Saturday, January 31, 2009

Why Erdogan's Outburst Is No Accident

Outside of arguing to reduce our energy dependence, I normally stay away from Middle Eastern issues on this blog. I'll make an exception in the case of the Davos outburst. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan walked out of the Davos conference over a verbal confrontation with Israel's president.

It's no accident that Turkey is the only majority-Muslim country in NATO, the only majority-Muslim country with a chance in hell of joining the EU, and the wealthiest of the Muslim countries that didn't happen to pitch tents on oil deposits a century ago. Why? Because of a reality that not enough Westerners appreciate - Turkey's rigid separation of church and state. By throwing Islam out of government, they created the possibility for a real capitalist economy that could flourish in the absence of theocratic interference, and simultaneously created a real civil society. Consequently, in modern Turkey, women get college degrees and do research and become professionals and contribute to moving civilization forward, instead of hiding at home and wearing a veil. The same cannot be said of Iran or Saudi Arabia.

You'd think Turks would be upset if this beneficial order were threatened, and you'd be right; it's not accident that when an unabashed Islamist was set to become Prime Minister, a million patriotic Turks turned out to demonstrate in support of Turkey's secular democracy.

If only Americans could turn out in these numbers to defend our own Constitution!

It's no accident that the Islamist they were protesting is the one that just walked out of Davos, who is behaving conspicuously differently toward Israel than his predecessors. It's also no accident that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad thinks Erdogan is just super.

Every country has to eke out its own position, but as a Forbes editorial emphasizes, this swing toward solidarity based on religion instead of rational self-interest is troubling. Through the Cold War and the War on Terror has consistently been one of the most important members of NATO and allies of the West, as well as a real success story for secular democracy, and we're seeing the beginning of a regression.

Friday, January 30, 2009

North Korea Documentary at Sundance This Year

About time there's a documentary focusing on North Korean concentration camps, playing at Sundance this year. The filmmaker is amazed that the rest of the world hasn't risen in outrage about what's happening, and what's been happening for a while. Ever had the thought of "Why didn't the Allies do more about the concentration camps in World War II? Why didn't people believe it was happening?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Calling China's Bluff?

Foreign Policy Magazine has a good article title on Calling China's Bluff. The tone of the article isn't quite as strong as the editors would have you believe from the title, but it essentially boils down to an analysis of how the U.S. and China are locked into a global financial version of Mutually Assured Destruction. China is America's biggest creditor, hence the jitters on the Street over Geithner's yuan comments during his confirmation hearing. At the same time, China will be hurt badly if there is a major devaluation in the dollar, the most likely cause of which are the actions of China. The article also references CCP banker Gao Xiqing's comments in the Atlantic. Gao makes many pragmatic recommendations for the U.S. economy that shouldn't seem so profound to our own people. For example, save more money.

The democratic world's problem has never been the growth of China - the Rise of the Rest is emphatically good - the problem is the growth of an undemocratic China for whom our distraction in the Middle East couldn't come at a better time (does anyone remember our plane being forced down on Hainan Island summer 2001? Anybody?) In The Return of History and the End of Dreams Robert Kagan answers Francis Fukuyama's overoptimistic The End of History, and points out that we are in a weaker position ideologically than at the end of the Cold War. That is to say, in 1991, there seemed to be only one direction for history to go - toward liberal democracy, and away from socialism. Now, we have Russia assasinating its human rights lawyers and journalists, and we have China pouring cash into African resource enterprises and even encouraging its people to emigrate there to run them, without regard for the heinousness of the thugocracies running those countries. The world's thugs are wondering why they should listen to the West's talk of liberal reforms and allowing elections and freedom of religion, when their pockets are full of Chinese cash. The ideological choice, for them, seems to be between politically and financially troubled democracies like the U.S., and cash-rich havens of growth like China, that have no silly obsessions about freedom of speech. In those terms it seems like a no-brainer.

The good news about this version of M.A.D. is that yuan and renminbi and dollars don't kill people. The twenty-first century can be a gigantic win-win for China, the U.S., and every other human being on this planet if a more democratic China is in the offing. The problem is not that it's China with a footprint in the world's developing markets; if it was Japan doing the same thing, there wouldn't be a cause for concern. The problem is that it's an undemocratic power's footprint distorting the currents of geopolitics. As we already know democracy in China has not automatically followed from an increase in wealth in coastal cities - ask the people in Tibet and Xinjiang. Almost alone among Republicans, John McCain is not shy about pointing out the need for this improvement in China's government, which is why it was such a damn shame that he accepted that VP candidate. This is why I fervently hope that self-described conservatives will wake up and help steer a possibly over-idealistic Obama administration toward encouraging the growth of liberty in China. The longer we wait to take a firm but constructive approach with China, the harder it will become.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No Hang-Ups About Bioengineered Foods China. One problem of course is that even if there were opposition, no doubt the CCP would have its way. But is there opposition? From what anyone can tell, there is no cohesive anti-GMO movement or sentiment in China. Why? Could it be because people want a strong economy? Could it be because China's bright and pragmatic people would have no use anyway for slick, well-connected anti-research anti-education special interests like the Discovery Institute, or animal rights terrorists? As I've said before, the CCP are an undemocratic kleptocracy, but they're a smart kleptocracy. The last thing anyone in China wants right now (least of all the CCP) is to hold back the education of the next generation of Chinese scientists and engineers. This is one more reason the U.S. will continue to fall behind in the biotech revolution, until our legislators stop listening to anti-education lobbyists.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hanging up the Hat - For A While

I'm effectively retiring this blog, for now. I may post more in the future, but it probably won't be often. Between the time I spend on other blogs (like this one and this one), the med school interview process, and new work responsibilities, I just can't keep expending the same amount of effort on it. If you're coming across this blog from a search page or another blog's list, I invite you to read through my previous posts (which I tried to make relevant beyond the news of that day) or any of the excellent blogs in my list to the right. The next step, if I was really serious about growing my readership, would have been to promote my blog through media appearances and advertising.

Why did I start this blog? One day on the way to work I reflected that the world is actually in decent shape - and I still say that despite the recession we're in. Democracy, human rights are improving, and global violence is decreasing. I have no doubt that the pothole the global economy has hit will turn out to be exactly that, in the long term. Almost all of us have it much better than our grandparents, and most trends are positive ones. We are witnessing genuine progress.

That's all the more reason to pay attention to anything that could derail the process. There are three gigantic threats that could blow everything off the rails in the twenty-first century, and I wanted to do my 0.000000001% to create awareness in the people who should be aware and who can do something about it - Americans conservatives.

1. China.

I'm afraid conservatives are asleep at the wheel on this one. A country that makes a mockery of freedom of information and democracy is trouncing us in the economic game, and there are four of them for every one of us. I'm not even advocating for a very specific set of engagement objectives, but rather that Americans wake up, especially those that purport to be super-patriots. A head on military confrontation would be stupid, but ignoring the awakened dragon is just as bad. Even Napoleon saw this coming; we can't say we didn't know. Imagine Kruschev's USSR, with the economy of 1985 Japan. The Cold War was a warm-up, and the world's developing countries are wondering whether it's the American or the Chinese model they should be emulating.

2. Resources - Fuel resources present a triple threat to economic health, national security, and environmental damage.

In the American conservative mind, somehow getting America's economy and armed forces off an addiction to Middle Eastern oil has become associated with people hugging trees. Awareness of resource strategies, and the economic and physical effects of its consumption, is critical to our future. This strange resistance to a resource policy, particularly from the right, has to end.

3. Open societies and free markets are good, and ideological and religious fundamentalism are bad - especially when they creep into governments.

To this end, I've tried to drag the GOP out of the clutches of the Religious Right, where it has been withering recently. To survive the GOP needs a twenty-first century renaissance, and if that's not obvious now, it never will be. The real GOP, and not the flag-huggers that have infiltrated it, is uniquely positioned in one of the world's freest countries, founded on the ability of free minds and free markets to make the world better. Economic growth in this century will come from keeping our university system the top in the world, attracting talent from everywhere else, and turning cutting-edge research into wealth. If we forget that, we're sunk.

Given my profession (clinical research, and now entering med school) one of my special areas of concern is health care, and fortunately Obama's pick for Surgeon General (CNN's Sanjay Gupta) is not a disaster. Perhaps the University of Chicago Hospital influenced the thinking of former administrator Michelle Obama's thinking in this regard?

The GOP has a responsibility to Americans to return to its core values of individual responsibility and free markets, and stop distracting the electorate with Terry Schiavo stunts. I hope my 0.0000001% helps.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Oklahoma and Mississippi: Questionable Priorities

I've written before about how science education is absolutely critical to keep the U.S. competitive in the global economy, and how if our elected officials don't ensure that happens, we're gonners. This is doubly critical as the U.S. faces its worst economic uncertainty since the Depression. And once again, lawmakers beholden to special interests just can't wait to sell out American schoolchildren, our education system, and our future economy.

A sure way to wreck your country is to let ideology infiltrate your educational system. It happened in the Soviet Union, which saw self-induced mass starvations in the 1950s because they thought the laws of science didn't apply to them.

Meanwhile in the U.S., 2009 isn't even a month old and it's already happened in Oklahoma and Mississippi. The economy is tanking, and these guys are trying to censor textbooks. Are you kidding me? Don't mistake this for a grassroots effort; remember the Dover, PA case a couple years ago? The same special interest groups are behind all of these legislative efforts.

These legislators are not only an insult to their constituents, they're damaging Mississippi's future economy, and they're reinforcing a lot of stereotypes that blue-state Americans hold about the country's heartland. Gary Chism (R-MS) should be singled out for special recognition here. Americans are at a point in history where we really have to decide, now, whether we're serious about economic success or not, and that means do you want your kids to learn challenging material in school, or just be sent for public baby-sitting until they're 18. Of course, if you're one of those pretend conservatives who think that the GOP is about using big governments to force your values on other people's kids, then you won't have a problem with this. That's fine; it turns out you're in good company. The religious thugs that rule much of the Middle East and Africa are still telling their kids that the world is flat, and that it's evil spirits and not germs that make them sick. And I invite you to join them - in the Middle East, and far away from the United States. (Incidentally, this must explain why the Middle East and Africa have such great economies.)

If you're a moderate and you think, "Why does this matter that much?", please think of the students in China that your kids will be competing against twenty years from now - and that you will be competing against five years from now. They won't be hobbled by being taught that solar eclipses are caused by dragons swallowing the sun; they used to believe that, and they got over it. One thing that China does not censor is science education, and it's showing already.

Conservatives, ask yourself honestly: In 2012, will the GOP win back the White House and Congress if it's stuck with fundamentalist nutbars like Gary Chism who spend taxpayer dollars censoring textbooks? Is it going to be people who mock the very research and development that gives us the technical edge over our competition? Or is it going to be candidates who bring the GOP back to the true conservatism of real-facts-and-figures based values of self-reliance, smart foreign policy, and innovation?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Is Going On In the GOP?

I have no pretensions of knowing the answer to the title question, but after the "Magic Negro" song scandal broke, I really started to wonder.

The only explanation (assuming we're dealing with rational self-interest, even if it's immoral) is that there's an internal struggle going on, and someone was trying to smear Chip Saltsman. Of course, you wonder what Saltsman was thinking doing something like this in the first place. Regardless of your reaction to the song parody, at the very least the guy must be a moron to be a political professional and still record (or be associated with) something like this.

The end result is that the whole Republican Party ends up looking like it's run by racist grandpas. Good going guys. That'll really help the country in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Resource Bludgeon

I had a really interesting conversation with one of the docents during a tour of the floating museum-cum-aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, docked in Alameda, California.

Your blogger, following subliminal orders from his wife.

This is the on-board computer dating from the 1950s. When I took this picture I told the docent I was a time-traveling Soviet spy.

I don't think they had to worry about computer viruses. What genre would come between steampunk and cyberpunk? Eisenhowerpunk?

The hydraulics that launched the planes on the deck above our heads.

The Hornet was one of many ships that engaged in the final battle with the famous Yamato (serious link here, fun links here and here). The first round confirmed to have struck Yamato was from this ship. As it turns out, the Yamato was hobbled and unable or unwilling to operate at full capacity. Why? It was conserving fuel. It was the end of the war, and Japan was running out of oil, because we had strategically cut off Japan's resources.

Didn't someone once say that war is mostly logistics? This is true at every scale, from World Wars to Indian wars. The Modoc War of 1872-3 was one of America's last full-on Indian wars, and pitted 200 Modoc men, women and children against 2,000 Union regulars. The Modoc held out in the moon-like lava fields of inland northern California for six months. What finally broke the resistance? Not a frontal assault by the Union regulars. The Union cut off the Modoc from their water supply.

The use of resources in global struggle isn't new. In Czar Putin's current deprivation of Europe of natural gas, we have only the most current example. Resources matter, and we should expect countries to fight over them (as China and the U.S. in Africa), or use them for leverage. Getting off fossil fuel should be, first and foremost, a long-term strategic national security objective. Then we can stop worrying about what anybody thinks in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Why am I worried? I have the strong impression that American liberals understand this message more clearly than American conservatives, but are unwilling to make the hard foreign policy decisions that will assure a better future for democracy.

In oddly related news, that same weekend I saw my first Tesla on the road. Tesla is the same company that announced plans in September to build a plant in San Jose, despite the economic headwind. Tesla is to my knowledge the only car company to be building plants in the U.S., rather than shutting them down. Economic success depends more than ever on technological innovation. Zakaria points out the links between foreign policy strategy and economic success. The San Francisco Bay Area, is, oddly, continuing to set an example that modern conservatives would do well to observe.

Stem Cell Miracles

Wired published a Top Ten list of bioresearch breakthroughs in 2008. One of them is truly incredible. Medical scientists used a woman's stem cells to regrow her trachea.

This is a testament not only to human innovation but to our commitment to helping fellow humans and making the world better. You might ask where this giant medical step for mankind happened. Boston? San Francisco? New York? Of course not! It was in Italy! Come on now. Did you really think it could happen in the US? Get serious. We've decided that pleasing extremists like pretend-conservative Sam Brownback is more important than keeping our economy competitive and helping people. How did we get to this place? When do we say "enough"?

It would be an interesting experiment to take one country and split it in half, with fundamentalist nuts in charge of one and a modern secular government in charge of the other. It would be even more interesting if that had already been done, like in Singapore and Malaysia. I can tie this back to bioresearch with personal experience. In the last six months I have interviewed at a Singaporean biotech company. But somehow, Muslim Malaysia does not have, shall we say, a thriving medical research sector.

China Is Policing Google For Your Own Good

Isn't this nice of China? The Chinese government has taken it upon itself to to "purify the Internet's cultural environment and protect the healthy development of minors." Funny how it's always to protect children, no matter where it happens. This means demanding the Google remove whatever they consider objectionable. This means 2 things: pornography (to protect children), and websites critical of the Chinese government, like the one you're visiting at the moment (to protect - who?).

It's no surprise when the world's biggest country walks all over freedom of information and expression. What's even scarier is when supposedly free countries like Australia start imitating them. If the rest of the world keeps allowing China to pressure media and internet companies, maybe we won't have to wait for own governments to start censoring news.