Monday, September 7, 2009

'During-comps-motivation', and is the NL full?

As I noted in a previous post, during August I studied intensely for the comprehensive exams. 4 weeks and 450+ works; books and articles. Luckily we have a group of good friends that are great in motivating each other; I received this picture from Ph.D. Comics about a week before the exams. Thanks guys!

Is the Netherlands full?
Immigration is a hot topic in the Netherlands. Knowing that the Netherlands is one of the densest populated countries in the world this question is often answered in the affirmative by opponents of immigration. In a great post (as always), Chris Blattman had an interesting link that showed maps of the Netherlands with the Dutch population size at LA and Manhattan densities here.

Interestingly, that same day I listened to a great show by one of the better Dutch standup comedians here (sorry it is in Dutch). At minute 9:20 Theo Maassen notes "When we talk about asylum-
seekers the Netherlands is full, but but if someone tells she is pregnant we congratulate her."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The comps, and the (non)usefulness of academia.

Last Wednesday I finished the written part of the comps. In brief, the comprehensive exams are a test about everything you learned during the first two years of the Ph.D. I did mine in comparative politics (CP) and international relations (IR). I now know the name of the author, year of publication, the argument made, etc. of well over 450 works; both books and articles.

I studied for a month; little compared to my colleagues who had more time. Although for many this sounds horrible, it was quite nice. Not only did I read many works I otherwise would not have read, it also makes you think of a diverse set of questions. For CP, for example: What political system is best? Is nationalism good or bad? What leads to democracy? Is democracy a good thing? What leads to a large welfare state? Why are people poor? How malleable is one's identity? Etc. And for IR, for example: Why do countries fight wars? Do nuclear bombs bring stability? Why do countries comply with international law? Etc.

But, all in all, after reading the broad field of Political Science, I am not very impressed with what the academic field has achieved so far. To give a telling example from IR. One of the summaries that we made for a 1998 article by Stephen Van Evera said the following: "This article is based on SVE's PhD thesis, which is probably the most widely cited thesis in IR." It continues saying that the prime argument of the book is: "War is more likely when conquest is easy". That is it! This is the conclusion of one of the most seminal books in the field of IR! If I say this back home to my family I am sure to hear "DUH!!".

Let me give one more example. One of the things we did for IR was the preparation, presentation and then discussion about diverse topics. Most of the topics consisted of many slides and often we discussed the topic for a long time. About one topic, however, we were relatively very brief... "The Causes of Peace". Does this tell something about the field, and the usefulness of academia?

Now, what did academia - especially the social sciences - contribute to the world; not including the many piles of paper? The Democratic Peace Theory (DPT) maybe comes closest to the 'real world'. This theory - going all the way back to Kant - argues that democratic countries do not fight each other. Consequently, democracy should be promoted; exactly what Clinton emphasized in his 1994 State of the Union. But, there is also quite a bit of evidence against the DPT. Moreover, does the US promote democracy because we academics tell the policy-makers it is a good idea, or does it happen simply because hegemons promote always seem to promote their own convictions; like Victorian Britain promoted "free minds, free markets, and Cristian morality".*

Anyhow, all in all, I wasn't very impressed with the Political Science literature. Let's see whether I can contribute something in upcoming years. ;)

* I am currently reading "Africa and the Victorians" by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (1961).

Obama's birth certificate.

Most people in the world live in poverty, wars are still being fought, and I can continue with this list ad infinitum. But, what keeps the people of the United States - the country in the world that is best placd to do something about these things - occupied these days... the President's birth certificate! For a great discussion, please see this short part of the Daily Show here. Even in Harlem it is the topic of the day. This sign currently hangs outside one of the major churches here in Harlem:

This is wrong on so many levels. The fact that this is what keeps the people here in the United States - even in Harlem - occupied. What about separation church and state? Etc.

[I published this already on August 12, 2009 at 1024am on]

Back in the hood.

So, I live in Harlem. After being away from my neighborhood for two months what are my first thoughts again? Well, the people are very loud; screaming from one side of the street to the other, and singing (read: screaming) rap-lines while listening to their ipod. Also, people are big; many of them simply obese. The latter is not that strange. After a long day of studying for comps, I wanted to get a take-away. I walked for several hundreds of meters over 125th - the main street in Harlem - and found several Mac Donalds, Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts, etc. Nothing 'healthy'. So, I ended up at the Chinese and ordered a General Tso's Chicken (mom, I took additional broccoli).

The Chinese there are - with the exception that ones in a while they think I can't count and then keep an extra dollar change - hardworking and friendly. Anyhow, there was this guy there. He wore a multiple-colored, fur hat; despite the fact that today it was over 90 degrees in NYC (don't ask me what that means, I only know Celsius, but I read that in the NY Times today). He had rasta-type hair up to his butt. He wore a multi-color suit, which was too short. And he had a lot (a lot!) of bling-bling; I've never seen such a big, fake, and ugly watch in my life before. His shoes were of crocodile-leather, way to big and they had green shoelaces in them. Actually, all in all, it was a fantastic sight! Anyhow, this guy was clearly drugged and had a fight with the Chinese who were standing on the other side of the counter. He was angry. Very angry! He tried to break the lock of the gate separating him from the Chinese. He tried to kick in the windows several times. In the meantime we were waiting for the police to arrive (and I was also waiting for my food). During all this time the guy just kept on screaming and cursing at the Chinese. I didn't really know what he screamed to the Chinese, but it could not have been very flattering. Anyhow, after about ten minutes, and right after trying yet again to kick in a window, he screamed to the Chinese what are now legendary words for me... "you guys look like clowns".

I just couldn't stop laughing. Picture this shabby Chinese take-away place in Harlem, a guy that is angry and looks like a clown screaming at some Chinese that they look like clowns, and then among the 20 people (who are all quiet and tense) the only white guy just can't stop laughing. Absolutely brilliant; I still have a smile on my face.

A bit less nice, though. There was a mom with four kids between the age of 7 and 12. Once that guy was gone these kids - instead of saying "mom, that was a bad man" - started imitating the man; coppying his words and doing karate-kicks themselves against the gate and windows. They thought the man was cool. Instead of the mom - who was big - saying something to her children, she didn't. She didn't even look at the them, because she was looking at herself in the mirror already for many minutes while at the same time screaming along while listening to her ipod. Yep, I am back in my hood.

[I published this already on August 10, 2009 at 1146pm on]

Spanish, French, Franish, Sprench. Aargh!

Up to several months ago I had a girlfriend from Mexico. Because I was crazy about here I studied Spanish; I took evening classes at Columbia, read Spanish books, made sure to speak Spanish to the shopkeepers here in Harlem, etc. However, only a few months before I would be fluent in the language two things happened: 1. We broke up. 2. Macartan asked me to work for him in the Democratic Republic of Congo; i.e. a country where the people speak French. The DRC, and working for Macartan, was (and is) a great opportunity. Also, wanting to be an Africanist, I have to be fluent in French. Finally, there was nothing that kept me to Spanish. So, I had to study French. But, I only had French at secondary school . Worse, I had forgotten most of it. Therefore, just before leaving to the DR Congo, I went to Montpellier to speed-study French. After two weeks of intensive (private) classes in Montpellier - where with much difficulty I switched from "tambien" to "aussi" and from "y" to "et" - and two months of French in the DRC, I am now at a French-level that is equal to the Spanish-level I had several months ago. That is, not yet fluent. So, what's my point with this post?

Well, it sucks. This evening I bought some bananas at the corner-shop. The shopkeeper recognized me and she said in a friendly tone ¿Cómo estás? I replied "très bien!" She continued in Spanish, and I started talking in Franish or Sprench; whatever you want to call it. Aargh! So, steps ahead: 1. First, kicking ass in the comps at the end of the month. 2. Then, asap after that: get French fluent. From September 1 onwards, I'll reserve two full days a week for it.

[I published this already on August 8, 2009 at 1124pm on]