Jan 29, 2011

Collected links

1. The United States of Shame.

2. Football and concussions.

3. Watch TNC eviscerate Rick Santorum and Joe Klein.

4. Information feudalism?  I like it. 

5. Speaking of copyright idiocy, there's never a bad time to recommend Free Culture.

Some quality metal: Underoath and The Dillinger Escape Plan

Two solid metal albums have recently captured my ear better than any for a long time.  (They're both pretty heavy, so now's your chance to tune out if you don't like angry vocals.)  The first, by Underoath, is called Disambiguation.  They're allegedly a Christian band, but not obnoxiously so (as opposed to POD, for example).  The lyrics are mostly pretty standard angsty metal fare, and easy to tune out in any case.  Here's "Catch Myself Catching Myself:"

The second (and better one) is Option Paralysis, by Dillinger Escape Plan.  A bit more melodic than their previous efforts, and a lot better lyrics than Disambiguation.  Here's "Gold Teeth on a Bum:"

Good stuff. Perfect for when you get sick of acoustic indie rock. (You know I love you, The National, I just need to rock out sometimes.)

Jan 28, 2011

He joined Peace Corps because of Angelina Jolie?

Kristin pointed me to this article by one Sean Smith, apparently a guy who used to be the Los Angeles bureau chief of Entertainment Weekly:
Angelina Jolie is to blame, really. Because of something she said to me in India four years ago, I have quit my 13-year career as an entertainment journalist, have given away almost everything I own, and at 43, have joined the Peace Corps...

So I was seeking something authentic when I arrived in India, and I got more than I bargained for. A reported 43 percent of Mumbai’s 18 million people live in slums, and the depth of poverty is soul-sickening. By the time I met with Jolie, I felt raw and rattled, and I was eager to learn how she coped with this kind of suffering in her role as a U.N. ambassador. She said it was painful, yes, but it wasn’t debilitating because she was active. Her work was bringing attention to crises in the world. “If I couldn’t do that, I don’t know how I’d be around it, because I’d feel helpless,” she told me as we drove through the city. “You know, we all go through stages in our life where we feel lost, and I think it all comes down to having a sense of purpose. When I was famous for just being an actress, my life felt very shallow. Then when I became a mom and started working with the U.N., I was happy. I could die and feel that I’d done the right things with my life. It’s as simple as that.” [...]

So 18 months ago I applied to join the Peace Corps, and this week I leave for South Africa to begin my 27-month commitment as an HIV/AIDS Outreach volunteer. Excited as I am, I confess that I haven’t quite eradicated all of my Hollywood values. I’m currently trying to calculate how much Kiehl’s moisturizer could fit in my 80-pound luggage allotment. But I have zero doubt about my decision. I do not know where this experience will lead me, but I no longer feel lost. I’m certain that my compass is pointed in the right direction.
He just arrived (or is going to arrive) today!  The poor sucker is going to have me as the first serving volunteer he meets.  I'll try not to put him on the first plane back to America.  It'd be pretty easy to mock the guy (Kiehl's moisturizer?), but people are often tougher than you might expect.

I'm tempted to speculate more on his motives.  It's a sad truth that a fair number of people have used Peace Corps as a guarantee for a book deal filled with heartwarming homilies of questionable veracity.  The angle almost writes itself: "I sat and pondered the unbelievable warmth and generosity that my impoverished host family had poured out to me, a white foreigner, the same race as those who oppressed them for years. I couldn't help thinking of Los Angeles, where luxuries of preposterous scale abound, where men will spend enough on a bottle of ultrapremium vodka to feed a South African family for a month, yet where simple kindnesses such as the kind automatically shown to me here are considered an aberration."  Or something to that effect.

But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.  Lord knows it's a big step to quit your job and sign up to spend two years in Africa.  Everyone, even entertainment journalists, deserves equal opportunity and respect.  And hey, he could write a wholly true book too!  (In fact, his host family probably will be extremely kind, and Los Angeles is full of soulless zombies.)  Here's hoping Mr. Smith finds what he's looking for.

Jan 27, 2011

The Moshaweng lives, ctd

So this is at least the third continuous day of water, making it the longest flow since I got here (as far as I know). Apparently a small child drowned two days ago in the next village upstream. It's sad, but folks here have little opportunity to learn how to swim. Earlier today when I waded across, a couple kids were crowing about how I had braved near-certain death (or words to that effect), and a group of adults chastised me about how I was going to catch flu.

For my part, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of wet sand in between my toes and cool murky water--the blood of the earth--over my knees. Heavenly.

Jan 26, 2011

The Moshaweng lives!

With all the recent rains we finally got a decent level going in the river. I waded across a ways upstream from this point and it came up to mid-thigh at the deepest point. I'd say about 100 cfs.

Jan 25, 2011

Rainbow

Here's another storm picture to tide you over until I get back in business. Thank god for Isaac Newton, the inventor of these fine items.

Jan 24, 2011

Rainstorm!

I'm visiting my neighbor to do some IT stuff, and we got hit by some serious precipitation. It's been unusually wet for the last couple weeks.

Motlakase

It's that time of year again where the power goes out on a regular basis. Yesterday I managed to tempt the gods into both cutting the power and making it rain all day yesterday and today by washing nearly all my clothes and sheets. So I've hung up wet stuff all over my room and am surviving on batteries for the time being. Posting might be a little light until the power comes back.

Jan 23, 2011

Book review: The Baroque Cycle

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Summary: this trilogy, consisting of Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, clocking in at nearly 3000 pages, is a great and entertaining look at the the birth of science and capitalism.  Highly recommended.

Stephenson combines what must have been enough meticulous research for several history PhD theses with a mischievous disregard for perfect accuracy.  Stephenson has an eye for interesting historical anecdotes (like the origin of the word "realize"), and though that can be a bit distracting at times, it's never boring.  Real historical figures are press-ganged (to use a favorite phrase in the series) into service as characters of all sorts.  Leibniz, Newton, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, William of Orange, Hooke, Huygens, John Wilkins, Ben Franklin, and John Locke are just a sample.  Leibniz and Newton in particular play major roles and have close relationships with the fictional characters (which are ancestors of characters in Cryptonomicon, a book set in the 20th century).

Despite the carefully constructed background, the book is not really self-consciously historical.  Characters often speak with a kind of ironic detachment characteristic of Stephenson and the modern age, and often make explicit their role in history in an unlikely way.  It's obvious that Stephenson is speaking through them, but the advantage of those creative liberties is that Stephenson's historiographical ideas (that the seeds of the IT revolution were sown back in the 17th century, for example) shine through with a lot more brilliance than would be possible with a strictly qualified and hedged history book.

A quick aside: a stranger, not-realistic role is played by Enoch Root, a character who also appears in Cryptonomicon.  I won't tell you what he does, just that it is decidedly not scientific.  It seemed like a cool plot point rather than a philosophical statement, but I was a bit unsure what to make of it.

I'm probably about the perfect target reader for the series, so it's no surprise that I liked it a lot.  Other less-geeky readers might not want to invest the time to get through them, but if you like science, technology, and Errol Flynn-style pirate swashbuckling, it's definitely worth a read.  About my only complaint was that Stephenson's ironic distance sometimes penetrates through into the descriptions to a point where it's difficult to figure out exactly what was happening.  Reading these on my Kindle might have been a disadvantage there, as I was constantly wanting to flip back through to reread previous section that I had neglected to bookmark, and couldn't manage it.  Still, worth a read.

Jan 22, 2011

I thought my face didn't have enough holes...

...so I added a couple fresh ones. I'm pretty pleased. What do you think?
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Please constrain your reviews to the ears.  (Meaning, about the hair, I know.)

Jan 20, 2011

The "complete protein" myth

I'd like to zero in briefly on this misconception I mentioned yesterday.  I hadn't really heard what it was all about, probably because before I came to South Africa I was pretty carnivorous.  Here, though, I'm about 90% vegetarian, particularly in the village (mainly out of laziness and the quick spoiling time of meat).  Seems like the idea was the meat contains "complete" protein with all the amino acids, while vegetarians should combine foods like beans and rice to get that same completeness.  Sounds plausible, right?  Humans did evolve as omnivores.

Apparently not:
Here’s where it gets interesting. The idea that plant based foods were deficient in certain amino acids was based on studies of the growth of young rats done in the early 1900′s. A subsequent study done in 1952, looked at human requirements for essential amino acids and found them to be very different from rats. Additionally it showed that the requirements for all the essential amino acids in humans could be met by many unprocessed plant foods, without combining, in excess of the recommended levels. The bottom line is that plant protein is “complete.” Vegetables and grains contain all essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids in varying proportions, and will supply in excess of what is necessary for your daily needs.

Jan 19, 2011

Collected links

1. The haunting suicide note of Bill Zeller (the creator of MyTunes, if you've heard of that).  It's wrenching, be warned.

2. This dude published his entire genome online.

3. The myth of charter schools.  Apparently it's not quite how Waiting for "Superman" makes it sound.

4. A profile of Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.  I love a goofball in power.

5. Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is...well, he's either staggeringly unlucky or a straight-up crook.

6. What's wrong with the scientific method?  More than you might suppose.  Quite the unsettling article.

7. How Obama has vindicated Dick Cheney.  Sad but absolutely true.

RIP Sargent Shriver, Peace Corps founder

The great man, one of the last of the old generation of public servants, died yesterday.  His biographer has an excellent obituary:
For me, exposure to Shriver was a revelation. I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, Watergate, the hostage crisis, stagflation, oil crises, impeachment, and later 9/11 and the War on Terror. Public service, for my generation, often seems to be a hollow or futile thing. It can be hard even to say the words "make the world a better place" without having them stick in your throat, so hopelessly naïve and lacking in irony do they sound. For Shriver's generation, their experience of government and of public service was much different. They saw the New Deal help lift millions from Depression; they saw the Allies defeat Totalitarianism; they saw the post-War boom, the Civil Rights movement, and America put a man on the moon, just like JFK said we would. So much that he'd seen and done had instilled in him the faith that public service could be a powerful and positive force; so little that I've seen has conveyed that.

Shriver's voice, then, is a voice from a more hopeful past. But while he was in part a product of his times, his optimism and idealism and commitment to service transcend the particularities of his time and circumstance. His career is a rebuke to cynical journalist types like me who focus on what's wrong with things, what's "realistic," what can't be done. Often the things that he accomplished (starting the Peace Corps in just a few months, or getting 500,000 kids into Head Start programs its first summer when the "experts" said that 10,000 kids was the maximum feasible) were things that everyone beforehand had said were not realistic, or downright impossible. Shriver had a gift for what one of his old War on Poverty colleagues called "expanding the Horizons of the Possible." In my darkest moments of despair over my biography of him, when I had a half-written, 1,000-page pile of garbage, and I'd think to myself that I'd never be finished, and that this wasn't worth pursuing, I'd tell myself, For God's sake, Shriver ran the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty--at the same time, while raising five kids!--so you can damn well finish this book.

I tend to think of myself as a pretty cynical guy. I am not easy to inspire. But Shriver awakened in me--just as he did in thousands of others--the notion that it is always worthwhile to work harder, to do more, and to dream bigger about achieving peace and social justice.
This graf in particular spoke to me:
In some ways, Shriver and I were as different as can be: him an optimist about human nature, me a pessimist; him devoutly faithful, me a struggling agnostic. But I am nonetheless unequivocally sure of two things. First, if there is a heaven, Sargent Shriver is on his way there now--or no one is. Second, even if there is no heaven, his legacy of good works here on earth is an inspiration and a goad for all of us to do more and better.
Godspeed, good sir.

UPDATE: I swear I beat Sullivan to the punch this time.

Jan 18, 2011

Common misconceptions

XKCD pointed me to this gem of a Wikipedia article the other day. Here are some of my pet peeves:
1) Christopher Columbus's efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth.

2) Napoleon Bonaparte was not especially short, and did not have a Napoleon complex.

3) It is commonly claimed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from the Moon. This is false.

4) Evolution is not a progression from inferior to superior organisms, and it also does not necessarily result in an increase in complexity.

5) Vaccines do not cause autism.

6) It is not true that air takes the same time to travel above and below an aircraft's wing.

7) Glass is not a high-viscosity liquid at room temperature: it is an amorphous solid, although it does have some chemical properties normally associated with liquids.

8) Eight glasses of water a day is not necessary to maintain health, nor is it specifically recommended.

9) People do not use only ten percent of their brains.
Here are some that took me by surprise:
1) In ancient Rome, Romans did not build rooms called vomitoria in which to purge themselves after a meal. Vomitoria were the entranceways through which crowds entered and exited a stadium.

2) There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets.

3) There is no evidence that iron maidens were invented in the Middle Ages or even used for torture, despite being shown so in some media, but instead were pieced together in the 18th century from several artifacts found in museums in order to create spectacular objects intended for (commercial) exhibition.

4) John F. Kennedy's words "Ich bin ein Berliner" are standard German for "I am a Berliner". (Meaning he did not in fact say "I am a jam doughnut.")

5) Knife wounds are not more dangerous than gunshot wounds, in fact, the converse is probably true.

6) It is not harmful to baby birds to pick them up and return them to their nests, despite the common belief that doing so will cause the mother to reject it.

7) Humans have more than five senses. Although definitions vary, the actual number ranges from 9 to more than 20.

8) It is not nutritionally necessary to combine multiple sources of vegetable protein in a single meal in order to metabolize a "complete" protein in a vegetarian diet.

9) Although it is commonly believed that most body heat is lost through a person's head, heat loss through the head is not more significant than other parts of the body when naked.

10) Photographic or eidetic memory refers to the ability to remember images with extremely high precision – so high as to mimic a camera. However, it is highly unlikely that photographic memory exists, as to date there is no hard scientific evidence that anyone has ever had it.
Good to know!

Peace Corps pulls out of Niger

No word on whether this had anything to do with Stephanie Chance's tragic death last October.  Here's what the Country Director passed along:
WASHINGTON, D.C., January 17, 2011
Peace Corps has suspended its program in Niger due to ongoing concerns about volunteer security. All 98 volunteers are safe and accounted for and have been safely evacuated to another country. Volunteers will take part in a transition conference and if possible will be offered the option to complete their service in another Peace Corps country.

Peace Corps will continue to assess the safety and security climate in Niger. The safety and security of volunteers is the Peace Corps' highest priority.

"The Peace Corps has been committed to development in Niger for nearly five decades," said Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams. "We have excellent relationships with Nigerien people and communities and we are grateful for the strong partnership we have had with counterpart organizations and the Government of Niger."

Prior to the suspension, Peace Corps had operated in Niger without interruption since 1962. Over 3,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Niger since the program was established, working in the areas of Agriculture/Natural Resource Management, Health, Education and Municipal Community Development.
UPDATE: Apparently it was Al-Qaeda:
The
suspension came after a purported spokesman for al-Qaida's North Africa branch, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility last week for kidnapping the two Frenchmen who later died during a failed rescue attempt.
(Thanks, Becca)

Our coming Chinese overlords

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A lot of what makes China such a player on the world scene is simply the staggering number of people that live there.  China is a really big country.  Well, you might say, duh.  But I think people don't really consider what this means sometimes.  James Fallows had an interesting thought experiment on this topic recently:
All of the Americas within US borders. I mentioned yesterday that Thomas Barnett had given a realistic brief appraisal of China's strengths and weaknesses in an NPR interview. A point I particularly liked was this tip for comparing American and Chinese scale:

If Americans wanted to imagine what it would take to be "strong" in the way China currently is, he said, all we'd have to do is think of moving the entire population of the Western Hemisphere into our existing borders. Every single Mexican. (Rather than enforcing the southern border, we'd require everyone to cross it, headed north.) Every Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican. Everyone from Central America. All 190 million from Brazil. And so on. Even the Canadians. China, by the way, is just about the same size as the United States, though a larger share of its land area is desert, mountain, or otherwise nonarable.

If we did that, we'd be up to about a billion people -- and then if we also took every single person from Nigeria, and for good measure everyone in hyper-crowded Japan too, we'd finally be up to China's 1.3 billion size. At that point, like China, we'd have tremendous scale in everything. Rich people. Big businesses. A huge work force. Countless numbers of multi-million population cities. And we would also have a tremendous amount of poverty, plus pressure on resources of every kind, from water to food to living space. Just as China does now. Scale gives China some strengths. But it also creates tremendous challenges, as Americans would recognize if we thought about this prospect for even a minute. Seriously, reflect on this, and consider that it is China's reality now.
I don't envy the Chinese ruling party. I can scarcely imagine something more difficult or fraught with peril than what they are attempting.  There's a long history of famine, revolution, and civil war, and it wouldn't take much to have millions suddenly starving.

Flooding in South Africa

The rains have been pretty intense around here recently, though not nearly so much as elsewhere in South Africa:
According to South Africa's government, at least 40 people have been killed across the country and more than 6,000 displaced by flooding that has submerged houses, roads and crops since December.

Officials estimate the damage to infrastructure and agricultural produce will cost the country millions of dollars, and forecasters predict more rain is on the way.

The South African Weather Service said most of the country's rivers, dams and reservoirs have reached their capacity, and any additional rainfall is expected to cause further flooding.

Meteorologists blame the downpours on La Nina, a weather pattern associated with recent wet conditions around the world.
I'm in little danger here, as the Moshaweng Valley (which is usually dry) would have to flood to something like 100,000 cfs before it reached my house. (I am somewhat-selfishly hoping for at least a day of medium flow.) Further downstream, though, the Orange River is going gangbusters:
Another two people were missing and around 400 were evacuated after the Orange River flooded between Upington and Kakamas in the Northern Cape.

Spokesman for the Siyanda district municipality Gilbert Lategan said police divers and air force personnel were on the look out for two people apparently missing after walking near the flooded river.

Some 400 residents on 21 islands had been moved to higher ground or places of safety in the district in the past week.

At the Keimoes school hostel people were given food and shelter. Another 65 were been accommodated at the Roman Catholic hall at Kanon Island.

Some 100 people from Pokkies Island near Upington were also helped with food and shelter.
Here's hoping people stay out of harm's way.

Jan 17, 2011

Another new principal!

Today I finally met the permanent principal for my school's foreseeable future.  In case you forgot, my first principal retired three months after I arrived at site (heaven knows why he applied for a volunteer, but as he was a miserably bad supervisor I can't complain), and this last year I had an acting principal while the department was interviewing the prospective candidates.  Today we got to finally meet the selected man and take his measure.

I made it clear that I won't be taking formal responsibility for any classes, as I will be leaving before the end of the year and gone for weeks on end helping with SA23's training.  That went over fine.  He'll be one of two teachers in the Senior Phase now (Grades 7-9), and it remains to be seen how he'll perform in the classroom or deal with recalcitrant teachers.  Still, judging from my first impression, I'm cautiously optimistic.  Keep your fingers crossed.

I am at the very least relieved to not have to formally teach anymore.  I told them I would help team-teach classes throughout Grades 4-9 so long as the teachers will help me (as well as the occasional substitute teaching), and I intend to hold them to that promise.  I think I am a much better help with another teacher in the classroom than I am by myself.  So it's fair to say I'm thinking positive about this year...it should be good!

Jan 16, 2011

Collected links

1. TNC on the 'land-bound Titanic' that was the Confederacy.

2. Paul Krugman on the Euromess.

3. 2010 was the hottest year ever recorded.

4. Neil Gaiman gives writers some good advice.

5. Speaking of drugs, Erowid's always worth a link.

6. List of countries by PPP-adjusted per capita GDP. This is interesting mainly for the occasional massive disparities between different measurements.  For example, the IMF gives Qatar $88,232, while the CIA Factbook gives it $121,700.  Probably safe to say it's a rich place in either case.

Andrew Sullivan's drug-addled readers

Pardon the lack of pictures recently.  My recent travels have left me utterly broke, and I had to borrow money to get enough internet to tide me over until we get paid again and I can buy my customary ridiculously-large data bundle.  Until then (next week sometime) you'll have to be satisfied with text.  For now, here a series Sullivan has been doing on psychedelic experiences (solely for your reading pleasure—of course any and all drug use is utterly wrong and will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war).

1. Several encounters with mushrooms (psilocybin).

2. Finding Jesus with LSD.

3. Enduring Ayahuasca.  This is an Amazonian herbal brew containing DMT (dimethoxytryptamine) and an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor).  The MAOI is necessary to make the DMT orally active—otherwise it would just be digested in the stomach.  Probably the most famous part of this experience is the mammoth puking session it involves.

4. Ibogaine.  This cosmic-grade substance lasts for 48 hours (compare for 8-12 for LSD).  Eish.  Not for the unprepared.

Jan 15, 2011

Why I don't invest in the stock market

Felix Salmon has a really good article on the increasing mechanization of Wall Street. 
Over the past decade, algorithmic trading has overtaken the industry. From the single desk of a startup hedge fund to the gilded halls of Goldman Sachs, computer code is now responsible for most of the activity on Wall Street. (By some estimates, computer-aided high-frequency trading now accounts for about 70 percent of total trade volume.) Increasingly, the market’s ups and downs are determined not by traders competing to see who has the best information or sharpest business mind but by algorithms feverishly scanning for faint signals of potential profit.

Algorithms have become so ingrained in our financial system that the markets could not operate without them. At the most basic level, computers help prospective buyers and sellers of stocks find one another—without the bother of screaming middlemen or their commissions. High-frequency traders, sometimes called flash traders, buy and sell thousands of shares every second, executing deals so quickly, and on such a massive scale, that they can win or lose a fortune if the price of a stock fluctuates by even a few cents. Other algorithms are slower but more sophisticated, analyzing earning statements, stock performance, and newsfeeds to find attractive investments that others may have missed. The result is a system that is more efficient, faster, and smarter than any human.

It is also harder to understand, predict, and regulate. Algorithms, like most human traders, tend to follow a fairly simple set of rules. But they also respond instantly to ever-shifting market conditions, taking into account thousands or millions of data points every second. And each trade produces new data points, creating a kind of conversation in which machines respond in rapid-fire succession to one another’s actions. At its best, this system represents an efficient and intelligent capital allocation machine, a market ruled by precision and mathematics rather than emotion and fallible judgment.

But at its worst, it is an inscrutable and uncontrollable feedback loop. Individually, these algorithms may be easy to control but when they interact they can create unexpected behaviors—a conversation that can overwhelm the system it was built to navigate. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average inexplicably experienced a series of drops that came to be known as the flash crash, at one point shedding some 573 points in five minutes. Less than five months later, Progress Energy, a North Carolina utility, watched helplessly as its share price fell 90 percent. Also in late September, Apple shares dropped nearly 4 percent in just 30 seconds, before recovering a few minutes later. [...]

Some built algorithms to perform the familiar function of discovering, buying, and selling individual stocks (a practice known as proprietary, or “prop,” trading). Others devised algorithms to help brokers execute large trades—massive buy or sell orders that take a while to go through and that become vulnerable to price manipulation if other traders sniff them out before they’re completed. These algorithms break up and optimize those orders to conceal them from the rest of the market. (This, confusingly enough, is known as algorithmic trading.) Still others are used to crack those codes, to discover the massive orders that other quants are trying to conceal. (This is called predatory trading.)

The result is a universe of competing lines of code, each of them trying to outsmart and one-up the other. “We often discuss it in terms of The Hunt for Red October, like submarine warfare,” says Dan Mathisson, head of Advanced Execution Services at Credit Suisse. “There are predatory traders out there that are constantly probing in the dark, trying to detect the presence of a big submarine coming through. And the job of the algorithmic trader is to make that submarine as stealth as possible.”
The stock market is a casino where the game is betting on the fortunes of companies. I don't go to casinos either, but at least at a real casino you know exactly how the house is taking you.  Here we've got a system that seems designed to fleece the small, non-mathematician investor. Salmon adds:
Firstly, there are millions of individual investors doing diligent homework on companies and trying to invest intelligently in the stock market. When they finally arrive at a conclusion and the time comes to buy or sell, their collective decisions are known politely as “retail order flow,” and less politely as “dumb money”; high-frequency trading shops make lots of money by paying for the privilege of filling those orders and taking the opposite side of those trades.

It’s possible that one individual investor—Mr Iyer himself, perhaps—can beat the odds and make more money on his own than he would do simply investing in an index fund. If he does, then it might be due to luck, and it might be due to skill. But if I know nothing about Mr Iyer except for the fact that he’s a retail investor looking at corporate fundamentals, I wouldn’t give him much of a chance of beating the market. Fundamentals-based investing is (still) a very crowded trade, and most people who try it fail—they get picked off by faster, smarter, more sophisticated players in the market.
It's worth remembering that pretty much all of this algorithmic trading is pure casino—completely valueless from a social utility point of view.  These MIT whiz kids trying to outsmart each other has absolutely nothing to do with the larger economy or the underlying reality of the companies being traded.  One wonders if this amount of high-grade math skill being slurped up by Wall Street to do at best nothing of value, or at worst active harm to the economy (in the form of arcane financial crises) might be a social problem.  Yglesias speculates that this might be the death knell of the stock market system: 
As best I can tell, the trends point in the direction of smart potential retail investors realizing they don’t want to take their life savings to the casino, leading to a stock market that’s ever-more-dominated by suckers and algorithms. That, in turn, means entrepreneurs will be ever-less-inclined to turn ownership of their firms over to the market. That creates a demand for more innovative ways to let larger groups of people invest in private firms, which should further drain the public market of “smart” money. And at some point the era of the publicly traded firm’s hegemony may come to look like an aberration.

Jan 14, 2011

Eminem hits it big in Africa

I heard this song umpteen times at lodges in Botswana, at an open-air market in Zambia, in bars in Durban, and now on the cell phone of the girl that runs the tuck shop in my village.  Who'da thunk?

Rape in Peace Corps

The big news rocketing around Peace Corps is ABC's story on rape:
More than 1,000 young American women have been raped or sexually assaulted in the last decade while serving as Peace Corps volunteers in foreign countries, an ABC News 20/20 investigation has found.

In some cases, victims say, the Peace Corps has ignored safety concerns and later tried to blame the women who were raped for bringing on the attacks...

"I have two daughters now and I would never ever let them join the Peace Corps," said Adrianna Ault Nolan of New York, who was raped while serving in Haiti.

In the most brutal attack, Jess Smochek, 29, of Pennsylvania was gang raped in Bangladesh in 2004 by a group of young men after she says Peace Corps officials in the country ignored her pleas to re-locate her.

She says the Peace Corps immediately began to cover up what happened to her, fearful, she says, of offending officials in Bangladesh.

 "When the decision was made that I was to go to Washington, D.C., I was told to tell volunteers that I was having my wisdom teeth out," Smochek says. [...]

"There isn't a point person or an advocate or someone who is managing the case," said Casey Frazee of Cincinnati, Ohio who was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009. She has established a support group and website for other Peace Corps victims, First Response Action.

"No one is really looking at this because there's this over-idealized picture of the JFK Peace Corps," said Frazee. 
In a purely selfish sense, I am constantly thankful for being male in South Africa. The way women are treated here is nothing short of grotesque, and female volunteers routinely endure public sexual harassment that would usually earn the offenders a savage beating in the US. I don't even witness the worst of it, because (as the single girls will tell you) even the presence of another male volunteer drastically reduces the attention.

I can't speak to the individual situations, and if these stories have even a grain of truth there were some unforgivable failures from Peace Corps. But my own perception has doesn't quite jibe with ABC's portrayal of a culture of cover-ups reaching to the highest administrative levels. At our MST recently, the regional safety and security official—responsible for most of sub-Saharan Africa—came and spoke about a rape that had happened in Lesotho and what he had done about it.

Again, I can't speak to the specific instances mentioned, and I am in no way casting aspersions on these rape survivors.  I whole-heartedly support Casey Frazee's support group.  Yet it seems to me the problem again lies more on the medical side—in support and counseling for survivors, especially post-service—than on the safety and security side.  Peace Corps administration varies throughout the world, and clearly the situation in Bangladesh was beyond the pale.  But the safety and security apparatus in South Africa is about the only part of the Peace Corps here that I would say is running fairly well.

Jan 13, 2011

"Ba tshwana batho"

Here's a heartwarming little anecdote.  The other day on the taxi I was sitting next to a father who had his son on his lap.  That in itself is quite remarkable—fathers are scarcer than hen's teeth most of the time.  I was playing with the kid a little, showing him how the drink holders on the back of the seats worked.  Then the kid asked his dad a question in Setswana: "Is this lekgowa [pointing to me] a person like me?"

The dad said, in a completely nonchalant tone, "Ba tshwana batho," meaning "They are the same, people."

I was gobsmacked.  Here's to non-deadbeat dads and racial tolerance, one tiny step at a time!

Jan 9, 2011

Botswana

So I'm officially done with vacation, but I'm still processing the trip, which was truly epic.  I've had game drives, booze cruises, elephants out the wazoo, Victoria Falls, bunji jumping, sweet whitewater rafting on the Zambezi, dancing all night, dolphins, and much more.  Rest assured that there are some incredible pictures and maybe even movies coming up in the future, viz. when I get everything sorted out and organized.

Right now though, I'd just like to share a quick thought on Botswana, where I spent much of my trip.  I think I now begin to understand what people mean when they say they've fallen in love with Africa.  Bots is very similar to my corner of South Africa—same people, same language, same type of terrain—yet it is altogether a more wholesome and reasonable place.  As far as I can tell, though the country faces some steep problems (mostly an atrocious HIV epidemic), the people are friendlier and happier, the institutions more sound and effective, and the outlook very much more positive.  The best part from my perspective was that Botswana lacks the miasma of petulant whingeing that permeates the public culture in South Africa.

It's a vision (through a glass darkly) of what might have been had Apartheid been avoided, and it's very positive.  Definitely worth a visit.

Jan 6, 2011

Pension day

My family's house is where the pension is distributed, which means once per month there is a truck full of money, dozens of grandmas, and several men packing submachine guns hanging around for a few hours.
[Image]

Jan 5, 2011

A guest editorial from Pops

The Voters Speak
The voice of the American electorate was heard loud and clear in the most recent election when seven percent of voters changed their minds about who should lead the country during its seemingly inevitable decline. The sharp rightward jog the newly elected members of the legislative branch will bring to lawmaking is widely viewed as a blanket condemnation of anything done in the way of government in the last two years. The broad mandate the voters gave the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives includes bone deep aversion to taxes of any kind and an expectation that a responsible government will find them a job that pays twelve times what a better-educated resident of Mumbai would make. Conservatives hope to even roll back the signature achievement of the Obama administration, health care reform, and return to the solely profit-driven system that has never slowed its progress in bankrupting the nation. They also hope to unleash the banks from new regulations designed to prevent another meltdown and perpetuate the tax structure that has concentrated nearly half of the country’s wealth in the hands of the 1% of the population. The new direction of the nation might properly be viewed as another tack in its two-year-interval, zig-zag course toward the precipice.
Displaying perhaps one of the most consistent threads in US politics, voters approved candidates whose platforms include popular though unworkable or even contradictory elements. Successful office-seekers are subsequently divided into those who are either blinded by ideology, cynically manipulative, ignorant of the facts or simply delusional. The current crop of elected officials has representatives of all four categories. Voters approved a roster of candidates who vowed to lower taxes and eliminate the deficit while not messing with grandma’s socialist Medicare or socialist Social Security, all the while defending the border from hordes of dangerous bedmakers and leaf blowers. They greenlighted isolationists and headburyers; they validated vague notions of waste and ignored the bipartisan growth of entitlements. They elected only those who would promise the impossible and vow to ignore the inevitable. They would prefer that diametrically opposed viewpoints could reach a workable compromise. They are not concerned with a grisly war of attrition on the other side of the globe or whether humans are making the planet uninhabitable. They would prefer the government get off their backs so it will be in better position to hand out goodies with both hands. The last time the government had a “surplus” of cash, (though the outstanding long term debt was already in the trillions,) the newly elected Mr. Bush decided to send everyone a check instead of make a payment on the $20,000 that every man, woman and child in the US had borrowed from China. It was a very popular decision.
The departing, lame-duck congress managed to pass a number of significant bills before it adjourned, which may suggest a thaw in the frosty partisanship which has characterized Capitol Hill in recent years. None of the bills are an attempt to address or even acknowledge any one of the prickly, contentious and profound problems that everyone agrees the nation will face very soon. Most significantly, both houses agreed to kick the “deficit” can down the road for two more years and add another trillion dollars to its contents. “As long as we can focus on the symbolic and inconsequential we should should be able to pass a lot of legislation,” said the probable new vice-chairman of the House “Steroids in Sports” committee, Bjorn Richguy. “We plan to keep posturing for two more years, then expect the voters will return us to power, whereupon we will figure out what to do.”
In Britain, where the country that kept a stiff upper lip during Hitler’s blitzkrieg has recently owned up to decades of financial indiscretions and decided to pay them off, there is some bafflement at failure of the US to confront its spendthrift ways . “It’s too bad those tea partyers didn’t start complaining till after they’d spent all the money,” said Mick Pauper of Newcastle, “now they’re voting to not pay it back. Good luck on that one blokes. You gave King George the Credit card for eight years, and now you’re in a bloody great hole you can’t see out of. It begs the question, “What did you expect?”


Jan 4, 2011

Nonfiction: The Key to New York, part III

[Continued from part II.]

Working with James had its advantages. He had been there for years and knew the history of the store, which was far more interesting than I would have suspected. In the stockroom there was a massive metal grate leaning against the wall. I had never seen it used for anything, and asked him one day what it was for.

“This place used to be owned by a guy who was in with the mob over in Jersey. He didn’t pay them some money he owed and just disappeared one day. The store landed in his wife’s hands, and she didn’t know how to run the business. She ended up owing the city a lot in back taxes, and one day the city marshal just came by, forced everyone out, chained the doors shut, and cut the electricity. Well, this was the middle of summer and no one could get inside for about two weeks. Inside was about $200,000 in inventory. When the city finally finished with the store and we got back inside the smell was so bad the first guys had to wear gas masks. There were maggots and rats everywhere like you wouldn’t believe.” He tapped the grate. “Once we got the rotten stuff cleaned out, the stench was still awful, so we put these grates over the doors and let it air out for a couple more weeks. You could smell it for blocks.”

I actually enjoyed the work. I got along well with the people, and mostly enjoyed interacting with the customers. The stocking and inventory work had a soothing quality to it—“leveling,” or bringing all the stock to the front edge of the shelf and adjusting each so that the labels faced outwards was strangely pleasing. I would enter a messy, disorganized aisle and leave it gleaming and perfect. Creating order out of chaos, the simple pride of a job well done.

Even the inventory work at least wasn’t boring. The storage was in the basement, so when the inventory arrived on the truck we had to move some of it to the shelves immediately, some to the upstairs storage, and some downstairs. Outside of the aisles the place had a run-down industrial feel to it. The basement floor was caked with a half-inch of black grime in places, and the cardboard compacter was this massive Stalinist contraption that looked like it belonged in Blade Runner. Later, when that stock was needed, we’d have to move it back upstairs. Once upstairs, one had to scan each item to check the price and make sure if was in the computer. “Scan and mark,” James would say.

Then—my favorite activity: pricing. The pricing gun is a device that prints and attaches those little price stickers to an item. When pricing something ideally firm—say a case of tuna fish cans—and it works well, there’s a pleasing rhythmic pockita pockita sound as you bounce the gun from can to can. James had these ancient guns that if you pushed them too fast the actuator mechanism wouldn’t advance the sticker roll and the gun would jam. I always had to go as fast as possible though, so I was constantly pushing the limit.

One day I found a sleek new gun in a box that one of the concession vendors had left (another thing I learned, that much of the space in a grocery store is not run by the store, it’s leased to various merchants like Nabisco or Coke). This gun was German—heavy, oiled, precise, with a wide roll of stickers that caught much more easily on soft packages. It was an absurd joy to use. With it I could price as quick as I could twitch my fingers, and with my experience playing drums, that became fast. If James weren’t watching, I would get Sam to time me on a carefully arranged set of tuna fish. With the big ones, containing twenty-four twelve-ounce cans per case, my record was less than five seconds. But soon the stickers ran out and I was back as before.

Of course, it wasn’t all great. Once a month we had to do the recycling—every grocery store in New York is legally required to have and maintain bottle and can recycling machines, which produce barrels of broken glass weighing several hundred pounds and dozens of bags full of razor-sharp shredded aluminum. The glass was thankfully kept next to the machine on the main floor, but the aluminum was stored downstairs. The bags usually had several ounces of moldy fluid that had leaked into a coagulated mass of horror at the bottom of the pile.

James would hire this homeless guy named Fred to help us move the aluminum upstairs. Fred was a nice fellow, but he reeked. Him combined with the stench of the rotting beer made me retch more than a few times. However, he was immensely strong and had hands like Kevlar, which came in handy when the bag would tear apart on the way up the stairs. It was at least good exercise—the bags were heavy.
As was probably appropriate, it didn’t end well. The floor manager Susan—James was nominally the inventory manager—had direct control over the cashiers, and we didn’t get along that well. In June, when I was heading back to Colorado to get ready for Peace Corps, I told her I was leaving, less than a week before my last day. Susan wasn’t happy. “What, no two weeks’ notice?”

I let some of my entitlement show, I think. “It’s Key Food. James fires a cashier like every week.”

She got even angrier. “It may be Key Food, but it pays my mortgage.”

“It wouldn’t pay mine if I had one. I couldn’t pay a mortgage in this town if I worked here a hundred hours a week. Minimum wage is higher in my hometown of 8,000.” So she cut the rest of my hours and gave them to one of her favorites. James had promised to take me out to lunch on my last day, but never got that chance.

Some would accuse me of being a kind of tourist, basically a pith-helmeted imperialist taking notes on the local tribe. I suppose that is partly true. But it still defined my New York time. At Key Food I met some of the most interesting, honest people I have ever known, and had experiences I will never forget.

Jan 2, 2011

Nonfiction: The Key to New York, part II

[Continued from part I.]

After a couple days I mastered the cashier business. I felt anxious to prove myself—as a white college graduate, I feared confirming the stereotype of the pointy-headed, useless intellectual. I got very good with the register and the produce codes—though not as good as Sam, one of the sub-managers, who was blindingly fast when he had to take over a till. Virtuosity wasn’t my goal in any case; rather I went for a low error rate, as any cashier more than $20 under for the day’s count was automatically fired. I was never under by more than $5—and that only once—but I was over by more than $20 on several occasions. I never figured out why.

I was, however, the most popular cashier. Practically every minor transaction like groceries is carried out with no more than a grunt in New York. I was obstinately polite and cheerful. (Well, most of the time. Some people were just out to ruin my day, because I was a helpless cashier. I bitched them out in the most recondite language I could summon.) I turned on what little charm I possess—which for some reason is most effective with middle-aged women. Being on Broadway the store served both major Heights ethnic groups, and I befriended folks of all stripes. I carried groceries for Mrs. Finn, a harassed young Orthodox mother draped with bandoliers of children. I found the right brand of Matzahs for Mrs. Berkowitz, a caustic and insistent old lady who had been angrily dismissed by the other cashiers. I talked politics with some of the Jewish men (though not all, there were some real right-wingers that would come through occasionally). For those buying kosher, I always offered to keep the dairy and meat separate. I tried out my rusty Spanish on Mrs. Garcia, an abuela from the East Heights, which quickly improved as most of the other cashiers spoke it as well.

I developed something of a following. If I were working, some of the old ladies would wait in a longer line specifically to get me. I knew what they liked—to watch the price of every item to be sure it was correct. The memory of these grannies was astounding. Every week they would have the new circular memorized inside 24 hours.

That said, I did not fit in at all. I have never felt so obviously out of place in my life, including in South Africa. My first time talking to Sam, we were carrying a heavy box of stock across the basement. “Where are you from, anyway?” he asked.

“Colorado. But I went to school in Oregon.”

“Really? What did you study?”

“Chemistry.”

He stopped for a moment. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Waiting to go to Africa.” I might as well have been boarding the next ship to Mars.

It may seem curious that New York presented worse culture shock that a remote rural village deep in South Africa. There are several reasons for this. Some of them are purely technical; for example, the lack of assistance—Peace Corps has an extensive support network and at least a couple months of training designed to help you adapt, whereas in New York I had only myself. Second, South Africa is not as strange as one might suppose. Americans tend to jam all of Africa into the same category, which is as preposterous as doing the same thing to Europe. But South Africa is probably the most American country in Africa. Most people speak English and have a television which consists of roughly one-third American programming. Most of the transport is in motor vehicles. The range of biomes is broadly similar. The history of Apartheid bears eerie similarity to Jim Crow and segregation.

But there are deeper reasons as well. It’s hard to overestimate the psychological impact of moving from a remote town to the greatest city in the nation. Previously the largest city in which I had spent serious time was Portland, Oregon, population one-half million. New York has roughly eight million. The transformation of the earth is part of it—nearly every surface has been adapted for man’s use, and usually covered with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of meters of steel and concrete. One develops the illusion that people built the city up from the seafloor somehow. Even the parks (though they add greatly to the city) are defined mostly by their strict boundaries, their carefully manicured grounds, their sidewalks. I would pass a demolished building almost surprised that actual rock lay under the foundations. “Hey, check it out! Did you know there’s an island under here?”

Additionally, my hometown in America is absurdly tiny. The village where I live in
South Africa is one of the smallest of any volunteer here—about 500 people. Yet Torrey, Utah, where I grew up until I was nine years old, is about one-third that size. It too was exceedingly remote—coming here was strangely nostalgic after the crush of the New York crowds.

James quickly got me off the register a few hours a week and working in his section—inventory. James was the keystone employee, keeping track of prices, stock, inventory, and sales. An unhealthy portion of this was in his head, but he seemed to handle it fine. He was from Yonkers, divorced, chunky, and perhaps the crudest person I’ve ever met. His jokes could give me full-body shivers weeks later.

He carefully managed the store’s relationship with the Jewish community, with which we did a roaring trade. That is no mean feat, either—there were periodic inspections of the kosher deli, and a rabbi had to watch us place sealing stickers on certain items, to make sure we hadn’t touched anything. During Passover we sold about a cubic kilometer of various Passover-only goods. I helped James manage the whole affair, which involved swapping out the entire contents of the kosher aisle (as normal kosher stuff is not usually Passover-kosher). I learned all the signs and codes that signified the various types of kosher.

Though James was fairly good at the mechanics of operating the store, he was a miserable manager of people. He was rude and cruel to the cashier staff, most of whom were teenage Dominican girls. The slightest mistake would earn someone a permanent epithet, usually starting with placeholder “fucking retard.” As a result, he went through employees like a Hollywood starlet with an 8-ball of cocaine. The average cashier retention time was about three weeks, which meant that hardly anyone outside the managers knew where anything was.

James was mean, that is, to everyone but me. He treated me with such blatant favoritism that it became a running joke amongst the other cashiers. He seemed to enjoy my company, sometimes rearranging my schedule so that I could work and talk with him. He could have (and probably did) make fun of me behind my back, but at least didn’t attack me to my face like everyone else. I’m not sure why that was. I find my effect on people unpredictable. Perhaps it was sheer novelty.

[Continued in Part III.]

Jan 1, 2011

Nonfiction: The Key to New York, part I

[Happy New Year!  To celebrate, here's a story I wrote about my time in New York City.  Since I'm on vacation, I'll be posting it in installments Dickens-style.]

On 29 September 2008, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 778 points, then a one-day record point drop (though not in terms of percentage). This marked the beginning of what economists call the “Great Recession,” the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. On 8 November, I boarded a plane to New York City, no job prospects or plans in mind.

I wasn’t totally helpless. My friend J. was teaching first grade in the Bronx with Teach For America and she was a bit lonely and hating the New York social scene. She said I could come and stay with her and her roommate. I was killing time, waiting for the departure of my South Africa Peace Corps group in July. “I don’t have a job over there,” I said. “It sounds like no one has a job over there.” I had recently graduated with a degree in chemistry from Reed College. “All my professional contacts are in Portland.”

“It’s fine,” J. said. “I’m paying the rent already. Just come and wash my clothes and I’ll pay the rent until you can find a job.” What the hell, I thought. Never been to New York.

For the first few months I couldn’t find much work. I did a couple odd jobs, tutoring and so forth. I played a lot of video games, went through a lot of beer, and walked hundreds of miles around Manhattan. J’s apartment was in Washington Heights on 186th street; I occasionally made it down to the 50s on foot. It was an alienating experience at first. Walking around the most densely populated city in the US, seeing probably two thousand times the population of my hometown every day, I spoke to no one. I used to take a book and ride the subway for hours, people watching and seeing how lost I could get (not very). That and museums took up most of my free time. An experience like this is hardly original, but it was some cultural whiplash—much worse than moving to South Africa, where I write these words.

Much of the fault was my own. With a reclusive personality, no job, no hobbies, and no money, of course I had no friends. Actually I think as far as cities go New York is friendlier than its reputation would suggest, and certainly far more sensibly planned and efficient than most places; indeed hugely dense cities seem inevitable if the human race is to survive in anything like its current state. With a decent job and some social networks New York could be a perfectly reasonable place to live—far superior to, say, Phoenix, which I consider a blighted dystopian hellscape.

Washington Heights is a slowly gentrifying neighborhood still mostly populated by ethnic minorities: Jews (mostly Orthodox) and Dominicans. It is heavily segregated; Broadway is the borderline—east is Dominican while west is Jewish. I confess to being surprised that the Heights are actually atop a big hill—perhaps used to the normal suburban evasions like “Babbling Brook Estates” for a neighborhood on a sun-blasted salt flat.

I must admit that my job searching was fairly half-hearted. I found hundred of listings for chemistry positions, all just slightly out of reach. They would be for analytical work (mind-numbing horror), or require two years experience, or be a two hour train ride down Long Island, or be for a five year contract, or most often some combination thereof. I wasn’t in the market for a career there in any case—but the truth is that I probably could have found some kind of welfare-for-sociology-majors type job someplace. My heart just wasn’t in it. I wanted to hang drywall, do something honest. So for a couple months I was just a bum watching my savings dwindle alarmingly.

One day on a trip to pick up some groceries from the Key Food on Broadway and 187th I spied a sign in the window. “Cashiers wanted for morning shift.” What the hell, I thought. I’m not proud. The next day I asked for a job. I had to work myself up to it; I had a suspicion that it would be about the weirdest thing to happen to the manager all day. It was.

“I’d like a job,” I said.

Blank stare. “Um, all right,” he said. “You know this pays minimum wage, right?”

“I figured,” I said. “How much is that?”

“$7.15.” Good lord, I thought. That’s less than Colorado.

One should know that it is utterly impossibly to survive on minimum wage alone in Manhattan without living on the street or panhandling. Groceries and basic necessities aren’t that bad, but housing is brutal. J’s two bedroom apartment was $1650 per month, and that was considered a screamer deal. Full time at $7.15 would net you about two-thirds of that. I took the job anyway. I figured it would be at least a little money while I found something a little more sensible.

I showed up the first day ten minutes early. James, the manager, gave me a 5XL blue Key Food jacket and a drawer with $200 to count. A sign on the wall said “CASHIERS MUST COUNT YOUR DRAW BEFORE WORK.” The one bit of New York that infected my speech was that “draw.” I still say it sometimes. James goggled at my last name. “Could you be any more white?”

“I could be a Republican.”

[Continued in Part II.]