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.

Productivity Gestation

I would like to see a well-designed infographic that tries to chart out about how long it takes for certain endeavors to become productive, on average.

The initial datapoint, I think, would be the time it takes for a person from a developed nation to reach the point where he/she is creating something genuinely new for society.  My guess would be that it falls somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age.  Calculating the time it takes to finish school, get some experience working, fail a couple times, and perhaps get more schooling (as more and more people are being forced to do now), that would put someone at least around 30 years of age before he is untethered from educational requirements or the trappings of youthful indulgence or overwhelming financial stress.

At that point, he could be expected to formulate his life’s career then, or to at least begin down that path.  Despite the hand-wringing over athletes who are minors, child prodigies, and college dropout entrepreneurs, it seems to me that overall, the really successful people are well into their 30’s that I’m most interested in.  They’ve served their time and are taking more risks.

Other datapoints I’d like to see would be similar to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours:  # of years for education policies to work, # of months for militaries to respond appropriately to new environments, # of generations to forget a culture’s devastating legacy (like 9/11), # of years before basic science investment turns into scientific renaissance, etc.

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?

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”.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Traveling as Education

No Jobs Yet

I just spent a few days in Newport, Rhode Island, to see the wedding for my friends Ryan and Erin. For July 4th weekend, I found out I’ll be staying at the Four Seasons HULAGHULAG for the International Achievement Summit. And I just bought tickets to go to see my ladyfriend in Barcelona. If I can’t get a job, I guess I’ll just travel! And just soak up and report back on everything I see!

I applied to Richard Clarke’s consultancy, Good Harbor, which handles advising for critical infrastructure, homeland security, etc. and I came in to interview and to do an Arabic test. The highlight was that I got to chat with Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism director. He’s a great guy! I didn’t get the job though. Their people in the UAE said my Arabic fluency wasn’t good enough.

I also applied to another security-related project that handles open source collection of information related to disease control, societal disruption, and more. I interviewed well but again I didn’t get that job.

I’m still waiting to hear from another firm that does energy policy and news analysis for its clients. Since I haven’t heard yet, I’m willing to bet I’m not their first choice and they’re waiting for that person to respond.

So here I am, just chilling out. I am working on Galapag.us, and having given more information to friends and family, am enjoying more discussion about it and am receiving related news and data from others who want to help. I’m also reading a lot. I’ll write about the diverse books I’m reading at some later point.

Recon

I used TripIt for the first time. I just had to e-mail all my official itineraries to TripIt and it automatically scans the itinerary and loads it into its database, so you can consolidate all your trips into one location, and even share it with your other buddies on TripIt. TripIt also has a mobile app for the iPhone.

Speaking of which, the huge iPhone software update will be coming in July… The new iPhone with GPS and 3G looks worth it, too! I just really enjoy the iPhone, and most of the web apps I use (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc.) are designed especially for the iPhone too!

I used Kayak to buy my Barcelona tickets. It has a nice AJAXy web2.0 feel and lets you filter out that pesky 6AM flight from your results, and lets you search multiple sites at once. Very nice! You have to be pretty savvy to get the cheapest flights with the best schedules, and I suck at it. I also hate how prices change online while you’re looking at them.

Anyway…

I love to observe when I travel.

What struck me most today was going to Logan in Boston and eating at Currito, which in my opinion will quickly make Chipotle obsolete. It has only a few locations right now, but offers different flavors of burrito besides just a Mexican saladish burrito. They have Asian flavors, for example. And not only that, they make smoothies! It’s like they made a fast-food joint JUST for me. Seriously. Currito will be everywhere soon. Chipotle struck me the same way! They have good-looking branding and cups and web site. So they will do well.

I took jetBlue on the way back to Dulles. I love the jetBlue font and colors and branding. The kiosks at the airport have an user interface (UI) that is very intuitive and easy to use. I just read a wonderful article about the Wells Fargo ATM UI re-design. It shows how much goes into designing a proper UI, and it shows how useless ATM UIs in the past have been. With large buttons, easy-to-read content, more functionality, a touch-screen (as opposed to those side buttons that never lined up with the screen), and more, these ATMs are a joy. My ladyfriend told me that in Barcelona, people can add phone minutes to their cellphones using ATMs, which I think is great but wonder why you can’t just do it over your phone (or can you?).

jetBlue has a well-integrated IT infrastructure. It also has satellite TV on its planes so I watched part of Euro Cup 2008 (Czech Republic vs. Turkey).

I also noticed the signage for companies inside Dulles. They’re very well-designed and make you want to buy things from the stores. The notable exception is Simply Books, which has the worst logo ever. I mean, it mixes fonts and just looks trashy.

It’s also nice to see the flat-screen high-resolution arrival/departure screens at the airports. They’re very readable although they’re not like the nostalgic clackety-clacking spinning-letter timetables at the European rail stations.

I’m very happy about seeing technology make our lives easy. Especially when companies like Delta and American and organizations like the TSA have managed to make flying miserable for Americans.

My ladyfriend is also raving about her trip cross-country on Virgin America and her trip to Barca on Air France.

So maybe there’s hope for air travel again.

Spring 2008 Grades

I ended up getting an A in political economy of communications policy. My professor really loved my final paper. She said not many people are able to pull off an analysis of cultural, technological, and business influences on a product (in my case, high-speed wireless technology).

I got an A- in both analytical & statistical skills and in international social entrepreneurship. My two group partners got an A in the stats class, so that sucks for me.

And then I got a flat B in my development orthodoxies class, which I was bummed about. The professor is an extremely hard grader and emphasizes having a clear thought process, which is precisely my worst skill. I still thought he was overly tough on my final grade since I contributed in many non-graded ways to the class, including sending outside links to the development concentrators, presenting extra dissent papers, and in general providing unconventional ways of thinking. Plus I talked to the professor separately and endorsed the program (he is the head of our concentration) to prospective students. I’m not saying it makes up for me not delivering what he wanted on papers, but still. I sort of feel alienated from him, but still willing to pursue all those things…just on my own, not for him.

I’m pretty unsure what I’m going to be taking next semester still.