About Ajai Raj

Ajai Raj is a freelance journalist working in print and multimedia and specializing in science writing. You can find him online at ajairaj.com.

Atheists at Christmas

It’s a wonderful life, and for atheists, that’s reason enough to celebrate during the holiday season.

I sat in on a meeting of the New York City Atheists and heard their thoughts about being an unbeliever during a season during which many celebrate miracles. Some of the highlights are included in the following short slideshow. Enjoy, and happy holidays.

Special thanks to Tristan Hallman.

Sacred Space at #OWS

For many, perhaps most observers, #Occupy Wall Street is a secular political movement. But for many participants, the struggle is spiritual, not merely political. The following slideshow offers a glimpse into a side of the #OWS that has not gotten a lot of press. Fateh Singh of Occupy Yoga and independent yoga instructor and practitioner Margarita Manwelyan comment on the role of the sacred space, and the sacred, in Zuccotti Park.

Untitled from Ajai Raj on Vimeo.

Clapping in the Cold at #OWS

Although #Occupy Wall Street has been gathering momentum since it began nearly three months ago, the recent snowstorm and the ill-timed confiscation of generators and gasoline raises the question of how determined the demonstrators are to continue the occupation.

I went to Zuccotti on Nov. 5 around 7 p.m., to find out how the demonstrators are keeping their spirits and temperatures high.

There was a religious service of sorts going on when I arrived, with demonstrators singing in unison.

Religious singing by Ajai Raj

The man leading the service described himself as a yogi, and encouraged those gathered around the Zuccotti sacred space to engage in service and participate in the General Assembly in which demonstrators discuss the future of the movement.

Next I spoke with Josh Ehrenberg, 20, who described himself as a “full-time occupier.” He describes the situation during and after the storm, and expresses his disappointment with the “comfort station”, where occupiers go for clothes, blankets, and other increasingly necessary comforts.

Josh Ehrenberg interview by Ajai Raj

Ehrenberg was one of a few people taking turns on one of two bike-powered generators on the east side of the park. Here we have some audio of a woman peddling one of the bikes while some repair work is done on the other. A child wanted in on the action, but isn’t quite old enough yet.

Recai Iskender, a former diplomat, described his experience during the storm, as well as his determination to stick it out at Zuccotti no matter how bad the weather gets.

Recai Iskender interview by Ajai Raj

If this is any indication, it seems the occupation will continue.

Surveying the Land: A Survey of the Results of my Prior Survey, “Working Outside the Box: A Survey”

Recently I posted a survey asking readers about how the economy had affected their employment situation. Specifically, I wanted to find out whether people were having to seek work outside of their primary field.

My survey received fourteen responses, nine of which were useful for analysis (unless there really is an international man of mystery who has been forced into the domestic mystique market by these tough times).

I asked respondents to rate the impact that the recession has had on their field of employment on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 meant little to no impact and 5 meant a substantial impact.

Of respondents who said that the impact has been severe, 4 respondents rated the recession’s impact on their field at a 4, and 2 at a 5. 2 of the remaining 3 rated the impact as 3, indicating a moderate impact, and the remaining respondent rated the impact at a 1, or minimal impact.

The field least affected, according to these results? Speech-language Pathology. It makes sense; one would think any fields related to treating disorder and disease, those perennial friends of humanity, would not be vulnerable to market pressures the way that other fields are.

The fields moderately impacted, according to those working in them: used books and semiconductors. Books may be on their way out thanks to e-readers, but the cheap paperback retains its charm for the time being. Semiconductor companies provide the components for a wide array of digital electronics; for that reason, it’s safe to say that the field is more threatened by technology that would render it obsolete than by market forces.

What fields have been most drastically affected, according to these results? The 2 respondents who rated the impact at a 5 worked in food service and writing and publishing, respectively.

All 4 of the respondents who rated the impact of the recession on their field were in education, both as workers and students.

In terms of personal impact, 3 respondents said that over 50 percent of their current income is from work they do outside of their primary field; the rest either rely on outside work for a small portion of their overall income, or not at all.

What to make of these results? What do you think? Based on your experience or what you’ve read, are they indicative of larger trends?

#Occupy Wall Street Not Just for Hippies Anymore (if it ever was)

A casual perusal of the various op-eds and comment thread posts that have been written to disparage the #Occupy Wall Street movement reveals a stunning lack of original thought, and in many cases leaves one wondering whether the writer has read or seen anything pertaining to the actual events in Zuccotti Park.

In fairness, OWS, like any large movement, has its shady elements. But when engaging with someone you don’t agree with, you have an obligation to engage with the worthiest opponent, the best form of the argument. It’s easy to smear a whole group of people by isolating an easily-mocked set of people within it and pretending that the whole group is the same way.

So while there are surely drum circles and dreadlocks to be found at OWS protests, many if not most of the people there do not conform to the “dirty hippie” meme. Some colleagues and I went down to Zuccotti Park on Friday, October 7th, to get a better idea of what the protests are about, and met some interesting participants.

Man collecting donations for food

Tom DiChristopher of the NYCity News Service interviews a donations coordinator for the Occupy Wall Street protest. A theme many protestors stressed was that "leaderless" does not mean "disorganized."

A writer (right) proposes collecting protestors' personal stories and turning them into a play, to be written collaboratively.

The proposal, intriguing to some, struck others as a bit confusing. Particularly the writer's plan to begin the work and then pass it along to others for completion.

David, unemployed and Christian, holds a sign declaring that God is wroth with Wall Street. The sign was made with "a little levity," he explained.

But while he was able to laugh about his sign, David was not light-hearted when discussing the corporate greed that triggered the financial crisis.

David was not the only sign designer with a sense of humor. Posters such as this one co-opted the Monopoly aesthetic to express anger at real-life monopolists.

Jordan Phoenix, 26, is not unemployed; he works two part-time jobs to make ends meet. In his free time, he said, he was speaking to protestors and trying to assemble a list of common goals.

Alyssa Posoff, a recent graduate of Temple University, came north from Philadelphia to lend her support. She mans the aptly-named "comfort station" where protesters can take fresh clothing and blankets free of charge.

Caren Dashow, a.k.a Yessiree Public Notary, volunteers more specialized services.

Tom Hagan, a commissioned salesman, shows his sign berating the government for its leniency towards big banks.

Tom DiChristopher interviews an OWS media representative and Rutgers Ph.D candidate, who explains and defends the way OWS operates.

A Sarah Palin doppelganger shows her support for what many consider to be the "Tea Party of the left."

An extraordinarily well-behaved dog makes an eloquent argument for the inherent patriotism of the movement, or so one might surmise.

Working Outside of the Box: A Survey

For many people, the recession has led to decreased opportunity for work in their main field of employment. For some this may mean a little freelance work on the side; for others, a more drastic career change.

How has the economy affected your employment situation?
Please respond to the following brief survey.

Thanks for participating!

Five Ways to Evade Your Creditors (and one admonition not to)

We are all familiar with the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.” Well, it doesn’t work with bill collectors, unfortunately, so if you’re being hounded by these relentless predators through the stinking world of commerce, you’re going to need a plan B. Try a few of these strategies out instead.

1. Know your rights. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act spells out what debt collectors can and can’t do in pursuit of their filthy lucre. Know when they’ve crossed the line into harassment, and be ready to stand your ground, and perhaps even turn the tables.

2. Tell your coworkers not to hand you phone calls from strange people; alternately, request that the debt collector not contact you at your place of employment.

Avoid avoiding your creditors. Yes, this is the exact opposite of the previous piece of advice, and antithetical to the whole premise of this post. Do what works for you. We now return to our regularly scheduled list.

3. Avoid credit card debt in the first place. It might be too late for that now, but these tips still might come in handy in the future, once you’ve finally dug yourself out of this hole.

4. Fake your own death. How hard can it be? In addition to freeing you from debt, this will also provide the added benefits of getting you out of every other obligation you have. Finally, a chance to start over.

5. Drop off the grid. They can’t bill you if they don’t know you exist.

With some of these strategies and a little luck, you should be well on your way to financial freedom. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a fake mustache.