May 15

Shane Harris, @ War

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. ( via Wikimedia Commons.

With the constant media attention to the alleged Russian involvement in the last American election, there is perhaps more media attention to the issue of cyber-warfare than ever before. In this context, Shane Harris’ book, @ War: the Rise of the Military-Internet Complex is provides a sweeping overview of how the U.S. government and its corporate allies have sought to respond and use cyber tools for espionage and war.

Harris has a background as a journalist, and he has extensively interviewed people in both the U.S. federal government and industry. His work provides a deep understanding of how these actors view cyber-conflict. The book is particularly good at showing how corporations are intricately connected the armed forces in cyber-warfare: “Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it” (Harris, p. xxiii).

At the same time, this book views this issue through an American lens, and at times has an unreflective view of technology’s role in war. Ever since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on technology to win wars, while not similarly prioritizing cultural, strategic and historical awareness. One can see this issue in the opening section of the book, which examines U.S. efforts to use cyber-espionage to target ISIS in Iraq, in what he describes as a triumph: “Indeed, cyber warfare -the combination of spying and attack- was instrumental to the American victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated” (Harris, p. xxii). Even though his description of U.S. operations in Iraq is fascinating, this part of the work has not aged well, and confronts the reader with technology’s limitations more than its capabilities. Read the rest of this entry »

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May 13

College research award

I am honored to say that I was named the College of Urban and Public Affairs Researcher of the Year for 2019. As part of this award, Portland State University made a brief video about my work with public policy and infectious disease. As with all of the researchers from other colleges, I was given a list of 5 or 6 questions in advance of the video, the first of which was “Tell us a story about how you became involved in research.” We were also told that the final video would be two minutes or less. I was somewhat uncertain about how this would turn out given these time constraints, but at the awards ceremony I was impressed by how inspiring the videos were. I don’t know the name of the student who edited all these videos but they did an amazing job. Congratulations to all the awardees. One last piece of advice to anyone embarking on funded research. You will be turned down more times than you can imagine. As long as you keep applying, it’s not a failure but an edit.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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May 01

The US Empire

There is a strange paradox, which is that the United States is one of the greatest imperial powers ever known, but at the same time almost no American would ever describe their nation as having an empire, either now or in the past. Daniel Immerwahr addresses this contradiction in his recent article, “How the US has hidden its empire,” in the Guardian. This text would be useful both in an “Introduction to International Studies” class, or a “U.S. and the World,” course.

Shawn Smallman, 2019.

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Apr 15

Lines of Light: a book review

Dan Nott’s brilliant graphic novel

Lines of Light is a graphic novel by Dan Nott, which examines the “history and geography of the internet.” I was fortunate enough to meet the author at the Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo, which was held at Lesley University. This quarter I am teaching two courses on related topics (Digital Globalization as well as CyberWar and Espionage), so I was curious to view this work. This graphic novel is exceptional not only because it is visually engaging, but also because it takes a completely unexpected view of something that we all assume we understand. With his clear, concise prose to describe a physical world that we all rely upon, this book is filled with unexpected facts and insights.

One of the approaches that Nott takes is too look at how we use metaphors to talk about the internet, which can sometimes be misleading. The book starts with Senator Ted Stephens at the net neutrality hearing of 2006, where he tried too use a failed metaphor to describe the internet. From this moment, the work moves to consider more broadly how we all talk about the internet, and how accurate that language may be. While it might be easy to mock Senator Stephens, most of us also wrestle to describe something so abstract. Nott’s brilliance is being able to take these metaphors and place them into both a historical and a physical context, which is grounded by the detailed maps and imagery of the infrastructure that supports the internet. Read the rest of this entry »

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Apr 01

Hope even for Chernobyl

When the accident happened at Chernobyl’s #4 reactor in April 1986, it changed how people viewed nuclear power forever. Of course, there had already been the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in the United States. But that was not the same as the meltdown that created a 4,000 square mile exclusion zone across the borders of what are now Belarus and Ukraine. The meltdown has become such a trope in popular culture that there is now even a horror movie about what has happened there in the aftermath.

In reality, however, both human and animal life have done much better than expected. Victoria Gill has an excellent article on this topic in the BBC News titled, Chernobyl: The end of a three-decade experiment. As you can read yourselves, not only do herds of endangered wild horses -and packs of wolves- roam the exclusion zone, some humans have remained. And scientists are now discussing reducing the size of this exclusion zone. Indeed, Gill’s piece suggests that for many people today fear of radiation might prove to be more of a danger than the radiation itself. There is hope. Of course, not of this takes away from the fact that Chernobyl was a human and economic catastrophe on a staggering scale. Meanwhile, in Japan a robot has reached the core of one of the damaged reactors, but that cleanup will also take decades, and perhaps be even more complex.

The BBC piece is an interesting work, but it lacked the voices of local environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners, who could have provided a different perspective. Still, the documentary is well-worth viewing.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Photo of reintroduced Przewalski’s horse taken at the “Seer” release site, managed by the Association pour le cheval de Przewalski:TAKH, in the Khar Us Nuur National Park Buffer Zone, 28 September 2005, Claudia Feh. Wikipedia Commons License.

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Mar 15

Returning Fighters

As the war against ISIS comes to an end, the media and politicians have been discussing how to deal with the return of those who fought for  ISIS. What fewer people are aware of is that there were also volunteers who chose to embed with Kurdish units fighting against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. In some respects, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the conflict in the Middle East has resembled the Spanish Civil War, in that it drew in foreigners from around the world, who were motivated to join an ideological conflict. I’m not the first person to have that insight, which was also recently discussed in a documentary titled, “The Fight Against Islamic State – Robin Hood Complex.”

The man who made this film, Emile Ghessen, served in the British military in the Middle East. He then became fascinated by the people who made the decision to travel to the region to fight as volunteers in the war against ISIS. The central question of the documentary was “what motivated these people.” What he finds is a collection of people from different backgrounds, who rejected what they viewed as the apathy of the West, and were determined to do their part to stop ISIS. He also examines the internal battles and personal interests that shape the volunteers decisions. As these people now return, some are being charged upon arriving home, even though they were fighting against a terrorist group.

The video is available for free on YouTube, where it appears to have been posted by Ghessen himself, otherwise I would not recommend it. It makes for compelling viewing, and provides another look at the widespread impact of the Middle East’s recent conflicts.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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Mar 08

Spring class at Portland State University

Map of Europe

Image above: Map of Europe, National Library of Ireland, Flickr Commons

For those of you who live in the Portland, Oregon area, I’m writing to recommend Dr. Evguenia Davidova’s spring class, “The European Union.” This is a thoughtfully designed face to face class with wonderful readings, as you can see from the book covers below; just looking at the reading list makes me want to join. Please see the details here:

INTL 452: The European Union
Evguenia Davidova
Mon/Wed 8:15 – 10:05
CRN: 65131
The course deals with the history of the European Union and focuses on  dramatic current developments, such as:
  • Brexit
  • The recent migration crisis
  • Catalonia/Catalunya’s bid for independence
  • Greece’s financial crisis
  • Expansion of populist parties in the EU countries
  • The New EU members from the former Eastern Bloc
The readings include essays by British immigrants, a memoir from the former East Germany, and a critical history of the European Union.

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Mar 05

France’s Yellow Vest Movement

I generally try not to simply repost articles on this blog, but Noelle Lenoir’s recent post, “France’s burning hate” does a good job placing France’s Yellow Vest movement into context. Her perspective is sympathetic to Macron. In this depiction, the Yellow Vest movement is an increasingly violent force, which hearkens back to the anti-Semitism and hatred of the 1930s. What is particularly interesting in her description of how establishment figures have adopted the Yellow Vest movement for their own ends. Lenoir is clearly sympathetic to Macron, and says that he is gaining legitimacy by his principled and restrained response to the crisis. I think, however, that the voices of the protesters are missing from the piece. Her essay could have gone into greater depth about their demands, and the grievances that have fueled the movement. In her depiction the Yellow Vests seem more an atavistic force than a reflection of deeply held beliefs.

As in discussions of populism in the United Sates, Lenoir points the finger at the impact of Russian fake news, which incites popular unrest. Last week in my Cyberwar and Espionage class my students discussed Russia’s fake news and propaganda efforts. Collectively, they made a few points: foreign influence in politics and elections is nothing new; outside actors could only have an influence when the U.S. is deeply divided, and the apparent success of the Russian troll factories -which are quite real- may overshadow other political forces driving discontent. While Russia is certainly trying to sow dissent and protest in the West, I also believe that its efforts have become a convenient scapegoat to explain protest movements and unrest. Does Russia really have the influence ascribed to it? If so, what are the weaknesses in Western societies that permit this? And how many people in the United States or France are really following RT, or consuming fake news on social media?

Despite the gaps in the piece, I do think that Lenoir’s piece provides a useful perspective on the Yellow Vest movement, which is well worth reading.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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Mar 01

Diet and Global Health

What is the single most important factor in shaping global health in the developed world? Interestingly, it does not appear to be access to the most technologically sophisticated medical technology. In the chapter on health in our textbook, I start by saying: “Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Guadalupe, Hong Kong, Israel, Malta, Martinique, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates are a diverse set of nations and territories. Yet they all have one fact in common: their citizens live longer than those of the United States, as do the citizens of many developed countries (Smallman and Brown, 2015, p. 236). Lee Miller and Weilu have an article titled “These are the World’s healthiest nations” in Bloomberg (February 24, 2019) which looks at global health statistics. The methodology looked at a number of factors -not only life expectancy- to rank countries. The top five countries were Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan and Switzerland. There are many such rankings, and each one has methodological questions or choices. But all such national rankings of health can leave you questioning what you think you know, particularly about the role of diet in health. Read the rest of this entry »

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Feb 15

Bolsonaro and democracy in Brazil

When I wrote my book on military terror in Brazil (please ignore the ugly cover if you click on the link to the left. #uglybookcovers) I thought that the processes and events that I described were consigned to history. Then as well I believed that my articles on torture described a political practice that had passed in Latin America, and certainly in the West. My confidence proved to be misplaced after 9/11, which brought the U.S. crimes at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s adoption of waterboarding. Similarly, authoritarianism and populism have moved to the forefront in Brazil, as the nation has elected a former army officer (Jair Messias Bolsonaro) best known for his outrageous political rhetoric. And his vice-president -another former military officer, Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourão- makes even more extreme statements than he does. Read the rest of this entry »

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