We need to stop terror, not just terrorism

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One of LA’s most intriguing corners symbolizes the nation’s fears and divisions over the War on Terror

This September 11, I feel compelled to write a few words about the War on Terror.  It is an important issue this year as Americans make big choices.  We all know that emotional thinking can cloud judgment – and the War on Terror is one of the most emotional issues of our time.  When you look at it objectively, though, you reach a striking conclusion.  Yes, terrorists are definitely evil.  But in the grand scheme of things, they are not very deadly to Americans.  When you compare the cost of this war to its benefits, it is very hard to justify on its present terms.

American conservatives describe the War on Terror as a “Clash of Cultures”.  This characterization is an ideological belief, not a fact, and it is not productive.  A look at worldwide terrorism deaths reminds us what the fight is really about:  instability within the Moslem world.  Of the roughly 20,000 terrorist deaths worldwide in 2013, a majority of them were in Iraq or Afghanistan.  90% of them occurred in 10 African / Asian countries that are home to terrorist groups.   1 These groups are militias aimed at local governments or other sects.  Most of these groups don’t target outsiders.  ISIS and al Qaeda are the main exceptions.  The US and other countries engage them directly in combat, and they strike back at our civilians.

From 2001 – 2013, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks was about 3,000.  Outside of 9/11/01 itself, that number is about 400, and of those only 50 were on US soil. 2 That was a whole decade’s worth of casualties.

By contrast, on a typical day (based on annual rates), 90 Americans are killed by guns at home or in the streets – by angry acquaintances, accidents, or suicide. 3  Another 90 Americans are killed in car accidents.  4  The overwhelming majority of preventable deaths in the US – 2,000 per day – are caused by our own stupid decisions to smoke, drink, overeat, and abuse drugs. 5

Terrorism is not even close to our biggest problem.

Nevertheless, more than half of Americans are “very concerned about Islamic extremism.” 6  That’s a higher rate than in Pakistan!  This disconnect is not surprising.  People don’t think with statistics.  We think with emotions.  Lifestyle-related deaths are not as evil or terrifying as terrorist attacks.

The emotionally-driven political response has been vastly out of proportion.  This war has cost trillions of dollars 7 , killed perhaps a million people 8 (wow), and sacrificed 7,000 US soldiers in combat 9 to avenge our 3,000 dead.  Not only that, but ironically most of those 400 American civilian deaths since 2001 have resulted from counterattacks against our War on Terror.

This conflict means less to the US, but more to the world, than most Americans realize.  The US needs to downscale its response, make it more efficient, and share it more evenly with its allies.  Our trillions could be much better spent on intelligence, police, and security.  Better yet, the responsibility and the budget should be spread among many nations.  The global solution to the problem is a very interesting discussion, and beyond the scope of today’s post.

As for the upcoming election, the two presidential candidates, for all their mudslinging and difference in style, have roughly similar platforms on the War on Terror.  Some of the key differences include:

  • Trump has expressed his desire to remove the US from NATO.  This would be counter-productive, as the solution needs to be international.  Trying to shore up the entire Moslem world would stretch America far too thin.  Then again, he has also spoken in favor of coalition support.
  • HIllary Clinton wants to work with Moslem Americans as a “coalition at home”.  10
  • Clinton supports stricter gun control for people on FBI watch lists.
  • Trump wants the US military to grow even larger.  Clinton supports a sustainable military with enhanced cyber capabilities.
  • Trump opposes arming Syrian rebels.  Secretary Clinton supported arming them, but Obama tried that and it backfired.  She does not include arming rebels in her presidential platform.

The more serious difference between the candidates and their supporters is their outlook on the conflict.  Trump buys into the “Clash of Cultures” storyline.  He and his voters see ISIS as first and foremost out to get America.  That outlook doesn’t get us any closer to the real problems in West Asia and their solutions.  Trump is riding on the coat tails of American fear, perceiving the terrorist danger as so large that it threatens the entire nation.

FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Yoda was just as wise when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  For Americans right now, it is just as important to conquer our terror as to conquer the terrorists.

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This website reminds us why terrorists attack in the West

Tornado GR4 Attack on Libyan SCUD LauncherIt surprises me that even to this day, when there are terrorist attacks on the US or Europe, people still wonder why.  “Why do they hate us?!” they ask.  They often come up with self-pleasing answers:  “They hate us because we’re free.”  “They’re attacking our way of life.” “They have the wrong religion.”

No.  ISIS attacks “us” because we attack them.  Sure, we may be on the right side of the law, but at least we should acknowledge our part in this two-way cycle of violence.

Time and again, terrorist attackers make their motives clear.  When Jihadi John beheaded US hostages, he specifically said that it was a punishment for US airstrikes.  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the Paris attacks, did not choose Paris at random.  The French military had personally targeted and tried to kill him the month before.  Why did ISIS take down a plane full of Russian passengers?  It’s not a coincidence that Russia had just begun a series of airstrikes against Syria.

And if ISIS wants to retaliate, what else can it do?  Our military is invincible and invisible.  ISIS cannot strike down drones.  We have no soldiers to shoot.  Its only option is to strike at “us”, the people, in hopes that we will cave in and implore our governments to leave ISIS alone.  Welcome to 3rd-millennium warfare.

Islamists’ war was not about us until we intervened.  Jihad is fundamentally about Asian / African governance.  ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Hamas, and Hezbollah are primarily interested in toppling secular dictators, changing borders, and establishing a caliphate.  Some of them have serious problems with Israel.  Beyond that, they don’t really care about the outside world.  In fact, ISIS is the only one particularly active outside its territory.  They only attack outsiders to keep us out of their turf, especially in retaliation for intervention.

Our news cycles are dominated by terrorist attacks.  Somehow, we don’t seem to be as aware of our side of this fight.  ISIS is being pummeled on a daily basis, reports Chris Jennewein of the Times of San Diego.  Some airstrikes are more justified than others.  Last month in Iraq, coalition bombers killed 300 ISIS militants, one of the most successful air attacks to date.  But last week, an errant US airstrike killed maybe 100 innocent civilians in Syria.  One way or the other, these attacks are sure to breed counterattacks.  The cycle never ends!

The website AirWars is a very interesting journalism project keeping track of coalition attacks.  You can find breakdowns by coalition country or by year, and even daily news.  I think it is important to stay apprised of our own activity.

Right or wrong, this is the cause of terror attacks against North America and Europe.  It’s not just random cultural hatred or religious insanity.  It’s a cycle of violence.  At the very least, we should understand the reason for these retaliations.  Only then can we decide what to do about them.

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Why do we have Leap Year?

Why is Leap Year necessary?

Leap Year is necessary because our clocks (based on Earth’s rotation on its own axis) and our calendars (based on Earth’s revolution around the sun) are incommensurate, based on unrelated cycles.  We need to fudge one system or the other every now and then to keep them synchronized.  Leap Year is just the system we have historically adopted.  Actually, even the Leap Year needs tweaks of its own.  This video discusses the first, second, and third order corrections to make clocks and calendars agree as precisely as possible!

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US diplomacy with Iran, Cuba

The ongoing saga of the “Iran nuclear deal” is difficult to follow for the casual news watcher.  It never seems to end.  Israelis, Saudis, and US Republicans oppose it without explaining which terms they are against, or what they would like to propose instead.  The opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba is also hotly debated.  But these are positive developments in two ways.  First, in the true spirit of a contract or treaty, the Iran nuclear deal offers something positive for both sides.  Second and more broadly, this recent trend indicates an opening of communications between geopolitical enemies.  Obama’s belief in “talking to the enemy” has been one of the most controversial elements of his presidency.  With a perspective outside of political bias, I agree that it is the right course.  Communication is healthy for international relations just as it is for personal relations.  This has already been proven by Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan.  At the very least, communication humanizes the enemy.  The US and the West should continue the policy of talking openly to its adversaries – Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and more.

The Iran Nuclear Deal in a Nutshell

Iran has a large nationwide program of uranium enrichment.  Enriched uranium can be used either for nuclear power plants or (at much higher concentrations) nuclear weapons.  Obviously, nobody would like to see Iran develop an arsenal of nuclear bombs.  Thus, the primary interest in the West is to keep Iran free of weapons-grade uranium.

To put pressure on the Iranian government – for nuclear activities and other reasons – the US has “boycotted” Iran with trade sanctions since the revolution of 1979.  The UN and EU followed with major sanctions in the 21st century.  Other nations have imposed minor sanctions as well.  The sanctions have had their primary intended effect of making it difficult for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.  However, they have also had a major impact on Iran’s overall economy, including high inflation and a current unemployment rate of well above 20%.  After four decades, these actions directed against the Iranian government have made life very difficult for ordinary people throughout the entire country.  This is bad not only for Iran, but for perpetuating Iran’s negative perception of the outside world.

For decades, the US and Iran’s mutual strategy was to be strong-headed and hope to win a battle of wills.  The US hoped that sanctions would eventually cripple Iran to capitulation; lifting sanctions was not an option.  Iran felt that it had no choice but to arm itself into a stronger position; nuclear enrichment was non-negotiable.

Diplomatic overtures began in 2003.  Iran offered to negotiate a middle ground.  The US refused, after which Iran vastly increased its nuclear enrichment program.  A decade later, after UN and EU sanctions had strained Iran even further, a tentative agreement was reached between Iran and a multinational coalition representing the US, UN, and EU.  The gist of the agreement was very simple.  In exchange for sanctions relief, Iran would limit its uranium enrichment to peaceful purposes, and open its nuclear energy program to international monitoring.  The 2013 agreement gave Iran and its negotiators time to work out a “framework,” and then the details of execution.  A framework for such a deal was reached last week, in April, 2015.

The agreements of 2013 and 2015 are historic and significant.  This is the first time that Iran has offered any sort of concessions on its nuclear program.  The agreement-in-progress includes important provisions allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect Iran’s uranium industry closely.  Easing of sanctions would make life better for average Iranians.  It would also start to open the Iranian market to many importers and exporters around the world.  Until Iran proves its commitment to the deal, the most important sanctions (those related to uranium and military imports / exports) would remain in place.  In short, there would be clear benefits for the global economy and safety.  This is an important step forward.

As the deadline for the framework approached, the “nuclear deal” became hotly controversial.  Iran’s greatest regional enemies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose the idea of negotiating with Iran.  They are not part of the current talks.  In the US, the Republican Party follows Israel’s lead.  Interestingly, opponents of the talks are very vague about exactly what they oppose.  Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the deal would only favor Iran, “without receiving anything tangible in return.”  He does not acknowledge the value of Iran’s changing stance, from defiance to compromise.  US Republicans complain vaguely that the deal is not tough enough, that it should insist on more enrichment curtailment while offering less sanction relief.  Essentially, what they are arguing for is a repudiation of negotiations altogether; they believe in principle that the US should continue opposing Iran with brute force instead of diplomacy.  I have not heard Republicans propose specific alternatives to any of the deal’s terms.  Keep in mind that congressional opponents are not the same people who are involved in talks.  The negotiators have had years to get to know specific Iranians, their attitudes, needs, and points of flexibility.  Third parties are expressing opposition for opposition’s sake.   Israel and Saudi Arabia’s stance is apparently, “If Iran is for it, we’re against it,” while Republicans feel, “If Obama is behind this, we won’t allow it.”  Some Republicans raise a legitimate point about which branch of government should be involved in the negotiations.  That’s for Congress and the White House to wrestle over.

Cuban Diplomacy

The relationship between the US and the Castros has always been rocky.  After Fidel Castro’s first few aggressive years in office, the US imposed a particularly strong embargo against Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties.  It can be said that this only made matters worse.  Shut off from the US, Cuba turned to the USSR for oil, money, and defense, setting the stage for the particularly bad crises of the 1960s.  Even after the USSR collapsed and Cuba went into depression, neither nation made a move to mend fences.  Talks have only resumed under Raul Castro’s administration.  A trickle of trade is now being allowed, and there is talk of reopening the embassies.  An open channel of communication could even lead to an easing of the embargo in exchange for Castro concessions.  Again, there could be something good in it for both sides.  Nevertheless, of course there is some opposition to these gestures of peace too.

Aside from some matters of asylum, political prisoners, and allying with other dictators, the Castros have not actually posed a threat to the US since at least 1980.  They have just been corrupt dictators in their own nation.  Most of the pressure to shut them out comes from two sources: Cuban-Americans who have family left behind on the island, and those who once again misunderstand the purpose of communication.

To communicate does not mean to condone.  Yes, Fidel Castro wrongfully took his country by force, seized US assets, and harbored Soviet nuclear weapons.  By all accounts, the Castros and their government never should have been in power.  But let’s face it, they are awfully entrenched there.  What are we going to do about it?  Ignoring them has not proven very effective at accomplishing anything.  The US embargo, like the sanctions against Iran, has a strong grip on Cuba.  It is obviously not squeezing the Castros out of power, and is hurting ordinary Cubans more than the government.  The UN recommends lifting it.  The embargo’s greatest value now is as a bargaining chip.  In this century, the US’s main goal is to see a Cuban transition to democracy, at least after the Castros’ death.  Maybe the best way to get Raul to listen to what the US has to say is for the US to listen to what he has to say.  It sounds like he could be willing to negotiate some democratic reforms in exchange for some economic relief.

Upshot

If a man were having serious problems with his boss, a neighbor, or his wife, most people would give the same advice:  Talk to her!  Whether it may be at the dining room table or in pre-trial litigation, at some point they need to figure out how to end the conflict without hurting each other.  That’s still true if the neighbors-at-odds are governments – even bad governments.

The alternatives to communication are recalcitrance, failure to understand each other, demonization, retribution, and violence.  Negotiation can be difficult, because it requires compromise.  But the very act of negotiation, even the willingness to negotiate, can facilitate a mutually agreeable position.  And communication does not necessarily have to mean negotiation or validation.  Formal discussions force each side to identify specific points of contention, rather than reacting emotionally to each other.

Iran is willing to cap enrichment and open its nuclear industry to inspection.  That’s worth an easing of sanctions.  The Castros have not threatened the US in decades, and they are willing to normalize relations.  That’s worth meeting them in the middle.  I think we’d all prefer to have international seats at the table when discussing a post-Castro Cuba.

 

 

 

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Humorlessness is no laughing matter

When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I worked on campus at the Red Door Café.  It was a popular hangout for grad students, post-docs, and faculty.  Those strata are highly international at Caltech; I informally counted about 50% non-native-English speakers.  It was an interesting chance to witness diversity and to observe cultural differences.  After working there for several months, I noticed a very striking pattern.  I discovered the “International Sense-of-Humor Line,” dividing a jocular western world from a stern east.  People from west of the line were much more carefree and lighthearted.  Westerners would stop to chit-chat or joke about how many calories were in our desserts.  I could give them a hard time about how predictable their orders were.  Those from the other side of the Humor Line were not into small talk.  They were there to study or do their job.  Jokes would bounce right off of them without eliciting a smile.  I also noticed that the International Sense-of-Humor Line was strongly coincident with the erstwhile Iron Curtain, right down the middle of Europe.

International Sense of Humor Line Iron Curtain

The International Sense-of-Humor line is a funny but sad reminder of how personality is shaped by culture.

Yes, I know, this is a generalization.  I don’t have any quantitative data to back up my characterization, and of course there are exceptions.  But to me in that particular environment, the overall pattern stood out pretty prominently.  I realized that maybe the dimension of humor / humorlessness can be measured as a personal or cultural value.  I had grown up in a very fun-loving environment.  I wondered why some persons — or peoples, even — would prefer to be stiff.  This little pseudo-study has made me mindful of humorlessness ever since.

In my culture, I have come to feel that a good sense of humor is a sign of mental health and social grace. I’m not talking about comic brilliance. A sense of humor is a social interest in joking around, making light of life’s imperfections, talking about trivialities, imagining and pretending, poking fun at ourselves and others. It indicates an elasticity of spirit.  It puts others at ease. Humorlessness is just the opposite — rigidity, a focus on serious topics, nervousness around others, lack of charisma. When someone is humorless, it indicates that he isn’t particularly interested in me. Then I don’t feel like talking to him for very long either.

Humorlessness is often a byproduct of emotional damage. When a person suffers enough adversity or trauma, it seems that his emotional response ossifies and becomes part of his psyche.  The person becomes coldly serious.  Hot emotions often lie just below the surface and can come out in flashes.  The hot emotions tend toward fear in conservatives (think of apocalyptic survivalists or right-wing alarmists) and anger in liberals (think of protest marches, union strikes, and revolutionaries). Wounded emotions become inflexible, and the person is unable to come back to moderation and take matters lightly anymore.

An overly serious mindset can also be a product of family values, education, peer pressure, or propaganda.  College activists are always upset about something involving race, gender, or socioeconomic status.  In their campus culture, you’re just supposed to be angry about the system.  Meanwhile,  I joke that the notoriously right-wing FOX News stands for …

"Fox News: Fear, Outrage, Xenophobia" coined by Scot Fagerland

For those of us not on the far right, programs like Fox News seem melodramatically fearful and serious.

When I do my own research, I immediately discard sources written with a tone of anger or fear.  Emotions make lousy filters for truth.  I want to learn for the pleasure of it.  Even challenges can be inspiring.  I don’t need to hear someone’s top ten reasons that the world is about to end.

I keep negative nellies and party poopers out of my life.  I’m just better off without them.  Sometimes I’ve taken on a client who gave me that first impression:  “Wow, this person is stiff!  But I need her business.”  Almost invariably, it leads to a personality clash down the line.  As a small businessman, reputation is everything.  It can hurt my business to upset a client, and if a client is easily upset, I have to walk on eggshells.  It distracts me from the more patient and respectful clients.  I have a strict policy now: I don’t need emotionally demanding clients!

What’s downright remarkable is that over-seriousness can become a widespread cultural value.  I have a friend from Iran.  One December day, we were walking around a mall with a Santa’s Village, Christmas music and lights.  “I guess you didn’t grow up with this stuff,” I realized aloud.  “No way,” he said.  “We were never allowed to have any fun!”  He was half-joking.

I believe that Eastern cultures must have a different attitude about levity.  It’s hard to imagine an entire nation where everyone is glum due to emotional baggage.  Besides, the vibe East of the International Sense-of-Humor Line is different from the grumps of the West.  Easterners are not on the edge of anger or fear.  They’re just so darn serious all the time!  I’m sure you know the type – the Russian woman who talks like a drill sergeant, the Indian guy who’s never smiled.  I suppose that in these cultures, seriousness is seen as a sign of mutual respect, whereas in the West we prefer to be easy-going and joke around with each other.  We must also acknowledge, of course, that some of the Eastern countries have had a very bleak history over the last century or more.

Many Eastern cultures are more bureaucratic than Western republics.  Here in the US, the highest value is the right to do your own thing.  I’m no expert on nations like China, Saudi Arabia, or Ukraine, but I envision them as crowded countries with little personal space.  I imagine orders coming from on high, with many government or religious officials telling people what to do.  I imagine social disobedience being a big deal.  If you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, maybe you must guard your privacy more seriously.

I think that dictators are one of the world’s worst problems, and I feel that one of their greatest evils is imposing their humorlessness on their countrymen, from the top down.  Most dictators strike me as being humorless in the Mafioso, psychopathic sense of the word.  Easy-going, lovable guys don’t usually claw their way to the top of a power vacuum … I’m just saying.  And the weight of the bully at the top presses down on his whole national system.  It’s hard to imagine anyone cutting loose in Nazi Germany or ISIS.  I have recently seen videos of Putin at speeches and ceremonies, where he was so puffy-chested as to be almost Mussolinian.  That glimpse of his pompousness, just as much as his policies, really jarred me.  Yikes, I don’t trust a person who takes himself that seriously to be running a country.

The clip below is a pretty damn interesting case study on these effects.  When Gorbachev allowed greater free speech, his people found courage to joke about the government — though this is not exactly Comedy Club material here.  Say what you will about Reagan (and I know that Democrats have many choice words), but he collected these jokes to monitor the Soviet condition.  He also used them to reach out to the citizenry of the USSR, even as he was working to unravel their corrupt and heavy-handed government.  That took some sense of humor.

If you are the owner of any images or videos in this blog and would like me to remove them, just ask.  I make no money from this blog.  And if you don’t have a sense of humor, I apologize for this terribly offensive blog post.  Please don’t bother leaving comments tinged with anger and fear.  Oh, the irony.  >P  

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AWESOMEness

When I was thinking about pitching TEOH to publishers, I wrote a book proposal to summarize the book and its target audience.  I brainstormed some of the adjectives I would use to describe the book’s point of view.  The first three that came to mind were “Scientific, Agnostic, and Moderate.”  That gave the acronym SAM.  Pretty bland!  In an early draft of my proposal, I wrote,

The book champions a scientific, agnostic, existential, objective, moderate outlook.

Now I was up to the acronym SAEOM, which was unwieldy and didn’t make any sense.  With a little thought, I realized that I was anagramatically close to AWESOME.  I just needed a W word and another E word.  Then it clicked …

Agnostic + Worldly + Existential +  Scientific + Objective + Moderate + Educated =

awesome

In our world of hype, the AWESOME voice easily gets lost.  Religion is considered to be righteous, and the irreligious are still lumped in with communists and fringe extremists.  News programs love to interview guests at the far left and far right to get opposing strong opinions.  Political parties force politicians into dramatically polarized teams.  Conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and bitter cynics dominate every online forum.  Nationalism is still a matter of pride, and globalism is viewed with suspicion despite all its clear benefits.

Beliefs, biases, opinions, allegiances, and emotions all have their place.  Yet if your goal is to truly understand the world we live in, you must try to rise above these distractions.  You can’t take sides or get married to preconceived notions.  You have to be agnostic, worldly, existential, scientific, objective, moderate, and educated.

In a series of follow-up posts, I will delve into each of these words and further define what it means to be AWESOME! The plan is for each essay to be about 2,000 words. Altogether, they will form my AWESOME manifesto.

Apply to join the AWESOME Thought Facebook group

A is for Atheist / Agnostic : Posted 6/05/18

W is for Worldly : Posted 4/22/20 (Earth Day)

E is for Existential: Coming next

S is for Scientific / Statistical

O is for Objective

M is for Moderate

E is for Educated

As far as I can tell, the image credit belongs to Yoyo Games.  If you own rights to the image and wish to correct this attribution or remove it from this page, please let me know! 

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Write first, publish later

After writing two chapters of TEOH, I took time off to study the publishing world.  The standard advice for a non-fiction book is to (1) get an agent, (2) submit a book proposal, including two completed chapters, to editors at publishing houses.  That was my intended path for quite a long time.  Eventually, I came to feel that this isn’t the right choice for me.  I am going to write first, publish later.

What is the point of submitting a book proposal to publishers before the book is finished?  For most writers, it is to find out whether the book is worth finishing.  If the proposal does not attract publishing interest, the writer will drop the book and try another one.  I don’t need that kind of approval.  I am committed to writing TEOH whether anybody ever publishes it or not!  It’s a personal life goal for me.

For some authors, a publishing contract provides an advance on royalties — a sizeable up-front payment.  This can help pay for research and travel.  If an author has a good relationship with the publisher, his advance can even buy him six months to a year of free time to focus on the book!  That wouldn’t apply to me, though.  I’m a non-famous, first-time writer.  I’d be lucky to get a publishing deal, let alone an advance.  I would expect my advance to be a nice round number like zero dollars and zero cents.

Chasing down agents — and then publishers — would be hard work.  I have no illusion that publishing is easy.  Rather than spend my time researching agents, calling, emailing, and arranging meetings, I’d rather be building up the book and online presence.

In fact, if I did get a publishing contract, it would instantly create time pressure.  The publisher would probably expect to see a completed draft in a year.  Without an advance, I wouldn’t have the time to devote to that.  I don’t like being hurried!  I would also be handing over artistic control while the work is still in progress.  I’d rather have the luxury of finishing the book on my own time and my own terms.  Then I can pitch it to publishers, with a completed manuscript on hand — and of course explore self-publishing options too.

With that decision made, it was very exciting to finally get back to writing.  “Chapter 9:  The Last Few Billion Years” is now in progress!  Here is my working outline of sections:

  • Oxygen and Eukaryotes (done)
  • Sexual Reproduction, or “The unsexiest lesson about sex that you’ve ever seen.” (in progress)
  • How Sexual Evolution Works
  • From Amoeba to Amphibians
  • Continents and Climate

I liked writing the first and last chapters first.  I’m thinking that I’d like to continue that pattern, writing from the outside in.  That means “Chapter 2:  The Last Few Centuries” would follow Chapter 9.

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Chapter 10 is now a real “chapter”

I posted chapters 10 and 1 early this year, and then took time off to study the publishing world.  I learned very quickly that my chapters were far too long.  The appropriate length for a large book is about 100,000 words, meaning that each chapter of this book should be around 10,000, say 8,000 – 12,000 words.  In my first draft, Chapter 10 was 20,000 words long.  Chapter 1, at 60,000 words, was almost long enough to be its own book!  At first, I toyed with the idea of pitching the print version of the book as a five-volume set.  I only had to contact two or three publishers to learn that they had no interest in such a project.  I understood that I’d have to condense each completed chapter to about 12,000 words or less.  Certainly the first and last will be two of the longest chapters in the completed book.

I am happy to announce that the 2nd draft of Chapter 10 is now finished and posted online.  It is now down to just under 12,000 words.  It’s been several months.  Writing has been unusually slow this year.  As I mentioned, I took off the first half of the year to study the writing / publishing industry and to set up this website.  Then my life was completely dominated by a move through the summer and fall.

It was a very interesting project to rewrite and shorten this material.  Cutting Chapter 10 in half forced me to be more broad and sparing in detail.  I felt it become less like a dissertation and more like a popular science book.  That has its pros and cons.  As a consumer item and a pitch to publishers, it will have to be easily readable.  Even as an educational tool, it is best to keep it simple.  As a lifelong goal, though, I would like TEOH to be a serious research project with original insights and thorough arguments (I consider it my honorary PhD dissertation at the School of Life).  For economy of words, I am being forced to reduce much of my analysis to surface conclusions.  I think that the hybrid solution is to continue with the single-volume version, and then eventually expand each chapter into its own short book.

The next step, then, is reducing Chapter 1 to legitimate chapter-size. This will be a hell of a challenge.  I need to slash that chapter down to 20% of its current size.  I will try to finish that this year.  Then I’ll be able to start early 2015 exactly where I should have been in early 2014!

 

 

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My first rejection letter!

rejection_image_typewriterI’m really beginning to feel like a professional now.  Not only have I begun to send out query letters to publishers, but I have even received my first response!  Surprise, surprise, it was a “polite decline.”  I won’t get in the habit of posting all of my rejection letters, but the first one has sentimental value.  This particular letter was, graciously, very cordial and constructive.  The editor wrote,

Dear Scot Fagerland, Thank you for your inquiry to our website regarding your work-in-progress, The Evolution of Human

While I share your sense of the need to think deep and incorporate an evolutionary perspective, my acquisitions responsibilities at Hot Button Press have shifted to a focus on environmental science and I am not able to consider new opportunities in evolutionary anthropology, etc. I encourage you to approach other publishers with your ambitious project but would also advise that you propose a single-volume synthesis, as I don’t expect many publishers would warm up to the idea of a multi-volume set.  I appreciate your interest in Hot Button Press.

Sincerely,

J. Edgar Anonymous
Senior Sponsoring Editor

Hot Button Press

A few thoughts:

The letter addressed one of my most important concerns, which is my volume of material.  The two chapters that I’ve written already are big enough for a book.  While I will probably keep all of my material here on the website, I have been wondering if I should try to rewrite each chapter 4 – 5 times more concisely so I can pack it all into one print book.  Apparently I should.  Wow, that will be some challenge.  If you thought that writing a world history was difficult, try doing it in 100,000 words or less!  Brahms had something similar to say about composing music:

It is not hard to compose, but what is fabulously hard is leaving the superfluous notes under the table.

This letter also brought home to me the real-world, pragmatic character of publishing.  We non-famous people tend to envision the whole world of publicity as a magic kingdom.  Just write something decent, take it to the pearly gates, and it will be exalted to the heavens.  But you know what, the publishing industry is nothing more than individual agents and editors with specific jobs.  One editor might have his hands full with books about apples.  Submit to him a book about oranges, and he just won’t care.  That’s not his job!  As a lawyer, I have to understand that.  My practice area is pretty narrow.  When people call me with questions about custody battles or wrongful termination, I generally advise them to try someone else.  Getting published isn’t just about writing something that your mom would be proud of.  It’s about getting lucky and finding an editor or agent who is actually looking for what you’re writing, when you’re writing it.  Don’t look for someone to do the job for you.  Do his job for him.

It is a tantalizing fantasy to write a “Why Not?” response to a rejection letter.  When I read this one, I thought, “Oh yeah?  I looked you up on GoodReads, and your last three books were about evolutionary anthropology!”  Needless to say, that approach will get me nowhere fast.  I have to take each rejection at face value, learn from it what I can, and make the next query all the more appropriate and focused.

rejection-letter_snoopy2

Finally, in my studies of the publishing industry, I have discovered that there is a whole small but inspirational niche of Rejection Letter literature.  All artists have been rejected at some time or another.  We love to read those rejections and laugh at how foolish the agencies were.  “See, they’re wrong!”  Apparently, we all like to be reminded that value is subjective.  It helps us feel a connection with our favorite artists.  We begin to believe that rejections like this one are just a necessary first step in our great career:

rejection_madonna

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Happening in Ukraine?!

Headlines have been streaming from Ukraine since November.  The news immediately caught my interest because of the background history that I had researched for Chapter 1.  Then the situation seemed to keep getting more baffling.  Soon, it was a country in chaos.  It quickly became one of the year’s biggest events, at such a pace that it has been difficult to keep up with developments.  In this post, I lay out visuals, look at the big picture, and try to get a handle on what’s going on.  The more I research, the more I forgive myself for being confused about the constant stream of news in the last few months.  It’s complicated!  Finally, I offer a few thoughts on “who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Backdrop

As discussed in Chapter 1, the 21st century world is essentially quadripolar.  The US, EU, Russia, and China form the four major spheres of influence.  The eastern powers are more old-fashioned and nationalistic, and see foreign affairs as more of a zero-sum game.  Most second-world countries rely on one of the four superpowers for investment, trade, energy, and security.  Some regions, such as the Eurasian front, are caught in the middle.

Ukraine, a former Soviet territory, has long ties with Russia.  It became an independent republic in 1991, though its government hewed close to Russia for another decade.  In 2004, a politically charged election highlighted the question of whether Ukraine should continue looking east or develop closer relations with the EU to its west.  That question has divided Ukraine ever since.  This news story is not just about sudden panic in one second-world nation.  It is part of the slowly unfolding saga of the superpowers and the shaping of the 21st-century world.

As geopolitics so often revolves around natural resources, of course there is an economic twist in this plot too.  Ukraine hosts major natural gas pipelines providing Russian gas to Ukrainian and European consumers.

ukraine-map_english

 

Two leaders who embody Ukraine’s split personality emerged from the election and “Orange Revolution” of 2004.  Yuliya Tymoshenko, the on-and-off prime minister from 2004 – ‘11, looks westward.  Viktor Yanukovych, president from 2010 to February, 2014, based his career on developing relations with Russia and the gas lobby.  During Yanukovych’s term, some of his political opponents, including Tymoshenko, were imprisoned.  Though it is difficult to pin these convictions to Yanukovych’s orders, the US and EU condemn them as unjust political maneuverings.

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU

Tymoshenko looks west to Merkel and the EU

 

Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

Yanukovych looks east to Putin and Russia

The EU and Ukraine have been negotiating a formal alliance since at least 2008.  In Chapter 1, I discussed the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria.  In order to join the EU, a candidate nation must make commitments to economic stability and human rights.  Ukraine has not yet been pursuing full EU membership, but an “association agreement” that confers many of the same benefits and requires many of the same demands.  After Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, the EU made her release a condition necessary to finalize the alliance agreement.

Russian president Putin was never a fan of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement.  Fearing a loss of influence, he put pressure on Yanukovych to reject that agreement and strengthen ties with Russia instead.  Ukraine is a vulnerable nation, deeply in debt and at risk of default with little economic power of its own.  Russia had a few major bargaining chips:  natural gas price guarantees and the promise of a bailout as carrots, and a boycott of Ukrainian chocolate as a stick.

Chaos in Kiev

Russia’s pressure proved more compelling than Europe’s on the Ukrainian government.  Just a week before the association agreement was scheduled for signature, the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) announced that it would not free Tymoshenko, and president Yanukovych publicly announced that he would abandon the alliance.

In response to these announcements on November 21, protesters took to the streets of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.  Public opinion in Kiev and the western half of the country was largely in favor of the EU alliance.  Ukrainians demanded Yanukovych’s resignation.  Protests did not fizzle out but grew over the next few months, usually a sign that a government has gotten itself into real trouble.  Demonstrators took control of government buildings in Kiev and western Ukraine.  The police responded with mass arrests in late 2013.  In January, parliament cracked down and police force resulted in a few deaths.  Amidst the chaos, the prime minister resigned.

The situation accelerated dramatically in late February, with a climax on the 22nd.  In Kiev’s Independence Square, three heavy days of fighting between police and protesters resulted in about 100 deaths.  This street battle galvanized protesters’ passion.  Yanukovych finally sensed the gravity of his situation and fled to Russia.  Civilian soldiers seized control of the presidential palace and stood guard over it.  Parliament released Tymoshenko from jail.  Ms. Tymoshenko addressed her supporters as they packed Independence Square.  “Don’t leave this square until we have achieved real change!” she encouraged them.

Let us not get swept up in revolutionary romance, though.  Demonstrators are, needless to say, not legally recognized as a lawmaking body.  It was up to Parliament to make the next move.

The Verkhovna Rada held a vote to remove President Yanukovych from power.  His ouster was approved by a vote of 328 – 0.  This sounds like unanimity, but the parliament has 439 members, and the impeachment votes were technically short of the ¾ super-majority required by the constitution. 1 Russia and Russian Ukrainians have never accepted the legitimacy of this vote, and still regard Yanukovych as the rightful president.  Nevertheless, Parliament proceeded to appoint an interim president and prime minister who are both pro-western Tymoshenko supporters.  The US and EU have rallied behind the interim government.  Permanent elections are scheduled for May, with Tymoshenko as the leading presidential candidate.

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

John Kerry greets Ukraine’s interim leaders, President Oleksander Turchynov (L) and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk

The Kremlin in Crimea

The hasty appointment of a new pro-western government instantly set off counter-protests in the eastern pro-Russian half of the country.  Overnight, the turmoil shifted from Kiev to the Crimean peninsula.  Just as in Kiev, there were mass protests in Crimea, and armed rebels seized control of government buildings.  The Russian military quietly but quickly slipped into Crimea to take control of essential infrastructure such as highways, ports, and airports.  So far, direct confrontation between Ukrainians and Russian troops has been minimal, with about two confirmed deaths.

Crimea has its own capital city, Simferopol, and its own parliament.  While Simferopol, literally down to the parliamentary building, was occupied by Russian forces, this parliament approved a local referendum, a popular vote of whether Crimea should remain with Ukraine or defect to Russia.  The March 16 referendum claimed to show a 96% majority in favor of seceding from Ukraine.  Besides the circumstances of this vote at gunpoint and its fishy super-duper-majority, there is evidence that the election was rigged. 2   More pertinently, a change to the country’s territory must be approved by all Ukrainians.  Restricting this referendum to Crimean voters contradicted the Ukrainian constitution. 3 So now both sides have relied on Constitutionally iffy moves, and the whole country is in a state of legal limbo.

Russia has already ratified the referendum and claimed Crimea (once again) as its own.  It is clear to all but the most hardened Russian apologists that this whole procedure was orchestrated by the Kremlin.  Moscow justifies its presence in Crimea on the basis of protecting ethnic Russians.  Crimea is a Russian-speaking semi-autonomous republic with strong family ties with Russia.  By treaty, it has hosted Russian military bases for decades.

Despite little connection to Ukraine, the US has reacted strongly against Russia’s takeover of Crimea.  In the larger context of superpower spheres of influence, the western powers regard this as unacceptable precedent.  “It would allow the old way of doing things to gain a foothold in this young century,” remarked President Obama from the symbolic platform of a WWI cemetery, “And that message would be heard — not just in Europe but in Asia and the Americas, in Africa and the Middle East.” 4  Obama has been leading strategic sanctions against Russian government officials behind the takeover of Crimea, as well as President Yanukovych.  Today’s news is about deepening occupation, military buildup, and tension in the region.

Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong?

Geopolitics is a strange combination of law, consensus, and “might makes right.”  Casual observers tend to focus on moral questions of good guys vs. bad guys, fairness vs. greed.  We forget that there are constitutions, treaties, and UN directives that apply to almost every question at the national level.  Most diplomatic discussions are based on legal arguments.  The debate that you have with your drinking buddies is probably very different from the issues discussed at international summits and in government chambers.   On the other hand, legalities can be very difficult to enforce.  It is one thing to point fingers and say that Leader X is in violation of Principle Y.  It is another matter to do anything about it.  The UN provides a body of laws but very limited power to enforce them.  Sometimes, paradigm shifts happen as well.  When a mob of 100,000 squeezes a leader out of his capitol, it implies that the constitution has been abandoned and it’s time to start over.  Then it is up to the international community to decide whether to recognize the old government or the new one.  There are no legal standards for those decisions.  It really does come down to what individual nations want to do and how much influence they have – though their arguments are cloaked in legal raiment.  Round and round we go.

Following a strictly legal tack, Yanukovych supporters are technically correct that the president was not properly impeached.  He was duly elected, and, by the book, he would still be the rightful president.  Yanukovych had many party die-hards in his parliament who abstained from voting against his impeachment for fear of retribution, or who were not even present that day due to the angry mob outside.  Those Members of Parliament (MPs) represent an ethnically diverse electorate throughout a broad swath of Ukraine.  The Verkhovna Rada did overstep its bounds by appointing a new administration.  If the discussion had ended there, certainly western Ukrainians would have been unhappy, but they would have an opportunity to rally for change at the next election.  This kind of lesson is important for a young republic to learn.

Yanukovych could have stood a chance if he had remained in Ukraine and made some concessions.  But his next move was even more egregious.  After his police force killed dozens of his own subjects, he defected to Russia and took part of the country with him.  There is no way to justify the Crimean sequestration – at least not in the manner it was done.  That episode has been a farce.  It would be entirely reasonable to bring charges against him now, and to remove him from power based on criminal convictions.  Perhaps he could be tried for “abuse of power,” which is the very charge that was brought against Tymoshenko.

Russia believes that it is justified in reclaiming Crimea because the Crimean peninsula has been historically and ethnically Russian for centuries.  That may be, but things change!  Since 1991, Crimea has been a semi-autonomous republic within Ukraine.  The borders and constitutions were very clear, and Russia was committed to respecting them not too long ago.  There is no legal basis for turning back the clock.

On the other hand, some changes just fell into place, and it is apparently going to be simpler to accept them where they now lie.  In western Ukraine, the unconstitutional impeachment and its proximate causes – the interim government and the May election – now have the support of two superpowers.  Right or wrong, this is a ratification of legitimacy.   It is not entirely a positive development.  If you are more swayed by good-buy / bad-guy arguments, consider that at the heart of the western protest movement is Svoboda, a fringe neo-Nazi party. 5 There is something to be said for stability.  But realistically, with the recognition and backing of the US and EU, the Yatsenyuk government is now the de facto voice of Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, it’s interesting to see how quickly the world has become resigned to the notion that Crimea is once again Russian.  Despite a complete lack of legitimacy, it is now spoken as a hard truth.  Even Obama admitted as much, just a week after the takeover. 6 The objective now is to stop Russia where it is, to keep it from spreading Soviet-style further into Ukraine.

The western response has been particularly interesting.  President Obama has been meting out punishment, not with military force or even broad national sanctions, but with drone-like laser precision against Russian and Ukrainian government officials and arms traders. 7 Those individuals will be forbidden from travel into the US, their assets within US jurisdiction will be seized, and most importantly, they will be legally cut off from access to dollars.  The EU is imposing similar sanctions.  Obama is even considering sanctions against the Russian energy sector, the heart of its economy.  He is not finding much support in EU, though, because Europe depends so heavily on Russian energy.

Sanctions against guilty individuals are much more humane and sensible than the overly-broad strikes or sanctions that usually characterize international disagreements.  Nationwide embargoes, for example against Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, have been deeply hurtful to millions of innocent ordinary people.  The takeover of Crimea was orchestrated by a few individuals, and nobody else should be punished for their political over-reach.  On the other hand, it is unclear whether such sanctions will have any effect, or even what the objectives are.  Some commentators, including Jimmy Carter, believe that Russia is happy with today’s borders and will not move forcibly further. 8 Others believe that Russia is now preparing to swallowgeorgia_moldova Moldova and Georgia. 9 Some believe that western response should be much stronger.  “Sanctions would only really have an effect if they became general measures against whole sectors of the Russian economy,” says Nina Schick, a policy analyst with Open Europe. 10 But wouldn’t that mean that millions of innocent Russians would pay the price for a few greedy politicians at the top?  There we are back at square one

The bigger question, the question that very few people seem to be attuned to ask yet, is why individual nations should be the enforcers of other nations’ actions at all.  Sure, Russia is behaving out of hand.  Sure, its leaders should be taken to task, especially if they make another move of territorial expansion.  But why should that be the United States’ job?  It is such a clearer mandate when punishment comes from an international organization – especially one that includes Russia.  Fortunately, organizations such as the G-8, G-20, and UN are all condemning Russia’s taking of Crimea. 11 But all they really have the power to do, besides more sanctions, is exclude Russia from meetings and say, “Bad Russia!”  The UN or its future successor, or the Global Federal Republic if there ever is one, needs to have the power to strip abusive politicians from office or even imprison them or seize their assets.  That’s a very long-term solution.  For now, Russia has Crimea and there’s not much that anyone else can do about it.

In the end, I think that history simply takes some turns.  The splitting of Ukraine is one of them.  In the long run, my guess is that each half of Ukraine will end up allied with the neighbor of its choice, a win-win situation.  Ukraine has been a nation divided ever since the Cold War.  Now it is going through a divorce.  Europe tried to woo eastern Ukraine along with the west and failed.  As the saying goes, EU, “He’s just not that into you.”

not_into_you_cartoon

Life goes on.

  1. Ukrainian constitution, Article 111 Paragraph 6
  2. Graef, Aileen, Crimean referendum vote could have been fixed, world awash in faux shock, UPI, 3/17/14
  3. Ukrainian constitution, Article 73
  4. Obama, Barack, speech in Brussels, 3/26/14
  5. Kramer, Andrew, Unease as an opposition party stands out in Ukraine’s protests, New York Times, 12/16/13
  6. Brown and Dovere, Obama:  Putin will lose – eventually, Politico, 3/26/14, p. 1.
  7. Obama, Barack, Executive Order 13661, Federal Register, Vol. 79, No. 53, p. 15535.
  8. Carter, Jimmy, Interview with David Letterman, 3/24/14, 5:00 – 6:00
  9. Norman, Laurence, Europe accelerates agreements for Georgia, Moldova, Wall Street Journal, 3/21/14
  10. Espiner, Tom, Do sanctions against Russia have any bite? BBC, 3/24/14
  11. Brown, Hayes, How international organizations are responding to the  Ukraine crisis, ThinkProgress, 3/03/14
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