Some news

There will light blogging in the next couple of weeks — I’m engaged in an outside project. However, if events warrant, there will be a post about it here.

Thanks for your support, everyone!

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The defense budget, and how things really work in Washington


A little item in the Washington Post caught my attention today. It seems that when faced with the possibility that the defense budget may have to be reduced in order to bring some balance to the federal budget, defense contractors pushed back with the ultimate gambit in politics — bringing up the specter of lost jobs in congressmen’s districts.

For those unfamiliar with how U.S. politics works in regards to defense spending, the defense contractors have come up with a rather clever method of ensuring that defense spending — and in turn, defense contracts — are kept at a certain level. In the past, defense contractors generally kept their operations in one particular region. While this ensured that the assembly lines kept flowing (at least in the pre-express shipping era), this also left the same contractors vulnerable when a particular contract was either not awarded, or was terminated, since only one particular area of the country was affected.

Nowadays, however, defense contractors have figured out how to ensure that Congress will hesitate when attempting to cut the defense budget — spread out the work manufacturing the various components to as many regions of the country as possible. That way, when faced with the choice of canceling a particular contract (such as in the case of the F-35 fighter, which has faced its own problems), multiple members of Congress will be faced with the possibility of having constituents losing their jobs — which can lead to the members of Congress losing their bids for reelection.

Much attention (correctly) has been focused on how campaign contributions have affected the work of Congress in recent times. The effect of entities with the ability to affect Congressional races by means of governmental spending, while given a considerable amount of attention in the political science literature, has not been as publicized in the popular press. This is where the voters of this country would benefit from more light being shone on this particular aspect of governmental activity.

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The Freeh Report: An organizational take

The release of the Freeh Report on the scandal surrounding the case of Jerry Sandusky and the actions (or more appropriately, inactions) of the Penn State administrative structure in dealing with Sandusky’s crimes have gathered a great deal of attention, mainly due to the role that Joe Paterno may or may not have played in the saga. While a great deal of press attention have spent a great deal of time debating Paterno’s culpability on this matter, what has tended to get less media play is the role that organizational weaknesses within the Penn State structure played in what transpired (although there have been first attempts at analysis on the phenomenon).

I would submit that the organizational weaknesses identified in the Freeh Report are exactly what should be getting media attention — not least because these weaknesses are not peculiar to Penn State. In the report, Penn State was criticized for having a decentralized system for reporting campus crime incidents in line with Clery Act requirements. This came under particular criticism, since such decentralization created a situation where the leadership of the university had no idea what was going on in their campus. This situation was more serious than even the report alleges, since this sort of decentralization is symptomatic of a greater ill that affected Penn State — the inability of the leadership to have a clear picture of events taking place on campus. This lack of knowledge led to a situation where certain subordinates, such as Joe Paterno, were able to exert influence over decision making above and beyond their formal titles and responsibilities.

In every organization, there are formal powers and informal powers that each of the individuals involved are able to command. Generally, the idea of setting up rules and norms within an organization is to ensure that each of the individuals involved in the hierarchy know what their actual role happens to be. Generally (though not universally), in a well-run organization, there is a clear idea of what the rights and responsibilities of each of the members of the organization happen to be.

In the university setting, this is where problems tend to pop up, especially when big-time college athletics are involved. In theory, the coaches involved in such a structure are responsible to the school’s athletic director and the university president for their actions. In practice, however, this is not necessarily the case. Prior to the Penn State saga, the most notorious example of this type of organizational breakdown occurred at Indiana University, where the head basketball coach, Bob Knight, ruled the program in clear defiance of the school’s hierarchy. The joke around campus (and beyond) was that the school’s president felt lucky that Knight let him hold his position. This points out another aspect of what happened at both Indiana and Penn State: the surrender of actual power by the school’s administrative structure to coaches that, while not possessing great amounts of formal power, were able to wield considerable amounts of informal power, to the point where the school heads felt unable (or unwilling) to challenge their much more powerful subordinates.

This power, combined with a lack of true institutional control over the various departments within the school, were at the heart of the scandal at Penn State. This is where other universities need to devote their energies, lest they end up in a similar situation.

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The Higgs-Boson Song, and a possible method to illustrate concepts


The news last week of the physicists at CERN discovering the Higgs-Boson particle got the attention of most of us that are tuned into matters of science. For those whose senses are more in tune to the audio-musical spectrum of things, particle physicist (and composer!) Domenico Vicinanza has written a score “whose notes are defined by the data points drawn from the research around the Higgs boson.”

This brought a thought in my mind as how to possibly illustrate things that would otherwise be difficult to grasp at first (or second) sight. In my field — political science — students are often called upon to grasp concepts that tend to be rather hazy at first glance. For example, how to progress from “Congress passes laws” to “power blocs” and “logrolling” within Congress itself? And how to find a way to explain the difference between realists and Wilsonians in international affairs without engaging in endless rounds of “he said, he said”? Granted, the need to quote figures within the discipline in order to explain concepts is not only necessary, but is indeed crucial to provide an understanding of the field itself.

Nonetheless, a generation is going through the educational system that has found it easier to grasp the audiovisual spectrum of conveying information, rather than the strictly textual manner of conveying information that has been the hallmark of civilization for thousands of years. What the educational system is facing is finding the means to get across concepts and theories in a manner that fully utilizes the means of information sharing that has come about in the last 20 years. There are means of conveying information that, while not quite able to convey a mass of information in the same manner as a standard textbook, are still able to transfer the gist of a concept or theory in a way that can get to the heart of the matter. One can mock the way in which educational films of the past tried to “educate” on a given topic, but even an early effort such as “Schoolhouse Rock” was able to convey information that was able to get (and keep) the attention of the viewer. In a world of information technology that is growing by leaps and bounds, it should be possible to find a way to convey concepts in a similarly captivating manner.

After all, one could find a way to write a song that illustrates how countries determine who is an ally, and who is a rival…right? 

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A building and its (inconvenient?) history


This rather nondescript building on 391 San Antonio Road in Mountain View is currently a ethnic market. For those in the know, however, this building represents something far more significant to the history of the area. This was the building where Shockley Labs was located in the latter part of the 1950’s, and where the men who would create Silicon Valley got their opportunity to work with the Nobel Prize winner (and who would later break away from same prize winner).

This structure has become a feature in a rather heated debate in Mountain View recently, due to the efforts of a developer to put a office building/hotel complex in the place of this and neighboring buildings in the area. For those not familiar with Mountain View, this building is located in an area which is currently slated to become a combined retail business/apartment complex area (much in the manner of Santana Row in San Jose). Seeing this opportunity, the developer in question (who shall remain nameless in order to protect him from further abuse) seized the opportunity to push for a project that would otherwise rather long odds in gaining approval from a Mountain View City Council that has cooled towards the notion of building structures for the sake of building structures. 

What makes this particular case even more interesting is the notion that, in order to commemorate the building’s significance, one would be forced to commemorate the person mainly responsible for making the site itself significant. And herein lies the problem, for while the achievement that William Shockley was credited for by the Nobel committee cannot be doubted, his subsequent career tends to cast a rather dark shadow over his work with silicon transistors. The subject of eugenics is rightly considered taboo by society at large, and could be said to have been so since the end of World War II (for rather obvious reasons). Why Dr. Shockley went off into this territory is best explained elsewhere. What is important here is that Shockley’s controversial past has put a spanner into plans for preserving the site as a historical museum, or at the very least protect it from possible demolition.

The Mountain View City Council, so far, has refused permission for the office building/hotel from going forward. What might happen with a possible historical site, and how the issue of William Shockley’s views will be handled in such an event, remains to be seen.

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The Syrian Conundrum


The Syrian situation has taken some rather interesting turns in the last 72 hours. The pressure on the Assad regime has become quite obvious; nonetheless, it continues to hold on to power. So what options are available to Western policymakers?

The need to protect the civilian populations being targeted by Syrian regime forces has become obvious. In this respect, the need to protect (or as is more commonly known, the responsibility to protect, or R2P) cannot be denied. Where things have become sticky for the United States and its allies is how to provide such protection.

One of the problems that faces any Western attempt to protect the Syrian population is that a similar undertaking in Libya was clearly exploited to overthrow the regime of Mommar Gaddafi. This is a point that the Russian and Chinese governments clearly continue to carry a sense of irritation (if not more than that), and which would provide a means by which any attempted action against the Syrian regime would be blocked in the U.N. Security Council. However, the risks for nonintervention are very clear in terms of fostering an unstable situation within Syria itself.

One alternative offered by Andrew Kydd would set up a mechanism whereby assets used by the Syrain regime would be systematically targeted for every attack upon the civilian population. This policy, however, comes across more like the failed actions by the U.N. in Bosnia, where each attack by the Bosnian Serb forces upon civilian populations was answered by an attack upon a specific target. This policy failed due to the inability of the U.N. forces to precisely target a given Bosnian Serb weapon, and due to the fact that a tit-for-tat strategy does not provide for the sort of pain level that would cause an aggressor to reconsider their policy.

Reed M. Wood provides a cautionary note as to the utility of military intervention. Wood notes that unless such an intervention is impartial in nature, it will be bound to create a situation where surges in violence inevitably occur, since the side in the internal conflict seen as the “winner” will seek to wreak vengeance against the perceived “losers” in the conflict. While setting up an impartial intervention may sound appealing in theory, the problem is in actually setting up such an intervention. How, for example, would one deal with the Assad regime and its support structures? Wood insists that such an intervention should have as one of its goals “establishing the conditions that allow both sides to commit to peace.” The major problem in this equation is that there is no sign by the Assad regime that it is willing to compromise with the forces it considers “terrorists.” In addition, given the actions of the Assad regime in its dealings with “hostile” populations, there is a considerable disincentive on the part of the Syrian opposition to take the assurances of the Assad regime at face value, even with the assurance of protection by the international community. The opposition could easily claim that even with international forces in place in Bosnia, atrocities against the civilian population continued to occur.

The key factor in any possible intervention, therefore, is not just to protect vulnerable civilian populations, but to also alter the behavior of the actors involved — particularly the Assad regime. The problem in achieving this end is that, unless there is a dramatic change in the situation on the ground, the only possible policy to achieve this end is to topple the Assad regime, and to accept the consequences (most particularly, massive levels of violence and instability) that would be the consequence of such an action. In addition, the clear support by Russia and China of the Syrian regime would generally proclude such an action, even if it could be mounted in the near future. Therefore, the United States and its allies are faced with a situation that allows for bad options, and worse options.

Or is there a feasible way that this situation could actually be resolved?

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Welcome to my blog! I hope to be able to not only provide my own take on a given topic, but also to stimulate a discussion that goes to the heart of an issue.

Stay tuned!

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