ever heard of the documentary hypothesis? Fundamentalists will hold that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), but modern scholarship says otherwise. Evidence shows that the Torah is more likely a compilation of texts from four distinct sources, written at different times, in different locations and in earlier or later styles of Hebrew.

Also, the character “Satan” that many Christians are familiar with, does not actually exist in the Hebrew Bible – that was a later Christian interpretation. In fact, “satan” is used as a common noun or infinitive — not a personal name — which can mean “opponent,” “the opponent,” “adversary,” “to oppose” and so on. The word is used when talking about King David, a political or military opponent, relatives and various other situations.

Maybe that sounds a little jarring to you, maybe not. You’d think it would be common religious knowledge in our society, but it’s not. How about something a little more basic, then?

Can you name the four Gospels? Probably. But do you know when they were written? Do you know who wrote them? Do you know what language they were written in? Do you know what language Jesus would have spoken? Do you know if the stories are consistent with each other?

My guess is that most readers won’t know the answers to all of these questions (admittedly, some can’t be answered). Some might not care what the answers are.

But to those who are curious, sign up for a religious studies course or simply start researching on your own. Whether it shakes your faith or strengthens it, just keep learning and feeding your curiosity.

American readership has declined to an embarrassing low

Let’s face it, no one enjoyed the tedious reading assignments forced upon us in high school. There is no pleasure to be found in tediously dissecting a novel for rhetorical devices and hunting for passages that reveal theme. Unfortunately, though, this creates a bad habit for potential readers throughout the rest of their lives.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, the typical American read only five books in the past year. Five books is the median number – not the average. That means 54 percent read fives books or fewer in 2013, with an alarming 23 percent of people reporting they did not read any books in the past year.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Gallup polls from 1978 and 1990 reveal the trend of not reading books has been worsening for over 30 years. Only 8 percent reported reading nothing in 1978, compared to 16 percent in 1990. Unbelievably, that number has grown to nearly a quarter of American adults.

I understand reading may be on the backburner for some. We’re currently experiencing another golden age of television, and the ubiquity of Netflix instant streaming enables watching classic and current TV shows and movies at any time, but these reasons are no excuse for giving up paper and ink altogether.

I know the headaches brought on by reading countless textbook pages might deter many college students, but let us not confuse forced reading with reading for pleasure. Older generations already try to slam us for being lazy or entitled; do we really want to become known as the illiterate generation, too? Instead, let’s be the generation that reverses the trend of decreased reading.

Once you discover the joy and benefits of reading for pleasure, you won’t want to turn back.

In the words of author Stephen King, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” The ability to mentally create the world of the story is completely unmatched by every other storytelling medium. You are the director of the movie that plays in your head.

Reading is also a great stress reliever and relaxation tool. Just read a couple of chapters before bed, and you’ll sleep like a baby. There’s something uniquely calming about connecting with an author through their written words.

I think Kurt Vonnegut, author of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle,” expressed that idea beautifully, saying, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”

Most importantly, though, reading enhances your intelligence. The more you read, the more knowledge you’ll soak up, and that doesn’t just go for nonfiction books. Reading novels will help expand your vocabulary so you’ll not only feel more intelligent, but also sound more intelligent. This, in turn, improves writing skills. What better time to start this habit than in college?

I sincerely hope people can look past the bad high school memories, like writing a timed essay on symbolism in “The Great Gatsby,” for example. It doesn’t matter what you read – whether it’s books, magazines or newspapers – just start somewhere and branch out from there.

Expand your vocabulary and social awareness in one easy step

You would think use of the word “gay” as an insult or a synonym for “stupid” would have died down after middle school, and if not that early, then certainly after high school. Much to my dismay, however, nary a day goes by where I don’t hear or read someone saying, “That’s so gay,” or some other variation of misuse.

To quote Inigo Montoya, from the classic film “The Princess Bride,” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Being on a college campus, you expect a certain level of maturity among students – one where people don’t demean an entire group of people. I don’t think that’s asking too much. There’s simply no excuse for continuing to insult the gay community when it’s so easy to change.

I realize that this warped definition of the word became ingrained in many people’s brains at a young age – and they say old habits die hard – but there comes a point where you have to realize that respecting others sometimes trumps personal convenience. Connecting the word “gay” to weakness, inferiority, repulsion or stupidity is hurtful to millions of people. Becoming a more respectful person (with an expanded vocabulary to boot) is well worth giving up the inappropriate use of a one-syllable word.

To those who still think it’s funny and who don’t care about respect, you should know that those of us who have progressed beyond middle school view you as an adolescent. And reading that probably won’t bother you

It’s sad, honestly. These are the people who see the gay jokes on “Family Guy” and think that it’s validating their choices when, in reality, it’s mocking them. Sharing characteristics with an oafish cartoon man-child like Peter Griffin should not be celebrated.

Similarly, the “Ha! Gay!” meme derived from Ken Jeong’s character on the show “Community” is meant to make fun of the character’s social unawareness and immaturity, not to validate it as a clever witticism. We’re laughing at him, not with him.

If you’re willing to take the small steps to be a better person (and improve your lexicon), I applaud you for acknowledging and trying to correct your past mistakes.

Unfortunately, there will continue to be some stubborn people out there frothing mad about political correctness. To them I say, of course you have the right to say whatever words you want to say, and I can’t stop you. But you’ll be remembering the small change you could have made when you’re standing on the wrong side of history.

American public finally favors going green, so to speak

The latest Gallup poll on marijuana asks the question, “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?” and for the first time ever, a majority of Americans favor legalization. Surely, we’re talking about for medicinal purposes only, right? Wrong. Fifty-eight percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal for recreational use. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

When Gallup first posed this question in 1969, only 12 percent supported legalization, but fear mongering and demonization can’t last when contradicted by scientific data and firsthand experience.

If you didn’t know, the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. It’s ranked with the baddest of the bad – one rung above cocaine and methamphetamine. You don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to realize that something is wrong with that picture.

Well, actually, sometimes you do. Neurosurgeon and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently came out in favor of legalizing cannabis, apologizing for ignoring the abundance of legitimate scientific and medical research for so long.

In Dr. Gupta’s recently released documentary, “Weed,” he discusses numerous findings that led him to rethink his position. For instance, he covered the story of Charlotte Figi, a young girl who was experiencing around 300 seizures every week by the age of three. Her parents tried every viable option with no luck, but, surprisingly, treating her with cannabis reduced the frequency of her seizures to two or three per month.

Dr. Gupta also notes that there are no documented cases of death by marijuana overdose. Zero. Now, compare that to the rate of death by prescription drug overdose – one every 19 minutes, many of which are accidental – and you’ve got yourself a puzzler.

“But it’s a gateway drug! I know this ‘cause that’s what they told me in middle school!”

That’s cute. I’ll bet whatever drug program you were subjected to in middle school didn’t tell you that the results of gateway theory research are extremely inconclusive. Let’s go double or nothing; with even more confidence, I bet they also didn’t share any studies that conclude that marijuana use is not a stepping-stone to harder drugs.

So give the people what they want. When you can show me legitimate evidence of significant harm caused by using marijuana – enough to warrant the government prohibiting grown adults from using it – then I’ll be open to your suggestions.

The smoke has cleared, and we the people can see past the misinformation and propaganda. Whether supporters intend to use marijuana recreationally or medically or not at all, we all share a common desire for less restrictive, evidence-based policy that makes sense.

Diminishing the e-cig stigma

You may have noticed people puffing on e-cigarettes, or “vaping,” around campus. The thin, shiny cylinders, some of which light up upon inhalation, are hard to miss; they look as if they’re straight out of a sci-fi movie.

As a non-smoker, I applaud these vapers for replacing the harmful traditional cigarettes with this futuristic, comparatively safer alternative.

But, as of August 2, 2013, university policy on smoking was revised to equate e-cigarette use with traditional tobacco smoking.

“The revised policy clarifies that ‘e-cigarettes’ and other similar nicotine vapor inhalers are included in the definition of ‘smoking,’ and such inhalers are therefore subject to the provisions of the policy applicable to other lighted tobacco products.”

This means that e-cigarette use is prohibited everywhere on campus, except for specifically designated smoking areas, despite the fact that they lack toxic secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, this policy forces vapers to maintain the stigma of smoking, when, in reality, they are actively trying to reduce or kick their harmful habit.

E-cigarettes use battery power to heat liquid nicotine or flavors, turning it into a vapor, which the user inhales. These devices allow smokers to bypass the thousands of dangerous chemicals that come with conventional cigarettes.

According to New York Times article “A Tool to Quit Smoking Has Some Unlikely Critics,” by John Tierney, the Food and Drug Administration issued an unfounded warning about the potentially toxic chemicals in e-cig vapor.

Tierney writes, “But the agency has never presented evidence that the trace amounts actually cause any harm, and it has neglected to mention that similar traces of these chemicals have been found in other F.D.A.-approved products, including nicotine patches and gum.”

Of course, research on e-cigarettes should continue, but until there is evidence to suggest that they are notably harmful, we should welcome their use as a reduction or quitting tool for smokers. In fact, clinical trials have already shown that e-cigs can significantly reduce a regular smoker’s frequency of cigarette use.

A research article by Riccardo Polosa et al., published on BioMed Central Public Health, monitored 40 regular smokers who were deemed “unwilling to quit.” By week-24 of the experiment, nearly a third of the participants reduced their number of cigarettes per day by 50 percent, and almost a quarter had quit traditional cigarettes altogether.

The authors concluded, “By replacing tobacco cigarettes, the e-cigarette can only save lives. Here we show for the first time that e-Cigarettes can substantially decrease cigarette consumption without causing significant side effects in smokers not intending to quit.”

While we can’t yet be completely sure of all the effects of e-cigarettes, two things are clear: They help smokers transition from conventional cigarettes, and they are much safer to puff on, in comparison.

Students who are attempting to better themselves in this regard deserve support, not condemnation. If you ask me, the logic is clear. Vapers around campus shouldn’t be confined to the designated smoking areas when they produce no smoke.