Thursday, December 31, 2009

Scrotal terrorism versus automobile fatalities

Our preoccupation with screening passengers in the airports of the world, and the costs associated with it, has public policy implications that are not being debated enough. 

(BTW, the problem with the recent terrorist from Nigeria was more a failure to act on the intel reports than of the TSA itself.  After all, this was a guy who should not have been allowed to have a US visa in the first place!)

Heather Mac Donald writes:
In 2000, commercial jets carried 1.09 billion people on 18 million flights, according to a no-longer-linkable Boeing document.   Assuming that the number of flyers has not increased since then, that makes for one would-be underwear bomber out of about 10 billion travelers over the last decade.  Does that record represent success or failure?  Are we jacking up physical security measures on planes and in airports because we think that the risk of another underwear bomber has risen since Dec. 25, or because we think that our record of prevention over the last decade was inadequate?   The notion that we should be able to protect against every terrorist incident is understandable, and announcing that we are not going to try to stop every such incident is unthinkable, though former DHS Secretary Chertoff did make tentative noises in that direction regarding cargo screening.  But it’s still intriguing to me why dying in a terrorist-induced airplane crash has a greater hold on the public imagination than driving on the highway, where there are about 40,000 fatalities in the U.S. a year, much higher on a per-mile basis than the number of deaths from non-terror-induced airline crashes, of which there are many more than terror incidents.
And here is Bill Maher (ht):

Real Working Wives

The university where I teach is quite the norm when it comes to one statistic: female students outnumber male students.  So, it did not surprise me at all when I read that:
In more than a third of American households, women are now the chief breadwinners. This reversal of traditional roles was accelerated by a brutal two-year recession, in which 75 percent of all jobs lost were held by men.
Even in homes where both spouses work, one in four wives now earns more than her husband. That’s partly because of rising education levels among women, falling salaries in manufacturing and blue-collar jobs and the growing need for both spouses to bring home a paycheck. Wives’ earnings, said Kristin Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, have become “critical to keeping families afloat.”
Now, I don't mean to suggest that there is a direct and sole causal relationship between college education and this role-reversal.  But, it is yet another piece of data that point to dramatic changes in gender-related issues in society.

There is one related pet-peeve I have, from an academic perspective: while many universities, including mine, offer "gender studies", they do not seem to make efforts to point out such trends in American society.  Of course, gender discrimination exists, and many other aspects of society make it clear that we are not quite at equal rights yet.  But, shouldn't we at the same time acknowledge the changes and progress we have achieved?

ps: during the years that I was married, I was one of those one-in-four-husbands whose earnings were exceeded by the wives'

From engineering to terrorism ....

I present you this excerpt from an interesting piece in Slate!
paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation. The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s. Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.
And here is the best part:

Is there some set of traits that makes engineers more likely to participate in acts of terrorism? To answer this question, Gambetta and Hertog updated a study that was first published in 1972, when a pair of researchers named Seymour Lipset and Carl Ladd surveyed the ideological bent of their fellow American academics. According to the original paper, engineers described themselves as "strongly conservative" and "deeply religious" more often than professors in any other field. Gambetta and Hertog repeated this analysis for data gathered in 1984, so it might better match up with their terrorist sample. They found similar results, with 46 percent of the (male American) engineers describing themselves as both conservative and religious, compared with 22 percent of scientists.
Gambetta and Hertog write about a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise. They might be more passionate about bringing order to their society and see the rigid, religious law put forward in radical Islam as the best way of achieving those goals. In online postings, Abdulmutallab expressed concern over the conflict between his secular lifestyle and more extreme religious views. "How should one put the balance right?" he wrote.
Terrorist organizations seem to have recognized this proclivity—in Abdulmutallab, obviously, but also among engineers in general. A 2005 report from British intelligence noted that Islamic extremists were frequenting college campuses, looking for "inquisitive" students who might be susceptible to their message. In particular, the report noted, they targeted engineers.
I used to be an engineer. How about that for full disclosure!!!! hey, hey, don't you call up the FBI on me :-)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

We do too little for the place we all should call home: Africa

Register Guard, Dec 27, 2009

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — When students asked me about my winter break plans, my favorite reply was a simple one-liner: “I am going home.”

Their typical response was something along the lines of, “Oh, how long will you be in India?” That is all the opening I needed to engage them in a discussion of how Africa is the “home” for all humans. The “roots” of Alex Haley’s Kunta Kinte are connected to our own collective narrative as well.

Tanzania offers a compelling argument for why it is home to humans — going back to hominids, who were human-like precursors to our kind. The evidence, in this case, includes the well-preserved footprints of hominids in northern Tanzania, estimated to be 3.75 million years old.

Further, with coffee having originated in Ethiopia, the stretch of Africa that includes Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia is an important ancestral home to this avid coffee drinking human.

Tanzania is merely one country in the African continent, and at almost a million square kilometers, Tanzania has about four times the area of Oregon. Yes, four times — that is how large the country is. Dar es Salaam, the capital city, and its neighboring region has a population roughly equal to that of the entire state of Oregon. One can, therefore, easily imagine the challenge at the very early stages of planning the trip — how choose the parts of Tanzania to visit over the three weeks I will spend here. Of course, I am here to focus on a research question, but more on this later.

As I continued to work on my going-home travel plans, I brought in Africa and Tanzania as examples at the appropriate moments in my classroom during the recently concluded fall term. For instance, during a discussion on global climate change, I used maps to point out that the electricity consumption in New York City alone was equal to the consumption in all of sub- Saharan Africa, with the exception of South Africa. Yes, it caught the students’ attention.

Students’ response has been the same over the years: They are excited to learn about the continent of Africa when provided with the chance, and utterly disappointed if there is nothing presented despite their genuine interest in learning more. I remember one African-American student in particular who was visibly disappointed that there was nothing about Africa in the schedule of social science classes.

Even if the rest of us are not like that student, who was innately driven to understand Africa, the post-Sept. 11 world in which we live requires us to give Africa the attention it deserves. I hope that we have not forgotten the significant pre-Sept. 11 incidents in Africa. First, in 1998, came the near- simultaneous bombings at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Kenya, the work of al-Qaeda. Responding to these incidents, President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes on precise locations in Sudan in an attempt to neutralize Osama bin Laden. Ten years later, al-Qaeda sympathizers have yet another safe haven in Somalia. Its capital, Mogadishu, has earned notoriety as the world’s most dangerous place.

From an economic perspective, Tanzania and most of Africa seem to be falling behind the rest of the world. Globalization, which columnist Thomas Friedman popularly refers to as the world getting flatter, has delivered a double whammy to Africa. On the one hand, the trend of globalization has further pushed the heavily populated nations of China and India closer to the United States and Europe. On the other hand, most African countries rarely register a blip in our academic and journalistic radars. The economic playing field does not seem to have been leveled for Tanzania and most of the rest of Africa.

Yet we continue to marginalize Africa, even though doing so serves neither our academic interests nor the geopolitical interests that govern our realpolitik. I suppose the election of Barack Obama as president has given us a wonderful opportunity: Instead of arguing over where he was born, why not channel all that energy into understanding Africa?

Wouldn’t we want to know more about our roots? 

I saw lions in Africa, no "Tiger"

Thanks to the web, I can catch up on at least a few things I missed .... like this one about Tiger Woods :-)

Taarab: I love it :-)

I have no clue about the lyrics, but I love the taarab music.  It seems to have the best of everything--Arabic/Indian/African/life ....
The Lonely Planet book (thanks to my daughter!) mentioned taarab, which was the first time I had ever come across that word.  But, it is one thing to read about it, and another to actually listen to it and in its "natural" environs.  It was simply awesome to listen to taarab especially on the long drive from Dar to Iringa.  The driver, Mohammed, was, I think, excited about my interest in taarab.  After listening to taarab for a while, he then switched to another station that played Arab music.
I tell you; I am humbled everyday when I encounter stuff that I did not even know existed.  How little I know!!!
I wish I could understand the lyrics in this youtube clip that I found:

Monday, December 28, 2009

The US is "a Ponzi scheme that works"

Coming back to the US is always wonderful for one reason in particular: I am so glad that this is my home. 
The Economist does a fantastic job of explaining why the US is a fantastic home to immigrants.  Read it before it disappears from freeloaders like me :-)
Excerpt, which is also the concluding paragraph:
The stakes are high. Immigration keeps America young, strong and growing. “The populations of Europe, Russia and Japan are declining, and those of China and India are levelling off. The United States alone among great powers will be increasing its share of world population over time,” predicts Michael Lind of the New America Foundation, a think-tank. By 2050, there could be 500m Americans; by 2100, a billion. That means America could remain the pre-eminent nation for longer than many people expect. “Relying on the import of money, workers, and brains,” writes Mr Lind, America is “a Ponzi scheme that works.”

As Dubai goes, so goes the recession

Appeared in print: Monday, Dec 14, 2009

DUBAI — I am in Dubai, as I write this, on my way to Tanzania.

My last and only other visit to this city was in the summer of 2004, to spend a couple of days with my brother and his family. And boy, is it a different Dubai since I was here five years ago!

Those were the good times across the planet, and the signs were obvious everywhere in Dubai.

Construction cranes were active despite the intense desert heat and stifling humidity from the Persian Gulf, and flashy cars were competing with each other on the roadways. Shoppers casually were juggling bags full of expensive goods at Dubai’s ritzy shopping malls, compared to which Eugene’s Valley River Center was practically a convenience store.

As one commentator put it back then, “Dubai is like Singapore on steroids.”

I remember feeling awfully poor while in Dubai — a strangely new feeling that, since gaining American citizenship, I was not used to while traveling in Asia. It was terribly humbling that my dollars were, well, not worth all that much.

My brother drove us to the gates of the Burj al Arab hotel—the only self-­proclaimed “seven star” hotel in the world. There, a couple of months earlier and for a $1 million appearance fee, Tiger Woods famously cracked a tee shot from the helipad on the roof.

That day, however, no visitors were allowed past the gates due to some special event, which meant that I did not get to see the fabled architectural luxuries, including gold-plated columns.

It is a different Dubai now. Even the airport is much larger, thanks to the massive new terminal, which was constructed recently for the exclusive use of Emirates Airlines at a cost of more than $4.5 billion.

I am reminded of the taxi driver in Singapore, a few years ago when I was there on my way to India, who was worried that Singapore’s government was not acting fast enough in order to compete with Dubai.
“Even our airport will soon be smaller,” was his complaint. Almost!

But there is a feeling of emptiness even at Dubai’s very spacious airport — as if the steroids are no longer working. It simply does not feel like the fastest growing airport that it has been for a few years now — this despite the fact that according to Dubai Airports, international passenger traffic registered a “growth of 11.7 per cent in October, marking the fifth consecutive month of double-digit growth.”

Perhaps it is reflective of the very reason Dubai is in the news now; it appears that the economic excitement of Dubai was yet another bubble that started deflating along with the global recession, and that finally has burst.
When the world learned that Dubai World — the premier investment vehicle of the ruling al-Maktoum family — would delay payments on the more than $60 billion in debts owed, it was a financial earthquake felt across the global bourses.

Even New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has expressed his concern that we might be at the verge of sliding back into another recession — just as we were beginning to feel confident that the United States and the world were on the path to recovery.

The economic downturn will have immediate implications for the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and their families. After all, “natives” account for barely a fifth of Dubai’s population; the overwhelming majority are expatriates from all over the world, and the Indian Subcontinent in particular.

Thus, by extension, Dubai’s misfortunes could affect significantly foreign exchange remittances sent to the respective “home” countries. India, for example, gets nearly a quarter of its total remittances from the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a major component.

Personally, the huge difference between now and five years ago is a rather simple one; my brother and his family do not live in Dubai anymore. In hindsight, their decision to immigrate to Australia three years ago, even as Dubai continued on with its go-go-growth, seems immensely prescient. They timed the market well, indeed.

The curious academic in me wishes that I had more than the half a day that I spent in Dubai in order to try to understand the economic craziness. But to paraphrase Robert Frost, I have miles to go — about 2,500 miles more to Tanzania.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

To Afghanistan and Taliban via Baluchistan? Please, no!!!

In the NY Times op-ed, Seth Jones writes:
Like a typical business, the Taliban in Pakistan have an organizational structure divided into functional committees. It has a media committee; a military committee; a finance committee responsible for acquiring and managing funds; and so forth. The Taliban’s inner shura, or governing council, exerts authority over lower-level Taliban fighters.
This part I agree with.  It is a neat reminder that to some extent all this crazy organization has to do is engage at a minimal level, to remind everybody that they are still around, and otherwise wait for the Americans and the NATO forces to leave.
But, I don't agree with Jones' argument that we need to target the Taliban in Baluchistan.  Jones writes:
 ... relatively little has been done in Baluchistan.
The United States and Pakistan must target Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. There are several ways to do it, and none requires military forces.
The first is to conduct raids to capture Taliban leaders in Baluchistan. Most Taliban are in or near Baluchi cities like Quetta.
Why do I disagree with him?  Because, our failed attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan have made the Iranian theocracy that much stronger.  And then our missteps with their nuke program.  If we go into Baluchistan, then we make Iran that much better off--Iran also would like the Baluch problem go away.  I wrote about this, like, a gazillion days ago!:
Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan are also neighbors, with a border that simmers with its own set of ethnic disputes, religious tensions and drug trafficking.
The best way to understand the Iran-Pakistan border issues is to start with one of the most under-reported stories from two weeks ago. At least 20 people were killed, and more than 50 were injured, when a bomb exploded in a mosque in the city of Zahedan in Iran. Zahedan is the capital of Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, and the city is practically at the junction of the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At least three aspects of this bombing deserve our attention.
First, this part of Iran has a predominant Sunni population in a country that is otherwise majority Shiite. Keep in mind that Iran and Iraq are home to Shiite Muslims, while surrounded by Sunni majority countries.
Second, the explosion came only a few days before the presidential elections, which are scheduled for Friday. Further, the explosion occurred only three days after a historic trilateral meeting in Tehran of the presidents of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Third, and most important, a group called Jundallah claimed responsibility for this blast. Jundallah, which means “soldiers of Allah,” has gained strength in the post-Sept. 11 years. Jundallah claims to be fighting the Iranian government to secure equal rights for the Sunni and the Baloch people.
The Balochs are spread across the modern boundaries of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the largest province — in terms of land area — is Balochistan, where about half of the 10 million population is ethnically Baloch.
Read the entire piece here, which I ended with:
I certainly hope that we will not enlarge our engagement into the Iranian issues.

Al Gore is a no-go to Copenhagen .... "climategate" strikes?

The AP reports that Gore is canceling an appointment for which tickets had been sold:
Climate campaigner Al Gore has canceled a lecture he was supposed to deliver in Copenhagen.
The former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner had been scheduled to speak to more than 3,000 people at a Dec. 16 event hosted by the Berlingske Tidende newspaper group.
The group says Gore canceled the lecture Thursday, citing unforeseen changes in his schedule.
Of course, speculation is that this is a result of "Climategate" .... (not that Gore was involved in the emails)
Meanwhile, Senator Boxer is calling for a criminal investigation.  I hope they do track down the person(s) involved.  After all, we do not want to ignore the fact that hacking is a criminal offense.
And Senator Inhofe wants Congressional investigations, which I am sure will go above and beyond the hacking itself and into whether global warming is for real.  (Yes, it is for real, despite all the crazy emails.)

This is typically supposed to be a slow news period--from Thanksgiving until a week into the new year.  But, it has turned out to be one busy time: I mean, climategate, Woods' woods and irons, Afghanistan war, civil war for the roses, .....aaaaahhhhh, please, slow down .....

Anyway, here is Al Gore when he appeared on the Colbert Report:
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent - Global Warming With Al Gore
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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Climategate: a wonderful twofer :-)

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Scientists Hide Global Warming Data
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The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Something Is Melting in Denmark - Dan Esty
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What goes around, comes around :-)

Remember the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush?  Well, get this:
The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at former U.S. President George. W. Bush has found himself on the receiving end of a shoe-throwing attack.
Muntadhar al-Zaidi, a TV reporter got a taste of his own medicine on Tuesday as he was nearly hit by another shoe thrower at a news conference in Paris.
Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Al-Zaidi was able to duck and the shoe hit the wall behind him.
The identity of the new shoe-thrower and his motivation -were not immediately clear, but he appeared to be an Iraqi. 'He stole my technique,' Mr. Al-Zaidi later joked.
Whatever his motive, the confrontation didn't stop there. Mr. Al-Zaidi's brother, Maithan, then chased the attacker and pelted him with a shoe as he left the room.

How Thomas Friedman loses credibility .... the little bit left

I watched the re-run of the Daily Show (getting old to stay up late!!!) and was shocked at Thomas Friedman's honest admission that he over-reacted to the 9/11 incident, and that the country over-reacted.
I disagree with that--the guy is trying to back-pedal so that he can continue with his punditry. 
Friedman over-reacted, and the Bush-Cheney crowd also did when they hastily trained their guns on Iraq.  And Friedman was notorious for his constant pontificating that things will turn a corner in a few months--so much so that it earned a well-deserved "Friedman unit" measure, which can also be neatly abbreviated to "FU"!  Those were the errors. 
To have gone in the way we did, along with support from pretty much the entire world, and to dislodge the Taliban government was absolutely the right thing to do.  There was no over-reaction there.
It was sheer arrogance, combined with stupidity, to have left Afghanistan unfinished at that time, and then to have allowed it to fester for seven years.
Nice try, Mr. Friedman.  I am not buying it.
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Thomas Friedman

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After eight years!!! (more) War and (?) Peace

Well, as long as we at least nab Osama bin Laden

So, want a visual on the Afghan terrain?  Here is one:

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Working the "debt system"--how America works

"If we don't owe people money, we won't have any money at all"
A classic (forward to 7:38, if you want to skip the other stuff)

One of the smartly funny shows that were around at one time, along with the Dave Chapelle Show, and the Bernie Mac Show.
They don't make shows like 'em anymore :-(

War is now Peace? :-(

As always, Glenn Greenwald is sharp and clear in his analysis.  Greenwald does a fantastic--and absolutely depressing--comparison of Bush's rhetoric with Iraq and Obama's with Afghanistan.  It is way too good to excerpt, and is a must read.

Greenwald ends it with this comment:
Obama is scheduled to receive his Nobel Peace Prize next week in Oslo.  No matter your views on Afghanistan, and no matter your views on whether he deserved the Prize, is there anyone who disputes that there is some obvious tension between his escalating this war and his receiving this Prize?  Unless one believes that War is Peace, how could there not be?
I wonder what the rhetoric will be at Oslo at the acceptance speech ....
It is hard not to be critical, when I have been critical of this war mania even under the previous administration.  I joke with my students that I am an equal opportunity critic.  Greenwald throws a lifeline for me:
The most bizarre defense of Obama's escalation is also one of the most common:  since he promised during the campaign to escalate in Afghanistan, it's unfair to criticize him for it now -- as though policies which are advocated during a campaign are subsequently immunized from criticism.  For those invoking this defense:  in 2004, Bush ran for re-election by vowing to prosecute the war in Iraq, keep Guantanamo open, and "reform" privatize Social Security.  When he won and then did those things (or tried to), did you refrain from criticizing those policies on the ground that he promised to do them during the campaign?  I highly doubt it.
Well, as long as we at least nab Osama bin Laden

After spending the cash for clunkers

Interesting to see the contrasting headlines, which are all based on the same set of auto sales data that came out today:

We can interpret the numbers any which way we want--which is why we warn students on any "data" they are looking at.

“It’s time for us to go”

I second Christopher Buckley's motion: “It’s time for us to go.”
Let us get out of Afghanistan. Right away.

On Cheney behaving like his first name

Over to James Fallows:
Since the results of the 2008 election became clear, the 43rd President of the United States has behaved in a way that brings honor to him, his family, his office, and his country. By all reports he did what he could to smooth the transition to his successor, including dealing with the house-is-burning-down world financial crisis. Since leaving office he has -- like most of his predecessors in their first years out of power -- maintained a dignified distance from public controversies and let the new team have its chance. He has acted as if aware that there are national interests larger than his own possible interests in score-settling or reputational-repair.

The former vice president, Dick Cheney, has brought dishonor to himself, his office, and his country. I am not aware of a case of a former president or vice president behaving as despicably as Cheney has done in the ten months since leaving power, most recently but not exclusively with his comments to Politico about Obama's decisions on Afghanistan. (Aaron Burr might win the title, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr was a sitting vice president at the time.) Cheney has acted as if utterly unconcerned with the welfare of his country, its armed forces, or the people now trying to make difficult decisions. He has put narrow score-settling interest far, far above national interest.

The mystery is that Cheney has been through this process before. As chief of staff in Gerald Ford's White House, he was in charge of the transition to the Jimmy Carter team after Ford narrowly lost in 1976. Anyone who dealt with him then was impressed by his openness, his awareness of continuing national interest, his lack of bitterness -- and overall his resemblance to the George W. Bush of 2009. Whatever happened to that Dick Cheney is a matter of mystery. If only he would, for one moment, just shut up and follow the post-transition example of all three presidents he served: Ford, Bush, and Bush.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hope for PhD students in political science :-)


It was not a sari that the White House gate-crasher wore

So, it was quite a breach of security, eh, at the White House!
I heard a couple of reporters describe that the female of the duo was attired in a sari.

Well, technically that is not a sari.  She is wearing what is referred to as a "lengha" or a "ghagra choli."
(Editor: do you really know what you are talking about? Hey, when has that ever stopped me?)

As this detailed explanation of the lengha points out, it seems to capture the fashion spotlight quite a bit.
More photos/models here.

So, what is the big deal, you ask?  The answers are in this book; actually in the title!

Editorial cartoon of the day

A related note on Oregon here

D-Day in the Afghan War

President Obama nears his decision time, and Fred Kaplan's column explains well why this is a tough decision to make:
when it comes to this war, I am the one thing that a columnist probably shouldn't be—ambivalent. I've studied all the pros and cons. There are valid arguments to justify each side of the issue, and there are still more valid arguments to slap each side down. And if the basic decision were left up to me, I'm not sure what I would do.
His parting paragraph is awesome:
My guess is that President Obama held so many meetings with his national-security advisers on this topic—nine, plus a 10th on Sunday night to get their orders and talking points straight—because he wanted to break through his own ambivalences; because he needed to come up with a reason (not just a rationalization) for doing whatever it is that he's decided to do, some assurance that it really does make sense, that it has a chance of working, so he can defend it to Congress, the nation, and the world with conviction. Let's hope he found something. A columnist can be ambivalent; a president can't be.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has a few decisions to make as well--on its own, and in response to whatever Obama reveals tomorrow.  Christopher Hitchens sums it up really well:
When the throat-slitters and school-burners and woman-stoners come to the villagers of Pakistan and Afghanistan at dead of night, they have one great psychological advantage. "One day, the Americans and the Europeans will go," they say. "But we will always be here." There's some truth in this: Most of the talk in this country is now of an "exit strategy," and for all the good they are doing, most of the other NATO contingents might as well have shipped out already. But if the United States was to upgrade and cement an economic, military, and political alliance with the emerging giant in New Delhi, we could guarantee without any boasting that our presence in the area was enduring and unbudgeable. It would also be based more on mutual friendship and common values and less on the humiliating practice of bribery and cajolery. And the Pakistani elite would have to decide which was its true enemy: the Taliban/al-Qaida alliance or the Indo-American one.
What a mess.  But, the last thing we needed at this critical juncture was an inane demand from the UK that Pakistan do more to apprehend bin Laden.  What was Brown smoking?

Afghanistan: not very Jungian

From the international edition of Germany's Der Spiegel:
A deadly airstrike on two tankers in Afghanistan in September has proved to be a political timebomb in Berlin.

On Thursday Germany's top soldier and a deputy defense minister were forced to resign after revelations that the German army command and the Defense Ministry had been sent reports showing that there had been civilian casualties after the German-ordered airstrike. This was contrary to the initial claim by the government that only Taliban fighters had been killed in the attack. On Friday it was former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung's turn to fall on his sword. The clamor for his resignation in the light of his disastrous handling of the aftermath of the airstrike had grown too loud.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Finish the job"--out of Iraq and Afghanistan NOW!

Tuesday is apparently the big day when President Obama will announce his decision on Afghanistan.  Reports suggest that he will increase the US troop presence there.  It is unfortunate that Obama will add not subtract.

I have no idea what our (US) mission is for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.  The number of US military personnel dead is one too many.  The number of Afghans, and Iraqis, who have died, been injured, and displaced is one too many.

Meanwhile, here at home:

Iraq veteran Jessie Bratcher shot the man he was told had raped his girlfriend. An Oregon jury found he had been legally insane at the time because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The sociologist, William Brown, quoted in that story is my colleague--he is known to friends and colleagues as "Bud."  A Vietnam veteran himself, Bud has invested a great deal of time and his own money in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases in particular.  He provides a compelling analogy to help us laypeople understand.  There is a difference between civilian and military lives and work.  For all purposes, the civilian and military "operating systems" and software are very different and, sometimes, incompatible.  Unfortunately, while the military is very good at  installing new software when civilians enlist, it does a horrible job of removing the killing software before returning the soldiers to civilian lives.

To make things worse, the VA does not give PTSD the attention and respect it deserves.

I can only imagine that pretty much the entire Afghan society is in a permanent state of PTSD.  Given that Afghanistan was practically in a state of civil war even before the Soviet tanks rumbled into Kabul that fateful Christmas night in 1979, we are now looking at two generations of Afghans who have known nothing but wars and chaos in their countries.  That is the "normal" for them?  What a crazy world we live in!

End the bloody wars now. Please.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A tale of two countries and their catastrophes

Writes Pankaj Mishra:
India may have been passive after the Mumbai attacks. But India has not launched wars against either abstract nouns or actual countries that it has no hope of winning or even disengaging from. Another major terrorist assault on our large and chaotic cities is very probable, but it is unlikely to have the sort of effect that 9/11 had on America.
This is largely because many Indians still live with a sense of permanent crisis, of a world out of joint, where violence can be contained but never fully prevented, and where human action quickly reveals its tragic limits. The fatalism I sense in my village may be the consolation of the weak, of those powerless to shape the world to their ends. But it also provides a built-in check against the arrogance of power — and the hubris that has made America’s response to 9/11 so disastrously counterproductive.

The Middle Eastern financial earthquake from Dubai

A few days ago, I told my colleague that we are only an event away from a double-dip-recession .... the much feared w-shaped recession and recovery. 

I thought that the second dip would result from an event in the Middle East--Iran, or the Israel-Palestine issue, or Iraq.  

But, could Dubai's sovereign default reverse any recovery and slide us down a second recessionary dip?  

What sayeth Krugman?
First, there’s the view that this is the beginning of many sovereign defaults, and that we’re now seeing the end of the ability of governments to use deficit spending to fight the slump. That’s the view being suggested, if I understand correctly, by the Roubini people and in a softer version by Gillian Tett.
Alternatively, you can see this as basically just another commercial real estate bust. Either you view Dubai World as nothing special, despite sovereign ownership, as Willem Buiter does; or you think of the emirate as a whole as, in effect, a highly leveraged CRE investor facing the same problems as many others in the same situation.
Finally, you can see Dubai as sui generis. And really, there has been nothing else quite like it.
At the moment, I’m leaning to a combination of two and three. For what it’s worth (not much), US bond prices are up right now, suggesting that the Dubai thing hasn’t raised expectations of default.
Anyway, we continue to live in interesting times.
Horrible times.  If only our collective madness hadn't found it worthwhile to invest a gazillion dollars in crazy developments

Friday, November 27, 2009

Not from Monty Python, but from Senator James Inhofe

From the NY Times Magazine: (in bold are the questions, and his responses follow)
You think the detainees at Guantánamo eat better than you do?
I’m talking about before they got in there, what they ate back in Yemen or wherever they came from. One of the big problems is they become obese when they get here because they’ve never eaten that good before. Can you tell me one reason to close Gitmo?
Because it’s on foreign soil, where prisoners don’t have the same legal rights as prisoners tried here, and we want to apply the same laws to everybody.
You want to apply the same laws to terrorists that are captured as you do to criminals in America?
Because we have to take the high road as Americans.
I see. That’s an interesting concept.

Video for the day: "Twist and Shout" from Ferris Bueller :-)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mobile phone ops in Tanzania: a story of globalization by itself

Kuwait-based Zain Group has awarded Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) a five-year outsourcing contract to manage and upgrade its mobile networks in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
So, a corporation based in Kuwait is responsible for the mobile phone operations in Tanzania--and Kenya, and Uganda.  And this corporation awards the contract for the day-to-day management to Nokia Siemens, the global headquarters for which are in, Finland I assume!

The eternally curious guy that I am, I thought I would explore who actually runs Nokia Siemens. 

Laugh not: the CEO is Rajeev Suri.  Of course, not only an Indian name, the guy is from India :-)  And the second in command there? Ashish Chowdhary.  Turns out Suri is three years younger than me, and Chowdhary is one year older than me.  It is because of such reasons that my parents for a long time could not understand why I ditched electrical engineering when quite a few from my cohort--the larger sense--were raking in money like crazy, even at a middle management level. 

It is one crazy world, man, one crazy world!

Delhi, globalization, and ..... the Ramayana? and Freud?

‘You know about the Oedipus complex? Freud said this was the universal condition of young men: they unconsciously want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. That’s the source of revolutionary energy – you kill your father symbolically by rejecting all his values and finding new ones. But I don’t think this applies to Indian men. I would analyse Indian men in terms of what I call the Rama complex. In the epic poem Ramayana, Rama gives up the throne that is rightfully his and submits himself to enormous suffering in order to conform to the will of his father. Indian men don’t wish to kill their fathers, they wish to become them; they wish to empty themselves out of everything that has not come from their fathers.’
That was from an essay in Granta.
I thought it was about time I re-visited Granta; I do that every once in a while.  I don't understand why I do that though.  Because, rarely do I find essays or fiction that resonate with me.  The poems there are, well, like the essays--way too pretentious.
Well, I know why I visit Granta--occasionally I come across a piece like the one on Pondicherry.  And because I still carry a torch for the kind of issues that are normally addressed only by the lefty-left and the greenies.
Anyway, back to this quote and the essay itself ... I wonder if any of the "Indian" readers have anything to say about the quote, and the entire essay too .... anybody? :-)  

Thanksgiving: "fat" chart of the day

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A sense of humor at the White House

This is a change I can definitely live with.  Cool. (ht)

East African Community--signs of hope

I think back in India we still have a couple of stamps in our collection that refer to the Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania alliance that later collapsed.  Now, the alliance is regrouping, with Rwanda and Burundi also in the mix.  Good for them, I say.  You--the reader--ought to be happy too.  (editor: what makes you think that this blog actually has readers?  Well, the site traffic data?

The note accompanying the photo at the source reads:
Leaders of the Eastern African Community sign the common market treaty

Of course, this will not be a common market when I am there in Tanzania in, oh my freaking life, two weeks!!! 

It was interesting to read in that news item the following quote:
"From 36 million people in the Kenyan market we are moving to 126 million. The impact is going to be great," said Vimal Shah, the chief of a giant Kenyan beverages and food manufacturer.
"We cannot remain an island anymore. The key now is to become competitive."
Vimal Shah! 
How much ever I am familiar with the idea that there are people of Indian origin scattered all over the planet, it continues to amaze me that it is such a global group.  When I was young--a long time ago--a new kid (Belliappa) who joined our school had spent a couple of years in Kenya because his dad was working there.  That might have been the first time I came face-to-face with what was otherwise merely  news reports.  I wonder what that guy is up to now .... 

From Neyveli to America to Tanzania ..... I would not have imagined such a life journey .... awesome!

Remembrance of things past--Thanksgiving

The following was published in the Register Guard, back in 2007:

Given my accent and distinctly ethnic appearance, it is not any surprise when students ask me whether I celebrate Thanksgiving.  To me, the answer is a no-brainer: of course, yes.

If unable to shake off the teacher within me, I might then use the students’ question as a learning opportunity and ask them whether Native Americans and African Americans will be thrilled about Thanksgiving, and whether their responses could be different from how the movies depict the day.  “Would you be thankful if you had been brought over as a slave, or if your people were practically wiped off the face of the earth?” is my typical probing question. 

As I see their eyes glaze over, perhaps even regretting broaching this topic with me, I lighten it up with my old joke that the best thing about inviting me to Thanksgiving supper is that I am simultaneously both an Indian and an American. 

As is the case with me, there is a good chance that to most of us Thanksgiving has expanded beyond the notion of remembering the meal that the early settlers had with Native Americans.  Now, Thanksgiving is a day for families to get together, with a common theme of feeling grateful for the good things over the year.

In such an understanding, I would think that “giving thanks” is a universal notion, irrespective of histories, cultures, and traditions.  I cannot imagine people in any culture not being thankful for surviving yet another day, or for enjoying life with people they cherish. 

I am sure my parents tried drilling into me such a concept of life when I was young and, like most kids, I probably ignored their comments and rolled my eyeballs way up.  In any case, every other day it seemed like we had a religious event to thank any one of the thousands of Hindu gods and to pray for the continuation of the good things. 

My grandmother, though, was always a tad hesitant to loudly recognize the good things out of a fear that this might trigger the onset of unfortunate events.  “Don’t laugh too much,” she warned, “because you will end up crying.”  Having experienced too many unfortunate events, including the death of her husband when she was only eighteen and when her son—my father—was barely a month old infant, my grandmother had enough reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

While a day for giving thanks does not seem to have become quite global, Valentine’s Day, on the other hand, is one of the few that has caught on almost all over the world.  We might think this is a great idea—“make love, not war”—but, apparently even saying “I love you” can cause controversies.  In India the fanatically minded Hindu nationalists protested Valentine’s Day celebrations because “it is a Western concept”. 

Yes, it is an irony that India, which is known to many in the west only for a much misunderstood Kama Sutra, has quite a few who think celebrating love is not Indian.  In a letter to a moderate mainstream newspaper last February, one reader suggested that “to avoid further controversy, the government should restrict, if not control, the celebrations.”  I suppose the Hindu god of love, Kama, ought to be thanked for making sure that sanity prevailed.  Of course, love triumphs, and people in urban India seem to have latched on to Valentine’s Day. 

Perhaps the reason for why a day of giving thanks is not as universal as it ought to be lies in lighthearted remarks of a friend, an immigrant herself—she tried to convince me that Thanksgiving is the day that husbands buy gifts for their wives.  Could it be that a day to give thanks has not caught on, as much as Valentine’s Day has, because there is no gift-giving associated with it?  If that is indeed the case, then I have yet another reason to be thankful for.

Above all, I am eternally thankful for having had the opportunity to immigrate to, and become a citizen of, this wonderful country, and then to move to the paradise that the Willamette Valley is.  I suspect that my family has an additional reason to offer thanks—that over the years I have resisted the urge to bake a tandoori turkey!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Billion-plus in the dark, while we energy hogs whine

Get this:

An estimated 79 percent of the people in the Third World -- the 50 poorest nations -- have no access to electricity, despite decades of international development work. The total number of individuals without electric power is put at about 1.5 billion, or a quarter of the world's population, concentrated mostly in Africa and southern Asia.
The 1.5 billion figure represents an improvement over previous years, but not because of any concerted effort to expand power connections. Rather, it is a consequence of rapid urbanization with populations moving to electricity and not the other way around, said Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist.
"This is very bad and is something that the energy community and others should be ashamed of," Birol said. The amount of electricity consumed in one day in all sub-Saharan Africa, minus South Africa, is about equal to that consumed in New York City, an indicator of the huge gap in electricity usage in the world.
In case you missed that last sentence, let me repeat that quote:
The amount of electricity consumed in one day in all sub-Saharan Africa, minus South Africa, is about equal to that consumed in New York City
We don't talk enough about this HUGE imbalance. I suppose it is because we will feel guilty as a result; denial helps, eh!

But, these are the kind of issues that will bubble up at Copenhagen and other conferences.  My metaphorical hat is off to people who bring such issues to our attention:
about 2.5 billion people globally subsist on wood or charcoal. With so much attention on the energy consumption habits of larger economies in the climate talks, the report's authors say they worry that the plight of those without any modern power is being willfully ignored. A quarter of the world is disconnected from debates over clean energy "because their reality is much more basic than that," said UNDP's director of development planning, Olav Kjørven.

This map of the world shows the artificial light used in the night--a measure of electricity usage.

India news all the time? Slow down, please ....

Way too much about India .... First, here is a groaner (at least according to my students!): Looks like Obama has advanced the Thanksgiving dinner, but wait, he has invited the wrong Indian to a state dinner at the White House ... ha ha ha

What do you expect here; this is not a comedy show!

So, Manmohan Singh is visiting the US and is dining with the Prez.  I don't know if this was the only date open in Obama's calendar, or whether this was a calculation to get Singh's input as well into the Afghanistan decisionmaking.  If these two were reasons, great.

If not, it is really lousy timing.  Why?

For one, the release of the report after what seemed like a gazillion years of investigation into the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fanatics.  Even Time has a rather lengthy report on it:
Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in Washington Monday to represent an India emerging as a cosmopolitan economic powerhouse, his parliament sent an ugly reminder that the world's largest democracy has a dark side: Both chambers of India's parliament have had to be adjourned repeatedly over the past two days amid a furor over leaked findings of a judicial inquiry into the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. The mosque was destroyed by Hindu extremists in order to rebuild a Hindu temple that had stood on the same site hundreds of years earlier, and it triggered a wave of Hindu-Muslim violence that left more than 2,000 people dead.

Making (non)sense of healthcare reform

When a pretentious and half-baked nincompoop like me in the academic backwaters of a state that is often mispronounced has opinions on healthcare reform, then surely the Dean of Harvard's Medical School has opinions on this, right?  And when it comes down to it, I bet this Dean's explanations on what the reform entails will have more credibility than mine; wouldn't you think so too?

Which is why I am worried about some of the points that this Dean raises:
In discussions with dozens of health-care leaders and economists, I find near unanimity of opinion that, whatever its shape, the final legislation that will emerge from Congress will markedly accelerate national health-care spending rather than restrain it. Likewise, nearly all agree that the legislation would do little or nothing to improve quality or change health-care's dysfunctional delivery system. The system we have now promotes fragmented care and makes it more difficult than it should be to assess outcomes and patient satisfaction. The true costs of health care are disguised, competition based on price and quality are almost impossible, and patients lose their ability to be the ultimate judges of value.
Worse, currently proposed federal legislation would undermine any potential for real innovation in insurance and the provision of care. It would do so by overregulating the health-care system in the service of special interests such as insurance companies, hospitals, professional organizations and pharmaceutical companies, rather than the patients who should be our primary concern.
In effect, while the legislation would enhance access to insurance, the trade-off would be an accelerated crisis of health-care costs and perpetuation of the current dysfunctional system—now with many more participants. This will make an eventual solution even more difficult.
All too confusing this healthcare reform is.  So, as always, I turned to the only real source of news and wisdom: The Onion:

Anonymous Philanthropist Donates 200 Human Kidneys To Hospital

Monday, November 23, 2009

Photo of the day .... India ... again? :-)

Cell phones have revolutionized India.  Every visit, I am simply amazed at how much of a market penetration they have achieved. 
With innovative and unique plans and calling strategies.  The first time I heard a driver tell me "give me a missed call, sir" it took me a few nanoseconds of conscious processing of that statement to figure out what he meant.  It made sense once I got used to that logic :-)
Or calling plans where one can only receive calls, but cannot make any.  Comes in handy for the much poorer folks who are keen on finding work--if only somebody would let them know where the job is.  Bingo--cellphone with receive only calling plans.

Despite the evil Murdoch taking over the WSJ, the paper continues to do some decent reporting.  Today's paper had a neat feature on cell phone usage in India, which is where this photo is from.  I think believe that cell phones have played a fantastic role in the economic and social transformation of India--way, way more than what Doordarshan and Hum Log managed to accomplish.  Good for them.

Climate change: outcrazy the crazies :-)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Meanwhile at Government Motors, er, at GM ...

You know what attracted me to this op-ed in the NY Times?  The leader "Portland, Ore."  To think that a NY Times op-ed on GM would be authored from somebody here in Oregon .... I was trapped :-)

It was a bad, bad idea for the government to run this automobile sinkhole company.  Anyway, we are where we are.  This op-ed argues that:
Maintaining a majority stake in a struggling G.M. as the 2012 election approaches will only increase the liability. If G.M. has to use taxpayer money to bail out Opel and Daewoo, its Korean division (which lost billions on currency speculation, no less), the issue of bailout money being sent abroad will undoubtedly be a campaign issue.
G.M.’s global interests are far too diverse for it to serve its taxpayer owners faithfully, and it can’t afford to subjugate its business prerogatives to the political needs of its major shareholder in the White House. So, unless Americans develop a sudden obsession with G.M.’s $40,000 Volt electric car just in time for an I.P.O., taxpayers will be stuck with tens of billions of dollars in losses.
I wonder if the logic is why worry about tens of billions of dollars in debt, when we are piled high in gazillions of dollars of debt.

Speaking of debt, Paul Krugman chips in with we have no reason to worry; after all, Belgium, which will soon preside over the EU, is mired in a lot of debt, and provides this chart.

Ahem, while what was good for GM 60 years ago might have been good for the US then, what is good for Belgium being good for the US now?  Seriously, what happened to Krugman?

And, another page in the NY Times wants us to be afraid, really really afraid, of the debt situation:

With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher.
In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, who you gonna believe? :-)

The autonomous jihad in America

The ending sentence in this opinion piece is an attention getter that should have been the opening sentence:
Once distant enemies now pose a real threat to the U.S. at home.
Now, before you jump to conclusions, no, the opinion piece is not in the context of the incident at Fort Hood.  In fact, the essay makes no mention of Texas, or Fort Hood, or Hasan.  Which is why the piece is all the more interesting.  I have no idea about the data in the column, but the publication is a reliable one.
And, you know what?  It is not any war-obsessive right-wing American publication either.

This column is from The Hindu.  I copied and pasted the title of the column, for the title of this post.  It is clear that the author wants to make a case that Pakistan is the area that is most connected to terrorist acts anywhere:
Even as it moves to address the causes of the rising tide of jihadist violence at home — among them resentment over foreign policy, racism, religious bigotry, and Islamist institutions that exploit them — the U.S. will have to work to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist groups in Pakistan.
But, in trying to make this point, the essay does not make it easy for the reader; not quite an example of wonderful writing.  Check it out though.

Waiting to exhale on Afghanistan ... egalitarian faux-democracy?

I have made my position clear.  Now, I am with billions of others on the planet waiting for Obama to tell us what his decision is.

If he still planning on a surge, hey may want to think more about it.  Why? Pakistan is not keen on a surge, particularly if the US does not share its plans. (ht)
Pakistan expressed fear Friday that a large increase in foreign troops in Afghanistan could push militants across the border into its territory and called on the U.S. to factor in that concern as part of its new war strategy.....
...The Pakistani concerns, raised by the prime minister during a meeting with visiting CIA director Leon Panetta, could pose another headache for President Barack Obama as he weighs military proposals to send 10,000 to 40,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan next year.
And, that same AP story ends with this BTW kind of an observation, which is a nasty reminder of how we got to where we are:
Pakistan helped nurture a generation of Islamic militants after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Following the Soviet withdrawal a decade later, Pakistan helped the Taliban seize control. Many of these militants fled to Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.
Meanwhile, Obama taking his longest time trying to come up with a solution that pleases all is beginning to get noticed, finally.  The ever caustic Dowd, who is good at playing with words (I don't care for her columns at all; but, to borrow from Rumsfeld--did I really quote this war criminal?--we have to go to engage in discussions with the columnists we have!)
If we could see a Reduced Shakespeare summary of Obama’s presidency so far, it would read:
Dither, dither, speech. Foreign trip, bow, reassure. Seminar, summit. Shoot a jump shot with the guys, throw out the first pitch in mom jeans. Compromise, concede, close the deal. Dither, dither, water down, news conference.
It’s time for the president to reinvent this formula and convey a more three-dimensional person.
Lee Siegel describes the un-decider's approach as:
egalitarian faux-democracy, in which the illusion of responding to every side in a debate undercuts the democratic process of actually arriving at a decision.
How exactly does this work? Siegel explains:
This illusion of national participation in his decision-making process, with the promise of a happy ending that excludes no one, has been Obama’s method almost from Day One. Call it the American Idol style of governing—except that no possibility ever gets voted out of the competition.
No one must feel marginalized by a tyrannical majority. Obama allows the responses of the public, and the political establishment, and the media to break down every issue into a million parts, so that the multi-faceted clamor outside his head ends up looking a lot like the multi-faceted way he considers the world from inside his head. And by the time a decision comes—and yet it seems that Obama has not come to a single consequential decision since his inauguration—some people will feel unsatisfied, but no one will feel defeated.
Not looking good, man.  Not looking good at all. 
Update: later I was reminded of this comment on candidate Obama by Robert Samuelson--back in June 2008 that he might be the best graduate student ever:
I cannot detect powerful convictions in Obama. He seems merely expedient in peddling his convenient conflicts. He strikes me as a super-successful graduate student: the brightest, quickest, most articulate guy in the seminar. In his career, he has advanced mainly by talking and writing -- not doing -- and may harbor a delusion common to the well-educated: that he can argue and explain his way around any problem.

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