Mar 29, 2010

Hiking time

I'm heading out on a hiking trip for the next 5 days, so things will be dark here until I come back. Everyone hang tight and stay safe.

Mar 28, 2010

Brains are odd

It's strange how when you're learning another language and you are only fluent in language, everything language-related seems to be categorized into two categories. For me, it's "English" and "not English." When I was first learning Setswana, I would always reach for Spanish words, which made some pretty comical situations at times. Now when I'm trying to brush back up on my Spanish, I find myself reaching for Setswana words. The difference this time is that my Spanish is good enough that I can read simple books (I had my folks send me Harry Potter in Spanish), but now I can't find the words if I want to speak it. I had to look up the word for "yesterday," well, yesterday.

I bet Stephen Pinker could tell me why that is.

Marathon update

I finished this half marathon! First I'd like to thank all the people that gave money to help the kids of KLM and allowed me to participate. Good on you folks. I definitely didn't win any fundraising awards but we exceeded the recommended amount.

The marathon itself was a lot of fun. The course was up in these beautiful misty mountains and mostly downhill. My time was 1:46:30 (approximately), which made me the fastest Peace Corps in the half race. I was shooting for two hours, so I was pretty proud of myself, though there were some real runners in the 56 km race that would have smoked me. Today I'm incredibly sore, so I'm going to take it easy for a day.

Mar 26, 2010


Makwerekwere is a Setswana word that means (as far as I can tell) foreigners from Africa. On a side note, Asian foreigners are called "Chinas," while white-looking ones are "makgowa." One of the teachers at my school mentioned it in the context of Zimbabweans that are coming "to steal our jobs." With the continuing economic cataclysm in Zimbabwe, something like 25% of the population there has fled to South Africa, where they are widely resented for starting businesses and prospering.

This came to a head more recently when I was teaching English in Grade 7. I had just started, and was still trying to learn their names. One face that I hadn't seen last year turned out to be a new girl from Pretoria. Here's how the conversation went:

ME: What's your name, again?
NEW STUDENT: Palesa. I am come from Pretoria.
ME: Oh really? Were you born there?
ZANE (a boy): This girl is from Zimbabwe. She talk Xhosa.
ME: Xhosa is from Eastern Cape, not Zimbabwe. [to the girl] Are you from Eastern Cape?
PALESA: I am from Kay Zed Enn [Kwa-Zulu Natal]. I speak Zulu and Xhosa because my mother is Zulu and my father is Xhosa.
ME: You speak Tswana too?
PALESA: And Sepedi.
ZANE: She must go back to Zimbabwe.
ME: She's not from Zimbabwe, silly. Don't you know where KZN is? [I doubt he's ever been past Kuruman.]
ZANE: They speak Xhosa in Zimbabwe.
ME: No they don't, they speak Shona. Do you know Shona?
ZANE: What?
PALESA: Batho ba Zimbabwe ba bua Shona jaaka batho ba Northwest ba bua Setswana. (People from Zimbabwe speak Shona like people from Northwest speak Setwana.)
ZANE: Eng? (what?)
ME: Shut up, Zane. It's time for English now.

Reasonably educational, I suppose.

Mar 24, 2010

I'm off!

Tomorrow I'm catching a taxi to Pretoria, where I'll stay for a night and then cruise on over to this marathon business in Mpumalanga. (The marathon is on Saturday, by the way.) Depending on cell coverage, things might be pretty dark here for a week or so, but I'll try and put a few posts in the pipeline so it won't go completely dead. Maybe I can also convince my family to keep the flame of truth smoldering.

Mar 23, 2010


There are a couple dogs that live at my host family's house. The other day I was teaching Grade 9 the word "fierce," and as an example sentence they came up with "The Setlholoeng (my host family) dogs are very fierce." Often when someone comes by the shop these dogs (a couple little yapping longhair types with the worst fleas of any animal that has ever lived) bark like mad things. I've seen them chase everyone from little kids to grown men around.

Yet they took to me like a duck to water. Every time I get home they're jumping all over me, trying to lick my feet, and generally being a friendly nuisance. I didn't really try to befriend them, it just happened. I'm not super surprised at this, as I've done it a few times in the past with notorious mailman-biting dogs of my friends. I just don't know how it works. The thing is, I don't really like dogs!

Mar 22, 2010

Some light reading

This blog often seems a little too serious. My friend Noah often inspires me to try and be more light-hearted. Observe this otherwise-horrifying post about bedbug attack:
What's your game bed bug!? Now I have a new enemy that I can't even begin to understand. Apparently they are making a resurgeance in America because of international travel and new drug resistant super breeds. I suggest you start practicing taking micronaps standing in stainless steel cubes.
What spirit, eh?

Unfortunately, my sunshine and rainbows meter is all the way in the red. So here's Andrew Sullivan on the child abuse scandal currently blasting through the Vatican:
But what staggers me is once again the immediate, visceral circling of the wagons - when what is being revealed - again! - is a pattern of criminal abuse, aided and abetted by a powerful elite, led by the Pope himself. If this were a secular institution, the police would move in and shut it down.
And he's a Catholic! I'm curious if anyone has heard about this scandal from another source. Sullivan and a few other bloggers are on top of it, but I haven't seen it in many big-time publications.

Also check out this Jane Mayer review in the New Yorker eviscerating Marc Thiessen's book about torture. Check here for a previous post highlighting a different review eviscerating Thiessen. So I don't like Marc Thiessen very much. Sue me.

UPDATE: More on health-care reform--check out this sweet chart from the LA Times. Lays it all out. (h/t Kevin Drum.)

Various updates

Well, I eat my words. I was wrong to despair, even when Democrats managed to choke away Ted Kennedy's seat. Health care reform passed the House 219-210. Ezra Klein is making sense here:
The legislation builds a near-universal health-care system, but it only uses the materials that our system has laying around. It leaves private insurers as the first line of coverage provision, but imposes a new set of rules so that we can live with -- and maybe even benefit from -- their competition. It spends $940 billion in the first 10 years and more than $2 trillion in the second decade, but its mixture of revenues, spending reductions, and cost-controlling reforms are projected to save even more than that. It is the most sweeping piece of legislation Congress has passed in recent memory, but it is much less ambitious than the solutions that past presidents have proposed. It is routinely lambasted for being too big and comprehensive, but compared to the problems it faces, it is too small and too incrementalist.

But it's a start.
Today, Ezra is working on the policy side of this bill. If you're still unclear, check out this series of posts.Also, don't miss Andrew Sullivan's reax from around the blogosphere. One example from Yglesias:
Now that it’s done, Barack Obama will go down in history as one of America’s finest presidents. It’s always possible of course that, like LBJ, he’ll get involved in some unrelated fiasco that mars his reputation. But fundamentally, he’s reshaped the policy landscape in a way that no progressive politician has done in decades.
In shameless self-promotion news, this blog is currently featured on the front page of the Peace Corps wiki! If you're at all interested (say, wanting to deduce your host country from the various deployment dates, or curious about the history of Peace Corps in various countries), you should check it out. Good stuff.

Mar 21, 2010


In the comment thread of this post I rather glibly stated that Teach for America had a dropout rate of ~50% (n.b. that I was defending TFA at the time). Turns out it's more like 15% for two years, though it gets a bit murky after that. Regardless, I still believe that TFA is a worthwhile program with a limited scope.

The dropout rate for Peace Corps in South Africa, on the other hand, is actually about 50%. This is higher than average--according to this Peace Corps wiki, the overall rate is about 33%. I find this discrepancy unsurprising.

Health care reform update

I may have been wrong. I didn't think the Dems would get it together after the Scott Brown fiasco, but it seems like Nancy Pelosi has got more spine than I imagined. (And riding herd on House Democrats takes a lot to start with.)

Not for sure yet, but it's looking favorable. Stay tuned.

Mar 20, 2010

I gotta stop thinking

 I've been brooding a bit much lately. Too much analysis of things I am obviously unqualified to be judging. To lift all spirits, I proffer this picture of my host nephew in hot boots. The Marine Corps grimace he's wearing tops it off.
Posted by Picasa

Saturday wall of text: what is the point of Peace Corps?

This is a question I suspect is on the minds of many volunteers in South Africa—what the hell am I doing here? It’s a difficult question in the abstract, not least because there are dozens of countries involved, each with its own training program, staff, and host country support. I’ll start with the training program—is Peace Corps sending adequately-trained volunteers to their permanent site?

From some conversations with volunteers that have served in other countries, I suspect the training program in South Africa is much worse than average. This is especially true of the language training, which I would compare to a semester or two of a decent high school language class—not remotely enough to carry on a normal conversation, barely enough to make your needs known. Volunteers in Spanish and French-speaking countries described their language training as much more difficult, immersive, and effective. The education section, while also horrible, I can’t really imagine being much better, given that teacher training is a thorny problem with no clear-cut solution.

So the Peace Corps training program is a bit hit-or-miss. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that South Africa is representative and Peace Corps has lousy training. Is there still a value in dropping basically green Americans into a village somewhere alone to sink or swim? There is.

Now, I don’t think the Peace Corps was created with the stated ideals in mind. I think (like most diplomatic organizations) it was created to serve the national security objectives of the USA, just in a gentler and less aggressive way than others (like the Army). I don’t think it’s coincidence that aggressive chest-thumping warmongers (like Bush II) tend to neglect the Peace Corps, while canny old-fashioned internationalists (like Bush I and Obama) tend to support it.

Yet I think that by placing idealistic, (mostly) young American throughout the globe the Peace Corps does a great deal of good, if almost by accident. Probably the most tangible benefit is a critical does of internationalism and language skills into our incredibly parochial country. When I said I was going to South Africa, people would say, “Well what country in South Africa?” or start making clicking sounds, or say “I hope you like eating grasshoppers.” After awhile though, they would get out maps and start googling things—learning a little about a subject that they would never have encountered otherwise.

A second, smaller benefit is placing a real live American in a village to dispel some of the myths about Americans. The reason I say this is smaller is that in my experience people tend to cling to their prejudices about Americans like barnacles. Where I might reach 30-40 people with this blog and my emails, people who probably don’t have a lot of preconceptions about the Tswana people, I’ve made maybe 3-4 close friends in the village who might actually believe what I say. The rest just keep thinking that I’m incredibly rich and know movie stars.

The third benefit is to the host country in the form of lives changed, kids taught, libraries or schools built, etc. I have seen volunteers with no training in international development doing astounding things with their communities and leaving having made a huge difference and been changed a great deal for the better. By getting out of the way, by letting motivated people improvise their own solutions for things, Peace Corps is one of the better development organizations.

A side note: I’ll be honest—I don’t think I’ll ever be one of “those” volunteers. The ones speaking their language like a native, intergrating fully into their community, etc. There are a lot of reasons for that: laziness, a host family that seems to be disappearing before my eyes, a bad case of jaded cynicism and hostility, and a dying village. I’m too stubborn to do anything but stay so long as I’m not really unhappy or in extreme danger.

Besides, I’m not unhappy. I do believe that this will be a valuable experience—I’m certainly learning a lot about the world and myself. (With as cranky and contrarian as I’ve become now and my festering dislike for all things sentimental, I shudder to think of myself at 50. Who will be able to stand that?) It just won’t be the transformative experience I was half-hoping for.

Anywho, I believe that even given its obvious shortcomings, Peace Corps is still a worthwhile organization. It's a huge plus for the USA, obviously, but even on the development side I believe it's doing some good. Development is an extremely challenging problem, and on balance Peace Corps is a net positive in a sea of shitty organizations.

Mar 18, 2010

Book review: Kafka on the Shore

I had high hopes for this work by Haruki Murakami, as I was a big fan of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I was mildly disappointed, though.

A quick aside: I listened to this book rather than read it. I reckon that has nontrivial effects on the enjoyment of a work. First there's the reader--a bad read can make a good book a slog, while a great reader can turn some pulpy schlock (like Clive Cussler) into an enjoyable experience. Second, the writing itself can sometimes not lend itself so well to being read aloud. (Try listening to The Catcher in the Rye, for example.) A third issue is translation. The writing often sounded repetitive, like the editor was lazy with the white-out. This was especially apparent during exciting or suspenseful scenes--the main characters had a tendency to narrate the action to death. But with a translated work, one always wonders if that would have played better in the original language.

On to the actual story. It's a a 15-year-old boy who calls himself Kafka. He runs away from home to escape his father, who has prophesied an Oedipal fate for Kafka. Meanwhile, an old man named Nakata who suffered a terrible accident as a child and is mentally handicapped as a result (but who can talk to cats) is sent on a quest with a truck driver named Hoshino.

That's not even the nickel summary, but I'll leave it there. The characters and the supernatural forces involved remain mysterious throughout. It's classic Murakami magical realism where everything is vague and somewhat sinister, but much more vague than usual. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the book, though the lack of explanation or context sometimes drove me nuts.

Possibly the biggest weakness aside from the loose ends is the protagonist Kafka. He's 15, and the sections involving him are written as an angsty teenager would write. It's kind of a coming of age story, but his motivations (when they are discussed) are often dull or nonsensical. Often I was just shaking my head waiting for the next chapter. (I'm not saying a book has to have a likeable protagonist, but a juvenile, irritating one can be a downer.)

The remainder of the book, though, was a real pleasure. Roughly half is spend following Mr. Nakata and company around, and that part was a lot more interesting and less self-absorbed (at certain points during the Kafka section, Murakami breaks into second person, which just about made me switch to something else). Mr. Hoshino, in particular, goes through a rather remarkable transformation that was a delight to experience.

Overall, an interesting and mysterious book marred only by an irritating protagonist and a mild case of overwriting. Worth reading.

Article of the week

This article in The Independent is about the kidnapped wives of Ethiopia:

Nurame was in her bed when she was woken by an angry mêlée. In her family's hut there were grown men – an incredible number, 10 or more, all in their 30s, all standing over her father, shouting. They reached for her. At night here, where there is no electricity, perfect darkness falls, and everything becomes a shadow-play of barely visible flickers. But even though she was eight years old, she suspected at once what was happening. She had heard whispers that, when a girl is considered ready for marriage, a man will seize her, and rape her, and then she must serve him for the rest of her life. "That was the culture," she says. But it wasn't her culture: like all the other little girls, she didn't want it. "I started screaming and tried to run out of the hut," she says. "I hid in the trees – hah! – but one of the men found me."

She was taken back to his home, held down in front of his family, raped, and taken to be married the next morning. Dazed, she signed the papers, and waited for a moment when she could flee.

Go read.

Mar 17, 2010

Meta blogging

Here's an interesting piece by Peter Hessler about Peace Corps in the New Yorker (h/t: Liz) by an ex-Peace Corps volunteer responding to these articles about Peace Corps by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT and by John Brown in the Huffington Post. The New Yorker piece is great, a pretty thorough look at an often-elusive program and the Kristof piece isn't too bad--it's mostly tangentially related, it's his proposal for a new volunteer program since Teach for America and PC can't meet the demand.

Brown, on the other hand, is an unmitigated wanker:
Mr. Kristof, who wants young Americans to teach English the world over, seems unaware that all too many of us here in the homeland (which is how we now identify our cry-the-beloved country in these sad post-9/11 times) are incapable of writing a coherent English sentence free of grammatical and spelling errors. And how many of us called-to-duty language missionaries currently living in said homeland, if volunteering to coach "debate teams" overseas, could actually be capable of crafting a logical argument, given our 24/7 we-can't-stop-loving-it culture of instant mindless gratification a la Tee-Vee & Twitter & uptalk?
You know what's better than sweeping negative generalizations about young people? Totally unsubstantiated, evidence free, crotchety, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn-style sweeping negative generalizations about young people. Bonus points for prescriptive grammar wankery, a pet peeve of mine.

It gets better:
As for the Peace Corps, its main drawbacks are twofold.

(A) Giving jobs to too many well-meaning but desperately-seeking-to-be-employed, résumé-driven, undereducated provincial American BA's with, all too often, little or no knowledge of foreign languages/cultures or substantial skills, personal or intellectual, even in teaching (or speaking) their own native language.

There are, of course, notable exceptions, including "senior citizens" in the program; but much of the Peace Corps is, I would suggest, an updated, "democratic" version of a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes.

In all fairness, these well-meaning, often naive, Peace Corps volunteers (I had the privilege of meeting many of them in my Foreign Service career), may be eager to learn about the outside world. But if they are parachuted to teach/"set an example" in other countries, they should know far more about them (and their own country and language) than Peace Corps "training" provides (and by the time they know something about where they are, they are shipped out).

(B) As suggested by the above remarks, most sadly and importantly, the Peace Corps is not a bilateral program. In essence, "we" (the U.S.) are telling "them" (the "foreigners") what to do (in a gentle way) -- a twentieth-century Cold War one-way-communications propaganda model, granted on a perhaps laudable human level.

There's a lot to digest there, and I even think that Brown might be on to something occasionally (particularly with the quality of the training, here in South Africa anyways). But aside from his sneering dismissal of volunteers, he totally misunderstands the goals of Peace Corps, which are primarily cultural. The three main goals are

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Two out of three are about sharing cultures! I think people from the Foreign Service would be prone to making this mistake. As Hessler said:
In particular, the challenges of a volunteer tend to be poorly understood by journalists and foreign service officers, who are typically accustomed to an immediate and extensive support system. They’re surrounded by translators, fixers, and well-staffed bureaus; they rarely know what it’s like to be alone in a strange country with a hard job to do. And nothing is more difficult than staying in a small community for an extended period of time.
Now, I've got another post gestating about the worth of the Peace Corps, but suffice to say I think it's a lot better than what Brown thinks.

302nd post: storm of the century

Last night was perhaps the most intense storm I've seen thus far in South Africa. I was woken up at about 1:30 by a text message wondering if my roof had blown off (quote: "it sounds like the earth is splitting apart here") but as my friend is about 75 km away, the worst hadn't hit me yet. This was extremely lucky, as practically every piece of clothing I own was outside on the line. I grabbed my flashlight/cell phone and rounded those up quickly. Outside, the lightning was nearly constantly flashing to the south. It looked like a club light show, or an intense IMAX movie, or perhaps the siege of Leningrad.

A few minutes later, the storm started in earnest. Howling wind, rain, and then hail, which sounded like ball bearings dropped from a great height. Sleep was out of the question, so I just sat up and listened. With all the bricks I've put up there, the roof seemed to hold steady, so it was just a few minor leaks that weren't as bad as I've put 500 mL of caulk in the roof in the last couple weeks. All in all, an exciting show, but I wish I had got more than three hours of sleep.

Mar 16, 2010

More thoughts on aid

Rereading my last post on aid I think there's few points I need to clarify. First, I'd like to distinguish between developmental aid and humanitarian aid. In the case of a famine, or especially a huge natural disaster, humanitarian aid is very important and not subject to my earlier critique. When people are dying all the business about dependency and whatnot goes out the window. One still has to be careful humanitarian supplies aren't captured by warlords, but the moral imperative is clear.

Second, longtime readers of this blog (there might be a couple, who knows) might notice that I've got a pretty wide libertarian streak. How do I reconcile my support of obviously paternalistic aid programs like the Millennium Villages with my dislike of paternalistic policies like New York's trans fat ban? I think the difference here is coercion. I have no problem with people entering into a voluntary arrangement with an aid program, even if it's paternalistic as hell, where outright banning is forceful intervention from the government. I wouldn't like it if Kenya forced all villages to join the MV program either.

How to save human civilization in 10 easy steps.

This classic Joe Romm post lays out the nitty-gritty:
It would require some 12-14 of Princeton’s “stabilization wedges” — strategies and/or technologies that over a period of a few decades each ultimately reduce projected global carbon emissions by one billion metric tons per year (see technical paper here, less technical one here). These 12-14 wedges are my focus here.


I do believe only “one” solution exists in this sense — We must deploy every conceivable energy-efficient and low carbon technology that we have today as fast as we can. Princeton’s Pacala and Socolow proposed that this could be done over 50 years, but that is almost certainly too slow.


This is what the entire planet must achieve:

Determinism vs. free will

From Lukesurl.

Mar 15, 2010

Rehabilitating Ulysses S. Grant

Check out this article on Grant in the NYT, because apparently conservatives are trying to replace him with Reagan on the $50 bill:

For Grant, Reconstruction always remained of paramount importance, and he remained steadfast, even when members of his own party turned their backs on the former slaves. After white supremacists slaughtered blacks and Republicans in Louisiana in 1873 and attempted a coup the following year, Grant took swift and forceful action to restore order and legitimate government. With the political tide running heavily against him, Grant still managed to see through to enactment the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination according to race in all public accommodations.

Grant did not confine his reformism to expanding and protecting the rights of the freed slaves. Disgusted at the inhumanity of the nation’s Indian policies, he called for “the proper treatment of the original occupants of this land,” and directed efforts to provide federal aid for food, clothing and schooling for the Indians as well as protection from violence. He also took strong and principled stands in favor of education reform and the separation of church and state.


In reality, what fueled the personal defamation of Grant was contempt for his Reconstruction policies, which supposedly sacrificed a prostrate South, as one critic put it, “on the altar of Radicalism.” That he accomplished as much for freed slaves as he did within the constitutional limits of the presidency was remarkable. Without question, his was the most impressive record on civil rights and equality of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.

I wasn't really aware of most of this. I thought of President Grant as kind of a bumbling drunk who had a lot of scandals. Turns out his bad reputation is the result of a coordinated attack by white supremacists:
But Grant came in for decades of disgraceful posthumous attacks that tore his reputation into tatters. Around 1900, pro-Confederate Southern historians began rewriting the history of the Civil War and cast Grant as a “butcher” during the conflict and a corrupt and vindictive tyrant during his presidency. And the conventional wisdom from the left has relied on the bitter comments of snobs like Henry Adams, who slandered Grant as the avatar of the crass, benighted Gilded Age.

Though much of the public and even some historians haven’t yet heard the news, the vindication of Ulysses S. Grant is well under way. I expect that before too long Grant will be returned to the standing he deserves — not only as the military savior of the Union but as one of the great presidents of his era, and possibly one of the greatest in all American history.


My thoughts on corporal punishment have coalesced a little more over the last week or so. Like my last post on international aid, I think the main problem with corporal punishment as practiced here is implementation. I might sound like a brute for saying this (let's face it, I am a brute), but I don't believe there is something intrinsically wrong with inflicting mild pain on a child, so long as it's done correctly. Punishment like that must not be brutal (i.e., spanking vs. flogging), it must be carefully and conservatively dispensed according to a rigidly followed code, it must not be indiscriminate, and it must never be done in anger.

Of course, corporal punishment at my school is none of those things. It's used as an omnipresent and first-resort punishment to quiet the classroom, and the immediate effect there is to create a culture of hitting, where the appropriate response to a grievance with someone is to hit him. This makes my theoretical position detailed above rather silly--with all the downside, there's very little upside, in the sense that there are dozens of different successful methods to manage a classroom, none involving violence. Clearly the best default position given the hazards would be no corporal punishment in any school.

Yet corporal punishment is already firmly established in my school. This leads me to the question of what to do as a teacher that doesn't hit. As a classroom management technique, it works very well, but if one is the only nonparticipant, the students quickly lose most of their respect for you. I suppose the best solution would be to phase out violence throughout the school, but I don't think I could force that down my school's throat, and I'm not willing to try anyway. Who am I to show them how to manage a class full of 9-year-olds without hitting them? I certainly can't do it myself worth a damn. "I know you've been teaching for 26 years, but I have a chemistry degree. Gimme the sjambok."

I could go the other direction and hit the kids myself. As horrible as this sounds I don't think it would be that big a deal--most of them are already hit every day at school and at home; it wouldn't be a sea change. But a) it's against the law--I don't want to cause an international incident, b) the whole legacy of apartheid--a white guy whaling away on some tiny black children just seems horrible and c) I don't think I could stomach it in any case. (Perhaps I'm actually afraid I could stomach it, who knows. Not gonna happen in any case.)

Ruling that out, I'm left with fumbling along as before. I'll just keep going in circles.

Grumpy blogging, ctd.

When I'm in a really bleak mood, I like to listen to some melancholy crooning. If it's bad, you might as well wallow in it, right? In that vein, here's Beck with "I Pay No Mind:"

(this is song two on the album
this is the album right here
burn the album)

tonight the city is full of morgues
and all the toilets are overflowing
there's shopping malls coming out of the walls
as we walk out among the manure

that's why
I pay no mind
I pay no mind
I pay no mind

give the finger to the rock 'n' roll singer
as he's dancing upon your paycheck
the sales climb high through the garbage-pail sky
like a giant dildo crushing the sun

that's why
I pay no mind
sleep in slime
I just got signed

so get out your lead-pipe pipe dreams
get out your ten-foot flags
the insects are huge and the poison's all been used
and the drugs won't kill your day job...honey

that's why
I pay no mind
I pay no mind
I pay no mind

that's why
i pay no mind [x7]

UPDATE: For extra points, check out how Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment got disappeared from the Texas curriculum.

Extremely important holiday alert

Gadzooks, I almost forgot! It's 3/14, pi day!

Mar 14, 2010

Grumpy blogging

For reasons not worth discussing I'm in a lousy mood. But misery loves company, right? So I give you Daniel Larison on the Iraq War:
Whenever possible, I refer to the Iraq war as a war of aggression, because that is what it is and has always been. One thing that has often puzzled me about the reflex to declare victory in Iraq, as a Newsweek cover story did recently, is that I don’t know what it could possibly mean to achieve a victory that anyone would want to celebrate as the result of a war of aggression. Tens and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans are dead. Tens of thousands of Americans are injured, some of them severely, and Iraq now boasts one of the highest percentages of disabled people in the world. Millions of Iraqis were turned into refugees or displaced within their own country. All of this has come about because of a war that did not have to happen. All of this has come about because of a war we started.


I don’t think it is particular noble to destroy another people’s country on the basis of unfounded, paranoid fears that its small, economically weak, militarily inferior government posed grave threats to the global superpower. There are many words that come to mind to describe this, but noble is not one of them. It is not especially noble to do this with no meaningful plan for restoring order and governance in the wake of the invasion. There is no nobility to be found in the afterthought of poorly constructing a democratic regime whose elections served as the trigger for massive bloodshed. Likewise, there was not much nobility when our government belatedly recognized its incompetence and failure long after it could do the civilian casualties any good and proposed a plan that would temporarily reduce violence long enough for the previous administration to get out the door.

Mar 12, 2010

Video of the week

This is a tribute to film noir, set to Massive Attack's "Angel." Good stuff.Via Andrew Sullivan.

Book review: Suttree

This apparently semi-autobiographical novel was classic Cormac McCarthy. The writing was ballsy and wordy, but to my ear mostly beautiful. Especially in this day when the faintest breath of wordiness is scorned, McCarthy's expansive style is lovely to read (and even better to hear). It's hard to imagine anyone else pulling that off, though.

The story concerns Cornelius Suttree, a man of apparently wealthy background who, for reasons that remain mysterious, abandons his family and friends to live in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee river and hang out with a bunch of colorful miscreants. The story, rather like a river itself, meanders all over the place with not much purpose aside from staying close to Suttree.

It's the funniest McCarthy book I've read:
Come in here, Worm, called J-Bone. Get ye a drink of this good whiskey.

Hazelwood entered smiling and took the bottle. He tilted it and sniffed and gave it back.

The last time I drank some of that shit I like to died. I stunk from the inside out. I laid in a tub of hot water all day and climbed out and dried and you could still smell it. I had to burn my clothes. I had the dry heaves, the drizzlin shits, the cold shakes and the jakeleg. I can think about it now and feel bad.

Hell Worm, this is good whusk.

I pass.

Worm’s put down my whiskey, Bud.

I think you better put it down before it puts you down. You’ll find your liver in your sock some morning.
It's violent, but not as brutal as Blood Meridian--it's more poignant and touching.

Like many McCarthy books the mind of the main character is fairly obscure. Throughout much of Suttree I was wondering, "Why in hell is he doing that?" For a character that has made such a profound decision as leaving his wife and kids, that lack of motivation was frustrating. I thought the no-thoughts technique worked better in Blood Meridian, where I got the impression that the protagonist was just bouncing around reacting to things.

Still, these are relatively minor complaints. Tragic and hilarious, this was a superb read, high McCarthy in fine form.

Mar 11, 2010


There was an interesting article in the NYT a couple days ago about a village in Kenya called Sauri (pop: 65,000) that has been carpet bombed with aid for the last couple years:
Agricultural yields have doubled; child mortality has dropped by 30 percent; school attendance has shot up and so have test scores, putting one local school second in the area, when it used to be ranked 17th; and cellphone ownership (a telltale sign of prosperity in rural Africa) has increased fourfold.
My friend Kristin riffs on this over at her place:
But of course the question is is this really a realistic and sustainable project? I do like the idea that each village that is successful in these practices is used as an example to surrounding villages, but with all of the funding being used in each of the villages, it seems unlikely that other communities would just be able to “pick up” these great practices. I guess I just have a problem with the international aid community being so focused on highly-funded projects. Even in the Peace Corps, I have read statistics that there is no correlation between the amount of money put into a project and how sustainable or successful it turns out to be.


I suppose I’m a bit jaded on this matter because of my experience here. Everyone in my villages are soooo focused on just getting money and material items, which is really frustrating for me as someone who has devoted to years to solely HELPING and teaching them… something much more valuable than money or things in my opinion. Even just the other day there were some British missionaries in the Kuruman area, and my school was just about to freak out trying to get them to come here and “help” us. I kept asking them exactly what they did or gave and they just said “they give money to villages to develop them”. It was like nails down a chalkboard for me, as I am here giving MYSELF to them for 2 years but all they can think about is getting money - money does not equal development! It’s all about the immediate satisfaction, not the long-term process.
I think international aid is an area where well-intentioned people can do a lot of nothing (or even harm) by poorly thought-out donations. Obviously aid to governments is the worst offender, often skimmed by corrupt bureaucrats or warlords. I think aid to underdeveloped governments could stop tomorrow and there would be no great loss.

Smaller-scale direct lending has a different problem, the one of creating dependency. I see this a lot in South Africa, and though I think conservatives in the US use it as kind of a bogeyman, I have seen the truth of it here. I will say it's generally a bad idea to give rural South African children anything, even pencils or pens, with no strings attached. Driving around Eastern Cape we would pass packs of kids that would stand by the side of the road screaming "SWEETS!" with outstretched hands. Or: my grade 4-6 kids all got a ruler, a pencil, and a pen the first day of school. Inside of two weeks the pencils were all gone and the pens about 50% destroyed. Now there's a serious shortage, so I lend out my own pens, but I don't give them away, because they would just disappear. Or: my most frequent interaction in the village (though it has finally been tapering off) is people asking me for money.

This is the start of a begging culture, which is corrosive to the health of a community. I'm not saying that poor rural folks can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by sheer force of will, but that if any progress is to be made, however small, community members must first stop looking for handouts and start trying to help themselves. To the extent that aid helps create that begging culture, it is a waste of time and money. To put that in development-speak, the community must have ownership of a program if there is any chance of success.

Later in her post, Kristin says:
One thing that has really rang true with me here is that change on a large-scale has to come from the inside, from the people who are themselves affected. If the communities don’t have the drive to change, then it won’t happen... no matter how much money is put into it.
I basically agree, though, I think the problem with aid is primarily with implementation. If I had known what I was doing at the beginning of the school year and made sure that I created a culture of treating classroom materials very well, with negative consequences for those caught destroying their things, the gift of a free pen at the beginning of the school year probably would have worked fine. It might be a moot point, as this assumes a basic level of competence that I think is naive to attribute to all aid organizations.

However, it seems that Jeffery Sachs, the guy behind Sauri and other Millennium Villages, has successfully threaded this needle. He's helped this village with education, health care, and job training without making them look for the next benefactor:
There is a palpable can-do spirit that infuses the muddy lanes and family compounds walled off by the fruity-smelling lantana bushes. People who have grown bananas for generations are learning to breed catfish, and women who used to be terrified of bees are now lulling them to sleep with smoke and harvesting the honey.

“I used to think, African killer bees, no way,” said Judith Onyango, one of the new honey makers. But now, she added, with visible pride, “I’m an apiarist.”
That kind of thing isn't impossible, but it's hard. The Millennium Villages are the paternalistic model, I suppose, where you have a massive influx of people and money that is carefully managed and allocated; where you're essentially leading the village around by the nose. That can work, provided the aid organization is very competent (as Sachs obviously is). Another model more palatable for a liberal could be the microloan idea. Not an exhaustive list to be sure, but a couple tried and true methods.

A lot of criticism of these programs misses the point. People immediately want to scale these programs up and cure poverty everywhere, which is obviously ridiculous. As Mr. Sachs says, he's solving about a third of the problem. I have the same answer for most of the people who criticize Teach for America--of course it's not sustainable! Sustainability is overrated. It's a band-aid on a bullet wound. But these programs are making a serious difference in the lives of thousands of people all over the place, working on notoriously intransigent problems. It's worth doing even if it's not sustainable.

Now, is my program worth doing? That's a question for another post.

Mar 10, 2010

Tournament day

Today there was a big primary school soccer tournament for a bunch of the schools around the Moshaweng valley (the valley created by the wash running through my village). I spent most of the morning taking then printing out pictures of the eligible learners: boys under 13, grades 4-6, save one near-genius grade 7 boy. The paperwork requirements for this thing were stiff--you had to have a copy of your birth certificate, notarized by the local police station, a picture, and proof of enrollment in the school. Following the local safety guidelines, we loaded the boys up in a truck and drove the 6km to the next village.

There we saw a few white guys, who were visiting from the UK and an international school in Hong Kong. They were helping one of the local teams with balls and uniforms. There's an organization called the Kalahari Experience that built most of these nearby schools, and these guys were loosely affiliated with that group. The guy from the UK was pretty friendly, but the others were a bit skittish, who knows why. I'm sure with my scruffy beard and goofy beat-up Afrikaner hat, I looked a little unhinged. I caught myself feeling a little superior when I could bust out my Setswana, but really I'm sure they're doing good work wherever they were.

The Kalahari Experience folks are coming during the upcoming term holidays to do some intensive programs with the kids while they're out of school. This sort of thing can easily become a contest with two volunteer programs from different countries, but I'm curious to see how they work. I'd like to see my village bombarded with German high-schoolers (though they don't stay in the village, they stay at the Moffat Mission in Kuruman). Like most volunteer programs (Peace Corps definitely included), I think this program is mostly for the benefit of the volunteers, but that's a subject for another post.

Anyway, the team from my village got to play next against the home school. They lost narrowly from a penalty kick in the last few seconds of the match, but played decently considering they started practicing as a team yesterday (no kidding). I'd like to point out the really short shorts some of the kids are wearing in the picture; they're the legendary Afrikaner shorts. Not just for the Afrikaners, apparently.

Mar 9, 2010

Minding the store

Today it got even lonelier as the girl who minds the store left to take care of her sick child (I had no idea she even had a kid). My host sister went to buy some stock for the store, so I agreed to watch over things until she got back. Though I was the only person actually from my family around, it wasn't too boring as I was selling a great deal of electricity, airtime, sweets, and single cigarettes. My kids from school hung around a lot, as there's not a lot to do, but as they tend to fight constantly I usually kicked them out (wonder if that's got anything to do with the corporal punishment? Nah, couldn't be).

My Setswana is getting better and better, but honestly I still struggle with a simple conversation. I think that I'm close to a tipping point, where I will be able to understand most conversations, and thus will get better faster and faster. I think the main problem with the (utterly half-assed) language training during training is that it didn't get us anywhere close to that tipping point. (I would compare it to a semester or two of high-school language.) Dragging yourself to that tipping point, especially in a place where nearly everyone speaks some English, is tough.

Apparently the Peace Corps has been getting complaints from the State Department that their language program isn't working well here, and I reckon that's why. I think I'm one of the better speakers in my group, and I doubt I will be fluent by the end. Of course, some people will make it, but to increase that fluency rate they need to make the language part of training much more intensive.

Mar 8, 2010

Blog news

So I added a picture to the header. It's from my favorite event in the village thus far, the big flood. I've also added the follower gadget to the sidebar, whatever the heck that is. Everyone else seems to have it, so I might as well join in. If you've got opinions as to those additions, let fly. Especially about the picture--sometimes I think I like brown too much.

From the picture archive

When I was on vacation in December, a man accidentally drove his car off a cliff. Apparently he got a little too far down on the slope of the grass and then couldn't get enough friction to start up again, but didn't have the sense to call for help at that point and kept trying to make it. We walked out with the rest of the rubberneckers to get a look at the car, which was pretty banged up. He was badly hurt and had to be taken out by helicopter, which landed right outside our backpacker's. In a sense, he was lucky as he wasn't wearing his seatbelt and was thrown from the car, and the car came to a rest only inches from his head.They airlifted him to Mthata. I have no idea if he survived or not, but the paramedics seemed to think he would be okay.

Link dump

Matt Taibbi's latest piece in Rolling Stone:
Along with the collateral it pocketed, that's $19 billion in pure cash that Goldman would not have "earned" without massive state intervention. How's that $13.4 billion in 2009 profits looking now? And that doesn't even include the direct bailouts of Goldman Sachs and other big banks, which began in earnest after the collapse of AIG.

Great article in the New York Times Magazine about the state of teaching research.

An interview with Desmond Tutu.

Mar 7, 2010

The science news cycle

In helpful graphical form:

Book review of the week

Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for Bush II, wrote a book about how torture is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Matthew Alexander, a former military interrogator, gives it to Thiessen with both barrels:
...Thiessen relies solely on the opinions of the CIA interrogators who used torture and abuse and are thus most vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes. That makes his book less a serious discussion of interrogation policy than a literary defense of war criminals. Nowhere in this book will you find the opinions of experienced military interrogators who successfully interrogated Islamic extremists. Not once does he cite Army Doctrine—which warns of the negative consequences of torture and abuse. Courting Disaster is nothing more than the defense's opening statement in a war crimes trial.


Thiessen and the torture apologists mock every American soldier who has followed the rules of law and ethical warfare. He insults every interrogator who has learned to elicit information without resorting to medieval abuses. The America that I know and signed up to defend does not stand exclusively for security. It also stands for freedom, justice, and liberty. It stands for universal rights afforded to every human being (even unlawful combatants or "detained persons"). America, as Thiessen surely has written into many a presidential speech, is a beacon of light precisely because it represents the protection of basic human rights. Yet, in Courting Disaster, Thiessen thoroughly villainizes those who defend individual rights against the state (such as members of the Center for Constitutional Rights). Thiessen's ideology represents exactly what we are fighting against in the battle with Islamic extremism—the regression of human rights and the sacrifice of individual protections to the state.
Worth reading if you've got a strong stomach.

Lonesome weekends

 My host family goes through chickens at an unbelievable rate. Every week there's a hatching of 5-10 chicks, and usually within five days they are all dead. I'd estimate the mortality rate at ~90%. About half die from dogs and cats, and about half die of exposure or are crushed by their mates. You see, groups of similarly-sized chickens like to pack together at night like penguins in the Antartic winter. Of course they all want to be in the middle where it's warmest, so the smaller ones squirm under the bigger ones, where they are crushed during the night. They also don't have enough sense to find a dry place, so often if it rains hard you'll find several dead the next morning. I've also seen the mother hen unwittingly crush one of her own, or peck a different hen's chick to death. If my family were better at managing their stock they could have fresh chicken every day.

In other death-related news, my host brother is dying of AIDS (not the one I mentioned previously, another one I only met once). He's at my host sister's other house down closer to Kuruman and the hospital. Thus my host mother has moved down there to take care of him, and my host sister spends Friday afternoon-Monday morning down there too. In my family's compound, it's only myself in my broken-down shack and the girl who minds the store living in the main house. Pretty quiet around here.
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Mar 6, 2010

Crime update

So I successfully bought a new pair of kicks for the marathon and made it all the way to the bus without losing them. This time I wore them right out of the store, which probably helped. I also talked to the police chief of Kuruman and I've got an appointment to see him next weekend. Police presence seemed heavier, especially in the shoprite area, though we were still super cautious. No muggings to report this trip.

It's a nice pair of shoes that I picked up too. I usually favor Aisics but as they didn't have any in town, I went with Adidas instead. Apparently I'm a supinator, so I went with a very soft shoe.

Mar 4, 2010

Chump of the week

All this stuff about teaching and children has made me thirsty for some good old-fashioned US politics...what's this? Some douchebag from Kentucky single-handedly put half the government in a chokehold?
Besides cutting off aid to the long-term unemployed, Bunning – who is not running for reelection – singlehandedly blocked healthcare benefits for the jobless, forced the layoff of 2,000 federal employees, stopped a continuation of federal flood insurance, and left doctors facing a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments.

The point Bunning said he was trying to make – that the benefits extension was unfunded, added to the federal deficit, and violated recent pay-as-you-go budget rules adopted by the Senate – was overshadowed by his own lack of politesse, and Senate Republicans’ silence in the face of it.

Last week, Politico reported that when Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley implored him to stop the filibuster, Bunning replied “Tough shit” to his Senate colleague. On Monday, ABC News reported that when one of its producers approached Bunning as he was headed for a Senate elevator, the senator said, “I’m not talking to anybody,” and shot the finger to the newsman.
Well, at least he's not, like, a total hypocrite about it...oh wait:
U.S. Senator Jim Bunning today announced that legislation to extend temporary unemployment benefits for an additional five months has passed the United States Congress. The legislation, which was unanimously approved yesterday by the Senate and by a vote of 416-4 today in the House, would also provide a temporary 13-week extension of unemployment benefits for all individuals who exhaust their traditional benefits before June 1, 2003.
Ah, that's better. Good old Senate, where freedom goes to die.

The cutest little girl in the world

 It might be a bit hard to see in this picture, as she's shy and I couldn't get her to smile for me, but Tsholofelo here is simply adorable. She's quite low in maths, but we've been working after school and I've finally got her fairly good at multiplication and division. Thank heavens for small victories, and quiet little girls that don't hit anyone.
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Mar 3, 2010

Grade 4

 Here are a few of my Grade 4 learners. I've been doing better and better with them (probably because of the small class size--18 learners), while I've been doing worse and worse with the 5/6 class (31 learners). The profound-looking one is Reaobaka, while the eager short guy on the left (who's the best at maths) is Obenne. On the right we have Thataone, and in the back Kobamelo on the left and Kaone on the right.

A teacher friend tells me that the key to classroom management is finding what your kids love and taking it away if they won't behave. They certainly love me taking their picture, and if I could print it out somehow I think they'd be ecstatic. Certainly worth considering.
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Mar 2, 2010

Tuesday funny

Noah again brings Teh Funny:
His strategy is wildly inappropriate, salting the chicken is many steps down the line. All I can think to say to this misguided, salt wasting youth is "you're doing it wrong" but perhaps "you're creepy and stop tormenting that chicken" would do better. Additionally I would hope that this salt company respects its customers more than to think we can easily be tricked into salting the animals while they are still alive in an effort to increase salt usage and therefore profits.
Check it out.

One of the great things about blogging is if you're bored or feeling uncreative you can just link to something that's interesting (or, less lazily, use someone else's post as a springboard for your own). And that's a great thing to do! After all, the stuff is online for free, and websites generally love traffic. Everybody wins.

I have Skype

I probably tried to add you to my contact list already, but if I didn't and/or you want to talk, drop me an email.

Mar 1, 2010

Reading is great

Watching my grade 7s struggle mightily with reading even Setswana (we do bible translations, as it's the only book I have in Setswana, and they love reading it), I'm reminded again what a deep pleasure it is to be able to read fluently. Such a wide range of meaning can be imparted with so few words, and there are so many words that I know--the possibilities are dizzying. Going through the cheap Setswana dictionary with my kids there were only a couple words I didn't know (duh, it's about 3/4'' thick--but it was still interesting to probe my vocabulary).

I suppose this is just a long way of saying that being very fluent in a language is something I hadn't appreciated much before. Not just to be able to speak, write a sentence, and struggle through a newspaper, but to be able to read fast and handle sophisticated or technical topics easily. I reckon this is blindingly obvious to anyone who's ever taught literacy, and I suppose I knew this on an intellectual level, but it's still amazing. When you think about it reading is a rather complex activity, and I'm glad to be able to do it well.