Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Weird but Better

What a strange piece?!  Steve Coast (never heard of him before) writes an interesting piece that argues the world is getting weirder.  Why?  Because we have figured out how to manage many of the normal problems so that the weird stuff is the danger now.  He cites air travel--that air frames are far better, so now the problem is the occasional crazy pilot who can lock out the other pilot.  Of course, one of the sources of prior air travel was apparently urine corrosion for airplane bathrooms, so let's not call the old form of crashes entirely un-weird.

And I can see how this applies elsewhere--that war is far less frequent than it once was, but now we have terrorists who have outsized influence.  And terrorists are mostly ... weird. 

The article then turns to solutions: more freedom.  If we have less rules, we can do stuff faster.  Because, you know, speed is really the important thing we value.  As an incredibly impatient person, I might sympathize with that, but not really since I like the safety part.  That rules do get in the way of transactions, as Coast argues, but that just means we need to figure out the best balance.  Instead, the piece SPEEDILY takes a jump in a libertarian direction.  The move is:
If we can measure economic value as a function of transactional volume (the velocity of money for example), which appears reasonable, then fewer rules will mean more volume, which means better economics for everyone. So it used to be very hard to create an airline, now it’s easy, we have more choice and more flights and so on.
I may not an economist, but this seems to be one way to define or measure economic value.  Oh, and more volume means better economics for everyone?  No, not really, as we have found that equity/fairness/etc tend not to be produced in rule-free or rule-scarce places.  Instead, early movers/those with early advantages can use their market (and otherwise) power to dominate.  I think we used to call that colonialism/imperialism which produced stuff like slavery.

Oops, citing slavery might be a Godwin's law-like move, but I am sure enterpreneurs like Coast would prefer to have a situation where there are few laws limiting how labor is used--that would make things speedy, right?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Figuring Out My Syria Stance

I was on the radio this morning talking about the Canadian parties and where they stand on Syria/Iraq and the expansion of the mission.  I indicated that the Liberals are in a difficult spot, stuck between a Conservative party that is pushing for force to be used and a New Democrat Party focused on non-violent means.  The Liberals want voters next fall from the right and the left, and any move here will antagonize one side or another.  Sucks to be in middle.

But to be fair, this is a really hard policy problem: should Canada be dropping bombs on Daesh in Iraq and Syria? To what end?  I have been ambivalent so I am using this post to figure out my stance.  The focus here is on expanding to Syria, as it is the real question du jour, but many of the arguments apply to bombing Iraq as well.

  • Striking Daesh (ISIS/ISIL/IS) in Syria will make it harder for them to expand their territory in both Syria and Iraq. 
  • Causing Daesh to lose some territory is a major defeat for them as their rhetoric and strategy have focused on momentum and inevitability.
  • Helps US with "low density, high demand" assets.  Not the CF-18s but the Auroras and refueling aircraft.  Helping an ally in difficult times is a good thing.
    • But it is not going to get Canada anything in its relations with the US if there are offsetting domestic dynamics--Keystone pipeline, for example.

  • Hurting Daesh in Syria helps Assad.  So, hurting one set of genocidaires assists another.  
  • The risk that a plane might get shot down or fail, leading to the capture of a pilot by ... barbarians.   
  • Syria has air defenses that have not been knocked out.  
    • So far, Syria has implicitly cooperated with the US and its Arab allies. No reason to see this change. If it does, Canada can leave Syrian air space.
  • Being so very visible in this fight (only non-US Western country striking Syria) probably makes Canada a more likely target for terrorism by Islamist extremists.
    • To be clear, I don't believe that Canada's foreign policy should be held hostage due to fears of retaliation.  It is a con, but not one that is large in my calculus.
  • Money spent on this effort means less money for the Canadian Forces to do something else.
    • What else?  Training and maintenance. Harper is not sending the CF to do peacekeeping someplace else, so no false choices between this and DRC or whatever.
  • Responsibility to Protect [R2P] is kind of moot here.  Why?  Because it would imply helping the Syrian people with their biggest threat--Assad!  Um, yeah.  Even Lloyd Axelworthy, father or patron saint of R2P, is not saying that R2P applies in Syria.
  • Talk of victory via bombing (by Canadian Minister of National Defence Kenney) is silly.  We cannot bomb Daesh into defeat.  That is the job of people on the ground.  
  • International law?  I am not an expert on such stuff, but I have never found compelled by the argument that one needs a UN Security Council resolution for doing something serious in the world. Why? Because it means that one's foreign policy is subject to vetoes by Russia and China. 
  • Exit strategy is missing?  Yes, in the case of Syria, there is no clear strategy to win.  Bombing
    will not do it.  In Iraq, one can hope that the Shia government finally figures out that lasting stability requires a credible arrangement with the Sunnis.  If the Sunnis switch sides, then Daesh will have a very difficult time.   In Syria?  Not so much.  But it is very easy for Canada to leave.  Canada can say it has done what it can and put the 69 SOF back on a plane home. The logistics people are in Kuwait and can come and go at the government's whim.  The planes can obviously fly home.  This is not Kandahar.
  • Mission creep?  Yes, expanding to Syria is some creep, but it is not a radical expansion of effort.  So far, no more SOF, no more planes.  So, this is a re-allocation of effort and not an increase in the personnel or expenses.  The risk is somewhat larger but not radically so.  This is not an enduring ground campaign.
Ug, no wonder I have been reluctant to take a definitive position on this.  I do think containing Daesh is worth some effort, and this is what Canada is doing--making some effort.  The risks and costs are real but not large.  The Daesh vs. Assad problem is real, but even if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice (all Canadian strategy should be based on Rush songs). So, count me in favor of Canada's continuing/new mission to engage in air strikes and provide key "enablers" (SOF in Iraq, Auroras and refueling over both Syria and Iraq)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

University Mismanagement

The Economist has a piece on American higher education.  There is an earlye early mis-step of suggesting that higher ed has two customers--students and government--when much of American higher ed is private.  Oops.  Still, it does present some challenges about the current state of higher ed-more expensive, more debt, mixed outcomes, etc. 

At least this piece, unlike others, does keep in mind that universities have multiple purposes,* and on a key dimension, things are not so bad in the US:
On the research side, America’s government has little to complain of. Although several European countries have more Shanghai top 100 universities in relation to their population than the United States does, America still dominates the summit of research: 19 of the world’s top 20 universities in Leiden University’s ranking of most-cited scientific papers in 2014 were American.
 The article suggests three: research, human capital and equity.  The first two?  Sure.  But I am not sure that equity is the goal of the US government or of its constituent units.  Nor, to be fair, for Canada either.  Indeed, the insistence on relatively low tuition in Canada is actually not a force for equity since it means that the poor subsidize the middle class and the rich.  If the various governments of the US really cared about equity, they would not have cut support for higher ed over the past twenty or thirty years.  The big force driving up tuition at public schools probably not faculty salaries but more likely to be filling the gap produced by the decline in state government support.

I am not saying that there is not a problem, but that the equity problem is very much one of government policy.  Yes, universities and colleges need to figure out how not to have their tuition outpace inflation (especially for the next three years), but the equity story is as much or more about public policy as it is about management (completely contradicting my first point, right?).

Are students just buying degrees as the article insists?  Yes and no.  Yes, employers seek folks who have degrees in the fields they need.  But with degrees come ... skills, knowledge, an improved ability to think and write and all that.  And the best way to make sure one is paid well in the long term is ... to take a look at the difference in the income of those with those degrees and those without.  Oh, and much of the dip in BA income over the past several years has more to do with macroeconomic dynamics (the recession, the faux austerity measures, problems with firms valuing bonuses to the top folks and not good pay for the average worker) than anything universities have been doing wrong lately.

The article places the blame for the current state of affairs on "shared governance."
 Really?  Profs have that much power?  Yes, tenure restricts the ability for resources to be shifted around, yet we have seen a massive shift over the past twenty plus years in terms of the percentage of classes taught by tenure track professors vs that taught by adjuncts.  The latter are cheap--the pay is low, the benefits are few and they can be hired/fired easily.  So, the managers have actually plenty of flexibility despite the inflexible tenured profs.  The US has little in the way of professor unions (unlike Canada) which means managers have even more flexibility. 

Yes, professors and departments resist reallocations from one area to another, just as any entity/group does.  All you have to do is read Machiavelli to get that:
``And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as the leader in the introduction of changes.  For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.''
 Profs have little input on the big infrastructure programs that can bankrupt schools (UQAM in Montreal, Sweet Briar College in the US come to mind).  The growth in administrative costs are undeniable.  How much of this is needed versus how much of this is not?  Not so clear.  But, sure, we need to do something.

But that something is not for-profit schools, which this piece considers to be threatened by over-regulation.  The experience thus far of such places has been rather exploitative, so one "woots!" when one hears of U of Phoenix hemorrhaging enrollments.  Ok, that one would be me. 

The strange thing is that the article concludes that universities are less healthy because tuition is not growing as fast.  Um, isn't that a good thing?  I am confused.  Indeed, I know there is a problem, especially since I am paying American tuition to a private school.  I worry about the future of my profession, but the diagnoses and remedies posed here are really quite lousy.  Ah, the all powerful profs dictating to administration!  If only.

Tales Finally Told: Canada and D-Day

When I was at a conference in New Brunswick, Marc Milner, one of the hosts and a military historian, chatted briefly about his new book: Stopping the Panzers: the Untold Story of D-Day.  It turns out that historians have slighted the Canadian contribution in June in France 1944.  We should not be surprised by this since most of this history was written by Brits and Americans who focused on their own forces.  This book fills a big gap, explaining that the Canadian army did exactly what they were supposed to do, even though it was very, very hard.

The traditional history has the Canadians stumbling around Caen, failing to take that city early.  As it turns out, the planners of the invasion identified the key threat to the invasion--a German counter-attack through the most tank-friendly country.  They built a largely Canadian unit to occupy that space, giving it more much anti-tank capability than any other unit that landed on June 6th.  This unit was trained and equipped to stop the likely Panzer assault.

As it turned out, the planners knew what they were doing--they predicted quite well what the Germans were going to try to do--run the tanks up through the allied beachhead to the sea.  But they failed due to the actions of the Canadians.  So rather than being stuck in place, the actual story is really more of the Canadians doing exactly what they were supposed to do and do it quite well.  And the cost was higher than it should be as they faced SS and Hitler Youth units that executed a larger number of POWs.

In this case, not losing was very much winning.  The Canadians protected the beachhead so that the allies could land the units and materiel that would eventually be used to break out of Normandy.  The book may overplay sometimes the Canadian contribution--when it focuses on the Canadian units in the fake army that was used by the allies to persuade the Germans that Normandy was a feint and that the real attack was coming at Pas de Calais.  Yes, that disception was important, but I am not so sure that the Germans were convinced by the apparent presence of the Canadian units in that effort.  It might have mattered but not that much.

I am not a military historian and for good reason.  This research was far more thorough in the getting all the details lined up to tell a very interesting story about this overlooked part of the most studied military campaign.  it was a good read that also taught me the importance of artillery in tank warfare. 

Becoming Canadian

It only took me thirteen years to go to a professional hockey game.  Well, it is very hard getting tickets to Canadiens games, so when a colleague invited me to an Ottawa 67's game, I jumped on it.  The OHL (I have no idea what that stands for) is minor league hockey, and does not get quite the same love as the NHL.  So, there were plenty of empty seats at the playoff game between the Ottawa team and the Niagara team.

The crowd that was there saw an interesting game.  No scoring and few shots on goal in the first half with the away team controlling much of the action.  They scored the first goal in the second period, which was immediately met by a flurry of Ottawa goals, six of them!  The final score was 8-2. 

Watching a 67s game at home is an interesting experience.  The arena is under the stands of the TD Stadium, so once side of the arena is truncated. The players at this level are young, so the cheerleaders (all three or four of them) are high school age, and had the embarassing task of helping to run the intermission games.  The first one was a Price is Right game where two fans had to guess the price of various products--toothpaste, for instance.  Oy. 

The tickets are apparently not expensive, so there were lots of kids who ate up the experience.  The boys under or around ten seemed to really enjoy dancing badly, hoping that they get on camera. 

Is there fighting at this level?  Um, yeah.  

It was not hard to immediately adopt the home team--smaller, feistier, and laying out on defence early and often.  I will still not watch a heap of hockey on TV, but this is probably not the last game I will attend.  I do hope this meets the hockey requirement on the citizenship application.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Today's News in University Awful

We already knew that the University of Oregon is, um, mighty messed up, as it used students' records from campus counseling to defend itself from a lawsuit (one where the victim of sexual assault accused the university of protecting the perpetrators from untimely discipline).  Now, it seems Oregon may be firing the people who worked at the counseling center who resisted this effort. 

This is doubling down on the betrayal of trust.  Students should not trust any campus employee at Oregon, as they will be subjected with dismissal if the staffer takes the students interests and rights seriously.  I feel sorry for all those working at this institution, as it is now a place where the students have no assurances that their rights and well being matter.  Indeed, when it comes to it, the students who are victims are victimized again to protect the University and its athletes. 

Apparently, the school must believe that old line that there is no such thing as bad PR.  Um, there is, and this is textbook.  The effort to coverup and then punish is going to do far more damage to the university's reputation than a couple of rapists. 

If only the University of Oregon were a public school where legislators and state officials might be able to do something about it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Canada Expands Its War: Qomments

The Nerdist broadcast has a thing called Qomments--questions and comments.  Which pretty much captures what this post on the news du jour. 
  • Does it matter that Canada has no legal cover for this?  This is the first time I know of (and I am no Canadian military historian) where Canada is engaged in combat (by planes, if not by SOF-ish adventures) without either an international resolution (UN or NATO or both) or an invitation by the country to be protected. 
  • Is the kind of bombing in Syria different than that which is going to happen now in Iraq?  That is, not that there are no targets left in Iraq but if the fighting shifts into the cities, such as Mosul, there may be different risks--more risks of hitting civilians.  Is the Syrian air campaign seen as cleaner?  I have no idea.
  • The plan in Iraq is clear but hard--try to get the existing government to make deals with the Sunnis that bind them better than the last time.  Not easy at all but an exit path.  Bombing helps keep ISIS down, but lasting stability requires a deal of some kind.  Syria?  I have no idea.  Bomb ISIS helps Assad, but not bombing ISIS in Syria helps ISIS in Iraq.  Damn. 
    • I hate talk of exit strategies because it means you are far more focused on the getting out rather than the doing.  But there is some need for some idea of what the strategy is here besides whacking moles.  Attrition is probably not going to work too well.
  • I do prefer renewing this thing a year at a time rather than every six months.  Not just because the media time suck is then less frequent, but because none of the actors involved benefit from the spin cycle being that frequent.
  • What will happen to public opinion now that the mission is expanded to Syria?  The recent poll does not ask this.  Given that ISIS is mighty unpopular here, especially after the events of October in Quebec and Ottawa, the best guess is that the public is not going to mind so much as long as it does not mean much more risk.  Which gets back to whether the air strikes in Syria are qualitatively different than those in Iraq?
  • I am not thrilled that there is not much of a learning curve when it comes to the language about ground forces: "Canada will not be participating in ground combat operations."  I prefer the American language about enduring offensive operations.  CANSOF are going to be doing combat, as they have already done so.  They have fought when fired upon and put themselves into places where such stuff happens.  They have participated in the air campaign by lasing ISIS targets, which means they are abetting combat from the ground.  So, "ground combat ops" is a lousy description of what they are not doing.  What they are not doing is engaging in an enduring offensive effort.  If they want to foreswear raids (something that the American language clearly permits), then they can say that.  Oy.
Just one key certainty: humility.  Canada's contribution is meaningful but it is not going to swing outcomes by themselves.

Monday, March 23, 2015

More Hours in the Classroom

It is time for that ritual post--responding to those who think that being a professor means we work 10 hours a week.  One of my earliest posts compared a prof to an iceberg in that much of what we do is unseen (and that we destroy ships).  An op-ed in a Canadian newspaper (which was so awful it does not deserve linking) made the claim that our teaching is only ten hours a week and that we should not do the research stuff that much.  More significantly, the governor of Wisconsin, a state known for its excellent institutions of higher education, has been saying that profs need to teach  more classes and do more work.

Before I start: a caveat--I teach a 2/1 load--two courses one semester and one course the other as I buy out one class a year with the funds that come with my endowed chair.  So, I am a particularly poor situation to make any arguments since I am in the classrooms less than my colleagues.  But I am self-aware, not humble, so I will argue anyway about these claims. 

Let's consider this a challenge: if folks want us to teach more, what do they want us to do less?  Because, yes, Virginia, Scott Walker, most profs work 40 or more hours a week as it is.  So, if you want us to do more time in the classroom, we are going to do less of something else.  Just tell us what you want us to do less of:
  • Teaching:  Yep, we could spend more time in the classroom and less time teaching.  How does that make sense?  
    • One of the biggest time commitments is to the supervision of undergraduates and grad students.  At liberal arts colleges, they spend far more time supervising each individual undergrad.  At most universities, one can spend a fair amount of time supervising various kinds of undergrad theses.  In my previous job, I did some of that, and it takes time.  I did supervise a bunch of PhD students and still do some of that, and I now supervise MA students in greater volume.
      • Maybe we should have fewer graduate students, which would reduce how much time we spend on supervision.  But that is a decision that should be made directly and not through the back door of higher teaching loads. 
    • One could spend less time preparing lectures and seminar discussions.  Yes, this actually does take time.  The more classes you teach, the more prep work that is required.  Sure, over the course of time, each class is mostly prepped.  But in most disciplines, there is new stuff to learn to teach, so we need to read books, journals, newspapers, and other media through we learn stuff.  Yes, we keep learning.... if we have the time. 
    • One could reduce the time spent on teaching by having more multiple choice exams.  There is room in the academic enterprise for these things, but they do not really test thinking as much as they test memorization (at least as far as I have been able to design such tests).  To really educate the next generation to think better, we need to see it on paper--via papers and essay exams.  Which means grading, which takes time.  More classes mean less time for grading.
  • Research: This is usually the target of the teach more crowd.  Why?  Because research is useless?
    • No.  It is not.    I have argued elsewhere that teaching and research inform each other.
    • One example of the relevance of social science research that is often targeted.  There has been much scholarship on what kinds of political institutions make ethnic conflict more or less problematic.  While there is much about the relative success story of South Africa, one key ingredient is that they brought in the experts--the academics--who studied such stuff and asked how they should design their constitution.  Afghanistan? No, not at all.  
    • If you take a look at the map around UCSD (the place I know best, but true elsewhere too), you will see that it is damn near surrounded by bio-tech and information technology companies.  Tis no accident.  
    • I am currently reading a book on a key moment in Canadian history: the Normandy campaign.  Why is this relevant?  Because it shapes how Canada sees its military and others see it, which might just shape the role it plays in future multilateral military operations.
    • The reality is that universities are the epitome of economic multipliers--money goes in, and it spurs the local economy... more so than prisons or military bases.  And much of that is related to the spinoffs from research.
    • It is certainly true that not all basic research turns into tangible economic outcomes, and that private actors can do research, too.  But much of what private actors do is subsidized by government one way or another.  Plus the accidental discoveries of random academics often have huge value-added.  And are often, of course, inconvenient for the powerful.  Which is why the freedom to engage in whatever research one wants (within limits--no longer experimenting on students that much anymore) is so very key.  That government labs and private labs are unlikely to produce that inconvenient stuff that is often so important in the long run.
    • Via grant-writing, we are expected to raise money for our research--much of that money does not end up in our pockets.  Actually, none of it does.  Much of it funds graduate programs, some of it funds travel/equipment, and much of it funds universities via "indirect costs" that never go through the professor's account.  
  • Service:  Much of that research stuff and that teaching stuff requires service to function.  
    • We need people to spend time reviewing manuscripts (articles, books, chapters) so that we can be sure they are worthy of dissemination via reviewed outlets.   I often say that I don't work that much on weekends, but then I realize I do most of my article reviewing on weekends.  I am probably not the only one.
    • We spend much time evaluating ourselves so that we only hire, promote and tenure those who are deserving.  This takes a tremendous amount of time--reading files, writing recommendations, listening to talks, etc.
    • Speaking of recommendations, not sure if it goes here or under teaching, but if you ask folks to teach more, they might have less time to write letters of recommendation for their students.  Which might hurt their employability.  Oops.
    • We are expected do outreach more and more--give talks to folks in the community, actually do community service, speak to the media not just to provide expertise but raise the visibility of our university, engage in social media to promote ourselves and thus our university, etc.  If we are in the classroom for more hours, we would have to cut back on this. 
    • Self-govern.  Sure, we could have more administrators hired to do much of our self-government for us, but that would require more money.  So, if we teach more, are you going to hire more administrators to do the self-governance that we would not have time for?  Maybe.  
I could go on, but the point here is clear--you want profs to do more time in the classroom, it will come at some cost--less time doing supervision, less time bringing in grant money and producing new knowledge, and less time doing the service that makes this academic enterprise work.  

Could I teach more and still be productive?  Sure, but I would have to do less stuff--I would have to say no to more students who need me to be a second or third reader on their theses and dissertations.  I would have to say no to public engagement.  The fundamental fallacy of the past decade or two of management has been that we can do more with less.  The reality, as Dave Perry put it for his analysis of the Canadian Forces budget, is that we would have to do less with less.  Indeed, with more teaching slots going to adjuncts, the research/supervision/service load is increasingly concentrated on the smaller number of tenure track folks. 

To argue that professors are wasting heaps of time is to engage in the same kind of fantasy that we can cut government budgets by reducing the number of civil servants without losing any service.  Most of the people in government jobs are doing something real.  Most, although certainly not all, professors are working pretty hard.  The idea of waste allows one to dodge the real tradeoff--if you want more of x, expect less of y.  But that tradeoff is quite real.  So, just be honest, and tell us what we should do less of in exchange for more classroom hours.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Gallows Humor

Literally--humor about executions that point at the hypocrisy of the US and its politicians, again H/T to Brian MacFadden and the NYT:

If you cannot laugh about it, you can only cry about it...  The satire here is excellent for emphasizing the damn near universal hypocrisy on this.

Twitter Fighting

Many of the players in this year's tourney, including many on #TeamSpew, are new to the game.  The basic instructions are at http://www.twitterfightclub.com/.  But what does it mean to twitter fight in TFC15?  Each round of the tourney, each player will face another player and they must out-tweet them to both the public at large and a panel of judges.

Yes, it is in part a popularity contest, which is why I tended to draft twitter-ers who have more followers.  But the people with huge followings often do not engage in the game seriously, so they often don't win the votes of the judges.

So, again, what does out-tweet mean?
  1. Well, it can be volume.  That was certainly one of the strategies I used, as I could be online tweeting while doing my regular academic stuff more than some of the folks I played against who had jobs that took them away from twitter/computer and certainly those who were flying (pre-wifi in the skies those days of yesterday [two years ago]). 
  2. It can be insight/utility.  That is, one tweets stuff in one's area of expertise to produce high quality tweets--helping people to learn about that area.
  3. It should involve engagement--that the twitter fighter engages the adversary, the judges and those following the players.  Twitter is far more interactive than blogs (indeed, some judges discount links to blogs), and so to be a good twitter fighter, one should be engaging those who follow you.  Some judges will test the twitter fighters by asking questions or offering challenges.  One would be wise to follow the judges of your round for at least the day of that round. [Yes, some ego stroking might be involved]
  4. Funny but not brutal snark is a key ingredient.  The idea of this tourney is to have banter among those doing national security stuff.  So, funny tweets or strategies (someone came up with a fake twitter account of @exumAM's beard).  In my last couple of rounds in my finalist campaign, I came up with some meme-ish graphics that were fun (at least to me):

 I have already seen a number of players make amusing boasts and offering challenges.  The key is to keep things in the spirit of the game.  I have made more than a few friends and some valuable connections with the people who defeated me, those who I beat, and those who were in other parts of the brackets.  Twitter fight club may seem like a time suck, but it has been very, very good to me.