Friday, November 23, 2007

An extra special reason for New Yorkers to give thanks

Al Baker reports on some stunning homicide figures in the New York Times:

New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963.

But within the city’s official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million.

If that trend holds up, fewer than 100 homicide victims in New York City this year will have been strangers to their assailants. The vast majority died in disputes with friends or acquaintances, with rival drug gang members or — to a far lesser degree — with romantic partners, spouses, parents and others.

The low number of killings by strangers belies the common imagery that New Yorkers are vulnerable to arbitrary attacks on the streets, or die in robberies that turn fatal.

In the eyes of some criminologists, the police will be hard pressed to drive the killing rate much lower, since most killings occur now within the four walls of an apartment or the confines of close relationships.

That last fact is too bad -- I was looking forward to the day when the combined number of homicides on Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent exceeded the actual number of homicides in the five boroughs.

Hmmm.... come to think of it, most of these shows are set in Manhattan. I wonder if we hae reached the point when the annual number of homicides in that borough are less than the number of homicides that would be portrayed on television. Not just the L&O franchise, but also CSI: NY and the half-dozen other crime shows I'n sure are set in the city.

Readers, go and check this out!

posted by Dan at 02:24 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A global thanksgiving

The editors of Foreign Policy provide a list of reasons to be thankful this year. Among the reasons:

1) Improvements in air safety

2) Lower infant mortality rates

3) Fewer and less deadly wars

4) Fewer people living in extreme poverty

5) Greater life expectancy

Happy Thanksgiving!

posted by Dan at 07:10 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defending Angelina Jolie and other debatable issues

This blog has a long and distinguished tradition of defending celebrities. This tradition continues in my latest installment of with Henry Farrell. I had to defend Angelina Jolie. It wasn't easy, but somehow I mustered the necessary willpower.

We also bit the hand that feeds bloggingheads by debating the New York Times op-ed page, as well as one of November's Books of the Month.

Go check it out!

posted by Dan at 10:26 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Most awesome simulation ever

Robert Farley details a "mini-simulaton" at the Patterson School, "informed by repeated viewings of Independence Day."

And suddenly, millions of men who spend their weekends watching FX prick up their ears.

My favorite bit:

We worked out that the Vice President and the Cabinet (with the exception of the Secretary of Defense) have all, perhaps with a straggler or two, been killed. Congress fares much better, as we figured that most Senators and Representatives wouldn't be in DC during the attack. We're guessing about 85% of Congress survives.
No cabinet, little civil service, but a functional Congress? I predict the new capital would be in Bozeman, Montana -- which, as anyone who's been to Bozeman knows, it not an entirely bad outcome.

posted by Dan at 02:21 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Good news on stem cell research

Gina Kolata explains in the New York Times:

Two teams of scientists are reporting today that they turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

posted by Dan at 10:37 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Meanwhile, in Iraq....

The New York Times' Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin have the story that will occupy the blogosphere for today -- Baghdad is safer:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.

By one revealing measure of security — whether people who fled their home have returned — the gains are still limited. About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.

This report, combined with reports on monthly deaths from sectarian violence, suggest that the effects of the surge are clear -- we've managed to get Baghdad back to the place it was prior to the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. I believe this is also a period in which even members of the Bush administration admitted that their Iraq policy was "adrift."

Well, there are some other changes... ike in the rest of Iraq. The Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher has a story on this:

Ammar al-Hakim is presiding over an Iraqi Shiite building boom. His austere Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has raised 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003. It's building the largest seminary here in the holy city of Najaf and opening a chain of schools. And it now has 95 offices throughout the country.

What's more, Mr. Hakim's foundation is winning over adherents to his party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – through all-expenses-paid mass marriages along with cash payments and gifts for the newlyweds, free education and stipends at his new schools, and an array of other charitable projects such as caring for orphans and displaced families.

All of this is being done to promote ISCI's core vision: a federation of nine provinces where conservative Shiite Islam would reign.

While opponents say that such a federation among central and southern provinces would only hasten the breakup of Iraq and create a ministate where Iran would hold great sway, Hakim and his party are making great gains.

For them, the plan would bolster security for Shiites and benefit the stability of the country as a whole. And, most significant, they are winning much support ahead of a national referendum on the issue by April 2008, as proscribed by the Constitution.

Is this a good thing? The International Crisis Group is skeptical:
As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, its alliance with ISCI will help entrench the party in the country’s governing, security and intelligence institutions, in Baghdad as well as most southern governorates. Its only true challenger remains the Mahdi army, which despite its ruffian credentials and bloody role in sectarian reprisals enjoys broad support among Shiite masses. Their rivalry now takes the form of a class struggle between the Shiite merchant elite of Baghdad and the holy cities, represented by ISCI (as well, religiously, by Sistani), and the Shiite urban underclass.

This struggle, more than the sectarian conflict or confrontation between Anbari sheikhs and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, is likely to shape the country’s future. The most plausible scenario is a protracted struggle for power between these two movements, marked perhaps by temporary alliances, such as is presently in force.

The U.S. has fully backed ISCI in this rivalry. This is a risky gambit. Unleashing ISCI/Badr against the Sadrists is a dangerous policy that will further deepen intra-Shiite divisions; it also is a short-sighted one, given the Sadrists’ stronger mass base.

Question to readers: is there cause to be optimistic about the future of Iraq?

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum makes an important point:

[The] optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren't improving in Iraq—it seems they are, at least for the moment—but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high.

posted by Dan at 08:49 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 19, 2007

And I thought I was disorganized

In the spring, I'm going to be running a conference at the Fletcher School on the future of policy planning. This means I'm going to have to flex my administrative muscles, which are about as well-developed as my pectorals. Which is to say, I'm a bit disorganized.

Of course, if the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler is correct, I can always console myself that my conference can't possibly be as badly planned as the upcoming Annapolis meeting on the Middle East:

A few days after Thanksgiving, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plan to open a meeting in Annapolis to launch the first round of substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during Bush's presidency.

But no conference date has been set. No invitations have been issued. And no one really agrees on what the participants will actually talk about once they arrive at the Naval Academy for the meeting, which is intended to relaunch Bush's stillborn "road map" plan to create a Palestinian state.

The anticipation surrounding the meeting has heightened the stakes for other countries seeking invites. If Turkey comes, Greece wants a seat. So does Brazil, which has more Arabs than the Palestinian territories. Norway hosted an earlier round of peacemaking in Oslo, so it wants a role. Japan wants to do more than write checks for Palestinians.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

The envoy recounted the calls he made in recent days to dig up information and said he had reserved rooms for his country's foreign minister and other officials. He added with exasperation: "It is a very peculiar thing."

Even a senior administration official deeply involved in the preparations confided, before speaking off the record about his expectations: "I can't connect the dots myself because it is still a work in progress."....

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and author of the soon-to-be-released book, "The Much Too Promised Land," an account of U.S. efforts to foster peace, said invitations were issued two weeks before the last major international conference on the Middle East, held in Madrid in 1991. He said invitations were issued weeks ahead of another Middle East negotiation session, the 1998 Wye River conference in Maryland.

"I'm not sure any of that speaks to whether it is a consequential event or not," Miller said, suggesting that the proposed talks in Annapolis are mostly necessary to let the world know that substantive peace talks are already taking place.

Question to readers -- if you're going to go through the trouble of assembling such a large collection of officials in Annapolis, isn't it worthwhile to have them stay for more than a day? Or is this a case where more discussion would not necessarily equal more fruitful discussion?

UPDATE: The AP now reports that invitations will be sent out seven days in advance:

As the U.S. finalizes preparations, the State Department will start sending out invitations overnight for the event, U.S. officials said Monday. The conference will be held in Annapolis on Nov. 27 in between meetings in Washington. The main guests are the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Bush administration also is inviting Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and key international players in the peace process, the officials said.

The invitations are to be sent by diplomatic cable to U.S. embassies in the countries concerned, with instructions to Washington's ambassadors to present them to their host governments' foreign ministries, the officials said. They will ask that each nation send its highest-ranking appropriate official to Annapolis.

The White House has said President Bush will attend at least part of the event chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also will host a pre-conference dinner at the State Department on Nov. 26, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

posted by Dan at 10:29 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Could Hugo Chavez threaten Venezuela baseball?

Maria Burns Ortiz has a story at that indicates Hugo Chavez's nationalization policies are starting to foreign direct investment -- in baseball:

With that kind of talent emerging from Venezuela in recent seasons, one would assume that big league clubs would be flocking to the South American nation in search of the next superstar. However, the cultural and political scene in Venezuela is undergoing rapid and radical transformation, and instead of flocking to the country, teams are fleeing over concerns about safety and political uncertainty. They aren't leaving in droves just yet, but the stream has been steady enough to raise a red flag about the future....

The number of clubs pulling their player development operations out of Venezuela has been a concern for Major League Baseball. Nineteen teams have participated in the Venezuelan Summer League in the past, but only 11 did so this year.

The Padres, for example, had planned on leaving Venezuela following this season after they built a multimillion-dollar facility in the Dominican, but the current situation accelerated the move. The team moved all its player development operations out of Venezuela following the 2005 campaign, two years earlier than originally anticipated.

"We just figured we might as well do it [then] to avoid some of the hassle of having to deal with some of the legislation that [President Hugo] Chávez passes down there in hiring coaches, worrying about severance pay and just getting in and out of the country," says Juan Lara, San Diego's Latin American operations coordinator.

San Diego is not alone. Baltimore ceased operating its academy following the 2006 season. The Red Sox -- one of the teams the Padres shared an academy with -- left when San Diego did in 2005. Cleveland pulled out in 2004.

posted by Dan at 06:30 PM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)