Monday, March 31, 2008

Securing the torch

The world's attention has been on the tiny mountain kingdom of Tibet over the past two weeks after protests in 6 different Chinese cities erupted over the course of several days beginning on March 14. However, China, in the midst of working to downplay and even blame the protests and violence on Tibetan "revolutionaries"", is pushing through to start the Olympic Games of 2008 in Beijing by launching the traditional torch ceremony this morning. Granted security was tight, this didn't stop numerous other protests from re-igniting throughout the region.

China continues to dig itself deeper into a hole lacking any integrity by holding fast to the blame game -- that the Dalai Lama and his supporters instigated the riots and violence that followed the March 14th protests. China should know now that the world won't believe their bureaucratic spin on a situation that has clearly gotten out of hand. Also, does Hu Jintao and the Chinese Communist Party leadership really want to get into a "he said, we said" battle with perhaps the most revered living religious leader on the planet? Its not a battle they can win but I don't see them backing down, even against strong international pressure. Yet eyes widened at yesterday's news that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not be attending the opening ceremonies of the games because of the Chinese crackdown in Tibet has started a flurry of rumors that other EU leaders (Sarkozy) would follow suit. Merkel became the third world leader (joining Poland's PM Donald Tusk and the Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus) to abandon the highly regarded opening ceremonies.

The U.S.'s role in this has been minimal. On the ground activists from Students for Free Tibet (who have been doing a splendid job of communicating information, organizing people on multiple continents and adopting a successful argument for this opportunity and moment) continue to drive energy for the boycott of the Beijing Games. But this is almost an impossible outcome, barring some foreign policy disaster on the part of Jintao's government.

First - the Olympic Games were structured around the idea of putting aside politics, war, and differences to come together to compete. As long as the American Olympic Committee decides not to let politics (read "human rights abuses") interfere with the games, America will be in Beijing for the 2008 Winter Games.

Second - the current American leadership lacks the understanding of what a boycott on behalf of Tibet could accomplish. The last Olympic Games that the U.S. sat out of was in Moscow 1980. Jimmy Carter had specific reasons for the boycott, least of which was the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter understood the impact of such a boycott on the Soviet image and worked overtime to get more than 60 nations to join the U.S. in abstaining from the games. That sent a message to the Soviet leadership. But today's American top-dogs aren't very good away from the doghouse and would never be able to see the benefit in moving China into discussions with Tibet.

Third - corporate America has too much invested in the Olympic Games. This is one of the few moments every decade when these companies have the entire world's eyes and ears -- there isn't anyway they're going to forego that opportunity. And if the U.S. pulls all of its athletes out many of those corporate contracts would fall apart. Combine NBC Sports, AT&T, General Electric, Coca-Cola and others.

Lastly - China currently holds over $1.5 trillion in U.S. debt. Even if Bush could build an argument for why China should begin open talks with Tibet, he would have very little political power with that much debt in one nation's hands. All they would have to threaten to do is flood the market, stop buying our debt and dump our dollars sending our economy into an absolute tailspin. We have very little leverage with the Chinese at this point.

If a protest of these companies were to occur, a U.S. pullout might be more conceivable. But right now, China is just hoping that Olympic Torch gets back to Beijing as quickly as possible, without any major incidents. I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing it be snuffed out in a country where human rights is still an idea, not a practice.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Body of War

Early this week we passed the 4,000 death mark in the Iraq War. I've had the war on the brain recently, being more amazed at how out of touch most of America is when it comes to recognizing the fact that we're still over there in a big way.

Last October I was lucky enough to catch an amazing documentary called Body of War. Perhaps the most compelling and heart-wrenching glimpse into the life of a young Iraq War Veteran, paralyzed from the chest down, and his treatment upon coming back from Iraq with an near-fatal injury.

Now, Tomas Young, the 25 year-old young man permanently bound to a wheel-chair, has produced an incredible album of all the music that got him to Baghdad, got him through Baghdad and brought him home from Baghdad. The album features original scores from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (who did the entire film soundtrack), Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, Ben Harper and Tom Waits. But it doesn't just feature the usual Hollywood liberal elite -- it also features new music from Laura Cantrell, The Nightwatchman, Dialated Peoples and Talib Kweli. Honestly, its one of the better musical mixes I've heard, all the more compelling knowing what each song represents for a man who gave so much for this country. I'd say we owe him, at least, a listen to his album.

I encourage everyone to check out the movie and buy the album:

Its also available on iTunes.

Eddie Vedder is also doing a solo tour featuring the music of this album.

And an interesting piece from the Politico on why the anti-war music scene is just not what it was in 1969 (of course, numerous reasons for this, none of which the Politico really pins down).

Thursday, March 20, 2008


It's Day 1 of March Madness and I've got my eyes tracking all my picks online. It should be a ridiculously good tournament and I'm hoping for a couple upsets (come on Siena!).

However, my favorite clip from the past decade of NCAA tournament upsets, because I'm from Vermont and will always root for the Catamounts if they are in it (not this year), is from 2005 when TJ Sorrentine "hit one from the parking lot" in OT to beat the Syracuse Organge and advance to the next round. I think I almost threw the remote control in the bay when I saw this.

But everyone has their favorite buzzer-beater upset moment of the past half-century. If you so, let's hear it.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Time is Money and Mo' Money = Mo' Problems

I talked with my mother this evening about the lack of focus my generation seems to have when it comes to concentrating on one task for more than ten minutes. Multi-tasking is the new black, and for this generation, the first to have cell phones, email, instant messaging, Facebook, Myspace and text messaging all at once the opportunity to continue a conversation is omnipresent. And the temptation to take on a new one is hard to resist.

The larger issue behind multi-tasking is one of time and the perception each of us have when pressed to complete a task. When we have many tasks to complete at once the urgency increases resulting in stress.

One of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, coined the phrase "time is money" in an effort to inspire hard work and efficient business in colonial France as well as institute daylight savings time. Stefan Klein writes in the NY Times about the perceived loss of money that occurs when we are unable to complete a task. This perception is uniquely American and while responsible for the inherent drive in the hard-working, one-week of vacation a year laborer is also responsible for a lot of the stress that goes along with getting ahead or being successful.
Believing time is money to lose, we perceive our shortage of time as stressful. Thus, our fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and the regions of the brain we use to calmly and sensibly plan our time get switched off. We become fidgety, erratic and rash.

Tasks take longer. We make mistakes — which take still more time to iron out. Who among us has not been locked out of an apartment or lost a wallet when in a great hurry? The perceived lack of time becomes real: We are not stressed because we have no time, but rather, we have no time because we are stressed.

Studies have shown the alarming extent of the problem: office workers are no longer able to stay focused on one specific task for more than about three minutes, which means a great loss of productivity. The misguided notion that time is money actually costs us money.

Not only do we spend more time switching between tasks we believe are more important but we absorb the stress this multi-tasking creates.

Is our perception of time the key to handling stress and our to-do lists? Stressful moments have been compared to adrenaline rushes in the chemicalization they cause in our physiology. Dr.Eagleman has been studying the effects of time perception in adrenaline situations for years and recently filmed a study. The results are interesting.

Stress is ultimately a trick of the brain. Its a chemical reaction caused by a fear of not completing the task, or getting out of a situation. So we begin to scratch at the walls and desperately look for an exit, what Klein says is our "fight or flight" instinct. In the end, staying focused on one task and following it through to the end is what will most quickly alleviate the stress or pressure. Obviously, this is not always true in all situations as there are times when knowing when to switch to a more urgent task is a ideal and can pay off.

Multi-tasking isn't so much a gut reaction to the adrenaline felt when numerous to-dos are due as it is an opportunity to focus specifically on one task and complete it well.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mowing Green

This is just freakin' awesome. If I had a lawn, I'd get one in a heartbeat. A true zero-emissions mower! Albeit, a tad pricey.


Senior Foreign Policy adviser and long-time friend to Senator Barack Obama, Samantha Power, has resigned her position from the Obama campaign. The news comes after an interview she gave to the London newspaper The Scotsman, in which she referred to Senator Clinton as "a monster."

This is the second misstep by the Obama campaign and while not significant enough to do much damage to the still rolling but appropriately slowed juggernaut of hiscampaign, does raise the question of whether the campaign's inexperience at this level of political contests is beginning to reveal itself.

Last week, news leaked by the Canadian government about comments another Obama adviser made during a separate interview concerning Obama's stance on NAFTA.

Another interview Power gave earlier in the year is garnering attention as well. While talking with the BBC during her book tour she said that Obama's commitment to withdrawing from Iraq is actually not a commitment at all (via Politico):
"What he’s actually said, after meeting with the generals and meeting with intelligence professionals, is that you – at best case scenario – will be able to withdraw one to two combat brigades each month. That’s what they’re telling him. He will revisit it when he becomes president," Power says.

The host, Stephen Sackur, challenged her:"So what the American public thinks is a commitment to get combat forces out in 16 months isn't a commitment isn't it?"

"You can’t make a commitment in March 2008 about what circumstances will be like in January of 2009," she said. "He will, of course, not rely on some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan – an operational plan – that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn’t have daily access now, as a result of not being the president. So to think – it would be the height of ideology to sort of say, 'Well, I said it, therefore I’m going to impose it on whatever reality greets me.'"
Watch the full interview:
While I understand that Barack can't always guarantee his promises on the campaign trail (we Americans are familiar with candidates who fail to follow through on their broad plans "for change") what is shocking about Power's admission is that Obama is indeed asking the American people to believe in something he doesn't believe himself, which for a campaign based on Hope and Unity could be the splinter that breaks the camel's back.

And this brings me to the concern I have with Obama in general. He's not a fighter. He's not going to battle for what's right, even when everyone else is telling him he should. I fear that this age of corporate take-overs and unchecked power calls on leaders and citizens to stand up and fight for change, not negotiate for it. The greatest moments in our history were largely constructed by everyday people and leaders fighting against the status quo or contemporary beliefs. Great change in this country never came about when everyone walked away from the table with a smile on their face. Men beat the iron-jawed angels of the women's rights movement outside the White House gates, and white police officers fire-hosed African-Americans in the streets of Birmingham and neither group committed those acts because they thought they were winning the ideological battle; they committed those acts because they felt they were being seriously challenged by an energized and angry population.

Great change in this country, the kind of change Obama and Clinton perpetually fill their speeches with but fail to expound upon, does not come about from making everyone happy. Sometimes, your decision to stand up for what is right will infuriate people, even your friends, and if your goal is to placate the room, that change will be sacrificed.

While I sense Obama understands this, I don't believe he is truly willing to engender it His own history reflects someone who will continually bend when the opposition makes enough noise, which is an amazing trait and one fit for perhaps another time. But right now we need a fighter.

But the other side of this is, do we think Clinton will do any better? Probably not. So where does that leave me? Once again, settling for someone I don't have tremendous faith in to bring to bear the type of change we could see in this country.

One other spin on this story that isn't being spun: what if the comment had been made by a man, not Sam Power?