Nov 27

Brazil’s soft power

With the recent arrest of a Brazilian Senator and a banker, the corruption scandal within Brazil continues to worsen. Brazil’s image is often exaggerated in the international press. Three years ago Brazil’s star was on the rise, and it was widely touted as an emerging great power. Now most of the news out of Brazil -drought, a failed dam, corruption- is so negative that I sometimes find myself avoiding Brazilian news. As I discussed in an earlier post, there are even rumors of a possible coup, although I strongly don’t believe that this will happen. Read the rest of this entry »

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Nov 19

Book Review of The Dark Net

The Dark Web first came to widespread notice with the publicity surrounding the arrest of the founder of Silk Road, an anonymous online market place. The Dark Web itself is subject to multiple definitions, although the most common is that component of the web that cannot be accessed by standard browsers. To access this part of the web, one must use a specifically designed browser, such as TOR. In his new book, the Dark Net, Jamie Bartlett takes a more expansive approach to the web, which he conceives off as the underworld of the internet, beyond the reach of the government and the authorities. Read the rest of this entry »

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Nov 18

A Book Review of Smarter than Us

Stuart Armstrong’s Smarter than Us is an exceptionally brief book of barely 54 pages, including the bibliography. It is not based on fieldwork, the references are few, and it can be easily read in two hours. The entire work reads as a series of thought experiments regarding the future of artificial intelligence (AI). It is also as disturbing as it is insightful. Read the rest of this entry »

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Nov 14

Mel Gurtov’s blog “In the Human Interest”

Mel Gurtov is an Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, and the author of over twenty books on topics that range from the politics of East Asia to Human Security. His blog, “In the Human Interest,” presents analyses of contemporary issues, particularly concerning  East Asia and U.S. foreign policy. I enjoy reading the posts because they consistently provide a thoughtful analysis of a global issue in a manner that reflects both time and expertise. If you are on Facebook, or have ever wondered about the meaning of privacy in a digital age, I recommend his post, “Manipulating Reality: Facebook is listening to you.” The post is likely to leave you feeling a little paranoid. I’m teaching a class on Digital Globalization in a fully online format in winter 2016, and this post will be in the syllabus (You can quick register as a non-degree student at PSU here, and find the class here. Or take a quiz on Digital Globalization to test your knowledge). Gurtov posts regularly, and with nearly a 100 posts there is a lot of content to explore on this blog for anyone interested in International and Global Studies.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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Nov 12

Countdown to Zero: A book review

The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to, and downloaded from Wikipedia Commons

The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to I downloaded the image from Wikipedia Commons

In Countdown to Zero Kim Zetter describes a 2010 cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear program. In a brilliant piece of computer engineering, the control units for centrifuges that enriched uranium were forced to slow and fail. The attack was so carefully planned that even after it began the Iranians were initially unable to diagnose the problem. The book itself is well written and carefully researched. Zetter did extensive interviews in the cybersecurity community, to understand how people identified and studied this particular worm. This work is detailed in extensive footnotes, which will lead a curious reader down interesting paths. Zetter carefully describes the technical issues involved in the attack, without letting this detail impede the storyline. Overall, this is a masterful work of narrative non-fiction, which engages the reader in a highly complex topic. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oct 25

In honor of Halloween: A Book Review of Haunted Girl

Every Halloween I look at an international mystery or folklore. This year, I’ll review a book by Laurie Glenn Norris and

Leon Trotsky spent time incarcerated in Amherst, Nova Scotia after World War One.

Leon Trotsky spent time incarcerated in Amherst, Nova Scotia after World War One. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Thompson titled Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery. The book examines events surrounding one of the most famous poltergeist cases in Canadian history, which took place from 1878 to 1879. As the authors note, these events have been the subject of a 19th century non-fiction book, a novel, a mural, a play and a doll. At the core of this tradition is the biography of Esther Cox, who was an 18 year old when she claimed to experience a series of terrifying incidents, which included moving furniture, bodily wounds, and spectral writing on a bedroom wall.

Norris and Thompson place these events into the context of Nova Scotia at the time, and Esther Cox’s own troubled personal life. The work is scholarly, and the authors have investigated all aspects of Esther’s world in impressive detail. Still, the authors never wander from their focus on Esther herself, which makes for an engaging work. The book also benefits from a plethora of photographs, which allow us to visualize key actors and locations. Having written my own book on Canadian folklore (Dangerous Spirits, which is available in the US and in Canada) I can imagine the amount of time that these photographs must have required to locate. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oct 19

Darkode by Radiolab

I’m preparing to teach a fully online course on Digital Globalization in winter, so I am spending a lot of time reading, viewing documentaries and listening to podcasts on the topic. One of my favorites so far has been this podcast called “Darkode” by Radiolab. Somehow, the story winds up being as funny as it is frightening. If you want to learn about the realities of Bitcoin, and the experience of Ransomware, this is the podcast for you.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University.

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Oct 14

David Groulx, Wabigoon River Poems

David Groulx is a poet of Indigenous and French-Canadian heritage who was raised in Elliot Lake, Ontario in Canada. His recent book of poetry, Wabigoon River Poems, has Canada’s Indigenous experience at its core, but places this history into a global context. A single poem can leap from Algeria to Vietnam, always within the context of a post-colonial viewpoint. The name of the book comes from the Wabigoon River near Kenora, Ontario, which suffered mercury pollution from a pulp and paper plant, with tragic results for local peoples.

The final poem in the first section is a meditation on a picture of the poet’s mother taken at the “St. Joseph Residential School for Girls.” In Canada, perhaps 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in Church-run and government-financed schools, which were designed to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. They failed, but caused immense suffering. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has sought to document this history, and has issued recommendations to address this legacy. Still it remains to be seen whether these findings will be truly embraced by the federal government, educational institutions, churches, and average Canadians. Although Canada is a developed country with a progressive reputation, the nation has always had a curious blind-spot regarding its own history of colonialism, as though colonialism was a European sin eradicated with Confederation. Read the rest of this entry »

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Oct 01

Climate Change and the Middle East

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

I’ve blogged before regarding the argument that a disastrous drought helped to feed the conflict in Syria. It’s worth revisiting the topic, however, based on a report edited by Caitlin Werrel and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security.The report, “Climate Change and the Arab Spring,” was published in February 2013, and makes the argument that climate change was a key factor in the Arab Spring, although that is not to say that it caused the uprisings. The essays in the collection clarify the truly global factors that underpinned this event, from declining wheat production in China, which undermined food security in the Middle East, to the “transcendent challenges” created by climate change globally.

The link between drought and warfare is not new. This linkage, for example, may help explain the collapse of classical Mayan civilization in the 9th century in the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. The Mayan city-states faced both an epic drought, and -based on the archaeological record- widespread warfare perhaps beginning around 800 AD (Michael Coe, The Maya, 162-163, Jared Diamond, Collapse, 172-174). The historical connection between drought and conflict is a deep one. Read the rest of this entry »

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Sep 24

Thucydides and China

Over the last 15 years a veritable cottage industry has arisen to describe similarities between 1) contemporary East Asia and Europe before World War One and 2) the potential for conflict between the United States and China, based on the work of Thucydides. Often scholars make both points, which is the case with Graham Allison’s recent article in the Atlantic. While the topic may not be new, it is no less significant for that reason. Allison makes this comparison based on a historical study done by his team for the Belfer Study at Harvard. I won’t summarize the results here, because I’d encourage you to view the presentation itself, but suffice it to say that there are reasons for serious concern. If Allison’s team is correct, the odds of war are higher than for peace, although conflict is not inevitable. For any nation in the region (see my book review of Malcom Fraser’s Dangerous Allies)  the current situation should be worrying. While the United States is currently preoccupied by Russia’s actions in Europe, Allison states that the greatest threat remains a conflict with China. The reason that so many authors write about the parallels with World War One is that conflict is likely to come about less from malice and planning than coincidence and misinterpretation. Scholars have often spoken about Europe “sleepwalking” into World War One. While it is easy to condemn that long-ago generation of statesman, diplomats and leaders, its more discomfiting to ask how current leaders would respond to a similar challenge. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend Allison’s piece in the Atlantic.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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