Nov 30, 2010

Quote of the day

"And, indeed, as recently as 1988 one could have witnessed moderate Democrat Joe Lieberman successfully challenging incumbent liberal Republican Senator Lowell Weicker with the support of, among others, William F Buckley, Jr.

"But it turns out that Lieberman vs Weicker was something of a dying gasp of a political order that was rendered obsolete by the civil rights revolution. Twenty years later we find ourselves several congresses into a brave new world in which every single Democratic Party legislator is to the left of every single Republican Party legislator. In terms of partisan politics, in other words, we’ve become a normal country. But as Linz observed, the “normal” outcome for a country with our political institutions and ideologically sorted parties is constitutional crisis and a collapse into dictatorship.

"So far it hasn’t happened here. The 1998-99 effort to impeach Bill Clinton was sufficiently unpopular that moderate Republicans wouldn’t vote for it. Al Gore chose not to contest the legitimacy of the Supreme Court ruling that handed the White House to George W Bush despite the fact that the electorate preferred Gore. And by 2007-2008, Bush was so unpopular that the Democratic Party leadership felt the wisest course was to avoid provoking a crisis and basically just wait him out. But we live in interesting times…"  --Yglesias.

Nov 29, 2010


I'm back!  This training at Pretoria was the general training of trainers, shortened to GTOT in accordance with Peace Corps' acronym fetish (similar to bureaucracies everywhere, I reckon).  The next group of South African volunteers are coming in late January, so they gathered everyone involved to figure out how it's going to work.  There were four PCVs, a few staff, and about 20 language trainers.  We spent the greater part of the time reworking all the sessions they had laid out, making sure they fit into the lesson format that Peace Corps has adopted.  Here are the characteristics they wanted to be sure could be identified in every instance:
1) Performer
2) Performance
3) Standard
4) Condition
Performer is who is doing the learning, the performance is where the learning takes place, the condition is when, and the standard is how learning is measured. In my opinion, it's a cumbersome and unnecessarily vague format, but that's not what really tripped us up. We spent the better part of a day trying to get everyone to understand the format, and another day arguing back and forth as to how the format should be applied, to no obvious benefit.  Neither I nor most of the language trainers had much to add, and what we did was swamped by the endless bickering, and the actual content of the sessions was often forgotten while trying to jam things into the format.  It seemed like the kind of task that should be accomplished by one or two people without such discussion.  The most important part of the training—who is going to do what session when—got pushed all the way to the end, and one of the other volunteers had to spend an extra day cleaning up the mess into a workable draft schedule.

Oddly enough, this kind of stuff is one of the reasons I did training in the first place.  Nearly everything Peace Corps does here is encrusted with a Byzantine layer of obscure bureaucratic language that tends to suffocate whatever it surrounds.  It's almost a problem of writing.  I'm always reminded of Orwell's Politics and the English Language, which for its faults is still razor-sharp on this issue:
This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.
My desire is to break away the obscurities surrounding these sessions to reveal their cores.  Take the problem of communicating in the village.  The American style of communication is not at all appropriate there, and one needs to be sensitive and intelligent to get a good bead on people's thoughts.  Peace Corps' idea is to put this under the umbrella of "Appreciative Inquiry," which has the following characteristics (just to give you a flavor):
Just exactly the kind of abstract meaningless sloganeering Orwell was talking about. We'll see how successful I can be—at the training for SA22, there were something like 15 PCVs, for SA23 there are only five, so I will be doing a great number of sessions. Those poor suckers.

Nov 26, 2010


Turkey day turned out to be quite the experience.  I was originally going to be accompanied by another volunteer to the house of the psychologist for the US embassy, but she was unable to make it, so it was just me representing Peace Corps.  There were expats there from Switzerland, France, England, India, Finland, Pakistan, and the US.  They had me stand up in front of everyone and give an impromptu explanation of the history of Thanksgiving.  (I figure if you graduate from college and you can't at least BS reasonably well, you ought to ask for your money back.)

I let loose what charm I could muster up, and the evening seemed to go pretty well, though I was often lost amongst the French-speaking bunch.  That's not their fault though, and otherwise the people were excellent and the food delicious.  Now I've got a new friend in Waterkloof (the wealthy section of Pretoria) in case of emergency.

Nov 25, 2010

It's a small world

I'm still here at this training in Pretoria, which is going well enough all things considered.  They told us originally that we'd be going out to dinner at the ambassador's house here, but it turns out that there were too many of us for that, so some got shunted off to other American families around town.  Still, great to be getting a free dinner.

It turns out that one of the other volunteers here is also a river-running type who has worked around the Southwest for a long time, on the San Juan and others.  Just yesterday my sister called me, and I mentioned this person, and it turns out they worked at the same company and were good friends.  Quite the staggering coincidence, eh?

I'll be heading back to my site around Saturday or Sunday, and regularly scheduled blogging will resume then.

Nov 23, 2010

Question of the day

Noah's been in rare form over at his place.  See here, here, and here for a series on a sangoma celebration.  The question: how many conquistador helmets full of local hooch (called Umqombothi) does it take to kill a woolly mammoth?  Answer: 33 and 1/3!

Nov 21, 2010

Collected links

1. This study purports to be evidence of seeing the future.  Color me unconvinced.

2. The speech accent archive.

3. Roger Ebert on lonely people.

4. The unsung heroes of human development.  They are mostly Muslim countries.  Apparently empowering women is more effective than democratization.

5. Radley Balko on the unjust imprisonment of Brian Aitken. Count me on the side of the NRA on this one.


A few days back we finally got a decent downpour. It was heavenly. The earth drank it up—it's been so dry here they've got the public works folks out cutting brush to save water.

Nov 20, 2010

Blog news

I'm going to a training in Pretoria—we're getting ready for the upcoming SA23 and I'm one of five (!) people selected to be part of training.  It should be fun, but posting might be a little light for next week or so.  We'll see if I can find a computer in Pretoria somewheres.

Nov 19, 2010

The START treaty

Republicans, specifically Jon Kyl, are threatening not to pass the START arms control treaty.  Larison has been pounding this issue for a long time, but Josh Marshall has probably the best primer I've seen thus far. 
Have you heard this? Russia still has a massive strategic nuclear arsenal with pretty much the exclusive goal of being able to devastate the United States and kill pretty much all of us. For 15 years we had pretty robust right to inspect their arsenal many times a year, make sure they only had as many as they were allowed under our treaties and actually get up on the delivery missiles themselves and look at the payloads? Now we don't. In fact, we haven't since December 5th of last year. At first that wasn't that big a deal. Not much can happen in a few weeks or few months. But now it's been almost a year. So all that trust but verify stuff Ronald Reagan was so into? Well, now we can't verify. And for as much as you're worried about some Muslim guy blowing up a plane and killing a few hundred people, these are weapons designed to kill hundreds of millions of people. Do you feel more secure knowing we're just taking everything on faith from the Russians? Or that our intelligence on their missile designs and practices is growing older by the day?

There are also secondary arguments -- namely that there's no way to effective pressure the Iranians on their nuclear program without the assistance of the Russians. And this weakens the relationship with the Russian so by definition it undermines us on that front too. But again, the core issue is that the US is much more secure being able to inspect the Russian strategic missile force than not.
One of the several secondary issues is that the Russian government would be totally humiliated by the US's playing Lucy-and-the-football, and would not be likely to accept another treaty in the near future.

This is just cosmically irresponsible. All those conservative doomsday scenarios where a major US city gets flattened? They usually start with loose Russian nukes. Yet Republicans are willing to sink this treaty if it damages Obama. So they probably will.

For more, see here, here, and here.

I did a good deed today

Lest anyone accuse me of being a complete waste of Peace Corps money, for the defense I present the following.  With God as my witness, for Uncle Sam and freedom and democracy, for peace and love and harmony and low trade barriers, today I rescued a baby goat with her head caught in a rusty tin can.
Kinda funny, but pitiful.
I was walking back along the riverbed from the neighboring village, where I have been helping with a world map project for the past couple days, blasting some Opeth on my headphones.  The poor thing was totally helpless, and tried to run when I approached but didn't know which way to go so I caught her easily.  The issue was her little horns—maybe an inch long—had gotten wedged under the lip of the can, which was bent into an oval shape.  (God knows what enticed the thing to stick its head in the can in the first place.)  At first I couldn't get both of the horns out.  The goat was panicky and panting hoarsely into the can, and kept trying to escape.  After a time I tried wrenching the can into a better shape by main force, and managed to succeed enough so I could get both horns out.  Then when I held the can and she tried to escape again, she got loose.
The goat's clan seemed to have left her behind, so she immediately set to bleating and looking around for them.  I hope she found them. 

It was a reminder of the benefits of arms and opposable thumbs.  The other day I was thinking of the very few number of animals that can touch themselves basically anywhere on their body.  Being human does have its perks.
The face of the abyss.

Nov 18, 2010

RIP Gerald H Nelson

My step-grandfather passed away last night. He had been ill for awhile and it was his time. He had had medical issues for a long time, but in the end it was probably good that he went as quickly as he eventually did. It could have easily been one of those deaths that drag on brutally for weeks or months.

What I think of now is his cabin in Mexico where he lived for the last several years with my grandma. He bought the place for a song back in the 60s and my family been visiting there since I was a little kid. Somewhere there are pictures, taken in that cabin, of a five-year-old Ryan flying through the air onto a pile of beanbag chairs. I remember also one time riding around in the back of his restored 1944 Willys Jeep (equipped with hand-routed sand tires), sitting on the same beanbags, forgetting to hold on while Grandpa took off from a stop sign, and thus tumbling astonished out onto the sand behind. I wasn't hurt, and luckily the Jeep is not particularly fast, so I wasn't forgotten.

It's the little things that stand out at a time like this. My thoughts are with my grandma and the rest of my family, who were there at the end and are now sorting things out.

UPDATE: I should give a little context. My biological grandfather on my father's side died in 1964, and Gerry married my grandma in 1966, so he's the only grandfather I've ever known on that side. Since both my mom's parents died in 1995, he and Grandma were the only ones left.

He could be an abrasive and opinionated man, but he tried in his own way to do good things for my family. You only get one family, and I love mine. Godspeed, Grandpa.

Nov 16, 2010


Today my Grade 4, 5, and 6 classes took their final exams for maths.  This means I am done teaching in South Africa.  (Imagine me being jubilant right now.)  What better way to celebrate than the Onion:
The U.S. Department of Education released a comprehensive, nationwide evaluation of American schools Monday indicating that attempts to teach absolutely anything to these little shits is just a huge waste of everybody's time...

"When I first started teaching, I would see the smiling faces in my classroom and get excited about nurturing their young minds," said Melanie Whitman, 35, a first-grade teacher quoted in the report. "Now I can't look up from my desk without wanting to puke at the sight of all those little psychopaths."

Secretary Duncan said the study is the first to provide detailed evidence in support of the theory that third-grader Scott Kriesel is a complete fuck-up and perhaps even the living incarnation of Satan.

Department of WTF, Satan bureau

I saw just now that I've written 666 posts, and have 666 songs on my top rated playlist.  Who shall I challenge to a fiddle-playin contest?

Nov 15, 2010

Nelson Mandela was a secret neuroscientist

I'm really enjoying the NYT philosophy blog, The StoneThe latest post by Robert Sapolsky is about the way the patchwork, ad hoc nature of evolution makes the brain mix up metaphors and reality:
Another truly interesting domain in which the brain confuses the literal and metaphorical is cleanliness. In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes. In the next study, volunteers were told to recall an immoral act of theirs. Afterward, subjects either did or did not have the opportunity to clean their hands. Those who were able to wash were less likely to respond to a request for help (that the experimenters had set up) that came shortly afterward. Apparently, Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate weren’t the only ones to metaphorically absolve their sins by washing their hands.
As an example of how this kind of thing can work in one's favor, Sapolsky brings this example:
But if the brain confusing reality and literalness with metaphor and symbol can have adverse consequences, the opposite can occur as well. At one juncture just before the birth of a free South Africa, Nelson Mandela entered secret negotiations with an Afrikaans general with death squad blood all over his hands, a man critical to the peace process because he led a large, well-armed Afrikaans resistance group. They met in Mandela’s house, the general anticipating tense negotiations across a conference table. Instead, Mandela led him to the warm, homey living room, sat beside him on a comfy couch, and spoke to him in Afrikaans. And the resistance melted away.
A clever fellow.

Awkward movies

I just watched Superbad for the first time, and while I thought it was decent, and pretty funny in the final analysis, it was hard work to get through.  I struggle with awkward and embarrassing movies, especially of the Judd Apatow formula: completely charmless, pathetic male protagonists that bumble through the movie making complete asses out of themselves.  Or, at least, a movie like that has to be leavened with a great deal of silliness for me to be able to enjoy it (like the police sub-plot in Superbad).  I thought Talladega Nights struck a good balance in this regard.

I'm not sure exactly why it is I have such a reaction to such movies, but it's an extraordinarily powerful one.  It's a visceral physical discomfort.  If the movie is sufficiently awkward, I literally cannot watch.  I had to turn off Old School.  The idea behind that kind of humor seems to be a kind of release from fear—watching someone else humiliate himself as a celebration of freedom from such humiliation (at that moment, anyway).  My taste leans more toward the absurd (like Monty Python), where the jokes have no victim; or satire, where the victims genuinely deserve to be humiliated.  Perhaps as a somewhat awkward person myself I too easily sympathize with Apatow's protagonists.  Watching such movies, I am certainly reminded of my own numerous abject failures.

But it's more than that, I suspect.  Though I'm no social savant, I am not quite fit to star in an Apatow film.  High school was not a particularly hard time for me.  I was never bullied, had plenty of friends, and reasonable success with girls.  It might just be too much sympathy for the underdog.  Whatever the reason, it's got a strong grip.

Nov 13, 2010

Busted leg reax

Jenneffer provides an update:
Pain management was one of the two most difficult parts of my hospitalization. There were times i felt like Frida, waking from nightmares, screaming in pain, only to be stilled by in injection of strong analgesic. Never have i seen my body tremble so violently from a negative experience. The other terrible part was being alone. I never imagined i would come to need and enjoy the company of others, until this past 15 months of experiences in the peace corps. Especially in such a difficuly time, as being hospitalized, having surgery, and enduring so much pain.
Say some prayers to the deity of your choice that she gets better soon (I choose the FSM). One good thing about crutches is you get massively improved upper-body strength in a hurry.

Nov 12, 2010

Quantitative easing

Since additional fiscal stimulus is out of the question, Fed Chairman Bernanke is planning another round of monetary policy action.  It's rather weak tea, but basically they're going to try and push up the inflation rate a bit by buying a huge mess of treasury bonds.  It's the functional equivalent of printing some money.  I think this is an area where people's intuitions (printing money bad! strong dollar good!) can lead them astray.  The usual suspects are howling about "debasing the dollar," but Karl Smith gives a great explanation of why we need this sort of thing, in the context of arguing that Bernanke is not doing enough:
Virtually all economists agree that disinflation and deflation are caused by a shortage of dollars in the economy. The majority agree that such deflation is accompanied by a rise in unemployment. If inflation is too many dollars chasing too few goods, then deflation is too few dollars chasing too few goods. As a side effect some of those goods are never caught. No one buys them, their producers lay off workers and unemployment rises...

The economy is being dragged down by the spiral of ever lower inflation. As banks and businesses see inflation fall, it only increases their incentive to sit on the cash they have. As I mentioned before, if we reach outright deflation then they can earn a profit simply by stockpiling money in vault. Every year as prices fall the money locked in that vault would become more and more valuable.

However, money locked in a vault does nothing to support economic growth. It does not fund new investments, new workers or new products. Without that base of new investment or new spending, prices fall further, goods are discounted more deeply and the deflation spiral worsens. We could power out of such a spiral by raising inflation expectations. The Fed could promise that any decline in prices today would be met by an equal rise in prices tomorrow. Any business considering sitting on its cash would know that know that this is a losing proposition. What it gains by taking advantage of disinflation today, it will lose when exposed to re-inflation tomorrow.
See here and here also.

Nov 11, 2010

Armistice Day

Since I'm not in the US, that's what I'm calling it.  I just finished the Teaching Company's lecture series on WWI, and it seems to me the psychic state of the Western world after that mass of horror was much more healthy than the triumphalist attitude that persists after WWII.  Here is "Back," by Wilfred Gibson.
They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.
(h/t): Sullivan.

Donkey cart accident

Donkey carts are ubiquitous in village life. They're like the jalopies of South Africa. Nearly everyone's got one (or three), they're rickety, and the kids beat the everlovin tar out of the things. Some of the donkeys in the traces are treated with relative kindness (usually by older men who seem to know how to train animals), but far too often I see people, usually younger boys, literally flaying the hide off their beasts. They seem to get the idea that if one is driving a cart, one must be constantly flogging: standing up, brandishing the whip in a sweeping circle, leaning into each stroke. I've seen boys drive their carts into the ditch, forcing their friends to get out and lead the donkeys backwards, still maintaining the constant whipping.

The other day walking across the bridge I saw one such boy coasting down the hill to the bridge at a good clip. One of his donkeys—on the right in the picture—either stumbled or came out of the harness and was run over by the cart. The axle passed over its hips, pinning it to the ground.  I went over to help, and found the cart much heavier than I was expecting.  Many carts are made of the removed bed of a bakkie (pickup truck), usually stripped down and half rusted through, and are therefore relatively light.  You can see in the picture this one is made out of welded plate steel.  It was incredibly heavy.  I'm pretty strong (for a PCV anyway), and it was nearly all I (with the help of some Grade 4s) could do to lift the thing and shift it enough to allow the donkey to squirm out.

Luckily the donkey's legs didn't seem to be broken, and so the boy just strapped it back in and, with a few blows of the whip, they were back on their way.

Nov 10, 2010

Can you feel God, ctd

Sullivan has been posting readers' emails on an interesting back and forth between moderate Christians and agnostics.  Count me with this reader:
I am an agnostic who does not feel my life one bit less richer because of it.  I acknowledge mystery in the world.  In fact, I see the world at times as a beautiful, mysterious, dreamlike place.  I constantly ask myself what this all means.  However, I know that no one, including myself, has the answer. 

I hope there is an afterlife.  I hope that it is a place of love considering all of the suffering that goes on in this world.  But religions created by men cannot tell us these things.  In the meantime, I'm satisfied with the meaning of life as given to us by Kurt Vonnegut: We're here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.
Like most philosophical or theological concepts, agnosticism has many different sub-types, but what it is not is simply saying "I'm not sure" to religious questions. Lay people often think that being an agnostic means you are still considering between atheism and theism, and you'll come down on one side eventually. Here's an example: consider strong agnosticism, the belief that certain knowledge about any deities is impossible, so much so that no person can have it.  Consider this cute post by Julian Sanchez, on whether an omnipotent being could prove its properties:
It would require a good deal less than omnipotence to make a human perceptual system experience any demonstration of omnipotence you might care to suggest. So we might imagine God zipping you back to the dawn of creation so you can watch him summon all the galaxies into existence, then mold the earth and breathe life into the first humans, and so on. The trouble is that if you’re aiming for parsimony, the simpler explanation will almost certainly be that you’ve encountered a being capable of simulating all these experiences to your primate nervous system. That is, of course, a hell of a trick—a being who can do that is certainly pretty potent!—but still pretty far short of complete mastery over all space, time, and matter. Even assuming that problem away, the tests would be limited to those feats observable by (and comprehensible to) humans. Maybe God’s almost omnipotent little brother can do just about anything, but could never get the hang of performing a 12th-dimensional loop-de-loop with whoozits sprinkles, which isn’t even on our mental menu of stuff-a-really-awesome-entity-could-do.
He goes on to talk about the epistemic problems of actually being omnipotent, and ends with a great line:
I am not, of course, a believer, but if I were, I’d prefer to imagine a deity occasionally plagued by these thoughts—an agnostic God who sometimes doubts Himself.
Worth a read.

Department of WTF, foreskin bureau

Deep breath.  *shiver*  Ok, I'm ready.  I find this unspeakably horrifying:
There is a market in baby foreskins: Because of this, they’re not tossed out with the rest of the medical waste after a birth. Instead, hospitals sell them to companies and institutions for a wide variety of uses. Companies will pay thousands of dollars for a single foreskin.

Some of the strangest purposes they’re put to:
  • Cosmetics: Foreskins are used to make high-end skin creams. The skin products contain fibroblasts grown on the foreskin and harvested from it. One foreskin can be used for decades to produce fancy face cream like the SkinMedica products hawked on Oprah.
Emphasis mine. Sweet mother Mary. I guess they're also used for skin grafts, but still.

Nov 7, 2010

Peace Corps in South Africa vs. Nicaragua, part II

For this post, I'm going to take a look at the subjective experience of the culture of each country. My friend in Nicaragua describes her experience as deeply humbling. She says, "my host grandmother gets up at 3:00 in the morning to start making tortillas and cooking beans, serves my host brother breakfast at 4:30 before he goes off to work in a sweatshop, then does laundry and cleans, then makes me lunch when I get done sitting on my butt receiving class, then continues working until bedtime." Her host brother has a computer science degree, but works twelve hours a day sewing shirts and is damn happy to have any job at all. He will still attempt to pay for taxis and things for my friend even though he is the only one supporting a family of five. It's not all good—apparently in one of the heavily Sandinista areas a bunch of men attempted to kill a PCV awhile back just because she was American. But overall the Nicas, she concludes, are basically decent, surprisingly well-educated people that had the bad luck to get on the wrong side of the US's idiotic and cruel anticommunism rampage through Central America. Now, I'm a very cynical person, so I would undoubtedly find more fault with things than my friend there, but that's her impression as best I can report.

In South Africa, I do see a lot of good humor and generosity, particularly within the family unit.  But I also see a public culture shot through with a heavy dose of grievance and entitlement, and very little sense of responsibility or duty. Though other volunteers say my experience is not typical, I still get people begging for money nearly every day.  When asking teachers about the strike, they framed their reasons for participation entirely in terms of what they deserve.  "The government owes us this money!"  When visiting a new site, the first question out of nearly every person's mouth is, "What can you do for us here?" with the context, sometimes stated outright, of wanting money.  Where my friend has been humbled, I have probably picked up some cockiness as when it comes to science, maths, or computers (things that crop up frequently) I am light years ahead of anyone in the village.  (The truth, of course, is that I am not an expert in maths or computers, and only passable at science.)

Now, lest you think this is just one more crotchety rant from the Oscar the Grouch of Peace Corps, let me tell you about my host family back in our training village.  It was a grandmother and two children, and they were truly excellent to me, one of the few real connections I have made here.  The grandma was a pensioner, still working hard raising her daughter's children, but was one of the funniest and cheerful people I have ever met.  She worked hard on my Setswana, mostly so I could understand her endless jokes.  The youngest child, a girl, was a bit of a snot, but her brother, a boy of about ten, was an absolute gem.  He was in Grade 4, the age where the schools are supposed to switch to English, and during the couple months I was there his English improved approximately 1000% (partially, I'd like to believe, because I was practicing with him almost every night).  We would watch Generations (a soap opera) together, and he would ask me endless questions about anything he saw on TV, questions like "what is a spaceship?" and "how does an airplane fly?" and "why is the moon round?"  I tried my best to explain, and may have even succeeded on occasion, judging by his looks of round-eyed wonder.

My first weekend at the host family's site, the grandma was away at a funeral and the kids were in Pretoria with their mother, so I spent the time reading The Brothers Karamazov and hanging out with the emaciated and AIDS-stricken uncle, who spent most of the time sleeping.  I was feeling alienated and lonely, but when the kids and the grandma arrived, they were positively writhing with excitement when they saw me.  They put on an old tape of some gospel singer and all four of us danced in the living room, the girl riding on my shoulders.  It was a defining experience.

The upshot of this story is that the issues I mentioned with South Africans are not innate—rather they are the entirely predictable result of one-party rule and the lingering effects of Apartheid.  There are people here of the highest quality, and I have been honored to know a few of them.

Laws and social disapproval

Speaking of the war on drugs, Yglesias (ironically enough), pivoting off a post on the economics of prostitution, lays out a fundamental difference between the technocratic- and the moral-minded:
...a big part of the point of prostitution prohibition laws is to express social disapproval of prostitutes and prostitution. Indeed, people seem generally quite unconcerned about whether prostitution is occurring someplace out of sight and out of mind. But they want to reserve the right to strongly disapprove of both the prostitution and especially the prostitutes. You can analogize a person who engaged in a form of sexual or commercial conduct of which you disapprove by referring to that person as a “whore.” It’s an insult. Its insult status reflects and upholds a social consensus that whores are bad people, not just that whoring is a kind of undesirable nuisance.
In conversations with conservatives about the war on drugs, the debate often runs aground on precisely this territory. A drug policy reformer names statistics and arguments that show the ungodly cost of the war and total failure of its stated aims. The conservative doesn't care about any of that. Drug use doesn't concern him. What concerns him is society countenancing the use of drugs, giving up on that agreed social stigmatization of the drug user.  When people say, "what will the children think?" that is what they're really saying.

The response there is that it's the duty of our society and culture to instill what is right and wrong, not the government's.  Conservatives, after all, claim to loathe big government.  It should be up to our schools, families, and churches to define acceptable behavior.  I've never been able to convince anyone with that reasoning, though.

I painted my roof

This was a pretty amateurish effort on my part. I didn't sand down the rust very much—well, cutting through the rust might have just worn new holes in my roof—I broke my brush halfway through and had to finish clutching the raw bristles like a Lascaux caveman, and I foolishly didn't start at the far edge and painted myself into a corner. Still, all things considered, the roof is significantly whiter than when I started.  More importantly, it is so far a lot cooler inside than yesterday.  By this time during the average day the roof metal would be so hot on the underside you could almost hear the sizzle touching it with your finger.  Now it's barely warm to the touch.  I reckon it will still be pretty hot during the late afternoon as the wall bricks absorb sunlight, but I think overall it's going to make things much better in my little shack.

I bought five liters of paint, which cost R250 and turned out to be way too much.  I still have about two-thirds left, so I might be traveling to neighboring volunteers to use up the rest.  When painting, the importance of getting an even coat was quickly replaced by just getting enough paint on the surface.  I found the best method to use a little can as a dipper to pour the paint directly on the roof, then smear it around with a brush.  It's not pretty, but the albedo is hugely improved.

Nov 6, 2010

Liberals and pot

One area where I part company with the likes of Yglesias, Mark Kleiman, and (apparently) Josh Marshall, is their unfortunate paternalistic tendencies.  It must be said that this kind of view is fairly common amongst the liberal intelligentsia, and is something I find really irritating.  It's wishy-washy, it's incoherent, and it's very often passive-aggressive.  Marshall provides the latest example:
More generally though, I just don't know if I think marijuana should be legalized at all. Maybe it's that I'm getting into my 40s. And maybe I'm a hypocrite. I of course know people who smoke grass. And I don't have any problem with it. Decriminalized? Yes, I think probably so. But that's not the same as legalization. It's very different actually. And let me be clear that I think our drug laws are catastrophic. They create endemic violence first in our major cities and now along the borders and it's led to generations of Americans rotting in prison. The whole war on drugs is an unmitigated disaster. And the fact that people can't use marijuana for clear medical reasons is crazy. But do I think it should be like alcohol? Anyone over 18 or 21 can buy it?

I remember, many years ago, talking to my father about the idea of legalization. And bear in mind, my Dad, God bless him, smoked a decent amount of grass in his day, said he didn't like the idea. One reason is that he was already a bit older by that time. But he had this very contradictory and hard to rationalize position which was that he was fine with people smoking pot but keeping it at least nominally illegal kept public usage in some check. Again, how to rationalize that in traditional civic terms? Not really sure. But frankly, I think I kind of agree.

For what it's worth, of course I've smoked pot. But for purely personal reasons I haven't in more than twenty years.
Andrew Sullivan cuts in:
My view - regardless of the arguments back and forth about the effects of marijuana - is simply that it is absurd for any government to prevent people from growing a naturally-occurring plant that requires no processing to provide humans with pleasure. It's pretty basic, actually. This is a core freedom for human beings and requires an insane apparatus of state control and police power to prevent it from occurring. All you have to do is burn a plant and inhale the smoke. If humans are not free to do this in the natural world in which they were born, what on earth are they free to do? My premise is freedom; Josh's is not.

Should we ban roses because they give us pleasure with their beauty and their scent? Should we ban herbs, like rosemary or thyme, because they give us pleasure and encourage us to eat more? Should we ban lawn-grass because maintaining it consumes too many people's weekend afternoons? Should we cut down trees because the beauty of them can sometimes distract someone from the road? I could go on.

The point is the government has no business regulating how its citizens derive pleasure from a naturally occurring plant. Period. The whole idea is preposterous. And yet it is taken for granted.
Amen. I'm reminded of Bill Hicks.
Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally on our planet, serves a thousand different functions, all of them positive. To make marijuana against the law is like saying that God made a mistake. Like on the seventh day God looked down, "There it is. My Creation; perfect and holy in all ways. Now I can rest. [Gives shocked expression] Oh, my Me! I left fuckin' pot everywhere. I should never have smoked that joint on the third day. Hehe, that was the day I created the possum. Still gives me a chuckle. But if I leave pot everywhere, that's gonna give people the impression they're supposed to...use it. Now I have to create Republicans." "...and God wept", I believe is the next part of that story.

Peace Corps links

1. Casandra has what sounds like a near-heat stroke.

2. Hillary Clinton in was just in Cambodia.

3. Noah gets back in the blogging game with his trademark humor.

4. One bloc east has a riveting series of posts on being a returned Peace Corps volunteer with a law degree, no job, and few prospects.  I liked this line: "I guess the larger question is what does it say about my self-esteem that I assume that every woman who approaches me now that I’m home is a prostitute?"

5. Aaron over in Azerbaijan has some excellent news: free coffee for PCV's!  Apparently they will deliver almost anywhere in the world.

Nov 5, 2010

Peace Corps in South Africa vs. Nicaragua, part I

The view above Cape Town
One of my good friends was just admitted to Peace Corps and deployed to Nicaragua.  It has been extremely interesting to compare my experience with hers, to see where they are similar and where they are different.  For this first post, I'll concentrate on the two versions of Peace Corps in each country.  The overall impression I am receiving is that the Nicaraguan program is basically what I was expecting before I came here.  Of course, everyone tries to get rid of their expectations about how it will be living with a host family, what the culture and language are like, and so forth, but I perhaps foolishly kept a few expectations that I assumed were baked into the cake of Peace Corps, so to speak.

The first big one is I thought it would be hard.  The most common catchphrase I remember hearing about this experience was "It's the toughest job you'll ever love."  Well, it's not tough and I don't love it.  Don't get me wrong, I'm having a pretty good time, and I'm not depressed.  But let's take the case of this community survey that everyone must do during their first few months at site.  Here it's a big bunch of obnoxious paperwork, saddled with enough meaningless buzzwords to sink the Queen Mary II, about which Peace Corps has said not one word since we turned it in.  Some probably never even did it.  In Nicaragua, this is an extensive presentation you must give to you entire village and a Peace Corps representative, in Spanish, and if it is not accepted they send you home.  Now, the experience here can be tough in a lot of ways, but from the point of view of doing things for Peace Corps there are very few expectations.

The second was that I would learn a language.  At our staging in Washington, DC, Peace Corps officials told us that if we applied ourselves, we would learn a new language.  This has not been remotely the case.  There is not a single person in my training group who after fifteen months could really be called fluent in Setswana, and only two or three who are very good (not me, I sound pretty good but it's mostly an act).  Part of this is understandable, as English is the most common language and one can easily get by with only English.  But one of the main reasons I joined Peace Corps was to learn another language.  Not that I've given up, I still speak Setswana every day in my math class (as it's a choice between learning maths or English), and I'm always trying to practice with my teachers and my host family.  But I've been finding out that for the average person to really learn a language, you realistically have to be thrown into a sink-or-swim situation, where you either learn the language or go home.  Perhaps that not necessary here, but in any case it is patently obvious that the administration of PC South Africa could not care less about language learning—the examiners who gave the language examination cheated: they wrote out the questions beforehand in English and showed them to us while they recorded the conversation on tape, which is I presume for some assessment program.  It seems likely they were just checking boxes for Washington, since if they gave us a fair assessment they would undoubtedly fail more than 90% of us.
Mount ConcepciĆ³n in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, it goes pretty much how one would logically structure an intense language immersion course.  There is a test when you arrive, most of the presentations and training materials are in Spanish, and the host family has been instructed to speak strictly Spanish to you.  If you do not pass your language test at the end, you are sent home.  My friend would speak practically no English during the day—that's what it takes to become fluent.  Here we had two hours of language during the morning that often turned into an hour and half, and two hours of "self-directed learning" in the afternoon.  Of course, one couldn't do a complete immersion course here as everyone was coming in totally green, but the lack of urgency was palpable.  Language learning simply was not important.

In fact, that apathy could probably be generalized throughout most of the administration here.  Where in Nicaragua Peace Corps seems hell-bent on pushing volunteers to do their utmost, to the point of stressing them out tremendously about it, here what you do is basically your own business.  No accountability whatsoever, which is good for some, but not as much for others.  (This critique shouldn't be extended to the security department which does a very good job, and to a lesser extent the medical department.)

In the next post, I'll talk about culture.

Nov 4, 2010


One of the good things about summer coming again is that the spectacular sunsets are back.  This was from a couple weeks ago.  Beams like an etched glass sky.

The election

It's evening in America.
Obviously this was a huge loss for the Democrats, and not a very surprising one either.  Political scientists have been telling us for years that the economy is by far the most reliable predictor of election results, and lo and behold with a lousy economy the ruling party lost big time.  The one big disappointment is that my home representative is now ur-schmuck Scott Tipton, a guy I actually know reasonably well (I went to high school with his kids).  I'm rather amazed that the GOP managed to not win the Senate—a couple months ago it looked pretty much in the bag, especially with Harry Reid down a bazillion points and Mike Castle a lock in Delaware.  We've got incompetent teabagger nutcases Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell to thank for that.

Broadly speaking, I think this could be a good opportunity for Democrats to position for the next election.  If they can not fall into a cringing ball as usual and try to give a good showing against the GOP house majority, which will in all likelihood shut down the government and impeach Obama, things could work out in 2012.  Also if the economy recovers a bit from quantitative easing, that might give Obama a bit more credibility.  Two things are for sure: the next two years are going to be absolutely vicious, and nothing of substance will happen.

Nov 3, 2010

"We were victimized by predatory borrowers"

I don't think I've ever seen a more perfect line encapsulating the bankster attitude.

Immigration policy and the "brain drain"

Terrence Chan, a professional poker player from Canada, calls it quits on the USA after an infuriating experience with the DHS:
I was pretty pissed to be turned away. I was enraged, really; no other way to put it. The officer told me (as he was sending me on the road back into Canada) that I was welcome to try again with my documentation but if I were attempt to try to another port of entry that I would be arrested. I grabbed my passport and snarled that I wasn't likely to come back again, ever.

A few hours later though, I cooled down. I had this plan, and I wanted to see it through. So I had my dad send me all my papers from Hong Kong -- my properties, bank statements, even water and electric bills. I collected as much stuff as I had on hand in Canada with the same. I did my research online and was told by a dozen people that if I had all my shit in order there was "no way" I'd be denied a second time. I even allowed myself to be confident that this time, they'd (perhaps grudgingly) let me in.

We were all quickly proven wrong.

My trip today was pretty much the same as the one on Thursday. But it was apparent their mind was already made up, even with me having put together all my paperwork. They went through every piece of paperwork I had and found something wrong with it in one way or another. I had last month's internet bill in Vancouver and my electric bill in Hong Kong; they now told me I needed six months of bills. They said I needed credit card statements with activity to prove I was spending time in those places. They said I needed a job with pay stubs, and they said that that job had to be where I was physically present, such that it would not be possible for me to do it in the States. They didn't like that my plane ticket from Vancouver to Hong Kong was only for two months, even though neither of those places is in the United States. He even tried to twist my words of "I'm going to train martial arts" as meaning that I was going to work illegally. "If you don't have a visa for that, you can't come in."

Quite simply, they never had any intent of letting me in the country, no matter what I showed, said, or did. There is no conceivable way that I could have convinced them otherwise. I was fingerprinted again and once again shown the door...

Goodbye, America. It's been fun, and I'm sad it had to come to this, but we're through. It's not me -- it's you.
The "brain drain" often talked about in South Africa, where rich countries actively poach the best and brightest from developing countries, has at least partial roots in this kind of defensive immigration policy. This paper by Bhorat (pdf) argues that the brain drain has as much to do with restrictive immigration policy as it does with increased emigration:
The worsening of the situation, however, is due less to an increase on the emigration side than to a decrease on the immigration one. Statistically, the deficit of skills is strongly related to a decrease in immigration. The actual brain drain — that is the net loss of skilled human resources — is not directly and essentially tied to the social and political change of the mid-90s; it started significantly earlier than the onset of these changes. [...]

Much of the decrease in immigration from the region is due to the restrictive policy led by the Department of Home Affairs. In order to protect the labour market from competition of non-SA citizens, the department has strongly limited the access of foreigners to work and residence permits.
Until the South African education system is given a complete overhaul, it seems impossible that enough skilled graduates will be produced domestically to meet the demand. A less restrictive immigration policy, at least for the highly skilled, would be wise.

Nov 2, 2010

Why are Americans so short?

I am between 5' 7'' and 5' 8'', which depending on the study puts me 2-3 inches shorter than even the American average.  But Americans as a whole are now about the shortest people in the industrialized world.  NPR had an interesting piece on this (h/t John Messie):
Through most of American history, we’ve been the tallest population on the planet. Americans were two inches taller than the Englishmen they fought in the Revolutionary War, thanks to abundant food and a healthy rural life, far from the disease-ridden cities of Europe.

But we’re no longer at the top. Northern Europeans are now the world’s tallest people, led by the Dutch. The average Dutch man is 6 feet tall, while the average American man maxes out at 5-foot-9.

Good health care and good nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood are two reasons why the Dutch have grown so tall, Komlos says. In addition, the Dutch guarantee equal access to critical resources like prenatal care. That’s not the case in the United States, where 17 percent of the population has no health insurance.
  An excellent New Yorker article from several years by Burkhard Bilger ago laid it out in great detail:
Then something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, “the U.S. just went flat.” In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven’t grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller. According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.

Just in case I still thought this a trivial trend, Komlos put a final bar graph in front of me. It was entitled “Life Expectancy 2000.” Compared with people in thirty-six other industrialized countries, it showed, Americans rank twenty-eighth in average longevity—just above the Irish and the Cypriots (the Japanese top the rankings). “Ask yourself this,” Komlos said, peering at me above his reading glasses. “What is the difference between Western Europe and the U.S. that would work in this direction? It’s not income, since Americans, at least on paper, have been wealthier for more than a century. So what is it?”

The obvious answer would seem to be immigration. The more Mexicans and Chinese there are in the United States, the shorter the American population becomes. But the height statistics that Komlos cites include only native-born Americans who speak English at home, and he is careful to screen out people of Asian and Hispanic descent. In any case, according to Richard Steckel, who has also analyzed American heights, the United States takes in too few immigrants to account for the disparity with Northern Europe.
Bilger comes to the provisional conclusion that it's widening income inequality and our lousy healthcare system that's holding us back:
Inequality may be at the root of America’s height problem, but it’s too soon to be certain. If the poor are pulling all of us down with them, some economists say, why didn’t Americans shoot up after the war on poverty, in the nineteen-sixties? Komlos isn’t sure. But recently he has scoured his data for people who’ve bucked the national trend. He has subdivided the country’s heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that’s both so privileged and so socially insulated that it’s growing taller. He has yet to find one.
Emphasis mine. Surely there must be a sizable subgroup of people in the USA that are not in any way malnourished and able to afford the best healthcare. I am reminded of an article some time ago that I can't seem to find that proposed that height might have a social factor—that people's height is transmitted across populations to some degree.  I can't find any research on that at the moment, but it would explain how Komlos was unable to find any group growing in the US.  Thoughts?

Nov 1, 2010

My life in numbers

Cooper Knowlton had a funny idea I'm going to shamelessly steal.

Months in South Africa: 15
Months left in South Africa: 10
Books read: ~100
Books I’m currently reading: 5
Blog posts written: 561
People helped/successfully taught: 0
Friends in my village: 0
Bowls of Morvite eaten: 1000's 
Times I’ve been asked if I want a South African wife: ~10
Times I've been asked for money: Avogadro's number
Amount of money Peace Corps pays me each day: ~$11
Amount of money I spend each day: ~$5
Days of rain since last May: 0
Number of students in my Grade 8 class: 12
Number of mosquito bites that I have ever gotten in the village: 0
Number of miles I’ve run in the last two weeks: 40
Number of legs I have seen broken: 1
Number of miles from my village to Kuruman: 62
Hours it took to travel that distance (by taxi) yesterday: 3 1/2

Department of WTF: bad luck tumble bureau

This weekend in Kuruman I was walking arm-in-arm with my friend here when she tripped on a small curb and fell to one knee.  It was an exceedingly minor fall, not even all the way to the ground as she caught herself on my arm.  Yet through some lousy confluence of planets she broke her tibia just below the knee.  Me and some other strapping young lads were carrying her around all weekend; at this point she's in Pretoria for surgery.  Here's hoping her recovery is brief and painless.

UPDATE: See here for her own story.  Lack of calcium seems like it could be a factor.  I hope my daily bowl of cereal is helping me in that respect—I remember the orthodontist who did my wisdom teeth said I had about hardest bone he'd ever had to bust out with a chisel.  I've never broken a bone in any case, and so far it doesn't seem like a great experience.

Deadweight loss

Yglesias explains the concept in the context of downloaded music:
What about the case of unauthorized downloading of music files. Consider Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”. This tune costs $1.29 on iTunes. At that price, some people will buy it. Others will refuse. You might refuse because you hate Katy Perry and hate the idea of owning one of her songs. But say you’re not a hater. You’re just a skeptic and a cheapskate. You’d gladly pay a dime for the song were that an option, and since the marginal cost of distribution is basically zero it would be profitable to sell you the song for a dime. But it’s not an option, since the overal profit-maximizing price is $1.29. And say there are a million people like you out there. That adds up to $100,000 in deadweight loss—the value of the transactions blocked by copyright protection.

Of course in the real world many of those million people will just download a copy of the song for free. Some would like you to believe that this is an action that should be analogized to hijacking a ship, threatening to murder its crew, and then stealing the ship’s cargo. But unlike piracy, unauthorized copying can often be highly welfare-enhancing because of deadweight loss.