Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Medically Lost

Just one more thought on last night's episode.

Process Matters

Very interesting piece at the Financial Times on the Obama foreign policy-making process.  Pretty fair discussion, it seems, noting the strengths and weaknesses.
“If you look for the 2002 or 2003 meeting where the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken, you cannot find it,” says the senior official. “By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.
You could hardly do worse.

And the sidebar is fun--State and DoD vs. White House.  A big change from my time when it was everyone vs. OSD.  That is, everyone vs. Rumsfeld.  I would go to meetings where the department reps would be lined up with State, NSC and Joint Staff on one side of the table, literally, and the folks under Rumsfeld (OSD) on the other.

Words of wisdom:
But the very diligence of the process crowded out Mr Obama’s time to focus on other crises – of which there are many. “Time is the most precious commodity a president has,” says a for­mer national security ad­viser. “On average he is only going to have 45 minutes a day for foreign policy, so you want to make sure it is well spent.”
 And the conclusion seems pretty good:
“At the end of each meeting, the president summarises what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer’s clarity,” says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. “When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.” 

Despite the snarky add-on:  "When Mr Obama makes a decision, that is."

HT to Drezner tweet.

For Crying Out Loud!

Lead article in NYT about our buddy Ahmed Wali Karzai (dominant player in Kandahr, President's brother and incredibly dubious figure) and the realization by the US and pals that he is not going anywhere.  After lobbying President Karzai and getting nowhere, NATO folks are trying to deal with the challenge they face. 
“My recommendation was, remove him,” a senior NATO officer said this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for President Karzai, he’s looking at his brother, an elected official, and nobody has come to him with pictures of his brother loading heroin into a truck.”
Please!  You don't need proof beyond a reasonable doubt since the "decider" is not a legal forum, such as a trial, but the President of the country and brother of the person in question.  If Pres. Karzai wanted to move brother Karzai, it would happen.  Or there would be a family feud, but the idea that we need to convince President for Life Karzai about his brother's bad behavior is more ridiculous than an evil smoke monster accusing others of deceit.

And yes, Ahmed Wali Karzai has been helping out the CIA--who are experts in working with scum and then finding themselves tied to them.  Sometimes, we never learn.  
Some have regarded the case as a test of American will to confront President Karzai. “Watch what the Americans do,” said a diplomat in Kabul. “If they let Ahmed Wali stay in power, it means they are not serious about governance.”
Um.  Yep.  We are trapped by our words and deed.  But if A.W. Karzai was so damned useful to the CIA and the US, wouldn't we have been making better progress in Kandahar?  Or does association with him undermine pretty much everything that NATO, Canada, the US and others are doing there?  I vote for the latter.

It reminds me of the US letting Karadzic and Mladic to wander around Bosnia after the Dayton Accords.  Condoning the freedom of accused war criminals weakened every other effort in Bosnia.  Associating with Klepto Karzai is pretty much the same.  Are there tradeoffs?  Certainly, but it has become clearer and clearer that the Brothers Karzai are impediments to progress.  President Karzai may be around for awhile, but perhaps ....   Ah, never mind.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lost: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Again, heaps of spoilers

Submarines Are Not Sub-Anything Else

Ricks has a nice post today about the evolution of the US submarine force, but it is sad because it is motivated by the death of a beloved "squid."

As a longtime sub-groupie, I found this quite striking.  And yes, I added another sub to my list while I was in Australia--I got to check out a cold war era Aussie diesel sub, after visiting several WWII subs in the US and one nuclear attack boat at Groton thanks to Skipper Jim.

Anyway, check out the brief post at 

Generation Gap: We Have A Capitalization Gap

rly! kdz 2day txt sooooooooooo much tht thr wrtng mks nooooooooooooo sns to 'rents.  Spw Jr syz old peeps' fb cmmnts R 2 funny--capping, spel rite.  LOL!!!  rofl!  ymmv.

Lost Prep, part ten

Check out Totally Lost at EW.  They are going through the same stuff that I have with friends and in previous posts.  To be absolutely clear, the suggestion that Jacob is a God, Greek, Egyptian or otherwise, is not to suggest that he is a good guy.  His social science experiments would get rejected by any decent research ethics board.  And Flocke is not a good guy either.  Faith vs. reason, fate vs free will are (to be all obscure about it) orthogonal to good vs evil.  That is, they are different dimensions.  Just as in dungeons and dragons one can be evil and lawful or good and anarchic (I forget what it is called in the game), one can believe in free will and be either good or evil. 

How we interpret some one's good acts depends perhaps in part on whether we think someone has free will or not, but the acts themselves or the goals themselves (depending on what we are focused on) may be viewed as good or evil.  I am not a philosopher so I could be very wrong here. 

While some many ponder Jacob's goodness by denying his responsibility for Ben's acts on his behalf (because he might been listening to Smokey all along), the experiment of free will versus fate cannot justify Jacob's casual use of people (Black Rock passengers, for instance).  Only if the game of free will vs. fate is necessary to win the larger game of keeping Smokey bottled up is Jacob's game playing justified. 

It could be that there is a utilitarian logic here about the greater good.

Maybe we will eventually find out.  Maybe not.

Terrorist, Schmerrorist

So, are the latest nutjobs, the Hutaree, terrorists or just militias?  From a political sciency perspective, the answer depends on what they were planning to do: to kill cops just to kill cops?  Or to kill cops to terrorize others?  The former would mean they are insurgents trying to win a rebellion.  Good luck with that.  If the latter, then they are terrorists. 

Of course, this is a bit of semantics, because a conspiracy to commit violent acts should be stopped by the government in either case.  That is the job of government--to quell rebellions.  And it is the job of insurgents to risk quelling.  So, they can get upset as much as they want, but if you pick up arms as part of a plan to engage in violence against the state, then you cannot be surprised or offended that the state objects.  A holy war is not a holy war if only one side shows up.  Or why would spend so much time playing war games in the countryside?  Not because you have a gun fetish or anything. 

Of course, the semantics are important as the right wing does not want their extremist brothers and sisters called terrorists.  And they do not want to be seen as responsible for inspiring terrorism.  Pal-ing around with terrorists is a Palin accusation, not a Palin activity.  Of course, asserting that we need to take back the country from a bunch of socialists would seem to be providing ideological cover for insurgents (terrorists or otherwise).  

Perhaps I should not be scornful of these folks, as others of similar convictions have done significant damage.  Not just Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols but the various white supremacist groups that have engaged in murder, bank robberies, kidnapping, etc.  The FBI has done a pretty good job of breaking these gangs up, or at least re-locating them to prisons.  It does seem to be the case that the economic trauma combined with the hysteria among certain groups about democrats/liberals/minorities taking power and the demagoguery of the Glenn Becks means we are in for more violence.  One thing should be noted--this was not Waco.  The Feds were able to subdue these folks despite their "preparation." 

Another thing--they were stopped while conspiring to act.  Some are saying they were just talking.  But if they had managed to kill a cop or two, then the critics of the current administration would certainly be blaming the government for not doing enough.

Lost Prep

The newest trend in Lost obsession is to re-create the credits in the style of another show--Buffy, Charmed, etc.

My favorite thus far is:

It takes things so wildly out of context that it is delightful.

This one is less so as it is much more focused on a very few scenes:

Thanks to Ain't it Cool for both.

Who Is Going to Take Him to the Prom?

This month, with President Hamid Karzai looking ahead to a visit to the White House, he received a terse note from aides to President Obama: Your invitation has been revoked.(NYT)
 A recurring theme here at the Semi-Spew is that Karzai has been an unreliable partner and that Obama may ultimately decide to drop-kick him, rather than continue to invest more $$ and lives in a project that depends in large part on him. 

So, Karzai gets so upset by this revoked invitation, itself a response to another Karzai spit-in-the-face (underming the electoral commission) that he invites Iran's leader to town.  Um, isn't that the same Iran that has sometimes helped improve the IED technology that is killing his citizens?  Sure, but better be loved by a unpopular lunatic and trade secrets on how to steal elections in the most visible, most annoying ways.

And this is enormously frustrated to the US.  How do American officials deal with such a difficult "partner"?
“We’re trying to find this balance of keeping pressure on him, without setting up bluffs that can be called,” said a senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “We’re coming to terms with dealing with the Karzai we have.”
Kind of reminds me of the Rummy quote--you fight the war you have, not the one you wish you had.  Well, Rummy and Bush are the gifters that keep giving.  They picked Karzai and then gave him the sense of unaccountability/entitlement that he currently possesses. 

The article contains a series of statements that Karzai has been alleged to make about his views of American motives, including the desire for the US to stay around a long time.  If he continues to act on these beliefs, he is likely find himself hanging from a lamppost as the Taliban come back into town after an American withdrawal.  While that would provide some (including myself) with a heaping spoonful of Schadenfreude, it probably is not good for anyone in the region or beyond.

The Obama administration, which had floated several dates for a Karzai visit but not decided on one, decided to delay it, several officials said.“We wanted to have a great visit,” one official said. “But in order to have a great visit, we needed to see four or five things happen.”
 Ooo, ooo!  Can I guess the four or five things?  It's my blog, so I guess I can.
  1. 1)  Perhaps a smidge of distance between Karzai and Ahmedinejad.
  2. 2) Perhaps spending a bit less time playing up the collateral damage caused by ISAF and a bit more time highlighting the damage the Taliban do on a daily basis.  ISAF is far less dangerous to civilians than the Taliban are--would be nice if he pointed that out.
  3. 3) Encourage his brother, Wali, to move to Switzerland or some place else, rather than be the poster boy for a corrupt government.
  4. 4) Find a few ministers (including the Minister of Defense) who are not so obviously corrupt.
  5. 5) Stop disparaging the US to everyone he meets.  It is one thing to provide constructive criticism, it is another to take positions during an election campaign, and it is entirely another to be trashing the US now.  
2011 is going to be a very interesting year.  If Karzai thinks that Obama is bluffing, he might just consider how the Republicans have fared when they have tried to push Obama off of his hand.

Monday, March 29, 2010

TV and Job Talks: What Do They Have In Common?

Narcissistic observers, perhaps?  When someone gives a job talk in an academic environment (or at least in the poli sci departments in which I have resided), the questions tend to be asked like this: if you were to do it the way I would do it, how would you do it?  That is, the audience would be pondering how the individual should completely change the project to fit into the narrow imagination of each member of the audience. 

Similarly, commentators on television shows, whether professionals or just amateurs (fans/non-fans) tend to ponder how the show they are watching would be better if it was done their way. 

In either case, one is being mighty unfair.  One should not be asking everyone do to whatever they do to fit an individual's own ideas of how the story/research would be best performed.  The right way to proceed is to ask: is this interesting and does the person/people execute their plan well? 

For someone's job talk, the question is not how I would have done it, but whether the person is asking an interesting question, whether their answer is at least plausible and whether they then test their argument well.

Obviously, for TV, this is partially about Lost.  Some people are upset with how the final season is progressing because Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof are not ending the story the way they want it to be ended.  I agree with Alan Sepinwall--is the show entertaining me?  Is it remaining consistent with what the show was designed to be?  I am withholding judgment on the final season until it is complete because I really will not know how well the producers put it all together.  All I can be is tremendously satisfied thus far with how they are doing it. 

So, I am pretty pleased with How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, Chuck and Castle.  I have stopped watching Heroes and Flashforward--because they are inconsistent and indeed often painful to watch, rather than just merely doing it differently than I would prefer.  I have yet to see the third episode of the Pacific, but am willing to give these guys much faith that they will complete the series well even if it is not equal to or done the same way as Band of Brothers.  The question is whether they follow through on their intent, not whether it follows my imagination.  I guess that is why the Harry Potter films are so easy to enjoy--they are well executed and because they follow the books rather closely, they mostly follow my expectations as well.  The recent Star Trek reboot was wonderfully satisfying even if it had plot holes one could drive a starship through and it completely ran against my expectations. 

Anyhow, as people rev up their whine over Lost and other shows, keep in mind that the writers are following their imaginations and hopefully not anyone else's.

Where is My Junta Game?

I have speculated often in the past that the future of Afghanistan might be like that of Pakistan--where the corrupt and incompetent civilians are replaced by the military.  Who then imitate the civilians.  Well, Karzai might be beating the military to the punch.  This is not very surprising, although American non-reaction may be disturbing. 

I keep on wondering if Obama is playing a longer game--that is, he is giving Karzai the rope to hang himself so that the US could decide in 2011 that it is not worth it anymore.  I know that 2011 was a date to send a signal to the US military not to ask for more troops and that it was a signal to Karzai that he could not just stall forever.  But it may also have been  a sincere move to set a specific time where Obama could review the situation:
  • 2011 is when the surge should have had its impact if we take the Iraqi trends and extrapolate to Afghanistan as I saw a Canadian general just do this weekend;
  • 2011 gives the President the chance to say we have had 18 months of a better strategy and more troops;
  • and 2011 allows the President to make an election-year commitment to get out of Afghanistan.  While the right will be upset, this will probably appeal to the center and left who are fed up with the war.  
The risks all have to do with Pakistan, as few really care about Afghanistan.  If we depart, there will be conflict in Afghanistan, but the US could just plink the terrorists as they show up.  No, the real and most difficult issue is Pakistan's political stability.  That is perhaps the best reason to stick around in Afghanistan.  But it also makes the West more dependent on Pakistan.

Tough choices ahead, but if Karzai becomes even less appealing, then he might actually make it easier for Obama and everyone else to withdraw.  Or condone a military coup a la Vietnam.  Ultimately, you cannot build a COIN campaign on an unpopular government. 

Recess! Time to Play

Anyone that is shocked that Obama appointed a bunch of folks while the Senate went into recess has no clue about history or politics. 

History first: Presidents do this.  Bush did it.  Clinton did it.  The more the Senate becomes a place where minorities block appointments all over the place, the more Presidents are going to rely on more annoying tacics.
 President Bill Clinton made 139 recess appointments during his two terms in office, and President George W. Bush made more than 170, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Politics: Um, the Republicans in the Senate have done little to demonstrate to Obama that seeking their goodwill is desirable or a worthwhile endeavor.  Thus far, they vote no as a bloc.  They don't bargain.  So, why should he treat them like anything else but a speed bump?  Bipartisanship takes two sides, and the party of No cannot have it both ways. 

Perhaps they expected differently since Obama was a Senator.   Perhaps Obama decided to stick it in and twist it a big with the appointment of Craig Becker, the union lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board.  If Obama is feeling stronger due to the victory, and using his new leverage, then the Republicans again can blame themselves for not giving him any incentive for playing nicely. 

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Not All Those Who Survive Are Fit

Nearly all of the time that I interact with senior officers (American, Canadian, British, German, French, Aussie, Kiwi, etc), I am impressed.  They tend to be very smart, very articulate and usually quite curious and willing to learn.  And this makes sense as getting promoted in a military hierarchy is no easy thing.  The higher you go, the harder it is to make to the next left.  Up or out, eventually. 

Of course, what it takes to rise in a peacetime military and what it takes to succeed in wartime are two different things.  Likewise, what it takes to win a battle may quite different than what it takes to deal with matters after conventional combat ends (Franks could win a battle, but Petraeus could win a battle and then build on it). 

Why do I bring this up now?  I am reading Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimmons.  I picked it up while I was in Canberra because Kokoda seemed to be a big WWII battle for the Aussies.  Indeed, it was their Guadalcanal--their first successful land battle against the Japanese after incredibly hard fighting.  Indeed, it was probably harder than Guadalcanal since Kokoda was fought on a vertical battlefield. 

Anyhow, Kokoda helps to remind me that General Douglas MacArthur was perhaps more trouble than he was worth.  I am no Japan expert, but I guess Doug did ok administrating Japan after the war.  And Inchon was a gamble that worked out great.  But his Generalship, otherwise, leaves much to be desired.  MacArthur's legendary arrogance and the sycophancy he encouraged around himself blinded him to the facts on the ground, leading to far less support than the Aussies needed or deserved.  I am actually somewhat surprised that no one fragged him.  Victory during World War II came despite, not because of, General Doug.  And his firing was perhaps one of Truman's very best decisions. 

Theory and Reality: Political Science Today.

Surprisingly, Saturday came to be a day where political science was challenged in two fronts: online and in person, a blog and by a general.  I expect my Saturdays to be far less political science-y.

First, an interesting post sought explain the irrelevance of political scientists.  Ryan Sager argues that political scientists have been ignored, rather than consulted, about the impact of the health care bill.  Political scientists would argue that the midterm elections will turn on the economy more than the latest storms about health care.  The essential argument is that political scientists tend to argue that structural things tend to matter more than personalities or crises du jour.  And that is bad news for journalists who want to tell an interesting story or politicians who want to appear to be relevant:

The point is, we need to believe we’re in control. Political science tells everyone in politics the opposite: You’re not in control. The economy rules your fate — the rest is just pissing in the wind. No wonder they prefer to keep their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears.
 Well, that is what political science says about elections.  Not about everything else.  But yes, we tend to argue that things like institutions, economic trends, power imbalances and the like matter more than personalities or individual tactics.  It is far easier to generalize about the former than the latter, and that is what we are in the business of doing--generalizing.  Developing understandings that can apply to more than just one specific event but that can be applied broadly to a class of events, like war or alliances or elections or development. 

There is, of course, something to this.  After living a year in Rumsfeld's Pentagon and spending the past several years interviewing military officers in a bunch of different countries, I firmly believe that individuals and their personalities do matter.  We need to think about how they might impact events, and my current work tries to do that.  It is hard because it is avoid tautology when we use individuals in our analyses.  How do we know someone is risk averse before they act?  If we know it from their act, then we cannot explain their act using their risk aversion.  Oy.  

Second, I was at a talk by a Canadian general who started off his explanation of dynamics in Kandahar by asserting that theory is not very helpful.  Probably that was his starting point because he had attended a series of panels by aspiring political scientists--graduate students.  Anyhow, the talk focused on some of the micro-dynamics where one event on the ground led to a response and that led to a counter-response with the overall lesson that numbers really matter.  That is, that until this year, we really didn't have the numbers in Kandahar to hold that which we had cleared.  In the process, he was fairly dismissive of theories of conflict.  But the funny thing is that his point that you need a ratio of about 20 counter-insurgents (outsiders, indigenous army and police) to 1000 people is actually a product of .... social science. 

Ok, it may have been militaries as well as social scientists who come up with this.  How?  They studied many COIN campaigns and generalized about the common ingredients of success and shed attention away from the particularities of individual conflicts, and focused attention on a single variable.  If that is not theory--where one suggests that there is a causal relationship between a couple of variables (cause and effect) with some logic relating the two, then I don't know what is.

The general went on to compare the trends of violence in Iraq to those in Afghanistan, suggesting that the surge in Afghanistan is likely to lead to a significant increase in violence this summer and then a rapid and large decrease afterwards.  He is comparing two cases, focusing on a single independent variable (numbers of troops) and predicting an outcome (the dependent variable) by extrapolating from one case to the other.  It was a beautifully (pretty slides, both of the numbers and of the maps of the stuff on the ground) illustrated application of theory to reality.

So, it was kind of funny to read and then experience two popular views of my enterprise.  And there was some truth to both claims, but the reality is that political scientists do have some impact as they not only infest various government agencies and serve as advisers, but also because most of the folks who inhabit key positions have had more than a few classes taught by us.  During my work in Canada, Europe and now Australia and New Zealand, the information flow has not been in one direction.  I have been asked and I have offered my views, and they seem interested.  Moreover, they read the stuff we write (really!).  Well, not all of it, but enough that it shapes some of their beliefs and their behavior.

And that, of course, is the real challenge of political science--we are observing folks who know they are being observed.  So, they may lie or deceive or anticipate.  That makes it harder but more fun as well.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fearing the Future

One of my suspicions over the past year has been that the rage in the US, at least as the media portrays it, is not just due to a poor economy, but also due to an increasing realization by some groups of white folks that the country's demography has been and will continue to be changing.  This has and will reduce the power of white folks.  In today's NYT, Charles Blow makes essentially the same argument, but actually provides some facts.  He cites "a report entitled “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism” recently released by the Southern Poverty Law Center" that documents increases in hate groups.  Again, much of this is likely a result of the economy, but still the dynamics seem to point to some people being worried about living in a multiethnic country but without the dominance they have come to expect.

So, who are these people:
A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday took a look at the Tea Party members and found them to be just as anachronistic to the direction of the country’s demographics as the Republican Party. For instance, they were disproportionately white, evangelical Christian and “less educated ... than the average Joe and Jane Six-Pack.” This at a time when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.
And I love Blow's conclusion:
You may want “your country back,” but you can’t have it. That sound you hear is the relentless, irrepressible march of change. Welcome to America: The Remix.
Diversity is America's strength, not its weakness.

Moments in Canadian Nationalism

I guess spending eight years in Canada and several years now hanging out with and studying the Canadian Forces is having an impact on me.  I first noticed it when I would confuse people when I used the word "we" when describing stuff in Afghanistan--was I referring to the NATO effort?  The US troops?  or the Canadians?  And it would depend.

Two more recent events that remind me of my identification with all things Maple/Moose (but not hockey):
  • Today's NYT has an article on the fight in Kandahar, but somehow entirely omits Canada and the Canadian Forces despite the fact that Canada has had the lead in that province since 2006.  Indeed, the Americans in the district of Kandahar are now under the command of a Canadian general.  And I react with amazement and a bit of horror. The Canadians have lost 141 soldiers, almost entirely in Kandahar.  Where were the Americans?  In Iraq.  Anyway, that was my first, gut, reaction to the story.
  • While I was in New Zealand, I was chatting with a member of parliament, and I noted the low casualties the Aussies and Kiwis faced (11 and 0, respectively).  He replied by suggesting that the Canadians have suffered a much bigger hit because they are perhaps poorly trained, spending too much time in the 1990's preparing for and doing peacekeeping.  I didn't choke the guy on the spot, but felt mighty tempted.  I was tempted to yell at him that the Canadians are in @#$@#$@# Kandahar, not peaceful, quiet, remote, elevated, underpopulated and entirely not Pashtun Bamyan. 
My biggest question over the past several years is not why the Canadians have paid a higher price than any other country per troop under the ground (with the possible exception of the Danes), but:
  1. Why was anyone surprised that Kandahar would be so "kinetic"?  That is, chock full of combat.  It is the home field of the Taliban. 
Anyhow, I am amused by my own reactions--it seems that I have gone native to a degree.  Of course, the Kiwi MP statement and the NYT article are both pretty appalling displays of ignorance even if one is neither Canadian nor a CF groupie.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Foreign Aid--Getting the Facts

Me love some good data, and if you study development aid, there is now one place to go:   AidData is pretty much what the site is--heaps and heaps of data, that can be separated out by recipient, donor, activity, and year (and more, I think).  It is basically daring me to start asking questions about development and aid.  I now have to sic a student or seven on it.

If you are interested in development, foreign aid, foreign policy, or particular countries' economic inputs/outputs, this is good place to go.

Warning Signs

When a very conservative Republican Senator from Utah (Utah!) is at risk, we know the Republican Party is in deep, deep trouble.  It does seem to be the case that the party rules in Utah are particularly problematic for an incumbent in a year of anti-incumbent anger. 

It may be the case that both parties are in deep trouble, as incumbents from both are likely to face some significant challenges.  The Democrats, as the party in majority, simply have more seats to lose, and, because of past success (thanks lil Steve for that), they have more fragile seats.

Still, it is more likely that the primary processes of the Republicans will go awry with some serious outbidding to the right.  Then the question will become--will the damaged Republican or his/her entirely too far to the right/loony direction (one can move to a loony, non-right direction, to be clear) replacement be competitive against the Democrat so that the increased turnout among the anti-incumbents overcomes the revulsion by the mainstream?  That is, does the median voter, due to motivated turnout by Tea Party and other folks, move either far right or simply off the scale?  Or do these folks just pull the Republican candidate so far away from the middle that the turnout of "populists" is offset by the Dems, the independents and the Republicans that we used to think of us being only mildly conservative?

Interesting times indeed.

Different Kind of National Identity Debate

After writing so much about Quebec, it is interesting to check out a country produced by a successful peaceful secessionist effort (one that was entirely elite driven): Slovakia.

Slovakia is in the middle of an identity debate as there has been a bill put forth to compel more identification with Slovakia--more anthem-playing, more flag-waving, etc.

The really interesting thing is that there is a fair amount of push-back:
Earlier this month, nearly a thousand students, teachers and parents took to the streets, chanting, “No to Patriotism!” in front of the palace of the president, Ivan Gasparovic. Some, dressed in traditional Slovak folk costumes, defiantly sang the national anthem — whose words, nationalists had complained, many of them did not know.
Enough folks see this as the empty (yet costly, compelling schools to buy flags and other stuff) posturing that it is.  On the other hand, this seems pretty familiar--I remember saying the Pledge of Allegiance growing up in the US although I don't remember flags in every classroom. 

It does sound like Slovaks have a sense of humor about it:
When Mr. Hudak recently made fun of the bill on his program, calling the coat-of-arms a “portrait of white antenna planted in three scoops of Smurf ice-cream” and the national anthem a “not very well done poem about bad weather over the Tatra mountains” the vice-chairwoman of the right-wing Slovak National Party, Anna Belousovova, called him “perverted” and threatened criminal charges. His ratings soared.
And the young folks are pretty bright:
The law has attracted the particular ire of students. Veronika Kosnirova, a 19 year-old senior at Mr. Kyndl’s school, said that being forced to listen to a recording of the national anthem would inspire giggles rather than pride. “You can’t force identity on people,” she said
 This is where I would make the predictable remark that the parties in Quebec don't get it. 

* HT to Sherrill S for the fb link.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spanish Train, or Lost's Jacob/FLocke Uneven Game

Thanks, Matthew

Talking About Elections

Not me.  Marc Lynch has a very clear analysis of the Iraqi elections.  My quick summary--the elections did not suck.  Much better than Afghanistan and Iran in terms of real competition, many more folks crossing various lines (sectarian, especially) to vote for candidates and parties that claim to represent Iraq rather than Iran or the US, efforts to undermine the Sunnis via Chalabi's anti-Baathist shenanigans backfired, and more.

Of course, much wrangling ahead between the two leading parties--current PM vs ex PM.  But given where Iraq was 6 months ago, one year ago, three years ago, this is not a bad place to be.  Does not justify the invasion, but it might justify the surge, the awakening, Petraeus and COIN, Gates and even a bit of Bush making some decent choices after making so many tragic ones.  Obama may be able to run in 2012 with Iraq largely in the background with another difficult promise kept. 

Still, this could all go haywire.  Bears watching and following Lynch at as he continues to provide clarity on these issues.

The L Word

I have come to the belief that much of the grumbling over the past year in US politics is due to the fact that the Republicans are sore losers.  That's right, they are LOSERS.  They lost the election, and now they lost a major policy battle.  The strange thing is that over the course of time, folks of a certain persuasion have felt entitled to rule and to win.  But rule number one of democracy is that sometimes you lose and you have to accept it. 

Democrats are good losers.  Hell, we are great losers.  We are used to losing elections and getting tossed out of power, losing major policy battles and moving on.  Despite the fact that the Democrats dominated Congress for much of the postwar period, Republicans, perhaps due to 12 years of rule from Reagan to Bush I, have become used to ruling.  The entire Clinton administration seemed to be one big hissy fit because the GOP candidate came in 2nd.  Hey, at least, Bush and then Dole didn't finish third. 

So, now we have some death threats, minor actors of violence and so on in the aftermath of the health care vote.  What these Americans forget is that the Revolution's key slogan was No Taxation Without Representation, not We Must Always Get What We Want.  What the founding folks wanted was Taxation with Representation.  Representation does not mean winning--it means that your views are represented, that folks you vote for are involved in the decision-making process.  Now, if your representatives acted like gamblers and pushed all-in, thinking that they had a winning hand and that the other guy was bluffing and were wrong on both counts, well, either you chose the wrong representatives or they served your poorly.  But the system worked like it was supposed to--there was much discussion, debate and deliberation (the three d's of disapparation) and then a series of votes.  The majority won, pushing forward a bill that actually reflected some very significant compromises.  So much so that a significant hunk of the public's opposition comes from the left. 

So, I just have one message for the opponents of health care reform: suck it up  You lost.  Learn from your mistakes and move on.  Dwelling on the loss will do no one any good (wow, I should learn from my own advice, huh?).  Fighting to repeal is a huge waste of political capital and will surely alienate much of the public even if it pleases a significant hunk of your base.  But if you want to live in loser-ville, then so be it.  You cannot win every time.  This was a huge loss, but you will not be able to recover without accepting it.

When I Hate Being Right

Oy!  Quebec's Liberal Party (holy irony, Batman) has tabled a bill to deal with the niqab "problem."  It would deny women (and I suppose men) government employment and public services if they do not show their face.  Even if it is entirely irrelevant.  That is, even if you are public servant that never deals with the public, or even if you are consuming a public service where seeing one's face is not required.  For instance, it seems to be the case that university students (since all universities in Quebec are public) will be prohibited from wearing a niqab, but in a class of 600 students, it really makes no difference to me if a student is wearing one or not.  I don't check IDs for when students hand in papers or do exams, so seeing a face is irrelevant.  Headless students would freak me out, but a covered face?  Not so much.

Of course, this all makes sense.  Not from a perspective of what follows logically from the challenges of the situation nor from what is supposed to be a Charter of Rights, but rather from a logic of outbidding.  In ethnic politics, particularly in first-past-the-post (plurality wins each district) electoral system, we can often expect parties to try to outbid each other in being the best defender of that group's ethnic interests.  The competition pushes each far past the point of what might be necessary to what is likely to be oppressive and then ultimately self-destructive.  The classic case is Sri Lanka where two parties competed to represent 90% of the population, leading a series of elections and then laws that systematically excluded Tamils.  This, of course, produced a reaction--a civil war that may have just recently ended after more than twenty-five years of bloodshed.

I am not saying that the Muslims in Quebec will start a civil war, but if we want to alienate a minority community and create greater sympathy for extremism and terrorism, this is not a bad way to go.

And what precisely is the problem?  There is an issue here, as the niqab issue is precisely where reasonable and accommodation hit their limits.  Should women wearing niqab refuse from having their picture taken for ID cards?  No.  Should they be allowed to insist on a female photographer?  If one is easily available, then a compromise makes sense.  If one is not available, then the accommodation would not be reasonable.  To be sure, there is a problem with a religious practice that "works" in societies where women have restricted rights (women don't drive in Saudi Arabia so they don't need licenses to drive) but will not work too well in societies where women are integrated.

So, some thought is required about how to handle the challenges in a nuanced way.  But that does not play well in any political system, but especially one where identity politics and a hyperventilating media combine to exaggerate any situation that comes along.  The Quebec Liberals have long been cowards on a variety of issues, whether it is English education in Quebec or reasonable accommodation of immigrants.  So, we should not be surprised.  Appalled yes, surprised no.

Of course, significant elements of the Parti Quebecois wants to go further--restrict any religious symbols in public except for Christian ones supposedly for the sake of heritage.  Sure.  Perhaps France does not always have the best model.  Better for health care, which they ignore, but not so good for dealing with multi-ethnic communities.

Tyranny of the majority, indeed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One Not Spoiled Lost Mystery

Richard and his eyes:

More Lost Games

Just another thought on Lost

Good News From the Darkest of Places

The great thing about extremists is that they overplay their hands.  The Sunnis in Iraq realized that the AQ types were a greater threat than the infidel Americans.  The Taliban have had been constrained by their past--they only gain through coercion.  The people know what a Taliban government would look like, and are not attracted to it. And now it appears to be the case that Shabab, the fundamentalist Islamic movement in Somalia, may have gone too far as well.  It is too early to tell for sure, but Somalis are starting to turn against them.  Hearts and minds may be cliched, but antagonizing the people makes it mighty hard to win.

Again, we need to be cautious about this, because there is a lot going on here, and it is not clear that the situation has tipped far enough to be irreversible or even anywhere close to that. Moreover, replacing Islamic fundamentalism with clan warfare is not much of an improvement.  The next big question is whether the clans can get along at all and for how long.

But, there is room for some hope in a place where hope has been systematically attacked for decades.

Silly Liberals

There are those on the left that are not happy with the health care reform act.  It does not go far enough (not single payer), it concedes too much (restrictions on federal $ going to abortions), and the like.  But, if this article is correct, then the reform goes further than most liberals wildest dreams--of addressing inequality.  Raising taxes on the rich to cover the expansion of health care coverage to most of the population--isn't that what American liberals have longed for?

The more I read of this law, the more I like it.  Funny how passage has suddenly produced a bunch of information about the bill--victory apparently wipes away the scary sauce.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Holy Principal-Agent Theory Batman! Lost thoughts [spoilers]

Before I ponder Lost, a question that was hotly debated during the commercials:
Are the Windows 7 ads depicting different people in the flashback or just made up/altered versions of the person who is thinking that Windows 7 is their idea?  This mystery is actually more important than any of those on Lost.

It Actually Works

One last bit of travel notes from my visit to New Zealand.

Air New Zealand made news world-wide by using body-painted folks to advertise the airline and, more importantly, to instruct passengers on the safety stuff. 

Yes, it works.  I paid more attention during this safety briefing than on all of the other flights I had over the past two weeks combined.  Of course, there really is nothing to see, as the video is shot in ways that block anything potentially interesting, including the use of demo seat belts, oxygen masks and lifevests to block naughty bits.  Still, it was fun to watch.

And, as you can see below, it was apparently fun to make.

This airline also used bodypainted folks for an ad campaign, so sex is not just for safety, but for selling as well.  The things you learn when traveling to distant lands.

Diplomacy, Old-School

So, the question then becomes--is this worth five minutes of class time in Intro to IR?  Or does it become, dare I say it, part of an essay assignment. 

Readers, let me know how I should use this clip (and HT to Florian B.)

Quebec is Always Interesting

Not always sane, but always interesting.  We have two different nationalist news stories going on right now:

First, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois (the separatist party at the national level, as opposed to the Parti Quebecois, which is the separatist party at the provincial level) got in the news this weekend by comparing Quebec's fight for independence to the French resistance during World War II.  And now he is upset that people made the connection that he wanted everyone to make--that Canada = Nazi occupation.

As I have blogged before, one of the key problems for the sovereignty movement (that is, separatism) is that Canada is not oppressive.  Quebeckers are simply not that motivated to become independent because they have won all of the major political battles except referendums on independence.  The Canadian government does not arrest those who foment political dissent along linguistic lines.  Indeed, Duceppe and the BQ members are treated much the same as the rest of the parliament.  And they get to play the role of spoiler in the political system, preventing any party from gaining a majority lately.  Consequently, the BQ and the PQ have a significant challenge--how to remain relevant when things are going pretty well.

Which leads to the second nationalist crisis du jour--reasonable accommodation.  Yep, it is back, as there are folks who want to make it official that Quebec is a secular province and that religious displays or rights ought to take a backseat.  The sparks for this renewal are two incidents--a woman who was tossed out of a French language class because she wears a niqab and the regulation of religious private schools.  The provincial Liberal party stepped into it with the latter issue, as it was considering creating exceptions for the Jewish private schools so that they would meet various regulations.  But it is really the niqab issue that seems to be motivating the media and politicans, if not the public. 

And there is something to this--that not all demands can or should be accommodated.  But there is this dynamic where any event, such as this, is blown up into a major crisis with demands for regulated secularism.

What do these two events have in common?  Well, one of the leaders of the secularization manifesto is Bernard Landry, former leader of the PQ.  What does this manifesto call for?
On Tuesday, 100 intellectuals, including former premier Bernard Landry, sociologist Guy Rocher, writer Jacques Godbout and journalist Marie-France Bazzo, signed a manifesto in Le Devoir calling for Quebec to become a secular state where the wearing of any religious garb like a hijab, cross or yarmulke by civil servants would be banned.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Benefits of HC Reform

The Democrats could have been this clear earlier:

As soon as health care passes, the American people will see immediate benefits. The legislation will:

  • Prohibit pre-existing condition exclusions for children in all new plans;
    • Spew take: Amazing this didn't happen earlier.  Could have been achieved without this reform but this loophole's existence suggests that might not have been easy.
  • Provide immediate access to insurance for uninsured Americans who are uninsured because of a pre-existing condition through a temporary high-risk pool;
    • Spew: Huge.  Previous efforts to address this seem to have failed.
  • Prohibit dropping people from coverage when they get sick in all individual plans;
    • Spew:  This gets to the heart of the problem with the current system.  This reform by itself is worth all of the trouble.
  • Lower seniors prescription drug prices by beginning to close the donut hole;
    •  Spew: The prescription drug law of a few years ago remains a disaster.
  • Offer tax credits to small businesses to purchase coverage;
    • Spew: Sure.  Anything to get more folks covered.
  • Eliminate lifetime limits and restrictive annual limits on benefits in all plans;
    •  Spew:  This might, just might, mean that sickness does not become bankruptcy.
  • Require plans to cover an enrollee's dependent children until age 26;
    • Spew: With this job market?
  • Require new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations without cost-sharing;
    • Spew: About time.  We really need to do more on prevention.  Spending here is very cost-efficient.
  • Ensure consumers have access to an effective internal and external appeals process to appeal new insurance plan decisions;
    •  Spew: Some accountability is way overdue.
  • Require premium rebates to enrollees from insurers with high administrative expenditures and require public disclosure of the percent of premiums applied to overhead costs.
    • Spew:  Now if they could only apply that to administrative costs in other fields, like academic?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Anticipating Pac 2

Watched the tape of the first episode of Pacific this morning, and enjoyed it.  Thus far, though Band of Brothers has a better start.  But then that may not be fair.  BoB starts with an extended episode that focuses on the intra-company dynamics between Sobel and everyone else. 

For more on episode one, check below:

Flashback to the 80's

Yes, I am looking forward to Hottub Time Machine.  Who isn't?

Fun Q&A with the four protagonists in today's NYT.  Strange that they did not list Say Anything as that was one of the most definitive movies of the 1980's. 

Anyhow, for those who grew up in the 80's, a fun piece to read.

Chicken and Egg

Good discussion, despite the crappy headline, on the opium challenge in Afghanistan.  The US is no longer eradicating opium, which will make the US popular not just among the opium farmers, but also among the allies, as eradication is deeply unpopular amongst the farmers.

The article addresses the central question--does insecurity lead to more opium or opium lead to more insecurity.  Hard to tease out the direction, but the correlation is clear enough.  Contested provinces have far more opium problems than ones that are much more secure.  But eradicating the crop is likely to lose hearts and minds.  The idea now is that increasing security will ultimately lead to less of an opium problem.

The article addresses many of the dilemmas that come up, as the opium problem, like the related problem of corruption, raises all kinds of difficult trades and challenges of sequencing--what to do first.

There is some good news--the overproduction of poppies means that the crop now is only a few times more profitable than the alternative crops, which might make switching a possibility. 

Catching Up on Lost

Videotape still does the trick in the second decade of the 21st century, so I am caught up on Lost.  For my thoughts on the two episodes broadcast since I went to Australia, see below.

Speaking of US politics

I should read more often.  Here is a post that focuses on turnover and a small argument against term limits.  Just smart, clear stuff.  See, getting up at 5 am on a Sunday can be educational!

Equilibria, People, Equilibria

I am cranky because my body clock has not re-set yet so I woke up way early on my first morning back home.  So, when I see articles that indicate that the Health Care vote would be close, I am reminded of one of the few lessons of American politics I gained in grad school (having successfully avoided all courses in that subfield):

Vote outcomes in the House and other legislative bodies are the results of strategic action.  The final result is an equilibrium that was produced by actors that essentially knew the final outcome--a win for the Dems.  Once the party's leaders knows that it is going to win, then they can allow folks to defect, especially those with fragile districts.  So, the vote on bill such as this or the famous tax hike in 1994 are going to be very, very close.  As long as the party can be sure that it will go over the top, the margin itself is really not important.  This does not mean that the Dems cannot lose, as folks may change their mind and as the party leadership may screw up the count.  But a close vote by itself should not be surprising.  Indeed, it should be expected.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Original Movie. Ok, Not Original, but Potentially Amusing

New Gilligan's Island?  I must have missed this in my trip prep, but we have multiple outlets recommending a cast.  Too bad they did not consult an expert like myself, given the hours I put in a long time ago.
  • Gilligan:
    • EW:  Andy Samberg.  Samberg would be fine if it was pure silly over-the-top, perhaps too old.
    • NYT: Michael Cera.  Not bad, but I prefer bumbling to awkward.
    • People: Justin Long
    • SPEW: Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland or Justin Long.
  •  Skipper:
    • EW/People: Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Inspired choice.
    • NYT: Nick Offerman of Parks and Rec.  He might be good, but I don't know his stuff that well.
    • SPEW: Hoffman.  Inspired, as Hoffman has all the pitches, and throw inside and outside.  John Goodman can also rock here.  A potentially odd but interesting choice would be Jeff Bridges.
  • Mr. Howell
    • EW: Stanley Tucci.  Again, inspired
    • NYT: Michael Duncan Clarke?  
    • People: George Clooney.  Sorry, the lead is Gilligan. Clooney would distract too much.
    • SPEW: Tucci.  He, like Hoffman, can do it all.  Pathos, humor, etc.
  • Mrs. Howell
    • EW: Christine Baranski
    • NYT: Jennifer Lopez
    • People: Susan Sarandon.
    • SPEW: Any of these would be good.
  • The Professor
    • EW: Greg Kinnear
    • NYT: Robert Downey, Jr.  
    • People: John Krasinski.  Not bad.
    • SPEW: Either Kinnear or RD, Jr. are good choices.  Having just watched Tropic Thunder on NZ TV again, I would have to go with Downey.  He just owns it.
  • Ginger:
    • EW/NYT vote for Christina Hendricks.  Cannot argue with that, but Debra Messing would also work--strong comic chops.  Still Christina has more oomph.
    • People: Beyonce.  Oh my.  Done and done.
  • Mary Ann (and, of course, I was a Mary Ann guy):
    • EW: Anna Kendrick.  Not a bad choice.
    • NYT: Zooey Deschanel.  
    • People: Ginnifer Goodwin.  Sorry, she could not carry "He's Not that Into You".
    • SPEW:  I was thinking Rachel Bilson to bring the kids in despite being a big Zooey fan.  If they want to go younger still, then Miley Cyrus.  
Lots of options in each position.  It really depends on what mix of over-the-top spoof/clever parody they are going for.

    Last Travel Notes Down Under

    The trip back was not interrupted by magnetic anomalies or mysterious characters named Jacob.  Or even less mysterious colleagues named Jacob.

    Leaving is, though, the hardest part:
    • Suddenly, my credit cards didn't seem to work in Wellington--luckily after I checked out of the hotel.  They worked fine in Sydney on the way back today.
    • NZ has a departure tax, so one must line up or queue up again after getting past the airline's front desk.  Luckily, my debit card still worked, and cash seemed to be ok.  The irony here is that NZ was very cautious about admitting me--making me show a return ticket, but the tax would seem to constrain departures.  They need to make up their mind.
    • The challenge in Sydney was finding working wifi.  And none free.  Plenty of time there to try to figure out--do I eat breakfast or lunch?  Since it was dinner time back home but breakfast time in NZ and Aus, I, of course, chose both.   But this does raise the question--is breakfast a very good or very bad meal to have in an airport.  The choices are usually pretty bad (unless there is a TGI Fridays) as the various outlets are not designed to serve breakfast. But I managed to put together a veritable cornucopia of pastries.
    • Air Canada has really lousy entertainment options.  Sure, the trans-Pacific flights had screens in the headrests (not all intra-Canada flights have those yet), but the choices did not change from the beginning to end of the month, and the choices were both slim and weak.  I ended up watching Ninja Assassin, which shows how desperate I was.
    • I try to avoid making connections in Canada as part of flying internationally (mostly to the US), but I didn't have much of a choice this time.  The problem is the game of having to get through customs, collect bags, and then get through the second customs step and then put the bags back on a conveyor belt and then getting to the plane.  
      • Since my Sydney to Vancouver flight was delayed (the "engineering problem" was blocked toilets--too much info, thanks), I barely made my connection after the obstacle course that included: my bags coming off late, a line for the second set of customs including a guy who had to fill out extra forms since he lost a bag, folks in front of me in security having set off the detectors (I did get patted down in Sydney), and then a long run back to the gate (which was close to my previous gate but both far from customs/baggage).  
      • I made it just in time, but one of my bags did not, even though I dropped off both at exactly the same time.  The second bag was just delivered to my house moments ago.
    Despite the hassles of flying more than 20 hours each way, the trip was very much worth it.  I learned a great deal for my research, in addition to learning alot about a part of the world I had never visited before.  I bought a hunk of Aussie books, so I plan to learn more and hope to return some day soon.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010

    Last Day Blues [Updated]

    Today is the last day of my trip, excluding tomorrow's time-traveling, globe-spanning, plane-changing, headache-inducing odyssey back home.  I can only hope to avoid the magnetic force about mysterious islands in the South Pacific.

    I have been extremely lucky with the weather, as it is warm and not so windy today.  Yesterday was nice as well.  So, I have done some tourism this morning before meeting an academic to talk about NZ and A-stan.  Yesterday was a very productive day with a morning roundtable with NZ foreign affairs and aid folks and an afternoon roundtable with NZ defense folks.  The latter was especially useful for my research.  It turns out that the NZ special forces (their Special Air Services) actually can and do fire their weapons!  Well, I learned that their PM might have indicated some surprise there, but I learned a great deal.  My goal, when I get home, is to immediately write a chapter that compares the Aussies and the Kiwis while also transcribing my notes.  Then, I have to go back and write up the chapters from last summer's escapades.

    So, what else have I learned about Wellington and New Zealand?
    • What is the plural of Phoenix?  One of their key teams is the Wellington Phoenix, which makes it hard to refer to them/it.
    • They seem to smoke more here, but that might just be more in evidence since they seem to run outside and enjoy the sun and relative windless-ness.
    • Kiwis are less polite drivers to pedestrians than Aussies.  But that might just be that the Kiwis are average in that regard and Aussies are exceptional.
    • Their museum was very interesting, but I had to hustle through it.
    • Their immigration history is quite distinct from their more criminal neighbors, as this pic indicates--waves up and down, varying along with war and prosperity.
    Regrets on this trip?  Not many, other than not being able to take the family.
    • I wish I had one more day in Wellington so that I could take a ferry or bus or both to see more of the surroundings.
    • Of course, if I had significantly more time, I would have liked to have gone to the Great Barrier Reef and other places in Australia (you can pet Koalas in Queensland but not in the state in which Sydney is located--New South Wales).   And I would have liked to see more of NZ as well.
    • They had terrific cattleman's coats--they look like what the cowboys wear in Spaghetti westerns--and i would have loved to buy one.  But I am cheap, and it would have been difficult to lug around.  My baggage, due to books, is already overweight.
    Pics to be added once my camera battery is charged.  Cheers, mate!  [updated]

    PS  and to be clear, it is Friday here, and I get to live through Saturday, March 20th, twice.

    The 80's Are Under-rated

    ht to Kyle S.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    Kiwi is a Bird?

    First lesson in New Zealand is not that a Kiwi is a bird, it is that they are very serious about their "border."
    • I got sniffed multiple times by a contraband-seeking lab while waiting to get to the customs desk.  And then another dog that was hanging out at the baggage claim. 
    • The customs declaration card asked, as usual, if I had been at a farm, but also asked if I had been at an abattoir.  Um, what kinds of folks is New Zealand usually receiving?  Slaughterhouse workers? Tourists who like to visit abattoir? 
    Second, the flight here was a bit different:
    • They handed out DVD players to the folks in the first several rows, including a few rows of coach.  Strange way to entertain a select few folks.  
    • Dessert on the plane--a fruit pop!  
    Third, Wellington is mighty, mighty windy.  The cab driver laughed at me when I mentioned I had an umbrella.  Now I know why.  I should have packed another layer of clothing just for a few days in Wellington.

    Today was hanging out with parliamentarians at the Beehive.  Really.  Tomorrow, foreign affairs and defense folks.

    Aussie, Aussie, Aussie

    Ten days or so is and was obviously going to be not nearly enough.  The waves were great, the people were tremendous, and the research was extremely productive.

    It was only on my way to the airport that I realized a connection that I had long ignored.  In Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, Chekhov realizes that the ship is the one that the original Enterprise left stranded--the Botany Bay.  Named after the original spot of potential colonization in Australia by who?  By criminals.  Of course, in the ST universe, Khan ended up a vengeance-seeking lunatic because the planet was not stable.  Would he have ended up producing an uber-friendly, and quite successful country/continent if not for an accident of seismic or spacial fate (I forget which)?  That is, I find it wonderfully ironic that the source of some (although, of course, not all) of Australia's inhabits were folks sentenced to "transportation" to Australia (once Georgia and other North American locales were no longer possible after the American revolution)--crims as my interview companion put it.  And we now have a country that is pretty terrific.  Definitely worth the endless flight.

    A few last random thoughts:
    • What is it with hot cross buns?  Didn't end up having one, but they were everywhere.  THE baked good of Australia?
    • The fun part was that the big news item during my visit was the relationship of the captain of the national cricket team--they ended up breaking up.  But the coverage was almost Tiger-esque.  For cricket.  I spent a fair amount of time watching Aussie sports networks, and I can now see the appeal of their version of football and of rugby, but cricket is still just, well, boring.  But the wife/girlfriend story was entertaining.  She may have thrown her engagement ring down the drain.  Good times!
    • The Sydney suburban rail system is just amazing--comfortable trains, well designed signage, frequent trains, etc.  Makes me wonder why Montreal's is so lame.  Then I remember that public service is not the priority of parties, politicians and governments in Quebec.
    •  Dog's breakfast--I heard this phrase a few times.  Not quite sure how to make sense of it.

    Monday, March 15, 2010

    Pentultimately Speaking

    I have less than a day left in Sydney and in Australia.  I head off to Wellington, New Zealand for the last part of my research trip--asking the Kiwis about their work.  Before I go, I get to meet a retired military officer to get some additional perspective.

    So, what did I learn today?
    • I suddenly realized why I like Sydney so much--it combines the best of London with the best of San Diego, my favorite non-North American and North American cities respectively.  Lots of great food choices, even if I was not always wise.  Great beer.  Beautiful locale, terrific beaches, friendly people.
    • The surfers at Bondi seem better than those I remember near La Jolla, but that might just be time and distance playing tricks.
    • People yelling over! or under! when waves approach is apparently global.  
    • The water here, even with the waves (and some were mighty big), was amazingly clear.  
    • I had been turned off of body-surfing after getting repeatedly pounded into the beach last summer in Delaware, but a great beach makes a huge difference.  Here at Bondi, the slope is so gradual that one can body surf for quite a distance without eating sand.
    • And the southern peninsula that sticks up northwards to help create the large Sydney bay is much bigger, so walking from one side to another took much longer than expected.  
    • Strange street sign du jour--"Refugee Island" refers to concrete in the middle of the street to ease pedestrians crossing the street, but has other potential implications.
    • My feet are going to like Wellington, I think.  All of my appointments are near my hotel, and I don't plan on walking all over the place. 
    Finally, something I forgot to mention after the Ghost Tour the other night.  One of the group apparently had a Ghost App for his iphone to measure ghostly emanations.  So, there really is an app for everything.

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Israel Punking the US

    I don't like to write much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it is the one ethnic conflict that I have avoided since a very bad job talk in 1993.  It brings out people's emotions and is also so over-written that too much reading would be required to keep up  This is why I don't write on Quebec in academic journals--too much work to get up to speed.

    Anyway, I shared a piece on Petraeus, Biden and the recent Israeli snubs on my fb account, and it led to comments on comments.  Not a great venue for such a discussion.  So, here is my take in a nutshell.

    I did mention Walt and Mearsheimer, not because they are right (I find their arguments to be really bad social science), but they do raise an important issue.  They argue that US policy is driven by a coherent and all powerful Israeli lobby, which then led the US into the Iraq war.  Because, as we know, Chalabi is an Israeli agent.  Or not. 

    Anyway, to be clear, they do have one point that is on target, but is lost a bit in all the hoopla.  American foreign policy should be driven by American national interests.  Too, Israel should be driven by Israeli national interests.  These do not always coincide.  And this divergence becomes clear when General Petraeus notices that Israeli intransigence is doing the US no favors.  Of course, one could argue that Israel must take seriously US concerns, given the reliance on this one outside actor.  Israel does not have a line up of alternate great powers that can assist Israel.  So, either mind the relationship or learn to live on your own. 

    I don't think the US will cut off Israel entirely, but it does appear that domestic politics seems to be trumping alliance maintenance.  Perhaps I am seeing this from a certain perspective since Australia is currently engaged in a bit of alliance maintenance itself. 

    The key question is not why did Israel announce new building in East Jerusalem while Biden was in town, but what is Israel doing?  It might be comfortable with alienated neighbors, but alienating the US is not in Israel's interests.

    And the US?  It has many interests in the area, with Israel being just one of them.  With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia roiling again, Yemen yemening, Israel is simply only a priority in terms of how it affects these other things.  The folks in the US that care deeply about Israel might not like it, but the world does not begin or end with Israel.  Obama may get some abuse for putting some distance from Israel, but he is used to that.  And the more Israel embarasses American leaders, and the more American military leaders depict Israeli policies as security threats, the more freedom Obama will have.
    There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers - and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military. While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden's trip to Israel has forever shifted America's relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.[FP's mideast channel]
     This is where Obama has more power--not on health care, but on foreign policy priorities.  Putting Israeli into CENTCOM, as the cited article indicates that Petraeus is advocating, would send a clear message that Israel belongs to the region of dysfunction and not the region of institutions, cooperation and all that (Europe, even if Greece is in that one).

    Mearsheimer and Walt would not disagree that Israel is not the only ME priority, but given their new-found status as scholars of ethnic/domestic politics and foreign policy (yes, I am being snarky), they should not expect any foreign policy change.  I disagree.  The near future shall be interesting, more so because Israeli domestic dynamics are alienating its only real friend in the world. 

    A Lovely Weekend in a Lovely City

    Just having a great time with the legally required to be friendly Aussies.  Ok, if it is not required by law, then I am really confused.

    What is more confusing?  The Aussies think that Americans are polite!  At least, that was the report of two couples I was chatting with whilst waiting for a Ghost Tour to start.   Lots of ugly deaths in the Rocks area of Sydney--the original settlement.  Good times.

    But what is it about Aussies that get them asserting that they coined heaps of key phrases?
    • Square meal (referring to the plates on a 1700s ship)
    • Cat in the bag, referring to a cat of nine tails.
    • Saved by the bell--bells connected to bodies buried but not perhaps dead.
    • Dead ringer--ditto.
    I learned a great deal at the Sydney Wildlife place :
    • Kangaroos tend to slap fight.  They are not serious, because there are no females around over which to fight.
    • They do indeed hop!  And even in a small area, they get going fast and are quite nimble.  
    • They named the dominant male Shredder.  Or perhaps the roo realized he had a tough name and then became dominant.
    • Koalas are even stranger than I expected
      • They are not dopey due to Eucalyptus leaves intoxicating them.  They are dopey to conserve energy because Eucalyptus leaves have little nutritional value.  But evolutionarily speaking, if one can speak evolutionarily (perhaps not legal in TX, grammatically incorrect everywhere else), it is a decent survival strategy since no one else wants these leaves.
      • Because Euc leaves are toxic, the mom can only get the kid to be able to digest the stuff by ... first giving the baby pap--mom poop--to eat.  I would spend the rest of my life stoned or acting that way if I had to eat my mom's poop.
      • They have a backward facing pouch, which makes them closer to a wombat.  But I never figured out how a pouch can be backwards facing.
    Latest lessons in Aussie<-> North American translation
    • Fairy floss is cotton candy.
    • Whinging is whining.
    Travel notes:
    • Restaurants tend to be really slow getting bills to folks eating alone.  Sure, because we liked to loiter by ourselves.
    • I am faster than a ferry.  I wanted to get from point a to point b, and, as it turned out, waiting for a ferry to get around Miller's Point made less sense than walking up the hill to my hotel, changing and then walking down to the harbor on the other side.  Flash!
    • Why was I outracing a ferry?  To get some Brazilian BBQ.  My first time ever.  And I think I will be digesting this meal fo the rest of my life.  Five kinds of meat, oh my!
    And the night concludes with some travel-related TV by happenstance:
    • Border Security.  A reality TV program where they show the TSA types catching folks who are taking contraband back into the country.  Strange outcome--woman stuffs food into every possible spot in her bags, quite forbidden, and only gets the stuff destroyed and a $220 fine.  Very much a slap on the wrist.   The woman bringing back heroin inside her body gets six years.
    • Air Wars.  Shows passengers and airline employees fight.  Why did the airline agree to televise this?  The stories tend to make the passengers look bad, which is bad.  But when the airline looks bad, which happens a few times, that is bad, too.  I am very confused.

    Saturday, March 13, 2010

    Academy Award Formula, Perfected

    HT to who else but the uber-tweeter Roger Ebert.

    Anecdotes vs Statistics

    Walking in Canberra this past week and one day in Sydney led to some observations and conclusions that are probably a bit off:  that is, the rabbits that beat the rabbit-proof fence are not the only overly fertile invaders on this continent/island. 

    Where ever I have gone, I have seen heaps of kids and many, many pregnant women.  And then today, I went for a reasonably quick walk from my hotel down to the park under the Sydney Harbor Bridge and then around and back to my hotel, and I saw something like seven or eight wedding parties.  Most were having their photographers take pictures along a scenic vista (and this area is mighty, mighty scenic) where the major concern was probably to make sure there was not another wedding party in the background of the shots.  The others had taken over a pub or two, including my own hotel.  There, several men in kilts and women also with legs showing were tossing back some excellent beer.

    Anyhow, this led me to think that Australia's fertility rate might be higher than the European countries I visited last summer where pregnant women and small kids are not nearly as abundant.  As it turns out, I was half right.  Australia's 1.78 (children per woman) is much higher than Germany's 1.48, but a bit lower than France's 1.98.  And Australia does exceed Canada's 1.58, but all are below the US's 2.05, which leads all of the advanced democracies except New Zealand's 2.1 [source is here].

    Anyhow, it may just be a regional or seasonal surge.  Or perhaps just I am generalizing way too much from a few noticeable belly buttons.

    Sydney Day 1

    Just a beautiful city.
    • It seems that it is against the law for Aussies not to be sincerely friendly.  In just one day, I have met several folks, including along cliffside paths, who have been most friendly.  And this is the same as I experienced in Canberra.  
    • I am staying at hotel that is also a microbrew pub.  Yes, I am not as dumb as I look.
    • I had their beer called "Three Sheets."  Indeed.
    • Turns out Syndey is akin to LA or NYC in that the waitresses all seem to be aspiring actresses.
    • Nice to see Hogan's Heroes on Aussie TV.
    • In Manly, a beautiful penisula that sticks out from the north side of the harbor into the Pacific was asked by an incredible drunk guy about where he might find his keys.  And it was 9:30am.  Brilliant.
    • Turns out cinnamon rolls are called cinnamon rolls in Australia.  The research paid off.
    • Tonight, I go on a ghost tour.  Should be entertaining.

    Last Day in Canberra

    I had a great week in Canberra.  It ended with three last conversations, including one that addressed a lot of questions I had.  So, just a few last thoughts from Canberra.
    • First, when I went to the chemist (pharmacy), I had to buy some ibuprofen, but I had to be briefed since it was a behind the counter kind of medicine. 
    • Second, it was interesting to see that Aussie PM John Curtin during World War II defied Churchill and FDR who wanted Aussie troops coming back from the Med to go to Burma.  Curtin wantd them back home for defense against a feared Japanese invasion (that was never planned).
    • Third, first PM was nicknamed Toby Tosspot!

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Five Years and Out?

    The head of the British military says that in five years, the Brits could be out of Afghanistan. Given that Sir David Richards was once head of ISAF, he may know what he is talking about.  Or not.  Seems both bold and not so bold.  Five years is a decent amount of time.  And the idea that the outsiders are then only doing training (and perhaps still OMLT-ing) might be possible. 

    Of course, the big questions are more on the political side of things and on the police side of things. 

    But Richards' claims are intriguing.

    Aussie-land, Day 6b

    Had a great penultimate day in Canberra with meetings with colonel, general, and member of parliament.  My afternoon got suddenly free, so I hit the National Museum of Australia.  What did I learn?
    • I learned that the discoveries of things like kangaroos and platypi really upset biologists since they violated their understandings of things like mammals. 
    • Australia has a history of incredibly nasty bush fires.
    • The Australian Prime Minister apologized a couple of years ago for the treatment of the aborigines.
    • The Aussies use every part of the kangaroo.  Almost bought this pouch but, as a man, ick.
    • Apparently, kangaroos are quite common, even wandering through the suburbs of Canberra.  We went looking for them at a set of defence buildings, but did not see any.  Only evidence that I was not being lied to?  Roo poop.  Of course, it could be somebody else's poop.