Saturday, July 4, 2020

Quarantine, Week 16: The Week Everything Started To Break

While it was an easy week at the House of Spew, we are a lucky island in a sea of unforced errors, lousy governance, and exploding disease.  When I started these weekly posts on the state of the pandemic, I half-joked that it would chart my descent into madness.  I haven't gone mad (at least as far as I can tell and not yet) because this quarantine has not been as tight as Euro-quarantine and because I have remain connected via zooms to friends, new and old. This may change once I start taping my video segments for the fall classes and have daily fights with the course management system. 

But watching the US and Canada (one more so than the other) screw up the basics of this, leading to unnecessary death, suffering, and economic losses is enough to drive anyone mad.  My Canadian friends are in a righteous uproar as they have noticed governments being far more concerned about opening bars and restaurants than having good plans for the fall's K-12 educational system.  Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote about education as a human right, and my other friends have made it plainly clear that a 1-2 day a week in class kind of plan will mean that the only economy will not return, that women will drop out of the job market, and that kids will be left behind.  Sure, it is hard to get this right with much conflicting information about the transmission rates of kids, but Lauren is right that the governments of Canada--local, provincial, federal--have not been treating this as the priority it should be.  If only for the sake of the economy, this should be one of the top priorities.  People can't work if their kids are not at school--it is that simple.  I can see my friends who have kids at home age rapidly as this is causing an incredible amount of stress--the combo of parenting, home-schooling, and working simultaneously.  This week it seemed all to come together perhaps because of the plans being rolled out.  My American friends are having similar experiences.

Update: here's some more evidence of the desperation parents are feeling:

In the US more so than in Canada, the higher ed plans are also getting much heat.  The NYT had a piece about profs resisting the plans, and, of course, they fucked up the headline and picture and highlighted a very abnormal prof.  However, the gist of the story was right--profs are concerned that the desperate effort to keep tuition coming in will lead to wishful (or magical) thinking and plans that will have to be revised mid-semester.  I wrote that there really is only one way to go.

Of course, that pales in comparison to what is happening in the US more broadly.  The rate of transmission, of infections, of ICU beds being filled are all going up and up.  While a bit of this is the inevitable ups and downs of reactions to a pandemic (see California getting hit hard after opening up a bit), much of it is bad leadership and bad governance.  It is no accident that the states led by governors who were more concerned with kissing Trump's ass than the health of their constituents--Georgia, Texas, Arizona--are having severe outbreaks.  It is incredibly frustrating because these states had some time to get things right.  Just as the US reacted too slowly to events in Italy and China, these states could watch what was happening to NYC and Seattle, and they could have acted to prevent much of this.  Instead, they denied that they had to do much, and now they are panicking, making masks mandatory way too late and reversing some of the decisions to open things up.

Oh, and the Supreme Court continues to rule that states don't have to change voting procedures just because of a little pandemic.  FFS.

Of course, much of the blame does deservedly go to Trump.  At every stage, he has chosen to do the wrong thing.  There are two bits of news this week that just break everything: the US buying the world's supply of a key medicine that has had some success at treating COVID 19 and then this:
Yeah, the message is one of surrender.  There is still plenty the government can do, but Trump's people are basically telling the American people to lie back and think of England.  You get my drift.
Of course, this is a move of desperation as the pandemic escalates and the polls dive. Given that the US is alone among the advanced democracies in having an escalating first wave, it is clear where the responsibility lies. 

We are not broken, not by a longshot, but it does feel as everything around us is breaking.  On this, one of the worst Independence Days in American history, we can hold onto the fact that the US got through the other ones, including the first which took place amid more than a few major defeats, the one four score and seven years later with the country at war with itself, and so on.  The only way out is through.  Connect to friends and family as it helps a great deal, preventing or at least slowing my descent into madness.  Well, that and stress-baking and stress-eating.  So, continue to stay at home if you can, wash your hands, and, yes, wear a mask. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

You Must Choose to Decide: Going Online in a Pandemic

There has been discussion for weeks now about how to manage the fall at institutions of higher education in the US and Canada.  I am quite lucky in that Carleton made the smart, responsible choice early so the focus has been on shifting resources to helping us go online and on us taking the entire summer to prep for the fall.  The fall teaching online experience will be better than the rushed move in March.

Other places are dithering, are suggesting that the fall will go on with some modifications, and some even are imposing pretty punitive rules that put professors in difficult and even dangerous positions.  Inspired by a great thread today by Danielle Lupton, let me explain the ordering of the choices and tradeoffs and then steal from Laura Seay about the tuition challenge.

Yes, face to face classes [F2F] are better than online classes, holding everything else constant.  Sure, there are folks who love delivering classes online and do it well, but most profs prefer to engage the students in person for all kinds of reasons--body language helps signal to the prof that the content is being delivered well or not, it tends to be far more interactive, one can change things on the fly more easily, etc.  But we cannot hold all else constant in a pandemic.*
* There are some who argue that the disease is not so fatal for young folks so let's just roll with it.  I have two responses to this: a) in a class of 600 students, maybe one will die due to the virus.  I guess that is no biggie?  b) this disease can be brutal even in mild cases, so let's not be so blase about "hey, few deaths, so what?"
  • Communicating through masks makes lectures harder to understand and student discussion much more difficult.
  • Distancing does the same.  The spaces that may be used, as Danielle points out, often have awful acoustics--gyms, for instance.  
  • Will have to do whatever we do F2F in ways that can be taped and uploaded so that students who can't attend in person due to visa problems, travel restrictions, home situations, etc can still take the class.  This, of course, means doing more work, essentially producing two versions of the class.
So, F2F in a perfect world > Online in a pandemic > F2F in a pandemic.

What happens if/when there is a major outbreak on campus?  Will the universities and colleges just continue on or will they send everyone home and move to online?  My bet is the latter as all the liability waivers will not stop students and profs and staff from fleeing a major outbreak.  So, if the plan is to be on campus, the plan is really to repeat what happened in March: moving quickly online with little prep.  Oh, and having helped infect a community where the school is based and then infect the communities to which the students return.  USC has already switched to going online as the cases in and near LA are skyrocketing.  Better now than September or October although May or June would have been better still.  Just like everything else with this virus, acting early is better than acting late.

Well, shouldn't students pay less tuition since they are not getting the same education as they would be in person?  As Laura rightly argues, teaching online involves more costs, not less.  Carleton is hiring staffers to help profs move their courses online.  That costs money.  The profs are going to be working more, not less, for the same amount of money (or less since schools are cutting retirement benefits).  There is more preparation involved with teaching online--I have already done more course prep this summer so far than I do in an average summer--as we need to figure out how to deliver the content, we need to record videos and make sure they don't suck, we need to figure out additional materials, we need to design new assessments (requirements to be graded), and so on.  The students are going to need just as much or more online materials--so universities have to continue to pay for subscriptions to journals and presses as well as media of all kinds.  Info tech staff will have to be paid and probably supplemented.  And, yes, universities will cut staff who feed students who aren't there and to maintain the physical plant, but can't eliminate all of that entirely since a lack of maintenance will undermine the investments made in all of that stuff for when students return.

The key is this: this thing is mostly temporary, lasting a year or two, depending on how badly the US screws it up.  The only way out is through.  There should be more financial aid for folks who can't afford universities in the middle of a pandemic recession, governments should shift more resources to higher ed.  But since they aren't doing the right stuff for k-12, I have my doubts.  I am more certain that a number of colleges and universities will go bankrupt and cease to exist as a result of the pressures of this pandemic combined with bad decisions of the past, changing demographics, and all the rest.  One way to make sure more schools die is to demand cuts in tuition.  That does no one any favors.

We are stuck in a bunch of related collective action problems where moving first is hard, where individually rational decisions can lead to collectively bad outcomes.  Governments were built to help finesse such problems.  Alas, many governments are failing to do what is needed.  They aren't working hard to provide K-12, which means the economy can't really return to what it was.  Governments aren't working to help universities weather the story--they are cutting support instead.  We are, in short, eating our seed corn, which is a dumb way to behave.

There is probably good research and good lessons to be learned on all of this stuff. Where is all of that stuff?  At your local university.

And as always, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice:

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Quarantine, Week 15: Maximum Meetings

Mrs. Spew has taken to ask me when I am zooming so that she doesn't interrupt.  This week was one where the default was: meeting.  It was all good, but it was a very different kind of week.

I met with my co-host Stéfanie von Hlatky to tape our anniversary edition of #Battle Rhythm.  Huzzah!  Part of the joy of the podcast is I get to hang out with her every two weeks.  This was cool before the pandemic and now a key part of my sanity-preservation efforts. the booze this time didn't hurt! I also met with a naval officer to tape a future segment.

I met with a group of mostly Canadian PhD students as part of the ongoing CDSN effort to provide them with some feedback and community.  The idea is that since most lost their ability to present their work and network since conferences and workshops are mostly cancelled, we'd provide an alternative.  So far, it is working out well.  We meet every other week, a couple of students present, we give feedback, I realize that my view of the norms of research and presentations (don't set up your presentation as a mystery--put the bottom line up front) maybe only apply with my very specific discipline in North America and maybe not even that far.

The key source of meetings is the CDSN.  Not only do I meet with our staff every week or two, but I have been re-focused on a central priority thanks to recent events: how to foster a more diverse and inclusive defence and security network.  One of the driving forces for the creation of the network was that at the average defence event in Canada, I was often the youngest person in the room, that the rooms were very male and very white.  When building the CDSN, we focused very much on getting right gender and linguistic diversity--that about half of our leaders are women and about half are Francophone.  I think we did fairly well in organizing events and activities to include people of color (visible minorities is the Canadian term) including the Capstone, the podcast, and our research assistants, but our leadership team is still pretty homogenous along other identities.  So, I spent this week in part meeting with people to figure out how we can do better, and those meetings will continue in the weeks to come.  We are working to partner with American-based organizations whose mandates are to foster better environments for those who are often marginalized since Canada lacks similar organizations except for women with Women in International Security-Canada as a vital and founding CDSN partner.

The COVID Response project led to more meetings.  In April, the CDSN held a brainstorming session to answer questions we solicited from the Department of National Defence, and we produced a briefing note.  Since then, we got some money from Carleton to fund graduate students to research our questions and answers to see if we were on target and to provide more depth.  I have delegated to Alvine Nintai, our sharp PhD student who has been the HQ's main researcher the job of managing the five or so MA students, but we all still need to meet from time to time. 

The best meetings are those where I hang out with pals.  Staying at home has left me mighty thirsty for chatting with friends.  So, a few zooms each week have proven to be some solace for the stress that these days present.  This is definitely the time to reach out.  Thus far, all of the group zooms--for poker, for a wake, for civ-mil twitter folks, for just hanging out--have been welcomed with people asking for the meetups to be repeated.  As a collective action sucker, I don't mind organizing these meetups as, again, I am most thirsty for contact. 
Hanging Out.

What else is doing on?  I finally went to physio for an elbow injured in January or February.  I had just gotten the referral in early March when everything closed.  It looks like it is something like tennis elbow despite my lack of tennis.  Going to pandemic-times physio was strange--answering a battery of questions just to be let in,  much, much, much less going on--only two therapists each handling one client each rather than four or five each handling several with aides connecting the machines and so forth.  I had to buy the little pads that go with the electric stimulation so that I can bring them back each visit rather than the shop washing/re-using.  And, yes, we all wore masks--they made me wear a disposable one rather than my Spidey mask.  Oh well. 

The big international relations issue of the week in Canada is whether the Canadians should end the extradition process for a Chinese corporate executive as China has now made explicit something that was implicit--they would release two Canadians they arrested on trumped up charges.  A bunch of retired politicians, justices, and random academics signed a letter advocating for just this kind of trade.  I am opposed since I think giving in to this bold/bald-faced coercion is not great for Canada now or down the road.  Canada is in a difficult spot since the asymmetry in power and interests so clearly favors China, and the US is not of much help these days. 

Lastly, one observation: I have noticed that I am not moved to tears quite as often as I was a month ago (with the aforementioned wake being an obvious exception).   I am not sure what that means.  I can't imagine that this is true for my friends who have kids at home, who are trying to work and parent and manage all at the same time.  I know I am quite lucky in all of this.  I still feel the stress and sadness and frustration and anger that governments are messing this up (North America is nowhere close to being up to testing/tracing to open stuff up) and that people can't wear masks, stay apart, and, yes, avoid bars and restaurants.  I guess anger is the dominant emotion right now, crowding out the sadness. 

As always, my survival strategy has been the combo of stress-baking, stress-eating, and stress-exercising with the last combined with finishing Clone Wars!  And, yes, I finally made something that looks almost as good as it tasted (usually, what I cook/bake tastes great and looks bad):

Huzzah!  (Yes, blame The Great tv show on Amazon for all my huzzahs!)

Be well, wash your hands, stay at home, and wear a damned mask!

Friday, June 26, 2020

So Much Time, So Much Star Wars: A Finished Clone Wars Post

As I can't play ultimate and as I have plenty of time on my hands, I have spent the quarantine watching Clone Wars while treadmilling.  I was reluctant to watch it when it came out because
a)  I didn't want to root for Anakin Skywalker, given what he became;
b)  Jar Jar Binks.

But with Mandalorian and Rebels both building on Clone Wars stuff (the Black Saber, among other things), it made sense to go back and watch.  Plus the seventh season, which looked cool was just coming out (spoiler: it was mostly very cool).  So, yes, I have many thoughts.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Battle Rhythm, Year 2!

Hey, it is year 2 of Battle Rhythm!  Today was our 27th episode, marking the first anniversary of the podcast!  Woot!  I am most proud of what we have accomplished over the year and most grateful to Stéfanie von Hlatky who has been a most excellent co-host.  We are grateful to Melissa Jennings for being a fantastic podcast producer; Alvine Nintai for doing most of the research for our prep; Ammar Shirwani for his research assistance; CGAI and especially Dave Perry and Jared Malthais and Jay Rankin; and to all the folks who agreed to be interviewed.  And we are very thankful to all those who listened to the podcast!  We toast them all in the picture to the right.

I am going to resurrect an old Spew theme to discuss the year of podcasting: what was surprising, troubling, enchanting, and humbling about the first year of podcasting.
  • I am surprised that my sister is a fan of the show.  She never seemed that interested in defence/security stuff and especially not the maple-flavoured variety.  I am also surprised that our listenership is more than the seven people we joked about.  The numbers vary and may not be entirely reliable, but I do keep bumping into people who listen to the podcast. Ok, I did until the pandemic reduced the bumping opportunities.  My favorite example of this was chatting with a young DND policy officer as we were both waiting for the helicopter to take us back to the base during last fall's military exercise.  
  • I am troubled by how much stress this process can put on our staff since we tend to record on Tuesdays for episodes dropping on Wednesdays.  Melissa does a great job editing and posting our stuff, but I wish we could give her more time.  The problem is that we often feel overcome by events as things change from day to day.  One of my tasks for year two is to make this less stressful for all involved.
  • I am enchanted by my co-host.  I thought I was going to be the funny one, but Stéfanie makes me laugh far more than I make laugh.  Which is probably not great for our listeners since my laugh is less than soothing.  She also prepares intensely for each episode, is a tougher critic of herself and of us.  In short, whatever quality we have, it is due to her efforts.  
  • I am humbled by this medium.  Recording audio is much different from anything I have ever had to do--it is not like writing, tweeting, blogging, or teaching.  I need to get better about eliminating the uh's and um's, and I, well, hate the sound of my voice.  Stef sounds so natural and professional when she does the introductions, and I just don't feel as comfy.  On the other hand, I am pretty sure she does not feel that comfortable either.  We have gotten much better at this thing, but have much more to learn.  
We started the podcast because the aims of the Canadian Defence and Security Network including amplifying the work of others (our emerging scholars and feature interviews) and to improve the defence and security literacy of Canadians.  I know that we have accomplished the first goal.  Whether we have made progress on the second one is hard to assess.

Thanks for listening.  If you have questions that you want us to answer on the podcast, email them to us at

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Neil's Wake and Memorial Scholarship

Last night, we held our wake for Neil Englehart.  His wife, Professor Melissa Miller, also of Bowling Green State, attended for a while.  She shared the story of how they met, what he had been up to since leaving UCSD, what his two boys were up to (the college aged one is following in Neil's footsteps both in terms of where he is going and what he is studying), and, yes, how Neil died.  His last act was to donate his organs, which went to four different people.  Melissa clearly got some much needed solace knowing that Neil helped save some lives.  So, if you have not filled out the organ donation card and told your loved ones, do so, as it will not only save lives, but be of some help to them in such a difficult time. 

About thirty of us got together on zoom last night to share stories about Neil and to be together at this time.  A zoom wake is a strange thing, but we all got a lot out of it.  I hadn't seen some of the people on it in about twenty-seven years or so, while others I have seen often.  It was great to share some time with these people, as grad school was one of the best times of my life thanks to them.  A member of our cohort put together a really terrific powerpoint of pictures of Neil and quotes from letters he had written from the field.  "Besides the leeches" will become a recurring joke now among our cohort.  Some of us then shared a few stories, toasted Neil, and then caught up with each other. 

Neil did amazing fieldwork as an undergrad, as a graduate student, as a post-doc, and as a prof.  I learned only last night that he went to North Korea in addition to Burma, Thailand, and other places.  So, it is most appropriate that they are setting up the Dr. Neil Andrew Englehart Memorial Scholarship to fund BGSU students to do fieldwork.  Here's the link and then the official description. 

The scholarship description has not yet been added to the site, but here it is:

Dr. Neil Andrew Englehart Memorial Scholarship
Bowling Green State University (BGSU)

The Dr. Neil Andrew Englehart Memorial Scholarship will provide funds to help offset the costs of study abroad for BGSU undergraduates. This scholarship will provide an ongoing source of funding for students, as well as a lasting tribute to Dr. Englehart’s vision of exposing undergraduates to international cultures, communities and challenges.

Dr. Englehart, Professor and Chair of BGSU’s Political Science Department, always displayed a love and appreciation for international cultures that began when he studied abroad in Thailand as an undergraduate. He eventually traveled to 14 countries to conduct research and strived to bring his international experiences into BGSU’s classrooms. Numerous accolades, offered by current and former students after his untimely death at age 55, attest to his unique ability to spark student curiosity and engagement with the global community. His respect for students and their ability to grapple with challenging issues of international importance was a hallmark of his teaching. In this spirit, the Dr. Neil Andrew Englehart Scholarship is being established.

Dr. Englehart taught comparative politics, international relations, and Asian Studies at Bowling Green State University from 2005 to 2020. He was an international expert on human rights, state failure and state capacity, non-state armed groups, and Southeast Asia.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Quarantine, Week 14: Which Day Is it?

This was the week when I kept asking myself: what day is it?  For some reason, I felt a bit more discombobulated than the previous thirteen weeks or so.  Given that I had much going on this week--a variety of meetings and activities--getting the dates wrong would have been more consequential this week.  I managed not to screw anything up, at least anything big, but it was a strange feeling.

To be clear, it is not just me.  Mrs. Spew asked me about next week's meetings (she is overly nervous about how much noise she makes while I am zooming).  I mentioned recording the anniversary edition of BattleRhythm.  That's right--it will be one year!  Anyhow, she asked "is it now weekly?" as she thought I had taped this past week.  Nope, time flies strangely in a pandemic. 

It was a bad week for Canada, an awful week for the United States, and a busy week for me.

Canada didn't get the UN Security Council seat it had been lobbying for since Trudeau got elected.  And that was part of the problem--these things take about a decade and competing with two very respected countries--Ireland and Norway--made it hard to win.  I had predicted long ago that this was not going to work out well for Canada.  I get many predictions wrong, but that one I nailed.  It was not Canada's seat to lose despite how it portrayed.  Given that this was a focal point of a relatively unfocused foreign policy, I am joining others urging the government to do a foreign policy review so that people in government have new signposts to guide their work.  Most folks are skeptical this will happen. 

The US?  On the bright side, Stephen Miller's efforts to get Trump to have a racist rally on Juneteenth has given much energy to making that day a national holiday.  Ooops.  On the dark side, we see the pandemic gaining strength in the south and southwest, despite the supposed effects of warm weather on the disease (Dr. Trump sucks at being a doctor).  There will be more unnecessary deaths this summer, especially given how Trump is politicizing mask-wearing.  He basically has said that those wearing masks are doing it to signal anti-Trump-ness, which means his cultist supporters will go along, spreading the disease further and further.   And, yes, the week ended with the worst Attorney General, Bill Barr, doing his best to eliminate Federal Attorneys General who are doing their jobs well.  That news along with people now getting access to the full Mueller Report are making it abundantly clear that Barr is Trump's lawyer and not fulfilling his role as Attorney General. 

For me, this was a week figuring out how to amplify and ally better.  The CDSN released a statement regarding Black Lives Matter with a new scholarship opportunity (more details to come out this summer) for undergraduate students who are Black, Indigenous, or of Colour in Canada and a promise to do better.  The network was started in part to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in Canada's defence and security community.  We have done a better job on gender and language than on race or other identities that often leave people excluded.  The challenge is that there are fewer organizations dedicated towards improving diversity in the security community in Canada than in the US. 

So, when one of those American organizations, Diversity in National Security Network, asked me to amplify a Black scholar in the US on Juneteenth on twitter as part of a larger effort to match Black scholars with folks who have decent sized twitter followings, I agreed to do so.  Yesterday, I tweeted out the stuff that Muhammad Fraser-Rahim gave me, and I asked him some questions.  It led to a dialogue as well as more people for me to follow as several Black scholars and national security practitioners liked/retweeted the tweets, which led me to twitter accounts that were knew to me.  I don't know if my efforts to amplify Muhammad led to him having more followers, but it did lead to me following more people.  A few years ago, there was a twitter discussion about how homogeneous most people's feeds are, so I started trying to do a better job of following on twitter people who are not white straight males.  So, yesterday helped out greatly in that effort.

I was honored to be asked to help out.  It is strange to be called an ally as most of what I do involves no risk to me, little cost, and generally falls into the category of "just being decent."  Anytime anyone refers to me as an ally, I feel squishy.  Mostly because I don't think I have done much, although posting about sexism in the academy and the like is something.  Maybe partly because my work on alliances reminds me that not all allies are all that reliable.  The past few weeks of Black Lives Matter protests remind me that we have not done enough for those who have been marginalized by existing power structures, so as I enter the last third or so of my career and the part where I probably have more power, I will aim to do better.  Which in practical terms meant spending this week setting up meetings next week to discuss how the CDSN and other organizations in Canada can do a better job of including those who have generally been left out.

Pete and his cidery
Mrs Spew and I by the old mill street post-picnic
Flying Canoe swag plus CR's
As a change of pace from the drumbeat of pandemic news and of racism in the US and Canada, Mrs. Spew and I got out of Ottawa for the first time since ... March 13th.  We drove to Spencerville, the home of the Flying Canoe Cider Company.  Pete and Melissa, the owners and purveyors of cider, lived across the street from us until their ambitions got too big.  Now, they live in a small town in a big house that happens to have a cidery attached to it.  So, we went down to grab some cider (it is available in liquor stores and grocery stores in Ottawa as well as many bars), some Flying Canoe Swag, and some excellent cinnamon rolls from a place across the street.  We then ate some fine Italian sandwiches made by another place across the street while sitting near the Mill and a stream.  It was not much of a holiday, but it was definitely different from the previous thirteen weeks.  We may explore more small towns near Ottawa over the summer--I have spotted one with a pie place that is calling out to me. 

Tonight, this week will end with a UCSD wake for Neil Englehart.  It will be quite sad, of course, as we reflect on a great guy who was taken too soon.  However, I am looking forward to seeing all the folks from my time in San Diego.  When I look back on my life, grad school, often seen as the most painful part of one's life, is one of the highlights.  I was really happy and it was not just because San Diego is a wonderful place to live.  It was mostly because of the people--not just that they were smart and smart but sweet and silly and generous.  They made me a better person by the examples they set, and we had a hell of a lot of fun. 

So, tonight will be a mixture of sad and sweet.  And it will remind me and it should remind everyone to reach out and be in contact with those who made an impact on our lives because you never know when it won't be possible to do so.  This pandemic should make it abundantly clear that death, as they say, is unbeaten, that time passes all too quickly, and that we need connection.  Social distancing is, yes, the wrong phrase, as we need to be physically apart now but we have never needed to be connected to be people than now.  Maybe that is why I have become a zoom cruise director.  Or maybe this extrovert is just thirsty for companionship.  All I know for certain is that folks need to reach out and connect even if it does not get them the UN Security Council seat they have craved.