Wednesday, December 27

A put-up job?

Taiwanese-American hip-hop singer Stanley Huang's (黃立行) new album has triggered protests from the religious community because the title song is about atheism, a Chinese-language daily reported yesterday.

Since radio and TV started playing Atheists Like Me, the lead song in the album, Huang's record company has received more than 100 phone calls protesting the content of the new song, the local China Times newspaper reported.

Huang's record company said it was prepared for the controversy and Huang stressed the song was about love, and had nothing to do with religion, the paper said.

But the protests kept pouring in, via telephone and e-mail, forcing Huang's record company to shut its website for three days, the paper added.

In the song, Huang says he does not believe in god or reincarnation, but believes in love.

It's not clear who has been offended by the tune, but most Taiwanese are Buddhists or Daoists. A small number are Christians, Muslims and atheists.

In his song 無神論 (which is literally "atheism", Chinese not really having a word for "atheist"), he doesn't say anything about reincarnation; he says that that there is no eternity and that he does not believe in gods.
不存在一種永恆 不相信世界有神
Anyway, I suspect this is a manufactured controversy to drum up publicity

Tuesday, December 26

'Barefoot Teachers' Left Behind in China

Rural Educators Lose Jobs in Push to Modernize
By Maureen Fan
JINZHOU, China -- For more than 30 years, Sun Jingxia taught math and Chinese to elementary school children in this small northeastern village. She was a poor farmer who had not even completed high school.

But equipped with a middle school education and a correspondence course from a vocational teaching school, Sun devoted herself to filling a desperate need for teachers in the countryside. She earned $1.60 a month when she began teaching in 1974 and collected a stack of awards and honors over the years. As one of the hundreds of thousands of nonprofessional, or "barefoot," teachers in this country -- peasants with little more than a vocational school certificate who help teach their impoverished neighbors -- Sun was part of a special time in Chinese history.

Several years ago, however, government officials announced they wanted to raise the standard of rural education. And now, although many barefoot teachers have qualified to become professionals, Sun and thousands like her have been cast aside. Some have lost their jobs; others, their pride.

The manner in which that happened speaks volumes about how difficult and wrenching the modernization of China's creaking socialist system can be, especially for a class of people once celebrated as the heart of the Communist Party.

The ideals championed when Sun first began teaching, such as embracing poverty and making do with the best available, have been replaced by a focus on higher incomes and on finding jobs for young college graduates. Now, barefoot teachers are just in the way.

"I devote my whole life to this school," Sun said. "It's so unfair."

Some researchers say times have simply changed. To have a sound and balanced education system, they say, China cannot keep employing nonprofessional teachers.

"It's just like the laid-off workers in the state-owned enterprises," said Hong Jun, a professor at Northeast Normal University's Institute of Rural Education. "China is a populous country with surplus labor forces."

What has happened to barefoot teachers, he said, is "the price of reform."

The plight of those teachers also illustrates how difficult it can be for Chinese leaders to improve conditions in the countryside while staving off rural unrest. The teachers are now joining the swelling ranks of petitioners -- a group Beijing does not want to see grow.

Barefoot teachers here in Liaoning province were not supposed to have been shoved aside. Officials in the provincial capital of Shenyang said teachers like Sun could be promoted to professional status, which would pay three to six times more than what they had been earning.

To make the shift, though, they had to meet certain conditions. One was to pass a test.

Sun recalled being so nervous that day in 2002 that her hands shook as she signed her name on the first page of the examination. She hadn't slept for two days, so her vision was blurry. Her reputation, career and long-awaited chance to raise her income all were at stake.

After the test, she said, she asked about her score, but her principal at first professed ignorance. Later, when she ran into him in the village market and demanded to know the truth, he told her that even with extra credit for her experience and awards, she had failed by one point. Sun said she crumpled into a heap by the side of the road, her bicycle clattering to the ground beside her.

"The test was not difficult; I knew the answers," Sun, 53, said in a halting voice. "I was sick, and I was so nervous because this is the exam that will determine my fate. But I never expected I would fail it."

In Jinzhou, about 2,900 barefoot teachers were promoted to professional status after the test, according to Wang Yinghua, 52, a barefoot teacher from a village 30 miles northwest of Sun's home. About 800 were dismissed from their jobs.

Wang was one of those dismissed, 27 years after starting work as a teacher. She had failed the exam by four points.

The government, Wang explained, had said "barefoot teachers should be treated the same as professional teachers when they retire, that they will gradually make all qualified barefoot teachers into professional teachers, step by step."

But as Wang and others learned, it didn't work that way. Instead, they say, the system was undermined by corruption.

Shortly after the test, the peasant teachers of Jinzhou began to hear stories about people promoted to professional status despite not having graduated from middle school, one of the necessary qualifications. They discovered former barefoot teachers who had not passed the exam. And they heard that some had bought their positions by paying local officials up to $6,400.

"As soon as I learned I had failed and there was corruption involved, we began to petition," Sun said. "In July, we went to the Jinzhou municipality government office building. There were 200 barefoot teachers, and we sat in their yard for four days. None of us could afford a hotel; we just slept on the ground."

That protest lasted more than a month, according to Wang. There were larger sit-ins in Shenyang late last year and again in March, June and July.

"Many of the new professional teachers are not even as good as us," Wang said. "Some are shoe sellers from the market. Some are butchers. One is even mute. He doesn't teach, but collects the salary and pays a cheap substitute to teach in his place. His father is a township government official."

Said Sun: "There is a professional teacher in my school, I won't mention her name. Her name is not on the list of people who passed the exam. She wasn't even a barefoot teacher before. I heard her family paid the education bureau. There are many people like her in every town in this place."

Sun's principal denied that any of his teachers had bought a professional position.

"No, of course not. . . . You have to go through a lot of procedures," said Zhao Dianping, principal of the 700-student Antun Town Compulsory Education School.

Asked if there were any exceptions, Zhao said yes, "red position workers," but would not elaborate. "I've already told you too much," he said.

Thousands of barefoot teachers have been pushed out of their jobs in at least three provinces besides Liaoning.

Though government officials consider the issue of barefoot teachers resolved, many rural schools still have a shortage of instructors. Zhao has been forced to hire substitute teachers. Some are former barefoot teachers; some have even less training.

Sun and Wang are among the barefoot teachers who have been hired as substitutes, but they say it is a small consolation.

Sun's principal invited her back three months after she failed the test. "The money is not much, but I know you cannot leave your students," he told her. She could barely bring herself to make eye contact with the other teachers in the school.

"When I saw my colleagues, I couldn't hold my tears," Sun said. "All my colleagues dropped their heads and looked at the floor."

Wang's barefoot colleagues include a 43-year-old teacher who now operates a rickshaw and a 46-year-old woman who has become a migrant worker. Both are now paid more than they were as teachers, but the money is not the point, Wang said. It is a matter of pride.

"We loved this position. Though we earned little, all we want to do is work hard and contribute to this country. This is about my reputation, our dignity," she said.

"I've been working as a teacher all of my life, and they say I'm unqualified at this age? It is the barefoot teachers who helped China to survive all those years by supporting rural education," said Wang, who has been given an administrative job at a police station. "Though we got a small amount of money, we never complained in all those years."

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.
Big surprise. China's corrupt. I wonder if the people who are quoted complaining will be tracked down and punished.

The Constant Gardener

In Capitalism: The Movie, Clive Crook writes,
The point is not that such movies, or the culture more generally, argue that capitalism is evil. Just the opposite: it is that they so often merely assume, innocently and expecting to arouse no skepticism, that capitalism is evil...
In the late 1980s, as Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on his perestroika program of economic reform, Soviet officials were sent abroad to see how things were done in the West. One visited London's main vegetable market. He asked how the market was organized, and how prices were set He was told that the individual traders bought whatever quantities they wished, and set their own prices, and that these fluctuated throughout the day as the balance of supply and demand changed. At this, the Soviet visitor laughed. He said he understood that this was the official line--but, please, how did the market really set prices?
That, in fact, was the reaction of an intelligent man. It is fantastically improbable that markets work, at scale, as well as they do. It is astonishing that in an economy of America's size--to say nothing of the world economy as a whole--a limitless variety of goods and services is continuously offered at prices people are willing to pay, without persistent gluts or shortages, entirely without central direction. That the system also calls forth an endless flow of innovation and improvement is a miracle. The man from Moscow was right to be incredulous.
And it gets better, because this infinitely complicated, decentralized system has an obvious affinity with personal liberty, in a way that a centrally directed system never could. Market exchange, after all, is voluntary; under central planning, you are told what to do--or else. Europe's newcomers from the former Soviet empire need no reminding of this. But people in Western Europe and the United States, who never had to endure the alternative to a market economy, see little or no force in the connection between economic and political liberty. Often it seems that those in the West who are most concerned with defending political or civil freedoms are least concerned with the economic kind, even to the point of being outright opposed to them. They argue as though political freedom is the real thing, whereas economic freedom is merely a cloak for injustice. In the end, as socialism in practice showed, the two are indivisible.
But does it matter, really, if people are less comfortable with the idea of capitalism than they might be, or should be? Up to a point, to be sure, this skepticism serves a purpose, drawing attention to ills and injustices that might otherwise be ignored. But there is a cost: the mood of discomfort and suspicion is a pity in itself, to the extent that it is unwarranted. Also, it fosters a demand for, or tolerance of, frivolous or wasteful interventions by government...
How about a movie in which a firm prospers under threat of competition by selling things that people want at an affordable price, paying its workers the market wage, and breaking no laws, thereby advancing the common good? Well, you see the problem.

Drugs industry 'not as film shows'

The boss of one of the world's biggest drugs companies has criticised an Oscar-nominated film for painting an untrue picture of the pharmaceuticals industry.

The Constant Gardener - starring British talent Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz - has won critical acclaim and box office success with its tale of misdeeds by big business.

Based on John le Carre's novel, it tells the story of a human rights activist murdered after discovering a big pharmaceuticals company was testing experimental drugs on poor Africans.

But Jean-Pierre Garnier, chief executive of Anglo-American drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline, made clear he was not impressed by the depiction of the industry in the film.

Mr Garnier told Channel 4 News: "The problem with this movie is that the author, at least in the book, attempted to link too much his fiction with reality - a reality that doesn't exist.

"When I see the work that we have done in Africa and the difference that our products make in the areas portrayed in the movie - and I have actually been there, I don't know if the author of the movie and the book have - the fact of the matter is the pharmaceutical industry has made a tremendous contribution.

"None of the scenario elements and plots in this movie have any relation to reality.

"It is a nice piece of fiction, let's enjoy it. It's entertainment, but it's not what we are all about."

GlaxoSmithKline today announced profits for 2005 of £6.73 billion.

Derek Lowe writes,
I believe that it was Ben Stein who once said that only in Hollywood could you have a setup of a murdered drug dealer in a dangerous neighborhood, with the villian turning out to be a wealthy businessman from the suburbs. Portraying an industry, which is actually saving and trying to save millions of people from suffering, as an assortment of amoral killers is the same formula. It's isn't new, and it isn't shocking. It isn't brave, and it isn't true.
and LARRY E. RIBSTEIN has a paper about Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business
American films have long presented a negative view of business. This article is the first comprehensive and in-depth analysis of filmmakers' attitude toward business. It shows that it is not business that filmmakers dislike, but rather the control of firms by profit-maximizing capitalists. The article argues that this dislike stems from filmmakers' resentment of capitalists' constraints on their artistic vision. Filmmakers' portrayal of business is significant because films have persuasive power that tips the political balance toward business regulation.

Monday, December 18

There are still people like this

"One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal," wrote George Orwell in 1945. He meant not the classical liberal who believed in individual freedoms and small government but the leftist liberal who glorified communist experiments and disdained middle-class life. To Orwell, the existence of intellectuals who loved the Soviet Union despite the purges, mocked "bourgeois liberty" despite the pleasing bourgeois circumstances of their own lives, and identified with revolutionary movements that would speedily ship them off to camps--this was a fact in need of explanation.
That may have been what he meant, but it's not exactly what he said. Then I found this:
The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in
half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing
about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude,
their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is
little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never
been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked
characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world
of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many
intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for
war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off
when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the
people who were most 'anti-Fascist' during the Spanish Civil War are most
defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so
many of the English intelligentsia--their severance from the common
culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized.
They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the
general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident
thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals
are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always
felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman
and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse
racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably
true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of
standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a
poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping
away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes
squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always
anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it
certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a
real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they
were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual
sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the NEW STATESMAN and
the NEWS CHRONICLE cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they
had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic
Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than
it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed
forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class
must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism
hastened the process.

Saturday, December 16

Another moral panic

Benjamin Radford writes,

The news media’s tendency toward alarmism only partly explains the concern. America is in the grip of a moral panic over sexual predators, and has been for many months. A moral panic is a sociological term describing a social reaction to a false or exaggerated threat to social values by moral deviants. (For more on moral panics, see Ehrich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda’s 1994 book Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance.)

In a discussion of moral panics, sociologist Robert Bartholomew points out that a defining characteristic of the panics is that the “concern about the threat posed by moral deviants and their numerical abundance is far greater than can be objectively verified, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary.” Furthermore, according to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, during a moral panic “most of the figures cited by moral panic ‘claims-makers’ are wildly exaggerated.”

More specifically,

The tragic irony is that the panic over sex offenders distracts the public from the real danger, a far greater threat to children than sexual predators: parental abuse and neglect. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by released sex offenders but instead by the victim’s own family, church clergy, and family friends. According to a 2003 report by the Department of Human Services, hundreds of thousands of children are abused and neglected each year by their parents and caregivers, and more than 1,500 American children died from that abuse in 2003—most of the victims under four years old. That is more than four children killed per day—not by convicted sexual offenders or Internet predators, but by those entrusted to care for them. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.”

If journalists, child advocates, and lawmakers are serious about wanting to protect children, they should turn from the burning matchbook in front of them to face the blazing forest fire behind them. The resources allocated to tracking ex-felons who are unlikely to re-offend could be much more effectively spent on preventing child abuse in the home and hiring more social workers.

Eventually this predator panic will subside and some new threat will take its place. Expensive, ineffective, and unworkable laws will be left in its wake when the panic passes. And no one is protecting America from that.

Hmm. Erich Goode also wrote Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate.

The stratification is more economic than racial

Walter Benn Michaels writes,

Noliwe M. Rooks...has published an important book, White Money/Black Power (Beacon, 2006), in which she points out that there is no demonstrated connection between African-American-studies programs and the recruitment of black students, and wonders "why the association between attracting black students and an African-American-studies program [is] still so strong, despite all the evidence to the contrary."

Maybe part of the answer is that elite universities have come to think of African-American-studies programs on the model of state-of-the-art fitness facilities: No one goes to a college just because it has a great climbing wall, but, all other things being equal, the great climbing wall might clinch the deal...

But it's almost certainly wrong to attribute the attraction of African-American-studies programs merely to their putative ability to attract African-American students (or even, as Rooks more plausibly suggests, to their ability at least to attract African-American faculty members). And we can begin to see why by thinking about the current vogue for another kind of racialized program, Asian-American studies. Right now there are far fewer Asian-American- than African-American-studies programs, but their number is increasing... But the rationale here has very little to do with recruiting more Asian-American students either into universities in general or into our university in particular. On the contrary, we have lots of Asian-American students, as do most of the places with African-American-studies programs...the constitution of Asian-American-studies programs on the model of African-American-studies programs — as if Asian-Americans were comparable victims of American racism — looks almost like a kind of parody. Michael Rogin once brilliantly described the use of blackface in Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer as a device through which the immigrant Jew first becomes American by identifying himself with the African-American (putting the blackface on), and then (taking the blackface off) succeeds as an American by becoming white. "The jazz singer rises," Rogin said, "by putting on the mask of a group that must remain immobile, unassimilable and fixed at the bottom." There's a certain sense in which Asian-American studies is a kind of blackface, a performance that produces the image of racialized oppression alongside the reality of economic success.

But there's a more-important sense in which even African-American studies is a kind of blackface, a performance not only of blackness but of race itself. Asian-Americans are overrepresented in elite colleges like Princeton; African-American students are underrepresented. But no one's as underrepresented in those colleges as poor people. And no one's looking to get their numbers up to where, if you wanted to eliminate the underrepresentation, they would have to be. A Princeton that managed to lure enough black students away from the other Ivies to constitute 12 percent of its entering class (just as African-Americans constitute approximately 12 percent of the American population) would be a more diverse Princeton. A Princeton where 50 percent of the entering class consisted of students who came from households earning under $46,326 (the median income in the United States) would be an entirely different institution.

In the Princeton class of 2009, 196 students (out of a total of 1,229, a little under 16 percent) came from households that Princeton characterizes as low-income households earning under $50,900 a year. But even though those numbers aren't all that wonderful, Princeton is a real leader here: According to Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, roughly 10 percent of students at the 146 colleges and universities ordinarily ranked as highly selective come from the bottom half of the socioeconomic scale...

Rooks makes an interesting observation toward the end of White Money/Black Power. She describes the class discussion among a group of Princeton students who had been watching the television show The Corner, with its vivid depiction of a black neighborhood in Baltimore both structured and destroyed by drugs. Many of the African-American students hated the show and denied it had any relevance either to their lives or to "real life" in general since, they said, "black people just don't really act like that." The white students didn't like it any better since, as one of them said, there was "no one in the show" they could "like and feel sorry for." The problem for all the students, Rooks says, was that they were made to feel "uncomfortable," and the problem for her is her own discomfort with the idea that "a successful argument about racial inequity" should be required to depend on the comfort of its viewers.

Although I don't want to make too much out of The Corner, it's possible to see a somewhat different moral in this story. We expect their shared blackness to form a bond between the African-American students at Princeton and the African-Americans on the streets of Baltimore, and the students themselves share that expectation. That's why, when they don't feel the bond, they deny that the people in the show are really behaving like black people. And they are right to deny it. What the people in the show are behaving like is not black people but very, very poor people. And when the white students complain that there is no one to feel sorry for, they too are complaining that the people in the show are not really black; they are not the victims of discrimination and racism; they are the victims of poverty. What both race and racism give the antiracist upper middle class is a way to "like" the victims of economic inequality. Take their race away, and what the upper middle class sees on that television show is not the image of its own virtue (that's what make us comfortable), but the reverse face of its own success.

My point, then, is that the commitment to African-American studies, like the commitment to Asian-American studies, is a commitment to describing our social problems in a way that will make all of us — teachers as well as students, alumni as well as parents — feel comfortable. It does this by racializing injustice at a moment when race is less relevant to injustice — at least to the injustice done by elite universities — in America than it has ever been. Rooks quotes Orlando Patterson as saying, "The doors are wide open for ... black middle-class kids to enter elite colleges." The relevant term here is "middle-class." African-American- and Asian-American-studies programs tell us that, from the standpoint of social justice, the crucial thing about us is our identity, at the very moment when, again from the standpoint of social justice, the crucial thing about us is our wealth.

From this standpoint, African-American and Asian-American studies are two of the very many ways in which an elite (predominantly white, increasingly Asian, and still only a very little bit black) represents to itself a vision of social justice that has less and less to do with the great social injustice — economic stratification — from which that elite benefits.

But then he concludes that such programs are good because
the people who belong to those elites didn't all get there because of hard work and ability [and] these programs are the places where questions about the meaning of race (and its handmaiden, culture) get raised. No assertion is more common in American intellectual life today than the insistence that race and class (and gender) are inextricably intertwined, and, in a certain sense, this is obviously true.

China's only partial conversion to capitalism

Will Hutton says,
Everything in China is subject to the party. Yet capitalism is much more than the profit motive and the freedom to set prices that China's reforms have permitted. The effective use of resources also depends upon a network of independent processes of scrutiny and accountability, undertaken by people in multiple centres of power and backed by rights and private property. A democratic election system is but the coping stone of this structure.

Judges who rule on evidence to deliver justice, newspapers reporting events and even corporate whistleblowers are crucial to the operation of western capitalism. It is the interaction of these hard and soft processes—what I call an "Enlightenment infrastructure"—that allows technological progress to be exploited efficiently and relatively honestly. China had markets, property and technology in the 18th century; it fell behind because it didn't have Enlightenment structures. It lacked the "trinity" of pluralism (multiple centres of political and economic power), capabilities (rights, education, private ownership) and justification (accountability, scrutiny, free expression).

The Chinese Communist party, despite local piecemeal experimentation, is repeating the mistake of the Confucian imperial system. It is the lack of independent scrutiny and accountability that lies behind the massive waste of investment and China's destruction of its environment. The reason so few people can name a great Chinese brand or company, despite the country's export success, is that there are none. China needs to build them, but doing that in an authoritarian state is impossible. In any case, more than 55 per cent of China's exports, especially high-tech ones, are made by foreign firms—another sign of China's weakness.

China needs to become a more normal economy. Chinese consumers need to save less and spend more, but people without property rights or state welfare are understandably cautious. Giving them more confidence would require secure property rights and taxation to fund a welfare system. That would mean creating an empowered middle class that would want to know how its taxes are spent. This is a political impossibility.
Wikipedia says of Hutton
The analysis in his books is characterised by a support for the European Union and its potential, and a disdain for what he calls American conservatism — defined as a certain attitude to markets, property and the social contract, among other factors.

I can face men

So is the army a force for female equality?
Stomping her boots and swinging her bony arms, Fadwa Hamdan led a column of troops through this bleak Texas base.

Only six months earlier, she wore the head scarf of a pious Muslim woman and dropped her eyes in the presence of men. Now she was marching them to dinner.

“I’m gonna be a shooting man, a shooting man!” she cried, her Jordanian accent lost in the chanting voices. “The best I can for Uncle Sam, for Uncle Sam!”

The United States military has long prided itself on molding raw recruits into hardened soldiers. Perhaps none have undergone a transformation quite like that of Ms. Hamdan.

Forbidden by her husband to work, she raised five children behind the drawn curtains of their home in Saudi Arabia. She was not allowed to drive. On the rare occasions when she set foot outside, she wore a full-face veil.

Then her world unraveled. Separated from her husband, who had taken a second wife, and torn from her children, she moved to Queens to start over. Struggling to survive on her own, she answered a recruiting advertisement for the Army and enlisted in May.

Ms. Hamdan’s passage through the military is a remarkable act of reinvention. It required courage and sacrifice. She had to remove her hijab, a sacred symbol of the faith she holds deeply. She had to embrace, at the age of 39, an arduous and unfamiliar life.

In return, she sought what the military has always promised new soldiers: a stable home, an adoptive family, a remade identity. She left one male-dominated culture for another, she said, in the hope of finding new strength along the way.

“Always, I dream I have power on the inside, and one day it’s going to come out,” said Ms. Hamdan, a small woman with delicate hands and sad, almond eyes...

Sgt. First Class Willie Brannon, an imposing 48-year-old man with a stern jaw and a leveling stare...ordered the soldiers to change into shorts. Ms. Hamdan explained softly that she was Muslim and could not do this.

“This is the Army,” he replied. “Everybody’s the same.”

Ms. Hamdan burst into tears.

The issue had arisen at the base before, and some of the Muslim women had been permitted to wear sweat pants instead of shorts. Officially, it would be Ms. Hamdan’s choice.

But from the sidelines came two opposing directives, one in English and the other in Arabic. The drill sergeants wanted Ms. Hamdan to get used to wearing shorts, while several of the male Muslim soldiers tried to shame her into refusing.

“You’re not supposed to show your legs,” they told her.

For three weeks, she wore the blue nylon shorts, hitching up her white socks. Then she switched to sweat pants, even as the summer heat surpassed 100 degrees.

It helped, Ms. Hamdan thought, that there were so many similarities between Islam and the Army.

The command “Attention!” reminded her of the first step in the daily Muslim prayer, when one must stand completely still.

Soldiers, like Muslims, were instructed to eat with one hand. The women ate by themselves, and always walked with an escort, as Muslim women traditionally traveled.

The Army taught soldiers to live with order. They folded their fatigues as women folded their hijabs, and woke before sunrise as Ms. Hamdan had done all her life. They always marched behind a flag, as Muslims did in the days of the Prophet.

Nothing felt more familiar than the military’s emphasis on respect. Soldiers learned to tuck their hands behind their backs when speaking to superiors...

At 19, she said, she secretly volunteered as a nurse with the Jordanian police, infuriating her parents. That same year, a visiting Palestinian doctor who lived in New York spotted her in the street.

He tracked down her home address, and spoke to her father. The next day, Ms. Hamdan learned she was engaged...

Ms. Hamdan joined her husband in Staten Island in 1987. She felt nothing for him. He was 10 years her senior, and she found him stiff and dictatorial. He only let her leave the house with him, she said. If she upset him, he refused to speak to her for months...

Weeks after Ms. Hamdan delivered her fifth child in 2000, she learned from her mother-in-law that her husband was taking a second wife in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Ms. Hamdan was shocked...

In September 2002, she moved to Queens to live with her brother and his wife. She returned to wearing a regular head scarf, or hijab, and started classes at a local community college. One night she came home late, she said, and her brother told her to leave. “She did not follow the rules of the house,” the brother, Sam Saeed, said in an interview...

In 2003, she spotted an ad for the Army in an Arabic-language magazine. She met with a recruiter but cut the conversation short after learning she would have to remove her head scarf before enlisting.

Secretly, though, she kept imagining a new, military life. In March, she made up her mind.

“I broke the law with God,” she said of her decision to remove her hijab. “I had to.”

She put her belongings in storage. She began lifting 20-pound weights. She slipped off her veil in public a few times. She felt naked...

Life at Lackland — where soldiers cannot chew gum, wear makeup or leave the base — reminded Ms. Hamdan of her marriage.

“Sometimes, when I’m by myself, I wonder how I have stayed here for six months,” she said as she sat outside her barracks one recent evening. “But I did it.”

Days later, she decided to wear the shorts again.

“What, we have a new soldier here?” Sergeant Brannon called out as she walked deliberately down the stairs.

“I am going to show the men I’m like them,” she told him later. “I’m a man now.”

“No, you’re not a man” he said.

“Yes, I’m a man.”

“No,” he said. “You’re a strong-willed woman.”

That became his nickname for her: strong-willed woman.

As Ms. Hamdan’s status rose with the drill sergeants, so did her standing among the soldiers.

“Sometimes I’m tough on them,” she said one recent weekday as she patrolled her floor. The women smiled from their bunk beds. “I like everything clean.”

Another morning, she sat in the mess hall, eating her daily breakfast of Froot Loops followed by nacho-cheese Doritos. A drill sergeant called out that the group had three minutes to finish, just as a clean-shaven soldier walked past Ms. Hamdan with a tray full of food. She shot him a hard look.

“Three minutes,” she repeated. “You hear that?”

The greatest shift for Ms. Hamdan came in her relationship with the male soldiers. They stopped taunting her about wearing shorts. When she gave orders, they listened.

“It seems like a heavy burden has been lifted from her,” Sergeant Brannon said.

Yet even as she felt herself changing, she remained steady in her faith. She never stopped praying five times a day. She attended the base’s mosque each Friday and fasted through the holy month of Ramadan.

On a recent Friday, she sat with her eyes closed on the mosque’s embroidered carpet, wearing a white veil and skirt over her Army fatigues.

“Staying on the straight path is not an easy matter, except for those who Allah helps to do so,” the Egyptian imam said in Arabic over a loudspeaker.

In November, Ms. Hamdan’s English score was still too low, by 11 points, even though she was performing better on the weekly quizzes. She was given a one-month extension, and one more chance.

She took her last exam in December, and failed again. She ran from her classroom.

“Don’t come looking for me,” she recalled telling a startled drill sergeant.

By herself, Ms. Hamdan began walking across the base. Tears streamed down her face as she reached the two-story, concrete building that had long been her refuge.

She climbed the stairs of the mosque. Alone, she knelt on the carpet and prayed. Finally, she sat in silence. She felt at peace.

Ms. Hamdan will be discharged on Dec. 15. She is unsure of what the future holds. She may stay in Texas and look for a job. She may no longer wear a hijab in public. All she knows is that she is different now, and no less a Muslim for it.

“I can face men,” she said. “I can fight. I can talk. I don’t keep it inside.”

She thought for a moment.

“I changed myself,” she said. “I’m a new Fadwa. Strong female. I like this.”
Or is being a soldier like being married to a bossy husband?

Monday, December 11

It sounds like a good idea, but...

[N]ot everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution”, winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is “ridiculous” because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.

What of the claim that organic farming is more energy-efficient? Lord Melchett [Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic lobby group] points out for example that the artificial fertiliser used in conventional farming is made using natural gas, which is “completely unsustainable”. But Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.

What about Fairtrade? Its aim is to address “the injustice of low prices” by guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price “however unfair the conventional market is”, according to FLO International's website. In essence, it means paying producers an above-market “Fairtrade” price for their produce, provided they meet particular labour and production standards...

The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium—in effect, a subsidy—both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of “The Undercover Economist” (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production...

Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour. In particular, for some commodities (including coffee) certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium. Coffee plantations or large family firms cannot be certified... Yet limiting certification to co-ops means “missing out on helping the vast majority of farm workers, who work on plantations,” says Mr Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies producers of all kinds.

...perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.

“Local is the new organic” has become the unofficial slogan of the local-food movement in the past couple of years. The rise of “Big Organic”, the large-scale production of organic food to meet growing demand, has produced a backlash and claims that the organic movement has sold its soul. Purists worry that the organic movement's original ideals have been forgotten as large companies that produce and sell organic food on an industrial scale have muscled in.

This partly explains why food bought from local producers either directly or at farmers' markets is growing in popularity, and why local-food advocates are now the keepers of the flame of the food-activism movement. Local food need not be organic, but buying direct from small farmers short-circuits industrial production and distribution systems in the same way that buying organic used to. As a result, local food appears to be immune to being industrialised or corporatised. Organic food used to offer people a way to make a “corporate protest”, says Mr Pollan, and now “local offers an alternative to that.”

Buying direct means producers get a fair price, with no middlemen adding big margins along the distribution chain. Nor has local food been shipped in from the other side of the country or the other side of the world, so the smaller number of “food miles” makes local food greener, too. Local food thus appeals in different ways to environmentalists, national farm lobbies and anti-corporate activists, as well as consumers who want to know more about where their food comes from.

Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimising the “food miles” associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.

The term “food mile” is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain's environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).

The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.) And even if flying food in from the developing world produces more emissions, that needs to be weighed against the boost to trade and development.

There is a strand of protectionism and anti-globalisation in much local-food advocacy, says Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales. Local food lets farming lobbies campaign against imports under the guise of environmentalism. A common argument is that local food is fresher, but that is not always true: green beans, for example, are picked and flown to Britain from Kenya overnight, he says. People clearly want to think that they are making environmentally or socially optimal food choices, he says, but “we don't have enough evidence” to do so.

Friday, December 8

Health insurance is about managing risk, not prepayment of care

So says Michael F. Cannon, linking to Jay of Colorado Health Insurance Insider:

What if you had supermarket insurance and 20% was the most you would pay for any item you bought? Would you be as choosy about what you buy as you are now? Would you care as much about price? If you didn’t care as much about price, would the supermarket have an incentive to keep prices down?

Today, most people still expect their employer to pay for their insurance. They see it as an “extra” benefit. In reality, in a state like Colorado the policy will cost the employer more than 2x what a similar individual/family health insurance plan will cost, just because they aren’t underwritten. I would rather have a bigger salary and go shop for my own health insurance with the extra money.

Employer sponsored health insurance plans usually have low copays and low deductibles. And a lot of people still prefer to stay away from plans that don’t have copays or have a high deductible. They think that “insured” means “free”.
His solution is health savings accounts, but even before we get there, many Americans will insist that health care is a right that someone else should pay for.

Tuesday, December 5

Problems with tuition subsidies

Richard Posner writes: does not appear that many persons who would benefit from a college education fail to obtain one. As Becker points out, the private returns (higher earnings) from a college degree are very great and a student can borrow to finance the tuition and other costs of the degree.

...if I am right that very few persons who could benefit from a college education are deterred by its cost, the main effect of increasing the subsidy will be to attract applicants who would not benefit if they weren't being "paid" to attend college. That would be a misallocation of resources.
Milton Friedman's argument about students who take advantage of subsidies to enjoy a pleasant interlude is a little blunter.

Arnold Kling writes of "Wizard-of-Oz Diplomas":
One politically popular idea is to try to send more young adults to college. This may seem appealing, but in reality we already have too many students in college who lack sufficient basic skills...

I fear that many of the students who pass will go on to earn Wizard-of-Oz diplomas, which signify nothing. Students will claim to be educated, but employers will know otherwise. The phenomenon of the Wizard-of-Oz diploma has discredited the college degree.

...many entry barriers in education are artificial. One of the biggest entry barriers is that government aid to education is given to incumbent institutions, rather than to parents and students. It is difficult for an entrepreneur to compete with a school or college that receives a hefty subsidy from the government. Changing the form of government aid from institutional assistance to vouchers would be a major step toward removing entry barriers in the field of education.

Another entry barrier is the accreditation process, which is controlled by the incumbents. Imagine what would happen in another industry, such as supermarkets or landscaping services, if in order to start a new business in that industry you had to become accredited by a board consisting mostly of incumbents in that industry. Nobody likes competition, and it is easy to think of excuses not to accredit a newcomer, especially an innovative upstart. If we had such an accreditation system in place in other industries, competition would be stifled, and the incumbents would be under no pressure to improve service or reduce costs. Creating a consumer-oriented accreditation board would help to lower this important entry barrier.

In my view, the key to improving education is removing entry barriers and allowing alternative schooling experiments to flourish. From this perspective, the politicians of both parties who are most strongly "pro-education" are in fact the biggest obstacles to improvement, since their policies serve only to entrench the educational establishment.
So, no tuition subsidies? No limiting the competition? What's next? Defined-Contribution Plans instead of Defined-Benefit Plans or Money-Purchase Pension Plans for state employees? Oh, the humanity!

More from Debating debt:
it's possible that college doesn't cost students enough. One of my favourite professors said to me, just before I graduated from a very expensive institution of American higher learning, "Why is it that you all spend so much time trying to make sure that you get as little as possible for your $100,000?" The answer is that since we mostly weren't paying for it, we didn't value it very highly.

Raising the Minimum Wage: Another Empty Promise to the Working Poor

By 2003, only 17 percent of low-wage employees were living in poor households. Consequently, attempting to target poor families by manipulating wages is an inefficient means of addressing the problem.

Even more important than the number of low-wage employees living in poor households is the number of low-wage employees who are the heads of poor households. This stereotypical beneficiary of an increase in the wage floor is the one supporters of minimum wage increases claim represents the typical minimum wage employee. In reality, a small fraction of low-wage employees are the head of a poor household, and this number has decreased significantly over time... By 2003, only 9 percent of low-wage employees were heading a poor household.

Federal Minimum Wage Increases and Poverty Abyproduct of the aforementioned changes in the composition of family incomes is that the poor make up a small percentage of beneficiaries from a wage hike. Contrary to popular perception, the average minimum wage employee is not in poverty or raising a family on a mini-mum wage income. Analyzing Census data, the authors found that a beneficiary from a proposed federal minimum wage hike to $7.25 an hour is far more likely to be in a family earning more than three times the poverty line than in a poor family. In total, only 12.7 percent of the benefits from a federal minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour would go to poor families. In contrast, 63 percent of benefits would go to families earning more than twice the poverty line and 42 percent would go to families earning more than three times the poverty line.

While the minimum wage is often promoted as a policy designed to help the poor, minorities, and single mothers, this analysis reveals that only 3.7 percent of the benefits from a $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage would go to poor African-American families. Only 3.8 percent would go to poor singlemother households. Even more troubling, the majority of “working poor” families—families who are working but remain in poverty— receive no benefit from an increase to $7.25 an hour. These families don’t benefit because they already earn more than the new federal minimum wage and remain in poverty either because of a low number of hours worked or a large family size. Many of these individuals would benefit far more from an increase in the generosity of federal and state EITC programs.

Monday, December 4

I'm Impressed by Vinge's pinyin

I didn't enjoy it that much, but one thing that impressed me about Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End was that when one of the characters spoke Chinese, it was rendered in Chinese (pinyin) correctly, by which I mean the grammar was correct and idiomatic, and the pinyin was rendered with tone marks, which is rare even in academic writing. (Even if he didn't do it himself, he knew enough to consult someone who knew to use pinyin correctly.)

Sunday, December 3

Lives are apparently worth an infinite amount of money

As Trucking Rules Are Eased, a Debate on Safety Grows discusses all of the negative impact and presents a case that the trucking industry is manipulating the government, but the fact that somewhere there is a point where regulations impose excessive costs on consumers is never addressed.

Best Chinese Restaurants in Southern California

The East Is West: The Best Chinese Restaurants in Southern California
THERE are probably more Chinese in Los Angeles than in any metropolitan area outside of China. (The same very likely could be said of Mexicans, Iranians, Koreans, Japanese and more, which is what makes Los Angeles the best international eating city in the world.) Fifty years ago, most Chinese immigrants were concentrated in a typical downtown Chinatown, which still exists, but more as a relic than a vibrant community.

In the last few decades, in typical Southern California fashion, the Chinese have claimed a freeway. It is the portion of I-10 known as the San Bernardino Freeway. This road runs through the San Gabriel Valley, straight east from downtown, all the way to Jacksonville, Fla. (to the west, it runs only 10 miles, to Santa Monica). And for its first 50 miles or so, from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, it is a modern-day Chinatown, a string of multiethnic communities that all have a large, dynamic Chinese population. There is strong evidence of this in the chains of Chinese supermarkets, the likes of which exist nowhere else in the country. (In these stores, announcements are made first in Mandarin, then in Korean, then Vietnamese; then Spanish, and last English. Really.)

There is equally strong evidence in the restaurants of Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monterey Park and other nearby communities. Before World War II, this was an area of horse farms, orange groves and the like. Now it looks like every other new, freeway-oriented section in the parts of the country that have been overdeveloped in the last 20 years.

Yet these places are not without charm. You can see it on the Main Street of Alhambra, where you will, if you follow my advice, drop everything, and rush to eat at Triumphal Palace. (Don’t you love this? “Honey, let’s go to Alhambra and eat at the Triumphal Palace.”)

Triumphal Palace

The restaurant follows in the tradition of popular places such as NBC Seafood, Mission 261 — about which, more in a moment — and the ill-named New Concept. Their menus are large and long — several pages, at least — and often feature esoteric and very expensive ingredients such as abalone, shark’s fin and bird’s nest.

For my money — and though it’s upscale by comparison, it doesn’t take much — Triumphal Palace is the best of the lot, with food that is full-flavored, intricate and subtle, sometimes almost tame. The roast duck, which looks like every other Chinese roast duck you’ve ever had, is so good I suspect it’s not “roast” at all, but fried in clarified butter; it’s that crisp, tender and flavorful. It needs nothing, and certainly not the accompanying marmalade-like substance, which you should not allow to touch the duck. Other dishes are similarly simple, and just about as good: stir-fried Dungeness crab with scallion and ginger; pea greens with mushrooms and the distinctively flavored dried scallops; a pretty dish of chicken slices, huge shiitakes, ham and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), served in layers.

For all of this, Triumphal Palace is perhaps better known for its dim sum (served every day at lunchtime) than for its dinner dishes. Like many of the grand West Coast Chinese restaurants, from Vancouver on south, the dim sum is ordered from a menu — you’re invariably given a short pencil and a printed sheet, to tick off what you want — cooked fresh and served hot, rather than being hawked from steam carts. (Still, the problem of everything coming at once can only be solved by staggering your order.)

Six of us — one of whom now claims she will be married here — shared 24 dishes (about 18 of which came within 10 minutes), and while all except the predictably sad desserts were good, some were incredible. These were barbecue pork belly, firm cubes of slow-cooked, crunchy-skinned fresh bacon that, I swear, were a dead-on replica of a dish Alain Ducasse used to serve at about five times the price; Chiu Chow-style dumplings, with thick, chewy, slightly crisp rice-flour exteriors filled with (could it be?) jasmine-scented meat; deep-fried carrot cake, in fact a savory-sweet custard-filled dumpling; boiled baby bok choy in fish stock, which, like the duck I’d had at dinner, contained some secret ingredient that was the Bomb; and a wonderful layered creation of pan-fried sticky rice with egg.

On a recent Sunday morning, the place was packed, as usual. The design is faux Deco-slash-modern, not horrible, but with the inevitable stark lighting. Still, the walls are of wood, there are tablecloths, and the chairs are padded and comfortable. At dinner the napkins are cloth, and the plates are changed frequently.

Mission 261

Triumphal Palace has taken the place of Mission 261 as My New Favorite Restaurant, but the latter — in an adobe complex, at least some of which was the city hall of the (no sarcasm here) lovely center of San Gabriel — has a couple of astonishing advantages. First off, it may be the best-looking Chinese restaurant in the country, with its whitewashed walls, oak-beamed ceilings and internal courtyard. Second, you can enjoy your dim sum alfresco, and to sit outside on a sunny Sunday morning eating two dozen spicy, high-quality little dishes is about as close to paradise as I’ve been.

And if it is not quite up to the currently high level of the dim sum served at Triumphal Palace, it remains very, very good. What I found disappointing at Mission 261 was dinner, which had fallen a long way from its own lofty standards of just a couple of years ago. Still, the shrimp with scrambled eggs, the steamed fish, the braised pork — these remain winners.

Chung King

Sadly, it seems that almost all of the large, fancy Chinese restaurants east of Los Angeles start out with a bang and then taper off toward mediocrity. With the smaller, less ambitious, perhaps more regionally loyal places, consistency is more predictable. This is certainly the case with Chung King, an unlikely dive on Garfield, one of the more important through streets in Monterey Park.

I’ve been a semi-regular here for about five years. The food is strictly Sichuan (Chungking is the largest city in Sichuan Province) and, honestly, it puts just about every other Sichuan restaurant in the United States that I’m familiar with to shame. You know how some Chinese restaurants have little chili symbols next to the hot dishes? Every dish in the entire first column of the menu here, with — literally — one exception, has a little chili symbol next to it. Fully half the dishes are blazingly hot — they must go through a coffee-sack of dried peppers daily — but tamed by the mouth-numbing sensation of floral-scented Sichuan peppercorns. This is a mind-body experience not to be missed: your body, abused with chilies, is crying “Please stop,” while your mind, entranced by the incredible flavors, keeps directing the chopsticks from plate or bowl to mouth and back again.

I’d go here with four or six people, so you can order a variety of dishes (ignore the steam table set up in the back unless you’re trying to spend less than five bucks): the brick-red boiled pork in hot sauce (oh, boy), fried chicken with hot pepper (do not make the mistake of ordering chicken with chili and peanuts, which is more the standard kung pao), fish slices in small pot (“only” an 8 on the 10-scale of heat), and maybe something tame like one of the great rice-crust dishes, which are essentially mild stir-fries served on freshly made rice cakes.

Non-Chinese speakers may have a problem here (even the English “expert” has trouble), but among the other customers are certain to be plenty of fluent Chinese-and-English speakers, willing to help. At least that’s how I’ve gotten by. (Note that it is cash only, though it would be hard to spend more than $20 a person anyway.)

Chang’s Garden

Chang’s Garden, a little farther east and nestled right under the mountains in scenic Arcadia, is not quite as ugly as some of the other little joints around, but it’s ordinary-looking enough and, like so many restaurants in Los Angeles, it’s in a strip mall. I was steered here by my friend and sometime-guide Carl Chu, who knows more about Chinese restaurants in America than anyone, and whose “Chinese Food Finder: Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley” is indispensable for the adventuresome eater.

The food at Chang’s Garden is Shanghai style, which means often quite sweet and usually quite fatty; the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, for example, has a nicely braised rib tucked inside the pocket of rice; the scallion bread is as crisp and greasy as a slice of good pizza; pork lacquered with brown sauce is almost but not quite sticky-sweet — in fact it’s nicely balanced.

But some dishes show the subtler, more sophisticated side of Shanghai cuisine: I especially liked the mildly delicious shrimp in tea leaves, and the fish chowder — I’m quite sure the broth was made from meat, unless there’s some especially meaty fish out there I don’t know about — with loads of fish meat, egg and scallion.

Foo Chow

Finally, there’s Foo Chow, in the original downtown Chinatown, one of the few Chinese places left in Los Angeles proper that won’t make you want to hop in your car and head east to Alhambra.

Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” was filmed here, but clearly with help from a brilliant set designer, because the place is, well, a dump. However, it’s inexpensive almost beyond belief, and it boasts the most cosmopolitan crowd I’ve ever seen in a Chinese restaurant. Furthermore, there are some dishes here you won’t have elsewhere, especially the selection of creations made with red wine sauce (the wine is a kind of rice mash); while the chicken in red wine won’t make you forget coq au vin, it is delicious, though it cannot vie for a second with the fried eel, which is first marinated in red wine and then deep fried; it’s irresistible.

Perhaps I’m not lavishing enough praise on these places in general; when in Los Angeles, I tend to forget that the average Chinese food here is better than the best Chinese food in 90 percent of the rest of the country. So if not every dish in a given restaurant is a winner, I feel as disappointed as I would if Ferran Adrià let me down. But come here, get in the car, drive out the freeway, and start eating; the occasional disappointment will be overwhelmed by the frequent ecstasy.


All restaurants are open daily.

Triumphal Palace, 500 West Main Street, Alhambra; (626) 308-3222. Dim sum about $15 per person; dinner $25 to $30 per person.

Mission 261, 261 South Mission Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 588-1666. Dim sum about $15 per person; dinner $25 to $30 per person.

Chang’s Garden, 627 West Duarte Road, Arcadia; (626) 445-0606. About $20 per person.

Chung King, 206 South Garfield Avenue, Monterey Park; (626) 280-7430. Cash only; $15 to $20 per person.

Foo Chow, 949 North Hill Street, Los Angeles; (213) 485-1294. About $15 per person.
I'm not sure my favorite is still any good, or even if it's still there.

No consequences?

Chavez Reaches Out with 'Bolivarian Missions', we get a positive, almost worshipful view on how Chavez is spending his government's money on programs for the poor, with little analysis of the possible negative consequences, most notably how he will be able to keep doing it.

Update I
OK, a later report was a little better. Still, ya wonder at some of these reporters. With Chávez, Some Venezuelan Entrepreneurs See Opportunity was better:
"The data continues to shine, but behind it in our opinion are serious problems of sustainability, and of the possibility of stagnation," said [Tamara Herrera, an economist with LatinSource, a New York-based group of Latin American economists and] also chief economist of Sintesis Financiera, a consulting firm in Caracas. "Behind these numbers are a huge dependence on oil, more than we've ever seen."..

Capitalism, though, along with Venezuela's state spending, seems to have been very good to a new class of entrepreneurs in Venezuela who have either allied themselves with the government or found a way to have a cordial relationship. Many of them have secured lucrative government contracts, and the opposition has dubbed them the Boliburguesia, short for the Bolivarian bourgeoisie...

Alberto Vollmer, 38, who runs Santa Teresa Rum, a distiller that is one of Venezuela's most storied companies, is among those who is admittedly from the traditional upper class. He lost a third of the 7,400 acres that made up his farm to land invaders, but he did not lash back.

He instead started working closely with the government to implement social programs in the poor barrios nearby. "There are mistakes this government has made and is making, but if you don't have a constructive attitude, you won't get anything done," he said. Vollmer has, to be sure, drawn the ire of some entrepreneurs for working with the government.

"For some of my friends, it's very hard to understand that I get along with Chávez," he said. "It doesn't mean I agree with 100 percent of their ideas."

Vollmer is far from being a confidant of the president. He rattles off deep concerns, such as that Venezuela is repeating a disastrous error from the 1970s -- spending oil revenue wildly without creating a climate for solid non-oil investment.

Many economists agree. Domingo Maza Zavala, a director of the Venezuelan Central Bank, said the economy needs to create 1.5 million jobs but cannot do so without huge private investments. "Private investment needs a stable climate, a climate of tranquility, a climate of institutional security," he said.

The government, though, appears intent on spending -- and confident that the price of oil will remain high.

Update II
NPR had another report a week later, when reporter Juan Forero concluded, "With Venezuela so dependent on one sector, oil, what's unclear is how long the good times will last."

Update III


Damon Darlin's Extra Weight, Higher Costs claims
...have you considered what [Christmas cookies another eggnog] will do to your wealth? The sugar and fat will add pounds, which can lead to heart disease, diabetes and a shortened life span.

There is another consequence to packing on extra weight: being fat costs money — tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime.

Heavy people do not spend more than normal-size people on food, but their life insurance premiums are two to four times as large. They can expect higher medical expenses, and they tend to make less money and accumulate less wealth in their shortened lifetimes. They can have a harder time being hired, and then a harder time winning plum assignments and promotions...

“Being overweight can be dangerous to your wealth,”... While the health problems ravage savings, an overweight person may have difficulty accumulating a nest egg in the first place.
Only towards the end of the article do we see
A chicken-or-egg question invariably pops up. Are people fat because they are poor or poor because they are fat?
Absolutely. Correlation is not causation. Nonetheless, the article does cite some studies regarding discrimination:
Evidence from decades of discrimination studies has led Mark V. Roehling, an associate professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University, to the conclusion that there is “consistent evidence of weight discrimination.”... Mr. Roehling is convinced that weight bias is stronger than bias stemming from race. You can test that thesis yourself with the Implicit Association Test, at It was created by researchers at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington to plumb an individual’s attitude toward race, ethnicity and religion. Take the test for prejudice against overweight people and compare your result against the similar test for race.
So I click on the link, where I have to register, and find that my "Political Identity", lies along a single dimension, ranging from "strongly liberal" to "strongly conservative", even though at least 10% of Americans are libertarian.

Meanwhile, "Religious Affiliation" includes affiliations like Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh. I notice (to their credit) that the "Race" category includes both East Asian and South Asian; does that mean the staff is South Asian? But then the site has the mainland Chinese flag for a simplified Chinese version, but not a Taiwan flag.

I complained and got answer, to wit:
We fully realize and appreciate the diversity of political attitudes and affiliations. That being said, much of the research on political identity has shown that a single, unidimensional question, like the kind we have on our research site, can be much better psychometrically than multiple items. The type of item that we have generally accounts for a large proportion of the variance (> 75%) found in multidimensional measures.

The religious affiliation responses on based on a list of U.S. churches with congregations with more than 50,000. We also added some other religions.

We don't yet have an international collaborator for Taiwan. If you know of anyone who's interested, please let us know.

Saturday, December 2


Twenty years ago I invested part of my nest egg in Corporate Realty Income Fund I, L.P. (Scroll down to see recent news.) Although at first investors got quarterly payments, for the past few years we've gotten nothing. Finally, it looks as if we'll be our principle back, plus. I actually haven't kept very careful records to determine just how bad (or good?) a deal was this, and of course one would have to calculate the interest we could have earned from investing those payouts. All I know is that about the same time I invested in a mutual fund, and with no further investments other than reinvesting the dividends, it's now worth ten times what I invested. At least I've learnt to stick to indexed mutual funds. (My favorite is Vanguard.) Too bad I can't count on what I've got in mutual funds to decuple in the next twenty years.

What about leftists rewriting history?

It's old news, but in In How the Understanding of U.S. History Changes, Steve Inskeep interviews Kyle Ward about his book, History in the Making . The basic facts are the United States won this late 1840s war and took over what is now the Southwestern United States. Kyle Ward's explanations are as follows:
  • First the focus is on how the Mexicans basically caused this war, how they're the ones who started it, and the Americans were drug into fighting a war against them.
  • Then in 1880, a few decades after the war, it's described as a racial conflict, a conflict between two races.
  • By 1911, the biggest change is that the U.S. has to go in for a preemptive strike.
  • In 1966, the people who are putting the textbooks together start to question how this war started. And you also start getting the names of certain individuals who at that time actually questioned the war. And probably the most significant one is going to be a young congressman from Illinois by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
  • In 1995, the story basically changes to the fact that it says that general - or President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to the Mexican border with the knowledge in his head that having troops that close - it would definitely probably spark a war. And that under this concept of Manifest Destiny, Polk wanted a war.
Then the interview continues:
INSKEEP: What does it say that over more than a century of history, about the same event, it begins as something that Mexico started - it goes through several other explanations, and at the end, it ends exactly the opposite - America started it?

Prof. WARD: One thing it tells us is that after 1960 and 1970, the shift comes in - on the one hand because of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, I think Watergate had a hand in this, too - where people started to question more things. And going back to the fact most of our history textbooks were written for young, white men who were going off to college or the military or something like that. And in the 1800s, you really don't want anybody sitting there questioning why the United States got into a war if you're going to send these young men off to fight in the military at some point in time.

INSKEEP: This particular example we've gone through, the Mexican War, why is that example particularly relevant to our lives today?

Prof. WARD: The current war that we're fighting, there is the question about Iraq. The argument was that weapons of mass destruction was the reason why we're going in there, and now there's been some debate. The think I'd like to point out to my students is President Polk, in the 1840s, was a Democrat. He was for Manifest Destiny. He wanted more territory. Then there was the Whig Party. And the Whigs said absolutely, positively not. They didn't want to get involved in this war, and there were people that were protesting it.

So I think it's a better understanding than just saying that we were egged on by the Mexicans into this war, we fought this war, and we get all this territory - end of story. Rather, I like to try to make some comparisons as to what's going on in the Iraq War and compare it to - we've been down this road before. What have we learned? What can we do with it?

INSKEEP: I suppose you're not surprised, then, that the interpretations of the Iraq War have changed just in a few years.

Prof. WARD: No, not in the least bit. The one thing that I have found really interesting about the Iraq War and use of history with it is if you go back and listen to the very beginning of it, those people who are in favor of this war - listen to how they talked about the war and the terms they use to put it in. There's always references to World War II. There is the axis of evil. I think President Bush at one point in time made a comment about this being a World War III. There are talks about no more Munichs. We're comparing Hitler to Saddam Hussein.

Then listen to those people who are against it. And the use of history at this point in time is you hear a lot of commentary about Vietnam. We don't want another Vietnam, not since Vietnam, or compared to Vietnam. This war has done this, that or the other thing.

INSKEEP: Do we construct our future by selecting which history we want to follow?

Prof. WARD: I definitely think so. I think history is one of the best tools you can use if you want to try to make your point at any point in time by saying, you know, look back. This is what we've done. This is who we are, or maybe who we think we are.

INSKEEP: Is it also a dangerous tool?

Prof. WARD: It definitely can be. We were in Germany doing some research, and we discovered over there that was one of the first things that the Nazis did, is they went into the high school history classes and wanted the history textbooks rewritten. They wanted to show a specific course in history that made more sense with their ideology at the time.
So historical interpretations change, but how is Ward so sure that the latest interpretation is the correct one? And even if it is, together with the implication that fighting it was wrong, so far, at least, the Americans have done a better job administering the territory they won from Mexico than the Mexicans have done: look at all the Mexicans coming over the border. As Ward himself admits, we often construct our future by selecting which history we want to follow. But that doesn't mean that Iraq is Vietnam anymore than it's Nazi Germany. In fact, Ward doesn't see Saddam's Iraq as the threat, but instead points to the Nazis for rewriting history textbooks, suggesting that those who supported the war against Iraq are Nazis. But what about leftists rewriting history? Are they then Stalinists or Maoists?

Razzing Raz

NPR's Guy Raz says, "Up until about April, 1968, the military men running the Vietnam War could, without wincing, say things like: 'Militarily, we have never been in a better relative position in South Vietnam.' Now when General William Westmoreland said this nearly 30,000 U.S. troops were already dead in Vietnam and the Tet offensive was setting the country on fire." But the Tet offensive was a failure. What it set on fire was the US anti-war movement.

Friday, December 1

China: more than 5,000 mining deaths every year

China's mines are among the most dangerous in the world with more than 5,000 deaths reported every year.

Chinese Migrant Workers Earn Average Monthly Income of US$120

Migrant laborers in Chinese cities earn an average of 966 yuan (US$120) per month, much more than the average farmer, but still very low compared to urban residents.

The per capita monthly income for half of the migrant laborers is less than 800 yuan (US$101), with 19.67 percent below 500 yuan (US$63), according to a latest survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Ten percent of the 29,425 migrant workers surveyed have a monthly income of 1,500 yuan (US$190).

Migrant workers are mostly poor farmers who leave the countryside to find jobs in cities. There are more than 100 million migrant workers in China.

The average income of Chinese farmers is about one fourth that of the urban residents earn.

The shrinking of farmlands is producing a bigger army of migrant workers in the country and has caused many social troubles.
This makes little sense to me; as the rest of the article shows, the main reason farmers leave the countryside is to make more money, not because the area devoted to farmland is shrinking. However, abuses by local governments in rural areas include taxes and fees as well as expropriation of land, so it's not totally wrong.

The survey shows that jobs in east China are the most lucrative for migrant workers, who earn an average of 1090 yuan (US$138) per month there, compared with 880 yuan (US$111) and 835 yuan (US$106) in the less developed central and western regions.

Migrant laborers spend an average of 463 yuan (US$59) per month; 72 yuan (US$9.1) on accommodation, 235 yuan (US$30) on food and 47 yuan (US$6) on recreation.

To improve their professional skills, half of the respondents received vocational training, while 24.1 percent were self-taught.

Of the 5,065 respondents who brought children with them to the cities, only 1.05 percent had seen their children drop out of school, and 49.2 percent had to pay an average registration fee of 1,226 yuan (US$155) in addition to regular tuition fees.
It's so typically Chinese that even these relatively poor people are concerned about their childrens' education, and it's a shame the Chinese government forces them to pay for it.

Thursday, November 30

Negative effects of a minimum wage increase

  • While the wages of some low skilled workers would improve, it would reduce employment opportunities for teenagers and other lower skilled workers. They are pushed either into unemployment or the underground economy.
  • A bigger minimum also raises prices of fast foods and other goods produced with large inputs of unskilled labor. Workers who receive on the job training must accept lower wages in return. A higher floor on wages prevents the wages of lower skilled workers from being reduced much, and hence discourages firms from providing much training to these employees.
  • A rise in the minimum wage increases the demand for workers with greater skills because it reduces competition from low-skilled workers. This is an important reason why unions have always been strong supporters of high minimum wages because these reduce the competition faced by union members from the largely non-union workers who receive low wages.
  • Poorer workers who are lucky enough to retain their jobs at a higher wage obviously do better, but the poorer workers who are priced out of the above ground economy are made worse off.
  • Many of those who receive higher wages are not poor, but are teenagers and other secondary workers in middle class and rather rich families.
  • Poor families are also disproportionately hurt by the rise in the cost of fast foods and other goods produced with the higher priced low-skilled labor since these families spend a relatively large fraction of their incomes on such goods.

Wednesday, November 29

Barack Obama supports the sugar tariff

The favors granted to the sugar industry keep the price of domestic sugar so high that it’s not cost-effective to use it for ethanol. And the tariffs and quotas for imported sugar mean that no one can afford to import foreign sugar and turn it into ethanol, the way that oil refiners import crude from the Middle East to make gasoline. Americans now import eighty per cent less sugar than they did thirty years ago. So the prospects for a domestic-sugar ethanol industry are dim at best.

We could, of course, simply import sugar ethanol. But here, too, politics has intervened: Congress has imposed a tariff of fifty-four cents per gallon on sugar-based ethanol in order to protect corn producers from competition. A recent study by Amani Elobeid and Simla Tokgoz, scientists at Iowa State University, projected that if the tariffs were removed prices would fall by fourteen per cent and Americans would use almost three hundred million gallons more of ethanol.

But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon: the Bush Administration proposed eliminating the ethanol tariff this past spring, but Congress quickly quashed the idea—Barack Obama was among several Midwestern senators who campaigned in support of the tariff—and the sugar quotas appear to be as sacrosanct as ever. Tariffs and quotas are extremely hard to get rid of, once established, because they create a vicious circle of back-scratching—government largesse means that sugar producers get wealthy, giving them lots of cash to toss at members of Congress, who then have an incentive to insure that the largesse continues to flow. More important, protectionist rules flourish because the benefits are concentrated among a small number of easy-to-identify winners, while the costs are spread out across the entire population. It may be annoying to pay a few more cents for sugar or ethanol, but most of us are unlikely to lobby Congress about it.

I thought so.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The West
North Central
The Inland North
The South
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Why College Tuition Goes Up

David Frum of the American Enterprise Institute says,
Just about every economist agrees that [instead of making college more affordable] federal student aid has the opposite effect: It enables colleges to raise tuition even faster and even higher than they otherwise would.

Now, the average price of U.S. college tuition is rising twice as fast as the overall rate of inflation, according to the College Board. Only the health care sector has raised its prices faster.

As with healthcare, more money does not translate into better results. College seniors on average scored only 1.5 percentage points higher than college freshmen in their knowledge of history, economics and international relations, according to a recent survey.

Worse, the survey showed that seniors at the most prestigious and expensive schools actually scored lower than freshmen. That suggests that the principal effect of $200,000 worth of Georgetown or Yale may encourage students to forget all the AP material they covered to get into those schools in the first place.

While student knowledge declines, academic pay rises. 112 of America's college presidents now earn more than $500,000 a year.

Most industries deliver constantly-improving products at steadily declining real prices. Healthcare and higher education, the two great exceptions to this rule, are also the two most government-subsidized sectors in the U.S. economy.

More subsidy is not the solution to the problem. The subsidy is the problem.
In fairness to universities, the survey he mentions was devoted to questions on topics such as American history and government, political thought, international affairs, and the market economy. I'm not saying these aren't important, but it's not what a lot of people teach.

Milton Friedman presented another argument against subsidies:
What happens when the educational market is distorted? Look at state colleges and universities. Their fees are generally very low, paying for only a small part of the cost of schooling. They attract serious students just as interested in their education as the students at Dartmouth or other private schools, but they also attract a great many others. Students who come because fees are low, residential housing is good, food is good, and above all there are lots of their peers, it's a pleasant interlude for them.
I can't see much interest in cutting subsidies, though. By the way, pay in our department is below average. Is that a good thing?

Tuesday, November 28

Remembering hearing comments that were never actually made

In his book Don't Believe Everything You Think (2006), Thomas Kida reports the research of two psychologists who secretly recorded a meeting held in Cambridge, England. Two weeks later, the participants were asked to write down everything they could remember. Among other gross inaccuracies in their memories, many participants 'remembered' hearing comments that were never actually made.

Monday, November 27

Killer Autos

  • The economic cost alone of motor vehicle crashes in 2000 was $230.6 billion.
  • In 2005 over 2.5 million people were injured in automobile accidents, and 43,443 lost their lives.
  • In 2005 the fatality rate per 100,000 population was 14.66.
  • An average of 119 persons died each day in motor vehicle crashes in 2005--one every 12 minutes.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for every age from 3 through 33.

Friday, November 24

Get over it

"There are six billion people in the world," said Francisco J. Ayala, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and a former Roman Catholic priest. "If we think that we are going to persuade them to live a rational life based on scientific knowledge, we are not only dreaming — it is like believing in the fairy godmother."

"People need to find meaning and purpose in life," he said. "I don't think we want to take that away from them."

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University known for his staunch opposition to teaching creationism, found himself in the unfamiliar role of playing the moderate. "I think we need to respect people's philosophical notions unless those notions are wrong," he said.

"The Earth isn't 6,000 years old," he said. "The Kennewick man was not a Umatilla Indian." But whether there really is some kind of supernatural being — Dr. Krauss said he was a nonbeliever — is a question unanswerable by theology, philosophy or even science. "Science does not make it impossible to believe in God," Dr. Krauss insisted. "We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it."