Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Title 9 for Comic Books?

Interesting story about the most prominent female superhero: Wonder Woman.  J. Michael Straczynski, who was the guy behind Babylon 5, has revised her origins and the artists have revised her look.  There has been much talk about a WW movie, originally with Joss Whedon behind it, but so far not so much progress.

I didn't follow Wonder Woman much in the comic books (which will appall an Aussie friend of mine), but in the great divides of the world (ex: John/Paul; Stones/Beatles; Jacob/Edward), I made mine Marvel and not DC.  So, I was a big fan of the females in the X-Men (Phoenix, Kitty Pryde, Storm, Rogue) rather than collecting Wonder Woman.  The TV show, on the other hand, came along at the right time--the mid-1970's.  Well, the right time for this guy. 

Anyway, why revise? 
“She’s been locked into pretty much the exact same outfit since her debut in 1941,” Mr. Straczynski wrote. “If you’re going to make a statement about bringing Wonder Woman into the 21st century, you need to be bold and you need to make it visual. I wanted to toughen her up, and give her a modern sensibility.”
He added, “What woman only wears only one outfit for 60-plus years?”
Well, I would agree, but moving in the direction of less skin showing would seem to be bucking the fashion trends of the last sixty years and not in the direction fan boys would like.
Mr. Lee has drawn his share of sexy superheroines (the X-Men’s Rogue among them), some in skimpy costume, and knows what many fans will ask: “Why am I covering up her legs?” Ultimately, he wanted her to look strong “without screaming, ‘I’m a superhero.’ ”
The punchline of the piece is a depressing one--Wonder Woman is not in the top 20 of sales.  But then again, I guess I am partly to blame.  How about you?  And making her more universal with less American Flag-esque and less leggy costume, is that going to make things better?

Let's Talk Dirty to the Terrorists

Could not resist referring to a classic Gilda Radner bit (see below for the video) when I was reading this op-ed by Robert Axelrod, a don in the political science profession, and some other dude.
So we find it disappointing that the Supreme Court, in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, ruled that any “material support” of a foreign terrorist group, including talking to terrorists or the communication of expert knowledge and scientific information, helps lend “legitimacy” to the organization. Sometimes, undoubtedly, that is the case. But American law has to find a way to make a clear distinction between illegal material support and legal actions that involve talking with terrorists privately in the hopes of reducing global terrorism and promoting national security. 
 The authors point out that today's terrorist may not be one tomorrow, such as, well, Nelson Mandel's African National Congress.  And that private channels are one way to get from a to b.  Plus engagement of some kind can actually improve knowledge:
In our time with Mr. Meshal’s group, we were also able to confirm something that Saudi and Israeli intelligence officers had told us: Hamas has fought to keep Al Qaeda out of its field of influence, and has no demonstrated interest in global jihad. Whether or not the differences among Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and other violent groups are fundamental, rather than temporary or tactical, is something only further exploration will reveal. But to assume that it is invariably wrong to engage any of these groups is a grave mistake.
 Not to mention serving the cause of social science.  I have a student who is trying to figure out why some militias are more successful than others.  Not talking to the militias would probably not help (yes, double negatives!).  So, she has talked to the terrorists.

And she is not the only one who wants to, as US Central Command is now thinking the unthinkable out loud.
The report opens with a quote from former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller's book, The Much Too Promised Land, which notes that both Hizballah and Hamas "have emerged as serious political players respected on the streets, in Arab capitals, and throughout the region. Destroying them was never really an option. Ignoring them may not be either.

The funny thing is that the political scientist, Robert Axelrod, is asking the Congress to do something subtle rather than to engage in grand-standing.  Reminds me how often we political scientists come up with good policy advice that is politically unappealing.

 The video is NSFW as Gilda really talks dirty to the animals.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Way Too Late for Some Spy Games

To continue the theme of timing (too soon for HP?  too late for Lost), how about them Russian spies about two decades or more late and more than a few dollars short?  Drezner calls it the lamest espionage conspiracy ever.  He raises the point that the supposed info they sought is widely available on the net.  One of his commenters suggests that the effort was more about influence than about intel gathering.

The timing, always, is not random.  Right after a major US-Russian engagement, which is not going to make relations better, but before than the arrests happening just before or during (at least no spy planes have been shot down....).  The justice types in the US seem to claim that the timing was driven by the suspects getting close to fleeing.  But if they did no harm really, then who cares if they flee?  A bit perhaps, but again, unless they did get some significant intel or do some significant kind of damage, it is not clear why this is all that important, except that the FBI needs a win.

Ah, bureaucratic politics might be in play here.  That this major victory in counter-espionage is much less consequential than the on-going cyber-war with China (not that I blame Chinese hackers for my current computer problems--we have enough talented nihilists in the US, Canada and elsewhere).

But who knows?

Jessie Gugig, 15, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Mrs. Murphy.
“They couldn’t have been spies,” she said jokingly. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
With a cover like that, these guys could be geniuses!

Exit Problems

Obama is, again, stuck between opposing forces.  His American political case wants the US out of Afghanistan.  The folks in Afghanistan need reassurance that they are not betting on the wrong side, and if we act like we are about to hit the road, they need to lay low or help the Taliban.  What to do?  Send ambiguous signals that are conflicting?  Yes.  But oops, that may not work out that well for either audience.
A senior American intelligence official said the Taliban had effectively used the deadline to their advantage. He added that the deadline had encouraged Pakistani security services to “hedge their bets” and continue supporting militant groups like the Haqqani network.
“They’ve been burned and they’ve seen this movie before,” the official said, noting the American disengagement after the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Should the war deteriorate, he added, Pakistani leaders are thinking, “We don’t want Haqqani turning around and coming this way.”
On this, I think the NYT is wrong (sorry, Peter B.)  That is, the Pakistanis would be playing around in Afghanistan and cozying up with the Haqqani folks either way--with a strong US commitment or without one.  They like to hedge their bets even when they don't need hedging.  Again, a basic social science dynamic--you cannot explain a constant with something that varies or vice versa--the Pakistanis have supported various "bad guys" in Afghanistan when the US commitment was strong, weak and non-existent.  Indeed, the Pakistanis view supporting such folks in Afghanistan as Republicans view tax cuts--always a good idea.  The justification may vary but the stance remains the same regardless of the objective reality.

And McCain is wrong for the same reason when he cites Karzai's intransigence.  Karazai was running against NATO when Obama started the first surge last spring (2009), long before Obama's decision.  And Karzai allowed his minions to rig the election when Obama's leverage was at its maximum--before he made the decision to reinforce.  So, nice try, Johnny McC.

Yes, Obama's 2011 ambiguity may make it harder to fight the war in Afghanistan, as it will and has caused some folks to ponder whether to risk taking our side.  But the most pressing conditions in Afghanistan are the same ones as always: the limits of the Karzai government, the power of those funded by poppies, and the games played by the Pakistanis.  The idea of a deadline of sorts was to push Karzai into action.  It has not worked, but it is not clear whether anything would get Karzai and his folks to be more helpful and less of a hindrance.

I don't think Obama has made every correct decision here, but there are no good choices.  There may be a few signs of progress, and the surge was always going to be accompanied by more violence, not less.  The question remains whether it will peak and decline or just accelerate. 

Never Too Soon for More Harry Potter (spoiler)

But hey, if you have not read the books, then you will get exposed to the ending sooner or later.  So, read the seven books and get back.  Or not.

Looks great.  Changes? Maybe.  Where will they break the break into the two movies?  Don't know--they are being very mysterious thus far.  One thing my family has figured out--we don't need no stinkin' 3D to enjoy this one. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

Never Too Late for More Lost Stuff

First, check out this alternative ending:  Just heaps of fun.

Second, I am re-watching the series as my daughter wants to see the first five seasons, having only watched the last one.  Yeah, pretty strange, but if you can figure out teenagers, let me know.  Anyhow, it is fun to see some themes emerge, even if it is still pretty clear that the writers really do not quite know where they are going yet.  Watching the episode at the start of Season 2 where John Locke is struggling with his father obsession/anger-management issues, and his sweetie, Helen, emphasizes the issues of "letting go" and "asking for help from the community."  So, either this was something very much intended or perhaps the writers went back to the show's past to figure out the themes that they would carry forward, especially in the last season--redemption through community and letting go.

So, yes, I am now playing the game in watching season 2 (we buzzed through season 1 very quickly) of: how does this fit the conclusion/did Damon and Carlton have a clue at point x about how this would end?  Fun stuff.

Confirming my Bias

I have repeatedly referred to confirmation bias in my blog.  Well, another blog has an extensive post.  Which makes me feel good since it confirms my biases. 
Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.
Half-a-century of research has placed confirmation bias among the most dependable of mental stumbling blocks.
Journalists looking to tell a certain story must avoid the tendency to ignore evidence to the contrary; scientists looking to prove a hypothesis must avoid designing experiments with little wiggle room for alternate outcomes.
Without confirmation bias, conspiracy theories would fall apart. Did we really put a man on the moon? If you are looking for proof we didn’t, you can find it.
Another study at Ohio State in 2009 showed subjects clips of the parody show “The Colbert Report,” and people who considered themselves politically conservative consistently reported “Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said.”
Of course, I am only showing the parts of the article that confirm my own biases.
In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well.
I don't watch Fox News, but then again, I don't watch any other news either (the Daily Show does not count as news).  In my normal life, I don't seek out differing opinions, although I would like to think I am open to new ideas if they are presented to me.  In my blogging life, I probably spend way too much time at the same set of sites to get my info (slate, NYT, fivethirtyeight).  In my professorial life, I do seek out the stuff that disagrees with me.  OK, if it is well executed (I don't read Robert Kaplan or Sam Huntington unless I am compelled to do so, usually by guys in uniform).  The reviewers will hammer me if I ignore the opposing arguments, so my confirmation tendencies are overwhelmed by the system that ensures a broader reading. 

Perhaps we all need anonynomous reviewers to push us to think outside of our boxes?

Then Again, Knowledge Hurts [update]

Apparently, we now have a guy who died with football-induced brain damage while he was still an active player.  Chris Henry died during a domestic argument but apparently had significant brain damage.  He is  the youngest, suggesting that damage occurs far earlier, perhaps due to contact before the pros in college, high school and even earlier.  He was also a wide receiver, not a position known for as much head contact.  This is really bad news.

Given past posts on this, I am not terribly optimistic that this will lead to significant changes in practices, rules and equipment.  It should, but the NFL like its FIFA brethern, is likely to keep its head in the sand even if Ostriches do not really do that.

Update: Alan Schwartz continues his excellent coverage of this on-going story.

Transparency is Bad?

FIFA--the world soccer organization--is going to solve its referee problem by limiting the replays of controversial calls.  Yep, rather than fixing the problem of having referees make poor, game-changing calls, they are going to limit the exposure of the mistakes.  Well, limit it to the live audience in attendance.  It is always better to cover things up than develop some new system or improve accountability, I always say.  Or not.

The problem is that since soccer is such a low-scoring game, getting just one call wrong is very much likely going to change the outcome.  And it seems to happen every other game during this World Cup.  Sure, controversy is good if it stimulates debate and interest, but if it turns off fans that begin to think that the game is a lottery which depends on which team a referee is going to punish, that might not be good for the game.

So, let's just not let folks know what is going on.  What a great solution!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

An Apple a Day?

My computer is sick, exposed to heaps of viruses, trojans and whatever else while plugging into a hotel computer network.  So, of course, my Mac friends recommend moving to Apple computers.  Their smugness probably does more to turn me off than the relative values of PC vs Mac machines.  But they have a point, so why do I resist mightily?  Why do I not join the Apple world of virus-free computing?  Why stay with the more flexible but complex and dangerous world of intel/microsoft?  Let me consider the possibilities:
  • It might just be a matter of time.  Mac's are not invulnerable to viruses but since the market share is small and more people seem to resent Bill Gates, more folks write viruses for Microsoft.  If I move over, it may just be a small breather until Apples gain the focus of the nasty folks (and what pieces of work these bastards are.  I am inconvenienced but it makes them no money and they don't even know me, so what is the point other than to compensate ...?)
  • PC's are cheaper.  Yep, still are, after all these years.  And there are heaps of choices of the various pieces--which monitors, keyboards, trackballs, software, etc.  So, PC's still win the price/flexibility argument.  But then again, I am buying my work machine with the school's cash, so this probably does not matter to much right now.  
  • Compatibility--path dependence is a constraint.  I have two other machines in the house (wife and kid; no, the dog and the cat are computer-less and pretty resentful as a result), so if I got a Mac, it would not be the same flavor as the other machines.  This used to matter more when there was less sharing/swapping/compatibility than there is now.  Still, the new computer would be an outlier.
  • Learning a new system would be a pain.  Macs are supposed to be intuitive and easy to learn.  But I have ingrained habits and ways of working with my machines.  Of course, I will soon have to learn Windows 7 and Office 2010, so this point is largely moot.
  • The costs of PC-ness are a yearly bout with viruses and other challenges.  Sure, it pisses me off for a weekend, but I have survived.  I have not lost any data, and the computer techs at McGill should be able to clean it what I have not been able to eliminate.
  • Apple people are annoyingly smug.  They are hipsters.  Do I really want to become like them?
  • I am lazy.  Doing things the same way is the least work in the short run.  And in the long run?  The machines will be controlling us. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

NATO Forgotten Again?

In all of the McChrystal/Petraeus news, one thing is being forgotten: the commander of ISAF is a NATO position.  When Obama and Gates fired General McKiernan and replaced him with McChrystal, a modest amount of due diligence was exerted to make the allies feel almost as if they are part of the process.  This time, not so much.  Of course, time was tight, and we will find out in the days ahead whether any allies were seriously consulted, but I doubt it.  This is one of the many challenges that arise when folks where two or more hats--being responsible to two or more chains of command. 

Speaking of command questions, another question: who runs CENTCOM now that Petraeus is moving down the chain of command to COMISAF?  Few folks are asking about this.  So far, two Marines have been mentioned--Petraeus's deputy at CENTCOM: LtG Allen; and General Matthis.  Whoever runs CENTCOM is going to have an even more complicated hand to play with the biggest name in the military and previous occupant actually serving under him.

New Blog Recommendation of the Week/Month/Year

True North is Roland Paris's new blog.  Two entries thus far.  Both sharp and chock full of informed opinions.  Canadian-centric but not typically Canadian in tone--Roland spent too much time in the US!  That is, Roland takes a bit of air out of recent polls that show that Canada is seen as a world power, putting into perspective this claim by considering who does and does not consider Canada in this light.  In short, the richer countries are less impressed than the poorer ones.  Likewise, his initial post raises questions about how Canada issues positive progress reports about Kandahar. 

So, for a sharp perspective on IR in general and the IR of Canada specifically, check out this blog.  If the first two posts are any indication (plus Roland has a hell of a previous track record), his blog is very much worth following.

Catching Up on Old TV

As readers of my blog know, I watch a lot of TV, so how could I have missed The Wire and Freaks and Geeks.  Well, I probably didn't get in on the former as it started while I was still working at the Pentagon and did not want to add any more stuff to my already shortened evenings with my 4:45am wakeups.  And then, once behind, I didn't try to catch up until now.  For F&G, I have no idea why I didn't start watching it.  I know why I didn't catch up before--the show got canceled after one season. 

In addition to making progress on my book, reading my graduate students' stuff, writing up a person's tenure letter, and other stuff, my summer projects include making progress on The Wire and watching all of F&G.  I am five episodes into The Wire and pretty hooked thus far.  For me, the best part thus far are the dysfunctional bureaucratic politics of the police and the management strategies of the bad guys.  Lots of principal-agent problems and various solutions.  How do you get your underlings to do what you want?  I spent part of this week's conference in Kingston thinking about how I should adapt some of their planning and management styles to my own challenges of multiple teaching and research assistants.  Of course, using the US and CA militaries might seem harsh or unrealistic as models of management, but I am pretty sure that my employees would prefer those tactics to those of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell (the drug entrepreneurs). 

I asked for F&G for Father's Day, so it was appropriate that the entire Spew family (well, the humans, not the pets) were crammed onto the couch (the smallest takes half, the parents share the rest) to watch the pilot last night.  Great start.  And we had a blast trying to place names and faces of some of the younger folks while enjoying how Seth Rogen, Jason Segal and James Franco have aged some but not much.  Typical Apatow: one central female, few others that are central; heaps of painful, squirming comedy, pretty sweet and sentimental and very entertaining.

One of the nice things about the proliferation of channels and tv shows is that one can miss an entire series and then have something to watch.  In the good old days pre-DVDs and videos, one had to settle for re-runs ... of Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch.  Regardless of climate change, terrorism, and radical right wing anti-immigration movements, we live in a better world.

Friday, June 25, 2010

With Allies Like These?

Nice to know that some things remain consistent.  Or not.  Pakistan is apparently trying to fill the space that the Americans may be creating with their ambivalence about Afghanistan.  That the Haqqani network may be the means for this should not be surprising but is still dismaying, given its ties to Al Qaeda.  Yes, most civil wars end with negotiations with the opponents, so we should expect that the Afghans have talks with the various insurgent elements.  But to have the Pakistanis be the matchmakers raises more than a few questions. 
Pakistan has already won what it sees as an important concession in Kabul, the resignations this month of the intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, and the interior minister, Hanif Atmar. The two officials, favored by Washington, were viewed by Pakistan as major obstacles to its vision of hard-core Taliban fighters’ being part of an Afghanistan settlement, though the circumstances of their resignations did not suggest any connection to Pakistan.
So, Karzai is now seeking to negotiate from an even more weak position.  Sure, that will work out great.
But this official acknowledged that the Haqqanis and Al Qaeda were too “thick” with each other for a separation to happen. They had provided each other with fighters, money and other resources over a long period of time, he said.
One could possibly imagine the US leaving Afghanistan after ten years of combat with the Taliban sharing power.  But hard to imagine the US leaving if AQ gets to have Afghanistan as its playground again.

I am still trying to remember what the US gets out of its relationship with Pakistan, besides roads from the ports to Afghanistan.  I guess stability is better than not, with Pakistan's nuclear capability, but Pakistan makes every other ally of the US look much better.

Friends Confirm My Biases

FB friend Brandon posted two pieces yesterday that I found interesting because they confirm my predispositions.  Ooops, another conformation bias sighting!

First, Brandon linked to a paper that argues and seeks to prove that distance learning provides inferior results to non-distance learning (that would be live learning--for undead learning, see Drezner's forthcoming textbook):
Counter to the conclusions drawn by a recent U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of non-experimental analyses of internet instruction in higher education, we find modest evidence that live-only instruction dominates internet instruction. These results are particularly strong for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students. We also provide suggestions for future experimentation in other settings.
So, modest in general but strong for groups that are already facing significant educational challenges.  Yes, males are facing challenges, including being out-numbered in higher education.  Well, among the students, we males still dominate in the professorial ranks, but you get the idea.  This study may not be definitive, and will certainly not end the debate.  But, anything that justifies my current occupation has got to be right.

Second, Brandon linked to a piece agreeing with my stance that Republican immigration posturing is going to bite the party and not just on its ass (where would that be?).  This should not be too surprising as politicians often pursue the short term rather than the long term.  But it could be the case that the effects of pandering to the anti-immigration folks may be much more immediate than the long term--like losing the Texas governor race this fall. 

Of course, this just confirms that friends are those that share my biases.  But then again, Brandon and I argued a lot about The Pacific until he saw the error of his ways.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Finding a Spot?

I am a big fan of Tom Vanderbilt's posts on traffic and parking stuff.  His latest riff on parking makes a great deal of sense, which means that Montreal is sure to screw it up. 

Last Post on McChrystal and Rolling Stone (until the next one)

I was at a conference for much of this week of Canadian and American army folks while McChrystal's future was up for grabs.  The conference limited my time to blog about it, but I had plenty of time to think about it.  Many of the folks in the conference room had served in Afghanistan--none seemed to think that McC had much ground to stand on.

Neither did many folks in the US armed services, according to Tom Ricks (here and here).  And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (for whom I have developed significant respect, unlike his two predecessors) was also quite "sickened" by McC's command climate.

There is a lot packed into the piece, but I just want to highlight a few things.

First, as I was at a conference where the theme was security and governance, it was very clear to me that counter-insurgency only works when the civilians and the military can work closely together.  Petraeus was successful in Iraq precisely because he worked well with the American ambassador.  McChrystal deserved to lose his job, even if he had not been "contemptuous" of his civilian masters or tolerated such attitudes among his subordinates, because of his inability to work with Ambassador Eikenberry, the senior American civilian in Afghanistan. It may be the case that Eikenberry needs to be replaced as well (and perhaps Holbrooke, too).  But McC's credentials on COIN were badly damaged even before this week due to his inability to manage his relationship with Eikenberry.

Second, the article brings up some resentment by some troops about "courageous restraint."  The idea is that sometimes it is better not to use force rather than alienate the locals.  It does increase the risks faced by the ISAF troops, so these guys may not like it.  But war is about managing, not eliminating risk.  If you want to win a counter-insurgency campaign, it will mean exposing the troops to more risk than bombing folks back into the stone age or hanging out in big bases.  COIN requires more troops amongst the people in smaller, more vulnerable locales; holding back and waiting for another day to fire upon a bad guy; and so forth.  War requires sacrifice, and that may mean significant restraint.  Troops that don't get this do not get counter-insurgency. 

I did learn that something like 80% of the civilian casualties in Regional Command South (the sector run by the British/Canadians/Dutch but with Americans, Danes, Romanians and others also there) were caused by Special Forces types, the smallest hunk of troops there (and the most lethal, of course).  So, it seems that the SOF guys need the most courageous restraint since they have been doing a disproportionate share of the damage to the war effort.  Of course, McC ironically was a SOF guy pushing for such restraint but displayed little of his own.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Saideman Shoots and Scores!

Ok, so I got one thing right this year: McChrystal got fired.  Obama ended up being more decisive about insubordination than about the difficult choices last fall about Afghanistan.  And then he chooses Gen. Petraeus.  Interesting.  Who gets CENTCOM?  General Matthis? 

I do think the idea of taking out other elements of the dysfunctional team--Holbrooke and Eikenberry--makes sense.  But perhaps this is enough for one week.  Will the change make a big difference on the ground?  No.  McC was following, more or less, the Petraeus playbook on Counter-Insurgency except for that working with civilians stuff.  So, we may see some improvement, but the major forces right now are Karzai and Pakistan.  Petraeus is not a miracle worker. 

I would like to thank McC for helping to illustrate some of my arguments during the opening panel on Tuesday--civilian control of the military indeed!

I have some thoughts on some of the stuff in the article, but have been conferenced out.  More tomorrow after I get back to Montreal.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Over/Under on McC's Remaining Days as COMISAF

I put the over/under at three days.  And I would take the under.  Check out the piece.  Gates has already said that the mission is important than any individual, and from conversations with some folks at this conference with some Kabul experience, it is clear that McChrystal has created a cult of personality around himself.   His career is over. 

Ricks thinks that Marine General Matthis will be the next COMISAF.

I don't have time now to think about this much, but will ponder it and then post probably on Thursday when I get back to Mtl.

Can't We All Get Along

I am too busy at a conference with American and Canadian army types to follow the latest contretemps between General McChystral and his various adversaries (Biden, Eikenberry, etc.), but it looks interesting!
''I found that time painful,'' McChrystal said in the article, on newsstands Friday. ''I was selling an unsellable position.''
Is that the fault of the Obama folks?  McChrystal's?  Or the basic challenge he faced--that the war and the reinforcement were hard sells?

This event does show that McC seems to lack a bit of discretion--venting to a Rolling Stone reporter.

His reactions seem to be a bit over the top, as a controversial situation like Afghanistan should create some dissensus as there is no one path ahead that is obviously right.  Each choice is a sub-optimal one with difficult tradeoffs. 

Oh well, fun times ahead.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Kingston Rocks!

Ok, maybe it rolls.  Especially after a hotel parking lot collapsed due to its unstable marsh-like foundation.  But the reception to the conference was enjoyable.  I apparently know more Canadian military folks than I expected.  Either that or most of them are here this week.  I present tomorrow on the evolution of poli sci thinking about ethnic conflict and civil war.  My punchline--focusing on building the capacity of governments to put down rebellions ignores the reality that governments do far more damage to their societies.

Oh, and good beer in Kingston!

Bad Luck for Ontario Roads

On my way to a conference of Canadian and American army types in Kingston, I got detoured for nearly an hour as the main route between Montreal and Toronto was closed down.  For the second time in a week, my travels in Ontario were slowed due to a burned out vehicle on the other side of the highway.  This time, it was a truck that was almost reduced to a puddle. 

Aside closing the other side of the highway too long, what can Ontario learn from this?  Apparently, don't let me drive in the province this month.  I am bad luck.  

What I Learned Watching the A-Team Movie

The A-Team Movie was quite an educational experience.  What did I learn?
  • Gandhi says violence is ok.
  • Private military contractors are the bad guys (along with rogue CIA guys).  
    • Black Forest instead of Blackwater--very subtle!
  • Suitable to be early disposable bad guys: Mexican drug lords and corrupt government officials.
  • Always plan.  The bad guys are easy to anticipate and will act just as you predict except when they find a bazooka that can take out a ship. 
  • Prisons are pretty easy to escape. 
An enjoyable blast to the past.  Just nostalgia, no time travel.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Adding a Teaspoon of Vampire? Ask the Reader

I was listening to the podcast of Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg, and Dan jokingly suggested that you could add vampires to any TV show and it would help.  They then joked about Mad Men.

But it is an open question: which shows could use some vampires or could have used some and which characters?
  • Does M*A*S*H work better with Hawkeye as a vampire?
  • Diane in Cheers?
  • the Christopher Lloyd role in Taxi?
  • Dr. Johnny Fever was probably a vampire already.
  • George Clooney in ER?
What say you?

Hit You With Her Best Shot

Nice profile of Pat Benatar in the NYT.  She is plugging her new book, which sounds pretty interesting.  I like her take here in this article:

“It was a power thing,” she recalled. “I wanted to be Robert Plant in every way: the swagger, the open sexuality.” At the time, as she writes in her memoir, “the thought of having a female front person who could compete with male rockers, filling arenas, selling massive amounts of records, was unheard of.”
 But then:
That look “was a great idea when it was mine,” Ms. Benatar said the other day. “When they turned it into a marketing tool, I was just incensed.”
The piece mostly focuses on fashion, but as this quote tells you, there is far more to the Heartbreaker than that.

Separatist Extremism Deserves its own Post

I mentioned the interview with Jacques Parizeau in my previous post, but he gets more direct attention here.

The grandfather of modern separatism asserts:
“No country is too small to prosper and to enjoy an acceptable growth rate as long as two conditions are met,” Mr. Parizeau maintains in his book. “It must have access to a large market and its businesses must be competitive.”
 The funny thing about this statement is that it hides the contradictions within Quebec nationalism so very nicely.  Sure, access to large markets and competitive business sound great.  And I had a conversation Friday with a European diplomat who is involved in negotiations between Canada and the European Union over freer trade.  He said that Quebec was very much in favor of this, even though Quebec has been very protective of its industries, to the point of requiring for much time that margarine be white to protect the Quebec dairy industry.  So, I asked the diplomat about this, and we both realized that somebody somewhere was not thinking about how Quebec could continue its habits of protecting various industries (train manufacturers come to mind) when the new agreement would require genuine competition.

So, Parizeau is saying that it wants to be part of a large market (NAFTA and EU) but is not saying what that would mean for Quebec's policies.  He is saying that business must be competitive, despite the tradition of protecting companies from competition.  Moreover, the deliberate effort to restrict Quebeckers from learning English might not help access nor competition.  Oops.

He also says that Quebec would use the Canadian dollar.  Hmmm.  Would an independent Quebec need Canada's cooperation there?  Does Parizeau want Quebec to be Greece to Canada's Germany?

Checking out the New PQ Program

What is a separatist party to do when enthusiasm for genuine independence is weak among the majority and strong among those who show up at the party meetings?  Invent some threats and then come up with a list of promises about nationalist issues when the province is actually facing much bigger challenges in terms of budget deficits, failing infrastructure, and over-stressed services.  So, what are the new promises?

Most importantly, Pauline Marois is resisting the extreme wing's desire to promise a referendum on independence as soon as possible (see this interview for old voice of Quebec self-destructive extremism: I love how Jacques Parizeau is so scornful of folks who stand for good govenment).  Why?  Because that might mean that the PQ does not get into office.  Quebeckers are pretty smart about the likelihood of a passing referendum--not very likely. And they are probably pretty aware of the costs of such a referendum: more provincial money wasted, more financial uncertainty, declining housing prices, and lots of wasted time.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Begins Or Is it Winter?

Finally, there is a movie that my family needs to see: Toy Story 3.  But it may be somewhat painful, given the themes involved.  Slate has a review that suggests that Toy Story 3 may rival Forrest Gump for waterworks.  Speaking of which, Gump was on TV last week, and I was again struck by the hunk of emotion that lodges in my throat when it gets towards the end. As my daughter reminds me when she changes the radio channel as we drive to and from places in Montreal, I am a sap-sucker.

We wuz Robbed

Dan Drezner does a nice job of putting an IR spin on the Slovenia-US game and FIFA's limits as an international organization.  Given that baseball seemed ok, at the end of the day with the recent imperfect game due to a bad call, is this hypocrisy by Americans?  Perhaps not since not winning the game in the World Cup might have more of an impact on the outcome of the competition than a pitcher not getting credit for 27 outs after 27 batters.  The good news is that it sets up a very exciting week for the World Cup with much more in the balance. 

The Right Reasons to be Pessimistic

There is a report today that violence is increasing in Afghanistan. This is entirely predictable and not necessarily damning news for progress in the counter-insurgency effort, as more troops and more activity by NATO forces inevitably would mean more targets and more contact and, hence, more violence.  Two other bits of news are in this report as well:
  • that NATO is causing a smaller percentage of the civilian deaths perhaps thanks to McChrystal's strategies and perhaps thanks to having more troops on the ground (so they can be more discriminating in their application of force);
  • "The most dramatic change has been in suicide bombings, which have tripled this year compared to 2009, with such attacks now taking place an average of three times a week."
When I was visiting Afghanistan in 2007, it was asserted that IED's (improvised landmines) were more targeted towards the outsiders and suicide bombing was focused on the civilians, so one tended to see the former where there was more support for the insurgency and the latter where there was less.  Of course, both forms of attacks have increased of late, but suicide bombings, as terrifying as they are, might just be a sign of weakness since they do nothing to attract indigenous support.  Indeed, they do the opposite.

While the failure to provide a high degree of security is clearly a challenge for the counter-insurgency effort, by itself, the higher degree of violence does not indicate progress or regression.  Over the past week or two, I have linked and discussed enough stories that do provide real reasons for being pessimistic and they have everything to do with the government of Afghanistan.  The Taliban are not winning supporters--the Karzai government is losing supporters.  This is an important but frustrating distinction.  We should be pessimistic--because of what we have to build on and whom to build with, but not because of the violence of late.  In Iraq, violence increased during the first part of the surge and then declined.  Unfortunately, that parallel should not be too encouraging since the Iraqi situation is not too promising these days with more and more assassinations of the Awakening folks.

We should take seriously the violence we see and the trends, but we cannot forget the context in which they take place.  If there was no surge and no increase in NATO activity, an increase in violence would be much more problematic.  Instead, this is part of the process, and we should be glad that NATO is doing less damage to bystanders.  But clearly, providing security to much of the populace needs far more work.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Slow Blog Day

Not much early blogging today as I spent the morning driving to Ottawa and the afternoon returning.  In between, I met the Danish charge d'affairs to learn about the Danish effort in Afghanistan.  They have paid the greatest price per capita for their efforts, and are acting most un-continental European in their efforts in Southern Afghanistan.  I am going to Copenhagen in late August to interview their military and civilian types about this effort, as the country is an outlier for the Dave and Steve model of NATO countries in Afghanistan.  Today's conversation was a great start, even if it did impede blogging.

Please, Please, Please!

I want to go to Orlando!!!  The new Harry Potter park rocks!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Mad Men Policy Relevant?

I wonder if the timing of NY's new effort to move to no-fault divorce might just be slightly inspired by Mad Men?  I blogged that I was surprised by the depiction of divorce law in the 1950's and 1960's on Mad Men last fall.  I was told by a native New Yorker that these laws did exist back then and were still largely on the books today.  Betty Draper was last seen flying to Reno to get a divorce because she could not get one in NY. 

Well, times are a-changing, and I do wonder if that episode of Mad Men might just have demonstrated how retrograde NY's laws still are.  Yes, there are tradeoffs in no-fault divorce, but as this op-ed shows, the freedom to leave without litigation can reduce suicide and spousal abuse.  Having watched a relative spend more than a year getting divorced under no fault and paying a steep financial price despite residing in a no-fault state, I can hardly imagine what it would be like to have to prove fault.  Nice to see NY finally moving into the 1960's or 1970's.

Strangest Mashup (NSFW)

I have started watching The Wire, way late, but I have enjoyed it thus far.  I have watched enough to recognize some of the dialogue in this clip:

Is this an appropriate tribute to the new Toy Story movie?  Of course not. 

HT to Alan Sepinwall's tweet.

Theory Confirmed Again, Unfortunately

I posted two days ago about the challenges of doing social science about conflict.  Specifically, events can prove one right, making one happy, but those events can be pretty bad for people in general.  Well, my focus on the role of governments in civil conflicts, with new emphasis on the need for civilian control over professional militaries, has received more support from the latest from Kyrgyzstan.  Elements of the Kyrgyzstan military seem to have taken sides and used violence against the minority Uzbeks.  Is this surprising?  No.  It should remind us, however, that violence occurs not just when states become weak and fail, but when agents of the state act against particular individuals or groups in a capricious or predatory manner.

Other social scientists (Steven Wilkinson) have found that riots occur not because governments are incapable of stopping them but when the relevant local leaders actually want a riot so that the populace becomes radicalized. 

What is going on in this case?  I am not sure since I have never studied any of the non-Afghanistan "stans."  But it suggests that the new caretakers in the aftermath of the removal of the previous president, Bakiyev, do not have complete control over the military.  Indeed, it may be the case that Bakiyev still has some influence and is using it to undermine the current government.

Leaders of the Uzbeks are asking for an international set of peacekeepers since they do not trust the Kyrgyz.  Well, they are most likely to get Russian peacekeepers, so they should be careful about what they are asking for.  Russian peacekeepers tend to have their own agendas, as Georgia has experienced, and peace is not always one of them, although pieces often are.  Pieces of this place or that place.

Fear Not, Secessionist Does Not Spread Like an Oil Spill

I may have led folks (Sherrill) to believe that separatism in one place may lead to more separatism in distant places due to my blog post yesterday about Belgium.  Sherrill raised the question of whether Kosovo empowered the Flemish--either their leaders or their voters.  I would say nay.  And I would say nay if anyone were to link Kosovo or Belgium to a new round of Quebec separatism as well. Politicians and voters are reacting primarily to local dynamics.  The Parti Quebecois is riding high in the polls because the incumbent government has been in office a long time, is mired in heaps of scandals, and due to the economic problems that are actually not too bad here.  The point I did want to make is that those advocating a particular set of institutions as a solution to ethnic strife have lost a key example, as Belgium is clearly not a success story these days.

The good news is that this discussion has helped me figure out how to re-frame an old paper that is now going to be part of a new edited volume.  I will, once again, show that countries with their own separatist conflicts are more likely, not less likely, to support secessionist groups elsewhere, contrary to the conventional wisdom.  This will not prove that separatism is or is not contagious, but does show that fears of contagion do not seem to deter countries when other interests (ethnic ties or retaliation) compel them. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Facing the Font!

I first got into using Comic Sans while in the Pentagon.  Now it is kicking butt and taking names:
Listen up. I know the shit you've been saying behind my back. You think I'm stupid. You think I'm immature. You think I'm a malformed, pathetic excuse for a font. Well think again, nerdhole, because I'm Comic Sans, and I'm the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes @#$Gutenberg.

The Future of Belgium

The latest election has produced a separatist party winning the plurality of seats.  Given the enduring crisis, perhaps we should be less surprised.  Nor should we be surprised by the schadenfreude appearing on the internet.

Peter Vermeersch has a good analysis on the new blog-site of the Association for the Study of Nationalities.  The first new challenge is how does a separatist party perhaps govern as part of a coalition?  In Canada, the Bloc Quebecois has never been inside of government, and the one recent attempt to include it in a coalition just perpetuated the Conservative minority government.  Many Canadians found a Liberal/NDP alliance with the Bloc to be anathema.

Given how my recent book focused on how nationalisms can have multiple meanings and that we need to take the content of each one seriously, I am, perversely perhaps, pleased by the Flemish separatist effort's re-formulation:
The N-VA has managed to make people forget the old, vague, romantic and not particularly mobilizing notion of full Flemish independence and reframe its nationalism as a moderate political demand for autonomy. The party employed a number of metaphors to communicate this message. “We don’t want a revolution, just evolution”, said N-VA leader Bart De Wever repeatedly. We do not want to split Belgium, we will just let it “evaporate”, was another slogan. This discourse was also meant to eclipse the dark sides of the Flemish movement’s heritage, in particular its association with collaboration during the Second World War.
The funny thing, getting back to the Quebec comparison, is that the Bloc (the Quebec separatist party at the national level) and the Parti Quebecois (the one at the provincial level) are mostly emphasizing the old framing: language in danger, separatism as the solution.

Vermeersch goes on to suggest the relevance of Belgium for the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and I would stretch that to include Canada/Quebec as well.  The more dysfunctional other bilingual countries are, the more motivated those who are already separatist may become.
[Belgium] has been used to show how linguistic tensions (and therefore also ethnic or national ones) can be kept in check by a carefully crafted constitutional setup that makes room for compromise, autonomy, and power-sharing mechanisms. But if it turns out that the Belgian constitutional setup has only unleashed more nationalism and more competition between linguistically defined political groups it might lose its role as an institutional model.
To be clear, I don't think Belgium's potential disintegration will cause other countries to fall apart (I have long argued against contagion arguments), but it may limit the ability for folks to suggest and pass institutional solutions in the future when the poster child is, well, sick.

The post concludes by addressing the Flemish party's appeals to a stronger EU, and this feeds into larger debates about whether European Integration empowers separatist movements and weakens central governments.  If the Flemish know that they would remain in an EU even if they are not part of Belgium, does that encourage them?  If much of the regulation is done in the other part of Brussels (EU HQ, not Belgium's government), then perhaps being in Belgium matters less. 

This all bears more watching, and now we have a blog where scholars can assess the nationalities developments of the day.

Admitting Defeat?

“We’re no match for them, as far as I’m concerned. Man does not stand no chance.”
Against what? Zombies?  No, RATS!  Interesting story about the NY subway rat situation.  

NYC has been studying how to fight the rat population, with the conclusion that it is not likely to be a winnable war.  At least some folks are costing out this one war before really kicking it off:
Indeed, a spokesman for the transportation authority said Tuesday that the agency would “need to evaluate the costs associated with implementation moving forward.”
The good news is that the population is not as big as feared, and the rats are not likely to ride any trains since  "the stress of noise, vibration, and crowding may kill some of them before their time.”And that would be a pity.  Or not.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Strange But Obscure Montreal Regulation of the Week

After living here for eight years, you would think I would not be surprised anymore by rules and regulations that seem just a bit, well, strange.  But I was reminded today as I biked around my suburbs that the various community pools have not yet opened, some not even on weekends.  This past weekend, there was an ultimate tournament just across the street from a very big pool in Verdun, but it was closed. 

Why?  Is it because it is not warm enough yet?  Not this year. It seems to be the case that the pools can only open when the sixteen and seventeen year olds get out of school.  Why?  Well, these folks are many of the lifeguards.  But that does not explain why some pools were closed last weekend, since the kids were not in school.  And why not use college students who could use the work before the younger teens get out?  Again, it may make sense not to open the pools to too many hours until the public schools let out but at least pool does not open full time until June 27th.  Which means one could be paying nearly $400 for access for just two months of swim-time since the pools close before Labour Day.  That's right, no swimming on Labour Day. 

Perhaps this is a rule meant to protect the jobs for the high school students.  I would not be surprised since protecting jobs seems to be the major focus of many regs.

Maybe I am wrong, and this is not a regulation but a policy, but the swim season here is short enough already.  Making it shorter still hardly makes sense. 

I Hate It When A Theory is Right

One of the basic dilemmas facing academics is when they end up watching world events and find their theories confirmed--when their theories are confirmed by bad things happening.  I am currently working with a co-author on revisions of a paper that seeks to move the debates about intra-state violence (civil war, ethnic conflict, etc) from the absence of the state to the capacity of the state to the danger the state poses.  It is building on a volume I edited a few years ago.

Anyhow, one of the major points of the effort is to focus attention on how governments and their agents can be the sources of not just security but insecurity.  And in the news, it is clear that we are right, but unhappily so.  The Awakening movement (the Sunni-based effort that turned against the Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda in Iraq) that proved so central to the success of the surge and the relative successes in Iraq is now being targeted by someone.  The article specifies former Sunni insurgents as the threat, but my bet is on members of the Iraqi government. 
"We are being hunted down. It has never been worse. I have been targeted by roadside bombs six times in the past four months."
Strangely enough or not, this seems quite similar to the latest accusations against Karzai in Afghanistan.

I will be speaking next week at a conference largely consisting of Canadian and American Army folks, and one of the major points of the talk is that we need to remember that while we need to build up the capacity of the security forces in the countries we are working, we need to figure out ways to build restraints as well.  These security forces present threats to the populace if they are not used only against those who are engaged in violence.  If security forces are used against political opponents, then those opponents will have no choice but to become violent themselves.
"If the votes of Sunnis are ignored and the government is formed according to Iran's interests, and if Sunnis are still denied funds and discriminated against, then they will take up arms against the state." 

The good news is not just that these events make my work more relevant and thus both more publishable and more cite-able, but also help me to clarify my thinking.  Are the events bad news for the folks who live in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Yes, very much so.  Hence the ambivalence of the academic life.

A Spew Identity Crisis?

I have frequently been amused by my reputation in the Montreal area as the media's go-to guy for a hardline view on Afghanistan.  Well, in comparison to most Montrealers/Quebecers/Canadians (and to most Obies as well).  And the reactions to my occasional op-ed tend to be from the left side of the spectrum.  Still, I was a bit surprised to find this morning that that yesterday's reaction to the story of Afghanistan's mineral resources to be very positive in right-wing blogs.

I have joked that years of exposure to very high taxes and very strong unions were turning me into a Republican.  Has it finally happened?  Um, no?  I still like Obama, more so than folks on the right or the left, I think.  I found health care reform to be a better option than no change.  I could go on, but my blog should have, by now, demonstrated that my basic inclinations are not on the right side of the political spectrum.  Perhaps it is because the American political spectrum has shifted so far right in my lifetime that a relatively moderate person could be now left-wing?  Maybe.

Or perhaps my pragmatism  (realism with a small "r) on international relations issues is confusing to ideologues.  My views on Afghanistan, for instance, are shifting, not because of interests and values at stake (my core beliefs and value may be consistent or not), but because I am re-assessing the probabilities of success and failure due to more information about Karzai.  Indeed, see here for yet another tale that raises more questions about the powers that be.

What does remain consistent?  My narcissism as I quickly spotted who was linking to my blog.  What else?  Basically this view:
“Staying where you are is not attractive, because sooner or later, it means you’ll lose,” Mr. Riedel said. “Obama inherited a disaster in Afghanistan and he faces the same bad options he faced in 2008.” NYT

Monday, June 14, 2010

Maybe Some Dumb Ones Are Left

I have been pondering for several years whether the counter-terrorism has been counter-productive because we kill or arrest the dumb ones, so that the ones left behind get smarter and smarter.  Two political scientists I know disagree.  Dan Byman and Christine Fair have nice piece in the Atlantic, revealing that Afghan suicide bombers are pretty lousy at their job, for instance. 
And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks—or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.
Not only are some of our adversaries not too bright, but more than a few are hardly devout.  Byman and Fair provide examples of something I had heard about before--predator porn. 
But intelligence picked up by Predator drones and other battlefield cameras challenges that idea—sometimes rather graphically. One video, captured recently by the thermal-imagery technology housed in a sniper rifle, shows two Talibs in southern Afghanistan engaged in intimate relations with a donkey. Similar videos abound, including ground-surveillance footage that records a Talib fighter gratifying himself with a cow.
And they call us decadent.
Many laptops seized from the Taliban and al-Qaeda are loaded with smut. U.S. intelligence analysts have devoted considerable time to poring over the terrorists’ favored Web sites, searching for hidden militant messages. “We have terabytes of this stuff,” said one Department of Defense al-Qaeda analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It isn’t possible that they are encrypting messages in all of this stuff. Some of these guys are just perverts.”
This pieced has real policy implications:
In contrast, even small investments in training for police and airport-security personnel can make a big difference, as these are the people most likely to encounter—and have a chance to disrupt—an unskilled attacker.

The Future of Protesting Heresy

Just delightful.  Let's not tell the book-burning types that burning an i-Pad or Kindle would be potentially toxic.  They don't believe in Evolution, but let's not interfere with the contemporary application of Darwin's Survival of the Fittest.

Resources in Afghanistan!? [updated]

Lots of chatter this morning with multiple FB links to this story about US identifying heaps of mineral sin Afghanistan.  My first reaction was: of course there are lots of minerals because no one has had the chance to really mine the country.  Let me re-phrase that: because of the prevalence of land-mines (IEDs) and on-going violence for the past thirty years, Afghanistan should have abundant mineral deposits. 

Blake Hounsell of has an interesting perspective on the story: the timing and cement.  That is, he ponders whether it is an accident that relatively old news about surveys of resources in Afghanistan is splashed across the front page of the NYT just after a series of bad stories about Afghanistan about which I have been ranting lately.  And then the killer punch--he notes that Afghanistan is so short of any kind of production capacity that it produces fifty times less cement, which is pretty basic stuff, than Pakistan.  If you have to import cement, that suggests trying to dig out lithium might not be either that high of a priority or that likely to happen any time soon.

Of course, this story will feed the conspiracy theorists who focus on pipelines and economic resources as the reasons why NATO and the US are in Afghanistan.  Of course, this is one of the poorest states on the planet, so it completely makes sense that economic imperialism would be driving events..... or not.

The fun thing is that my pessimistic political science friends immediately jump on the resource curse idea--that countries with lots of resources tend not to develop robust institutions.  Why?  Because they do not need to develop taxation systems and then social welfare systems if they can collect money via resources.  The problem with invoking the resource curse argument here is that it is a path dependent process by which a series of decisions and events leave state institutions weak and ineffective, but Afghanistan has already had heaps of path dependent processes that have limited the capacity of the government--heaps of civil war and corruption and abuse of power. 
The corruption that is already rampant in the Karzai government could also be amplified by the new wealth, particularly if a handful of well-connected oligarchs, some with personal ties to the president, gain control of the resources. [NYT]
And given the stories of the past week, this is very much likely to be the outcome. 

So, is this a game-changer?  Not really.  Exploitation of these minerals, even in the absence of war, will take decades.  The biggest benefit might be to the international community as Afghanistan someday might be able to pay for its own government.  It may lead to some rivalry between China and everyone else since China seems to be operating on a longer term strategy of resource security.  These resources may add a bit of fuel to a bunch of fires: the war, the corruption, tensions with China.  But it is not likely to really change the direction of events in the near or medium term.

Of course, I am no expert in minerals, so I could be wrong.  But the resource curse is not thing that comes to mind for me.  Afghanistan is already cursed enough by its past and by its current leadership.

[update]  Ricks has an expert chime in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

No Wonder Karzai is Miffed

The US and NATO are deploying their intel assets in part to fight corruption!  This makes politico-military sense as corruption and abuse of power are key weaknesses in the war effort, undermining support for the Afghan government and those fighting to maintain it (that would be NATO and its partners).  Of course, this does have heaps of blowback potential since Karzai's family is pretty involved in the shenanigans. 

The article indicates that the intel has been passed onto Afghan authorities so that the local folks can do the arresting--which makes heaps of sense for a variety of reasons.  But this article is not going to do any favors for the relationships between the Americans and Karzai.
The military is focused on battling corruption at the local and provincial levels in ways that illustrate a commitment to good governance for the population to see in their day-to-day lives. Yet, Pentagon officials acknowledge that this localized effort must be supported by a more senior-level, political decision by the Obama administration on how to deal with corruption at the uppermost echelons of the Afghan government. .... Ultimately, this kind of information could also be used to help the Afghan government weed out corrupt governors.
 Of course, that requires Karzai's help since it is within his power to hire and fire governors.  Ooops.

The Past and Future Of Africa

Pierre Englebert had an interesting piece in the NYT op-ed section yesterday (blogging delayed by an ultimate tourney).  He uses the 50th anniversary of the independence of many African countries as the occasion to argue that the international community is doing Africans no favors by maintaining normal relations with many of Africa's flawed states.  He argues that many of these countries never developed real nationhood or political institutions since they were granted independence rather than having to work for it. This, of course, suggests a  testable hypothesis: have we seen better outcomes in African states where independence was a contested political process versus those countries that were dumped by their colonial masters?

Anyhow, Englebert proposes de-recognition--that the international community would deny recognition, compelling the worst performers to seek more domestic support and thus legitimacy.  This is an interesting recommendation with two problems.  The first is whether this would really work--would the denial of embassies and aid really compel states to get their act together?  I don't know.  I am not sure the exemplar of Somaliland really proves much.  The second is: this would require a tremendous amount of cooperation by the international community since decisions to reverse the current status quo would require a great deal of unity.  I am more confident about my answer here: not gonna happen.

I am no expert on Africa although hunks of my first book focus on a few case studies there, but my work does focus on the challenges of international cooperation.  So, I am a skeptic.  To de-recognize would probably mean UN Security Council resolutions.  Is China not going to veto such things?  The Chinese have spent the past decade or so developing good relations with any kind of regime that has natural resources, and so China has not been very helpful when it comes to Darfur, for instance.  Indeed, there are two converging dynamics in Chinese foreign policy: the traditional one of limiting the ability for the international community to interfere within the domestic politics of states combined with the thirst for resources.  And, of course, it is not just China.  So, even if de-recognition would have the kind of effect that Englebert proposes, it is simply not going to happen because there will be enough dissension among the various countries of the world.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Karate Kid Nostalgia

This EW piece highlights Billy Zabka who played the bad guy (sweeping the leg) in the original movie and the sequel.  He also was a bad boy in heaps of 80's movies. And he was wonderful in Hot Tub Time Machine.  It is most interesting and impressive that he created a short that was nominated for an Oscar.  Not too shabby.
And his sense of humor is intact as illustrated in Sweep the Leg:

 See here for an interview with Billy Z.

Of course, to be honest, my favorite part of Karate Kid would not be Billy Z but Elisabeth Shue.

Perhaps the NYT Hates Karzai

The president has lost his confidence in the capability of either the coalition or his own government to protect this country,” Mr. Saleh said in an interview at his home. “President Karzai has never announced that NATO will lose, but the way that he does not proudly own the campaign shows that he doesn’t trust it is working.” 
So says Amrullah Saleh, who just resigned as the director of the Afghan intel services.  Of course, this could just be Saleh justifying his resignation/firing.  But the evidence seems to be on Saleh's side as Karzai has not really done much to support, much less own, the ISAF effort.
“Karzai told me that he can’t trust the Americans to fix the situation here,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He believes they stole his legitimacy during the elections last year. And then they said publicly that they were going to leave.”
He is half-right--someone stole his legitimacy, but I think he did it to himself.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Damn Dams

Really bad news for the reconstruction of the Dahla Damn--the biggest, most visible Canadian reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.  It appears to be the case that the private security firm hired to provide security has scared off the Canadians who were there to do the work. 
Foremost among the setbacks, insiders say, was a dramatic confrontation on Feb. 20, when rising tensions between Canadian security officials hired to oversee the project and members of Watan Risk Management, a group of Afghan mercenaries with close ties to the Karzai family, culminated in a “Mexican standoff” — the guns hired to protect the project actually turned on each other in a hair-trigger confrontation.
Ok, so the guys we hired to help protect this project actually posed a threat to the Canadians hired to oversee the effort, and these bad guys are tied to whom?  The Karzai family.  This one kleptocratic, power-aggrandizing group is doing its best to make me feel pretty foolish for recommending that Canada and NATO stay the course.  I knew the Karzais were pretty problematic, but they seem committed to antagonizing the outsiders.  Again, I supported the surge and I advocated Canada sticking around because I had hoped that we might get a chance to try to do it right once, after years of doing the minimum.  I am reaching the point where Obama and NATO should re-evaluate in 2011 and start the process of pulling out.  Yes, there will be consequences, but if we cannot get the government of Afghanistan, which is Karzai in Kabul and Karzai #2 in Kandahar, to move in a positive direction, we will just be spinning our wheels.

“As a Canadian taxpayer, it makes you weep,” one well-placed source said of the influence the Karzais wield over the project.
“The Taliban are supposed to be the bad guys. So who are the good guys, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Watan? You ask the people of Kandahar who they are afraid of, they won’t say the Taliban. And you ask the Canadians on this project who are living like prisoners inside that compound, unable to move without Watan’s permission . . . you will get the same answer.”
 I think I am reaching my turning point on this, but the problem is that departing is not really a solution either.  Are we doing more good by staying than leaving?  Perhaps, but if we cannot make progress, semi-sustainable progress, then it is probably not worth the dollars and, more importantly, the lives.

Athletes as Role Models?

Here's a good perspective:
“When you’re in the moment, you’re in the moment,” the playful Davis said. “If I slobber, snot, spit, please excuse me. Kids, don’t do that. Have manners and things like that. Sorry about that. Did I catch you with some?”
I did watch that fourth quarter last night, and it was pretty thrilling to watch the back-ups take over.  And to see Glen Davis, nicknamed Big Baby, to get so excited after a series of big plays to the point of, well, drooling a bit, was appropriate and amusing.

Better Living Through Technology

Nice to know that  I have some company--here's an op-ed by Steven Pinker that says that powerpoint and other technologies actually do not make us dumber.
"NEW forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber."
But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.
Wow, facts.  Damn.  Pinker goes on to show that the brain is not so infinitely elastic that the new technology is really changing how brains work.  Yes, twitter can be distracting--believe me, I know.  I have now vowed to do more of my reading away from my computer so that I can return to pre-internet reading speeds.  Well, I'll try.
And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

Token World Cup post

I will be missing the big US-England game tomorrow because of a prior commitment and a much deeper love: an ultimate tournament. 

I don't follow soccer/football much, but do pay a bit of attention during the World Cup and will watch if there is nothing more compelling on TV.  Given it is June, I should be seeing a few games. 

Anyhow, the NYT has some nice summary graphics.  Enjoy the games. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Karate Kid 48 [slightly NSFW] Updated

With the new Karate Kid re-make coming out, it raises the question of what happened to the old one, what happened to Ralph Macchio?
The answer is not pretty:

Ok, so this video demonstrates that Ralph has a sense of humor.  But we knew that with his appearance in this video:

But, you know, this is a pretty striking indictment of Hollywood: that only bad boys get comebacks, like Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey, Jr.  The good guys just fade away.  Or perhaps this is Ralph having a public pity party?  I prefer to think that he is doing fine (what a nice family he has), perhaps because I definitely empathized with his character long ago.  Plus he got to date Elisabeth Shue, fictionally anyway.

UPDATED: See this interview with Macchio for his account of the video.

Israel/Palestianian Mythology

Tony Judt does a nice job of taking apart the myths about both sides (well, there are more than two sides, so kill that myth, too).  I especially like that Israeli s not the only "strategic liability" in the region:
Along with the oil sheikdoms, Israel is now America’s greatest strategic liability in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Is there any country in the region that would not be a strategic liability?  Judt seems to be a fan of Turkey and rightly worries that the impact of the US ties to Israel upon US relations with Turkey.  But then again, Turkey has its own liabilities, including its present behavior towards its Kurds and Iraq's, its continuing tensions with Greece over Cyprus and everything else, and so on.  So, if Turkey presents the the least liabilities amongst the countries in the region, that is pretty sad.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

How Dawn of the Dead is Like Mad Men?

I finally got to see Dawn of the Dead last night.

Yes, a noticeable lapse in my Zombie education.  Anyhow, what was most striking about the movie?  That it reminded me of Mad Men.  How?  Marveling at the pregnant woman who smoked and drank.  In a movie that came out in 1978!  Attitudes have changed a lot over the past thirty years.

Actually, even more striking than that: that one of the guys suggested that the woman might want to abort, given the nasty lives they were going to lead in a Zombie-filled world. 

Anyhow, the movie was entertaining with heaps of cheesy Zombie-violence and nice evolution of thinking about how to live in a mall.

The World in 200 Years

Great, great video from 'lil Steve who got it from Kyle Saunders:

Shows changes in wealth and health for countries over the past 200 years.  Just a great video that is so clear and makes some important points.  One that is overlooked--the consistently lousy situation of the "blue" countries--Sub-Saharan Africa.  The US/China comparison is, of course, pretty interesting, especially how China had to recover from the Great Leap Forward.

Check it out--the most educational four minutes of youtube of the decade.

PS In a previous post, Steve suggests that my success relative to his (his take, not mine) must be due to my good looks since I am shorter than him (and shorter than the average American male, I suppose) and I certainly don't work harder than him (he was blogging about height impacting success and lil Steve is significantly taller than I am).  Of course, this assertion of his (that I am better looking) shows that he is not as good of a social scientist.  Where is the data?  (Rate your prof no longer lists counts of peppers...)  I would think if I have produced more stuff it is because I chose to be flexible about location in exchange for course reductions and more grant money, whereas he chose a particular locale rather than a place that would facilitate research.  Or it could be my beard.

Revolution 3: This Time It Is On

The Revolutionary War: Americans Win
The War of 1812: The British Win (Burning DC more than compensates for the Battle of New Orleans which occurred after the peace treaty.

The Rubber Match: The World Cup: England vs the US.  All that Special Relationship stuff over the past 100 years is out the window.  Just check out the war of words between Embassies.
Incidentally, you should know that the Ambassador takes his steak like American soccer victories - somewhat rare.
If there was only some sort of British food that one liked to eat so we could rename it, like French Fries, or burn it....  Alas, beer does not burn well, and there are no foods native to England that anyone eats anywhere else, except due to self-hatred.

NSF Funds Good Work that Is Politically Relevant!?

Oh my.  Very clear, sharp op-ed piece in NYT today by Joe Krosnick who argues that his survey is better than those done by Pew and Gallup for ascertaining attitudes about global warming/climate change and proposed government regulation. 

Given last fall's controversy about NSF funding, I find it ironic that this project, funded by the NSF, demonstrates two things:
  • that social science research can do stuff better than the polling folks (something explicitly questioned way back when): 
"Questions in other polls that sought to tap respondents’ personal beliefs about the existence and causes of warming violated two of the cardinal rules of good survey question design: ask about only one thing at a time, and choose language that makes it easy for respondents to understand and answer each question."
  •  and that the findings are often going to be politically inconvenient.   Krosnick finds that Americans actually do think the globe is warming and they would like to see more regulation of the production of things that expend energy (cars, appliances, homes, office buildings).
What a great conclusion:
When senators vote on emissions limits on Thursday, there is one other number they might want to keep in mind: 72 percent of Americans think that most business leaders do not want the federal government to take steps to stop global warming. A vote to eliminate greenhouse gas regulation is likely to be perceived by the nation as a vote for industry, and against the will of the people.
Just shows how good work can antagonize the NSF-haters by being politically relevant.  Ooops.

And for a somewhat more critical take, see Drezner.