Wednesday, May 22, 2019

My Peeviest Pet Peeve is Political

When I read that, I wanted to scream.  Why?  Because pretty much everything is political in one way or another and saying something appears to be political is a pretty silly way to think about things.  Let me first address the general peeve and then focus on the specifics of Mueller and the investigation.

One of the fun parts of starting out in political science is thinking about what it covers.  What does it mean for something to be a subject of political science?  What does it mean for something to be political?  I am both too lazy and too busy to reach for my Aristole books (to discuss what a polis is), so I will focus on the basics: whenever people have to decide something.  Yep, that's it.  Deciding what the rules are, deciding how to distribute something, deciding responsibilities--these are all political things. 

So, when folks talk about something becoming political or politicized, it mostly seems beside the point.  One can argue whether something is becoming polarized, which is very different, but something becoming more of a topic for politicians or for elites in the community to decide?  That just means increased salience and relevance.  What people often try to mean with "more political" is that something that was being left alone or being resolved outside of the political arena is now being decided in the political arena--at the city council, the statehouse, the federal (or not so federal) government.  Of course, lots of things become political--being fought over in national politics--because the old way of deciding things was fine for some people and not others.  Here's where Rush really comes in--choosing not to decide is still a choice.  Choosing to keep things out of the political arena is not a neutral choice as it favors those who benefited from the old order, the old way of deciding things. 

I could go on with this, but the basic idea is that the stuff of politics is the stuff of life, of society, of groups.  That we can defer decision to "the market," which again is a choice or we can choose to delegate decision-making to some authority, but that, too, is a political decision. 

Now, onto Mueller.  A guy gets asked by a part of government (Deputy Attorney General, if I remember correctly) to investigate whether crimes were committed during the course of the Presidential campaign including the possibility that one presidential campaign (hint: not the Democrats) conspired (not collusion) with Russia in the run up to the election.  While there are many, many topics covered by political science and the label of politics, none are more POLITICAL than elections.  The national process to choose the next leader is as classic a topic of political science and something of politics than anything else.  Indeed, when folks learn someone is a political scientist, they often focus first on elections.

Indeed, this is very, very POLITICAL combo: elections and foreign interference.  Mueller was essentially asked if the current President had committed crimes, whether he obstructed justice and whether he conspired with the Russian government (indeed, focusing on the Russian government, rather than Russians, is one way that Barr tries to argue that there was no conspiracy). The context is as plain as it gets--should the President be impeached (since the Department of Justice in an incredibly political decision decided the President can't be indicted--something this agency did not decide in 1998 for Bill Clinton)?  While one can try to focus strictly on the legal stuff--does something rise to the level of being indictable, whether laws were broken--impeachment is as political as it gets: should the legislature try to remove the President? 

Mueller saying he does not want to appear in a televised Congressional hearing because he would appear political just incredible.  As in: not believable.  Mueller waded deep into the muck of politics (I actually don't think politics is muck, but let's run with Mueller's mindset for a moment) as soon as he decided to take on the job of investigating the President and the campaign.  He ain't getting out of it now. 

It was inevitable even before Barr lied about the report that Mueller would be testifying in front of Congress.  So, I just have one last thing to say to Mueller, "Hey, Marine, suck it up and DO YOUR JOB!"

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Pardons of War Criminals and the Future of Allied Cooperation

The weekend’s news suggests that President Donald Trump’s pardon of a war criminal, former Army officer Michael Behenna, is not going to be a one-off thing but part of a broader trend of pardoning those accused or convicted of war crimes.  While this policy presents challenges to the American armed forces—endangering discipline and cohesion, my focus here is on the impact on present and future allies.  Simply put, this new stance will make it much harder for many countries to join the US in any future military campaign.  Here, I take a quick look at what the allies provide and then focus on how pardoning war criminals is likely to affect future military cooperation.

The ongoing debate about burden-sharing within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] might cause one to believe that America’s allies do not contribute much. However, other than the quick and minor military efforts in places like Grenada and Panama, the US does not fight alone.  American allies bore far more of the costs of World War I and World War II than did the US.  Many countries joined in the American efforts to push back the North Koreans and then the Chinese in Korea.  South Koreans, Australians and others joined American troops in Vietnam.  The Cold War effort to deter the Soviet Union required a global effort requiring not just bases in foreign lands but significant military assistance from dozens of countries. 

The Gulf War of 1991 involved hundreds of thousands of non-American troops, where the multinational nature of the alliance—fighting alongside not just British and French troops but also Syrian and many others reduced the risks the Americans faced.  When the Bush Administration shifted its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003, it meant that there were more allied and partner troops fighting to hold the fort in the former than American troops.  Even in that very unpopular campaign in Iraq, the “coalition of the willing” fought alongside American forces and paid a significant price.

It became much harder for our allies to fight in Iraq and even in Afghanistan after the pictures of American crimes at Abu Ghraib came out.  Our allies, particularly France, Germany and other European countries, had pushed for the creation of the International Criminal Court, established by the 1998 Rome Statute, expending significant political capital because they felt that those who commit war crimes should be held accountable particularly after the horrors of the post-Yugoslav conflict and the genocide in Rwanda. 

In 1998, the US voted against the Statute, concerned that it not be subject to ICC law. This subsequently has been a sore spot in relations with allies. When it was clear in 2002 that the Statute would come into effect due to accomplishment of the necessary number of ratifications,  the Bush Administration pushed to change all of the mandates for UN and NATO missions in which Americans played a role to write exceptions so that the countries hosting American troops would not send suspected war criminals to the ICC [I was on the Bosnia desk of the US Joint Staff at this time, and I got to watch this up close].  This effort antagonized our allies at a key moment—as the preparation for the next Iraq war was underway.  To be clear, under its doctrine of “complementarity,” the ICC only to pursue suspected crimes if a country does not handle its accused war criminals responsibly. 

By pardoning convicted and/or suspected war criminals, Trump shows that the US system of military justice does not live up to international standards, is and will be irresponsible.

Our allies already take concerns with war crimes quite seriously.  In Afghanistan, mentoring Afghan troops was a major part of the training effort, and it meant going out on patrol and into battle alongside Afghan troops.  Some countries were most reluctant to do so, including the otherwise quite aggressive Danish forces who were willing to fight in the most dangerous parts of the country.  Why?  Because they did not want to be present if and when their trainees engaged in war crimes.  They did not want to be complicit. 

For many democracies, it is difficult enough to get mandates from the parliaments to approve these deployments.  Countries governed by coalition governments often have a hard time agreeing on the conditions they will impose upon their troops when they join a cooperative military effort.  If the President continues to pardon war criminals, two things are likely to happen:

  1.  Some countries will impose restrictions on their troops, so that the forces they contribute to an allied operation are not be allowed to fight alongside Americans;  
  2.  Many countries may find it politically impossible to join American-led campaigns at all.

American forces are currently working with allies in partners in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Trump’s pardons of war criminals will make it more likely that we will get less help in those places.  Getting allies to join the US in a new Iran war was always going to be tough but will become even harder if these pardons continue.

The US military was stretched to the breaking point when it was fighting wars in Afghanistan an Iraq at the same time even with much allied assistance.  Alienating allies via these pardons will make any future war effort unnecessarily more challenging. Yes, the US can fight alone, but it will mean more Americans pay the price in blood, more US tax dollars expended, and far less legitimacy.  This may be a price that Donald Trump is willing to pay, but the American military and the American people should not.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Secession in Westeros: It Ain't Over

Folks have been picking on the last episode for a variety of unrealistic or unearned developments.  Here's my take on the secessionist element below the break.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Game of Thrones: Pool of Life, Way More Life Edition

So, that was a far happier ending than I would have expected, which means, yes, a three way tie.  Explanations and final rulings below:

Pardoning War Criminals is Criminal

Trump has decided to pardon not just one war criminal but perhaps many.  This is awful for many, many reasons.  I have written elsewhere (forthcoming?) about the impact on allies--not good.  Here, I just want to focus on the basics.  That barbarity happens in war, but it is not something you want to encourage.

War does indeed inflame the passions, giving rise to opportunities and pressures to do things that are truly horrible.  It might seem strange to say that it is ok to kill but not that way or not right now or not this person, but we have long had laws of war that defined many behaviors as criminal.  Aside from the morality of this stuff, these laws are also important for operating armed forces.  To have the many soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators do what is expected, they must face the possibility of being punished for behaving in undesirable ways.  That is what is meant by order and discipline being threatened by Trump's pardons--that American troops will not face consequences for disobeying lawful orders, at least in the judicial system, and this will create a permissive environment for those in the armed forces to do bad things.

Yes, some do bad things already--some American troops shot prisoners of war in cold blood even in the Good War while others raped their away across Europe, that massacres happened in Vietnam, and elsewhere.  And, yes, many American servicewomen and men will be restrained by their own moral code and by the disapproval of their peers.  BUT the American president is saying that it is ok to engage in war crimes.  Just like his use of racism and xenophobia in his speeches make it easier for those to come out and be racist and hateful in public and engage in violence against those targeted by the President, Trump's pardoning of war criminals will encourage some troops to engage in horrible acts. 

We should be trying to reduce, not increase, the likelihood that US troops will engage in awful behavior.  Trump, well, that's not what he does.  He makes it possible for people to do bad things.  His cabinet has been given the green light to engage in corruption.  His immigration officials, from John Kelly to Kirstjen Nielsen to whoever's next, have been given the greenlight to abuse immigrants.  Now, the US armed forces are being given the green light to engage in war crimes.

What will the senior military leadership do now?  Will they condone this massive shift in what is expected from their troops?  Will they worry about discipline?  Will they speak out against this?

Yes, this deepens the crisis we have in civilian-military relations in several ways:
  1. The US military leadership may have to speak out against the President on this--which is not good.
  2. The US military leadership may not speak out on this, in which case they will be seen by many civilians as being complicit.  Not good.
  3. It may cause many within the US military who care a great deal about obeying the laws of war to have contempt for their president. Not good.  
  4. Those thinking of joining the military might think twice because they may not want to be in a position where they are ordered to commit war crimes, which is now easier to imagine.  Not good.
Once again, Trump does unnecessary damage to American institutions and interests.  Remember that one reason why the US military supports the laws of war is so that their troops are not abused when taken prisoner.  Yes, some have faced such abuses anyway, but reciprocity is a thing.  Eroding these important restrictions on the conduct of war is not in US interests.  It may play well on Fox News, but it will not play well within much of the US military or the armed forces of those we fight alongside.

Trump swore an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the US.  Abusing the pardon power would seem to be a violation of this and would be, yes, an impeachable offense, would it not?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Ira-2: Electric Boogaloo

Oy, so the war drums are beating with Iran the target this time.  How will this be different?
Here's a clue:

While not all allies jumped aboard the Iraq war bandwagon, Spain showed up last time and then had caveats and left early.  But this points to a key reality when it comes to allies.  They fear two things most--being abandoned and being dragged into a war they don't want to fight.  Japan gets to experience both, but the Spanish are focused on one.  While much of the 2003 support was fairly token--the Bush Administration wanted a long list of countries for their coalition of the willing with few doing real fighting, real burden-bearing.  Spain was one of the few countries that sent enough to attempt to deal with an entire sector.

Anyhow, I expect very, very few countries to join a Trump war in Iran for a few key reasons:
  • As problematic as the Iraq war was in terms of legitimacy, folks could rest on a few key things--UN resolutions, past aggression, past genocide, etc.  Iran has done bad things, but they agreed to a nuclear  arms deal that the US, not Iran, is breaking from.  So, who's going to tell their publics that they need to sacrifice blood and treasure for this war?
  • As unpopular as Bush was in 2003, US relations with most potential partners were not bad except for the war.  This time, US relations with everyone except Israel and Saudi Arabia are awful.  Trade wars, breaking the Iran deal, etc.  Even relations with the UK are not great.  It is hard to see how May could get a vote through parliament.  Trump is toxic.  And that matters for when leaders try to get votes through their legislatures.  
  • As incompetent as Rumseld and his folks were, they did not have that reputation until after they started to screw up the post-war phase.  Everyone knows that this administration can't do anything complicated.  Plus they are pardoning war criminals.  Which makes it even less attractive.
  • Oh, and there's the whole Iran thing.  Iran is a much, much tougher opponent than Iraq.  More territory, more people, a regime that has more legitimacy, one that has not been broken by decades of sanctions and lost wars.  So, anyone thinking about this war needs to get clear that it will not be a walk in the park.  
I don't know if the Trump administration is dumb enough to go to war with Iran. I am pretty sure that few other countries will be dumb enough to join them this time.  Just because Trump and Bolton don't possess learning curves does not mean others haven't learned from the past.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Threat Scorecard--Can't Tell Your Threats Without a Program

The desperate effort to make Iran the bogeyman has got me thinking.

What are the threats facing the US?  What are the most worrisome, the ones most likely to do both significant and lasting damage?  Which ones are, dare I say it, existential?  Focusing on international threats (which lets me dodge naming Trump an existential threat to the US and mostly let's me dodge the related threat of white supremacy), here's the list as I see it from my hotel room in Berlin before I give a talk this afternoon on my civ-mil project:
1.  Climate change.  Yeah, I named a dynamic, not a country, as climate change is going to make a big dent on the US in ways that we are only now starting to appreciate.

2.  Russia.  Close call, but a declining and desperate Russia that is willing to subvert US elections (and British and French and etc) is a greater threat than China.  China's damage is potential, Russia's harm is ongoing.  That Russia's future is kind of bleak does not make Russia less threatening--the prospect of loss is far more likely to lead to risk acceptance, gambling, and bad stuff.  Just as Dany.  Ok, ask Daniel and Amos

3.  China has more power, other than numbers of nukes, than Russia, and straddles more important territory--South China Sea.  It has been taking the gloves off of its rise, as seen by its reaction to the Huawei executive being arrested in Canada for extradition to the US.  China has been playing the long game while Russia has been gambling every day.  China is surely going to be more successful and pose risks to the US down the road.  Right now, it is just a trade war and some island disputes.  It will be more than that although I am not so concerned about China in the Arctic.  There are much more immediate problems (Taiwan, Koreas, South China Sea).

4.  Speaking of the Koreas, North Korea is a significant threat.  Unlike Iran, North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles and is a personalist dictatorship--which means few constraints on the leader.   The frustrating thing about Iran is that Trump seems determined into making Iran like North Korea by dumping the deal.  Of course, North Korea was scarier last year because Trump was amping things up.

5.  ISIS/Al Qaeda/etc.  These organizations can inspire and sometimes organize terrorist attacks.  Uncontested, ISIS did a great deal of damage.

6.  Saudi Arabia.  Yeah, more than Iran.  Why?  Because the Saudis have more influence and allies.  Most folks in the Mideast are worried about Iran and are not its friends, so Iran has to sink resources into Syria.  The Saudis can continue to promote extremism (how many 9/11 attackers were from Iran?  from Saudi Arabia?).  The Saudis have and want to continue to suck the US into wars it should not be fighting.  Yeah, Iran supports terrorism, but so does Saudi Arabia.  I would say that the one way in which Iran is a greater threat is its nuclear weapons program, but the Trump folks seem determined to have the Saudis catch up.

7.  Iran.  Twas a manageable threat with the deal in place.  Yes, Iran supports terrorism, Iran supports Assad, Iran is a pain in the ass.  But not an existential threat to the US.  If the Israelis think Iran is an existential threat, well, that is why they have nuclear weapons.  No country has attacked Israel since 1973--I don't count Hamas or Hezbollah as countries, despite their efforts to become countries.  Note the Israeli Foreign Ministry does list the 1990-91 war as well

8.  Syria.  Mostly by creating waves of refugees that undermine our allies.

What other countries threaten the US?  I am sure some folks would like to list Venezuela, but that is stretching the concept of threat.  What harm can Venezuela do to the US?  Exactly.  Cuba? Same thing.  I am sure other places/movements can be mentioned, but do any outrank any of these?  Let me know if you think I am wrong.  I woke up early here in Berlin so I could watch Game of Thrones unspoiled, so I may not be remembering all of the threats.

To be clear, the US is still the most powerful country on the planet, it is far more resilient than its politicians think (hey, we shake off our kids getting killed by spree shooters all the time), it is still far away from adversaries and most crisis zones.  Immigration is not a threat but an opportunity.  Mostly, the greatest threats to the US are Americans--Trump and his coterie, white supremacists, etc.  In a recent episode of Game of Thrones, after defeating the Night King, Tyrion said something to the effect that now we have to deal with us.  That we are the threat to ourselves, and that would be true even if we didn't take into account climate change.  Yes, the US's position of primacy is ending, but that does not mean the US is really threatened.  It just can't impose its will alone as much as it could for about 20 years.

Game of Thrones Pool of Life: Gratuitious Death Edition

Again, not that much damage to our player's characters despite the blood spilled everywhere.  Well, not so much spilled as flung. Spoilers beyond the break.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Berlin Weekend Tourism: Old Stuff, Water Stuff, Scary Stuff

No interviews on weekends, of course, so I had much time to tour Berlin.  Given that this is my third visit here, I had to figure out stuff I had not done before.  The answers: Pergamon Museum, Spree boat ride, Dungeon and walking in between.

Eastside Gallery redux

If there is one must-see when visiting Berlin, it is the Eastside Gallery.  Some authority (Berlin municipal?) decides who gets to put art on the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall on, well, the east side.  The art varies in style and quality and intent, but it is moving and puts much into context.  So, for those who can't get to Berlin, here are some of the wall segments:

Friday, May 10, 2019

Jumping the Dragon

People have had various problems with Game of Thrones since the start.  This season has been particularly controversial because of the various decisions made by the writers.  First, folks were upset that the first two episodes were too slow, too much scene setting.  Then, folks were upset because not enough people died in the Battle of Winterfell.  I was not so fussed... but now I am.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Too Damned Early

I have not written much here about the Democratic competition for the nomination in 2020.  Why?  See the title to the post.  Yes, the American electoral cycle means that the next election campaign starts the day after an election. Yes, we are all curious about who will face Trump with the big mystery being: can the Democrats (who have a bigger base) unify to defeat Trump?
Media folks have to be selective as they have finite resources (thanks to Bryan Curtis of the Press Box podcast for reminding me of this) so they can't focus on all 20+ candidates).  Plus they want clicks and hits and viewers.  So, what are they doing? Two things:
  1. Making guesses about viability and focusing on those candidates that might stick around the longest.  How do they know someone is more viable? They either focus on polls, which is somewhat circular since those who get more press do better, lather, rinse, repeat OR they focus on fundraising (more on this below).  Of course, they (and the rest of us) screwed up the last time about who was viable.  So, maybe not a great strategy.  
  2. Going for the flavor of the week.  Beto got a week, Buttigieg got a week, Biden is getting maybe two weeks because he is more viable/has more stuff on tape/is more likely to gaffe/whatever.  The media loves narratives, so it is easy to spin up a new narrative with every new candidate.  My own narrative for this tends to be: FFS, can't someone stay in the Senate so that the Dems, if they win the White House in 2020, can actually govern.  
Oh, and as Curtis acknowledged, there seems to be a lot of sexism in who is the flavor of the week.  It should be Kamala Harris for burning Robert Barr to the ground in his appearance last week.  Nope, probably more Biden.

The key is this: we have no idea who is going to do well when the votes are cast.  Once the primaries start, then we will know if Elizabeth Warren's combo of policy papers and Dad jokes is working; whether a former  prosecutor can play well to a base sick of too much prosecution of the base (Harris); whether Bernie plays well to actual democrats who show up; whether Biden's strategy of playing to old people works; etc, etc. 

Re fundraising--yes, money is important, and much of the fundraising is based on expected viability.  So, guess what, the media is gaming the viability thing... until the voters say otherwise.  Once someone does well or poorly in the first few races, the money will desert the losers and run to the winners.   Perhaps the media is doing the women a favor by setting low expectations? Ok, probably not, but the point here is that the money will come later.  The keys right now are:
  • can you get enough money to sustain until the bigger money rolls in?  
  • Can you hire good staff so that you don't screw up constantly (Biden shows that money does not mean one buys good staff apparently)? 
  • with California earlier in the process, can you compete there?  I saw a survey today about Arizona.  Sorry, but fuck Arizona.  What is going in California?  Hint: Harris and Warren are both likely to play well there.
  • the damned debate rules--that one needs a certain number of money coming in from enough people to make the big debate stage.  I am not looking forward to the mass debates.  Are you?
The key thing with 20 plus candidates is that one does not need to get 30 or 40% in the first races.  They just need to be one of the tallest oompa loompas.  Then the money and press will focus on those folks and the random white male governors and senators can go home (really, Michael Bennett, what are you thinking?).  What makes one a tall oompa loompa?  Well, for Biden, it means getting the AARP vote and telling the young folks to screw off.  For Harris, it might just mean showing folks who well armed she is to debate Trump by ripping his minions to shreds.  For Warren, it might be being the most reasonable progressive with heaps of policy wonkiness.  For the rest? Damned if I know.

See, I am guilty too, as 20 plus candidates are too much to follow.  I am not making decisions based on viability as I have no idea.  I just write selectively because the press has already selected which folks I know more about.   Oh, I also know about Beto and Pete.  Oy.  No thanks.

Anyhow, my mantra will be that it is too damned early.  And I will focus on one single question--not who will win the nomination, but whether they can win without alienating a hunk of the Democrats.  As Obama said three years ago, Democracy is on the ballot.  Let's keep that in mind rather than insisting on a candidate that is 100% perfect.  This is an awful time for purity tests.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


Because I didn't get any interviews scheduled for today, I decided to learn from the past, rather than the present, by going to Sachsenhausen, the most significant concentration camp that is close to Berlin. See below the break for pics and some thoughts along the way:

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Not My First Trip to Berlin

So, what to do when I have done many of the major tourist destinations in town? I left Berlin for the day-after-flying-and-dragging day and headed to Potsdam.  While Potsdam has other attractions, such as a neat Atlas-->

The primary attraction is the park/gardens/palaces of Frederick the Great. He liked his fruits so much he had an orangerie--a building that had much space for hothouses.

It was also unique, in my experience: making visitors wear slippers over their shoes.

Meanwhile, this model gives an idea of how vast this space was with so many palaces.

I got to go inside a working windmill, which was a first for me:

and I really enjoyed this picture of Freddie the Great
Twas a beautiful day to walk a lot. 

So far, the beering, the eating, and the touristing go well.  Tomorrow, we will find out if the VPN works so I can watch Game of Thrones the interviews go as well.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Ten Years of Spew: Am I Running Out?

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Saideman's Semi-Spew!  Time flies when one is ranting about civil-military relations, ethnic conflict, Harry Potter, NATO, US politics, Canadian politics and all sorts of stuff.  Blogging has been very, very good to me, as it helped me pre-write my book on Canada and Afghanistan, it helped me get grants that had knowledge mobilization (sharing ideas) as a key criterion, it helped me get my ideas out beyond the narrow confines of the ivory tower as pieces were cross-posted or heavily quoted in Vox, the Globe and Mail, and the Washington Post, it has led to a ruckus or two, and more.  It hasn't gotten me fired (yet) and may have even played a role in my getting the job I have now since public engagement is a thing at NPSIA and something they reward at Carleton.

I started out writing mostly for myself--to get my ideas out of my head to examine them--kind of like a pensieve.  Then, I started sharing my posts on facebook and then twitter (tis no accident I joined twitter a few months after starting the blog).  I never had any discipline about what I wrote about and would only cross-post at Duck of Minerva if I found a post to be "duck-worthy."  I do blog less than I did, mostly because of two things: I have said stuff before so I just re-post rather than re-write AND I often now get out of my system what I need via twitter.

For this anniversary post, I was tempted to invoke one of my very first posts, where I took a question asked of President Obama and answered it for myself--what surprised me, troubled me, enchanted me and humbled me about blogging for these past ten years.  But then I realized I have already done that.
One consistency over time has been that when people meet me and say that they read my blog, I get embarassed.  Because I write so much stuff that is half-baked, I worry that they remember the truly under-cooked or overly silly stuff.  But recently I have realized that some of my posts do have some value--useful advice for the job market, educating people about how NATO really works, highlighting the work of sharp women in the field, calling out sexual harassment--so now I try not to blush and just appreciate the sentiment. 

So, I just hope we can all keep ...

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Game of Thrones Pool of Life, Confused Edition

See below the break for spoilers, but we really won't know who lived until next week (and no preview, right?)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Sandbagging, Ottawa-Style

Flooding is a seasonal thing, apparently.  There were floods in 2017 and now again in 2019.  The bad news is that they happen too often.  The good news is that it allows for learning.  It was very clear today that folks learned from two years ago.  How so?  The instructions to volunteers were clear, the places where the filling of sandbags took place had enough stuff (they ran out of bags two years ago), and there were innovations.  Such as:
The cones funnel the sand into the bag, and they are at the right height for people just to shift their shovels.

One ends up having one of three jobs--shovel, hold/move the bags to and from the cones, or tie them.  There was no one telling the volunteers where to go or what to do once they were dropped off, so I found myself at a secondary pile. I started by tying the bags, but I sucked at it--the strings were not easy to work with--easily broken.  So, I moved to being a bagger.  I mostly sat on a bundle of sandbags, grabbing loose ones, moving it under the cone, and then moving the semi-full (you don't fill them 100% or else no one can move them around) bag behind me for someone else to tie.  The folks who tied the bags and others would then move the bags into the backs of trucks and on to trailers they were towing.

I got into a good rhythm with one shoveler for most of the morning and one tie-er.  There were some folks who joined us or who took over various positions.  There were a bunch of kids who were doing similar work.  Oh, and not everyone had the cone system--they were just shoveling directly into bags.  We had our pile of sand re-filled two or three times. The job got much harder once all of the big bags of bags were broken down as I don't do so well kneeling.  Sure, I bent the knee, but I could not keep it up for long.

At the biggest pile, there was also more media because the Prime Minister showed up:
He is just to the left of the security guy who is staring at my back and at the guy who took the picture (the shoveler I worked with).  Some folks didn't really want Trudeau there.  Most of us didn't mind.  I thought it made sense for Trudeau to show that he was engaged in this crisis, helping out, and providing an opportunity for the media to show what we were all doing. [UPDATE: since this has become slightly controversial, I should note that his appearance was a blip--we had tons of volunteers and other folks working hard before/during/after his appearance and the piles of sand were mostly maxed out in terms of how many people could work on them.  PMJT only slowed us down long enough to take a pic, and given how physical the work was, taking a minute break was hardly a bad thing]

I had never volunteered for anything like this before.  I probably will again, as this area will flood again. And because I feel like I owe Ottawa something.  This is my second favorite place I have lived (hard to compete with San Diego, what with no winter there and all). The town has been very, very good to me, helping me do my work, being full of interesting people, having a vibrant ultimate community that includes leagues for geezers (grandmasters is the correct term), and being so very welcoming to us.  It is the first place I have ever moved where I knew people ahead of time and was joining friends.

Sure, it rained on us, and, yes, it snowed on us, and it got windy at times.  My shoveler occasionally threw sand on me, and I have a couple of blisters and many sore muscles.  But I feel really good about contributing to the sandbag building.  On our way out, we passed by homes that were using these sandbags to protect them.

Ok, the CBC took that photo since I was on the wrong side of the bus as it shuttled us back to the base where I had parked my car.  That base was chock full of people looking to join the effort.  The effort will continue tomorrow and perhaps beyond that.

Oh and the last time I was this close to so many light armored vehicles was Kandahar:
Most of the army folks were at a very large pile of sand, but some were spread out helping to coordinate. 

Anyhow, I highly recommend joining in on such efforts.  It is not only a good thing to do, but, it makes you feel good

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Game of Thrones Pool of Life: Fans Served Daily

Ok, one last episode sans death and destruction, but lots of foreshadowing.  So, below, a quick revision of the guesses given the moves made today. 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Thinking About Textbooks

This story about a possible corruption case at Arizona State has me looking back and forwards

Of course, the accusation could be without merit.  I am sure journalists in Arizona will pursue this, and I doubt that the Provost in question will have covered his tracks very well if he is guilty. 

I retweeted the story and got some responses, including folks arguing the entire textbook game is rigged with folks using their own or their colleagues' expensive texts.  Well, I have done so a few times, in both ways that I don't feel guilty about and those in which I do:
  • I have used my own books in my grad classes--which are too small (along with low rate of royalties) to be motivated by profit.  In these classes, I have taught about stuff I know well--what I have reseached--so using my books makes sense.  I had a prof (Arend Lijphart) who would assign his books and then say he would give the profits to charity.  His books did far better than mine, so, no, I did not get much or give much to charity.
  • In my first tenure track job, I had to teach a course way, way outside my expertise--American and Texas Public Policy--I did use my colleagues' text.  Why?  For two reasons: they had banked questions for multiple choice exams based on their book, and I had no experience in writing such exam; AND I did the old trick for teaching a new class of using a decent text to assign the students and an excellent text for myself to build lectures.  Plus I figured I could ask these colleagues for help as I went along.  They made money off of my students, but I didn't feel pressure from them.  Nope, not even as a junior colleague did I think strategically about sucking up for tenure (I have never been good at that).  But I can see how this would be questionable.
  • More problematically, our department had a workbook, designed to be used once, for this same class.  The idea was that each new class of students would buy this book, generating income for the department to support the various things the department did (events, travel for grad students, whatever).  But the book was, well, crappy.  So, yeah, I participated in a morally compromising course requirement.  I didn't blow the whistle because it was not too onerous and it was the one job I could get at the time.  I stopped assigning this text once I realized it was not very good.  I have no idea if they developed successors.
Since then, I have mostly avoided using textbooks--assigning monographs and articles instead--and I tend to pay attention to the prices of the books (I have never assigned a book that costs more than $100 and avoid those that cost over $50).  These days, it is a bit less problematic where I am at since the library provides electronic access to most, if not all, of the books I assign.

The story above had three distinct parts to it that are disturbing:
  1. The university requiring all classes at a certain level use the same text/digital partner.  While individual profs can make mistakes and can also be corrupt, one key component of academic freedom for me is getting to choose what I do in my classroom.  What I teach, how I teach it, with what materials is up to me.  This is a big difference between university life and K-12.
  2. Setting a specific quota for failing students is incredibly unfair and even brutal.  Putting aside the costs of texts for a second, re-taking classes is an onerous consequence for a Provost needing a baseline (if the accusations are true)--this is a big opportunity cost, not to mention causing some students to fail and leave the program.  Which has a lifetime cost attached.
  3. The prof got fired.  The university is already saying "we can't talk about it, but the guy committed multiple infractions" to slime the guy.  
To be fair, we have no idea if the accusations are true.  However, it tends to ring true AND I tend to believe academic institutions care more about money than their students these days.  So, we will just have to watch and wait and see what comes of this.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

So Much Supervision, So Much Learned

Today, I was updating my spreadsheet listing all of the students I have or am supervising.  Yesterday, an MA student defended her paper with distinction, and her work gets me apparently to sixty.  That when I entered her info into my spreadsheet, I realized that I have supervised successfully sixty undergraduates, masters students, and PhD students over the years.  This is probably a bit of an undercount since I might have forgotten to update the list with those students where I was the second or third person on the committee.  The total does not include those who did not complete their project for one reason or another.  That number is around ten or so--and is shaky since some students simply switched advisers, others had never really committed to me (and me to them) in terms of advising, but some simply didn't finish. 

I don't know if sixty is a "good" or "bad" number for someone teaching for 25 years at research universities.  I am sure some of my peers have done far more, and others have done far less.  All I know is that it has been a lot of work and a lot of satisfaction.  I do whine about reading many drafts of the same thing, that I have unwrapped many an onion, that I am tired of endless lit reviews, and so on.  But this supervision thing is worth it. 
First, I learn a lot.  I got in this business because I am deeply curious, but I am also very busy and have limited time to study stuff.  My students end up studying stuff that is mostly beyond what I study--different regions, different periods of time, different dynamics, different perspectives, etc.  So, I always learn from these supervisions, and that is cool.  So very cool. 
Second, it really is fun and rewarding to watch and sometimes help younger folks develop, challenge themselves, and see them puzzle through and then figure out the questions they pose and the answers they discover. 
Third, I create an empire of mini-me's.  Actually, nope, that does not happen.  My students often take issue with my work and push back pretty hard.  I don't tell them what to study or how to study it.  I mostly just poke holes in their ideas until their ideas are better developed.  Ok, third, their success makes me feel good.  This is the stuff of job satisfaction.  When teaching regular classes, the evals will always contain at least a few (and sometimes more than that) negative reviews, so one can always walk away noting those (negativity bias is a thing I learned today, thanks, Dan!).  But when a supervision ends (it often never does), the feelings are almost always satisfaction and pride.  Hence my page dedicated to TeamSteve.  Once again, to be clear, the work they have done is theirs, so I don't want to take too much credit for it.  I just like to bask in their success.

This supervision thing is a big part of what we do, but it is not in the classroom.  So, those who ask how many hours we spend in the classroom = teaching are missing the point.  Indeed, they are only noticing the tip of the iceberg.  That kind of sounds negative, as I really do mean it when I say that this is very much one of the best parts of the job.  Even if it does involve a heap of lit reviews along the way.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Alliances Are Hard: GoT Version

I saw this tweet and could not help but respond:

Given that I have written about both Game of Thrones and alliance politics, I have to enter this discussion.  Spoilers dwell below as we get into this:

Game of Thrones Pool of Life: Scene Setting Changes Little

As usual, the first episode sets the scenes and moves the chess pieces around. Not much more than that.  So, the only significant death was of a boy that we didn't really care about.  Should have realized he was dead boy walking when he was featured so much early--Chekov's casualty.

So, what did this episode mean for our game?  See my previous post today for the players and their choices.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Pre-Game of Thrones Pool of Life

Just as we anticipate tonight's premiere of the last season of Game of Thrones, GRRMartin hits us with this:


Last time, I reported the draft:

Today, I want to report the tiebreakers

Interesting choices.  The second tie breaker only kicks in if either Dany sits on the throne at the end or if No one does.  If the former, then then the key tie break is number of dragons.  If there are no dragons left, then the next tiebreaker comes into play with Arya's bloodthirstiness playing a huge role.  If three dragons are left, then Art wins via Price is Right Rules--closest without going over.

If no one sits on the throne, then only the second tie breaker matters as Wendy can only then win if all dragons are dead with Caitlin winning in any other circumstance.

What to do if Jon and Dany sit on the throne at the end?   Hmm, I guess we would have a three way tie between Elliot, Art, and Sara with Elliot and Sara potentially having to go to the third tiebreaker if one dragon is left alive at the end.

Lots of good guesses here.  I look forward to belatedly watching tonight's episode (thanks to ultimate).  Enjoy the carnage!