The Sonian

Arguing the issues, pushing the envelope, fighting the nostalgia. A couple of Davidsonians...continuing the conversation.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Iran's Terrible Comedy

I certainly hope that Stephen Colbert and others have been skewering Iran for its (unintentionally) hilarious nuclear quest. Has anyone in the media noted how silly Iran has come across, even as it wants the world to know how big and bad it is? Its leaders gloriously proclaim its superior missile systems--which display heretofore unknown capabilities!--but which are likely conventional Soviet designs and are launched from creaky warships. They gloriously proclaim its nuclear energy program, but are undermined by supposedly serious video of men in white jumpsuits banging on white oil drums while some others engage in classic industrial rituals like stirring and ladeling molten goo. The media and the politicians interpret these and other videos as evidence of a crisis; I see them as worthy of play. The only thing this public relations campaign is missing is a qualified spokesman, such as Homer Simpson, who might explain the complex procedures involved in constructing nuclear energy.

The government has wisely brought the people into the act, too. They have been spotted in the streets, dancing happily, waving shimmering cigar cases of "uranium" above their heads, joyful that Iran has joining the Club of Nations. After all, just last week they discovered "nuclear fusion." It seems like every two weeks their little nation makes some critical advance; look back a little ways to the beginning of this latest crisis (really, Ahmadinejad's election) and Iran would seem to have made unbelievable technological advances even while under distracting diplomatic pressure .

I can't help but laugh every time Iran comes on the news because its rhetoric is so embarrassingly childish and its propaganda campaigns so ham-fisted. Perhaps I've only seen the highlights, and perhaps I haven't seen enough evidence that Iran is actually anywhere close to producing nuclear technology, or that it's actually stupid enough to take this charade far enough to endanger its own existence. The reason I say that is because Iran is getting exactly what it wants out of this episode. Iran knows that they and only they can "solve" this situation, and they can do it completely on their own terms. They can spurn every offer (and they already have turned down many), take a travel ban, endure the sanctions hit, even lose some ambassadors, and know that each rejection will gain them more concessions when they finally agree to agree for real. At this point, Iran, far from getting flogged for its calculated aggression, is being rewarded. We have underestimated Ahmadinejad and overestimated Iran's capability and intent. I'm not saying that we shouldn't worry a little about Iran or the rhetoric of its latest ruling troupe. I simply want to congratulate the little country because they have played the diplomatic game magnificently by manipulating the West's irrational fears like probably no other nation could. Good for them. So am I wrong to have a little laugh about it?


Sunday, May 28, 2006

not so bad

Hey all,

Life is not so bad here. I have one room in a 3-room trailer that i share with a captain, so it's small. But I have A/C and a mattress, so I'm pleased. Here in Tallil, in contrast with Kuwait, most of the buildings are permanent or semi-permanent (many Saddamm-era). So we work in real offices, and if it werent for the long hours, it would actually be easy to forget where we are. Partly because we have all the amenities you have in any other garrison in the rear--PX, free phones and internet, game rooms, gym, fast food, free laundry, generous chow hall, etc. That and it's pretty quiet here. We're in the south-east of the country, away from the hot spots. Attacks in our area of operations occur daily, but they usually are not serious., and attacks on our camp are very infrequent. All these things make life fairly stress-free.

My bosses will, however, try to keep me on my toes. They've already put me in a position not slated for 2LTs. I'm daytime Battle Captain in our Tactical Operations Center. Any serious incident that occurs in our AO or to any of our subordinate units comes through me, and I have to file it and send it up to higher. We have two briefings a day as well, so my job also is to keep the brigade commander and others in the TOC informed about what's going on. I've only been on the job a few days, so I'm still a novice; however, i think its gonna be a lil exciting because my section is the nerve center of the brigade and I'm in the center of it all. Since the TOC is running 24/7, I have to pull 12 hour days 6 days/week. At some point I'm gonna hate my job, but I think I can handle 4 months.

Just thought you all would like to know what I'm doing. No, I'm not going out on convoys, but we'll see about that :-).

Keep it sleazy,


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Time for a vacation

Just about the time some of you are thinking of going somewhere for the summer, I'm headed on a journey of my own. I am scheduled to fly tonight to Kuwait, and then hopefully later in the week, on to Iraq. My bags are packed and this is my final message before I go. I intend to keep a journal, and I also hope to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you all in this forum. Don't expect anything exciting, however. Perhaps fortunately for me, it looks like I will fill a staff position until my expected return at the end of September. So take care, guys, and I hope to see some of you guys soon after I return.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Coaching from the Couch

Every March, I become possessed with an excessive, irrational zeal for coaching college basketball. Sure, I feel similarly throughout the year, cursing the calls in every UK game, but something about the NCAA tournament really gets me yelling at the players as much as I do the officials.

Seth Davis, SI's eminent college basketball commentator (and one of the men who helps us get through halftime on CBS), argues that a team's end-game should be different in March than in December. When asked how Gonzaga blew a 17-point lead last night against UCLA, Davis responded:

"Badly. They started slowing it up and working the shot clock with about 3½ minutes to play. And having worked this job, where I get to watch every second of every game in the tournament, that would be the one lesson that I would try to impart on any coach. It might work during the regular season, it might even work in your conference tournament, but it is the kiss of death in the NCAA tournament. You must always be attacking. And it's not even necessarily an orchestrated strategy -- I don't know if that was Mark Few's strategy -- it's just human nature. Clark Kellogg, the master wordsmith, he calls it, "driving with the parking brake on." It's exactly the same thing that happened to Arizona last year in the regional final. And it is very unique to the NCAA tournament."

I might become more of a coach in March, but I don't think my coaching strategy changes in the way Davis would say it should. Sure, March games are always frantic in their endings. Sure, when using clock, teams should still run plays that can set up smart shots. But, I think they should still use as much of those 35 seconds as is possible. The team with fewer points is inevitably going to gain more momentum with a made basket than is the team with more points. The former is going to be hurried, abandoning offensive sets for quick screens and threes, reckless penetration and layups. If their opponent (the winning team) plays in the same herky, jerky way, even if they make baskets, they'll still be losing momentum, comparatively.

The most judicious use of the clock is to take those entire 35 seconds to run a set play. The losing team's anxiety might create mental errors (e.g., switching on screens, playing zones too loosely), that enable the winning team to calmly execute.

As an aside, I think one thing that winning teams allow themselves to do, when trying to burn clock, is to bring their entire offense into the backcourt (in response to great defensive pressure by their excited opponent). Smart passing around the perimeter, though always riskier than letting your point hold the ball for 20 seconds, might be a better alternative in terms of offensive productivity.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Winning on Another Front

I suppose it was only a matter of time before they decided the "smart" angle was the only one they could really play up. CBS Senior Writer Gregg Doyel did well, though.

By the way, I hope you guys can figure out the "54th." I'm pretty sure his Davidson career encompassed ours.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Bush v. Science

Skip's comments about the theocratic right's efforts to stifle birth control in a recent post about the South Dakota Abortion Ban tipped me off to a larger issue -- the way we perceive science is changing.

"Since the Enlightenment," writes Michael Specter for the New Yorker, "scientific enterprise has been defined by an ethic of independent inquiry and by reliance on data that can be observed, tested, analyzed, and repeated. The scientific method has come to shape our notion of progress and of modern life. Science has largely dictated the political realities of the twentieth century." Not many people would disagree -- the atomic bomb, radar, quinine, and dramatic advances in health were in large part responsible for American victory in World War II. Shortly thereafter, the United States began investing heavily in scientific research, offering strong federal funding to American colleges and universities. The result was that the U.S. became a technological superpower.

While any federally funded project is subject to the government's political will and while scientists are no less likely to consider themselves Democrats or Republicans, science was considered in many respects a world apart from politics. "In bringing science into the high councils of government, the presidential indifference to their politics and party affiliations reflected the belief that science and scientists were above politics," wrote Daniel S. Greenberg in "Science, Money, and Politics."

Now, however, science and politics seem to be in competition. The most glaring example is stem cell research. The enormous potential benefit of developing stem cells (those that do not yet serve a particular function and that can turn into any tissue or organ in the body -- described as "blank checks" by some) seems undeniable, yet the extreme right's seemingly unfounded moral reservations have put research in a chokehold. Bush's famous description of embryos as "snowflakes" each "with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being" doesn't quite do it for me. While on its face, his statement is true, it does not address the issue that blastocysts, in effect hollow balls of a hundred or so stem cells, don't have nerves or any human qualities. Moreover, as it stands, embryos left over at in-vitro-fertilization clinics are off limits to researchers. While this moral debate will rage for some time to come, scientific progress will slump. [By the way, if abortion is legal, why isn't most stem cell research?]

Stem cell research is but one area of exciting scientific progress stifled by the Bush Administration. White House support for intelligent design is outright embarrassing. A year ago, Bush signed the bill that would require that Terry Schiavo's feeding tube be reinserted. Thankfully, the Supreme Court didn't waste their time on the case and an autopsy confirmed that she was unaware of her condition and incapable of recovering. Merck's application for a cancer-curing vaccine is currently in the air as it protects against human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country. (Note: certain strains of HPV cause cancer). Religious conservatives argue in opposition to its approval that there's no need for the vaccine where it's completely preventable with abstinence. "More kids would have sex," they whine. They utter the same cry at condom education in schools. Unfortunately for them, studies show no difference in sexual activity between groups who are so educated and those who are not, or those who are made to undergo "abstinence 'til marriage" programs. By the way, as it stands, government policy requires 1/3 of HIV-prevention money to go to these abstinence programs.

I've got to cut this short, but it's easy to keep on going.

The United States is falling rapidly in science education as well. Sure, Bush acknowledged the need to educate more scientists in order to remain competitive with the rest of the world (stating, ever so eloquently, that students shouldn't think of researchers as the "nerd patrol"), but he isn't doing much about it.

Oh yeah, Bush's scientific-spending increase proposals for 2006 devote 97% of the increase to weapons development and space-exploration vehicles.

Does America really fear progress?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reaction to the Supreme Court's Decisions Re: Race and Higher Education

The New York Times reported today that "colleges and universities nationwide are opening to white students hundreds of thousands of dollars in fellowships, scholarships and other programs previously created for minorities." [Article].

These institutions are largely responding to the pressure of the Education Department, the Department of Justice, and conservative advocacy groups such as the Center for Equal Opportunity. Such pressure is, to a great extent, founded on the Supreme Court's decisions in two 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan and the changing composition of the Court.

In Gratz v. Bollinger, a caucasian applicant's class action challenge to Michigan's continued use of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions succeeded. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, held that the University's policy of automatically distributing 20 points, or one-fifth of those needed to guarantee admission, to every single "underrepresented minority" applicant solely because of race did not comport with the Equal Protection Clause. The Court held that the policy was not narrowly tailored to the asserted compelling state interest in achieving educational diversity.

The implication (that a school can use race as a factor in undergraduate admissions so long as the policy is a narrowly tailored means to support a state's interest in diversity) was supported in the Court's decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. Here the Court upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions to Michigan's law school because there was found to be a "highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file." [By the way, I think this finding is garbage unless one considers an LSAT score to be, in and of itself, a "highly individualized, holistic review" of an applicant].

In response to these decisions, colleges seeking to the limit their liability in the likely event that these issues will be revisited by the Roberts Court, have opened up once exclusively minority scholarships and done away with or modified other minority programs.

What should be made of this issue? Personally, I find myself wanting to wear both pairs of shoes. Through my work in a college Admissions Office and my experience in the law school admissions process, I grew unhealthily skeptical of the current implementation of affirmative action measures in higher education. At the same time, I consider diversity to be of monumental importance, particularly at the graduate, post-graduate, and professional levels. As far as I can tell, it's the best (and only?) way to defeat stereotypes.