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Author Page for Dave Brockington

Born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle, received a Ph.D. in poli sci from University of Washington, worked for three years at Universiteit Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and have worked at the University of Plymouth for eight academic years now in Plymouth, United Kingdom.

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Random Airport Blogging About Airports, PDX Edition

[ 147 ] April 3, 2014 |

A friend posted this to my fb page earlier today. The story has been going around for a week or two, some survey somewhere indicates that American airports suck. Some do, yes; I don’t like Dulles, and have promised myself on at least two occasions now to never use it as a port of entry again. I’ve never had the delight to use LaGuardia, which the linked article quotes the Vice President as opining, with typical Bidenesque understatement, that it “feels like it’s in some third world country.” As your intrepid LGM reporter covering the airport desk, I’m going to visit LGA for the first time on Monday. Remember, I do it for the readers.

What bemuses me about the article is that the rankings in question originate from a British consultancy, and Heathrow makes the Top-10. As an American who has lived in Britain for over ten years, and one who flies too much, I have a hate-hate relationship with British airports in general, and the sprawling hell that is LHR in particular. To wit:

“The other source of harm to our global reputation has been the unacceptably long waiting times to process through customs at U.S. international airports.”

The only American airport where my wait is in the same league as Heathrow’s immigration queues is IAD. Usually, it’s five, ten minutes (and no, I’m not enrolled in Global Entry, though the airline that I’m in a relationship with did automatically sign me up for TSA Pre-Check), whereas with Heathrow, I schedule a solid 45-60 minutes for immigration alone to insure I don’t miss my bus or train back down to the Southwest. But that’s not entirely a function of the airport, but the staffing levels set by the agency involved with immigration.

The solution to the wasteland of American airports is clear:

Unlike many of their overseas counterparts, U.S. airports are predominantly owned and operated by city, county or state governments. “This means that how they are funded is far more restricted than the rest of the world,” Burke said. “For our large hub airports, their primary source of funding for capital improvement projects is the Passenger Facility Charge.”

Yes, let’s privatize airports, so they exist to make their shareholders profit! That improves everything everywhere all the time!

The problem, of course, should be plain. The mission of an airport is to get people onto airplanes which take them somewhere else. They aren’t destinations in their own right. I used to enjoy flying out of little Bristol Airport in England – there was a direct flight from Plymouth to Bristol (before the Plymouth Airport became unprofitable and closed over two years ago) and a direct flight from Bristol to the US. About six or eight years ago Bristol received a major remodel; suddenly, there was a lot less space to sit, and a hell of a lot more shops. A common British ploy is upon immediately exiting security, you’re funnelled through a string of shops before you can even see the gates. It’s no surprise that Heathrow is lauded thusly:

London Heathrow Airport kept its 10th place spot for another year, also winning the award for best airport shopping.

Because when I think shopping, I think airport. But, British airports (at least the handful I’ve used: LHR, BRS, LGW, STN, GLA . . . MAN, LBA) are shopping malls attached to runways. If the airport exists to make a profit, they have to find a way to separate their captured audience from their cash. Buying overpriced crap[*] is the best way to ensure that.

US airports should remain public entities. Their core mission is clear, and usually they efficiently get people onto their airplanes.

Incidentally, I’m off to Chicago for four nights for the MPSA. I’m on a couple panels, but otherwise my dance card is atypically clear. Drop me a line if you’d like to share a pint or 18 on Saturday or Sunday.

[*] Of course,

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every airport needs one or many airport bars. As I’m sort of technically scared of this entire flying malarky, airport bars could charge double and I’d still pay. Fortunately, I’m currently drinking at the Laurelwood Brewing outlet in the E concourse of PDX, so I get excellent beer and efficient self-medication in one go.

Various Thoughts on MH370

[ 45 ] March 24, 2014 |

March is typically my busiest month, as I always have papers to furiously finish at the last minute for one, often two conferences in the US. This year is no different; I’m in Chicago doing the MPSA for a few nights in a little over a week, and while I don’t have a paper at the WPSA this year, I’m going to crash the meeting anyway, being from Seattle and all. By meeting, I of course mean any of the panels being held in a bar.[*] Nonetheless, I have been paying perhaps too much attention to MH370, and as I’ve been busy to the point where I can barely keep up with LGM, let alone comment threads, I apologise if any of this was discussed in the comments to the two (?) posts about MH370 that appeared here earlier.

I have an irrational fear of flying, which makes the annual 50K+ I clock up every year in the air a bit ironic. I assuage that fear partially by paying close attention to the occasional accident, and over the years I’ve built up a near encyclopedic knowledge of various disasters (the other means of fear mitigation is the airport bar). Since 1999, pprune has been informative in this area, with active airline pilots, ATC controllers, engineers, etc. providing ample evidence that plays into my statistics and probability training. Typically, the professionals active on the site (and previously, rec. travel.air on old Usenet) will point out the path-dependent chain of extremely low probability events required to bring down the aircraft in any given accident. Those flying for a living weren’t concerned, citing the overall low probability of any single event. Of course, one of the few times this approach failed was AF447, when the attitude of the pilots seemed to be “thank god it wasn’t me up there” and I was introduced to the term “coffin corner”.  That dialogue was well in the front of my mind when nine months later I was in an AF A330 over Greenland and we hit some pretty rough turbulence for an hour. It being AF, I had a nice stash of wine and brandy, so I got through it just fine. Typically discussion on pprune is technical and informative, and interesting to the curious and / or geeky.

The pprune thread on MH370 has, I believe, set a record in terms of sheer volume. As it’s gained attention (something over 10 million hits), the signal:noise ratio has predictably declined, but perseverance pays off. While there’s plenty of borderline crackpot theories being aggressively pursued by some, the nature of natural peer reviewing dismisses the unbelievable and impossible out of hand. However, given the nature of this case, there’s still plenty of scenarios with some measurable probability, however small. Attempting to understand what happened hasn’t been helped by the Malaysian government’s inconsistent handling of the matter. On several occasions, facts have been rejected before being accepted several days later, or stated as fact before being rejected later. On the latter, I’m specifically thinking about how the turn left immediately following the cutoff of the transponder was programmed into the flight computer and transmitted to ground via ACARS, which was subsequently withdrawn by Malaysian authorities.

It’s useful to focus on the few facts we do know with reasonable certainty (cribbed from pprune) before moving on to the where, and of ultimate interest, the why.

Official Confirmed

01:07 Last routine engine data transmission
XX:XX ACARS disabled
01:17 Sign off Subang ATC
01:21 Transponder switched off (near IGARI)
01:21 Malasian military PSR picks up MH370 at IGARI
XX:XX MH370 moves towards VAMPI and then towards GIVAL
02:15 MH370 turns towards IGREX and is lost on Malasian military PSR
08:11 Last ACARS handshake signal detected

The latter point is critical — it indicates that the aircraft flew for hours following whatever event occurred along its normal flight path over the Gulf of Thailand / South China Sea.  Furthermore, the consensus on pprune suggests that the continuation of the flight for hours after leaving the general Malaysia / Indonesia area was intentional. Regardless of motivation (fire / sudden decompression / unauthorised incursion into the cockpit / some motivation of the pilot to do something inconsistent with a normal flight or safe landing during a problem on board) the aircraft took a meandering route under the direction of somebody at the controls. To quote a contributor to the forum:

I think that many of us who fly the 777 for a living agree with you. The AP is going to follow a limited number of lateral inputs–LNAV, HDG HOLD, HDG SEL, TRK, or LOC. Plus, for LNAV we know that it is a three-step process of selecting the waypoint, executing it, and then selecting LNAV on the MCP. How many times have we had that drilled into us about “Execute then LNAV?”

At the very least, the initial turn off course and the entering and/or selection of new waypoints reveals very deliberate actions–by whom I will leave open pending further discovery and investigation. I think however, that many posters have overlooked just how deliberate those actions need to be and that they were most likely not the result of a happenstance case of hypoxia or fire brigade duties…

Initially, in the first 48 hours or so after the aircraft went missing, the working assumptions were that there had to be some swift, cataclysmic event that would disable the transponder, ACARS, and prevent the flight crew from so much as communicating. Sudden decompression or fire were favorites.  Lacking any debris field or ELT transmissions within a few days of the disappearance over a patch of ocean known for being shallow and heavily populated by both fishing boats and oil rigs, these hypotheses were in doubt. Malaysia’s confirmation that military primary radar picked up what they believe to be the 777 in question flying to the west introduced further confusion. This led to several now well known theories, including this one, discussed here on LGM. That (or any fire theory) has been through consensus regarded as very low probability on pprune. Palau Langkawi airport has a one-way runway pointed in the wrong direction for the approach, there were airports somewhat closer and more convenient if you’re flying a 777 that is on fire, and of course the knowledge that the aircraft remained in cursory communication via hourly pings to the Inmarsat satellite for six to seven hours later:

(Diversion to Palau Langkawi airport) even though it was closed, a very dark place to land even when the lights are on, and a one direction runway for approaches (the opposite direction he was heading), Penang was closer (and open 24/7) with approaches on both runways, and full firefighting support. Both pilots had flown into and out of both of these airfields many times, and both knew one was closed one was open.

Any fire theory would require a fire strong enough to disable the pilots and the overwhelming majority of electrics on the aircraft (the transponder, ACARS via VHF, communication), but subtle enough to burn itself out while leaving the control surfaces and airframe integrity in tact for a zombie journey until fuel exhaustion. In most (if not all) mid-air fire cases (e.g. SR111, SA295, AC797, ValueJet 592, Asiana991) the pilots have had an opportunity to communicate with ATC before, in most cases, the fire damage resulted in loss of control of the aircraft. A fire scenario for MH370 would have had to immediately disable several redundant communication systems, ultimately overcome the crew (who have and are trained to use their backup oxygen supply) yet leave the 777 in an airworthy state to fly itself. While not an impossible scenario, the probability is quite low. To again quote a pprune contributor:

If you had followed this thread you would have read the factors that make the fire in flight scenario a less than likely option. Fire cannot deselect transponders, nor call up menu options to shut down ACARS systematically, let alone preselect route 2 waypoints on the FMS.

(a) the fire had to burn such it disabled the power to certain electrical components and not other electrical components despite the fact that these electrical components are on the same power circuit.

(b) that this fire was hot and heavy enough to result in the incapacitation of the pilots yet light enough to burn itself out before effecting any of the control surfaces, cabling, etc so the plane could fly for five more hours.

The sudden decompression / hypoxia theory received a lot of attention early on, especially once it was established that the plane continued on in possibly zombie fashion for hours, bringing up memories of Payne Stewart’s (final) Learjet flight and Helios522 in 2005. Again, this is a scenario that is not impossible, but considering what we do know, highly unlikely. In the time period immediately following loss of contact, the aircraft was under pilot control, heading west for roughly an hour, then turns to the south (or north).  Given the aircraft was under control, the pilots would have been using their own oxygen source, but failed to communicate; whatever caused the immediate decompression would have likewise had to disable the several means of communication that we do know ceased functioning.

The theory that the plane flew, controlled, on the tail of one of the many flights in the air corridor heading west across the Malay peninsula has also been questioned. According to contributors to the thread on pprune, military radar can distinguish targets 300 feet apart, even 1960s technology was capable of 600 feet separation. Flying that close, at cruising speed, is difficult in the best of circumstances.  This was at night, while your aircraft is essentially flying dark (no communications, no TCAS as no transponder, etc.). It’s possible, of course, but it would be very challenging, and with 300-600 feet of separation nearly impossible, it would assume that every radar observer consciously or subconsciously rejected two valid blips where there should only be one as a fault.

A more fanciful theory, initially pitched (and still occasionally claimed) is a new take on terrorism. This theory has the flight crew disabled, and the 777 essentially stolen, to be flown off to some hidden runway for future malevolent use. If I’m running a terrorist operation, and I need a new weapon, I’m not going to hijack a 777 on a scheduled route with 230+ pax, just to store it somewhere. Loads of people will be, you know, looking for me and my Boeing as it’s sat on some highly visible 7000 foot runway somewhere (not to mention the initial Oceans-11 level of sophistication operation to get it there). Rather, I’m going to set up some shell freight company and go buy a fleet of beaters hanging out in the Tucson desert — there are still some sweet NW DC-10s there (many of which I probably flew on once). Given the sheer number of people searching for this thing, the resources at their disposal, and the finite (and known) number of runways capable of both landing, and critically for a scheme requiring re-use, successfully allowing the departure of a T7, the chances that it was stolen and landed somewhere are slim. Not zero, but awfully damned slim. Unless, of course, they also built their own new secret runway somewhere as part of this elaborate master plan.

Given the data on pinging to the satellites as part of the ACARS infrastructure, we know the two broad arcs where it was last. Since it had anywhere from 0 to 59 minutes of fuel remaining at the time, there’s a lot of territory expanding out from those arcs. As it a) hasn’t been spotted on the ground, and b) there’s thus far zero reports of it showing up on any other primary radar (between Thailand and Kazakhstan), especially given some of the borders on the northern arc are well observed by air defence radars, my guess is that the probability of it heading north to be quite low. Of course, it’s not in the interests of any of those countries on the northern arc to admit that possibly in the middle of the night their air defence radars were not switched on for budgetary considerations, understaffed as it was late at night heading into the weekend, or inadequately staffed, but my guess is that something would have been released or leaked by now.

The southern arc includes a lot of territory over the Indian Ocean that is both very deep, and relatively free of busy shipping lanes. While it’s *possible* that it landed at some hitherto unknown airfield or ex-WWII grass strip somewhere, it’s highly improbable (and would likely have been observed by now). It’s more likely it’s somewhere in the Indian Ocean, under a hell of a lot of water. Whereas with AF447 there was a really good idea in what patch of ocean it went down in, this one doesn’t have that advantage.

We have precious scant factual evidence of the what, we have a probabilistic guess as to the where, but the why will likely remain unknown. The FDR, if found (it took two years to locate AF447′s), will provide ample evidence of the aircrafts systems, but the CVR only records on a two hour loop, so that’s unlikely to provide much from the cockpit, and will not provide anything from the key time period immediately following the loss of contact. Of course, it’s also possible that the smart fire which disabled most of the communications systems also took out the sensors and / or power to both the FDR and CVR.

I’ll close this out with a quote from a 777 pilot:

I am a 777 pilot and have waded painfully through all these pages.

Just a few points:

To be pedantic the 777 transponder cannot be turned off in flight from the flight deck. ie depowered with digits blank. There is no off switch, however there is a standy position which will stop it radiating. You would have to pull the circuit breaker to totally depower it. In flight on the 777 you never go to standby if you are given a change of squawk.

As to who made the last radio call. If the Captain is handling pilot the copilot would normally make the radio calls. However for various reasons i.e. the copilot out of the flight deck, copilot on the intercom to cabin crew , the Captain may have made the call. So role is not definitive proof.

In the event of a fire you do not climb to snuff out flames.

Can a 777 get to FL450? In true mythbuster spirit we put this to the test in a 777-2 simulator. A 777 with a full load of passengers has a zero fuel weight of between 170 and 180 tonnes, say 175 tonnes. 8 hours of fuel is approximately 52 tonnes. So a takeoff weight of approx 227 tonnes minus a bit of taxi fuel. At that weight the FMS says Max Alt FL409. The plane will climb easily to FL410.

Now it gets interesting. At FL410 There is a very small gap on the airspeed tape between the VMO and the yellow which is minimum manoeuvring speed. If you disconnect the autothrottle and firewall the thrust levers, then wait until the speed is about to trigger the VMO warning and then disconnect the autopilot and raise the nose you can do a zoom climb. Although into the yellow pretty quickly there is still a long way before you get to the red digits on the airspeed which is the point at which the stick shaker activates.. The elevator gets incredibly heavy as it is made artificially heavier as the Boeing 777 really doesn’t want you to do this. With P2 pulling with all his might he still could not raise the nose to anywhere near 10 degrees. Putting the flight controls into direct mode made it easier. We got it to FL 443 at which point the stick shaker activated and P2 gratefully reduced the back pressure. This sim had GE engines. RR are a bit more powerful and if they had used an hour more fuel than our simulation I think it would have been feasible. Interestingly at FL440 the cabin alt was still at 8000 feet as per normal, so it must have used a higher diff than normal but still had not reached the max diff where the relief valve opens.

As regards the possibilities:

I believe the event probably started with the flight deck door opening and either a pilot exiting or someone else entering. I suspect someone with knowledge then deliberately disabled transponder, acars and satcom.

As for the gradual depressurisation theory. I cannot buy that because the normal cabin alt is 8000, if it gently depressurised it might not be noticed but at 10,000 feet cabin alt there is a very loud horn and red “cabin Alt” warning. No pilot should be unconscious by this point, the passenger masks don’t even drop until a cabin altitude of 14000 feet so they would have seen the warning at 10,000 feet and taken action.

The rapid depressurisation theory and the pilots unconscious due to either failing to put masks on or failure of the oxygen system. This might have been a possibility except the transponder stopped radiating. In an emergency descent you do not touch the knob of the transponder switch. I have never put a 777 transponder to sby in flight and it would be totally alien. The transponder selector knob is not part of the emergency descent checklist.

A massive electrical failure or smoke in the flight deck? Possible but extremely unlikely for it to all happen at once with no chance to get even a radio call out. Also flying for 5 more hours. Would it not be better to head for land then circle and get attention?

A great mystery.

[*] Yes, I’m looking forward to next month, not having had the time to so much as have a single alcoholic beverage in over three weeks. Of course, my first leg across the Atlantic is on a 777, an airliner that has perhaps the best safety record in history, with prior to MH370 only three hull losses, one of those being non-operational, and only three lives lost. Of course, the return TATL leg is on a 787, which is made out of plastic and catches on fire for fun.

Because Racism, Lethal Edition

[ 76 ] February 21, 2014 |

In the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal, Lisa Wade discussed some data which contrasted justifiable homicide rates in stand-your-ground states to those without. Not terribly shocking, “In SYG states, 13.6% of homicides were ruled justifiable; in non-SYG states, only 7.2% were deemed such.”

With the hung jury on the murder charge against Michael Dunn for the killing of Jordan Davis, Wade reproduced the attached figure with additional commentary. While there are some legitimate complaints about the way the data are illustrated, it’s striking nonetheless. Bluntly, SYG laws make it easier for whites to kill blacks and get away with it. What else do they do besides sell more guns?

More critically, though, it’s only marginally easier for whites to get away with the murder of blacks in SYG states:

 

At the previous post, I argued that these data — made to feel real by decisions like these — show that we are “biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim.” Stand your ground laws make it worse, but the far right column shows that:

…white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not-guilty even in states without SYG and black people who kill whites are less likely to be found not-guilty regardless of state law.

Or, to put it more bluntly, we still value white men’s freedoms more than black men’s lives. On average, of course.

Michael Dunn is a self admitted racist. As he will be going to jail for being found guilty on three counts of attempted murder, he’ll have plenty of time to explore these sentiments in his new, less segregated environment. In a jury of 12, the probability of including a middle-aged white male holding the enlightened, progressive views of a Michael Dunn can’t be discounted as vanishingly small. In general terms, empirical research demonstrates that race matters in jury decisions and all it takes is one stubborn Michael Dunn to lead to a mistrial.

In the Dunn jury, the initial poll was eight for conviction, two for self-defence, and two undecided. This eventually coalesced around the 9-3 split that led to the mistrial. With what we have available in the public record, we don’t know if the initial two were enthusiastically applying the letter of the SYG law (which is tenuous considering no gun was found in the Davis vehicle and Dunn continued shooting when the Davis and his friends were driving away in an attempt to get the hell out of there) or if there were more iniquitous motivations at work. But judging from the data, we can’t rule that out.

SYG laws are bad policy and need to be revoked, but they merely amplify the underlying racism still present in our society. That’s a more difficult problem of course, but perhaps one benefit of SYG is that it receives attention.

A Question of Mission

[ 66 ] February 7, 2014 |

The Chronicle discusses a new report: “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education”, detailing the rise of professional administrative positions in American higher education. This confirms what anecdotal evidence has been strongly suggesting: administration positions (hence, costs) have increased, dramatically, between 2000 and 2012:

the number of full-time faculty and staff members per professional or managerial administrator has declined 40 percent.

And the kicker: You can’t blame faculty salaries for the rise in tuition. Faculty salaries were “essentially flat” from 2000 to 2012, the report says. And “we didn’t see the savings that we would have expected from the shift to part-time faculty,” said Donna M. Desrochers, an author of the report.

And, happily, there’s more:

Howard J. Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Collective Bargaining Congress, wasn’t surprised by the conclusions of the study.

“You see it on every campus—an increase in administration and a decrease in full-time faculty, and an increase in the use of part-time faculty,” he said. With that trend, along with rising tuition and falling state support, “you’re painting a pretty fair picture of higher ed,” he continued. “It’s not what it should be. What’s broken in higher ed is the priorities, and it’s been broken for a long time.”

We have the same anecdotal stories at my institution. In yet another shrewd move designed to ensure I never get promoted here, I’ve begun to inquire about obtaining detailed numbers on the distribution of costs at my university. The question is whether or not the administrative bloat suggested by anecdote is empirically accurate, and if so, when did it start (more or less) and to what degree. I’m honestly not sure what I will find (assuming that the data, which in theory are public record, are easily acquired). On the one hand, since 2008 the anecdotal growth in deputy vice chancellors of this and plastic professors of that, is strong. Yet, as I’ve argued in the past, the commercialization of the British higher ed sector is at least a generation more advanced than the United States. As the trend in administrative bloat in the US has been measurably underway since 2000 (and really back to 1990), I shouldn’t find a distinct paradigm shift here at my institution in the past five years, but rather the continuation of a relentless trend. Yet, we have had a distinct shift in tone, and stated mission, from the administration since 2008.

This gets to the core of the question: just what the hell is a university for? I’m old school when I argue that the core — arguably only — mission of a university is the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Higher education is a public good and should be treated as such. Everything else ought to flow from that: knowledge transfer to the private sector, public comment and participation (which we used to call “outward facing” academics; I’ve no idea what the buzzword du jour is now), transforming lives, delivering sustained innovation and international impact, and through partnerships and collaborations enhance social inclusion, economic prosperity, and environmental quality in the region (and beyond!).

One bit of anecdote that I can speak to is that while upper management may have increased here in the past few years, front line administrative roles have been reduced in one of the annual purges of jobs that we’ve endured. One of the many differences between American and British higher ed is the lack of trust and autonomy that academic staff enjoy: all of our grading goes through an internal process known as “second marking”, where every fail, every mark over a 70 (roughly translated as an A), and a sample of every mark band in between (40s, 50s, and 60s) gets re-graded by a colleague. This happens for each and every assignment in each and every class we teach. Then, we send a similar sample off to our external moderator, an academic from a different university, who re-checks all this work and writes a report. The lack of front line administrative support has reached the point now where we — academic staff — are expected to do the photocopying of the external’s sample ourselves. This might not seem like a lot of work, but it does add up, and it’s perhaps not the best allocation of resources for the university.

1914, Niall Ferguson, and All That

[ 287 ] January 30, 2014 |

Today, I play amateur historian. I’m not a pro, of course, though I did double major as an undergrad (history & pol sci). In this respect, I have a greater academic background in history than I do in international relations, which is sort of ironic considering I teach a seminar in IR at the Masters level . . . but I digress.[*]

Niall Ferguson, one of LGM’s all time favorite British historians working at Harvard, is making the rounds today, but not for the usual hilarity we have grown to love and expect. Rather, he’s going out on a limb by arguing that perhaps British involvement in the First World War was not such a splendid idea after all. Indeed, with trademark reserve, Ferguson characterizes British involvement as “the biggest error in modern history”.

There are two ways to critique this position. First, the easiest: “biggest”. It’s not. Andrew Gelman cites several alternatives of the same genre, including Operation Barbarossa 1941, Pearl Habor 1941, the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981, and possibly even Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I’d add in Germany’s declaration of war on the United States in December of 1941 for good measure. (Gelman’s brief piece is worth a read. It brings the funny.)

The other avenue of critique is the conception of “error” itself. Ferguson is flogging a new BBC documentary based on his 1999 book The Pity of War. With 100 years of perspective, [EDIT: i.e. knowing the consequences in blood and treasure] it’s easy seductive to conclude that Britain’s entry on the side of France and Russia was pointless. From a broad perspective, yes, that entire conflict was pointless as hell. However, from the perspective of the British political leadership between 1905 and 1914, specifically in July to August 1914, it’s not difficult (but it is painful) to understand why Britain indeed entered that war. That said, I do get the occasional bit of stick over here for America’s tardy participation in that conflict. My reply is usually something along the lines of “because we weren’t stupid” and “we didn’t have a dog in that fight”.

First, Britain, courtesy of the rapprochement with France, had a moral obligation to help her erstwhile enemy. They had a deal. The Royal Navy by and large ceded the Mediterranean Sea to France so the RN’s capital ships could be repositioned with the Home Fleet to cover the North Sea (and the rapidly expanding German High Seas Fleet). France was now predominantly responsible for protecting the critical lines of communication through the Mediterranean / Suez from any possible combination of Austria-Hungary / Italy / Turkey. The quid pro quo was that the British Army would send an expiditionary force across the Channel in the event of German aggression against France. (I believe that it wasn’t valid in the reverse scenario: French aggression against Germany, nor do I believe Belgium was included).

Second, nobody predicted that the conflict would ultimately be as costly in treasure and blood as it was. Britain got off relatively easy when contrasted with France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, or even Turkey: the public debt increased over tenfold, and 9% of the 18-45 year old male cohort killed (around 725,000). If the major actors in August 1914 knew what their own worlds would look like in 1919, I suggest that they would not have gone forward with war at all. In other words, Ferguson’s thesis could be applied to each and every participant. While Wilhelm II was erratic, vain, restless, and perhaps a few fries short of a full happy meal, he wasn’t suicidal. His conservative harboring of the High Seas Fleet is evidence of this: he knew that the German Navy would lose a classic set-piece battle against the Grand Fleet, and he couldn’t bear to have his beloved navy destroyed. Hence, the adoption of a hit and run strategy against the Royal Navy (and development of unrestricted submarine warfare). Even if Germany had succeeded in the 1918 Spring Offensive and had knocked France out of the war, I doubt he’d have been willing to pay the price aggregated over the four years it took to get there. He certainly wouldn’t have voluntarily chosen the ultimate result: to ruin his country, abdicate, cede the High Seas Fleet to the Allies, and spend the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands.

Ferguson makes two other arguments worth engaging. First, that a German hegemony over the continent was essentially no big deal to Britain:

“Britain could indeed have lived with a German victory. What’s more, it would have been in Britain’s interests to stay out in 1914 . . . Even if Germany had defeated France and Russia, it would have had a pretty massive challenge on its hands trying to run the new German-dominated Europe and would have remained significantly weaker than the British empire in naval and financial terms. Given the resources that Britain had available in 1914, a better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later when Britain could respond on its own terms, taking advantage of its much greater naval and financial capability”.

What Ferguson doesn’t acknowledge here is that Britain was already in a steep relative decline. The complete economic superiority that it enjoyed during the period from 1815 and roughly 1870 had evaporated. It was losing market share abroad as its own industries weren’t keeping up with advancing technologies and processes, but rather resting on their laurels. Indeed, if it wasn’t for investment income and the finance sector (sounds familiar) the Empire would have had a net negative balance of trade. They were struggling to finance the expansion of the Royal Navy in order to maintain a semblance of the two power doctrine, even when France was explicitly removed from that two power equation. Assuming that Germany over-ran a France lacking in the help of the British Army (which while not certain remained a remarkably high probability), could this Empire in relative decline have really chosen its time to confront a continent under the control of Imperial Germany? Could the Royal Navy kept pace technologically and materially? Germany would have gained the French fleet, the channel ports, and, perhaps more critically, the Mediterranean ports. A Royal Navy that had to concentrate the overwhelming majority of its capital ships in the North Sea to keep the German fleet bottled up would find itself having to be spread perilously thin.

Rather that Britain retaining the geo-political initiative, I suggest that Imperial Germany would have had this advantage.

Simultaneous was the rapidly changing social and political context in Britain. The Liberal government under Asquith and Lloyd George had already taken steps in this direction with the People’s Budget of 1909. The power of the House of Lords was significantly eroded with the Parliament Act of 1914. A viable and vital Labour Party was just around the corner. Domestic politics was about to become a major line item in the budget, against the backdrop of declining economic hegemony. How could Britain continue to build four to six capital ships per year while simultaneously modernising the British Army in preparation for some future conflict against the continent led by Imperial Germany?

Additionally, what good would the Royal Navy have been as an offensive weapon, as Ferguson suggests above? In 1914, it was a defensive weapon. It could have prevented Britain from losing a war, but it alone could not have ensured that Britain win a war. This segues neatly into the second argument that Ferguson cites: Britain’s experience in the Napoleonic wars. Regarding the sacrosanct status of the channel ports to British strategy:

“This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe. It wasn’t until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time.”

The Royal Navy did not win that war. Nelson might be revered, Trafalgar a seminal moment in British history, but that battle was in 1805. Napoleon wasn’t finally defeated until 1815, and his invasion of Russia didn’t help matters much. More critically, Britain had a handful of continental allies against Napoleon. It was a land war. Yes, Britain managed to tread water in economic terms between 1805 and 1815, but there were negative effects of losing the continent as a market, and Britain vis-a-vis the entire planet was in a much better position in 1805 than it was 110 years later. Assuming Germany overran Belgium and France in 1914, then dispatched Russia (two of the three basically happened even with Britain in the war), who would join Britain against a consolidated Imperial Germany when Britain chose its time to counter in 1920 or 1930? Obviously not Austria-Hungary. Not Italy; it was a minor coup to get them to remain neutral at the beginning of the conflict.

There would not be a long queue of applicants for the position of “continental ally” with Team Britain in the struggle against Germany after Russia and France were eliminated, especially given that Britain had reneged on its deal and thrown France under the bus in 1914. How trustworthy would Britain be perceived to a continental minor power with plenty more to lose in squaring up against a Germany dominating the continent?

I’m not arguing that the First World War was a good idea. The entire enterprise was monumentally stupid, horrendous, and ruinous. I defend America’s avoidance of that conflict as long as we could. However, given the choices open to British political leadership in 1914, and what they knew to be true, it’s not obvious that entering on the side of France was “the biggest error in modern history”. They made a deal with France, so they were under a moral obligation to defend it. It’s not at all obvious that Britain would have been in a better strategic position in five or ten years to choose the time to deal with Germany. Such a future conflict would have required continental allies, who would not be willing for a variety of reasons. Britain itself was in relative economic decline. Assuming that German aggression had to be countered some how, it was probably better that it was countered in 1914 rather than some unclear time in the vague future.

Better yet, of course, is that all the principle actors in 1914 known what their world would have looked like in 1919. Of course, the world doesn’t quite work like that.

[*] The more I think about this, the less certain I am of the claim regarding relative academic backgrounds. I did take some IR at the masters and doctoral level, so its possibly balanced considering the quality and depth of those seminars, but I took a lot of history as an undergrad (obviously). None of this matters to the topic at hand, of course.

Last Week in Misogyny, Florida High School Principal Edition

[ 113 ] January 23, 2014 |

What the hell is it with Florida this month?

This has been going around the past few days and I’m sure a not small number of LGM readers have seen a version of it. Long story short, the principal of Lakeland Senior High School in Florida instituted a dress code, and attempted to explain the motivation for it in a class (you know, in front of students). The principal, Arthur Martinez, exhorted girls to dress modestly, don’t show too much skin, because ”modest is hottest”. Otherwise, of course, ”boys will be boys.”

These two comments caught the attention of a junior in the high school, Marion Mayer. She wasn’t impressed with the principal’s comments, and confronted him in a meeting that ended less than satisfactorily. Ordinarily I’d point out the obvious problems with the principal’s explanation, but better to read Ms. Mayer’s own words from her original post on fb, reproduced verbatim by Jen Frankel. Frankel’s description: “Not just wise beyond her years — let’s face it, a lot of us NEVER get there.”

A couple of days later, it was picked up by HuffPo (edited down from the original linked above). The takeaway:

When the people who do sexually harass other people happen to be male and you use the excuse “boys will be boys,” you are not only excusing their behavior, you are condoning it.

It’s this “boys will be boys” mentality, culture and attitude that condone sexual assault. Whenever the excuse “boys will be boys” is used, it’s just an exercise of male privilege. You are telling them that it’s okay for them to be sexually violent.

This isn’t ordinary garden variety stupid, this is stupid in a position to culturally shape the next generation. Which Mayer also understands clearly:

He explained that his daughters “behave” and that his nephews were disrespectful… because they are boys. I said “That has nothing to do with their gender. They act that way because of how they were raised, the environment they are living in, and the choices they make.”

As Frankel wrote, wise.

On Strike, and Other Grumblings

[ 17 ] January 23, 2014 |

As I’ve written about, universities in the UK have offered us a 1% pay increase, which they implemented in December, backdating to August. My union went on strike twice last term, once in October and again once in December. Those representing support / professional services, as well as further education lecturers (who only received a 0.7% increase if my memory serves me correct) have periodically supported these actions.

The 1% increase is a joke, for two reasons, neither of which are at all unique to our industry. First, by my union’s own calculation, indexed against inflation, our pay has declined 13% since 2009. Second, Vice Chancellors (university presidents in the UK) have received large pay increases (8.1% according to the BBC) in the past year both down here and in Scotland, and the union’s own analysis suggests an average 5.1% increase (neither inclusive of bonuses nor pension contributions).

As the two one day strikes did not cause any movement on the part of management, the union has changed tack — now we’ve scheduled three two hour strikes over the next month. At least 11 universities have adopted a blunt intimidation approach: they’re essentially locking their employees out for the entire day, arguing that if they participate in the two hour strike they surrender the day’s wage. Curiously, they’re arguing that this decreases the disruption for our students:

A spokesman for Ucea insisted universities are entitled to withhold a full day’s pay if staff do not work normally as it would constitute “partial performance”.

“Higher education institutions do not accept partial performance and many will be deducting a full day’s pay in order to limit the impact on their students,”

“Higher education institutions are dismayed that this form of industrial action has been designed to damage students’ education but will do their very best to protect their students”

My university is only docking us two hours of pay today, unlike the up to 25 who attempt to intimidate, and the backlash to the above in the past 48 hours has seen at least two institutions back off that stand of questionable legality.

That said, at my own university, there are larger issues afoot. The Sociology Department, among whom I count friends and colleagues, is in the process of being gutted, and a new round of “divestment” was initiated on Monday. Tuesday we received an email from the union which in part said the following:

“Some of you may now have received, or know of, the proposals that management has put forward to cut particular posts as part of Academic and Research Review 2015.

We write to inform you that UCU has sent a clear message to management that it opposes compulsory redundancies. UCU will be firmly challenging the pools identified at risk and is seeking an urgent meeting with management to discuss the pool selection process.”

I neither received a letter (email, office post, home post, and it would have gone to all three), nor have heard any information as to those who have, but it does appear to have happened. I’m a little surprised, as my particular unit (the Politics half of P&IR) has always been at risk: we had a round of compulsory redundancies in 2005-06, our major was dropped in 2006, relaunched in 2009, dropped in 2010, and relaunched again in 2013. Needless to say, Monday was not a calm and relaxing day for me.

We had an EGM of the local branch two Fridays ago where this was discussed. To my mind, striking over a 1% pay increase is worthy; however, to make it pay off for me now at the margins the universities would need to between double and triple their offer. I doubt that will happen. However, if there ever was a reason to be in a union, it’s protesting against the annual re-allocation of “investment”, shifting business models, and seeing my institution and “redundancies” in the media every year between 2008 and 2013. I’d happily screw a two hour strike (designed in part to save us money), and walk out indefinitely if it would get my institution to stop sacking people every year. Whatever it would take to save those jobs.

The branch leadership brought this up, and suggested that if we were unified, and if we did all march to the Chancellery, we would probably be successful.

However, we face two problems, both immediately recognisable to Mancur Olson. One, participation in strike action is voluntary, not compulsory. (I voted against these ongoing strike actions, but I’ll be damned if I’m ever crossing a picket line). Leadership implied that we would not be successful in such an action. Attendance at EGMs is illustrative. Immediately before redundancy letters go out, attendance is high. After? it declines. If it’s not a direct threat to one’s livelihood, why should people risk income and the displeasure of management in order to save the jobs of others?

Well, for starters, it might be your own job some day.

The second problem that we face is we operate in an open shop. I don’t have to be a union member at all, let alone support the strike action. If I was a free-rider, imagine all the money I would save; any benefits accrued through improved contracts (such as the one we received between 2006 and 2009) that others sacrificed time and treasure for, I’d still gain. Likewise, Olson’s selective benefits simply do not add up to what I pay monthly in union dues, nor what I’ve sacrificed through the strike actions this academic year.

Today was always going to be a work from home day. I’ve been doing a lot of grading I have to catch up on, there’s a new lecture to write for tomorrow, and time allowing, an initiative for the School of Government that I’m working on. I have a much better computer here, and considerably more comfort, than my janitor’s closet of an office affords. In short, I’m more productive. But rest assured, between 11 and 1, I’ve downed tools. Next Tuesday, we’re scheduled to strike for two hours between 2 and 4. I have lectures from 1 until 2, and 2 until 3. Next week will be a bit more interesting.

Now that I’ve finished this post, I think I’ll have lunch and catch up on a little binge viewing.

This Week in Republican Crazy, Florida Edition

[ 105 ] January 21, 2014 |

Florida House candidate Joshua Black calls for hanging of President Obama.  That’s not hyperbole, that’s the headline from an article in yesterday’s Tampa Bay Times.  The pearls of wisdom include such hits as ”I’m past impeachment,” Joshua Black wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to arrest and hang him high.”

The argument Mr. Black makes is that the President is guilty of either war crimes or treason due to ordering a drone strike that killed a US Citizen.

More: ”I make no apologies for saying that the President is not above the People. If ordinary Americans should be executed for treason, so should he.”

Let’s look at this again: hanging. On MLK day.

“I guess they’re going to call me a racist now.”

Ya think?

I suspect this does not constitute an illegal threat, but rather political speech, under Watts v United States (1969). Of course, if the President were a white Republican, and the tweet the product of a certain cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, many would, after careful consideration, reach a rather different conclusion.

Honorable mention goes to Sarah Palin:

“Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card”.

Gay Weather Patterns

[ 25 ] January 20, 2014 |

A couple days ago, a UKIP local councillor in cosmopolitan Henley-on-Thames, David Silvester, wrote to his local paper arguing that God is punishing Britain through a series of storms in late December and early January because of the Government’s policy of allowing same sex marriage:

‘The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war.

‘I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage bill.

‘But he went ahead despite a 600,000-signature petition by concerned Christians and more than half of his own parliamentary party saying that he should not do so.’

Blaming the Prime Minister for the bad weather, he added: ‘It is his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.

UKIP belatedly suspended Silvester from the party (after first defending his right to his opinions). This is unfortunate for our God fearing councillor, as he left the Conservatives and joined UKIP this past year as a direct reaction against the PM’s policy. Presumably, he joined UKIP because he perceives their positions as more conducive and accepting of his heavenly-inspired homophobia.

While this has made huge news on this small island, none of this should be remotely interesting to an American. Blaming storms on God’s displeasure over LGBT advances in the realm of basic civil and human rights is part of the basic toolkit for Greater Wingnuttia.  However, Nicholas Pegg gave us the UKIP Shipping Forecast, which made the rounds this morning (GMT). For anybody who is at all familiar with the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast, Pegg’s parody is quality hilarious.

Mysterious Bitter Rivalries

[ 42 ] January 20, 2014 |

I basically grew up in Seattle. However, I was born in the Bay Area, and didn’t move to Washington State until half way through the third grade. My original NFL allegiance was to the Oakland Raiders, which I clung to, in the face of every other family member being a 49ers fan when we lived in the Bay Area, and my father’s retaining the Niners as his NFC team (although he grew to be a fan of the Seahawks as his AFC, and local, team). But for me, it was the Raiders of Kenny Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, Mark van Eeghen, et al. I remember the 1976 and 1977 seasons, especially the post-season, to this day, Super Bowl XI and all. Perhaps ironically, the first NFL game I attended was a pre-season game between the Raiders and expansion Seahawks at the Coliseum in 1976. It was in the stands at that game where I first heard that there was going to be such a thing as the Seattle Mariners, and I should probably rue the day.

My first passionate sporting hatred was the Denver Broncos, because of this. Specifically, a blown fumble call that would have prevented a Denver TD in the 4th quarter (EDIT: of the 1977 AFC Championship game). I clung to the Raiders even after my relocating to the PNW, and rooted for them against the local upstarts. I was unhappy when the Seahawks beat the Raiders twice in one of those early seasons. What caused me to divorce the Raiders was their move to Los Angeles in 1982. Even from my then vantage point in the PNW, moving from the Bay Area to LA was simply wrong. I adopted the Seahawks. When the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1994, there was no forgiveness. I delighted in the 1983 Seahawks playoff victory over Denver, and mourned losing the AFC Championship game that year to the Los Angeles Raiders. Through all of this, the 49ers were just there. Sure, they became successful, and I couldn’t help but root for them during this era due to my father’s influence, but as a Seahawks fan, the 49ers were annual pre-season competition, with no history, no rivalry, and no animosity. And they won. A lot.

I moved to Europe before the realignment of the Seahawks to the NFC, and to be frank, I no longer follow the NFL as closely as I once did, only really paying attention to the Seahawks, (though I still follow Pac 10/12 football). Thus, the bitter hatred and animosity that now exists between Seattle and San Francisco is a mystery to me. It almost seems manufactured. As I understand it, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh aren’t universally loved, especially by one another. This dates back to their Pac-10 days (USC and Stanford). The teams have adopted their mutual enmity, simultaneous to both teams becoming good again. The fans have followed suit.

Isn’t this the exact opposite causal direction that these things usually assume? That, and yesterday was the first time these two hated, storied rivals ever met in a playoff game.

Strangely, last night (GMT) I inexplicably woke up in the middle of the night, checked the score on line, and made it just in time to watch the final San Francisco drive (it was pushing 3am here) on game cast. Being a Seattle sports fan, my assumption was that the Niners would score and it would all be over. The result certainly did not make me unhappy, but unlike the Mariners losing a post season series to the Yankees, I also wouldn’t have been bitterly upset had Kaepernick’s pass been complete. Indeed, I expected it to be.

Of course, while I don’t understand that rivalry, I do understand my life long commitment to seeing the Broncos lose. If it can come at the hands of the Seahawks in a Super Bowl, that’s nothing but icing.

I’ll allow a certain Stanford graduate to have the last word.

And Here Was A Good Guy With A Gun. Now What?

[ 94 ] January 14, 2014 |

Now that I’ve returned alive (*) from my three-week multiple city jaunt through the United States, and emerged from a jet lag induced haze, I was planning on writing about something also depressing, albeit in a different way. However, as Rob discusses below, we have this.

An equally fascinating and frustrating aspect of the gun issue is the sheer fatuousness of the pro gun-lobby argumentation. It comes across as random seat-of-the-pants theorizing, with all the internal consistency such post-hoc rationalization affords. That said, there is a pattern to it. The first response is to arm everybody and their teachers. That solves everything. When it is clear that this argument won’t fly, then individualise the issue. It’s not a cultural problem, or something that society is responsible for or can possibly address, but rather it’s the result of a deranged individual, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

I haven’t found anything on the right wing blogosphere on it yet, but that’s not surprising; it’s difficult to organise a pro gun-lobby defence for this one. “All we needed was a good guy with a gun” doesn’t quite work when the alleged shooter was a pissed off “good guy” himself, which is what I imagine a well trained former police officer represents to gun nuts. Also, given it was a dark movie theater, it would be a stretch for those in favor of an armed society to attempt a variant of this by suggesting we needed more good guys with guns to take out the good guy gone bad with a gun. It might look something like this, to liberally quote a good friend of mine:

But if everyone were armed, than another good guy could have taken out the good guy who went bad. Then another good guy could have taken out that good guy because he isn’t sure who the good guy is, but he knows people are shooting each other. And then another good guy could have taken out the confused good guy, because, well, somebody needs to take out the guy shooting people in the theater.

Call it the fog of self-defense.

I like to believe that even the gun lobby might see the problem with this line of reasoning.  (Incidentally, “the fog of self-defense” is my new favorite phrase).

So, it must be individualised. To quote a different fb friend rushing in to defend the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment (because clearly it’s besieged):

And most of the anti-gun laws being pushed would not have prevented this, as in most states there are special exceptions for retired police officers, who can take weapons into places the rest of us who can carry can not take weapons. Any senseless death is a shame, but making this one part of your anti-gun argument just doesn’t work, as none of the proposed laws would prevent this one.

This is a variant of the “lone crazy” defense. Not only can we not do anything about the lone crazy, since this particular lone crazy has “special exceptions” as a retired police officer (also known as one of those good guys we so desperately need) we really can’t do anything about it. These mythical proposed laws aren’t capable of dealing with the extant laws already on the books. Or something.

Oh, and senseless death is bad, and by implication, my politicising aforementioned senseless death is likewise bad.

(*) During a 36 hour window in New Orleans, the NOPD might have shown up in a neighborhood dive bar five minutes after my arrival at the same bar (great bar btw), I might have been cordially invited to spend some time in an ER, and I might have been out all night drinking with SEK. I assure you that these three events were completely unrelated.

War on Christmas

[ 69 ] December 25, 2013 |


Here you can find a growing archive of letters sent home to the UK (of Great Britain and Ireland) from the western front in 1914/15,detailing first hand accounts of the Christmas truce that occurred organically in some areas of the front.

The following was published in the Exeter Express & Echo on 2 January 1915:

Corporal Leon Harris of the 13th battalion London Regiment (Kensington) who has been serving at the front for eight weeks with one of the last batch of Territorials sent has written a letter to his parents residing at Caradon, Monks Road, Exeter, giving remarkable particulars of how some of the British lines spent Christmas at the front. “This has been,” he says, “the most wonderful Christmas I have ever struck. We were in the trenches on Christmas Eve, and about 8.30 the firing was almost at a stand still. Then the Germans started shouting across to us, ‘a happy Christmas’ and commenced putting up lots of Christmas trees with hundreds of candles on the parapets of their trenches. Some of our men met some of theirs half way, and the officers arranged a truce till midnight on Christmas Day. It was extended till Boxing day night and we all went out and met each other between the two lines of trenches, exchanging souvenirs – buttons, tobacco and cigarettes. Several of them spoke English. Huge fires were going all night and both sides sang carols. It was a wonderful time and the weather was glorious on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – frosty and bright with moon and stars at night.”

My Christmas is prosaic in comparison, but over all it will take me from Oregon to Seattle to Kitsap County back to Seattle then on to New Orleans and Atlanta. If you’re celebrating, either ecumenically or religiously, Merry Christmas; if not, I hope you’re having an atypically excellent Wednesday.

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