Jul 15

Intelligence failures and Vietnam

Marine gets his wounds treated during operations in Huế City, 1968. By Undetermined U.S military photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons . By Undetermined U.S military photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marine gets his wounds treated during operations in Huế City, 1968. By Undetermined U.S military photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons . By Undetermined U.S military photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Author Malcom Gladwell has a new podcast titled “Revisionist History,” which had a recent episode titled “Saigon: 1965.” The podcast tells the story of the Rand Corporation’s efforts to collect intelligence on North Vietnamese morale through interviews with captured soldiers and guerrillas. In particular, it examines the history of three people deeply involved in the program, who brought their own biases and beliefs to the data that they collected. Gladwell’s point in telling this story is that often the challenge is not to collect the information, but rather to interpret it accurately. Each of the three people had access to an overwhelming amount of information. Still, their vision of the war was shaped less by the the interviews themselves, than by their own biases. In an age of big data, NSA and cyber-espionage, the challenge of how to correctly interpret overwhelming amounts of data remains critical to global intelligence services.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/07/intelligence-failures-and-vietnam/

Jul 01

Resources on Zika

By CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith (http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/details.asp?pid=20541) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image of Zika virus from the CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith (http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/details.asp?pid=20541) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is still so much that we don’t know about Zika. I was recently speaking with a medical historian who wondered if people in eastern Africa and Asia might have resistance to the disease, since it originated in those areas, or whether the epidemic will spread as explosively as it did in South America? Will the rate of birth defects be lower in newly affected countries, because mothers have more information to protect themselves? Which species of mosquito will be able to transmit the virus? How rapidly will the epidemic spread? What percentage of babies born to mothers infected with Zika will have neurological issues, even when they do not have microcephaly?

There are a few useful resources that I’ve found for Zika. Vincent Racaniello is a highly respected virologist, who has a popular podcast called “This Week in Virology” or “TWIV,” and a free online virology course. His lab spent decades working on polio, but recently shifted its focus on Zika. His new blog, Zika Diaries, give a sense of what science is like in an emerging field. Nothing is easy for the lab, from obtaining the virus, to acquiring permission to do experiments with mice.

One of the first tools that I try to create when working on an article is a timeline for events. With Zika, Ben Hirschler at Reuters has already done that work, and created a detailed timeline.

For anyone interested in the early history of Zika’s discovery in Uganda, I recommend Thomas K. Grose’s piece on NPR, which discusses a researcher studying Alexander John Haddow’s records in the University of Glasgow archives. Overall, NPR has outstanding coverage of the Zika outbreak.

Lastly, the CDC website offers practical information on Zika, including those areas where the Zika virus is circulating, and how to protect yourself.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/07/resources-on-zika/

Jun 25

The problem with de-extinction

"This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902." By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This photo is of a pair of Thylacines, a male and female, received from Dr. Goding in 1902.” By Baker; E.J. Keller. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In my “Introduction to International Studies” course my students this spring watched a TED talk by Stewart Brand that discussed the idea of bringing back extinct species. This idea has attracted a great deal of media attention, but major challenges remain As my students pointed out, there is distinction between bringing back an individual and bringing back a population. Population geneticists typically say that the minimum size for a viable population is fifty genetically distinct individuals. Even if one thylacine or passenger pigeon could be brought back, how could a population with sufficient genetic diversity be recreated? What would the experience of an individual animal that was brought back be like, if it was the sole member of its species in existence?

My students also asked the question: “Where do we draw the line in terms of time?” Do we bring back passenger pigeons? What about mammoths? Other ancient species?

Still, work in this area is moving forward quickly. Scientists are working to insert the DNA of mammoths into elephants, which might succeed in creating a viable population, although they note that much work remains. Would such an animal, however, truly be a mammoth? Efforts that do not depend on cloning –such as the TaurOs project, to restore the auroch- seem much more likely to achieve success. Despite the accelerating rate of technology, I believe that deextinction is more distant than most media coverage might suggest. Of course, I would love to be wrong, and to be able to travel to Tasmania to view thylacines in the wild.

My students, however, often suggested that more effort should be put into preserving existing species, such as the California condor, before investing in reclaiming lost animals. One of my students said that this technology should be used to help save the northern white rhino, for which there are no breeding pairs in existence. While students loved the idea of seeing extinct animals brought back, they felt that the environments in which they lived had to first be preserved for this effort to be meaningful.

That said, a few students felt very strongly that all of humanity had a strong moral responsibility to bring these species back. Some students also argued that bringing back extinct animals will also benefit entire ecosytems, so that the impact on the species alone wasn’t the major issue. One point that all students seemed to agree upon was that there is a difference between a species that has recently gone extinct due to humanity’s influence, and ancient species. Nobody wanted to see dinosaurs brought back.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University, 2016

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/06/the-problem-with-de-extinction/

Jun 15

Definition of Global Studies

I think that it’s helpful to have a succinct definition of Global Studies. I’ve discussed possible definitions before in this blog, but my thoughts have evolved with time. I’ve also tried to come up with an answer that’s a single sentence.: “Global Studies is the interdisciplinary exploration of global issues in a way that refers to globalization in all its forms, whether economic, political, cultural, digital or biological.”

I think that to study any major issue entails an interdisciplinary perspective, which is why I’ve placed that term at the forefront of the definition. I also think that it is helpful to use the term “global” rather than “international” for two reasons. First, anything that happens in another country can be conceived of as “international,” no matter how limited in scope. Second, what is distinct in our field is how it looks at processes at a global level, which entails some engagement or relevance beyond any single world region. This approach entails a broader perspective than that entailed by an issue that may cross only a single border.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University

May 2016


Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/06/definition-of-global-studies/

Jun 05

World Population Growth

In less than six minutes, this brief video from WorldPopulationHistory.org covers two millennia of the earth’s population growth. The final 20 seconds are visually powerful, and make clear why it is impossible to discuss environmental issues without addressing population.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University, 2016

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/06/world-population-growth/

Jun 01

GIF of Global Warming

Like many people, I came across Edward Tufte’s book the Visual Display of Quantitative Information years ago and was fascinated with the charts and images that it contained. The graph that showed the diminishing size of the French army in Russia, matched against weather conditions, is terrifying in its simplicity. I do think that when people can see data, they can grasp abstract concepts that they might not have the time or patience to engage otherwise. For this reason, I love this new GIF by Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading, which shows the increase in global temperatures between 1850 and 1916. This might be a good tool to embed in a course shell during the “Environment” week of an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” course. On my version you will have to double-click the GIF to activate it; you can also view it here:

Ed Hawkins GIF of global temperatures through time.

Ed Hawkins GIF of global temperatures through time. Please double click to activate.

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/06/gif-of-global-warming/

May 31

Summer online class on Africa

If anyone is looking for a great online summer course on Africa, please think about taking this PSU course “The Sociology of Africa.” The course has no prerequisites. You can find information on how to enroll for classes as a non-degree seeking student here.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University, May 2016

Summer course on Africa in the PSU International Studies Program

Summer course on Africa in the PSU International and Global Studies Department

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/05/summer-online-class-on-africa/

May 27

Postpone the Olympics?

Recently a Canadian professor, Dr. Amir Attaran, called for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro to be delayed or moved because of the risk that the wave of visitors will accelerate the spread of the Zika epidemic. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Frieden, has now weighed in to argue that the risk to the athletes is small, and many people are already traveling to areas affected by Zika. The Games should therefore move forward as scheduled. Still, it is remarkable that this close to the Games, people are suggesting that they moved, not only because of Zika, but also because of other concerns such as contamination of the waters in the bay of Guanabara. One recent study found that virus levels in the bay were 1.7 million times the permissible limit in California. I confess that when I read this figure my first thought was not for the athletes, but rather how many times I had swum in these waters myself. Sailors are also complaining about the sheer quantity of garbage in the bay, and are concerned that impacts with the trash may affect races.

In the end the games will move forward, and likely will be a success. In the future, however, the experience with the Brazilian games will likely change discussions about the venues for other Olympics. Perhaps more importantly, within Brazil, it will emphasize the point that many Brazilian critics of the games have long made: that the interests of Brazilian citizens have to come first in government decisions, and that basic needs -education, health and sanitation- should be prioritized over mega-projects.

Addendum: Immediately after posting this piece, I read that 150 health experts had written an open letter calling for the Games to be postponed because of Zika. You can read more about their arguments at USA today. What is most interesting in the piece is the argument that the World Health Organization (WHO) has a conflict of interest regarding the Games, given its partnership with the International Olympics Committee.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University, 2016


Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/05/cancel-the-olympics/

May 18

Destroying smallpox stocks

Smallpox has killed countless people over the last 12,000 years. It is difficult now to understand the terror that smallpox evoked in a pre-vaccination era. When smallpox was introduced into new populations the death rates sometimes could even exceed 90%, as was the case with the Mandans in the 1837 Great Plains Epidemic. The virus was finally wiped out in the wild through a massive vaccination program in the 1970s. The last infection took place in 1977. Now what should be done with the remaining stocks of the virus in Russia and the United States? I recommend a video by Errol Morris on the New York Times website “The Demon in the Freezer,” which examines this issue in detail. The interview with the Russian bioweapons scientist is particularly chilling. What I liked about the video was that it showcased voices from both sides of the debate.

Shawn Smallman

Portland State University, 2016

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/05/destroying-smallpox-stocks/

May 17

Summer online courses at PSU

If you are looking to take some online classes this summer, here are some courses in International Studies that you might consider:

2016 INTL Open Summer Courses

You can find information on how to enroll for classes as a non-degree seeking student here.

Permanent link to this article: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2016/05/summer-online-courses-at-psu/

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