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
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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.

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