Friday, July 31, 2009

Wild Speculation about the Future of NATO

I am going to be on CBC Newsworld tomorrow (August 1st, 1:15pm EDT) to discuss the new Secretary-General of NATO, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen, the future of NATO, and of NATO and Canada in Afghanistan. But since most of my readers probably don't get the CBC, here is what I think I am going to say:

  1. Really don't know what Rasmussen is likely to do. He is an interesting choice given that during his time as PM, there was the controversy about how Muhammad was depicted in a cartoon. Given that NATO is embroiled in one war in an Islamic country, this choice has implications. On the other hand, the big decision-makers in NATO are really the leaders of the major countries (especially those who are contributing the largest forces to the NATO missions of the day, which currently is Afghanistan and Kosovo to a lesser degree) and the military commander of NATO--Supreme Allied Commander Europe [SACEUR] who is always an American, just as the SG is always a European (sorry Canada). Interestingly, the Surpreme Allied Commander Transformation is a French air force officer, definitely one of the early returns for France's re-integration into NATO.
  2. What are the pivotal issues facing NATO today? Afghanistan is the obvious focus (more below), but also the meaning of NATO is always up for grabs, and is especially so these days. That is, where does NATO end? And what is it for? NATO's expansion has been very quick (particularly from the Russian perspective), but has it stopped yet? Are Georgia and Ukraine real candidates for membership? If so, that means, technically, the rest of NATO is somewhat obligated to defend them if they are attacked. This is likely to have two effects: encourage the belligerence of Georgia since they would have confidnece (over-confidence) in their defense; and stretch the credibility of Article V (mutual defense) to the breaking point.(I am not a fan of further enlargement)
  3. This gets to the second big question--what is NATO for? Global peace enforcement? Counter-terrorism? Or good old containment of Russia. The answer is probably a little of each.
  4. How about Afghanistan? NATO will remain, but the number of NATO countries providing significant numbers of troops is likely to decline by at least two by 2011--with the Dutch and Canadians almost certainly pulling out most of their forces. My guess is that both are likely to leave their Provincial Reconstruction Teams (mixes of military and civilian folks helping to provide training, aid, and the like) in place in Uruzgan and Kandahar. The war is increasingly becoming an American one, but NATO will still be a relevant player.

Unfaithful Co-Author?

Bill Ayres, my co-author for the recent and highly acclaimed (well, acclaimed by myself) For Kin or Country, has a new book with someone else and a blog to promote it. Interesting stuff, especially on accountability, which has been a running theme here (search for accountability and you will find multiple posts).

To be clear, this is not the Bill Ayers of terrorism and pal-ing around with Obama fame.

Theme of the Week: Beer!

So, my family now thinks of me as the beer expert, which is pretty sad. But since I have even less knowledge about wine, about which everybody but me seems to know a great deal, everything is relative among the relatives. The recent vacations have included brew pubs where everybody steals my samples (I tend to get the 5-6 shots/mini-glasses of samples rather than one big glass), but I think my expertise lies less in the qualities of various beers, and more in TV and movies. So, here is one list of five "beer summits" in the movies.

Notable omissions? Well, one need a few hands to count the notable beer swilling scenes in M*A*S*H (the TV show), in addition to the many martini scenes.
Cheers, of course, was a show about beer summits, and a mighty fine one. Again, an obvious choice.
Most "trash movies" have beer as a key component--Animal House, Meatballs (I seem to remember a key scene or two with beer), and so forth.

Any suggestions?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Beer Uber Racism

My roommate from my freshman year of college at Oberlin has/had a running commentary about the beer caucus. Catch it here.

Are the Reporters Invited? | 6:02 p.m.

“Will the White House also offer a beer to the reporters covering the event? Are you allowed inside?” — Elizabeth

Peter Baker: No! And isn’t that the real crime here!

Glad to see Peter has a good perspective on this.

Napping--Not Just for Kids

I feel better--I am not alone. One third of adults nap. I remember one of my colleagues at the Pentagon would rest his head (not his arms, just his head) on his desk for a 15-20 minute nap. But he was a pilot, so falling asleep in uncomfortable places was nothing new to him.

“Are we accurate reporters of our own habits?” said Paul Taylor, the Pew center’s director. “If you asked my grown children whether I nap, their answer is yes. Their defining image of me is in an easy chair with a newspaper in my lap, dozing off. If you ask me, my answer is no. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”

Napping, writes James B. Maas, a Cornell University sleep expert, “should have the status of daily exercise.”
Amen, brother. So say we all. Of course, it is easy to become more dutiful in fulfilling the daily requirement of napping than of exercise.

A Study in Critical Reading

Dan Drezner, the Spew's favorite IR blogger, has a very sharp post today: he considers an article in the New Republic about Obama's foreign policy team and decision-making processes. It is a very favorable account, and Drezner notes that the sources are entirely from the National Security Council, so what would you expect?

Still, thus far, it does seem to be the case that Obama has set up a far more functional FP process than his predecessor. But then again, it would be very hard to be as dysfunctional as Bush/Rice/Rumsfeld/Cheney/Powell.

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It [Updated]

A classic Yogi Berra quote. Well, the US is facing some difficult choices in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA] with Iraq, negotiated by the Bush Administration and pushed by Presidential Candidate Obama, has led to the Iraqi security forces taking the lead, and the US troops (alone, since the Iraqis did not manage to pass a SOFA with the Brits) now find themselves having to ask permission of the Iraqis to act. The SOFA also ends in 2011, which would suggest that the US troops would have to leave by then as well.

Well, how is the turnover to the Iraqis going thus far? Not well, according to at least one report. Indeed, the Colonel in this memo argues that there is really not much that the US mentoring can do in two years (until 2011) to change the ingrained Soviet/Ba'athist culture within the Iraqi security forces, so there is little point in hanging around. As the kids say, OMG! The report indicates that the various Iraqi security forces are corrupt, poorly managed and significantly influenced by Shiite political parties, but can fight the various insurgents on their own.

So, classic glass half-full/half-empty situation. Enough training has happened so that the Iraqi security folks can fight their own wars. But they are going to do it their way. And classic COIN theory argues that it is better for the locals to do the half semi-adequately than to have the foreigners do it very well. BUT there are heaps of politics here, including the refusal of the Prime Minister of Iraq to work with the Sunnis who were insurgents but then sided with the US against the Al Qaeda of Iraq folks--aka Sons of Iraq or Sunni Awakening. Would be better for the US to stick around and try to encourage Maliki not to become too authoritarian or get out so that the US will not have to bear as much direct responsibility for a Shiite version of a Ba'athist Iraq?

And, of course, getting a new SOFA through in 2011 to allow the Americans to stay is perhaps quite unlikely. I am seeing Vietnamization all over again in some ways--declare victory, have a decent interval to pull out, and then stay out when things degenerate.

Again, this is why one does not invade countries like Iraq, as Cheney notably argued in 1991--the endgame is incredibly difficult and few choices are appealing.

The debate now really is about how fast to pull out the US troops--for the sake of saving the future of the US armed forces, given the increasingly marginal impact they will be making in Iraq.

Whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, I am glad that I don't have to drink it. But Obama, Gates, and his national security team are going to have to do something with it.

UPDATE: See Ricks for his take on this memo.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Blessed Are the Beer Givers

Ok, so this article over-thinks the beer being offered by Obama to the two protagonists from Cambridge. It plays with the beer vs. wine dichotomy, the efforts by Obama not to appear to bean elitist during the primary, it does some jazz with the history of Presidential swilling, and so forth. A pretty amusing piece packed with all the necessary ingredients, with just a hint of a fruity taste.

If only Blue Moon was not made by Coors.

Racist Republicans (continued)

Here is a good piece addressing some of the stuff I blogged about yesterday. The key line:

There's a psychological term for this kind of unhinged behavior, and it's called "projection." These two racists are projecting their own racial feelings onto Obama. Increasingly, the ranks of the racially blinkered (and I include MSNBC's Pat Buchanan here) are playing victim, insisting Obama's modest moves -- appointing a Latina justice, using the Gates case to speak out against racial profiling -- are reversing the racial order wholesale, and putting white men on the bottom of the pile.
The author, Joan Walsh, concurs with the prevailing wisdom--that this racist direction will doom the Republicans in the short to medium term, but will not be good for the country as it exacerbates existing tensions.

Creatures of the Flame: Cooking and Evolution

Very interesting piece in Salon today on the role of cooking in evolution. The big difference between us and the chimps are not so much the thumbs but the cooking of meat. Cooked food is denser in nutrition, so the efficiencies of cooking gave our predecessors advantages over the non-cookers and facilitated the development of our brains (imagine zombie reference here).

Yes, you do quite a convincing job of arguing that a purely raw diet cannot sustain an active human. Do you believe that we have evolved to a point where a raw diet is fundamentally against our biology?

Yes, I suppose I do. If I hesitate, it is because I certainly recognize that raw foodists who live in an urban area of a well-to-do nation can make it work, so it's not that much against our biology. But I do feel very confident now that going off into the wild and living like a hunter-gatherer on raw food is not possible. People who switch to a raw diet report feeling constant hunger and lose large amounts of weight, even when they are careful to take in at least the nutritionally suggested number of calories a day for an adult. Basically, all the studies show that over the long term, a strictly raw diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply for our bodies. In other words, raw foodism is against our biology in a state of nature.

It gets even more interesting/controversial--after some snippingl:

So the concept of marriage began fundamentally not as about power or sex, but food?

Yes, though that would mean that women always do the cooking, and when I first started down this path, I wasn't at all sure that was the case. So, I went to the anthropological literature, and sure enough, I found reports of societies where men did the cooking. But then I dug into it more carefully -- and I discovered that, in the cases where the anthropologists claimed the men had done the cooking, the scientists had been wrong. In every single society women cook for men. And, what's more fascinating, in many societies you can really say that food or domestic promiscuity is far more serious than sexual promiscuity. In other words, it's more of a breach of social convention for a woman to feed the wrong man than it is for her to have sex with him.

Hmmn. Suggests all kinds of new plot twists in the average soap opera or drama. But what I really want to know now is why do men do most of the barbecuing these days? Anyone?

And, what does this say about the current generation of men-folk? During grad school, it seemed that in every couple, the man was as good as the woman in the kitchen and even better in some cases. It would be immodest for me to say that I am a better cook than my wife, but not necessarily untrue. So, does that make me un-evolved? Regressing or post-evolution?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Right Wing Quote of the Day

From the National Review online:

Like Bruce Springsteen, he [Obama] has a lot of bad political ideas; but he was born in the U.S.A.

While I disagree with the NR--I think Obama has a lot of good ideas, the quote rocks.

By Your Command: Race-baiting or Parody? [updated]

A loyal reader sent me this link. I have no clue as to the origin of the video, but it appears to be asking for the viewer to protect America from a bunch of dark-skinned lefties all funded by .... George Soros. So, I am really confused--it was so over-the-top it could either be a right wing loonie or something from the Daily Show.

Well, let's take it for what it appears to be--a warning that radicals are threatening to destroy America and they are funded by George Soros. Hmmm. Given that Soros has done more than anyone to support democracy, especially in the former Communist world, any fear-mongering here is silly and should only be done by Romanians who fear Jewish Hungarians.

Actualy, none of this stuff should be surprising. This kind of video, the Birthers, all of it. We have a perfect storm of various trends, combining to make racism, conspiracy theory, and other forms extremisms (particularly from the right side of the spectrum) not only likely but inevitable.

  1. We have Democrats in power in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House, so extremely right-wing types are very frustrated and bitter because they are, ahem, LOSERS; they are relatively disenfrachised for the next two/four/eight years; and do remember what it was like the last time around. The amount of venom spewed from the very beginnings of the Clinton Administration should have given us an idea of what would be going on now.
  2. We have the worst economy since the 1930's and this matters in two ways: a) people are hurting so they lash out and blame others (for what makes someone more or less scapegoatable, ask me about my student who has worked on scapegoatability); and b) this has led the pendulum to swing back towards government being the answer, making certain folks really bitter. Indeed, the anti-government types who wanted de-regulation across the board may be finding their ideology to be just as helpful as the Communists realized about theirs in 1991.
  3. Obama is the perfect foil for much of this hatred. It is not just his race, or his mixed race (I don't know which ones racists find more offensive), but also his intellectualism, his nuanced approaches (some may call it dithering, I call it thoughtful, even when I disagree with the outcome), his attractive and strong wife, and his ability to appeal to the moderates. We should have expected white supremacism to rise at this moment in time--an African-American President is a challenge to the beliefs of racists, so they either see that they were wrong or they re-trench.
  4. This is, in part, from the third point: the demographic shift in the US is only now becoming apparent. Whites are still the majority but not everywhere, and not forever. This is not a problem to those who don't mind multi-ethnic constituencies and coalitions (lots of literature in the field of ethnic politics to show the positive incentives this can provide to politicians--Donald Horowitz to name one). But to those who see themselves as becoming marginalized, well, they are mighty unhappy.
I was just asserting to a colleague yesterday that immigration remains one of the essential facets of the American success story (and Canadian one as well). The newcomers bring new ideas, different sets of skills, and a much more assertive work ethic than those who fear them. The US, by taking in groups from around the world, does really produce a positive melting pot or stew (pick your metaphor), as the newcomers eventually learn English, not becuase they are required by law but because they want to succeed. Despite the fears of some, these newcomers, since they come from a variety of cultures, are not going to distort American values. The Muslims will not bring Islamic law with them as they are balanced by the Catholics from Latin America. Together, they and others, have balanced out the power of the Evangelicals, whose power has been pretty destructive to the national discourse.

To sum up, the apparent increase in racist/right-wing nuttiness (and not all racists are right wing and not all right wing folks are either racists or nuts [update: see this story for right wing types rejecting the birthers]) is only natural, given the political, economic and demographic trends we face. The good news is that the political system is likely to produce moderation, as winning pluralities and majorities in most places and certainly at the national level is going to require appealing beyond one's own group.

William Shatner: The New Voice of Palin

Great youtube clip--William Shatner reading part of Palin's farewell speech (ambivalent about her departure--I want to see her go, but don't mind her blowing up the GOP in the short to medium term) as a poem.

Perhaps Palin and Shatner can team up.

Blink on the Battlefield: Spidey-Sense

Interesting lead article in NY Times today on intuition and the battlefield.

The men and women who performed best in the Army’s I.E.D. detection study had the sort of knowledge gained through experience, according to a preliminary analysis of the results; but many also had superb depth perception and a keen ability to sustain intense focus for long periods. The ability to pick odd shapes masked in complex backgrounds — a “Where’s Waldo” type of skill that some call anomaly detection — also predicted performance on some of the roadside bomb simulations.

It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. I did find it a bit frustrating because it essentially argued that we have instincts that are often quite sharp and accurate, except when they are not. It was a fascinating book with lots of good pop social science, but not quite as strong as his first book, Tipping Point, or his more recent one, Outliers.

The article goes back and forth from stories about soldiers/marines in Iraq to the science of perception/intuition. A fascinating read.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had not been scared off from switching into Psych 101 two weeks into the term when I realized that chemistry was out and poli sci was in my second year in college.

Monday, July 27, 2009

One More Link: The Myth and Reality of Moneyball

Moneyball, like the other Michael Lewis stuff, is a great read. And like Clausewitz, is greatly mis-understood and mis-applied. There is a very good update on the book, its impact, and the myths today.

The key strategic insight of the book was not that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were more valuable than other skills, and that bunting and stealing were wastes of effort and of outs, but that teams should try to figure out what is under-valued and what is over-valued and act accordingly. Of course, the various implications threatened the status quo, threatening the jobs of many traditional types.

But the underlying lesson is still valid whether or not the movie based on the book gets made and whether or not the A's rebound eventually.

Get your Red Hot Nuts!

Ok, here is a list of the first bag of nuts--birthers in Congress. If it is good to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, well, it is also good to know who are the nutjobs so you can discount pretty much everything they say. And perhaps find a nice therapeutic spa for them.

PS It is a day of short blogs, mostly riffing on a link. But I got a draft article finished, so I can claim some productivity that perhaps drained any other creativity I have.

Progress on Abortion?

This article indicates that there has been some compromises made between the two sides on abortion, leading to some reasonable legislation that promises to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortion. It also points out that there are extremists who are opposed to such efforts. It looks like the moderates might win this one for a change. That would be a nice change, given the violence of the past few years.

Computer Insecurity

I am trying now to develop better passwords, and here is an article to a) show you why you need them; and b) perhaps how to do it. The problem is that most people are lazy and forgetful if they are anything like me. The good news is that it should allow easy access into the machines as they try to take us over.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Great Motivational Speeches In World History (ok, trash films)

I was changing channels while folding laundry and happened upon Bill Murray's motivational speech in Stripes (well-timed, given the recent posts of 1984 as THE year in film). It reminds of a fine time long ago, when the trash movies of the day usually had the underdogs up against the elites, and hope would be nearly lost. The lead would then make a speech, rallying the troops.

Three of these stand out:
  1. The aforementioned Stripes monologue: "We are the wretched refuse," "Our forefathers were kicked out of every country ....," and the US is "10 and 1," referring to Vietnam. The story then moves onto a nice cold war confrontation.
  2. Bill Murray's address in Meatballs: "It just doesn't matter. Even if we win, the good-looking girls will still go out with the guys from Camp Mohawk..... IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER."
  3. Finally, the first and perhaps still the best (although the Meatball's speech is hard to top) is John Belushi's rant in Animal House: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" This, of course, is his call for a Toga party.
I don't think that these kind of movies have good monologues anymore. Of course, I may not be watching as many of these films as I used to watch. Any suggestions of 21st century wacky motivational speeches?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Skynet is Coming

Now the NYTimes is speculating about the dangers of the machines. Slow news weekend?

The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.
To be clear, we are not there yet, but the scientists are arguing that we need to figure it out before we get too far down the road. Given how quickly we responded to global warming, I just hope that the machines will face serious rust issues in our flooded future.

HP and Half-Blood Prince Review (spoilers)

Before I review the new Harry Potter film, with the requisite spoiler alert, I find it interesting that there are now at least two different websites listing 1984 as one of the best years in movies. EW has a pretty exhaustive month by month list while considers it the best year for Guy movies (Ghostbusters, Karate Kid, Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, etc). The EW list is very striking since each month had several memorable movies from Footloose to Beverly Hills Cop to the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai--I am trying to remember how I paid for all of these films.

Anyhow, a remarkable year for movies.

Spoiler spacing

In my ranking of the books, HBP was towards the top of the list. And it is perhaps my favorite movie (with two to go, of course). It had an excellent blend of romance, comedy, action and magic. It did drop some of my favorite scenes in the book (which always happens, given how good and long the books are) and added a few, including one questionable one. As always, I break down the movie to get a good idea of where it stands.

  • Best moment: Has to be the discussion between Ron and Harry about why guys fancy Ginny, Ron's sister. Apparently, she has nice skin. Ron being under the influence of a love potion is also up there.
  • Worst change from the book: Harry and Ginny's first kiss. They do a nice job with it in the movie, but the book does it so well.
  • Best Quidditch: This movie has two quidditch sequences--less than the book but more than the rest of the movies, and the two here are better than those in the other movies. The tryout sequence is perfect, and the big game with Ron playing Keeper and Ginny rocking as the lead Chaser is also very good.
  • Second Worst change from the book: No Dursleys. I like it when Dumbledore calls them out. Perhaps something like that will start the next book. That Harry is out and about during the summer in this one seems to be quite contradictory, but I do like the scene in the cafe.
  • Best Damage to a tourist spot: The scene with the Millennium Bridge is great since I was just on it a few weeks ago.
  • Third worst change from the book: It was understably necessary, but the Quidditch sequence where Cormac ends up knocking Harry out.
  • Strangest Addition: Why add the sequence over the holidays where the deatheaters burn down the burrow? Not clear what this adds to the movie or sets up for the next movie. There is already enough action and danger.
  • Hardest Omission to Overcome: Harry inherits Sirius's stuff in the book, including Kreacher and Grimmauld Place. This is pretty important stuff for the end of the series--how do they compensate? Or perhaps the omission of Bill and Fleur--they are supposed to have a big wedding in the next book, as my wife pointed out.
  • Best Realized Drinking Scene: The whole Felix sequence is absolutely perfect. Cannot complain about that at all. Some nice comic chops from Daniel Radcliffe here. And this whole thing works best in British accents.
  • Most Interesting Choice: In the book, we know that Draco Malfoy is trying to do something, but it is not clear what. In the movie, we know from the outset what his plan is. Rather than tension focused on trying to figure out what he is up to, instead the movie provides some real insight into the desperate effort Draco is making and the stress he is under. Not a bad choice at all.
  • Best Progress From Hints to Stage Front: One of the challenges of this movie was to bring Ginny to the forefront. The books allow her to develop from the victim in Chamber to background to progressively more in the foreground. In the movies, she makes a big appearance in Chamber, of course, and then disappears until she is a member of Dumbledore's Army and demonstrates some of the most intense magical power in the classroom and in the Ministry of Magic. Here, she is present from the start, and Bonnie Wright does a nice job with the role. It is hard to show the humor that Ginny demonstrates in the book, but it is clear even in the movie that she is pretty strong. She holds up Harry at the end, not to mention leading the Chasers in the Quidditch sequences. Indeed, disturbingly bold (the father of a teenage girl did not like the shoelace move) at times.
  • Best Voldemort: The older one. The younger actor was just fine but had less to work with. The teenage V was pretty darned scary.
  • Best Omission: No spider-man moment where Harry tells Ginny that they cannot be together due to enemies using her against him. Glad to see that go.
  • Another Very Interesting Choice: They dropped the funeral at the end (and all of the Minister of Magic stuff) and replaced with a rather moving and symbolic moment--all of the students and profs using their wands to send light to counter-act the Dark (mark). Very powerful stuff there.
  • Yet another challenging omission: Less info about the likely horcruxes here. Not as difficult as the other changes, as this can be covered pretty easily in the next book.
I will have to think about the other movies more, but this one was just a lot of fun. The story moved pretty quickly despite the length of the movie. The acting by young folks and the older pro's was top-notch. Jim Broadbent was a terrific Slughorn, Alan Rickman had more to do with this one and ran with it, Helena Bonham-Carter was wonderfully wicked, Gambon has been a strong replacement as Dumbledore, Bonnie Wright is perfect as Ginny, and Emma, Rupert and Daniel wear these roles quite well.

I have a good guess about where they will split the last book to make two movies, and it involves one of the most dramatic moments in the series. If they drop it from the movies, I will be sorely disappointed. And, of course, they must keep Mrs. Weasley's moment as well.

If Harry Potter teaches us anything, it is patience. The long waits between the books and now waiting for the next movie. And, of course, I have no patience. Just ask my family.

Dodging Bullets? Using the US Military for Domestic Terrorism

Apparently, the Bush Administration considered using the US military for domestic policing in the aftermath of 9/11. I am trying to figure out if it was a good thing that they refrained from trying or not.

Sure, it would be a major breech of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and all that I have read in civil-military relations suggests that involving armed forces in domestic problems harms both the society and the military. But this could have been the bridge too far for the Administration and a likely backlash might have tamed their worst instincts. Well, probably not since the Bush folks tended not to have much of a learning curve.

It does appear to be Condi Rice's finest moment, as she opposed this effort, and this incident does indicate that Cheney was not the puppet-master as he has often been portrayed. Of course, Cheney was on the "wrong" side of this--not a surprise--but that Bush went the other way is somewhat instructive.

It is also not surprising that those engaged in this debate apparently never consulted the folks in uniform. This might have been the point at which General Richard Myers, who largely caved into Rumsfeld, might have pushed back.

Lots of fun speculation, but I am quite glad that some people were able to withstand the fear-mongering and avoid this dangerous path.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Twit of the Year Contest: Ask the Reader

Monty Python had a great skit for a Twit contest that, I think, was responsible for introducing the word "twit" into the American vocabulary. And whenever anyone starts talking about twitter, it is this skit that I think of first.

So, the question du jour is: what does one tweat about? I have signed up for twitter, to the disgust of my daughter, less to post as I have an outlet via this blog and more to follow the tweats of interesting folks like ESPN's Sports Guy, Rainn Wilson (The Office), Susan Silverman (I @#$# Matt Damon), etc.

Actually, the best part thus far of Twitter has been to block the random followers who have tried to follow me. This blog is open to the masses, but I think twittering will be a relatively private affair unless I can figure out a persona/patter.


Arctic Sovereignty? Manly Issue?

I am an avowed Arctic Sovereignty [AS] skeptic. For the non-Canadian reader, AS refers to the political stand, adopted by the Conservative Party and others to assert and defend Canada's rights to the Arctic. These "rights" are faced by greater threats with the advent of global warming. Climate change means two things: that the Northwest Passage may actually become quite navigable and there may be huge amounts of resources to mine/harvest. The first change raises tensions with the US, as the US has always maintained the right to pass through straits around the world as part of being a Naval power. The second part has led to tensions with Russia, the US and Denmark (due to Greenland). There is even now a joint US/Canada mission to map the terrain under the water to determine which territory belongs to whom.

For me, the problem is that this stand is leading to new Defence spending patterns--focused on ships and planes to defend the Arctic. But as I have mentioned before, given how little Canada has to fund this stuff, it will never develop the capacity to deter or stop the encroachments of its potential adversaries (well, except for the Danes).

But now I know why Harper has been pushing this. He must read Maxim (Canada), since these are the results of their survey of Men:

Q34: Should Canada assert its sovereignty over the Arctic?
34 84% Yes
16% No

So there you have it. Of course, the same survey shows more than half the Men think Canada has the best health care system in the world, so take it with a grain of salt.

PS I am aware that if Arctic Sovereignty is AS, that makes me an ASS.

Inappropriate Link of the Fortnight

The combination of distance and anonymity has led many threads on many websites to de-generate. At Political Science Jobs Rumor Mill, there is now a thread dedicated to pondering the question of why people are so angry. This piece on College Humor captures the dynamics well by using Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." The video has much inappropriate language and pics (Not Safe at Work, unless you work out of the house and the kid is at summer camp), so hit the link only if you have a sense of humor.

There are larger discussions to be had about the role of the internet and its impact on etiquette and norms of appropriate behavior. Maybe some day.

Scientific Strangness of the Week

Check out this link to see how far TV has gone--that is, how far beyond our solar system.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Unity of Effort? Look In the Mirror First

The US has been quite critical of its allies in Afghanistan, and my current work implicitly/explicitly runs in the same direction--trying to understand why some countries are more flexible than others.

BUT the US itself has had huge problems coordinating its effort. Counter-insurgency requires flexibility and adaptability all the way down the chain of command, which makes it quite hard to keep everyone using the same playbook, forget about staying on the same page. Ricks posts on a draft report about a notable battle that took place last year in Wanat---Eastern Afghanistan. The report seems to make some very good distinctions between tactical successes and operational/strategic failures. That is, the guys on the ground did the best they could in the battle--more than one could hope to expect--but that the operation itself to clear, hold, build in this area was poorly designed, poorly led, and poorly implemented.

By 2008, the US army should have figured out a bit more consistently how to do COIN. Some units clearly did not get it. The blame here is focused on a Colonel and LT. Colonel. The next question is who were the folks above these guys and why/how did they not manage their officers well. It is clear that the junior officers and enlisted folks in this battle, while some displayed poor attitudes about COIN relationships, did what they could in a very, very difficult situation.

The trend in Afghanistan is that the war is an increasingly American one, which US folks think will lead to better coordination--unity of effort. But that will only be the case if the generals do a better job of educating and monitoring the Colonels.

New University! New Jobs??

There is a new university, advertised on the web: Lost University! I have not explored much of it yet, but the promo is pitch-perfect. I wonder if they need any political science professors?

The Un-Media Takes Over?

You know the media is in trouble when it creates polls about newspeople and includes Jon Stewart as a viable successor to Walter Cronkite. Perhaps people gave the funniest answer, as it was an internet poll after all (I think). But that Time thought to include him is suggestive--it suggests some contempt for the regular newsfolk since they are supposed to be doing what Cronkite did. The Daily Show really exists to criticize the media, which it does quite well.

Of course, whom am I to judge? I stopped watching TV news a long time ago, and only get my TV news clips from .... The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. I still would not consider Jon Stewart to be a news anchorman, but his show definitely is the best out there for shining a critical light on a lot of stories. And his appearance on CNN is still echo-ing far and wide

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

The latest rage is to question where Obama was born? Hawaii? Kenya as the conspiracy theorists aver? Some far off galaxy as tweeted by Rainn Wilson? The Birthers? Give me a break. Next, we will start burning witches again.

This is a good week to consider conspiracy theories since this is the anniversary of either Man making it to the moon or the hoax as the conspiracy theorists argue.

And therein lies the rub: you cannot argue with conspiracy theorists because they are not really theorists in the scientific sense. We, scientists (social or otherwise), develop casual connections that we then seek to test against the best evidence--we seek to expose our theories to falsification. Conspiracy theory is really much closer to religion, as one cannot falsify a religious belief. Conspiracy theorists will argue that any evidence one uses to debunk the theory is actually part of the conspiracy. That the existence of any counter-evidence is just a ruse by the part of the clever conspirators.

So, they can argue that the Holocaust never happened despite the overwhelming amount of evidence; they can argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the US government despite the consistent record of Al Qaeda terrorism; they can argue that Obama is not a true American no matter how many documents are produced. Why? Because they BELIEVE.

I am starting to believe that the Universe was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I dare the conspiracy theorists to prove my belief wrong.

Craig Ferguson--Social Scientist

For a great take on path dependence and unintended consequences, see the clip linked at EW.

Ironic ISI!

So, the Pakistan intelligence types are telling the NY Times and, by extension, the U.S. to how to act in Afghanistan, as the "surge" is likely to push militants into Pakistan. Because Pakistan is still obsessed with an Indian enemy that is not likely to invade anytime soon, it does not have the forces to deal with the internal threat.

Given that the ISI has been apparently linked to the Afghanistan Taliban and have perhaps been out of the control of the democratically selected leaders of Pakistan, we need to take their statements with a grain of salt the size of the Himalayas.

Relations with Pakistan always involve significant tradeoffs, as Pakistani stability is far more important than Afghan stability (the former has nukes and wars with India) but the Pakistanis are far more concerned with their neighbors than with themselves. Pakistan's obsessions with India and Kashmir have proven to be self-destructive in the past and continue to undermine its best interests. There is not a shortage of Pakistani Army troops, but most of them are facing India, which, again, is not going to invade in the near to medium term.

Not surprising then that American diplomats and generals become quite frustrated. So, we should listen to what these ISI folks are telling the American media, but we should also understand that their agenda may not be our agenda.

PS But they are correct in noting that any serious effort in one spot against extremists/militants/whatever you want to call them will just push them elsewhere--to the German sector in Northern Afghanistan, to Somalia, and to other places where they face less opposition.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Popular Political Science

Jacob Levy had an interesting post about others' work on department sizes relative to enrollments, which finds that political science departments have too few faculty and/or too many students:

Poli sci and department sizes

Via Henry Farrell and Chris Blattman, an article showing consistent disparities across disciplines in student-faculty rations (technically majors-faculty ratios), with poli sci consistently turning up as an extreme case of too few faculty for too many students, followed by econ and psych. As Blattman puts it, this has direct bearings on "why your economics and politics professors seem to have so little time for you."
I commented on his page about the possible causes of the over-enrollment/under-sized political science department: pre-law is a factor; it is a relatively easy major (no or little math); good for folks wanting to go into government; and universities don't seem to mind huge poli sci classes (unlike English lit which needs smaller seminars/classes).

McGill is typical in this regard, having the worst major/student ration to professor. Part of the reality here, and I say this with all due modesty, but our profs get signficantly better than average teaching evals. So, one of the reasons our classes are really large is that we do a good job of lecturing. Another is that McGill students (like Oberlin students) are passionately interested about the political world around them, so they take our classes and are quite engaged in them. Which, in turn, makes the classes more enjoyable for the students and the profs.

As a result, I teach an intro to International Relations class each fall to 600 students or so. And the other intro classes are in the same ballpark. Is this a good way to deliver the content? Depends on what you think about lectures, because there is really not that much of a difference between 100 students and 600 except more teaching assistants.

Drugs Are Bad

Well, yes, they are, but it is not clear that blowing them up is the best approach during a counter-insurgency campaign. There are few good choices. For instance, the effort by Canada to renovate/rebuilt a key dam near Kandahar City will improve irrigation in the region and employ lots of locals in the process, BUT improved irrigation means that the yields of all crops will improve. That might mean more poppies in the short term. Since some of the opposition is funded by the drug trade and corruption is a big challenge to governance, the drug trade cannot be ignored. Attacking labs is a much better way to go than going after poppy fields and alienating farmers. Blowing up big stacks of poppies is good TV, but is it good COIN? I am not so sure.

Defense Procurement is Not a Jobs Program

The US Senate is supporting SecDef Gates and President Obama by shutting off spending for the F-22. The House wanted to tack on additional planes since they see the plane as a jobs program. Gates has taken on a big challenge by trying to stop a major weapons program, not unlike Rumsfeld and the Crusader Artillery system. Each SecDef finds some past decisions to be worth re-visiting and some weapons programs worth slowing or even stopping. But they are often defeated by Congress since successful defense contractors like to design production so that pieces come from more than 40 states and more than 300 Congressional districtions. Voting against one of these programs is hard because one can look weak on defense and weak on bringing the pork to one's district.

McCain is on the right side of the issue, as defined by, well, me. Cutting planes that we don't use seems to be the right idea. I have long been a believer in seeing tradeoffs--getting five super high quality planes or artillery systems rather than getting 20-100 of almost as good seems to be a poor choice. Sure, having the absolute best is the ideal, but war is not just about quality but quantity as well. And someone has to choose, rather than ignore the tradeoff. Gates, again, is making intelligent choices, even if one can see some of the downsides.

Happy Ending or Sneaky Kids?

The kids from the HV pool controversy are getting a free trip to Disney from Tyler Perry! So, this is a nice denouement, but cynics might suggest that this was the plan all the way along: Play the race card and then some African-American celebrity will pay for a trip to Disney. It is so crazy that it might just work.

Or, kids that got confronted by ugly racism now get to go to the Happiest Place on Earth. I vote for the latter.

Shameless Self-Promotion

What is a blog for if not for shameless self-promotion? Check out the new edited volume: Handbook of War Studies III. It contains review essays by a bunch of big names in the field of conflict studies plus me and my co-author Erin Jenne.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Education Economic Crisis (Continued)

California has finally come up with a budget, and its budget crises do remind me of the good old days when the state had somewhat similar (although not quite as severe or protracted) problems in the early 1990's. But the damage is likely to be lasting for the educational system. Once again, money is not the only ingredient for a successful research and teaching environment, but it is an important one.

And, as usual, the fear is that California will lead the way here as well. Once again, direct democracy sucks, but the good news is that California is more twisted and tied by propositions than any other state. So, perhaps other states will not follow the CA example as closely.

The lesson to be learned, of course, is: Mama, don't let your child grow up to be an aspiring professor.

Ironic Anniversaries

Today is not only the anniversary of the successful effort to get to the moon and back, but also the 65th anniversary of the most famous attempt to kill Hilter--made famous again last year by Tom Cruise's movie, Valkyrie. Interesting juxtaposition, as the US space program was heavily indebted to the German rocket scientists, whose original research was part of the V-1 and V-2 programs that Hilter had hoped to be miracle weapons against the Allies.

I was struck by the aviation part of the Museum of Technology in Berlin exactly a month ago, which had three notable parts to the displays--the V-2 missiles, the Berlin Airlift, and the only aviation display I have ever seen with parts of shot-down aircraft. A very strange combo--new technologies responsible for accelerating the arms race (with first strike advantages creating unfortunate temptations in a crisis), the use of air power to feed rather than kill, and evidence of the bombing of Germany despite tremendous costs to the pilots. I don't know how this all fits together, but it does somehow.

The irony of Valkyrie and Apollo is perhaps more striking--failed effort to end a war and a genocidal regime, successful effort to push humankind's frontiers but with a relatively minor material impact (aside from the various spinoffs). Success always gets more attention than failure; 40 years is within the lifetimes of many people as opposed to 65; one event was quite public, the other not so much. Norse mythology vs. Greek? Kill to save lives versus peaceful competition during an arms race?

Again, I don't quite know how this fits together, but perhaps my readers do.

Manic Monday Safety Tip of the Week

Eating in Cars: Not So Safe. Well sure, but starving is a bad idea, too. Plus falling asleep is a bad idea as well. So, I am glad that I only really end up with one item on the list--hamburgers. Only on cross-country trips will I have some super-hot McD's coffee.

Good luck getting drivers not to eat. Given that people text while driving (which is insane to me), I doubt you will see real restrictions on eating and drinking non-alcoholic stuff anytime soon.

But if you do, opt for the cooler beverages and the less messy food. I find subs to be much worse than hamburgers, which actually are not so challenging. Perhaps it is because I have been eating burgers while driving since I started driving.

PS Hat tip to Will Moore for spotting this.

Xenophobia Is Not Always a Good Thing

Ok, so Bill Ayres and I argue in For Kin or Country that xenophobia can serve as a brake on irredentism and thus serve as a force for peace. But as this article reminds us, fearing/avoiding that which is foreign, such as preventing immigration, can be very destructive to one's economy, especially when people are not reproducing at the replacement rate.

While immigration is a hot-button issue in American politics, it is abundantly clear that immigrants have been and will continue to be part of the American success story. Countries that choose not to partake of this well of diverse talents will lose out.

Leaving San Diego Regret Du Jour

Of all of the places I have lived and visited, my favorite, by far, is San Diego. This is not merely nostalgia for grad school or the folks with whom I went to school, but that SD was just a great place to live and still is a fun place to visit. I am glad that the International Studies Association seems to have made SD as part of its rotation for annual meetings.

While I could wax at length about the joys of San Diego, let me suggest just one today: the San Diego Comic-Con. We only went once--stupid us--and didn't really immerse ourselves in the convention. I was reminded of this with Seth Green's guest post at today:

It's weird watching studio types and agents in suits at the con -- the only guys in suits on the show floor used to be Men In Black fans -- but I don't begrudge anyone the opportunity to witness this spectacle.

Ask the Reader: Sudden Collapse or Slow Descent?

The past several years have been perhaps the most frustrating for Mets fans, with the past two seasons ending with historic collapases after leading for much of the season. This year, the Mets have been hit by one injury after another. So, they have no offense, their pitching depth (such as it was) is no more, and a valiant effort to stay close to the top of the division has failed. After taking several bad beats from the most hated team of all--the Atlanta Braves, it is time to ponder whether it is better to accept this season's fate than to watch an under-achieving team fail at the end of the season.

The Mets could not beat Jeff Supan of all people and the St. Louis Cardinals a few years back when they could have kept up their pace of a WS win every two decades. Then, two seasons lost at the end. Is this better or worse than the mid-80's when they had the most talented team but only won the World Series once? I think this is worse, as the could have been's of the 1980's produced at least one crown, whereas this decade's failures will almost certainly mean a long wait until the next chance. Hopefully, we will not have to wait two more decades.
I guess we can take solace as Mets fans that the Yankees are spending more $$ but will almost certainly be spending the middle and end of October in the same way--at home, watching other teams play in the World Series.

Can It Be Called Adaptation If It Is Slooooooooow?

The counterinsurgency manual, or the Petraeus playbook as I like to call it, emphasizes (and rightly so) the need to adapt quickly as the enemy is constantly developing new strategies and tactics. So, why, oh why, does it take so frickin' long for the US to do the basic stuff? In today's NY Times, there is an article describing an effort to "overhaul" the prisons in Afghanistan. They have realized that militants are recruiting detainees for the insurgency.

I am shocked! Ok, I am not, as I read about this just a few days ago in The Gamble. As part of Petraeus's new strategies and tactics in Iraq, his people took seriously the problem that detention was undermining the COIN effort, by alienating pretty much everyone on the ground, and included the realization that militants were recruiting detainees. Even if the US military never watched the typical prison movie or paid any attention to the US prison system, the folks in Afghanistan should have had a clue about what was working better in Iraq and stated reforming Bagram and all the rest a couple of years ago.

One of the central themes of Ricks's book is the need for time in COIN but also the reality that the political clock in DC has less time on it. So, wasting a couple of years is incredibly stupid, yet here we go again.

The experts on ISAF complain all the time that coordination is really difficult and not going so well, but how can we expect different countries to coordinate their efforts if the US takes years to learn lessons from one theatre to apply them to another?

Should I be more or less optimistic that the US is reforming its efforts and may become more effective, but only after so much lost time and blood? Since it is a Monday, I vote for less optimistic, as we continue to learn at a slower pace than our adversaries.

On the bright side, at least the US military is finally seeing that our values and our instrumental interests actually coincide, rather than conflict. Also, it shows that elections matter, as this is part of a process initiated by an early Obama executive order "to review policy options for detention, interrogation and rendition." I have harped on how slow Obama has been to reverse the worst Bush policies on justice issues, but here he jumped on the issue and it is starting to bear some fruit.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Too Early for Pithy Quote of the Week?

Maureen Dowd on the Republicans and the lost ability to engage in hypocrisy without any consequences:
The C Street house, as the flag-flying brick rowhouse near the Capitol is known, serves as a residence and Bible study retreat for many Christian conservative lawmakers. But it looks as if what these guys were praying for was a chance to get lucky.
Time to start singing one of the songs from Avenue Q: Schadenfreude!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Gamble

I have been reading Thomas Ricks's book The Gamble. Ricks wrote one of the definitive books on the invasion of Iraq: the perfectly titled Fiasco. Ricks has a very good blog as well: The Gamble focuses on the Surge in Iraq and tries to explain its origins, its dynamics, and its impact. I was afraid that the book would be too much of a Patraeus promotion, but the book is better than that. It does a good job of addressing the many fathers and mothers of the Surge policy. It also explains that the decline in violence was not just about more Americans in Iraq, but a new counter-insurgency policy AND fortuitous circumstances--the Awakening and Sadr seeking less violent strategies. Indeed, the book does a good job of explaining how the Sunni turn against the extremists was facilitated by the Surge--that the new counter-insurgency strategy provided more security so Iraqis could split from the extremists and the new strategy also focused on doing exactly that--turning the more moderate elements against the more extreme.

But, as the book acknowledges, the justification of the surge was two-fold. It was a desperate effort to risk a lot to prevent defeat and it was supposed to provide a window for political changes that might lead to a more stabile situation. The gamble, then, half-succeeded. It did lead to short term violence--the first several months were very bad for the American troops, but it did produce significant progress in establishing order throughout much of the country. BUT all of the hard political questions were not resolved. And helping/using the Sunni Sons of Iraq was a gamble as well, as the effort may end up being the prologue to a real civil war.

The book is most instructive about how things played out, and how much more time and effort is needed to make Iraq a semi-decent place. And that time is running out. I found it also useful to see parallels between Iraq of 2007 and Afghanistan now. July 2009 is the worst month for US/ISAF casualties since 2001. Much of this is due to the increased number of troops and activity in Helmand, but there have also been bombings and other kinds of attacks throughout the country. If we are lucky, then this may be a temporary increase, just as violence peaked during the surge in Iraq.

Indeed, I am starting to return to my Jan 2008 thinking--that Afghanistan may yet be more promising than Iraq. Clear, hold and build may work better where there is a single, highly corrupt government and the interventionist neighbor is Pakistan than in Iraq where there is a corrupt government but essentially two or three militaries (the Iraqi forces, the Sons of Iraq, and the Shiite militias) and the interventionist neighbor is Iran.

The book is best at pointing out the tradeoffs and risks that leaders face. Obama was dealt a very difficult hand in both countries, and now must make the best of it. As poker teaches me again and again, even if the probabilities are in your favor (and I am not sure sure they are in the US favor in either country), it only means that you are more likely to win. Losing is still quite possible, even if one keeps re-defining victory to lower the bar.

Montreal Tourist Tip #1

Visit during the Just for Laughs comedy festival. Perhaps the Jazz fest is just as good, but I am bigger fan of comedy. We saw the "Nasty Show" last night, where the humor is, well, pretty aggressive. Bobby Slayton, perhaps seen as a latter-day Don Rickles/insult comic, was the host and in good form or bad form, depending on your perspective. The other comedians were very funny as well.

They paid the proper attention to the folks in the front row, and really focused on one guy. If you don't want attention at an event like this, don't wear a colorful shirt (lime green) or be one guy in a sea of attractive women. Although we have been close to the stage in the past (including the front row at our first Just for Laughs when we were living in Vermont and got much attention from Bobby and Dom Irrera), we were out of the line of fire this time.

We have two shows to go: Bubbling with Laughter, which is just a regular set of 5-6 comedians and then one of the Galas--a bigger theatre and somewhat bigger names with a more eclectic combination of folks. The Gala will be the yearly opportunity to bring our daughter to a show and then regret it due to some of the material.

A few regrets this year: discovered belatedly shows by the Improvised Shakespeare Company and Broken Lizard. We had already purchased tickets to the three shows and couldn't really do another show. Another regret is that the Reduced Shakespeare Company is not playing the fest, and have not in quite a long time.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Oversight and the Private Sector

Good day for Slate--another piece that is quite suggestive. The problem is that prisoners are getting unfettered access to cell phones. While there may be technological solutions to this, the Senate is considering allowing the jamming of signals near prisons. The author of the Slate piece argues that this is perhaps not the best idea, but that this effort is forcing the private sector to innovate. That is, oversight may be useful for pushing the private sector to innovate when the market is not sufficiently persuasive. This may actually lead to changes by private actors without legislation, making the Senate the invisible hand in this case. We must not forget to consider the more subtle effects of government.

Secret Link of the Day: Knowing the Right Questions

This is a good article on the CIA assassination program that recently came to light. It provides absolutely no answers, but raises the right questions that people (that would be members of the Select Intelligence committees, the media) should be asking.

The first one is the most obvious--what the hell was Cheney doing? I am starting to think the Bush Administration did more to expand VP authority than it did to expand the powers of the Presidency.

Anyhow, as Rumsfeld so sagely said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. So, who the hell knew what when? I am sympathetic with the Obama Administration's very full agenda, but I am also getting increasingly frustrated that they are acting too slowly to reveal and reverse the transgressions of their predecessors. As Obama said at the NAACP, "No excuses, No excuses," accountability and responsibility needs to kick in NOW.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Everyone's A Little Bit Racist and then there is Pat Buchanan

There is a great post addressing Pat Buchanan's response to the Sotomayor hearings--that the Republicans need to be more racist, rather than less. The Avenue Q song in the title (well, the first part) of this post recognizes the reality that we all have prejudices. Buchanan's advocacy of playing to whites goes just a bit beyond that, and, as noted in the linked article above, is almost certainly a losing strategy these days. But as we have seen from the hearings, the Republican Senators seem to be following Buchanan's playbook.

Academic View of College Sports

As a participant in a club sport (ultimate, of course], which was almost entirely self-funded, and as a professor that has seen vast sums of money thrown into the varsity sports programs--well, football and basketball at Texas Tech, I have never been a big fan of college sports. I have viewed it as too easy to twist the mission of the university so that the collegiate sports tail wags the education dog.

And now we find that colleges and universities vary quite significantly in how they take care of their athletes when they are hurt.

“That’s part of the cost of having an athletic program,” said David Dranove, a professor of health industry management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It makes no more sense to tell the athletes, ‘You go buy your own health insurance,’ than it does to say, ‘You go buy your own plane tickets and uniform.’ ”

I would say that I am surprised, but not really. Colleges and universities that do make money off of their athletic programs have always been hypocrites--that their coaches can make large sums of money (larger than any prof and more than many college presidents), and can flit from university to university with little sense of job loyalty while the athletes may get scholarships that have no real guarantees and face rules that make it very hard for them to leave bad situations. It is definitely a coach's game, but they are not the ones getting hurt.

I have not gotten a good grasp of how this stuff works in Canada, but my sense is that the priorities here are not as twisted--that sports are NOT the first things to come to mind when we think about any of the universities here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

HP Mania (No Spoilers)

Performing due diligence as your blogger, I saw HP and the Half-Blood Prince today at the very first non-midnight showing. Who is kidding whom? I have no patience and saw it the first chance I got. I will not review it here any time soon as there are spoilers to be had, even if you have read the books as there are some additional scenes, some subtracted ones, and some key alterations. It all works very, very well. But here is a review that gets to the heart of the matter without giving too much away. Don't read it if you want a completely unspoiled viewing, but the review does not give much away.

And see it soon. As the movie is very, very good (but the book is better still). It may be the most enjoyable movie of the summer thus far, although I will have to debate that with the family after they see it. The only competitor thus far is Star Trek.

Ok, More Supremes

Best Paragraph Thus Far on the Hearings

The GOP's got some 'splainin' to do on race

Is this a great country, or what? Even though Alabama's Jeff Sessions was blocked from a federal judgeship because of kooky statements about the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan, he could still go on to become a U.S. senator, and lead a racially tinged charge against the first Latina Supreme Court nominee. Equal opportunity, indeed!

Education--Not Just About Me and My Kind

Obama just made a big speech and commitment on higher ed--but not my kind of higher ed. On community colleges. This piece does a good job explaining the policy and its justification. Interesting stuff. I just wish more of the stimulation money went to higher ed in the first place.

Harry Potter and the Celebration of Pop Culture

Check out Entertainment Weekly for a series of pieces where they use HP to promote the magazine. Ahem, I mean where they attempt to discern the impact of pop culture on HP and HP's influence on pop culture. Two delightful entries thus far (and when I talk about British stuff, I do start using words like delightful and lovely!): the linked piece on the excellent British Actor Employment Machine that is HP, and another article or two on HP and teen movies. Harry Potter as the Karate Kid, engaging in Risky Business, the Weasley brothers embrace their inner Ferris Buellers, and so forth.

Supremely Predictably

I am not going to post much about Sotomayor's Senate confirmation process as everyone is following a script. The Republicans are trying to show that she is a racist and irrational (the latter because, well, she is a woman after all), and the Democrats are trying to have it both ways--that her ethnicity should not affect her judgment but demonstrates the party's multi-ethnicity. The media is trying to find something to play, and the public is probably tuning this all out because: a) its summer and there are many other activities that are more appealing; b) the outcome is pretty obvious; and c) the new Harry Potter movie is now out.

The funny thing is that we really will not know at the end of the day what kind of Supreme Sotomayor will be. The hearings do not really get at that due to the nature of the beast--the Senators' need to grand-stand and the candidate's need to be as shapeless as possible. This is like a first date where both sides have incentives to present versions of themselves that may be partly based on fact, but probably not how the marriage would ultimately look. But, of course, in marriage, there are outs, whereas this appointment is for life. And I think we know that the absence of accountability not only frees up a Justice from the constraints of public opinion, but also from the person who did the appointing and the body that did the consenting.

So, the hearings do not really matter at all, except to help the Republicans alienate Latinos, women, and various folks who might otherwise be swing voters. When Senator Sessions is to your go-to guy, well, your party may just be conceding the next election or two.

I do think that America has been doing an better job than expected of dealing with the changing demography--that whites are losing their majority status--but these hearings along with other recent events show that the way ahead will probably be as bumpy as the roads in Quebec.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

IR Blog Post of the Month

Goes to Dan Drezner for the following paragraph:
I would pay money to see someone from APSA flash a badge at the annual meeting and say, "Freeze, Mearsheimer!! You can't use an interest-group explanation to explain such a broad swath of American foreign policy and still call yourself an offensive realist! That violates the negative heuristic, section 2.1. You'll have to come with me.")

HP Post Du Jour: Favorite HP Book [Beware of Spoilers]

Since the new Harry Potter movie is being released late tonight, and I will run out to see it tomorrow despite my daughter being out of town (with my copy of HP and the Half-Blood Prince), I thought it would be a good time to consider which book is my favorite and which ones do my readers like best [and my readership temporarily increased by about eight times yesterday due to my previous HP post ... or perhaps the discussion of racism in Huntingdon Valley).

Of course, there are lots of criteria that might be used to assess each book, so let's consider a few in turn, and like my post on Indiana Jones, the answer might become stunningly obvious. And, of course, if you have not read all of the books, be prepared for spoilers.

  1. Most moving story: Harry's discovery of his identity and of his parents in the first book is really quite touching, but Deathly Hallows is probably the most moving, not just for the many deaths, but also the maturation of Harry as leader, confronting a very, very dangerous world.
  2. Best Subplot: The Ron/Hermione relationship in Half-Blood.
  3. Least Original/Least Necessary Plot Point: When Harry Spider-man's Ginny saying that he cannot be with her at the end of Half-Blood. The Weasleys are targets and I don't think Voldemort would distinguish between ex- and current girlfriend. A small taint on a kickass ending.
  4. Best Action: Got to be Deathly Hallows, since there are so many great sequences from start to finish.
  5. Best Humor: The romantic plots in Half-Blood come pretty close, but I would still vote for the Fred and George stunts in Order.
  6. Most Agonizingly Dumb Mistake: Wearing the locket and continuing to wear the locket in Deathly Hallows is actually second to the unexplained non-use of the magic mirror in Order of the Phoenix. The first mistake temporarily split the team, the second killed Sirius. In most Star Trek episodes, they had to take the transporter out of commission and out of the plot equation. Here, JK introduces a device that is ignored until it is handy in the last book. She didn't make too many mistakes, but this is a big one.
  7. Best Kiss: Close call between Harry and Cho in Order and Harry and Ginny in Half-Blood. Since I had long predicted the Harry and Ginny pairing (not that it took a Ph.D. or anything), I have to go with the latter.
  8. Best Non-Voldemort Villainy: The deft effort by Barty Crouch Jr. in Goblet of Fire, actually teaching Harry a great deal about fighting the dark arts just to get him in a position where he can be used to resurrent Voldy.
  9. Best Death Scene: Deathly Hallows--If you don't know who I am referring to, you don't know me.
  10. Worst Stalling: 40 days and 40 nights and then some in the forest in Hallows so that JK can stick to the school year theme of the previous six books sans school.
  11. Best Defense the Dark Arts Teacher: A close call between Professor Lupin in Azkaban and Harry in Order of the Phoenix. The sequences in Phoenix where Harry is asked, then reluctantly agrees to teach, and then the sequences where he instructs his friends are some of the very best in the series--for heart, for humor, for touching this professor's soul (if I have one). But Harry can only do this because of the education he received by Lupin (perhaps a dodge to give some kudos to one of the earlier books since my lousy memory leads me to favor the newer ones).
  12. Worst Teacher: Gilderoy Lockheart. A wonderful blowhard, played perfectly in the movie by Kenneth Branagh, in Chamber of Secrets. Sad to say that he did a worse job than someone posing as Professor Moody, but often incompetence can do more damage than deception [you can guess which category Bush/Rumsfeld are in]. Umbridge does not count here since she was more of an administrator than a teacher, and did inspire the students to study hard, just not the way she wanted them to study (by taking Harry's informal class).
  13. Most funky plot device: As Dan Drezner pointed out in his blog, it turns out that property rights plays a big role, perhaps as big as LOVE, in Deathly Hallows. Who had which wand when and by what means was it taken? Either wow or oy.
  14. Most Fun: Sorceror's Stone and Azkaban. Order comes pretty close with the pranks against Umbridge, her wonderful comeuppance, Harry's DA lessons. But books four through seven end with deaths, which take a bit of the fun out of them. Both Stone (Philosopher's Stone for the non-US crowd) and Azkaban are pure joy--Harry and his pals win and win decisively in each. Indeed, Azkaban's ending saves a cool animal (I am a big grif fan) and gives Harry some new family for a few books.
  15. Best Setup: Stone. It does an amazing job of setting up the rest of the series. I wish my students could write introductions that could set up their work half as well (sorry).
So, where does that leave us : Stone (1 charm), Chamber (1 charm--if having a funnily dreadful teacher is a charm), Azkaban (2 charms), Goblet (1 charms), Order (1 charm, 1 curse), Half-Blood (2 charm, one curse), Hallows (3 charms, 1 curse and an Bertie Bott's every-flavor bean for the property right's plot device--you don't really know what you are going to get). So, that would make Hallows tied for the best book with Azkaban if 3 charms minus one curse equals to two charms.

My inclination is go with Hallows because, for all of its faults, it was clearly the toughest to write, with the greatest expectations. It was the most enthralling, despite its flaws, as JK and Harry took the greatest risks and survived them. There was not as much humor in this one, given the death toll, but it was a fun book, especially with the series of battles from the skies in the beginning to the Malfoy estate to the bank and then to Hogwarts. How they make this into two movies will be most interesting.

And the topic of best HP movie has to wait until 2011.

Mistaken Identity?

The recent hullabaloo about Sotomayor, her wise Latina comment, and her testimony that her ID is not going to be that important raises the topic of identity again (for examples, see here, here, and here, along with yesterday's revelation that I am probably Ravenclaw and not Gryffindor).

This topic came up last night over a beer, as it should. I was in Kingston, talking to a friend about Iraq and Afghanistan, and she asked who was the "we" I was referring to when I was talking about the troops in Afghanistan--the Americans or Canadians. And my answer was essentially both. While my posts do a fair amount to make clear that I am not Canadian, I have spent enough time interviewing Canadian military officers as well as traveling through Afghanistan for ten days that I tend to use the "we" often when talking about the Canadian Forces [CF] in Afghanistan.

Perhaps I should have more academic detachment. I do think I am reasonably critical of what I hear from these guys, but perhaps my access has colored (not coloured) my judgment. I did think Afghanistan was looking better after I returned from my trip than Iraq--and I got that backwards--although perhaps only for the time being.

On the other hand, I am pretty sure that as Canada pulls out, either in part or entirely, from Afghanistan and focuses on "Arctic Sovereignty," I may identify less with the CF. Instead, I will poke holes in the notion that Canada can ever mount a significant enough force to deter the big threats up north--not the Danes but the US or the Russians.

Down the Spiral We Go

As bad as things are now with California paying people with monopoly money, it is likely to get worse. It turns out that California's problems are only partly due to its broken system of government (thanks to direct democracy). Other, more generic financial problems are also in play not only there but in most other states. And this means that the tragic academic job market, so much based on state schools is going to last quite a while unless the federal government jumps into the fray.

But is there any willingness at the federal level to increase the red ink? I am not so sure.

I am just glad I have tenure, unlike Alberto Gonzalez.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hogwart's Houses [Modest Spoiler]

One of the recently popular quizzes on Facebook sorts people into the four Houses in Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardy--Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff. There are four problems with the quiz:

  1. There is no sorting hat. If the hat does not fit, you must acquit?

  2. These quizzes are always based on someone else's judgments about how particular questions lead to a specific outcome, but the coding rules are never clear, except when it becomes obvious that only question really matters. For example, if you hate wizards of non-magical parents, that probably gets you straight into Slytherin.

  3. The books do not spend as much time on the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs, so it is not always clear how distinct they are from each other and from Gryffindor. Perhaps it is because these two Houses were founded by women that they get short shift. Of course, then I am accusing JK Rowling of sexism, and that would be wrong. Obviously, they get less attention because the protagonists are in Gryffindor and the truly bad guys are in Slytherin and there is less time for the other two houses, except for potential romantic partners (Cho) and secondary members of Dumbledore's Army.

  4. As JK points out throughout the series, it is our choices that make us, and Dumbledore says in the flashbacks in the last book that we might "sort too soon."

Since each of us should choose our own house, as Harry does, which house should I be in? Well, aspirations are one thing, and characteristics are another. If I could choose a House that focused on characteristics I wish I had, I would choose Gryffindor. But I am not "brave at heart" or particularly "daring" although I have been accused of having a lot of nerve, but that is not what JK meant, I think.

Hufflepuffs are known for being hardworking, dependable and loyal. As I have mentioned in my blog, hard-working is not a suitable adjective for me, so let's move on.

As the Slytherin are "cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends" and combine that with racisim [hating those who are supposedly different due to who their parents are], nope.

Which leaves Ravenclaw, as I don't consider myself very wise, but would like to think this house's key values "of wit and learning" match best with myself, particularly if wit refers to "mode of expression intended to arouse amusement" as opposed to astute.

Of course, these Houses, like any sorting mechanism (birth signs, birth years [of the horse or pig), are imperfect. Hermione was obviously obsessed with learning, so how she got into Gryffindor rather than Ravenclaw is perhaps a mystery. Harry is loyal to his friends above all else, making him suitable for Hufflepuff, quite cunning when he needs to be and breaks the rules when they are inconvenient (all the time!) so Slytherin is also appropriate.

So, one's House is not so important, but perhaps the distance between what one chooses to be and what one aspires to be--to be all the difference?

PS Too bad impatience is not listed as a clear criteria, as that would determine where I end up. I am going to see the new HP movie while my daughter is away at summer camp. I should wait, but that would not be me.