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Friday, December 26, 2008

In Defense of Cynicism

Too often, the word "cynic" is used to mean a person who is irrationally distrustful of other people or unreasonably negative. Cynicism, as it is defined in most dictionaries, is the belief that people are primarily motivated by self-interest. As I look at the world, I find that this is generally true. Take the automotive bailout for example. Supposedly, their companies are on the verge of going belly-up, and yet somehow, they still have enough money to fly all the executives on private jets to DC to beg for a hand-out. Call this cynical if you will, but I predict Congress will give them the money and the bastards will just go ahead and fire everyone anyway. Who's going to stop them? I further predict that absolutely nothing will be done to punish them after this occurs.

OK, that was a bit depressing, so let's take a look at some of the benefits of cynicism:

1) Cynics are usually right.

When Hurricane Katrina was about to hit New Orleans, many people believed the government would take care of them. Others felt it was best not to leave their safety in the hands of the authorities.

Hundreds of buses, perfectly capable of evacuating everyone, were left idle. If more people were cynical about the ability of the government to take care of people, perhaps fewer people would have died.

Hmm... that was pretty depressing too. But the good news is that by being more cynical, you can protect yourself from the incompetence, recklessness, and malevolence of other people.

2) When cynics are wrong, it is usually a pleasant surprise.

OK, I'm having a hard thinking of examples for this one. Wait, here we go: honest cabbie returns $4 million violin. Bravo, sir.

It seems to me that most of the world's scoundrels, be they con-artists, politicians, or religious leaders, thrive on the trust of other people. We should all strive to be more cynical.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Snows of Kilimanjaro

"As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro." -Ernest Hemnigway
This is where I work.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Stop sending food to Somalia

Somalia has been getting food aid almost continuously since 1991. During the same period, there has been non-stop fighting between rival warlords and the provisional government. Despite receiving massive amounts of food, Somalia is no better off than it was 1991.

The World Food Program, which distributes most of the food aid in Somalia, warns that a greater number of Somalis face starvation if food aid is not increased. The estimates that form the basis of this claim come from UNICEF and other aid organizations. So, the people that get paid to provide famine relief are also the ones determining if there is a famine or not. This is called a "conflict of interest."

The rash of pirate attacks in Somalia doesn't jive with the famine claim. If they're starving, why are they spending money on weapons to hijack ships?

The food aid that is being sent to Somalia has in all probability prolonged the suffering and chaos in that nation. Warlords fight over the food aid and sell it on the black market to buy arms. For a detailed analysis of this, read The Road to Hell by Michael Maren.

Not only does the food aid fuel the chaos of war, but it also puts local producers out of business by driving down prices. The only benefactors from the ensuing chaos are the warlords and pirates.

More broadly, all the major recipients of foreign aid (a large proportion of which comes from the US) are disaster areas. Liberia, Somalia, the former Zaire, Sudan- billions of dollars were poured into these places and they are all engulfed in anarchy and bloodshed.

The first rule of helping is "do no harm."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Giving an expired equine a few more hits

As Dubya is on his way out and mud begins flying at him from all directions, I thought I might reflect on the handful of decent ideas he had.

1) Guest Worker Program

This is the only sensible solution to illegal immigration; that is to legalize it. They're going to keep coming anyway. Building a wall will not do anything.

2) Moon Base

I think we can all agree this would be pretty cool. The Chinese put a man in space? That's nice. We should send them an invitation to our swimming pool . . . . . . . ON THE MOON!

3) Great wacky quotes

OK, not so great of a president, but you have to admit he made you laugh. It is a rare occassion in history when a whole industry springs up to mock one person.

"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."

-George W. Bush

And my own analysis of his biggest blunders:

1) Tax cuts & spending increases

Cut revenue and increase spending? Is this what they taught you at Harvard Business School, George?

2) Picking Michael Brown to head FEMA

3) Missile Defense

$100 billion since Reagan and it still doesn't work? Christ, we could have built a Moon Base with that. Or at least a functional lightsaber.

4) Enron association

OK, he was not in charge of the company, but it looks awfully suspiscious when your top campaign contributors were in charge of the biggest stock swindle in US history.

5) Iraq War.

Good job getting rid of Saddam. Too bad all those people are dead.

I sorta feel sorry for this guy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let's Reform Spelling

I'm going to be lazy and just copy and paste this from this site.


-English spelling is too difficult for most people.
-Even after 11 years at school barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers.
-Italian children can spell accurately after just 2 years at school.
-Italy has only half as many identified dyslexics as England.
-Around 7 million British adults and 40 million US adults are functionally illiterate.
-English speaking adults always come near the bottom in international studies on literacy.
-In 1992 Dr. Lamb reported on the poor spelling standards of university students in the UK.
-In 1998 Bernard Richards reported on the poor spelling of many students at Oxford.
-In all UK schools there are some teachers who regularly make spelling mistakes on school reports.

OK, back to me. As I see it, there are basically five arguments for retaining the current spelling system:

1) the aesthetic argument (the extra letters make the words look nicer)
2) the etymological argument (the spelling makes it easier to identify the word's origin)
3) the discipline argument (pointless drudgery is good for children)
4) the asshole argument (I can spell and you can't- hahaha!)
5) the chaos argument (changing the spelling system would just cause more confusion)

Argument #1 is way subjective. Spellings have changed many times over the years. At what point in history did the words acquire just the right number of extra letters? Even if it is more beautiful, is it worth the enormous effort required to teach it?

Argument #2 is even flimsier. Only linguists and other specialists care about the origin of words. How many English speakers are aware that "goodbye" is a corruption of "God be with ye"? In many cases, the current spelling distorts the root word even more. If the word "dungeon" was spelled "dunjin" would it be easier or harder to tell that the word originiates from the Middle French word donjon?

Argument #3 doesn't hold up very well either. Isn't the purpose of education to teach children how to think? But in order to spell properly, logic and consistency must be tossed aside.

Argument #4 is the domain of people who derive a living from the current system: English teachers, spellcheck software companies, etc. They oppose reform because it threatens their livelihood, which is understandable, but is that really a good reason to keep things as they are?

Argument #5 might hold water if not for the fact that we now have movable type. Printing books is not really that big a hassle these days, and in any case, books wear out and have to be reprinted anyway. Given the already high rates of illiteracy, I fail to see how it is possible to add to the confusion. 40 million American adults can't read a newspaper? Sounds like plenty of people are confused already.

If you're still not convinced, here are some more reasons to simplify spelling:

-Simplified spelling would greatly reduce illiteracy, which in turn would lower crime and unemployment.

-A simple spelling system would free up more time to teach other subjects in school.

- Simplifying English spelling would make it easier to teach as a foreign language. More people speaking English strengthens the status of English as a world language. English is in an excellent position to be a universal language: it has a large number of native speakers, a wealth of literature and other media, simpler grammar than many other languages, and it uses the latin alphabet, the world's most widespread writing system.

The only other minor obstacle I can think of for spelling reform is orthography. Any choice for orthography is arbitrary so, I will choose US English as my basis. It is worth noting that the US and UK use different spelling for many words already, even when they are pronounced alike (e.g. "center" and "centre") so there are already two main standards for English spelling.

My New Spelling System

The vowels:

a as in "hat" ai as in "pain" ar as in "farm" aw as in "law"

e as in "get" ee as in "bee"

eer as in "beer" er as in "herd"

i as in "lip" ie as in "pie"

ier is new; thus "fire" would be written as "fier"

o as in "dog" oa as in "boat" oi as in "oil" oo as in "book"

oar as in "boar" ow as in "how"

u as in "run" ue as in "glue"

The consonants:

b as in "bug" ch as in "chin" d as in "dim" f as in "fig" g as in "gum"

h as in "hen" j as in "jump" k as in "kin" l as in "long" m as in "man"

n as in "not" p as in "pen" r as in "red" s as in "sit" t as in "tan"

th as in "thin" v as in "van" w as in "win" y as in "yes" z as in "zen"

plus a couple new ones:

dh is new; thus "them" would be written as "dhem"

kw replaces q in words like "quit" and "enquire" to get "kwit" and "enkwier"

zh so "pleasure" becomes "plezher"

ks replaces x in words like "hex" to get "heks"

OK, in many plurals and verb forms that end in "s", the actual sound is "z". For example, "trees" sounds like "treez". To keep things simple, plurals and verbs formed by adding "s" will still take "s" even if the sound is actually "z." For the same reason, past tenses formed by "-ed" will stay the same.

The unstressed vowel will not been written unless is comes at the beginning of a word:
associate -----> usoaseeait (verb), usoaseeit (noun)
people -------> peepl
cradle--------> kraidl

Maiking dhu Inglish laingwij eezeeyer tue lern dus not weeken it; it strengthens it.

Join dhu rebelyin!

*Last edited on 22-11-2008 to add "aw", "ow", and "-ed" rule.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Special Bonus Post: My Absentee Ballot

I got my absentee ballot the other day and I noticed something odd. There's a picture of an eagle next to the Republican oval and a picture of what appears to be a chicken next to the Democrat oval. Guess the folks on the ballot procurement committee decided to have some fun.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Relax, the CIA is not all powerful

When most of the people think of the CIA, they imagine powerful, secretive bureaucrats, elite commandos, and high-tech equipment. They can go anywhere and do anything; they are unstoppable. These ideas are reinforced by popular entertainment. However, a strong case can be made that the agency is hilariously inept.

Great CIA blunders, in no particular order:

#1: They blew up the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by mistake. The reason? Their maps were out of date.

"There were three basic failures. First, the technique used to locate the intended target – the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP) – was severely flawed. Second, none of the military or intelligence databases used to validate targets contained the correct location of the Chinese Embassy. Third, nowhere in the target review process was either of the first two mistakes detected."

"U.S. officials who had served in Belgrade were aware that the Chinese Embassy had moved sometime in 1996. The information, however, was not entered into the data bases we rely on for our targeting and mapping."


"Of course, everything is overshadowed, as we expect, by this one very, very bad mistake."

-NATO spokesman Jamie Shea

#2: They tried and failed numerous times to assassinate Fidel Castro. Exploding cigars? Did they really think that would work?

"If surviving assassination were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal." -Fidel Castro

#3: Bay of Pigs.

#4: Failed to predict Iranian Revolution- even when crowds were chanting "Down with the Shah!" and "Death to America!"

#5 Gave money and weapons to Pakistan's ISI, which in turn gave money to groups like Al-Qaida.

#6 Some guy shot a bunch of CIA employees outside the entrance to CIA headquarters.

Honorable mention: During a meeting to plot the overthrow of the Sandanista regime, former CIA director William Casey mangled the name of Nicaragua, saying something like "Nicawawa." This prompted someone to exclaim "You can't overthrow the government of a country whose name you can't pronounce!"

The standard retort to these incidents is to say that the CIA's failures are public while their successes remain secret. This is not true either. The CIA has managed to overthrow and handful of governments in poor, unstable countries (Guatemala & Chile). How much expertise is required to do that?

Since the CIA is the organization responsible for monitoring the activities of foreign governments, you'd think that they'd have a lot of people who can speak more than one language. However:

"In 1984, President Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board found that only 20 percent of the CIA officers in the Mexico City station had even a working knowledge of Spanish."


OK, out of date, but I imagine the situation has not changed much.

I'll conclude by paraphrasing Lewis Black. They should just put me in charge of the CIA, because I can read Newsweek and guess as well as anyone else.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Outcomes of Some Wars

Today I thought I'd give a brief summary of the results of some of the wars the US has been involved in since 1945. The format was inspired by the table in William Easterly's book.

Korean War

Main Effects: 2.5 million dead; war never officially ends; North Korea goes on to become the world's most abominable police state; South Korea turns out well.

Upshot for the US: Hyundai cars & Samsung phones

Vietnam War

Main Effects: about 5 million dead; communists win anyway; Soviet Union goes down without a fight 15 years later; China abandons most of Communism's economic policies; Vietnam still one of the world's poorest & least free countries.

Upshot for the US: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are both great movies.

First Iraq War

Main Effects: about 50,000 dead (figure is disputed); Saddam's regime left more or less intact; Shia uprising ruthlessly suppressed.

Upshot for the US: Americans get to feel good about winning a war again; cheaper gasoline for a few more years; Three Kings is a pretty good movie too.

Second Iraq War

Main Effects: at least 150,000 dead (mostly civillains); no WMDs found; no Al-Qaeda link; democracy getting off to a shaky start.

Upshot for the US: Economy receives boost from sales of patriotic bumper-stickers; Rush Limbaugh stops talking about Bill Clinton for a change; lots of great stock footage for the History Channel.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Social Activism

Global Warming, Iraq War, Population Growth....the list of causes clamoring for my involvement is endless. I'm not indifferent to the world's problems or suffering of others; it's just that there isn't a whole lot I can do (as an individual) about it. Putting a bumper sticker on my car is going to stop someone from being oppressed in a country on the other side of the planet.

The success of these various social movements depends on the participation of large numbers of people. My participation most likely won't affect the outcome. Even if I was* the most persuasive person alive, I doubt I could convince enough people to alter things significantly. Even if I could, would I be doing the right thing?

If you think Global Warming is going to melt the polar ice caps, cause sea levels to rise, and flood low-lying areas, move to higher ground. That's easier than trying to get millions of people to pollute less isn't it? I'm not saying you should stop caring about public issues, but there is a limit to what can be accomplished through mass movements, especially when there are opposing mass movements.

Nothing can alter the fact that the world is just a collection of indivduals doing whatever they think is sensible. No matter how many laws are passed or repealed, or whoever gets elected or thrown out off office, the world would not be fundamentallly different than it is now. Mass movements succeed in changing things from time to time, but in my opinion, you're better off focusing what you can do on your own.

I think I'll finish off with this quote from Herbert Spencer:

"If in these personal affairs, where all the conditions of the case were known to me, I have so often miscalculated, how much oftener shall I miscalculate in political affairs, where the conditions are too numerous, too widespread, too complex, too obscure to be understood . . . when I remember how many of my private schemes have miscarried; how speculations have failed, agents proved dishonest, marriage been a disappointment; how I did but pauperize the relative I sought to help; how my carefully-governed son has turned out worse than most children; how the thing I desperately strove against as a misfortune did me immense good; how while the objects I ardently pursued brought me little happiness when gained, most of my pleasures have come from unexpected sources; when I recall these and hosts of like facts, I am struck with the incompetence of my intellect to prescribe for society."

*Proper grammar would be "If I were," however, I feel that rule is stupid. A singular subject should take a singular verb.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Marriage & Prostitution

Whether it's been tolerated or outlawed, the world oldest profession has existed in every society on record. Marriage is a universal phenomenon as well, albeit universally accepted.

My problem is with people who sing the praises of marriage when it is prostitution in everything but name. For most of the world's history, and in many places today, marriage was a financial transanction. Marriageable women were auctioned off by their families to the highest bidder and the desires of the bride were not considered at all. It's hilarious how the most pious, high and mighty pinheads are engaged in the most horrific forms of exploitation. Aren't these the same Muslims who accuse the West of being decadent and promiscuous?

As for the Christians, consider these two verses from the Bible:

Exodus 22:15-16
If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

So, basically, the dad was his daughter's pimp. Man, Bible times were awesome!

Even in marriages that are not arranged, money is almost always a factor. Think those supermodels are marrying Donald Trump because of his youthful vigor and charming personality? Possibly, but the fact that he's a billionaire probably doesn't hurt. How many women would willingly marry someone who was flat broke? How many would be willing to marry a rich man who was repulsive in every way?

If a man buys a $800 ring to convince a woman to marry him and thus gain access to her vagina, what's the difference between that and paying $20 for a quick ride? It's a better deal? Less paperwork?

Marriage has its advantages, especially for child-rearing, but seems way hypocritical to go after hookers and johns when plenty of other folks are doing pretty much the same thing.

Well, since I sorta look like this, looks like I'll have to take what I can get:

Hmm...Mail-order brides from the Ukraine. That's the ticket!

Saturday, September 20, 2008


This post will not be about the War on Drugs or the case for legalization. That has been done to death already. While agree that the current drug laws in the US are stupid, hypocritical, and in any case unenforceable, there's not much I can add to the discussion that hasn't been said already. So I will turn my attention to some fresher aspects.

First up, I have met drug users who act like buying marijuana makes them some kind of criminal mastermind. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this: of all the people you have known who have used marijuana (or any illegal drug) how many of them got caught? How many of them did jail time for it? My guess would be not very many if any.

And why is that? It's because the police are mostly interested in catching the producers, the traffickers, and the dealers. Generally, the users only get busted through an act of monumental stupidity.

Secondly, even if you did get caught, it is unlikely that you would go to jail, if you're white that it is. Racist and unfair? Absolutely. But it is also absolutely true.

"Studies and experience have shown that the majority of people who use and sell drugs in the state of New York are white. These findings are not unique to New York. Throughout the nation whites and minorities used drugs at roughly the same rates. However, African-Americans and Latinos comprise over 94% of the drug offenders in New York state prisons. Despite their majority status, whites makes up only 4.9% of drug offenders in New York prisons."


I'm wondering what the other 4.9% did. Did they get caught with a dump truck full of cocaine? I find it endlessly amusing that the white liberal college kids complain bitterly about racism but see nothing wrong with using racism to their advantage.

And while we're on the subject of college kids, I might as well address underage drinking. Underage drinking is common in all high schools and colleges and particulary at the college I went to. I remember the first day of orientation listening to their little speech about their zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking. Of course, absolutely nothing was ever done to enforce it and indeed, thousands of college freshmen got drunk that very day. I suppose the easiest way to placate the sort of people who care about that kind of thing is to make a bullshit promise they have no intention of keeping, so that's why they do it. The only people who got in trouble for underage drinking at my college were the people who passed out on the sidewalk.

As for me, I can't smoke weed. It would make McGruff cry.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Special Double Feature: IQ & The US Military

If there was an award for cramming the most bullshit into one idea, it would be IQ. Need an example? OK, take Marilyn vos Savant. According to IQ, she is one of the smartest human beings currently alive. And what is she doing? Curing cancer? Peace in the Middle East? Figuring what to do with all that pesky nuclear waste? Nope. She answers questions about math puzzles in Parade magazine. Um, thanks Marilyn.

It is true that there is a high correlation between IQ, higher income, and higher levels of education, but it is not an indicator of special intellectual greatness.

Moving on, we come to the US military. Take a gander at this pie:


Does something seem amiss with that? I'd say so, especially since according to the US government:

"FinancingThe 9/11 attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute. The operatives spent more than $270,000 in the United States. Additional expenses included travel to obtain passports and visas, travel to the United States, expenses incurred by the plot leader and facilitators outside the United States, and expenses incurred by the people selected to be hijackers who ultimately did not participate."

Source. Scroll down to "Financing" to view.

If we keep spending all this money on the military, there'll be nothing left for the Bear Patrol!

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Wouldn't it be great if everyone shared and was nice to everyone else? Well, obviously, it would be great. The problem is there no way to make it work.

And why is that? It's because people are basically selfish. Despite some praiseworthy exceptions, they look to their own interests and those near and dear to them before they worry about anyone else. If giving to people who needed it was as common as not farting in a crowded elevator no one would make a big deal out of giving to charity.

For 99% of our species' existence, people lived in groups rarely exceeding about 200 individuals. All of our social instincts are built on the experience of living in small groups. In fact, anthropologists have found that most people can only keep track of about 200 people at a time. How many people do you know on a first name basis? I'll make a bet it isn't more than about 200. It is hardly the suprising that almost every political movement uses kinship terms like "brother," "sister," "father," and "mother." In fact, every group today, however large, is structured like a family- be it a street gang, a cult, or a political party.

The beret-head crowd can bray all they want. Socialism has been a catastrophe in every country it has been tried in. The only country that comes close to making it work is Sweden. It has a high standard of living and lower inequality than many other rich countries. And what is the basis of Sweden's prosperity? Privately-owned industry. The only way to pay for public goodies is to heavily tax a robust economy. Social programs cannot work without capitalism. Capitalism cannot work (ethically) without social programs. The Swedish welfare system and those of other countries did not appear overnight. They are the result (largely) of workers demanding fair treatment by use of strikes and boycotts, a fact which is curiously down-played in many history books.

Marx was right when he said that labor is the foundation of wealth. If people refused to work to make others rich or without getting a fair wage, I imagine these defects of capitalism would quickly be fixed.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A New Moral Code

"But if there's no hell, there are no consequences for our actions!"

I cannot count the number of times I have heard this argument or its variants. First off, there are consequences for your actions in this life: jail, pain, loss of property/reputation, and death to name but a few. There are plenty of reasons to be nice to other people without invoking the supernatural.

Nonetheless, many claim religion (well, not all of them- that would just be silly) as a source of morality. For a good rebuttal, see George Carlin's critique of the Ten Commandments. Our old friend Richard Dawkins also does a good job of demolishing the supernatural explanation for morality in this video. As for the other religions, if you're reading this, then you know how use the Internet, so find it yourself.

Here's my attempt at a new moral code:

1) Be nice other people. Not only is this prudent, but it also helps encourage nice behavior.

2) Do not let other people take advantage of you. Just being nice is not enough- you have to be on guard for not-nice-people.

3) Forgive people who wrong you, as everyone commits wrongs. Avoid holding grudges. Forgive people even if they do not ask for it.

A few months ago, I tried reading the Qu'ran. I read the first fourth and that is the reason I did not read the rest of it. I never thought I would read a book so bad that it makes Battlefield Earth look good but there is such a book. The fact that it is considered the most beautiful thing written in Arabic goes to show that the Arabs need some new books. I only hope no one translates Dianetics into Arabic. Then we'd have a billion Scientologists on our hands.

Here Arabs, try this:

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The International Plane Ticket Fund

This is an idea which has been floating around in my head for a while.

Instead of spending billions of dollars trying to bring democracy by force, for a lot less money, every person who wants to leave could be relocated to a halfway decent country with plenty of room like the US, Canada, or Australia. The people interested in rescuing people from tyranny should just put a fund together for the sole purpose of evacuating people from horrible places. I call this idea "The International Plane Ticket Fund."

For example, There are about 18 million people in Iraq. At $10,000/person for travel and relocation costs, the total cost of evacuating everyone comes to $180 billion- quite a bit less than the approximately $500 bilion the US has spent so far in military operations in Iraq.

This is a simple, humane, and effective way of dealing with tyrants, who would probably jump at the chance to get rid of any potential dissidents. In fact they have. If any leader refused to let people flee, that leader would invite war upon himself. It would be the same thing as saying "my country is so terrible that the only way to keep people from leaving is to threaten to kill them."

If everyone who wanted to leave Zimbabwe could, the country would quickly empty and Mugabe would have no one to oppress. His government would collapse and then a new one could be established.

Many discussions of promoting peace revolve around democracy and capitalism. While it is true that capitalist democracies generally do not fight each other, this is not the only reason. The US has no love for North Korea but we do not fight them. Why is that? Well, it's because they have a large, well-equipped military. It's the same reason the US never fought Russia directly. When two groups are capable of hurting each other more or less equally, they quickly learn to compromise. Every genocide has one element in common: the people who got massacred were unarmed or armed poorly. The best way to promote peace would be to arm everyone equally. I call this idea "AK-47s for Everyone."

On a side note, I have always been puzzled by why many liberals oppose gun ownership. More guns means more power in the hands of the average Joe, doesn't it? "Political power springs forth from the barrel of a gun." And if it's about saving lives, they'd be better off trying to improve road safety, or convince people to stop smoking, or exercise more, or a dozen other things. In any case, as there are about 200 million firearms in the US and a gigantic black market, more regulations aren't going to keep them out of the hands of criminals and it would be just about impossible for the government to round up all the illegal guns in the US even if it wanted to.

Well, this post is all over the place, and since I have no inclination to tie it all together, I will leave it to the reader to assign relevance to this information.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


"Development" is the word used to describe the efforts of rich countries to help poor ones. I don't believe in using the words "developed" and "undeveloped" to describe countries. It doesn't fool anybody. The fact of the matter is most of the problems in those poor countries are due to the actions of well-meaning and not-so-well meaning foreigners. Whether by malevolence or incompetence, many of these efforts fail to help anyone. Peace Corps is generally an exception to this. Tanzania has requested math and science teachers and the Peace Corps is supplying them.
That's how it should be. Here are some examples that, unfortunately, are more typical.

1. Well-digging in Tabora (central Tanzania, Africa)

In the Tabora region, fetching water is done by women. As the well is several miles away from the village, the women spend most of the day fetching water and bringing it home. A foreign development agency got permission from the village elders to dig a new well closer to the village so the women wouldn't have to walk so far to get the water. The project was completed and the women began using the new well. After a few months, the women began complaining that the water was making their children sick, so they went back to using the distant well. A technician was sent to check the water from the new well and nothing was wrong with it. After a while, the truth got out. The women spread the rumors that the water was poisonous because fetching water from the distant well was an important part of their daily routine; it was their main time to socialize and main opportunity to get out of the house. The new well did nothing to help because they did not see fetching water over long distances as being a problem. Had the women been consulted instead the the village elders (all men), a more appropriate project could have been started.

2. Rice in the Phillipines

In a particular part of the Phillipines, aid workers introduced a new improved variety of rice. The rice was planted and the yield was 3 times higher than the local variety. However, the cash income of the villagers actually went down. What happened? In that area, the people grow rice for food and make baskets from the rice straw which they sold for cash. More rice meant more time was spent harvesting rice and less time making baskets, which was their main source of income.

3. Literacy in Singida (Tanzania, Africa)

In the last years of colonialism, the British instituted a voluntary literacy program in Singida, a dry region in central Tanzania. The program was a success; literacy was greatly increased. However, one villager was less enthusiatic about the results, saying

"Literacy does not help us with our most basic problem, which is the lack of rain."

These examples illustrate the problem of development. Even with the best of intentions, it is practically impossible for an outsider to know, let alone do, what is best for the people living there. These examples could be classified as incompetence. Malevolence has been much more common. Space does not permit me to mention all the examples. For a more thorough treatment, read Confessions of an Economic Hitman, The White Man's Burden, and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

I will give a brief synopsis of Confessions of an Economic Hitman: It tells the story of an American who has the job of convincing the governments poor nations to take loans by promising fantastic economic growth. When the growth doesn't occur (which is part of the plan), the debt is used to extract various concessions (what is really wanted) from the debtor. The Mafia refers to this business as loan-sharking.

Then there's the so-called World Bank. First of all, almost all positions of the authority at the World Bank are held by people from the world's wealthy nations. Can it honestly be expected that they will act in the interest of the world's poor nations? Most of the World Bank assistance is in the form of loans, to which all kinds of restrictions are attached. It is quite telling that no nation has achieved prosperity because of World Bank loans.

Then there's "foreign aid," most of which never leaves the donor country. It goes straight into the account of some contractor or corporation which is tasked with building a dam, electrical plant, or whatever fancy gadget that looks impressive but isn't really going to help the average person living there.

There are countries which have moved from poverty to prosperity: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Georgia, Costa Rica, among them. None of these countries got substantial IMF, World Bank, or other such assistance. They became wealthy through good governance, commerce, and most importantly, by not letting outsiders interfere with them.

Giving desired assistance to countries that request it is good, but very rarely can good can come from foreigners trying to impose change from the outside.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Education Reform

I complained about school pretty much nonstop while I was in it, and now that I am a teacher, I see even more that I dislike. Nonetheless, education is important and it is useless to criticize without proposing alternatives. Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Less grading

In real life, some things have to be properly almost all the time (e.g. landing an airplane) or they just need to be done well enough. Evaluating everything is not really necessary. Grading also wastes time and encourages cheating.

2. Fewer assignments

Matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank: these are objective and easy to grade but do not require much thought. A smaller number of meaningful assignments will be more instructive than a continual flood of busy work. All assignments should involve a tangible result: writing an essay, drawing a picture, building something, etc.

3. Exit test

It is completely possible to graduate from high school (in the US at least) without having learned much. You can't drive a car legally without passing a test; so a high school diploma should be issued until you can demonstrate a certain minimum set of skills. An exit test would clear out the ambitious students and give the underachievers a reason to study.

4. More opportunities vocational training

There are jobs beside doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. All jobs are important and can be rewarding. So why all the emphasis on academics?

I teach upper-level math at a high school in Tanzania. The students are generally hard-working and motivated, and the administration are supportive. My only real complaint is the laser-like focus on academics when about 1% of the students who begin primary school here will make it to university. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, chose education as one of the priorities of the new independent nation he lead. In regard to reform of the existing colonial education system, he said:

"We should not determine the types of things children are taught in primary schools by the things a doctor, engineer, teacher, economist, or administator need to know. Most of our pupils will never be any of these things."

"It [education] must not be aimed at university entrance."

And yet the current education system is largely geared toward university entrance. I would interested in finding out how much control donor agencies like the World Bank have in the content and structure of Tanzania's education system. I will try to teach math as best I can and encourage my students to pursue their ambitions.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Today's topic is snobbery.

Diamonds are a classic example of snobbery. Sure, they're pretty but the main reason people buy them is because they're expensive. It should be noted that the price of diamonds is artificially inflated because the majority of the supply is controlled by a handful of companies. Those companies buy up the excess to keep the prices high. See here for the history.
More details on the cartel here.

Diamonds are just solidified carbon. They can even be manufactured. It takes a microscope and a trained eye to tell the difference between a natural diamond and a manufactured one. Not surprisingly, passing off cheap diamonds as expensive ones is a popular con. Buying diamonds is a good way to get ripped off.

Another bastion of snobbery is college, or rather, a small number of certain colleges. To be fair, people do get into famous schools for being genuinely outstanding. The competition is very intense. However, many people get into famous schools because of money or family connections. Take George W. Bush for example. It is plain as day to anyone who has listened to him talk for more than five minutes that he is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and yet somehow, he got into Harvard and Yale- two of the best schools in the US. Well, I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that he came from a wealthy family with a history of attending those two schools. Does anyone honestly think he got into those schools because of his SAT score? If a window-licker like Dubya can get into the Ivy League, what is so impressive about them?

Besides, there have been plenty of people with little formal education who have done quite well (Edison, the Wright brothers, Poe, Mark Twain, Vanderbilt, Carnegie . . .) and just as many who got the best education imaginable and never achieved wild success.

The final area I will consider is practically synonymous with snobbery: wine. People will fork over thousands of dollars for fermented grape juice. Why? Well, it's so expensive. It must be good! The official line is that wine which has aged for a certain length of time undergoes all kinds of magical cchanges that make it worth a thousand times the plonk available to plebeians like you and me. This might be my clown college education talking, but I can't think of many chemical reactions that can occur in the absence of heat, light, or oxygen. Once the fermentation stops, no more alcohol gets made, so ageing the wine won't change that. As for other reactions, all chemical reactions either proceed rapidly to completion (fast reactions) or they reach equilibrium after at most, a few weeks. But no matter. Is it even possible to tell a vintage wine from a cheap one? Not through chemistry. In this article, chemical analyses are not even mentioned. There are plenty of techniques for detecting minute chemical changes, so why is this technology never touted on wine bottles? My guess would be that they are not done because there is no difference to detect.

I could go on: fancy cars, clothes, cigars, etc, but the point is made. Everyone wants to feel special but having certain items does not elevate you. The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest competed for status by giving stuff away. If the competition was really heated, a chief might set his house on fire to display his wealth. It's the same with diamonds, diplomas, or wine. You might as well light a pile of money on fire.

It's all Monopoly money. Sooner or later, the game ends and everyone forgets who won.