Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Friday links

1/ Financial advisers are paid a lot of money to ask people two basic questions: How much of your current salary will you need in retirement? What is your risk attitude on a seven-point scale. Not only are these questions actually easy to answer and the resulting trade-offs easy to manage, but the questions are actually the wrong ones to ask.

2/ Alabama's dangerous anti-immigration law.

3/ The dangerous psychology of factory farming.

4/ The 60w light bulb finally dies in Europe. Yay!

5/ Smartphone apps that can save fuel.

6/ Are South Africa politicians more likely to respond to constituents whose names imply they belong to the same ethnic group as themselves?

7/ Raising atheists. Then they can go on a national register like the one for sex offenders. (Ha. Please proudly add me to the register). Or use the below advice to ensure your child does not become an atheist.

Paying attention to non-violent means of protest

The media often ignores non-violent protests. If the aim is to draw attention to a cause or complaint, lack of attention encourages violence as a means of gaining this attention.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friday links

My friends have emailed me and posted on FB some fascinating reading this week. These are from them to you.

1/ How to lose readers without even trying. (HT: JK)
‎"You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society."

2/ The Scots who left: how the attitude of America towards Scots has changed over the years. (HT: MM)
"A Scotchman, when he is first admitted into a house, is so humble that he will sit upon the lowest step of the staircase. By degrees he gets into the kitchen, and from thence, by the most submissive behaviour, is advanced to the parlour. If he gets into the dining room, as ten to one but he will, the master of the house must take care of himself, for in all probability he will turn him out of doors, and, by the assistance of his countrymen, keep possession forever." 

3/ Sometimes a bike is just a bike: the symbolism and politics of bicycling in DC. (HT: MCO)
About two years ago, Christopher Jerry says, a bike lane appeared on 25th Street SE. “It’s a steep hill—not really steep, but steep. One day, I saw some lines painted there, indicating the bike lanes,” says Jerry, who lives on T Street SE in Ward 7. “They were doing it in such a way that was going to eliminate 80 percent of parking on one side of the street. On that particular street, people use both sides of the street to park their cars. Not everyone can park in the alley.” 

4/ 100+ CEOs promise no electoral campaign donations. (HT: RD)
Led by Howard Schultz of Starbucks, more than 100 CEOs have signed a pledge to halt all political campaign contributions until lawmakers, as Schultz puts it, "stop the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C." Last week, he mounted a one-man bull rush against a political culture that has "chosen to put partisan and ideological purity over the well being of the people." Schultz said he was going to stop writing checks, and he asked other CEOs to join him. They have. 

5/ The contribution of cycling to the UK economy. (HT: MCO)
"[The] growth in cycling participation has had the knock-on effect of bringing economic and social benefits to the UK. In 2010 the result was a gross cycling contribution to the UK economy of £2.9b. In addition, this report sets out to quantify the economic benefits generated by each individual cyclist, taking into account factors including bicycle manufacturing, cycle and accessory retail, and employment. In 2010, we determine that the gross cycling product (GCP) reached £230 per cyclist, per annum. If this trend of growth in cycling participation continues, 1m additional Regular Cyclists could contribute £141m to the UK economy by 2013 whilst concurrently reducing absenteeism and improving the individual’s health, providing an incremental economic benefit."

6/ Churnalism (HT: MM)
Compare published news stories with press releases to see how much journalism is actually original and how much is just churn.

7/ The most spectacular works of photo journalism from 2010. (HT: SS)

8/ African space research. (HT: MM*)
It would be easy to laugh at Chris Nsamba, founder of the African Space Research Programme. For a start, his research centre is based in his back garden where there's not much evidence of the type of sophisticated tools and machinery I'd imagine you need for this kind of work. When I was there, most of the engineers were equipped with just sandpaper and paint brushes.They haven't even started work on the shuttle yet, at the moment it's more of a theoretical project.

*Three! Probably the best week of your life! :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why petrol/gas is waaaay too cheap

World geography on a shower curtain

I recently mentioned to someone that I didn't have a very good knowledge of the central Asian stans. I muddle up which one is which and don't know all their capital cities. It is probably the part of the world with which I am least familiar in terms of geography. This led to the excellent recommendation that I purchase a World Map Shower Curtain.

So far, I am loving the map. It has some very unusual things about it. The choice of cities is particularly strange. For example, Turkey has Ankara labelled (it is the capital, after all) and Izmir, but not, strangely, Istanbul. The UK has London and Sunderland. Sunderland! But no Edinburgh, Birmingham or Manchester. Not even Sunderland's neighbour, Newcastle. Rather odd. France has Paris, Nantes and Bayonne, but no Lyon or Marseille. The US has all states but no cities except Washington DC but Canada has both provinces and cities on there.

The South Shetland and South Orkney Islands are labelled and are labelled as belonging to the UK. But the nearby Falkland Islands do not have (U.K.) after the name. I plan to get a permanent marker and add it myself :)

(HT for this post goes to MCO)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Going viral

About 1 1/2 hours ago, I was sent THIS LINK.

Below is the screenshot showing 260,333 views. I re-checked just now and it is now on over a million views (bottom image).

Now over a million views:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Watching a good African country slowly succumb...

... to that African leaders' disease of paranoia and megalomania.

It was all going so well. Wa Mutharika had taken over from Muluzi who had ideas of amending the constitution to hold power. He had a decent first term with food production up, macroeconomy not perfect but in a decent state, Malawi the happiest country in Africa. Admittedly, the fertiliser subsidy programme is expensive and therefore with a high opportunity cost, but seemed to be popular.

The he won re-election and decided that Malawi a developed country and therefore needed to change its flag.   There were protests and arrests for flying the old flag.  Mutharika started clamping   down   on   press   freedom  including passing a bill which empowers the Minister of Information to ban any publication deemed not to be in the public interest and  journalists started to protest.

I warned a year ago where all of this was heading.

The British High Commissioner voiced concerns which he refused to retract and was expelled from the country. The British responded in kind and DfID    cut aid  to Malawi.  The MCC - a large American agency followed suite. A leader once heralded abroad is now condemned.

Meanwhile, while this is going on, protests have erupted in Malawi - partly at high oil prices, partly due to an increasingly authoritarian regime, which Mutharika responded to by sending in the army ordering a shoot to kill policy and saying that he would go after the protesters 'even if you hide in holes, I'll smoke you out'. Despite his calls to end the protests, they continue with many dead. Vigils are now held for the dead which Mutharika requests be called off with thinly veiled threats: 'I sincerely appeal to the organisers to reflect carefully, search their inner souls and call off the vigils in order to save lives and destruction of property'.

Over the weekend, Mutharika dissolved his entire cabinet and has taken over all portfolios himself. And that is how easy it all is... No Mo Ibrahim Prize for Mutharika any more. All so sad.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Balance between liberalism and punishing wrong-doing

I think the British government got something wrong (what, wait! A government got something wrong?!). It refused to allow the water canon be used during the riots.Apparently that is because that is not how we do things - we police by consent. But they have been routinely used in Northern Ireland. However, extremely harsh sentences have been hastily handed out to what seems to be to be relatively minor offences during the riots.

This, it seems to be to all be backwards from a practical perspective. People are rioting - smashing up people's livelihoods by destroying their small businesses and flats. Putting lives in danger, attacking fire and ambulance crews and making people feel afraid. The primary aim has to be to stop these people, not just let them carry on.It is difficult to know if the softly-softly approach worked because we can't know the impact of all of the different alternatives but I suspect that a little dose of the water canon could have curtailed some of the rioting.

Now that it is all over though, the harsh sentences being handed out will put extremely minor offenders in prison for pretty long time. In prison, they are going to make friends with all sorts of unsavoury real criminals, feel hard done by (which they are), not contribute to society, not learn important social interaction skills in a normal society (these are young people by and large), be a drain on the tax-payer. In short, they risk becoming real criminals.

I am a pragmatist. Whatever works is best. The choices made here seem to have succeeded in having the worst of both worlds.

It is perhaps a drift towards American liberty and punishment. A country which allows an immense amount of liberty - at least in theory - and which punishes hard those it feels breaks that freedom.

Britain needs to re-think.

Lack of organic produce

Now, I don't consider myself a strong environmentalist but I think I am becoming more so. I think it is good economics. And since arriving in America - even a living in a supposedly relatively green city, I am constantly disgusted and appalled at what I see around me.

I recently watched Food Inc and threw away all of the frozen meat in my freezer (okay so it had spent a few days defrosting due to a power cut and then re-froze so it was probably the right thing to do anyway). Summarising the film-documentary: It seems that most food stuffs can be traced back to a corn field in Iowa due to the stupid subsidies the US government pays a small number of farmers. The result is basically that it is cheaper to buy corn than it is to produce it so lots is produced so people find lots of ways to use it including feeding it to animals that wouldn't normally eat it which increases various diseases in them like e-coli that then have to be killed with chemicals. Or high-fructose corn syrup, which may make you fat. Or not. Or is bad for you in some other way. I couldn't quite figure it out. But it seems (shock horror!) that it is not just calories that matter but also the type of calories you eat (I actually read the whole academic article to check out their statistics and report back to a friend who wanted to know more about it. I'm happy to forward anyone else who is interested my informal analysis).

I had been wondering for some time now why most places I eat here are a slightly above average but I'd not found any place I'd call amazing (although Churchkeys which also has one of DC's best choice of great beers comes very close, in an unexpected discovery recently). I now have a candidate. The chefs are good, the ideas are good. But some of the inputs are bad. Fruit, veg and meat which don't actually have any flavour by themselves because they're not real. They're fed badly (if animals) and treated with enough chemicals to wash away any taste.

So I decided to look for organic foods. I don't have strong organic beliefs but it seems that in America, you only have a choice of extremes, so I'm going with this one. I don't even know if organic is really better for the environment or not.

Anyway, earlier, I was at my local supermarket and I asked if any of the delicious looking meats in front of me were organic? The guy pointed out that a couple of things had labels saying 'natural'. What does that even mean?!!! It turns out these don't have anything unnatural added to them. Seriously? Wow. Then I said, no - I wanted organic. Amongst the immense ray he pointed out this:

Organic ground beef. I bought it. And I am now eating some delicious home made burgers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday links

“roughly 30% to 40% of time not spent working is put towards increased “home” production, 30% of time is allocated to increased sleep time and increased television watching, while other leisure activities make up a further 20% of the foregone market work hours.”

“The survey also found that of those who had sex before they turned 18, 29.1% of females and 17.5% of males reported that their first encounter was unwilling.”

“World Bank has a 70% failure rate with ICT4D (information and communication technology for development) projects to increase universal access.”

“What could be wrong with a gentleman opening a door for a lady? According to some social psychologists, such acts endorse gender stereotypes: the idea that women are weak and need help; that men are powerful patriarchs. Now a study has looked at how women are perceived when they accept or reject an act of so-called "benevolent sexism" and it finds that they're caught in a double-bind. Women who accept help from a man are seen as warmer, but less competent. Women who reject help are seen as more competent, but cold.”

“Peggy Willocks, a 44 year old teacher, took part in a trial of the surgery in 2000. She says it helped stave off the symptoms for years, but the development of Spheramine was axed in 2008 after a controlled trial found it didn't work any better than a placebo. The placebo was "sham surgery" i.e. putting the patient through a full surgical procedure, and making holes in their skull, but without doing anything to their brain.”

“A fascinating missive written to Charles Darwin in 1839 by his wife, Emma, shortly after the inception of his theory of evolution, in which she openly worries about his dwindling faith and, midway through the letter, asks him not to be blinded to the possibilities of things "which if true are likely to be above our comprehension" whilst consumed by his scientific pursuits. Darwin's reaction is illustrated by his incredibly touching note at the foot of the letter, added some months later. Note: Apparently Emma 'affectionately' referred to Charles as her 'Nigger' on more than one occasion.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Development links

Mosquitoes developing resistance to bed nets. Malaria often strikes during key labour periods of the agricultural cycle. Mosquitoes come with water. Water means agricultural season. Malaria during agricultural season means lower productivity. The total cost
of malaria to the average Malawian household is estimated to be around 22 per cent of
annual household income (Conroy et al., 2006: pp.35-36 and p.90).

Tramway to be built in Bamako, Mali. The favourite mode of transport there at the moment seems to be Jakarta motorbikes. So much so that even interesting research papers are named after them.

Worrying drop in HIV/AIDS spending. "International funding for HIV fell by 10 percent in 2010 from the previous year..." Perhaps worrying, but I've also seen a lot of these resources wasted through corruption and resources pouring into countries which are simply unable to spend them due to poor management, arguments between different implementing agencies, lack of absorptive capacity, agencies-set-up-especially-and-packed-with-staff-paid-higher-than-other-similar-ones-creating-jealousy-and-preventing-effective-work-with-ministries - all in a nameless country with which I am intimately familiar. So smart spending rather than more spending might actually be more effective.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How to catch the looters

The Met Police are uploading photos HERE....

... and a private citizen is uploading them HERE.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Twats smashing up London

Post pictures of the arseholes doing THIS on your FB page.

Live commentary HERE.

Make your own decent football team... (HT:MM)

... with the PFA free agent list.

HERE are some pretty decent efforts.

Fuckwit rioters

Second night. Clearly got no taste.

What a dumb way to honor the dead.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Break-up letter to Air France

Dear Air France,

We've been together for a while now. I even have a Flying Blue number which you share with KLM. We've had some great times and some not so great times. Remember that time the flight broke out in the aeroplane because you let whole chains of people change seats prior to take-off and confusion ensued? I really enjoyed that. That was an especially fun flight because I appeared to be sitting on metal the entire flight. I took comfort from the fact that other people were in worse conditions though - many people's seats didn't go back.

I recently enjoyed my first flight on an A380 with you. That was quite cool - I particularly like the camera mounted on the tail fin. Something I really appreciated about that flight was the fact that the food you gave me actually reached microwave meal standard. Usually, you seem to get away with serving the World's Worst Food (United excluded) and rely on France's reputation for decent food and a silly fancy little 'menu' card as a means of tricking people into thinking the 'food' is actually decent. Oh, how cunning you are!

I was also impressed by the way I got my bag back just 24 hours after my last flight with you! Jolly good job! I feel I should thank you for helping me to ensure that I possess duplicates of many things (like shaving stuff) because I never know when I'll get my bag back. That came in really handy once when my razor battery ran out once! What would I do without you?

Do you remember the time there were not enough shuttle buses at CDG to bus everyone to the terminal? Oh, that was a laugh! I was on the last one and it was completely packed. Your friendly employee yelled into the bus that it is people who are important, not bags and that we should make more space. I wondered if it was a joke and had a little giggle at the insinuation that we should all throw our bags out onto the runway to make space for everyone. I even enjoyed the threat that we would stay there all day unless we made room for everyone who needed to get onto the bus because it was the last shuttle.

Perhaps my favourite time was when loads of flights were cancelled at once at CDG Airport. I make an allowance for the fact that it was the snow of last xmas but you made it super fun by announcing the cancellation of every flight at once, just after two large long-haul flights had just arrived. Oh, how everyone enjoyed the thousands and thousands of bags spewing out onto the luggage conveyor belts all at once. It was like a little adventure playground - bags piled higher than my head and little walkways for us all to wander through searching for our bags. (I have to completely commend your staff on this occasion - they were all, in all seriousness - completely wonderful and doing the best they could following this really, really, really dumb decision - it's no wonder they feel the need for a few days' strike every so often!) My bag only took a few weeks to arrive that time.

I like the way the staff are always threatening to go on strike. I can't decide if that is because half of them are complete saints who get fed up working in such appalling conditions whilst the other half are rude and nasty and don't care anyway, or if it because there is a general lack of acceptance of the fact that companies are actually there to serve people. I can understand why staff might not want to move from Paris to Marseilles (one of the causes of the recent strike threat) but if that is what customers want and you don't provide it then you deserve to go bankrupt - you are no longer serving a social good - and the staff will have no jobs at all.

I could probably go on for longer about the great times we've had together but these are some of the fun moments that have popped into my head just now. I wanted to acknowledge these great times to try to lessen the pain that I might cause when I say - it's not you; it's me. I just don't feel that the time is right for us to have a relationship any longer. It pains me too to say it but I will do my best to avoid flying with you in the future and will happily pay more to fly with, well, anyone else. I hope that you don't take this too badly and I hope that things go as well as can be expected in future.


What you can and can't do at Bamako airport

Can't do: Pretend to be someone else or get into the wrong plane.

My passport was checked five times. Once when I got my boarding pass, once at immigration, once straight after immigration at a police counter (these three within one minute of each other), once when I was leaving the gate and once at a special Air France security post (these last two within about a minute of each other).

My boarding pass was checked five times. Once at immigration, once straight after immigration at the special police counter, once as I was leaving gate, once at the special Air France security post, once as I was going into the plane.

Despite all this the lady sat behind me had managed to get onto the flight showing everyone the wrong boarding pass and had thus sat in the wrong seat. I am sure all of those checks are well worth the effort - perhaps you can easily get onto the wrong plane after all...

Can do: take anything you like onto the plane. No, really.

Carry-on luggage goes through the normal scanning process but the guy is sat chatting to a friend and not paying any attention to what is in there. Really. I watched them all the whole time from the moment the bag started to move through to the moment the next guy's bag went through. No one hanging around him seemed to glance at all at the screen once.

That, of course, is why Air France conduct their own special bag searches just before getting onto the plane. I can only assume this is some form of job creation since the effort seems to involve a quick look into the main compartment of my carry-on with no attempt to search anywhere near the bottom.

Can do: purchase a fine range of alcohol and perfumes.

Can't do: purchase water. Well, that's not true. Although none of the shops there sell water, there are people hanging around there who will sell you bottled water. Job creation with no increase in actual productivity - just more people doing very little and so consuming very little (otherwise put: being poor).

Friday links

Some great photos of Inside North Korea

George Orwell's A Hanging

What Motivates Gifts? Intra-Family Transfers in Rural Malawi

Publishing in Economics can take a few years. HERE is "new" paper I wrote a few years ago - just published. Abstract below:

This paper uses Family Transfers Project data collected in rural Malawi during 1999 to ascertain the motivation for gift-giving using discriminating hypotheses. The study models monetary and monetized gifts sent and received between the survey respondents and their parents, their children, and their siblings as a function of sender and receiver characteristics. Individual analyses are compared with household level models to reveal that both individual and household characteristics can matter in different cases. OLS, Probit and Tobit models are compared to conclude that, as with other similar studies, a wide range of motivations exist including altruism, (co-)insurance, and an inheritance motive. Motivations differ slightly depending upon the relationship between the sender and receiver, however, no single motive can be attributed to any given relationship.