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Tenleytown Row

So last night I was walking in Tenleytown up to the metro station.  Walked by the fire department, where a bunch of firefighters were casually slumping over some benches and chairs they have out front of their station, lazily enjoying the quiet, delicately cool summer evening, talking about their families, not expecting any emergency calls.

Then across the street at the Z-Burger, I could see past its facade of red glowing ambient lights into the kitchen area, where a cook dressed in white with an old-style 50’s-era burger shop hat was busy scraping down the grills before turning out the lights.  It looked like that Edward Hopper painting, but from the other side of the street looking back into the kitchen.

Up the road from that a bit was a night construction crew, jacking and plowing away at a parcel of the road, bathed in working lights that are so bright it looks like daytime.  The construction workers wore their neon-green safety aprons but it was too loud for them to converse, so they focused on their jobs instead.

Across the street, next to a 24-hour snack shop, a bunch of Diamond cab drivers were resting against the hood of a taxi, shooting the shit while waiting for the dispatch to give them their next fare.

Quite an eclectic mix of professions and backgrounds, but all working class and making the best of what has been a pretty tolerable DC summer.  It all reminded me of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which extensively describes the different people responsible for the sleepy town’s commerce and personality.

This was all well and good until I saw a crazy (probably drunk) guy cross the street in front of me into traffic, then make threatening gestures towards a solitary American University female student and then a group of young people further down the street.

So my quiet night was almost disturbed by having to bolt across the street and tackle a guy.

Such can be DC.

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Lifetime Education

Bear with me. This may be a naive post. I don’t have enough background to know the implications of what I’m about to say.

So we’re about to get rid of the key players in Washington who’ve been around since the Nixon/Vietnam/Cold War generation who’ve managed to push a neocon agenda. Cheney and Rumsfeld et al will be unable to push their bullshit since they’ll be retiring. There’s something to be said for the legacy of an entire contracting/security apparatus they’ve created of workers trained in DHS and intelligence-gathering and whatnot who will not give up their bread and butter so easily.

But the thinking of the key leaders is notoriously outdated in terms of today’s international context. The way US politics operates is at odds with all reason and developments in political theory and economics.

Is there something to be said about the disconnect people face once they’ve left school and stop reading as much and start working in an ever-increasingly specialized field? That is, don’t a lot of people start working and then focus like a laser-beam on their craft? Is there as much adaptation to new ideas once you leave school and go up the food chain? Is this why our politicians are so at odds with today’s realities?

Is there something to be said for continual educational opportunities for US employees? To keep their minds fresh and open?

Are we really becoming an insular, increasingly ignorant nation that revels in knowing nothing about the outside world outside of our business, education, and diplomatic classes?

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Iran and Oil Prices

Ron Paul spoke about one possible cause for increasing oil prices: the continued insecurity involving the US possibly striking Iran. I didn’t even think of this one in my previous analysis of what could be causing conspicuous oil price increases, but it makes sense, particularly with the strong correlation of the rise in oil prices and the first gulf “war”.

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Iraq and Afghanistan

Lara Logan, chief CBS News foreign correspondent, went on The Daily Show and reminded us that more foreign soldiers died in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq.

What little American attention there is on the long, far wars has been focused on Iraq but overshadowed by the American economy and its effects on the election cycle.

Our dear leaders have almost gotten US oil company penetration into Iraq for the first time since they were punted out in favor of Iraqi nationalization in the 70’s. This means that the cronies will leave office fat and happy, with high oil prices and a new Iraq deal that will help them retire very comfortably to Dallas, Texas. Fucking wonderful.

Lara Logan also asks, “When was the last time you saw an American soldier’s body on TV?”

Petraeus will end up being portrayed favorably by history. I can see him becoming an important political figure in the future, perhaps running for president one day. No doubt he has turned the American strategy in Iraq from one of counter-terrorism (which was what it was when I was there) to counter-insurgency, which has fared far better. But the bottom line is that Iraq will, whenever the US pulls out, have a civil war to determine power. There will be refugees, assistance to warring factions from neighboring countries, and continued US meddling in Iraqi affairs.

I think it is just plain stupid to argue that we need to stay in Iraq to maintain security. What security is that, exactly? Bribing people with guns and butter to do what you want? This stopgapping is distorting the conditions on the ground. Are things better just because the media has given up covering Iraq, and therefore it’s “quieter”? And the cobbled-together “alliances” (of convenience) are already being tested: you know it’s bad when a bunch of US govt. dudes get blown up at a council meeting, and two soldiers get shot by a councilman somewhere else.

When in history has a foreign occupation been able to help a smooth transition to a post-occupation peaceful country?

[edit: I’m glad that the esteemed William Odom agrees with a rapid pull-out.]

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda may be subject to severe in-fighting. One of its spiritual guides has turned on it, in a Dr. Fadl, one of the foremost intellectuals on jihad. Zawahiri himself had to respond to Dr. Fadl’s missives, in an attempt to discredit them and maintain Al-Qaeda’s right to kill.

Al-Qaeda has been declared defeated in Iraq by the CIA, but even the CIA is allowing for the fact that Al-Qaeda could easily re-establish itself there. Al-Qaeda’s taken heavy losses in Iraq thanks to Petraeus, and has rightly pulled out to concentrate more on Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda still suffers from the legacy of Zarqawi, who killed Shi’ites and civilians indiscriminately. This helped the populace in Iraq turn on them. It makes sense strategically for Al-Qaeda to reorient itself into Afghanistan while the heat is seriously on in Iraq.

Besides, Afghanistan has always been a far more welcome place for international terrorists and global insurgents. Its people will fight for whoever pays them, because their only long-term goal is to keep out foreign occupiers. Afghanistan is a good defensive base and enjoys strict interpretation of Islam in the areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s fighters will fight harder in Afghanistan than they did in Iraq (as most of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was composed of Iraqis under visiting foreign amirs — not a great environment for sustained group efforts).

So Afghanistan was never friendly towards us as an occupier. But Iraqis should have easily been our friends. We’ve been slaughtering them. We’ve let them down multiple times.

Pakistan’s inability to counter the Taliban has led to it conceding a massive peace plan that allows Al-Qaeda to stay.

With bin Laden and Zawahiri still comfortably hidden, it is surprising (actually it isn’t) that Afghanistan is probably the farthest thing from Dubya’s mind right now. His ham-fisted approach to life is inspiration to us all that any stupid fool with a pedigree can become the most powerful person in the world. It harks back to the days of Commodus and other imperial meatheads who hasten the declines of their governments.

Public awareness in the US of the occupations is close to zero. The public gave up on it all a long time ago. They don’t understand it and they never will. They are exhausted and want it to be over, not because it is wrong, but because they’re tired of hearing the bad news — plus, there’s no Vietnam-like backlash. The Global War on Terror is simply a joke: “Oh, hey, that Iraq thing’s going REAL well, isn’t it?” People say it with a sneer as if they were there and as if they care about what it’s done to our country and to the world and to Iraqis and to justifying the actions of other countries. Meanwhile my buddy Brendan has deployed a total of 37 months to Iraq. Some of my friends have deployed multiple times. I met an amputee who’s just one of many at Walter Reed.

Even I have to remind myself that among my peers here at Georgetown, I should keep prodding them to remember that these occupations continue and that it will be their responsibilities as diplomats and government officials and business leaders to set policy and strategy that send people off to war.

I also have to remind myself that I have close to two years still remaining on IRR, so that I may still be re-called to deploy. I would be going virtually silently while my peers haven’t the faintest clue what that might mean except, “Oh, sucks to be him.” By virtue of switching to an all-volunteer service, all the incentives for caring about war have been removed since the US is completely safe from invasion and since it’s far wiser to pursue careers in the private sector than to serve a government starved for money and talent by neo-conservative agenda.

Is this what the Gilded Age and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pre-Great Depression age were like?

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Inefficiencies: A Sunny Future

Last week, I attended a conference on plug-in hybrid cars and Washington policy, sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Google.org.

Jim Woolsey, a security powerhouse as former CIA director and senior guy at Booz Allen Hamilton, described our continued reliance on oil as the dumbest move our civilization could make. Peter Darbee, CEO and President of PG&E, talked about how a society that plugs in its cars late at night, when it’s off-peak for the grid, could greatly reduce costs and stresses on the energy infrastructure, as well as push energy supplies from imported to domestic.

While the conference was significantly optimistic, I am thinking that it wasn’t optimistic enough. It would be nice if Washington’s public policy supported a healthy investment climate for alternative energy, but right now it’s no guarantee. Barack Obama recently talked about his energy plan, which is a wonderful $15 billion a year for 10 years, financed by a cap and trade system for tradeable pollution permits. My entrepreneurial mindset tells me that this is a huge business opportunity as well as a good public policy indicator. McCain, of course, blithely stated that he doesn’t support this public investment because it distorts the market.

No shit, dumbass. We NEED that right now!

As I posted before in my blog, I wrote for my final paper that the authors we read in our class were unable to see past the present paradigm of energy and international relations. This was particularly astounding since one of them, J.R. McNeill, a Georgetown history professor, wrote about how technological advancements kept the path of mankind on a path of growth, but does not anticipate how close we are to unlocking the power of the sun to solve the world’s energy problems.

There are already market-ready hybrid vehicles that can get up to 100MPH. This is despite little improvement in energy storage capacity in batteries. The Army still carries very bulky alkaline or other element batteries that run out of juice quickly, for example.

100MPH cars would quadruple or at least triple current fuel efficiencies in the US. Reduction of steel usage in vehicles as other materials replace them will eventually trickle into China and other countries bound to have an explosion of car owners. New enthusiasm for nuclear plants will bring that power online. Solar paneling is becoming cheaper to produce and more efficient. Studies into urban design and mixed-use neighborhoods coming at a time of the unprecedented housing crash signal a death knell to suburbs (although not, perhaps, to walled-in gated communities), requiring less driving and spurring more community.

Megaslums are still a major problem and will continue to be without significant public efforts and international aid. All this technology will not necessarily help the poorest people in the world. It should definitely improve conditions within the US though, public policy or not.

I was thinking about where the sunniest places in the world are. According to a WikiAnswers article, some of those places are in Sudan, Namibia, Algeria, and Niger. This potentially means that they could have a competitive advantage in collecting solar power. Even a small, but stable increase in electricity in those countries could allow for sustainable agriculture and economic growth. It is not a slam dunk though, as corrupt governments could impede development, or lack of infrastructure to utilize or trade that energy could make it a useless endeavor for the time being.

But I was also struck by reading Jeffrey Sachs’ latest book, Common Wealth, which reminds me that humankind by nature is exponential. The population growth in the 19th and 20th centuries proves the point, once coal and steam power were unlocked, and before that, agriculture.

I think the same will happen again, once solar power becomes economical. The sun is currently the source of many problems, heating our glaciers and water, causing droughts, etc. But it may prove to be our salvation, bombarding our planet with far more energy than we could ever hope to use. I hate to say it but it would be poetic if the sun ended up freeing us from our scarcity conflicts.

So as an entrepreneur, I am thinking about these places with lots of sun, the investment inflows into solar power, and possible exponential economic growth and lifting of millions from poverty and peaceful entanglement of nation-states. All of it happening far sooner than most are predicting. Perhaps I am optimistic and too soon on this one, but I just think that we have been laying the foundation for success through an increasingly globalized world.

So when solar power has a major breakthrough, its effects will be swift, dramatic, and far-reaching, spreading and gaining positive network externalities as it advances. And I intend to capitalize on it when it happens.

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International Journalism

They say that the reason we don’t get more news from other countries here in the US is in large part because American news organizations have shut down their international bureaus.

This is probably true to some degree, because it’s just so expensive to maintain separate news offices.

However, you would think that, after closing those bureaus, they would be able to settle into deals with foreign countries’ news organizations to provide news cheaper.

But that hasn’t really happened. Yes, there is the Internet, but reporting is somewhat sparse and gimmicky (CNN’s iReporters, as an example of utter cheesiness).

Doesn’t this hint at the lack of sharing between news organizations worldwide? Does it mean that they are being extremely defensive of their proprietary content? What does it say about the Associated Press, which has turned itself into the international news source that everyone else just uses to fill up their daily content?

Surely news can be done better… And perhaps it is indeed true that Americans just don’t care about what happens in other countries. I still believe that’s a big part of it.

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I’m a Yahoo! Fellow!!!

I’m so ecstatic! The board said that I was the first name they thought of for this fellowship! And the senior fellow sounds like we share a lot of the same ideas about the state of social networking!

Dear Ben Turner,

The MSFS Scholarship Committee has recently met to nominate students for a unique fellowship opportunity with Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD). As a result of a Yahoo! Inc. grant of $1 million to the School of Foreign Service for an eight-year Project on International Values, Communications Technology & the Global Internet, two half-tuition scholarships will be awarded annually to MSFS students selected as Junior Yahoo! Fellows. These students will be able to work on projects with the Yahoo! Fellow in Residence as well as engage with other faculty on related research topics. The grant will support projects that can be incorporated into the MSFS curriculum through guest lectures, special seminars, case studies and/or course modules.

Given your background and interests, you have been nominated as a Junior Yahoo! Fellow for the 2008-2009 academic year. Congratulations! The terms of this fellowship are as follows.

The Yahoo! Junior Fellow will:

* be involved with the Fellow in Residence’s specific research topic;

* provide substantive and organizational support for the Project’s
initiatives including conferences or seminars, research, on-line
publications, and/or courses in keeping with the Project’s goals.

These commitments would be expected to average 10 hours per week throughout the academic year. Attached for your information is the resume of the 2nd Yahoo! Fellow in Residence, Gaurav Mishra, as well as his application letter describing his initial research proposal.

If you accept this nomination, the half-tuition scholarship would be credited to your account in equal increments each semester. This scholarship would replace any other scholarship funds you would have received from the MSFS Program for the 2008-2009 academic year. Please consider the terms of this offer and inform us by June 17th, 2008 if you wish to accept.

On behalf of James Seevers, Director of Research for ISD, and the MSFS Scholarship Committee, I congratulate you on your nomination.

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