Oct 30, 2010

Vote!

I don't have much to add on who to vote for in the coming election that isn't probably mostly encapsulated by the letter next to their name on the ballot.  I do, however, want to strongly encourage California voters to vote YES on Proposition 19.  It's high time we had a dramatic confrontation over drug policy, and the fact that Mark Kleiman is in full concern troll mode over it is only a good sign.  Nicholas Kristof is making sense here:
I dropped in on a marijuana shop here that proudly boasted that it sells “31 flavors.” It also offered a loyalty program. For every 10 purchases of pot — supposedly for medical uses — you get one free packet.

“There are five of these shops within a three-block radius,” explained the proprietor, Edward J. Kim. He brimmed with pride at his inventory and sounded like any small buinessman as he complained about onerous government regulation. Like, well, state and federal laws.

But those burdensome regulations are already evaporating in California, where anyone who can fake a headache already can buy pot. Now there’s a significant chance that on Tuesday, California voters will choose to go further and broadly legalize marijuana.

I hope so. Our nearly century-long experiment in banning marijuana has failed as abysmally as Prohibition did, and California may now be pioneering a saner approach. Sure, there are risks if California legalizes pot. But our present drug policy has three catastrophic consequences.
See here for the rest.

Oct 29, 2010

Too much democracy?

Radley Balko had an interesting essay in Reason the other day about too much democracy in the justice system:
In 1970 one in 400 American adults was behind bars or on parole. As of 2008, the number was one in 100. Add in probation, and it's one in 31. The number of people behind bars for drug crimes has soared from 40,000 in 1980 to about half a million today. States today spend one of every 15 general fund dollars on maintaining their prisons. According to the King's College World Prison Population List (PDF), the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world's population but nearly a fourth of its prisoners. Judging by these official numbers, America's incarceration rate leads the developed world by a large margin, although it's doubtful that authoritarian regimes such as China's are providing accurate data, especially about political prisoners. But among liberal democracies, the competition isn't even close: As of 2008, the U.S. incarceration rate was 756 per 100,000 people, compared to 288 for Latvia, 153 for England and Wales, 96 for France, and 63 for Denmark.

How to reverse or ameliorate the damage already done is a debate we'll be having for decades. But there is one change that could at least stop the bleeding: less democracy. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out in a 2008 article, America's soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world. In most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more susceptible to slogan-based crime policy and an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse.
Yglesias chimes in:
I agree with that, but as I’ve said before I think there’s a much broader issue of too many elected officials in America. And I don’t think this should be understood as a call for “less democracy.” The United Kingdom is a democracy. But a resident of London votes for a borough councillor, a member of the London Assembly, a mayor of the city, a member of parliament, and a member of the European parliament. A resident of New York City votes for a city council member, a mayor, a public advocate, a city comptroller, a district attorney, a state assembly member, a state senator, a governor, a lieutenant governor, a state comptroller, a state attorney general, a member of the US house, two US Senators, and the President. Then on top of all that he votes for judges!

And you have to ask yourself—is all that voting better described as “more democracy” or as “people voting in a lot of elections they’re not realistically going to know anything about”? I’m going to take what’s behind door number two. There’s no point in holding elections that just consist of ignorance punctuated by the odd burst of demagoguery.
Perhaps what they're talking about is the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. With the representative model, in its very most basic form, you select a representative to run the government and then judge that person based on your perception of their performance. The more individual voters are involved in choosing highly specific and complex positions, the closer to the direct model, and the worse, it seems.

Oct 28, 2010

Navajo solar news

The view from my front porch.
Back from my old stomping grounds comes some news that the Navajo Nation, the USA's largest native tribe, is getting ahead of the curve on alternative energy:
BLUE GAP, Ariz. — For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation.

But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.

In Navajo culture, some spiritual guides say, digging up the earth to retrieve resources like coal and uranium (which the reservation also produced until health issues led to a ban in 2005) is tantamount to cutting skin and represents a betrayal of a duty to protect the land.

“As medicine people, we don’t extract resources,” said Anthony Lee Sr., president of the DinĂ© Hataalii Association, a group of about 100 healers known as medicine men and women.

But the shift is also prompted by economic realities. Tribal leaders say the Navajo Nation’s income from coal has dwindled 15 percent to 20 percent in recent years as federal and state pollution regulations have imposed costly restrictions and lessened the demand for mining.
This is definitely good news for my family, as we notice that pollution coming from the Four Corners power station.  The Navajo reservation would be ideally placed for solar generation, and the investment climate created by a significant push toward clean energy would be a big benefit to them and the surrounding communities.

Oct 27, 2010

Living in the city

Atrios has an interesting thought on urban life:
Walking around my urban hellhole today I'm reminded of how not owning a car really changes the way you think about the world. Obviously cars are useful things in that they let you basically go "anywhere" at relatively low perceived marginal cost (one problem with the way we pay for cars is that a lot of things which are really marginal costs are perceived as fixed costs by people). I think I've been car free for about 6 years now, and where I can go reasonably is dictated by where I can walk, where there's decent public transportation access, where is accessible by a cab ride I'm willing to pay for, or what's accessible by a carshare car that I'm willing to pay for. While there isn't a perfect mapping, carshare costs make perceived fixed costs (insurance, maintenance, car payments) into marginal costs to some degree. All that makes the accessible world quite a bit smaller. Not saying that's good or bad, just that it is.
This is undoubtedly true—when I living in New York, I scarcely left Manhattan for eight months. But what I remember most about the lack of a car was that I no longer feared the police. Living in a rural area practically every interaction I had had with police was either seeing them in their cars or getting pulled over. It's a fact of life—and police will admit this—that there are so many rules regulating driving around that everyone is constantly making small illegal actions all the time.  Practically all of these are entirely inconsequential, but a cop with sufficient reason can basically choose who to pull over.  Seeing a cop while I'm in a vehicle is an immediate stress; I instinctively clench up and think quickly of anything I might be doing wrong.

In New York, though, I would see beat cops walking around the Heights and feel rather comforted.  I even talked to them on occasion.  For me, it was a strange and wholly welcome reversal.  There are far, far fewer laws to be broken just walking around than driving a two-ton hunk of steel at high speed.

A boot stamping on a human face forever

It seems likely that Rand Paul just lost the Kentucky senate race.

Oct 26, 2010

Coincidence?

I report, you decide.

Bonus HST quotes: "I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours."

"I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed."

"Morality is temporary, wisdom is permanent."

"There are times, however, and this is one of them, when even being right feels wrong. What do you say, for instance, about a generation that has been taught that rain is poison and sex is death? If making love might be fatal and if a cool spring breeze on any summer afternoon can turn a crystal blue lake into a puddle of black poison right in front of your eyes, there is not much left except TV and relentless masturbation."
 
"I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes."

See here and here for context.

Collected links

1. Good discussion of skepticism of altruistic motives.

2. What the heck is gegenschein?

3. How political views are influenced by smell.

4. Was Lincoln gay? The evidence is pretty persuasive.

5. TNC on Malcolm X.

Oct 25, 2010

I get interviewed by The Onion

Ok, not really.  But pretty close.

Afrikaners

Karen Kaye has an excellent post on going to a white school: 
I was biased against Afrikaners on coming to South Africa. In my mind, they were some of the worst “oppressors” in South African history, it was at their hands that black South Africans suffered the most. When we were in our initial training with Peace Corps, we were taught greetings in Setswana (the language of the black people I would be living with) and we were also taught greetings in Afrikaans (the language of the white people I would not be living with, but the language that all of the black people that I would be living with would assume that I would be speaking.)

I bristled at the thought of learning Afrikaans. I DID NOT WANT TO LEARN OR SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.

Mercifully, I was brought me to my senses rather quickly when I realized, “Wait. I SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.” (Having realized, of course, that the native language of the Americas is not English, and that my country was indeed, colonized by ‘an oppressor,’ and I spoke that very same language of that oppressor!) [...]

A few months back a fellow PCV invited me and others to tour a school with a 100% pass rate. Since we all work in black schools and the pass rates average 50% or lower, I was greatly interested in seeing a school with a 100% pass rate and jumped at the chance to go: How were they managing such an impressive pass rate? What kinds of resources did the school have? Was there some kind of outside funding? [...]

A white school? Well, of course they had a 100% pass rate! Everyone knows that the whites here (much as in the States) have all of the privileges, all of the resources, and all of the benefits. Why waste my time seeing a white school? I thought of cancelling on my host and returning to my site—and in a huff at that!

Ah, racism you ask? Racism of another color—or lack of color? Of course!

But I went. I went to the white, Afrikaner school and I saw a wonderful school full of wonderful people doing wonderful things. The Afrikaner kids and teachers were thrilled to be meeting Americans, and we, as Americans, were treated to learning about another people of South Africa.

My hardened heart melted when a young, Afrikaner girl, bristling with excitement, approached me and gave me the warmest and excited hug I’d gotten in South Africa. She was so excited to be seeing an American and so excited that an American would take the time to come visit her school. She could barely contain herself. In her happiness, a tiny bit of my racist heart melted, just a bit.
By far the worst racism I've ever seen in my life has been watching some drunken Afrikaners in Kimberley and Kuruman shouting about the "fucking kaffirs." But it's worth remembering:
Before I came here I had a vague impression of [the Afrikaners] as horrible racists who were forced by the rest of the world out of their apartheid system kicking and screaming. There’s some truth to that, but personally every Afrikaner I’ve met here has been kind, courteous and generous. The apartheid system is surely one of the worst injustices in the modern era, but I knew almost nothing of the Anglo-Boer war, and the radicalizing effects of the British savagery (the usual concentration camps, salting land, poisoning wells, etc.). In the end, one must also remember that the whites gave up their power, grudgingly or not, in what is arguably the greatest diplomatic victory in postwar history. They also didn’t flee their country like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe—whose white population halved overnight).

I’m not trying to romanticize the Afrikaners—I’ve met some real racists—but I don’t want to demonize them either. Situations like this are always messy and complicated, and it seems like there are more victims than genuine evil.
We Americans, as Karen says, are the living embodiment of 500 bloody years of war and slavery and genocide and imperialism.  We'd do well to find a little sympathy even for the Afrikaners in our hearts.

PS:  One of my pet peeves is people mispelling "Afrikaner."  The language is "Afrikaans," while the people are "Afrikaners," or just straight "Afrikaans people."  I normally go easy on spelling, but given that Afrikaans is one of those crazy languages that has phonetic pronunciation, it makes a noticeable difference.

Oct 24, 2010

Kindle review

This review will be short and sweet.  I like practically everything about this device.  It's light, it's fairly tough, it's intuitive, the battery lasts forever, it holds thousands of books, and most importantly it's very easy to read.  I've read three books on it so far and it's pretty much identical to paper.  I find computer screens a bit taxing after a couple hours, but the e-ink technology makes for excellent contrast and the lack of backlighting is very easy on the eyes.  The pdf support is a trifle rickety, but especially as you can switch the layout from portrait to landscape it's possible to get reasonable font size even on small scanned pdfs.

Basically my only complaint—like most devices these days—is the annoying DRM gateways that they put up to try and lock you into the Amazon service.  It doesn't support EPUB, for example.  It's not that much of hassle even for the marginally computer literate like myself to convert your books to the proper format and avoid most of these problems.  (I've found the free software Calibre works very well for me.)  Certain features cannot be unlocked until the Kindle is registered, but I can't register it yet as I don't have Wi-Fi.  Regardless, these are minor issues, and they mostly irritate me as they're likely to affect only those that would have bought from Amazon anyway.  Overall, highly recommended.  I may never buy another normal book.

Oct 23, 2010

Pop music

I go through art forms in binges.  Authors, musicians, genres, whatever.  I'm totally unsystematic, but tend to obsess foolishly over complete back catalogs.  Longtime readers might have noticed the seven or eight Philip K. Dick books I went through some time ago.  It's the same with music, though I tend to stick more to genres there.  Some examples: rock (Tool, Queens of the Stone Age), trance (ATB, Tiesto, Blank and Jones), metal (Strapping Young Lad, Opeth), progressive rock (Porcupine Tree, King Crimson), psychedelic trance (Infected Mushroom, Juno Reactor), etc.

Lately I've been on a dance bender.  Back in the States I scorned most pop music.  Though there was the occasional breakthrough, I was too concerned with the political implications of whoever was on the TV to really give the songs a fair shake.  Part of it is music as signaling as well—who can name the most obscure indie bands, totally unconcerned with profit?  (Of course, I've always been a huge Daft Punk fan, but that is hip enough to let slide.)  But here in South Africa, I've missed a whole new crop of pop stars (who the hell is Justin Beiber?), and I have lost some of the righteous fury I had about brainless pop.

Perhaps I've just grown up a little bit, or just become slightly more cynical.  Take Ke$ha, for example.  I only learned of her existence a few weeks ago.  Do I care who she is?  Not in the slightest, save for a vague pity that the media machine is likely chewing her to bits as we speak.  I half suspect she doesn't exist at all, and her entire catalog and image has been meticulously constructed by music and media professionals and performed by several lip-synching lookalikes simultaneously throughout the world.  It's not great art, but I've gained enough distance to appreciate a well-constructed songs without worrying about its sociopolitical implications—or maybe I've just thoroughly given up on the American people.  Here's what's on my playlist right now.

A kindle

Some time ago I received an Amazon Kindle, and I'm working on my third book through it.  So far, I like it a lot, but this weekend I should have a full review.

Oct 22, 2010

Love in prison

This thread is absolutely riveting. It's a question and answer session by an ex-con who just got out. (Impossible to tell if it's true, but it feels about right to me, whatever that's worth.) The whole thing is a long must-read, but this view of love has to be the the most horrible and heartbreaking thing I've read in a long time:
QUESTION: This is a question for later or tomorrow or something because you've got enough to contend with for now but what did you miss most about sex while inside? Just the sex itself or the intimacy? I know there are cliches on both sides about that so I was wondering what your thoughts were.

ANSWER: This is a really interesting question. So much so I went and had a smoke and a think about it.

You know how a lot of people that hang around these boards will say how they're desensitised to sexuality? How years of the most twisted porn the Internet's underbelly can offer has made them numb? I guess I was like that going in. If you had have asked me, the day before I went inside, what my ultimate sexual fantasy was I'd have said something stupid like 'Emma Waton, a rubber tube, two mexican fighting fish, a chainsaw and a bucket of grease'.

Now, I shit you not, my answer would more likely be 'a beautiful woman that loves me'.

Every convict has a jack bank. Scraps of magazines, smuggled porn, that kind of thing. I used to keep mine under the inner sole of my sneaker. If you took a survey of what convicts keep in their jack bank, you'd be shocked to learn that mostly, it's women's faces. The single most sought after item in the common area was the TV guide. Because you'd get full page ads for movies and beautiful women. Fucking up the TV guide was a hangable offence, since our TV was pre recorded and edited to cut out the news, and anything not G rated, you needed the TV guide to keep track of what you were missing out on. As an aside, one of the most surreal moments inside was the Superbowl, all these convicts crowded around this caged screen watching a repeat of Blue's Clues - muttering about how the Superbowl was really on. It was like even though they couldn't watch it, they wanted to be a part of a national, communal activity. Two days later they replayed the Superbowl, with the ads and half time show taken out - no one watched it. How fucking weird is that?

So yeah, I got side tracked while talking about the TV Guide. The keeper of the TV Guide would be whoever scored it out of a mail bag. Usually the guy on mail duty. And after a few weeks, you'd ask, as nicely as possible, preferebly with a gift of candy, if you could take a look, and maybe later, in return for smokes - you'd cut something out. I cut out a half page ad for The Other Boleyn Girl. Actually, i'll find it an post it here.

Now you think about the shit you can get with just three clicks from here. You can hit up one of the porn boards and be jerking away in minutes. You'd probably even not jerk off to soft core porn, because just a few clicks away, you could see some whore being cranked by 9 guys and getting glazed with cum.

I guess in the real world, where life is mundane and boring - you need those fantasies of dark sexual shit to keep you going. But inside, there is just dark shit everywhere. Violence, death, fear. You don't want it in your head. So no matter what you were like before, inside, you try and escape in your head to places that are good and just... decent I guess.

You go from having elaborate rape fantasies to having sweet, candle lit intimacy fantasies. Sounds gay, but it's true for most guys inside I think.

It changes the way you think about women. When I went inside, I was full of bitterness over the mother of my kid leaving, I felt like my sister had betrayed me, so I left her - and I thought of some of the girl's I'd used in my life and felt like they were pathetic sluts.

But inside, I would have given anything to know just one of them loved me - and when I say love, I don't mean like, I'd want to marry them, or that kind of passionate, movie love. Just that they'd consent to being intimate with me.

I don't think I mentioned it before, but I spent a few months inside under the impression that I'd been infected with hepatitis - thankfully I wasn't, but that really compounded this need for intimacy, because I felt like, even once I got out, a woman would never touch me again.
If you read anything this week, read that. Gripping.

On joining the military, ctd

TNC has the best comment section on the internet.  One of his regulars came up with this gem that really must be read in full. 
I still have days where I am very happy that I'm not in jail, dead, addicted to something, or paying child-support to a woman I don't love. There but for the grace of god go I. It could have happened, a kid I used to spend time with when we were growing up went to jail a few years ago for rape. My little brother's best friend was stabbed three days before he was supposed to graduate. My best friend in high-school who I haven't heard from in years --a person who was at one time head and shoulders above me in intelligence, dropped-out, obtained his GED, and is presumably working a dead end job somewhere. I haven't heard from him in years, and it breaks my heart to think of what might have been under different circumstances. I hope he is doing well, but we cannot however hard we wish go back and try to re-create or change the past. No one's outcome is determined but there are things that make success or failure significantly more likely.

[I] think the biggest single factor that seperates my life now from what my life could have easily been like was my decision to join the army. Both myself and my little brother joined the service right out of high-school and that has made a huge difference in the trajectory our lives have taken. For myself it was the army that taught me that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was in relation to other people. A friend of mine who is at the university of Chicago getting a master's in middle eastern studies now, whom I met when we were both young analysts in Georgia said it best during a phone conversation a few years ago. He said "I saw some really smart people with master's degrees from really good schools who failed out of DLI (defense language institute), but I also saw people from really bad neighborhoods who had GEDs occasionally carry the highest grade in the class."
This is part of the reason I support some kind of national service law. Many democracies do it, and I think aside from it making it drastically harder to invade random countries for completely idiotic reasons (which would be my primary rationale), it does have a leveling effect that I think is beneficial. Disadvantaged people's horizons are expanded, while more privileged people's are brought down to earth. The gazillionaire owner of Dunton Hot Springs always said that his time in the military in Germany was a seminal experience for him.

The man question

Becca has a smart post on gender in South Africa:
Here in South Africa, you can say that there are issues of gender inequity and there certainly are. The rape rate is extremely high. The HIV prevalence rate is higher in women then men (partially for biological reasons as women have more Langerhans cells in their vagina than men who have been circumsized do on their penis). It is difficult for women to exert control over their sexual lives – to say no or to say to use a condom. Transactional sex is also an issue.

That being said, I know many more formally employed women than men in our village. Of course, many men who are employed live outside of our village, but among those who do stay in the village and those who come to our village to work – teachers, nurses, etc – there are more women then men. Of the men who stay in our village, many are employed informally in different types of labor. Some of these men and some who are not employed at all spend a good amount of their days drinking at informal bars. So the children of our village can choose male role models who are unemployed and suffer from alcoholism or female role models who are teachers or retired women who are busy taking care of their households and grandchildren. [...]

These boys need role models, and there is only so much we can do to encourage them. We know a few young men who are acting in this way for them, but in a culture (like that of rural America) where success is equated with getting out, these successful young men are mostly in Jo'burg. But one thing is for sure, these boys need to be educated and motivated to see a different future for themselves if people want to see change in the future of South Africa. Ironically, as I type this, I am watching a rerun of Oprah (we get them a few months late here) where she signed the One Goal petition that was happening during the World Cup and declares that we should educate our girls. Oprah, of course, has a boarding school for girls here in South Africa. Though her school presents a great opportunity for those girls, I would argue that what South Africa needs is the opposite. We must educate and empower the boys to live productive and healthy lives.
This is something I've mentioned before. Some weeks back I made some rather halfhearted investigations about the viability of some kind of boy's club, and there was precisely zero interest. The boys and male teachers said that was the kind of thing that was for women only, "like being a nurse," and besides, most of them work on their farms after school and on the weekends (or drink themselves into a coma).

I gave up far too easily.  If I had leaned on people, I probably could have gotten something going.  The truth is that I also have zero interest in leading a boy's club.  I freely admit to being a giant hypocrite, but I feel almost completely useless when it comes to teaching boys to be men, particularly here.  I don't play soccer, and my favorite activity is reading.  For boys here, soccer is the breath of life, and most of them can't read English at all.  Besides, the larger question—how do you become a healthy, productive man?—is not one I've answered for to my own satisfaction.  I don't regard myself as even approaching role model material.

More than that, it's a question of leadership.  I don't mean leadership in the bloodless, focus group, MBA sense of the term, by the way.  (The word "leadership" is—with the possible exception of "passion"—the most abused and diluted word in English.)  I mean leadership in the old sense: the ability to manipulate and control others to your own ends.  Like Bismarck.  If that sounds cynical, I don't mean it to be.  Even most of the staggering volume of leadership theory just cushions that definition with a bunch of support-group jargon.  Example: Leadership is a "process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task."  Despite our obnoxiously self-congratulatory culture (we're all leaders!), I believe true talent at leadership is exceedingly uncommon.  In my life I've met one or two genuinely talented leaders and seen a few more live.

It's the same reason I'm a miserably bad teacher.  Teaching is a leadership position—by that I don't mean one must have the charisma of Pericles to be a good teacher, but that one must be able to fake at least a reasonable approximation.  I believe most people are capable of this with some decent training.  But I am more like an anti-leader.  I'm smart, but I'm also grouchy, cynical, easily irritated, and easily discouraged.  In short, I'm a lot better at pointing problems out than fixing them.  Everybody has their place—the world needs my kind of people to point out where things are going wrong.  Maybe I can work for the CBO.

Wow, this post turned narcissistic in a hurry.  Pointless negativity aside, the man question is a serious one in South Africa, and one for which I have no answers.  Oliver Wang, pivoting off an excellent post by TNC on violence, has some thoughts on violence and gender that seem germane.

Oct 21, 2010

Baby goats

Visiting my new neighbor we saw these little guys mere minutes after they were born.  We thought they were slaughtering the mom at first but then it turned out better.  They were so new they were trying to nurse from our kneecaps, which was cute but slightly unnerving.  I'm still stubbornly using the lousy camera on my phone, which seems to have developed a weird haze around everything.  We'll pretend like it's fogged with a half-century's oxidation.

Oct 20, 2010

Post of the month

Dave Roberts brings some optimism on the politics of climate change.  He says the problem is not education, but intensity of advocacy:
Along these lines, it's worth digging into the new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. At the NYT, Felicity Barringer highlights the ignorance it reveals -- for instance, over two-thirds think aerosol sprays contribute to climate change (er, no, that's the ozone layer you're thinking about). Most people accept the basic fact that the climate is changing but know very little about the nature and causes of those changes.

On the somewhat brighter side, most people know they don't know much and want to know more. And they trust scientists, more than anyone else, to provide them good information:
Americans' most trusted sources of information about global warming are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (78%), the National Science Foundation (74%), scientists (72%), science programs on television (72%), natural history museums (73%), and science museums (72%).
(In other words, the relentless right-wing campaign to slander climate scientists hasn't worked, "Climategate" hoo-ha aside.) [...]

I'm sure there are tons of things that could be done to accelerate those processes, some of which I'll be discussing soon, but it's worth noting both trends seem all but inevitable. Denialism is of a piece with the Tea Party freak-out, and just like reactionary freak-outs past, it will burn itself out as the economy improves. At the same time, young people are much more likely to feel passionately about clean energy and climate change mitigation. They've been learning about this stuff all their lives and they take it for granted. As they take over, the balance will shift.

Admittedly, these trends are medium- to long-term and of no comfort to a candidate who's getting killed over cap-and-trade today. Still, it's not wise to project the peculiar circumstances of the last two years into the indefinite future. The backlash against cap-and-trade -- not even the policy, the grotesque caricature of it painted by its opponents -- won't hold back the low-carbon tide forever. Voters already love clean energy; they think fossil fuels should be subsidized less and renewables more. The EPA is moving, states are moving, cities are moving, businesses are moving. As such efforts touch more and more lives, the issue will become less abstract. As people integrate clean energy into their worldview, intensity against climate science will fade and intensity behind reforms will increase.

Y'all know I'm not exactly a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I really think the death of the climate bill is a "darkest before the dawn" kind of moment. The larger forces of history are moving in the right direction. There's only so long America's peculiar, dysfunctional political system can resist.
That is by far the most convincing optimistic thing I've read on climate change. Know hope.

This just in

Africa is real big.

Book review: The Big Short

Summary: this work is by far the best thing I have read on the financial crisis.  Highly recommended.

Up today: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.  He takes a situation caused mainly by obscure and complex financial derivatives and makes it not just intelligible but fascinating.  He follows around most of the people that saw the crisis in the financial sector coming (as opposed to the housing bubble, which a somewhat larger number grasped but was more obvious).  His style is appropriate, down-to-earth and often sarcastic and cutting: "The Big Wall Street firms, seemingly so shrewd and self-interested, had somehow become the dumb money.  The people who ran them did not understand their own business, and their regulators obviously knew even less."  His subjects have similarly jaded outlooks.  One of them, a man named Steve Eisman:
The second company for which Eisman was given sole responsibility was called Lomas Financial Corp. Lomas had just emerged from bankruptcy. "I put a sell rating on the thing because it was a piece of shit. I didn't know that you weren't supposed to put sell ratings on companies. I thought there were three boxes — buy, hold, sell — and you could pick the one you thought you should." [...]

"The single greatest line I ever wrote as an analyst," says Eisman, "was after Lomas said they were hedged." He recited the line from memory: "'The Lomas Financial Corporation is a perfectly hedged financial institution: it loses money in every conceivable interest rate environment.' I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote." A few months after he published that line, the Lomas Financial Corporation returned to bankruptcy.
The causes of the financial crisis are hard to summarize, but basically Wall Street invented new ways of making financial products, mostly bonds, out of subprime mortgages that obscured their actual risk, and proceeded to make more derivatives out of these derivatives.  (They gave them obscurantist acronyms like ABS: asset-backed security, MBS: mortgage-backed security, and finally CDO: collateralized debt obligation.  The last one was the catch-all where some were derivatives of derivatives of derivatives, or other such insanity.)  The ratings agencies, in an unforgivable dereliction of duty, did not even really glance at what these bonds were made of and slapped AAA ratings—the same as US Treasury bonds—on most of them.  Then they came up with a new form of really stupid insurance on these bonds (known as the CDS: credit default swap) which allowed the risk from the bonds to infect other markets and be multiplied a hundredfold—and then made even more derivatives out of the insurance policies.  This bond machine created a huge demand for subprime mortgages, helping to inflate the housing bubble.  When it popped, all the bonds went to crap, and all the insurance came due at once, and the taxpayers paid these chumps $700 billion to avoid another Great Depression.

All this was basically fraud, if not legally then morally, but a further element is necessary to fully explain the crisis: stupidity.  Howie Hubler, a trader for Morgan Stanley, shorted the subprime market but then, for some short-term profits, sold CDSs on $16 billion of CDOs.  When he resigned in 2007 he had personally lost $9 billion, the "single largest trading loss in the history of Wall Street."  The big banks were cynical and amoral enough to come up with these things, but too stupid to realize the implications of what they would eventually do—namely, crush everyone including themselves.  Where to go from here in a difficult question.  The banks have managed to loose themselves enough to recreate the financial cataclysms of the Gilded Age, but also own the government so thoroughly that they will immediately receive bailouts in a crisis without having to make any meaningful reforms.  I don't think we've seen the last of this type of crisis by any means—indeed, we haven't yet unwound the last one.

Lewis does spend a little too much time on his protagonists, analyzing their lives and problems thoroughly, and not enough looking into the roots of the crisis—not the immediate causes, but the conditions that allowed those causes to unfold.  He does look at that a little in his afterword, but not in much detail.  Clearly the incentives are all wrong—even Howie Hubler went home with a huge pile of money.  But how do we fix it permanently?  Perhaps a subject for a later work.

Oct 19, 2010

Social engineering in schools

My school motto
One of the things I notice often in the schools here is the deliberate social engineering that is built into the curriculum. In nearly all subjects, the raw content is subsumed to varying degrees by a social justice "context." Mathematics provides the most obvious examples—different historical number systems are supposed to be taught to Grade 4, and a Grade 9 maths test last year turned into a massive personal history project compiling the voting records of the entire village with an essay on the success of the democratic government thrown in for good measure.  These efforts seem misguided to me, as I will explain later.

I am reminded of similar efforts in the US.  Conservatives have a semi-permanent campaign to install their dogmas into the classroom, from the perennial creationist efforts to David Horowitz's program for affirmative action for conservatives at universities.  This is not to say the left doesn't do this as well (I'm thinking of a shallow veneer of foolish political correctness from my days in high school, hard to pin down), but the conservative effort is far more widespread and seems to stem from a hostility to academia in general (indeed, sometimes knowledge of any kind).

This is not to say that all such efforts are wrong or misguided.  Some are, particularly with respect to science and maths, but some are probably essential to living in the modern world.  But they stem from a similar impulse of control.  What are we teaching the children?? is such a morally loaded question that many, particularly politicians, use it to make moral statements about the country—or as a political cudgel—without regard to the educational outcomes affected.  Creationists provide probably the purest example of this—their continual meddling is a direct threat to successful education and makes various conservative states the laughingstock of the world on a regular basis.

Though I am often irritated by this social engineering, I don't think it should be wholly condemned in every case.  What I am saying is that a certain base standard of education must hold before these efforts have even a prayer of success.  If a student coming out of Grade 9 cannot read and write well, and do reasonably sophisticated maths (say basic algebra), the social engineering is utterly worthless.  A large percentage of South African schools are not meeting this standard.

Furthermore, unless such programs are well-designed, social engineering is likely to miss its target or backfire.  Though less than in the US, much of what happens in my school is contaminated by the unavoidable squareness of it being a school.  Rebelling against received wisdom is a classic way of asserting one's independence.  For example, at a presentation in Life Orientation class (basically analogous to Health) delivered in my neighboring village where the students could pick the topic, every one chose to say that the LO class should be changed to not include sex education, as it causes students to have sex more.  The mind reels. 

The best stuff speaks for itself—listening to the I Have a Dream speech is far more effective than listening to a teacher talk about it.

Tuesday cat blogging

My friend Hunter S. Thompson Kristen's cat just had some babies! Hooray! But, unfortunately, she didn't include any pictures (ahem). I was just visiting her site recently, so this antenatal picture of the mama cat will have to suffice. Let's hope she can beat the mortality rate of the kittens at my site, which is at least 75%.

Oct 18, 2010

Never trust the banks, ctd

Here's a couple selections from a jaw-dropping Daily Caller article:
Wells Fargo wanted to foreclose on a condo unit which had multiple mortgages attached to it. Wells Fargo also owned one of those second mortgages. So Wells Fargo spent money to hire a law firm and file suit against the irresponsible lenders at Wells Fargo. Then, Wells Fargo spent money to hire a different law firm in an understandable effort to defend Wells Fargo from the vicious legal attack coming from Wells Fargo. The second law firm even prepared a legal statement for Wells Fargo which called into question the dubious claims being made by Wells Fargo. Sadly, Wells Fargo won the case, crushing the hopes of Wells Fargo. [...]

For financial institutions, the problem isn’t the “missing” documents. It’s the missing documents—the real ones, which say much different things than the “missing” ones, and which the banks can’t seem to get their hands on. Everyone in the financial industry has been looking for them in more places than kids look for Carmen Sandiego, and they still can’t seem to find the X that marks the spot. There’s good reason for that—the industry destroyed the papers a long time ago. On purpose.

Banking officials happily told the Florida court system in 2009 that the documents had been shredded. At the time, lenders were trying to prevent some foreclosure rule changes, so they sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court. Among other things, the letter stated that it was standard practice to destroy mortgage papers once the mortgages were sold into MERS in order to avoid confusion. (“A” for effort on that front.) Something funny happens when tearing up a contract, and it might best be explained by a certain common phrase. That phrase is, “Tearing up a contract.” Unless very specific conditions are met, the contract becomes null. Void. Not worth the paper it is printed on.
This article takes a look at MERS, a shady company that traded electronic mortgages:
So this is how you end up with multiple foreclosures by different servicers on the same home, or foreclosures on homes bought with cash. Basically, the servicer doing the foreclosing becomes whoever MERS wants it to be. And MERS, by standing in as the “mortgagee of record,” has made it impossible to determine the actual owner of record. Thus two centuries of land title operations in the United States have been outsourced to a shell company created by big banks so they could save a buck – and now they’re using it to forego legal processes and kick people out of their homes.
If you're concerned about your own home (and shoot, it seems like pretty much everyone should be) some folks have set up this site to give you some preliminary defense.

Mitch Hedberg selections

I drank some boiling water because I wanted to whistle.

I don't like grouper fish. Well, they're okay. They hang around star fish. Because they're grouper fish.

I've got a wallet, it's orange. In case I wanna buy a deer. That doesn't make any sense at all.

My manager said, "Don't use liquor as a crutch!" I can't use liquor as a crutch, because a crutch helps me walk.

This one guy said, "Look at that girl. She's got a nice butt." I said, "Yeah, I bet she can sit down excellently!"

See here for more.

My music project

Karen Kaye brought up a little feel-good project I put together awhile back in a rare spasm of sociability:
We were to choose a song that best represents our mental process, and the songs would be collected, compiled, and distributed. The exercise involved mystery and suspense: who would choose which song to best represent themselves. And would we be able to match the song to the fellow Peace Corps volunteer?

Now, think about it: a song that best represents your thought process. What would you choose?
It's actually something that I did back on in my freshman dorm at Reed College, and it wasn't my idea back then.  But still, even considering that it was me initiating it, I'd call it a smashing success.  The tracklist:

1. Bela Fleck - New South Africa: Intro
2. Simon & Garfunkel - 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)
3. Kenny Rogers - The Gambler
4. Joni Mitchell - Carey
5. Robert Earl Keen - It's the Little Things
6. Ludacris - Rollout (My Business)
7. John Lennon - Imagine
8. Don McLean - Vincent
9. The Submarines - You Me and the Bourgeoisie
10. Wilco - On and On and On
11. Eddie Izzard - Being European
12. The Beatles - A Day In the Life
13. Dan Deacon - Jimmy Joe Roche
14. Des'ree - You Gotta Be
15. Dixie Chicks - Easy Silence
16. Allman Brothers Band - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
17. In My Life - Judy Collins
18. Talking Heads - Life During Wartime
19. Bette Midler - The Rose
20. Coldplay - Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love
21. Queen - Bicycle Race
22. Ratatat - Loud Pipes
23. Riverdance - Countess Cathleen
24. Rosette - Brazasia
25. CocoRose - Butterscotch
26. Boards of Canada - Dayvan Cowboy
27. Monty Python - Logic vs. Sex
28. Talking Heads - Slippery People: Karen K.
29. Xavier Rudd - Messages
30. Ennio Morricone - L'Arena (The Mercenary)
31. Lamb of God - Walk With Me (remix)
32. The Billy Burke Estate - Everybody's Gonna Die
33. E.L.O. - Mr. Blue Sky
34. Paul Simon - That's Where I Belong: Outro

Here's my selection:

Oct 17, 2010

Self promotion

So me, Matson, and Karen Kaye were selected as featured bloggers for South Africa on this site called Go Overseas for reasons that so far remain mysterious.  However, I'm always happy to accept some attention.  I do feel a bit guilty in that a great deal of my content has nothing to do with South Africa.  If anyone is looking for specific advice about traveling, volunteering, or the like drop me an email and I'll be more than willing to help as best I can.

Oct 16, 2010

Layout feedback bleg

I've customized the layout of this place a little. I inverted the color scheme, changed the font and my picture, and removed that annoying blogger header thingy at the top. I find the black background-white text to be a lot easier on the eyes, but I'll switch it back if people hate it. I was also thinking about changing the header picture (though I do like the current one a lot, it doesn't seem to fit very well now). Any thoughts? (And yes, I know the beard is ridiculous.)

UPDATE: Well, after letting it stew for awhile, I decided to switch back to dark text, light background.  The main issue was that bolded text was almost impossible to see regardless of the font I picked.  So now I'm going for a kind of old-school parchment look.  Again, feedback would be highly appreciated.

UPDATE II:  And now I've redone the header as well.  The picture is of the Little Colorado far up in the drainage, and I like it a lot and think it fits.  The font is a little goofy I reckon, and I'll work on it again tomorrow.  I also made it narrower, to fit more actual text in the main screen.  Overall thoughts?  Am I headed in the right direction?  Thanks again for the comments.

Collected links

1. Fuckin' magnets, how do they work?

2. A breakdown of straight vs. gay sex and the curious.

3. The scale of mortgage bond fraud is staggering. This is tied up with the foreclosure mess. I've heard the words "TARP II" bandied about.

4. "Goldilocks planet" may not actually exist.

5. Colorado billboard depicts Obama as a terrorist, a gangster, a bandito, and a gay man.

6. Hitchens on why politicians suck.

Sunrise


This from the archives. It was taken in Belize, actually.

Another PKD movie of sorts

Great news! The Man in the High Castle is going to be made into a BBC miniseries with Ridley Scott on board as a co-producer. Yglesias says that it's Dick's best book, but personally UBIK is my favorite.

Oct 15, 2010

Never trust the banks

I've collected a few simpler articles on the crisis. Check this one in the Washington Post, this one about the foreclosure that started it all, and this one about a Florida man (to be mentioned later). As usual, Paul Krugman has the clearest explanation:
The story so far: An epic housing bust and sustained high unemployment have led to an epidemic of default, with millions of homeowners falling behind on mortgage payments. So servicers — the companies that collect payments on behalf of mortgage owners — have been foreclosing on many mortgages, seizing many homes.

But do they actually have the right to seize these homes? Horror stories have been proliferating, like the case of the Florida man whose home was taken even though he had no mortgage. More significantly, certain players have been ignoring the law. Courts have been approving foreclosures without requiring that mortgage servicers produce appropriate documentation; instead, they have relied on affidavits asserting that the papers are in order. And these affidavits were often produced by “robo-signers,” or low-level employees who had no idea whether their assertions were true.

Now an awful truth is becoming apparent: In many cases, the documentation doesn’t exist. In the frenzy of the bubble, much home lending was undertaken by fly-by-night companies trying to generate as much volume as possible. These loans were sold off to mortgage “trusts,” which, in turn, sliced and diced them into mortgage-backed securities. The trusts were legally required to obtain and hold the mortgage notes that specified the borrowers’ obligations. But it’s now apparent that such niceties were frequently neglected. And this means that many of the foreclosures now taking place are, in fact, illegal.
Emphasis mine. When I started hearing about this, my first thought was that, well, at least my parents own their house free and clear, but the case of this Florida man surprised even me. (He will get his house back, but only because he notified the local media. My parents' properties are likely in no danger.) Unwinding this crisis in a just fashion is probably not going to happen, but here's hoping. As Krugman says, Obama, like political elites of both parties generally, will protect the financial sector first and foremost.

Beyond the specifics, this is a reason why I would be homeless before I'd be an financial employee of any kind. I trust businessmen in general very little, but I see the basic legitimacy of a company like, say, Wal-Mart. Government must restrain its worst impulses, but it is not wholly evil. There exists a correspondence between the interest of an average person (to buy cheap things) and the interest of the company (to sell cheap things).

I see no such basic legitimacy in the financial sector. Banking is a necessary function for a modern economy, but as Atrios says Wall Street is "...a giant casino industry with a side gig in banking, and that banking side gig has meant the government will always guarantee the house bets." The first response of the banksters to the massive problem with foreclosures has been, yet again, to pump the smallest and most helpless among us as hard as they can, laws be damned. They can't help themselves. The financial sector as a system is thoroughly stupid and evil, and the first assumption for any sensible regulatory regime should be that bankers will make the cruelest and dumbest decisions that can be imagined, decisions that will in the medium term crush both the helpless and themselves.

UPDATE: Atrios piles on:
I think too often many of us have tried to come up with elaborate financial/economic rationalizations for why the banksters have approached all of this the way they have. The simpler explanation is that they're sociopathic assholes who think that everyone else must suffer for their mistakes. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with their companies' bottom lines. Remember, they already destroyed their companies once.

Take the initiative

A man in Kenya is building a plane from scratch with no prior aviation experience:

A vision from your dystopian future

The WWF's annual Living Planet Report has some bracing findings:
If business continues as usual, the report predicts, “humanity will be using resources and land at the rate of two planets each year by 2030, and just over 2.8 planets each year by 2050.”

The editorial team that produced the latest report writes that human demand on the planet’s ecosystems more than doubled between 1961 and 2007. Humankind is now consuming the planet’s resources at a rate that outstrips the natural replenishment of those resources by 50 percent.

Oct 14, 2010

Book review: The Duty of Genius

Summary: this biography by Ray Monk is a brilliant work about a fascinating and tortured soul. Highly recommended.

Up today: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. As a biography, it is truly excellent, and the subject is both hugely important and interesting. Monk's portrait of Wittgenstein is simultaneously deeply sympathetic yet clear-eyed and unsparing. This is especially praiseworthy as Wittgenstein is the type of person that tends to inspire either hero worship or withering scorn.

Wittgenstein seems like the kind of person it would be easy to admire from afar. He reminded me of Thomas More in his unceasing dedication to do and feel as he thought was right, though compromise would have made him happier. Actually interacting with the man would probably have been a nightmare for most people. He was deeply needy, yet so moody and tempestuous he was beastly to practically everyone he knew at one point or another and drove many of them away. His idea of love, an irritating, Puritanical sort of concept that viewed love as something best pondered from a distance, almost ruling out physical contact, was inspiring in his dedication to it but astonishingly cruel. The case of Francis Skinner, a young man who fell head-over-heels for Wittgenstein and continued to love him unquestioningly for the rest of his short life is heartbreaking to contemplate. Wittgenstein's dedication to these impossible ideals made his life almost wholly miserable.

Monk also gives surprisingly deep and clear explanations of Wittgenstein's philosophy as it evolved, particularly in his later years (though I of course have little understanding as yet). I can easily see how he is so famous—his Philosophical Investigations is like no other philosophy book I am aware of. In it, he does not present a system or a set of ideas he defends, rather he lays out a technique for solving problems, to "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle" as he put it. Monk says that it is fruitless to try and to understand what Wittgenstein "said," as one might do with Schopenhauer, "for in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unraveling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions, the book will be of very little interest." This has some head-spinning implications. He seems to be attacking the very roots of philosophy.

Though I suspect Wittgenstein is one of those writers who I will find impossible to read, I've got some super-pretentious books lined up and I might have a crack at some of his easier works. We'll see how that goes.

Collected links

1. The Nobel Prize in chemistry goes to... (yay O-chem!)

2. A case for abolishing drunk driving laws.

3. Help save Science Friday!

4. Amateur astronomy alert: there's a comet passing near the earth. Unfortunately it can only be seen in the Northern Hemisphere.

5. Scrutinizing the Millennium Villages.

Oct 13, 2010

Global warming analogy

Ryan Avent has a great comparison:
Let me reiterate this. We’re not talking about a nuanced, Jim Manzi-argument in favor of a recognition of the science but inaction on the policy. If that were the median GOP position, a bill much tougher than any placed on the table would have flown through Congress. No, it’s far worse than that. No GOP leader of consequence is able to make and sustain the argument that climate change is occurring as the scientists say it is. That’s remarkable! Imagine the world’s major powers sitting down in the early 20th century to negotiate a treaty on the law of the sea, only to have one of America’s major political parties vow to defeat any settlement, on the grounds that the world is in fact flat.
His conclusion:
We are sowing the seeds of catastrophe. I keep thinking that at some point, a conservative of conscience will take a stand and force the GOP to do some soul searching on this issue. There are hundreds of millions of lives depending on the decisions the American government makes. Surely some Republican of some importance values those lives over short-term political gain!

If America doesn’t get this right, and soon, it will be among the biggest and most unforgivable failures in our history. And we will be dealing with the fallout for as long as you and I live. We will be the bad guys. Worse, we are the bad guys.
Pretty much.

Oct 12, 2010

RIP Stephanie Chance, Niger Peace Corps volunteer

Our Peace Corps family has been suffering some tragedies lately. Stephanie Chance, a volunteer in Niger, has died of what appears to be natural causes. My thoughts are with her friends and family. Below I'm posting a letter from Director Aaron Williams.
I am deeply saddened to write that Municipal Development Volunteer Stephanie Chance, an admired member of the Peace Corps family in Niger, died on Thursday, October 7, 2010.

Stephanie, 26 years old, was found in her home in Zinder, and, at this time her death appears to be from natural causes.

Her sudden passing is mourned by the entire Peace Corps community, including her fellow training group members, who were recently sworn in together as Volunteers on September 23, 2010.

Stephanie was a native of Phoenix, Arizona, and she had arrived in Niger for training in July 2010. She had just arrived at her site in Zinder and was busy getting to know the community to help local officials better coordinate local government services and collaborative planning.

“My aspirations for my community are to assist them in identifying their needs, and helping them imagine the changes they would most benefit from,” she wrote in her July 2010 aspiration statement.

Before serving with the Peace Corps, Stephanie was an experienced certified public accountant in Arizona. Through Peace Corps service, Stephanie hoped to gain a more global perspective and a better understanding of other cultures. She held a B.S. in business administration and an M.A. in accounting from the University of Arizona.

In recent weeks, Stephanie had made significant progress to learn the local language of Hausa. In September, she completed nearly three months of intensive pre-service training in the village of Hamdallaye, Niger. She was fond of her host family and enjoyed talking with them in her newly acquired Hausa. Stephanie was an active leader among her training group. She organized basketball games and coached local youth in the sport.

She was known by Peace Corps training staff for her smile and willingness to help others. She cared about the people of Niger and found ways to contribute, including participating in the annual tree planting to celebrate Nigerien Independence Day and promote conservation.

Peace Corps Volunteers represent the best America has to offer -- compassion, generosity of spirit and an enthusiasm for what is possible through cooperation. Stephanie’s sudden passing is terribly painful for the entire Peace Corps community. Please keep her family and friends in your thoughts and prayers.
UPDATE: Her obituary says: "In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Horses Help, PO Box 71005 Phoenix Arizona 85050 or Peace Corps Niger Fund at www.peacecorps.gov."

A friend of hers has a wrenching post:
I felt like I had been punched hard in the stomach. Unable to speak or breathe and feeling extremely nauseous, I fell to my knees in the dirt, only vaugely aware of the nearby merchants’ cries of alarm. Rachel continued to say that Stephanie was found in her house that night, that no one knew the cause of death yet, that all of the PCVs from Zinder region and my stage were coming in to Niamey the next day for a service, and that she, Rachel, was coming to my house as soon as she could get a car to stay with me so we could make the 2 hour journey together in the morning.

Images played in my mind like a movie, Stephanie and I sitting at a volunteer’s house eating tuna sandwiches and playing Uno over Demyst during our second week; Stephanie asking one of the training site kitchen staff in broken Hausa if he knew how to make breakfast burritos; Stephanie making plans to visit Morocco in March, right before hot season; Stephanie during the Nigerien fashion show, standing in front of us wrapped from head to toe in a ridiculous outfit made from thick layers of pastel green lace (“This is seriously the hottest thing I’ve ever worn,” she said, panting and sweating, and a male volunteer watching winked and replied back, “You’re telling me!”); Stephanie in a cardboard party hat sitting at the head of the table in a Niamey restaurant on her birthday.

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard, a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment.

When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that eat livestock, though much more cruel, but I can remember young boys doing similar things when I was a kid. Farewell, unlucky creature.

Oct 11, 2010

On Western paranoia about China's development

I've gotten the sense both from the zeitgeist and from several volunteers and friends that China will soon surpass the United States as the world's foremost power, and this has something to do with their singleminded focus on building the economy. China, so the story goes, doesn't have to worry about all this crap about civil liberties or getting things through the Senate or buying off the agricultural lobby.

I think there's a lot of truth to these beliefs, particularly about how political paralysis (particularly in the Senate) is choking necessary government action to boost the US economy. But I've been doing some reading, and I think China faces a much steeper challenge than many suppose. This classic article by Paul Krugman shows how these sorts of beliefs have arisen before about the Soviet Union, and how alarmists then and now don't make a crucial distinction about rising economies: growth of inputs (basically bringing the poor into an industrial economy) is much easier than growth of outputs (basically increased worker productivity). The point here is that growth of inputs has a natural limit in that there are only so many people in a country, and that is exactly what happened in the USSR:
This economic analysis had two crucial implications. First, most of the speculation about the superiority of the communist system including the popular view that Western economics could painlessly accelerate their own growth by borrowing some aspects of that system--was off base. Rapid Soviet economic growth was based entirely on one attribute: the willingness to save, to sacrifice current consumption for the sake of future production. The communist example offered no hint of a free lunch.

Second, the economic analysis of communist countries' growth implied some future limits to their industrial expansion--in other words, implied that a naive projection of their past growth rates into the future was likely to greatly overstate their real prospects. Economic growth that is based on expansion of inputs, rather than on growth in output per unit of input, is inevitably subject to diminishing returns. It was simply not possible for the Soviet economies to sustain the rates of growth of labor force participation, average education levels, and above all the physical capital stock that had prevailed in previous years. Communist growth would predictably slow down, perhaps drastically.
But how much does China (and other booming Eastern economies) have to do with the USSR?
AT FIRST, it is hard to see anything in common between the Asian success stories of recent years and the Soviet Union of three decades ago. Indeed, it is safe to say that the typical business traveler to, say, Singapore, ensconced in one of that city's gleaming hotels, never even thinks of any parallel to its roach-infested counterparts in Moscow. How can the slick exuberance of the Asian boom be compared with the Soviet Union's grim drive to industrialize?

And yet there are surprising similarities. The newly industrializing countries of Asia, like the Soviet Union of the 1950s, have achieved rapid growth in large part through an astonishing mobilization of resources. Once one accounts for the role of rapidly growing inputs in these countries' growth, one finds little left to explain, Asian growth, like that of the Soviet Union in its high-growth era, seems to be driven by extraordinary growth in inputs like labor and capital rather than by gains in efficiency.
The crucial difference to me seems to be that once the USSR got its economy fully organized on an industrial basis, it had nowhere to go. The socialist system was fundamentally incapable of progressing beyond a certain point. China and its cohorts are basically on the correct path, but their task will eventually become to increase their productivity rather than their inputs, and call me idealistic, but my opinion is that they will then face the monumental task of building a more honest and free state. I can't imagine China with similar prosperity to Sweden with stories like this all the time:
China devotes significant resources to building a world-class education system and pioneering research in competitive industries and sciences, and has had notable successes in network computing, clean energy, and military technology. But a lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say.

“If we don’t change our ways, we will be excluded from the global academic community,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “We need to focus on seeking truth, not serving the agenda of some bureaucrat or satisfying the desire for personal profit.”

Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation — has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. In December, a British journal that specializes in crystal formations announced that it was withdrawing more than 70 papers by Chinese authors whose research was of questionable originality or rigor.
It's also important to note these sorts of situations are not zero-sum. A more prosperous China would make for a more prosperous USA in absolute terms, even if it entailed a relative decline. Of course, catastrophic climate change will make all these questions academic.

Collected links

1. Page from the annals of financial crisis history.

2. On single-party democracies.

3. Great primer on the continuing foreclosure train wreck. This is something I am still not paying enough attention to. After a lot of work (I just finished The Big Short—review to come), I think I have a decent handle on the financial crisis; my next project will be trying to untangle the foreclosure mess. Suffice to say there's a staggering amount of fraud involved.

4. Thoughts on the masturbation gap. Apparently one of the best predictors of female sexual health and happiness is having masturbated.

5. Understanding the suicide bomber.

Happy 600 posts!


Ok, I'm slightly late, but close enough anyway. To celebrate, I present a picture of my new fan. I give thanks to the gods of phefo (wind).

Oct 10, 2010

The taxi ride from hell

Today was by far the worst taxi trip I've had since coming to South Africa. The reasons were two drunk men, one so utterly wasted he could not stand. I sat in the far back corner with three young women, hiding behind a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The men at first were only shouting randomly at everyone. To me they said, "Lekgowa! Put down your book! You read too much!" but then they started trying to grope the women on the taxi and to take things out of my bag. They were so drunk that these efforts were rather ineffectual and easily rebuffed by the other people—I didn't have to get involved which was probably for the best. Then the drunker one started puking everywhere. The smell was horrific and made the girl next to me retch, but luckily she managed to hold it in and I kept the window wide open. Throughout they continued to drink, sometimes between heaves even.

I was astonished at the amount of compassion shown to these two men. I suspect they were kin to someone on the taxi, perhaps the driver. Despite their antics people on the bus were shepherding them around like babies. I kept thinking what would have happened to someone that did that on a bus in New York City. They would have been booted right off, likely with a savage beating, to be picked up by the police and thrown in the drunk tank. Criminal charges would include drunk & disorderly conduct, being a public nuisance, and sexual harassment or assault.

The last one was the most trying for me—when one grabbed the breasts of the girl sitting next to me I had to restrain myself from punching loose the few teeth still clinging to his rotten gums. The girl, of course, did not need my help in the slightest. She slapped him so hard his head spun, and everyone in the taxi laughed. "Hey, wena!" she said, shaking her finger and sucking her cheeks. All in a day's work.

Oct 8, 2010

On joining the military, ctd

This post certainly sparked some discussion both in comments and email about several topics, but I'd like to concentrate on how my friend's rationale overlapped with my own for joining Peace Corps.

One person used "bored" in correspondence to describe his feelings, but I think a better term would be alienation. Profound alienation. The United States, for all its vast material prosperity, is notorious for this sort of thing. Call it what you will—spiritual fulfillment, purpose, meaning, whatever, often one confronts only a sucking void of meaningless acquisition and consumption that is actively complicit in wrecking the planet. Those of a philosophic or analytic bent are most prone to it, I reckon, particularly if none of the mass-production religions holds any attraction. I sympathize deeply with this sense of alienation, though I feel it less strongly than my friend. This is, I believe, because of my roots in the river culture of the Southwest, something that provides some of that lacking spiritual nourishment.

I also sympathize with his struggle for agency—his desire to act in the world, to have something he does matter, for good or for ill. I too feel that desire for some truly meaningful experience, to cut away the bullshit and expose the roots of existence—or perhaps fabricate them myself if there are none. In this he is far braver than myself, and far more willing to cut away the trappings of modern life. Here in South Africa I have electricity, internet, and enough electronic media to play continuously for the next year, yet he will have to delete even his Facebook and email accounts when he ships out.

Doing something as important as joining the military out of a desire for agency without caring much about the consequences thereof—indeed, actively disagreeing with US foreign policy—could be considered selfish and amoral, I suppose, but again I feel much the same. Truth be told, while I help where I can in my village, I don't much care about assisting the developing world (except in that it is an interesting question) and think that in many cases we are hurting more than we are helping. (On balance, I think Peace Corps is a net positive.) I did this for myself, full stop. I reckon that attitude is more common than some would like to admit.

My friend had a few final thoughts on the matter:
Westerners, in all their arrogance, automatically equate economic prosperity with progress. However, it is not that simple in my eyes. I'm not on a grand mission from God (or whoever) to help everyone on this planet reach the social ideals we hold as highest (ours). Human progress depends on many things, and thus economic conditions are just one tiny piece of a very large puzzle.

I just found out today that I'll be shipping out earlier than I expected, Oct. 18th. A mere two weeks away. People have been constantly asking me if I'm nervous to leave, and I'm not sure how to answer them. If I were honest with them, I would say that I'd be nervous to stay here and that I'm eager to get the fuck out. But I'm rarely honest with people in this regard, for fear of insulting them by criticizing the culture they're so deeply invested in. So instead I just babble some random shit about patriotism and duty and what-not. And so they say, "thank you for your service to this country" and shake my fucking hand. God, I can't wait to be done with this shit. To be in a place where all that matters is not dying. Soon enough...
To which I can only say: amen. I fervently hope he finds what he's looking for and makes it through the six years unscathed.

Department of WTF, cake bureau


Ezra Klein presents the Pumpple Cake. It's a pumpkin pie and an apple pie baked inside layers of vanilla and chocolate cake. Vanilla buttercream gives it enough structural integrity to stand on its own.

Oct 7, 2010

A vision from your dystopian future

The Stuxnet worm is perhaps the first demonstration of genuine cyber-warfare:
THE internet is abuzz this week with speculation about Stuxnet, a "groundbreaking" computer worm that attacks industrial-control systems. Put that way, it doesn't sound very exciting. But the possibility that it might have been aimed at one set of industrial-control systems in particular—those inside Iranian nuclear facilities—has prompted one security expert to describe Stuxnet as a "cyber-missile", designed to seek out and destroy a particular target. Its unusual sophistication, meanwhile, has prompted speculation that it is the work of a well-financed team working for a nation state, rather than a group of rogue hackers trying to steal industrial secrets or cause trouble. This, in turn, has led to suggestions that Israel, known for its high-tech prowess and (ahem) deep suspicion of Iran's nuclear programme, might be behind it. But it is difficult to say how much truth there is in this juicy theory.
Apparently this bad boy is spread by USB drives, which don't raise the same security flags as the internet, and allow the worm to be spread to computers completely disconnected from the internet.

On a side note, I was not particularly suspicious of USB drives before I came here, but I'm extremely paranoid about them now. Practically every computer I run into here is infected with stuff that spreads via USB, to the point that the Northern Cape Education Department does not allow the schools to submit their results on a memory stick (asking them to burn a CD instead). From the sound of things, it looks like the US should probably start sharing my paranoia.