why Libya?

Quite a few of my Chinese friends have asked me why America is attacking Libya right now.

Yeah, that’s how they phrased it.

There’s basically three ways for me to respond to this: 1) Repeat the president’s official justification, 2) Explain why I think it’s happening, and 3) Widen my eyes, point to something just behind the person asking me and say, “Holy crap! What the hell is that??!!” Then run off when they turn around to look.

I usually take option 3.

But it is interesting to see the Chinese reaction to the situation. Because for me, my first impulse is always to support the plucky freedom fighters against an authoritarian and totalitarian regime. Especially when the leader of said regime is a thoroughly unrepentant douchebag.

That’s why I support the protesters in Wisconsin, anyway.

But as far as Libya is concerned, I really liked the idea of a revolution initiated and spearheaded by the people for the purpose of overthrowing their corrupt dictator. But when it started to look like they were going to be brutally crushed unless they got some external support, I was fully in favor of said support.

The Chinese don’t really understand this. As far as they’re concerned, each country should handle its internal affairs on its own, without external interference.

Hard to imagine why they feel that way.

But aside from the, ahem, obvious reasons of self-interest, it really is a fundamental part of the Chinese cultural outlook to avoid meddling in the affairs of others as much as possible. Contrast this to the general “Yay freedom” cultural outlook Americans tend to have.

Well, depending on who happens to be in the White House, apparently.

Yeah, it seems kind of funny to me to watch various individuals accuse each other of hypocrisy due to their various stances on the current situation. After all, how does one justify supporting this current action if they condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and conversely how does one condemn this current action if they supported overthrowing Saddam?

The similarities are striking. After all, both involve attacking an oil-rich country in the Middle East ruled by a malevolent dictator who has no problems with massacring his own people and could, in theory, be a threat to America or American interests and some point in the future.

Also, both have the color green on their flags.

But there are also some very important differences. For one thing, the current action in Libya is the result of a UN resolution, while the legality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is still debated. But more importantly, with Libya our help was requested, both by the rebels themselves and by the Arab League.

In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit that I was strongly against the invasion of Iraq, while I’ve already mentioned that I support the current action in Libya. In my mind, this isn’t a contradiction because we’re coming to the aid of a group that has asked for our help, much like France and the Netherlands came to the aid of the American Revolutionaries when they fought the British for the right to drink coffee instead of tea and to get rid of all the superfluous vowels from our language.

Such is my understanding of the American Revolution, anyway.

Still, all this really proves is that human beings are good at rationalizing things. I would love to see a stable and democratic Libya allied with the United States in the future, but that outcome is by no means guaranteed. And I can’t pretend that America is doing this for purely altruistic reasons. After all, if we really cared so much about the lives of innocent civilians, why did we do nothing to prevent—or even mitigate—the staggering loss of life in the Second Congo War? Now you might argue that in the late 1940s we were just coming out of World War II and the Great Depression and were in no position to get involved in a war in Africa at that time, but if that’s your reasoning your knowledge of history is as bad as mine, because the Second Congo War started in 1998. And as of 2008, 5.4 million people have died because of it—mostly from disease and starvation. Had you even heard of it? I hadn’t until I came across the Wikipedia article while I was looking for something else.

5.4 million people, by the way, is only a little less than the current population of Libya.

So yeah, America only intervenes in conflicts when it’s convenient and in our own selfish interests, but that’s pretty much true for every country. After all, China doesn’t exactly continue to unconditionally support North Korea because they just love their wacky antics so much. But at the end of the day, I still support the action in Libya, even if it is a little hypocritical of me to do so. I really hope it ends up being a positive step for both the people of Libya, and the perception of America in the world.

For a much better analysis from a much brighter and funnier guy, I highly recommend Scott Adam’s post on the same topic.


salt, bananas, and nuclear power plants in Japan

So what do these three things have in common? Well, they’ll all kill you if you eat enough of them. And regardless of where you are in the world, it’s not terribly likely that any of them are going to give you cancer.

I’d love to explain this in detail, but the fact is, I’m not an expert on radiation. Or bananas. The best I could do at this point is just take stuff off Wikipedia or other random websites and add my own biased viewpoint and pretend like I knew what I was talking about.

Which, apparently, is what most media sources in America are doing.

Seriously, I am extremely disappointed by how the American media has reported events in Japan. At one point CNN had a neurologist discussing the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as if he were some kind of authority on the matter. And yeah, obviously a neurologist is an expert in neurology, but to be perfectly blunt the guy knew about as much about nuclear power and radiation as, well, me.

And if that doesn’t trouble you at all, I don’t know what will.

Honestly though, it really seems like all the “news” articles coming from American sources have been over-the-top sensationalism. For example, I read an article from the BBC about how they had upgraded the severity level of the incident from 4 to 5, which put it on the same level as the Three Mile Island meltdown. An accident that has been conclusively confirmed to have killed all of zero people. But reading the exact same story from an American source it was more like, “OMFG IT’S AT LEVEL 5!!!!! THAT’S ONLY 2 LESS THAN CHERNOBYL!!!! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIEEEE!!!!!!!! Stay tuned for more at 11.”

Great reporting, assholes.

Oh and by the way, if you leaned a little closer to your monitor to read that last sentence, you just got about as much of a dose of radiation as you’re likely to get from Fukushima.

The media just loves this story. Because I know that for me personally, radiation scares the CRAP out of me, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And while the media just thrilled because these stories get them more listeners, viewers, page clicks, or whatever, the fact is, people are actually getting sick because they’re freaking out and overdosing on iodine. And here in China everyone is buying up all the salt they can, either because it’s iodized and they mistakenly believe this will somehow protect them, or because they’re afraid that any future salt that comes from the ocean will be radioactive (which is irrelevant because the salt most people buy in the store here doesn’t come from the ocean). And yeah, the salt panic in China has nothing to do with the American media, but it just shows what happens when people get scared and irrational.

For another example, check out the radiation forecast from the New York Times. The best part, of course, is the arbitrary units. As near as I can figure, the amount of radiation that is actually hitting America is at absolute maximum one tenth of what’s coming from Japan, and what’s coming from Japan isn’t enough to kill anyone, so…yeah. But to look at the picture, it’s like an inevitable wave of 16-bit pixilated DEATH is sweeping across the ocean and annihilating most of the west coast.

Ironically, one of the best resources I’ve found on this subject is from the webcomic xkcd. Here he’s posted a radiation dose chart that gives the relative amounts of radiation from different sources in a clear and straightforward manner. It really helps put things into perspective. And yeah, of course things aren’t that simple. For one thing, there’s a big difference between types of radiation, the nature and danger of various radioactive particles, and the severity of the effects, but again if I were to go into any more detail than that, I’d just be repeating what I read off Wikipedia. If you’re really interested you should just read it for yourself there, rather than getting it filtered through my intermittently functional brain.

Speaking of Wikipedia, their article on the current incident seems pretty damn good, and a hellova lot better than most news articles I’ve read on the subject.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some salted bananas.

the stupidest thing I’ve ever done

In June of 2004 I climbed Mt. Elgon, the 7th highest mountain in Africa, with a friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. If you’ve read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, you may remember Mt. Elgon as the location where a man contracted the Marburg virus (a relative of Ebola) from a cave on the mountain. The book is non-fiction. And where did my friend and I set up camp while we were on the mountain? That’s right, in a cave.

Oh, but it gets better.

Mt. Elgon is in Uganda, and just before my friend and I went there the US embassy intercepted a transmission from the Lord’s Resistance Army declaring their intentions to kidnap Americans. We met with the Country Director for Peace Corps Uganda and she made us promise that we wouldn’t venture north of Kame, something we agreed to heartily despite the fact that we had absolutely no clue as to where—or even what—Kame was.

The reason I mention this is to simply point out that my going to Japan this week despite an urging from the State Department that no Americans travel there now is hardly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

In my own defense, I must point out that I’ve been planning on this trip for weeks, and my ticket is apparently non-refundable, so I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t go ahead and go.

Aside from, you know, earthquakes, but still.

I hate the thought of being a tourist at a time like this, so if there’s any way for me to volunteer or help out in some way without actually impeding the relief efforts, I’m going to try and do it.


[Update: I’m not going after all. The hotel I was going to stay at cancelled my booking, and it seems that things even in Tokyo are not that great. There’s no way I would want to be a selfish tourist right now, and it doesn’t really seem like there’s much I could do to help out since I don’t speak Japanese, so it’s probably for the best that I just stay away.]


An Italian friend of mine suggested I write about my “Italianity” and all the efforts of my Italian friends to transform me via the wonders of really good Italian coffee, football, Italian politics, and the nuances of certain phrases in the Italian language.

There’s really only one way for me to respond to this: Mi hai preso per un coglione??!!

I prefer to regard people as individuals rather than as a set of stereotypes, but I have to admit that there is a certain set of characteristics that all of my Italian friends seem to share; their “Italianity”, if you will.

For starters, all of my female Italian friends are freaking gorgeous. Seriously. Now I’m sure that unattractive Italian women exist out there somewhere, but all the ones I’ve met have been smoking hot. In fact, as I was finishing my PhD the first place I looked for postdocs was Italy. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any in computational biochemistry, but that’s probably for the best since if I were constantly surrounded by Italian belli ragazze, I most certainly wouldn’t have gotten a whole lot of work done.

Not that I’m getting a whole lot of work done here in Beijing when I’m surrounded by hot Chinese girls, but I digress.

Another thing all my Italian friends have in common is a pure passion for life. Whether it’s good food, great coffee, football, or Italian politics, their commitment to quality consumption, quality fun, and quality discussion is truly admirable. And their enthusiasm is pretty infectious. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re surrounded by a bunch of happy Italians having a good time.

And then, of course, there’s Italian men. I’ve never seen an Italian guy be shy or insecure around a woman, and all of my male Italian friends seem to be able to talk about how great they are without coming off as arrogant assholes. Seriously, if there was one Italian characteristic I could emulate, that would be it.

Unfortunately I think it must be genetic, because even my American friend of Italian ancestry seems to have inherited this trait.

It’s impossible for me to capture, distill, and describe the essence of Italianity in a single blog post, but I can’t deny the effect my Italian friends have had on me. If nothing else, they’ve always helped me to not take life and whatever problems I happen to be facing so seriously, and they’ve shown me the joys of the Italian outlook on life. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Si lavora e si fatica per il pane e per la fica….