Friday, September 30

Not Pretty

The Chinese horseshoe bat is the SARS Virus Hiding Place, not the civet cat. Here's the Chinese horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus sinicus), known in Chinese as the Chinese chrysanthemum-headed bat 中華菊頭蝠 or the hoof-nosed bat 蹄鼻蝙蝠:

Taiwan's not buying

Todd Crowell writes
For the past ten years, the leaders of Taiwan appear to have calculated U.S. intervention heavily into their resource allocation equation and elected to reduce defense spending despite an ever prosperous and stable economy. And this short-change math does not work. We're watching the partisan stalemate over Taiwan's defense spending, and we're doing our own math. In a crisis . . . Taiwan will be stood up against the yardstick of 'national will' and will be measured accordingly.
Bush tried to make clear to Chen that he "did not have a blank check to be filled out in American blood."

It sounds intruiging, but is it true?

Americans and Chinese Differ in Their World View--Literally
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that whereas North Americans tend to be more analytic when evaluating a scenario, fixating on the focal object, East Asians are generally more holistic, giving more consideration to the context. Researchers have not known, however, whether these differences originate during the encoding, retrieval, or mental comparison stages of perceptual-cognitive processing, or whether they might even be the result of reporting bias....

Nisbett and his collaborators posit that these differences in attention to object and context arise through socialization practices. "East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations. Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning," the scientists observe. "In contrast, Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context."

Glad to Hear It

Even in China, Feng Shui Disharmony: A university's plans for a training program in the ancient practice raise scorn for 'a fake science.' By Don Lee
The pathways of centuries-old tombs follow the pattern of the Big Dipper's seven stars. Countless homes and modern buildings sport mirrors to deflect bad energy and outdoor fountains to guide riches inside.

So when a university here joined this month with a government agency to offer training in the 3,000-year-old practice of harmonizing buildings with nature, it seemed as natural as, well, feng and shui, or wind and water.

Instead, it has triggered a backlash.

"This is really ridiculous," scoffed Chen Zhihua, an architect and professor at prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing. "It's a fake science…. It only makes money for some swindlers."

Ge Jianxiong, an eminent geography professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, likened feng shui to dregs that have floated up to the surface.

"This shouldn't be happening," he said.
He's right. It's sheer superstition.

Thursday, September 29

Love It or Leave It?

In America Still Beckons, Joel Kotkin writes,
Europe may be a great place to visit, but U.S. emigration to the continent is paltry—while the reverse flow from Europe to the United States remains at consistently high levels even with the somewhat bothersome screenings imposed after 9/11. While Europeans are no longer the primary immigrants to the U.S. (that role having been taken over by Latin Americans and Asians), they remain an important factor in the continuing re-invention of America.
I wonder what the stats are.

Update. This is all I could find. Like a lot of topics, the more one looks, the more complicated things get.

Correlation is not causation II

Which of These Foods Will Stop Cancer? (Not So Fast) By GINA KOLATA
The diet messages are everywhere: the National Cancer Institute has an "Eat 5 to 9 a Day for Better Health" program, the numbers referring to servings of fruits and vegetables, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation has a detailed anticancer diet.

Yet despite the often adamant advice, scientists say they really do not know whether dietary changes will make a difference. And there lies a quandary for today's medicine. It is turning out to be much more difficult than anyone expected to discover if diet affects cancer risk. Hypotheses abound, but convincing evidence remains elusive.

Most of the proposed dietary changes are unlikely to be harmful - less meat, more fish, more fruits and vegetables and less fat. And these changes in diet may help protect against heart disease, even if they have no effect on cancer.


Most people want some sort of control, a way to prevent the disease from ever striking them or, if it does strike, to keep it from recurring.

Correlation is not causation I

Tim Cavanaugh writes,
...a new study indicating that higher rates of religious belief translate into higher rates of homicide, STD transmission, non-lethal violent crime, and assorted other signs of dysfunction...Like religion itself, this study fulfills a spiritual need (the need to diagnose Americans as bible-pounding dummies), but delivers a lot less than it promises.
"A spiritual need." That's great. So many people need something to hate.

Wednesday, September 28

Typical Crap

A Trend So New It's Old By Jack Shafer debunks the LOUISE STORY story:

Story says she conducted the survey from November 2004 to January 2005 while at Columbia. Earlier this week, the editors of Gelf Magazine posted a list of questions from the survey, and remarked how some of them were "loaded," that is, likely to produce a biased result. For instance, the first question—"When you have children, do you plan to stay at home with them or do you plan to continue working? Why?"—assumes that the respondents intend to have children.

Story says she revised the survey after its weaknesses were pointed out to her. But in her final tabulation, she retained the responses from about 30 women who answered the first survey because, she said, the responses didn't vary significantly from those given to the revised version. She concedes the survey wasn't conducted with social-science rigor but calls it "a very good journalistic questionnaire."

The problem with Story's e-mail survey is not that she asked a lot of students questions. Reporters are supposed to ask lots of people questions. But if a journalist wants readers to be impressed by numbers like "roughly 60 percent," they must 1) say who collected the numbers and 2) explain how the numbers were collected. The Times and Story failed the reader by not stating that these findings were about as anecdotal and impressionistic as, say, the findings of a columnist like David S. Broder based on 100 interviews he conducted in Iowa to take the state's political temperature. Broder would never write, "roughly 60 percent of 100 Iowans interviewed believe the president is doing a bad job," because a hard number indicates that such numerical findings have real significance (especially when their source is not divulged). Instead, Broder would typically place the results in their proper anecdotal context, by using a phrase like "most of the Iowans I met with. ..." That would dispel the misapprehension that he thought his interviews had the same footing as as a Gallup poll. Story, on the other hand, presented her results to sound like good sociology.

Story has strong and adamant defenders. Master's adviser Sylvia Nasar, a former Times reporter, accuses me of "shooting first and asking questions later"....

Story wrote for the Times business section over the summer. Her Times colleague, the much decorated David Cay Johnston, is a major fan of her work. "Among the young journalists I have mentored over the past three decades, Louise Story is in a league by herself," he writes in an e-mail. She quickly grasps "subtle issues at the level of theory and principle whose significance and context she writes about in plain English."

Read on for further debunking. The Times calls this journalism? (And I fell for it! Typical me!)

About 2 Minutes

Over-Ruled: When There's No One to Ask, Just Do It By David Brown
It's difficult to say what specific actions might have made what degree of difference. But it seems that there was a dearth of big, risky and unambiguous decisions by mid-level responders -- managers or intermediate officials with some resources potentially under their control, who had the greatest opportunity to do the right thing at the right time. Instead, there was an excess of waiting for leadership and coordination.

You say letting people throw the switches whenever they think the time is right is a recipe for anarchy? Certainly it can be under normal circumstances. But a hurricane's aftermath creates abnormal circumstances. Anarchy is what happens when people are left without the essentials for life -- and are terrified to boot. They find their own stocks of water and food (and guns and drugs and liquor, too).

The unfortunate truth is, when a 100-year hurricane hits a city that is poor and violent under the best of circumstances, if the people in charge don't break the rules, the people who aren't in charge will. It seems at least possible that there would have been less disorder after the storm if more people had put their hunches and reputations on the line before and during it.

Of course there were examples of constructive rule-breaking in the Katrina disaster zone. One of the more memorable involved the mayor of Gulfport, Miss., who, as reported in this newspaper,ordered his police chief to hot-wire a privately owned fuel truck and move it onto city property. One of the more incredible was the report in the New York Times about two Navy helicopter pilots who, after delivering food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast, heard a radio transmission saying helicopters were needed to rescue people in New Orleans. Out of radio range of their commanders and unable to get permission, they nevertheless went to the rescue of about 100 people. When they got back they were reprimanded, according to the article. One pilot was grounded and put in charge of overseeing a kennel holding the pets of evacuated service members.

There were others. Some search-and-rescue teams agreed to carry out pets -- against the rules -- because they knew it was the only way the animals' owners would leave.

But why weren't there more examples of ingenuity and initiative? Aren't Americans historically a people who don't bow to authority, who do things their own way? Isn't that part of the mythology of American restlessness, inventiveness and westward migration?

From what I've seen -- in daily life, as well as in my reporting -- two things have poisoned American decisiveness, at least in the public sector.

One is the consciousness of legal liability that has permeated our culture in the most astonishing way...

Another reason many Americans in authority hesitate to make risky decisions is the fear of criticism and even public humiliation -- at the hands of the news media, late-night comedians and, now, the nonstop cacophony of the blogosphere....

Five days after the hurricane, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official ordered Mark N. Perlmutter, a 50-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Pennsylvania, to stop treating patients on the tarmac of the New Orleans airport because he had not filled out the proper paperwork. He protested, explaining that the woman he had just diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis might die without immediate intravenous fluids and insulin. But he was led away. The official said to him, "We cannot guarantee tort liability protection," Perlmutter told me yesterday.

After learning that on-site certification wasn't yet possible, the doctor was allowed to return to the tarmac and get his medical instruments. The woman, who was semi-conscious when he'd first seen her, was dead, Perlmutter said. He then flew to Baton Rouge in a helicopter and got certified, a process he said "took about two minutes."

In Case I Need to Buy a Car

Car Buying Mistakes cites 10 common car-buying mistakes from Consumer Reports. He also suggests CarFax.

There's also Buying a New Car which advocates
soliciting bids from all dealerships within about two hours of here. What follows is an example of the sort of message that I send. You should either direct it to the sales manager, or send it via e-mail to their internet sales person.
Somewhere along the line I was directed to the scams discussed at and Fighting Chance.

My current favorites are the Pontiac Vibe, the Volkswagen Jetta wagon, and the Subaru Impreza Wagon, but it looks as if they've stopped making the Jetta as a wagon. I used Intellichoice & to come up with this list.

Monday, September 26

The "problem" of "price gouging"

Price Gouging Saves Lives by David M. Brown
After Charley cut his swath through central Florida, hundreds of thousands of central Florida residents were unexpectedly deprived of electrical power and therefore of refrigeration. Hence the huge increase in demand for ice.

Let us postulate that a small Orlando drug store has ten bags of ice in stock that, prior to the storm, it had been selling for $4.39 a bag. Of this stock it could normally expect to sell one or two bags a day. In the wake of Hurricane Charley, however, ten local residents show up at the store over the course of a day to buy ice. Most want to buy more than one bag.

So what happens? If the price is kept at $4.39 a bag because the drugstore owner fears the wrath of State Attorney General Charlie Crist and the finger wagging of local news anchors, the first five people who want to buy ice might obtain the entire stock. The first person buys one bag, the second person buys four bags, the third buys two bags, the fourth buys two bags, and the fifth buys one bag. The last five people get no ice. Yet one or more of the last five applicants may need the ice more desperately than any of the first five.

But suppose the store owner is operating in an unhampered market. Realizing that many more people than usual will now demand ice, and also realizing that with supply lines temporarily severed it will be difficult or impossible to bring in new supplies of ice for at least several days, he resorts to the expedient of raising the price to, say, $15.39 a bag.

Now customers will act more economically with respect to the available supply. Now, the person who has $60 in his wallet, and who had been willing to pay $17 to buy four bags of ice, may be willing to pay for only one or two bags of ice (because he needs the balance of his ready cash for other immediate needs). Some of the persons seeking ice may decide that they have a large enough reserve of canned food in their homes that they don't need to worry about preserving the one pound of ground beef in their freezer. They may forgo the purchase of ice altogether, even if they can "afford" it in the sense that they have twenty-dollar bills in their wallets. Meanwhile, the stragglers who in the first scenario lacked any opportunity to purchase ice will now be able to.

Note that even if the drug store owner guesses wrong about what the price of his ice should be, under this scenario vendors throughout central Florida would all be competing to find the right price to meet demand and maximize their profits. Thus, if the tenth person who shows up at the drugstore desperately needs ice and barely misses his chance to buy ice at the drugstore in our example, he still has a much better chance to obtain ice down the street at some other place that has a small reserve of ice.

Indeed, under this second scenario—the market scenario—vendors are scrambling to make ice available and to advertise that availability by whatever means available to them given the lack of power. Vendors who would have stayed home until power were generally restored might now go to heroic lengths to keep their stores open and make their surviving stocks available to consumers.

The "problem" of "price gouging" will not be cured by imposing rationing along with price controls, either. Rationing of price-controlled ice would still maintain an artificially low price for ice, so the day after the storm hits there would still be no economic incentive for ice vendors to scramble to keep ice available given limited supplies that cannot be immediately replenished. And while it is true that rationing might prevent the person casually purchasing four bags of ice from obtaining all four of those bags (at least from one store with a particularly diligent clerk), the rationing would also prevent the person who desperately needs four bags of ice from getting it.

Combined total: One

How many people were murdered in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center? One.

I for one welcome our new insect overlords

A snowclone.
One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.
Written by David Mirkin

Sunday, September 25


Friendship visit by ally of China turns into blistering lecture By Joseph Kahn
China's leaders may have felt they had no better friend in Taiwan than Li Ao, a defiant and outspoken politician and author who says that Taiwan should unify with Communist China. But when the Chinese government invited Li to tour the mainland this past week, the Communist Party got a taste of its rival's pungent democracy.

During an address at Beijing University on Wednesday, broadcast live on a cable television network, Li chided China's leaders for suppressing free speech, ridiculed the university administration's fear of academic debate and advised students on how to fight for freedom against official repression.


The Chinese government invited Li as part of its attempt to court Taiwan notables who are opposed to attempts by President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan to move the island toward formal independence. The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, rolled out the red carpet for three Taiwanese opposition party leaders this spring, an overture that helped soften support for Chen's agenda.

He had challenged the Nationalists, or Kuomintang, when they governed Taiwan as a one-party state, and served time in prison in the 1970s. When Taiwan became a democracy, he attacked those who supported separatism.

But when he arrived in mainland China, he surprised his hosts with caustic comments aimed not at Taiwanese separatism, but at mainland authoritarianism. Though Li did not criticize Hu directly, he made pointed references to the lack of freedoms in mainland China and suggested that "poker-faced" Communist Party bureaucrats do not have enough faith in their legitimacy to allow normal intellectual discussion.

With several top university officials sitting by his side, he called the administrators "cowardly" for ferreting out professors at the school who are suspected of opposing communism.

Though his arrival in mainland China was covered prominently by the state-run media and his speech was viewed on television by millions around China, the authorities imposed a blackout on reporting about his visit after the speech.
An overly literal translation here.

Better than Most People Think

In Knowledge Deficit, Russell Roberts writes:

What proportion of the American labor force earns the minimum wage or less and what is the standard of living of the average American today relative to 100 years ago?

Even among highly-educated groups such as journalists or congressional staffers, the median answer is depressingly similar -- they think 20% of the American work force earns the minimum wage or less. In fact, the actual number is something less than 3%. Usually a non-trivial portion of each group thinks that our material well-being is lower today than 100 years ago. Their median answer is that we are 50% better off than we were 100 years ago. In fact, the average American is at least five and maybe 30 times better off than we were in the good old days.

Here are a couple of Economic Literacy Tests:

Dirty White Slut

Offensive map removed
A publisher has withdrawn tourist maps from CKS International Airport showing a pop singer with a profanity on her T-shirt, the company said yesterday. The free map of Taipei shows singer Vivian Hsu (徐若瑄) wearing a pink sleeveless T-shirt with the words "dirty white slut" printed on it in gothic letters, a pink cap and hot pants. The words seemed to refer to promiscuity. The map's publisher, the Vision Group, said there had been no complaints about the slogan, but it had still decided to remove the maps from the airport. "The person responsible for issuing the map didn't understand English, but when we saw the picture, we thought it better to withdraw it from circulation," a company spokeswoman said. The map is still available at some hotels in Taipei, though. "We have no right to interfere with the hotels, they make their own decision about the map," she said.
I don't consider "slut" a profanity; this is typical Taiwanese over-reaction. At the same time, I can't see why so many are all agog over this ordinary-looking girl.

Thursday, September 22


A report on Marketplace talks about "Operation Offset" and mentions Porkbusters. There was a segment on the news about cutting spending that didn't mention either of these, but a reporter called various congressmen who mostly refused to cut anything. But I can't find the report.

A greater role for government?

'Animal spirits' with Chinese characteristics By Mark A DeWeaver
In one of the twentieth century's most influential books, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that investor decision-making is often influenced more by "the mass psychology of the market" and "animal spirits" than by rationally formed expectations of future returns. This led him to conclude that "the duty of ordering the current volume of investment cannot safely be left in private hands." Instead, he called for a greater role for government policy in guiding capital allocation decisions on the grounds that this would greatly reduce investment volatility and thus help to eliminate boom-bust economic cycles.


China's economic reforms since 1978 have done away with many of the features of the old centrally planned economy, but investment continues to be highly volatile. While the introduction of asset markets has created new speculative distortions, the old policy cycle continues to operate as well. When policy is loose, overinvestment is encouraged by local officials, whose decisions are influenced by opportunities for promotion, competition for tax revenue, or even bribery. At the same time, the ability of managers to siphon off profits while leaving the state to bear losses encourages excessive risk-taking. Later, when policy is tightened, local government activities and enterprise-financing come under increased scrutiny by the central government and boom turns to bust.
DeWeaver presents these possible causes:
  • desire for promotion plays a big part: cadres tend to be rewarded for economic growth in their areas
  • competition for tax revenues
  • bribes from contractors
  • kickbacks from suppliers
  • corruption in financing overinvestment: managers are frequently in a position to use bank funds for private businesses
  • situations in which "the manager is responsible for profits, while the state is responsible for losses"
DeWeaver concludes:
Contrary to what Keynes believed, in China state control of investment has not only failed to tame the "animal spirits" of the free market but is actually a source of additional instability. During the command economy period, leaving the "duty of ordering the current volume of investment" in the hands of the central government produced some of the worst economic disasters on record. Subsequently, it has also become clear that this duty cannot safely be left in the hands of local government officials given the perverse nature of their incentive structures. And while speculative investment using one's own money must at some point be limited by fear of loss, for someone in a position to misappropriate state funds with impunity, the optimal "volume of investment" is practically infinite.

Wednesday, September 21

Whose Fault?

Experts Say Faulty Levees Caused Much of Flooding By Michael Grunwald and Susan B. Glasser
...scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center have concluded that Katrina's surges did not come close to overtopping those barriers. That would make faulty design, inadequate construction or some combination of the two the likely cause of the breaching of the floodwalls along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals -- and the flooding of most of New Orleans.
That sounds like the Army Corps of Engineers to me. But
John M. Barry -- who criticized the Corps in "Rising Tide," a history of the Mississippi River flood of 1927 -- said that if Katrina did not exceed the design capacity of the New Orleans levees, the federal government may bear ultimate responsibility for this disaster.
And he's the last source quoted in the article.

What if you can't get them to work?

Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood By LOUISE STORY
Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.

Much attention has been focused on career women who leave the work force to rear children. What seems to be changing is that while many women in college two or three decades ago expected to have full-time careers, their daughters, while still in college, say they have already decided to suspend or end their careers when they have children.
And yet people complain that women are outnumbered by men in many professions. But if many of them don't see the need to work, there will be less of them working, right?

Who could have done better?

Let Wal-Mart take over emergency management By John Tierney
If you mention the Red Cross or FEMA to people in Slidell [La.], you hear rants about help that didn't arrive and phone lines that are always busy. If you mention state or national politicians, you hear obscenities.

But if you visit the Wal-Mart and the Sam's Club stores here, you hear shoppers who have been without power for weeks marveling that there are still generators in stock (and priced at $304.04). You hear about the trucks that rolled in right after the hurricane and the stuff the stores gave away: chain saws and boots for rescue workers, sheets and clothes for shelters, water and ice for the public.

"This was the only place we could find water those first days," said Rashan Smith, who was shopping with her three children at Wal-Mart on Saturday. "I still haven't managed to get through to FEMA. It's hard to say, but you get more justice at Wal-Mart."


[Bill] Clinton looks back on the 1990s as FEMA's Age of Pericles. "I think we did a good job of disaster management," he said on ABC's "This Week." While criticizing the Bush administration for leaving poor people stranded in New Orleans, he said that he and his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, had been especially sensitive to the needs of poor people because of their own backgrounds.

But if they cared so much, why didn't New Orleans ever work out a feasible way to evacuate poor people? FEMA had a golden opportunity to plan it during the 1990s. The threat of nuclear war had receded and terrorism wasn't yet a priority, so the agency's biggest concerns should have been an earthquake in California and a flood in New Orleans.

But it was too busy dealing with the record number of other "disasters" that Clinton declared - an average of one a week, which meant FEMA was mailing out checks for every flash flood within range of a major media market. Upstate New Yorkers suddenly became incapable of coping with the cost of snow removal.

In 1997, Congress gave FEMA $500,000 and ordered it to develop a comprehensive plan to evacuate New Orleans. The agency passed on the money to Louisiana, which used it instead to study building a new bridge. As Rita Beamish of The Associated Press reported on Sunday, FEMA didn't bother making sure a plan was drawn up - an aide to Witt said its job had just been to pass on the money.

How often do you suppose someone at Wal-Mart headquarters dispenses $500,000 and doesn't bother keeping track of it? It's legendary for tracking every transaction and pinching every penny.
For those who don't know what the Age of Pericles is.

Rita Beamish's Congressional order to map plan to evacuate New Orleans ignored
In Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, attention has focused on the inability of local and federal officials to evacuate or prepare for the large number of poor people, many of them minorities, who had no access to transportation and remained behind.

That possibility was one of the concerns that led Congress in 1997 to set aside $500,000 for FEMA to create "a comprehensive analysis and plan of all evacuation alternatives for the New Orleans metropolitan area."

Frustrated two years later that nothing materialized, Congress strengthened its directive. This time it ordered "an evacuation plan for a Category 3 or greater storm, a levee break, flood or other natural disaster for the New Orleans area."

The $500,000 that Congress appropriated for the evacuation plan went to a commission that studied future options for the 24-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said. The hefty report produced by the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission "primarily was not about evacuation," said Robert Lambert, the general manager for the bridge expressway. "In general it was an overview of all the things we need to do" for the causeway through 2016...

Asked why the congressional mandate was never fulfilled, Barry Scanlon, senior vice president in the consulting firm of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, said he believes the agency did what it needed when it gave the money to the state.

"FEMA received an earmark which it processed through to the state as instructed by Congress," Scanlon said. Witt is now a private consultant to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco on the Katrina aftermath.

Tuesday, September 20

Partly True

Grade inflation - a mark of human kindness is actually about executive pay. Let's see if what the author says is actually true of academic grades.
Grade inflation, - as well as executive remuneration and audits, are the inevitable product of benign human nature, of pleasant social interactions and of self interested commercial ones. But some institutional structures invite grade inflation and others resist it.

Why has the grade point average of American college students, like English A-level scores, been rising? Why has executive remuneration outstripped the earnings of other employees? Why have audit standards been falling? The answer to all these questions is the same. Grade inflation occurs whenever one group of human beings is asked to comment on the performance of another.

  • The "Lake Wobegon effect" (named after the fatuous Garrison Keillor’s mythical prairie town where all the children are above average). "Dedicated instructors sympathise with their students, effective boards support their chief executives, good accountants not only count the profits but make an effort to understand the business....But no complex maths is required to see that if people are picking numbers that are, on average, above the average of everyone’s pick, that average will steadily increase."
  • The second component of grade inflation is Goodhart’s Law (when an aggregate becomes a target its significance immediately changes). "Students will focus on the particular skills on which they are measured. [And that's a bad thing?--pkd]...People learn to do the things that are required of them, and so it is with examination performance. The only antidote to Goodhart’s Law is the balanced scorecard – use different indicators and change them frequently. [But if we want to teach certain skills, we test them on those!?--pkd]"
  • Grade inflation is also the product of competition. Competition improves performance and mostly this is good: it leads to lower prices and shorter queues at the checkout. But the process has perverse results when the product is performance measurement, and the buyer is the person whose performance is being measured. If Professor Nice gives all his students As, and Professor Nasty gives all her students Cs, then students will prefer to enrol with Professor Nice. Not only does this increase the average grade, but it puts pressure on Professor Nasty to conform. [Too true.--pkd]

China is Number 91

According to these Economy Rankings, Hong Kong is #7, Taiwan is #35, and mainland China is #91.

Monday, September 19

Taxpayers for Common Sense

Here. Like it'll make much difference.

Price Gouging

The role of prices
Suppose a hotel room rented for $79 a night prior to Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Based on that price, an evacuating family of four might rent two adjoining rooms. When they arrive at the hotel, they find the rooms rent for $200; they decide to make do with one room. In my book, that's wonderful. The family voluntarily opted to make a room available for another family who had to evacuate or whose home was destroyed. Demagogues will call this price-gouging, but I ask you, which is preferable: a room available at $200 or a room unavailable at $79? Rising prices get people to voluntarily economize on goods and services rendered scarcer by the disaster.

After Hurricane Katrina struck, gasoline prices shot up almost a dollar nearly overnight. Some people have been quick to call this price-gouging, particularly since wholesalers and retailers were charging the higher price for gasoline already purchased and in their tanks prior to the hurricane. The fact of business is that what a seller paid for something doesn't necessarily determine its selling price. Put in a bit more sophisticated way: Historical costs have nothing to do with selling price. For example, suppose you maintained a 10-pound inventory of coffee in your cupboard. When I ran out, you would occasionally sell me a pound for $2. Suppose there's a freeze in Brazil destroying much of the coffee crop, driving coffee prices to $5 a pound. Then I come around to purchase coffee. Will you charge me $2 a pound, what you paid for it, or $5, what it will cost you to restock your coffee inventory?

What about the house you might have bought for $50,000 in 1970 that you're selling today? If you charged me $250,000 for it, today's price for its replacement, as opposed to what you paid for it, are you guilty of price-gouging?

Saturday, September 17

Write your congressional representative

How to pay for New Orleans ...
Two places to start: Repeal the $12.3 billion energy bill and the $286 billion transportation bill.

That's right. Repeal them. Save that money.

The energy and transportation bills fulfill some genuine needs, but they largely stand out as virtual encyclopedias of federal spending run amok on projects of marginal or no use, created and funded to favor special interests.
So I wrote my reps:
How to pay for New Orleans? Repeal the $12.3 billion energy bill and the $286 billion transportation bill.

Have a little courage!
Write your congressional representative!

Friday, September 16

The case the Senators don't want to talk about

You know one Supreme Court case the Senators aren't grilling Roberts about? Despite all the talk about the Commerce Clause at the hearing, none of them wants to bring up Gonzales v. Raich, the medical marijuana case. Wouldn't you think the Democrats would want to champion the rights of the powerless, suffering cancer patient, oppressed by the government, with whom the heartless Supreme Court Justices could not empathize?
Ann Althouse

Thursday, September 15

Hear, hear

ANDRÉS MARTINEZ: The right time to go it alone
President Bush knows of one thing he can do to alleviate global poverty, improve the U.S. image overseas, help fight the root causes of terrorism and — wait, there's more — save U.S. consumers a bundle. Do it already, you say. He will, Bush says, but only "as other nations do the same."

Why wait? At issue is the elimination of tariffs and farm subsidies that distort international trade, and it was in addressing the United Nations on Wednesday that Bush again pledged to do what "is key to overcoming poverty in the world's poorest nations" — but, alas, only if other rich countries do the same. He'd made an equally empty but bold-sounding offer at the Group of 8 rich countries' meeting in July.

It's absurd. Bush didn't wait for France to sign off on the invasion of Iraq; he certainly shouldn't wait for France to sign off on a dismantling of U.S. farm subsidies that give domestic cotton, rice, sugar and other crops an unfair leg up in global competition. Waiting around for Europe and Japan to accept trade liberalization in agricultural goods could be a decades-long exercise. Besides, it is an abdication of American leadership.

Expanding trade around the world, Bush rightly said Wednesday, "would strike a blow against the terrorists who feed on anger and resentment." By uncharacteristically refusing to act unilaterally on this one, the Bush administration is not only undermining the global economy, it's refusing to shore up U.S. national security.

A Vast Solution Generator

On Marketplace at about the 50 second point, Paul Light, formerly of the (liberal) Brookings Institution says,
When something like [the Katrina devastation] occurs, there's an effort to tie the problem of the day to the solutions that have long been floating around. In fact, Washington can be seen as a vast solution generator, always looking for problems, and when a major catastrophe or event comes along, what happens is that solutions that have been out there for years will try to attach themselves to the problem...

...what'll happen in the next few months is that a lot of these ideas will be packaged and placed into a gigantic supplemental appropriations bill that...will run between fifteen hundred and two thousand pages and will go to the floor...with about two hours notice and it'll get passed, and a lot of these things that each party wants will be in there and a lot of special projects
for individual members will be in there as well.
He doesn't actually come out and say that no one will read the bill before passing it but that's clearly what he means. As the report notes, the right and left are equal opportunity offenders.

That sounds familiar. In AP: 9/11 Recovery Loans Loosely Managed DIRK LAMMERS and FRANK BASS wrote:
The government's $5 billion effort to help small businesses recover from the Sept. 11 attacks was so loosely managed that it gave low-interest loans to companies that didn't need terrorism relief — or even know they were getting it, The Associated Press has found.

And while some at New York's Ground Zero couldn't get assistance they desperately sought, companies far removed from the devastation — a South Dakota country radio station, a Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah dog boutique and more than 100 Dunkin' Donuts and Subway sandwich shops — had no problem winning the government-guaranteed loans.

Dentists and chiropractors in numerous cities, as well as an Oregon winery that sold trendy pinot noir to New York City restaurants also got assistance.

Tuesday, September 13

Don't Rebuild

In The Katrina Science Test, Paul Recer argues
...the scientific evidence currently is too thin to blame Katrina and other hurricanes on carbon dioxide emissions. And environmentalists may risk embarrassment if they exploit the theoretical link to promote their causes.
More interestingly, he goes on to say:
Environmentalists who want to leverage Katrina are on far more solid ground scientifically and economically in going after the state and federal rules that permit people to build in harm's way. Population growth along the U.S. coastline has exploded in recent years—13 million people now live in Florida's coastal counties alone compared to only about 200,000 a century ago. A USA Today study concluded that about 1,000 people move into U.S. coastal counties each day. The denser population makes the areas more difficult to evacuate: Officials told the Washington Post that it now takes twice as long to evacuate Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., as it did 10 years ago.

All this is sure to increase the death toll in a major storm. Yet that risk is blithely ignored in many coastal developments, often with the support of elected officials. For instance, when an Army deputy assistant secretary tried to block applications to build a casino along a fragile marsh area in Mississippi in 1998, Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi persuaded the Army to issue the permits; Lott had earlier attended a $100,000 casino-industry fund-raiser for the GOP. Now 20 of those Mississippi casinos have been smashed by Katrina.

The historic pattern has been that as soon as crises pass, more buildings go up and new people move in.
What's that, Dennis Hastert?
"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Still, bulldozing N.O. is probably not the answer.

Or is it? Geophysicist Klaus Jacob wrote, Time for a Tough Question: Why Rebuild?
First, all river deltas tend to subside as fresh sediment (supplied during floods) compacts and is transformed into rock. The Mississippi River delta is no exception. In the early to mid-20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with protecting New Orleans from recurring natural floods. At the same time, the Corps kept the river (and some related canals) along defined pathways. These well-intended defensive measures prevented the natural transport of fresh sediments into the geologically subsiding areas. The protected land and the growing city sank, some of it to the point that it is now 10 feet below sea level. Over time, some of the defenses were raised and strengthened to keep up with land subsidence and to protect against river floods and storm surges. But the defenses were never designed to safeguard the city against a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane (on the Saffir-Simpson scale) or a Category 4 hurricane making landfall just west of the city.

Second, global sea levels have risen less than a foot in the past century, and will rise one to three feet by the end of this century. Yes, there is uncertainty. But there is no doubt in the scientific community that the rise in global sea levels will accelerate.

What does this mean for New Orleans's future? Government officials and academic experts have said for years that in about 100 years, New Orleans may no longer exist. Period.
That's via Don't Refloat: The case against rebuilding the sunken city of New Orleans By Jack Shafer.

Highly Unscientific

Does the Truth Lie Within? By STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT notes
Self-experimentation, though hardly a new idea in the sciences, remains rare. Many modern scientists dismiss it as being not nearly scientific enough: there is no obvious control group, and you can hardly run a double-blind experiment when the researcher and subject are the same person. But might the not-quite-scientific nature of self-experimentation also be a good thing? A great many laboratory-based scientific experiments, especially those in the medical field, are later revealed to have been marred by poor methodology or blatant self-interest. In the case of Roberts, his self-interest is extreme, but at least it is obvious. His methodology is so simple - trying a million solutions until he finds one that works - that it creates the utmost transparency.
So in other words, it's completely unscientific, but that's OK.

So here's something that's worked for me. For the past several months I've been plagued by an increasingly painful lower back region. When it got so that it was very painful to bend over, I found various exercises on the net, and the "pelvic tilt" did wonders for me. (from Low Back Pain).

Then I tried the Advanced Back Stretch:

(from Flexibility Training).

That worked even better. For me. This time.

Monday, September 12

Calorie Counter

Calorie Counter (via Do I burn the same amount of calories walking as I do running?)

Scientific Ignorance

Ben Goldacre complains about media coverage of science, and also complains about humanities graduates:
Last month there was an interesting essay in the journal PLoS Medicine, about how most brand new research findings will turn out to be false ( It predictably generated a small flurry of ecstatic pieces from humanities graduates in the media, along the lines of science is made-up, self-aggrandising, hegemony-maintaining, transient fad nonsense; and this is the perfect example of the parody hypothesis....

Statistics are what causes the most fear for reporters, and so they are usually just edited out, with interesting consequences. Because science isn't about something being true or not true: that's a humanities graduate parody. It's about the error bar, statistical significance, it's about how reliable and valid the experiment was, it's about coming to a verdict, about a hypothesis, on the back of lots of bits of evidence.

But science journalists somehow don't understand the difference between the evidence and the hypothesis.


So how do the media work around their inability to deliver scientific evidence? They use authority figures, the very antithesis of what science is about, as if they were priests, or politicians, or parent figures.


The danger of authority figure coverage, in the absence of real evidence, is that it leaves the field wide open for questionable authority figures to waltz in.


But it also reinforces the humanities graduate journalists' parody of science, for which we now have all the ingredients: science is about groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality: they do work that is either wacky, or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory and, most ridiculously, "hard to understand".

This misrepresentation of science is a direct descendant of the reaction, in the Romantic movement, against the birth of science and empiricism more than 200 years ago; it's exactly the same paranoid fantasy as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, only not as well written. We say descendant, but of course, the humanities haven't really moved forward at all, except to invent cultural relativism, which exists largely as a pooh-pooh reaction against science. And humanities graduates in the media, who suspect themselves to be intellectuals, desperately need to reinforce the idea that science is nonsense: because they've denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of western thought for 200 years, and secretly, deep down, they're angry with themselves over that.
Glenn Reynolds quotes from the penultimate paragraph:
Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely - since they'll be the ones interested in reading the stuff - people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it's edited by a whole team of people who don't understand it.
Reynolds adds,
In other words, it's like the rest of the news . . . .
Also, Ben Goldacre has a blog:

Sunday, September 11

Lawless Lawson?

Larry Bradshaw & Lorrie Beth Slonsky's experience in New Orleans as outlined in Hurricane Katrina-Our Experiences is quite shocking, if true. And the New York Times in essence confirms it:
...a suburban police officer angrily ordered about 200 people to abandon an encampment between the highways near the bridge. The officer then confiscated their food and water, the four witnesses said. The incidents took place in the first days after the storm last week, they said.

"The police kept saying, 'We don't want another Superdome,' and 'This isn't New Orleans,'" said Larry Bradshaw, a San Francisco paramedic who was among those fleeing.

Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna, La., Police Department, confirmed that his officers, along with those from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and the Crescent City Connection Police, sealed the bridge.

"There was no place for them to come on our side," Mr. Lawson said.

He said that he had been asked by reporters about officers threatening victims with guns or shooting over their heads, but he said that he had not yet asked his officers about that.

"As soon as things calm down, we will do an inquiry and find out what happened," he said.
And Cops trapped survivors in New Orleans By Shaun Waterman gives a little more context:
"We shut down the bridge," Arthur Lawson, chief of the City of Gretna Police Department, confirmed to United Press International, adding that his jurisdiction had been "a closed and secure location" since before the storm hit.
"All our people had evacuated and we locked the city down," he said.

The bridge in question -- the Crescent City Connection -- is the major artery heading west out of New Orleans across the Mississippi River.

Lawson said that once the storm itself had passed Monday, police from Gretna City, Jefferson Parrish and the Louisiana State Crescent City Connection Police Department closed to foot traffic the three access points to the bridge closest to the West Bank of the river.

He added that the small town, which he called "a bedroom community" for the city of New Orleans, would have been overwhelmed by the influx.

"There was no food, water or shelter" in Gretna City, Lawson said. "We did not have the wherewithal to deal with these people.

"If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."

But -- in an example of the chaos that continued to beset survivors of the storm long after it had passed -- even as Lawson's men were closing the bridge, authorities in New Orleans were telling people that it was only way out of the city.

A Little Too Heavy

The Suspended-load Backpack
converts mechanical energy from walking into electricity up to 7.4 Watts more than enough energy to power a number of portable electronic devices at once.
That sounds great, and I love to walk. However,
A typical soldier already marches into the battlefield carrying 80 pounds of gear...The amount of power generated depends on how much weight is in the pack and how fast the wearer walks. The Penn researchers tested packs with loads of 40 to 80 pounds and found that the wearer could constantly generate as much as 7.4 Watts while moving at a steady clip.
Eighty pounds? I couldn't walk too far carrying that, much less function as a soldier.

Monday, September 5

Give 'em nukes!

No, not the Iranians. The ants! From Red in Tooth, Claw, and Trigger Finger By DAVID P. BARASH
In their great tome of ant lore, Wilson and Bert Hölldobler concluded that ants are "arguably the most aggressive and warlike of all animals. They far exceed human beings in organized nastiness; our species is by comparison gentle and sweet-tempered." The ant lifestyle is characterized, note the authors, by "restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week."
The article also states,

There appears to be a certain pleasure, akin to intellectual self-flagellation, that many people -- college students, it appears, most especially -- derive in disdaining their own species. Maybe anathematizing Homo sapiens is a particularly satisfying way of rebelling, since it entails enthusiastic disdain of not merely one's culture, politics, and socioeconomic situation, but one's species, too.

Intellectual self-flagellation. That's all too familiar in the academy

In any event, Cain is a canard. We have no monopoly on murder. Human beings may be less divine than some yearn to think, but -- at least when it comes to killing, even war -- we aren't nearly as exceptional, as despicably anomalous and aberrant in our penchant for intraspecies death-dealing, as the self-loathers would have it.

The sad truth is that many animals kill others of their kind, and as a matter of course, not pathology. When the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy first reported the sordid details of infanticide among langur monkeys of India, primatologists resisted the news: It couldn't be true, they claimed. Or if it was, then it must be because the monkeys were overcrowded, or malnourished, or otherwise deprived. They couldn't possibly stoop to killing members of their own species (and infants, to make matters even worse); only human beings were so depraved. But, in fact, that is precisely what they do. More specifically, it is what male langur monkeys commonly do when one of them takes over control of a harem of females. The newly ascendant harem-keeper proceeds, methodically, to kill any nursing infants, which, in turn, induces the previously lactating (and nonovulating) females to begin cycling once again. All the better to bear the infanticidal male's offspring.

We now know that similar patterns of infanticide are common among many other species, including rats and lions, as well as other nonhuman primates. In fact, when field biologists encounter a "male takeover" these days, they automatically look for subsequent infanticide and are surprised if it doesn't occur.

The slaughter of innocents is bad enough (by human moral standards), although not unknown, of course, in our own species. But from a strictly mechanistic, biological perspective, it makes perfect sense. It might also seem more "justifiable" than, say, adults killing other adults, if only because the risk to an infanticidal male is relatively slight (infants can't do much to defend themselves), and the evolutionary payoff is comparatively great: getting your genes projected into the future via each bereaved mother, who would otherwise continue to nourish someone else's offspring instead of bearing your own. But the evidence is overwhelming that among many species, adults kill other adults, too.


In fact, wolves do kill other wolves, showing little mercy for outliers and other strangers. And chimpanzees make war.

Of course, if one defines war as requiring the use of technology, then our chimp cousins aren't warmongers after all. But if by war we mean organized and persistent episodes of intergroup violence, often resulting in death, then chimps are champs at it. Jane Goodall has reported extensively on a four-year running war between rival troops of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, in Tanzania. Similar accounts have emerged from other populations, in the Budongo and Kibale forests, in Uganda; Mahale Mountains National Park, in Tanzania; and Taï National Park, in the Ivory Coast. Chimpanzee wars are not an aberration.

As to why they occur, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham explains that "by wounding or killing members of the neighboring community, males from one community increase their relative dominance over their neighbors. ... This tends to lead to increased fitness of the killers through improved access to resources such as food, females, or safety." These episodes typically involve border patrols leading to organized attacks in which a coalition (composed almost exclusively of males) will attack, and often kill, members of the neighboring troop (once again, almost exclusively males).

At this point, some readers -- struggling to retain the perverse pride that comes from seeing human beings as, if not uniquely murderous, then at least unusually so -- may want to backpedal and point out that chimps are, after all, very close to Homo sapiens. But lethal fighting -- if less organized than chimpanzee warfare -- has been identified in hyenas, cheetahs, lions, and many other species. In one study, nearly one-half of all deaths among free-living wolves not caused by humans were the result of wolves' killing other wolves.

...One and a half cheers for Homo sapiens, the world's most dangerous creature, whose dangerousness resides not in the originality of its sin, but in the reach of its hands.


Rand Simberg's Three Cheers for "Price Gougers"

In any locality, when the supply of a particular item is reduced with no change in demand, or the demand for it increased with no change in supply, or supply is decreased with a demand increase, prices will go up.

This is a signal to the market. To those demanding the product, it is a signal that the supply is relatively short, and that they should perhaps rethink the level of their demand, if possible. To the suppliers, it is a signal that more of the resources must be brought to market. In both cases, it will result in a change in behavior on both parties that will restore the balance between supply and demand. Moreover, it does so in a useful, quantitative way. It tells the supplier how much expense, risk and effort she should expend to increase the supply. This calculation may even bring new suppliers into the market. It also indicates the degree to which it is sensible for the consumer to change their demand. When by fiat we pretend that the price has not gone up, it's like covering up the signposts, and we shouldn't be surprised when those supplying no longer attempt to increase the supply, and those demanding can't be bothered to reduce their usage of that particular commodity.


Consider -- if a gas station owner has gas, someone has to decide who gets it. If the price remains at pre-hurricane levels, many will fill their tanks, because they can afford to do so, against the chance (and even likelihood) that gas will later become completely unavailable (a self-fulfilling prophecy if the price is not allowed to rise). Many will do so even if they have no immediate need for it. But after the first few people do this, the gas will be gone, and none will be available for those who come after, because it's now tied up in the gas tanks of those who didn't really need it. Those who didn't get any may include emergency workers, or truck drivers who need it to go out and find other goods to bring in. It is likely worth more to them, but they didn't get it, because the price was artificially fixed. Moreover, had the price been allowed to rise, they would have been able to afford it, because they would have been able to demand more resources with which to pay for it -- the emergency worker might have had aid from local agencies to pay for it, or the truck driver might have been willing to make the investment in order to recover it by bringing in necessary goods (assuming, of course, that prices on those weren't capped).

Similarly, if ice prices rise to the market, the man who needs to keep his insulin cold for his diabetes treatment will place a higher value on it than the man who wants to keep his beer cold, and will have a better chance of getting it. The man who might rent two hotel rooms for his family for additional comfort might, in the face of appropriately higher prices, inconvenience himself and only get one, releasing one for another whole family.

This works for the supply side as well. Making and transporting ice costs money. When the local ice plant is out of commission, it has to be brought in from other locations, in refrigerated trucks, at higher gasoline costs. Who would bother to take the trouble, expense and risk to deliver it at a loss when they can only get the same price for it as before the hurricane?

Of course, some argue that prices shouldn't go up for stock on hand because the cost didn't go up. After all, the gas station owner is selling gas that he already paid for at pre-hurricane wholesale prices. Why should he make "obscene profits," taking advantage of a situation by jacking up the price when his price hasn't changed? But in reality his prices have already changed. He will have to replace the gas that he sells, and he knows, either indirectly because he understands the supply situation, or directly because he's gotten a call from his supplier, that the cost of his next tank load will be dramatically higher. In order to pay for it, he has to get as much as possible for the stock he has on hand, which means as much as the market will bear against his competition, if he has any. If he doesn't have any, then he just has to guess.

But won't some people make "unfair" profits from such "greed"?

Sure. Sometimes life isn't fair. We can't eliminate unfairness from life -- at best we can minimize it. But what's more unfair -- someone who supplies a community with needed goods while making a profit (at some financial, and even personal risk, given the breakdown of civil law in many areas, in which shipments can be hijacked), or someone who overpurchases and hoards a commodity because the price doesn't reflect the demand and supply? Ice at three dollars a bag doesn't do one much good if there are no bags available at that price.

The response to this, in turn, is that the solution is rationing. But is it more fair to have a bureaucrat, perhaps unfamiliar with the needs of the local community, making decisions about who should get scarce goods? Does the local commissar understand the market better than the market? We can recognize that when prices are high, some people of modest means may not get essential goods. A better solution for this is not to subsidize prices, which misallocate the resources due to the false market signals, but to subsidize the individuals who need help, by giving them cash or vouchers (somewhat akin to the food stamp program).

That should be required reading for every politician--and every voter. And every consumer.

The reason is African politics

Richard Dowden's The captured state, a review of Matthew Lockwood's The State They're In
The reason that—South Africa apart—sub-Saharan Africa has not developed is that it has not been in the interests of the controlling elites to develop it. In contrast to the "developmental states" of Asia—such as South Korea and Taiwan—which grew rich in the 1970s and 1980s by educating their populations and investing in export industries, Lockwood calls Africa's states anti-developmental, arguing that they actively discourage business, trade and innovation. In Asia, the rulers, often military men or one-party-state dictators just as in Africa, had a sense of national purpose, and the state broadly functioned for the public good. In Africa, the rulers captured the state, its institutions and sources of wealth, and kept it for themselves. They used it not to generate national wealth, but as sources of patronage to reward followers. Where reforms urged by western donors have threatened their interests, they "have resisted them until they have found ways to secure those interests in other ways," says Lockwood. is a timely critique of the view of Africa beloved of aid agencies and rock stars and adopted by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. That vision sees Africa as a victim of neglect, of international trade rules, too much debt and lack of aid. Support for dictators during the cold war and mistaken IMF and World Bank programmes in the 1980s are cited as other reasons for Africa's decline. (They rarely point out that Asian countries were also involved in the cold war, and had to deal with the IMF and World Bank too.) Lockwood points out that while the Asian tigers overtook and soared ahead, Africa remained dependent on a few raw commodities and lost market share, even in traditional African commodities, to Asian producers. With coffee, for example, while Ugandan production has remained level in recent years, Vietnam has in the past 20 years or so gone from zero to producing 20 times more than Uganda. As African industry withered, the Asian tigers managed to break into western markets even when tariffs were high. Tariffs today are non-existent or low for African produce, but Africa simply does not produce the right goods at the right price.


The problem is not an inefficient civil service or lack of local government. Nor is it just about corruption. The governing class in Asia was often corrupt too. But they ploughed back their money into their own countries. In Africa, an estimated 40 per cent of privately owned wealth—about half the value of Africa's debt stock—is held outside the continent. How can Africa ask for more foreign investment when its own wealthy do not invest in their own countries? African rulers strain every muscle to prevent anyone else developing a wealth or power base, even at the price of famine, war and national economic ruin.


This leads to the conclusion that only Africans can develop Africa. "The international community can play only a minor, supporting role in this drama," says Lockwood. This is often a hard lesson for donors to accept. It also casts doubt on the Live 8 message that we—or even eight men in a Scottish hotel in July—can end poverty in Africa. The Make Poverty History message has set everyone up for cruel disillusionment.

But what is to be done? The dilemma is that the majority of poor people in Africa live in badly run—though often rich—countries that are held back by their political structures. Aid to these countries helps to preserve the status quo. It is a dilemma no one has an answer to, not even Lockwood. He recommends setting an aid safety net for Africans and basing aid more on incentives: give aid to governments that hit targets for health, education and economic performance.

He also touches on the damage that rich countries still do to Africa. We may not be able to "save" Africa, but we can ensure that we do less harm. That does not just mean reforming our trade rules. It also means ending unnecessary arms sales (see [Joe Roeber]), tackling corruption by western-based companies in Africa, tracking stolen money in western bank accounts. It means stopping and reversing the brain drain from Africa and thinking creatively of ways in which African professionals abroad can be helped to contribute to development in their own countries. This may not save Africa, but it will remove some of the barriers to it creating its own future.

Thursday, September 1

Where to comment on "Plan B"

At the bottom of this page there is a link to the Online Comment Form. What is "Plan B"? See, for instance, FDA Official Quits Over Delay on Plan B.

Why I Now Watch Very Few Movies

I've complained about Manohla Dargis in the past, but now all is forgiven. In The Violence (and the Seafood) Is More Than Raw, she writes
"Oldboy" is a good if trivial genre movie, no more, no less. There's no denying that Mr. Park is some kind of virtuoso, but so what? So was the last guy who directed a Gap commercial. Cinematic virtuosity for its own sake, particularly as expressed through cinematography -- in loop-the-loop camera work and, increasingly, in computer-assisted ornamentation -- is a modern plague that threatens to bury us in shiny, meaningless movies. Historically speaking, the most interesting thing about "Oldboy" is that like so much "product" now coming out of Hollywood, it is a B movie tricked out as an A movie. Once, a film like this, predicated on extreme violence and staying within the prison house of genre rather than transcending it, would have been shot on cardboard sets with two-bit talent. It would have had its premiere in Times Square.

The fact that "Oldboy" is embraced by some cinephiles is symptomatic of a bankrupt, reductive postmodernism: one that promotes a spurious aesthetic relativism (it's all good) and finds its crudest expression in the hermetically sealed world of fan boys. (At this point, it's perhaps worth pointing out that the head of the jury at Cannes last year was none other than Quentin Tarantino.) In this world, aesthetic and moral judgments -- much less philosophical and political inquiries -- are rejected in favor of a vague taxonomy of cool that principally involves ever more florid spectacles of violence.
Extra points for "bankrupt, reductive postmodernism! Yeah, these days everything seems to be either ultraviolent or so artsy they're unwatchable, like Albanian Autumn.