Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ultimate Reference

Sunday Silliness is super awesome this week:

Thank you, Brian McFadden of the NYT!

And yes, if you want to find small amounts of pot, ultimate players are not a bad place to look.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Professional Ultimate!

A very recent game between the Montreal team and the NY team:

I used to play against and with some of the folks on Montreal's team (and I did play on that field a few times), so it is especially fun to see where ultimate is going.  Olympics at some point?  Maybe as there are plenty of countries around the world where Ultimate is played.  However, the US tends to dominate the world championships, so that may serve to block it for the time being.

And yes, these guys used to burn me when I was on defense and blanket me on offense.  I, of course, enjoyed playing with them.... not so much against them. 

Fun stuff!

H/T to Andrew, my former teammate for posting this.

Oddest Object or Just Recency Bias

On my last night in The Hague, I went out for a few several too many drinks with a Brit who works at a NATO HQ nearby.  As we pub crawled, we walked past this:

What is it?  A pop up public urinal.  Yes, it looks like a manhole cover during the day, but at night it pops up so that any man can urinate.  It has three sides with three urinals.  Yes, it is in the middle of the pedestrian thoroughfare.  There is so much that confuses me about this:
  • Um, peeing in public?  I guess this is an improvement over peeing against a wall, but still.
  • In the middle of the street?  Couldn't this be more discreet.
  • No urinal at kid height?  I guess the city knows its audience--late night drinkers.
  • How incredibly sexist this is--providing public facilities for those with penii and not for those without.
  • Again, could we have this over in the corner somewhere?
I have no idea of these exist in Amsterdam.... yes, this reveals that I don't go out late at night when I am on one of these research trips.  It took a British friend (rule #72 of fieldwork: do not go drinking with a Brit) to take me pub crawling to see this.

Is this the strangest object I have seen in my travels?  In my fieldwork over the last three major projects?  The first travel heavy project took me to Hungary and Romania, and there was much that was odd in Romania, but nothing like as weird as this.  The second took me to many places, and I found a cart half in a wall to be far less strange than this:
Maybe it is just recency bias.  But it raises the question: what is the strangest thing you have seen on your travels?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pathologies 101

The Michael Lacour story is giving me flashbacks, as I have run across a pathological liar in my life.  First, a quick review of LeCour's lies: he apparently lied about the research he "did"; he apparently lied about the funding; and he apparently has even lied about the teaching award he "received".  What is left of his CV?  Did he really go to the undergraduate institution that is on his CV?  Probably? Maybe?  All we know for certain is that he went to UCLA for his PhD.

That LaCour has apparently lied about everything should give us pause before we blame the job market, the pressures of 21st century academia, and whatever else.  Why?  Because the signs are there that LaCour is a pathological liar.  I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, nor do I play such roles on TV.  But I did experience a pathological liar in college, so this all feels familiar.

I was attracted to a woman who kept telling me amazing, incredible stories about herself and what she experienced.  She was utterly convincing either because she believed the lies themselves or because she was really good at lying because she had a lot of practice.  I forget the event that caused me to see through the lies, but it was after several months.  Once I realized that she was lying, all the lies became incredible--not to be believed.  All of it was a lie, not just a few things--every dimension, every facet of this person was a deception.  After I figured it out, I found that there were two groups of people--those who continued to fall for the lies and resisted those who had seen the light and those who had seen the light.  I think I broke one friendship after trying to inform my friend that she was hanging out with a pathological liar.

This may not be apply to LaCour, but it might be.  That people believed his lies because of  three dynamics:
  • He was really good at it--through practice and perhaps believing in the lies himself.
  • The big lies are harder to disbelieve than the small ones.  We don't expect scholars to lie about large hunks of their record.  They may fudge some analyses to get statistical significance, but create a dataset?  
  • We are too busy in this profession of doing the daily work to start from a position of extreme distrust.  We may be quite critical of the work we read, but we do not start from thinking that everything is a sham.  We start from a position of trust.  And is that so wrong?  No.
Since LaCour has taken down the various versions of his CV, I cannot say that what would have set off alarms if I was on a job search committee and looked at his file.  His research was seen as excellent by specialists in that area, his teaching award did not seem that extraordinary.  Maybe it would have been the size of his grants, but even that probably would have just impressed and not alerted.  Why?  Because it is hard to believe that anyone would lie about their funding like this.  Such huge grants?  That would be so easy to disprove so, of course, he would not lie about it....

But that is the trick--the lies were so big that they were hard to disbelieve until they were not.  Again, once one moves from belief to disbelief, all the lies seem obvious and it is easy to doubt.  But before that moment of clarity, before that epiphany, it is so very easy to get sucked in by the lies.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Schumer Continues to Rock

One of the hidden benefits of travel from Canada is not being restricted by Canadian content restrictions:

Amy Schumer doth rock.

The Usual Interview Reaction

What do I say after pretty much every interview I conduct when doing research?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Singing in Perfect Harmony? Avengers, Mad Max and Don Draper

I just saw the latest Mad Max movie, and now have some time for some thoughts about it, the Avengers sequel and the unifying factor identified by Don Draper:

Amsterdam, Day 4: History Museums

My last day of tourism in Amsterdam before moving onto The Hague for interviews with members of parliament and with military offices was chock full of museums.  I explored the eastern part of the city, which I don't think I did 28 years ago.

Which ones?  The Jewish Historical Museum, the Resistance Museum and the Maritime Museum.

The Jewish Historical Museum was kind of strange.  It had far more security than any other spot in Amsterdam, which is to be expected these days.  But what was strange was the presentation of the materials.  It is within the old synagogue, and is as much a guide to the strange ways of Judaism as to the history of the Jews in the Netherlands.  Maybe it is just me, but it just seemed to be more anthropological (Here is this strange tribe with its strange ways) than historical.  There was nothing disrespectful or anti-semitic--just that the tone was weird to me.

Next door was the Portuguese Synagogue, which was closed.  Most striking about it was the collective of highly armed military dudes.  This was a contrast to Brussels last month since I saw soldiers all over the place.  In Amsterdam, this was the only place I saw guns.

I then went off to the Museum of the Resistance.  It was very well done.  A key theme throughout was that everyone faced very difficult choices as resistance could mean death not just for oneself but for one's village, as careful collaboration to protect one's town (agreeing to be an agent for the Nazi principals but using that authority to mitigate the evil demands as much as possible), as hiding might endanger friends, as fleeing risked getting caught, and on and on.

It had a special exhibit on the Dutch victims of Dachau.  All kinds of Dutch folks, from Jews to Communists to Roma and Sinti to Resistance Fighters were sent a variety of places, and many of them ended up in Dachau.  This part of the museum was dark and cold, and contained the stories of a variety of people including those who survived and those who did not.  One of the striking parts of the museum was criticism of the post-war Dutch government for failing to handle the repatriation of the Dutch folks who had been scattered by the war and by the Nazis.

It felt kind of strange to eat at a very nice cafe that was part of the Resistance Museum.  But I guess good food and good beer is a form of resistance to the darkness?

I then went to the Maritime Museum, which mostly featured the golden age of Holland--the 1600s when it was a great power and rival of the British.  Hence all of those paintings of seascapes at the Rijskmuseum on Friday.  It included some videos where actors dressed up as historical figures and talked to the audience about the importance of the sea and of trade.  I especially liked the line: "Rich in their voluntary poverty."  That is, they traded stuff to get stuff to trade and not use.

I was on the far right--the practice rowing
was filmed and turned into this
There was a 25 minute program where a small group would first test their ability to row (it became relevant later) and then were presented in a series of rooms with videos (some surrounding, some not) about various aspects of being on the seas.  The most striking was one where the "ship" we were on  got hit by something and then the girl left alone in her bed on the ship had to be rescued, which she was.  But no parents to be seen.  Sad.  The ship was the Tubantia, which sunk in 1916 by a German submarine.  The Netherlands was neutral during the war, so this was a big deal.  It was strangely depicted in the presentation.  Of course, if I knew of the history, I might have figured things out faster, but it was still a bit unusual.

There was a replica of the Amsterdam, a trading (and then some) vessel.  I have been in similar ships, but none seemed to use rats to get the attention of the kids.  

This is the bread and cheese section of the
cargo area, complete with a stunt rat

I didn't get the rat's name,
jbut it spoke with a high pitched Dutch accent

I then walked along the pedestrian bridges across this port area until I got back to the area near the Centraal Station.  Twas a long day of walking and my feet paid the price.  How to reward them?  More Indonesian food for dinner.

The good news is that the number of interviews I will have in The Hague is accumulating so that although Monday (today) is a public servant holiday, the rest of the week should be quite productive.  Now that Dave, Phil and I have hashed out the project, the interviews should be most useful. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Amsterdam, Day 3: Holy Crowds, Batman

The conference is over so I switched hotels to be closer to the center of the city.... which means that going anywhere today meant navigating through swarms of people.  It might not always be like that on this holiday weekend (not Memorial Day but Monday is a public service holiday) but it was even more so with a major protest--of the trade agreement Europe is negotiating with the US.

Besides dodging the crowds, what else did I learn?
  • I had Tibetan food for the first time.   Very tasty.  One of my tourism rules is to eat what I cannot get back home, which usually means eating a heap of Indonesian food while in the Netherlands.  I have already engaged in some of that, but I found a Tibetan place as I walked all over.
  • Seems to be a day for bachelorette and bachelor parties.  Otherwise, folks are wearing matching shirts/hats/whatevers for no apparent reason. 
  • I think riding a bike here would be more dangerous than driving the narrow roads of the Scottish highlands in a big SUV---just too much traffic, too little rule following.
  • The new project is off to a good start.  The Dave & Phil & Steve effort kicked off with two papers (Dave on US/UK, Phil and I on Canada) that received much insightful commentary from the participants at this conference.  And this morning, Dave and I chatted about the next steps.  
  • Last night I learned not to travel with Dave or with Juliet Kaarbo (American ex-pat at U of Edinburgh), who also participated in the workshop.  The stories of strangest foreign travel they exchanged made my trip to Kabul and Kandahar in 2007 appear to be devoid of risk and adventure.  
  • And as always, I love my job.  Such great opportunities not just to travel but to learn and engage with sharp people.

PSR, The News and Moderating Rules (updated)

I got contacted by a reporter about the intersection of the Poli Sci data faking scandal of 2015 and the Political Science Rumors website.  Why?  Because there is a rumor that someone tried to reveal the data fraud anonymously in late 2014 and that such a post or threat may have gotten deleted.  I am one of several moderators there, but the only one who is not anonymous, so I was the obvious person to contact about this.

I honestly do not remember if I deleted such a post or thread.  It is possible.   Turns out it was not me.  But it could have been.  Why would I?  Let me explain my general rules for moderating (I explain how I came to participate and moderate here)  and then explain how they might apply to the case at hand.*
*  I would add something I didn't discuss in the linked post.   Given that I post under my name at the site, unlike most other people, I hated it when my post would be in a thread where others posted something offensive/racist/misogynist/homophobic/xenophobic/etc.  To use the running joke at PSR, I was uncomfy.  By moderating, I could remove such stuff in the threads in which I was participating so it would not look like I was condoning such stuff.  Of course, I get accused of that anyway by my participation here.

First, there is no booklet or instruction manual for the technicalities of moderating the site, so I only recently figured out how to see the stuff that has recently been deleted.  I can only see the last x number of posts and threads that have been deleted.  With the recent traffic, I can see deleted posts all the way back to .... yesterday.

Second, the system is mostly one of fire alarms--that people can report posts and threads as being problematic, and that when I see the site's main page, the reported posts/threads are at the top of the page with links to cancel the report, delete the post/thread or move to the trash directory.  I don't get paid to do this--I do it in my spare time.  So, I don't read every post and every thread.  I do browse the site regularly, and my attention does get drawn to the obviously problematic--such as the ones that use slurs against Asian political scientists.  I also pay more attention to the threads that are closer to my interests--discussions of International Relations, questions about Canadian poli sci, and, of course, the on-going thread where people ask me questions directly. 

Third, there have been both original posts by the anonymous guy who runs the site setting the standards very loosely and discussions by moderators and posters about what should be the standards for moderating.  So, that has informed my moderating.  For instance, one of the original rules I used was to delete attacks against grad students and junior faculty and sometimes let slide attacks against senior faculty since they are less vulnerable (tenure and all that).  A discussion about that produced a fairly strong consensus that all attacks are bad and should be deleted.

So, what are my rules for moderating:
  • Modest criticisms of someone's work is ok, but attacking scholars is not.  What is the line between?  It moves a little bit still from the work of grad students to the work of full professors, so that I am quicker to delete criticisms of the former than the latter.  I do tend to delete when there is piling on.  There are certain folks who tend to get attacked quite a bit, so I just end up deleting anything said about them, as that stuff will spiral quickly. 
  • Stuff that is racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic, etc gets deleted.  Pretty much anything hateful.  If someone uses "tard" as a modifier (quantard, qualtard, libtard, contard whatever), I delete it.  Some would argue that I am too quick on this, that I delete stuff that is ideological and not hateful, as there are often discussions about political issues.  But my basic stance is that the primary purpose of this site is to discuss the profession, so if people want to take extreme stances on polarizing issues, they can do that elsewhere if I think it crosses the line into something that helps the site be seen as racist/homophobic/misogynist/etc.  Given the volume of stuff that fits into these categories that appears at the site, I don't delete all of it since I don't see all of it.  Again, fire alarms--if people report it or if I happen to see it, then I delete. 
  • Duplicate threads and posts.  One of the Kirk-rules is to delete duplicate threads.  I tried hard to do that in the opening hours of the recent controversy, but it has been overwhelming.  I still do it, but I do not have the time or desire to stay on top of it.  The better example is that there are endless threads attacking various methods or subfields or approaches--if people want to engage in the quant vs. qual wars, there are older threads for that.  We don't need to create new threads daily for these debates.  So, I regularly delete threads that bash quantitative work, that bash qualitative work, that bash all political theorists, etc.   
  • Whining about moderation.  If one posts something that breaks the rules, I not only delete the thread but also the posts that complain about the deletion.  This is mostly about not giving the trolls what they want.  If I didn't delete these, the site would fill up with these complaints.  I let some stick around, especially when it is a close call, but I have no tolerance for those who troll and then get miffed that their trolling has been deleted.
  • Which leads to the following category: posts/threads that are designed to provoke over-reactions.  If a post seems to be aimed mostly to troll rather than engage in a conversation, then I may delete it, especially if it approaches other lines.  This is where things get more contested as "the kids these days" seem to think that trolling is a good/acceptable form of behavior.  I don't.  I also do fall for trolls who try to get me to engage them in discussions....
  • I don't delete stuff that criticizes me, but I do delete stuff that lies about me.  I figure that I am fair game for attacks since I choose to participate there, but other mods disagree and delete many of those attacks.  Deletions are not attributed publicly to particular moderators although we moderators can see when we look at the page of deleted posts/threads (as long they are recent enough)
I probably have other rules but I am still jet-lagged so this is what I can figure out right now.  How does this apply to the case at hand?  Again, I don't remember deleting any posts that tried to prove that the study in question was based on fraudulent data, but such posts could have triggered deletion by me or by other moderators based on two rules above: attacking grad students and homophobia.  That the study was about attitudes about gays drew much fire, and so it could have been seen that the work was being attacked because it had a result that some folks did not want to hear.  More likely, it was that people were attacking this guy and his work quite a bit so a discussion of the data might have been seen as part of these attacks rather than an honest attempt at whistleblowing.  There is a real signal and noise problem since one of the basic tendencies at PSR is for people to attack students who are successful on the job market.  Jealousy and envy run strong there.  The job candidate in question not only landed a Princeton job but got something like ten interviews.

So, no, I am not part of a Yale-based conspiracy to protect this guy.  I don't know him, never met his adviser, and met Don Green, the co-author, once.

I was asked by the reporter if I would regret deleting the thread if I had done so, and the answer is: not really.  I don't think an anonymous forum is the place to deal with fraudulent work.  Why?  Because it is most likely to be seen as noise and as personal attacks.  Yes, there is some career risk to outing a fraudulent piece of work--some people are miffed at David Broockman and his collaborators for what they did (see the discussions at PSR where this scholar gets lots of criticism for .... being successful).  But science, social or not, works by people engaging in conversations with their names attached.  The debate about whether the system worked is ongoing, and I tend to lean on the side of the argument that says it worked.  Yes, if the news was really out in December rather than May, that would have been good.  But it is not clear that anyone would buy the accusations made by faceless individuals at a place where the successful folks are regularly attacked. 

Maybe there was whistleblowing at PSR, but any such effort is ultimately undermined by the tendency to engage in attacks against those who do well on the market and in the profession.  It would be nice if there was restraint.  In the old days, people posted the identities of job candidates who got interviews and jobs so that we can all figure out what kind of work is doing better, which programs are more successful and so on.  But then those people got attacked, and then people stopped posting real info, real "job rumors."  Which is too bad.  The job market is very confusing, the process is often opaque, and the students of today would be better off if they could know what is going on.  Uncertainty breeds anxiety and we have enough of that as it is.  Alas, restraint is not the way of anonymous comment boards.  "Don't read the comments" people say.  Well, that is all there is at PSR. 

I still participate because people do ask questions about the profession--that socialization is wildly uneven--and I feel that I am being of assistance by providing some of my views on questions about CVs, job applications, getting books published and the like.  But it can be tricky.  Which is why I do listen to suggestions about how to moderate better when they are helpful and pitched with respect.  So, if you have suggestions for how I could be a better moderator, let me know.  I was never trained to do this.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Amsterdam, Tourism Strikes Back

Yesterday was the first day of the workshop on executive-legislative relatoins and foreign/defense policy.  I didn't see much of the town besides the walk to and from the Free University of Amsterdam.  Today, we only had a half day of paper presentations and discussion.  I got much good feedback, and it will be really helpful to have had this experience at the start of the project.

But I did get a chance to walk to the Rijksmuseum and then walk around, so I have some tourist observations:
Yes, I am a selfie fool.
  • I had only seen selfie sticks from time to time. ... until today.  Heaps of people outside the museum had them.  And it made me wonder--why bother?  I understand that one might want to extend and get a good selfie if one is alone or with people you want in the picture.  But if you are going to tourist destinations, why not just ask another tourist to take the pic.  It will almost certainly better.  So, perhaps selfie stick proliferation is really a sign of increased alienation.  And, yes, I am saying that as someone who takes selfies.  In my travels the past few years, I have asked strangers and been glad to help other strangers when a picture has been desired.  it really is not that hard.  I guess if one is going into the wilderness then a selfie stick might make sense.
  • I was amused to see much of the art in the Hall of Honor at the museum depict kids getting into trouble, adults drinking and such.  In other words, party pics!
  • I enjoyed the reference to twitter in the description of a painting from 1650ish
  • I realized that a heap of the paintings involved naval warfare, reminding me that the Dutch used to be quite the naval power. 
  • I then stumbled into a street market near the art museum.  My restraint was pretty remarkable

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Co-authoring and Mentoring: Trust or What?

Political science exploded in the news today as a grad student and senior prof wrote a piece that made big news and then was revealed (allegedly, apparently, insert legal modifier here) to be fradulent.*
* Indeed, I need to insert a caveat here--I have read the retraction letter and related materials but not the original article nor is this in my area of expertise.  I am just discussing what it means for other folks in this business.

The student may have falsfied data, altering existing data rather than doing the work he was supposed to have done--surveys, etc.  That the issue involved was attitudes about gays only makes it more salacious and salient for observers.  That it happens when the social science funding for the National Science Foundation is under attack makes it ever worse.

For me, the questions being raised about co-authors and advisers are the ones that concern me.  Some folks are saying that this guy's adviser and/or co-author failed the discipline by not discovering the fraud.

My problem with this is: what do we expect advisers and co-authors to do?  As I have been in all four spots here (the co-author joining a project, the guy asking folks to join a project, the advisee and the adviser), I have to think a bit about this.  And when I think aloud, I type here.
  • The point of co-authoring is to have a division of labor so that the various folks involved are not duplicating the efforts of the other(s) that much.  One does not expect one's co-author to lie/cheat/steal or else one would not choose that person.  Engaging in intensive oversight over co-authors makes little sense (back to that in a second).
  • The job of an adviser is to train, direct and provide feedback.  Certainly, the adviser should read the work of the advisee with care, but the relationship involves trust.  I didn't ask my students to provide me with plane tickets, hotel bills, photos of interviews, nor did I plumb the dark depths of their datasets.   I did read their work to make sure that their efforts were sound and such, but it again is a relationship of trust.  One tries to verify but only to a modest degree. 
If one wants to condemn this guy's advisers and co-authors, I have to ask: what would you have them do?  Be on the phone (via teleconferencing) for every or many or some conversations the student has with the survey firm?  To attend every, many, some of the focus groups?  To travel with and observe the interviews?

This fraud was revealed because other students wanted to use the data and once they worked with it extensively, it became clear that there is something wrong.  They notified the adviser and the co-author, both pressed the student to explain, the student provided inadequate explanations.  This might all have been ugly, but the system kind of worked.

The point really is that fire alarm forms of oversight are largely reactive and public.  Someone notices a problem that already happened, complains, and then folks react.  That this system is in place serves as a deterrent in so far as a person's academic career is trashed if they do something that activates the alarm.

If we used police patrol oversight--constant patrolling and monitoring--we might be better able to deter, but at the cost of much time and money (grant money for profs to accompany students while they are doing field work?)  This kind of oversight can be more quiet (or not) and can be more preventative. 

We, of course, really do not know enough to judge much of this.  But we can think about the process and how we could do it better.  Just as some are thinking more today about the pressures facing grad students to publish quickly.

One other thing: what about the money?  This was supposedly funded research so either the student didn't really have the money to do the work OR did but didn't spend on the survey firm which raises the question of what did he spend the money on OR the money is still sitting in a research account.  And, yes, this is a big deal.  Fraud over ideas?  Bad.  Fraud over ideas and abusing research accounts?  Much worse--as it brings in cops, auditors, IRS, etc, etc.

If anyone has suggestions of how to mentor better or co-author better yet not foster distrust, let me know.

Amsterdam Random Thoughts, Day 1

I am in Amsterdam because of a conference tomorrow and the next day on executive-legislative dynamics in foreign and defense policy.  This is one of the first real efforts in the Steve-Dave-Phil project on legislatures and militaries.  I am going to spend next week mostly in The Hague trying to do research for the Dutch case.  At this conference, I am presenting a study of the Canadian case--mostly to get our ideas on paper and to get Phil and I arguing.  It has worked spectacularly thus far.

Anyhow, this is the first time I have been to Amsterdam since I was a college student long ago.  What has changed?  Or at least, what have I noticed that I don't remember from the last time?  A key difference between then and now is that it rained every single day way back when (my month long Eurail Pass journey was soaked except a few days in Italy and the last couple of days in Belgium).
  • I don't remember the primary threat to life and limb being bikes.  Yes, the Danes have heaps of bikes, too, but the Dutch combine bikes with own general relaxed observation of things like rules and laws.  So, only 47% of my near collisions today were due to my lack of attentiveness.
  • The most common restaurant seemed to be Argentinean.  Besides Starbucks, of course.
  • I took the boat tour of the canals, something I never did back when I was trying to live on $25 a day (including hotel).  It was kind of worth it, kind of not.  I saw stuff that I would not otherwise see, but not super special.
  • I don't remember bunnies at the museum last time:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Astute or Ignorant: American Kids and Canadian Democracy

Ah, the Canadians are going to have fun with this one: that a minority of American kids responded in a survey suggesting that Canada (and Australia and France) are dictatorships

My first response would be: any survey has a minority of folks believing silly stuff.
My second response would be: hey, wait, these kids might be really sharp.  The Canadian newspapers, after all, keep talking about unaccountable Stephen Harper is.  He has cut down quite dramatically on appearing at Question Period, which as the astute American 8th grader knows is a key form of holding the PM to account.  Checks and balances?  That is an American thing.  With party discipline, the Prime Minister in a Westminister system, chock full of crown prerogatives, is damn near dictatorial some would say.  And those some?  American eight graders!

A key part of this answer was driven by an understanding (flawed or accurate) about the role of the military in Canada--that the military dominates the political scene.  Given the mythology that the Canadian Forces duped the civilians into the Kandahar mission,* perhaps the Americans are just buying into this view. 
*Tis a myth I address and attack in my forthcoming book: Adapting in the Dust: Learning Lessons from Canada's War in Afghanistan.
So, one could look at this survey as suggesting that American school kids are sharp and well informed.... oh, right, never mind. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Are We Winning Yet?

Good news: US Special Ops raids ISIS in Syria, frees an enslaved woman.
Bad news: Iraq lost Ramadi to ISIS.

Image result for are we there yet
So, are we winning or losing?  There are a few ways to answer this, but my overwhelming urge is to ask for patience and skepticism of all claims.  Why?  Because wars are complicated things, especially wars of this kind, where the daily news tends not to be a good barometer of progress.  Were the Nazis winning on Dec 20th, 1944?  Well, no.  The Battle of the Bulge was a setback, but by that time, Germany's future was already determined.  The only question was really where the line would be drawn between the Soviet occupation and Western occupation.  I can only imagine the abuse Ike would have gotten on twitter on June 15th: sure, you landed the troops on Normandy, but they are stuck, so #epicfail #Ikeisanidiot etc.

So, the US and its allies seem to be getting better intel if they can find the guy they sought with no serious casualties.
But the Iraq training/mentoring effort clearly has not had enough time or size to make that much of a difference, I think.

Of course, the key to all of this is not how many guns are in the hands of "our friends" but the politics of the place.  And that, alas, is not going well, at least as far as we can tell from here.  The Shia dominated government has not made a deal with the Sunnis ... worse, the government has become more dependent on the Shia militias and Iran.  This makes it harder for any Sunnis fed up with ISIS to switch sides.  No credible commitments made by the Iraq government means no flipping by the Sunnis, which means that the bad guys have easy recruitment and we may not get as much actionable intel.

In war, it is always about politics but much more so in counter-insurgency.  So, yeah, skepticism is the order of the day. 

Mad Men Finale and the Lost Perspective Sauce

Five years ago today was the finale of Lost.  Last night, it was Mad Men's turn.  I didn't mind the former as much as others, although it is seen as casting a dark light backwards on the rest of the series.  The latter?  I am still trying to figure out the ending, but it was an excellent episode of an excellent show.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Holy Transparency, NATO style

NATO has a short video about itself:

I was tweeting halfway through that not anyone can join since membership is a political decision based on consensus, but then the video admits exactly that.

Of course, I would really like a video that clarifies how un-obligatory Article V (attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all) is.  Or folks could just buy the Dave and Steve book

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Singing Means What?

I am flummoxed this morning by this video from the NAC FM (the meeting of NATO's foreign ministers):

Is this a sign of weakness or of strength?  Is this an FU to Putin, that NATO is so strong it can indulge in such silliness?  Not unlike the costumes leaders wear for Asia Pacific meetings?  Or does it demonstrate that NATO cannot even sing well and that it picks an arrogant, condescending song

What is great power for if it is not to hold the line and say no to such silliness?  Or perhaps great power means that one can do this kind of stuff and get away with it.

As always, let confirmation bias be your guide, but what do the readers say?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Calling War What It Is

What is the conflict in Ukraine?  Given some of the recent stories, it is clear that according to the standard IR criteria, it should count as a war involving Ukraine and Russia.  How so?  The Correlates of War Project defines a war as one in which there are more than one battle-related fatalities among all the actors involved AND an actor counts as involved if it has a minimum of either 100 fatalities or 1000 personnel involved in active combat. 

Recent articles show that both conditions have been met as over 1000 Ukrainian soldiers have died and Russian opposition politicians have indicated that more than 200 Russian soldiers have died.  One could question the veracity of these accounts, but if they are correct, then by conventional terms, this is a war. 

Why is this important?  Because ambiguity is Putin's friend/tactic, and we need to fight ambiguity with clarity.  Calling this conflict anything but a war gives Putin a bit of help as he tries to deny his country's responsibility.  This is not a war between random separatists and the Ukrainian government, but between the Ukrainian government and Russian army units with some separatists sprinkled in.  When Putin says that he is trying to encourage the separatists to meet the ceasefire, he is denying responsibility for his forces.  Pretty standard stuff, right out of the Milosevic playbook. 

The COW folks may have a struggle defining this conflict as international war or civil war, but since the primary actor on the other side is Russia .... I would call it an international war but the COW folks might disagree as one could contend that the bulk of the fighting is between the Ukrainian government and "separatists." 

Anyhow, my big point here is that if anyone says something like this might become a war, the answer is: too late, it is one.  And it would not be one without Russia's "assistance" to the separatists.  Thanks, Vlad.