Friday, September 21, 2007

Colin Powell is a Wise Man

I've never really been a huge fan of Colin Powell, but I am often surprised and impressed by the things he says. I was really young when the first Iraq war happened, and remember him on TV a little. When he was running for president I was excited about the prospect, and would have voted for him at the time if I were old enough to do so. I always saw him as something of an honest broker in the 2nd Bush White House, up until the point where he went to the U.N. and gave them false information (of which he has said a million times since that he didn't know it was false, and that he feels part of the blame for doing what he did).

That said, every interview of him I've ever read has impressed me. He's eloquent, moderate, and will say what he thinks without that veneer of Washington-speak that plagues those who don't even work in Washington anymore. He did a recent interview with GQ Magazine that has some thoughtful ideas about race and gays in the military, where we are today as a country, democracy, and about terrorism. Here's a few selections, but you should really read the whole thing.

This is the quote that may surprise a lot of people:

What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it’s terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?

I would approach this differently, in almost Marshall-like terms. What are the great opportunities out there—ones that we can take advantage of? It should not be just about creating alliances to deal with a guy in a cave in Pakistan. It should be about how do we create institutions that keep the world moving down a path of wealth creation, of increasing respect for human rights, creating democratic institutions, and increasing the efficiency and power of market economies? This is perhaps the most effective way to go after terrorists

And here is what he says in response to the question, "So you think we are getting too hunkered down and scared?"

Yes! We are taking too much counsel of our fears.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a terrorist threat. There is a threat. And we should send in military forces when we have a target to deal with. We should also secure our airports, if that makes us safer. But let’s welcome every foreign student we can get our hands on. Let’s make sure that foreigners come to the Mayo Clinic here, and not the Mayo facility in Dubai or somewhere else. Let’s make sure people come to Disney World and not throw them up against the wall in Orlando simply because they have a Muslim name. Let’s also remember that this country was created by immigrants and thrives as a result of immigration, and we need a sound immigration policy.

Let’s show the world a face of openness and what a democratic system can do. That’s why I want to see Guantánamo closed. It’s so harmful to what we stand for. We literally bang ourselves in the head by having that place. What are we doing this to ourselves for? Because we’re worried about the 380 guys there? Bring them here! Give them lawyers and habeas corpus. We can deal with them. We are paying a price when the rest of the world sees an America that seems to be afraid and is not the America they remember.

You can drive up the road from here and come to a spot where there is a megachurch over here, a little Episcopal church over there, a Catholic church around the corner that’s almost cathedral-size, and between them is a huge Hindu temple. There are no police needed to guard any of this. There are not many places in the world where you would see that. Yes, there are a few dangerous nuts in Brooklyn and New Jersey who want to blow up Kennedy Airport and Fort Dix. These are dangerous criminals, and we must deal with them. But come on, this is not a threat to our survival! The only thing that can really destroy us is us. We shouldn’t do it to ourselves, and we shouldn’t use fear for political purposes—scaring people to death so they will vote for you, or scaring people to death so that we create a terror-industrial complex.

Read that last line again. Maybe a third time, and think about how much the threat of terrorism dominates political discourse. This is very reminiscent of what Eisenhower warned about in his Military-Industrial Complex speech, made obvious by Powell's usage of the same words. I feel similarly about Eisenhower as I do about Powell, a military leader that towards the end of his career in the public eye warned about the judicious use of our military and the threat that it can pose to the fundamental values of our nation. Both Eisenhower and Powell used their positions as lifelong military leaders to try and do good in the world, and to try and avoid war, despite the nature of their job being to successfully manage and win wars.

This is, I think, a pretty fair representation of how America should walk in the world:

So you think we should be a bit more on guard against arrogance when we pursue a democracy agenda?

[laughs] Very good, very good. We have a tendency to lecture and perhaps not think things through. We have to be careful what we wish for. Are we happy with the democracy that Hamas gave us? There are some places that are not ready for the kind of democracy we find so attractive for ourselves. They are not culturally ready for it, they are not historically ready for it, and they don’t have the needed institutions.

How can we restore America’s image?

We should remember what that image was, back after World War II. It was the image of a generous country that sought not to impose its will on other countries or even to impose its values. But it showed the way, and it helped other countries, and it opened its doors to people—visitors and refugees and immigrants.

America could not survive without immigration. Even the undocumented immigrants are contributing to our economy. That’s the country my parents came to. That’s the image we have to portray to the rest of the world: kind, generous, a nation of nations, touched by every nation, and we touch every nation in return. That’s what people still want to believe about us. They still want to come here. We’ve lost a bit of the image, but we haven’t lost the reality yet. And we can fix the image by reflecting a welcoming attitude—and by not taking counsel of our fears and scaring ourselves to death that everybody coming in is going to blow up something. It ain’t the case.

Again, what he says about America being "a generous country," in the eyes of the world after WWII is reminiscent of Eisenhower when he said:
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

War is stupid, and very complicated to speak about eloquently without sounding equally as stupid. I have a weird admiration for both Powell and Eisenhower in their thoughts about democracy and the military. They see the institution of the military as a tool for good in the world corruptible by greed and malevolence, and warn against its misuse.
Though I don't see it as always a tool for good, I agree that the unchecked power of the military does not serve in the interests of democracy. We cannot go willy-nilly around the world imposing our values on those who would not have it, yet we must also stand up against injustice against human beings in other places besides the interior of our borders. This – as with almost everything in the world – is messy. The right answers and the right actions are unclear, but a fundamental prudence in how we go about the betterment of this world is not only laudable but necessary for our survival.

Even Vegans Eat Crow

I have an admission to make: I am a jerk. More specifically, I'm a jerk because of my musical elitism when it came to a certain band. See, not so very long ago, I used to make fun of my friend Brant for his rather emo choices in music. Sure, I'd heard some of the bands that he liked and was not too happy about them. Teasing him usually involved amalgamating the names of all of the bands he listened to in one, with my favorite being, "Oh, is this Godspeed You Black Cloud Cult Mogwai Emperor?" or some such variation. It always pissed him off, and he would retort with some scandalous comment about how much ska music sucks, an utter blasphemy for which he shall certainly burn in the pits of hell and have to listen to the Voodoo Glow Skulls for eternity.

Anyway, over the summer there was a certain song that played on our beloved college radio station, KURE . It was so melodic and sweet, and had a little storyline contained within. The guitar and vocals were just wonderful. It played on their automated system a lot, and I tried to email them to figure out what it was, but with no luck. Then, a friend of mine played it on her actual live KURE show, and I called to find out the name of the band. Can you guess who it was? It was Cloud Cult, with their song "Transistor Radio". I was stunned, and I called Brant to grovel immediately after learning this. I considered this enough at the time, but things have become more complicated. See, I have listened to one of their CDs at least 10 times in the last 3 days, and another about 4. It's all I've listened to this week, really, over and over and over again because it is some of the best music I've listened to in a very, very long time.

I hereby make this public admission of my stupidity in not giving Brant's music a chance. Otherwise, he's got swell taste in almost everything, so why I would fail to realize his excellent musical tastes is beyond me. Maybe I just needed to make fun of him for something, and this happened to be it. In any case, Brant, you are my musical god. Not a god, The God.

Whenever we have prejudice, whether it be for music or for people, it can come back and bite us in the ass. I think by nature, in the sense that prejudice is an a priori judgement, it will always end up being wrong. Give everything a chance, else you find yourself publicly apologizing for being an elitist prick. And listen to Cloud Cult, 'cuz it will change your life, I swear.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Our Walnut Neighbor and what's Big in Japan

The Cassini probe just flew by one of the coolest rocks in our solar system – Saturn's moon Iapetus – on September 10th. There are dozens of images from this flyby, which can be found at the website for Cassini's imaging team. For your viewing pleasure, here is a mosaic of many of the images.

And one of the little ridge that encircles the planet:

The images of Iapetus should allow us to better understand some of its rather bizarre features, like the ridge in the middle, and the fact that half of it is pitch black while the other is snowy white, kinda like a cosmic yin-yang. Cassini has returned images from Saturn during the past few months, and another part of the mission involved a probe crash-landeding on Titan to discern the chemical makeup of that moon of Saturn. All of these astounding images can be found at the link above, and the Planetary Society has been doing some good analysis and publicity for this mission.

In other space news, the Moon is big in Japan (ar, ar) as their probe Kayuga is underway to our rocky companion. More on what it will be doing on the moon can be found here. Briefly it will be on the Moon to study its evolution and history, and provide data for future studies and usages of said satellite. Also, here is the coolest diagram I have ever seen about the possible origin of the Moon. I love the little star above the Earth's head when it gets konked!!!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where I'll be Teaching

Here's a couple of pictures of Morlaix, where I'll be teaching in a mere few weeks. Incidentally, Morlaix is derived from "Mord les," which is from the phrase, "S'ils te mordent, mord les," which means "If they bite you, bite them." Also, it is in Finistére, which is from the latin, "Finis Terrae" which means "end of the earth". Mike finds it funny that I live in bite them, at the end of the earth. Yes, yes, this is rather humorous.

My first science story

I started a new internship at an awesome online astronomy news site. Really, it's the publisher being gracious enough to let me write stories about astronomy and put them up there, while holding my hand through the writing and editing process. I'll link to them each time I write one, so as not to double their presence on the 'net and also increase traffic to Fraser's wonderful site, Universe Today. This is my first story, on the ice ages of Mars' polar ice caps.

Why this is here

So, I used to have another blog in which I regaled my audience with tales of woe and adventure from my last excursion to France. Yeah, that didn't work out so well, because I kinda stopped updating it a couple of years ago. From the electronic ashes of this last blog this one arises. I'll post things about my life, and also any writing that I'm publishing elsewhere on the web. In our digital age, I figured it's time for this 20-something bum to finally have a presence on our expansive internet landscape.