Monday, November 30, 2009

Swiss Missed

Now that I have had a chance to think a bit about the Swiss constitutional change, I have a few thoughts.
  • Direct democracy is a bad idea.  Surprisingly, turnout was actually pretty high (53%).  So, this was not just the case of depressed turnout letting the loonies run amok.  Instead, it was a case of rabble-rousing that worked to bring out the less than moderate middle.  Perhaps, just perhaps, a political process where people were accountable for their decisions might have led to a different outcome.  Instead, we get a vote that has no real substantive impact (not too many minarets in Switzerland and they cannot blast calls to prayer due to noise ordinances) but alienates a large chunk of the world, including non-Muslims.  
  • The Swiss not only seem to hate Muslims but still love guns and want to sell them abroad, perhaps even to Muslims.  See the figures here.
  • It will be interesting to see how constitutional reforms (not all reforms are good reforms) interact with EU law.  
"Especially since Switzerland seems to be leading the EU Court on Human Rights these days."The ban contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights," Zurich daily Blick cited Widmer-Schlumpf as saying. Switzerland currently presides over the European Court of Human Rights, which rules on breaches of the convention."
  • Maybe, just maybe this might create a backlash against the Islamophobes.  
  • Last year, there were many concerns voiced before the election that people were telling pollsters lies about their real preferences because they didn't want to be seen as racists.  Well, this so-called Bradley effect did not play out much in the US but seems to have mattered a great deal--or things swung very significantly.
  • The vote might have been as much about the incumbent government, which opposed the constitutional change, as it was about Muslims.  
  • As always, check with www.fivethirtyeight.com for election analysis.  Including the following insight:
    • "As it turns out, the percentage of foreigners in a given Swiss canton explains about a third of the variation you see in the percentage of the vote in favor of the minaret ban. Those cantons who have more foreigners were less likely to back the ban, which tends to support the suggestion that the more foreigners you are around, the less xenophobic you are in your voting."
      • This is similar to Quebec's xenophobia which is mostly centered off the multiethnic island of Montreal and largely against the city of Montreal.
Sad day for tolerance, for moving beyond us and them.  While entirely non-violent, this vote is probably more destructive to relations with Muslims than the Fort Hood shootings.

This Is Not How We Spent Thanksgiving

To be clear, this is not safe for work, but is highly amusing.  And since I am traveling again, albeit briefly, I thought I would post this here (thanks to Dan Drezner for the link):


A Busy Year

Check out this piece.  I have been pretty frustrated with the coverage of Obama, but I guess this is what happens when expectations are high.  Given the free pass Bush had, it is quite annoying that Obama gets taken to task for minor stuff and we lose sight of what an awful set of cards he inherited.  I don't think he handled everything well, and I wish his economic team had fewer ties to the folks who got us into much of this mess.  Still, his foreign policies have largely been smart, nuanced, and have helped to reverse the slide in American influence. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Xenophobia Again

So, now the Swiss are over-reacting

German Troubles

Figures I was out of the loop when the German experience in Afghanistan blew up in the faces of most of its leadership.  That is, this weekend, the German head of the military, the State Secretary for military stuff and then the former Minister of Defense who became the Minister of Labor, Franz Joseph Jung, after the recent election all lost their jobs.  Not because of the collateral damage caused by air strike ordered by the German ground forces against the stolen tankers, but rather the effort to cover up or poorly convey the real facts to the Parliament.  Once again, it is not the crime but its cover up that has the greatest consequences for the politicians.

And, Markus Kaim, one of the folks I interviewed last summer, was quoted as saying that the Germans on the ground, who had been becoming progressively more pro-active, are now more likely to think twice not only before calling in an airstrike but also when pulling other triggers as well.

Lessons from a Reunion

I had a great time at my 25th high school reunion (makes it pretty easy to figure out how old I am).  I was not the only one there who pondered why they attended, given that high school was not a very enjoyable experience.  And, whenever school is in session, I learn stuff:
  • Some folks have a great deal of guts, I think.  One guy, who moved away after 8th grade, showed up.  I would not have been so brave.  But he fit right in.
  • Stay at the reunion hotel.  I had the most fun this time since I didn't have to worry about the ride home.  In other words, I could drink.
  • The last beer is almost always unnecessary.
  • That the organizers did great work to bring back some of our teachers.  It was fun to see them and see if they recognized me.
  • That I apparently not only did not change much (except the beard) since 12th grade but apparently not since 8th either, thanks to the aforementioned guy who missed our high school.
  • That cantors really can talk.  A friend, who works as a cantor in real life, spoke for a few minutes about someone we lost in 8th grade due to cystic fibrosis.  I wish my friend had been my cantor--I might have done a decent job at the Bar Mitvah, although the rest of my life would not have changed much.
  • That the reunions get better each time with greater distance from the shared experience we had.  What does that say?
  • I am far pickier about my beer now than ever so I had to drink mixed drinks during the reception but good beer before and after.  
  • About 50% of the people do not change a lick in terms of looks and personality, and about 50% change pretty radically in either or both. And yes, these statistics are completely made up, and I have no clue as to the real %'s.  But the former 8th grader was a real good barometer.  He seemed to remember that I was a smartass way back then.  So, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A warning to movie-goers

In the new Robin Williams-John Travolta movie, there is apparently a scene of ultimate, but the previews suggest that just as this movie might be a sad effort to extract some laughs from poop jokes, the frisbee scene is a pale imitation of the real game.  It would be nice if my favorite sport made it into mainstream media (although it was prominently mentioned during last week's SNL skit of mellow musicians), but instead we get this drek.

This is not the sport we play.  You have been warned.

Selling the Mission--Not So Easy

Good piece on the various challenges Obama faces as he must sell the new deployment decision to audiences at home, in Europe and in Afghanistan. Obama did not inherit too many easy policy decisions. 

Or to say it in political science-ese, path dependence is a b@#$#

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Semi-Required Season Post: Thanks

As I will be traveling to family and then a reunion this weekend (with the homeland guarded fiercely by cat, dog and house-sitter), I may not be blogging much over the next few days.  So, here is the season ritual--giving thanks:
  1. Thanks to friends and family, especially given the hard knocks of late.
  2. Thanks to the associate professors at McGill here are not only wise but also good humored so that they can poke at me until I giggle.  Metaphorically speaking.  
  3. Thanks to the undergrads of McGill.  My 600 person class, although knocked on its heals by H1N1 and other maladies, has been a blast to teach as they consistently ask sharp questions, making me think about things I have taken for granted.
  4. Thanks to the grad students of McGill for doing my work, most as TAs these days.  Also, for pushing me to think and for being excellent post-talk, pre-dinner with speaker beer companions.  Well, it makes sense to them, if not you.
  5. I am pretty thankful that I have a pretty good job in this nasty economy.  While things are not perfect, I do know that I am lucky not be entering this current academic job market as an ABD without any pubs, like I did a decade and a half ago (sorry to my current Phds who are entering the job market).
  6. I am thankful that I am no longer embarrassed by my President, although the extremists in his opposition should embarrass all Americans.
  7. I am grateful to all of my ultimate teammates for making my throws look good, for covering my guy when I fall behind, and for occasionally throwing the disk at the end of my reach so that I can lay out for it (I wish I had a picture of my moo-dive).  I am grateful to my opponents for challenging me and for their great spirit.  I am amazed that I am still playing after all of these years and that I am still learning.
  8. I am actually grateful for the Montreal winters because skiing with my kid is just bliss.
  9. I am grateful that my family enjoys my humor--as I love a good audience and 600 kids for a couple of hours a week apparently is not sufficient.
  10. I am grateful that folks have read my blog and pushed me with their comments to think a bit more about some of the stuff about which I blather.  
  11. I am grateful for the other bloggers out there whose ideas I steal/borrow/build upon.  I get heaps of links from facebook friends as well.  I am definitely reading more stuff, even if it makes me fall behind in my book reading.
  12. I am grateful for the internet, which has been both boon and bane for my productivity as a scholar but has consistently provided me with much edutainment.

Yet More Reason to Leave Texas

The race between Perry and Hutchison reminds me, yet again, why I left Texas.  I kind of do wish that Perry's threat to secede (last April) became fact.  The US could do without Texas although I am still pretty sure that Texas is not going be a solidly Red state for much longer.

Taking the Over in Afghanistan [updated]

I wonder where Vegas would put the over/under line on the US decision to send more troops to Afghanistan?  20k?  30k?  If the former, I would certainly bet the over.  If the latter, then probably, because the worst I would do is a push.  So, perhaps Vegas would set the line at 35k as the real question right now is whether Obama takes a symbolic but materially significant stand that is independent of McChrystal (30k) or does he buy into the estimates given to him that 40k is the magic number for giving the US/NATO a chance of success?

The idea that going short and hoping that Europe kicks in the rest is just that--a hope.  As National Football Post's Mike Lombardi always says (as well as many others apparently): "Hope is not a plan" or  "Hope is not a strategy."  Either way, the US should not be expecting significant reinforcements from its allies, especially with the Dutch pulling out in 2010 and the Canadians in 2011.  It is far more like that their examples will be emulated than the American one.

The good news is that soon we will have our answer, and then we can start talking about the next big decision.  Any bets on what that might be?

Updated: The latest leaks suggest the number is going to be 34k, which means that 35k was the perfect line.  And that I would have lost some cash, I guess. 

Walmart vs Amazon

A big battle is underway between Walmart and Amazon.  Apparently, Amazon is still growing at a significant rate and the future of may be at stake.  See here for an update.  Competition is a good thing, and anyone that gives Walmart a challenge is doing good work, in my eyes.

While I am rooting for Amazon, I would not be surprised of Walmart weathered this assault.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Freak Says High Tuition Rocks

The Freakonomics guys say that high tuition for public schools is good, if matched by support for low and middle incomes.  Well, the UC system is going to rock their world.  And we shall see more of the same across the country as states continue to cut their budgets.

Financial aid is, at its core, a price-discrimination scheme. Consumers pay different prices (net of financial aid) for the same service. Higher education is the very rare market where the seller says “Tell me in detail about your ability to pay, and I’ll tell you what your (net) price will be.” But instead of maximizing firm revenue, the goal is to enhance equity. By increasing the effective tuition for some of our wealthier students, we might be able to reduce the price for some of the less wealthy.

As a self-interested professor, all I can say is: whoo hoo!

Teaching Philosophy

I don't think a student ever asked me about my teaching philosophy until today.  What am I trying to do?  It depends on the course, as my aims for grad classes are different.  But this question was about my Intro to IR class.  So the answer was and is, to sound immodest, create better citizens:
  • It is unlikely that the world will be the same in x number of years, so teaching facts (which I have never really been that precise about) seems like a waste of time.
  • I want the students to be exposed to a variety of ideas about how to think about international relations, so that they can figure stuff out, even if an event or process does not fit their preferred way of thinking.  
  • The idea is that if they understand what causes countries to behave as they do, then they can figure out whether proposed remedies, responses, and/or alternatives make sense.  Then, they can vote, donate, protest or whatever. 
  • The folks supporting Palin and Beck have demonstrated the dangers of an ill-informed, uncritical citizenry.
  • So, my students usually leave the class at the end of the semester confused.  They have multiple theories presented, but no answers provided. 

Durn Fererner (Darn Foreigner)!!

Seems that Canadian is the new "N-word" in Texas (HT to Jacob L for the link).  Apparently, one prosecutor was commenting to another one (via email, oops) that he managed to navigate a tough jury due to the Canadians on it.  Canadian may have been used as a codeword for African-American.
In his own defense, Trent said he honestly thought there had been Canadians on the jury and did not understand the negative connotation of the word.

Other interpretations do not make any sense, since Canadians cannot serve on American juries unless they are American citizens (no jury duty for me in Canada!) and it would be unlikely that there would be more than one in any case. 

So, if anyone is still wondering why I left Texas for Quebec, it may be because I am a Canadian sympathizer!?

Questionable Ad Campaign of the Week

Blackberry (at least in Canada) has an ad campaign that plays the Beatles "All You Need is Love" while showing an aspiring band rise.  This is strange to me because the message of the song is, well, obvious, so if all you need is love, you don't need a Blackberry.  There was nothing in the ad that suggested that the Blackberry was useful for attaining and/or maintaining love.  So, it seems to suggest that you don't need a blackberry or any other technology as long as you have love. 



Of course, Blackberry is a Canadian success story, so I probably should not pooh-pooh its ad campaign, especially since its founder has created a school of IR and has endowed a huge number of chairs.  But they seem to be filled, so never mind.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Projection in the 21st Century

All the rabble-rousing that Glen Beck does, accusing Obama of being a Nazi, screams of projection.  That he is really the racist, nationalist, fascist demagogue.  Indeed, as it turns out:
Earlier this week, Sam Stein of the Huffington Post detailed several instances in which Beck has welcomed onto his shows guests with ties to groups that traffic in white supremacy, neo-Confederate secession, and anti-Semitism. Stein's reporting was a good start, but it would take a chalkboard the size of Idaho to fully map out Beck's racially paranoid guest list.
One can forget the hyperbole and just focus on who Beck is "pal-ing around with." 

ZOG or no ZOG, Beck is clearly doing something right from the point of view of the average white nationalist.
"By no means do I think [Beck] is aware of the racial issue, and for the moment that is ok," wrote Stormfront member QHelios. "He is stirring the pot, and I thank him for that."

It just amazes me that this guy gets so much attention.  It may, indeed, be the 1990's all over again.  And when the next Timothy McVeigh commits some domestic, white-style terrorism, I am sure FOX will blame the White House, rather than the cheerleaders of racism they televise.

Impatient? Get a Grip

Good post criticizing the folks demanding that Obama jump when they say jump. 

Let's hurry a critical decision, shall we?

Agenda-Setting--Never Overlook It

General Stanley McChrystal presented Obama with three options--80k, 40k or 10-15k.  I am pretty sure that the 80k was there to make the 40k look reasonable.  Given the articles already written about what an additional 40k would mean in terms of strain on the US armed forces, 80k was never really in play.  But it gave Obama room to look like he was rejecting the extreme choices and could safely choose the middle option.  But the problem for McChrystal is that the 80k dropped out so fast that the 40k ended up being the extreme option, facilitating temptations to split the difference. 

But as this article suggests, each choice has a significant impact on what can be done on the ground.  And again, this is just about the military side of things.  But these military constraints/tradeoffs have huge implications.  Under any scenario, it looks increasingly likely that the US and its NATO partners are going to write off large hunks of the country and focus the effort on ten or so population centers.  Choosing which centers are to be defended and developed and which ones are not--that is the stuff of politics and will have significant and long-lasting implications for Afghanistan. 

So, the choice may be 30k--enough to make a difference, but also different enough to send a message that Obama is not going to blindly follow the military.  And he has support for this option:
This way encompasses a number of mid-range options under discussion at the Pentagon and the White House. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have coalesced around a plan to send 30,000 or more troops to Afghanistan, although there are variations in their positions and they are not working in lock step.
During the original surge, there was tension between what Petraeus and the other COIN guys wanted and what the military establishment wanted to do--in large part because of a concern that additional troops would stress the army beyond the breaking point.  And we see this happening again--intra-military differences focused on the requirements of the mission vs. the needs of the military.

Just makes it easier to understand why this decision is taking time--it is an incredibly difficult set of tradeoffs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Equal Time for the Undead

The International Blog Police have complained that I have focused too much on Zombies and not on other undead.  So, here's a link to a Slate post on Vampires, sparkly or not.  Handy advice here on where to bite, for instance.

You Mess With One of Us, You Mess With All of Us

Charles Blow responds very much like a New Yorker to the idea that NY cannot handle a trial of a major terrorist

It reminds me of how New Yorkers were depicted in the first two Spider-Man movies--much more favorably, ironically enough, than in the comic books, even though Marvel is based in NYC.

Truisms

Nice list of truisms here that are true.

My favorites are:
3. Bad decisions make good stories.
4. How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?
5. I would rather try to carry 10 plastic grocery bags in each hand than take 2 trips to bring my groceries in.
12. Whenever someone says "I'm not book smart, but I'm street smart", all I hear is "I'm not real smart, but I'm imaginary smart".
14. Every time I have to spell a word over the phone using 'as in' examples, I will undoubtedly draw a blank and sound like a complete idiot. Today I had to spell my boss's last name to an attorney and said "Yes that's G as in...(10 second lapse)..ummm...Goonies"
  • I was a complete idiot on the phone at the Pentagon--"Saideman: S as in Sam, A as in Apple ... "easily gave away that I was not a military guy--Sierra Alpha Indigo etc.
22. Why is it that during an ice-breaker, when the whole room has to go around and say their name and where they are from, I get so incredibly nervous? I know my name, I know where I'm from, this shouldn't be a problem....
25. There's no worse feeling than that millisecond you're sure you are going to die after leaning your chair back a little too far.

  • I used do this all the time in middle and high school, even after the French teacher with whom I shared mutual loathing pulled out the desk behind me upon which I was leaning.
Any suggested additions?

Day Care Kids or College Kids: Who Should We Alienate?

The Parti Quebecois is now considering what to propose: extending Bill 101 to Day Care or to CEGEP.  Bill 101 is the law that compels children of Francophone parents to go to French public schools, children of Anglophone parents to go English public schools, and immigrants to go to French public schools.*  Or parents can send their kids to private schools of whatever language.  This issue has heated up as the Canadian Supreme Court just killed Bill 104 which was an attempt to get rid of a loophole that allowed kids to go private school in English for a period of time and then be eligible for the English Public schools (this bill was passed after I accepted the McGill job but before we arrived). 

The justification for all of this is to save French and encourage immigrants to assimilate into Quebec (and possibly make them more favorable towards separatism?).  This, along with symbolic politics and intra-party outbidding/posturing, has led to the next step: where to go from here?  The PQ is now considering advocating Bill 101 to be extended.
  • If it is applied to publicly subsidized day care, then kids of Francophones and of immigrants would have to go to French day care, and English kids would presumably have to go to English day care.  Of course, it is not so clear that the day care places are so easily divided into categories.
  • CEGEPs are the alternative focus.  These are entirely free schools that bridge high school and university (high school here ends after 11th grade) for two years--a cross between  junior colleges, prep schools, and vocational schools (I think).  There are some English ones and more than a few French ones.  As it stands, immigrants tend to go to English CEGEPs and there are more than a few French folks who go to them as well, hoping to improve their English so that they can go to McGill, Concordia, Bishops (all English universities in Quebec) or outside Quebec to the rest of Canada or the US or some place else.  
Neither one really makes much sense as a target of Bill 101.  The day cares are not neatly separated nor is it clear that immersion into French a year or two earlier would really "save" French (particularly as it is not really endangered). 
Extending to CEGEP would have a variety of bad effects, including:
  • continuing the segregation of the French and English speaking folks of Canada, whereas they serve now as a place for the two to meet.
  • reducing the competitiveness of Francophones in the world economy since the education in English in the French public school system is notoriously lousy and the English CEGEPs have served as an important means for catching up.
  • further alienating immigrants who would  prefer not to be the subject of nationalist agendas.
 It is unlikely that these possible policies will be enacted in the near future, but they do a nice job of distracting us from the fact that all of the parties in Quebec are tied to corruption in one way or another.

Better Evidence than Mayan Calendar

That the end is nigh: there are now folks making money preparing 3-4 years old for Kindergarten entrance exams.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ask The Readers: Aughts Ending Alert!!

In the next six weeks, we are going to get hit hard by tons of reviews of the past decade--the best TV shows of the '00's, best movies, etc.  I am already reviewing one list of best TV shows of the 00's that asserts this past decade has been a golden age of TV.  Despite the glut of reality TV, there has been much to enjoy, so I will take a whack at that list soon.  And I welcome suggestions for other lists that I can ponder instead of grading.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Marines Get It

Check out the slides here (HT to Clancy Z).  The slides are most instructive and show the "non-kinetic" side of COIN.  I wonder if the Army units are as consistently thinking along these lines.

You Get What You Pay For

The UC System is hiking tuition by 32%, although it will still be a bargain compared to private schools.  This is an unsurprising step, since the Regents both want to pay for operations and send a signal to the state legislature that sharp budget cuts have consequences--ones that are painful to middle class voters.

The cuts thus far:
The impact on the University of California campuses has been dramatic: faculty hiring is not keeping up with enrollment demand, and many course sections have been eliminated. Instructional budgets are being reduced by $139 million, with 1,900 employees laid off, 3,800 positions eliminated and hiring deferred for nearly 1,600 positions, most of them faculty.
California's budget process is so seriously messed up that it is impossible to adjust to downward economic shocks and it is difficult to adjust to boomtimes either.

News like this convinces me that we are likely to have a double-dip recession as states cut their budgets, leading to new waves of unemployment and denied opportunities. 

Timely Etiquette Guide for the Family Holiday

The NYT has a good spirited set of suggestions for managing the Thanksgiving (or other) holiday where the families meet and tend to re-create old battles.
Mark Smaller, who heads the public information committee of the American Psychoanalytic Association, said he believes that holidays can provoke “temporary regressions,” in which parents, adult children and siblings, once reunited, revert to decades-old patterns of behavior. “The worst I’ve heard is when a parent says to an adult child, ‘See, when you come you spoil the whole holiday,’ ” Dr. Smaller said. “These kinds of remarks actually keep me and people like me in business.”

Aside from providing entirely too much unsolicited advice to the chef, our family is pretty good about such stuff.  I am just thankful this year for Obama's election so that we will not have to spend Thanksgiving re-hashing the 2000 election.  That has been the favorite topic each year, despite the fact that there is complete consensus (Gore was robbed).  Indeed, I ended up teaching the herd of niece poker precisely because I had ducked down to another room and was watching a broadcast of the World Series of Poker, and one thing led to another.

Best Line By a Columnist of the Week

I had breast cancer back in 2000, and I am trying to come up with a way that I can use that experience to shed some light on these new findings. I have never believed that everything happens for a reason. But I do feel very strongly that everything happens so that it can be turned into a column.
Gail Collins has a particularly punchy column today about the mammogram controversy, and she speaks from a direct cancer experience.  Mostly, she is poking at the medical community and at the Republicans.  Always good fun. 

Anyhow, it is a good read as it puts some of the current news in context.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading is Fundamental

Seems to be a critical tipping point on mammograms lately.   Gladwell has one essay on the difficulties of reading mammograms in his new book of old essays, that reading of them is as much art as science.  Plenty of newspaper articles on the controversy plus one spiffy Slate post that takes the Belichick 4 and 2 decision and turns it into a decision about the probabilities of breast cancer and detection.
How does mammography improve these stats? Researchers generally agree that mammograms save lives, but—this is critical—catching breast cancer early changes the outcome in only 15 percent of cases. So consider the actual numbers: For the average 40-year-old woman, annual mammography for a decade increases one's overall chance of breast cancer survival from roughly 99.7 percent to 99.8 percent. That is, it increases the final batting average by only 0.001. According to the National Cancer Institute, there's also a downside. During this time, half of all screened women will have at least one suspicious mammogram, and one-quarter of them will end up getting a biopsy. Mammograms in women from 40 to 50 years old cause a huge number of false positives, resulting in about 100 biopsies for every life saved. Even more worrisome: It's possible the radiation from those mammograms may end up causing more cancers than they prevent.
The false positives discussed here and in the Gladwell piece seem to be the real key--that mammograms before 50 do a very slight bit of good in detecting some cancer but the false positives may create a great deal of unnecessary havoc.  The Slate piece recommends approaches that focus on a less blunt indicator than age but other risk factors instead.  Would seem to be obvious, but after years of preaching one set of recommendations, it is hard to turn the ship around.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise ... Or Not

Strange that Canadian MP's would be surprised that the Canadian military is starting the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.  The MP argues that the military's job is not to set policy--that is the government's job.  Sure, but the military has been told that Canada is withdrawing from Afghanistan--that is the essence of the last mandate.  So, the military must prepare for its departure.  If the Harper government is afraid to utter the word Afghanistan, then the military must go by the existing guidance--a withdrawal.

It may be the case that the Chief of the Defense Staff, General Natynczyk is forcing the decision by making it clear that he is preparing to reduce the number of troops on the ground to zero.  I had previously speculated that the Canadians would keep several hundred troops at the Provincial Reconstruction Team base so that Canadian aid and governance types could continue to do their work without having to ask for an American escort every time they left the base; and I thought that Canada would still provide 40-100 troops to staff one or two Observer Mentor Liaison Teams [OMLTs or Omelets] that are embedded in the Afghan National Army.  But over the past few months, various noises made by the Minister of Defence and others suggested that no Canadian military types would be in harm's way--which means no escorts for the civvies and no OMLTs. 

So, I guess I am as confused as the MPs.

Civilian Trials of 9/11 Terrorists

I was hoping that someone else would make a good, cogent argument defending the decision to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York in a civilian trial, so that I would not have to do so.  And someone has.

The whole idea that we should not treat terrorism as a law enforcement problem is backwards.  Make these guys criminals and not politicians/leaders/martyrs.  Successful law enforcement is something that reinforces the legitimacy of government and especially of democratic ones.  Time to trot out the rule of law and show these @#$@#$ what we are made of.  While eight years ago I wanted to put all of those responsible for 9/11 on a plane and have it crash, time and distance and the egregious errors of the Bush administration make it clear that a NY jury and judge should put these guys in the appropriate place--a high security prison somewhere in the US and perhaps on death row (a debate for another time).

As Much As I Would Like to Ignore Palin ....

I mentioned yesterday in my post on Evil that I could imagine voting for Palin.  Fivethirtyeight.com's Nate Silver has ten reasons why she might win the Republican nomination (HT to Chip Gagnon).  He forgets to include one of the key factors that produced Jesse "The Body" Ventura as Governor of Minnesota a few years ago--the drunk frat boy vote [DFBV].  That is, there might just be enough people out there to swing a multi-candidate election just because it would amuse them (also see California's recall election).  This would not help Palin win against Obama as the DFBV is likely to face the sobering effects of the electoral college. 

As I have posted before, having two responsible parties is better than having one (or a semi-one).  If the Republicans completely lose their grip on reality and become a marginal party, then American democracy will suffer--whether they achieve California-levels of blocking reasonable action or not.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Subway Psychology

Tom Vanderbilt (of the previously mentioned book, Traffic) provides a nice summary of the existing psychological studies of behavior in the NY Subway.  Mostly, these studies use the subway as a place to test theories of social behavior, rather than trying to figure out the culture of ridership.  Interesting stuff.

Despite Hollywood's Warnings, We Are Unprepared

Great article at The Onion.


"I just renovated my house with cantilevered leaden cofferdams for increased earthquake and radiation protection, and I'm working on a pantheistic altar to appease the god or gods most likely to return to this world with an insatiable wrath," said Seattle resident Tim Hanson, whose actions were praised in the study as a "highly rare display of prescience and vigilance."
"I installed solar panels and a generator so I could live off the grid for a while," Hanson added. "But it cost so much that now I might not be able to have the altar properly gilded. At least not in time."

Trends in Words

I guess it is not just me.  The NYT has noticed that the word "douche" is being used far more frequently on TV these days.  It is not just TV, however, as I have frequently heard the word used (is art imitating life or vice versa) and online in various blogs/bulletin boards.

I am not a linguist nor have I studied anything like this, but I have long been curious about how words and phrases rise and fall.  I point out in my class when teaching constructivism that my students know what is cool and what is not cool, but then I point out that as an aging prof, I do not even know if cool is the correct word.  Chill?  Hip?  Smooth? Rad?  Phat?  I have no idea.  It is clear that douche is back.  I am pretty sure it left and but has returned. 

For more insight, see this:

Should I Join the Evil League of Evil?

Interesting post of the 101 Signs You Might Be Evil (HT to Peter Trumbore).

Let's see which ones apply to yours truly:
  • You feel Miley Cyrus is a suitable role model for children
    • I am not saying she is suitable, I just am not sure that she is unsuitable.  One pole dance and one or two questionable photoshoots do not make one forever not a  role model.
  • Jeff Foxworthy still makes you laugh.
    •  Not always, but sure why not.
  • The idea of voting for Sarah Palin as president appeals to you
    • Only as a joke. And only in the Republican primary
  • You deliberately say inflammatory bullshit on your news show just because you know it will be picked up by the rest of the media and gain you more exposure
    • Does a blog count?
  • You’ve purchased a drum kit for someone else’s child
    • No, but does a firetruck with all kinds of noises count?
  • You hang toilet paper the wrong way
    • Guilty of related sin.  Just grabbing the TP and bringing to the bathroom but not actually putting on the holder.
  • You bought a Big Mouth Billy Bass
    • I may have been drunk.
  • You’ve ever brought your kids to a bar
    • Well, a comedy show that was in a nightclub.
  • You like Prog Rock
    • Yes.
  •  You’ve overthrown a democratically elected government and slaughtered any dissidents
    • Does it have to be both?
  • You maintain a website that discusses your political/religious/sexual opinions
    • Does a blog count?
  • You’ve attempted to stage a coup
    • Depends.  Does it have to be control over a government?
  •  You go to the movies alone
    • It has been known to happen.  Like seeing a highly anticipated movie so that watching again with the kid asking heaps of questions is less problematic.  Plus patience is not my strength.
  • You try to feed animals at the zoo
    • Only the stuff you buy there.  Except for the strange safari they have in Quebec just north of the border.  You drive through and hand out carrots and such to very large animals--losing a finger is just part of the fun!
  •  You continue to pay to see Nicolas Cage films
    • National Treasure is the best way to educate my kid about American history since we live in Canada.  Ok, that it is not evil, just pretty sad.
  • You do impressions
    • Only occasionally and not because I think I am any good.  But a bad Kissinger in an IR class is always entertaining.
  • You devour souls
    • Depends on what one means by devour. I teach. 

So, does that mean I am evil?  Learn how to do an evil laugh here.
soundboard.com


For an exploration of evil:



Short Thoughts Inspired by Canadian Classic Rock Radio

During the drive to and from my daughter's school, we usually listen to a classic rock station.  Aside from reading the Montreal Gazette, this is one of our best exposures to Canadian popular culture (since we watch largely American TV shows).  I am not complaining this morning about the content of the programming.  Instead, just a few stray thoughts:
  • The sports report noted that one of the Canadiens key players was out with a lower body injury with speculation that it might be the guy's groin.  And this is a typical report--that a hockey injury is either upper or lower body.  This is pretty strange as injury reports for the other major North American sports are far more specific.  But then, I remembered that the reporting of injuries, especially for US football, is actually motivated by ... gambling.  The gamblers want to have accurate information about who is hurt as that affects the point spread and upon whom to wager.  Does the absence of good information about hockey injuries mean that folks do not gamble much on it?  
  • The segment after the news is often a call-in poll (which is increasingly problematic now that cell phones usage while driving are illegal unless a headset is used).  Today's: is Sarah Palin hot or not?  This contrasts with the coverage I have seen in the US--which is mostly about whether the book tour is about a 2012 Presidential campaign or just about raising money for Palin Inc.  
  • One last note--the station seems to have changed its format to be more about ROCK!  So, what has this meant?  Seems to me just more Green Day.  Which is more than ok with me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Best Early Review

See this for a quick take on a Palin-ism.

Contagious Contagion




Make of this what you will. Louisiana was the first state to get seriously hit and spread most slowly to New England.  Utah and Florida share the title for not yet hitting the threshold number of cases.  Hmmn.  What do these two states share in common?

What is important to note is that this figure does not at all reflect linkages to the outside world.  That is, we could have expected states with the greatest amount of overseas traffic to get hit first and worst, but that is obviously not how this pandemic is spreading.  Hard to see how Montana or Wyoming get hit sooner than New York.  Just goes to show how little I know about pandemics, other than the Z-flu.

Going West to the East

I always find it strange that one flies west from North America and arrives in the Far East.  Anyhow, Obama is making the Asian rounds. 

In China, Obama said:
"Our relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty, but the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined,"
The notion is certainly predestined, but the question is whether the reality is going to be so. Well, that depends on which theory of international relations to which one subscribes. [And as someone who knows very little about China, the following is mostly wild speculation]
  • Various variants of Realism would certainly predict exactly that--that a bipolar system--one in which two countries are much more powerful than the rest--would be characterized by tensions between the two.  Ideology, good will and the rest matter not.  War may not happen, but rivalry is certain.
  • Power transition theory, which as one of my undergrads reminded me, still exists and is often ignored.  The basic idea is that as the dominant player declines and a new country rises to take its place, conflict is inevitable.  First, the old hegemon may launch a preventative war to forestall its decline.  And second, the old king created rules of the game that tend to favor itself, so that the new king will seek to revise the rules.  Gilpin's War and Change was one of the most fun books to read in grad school as it provided an interesting blend of Realism and Marxism to predict that the inevitable contradictions of the system will provoke war.
  • Democratic peace theory predicts peace among democracies but not necessarily war amongst mixed dyads (pairs of countries not sharing the same political system).  But the logic is still there--if countries of the same regime type are less likely to fight with each other, then we should not be surprised by tensions, crisis and even war amongst mixed pairs.  Of course, since they are multiple causal logics to the DemPeace, this can play out in different ways.
    • If it is about democratic norms--that within and between democracies disputes are resolved through negotiation, litigation and persuasion, then we might expect China/US to have a hard time since only one side of this dyad has such norms at home.
    • If it is about structural constraints, including elections, then again, it is likely that only one side of this pairing will be constrained by public opinion.  I wonder if it is better to have two unconstrained leaders or two constrained ones, rather than one of each.
    • If it is about transparency, then only one side is transparent, and thus confusion and misperception is likely.
  •  Liberalism focuses on the convergence of interests.  The good news is that the mutual dependence of the two should provide plenty of incentives to both sides to keep their cool.
  • Constructivism is a broader category with no real predictions, but one could ask what could it say here.
    • We may see tension as inevitable because they disagree on what is appropriate and legitimate--that they have different values.  Even when cost-benefit calculations might suggest that cooperation is the correct course, we may find that one side views certain paths are seen as being wrong and invalid.
 "Still, Obama said, there are certain core principles that all people must share. According to the president, those principles include equal rights for everyone, a government that reflects the will of the people, open commerce and free access to information, and the rule of law. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation," he told the gathering."
    • If we take identity seriously and the process of identification, one of the challenges here is that the natural them for China is the US.  The US has its own identity but can focus on other "thems" so that China is not necessarily the principal antagonist--the US has a full menu of potential antagonists!  However, China may also focus on some other Them--Russia perhaps.
 On the bright side, both sides have heaps of nuclear weapons so mutual assured destruction should continue to play the role it has in the past--deterring both sides. However, the downside is that deterrence at the strategic level might facilitate assertiveness at lower levels (the stability-instability paradox), and that is where Taiwan fits in. 

One last note of pessimism--one can easily imagine politicians on either side seeking to rise to power by promoting themselves as the best defenders of their country's interests.

Hubris or Self-Knowledge [update]

The Patriots go for it on fourth down and two yards to go--on their own thirty yard line.  And Fail.  Colts get the ball back and easily score.  So, is this example of arrogance--that Coach Belichick just expected that his offense could pick up two yards? Or is it that he knew how tired his under-manned defense was?  His defense stopped Manning for most of the game, while losing players to various injuries.  But not during the fourth quarter.

I guess I have to go with the guy who brought us here.  That is, I have enjoyed watching the Patriots over the past ten years or so because I admire the high level of strategic thinking.  Belichick has out-thought his opponents most of the time, and even last night.  While he is capable of making mistakes (not just the ethical ones of taping his opponents or not taking injuries seriously), he clearly thought about it and weighed the difference of the gamble of going for it versus giving Manning sixty yards or so with one timeout.  And Belichick was going to going to get the blame for  the decision if it failed.  That takes a bit more guts than following convention. 

I will be interested to see what Gregg Easterbrook (ESPN's Tuesday Morning Quarterback) says since he has long advocated going for it on fourth down, even in one's own end of the field.  But he also has problems with Belicheck's arrogance.  My bet is that the former sentiment will prevail, but, unlike Belichick, I have nothing at stake.

What would be the political equivalent?  Obama announcing either zero or forty thousand new troops for Afghanistan?  Taking a hard line either way will be a widely criticized gamble.

Update: The math suggests that Belichick made the right decision.  See here (basically what the TMQ has been saying for a few years) and here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New Details on 9/11

A new book, reviewed here, presents more information about the happenings on that fateful day.  Much less control at the top and much less obedience to procedure at the bottom.  The Air Force pilots had no clue even as they flied over the Pentagon after the attack.
Perhaps nothing perturbs Farmer more than the contention that high-ranking officials responded quickly and effectively to the revelation that Qaeda attacks were taking place. Nothing, Farmer indicates, could be further from the truth: President George W. Bush and other officials were mostly irrelevant during the hijackings; instead, it was the ground-level commanders who made operational decisions in an ad hoc fashion.
 Indeed, the hawks in the Pentagon apparently had to change the official history to prove that they were manly men:
Yet both Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney, Farmer says, provided palpably false versions that touted the military’s readiness to shoot down United 93 before it could hit Washington. Planes were never in place to intercept it. By the time the Northeast Air Defense Sector had been informed of the hijacking, United 93 had already crashed. Farmer scrutinizes F.A.A. and Norad rec­ords to provide irrefragable evidence that a day after a Sept. 17 White House briefing, both agencies suddenly altered their chronologies to produce a coherent timeline and story that “fit together nicely with the account provided publicly by Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Vice President Cheney.”
 It is a pretty striking book and a review that is very critical of the Bush Administration.  Which is kind of funny to me, since the author of the review, Jacob Heilbrunn, was President of Oberlin's College Republicans back when I was a student [if this is the same guy, and his pictures suggest that it is].  But Jacob was a Con perhaps, not a Neo-Con.  Perhaps one of these days, I will plumb the depths of his blog to figure him out.  Unless my readers can educate us all.

Anyhow, the punchline:
Farmer’s verdict: “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks.”

Death Panels

Very interesting op-ed in today's NYT by Representative Blumenauer who put the piece of language in the reform bill that became known as death panels--that doctors should be reimbursed for conversations they have with their patients about how to handle the end.

Irony or Hypocrisy?

In the NYT piece on the Fort Hood killer:

In that presentation, Major Hasan argued that the Koran forbids Muslims to kill other Muslims, placing Muslim American troops in an impossible position. Such soldiers should be allowed to receive conscientious objector status, he concluded.
Is it ironic or hypocritical that this individual was so disturbed by the possibility of killing Muslims that he chose to randomly kill people, including a decent possibility of killing another Muslim?  And, of course, given his job as psychologist, there was going to be very little chance of him firing up on a fellow Muslim in Afghanistan.  Indeed, he could have joined the tradition of firing in the sky or dirt as many soldiers have long been found to do in combat.

This article tries to tease out whether this was an act of terrorism or produced by psychological disorder.  The good thing about this piece is that it does admit for the possibility of both.  And that is almost certainly the right answer--the guy was disturbed and acted out--in a way to create terror.  It is unlikely that he is part of a larger group, but the problem these days, according the Bruce Hoffman interview in this piece, is not organizations but the actualization of individuals.

And towards the end of the article:
By September, Major Hasan had purchased a handgun and had begun to visit the strip club next to the gun shop. The club’s general manager, Matthew Jones, said he stayed for six or seven hours the handful of times he visited, paying for lap dances in a private room.
Um, one vote for hypocrisy, then.  Killing Muslims bad, buying lap dances good. Not that Muslims are alone in being hypocritical--picking and choosing amongst their beliefs and finding certain ones binding and others disposable.

Speaking of hypocrisy, Frank Rich has a good point or two about how the hawks in the US do not see the contradictions between what they say about Muslims and what should be done in Afghanistan.

Costs of Afghanistan continued

Funny how we were not terribly concerned about deficits until a Democrat became President.  Anyway, the costs of an additional soldier sent by the US to Afghanistan amounts to $1 million per.  Any "surge" is going to add billions a year, so that the savings from departing Iraq will be wiped out by the increased costs of operating in Afghanistan.  So, Obama may need Republicans to vote for his defense programs to cover the gap caused by Democrats voting against more $$ being spent on foreign missions. 

So, the mission going forward is incredibly costly (see here for previous post on this topic).  Still, this math ignores the cumulative cost over the next fifty to seventy years--the health care costs and disability payments to the soldiers who survive their wounds. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pondering the Depths and Darkness of the Human Soul

Isn't that what Pixar is all about?  Since Wall-E came out last year, I have been pondering how deeply depressing Pixar movies have become.  Wall-E has a happy ending--the robots are in love!!! And, yes, life can now develop again on earth.  But this is after generations of humans have grown obese and incompetent after destroying the planet (and my guess is that most humans did not make it on the spaceships).  So, wooohooo?!

And I was reminded of this tonight, while watching Up with my family (spoilers lurk after the break).

Spurious Correlation of the Week


The lesson here is not that Pitchfork's editors should get behind "Drill, baby, drill." The lesson is that US oil production has fallen steadily for 40 years, and Rolling Stone's editors are absurdly biased toward songs written between 1965 and 1980.
 This is from a blog at the The Atlantic that is borrowed from the The Gawker.  And I got it from a facebook link by Peter Trumbore (hat tips to all).

I enjoy such spurious correlations so I ask my readers to send me links to graphs or graphs themselves of such things.

You Can't Get Everything You Want

You cannot make everyone happy.  The decision to try those behind 9/11 has provoked the usual controversy with the NYT focused on how the families of the victims feel.  Some families are pleased and some are upset.  Of course, when making decisions about who to try and how, prosecutors should not care that much about the opinions of the families of the victims if one has a Justice system in place.  What is justice?  This is a difficult question that political theorists ponder all the time in their best efforts to confuse everyone else.  I am pretty sure that revenge is not the defining component, so the families' feelings are not so integral to the process.


While this is a predictable angle the NYT can choose to take, it really does not illuminate much at all.  The other articles about this decision are better at revealing the legal complexities and political tradeoffs.  Once again, thanks to the issues in play and the decisions made by his predecessor, Obama faces few good alternatives and mostly picking the best of a bad set of alternatives.

The Next Big Tragedy: Eggo Shortage



Flooding at one factory and repairs to another have endangered the world's supply of Eggos (hat tip to Dan Drezner and his tweet on this). Who now will leggo their eggo during an eggo famine?

This, of course, raises the question of what other kinds of calamities might cause panic in the streets?
  • A tragic popper explosion at the Corn Pops plant leads to a gap in the supply of Corn Pops.
  • Mudslides destroy the tart crop, leading to a shortage of Poptarts  [note: the poptarts website has two choices--kids or parents.  The kids' site is broken, and the one for parents has the following web address: http://www.poptarts.com/moms/#/section.  That's correct.  Sexism in the morning food business!!]
  • The news gets out that the Frosting on the Frosted Flakes is actually from the bone shavings from endangered tigers. 
  • The news gets out that Twinkies are actually made from tofu, organic honey, and love. 
As always, stock up on these key necessities and put into your shelter along with the usual Zombie survival supplies--for more info, check out: http://www.zombiesurvivalwiki.com/

Friday, November 13, 2009

Live, but Not Now

I have been doing a fair amount of TV over the past few years as Canada's effort in Afghanistan gains and loses attention.  I just found a clip of my most recent appearance.  It is not the worst job I have done (although I need to start using something to get my hair in order and perhaps look more at the top of the camera). 

In this appearance, just before the second election in Afghanistan was scrapped, I actually had a consistent message--building institutions requires following the rules even when they lead to predictable and/or undesired outcomes, rather than betting on personalities.  I also predicted that Obama would send more troops to Afghanistan--near if not at McChrystal's total, but the wait for that decision goes on. 

Anyhow, any suggestions on improving my media effort, let me know (including if you think I should drop it entirely).

Some Perspective on Afghanistan

Check out the trends at icasualties.org.

Such as this one:

 
This goes a long way towards explaining Obama's need to take time to make the decision.  It also suggests a change in strategy is due.  However, body counts are not necessarily good guides to anything other than the human and political costs, because one may be facing a tougher situation precisely because the troops are more engaged and there are more of them. 




This is from Der Spiegel, and shows that ISAF is significantly larger than it was before.  We should expect to see more casualties as the number of encounters with the enemy increase, as driven by the number of troops on the ground.  One could also read this correlation as increased intolerance of foreigners, but I do not think the public opinion surveys really demonstrate this.  This outcome is almost certainly driven by the logic of numbers in a counter-insurgency campaign--a more serious and active campaign will face more risks. 

The question at the end of the day is whether these efforts are leading towards anything. 

Change in Local Plans: Saideman Spews Live

The speaker for the Research Group on International Security [REGIS/GERSI] Workshop in International Security had to drop out due to flu, so I am going to pinch-hit:

"Fighting Together, Fighting Alone: NATO in Afghanistan"
Steve Saideman

15h30-17h30
Leacock Building LEA 429

I will be presenting our (David Auerwald and I) findings from the research we conducted last summer in Europe and prior to that in Canada and the US.  I think this project is interesting and worth your time ;)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Annoying TV Trend

TV shows have become incredibly lazy lately as they increasingly depend on music and montages at the beginning or end of the show to convey lots of messages without dialogue.  It has become quite annoying.  Done once in a while is ok, but all the time it is a crutch for limited writers.  Mad men has done it a few times, but Flashforward seems to end with such music/montages.  The only good news is that it reminds me of a South Park scene:


Timing is What? Everything?

There is an old saying about comedy--that it is about .... timing.  And the same is clearly true about poker, given the results of this past weekend's World Series of Poker final table, where the timing of events (and position around the table, which affects when one makes decisions) greatly shaped the outcomes. 

Joe Cada, the youngest to ever win the main event, was only around to catch a third two to beat two jacks and a third three to beat two queens, because of the following hand:
  • He pushed all in with j-4 because he was down to 2 million chips (less than 1% at the total at the table).
  • Another player called with 5-4 since he already had some chips in the middle (antes and blinds) so it was not costing him much to call and it was unlikely that he was dominated (that Cada had either a four or a five and a higher card).
  • A third player could have gone in with a6 but the second player served to deter him since he had already lost a fair amount of chips to the second player.
  • If the third player had called, he would have won and Cada would have been out.  But he didn't, so Cada doubled up on that hand and then several others, mostly going all in with weaker hands and catching cards.
So, it is about timing.  Gladwell (whose latest book I will review once I finish) points out in Outliers that luck has a great deal to do with success--that being born at the right time matters a great deal.  One still has to put in the reps (repetitions--work) to get excellent at one's profession, but having good timing as well. 

Well, in the academic world, timing matters a great deal.  Being a great Sovietologist was a great thing until 1989.  Studying corruption or counter-insurgency was a wise investment but only in the 2000's.   Likewise, job success depends on timing.  I graduated during the previous recession, and that led to many years at a less than preferred destination.  These days, there are lots of great, accomplished, skilled, creative folks on the academic job market but few jobs.   

The problem of merit pay is similar.   At most institutions, academics are evaluated by their yearly production and then given whatever share they deserve of that year's merit pool.  But one's work does not flow in a relatively fluid, evenly distributed manner.  So, one can have a great year or two of publishing and other output (service, teaching awards, whatever) but have that happen in years with little or any merit increases.  One can have poor years during years of abundant merit pay.  You can guess how I feel about timing right now.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Google This, Dude! Follow-Up

Last week, I discussed a slate article on google's filling in the search tendencies.  Well, Slate had a contest and here are the top five searches.

My reactions:
  1. Borax is quite useful but not so easy to find, so I am not surprised it appears on #5.  And obsession with Erin Andrews is a well-known internet syndrome.
  2. Watching free movies and especially True Blood seem to be popular.  I have not yet succumbed to the temptation to engage in piracy despite my frustrations with Canadian broadcasting or non-broadcasting of American stuff (ESPN's 30 for 30 comes to mind).
  3. Mis-spelling Def Leopard is not a problem.
  4. "How Can I Destroy ..." the World, my jeans, a website???  Oh my!
  5. The 2nd place finisher illustrated the difference between "how can a person" vs "how can a human" with the latter more focused on .... inter-species reproduction???
  6. First place juxtaposes: "is it wrong to" with "is it unethical to."  "Is it wrong to" is completed mostly by questions about "relations" with kinfolk. Oh my.  
Interesting stuff.  I wonder if the answers change over time as this kind of survey changes what people search for, leading to new answers?

Bulgaria: Poster Child for Empty Promises?

“Everything in Bulgaria looks fine formally: the free market, human rights, free speech, the multiparty political system, membership in E.U. and NATO,” Mr. Sugarev said. “But that’s only a facade. Behind it there is nothing.”  NYT
In Kin or Country (see pic on right-hand side of this blog), Bill Ayres and I argue that the membership processes of NATO and the EU were not as influential as often averred.  So, I have mixed feelings to see Bulgaria lagging behind: I am not surprised that we were right, but it is because Bulgarians are doing poorly.  On the other hand, whether we are right or wrong is immaterial to the lives of Bulgarians, so I guess I should not feel much guilt about being happy we have been correct.

Ah, the world is a complex place.  But it is generally safer to underestimate the transformative power of international organizations than to overestimate. 

On another European story, I am not going to link my blog to an article by Robert Kaplan that says that Europe is, in many ways, worse off after the Cold War because it is not united in some grand mission.  I may not be entirely right about Kaplan's assertions, but the general thrust makes reading the argument more closely a waste of time.

Decision Point Arriving

The latest news is that Obama is looking at four options (although one is a mystery) for the big decision in Afghanistan.  His greatest concern is about the partner on the ground.
Officials said that although the president had no doubt about what large numbers of United States troops could achieve on their own in Afghanistan, he repeatedly asked questions during recent meetings on Afghanistan about whether a sizable American force might undercut the urgency of the preparations of the Afghan forces who are learning to stand up on their own.“He’s simply not convinced yet that you can do a lasting counterinsurgency strategy if there is no one to hand it off to,” one participant said.
What kind of President is this?  Asking about the long term?  Thinking about the consequences?  I have not begrudged him the time it has taken for Obama to reach the decision.  Indeed, it provided some leverage over Karzai, although perhaps not enough, over the election wrangling.  I do think that coming close to McChrystal's recommendations is inevitable--both because the situation on the ground requires a better effort and to deflect domestic criticism.  If Afghanistan does not stop sliding in a year or two, then Obama will be in a better position to say that he supported the US military and its advice but the situation is untenable.

Of course, today, on Rememberance Day (as it is known in Canada) or Veterans' Day  (US), we ask is it worth one more American life?  One more Canadian?  Canadians are loathe to admit that they are valuing the lives of their citizens over Afghans.  Americans are more comfortable with that.  If it is all about lives, then sticking around and reinforcing makes sense, as a population centric strategy should both reduce the threat posed by the Taliban to the people of Afghanistan and reduce the likelihood of collateral damage in the long run as the outsiders develop better intel, can react more flexibly, and are better trained to fight tomorrow rather than today if there is a big risk of hurting civilians.

Rememberance Day/Veterans Day Thoughts

In light of recent and on-going events, a few things struck me as we remember the sacrifices made by previous and current generations of military folks:

  • The improved technology of medicine means that many soldiers are surviving incredibly debilitating wounds.  There is much good news in this, but we tend to forget how many lives are irrevocably harmed by war because we focus on deaths and not other casualties.
  • For instance, the largest cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (to outsiders, that is) will be the next fifty years of disability payments and medical care.
  • Also, the media only counts deaths, which both under-counts the sacrifices being made and perhaps distorts the operations on the ground, as contingents may operate only close to base to minimize deaths but not casualties.  
  • There will be talk of "war no more" but we can use a variety of IR theories to argue that war will be with us for quite some time to come.
    • Structural Realism focuses on the absence of hierarchy in international relations--that anarchy (absence of government) serves as a permissive condition that allows war to take place, and that causes competition and insecurity that make war more likely.
    • Liberalism focuses on the patterns of interest.  While one can hope for a harmony of interests among everyone, the reality is that there will always be conflicts of interest, including some worth fighting for.
    • Constructivism has many different approaches, but will war be seen as unthinkable and entirely inappropriate down the road, like piracy or slavery?  Ooops, both of those still exist.  Plus there is always competition among different values and norms, so that we face important value conflicts between peace and justice.
    • Then we can move to those arguments focused on individual cognition--that we always make mistakes about others' intentions and capabilities and even more perhaps about our own intentions and capabilities (and yet more about what everyone's allies are going to do).
    • And onto domestic politics, where politicians usually have incentives that point them towards the short-term, which can often lead to destructive behavior.
While we will mourn the costs of war today as it marks the end of "The War to End War," one of things we need to mourn are the casualties to come.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Teaching the Comparative Method to Kids

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I embed below the bit I remember the most and perhaps shaped me into the political scientist I am today:

Just Like Zombies

The Nazis are Back.  This should not be terribly surprising.  With a bad economy, a Black President, and the Democrats in power, this was inevitable.  The truly disturbing part is that the differences between these guys and the stuff coming out of the right-wing of the Republicans are fewer and fewer.

The Blues Brothers, of course, had the best take on this:



Plus a link to a non-embeddable clip.

Nothing for Something (cont)

I posted a day or two ago about the real money for virtual money industry.  I was puzzled.  Not by the sellers but by the consumers.  Well, now the sellers look far worse.  The CEO Zynga, one of the big ones on facebook, readily admits that they built the business in the early days with some very nasty tactics:
I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it.
So, I just un-installed Mafia Wars even though I didn't buy any of their points.  And I will be dumping a few of the other similar types of games as a result over the next few weeks.  Too bad, as the games did create a few friendships and did help me connect with old friends. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad? No, I am Delighted! [updated]

I have been a day behind in my watching of Mad Men, thanks to my residence in Canada (we get most American TV but with a few annoying anomalies).  So,  I finished watching the season finale, and was most pleased.

For more, see below the break (thankfully blogger now makes that easier for me) since I will spoil like mad:


Movember: Mustaches Uber Cancer

One of my teaching assistants, F.X., has asked for my help, as he is participating in an effort to raise money to fight prostate cancer.  The idea is to get people to pay him and his teammates to grow mustaches in November.  I, of course, agreed to help as any effort that draws attention to facial hair is worthwhile.

So, I have challenged my students in my big class--if they give $600 (an average of a dollar a student) to F.X., then I will shave my beard into the shape of their favorite mustache (with a caveat or two). 

If you are interested in joining the cause, you can email me (steve dot saideman at mcgill dot ca), and I can put you in touch with F.X. 

H1N1 Vaccinations--Barometers of Status?

In the US, Goldman-Sachs gets more bad press (I guess they believe that even bad publicity is better than no publicity?!) for getting vaccinations against h1n1 before their time.  In Canada, the Calgary Flames (a hockey team for the ignorant Americans) got their shots ahead of schedule.

Does this reflect a deep cultural divide?  Sort of.  In Montreal, those donating to Montreal Jewish General got shots ahead of schedule as well, so in either country, money talks. 

I do thing that times of crisis can be quite revealing.  I guess the pandemic of h1n1 counts (at least if one counts how many extensions I gave on a paper this week for my large Intro to IR class).  And we are seeing some great behavior and some awful behavior. 

For a mix of the two: in Montreal, the latest news is that there is effort to deploy retired nurses to help out with shots and care, I think on a volunteer basis.  Very clever idea.  However, these nurses may have to pay $300 per nurse to pay the fee of the nurses' association (union).  Also very clever, but not very productive from the standpoint of what is good for society. 

Poppies Continued

The wearing of poppies by Canadians has become so de rigeur that this weekend's paper had a picture of the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gilles Duceppe, wearing one.  This is striking as there were riots in Quebec during the World War I over conscription, which led to a very different kind of personnel policy for Quebec in World War II.  Yes, indeed, Quebecers did lose their lives in those wars and the on-going campaign in Afghanistan, but the BQ is a separatist party seeking independence for Quebec, and the casualties are suffered by the CANADIAN Forces.  When the 22nd (Van Doos) regiment from Quebec first went to Afghanistan, there was some discussion about whether Quebec should have a say in this by the less well-informed.  I was tempted to remind folks that these soldiers joined the CANADIAN Forces, not the Quebec Forces. 

I guess I have been here too long.  I have the same kind of reaction when anyone talks about the Confederate Army in proud terms.  I see the South in the US Civil War as, well, traitors, deserving very little in the way of praise, and the symbols about them to be offensive. 

I guess I should just see the BQ poppy-wearers as being good human beings, who remember those who have lost lives in past wars.  But I think I am too cynical.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Berlin and All That

After visiting Berlin for the first time this summer (you can see a number of my posts from that trip), I read the NY Times coverage of the anniversary of the wall falling with great interest.  A number of articles around the web have noted that the actual day's events that led to the fall of the wall were a series of accidents, misunderstandings and poor communication.

There is, of course, a deep divide between folks who argue that deeper structural dynamics drive events or the quirks of personalities and accidents of history make the difference. While it is clearer now that poor communication and such produced the focal point in time and space, the fact that large numbers of people rallied to the wall and the gates suggests something more than an accident.  But I am not an expert on intra-German politics.  A year in the Pentagon did teach me that personalities and arcane procedures do matter, more than I wanted to believe.

Either way, these stories are quite intriguing.  And the NY Times story linked above largely asserts reunification worked pretty well, especially given how different the two parts of Germany were economically.  So, perhaps we ought not jump all over Germany for the restrictions on their forces in Afghanistan.

And it is fun to remember people's fears in 1989:

The reality of Germany today makes it difficult to remember the immediate concerns in Europe after the wall fell. Leaders like President Fran├žois Mitterrand of France and, in particular, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, worried aloud that a reunified Germany was likely to drift away from the NATO alliance and the structures of the European Union and at worst might return to the path of extreme nationalism.

See Fred Kaplan on why Berlin mattered.

Political Scientists Go Wild!

Bruce Bueno De Mesquita has written a book for the masses, taking what he has been arguing in Poli Sci journals and using as a consultant and putting it out there.  His book is reviewed in today's NY Times.

Game theory,” Bueno de Mesquita writes, “urges us to take a cold, hard look at what it means to be a calculating, rational decision maker.”And he lives up to his word. Mother Teresa did nice things, sure. But she was awfully public about those good deeds, and she appears to have been seeking fame and reward, either in this life or the next. “Could it be that Mother Teresa’s ambition for herself was tied to her faith in an eternal reward?” Bueno de Mesquita writes. “It makes sense to pay the price of sacrifice for the short, finite time of a life span if the consequence is a reward that goes on for infinity in heaven. In fact, isn’t that exactly the explanation many of us give for the actions of suicide bombers, dying in their own prideful eyes as martyrs who will be rewarded for all eternity in heaven?”  Yes, you read that correctly. On Page 15 of “The Predictioneer’s Game,” Bueno de Mesquita equates Mother Teresa with the likes of Mohamed Atta.
How do his simulations work?
His simulations rely on four factors: who has a stake; what each of these people wants; how much they care; and how much influence they have on others. He surveys experts on the topic, assigns numerical values to the four factors, plugs the data into a computer and waits for his software to spit out the future
So, I am always confused--is this really very impressive? Or is all the real work done by the experts--figuring out who matters, how much they care, how powerful they are?  This is the hard stuff of political science.  So, I guess the big magic is in getting the experts to code these things reliably so that the magic formula of combining the four factors works. 

All of these stories are fascinating. Every chapter in Bueno de Mesquita’s book contains something insightful about human behavior. But a question hovers over the text as he celebrates the brilliance of past predictions: Is this a bunch of baloney? Sure, he’s gotten stuff right. But should we really kick traditional experts outside and rely on the machines?
The reviewer misses the point as I suggested above--the machine relies on experts for the input.  Otherwise, garbage in, garbage out.  Definitely a worthwhile read, but I have a few books in line ahead of this one. Let me know what you think.

Health Care Reform Passes House

It looks pretty ugly--the bill includes restrictions on federal funding for abortion and it passed narrowly--with two more votes than necessary.

We should not be surprised by either outcome.  Abortion is still a highly divisive issue, and there are enough house seats where an incumbent cannot appear to be supporting the funding of abortion.  In surveys, majorities are against banning abortion but they are also against federal $$ for abortion. 

I avoided American politics classes throughout my life, but I did pick up one or two nuggets along the way.  One of them is consider a vote total as an artifice of party organization, even or especially a narrow one.  So, once the Dems knew that it would pass, they let those in more vulnerable positions to vote against.  At least, that is the theory, and I have no reason to doubt it here.  I am sure that some political scientist will look at the vote on this bill and determine that Dems in red or purple districts, Dems in first or second terms, Dems with stronger competition (I don't know how that would be operationalized) voted against the bill.  Just a guess. [NYT has a good start on this]

Oh, and this was the easy part.  We knew that a Health Care Reform bill would get through the House of Representatives.  Getting through the Senate will be quite difficult, but the chances are pretty good for that now.  On the other hand, as both my past week of cards and last night's (and this morning's) final table of the World Series of Poker demonstrate, low probability events just mean that something is unlikely, not impossible.