Decline of the American Empire

I just finished reading a New York Times Magazine article that did a great job of pulling together all of the information that I've been hearing bits and pieces of, addressing the United States as a declining power. It is possible that some of my Economist-reading friends might find it old-hat, but I found it interesting enough that I thought I'd pop it up on my blog list. A pretty long read, but I thought it was a worthwhile way to spend some time on a Saturday morning.

It is "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony", by Parag Khanna [who] is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation. This essay is adapted from his book, “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order,” to be published by Random House in March.

Just a paragraph that sets the flavor of the article:

It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from North Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.

The author divides the coming/present world into three superpowers: the United States, China ("Across the globe, it is deploying tens of thousands of its own engineers, aid workers, dam-builders and covert military personnel."), and the EU ("What other superpower grows by an average of one country per year, with others waiting in line and begging to join?").

The author also raises the concept of the "Second World" ("From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia"... "[who] are distinguished from the third world by their potential: the likelihood that they will capitalize on a valuable commodity, a charismatic leader or a generous patron"). They are rising, but not top-level economic powers, that play these three superpowers off each other, and typically try not to be completely tied to any. The key second-world countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are more than just “emerging markets.” If you include China, they hold a majority of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves and savings, and their spending power is making them the global economy’s most important new consumer markets and thus engines of global growth — not replacing the United States but not dependent on it either.


To understand the second world, you have to start to think like a second-world country. What I have seen in these and dozens of other countries is that globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization. While European nations redistribute wealth to secure or maintain first-world living standards, on the battlefield of globalization second-world countries’ state-backed firms either outhustle or snap up American companies, leaving their workers to fend for themselves. The second world’s first priority is not to become America but to succeed by any means necessary.

Also, there are some interestingly pithy quotes which jibe with how I see the world going together, explaining why this decline is happening.

Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past.

Also, in response to the "Let's just go kick some ass to show how great we are," portion of this country's electorate:

Make no mistake: America was never all powerful only because of its military dominance; strategic leverage must have an economic basis.

One has to be only a basic student of history to understand this. Just look at the U.S. role in World Wars I and II. Also, I remember as a kid, looking at the World Book Encyclopedia article on the American Civil War. They had a graphic comparing the economies of the North and South--in terms of numbers of factory workers, miles of railroad track, etc. As you would expect, the North was completely dominant on that front. So even though the South arguably had a better-trained military and superior generals, bravery and skill is no replacement for steel and fuel.

Finally, the article wraps up with a section, So let’s play strategy czar. You are a 21st-century Kissinger. Your task is to guide the next American president (and the one after that) from the demise of American hegemony into a world of much more diffuse governance. What do you advise, concretely, to mitigate the effects of the past decade’s policies? It's a pretty interesting, and hopeful section with various recmmendations. We can only hope that as the other superpowers rise further, this country behaves gracefully.


Graph Geekery!

Apologies if this is old news to any of you, but a friend of mine told me about some web videos that highlight some incredibly-well put together graphs that convey impressive amounts of information. I saw them in web videos of Hans Rosling: 'Global health expert; data visionary', who is a professor of global health.

You've never seen data presented like this. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called "developing world" using extraordinary animation software developed by his Gapminder Foundation. The Trendalyzer software (recently acquired by Google) turns complex global trends into lively animations, making decades of data pop.

He was speaking on the topic of misconceptions people have about developing and industrialized countries--the disparity (e.g., in childhood mortality, life expectancy) has been shrinking dramatically since the 1960's--enough such that many of the preconceived notions most of us have are not very accurate. There are two videos--20 minutes each, so a bit of a time committment, but I thought they were quite worthwhile.

The graphs were viscerally satisfying geekery--simultaneous representations of multiple sets of data--country, population, GDP and child mortality all tracked and animated over time.

Robbie Burns 2008

Yes, I know, another party this weekend... what a debauched lifestyle I have here. Another fantastic Robbie Burns/Jofish Birthday party--I was very annoyed that I missed 2007 (due to a Chicago work trip), but I have many fond memories of travelling to Ithaca for the 2005 and the 2006 parties. Travel this year was road tripping from Boston with Indy and another passenger (one in one direction, and a different one in the other... resulting in next zero Jofish friend flux).

Kip put a pretty complete set of pictures up on Flickr, and my more limited set is posted here.

As Jofish puts it in the invite, you must wear whatever makes you feel most beautiful. It was delightful to see many people take that to heart--for instance, I have to say that Caitlin looked positively regal... and Jofish wasn't half bad either.

Another rule of the party: Please bring a bottle. Champagne is entirely appropriate, whiskey traditional and entirely welcome, good beer is always good, ditto wine as long as it's not New York State red, which is nearly universally horrible. (Think Beaujolais Nouveau without the subtlety, depth and nuance, for those of you that haven't had the privilege.) My choice was a Springbank (Campbeltown) single malt--the standard single malt regions are Highland, Lowland, Islay, (sometimes) Speyside, and Campbeltown. However, I almost never see a Campbeltown--kinda like baby pigeons--they must exist somewhere, but you almost never see direct evidence. It was slightly smoky/peaty, but nowhere near the Islays.

I volunteered as kitchen help yet again (I talked about this pathological behavior in previous years), but I always get a kick out of it.

Although my karma points are probably dropping like a rock for plating a whole salmon like this. But it was necessary.

But on to the poetry. My selection was a two-line Samuel Hoffenstein poem (thanks to a concert that Dan & Daniel took me to):

When you're away, I'm restless, lonely, wretched, bored, dejected:
Only here's the rub my darling dear: I feel the same when you are near.

As Jofish observed (as would most of my readers): "So you're still single, huh?"

Morton had a book of modern poetry foisted on him (i.e., one of those no-punctuation-no-indentation-no-sentences-for-ten-pages abominations), that he was compelled to read until I took him down, to put him out of his misery. Poems were also read in ancient Greek and Icelandic. Also, I really love this action shot of Jess, Indy, and Jofish totally rocking out to 'Sorority Girl'.

I'm sad to report, though, that although Jess, Perlick, Jofish, Indy, and I have hung out in three different cities in the space of less than a month, this would be the last event for a while together. I think.

Yeah, I know, awwwww.

I really appreciate the fact that Ithaca is another place I escape to, letting me step out of my workaday life for short stretches. Various post-party activities (sitting around watching movies, making dinner together, brunch at Hal's, sauna) made it, all in all, a spectacular weekend. Thanks for the hospitality Jofish, and hope to see y'all soon!


Bird & Jen's Wedding Celebration

You might ask, "Um, Bats, weren't you just at a wedding?" Well, true enough. But this weekend was Bird & Jen's Wedding Celebration--they had eloped to Vegas back in October, and threw a celebration shindig at Cambridge Brewing Company!

Many folks from in town and out of town came to celebrate (including ajfbs, anteejean, bublina, dr_tectonic, jforbess, jofish22, nehrlich, nematsakis, orbitalmechanic, tuflilbuttercup), as well as Bird and Jen's families. It was kinda neat, because I've met Bird's folks a bunch of times (including crashing with them during a road trip that Perlick and I took in 1995). Bird's dad is an engineering professor who once worked in the oil industry (including offshore platforms), so he has lots of neat geeky stories (i.e., duh... that's where that trait comes from).

FYI, I have uploaded my photos to Flickr, but it does not include the Tep "family photo"--I believe Jen has it on her camera, and needs to photoshop it into acceptability.

JMD went a bit nuts with the Vegas-themed decorations, including cards and chocolate poker chips. She was also responsible for the head table:

Dress was casual, and the wedding cake was replaced with matching bride & groom cupcakes:

Other highlights included Hava nagila performed to the Dick Dale surf guitar version of the piece, and the required car decorations, including running Tiki and flamingo lights inside the car (to paraphrase the Dean's phrase from the Harvard hack, "All Tech men carry inverters!")

This was followed by candlepin bowling in Davis Square:

Man, I have to admit I really suck at candlepin (not that I'm good at regular bowling either). I'm wondering if I might be OCD enough I'm going to try going again to work up my game to non-embarrassing levels. I pretty much have no control... maybe I'll just try thinking about baseball next time.

We trooped everyone over to chez JMD et Bats, and I served up an evening of martinis and Manhattans... I really need to throw a bar party again sometime. For the record, a Michter's Manhattan with Stirrings blood orange bitters works quite nicely.

Sunday brunch at Bird & Jen's place (the Mando) followed. In this case, all the good parties end up in the bathroom:

As always, delightful seeing everyone!


Woo hoo Flickr!

At BirdJen's prompting, I downloaded and installed the Flickr upload tool. So the photos from the Bay Area trip are now uploaded! Woot!

I didn't bother uploading the wedding photos, because I dumped them on Brad & Janie's laptop, and they are in their batch.

You can check out Max using Perlick as a couch, Jofish & Indy practicing brotherly love, a rather maniacal-looking Schmooz, Our Lady of the Washing Machine Agitator, goggly goodness, incredibly kawaii stickers of anthropomorphic trains, and power tool use.

Photo Grab Bag

Here are a few topics and photos from my trip for random amusement value.

While taking a leak at a urinal at JFK airport (man, I've always wanted to start a blog post like that!), I noticed something in the urinal. Hey!

I then realized that it was the outline of a fly, painted on the porcelain.

I actually have a photo of this concept in my “humorous photos” file (from a urinal in Amsterdam)—their caption explained:

Look harder, and the fly turns into a black outline of a fly, etched into the porcelain. It improves aim. If a man sees a fly, he aims at it. Fly-in-urinal research found that etchings reduce spillage by 80%. It gives a guy something to think about. That’s the perfect example of process control.

Personally, I think that giggling at seeing this idea put into practice made my aim worse.

Second—a new record for postcards sent this year—83 for 2007! (the total was 81 in 2006). Here are a few from the Bay Area, which included some from the National Japanese American Historical Society in SF Japantown, and St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral is a Pier Luigi Nervi and Pietro Belluschi design (pretty complete set of pictures here). Despite my usual mocking of modernism, I found the design to be simple, understated, and lovely, with a tremendous soaring space inside. Although I can understand why locals mock it as “Our Lady of the Washing Machine Agitator.”

Third--a group of us went out to Putt Putt (mini-golf) in Castro Valley to celebrate vyrin’s birthday; also present were ariiadne, helava, nehrlich, snowninja7, and tuflilbuttercup. Here’s the group of us attempting the “volcano” hole in unison. Man, that hole is hard—if you miss it the first time, it’s likely to be a 20-stroke hole.

Fourth—a slug! A few of us went on a hike after brunch at Christy & U-Boat’s, and I spotted this banana slug (?) next to the path. Somebody said, “You’re totally blogging, this, aren’t you Bats?” so I had to oblige. Sorry, you can’t tell the scale—the slug was maybe 4-5 inches stretched out.

Five—Apple Store San Francisco. Beemer pointed out, “In terms of interior design, they made this perfect store of the future--like a movie set from Minority Report or something… but then they let normal people in here, ruining the effect.” Alas.

Six—all-terrain Segway--seen while walking around SoMa. Like ya couldn’t make a Segway more goofy! [grin]

Seven—San Francisco to Oakland Zip Line! Full story here--it’s basically an art project called “Wish You Were Here! Postcards From Our Awesome Future.” The artists asked Bay Area architects, city planners and transportation engineers, “What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about budgets, bureaucracy, politics, or physics?” Pretty funny stuff.

Eight—while visiting Jen & Schmooz, Schmooz and I took a day to work on rebuilding their backyard wisteria trellis. My reaction while scoping out the job:

Huh… so that cut at the top of the 4x4 will be easy with a recip saw.

What? You don’t have a sawzall?

And off to Home Depot we went. Schmooz managed to snag a real bargain—the Makita JR3070CT high-end saw (Fine Homebuilding’s Best Overall in their 2005 review), normal price $175, for ~$130, with a free angle grinder! Schmooz claims that I am rapidly becoming the Johnny Appleseed of power tools among my circle of friends. Yeah, guilty as charged. But this picture was necessary. Go Maxwell!

Cross Country Travel Report

I previously geeked out about traveling via Amtrak Acela, so here is my report on air travel to and from the Bay Area

I flew Virgin America on the way out from JFK; I chose them because they had the most reasonably priced one-way ticket out to the Bay Area during frequent flyer blackout dates {$250 one way, on December 27th. Grr.). Perlick’s wrote about his experiences flying them. It was a bit annoying to fly out of the international terminal, which was incredibly busy, and only had crap coffee available behind security.

During boarding, they put on mood lighting, and had some thumping bass techno playing in the background. It was pretty neat to see the ambiance of an airplane changed so much.

I suppose the big draw from VA is their Red entertainment system—a full audio/video/gaming entertainment on demand system, including a fairly large selection of movies (for $8 each). This was below my pain threshold—I finally got to see The Simpsons Movie on that flight.

However, I can’t say that the entertainment system will be a huge draw for me in the future. I have structured my carry on bag to keep me sane, entertained, and as comfortable as possible on a trip in a cramped seat in a pressurized aluminum tube at 30,000 feet. Earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, iPod, computer, reading materials, ibuprofen. I’m pretty much set if I ever have to fly C-130 air. I feel some pity (but mostly gleeful schadenfreude) when I look at the next seat, and find somebody poring over Skymall Magazine for hours—”Man… you really didn’t put much thought into the ramifications of a five hour flight, did you? That’s pretty spectacularly bad planning, huh?”

Overall, I make my flight choices primarily on price and schedule, and then consider frequent flyer/loyalty programs as a secondary aspect. So I might fly on VA if it is convenient, but I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to do so.

On the way back, I flew Southwest SJC-RNO-MDW-MHT. Yeah, it’s the bus, but I got to burn a frequent flyer ticket and fly across the country for $5. As a business traveler, I have been at a considerable disadvantage previously when flying on Southwest, with their first-come-first-served boarding structure without assigned seats. By the time I straggled back from the jobsite or meeting, I often ended up arriving late enough to get stuck in C group… while the retirees who arrived three hours before the flight were at the front in A group.

Now, however, you can check in over the web, and boarding group is assigned then… so I set my alarm for 24 hours before flight time, pre-entered all my information into the browser, and BAM!!--grabbed it like sniping an auction on eBay. Enjoy C group, all you technophobes!

Heh… funny… just like how SnipeSwipe automated eBay sniping, it appears that third party websites now offer to automate this process a wellThe barnacle websites charge $5.95 per flight to automatically log into your Southwest.com account at the moment boarding passes become available and secure you into Group A. (Southwest's no-assigned-seats policy divides passengers into A, B and C boarding groups on a first-come, first-served basis.) In case you’re curious, SWA’s logic behind no assigned seating is that people will board faster, and thus get the plane turned around faster.

Flying out of SJC was nice—a relatively small airport, similar to MHT.

After boarding, I quickly grabbed my favored window seat on the north side of the plane. Incidentally, I am sad to report that the reputed origin of the word posh (as an acronym for “port outboard, starboard home,” from Colonial British steamship travel from home to India) appears to be apocryphal. Flights were basically acceptable, although there was an hour delay getting out of MDW, because the ground baggage crews were short-staffed.

In case anyone has any interest, a table of airline seat pitches can be found here--interesting that JetBlue, Southwest, and USAirways have larger seat pitches. Although it makes little difference to someone of my height—I can stand up in the space under the luggage bins.

I’m now hanging out with Bird & Jen for the day in New Hampshire before heading home on Amtrak tomorrow morning.

Bay Area Trip Overview

I just spent the past week in the Bay Area at Bradley & Janie’s wedding, and hanging out with all the folks there. It was wonderful to see everyone, although all the socializing was exhausting. I was far too busy and tired to actually write about this in the evenings, so here’s a big lump-o-blogging instead. To avoid boring my readers, instead of trying to cover all the events of this week in detail and chronological order, here are a few highlights.

Bradley and Janie are successfully married—here’s the Tep family photo from this one.

Hava Nagila was successfully done without casualties to wedding party or lifters. The main wedding photos are here, and Death’s pics are here.

Be sure to check out me dressed up in braces and cufflinks (yeah, vanity shot—thanks for the photo, Death!), the LED-powered corsages, bouquets, and boutonnières (yay geek wedding!), the obligatory Brad & his Exe's shot (see what you missed, A?), and playing with magnetic sculpture centerpieces, among others.

Also, on this trip, I got to meet Lucky and Karthiga new sun, Arvin! (just born a few weeks ago).

More posts to come soon.