Monday, August 31, 2009

How Do I Love Conferences? Let Me Count the Ways

I am no Shakespeare, but I do think that the APSA conference is just lovely. Ok, that is going overboard.

But I am a big fan of the big conventions, despite all the whining at the Poli Sci Rumor blog, and I have accidentally come up with a top ten list for my deep and abiding affection for traveling to distant and not-so distant places:
  1. Networking actually does work! Who would have thunk it? Bill Ayres (the co-author, not the terrorist) and I met at a Washington, DC APSA, and from there we co-authored a few articles and then the cool book on the Irredentism that did and didn't happen in Europe after the Cold War.
  2. Networking actually does work, part deux! I had an email conversation which led to a meeting with three folks at an APSA in 2001 from McGill who wanted me to apply for a job here. And I did and here we are.
  3. Networking actually does work, part tre! I developed a very productive relationship with some scholars I met at the ISA poker game in San Diego more than a decade ago. These scholars have read my stuff, have contributed to my edited volume, and have provided professional advice.
  4. I often but not always receive useful feedback on my presentations and papers from discussants, co-panelists, and audience members.
  5. I have read a great many papers as a discussant, and have learned much from some, a little from many, and nothing from a few. I hope I have provided useful feedback, but sometimes the topics and approaches are far outside of my expertise.
  6. I have often met with current and former graduate students to provide continued mentoring/feedback/free beer.
  7. I have participated in a variety of useful meetings: with co-authors, with editorial boards of journals, with the folks who advise the Minorities At Risk project, and others.
  8. I have occasionally interviewed people for jobs at my institution--these have actually never led to a hire in my experience, but perhaps it has for other departments and candidates.
  9. I used to learn a fair amount from going to panels. But now I use most of my conference time to meet people, particularly as my attention span has been destroyed by the internet, grading and parenthood. I still go to a few each year, but nothing like my eager early days.
  10. I meet friends from grad school, from past positions, friends via shared research interests and/or previous networking activities. This is, of course, the best part.

I am a bit pessimistic about the future of the professional conference--I am guessing that rising fuel costs will eventually make it prohibitive for universities and grant agencies to fund professors to do stuff that has a great deal of value but none of it that can be easily monetized.

Tickets are Good but Traffic Safety May Be Hopeless

Tom Vanderbilt, in a piece in Salon, argues that traffic tickets have a variety of social benefits, including catching folks who committed other, more severe crimes. The article points out that increased enforcement does increase safety. And this is interesting as his book, Traffic: Why do We Drive the Way We Do which I just finished, suggests that humans make increased driver safety almost entirely hopeless. Nearly all efforts to make cars and roads safer only increase the willingness of drivers to take risks. For example, ABS brakes, not only poorly understood, may encourage drivers to go faster since they think they can brake better.

Even before I saw this article in today's Salon, I was going to post what I learned from reading Traffic:
  1. Humans do not perceive well.
  2. Humans analyze risk poorly.
  3. Fewer signs are better than more.
  4. Roundabouts are safer than intersections.
  5. This quote.
  6. Slower is often faster.
  7. The aforementioned conclusion that much driver safety efforts are hopeless since drivers will just engage in more risky behavior.
  8. and perhaps the only lesson that has changed how I drive--late merging > early merging.
So, we conclude from the book and the article that more money spent on cops, radar cameras and red light cameras are a better investment than the latest doodads that would make individual cars safer. That and cultural changes in the acceptability of risky driving.

Any recommendations for the next bit of pop social science to read?

It's Alive!!!

Dick Cheney is like the bad guy in the typical slasher flick. No matter how many times you think he has gone away, he comes back. Why are people giving him the time of day is beyond me. Sure, he was VP, but he has repeatedly shown contempt for pretty much everything besides his own opinion, even recently taking a shot or two at GW Bush.

I would promise that this is my last complaint about Cheney, but then I know there is going to be another sequel to this never-ending franchise of death and destruction--Cheney will be ranting and raving about how best to trash the Constitution on and off for the next several years.

Surprising? No. Disappointing? Yes.

It is hardly shocking that significant electoral fraud may have occurred in Afghanistan. But it is disappointing nonetheless. No one expected a perfectly clean election or anything close to it, but systematic fraud may be another nail in the coffin. Support of the mission in the West is declining--no doubt. But success in building a stable political system--stable enough so that the violence decreases--actually does not hinge so much on Afghanistan becoming a democracy but on a perception of legitimacy and of competence. This election does not do much to help then.

When people talk of reduced expectations, of moving away from armed statebuilding to something less, they can and do point to the challenges of one of the three key "pillars" of the effort--governance. Just as in Iraq, we can expect in the medium term that the international forces will get a handle on the violence--that this new surge is likely to work. But it can only provide breathing room for governance to develop. And just as in Iraq, we may find that despite the difficult of the fighting, the military side will appear to be easy when compared to figuring out and actually reforming the police, the Ministry of Interior, and the rest of the key elements of the government.

To be clear, some patience is required, as this all takes time. The question of the day after tomorrow (after the election) is how will the President (probably Karzai) will govern. So far, it is not looking good.

One of the purposes of having a blog is to force me to think through various issues--such as which Indiana Jones movie was the best. And it has been useful here for clarifying, for me anyway, the challenges ahead. Again, I will stubbornly stick with the notion that we have not really tried hard enough yet to get it right and that some patience is required and that leaving is as complicated as staying. But, unlike my critics in the comments section of the Globe and Mail, I can see the strengths of the competing arguments.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Final Report: What I Did On My Summer Vacation

So, I failed to come up with a coherent, convincing argument for staying in Afghanistan, although I do think that leaving unilaterally a la Canada is a bad idea.

I think I can make a stronger argument that my summer rocked [disclaimer: I did, indeed, spend most of the summer working, so the title of this post is mostly in jest].
  1. Three weeks in Europe (Paris, Berlin, London--see my June and early July blogs) were both professionally and personally fantastic. I managed to interview a large number of military officers, government officials, members of parliament and experts about a very interesting topic that is very much in motion. The conversations were always fascinating, and I learned a great deal. In my spare time, I was able to see a lot of sites, go to a bunch of museums, eat all kinds of excellent food, and even see a couple of shows in London.
  2. While my body regrets it, I had a great time playing ultimate 3-4 nights a week, including the weekly game with my daughter's Junior team, which got better and better as they played in an adult league. I will definitely have to cut back next summer to 2 nights or so, and maybe an occasional third night. Who am I kidding? More ultimate is more ultimate!! And I just have to count on medical technology and insurance to provide me with a new elbow, new knee and two new ankles.
  3. Made up for my three weeks away with heaps of fun father-daughter time at La Ronde (Montreal's Six Flags), a high ropes course, basketball and softball practice, beach time, movies, and much teasing (she gives as good as she gets).
  4. Despite yesterday's bad movie experience (which was so good because it was so bad), it was a great summer for movies. Didn't see as many due to the travel and such. The summer movies varied in depth and meaning, but were entertaining even when mindless, from the start with Star Trek and Wolverine to Night at the Museum 2 to Harry Potter and District 9, with the wildly profane (Bruno, Hangover) in the middle. I regret missing The Hurt Locker and Up, but I don't mind missing Terminator Salvation, Angels & Demons, or Land of the Lost.
  5. I made a big splash in the Globe and Mail with a widely reviled op-ed piece that led to my new nicknames--servant of the illuminati and servile academic minion.
  6. And the summer essentially ended with the family beach trip to Delaware. As usual, we had lots of good food, but this time, the waves were a bit dangerous rather than too tame. The trip was interrupted as I took a detour to meet with my co-author, but this was a most productive conversation, so that the summer's research is going to pay off in a variety of ways, we hope.
So, it was a well-spent summer, even if I didn't make any progress on my probability experiments. School starts Wednesday, and it should be an interesting term between my huge intro class and the advanced IR workshop with speaker series. And the APSA also starts Wednesday with a post later today or tomorrow about why I am a conference guy.

Winning in Afghanistan?

So, I have been posting about part 1 of the two part question: Is Afghanistan important enough to stick around? and Can we win, if we do stick around? I waffled a bit on the first, trying to argue that Afghanistan was important enough due to the regional security implications and also the consequences of departing hastily. Of course, that may be presenting a false dichotomy since another alternative, the Rumsfeldian strategy, exists--doing just enough to keep terrorists out of Afghanistan without really building a stable situation in the country. And, of course, my term for it should bias the reader against this course of action since anything Rumsfeld did turned to poop. At least when it came to strategy and tactics outside of the Beltway.

Anyhow, the focus of the moment is counter-insurgency or "armed state-building" by its critics. Can the US and its allies facilitate the development of a stable, semi-self-sustaining political system in Afghanistan? The standard, to be clear, is not Norway. The obstacles are many, including few economic resources other than poppies, obnoxious neighbors (especially but not exclusively Pakistan), deep levels of corruption, and awful path dependence. By the latter, I mean the choices made in the past structure today's options, including the strength of warlords in the political system and Karzai.

In addition, counter-insurgency is just plain hard. It requires lots of things that governments and organizations traditionally suck at: coordination and patience to just name two.

Uh oh. So far, no progress on arguing that we can win. Ok, so what is working or can work in our favor?
  • The lines between various groups are much less fixed and far more permeable than Iraq or elsewhere. Folks have referred to the group dynamics here like a pickup basketball game--one can be shirts today, skins tomorrow, and then shirts the third day. So, we do not really have fixed cleavages. We here of Pashtun vs. Tajik, but the Pashtuns are divided by tribe and past disputes.
  • Afghanistan has experienced the alternative--the Taliban--and most did not enjoy the experience. Despite the incompetence and corruption of the current government, the Taliban is not really seen as an attractive alternative. They can only coerce, and while that can go pretty far in upsetting the current regime, it is not a formula for popular support.
  • There has been much learning and error correction. Collateral damage has gone down, American units are now more consistently applying COIN doctrine, making them more compatible with those who already operated that way (Canadians). The chain of command has been improved to increase unity of command.
And, as I always want to remind people, COIN only started in 2006 at the earliest and really more the past year or two. The increase in violence this year may mostly be tied to the surge, as was in the case in Iraq.

So, there are more forces operating in Afghanistan with smarter people running and coordinating better. The real tasks ahead are developing the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The first started a few years ago, and progress is hard to evaluate with wildly conflicting claims. Progress on the police is much, much further behind.

Hmm, still not much progress on arguing that we can win, even less on that we will win if we try hard enough. Ok, let's try another tact--civil wars do end. They end by victory by one side or by some kind of settlement or a stalemate. The Taliban will not win--they just don't have the kind of public support and their strategies are aimed mostly at spoiling. The Afghan government could co-opt enough tribes and fighters to make the insurgency much less significant, reducing it to more of a crime problem.

If the current surge and smarter strategies eventually lead to far fewer casualties (as they did in Iraq, although the conditions are not identical), then there will be more room for the politicians in and out of Afghanistan to build the ANA and ANP and the relevant pieces of the government. Of course, this requires the next President (probably Karzai) to make a few good but hard choices.
And Karzai has not proven to be capable of that. A military coup might also happen, and then the international community would face a very difficult bind.

Crap. I don't think I have come up with a decent argument for NATO winning. No wonder I have procrastinated. Anybody want to take a shot at this?

I guess my stance right now is that we have not been trying that hard for that long (despite the fact that countries have borne significant costs in terms of lives and money) to do this right, that the effort (not so much the outcomes) is more on target right now, and that the uncertainties involved with pulling out mean that we ought to try to continue the effort for a while longer. If the surge does not lead to a decline in violence in the next year or so, then we can and should re-consider.

And to be consistent with my op-ed regarding Canada's participation, I think that Canada should stick around as long as its allies do. If Canada wants out of Afghanistan, it should work with its allies to get to that outcome, rather than just meeting an arbitrary deadline set by a political process back home.

Of course, that leads to an entirely different set of questions--what will the domestic political processes of the members of NATO and other ISAF countries allow?

Where the Debates on Afghanistan Stand

Marc Lynch has an excellent post on where things stand on Afghanistan:

The pro-escalation side probably has the better of the tactical argument, in terms of the best response once the U.S. decides upon the strategic necessity of combatting the Taliban "insurgency". But the anti-escalation side probably has the better of the strategic argument: U.S. vital interests in Afghanistan to justify the expense remain vague, the arguments made for the costs of "losing" the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan are relatively far-fetched (please, no more "credibility of the West" or "flytrap" arguments), the critical "safe havens" argument suffers from the profound weakness of the availability of alternative safe havens all over the broader region, and the costs of waging such a war successfully aren't being taken sufficiently seriously. But a close argument tilts towards the status quo, and won't stop the enormous momentum already built up in the US government towards the escalation strategy. Sunk costs and credibility considerations probably weigh more heavily than they should. The main impact of the debate will at best be to force the administration to more sharply calibrate its goals and its commitments - which may matter in the future - rather than to actually derail the current strategy right now.
My posts the past couple of days (here, here) have been a struggle, as I want to argue that Afghanistan is important enough to justify a continued costly effort, but it is hard for the reasons that Lynch points out: other available safe havens, sunk costs on their own are a poor justification, etc. I do think the regional security argument (not quite a domino theory argument, but in the same neighborhood?) does tip the scales, as does the responsibility claim which I made yesterday.

Reasonable people can certainly disagree on what particularly countries and/or international organizations should do about Afghanistan, particularly after Karzai's performance--de-legitimating the election with quick claims of election fraud; his embracing of the vilest folks to get a winning coalition; and his continued position-taking against the international community (more on this in the next post). I do think that we need to recognize not just the costs of staying but also the costs of leaving. Departing is not without some significant consequences, so we need to consider the tradeoffs of all of the various options.

Again, don't fight a land war in Asia unless you have considered not only how to get in, but also how to get out.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Killing Grandma

Nice Slate piece on who really has tried to kill the elderly:

It was Sen. Grassley himself who rammed the GOP's most astonishing pro-death policy through the Senate in 2001. The estate-tax revision he championed reduces the estate tax to zero next year. But when the law expires at year's end, the tax will jump back up to its previous level of 55 percent. Grassley's exploding offer has an entirely foreseen if unintended consequence: It's going to encourage those whose parents and grandparents are worth anything more than a million bucks to get them dead by midnight on Dec. 31, 2010. This would be a great plot for a P.D. James novel if it weren't an actual piece of legislation.

Faced with an unpalatable choice between cutting benefits and raising taxes to pay for the growing costs of entitlement programs, Republicans gravitated toward a third alternative—restraining growth in life expectancy. If you want lower taxes and aren't willing to risk cutting spending, you need fewer beneficiaries.

I couldn't be more cynical than this article, but it would be amusing to try.

Worst Movie of the Summer (spoilers)

It was perfect that we ended the summer by seeing the worst movie of the bunch: GI Joe. Not to say I told you so, but, well, I was reluctant to see it because I thought it would be crap-tastic. However, my wife and daughter wanted to see it. And I have no regrets because it was definitely in the category of "so bad it was highly entertaining."

All you really need to know is that the movie starts at the weapons facility of the biggest arms company on the planet--in Kyrgyzstan. Yep, interesting place to put a weapons facility. I am sure the scientists enjoy their nights on the town in Bishkek or Osh. Anyway, so they need to take the super-destructive WMD from their to the NATO base---by convoy!! Yes, that is quite a drive from Central Asia to West Europe. And the movie goes downhill from there, with many of the key sequences lifted directly from various Star Wars movies: I am your father/brother-in-law; heavy breather in a mask; superweapon that causes one of the good guys to urge all the fighter craft to get close to the bad guy's planes/subs; and more. Oh, and the battle between the two submarine forces looked like two different groups of sperm. And one more thing--most of the major characters got their own flashbacks to explain how they got to where they are today.

And, of course, we had to have the moment where the civilians order the military (the GI Joes) to stand down, and the military rejects their civilian authorities and defeat the bad guys. The movie lesson again is: the guys in uniform are always right and the civilians are always wrong.

The Geek Survival Guide Podcast had warned us, but we pushed on ahead anyway. I don't think I have cackled this hard during a movie in a long time. Just goes to show that bad writing and bad direction can produce an entertaining flick--for its unintentional comedy.

Rice Krispies, Aging and Hallucinations

Snap, crackle, pop. That is the old Rice Krispies ad campaign. And I seem to have been hearing those noises a lot lately. When I move my right arm--that is, I move my throwing elbow. When I walk, in my knees and/or ankles. My family denies hearing these noises, so either they are not loud enough for them to notice or I am hallucinating. I gained some reassurance during the Montreal Comedy Festival when one of the comedians referred to his various popping noises.

Anyhow, if you are near me and hear a noise that sounds like it could have come from the interplay of Rice Krispies and milk, let me know that you heard it so that I can assure myself that my aging is signaled by the breakdown of my body and not my mind. Yet.

Remaining in Afghanistan, continued

In my previous post, I struggled with the compelling interests that would keep the US, Canada and NATO in Afghanistan. I didn't really get at a key aspect that was in the back of my mind yesterday: the so-called Pottery Barn rule of intervention--you break it, you bought it. I do think that the US and NATO have some responsibility to clean up the mess that they helped make over the past thirty years or so--arming extremists, leaving Afghanistan to rot in the aftermath of the Soviet pullout, the minimal effort made after the Taliban were knocked out, etc.

This is not quite the sunk cost argument (although it is somewhat close) that we spent x billions and y lives, so we need to stick around. Instead, the argument is that we have to be responsible about when and how we depart. If there is one lesson from Vietnam that folks on various ends of the political spectrum can agree, it is that the US left Southeast Asia irresponsibly, leaving our allies to their fates in South Vietnam and providing the opportunity for the Khmer Rouge to rise in Cambodia and so on. This is one of the reasons why I was opposed to the war in Iraq--that it would be very hard to exit and the US might be facilitating genocide if it left quickly. Even as the US tries to follow through on its agreement with the Iraqi government, it is becoming clear that the Iraqis may not have been ready for it.

This is moving from a realist/pragmatic argument about what is best for the US and NATO to a moral one about what we owe the Afghans, moving from where I am pretty comfortable to where I have no expertise--normative arguments. Knowing that I am pretty weak here, I will stick with the focus on costs and benefits of sticking around, but I had to acknowledge one of the key reasons to stick around--an obligation to leave things better off if we can. Of course, that is a big if and I will ponder that tomorrow.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Tragically Suck

There are rules governing the content of Canadian radio and television. Blogging finally inspired me to look them up:
To qualify as "Canadian content," music must generally fulfill at least two of the following conditions
(the MAPL system):
M (music) - the music is composed entirely by a Canadian.
A (artist) - the music and/or the lyrics are performed principally by a Canadian.
P (production) - the musical selection consists of a live performance that is (i) recorded wholly in Canada, or (ii) performed wholly in Canada and broadcast live in Canada.
L (lyrics) - the lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian.
Under the Commercial Radio Policy, 35 per cent of all music aired each week on all AM and FM stations must be Canadian. In addition, 35 per cent of music broadcast between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday must consist of Canadian content
Television has similar rules but a higher standard--60%, but some shows can count for 150% with enough Canadians on or behind it.

I haven't really noticed the TV restrictions much as we have a satellite dish with some American channels (fed via Canadian networks with lame Canadian commercials--like 10 Canadian Tire commercials [the same one] in an hour).

But the radio programming is quite obviously restricted and painfully so. I listen to two stations most of the time: the local classic rock station and a Vermont station plays mostly alternative stuff (and apparently reggae counts as alternative). So, it took me a short time to realize that about 1/3 of all classic rock is Canadian. That would be fine if they overplayed the right Canadian stuff. You would expect lots of Rush and Triumph--that would be ok. Instead, there seems to be a lot of April Whine (apparently more than a one or two hit wonder, unfortunately), the Tragically Hip (I call them by the name in the title of this post), Blue Rodeo (there is a good reason why I never heard of them before moving north) and the Guess Who (guess I like The Who much, much more). I am ok with Loverboy although it is hardly classic Rock as I would define it.

Neil Young
and Bryan Adams only sometimes count as Canadian, depending on where the song/album was recorded and who else was involved.

The good news is that it means that they end up playing some more recent stuff to meet their quotas like Theory of a Deadman, Arcade Fire and Nickelback. More Barenaked Ladies would be fine. There is plenty of good Canadian music (see this list of all Canadian musicians, more or less). And I understand the politics of having content rules when the country next door tends to be hegemonic. My frustration is that the station I like (and there is only one English classic rock station in Montreal) tends to play the crappy Canadian stuff too much and the good stuff not enough.

Of course, one could say that it is a matter of taste, but I think Chuck Klosterman might agree with me that Rush and Triumph are, objectively, better than the Hip, April Wine and other overplayed fare.

For a truly classic Canadian pop videostar, see Robin Sparkles:

Speaking of Terrorism and National Security ...

Seems like we are doing a worse job domestically. No real surprises here, just a reminder that the urgency to appear to be doing something and the desire to avoid liability means that lots of effort and inconvenience are generated, but have no made a big difference on our security.

And this piece does not address the bigger gaping holes in Homeland Security (I hate that phrase by the way--makes me think of Motherland and Fatherland)--the ports. Containers are not inspected or regulated as they should be.

Again, it seems it is better to what is superficial and makes one appear to be doing something than do the hard work to get it right. Perhaps that works in academia, but is a poor prescription for national security policy.

Remaining in Afghanistan

Why should NATO stick around and what should it be doing in Afghanistan? There have been some calls lately for a more minimal effort with "realistic" goals. I have two basic reactions to this:

  1. First, the counter-insurgency campaign only started in 2006 and is only now getting some real focus and resources, after being a sideshow to Iraq. So any suggestions that we have been there long enough to have already made a big difference are fallacious.
  2. Second, haven't we already tried this from 2002-2005? Rumsfeld essentially said that we don't have to more than knock down the Taliban and the come back every few years to clean the place out of Al-Qaeda types.
So, making a claim that NATO ought to stay requires two things: making it clear that the interests are big enough to justify the costs, and asserting convincingly that NATO has a reasonable chance for success--not a guarantee of perfection but a calculation that the probable benefits outweigh the probable costs in comparison to pulling out entirely (which has its own costs and beneifts) and in comparison to some middle approach. Interests here and then can we do feasibility/success in the next post.

What are the interests at stake for the generic NATO country or for the collective?
  1. The first is obviously to prevent safe havens for terrorists, but we need to remember that the death toll from H1N1 in the US alone this year (estimated by my dentist to be 90k rather than the usual 45k killed by flu) is 30 times more deadly than 9/11. But terrorism has political and economic implications that far outstrip the direct harm it may cause (and I don't mean to trivialize the losses of individual families). We can limit the use of Afghanistan as a base of terrorism with a minimal effort as well as a full COIN effort, but not if we abandon the place entirely.
  2. Regional security is important as Afghanistan and Pakistan greatly affect each other. And given the threat that Pakistan poses to international security, the question may really be--what does more harm to Pakistan--ISAF in Afghanistan or benign neglect? Maintaining Afghanistan as a failed state should be bad for Pakistan, because it then becomes a haven for the flow of stuff into Pakistan. ISAF has had mixed effects, but a successful effort to defeat the insurgency should weaken the hands of those seeking to de-stabilize Pakistan. But care must be taken that the means to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan do not strengthen the Taliban and assorted problem folks in Pakistan.
  3. Political stability, even as weak as it is right now, has reversed the flow of refugees, helping to improve conditions not only for the refugees but for the neighbors bearing their burden.
  4. One could make an argument about alliance maintenance--that success here is important for NATO to prove it is capable, but I am leery. Too reminiscent of credibility arguments and Vietnam. I do think individual countries need to remain with NATO as long as NATO is there because the precedent of ditching NATO when the going gets tough is not a good one, and individual countries do need NATO to deal with their more conventional threats (Russia, Russia, ahem, Russia). So, if Canada wants out, I would suggest that Canada work to get NATO out rather than just leaving.
I think the best argument perhaps for trying to do COIN right is Somalia. That is, Somalia has experienced all kinds of international "treatments" except a sincere COIN effort. Benign neglect and some outside support for preferred contenders has not prevented Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. Reports have terrorists moving from Pakistan after the more energetic effort made there to Somalia. Do we (US/NATO/whoever) have enough intel to be able to just duck into Somalia and wipe out the AQ types and then leave? I am not so sure.
Meanwhile, neglecting Somalia has had significant implications--for Kenya and Ethiopia as well as the piracy problem. Again, the piracy problem is not a huge crisis, but it does present a variety of challenges and is somewhat costly at the local level.

So, it may not be the case that Afghanistan is the most important place on the planet, but neglecting it (again) may have significant externalities down the road.

The next question is: can NATO and ISAF be successful at developing some kind of semi-self-sustaining Afghan government?

Viral Video Du Jour

Great, great parody of the lame debates on our networks:

Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Afghan Reckoning Ahead

Ok, Fred Kaplan argues that the new President will have to get in shape quickly.

A side note--the quote below from Kaplan, while very apt, seems a bit blind:
This is one danger of holding a national election in a state that lacks a national consciousness or a civil society: The vote tends merely to politicize, and thus harden, longstanding social divisions.
Haven't elections in places like the US had the same impact.

Anyhow, what I mean is that I have been referring to a post where I would take a stand on the future of the NATO effort in Afghanistan--should it be armed state-building as some have called it or should we have more modest aims?

To preview a post that I hope to write tomorrow--think COIN, COIN, COIN. That would be counter-insurgency for those playing at home.

And by the way, the crazed email I posted here last week (in reaction to my op-ed that argued that Canada actually accrued some benefits for being in Afghanistan) also arrived in my mailbox at school on letterhead--the letter castigating me as an egghead moron and as a zionist twit and servant to the illuminati--of the Nationalist Party of Canada. Well, I am still confused--why is a white supremacist party (hence the racemixing reference in the letter) so opposed to continuing the mission in Afghanistan? It might not be in favour of it, but why get so exercised about it? This would seem to be an example of mission creep as foreign policy would not be the core concern of Canadian nationalists of this kind. Perhaps I am trying to put too much logic to their thought processes.

Blogging During the School Year

Today was the first taste of blogging during the school year. I started the blog last May after classes ended (McGill ends early!!), and today was the first day I had some on-campus stuff of any consequence--meetings with grad students, a dissertation proposal defense (Theo was unsurprisingly sharp), and errands (they moved the instructional technology equipment facility from within the library and a convenient location to just outside of campus--lovely). So, with that and ultimate (a very fun game, with my team playing extremely well within everyone's abilities), I got to the computer with less free time than usual. Hence only the previous entry and this one.

Does this mean that my blogging will come to a halt once classes really begin and the flow of various forms of student (undergrad, grad) take up my campus time and catching up on research/grants fills up my home time? Perhaps.

Or, it may be the case that more interactions with people, as opposed to websites, will simply inspire more or similar levels of inspiration for posts.

Or, my posts may just become shorter, which my brother would appreciate.

As we used to say in grad school, it is an empirical question--theory cannot guide us in a specific direction. So, let's see how the next four months go. After that, no teaching for eight as various course reductions kick in during the first part of 2010. And, yes, I do love my job.

Limitations: An Unlimited Running Theme

I have been meaning to write a post or two on limitations: that one has got to know one's own limitations. But, I do not really have time to do it justice at this moment as ultimate beckons. But, let me just start and then continue over the next day or two or three.

Over the past several years, I have realized that one of the most important skills or talents one has to have in ultimate, particularly if one plays the position of handler (on offense, one is generally a handler or a cutter, with the former playing as one of three point guards/quarterbacks on the field with four cutters), is to know one's own limits. That is, one should not try to make throws that one does not have--don't huck it long backhand if one does not have a strong backhand, don't throw a hammer (an overhead toss) if one does not have a good hammer or the receiver is not a good hammer-catcher and so forth.

In ultimate, I have never been a speedster nor have I ever had much in the way of "ups." I am not tall and I don't jump very high. As a result, I have focused on my throws and my ability to catch the low pass (I can react reasonably quickly and I dive a lot). These days, as I play against guys who are much younger and much faster, I must focus more to get open, and I must be wilier on defense and perhaps give the person I am marking either more open cuts towards the disk or away as I cannot take away both. And I have realized that playing within my limits is the key to being successful, and I increasingly have noticed when other players go beyond their limits. Indeed, this is pretty easy to do when playing with my daughter's team, which has a few boys who fire away with the disk with no thought at all about what they can and cannot do.

So, in thinking about this, I once again realized a key limitation--I tend to show my reactions when other people are being, for want of a better term, unreasonable (ok, I am not as bad as this person). I know I should just be poker-faced and not react, but at meetings I find that I don't have great self-control in masking my reactions. Good thing I have tenure. Anyhow, this is just a start. Maybe more thoughts on this after I play tonight and my focus during the game will be to stay within and maximize my abilities.

PS Yes, this is quite narcissistic to investigate my own limitations, but if I don't overanalyze myself in my blog, who should I over-analyze?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Socialism in Hockey is Baaaad!!

Ok, starting year 8 in Canada, I guess I have to start mentioning hockey.

ok. done.

No, seriously, the National Hockey League is deliberately trying to avoid profits--by keeping a bankrupt team in the hottest place in the US--Arizona. Just brilliant. They have a Canadian business icon--Jim Basillie (who has also invested in an IR grad school!!!) of Blackberry fame--wanting to move the team to a locale where hockey is actually popular and pay more money than competing bids to do so.

It just makes too much sense. I guess it is the opposite of the cliche "this is so crazy, it just might work." So, the NHL has done everything it can to oppose the best possible bid. No wonder you cannot find hockey on a major sports network in the US--it is run by blithering idiots.

I have pretty strong feelings about this, despite the fact that I don't watch or follow hockey. Incompetence and stupidity just gets my dander up.

The Internet is For ? (not entirely safe for work) updated

While I await Dan Drezner's blog response to today's Maureen Dowd column on blogging and anonymity, I am once again struck by how people tend to overreact to the new technology. There have been heaps of columns by relationship gurus (Ann Landers, etc.) about how the internet has messed up people's relationships via p^rn or by email/chatting/whatever leading to cheating.

And I wonder what they would have been saying as the telephone was widely disseminated:

"I overheard my husband talking to someone else and he sounded like he was talking to a woman. What should I do?"
Expert: "You should consider destroying the phone."

Hmmm. The internet facilitates, it offers opportunities for increased interaction. What people do with that--well, that depends on their marriage/relationship, their morals, their ability to withstand temptation, etc. So, give it a rest. Stop blaming the internet for how people abuse it.

Of course, there are serious questions about anonymity and personal attacks, but these are not new problems--again, phones, graffiti, cb's, ham radio, and the like have long existed and served to provide anonymous means to attack people.

Updated: See here for a good discussion of the lameness of Dowd's column:
The definition of “no accountability” is a Dowd column (or really, most op-eds at the remaining big papers): you’ll never be expected to do any reporting, never be expected to get your facts straight, and you can pretty much spin out whatever fleeting thoughts come into your head over your morning coffee.

For Avenue Q's take on the internet as interpreted through the prism of World of Warcraft, click here (but send the kids out of the room or put on your headphones).

When Words Come Back Into Fashion

It is funny how some words or slang come and go, or at least perceived as such. For instance, the past year seems to have seen a dramatic increase in the use of: douche or douchebag.

For an excellent application of the term, see GQ's 25 Douchiest Colleges (that would be universities if a Canadian was speaking).

From the entry on Amherst, #7:

In ten years, will be: Smart policy guy at State Department that no one listens to.

Surprised, Troubled, Enchanted and Humbled, Part Deux

One of my very first posts was taking a silly question from Obama's 100 days in office press conference and apply it to Canada: what I found to be surprising, troubling, enchanting, and humbling about Canada. Next week starts my eighth year at McGill--believe it or not. Time flies when one is really busy. So, I thought I would mark the beginning of the new term by considering how McGill has surprised, troubled, enchanted and humbled me.

  1. I have been surprised by how much stuff the graduate students here write. I am far busier here than in my previous job reading dissertation proposals, chapters, grant proposals, article drafts, master's projects, and the like. Indeed, I often proclaim that I have the grad students do my work as research and teaching assistants so that I can do their work. I have also been surprised with how hard they work and what they are willing to do, like go to Syria or Afghanistan.
  2. I have been very, very troubled by two diseases common to many academic environments but positively plague McGill: bureaucracy and institutional arrogance. Regarding the former, I was essentially terminated twice in my early years here because the bureaucrats didn't process my work permit paperwork. I found out the first time when I was not allowed to take a book out of the library past August 1st--because I was no longer going to be an employee of McGill. After firing out heaps of emails, I got the bureaucracy to fix the problem. It happened again when that work permit lapsed. This time, I used the library as my canary in the coalmine, went there deliberately to test the situation and found the same thing, so I was able to fire of the same bunch of emails earlier in the summer. Institutional arrogance refers to a basic attitude that the institution is better than most so whatever strange ways it has of doing things should not be challenged. As a result, McGill does a variety of things that do not converge with North American norms, placing it often at a competitive disadvantage.
  3. I am positively enchanted by the intelligence, passion and thirst for knowledge that characterizes the McGill undergraduate. They frequently remind me of the folks I went to school with at Oberlin--there is a genuine desire to understand the world in order to change it. The students bring with them incredible experiences from around the world, they do most of the work, and are diligent and creative about applying the concepts to today's events. I haven't had the chance to teach the honors seminar in IR since my second year here, and I miss it, as that small group knocked my socks off each year. Still, one of the positives of teaching the huge Intro to IR class is that I do get to meet an astonishing array of folks, even if I don't get to know anyone of them very well.
  4. I am humbled by the folks hired by my department since I came here. We were lucky enough to have a bunch of slots to fill the first several years of my time here. While hiring processes are idiosyncratic and I have sometimes been on the losing side of the departmental battle, we have managed to hire very bright, very creative folks who have already made a huge difference here and in the discipline. At Texas Tech, I viewed my role among the junior faculty as like Colonel Hogan, one of the leaders of the upstarts against the incompetent, bungling Germans. Now, that I am tenured and that we have brought a bunch of great folks to McGill, I guess I am now Sergeant Schultz: I know nothing!!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Must Watch More TV

Well, the Onion recommends it: Watching Fewer Than 4 Hours Of TV A Day Impairs Ability To Ridicule Pop Culture

Well, with the new TV season on the horizon and the end of summer ultimate, I should be heading back to my daily recommended requirement of tv watching. The challenge is to watch stuff that the students will also watch, or else my pop cultural references don't play to a majority of the 600 students in my Intro to IR class. But the problem is that I don't watch much reality TV or Gossip Girl type stuff. I may have to stick with movies this fall as I did see most of the major movies. Plus there is the new old-standby--showing the videos via youtube to get the point across. Just have to exercise some moderation. My wife would like for me to show more Monty Python, but I would have more appropriate opportunities to do so if I taught Intro to Comparative Politics. But that will not happen anytime soon.

And yes, I cannot refer to old Classic Trek, to Next Generation, or to DS-9 either. Unless I show the episode. Which I do for my Intl Relations of Ethnic Conflict class (black/white vs. white/black folks).

Strangest List of the Week

EW has a list from McAfee of which celebrity searches are most likely to lead to a virus or something bad.

The 15 Most Dangerous Celebrities in Cyberspace:

1. Jessica Biel: When “Jessica Biel screensavers” was searched, nearly half of the sites were identified as containing malicious downloads with spyware, adware, and potential viruses, McAfee says
2. Beyoncé
3. Jennifer Aniston: More than 40 percent of the Google search results for “Jennifer Aniston screensavers” contained viruses
4. Tom Brady
5. Jessica Simpson
6. Gisele Bundchen
7. Miley Cyrus
8. Tie: Megan Fox and Angelina Jolie
9. Ashley Tisdale
10. Brad Pitt: He was No. 1 last year
11. Reese Witherspoon
12. Britney Spears
13. Rihanna
14. Lindsay Lohan
15. Kim Kardashian

I think Jessica Biel is over-rated. Interesting that Tom Brady is the first guy listed. His lady is number 6, so are the bad virus/malware people Patriot-haters? Ironic that Megan and Angelina are tied, given other parallels.

I wonder what publicists think of this list? Would any hire a virus-writer or someone of that ilk to produce or corrupt lots of websites so that the next ranking would place their client higher on this list?

Are Political Scientists Spoiled Brats? Let the Reader Decide

On the political science rumor blog, there have been several threads dedicated to the next American Political Science Association meeting, which will take place in Toronto. As Canada is a foreign country, this has raised a variety of complications, including some folks need visas, others worry about their cell phone expenses, or the need to get foreign currency. Of course, APSA didn't anticipate this at all, in part because these decisions are made several years in advance. Four or five years ago, the CA $ was about 80% of the US $ so the conference would have been much cheaper to the APSA membership. Also, four or five years ago, people were not as addicted to their cell phones.

What conclusion do I draw from all of the carping? That perhaps Avenue Q has it wrong--the internet is for complaining.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quote of the Day from a Book I Am Currently Reading

Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic:

It's probably no accident that whenever one hears of smart technology, it refers to something that has been taken out of human control.

Bad Analogies Lead to Bad Outcomes

I am not a huge fan of Frederick Kagan nor do I regularly read or link to the Weekly Standard, but the piece today on the ill fit of the Soviet analogy for understanding NATO in Afghanistan is on target.

While Afghanistan is a hard place for outsiders to operate, thinking that NATO is akin to the Soviet invasion is a fallacy. The two efforts are very, very different. There are some parallels but not so many as to make the situations identical. Analogies only work so far, but differences among situations need to be compared with the similarities. Yes, the Soviets and the NATO folks are foreigners, but the Taliban are not the Mujaheddin either. Karzai, for all of his flaws, is not the Socialist that the Soviets tried to put in place. Collateral damage is a problem for NATO operations, but was not for the Soviets--they didn't care too much about it.

I can go on and on about this, but NATO is not the Soviet Union, in its motivations, its strategies, its tactics, and perhaps not in the outcome.

Dodging a High Tech Bullet

I came close to buying an i-phone last winter, but refrained due to the additional charges each month. Now, it appears that I may have made a good decision. Apparently, as a phone, the i-phone is not so good. Still, I rarely use my current cell phone and would use the i-phone for the apps, so perhaps I would still like mine. However, it seems far more fragile than the ipods that I have bounced around. Oh well, money not spent may not be saved exactly as it always finds another way out of my accounts and pockets, but perhaps better spent on something else.

Quote of the article:
But seven iPhones to arrive at one that works? That sounded like searching for a life partner.

Counter-Revolutionary Movement of the Week

Some of the supporters of health care reform are getting wonderfully snarky--with a mock campaign against other government services that reek of socialism: fire departments, public education, police, etc. There is now a facebook group against socialist fire departments. Hence the picture of the fire truck with the Hitler 'stache.

I plan on introducing my group of TA's to my big lecture class next week as my death panel.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Movie of the Summer of the Week: District 9

The buzz/hype was on target with District 9. It was a very well-made movie with amazing special effects, a pretty blunt metaphor that could apply not just to South Africa but to many other ethnic conflicts around the world, and excellent writing/directing.

The role played by a private military corporation (all the rage in both Iraq and the civil-military relations literature) was quite appropriate given the notable examples of South African PMCs elsewhere.

No spoilers here yet, but some questions do arise:
  • would the international community and especially the US let South Africa handle the prawn settlements/technology exploitation on their own?
  • were the film-makers solely focused on South Africa? Or did they also have other segregated, oppressed types also in mind, like Roma in Europe, African-Americans and Latinos in the US, etc?
  • Most importantly, is Pepe the prawn actually an alien?
Run to your nearest theatre and see this movie. It may not be the best movie of the summer, but it is certainly in the conversation. Glad I made my family go to D-9 rather than GI Joe!

Caw! Caw! Or Perhaps, War! War!

Reading the comments on my op-ed (yes, I am talking about it again, but hey, the sidebar of my blog is quite clear that I am a narcissist!), I find it is really odd to be considered a Hawk, although this is not the first time I have been considered the local hardliner or a war-mongerer. I am surprised Oberlin has not revoked my degree. And to be referred to as a neo-con makes me almost as giddy as being called a "servile academic minion" or a servant of the illuminati.

Canada and Afghanistan in 2011: More Follow Ups

My op-ed in the Globe and Mail has produced a stronger response than all of my previous op-eds that I have written in Canada and the US combined. I stand by what I said, but will try to clarify what I was arguing, try to pop a myth or two, and also point to some interesting and troubling claims made by some of my "fans." Finally, I will suggest what Canada has bought with its blood and how it might parlay its increased influence.

First, as mentioned in the past few weeks in this blog, I am not completely sure that "armed nation-building" is the way ahead in Afghanistan. I am very much aware of the limitations of the current effort, as this article makes abundantly clear. I guess I should have been clearer in the op-ed that I was arguing that Canada should not leave before NATO does, but whether it works within NATO to push for a withdrawal, a change in strategy or a surge is still an open question. Mostly, I was arguing that there are motivations and benefits to Canada's participation that no one seems to mention in Canada, and the vociferous response to my op-ed suggests both why there has been silence on this issue and why that silence had to be broken.

Second, there are a lot of myths about Afghanistan. I am not going to try to deflect the various claims about pipelines here and other darker motivations. Instead, let me just clarify one key myth--while the US and its allies have been involved in Afghanistan since 2001, the counter-insurgency effort really is only three years old. Before that, the US mission was to clear out terrorists, and Rumsfeld actively limited what American commanders could do beyond that (we have interviews with senior US generals to buttress that point in our work underway). And NATO was restricted to Kabul until 2005. So, only three years, which is quite early in any counter-insurgency effort. Yes, the war is complicated by drugs, Pakistan and all the rest, but we should not be expecting a self-sustaining Afghanistan yet. The key really is whether we are making progress, but as discussed elsewhere in this blog, metrics here are hard to come by. My point here is using 2001 as the start date and arguing that this war is longer than WWI and WWII combined is not particularly illuminating.

Third, many commenters suggested that either I had no right as an ivory tower academic to ask Canada's troops to remain in harm's way or wondered when I was enlisting in the Canadian Forces. These comments seemed to suggest that only those who might be endangered have a right to decide to go to war or to have an opinion on it. So, we should leave these decisions up to the military, I guess. Ummm, that does not sound too healthy in a democracy. Of course, what these people really mean is that advocates for war must put themselves at risk while advocates for peace can do opine no matter what their occupation/risks might be. That does not sound terribly democratic either. I see their point that I am arguing that Canada should take on continued risks in Afghanistan from the safety of McGill. But, as the saying goes, isn't war too important to be left to the Generals?

Finally, in the piece, I did not specify what Canada gains from its sacrifices and perhaps why Canada would like NATO to stick around a while longer. Nor did I really go after one of my favorite targets--Arctic Sovereignty--and this is all related. Canada cannot really hope to defend its northern borders and waters from Russia or the US (perhaps Denmark). What it really needs is to be member of a multilateral alliance that can present a deterrent threat to Russia or a bilateral one (with just the US). Either way, helping out the US and NATO in Afghanistan is part of an implicit and sometimes explicit bargain--that fighting in Afghanistan and losing lives there is part of an effort to defend Canada not just from terrorists trained in Southwest Asia but also against the future threats up north.

AND perhaps, just perhaps, wise Canadian leadership combined with a new American administration might led to a new US-Canadian bargain so that the US concedes some ground vis-a-vis the Arctic. Yes, I am essentially saying that the lives lost so far and those yet to be lost are, indeed, bargaining chips. This may be offensive, but is essentially true nonetheless. Militaries are used not just for defense but for influence, and the real issue is how to get the most for the least, not to ignore the existence of trade-offs.

I will post more on this sometime this week--to answer the Phil question of influence more directly.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Assurance vs. Deterrence in Iraq

Recent events in Iraq have illustrated the key point of my edited volume with Marie-Joelle Zahar--that the key question in any civil conflict is what is the role of the state and its actors? Are they deterring the bad guys? Or are they the bad guys? It may be the case that members of the Iraqi security forces were complicit with the recent spate of bombings.

With American forces pulled back from the cities as part of the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush, two dynamics are now back in play: uncertainty and fear on the part of minority; and possible predation by elements of the government. I don't want to say that all of the Sunnis are good guys or that all of the Shia dominated government are bad guys, but with greater power comes greater responsiblity.

The question of life after the Surge in Iraq largely depends not on the Sunnis, but on the government of Iraq--does it try to govern on behalf of all Iraqis or just for the Shia and against the Sunnis? This is a bit different than the question that seems to be in play in Afghanistan, where the key question is about the state being operated against the people for the private benefits of the political class.

Hard to be optimistic about either place, but especially .... Iraq. Afghanistan may have the more hopeless economy and weak administrative structures, but, thus far, the government is not a threat to the people in the same way that the Iraqi one can be and apparently is.

Academic Crime of the Year

Apparently, German profs took bribes from grad students who wanted doctorates. This really leaves only two questions: how did the grad students have enough money to rent a prof? And what did the profs charge? I have accepted chocolate chip cookies as gifts after writing letters of recommendation--that is probably the edge of my moral compromises in this area.

And, of course, the next question is: with this academic job market, is bribing a prof so that one can get a doctorate a good investment?

Update: After a closer read, it becomes clear that there is good money to be had for the profs--euro200,000 for one. But that was for 60 students or so over 7 years, or 3333 euros per student. Not too bad, I guess, if you don't have to actually read and advise.

The Benefits of a Long Drive Home: Ask the Reader for Syllabus Ideas

Well, one of them is new blog ideas. So, hopefully, I can return to my pre-vacation pace. First post is inspired by a book I was reading over the vacation (or holiday as they call it up here): Traffic: Why do We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt [hat tip to Steve Greene for referring it to me].

I am far from done, but the book is great and has already changed one driving habit--I am now a late merger--and we experienced the signs and merging experience discussed in the book driving through Pennsylvania.

Anyhow, the book and the drive made me realize that it would be fun to teach an undergraduate seminar on "pop social science." I have belatedly become a fan of this genre or this genre has recently bloomed--I have not done the research to figure out how new this literature is. Anyway, there are courses on political science in film, but I don't know if there is anything like pop social science.

The three books thus far for such a course would be: Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell; Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt; and Traffic. Since I am too tired to do research now from the long drive, I am asking my readers for ideas--any good books that present some sort of social science (preferably but not exclusively political science) to wider audiences to popularize some set of ideas?

And what would you do with such a course?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care Hypocrisy

Nice rundown of the hypocrisy of many health care reform critics. Pretty obvious, but still nice to see. Still appalled and amazed that anyone would think that medicare is not a government program.

Continuing Theme--The Future of NATO in Afghanistan

While I argued that Canada should stay in the NATO effort in Afghanistan, there is the larger question of whether the US and NATO should continue to make this effort. Richard Haass shows me how to write an op-ed piece by arguing that the war is still a war of choice (unlike World War II and perhaps a couple others) so we need to regularly assess whether we should stay or go. Right now, he argues we should stick around as the benefits of staying > costs of leaving. And that was essentially where my piece fit in--not that the war is great, but that to make an informed decision, we need to consider not just the costs of staying (more than a hundred Canadians killed, many more injured) but also the benefits of staying, which have mostly been ignored.

But then again, Haass heads the Council on Foreign Relations, which, like the illuminati, is a favorite of all conspiracy theorists.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Canada/Afghanistan Follow Up [updated]

I didn't have enough space in my op-ed to provide evidence of Canadian leadership/influence in or due to Afghanistan. Here are some examples:
  1. Canadians held/hold key leadership positions within the NATO mission, including Deputy Commander of ISAF in 2003-2004, Commander of ISAF in 2004, Commander of Kabul's Multinational Brigade in 2003 and 2004, Commander of Regional Command South on a rotating basis since 2006; commanding the units of other countries that operate in Kandahar province;
  2. Canada had a team of officers (Strategic Advisory Team) embedded in the highest levels of several Afghan ministries for several years.
  3. the deputy of the UN mission was a prominent Canadian for much of the time
  4. In discussions within NATO for planning in Afghanistan, Canadian voices were louder and more influential than those of countries that are usually seen as more powerful, such as Germany and France.
  5. The current model of whole of government and clear/hold/build is a Canadian one.
Just a few examples. Still, I am a "servile academic minion" according to one commenter at the Globe and Mail's website.

And, many of the critics of my post recommended that I quit my position and enlist in the Canadian Forces. I could have made clearer that I do feel awkward making recommendations about what Canada should do, given that it does involve the sacrifice of mostly young Canadian men and women. But these things do have word limits--unlike my blog.

Where is Barney Frank When You Need Him?

I submitted an op-ed to the Globe and Mail, one of Canada's national newspapers. And I found it was published today when I got this email:

To: Stephen Saideman,
McGill University, Montreal
Re: The Afghan Pullout
Hey, you egghead moron! The last thing Canada needs is to continue being a resource centre for blood and guts on behalf of globalist and foreign power wars. This is the reason why the country is in such a pigsty racemixed mess.

Fools like you and other Zionist twits are encouraging foreign meddling, invasions and aggression on behalf of your Illuminati masters. How about idiots like you picking up a gun and going over fighting and dying, instead of the young, naive men of Canada as a label of "nationalism?" You don't know the meaning of the word, jerk, and for your bloodthirsty ignorance and war-advocacy, the Walter Duranty Award Selection Committee is more than pleased to slap you with a nomination for the booby prize Walter Duranty Award for Obfuscating Propaganda Journalism
(Print Category).

May bad luck follow you in all your ugly works until you see reason and compassion, you dangerous fool!

The Walter Duranty Award Selection Committee

Just goes to show that the Canadians can be just as "table"-esque [to paraphrase Barney Frank, my fellow illumanati zionist] as Americans.

Funny how this guy wants me to see reason and compassion with an email that lacks both.

Anyhow, take a look at the op-ed and let me know what you think: am I an egghead moron? Should my illumaniti masters edit me more?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Canadian Poli Sci and Job Markets

I posted this at the Political Science Rumor Blogs:

As a producer (or whatever) of Canadian PhD students, I have been trying to figure out how to respond to this thread. I cannot speak to the results of other PhD programs, and McGill has not done a great job of tracking where our students end up. Most are not receiving unemployment checks, however :)

I have placed all (well, all three) of my students who have finished since I have arrived at McGill--UTexas Arlington, Laval University, and the World Bank. My colleagues in IR have placed their students around the world (a goodly number of our IR and Comparative students are from Turkey, India, Egypt, etc) in their home countries, including the US.

While pedigree does matter, in recent markets, the hottest candidates were from schools that had no history of dominating the market (Colorado, Emory, etc) but had produced students who were well-trained, had interesting projects and were, most importantly, well-published. And journals/presses do not discriminate against Canadian graduate students. So, if you are an anxious Canadian grad student, try, try, try to get an article or two or three in the very best journals--that will get you farther than your school's repuation--it will change your school's reputation.

Of course, people are likely to read much into this. I would admit that McGill did not have a history of encouraging grad students to publish and little consensus of how to train graduate students. But that has changed in the past several years. I do expect my current students to do quite well in the next few years if they manage to follow my instructions and if the market picks up a bit. They have interesting projects with ambitious research designs, so if they get the pubs, they will do well.

I would never argue that McGill, Toronto or UBC is equal to Stanford or UCSD [ahem--a bit of self-interest there in promoting UCSD] in status/stature/placement record. But we do have some terrific students doing interesting work. And I have seen students come out of big name schools who only have their pedigree and nothing else flop at job talks.

Job committee decisions are far more complex and less predictable than folks think. Just focus on what you can control and know that you did the best you could. It is like poker--if you put your chips in with the best hand and the other person catches a very lucky card, then you just have to take solace in making good decisions and you will profit in the long run

A Democrat with a Spine!

So, here is Barney Frank taking a stand against the right wing Obama = Hitler crap.

It is a delicate balance between ignoring this stuff and responding. But if there is a response, I think Frank does it well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Indecision Hampers Action

One of my favorite quotes--from Fear is the Key, by Alistair Maclean.

Well, I just wanted to ponder this: isn't decisiveness one of the things one wants in a quarterback? Brett Favre is anything but decisive. And if the Vikings want to replace their turnover prone QB's, well, Favre is not the best choice either, given his bent for timely or untimely interceptions.

Perhaps the Vikings have as much imagination as the producers of Red Dawn. ....

Mach and Cheese (slightly edited to add conclusion)

Was thrilled to see my favorite Machiavelli quote used to discuss health care reform:

"It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger."
Lind does a good job of showing how apt this quote is for understanding why health care reform is so very difficult.

The only good news about all of this is that it is early enough in Obama's term that it will probably not influence 2012 although it will almost certainly influence the midterm elections.

Of course, the point of all this is not merely to keep offices but to actually do stuff that matters, to improve the US condition, to make progress. I sometimes lose track of that and focus just on the winning and losing of offices. Hmmm. I guess I should just keep in mind the bumper sticker I saw yesterday by someone who was on the losing side of 2008--something about how do you feel about progress and hope now? And, I gotta say, I feel pretty damn good, especially as opposed to the alternatives. Can you imagine a McCain/Palin administration dealing with the economic challenges, the auto industry, etc? We are better off than we were this time last year and better off than we would be without a smart, flexible, adaptable President. Obama is not perfect, particularly how he and his team have played the health care game. But the imperfections are ones we can understand and tolerate, I think.

Bad Movie Consensus

I am apparently not alone in pondering the demise of Hollywood's imagination. For a nice summary of the latest projects, see this story at Salon.

Key quote:

That's neither a positive nor a negative; dark, indigestible films don't do well at film festivals (this is known as the "Synecdoche, New York" problem).
Nor at the box office, I think.

And it includes links to two parodies of Mamet doing Anne Frank: Village Voice and New York magazine. From the latter:

ANNE: But I want to be a writer!
PETER: And then you file your manuscript, and they cut the goddamn heart out of it. They want more of this, less of that. Add a hot girl, take out the power games, make it prettier. And Nazis. They always want Nazis. Such certainty they provide. I can’t stand it.

Dangerous Times? Half-Full or Half-Empty?

It now seems de rigeur to take one's guns with you when protesting President Obama. These images are chilling and speak to larger issues. I am not going to get into gun control in this post (perhaps some other time), but rather the extremism that seems to be on the rise.

To be clear, it is hard to tell how much is real versus how much is amplified by the media, looking for white supremacists and loony conspiracy theorists. Putting Birthers on TV does not mean that many Republicans are losing their grip on reality. Jon Stewart had a great bit last night, demonstrating how poor the internet surveys are, producing results in the 90% range.

Still, we can look at these developments in two ways:

  1. The Republicans are spinning out of control, so much so that it is hard to imagine any viable candidate emerging in a few years, as independents and Democrats (as well as non-white ethnic groups) are likely to run very quickly in the opposite direction. So, perhaps Democrats should enjoy the rantings of the extreme-right wing.
  2. Timothy McVeigh. That is, when Bill Clinton was President, and the extreme right wing spewed all kinds of venom, it created a context that just may have facilitated the biggest domestic terrorist effort in recent US history. Will the new generation of militias produce significantly more violence and kill innocents like the previous one?
All the work I have read (including by my own students) indicates that as long as the US political system provides access to all, those that feel disenfrachised by the recession and by the outcomes of the last election will not be able to gain much ground. There will probably be some more violence in the next 4-8 years, but it will probably not threaten the stability of the political system and will certainly be a lesser cause of death than the usual ones--obesity, cancer, traffic, smoking.

So, how should we feel about all of this? We should be concerned because the extremists are abetted by 24 hour news channels that need to feed the beast and because innocents will pay with their lives. However, we should be fairly confident that this too shall pass, as most terrorist organizations have a high rate of infant mortality--they die within the first year of their existence.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Twitter update

Busy getting pounded by the waves today, so I just wanted to quickly ponder: tweating--following or leading? Thus far, twitter has been fun as a means to follow some interesting folks (Rainn Wilson, ESPN Sports Guy, Sarah Silverman). But I have not found myself with 140 character or less comments on anything. I guess, as my blog shows, I need more space than that.

Any suggestions on twitter-ers to follow or on stuff to tweat?

also, looking for good podcasts for longish drives. Some of the same folks, plus Adam Carolla, Reduced Shakespeare Co., The Moth, Vinyl Cafe. Any other suggestions?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Interesting Take on Birthers, Death Panelists, and the like

Since I am on vacation, I can barely complete a complete thought. So, instead, I will use someone else's rant:

The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America's flora. Only now, it's being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest. Latest word is that the enlightened and mild provision in the draft legislation to help elderly people who want living wills -- the one hysterics turned into the "death panel" canard -- is losing favor, according to the Wall Street Journal, because of "complaints over the provision."

Best Zombie meets Science Post Ever

Check this out!

Having spent a fair amount of time mixing science with beer in the wee hours while trying to finish a thesis, I’m guessing that at some point, a graduate student who had spent far too many hours tweaking a mathematical model of infectious disease in the basement of a Canadian university said something like this: “What would happen if we made it so they could come back to life?”

This was followed by the other math students in the basement gathering around the computer, happily creating a plausible model for the outbreak of infectious zombie disease, and then brainstorming on how to make their model relevant.

“Clearly, this is an unlikely scenario if taken literally,” they wrote. “But possible real-life applications may include allegiance to political parties, or diseases with a dormant infection.”


Friday, August 14, 2009

Dog Bites Man? I Wish

One short response to the sports news du jour--Michael Vick being picked up by the Eagles. Well, some would argue that we all deserve a second chance, blah, blah, blah.

Vick can get a job, he can be free, but we are not obligated to give him a high paying job with all of the rights and privileges that come with it. Obviously, it would be wrong for owners to collude to keep him out of the NFL, although they collude on robbing cities blind by threatening to leave if they don't build stadia, so why not?

Or, owners could have individually developed standards, like not hiring someone who repeatedly broke the law to engage in barbaric behavior until one's lies faiedl to obscure one's guilt. Just a thought. Glad I am not an Eagles fan. I was offended enough at Texas Tech when they hired Bobby Knight, but he only beat the occasional athlete. Michael Vick is far more contemptable.

More Remakes

Not Hogans Heroes, but St. Elmo's Fire. Apparently, this is the excuse folks need to re-make Friends. And, surprisingly, likable/talented actor Topher Grace is behind it.

Just more evidence that Hollywood is lacking in imagination. Some more ideas?

Well, first, going back to Hogan's Heroes--after some discussion with facebook friends, the Clint Eastwood model suggests that we can and should make both the Gitmo and Taliban versions.

Ok, so if they bring back St. Elmo's fire as a TV show, then why not Stripes as a weekly TV show about the wacky dynamics within an army unit as they prepare for and then fight in Afghanistan. Heaps of hilarity ensue as the guys flirt with the Afghans, argue with allies, and accidentally cross into Iran and Pakistan on a regular basis. Not quite Hogan's Heroes, but plenty of opportunities for cameos--visiting politicians, USO troupes, adversary of the week, etc.

Rank Rankings Redux

So, Forbes is now ranking universities, and the results are in--their methodology reeks. Using rate your prof as a basis for part of the rankings is all you need to know. Who's who? Well, as the kids say, OMG!

Let the buyer beware, I suppose.

PS Motel6 has surprising good wifi!

Wifi Uncertain--Blog Break Likely

Just as my blog is hitting new heights of hits thanks to Dan Drezner's link, I am not sure how much I will be blogging in the next week since I do not know how good the wifi will be near the beach.

The timing of this vacation is, thus, a bit unfortunate, as whatever momentum I've got is going to dissipate. Of course, it was a temporary boost at best anyway.

I may also not be around to comment on the presidential election in Afghanistan, so that my chance to be a media @#$#@$ in Montreal will be lost. My prediction is that Karzai will run the first round but will not reach 50% and will need to have a run-off. Not a terribly controversial prediction.

I am itching to write an op-ed that will develop the point of yesterday's post--that Canada should not be so offended to be asked to stay in Afghanistan and that it should. I never knew a war to be fought on a schedule! So, perhaps if I cannot blog, I will take some time from boogie-boarding, playing poker with the girls, and eating large amounts of food to work on a piece where an uppity displaced American tells the Canadians that they are doing great and should keep doing it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Keeping Canada in Afghanistan

A quick note to address the debate heating up about Canada's commitment to Afghanistan after 2011.

A standard reference (such as Gen (ret) Lewis MacKenzie in today's Globe and Mail) in such debates is that Canada has been in Afghanistan longer than the combined periods of WWI and WWII. Well, I call shenanigans on that. First, Canada has not been in Afghanistan the entire period. Second, but most importantly, Canada's involvement in Afghanistan is nothing like what it did in the two World Wars in scale and scope. 127 dead over the course of eight years is nothing like an hour at Vimy, a day in Normandy, etc. So, this is really a fallacious argument, no disrespect to the General.

And yes, guys have done 4 or 5 tours due to the shortage of Canadian ground-pounders, but also because the tours are six months. A year long tour would mean half as many tours. Pick your stress--frequent rotations or longer ones.

And the casualty rate is likely to go down now that the actual area of operations is going to shrink with the Americans taking up lots of responsiblity in the immediate neighborhood.

I will have to develop a longer rationale for continuing Canada's commitment when I am not so rushed, but I do think it makes more sense to invest in Afghanistan where Canadians have made a real difference than in Arctic Sovereignty against either imaginary threats or ones that are so big that the Canadian investments would be symbolic at best (Canada will not be matching US or Russian military strength up north anytime soon).

Pondering Patriotism

I remember a key moment in my undergraduate education: in the Intro to International Relations class, we were discussing patriotism. The prof asked who was patriotic, and since this was Oberlin, only one person raised their hand. Me. So, I was asked about my flag-flying habits and the like, and I struggled to come up with examples of "patriotic" behavior. I certainly am not and was not a patriot in terms of thinking that my country could do no wrong, but I was, at the time, thinking that the US was something I was proud of and perhaps even thought it was not only a great country, but better than the alternatives.

What do I think now? Well, I cringe when I read parts of the health care debate where people refuse to consider the examples of other countries because the US is the greatest country on the planet and in history. While I am often critical of Canada in my entries here, I think I am pretty aware of many American weaknesses and past/present mistakes. As a political scientist, I like to think comparatively, which means that I see when the US is doing something that is inferior to that happening elsewhere--such as having a health care debate where death panels and the like are the foci. It does drive me crazy when Canadians only consider the American health care example, but drives me far more insane that many Americans cannot consider the examples of other countries because of the sense that whatever the US does is inherently better than the alternatives.

I think the discussion in the class focused on the classic question--would I be willing die for my country? And I gave a classically hedged response--it depends. Is the war a good cause or not? [Let's sidestep the discussion of just war and of just ways of fighting wars]

The example of the time was Vietnam, but today I would compare Iraq and Afghanistan. I could imagine myself enlisting to fight in Afghanistan, particularly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but not to fight in Iraq. And spending a year in the Pentagon during wartime made me value the values of these officers more deeply--duty, honor, love of country, etc.

But this raises the question of whether patriotism is unconditional--is love of country like loving one's kids? Given that the founders of the US, for all of their flaws (slave owning/condoning, etc), were focused on the role of reason in democracy and engaged in reasoned debate in the course of writing the constitution (Federalist Papers, etc.), I do think that the best way to be a Patriotic American is not to blindly support the country in everything it does, but to raise questions about the best courses of action and give enthusiastic support when it is warranted. And criticize and organize against a policy when it seems "unreasonable."

There are valid reasons to oppose the health care reform bills, and reasoning Americans can disagree about the merits of the various bills. But reasoning Americans should be able to learn from what other countries have done and borrow that which works well.

I still tend to think that the US is, ahem, a great country, and the proof is in the flows of people seeking to immigrate and what happens to them over the course of a few generations. Openness is the key, but a reasoned openness. We don't have to believe nor need to publicize the craziest conspiracy theories as being valid arguments. And it would be nice if the debate focused on the key realities of the various proposals and, just as importantly, the costs of continuing the status quo.

Then again, to paraphrase Dumbledore, as a great country, US mistakes are far greater.