Not so smart on foreign policy

Earlier this week I was musing that John McCain is not nearly so smart on foreign policy as he is generally given credit for.  Now, Slate's Fred Kaplan strongly makes the case for why this is so (clearly, I inspired him):

That was the big nail-biter: Would Obama, the first-term senator and
foreign-policy newbie, utter an irrevocably damaging gaffe? The
nightmare scenarios were endless. Maybe he would refer to “the Iraq-Pakistan border,” or call the Czech Republic “Czechoslovakia” (three times), or confuse Sunni with Shiite, or say that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province.

But,
of course, it was Obama's opponent, John McCain?the war hero and
ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee?who uttered these
eyebrow-raisers. “Czechoslovakia” was clearly a gaffe, and
understandable for anyone who was sentient during the Cold War years.
What about the others, though? Were they gaffes?slips of the tongue,
blips of momentary fatigue? Or did they reflect lazy thinking,
conceptual confusion, a mind frame clouded by clichéd abstractions?

If Obama had blurted even one of those inanities (especially the one
about the Iraq-Pakistan border), the media and the McCain campaign
would have been all over him like red ants on a wounded puppy.

Kaplan nicely points out that how this fits into the most pervasive biases of press coverage.  Journalists craft a narrative or conventional wisdom for campaigns, and then despite all potential evidence the contrary, they stick with it. 

McCain caught almost no hell for his statements?they were barely noted
in the mainstream press?most likely because they didn't fit the
campaign's “narrative.” McCain is “experienced” in national-security
matters; therefore, if he says something that's dumb or factually
wrong, it's a gaffe or he's tired. Obama is “inexperienced,” so if he
were to go off the rails, it would be a sign of his clear unsuitability
for the job of commander in chief.

It may be time to reassess this narrative's premise?or to abandon it
altogether and simply examine the evidence before us. Quite apart from
the gaffes, in formal prepared speeches, McCain has proposed certain actions and policies that raise serious questions about his
suitability for the highest office. As president, he has said, he would
boot Russia out of the G-8 on the grounds that its leaders don't share
the West's values. He would form an international “League of Democracy”
as a united front against the forces of autocracy and terror. And
though it's not exactly a stated policy, he continues to employ as his
foreign-policy adviser an outspoken, second-tier neoconservative named
Randy Scheunemann, who coined the term “rogue-state rollback” and still prescribes it as sound policy.

If you are curious as to why these particular policies are unsound, you can read the rest of the article.  I'm sold.

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Who’s fault?

Slate has a really cool interactive map of the major players in all of the Bush administrations scandals and crimes.  It's really pretty fun to play with.  As the creator's write, “And if all else fails, fall back on this golden rule of wrongdoing in the White House: All roads lead to Gonzales.”

Put down your cell phone and drive

There was a really good article in Salon today that explained just why it is so much more dangerous to talk on a cell phone while driving.  What your hands are doing has little to do with it, it's what your brain is doing that's the problem.  Apparently, there's been some pretty interesting scientific research on the matter:

But can't you just ignore the voice chatting in your ear when
driving conditions get hairy? Apparently not. “Listening to someone
talk is a very automatic process and you can't will yourself not to,”
explains Just. “In another study, we told them [test subjects] to
ignore the sentences, but it made very little difference. You have to
block your ears. You can't turn off your brain processing.” You may
think that you're tuning out your husband or BFF on the other end of
the phone when road conditions get bad, but it's not that simple.

“It's insidious,” says Just. “If you're in a tough driving
situation, and someone talks to you, the processing of the language is
going to start right away, whether you like it or not.”

One thing I've always wondered about, though, is shouldn't it be just as potentially dangerous to hold an involved conversation with a passenger?  Apparently not– phone conversations and in-car conversations are actually quite different:

As long as the Model-T has been on the road, people have been
conversing with the passengers in their vehicles, if only to scream at
the pesky kids, “Shut up! I'm trying to drive!” But there's a
difference between talking to somebody in the car and on the phone.
Most passengers in the car adjust their conversation to what's
happening on the road, quieting down when traffic gets hectic or even
pointing out hazards up ahead, acting as a second set of eyes. The
person on the other end of a cellphone call might not know you're
driving, much less be aware of the road conditions. “The difficulty is
that the party on the other line has no sense of your driving situation
and just yaks, and the driver elects to do it, too,” explains Paul
Allan Green, research professor at the University of Michigan
Transportation Research Institute, where he leads the Driver Interface Group.

Inside a car, there can be natural lulls in the conversation of 20
or 30 seconds, and there is no awkwardness associated with it. Not so
on the cellphone call, where there's more social pressure on the driver
to hold up his or her end of the conversation, if only to assure the
other party that the call hasn't been dropped. “There is all sorts of
social pressure to continue the conversation and not break it off,”
says Green. When a driver does stop talking to focus on the road, his
caller is likely to ask, “Hey, can you hear me? Are you there?” The
caller tries “to reengage the driver at the wrong time,” says Strayer.

Further, researchers find that people tend to be more chatty in a
cell conversation than an in-car one. “Cellphone conversations are more
intense than in-car conversation,” says Paul Atchley,
professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. That intensity can
be measured. Researchers in England studied drivers' conversations with
both passengers and callers. They found that people used a higher
number of words per minute on cellphone conversations.

In the end, car passengers just have more skin in the game. “People
in the car have their own safety at risk,” says Atchley. “It's to their
advantage to not put the driver in the dangerous situation, so we as
passengers tend to edit ourselves pretty effectively.”

The larger point is that laws banning cell phone use unless the cell is hands-free are pretty pointless:

Researchers doubt that banning hand-held phones gets to the root of the
problem: the conversation. Sure, it's safer to have both hands on the
wheel, but no one is passing laws banning stick shifts. Atchley
believes that the new cellphone laws may be counterproductive,
instilling a false sense of security, since they may lull drivers into
thinking that gabbing on the hands-free phone is just fine.

I generally try and keep my own automotive cell phone conversations limited to situations where traffic is light and I'm quite familiar with my route, but I'm definitely going to be more cognizant of the risks.

The not-very-bright American voter

The Post today has a nice little article that prominently features political science research debating just how smart (or stupid) the typical American voter is.  Personally, I tend to lean towards the latter camp.  Anyway, the highlight:

So a bunch of academics decides to revisit one of the defining books of
modern American politics, a 1960 tome on the electorate. They spend
years comparing interviews with voting-age Americans from 2000 and 2004
to what Americans said during elections in the 1950s. The academics'
question: How much has the American voter changed over the past 50
years?

Their conclusion — that the voter is pretty much the same dismally
ill-informed creature he was back then — continues a decades-long
debate about whether Americans are as clueless as they sound.

Of course, not all political scientists agree on the cluelessness of the American voter…

Americans “don't sound the way the high priests of culture want them to
sound,” says Samuel L. Popkin, author of “The Reasoning Voter,” who
tends to give voters more credit rather than less. “They use their own
language. They process a lot more than they can recall in interviews.
They have a lot better sense of who's on their side and who isn't than
they're often given credit for.”

Among the authors of the new research, is one of my Ohio State mentors:

“If they know they're Republican and have been happy that way, they'll
stay Republican,” says another of the book's four authors, Herb
Weisberg, who chairs the political science department at Ohio State University.
Even for those voters who do rethink their allegiance to a given party
— because, say, the party in power has fouled things up — “if times
get better, they'll get back to where they were,” Weisberg says.

The article actually does a nice job summarizing a significant political science debate.  If you'd like a better understanding of just what Political Scientists are killing trees for to fill up journals on a subject that is actually pretty interesting, give it a read

When the right-wing becomes mainstream

Generally speaking, I consider it a waste of my time to comment on idiocy from right-wing blogs.  Or, in this particular case the fact that right-wing bloggers are upset that Obama's campaign in Germany has distributed fliers printed…in German!.  What's a problem, however, is when mainstream news organizations start taking their cues from this nonsense– case in point, ABC's Jake Tapper.  On Good Morning America today, with no other context, he simply said something along the lines that Obama's campaign was distributing fliers “in German,” with what struck me as a subtle emphasis on those words.  Your typical GMA viewer must be left wondering why that's worth  mentioning.  What's next– ads in Spanish for spanish-language TV?

Mirror, mirror on the wall

A few weeks ago I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker about the neurobiology of itching.  Among the more interesting aspects of the article were the medical uses of mirrors to essentially cure persons of unexplainable, chronic itches, as well as phantom limb problems.  Yesterday's Science Times likewise had a fascinating article on mirrors and human perception.  Some of the more interesting tidbits:

Other researchers have determined that mirrors can subtly affect
human behavior, often in surprisingly positive ways. Subjects tested in
a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful
and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups
performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. Reporting in the
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, C. Neil Macrae, Galen V.
Bodenhausen and Alan B. Milne found that people in a room with a mirror
were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social
stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion.

?When
people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think
about what they are doing,? Dr. Bodenhausen said. ?A byproduct of that
awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more
desirable ways of behaving.? Physical self-reflection, in other words,
encourages philosophical self-reflection, a crash course in the
Socratic notion that you cannot know or appreciate others until you
know yourself.

This finding is just really great.  You are not as attractive as you think:

For that matter, humans do not necessarily see the face in the mirror
either. In a report titled ?Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in
Self-Recognition,? which appears online in The Personality and Social
Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described
experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of
themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified
their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were
computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also
likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier,
homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine,
unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the
result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to
identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing,
participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.

And here's something that Kim refuses to believe (and, she's not alone):

When we look in the mirror, our relative beauty is not the only
thing we misjudge. In a series of studies, Dr. Bertamini and his
colleagues have interviewed scores of people about what they think the
mirror shows them. They have asked questions like, Imagine you are
standing in front of a bathroom mirror; how big do you think the image
of your face is on the surface? And what would happen to the size of
that image if you were to step steadily backward, away from the glass?

People
overwhelmingly give the same answers. To the first question they say,
well, the outline of my face on the mirror would be pretty much the
size of my face. As for the second question, that?s obvious: if I move
away from the mirror, the size of my image will shrink with each step.

Both
answers, it turns out, are wrong. Outline your face on a mirror, and
you will find it to be exactly half the size of your real face. Step
back as much as you please, and the size of that outlined oval will not
change: it will remain half the size of your face (or half the size of
whatever part of your body you are looking at), even as the background
scene reflected in the mirror steadily changes. Importantly, this
half-size rule does not apply to the image of someone else moving about
the room. If you sit still by the mirror, and a friend approaches or
moves away, the size of the person?s image in the mirror will grow or
shrink as our innate sense says it should.

There's a few more interesting tidbits in the full article.  

About that surge

I know I've posted before on the topic of the Surge, and how all this “Surge is working” talking points really misses the big picture about what the surge was actually supposed to accomplish.  Given, that the McCain response this week to Obama's big Middle-East success is to basically whine, “but he didn't support the surge and he's not smart enough to realize it's working” it seems necessary to revisit the issue.  As Matt Yglesias is much smarter on the issue than me, I'll outsource:

After a couple of days worth of chaotic retreat, the right wing
seems to have settled on a fallback position, namely that it's only
possible to now contemplate withdrawing from Iraq because things have
gotten so much better and all improvements in conditions — including things that happened before the surge began
— are due to the surge. Thus, despite Obama apparently having shown
good judgment on the question of invading Iraq and seeming to have the
best policy moving forward, “really” McCain is vindicated.

In addition to the somewhat magical thinking in which things like
the “awakening,” the Sadrist cease fire, and the natural reduction in
violence that comes with a completed process of ethnic cleansing become
consequences of the surge, this misses the larger point of the surge
debate. Surge opponents said the surge was pointless — a tactical
smokescreen to obscure the fact that hawks have an unworkable strategy.
And now, over 18 months after the 2006 midterms showed that the voters
want an end to this war, the hawks still can't explain what's been accomplished
in exchange for the hundreds of dead and hundreds of billions spent
over what, say, following the Baker-Hamilton recommendations would have
cost us. The basic shape of the Middle East is the same, our posture in
Iraq is still unsustainable, we're still getting nowhere with Iran, and
things are worse than ever in Afghanistan. Probably, but not certainly,
the surge has helped save some Iraqi lives. But fundamentally, we're
still going to have to leave Iraq and it's still the case — just as it
was before the war — that Iraq might muddle along okay or might turn
into a disaster all depending on what choices Iraqi leaders make.

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