Monthly Archives: January 2014

Links: Data Drama, Coups, France, Cyber Security, Wealth Distribution

Last week, GDELT was suspended and three researchers left the project. This huge data set on media reports (not only) about conflicts got a lot of buzz (here and elsewhere). Now it seems that several parties are arguing about whether or not the underlying data was properly licensed. You can find some of the speculations in this thread on “Political Science Rumors”, page 3 and following.

Kalev Leetaru, the designer of the data set, now seems to have set up a new website and promises that everything will be fine:

While this whole situation would have been easily avoided with just a little communication and avoided a lot of unnecessary angst, the silver lining is that it has demonstrated just how widely-used and important GDELT has really become over the past year and we are tremendously excited to work with all of you in 2014 to really explore the future of “big data” study of human society.

Speaking of big data projects: Jay Ulfelder’s 2014 coup forecasts are up:

Coup forecast 2014 by Jay Ulfelder
Coup forecasts 2014 by Jay Ulfelder. Each shade represents a fifth of the distribution. Historically, you can expect 80% of coups to occur in the dark red countries…

Please read the full post for Jay’s caveat regarding interpretation and information on how the probabilities are calculated.

Somehow I had missed Jeffrey Stacey’s post on France’s “re-emergence as a major power”:

Few noticed several years ago that France conducted the EU operation in Chad almost entirely on its own, and the same for the UN operation in the Ivory Coast (both were largely ignored in Washington). There was an unsuccessful raid of al-Shabbab conducted in Somalia in early 2013, but France intervened in the highly unstable Central African Republic at the end of 2013. In-between France demonstrated particular skill in conducting its Mali intervention, which has been heralded as a successful demonstration of an alternative way to intervene compared to the experience of U.S.-led allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The French operation was impressive at the outset in that it took only three months to go from a decision in Paris to achieve operational boots on the ground. French military sustainability was amply demonstrated, with its contingency force growing to 5000 deployed troops midway through the intervention (only 7 troop fatalities occurred). The French with Chadian support accomplished their military objectives with relative ease in harsh field conditions, beyond the gaze of any reporters and therefore less likely that France would suffer diplomatically from any images of its troops killing Islamic fighters (a brigade has remained in Mali after the successful election of a new president). All of this was accomplished with broad and deep support across elite and public opinion.

At the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell has announced a series of posts on cyber security. The first posts discusses “why people fight so hard over cybersecurity”.

Oxfam: "Working for the Few"
Oxfam: “Working for the Few”

Finally, you will probably have noticed Oxfam’s campaign about how 85 people are as rich as the bottom half of the world’s wealth distribution. This is from a report called “Working for the Few”.

Long-term followers of the IR Blog might remember my skepticism regarding cleverly phrased claims about wealth distribution: As long as you don’t oppose all kinds of capital accumulation, there will always be some small group owning much more than some bigger group.

Still, I think Tim Hartford and Alex Tabarrok miss a couple of important points in the casual way they deal with inequality. (See the comment section at Marginal Revolution for a discussion on how phrasing matters.)

Again, from a moderate perspective, the point here is not ‘expropriate them all‘. But we need to ensure that everyone has a decent income and improve taxation in order to mitigate capitalism’s tendencies to reward capital more than labor. The Economist has a short discussion of Thomas Piketty’s new book on the issue. More here. I have a feeling there will be many heated discussions over the year.

Links: War on Terror

As the war on terror/ “nation-building” exercises in Afghanistan and beyond seem like a fact of life at this point, we’re probably due for an update.

Luckily for us, this year’s Oscar nominated Dirty Wars (based on Jeremy Scahill’s book of the same name) gives us a chance to get reacquainted with the topic. The film focuses on Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, where Scahill investigates the US’s (sometimes poorly) targeted strikes against individuals on ever-expanding kill lists. While the film features close-ups of Scahill’s concerned looking face a bit too much for my taste, it’s worth watching, especially for the scenes in Somalia, where Scahill meets warlords now being armed and paid by the US to fight al-Shabab (Sound familiar?).

Continue reading Links: War on Terror

Links: New Blogs, New Crises, NSA Reform, Ethics in Academia


Our colleagues from the Center for Global Politics (CGP) at Freie Universität Berlin have set up a blog called “Global Matters”. The idea is promising:

every two weeks the CGP posts a question related to an important topic in current affairs – and presents short but profound comments from distinguished International Relations experts and practitioners from all over the world

Good luck and have fun! The current post is on conflict in South-East Asia. (Also, there seems to be a tendency at our university to pretty grandiose names for blogging projects…)

Speaking of new blogs: Dan Nexon, of Duck of Minerva fame, now runs a personal blog called Hylaean Flow. Much of it will probably deal with insights from his role as editor for ISQ and the publishing process in general (via the Duck, where they also posted the new Game of Thrones trailer, just in case you missed it)

Tyler Cowen presents opinions from different people on “Which countries will have the next financial crisis?” If you’re a citizen, resident or investor in one of the following, now might be the time to worry: Denmark, Sweden or Norway (high private household debt), Singapore (a lot of loans), Malaysia or the Philippines (economic bubble), Ukraine (although Russia helped), Canada (real estate bubble), Thailand, Turkey, Greece, India or Indonesia (Tyler’s picks).

One key question is the relative worry weights you assign to private debt vs. bad institutions.

What about the rest of the world?  The eurozone is seeing ongoing credit contraction and perhaps deflation too.  Japan just announced a surprisingly large and apparently persistent current account deficit.  And the United States?  Things look pretty good, but in fact by the standards of historical timing we are soon due for another recession.

I’ll put my money on Turkey.

On cyber security and surveillance: Bruce Schneier has an excellent piece on how the NSA and other agencies threaten national (U.S.) security. The text is a commentary on the reform debate in the United States; let’s wait and see what President Obama will announce on Friday. Meanwhile, the tone in Germany gets angrier. As the “no spy” treaty seems to be canceled, now some people make the case for retaliation through the TTIP and other transatlantic negotiations.

PS. At the Monkey Cage, there’s a short interview with Peter Singer, whose book on cyber security and cyber war looks very interesting.

Last but not least, two items reflecting on academic practice. First, Megan MacKenzie has written on the ethics of adjunct professors and other “casual” posts in (U.S.) departments. She presents four reasons to be careful about taking these jobs and four ways for permanent staff to improve the situation. A lot of this probably also holds for the European context.

Second, Burcu Bayram on how to tell MA students that pursuing a PhD might not be the best option for them: Should you be the blunt “dream-crusher” or try a more empathetic approach?

Links: Forecasts for 2014; How to Rank IR Journals

(CC) Sanjay Acharya
(CC) Sanjay Acharya via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s your last chance to take part in New America’s Weekly Wonk 2014 Forecasting Contest. Most of the questions are brilliant, but my favorite is #4:

Which number will be highest in 2014?

  • Gold medals won by China in the Sochi Winter Olympics
  • Oscars won by American Hustle
  • Days the temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Washington, D.C.
  • Mentions of the word “progress” by Barack Obama at his State of the Union Address

I’ll pick my answers after finishing this blog post… (via Tobias Bunde)

A far more serious forecasting exercise was just published by Jay Ulfelder. He and Ben Valentino used a survey to plot the likelihood of “state-led mass killings” around the world:

Data & map by Jay Ulfelder and Ben Valentino (Dart-Throwing Chimp)

It is very important to understand that the scores being mapped and plotted here are not probabilities of mass-killing onset. Instead, they are model-based estimates of the probability that the country in question is at greater risk than any other country chosen at random. In other words, these scores tell us which countries our crowd thinks we should worry about more, not how likely our crowd thinks a mass-killing onset is.

Also note that less than 150 people took part in the survey. Still, the method is neat.

In another post, Jay sheds some light on how and when he is going to post his 2014 forecasts for coups. Again, it turns out that attaching probabilities to very rare events is extremely tough. The post also illustrates that choosing a data source can be driven more by administrative reasons (who publishes when, how often, and how transparently) than by trust in its quality (or: optimal fit for the purpose)…

At the Duck of Minerva, Brian J. Phillips explores how to rank IR journals:

What are the best International Relations journals? How do we know if one journal is better than another? And how should this affect your decision about where to send a manuscript?

Phillips considers surveys (TRIP) and citation indexes (Thomson-Reuters, Google, etc.) that might be relevant to come up with a ranking. You won’t be surprised by the top 10. But the data, the discussion and follow-up questions, and the (critical) comments are well worth reading…

“Tailored Access Operations” are exactly what I want the NSA to do

Happy New Year everyone! We’re back from our winter break. (Actually, some members of the IR Blog editorial board are still enjoying their time off, but I guess they will return to their desks eventually.)

At the 2013 Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Jacob Applebaum gave a talk that summarized what is known about the NSA’s “Tailored Access Operations” unit. You can watch the video above. Basically, “tailored access” means that these are high-tech “hackers” that acquire intelligence on high-profile targets. Their arsenal includes tiny wireless chips inserted into hardware that is intercepted on the way to customers (!) as well as a special kind of bug that can be accessed by radar waves. Given that the information is from 2009, they probably have even more sophisticated tools now.

The related SPIEGEL story is here (in English). Bruce Schneier has collected a couple of links on the topic, and currently presents one of the exploits every day.

In the Guardian, Matt Blaze makes a very important point: “The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations show there’s a way to be safe and get good intelligence without mass surveillance”. The crucial difference is that between (A) civil-rights-abusing mass surveillance (as currently discussed, again, in the German cabinet) and (B) targeted surveillance of people that were chosen based on meaningful criteria. As Blaze puts it:

TAO is retail rather than wholesale.

That is, as well as TAO works (and it appears to work quite well indeed), they can’t deploy it against all of us – or even most of us. They must be installed on each individual target’s own equipment, sometimes remotely but sometimes through “supply chain interdiction” or “black bag jobs”. By their nature, targeted exploits must be used selectively. Of course, “selectively” at the scale of NSA might still be quite large, but it is still a tiny fraction of what they collect through mass collection.

For over a decade now, the NSA has been drowning in a sea of irrelevant data collected almost entirely about innocent people who would never be selected as targets or comprise part of any useful analysis. The implicit assumption has been that spying on everyone is the price we pay to be able to spy on the real bad guys. But the success of TAO demonstrates a viable alternative. And if the NSA has any legitimate role in intelligence gathering, targeted operations like TAO have the significant advantage that they leave the rest of us – and the systems we rely on – alone.

When I wrote earlier that “we are genuinely shocked by the extent to which our friends feel the need to spy on us and don’t think twice about it”, I was mainly referring to mass surveillance. Wiretapping chancellor Merkel is disrespectful, but I expect her to expect this kind of thing as an occupational hazard. What I find unacceptable, on the other hand, is that systematically eroding the integrity of communications networks and the meaning of “privacy” should be the new normal.

In other words: I’m far more comfortable with the idea that U.S. operatives secretly plant a bug in some suspected terrorist’s computer in Berlin than with the fact that all kinds of “metadata” on German (and other) citizens are being collected non-stop.

Putting a stop to individual-level surveillance seems implausible to me, and also impossible seeing that U.S. legislators would have to decide to shut down pretty much all of what intellifence agencies are about. But is it really that far-fetched (or naive) to hope for some consensus in favor of civil rights? Even if you don’t care about somewhat lofty and abstract pro-privacy arguments, U.S. and European business is being hurt by the NSA’s horrible reputation, and then there’s always the risk that backdoors may be used by more than one party…

“Tailored access” is exactly what I want the NSA to do. But please leave my telecoms provider alone and stop tracking my mobile phone “just in case”.