Saturday, July 31, 2010

Rank Rankings

Montreal has been deemed second happiest place on the planet
Montreal is clean, welcoming and refreshingly multicultural, according to Lonely Planet. In a nod to the city's harsh winters, it noted that Montreal is especially happy and lively in the summer months.
The Just for Laughs festival and the Latin Quarter also drew raves.
I thought the ranking was a bit screwy, and then to see the city considered clean makes me ponder what is the  basis of comparison.  Lonely Planet did the ranking, so perhaps this outcome makes sense since this is an excellent city for tourists, especially single ones I would guess.  The fests are terrific and the city is very multicultural.

But folks who live here are pretty frustrated by the city administrators who have grand plans but could not implement a peanut butter sandwich without cost over-runs, trouble with unions, and screwing it up.  

My usual quote about living here is that I love Montreal and hate Quebec due to the nationalist costs.  I do enjoy how dynamic Montreal is, how it appears to be the case that it is illegal to have a lousy restaurant (very Darwinian business here), the Just for Laughs festival, the ultimate frisbee scene, and the society in general.  So, I probably should take this ranking and run with it, but I do fear that it would allow politicians to say: we are just fine, thanks.

Anyhow, Montreal is a great place to visit, and living here is worth it even it is more costly than it should be be.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Poker in the 21st century

Much of poker is online.  US law essentially prohibits it, and a couple of years ago a law was passed to make it harder for players to deposit and cash money into offshore poker sites (like on First Nations reservations in Canada and on islands somewhere else).  And Americans (and Canadians) continue to win and lose billions of dollars playing poker. 

Much lobbying has ensued, with the regular (brick and mortar, as they are called) casinos not entirely sure where to stand, as online gaming has been seen as both boon and bane.  Giving folks an outlet other than Vegas and the other places to gamble but also directing people to the big casinos via satellite tourneys where winners gain seats online into bigger tourneys, including the World Series of Poker.  The NYT has a debate about whether gambling should be legalized

I have not read the entire exchange, as I am busy vacationing.  But given confirmation bias, I am sure I would be swayed by those folks who support legalization.  My basic view is that if states can run lotteries, then citizens should be able to gamble online.  They actually have a decent chance of winning in a poker tourney, whereas the lottery is mostly for people who do not understand math.  Which one is more or less moral?  Yes, poker online can give gambling addicts more opportunities to lose their money, but keeping it illegal is just going to move those folks deeper underground.  Yes, kids can play online but not in regular casinos and that is a problem.  But how about we give parents some responsibility on that.  There are all kinds of things online--we need to figure out how to handle that challenge besides all or nothing, one size fits all solutions. 

I am in the midst of a book on the history of poker: Cowboys Full.  Poker has a pretty deep tradition in the US, with multiple Presidents making money and using the game to build networks, including Obama.  The game involves some understanding of probability, risk, decision-making under uncertainty, patience and judgment.  Funny that the opponents seem to lack most of these qualities. 

Anyhow, it is not clear to me that gambling is inherently immoral, and it is probably not the job of government to put a blanket ban on online gaming.  Perhaps there is an interest in keeping sports betting illegal, since there is more overlap with organized crime there.  But I am not clear why adults cannot gamble online if states are actively promoting gambling in another form--lotteries--where the odds are much more against the player.  I do, however, understand the desire for politicians to play to certain blocs of voters to demonstrate that they are sufficiently religious/observant.  So, I am not sure the status quo will be changed, but there has been more progress than I would have expected.   I guess I shouldn't gamble on the outcome.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tweet Up of the Week

Making fun of the wikileaks is wookieleaks--Star Wars version via twitter.  The Atlantic posted some of the ones they liked the most.  If you are on twitter, use #wookieleaks.  If not, well, hit the Atlantic link for a taste.

My first attempt (which may have already been done): Need to work on Stormtrooper accuracy.  They cannot hit broadside of a converter station.

And for COIN analyst on the great galactic war, see here.

Best Snarky Post of the Week

Terrific entry on 7 Keymasters for the internet.  Rick Moranis is not one of them.  Just a wonderfully snarky take, and I love the first comment, especially since I have taken from my first IR prof the habit of using Burkina Faso as a random example.

Get 'Em Early

As always, if you measure what you need to measure rather than what you can measure, you actually might learn something.  This article shows that better kindergarten experiences may not produce long-lasting improvements in test scores, but might actually produce better life outcomes.
As Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, says: “We don’t really care about test scores. We care about adult outcomes.”
So, what is going on?
The economists don’t pretend to know the exact causes. But it’s not hard to come up with plausible guesses. Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance. The tests that 5-year-olds take may pick up these skills, even if later multiple-choice tests do not.
MC Exams are best at testing MC exam taking skills.  The other thing going on here is that you enjoy your first tastes of the educational system with great kindergarten teachers (like my daughter did in our one year in Virginia), it might create more enthusiasm and interest in learning.

As an educator, I, of course, buy into these results due to self-interest and identification.  The broader context?

Barely a week seems to go by without a newspaper or television station running a report suggesting that education is overrated. ....  But the anti-education case usually relies on a combination of anecdotes and selective facts. In truth, the gap between the pay of college graduates and everyone else grew to a record last year, according to the Labor Department, and unemployment has risen far more for the less educated.
When I was teaching American (and Texas) Public Policy, I would always show some graphs on education levels and pay, and the gap between college graduate and high school graduate was always quite steep.  So, I would point out that my class, required for graduation, was going to make all the difference between different lifetime outcomes.  Good to know I am still right about that.

Of course, the bigger problem is not necessarily measuring the outcomes of the kids but the quality of the teachers and the programs.

But more data, studied by folks with good educations, help to make sense of what is going on.  Well, as long as it confirms my biases.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

21st Century Professor?

This article does a nice job of addressing a relatively new and exploding part of the job: email.  I guess I only started to take this seriously when my TAs asked to have non-office hours contact included as part of their 180 hours of labor each semester (an accounting process that is required by the union/university deals and drives me absolutely nuts).  The reality is that a significant hunk of time for TAs is the email from undergrads.

For the first several weeks of the term, before the students start interacting with their TAs, I get the traffic.  And a lot of it could be answered by closer readings of the syllabus (or outlines as they are called at McGill).  I have already blogged about the ten percent problem, where about ten percent of the students tend to have problems following instructions. 

How do I respond to the email?  Depends on my mood, of course.  I tend to be tolerant of heaps of email as I am online all the time and find it easier to keep track of things that are emailed than phone calls or office visits.  Indeed, I tend to tell a student to email me after a phone call or office visit to confirm the decision so that I have a record of it.  However, I respond more slowly to questions that are more impulsive (could be answered without emailing me), have been answered, and so forth.  I will not reply to email-nagging.  If a student emails again and again with the same question or different ones, then I will not respond quickly at all.  I do use the course website to explain stuff and answer general questions.

I do think that setting a clearer policy might be in order, but my outline/syllabus is already chock full of McGill-required stuff.  Adding more instructions/regulations to the syllabus will mean that more stuff gets ignored.

Any thoughts from my professor-readers?

Concussions continued

I have posted earlier on concussions, especially in the NFL, so I thought I should link to the latest news: the NFL is now posting in each lockeroom a poster that informs the players of the latest information:
The new document also warns players that repeated concussions “can change your life and your family’s life forever,” a clear nod to retired players’ wives. 
Much more needs to be done--legislating the correct helmets, altering practices to minimize the repetitive minor concussions, perhaps some effort to get ESPN and the other major televisors to reduce the focus on the big hits or at least cover them more responsibly, and so forth.  But progress is progress.

Good Timing

I happen to be on vacation when the apparent equivalent of the Pentagon Papers gets leaked.  Ooops. 
The documents cover the period from 2004 to 2009, and portray American forces as being starved for resources and battling an insurgency that was getter larger and better coordinated year by year.
Is either part of this really news?  Only sort of.  It has been very clear to observers that the US/NATO effort never had enough guys on the ground until recently, never had enough helos, drones, and other stuff to be effective, not to mention being limited by the restrictions (caveats and other limits) facing allies.  I think the idea that the insurgency has had a steady upward progress is deceptive.  COIN is a dynamic up and down process, so the effort has had some accomplishments, but the insurgency is obviously more effective now than five years ago.  

One side note: "The Times has spent a month examining the data for disclosures and patterns and verifying the information for the articles that it published Sunday."  Really?  Verifying information?  Why bother?  This seems admirably quaint in the aftermath of the Sherrod controversy.  Perhaps a little more due diligence is in order, me thinks.

That Pakistan has been playing a double-game (or triple or quadruple) is not a surprise, and the fact that we cannot do much about it is also widely known.  We face lots of poor alternatives with limited leverage.  That is just the way it is--superpower status has heaps of advantages, but getting Pakistan to do something is not one of them.

I have not read the stories about the leaks (just one meta-story) due to time constraints.  I will read the stuff when I get back to work, and think about them more.  I will suggest one thought now--this might not be bad for the Obama Administration because in 2011, a decision will have to be made.  More understanding is better than less, and it might facilitate a change in course, like getting out.  Not that I am suggesting that the administration was responsible for the leak.  Or that it wasn't.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ultimate Goes Mainstream

Nice to see a highlight from the recent World Ultimate Championships posted on Sports Illustrated/CNN's website

An excellent layout for a score and looks to be the game-winning point.  Very cool 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tenure's Future

Lots of debate these days about tenure, especially given the economic crisis facing universities.  The NYT has five perspectives on it to promote debate.  I guess I think of tenure the way that we tend to think of democracy and capitalism: the worst systems except for all of the others.

Yes, tenure does provide lots of perverse incentives, including tenured folks doing less once the pressure is off, the challenges of maintaining accountability in the face of job security, and so forth.  I am just not sure that a market of free agency would be much better. 

First, why tenure?
  • The obvious reason is intellectual freedom.  The ability to teach, research and write without being fired for producing unpopular stuff is important for the development of probably all disciplines.  Critics argue that folks are never hindered by the prospect of getting fired.  Hmm, hard to observe non-events.  We do know that state officials regularly grand-stand at the expense of academics at public universities, including most recently the Virginia attorney-general targeting a scientist studying climate change.  Would the absence of tenure create a chilling effect?  Maybe.  
    • People worry about the impact of corporations upon universities as funding may cause administrators to bend (as we have seen with BP recently), and this could be worse if administrators gained more power over the professors.
  • There is also the tradeoff between job security and pay.  Aspiring professors are, in part, willing to take lower salaries when compared to folks with similarly high pay for job security.  Would people seek out jobs in the academic world if there was no job security at the end?  Would they be willing to move across the country/globe for jobs if they could lose their job after five or seven years (whatever the new contract term would be)?
    • Critics would say we need fewer profs, so discouraging folks is a good thing.  Perhaps, but what kind of selection effect would result?
  • Lifetime employment, more or less, also has benefits for the colleges and universities as the folks who tend to run much of these institutions are the professors who develop lots of knowledge about the institutions.  Lots of service by profs is required to make these places work.  If you introduce lots of turnover, what will that do to the running of these institutions?  Shorter term temp-faculty do not provide much service or any in most places, just teaching classes.  So, you could see whatever savings there are in the greater efficiency on the hiring of professors lost by hiring more and more administrators 
    • Numbers of administrators are almost like body counts---just as you cannot have less total deaths from a war (unless resurrection is possible), it is almost as nearly certain that number of administrators does not decline.
How would the academic world run in the absence of tenure?

Stan Lee's Next Move

Is putting himself into a comic book, not unlike his many appearances in Marvel movies.  I love the premise--that Stan Lee, creator of comic books, runs into seven aliens who are stuck on Earth.  He decides to give them superhero identities and roles. 

But one complaint--he is wrong about this:
Mr. Lee said he endowed other characters with powers never seen before; for example, “Think chubbiness as a weapon.”
And I would think of the Blob:

But the article does conclude with a more accurate and insightful quote:
Stan is probably Stan’s greatest character anyway,”

Good Company?

I guess I am in good company.  I was wondering where my invitation to Chelsea's wedding was, perhaps lost in the Canadian Post oxcart, but it seems that lots of folks are not getting invites to the big event. 

While this a fun little story about the differences between friends and political friends, I wonder what it says about the NYT that this is on the front of its webpage?  What does it say about me that I clicked on it? 

Mad Men Countdown, part two

Fun stuff online as we await the new season: this link directs you to examples of Betty Draper's parenting.  And the next video that comes up is Roger Sterling's quips.  Good times.  Great writing.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Under the Category of About Time

Pentagon Faces Growing Pressures to Trim Budget.  Ya think?  Given that the only real way to cut the US budget is to cut defense, medical spending (medicare/medicaid), social security and raise taxes, it is only time that this gets considered, especially since it is the easiest to cut of these categories.  Of course, that is not saying much--does this make defense the sixth rail of American politics (social security as the third rail, medicare and taxes as the fourth and fifth)?  Or is that just abusing a metaphor?  Oh, it is.  Never mind.

Getting out of Iraq will certainly help. Getting deeper in to Afghanistan, not so much. 

To be clear, the dollars are a lot, but the % on GDP is not as much as you would think:

Still, it is a heap of money.  And the problem is that many programs do pay well to various Congressional districts and states so cutting big programs will be politically difficult.  Not just bases, either.  A lot of bases have been closed.  Instead, some serious thought about what the US will need in the present and future will be required--what wars will be fought, what kind of stuff will facilitate conventional and nuclear deterrence, etc.  Just as the Canadians cannot seem to figure out what they need (F-35s?), the Americans are likely to be bad at finessing these decisions as well.

Gates has promised: “Military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny,” Mr. Gates said. “The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.” And it will be harder for Congress to ask for tens of billions of dollars to be spent on stuff (like alternative engines) that the military does not necessarily want. 

Unfortunately, just as with the entire budget, the military side of things is also heavily weighted towards people costs:
Two-thirds of Pentagon spending is on personnel costs. It is possible that the Pentagon will have to look for the first time at cuts to the health benefits provided to active and retired military personnel and their families.Some analysts said the Pentagon would eventually come under pressure to reduce the size of the armed forces.
 This is not good news.  The services, especially the Army, are already stressed doing alot with too few people.  But if and when the US gets out of Afghanistan and Iraq, one could imagine some downsizing, but not too much if the US continues to aspire to being a superpower with interests around the globe.  The weighting of commitments and capabilities is basic to grand strategy but so very difficult politically. 

Tough choices ahead.  Finessing them will be difficult to get right even before we take into account both the pork barrel politics involved and the Party of No (that would be the Republicans).

Frustrations in News Coverage

The LA Times, syndicated to the Montreal Gazette, the Dallas Morning News, presented little insight about the ICJ decision on Kosovo.  Indeed, the article was badly edited, I guess, as the sub-title " The ruling could nudge more nations to recognize the Balkan country, and encourage separatist movements elsewhere" was not even addressed in the text of the piece that was published elsewhere.  In the LA Times itself, this issue is covered quickly by a quote from James Ker-Lindsay who might be an excellent scholar on Cyprus but has not seemingly written much about the IR of secession.  [NY Times cites the same guy--why is he getting all the media coverage] Unlike yours truly.  [Not that I expect a reporter to find me, but find anyone, ANYONE!, who has a decent understanding of the real pattern of behavior].

It cites the usual crap about countries with secessionist problems of their own not recognizing Kosovo with the usual suspects of Russia, China and Spain.  Of course, this again ignores "vulnerable" states that did recognize Kosovo including Turkey, UK, France, Belgium, US (if you count Alaska, Hawaii or Puerto Rico), Canada, Croatia, Macedonia, and Somalia.  See my first book, my IO article, and/or my JPR piece for the realities of the International Relations of Secession--vulnerability does not deter or inhibit if countries have compelling reasons to recognize.  And remember the supposedly deterred Russia has been supporting secession in Georgia, Moldova, and it has in the recent past supported Armenia's irredentist campaign against Azerbaijan. 

Instead, countries are following their scripts, as I predicted: Russia is going to ignore the decision since it went against their position.

Exemplar in Ultimate Spirit

I frequently talk about the spirit of the game--how ultimate, a hippie creation, maintains a key philosophy/shared understanding of the sport--that it is competition combined with respect and good cheer, essentially.  Last night, as my team was getting throttled by a smart, athletic, well-led team, one of the players on the other team approached mine at halftime and gave us some very helpful advice on how to be more successful against their zone defense (or any zone defense for that matter).

I have been playing on and off for about 25 years, and I have never seen such good spirit.  He knew his team would win, but gave us a chance to make it more competitive and help us learn so that we can do better down the road and his and other teams.  It definitely helped take the edge off a very frustrating game, not just because they played so well, but because I sucked big-time.

Reminds me that even bad ultimate is better than no ultimate.   And when an opponent displays such a great appreciation of the spirit of the game, the bad ultimate is not so bad at all. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

ICJ and Kosovo: Modest Decision with Modest Impact?

See Bieber's analysis of the decision
The ruling is far from revolutionary and does not set a precedent in international law: It is clear that declarations of independence are not illegal–their relevance arises from recognition. Whether or not recognition of declarations of independence break international law appears to be a question to be answered another time.
Of course, that leads to the next question--when is recognition illegal?  Good luck with that one.

See yesterday's post for my predictions of how folks will react.  The key is that it will depend on domestic interests but not vulnerability to secession--as countries that are vulnerable to secession are not deterred--namely, Russia.

The Future is Looking Good for Zombies

Not only is there a new textbook that applies IR Theory to a potential Zombie outbreak, but the movie of the best Zombie book, World War Z, is now proceeding.  Brad Pitt is to star and the movie is supposed to come out in 2012.  This fall, AMC, the channel that brought us Mad Men, is bringing Walking Dead, a highly acclaimed comic book to, ahem, life on TV this fall, with Frank Darabont as the producer (Darabont directed Shawshank Redemption and the The Green Mile and also wrote much of the under-rated Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).

Having spent part of this summer catching up on older Zombie movies (Romero and re-makes, one of the Resident Evil movies), I am looking forward to the next few years of undead entertainment.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mad Men Countdown

It starts now with a less spoiler-filled preview/review.  We can count on Sepinwall to do right by the show--point out the weak spots, put things into perspective but not spoil the big stuff.

I will be frustrated as I will be on the road during the premiere and will have to avoid spoilers unless the hotel carries AMC and I can ditch the entire Saideman clan for an hour.  Combined probability: 5%.

If those who read my blog were glad to see Lost leave as an obsession, well, MM is crack to Lost's ordinary cocaine.

Offense or Defense Dominant

Jacob Levy linked to an interesting blog/essays about sports and whether and how to evaluate what can and does make a spectator's experience better or worse.  Written by a political theorist, Wayne Norman, it specifies a starting assumption or first principle:
“The ultimate spectator experience in sport will always involve an equal appreciation for both offensive and defensive play/tactics.”
This makes much sense to me, as American football is perhaps the most enjoyable sport to watch as offense and defense are both taken quite seriously by players, coaches and the media.  It is not just about Drew Brees and Peyton Manning but about the defenses that can stymie them.  One of the sneaky things about football is: there is just a bit more scoring than in soccer but seems like much more so since the points are magnified--one touchdown is seven points (an average game of 21-14 is really 3-2).  Defense is huge in this sport.  The essay goes onto argue that few folks who watch or cover soccer find defense to be interesting or well-analyzed.

Best paragraph for a scholar of IR:
One cannot help comparing the romantic appeals for the contemporary Brazilian and Dutch teams to celebrate their glorious historic offensive personalities, even in a losing cause, to the demands of aristocratic generals in the First World War ordering the troops to charge out of their trenches and face certain mass casualties across a battlefield that was now defended by machine guns.

Preparing the Scripts

The International Court of Justice has been asked by the United Nations General Assembly to rule on Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence.*  The decision is due tomorrow.  Steffan Wolff has a good post addressing the likely outcomes.  Florian Bieber also considers the possible outcomes for the region and especially for the Kosovo/Serbia situation.  My task here is a bit different: to sketch out the scripts that are already essentially written for each outside actor depending on which way the decision goes.

As Wolff and Bieber note, if we boil things down and simplify, there are really three possible outcomes: the ICJ says Kosovo's independence is legal; that it is illegal; or that the situation is a bit mixed and no general principles can be applied/developed. 

Under Scenario 1, the ICJ says that Kosovo did not break international law:
  • Those strongly supporting Kosovo will go along their way, patting themselves on the back but also note that the decision only applies to Kosovo and does not create a general right for all secessionists to run with the decision.
  • Those strongly opposed will question the legitimacy of the decision, blaming undue American influence, and ignore the decision.  And say that there is no general right to secession.
  • Quebec sovereigntists will take a positive decision to justify yet another referendum because Quebec is just like Kosovo.  
  • Canadian federalists will assert that Kosovo and Quebec are distinct, with the former escaping from significant oppression and the latter having both significant autonomy and power within the federal system.
  • Other separatists around the world will not become suddenly inflamed because they know that their major opponent, their host state, will not suddenly swoon and obey the ICJ ruling.  

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Problematic Rules of Engagement?

Lots of hoopla about McChrystal's Courageous Restraint restricting US troops too much.  While it may not have been followed as intelligently as it should have been, it is the right thing to do.  Max Boot makes several good points:
So, if you see people complaining about restrictive rules of engagement and they are talking about those constraining Americans rather than Germans or Spaniards or Italians today or Canadians six or seven years ago, then you can guess that they a) don't understand counterinsurgency; and/or b) are just trying to score political points.

Illustrating Canadian Defence Tradeoffs

After yesterday's post about how Canada cannot afford all three branches of the armed forces to be advanced, we get this from the Ottawa Citizen:

To quote Monty Python: Say no more!  Say! No! More!

* As an American in Canada, I get confused about using defense or defence, so when discussing Canadian stuff, I go with c, and when I discuss US stuff, I use s.

When Economists Ignore Politics

Paul Collier, the father of the greed versus grievance argument (or at least the most noted promoter), has a piece in today's NYT about the discovery of minerals in Afghanistan.  I already posted about the mineral discovery (which got heaps of play on conservative blogs!).  But my point here is to just take a quick sharp stick to the pinata that Collier has hoisted.  He recommends that Afghanistan carefully exploit the minerals and focus the benefits on the folks near by, unlike Nigeria but like Botswana.

Sure, let's expect the government of Afghanistan to do super-good governance.  I feel like I am in somebody else's dream (Inception reference).  One of my biggest pet peeves in the ethnic conflict scholarship is when folks recommend things that might work if everyone buys into them, but there is little chance that such a miracle would happen.  Policy recommendations need to have the politics built in--how do you get folks to make the hard choices that you want them to make?  This is very difficult, which is why we ignore it, not unlike the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post even though he lost his keys elsewhere.
To build trust, the Afghan government must be open about any deals it makes with foreign companies. It has already shown it has room for improvement in this regard: the country’s first extraction deal, for copper, was won by the Chinese in murky circumstances — the minister of mines was accused of taking a $30 million bribe. But now Kabul has signed on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a set of disclosure standards created seven years ago by an international organization of governments, civil society and business.
Room for improvement?  Understatement of the year.  The funny thing is that Collier's work spawned some discussion of state capacity, which Afghanistan sorely lacks.

Anyhow, the timing here is interesting as there is a conference for donors and other folks in the international community in Kabul this week.  I just hope that the political experts do not ignore the politics and the economics of Afghanistan's accountability problemos.

Recurring Theme #5: Path Dependence Sucks

I just realized (stupid me) that my summer vacation plans happen to coincide with the Quebec construction holiday.  Every summer, all construction works (except road construction) gets the same two weeks in July off, and lots of other folks in related and unrelated industries do the same.  For the construction workers, this is a matter of law, created by a government in early 1970's to buy labor peace, but has become impossible to alter since as it has given an interest group (the unions) something to fight for/over--path dependence.

Because so many Quebeckers love traveling into the US, the border becomes clogged going South at the beginning and coming back at the end.  I ended up planning the summer trip around the needs of my relatives, rather than around this holiday.  A week later, and we would have dodged this bullet, like we usually do.  So, we belatedly have to figure out what to do and staying one more day in the US might be far less annoying than six hours in a line at the border.

* To those who worry that I give out too much information, no worries, as our house/dog/cat will all be sat by someone with advanced armed and un-armed combat skills.  Ok, perhaps not that skilled but she can dial 911.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Technological Change Can Bite

Nope, not a Zombie reference.  For that, see Drezner's survey.  No, I am referring to a list of companies that may disappear soon.  And Blockbuster is one of them. I, too, will miss Blockbuster, as it has been my go-to videostore since grad school in San Diego.  My wife and I would pick up a couple of movies every Friday night.  And since then, my daughter and I have spent much time browsing, trying to find stuff that was appropriate for her but still not terribly annoying to me.  But that has changed, as we have now taken to visiting the store to get DVD's of early Lost episodes.  And I get to rent occasionally a Wii game to see if it is worth either buying or just playing out for a week.

We are only now about to subscribe to the Canadian version of netflix, as we seek to expose our kid to older movies that no longer are worth shelf-space at Blockbuster.  Aside from Netflex, Hulu, and other technologies, I do think the movie to thin the on-floor stock of older stuff did hurt Blockbuster.  It is also the case that Blockbuster sucked at human relations:
The Blockbuster "experience" generally ranged from anonymous but painless to deeply annoying. They underpaid their employees and treated them like cattle, and with each passing year they dropped more and more of the pretense that they considered movies to be something other than goods to be lined up on shelves.
My mother-in-law worked at one until very recently (downsized with the company). Her tales of the weakness of the management (lower and upper), combined with how little appreciation she received for being a reliable and friendly work, more than hinted at a broken company, netflix or not.

I like browsing in a videostore, just like I enjoy browsing in a bookstore, even though I buy much of my reading via amazon or its competitors.  But the opportunities for doing either may be diminishing.

Other brands that may disappear this year include:


A couple of years ago I was quite worried about whether fighting two wars was going to break the US Armed Forces and especially the army.  I worried less as the surge seemed to have worked (with lots of caveats and lots of other factors playing a role), and hoped that the downsizing of the commitment would stop the, ahem, bleeding.  But now that Afghanistan is the main show with lots of stress on the force, I am worried again.  And so is Tom Ricks.

Again, the good news is that the US is on its way out of Iraq, but the operational tempo is still very, very high.  Funny that the Republicans complained about the tempo under Clinton, which is nothing compared to today.  Ok, not so funny.

Anyhow, things are mighty, might tough today, and it is not going to get that much easier anytime soon.

Gilding the Lily or We Need to To Be Sneaky?

Some controversy heating up over the next big Canadian defense project:  F-35's to replace the current fighters protecting Canadian airspace.   A friend of mine, Philippe Lagassé, a prof at University of Ottawa, raises some questions about the choice of the most expensive option and the timing--why now in the summer when Parliament is out of session?  Oops, never mind.  I guess we know why the timing, but why the most expensive option?

In my conversations in my year in the Pentagon, it was clear that the military guys would always, always prefer the best stuff, such as the Crusader artillery system, even if it means buying far less [I feel squeamish to be on the same page as Rumsfeld on this one--sometimes less is more and more is less].  But it is not their job to assess guns versus butter.  Politicians need to make those calls, and they need to know what the plane is necessary for.  In this case, there is a pretty obvious question: is there a need for super-stealthy technology?  Well, that depends: do you think the planes will protecting Canadian airspace or projecting Canadian power (along with NATO, presumably) into countries with air defense systems (like Yugoslavia in 1999)?  If the latter, then sure, Canada would need the best penetrators of defended airspace.  If the former, then not so much.  It may be an oversimplification, but sneakiness is most necessary when one is sneaking in, not when one is hanging out.

Of course, this raises bigger questions about Canada's Defence requirements.  Canada cannot afford to field the most modern armed forces---it can choose to have two modern arms but perhaps not three.  That is, choose to have an air force and a navy to protect the Arctic and homeland and give up on the idea of doing serious expeditionary stuff (Afghanistan, Africa, Balkans).  Or it can have a robust army that be a big help to NATO.  But it cannot have all three and be excellent at all three. 

Because I don't think that Canada will/can invest enough to be serious enough in the Arctic to deter/thwart Russia AND the US, I would recommend focusing more on the army for helping the US and the allies out in difficult places, thus compensating for the free-riding on North American security.  That would be an investment that pays off with international influence, whereas arctic sovereignty will annoy the US and not actually accomplish that much.

That has worked pretty well for Canada over the past fifty years or so.  But it is not popular for votes at home.  And making hard choices is unpopular as well.  My prediction as a professional political scientist is that Canada will try to choose to have all three--robust army, robust navy, robust air force, but will end up with a melange of capabilities good enough to get Canada into trouble, like having too few modern helicopters, to carry out the missions. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Recurring Theme Number Six: Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude--taking pleasure in the sufferings of others--has been a running theme in this blog.  Hey, I am just more honest about it.  Frank Rich positively revels in it as he considers the demise of Mel Gibson and ties it to the decline of the religious right.  Given that Mel Gibson made the ultimate schadenfreude movie--Passion of the Christ, this is perhaps nicely ironic.  I am not sure that we are better off that the Tea Party has replaced the religious right, if that is indeed the case.  Of course, we will only be able to evaluate that down the road.  But I must say I did enjoy Rich's list of fallen holier-than-thou hypocrites.

Perhaps a little schadenfreude is good for brunch.

Comedy Festival in 2010

We went out two nights this past week as part of the annual Just for Laughs Festival, once to a show we regularly attend, Bubbling with Laughter, and once to a show we had not attended before: The Masters.  The former is at Club Soda, hence the name, and features a mix of comedians every year.  The latter features a slate of experienced comics.  So, what did we learn?
  • The Bubbles this year did not contain as much laughter.  Perhaps we were spoiled by the woman who saw the previous show and walked past our line saying it was fair to middling.  But that was a very accurate review.  Some of the comics were very good, and the host, Harland Williams, was quite funny.  But some of the folks just were not particularly funny.
  • We learned that bigger names may actually not be correlated with the funny (of course, we can say that as we did not see the Steve Martin gala where he apparently rocked the house much more strongly than any recent host).  In the two shows, we saw two comics that we had seen on TV multiple times, and both had pretty lousy timing, energy and material.  Both ended their bits seemingly angry at us, when it was clear in both cases that the crowd was fine and that we didn't react that well because of them, not us. 
  • The Masters are more meta.  Several of the comics commented on the art of standup, such as the necessity to move the mic stand or on the standard lines used by African-American comics when a joke fails, "Things are so crazy."
  • We learned to perhaps wait to buy tickets.  Each year, we get blitzed by the Just for Laughs folks to buy tickets early, and we end up doing so.  But then they announce a bunch of acts pretty late, and we have already committed our comedy dollars.  So, we missed Jeff Ross, Rob Cordry, Dom Irrera, and, did I mention, STEVE MARTIN?  Aaargh.  If the usually reliable Bubbling show had been better, I would not have been quite as frustrated.  
  • Just For Laughs apparently also subscribes to: if it is not broken, fix it anyway.  In previous years, the events centered on St. Denis, which is a street with perhaps the most restaurants per block in Montreal or anywhere else.  Lined with trees, just a very nice setting to walk along and see the street performers.  This year, the moved most of it to around Place Des Arts, which kind of makes sense, giving that it is a place for arts and all.  But the main street was St. Catherine, which is known for its sex shops and full contact dance places than it is for a good mix of restaurants.  Oh, and part of the street was ripped up in the classic Montreal style of reconstruction.
Overall, we had a good time, but enjoyed previous fests more, both because we had better shows and because of a better location.

Inception: Well Conceived?

For those who have not seen Inception and don't want to be spoiled, do not peak below.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fun Site of the Day

Roger Ebert's tweets clued me into this site: I Write Like.  Copy and paste some of your writing and you will find who you write most like, according to their program.  I plugged in a bunch of stuff and the result was, with one exception, David Foster Wallace. 
The wiki on him is:
Wallace used many forms of irony, focusing on individuals' continued longing for earnest, unself-conscious experience, and communication in a media-saturated society. Wallace's novels often combine various writing modes or voices, and incorporate jargon and vocabulary (sometimes invented) from a wide variety of fields. His writing featured self-generated abbreviations and acronyms, long multi-clause sentences, and a notable use of explanatory footnotes and endnotes—often nearly as expansive as the text proper.
Ah, acronyms, explanatory footnotes, jargon....  Now it makes sense.  Still better than the one outlier result: Isaac Asimov.  I really do not want my next book to read like science fiction.

Man Men Spoiler Warning

I am psyched for the start of Mad Men's next season.  But be careful about reading the NYT story on it.  It is chock full of spoilers.  I read it so you don't have to. 

Good Times Ahead

I agree with Charles Blow: Obama is hitting the bottom of the curve, and will rise as the Republicans attack each other.  It should be pretty entertaining, if one is not easy disgusted/appalled.

After Bangladesh?

Interesting story that Bangladesh is replacing China as the the low wage job vacuum.  Surely, this was inevitable except for the fact that China's population is still so huge that there must still be a surplus to fill low wage jobs.
As costs have risen in China, long the world’s shop floor, it is slowly losing work to countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia — at least for cheaper, labor-intensive goods like casual clothes, toys and simple electronics that do not necessarily require literate workers and can tolerate unreliable transportation systems and electrical grids. 

The flow of jobs to poorer countries like Bangladesh started even before recent labor unrest in China led to big pay raises for many factory workers there — and before changes in Beijing’s currency policy that could also raise the costs of Chinese exports. Now, though, economists expect the migration of China’s low-paying jobs to accelerate.
Workers in Bangladesh are now demanding raises, which given the other competitive disadvantages (low literacy, poor infrastructure, etc.), might endanger their positions.  I don't know the international economics of it all, but I will take the short-term win of Bangladesh at the expense of China.  And it does suggest some limitations that the behemoth will face in the next 20-30 years.

The product cycle continues to spin, and it may help and it may hurt China along the way. 

One last thought: where is the next low wage country to be cheaper than China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam?  Rwanda?  Pakistan?  Afghanistan? 

Summer Camp: The More Things Change

Cover story of the NYT focuses on Camp Half-Blood, where the tales of Percy Jackson are played out for kids.  Nice idea and probably as much or more fun than the quidditch games college students are now playing. I guess the NYT writers/editors are not the only folks who want to go back to summer camp. 

A good friend of mine is returning to work for a week or two at my old camp.  I'd love to do that, even if you cannot go home again as everyone there would be different and the place would be different, too.  The funny thing is you would think that the academic lifestyle would make it easy to go away to a summer camp for a week or two, but the reality is that this is time to get stuff done.  Going off the grid for a week or two, in addition to the yearly family trip and to research trips, is actually pretty hard to do. 

Perhaps I should make that a reward for finishing the current book as well as a way to celebrate 25 years since my last summer at my favorite place.  Something to think about.  Summer days ....

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where is Adam Sandler When You Need Him?

Sandler had a great song that seems especially appropriate today:

Why?  Because Israeli politics may end up making this song much, much shorter.  There is a bill to make a small number of folks the "deciders" of who is Jewish.  I cannot complain too much since I opted out a while ago, but the larger point of how best to alienate the only supporters you have left is a relevant one.  If American Jews no longer count and Israeli Jews' identity is at the whim (and it is whim, not procedures with any kind of due process) of a few, then we may see American Jews become less enthused about supporting Israel.  If that were to happen, then American politicians might find it easier to criticize Israel and might fund aid to Israel easier to cut.  While I would like to see aid used more creatively to put pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, an isolated Israel is probably not good for Israel or for its neighbors.

This also raises questions for my next big research project--when do diasporas mobilize and when does this mobilization matter?  If American Jews do not mobilize to fight this bill, then identity maintenance as an explanation of diaspora activity might just be over-rated.  Ooops. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Speaking of Idiots

Glenn Beck announced as fact that the Jews killed Jesus:
This is kind of complex, because Jesus did identify with the victims. But Jesus wasn't a victim, he was a conqueror. Jesus conquered death. He chose to give his life. Jesus didn't come back from the dead and make the Jews pay for what they did. That would have been an abomination. 
Oh, good, Jesus was a bigger man that, ahem, Beck might be.  I seem to remember that the Romans had something to do with it, so why don't we just go out and start beating up on Italians?  Beck does dwell in the Tyson Zone (copyright to Bill Simmons, ESPN's sports guy)--nothing he does should surprise us.  Appall us?  yes, but not really shock or surprise us. 

We seem to live in an era of, well, douchebags.  I wonder if we could do a study and figure out if a) there are more douchebags; or b) douchebags are getting more media time.  Is it because we have a 24 hour 500 channel beast that must be served?  Whoopi gets her time, Beck gets his, people listen to Cheney and Palin and, yes, there are democratic douchebags as well.  It just seems that the folks who get the attention these days are the folks with the worst perspectives--worst meaning out of touch with reality. 

Who You Gonna Call?

For good advice?  Not Whoopi Goldberg.  Jezebel (which I think was largely wrong about the Daily Show) has a top fifteen list. 

So far, she has defended:
  • 8 year old girls doing Single Ladies--one can see possibly taking this position
  • Jesse James, who cheated on America's sweetheart Sandra Bullock--not defensible.
  • Harry Reid using Negro.  Whatever.
  • Tiger Woods.  Sure, boy's got to play?
  • Roman Polanski.  Statutory rape is ok if it is in the past and done by an artiste.
  • moon landing deniers.  This is where she clearly jumped the shark.
  • Michael Phelps for smoking pot.  Sure, she seems to be high, so that should be ok.
  • Wesley Snipes as the IRS was unreasonably agitated for his five years of tax evasion.
  • Michael Vick who was utterly contemptible and now merely stupid.
 I guess there is a consistency here--that lots of folks are victims and she sides with them, no matter how awful they might be.  I wonder what her take is on serial killers. 

I guess if people listen to Dick Cheney and Glenn Beck, then they can watch Whoopi as well.  She used to be intentionally funny, but now she is unintentionally funny.  Not a good move.

Progress/Regress in Afghanistan

Fred Kaplan does a nice job of showing both sides of the war in Afghanistan, including the challenge of how best to provide electricity--the cheaper, less visible strategy or the more expensive but easier to control strategy.

Just a very good short piece that is pretty illuminating.

A Diplomatic Mission? I Don't Think So

Is it improv if they repeat the dialogue exactly but on a subway?

Old Wars, New Wars: What To Keep?

There is a piece in today's NYT about nuclear submarines, arguing that they are no longer necessary.  The idea is that our enemies are not nuclear states but non-state actors against which nuclear deterrence will not work.  there is something to this--that ballistic missiles in nuclear powered subs are not going to impact the calculations of a Bin Laden.  But, in the debate about new wars versus the wars we are fighting, we do have to keep in mind that there are good reasons why we are not fighting against major powers.  And part of that answer is, indeed, deterrence.  Nuclear subs are a big part of that since these subs are much more survivable in a first strike than land-based missiles.  This means that the key element of deterrence--being able to outlast a first strike and thus making such a strike relatively ineffectiveness--is in the hands of the "squids" (the submariners). 

I have far less faith in the future intentions of Russia and of China than the authors of the piece.  And I have far less faith that nuclear weapons will not be used as a bargaining tool down the road.  Having a secure means to retaliate makes it very hard for potential adversaries to imagine nuclear war with the US.  The reason we are fighting the wars of today, asymmetric wars with insurgencies rather than conventional or nuclear wars is that these are the only kinds of wars that folks can win against the US.

We do need to make wise and hard decisions about what to invest in--how many carriers do we need?  Do we need manned bombers in an age of drones?  Do we need more or better artillery if we cannot have lots of the best?  But nuclear subs are here to stay as long as there are other countries out there that have the ability to hit land based missiles.  Perhaps we need to go to smaller, cheaper nuclear subs rather than having big boomers.  But no subs ain't going to happen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Man or the Message?

"A slew of new polls suggest Obama is not a great pitchman for his policies.

Obama is not doing that great in the polls.  Has he lost his mojo, as this article suggests?  Is there something wrong with his message?  I posit a third possibility: things really suck now, so anyone in power is not going to do too well.  The economy is not recovering quickly, oil has stained our shores, the war in Afghanistan is ever more violent, and the only good news it that we can now curse again on TV.  Most, if not all of this, is out of Obama's control.  Just as Bush's popularity soared after 9/11 for doing what?  Not a whole lot.  Context matters a lot.  The good news for Liberals/Progressives/whatever is that the demographics, as I have noted before, are going towards the Democrats. 
The best news for the president and Democrats is that 62 percent of those polled say that Congress should extend unemployment benefits. Republicans have blocked legislation that would do so and the president has gone after them for it. The White House also takes comfort in the fact that the country has an even lower opinion of Republicans in Congress than they do of the president.
The party of No may seem fine in the short term, but the economic will turn around enough by 2012 that the losses in this fall's election (just as nearly every midterm election goes against the incumbent party) will be offset by the next one.  And don't count out how the Republicans are doing their very best to move so far to the right that even those who are unhappy with the economy may find their local politician to be unpalatable.

This may be wishful thinking, but, then again, Obama wasn't supposed to win the primaries against Hilary Clinton either, so don't count him out.

Copenhagen or Bust!

I am headed to Copenhagen in late August to research the civil-military dynamics of the Danish involvement in Afghanistan.  Denmark presents something of an anomaly as it has been quite active throughout Afghanistan and especially in dangerous places in the south (Helmand), unlike its Scandinavian and German neighbors.  For our work, it is also interesting that Denmark has had a coalition government, which we have tended to associate with countries with relatively tight restrictions on what their troops can do. 

So, I am looking for suggestions on places to eat, things to do in Copenhagen.  In return, I will post about my adventures as I did this spring in Australia and New Zealand and last summer in Germany and France.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pulling the Libertarian's Tail

From one of my students:

Anarchy rocks!!

World Cup Aftermath and Race in South Africa

William Rhoden has a piece on the economic impact of the World Cup.  He interviews one guy and essentially concludes that the white folks made the money even though the African National Congress has power politically.  The finding that a major sporting event has little spillover to the poorer folks is hardly news, and it says very little about the state of race relations in South Africa.  Most events of this kind are incredibly expensive, producing heaps of infrastructure that is often poorly utilized afterwards. 

As a resident of Montreal, where the debt payments for the 1976 Olympics only recently ended and where the big stadium needs yet another new $300 million roof, I can only be skeptical of any promise of big bucks for big sports.  It may be the case that whites did better than blacks in South Africa with the World Cup, but the larger reality is that these events rarely pay off for the countries that host them.  Only if the planning is really clever so that the city gets heaps of transportation and other infrastructure investments does it make sense financially.  Construction workers do well in the short term, but finding a use for all of the stadiums over the long run may be a challenge. 

Only if one can monetize pride, self-esteem, and nationalism do these events really pay off.  And maybe that is enough, but to expect these events to make substantial improvements on the local economies is not realistic.  Rhoden may be right, that race may have played a role, but a wider comparison (and perhaps more than one interview) might have told a slightly different story--less about racial politics and more about boondoggle politics.

The Problem of Credible Commitment

Dave Eggers and John Prendergast have an op-ed on Sudan in the NYT.  They discuss how the US helped to build an agreement between the government of Sudan and the Southern Sudanese secessionists.  The agreement called for the south to have some autonomy while being given a role in the central government, a split of the oil money, and a referendum in 2011.  They note that Sudan is now likely to subvert or ignore the results of the referendum.

This should not be surprising at all, as this would not be the first time that the Sudanese government violated an agreement it made with the south.  This has been a long-running conflict (for more than a couple of decades) as as the north has dominated the government and reneged in agreements over the years.  It may be the case that the Southern Sudanese have not always been a perfect partner, but the toll of the conflict has been paid almost entirely by the south. 

The problem here, as in many conflicts, is how to get both sides to commit credibly.  Each has incentives to defect from agreements and prepare for war, particularly given the likelihood that one side or another will defect.

Eggers and Prendergast see the US and the International Community as key actors here, forcing change.  The US special envory,  Major General Scott Gration has said: “We have no leverage. We really have no pressure.”  But the authors of the op-ed see otherwise.  And by doing so, they repeat a classic problem in the scholarship on the international relations of ethnic conflict: the assumption that outsiders do not have the same credibility problems as locals.  Sure, outside actors may not have the same kind of incentives to cheat on an agreement that incumbents in the conflict might--that is, the incumbents might lose power.  But, on the other hand, the benefits of following through are not so clear and the costs of being strict may be significant.  For instance, there are other actors that might take advantage of Sudanese isolation (I will not name China, but you can go ahead and consider China as an opportunist, willing to take advantage of Western ostracism of oil producers and also opposed to Western interference in domestic conflicts).

The authors seem to think that sanctions might hurt, but Sudan has already been sanctioned quite a bit, so it is not clear whether the international community can really impose high enough costs, compared to the temptations and constraints facing Sudanese leaders. 

They nicely employ the Rwanda example to try to push Obama into a corner, but there are a lot of differences between now and then, including how much more committed the US is to other efforts in the world (Iraq, Afghanistan), the weakness of the American economy, and, perhaps just as importantly, the limits of what the US could do in Sudan.  They are right to highlight the issue, but I am afraid they may be unrealistic about what the US and its allies can do in yet another troublespot.  Moreover, they do a nice job, accidentally, demonstrating that the challenge of making a credible commitment is not just a domestic issue but a problem for outsiders as well.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Speaking of WWII

As a result of hearing again and again about Paul the German Octopus and his amazing record of predicting the outcomes of the World Cup games:

it came to me.  There have been so many parodies of Hitler overreacting via the scene from downfall:

So, I can easily imagine one where Hitler reacts to Paul the Octopus predicting Germany's loss in World War II:

Hitler: The Octopus says we are going to lose this war!!!???  That's it!  Call off the attack on Russia!!  And so on. 

If only I had the skills and software ....   Or not.

Great TV Review of WWII

Check this out.  It is a TV reviewer's take on World War II.*
I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".
Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.
 I think my favorite paragraph is:
The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: "Nuts!". The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.
One of the frustrating things about Band of Brothers for me was that the Bastogne sequence showed them getting shelled to hell (very powerful stuff), but not how they held off repeated attacks. 

 Oops, my most favorite section is this:
Probably the worst part was the ending. The British/German story arc gets boring, so they tie it up quickly, have the villain kill himself (on Walpurgisnacht of all days, not exactly subtle) and then totally switch gears to a battle between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific. Pretty much the same dichotomy - the Japanese kill, torture, perform medical experiments on prisoners, and frickin' play football with the heads of murdered children, and the Americans are led by a kindly old man in a wheelchair.
Anyway, they spend the whole season building up how the Japanese home islands are a fortress, and the Japanese will never surrender, and there's no way to take the Japanese home islands because they're invincible...and then they realize they totally can't have the Americans take the Japanese home islands so they have no way to wrap up the season.
So they invent a completely implausible superweapon that they've never mentioned until now.
Holy Deus Ex Machina, Batman.
Just a great review of the War series.

* HT to Jacob Levy for his retweet

Too Perfect?

Esquire has an amazing story about my favorite "reality" TV show from my youth: The Price is Right.  Apparently, a guy guessed perfectly on the showcase, winning both.  Oops.  The show used the same stuff and prices over and over again, which lead to some people figuring out the patterns, and one guy absolutely nailing it.

Fixed or not fixed?  Since this happened in the early days of the Drew Carey era, much suspicion about whether this was done to pump up the ratings.  Read the tale and make your own guess.  I am not sure, but the guy might be legit with a calculator like mind.

Two Strikes And You Are Out

I am no soccer expert, as I tend to watch every four years and not much in between.  But I wondered yesterday while I watched the game whether the two yellow cards equaling one red (meaning the player is kicked out and the team plays with one less player) makes it harder for the referee to call fouls.  That is, if a player already has  a yellow, does that lead the ref to then avoid calling a second to avoid upsetting the competitive balance of the game?

Is this a problem much of the time or only when a team is more physical than usual?   I don't know, but I doubt that I will be watching that much more soccer in the near future. 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Too Clever For Own Good

Nice to see that Ratko Mladic, genocidaire at Srebrenica among other places, is probably going to be hanging himself as well as a bunch of other folks due to his retention of heaps of data/docs.  Apparently, a little foreign aid in the form of a camera that can see through walls plus some hard work did the trick. 
The find — 18 notebooks of General Mladic’s wartime military diaries, 120 sound recordings, cellphone cards, computer memory sticks and a pile of documents — provides some of the most compelling evidence yet of the close, top-level coordination of the Bosnian Serb Army and Serbia, a connection both parties always denied.
Very nice to see some of the key lies to be contradicted:
Specialists said that the notes and recordings would link Serbia more explicitly to the war. They cite numerous meetings with Mr. Milosevic, who always insisted that the actions of the Bosnian Serb Army and of Serbian rebels in Croatia were spontaneous local events.
Hard to have truth and reconciliation work without the truth part.  Folks can still deny, deny, deny, but it will be hard for anyone to believe them.

Not only Serbs will have their sins revealed by this documents:
These include what prosecutors describe as details of secret deals between Serbs and Croats to divide Bosnia and drive the Muslims out of many areas. General Mladic recorded a meeting on Feb. 3, 1994, also including Mr. Karadzic, in which the Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic is quoted as saying: “We need to agree on 2-3 things today. Muslims are the common enemy. There are 2-3 ways to keep them down (first, militarily, by breaking their backbone).”
 Of course, we still need to capture Mladic himself.  But the info he has provided will help convict Karadzic and perhaps other war criminals, as well as maybe convincing more Serbs of their government's complicity.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Best Perspective

While reading a series of posts at the Political Science Jobs Rumor Mill, I realized that a key rule from Ultimate is really quite appropriate most of the time.

Ultimate is a self-refereed game, and, unless observers are used to adjudicate line calls and the like, the calls on the field are made by the players on the field (despite my repeated temptations to make calls from the sideline).  Well, who makes that call?  The one with the best perspective.  It might be the player who caught the disk and actually saw his or her foot land in bounds.  But if the receiver was focused on catching the disk, then the person with the best perspective might be the person covering the receiver.  Or someone else entirely who was not involved in the catch.  This requires an expectation of honesty (unlike the University of Central Florida).  And, in ultimate, contested calls lead essentially to do overs.  So, if folks disagree about who has best perspective, then we do the play over. 

Anyhow, I was struck by this when folks were opining about something about which they obviously knew little but contesting folks who were much closer to the controversy du jour.  But, of course, an online posting place with heaps of anonymity is going to have lots of people make assessments despite having a poor perspective.  This is nothing new, but just much faster and more visible than old rumor-mongering.  As always, a big grain of salt is required.

When is Social Science Too Social?

Of course, the Pentagon generates heaps of controversy when it surveys the troops on attitudes about gays in the military.  There are several issues in play:
  • Should the military care what the troops think?  Truman didn't care when he integrated African-Americans into the military.  I do not recall any surveys as women have gained more and more opportunities in the armed forces.  However, if the survey is less for whether or not versus how, then perhaps it can be justified.  If it is to provide a fig leaf so that SecDef Gates can go ahead and do what is right, then it is a gamble but an interesting one.
  • Is this crappy social science?  Perhaps as one does not need to have a complete sample to get decent results.  So, this might suggest the fig leaf explanation may actually be correct.  Are the questions problematic?  Well, survey-writing is always challenging as the questions often shape the likely responses (I am no expert here, and my one attempt at a survey kind of blew up).
One thing we need to keep in mind is not that homophobia is a legitimate barrier to change, but rather most enlisted folks are going to be young and male--and, therefore, likely to have less advanced attitudes about gays and lesbians.  I certainly had homophobic attitudes when I started college, despite being brought up by a mother with liberal values.  If I remember correctly, at that time, I felt that gays and lesbians might be entitled to rights but they were "icky" (word used by the Salon piece).  I got over it at Oberlin as I interacted with actual, rather than mythical, gays and lesbians. 

So, the survey may or may not be a good idea, but the transition will inevitably have some difficulties and controversies along the way.  Given how many Canadian commanders seem unable to follow the basic rules about sex with subordinates and while deployed, these issues will never go away entirely.

What Would He Think of Blogs?

Critics, though, are another story. “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value,” Twain writes. “However, let it go,” he adds. “It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”
Mark Twain's unedited autobiography looks to be a hoot.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Emmy Thoughts

As a TV fan, I was mostly pleased at the Emmy nominations, but, of course, we can never be satisfied.
  • Lost got rewarded, including the key trio of actors for the last season: Matthew Fox, Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson, although Emerson had far more interesting work in previous seasons.  O'Quinn's dual roles as Locke and MIB showed his range, and re-watching the series all over again reminds me of how wonderful he was throughout its run.  Elizabeth Mitchell was nominated for Guest Actress in a season where she did very, very little besides die and then meet up with James at the candy vending machine.  She was great, but other folks in other roles may have deserved it more.  I think this is more like a makeup call for missing her impressive performance the previous season.
  • Nice to see Modern Family get heaps of noms even if Julie Bowen broke Jack's heart on Lost.
  • Mad Men's last season was a while ago, but it was good that the voters did not lose track.
  • Most importantly, Friday Night Lights got some well-deserved, if belated, love with noms for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.  Just as Conan's nominations poke at NBC, shouldn't NBC not take credit for FNL's nods since the show continues to exist thanks to DirectTV?
  • Speaking of nights, Saturday Night Live was over-rewarded for a weak season.  Giving Kristen Wiig a nomination may only reinforce an unfortunate habit to give her too much time on the show and the other women too little.  Wiig is very talented and can be great, but over-using her is a real problem.
  • It was good to see new shows do well, although having any awards now for Monk and for Jon Cryer seems to suggest that Emmy voters have some habits that are hard to break.
  • EW noted that four of the six best supporting actors for comedy either played gay characters or are openly gay (led by a rockin' Neil Patrick Harris).  This might not be that notable today, but it shows a great deal of progress in my lifetime.
No love for Chuck, unfortunately.  If I had been able to watch Justified, I would probably be a bit more disappointed about the nominations.  Oh well.

Lost Again?!

My daughter wanted to watch the first five seasons of Lost after having watched only the last one.  I, of course, went along with this.  I am not going to post commentaries on each episode as we go along, but a few thoughts will pop up along the way:
  • Ghost Walt in season 2 cannot be the Man in Black since Walt is not dead, unless MIB lied in the big conversation with Jack.  During the final season, I began to view Ghost Walt as MIB as part of his ploy to turn Sayid to the dark side by setting up Shannon to be killed.  But again, Walt was not dead, just missing.
  • Speaking of hallucinations, Kate and Sawyer saw Kate's horse and she touched it.  Sure, the horse could have been MIB, but it seems hard to understand how that would have made sense as part of any MIB scheme.
  • Smokey makes noise at times and not at others.  Interesting.
  • People seem to remember Jack as being very annoying, but in the second season, he was ok.  The vote for most annoying character in the series, and, definitely in the second season should go to Michael.  His obsession with his son is already way over the top, endangering everyone else long before he starts shooting at Tailies.
  • Speaking of which, it is fun to see how little game Hurley has when first interacting with Libby. She was very much interested in him, but he had no clue.  Hurley just rocks!
Anyhow, more random thoughts as we proceed.  Season one was so much fun--I had few thoughts on it as it was just a great ride the second time.

Future of the University (cont)

Funny that I post about unsustainable business models for universities and then the NYT has an article the next day on exactly that.  The article shows growth in students over the last decade or more in the US, but also that spending increased more on administration (no surprise there) and recreational facilities.  The latter to attract students as schools competed with each other.
On average, spending on instruction increased 22 percent over the decade at private research universities, about the same as tuition, but 36 percent for student services and 36 percent for institutional support, a category that includes general administration, legal services and public relations, the study said. At public research universities, spending for student services rose 20 percent over the decade, compared with 10 percent for instruction. [One big difference between CA and the US is the former has no or few private schools.]  Even at community colleges, with their far smaller budgets, spending on students services increased 9.5 percent, compared with 3.4 percent for instruction.

The article notes that the US system is not only the wealthiest but also the most unequal system of higher ed.  I would agree with that, but it ignores the fact that many more Americans (and others) go to many more universities and colleges in the US.  It is far easier to have "equality" if large segments of the population never make to university.  In many countries, including European ones, it is my impression that folks need to test in, and many, if not most, fall short.  Also, it is probably a mistake to compare without qualification universities and colleges with community colleges since they are doing different things to a significant degree.
“The funding models we’ve created in higher ed are not sustainable,” Ms. Wellman said. “We ran up spending in the ’90s and early 2000s to levels we can’t maintain, and this is true not only in the elite privates, but in many of the public institutions, too.”
Now, with private-college endowments battered and state legislatures slashing university budgets coast to coast, “policymakers as well as university presidents and boards must learn to be better stewards of tuition and taxpayer dollars,” she said.
This, I agree with.  That is, we cannot expect everyone to be paying ever higher tuition (as my self-interest shifts from my pay to my daughter's tuition in four years).  I do think that states and provinces are being short-sighted as they cut their support for universities since these are centers of economic growth, much more so than prisons, military bases, or even favored manufacturers (Bombardier, GM).  For private schools, well, they are going to face some hardships as parents can no longer handle the high tuition.  I don't know what they will do, because even a halt in building ever nicer gyms and student centers will not make that much of a difference when more and more resources go to administrators who are the ones who make the budgetary decisions.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

World Competitions and Me

This week, my two favorite pastimes are both being played at the highest levels.  The World Series of Poker is now playing its Main Event--the $10,000 hold em tourney after 57 or so tourneys that together make the world series.  This, of course, is in Las Vegas.  Amateurs and professionals have won the big event in the past decade, causing poker to become a bit more mainstream. 

At the same time, in Prague, there are the World Ultimate Championships.  Montreal has three teams competing--a men's team, a women's team, and a mixed (coed) team: Mephisto, Storm, and RIP respectively.  I have played with and against some of the players on these teams, especially the folks on RIP.  An impressive collection of ultimate players among the three teams.  And thus far, all three are doing quite well.

The latter competition has had a bigger impact on me this summer.  My team won last week in part because the opponent had their best player (and perhaps RIP's) in Prague.  And then this week, I got to sub on a Tuesday game because that team was short players, having sent a few to Prague. 

On the other hand, thanks to the WSOP and the poker boom of the Aughts, I have spent much time over the past four years or so playing heaps of poker.

I would give up poker rather than ultimate, but as my body breaks down (currently have two swollen fingers, but my knees are intact), my guess is that I will be playing poker way beyond my ultimate career.  Still, I have been playing frisbee longer than I expected.  And I expect to play it for another ten years or so as long as I live here or in another frisbee-rich environment.

And this fall, I hope to again join one of the Mephisto players (Shaggy) and other older players to keep the Grandmaster Cup in Montreal.

Pondering TV Alternative Realities

I have become a big fan of several TV critics who have blogs/postcasts, especially Alan Sepinwall based in NJ and Tim Goodman who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.  The latter's podcast, the TV Talk Machine, is far more, ahem, free-ranging (that would be less focused) and more aimed at being comedic.  And is very successful at doing so.  I have now been inspired to write into the TV Talk Machine twice and have had both letters read.  First, I asked them who to cast on my Hogan's Heroes re-make.

In the most recent podcast, in the aftermath of a new show replacing its entire cast, I asked Tim and his fellow pod-casters what show had a great premise but could be re-cast, and if so, casting whom?  They enjoyed the letter, but punted for the time being on answering the question.  So, I ask my readers: which TV show had a great premise but could have been better with a different cast?

Ranking Presidents or Rank Presidents

Historians were surveyed, as usual, about their rankings of Presidents.  George W. Bush hits the list at fifth from the bottom and worst President since Harding.  So, Bush has accomplished something--to be the worst in nearly a century.  Woo-hoo! 
Over two hundred presidential scholars ranked the 43 U.S. Presidents on six personal attributes
(background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five forms of ability (compromising, executive, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment including economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing supreme court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy.
Interesting criteria--especially the luck factor and avoiding mistakes.  It is not hard to see why Bush would fall so low, given several of these: intelligence, compromising, communication, members of the exec branch (Cheney, Rumsfeld, his Attorneys General), and AVOIDING MISTAKES.  9/11 was not Bush's fault nor was Katrina--bad luck, not unlike Jimmy Carter inheriting stagflation.  But what Bush did with the increased room to maneuver after 9/11 was awful.   Firing the Iraqi army was perhaps the single worst mistake in American foreign policy in the past one hundred years, and it was even worse than I thought as I learned last night that it put Matt Damon at risk in Green Zone.

Of course, Obama is not looking as good as he once was, with the oil spill serving as his Katrina perhaps.  I am more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, because the tools at his disposal to handle the oil spill are far fewer than those available to Bush to handle the aftermath of the hurricane.  Also, I am, of course, biased.  I feel bad for the guy, inheriting just a poor set of cards--housing bust, financial sector mess, big deficits, two difficult wars, broken car industry, etc.  I wonder if he will get a lot of credit in the long run for avoiding making things worse via the bailouts and some stimulus.  I do think re-election or not will do much to shape the tale. 

Back to the survey, what I find most interesting are the changes towards the top.  The top five has been relatively consistent although Teddy Roosevelt has been moving from 5 to 2 over the past thirty years (better press now? or just looking like the optimal Republican?).  More surprising is that Monroe and Madison have been jumping up to 6 and 7 on the list.  Less surprising is Kennedy falling off of the top ten.  I am not an historian so I do not know what is changing in the histories of these Presidents, although I would guess that it might be the changes in the historians who are surveyed that might be making a difference.  Otherwise, are there new facts or interpretations that are driving these shifts?