Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Zombie Video of 2009

HT to Spew Jr.

Sketch Of The Dead


Since this is the last day of 2009, the obvious blog post is list one's resolutions for 2010.  Since I am a master of the obvious, I resolve:
  1. To finish my next book.  Talk about pie crust promises (easily made, easily broken).  I have little doubt that we (Dave Auerswald and I) will finish the research, and write much of it up.  But getting the entire thing done?  Hmmm.
  2. To put some work into revising my Intro to IR class
    1. to make some of the links between readings and lectures more explicit
    2. to come up with more creative writing assignments that do not involve Zombies.
  3. To revise my IR of Ethnic Conflict class.  I have not taught it in years.   
  4. To have fewer spelling errors in my blogs.
  5. To play less but better poker.
  6. To spend less time online.
  7. To ski more with my daughter.
  8. To emphasize the good stuff and not bitch so much. 
  9. To optimize my time at work.
  10. To come up with a tenth resolution.
I would say I resolve to torture my nieces with outrageous accents, but I think I did enough of that in 2009.

Yes, I am a Child of the 70's

Dumb and Dumber

American authorities had one final chance to intercede. Before a plane can take off for the United States, details on every passenger are forwarded electronically to the Department of Homeland Security. There is also an electronic summary of each passenger’s airline reservation — which in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s case would most likely have included the fact that his ticket had been bought with cash and that he had not checked any bags. (NYT)
 Hey, before we start patting down every crotch, we might just follow some common sense--cash plus no bags on a flight from Europe?  That, by itself, should have been enough.  Which raises the question: who was more stupid the terrorists or the American officials?  While it is hard to piece together everything beforehand, this was a guy who was "most likely to commit a terrorist act."  He sent out all kinds of signals through his behavior and THROUGH HIS TEXT MESSAGES and the AQ of Yemen folks apparently were telling everyone else what was going to happen as well.  So, the bad guys were pretty dumb here. 

But we also have plenty of evidence to suggest that the US was pretty dumb, too, most especially with that quote at the top.  Again, it is easy to see that US intel bureaucracies are complex, don't like to play with each other, and the reforms of the recent past may not have made as much of a difference.

It will be interesting to see if Obama can resist the fear-mongering.  I do like the responses of the Obama administration to Cheney and the others.  But then again, their hypocrisy is pretty easy to identity

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Engineering Terrorism

This piece builds on the recent failed attempt and an old paper that I saw presented a few years ago--that Islamic terrorists are disproportionately engineers.  The Slate review lists the usual suspected explanations: lack of good engineering jobs in most of their home countries (Saudi Arabia excepted); the skills issue; that engineers are more conservative and rigid, so they adapt poorly to change; and the like. 

But the article omits a key issue--the data that Gambetta and Hertog use relies on whose college majors?  Those terrorists that have either been captured or killed.  So, this raises some questions--does being an engineer make someone more likely to get killed or captured?  Well, in the original paper, Gambetta raises an issue that might be relevant here--engineers are more likely to have autistic children and are more likely to have borderline social skills.  While they spin that as meaning that these folks adjust poorly, I take another reading--that their dataset may include more engineers because engineers may be more likely to get caught due to poor social skills.  Either they reveal themselves or they may be bad at detecting infiltrators.... 

Anyhow, read the original piece, as it is a model of interesting social science--taking a correlation and then working backwards to figure out all kinds of possible explanations.

Secessionist Bravery?

Great, great video on How the South Lost.

Sometimes TTU Gets it Right

TTU fired its head coach.  I guess this answers the question of how much insubordination and bad judgment is too much. 

Racist Computers


We Have Not Fixed Intel Bureaucracies

Obama has discovered systematic failures in intel sharing.  So, is this particularly surprising?  No.  Amy Zegart wrote a great book showing how difficult it is to reform intelligence bureaucracies, and she called it "Spying Blind."  We knew before 9/11 that the FBI and the CIA did not play well together, that various suggested reforms were never legislated or implemented, and that the list that came out after 9/11 was mostly the same stuff. She argues well why reforms were not and are not likely to work out so well--given the twisted incentives and institutions involved....

On a related not, I wonder if the FBI has computers yet?  The old pencil and a gun no longer cuts it, but I am not sure that the Bureau has moved into the 1990's, not to mention the Aughts.

Respecting the Dude

Great NY Times piece on new realm of scholarship--the Dude Lebowski!  Just as scholars have tried to understand the implications of Harry Potter for International Relations (and we picked up a book two days ago at the Natural History Museum that applies science to HP and vice versa), there is a burgeoning cottage industry that seeks to analyze and apply the implications of the Dude's philosophy and popularity.

One of Mr. Gaughran’s students came up with this summary, and it’s somehow appropriate for an end-of-the-year reckoning: “He doesn’t stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he’s gonna take things as they come, he’s gonna care about his friends, he’s gonna go to somebody’s recital, and that’s it. That’s how you respond.”
 Does this make the Dude the Jeff Spicoli of the 21st century?  After all, Jeff said "We need some cool rules ourselves or we would be bogus, too." 

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Awful Aughts? A Preliminary Progress Report

I have seen some articles arguing that the Aughts were a particularly bad decade, and my first response was to say:
"Nay!  Certainly, we had some serious tragedies around the world from 9/11 to Iraq to the reversals in Afghanistan to the tsunami and Katrina to ponzi schemes, popping bubbles and the Great Recession.  Oh, well, it does not look to good.  But the 90's had Bosnia, Rwanda, and some other bubbles bursting."
And then I realized that the Aughts, in many ways, were a crappy decade, especially ending with such economic difficulties, political morasses (is that the plural of morass?).  Too many disasters at the national (eight years of Bush/Cheney) and global levels (multiple wars, failed progress on a variety of fronts).

Personally, it was a very good decade, as you can tell from this post or this one.

So what upsides beyond my own life did we see from the decade past?
  • Politically, we saw some extensions of democracy, despite some reversals as well.  Serbia is no longer run by Slobo Milosevic.  We saw political movements that tried to push democracy forward with some successes.  Despite some difficult economic situations, Eastern Europe has remained democratic and free. 
  • While the economies of the West are in trouble in the short term, if we think about global averages, then the combination of economic dynamism and large populations in China and India probably mean that more people are better off now than ten years ago.  And that is a longer term trend.
  • We have avoided major wars that the US didn't start.  That is, no major conflict between India and Pakistan since the Kargil Conflict.
  • The internet and associated technologies have made information far more accessible.  While this raises a variety of challenges, the ones facing the greatest challenges are the authoritarians.  More information, despite much of it being sketchy, should lead to greater transparency, more accountability, and more time wasted on Facebook.
  • The US elected an African-American to be President.  As I walked through the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, this one outcome was very much in the forefront of my thoughts.  While my mother fears that she will not see a female President in her lifetime, I think Obama's election was such an historic event that it is ok that we must wait another eight years or so for that precedent to be set.
Obviously, more happened, but I am tired from a long road trip back from DC.  Any thoughts?

I refer to this as a preliminary progress report as it will require some time and distance to know the costs and benefits of the past ten years.

    Some Folks Just Don't Get It (updated)

    I guess it is time for TTU to embarrass itself--it has been six months or so.  The head football coach, Mike Leach, has been suspended just days before the big bowl game (Alamo Bowl--ironic?) because he apparently abused a player who had a concussion.  Given all that has been reported over the past year about concussions, one would think that a coach would not force a kid with a concussion to stay in an equipment locker and punish him in other ways.  Allegedly.

    This would not be out of character for Leach as he has shown repeatedly poor character--running up the score, blaming his players and avoiding personal responsibility.  Am I surprised that TTU would be behind the times when it comes to things like this?  Hardly.

    Much of the discussion about the NFL and concussions has mentioned that change at that level is important because it might lead to changes elsewhere--colleges and high schools where the numbers of people at risk are higher and the vulnerability is more extreme (younger folks can be damaged more....).  This story suggests that any lessons at the professional level may not spread quickly to the lower levels, even if there is legislation or regulation as college head coaches are powers unto themselves.

    UPDATE: Leach apparently was suspended because he would not apologize or even meet with TTU administrators.  And now he is seeking a court order to overturn the suspension.  The good news is that he has a contract extension that took some time to negotiate.  If I were TTU, I would fire his ass before his next bonus was due. 

    PS  The coverage of Urban Meyer on ESPN now makes me miss TSN in Canada which rarely covers college sports.

    Monday, December 28, 2009

    Domestic Tourism

     I spent the past two days wandering around the Mall--the area between the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.  The first day was spent at two of the Smithsonian Museums--American History and Air/Space with my daughter and my two Virginia-based nieces.  It reminded me of my trips last summer through Paris, Berlin and London.  While I was most impressed last summer, I must return to my old opinion--the US Capitol is most impressive.  It combines government buildings, interesting architecture, a fun selection of museums that educate and provide tourist attractions, and monuments/memorials.

    A couple of quick reactions to a couple of things we experienced:
    1. There were several folks outside of the Museum of Natural History speaking through a bullhorn or its equivalent.  They were spouting religious dogma and blasting the Darwin exhibition at the Museum.  I didn't hear that much of what they were saying, but they were contending that we were all wrong, that Darwin didn't invent evolution.  This seemed like a strange thing to say since few would claim that he invented it, but rather came up with an explanation for evolution.
      1. They were probably cheesed by some of the exhibits saying such stuff like "evolution is a fact.
    2.  I was most amused by a quote engraved into the World War II memorial:

    "We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throoughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other." George C. Marshall
    What a wonderfully emblematic quote from the Army: overwhelming force!!  Only now are we realizing that less can be more, at least when it comes to counter-insurgency, but Marshall's quote here does suggest that the Army would have a hard time absorbing this.

    Overall, an educational day on the Mall.

    Disillusions du Jour

    Interesting article on past TV shows at the NY Times, including one of my favorites--F Troop.  The author complains that the images he perceived as a kid are lies--that special effects or camera tricks can be revealed in super slow motion with the new DVDs.  I was expecting the author to complain that the series themselves do not hold up.  Given all of the revisionism on the old west, is F-Troop horribly offensive now or a clever satire of one of the darkest chapters in American history?

    As I sit watching scenes like this over and over in slow motion, some members of my household complain that I have become unnaturally obsessed with the whole subject. Maybe. But I’m pressing on, determined to learn just how much of my life is based on false pretenses. I am dreading what I am going to find in “My Favorite Martian” and “The Addams Family”; highly skeptical that “The Flying Nun” was either really flying or really a nun.
    But there’s one show, at least, that I’m sure won’t let me down: “Mister Ed,” about the talking horse. I know that was real. Heck, you could see his lips move.
    A fun piece.  Interesting angle taken, as the obvious one would be mine--how would these series play today?  Given my past references to the all-time Never-Can-It-Happen-Today Show, Hogan's Herooes, you can guess how I would approach it (perhaps I will ponder this tomorrow during the long drive home).  But what is your take?

    Sunday, December 27, 2009

    Closing the Barn door?

    The airlines said the new T.S.A. measures required an additional round of searches, including body pat-downs at airport gates overseas.
    International travelers were also told that they could not leave their seats for the last hour of a flight, during which time they also could not use a pillow or blanket. They were also limited to one piece of carry-on baggage, including a purse or briefcase, and that piece had to be stowed in an overhead compartment for the last hour of a flight.
    Airlines were ordered to turn off in-flight entertainment systems with maps showing a plane’s location, and pilots and flight crews were told not to make comments about cities or landmarks below the flight path.(NYT)
     So, TSA is convinced that because this recent attempt happened in the last hour of the flight that this is where the emphasis should be?  That a terrorist could not figure out for him or herself where the plane is (going to ban watches next?)?  Last hour restrictions?  This makes sense if you are worried about driving planes into DC, but why should we expect that terrorists only want to act in the last hour?

    Pat downs might make some kind of sense, except that the time/labor spent versus false positives and false negatives, makes this a tactic that is likely to be ineffective yet inconvenient.

    The limits on the baggage make the most sense--that the less stuff on the plane means less stuff gets on the plane. 

    Still, most of the first reactions seem to be over-reactions.  How do we address these rogue individuals?  This is a hard problem that requires more complex responses.

    Multiple Readings of the Failed Terror Plot

    Events like the failed incendiary device on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can be read in so many ways, and most reactions are entirely predictable.
    • The Right is already using this to argue that the Obama administration does not take terrorism seriously.
    • TSA is imposing a bunch of new measures to make travel more inconvenient (pat downs of everyone??) that will make a marginal difference.
     One could argue that the system worked quite well.  That is, because of the existing procedures, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, despite whatever training he had, was only able to take on the plane a device of dubious effectiveness.  He started a fire that hurt mostly himself, and, thanks to 9/11, there will always be a passenger or two or three that will react, as Jasper Schuringa did.  This means that any potential terrorist has a very short window of opportunity.

    Now, I should not downplay the threat posed by such an event--this guy could have brought the plane down.  But he did not.  So, the counter-terrorism glass can be seen a half-full or half-empty.

    What this also points out, given the apparent role of Yemen-based groups in this event (it really is too early to know much yet, but speculation is rampant--why not join in?), that failed states are a-plenty and that the US and its allies cannot solve all of these problems militarily.   Not only does this raise questions about the effort in Afghanistan, justified on counter-terrorist grounds, but also the plinking of individual terrorists in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

    Once again, a middle class Muslim, in an advanced democracy, becomes radicalized, with the parents shocked and dismayed (just like the five guys from Virginia).  The parents do the right thing, which is pretty amazing, letting the authorities know.  This information is filed but not acted upon, and then things play out as they have.  We can criticize the government for not investigating this guy intensely and quickly and not putting him on the list of no-fly people, but one can only guess how many tips are received.

    This does seem to be the face of terrorism for the near future--random individuals who become motivated, rather than folks with long AQ histories.  This is both bad news and good news.  It is harder to track all of these guys, but they are not necessarily going to be as effective.

    The key here, and this is hard to do in a very politicized environment, is not to overreact (and Obama seems to have this as strategy).  Not all Muslims are terrorists or wannabe terrorists.  We cannot get guarantee 100% security, so we need to take seriously the tradeoffs when considering measures that might improve our aviation security a bit but inconvenience a great deal.

    Saturday, December 26, 2009

    Concussions continued

    Ironic to use Gladwell's Tipping Point phrase to discuss the changing attitudes towards concussions in the National Football League?  Perhaps, but this piece shows how framing and agenda-setting can be key in social change.  Once again, no one wants to be compared to tobacco companies.

    Representative Linda T. Sánchez, a California Democrat, said it clearly and forcefully into the microphone at a House Judiciary Committee hearing room and onto video clips nationwide. “It sort of reminds me of the tobacco companies pre-1990s,” she said, “when they kept saying no, there is no link between smoking and damage to your health.”

    Many others helped dismantle the N.F.L.’s edifice on concussions. But Sánchez’s cigarette remark ultimately burned it to the ground.

    Sometimes NYT Op Gets It Right

    After the Kuperman debacle on Iran, it is nice to see a column that makes some sense.  The basic argument is that Obama is not a revolutionary but a liberal that works through the system pragmatically.  Why is this so surprising?  Perhaps because Obama served so little time as a Senator, people project on him their hopes and fears more so than folks with an established record. 
    Absent political constraints, Obama would probably side with the liberal line on almost every issue. It’s just that he’s more acutely conscious of the limits of his powers and less willing to start fights that he might lose than many supporters would prefer. In this regard, he most resembles Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy. Both were highly ideological politicians who trained themselves to work within the system. Both preferred cutting deals to walking away from the negotiating table.
    Why is it so strange that a progressive might actually be a politician?  And try to be a successful one? 
    This leaves him walking a fine line. If Obama’s presidency succeeds, it will be a testament to what ideology tempered by institutionalism can accomplish. But his political approach leaves him in constant danger of losing center and left alike — of being dismissed by independents as another tax-and-spender, and disdained by liberals as a sellout.
     This is the central point--that Obama faces a difficult situation, but what is his choice?  He could buck the system entirely, alienate the center, serve as a one-term, ineffectual President? 

    Friday, December 25, 2009

    Google Searches as Entertainment continued

    For your holiday entertainment--a website dedicated to google search's anticipation of your interests:  www.autocompleteme.comIt has been a few months since I posted about this kind of thing.   Anyhow, enjoy!

    Back to the Past: S.F. Starr and Central Asia

    When I was at Oberlin, a musician/Soviet scholar was President--S. Frederick Starr.  Like any establishment figure, he was widely reviled at Oberlin, feared that he would deliberately change Oberlin to make it less liberal.  I always thought this is overwrought.  I did wonder how well he fit,* despite his combination of interests and the reality that he was far more of a renaissance man than the average Obie.  So, when he shows up again and again, I wonder whether Oberlin did him wrong. 

    Well, he has done just fine since Oberlin, and now has a very interesting essay in the Wilson Quarterly on Central Asia, cited as one of the best of the year by David Brooks.

    Between 800 and 1100 this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world. Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle ­East.
    And glorious it was. It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the intellectual achievements of Central Asians a millennium ago. In mathematics, it was Central Asians who first accepted irrational numbers, identified the different forms of cubic equations, invented trigonometry, and adapted and disseminated the decimal system and Hindu numerals (called “Arabic” numbers in the West). In astronomy, they estimated the earth’s diameter to a degree of precision unmatched until recent centuries and built several of the largest observatories before modern times, using them to prepare remarkably precise astronomical tables.

    In chemistry, Central Asians were the first to reverse reactions, to use crystallization as a means of purification, and to measure specific gravity and use it to group elements in a manner anticipating Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1871. They compiled and added to ancient medical knowledge, hugely broadened pharmacology, and passed it all to the West and to India. And in technology, they invented windmills and hydraulic machinery for lifting water that subsequently spread westward to the Middle East and Europe and eastward to China.
    Anyway, interesting stuff.

    *  Of course, I might have always been suspicious of Starr less for the peer pressure at Oberlin and more for his denial of his first name--Stephen.  He goes by S. Fred and not Stephen F.

    Thursday, December 24, 2009

    Bizarre Religious Traditions: Jews and Christmas Eve

    Check out this piece--Christmas Eve was apparently the target of Talmudic scholars and obscure traditions that have largely disappeared.

    Worst Op-Ed of 2009? (updated)

    I cannot honestly say whether this is the worst op-ed of the year, since I have not read that many, but it is very weak nonetheless.

    It does contain the most questionable assertion/abuse of an analogy:
    If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to.
     Iran is not Iraq, and it is not Afghanistan.  And the US ability to conduct regime change in Iran is pretty limited, given its existing commitments in the neighboring countries. And, if Iraq has taught us anything, it is not the first step that is the biggest problem but the next--what to do with a broken country?

    It also contains the strangest assertion of the year:
    (Israel could implicitly threaten nuclear counter-retaliation, but Iran might not perceive that as credible.)
    Really?  Israel would not use nuclear weapons if a WMD was used against it?  This is an incredible threat?  Why should we believe Kuperman here?   What is the logic?  Evidence?  This major point is a parenthetical expression? 

    The article basically says that the air strikes would probably not work,  but we should do it anyway.

    Yes, political scientists should generalize from other cases, so there are lessons to draw from Iraq and Afghanistan for Iran, but perhaps the limits of military power might be one of them.

    For a more thorough takedown and one in context, see Marc Lynch's blog.

    Different media, different audiences?

    I currently partake of three different web-based networking media--this blog, facebook, and twitter.  There are many differences amongst these, but today, I am thinking about one--audiences.

    I cannot control who visits this blog, and I, because of self-recognized desire for attention, do not mind this lack of control. It does shape what I say somewhat, but not too much.  Filtering has never been a strength for me.   I track the volume out of curiosity, and find it interesting that (for at least the last month or so):
    • The posts that have thus far gotten the most visits are the ones that addressed the swim club controversy and the anxiety my students shared online about my final exam.
    • That my blog gets more hits from South Asia than from Latin American (and none from Africa), more from Bulgaria than any other non-North American country except the UK, and more hits from Princeton any other US locale.
    • Jacob Levy's blog is the fourth largest source of traffic after direct, google and blogger but before facebook.
    • That my TV appearances have caused much of the google traffic, as "ctv montreal saideman" has produced as many hits as "stephen saideman blog."
     I have a significant degree of control over facebook--that I can and do limit my status updates to friends rather than friends of friends or networks. 
    • Of course, my list of friends is now pretty long and includes people whom I see very infrequently, including former students.  So, the audience is a bit more limited, and the posts are not quite as permanent either.  
    • Yes, they are stored somewhere on FB but finding old stuff requires drilling and drilling through pages and pages of stuff.  Finding old blog entries, on the other hand, is a snap and greatly facilitates my blogging everyday.

    Twitter spawned this line of thought because one can limit who follows.  Every time someone hits the follow button, I get an email and then I can decide to let them or not.  And that is the strange thing--despite my joy at my blog being read around the world, I have felt the impulse to restrict access to my tweets, even though I can only say so much in 140 characters rather than the extended paragraphs of this blog.  Of course, it may be the case that I am reacting to the automated following-bots.

    • These bots are not just those linked purveyors of inappropriate pictures but also other folks whose twitter accounts automatically follow when key words are used in my tweets, like poker.  And others I simply cannot figure out what attracts them to my account.  And so I block most, but not all, strangers.  
    • Anyway, I was trying to figure out whom to block today, and I realized that I am wildly inconsistent in my internet media behavior.  How about you?

    Busy Trip Reveals Key Americana Aspects We Miss

    What do we miss about the US?  Other than the ability to make right turns on red and the discretion to make left turns when it is safe (ok, those are Montreal restrictions), our plans for Christmas Eve reveal a few of the things we (my daughter and I) miss:
    • Trader Joe's.  We just don't have those in Montreal, but I became addicted in San Diego.  I do remember having to make TJ runs when we traveled outside of Lubbock as well.  We don't buy a lot, especially since we are only in the US for about a week and we cannot take the frozen food up north.  Still, we love the funky stuff.
    • Great Harvest Bread Company.  We spent way too much money in Lubbock on various kinds of bread (and yes, I could make them if I felt like it), fostering my daughter's addiction to pumpkin spice bread.  And this time of year, they have cookies and other stuff suitable for the season.
    • Ben and Jerry's.  For some reason, the only places in Montreal that have a wide selection of flavors are the stores attached to gas stations--and I do not make a habit to shop for ice cream when I get gas.  So, we load up a bit on some of the less mass-marketed flavors and then leave half-eaten pints for my mother-in-law to handle.
    • Bagels.  They have them in Montreal, and they are very proud of the Montreal style of bagel.  But Montreal bagels are about as over-rated as smoked meat (oops, sorry, but filtering my opinions makes for a boring blog).
    • Mexican food.  Sure, the Mexican food I get in the US is not real Mexican food, but I became addicted to Tex-mex and Cal-mex, so visits to Chipotles and Chevys does meet my needs.
    •  We cannot access it from Canada, so now we have to remember all those searches/links that were denied to us.
    Plus more selection on the TV--channels and shows we don't get in Canada--like the stuff on FX.  Of course, I don't get see that stuff because the one TV in my mother-in-law's is almost ways turned on to a mythbuster's marathon.  Not that there is anything wrong with that--just the opportunity lost.

    So, I am a shallow consumer... and being in the US fulfills those needs best.  These trips allow me to embrace my American inner-being.

    Wednesday, December 23, 2009

    Long Distance Driving Strategies

    Old School: Cassette tapes of comedy.
    early Aughts: Harry Potter on cd (thanks to John C!)
    now: podcasts.  Must be careful since the kid is in the car, and some podcasts can be a little, ahem, edgy.

    What also works?  Taking a strange idea and running with it.

    Today, for instance, I remembered the movie Black Sheep, which was about carnivorous, man-eating sheep.  Good times.  And fun to joke about, especially as we pass farms along the way to Maryland.

    Not quite a holiday movie, but then again, maybe it is.

    Free Wifi Found

    There will be Spew, Virginia!  That is, I have found some wifi near the in-law, so I will have the chance to holiday-rant.

    And I will be posting a few highlights of my evals from my 600 person class over the next few days as I go through the many comments:
    A preview: "There is also the pleasant suspicion that he is a pentagon secret agent. "

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    Recognition Pays

    From the Tuesday Morning QB (who often goes on tangents on related to football):
    Other Make-Believe Nations, Such as "France," Were Jealous They Did Not Think of This First: Last week the nano-nation called Nauru got $50 million from Moscow for extending diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia, an aspiring mini-country the Russian government wants accepted into the family of nations for political reasons.
    This got me thinking: Venture capitalists, found a new nation and charge what the market will bear! Suppose the nation of Stanistan was founded on an outcropping of rock on the Isle of Wight. It could charge other governments to:

    • Extend diplomatic recognition to disputed political entities in Asia, the Middle East or Belgium. (Free the Walloons!)
    • Allow airspace to be violated for illegal covert bombing missions.
    • Place flags on unsafe vessels.
    • Serve as a way station for "extraordinary rendition." (Of course, this never occurs.)
    • Sell its vote in the United Nations.
    • Sue Microsoft.
     Reminds me of the reverse--Macedonia recognized Taiwan, which few countries do, and then the People's Republic of China vetoed the next renewal of the mandate of the UN's only successful conflict prevention mission to that point in time.

    Ex-TTU Faculty Loses Its Dean

    Lee Sigelman died last night.  Lee was an amazingly productive scholar and served the profession in so many ways (editor of APSR, director of the NSF's political science program).  And he was a leader in another area--the most distinguished ex-member of Texas Tech's political science program.  If I end up with one half of his record, I will be pretty happy.  Lee will be missed, no doubt.

    Statistical Happiness

    New York apparently is a state of mind--a state of unhappiness according to this article.
    When the two sets were blended, the economists discovered that the subjective judgments closely tracked the objective ones. In other words, people knew what they were talking about when they said if they were happy or not. Americans who described themselves as satisfied tended to live in places where the quality of life was good by most standards — where the sun shone a lot, the air was reasonably clear, housing didn’t leave you busted, traffic wasn’t too fierce and so on.
    This sounds quite intuitive, but we social scientists often expect perceptions and reality to diverge.  To see that the usual things that are supposed to affect our happiness actually seem to do so--well, that does surprise us.  Or at least me.  And the author of the article.

    Happiest states:
    Top 10 states on the happiness scale are, in descending order, Louisiana, Hawaii, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, South Carolina, Alabama and Maine.
    Some surprises there, as per capita income apparently is not related to happiness (Louisanna, Mississippi, Alabama).

    Of course, the NY Times has to find a silver lining:
    More important, might contentment be overrated? Seriously, isn’t restlessness, even outright discontent, often a catalyst for creativity?  We’re from the Harry Lime school. If you’ve seen the film classic “The Third Man,” you will remember that character’s admonition: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. “In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
     This reeks of rationalization. Does misery love company, though?  Apparently.

    An Article One Should Not Read Just Before Long Road Trip

    Blogging will be light over the next week as I head with the family to my in-laws (fear not, the home and animals will be secured by dog/house-sitter).  So, with a long drive or two ahead, this story raises the question of whether my ignorance was bliss, which is now gone.
    But some states have tried to blunt motorists’ ability to sue, passing laws protecting contractors from liability if they were following state-approved plans. It is also not uncommon for state highway officials to testify on behalf of contractors in wrongful death lawsuits — or to help them in other ways.

    I guess I will be more careful as I fly through work-zones.  Safe travels to all.

    General Review

    Over the past couple of months, I have read a couple of books focusing on the top level of military leadership: General Rick Hillier's memoir (recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, the highest position in the Canadian Forces), A Soldier First, and The Fourth Star, which focuses on four distinct four-star generals:
    • Gen (ret) John Abizaid--head of Central Command (US forces from Morocco to Pakistan).  He was head of the J-5 (Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff) my first month or two on the JS, and then was Director of the Joint Staff for the rest of my tour.  He is now retired.
    • Gen George Casey--headed the Iraq operations from 2005-07, now Army Chief of Staff.  Casey was the J-5 head for the rest of my tour of the JS and then became the Director of the Joint Staff.
    • Gen. David Petraeus--headed the Iraq effort from 2007-2008 and is now CENTCOM commander, Petraeus, Chiarelli).  During my year in the Pentagon, Petraeus was Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations of the NATO mission in Bosnia (SFOR).
    • Gen. Peter Chiarelli--served in key positions in Iraq and is now Vice Chief of the Army.
    There are important contrasts and similarities that I would like to highlight.

    Dog Bites Man? Politician Keeps Promises

    Drezner quickly reviews Obama's foreign policy performance, compared to Obama's stances he took as candidate, and finds that Obama did what he said he was going to do.

    This is actually pretty surprising, not just because cynics think that campaign promises are ephemeral, but that Obama faced a very tough first year with a variety of unexpected crises and complications (elections in Iran and Afghanistan come to mind).  Although seen as a dither-er, Obama might actually be more principled or at least foresighted in his pragmatism than folks might think.

    Monday, December 21, 2009

    Obama and America's Image

    Interesting essay suggesting that Obama has quickly altered "the American brand" by something like 20% in a year.
    The United States, which had languished around seventh place in my index since 2005, shot up to first place, and not just in the perceptions of one or two countries. For a sample representing some 60 percent of the world's population and 77 percent of its economy, America is suddenly the most admired country on Earth.
    I have felt far less embarrassed the past year or so to be an American outside of the USA, and I guess there is a basis for this. 

    Does this really matter?  Well, if standing next to Obama is something that other politicians want to do (and they certainly do--Canadian Prime Minister Harper and the opposition leader Ignatieff, for example), then Obama has heaps of influence.  Diplomacy is more than the threat or use of force, so Obama having more sway is significant.  Certainly, other leaders will have an easy time since they cannot be painted as lackeys/allies of Bush, which definitely made the NATO effort in Afghanistan far more complicated.

    But I do have doubts that the American brand is now $2 trillion larger than it was last year.  But perhaps there is a method to this strangeness.

    Following Health Via Steve Greene

    Check out Steve's blog.  He has more knowledge about this health care stuff, so I will rely on him to justify my indignation at the left and at the Republicans. 

    Sibling Rivalry: the Holiday Gift that Keeps Giving?

    Interesting post at Slate on sibling relationships
    "every day siblings teach the necessary, if painful, early lesson that you are not the world's most important person."
    I guess being the last of four kids has meant that I learned that lesson too well and blog to exaggerate my self-importance.  My sister would beg to differ, arguing that I was the star, the attention-getting one.  But then again, I replaced her as the baby of the family, so her perspective might be skewed by her failure to prevent my existence.

    Breast-feeding is an effective form of birth control, and the longer babies can convince their mothers to keep nursing, the more likely they are to prevent a sibling, a future competitor, from being conceived.
     The good news is that I seeing my in-laws for the holidays so any strife I have just caused will have to wait until the summer vacation.

    On the other hand, by not producing more than one kid, I have doomed my daughter to gullibility:
    Having siblings gives us early practice in understanding the minds of others. For example, a study titled "Theory of Mind Is Contagious: You Catch It From Your Sibs" found that that having older siblings gave younger children a dramatic jump-start on a crucial human skill: figuring out when they were being deceived. Three- and 4-year-olds with older siblings were much better able than children without them to understand a false story and its implications.
    Of course, that means I can tease my daughter better.  And that makes it all worthwhile.

    Tiger's Lesson of the Day: Addiction is Addictive

    My favorite two online mags, Slate and Salon, have pieces on whether Tiger Woods is a sex addict and what does that say about us?  The two pieces largely agree that sex addiction has been, ahem, overblown.  That is, there is no consensus on what it is, that there is a temptation to label all kinds of behavior as being addictive because it is different and/or provides pleasure.  The Slate piece gets into the dopamine myth--that things that cause elevations in dopamine can becoming addicting, but the problem is that lots of stuff that is pleasurable boosts dopamine.  But not everyone is an addict to everything.  That is a simplification, but you get the idea.

    The bigger question, raised by el Tigre, is whether pleasure-seeking behavior that is self-destructive is always due to an addiction?  And does that mean that the addict is absolved from being responsible?  "My disease caused me to sleep around."  "My disease caused me to gamble the family savings away."  I would, having absolutely no expertise on addiction (except for ultimate, and I can give that up for a month at a time), say that addiction can help explain a behavior but does not justify it or remove responsibility. 

    I know someone who is an addict, and has engaged in all kinds of behavior that is not just self-destructive but other-destructive as well.  Apparently, rock bottom is much further to go, but the point here is that he is still responsible for the addled choices he makes, and he should still be held to account for the damage he inflicts.  He may get better and find remorse. I am only familiar with TV's stylized portrayal of the 12 step program, but one thing is clear--acknowledging responsibility is a key part.

    So, the addiction industry seems to be giving people a pass for irresponsible behavior, but the rehabilitation process, as far as I can tell, does not.  The disease made me do it--is not going to carry the day. Not for Tiger anyway.  I do wonder if he gets to keep the dogs, though and whether Sweden's dog importation laws are like the UK's?

    Realities of Life at a Big University

    As the semester winds down and I try to find all of the missing holes in the spreadsheet for a 600 person class, I am reminded of how much I owe to the teaching assistants in this class.  Not just this class--I have not taught an undergraduate class sans TA in about six years.  Even the so-called senior classes have at least eighty students--only the honors seminar is a manageable 15-25 or so. 

    So, I have become oh so dependent on McGill's graduate students to do my work for me.  This semester was especially difficult due to H1N1--it led to more students needing extensions on the papers (although the pandemic seemed to hit paper-takers far more than exam-writers--timing or conspiracy?).  I always give some extra $$ to one TA to run the rest, and this system continues to work well for me.

    The downside is that I do not get as good idea of how things play out--whether the ideas really sink in, which parts of the course work best, etc.  I cannot see the course evals until later this week--once the grades are all in and processed.  But even those are sometimes hard to figure out, as I will get something like 310 responses (so selection effects might be in play).  And reading each set of comments, with some students viewing as pluses what others view as minutes, it is hard sometimes to develop coherent implications that I can take and use to revise for the next time. 

    On the other hand, the huge-ness of the class allows me to cover up one of my key weaknesses--I am lousy at learning names, but with this class, I have an excuse.

    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    NY Times Opinion Reversal on a Cold Sunday

    I am reading online the NY Times, and find it interesting that my usual reactions are reversed.  I tend to like Frank Rich and find Maureen Dowd be almost as problematic as Dan Drezner avers.

    • Frank Rich goes way over the top, comparing Tiger to Enron and then to Obama.  He argues, essentially, that this decade was one of hypocrisy, lies and blind faith in those doing the lying.  Seems to lack perspective.  I seem to remember lying and such in the 1990's and before.  
    • Maureen Dowd was apparently flying in Afghanistan with the SecDef and is actually quite interesting: 
    "It seems hard to believe the C.I.A. can’t infiltrate terrorist networks, given all the Americans who keep popping up as wannabe jihadis."
     There may be something to this.  But then again, maybe not, as wannabe jihadis are not going to be getting access to anyone important, so fake ones are probably not going to, either.

    But her phrasing of this question is pretty sharp:
    I asked Bob Gates, as we flew over the notorious terrain, if he had any insights into why such a bellicose team as W., Cheney and Rummy flinched at the very moment they could have captured our mortal enemy.
    And her conclusion is pretty challenging:
    Eight years after Tora Bora, the failure there poses the question at the heart, or Achilles’ heel, of President Obama’s strategy: What if victory over Al Qaeda and other terrorists lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?
    I have often been asked this question--why Afghanistan and not Pakistan?  Because one is possible and other is not so much.  We can send small teams into Pakistan and hope they do not get caught.  We cannot send battalions or more without risking war and the destabilization of Pakistan.

    Fixing Saturday Night Live

    I would say that this season of SNL has been uneven, but only because one or two episodes were pretty good.  Otherwise, it has reeked, and not in a good way.  I was so frustrated while watching last night that I came up with a few rules or suggestions.
    1. Music is not funny unless it is.  That is, the past several episodes seem to rely very heavily on musical sketches, and these are almost always not funny (Taylor Swift was the surprising exception).  The cold open with Lawrence Welk was just awful (more below).  The sketch with the guy who sings too much so his guests are bumped is also lame and too long.  The only positive last night was the possibility that Mike Tyson might deck the guy--his menace made the sketch interesting.  Otherwise, not good.  Just because "More Cowbell" is among the most popular sketches does not mean that music works.
      1. Key exception--the digital shorts can be musical and funny, mostly by combining Samberg and Timberlake.  Last night's was actually ok because it was not about the music, but about an increasingly bizarre kids program.
    2. Stop repeatedly using a lame character.  The dancer with the small hands in the first sketch.  Kind of funny once, maybe.  But not a second time and not for the opening.  The kissing family works only because the guys take such gusto in kissing each other.  But wouldn't it be great if they could have a sketch that has more than one joke that they beat into the ground?
    3. Shorter sketches.  I guess  the problem is that they have so few good ideas that they want to use whatever ones they have for as long as they can.  Um.  No.  
    4. Newer material. Lawrence Welk?  Really?  REALLY?  Reeeeaallly? That show barely overlapped with SNL's beginnings, so how much of the SNL audience gets or cares about that reference?  I am old enough to remember but young enough to know that it ain't funny.  Surely, something has happened in the past decade or so that might have been a better reference.  Indeed, they could have done something with the end of the decade .....
    The good news is that hope is on the horizon. Charles Barkley is the first host of the new year.  There are heaps of things you can do with him, for instance:
    • Charles Barkley, Crisis Therapist.  He can provide advice to "Tiger Woods" and whoever else they can imitate, based on his experiences.
    • Uncle Chuck.  Inappropriate gifts or advice given by Charles to his brother's kids. 
    • Charles as Broadcaster of a non-sport event or of a sport that he does not know--like figure skating.
    • Charles as investment adviser, based on his years as an unsuccessful gambler.
    Whatever they do, I hope they don't make him sing or dance or have others sing or dance around him

    Here's a Metric of Goverance

    We keep wondering how best to measure progress in Afghanistan.  The three key efforts or pillars are security, governance and development.  Well, this story suggests a good way to measure success in governance: are relatives of the President killing each other and getting away with it?  And just to make sure that the story is completely depressing, our pal, Ahmed Wali Karzai (brother of the President and rumored to be the Al Capone of Kandahar) is featured. 

    Saturday, December 19, 2009

    Just One Year

    I have been so busy blogging about the past ten years that I have not really done the whole year in review thing.  Facebook, as always, reminded me of my shortcomings, as new app allows one to build a collage of pics from the past year:

     And this reminded me that I should come up with a hits list for the past year (and given my poor memory, the overlap with the Aughts lists is probably going to be pretty high).
    1. The year really got into swing at the International Studies Association meeting in NYC which fell near my daughter's birthday. So, we combined my professional obligations with a family excursion, and had a great time. 
    2. Paris.  Despite much rain, I enjoying my return after twenty plus years and received heaps of useful information for the next book.
    3. Berlin.  My first time to this formerly divided city, which provoked contradicting responses.  Beautiful, interesting, but historically tragic. Again, very useful stuff for the book.
    4. London. Learned a great deal during a one day workshop.  Took advantage of my first time back since 1987 to enjoy heaps of the city, including Avenue Q, pubs, museums, etc.  And fun to see the battleground for the HP and the Half-Blood Prince--I was on the bridge that was destroyed early in the movie!  Fun times indeed.
    5. Montreal's comedy fest was comedic, as always.
    6. The family beach trip was the usual fun combo of silly kids, beaches and eating on my Dad's tab.
    7. APSA in Toronto was especially enjoyable due to much time with my favorite folks. [Some might consider it strange that I have two conferences on my list of highlights, but I love conferences]
    8. Ultimate.  Always proved to be aptly named, especially when playing with the kid or in the old folks tourney.
    9. Blogging.  It has been fun to ramble about stuff; it forces me to read more stuff on the web, and I enjoy the responses I receive.  
    10. Oh, and Kangaroo Milk!!
    The year was not all peaches and cream, as my friends now that I suffered the occasional reverse.  And I have paid far more attention to those events than to the positive stuff, which I must remind myself daily, are more consequential.  Despite the economic catastrophes near and far, I have it pretty good. Of course, I hope my 2010 has more highlights like this year's with none of the bad beats.

    So, here is a seasonally appropriate but highly inappropriate video.

    Conditionality? Bah! Humbug!

    One of the central arguments in Kin and Country is that the impact of the membership processes of the EU and NATO on the countries of Eastern Europe has been exaggerated.  We argue that domestic political processes trump international pressures, even if this means that countries engage self-destructive behavior.

    Well, recent news out of Bosnia indicates that we are not out to lunch.  Rather than agreeing to make some reforms that would make Bosnia eligible for the early stages of membership processes for both the EU and NATO, the leaders of the Serb, Croat and Muslim factions essentially agreed to disagree.

    "Bosnia is coming ever closer to replacing Albania as the metaphor for international isolation and lack of a perspective as a result of suicidal domestic politics," columnist Ivan Lovrenovic wrote.
    Not much more needs to be said.

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    About Time!

    DNC pounces on GOP senators

    Dems take less than 24 hours to use vote against military funding to pound GOP senators.

    It is about time the Democrats learned how to play a bit of hardball.  I still think that Obama has been setting traps for the Republicans with the time he spent deciding on Afghanistan and how he has played the health care reform.  Or at least, I would like to think so.  So, I do take a heap of delight that the Republicans, embracing the party of NO, voted against giving the folks in harm's way the stuff they need.  Of course, they didn't mean to and knew it would not have that impact, but two can play this game. 

    Note the last picture of the video has a soldier cradling his baby (presumably his).  Yow!

    And here is a good explanation of Frankel shutting up Lieberman.  Frankel was apparently following orders to keep things moving and was not doing it as a liberal shutting up an anti-liberal, but the optics were great.

    Coverups vs Crimes continued

    I am still mystified.  I have been asked by reporters about Canada's detainee crisis.  The essential nugget of the story is whether and when did Canadian soldiers know that the Afghans they picked up and then turned over to the local Afghan authorities were being abused.

    The mystifying part is that the current government has been essentially denying knowledge of this possibility/reality--that detainees might be abused once they are turned over.  Everything anybody knew about Afghanistan would tell them that this was a real possibility.  And it seems to be the case that denials occurred long after journalists revealed that abuses were going on.  See the handy interactive timeline attached to this article.

    I think a bit of honesty would have gone a long way--that there are few good choices when it comes to detention in Afghanistan.  How about saying this: "The US option is out due to American mistakes/abuses of the past decade.  Canada has no capacity, so folks were turned over to the Afghans. When it became clear that folks could be abused and the monitoring system was not working, we developed a new one.  Not a perfect one, and there are still problems that we are trying to resolve.  We have occasionally held up transfers (as they did when I was in Afghanistan in Dec 07) when things looked especially bad.  We have put more effort into the prison system but this is a work in progress."

    Nope, denial.  To be clear, Canadians did not abuse these guys, but turned them over to those who did.  And this is not the US-style of getting others to do their dirty work, but simply the challenge of operating in a country that does not share the same values/practices.

    More Depressing News About the Media

    This article indicates that the media has come to rely on political assassins for their news clips.  Saves money, destroys integrity.  Good times:
    The incident does, however, illustrate one consequence of the collapse of professional journalism. Work formerly done by reporters and producers is now routinely performed by political operatives and amateur ideologues of one stripe or another, whose goal is not to educate the public but to win. This is a trend not likely to change.

    Old-Fashioned Arms Control in the 21st Century

    My freshman year roomie has an interesting story on US-Russian nuclear arms control.  I was not really aware that anything was being done on this, but apparently a deal is near.

    The new version of Start would require each side to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads to roughly 1,600, down from 2,200, according to a senior American official. It would also force each side to reduce its strategic bombers and land- and sea-based missiles to below 800, down from the old limit of 1,600.
    I am not surprised to see the number of warheads go down, but am surprised to see the number of launchers to be decreased.  This runs contrary, although not terribly so, to the notion that multi-headed missiles are greater threats as first strike weapons.  It would seem to be the case that getting down to one warhead per missile would be stabilizing, but I have not studied this arms control stuff in a long time.

    The more surprising revelation is that there might be an elimination of one leg of the triad--that the US has insured the survivability of its nuclear weapons by deploying land-based, air-based, and sea-based systems.  I am not too thrilled about this step.  But there is not much info on this one. 

    The other surprise is that there are still tactical nuclear weapons that are deployed:

    Tactical nuclear weapons were developed during the cold war as generally lower-yield, shorter-range explosives that could be used on the battlefield. The United States and its NATO allies relied on them as a deterrent to any invasion of Western Europe by what were presumed to be superior Soviet and Warsaw Pact land forces. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, the thinking has flipped, and Russia today views tactical nuclear weapons as a bulwark against American conventional supremacy.
    This last point is most interesting--that the Russians see tactical nukes as we used to see them.  

    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    Best Word of the Aughts

    There is at least one site that has the top catch-phrases of the Aughts [the list is chock full of NSFW].  Their #20 is my number 1 and it is no contest.

    Aughts Update: I Am a Bad Movie Fan

    Slate has an "Aught-omatic" guide to the best movies of the Aughts.  It puts together a bunch of lists to generate its own list.  And my first reaction is that I have not seen as many movies as I have thought and especially not highly rated ones.

    These movies fit into three categories:
    • Movies that do not interest me: There Will Be Blood; City of God; The New World; Amelie; Dogville;The Lives of Others; Gosford Park;
    • Movies that do interest me but have not motivated me enough to see: Mulholland Drive, Before Sunset (need to see Before Sunrise first); Zodiac; Pany's Labyrinth; Capturing the Friedmans
    • Who?  What?:  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; In the Mood for Love, Grizzly Man; Spirited Away; Yi Yi; Moolaade
    Other movies on their list (but not mine): Royal Tennebaums (fun, but best of the decade?); Lost in Translation, Slumdog Millionaire; Children of Men (perhaps I should have put it on my list); Up (not my favorite Pixar flick); United 93 (an almost on mine); Knocked Up (close call), and so on.

    Health Care Reform Sucks Less Than Some Think

    See Steve G's post that links to other stuff that argues that the passage of the current bill would be a good thing, if not the best that we can imagine.

    And, yes, Obama has not given the Liberals everything they have hoped for, but he is the best they can expect anytime soon.  You think Hillary Clinton would not be dodging and weaving to the center?  That the Senate would not be getting in her way or in the way of some imaginary alternative? 

    As I have said before, Obama got an historically bad set of cards to start his administration, and has been thoughtfully trying to work things out.  The problem will be that avoiding disaster will not that well, but I cannot imagine that McCain or Clinton would have done as well on the economy, on the wars, or on health care. 

    I do think that Obama has made mistakes, particularly on implementation--that his folks should have used their discretion differently on transparency and the like.  He needs to move on gays in the military--define it as a readiness issue and get going.  But his plate has been incredibly full. 

    Mexican Sailors as the New Crime-Fighters?

    Apparently, Mexico's war on drugs involves the Navy and not just at sea.  Could someone explain?

    Montreal Mass Transit: Starting the Day With An Interesting Choice

    Last year, the suburban rail system got a lot of criticism for bad service, especially in the winter, after a rate increase.  Trains were late, the additional cars they leased did not match the platforms so only half the doors would be open, and then trains were really late when it got very cold.  Because winter was new to them, apparently.  Mondays were the worst because trains that sit for a weekend in very cold weather tend to have a hard time starting. 

    So, they spent a lot of time and effort to convince the city that they were fixing the system.  The new train cars were put on the least intensively used (in other words, not mine) route, and cold weather seems to be a problem still.  The train was not terribly late today--only five minutes, but I was greeted with a choice.  I could get a seat on a car that apparently had no heat or stand in a car with heating.  Being the American wimp, I chose the latter.  So much for napping on the way in.  Good thing I had my latest podcasts. 

    Just some short venting, but the funny thing is that the system is seeking a rate increase yet again, despite providing bad service.  Good thing that the Montreal election did so much to clean up corruption and punish poor service.  Oh, it didn't?  Never mind.

    Af-Pak: Diplomacy Gone Awry

    Lead articles today on how a UN official from the US (the already controversial Peter Galbraith) might have proposed that the US subvert Afghanistan's election and on how the Pakistanis seem to be harassing/blocking the activities of the US embassy

    How to make friends and influence enemies?  How to make enemies and influence friends?

    As I always point out, NATO and ISAF are just guys with guns, but the political problems are prior and paramount.  And while military officers can play politics (Petraeus in Iraq), we ought not to expect them to have to take the lead.  But when the folks that are supposed to do that are actually hurting the cause, then what are we left with?  I am not blaming the US embassy folks in Pakistan, but this stuff points to two things--that the relationship with Pakistan is, as always, very, very hard to finesse; and Pakistan's government is hardly unitary and the idea of a single chain of command is just not realistic.  It may be that the civilian leaders of Pakistan would like more US assistance, but they don't control the rest of the government particularly well.  Principal-agent problems indeed.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Speaking of the Cold: The Cold Realities of Health Care Reform

    Very clear discussion of the ramifications of the failure of health care reform.  And, as a result, a pretty clear expectation of something/anything passing.

    December Freeze Reminders

    This is the first time I can remember in my eight winters in Montreal where we have had a serious cold snap in December.  Usually, we get a week or two in January, but we are getting hit this week.

    These times always remind me that:
    • Fahrenheit might have had a dog.  That is, I can tell if it is above or below 0 degrees F as my dog (and when I had two, both dogs)  behave differently.  She looks at her paws as she walks, and the time outside is much shorter.
    • Or, Fahrenheit may have just known that 0 F is the point at which things get seriously uncomfortable.  The way I can tell is that the snot in my noses freezes below 0 F.  Gross but true.
    • When it is around 15-42 F or -9 to 0 C or so, then the slush and snow tends to fly up on windshields, making it hard to see.  I invest far more on windshield washer refilling in Canada than in the dustiest part of Texas.  But when it is colder, that stuff does not spray--everything is frozen pretty solid, so there is bright side to severe cold.  Of course, when it gets substantially below 0 F or -18 C, then the car is not so happy. The one car garage, two car problem becomes more than inconvenient. 
    Anyhow, I hope your winter is warmer than it is here, slush-free windows or not.

    Favorite Authors of the Aughts

    I am cheating here because if I listed favorite books, I might have a stack of Harry Potter books, and that would be not terribly interesting.
    1. J.K. Rowling.  I have enjoyed reading and re-reading the entire series, and the books on cd helped on the long drives, especially the move from Texas to Virginia (thanks to JC and LB for the idea and the loan) and from VA to Montreal.  For a ranking of the HP books, see here.
    2. John Sandford.  I spent the first part of the decade catching up on his prey series and realizing his John Camp identity was, well, his stuff too.  And now he has a second series of Minnesota based mysteries. 
    3. Malcolm Gladwell.  His work can be problematic at times, but he definitely has influenced my thinking and introducing me to some social science I should have know.
    4. Bill Simmons, ESPN's Sports Guy.  I have not read his second book yet, but given all of his posts at, I probably have read as many or more of his words than these other folks.  And I plan to start reading his Book of Basketball on Dec. 25th.  And I am not a basketball fan.
    5. Rob Neyer.  Writes fun baseball books.  I wish his column at espn was free accessible.
    6. Tom Vanderbilt.  Traffic and now numberous Slate posts.
    7. Tom Ricks.  Wrote Fiasco, about the decisions and processes driving the invasion of Iraq (good to read along with George Packer, Gordon and O'Hanlon, and Chandrasekaran) and the Gamble, about the surge.  His blog is quite informative as well.
    8. Phil Gordon. All I have learned about poker, I have gotten from Gordon (and Harrington).  His pokeredge podcasts are also quite good.  His style of play and his reasonable attitude about everything match mine pretty well.  And I do miss his interplay with Dave Foley on celebrity poker.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009

    Someone Else's Aught List: Newly Obsolete Items

    The New Yorker has a neat item--those things that became obsolete in the Aughts.  They cheat and include behaviors as well as doo-hickeys. 

    Here is some of the list:
    • Answering Machine.  Voice mail killed the machine, although Tiger demonstrated that leaving messages on the new technology is as bad as Jon Favreau's message in Swingers (New Yorker referenced that big movie moment).
    • Maps.  GPS (or for cheapos folks like myself, google map printouts)
    • Cathode-ray TV's.  We are 50% there.  Really want a tivo/DVR so that we can put the VCR in this category....
    • Smoking in Bars.  See, behavior, not just technology.
    • Fax Machines.  Still used, but on their way out for sure.
    • Cassette Tapes.  I am still angry at myself for spending a few more bucks to buy a particular model of Honda Accord in 2001 (days before 9/11) that had a dual system of CDs and cassettes since I had heaps of cassettes.  Of course, cassettes are now dead, and the car was stolen.  Now, my musical problem are the cords that connect my ipod to my car--they tend to break easily and they only work when there is no radio interference.  Tempted to buy a new radio for the car so that I can have a direct input.  But given my Montreal luck, that car/radio would be stolen too.
    • Polaroid.  Never had one.  Love digital cameras.
    • Rolodex.  I keep business cards organized and not scanned.  The one time I had all the cards scanned, someone broke into my office and stole the computer and the scanner.  Hmm, theft as a recurring theme of the Aughts.
    • French franc and other European currencies.  The Euro has now established itself.  Weee!
    • Floppy disk.  I guess technology moved as quickly in the 90's, but we went from disks to key drives awfully quickly.  I remember that my first computer with a hard drive had 20 megs, and now this tiny thing has 4 or 8 gigs.  Time to start speaking like an old man---in my day, we had to walk up hill to and from school .....
    • Phonebook.  See how many of these the internet killed. Al Gore is bad for business!!
    Can we add any others to this list?  What other technologies or behaviors have become largely obsolete? I will ponder and get back to you, but perhaps you will beat me to it.

    Cultural Practices, the aftermath

    Oh my.

    Thinking about Afghanistan

    I spent today at a workshop organized by Rights & Democracy, an organization funded by Canada "to promote democratic development and defend human rights."  I cannot say what others said since it was held under Chatham House rules or their equivalent.  But I think I can repeat what I said.

    I was asked what I thought about the implications of the election, and I realized that what the election truly demonstrated was the weakness of external leverage upon the Karzai government and on governance in Afghanistan in general. 

    Relatedly, I argued that while there are many meanings to elections, one purpose of them is to enforce accountability.  That is, an election is an event where a politician is held to account for their decisions, and the incumbent can be defeated for poor performance.  But in the Afghanistan case, Karzai competed by avoiding accountability.  He ran essentially against NATO and ISAF by focusing attention on collateral damage--to show that he was not a tool of the international community.  He stacked his government with all kinds of nasty folks to build a winning coalition. And he didn't mind too much when significant fraud was executed on his behalf.  And then rather than having a runoff, which would have been costly but would have reinforced the rules, Karzai gets to keep his job without being held accountable for the fraud.


    I was definitely one of the most pessimistic people in the room, which perhaps contradicts my past and present support for the Obama surge.  Hmmm.  Will need to think about this some more

    Time to Share Final Exam Questions

    Dan Drezner posted his, so I will post mine, given the discussion in the comments of this post.

    Imagine the following scenario: the world is in the beginning stages of a pandemic—that a virus that kills people and then turns them into undead (Zombies) has started to spread. Significant international cooperation will be required to contain this crisis.

    Given what you have learned about the causes and probabilities of cooperation among countries, is it likely that the countries of the world will be able to cooperate to deal with this crisis? Or will they fail? Why or why not?

    Inspired by last summer's discussion about Zombie papers.   And by the future textbook produced by the aforementioned Drezner.  The focus of much of the stuff in the last part of my class is on international cooperation.  Feedback has been good, but I would guess that those who were too pissed off did not bother to email.

    Academic and the Apocalypse

    Fun piece about scholars studying black-metal music.   I wonder how this relates to death-metal....  but this is a genre far out of my expertise.  Good thing we have academics dedicated to its study.

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Cultural Practices, the triquel

    I have often joked with my wife about religion and market shares.  Well, it turns out that other folks, most notably Adam Smith, beat me to it.  All American Jews know that Hanukkah is a minor holiday that got played up so that Jewish kids would not feel ripped off as the gentiles raked in the loot.  So, the stats in this article are not surprising either.
    If Hanukkah celebrations are indeed a bulwark against Christian religious imperialism, then the most active observers of the "Jewish Christmas" should be those who are vulnerable. The authors of the study (parents all of them) hypothesize that children are most susceptible to Christmas envy, and, indeed, households with children were half as likely to skip Hanukkah candle-lighting as households with no children.
    Of course, it's possible that people with kids may use just about anything as an excuse to have a party—birthdays, Valentine's Day, Halloween. So the authors compare Hanukkah with Passover, the springtime festival when Jewish parents face more modest competition from the Easter Bunny. It turns out that having children has no effect on the likelihood of attending a Seder, the traditional meal eaten on the first two nights of Passover. So it seems it is competition from Christmas, not just the presence of children, that makes families more likely to celebrate Hanukkah. (The authors parse the data in a number of other ways to further validate their Christmas hypothesis.)
    Yum.  Hypothesis testing warms my social scientist heart.

    Cultural Practices (cont).

    Great piece at Slate on the dark side of the festival of lights.  I just thought it was a celebration of fire and a chance for kids to practice their pyromania in safety--and compete with Santa.  But no, there is more to it:
    For it turns out that Hanukkah is a festival built upon a mound of suppressed memories and censored texts, a putative celebration of light that in fact commemorates a Jewish civil war.

    Today, the Maccabean memory has been resurrected in the modern state of Israel in the image of Jew as warrior, and Hanukkah is celebrated by many as a military holiday, the vestige of an ancient Independence Day. But I propose that on Hanukkah, we ought to consider whether an ethnic group that wishes to survive must turn itself into a nation-state.
    A question as relevant for Quebec as it is for the Jews?

    Comparative Cultural Practices

    Nice snarky take on the holiday season, especially in the Netherlands.

    The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as "six to eight black men." I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always "six to eight," which seems strange, seeing as they've had hundreds of years to get a decent count.
    The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of a tree."
    In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it's not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel.

    Sunday, December 13, 2009

    Best Book Review of the Aughts?

    Kaplan’s real and growingly evident problem is not his Parkinson’s grip on history, or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger, but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.
    One of my proudest duties on the Joint Staff was re-writing the reading list of the Central and East European Division, removing Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts.  Tom Bissell takes Kaplan to task and deservedly so.  Kaplan, along with Huntingon, proved that bad ideas spread further than good ones and can do a whole lot of damage.
    He writes that Samarkand is a “would-be Bangkok,” with its “army of whores.” I asked a friend who lived in Samarkand for years if that description at all rang true to him. My friend was still laughing when I hung up the phone.
    Another delightfully nasty quote:
    Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the extension of politics by other means. Bush and Kaplan, on the other hand, appear to advocate war as cultural politics by other means. This has resulted in a collision of second-rate minds with third-rate policies. While one man attempts to make the world as simple as he is able to comprehend it, the other whispers in his various adjutants’ ears that they are on the side of History itself.
    Yet another:
    Kaplan’s take on Taras Bulba is so absurd it is amazing that when his introduction arrived at the Modern Library’s offices, the pages were not locked in a lead-walled time capsule.
     And on Balkan Ghosts, a book I reluctantly read, knowing it was going to be bad:
    In Kaplan’s telling, Balkan mass-murder was inevitable and unsurprising, given the region’s history. One wonders why, then, those who were slaughtered didn’t see it coming and get out. “Nevertheless,” Kaplan writes in Balkan Ghosts’s new foreword, “nothing I write should be taken as a justification, however mild, for the war crimes committed by ethnic Serb troops in Bosnia, which I heartily condemn.” Here is a writer reassuring us that he does not think genocide is justifiable, and that he condemns it. Any book written in a way to require such a statement is on thin moral ice.
    It takes a special kind of man to waltz into a foreign city, tar the entire populace as recessive Nazis, and then refer to them as animals.
    And finally, the devastating assessment:
    When he reaches Greece, where he lived for several years, Kaplan chides scholars for ignoring “the most recent 2,000 years of Greek history . . . in favor of an idealized version of ancient Greece, a civilization that had already died before Jesus’ birth.” But this is precisely Kaplan’s technique in looking upon the rest of the world: Find one epoch, fixate upon it, project outward in the most intellectually irresponsible method imaginable.
     Ok, one more:
    Or it may indicate Robert D. Kaplan’s racism as he thoughtlessly compares perspiring black Americans to barbarians.
     Ok, yet one more:
    Imperial Grunts .... is not merely an account of twenty-first-century soldiering; it is also Kaplan’s attempt to define, defend, and justify American “imperialism.” On this point Grunts is a thesaurus of incoherencies.
     Ok, yet one more still:

    Kaplan is equally coldhearted about civilians’ lives. When a Marine kills an Iraqi civilian, Kaplan writes, “I felt bad for the marine who had fired the shot—any civilian would have felt bad for him, if he or she had experienced the complexity and confusion of this urban battle space.” As for the dead Iraqi—tough luck, Ali. Next time don’t be so pretentious.
    The summary of the review:
    Kaplan is worse than a bad writer or thinker. He is a dangerous writer made ever more dangerous by the fact that he is taken seriously. Even his most hostile reviews have treated him as though his arguments are still within the pale.

    I have taken great delight in this take down of Kaplan because I so much concur with this last quote of the book--that Kaplan is not just wrong, but wrongfully relevant.  I usually spend about 45 minutes each year trying to do to Huntington what this reviewer did in this piece to Kaplan.  Is it scholarly to vent one's spleen at those spewers of bad ideas?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it does make one feel good.