Things I Keep Coming Back To: Extreme, III Sides to Every Story

I’m fully aware that we consumers are products of our teenage years, and that our musical tastes are often formed for good during that same period.

However, in my case, that formation of my tastes also occurred at the exact same period in which big hair rock and rock in general died as grunge became big, and the album died as MP3s, MTV music videos (as much as I love them), and the internet destroyed it.

Having since lost the concept album as well as the music video, I think it’s fair to reminisce back to my adolescence despite the cliché of it.

I mean, here’s some of the new music videos this week (when I wrote this):

Basically, music videos now appear to be photo shoots in video form. A stylist comes in, sets the look, and they just take video of the artist. Instagram set to music. Bite-size content. The music is forgettable, and the video content is forgettable except for the stylist’s portfolio and the director’s résumé.

A lot has been written about the death of the album, and I myself wrote about the death of the music video.

With all that setup, let me then just leave it all there, and start up a new recurring segment of this blog where I try to figure out why certain things have stuck with me over the years.

At some point I wanted to write about the albums that meant the most to me throughout my life, but I sort of realized that I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of, say, ?uestLove. I should probably just do me.

So, one of the few albums that keeps coming back to me is Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story.

Extreme was a “funk-metal” band from the 80s and 90s. I associate knowing about them solely through BMG and Columbia House as well as from their MTV music videos which were less of their rock songs and more of their ballad-type songs.

From that, I somehow ended up getting this album, bringing the CD with me as I moved, and always wanting to re-listen to it.

It wasn’t until I tried to write a blog post including it that I could make an educated guess about why I enjoy it so much.

The album itself, according to Wikipedia, was one of the last “concept albums” before singles became big.

From Wikipedia:

The album is structured as a concept album in three sections labeled as “sides” — a play on the notion of “different sides to a story” and that of “sides” of an album (in LP and cassette media). The sides, mentioned in the song “Cupid’s Dead” as “three sides to every story” are named “Yours”, “Mine” and “The Truth”, and each features a distinct musical style and lyrical imagery.

Yours is made of hard rock songs, the guitar-centric style which the band had explored the most on their previous albums. Their funk-metal tendencies are present in tracks such as “Cupid’s Dead”, which also features a rap section performed by guest John Preziosa Jr. As a whole, this side deals with political subjects: war (“Warheads”), peace (“Rest In Peace”), government (“Politicalamity”), racism (“Color Me Blind”), media (“Cupid’s Dead”). Summing up these matters, the side closes with “Peacemaker Die”, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which features a recording of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Mine, in total contrast, deals with introspective subjects. In accordance, the band departs from its guitar sound and experiments with different arrangements on this side, with Nuno Bettencourt playing keyboards in addition to (and in some tracks, instead of) the guitar. The side opening song, “Seven Sundays”, is a slow waltz with prominent keyboards and no guitars. “Tragic Comic” is a mostly acoustic track telling a light-hearted love story. “Our Father” is sung from the perspective of the child of an absent father (although many interpret the song to be dealing with God as The Father). With “Stop The World”, the album starts to delve into more philosophical questions, expressing existential doubts — a theme that leads to religion, with “God Isn’t Dead?” (written with the verb form as an affirmation but with a question mark — the chorus says “Please tell me God isn’t dead… I want to know”) and “Don’t Leave Me Alone”, a dramatic plea. The latter was not included in the CD version because of lack of space; Nuno Bettencourt recalls leaving it out “was like cutting off my arm”. Despite not being bound by the limitations of the CD format, the version of the album downloadable from iTunes also omits “Don’t Leave Me Alone”.

Finally, The Truth consists of a three-part opus, titled “Everything Under The Sun”, ending the three-part album. This side nods to progressive rock not only in format but also in musical style, with changes in time signature and an intricate arrangement, featuring a 70-piece orchestra. Lyrically, the spiritual theme set up in the end of “Mine” is further developed and Christian imagery is very present,

I fully accept that most people who’ve heard this album would regard it as “garbage”. Like any person who’s ever loved a song, artist, or album, this only makes me more fond of it.

Extreme’s influences were supposedly Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Queen. Now, I guess every band of their time were influenced by those bands, but I definitely fall into the bluesy-rock family of music with my love for Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Guns n’ Roses.

The first “side” of the album definitely reminds me of Axl Rose’s attempts at artistic narrative in Chinese Democracy (including the obvious audio clips of MLK Jr), while the third side reminds me of GnR’s epics November Rain, Don’t Cry, and Estranged. The second side aligns with GnR’s Dead Horse, Get in the Ring, The Garden, etc.

What I adore about all these songs is that they take me away from where I am, to a world of imagination that I’ve only closest explored when I was a teen exploring BBSs, early online gaming networks, and the mostly textual world of the 90’s/naughts internet. They put me into a contemplative and meditative state immediately.

In the old days, context was added through liner notes, music videos, and interviews in Rolling Stone and Spin. These days, none of those previous things mean anything. But for music, it’s not as though context has just transitioned to social media, at least from the artist’s perspective. The ability for a listener to find new music and control that experience is incredibly easy; just search Spotify, or even better yet, have Spotify’s ML search related songs for you.

Some bands do use fan newsletters, and I guess you could listen to some podcasts (I finally made the leap to listening to podcasts, primarily for engineering management advice and for NBA commentary). But really the conversation with the band and the audience happens even less now than it did before; unless you’re someone who’s been Baned into social media and you also happen to be a musician, you’re not so likely to be able to parlay the 2 worlds together in the same way that, say, Taylor Swift does.

That is to say, really the winners in music seem to be the listener and the marketer — the artist still relies on a lot of hard work and hustle in order to build an organic following, and most artists don’t have the energy, time, or knowhow for it. Social media is such an uncontrollable train that artists can’t really do a slow build. They’re really just bit players in a continually spinning engine of fleeting relevancy.

To me this robs an artist of the ability to transport listeners far away, or to construct a new environment within which to just be — Extreme was able to do this with their album, and I’ll always be thankful for that.

On Humor

If I were to explain my childhood to other people, the most understandable story I could tell would describe my relationship to television.

Both my parents worked, and I generally preferred to spend a lot of time by myself. My parents always had cable TV, and I gravitated towards the typical kids’ shows: Peewee’s Playhouse, Muppet Babies, The Real Ghostbusters, Dungeons & Dragons — pretty much the entire Saturday morning lineup. I think for the weekday lineup I watched a lot of Voltron for some period of time.

But as I got older, I gravitated towards comedy. I watched the Comedy Channel, which eventually turned into Comedy Central. The main draw for me there was a constant stream of clips of comedians’ best bits: Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry Miller, Brian Regan, Sam Kineson, Denis Leary, Richard Jeni, Gilbert Gottfried, Kevin Pollak, Sinbad. I knew episodes of Spitting Image and Saturday Night Live by heart. I’ve watched Police Squad, Sledge Hammer!, and Night Court probably thousands of times. The Naked Gun series defined my adolescence, and it was only later that I realized just how poignant the baseball game scene was in Hollywood history.

I was a little too young to understand Andy Kaufman, Garry Shandling, Andrew Dice Clay, the HBO adult series like Dream On (which was a titty landmine for me to navigate if my parents were home). It really wasn’t until I was older that I learned how important Shandling, Joan Rivers, Bob Hope, Redd Foxx, et al were for comedy.

For what it’s worth, I also seemed to skip the generation that was really into MST3K (I felt it was trying to be too clever), Bill Maher, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (too uncomfortable). I loved Jackass but none of its descendents, and I never could get into Impractical Jokers or other awkward-bait.

I used to listen to Howard Stern daily as a high schooler. By sheer good luck, Stern’s show was played in Dallas, and it served as my wakeup at 5-6am and as the tail end of my drive from one high school to another around 9:30-10am.

All this is to say my childhood was saturated with comedy. While at work and school I am overcome with professionalism and trying to be a good role model and being overwhelmed with fulfilling responsibilities, I feel as though privately I depend on comedians to get me through the ugly, intentionally cruel world that I often witness. I think it would surprise a lot of people I know that I love slapstick comedy, puns, and joking around and being silly.

As a life lesson I feel as though growing up in Dallas in a fairly serious academic family, I could not overcome the environment to realize that comedy was a viable option or humor as a desired trait or feeling. My family loves puns but I see this as a degree of intellectualism and showmanship.

I now live in New York City, and for a spell, I lived in East Village. Walking to the Comedy Cellar was a casual thing — I saw Chris Rock try out some early jokes, and I got to know Gary Gulman as the funniest comedian most people don’t know. I got to see Reggie Watts and Hannibal Burress perform at UCB West at a very small show. Louis CK filmed his show in my hood. Comedy is a viable way of life in NYC.

I interned for a writer at The Colbert Report to work on developing software he started to handle script ideation, writing, and production. Being able to watch the creative comedy-writing process in the context of technology was fantastic.

I mean, I get it. We get interns at work who have lived in NYC their whole lives. If you grew up here, you would have had access to industries and domains like comedy, and you would have potentially been able to explore it and see people you recognized get stable careers there. Not that I would have necessarily gone into comedy, but I think it will stick with me for educating my kids that they will have less opportunity perhaps if they’re just exposed to less.

Let’s classify types of people by their humor.

There are people who are intentionally funny and unintentionally funny. You can also focus on slapstick humor or high-brow intellectual humor. But let’s collapse that for the purpose of discussion and focus on the energy certain types of people create to continue humor? Does the humor end with them, or can they recycle it into something funnier, or can they create humor from nothing at all?

Non-Funny People

This is most people. Perhaps they can tell an okay story, or even a joke, and they generally laugh at things, but they don’t create humor out of nothing on their own initiative. If they are exposed to humor at all, they are only passive consumers of it.

Remixers

People who memorize common response humor patterns to questions or prompts (e.g. “ur mom”, “tell that to my wife”). People who read reddit a lot and are attuned to the memes. This would also include people who iterate on memes, or who make self-aware over-played memes to be ironical.

This can go badly (as I will write about below) or produce the latest in internet content (meme lords). I think the latter grew out of youthemannowdog (RIP) and the former became big once reddit hit mega-mainstream circa 2015?

Artisans

Comedians like Gary Gulman talk about how they perfect the telling of their jokes. Each word is chosen for a reason, like poetry. Timing can make or break a joke.

Timing can make or break a joke, as Sacha Baron Cohen talked about. (~8:40 mark)

Story-Tellers

I would also consider comedians like Gary Gulman to be story-tellers. They might tell one story throughout a whole set. The story may not even be funny. But the story acts as a framework that the comedian can go back to. It keeps the audience engaged. This is a decent trick to use for anyone trying to speak in public. Tie it all back together, like Al Madrigal does in his shrimp special, which he sort of describes here:

Careerists

This is one of the benefits of living in NYC. You get a better sense of the different industries you’ve never had exposure to. You begin to realize that people you know are spending years performing, doing improv, doing shows, working through all the permutations of their ideas and talents and opportunities looking to find breakthrough. People like my friend Michael Bird, whose show I’ve only managed to see once but I thought it was some of the most impressive stuff I’ve ever seen.

If you watch shows about comedy, or listen to podcasts, or whatever, you get a feel for which comedians came up together, which generations they were a part of, which clubs they cut their teeth in.

Emcees

Emcees aren’t necessarily funny, but they have enough knowledge of working a crowd to know how to run a performance from start to finish. They can get people involved or cut boring people off. They set the pace and flow. As comedy relies so much on timing, emcees are crucial to maintain a dynamic flow that enables humor to occur naturally.

I’d also include terrible humor emcees here. The people who keep talking, long past the duration people want to hear it, but they are all hostages until the emcee is done. You’ve been in a meeting with one of these.

Therapists

Some say comedians are all in therapy, or need to be pretty fucked up in the head to be funny. But comedians are also the truth-tellers, those who say what no one else will. Patrice O’Neal for me was an exemplar of this.

Goofballs

I’ve known less than 5 goofballs in my life, but if I’m around them, I can’t stop laughing, and, for the most part, other people can’t either. Any little thing they say, even not meant in jest, has me dying with laughter. It’s the timing, the intonation, the inflections, the subject matter, the originality. A rare talent.

Cheetahs

One of the most reliable indicators of humor to me is how long it takes someone to get a joke. Watch this interview with Orlando Bloom, Zac Efron, and Zach Woods.

Bloom and Efron are savvy enough to know how to turn someone else’s comments into something to say, but it’s a) not funny and b) does not lead to more conversation.

Zach Woods, the least famous person on the stage, however, is captivating. He’s truly listening to the conversation and creating avenues for more.

Whenever you watch interviews involving comedians, just pay attention to how much faster they react to the joke. They’re major league hitters used to hitting fastballs.

Another venue for this: watching films, particularly comedy films. See if the audience laughs immediately, or avalanches onto laughter once enough people start laughing.

Ghosts

Ghost comedians can only be seen by certain people like Bruce Willis. They talk about something, crack some jokes, and no one’s laughing except that one person, who’s dying with laughter.

Alright, so where was I going with all of this?

Humor as a profession is at new heights right now. We live in seemingly dark times, across the political spectrum. Humor for me is an escape; I don’t particularly enjoy watching horror movies, or the local news, or cable news, or whatever. Comedy keeps me going. Captivation keeps me going. Innovation and trying new things keep me going. I spend a lot of time in meetings now and have talked to tons of people in the past. Now I’m getting a lot more deliberate about how I spend my time and I’m just really appreciating the people with the skills, experience, and talent to inject humor into my day. To better understand why they make my days much happier, I just want to disaggregate them a bit and get to know what it is that gives me so much joy.

Ethics in Software Engineering

Been a while since I’ve written. This blog isn’t a safe space for me anymore, for various reasons. Blogs written under one’s own name are not what they used to be. Personal blogs for shooting the shit don’t exist anymore; there are other places you do that now, while blogs exist as a long-form medium, and as a luddite refuge for those abandoning social media and returning to self-hosted.  Remember finger .plans?

I’ve wanted to write about ethics in software engineering for a long time. But afore-mentioned safety and familial/work priorities have consumed me. Also, once I started to gather links for writing about this, it was not soon thereafter that the whole Google employee mini-revolt happened, and those people spoke to everything with far more authority and experience than I or anyone I knew could.

Later I wrote a draft of this but didn’t publish it. Now I’m just banging out something quick, with less fucking boring writing flourish.

Let’s just state up front that cohesive industry ethics in software engineering is a non-starter. Doesn’t exist now, won’t demonstrate much power in the future. The idea that engineers can influence the course of industry is hopeless. My having worked with software engineers, most are either too self-centered, weak within the industry, soon to be cast asea by a wave of over-saturation, or demotivated to be significant influences on anything in general.

Though, it might be overstated that engineers are assholes for the most part. Individually the engineers I meet are cool, and they generally want to do no harm, and it’s usually they themselves who get in, well, get in their own way more than anything else.

The main problem I see is that engineers overlap a lot with the type of people who disengage. You know what I mean? Too jaded, too measured to actually join a party or pick a religion or take any sort of affiliation. On the sliding scale of “radicalization”, a Facebook post is the lowest bar to entry, while silence in the light of fretting over NYTimes and The Economist articles is the majority middle, and then marching is the pinnacle of activism. Those who have ambition for more are, usually, sociopaths whether they realize it yet or not.

So you have a bunch of engineers who actively avoid grassroots community, who shun all the major political blocs of power such as unions, religions, local government, etc. And not because they don’t have time (myself being a parent who’s struggling to stay on top of his own life, let alone anyone else’s), but because they lost faith in those institutions.

We’re going to expect these people to defend the rest of our institutions? We expect these people to not take a salary if it means compromising our own privacy, which is being used against us and weaponized by people who don’t give a shit about “good faith”?

I identify with a un-mobilized Gen XY group of people who remember the unbridled optimism for extreme sharing of personal information, when the Twitter API stoked the imaginations of developers everywhere and early adopters wanted to share anything and everything to explore where we could aggregate information for the public good.  It also seems so naive now, now that not only everyone and his mother have weaponized that data against weaker people, weaker institutions, and weaker voting districts.

After the revelations about Uber actively building tools to troll and confuse its competitors (e.g. Hell, which spied on Lyft drivers) or even cops (Greyball, which identified law enforcement and avoided them), and Cambridge Analytica sucking out data from Facebook’s API before Facebook began to lock it down more, thus allowing even an intern to work on simple scripts to calculate how best to gaslight specific demographics of voters, it just seems like we need to accept that it just takes a handful of engineers who don’t give a fuck to compromise the way of life of decent folk who just want to aspire to something a little better than what they had before.

Let’s just prepare for the worst.

Higher impact from an extremely small number of engineers means that you can’t hope that organizational friction will prevent people who don’t give a fuck about society and the social good from fucking up your life. At best, engineers want to work on cool problems with a cool company that’s going to net them a lot of money. At worst, engineers who know where their bread is buttered will do whatever it takes, even if the code they write is morally and ethically dubious.

To some degree they will chase whatever the “in” problem is.  Right now, the “in” problems are machine learning, deep learning, artificial intelligence, big data.  The distribution of easier and easier open tools to handle these problems (like TensorFlow) combined with the ease of using cloud computing dramatically drops the barrier to entry for developers.

Even if most engineers chose not to use these tools to manipulate governments or citizenry, or to allow paramilitary or military to control citizenry more, there will always be enough engineers to cobble together something that can accomplish the goal.

The common good of algorithmic and tooling leveling up by companies such as Google, Uber, etc. are going to be weaponized by authoritarian governments as well as people who never succeeded at anything at life unless it was defrauding other people.

Engineers for the most part don’t even need to willingly write code that can be used against ethical boundaries.

Engineers can easily deceive themselves into seeing code without any humanistic or moral concerns. And it will be easy to justify the widespread abuse of androids once we have them; people are easily cruel, and Spielberg’s A.I. is no exaggeration of our inevitable future, if we can’t even treat refugees, poor, and minorities with human decency. Engineers will help sow the seeds of discontent.

Engineers can solve most of the difficult problems in completely unrelated realms of knowledge; all it takes is someone with the knowhow to cobble that code together, remixing and repurposing it for whatever nefarious task s/he wants.

This is the core inevitability of technological progress: the massive, rapid tearing down of barriers to entry.

So, I am pessimistic about engineers, who are not unionized and who have nothing like the Hippocratic Oath.  I doubt that there will be a unified stance against obviously morally and ethically wrong projects, let alone morally ambiguous projects.

On April 12, DefenseOne published an article that landed like a bombshell within Google. Drawing upon conversations with Pentagon officials, it revealed that Project Maven was actually a pilot project for future collaborations between Google and the military. In particular, Project Maven was part of Google’s push to win the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract.

JEDI is the military’s next-generation cloud that will network American forces all over the world and integrate them with AI. It’s basically Skynet. And all the big cloud providers want to win the contract because it’s worth $10 billion.

Google engineers from several different parts of the company — cloud, AI, communications, the Google Brain team, and DeepMind, among others — strongly objected to Project Maven, which would have provided machine learning assistance for military drone targeting.

As they can. They have the luxury of a job for life, for their resumes grant them free passage throughout the kingdom. Google on your resume means you’re golden.

Despite the ethical issues, it’s hard to blame companies like Google and Amazon for taking dubious contracts or working in China or whatever. It makes a lot of sense in the long run. Those companies have no obligation to take a stand, even after the CSR movement.

Like most fucking things in life, everything happens according to the easiest plan, except those things that don’t: underdogs, the exceptions to the rule, the times when people said fuck it.

Those are the things I want to care about and focus on. Who fucking cares if it’s ultimately successful? It’s drawing your red line, and sticking to it. Those are the moments worth remembering.

But Google will eventually be over-run. Facebook already has been. Twitter already has been.

What’s worth remembering in that story? Perhaps the morsel that there were Google engineers who became known as the “Group of Nine”.  I wasn’t able to find much on who they are, but perhaps Tyler Breisacher and Liz Fong-Jones were part of the movement.

Let’s also give Rekognition to Amazon employees for their letter, which demanded that Amazon ban Palantir, “the data firm that provides intelligence to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from using AWS in light of widespread outrage surrounding immigrant detention practices at the border.”

Microsoft?

“Microsoft C.E.O. Satya Nadella, on the other hand, has defended his company’s work with ICE, saying that Microsoft assists the agency only with “legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.” And even if some Silicon Valley companies step aside, others will inevitably arise to take their place. Palantir, NBC News reported this week, made more than $4 million last month alone from its ICE contract, which began in 2015. In March, Thomson Reuters Special Services reportedly signed a $6.8 million contract with ICE, using data targeting to help “locate, arrest, and remove criminal aliens.” And Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which publicly denounced the Trump administration’s child-separation policy, signed a $75 million contract in September 2017 to run the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s network operations center.”

I used to work for a sub-contractor for DHS — while there are definitely worthwhile projects going on within DHS and its agencies, there is little in the way of a moral compass guiding projects which could easily slide into abuse as opposed to safety.

Okay, so there’s no middle ground. The industry is doomed to provide its brightest minds to enable the most evil of intentions. Where do we go from here?

Some people think we should pledge to whistleblow and refuse to take part. I think it’s rarely this clear-cut; typically you’re in too deep before you even realize you were a part of it.

I think the solution is to swear to a Hippocratic oath (ACM has a code of ethics, as an example) and build parallel institutions, starting from zero participants and only taking in those who not only want to work for ethically-minded companies, but companies themselves who only pursue ethical businesses and internal practices.

It’s the only way to actively dissuade profiteers, as well as to keep out and identify information operations geared towards bribing those profiteers and wedging them between everyone else.

It allows communities with fewer controls and less rigid oversight to let edgelords and trolls know that they are not welcome even if they’re just joking around lol.

It allows us to break away from trying to convince people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey that their complacency with their platforms are enabling the most evil of society while harming the weakest of society.

It helps create a foundation for markets which don’t need to rely on inherently morally dubious business to succeed.

It helps engineers and companies refuse to hire assholes, destructive opportunists, and mercenaries.

It forces people who want to take part in a better society to actually stake their claim to it, and take a stand.

It gives individuals some leverage to begin saying to more powerful people, “You fucked with me. Now you’re cut off. For life.”

Where do I fucking sign?

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.