[Alan S. Weiner for The New York Times]

I just realized that I haven’t written a post yet this month. Sorry about that. I’ve spent most of my free computer time the last few days on trip planning. With me on sabbatical, and with Joel in Grenoble until just before Christmas, it’s obvious that we should get over there, and so we will. The pieces are now mostly in place — and just in time — for what will be our longest trip in a decade. We have flights and hotel reservations. Next up is train reservations. Three weeks from this moment we’ll be over the Atlantic, making our way to Paris to see my sister after a short stop in New York. Then on to Grenoble, Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan, back to Paris, back to New York, and finally Chicago overnight for a meeting before returning here.

I have a few items I had thought of writing about that I will instead just list here, with minimal comment. Then I’ll get on to other issues in separate posts.

1. In case you missed the coverage of the October 1 ceremony for the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize winners, be sure to review the list here. Some are pretty good. Not so the Math prize, alas, as the choice and accompanying citation only serve to reinforce the stereotype that mathematicians spend their time dealing with really big numbers. But maybe people in other fields feel similarly. Here, as one example, is the Physics prize citation:

PHYSICS PRIZE: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

REFERENCE: “Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins,” Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078 (December 13, 2007). DOI:10.1038/nature06342.

WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Katherine Whitcome and Daniel Lieberman

2. The lead story in yesterday’s NYT travel section had some local interest. It was an amusing account by NYT Styles reporter Eric Wilson of his failed effort to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier this past summer. He had the misfortune of starting his journey on the day we all remember well, when the temperature was 103 degrees here in Seattle and apparently no different down there. Here’s one brief excerpt from his experience that day:

When we came upon an eerily blue lake, bluer than the Mediterranean, clear-looking enough to be a mirage or a mirror, I could not resist a quick dip, and so I ran headlong into the water as Chris and Rosemary were still taking off their shoes. As I broke through the still surface of water, the sensation I felt was that I would not be coming back up. My legs and arms felt disconnected from my body, collectively numb, but I could sense every hair on my head stand up in unison, and then, in the same millisecond, a piercing stab through my chest. I jerked my head up and gasped. It had not occurred to me that a lake halfway up the highest summit in the Cascade Range (14,410 feet) and one of the highest points in the lower 48 states, and not a mile from the edge of a glacier (ironically named Fryingpan) might be, well, as cold as ice. My feet touched bottom, and I sloshed out of the water, frightened by the intensity of the pain, but surely invigorated.

3. A week ago I had anticipated writing a post about Afghanistan, but it never happened. As a substitute for my own uneducated thoughts on the subject, I’ll just point to two of the several articles I read a week ago: George Packer’s article on Richard Holbrooke in the September 28 issue of the New Yorker and Ahmed Rashid’s article in the October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I should add to this yesterday’s Washington Post op-ed piece by Peter Galbraith, written in the wake of his firing as deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan. (It turns out that I know Peter, sort of. He was a college classmate. We were in the same residential house. Just two Junes ago, during our 35th reunion, we sat together at lunch one day and chatted.) Galbraith writes about the recent Afghan election, for which he supervised the UN support:

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country’s transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

I can’t imagine any US mission in Afghanistan having much chance of success. But again, what do I know? On the other hand, Rory Stewart knows a lot, and he doesn’t seem to see things much differently. (See a post of mine from two months ago.)

4. I try to keep my references to Glenn Greenwald’s blog within reasonable bounds, but here I go again. In a post yesterday, he has a passage that aptly describes the state of the nation:

Reviewing the Sunday news shows and newspapers creates the most intense cognitive dissonance: a nation crippled by staggering debt, exploding unemployment, an ever-expanding rich-poor gap, and dependence on foreign government financing can’t stop debating how much more resources we should devote to our various military occupations, which countries we should bomb next, which parts of the world we should bring into compliance with our dictates using threats of military force. It’s like listening to an individual about to declare personal bankruptcy talking about all the new houses and jewels he plans on buying next week and all the extravagant trips he’s planning, in between lamenting how important it is that he stop spending so much. That would sound insane. And that’s exactly how our political discourse sounds.

Where is the change we can believe in?

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