Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zombie Survival Guide

Looks like they unearthed a 1950's instruction video for surviving a Zombie attack.  Remember the five d's of zombie defense: dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge.

Rare Earth Metals Are Neither Rare Nor Earthy?

I really don't know much about chemistry anymore.  Sad because I was once a chemistry major before International Relations captured my heart and mind.  Here is a great piece* explaining what they are and are not and why the Chinese shot themselves in the foot, apparently.
Now that the specter of a monopoly being exercised for political ends has been raised, there will be sufficient political will to break that monopoly. ....  China has reached its dominant supplier position through good old-fashioned industrial aggression, not innate geographical superiority. Cheap labor, little environmental scrutiny, and a willingness to sell at low cost have made other producers give up.
Cheap output meant other sources elsewhere dried up essentially.  But if this stuff gets more expensive, then others will enter the market.  One could infer from the article that governments and industry now have a clearer incentive to sponsor research that would make the sorting/filtering of this stuff easier and cheaper. 

The security dilemma lives on--you act in a threatening way and the world will react.  You make someone less secure and they will develop means to cope, which then erodes whatever advantage you had.  Reminds me of classic problems in the intel game--you use your cards once.  Using them means that the other side figures out how it is vulnerable and responds.  IR is dynamic, which is why it captured me so thoroughly.

* Foreign Policy has become the best source for all IR stuff, not just Zombie-related blogs ( or excellent coverage of US military stuff ( or Middle East stuff (

Woodward, Obama and Afghanistan

Nope, I have not read the book yet.  Too busy reading books submitted to the ISA Book Award contest--I am on the committee to judge the winner.  So, here is a good short review that puts it all into context nicely.  Of course, to be fair, bashing Woodward is as much of a popular sport as bashing Obama....

Taking Shots at The Tea Party

No need for me to do so. This Rolling Stone piece is a wonderful screed.*  It will not change too many minds, as it will be read by TP opponents and dismissed by TP activists.  It does touch on some key points:
  • TP folks are not really opposed to government spending.  They just don't want the money to go to other folks.  As medicare consumers and the like, they like government programs just fine as long as they directly benefit. [Reminds me of my selfishness argument in Kin or Country--opposing irredentism because you don't want to share your welfare state with others, even if these "others" are of the same linguistic/ethnic identity]
  • "It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists.They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? " [They are giving narcissists a bad name. I may have to re-consider my embracing of my narcissism.  But only if I can still use first person five times in one parenthetical expression in my blog.  Mine.]
  • "It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid. " [Reminds me of senior IR scholars at top schools who complain about being oppressed.  Give me a break]
  •  That TP folks sell out?  Perhaps. Rand Paul is not talking about armies of EPA jackbooted thugs entering houses to enforce environmental agreements anymore.  "The candidate who just a year before had pledged not to accept money from TARP supporters was now romping in bed with those same politicians. .... Making fun of the Bailout Ball was just for the primary."
I read this piece a day after I lectured my upper division course on the IR of Ethnic Conflict about my book with the non-terrorist Bill Ayres.  One of our main points is that the folks who wanted to endanger their countries by trying reclaim their lost kin nearby (irredentism) had natural allies in those who wanted to be isolated from the international economy.  Aggression would lead to isolation and some folks prefer to be isolated than integrated into the worldwide competitive market.  So, I was struck by this piece, as the xenophobia we talk about in the book that serves as a brake on international aggression via irredentism seems pretty similar to the TP ethos: "their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart."  However, in our book, we admit the tradeoff between international peace and domestic consequences of xenophobia is a significant challenge.  In the US today, there is no bright side to xenophobia as it is not braking a quest for territorial conquest.  It is merely driving the country off of the rails. 

*My favorite line in the article: 
"Paul had an extensive record of loony comments, often made at his father's rallies, which, to put it generously, were a haven for people gifted at the art of mining the Internet for alternate theories of reality."
HT to Steve Greene for highlighting this piece in his blog.

Too Much of A Good Thing

George Lucas now wants to put out Star Wars in 3D.   Please, George.  Stop.  Please.  It is bad enough that the movie business is trying to make more money by 3D-ing films that don't need 3D (Harry Potter) just so that they can make more money on each ticket.  But to re-release Star Wars in 3D is just too far.  I think you have made enough money, GL.
The negative public reaction to previous films that have been converted to 3-D, Mr. Knoll said, was probably the result of rushed work on those conversions. 
That and the fact that we know we are being gouged.  In Montreal, 3D tickets are 50% more than 2D.  For Avatar, it kind of made sense.  For most other movies, not at all.  If you want me to rent more DVDs and attend movie theaters less, this is a good way to go.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Frame This: Buying Rights or Denying Rights

Yes, readers of the Spew may be tired of posts about language politics in Quebec, but when a guy has got to spew, a guy has got to spew.  The latest: Pauline Marois, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, spoke yesterday about what her party would do after it wins the next election: repeal the Liberal bill 103 that would provide some mechanism for immigrants and Francophones to have their kids be educated in English.

This is really some pretty clever framing of the issue.  The status quo allows folks to send their kids to unsubsidized private English schools (there are very few of these).  The new bill would let folks send their kids for three years to such schools and then they would be eligible for English public schools.  This is all happening because the Canadian Supreme Court ruled against the previous modification to the status quo ante--that kids would become eligible after one year of private school in English.  Marois and the PQ are arguing that the new "pathway" lets the rich buy rights that the rest of the population does not have.  Oooooh.  Rights buying!!!  Nicely framed as to make it look like the issue is of rich Anglophone immigrants buying their way into English education for their kids.

Of course, one could take a different approach, and say that the PQ is denying people the freedom to choose for themselves what is best for their kids.  This would mean that all are denied rights, not just the rich.  On occasion, Marois and other PQ folks have said exactly that and then retreated.  Oops.  So, Marois has to argue that the Canadian Supreme Court is an alien entity with no jurisdiction in Quebec, which is what she does:

Calling the Supreme Court "a tribunal exclusively controlled by another nation," Marois says the PQ would use the notwithstanding clause to extend the French language charter to include all private schools.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Blog Themes Collide: Size and Limitations

The National Research Council ranks the doctoral programs of all/many/some (I dunno) disciplines, and today was the much delayed release date.  This has instantly led to much analysis, recriminations, joy and sadness about where various poli sci PhD programs land on the rankings.  Many of the threads at poli sci jobs rumor mill have tried to understand, justify, and/or criticize the rankings.  Not just a little bit of schadenfreude at the "plight" of certain programs that this ranking might suggest have been over-rated. 

What does this all really mean?
  • That we are incredibly insecure?  Our self-worth depends on where our programs are ranked, where a small dip or increase can shatter or boost self-esteem?  
  • That we are poor social scientists?  The rankings come with a variety of measures, so we can snipe at every variant of rankings until we find one that boosts our own programs at the expense of others.  
  • That not much has really changed. We need to remember that nothing really changed between this evening and this morning.  Not one professor changed departments, not one department suddenly gained or lost funding, or found a new generation of super grad students.  Change takes place over time and perceptions take a long time to change.  Lots of folks will not read the document or even be that aware of most of the rankings.  Some will obsess--we call these people Chairs and Deans.  Grad students are already concerned that they bought into a program that was over-rated.  But again, reputation is sticky.  My guess is that those programs that shot up will change perceptions and help those in such programs get perhaps a bit more attention, but those in programs that sunk will probably not be so affected. 
  • That there will be heaps of new social science done, to design counter-metrics that improve the rankings of some programs and hurt those of others.  And those articles will be written by people whose departments rise in their take of the rankings.  I remember one of my colleagues at my old school at Texas Tech spent significant research time and assistants (and $$) trying to revise the rankings so TTU would not be so lowly ranked.  But there is only so much you can do.  Profs fled the political science dept at TTU in waves since the time I arrived until now.  You don't need rankings to determine that TTU is not as highly respected as other institutions--the emigration figures tell the tale. 
I, of course, could quibble with these rankings if they de-emphasize books (which such efforts tend to do), but I am not going to invest heaps of time trashing the rankings.  I have far too much stuff on my plate, and there are far more important things to figure out.  These rankings have their uses, but their impact, their power, should not be over-estimated.  My big concern is that the various ingredients in the rankings can become focal points for administrators who might try to improve the rankings by narrowly focusing on categories rather than focusing on the general well-being of the department.  The real recipe for good rankings: hire good people, reward them when they do good stuff, provide resources so that they can do the work and attract good students.  I am sure there will be studies that show that $$$ matter, but as a Mets fan, I can tell you that having a bigger budget is not a sufficient condition for success.  But having little in the way of resources certainly hurts.

Anyhow, I felt duty bound by my profession to post at least once on these rankings.  Consider this due semi-diligence.

Size Does Not Matter, Passion Does (Subject is Not What You Think)

Pretty thrilling piece about how a big school went from worst to first (at least in test scores) by emphasizing in all classes, even gym, reading, writing, reasoning, speaking. 

My favorite part of the piece:

Writing exercises took many forms, but encouraged students to think methodically. A science teacher, for example, had her students write out, step by step, how to make a sandwich, starting with opening the cupboard to fetch the peanut butter, through washing the knife once the sandwich was made. Other writing exercises, of course, were much more sophisticated.
I liked this because I stole this exercise from a prof at Oberlin to help fill up time to illustrate the difficulties of implementation when I first started teaching American and Texas Public Policy.  It was a fun demonstration, following the students' instructions.  Made a big mess. 

Of course, the real lesson here is you need to have really dedicated, passionate teachers, willing to spend significant time (Saturdays) to figure out what is required and then administrative support (or at least the administrators staying out of the way).  "“Let me help you,” was a response committee members said they often offered to reluctant colleagues who argued that some requests were too difficult."

“In schools, no matter the size — and Brockton is one of the biggest — what matters is uniting people behind a common purpose, setting high expectations, and sticking with it.” 

This does not have to be so conflictual:
Teachers unions have resisted turnaround efforts at many schools. But at Brockton, the union never became a serious adversary, in part because most committee members were unionized teachers, and the committee scrupulously honored the union contract.
An example: the contract set aside two hours per month for teacher meetings, previously used to discuss mundane school business. The committee began dedicating those to teacher training, and made sure they never lasted a minute beyond the time allotted.

Making meetings more focused, effective.  Wow.  So basic, but such a "force multiplier" as the military gusy would put it.  Which reminds me--we had morning meetings everyday in our division of the Joint Staff--they almost always pretty short, but allowed the commander to get situational awareness quickly and for the rest of us to keep track of what our colleagues were doing. 

Tradeoffs?  What tradeoffs?

When the school began receiving academic awards, they were made into banners and displayed prominently.  Athletics had traditionally been valued above academic success, and coaches had routinely pressured teachers to raise the grades of star players to maintain their eligibility. Dr. Szachowicz said she put an end to any exceptions. But the school retained all varsity sports, as well as its several bands and choruses, extensive drama program and scores of student clubs.

Scholars have studied this case and others and found the following:
“Achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.” 

Note--improving quality of instruction--not firing teachers, not focusing on test scores (although the article talks much about them), but on instruction.  

Knowing Your Limitations, theme of the week

Opponents with a nasty, nasty, funny cheer
Been thinking again this week about the running theme of knowing one's limitations.  Why?  Primarily because I participated in the yearly Grandmaster Ultimate tourney here in Montreal this past weekend.  The team, again, was stacked with veterans of national and world competitions.  So, I went from my usual situation of being among the best handlers (think point guard or quarterback) on my team to being one of the weaker players.  I didn't play as well as I would have liked, nor did the team (we finished third).  But I had heaps of fun.  Anyway, I knew where I stood on the team, and didn't mind too much playing less in the most important games or being a decoy on many of the set plays.  I knew my role and was ok with it.  As more great players age and become eligible for this tourney (40 and up), I am expecting to either play on the B team or not at all in the years ahead.  I am ok with it, again because I know that I am good but not great player.

But this would not be the theme of the week if there were not more instances than just one fun ultimate tourney.  I noticed on the political science rumor mill that the Canadian thread had a question of where one should study if interested in civil-military relations, and some folks had responded with the usual Toronto or McGill alternatives, and then a response suggesting me, and then a counter mocking me.  Because I am new to civil-military relations, studying it just these last few years, I pointed out that coming to McGill to do civ-mil when there is only one person who does it and only recently would not be the best idea.  Yes, I am telling potential grad students to go somewhere else.  Is that wrong?  Should I always be shilling for my university?  I have a hard enough time advising students who do work that is more closely related to my strengths (the IR of ethnic conflict/civil war) as they end up studying something that is not that close to my stuff (militias in the middle east, for example). 

Finally, I am way over-committed this week/month, so I may not be blogging as much as usual.  My time management skills seem to limited these days. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Civil-Military Relations Explained Well

But it is one thing to debate how to marry military strategy and domestic politics -- it is another to debate whether to do it. The need for the latter is clear: Good strategy is politically sustainable strategy. Anything else is unrealistic and self-defeating. And any president who did not worry about the domestic politics of his strategy would be a very poor commander in chief indeed.
 Steven Biddle at does a great job of destroying some of the new mythology about Obama and Afghanistan being generated by Woodward's new book.  Read it (Biddle's post). 

McGill Math Sucks, part II

McGill's student newspaper has headline: Quebec Tuition Increasing Faster than National Average.  But the numbers that come with the article belie the headline just a bit.

The lighter gray is for 2009-2010 and the darker is for 2010-2011.  It is easier to have a high growth rate when the initial value is low: % change is equal to (t2-t1)/t1.  So, the smaller the original value, the higher the percentage of change will be.  The absolute value of the change in tuition is still very small, but the % seems like a lot.  Right now, the yearly cost of tuition at McGill is about 2 HDTV's.  Not cheap, but not outrageous either.

Madly in Crisis [updated]

While we ponder Peggy's absence, spoilers await below the break.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Academic Confusion

Just finished watching Tenure, a movie with Luke Wilson about an English prof who is striving for tenure.  Other than the idea that it is publish (at least a bit) or perish at a third rate liberal arts college, the movie set back the public's understanding of the academic world by about 50%.  Just about everything else was wrong:
  • Dean and Chair of dept announce at the dinner on the eve of spring break that they hired someone that no one else knew about.
  • The new prof starts teaching after spring break?
  • Tenure is not a zero sum process--two folks going up at the same time in the same department is treated as zero sum
  • Parties for tenure?
  • Dean decides to give the guy who teaches great but researches badly probationary tenure.  Um, that would be tenure track, not tenure.
  • Excellent researcher gets fired from Yale after not teaching well the first three years. 
  • Anthro prof looking for Sasquatch.
Definitely a movie one can miss, but was laughably bad.  Only good thing was that the prof didn't sleep with his student although she wanted him to do so.

India, Kashmir and Learning the Lessons of Scholarship

India seems to be changing its basic policy outlook in Kashmir.  About time.  The scholarship on dissent and ethnic conflict is pretty clear.  More repression does not work too well, and closing off opportunities for young folks to go to university is only going to be self-destructive.  It is about time India tried another way.  Of course, as the Kashmiris see it, the proof is in the implementation, not in the announcement.
“Let us see how many of these commitments actually translate into changing the ground reality,” Mr. Mattoo said.  
 We shall see if this improves things.  Pakistan desperately needs to focus on the problems within its existing borders. If things could settle down in Kashmir, it might make it better for everyone.

Quebec is Corrupt? Mais Non!

I guess it was time for the regularly scheduled brouhaha where Quebec gets accused of being corrupt, and then Quebec politicians can say this is just typical anti-Quebecism.  Is this just "racism"?  Um, no.  Montreal, after all, had an election where corruption was a central issue, and the challenges lost in part because the primary competitor had a 2nd in command who was, well, corrupt.  This allowed the incumbents, who had claimed ignorance, to stay in power.  

I have argued before that there is less real accountability in Quebec precisely because of the nationalist issue.  Quebec politicians are already covering up this latest round of corruption claims with their special brand of denial sauce--nationalism.  I have no doubt that despite hearings/trails/commissions that the current way of operating will continue.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Concussions continued some more

Two bills head through the US House of Representatives committees dealing with the problem of sports and concussions.  One calls for more study, the other actually would put into place requirements for all public school districts:
to develop and put in place their own plans for sports concussion management, would explicitly require that any athlete suspected of concussion must be removed from play until cleared by an appropriate health-care professional, and calls for special scholastic services for athletes in recovery.
This effort makes more sense than just calling for an elite panel to make recommendations (the first bill) since we already have heaps of recommendations out there: better mouthpieces, better helmets, existing state laws (Washington state is apparently the role model), etc.  But, as Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN's Tuesday Morning Quarterback and public policy writer, argued, we need to change the incentives.  The NFL, despite its own new policies, continues to make the same old mistakes:

What penalty did Andy Reid suffer for sending Bradley back into the game? None. Nor did the Eagles organization pay any price for skirting commissioner Roger Goodell's 2009 order that players with concussion symptoms sit down until evaluated by an independent neurologist. Eagles spokesperson Derek Boyko told me that because Bradley merely came out of the game, rather than being "removed," the policy did not apply.*
 Coaches, as Easterbrook, need to be the ones who put the brakes on, as players who just got a big hit to the head are in no position to judge.  Plus, as he rightly notes, for sports for kids under 18 (and perhaps even under 21), the coach is supposed to be responsible.  But they need to win to keep their jobs.  So, how do we create incentives for coaches to do the right thing and sit players who could be concussed?  Perhaps Andy Reid should have to play $100k for returning Bradley to the field?  Is that not enough?  Should we put people on the field akin to Bill Simmons' VP of Common Sense to throw a purple flag onto the field to stop the action if a player is on the field who should not be?  As Easterbrook discusses, that would not be enough as much of the (brain) damage is done during practices.  He goes on with more info about concussions, with some terrific critiques of the NFL's own network and other broadcasters, and what can be done in his column for this week, although he still leaves unanswered the incentives problem.

And this is not just a football problem--girls basketball produces the second highest number of concussions apparently.  I would never have guessed that.  Soccer, yes.  Basketball?

For those scoring at home, this is when government intervention is necessary--when market competition produces behavior that is suboptimal.  

Bradley was the player I mentioned in a recent post--that he was a guy who clearly had a serious head injury but got back into the game, if only briefly, afterward.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Talking About Smart Sanctions [updated]

There has been much debate the past few years about how to develop sanctions that hit key political actors rather than entire societies, partly as the sanctions against Iraq, North Korea and others were devastating the wrong people--the powerless.  So, it is kind of funny that the latest sanction-ers on the scene have developed very specific sanctions.  Yep, the Chinese are not selling rare earth metals to Japan as a result of their dispute over a few islands and the arrest of a Chinese captain.

These metals are necessary for advanced products, like electronics.  So, the sanctions are hitting an important industry in Japan and the impact may be relatively immediate if the companies do not have a pile of the stuff laying around and if other countries cannot replace China as a producer.  Given their name, rare earth metals, I am thinking that China has a pretty significant lever here and is using it.
China mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, and more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of some of the most prized rare earths, which sell for several hundred dollars a pound.
Uh oh.  People have been worried about China using access to its market as leverage (google anyone?) and its holdings of American debt, but this seems to be a very significant source of power and coercion.  And the Chinese seem to have no problem embracing this power.  While much of the stuff flows to Japan, the products that Japan makes that rely on this stuff are important elsewhere, like the US.  So, China's coercion here will not just affect Japan but the US eventually as well.  And more immediately, a US ally is being coerced.

It will not lead to a fighting war, as the stakes are still pretty low and each side has other tools to use in this dispute.  The big question is: does Japan submit or retaliate?  My guess is that for this dispute, Japan will soon discover a face-saving way to get out of it.  That the captain of the ship will not be tried for a crime.  And people will learn from this crisis what they want.  The Chinese will learn that they have great power and can use it.  The Japanese will re-learn the lesson of vulnerability, but will find it hard to develop substitutes.  The US will find its concerns about rising China reinforced.  And lobbyists in the US will push for government subsidizes to re-open old mines and de-regulate the mining of rare earth metals.
Despite the name, rare earths are actually fairly common; they are expensive and seldom mined elsewhere because the processing equipment to separate them from the ore is expensive and because rare earths almost always occur naturally in deposits mixed with radioactive thorium and uranium. Processing runs the risk of radiation leaks, — a small leak was one reason the last American mine was unable to renew its operating license and closed in 2002 — and disposing of the radioactive thorium is difficult and costly.
The irony may just be that by using smart sanctions over a relatively minor issue, China may actually be doing something pretty dumb--causing others to develop alternative sources of rare earth metals and other resources that China may monopolize.  Not only is this crisis drawing the US and Japan closer together, but it may end up undermining China's economic strategies.  Too soon to tell, of course.  But Newton may be right here--every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Update: See Drezner's post as he wrote a book on economic sanctions.  He seeks China's actions here as part of a broader backlash-producing effort that indicates that China has a shallow learning curve on how to use its power.

A New College Subplot, Please?

Mild spoiler for the final season of Friday Night Lights:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Rants Are Enough

My second rant of the day about the students at McGill.*  First, they stop bottled war from being sold on campus.  Today, they protested the closing of the Architecture Cafe, the last bastion of student-run food service on campus.  I understand their plight--that the student-run businesses were cheaper, and McGill sold them out by agreeing to a contractor that insisted in a monopoly for food stuff on campus.  But this is the loudest protest I have seen at McGill other than random student unions marching on campus to get the students to protest modest tuition increases.  For a modest dent in food choice. 

I guess I am miffed at their priorities.  I do think students should protest about stuff that offends them--that is a key part of the college experience.  But having spent the first several weeks of the term fending off students who could not get into a senior level lecture class of 80 students, I find the class size/class choice problem to be a bigger issue.  Partly this is a problem we have caused, as course reductions mean fewer classes, bigger classes, so I should not be pushing them to protest.  But aside from a small number of honors seminars, in poli sci, we end up having more than a few 80 person classes at the 400 level--courses for juniors and seniors.  That, um, sucks.  It is good for me since I can get a TA to do the grading, but they have been here long enough to have a non-lecture experience at the advanced level.  I need to learn from Mills Kelly how to run an 80 person class with few or any lectures, I guess. 

And I guess the students are on to something as protesting something as complicated as class size and choice is probably not going to be effective, given all of the constraints under which McGill is operating.  Plus it might mean me teaching more classes.....

*  To be clear, I have the highest respect for the students here, as my blog has repeatedly asserted. They are curious, smart, interesting, interested, dynamic and do not complain much about grades.  They do the work really well and make me think. 

Zombie Discrimination

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the bad law that cannot be killed.  I guess Zombie is the wrong word since DADT is hard to kill, rather than being killed and coming back (like the B-1 bomber).  Is it surprising that moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats took the easy course of action, rather than following what is best for the country, both in terms of its values and in terms of deploying most capable people?  Hardly.  Are we disappointed by John McCain's obstruction?  No, we have now come to expect him to pander to the worst instincts of the rightest right wing.

Jeff Pearlman, a sports journalist, nicely conveys the outrage directed against Harry Reid, who helped to sabotage this effort.  I am not sure if I agree that we should put the onus on the gays in the military all come out simultaneously to get the right policy, but I guess African-Americans did put themselves in harm's way in the various protests in the 1960's, so perhaps Pearlman is not entirely unfair or wrong with his proposal. 

It is abundantly clear that we are hurting, not helping, unit cohesion with this policy that discriminates on the basis of sexuality, not merit.  If the American dream is about opportunity and ambition, then DADT is about as un-American as it can get.  Congressional congestion does seem to be the American way of the 21st century.

Green is Simple But Is It Good?

Took me about three weeks to realize that bottles of water are no longer stocked at McGill.  The student association apparently voted against bottled water in the student union (named after William Shatner who never gave any cash for such a privilege).  I was not teaching last winter, so I don't know when this decision took effect.  I guess the idea is that bottles from purchased water are bad for the environment.  Yet, I guess the bottles from coke, powerade, and other colored drinks are ok for the environment as they are still available.  Yep, McGill discriminates against beverages of non-color.  It is better to drink various forms of sugar water in plastic bottles than plain water in plastic bottles.  I understand the impetus here, and so students may decide to carry water bottles around (although we have plenty of stories about the non-trivial health consequences of various kinds of bottles).  Or they may buy more soda, pop, soda pop, or coke, depending on what part of North America you are from.
Anyhow, I did tend to re-use the bottles, but now find myself having to buy powerade (since sodas make me burp in the middle of lecture, not a good thing) or apple juice when I forget to bring a bottle to carry water.  I guess this helps us prepare for the great Zombie wars, but as an environmental measure, it seems that symbolism cuts against health as sugared beverages will be consumed in greater quantities.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waiting at a Table

I have long joked with my family about the need for a new invention--table flares.  That tables at restaurants would have one flare each, so that you can push a button and the flare shoots up just above the table and then floats down to get the attention of the waitstaff.  Perhaps even color coded, green for check, red for ketchup/other condiments, white for silverware, perhaps.  At least just the one flare.  Anyhow, glad to see that great minds think alike.

Stop the Facts! They Are Inconvenient

Ok, so this conveniently omits the first year of the Obama administration.  Yet, it is pretty darned striking that tax cuts surprisingly lead to less revenues (oh, and Republicans tend to have nasty recessions while the stats show Democratic Presidents have higher growth and employment).

And of course, I got it from the facebook page for the March to Keep Fear Alive.

I Have An Announcement: No More Announcement

Teaching the very large (600 students) Intro to IR class as both advantages and disadvantages.  The topic is fun, the students are smart and engaged, it is always relevant and always just a bit different.  But the size tends to generate a few challenges.  Managing eight teaching assistants is one.  The ten percent problem is another.  The market share problem has been increasingly a source of stress.

Market share?  Yes, just like the US wields a great deal of power because firms and countries want to sell to such a large market of consumers, just as the European Union deliberately sought an internal market that would increase bargaining power at international fora, and just as China is now using its market as leverage in international negotiations, my class of 600 students is now seen as a market for announcements.  It is the one room on campus where charities, student groups, experimental psychologists and others can direct their messages, their pleas, whatever to a very large captured audience.

At first, I restricted announcements to the relatively non-partisan charities and to university groups/departments.  So, students asked but were denied the ability to announce to the class their favorite candidate in a student election, for instance.  I didn't feel I could give equal time to everyone unless the time was set at zero.  But each time I taught this course, I received more and more requests.  This kind of gets in the way of my teaching the course.  Last year (or perhaps the time before that), I restricted announcements to only those related to my department (the Poli Sci Studies Association) and the psych experiments (they wanted lots of subjects).

I still get requests, and they seem to get stranger.  Last year, a kid stood up in the middle of class, seemingly to ask a question, but was really trying to do a stunt to impress a girl.  As my daughter would say, DOUBLE FAIL!  This fall, I had one student who asked permission, fully aware of my policy on no annoucements (except for the Poli Sci stuff) policy, to sing Happy Birthday to his friend who was turning 19.  19?!!  What is the significance of that particular year?  Sure, when I was in college, 19 meant being able to drink beer (not wine or harder liquor, so there were beer-based coolers) in Ohio.  But here?  Anyhow, I said no, of course.

The funny thing is that some students get really, really upset--that I have denied them a forum that they deserve.  One student a couple of years ago complained that he/she came all the way from Australia to work hard for this charity and announce stuff in my class.  I almost felt bad about wasting his/her trip, but I was pretty sure that the student's life was not so centered around my audience.  But the strange entitlement was not unique to this one student.

It is a pretty strange development, one that I would have never expected, that one of the big hassles of teaching 600 students is protecting our time from poachers.

Speaking of our time, check out this horribly poached take on "our time."

TV Season Starts Off Slowly

Two days in, only one new show added to my roster of shows that I follow: Boardwalk Empire.  BE has tremendous production values, and the actors are terrific.  Whether I start to care about the characters will only tell over time. 

On Monday, the Spew family has kept its old patterns but using new technology--DVR-ing How I Met Your Mother to watch Chuck.  And then later on Castle--which we cannot resist due to the combination of Nathan Fillion and jokes about writing (Mrs. Spew has been in the writing business for a couple of decades now).  Yes, we like our comedy especially silly.  These shows started the season well, and now I understand the source of "dibs!" 

I have taken heed of warnings about The Event from Alan Sepinwall and others that The Event is mostly folks teasing about this so-called event and not really moving the plot or characters forward much.  I am also burned by Flashforward, which I gave up after about four episodes or so.  I didn't watch or record Lone Star--sounds like fun, but I am not sure it can go anywhere either.  I did DVR Hawaii 5-0, as I do have memories of the old show.  I loved that the old show was led by a tough Steve, but I remember little else from it other than the theme song.

I am looking forward to No Ordinary Family as I am a sucker for superhero stuff, Walking Dead will be an interesting replacement on AMC after Mad Men finishes.  Most of the other new shows do not interest me too much.  Most of the sitcoms do not seem too promising.  I will keep up more consistently with Community, and I will wonder all year long why I am continuing to follow Smallville.  But with the end of the series at hand, it seems strange to stop now.

Yep, I am serious TV addict, but you already know this if you have been following this blog.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Random Islands, Not So Random Conflict

This is the first I have heard of this dispute: China and Japan squaring off over some disputed islands.  It is not clear that the islands have any intrinsic value, but it appears to be the case that the realists do have some insights here--rising power and declining power have friction as one wants to take advantage of its new status and the other is concerned about precisely that process.  Sprinkle in some Chinese nationalism and voila: territorial conflict over random islands.  This will not lead to war, but it bodes poorly for the future. Chinese leaders are definitely none too shy about stretching the country's muscles.  At some point, misperceptions of capability and resolve may lead to more than just friction.

Mad about Sally and all the Beautiful Girls

Oh, what can do we do to help Sally?  Not much as the show is fictional and set in the past, but she is so desperate.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Bob Dylan Over-rated?

Thanks to a Doc Jensen-inspired facebook conversation about Mad Men, as well as hearing a Dylan song yesterday while I was running over to a hardware store to replace an outdoor electrical cord (I tend to chop them with a powertool once every 12 years), I was reminded how annoyed I am not so much by Dylan but by Dylan worship.  I think this is perhaps one of the most fundamental divides between baby boomers and the generations after them (you know, those marginalized in the political system): boomers love Dylan, post-boomers find his music to be ok. 

Perhaps you had to live through the 60's to get it, but Dylan's songs are ok, his voice is grating, and his guitar work is adequate. 

So, to my boomer readers (just my relatives, I think), flame away.  Do my post-boomer readers agree that Dylan is over-rated?

Line of the Times

I love how this article on Republicans and the Tea Party starts:
So you’re a Republican candidate and you want to take advantage of the Tea Party energy that jolted once-sleepy primaries. But you aren’t sure whether that means you have to take a stand against masturbation or urge your supporters to gather their bayonets — tactics that seem to have worked for a few Tea Party candidates so far.
Please.  Clearly, O'Donnell did well in Delaware despite her anti-masturbation positions, not because of them.  Throwing the bums out and seeking a more extreme stand against government are the stances that are working.  The masturbation stuff is just .... a silly distraction that critics can use to get more hits to their website.*  It certainly works for the Daily Show/Colbert, but I am pretty sure that a poll of Delaware GOP primary voters (notice how those modifiers shrink down the set of people to be surveyed) would not have masturbation on the top five reasons they voted for O'Donnell.  Of course, those opposed to masturbation might have an edge--that their opponents might be otherwise engaged rather than voting.

* Not me.  I have been reluctant to post on this issue precisely because it might lead to traffic/spam I really do not seek.

The Cost of Justice

Interesting new policy in Missouri--judges get info on the costs of different sentences.  Prosecutors do not like it:
“Justice isn’t subject to a mathematical formula,” said Robert P. McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County.
Isn't it though?  Having relatively fixed terms for different kinds of crimes, that is mandatory sentencing, is using math to calculate justice, right?  Ah, but prosecutors like math when it reduces the discretion of judges, and hate it when it might actually cause some judges to consider the bigger picture. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that putting people away is a very costly activity for states.  Even the Governator has figured out that it is bad for California that more $$ go to prisons than to higher education (pushing for a constitutional amendment to limit prison spending to less than higher ed).

To be clear, this does not seem to be new.  I had a relative (an ex-relative now, thankfully) who kept on breaking the law and kept getting no prison time or little prison time because it was/is a recession and the state didn't want to spend money on putting his ass in jail.  It was clearly not about justice or protecting the public (since one of his repeated crimes involved DUI), but about spending the money on this loser.

The policy, imposed by a commission of lawyers, judges and other folks, produced this:
The concept is simple: fill in an offender’s conviction code, criminal history and other background, and the program spits out a range of recommended sentences, new statistical information about the likelihood that Missouri criminals with similar profiles (and the sentences they received) might commit more crimes, and the various options’ price tags.
Using data to make decisions?  Why do that?  Information could only serve as an obstacle to ignorance.  Of course, the legislature of Missouri created this commission precisely so that decisions would be out of their hands.  If a commission makes things easier for criminals (and any effort to reduce prison populations will likely benefit the innocent and the guilty), the politicians can blame them, rather than taking the heat.  Standard legislative practice--like the military base closing commission.

Overall, this seems like a good idea to me.  Using information to make decisions is better than the alternative of using no information to make decisions.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tennis Anyone?

I watched far more tennis as a kid than I have since.  I was, predictably, a big fan of Chris Evert.  So, I looked forward to the new 30 for 30 ESPN doc on her rivalry/friendship with Martina Navratilova. It really was a blast to see the old footage, not just the hairstyles that have come and gone, but to watch some fun tennis and remember crushing on Chris.  I didn't hate Martina for being a lesbian and one of the first athletes to be out of the closet.  I hated her for beating Chris Evert.  The doc was really interesting to see how competitive both were and yet how much they relied on each other during most of their rivalry.  I had forgotten that Chris had dominated Martina early, but remembered Martina's later reign. 

I don't watch much tennis these days.  Men's tennis is pretty boring with few long rallies.  Women's tennis may be good to watch, but I have not found it compelling.  I do think a rivalry like Chris/Martina would get my eyes on the screen again.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Jon Stewart Uber Alles

Take It Down a Notch?  This is really an interesting test of Jon Stewart's ability to frame the political discourse.  Can a reasonable person pull the US back from the brink of polarization?  Can one comedian overcome the incentives of the political system?  It will be interesting to see how it plays out.  I understand why he needs to frame it as "both extreme left and extreme right" are guilty of going to far, but, really, the extreme right is far more powerful both in the Republican Party and in the Fox News editorial offices than the far left.  This year, the key memes have been those of the right--that Obama is a socialist, Muslim, and Kenyan traitor, essentially. 

But I don't mind a bit of marginalizing the far left who equated Gore with Bush (hey, that worked great, didn't it?) if it means that the rabid anti-conservatives of the right (Palin, Cheney, Beck) face some competition for framing the choices. 

I admire what Stewart is trying to do, besides sell more books.  I am not sure it will work, but as the saying goes:

"It's so crazy, it just might work."

France vs the Roma and vs. the EU

France has responded to an influx of Roma from Eastern Europe by expelling them, and then French leaders get upset when parallels are drawn to Nazi Germany.  The EU Commission has ruled against France, but it remains to be seen what the EU can do.  Its toothlessness is underscored by the fact that the Roma are on the move in part because Romania (and probably Bulgaria) did not meet the promises it made when it applied for membership.

Pie crust promises (a band?), indeed.  Bill Ayres and I argued that the EU's membership process was not nearly as influential as folks argued for many reasons including two that matter here: that applicants would not implement their promises (Romania not funding Roma assistance programs) and that the standards did not seem to apply to members.  While lots of the stuff on treatment of minorities only applied to applicants, France is tripping over something that did apply to all members--free movement of the folks within the EU.  This is one of the essential pieces of the European Union (not so much the EEC).  But it is damned inconvenient when some people are willing to embrace their European identity and mosey to better situations.

The question now is whether the EU will punish France or not in a meaningful way.  I doubt it will go much beyond rhetoric as France has heaps of votes in the organization and has been one of its main enthusiasts.

The timing could not have been better for either of my classes.  Intro to IR: what is a great power?  How does the EU fit into the scheme of things--as a larger state, as a new entity, or as an international organization limited by the sovereignty of its members?  For my IR of Ethnic Conflict class: multiple identities in play: are the French French or are they Europeans?

Is the future of Europe its past after all?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Advancements in Book Advertising

Perhaps books are not dead yet.  Perhaps the phrase "viral" was never more appropriate:

Canada Will Get Out of Afghanistan in a Hurry

Well, with this skill set:

The Irony of Updates

Last night, I allowed Microsoft to update my computer.  This morning, my network adapter seems to have disappeared.  Pretty strange update.  Blogging may decline until I get my computer fixed.  On the bright side, I feel pretty good about the laptop we got for my daughter, as it is a handy backup for me.  Plus with dropbox, I can go right to work.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Figuring Out the Right Reaction

This story of a teen who was booted out of the US despite having good documents on him makes me wonder how I should react?
  • Appalled that this kid was badgered into essentially confessing to a lie?
  • Appalled that the immigration folks spent more than eight hours on this case when they might just have better things to do?  How much of a threat was this kid compared to other border issues?
  • Appalled that these guys gave a pass on his brother and then didn't stop to think that since his brother was kosher, maybe he is, too?

Finally Getting It Or Not

“The discussion on corruption, in essence, is really a discussion about our relationship with Karzai,” said one senior Obama administration official.
The piece is about whether to make Karzai a more central player in the anti-corruption effort in Afghanistan since the government's popularity and legitimacy, not to mention the counter-insurgency war, hangs on the issue of corruption.  The question is really to how to appear to be fighting corruption while leaving Karzai and his major supporters in place or try to be sincere and end up fighting Karzai.  

The reason that the US and its allies have struggled over this issue is that there are, once again, no good options.  Just like in The Wire, following the money will lead into dangerous places, so the folks higher up will often choose not to follow the money.  Giving Karzai more power over anti-corruption will be a significant choice--for sovereignty, for his domestic political survival, but at the expense of a real effort to fight corruption.  Do the people of Afghanistan care?  Probably.  But perhaps they do care more about the local delivery of services, like electricity and garbage pickup than the kickbacks. 

Perhaps we are missing the point--can we develop better public services while there are still shenanigans behind the scenes?  If we end the most visible and most endangering abuses of power, then perhaps we can let the money flow?  Again, I have asked Canadian military types to include in their surveys questions about which forms of corruption are most galling.  But I don't have access to the surveys or the results.

But giving Karzai keys to the process may not help either the delivery of services or the perception problem that does abet the Taliban.

Schadenfreude or Not?

Republican mainstream candidates lost to Tea Party folks last night, including a NY multimillionaire who has the gall to say he is upsetting the ruling class (umm, usually millions of $$ make you part of the ruling class, dude).  Of course, such claims are buried by the stories of his racist jokes.  In Delaware, Chrisine O'Donnell won over a moderate Republican, and her main claim to fame before now was as an abstinence counselor.*

So, should we (that means us, dare I say it, progressives or liberals or moderates or whatever pejorative label the center-left types should be called) rejoice in the fragmentation of the Republican Party?  A little schadenfreude about a party reaping what it sows?  Um, only a little bit because some of these primary candidates may win in November thanks to the economy that is stalled. 

Still, in the long run, the GOP is in for a reckoning.  If they get pushed further and further to the right or to the incoherent (as the political positions of some of these folks is all over the map, but not in a moderate, reasonable way), they may do well in these darkest of times.  But if they manage to avoid blocking an economic rebound, it is hard to see how popular the TP message is going to be when people are not quite so angry.  Plus the country is becoming increasingly non-white, so they may get some seats in some places, and alienate the rest of the country producing a back-backlash.  Our double backlash or double secret backlash.

If Quebec's politics were semi-reasonable, this would be the place where I am thankful I am not in the US right now.  Oh well.

*  And that is not much of a claim since abstinence policies have failed rather dramatically, leaving some populations with higher rates of teen pregnancy (you can put your own Palin daughter joke here).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Discretion, Tolerance and Perspective

Bill James, who single-handedly revolutionized the analysis of baseball has a great column in State (still catching up from several weeks of travel, conferences, the new term, etc.) on rules, rule-breakers and rule enforcement.  His starting point is that Babe Ruth was as much of a rulebreaker as Barry Bonds, and runs from there to this:
 There are two lousy answers here:
1) That we need to become a nation like Germany in which people respect and obey the rules, whether they make sense or not.
2) That we have to tolerate the violence and the being-sprayed-with-pesticides and the being-hit-by-trains that come from living in a society in which people don't pay a lot of attention to rules that they don't like.
The answer is not No. 1 or No. 2; it is tolerance and vigilance, and it is a sense of perspective. The people who sent Martha Stewart to jail were the people who were supposed to be watching Wall Street. They went after Martha Stewart because she was an easy target. Also, they didn't understand financial derivatives. Nobody did; as it turned out, the people who were trading in them didn't understand them, either. That's why Lehman Bros. went bankrupt; they were trading in something they didn't understand.
So now it is Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in the crosshairs of the prosecutors, and the question I would urge you to think about is not only "Are these people guilty?" It is also, "Is this prosecution necessary and appropriate?"
I have blogged before about the zero tolerance society, how we often see decisions made by the fear of making a mistake, rather than using discretion to decide when a rule should be applied.  Nice to see a really smart person articulate the same idea really well.

Sometimes Science is Just Stupid

Teaching robots to lie?  This cannot possibly end well.  I teased my students the past week about how we identify ourselves, as human is rarely a choice chosen because there is no relevant other.  Well, not until the aliens arrive, the apes take over, or when the machines arise.  Sooner rather than later?  The Terminator movies show how the scientists are shocked that their creations might cause the demise of humanity, but reality is a bit different--precisely because these scientists have seen the Terminator movies.  Yet they still try to invent ways to get robots to become deceptive??  Who is giving them the grant money?  Where is the research ethics board to ask about the implications down the road?

Time to stock up on supplies for the end of days, eh?

HT to Will Leitch.

Holy Military-University Complex, Batman!

Very interesting how life (or killing) imitations art: the guys designing wearable military technology not only are inspired by Batman, but use the name and related images (Dark Knight).*  The piece has interviews with the folks inventing the next generation of equipment for Special Forces types.  See if you can spot the hidden link to my grad school of UCSD.

*  Hat tip to Jason Ferrell 

Next One to Fall?

Cuba is now firing public sector employees.  It reminds me of a title of a great book on the disintegration of Yugoslavia: Socialist Unemployment by Susan Woodward.  Surprisingly readable for a book that contains the words "socialist" and "unemployment" in the title, Woodward essentially argues that the existence of significant unemployment undermined the promise of Socialism and thus its legitimacy. 
“The Cuban government is going to allow and by definition encourage people to go into private sector opportunities,” he said. “What happens when some people get rich?”
“The government is going to have to determine whether it will allow and embrace success, not just opportunity,” he said.
I think that success is the least of the problems ahead.  So, Cuba is in for some hard times even if it does not have deep ethnic cleavages that are ripe for opportunistic politicians.  There are storms ahead, not just the usual hurricane season.

Justice Meets Science, Justice Loses

The more we know about stuff, the less confident we can have in past decisions in the courts.  DNA has revolutionized the courts, so that we can rule people in and out pretty effectively revealing past miscarriages of justice.
New research shows how people who were apparently uninvolved in a crime could provide such a detailed account of what occurred, allowing prosecutors to claim that only the defendant could have committed the crime.
So, we have people--the mentally ill or impaired, kids, the pressured--confessing to crimes they did not commit.  And they do so believably because the facts of the crime enter the conversation via the police during the interrogation.
Instead, he said, “almost all of these confessions looked uncannily reliable,” rich in telling detail that almost inevitably had to come from the police. “I had known that in a couple of these cases, contamination could have occurred,” he said, using a term in police circles for introducing facts into the interrogation process. “I didn’t expect to see that almost all of them had been contaminated.”
 This again reminds of the disparate outcomes in the US justice system, that whites do far better than African-Americans and that the race of the victims matter a great deal.  We now have some more info to understand these outcomes, as the police might just press suspects more in such situations than white on white or black on black crimes.  And this is where the wealth of the suspect matters as well--defense attorneys that cost $$ are probably going to be better armed to prevent or undermine a confession than a public attorney.  Especially in a place like Texas where the attorneys used to be (and perhaps still are?) appointed by judges who took campaign contributions from the aforementioned attorneys (even Lee Child, the novelist, found this problematic in one of his books).*

Gee, I wonder what would have happened if they had DNA evidence for the OJ trial.  Oh, they did?  Never mind. 

DNA is not a panacea:
Proving innocence after a confession, however, is rare. Eight of the defendants in Professor Garrett’s study had actually been cleared by DNA evidence before trial, but the courts convicted them anyway.
Jim Trainum, a former policeman who now advises police departments on training officers to avoid false confessions, explained that few of them intend to contaminate an interrogation or convict the innocent.
“You become so fixated on ‘This is the right person, this is the guilty person’ that you tend to ignore everything else,” he said. The problem with false confessions, he said, is “the wrong person is still out there, and he’s able to reoffend.”
The key, of course, is getting representation before interrogation is underway.  And another key is better information like this piece about the reality that confessions may not be that much more reliable than witnesses.

The most important lesson: invest in social science--it can save lives.  Ok, that was self-serving but true nonetheless.

*  Indeed, I knew that GW Bush was severely flawed when I found out he vetoed a bill that would have changed how Texas picked its public defenders so you would not have folks who fell asleep in court and put up sham defenses when awake.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Watching Football, Feeling Conflicted [updated]

Ok, football (American-style, that is) is an incredibly violent sport.  The stories over the past year or two about concussions have definitely put a dent in my enjoyment of the game.  I saw part of the Eagles-Green Bay, where a linebacker hit someone else hard with his helmet, producing a concussion.  I thought he was gone for the game, but he came back for a few plays at least.  And then gone.  How did he ever make it back onto the field after all of the stories and new policies is beyond me.

But that was perhaps a distraction from the fact that Michael Vick was being cheered for giving his team some energy and momentum after replacing the starting QB, Kevin Kolb, who had been ineffective before getting his own concussion (and the NFL really wants to move to 18 regular season games???).  And, of course, this Vick is the same one who was deeply involved in dog-fighting.  I still find it problematic that he could come back so soon, despite some prison time.

Of course, this very violent sport (and the non-violent ones) also has plenty of other folks who commit serious crimes or at least accused of such.  Pittsburgh is going to have to deal with their QB, Ben Roethlisberger (my first attempt at his lastname produced a spellcheck that came up with Misbegotten!), who seems to be a serial harasser, borderline rapist. 

Kind of hard to tune this stuff out and just enjoy the strategy and athleticism.  I wonder if, at some point, it will get to be too much.

Update: I have only started reading the discussion among various folks, including an ex-football player, at Slate.  They consider the concussion issue immediately and then the discussion moves on from there.  Interesting stuff, proving there is way too much stuff to read and listen to on the web.

Mad Men on the Rebound

Not the show, just the man?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Summer Pop Culture Homework

I planned two projects this summer and happened to almost complete a third.  I wanted to watch The Wire and Freaks and Geeks.  I did not know that I was going to make my way nearly through all of the Lee Child library.  I was curious about Child's book, and read the first one.  The rest I managed to finish the first two seasons of The Wire, and my family ended up joining me in the F&G effort. 

Now I know why everyone raves about The Wire.  Each season is like a great novel, where the pieces are displayed early in the season and then come together towards the end.  The characters are all very interesting and complex.  You end up rooting for a very nasty thug, who happens to rob from the drug dealers.  The good guys are severely flawed, and they are embedded in a dysfunctional police department that is more focused on image than on making real progress.  And if an investigation follows the money to politicians, well, that is not good.  The show depicts the decline of the American city, not just a cops and robbers procedural.  It did not have to be Baltimore, but that resonates with me as Baltimore was the homeland of many of my camp friends.  I cannot wait to watch the next three seasons, but I probably will have to do so as the summer is over.

Freaks & Geeks turned out to be, like The Wire, an amazing depiction of life at a certain age and place.  This time, 1980 in the midwest.  The show was both incredibly funny and incredibly touching.  You end up rooting for all of the freaks (which we called burnouts in my school), not just the geeks (yes, you can guess which group I was closer to in high school).  The show took a lot of conventional plots and sent them in unexpected directions.  It is clear that the network (Fox) completed messed up this show, broadcasting episodes out of order, preventing at least one crucial one from being seen at the time.  It is funny that the 1970's Show, which was also enjoyable, was able to play with many of the same stuff later without as much restraint (drugs, sex). The show
ended up generating heaps of talent for future shows and movies, with Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen being the most obvious, but also Jason Segal, James Franco, Linda Cardinelli, among others. 

I started reading Lee Child because Stephen King recommended him in an EW column: "Lee Child's tough but humane Jack Reacher is the coolest continuing series character now on offer."  His books are like crack, yo!  I bought two books that day, and have barely glanced at the non-Lee Child book, as I have been buying or borrowing all of the rest of the Jack Reacher series since.  Jack Reacher is a retired Military Policeman, who is a drifter.  He hates staying in one place, and so he goes from town to town with just the clothes on his back and his toothbrush in his pocket.  Not much else.  And he, of course, finds trouble wherever he goes.  His essential code is simple--don't mess with him, and he will not mess with you.  But if you do mess with him, then he will be unstoppable.  Each book just builds and builds the tension.  I have three books left in the series to read (one has just come out or is coming out soon, I have two books at home [why am I blogging when I can be reading another LC book?].  Once I am through with those, then I will just have to wait for a yearly allotment of action/tension/some humor as Jack Reacher fights the fight without remorse, with mercy only for the victims, and with a tenacity that is most impressive.

I could not recommend with more enthusiasm these two shows and this one series for your next summer of watching and reading.  This is the best stuff our culture has to offer, even if these things go under-appreciated--The Wire won no Emmys, F&G had low ratings and was cancelled, Lee Child's books sell well, but thus far no movies and not heaps of attention.

One Last 9/11 Thought

I have long wondered whether it was a good or bad thing that Bush was President on 9/11.  Sure, he was an incredibly crappy president who got the US stuck in a war in Iraq, which ultimately made it harder to succeed in Afghanistan.  But I wondered what the Republicans would have done with a Democrat in the White House.  Would they have rallied around the flag, and supported Gore if he had only focused on Afghanistan and not Iraq?  Would they have tried to impeach him for failing to protect the US? 

I ponder this because the past two years has indicated to me, anyway, that the current GOP is much more interested in seeing Obama fail, even if it means that the US is diminished in the process.  Would the GOP have been so bitter back then as they are now? 

So, the question is whether the reality of Bush is better or worse than the hypothetical situation of a divided country in the aftermath of 9/11? 

Sign of the Times continued

There are some interesting developments contained within this piece about declining security in Afghanistan.
  • Oxfam no longer has any signs in Afghanistan.  My reaction: isn't local ownership the goal, rather than advertising Western organizations?
  • Most NGOs now use Afghans for most of their operations.  My reaction: isn't employing the indigenous population the way ahead?
What is less interesting is the "news" that the parliamentary elections are going to be challenged by the decline in security around the country.  We knew that long ago.  And, to be clear, not winning is losing for NATO.  Unless there are discernible ways to show progress, the locals will still sit on the fence or bet the other way while folks in the home countries lose patience.  So, the general quoted at the end does not quite get it:
A top coalition general bristled recently when asked about views among some critics that NATO was losing the fight. “How do they know we’re losing? I can lay out rhyme and reason about where we’re making progress. We’re building, they’re destroying. I say to them, prove it.”
 The onus is not on the Taliban to prove it is winning.  The onus is on the Karzai government to show improvement, and the onus is on NATO to protect the people of Afghanistan.  Sure, we knew violence was going to increase as troops surged into areas that had not be challenged lately.  If the violence subsides as NATO establishes some control, then we can make the claim that there is progress.  Again, the problem is that we have lost patience because of so much wasted time from 2002-2007.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bill 103 Suffers from Loneliness

Nobody but nobody likes the effort to reform Quebec's education laws to comply with a Canadian Supreme Court ruling yet deny most folks language choice.  Yep, that is what the Quebec government must do--thread the narrow passage between the Scylla of unconstitutional legislation and the Charybdis of French nationalism.  The Court had crushed the "fix" made earlier--just after I took my job here at McGill and before we moved in--that an immigrant sending a kid to private English school would then be eligible for the public English system.

The Parti Quebecois and its fellow travelers including the union representing CEGEP students [those in the unique post-high school, pre-university free two years of junior/vocational/whatever education), a member of the New Democratic Party (essentially betraying its ideology to pander to French nationalism), among others have spoke up at hearings and filed briefs saying that French is in danger and the changes here do not go far enough.  What they want is to prevent any and all immigrants from going to any and all English schools, including unsubsidized private ones.  Right now, people can send their kids to unsubsidized private ones, as my family does. 

The sovereignist "intellectuals," whose brief was presented by former PQ MNA Gilbert Paquette, argued that the government measure is based on false premises. It maintained that contrary to government assertions, applying Bill 101 access rules to all schools in Quebec, including unsubsidized ones, does not violate any universal rights recognized by the United Nations or even the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that there would be no need to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
Well, this "intellectuals" are, well, idiots, since the very fact that the Supreme Court has already ruled against the prior bill indicates that the Charter applies and that there would be a need to invoke the notwithstanding clause (which allows a province or the Federal government to say that the Charter and Supreme Court are not relevant--with a simple majority vote).*

The English associations are opposed to Bill 103 because it really does not provide much real access to English public schools, which have been in decline for some time now thanks to Bill 101 and the flight of many Anglophones in and around 1995.

So, who likes this bill?  Um, no one.  I am sure the party in power, the provincial Liberals, would have much preferred for there to be no Supreme Court ruling that forced a response.  The Liberals would prefer to sell out the Anglophone minority (who have no other party that can really claim their votes) quietly rather than loudly.  Instead, they are forced to try to pass a bill that antagonizes everyone. 

*  Does this mean that my bet with Jacob Levy is still on?  Hmm, I will wait until the deadline made by the Court is up and this legislation passes to call it.

Required 9/11 Anniversary Post: Don't Forget the Pentagon

Nine years ago, I was starting my second week at the Pentagon.  I was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, where the CFR takes academics among other folks and places them into policy positions.  I ended up working on the Bosnian desk of the US Joint Staff's Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate because I told my interviewers I wanted to see the sausage of US foreign policy get made.  And because a previous IAF Fellow, Condi Rice, apparently was not taking fellows onto the National Security Council.

Despite the fact that my building became a target, I am glad that I was placed on the Joint Staff, rather than the NSC.  I guess a year at the NSC would have been as interesting, but the JS was a great experience because it was the nexus between the civilian and military worlds and between the US and its allies.  Plus the folks in the "mosh pit of Balkan policy" were terrific people.  I learned much from the submariners, artillery officers, pilots, infantry, and civilians from all over government who worked in that part of the JS.  Plus I was able to deploy my crap receiving and delivering skills.  They teased me from the first day, and I fired back.*

This experience has been driving my research since then--how do countries operate in multilateral military efforts--as NATO's mission in Bosnia was job #1 even after 9/11.  Of course, our job #1 became a much lower priority for the rest of the US foreign policy apparatus after that day.  I got to see US foreign policy re-orient during my year--from very frequent top level meetings on the Balkans (as was the case my first week) to decision-making at a lower level with only the occasional glance from the superiors.

I also got to see how a bureaucracy can be broken.  The folks in the Office of the Secretary of Defense [OSD] worked under Rumsfeld, who created a climate of fear, paralyzing these guys.  This was not an entirely bad thing for a while as it meant that the more reality-based, more multilaterally-inclined JS could drive policy a bit more.  This, of course, changed as Rummy learned how to marginalize the JS so that he could make bad decisions without worrying about complications like the consequences of such bad decisions [not that I am bitter or anything].

Anyhow, as we remember 9/11 and the thousands of people who lost their lives in NYC, we should also remember that people were killed at the Pentagon, that the folks who worked there returned to their jobs even as the flames were still smoldering,* and that nine years later Muslims are still holding services in the building.  Ah yes, the other lasting impression made by my year was how the JS was the most multi-ethnic environment in which I have ever worked.  It was Colbert's ideal of not seeing race.  I have posted before that not all parts of the military are tolerant of diversity, but, as I was always reminded, the JS had the military's best folks.  Despite my narrow sample, I had no problem believing it.

* One of my favorite memories was being told by my boss, a Colonel, that I would be transformed by the experience: that I would be clean-shaven, have shined shoes, a short haircut, and pressed clothes by the time I left.  So, when he retired towards the end of my year, I showed up at his retirement party with my beard gone, with a crewcut, and in a borrowed uniform.  Not a bad gag.
** Indeed, as my story of that day (first link) indicates, we went back into the building on September 11th to return classified documents to a secure facility.

Friday, September 10, 2010

McGill Math Sucks

Or we do a bad job of teaching politics.  Heather Monroe-Blum, McGill's principal (the chancellor or president in other systems), has been calling upon Quebec to let McGill increase its tuition.  The basic gripe is that as Quebec has decreased funding for its public institutions (all universities in the province, pretty much), it has kept a tight rein on tuition, meaning that universities are crunched.  So, the students predictably get upset. 

But they get upset because they do not understand math and depreciation and appreciation.  The student unions have done a great job of maintaining their organizations and their belligerence, but the reality is that the students actually should let the universities increase their tuition within reason (the rates are now around $1-2k per year for everyone regardless of ability to pay).  Why?  Because the tuition increase would largely and perhaps entirely hit the next generation of students, so they really do not have much of a financial risk immediately.  And, more importantly, the value of their degree is not fixed, but will vary.  If professors flee McGill because it falls behind in offering salaries, if the students cannot get into classes simply because McGill takes the easy route and lets in more students but keeps the number of profs constant, if better students go elsewhere because the infrastructure falls apart, then McGill's reputation will suffer and that will impact perceptions of the degrees of students have graduated in the past.  Students today have an interest in the well-being of their institution down the road.  Student unions apparently do not. 

The hearing had a marvelous moment where McGill was accused of wanting to imitate the North American model of higher education (whatever that is), gasp!!!!!  Monroe-Blum ran away from that quickly, not wanting to be tarred with the North American brush.  But this, like talking about the American health care system when discussing the limits of Canada's health care, is a good strategy for covering the entire debate in denial sauce.™©  Perhaps the N.A. model is broken, but the European one is not looking too good right now at all, yet folks here seem to idealize the European and demonize the American systems--with no real information actually deployed. 

PS:  I am thinking of opening up a new line of products: secret sauce and now denial sauce.  Any other sauces I should add to my new line?

News of the Non-Weird

Today's NYT seems a bit bizarre.  Rather than all the news fit to print, it is now all (or at least some) the news that should be blindly obvious:
  • Judge Rules That Military Policy Violates Rigths of Gays:  Well, there is that whole equal protection under the law thing (in that unpopular 14th amendment), so this ruling was due, long overdue really.  Actually, turns out the key amendments were 1st and 5th, but the key is that the government failed to prove that gays don't threaten military readiness and unit cohesion.  Indeed, plenty of stories have shown exemplars, including in areas that are of high need like translators, have been kicked out of the military, making it less capable.  The story contains a few anecdotes that the mistrust that this policy created was more of a threat to unit cohesion.  Don't Ask Don't Tell is clearly on its deathbed, but mercy-killing it may take some time yet.  This injunction should help.
  • Coverage of Koran Case Stirs Questions on Media Role.  I blogged a bit yesterday about this.  I always enjoy it when the media gets to double-dip--being irresponsible and then chastising itself for being irresponsible.  Good times. 
  • Secret Tape has Police Pressing Ticket Quotas.  To steal from Saturday Night Live: really? Really!?  Really?!  Police have targets for ticket levels?  I am shocked.  Next, someone will tell me that people gamble online. 
Just seemed like a front page (front webpage) chock full of dog bit man stories.  I guess those are better than the reverse.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Harper the Warrior?

The Economist has a piece suggesting that Stephen Harper is quite the warrior.  I am still trying to figure this all out.  Yes, Harper did not pull the Canadians out of Kandahar after Paul Martin put them in, and he did not impose restrictions upon the Canadian commanders.  Or at least, he did not restrict what they did, but did restrict the military's communications about its efforts.  Perhaps less than the aid and foreign affairs types, but it has been clear to me that the Prime Minister's Office has tried to control the messaging of the military.  This piece suggests that the opposition is the only thing restraining Harper in Afghanistan, but it ignores the reality that Harper has taken the Parliamentary mandates as a shield, deflecting any suggestions about sticking it out at little bit or re-deploying only a hunk of the troops but not all of them.

The piece also suggests that Arctic Sovereignty is just about hardware.  I think that is partially true, but not entirely so.  I think the initial proposal to worry more about Northern threats (US, Russia, the pesky Danes) was as much about using nationalism to get support as it was to get money to defense contractors.  After all, there are lots of defense programs that could fund the arms industry--boats and planes for the cold white north is only way to go about it.

Anyhow, Harper has taken some heat for keeping the Canadians in Afghanistan as the popularity of the mission declined, bearing more of the burden then most NATO countries.  But it was not his decision to stay and it was not his decision to leave.  So, it may be the case that Harper is not as big a shaper of Canada's destiny as it would appear to be.  Pretty passive for a warrior.

5% Crazy?

Gail Collins talks about how 5% of Americans are going to be crazy, talking about the Koran burning proposed by a teeny tiny church.  This reminds me of one of my oldest posts, where I explain how Academic Politics is similar to Ethnic Politics: the key issue is not the presence of insane (or evil or stupid or lazy) people but whether the rest of the society treats them as relevant.

When this sort of thing happens, it is important to remember that about 5 percent of our population is and always will be totally crazy. I don’t mean mentally ill. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 26 percent of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. So, basically, that’s just normal life. I mean crazy in the sense of “Thinks it is a good plan to joke with the flight attendant about seeing a bomb in the restroom.”
There is nothing you can do about the crazy 5 percent except ask the police to keep an eye on them during large public events, where they sometimes appear carrying machine guns just to make a political point about the Second Amendment. And, in situations like a Koran-burning, make it clear that the rest of us disagree.
The reality is that most of our models of politics focus on the middle and the mainstream, on how dissenters mobilize to become big enough to be politically relevant.  Most of our work does not focus on the anomalies, the folks way outside the mainstream.  I spotted a Larouche Democrat (that is a non-democrat) outside the gates of McGill yesterday.  I doubt that we have a good general explanation for a) folks who follow Lyndon Larouche [I am wondering/regretting who will link to my blog with this name in it]; or b) why such folks would be in Canada since Larouche and his ilk "compete" in US elections. 

Collins concludes her piece with a quote about crazy people in every society.  But the question really is not their existence, but how do the sane folks marginalize the insane?  A recurring theme in this blog has been that folks who have bad ideas/have been responsible for policy failures (Cheney, that would be you) and so forth get more attention than folks with good ideas and good policy histories.  Is this the result of 24/7 media channels that find the most outrageous stuff is what gets attention?  Is this the Fox-ization of the news?  Is it a product of the Republican party shifting to the right and having an outbidding type process that will push it further and further to the loony side? 

I do think that the recent days have seen folks distance themselves and even attack the potential Koran burners.  This is progress.  But in the aftermath of Mosque Madness, it may be too little, too late.  The 50 nuts will seem like all Americans given the cacophony over the Muslim community center in NY.