Monday, August 31, 2009

Worse than the Swine Flu. Lots.

My niece asked me whether the Swine flu was really a huge issue. I told her something like this: It has the potential to become huge. However, it is gaining so much attention because of the potential in the rich countries. Otherwise, nobody would really care. Which is why malaria or other diseases that kill people by the thousands every day in poor countries barely register a blip in the global health radar.

Case in point: an outbreak of diarrhea has already killed more people in one Indian state than the Swine flu has killed in the entire country.

The deaths have been reported in several villages in Kalahandi district, Health Minister Prasanna Acharya said.

Local newspapers put the death toll at 38. Health officials say 237 people suffering from the disease have been admitted to hospitals.

Diarrhoea is a major killer in the world and is thought to be responsible for around 4% of all deaths.

Yet, all the attention is on Swine flu :-(

Meritocracy in America? Not really ....

The historic presidential election in 2000 was the ultimate example of how American politics (and many other aspects of the country's socio-politics) is where lineage and connections count. After all, the two candidates even had the same names of their respective fathers. It was one junior duking it out with another. Both won, and neither lost .... Kind of :-)

Glenn Greenwald has a fantastically satirical post on the American royalty (HT), triggered by the news that President W. Bush's daughter has been hired by NBC as a reporter for "Today." The entire post, and his updates, are simply brilliant. Here is an excerpt; Greenwald lists quite a few in a thematic and funny way, and then notes:
all of the above-listed people are examples of America's Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work -- The American Way. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor -- who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice -- is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

I just want to make sure that's clear.

And how about this paragraph:
They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There's a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.
Neat!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pakistan. What, me worry?

In a casual conversation about Pakistan, when I was heading back from the beach with my sister, she said that the US helps Pakistan too much--despite it being a haven for terrorists, and despite Pakistan's single-minded obsession with India.

I replied that at least it is better now compared to a decade ago, and definitely compared to when the Cold War was at its peak. That is the best I could do as a Polyanna!

At some point, the US will have to change its approach because, as I have blogged many times, Pakistan is one hell of a disaster.

So, how about this NY Times report:
The United States has accused Pakistan of illegally modifying American-made missiles to expand its capability to strike land targets, a potential threat to India, according to senior administration and Congressional officials.
This news item will play in India how?: as more ammo to anti-Pakistan emotions, more ammo to fight any peace-making with Pakistan, and as bargaining chip with the US in order to extract concessions somewhere. Oh well, when will we ever learn? Are we that much a slave to that darned military-industrial-complex?

If there is not enough to worry about, the same NY Times report adds:
[The] subtext of the argument is growing concern about the speed with which Pakistan is developing new generations of both conventional and nuclear weapons.

“There’s a concerted effort to get these guys to slow down,” one senior administration official said. “Their energies are misdirected.”

At issue is the detection by American intelligence agencies of a suspicious missile test on April 23 — a test never announced by the Pakistanis — that appeared to give the country a new offensive weapon.
Oh, finally:
The country’s nuclear arsenal is expanding faster than any other nation’s. In May, Pakistan conducted a test firing of its Babur medium-range cruise missile, a weapon that military experts say could potentially be tipped with a nuclear warhead. The test was conducted on May 6, during a visit to Washington by President Asif Ali Zardari, but was not made public by Pakistani officials until three days after the meetings had ended to avoid upsetting the talks.
If all these don't worry you enough, how about this news item:
A Pakistani court has lifted restrictions on A.Q. Khan -- a Pakistani scientist who admitted to spreading nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya -- Khan and his lawyer told CNN Friday.
Party on!!!

The end of Facebook?

Is Facebook doomed to someday become an online ghost town, run by zombie users who never update their pages and packs of marketers picking at the corpses of social circles they once hoped to exploit? Sad, if so. Though maybe fated, like the demise of a college clique.
Thus concludes Virginia Heffernan in the Sunday magazine of the NY Times.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of Facebook is greatly exaggerated by commentators. But, I do wonder though what the next cool thing will be because, let us "face" it, Facebook is not cool anymore to the young crowds when even grandma and grandpa are out there. I don't know how Twitter will morph into anything other than how it currently is--I hate the idea of geocoding the twitterer's location.

I just can't wait for that next (r)evolution :)

SAT scores related to bathrooms in the house?

Greg Mankiw:
The NY Times Economix blog offers us the above graph, showing that kids from higher income families get higher average SAT scores.

Of course! But so what? This fact tells us nothing about the causal impact of income on test scores. (Economix does not advance a causal interpretation, but nor does it warn readers against it.)

This graph is a good example of omitted variable bias, a statistical issue discussed in Chapter 2 of my favorite textbook. The key omitted variable here is parents' IQ. Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring.

Suppose we were to graph average SAT scores by the number of bathrooms a student has in his or her family home. That curve would also likely slope upward. (After all, people with more money buy larger homes with more bathrooms.) But it would be a mistake to conclude that installing an extra toilet raises yours kids' SAT scores.

It would be interesting to see the above graph reproduced for adopted children only. I bet that the curve would be a lot flatter.
Hmmm..... IQ and genes. Controversial, right? Of course. Because this is an unsettled issue in science. Conor Clarke remarks that "the vaguely deterministic suggestion that smart parents "make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring" is a laughably crude description of how real life works" and cites a study by Richard Nisbett and notes that:
children born to wealthy parents and raised by downscale families have almost exactly the same IQ range as children born to downscale parents and raised by wealthy families. Nisbett uses this to make what I thought would have been an entirely uncontroversial point -- namely, that "both genes and class-related environmental effects are powerful contributors to intelligence"
Shall watch out for the next round of this discussion :-)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Climate change, not healthcare is Obama's Waterloo?

[As] the health care debate has shown, public support matters little, and facts matter even less. And even if health care reform does pass, it's unclear that Blue Dogs will be eager to lie down for the administration a second time. In which case, perhaps climate change—not health care—could be Obama's Waterloo.
I agree with Christopher Beam's analysis that it will be one tricky challenge when climate change-related legislation comes up after healthcare reform is sorted out--wait, that is if healthcare reform is sorted out! It is going to be one hell of a fall session for the Congress and the President.

Beam points out that:
[Already] some senators—Democratic senators, no less—have been hedging. This month, four Democrats said they think the energy provisions, like mandating renewable sources, should be separated from the climate provisions, like cap and trade. Combined, the bill is "too big a lift," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
...
Sen. Mary Landrieu, who represents oil and gas hub Louisiana, has declined to rule out the filibuster on climate-change legislation. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is likely to speak for farm interests as a member of the agriculture committee—as in, less wind energy, more ethanol. Nelson and the two Democratic senators from North Dakota, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, joined Lincoln in calling for Reid to strip the legislation of its climate-change provisions. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio recently said, "I want to support this bill, but it's got to protect manufacturing." And in May, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana was the only Democrat to vote against a renewable-electricity standard during a committee markup. Add in Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin (both of Michigan), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Jim Webb (Virginia), and Claire McCaskill (Missouri), all of whom did not vote for the Climate Security Act of 2008, and you've got a good dozen Democrats likely to be skittish about climate legislation as envisioned by the House.
Meanwhile, imagine what the chaos will be if the recession that seems to have bottomed-out suddenly takes a dive because of acute geopolitical crises in the AfPak-Iran-Iraq corridor! Wake me up in 2010!!!

Islamophobia, and Eurabia

A British Minister walks out of a Muslim constituent’s wedding protesting against segregation of male and female guests; a prominent moderate Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, is hounded out of not one but two separate jobs for hosting a show on an Iranian television channel; aggressive right-wing campaigners in Switzerland demand removal of minarets from all mosques; and French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls for a ban on wearing burqa in public.

These incidents, occurring within days of each other in recent weeks in different parts of Europe, have coincided with a rash of new books portraying European Muslims in the darkest possible colour. Their alarmist tone has reminded many of the sort of things once written about European Jews.

Are these simply isolated events? Or is Europe in the grip of a new wave of Islamophobia?

A well-thought out essay by Hasan Suroor, who alerts readers about the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, and in North America. It is not looking good.
Suroor concludes that:
It would be foolish to conflate incidents which may be no more than just local difficulties and blow them up into an anti-Muslim conspiracy. Yet to dismiss them as an aberration would be to deny the prejudice that Muslims face across Europe.

More trouble ahead in Afghanistan

Given the current political and military issues in Afghanistan, I am reminded more about this among all my posts related to that country. In that op-ed way back in May, I wrote that the results of India's elections will not have any significant impact, but that the elections in Iran and Afghanistan are the ones that we ought to follow. I wrote there:
Afghanistan will hold its presidential elections in August. The current president, Hamid Karzai, has been heading the country since the Taliban-led government was driven out of power by the U.S. and NATO military forces. Karzai has been increasingly criticized for not being effective in the fight against the Taliban, who have been rapidly gaining ground both in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is dealing with a possibility that democracy might get suspended there by a military coup, thanks to the democratically elected government getting more and more unstable. Unfortunately, neither a weak government nor a military coup is new to Pakistan.

Thus, whether it is the UPA or the NDA that gets elected to power in India, there will not be as many repercussions as from the political developments over the next couple of months in Afghanistan, Iran and, of course, Pakistan. How events unfold in South and West Asia this summer will have immense implications even for those of us halfway around the world.

We know how that Iranian election went and, unfortunately, we do not know how the dissidents are being treated.

The elections in Afghanistan? Things could take an ugly turn. For one, Hamid Karzai's main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has already set the stage for what might happen if he loses:
Dr Abdullah told the Daily Telegraph: "I think if the process doesn't survive, then Afghanistan doesn't survive.

"Because what does that mean? The same sort of regime that crafted this massive, massive rigging will be imposed upon Afghanistan for another five years.

"On top of whatever problems this government, this administration had, there will be its illegitimacy.

"We will exhaust all legal avenues. But finally, if it worked, all well, if it didn't we will not accept the legitimacy of the process and then this regime will be illegitimate."

Apparently, even Obama's and Clinton's main man there, Richard Holbrooke, has had some heated exchange of words with Karzai:

Dr Abdullah spoke out as reports emerged of a heated row over the election between Richard Holbrooke, Barack Obama's super envoy to the region, and Hamid Karzai over the election.

The two are said to have had "sharp exchanges" after Mr Holbrooke complained about ballot box stuffing from the Karzai campaign.

This will be more than anything that we saw in Iran when Ahmedinajad and Khamenei cooked up the election results. Why? Here is Fred Kaplan:
[If] the election turns out to be as close—and contested—as the early returns suggest, the new president will probably also have to offer a very high position to the runner-up, perhaps even form a unity government with him. If Karzai wins, the runner-up is likely to be the former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. There is another way to express this: If Karzai the Pashtun wins, the runner-up is likely to be Abdullah the Tajik. (Abdullah is half-Tajik but is considered the Tajik candidate.) In other words, if Karzai doesn't give Abdullah something big (or, should Abdullah win, if he doesn't give Karzai something big), the election could trigger an ethno-geographic conflict (Pashtuns live mainly in the south, Tajiks in the north), on top of the many layers of conflict that already keep Afghanistan from functioning as a coherent nation-state. This is one danger of holding a national election in a state that lacks a national consciousness or a civil society: The vote tends merely to politicize, and thus harden, longstanding social divisions. This is what happened in Iraq's first post-Saddam election.
Have a good day!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Women in the Kennedy clan

This one was too good that I decided to copy and paste the entire piece:

One thing we have lost with the passing of Edward Kennedy is a certain generational model of the proper role for the family women in public life—the mother, wife, mistress, and daughter. It’s not a model I will miss.

It starts, of course, with Rose Kennedy, described thus in a review of a book about the Kennedy women:

Rose changed from an ambitious, lively, curious girl to a wife and mother whose emotions were rigidly controlled and whose mechanisms of denial so highly refined that she could accept her husband's lovers—notably Gloria Swanson—into her home. She passed much of that legacy on to her daughters Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Jean.

In the Kennedy family, the women preened and posed, suffered mistresses, got divorced. That iconic video of Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House, recently replayed on Mad Men, is disturbing to watch today. She honestly seems as if she’s being directed by a remote control.

If they were lucky, like Eunice Kennedy Shriver, they managed to install themselves at the head of virtuous nonprofits—“charities,” we used to call them. When it came to the family’s sense of its own mission, the women were not in the picture. Here is Joe Kennedy’s line of succession, which seems medieval today:

It was understood among the children that Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the oldest boy, would someday run for Congress and, his father hoped, the White House. When Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II, it fell to the next oldest son, John, to run. As John said at one point in 1959 while serving in the Senate: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our young brother, Ted, would take over for him.”

Now, thank god (and feminism) we have Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy, who are contained by their husbands and children, but still exist as independent women in some recognizable form.

Save Earth, by eating at the new Taco Bell :-)


Taco Bell's New Green Menu Takes No Ingredients From Nature

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do colleges teach writing at all?

Stanley Fish writes:
As I learned more about the world of composition studies, I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.
If Fish could not succeed in his attempts on convincing academic colleagues about the urgency to reform the way we teach writing, what chances do lesser mortals like me have, eh!
At our campus we have "writing intensive" courses that do a poor, poor, job of improving students' skills in writing, primarily because they come to these content courses without getting anything much from the writing and composition courses. I served on the "Writing Intensive Committee" on campus, and three years ago I wrote to the chair of the committee:
[I] have been particularly concerned about the need to emphasize writing skills. For two reasons: one, because of my own personal experiences when I switched to the social sciences after an undergrad in engineering; second, Orwell said it best for me that thinking and writing are related--bad thinkers are bad writers too--and, therefore, students' inability to write well is not in itself a problem as much as it being a symptom of less developed thinking skills.
It will be neat to get into some serious discussions on WI itself--whether it is working, what else can be done, ....
It was quickly obvious that such a framework would not be welcomed by academic colleagues and I ditched the idea. And now I am out of the commiittee too!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Healthcare reform: tweedledum and tweedledee

David Leonhardt has always been fantastic with his economic reports in the NY Times. This latest one is no exception, and he clearly and quickly gets to the issue:

You might think, then, that a central goal of health reform would be to offer people more choice. But it isn’t.

Real choice is not part of the bills moving through the Democratic-led Congress; even if the much-debated government-run insurance plan was created, it would not be available to most people who already have coverage. Republicans, meanwhile, have shown no interest in making insurance choice part of a compromise they could accept. Both parties are protecting the insurers.
Leonhardt's comment that "both parties are protecting the insurers" worries me. A great deal. This "bispartisan" behavior is what Nader has often criticized as tweedledum and tweedledee :-(
He then writes that:
The best-known proposal for giving people more choice is the Wyden-Bennett bill, named for Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, who introduced it in the Senate in 2007.
Yea to Oregon and Wyden!

Meanwhile, news reports are flashing that Senator Ted Kennedy died.

Healthcare, then higher education?


Niraj Choksi notes that "For 27 of the past 30 years, the price of education has grown at a faster rate than that of medical care. Education also grew faster than inflation for 29 of the past 30 years, while medical care beat inflation 27 of those years. Could education be our next health care crisis?"

Too bad it is not already considered a crisis!

Why do I say that? Because I have already blogged enough about it :-)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Now I know what my problem is :-)

A typical day that begins for me at 530 or so ends by 1130 or midnight. Which means I usually sleep for just under six hours. Given how much science has not fully understood sleep, and given that most people sleep for eight hours (or even more on weekends in particular) I have wondered if my sleep habit was ok. Hey, science rescues me with this report that early risers are mutants:
now they say they have found the first genetic mutation in humans that appears to affect sleep duration rather than sleep timing. The mutation lies in DEC2, a gene that codes for a protein that helps turn off expression of other genes, including some that control circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates a person's sleep-wake cycle. The mutation occurred in just two people, a mother and her daughter. The women sleep an average of only 6.25 hours, whereas the rest of the family members sleep a more typical 8 hours.

To confirm that this mutation shortens sleep, Fu and colleagues engineered mice to carry the mutant form of DEC2. The mutant mice slept about an hour less than normal mice, the team reports today in Science. The finding also held for fruit flies: Mutant flies slept about 2 hours less than normal flies.

DEC2 likely isn't the whole story when it comes to short sleep. "Genetic control of sleep is going to be complex and is going to include multiple types of genes," says Shaw, who was not affiliated with the study. But that doesn't diminish the importance of this paper, he notes. "It's really an amazing piece of work."

Am glad to join the X-Men :-) HT

More on the (bad) high speed rail idea

I worked as a transportation planner in what seems like eons ago. One of my assignments was to be involved with California's plans for high speed rail. The agency that I worked for even commissioned a study to identify potential sites for high speed rail stations in the Bakersfield area. Consultants love these kinds of projects--easy money, with no liability arising from their conclusions because everybody knows that the project will never come to fruition anyway!

I am glad I got an opportunity to exit this agency and return to academia where I did not have to hide my analyses and ideas behind facades--thanks the intellectual freedom we have. (Or so I thought until I found out otherwise; but, who cares for my sob stories, right?)
Anyway, one reason why I was convinced that high speed rail will never be economically feasible without extensive--I mean extensive--public subsidies was a simple back of the envelope calculation. The calculation was about the out of pocket expenses that a family of three would incur if they drove from their home, say in Bakersfield, to the destination in Los Angeles, compared to the expenses involved with completing the same journey on a high speed train.

To take the train, there are the following explicit cost factors in addition to the fare for each passenger:
transport to the station of origin
transport from the destination station
and then the transport costs to move around in the destination city.

You add these expenses to the fares for the family of three, and it turns out to be way, way, more than the out of pocket expenses if that family had simply gotten into their car and driven. And then, add to this the need to stick to the train schedule as opposed to leaving from home, well, whenever.

Anyway, that is all water under the bridge. That is what I thought, until the recent rah-rah for high speed rail in the US. I suppose such policy ideas are like mythical monsters that never die!

It was not a surprise to me that my graduate school professor, Peter Gordon, has blogged about it--he has a long track record voicing his opposition. It was, however, interesting to note that the UK too is planning on big time expansion of high speed rail. As Johnny Carson would say, "I did not know that!"I liked this comment about the the UK discussions:

Obsessing about high-speed rail also misses the point that every form of transport has its strengths and weaknesses. There are all sorts of factors that people take into account when choosing if and how to travel, like cost, convenience, speed, comfort and flexibility. If you want to travel from city centre to city centre, trains are great for journeys of up to three hours. No check-in, no driving, just turn up and let the ‘train take the strain’. For longer journeys, the hassle of air travel is off-set by the speed (and, given the stupendous prices charged on Britain’s railways, flying is usually cheaper, too). For trips to less popular destinations, or where you need transport at the other end, the car is often the best choice.

So, to make Britain a truly mobile society, we need trains, planes and cars, and the best possible infrastructure for all three. And we need a government that is committed to the idea that mobility is a good thing rather than one that puts the brakes on our transport future.

Yes, sir!

Friday, August 21, 2009

How to earn tenure, but lose elections

Via Brad DeLong, here is congressman Barney Frank:
Not for the first time, as an elected official, I envy economists. Economists have available to them, in an analytical approach, the counterfactual. Economists can explain that a given decision was the best one that could be made, because they can show what would have happened in the counterfactual situation. They can contrast what happened to what would have happened. No one has ever gotten reelected where the bumper sticker said, "It would have been worse without me." You probably can get tenure with that. But you can't win office.

Afghanistan elections

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Afghanistandecision '09 - Election Day
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Thursday, August 20, 2009

More on recession and inequality

As the recession transformed into the Great Rececssion, I wondered back in February whether it would worsen the inequality. I remember having a hallway conversation about this with one of the very few faculty colleagues who are willing to talk with me. He was not sure, and he raised a good question: will the income inequality effects of the recession be different from the wealth inequality effects, or whether they will coincide?

Simon Johnson, the former IMF Chief Economist and now a MIT professor, does not explicitly answer the question of recession and inequality, but asks:
are we seeing the emergence of a two-track economy: one bouncing back in a relatively healthy fashion, and the other really struggling?
Guess which households are healthily bouncing back, and which ones are struggling? Johnson writes:
The top 10 percent of people are going to do fine, those in the middle of the income distribution have been hard hit by overborrowing, and poorer people will continue to struggle with unstable jobs and low wages.
Sounds like Johnson is saying that the recession is worsening the inequality in the US. He then adds:
The United States has, over the past two decades, started to take on characteristics more traditionally associated with Latin America: extreme income inequality, rising poverty levels and worsening health conditions for many. The elite live well and seem not to mind repeated cycles of economic-financial crisis.
Welcome to the latest banana republic: USA!

Cheap food, at a high hidden cost

As I noted earlier, both Time and Newsweek are significantly restructuring their operations in order to be as successful as The Economist is.

In the process, these magazines are also trying to provide some hard-hitting essays like the ones you would come across in the Atlantic or the New Yorker.

This essay on America's food crisis in the latest issue of Time is a case in point:
Horror stories about the food industry have long been with us — ever since 1906, when Upton Sinclair's landmark novel The Jungle told some ugly truths about how America produces its meat. In the century that followed, things got much better, and in some ways much worse. The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can't even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.
....

What we really need to do is something Americans have never done well, and that's to quit thinking big. We already eat four times as much meat and dairy as the rest of the world, and there's not a nutritionist on the planet who would argue that 24‑oz. steaks and mounds of buttery mashed potatoes are what any person needs to stay alive. "The idea is that healthy and good-tasting food should be available to everyone," says Hahn Niman. "The food system should be geared toward that."

Whether that happens will ultimately come down to all of us, since we have the chance to choose better food three times a day (or more often, if we're particularly hungry). It's true that most of us would prefer not to think too much about where our food comes from or what it's doing to the planet — after all, as Chipotle's Ells points out, eating is not exactly a "heady intellectual event." But if there's one difference between industrial agriculture and the emerging alternative, it's that very thing: consciousness. Niman takes care with each of his cattle, just as an organic farmer takes care of his produce and smart shoppers take care with what they put in their shopping cart and on the family dinner table. The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it's based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it's raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can't be ignored any longer.

Shah Rukh Khan on The Daily Show :-)

Who better than the folks at The Daily Show to comment on the Shah Rukh Khan incident, eh!
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Shah Rukh Khan Detained at Newark
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So, in jackpots we trust?

Heather Mac Donald writes this over at Secular Right:

Piling one irrationality onto another, the town fathers in the Sicilian town of Ficarra have collectively invested in Italy’s $165 million lottery:

”We chose numbers which were connected with the town’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary of the Assumption,” Mayor Basilio Ridolfo said. “It is our hope that, with her blessing, we will hit the jackpot.”

The Virgin Mary did not come through for last week’s drawing—but neither did any other saints. Other towns are reportedly following Ficarra’s lead, which could lead to some heavenly protocol issues.

Why is it considered more advanced to ask for a windfall through prayer, rather than through a quid pro quo like a nice burnt offering?

Hey, at least these people were one step ahead of the guy in the joke, which goes thus:
A guy goes to church, and prays that he wins the lottery.
The following week he returns and loudly wails that he did not win, and prays that he win the next time.
This goes on for a few weeks.
Until one day when he is praying, he hears a booming voice: "first buy a lottery ticket!"

Ha!

Why I like The Economist--it is darn socialist :-)

I have been a regular reader of the Economist for years. For a good reason. It is a magazine that makes sense most of the time. No wonder the rest of the magazine world has a serious case of "Economist envy." They can try for all they want to be like the Economist, but there will always be only one. The real McCoy!

The blogs at The Economist are equally interesting--the same measured tone, without any histrionics, and with that slight sarcasm every once in a while. Exhibit A:
IF, WITH Barack Obama's acquiescence, Senate Democrats drop the public plan from their health-care reform bill, that measure will likely end up looking very much like The Economist's vision for health-care reform in America. Which is odd, because I never considered this paper a bastion of socialist thought.
Anyway, on the subject of healthcare reform, the same blog entry has this note:
Perhaps it's a matter of perspective. If you like the status quo, then these changes (and any change that seriously addresses the flaws in America's health-care system) are probably going to seem radical to you. But if you believe that the American system is not functioning as it should and, therefore, needs to be reformed, the changes currently on the table are actually quite moderate. Or maybe, just maybe, we're all socialists.
After all this name calling, I wonder whether the few remaining socialists--mostly in American universities--will end up disassociating from that name? That will be funny to watch :-)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Violence in Iraq and Afghanistan

With more than 75 dead in Baghdad bomb blasts, and with violence picking up in Afghanistan, at least Pakistan seems to be a calm place!

Meanwhile, Charles Cooper at CBS writes:
For some reason, this story has not received as much attention as it ought to. Turns out that United States General Ray Odierno and Iraq's leadership are at odds over the timetable for the departure of American forces. How this issue gets resolved is likely to have major implications for both countries and, perhaps, the wider region.
What is the "issue? It all comes down to the Kurdish angle. The Iraqi government is not too keen on any active cooperation between the US forces and the Kurds. The Kurdish situation is an unresolved one through the six years of our presence in Iraq.
Writing in the Independent, Patrick Cockburn observed that the only thing preventing the Kurds and the Arabs from fighting is the presence of US forces.
It is called the "trigger line", a 300-mile long swathe of disputed territory in northern Iraq where Arab and Kurdish soldiers confront each other, and which risks turning into a battlefield. As the world has focused on the US troop withdrawal from Iraq, and the intensifying war in Afghanistan, Arabs and Kurds in Iraq have been getting closer to an all out war over control of the oil-rich lands stretching from the borders of Syria in the west to Iran in the east.
....
President Barack Obama's administration is alarmed by the prospect of Iraq splitting apart just as the US pulls its troops out. But Washington can also see the danger of becoming more deeply enmeshed in the Arab-Kurdish conflict, which kept northern Iraq ablaze for much of the last century. US withdrawal also frightens the Kurds, the one Iraqi community that supported the US-led invasion. They can see the political and military balance is swinging against them just as they are faced by Mr Maliki's rejuvenated Iraqi government commanding the increasingly confident 600,000-strong Iraqi security forces. A report by the International Crisis Group concluded recently that "without the glue that US troops have provided, Iraq's political actors are otherwise likely to fight all along the trigger line following a withdrawal, emboldened by a sense that they can prevail, if necessary, with outside help."
So, other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Greenback Emissions

Unchecked carbon emissions will likely cause icebergs to melt. Unchecked greenback emissions will certainly cause the purchasing power of currency to melt. The dollar’s destiny lies with Congress.
Warren Buffett in the NY Times

Other than the fact that this is Warren Buffett, well, there is nothing new in this op-ed. Not well written either--way too many metaphors, and not consistent metaphorical descriptions either. He starts with greenback emissions, then sprinkles the rest of the essay with many more ....

To a large extent though, I prefer the Bill Gates approach--he does not write op-eds nor does he appear to want to pontificate. I mean, the more these guys do the talking and opinion writing, hey, even fewer would then want to know what we talkers/writers have to say :-)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Animals, vegetables, women, and PETA


Advocacy Group Decries PETA's Inhumane Treatment Of Women

More on Yale banning cartoons in a book

I blogged earlier about Yale University Press forcing the author of a forthcoming book on the Danish cartoon controversy not to include the cartoons in the book.

Christopher Hitchens says it best (as always):
[Now] the rot has gone a serious degree further into the fabric. Now we have to say that the mayhem we fear is also our fault, if not indeed our direct responsibility. This is the worst sort of masochism, and it involves inverting the honest meaning of our language as well as what might hitherto have been thought of as our concept of moral responsibility.

Last time this happened, I linked to the Danish cartoons so that you could make up your own minds about them, and I do the same today. Nothing happened last time, but who's to say what homicidal theocrat might decide to take offense now. I deny absolutely that I will have instigated him to do so, and I state in advance that he is directly and solely responsible for any blood that is on any hands. He becomes the responsibility of our police and security agencies, who operate in defense of a Constitution that we would not possess if we had not been willing to spill blood—our own and that of others—to attain it. The First Amendment to that Constitution prohibits any prior restraint on the freedom of the press. What a cause of shame that the campus of Nathan Hale should have pre-emptively run up the white flag and then cringingly taken the blood guilt of potential assassins and tyrants upon itself.

Fleeing California. And Florida. And ????

For the first time in the post WWII era, Florida is apparently experiencing more people exiting the state than entering it. The Miami Herald reports that:
the state lost about 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to a new estimate from the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

``It's such a dramatic shift from what we've seen in the past,'' said Stan Smith, the bureau's director.

``Florida's economy is, in a lot of ways, driven by population growth,'' he said. ``Perhaps more importantly, population growth is a reflection of how the economy is doing both in Florida and in the nation.''

Smith said the decline doesn't look like a trend. Instead, he sees it as a deviation from previous decades of growth upon which Florida's development-based economy relies. He also said the decrease is a ``drop in the bucket'' compared with Florida's 18.3 million population.

Smith said the last time Florida lost population, in 1946, it was because so many soldiers left the state's military bases to go home. This population loss, he said, is solely due to the bad economy.

In Florida's case, it seems to be a response to economic conditions, and nothing else. However, the state of the economy might just be the last straw for many Californians who have endured the chaos in the state for a long time. This LA Times op-ed describes the break-up between the writer and the state:
I've been thinking about this for a very long time, and I've come to the conclusion that we should go our separate ways. I thought I loved you and it would last forever, but I was so very wrong.

I know that our relationship has lasted 50 years and that we should fight to stay together, but you've changed so much that, frankly, I don't know who you are anymore!

When we first met I was young and rather naive, and I loved you unconditionally. I spent years running with abandon across your sandy beaches in the bright sunshine, playing in your beautiful parks and attending your top-rated schools, which were a national model for the other states. For 18 years or so, I can honestly say that I was truly in love with you,
"Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" was how the late Albert Hirschman succinctly described our responses to institutions: We might stay out of loyalty even when we sense that things are going wrong. Later, as the level of discomfort rises, we voice our opinions. And, when nothing works, we exit. We do this to corporations, to municipalities, to states and countries as well.

We better pay attention to the "exit" numbers.

On Obama's High speed rail plan

"I'm happy to be here. I’m more happy than you can imagine," said the Vice President, a noted rail enthusiast, before introducing the President for the release of his strategic plan for high speed rail in America. Revolving around the $8 billion in the Recovery Act and the $1 billion per year for five years requested in the President’s budget to get these projects off the ground"
That was VP Biden's remarks back in April to launch the administration's vision for high speed rail.

So, four months later, what do we think?

First, here is Sam Staley at Reason:

For transportation investments to have a meaningful economic impact, they will need to cost-effectively improve America's ability to move goods, services, and people from one place to another. High-speed rail doesn't do that. It is an extremely costly way to achieve limited portions of these goals, and it inevitably fails as a broad-based solution to the country's transportation challenges.

In the end, high-speed rail's contribution to the economic recovery and the nation's economic productivity is being oversold. Elected officials, from Rep. Cantor to President Obama, would do a far greater service to the public's understanding of the economy if they would focus on economic fundamentals, not glitzy boutique policy programs that will inevitably fail to meet grandiose expectations they have created for them.

Staley's bottom line is that the high speed rail plan fails as a stimulus program and does not create jobs.

Ed Glaeser looks at whether the proposed high speed rail would help America's other great problems--sprawl.
For illustrative purposes, Glaeser considers the Dallas-Houston corridor, which, as he points out, is not in the Obama plan. Glaeser notes that:
Despite the lack of any positive evidence linking centralization to high-speed rail, I certainly accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty. To give rail the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that high-speed rail will cause 100,000 households to switch from suburb to city in both Dallas and Houston. This change would create extra, annual environmental benefits of $29.7 million. These benefits would be real, but they would still do little to offset the $524 million or $401 million net annual loss discussed above.
What do I think? High speed rail is so 19th century a solution for a 21st century Great Recession!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Usain Bolt

American economics profession failed the US

Like many people, in academe and otherwise, I am most interested in how the economics profession, theory, and education will change as a result of this Great Recession. My hypothesis is that economics education, starting from the ECON 101 classes, will barely change at all. After all, academia is notoriously slow-paced when it comes to any change.

But, shouldn't economists acknowledge that they goofed up. Big time? Shouldn't the American Economics Association issue a mea culpa of sorts?
Here is Richard Posner on this topic:
In modeling the business cycle, economists not only ignored, because difficult to accommodate in their mathematical models, vital institutional detail (such as the rise of the "shadow banking industry," which is what mainly collapsed last September)--often indeed ignoring money itself, on the ground that it doesn't really affect the "real" (that is, the nonfinancial) economy. They also ignored key concepts in Keynes's analysis of the business cycle, such as hoarding and uncertainty and business confidence ("animal spirits") and worker resistance to nominal (as distinct from real) wage reductions in depressions. Lessons of economic history were ignored, too, leading to a belief that there would never be another depression, let alone a collapse of the banking industry. Even when the collapse occurred, in September, many macroeconomists denied that it would lead to anything worse than a mild recession; the measures that the government has taken to recover from what has turned into a depression owe little to post-Keynesian economic thinking; and the economists cannot agree on what further, if anything, should be done, and which of the government's recovery measures has worked or will work.

Besley and Hennessy's letter, when first published, was described in some quarters as a letter of "apology" by English economists. It was not that; nor is the August 10 letter--the latter is a denunciation of mainstream economics.

The notion of a profession's apologizing for its failure in a letter to the monarch is charming, however. It would be an apology to the nation, personified in its monarch. The English monarch does not exercise political power, but does personify the nation, and it is easier to write a letter to a person than to a nation.

The English economics profession failed the United Kingdom; the American economics profession failed the United States. Not that the profession should be equated to its macroeconomic and financial divisions. The study of business cycles is only a small part of modern economics. Other areas of economics bear significantly on the study of business cycles, such as labor economics, without being implicated in the failures of response to the current crisis. But the control of the business cycle had until the present crisis been regarded as a principal triumph of modern economics and justification for regarding economics as the queen of the social sciences. We have no monarch; the President is not a personification of the nation but rather the head of the national government; there is no one to write the letter of apology to. No matter. The urgent need is for the part of the profession that concerns itself with business cycles to acknowledge its inadequacies and reorient its training and research.

America upsets India :-(

So, soon after Hillary Clinton's visit to India, I wrote that the US, Clinton, and Obama were hugely popular in that country. Apparently we know how to mess things up, even if unintentionally.

First, there was all the news about how India's former president, Dr. Abdul Kalam, was not given the clearance that apparently people like him--former heads of states and governments--are given at US airports, and was frisked.

Messing up with Dr. Kalam is one thing. But, then detaining the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan takes the issue to a whole new level. First, what happened?
Sharing his “ordeal” which he underwent as he landed at the Newark International Liberty Airport on a British Airways flight, with his fans, the 43-year-old actor said he was grilled by immigration officials.

“It was very unprofessional of the airport security staff of not allowing me to use my cell phone to contact my local organisers,” he told the audience, who were literally taken aback by what they heard from their superstar.

A visibly shattered Mr. Khan said: “I have travelled throughout the world for my shooting and also as brand ambassador for major products, but I have never been treated like this before.”

The irony, which makes this worse?
But to make matters worse, the trip was also to promote a new film, “My Name is Khan,” which is about racial profiling of Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks.
According to the NY Times:
Kevin Corsaro, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Sunday that Mr. Khan was selected for an in-depth interview, known as a “secondary inspection,” during a routine process that lasted just over an hour. He said that Mr. Khan’s checked luggage was lost by the airline, which prolonged the process.
Mr. Corsaro said that while he could not discuss Mr. Khan’s specific case because of privacy issues, passengers are selected for a variety of reasons: for instance, to verify their identity and purpose of travel. He said that they are not selected because of their religion.
So, what happens when people in a developing country get pissed off? Burning of the US flag, of course! I suppose there are factories all over supplying American flags only for this reason :-)
Angry fans burned a U.S. flag in protest Sunday, a Cabinet minister suggested searching visiting Americans and an actress tweeted her outrage after Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan said he was detained for questioning at a U.S. airport.

Though U.S. immigration officials denied he was formally held, fellow Indian film stars and political leaders condemned what they called "humiliating" treatment given to Khan, a Muslim who is well-loved in a largely Hindu country. One Cabinet minister suggested a "tit-for-tat" policy toward Americans traveling to India.

Angry fans in the northern city of Allahabad shouted anti-U.S. slogans and burned an American flag.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Yale bans a book--on the Danish cartoons issue


Cartoons published in an obscure newspaper in Denmark shook the world. And burnt the world. Why? Because the cartoons were about Islam and its founder. People who value the freedom to express views were aghast, and newspapers (a few brave ones) republished the cartoons in order to stress their freedom and in support of the Danes.

Almost four years have gone by since then. Naturally one would expect academics to crank out books on this issue; academic books that nobody will read, which is the case with most "university press" publications.

Well, not so fast! The NY Times reports that Yale University Press has banned those cartoons from a forthcoming book:
Yale University and Yale University Press consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.
Lest you think that the Danish cartoon controversy was an exception that has not been repeated since, think again.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why we loathe flying, sometimes .....

The NY Times:

The department has sent Continental Airlines a letter asking for details on Continental Express Flight 2816, which left Houston at 9:23 p.m. Friday but didn't arrive at its destination in Minneapolis until after 11 a.m. Saturday.

In between, the small airliner spent nearly seven hours sitting on the tarmac in Rochester, where it had been diverted because of thunderstorms, before passengers were allowed to go inside an airport terminal. Two and a half hours after disembarking, passengers reboarded the same plane and were flown to Minneapolis.

''Reasonable people are outraged at the idea of being stuck on a small plane for seven hours,'' LaHood wrote in a column posted online. ''Flyers and those who are considering flying want to know that should a delay occur, they will be treated respectfully.''
Well, this is not the first time something like this has happened. A few months ago, in January, a planeload of passengers from Mexico, on their way to Seattle, suffered equally--or more:
Dozens of angry passengers were cooped up for 16 hours in an AeroMexico plane, after their flight was diverted from Seattle to Portland International Airport.

Flight 670 arrived at PDX about 7:40 p.m. on Tuesday and then sat at a gate for more than four hours after being turned away from Sea-Tac Airport because of heavy fog, said Kama Simonds, spokeswoman for the Port of Portland, which runs PDX.
Yes, fog at SeaTac is understandable. But, after the plane and passengers staying put for hours in the plane, guess what happened?
paramedics who boarded to assist two ailing passengers — one with a heart problem — found a cabinful of hungry people.

"There was no food left," she said.

The paramedics went to a local McDonald's and bought enough Big Mac meals for everyone onboard.

So, whatever happened to the passengers?
passengers weren't allowed off the plane in Portland, officials said, because no customs agents were available to process the passengers.

Eventually, the plane went back to Mexico, and then it returned to the United States to complete the flight to Seattle.

I might have taken the option of getting arrested, because of the little bit of claustrophobia that I have!

Afghanistan. What, me worry?

Deficit? What, me worry?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Have Pakistani Nuclear Facilities Already Been Attacked?

In a little-noticed article published last month in a West Point counterterrorism journal, a British academic pointed out that while the world waits for the kind of global public announcement of doomsday that would come from a Bond villain, Islamist militants in Pakistan have quietly launched at least three attacks in the past two years on military bases that may contain nuclear weapons.
That very comforting (yes, sarcasm here) paragraph is from The Lede at NY Times.
Now, this is a day after I read quite a few way too uncomfortable discussions in the new "AfPak Channel" in Foreign Policy.

Thanks! Now I can worry that much more about Pakistan.

It is no longer the young and the restless in India

I am struck by the profound demographic shift in India—very few children, who seem to be outnumbered by senior citizens.

In the India that I grew up, I recall hearing about only person, among all the extended family and friends, who was more than ninety years old. She was 99 when she died, and I was sad she did not live a couple of more months to reach that magical 100.

I was, otherwise, more used to stories of men and women dying in their fifties. When my grandmother died at 67 years of age, well, that was considered then a long and rich life. Now, my father’s uncle is going strong at 94, with quite a few others in their nineties and late eighties. Against such a background, my mother feels too young to complain about aching back; after all, she is only 70!

Meanwhile, in the India of yesteryears, I was almost always tripping over infants and toddlers. What a contrast now— there are very few children around even in the bustling railway stations, where children crying and their mothers yelling at them used to be a constant background noise.

What happened?

Everything in India, including its population structure, is transforming rapidly. The life span, particularly in urban India, has remarkably lengthened thanks to better nourishment and healthcare. At the same time, parents are having fewer children, especially in the southern states in India. So much so that well into the extended family only one cousin has more than two children—he has three. Most of the rest have only one child, and a few are yet to have any, even after a few years of being married. In some cases, even the only child is an adopted one.

Smaller family sizes are not merely anecdotal; the total fertility rate—the average number of children per woman in her childbearing years—in the peninsular India is less than the roughly 2.1 per woman needed to replace the population. In Tamil Nadu, which is where my parents live, the fertility rate is about 1.8. The other southern states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh also have similar low fertility rates.

I suspect that the fertility rate in the metropolitan areas of these states is considerably lower than 1.8. Such low fertility rates translates to fewer babies, which is why I feel like I have experienced a lot more crying babies in the airports in America, where the fertility rate is 2.1.

The fascinating aspect to this story of decrease in fertility rates is that it has happened without strict government mandates. While public health messages do advocate for smaller family sizes, there is no strict government-imposed one-child policy, a la China.

Such an effect is what development economists have argued for a long time—that economic development is the best contraceptive! As people climb the economic ladders into middle class conditions, they voluntarily decide to have fewer children.

It is also interesting to note that the states with the highest fertility rates, like Bihar, are also the ones that are economic laggards, which then adds more evidence to the idea that economic growth plays an important role in an overall decrease in population growth rates.

Not wanting to wait for economic growth to happen, one federal minister in India recently suggested providing free television to the poor because apparently procreation will otherwise be their only free recreation. I wonder, though, about what will ensue if the television audience watches advertisements for Viagra and the like!

Thus, with low birthrates and simultaneous increases in life spans, it is not any surprise that increasingly people are as concerned, if not more, about taking care of the old as much as they worry about their children’s futures. My parents’ 72-year old neighbor rang the doorbell at 5:15 in the morning to inform us that her mother died, and that she was heading out of town for the funeral and related rites. The deceased was 94, and she leaves behind many in the immediate family including her 100-year old husband to whom she was married for almost 80 years.

Here is to wishing India a lot more of such fantastic demographic and economic transformations.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hillary Clinton’s trip reveals India’s warm regard for U.S.

Hillary Clinton’s first official visit to India as America’s secretary of state was hugely successful, especially from a public relations perspective.

My visit to Mumbai happened to overlap with Clinton’s, and this Indian-American felt quite excited with the fantastic appreciation for his adopted homeland, its president and the visiting secretary.

The hotel where Clinton stayed, the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, was one of the targets of the terror attacks last November. Therefore, as one can imagine, security personnel seemed to be everywhere and prevented tourists, including me, from visiting one of Mumbai’s famous landmarks — the Gateway of India, which is adjacent to the Taj Mahal.

Yet people seemed to be genuinely happy that Clinton had opted to stay at the Taj to honor those who lost their lives that fateful November, and as a mark of defiance against terrorism.

The press and the public seemed to treat her as a celebrity as much as they recognized her as America’s chief diplomat. Clinton impressed Indians not merely with her tactfulness, but even her handling of spicy Indian foods.

One newspaper reported that, “She likes hot and spicy food. Back home she travels with a bottle of hot sauce to pep up her food wherever she goes; she believes it keeps her healthy.”

I thought the talk about Clinton’s penchant for spicy foods was nothing but polite, diplomatic speak until I read, after her departure, about how Clinton added her own touch by doing something absolutely out of the ordinary.

According to one magazine, “Hillary was given a chili and to her credit she bravely chomped her way through it, and didn’t even wash it down with water.”

Eating a chili without hastily toning it down with sweets or even water earned Clinton all kinds of admiring metaphors; one, for instance, called her a “woman of steel.” (A note: “chili” is not the spicy stew that is consumed at Super Bowl parties all across America, but refers to the green and red peppers.)

America and the current administration are certainly viewed positively. After years of neglecting India and favoring Pakistan, in response to the geopolitical realpolitik of the Cold War years, there has been a distinct favorable tilt in the Indo-American relationships. President George W. Bush largely continued to build on the new foundations that President Bill Clinton had laid, and so far it appears that the Obama administration is keen on further expanding and deepening this relationship between the world’s largest democracies.

There is also a little bit of insecurity in the Indian push for better relations with America, stemming from an underlying concern that America might lean more and more toward China because of the multibillion dollar Sino-American economic ties, which might then make India’s interests less important to America. In addition to the Chinese angle, there is the ever-present worry that America might at any time ditch India in favor of Pakistan.

Of course, Hillary Clinton having a successful India trip was viewed with suspicion across its borders, particularly in Pakistan. Her forceful remarks that “we hope Pakistan will make progress against what is a syndicate of terrorism” were not received well in Pakistan. “A syndicate of terrorism” is a wonderful phrase, indeed, to describe the many outfits operating out of Pakistan, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

I sense here in India an immense and almost unconditional support for America. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a lot of excitement about the possibility of President Obama visiting India, even though it was triggered by what appears to be a polite response from the White House press secretary, who remarked, “I know the president at some point will travel to India.”

Maybe prior to a trip to India, whenever that happens, the athletic Obama should practice playing cricket over a couple of weeks. When in India, Obama could then don the appropriate game gear and play for a few minutes with a bunch of youngsters.

That “cricket diplomacy” might seal forever the admiration for the United States in this cricket-crazy country.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

"Statistics" not "plastics"

In 1967, the career advice to The Graduate (Benjamin) was:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Now, forty years later, apparently it is "statistics". The article notes that "Computing and numerical skills, experts say, matter far more than degrees." I will add this to my ongoing critique of college education as we have it now.

“I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” said Hal Varian, chief economist at Google. “And I’m not kidding.”

The rising stature of statisticians, who can earn $125,000 at top companies in their first year after getting a doctorate, is a byproduct of the recent explosion of digital data. In field after field, computing and the Web are creating new realms of data to explore — sensor signals, surveillance tapes, social network chatter, public records and more. And the digital data surge only promises to accelerate, rising fivefold by 2012, according to a projection by IDC, a research firm.

Yet data is merely the raw material of knowledge. “We’re rapidly entering a world where everything can be monitored and measured,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Digital Business. “But the big problem is going to be the ability of humans to use, analyze and make sense of the data.”

The new breed of statisticians tackle that problem. They use powerful computers and sophisticated mathematical models to hunt for meaningful patterns and insights in vast troves of data. The applications are as diverse as improving Internet search and online advertising, culling gene sequencing information for cancer research and analyzing sensor and location data to optimize the handling of food shipments.

So, why are Swedes not so corrupt?

Am following up on a comment in a discussion on whether liberals are more corrupt than conservatives; the comment there was this:
How much you pay your public servants matters. And culture probably matters most of all. One of my favorite studies from the last few years looked at parking tickets for diplomats in New York, who of course can get away with leaving them unpaid because of diplomatic immunity. The Kuwaitis averaged 246 unpaid tickets per diplomat per year; the Swedes averaged zero.
Naturally, I followed up on that. So, what does the study say?
The authors find that there is a strong correlation between illegal parking and existing measures of home country corruption. This finding suggests that cultural or social norms related to corruption are quite persistent: even when stationed thousands of miles away, diplomats behave in a manner highly reminiscent of officials in the home country. Norms related to corruption are apparently deeply engrained, and factors other than legal enforcement are important determinants of corruption behavior.
I am willing to buy into this idea. I suppose there is a great deal of value in "lagom"

64 Years later. Nukes haunt us.

Here is to hoping that we will never ever again use a nuclear bomb, as we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 64 years ago.

It is an unfortunate irony that news of Burma's interest in acquiring nukes with North Korean assistance comes at the same time.

I hope that President Obama will sincerely follow-up on, and implement, his grand statement in Prague earlier this year:

Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power –- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. (Applause.) I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Does god hate Africa? Burma?

It is always a pleasure to read Heather Mac Donald's writings, especially when I am in agreement with her. I am delighted that she is actively associated with the Secular Right. Here is Mac Donald, writing about how "god" showed at the "beer summit."

I was struck nevertheless by the sudden infusion of God talk in Gates’ post-beer statement:

Let me say that I thank God that I live in a country in which police officers put their lives at risk to protect us every day . . . .

Thank God we live in a country where speech is protected, a country which guarantees and defends my right to speak out when I believe my rights have been violated . . . .

And thank God that we have a President who can rise above the fray, bridge age-old differences and transform events such as this into a moment in the evolution of our society’s attitudes about race and difference. President Obama is a man who understands tolerance and forgiveness, and our country is blessed to have such a leader.

I suspect that those activist conservative believers who argue for American exceptionalism and the essential role of faith in American life will not necessarily agree that we have God to thank for Obama’s election. Conservative and liberal believers undoubtedly loop each other like a double helix in their clairvoyance regarding the beneficent workings of God in the world. But if Reagan or Palin are the answer to prayers, why not Obama, too?

I am puzzled as usual, however, by the implications of such an interpretation of human experience as Gates here proposes. If it’s God to whom an individual American owes thanks for the good fortune of living under a stable, constitutional government, why doesn’t God confer such a benefit on Africans or the Burmese? An African baby no more deserves his birth circumstances than an American baby deserves his. If we’re all guilty of original sin from conception on, why are the consequences so much more severe for some people than for others? Predestination doctrine tells us to just shut up and accept such blatant injustices as the way that God does business, but I do not consider it an advance for human understanding to replace a medium-sized conundrum with a gargantuan one.

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