The Sixth Risk is Boredom

Every chapter of Michael Lewis’s The Sixth Risk, as it sounds to somebody who had heard of the federal government before November 2016.

John “Curley” Stooge was an unprepossessing man–White, middle-aged, and graying at the edges. As I nibbled on a pastry in the kitchen of his modest 3,000-square foot McMansion, I listened to him tell his totally relatable story. “As a freshman at MIT, I’d wanted to do something normal, like become a nuclear engineer,” Stooge said. “Then, out of the blue, I was picked to become an astronaut. It was a change from what I’d wanted to do, but I thought it could still be a challenge.”

It would be a challenge. An “astronaut” is a federal employee who travels to space on behalf of an obscure agency called the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” If you’ve never heard of it, it might surprise you to learn that NASA has run many complex projects, including Skylab and even once putting men on the Moon. They even returned them safely to Earth! Of course, NASA has had some problems, like when they commissioned the most dangerous passenger vehicle ever launched, but that was because of Republican dreams of privatizing space. Besides that, however, the space agency’s record of manned space flight has been meaningful and successful in vague ways that cannot be quantified.

“After being an astronaut, I decided to give back to the country,” Stooge said. He spent a few years in the private sector making an absolute metric ton of money–literally: he ran a gold mine in South Africa and was paid in bullion–before being named Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense in Charge of Space Warfare. “It came as a total surprise,” Stooge reflected. “I’d only given the Obama campaign several hundred thousand dollars and written three New York Times columns praising his plan to give SpaceX control of Mons Olympus, so when the call came I was politely shocked.”

In his new post, Stooge learned a real appreciation for the ways of government. “I didn’t know much about the civilian side of the defense side of the government,” Stooge said. “But the people there were really smarter than I’d expected. It turns out that even non-astronauts with fewer than two Ph.D.s can breathe through their nostrils, mostly.”

Stooge oversaw large and obscure projects of the federal governments, like the launching of “artificial satellites” that contributed to a “global positioning system”. Not many people have heard of GPS, but it’s used to tell Google Maps how to get to your nearest Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. It’s just one of the ways that Pentagon spending affects our daily lives–yet another reason why literally any deviation from the status quo must be resisted.

“I really enjoyed the work,” Stooge said. But everything changed on Election Day 2016. “We’d never thought that anyone but a perfectly liberal technocrat could win an election in a democracy,” Stooge said. He and his staff continued work on the Tantalus Kill-a-Tron 3000, a project that would give the American president the power to kill anyone anywhere instantly by the press of a button or a typo. “This was important work,” Stooge explained. “We’d wondered at drinks after late nights perfecting the Kill-a-Tron if it could ever be misused, but who ever thought that power might lead to corruption?”

The incoming Trump administration took weeks to learn basic facts about the Defense Department, like the fact that the “Pentagon” is a five-sided building that houses its leadership or that there were different parts of the military. “The ‘landing team’ was just six guys, all named ‘Chip’ and all from Jared’s real-estate firm,” Stooge recalled. “They showed up to be briefed, but ten minutes in they were asking questions like ‘wait, we don’t have a Space Force?’ and ‘so are we winning this war in Afghanistan or not?'”

Now an unemployed former official who works part-time as a vice president of Lockheed Martin, Stooge has adjusted to losing his government salary. But he worries about the Trump administration. What’s the biggest risk of the Trump administration, I ask him. He looks at me as if I’m slow. “The fact that the president can launch a nuclear war at any time for any reason,” he replies, slowly.

He can? I ask.

“Yes.”

I didn’t know that.

“You also didn’t know what GPS was,” he replies.

Okay, point taken. Before November 2016, I’d never really thought about the federal government, but over the course of reporting this book I’d come to learn that all those people in government buildings did things, all the time, mostly, and that at least a half-dozen of them were important. It stood to reason that the president and Department of Defense also mattered.

For some reason, I had earlier decided that I would just ask questions of former officials in this manner, often going on for pages and pages, just recapitulating things that should have been obvious to anyone who’d heard of “food stamps” or “the National Weather Service.”So what’s the second-most worrisome thing about the Trump administration? I asked.

“Definitely the Kill-a-Tron 3000.”

Yeah, that sounded pretty worrisome to me, too. If only someone had been paying attention before giving the government to a failed New York real-estate buffoon, we might have had a discussion about the wisdom of building such a project. But it was too late for recriminations. I had to leave for drinks with someone who had once worked at a little-known government body called the “Federal Reserve.”

Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World

Stock image of podcast technology

This past semester, I worked with 23 Honors students at UMASS Amherst on a course modestly entitled “The Politics of the End of the World.” In that course, students explored different ways in which the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities had approached ends of the world caused or threatened by disease, nuclear warfare, environmental change, and cultural processes. The students concluded the term by working in groups to prepare podcasts on how various societies in Massachusetts had approached the same ends.

This class was an evolution of an earlier version of the course, which was a one-credit-hour special topics class offered two years ago. Reworking that readings and seminar course into the new, four-credit-hour version formed my project during a year as a Lilly teaching fellow. That UMASS program gave me a year’s worth of seminars, and a course buyout, during which I could refine my understanding of the end of the world and of how to teach at a college level. I want to reflect on why I structured the course as I did and how I would reform that structure in the future.

My vision for the course was a simple one: having students learn by creating. Given that the study of the end of the world as a theoretical concept remains in its infancy, I could not teach the students by having them become acolytes to some dead scribbler or even by introducing them to the work of a community of scholars. Rather, I knew that we would have to knit together disparate communities whose work touched on a common theme, but who did not yet know themselves to be participating in a common endeavor. Moreover, even had such a project existed, I would have still wanted to have the students engage with the subject by creating their own knowledge, rather than copying and repeating someone else’s theories or descriptions.

The choice of a podcast as a final project followed naturally from that vision. Requiring students to create a podcast combined all the advantages of an open canvas with the additional benefit that numerous examples exist showing how to structure such a work. Like a traditional research paper, it would allow students to pose and explore a new argument; unlike those dreary assignments, a podcast—simply by being novel—would spur students to work with more creative (but no less rigorous ways) of performing analyses.

The technical challenge of producing podcasts rather than entering text into a word processor also put the project in a sweet spot. Because podcasts can incorporate interviews, sound effects, music, and other editing, they reflect the mediated information environment in which people, including students, actually exist better than do purely textual assignments. Furthermore, the very complexity of creating such a document provided a structure that would encourage (and all but require) students to master project planning, a division of labor, and creative ways to deliver their message. Yet podcasts remain far less complex than visual media, like an online video or a television program. Every technical challenge inherent in a podcast remains in a visual project but compounded by more complex challenges of shot framing, lighting, and acting. Such challenges can overshadow the goal of creating an argument, rather than a spectacle. A podcast, then, would produce the right mix of complication and simplicity that would help students break out of the 8.5” x 11” box within which so much undergraduate education is crafted to fit.

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Representation and Symbolism in International Relations (or Vlad the Film Critic)

We shouldn’t become so inured to the routines of great-power press conferences that we dismiss what seem like trivial or pointless throwaways. For instance, during a press availability at last weekend’s G-20 summit in Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin made time to talk about subjects ranging from the Ukrainian naval incident to Russian luxury cars and the recent Hollywood film Hunter Killer.

Here’s Putin talking about the Aurus Senat, his personally modified state car (the Russian version of the American Cadillac-badged The Beast):

Reporter: And a short second question, please. Your car, Aurus, the Russian-manufactured Aurus, has driven so far away from home for the first time and reached this continent; there is a big commotion around it, with local residents taking pictures with it near the hotel. You have been using this vehicle for several months. How do you like the car? I assume you were not always a passenger, but actually drove it? How do you like it? What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I never drove the limo version, only the smaller car. Very good car, I like it. And I am not the only one – some of our Arab friends like it too. They are already expressing a desire to buy it. Therefore, I think we can do this, I don’t see any problems. This is a capsule, a fairly well assembled car and very comfortable.

Trivial, right? And next to Putin’s discussion of Ukraine, Russo-British relations, and the Kremlin’s line on why Trump won’t talk to him, sure. But on the other hand, Putin doesn’t dismiss the question out of hand (and is it too paranoid to think it’s a plant, or at least a welcome opportunity to discuss it?). And certainly RT found time to promote the car as a part of its coverage of the G-20 summit, stressing how it had impressed the international audience there. So let’s not dismiss the idea that Putin took a few seconds out of his busy day to talk about his car. Presidential time is valuable and it’s unlikely that serious and strategic presidents simply say things without at least some goal in mind.

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Star Trek: TOS (Terms of Service)

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A Recently, we activated an Amazon Echo. My attitude toward smart speakers can be divided into two eras:

Before Echo: Why would anyone want a privacy-destroying box in their home? Why should Jeff Bezos know everything about how my house is laid out? Is the point of late capitalism really letting me have modest conveniences in exchange for better advertisements?

After Echo: Exchanging my privacy for the modest convenience of playing Barenaked Ladies through a voice command is the absolute pinnacle of late capitalism, and Jeff Bezos should probably just buy the presidency already.

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Today in Yak-Shaving

(What is “yak shaving“?)

I needed to add plots to a final draft of an article that my co-author had just finished revising. Most of the plots were pre-made but two of them were new–just minor changes to existing work.

Normally, I would fire up my laptop to do this. That’s where I do most of my work in R. But earlier this morning I had installed a new battery on the mid-2012 MacBook Pro workhorse, and that meant it has to go through a power calibration cycle, so it was unavailable for service.

I turned instead to the small auxiliary laptop I use for presentations. I adjusted the code. Then I went to run it …

… and the small auxiliary laptop didn’t have the new package I use for this project now.

I downloaded it…but it didn’t run on the version of R installed on that machine.

I updated R…and then had to re-install all of the packages. Including packages to load older versions of other packages that work better than the current version.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Office decided that everything needed to be updated.

All of this led the computer to crash. But at least I have new versions of all the tools that I need to start the one simple line of code….

So if you ever wonder “but how did that take so long?” remember: it’s the yak’s fault.

Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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Everyone Is Misreading Burke’s View of Parties

So what are political parties?

Burke’s definition of party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed” is frequently cited (and disparaged) as idealistic. Commager (1950, 309), for instance, preferred “a body of men—and women—organized to get control of the machinery of government.” Dismissing Burke as ignorant of pragmatism in politics requires an overly hasty judgment or a poor reading of the text, however, especially given that in the same paragraph Burke scorns “the speculative philosopher” who seeks to mark “the proper ends of Government” in favor of “the politician, who is the philosopher in action”. Burke’s politicians form their “connexion” to “to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the State.”[1] And this entailed a common duty among a party’s members to fight for power and organize each other:

They are bound to give to their own party the preference in all things; and by no means, for private considerations, to accept any offers of power in which the whole body is not included; nor to suffer themselves to be led, or to be controuled, or to be over-balanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed, and even those upon which every fair connexion must stand.

A close reading will show that Burke’s full definition of party as aiming to control “the power and authority of the State” is a definition far closer to Commager’s than he realized. But Burke had already gone beyond Commager in defining the relationship of policy to the party. “Principle”, as Burke employs the term, resembles a party platform aimed rather than some airy and abstract philosophy. Indeed, Burke explicitly recognizes the importance of solidarity and the temptations that might break it (“to accept any offers of power in which the bole body is not included”) and those that would lead to the solidifying of one faction against another (“the preference in all things”)—a more active and experienced concept.

Burke’s view on parties is even closer to that of the “UCLA school” (Bawn et al. 2012, 579), although they also commit the same misreading of Burke as did Commager. Bawn et al argue, contra Commager and even more Aldrich (1995), that politicians are not the center of parties. Instead, as for Burke’s partisans, politicians are the instruments through which “policy demanders” contest for the policy outcomes they desire: “interest groups and activists form coalitions to nominate and elect politicians committed to their common program.” If we remember that for Burke, “politician” was a more general category than “officeholder” or “candidate” and described those who gathered together to “put the men who hold their opinions” into influence in order to execute a common program, then it becomes apparent that the two definitions resemble each other much more than has been recognized. They are not, however, identical: Bawn et al differ profoundly from Burke in their view of the precedence of party and ideology. Whereas Burke believed that politicians gathered along preexisting divisions over “great leading general principles in Government”, Bawn et al describe a process of endogenous ideological formation in which the coming-together of interest groups produces a partisan goal (573-575).

PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One

Accurate view of graduate school socialization. Via Pexels.

Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.

There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.

So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.

What Worked

As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.

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