Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The perils of rumor

Jayne Cravens, an expert in development studies and online volunteerism, provides a long list on her website of the damage suffered in developing regions due to rumor, superstition, and urban legends. One story describes an African village that could no longer sell their ginger crop because of rumors that one could be infected with HIV through their produce.
What becomes clear after a perusal of her list, is that these rumors and superstitions are reflective of an inefficient information system. The problem is that this is a huge obstacle to development and the creation of wealth.

As noted in the World Bank's "Where is the Wealth of Nations" report, most of the "wealth" in the developed world is intangible, existing in institutions and rule sets. The most interesting part of this is that this intangible capital is so vital because it actually allows the creation of more wealth. Think of the patent office and the court system that enforces copyrights: this is a system designed to encourage creativity and invention, which in turn enriches the whole society. In a cournty with no protection for inventors, there is little incentive to work hard at developin anything new and useful. The bottom line is these institutions are crucial for the developing world to achieve a better state. What's left to discover is how much this inefficient information distribution system (rumors and superstitions) hampers the development of these economic and social institutions and rule sets.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pet Peeve: British to American

In the pet peeve department: I was about to buy a Nick Hornby book in the Chicago airport the other day, (How to Be Good, I think) and, while leafing through it, I noticed that "color" was missing the "u", which of course is inlcuded in the British spelling: colour. There were several other Americanizations throughout the book, such as spelling "realized" with a z instead of an s.
This kind of thing drives me a little nuts. What is the point of this? Do publishers think we don't know Nick Hornby is British? Are they trying to insulate us from foreign spellings?

Maybe I am being too sensitive, but I find it insulting. I read the Economist on most flights (it usually gets me through at least two hours, and as a bonus I get to catch up on what's happening in Sri Lanka or Malawi) and enjoy the fact that they don't make "American editions." On a similar note, I've noticed that some books are given different titles when they are released in the U.S. Maybe a few decades ago I would never even have found this out, but in the internet age of globalism, when I can find foreign reviews of books instantly, what are they trying to do? Why is Philip Pullman's The Northern Lights known as The Golden Compass in the U.S.? I think maybe its the idea that a bunch of publishers are sitting around thinking we Americans are too stupid or too insular to buy a book or product if we find out it has a foreign source. I'm not really sure why, but I don't like it. My thought is that anyone who would read a Nick Hornby book very likely knows he's a Brit already. And, anyway, in the age of Harry Potter, isn't that a good thing?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The hard truth about the budget

The truth that no American politician will say is that they can't cut the budget because we the people won't let them.

John Sides at the Monkey cage illustrated a recent Economist/YouGov poll on what people are willing to cut - against what the government actually spends money on.
I suspect that some of this has to do with how the questions were asked, but I am also fairly certain that most citizens have very little idea where the government's budget goes. The elephant in the room is the defense budget. Right now we pay not just to raise and keep a military to fight definable threats, such as the very real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (however questionable the strategy that got us there), we also pay for a lot of weapons, equipment, and capabilities based on wildly speculative definitions of "threat."
The military budget is bigger than the next 20 nation's budgets combined. Even cutting it in half would still leave with us a truly enormous military budget, and such serious cuts are going to have to be considered as the U.S. finds itself as one nation among others, as opposed to the power above all the rest. America will remain a mighty powerhouse, but economic reality will soon dictate that we cannot maintain this unquestioned hegemony for much longer.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

B.R. Myers on the great matron: Kim Jong Il - North Korea's pathology revealed

I remember hearing army Gen Bill Livesay (former commander of U.S. Forces Korea) say that the toughest thing about dealing with the North Koreans was you just couldn't ascribe any rationality to their actions. Livesay is a shrewd thinker who hides behind a southern good-ole boy facade, so it is quite an admission on his part that he could never figure the North Koreans out. They do not maneuver on the world stage in anyway similar to their communist forebears, such as the Soviets or the Red Chinese. As a long time cold warrior, Livesay and the other strategists of the cold war era were used to anticipating, or at least understanding, what the the Soviets and Chinese were up to. There was almost always method to their madness. But the lessons they gleaned from dealing with the two communist great powers proved useless against the North Koreans.

B.R. Myers, a professor in South Korea, recently offered a very unique perspective on why the North Koreans proved so inscrutable to the West, and even to their supposed allies, China, and Russia. His talk featured on C-Span's BookTV (BookTV - I freely admit I am addicted), was quite illuminating for those who've had to concern themselves with the situation.

He notes chiefly that North Korea is primarily a racist, nationalist regime built on militarism. It is communist only secondarily. They consider themselves to be a pure race, plagued by jealous, evil outsiders, meaning chiefly the U.S. and other westerners, but also including their Asian neighbors, the Japanese and Chinese. His observations about the matronly characterization of the regime in its own propaganda were completely new to me. And I have quite a bit of exposure to American strategic thinking on North Korea over the last couple decades. For anyone interested in the Korean Peninsula, his presentation is worth the time. I definitely intend to read his book.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Is There Free Speech in the U.K.?

Philip Pullman at an event plugging his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, delivers a solid, and rousing, defense of the right to freedom of speech. I wonder what Pullman thinks of this case in Scotland, where a preacher was arrested and fined for speaking about his religious convictions regarding homosexuals (that they are going to hell.) While I find the preacher's views slightly offensive, and truthfully, rather silly, I don't like the idea of arresting people for voicing their opinions. I am fairly certain Mr. Pullman is in my corner on that one. Once down that road, there is no end to it. It seems quite odd that the country that germinated the idea of the rights of man, including free speech, should now be denying it to those within its borders.

The best April Fool's broadcast from Performance Today

Violinist Daniel Hope contributed to the best, most convincing, April Fool's gag on the radio yesterday. Here it is - I will admit, they had me going for a few minutes, until I realized what day it was.