Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Booker Prize longlist

One surprise: none of the authors' names suggest a South Asian origin, which is a rare occurrence these days in fiction in the English language that qualifies for this prize :) "The judges will now reread the longlist, name a shortlist of six on 7 September and reveal the winner on 12 October."

The Booker longlist in full (click the title to read a review):
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Pan MacMillan - Picador)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (Penguin - Fig Tree)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury)
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)
C by Tom McCarthy (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
February by Lisa Moore (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Trespass by Rose Tremain (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

On Laura Linney

The NY Times Sunday magazine has a lengthy piece on Laura Linney.  Pretty good.  I didn't know she is a Juilliard alum; so easy to imagine that, come to think of it.

As I kept reading, I noticed that I have watched quite a few of her movies and, of course, as Frasier's love--which is how the show ends.  I suppose like many I first saw her in The Truman Show where her character as the wife always pitched a product, while flashing an advertising smile all the time :)

Of the different roles of hers that I have watched, her performance with Philip Seymour Hoffman was simply too good--they were both awesome.  Too bad her competition was Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaff.


But the show that the NY Times piece refers to, which will be on Showtime ... well, not for this guy who only gets the basic cable :(
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Laura Linney
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Friday, July 30, 2010

The political message of the day

Boy, Paul Krugman does neat political science too; the final paragraph of his column today says a lot:
Just to be clear, progressives would be foolish to sit out this election: Mr. Obama may not be the politician of their dreams, but his enemies are definitely the stuff of their nightmares. But Mr. Obama has a responsibility, too. He can’t expect strong support from people his administration keeps ignoring and insulting.
What kind of opposition are we talking here?  This is no Benjamin Disraeli v. William Gladstone kind of feud.  They intensely disliked each other, but were remarkably gifted intellectually and politically.  The opposition's rallying cries for now are issues like banning new mosques in Manhattan; checking papers of brown-skinned people in Arizona; it is time to nuke Iran; ...

Quote of the day: on higher education :)

clinging to outdated teaching practices amounts to educational malpractice
Awesome sentence in this Chronicle report on "instructors who cling to outdated practices may be holding back sorely needed teaching innovations."  Actually that is not the only quotable phrase; how about this one:
Every semester a lot of professors' lectures are essentially reruns because many instructors are too busy to upgrade their classroom methods.
I know quite a few colleagues who preach the same content term after term.  Yes, preach, for I have rarely heard anything but their voices bellowing out of their classrooms.  In a smart classroom that professor might be, but ne'er have I seen the smartness of the technology being tapped into.
Oh well .... one of them wrote the following in an email sent to a large group:
It is not that I want to sound like Scrooge with a Bah! Humbug! remark, but everytime one more classroom becomes "smart" those of us who prefer to teach our classes without the rhetorical crutch of PowerPoint are restricted to an ever decreasing number of marginal classrooms.  I am sick and tired of being treated like a second class citizen with this practice.  How about leaving some classrooms for people who like to use eye contact with students instead of with overhead screens?

Cartoon of the day: Afghanistan, again

But, wait, from the Chinese press, of all places?  Hmmm... let us see this cartoonist draw something critiquing an important geopolitical agenda of the Chinese government!

Am reminded of an old Cold War-era joke.
A Moscow resident, Vlad, is on a peace-exchange trip to the US, and his American host, Jim, takes him to the White House.
While standing outside the gates, the American says he will demonstrate the beauty of America's freedom.  Jim then yells "the American president is a moron who needs to be thrown in jail."  The visiting Soviet, Vlad, is impressed.
A year later, this same American is visiting the USSR, and Vlad is his host who takes him to the Kremlin.  Vlad swears that he too has the kind of freedom of expression that Jim has in the US, which Jim finds it hard to believe and asks Vlad to prove it.
So, Vlad takes out his megaphone right there at the Kremlin and yells:
"the American president is a moron who needs to be thrown in jail."

'It's taken a year to move 20km' in Afghanistan

The troops are doing wonderful work under tough conditions.  This video from the Guardian has some bloody details--yes, bloody.  The reporter notes that it is 55 degrees centigrade.  That is 130 degrees F.  130!  And these guys are walking and running with all the gear to get the wounded ... I was beginning to feel sick from merely watching the video, and forced myself to watch the entire video.
The call to prayers in the morning calm all of a sudden comes across as a surreal Hollywood video clip.  For a few seconds.  Then, we are reminded that it is the war, with injuries and death.
I wish them all well, and hope that the entire US and NATO forces will quit Afghanistan soon and the troops will return home safe.

Can we please end the war there and in Iraq too?

Ethics in giving to the poor in Africa, and elsewhere ...

Two interesting reads on the same day, from two different perspectives, and both adding to the increasingly loud arguments on why financial aid to the poor, especially in Africa, might be more harm than good--at least in the way we have been doing it.
First, from an NGO field worker/volunteer, Andrew Morgan (ht to you-know-who-you-are for the link):
“I was shocked when I saw my family not digging,” my Ugandan friend Joseph said. “It was the start of the rainy season. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked them when I saw them sitting at my mother’s hut. I asked, ‘Why aren’t you preparing your fields?"
He stared out at the black ribbon of asphalt ahead of us, a narrow road that connects Gulu to the nation’s capital, Kampala. We had a few more hours to go before reaching home, and with a busted radio in the car, words were our only comfort. I waited for him to continue as he dug through the memory.
“You know, they had just returned from life in the camp. For ten years plus they were receiving food from the World Food Program. One of them said to me, 'We are not foolish. We decided not to farm. We are still waiting to meet the right NGO that will help us with food.’ Tssssssk! Can you imagine?”
Yet, despite such ground-level experiences, Morgan writes:
Sure, my money could end up reinforcing negative stereotypes on the ground. And some of it might even be used to line the pockets of a local government official somewhere. But despite this, I made the donation because I still have faith in giving. I am still convinced of its potential, its ability to catalyze opportunity.
I keep this faith even though I don’t take charity at face value anymore; I’m more critical now, and this, I think, is a good thing.
I suppose at an individual level this might be ok.  We make lots of decisions in life that are faith-based.  How much ever those decisions might come across as "irrational," well, those are the individual's decisions.

Now, add up all these individuals, and we get an entire country.  When the country has to decide whether or not it should allocate some of the common money to such causes, then it cannot act merely on faith, can it?  In democratic societies, most resource allocation decisions have to go be justified, and we hope that notorious wastes like the Bridge to Nowhere are in the minority.

Collective resource allocation requires, and rightfully so, evidence-based decisions not faith-based.  Then it is the Dambisa Moyo kind of people that appeal to me, who point out that aid in its old format is a colossal waste..  To add to that growing list is the "Dutch journalist Linda Polman, who draws on decades of experience of reporting from wartorn disaster zones" whose book War Games has been reviewed in Spiked
The question Polman wants to raise – and the one she urges aid workers, journalists reporting on aid operations and the governments and individuals who donate money and resources to ask – is if Doing Something is always that good when attempts to do right can go so wrong. War Games suggests that international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have exacerbated tensions, poured money into the coffers of war lords and rebels, prolonged conflicts and contributed to entrenching an image of the ‘Third World’, particularly Africa, as a basket case for the wealthy nations.
Later, even while bursting a few bubbles in the book, the reviewer writes:
Aid is indeed Big Business today. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of INGOs has mushroomed. In the 1980s, around 40 were active in Cambodian refugee camps set up by the Thai border. Today, by contrast, the ICRC estimates that each major disaster attracts around 1,000 national and international aid organisations. In 2004, some 2,000 organisations descended on Afghanistan.
It is the somewhat luxurious job of journalists to raise tough questions without having to provide any solutions. But considering how willingly journalists generally go along with accounts of war and famine provided by INGOs, and how much they have abandoned their job of investigating, questioning and interrogating the complexities of conflicts, then we should welcome the publication of Polman’s book, or at least parts of it, as an example of when Doing Something is very worthwhile.
I can already imagine the shocked expressions of most of my students when I respond with all these and more ammo to their remarks in favor of more aid.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

More worries about unemployment

Say, this chart on the percentage decline in employment during recessions (from Paul Krugman) ought to cheer you up!

(editor: this is no place for sarcasm.  Get to the point.)

Ok, as Krugman notes, this certainly seems to be the worst of times.  Just awful.

Robert Reich, who has consistently and loudly worried about the jobless recovery, writes:

GM now sells more cars in China than it does in the US, but makes most of them there. The company now employs 32,000 hourly workers in China. But only 52,000 GM hourly workers remain in the United States – down from 468,000 in 1970.
GM isn’t just hiring low-tech assembly workers in China. Last week the firm broke ground there on a $250 million advanced technology center to develop batteries and other alternative energy sources.
You and I and other American taxpayers still own over 60 percent of GM. We bought GM to save GM jobs, remember?
Well, worry no more, Professors Krugman and Reich.
It turns out that the high unemployment is "primarily the result of millions of Americans just completely blowing their job interviews," according to the finest news source in the country, which adds:
The Labor Department confirmed their statistics don't take into account the estimated 20 million citizens who were unable to get interiews in the first place because of formatting errors in their resum├ęs, or cover letters that slightly exceeded one page.
Crap!  Can we do something about this?  I mean, isn't this why we pay taxes?  Fortunately, the president and his administration do have a plan:
"My administration remains fully committed to putting citizens back to work by making sure they show up at least 15 minutes early to their interview and never badmouth a previous boss," said Obama, flanked by unemployed Americans during an address from the White House Rose Garden. "Our new 'Nail the Interview, Score the Job' initiative will help regular Americans like Paul and Tracy here remember that they should prep ahead of time by learning a few things about the company they want to work for."
"And that little things," he continued, "like making sure your socks match, matter."

The anti-Muslim vitriol ... in America? :(

It is deplorable that Islam and Muslims are sought to be held responsible for the acts of a few who preach hate and practise terrorism in the name of saving the religion. There were Muslims among those killed in the 9/11 attacks. The hostility to the proposed centre, to which the 2008 vice-presidential candidate's tweet has added political overtones, reveals that considerable sections of American public opinion continue to believe that Muslims must collectively be punished for the attacks. Despite the celebrated U.S. constitutional guarantees on the freedom to worship, there have been instances of communities blocking the construction of religious buildings, usually non-Christian ones, for ‘civic' reasons. The final go-ahead for the building project has to come from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which could turn it down on the ground that the existing building is a historical landmark. It would be a great pity if the most liberal-minded of American cities joins the list of places that suffer from Islamophobia.
An editorial all the way from my favorite newspaper in India.

It is awful how the situation has been shaped into a raging anti-Islam propaganda .... with simultaneous chants of how this is a Christian nation.  It is hard to believe that New Gingrich was once a university history professor when he says the following:
There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.  ...
They ignore the fact that more than 100 mosques already exist in New York City. Meanwhile, there are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia.
WTF!  Hey, Professor Newt, using the same remarkable logic, here is another statement you should issue:
McDonald's does not have beef-hamburgers on the menu in India.  Until this is reversed, we shall not allow any Indian restaurant here in America.
What might Atticus Finch say about the likes of Gingrich and Sarah "refudiate" Palin who are on this path of bigotry?
They've done it before and they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it--seems that only children weep.
Or, perhaps I should quote to Gingrich one of the famous lines from a dark period in America's recent history:
"Have You No Sense of Decency?"

Higher Education? Muahahaha :(

So, a little more than a week ago, I blogged about the hysterical humor from my campus, all because of an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Well, the authors of that piece, which was based on their book, Higher Education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids and what we can do about it, have more to say in this interview:
 We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges. Have you ever heard of Linfield College? It's in a little town called McMinnville, Oregon. We were very impressed with the campus. The professors care. They spend time with the students. The same is true in a place called Hendrix College in Arkansas, orEarlham College in Indiana. They provide a good education because they don't expect professors to do research. 
Hey, our campus is only a few miles south of Linfield College.  But, guess what?  We expect our professors to do a whole lot of pretentious research that nobody ever hears about!  And, despite that, when they do list my university as one of the best buys for the money, ahem, faculty protested ... :)
Why do I say "pretentious research?"  Again, back to Professor Hacker:
The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing. This is true even in the hard sciences. If there's a research project on genetics in a lab, they will take certain findings and break them into eight different articles just so each researcher can get more stuff on his or her resume.   
And many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count of how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this? But it's awfully difficult to say, "Here's knowledge we don't need!" It sounds like book burning, doesn't it? What we'd say is that on the scale of priorities, we find undergraduate teaching to be more important than all the research being done. 
Yep.

Particularly at taxpayer institutions like mine, that millionth "research" publication on Woolf is nothing but a huge attempt to fool taxpayers into believing that there is some earth-shaking research going on.

Oh, yeah, I have blogged about the reality that these contribute to the avalanche of low quality research.

So, Professor Hacker, if all these are supposedly the factors that will determine tenure and promotion, anything to say about tenure? :)
tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We've seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don't change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they've been trained to follow.  
What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have it. That's a tremendous number. What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks—not just at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford but at small colleges in Kentucky, everywhere. You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. In many ways, they become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking.
Finally, here is the interview question and Hacker's response:
Some academics have been famous for their ability to speak to the general public—people like Carl Sagan and Margaret Mead. Do you think it would be better for campus culture if more professors were encouraged to connect with the outside world? 
Definitely, yes. Those people were teachers, in the true sense of the word. They were just as knowledgeable about their fields as anyone, but they had playful, imaginative minds. They could go on TV—Carl Sagan could talk about science, John Kenneth Galbraith could talk about economics. They weren't dumbing down their subjects. In fact, they were actually using their brains. 
Now, I suppose I have to wait for the new academic year for more campus humor on this subject.  Can't wait :)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stop and smell the roses

The caption for this photo reads:
"A Maridadi employee takes a moment to appreciate the flowers."
It is from an essay in Slate about Kenya's growing flower exports.

While blogging about the economics of flowers is not new here, this photo is new--the Kenyan employee appreciating and admiring the flower.
Sweet!

Fareed Zakaria is funny ...

out at the Daily Show ... and damn knowledgeable ... ahem, the Indian heritage? :)
unfortunately, the AfPak situation that the US is in isn't ... Zakaria notes:
When you have a country as screwed up as Pakistan, I don't know what the answer is

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Fareed Zakaria
www.thedailyshow.com
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Joke of the day: about Facebook

The ever funny Scot American, Craig Ferguson:
Facebook now has more than 500 million users, which may help explain why unemployment is around 10 percent.

In favor of liberal education

I love liberal education, and am most upset at how it is being screwed every possible way.  While there is some fancy rhetoric, no doubt, in the video here, most of what she (a faculty member at the U of Minn.) says is true.  True there, true at my place of work, and true at practically every university.  When she says biomedical engineering versus humanities, for my world it might be nursing or computer science vs. humanities ... the athletics she refers to is NCAA-I, and ours is Div II ... the mathematical concept of similar but not congruent triangles :)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Is she dying?”

When I spotted Atul Gawande's name in the New Yorker, my first thought was nothing to do with the content of the essay, and instead it was "where does this guy manage time for such writing?"  A surgeon, not at some back-of-beyond place, but in Boston--at Harvard's outfit--and the guy has such fascinating and easy-to-read in-depth pieces.  Awesome!  And not simply because of his Indian heritage :)

This one, too, is about healthcare--about hospice care.  The title of this post is one of the question's the sisters of one of his patients apparently asked him.  What was the patient's condition?
The septic shock had left her with heart and respiratory failure as well as dry gangrene of her foot, which would have to be amputated. She had a large, open abdominal wound with leaking bowel contents, which would require twice-a-day cleaning and dressing for weeks in order to heal. She would not be able to eat. She would need a tracheotomy. Her kidneys were gone, and she would have to spend three days a week on a dialysis machine for the rest of her life.
So, back to the question, "Is she dying?”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore.
It used to be a simple question when I was young!

For that matter, less than a decade ago, when one of my favorite uncles was diagnosed with an advanced case of cancer, the oncologists at India's leading hospital advised the family to take him home.  They may not have uttered the "d" word, but the message was clear.

But, things have changed now; Gawande writes:
medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.
Perhaps I am in the minority who have pondered way too much about our own death.  Even by the time I turned 30, I had given explicit instructions to my (then) family on what they ought to do if I developed serious health complications.  If I were to die today, I am confident that it will be in peace.  But then this is the view when I am healthy when the end of life does not seem to be that near.  But, what if tomorrow I am told I have probably about six months left; would that change my perspective?  I hope not.  Because, of what Gawande writes here:
Two-thirds of the terminal-cancer patients in the Coping with Cancer study reported having had no discussion with their doctors about their goals for end-of-life care, despite being, on average, just four months from death. But the third who did were far less likely to undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation or be put on a ventilator or end up in an intensive-care unit. Two-thirds enrolled in hospice. These patients suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. Moreover, six months after the patients died their family members were much less likely to experience persistent major depression. In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation, and to spare their family anguish.
Can mere discussions really do so much?
Yes.

But, when I reached the end of the essay, I choked up and became emotional.  Pain, suffering, and death are simply awful.

It is amazing that even when we are fully aware of the very short lives we have, we manage to make life unpleasant for others.  I don't have to wonder what Kafka might say; he did address it in a very short story titled "The Next Village."

The following poem by John Updike, might be a an appropriate ending to this lengthy post on death.

Requiem
It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
"Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!"
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
"I thought he died a while ago."
For life's a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

Solving the energy crisis is easy

Ha ha
ht

Cartoon of the day: the war in Afghanistan

Images, and story, of the day


Don't these two images by themselves tell some fantastic stories about India?

The sadhu on the left is one hysterical combination: all the paraphernalia of a holy man, including the "kamandala" in his left hand.  But, also in his left hand is a cigarette.  Or is that good ol' weed rolled up?  And, to make it even more exciting a juxtaposition, he is talking on the cellphone! 

Now, the image on the right might come across as perhaps a meeting of all the holy people discussing some profound theological issues, right? 
Want to guess again?
The caption for the photo on the right is: "PRIESTS FOR MORE PAY: Village priests stage a demonstration in Coimbatore pressing for various demands including pension hikes."  


India is one complicated place where I have run into way more surreal images than I can ever imagine.  Salvador Dali's creation of the dream sequence for Hitchcock's "Spellbound," ahem, pales next to such everyday images in India!  Even neater is the fact that unlike me, a visitor these days, the "locals" don't even pause to consider these as surreal juxtapositions.  A German colleague with whom dad worked in Orissa apparently had a frequent remark that I find absolutely marvelous in situations like this one: "That is India for you" :)


Anyway, I grabbed the photo of the kamandala-holding, cigarette-smoking, sadhu on the cellphone from this note on almost fiive billion cellphones on the planet now:
This month may not actually see the 5 billionth mobile phone subscription, but earlier this year a Singapore research firm estimated that that happy threshold would be passed sometime before the advent of 2011. Keep in mind that total world population is just 6.8 billion. The first commercial cell phone network began operation in Japan in 1979 and the Federal Communications Commission finally authorized the operation of the first cell phone system in the U.S. in 1982. Motorola's first phone weighed two pounds and cost $3,995 ($8,800 in today's dollars).
What a remarkable rate of technological diffusion across the planet! 

An interesting parallel between mobile phones and the personal computer: the two electronic devices date back to pretty much the same time period.  The world has never been the same since then.  Good for us all :)

Contradiction of the day: Burma's junta and Gandhi!

The Burmese junta has been doing a fantastic job of screwing up the country and its peoples.  The regime's leaders, who ought to be tried at the ICC, can compete with the likes of Mugabe for the title of worst among the worst!

Like most countries that care not for ideals but operate with realpolitik in mind, India hosted the Burmese junta leader for five days.  And, gave the visiting couple a gift: "Burma's leader and his wife were gifted a fabric printed with Mahatma Gandhi's "Seven Social Sins" 

WTF?  As if recognizing the junta weren't enough, they had to give a gift--of all things, quoting Gandhi?


One of my favorites about Gandhi and his ideals is this: as Europe tensed and with the war about to break out, Gandhi was apparently lobbied by his followers to step up the anti-Raj efforts and go for the British jugular, as it were.  Instead, Gandhi reminded them about how the Nazis were way worse and defeating the Nazis was important. Now, that is leadership and not playing realpolitik.  


So, anything else of interest while on this trip to India?
Thousands of Burmese refugees staying in India are upset over the visit of Myanmar military ruler General Than Shwe and have urged the Indian government not to endorse the upcoming elections in that country. Than Shwe is on a five-day visit to India. He arrived on Sunday and went to pray at Bodh Gaya in Bihar.
India has been the home for a large number of refugees from Myanmar, most of whom came here to escape the human rights situation and suppression in that country.
"We feel outraged with his visit as India is the largest democracy in the world, and the land of the Buddha and tolerance," said Tint Swe, who was elected a member of the Burmese parliament in 1990 and is now a leading member of the Burmese Pro-Democracy Movement in India.
That it right.  Apparently the junta does not see anything bizarre in the general visiting the site where Siddhartha became the Buddha, the enlightened one--the Buddha who preached non-violence.  AAAAAAAAHHHHH!

Monday, July 26, 2010

This is research at MIT? :)

Can the Euro LHC top this scientific achievement reported by America's finest news source?

The tourism hotel of the day

It is nearly invisible from the outside.

It is in Sweden, only a few miles away from the Arctic Circle ...

one more to my ever-growing list of places to go to :(

ht

I worry when Mankiw cites Oregon

It is not often that I come across "Oregon" in serious economic policy analysis.  After all, while the state is famous for, among other things, microbreweries, hippies, Nike, it is not any leading light on economic issues.  Unless they are bad examples of economic policies!  Which is how Greg Mankiw uses one example from Oregon, in his detailed essay on the challenge government economists have faced over the past year and a half, and the lessons for the discipline itself.

(The essay is a wonderful illustration of how all the fancy math and jargon is not needed at all, even though at the drop of a hat economists would love to say "as a first approximation" and then scribble a couple of second-degree differential equations! It is a must-read in order to understand the points of departure in the economic recovery ideas debated: government spending versus tax incentives.)

Anyway, in discussing the jobs created or jobs saved claims of the Obama administration, Mankiw presents one of the issues related to this--data reporting errors and false claims (I wonder whether he intentionally chose not to quote Hayek in this context; I recall that Hayek wrote about how in a Soviet system bureaucrats have an incentive to misrepresent numbers):
Some employers, for instance, have counted money used to provide pay raises to existing employees as “creating” jobs. Thus the Wall Street Journal reported last November that the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency in Oregon had claimed to create 205 jobs with its $397,761 in stimulus money — spending less than $2,000 per “new” job.
Really?

The massive leak through WikiLeaks

In case the FBI is snooping around even here, I want to clarify to them that my post last week was purely an accident :)

The deflation worry ...

If I were not a half-baked economist, I suppose I would not worry this much about the deflation threat. 
But, wait, even real economists are worrying about deflation. A lot! 
Paul Krugman has often written and blogged about this; in his latest post, Krugman notes:

Picture America in, oh, 2014: unemployment is still around 9 percent, prices are falling about 1 percent a year. Many economists might look at that situation and say, well, deflation is stable, not accelerating, so we must be at the natural rate of unemployment — move along, folks, nothing to see here.
So it’s time to start focusing on downward rigidity and what it implies. After all, all indications are that we’re going to be dealing with a depressed economy for a long time to come.
Why all the worry?  What is the situation on the ground, so to speak?
The latest U.S. data are sobering: Consumer prices overall have declined in each of the last three months, putting the inflation index in June just 1.1% above a year earlier. The core inflation rate — a better gauge of where prices are going because it excludes volatile energy and food items — has dropped to a 44-year low of 0.9%.

That's well below the 1.5%-to-2% year-over-year inflation that the Federal Reserve likes to see, and some Fed policymakers have raised concerns about the rising risk of a broad decline in prices.
The WSJ--yes, that darn pro-business publication:
The good news is that the Fed might not need to fear a Depression-style deflationary spiral. The bad news is that if the U.S. does fall into deflation, it could be stuck there for many years like Japan, and suffer the subpar growth that has gone with it. And because deflation is so poorly understood, policy makers could discover they have no good solutions.
How does this begin to show up? An example:
Safeway executives said the strength of that push on pricing caught them by surprise.
"Deflation continues in price per item and is not expected to significantly improve until the fourth quarter," said Chief Executive Steve Burd, who oversees supermarkets including Safeway, Vons and Dominick's.
Burd acknowledged that retail deflation was much greater than expected in the second quarter and drove a decline in identical-store sales.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Pink Panther at the Hollywood Bowl

Watch until the end for a pleasant surprise :)

Poem of the day: on poets

Absolutely fresh the way this poem by Prageeta Sharma begins:
Do not fall in love with a poet
they are no more honest than a stockbroker.
(Do you have a stockbroker? If you do,
they are with you because you have one.)
If you think that they are more sensitive because they care about language
pay attention to how they use language.
Are you included? Are you the "you"?
Or are you a suggestion?
Are you partially included as a suggestion?
Read the entire poem; it is neat.

I enjoyed reading it.  But, will I be labeled a dull boring old-timer if I admit to preferring the rhyme and storytelling in poems?  Like, ahem, the following one, which certainly wasn't authored by the Bard of Wasilla, but that other real bard :)
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate;
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A depressing read on economics and politics

Tell me if these two paragraphs don't make you bloody depressed even on a wonderful summer night with the full moon aglow:
My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.
Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control. It should be noted, in passing, that a federal default would surely create the biggest financial crisis in world economic history.
That is from Martin Wolf's lengthy examination of the political aspects of supply-side economics. (ht)
If that does not depress you enough, here is how Wolf concludes his post:
The danger does not arise from the fiscal deficits of today, but the attitudes to fiscal policy, over the long run, of one of the two main parties. Those radical conservatives (a small minority, I hope) who want to destroy the credit of the US federal government may succeed. If so, that would be the end of the US era of global dominance. The destruction of fiscal credibility could be the outcome of the policies of the party that considers itself the most patriotic.
In sum, a great deal of trouble lies ahead, for the US and the world.
There is only one word to describe the situation ... fucked!


The Tory/LibDem alliance seems all the more attractive now.

Rememberance of things past--12

One of the best Indian film songs ever.
This one, from "Anpadh" is quite minimalistic--very few instruments to back up the singer, and no bizarre set changes or anything.  It is one of those songs that makes me feel terrible at not having gained anything more than a basic, survival-level, knowledge of Hindi.  So, even if the translation is crude, it helps, a lot.
And, all the way from 1962--even before I was born :)

Time to end "tenure" in academe

As with most good ideas that were in response to certain historical contexts, indefinite tenure in academia is one of the most abused ones in  world that has changed a lot since its origin.  Abused in more than one ways.  I can only hope that the severe economic crisis will force academics to rethink tenure.

The NY Times features a discussion forum on "What will happen to American higher education if professors are not guaranteed job security?"  A few excerpts from different contributors:
"nothing represses the free expression of ideas more than the long and usually fruitless quest for tenure."
"Like the old work rules of newspaper guilds and auto workers, the tenure system, hatched in another era by a generation of mostly white males, does not fit contemporary economic realities"
"tenured faculty members often use their power to stifle innovation and change"
Oh well ... if only overhauling tenure will be an easy project!  But, overhaul we must, if we want to create a higher education system for the 21st century.  In an essay, in the recent issue of AACU's Liberal Education, on the need for new strategies during tough economic times, a university president writes (though, not at all about tenure):
At this point, institutions need to evaluate everything—both in the short and long term—and reunite efforts to focus more directly on our core educational missions. We need to take a good, hard look at where our colleges and universities are headed, what central values we hold most dear, and then very purposefully connect all of the programs, practices, and initiatives back to the educational mission. This examination is critical before moving forward.  
Wouldn't that "everything" include tenure, too?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

The coming state government layoffs

Oregon's government, like many other states in the union, is looking at huge budget deficits, and reminders of this painful reality of the financial hole are aplenty.  It slowly begins to filter down to everyday life, such as the one described in the NY Times:
Since the start of the recession, at least 25 states and the District of Columbia have curtailed programs that include meal deliveries, housekeeping aid and assistance for family caregivers, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization. That threatens to reverse a long-term trend of enabling people to stay in their homes longer.
 My guess is that elected officials will have no choice but to either layoff government employees, or to force cuts in pay and benefits, or both.  And appointed officials will have no choice but to implement that decision.  As all these people do that, I hope they will exercise careful thought, and have empathy, as best demonstrated in this episode of Benson.

Two geographers on the road in a 1990 Celica

No, it is not anything to set up the punchline for a joke. 
For real: two geography faculty are on their way in the London-Tashkent rally.  (Well, neither London nor Tashkent is a starting or ending point; more details here, but a subscription might be required)

David A. Fyfe, a geographer at York College of Pennsylvania, hopped a plane to London 10 days ago to embark, with a fellow geography professor, on a planned 5,000-mile road rally across Europe and Central Asia in a $150 Toyota Celica.
Mr. Fyfe was kind enough to describe his "London-Tashkent" adventure for an article that appeared this week on The Chronicle's Web site. (Spoiler alert!) He wrote us this week from Ukraine to say that his car's radiator and head gasket had blown in Germany, just two days into the drive, so he and his teammate, Tracy H. Allen, decided to bid a less-than-fond farewell to their vehicle.
Mr. Fyfe hopped in with the rally organizers, and Mr. Allen went with a German team that ultimately got stuck in Poland because they had the wrong registration papers for their car. Border authorities had blocked their exit, so Mr. Allen jumped in with a pair of Scottish motorists who, at last report, had to tie their radiator with a rope to keep it from falling out of their Nissan.

iPad's competition--from India?

For $35. Will you purchase one?
More so when the iPad sells for, ahem, $499?
the tablet supports web browsing, video conferencing and word processing, say developers.
...The device unveiled on Thursday has no hard disk, using a memory card instead, like a mobile phone, and can run on solar power, according to reports.
... The plan was to drop the price eventually to $20 and ultimately to $10,
Whether or not this prototype eventually gets manufactured is, to some extent, irrelevant compared to the arguments that (a) such gadgets will get cheaper and cheaper, and (b) competition to new products will be insanely intense and this competition will rise up faster and faster than ever before.  I doubt whether companies will be able to make the gazillions out of new products like they used to in the past.  The speed of the treadmill has increased :)

More on this product:
Of the Holy Trinity of technology progress - "better, faster, cheaper" - India has cornered the market on "cheaper." First there was the $2100 car. Then, the $2000 open-heart surgery and the $16 water purifier. Today, the Indian government added the $35 tablet computer to that list. Think of it as an iPad for the rest of us.
(That's 1500 rupees, if you're keeping score in Indian currency.)
The computer uses the Android operating system and will come in three screen sizes: 5, 7 and 9 inches. It will be equipped with 2 GB of RAM, Wi-Fi connectivity, and a energy-saving 2-watt power supply -- useful in India's power-starved rural regions. A solar power option, also useful in those areas, will be available for an additional charge.
The computer will be equipped with many open-source applications, another money-saver. Standard on the tablet will be a Web browser, the OpenOffice office productivity suite, a PDF reader, video conferencing capability, the Scilab numerical computation package, a media player, content viewer, and remote device management capability.
One dissenting note though: India cornering the market on "cheaper?" Hello?  That is China, my friend!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pakistan: Drones v. Militants

Source

Shakespeare + Sarah Palin = Shakespalin

Ever since Sarah Palin invoked Shakespeare's name to defend her usage of a non-existent word, refudiate, the web and Twitter has been all the more an exciting place with creative "Shakespalins" :)
Here are a few that I liked about the Bard of Wasilla:
ellagreeneyes  "Wherefore art thou Romeo? I'll try to find him and bring him to ya."
adn_jomalley "The lady doth refudiate on Twitter"
TheRealSucrerey O mighty Palin! dost thou lie so low? Are all thy Bushisms, panderings, dunders, idiocies, Shrunk to this little tweet?
PDXp2b Et tu', Webster's?
french7 "By the winking of her eye, something stupid this way comes."
AgentM83 Now is the winter of dis continent
linc0lnpark: To be Governor, or not to be Governor; a book deal is in question.
cruzi Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either truth nor lies, but Faux News makes it so     
geekjokes Plumber Joe, Plumber Joe, where for art thou Plumber Joe
zaoelpis What fools these voters be!

The search continues for the one-handed economist!

I can't understand why they refer to economics as a science!  And don't get me started on "political science" :)

Afghanistan: US beat USSR, and now China beat US?

In the current news culture where events from a month ago are equivalent to something from the Stone Age, it is easy to forget, for instance, the Google controversy in China.  Could the assertiveness of the Chinese government be because it senses the beginning of the end of the unique economic relationship it has/had with the US (the economic version of the mutually assured destruction)?  That the economic quagmire in which the US is trapped for various reasons is the equivalent to the the USSR's final days in Afghanistan, which was only months before the entire system collapsed?  While predicting is difficult, as Yogi Berra remarked, particularly when it comes to the future, I have no doubts that the Chinese economy is at a significant place.  As Ian Bremmer notes:
China’s leaders no longer believe that American power is indispensable for their country’s prosperity—or their own long-term political survival. The financial crisis has underlined the risk that China has accepted in relying on exports to developed states for economic growth. This has increased the urgency with which the leadership works to build domestic demand for Chinese products. Chinese officials have made news in recent months with the occasional call for the establishment of a new reserve currency to replace the dollar. That cannot happen overnight, but as China reduces its dependence on market conditions in the West, the need to purchase dollars will gradually ease, and much of the reserves will flow toward the purchase of commodities. This is a long-term project and one that will have to be undertaken carefully to ensure that the creative destruction that accompanies this transition does not force so many people out of work at one time that widespread social unrest reaches critical mass. 
It might be even harder to remember then, or even imagine, that before 9/11, China was the greatest threat to the US--not from an economic perspective, but in terms of military and national security.  These tensions came head-to-head, or plane-to-plane, only five months before 9/11 over Hainan Island:
While gathering intelligence off the coast of China, a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic spy plane, piloted by Lt. Shane Osborn, collides in mid-air with a Chinese F-8 and is forced to make an emergency landing at Hainan Island. The Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, is killed in the incident. China charges that the U.S. plane illegally entered Chinese airspace, and detains the 24 U.S. crew members for 11 days. It demands that the U.S. take full responsibility for the incident and issue a full apology. In the end, the United States offers a letter in which it says it is "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and "very sorry" that the aircraft landed in China without permission. The damaged U.S. airplane is not returned for three months.
Another interesting, and profound, coincidence?  A week after 9/11, China's membership in the World Trade Organization was green-lighted.  The economic, political, and military worlds have never been the same since the transformational September 2001.

Does banning asbestos hurt poor countries?

In 2002, I visited my school, where I studied and played and goofed around!  All the way until the 12th grade. (lots and lots of warm memories--about the teachers, fellow students, hmmm ... maybe I should visit the school later this year?)

All the buildings seemed much smaller when I visited the school after 21 years--a result of having been used to the sizes here in the US.

I am pretty sure that many of the buildings continued to have the same asbestos roofs that were in place when I was there.  I am no buildings expert (editor: are you an expert in anything, other than commenting? No problems--I will check with dad who is a civil engineer!) but I am sure even in the photo here the roof is asbestos.

Except for a couple of months when the temperatures were pleasant, the 6th through 8th grades that I think we spent in these buildings were always warm/hot.  It was a different life when we didn't care much about the heat and dust.  And neither did we care that there was asbestos all around, particularly in the broken pieces.  Even drainage pipes had asbestos.

Asbestos, from which we run away here in the US because of its carcinogenic effects, is an inexpensive and robust material in the poor countries.  The school that I attended is a relatively affluent school in an affluent town.  To have the kind of roofs it does and the facilities it offers is one awesome dream for, I would reckon, three quarters of the billion-plus who live in that country.  The millions living in slums would love to have asbestos roofs, instead of the tin sheets, or thatched roofs ...

Asbestos is a huge industry even now, as this chart from the BBC shows.

It is not difficult to understand why it is used a lot in poorer economies.  The crazies thing here is with Canada--it is one leading producer and exporter, even though "What is mined in Quebec is a different kind of asbestos - white asbestos or chrysotile - the only kind now used commercially worldwide. Countries like Russia, China, Brazil, and India - although not Canada - use it widely as a cheap and effective building material."

Talk about ethics--Canada does not allow using asbestos within its borders, but mines and exports asbestos for others to use?  It is like Norway--those peace-loving tree-hugging Scandinavians extract and export quite a few millions of barrels of petroleum that is a major polluter :)

Oh well; we can't all be Gandhis and practice what we preach!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wrestling, or parliament? :)

I suppose I can keep this thread open, forever; here is the latest one from India's Bihar:
The caption for this photo (news report here) is:
An expelled opposition MLA being marshalled out of Bihar Legislative Assembly following a ruckus over an alleged multi-crore scam in Patna on Wednesday.

Long live democracy, eh! :)

Mouth-watering dish of the day :)

I wish I could taste this Potato-Bellpepper Pulao that the Edible Garden has blogged about ... I suppose I can only drool from here :)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

An interview with WikiLeaks founder, Assange

I wish it were a better interviewer ... but, that does not take away the need to understand government (and corporate?) secrecy ...


Here is an excerpt from a lengthy piece in the New Yorker:
As it now functions, the Web site is primarily hosted on a Swedish Internet service provider called PRQ.se, which was created to withstand both legal pressure and cyber attacks, and which fiercely preserves the anonymity of its clients. Submissions are routed first through PRQ, then to a WikiLeaks server in Belgium, and then on to “another country that has some beneficial laws,” Assange told me, where they are removed at “end-point machines” and stored elsewhere. These machines are maintained by exceptionally secretive engineers, the high priesthood of WikiLeaks. One of them, who would speak only by encrypted chat, told me that Assange and the other public members of WikiLeaks “do not have access to certain parts of the system as a measure to protect them and us.” The entire pipeline, along with the submissions moving through it, is encrypted, and the traffic is kept anonymous by means of a modified version of the Tor network, which sends Internet traffic through “virtual tunnels” that are extremely private. Moreover, at any given time WikiLeaks computers are feeding hundreds of thousands of fake submissions through these tunnels, obscuring the real documents. Assange told me that there are still vulnerabilities, but “this is vastly more secure than any banking network.”

Definitions that will make non-economists go nuts :)

When the government relieves an excess demand for liquid money by printing up cash and swapping it out for government bonds, we call that expansionary monetary policy. When the government relieves an excess demand for bonds by printing up more Treasuries and selling them to finance its own purchases of goods and services, we call that expansionary fiscal policy. And when it prints up cash and bonds and swaps them for risky private financial assets, or when it guarantees private assets and so raises the supply of high-quality and reduces the supply of low-quality bonds, we call that banking policy.
I suppose Brad DeLong knew he was addressing readers well versed in the discipline--after all, this is in the Financial Times where he was arguing in favor of expansion.  Still ...
Compare this with how Niall Ferguson writes against:
deficits are being run at a time when the US is heavily reliant on foreign lenders, not least its rising strategic rival China (which holds 11 per cent of US Treasuries in public hands); at a time when economies are open, so American stimulus can end up benefiting Chinese exporters; and at a time when there is much under-utilised capacity, so that deflation is a bigger threat than inflation.
So, can we kind of settle this debate on whether or not a "surge" is in order to fight the economic slump?  How about a third economist, with equally impressive credentials--Kenneth Rogoff?
much of the world is going to be facing huge macroeconomic uncertainty for years to come. There is uncertainty about regulation, sovereign debt, the state of our banking and healthcare systems as well as about political fallout from the financial crisis. In this environment, measures to gradually stabilise debt burdens – to restore normality – surely make sense. If things turn radically worse for a sustained period, then yes, absolutely, further action will be necessary. But until then, a panicked government fiscal surge is far more likely to destabilise the nascent recovery than to nurture it.
So, there you have it.  No wonder then that President Truman asked for a one-handed economist!

One can also easily then see why there are endless discussions in the Senate, where mis- and ill-informed parade about.  And worse, outside, like this populist leader who wants to refudiate everything :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hillary Clinton in Pakistan ... for what?

Pakistan is upset, watch this video, from America's finest news source:

More on athletics v. academics

Outsourced:
Recent renovations have reaffirmed the Big House as the Biggest House: Michigan Stadium's official capacity this fall will be a whopping 109,901, moving it ahead of Penn State as the largest sporting edifice in America. (It even says so on Wikipedia.) That's $226 million well-spent.
For some context, 109,901 people will make the stadium the seventh-largest city in Michigan on game days (passing up Ann Arbor, ironically), and is significantly larger than the largest city in Delaware, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire or North Dakota. The combined populations of the largest cities in West Virginia (Charleston, 53,421) and Wyoming (Cheyenne, 55,362) couldn't quite fill it. (And yes, 109,901 is nearly the exact population of the U.S. Virgin Islands at last estimate.)