Sunday, January 29, 2012

Visualizing a life

We love narratives. In the fairy stories, almost every incident along the way had a bearing on the climax. If the heroine shared her bread with an old woman the old woman later proves essential to solving some puzzle before the young lady. Good narratives are clean, if not always orderly.

That’s a useful way of looking at our lives. There’s a start, turning points, struggles and falls, and an every-day-moving-on until the end.

But I think it misses part of the big picture.

Think of every day as another scan line across the picture, building up an image. A big change in direction can change the image, but so can the thousand dots of daily little acts that nobody would put in the story.

So what picture have my habits and choices drawn? Is it clear or muddy, and what is missing? The narrative description won't tell me.

Exotic foods

We've a date night rule: don't eat what we already make at home.

So we tend to eat at at "ethnic" restaurants, and since we don't dine out often we don't get jaded.

But what do you do if last month you tried every variety of Indian regional cuisine and you're looking for something different? Molecular food? What a terribly silly name...

How about "ketchup caviar," where you make little balls of ketchup? It may not be worth the effort, opinions seem to vary (I think the wordpress site is run by an employee), but it certainly qualifies as "different." Although if I were making little condiment beads I think I'd want something just a little zingier for a base than ketchup. Maybe a drop or two of tabasco sauce?

In the exotic foods competition our turduckens are distant echos of the Roman versions, but I think we take the wreath in the liquid nitrogen division.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Listening to NPR

Earlier than usual this morning I tuned in the news, and caught a couple of stories that didn't quite say everything.

The first was an NPR piece on a public teaching hospital in Haiti, touted as a model for aid programs. My ears perked up and I listened carefully as they described the low cost ($16M+$4M+ in kind) and the facilities (fiber optic, 6 surgery theaters, etc) and how they hoped this would help keep Haitian doctors and nurses from decamping to the US. I'm still missing something here... Did they use local labor? The reporter compared other "less successful" projects (cholera treatment is still in tents, government palace is still waiting demolition, etc), and ended with a devastating stinger as a throw-away line: The Haitian government doesn't have a budget item for operating expenses.

So no, it is not a model for aid programs. We've seen this many times before, and it does not end well.

The next story was on student protests in Morocco. College graduates have organized daily demonstrations demanding government jobs. Morocco has the usual bloated and useless government bureaucracy, but faced with the protests officials often give in and create a few new positions. The leaders keep lists of who shows up to protest every day, and only the devoted regulars are on the list submitted to the government. Did I mention that nobody really wants to work in the private sector when government jobs are lifetime and perk-filled?

It sounds like a kind of extortion that rewards noisy jerks, but one thing the government gets out of it is a list of people who know how to show up for work every day...

The astute reader will notice that I have to rely on a modicum of integrity in reporting. Prior knowledge told me what to look for in the report on aid projects and left me with red flags when information was missing. Anyone with any experience with planning (even us peons) knows how to interpret the confession at the end. But suppose that last vital comment about the budget had been left off? This little story would have been added to my mosaic picture of the world with the little tag "not enough information". But that little tag isn't isn't easy to remember a year later, and I'd be left with a prettier image of Haiti than I ought to have. And news reports regularly lack those critical little details.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Quantum Theology by Diarmuid O’Murchu

Subtitle: "Spiritual Implications of the New Physics" (The back cover says he has "written extensively on new paradigms from a multi-disciplinary point of view.")

I was given this to find out what I thought of it. By page 11 he claims that for 30,000 years men worshiped the "Mother Goddess," apparently blissfully unaware that the story’s bogus; and that 8,000 years ago we invented agriculture and religion; and that before there was agriculture there were no wars.

By this point so many red flags were up that I was hard put to find a reason to read farther. But I promised to look at it, so I soldiered on. I skipped to chapter 3, What is the Quantum All About? On page 25 he screws up Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and claims that it undermined the "classical model", which if you use his definition it didn’t. On page 27 he cites Lazlo for the assertion that photons are nonlinear waves in a medium; which is pretty far from being an established theory, to put it mildly—the usual linear model is a lot simpler. On page 28 he says "we experience life not in isolated segments but in wholes (quanta)." Insofar as that means anything at all it misrepresents classical theory. On page 29 he misstates the definitions of wave function and superposition; on page 31 he claims that scientists are unwilling to admit that the human mind can be in error (conclusive proof that he’s never been at a science convention); on page 32 he emits gibberish about Bose-Einstein condensates "with the aid of which we can distinguish conscious from non-conscious systems," and I gave up. Sorry. The physics was wrong and so was the attempted use.

I picked a random chapter later to see if I could figure out what he’s driving at—it seems to be a kind of "we’re all part of the whole" pantheism. But I’m not going to bother to see how he gets there.

I spent 15 minutes so you don't have to. The book is a sad waste of innocent trees.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Red-Green show?

The human eye is not configured to see certain color mixtures because neurons excited by red light are suppressed by green photons, and so on. Red plus green equals a kind of brown, right?

But as the story describes, some researchers tried to fool the eye by narrowly striping red and green together, or blue and yellow together. Because of normal eye jitter, a cell that saw red a split second ago sees green the next, and the result looks brown or olive. But when they dynamically adjusted the image position using retinal tracking, to keep the same neurons stimulated by the same color stripes, the volunteers saw new colors for which they knew no names.

I wonder how expensive that rig is. I'd like to see it myself.

"Avoid ghetto" app

A proposed smart-phone program to guide travelers (drivers or pedestrians) to avoid dangerous routes is generating the expected controversy.
Microsoft says the app will use crime statistics to determine what parts of town are to be avoided. But it’s unclear where the data will come from and how it will be interpreted.

Microsoft has filed a patent for the app, but the actual product is unnamed and not available yet.

Opponents like Wallace fear it could hurt minority communities.

“It’s almost like gerrymandering,” she said. “It’s stereotyping for sure and without a doubt; I can’t emphasize enough, it’s discriminatory.”

A couple of things jump out at me here:

  • As the story suggests, interpretation is critical. Consider Madison.
    • Most areas are reasonably safe during the daytime, but some get dicey in the evening and night. Does time of day figure in? How do you flag an area that is dangerous day or night?
    • Some areas have a high number of crimes because the population density is high; the rate is not out of line with other places. Do they use rates or raw numbers?
    • One area with high crime stats is State Street, which is also one of the attractions of the town. Drunks are easier targets, and some are aggressive; so you can avoid a lot of it if you choose the right time of day. Frat row (a block away from State Street) has high stats too; battery, sexual assault, and lesser offenses; though I can't imagine that area as a city attraction.
  • This is exactly the opposite of stereotyping. Areas where strangers are apt to be attacked are also areas where locals die regularly. All this does is make local knowledge available to out-of-towners.

Perhaps Wallace fears that entrepreneurs visiting town would pass by the violent neighborhoods and miss the opportunity to look at a graffiti-ed building and have an epiphany: "That must be a crack-house; what a wonderful spot to base my order fulfillment team!" Or if there is a restaurant that manages to attract people into a dangerous zone anyway, it isn't likely to lose much business from passers-through who probably haven't heard of it in the first place. The only (honest) people likely to be harmed are those in intermediate crime areas, if prospective shoppers look them up and say "Well, this other place is only half a mile farther, and the crime rate is lower." In a medium sized city I'd not expect that to be an issue, and in a large city most people seem to deal with a medium-sized subset and can probably be trusted to interpret the numbers.

It seems unlikely that Wallace somehow profits from the fate of unsuspecting travelers, and she can't be so foolish as to imagine that the people living in the city don't know the shape of it, so I'm led to conclude that what she really objects to is calling things by their names.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why fewer marriages?

Someone (*) wrote of impetuous love something like "Passion is a reliable old workhorse. Nine times out of ten it will pull a steady cart." Perhaps youthful enthusiasm did lead to steady marriages in his day, but things seem a little different now.

We’ve provided a zeitgeist that teaches us to call indecision freedom, to value entertainment and acquisition more than accomplishment, and to feel entitled to sexual pleasure. (Our ancestors warned that even food had to be earned; such a belief in sexual entitlements would have proved your madness.)

Does this contribute to an attitude to marriage that is hard to distinguish from cowardice?

True, our legal framework undercuts long-term commitments, and makes marriage a much riskier proposition, especially for men. And we’ve all read complaints about the "Peter Pans." But for slaves marriages were not officially recognized and could be broken at a master’s whim; but they still tried to marry. The right to bind themselves was a freedom

(*) Not sure who, and I can’t swear that the quote is exact...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

When Helping Hurts

How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
The indigenous staff in my organization lead weekly Bible studies with the children in low income communities. These Bible studies are just one aspect of my organization’s overall attempts to bring long-lasting development in these broken communities. After a short-term team conducts a Bible study in one of these communities, the children stop attending the Bible studies of my organization. Our indigenous staff tell me that the children stop coming because we do not have all the fancy materials and crafts that the short-term teams have, and we do not give away things like these teams do. The children have also come to believe that our staff are not as interesting or as creative as the Americans that come on these teams.

The authors describe poverty in terms of material shortages, but also in terms of broken relationships with other humans, with themselves, and with God.

Material shortages are easy to understand and measure, and easy to relieve. But what happens when that’s just a symptom? And what are the side effects when free outside money pours in? Inflation= savers lose; local suppliers go broke; local banks fail; local leaders lose face; recipients’ self-worth is lost if a man can’t provide for his family, what use is he?; and so on. But wait, there’s more! What about the giver? He gets to be superior, a kind of god to the pitiful inferiors. Paternalism is poisonous. You don't want to become that kind of person.

There’s a vicious cycle in poverty where being poor makes you feel inferior and worthless, and feeling inferior discourages you from taking risks in education or work, or encourages you to drown your sorrows with chemicals—which keeps you poor. So your relationship with yourself matters.

Your relationships with others matter too; who will help you if you get sick? If you lose your apartment, will your cousin take you in?

And your relationship with God orders these and much more.

The first rule of relieving poverty is that you are dealing with peers, not inferiors. And they know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t than you do.

The authors say poverty generally lands in one of three stages: needing relief (just after a tsunami, for example), needing rehabilitation, and needing development. Relief needs to be immediate and short-term. The other stages demand the participation of the needy in their planning and the implementation. There may be very good reasons the farmers plant low-yield crops year after year.

Legal and social structures matter. The US welfare system punishes anyone who tries to save. Loan sharks (payday lenders, rent-to-own, and their third world brothers) are ubiquitous, and in theft-prone slums in Africa some people have to deposit their money with "savings sharks" who charge interest (up to 80%!) for keeping your money safe for you.

I’d never heard of Asset Based Community Development before, but it sounds like an excellent approach; and not just for poverty relief. It starts by finding out what skills and resources the people have, and tries to look for solutions to problems using community resources, building/rebuilding relationships between people and local institutions and being careful not to bring in outside resources unless absolutely needed. Often the local resources are far larger than even the local people realize.

One of the authors describes how he gave \$8 to buy penicillin to save the life of Grace, an ex-witch doctor in Uganda. And in Chapter 5 he explains why that was stupid and probably did more harm than good. A little bit of his mea culpa:

The truth is that there was more than enough time to walk back to the church, where the small-business class was still assembled, and ask the participants what they could do to help Grace. While the refugees were extremely poor, they could have mustered the eight cents per person to pay for the penicillin.

Why does all of this matter? Grace desperately needed relationships in the community in general and in St. Luke’s Church in particular. Her former way of life had created many enemies, and, being infected with HIV, Grace was going to need solid support structures as time wore on. In fact, Grace needed to have her poverty of community alleviated if she was going to have any chance for long-term survival.

What else? MicroLoan Institutions are nice, but not something that church missions should get involved in and not that useful in the countryside (they need a critical mass of customers). Financial education is often helpful. Hope and self-control are side-effects that are essential to climbing out of poverty.

When I went with a church group to help in New Orleans, we went under the auspices of a local church which gave us the assignments; and number one was "If someone wants to talk, drop the work and talk. You are here for relationships." We talked with the widow whose house we were rehabbing (she made us dinner), but there weren’t a lot of other people around most of the time—and the drug house lookout didn’t want to chat. A little, a little—who knows how useful it was.

The church has also sponsored wells in Liberia. The footage of people using the pumps is nice, but I never did get an answer to my question: Who has ownership, and how will they be repaired?

Read the book. And then ask some hard questions about how your aid money and effort gets used.

Friday, January 06, 2012

How to be a dictator

The Economist interviewed Alastair Smith about the book he co-authored The Dictator's Handbook: How Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics. What's the secret for staying in power?
Do they actually have to support me, or can I just terrify them into supporting me by threatening them with death?

No, they absolutely have to support you on some level. You can’t personally go around and terrorise everyone. Our poor old struggling Syrian president is not personally killing people on the streets. He needs the support of his family, senior generals who are willing to go out and kill people on his behalf. The common misconception is that you need support from the vast majority of the population, but that’s typically not true. There is all this protest on Wall Street, but CEOs are keeping the people they need to keep happy happy—the members of the board, senior management and a few key investors—because they are the people who can replace them. Protesters on Wall Street have no ability to remove the CEOs. So in a lot of countries the masses are terrified but the supporters are not.

or this

tax very highly. It’s much better to decide who gets to eat than to let the people feed themselves. If you lower taxes people will do more work, but then people will get rewards that aren’t coming through you. Everything good must come through you. Look at African farm subsidies. The government buys crops at below market price by force. This is a tax on farmers who then can’t make a profit. So, how do you reward people? The government subsidises fertilisers and hands it back that way. In Tanzania vouchers for fertilisers are handed out not to the most productive areas but to the party loyalist areas.

It never ceases to amaze me how many people happily call for more "public" control of our economies and lives without the faintest clue of what it really means behind the scenes; as though Lord Acton's Law is somehow abolished when you have elections. You'd think that the counterexamples like Chicago would be adequate refutation of that belief. And it never ceases to amaze me how many other people, reacting against the terrifying insanity of the first group, are persuaded that holy greed will always work for the public good.

I'll have to keep an eye out for the book.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Which books to read first?

At Christmas our families generally give each other books. Since we take home those we received, but won’t be seeing each others' books for a while, reading what the other person got is a higher priority than reading what was tagged with our own names. (We often have similar interests, though not similar tastes.) Logical, right? Forgiven?

Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps by Karen Palmer

Ghana has witches, mostly women. It has witch finders. And it has some villages set aside for witches or suspected witches.

Sounds pretty horrible, and it sounded that way to Karen Palmer as well. The travel books for Ghana mention one such village, which she visited—and decided to study the situation in more detail. (She describes two villages, which have strikingly different problems.)

A chief was selected (by the ancestors, of course), for the post of witch seer. He doesn’t go out to find witches, suspected witches are brought to him for verification. The test (a fee is required) involves whether a sacrificed chicken dies on its back or its face—on its face means the woman is a witch who sucks the life out of people and kills neighbors and kin. A series of sacrifices and ceremonies can "de-fang" the witch, who will then allegedly be killed by angry spirits if she tries anything wicked again. But these are pricey, and even if they are carried out the woman is rarely welcome back in her village. Thus many women just stay in a village for witches attached to this chief’s domain and under his guard. They are farmed out to work for neighbors, or try to scrape together something to sell.

Sounds pretty abusive—the chief gets lots of benefit and the women lose everything.

But Karen studied the matter deeper, and found it not so easy to cure the problem as she’d hoped. For starters, laws aren’t very helpful. She described the history of the English attempts to deal with witchcraft, and found that it generally made no difference; depending on your point of view they may have sometimes made things worse. Second, the belief in witches is not something stirred up by witch finders, but endemic at all levels of society. True, men with "witch power" are almost admired, and there can be an arms race for jujus and counter-jujus, but everybody believes that some women are endowed with a special power, sometimes without their consent, that brings them into a sorority of night-traveling sort-of vampiric fireballs. (It can run in families, too.) Third, an accusation is deadly, even if you are vindicated. Some women, nominally cleansed, tried to go home and barely returned to the witch camp alive.

The witch village, oppressive though it is, turned out to be better than alternatives.

The other village she saw was simply a safe area, and not run by a seer-chief. The women there were even worse off. She interpreted the difference as due to the fact that the women in the first camp were supposedly under control of the seer-chief, and therefore could be safely employed, while at the second village the neighbors didn’t perceive any oversight and feared to buy anything the witches had made. So the witches lived off what they could glean from the land and food other people dropped.

Karen describes a visit to a sacred cave complex (which she didn’t enter), where everyone comes to deal with the spirits, and describes rather vaguely how her own attitudes toward fortunetelling changed—with some examples she found right on the money and others that were way off target. (She also inserts a few pages dealing with European witchcraft, which are largely incorrect.)

Her translators taught her more than she expected about the pervasiveness of the beliefs, even among Christians who believed God to be superior to demons. One secular source decried the Ghanaian treatment of witches, and said they should be harnessed and trained to provide an African equivalent to Western technology.

The stories of the women she is able to interview will stay with you. Some were accused by jealous secondary wives, one by business rivals, and one believes herself to be a witch and wishes she could stop the deadly dreams she has.

She comes back repeatedly to one factor, but does not suggest dealing with it: polygamy. If her descriptions are representative, a large proportion of the accusations come from strife between multiple wives. (She says all children are assumed to be those of the first wife! And wives who give birth only to girls are not much use.)

Read it.