Friday, September 23, 2011

My new blog - Frayed World

Check out my new blog - Frayed World: Environment, Economics, Development - and the accompanying Twitter feed.

Economic eye is staying where it is but blog entries will slow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Troy Davis to die

Anneliese MacPhail is a sick woman who thinks that it is okay to kill a man and cause pain to another family so that she can 'get peace'. The Georgia penal system is disgusting for putting her through so many years of torment. Troy Davis 22 years in the future is to die in cold blood for something Troy Davis minus 22 years did. Or maybe did not do - but the Georgia penal system cares more about procedure than evidence. I wonder if a white man would die under similar circumstances.

Read about Tory Davis's execution HERE.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

More on my Virgin Atlantic experience

The third (and final?) in a series of why Virgin Atlantic suck are the biggest let-down airline ever. You can see the first on how they make carbon offsetting a bit more difficult and they create stupid rules for stupid people

This one continues the second theme and emphasises how little they care about their customers - at least in their revealed preferences (i.e. actual behaviour rather than rhetoric), and how impressively dumb some people working there and at London Heathrow airport really must be.

So there I am at Heathrow having waited an excessively long time for the Virgin bags to come through when every other airlines' bags have arrived, and the excessively heavy 9kg bag which I was forced to check in with my grandmother's 90th birthday present, didn't come out. I've completed the forms along with every one else whose luggage has not arrived with the understandably frustrated two staff that Virgin decided to leave to deal with everything on a busy day. I make my trip to supermarket to purchase the things I need for a few days which Virgin has lost - maybe I should post them toothpaste and underwear and request a refund?

I phone up a few times and no progress. Then, the next day, I get a phone call! They think they have located my bag. It is in London Heathrow airport and in a central place where all the bags with no tags go. The bag matches my description - unfortunately, a small black suit case but happily with a bright green handle, and a flap with my surname and Washington address on it. Virgin have sent a request to say it belongs to me but BA think it might belong to one of their customers too - a Mrs Davies who lives in Washington DC. Clearly it is a bad day for bags belonging to Davii (yes, that is the correct plural). Virgin are pretty sure it belongs to be due to the fact that my phone number is on it. I agree that the probability of someone else having a bag with my number is remarkably low. London Heathrow baggage staff don't agree and Virgin doesn't seem to feel the need to impress this fact on them. Later that day, they fly it to Sydney to offer my bag to Mrs Davies.

I, of course, only find this out later and meanwhile, I phone several times and am told there is no new information.The request is apparently still with Heathrow Airport. Always nice to keep the customer informed of what is going on.

I fly back to the US and inform Virgin of this fact but ask them still to deliver the bag to my parents' address in the hope my grandmother might get her present before she leaves, BUT that they phone me on my US number - which I gave them (again).

This apparently simple request could be termed a 'fail' despite how clear I was. Clear because, by then, I had understood that a large proportion of the staff behaved in a severely mentally challenged way (and from the stupid rules applied to the letter regardless of circumstances, I can only infer that management feel the same way about their staff, and from the way they ensure there are insufficient staff about, possibly cause the staff to behave in this way).

Anyway, after I get back to the US, I phone the number - at a cost of 80cents per minute. The first call resulted in someone kindly phoning Heathrow for me but no one picked up. Great. More excellent service this time from Heathrow but she assured me she would follow up and keep calling them and call me back. The next day, no phone call so I phoned again. The chap was delighted to inform me that the bag had been found in Sydney and was on its way to London. I thanked him and hung up.

Then an email from my mother. My bag had arrived! Yay! WITHOUT KINDLE. This kindle being, of course, my grandmother's 90th birthday present.

I also had two voicemail messages on my British phone when I checked it. Fuck me! Well done Virgin. You cannot even change a primary contact number. One to say the bag had been located. The other from the courier people to say they would deliver the bag later that day.

I phone the 80cents per minute number again. The guy confirms that the bag had been delivered 15 minutes earlier. I tell him the kindle was missing (and two kindle covers).

I am unable to make a claim because Virgin allows staff to steal electrical goods from checked in luggage does not accept liability for checked in electrical items. I can make a claim for the covers. Which I will do presently. Of course, it may have been Virgin staff in Dulles or Heathrow or Sydney or baggage handlers in any of these places, or any customs/TSA or even Mrs Davies. Who knows. The guy on the phone tried to tell me it may have been customs or the TSA - but I said that if they had reason to contact me they would have done so but neither had. He conceded that the TSA puts a note in the bag to explain (there was no such note). But the fact is Virgin has stupid rules for check-ins enforced regardless of context, lost my bag, didn't make an effort to recover it, treated me rudely, failed to use the right number to contact me and made me pay, made no effort to sympathise about a lost present, forced me to buy extra things for a few days. Basically, I hold them fully liable. Below, I will add an extra positive and negative, just for fun.

A final couple of stories. On the trip back to the US, apart from the carbon offsetting problem, the trip was mostly good. No lost luggage for one. The guy who checked me in was *excellent*. Friendly, helpful. Showed me I could get extra leg room for 30 quid more -- great for a 6'2'' or so man. I noticed how good he was with everyone.

I checked in and then went to stand in a queue to pay my 30 quid (although the lady who checked me in didn't seem to know anything about that at all - seriously? is any training given at all???). The queue was long and the lady was having computer problems. I watched the queue grow even larger behind me. A Virgin employee must also have seen because she was hanging around. But she did nothing. One man was getting frustrated - clearly in a rush. I asked her if maybe 'they' might think about opening the second desk that was clearly there for this purpose. Which she did. Herself. But again, how dumb! Seriously! You see a queue getting longer and longer. The solution is clear but some how you need a customer to suggest that something could be done. Wow.

So, will I fly Virgin again? Well, I thought that they might become my regular trans-Atlantic airline, but now I don't think so. I might fly with them again, but I think I will have to assume that I will be treated like shit and that the trip will cost me, say $600 (that is about the cost of a new large kindle plus cover plus postage plus the things I had to buy in the UK etc) plus time and worry more than the cost of the ticket - let me round that all being worth about $1,000. So, I reckon I will fly Virgin again if their ticket is about $1,000 cheaper than the next best option. Otherwise, probably not. In any case, I am a believer in punishing those who do bad even at cost to yourself. It is the socially responsible thing to do.

I'd like to say it's been nice knowing you, Virgin, but, well... so far, it has not.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday links

1/ Electric cars coming to Paris brought to you by Autolib. Yay!

2/ Private cities coming to Africa

3/ Climate change, natural disaster and migration

4/ Mating opportunities as motivation for war

5/ Ten things everyone should know about time

6/ Scientists on trial for manslaughter for not having fully predicted magnitude of earthquake

7/ Queer by choice, not chance

8/ Islam's civil war. I love Irshad Manji.

9/ An everyday tale of antisemitism in Cairo (After all, God apparently said: "Strongest among me in enmity to the believers wilt thou find the Jews..." (5:82) and Muhammed said: "The hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say 'O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.'" (Bukhari, 4.52.177) - and from this tale of a talking rock, a hate-filled god and a racist prophet, one can maybe deduce, as did the BBC journalist, that an assault would have been justified had he been a Jew: "The chilling implication I was left with was that, had I been Jewish, the assault would have apparently been justified").  In other news only eight Iraqi Jews left compared with 150,000 in 1948 (probably all just left through choice or, if they were hounded out, it would certainly have been their own fault). And just for good luck, more anti-Christian behaviour in Egypt. Still, I'm sure it's their own fault, and we'd better not talk about it anywhere or else we will be being haters or something.

Rules made for stupid people to help avoid thinking

The second in a series of why Virgin Atlantic suck are the biggest let-down airline ever. Read the first one on Carbon Offsetting HERE.

I packed a small suitcase which I often take in the cabin with me on flights. It weighed 9kg. Virgin Atlantic told me that 6kg was their cabin weight limit. The reason was so that I can manage it safely and so that the overhead luggage storage can hold it safely. Stupidly, I didn't check the cabin baggage weight, but you can't verify everything in life and rule-of-thumb behaviour based on past experience is necessary in order not to become crazy. Imagine a world where you had to verify literally everything.

Anyway, Virgin have different rules to other airlines I am used to. Fair enough. But why on earth I should suddenly become weaker when I enter a plane owned by Virgin, I cannot fathom, and why Virgin overhead luggage racks should be less strong than their competitors is equally a mystery to me. Still, I check in my bag which includes clothes for a few days and a new large kindle for my grandmother's 90th birthday. (Kindle=genius for people who need to read big-print but have read every large-print book already multiple times. I recommend.)

I get on the plane to find it is less than half full. The flight takes off with the luggage racks full only of the unnecessary cushions and blankets previously placed on empty seats. 

So apparently, Virgin staff have to follow rules but ignore the reason behind the rules. It is 6kg because I might not be able to carry any more safely. The fact that I am not a 2 years old child who can actually manage safely a full 9kg (call me Mr. Muscle) didn't seem to matter. And the fact that the flight was empty resulting in very little in the overhead racks also did not seem to matter.

That Virgin makes rules which have to be religiously followed, I can only assume to be a result of the fact that their staff are incapable of thought or are not to be trusted.

It reminds me of a story a friend told me in Lesotho. A friend of hers collapsed at work and needed rushing to hospital. Of course, you don't call the ambulance in Lesotho - far better to put her in a work vehicle and rush her there. Unfortunately, it was 5pm and for the transport coordinator, 'that's knock-off time' and he refused to organise a car. The girl got to hospital too late and died. The doctor may have been able to save her if he'd had her sooner. Happily though, Mr. Thick-as-two-short-planks had obeyed the rules put in place for people of his kind to follow religiously without having to go to the trouble of thinking about the reasons behind the rules. I am sure he is to be commended.

Back to my lesser Virgin travails. When I got off the flight and went through security - which took about an hour! - the bags had yet to arrive. Everyone was waiting around the belt. They started to arrive maybe half an hour later. Bags from other airlines were arriving with no problem, and Virgin staff were rather rude when people inquired whether there was a problem. I offered to go and get the bags myself - after all, I can carry at least 9kg.

Finally they came. Well, some came. Mine did not. And nor did other ones. Cue: form filling, being dealt with rather curtly. To be fair, there were only two people during a busy period so it is not surprising these poor staff were a little rude. Virgin clearly can't care enough about its staff or customers to ensure sufficient numbers working during busy periods. Pity. Anyway, I leave the airport sans clothes and sans my grandmother's 90th birthday present. Not that any Virgin staff seemed to give a shit when I mentioned this to them. It must be the quality customer service training.

More on the incompetence and lack of giving a shit of Virgin travels of my bag and the Virgin Atlantic policy of allowing staff to steal electronic items from you not having liability for electronic items to come.

How to make carbon offsetting more difficult

The first in a series of why Virgin Atlantic suck are the biggest let-down airline ever. You expect Air France to be late, to lose your bag, and to have rude staff. You expect United planes to be a bit dirty and the food to taste suspiciously of cardboard. You expect Virgin Atlantic staff to be significantly below average IQ and to steal your things. Or at least now I do. I thought Virgin Atlantic might become my regular London to DC. Now, not so much...

You can carbon offset on Virgin Atlantic. Apparently. According to the in-flight magazine, a one-way flight from London Heathrow in economy should cost you GBP 5.78. It is calculated by myclimate. It should be quite simple. According to the instructions all you have to do is: "during duty free sales, tell a member of crew how much you want to pay to offset your flight (rounded to the nearest pound). They will debit this amount on our secure payment system."

During duty free, I asked if I could do this. I must have been the first ever person because it was met with a blank look. I showed the instructions in the in-flight magazine and was told that I should go online to do it. For some reason I was asked if I had a frequent flyer card - which I do - or rather I did, until I cut it up yesterday. Clearly, Virgin don't care enough to actually inform their staff of this option despite claiming on their environment website that this is 'what they are all about'.

Happily though, Virgin have their own carbon offsetting website. Online, the total cost for a round trip is GBP 14.87 for carbon only (and GBP 29.74 including all non-carbon emissions which may or may not contribute to climate change). Try as I might, I just can't seem to make the online totals add up to the amount in the on-line magazine - 2 x 5.78 is just not 14.87 whatever way I look at it.

I checked the myclimate website. It costs CHF 72, which, at today's rate is GBP 52.09. Who to believe?

More details on why Virgin Atlantic suck are the biggest let-down airline ever to follow.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Medical devices for the World's Poor

"According to the World Health Organization, some three-quarters of medical devices given by rich countries to developing nations, remain unused. In response, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has called for the development of technologies better suited to emerging nations."

Read the rest of the article HERE.

Here is another example of well-adapted technology for the developing world:

How to get people to obey the law

Threat of punishment or convincing them it's in their own best interest.

I have noticed a new series of anti-drink-driving adverts on the TV in the US. I couldn't find a youtube video but it basically shows traffic police who catch a drink-driver. In DC, I've seen signs around town saying something along the lines of: "Don't text/talk on the phone while driving. Who will catch you? DC police will." Both of these rely on people not behaving in some way because of the fear of being caught.

Compare this with efforts in the UK. Signs along stretches of road or at roundabouts tell you how many deaths there have been in the previous three years. And here is a selection of short adverts on the TV (pop them out if you can't see them) - warning: they are pretty hard-hitting:

A drink-driving one:

An phone whilst driving one:

A seat-belt one:

You can easily search for more for texting, speeding etc

The difference between the British and American approaches is pretty interesting. There is a different philosophy behind convincing people to obey rules. The British approach tries to convince people that it is in their own best interest to obey the rules, or, at least, that the rule is a good idea for society that should be obeyed regardless of punishment. The American efforts don't try to convince people that the rules are correct, but that they will be caught and punished if they don't obey them.

The UK has amongst the safest roads in the world. The World Health Organisation has a recent report on traffic accidents. I think there has been quite a lot of success in the UK. In America, I always see people chatting on their mobile phones, texting, etc...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Development aid money comes back to donor countries

This is a problem according to THIS report by the European Network on Debt and Development. Here are a few quotes from the article:

"The study shows that half of the contract value in World Bank-funded projects in the last decade went to firms from donor countries"

"Procurement refers to the awarding of contracts to private companies for aid projects such as building roads, supplying drugs or delivering schoolbooks to poor countries."

"Few poor countries have managed to become independent from international aid. This is partly due to donors’ procurement practices, the report states."

It is possible that the modalities of aid might be wrong. It could be that the best way to do it would be to simply give vast amounts of cash to developing country governments or simply direct to the people. But if there is an actual physical role to play, then something like this is happening:

- Hello, would you like to buy a chocolate bar from me?
- I don't have enough money.
- No problem, I will give you the money.
- Okay - that sounds like a good deal.
- Here is the money.
- Thank you. I would like one chocolate bar, please.

It is the same as just giving the chocolate bar to someone. Either way, you are giving someone something for free. Well, not entirely for free - you still have to work to make the chocolate bar.

You can chance 'chocolate bar'  to road, or computer, or school, or clinic, or whatever. In any case, donor countries are giving something for free - that is, people in donor countries are working hard to produce things to give to developing countries so that they can consume them. Let's not pretend any sort of bad deal is going on here.

We can go a bit deeper - there are conditions attached to giving that money - hence the reason some of it comes back. There have to be safeguards - ' procurement practices'. Of course, you just shouldn't be able to give the cash to your mate who makes over-prices sub-standard roads in your country (and yes, I know a real life example of this). That is corruption - in fact it is ripping off the taxpayer in the donor country, ripping off the poor people in the developing country who could have seen some of those resources better used, ripping off the road user. Far better to use a cheaper more reliable foreign (gasp!) company and use the difference in resources to, oh, I don't know, build a school, reduce donor country taxes, just about anything else, in fact.

Let's add another issue: what if you want to purchase computers for schools in your poor country. Or technical equipment for your hospital. What if you need a highly trained expert in a specific field. Or loads of other things. Good luck finding those the Congo. But, of course, you can always go for sub-standard, happy in the knowledge that the cash is staying in the country (likely going to your friends).

Obviously, as countries develop, more thing will be available within them, and the procurement systems will be more solid. But that is a slow process. In the mean time, there is nothing wrong with importing.

Finally, even the Netherlands - a pretty developed country - can suffer when large amounts of foreign money comes into their country. Usually we think of it as the natural resource curse (one part of which is ' Dutch Disease). Loads of almost free money in causing:   (1) exchange rate appreciation--> difficult for other sectors to export-->other sectors die hurting the economy (Dutch Disease) ;  (2) people with the cash buy lots of things pushing up demand--> prices increase-->all other areas of the economy are hurt (Balassa-Samuelson); (3) loads of cash=incentives for corruption; (4) loads of cash=incentives for ignoring the rest of the economy.

There is evidence that foreign aid has all of these effects too. So maybe it is not a great idea for us to dump all that cash on countries in any case. Some of it, sure. But too much can do more harm that good.

Having said all of that. If you can get good products, services, including management skills and efficient, non-corrupt procurement, locally, that would be a way better idea than looking back to donor countries. I'm really just railing against the framing of the article...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why sum people is cleverer than what which others is, innit

" In our 2010 study, we not only found a very strong relationship between levels of infectious disease and IQ, but controlling for the effects of education, national wealth, temperature, and distance from sub-Saharan Africa, infectious disease emerged as the best predictor of the bunch. A recent study by Christopher Hassall and Thomas Sherratt repeated our analysis using more sophisticated statistical methods, and concluded that infectious disease may be the only really important predictor of average national IQ." 

Read the whole article HERE.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Please don't give us business - we would have to work! : American edition

There are many problems with living in the first world.One of my major ones is that there is less quirky economic behaviour for me to blog about. So I am always happy when someone gives me the opportunity.

This weekend I went cycling in West Virginia. Being somewhere in Shenadoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains ensured that I had John Denver's Country Roads in my head for the entire time. And you should listen to it too whilst reading this blog.

Being a bit of a history buff, I was thrilled to stay in the Carriage Inn - a little B&B with plenty of history, mostly civil war, and to have the opportunity to wander around Charles Town and Harpers Ferry - beautiful little towns where most sites seem to be linked in some way to John Brown (including the site where he was hanged*). Anyway, I digress.

It was a long weekend and so difficult to find accommodation for a trip organised at the last minute. Finally, I stumbled upon this little B&B and went to book online. There were two rooms left out of seven. Instead of click 'reserve' I decided to phone. I was told that they were full for the night but I didn't mention that the booking system was allowing me to reserve. I remember a friend who used to work at a Youth Hostel telling me that they used to say that to people who phoned up if they sounded like arseholes. I can only assume I don't come across well on the phone.

Anyway, after trying a few other places and finding only a rather boring out-of-town motel, I decided to go ahead and book the B&B online anyway. Risky, but worth it, I figured. Arriving, the owner gave a nice little tour of the house including its role in the civil war and some of the history of the town. The owner's wife was 'delighted you could made it' despite it presumably being her who told me they were full.

On the lawn in front of the B&B was this sign:

Note the 'no vacancy' sign.At least it reassured me that it wasn't something I said on the phone - they didn't want any new guests at all.

So what is happening here? They had five full rooms but didn't want any more guests. Surely the marginal effort to filling one more room is minimal. It did remind me of the extreme efforts the ski slope in Lesotho goes to dissuade anyone from giving them business - lest they have to work.

So why didn't the owners of the B&B want any more guests? It's beyond me.

Speaking of why people do things, here is a photo of a post-naked-cycle-ride happy hour in Philly:

*Not 'hung' as the owner of the B&B said - using the wrong past participle for this verb always makes me grimace. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Demonstrating but not understanding why

I cycled past a demonstration in front of the White House today and stopped to chat with a late-fifties early-sixties guy to ask him what it was all about. Apparently, they don't want a pipeline built to take oil from a Canadian oil well to the US because the oil produces twice as much carbon dioxide as oil from Saudi Arabia. He didn't seem too sure about whether it is the production releases twice the amount (as he first said) or the total burning of oil. Since the actual production is responsible for less than 10% of the total amount of pollution released, transport and refining for about 20% and the actual using of the fuel for the remaining 70%, it matters.  See a video explaining where the pollution comes from HERE. He clearly felt very strongly about this issue - it was the first time he had ever protested against anything, but he didn't seem to know exactly what he was protesting about. My guess is that goes for a large number of the protesters there. They clearly felt strongly since they seem to want to actually get arrested. So, I asked does he feel strongly enough about this issue to protest but he does not about other ones? He started to tell me why this was really bad, but we had already ascertained that he didn't really know exactly what he was protesting about. I asked him why more efforts didn't go into charging a higher tax on fuel consumption as this would ultimately be more effective. He flinched when I mentioned this but did agree that it is necessary. He pointed out that Obama can stop this pipeline being built with just a signature - no need to negotiate with Congress. I can buy this as a reason. Nonetheless, I think that most people there feel strongly emotionally probably due to good marketing and memes - word of mouth within their communities telling each other they had to do something, that is is awful. They genuinely feel emotional about it, but feeling strongly does not make you correct (although they may be). More worryingly, for me, it means that efforts might go into changing small visible things and ignoring the bigger picture.

Worryingly, the website is well done, fairly powerful, but actually gives no information about the pollution caused. It is all just emotion. I want numbers. This man was protesting based on one piece of actual solid information - production produces twice as much carbon dioxide as it does in Saudi Arabia. And he wasn't even sure of that.