Saturday, May 30, 2009
Anyhow, during a three-hour service, one has much time to reflect. Rather than reflecting upon my life, I reflected upon religion. During the service, portions of the Torah (old testament) are read, and we had books that contained the Hebrew version, an English translation and then some footnotes and other explanatory text. The Torah is read progressively through out the year, and it was my good luck that the sections read for this week were from Deuteronomy--the rules (613 commandments in addition to the famous ten). The previous week's passage was on the rules of food--what is kosher and what is not. Eagles--not kosher, bunnies--not kosher. I guess Seals (given my last post) would not be kosher, although they were not specifically mentioned.
This week, there were instructions on what one should do with someone who disparages God. If you have two witnesses and a hearing, the rules indicate that the person should be stoned to death. There were also instructions on how to treat slaves (you release them after seven years unless they want to stay, then they are your slaves forever); how to distribute income, including forgiving debts every seven years, and, the next section (I read ahead out of curiosity) had some rules on war, such as forced labor for those cities that give up, and killing all the males and enslaving all the children and women if the target (town/city/whatever) resists. While that might have been the style of the time, it surprised me a bit since this religious document was legitimating (perhaps even requiring) what we would easily consider to be war crimes today.
It reminded me, as the gay marriage debate often does, how much selection bias there is in one's reading of the Bible and any other religious document. There is so much that is specific to the time period, so it is obvious that we have "progressed" and have developed new beliefs and norms so that normal behavior two or three thousand years ago is abhorrent today. This may not invalidate the entire text, but should raise questions about the use of such texts to justify public policy. If one cites any passage or dictum as being a justification by itself for any course of action---just because it is in the Bible, the Koran, whatever, well, again, these books contain other passages that the cite-er would find extremely problematic. As I would remind my students, just getting a citation to support your argument does not mean that the argument is valid or persuasive.
Finally, I found the experience ironic as I ended up carrying the Torah (as a favor to my brother to be involved in the service for the two girls since I would not read any of the service stuff), containing this week's passage--instructions for stoning me due to my stated beliefs and lack thereof.
Friday, May 29, 2009
The hunt is again in the news because of EU efforts to boycott seal products and because of some symbolic politics. The Governor General [who is, technically, the head of state and the commander in chief (in lieu of the Queen)], Michaëlle Jean, snacked on a seal pup heart as part of a celebration of Nunavut's tenth anniversary as a discrete governing unit. Canadians, when defending the hunt, position themselves as defenders of a key first nations (referring to the indigenous peoples of North America) tradition. Of course, it is also a significant business for parts of Eastern Canada (Quebec, some of the Maritime Provinces), facing much EU criticism these days.
Indeed, when asked why she did it, the GG said: "Take from that what you will." So, yes, she was sending a message. But, other GG's have participated in similar rituals, so this should not be surprising.
I was surprised a few years ago when Paul McCartney become persona non grata in Canada because his wife at the time, Heather Mills, protested the seal hunt. Only after his divorce was he again accepted by Canadians (despite the fact that he is still not a huge seal hunt fan). But that controversy proved to be educational. Hunting and trapping is one of the few historical and cultural processes that bind all Canadians--anglophone and francophone. While Western Canadians may be a bit less enthusiastic about it, the right to hunt and trap fur seems to be, dare I say it, as widely accepted up here as the right to bear arms is in the US. Ok, perhaps that is over the top, as there is less opposition to the seal hunt here than there is activism for gun regulation in the US.
The portrayal of the EU boycott is quite interesting as the local reports how devasting the sanctions will be, despite the reality (cited in the same paper) that the market for Seal products is not the EU but elsewhere (Russia, Japan, China, etc), and that the seal industry really is a small part of the regional economy. Of course, as I lecture in my intro class, this is yet again a story of concentrated pain--that those who suffer from a decline in the seal industry will feel the pain intensely and will have good reason to mobilize politically--and their small size actually facilitates collective action. Tapping into a component of Canada's identity inflates the political power of this small group, just like other small but disproportionately influential lobbies around the world.
To understand such stuff does not require suspending our models of rational political behavior, but does require some appreciation for symbolic politics and national identity. Does this mean my latest book, which considers how instrumental political behavior interacts with national identiies, can explain the Canadian bloodlust for seal clubbing? Uh, no. Plugging my book here would be gratuitous.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Efforts to establish reputation are, as Drezner's post suggests and Mercer convincingly argues, fraught with difficulties, so my simplistic recommendation would be--do only those actions you want to do for their essential qualities and expected effects, independent of their reputational consequences. Fight in Vietnam if it is in your interest, not because of the message it sends to anyone else. And not if it ain't.
Usually, the problem is with my DSL connection at home, but that has been surprisingly stable for months with only a few disconnections lately. With a research trip next week, I have good reason to be anxious, but perhaps the occasional disconnect would not be a bad thing. I might end up reading or writing--that is, stuff that is not on the net.
It is amazing how much has changed since my career began not too long ago in a country not so far away.
- I am now considering ditching all of my old journals, and I have already reduced my subscriptions because I can now access most academic work (other than books) online.
- While writing this post, I engaged in a quick chat via Facebook's chat with a graduate student who is currently trying to interview members of various militias in the Middle East. We have used other chat programs as well while she wonders for 40 days and 40 nights.
- I just had my RA download the automatic recordings of my Intro to IR class last fall so that I have my stuff backed up. I don't listen to what are essentially Saideman lecture podcasts, but my students apparently do.
- The trip planning has been greatly facilitated by email and the internet. I cannot imagine doing this part of the project--interviewing in France and Germany--without these wired connections.
- I hardly ever use the phone--either for teaching or research. Students reach me by email, especially since I work at home as much or more than I appear at McGill. And my professional contacts are almost always by phone. Using the phone is now frequently pre-arranged via email.
- I am finally investing in learning Endnote so that I can just write stuff and then change the format of the notation when I figure out where to submit the it.
- My understanding of probability and of risk has greatly improved, although not always consistently.
- My second book was much more a product of electrons than the first--as I sent chapters back and forth with my co-author (the non-terrorist Bill Ayres), to friends for comments, and to the publisher.
Good thing I have a third laptop in reserve (and a fourth and a fifth, due to a lab that was built for me when I arrived), although this one is a brick.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
The belief is as follows: in any society, somewhere between 10%-25% percent of the community is: insane, evil, criminally stupid, and/or tragically lazy. The question is how much influence these folks have and how does the rest of the community handle them. This is true of political communities and it is true of academic departments. I have worked in departments where a handful were a combination of crazy and dark-intentioned, and the rest were kind and generous. But they didn't want to confront or challenge bad folks, so evil flourished. At another department, the truly nasty people held the commanding heights of the department (although some criminally stupid leadership also played a role), and, again, the rest of the community (well, the senior faculty) refused to see or challenge those creating heaps of problems, ultimately producing more than a decade of receivership.
Luckily, my current department has very few problematic folks and they are well contained. But my experiences in my academic travels led me to consider whether these same kind of dynamics are at play in the subject of much of my research--ethnic conflict. In most ethnic conflicts and also insurgencies as well, the mobilized are usually a minority in the population and the big question is whether they gain followers or, at least, deter folks from being more than bystanders.
We can perhaps consider whether certain forms of dysfunctions are worse than others. My initial guess is that evil is worse than insanity, insanity is worse than stupidity, and laziness is the least harmful.
- Evil is the worst because its effects are more likely to be in the same negative direction. Evil seems like a religious kind of term (thanks Reaper for a couple years of entertainment), but the basic idea is that individuals are deliberately trying to do harm, perhaps to advance their careers (by distributing merit increases in a deliberately prejudicial distribution, as folks at Vermont got caught in the mid-90s); perhaps for revenge or to punish imagined or minor slights; perhaps out of fear or the desire for power, etc.
- Insanity covers a wide range as well, but paranoia, delusions of adequacy/superiority, obsession, and other problems can cause great harm to a department/community, especially if the insanity is shared or empowered. But this is not quite as problematic as evil because it is not as directed towards creating harm. Indeed, some forms can be quite harmless, even amusing. Still, these kinds of dysfunctions can be damaging.
- Criminally stupid covers situations where individuals are not ill-intentioned nor are they driven by unseen demons. Instead, individuals and groups may suffer from incredibly poor instincts (posting a blog like this one may count in this category!), and make poor choices. I worked in a department where its leadership was good intentioned (I think), but almost always erred, making poor choices when the best or at least less worse options were obvious to most. Again, this is less problematic than evil, and probably not as bad as insanity as it is possible to mitigate the harm, and, also, like a broken clock, this kind of problem sometimes produces the right answer anyway, even if by accident.
- The tragically lazy. One of the problems in any community is how to handle the free riders--those who do not contribute to the community but gain from the labors of others. This is particularly a problem when an institution lacks the ability to provide incentives because of job security and limited financial resources. It leads to a significant burden-sharing problem that can cause conflict. However, as long as there are folks who have a long term interest in their community and the costs of providing the goods are not prohibitive, the damage caused by the tragically lazy is not too bad--unless they encourage imitators.
We are also told that the president followed the model of self-examination he uses in all of his big decisions to avoid groupthink. He rigorously "tested his assumptions" on Sotomayor, says an aide, including asking the staff to "make the case against her."from Slate.
Yet more evidence that Obama's decision-making style is aimed at getting the best advice and seeking conflicting opinions. I will have to be clearer in future posts where I disagree with what Obama does, but thus far, I am a big fan of how he operates: being clear about the tradeoffs that the country faces, exposing the various ideas (policies, appointments) to considered debate, and the like. Since the process of decision-making influences the substance, Obama's style of decision-making is more than just notable from the standpoint of social science, but critical for the evolution of US policy--foreign and domestic
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Today presents another blow to the dream of direct democracy. The idea of having the citizens vote on the issues, not just on who represents them, suffered another setback when California's Supreme Court allowed Prop 8 to stand. The process of targeting one segment of the society and reducing their rights was, apparently, within the hands of the people of California. I have always been uneasy with the idea that a thin majority can result in sweeping changes. Up here, the example is always the Quebec referenda, but in the US, it is California propositions.
I lived in California for five years and got to vote on a number of propositions in my short time, including the famous set where different interest groups offered competing and conflicting proposals to re-regulate the auto insurance industry. Voters would get a booklet with both short and long explanations of the proposition with statements by prominent individuals and groups on both sides of each proposition. One of the UCSD profs at the time, Skip Lupia, who has since moved on, worked on this issue--that people really didn't vote on a deep understanding of the issue but on who was associated with which proposition. Being endorsed by the insurance companies or the lawyers was, if I remember correctly, a kiss of death. Kind of like being endorsed by George Bush or Dick Cheney. Direct democracy had lost its quaint idealism by that time (the early 90's), and instead became a process by which the mobilized interests could overwhelm the regular political process and make laws that were simply bad--bad for the people, bad for the government and clearly bad in the long term.
Anyhow, the tale of direct democracy in California is a series of emotionally laden but dubious ideas becoming law. Prop 13 on property taxes and subsequent fiscal measures passed by proposition have hamstrung the California political system, leaving it incapable of responding to the economic crisis (abetted by the remaining Republicans that make the 2/3s rule for tax increases a real barrier). We should not be surprised that Prop 8 came to be--that it was pushed by a well-funded group, that its opponents failed to organize as well as they should, and that now California is stuck.
The only good thing to come out of this is to remind us that institutions, such as specific forms of representative democracy, can be and should be designed to prevent tyranny of the majority. The tradeoff is that we then see tyranny of the minority, as the Republicans in the California state political process have demonstrated. I guess I see the risk of tyranny of majority to be greater and more likely than the dangers if tyranny of the minority. Perhaps that makes me an American more so than any other belief I hold. Or not.
However, given what we know about stats and such and our tendency to worry too much about rare events, we should perhaps take this book's ability to find nearly all of the deaths (perhaps they missed 50 or so) and realize that given the time spent on the baseball field, it is a far safer place than a car or a home. I also wonder how football would compare as it tends to get away with things like steroids and career-ending injuries in ways that baseball cannot.
- Ethnicity, despite the fact that she will be the first Hispanic on the Court;
- Gender, despite the fact that having two women out of nine is still a bit out of line with the number of women now reaching elite positions in Law;
- Her demonstrated wisdom:
In what may be her best-known ruling, Judge Sotomayor issued an injunction against major league baseball owners in April 1995, effectively ending a baseball strike of nearly eight months, the longest work stoppage in professional sports history, which had led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
Nope, it is that President Obama is as big a fan of alliteration as I am.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially as the right wing was aiming to spike any candidate chosen by Obama. But by choosing an Hispanic, he appeals to the swing vote this group represents; by choosing a woman, he is not compelled to replace Ginsburg with a woman and yet can solidify a somewhat better gender balance; by choosing someone who sided with the players against the owners, Obama appeals to unions; by choosing someone who started out in the projects, he shows that his "elitism" is focused on merit, not status upon birth. You can call it a trifecta, you can call it a grand slam, and there may be bumps in the road, but this seems to be the prototypical Obama decision--maximizing political capital, thorough vetting, and a potentially big payoff.
It will be interesting to see how the Republicans go about alienating the remaining Hispanics in their ever-narrowing tent as they try to fight this nomination.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Dick Cheney is getting far more attention than he deserves, having helped sail the ship of state into the rocks. He has been in the media far more often the past couple of months than in his entire reign of error/terror. People still wonder what happened to the potentially corrupt but still semi-solid "adult" from the first Bush Administration, with recent reports focusing on how 9/11 unhinged the man. Regardless, his hands are all over the worst mistakes made by the Bush Administration, including preventing experts from the State Department taking part in the first stages of the Occupation in Iraq; the torture memos; and the expansion of executive power. But the media loves a fight, so they are giving him far more attention than he deserves, as he makes false claims and panders to the worst fears. As much as Saturday Night Live mocked G.W. Bush with the classic skit with "John McCain" doing his best not to appear with Will Ferrell's Bush, I would think that most Republican candidates would not want to be in the same picture as Cheney either. Yes, his numbers have bounced up a bit, but so has Bush's--people can get nostalgic once their hands are off the switch. Cheney is not winning too many converts these days, but his efforts to kick Colin Powell out of the party only helps make the GOP the party of a very right wing and no one else.
Sarah Palin continues to be seen as a potentially major player in the GOP and potential Presidential candidate. Given her statements during the campaign about real America and her background, I think she seems mighty comfortable winning the votes of white rural America. And I am ok with that in the near and medium term, because that is a losing strategy. Not too long ago, the Republicans owned the suburbs, where many of the votes are,* but not so much now. She can talk about pal-ing around with terrorists all she wants, but if her hubby was/is really a member of the Alaskan separatist party, then she is sleeping with a traitor. And her family values campaign is laughable, given the record of her own family. Is this really the best the Republicans can do? Who else could McCain have considered?
And then there is Rush Limbaugh. Don't really need to say much that Al Franken and Wandka Sykes have not covered. The hypocrisy is stunning, the mean-spiritedness is amazing, and he seems to have more power over the GOP than before. Which means that the Republicans are bereft of ideas and of balls. Ridge and Powell seem to be exceptions, pushing back a bit. Everyone else who has thought about rebelling against Rush's reign has retreated. It will be interesting to if this new rebellion endures and gains followers.
I don't see how the Republicans can hope to win the median voter. Sure, they can do well in Lubbock and other highly conservative districts, but they are losing states and the electoral map that seemed so favorable under Reagan now is stacked against them.
While Democrats can cheer about their good fortunes (and must be careful that they don't engage in their habit to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory), we have to wonder just a bit about how unhealthy this is for American Democracy. The two party system is not going to go away (see an interesting post at our favorite poli-stats site), but accountability requires competition. In the short run, it would be nice of Obama could rule reasonably without restraint, but the Dems can abuse their majority as they have in the past, and competition is the best cure for corruption. So, given the eight dark years, we can cheer that the party of negative nabobs are on the outs, but we need these guys if they return to becoming the voice of reasonable expenditures, rational taxes, and restrained realpolitik. But if they remain captured by creation scientists, anti-government ideologues, and neo-con arrogance, then they belong in the margins in which they will dwell.
So, who is the fourth horse-person?
* Not to mention the cities, which have been in the Democratic column and now have an urbanite as President.
Strategically, this bomb does not change much. The US and its allies (Japan and South Korea) have already been deterred from attacking North Korea--not so much because of its reputed nuclear arsenal, but due to the conventional balance. At the start of any war, North Korea would level Seoul with its artillery, causing massive damage. These guns are underground and can pop out, shoot and pop back. Over the course of much time, they could be knocked out by US air power and missiles, but the damage would be done. So, no bombing or invasion of North Korea, bomb or no bomb. Indeed, I compare North Korea to Iraq to ask the question of why the US attacked one and not the other--and low hanging fruit (Iraq) is one of the likely answers.
Politically, it is more complicated. The bomb test is likely to reinforce existing beliefs about the intractability of the problem, the difficulties of bargaining with North Korea, and the like. Drezner was quite right to criticize the Kreminology of North Korea--essentially reading tea leaves to figure out which leaders are rising and falling and what their positions are. This test does indicate that North Korea is not moving in a more cooperative direction, but the recent missile tests sent the same signal. It is clearly a signal to the Obama Administration that a new US government is not going get the benefit of the doubt or any concessions in the near term. Indeed, this test demonstrates that North Korea does not care too much about American domestic politics, but heightens the world's interest in NK's.
This test does make a bit clearer the limits of Chinese power. China has much invested in keeping its image as the key power in the region and as the powerbroker in North Korea's relations with everyone else. And this test, like earlier NK actions, indicates that China has very little leverage.
Where does this leave us? Deterred. With tainted concessions. Limited options at best. The good news is that North Korea seems far more interested in preventing interference in its own society than in interfering elsewhere. Which makes the North Korean bomb program perhaps a bit less dangerous and upsetting to the status quo than Iran's. Of course, that is cold comfort--it is like saying that I'd rather encounter a brown bear than a polar bear.
Update: see this for one example of speculation about politics in North Korea.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
I should have argued that religious differences are most threatening to democratic stability as religions, unlike other identities, imply differences not just in who one is and who one is not (all identities do that), but, more importantly, usually contain different visions about the proper role of government in the society. Religions inherently have political implications by defining what kind of behavior is appropriate, what the right forms of punishment are and who gets to say.
Kinship--where ties to families and extended kin--may be as or more problematic than language now that I think about it some more. If a society is organized around tribe or clan, then any government official will be seen as a partisan, making it very hard for anyone to trust the government and its agents. While suspicion of government can be a healthy thing in moderation, too much undermines the ability to govern.
Linguistic divisions can be problematic as well, as Belgium's recent problems exemplify. Language matters, again not just because it serves to differentiate people, but because how the government regulates languages has direct implications for employment, the educational system, the justice system and the like. Which language that is chosen will influence who can succeed and who is less likely to do so. Changes in language regulations can disenfranchise people, can render people unemployable, etc. While the Sri Lankan conflict has multiple identities in play, including religion (Buddhist extremism might seem like an oxymoron, but this conflict has proven otherwise), but the conflict originated when politicians competed by taking positions over language.
Race, despite its history as the central cleavage in the United States, is not inherently a problematic divide. Two features make it stand out literally: that race is often but not always visible to the naked eye whereas the other key identities do not necessarily have visible markers, and one cannot change one's race despite Vanilla Ice's best efforts (and my campers back in the day when I was a counselor). This properties can make race socially and politically challenging, but different height or skin color by themselves do not lead to political differences.
Over the past twenty years, scholars of ethnic conflict have largely concurred that identities are not static and that several can co-exist. Circumstances may change that lead to one kind of identity gaining more salience than others. And we now see that happening in Somalia.
Somalia has long been divided along clan lines and sub-clans, even before the country fell apart in the early 1990s. I studied Somalia when I was working on my dissertation because it seemed to exemplify the conventional wisdom--that only a country that had no ethnic divisions and risk of separatism could support separatism elsewhere. Given Somalia's inconsisent irredentism, it was worthy of exploration. I quickly realized that Somalia has always faced significant internal divisions and its policies on the kin abroad in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya varied with the relative power of different clan-families in Somalia. Most of the violence before and after the fall of Siyad Barre has been between different kinship groups--sub-clans and clans.
In reaction to the un-ending violence, an Islamic movement gained strength, based on Wahhabism, and has been opposed by the US and its regional ally in Ethiopia. The dynamic of late as been the counter-rise of a Sufist movement, as explained in today's NY Times. We see new alliances emerging across clan divisions, united Sufist against Wahhabi. However, it is not clear who will win and which divide will remain the most salient. Even if the Sufis win, it would be likely that clan ties would re-emerge and undermine whatever stability that might have developed. These problems are not unique to Somalia-they just happen to be more visible and more obviously destructive.
Indeed, one cannot overestimate the tendency for science combined with international politics to lead to destructive outcomes--chemical warfare, nuclear weapons, etc. Suuuuu-purrrrrr!
Saturday, May 23, 2009
As an American anglophone in Montreal, Quebec, I am often asked about: (a) my language skills; and (b) the linguistic requirements of living in Quebec. Of course, there is a relationship between the two, as (b) partially determines (a). My French skills are slightly better than restaurant-level. I can read most non-technical stuff and get the gist--signs, emails about ultimate, etc. I can ask questions but often cannot understand the answers. I had four years of badly taught and badly learned French when I was in high school, and then, apart from a trip one summer in college that included France (and dare I say Belgium or Brussels?), I did not use my French at all in Oberlin, San Diego, Texas or Vermont.
It "reminds me of the old joke:
"Guard: 'Now tell me where you hid the money, or you will suffer.'
"Translator: 'Tell him where the money is, or you will suffer.'
"Prisoner: 'I'll never speak.'
"Translator: 'He says he won't tell you.'
"Guard: Putting gun to prisoner's head. "Tell him I will blow his brains out if he doesn't tell me immediately.'
"Translator: 'He will shoot you in the head unless you tell him now.'
"Prisoner: 'I buried a million dollars under the floorboards in the old woodshed.'
"Translator: Pauses. 'He says you don't have the guts to shoot him . . . .' "
I would not have applied for the job at McGill had I not been assured that I could get by in English. I know my limitations pretty well. I have had problems learning three languages (four, if you count English), so I was assured that I would be teaching in English. Students at McGill can do their work in either of Canada's official languages, which means that I pass on the French papers/exams to teaching assistants. The only difficulty is when the rare graduate student does work in French since all of my undergrad classes have teaching assistants except the honours seminar. My linguistic limitation has meant that I have had to say no to the occasional MA student, but since I supervise more than my share of students, this is a blessing, at least for me. I have occasionally presented my work in front of Francophone audiences but in English.
In terms of life in Montreal, I live a largely un-immersed lifestyle. We chose to live in the suburbs where the population is 1/3 Anglophone, 1/3 Francophone, 1 /3 Allophone (immigrants who probably speak 3 languages). I have both English and French programs on my satellite dish, and watch the English. I see movies in English, I listen to English radio stations (which must play 1/3 or so Canadian content), and, when I go shopping, the person usually says "Bonjour/Hi" and then goes with whichever language I use in my response. When I get stopped by the police and ask if the interaction can be in English (I could probably understand it en Francais, but with a high risk encounter, I want to be sure), the response was once given "I don't have to," but then the cop continued on in English. The tax forms (and parking tickets) are the most bilingual publications of the Quebec government.
Our daughter goes to a private school since immigrants (and Canadians who either were educated in English outside of Canada or educated in French) are not allowed to send their kids to the English public schools. In that school, half of her time was in French from first grade to sixth and now it is dialed back to being just one of many classes that meets for one hour a day or so.
Should I have spent significant time and effort when I first got here to master French? Some of my colleagues have (although, notably, those living downtown and sans children at the time). I am not sure. As a new professor at McGill (a very time intensive teaching position, compared with TTU) with a long commute (also new to me), I felt that I didn't have the time or energy to dedicate to the task. Plus, as mentioned above, I know that I am lousy at learning languages. On the other hand, I might be lousy at languages as I have never excelled in topics that don't interest me, which in middle and high school were: French, music, and art. Indeed, one of the problems with my French experience in middle school was the combination of French and art--projects. Yuck!
Of course, the Quebec readers of my blog will say that I moved to Quebec, so I should learn the native language. And they have a point. However, I never conceived of the move to Montreal as a move to Quebec but a move to Canada (and a move away from Texas). Still, I often feel embarassed when I am in a crowd of folks when the conversation is in French. I can get some of the gist of the conversation, but I know I am missing out. And it is a bit rude to expect everyone to switch to English just because I am linguistically limited.
So, after seven years, will I re-dedicate myself to the task? Aside from consistently playing on a Francophone team on Thursdays each summer, no. I am lazy and I am lame. I don't have a good aptitude for languages, and my attitude is not so good either.
So, when I need some translation, I will have google do it for me, or ask my daughter, who is reluctantly good en Francais.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Gates revealed on the Today show this morning that there are terrorists on American soil -- and in fact, behind bars. "We have many terrorists in U.S. prisons today. I mean, this started 20 years ago when I was at CIA, and we captured a Hezbollah terrorist who had been involved in killing an American sailor on an aircraft that had been taken hostage in Beirut. We brought him to the United States, put him on trial and put him in prison."
Gates, who is a straight shooter, added, "The truth is, there's a lot of fear-mongering about this."
But I resisted. I did not cave, and, now that I have another semi-endless contract with the cell phone company, I am unlikely to relent anytime soon. The idea of paying yet another $30-40 per month plus taxes for some cool stuff seemed a bit much. But with the loss of my older and smaller i-pod (I had two, including one newer 160 gb classic for HD backup and for recording interview) via theft, I could now get an i-touch. This is an i-phone without the phone. The wi-fi capability would facilitate much but not all of the cool-ness of the iphone. But, again, hard to justify with a perfectly functional, albeit heavy, classic ipod.
Waiting is the hardest part, as Tom Petty has indicated, and I am a terribly impatient person. But, the best strategy with technology is always to wait for the next price cut. Besides, I still need to persuade the wife to layout the additional bucks per month for an HD DVR.
But he also identifies trends--the exponential increase in robots/drones/etc. in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In my book, I mention how one robotics firm was asked a few years ago by the military whether it could design a robot that looked like the "Hunter-Killer robot of Terminator."So, the military is watching these movies and thinking about the practical applications. Quickly, the US put missiles upon platforms, such as the Predator, that were designed at first just for surveillance.
These developments raise all kinds of questions, including:
- how do the defense bureaucracies fight against unmanned weapons systems and preserve their traditional missions?
- will these machines make war more likely as politicians will be less constrained by casualty aversion?
- will Star Trek's imagination eventually be realized so that war becomes virtual?
- will James Cameron get a cut from the defense contractors who make the war robots?
- will I,Robot be re-made soon, and, if so, by robots?
Thursday, May 21, 2009
My initial thoughts are:
- I still don't understand why Cheney is given any credibility on this or any other issue, given how His Crankiness failed the US over the past eight years.
- I think the best part of the speech was that Obama tried to treat everyone as adults, whether that works or not, making clear what he had to do, given the laws passed by the Congress and the decisions made by the courts; what the tradeoffs are likely to be; and the willingness to subject himself to oversight.
- I do find it ironic that there is now the Not in My Backyard sentiment, as prisons were seen in the early 90's like Intel factories--a source of jobs and communities fought for them. But then again, the critics of the closure are grasping at straws.
To be clear, handling detainees is a difficult problem in a war with terrorists, as there is no equivalent of VE/VJ day. But I think Obama's speech summarizes the challenges well and how the Bush Administration cut corners and trapped us in a situation that was/is messier than it had to be. And Cheney's hands are all over the mistakes in these processes.
It does remind me of a particularly funky part of Montreal life--the new car dealers on the island of Montreal do not sell cars on weekends. There is an association of car dealerships, and every few years they vote whether to keep this restriction in place. When asked, the dealers say that their employees should not have to work seven days a week (apparently shifts are unknown to them) and that buyers should get a life if they cannot find a few hours in the middle of the week to buy a car. Really. Well, given that it is dark for much of the winter after four pm or so, they are basically saying people should buy their cars at night or take time off from work. And that buying a car is a transaction that only takes a couple of hours. Sure, for the paperwork, but for test driving more than one car, shopping around for the best price, seeing what you can get for your used car.... Get a life, indeed.
So, I am struck by both the big American companies and the Montreal dealerships. Apparently, selling cars is not really the focus of their enterprise. Please illuminate these decisions for me if you can.
Update: for an explanation, see here.
But this raises a bigger question that I have been grappling with the past few years and the literature on civil-military relations has been facing since its birth: what is the proper role for civilians in the making of military policy? The classic phrase is that war is too important to be left to the generals, and the history of warfare is replete with civilians getting into the military's business successfully (see Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command) and catastrophically (Rumsfeld). I had always believed that Cohen had the right argument, until I found out that Cohen worked with the Bush Administration.
In Canada, for the past several years at least, it seems like there is actually very little civilian oversight or interference--that the Chief of the Defense Staff makes the decisions of how the military operates. Indeed, the old Huntingtonian distinction is of professional militaries that don't tell the civilians what to do but instead have autonomy to decide the how of military operations seems to be exemplified by Canada. And it seems to have worked out pretty well--that the Canadian Forces on the ground have more discretion, and this has led to a greater impact and probably better outcomes on the ground. As a result, the Auerswald and Saideman project focusing on the extent of delegation from the home capital to the commander in the field has had a bias--I think we implicitly assert that more discretion is better.
So, I believed that civilian intervention was good before, but how about now? Why do I seem to favor Gates the micro-manager and not Rumsfeld the micro-manager? First, delegation requires oversight--one cannot simply give authority to underlings and then ignore what they do. So, the fact that there is almost no civilian oversight in Canada, in my humble opinion, is problematic even if delegating a lot of discretion is the correct course of action. One's agents are going to perform best if they are held accountable. And that probably gets to the big difference between Gates and Rumsfeld--not of "personal style" but of accountability. Rumsfeld pushed his views on others, but then often tuned out. Gates seems to be trying to hold the military accountable.
Second, one fo the key phrases I heard over and over with the Canadian military is that the chain of command in Ottawa for the past several years sees its role as "setting the conditions so that the commander on the ground can be successful." This seems to be what Gates is trying to do in the various stories
- investing in base infrastructure so that the few guys who can "drive" the UAVs in a distant theater don't waste time commuting to banks and such, but spend their time most effectively.
- insisting on more helos being sent to Afghanistan to improve the ability of the guys on the ground to operate.
- reducing the number of Military Police battalions to be deployed to Baghdad in 2003;
- putting a "force cap" on the number of conventional military units that could be in Afghanistan in the winter of 2002 (directly undermining the Anaconda operation).
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
And this gets us back to the recurring theme: cognitive consistency. Ok, the process in play is not just psychological but political--that opponents of Obama will want to take the darkest possible interpretation to undermine him and his supporters (perhaps even myself) will always take the most positive to try to win the political battle of the moment.
The measurement problem--how do we know we are making progress, how do we know we are making good decisions--is incredibly hard. Did we overreact to H1N1 or not? No pandemic thus far, but the effects of preventive efforts, like deterrence, are really hard to measure. And we are really impatient. I remember being asked by the media days after the bombing of Serbia started about the policy's failure, and folks were quick to judge the invasion Iraq to be a failure because of the sandstorms. In both cases, the objectives were reached in a reasonable time frame, but one that was longer than expected. So, expectations drove the perception of success. More problematically, the real question for both campaigns is not whether US military could achieve its goals, but whether the effort was politically and strategically sound? What are the goals, what are the costs, and what are the second and third order consequences of the policy?
One of the common threads in most of the discussions I have had with miltiary types in Canada, the US, Brussels and Afghanistan is that progress in counter-insurgency campaigns is incredibly difficult to measure. Body counts clearly do not suffice, but neither do number of clinics or schools opened. The best way to measure is whether locals, Afghans in this case, are willing to bet on the government or the insurgents. Are they willing to provide action-able intel to NATO, ISAF and the Afghan government, do they sit on the fence, or do they help the insurgents? Unfortunately, this information is classified.
Even if we had such a measure, that indicated trends in where the Afghans stand, we could still debate about how much progress is appropriate given how much time has passed and how much has been expended. Unfortunately, the debate would probably not turn so much on the facts, but on how it could best be played. Again, 1 in 7 recidivists among the detainees is really not bad. Perfection is not an option.
Sorry for the rambling, but then again, you can best measure for yourself whether this post was progressive (illuminated) or regressive (confused or even destroyed knowledge).
- I no longer think in American $$ and then convert to CA$$, despite the fluctuations in exchange rates. When we arrived C$1 =US$.63, peaked at about parity and is now down back to C$1=US.8x.
- Similarly, I don't have to convert celsius to farenheight to understand the weather report. But I still insist that the latter had Zero right--when it is below O F, it is just much more uncomfortable. My dogs have always been excellent thermometers--they have always behaved differently above and below O F.
- I find myself having to figure out where to stick "u", depending on who I am writing for--rumor/rumour?, humor/humour, etc. Defense/Defence still drives me crazy, given the subjects of my research, including the Department of Defense and the Department of National Defence.
- It took seven years for me to use a hockey term, rather than football, when I was engaged in a conflict: that I was going to "drop my gloves."
- My daughter has almost said "eh" and make ordinary statements sound like questions (the eh is often implicit), but my lifetime of American training has thus far kept that from becoming a habit.
- I have come to expect snow in April, although doing so cost me $5 this year in a bet with my daughter.
- I am studying Canadian foreign/defense policy. Well, only its effort in Afghanistan and in a comparative context.
- Give as much value and meaning to the UN as Canadians tend to do.
- Refer to "university" rather than "college." As in, I went university, rather than I went to college.
- Dropping "the" when talking about hospitals--as in, "they are in hospital."
- Zed--nope, going to be Zee the rest of my life.
- Be able to understand liters per 100 km as opposed to miles per gallon.
- See a bag of milk and take it for granted.
- Study Arctic Sovereignty.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Raiders has something that the rest cannot match--it was the first, and it set the bar mighty high. It also has Karen Allen throughout the entire movie, rather than just a few bits here and there--one of things elevating Skull. Indeed, that raises one of the big questions that may drive the entire ranking: the female co-star.
So, Love Interests: Karen Allen/Marion Ravenwood (Raiders, Skull)> Allison Doody/Elsa Schneider (Crusade) > Kate Capshaw/Willie Scott. Admittedly, Karen Allen would always win here because she was also in my other favorite movie of all time.
- Karen Allen/Marion was simply the best: spunk, humor, cunning, an ability to imbibe and yet try to escape. She was the most pro-active of the love interests (a term to separate Cate Blanchett from the rest), owning her own business, trying to escape, etc. She was fun in Skulls, but did not have as much to do. Still spunky and funny.
- Allison Doody had more complexity in her role than the rest, as she had to be desirable, smart, and yet fatally flawed due to her greed. She was conniving enough not only to fool Indy, but also to trick Donovan who knew she was not to be trusted. Not only did she chew on Indy's lip, but she made it easy to believe that both Henry Jonses would, well, partake of her charms. Plus she carried off the accent well, given her Irish background. Indeed, this is one of the closest categories, depsite my deep fondness (ok, enduring crush) for KA.
- Kate Capshaw got quite a lot of backlash, in part because she ended up being Mrs. Speilberg, but also because her character was whiny and superficial. But then, you were supposed to find her annoying. So, I think her work was fine, but she was annoying, so that makes her a less attractive/favorable love interest than the other two.
The Object: Ark of the Convenant > Holy Grail > Shankara Stones > Crystal Skull. Ordinarily, I would say that the Holy Grail would make for a better target for Indy and his competitors, but it is not clear how its powers would be as advantageous to the Nazis as the Ark. The Ark clearly was a weapon of war and not only melted the faces of the Nazis but also sent bolts of something through the other soldiers, contained spirits of some kind and erased the markings on its crate. The Grail resonated because it is the Grail--the most famous missing object and capabile of inspiring obsession and great comedy. Ranking the Stones vs. the Skull was harder, but the unintentional comedy involved with the skull marks it down.
Bad Guy: Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman-Raiders) > Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett-Skull) > Mola Ram (Amrish Puri-Doom) > Walter Donovan (Julian Glover-Crusade)
- Belloq had more personality than the others. He made a reasonable, if not entirely convincing, claim that he was just a darker version of Indiana Jones. And he was able to use this knowledge to call Indy's bluff when he threatened to blow up the ark. He also tried to protect Marion.
- Blanchett comes in second here mostly because the other two villains are pretty lame. She was not given that much to work with, but ran with it well. Spalko was a committed commie, smart and pretty dangerous. Yet, she could not defeat Mutt (Shia LeB) in a duel.
- Mola Ram was actually pretty scary. Not that bright, but scary--sharp fingernails and everything.
- Walter Donovan was just a greedy businesman. Obsessed by immortality but stupid enough to trust Elsa at the end.
Second Stooges: A key category where Raiders stands out. Ronald Lacey as Major Toht, the Gestapo torture guy, was the scariest, but also had the best comedic bits, like the numchuk-like device he used to hang his coat. Vogel, the prominent Nazi in Crusade, was simply not that scary or funny or interesting.
Least Unintentional Comedy: Raiders > Crusade > Doom > Skull.
- Skull: We can perhaps forgive Lucas and Speilberg over the aliens and skull stuff because they were playing on the 1950's movies that featured such things, just as Raiders was like a 1930's serial. But, Indy surviving an atomic explosion in a refrigerator was funny for the wrong reasons. It was just too silly.
- Doom: Similarly, there is the sequence where he leaps from the plane and survives due to the liferaft as parachute. There are other parts of the movie as well that are funny for the wrong reasons.
- Crusade: Old knight.
- Raiders: I don't think there is a sequence in the movie that is unintentionally funny. Let me know if I am wrong about that.
- Raiders has the opening scene in the Amazon, the fight at the bar in Nepal, the fight on and around the plane, the long fight sequence on and below the truck (just amazing in a world with limited CGI), and the opening of the ark (kind of an action scene).
- Crusade had the battle in Venice, the motorcycle joust, the fighter plane sequence, and the fight against and on the tank.
- Doom had a great musical opening number. Some people don't like it, but Anything Goes was fun. And the battle on the rope bridge was good, but the mining cart ride was a bit over the top (unintentionally funny), although the battle in the mine itself was a good one.
- Skull: the sequence at the beginning in the warehouse was ok, and the jungle chase was pretty good, but pales compared to the truck race in Raiders and the tank battle in Crusade.
Best Prof Moment: Of course, one of the best aspect of Indiana Jones is that he is a professor. The coolest prof in filmdom--not hard, given that most are portrayed as lechs. So, Crusade > Raiders > Skull > Doom. In Crusade, he climbs out the window to avoid office hours. If only I could unlock the sliding glass door to the balcony, I could climb down, too. Alas. Raiders (and Crusade) had Indiana Jones lecturing, with rapt attention from his admirers. Skull had the nice bit of racing through Yale and Mutt (Shia) saying "You are a teacher?" "Part-time" was the response, with the rest of his prof hours spent on research and service. Not even a glimmer of prof in Doom, which perhaps did Doom the movie.
Hardest To Turn Away From: This is a Sports Guy standard--which movie must you completely watch if you stumble upon it while switching channels? Raiders > Crusade (although it is pretty close since Crusaders is quite re-watch-able) > Doom. Doom is still fun to watch, but has enough scenes that are not as fully engrossing so switching the channel is possible. I have not seen Skulls enough to evaluate yet.
Where Do We Stand? Raiders was tops in all categories except for Prof moment. Indeed, Crusade is not as close as I thought it was after re-watching it last night. Crusade's flaws, although minor, were enough to create some separation. Crusade was 2nd in almost every category, except had worst bad guy and worst icky moment, but best Prof moment. Doom actually held up pretty well with mostly third places against tough competition and a better icky moment than all but Raiders. But severe downgrade for no prof moment. Skulls was consistently inferior--either third or fourth, except for Cate Blanchett and I may be giving that character more credit for her as an actress than the role and its impact. Will be seeing Skull a few more times in the next few weeks since it is on the HBO-equivalents up here and will be better able to assess.
Perhaps I gamed the rankings, given my pre-existing preferences, but I think that these criteria help to clarify what might have been a somewhat obvious ranking ;) As an Indy fan, I enjoyed all four, despite the critical reviews of Doom and Skull. They were all good rides, but Raiders and Crusades were excellent movies. And neither Doom nor Skulls did as much damage to the franchise and the canon as Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and the fact that Leia remembered her mother in Return of the Jedia who died when giving birth to her in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, I still enjoyed all of the Star Wars movies, even the prequels, especially as there were some fun politics disguised by bad dialogue and some bad acting.
To conclude, I still remember the ad campaign for Doom: If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.
* Ok, in ST, I would say that the new movie is 3rd, with Khan and Whales ranking 1st and 2nd. Hard to remember the different NextGen movies, but I would guess that the New Contact (Borg/time travel) would be fourth, and then ST6 and then the various odd number and Next Gen that blur, with the key condition that the worst ST movie is the first. Almost surprising that they were allowed to make any new ones.
- Ethnic outbidding: This is when two or more factions of one ethnic group play a game of one-ups-man-ship, each promising to be a better nationalist and defend their people against another ethnic group. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known at decolonization, was not seen as a likely spot for a brutal, enduring conflict. But in the 1956 election, one of the major Sinhalese parties realized that it was really just competing for Sinhalese votes since they make up 90% of the population, more or less. That party played up the big divide of language and promoted Sinhalese as the national language. It won the election, and with the British-style first-past-the-post electoral system, a sweeping majority. That started a series of elections where the two major Sinhalese parties competed by promising to marginalize the Tamils. Donald Horowitz used this case to illustrate and understand ethnic outbidding both in articles and in his classic Ethnic Groups in Conflict.
- Group Concentration Matters More than Ethnic Heterogeneity. In academic discussions, there are largely separate debates/literatures on ethnic conflict and civil war. In the ethnic conflict literature, there is much focus on group concentration and its impact on ethnic violence and almost none on ethnic heterogeneity. In the civil war literature, almost all of the efforts to test quantitatively relationships between various factors and violence use as an indicator for ethnicity diversity and largely ignore group concentration and usually it is found to be insignificant. In this case of Sri Lanka, we find more support for the ethnic conflict consensus and less for the civil war view, as the Tamils were both concentrated in certain parts of the country but also somewhat spread out. In terms of heterogeneity, Sri Lanka would be at the low end of the spectrum since there are essentially only two major groups and one is roughly 90% of the population.
- Separatist wars are longer-lasting. Separatist conflicts last longer than other kinds of ethnic conflicts. In the article cited, Fearon argues that these kinds of conflicts face greater challenges for governments and rebels to make credible commitments (Fearon would quibble with my focus on separatism where he focuses on sons of the soil, but that is an argument for another day).
- Diasporas are problematic for both the conflict and for outside actors. While diasporas are the subject of my next project, I can safely assert now that they greatly complicate things. The Tamil Tigers have been extraordinarily successful in gaining funding from Tamils around the world. There are real questions to be asked about how much of this is voluntary and due to kinship (how we usually see diaspora financing) and how much is the result of protection rackets run by the Tigers in Canada, the US and elsewhere. Canada, because the Tamil population resides in some important ridings (constituencies), was slow to categorize the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization.
- Neighbors Can Be Trouble. Adjacent countries tend to be key, as many can be bases for the rebels. For a new book that documents this quite well, see Idean Saleyhan's Rebels W/o Borders. India, particularly its state of Tamil Nadu, provided much support for the Tigers, particularly before India's ill-fated intervention.
- Military Victories Produce Longer Lasting Periods of Peace But More Immediate Bloodshed. Studies of civil wars have shown that the ending matters--that where one side wins outright, violence is less likely to recur. In other kinds of conflicts, cease-fires and settlements tend to get violated. But the problem with letting them fight it out is that the winner is then unconstrained and can then engage in retaliation, leading to mass killings.
To be clear, I am not a fan of either the Sri Lankan government or the Tamil Tigers. Institutions from 1956-1983 created incentives for the Sinhalese leaders to engage in ethnic outbidding, which alienated the Tamils. However, the Tigers were the one group to emerge, largely by killing Tamils with whom they disagreed. Recent and on-going events have created opportunities for a new approach. Whether the bloodshed is the last of its kind or just part of the larger conflict yet to be resolved depends on how the various actors react to the new circumstances.
Monday, May 18, 2009
While I disagree that the latest news exonerates the folks who got the early blame (BG Karpinski and the other folks in Baghdad), it is relatively clear where most of the accountability resides. This piece names the names and places the blame where it should be. Those under them can take satisfaction that they were doing things that were approved at the highest level of government, but following an illegal order is following an illegal order. Nuremberg did away with that defense, as far as I can tell.
On a personal note, I was glad to see that the JS lawyer trying to do the right thing:
We had to get legal approval from the JS lawyers on pretty much everything we did (guidance cables, policy documents, etc.) and it was not a pro forma process.
In October 2002, when the legal counsel for the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff attempted to conduct a thorough legal review of the techniques, Haynes ordered her to stop, because "people were going to see" the objections that some in the military had raised.
Anyhow, the Salon piece is disturbing as it is quite clarifying.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
I was going to continue the weekend's theme of light-hearted posting, but Frank Rich's column, which linked to a GQ piece (cited above and quoted below as well--a very sharp article on the damage Rumsfeld wrought) on former Secretary of Defense Donald "No Mistake is Too Large" Rumsfeld, has got me going this morning. In past postings, I have briefly addressed The Worst Secretary of Defense in US history in past posts (here, here, and here).
My conversations with more than a dozen Bush loyalists, including several former cabinet-level officials and senior military commanders, have revealed another element of this legacy-building moment: intense feelings of ill will toward Donald Rumsfeld. Though few of these individuals would speak for the record (knowing that their former boss, George W. Bush, would not approve of it), they believe that Rumsfeld’s actions epitomized the very traits—arrogance, stubbornness, obliviousness, ineptitude—that critics say drove the Bush presidency off the rails.
I spent a year in Rumsfeld's Pentagon, but never interacted directly with him. Instead, I felt tremors in the dark side of the force via the behavior of those under him and through snowflakes. First, a bit of scene-setting. I always react a bit whenever I hear "Pentagon" being used to describe some sort of position coming out of the Department of Defense. Why? Because the Pentagon really does have five sides to it: the Office of the Secretary of Defense (mostly civilians who directly advise the SecDef), the Joint Staff (mostly military who advise the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who then advises the SecDef and the President), and the Army, Navy and Air Force Staffs. In my time, there was often very little consensus, at least over the Balkans (I had no opportunity to see how things were playing out in other regions or issues), between OSD and the JS. But I did see that the folks in OSD lived in fear of Rumsfeld, so much so that they often would let the JS take the lead on writing a policy paper rather than risk being criticized for having their own ideas.
Second, the snowflakes referred to the memos that Rummy would send down that needed an immediate response (before they melt). This was his way to get the bureaucracy moving, I suppose. But he was not really looking for the best advice unless "best" meant what fitted with his preconceptions. I personally was responsible for replying to the same snowflake three times, as we did not give him the answer he desired. We were pretty stubborn, I suppose. Clearly, others in defense bureaucracy were less so (suitable spot here for another jab at Tommy Franks).
But why does Rummy vex me so?
- Because he ruled his fiefdom with fear and intimidation and only sought information that concurred with his views, I left the Pentagon in 2002 expecting his people to mess up the war in Iraq. I just didn't realize that he/they would take the list of things not to do and turn it into a checklist.
- This was bad enough, but he was determined to control, or at least prevent the influence of others, areas he perceived as belong to him: “I’m not saying State could have done any better,” this official says of the bungled reconstruction efforts. “But he owned it [GQ piece again].”
- His selective attention span yo-yoing created uncertainty and policy shifts. He micro-managed the war in Afghanistan (well-document in a good book on the Anaconda battle), but then completely ignored it after the Taliban fell and as Iraq heated up. He then shifted attention back when he realized that his commander there (Gen. Barno) was doing more than counter-terrorism but counter-insurgency as well (Auerswald and Saideman paper to be submitted somewhere soon). Rumsfeld seems to have done the same thing in Iraq, micro-managing the lead up to the invasion and the several months that followed "the end of military operations," and then he checked out again. While micomanagement can be and often is counter-productive, extreme shifts from one end of the spectrum and back can be even more detrimental.
- He had the temperament of a spoiled eight year-old. He was quite talented at blocking the efforts of others, even if he had no constructive alternative: “No one,” says another former official, “threw sand in the gears like Rumsfeld.”
- He sought to confuse, rather than clarify, to avoid accountability. Unknown unknowns, indeed.
- I didn't know that he was also partly responsible for messing up the government's reponse to Hurricane Katrina.
- There are rumors that he is writing a memoir that paints himself as an opponent of the war.
The money quote that captures it all is:
Given that there have only been Secretaries of Defense since 1947, being the worst SecDef in US history is not as impressive as, say, worst President since 1900 or ever (hmmm).
Saturday, May 16, 2009
First, pirates become all the vogue (if that makes any sense), with a series of blockbuster movies: Cutthroat Island? No, Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite significant decreases in quality and coherence, the series continued to clean up at the box office in North America and around the world. Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) has gained in popularity, becoming an international phenomenon. A pirate game was one of the first to sweep facebook. Indeed, a major religion has seized up on piracy's decline in the 20th century with the rise of global warming:
Sure, some might suggest spurious correlation--that there is no real causal process at work, but more research is required to determine the connections. Even now, scholars are scrambling for grant money to find the causal mechanisms involved.
All of this attention to fictional pirates and questionable correlations has been followed by ... a sudden spike in piracy (although it may have actually peaked a few years ago), particularly in the waters off of Somalia, but not exclusively so. While the actual impact of piracy in the aggregate is actually quite small, it is still disturbing (at least for the sake of this post) that the media fad in piracy has been followed by an actual wave of piracy. Why is this disturbing?
Because the trend du jour is: Zombies!!! There have been an outbreak of zombie games (Last Stand 2, Resident Evil, Pandemic 2, Zombie Rampage); movies (28 Days/Weeks Later, remakes of Day/Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead [my personal favorite]; and books, including World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide, both by Max Brooks, with the former soon to be a movie. Indeed, WWZ has even spawned a fan fiction site.
So, is H1N1 really a coverup for a Zombie outbreak? Is life once again imitating art? Given how poorly governments are likely to react (again, see WWZ), I certainly hope not.
There is good news, however. The newest fad, that of moping emo Vampires (Twilight), is far less threatening.