Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Zbigniew Brzezinski is Right

The massive Israeli attacks on Gaza are cruel, inhumane and disproportionate to the threat from Hamas. They are causing terrible and unjustified suffering for ordinary civilians and they must be condemned.

However, each separate escalation and the attendant bout of violence only serves to obscure the real problem: the lack of an energetic, sustained and fair peace process led by the U.S with visible results and a clear timeline and milestones for a two state solution. The Bush administration abandoned all pretense of even-handedness in the region after Clinton had at least engaged the two sides constructively toward a workable solution at Taba in his waning days. However, Ariel Sharon then came to power in Israel along with Bush in the U.S. putting an end to the peace process with the resulting despondency triggering the second intifada.

Even though the abject failure of the Bush administration in the Middle East is one major reason for the lasting damage done to American interests, moral standing and credibility in the world, Israel remains the third rail of Amercian politics. No administration (or mainstream media outlet) can be seen as anything less than 200% supportive of even self-destructive Israeli policies. This remains true even as there are more Amercian Jewish groups working to advance the cause of peace who (rightly) believe that Israel's long term security will be best served by making a just peace with its neighbors and isolating the extremist fringe with political action not bombings and blockades. The Obama administration will not be much different in its timidity to responsibly engage with the Palestinian-Israeli question for fear of political landmines but he should listen to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski's advice.

Dr. Brzezinski (National Security Advisor in the Carter Administration) outlined the case for American involvement and as a bonus took Joe Scarborough (a media talking head) to task. Joe was mouthing the standard mainstream media cliches but Brzezinski was having none of it. Watch the exchange below:

"You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it's almost embarrassing to listen to you." (Brzezinski to Scarborough)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On the First Day of Newton, My True Love Gave to Me

There is a delightful column yesterday by Olivia Judson in the New York Times called "The Ten Days of Newton". (Browsers of this blog are familiar with her column "The Wild Side" and some of her writings on evolution in that forum.)

In this column, other than her light-hearted advocacy for the celebration of 10 days of Newton around Christmas and a very cogent summary of Newton's mind-boggling contributions to science, she has a wonderfully informative discussion on the development of our calendar which has continually had to account for the fact that the earth's orbit around the sun is not an exact number of days. I found her discussion of the earth's gradual slowing down and the impact on adjustment of calendars absolutely fascinating.

And for all those who come across this blog I wish you all a happy holiday season and a happy new year. I, for one, would certainly second Olivia Judson's call for a celebration of the achievements of Newton. Her song (sung to the tune of 12 days of Christmas) is not likely to catch on in the same way but it is good fun anyway.

On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!


The reason the interval became necessary is that the Earth, inconveniently, does not orbit the sun in an exact number of days. Instead, the Earth’s orbit is 365 days and a bit. The “bit” is just under a quarter of a day.

It wasn’t always thus. Some 530 million years ago, when animals like the trilobites were skittering around, days had less time. Back then, a day was only 21 hours, and a year was about 420 days. In another 500 million years, perhaps a day will be 27 hours, and a year fewer than 300 days. Because of the friction exerted by the moon, the Earth is slowing down. Indeed, already the days are a tiny bit longer than they were 100 years ago.

Because the orbit isn’t an exact number of days, our calendars get out of sync with the seasons unless we correct for the fractional day. The Julian calendar, which was put in place by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., was the Romans’ best effort at making a systematic correction. Before that, the Roman calendar gave 355 days to the basic year, and every other year was supposed to include an extra month of 22 or 23 days.

But over a period of 24 years, that gave too many days; so in some years, the extra month was supposed to be skipped. This didn’t always happen. By the time the Julian calendar was introduced, the Roman calendar was so far out of sync with the seasons that the year before the first Julian year had to include a massive correction; that year, referred to as “the last year of confusion,” was 445 days. Talk about a long year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Me and Bobby McGee" - Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson, now 72 years old, is a great American singer songwriter who was inducted into the "Songwriters Hall of Fame" in 1985 and the "Country Music Hall of Fame" in 2004. However, that headline description doesn't begin to capture Kristofferson's remarkably eclectic life. A military brat, Kristofferson graduated from Pomona college in 1958 and then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar before joining the U.S. army in the 60's as a helicopter pilot and achieving the rank of captain before resigning his army commission in 1965.

Thereafter started an incredible performing career as a singer, songwriter and actor after he moved to Nashville initially as a janitor at the Columbia Records office in Nashville and caught the attention of Johnny Cash by landing a helicopter in his backyard. He had many hits as a songwriter and his songs were performed by many leading musicians. He won a Golden Globe as an actor in the film "A Star is Born" opposite Barbara Streisand.

For me, his great song "Me and Bobby McGee" will always remain his signature track. It has been made famous by several great performers like Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin (who dated Kristofferson until her death in 1970) but his own version below is my personal favorite. Listening to the line "Well I'd trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday" still sends tingles down my spine. This line with its expression of an aching desire to relive the past even for a single day and the desperate longing to recover or perhaps redo what has already happened is a powefully tragic motif in art. The past, to me, is infinitely more fascinating than the future and nobody has better articulated my feelings on this than the great German writer W.G. Sebald. (If you have not read any Sebald I would highly recommend reading "The Emigrants"). Sebald said:
"It's that sensation, if you turn the opera glass around----Curiously, although its further removed, the image seems much more precise. It's like looking down a well shaft. Looking in the past has always given me that vertiginous sense. It's the desire, almost, or the temptation that you might throw yourself into it, as it were, over the parapets and down. There is something terribly alluring to me about the past. I'm hardly interested in the future. I don't think it will hold many good things. But at least about the past you can have certain illusions."
Here's "Me and Bobby McGee":