Wednesday, July 21, 2004

"Majority of American citizens are out of touch with mainstream American society"

Once again, the Onion nails it.

"We're not sure, at this point, whether this is a new trend or a continuation of an old trend," PCRG consultant Paul Van Lamm said. "All we know right now is that 70 to 85 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with, unaware of, or just plain don't care about what the American people are watching on television, seeing at the movie theater, listening to on their radios, wearing, rooting for, falling in love with all over again, or downloading."

For the uninitiate, The Onion is satire; often unfunny but sometimes dead accurate.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Cuba to help Caribbean fight Aids

The BBC reports that The Cuban government has offered to train nurses and doctors throughout the Caribbean as part of the region's fight against Aids.

As we know from Haiti, if you make sure people get good nutritian and regular checks (not necessarily from doctors or nurses!) to make sure they're taking their meds and that nothing untoward is happening it reduces the death rate substantially. I've never heard that Cuba's health system was anything to write home about, but if (as seems probable) it can supply the really elementary care required, that helps a great deal.

But in the body of the story you find a few of the reasons Cuba has low death rates from Aids.

It has one of the world's very lowest infection rates. That is for a combination of reasons.

One is that when HIV was first discovered in the mid-80s Cuba controversially quarantined those it found to be carrying it.

The Communist-led island also has the advantage of a good public health system and a largely non-traveling, non-drug injecting population.

It is now offering its expertise in Aids prevention and treatment to its neighbours.

As I said earlier, a good public health system isn't necessary, just an adequate one. But a low death rate from Aids comes from a low infection rate, and the low infection rate comes from isolation. Quarantine was a good idea: it helped nip the spread in the bud. Frankly, in the early Aids years, before we understood how it was transmitted, we should have been doing that too. Public health officials were political cowards. And a non-traveling population (a polite way of saying that they are trapped in a police state) isn't going to have much opportunity to get infected elsewhere.

But neither quarantine nor restricting travel nor eliminating IV drug abuse are really the domain of doctors and nurses, so all this training will do (assuming it does anything at all) is slightly lengthen the sufferer's lives, not reduce the number of patients. A good thing, but prevention is better. And Cuba's prevention policy isn't perfectly applicable elsewhere.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

"something terrible has reemerged in the soul of America"

Mark W. Davis says it better than I can. The sheer unreasoning hatred is unbelievable.

Unfortunately, it can get worse. Indeed, it is already worse than he suggests, for he only describes left/right hatred, and omits the poisonous nihilism of our ghetto cultures.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


BBC reports today on a 419 scambaiter. It sounds too pat to be true, but Register has had fun with them from time to time.

I get a steady trickle of offers from Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and even Iraq. The spam filter catches about half of them.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Editors vs reporters

In the NY Times Science Section splash page today (12-July-2004) the editor has

Decoding the Dance of Saturn's Rings By KENNETH CHANG

When NASA's Cassini spacecraft rocketed into Saturn's orbit last week, it became clear that the planet's rings are not rigid.

Compare that bit of rubbish with what the article actually said:

From far away, Saturn's rings look like a single rigid disk. With more powerful telescopes, 17th-century astronomers were able to discern not a disk but a series of concentric rings.

Even closer, as when NASA's Cassini spacecraft rocketed into Saturn's orbit last week, it becomes clear that the rings are not rigid, either.

Given that Maxwell proved over a hundred years ago that the rings can't be rigid, and that the Voyagers got a good look at them 25 years ago, I think we can safely say that we already knew the rings weren't rigid. And Chang's text suggests as much. But the editor who put up the Science page must have been looking for lively quotes, found one, and decided to 'clean up the grammar.' And made it false.

This isn't just bone ignorance ("lack of domain knowledge," if you want to be charitable). The editor's job is to know words, and how to be precise and clear. becomes != became

I suppose this is all of a piece with their increasingly creative approach to reporting, but I'd hoped they could get simple things like grammar correct.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Laborers Together

by Peggy Grossman

I've been thinking about how to write this: the author is a family friend.

The bad news first, I guess. Her daughters should have been more aggressive editors and cleaned up some typos and unclear paragraphs. OK, I got that out of the way.

Peggy Grossman was a Southern Baptist missionary in Liberia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso over about 30 years, together with her husband Paul and their four children. This book is her autobiography, written as a collection of anecdotes which she was persuaded to publish.

You would expect someone with 30 years in Africa to have many tales to tell, and she tells them enthusiastically and without regard for PC sensitivities. Rich (by local definition) outsiders are expected to contribute to the local economy by hiring servants, and these servants are called by the immemorial and very un-PC titles of "house boy" and "yard boy" and so on. Maybe the language makes your teeth itch, but the titles don't carry the same implications in Liberia that they would in the US. In fact they convey a certain status: "I work for so-and-so, he's a big man."

The first section of the book tells of her childhood, her call to missions, her husband, children, and their eventual acceptance by the Mission Board. A calling, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the direction God gives a person for their career. Folks usually use it to refer to careers in Christian ministry, but the term has a long history in Protestantism and could mean a "secular" occupation, albeit one devoted to God.

They spent about 5 years in Liberia, and I met them from time to time. Perhaps not surprisingly I remember their daughter Paula (my age) better; at first I was a bit envious that she seemed to have more privileges than I (and consoled myself that someone who put ketchup on her eggs must have some deep character flaw) and in later years I was not quite sure how to deal with the pretty lady.

The moment Paul and I were accepted as missionary candidates, I began praying, "Lord, show me my ministry in Africa. Let me live my life, truly, in such a way that people can see Jesus in me, but give me a specific ministry."

After being in Liberia about six months and still praying that same prayer, I answered a knock at my door one morning to see a man slight of stature who definitely wanted to speak with me. He ignored my greeting, but got right to the point. He burst out, "Missy, I no go toilet for three days." (Missy is the word used to address all women in Liberia, and replaces "Mrs." or "Miss").

Now, really, I didn't think that was any of my business. I told him where he could go to get help, but he insisted that he knew all "white men" (a term most Africans in those days used for "missionaries") were rich and always had medicine. A picture formed in my mind in which I could see a box of Ex-lax on the top shelf of my medicine cabinet, safely away from "little hands". I got the box of Ex-lax, handed it to him and said, "Read the directions."

Three days later . . . another knock . . . the same man . . . a different story. He immediately exclaimed, "Missy, I no stop going to toilet!"

As I talked with the man, I realized he couldn't read and, hence, had taken the ENTIRE box of Ex-lax. His quote was, "It tasted like candy."

God spoke to me at that moment: "Peggy, here is your ministry. You can teach these people to read. In fact, you better teach them or you might kill them if you pull any more tricks like this one."

And so she did. And not just teaching people to read English, but teaching them to read the Bible in Moore in Burkina Faso.

They trained pastors to start churches and rejoiced with the enthusiastic ones and wept over the dishonest ones.

It would be impossible to even estimate how many people were taught to read and write through the assistance of the Burkina Faso Baptist Mission literacy program. In the Sanwabo area alone, we never knew exactly how many classes were in session because our trained workers would visit a village to witness for the Lord, and discover that they needed a literacy class. Instead of informing us of the need, they would simply begin a class . . . neighbor teaching neighbor.

Not all was pleasant: "It's not a sin to steal from the white man." Burkina Faso is heavily Muslim, and converts to Christianity are frequently persecuted. Snakes and bugs (lizards are your friends!) and dust and heat get to you after a while.

But through it all she looks to the Lord, and tells of her family, and keeps it interesting.

Go read it.

How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the new war edited by James F Hoge Jr and Gideon Rose

This volume of essays published by Public Affairs Reports came out in October 2001, and features writers from Fouad Ajami to Wesley Clark to Fareed Zakaria. It is a fairly quick read, and of interest mostly for a then and now comparison. At least for me: the ideas are doubtless new to many of us. Karen Armstrong's Was it Inevitable is a whitewash of Islamic history (how did the author of so many books on Islam manage to miss so many unpleasant details?), but the rest are honest if not always perfectly accurate in hindsight. Topics range from airline security (which still has gaping holes) to military reorganization, countering bioterrorism, and diplomacy.

I bought this at Half Price Books, but you may want to check your local library first. If you don't know a lot and want to learn, read it. If you are pretty well versed in the international, military, and homeland security scene, you might find it interesting to see how thinking has evolved. Otherwise . ..

Bad news for Africa

In a 28-June SciDev article titled No quick fix to Africa's food problems, David Dickson summarized an advisory report to the UN, and demonstrates that he is a monster.

There's no quick fix because the environments are too diverse.

At root is the wide diversity of farming and food systems on the continent, a reflection partly of the variety of ecological and climatological conditions, partly of cultural traditions. Other factors range from a lack of a sound scientific infrastructure in educational institutions, to inadequate roads and storage facilities which mean that, even when food is produced, it often can't get to where it's needed, or rots before it can be used.

In addition, though Dickson doesn't mention it, several governments use starvation for political ends.

The report, and Dickson, hope that governments and native research groups will make food production and distribution a priority, with "science and technology at its center." No mention of what to do with Mugabe.

Nice ideas, albeit not quite complete. But Dickson would rather people starve than give up his pet prejudices:

One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa's food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasizes that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.

Read that again. The emphasis is mine. Why is he happy that there isn't a quick "green revolution" fix for Africa's food problems?

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Church changing with the times

If you haven't yet seen this article by Philip Jenkins on the history of American churches' attitude toward eugenics, go read it. The problem with most Christians is not that they "check their minds at the door" when entering the church, but that they don't take their minds with them into the world.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

New Blog

Now for something completely different. OK, not completely different. I put together a "blue sky plans" blog in which I brainstorm (singlehandedly!) some ideas about how to improve church, society, and anything else. Blogspot hiccoughs sometimes: some days it wants you to type and some days it requires So either or one of those should work.

I don't have comments turned on yet: I'll try to figure that out and see how well it works.

Saturday, July 03, 2004


Several people assumed that I'm a socialist (at least) because I work at UW-Madison. Perhaps I should declare myself.

Quite a number of bloggers are libertarian/laissez-faire capitalists. I'm not. Think about the reality, not the theory.

  • In the real world, extreme concentrations of wealth distort economies. It is easy to say: "Let the chips fall where they may," but some firms become so big that if they go bankrupt so does almost everyone else. Wealth can be created, but it can also disappear. Somebody else's screwup can make your money go away. Did you have Enron in your investment portfolio?
  • In the real world, extreme concentrations of wealth distort politics. Bribes are the old reliable standby, but Bill Gates doesn't have to use such crude methods. And think how many ball teams threaten to move out of town if they don't get juicy concessions. Point taken?
  • In the real world we find real commons: things not ownable, shared; like air or water. You can find many lucid descriptions of the 'tragedy of the commons:' suffice it to say that when people or companies abuse the commons everyone suffers and the common goods are usually ruined. Without some societal or legal protection, human selfishness will eventually destroy whatever is "nobody's property."
  • In the real world people without exceptional skills are often helpless. Unions don't help the unskilled all that much.
  • In the real world people often cheerfully lie cheat and steal when they think they can get away with it for long enough. Maybe people will eventually discover that you've been adulterating the antibiotics you sell, but in the meantime you'll have made a nice killing and skipped out.
And so on. None of these are solvable from within the framework of laissez-faire capitalism.

But . . .

OK, make the strongest case you can for socialism. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Done? OK, now replace every instance of "the people" or "the government" in your argument with "some random bureaucrat." That's the real world implementation of all the high-sounding phrases. The argument doesn't sound quite so attractive anymore, does it?

In the real world socialism has a strong tendency to multiply entitlements without limit and micromanage nearly every aspect of society--but not necessarily bring political liberty (remember that the fascists and nazis had socialist platforms, however much they decried communism). This is unstable, and not a good program for a good future.

So what does that make me?

I suppose you can best describe me as a Murphocrat, or a Heisenburgian. Nothing is going to work perfectly, and anything you do to fix things is going to have unintended consequences. Some things you have to try to fix, but you can never be sure that your fix is permanent. You may have to withdraw the fix, or fix the fix; and ten years later fix that fix. Seemingly little things turn out to have major consequences.

Sometimes the consequences are very good: Read The Mystery of Capital by Hernando deSoto if you haven't already. If the state lets people own their own homes and spends the boring time and effort to register and keep track of this ownership it provides a startling amount of capital that the common man can use to try to start a business or improve his life.

So my prescription is fairly simple: Dink around as little as you can, keep your eyes open for problems that crop up, and have the humility to revisit your old laws from time to time to see what needs maintenance.

Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, bethink you that you may be mistaken."