The legal status of event data

So, for once, only a minimal level of snark. We’re still in the process of recovering from the recent series of unfortunate events in the world of event data but, indeed, we appear to be recovering and there will be some interesting announcements forthcoming,[1] probably around the beginning of March, and certainly before ISA, as otherwise I could only attend in disguise. One of the many rabbit holes I’ve been traveling through has involved a fair amount of research on the legal issues surrounding the creation and dissemination of event data, and while this is still fresh in my mind, figured I might as well share this.

Let us start with the obligatory caveat that I AM NOT A LAWYER. I repeat:


So this is not legal advice, not should be construed as such, and if you wind up doing 20 years to life of hard labor in solitary in Leavenworth for coding the 2006 military coup in Fiji using Agence France Press [2], that is not my responsibility. But from the perspective of an academic researcher reviewing the available material, I find that rather unlikely.

[But for those of you who are lawyers, and even more so, those of you who are teaching courses on intellectual property, this would make a pretty good little project, right? Or maybe it has already been done: I would be delighted to publicize any such efforts. Similarly, if those who are lawyers see error/omissions in what I'm saying here, I will be happy to post additions/corrections, or simply approve your comments on the blog.]

Here’s where I think we stand on this issue.

Event data are a codified collection of facts, and in the 1991 decision Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “that information alone without a minimum of original creativity cannot be protected by copyright.” [3] Evidence that event data are a codification of facts rather than dependent on the expression of those facts is provided by at least the following

  •  The original expressive content cannot be recovered from the event data coding: in fact per linguistic theory, there are an infinite number of sentences that could map to a given event code.[4]
  • The de-duplication algorithms we use—the ubiquitous “One-A-Day” filters based on source-target-event tuples—are completely indifferent to the expressive content;
  • The fact that de-duplication is required on many of our events indicates that these are reporting factual information in the natural world, not some original creative effort (to the contrary, we do everything we can to eliminate fictional references).In fact, while it would be inconvenient, I have little doubt that a perfectly good event data set could be assembled solely from events that are multiply-sourced, and that might in fact be a less noisy set than the ones we currently work with. [5]
  • While we do not code direct quotations out of scientific concerns, that further reduces the originality of the material involved in the coding;
  • The mere collection of material—which in any case we are aggregating from a variety of sources—is insufficient to support a claim of copyright, per the 1996 decision in Publications International, Ltd. v. Meredith Corporation

The noun phrases which are provided for actors which are not in dictionaries (or rather will be in PETRARCH, our new Python-based event coder) are for the most part simply factual; in the rare cases where they have expressive content, for example a particularly flowery description of some hero or villain—which are generally not found in expository reports anyway—these are a very tiny proportion of the text and probably qualify as “fair use” under at least the research component of that doctrine.

And indeed, the second big protection is “fair use,” though this varies with who is generating the data and why. It would probably be strongest when used in research and instructional uses in a state-run educational institution (which are, in fact, the circumstances of a large number of event data collection efforts) and weakest in a commercial, for-profit enterprise that has no pretension of research (which was the situation in Feist: the defendant simply produced phone books).

Based on the 1994 Texaco decision, the mere fact that an enterprise engaged in research is for-profit does not, by itself, mean that this is not “research” under “fair use.” Texaco did, however, place an emphasis on whether the action deprives a copyright holder of revenue, and in my reading of subsequent cases, this has become an important factor. Keep in mind, the actions in Texaco—the large-scale copying of materials—go far beyond anything involved in event data production, but the issue of commercial competition could, conceivably, be relevant at some point, for example were one of the major news services to start providing their own event data.[6]

Source texts

Here the situation seems completely unambiguous: don’t share source texts unless you have a clear license or other intellectual property right to do so (which, for example, ICEWS has within the US government, a major advantage of ICEWS for those users). This has implications for replicability, and lots of people get unhappy when you say you can’t share the source texts, but this is about as close to a black line as we’ve got, and I’ve got a long mini-sermon on this that I inflict whenever I’m lecturing on event data. I repeat: do not share copyrighted source texts.

Bummer. And I’ve long wondered why the news services—whose interest, one would think, would be in making historical text series more widely available so that more people would subscribe to their current news services—did not make available some sequences at a reasonable cost: the marginal costs for doing this would be very low as they already have the data.

Well, it turns out they have: the Linguistics Data Consortium has produced the GigaWord corpus which contains all of the major international news sources for roughly 2000-2010, and this can be licensed for research purposes at very reasonable rates (and is free if your institution is already a member of the Consortium). Potentially a game-changer, and more on this at a later date.

URLs are not subject to copyright—they are information rather than expressions of creative content—so there is no problem with the events reported in a data set containing URLs.

Ontologies (WEIS, CAMEO, IDEA, etc)

The copyright status of an ontology or coding framework is a complete morass, though the CAMEO ontology has an open source license, and to the best of my knowledge VRA has not made copyright claims to IDEA. Were such claims made—and we have absolutely no intentions of doing so with CAMEO—they would be difficult to support given that both systems are based on earlier work: CAMEO was based predominantly on WEIS; IDEA deliberately on a series of ontologies, including WEIS, COPDAB, World Handbook, and CAMEO. These coding systems were widely available and uncontested in the academic world, and, as they were created before the days of intellectual property trolls, did not originally have explicit licenses. [7]

All of this is to say that while it is conceivable that an ontology could be copyrighted, it is not obvious, but more importantly, it is irrelevant so long as you are content with CAMEO and open-sourced extensions of CAMEO. And probably the same for IDEA, though I can’t speak for them.


While past is not necessarily precedence, the event data field has thus far been almost completely immune from patent claims, egregious or otherwise. The core concepts have been around since the 1960s, virtually all of the core work has been publicly funded (mostly by DARPA and NSF), and the automated coding technology has been around, without challenge, since the early 1990s and open source since the 2000s. Most of the ancillary software used in current systems is also open source. The intellectual property departments of both the University of Kansas and Penn State examined the KEDS and TABARI/CAMEO systems at various times and decided not to pursue patent claims despite the option to assert such rights under the Bayh-Dole Act.

The amount of prior art accumulated in the half-century or so of open work in this field is huge, and in our experience, people just getting into the field with what they believe to be brilliant new ideas are almost invariably merely pursuing plausible and obvious approaches that were either proven to be dead-ends decades earlier, or are standard procedures: a month of coding can save an hour in the library. Granted, the U.S. patent process is monumentally screwed up at the moment and would probably seriously consider a patent on entertaining kittens using a ball of yarn, and seemingly anything could happen, but it seems highly unlikely that claims against the core concepts and technologies would survive even a cursory examination of prior art.

In the absence of patent reform, of course, trolls will wantonly pillage and plunder, as that is the nature of North American trolls [8] and there is no guarantee this will not happen in this field. But in terms of the core concepts and technologies, that’s all they are—trolls with no defensible claims—and we can only hope trolls will focus on more important issues, like the multi-billion-dollar life-altering issue of whether it is permissible to use rounded-corners on a smart phone interface. Undoubtedly precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind with the phrase “the advancement of useful knowledge and discoveries.”

That whirring sound you hear northeast of Charlottesville is James Madison spinning in his grave. I digress…

A Few Additional Thoughts

1. The norm that facts derived from copyrighted material do not inherit that copyright is actually implicit in all secondary data sets used in the study of political conflict. Were this not the case, not only would event data be affected, but so would every other data set assembled by reading copyrighted material—COW, MID, Polity, ACLED, everything. We’ve simply assumed all along that this is okay. As it happens, it is.

2. A curious side-effect, as it were, of this appears that the intellectual property rights to data derived from a set of texts that were obtained illegally—let us say WikiLeaks—would not be affected by the origin. While there was a great deal of strum und drang from various U.S. government sources on the initial release of WikiLeaks [9], this seems to have subsided. Possibly on this issue, possibly on that fact that there wasn’t much in the WikiLeaks that hadn’t long been suspected: I believe it was Michael Gerson who observed that the big surprise of WikiLeaks was that there were no big surprises. [10]

This does not, of course, suggest that data coded from questionable sources are without issues, in particular if one of the questions is the identity of the source texts being coded. But that is an issue of scientific integrity, not intellectual property.

3. If your web crawlers are well-behaved and don’t go places they aren’t supposed to go, you are far less likely to end up in any trouble. Duh… The courts have definitely been more sympathetic with plaintiffs who had internal sites essentially hacked than with those where the information is readily available. This, by the way, is why you aren’t going to be seeing a lot of Agence France Press material in near-real-time event data sets: it is the only one of the four major international sources (Reuters, BBC, Xinhua and AFP) that does not makes its reports easily available (e.g. through RSS feeds).

4. There are still more legal issues than one would like [11] that are in flux, with potentially critical court cases still pending, contradictory rulings at lower levels, and warnings about subjective judgements. Furthermore, the event data community are very, very small fish in this pond: the critical open issues involve the web-based data collection practices of billion-dollar enterprises such as Kayak and other price comparison sites, and this is where the “facts” emphasized in Feist and the “commercial interests” emphasized in Texaco are coming head-to-head. There are definitely some unresolved issues here, though unless these rulings wildly change the status quo—or if event data analysis becomes a wildly successful commercial venture [12]—they probably will not affect event data collection.

That said, as in outsider to the legal world, it is interesting to see the courts gradually coming to consensus positions on these issues which are reasonably coherent: they aren’t there yet but they definitely no longer put up with some of the more outrageous claims that were circulating in the early days of the Web. Patent reform is at least on the agenda now—including no less than Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address—though when and if “the best Congress money can buy” will do anything about it remains to be seen: they sure don’t seem in much of a hurry. But things are getting clearer.

Once again, I AM NOT A LAWYER, and I would be delighted to share further insights on these matters from those who are.


1. And I haven’t forgotten “Feral + 7″, though at the rate things are going, it will be “Feral + 8.”

2. I said “minimal” snark, not “zero”


4. Okay, realistically, it is not “infinite”—and in any case, it’s only countably infinite even in theory—but it is really large. That’s the big problem in automated coding: if there were only a small number of ways to describe a category such as  “threat of military intervention”, or any other code, we’d have really small dictionaries and really accurate data coding. There isn’t, and we don’t.

5. This, of course, runs against the “needle in a haystack” theory of event data analysis—if we had only had more localized data, we could have predicted that the self-immolation of an obscure fruit vendor in a marginal town in Tunisia would trigger the Arab Spring. But there are plenty of reasons to think this is an illusion arising from hindsight bias, and in fact big changes come from big indicators, properly analyzed. Not everyone agrees.

6. But why would they: the derived data cannot be copyrighted, so there is little incentive to do so. Such data could still be licensed in a fashion that it could not be provided to the public, and some of this is available, though not, to my knowledge, at any significant scale: We hear far more frequently complaints that such data is not available even though people want it.

7.  CAMEO does: originally GPL and now switching to the MIT License. We are doing the same with all of our coding dictionaries.

8. Contemporary Nordic trolls, in contrast, appeared to have mellowed. The real trolls, not the ones wearing expensive suits.

9. Though these threats seemed remarkably selective: at the same time I was hearing from some individuals that they were all but threatened with an indefinite sojourn in Guantanamo if they even thought about using the WikiLeaks data, I was seeing extended analyses of it other places. Particularly certain elite universities. Some animals are more equal than others. Or maybe some institutions have better lawyers than others.

10. The same cannot be said for the next big set of leaks, from Edward Snowden.

11. Unless one is an intellectual property lawyer, or troll, in which case this is called “job security.”

12. Hey, a guy can dream… But seriously, there is a great deal of commercial potential here, but it is going to have to look like political polling looks like now (not like it looked in the days of Literary Digest): multiple sources, some public, some private, supported by a community of professional analysts with a sophisticated scientific understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, as well as with sufficient open-access data to provide a reference point for determining when something doesn’t look right. Flim-flam artists with one-size-fits-all proprietary black-boxes have no place in this model, but plenty of other approaches—academic, NGO, government and commercial—will.

Posted in Methodology | 6 Comments

When the ISA outlaws blogs, only outlaws will blog

Which, in fact, sounds kind of attractive. But that’s not the real point of this essay. What the ISA is doing is stupid, and ISA is not supposed to be stupid.

Stupid is the APSA, charging extortionate dues in order to headquarter itself in some of the most expensive real estate on the planet [1] and then when the U.S. Congress temporarily defunds the NSF political science program saying “Hey, not our problem!” Stupid is the MPSA, heavily fining people who refuse to stay in their fleabag conference hotel in the middle of an urban redevelopment area.

But ISA isn’t supposed to be stupid, and all of a sudden it is. Just how stupid?…

First, let’s look at how this is being interpreted.

Guys down at the gym tell me these blog things are totally out of control. Can’t figure it out myself—I mean, how much can you say in just 120 characters?—but you know kids these days: no attention span, spent their whole lives multitasking and playing video games. This Facebook thing seems weird too—that’s the program that allows you to make video phone calls, right?

Not saying that is what you are saying, just that’s what people think you are saying.

Second, this is a slippery slope. Let’s take a look at some of other regulations that are in the works after this one passes:

  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall publish nothing questioning the wisdom of John Mearsheimer.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall publish no op-eds or letters-to-the-editor in any venue dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Not pro/anti-Israeli, not pro/anti-Palestinian, no lists of historically implausible Christian/Jewish/Moslem/ pagan holy sites, not even restaurant reviews: anything you say about any of this will intensely offend someone somewhere. Really.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not use smart phones to text snarky comments during six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Facebook nor “tweet” the fact that they are knocking back shots of Jägermeister following six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Instagram, Shutterfly or Pinterest pictures of their editorial board members following a period of knocking back shots of Jägermeister following six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not associate six hour ISA Governing Council meetings with YouTube clips of council meetings in Star Wars, The Hunger Games or any past or future movies involving either Thomas Cromwell or Lucius Malfoy.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Political Science Job Rumors, particularly in such manner that allows them to be readily identified [2].

Finally, this is yet another case of Boomer over-reach that is attempting to install a highly centralized corporate command-and-control model on what historically has been the decentralized and individualistic university model. Universities developed as loosely structured, self-regulated associations of scholars, not bloated administrative behemoths of archdeans, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and deanlings—and/or rent-seeking bureaucracies—with the agility of a tortoise trying to cross an eight-lane highway. And this at the time the innovative sectors of the economy are flattening their structures! So what have we got left?: fabulously expensive vo-tech certification with no demonstrable value added; six-year bacchanalia with attendant suicides, alcohol poisoning,  fatal falls from high structures, and sexual assault; and venues for professional sports franchises exploiting an expendable class of gladiator-slaves [3]. Universities developed an efficient 21st century structure in the 12th century, and now they are blowing it. Bummer.

Look, folks, I’m a little sensitive on this issue of gag orders at the moment having experienced major collateral damage over a series of gag orders over which I have no control—along with one serious lapse of judgment on my part [4]—and I’m really anxious that this not become a trend. I’d like to think that this will be quickly resolved in the next week with a joint declaration by the editors of every ISA-sponsored journal that if this passes, they will collectively resign and turn over management of their journals to some open-access scammer in Mumbai.

A guy can dream, right?

Addendum 16 Feb 2014

So now we’ve got the attention of no less than a  Sunday New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof.  Next thing Kristof is going to be touring some internet-connected camp for Syrian refugees  and note that while the people are living under plastic tarps on 1700 calories per day, at least they have the freedom to blog, which cannot be said for the editors of ISA-sponsored journals.

Yes, this was a really stupid idea. And one more reason it is stupid: the standard right-wing characterization of academia is that it is a big brain-washing conspiracy to suppress the truth. Yes, we know, this is crazy: most academics can’t even agree on the qualifying exam reading lists, much less coordinate a globe-spanning conspiracy to suppress the truth about climate change, evolution, gravity, and the like, but that is what a lot of people believe. And something like this just feeds right into those theories. Thanks!

I mean, what is ISA trying to do, advance the political career of Senator Jeff Flake, the designated point-of-the-spear on political science defunding now that Tom Coburn is retiring? Let’s see, Flake is from Arizona and ISA is headquartered in…hmmm…Arizona. Coincidence?!?…I think not! The Knights Templar are also involved in this somewhere, I’m sure.]


1. Outside of Oslo.

2. “Georgine”

3. But to the football team at my former employer Northwestern University: you go guys! But have you thought about maybe the Teamsters?—they can be famously persuasive, and many people relish the thought of non-lethal encounters between NCAA officials and Port-a-Potties.

4. See the addendum here for pretty much all I can say at the moment.

Posted in Higher Education | Leave a comment

Seven plus Seven Bits of Unsolicited Observations for the Young Invincibles on the Subject of Health Insurance

We are about halfway through the enrollment period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act [1] and as a slightly belated Yule gift, this Boomer [2] will provide some observations relevant to all you “young invincibles” contemplating whether you should sign on.

Yeah, right.

Exactly want you want, eh?  Right up there with those Christmas/holiday/Yule gifts that included a fruitcake with a “sell-by” date older than that sofa you scavenged from a curbside [3], bottles of alcoholic beverages you could never imagine consuming, and articles of clothing you could only imagine wearing to a Halloween party, but probably not even that. Yeah, Boomers.

So, like, hey, it’s just my experience, okay? Whatever.

Background: Personal

As it happens, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the U.S. medical system. And as I’m going to be making some arguably less than sympathetic observations, let us be clear that these views are not those of some grieving widower flailing away at outrageous fortune. My late wife—let us call her “Misty”, as that was her name—received excellent care, and while she died at the relatively young age of 50, she resisted cancer for almost eleven years, living to somewhere in the 95th to 98th percentile for someone with her configuration of the disease—the numbers get rather vague that far out on the tails of the distribution. I cannot recall a single time when the insurance plan of the University of Kansas did not cover needed procedures, albeit sometimes following a bit of persuasion, and if you find yourself with cancer [4], I can heartily recommend the services provided at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. The system, while highly inefficient, pretty much works, or at least it did for us. [5] 

But we had insurance.

Background: Institutional

Let’s speculate here on just how badly we could design a health care delivery system. Maybe, in fact, that’s what they mean by “Obamacare”: Obama, sitting down in his secret Bunker of Evil [6] plotting with Hillary Clinton, representatives of the Trilateral Commission, and the Knights Templar to devise a hideous design to foist on the unsuspecting American public. At the core, arrange things so that if you don’t have health insurance, you pay anything from twice to twenty times what someone with health insurance pays, and if you can’t pay—and with outrageously high fees, you won’t be able to—thuggish collection agencies will hound you into bankruptcy. The economy will be burdened with costs twice those of other industrialized democracies, with outcomes at best comparable, and probably far worse,  and with avoidable errors causing deaths equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three to six weeks, year in, year out. Now that would indeed be an impeachable offense!

Oh, wait, that’s the existing system, pre-Obama. Oops.

So while there is a ludicrously modest IRS “penalty” for not signing up for an ACA-approved insurance plan, that’s not the real threat. The real threat is ending up in the existing system without insurance. When you’ve looked at as many hospital bills as I have, you quickly notice the dramatic difference between what is billed to uninsured individuals—an amount that the hospitals simply make up—and the “negotiated rate” that your insurance company will pay, which probably something closer to a true cost. Without the big, bad insurance company to protect you, you are hopelessly screwed. That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.

Seven observations on the existing system

1. Been there, done that

Let’s start with the fact that the ACA is not yet another Boomer conspiracy to make your lives miserable under the “Do as I say, not as I do/did” principle. Yes, there are plenty of those, but this is not one of them. Most people are covered under large, more or less compulsory group health programs (I was for my entire life life until about six months ago [19]) and in all of those, the young and relatively healthy subsidize the old and ill. That’s how insurance works. But you knew that, and are merely attempting to game the system.[8] Which is also okay except that downsides are considerably higher than you probably think. To the extent that you are thinking.

2. It could happen to you. Really

The likelihood that a medical situation could arise that would destroy you financially or kill you is higher than you think. I can make this statement confidently because we have a huge body of evidence indicating that people are really bad at estimating these sorts of probabilities: see the usual “forecasters quartet” here, here, here and here. The odds of this happening to you are substantially lower than the odds of it happening to me, of course, but massively higher than the various apocalyptic scenarios of the goldbugs, survivalists, and end-of-time fundamentalists [9] that occupy so much popular attention.

3. Absolutely no way in hell you can pay for it

Though “living hell” is precisely where you will be at this point. The rate at which medical expenses accumulate is astonishing and absolutely swamps any other imaginable contingency short of crashing your car through a Tiffany display of Fabergé eggs. [10] Just browse the web and get the horror stories: They are absolutely everywhere, and are anything but exaggerated: again, I’ve looked at hundreds of medical bills. Anything that is at all complicated and—usually without any knowledge or control of the total until the bills come at the end of treatment—you are on the hook for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4. So you will be ruined financially

An accident, an infection, or a tumor and suddenly you are $200,000 in debt?: say good-bye to any hopes of the normal financial accomplishments of early adulthood: a decent car, a house, matching furniture, beginning to save for retirement and your children’s education. You will probably end up in bankruptcy—contrary to popular perceptions, medical bills, not reckless spending binges, are the primary reasons for bankruptcy, a situation unheard of outside the U.S.—and will eventually get back on track, though probably a good ten years behind your peers.

Though even in bankruptcy, you will still have to re-pay those student loans. [11]

5. Or end up as a ward of the state

Which is what happens if things go badly. The Economist noted in a recent article on helmet laws:

[Survivors of motorcycle accidents] typically run up $1.3m in direct medical costs. Fewer than a third work again. A study of helmet-shunning bikers admitted to one large hospital, cited by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), found that taxpayers paid for 63% of their care.

Yeah, that’s a real statement of libertarian independence and autonomy, yesiree bob! Given the prevailing U.S. penchant for aiming budget cuts at the disenfranchised and vulnerable—that will be you—the care for the 66% who never work again, I suspect, will not be of the quality that would have been provided had you been insured. You may remain in this state for quite a long time…

6. Unless you die prematurely

Which can happen easily enough. At one point well before she died—maybe eighteen months or so—Misty acquired a potentially lethal infection, a rather common “side-effect” of chemotherapy, which could only be treated with a very expensive intravenous antibiotic. [12] It may have been vancomycin, which is notoriously expensive ($500 a dose is not uncommon, and a week or so of treatment is required), though I’m not sure about this, but I distinctly remember that the difference between the non-insured and insurance price was a factor of twenty. The treatment worked, and she lived another year or so. In the absence of that treatment, she almost certainly would have died from the infection, and I very much doubt that any law required her to receive it.

In point of fact, physician-assisted suicide is already available not just in Oregon, but in all fifty states and the District of Columbia: you simply need to acquire a life-threatening condition and walk into a hospital without insurance.

7. Miserably.

One of my first insights that the U.S. system was less than humane came very early, when I saw the cost of Misty’s anti-nausea medicine as she was undergoing chemotherapy. These drugs are very effective with most people [13] and have dramatically changed the experience but at the time—the drug was still under patent protection; thankfully there are now inexpensive generic versions—they cost $75 per pill. “So here’s the deal: you pay me $75 a dose, or your loved one goes through hell. What will it be, eh?” The people who came up with that pricing scheme  presumably will end up sharing space in the afterlife with the folks peddling bogus open access journals.

Near the end, when Misty was dealing with massive bone metastases—these are notoriously painful—I ran into our [independent] pharmacist in a shopping center parking lot. He said that he’d just been on the phone with the narcotics control people in Topeka, and explained the situation, and Misty was cleared for whatever drugs she needed to control the pain (and that was a lot of narcotics). I’d like to think that anyone would get this sort of service, but I sort of doubt that you’d get this at an over-subscribed charity clinic. [14]

The Upshot

I’m not suggesting this system resulted from an active conspiracy. [7] Rather it evolved haphazardly through some combination of legalized (and otherwise) corruption, self-interest and neglect, though surely people in the health care industry are constantly pinching themselves and saying “Wow, we take money from widows and orphans and let people die solely for profit, and year after year they let us get away with this??” Again, the threat to your physical and financial well-being is not some little $100 penalty: the threat is the status quo. But if you’ve got insurance, the system can in fact work pretty well in terms of outcome, if not efficiency.

Where We Are Right Now?

The roll-out of was, unquestionably, an avoidable disaster and all the more so given that the extremely high proportion of  failures in government computer efforts is well known in the information technology community. In his professional life, Obama surrounds himself with a tech-saavy crowd, though one should note that government procurement regulations aside (and they are impossible to set aside), he was in a no-win situation here: consider these headlines from an alternative universe: [15]

Obama Computer Cronies get Billions in Sweetheart Deals to Develop Web Site


Obamacare web site called “over-engineered”  following trouble-free roll out; Millions spent on unnecessary “stress testing” 

Still, the fact that Obama ignored these danger signs and assumed that everything was buzzing along just fine is inexcusable. But the past is not necessarily prologue:

Seven reasons the ACA is [eventually] going to work

1. You can incrementally fix a system like this: in fact that is pretty much the only way any complex organization ever does things. It’s not like a rocket launch or a D-Day invasion: it doesn’t have to work the first time.[20]

2. It is a plan developed by conservatives—the American Enterprise Institute with the original state-level implementation done by Republican Mitt Romney—but is being implemented by liberals. And this is typically how things related to social planning manage to get done in the US. Think the Clinton-era welfare reform. [16]

3. The insurance companies really want to see this thing work: it is a massive gift to them. They have a lot of money, and my sense is that they are waiting for the system to get just a little more settled before unleashing an onslaught of advertising. [17]

4. The infrastructure is in place: the existing system is fabulously inefficient, but fundamentally works provided a reasonable amount of money is available. It’s not like this is being implemented in Mali or Haiti.

5. This is an absolutely routine function in industrialized democracies: the US is the outlier in not having it. Furthermore the US government is already running several systems at varying levels of effectiveness: Medicare, the Veterans Administration system, various Department of Defense systems, Medicaid. While you would never know this from watching the right-wing bloviators, it is really hard to argue that conservative “US exceptionalism” fundamentally involves running probably the least efficient health care system in the industrialized world, or that this provides some sort of global comparative advantage. [18]

6. The existing system for allocating care sucks, and it isn’t entirely clear that even the employees of insurance companies (or the financial triage people in for-profit hospitals) enjoy deciding who will live and who will die in order to keep their hedge-fund investors happy.

7. The very fact that the existing system is hugely inefficient means that there is massive available slack: finding ways to improve is shooting fish in a barrel. It will be roughly as messy, and the barrel won’t look too good at the end either, but the issue most certainly not one of total resources, and the status quo certainly doesn’t pass any sort of utilitarian or Pareto optimality test.

This last point suggests that there will be substantial dislocations in the future—”one person’s bottleneck is another person’s job”—and the clear target of this, the lavishly compensated denizens of the rent-seeking “fee-for-service” model, already are said to spend half a billion per year on legalized bribery lobbying (and presumably many times that on advertising and public relations, all contributing to driving up the costs of the existing system), and they aren’t going to go quietly. But if the experience of Medicare is any indication, there will be as many winners as losers.

The past is past, and the future is, in all likelihood, one where the ACA will stagger, in a series of two steps forward, one back, into something reasonably effective.  Within ten years—quite possibly a lot sooner—it will be thoroughly entrenched and functioning with a level of service probably mid-range in the OECD, though—due to entrenched interests—probably still 50% more expensive. And in the dim light, after a few drinks, people will scare themselves with stories of the horrible days when the onset of a disease meant immediately having ones insurance dropped, followed by financial ruin, and people whose children acquired cancer were reduced to putting out jars at Quik-Trips to collect quarters.


[1] This is the new set of medical insurance regulations and opportunities that polls show people to be at least mildly interested in, particularly the new requirement that insurance companies cannot deny policies based on prior medical conditions. It is not to be confused with “Obamacare”: no one wants anything to do with Obamacare.

[2] Actually, according to this quiz, I’m a “mid-Boomer”: indeed, to me Elvis Presley was a bloated drug addict, not an edgy taboo-defying sex symbol. We also don’t use the word “edgy.”

[3] Though the sofa would be more palatable.

[4]  Meanwhile remember Molly Ivin’s comment about cancer: “First they poison you, then they cut you, then they burn you, then you die. And it does not build character.”

[5] “Us”?: your partner gets cancer, it’s a collective endeavor—ask anyone who has been through the process. That does not include Newt Gingrich.

[6] So called: Obama prefers to call it القبو الشر. Fox is planning a documentary on this in the near future, and Bill O’Reilly is writing a book on it. The bunker was originally installed by Dick Cheney, of course: he told Bush it was a wine cellar. Cheney and Obama actually get along great: the antagonism is just an act. Templars do that sort of thing.

[7] And who were the great rivals of the Templars? The Hospitallers! Coincidence?… that’s just what they want you to think.

[8] Though if that is an option, by all means stay on your parent['s][s'] insurance until you are 26. And why is 26 a magic number for insurance companies? As in you can’t rent a car until you are 25? Maybe this has something to do with the fact your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, isn’t fully connected until your mid-20s? Not stupid, insurance companies.

[9] Some advice from a good authority on that score: Acts 1:6-7.  That still won’t help with the various Mayan apocalypses.  Or Ragnarok.

[10] And Tiffany carries insurance: we are stipulating that you don’t.

[11] Boomers are guilty for ruining that one for you.

[12] What, you don’t have an antibiotic-resistant infection? Well, no problem, our hospital will be happy to provide you with one. And by the way, ever since we discovered that antibiotics can be used to fatten farm animals, we’ve done our best to use them indiscriminately and thus facilitate the evolution of antibiotic resistance: certainly inexpensive Chicken McNuggets are a vastly greater social good than relief from a life threatening infection.

[13] Though for others, marijuana, which is a heck of a lot less expensive, is just as effective. Misty generally responded well to the anti-nausea medications, though at one point she was having some problems and, quite unsolicited, a campus mail envelope appeared at my office with a Zip-Loc bag containing a green resinous substance. Kansans are like that.

[14] Nor, I suspect, from an employee of Walmart or CVS bound by a thick book of corporate regulations.

[15] Though while we’re in the alternative universe, here are a couple more

Trustee in coma; houses and cars vandalized following student riot in Paterno neighborhood
[Security experts question decision to fire Paterno in person]


NCAA gives unprecedented seven-year “death penalty” to Penn State football program
[Cites university dismissal of findings from investigation by former FBI director]

[16] Conversely, it is a testimony to Federalism how thoroughly the ACA can be stopped at the state level. Now, why anyone would want to move a business to such a state is beyond me.

[17] Whereas the anti-Obamacare advertising to date has demonstrated once again that when 80-something gadzillionaires get going on the topic of sex, the results are more than a little creepy.

[18] Keep in mind that the concept of a national system of social security was pioneered by Otto von Bismarck—not exactly a paragon of fuzzy-headed liberalism—and the European systems have been championed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.

[19] I have private coverage now—do you think I’m insane??—at roughly the same cost.

[20] Yes, Normandy worked, particularly if you landed somewhere other than Omaha Beach and didn’t worry about the original time-tables. Norway, Anzio, Arnhem: not so good.

Posted in Ramblings | 3 Comments

The War on Yule

As we mark the solstice, and the beginning of return of the sun to the north, I wish to reflect briefly on how thoroughly we seem to have lost touch with the origins of this holiday.

Yes, the outward signs surround us: the evergreen wreaths on doors, the houses and streets festooned with lights against the darkness of December, the ubiquitous gaily-decorated trees—aluminum, plastic, occasionally real, all invoking the world-encompassing Yggdrasil—and festive gathering of friends and family [1] before the blazing Yule fire [2] to feast and drink mulled wine. Even that ever-present “Santa”: obviously an odd synthesis from many cultures, but coming out of the northern skies in a sled pulled by reindeer and accompanied by elves. The signs of Yule are everywhere.

But this has become shallow amid the crass materialism, the anodyne references to “the holiday season” and the confusion of social obligations. Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?

Oh, and I suppose a bit of interference from somewhat confused references [3] to events in the Middle East whose commemoration the Romans shifted to the wrong season.[4]  Though that doesn’t get much attention either these days.

Let’s keep the Yule in the Yuletide.

And rather than buying another piece of useless plastic crap at Wal-Mart, donate to the charity of your choice.

Seasons greetings, you’all.


0. Sorry about the absence of entries of late: spending most of my free time writing code. Yes, I do still write code, not just screeds against Penn State. But I’ve got a number of items in the pipeline, starting with “Feral + 6″ on my first six months as an independent contractor. Unless I procrastinate and make it “Feral + 7″ which, now that I think of it, is tempting.

But continuing the “Seven Series,” expect to see in the near future:

  • Seven Bits of Unsolicited Healthcare Advice for the Young Invincibles
  • Seven Reasons Big is Bad [5]
  • Seven Questions for Post-Tea-Party Conservatives [6]

Stay tuned.

1. “Ben! Jonas! Put down those broadswords!” Sez Uncle Andy.

2. Or gas/video equivalent

3. Which is it, people: Egypt (Matt 2:13-16) or Nazareth (Luke 2:39)? Or maybe, just maybe, parts of the text are metaphorical, not literal?

4. For if the shepherds were indeed abiding their flocks by night in the vicinity of pre-“Separation Barrier” Beit Sahour, it was probably lambing season, and that’s in the spring, not the winter. Whatever.

5. Okay, Penn State puts in a couple appearances here, starting with their incoherent $800,000 post-Paterno re-branding effort.

6. As I know at least some of you are following this blog.

7. Though with Typhoon Haiyan following last year’s Hurricane Sandy, this supposedly imaginary climate change thing seems to be getting a little out of hand, and perhaps we should ask that a few of these Frost Giants being given a longer leash?

Update 6 Jan 2014: Whoa, dude: be careful what you wish for! If Nordic paganism had a Pat Robertson—whoa, dude, be careful what you wish for!—he’d be on TV saying the “polar vortex” is Asgard’s revenge and berating the US for paying insufficient attention to witchcraft.

And for the two or three people reading this blog who haven’t already concluded that Donald Trump and his ilk are functionally brain dead, perhaps from spending way too much time at the high-roller open bars in Atlantic City, these sorts of extreme weather events are very much in line with what the climate change simulations have been predicting since the beginning.

Posted in Ramblings | 3 Comments

Rampant parasitism hits the open access journal concept!

Many years back, before I tired of Slashdot, my signature included a phrase I’d picked up from some essay on systems theory:

“All successful systems accumulate parasites.”

As a vociferous advocate of open access publication, I would now observe: “Wow!—do they ever!”

The specific motivation for this entry is the very widely publicized “sting” by no less than Science magazine that demonstrated that most of the hundreds of new “open access” journals that have proliferated like fruit flies on a rotting banana will publish glaringly flawed research just to get the access fees. Adding to this—as if the universe were saying”Phil, remember, you meant to do a blog post on this!”—my email in-box was briefly inundated with “invitations” to submit to such entities, and I swear these emails were deliberately edited to mirror Nigerian 419 scams [1].

Without rehashing the Science study, here are three observations:  [2]

1. The fact that Science did this is a game-changer. While comparisons are being made to the famous 1996 Sokal sting of the [love'em!] post-modernists, Sokal was a single individual and his target was a single journal. In contrast, this effort is an industrial-strength sting by one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, and directed at an entire class of journals. While the approach certainly has its detractors—and not just among those who fell for it (this is, most of them)—those criticisms certainly haven’t risen to the level of delegitimating the tactic.

Which is to say, the exercise is now going to be repeated—probably on multiple occasions—and while the targets of the Science article were generally in the natural sciences, someone is almost certainly going to try this on the social sciences.

So, whether you are an editor or a reviewer, assume that for the foreseeable future any article you receive may be such a sting. Editors, of course, will have the advantage of knowing the identity of the [alleged] author, though some verification might be in order.

And thus now we wait for the deluge of reviews that begin “Hey, you thought you could fool me! Well, this is clearly a `sting’ article, with the following glaring flaws [brief list]”   Such heightened scrutiny could be a really good thing for many journals, if not for some authors.

2. Just when one thinks that the proprietary journals can’t sink any lower [3], they do: the usual suspects have gone on shopping sprees to pick up dozens of these bogus journals and lend them a patina of legitimacy while—as ever—raking in the big bucks, and specifically targeting young researchers in developing countries as their prey. While one can only hope that the long-term impact of this will be a large-scale construction project expanding the darkest and hottest reaches of Hell, the wheel of karma [4] moves relentlessly but very slowly and thus we are on our own for now.

Which is to say, do not, under any circumstances, submit to or review for any new journal unless you are 100% certain that it is legitimate. Even if it is under the imprimatur of an august proprietary publisher. Particularly if is under the imprimatur of an august proprietary publisher.

3. Somewhat lost in the focus on the flaws of the open access journals/scams is the fact that quite a few of the conventional proprietary journals also fell for the sting: While the problems are certainly worse in the scam journals, they are certainly not confined there. This yet more evidence that the system in general is broken: this has even received extended coverage in a recent issue of The Economist. Add to this that younger researchers are beginning to question whether all of the nonsense is even worth it, [5] and we’ve got a serious problem here.

What is to be done?

I’ve addressed a number of these issues in considerably more detail here [warning: large PDF file], though I did not anticipate how quickly the initial wave of open access efforts would be parasitized. That said, parasitism implies a rich store of resources ripe for exploitation, and this means there are abundant opportunities here as well. In particular, what we have here is not—I repeat, not, and that is absolutely critical—an issue of available resources, but one of collective action.[6] Collective action problems are hard, no question, but not nearly as hard as resource problems.

So briefly, seven problems with the existing academic publication system that are completely solvable but are not being solved.

1. First, admit that you have a problem. With the attention of the likes of Science and The Economist, we’re getting closer.

2. Giving away very expensive intellectual property only to have to buy it back. This is where the resources come from, as universities are giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in this manner every year and wrecking their library budgets. These same funds could instead fund any number of absolutely lavish legitimate open access systems and the research universities would still save vast sums of money. Once these legitimate systems are available, refuse all collaboration—submission, article review, and use of publications in hiring and promotion review—with the proprietary journals.

3. Giving away very expensive intellectual property—typically funded with public money—only to have it locked away from public access. See [2.]

4. Phenomenally long delays—typically three to five years in political science—for publication in quaintly packaged “volumes” with fixed page lengths, little different in form from scientific communications of two centuries ago, while contemporary research increasingly moves at “internet speed.” Actual scholarly communication thus occurs quite unsystematically in other venues and the published journals are little more than exercises in industrial archeology. The solution is moving everything to the web and matching the pace of the internet.

5. The rapid proliferation of bogus “open access journals” intended solely as exploitative traps for the unwary: see this. The solution is for the legitimate academic institutions, whether university consortia or professional organizations [7], to fill these ecological niches and drive away the pretenders.

6. A highly flawed system of peer review which moves at a snail’s pace, allows for no end of Hunger Games-style mischief by anonymous but scarcely uninterested reviewers, and still allows for a great deal of flawed, redundant and every once in a while, outright fraudulent research to be published. The solution is using the fundamental insight of FaceBook—your identity is your network [10]—and provide immediate feedback (with the provision for versioned revisions—that is, you can access the earlier versions of the article as well as the current version, which should provide considerably greater disincentives for the submission of total crap than the current “Oh, I’ll just shop this down the food chain” system does) from identifiable reviews on the Web. The good stuff will be noticed; the redundant stuff will get ignored; and if something seems too good to be true, that will be pointed out. But mostly, the junk will be ignored, which is what happens in the informal communications networks already.

7. Evaluation metrics based solely on the quantity of publications in a tiny number of “top tier” journals. The solution is to develop more sophisticated (and probably multiple) metrics—people, surely there are methods of doing this based on network science approaches!—and to adopt the “NSF Bio Statement Rule” in all professional evaluations: ten publications, max, and it is in your best interest to make sure they are as good as possible. [8]

This isn’t going to happen overnight, but it isn’t that complicated and in some rendition—probably in the “do the right thing only after trying every possible alternative” [9] fashion, it will get done.


1. Hmmm, maybe those were too well edited: was someone doing another sting to see how many people would respond? In any case, they’ve either subsided or someone has tuned the spam filters to eliminate them.

2. Sorry, couldn’t find seven this time.

3. Though why did I think ever that?—silly boy…

4. Hey, we’re multicultural on this blog…

5. That blog post is from an astronomer but I’ve heard almost exactly these sentiments expressed by several younger, absolutely first-rate quantitatively-trained political scientists in recent weeks,  in both North America and Europe, and no small number are seriously thinking about not going into academic careers. At their age, not mine. If that becomes epidemic, we could be heading for another period, similar to that from about 1700 to 1900, when most innovative research occurs outside of university environments, in large part because the universities refused to adapt to new technological realities.

6. Every time I think of “collective action” I now think of this. The first guy who gets the spear in the back?: that would be JStore. The dude in the robes who gets fried?: Sage or Elsevier. Alas, the academic community doesn’t speak Valyrian, and we know how the academic community regards women.

7. Many of which are proudly every bit as exploitative and rent-seeking as the for-profit publishers, with whom they are generally in cahoots. Maybe the dude in the robes is the  APSA? Anyone near Dupont Circle speak Valyrian?

8. Which as I’ve noted, simply returns us to the “make your very finite publications as good as you can” norms that prevailed in the social sciences until just a couple decades ago:

    • dissertation for placement
    • one book for tenure
    • one book for promotion to full

9. No, Churchill did not say this.

10. Or equivalently, your network is your identity: isomorphisms are handy that way.

Posted in Higher Education | 1 Comment

History’s Seven Dumbest Self-Inflicted Political Disasters

As I’m sitting here both feral and furloughed—my major source of funding is under a “do not work” order [1]—it seems time for another blog entry before—out-sourcing myself— I head over to Europe, which is still very much in business, for a series of talks.

The sheer lunacy of the current situation in the U.S. has been noted repeatedly, but in the severely reality-challenged media environment, I see little evidence that anyone feels it will end up causing more than the mild inconvenience of a few vacations ruined by the closure of national parks. Surely the USA—a global hegemon, the world’s largest economy, an utterly dominant military power, posessing the world’s oldest democratic constitution, and almost a century and a half of internal peace—has nothing to really worry about. It will surely all turn out okay, and thus we should just let the pesky little tea party people scamper around on their $170,000 salaries attempting to destroy majority rule, since ultimately they won’t, right? It’s all just theater, a social construction, nothing really to worry about right? Uh, right?

Uh, no. Things like this have ended very, very badly in the past.

As usual with this blog, I figured I should come up with seven examples. That took me all of about five minutes, which is sorta scary[2]. My criteria here are political units which were absolutely at the top of their game—wealth, power, institutions—and blew it through no fault other than their own stupid choices.

1. Alcibiades’ Expedition to Syracuse

So we’ll start by shooting fish in a barrel, eh? The handsome, glib and polished Alcibiades, the Ted Cruz of Athens, 415 BCE, with his brilliant arguments for investing vast resources in the conquest of the Greek colonial outpost of Syracuse. Thucydides gives us the whole story but in a nutshell, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and after the final surrender of the expedition—the victors, in a gesture of appreciation for the unprovoked attack, left most of the survivors to die of exposure and starvation—Athenian military power was ruined, never to recover. Athens fell first to the Spartans, and shortly thereafter to the Macedonians, commencing a series of disasters—conquests by Rome, the Burgundians, Catalan mercenaries, the Ottoman Turks, civil war—continuing to this day with the current choice between the neo-fascism of Golden Dawn and the neo-austerity of Angela Merkel. Alcibiades, on the other hand, ended up first in Sparta, then as a retainer in the Persian court [3]. Rather as one expects Ted Cruz will spend his waning years luxuriating in the care of the Canadian single-payer health system.

2. The Crusader Kingdoms in the late Twelfth Century

Arguably, the entire Crusades would qualify here, though in the short term they did succeed in reducing Christian Europe’s exposure to poorly supervised young men wielding sharp objects.[4]  But for our purposes, let us focus on the period of the late 12th century. Moslem states, caught disorganized a century earlier, had been united under the highly effective political and military leadership of the Kurd Salah-al-din, who by 1186 controlled most of the population centers to both the west and north of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Faced with an imminent and overwhelming threat, the European leaders did what European leaders always do: engaged in dynastic quarrels and divided their efforts until the absolutely last moment.  Sound familiar?

At Hattin on 5 July 1189, the Frankish forces found themselves in battle on a barren plateau in Galilee beneath the blazing sun of a Levantine summer with perhaps 30,000 Moslem archers and cavalry between themselves and the nearest source of water. They lost, and shortly thereafter Moslem forces regained Jerusalem, and the European venture would sputter to an ignoble close over the next two centuries.

3. John Lackland and Otto IV: Shock and Awe at Bouvines, 1214

Military disasters could, of course, occupy an entirely separate section, with seven-times-seven examples and room to spare, but as we have already paused in the Middle Ages, let us take the exemplar of Bouvines. John Lackland—King John of Robin Hood notoriety—faced a series of domestic problems, including concern about excess taxes. His erstwhile German ally Otto IV faced both the usual European dynastic and legitimacy issues, and had also managed to get himself excommunicated by Pope Innocent III. The territories of Philip II of France appeared a tempting target, particularly when the two allied themselves with half a dozen other local nobles also anxious to get rid of Philip (sound familiar?), and assembled an army nearly twice the size of Philip’s.

But, due to confusion and lack of coordination, things did not go as planned, and the alliance experienced a catastrophic defeat. Otto would be forced to abdicate his throne to his rival Frederick II Hohenstaufen [5] and died miserably shortly thereafter. John would be forced to sign the Magna Carta, beginning the Anglo-American tradition of conceding, under extortionate conditions, disproportionate privileges to the wealthy and powerful while claiming this a victory for popular sovereignty, a tradition which continues to this day. The lands of the allied nobility were absorbed into what would become modern France, marking the end of England’s Angevin Empire.

4. Philip II of Spain

In the first half of the sixteenth century, Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe, with the most advanced military technology, vast quantities of silver coming in from mines in the recently conquered Mexico and Peru, and a sophisticated bureaucracy capable of control at a continental scale.

Enter Philip II, who can best be described as the George W. Bush of his day, except Spain lacked term limits. By the end of his 44-year reign the Spanish monarchy had defaulted on its debt about a dozen times—note to Congress: tempting as this may be to score points with wealthy donors and people who vote in primaries, defaulting on your debt is “not a good thing”—, the Netherlands had successfully revolted, Spanish naval power had been so reduced by misadventures such as the Spanish Armada that in 1628 the Dutch “admiral” [6] Piet Hein captured the entire Spanish treasure fleet, and Philip’s long, complex and costly machinations in France resulted in little more than a stalemate. Oh, and did we mention his major contribution to Spanish culture: the Inquisition? Despite the vast wealth of the Americas, Spain’s trajectory would be downhill for the next four centuries. [7]

5. Louis XIV of France

“Sun King” Louis XIV 72-year reign is, like Philip’s, another reason we should be glad we live in an era of term limits.  A vain and pompous monarch, his megalomaniac building projects—Versailles, which when we visited had been taken over for an exhibition of Jeff Koons’s balloon-dog sculptures [8]—and almost non-stop wars would leave France impoverished and institutionally weak, setting the stage for the overthrow of the monarchy two generations later, followed by a quarter century of political chaos under the Revolution and Napoleon. Unlike Philip, he did not suppress elite culture, which flourished, and had the foresight to appoint a finance minister named “Colbert.”

6. British policy in Ireland and China, 1840-50

In this instance, the stupidity was inflicted upon others: the guilty party would survive as an empire for another century, only to eventually succumb to soccer hooliganism and Australian media barons. Still, consider that in the space of a mere decade, the British facilitated not only a devastating famine in Ireland that resulted in the deaths of around a million people (at a time when Ireland was exporting food: hey, we mustn’t interfere with markets now, should we, and if those lazy Irish can’t get off their deathbeds to work, they deserve to starve! Sound familiar?). And shortly thereafter, Britain fought multiple wars to force the Chinese government to allow British companies to import and sell opium in China. Rather as if heavily armed and psychotically violent Mexican cartels were controlling the importation and sale of narcotics in the US. Oh, they are?

7. European elites, August 1914

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe dominated the world in technology, communications, economic output, and for much of the planet, imperial control. What could possibly go wrong? Well, quite a few European elites had decided—I’m not making this up—that war was a pretty good thing, and were actually concerned that the current generation wasn’t getting enough experience with it.[9] Mind you, they had in mind either using automatic weapons to massacre opponents armed with spears, or short-term ventures such as the three “wars of German unification” in 1864, 1866, and 1870, but generally: “give war a chance.” In the summer of 1914, an anarchist in Sarajevo gave them the chance, and the elites stood by and let things run on autopilot. They got their war, and four years later an entire generation lay slaughtered. The “Spanish flu” [10] took out another few million, and twenty years later, failure to give proper attention to media-savvy right-wing whacko birds (sound familiar?) led to the deaths of another thirty or forty million. World leadership shifted—for the time being—to the hegemon across the Atlantic, and by the early twenty-first century, shorn of their empires and genocidal impulses, the Europeans were reduced to 35 hour work weeks, and sitting in cafés drinking espresso and red wine, protected by highly effective nationalized health services costing, in percentage GDP terms, only half what the US pays. But it took about a century to get there: I’m not that patient.

My brother-in-law teaches high school in Abilene, Kansas, and tirelessly attempts to impart a profound lesson to his students. Just three simple words from a bumper-sticker he saw on a beat-up pickup truck out on the prairie:

Stupid Should Hurt

Yeah, stupid should hurt, and the way we are heading, it’s going to.


1. As are 400,000 civilian employees of the Dept. of Defense. But none of those are really needed, eh? Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just suggested that financial distress may render intelligence employees vulnerable to efforts to have them sell secrets, though if the recent experience with Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden is representative, financial incentives are quite unnecessary.

2. Apologies for the Euro-centric bias, and I have no doubt that those with better knowledge of non-European history could provide ample examples from other parts of the globe.

3. Then back in Athens, then exiled from there again…it’s complicated.

4. The Jewish populations of the Rhineland did not fare so well.

5. Following in Otto’s ecclesiastical footsteps, Frederick would also be excommunicated on multiple occasions, quite possibly setting a record in this regard. Though Frederick—who was raised in Sicily and fluent in Arabic—was one of the few “Crusaders” to successfully negotiate for Christian access to the holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I can envision those discussions over tea with Sultan al-Kamil: “So Fred, let me get this straight—you want me to let a bunch of wealthy old people come here and spend a ton of money and with any luck one of my cousins can rent them camels and another can sell them carpets? And the Pope sent you all the way here to negotiate this? Bro, you got a deal!”

Frederick is one of my heroes, and I’ve paid homage at his tomb in Palermo.

6. As in “pirate”

7. Philip II does, however, leave the legacy of a fawning Wikipedia entry.

8. As well the ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. The wheel of karma moves slowly but relentlessly.

9. I know, it’s a little more complicated than that: see Joll, James. The Origins of the First World War (1984) for a discussion of about fourteen different theories explaining the outbreak.

10. Later research showed the disease first emerged at Fort Riley, Kansas, and thus more accurately should have been known as the deadly “Kansas flu.” But Kansas dodged the public relations bullet on that one. Not so the Wizard of Oz. Or the Board of Education decision to de-emphasize the teaching of evolution. Or Brownbackistan.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments

When Blogs Go Bad…and a word on networking at conferences

Not this blog.

But rather the unfortunate Brian Rathbun whose ill-considered post [8]—or at the very least, poor choice of metaphors—on the merits of networking at the American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings resulted in a flurry of unanticipated consequences and Rathbun’s eventual resignation from Duck of Minerva.

As the Duck’s Charli Carpenter and Steve Saideman wisely note, the blogosphere is dangerous territory in any circumstances and, echoing some of those remarks, let me suggest that this is something that instinctively we are completely unprepared to deal with.

During the vast bulk of our evolution as humans, or social primates who would become humans, we almost certainly spent our time in groups roughly the size of a baboon troop, probably around thirty to fifty adults [1] . Who, needless to say, all knew each other and were constantly interacting in a complex set of reciprocal social interactions.

Move to the villages of settled agriculture [2] and the population with whom you interact gets a little bit larger, but not much, perhaps doubling in size. A small part of the population lived in cities that were much larger, though these were also fabulously unhealthy places to live and may have contributed disproportionately little to the gene pool. Only since industrialization, and particularly over the past century, do we have easy contact with thousands of people across thousands of miles.

Contrast this to the social media, which can reach thousands of people within a matter of hours, and do so completely unmediated. This is simply unprecedented: by the time of the mechanization of printing, a popular writer such as a Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain could certainly reach such audiences, but not instantly and not without intermediaries. With the rise of electronic mass communication, one could solve the “instant” part, but this still required a massive infrastructure: even Hitler needed a Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels and the equipment which supported them.

Not so the social media, which require just some equipment which we are all familiar with—something as simple as a phone—and a few minutes. And then whatever you’ve written is out there and out of your control.

I watched this with “Going Feral…” and the feeling was very much like watching a prairie fire you thought you had under control, then it heads somewhere unexpected and you realize that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.[3] You are writing for one audience who will generally understand what you are saying even if they don’t agree, and you find it wandering far far afield to places you had never anticipated. It’s scary.

And at least “Going Feral…” was assembled from material I’d put together over more than a year, and except for the reflections on Boomer mortality [7], things I had already presented on the web.  The problem is that one can get the same viral response to a Tweet sent in an alcohol-induced haze with the auto-complete feature of your phone set on “Embarrass me.” It’s been done.

There be dragons.

A brief word on the value of trying to network with elites at major conferences: I would simply echo the advice of Dan Drezner and many others—a later post provides lots and lots of links —that you are largely wasting your time, and the only way to get noticed is to do interesting things and publish them.

The “generic networking” [4] model works in situations where one is essentially operating as a middle-person facilitating a transaction that could be done by pretty much any reasonably skilled professional. The classic situation is the generic salesperson, say for example an independent insurance agent.  Every insurance agent in town has access to more or less the same set of policies at the same prices, and once one has eliminated the hucksters and incompetents, the remaining are more or less equivalent. So any sort of additional connection—social, kinship, religion, even, or particularly, cheering the same sports team—could be a pivotal factor.

Academia could not be more different: it is hyper-specialized. Suppose I am approached by you at a conference. For starters, because I’m an introvert, you are probably increasing my already “This one goes to eleven!” stress level, and the chance I’ll remember the encounter is decidedly less than 1. But suppose somehow you’ve made a good impression, but that’s all—a good impression, nothing particular to back it up. What am I going to do with this information? It’s not going to help on a search committee, where there will probably be at least ten qualified (if different) candidates. I’m probably not going to spontaneously invite you into a research project or conference, since  my existing contextual networks are already more than adequate for that.[5] Article reviews are supposed to be anonymous [6] and in any case I would certainly hope that most reviewers will be more favorable to something good from someone unknown than something mediocre from something they’ve met casually.

So follow Dr. Drezner’s good advice and focus on publishing interesting things.


1. The typical size of an R1 political science department, eh? Coincidence?—I think not.

2. A lecturer I recently heard noted, in response to those who sense that in a previous life they were Hannibal or Cleopatra noted “I’ll find the reincarnation thing a little more credible when someone says `In a previous life I was a peasant. And before that, a peasant. And before that, peasant…peasants all the way down…'”

3. I realize this analogy will resonate more with some readers than others. It helps to have owned rural property in Kansas. And to get into such situations even in Kansas, Y chromosomes appear to be a factor.

4. Emphasis on “generic”: contextual networks are absolutely vital, a tremendous asset and well worth the time invested.

5. Would I respond to an email from an ABD I’d never met and have that gradually evolve into a major project? Sure: that is precisely the story of GDELT, and it continues in the evolution of the GDELT community. But this is in the context of a specific project requiring relatively unusual skill sets, not awkward social encounters.

6. Nowadays, usually the author of any paper can be located with a minimum of effort, though like many—not all—people I don’t do this until after I’ve written the review. Even without consulting the web, in many cases I already know the author because I’ve previously seen—or discussed—the work at conferences.

7. Well, maybe a few remarks about Penn State. There will be more, honest—I haven’t been shut down—but let’s wait for the trial testimony and the release of the report on possible Clery Act violations: maybe we will learn something new. Maybe.

8. To clarify, as there appears to be some confusion on this issue, my comments here pertain to the perils of blogging in general, not to the vast commentary surrounding the Rathbun post, a complex warren of rabbit holes I do not wish to explore. Except to note that the amount of the attention paid to the ill-stared Dr. Rathbun compared to that accorded the contemporaneous announcement that the NSF Political Science program was—contrary to earlier expectations—not accepting any proposals for the August target date is more than a little depressing.

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