Sunday, January 30, 2011

Amusing road scenes: Excuse me! edition

Washingtonians love to use the wonderfully passive aggressive phrase "excuse me!". Sometimes (occasionally) it seems to be 'excuse me, I am sorry, I was in your way', sometimes (slightly more often) it means 'I'm sorry - I know we both have every right to occupy this space, but I wonder if you wouldn't mind if I occupy it momentarily' and pretty often it seems to mean 'I've not really given any consideration as to whether or not either you or I are behaving acceptably, but I want to occupy the space in which you are currently situated so f**k off out of my way'. Often you can tell from the tone of voice which one it is, but not always. It is like a reflex many Washingonians seem to have (by Washingtonians I mean people who have lived here for a while). Of course, even when it is actually pretty rude, you can't exactly point it out to someone since (a) no one really seems to notice they are doing it and (b) what is rude about 'excuse me' ?

Anyway, here is a wonderful example of it happening to me a few weeks ago (the entire rest of the pavement and road are both empty)::

A few seconds later:

His immediate reaction is to say 'excuse me!' in an accusative tone. I do apologise, sir. I will try to be a little more considerate of you next time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How disappointing (2nd of the day)

APA-Maseru (Lesotho) "A bill entitled ‘The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Retirement and Spouses Benefits Bill 2010’ was passed in the Lesotho Senate on Wednesday.

The bill means that when the holders of the two posts retire, they will be entitled to benefits that include 80 percent of their salaries, chauffer-driven government vehicles, bodyguards, free medical treatment, electricity, telephone and water, as well as several other benefits.

The Prime Minister’s wife will be entitled to 70 percent of her salary with other benefits that include diplomatic passport and free medical treatment amongst others.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s wife will be subjected to the same benefits like medical treatment and diplomatic passport, but will have to wait for her husband to die in order to inherit his pension money.

In his speech, the Minister in the Ministry of Public Service, Semano Sekatle said the Bill is a noble move intended to honour and honour both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister for their services during their tenure of office.

”When people are provided with enough incentives to live better lives, this will contribute towards promotion of peace and stability in the country… just like in big countries like Tunisia and Egypt,” he said.

The minister noted that the government is thinking in terms of proposing similar bills for civil servants and area chiefs whom he said get meagre salaries.

However, some members of the house expressed their dissatisfaction over the bill, saying the country is faced with challenges like poverty and hunger and over and above that, the current financial crisis does not allow those in power to make decisions of this nature."


"When people are provided with enough incentives to live better lives, this will contribute towards promotion of peace and stability in the country… just like in big countries like Tunisia and Egypt" -- what brilliant civil servant managed to get that in?!

Also: how do benefits coming towards the end of one's job impact on performance?

Also: does this feel like a threat?


How disappointing

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has signed a new law that allows his information minister to ban publications deemed "contrary to the public interest", an official said Wednesday.

"The amendment to the penal code amendment bill of 2009 has been assented to. It was one of the 46 bills the president okayed," a senior parliamentary official told AFP.

The new law gives powers to the information minister to ban a publication if he has "reasonable grounds to believe that the publication or importation of any publication would be contrary to the public interest."

The head of a local media watchdog criticised the Mutharika administration for signing off on the bill.

"The media in Malawi is under siege and the hard-won democracy under extreme threat," Anthony Kasunda, chair of the Malawi chapter of the watchdog group Media Institute of Southern Africa, told AFP.

He said the law could be "construed as a strategic move by government to deliberately target publications that are critical of the Mutharika administration."

Mutharika, who often accuses local independent newspapers of negative reporting about Malawi, last year threatened to shut down papers he accused of lying when they reported that up to one million people would need food aid.

Malawi in 1995 adopted a new constitution with a bill of rights that guarantees the freedom of the press, after decades of oppressive rule under dictator Kamuzu Banda during which miniskirts and long hair for men were outlawed.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Guest blog: Imagine...

... a rickshaw driver (on foot or on a bicycle) transporting another fellow human for the purpose of the latter's entertainment/leisure. Ethically questionable, morally shaky, unjust - right?

Well here's the answer! This picture was taken at Ushaka marine world in Durban. A robot to redress (part of) the unjustices of the world. Will Technology solve all the other World's problems...?

Guest blogger: Khaled -- thank you Khaled! (Personally, I don't have a problem with a rickshaw driver transporting another human for the purposes of leisure. I work all the time for other people. But I do want one of these.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Amazon's anti-social behaviour?

Today I got home from work and found I had a package waiting for me. I couldn't remember ordering anything it could possibly be, so imagine my delight when I saw the monster below:

Bigger is, after all, better. It measures 4'4'' x 2'4'' x 6'' (132 x 71 x 15cm). That is my orange sofa-bed behind it, and the white thing is a normal sized (less than 12''/30cm in length kitchen towel) for comparison. Surprisingly, I could lift it very easily with one hand, which prompted the concierge to joke to me that it was probably a coaster.

Well it was packed with this much brown paper:

And even contained the actual thing I had ordered from Amazon - a 3'4'' (102cm) long rolled up, laminated Peters Map (oh how liberal of me).

And here are the happy couple together:

WTF?! No - that deserves to be said in full: What The Fuck?!

Now, I basically hate shops, so ordering stuff from the internet is brilliant. But I must admit to wondering whether it is better or worse from the environment. It might save a car journey a few miles, or I might use public transport. The post is probably coming my way anyway and I do deliberately ask Amazon to group my order into as few a deliveries as possible. Something which they consistently completely ignore, much to my annoyance. Internet shopping means that goods only go to where they are needed, potentially saving on transport. But maybe there are more returns too because people haven't seen the products. Ignoring this case, is there more or less packaging? In short, I don't really know what is best for the environment.

My initial thought was how bad this is, and I was pretty angry. But now I have just been to the gym so have calmed down. Still, surely, surely, they had a smaller package it could have fitted into. Would it have hurt? I am recycling the cardboard, but that still takes energy. This package took up more room in a van, and if so little care is taken, how many extra vans are driving about on the roads?

I'm prepared to think that there might be some good reasons for sending me this, but I can't think what they might be. Any ideas? I am actually still angry enough to write a 'strongly worded letter' to Amazon complaining. My own feeling is that this is completely disgusting anti-social behaviour by Amazon. Perhaps I should have spent longer at the gym.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Scarves and Ear Muffs: Or interesting cultural equilibriums

I am often fascinated by cultural equilibriums. Behaviours or beliefs that are followed en masse in a population and which are not necessarily any more logical than an alternative that could have arisen equally easily.

Religion is my favourite cultural equilibrium. A series of beliefs that are blatently (and somewhat ironically) lies but which to some extent people choose to believe. Christianity is the dominant religion in large parts of the world but it slowly spread, displacing other beliefs both 'naturally' and using persuasive techniques. The Middle East and North Africa used to be predominately Christian, but following Muslim conquest and "persuasive rules" such as the Pact of Umar, slowly became Islamic. Still today, people in Pakistan are being "persuaded" to convert to Islam (be a Muslim - that's great - now I'll tell you what you believe and we can all be happy!) and, in Egypt, Coptic Christians are still fighting to be allowed to maintain their Churches.

Of course, social equilibriums can change and can arise through non-violent means. In America, men largely don't wear scarves. Even when it is freezing cold. Weird, huh? Those who wear scarves must be either gay or European (nothing else would make sense, right?). Attaching these labels onto a behaviour can, I am sure, be rather persuasive, influencing choices made. Of course, the nice young liberal types in DC would never admit that they have been influenced by such thoughts and defend their decision not to wear scarves with something along the lines of 'they don't really keep you warm; what matters is keeping your head and chest warm'. Quite. But I don't see anyone (well, many people) wearing shorts. And, I seem to recall seeing pictures of people in the arctic wrapping themselves up pretty well - even their head. So it does do something.

Scarves certainly block out a certain amount of wind. And they are comfortable. Ah! You see! You just want comfortable clothes! Well, yes. Of course. And so do most American men. They actually pad with wonderfully comfortable padding the inside of sometimes very large necks on coats so that you can snuggle into them. That is fine. But just don't wear a scarf! Or you'll be gay! Or European!

Instead, American men wear ear muffs.
Actually, they wear 'male ear muffs'. Hahahahahahahaha.

Some how, a social equilibrium slowly arose in which the received idea is that scarves don't work (rubbish) or are gay (maybe, who knows?) or are European (well, yes - we do wear scarves. Because. They. Keep. You. Warm. And. Comfortable.). But these stupid beliefs left the poor American man rather cold. So some genius marketing folk realised they could make male ear muffs, and market them in the right way for them to be sufficiently masculine for them to be worn. They couldn't challenge the existing social equilibrium but they could create a new one. Brilliant!

Friday links

(a little late)

1/ Culture matters in economics (HT: MM). Well yes, I think we all know that, but nice to see some examples.

2/ The idea that cuts in spending produces a reduction in the deficit is a myth. Potentially true if there is lots of excess capacity and the Government can stimulate production by boosting demand, thereby raising tax revenue. But in this case lots of stimulus spending has not really had that result and, besides, whether or not this works is probabilistic as it depends a lot upon the situation and whether or not people can be 'tricked' (in some sense) into producing more. It is therefore highly risky. At some stage you have to say, we've built up a lot of debt trying to stimulate the economy. Now it is time to stop. The UK reached that stage a long time ago and statements like this from Shadow Ministers are stupid, unhelpful and probably misleading economics.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


... more tax powers don't mean more wealth.

Wealth is what you consume (and own but really that is just to use for consumption purposes). If the Government taxes you more, you have less money in your pocket so you consume less of some things. The flip side is that the Government spends that money, so you consume more of the things the Government buys for you.

This can be a 'good' or a 'bad' thing from the point of view of overall wealth creation in the long run. I am not likely to buy a bit of road, but through some form of social organisation (let's say a Government), it might be a good thing if I gave up a bit of my private consumption so that we could build a road, increasing productivity, and allowing me to be richer in the future. On the other hand, maybe the Government is taking away some of my money and spending it on things that I don't want or that don't generate future wealth. That won't make me wealthier. Who knew?

Amazing data freely available...

... on the World Bank website.

A while ago, the World Bank realised that loads of useful work could be done if data were made available for freely and easily. So it did it.

It even made a short video to show some of the things that could be done and to explain what was available. You can even access it on your phone.

The site is useful for researchers including academics, students, researchers working in Governments, NGOs, consultancies - anyone working in development. You can make your own amazing, cool bubble graphs too - of the type used by Hans Rosling.

Google has made all this wonderful data available through its public data portal in at least 50 billion languages.

Use the data - they are beautiful :)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Margaret Thatcher themed bar

A friend (HT: JT) just posted on her facebook wall that she is going to get a drink in a Margaret Thatcher themed bar. Brilliant! I had no idea that politician themed bars existed as a concept.

I tried googling other 80s leaders to see if anyone else had one, but I couldn't find any for Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan or François Mitterand. Maybe an opportunity for a chain?

Friday links

(For those who don't know, 'post-election conflict has turned violent in Côte d'Ivoire' - so much so that The Onion is concerned it may develop into a full-scale news blurb.)

2/ Following the Tucson shooting, Scientific American is coming out with lots of interesting stories about what drives people to shoot and wonders how many more massacres it will take before gutless politicians stand up to gun nuts. They also note that the evidence linking political rhetoric and shooting (which is currently the major debate rather than focusing on the actual problem) is pretty weak. The Economist calls it the Blame Game and it has long advocated tighter gun controls. Here is a nice quote from an article this week:

"Around 30,000 people a year are killed by one of the almost 300m guns in America—almost one for every citizen. Those deaths are not just murders and suicides: some are accidents, often involving children."

5/ History of global health and happiness. You can make loads of your own graphs and charts and much more on the amazing World Bank data portal.

Development is working

I have put video before on Friday links, but in celebration of a new documentary - The Joy of Stats - by the wonderful Hans Rosling, I thought I would re-post this clip.

It shows real successes in development BUT that it is also a LONG TERM process. We can contrast Sweden's successes in reducing child mortality with that of African countries to see how well they really are performing.

The strength of Northern Ireland's Institutional Framework

Northern Ireland's recent water problems have been harsh for a lot of people. There have been consequences including the head of Northern Ireland Water resigning and discussion of whether water meters should be installed in Northern Irish homes (there's got to be some cost-benefit analysis at times of tight budgets but if you undercharge people, they will overuse scarce resources).

But something I have found interesting is that a former terrorist who is now Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness is now forced in his political role in Government to apologise, to promise consequences of a peaceful kind, and to placate angry citizens following the crisis. The crisis is not fun, but to see Martin McGuinness fulfil this role serving all citizens shows the success of the peace process in NI, the hard work gone into it by all parties and the increasingly solid (if imperfect) institutions that have been and are still being created.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

UK VAT rise permanent

or so says the Chancellor.

That is exactly what he should say - even if it is not permanent. Why? Because if people know VAT will decline, spending will fall by more than it would if people believe it to be permanent as consumers will wait for prices to fall.

It is for the same reason as deflation is bad. If prices are believed to be falling, then why buy anything now? Rather wait till prices are lower. But then, of course, demand is very low, resulting in low production, resulting in fewer jobs, resulting in genuinely lower demand and so a viscous cycle begins.

In fact, if consumers think prices will fall, the Government could pump money into the economy - say, through quantitative easing - but demand still won't increase - we could call it a liquidity trap. Japan got stuck in one.

The result is that the Government might actually collect less tax revenue rather than more, which is the aim of the tax hike.

Of course, consumer spending may still fall somewhat as prices have risen, but hopefully the Government will collect more tax, preventing public services spending cuts from falling as much as they would have. Ignoring the impact on borrowing and savings (household and Government) it is just a switch from private spending to Government spending. Albeit that the total is slightly lower level more in line with actual UK productivity, rather than borrowing to consume the production resulting from the hard work of other people.