Monday, May 31, 2010

Another Crisis Excuse?

Marc Lynch has his usual concise take on events off the shores of Gaza.  The funny thing is that I was just in the midst of writing a paper which asserts that democracies have some advantages when coming to grips with the problem of deterring violence while restraining themselves.  Israel is a democracy (sort of) but lacks restraint.  It lacks a sense of proportionality between threat and response.  Apparently, Israeli leaders seem to think they have alienated all those who can be alienated and will not alienate those who have not been--the US.  Guess again.  Israel is moving from strategic asset to strategic liability, with no sense or concern that it is making it very difficult for American leaders to stand by. 

No good can come from actions like these.  Just as we have seen again and again over the past few years.  Some things can be justified, but few of these actions can be, and many of them make no sense in a strict cost-benefit calculus either. 

So, either my understanding of democracy is deficient (and that may well be the case) or it might be that Israeli democracy is deficient.  I vote for the latter since my ego is less at stake.  Democracy only does what it is supposed to do when the system is functioning--but if people are not adequately represented, if competition is imperfect, if social power tilts things too much to an extreme end of the spectrum, then democracy can screw things up just as or more effectively than an authoritarian regime.  Long ago, there was much forecasting that in the future Israel could be either democratic or Jewish, but not both.  Demographics would not allow this to be finessed.  I think we are there--the choices are already being made and they are not bending towards democracy.

Sure, the other folks involved have a "vote" so that the Palestinians have not been the best of negotiating partners and some of the neighbors have been less than helpful.  But Israel's increased isolation and its trajectory have much do with Israeli domestic politics and those who have been empowered.  No wonder that the young North American Jews [non-Orthodox ones, that is] no longer see Israel as the infallible state to be defended regardless of the circumstance.

Bad News is Good News?

Interesting op-ed today in the New York Times to mark Memorial Day.  Evolving technology and increased attentiveness has meant that the unknown soldier may not exist in future wars.  That is, in the past, there would be unidentified remains, but the last few wars have had no such casualties due to DNA analysis.  So, all those we mourn now are known.  Certainly an improvement but I guess it is up to the sociologists to tell us whether unknown soldiers resonate more or less with the general public as a reminder to the costs of war.

Speaking of the costs of war, the article had this picture:

Conduct Unbecoming

The top Canadian general in Afghanistan, BG Menard, was relieved of duty and sent home this weekend because he apparently engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer--having sex with someone in a battlezone and also engaged in adultery. 

To some, this may sound somewhat strange since restricting folks from having sex for a ten month tour seems extreme.  However, given that this guy was supposed to be the leader and model for the 2,800 Canadians on the ground in Afghanistan and also leading thousands more troops from other countries, high expectations are not unreasonable. 

What is the pattern here?  Well, two possible ones.  Menard is the second senior leader in the past year to embarrass the Canadian Forces. Colonel Russell was arrested for multiple murders--a far more serious set of crimes.
Military historian Jack Granatstein said it is important to note that the allegations against Gen. Ménard are “infinitely less serious” than those against Col. Williams. If proven, they will primarily demonstrate “stupidity on the part of a commanding officer who’s job it is to set an example.”[G&M]
The second pattern is one of Menard's own stupidity.  Aside from lacking the self-control to keep his pants zipped, he also gained attention for accidentally discharging his rifle during a visit by the Chief of the Defence Staff. I don't know if the new allegations would have been enough without the prior incident, but clearly he was on thin ice.

To be fair, we do not know what Menard did, as all we have are allegations.  But the general in charge of all CF operations abroad, Lt. General Lessard, acted immediately upon hearing about the allegations and conferring with the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Minister of Defence.  This suggests that the allegations have some serious weight, especially given the timing of events in Afghanistan.

Because this all happened quickly, Lessard has sent BG Vance to take Menard's place, as Vance held this post before Menard and is the best prepared to replace him.  This might cause some challenges since he has little experience with the CF units in theatre and the staff mostly were those appointed to those positions by Menard.  However, most of these people are professionals (unlike, apparently, Menard) so it should work out.  But the Canadian Forces certainly didn't need this controversy. 

Nor did I, as it means that BG Vance will not be participating in an event at which I am speaking next month, so I will not have the chance to interview him  And interviewing Menard sometime down the wrong just got a bit harder.  Reality can often be inconvenient for research.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Slow Day at the Spew

Not much Spewage today, as my daughter and I played in parallel Ultimate tournaments.  Mine was one for captains/co-captains of the various Montreal Summer League teams (Phil took the captain part seriously).  Hers was a Junior tournament, as the folks in the Montreal Ultimate Association have been developing the sport for younger folks.  So, now I am completely spent, having played in four games and watched a fifth.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Gary Coleman Lives On

There has been plenty online about Gary Coleman's troubled life.  I would like to think that he went along with the jokes about him on Avenue Q because he had a sense of humor about his situation rather than perhaps looking for another paycheck.  I do think the song (Sucks to be Me) does a nice job of expressing his past, but also moving beyond it through humor. 

Avenue Q has adjusted but will keep Gary around.

Ending DADT Continued

The NYT has a nice interactive graphic for who voted for and against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The surprises to me are:
  1. That The Dems have more House seats in southern Texas and the mountain states than I expected.
  2. That some Democrats in New England voted against the repeal.  Same for Wisconsin and Minnesota, but I guess Democrats representing rural voters have to be weenies.  And they can afford to be since they knew that it would pass.  One thing I learned in grad school by osmosis is that vote outcomes in Congress are an equilibria--that folks figure out what the margin will be and then the leaders let those in risky districts opt out.
  3. Speaking of which, more brave Democrats in the South than I would have expected.  The few "deviant" (hee, hee) Republicans are in predictable spots: California, Washington, Delaware, Illinois (Chicago), Pennsylvania, Florida's south Miami area.  No Republicans anywhere else except for the one representing New Orleans.*
 Not so surprising:
Indeed, both opponents and supporters of the ban say a host of thorny practical questions will face the Pentagon if Congress gives final approval to legislation allowing the repeal of the ban, which could happen this summer.NYT
 While some of these would be difficult, still a big improvement over the status quo of kicking out people who are qualified and forcing people to lie about who they are and to live in fear.

Similar questions were asked when blacks were allowed to integrate previously all-white units. But that transition was not without its difficulties too, including instances of racial violence.
Just because it is hard and may be costly does not mean it is not worth doing.  What is right is worth doing.

And for bad reasons to continue the status quo:

Ms. Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit policy group, also predicted fierce debate over rules governing antidiscrimination policies toward homosexuals. She said she and other supporters of the ban worried that service members who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds would be denied promotions, a policy she called “zero tolerance” toward anti-gay discrimination.
“Over a period of time, not all at once, people who find themselves out of step with zero tolerance will not re-enlist,” she said.
She says this like it is a bad thing.  Again, substitute race here for homosexuality and see if this stands up at all?  This is not far-fetched at all since folks used the bible to oppose the integration of African-Americans.  I like the irony of flipping DADT on its head--it is ok to have homophobic thoughts--you just cannot express them without consequences in the near future in a post-DADT military.  That would be a delightful irony, indeed.

But it is not a done deal yet, and officers and enlisted folks are still being persecuted prosecuted for being gay or lesbian.

 See also here for some good links and an interesting take on it.

Penny, Say It Isn't So!

The cheesecake factory is responsible for "the most unhealthy restaurant chain dish"?  And not its cheesecake but its pasta carbonara: 2.5k calories and 85 grams of fat, the equivalent of five of KFC's double downs?

As the battle cries against obesity and overeating become shriller than ever, we've become adept at crucifying the most easily recognizable offenders -- red meat, fried chicken and sugary, fried foods. But our food education is woefully inadequate; many people still don't know what makes a meal genuinely healthy -- or that, for instance, a white-flour pasta slathered in cream sauce is just as bad as a plateful of cheesy fries.
I guess I will stick to my MickeyD's hamburgers--they never make it to the top (or is it bottom) of these lists.

Death from Above: Good or Bad? [updated]

Christine Fair, a relatively new acquaintance of mine, has posted this at, arguing that the Drone War is mis-understood.  It is more than bit controversial as a quick set of tweets and links to rebuttals have appeared. She argues essentially that the Drones are confused with the air campaign over Afghanistan, with the latter causing far more collateral damage than the former.  She does blame the CIA and the Pentagon for a doing a poor job of clarifying the outcomes in the drone campaign.

Her major and most convincing point is the absence of decent alternatives.  Doing nothing is bad and having the Pakistanis do COIN is bad.  So, what are we left with?  The question really is whether killing the various targets in Pakistan really disrupts the Afghan and Pakistan Talibans.  If it is an endless game of Hydra decapitation, I am not sure it is worth the bad PR (even if Fair is right that the PR is not as bad as often claimed).  On the other hand, perhaps this is really disruptive.  I just cannot say.  As Fair rightly argues, it is difficult to assess stuff covered in secret sauce.

Then again, if the operators screw up, bad things happen [to be fair, most investigations blame the guys and not the system]. Is that a risk worth taking?

Friday, May 28, 2010

DADT's Days Are Numbered?

Don't Ask, Don't Tell was one of the many painful mistakes the Obama Administraiton inherited, although this one was a gift from the Clinton Administration.  This era appears to coming to an end, but we are not there yet.  The SecDef and the Chairman (Mike Mullen) are in favor of repeal, the service chiefs are against it.  The key, I think, is that the legislation gives the folks in Congress cover from their regressive constituents, since it gives the SecDef and the military the authority to scrap this dysfunctional and dishonest policy. 

Tom Ricks has had a series of posts on this, including this one, which is really quite moving.  This post and others reminds me that the military must demand a higher degree of integrity than other occupations where the risks are far less significant yet we have had a policy that demands that people lie about who they are. 

One way to think about it: folks who join a country's military are putting their lives at risk for their country.  Do we want to continue to say that gays and lesbians* are less American?  The majority of Americans agree that these folks should be allowed to serve and serve openly (see link below).  So, the public has evolved since 1992, and it may be the case that the political elites have as well.  But it is not a done deal yet.

* and, yes, let's keep the focus on gays and lesbians, rather than homosexuals since the former are more positively viewed than the latter in the US.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stop! Please!?

Apparently, I am not alone in my occasional disrespect for Stop signs.  Tom Vanderbilt (who wrote a book on Traffic and is a regular columnist at Slate) has a new post, starting with the internet parody of a stop sign designed by a corporate committee.  Tom's point is that the parody is half-right--that stop deisns need to be re-designed since they fail a great deal of the time to control traffic even if the point of the parody is wrong--this is really hard stuff.

But what about in cases where no cross-traffic was visible? Would people still stop? A 1968 study in Berkeley, Calif., published in Law & Society Review, found that just 14 percent of drivers brought their cars to a full stop "without being forced to do so by cross traffic" (the so-called "California roll" was the norm).
No one has more doggedly pursued the question of stop-sign compliance than John Trinkaus, who conducted an annual stopping survey at the same intersection for nine straight years in the 1970s and '80s, finding a creeping decline. In his culminating 1997 masterwork, "Stop Sign Compliance: A Final Look," Trinkaus revisits his old intersection and finds that the percentage of people making a full stop had dropped from 37 percent in 1979 to a mere 3 percent
So, I am not the only @#$# who does this.  I think I have gotten worse since Montreal seems to spread around stop signs like they are putting Parmesan cheese on pasta.  The more signs there are at intersections where they are not really needed, the less respect I think they get.  And my intuition, like my bad driving habits, is widely shared: "traffic engineers have long known that excessive signage declines in effectiveness.... the more signs installed, the lower the compliance. "

Why Roger Ebert Rocks

Well, he does for many reasons, including a very prolific twitter account, but what I like best is his sensible sense of humor displayed in here in a review of the latest Romero Zombie movie:
Zombies, as I have noted before (and before, and before) make excellent movie creatures because they are smart enough to be dangerous, slow enough to kill and dead enough that we need not feel grief. Romero has not even begun to run out of ways to kill them. My favorite shot in this film shows a zombie having its head blown apart, with the skullcap bouncing into the air and falling down to fit neatly over the neck. If that doesn't appeal to you, nothing will.

On the island off Delaware, we meet the O'Flynns and Muldoons, who are in the dependable tradition of the Hatfields and McCoys. The O'Flynns believe zombies exist to be destroyed. The Muldoons, more humane, want to chain them up and keep them around until a cure is discovered. How do you vote? How would you feel if the Muldoon scheme worked, and you were a cured zombie? Would your flesh still look a little decomposed? Would you mention it in your entry on

Trouble at Sea

I recently declined to appear on radio as I am not an expert on North/South Korea, although I know enough not to be surprised by small but significant acts of violence initiated by the North.

So, it is a good thing that Fred Kaplan can summarize the situation.  One of things he summarizes is how little we know about North Korea:
The fact is, Pyongyang is the most cloistered capital in the world (North Korea's widespread nickname is, after all, the "hermit kingdom"), and nobody on the outside—including U.S. and allied intelligence agencies—knows much of anything about its political machinations.
 And what we do know is discouraging:
So we're back to the perennial question about the pygmy tyrant of Pyongyang: What to do? Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, is a master at parlaying his weakness into strength. He has no economic resources, no allies (except China), and probably a teetering power base at home. But he does have enough nuclear fuel to build a few A-bombs (whether he's built any, beyond the two exploded in tests, is unknown), and he has thousands of artillery rockets that are a few minutes' flying time from Seoul (as well as some ballistic missiles that could hit Tokyo).
The reigning metaphor is Chicken:
He's like the daredevil in a game of highway chicken who visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the saner players to accommodate and veer off the road.
Drezner concurs, referring to my favorite depiction--the tractor chicken game in Footloose.  Drezner suggests that NK be banned from the World Cup, as that kind of sanction will target North Korean elites (is that an oxymoron or just an incredibly small set?).

So, we are left with few choices.  As the player in the game of Chicken most sensitive to the costs of a crash, we are likely to swerve again.  This is a problem, as playing Chicken over and over again does not lead to cooperation like it does for Prisoner's Dilemma.  Indeed, if you know you are stuck in an repeated game of chicken, that simply increases the incentives to make the other guy swerve the first time.

To finish on a very dour note, this game between North and South Korea is one where war is not impossible at all--just something we do not want to imagine.  I am not saying war is likely, but sixty years of peace have not made it as "impossible" as it is between the French and Germans.  The stakes are simply very high, the options are very few, and the possibility of something escalating is real.

Non-Surprise of the Week

Perhaps even less surprising that Lost would end in a way that would irk a lot of people is that the new Obama National Security Strategy has very little in common with the preceding Bush NSS.
“It is a rather dramatic departure from the most recent prior national security strategy,” Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview. 
  • First, Obama re-establishes the war against violent extremism (terrorism) as just one of several priorities rather than the focal point.
    • Nuclear weapons remain the greatest threat, but cyber violence, climate change, and reliance on oil are also important issues. 
    • For an expert's view on this document, especially on AQ, see Lynch.
  • Second, Obama does not put pre-emption at the forefront.  Apparently, it is neither ruled in nor ruled out.
  • Third, it acknowledges the limits of American power: “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama writes in the introduction of the strategy being released on Thursday. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”
    • IR types will love the focus on over-extension bringing back the discussions of the 1990's with the Rise and Fall of Great Powers (Paul Kennedy).  Obama emphasizes, like Kennedy and others, the economic bases of power. 
    • And this leads to a more favorable attitude towards multilateral efforts.  Given the hostility of the early Bush administration to any multilateralism, it is hard not to be more favorable.
 Still, some things do not change--like the desire to maintain secrecy, the assertion that the US should maintain military superiority, that spreading democracy is a good thing, etc. 

The fundamental logic is apparently a re-realization of the security dilemma--that unilateral acts to improve one's security threaten others, leading them to respond by trying to increase their security, leading all feeling more threatened.

The next step for IR scholars is then to try to parse this out and figure out if Obama is a realist or a liberal or something else.  First, to be clear, he is realistic and pragmatic--but that does not necessarily make him a realist.  People like to juxtapose realism and idealism, but that is an old distinction that is rarely useful.  It is infrequent that you get leaders who do not weigh costs and benefits but try to impose their ideas on reality without thinking through the politics.  Sure, that would describe the Bush Administration, but few others.  The Reagan Administration talked that kind of talk, but was actually run by folks who thought about costs and benefits.

The differences between realists and liberals are about the nature of anarchy (what does an absence of world government mean) and, from that, the nature of the national interest.  By recognizing the complexity of interests, Obama is much closer to classical Liberalism than Realism.  The nod to maintaining military superiority would push him back the other way.  The funny thing is maintaining military superiority may be least realistic given the dynamics of technological change, the growth in the Chinese economy, the resistance in the US to higher taxes to pay for both the social side of things and high defense budgets, etc.  Indeed, I suspect that the military superiority line is a bit of an outlier from President Obama's priorities and is inserted there to satisfy various domestic audiences (the Republicans, the military, the Congress that likes military-flavored pork for their districts).

Of course, we need to be honest about how much multilateralism buys us at a time where there are now more American troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq and that even the most powerful multilateral institution (NATO) is revealed to be very limited (see the Steve and Dave book coming out in a year or two).

Still., I will take a reasoned analysis about reality than the dreams of those who find reality to be an inconvenience.  I will always remember the military dictum from my year in the Pentagon: intel drives policy.  That is, an understanding of the facts on the ground should drive decisions, not the other way around.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It Has Been A Great Run [New links added]

Until today, I have not lost any friends or acquaintances since junior high school.  An ultimate teammate, Mila Oh, died today after a long battle with cancer.  And when I say ultimate, I mean both the sport we played together and as an adjective to describe her.  She was super-supportive, always enthusiastic, gave great trash-talk, and was a sharp student of the game.  Mila was one of the core people in the Montreal ultimate frisbee community, representing the spirit of the game so very well.

I will always remember and admire how well and how bravely Mila fought her cancer.  I didn't know about it and found out in a way that was typical of both of us.  I teased her about wearing a tocque (winter ski hat) when it was not so cold, and then she showed me her hair loss.  And then Mila teased me with great humor for my faux pas.  She was very fond of my cow costume that I would wear when playing Ultimate near Halloween.  Even though it is falling apart, I will make sure to wear it again this year as a small remembrance of her spirit.

Mila is, appropriately, in the middle of this shot.

This is an incredibly tough loss for her husband Ken and for much of our silly frisbee community.

For her Montreal Gazette obituary, see here.  And for another dimension--as a beloved gourmand, see this chowhound thread about her and her post about her hockey team (yes, she was one tough woman).  She talked about her fight with cancer in this last post.  I hope her ultimate time gave her some of the same solace as hockey did.  And damn, playing hockey in her condition, what can I say?  She said it all, I guess.

Lost Questions, finally not answered?

I considered a bunch of questions at the beginning of the season, and now want to consider what was answered.

Fighting for Religious Freedom in the US Military

Very interesting article about a former Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) who is fighting against the tide of Evangelical domination of the US military.  Mikey Weinstein has built Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) to push back against the elements trying to foster an Evangelical christian military.  I have written before about my one visit to the US Air Force Academy, where I found the atmosphere to be pretty oppressive.  And I didn't live there.

I am not surprised to find that Weinstein and now his son have experienced much hostility for not being of a certain brand of Christianity.  I am only slightly surprised that of the complaints Weinstein receives is from Catholics and non-Evangelical Christians.  Not that surprising because I saw the animus aimed against these kinds of folks back when I lived in Lubbock.  But still, one should be shocked and definitely appalled that any government agency, let along the ones with the guns and engaged in significant interactions with Muslims and others in major missions, would allow such an environment to develop and persist.

The Pentagon, during my year, did not have the same oppressive environment, although I didn't have too many people on my side when there was a ruling in the news about "Under god" in the Pledge of Allegiance.  I argued that it did not need to be there, they argued that it did.  But I didn't face any discrimination for being outspoken or for being a non-believer or a non-Christian.  I have a hard time believing my experience would have been so positive at the US Air Force Academy.

Surreal Video of the Day, pt II

HT to

Things I Will Not Read Today

John Yoo, former lawyer to the worst administration in quite some time, has a piece in the NYT arguing that Elena Kagan would want to trim executive power, given her writings. And, I guess, he thinks this is a bad thing.  Or is this some kind of reverse jinx?  Is he trying to get her approved?  Why does Yoo think he has influence?  Why should people listen?  Are we looking to Enron execs for how to run an energy company?  Are we going to listen to Goldman Sachs people for PR advice?  Just because Jon Stewart allows him to posture every once in a while?

While it sounds ignorant to assert that I am not going to read Yoo's writings because he is a failed hack, I have better things to do with my time, like rant about him.

When Good Guys Undermine Markets

I thought that the past year's events would make libertarian claims about the proper role of government would decline, rather than gain, in popularity.  My pal, lil' Steve, has a good explanation for why it has not worked out as I thought (hint, psychological biases favor the libertarian argument).  So, I have decided to highlight the need for government regulation with a semi-daily story about market failure.

Today's cautionary tale: Apple.  Sure, they have friendly computers and I got great service when my ipod died, but who would have thunk it that the happy-hippie company would use their 69% share of the online music market to try to coerce record companies (or whatever they are called these days) from giving Amazon favorable deals. 
Though the Justice Department’s inquiry is preliminary, it represents additional evidence that Apple, once the perennial underdog in high tech, is now viewed by government regulators as a dominant company with considerable market power.
I love iTunes and I have bought far more music the past couple of years than in the preceding ones.  So, don't get me wrong--the technology is usually quite good and user friendly.  My recent experiences getting service in Apple store were great.  But with great power comes .... great temptations.  Apple has always had to play nicer than Microsoft because it had a smaller market share.  Now that Apple has a big share of various key sectors, it may become more like Microsoft.  And wouldn't that be ironic?

Lesson #1 for those who believe in unfettered markets: not all markets are perfectly competitive or even mildly competitive.  Companies will crave monopoly, and sometimes they get pretty close.  If government does not regulate in such circumstances, will the magic of the marketplace still work?   Um, no.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lost Redux

Ok, so I lied, more Lost thoughts:

Overlapping Blasts From the Past

Now that Lost is over, it is time to return to the heart of this blog.... Star Wars.  

This clip is great--combining arguably the best Star Wars movie with 1950's movie-making:

It has been thirty years since Empire Strikes Back came out.  And it was the first time I really spent a lot of time theorizing about a work of fiction.  If Han can pick up and use a light saber, what does that mean?  While I, like most folks, did not particularly enjoy my teenage years (was I that annoying?), it was a great time to be a teenager at the movies.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Speaking of Re-Setting: A-Stan Vs Iraq

The big question on Lost this year has been whether the nuclear bomb exploding last year re-set the past or not.  Well, I wonder if this news, that there are now more US troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq, means we are re-booting, trying to do Afghanistan correctly now after screwing it up the first time.  It may, indeed, be too late.  But I do like the idea of giving it a real try, as opposed to Rumsfeld's doing the minimum and save stuff for Iraq strategy.  Anyhow, this may not be a real tipping point, but it could be.

Lots of events of late with no clear trajectory--Taliban attacking major bases, Karzai visiting DC, Dutch re-thinking their departure, etc.  So, just like Lost, we really do not know how this is going to end.

Speaking of Help

If the theme of Lost was redemption through being helped and helping others in one's community, then is Steve Nash the uber-Jacob?

The Magic Number is 311

Not wins to get in the Baseball Hall of Fame (ok, that is 300) or the total of my favorite pitcher (Tom Seaver), but how many nukes the US needs.  Far less than the five thousand it currently has.  Provocative piece today by one scholar I keep bumping into and one I have not.

311 warheads = 1,900 megatons of TNT or 1,900 x one million sticks of dynamite.  Much more than the US said it needed in the mid-60's at the height of the cold war.  As long as half can survive a first strike, they calculate, there is enough power to do enough damage to deter or respond. 

Funny as profs at US Air Force institutions, they keep a role for the B-2, which makes sense, and keeping the B-52s alive in a conventional role even though they are now older than the President and then some.

The authors are not advocating disarmament:
While 311 is a radical cut from current levels, it is not the same as zero, nor is it a steppingstone to abandoning our nuclear deterrent. The idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world is not an option for the foreseeable future. Nuclear weapons make leaders vigilant and risk-averse. That their use is to be avoided does not render them useless. Quite the opposite: nuclear weapons might be the most politically useful weapons a state can possess. They deter adversaries from threatening with weapons of mass destruction the American homeland, United States forces abroad and our allies and friends. They also remove the incentive for our allies to acquire nuclear weapons for their own protection.
They assert that nukes make folks risk averse--tell that to the Pakistanis, as their nukes seemed to have facilitated their violence directed towards India in the Kargil crisis and since then.  The stability-instability paradox refers to the situation where mutual assured destruction might actually facilitate warfare at lower levels as each side's nukes cancel each other out.  This may be too complex for the op-ed but it is a possible dynamic we need to take seriously. On the other hand, it is not clear whether there is more of a paradox with 5,000 warheads or 300.

This is What Reconciliation Looks Like

Nope, not another Lost post. Afghanistan, instead, which may be just as Lost in the sense of we don't know where it is, where it is going or how it is going to end.  Ok, Afghanistan is now more lost than Lost.

This article shows what reconciliation looks like.  It is not pretty and not a 100% guarantee of success.  But it really focuses on separating out the small guys and relying on communal pressure.  Not a bad combination.  People are scared about Karzai and reconciliation at the grand level: what will he sell out for peace?  Women? The Constitution?  Not clear.  We are not likely to see a large scale awakening like we did in Iraq simply because the sides here are much less coherent to begin with.  The analogy that I am stealing again is that of a pick-up basketball (or ultimate or soccer) game: shirts and skins, sides change after each iteration.  Even if the Taliban leadership switched sides tomorrow, there is no guarantee that the rank and file would follow.

To win this war requires separation/filtration.  Folks joined for different reasons, so they will un-join or not depending on varying motivations/changes/reforms.  Focusing on both levels--the micro and the macro still make sense.  But betting on Karzai is always going to make folks a bit, ahem, sea-sick.

Miscellaneous Lost Thoughts [Updated]

I may be posting to this thread for a while as various things come up.

Lost and Absolutely Out of My Mind Results

The ending made this much easier to count:

The Semi-Final Lost Recap

Semi-final because I am sure I will think of other stuff and reading other folks's takes may change my mind, but consider my mind blown.

After the break, of course:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last Pre-Finale Lost Thoughts

Spoilers?  No.  As everyone who is reading this now is caught up.   If not, go away.

Anyhow, some last thoughts, inspired by the semi-finally Totally Lost episode

I like the idea of a scavenger hunt where Desmond and perhaps other folks/devices may be the items on the list of things to find.  I also like the Wizard of Oz kind of idea that folks will get picked up along the way.  I am sorry Doc and Dan didn't see the obvious Star Wars parallel--that in each movie, especially the last one, it is about out favorite characters uniting again after completely separate journeys--on Tatooine to free Han and then on and near Death Star 2.

I have less of a problem with the most recent sudden deaths. Ilana paralleled Artz nicely, for instance.  I don't mind Zoe getting killed as she was never more than a tertiary character.  I do wonder about Richard and Frank, of course. 

I do want the key mysteries solved and some of the questions answered--but only the important ones that should be integral to the story. 

Finally, my prediction about who will win my Fantasy Lost game:

The End of Gratuitous Lost Posts

This is a page that will be updated throughout the day, I think, as people send me links to various Lost stuff.

First one, thanks to Wendy, is a list of the top 100 Lost quotes.

My personal favorites (other than Sawyer's repeated S-O-B) from this list:

“It’s very stressful being an Other.” – Juliet, The Other Woman

“Who are we to argue with taller ghost Walt?” – Sawyer, Confirmed Dead
"That douche is my dad.” – Miles, Some Like it Hoth 

LOCKE: Hey. Uh… was he talking about what I think he was talking about?
BEN: If you mean time traveling bunnies, then yes.
- There’s No Place Like Home

“Time travel’s a bitch.” – Sawyer, The Little Prince

“If you say live together die alone to me Jack, I’m gonna punch you in your face.” – Rose, Through the Looking Glass

“I just got SHOT by a PHYSICIST!” – Radzinsky, The Variable 

You run. I con. A tiger can’t change its stripes.” – Sawyer, The Long Con  

LOCKE: If it’s not real, then what are you doing here, Jack? Why did you come back? Why do you find it so hard to believe?
JACK: Why do you find it so easy?
LOCKE: It’s never been easy!
- Orientation

“You and me ain’t done, Zeke.” – Sawyer, The Hunting Party 

“Dude, you’ve got some Arzt on you.” – Hurley, Exodus

Don’t mistake coincidence for fate.” – Mr. Eko, What Kate Did

“Destiny, John, is a fickle bitch.” – Ben, Cabin Fever


More on FB Privacy

Excellent flow chart to help set your privacy settings at Facebook plus various stats and comparisons.  I don't think FB is Skynet, but I don't think protecting their customers' privacy is a priority.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Betting on Lost?

Ok, we are reaching the end.  So, I wonder if Vegas sports books have bets on the show?  Probably not since inside information would be most problematic.  So, it must be our job to set the lines for tomorrow night's episode

Predicting the Future of TV: Ok, Just Next Fall

Good to start with a wonderfully snarky quote:
Jeff Zucker [NBC honcho], who, as is widely acknowledged, will one day be the subject of B-school presentations on how to fall up.
I have been following the "upfronts" via those who tweet and post, especially Alan Sepinwall and Tim Goodman.*  Anyhow, my wife always looks forward to the new season with trepidation--that her favorite programs will be crushed yet she may find herself addicted to yet more shows.  I am usually less concerned.  The new TV season will be Lost-less, which should free up heaps of time but subtract blog opportunities.  What other changes are in store?  Keep in mind that we don't get FX or TNT directly up here, so I have not been able to follow Closer/Weeds/Justified.  I am starting to rent last season's Weeds and hope to finally watch The Wire this summer on DVD if they still have the older seasons at my local blockbuster (and, yes, we are going to venture into the CA equivalent of netflix soon but slowly).  And no HBO/AMC/Showtime stuff here since they did not have any standups (although I am, of course, looking forward to Mad Men, various new programs on HBO, etc).

  • Shows that survived
    • Chuck which is probably entering its last season.  It is heaps of fun, but NBC lost its faith early.  Too bad, it could have gone for six or seven years easily.
    • Friday Night Lights--it has a two year deal to wrap up with Direct TV and NBC;
    • How I Met Your Mother, perhaps not its best season, but enjoyable nonetheless;
    • Castle where chemistry trumps the very predictable "mysteries";
    • Smallville: Thankfully entering its final season.  As usual, it is hard to let go even after repeated shark-jumping.
  • Shows that we knew were coming back:
    • Big Bang Theory, which is moving to Thursdays.  Complicates things as I like Community, which is staying in the same slot as last year.
    • Mentalist will continue to rock.
    • Community: I love a good pop culture reference plus it is the closest I can get to a university comedy. 
    • The Office: Not a great season but heaps of fun moments
  • Shows that I will seek out next year:
    • No Ordinary Family, about a family of superheroes.  Yes, I am a sucker for super-stuff.  And it has Michael Chiklis who can do no wrong (yes, I need to catch up on The Shield as well)
    • The Cape, where a cop fights a corrupt police force by donning a cape (apparently, he did not see the Incredibles).
    • Undercovers, an NBC spy couple show from JJ Abrams.
    • Parks and Rec.  I finally got into it late this season and now they are pushing it back as a mid-season replacement.  Oy.
  • Shows that I might watch by accident:
    • Bleep my Dad Says, with Shatner.
    • The Event, NBC's new conspiracy serial.
    • Maybe Hawaii 5 O, to replace the beaches of Lost. 
    • Running Wilde with Keri Russell and Will Arnett.  I like the actors.  Not much else yet.
  • Shows that I will avoid like the plague or H1N1:
    • Anything with Law in the title or with lawyers as major characters.
    • Same thing for doctors (unless they are doctors by degree, professors by profession).
    • Most of the new sitcomes and all of the reality programs.
I am not upset at the cancellations.  Overall, with Lost going away and the short seasons of Chuck and FNL (13 and 10 episodes, I think, plus a belated Parks and Rec), I don't think my network TV watching is going to increase or decrease much.  MyDVR-ing will certainly increase as I master our new device.  Speaking of which, I now am going to watch last night's Lost-focused Kimmel and then last night's FNL.

*  You can follow both on twitter.  Each podcasts with others. Alan's podcast is very TV-focused, whereas Tim's is more amusing and much less focused. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

If I Win A Big Competition, I Am Going to Disneyworld

Because it is in Orlando, near the new Harry Potter attraction:
The first thing you should know about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is that the Butterbeer tastes magical. It’s frothy, butterscotchy, and incredibly yummy, and it’s one of many details that make the theme park — part of Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando (admission: $79 per day for adults, $69 for kids) — a transportive delight for Potter fanatics.
Expensive, but what the heck!  Sign me up.

Possible Lost Ending or Ridiculous Fan Fiction: You Make the Call

A brief conversation with Mrs. Spew while considering how many folks survived the crash but not the show led to this:

Ending Lost: Favorite Scenes

Rather than getting into favorite episodes, I have been pondering what are my favorite scenes/sequences in the six year run of the show.  Why?  Because I have not blogged about Lost for at least a few hours.

Anyhow, here I go:
1) The first plane crash (there have been how many?  The FAA should consider regulating the airspace over the Island if it could find it).  It was simply stunning.  Very expensive with all of the dollars put on the screen.  Just a brilliant way to start a series (even if you do not really know where it is going to go). 

A couple of key things:
  • that we see Jack and his eye opening followed by Vincent!  If they are paralleling first and las season, Vincent will arise again!
  • takes a while for Jack to start moving, but then goes to Claire second, who is contracting;
  • that Boone is immediately useless;
  • that Rose needs CPR;
  • that we see Jin but not Sun;

Once I saw this first scene, they pretty much had me for six or eight seasons.

2) This discussion of time travel.  Just brilliant.

I love a good Back to the Future reference.

3) Hurley saving the day with the Scooby van.

Nice little preview of Sawyer and Juliet as a bonus.

4) Hurley beating Sawyer.  Long time coming. 

5)  Hurley revises Empire:

Any suggestions?  Any non-Hurley suggestions?

Becoming Canadian?

I thought of the song Turning Japanese this morning as one of my fb friends referred to me as Steve the Canadian.  I found this extremely funny, as I did watch five minutes of hockey last night, but that might be as far as it goes.

What do Canadians share in common, besides hockey?  They are reputed to be polite, more polite than Americans (except for some folks in Sydney who insisted that Americans are polite).  Does the word polite describe me?  Um, no.  I am not deliberately rude, but I do interrupt other people when they are talking, I am not at all deferential to folks due to their seniority or status, and I tend to express myself with only a slight filter in place. 

What else defines Canadians or distinguishes them from Americans?  I will have to ponder this some more as moose and health care attitudes do not really cover it.  Suggestions?

I Hope He Has Tenure

Bruce Fleming, a professor at the US Naval Academy, has an op-ed in today's NYT that calls for either significant reform of the various military academies or their end.  I hope he has tenure as he is attacking some sacred cows, including the basic culture of these places as well as their sports programs.

I have never taught at a place that held inspections of the students' personal areas, but I have worked at a place where sports seemed to be far more important than the educational side of things.  At my previous position, I never was pressured to give better grades to the athletes, but it did seem as if the institution existed for football and basketball rather than for doing whatever it is universities are supposed to do.  I have never been a big fan of big college sports, so one of the nice things about the culture of Canadian universities is that sports exist but are not the priorities.  At least as far as I can tell.  We have no Bobby Knights or Mike Leachs around here. 

That the academies have gone in this direction is particularly dismaying, given that they are supposed to producing the next generations of military leadership.  Entitling those who break the rules because they bring a bit of glory is perhaps not the best message to be sending to those who will lead in combat.  As I interview officers about Afghanistan, it becomes clearer how complex those jobs are and that the focus is on how to handle risk.  Being taught early that one can get away with stuff is probably not the way to develop a good sense of risk management. 

This piece is part of a larger debate that has been on-going.  The US Air Force Academy has paradoxically become a center for evangelical conformity and abuse of women.  Tom Ricks has written a series of blog posts about whether we need the academies (for example: here and here).  So, this is nothing new, but something we should be tracking anyway.  These institutions can be quite useful and important.  West Point did, in part, help to generate the new "mavericks" in the Army including Petraeus via their Social Science department. 

I admire this professor for speaking out.  Scholarship is about challenging conventional wisdoms.  Sometimes we find that the old CW is good, but often we do not.  Indeed, one path to reforming this and other institutions is to focus on reviewing that which we take for granted and figure out how best to educate the folks (while, of course, preserving tenure).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Last Lost Sneaky Sneaks

I wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder ....

More Re-Makes?

Oy! The good news is half of the re-makes for the fall season didn't make it.  That is, the Rockford Files was not picked up, but Hawaii Five O did.  And that is probably about right, as the former relied heavily on the star of the original show, whereas the latter is basically just a cop show in Hawaii with a good theme song.  Which means that H5O can be fine or not, as cop shows can vary significantly from great (Homicide) to awful (you name it).

 And having Grace Park once again take a formerly male role can work.  Perhaps Rockford Files would have been more pleasing to the network execs with Josh Hollaway a.k.a. Sawyer in the lead. 

I had forgotten that Teen Wolf was also on the re-make list.  MTV is turning it into a series.

 And tonally more like American Werewolf in London?  Um, sure, that had heaps of dark humor but was also incredibly tragic.  Sounds like fun!  I don't watch MTV teen series so I don't know how this would fit.  The trailer for the movie does suggest that MTV could just play it as a typical high school comedy with the usual werewolf complications: "Mom, the Teen Wolf gave me a hickey!!!  Am I going to turn into a werewolf?"

For another take on re-makes and an incredible fun podcast, check out the TV Talk Machine.  It has surprisingly little actual discussion of TV but is heaps of fun.

We The Media

Interesting post (HT to a Roger Ebert tweet) about the changing nature of media: The People Formerly Known as the Audience.  Very nice take on how the listeners/viewers are now creators/editors.  Blogs have replaced the printing press, that podcasts have moved into the terrain occupied by radio ("we have found more uses for it than you did"), video is no longer dominated by a few, and we now network horizontally rather than vertically.

Look, media people. We are still perfectly content to listen to our radios while driving, sit passively in the darkness of the local multiplex, watch TV while motionless and glassy-eyed in bed, and read silently to ourselves as we always have.
Should we attend the theatre, we are unlikely to storm the stage for purposes of putting on our own production. We feel there is nothing wrong with old style, one-way, top-down media consumption. Big Media pleasures will not be denied us. You provide them, we’ll consume them and you can have yourselves a nice little business.
But we’re not on your clock any more. Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, has explained this to his people. “The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.”
We graduate from wanting media when we want it, to wanting it without the filler, to wanting media to be way better than it is, to publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.
 Read the whole thing.  Very interesting take on the impact of the internet and everything else.  Perhaps the big media can soon sing "I about to lose control and I think I like it."  Or not.

Crisis Excuse?

Once again, the game of Junta suggests a way to view current events.*  No, not Thailand.  Well, that too, but I was thinking of the new/old Korean crisis.  The torpedoing of a South Korean ship seems to be the equivalent of a coup excuse--the playing of a card that creates an opportunity to change the government.  Here, it is a crisis excuse card. 

So, the question is why does North Korea want a crisis?  The alternative would be that the commander of the North Korean vessel that shot the torpedo was acting on his own--possible but highly unlikely.  The problem is that we really do not know what opportunities this crisis provides for North Korean elites at home or abroad.  Perhaps they were feeling ignored with all of the attention going to Iran. The only clear thing is that sinking a ship is a risky move and fits into a broader game.  That is, unless someone leaned on the wrong button.  But betting that way is unwise. 

What to do?  The NY article notes how little leverage everyone has, so I am not sure there is much we can do.  We can sink one of their ships but NK could escalate.  We could ignore it, but then NK could become the pirates of the Korean seas, sinking whatever they want.  Deterrence does not seem to work here.  Perhaps they want another infusion of cash, food, whatever.  Any suggestions?

As I always say, if it was an easy problem, it would have been solved already.

* It seems to be the case that West End Games is dead again, so we cannot stock up in new Junta games.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Lost is Better than the Matrix and What IR Has to Say About It All


These Kids Today

Are apparently much more tolerant than their parents, who are, mostly, much more tolerant than theirs.  So, if we de-materialize the American dream--that we want our kids to be better off than we were, then perhaps the American dream (and really the dream of all parents) is still intact and in play.  The NYT article depicts a generational split with folks under 45 (hee, hee, for two more months) much more tolerant than folks over 45.  Why?
the causes are partly linked to experience. Demographically, younger and older Americans grew up in vastly different worlds. Those born after the civil rights era lived in a country of high rates of legal and illegal immigration. In their neighborhoods and schools, the presence of immigrants was as hard to miss as a Starbucks today. In contrast, baby boomers and older Americans — even those who fought for integration — came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the country’s history.
The stats suggest that the old folks are the exception and not the rule of American history--that immigration was historically low during the middle of the 20th century, but that the folks since then have experienced America like it was before the Great Depression.  The piece has a nifty table of the differences:

Why is this so political?
“Short term, politically, the age divide heightens polarization,” Mr. Suro said “Long term,” he added, “there’s the challenge of whether older citizens will pay for the education of the children of immigrants."
Well, given that old folks don't like paying for anyone's education (see heaps of votes in school districts where the folks whose kids have been educated there vote against taxes and spending for the kids who are still of school age), this is not terribly surprising.

It is not surprising but is encouraging that the kids are more tolerant--that interactions are breeding familiarity but not contempt.  This is the second piece I have read this week that suggests that the younger folks are more "liberal" in the sense of living and let live, of having values that accommodate and embrace.  The other piece I am still reading (very long) on American Jews and Israel, where the split is also between younger folks who are readier to criticize Israel when it betrays the liberal values it once espoused and that are central to the American and American Jewish experiences.

Nice to see some positive trends for a change, even if the generalizations are perhaps too broad.

Some Copyright Practices Are More Stupid Than Others

I just tried to check out some of the new TV programs for next fall, but some of the short clips, such as the superhero "No Ordinary Family".  I could not as it won't play in Canada.  While it may make sense to restrict programs that one has licensed to a Canadian company, it makes no sense to prohibit exposing foreign publics to the snippets being used to sell the show.  More exposure, I believe, is more exposure.  Oh well, I guess they don't want their show to do well elsewhere.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Progress in Lost and Out of My Mind

We have some significant movement in the game.  Right now, I am going to view each death that we think happened as a death until proven otherwise.

Pent-y Baby, Pente

As usual, my take on the episode below and then another post for game update.  To preview the latter, Sara and Ben are going into the cellar while Steve jumps!

Lost Realizations and Speculation

At least one Lost death makes sense. 

Shannon died, chasing Walt into Ana Lucia's gunfire.  In Smokey's long con, it makes sense that he would lure Shannon into danger so that Sayid would be that much more vulnerable down the line.

Oh, and one guess at a spoiler:

Lost and Absolutely Out of My Mind

We had almost no progress on the Lost and Out of My Mind Lost Fantasy League last week with the blast to the past.

Oh, and for the negative types, here is a list of the 20 Lost episodes we could have done without.  Of course, in my view, I can only think of one episode I would want to nuke--tatts anyone? I disagree with all of the other choices, although obviously season 1-2.5 would have been better had they really known the complete endgame (and, yes, they do seem to still make mistakes with introductions of characters late and then whacked--Dogen, for example).

Sovereignty, Busted?

This week is apparently an anniversary of the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty/independence/whatever, and the latest survey shows about 58% of Quebecers thinking that the sovereignty debate is settled.  Apparently, we do not need or perhaps do not expect another referendum on Quebec independence.  Roughly the same percentage see the French language as threatened, but apparently the respondents do not see or do not want (not clear which) that independence is the answer. 

Of course, this can change with a PQ government replacing the discredited Liberal one (not anytime soon, but inevitable down the road), playing up some kind of crisis according to Parizeau's strategy guide.  But a referendum and a successful referendum are two different things.  It is one thing to vote for a party that promises a referendum as the PQ does (well, sometimes), but it is another to vote for independence, especially if it is put that clearly. 

Those who prefer a united Canada can take some solace in these numbers, but should not get too cocky, as surveys measure the wind and how it is blowing and not necessarily more than that.

Should We Shoot the Confused Messenger?

I participated in a panel last night organized by the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.  This group is lobbying for Canada to stick around past the 2011 deadline and invited me due to my stance as espoused in a recent op-ed.  Much frustration was vented at the failure of the Canadian media to portray the Afghanistan situation  more positively.  There is a sense that Canadians are confused, and would be less so with more information.

There is something to this, as I have posted several times about myths about the mission and the country (here, here and here).  However, the media faces some severe constraints:
  • The Canadian government: Prime Minister Harper has tried to keep the mission off of the front burners of Canadian public policy.  While the PM has not exerted, at least as far as I can tell, much control over the Canadian Forces in its operations on the ground, he has exerted much control over the CF's communications about the mission (I remember meeting with a DND PR person who was clearly heavily caveated the same day I interviewed General Hillier when he was still CDS--the contrast between the doing and the talking about the doing was striking).  
    • Related to this point, there is not much of a show for the media to cover in Ottawa as neither of the major parties wants to talk about Afghanistan.  The Conservatives have learned it does earn them votes, and the Liberals do not want to talk about it since they are divided on the mission between those that remember that the Liberals started it and those that have forgotten that inconvenient fact. If there is no debate (other than about detainees), then the media has little to cover.
    • Foreign Affairs seems to be tightly controlled by the PM's office.  The preceding Minister of Foreign Affairs was better known for leaving classified documents in the home of the women he was seeing, who happened to have been a former gangster's moll.  And given her taste in dresses (which Hillier noted in his autobiography) compared to his dubious leadership skills, perhaps this is where the media's attention should have been.
    • The Canadian International Development Agency is pretty hopeless when it comes to selling itself.  When CIDA heard there were a bunch of academics meeting a senior roundtable of military officials, they invited the scholars on over.  We thought we would be talking about their efforts, but instead they asked us how they should publicize their mission, how to get their message across.  Talking to political science profs was not the right way to go.  They should have brought in PR people. 
  • Studies show that misconceptions are very hard to change.  The big myth in Canada is that it is a peacekeeping country and that peacekeeping is not violent.  Tell that to the folks who are to be "peacekept."  Somalia and Rwanda have taught spoilers that shooting at the outsiders is a good strategy, so any new peace operation will involve killing and being killed. Even in the UNPROFOR days of Bosnia, Canadians were in harm's way, shooting and getting shot at.  Darfur would be like Afghanistan in a few ways, except there would be no NATO to help with medical evacuation or other necessary logistics.
  • The Realities of Afghanistan.  The media may not have a clear message to deliver about Afghanistan because the place is pretty hard to understand.  My ten days on the ground just made me more confused.  Progress is hard to measure, battles in a counter-insurgency do not demonstrate anything that is lasting.  Karzai is, well, confounding to say the least.
So, we ought not to blaming the messenger too much, even if they are pre-occupied with the bloodier side of things.  The Canadian public is not the only one with mixed opinions about the effort.  It is hard to find a public that is not confused about this mission.  Obama took all fall to figure it out and he had heaps and heaps of information.  Indeed, the more you know about this situation, the more confusing it may actually be.  So, getting more media attention on Afghanistan may not actually help out the CASC in their lobbying efforts.

Instead, the best option may be to take advantage of the frozen status quo in CA politics.  Harper cannot win a majority, but he is unlikely to lose his status as PM of a minority government given how inept the Liberals have been.  So, ironically, Harper may have more room to maneuver now.  What he does with that room?  Probably not much.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Turtles All the Way Down

I regret only starting to listen to the Lost Podcast only lately, as it is highly entertaining.

Anyhow, one interesting tidbit about Across the Sea: the tortoise on the beach with the Boy to be in Black was there not because of a deliberate staging of the event, but because they are protected animals and cannot be moved or touched.  So, the tortoise chose to hang out there that day.

Of course, they decided to keep the tortoise in the shot---they could have angled the cameras away, they could have used computer technology to erase the tortoise from the shot, they could have used other trickery perhaps.  But they liked it and perhaps thought it might mess around with the minds of the viewers.  Or they just didn't care.  Who knows?

Consider this your token Lost post du jour.

The President of Analogies

I love a good analogy.

They are also lousy backseat drivers these days, too.

HT to EJ.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

He Fought for Television

I have been a dedicated watcher of The Pacific, the follow-on project from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's Band of Brothers, of which I am a big fan.  Tonight was the finale, focused entirely on the homecomings as the war ended essentially in the ninth episode of the series.  Comparing the two is inevitable.  I guess I will have to watch this one again sometime down the road to be fair about it, as I have seen BoB a few times now.  The Pacific, the first time around, had the same challenge--the guys all look alike in the uniforms, dirt and all the rest.  But it was easier to follow in some ways, harder in others since BoB focused on a single company from Georgia through Normandy onto Bastogne and beyond.  So, the relationships between officers and enlisted men and among officers was clearer than in The Pacific, which was really about three different guys and their experiences.

The bigger difference, I think, is that the first series focused on what the company meant to the individuals, while in the latter, the focus is on what the war meant to the individuals.  While the war in Europe was awful, especially at Bastogne, the Marines depicted in the Pacific faced several incredibly tough fights--one Normandy after another, with Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and the Okinawa against an adversary that didn't surrender in mud and rain.  So, it was quite appropriate that the former ended on a baseball field in Austria with a voiceover by the man who led Easy company and then Easy's battalion, Dick Winters, about what happened to the men of Easy after the war.  While some had tragic lives, most became quite successful.  They still have annual reunions and a website.

As appropriately, the last episode ended with the survivors wondering how they managed to beat the odds.  The featured players, Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie, wrote books about their experiences, which served as the basis for The Pacific.  The third, John Basilone, died the first day of the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Instead of voiceover, the screen showed pictures of the actors, then of the real person accompanied by text telling about their lives.  It was much more somber than BoB's voiceover, as The Pacific was a much darker series.  All the major battles featured in this series were brutal campaigns, and the actors did a great job of showing how the war affected their characters.

Anyhow, I was amazed by both series for showing what real people went through so that we could have TV (Robert Leckie's smartass response to why he fought).  And since Leckie and his guys were successful, we can watch their stories on TV.  Now, I need to find his book.  Well, one of them, he wrote 40 or so!


SNL In Review

Yet another painful night watching Saturday Night Live.  It had a few good moments--one of the better digital shorts in recent weeks about a coked up businessman singing and dancing in the streets, Update, and the opening with the reps of the oil CEO's about the Gulf spill. 

But once again, too many sketches were focused on one joke and on one-note characters.  It is not about the talent of the players, which is fine, but the imagination of the writers, which is not.  This season proved that Kristian Wiig is only funny if given good material.  And she mostly lacked it, as the show relied on characters rather than on humor.

I should have posted my idea for this week's show before hand: have Alec Baldwin play his 30 Rock character named Jack but put that character on Lost.  The show used to have a sense of the pop cultural landscape (Mr. Robinson's neighborhood, anyone?).  Why not spent a moment on one of the biggest TV events of the month?  Remember the glorious Harry Potter sketch with Lindsay Lohan as a well-developed Hermione?  That was just funny for all, even in retrospect with LL's rapid decline.  They could have taken the comic book movie stuff to an illogical extension, but no, movies are not fair game either. Even the Betty White show fell short of potential by relying on old sketches/characters. 

I guess the show will need more Timberlake and Swift, and I would never have imagined saying that a couple of years ago.

What Are Sports For?

Girls Flag Football is on the rise but getting plenty of fire from some groups that see it as a dead end sport.  They would rather girls play sports that lead to what?  A college game?  A professional career?  The article is interesting, and I see, to a degree, the point the opponents are making.  But the point of high school sports ought not to be grooming for the pro's for either gender, since so few get there.  Rather, the point is that participation has its own rewards.  As I always say, more Ultimate is more Ultimate.

There is no real professional future (yet?) for Ultimate frisbee, nor do most people who play sports ahve professional futures in mind.  At a time where obesity is the most important health crisis facing American kids, it seems incredibly silly that we would not encourage more participation in athletics.

"Interest in flag football is so high, some high schools field freshman, junior and varsity squads and still make cuts. Its popularity has led to grumbling by coaches of other spring sports, who say they have lost their best athletes to flag football. In Palm Beach County, a recreational program has started for girls as young as 6"
Why?  Because it is fun.  Why should we let a little fun get in the way of a larger debate about Title IX and equality?  Because, again, the point of Title IX was about equality, and so it does make sense that folks might see flag football as a way to get the stats on female participation up without spending much more money on it.  But if the numbers are driven by the enthusiasm of the participants, well, then isn't that what we should be welcoming?
Donna Lopiano, a former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said the sport was inexpensive and offered opportunities for girls of all body types. Ms. Lopiano, who now consults on gender-equity issues, said if she worked for a school facing scrutiny of its athletic program, “I would do this in two seconds.”
The NCAA is not yet listing women's flag football as an emerging sport, just rugby, equestrian, sand volleyball and squash.  Hmmm.  If that is the standard for which sports we should support, I have some serious (and not-so-serious) questions:
  • Equestrian?  That sounds just chock full of equality.  Or not.  And expensive.  Just the sport needed to increase female participation.
  • Sand volleyball?  A serious sport to be sure, but the top of the profession gets TV time mostly because of the minimal attire.  Great role models there. 
  • Squash.  Good if you are Canadian, but how widespread is squash in the US.  And it has some of the same problems as equestrian--limited and expensive facilities that can fit only a small number of folks  Are you really going to increase significantly the participation of girls for a sport where only a few fit into a room and there are few rooms available.  
  • Rugby is the only sport here that is really a team sport.  It is also as inexpensive (important these days in times of crunched budgets) as flag football or ultimate--a ball, some cleats, a field.  I would imagine that Rugby would be getting similar interest as flag football if it were a bit more central to American culture/media.  It is a fun, team-oriented game with as much of a professional future as flag football, at least in North America.
The only downside here is that flag football may be diverting young women from ultimate, but ultimate is growing enough.  Plus when these girls go to college, if they cannot find flag football, they can bring their similar skill sets to ultimate. 

Truest Line of the Week

"I said, oh my god, we have sensors at 7,000 locations on all the interstates. What could be better than that?" (Economists get more excited than the rest of us when happening on a potential new indicator.)
 Just one line taken out of a Slate piece on the trucking industry as an early indicator of the economy's direction.  This reaction to data reminds me of Freakonomics (the sequel is on my to-read shelf, half-read)).  But it also reminds me of my own reactions--that I don't necessarily get excited when I see new data, but when I see variation.  That is, when I am talking to my graduate students and they present their stuff, I will often see some changes over time or differences among the cases (or similarities, if the cases are very different) and get excited for them.  Variation = leverage.  That is, if we can compare two or more things and there are significant differences, we can get a grasp on them and figure out why they had different outcomes.

Anyway, this the social science geek of the week moment until I read another article, which concluded thusly:
He did note that his students at Harvard have been particularly fascinated by the research that shows quantifiable economic advantages of beauty. The benefit of these “weird facts,” he said, is that it “forces you to think about the world in ways you didn’t before.”
The article itself is on the growing effort to determine how height, weight and attractiveness are associated with engaging in crime and getting convicted.  The casual mechanisms may be complex--that nutrition and genetics influence these so we are not far from nature vs. nurture.  Also, one problem is that we have had a very significant increase in obesity (if the media is correct) at a time of decreasing crime.  So, I am pretty skeptical, but given that I am now below average in height (I am not shrinking, the North American average has increased), I guess I could be downplaying these results so that folks don't suspect me of being the criminal that I am.  Oops.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

And Now For Something Complete Different

A Man with Two Horns.  I just finished Horns, written by Joe Hill.  I am not a huge fan of horror books, but the reviews of this book inspired me to read it.  Essentially, a guy discovers horns growing out of his head one day, and he suddenly has a bunch of powers--that people spontaneously tell him their darkest secrets and then forget talking to him, that he can get people to do some stuff, that when he touches someone, he learns what they have done.  And that is where it starts.

The book actually tells a key few stories from a couple of different perspectives, particularly from Ignatious Martin Perrish (IMP!), the demon in question.  It has some interesting riffs on the devil and god, but is mostly focused on love, friendship and betrayal.  A very engrossing book, I read it quickly and enjoyed it, despite its inherent darkness.  Not my usual cup of tea, but it snuck in some humor and was more of a thriller than a horror book.

I can see where he gets his perverse sense of humor--his dad, Stephen King.  The book stands on its own, and Hill's other stuff has been well received.  I will be as selective with his stuff as I am with King's as I am a fan of good thrillers but not so much horror.

The Death of Heroes?

People know look back and wonder if the first season of Heroes was that good.  I think it was.  But the show has now been canceled.  It is too bad that they could not figure out how to finish the first season,  as the first finale bore the seeds of the failed seasons to come.  Big build up and then let down.  I kept watching and saw glimmers of fun, but it made a lot of mistakes along the way.  Characters acted either stupidly or counter to their natures.  They could never put away a villain.  Hey, if Sylar is your best character, you still have to kill him and then move on.  It was an endless frustrating show, and I finally gave up midway through this season. I was a reluctant watcher of Smallville this season as the whole Zod plotline became extremely annoying.  They deux ex machined the ending so we don't have to worry about him anymore.  But the show should have been ended this year or last.

Does this spell the end of watching superheroes on TV?  Um, no.  The new season will have several superhero shows vying for the geek audience, including:
  • The Cape, "a one-hour drama series starring David Lyons (ER) as Vince Faraday, an honest cop on a corrupt police force, who finds himself framed for a series of murders and presumed dead."
  • No Ordinary Family, about "a family with superhero powers. Michael Chiklis (The Shield) stars as the patriarch. It also features Julie Benz (Dexter) as his wife, a scientist with super speed." She could have used that super-power in her last show.  
There may be another or two as well.  Plus AMC is doing Walking Dead, based a zombie-themed comic book.  So, plenty of fun stuff awaits.  I just hope they can finish a season and then move the story down the road in subsequent seasons, unlike Heroes.  Oh, and yes, for the required Lost reference, they sure knew how to end a season: the hatch, raft blowing up, the flashforwards, Jacob and the Man in Black, etc.

Don't Stop Believin'

Is one of the cheesiest songs of all time, and was, well, my favorite at a key time in my life.  I am just amazed about how it has taken over the pop culture universe over the past couple of years.  I guess it started with the Sopranos finale, got pumped up again with the Glee pilot, and now:

Awfully shot video (and the sound is lousy, too) by someone who is a bigger fan of Lady Gaga than Bruce, Sting, Elton John, or Debbie Harry (or Shirley Bassey) at a special charity event for the rainforest.
The concert’s unannounced performer, Bruce Springsteen, joked that when Sting had told him the theme was ’80s nostalgia, he had responded, “Sting, we’re ’80s nostalgia.”
 Kind of reminds me how Bohemian Rhapsody was re-energized by Wayne's World: