Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The murderous Aztec empire

Westerners have a tendency to idolize the pre-history of American civilization, painting the native Americans as a relatively peaceful, if technologically backwards people. An exhibit at the British Museum, however, disputes that interpretation. In an exhibit about the Aztecs just before Cortés' arrival on the continent, the horrors of the Aztec's merciless killing machine are described:

When the recently excavated pyramid whose finds provide the centrepiece of the British Museum show was first inaugurated in 1484, there were prisoners lined up for sacrifice stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see. Some estimate that 20,000 victims were killed over four days.

The author draws an analogy between the Aztecs' reign with that of the Nazis – both expanded quickly on the backs of vast killing machines, but were short lived, as the conquest-by-terror method is not sustainable in the long term. According to a book by Hugh Thompson, many tribes conquered by the Aztecs colluded with the Spanish against the Aztec king Moctezuma.

But the most interesting part is the historiography of the noble Aztecs and horrible Spanish. Apparently the trope began as English propaganda against the then-formidable Spanish empire:

So why is he remembered by history as “a gentle prince”? The English had a hand in this: the conquest of the New World by Spain made it the European superpower and helped to finance the Armada. Hardly surprising that English propaganda should seize every opportunity to play up the leyenda negra, “the black legend” of Spanish cruelty in Mexico, and portray Moctezuma (and later Atahualpa in Peru) as hapless victims.

I'm not sure that this is entirely true – the idea of the "noble savage" is universal in modern Western civilization and not at all specific to what was once New Spain. But it's interesting to think about how centuries old imperial rivalries affect the way we think of history today.

Amtrak's utter incompetence

There's a lot to be said for Amtrak's mismanagement, but a lot of it is technical and inaccessible to the layman. This, however, is unconscionable: Amtrak still does not offer wireless internet – either free or paid – on any of its trains. Megabus and Bolt Bus (whose tickets between DC and NYC are about $20), however, have had wireless for about two years, and I'm pretty sure some Chinatown buses have had it for longer. Amtrak's normal tickets on the Northeast Corridor are about four times the cost of tickets on Bolt Bus and Megabus. Tickets on the Acela are about eight times the cost of bus tickets, and the service is heavily marketed towards business travelers who put a high price on their time. But no internet. It's apparently coming to Acela in about six months and the rest of the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2010. Had intercity buses and airlines not introduced wireless internet, I seriously doubt Amtrak would have ever had the business sense to do it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Guantánamo terrorists escape art therapy, plot Detroit attacks

This is no good:

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

One of those released was sent to Saudi Arabia for an "art therapy rehabilitation program," which is apparently not uncommon:

"The so-called rehabilitation programs are a joke," a U.S. diplomat said in describing the Saudi efforts with released Guantanamo detainees.

Saudi officials concede its program has had its "failures" but insist that, overall, the effort has helped return potential terrorists to a meaningful life.

One program gives the former detainees paints and crayons as part of the rehabilitation regimen.

A similar rehabilitation program in Yemen was stopped because so many of the detainees quickly joined with al Qaeda or its affiliates, the official said.

Monday, December 28, 2009

William of Orange's gay lover

I was reading William of Orange's Wikipedia page when I stumbled on this excellent (and well-cited, if you click through to the original) paragraph, which is about his suspected gay lovers:

Bentinck's closeness to William aroused jealousies, but some modern historians doubt that there was a homosexual element about their relationship. The same could not be said for Keppel, who was 20 years William's junior and strikingly handsome, and had risen from being a royal page to an earldom with suspicious ease. Portland wrote to William in 1697 that 'the kindness which your Majesty has for a young man, and the way in which you seem to authorise his liberties ... make the world say things I am ashamed to hear'. This, he said, was 'tarnishing a reputation which has never before been subject to such accusations'. William replied, saying, 'It seems to me very extraordinary that it should be impossible to have esteem and regard for a young man without it being criminal'.

The first part I like is that he was doing a page, which just goes to show that Mark Foley wasn't doing anything original (even for the US Congress).

The second is that, when confronted with the allegations, he proves that the phrase "so much fun it should be illegal" dates back to at least 1697.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The surprising prevalence of medical euthanasia

The NYT has a fascinating article on the apparently quite common practice of physicians essentially euthanizing their patients, with a combination of opioids and benzodiazepines (the same combination that kills so many movie stars, and what Ohio now uses on death row inmates when their first lethal injection doesn't work). The article is interesting throughout, but here's the takeaway:

There is little information about how many patients are terminally sedated, and under what circumstances — estimates have ranged from 2 percent of terminal patients to more than 50 percent. (Doctors are often reluctant to discuss particular cases out of fear that their intentions will be misunderstood.)

Reminds me of this episode of House, where Wilson tells the nurse the override code for the morphine dispenser, but loudly enough so that the patient can hear the code. He then delivers to himself a lethal dose of morphine, and Wilson gives a speech (or at least tries to) at a medical conference about how all doctors do it, but few are brave enough to admit it.

Something else that I find interesting – and this is probably mostly for legal liability reasons – is that doctors and patients seem to be restricted in being blunt about what they're doing, instead cloaking it all in codewords:

Although throughout the half-hour meeting the staff had never explicitly asked to continue sedating Mr. Oltzik, his daughter now gave them tacit permission: “We understand that the inevitable is here, but we wish him to go in peace and to find solace in that,” Ms. Ladin said.

This might be nice for some people, who don't want to face the reality of what's happening, but for others – especially those who the article says "were surprised their loved ones died so quickly, and wondered if the drugs had played a role" – it seems like this euphemistic attitude is far from ideal.

Credit card stealing app in Apple's official store

The other day, I downloaded an update to an iPhone app that I own that streams Romanian radio stations called roRadio. They added a page of ads that are displayed each time you open the app, and they struck me as a very candid assessment of what tech-savvy Romanians are into. The first one (in no particular order – they're displayed randomly) is an ad for a DEX app. DEX is the official Romanian dictionary, and, for what's essentially a dictionary with some etymology notes, it comes up surprisingly often in everyday conversation with Romanians. The second is some utility with Romania-specific facts – not exactly sure what they are, but it seems pretty normal.

The third one, though, is the most fascinating: it's an app whose only apparent utility I can see is to credit card thieves! It's 99¢ and I didn't buy it, but according to screenshots, it tells you the card issuer and whether or not a given credit card number is valid – things that you'd only need to know if the card in question wasn't actually yours (who forgets whether their card is a Visa or Mastercard??). Romanians are prolific hackers, but given Apple's notoriously stringent App Store policies, I'm surprised this one made it through.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

...and flying will likely become ever more hellish

Thanks to the Nigerian man whose legs crackled and popped a bit on Christmas Day aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, your next flight will suck a little more:

Although transportation officials had not announced new security measures yet, Air Canada said the Transportation Security Agency would make significant changes to the way passengers are able to move about on aircraft. During the final hour of flight, customers will have to remain seated, will not be allowed access to carry-on baggage and cannot have personal belongings or other items on their laps, according to a notice on Air Canada’s Web site.

In effect, that means passengers on flights of about 90 minutes or less will not be able to get out of their seats, since they are not allowed to move about while an airplane is climbing to its cruising altitude.

Drug war victories only last so long...

This just goes to show you how shallow drug war victories really are:

More than a dozen hit men carrying AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles burst into a house in eastern Mexico around midnight Monday, gunning down several relatives of 3rd Petty Officer Melquisedet Angulo, the 30-year-old who was hailed as a national hero last week after being killed in a battle that left drug lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva dead.

The killing was likely ordered by the presumptive heir to the Beltrán-Leyva throne, Édgar Valdéz Villarreal. According to a NYT article from a few years ago, Valdéz Villarreal (nicknamed La Barbie due to his Anglo look) seems to have worked his way up from humble beginnings in the great state of Texas:

He did not have much of a criminal record before he left Texas, according to the Laredo police -- just a reputation as a small-time drug dealer and a drunken driving charge nine years ago. "As far as we're concerned," said Juan Rivera, a spokesman for the Laredo Police Department, "he's nobody here."

Saving the earth by destroying it

The NYT has an article about the horrible environmental damage done by the mining of rare earth elements used in the manufacture of "green tech":

Some of the greenest technologies of the age, from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to very large wind turbines, are made possible by an unusual group of elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

Just one problem: These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

In the past I've discussed ecologically degrading components used in cheap solar panels.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The evolutionary roots of shopping?

Today's spurious hunter-gatherer reference, found in a Christian Science Monitor article about men being disproportionately represented among last-minute shoppers:

A University of Michigan study (.pdf) released earlier this month suggests evolution may be to blame.

Typically, women’s shopping habit are informed by skills once used as gatherers, theorizes Daniel Kruger, research faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Men, he says, shop like hunters.

“The sexually divergent adaptations for gathering and hunting may be evident in reports of shopping experiences, as shopping could be considered a form of foraging in the modern consumer environment...,” the study says. “Men, in turn, will report shopping strategies and experiences that resemble hunting skills.”

That explains why women often spend more time shopping – looking for just the right item – while men are more hurried, Mr. Kruger says.

Al-Qaeda link "aspirational"

The Department of Homeland Security on the recent would-be bombing of a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit:

Although Mr. Mudallad told officials that he was directed by Al Qaeda, the counterterrorism expressed caution about that claim, saying “it may have been aspirational.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Denver beats LA in per capita medical marijuana dispensaries

Despite all the hype about California's medical marijuana dispensaries, it looks like the metropolitan area with the most dispensaries per capita is not even in the state. It's Denver, according to NORML. Denver has about one dispensary for every 3,000 people (200 dispensaries spread amongst 600,000 people), compared with Los Angeles, which has only 1,000 dispensaries serving 10 million people, or one for every 10,000 residents.

According to US News & World Report, Colorado was actually the first state to tax medical marijuana (which ensures that money-habit state legislatures will have an interest in the industry's survival), since California law treats the dispensaries as non-profits, not subject to taxes. The Washington Times, however, claimed that it was "the second state, behind California, to tax and regulate medical-marijuana sales," but I have a feeling they're confusing "and" with "or."

Nevertheless, California may reclaim its title as the most pot friendly state if they outright legalize the drug through a 2010 ballot initiative.

Obama's genius high-speed rail plan

Just in case you were under the impression that Obama's high-speed rail commitment was genuine, the Boston Globe would like to disabuse you of that notion:

The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington - the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela - have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.

Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

Instead, the $8 billion is going to be split up to ten ways amongst other regions, such as California, the Gulf Coast, and the "Chicago Hub."

I love the irony of environmental standards stopping the Obama administration from making the one high-speed rail investment that has any chance of getting people out of their cars.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Death by drinking = death on the job, in Communist China

Only in China:

Ran and other netizens were reacting in part to a recent ruling from the People’s High Court in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, which said government officials who died drinking—often on behalf of their superiors—while at official networking functions, might be treated as work-related injury cases.

Here's how one snarky tweeter put it:

“Netizens are calling for the remains of this battle-hardened hero who has stood the test of booze to be sent to the Babaoshan Cemetery because he is a warrior of the proletariat who has been baptized in alcohol for a lifetime, who finally fell by the wayside,” yuanrch commented.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ceaușescu's balls

Radio Free Europe has an interview with a reporter who met Nicolae Ceaușescu not long before he was ousted from power in 1989 and executed. It's a pretty typical profile of a tyrant and his decrepit country, except for this extremely bizarre part:

RFE/RL: During the interview, Ceausescu and Auchincloss were seated on a dais. From where you sat, you had a better view of the "Genius of the Carpathians," as he liked to be referred to in the Romanian media. What struck you most about his appearance?

Meyer: I just began taking notes, and one of the notes said "balls," and this was not editorial commentary, this was a literal observation. Ceausescu was sitting and I was looking at his testicles, resting on his seat, in his overlarge trousers, and they...they looked, like, as I wrote in my notebook, overripe tomatoes, sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet -- malignant -- them so big; him such a small dictator.

...whaaat? This doesn't even make anatomical could his falls be "resting on his seat [...] sort of flattened, squatted there on his feet"? Anyway, not very intellectually stimulating, but it was too good not to share.

Obama's DOT is out of touch with America

Last night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were making fun of New York bank executives' recent excuse for missing a meeting in Washington due to "inclement weather" – i.e., fog at a private airport in Westchester. LaHood mentions that they could have taken Amtrak – the US government runs Amtrak, so this is to be expected – but then he says something that illustrates just how out of touch he really is: Greyhound. Who the hell takes a Greyhound bus from New York to DC as opposed to a Chinatown bus, Megabus, or Bolt Bus? I can understand your average DC legislator who's never ridden a bus in his life, but shouldn't the friggin' Secretary of Transportation realize that the cubside buses are far more popular and efficient?

I think this is symptomatic of a broader problem with the Obama administration's transportation policy: it's naive and neglected. Ray LaHood himself is a token Republican cabinet member who, by his own admission, has no particular interest in transportation. Obama's chief transportation initiative is a showy national high-speed rail system that only the rich will be able afford to ride, and yet he refuses to take even the most timid steps to combat suburban sprawl and the automobile's dominance.

Could pot be legal in California next year?

Via Reason, November 2010 might be the first big step towards marijuana legalization in the United States...ever:

Advocates of the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act say they have gathered more than enough signatures to qualify the initiative for California's November 2010 ballot. The measure would allow people 21 and older to grow marijuana for personal use and to possess up to an ounce. It would also allow licensed suppliers to grow and sell marijuana (up to an ounce at a time) to adults. Public consumption and consumption in the presence of minors would remain illegal. (The text of the initiative is here.) The measure's chief backer, Richard Lee (operator of Oaksterdam University and Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland) told the San Francisco Chronicle "the petition drive collected more than 680,000 signatures in two months, less than half the time allowed for such a drive." Supporters need 433,971 valid signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. The Chronicle notes that "a recent California Field Poll suggested that a majority of California voters, 56 percent, support the idea of legalizing and taxing cannabis."

Of course, even if it passed there would still be some sort of conflict with the federal government, but something tells me that it won't be long after November 2010 that marijuana will be legally cultivated and sold in California.

The Nation needs a copy editor

This Nation article is riddled with linguistic oddities. Here's my favorite (all emphasis mine):

The mainstream Australian attitude to refugees fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East nations during the earlier part of this century was of exclusion and brutality.

Does that mean that at 6 p.m. on January 1 I'm allowed to say "earlier this year, when I woke up with a hang over"?

And then there's this one:

Though perhaps no more serious than in other Western states, an insular, island mentality sometimes rears its ugly head.

Just in case you didn't get it the first time.

And finally this one. It's like they wanted to try to write naturally and not say xenophobia, but their bad writing innate natural tendency to want to draw out their phrases for as long as they possibly can and to aggrandize their verbiage to such an extent that they can compensate for their lack of substantive argumentation got in the way hindered the adoption of this more comprehensible style:

Paranoia of the foreigner is not unique to Australia...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mexican cartels' smuggling menu

I found an article from December 2006 by Stratfor* that had an interesting drug war menu. Most of the article is an arcane chronicle of rapid cartel succession, but it's also got a price list for smuggling goods through the southern border's major crossing points (or plazas, in cartel lingo):

In drug-trade lingo, the “gatekeeper” controls the “plaza,” the transhipment point off of one of the main highways on the Mexican side of the border where drugs and other contraband are channeled. In Spanish, the word “plaza” means a town square, though it also can mean a military stronghold or position. In this case, it means a cartel stronghold. A gatekeeper oversees the plaza, making sure each operation runs smoothly and that the plaza bosses are collecting “taxes” on any contraband that passes through. The going rate on a kilo of cocaine is approximately $500, while the tax on $1 million in cash heading south is about $10,000.

Gatekeepers also ensure that fees are collected on the movement of stolen cargo and illegal immigrants — including any militants who might be seeking to enter the United States through Mexico. Regardless of a person’s country of origin, money buys access into the United States through these plazas, though the fees charged for smuggling Middle Eastern and South Asian males into the United States are higher than for Mexicans or Central Americans. The gatekeepers’ primary concern is ensuring that appropriate fees are collected and sent to cartel coffers — and they operate in whatever manner best suits a given circumstance: intimidation, extortion or violence. Of course, one of their main jobs is to ensure that corrupt Mexican police and military personnel are paid off so plaza operations can proceed undisturbed.

The market for smuggling is remarkably efficient – that amounts to a 1% tax on money, but the cocaine tax is a bit more complicated. A gram of pure cocaine (which would be the ideal way to smuggle it, since it weighs the least) retails for over $100, but the person who's taking it from Mexico to the US might only get a tenth of that (rough estimate), which would make the tax around 5%.

* Stratfor is a private intelligence agency with a subscription-only site, but if you search the title of the article in Google and click the link from the search results page, you can access anything you want. This trick also works with the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Greece admits it is riddled with corruption"

The title of this article – "Greece admits it is riddled with corruption" – sounds like it's from the Onion, but alas, it's from the Financial Times.

Here are some choice quotes from inside the article:

At an EU summit on Thursday night, The bloc’s 26 other national leaders sat in silence as Mr Papandreou delivered a short, blunt speech on Thursday night that said everything the rest of Europe had long known, or suspected, about Greek bureaucracy. [...]

“He recognised that there was a huge problem of corruption throughout the administration, including in public procurement,” Mr Barroso said. [...]

“Our basic problem is systemic corruption,” Mr Papandreou said in Brussels on Friday. [...]

The underlying problem is, however, one of Greek credibility...

...I'll say!

Why do we regulate most harms, but subsidize lethal sports?

Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias has just discovered that even a short football career takes years off your life (compared which, say, soccer, which adds years), and asks:

...why do we regulate other health harms so strictly, yet so eagerly watch this decimation?

It's an interesting psycho-/sociological question, but a much more relevant policy question is: why do we subsidize it? High school and college programs (which actually draw larger audiences than the pros) are essentially subsidized vocational schools for the NFL, and even the nominally private NFL teams are massively subsidized in the form of stadiums. In fact, opposition to stadium subsidies is one of the few policy issues that almost unanimously unites economists.

It's an interesting thought experiment: without the enormous from public schools and city governments, what would the sports industry look like? Would football still be the most popular sport?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Google to sell phone directly to consumers, without contracts

Google is planning on introducing an especially Google-y phone to consumers, according to the WSJ:

Google Inc. has designed a cellphone it plans to sell directly to consumers as soon as next year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The phone is called the Nexus One and is being manufactured for Google by HTC Corp., these people said. It runs Android, the operating system for mobile phones that Google developed, they added.

But unlike the more than half-dozen Android phones made by phone manufacturers today, Google designed virtually the entire software experience behind the phone, from the applications that run on it to the look and feel of each screen.

The Internet giant is taking a new, and potentially risky, approach to selling the device. Rather than selling the phone through a wireless carrier--the way the bulk of phones are sold in the U.S. today--Google plans to sell the Nexus One itself online. Users will have to buy cellular service for the device separately.

This is groundbreaking for two reasons. First of all, while the iPhone is physically stunning, it's the software that makes it. No other phone could compete because no company had the design sense of Apple. Google, however, just might. They definitely have a different aesthetic – nobody would mistake Google's homepage for Apple's – but I think that Google's style is becoming refined enough to compete against Apple in the cell phone market, where good design has apparently eluded every company except Apple (...until now?). (Astute Google watchers will note that Android has been out for a while now, but, as the article hints at, companies always make changes to the OS, and it isn't as unified and beautiful as a pure Google produce could be.)

The second reason why this phone may be revolutionary – in a way that the iPhone won't be – is that it will be carrier-independent, and could serve to break up the dominant American cell phone market paradigm of phones subsidized by subscription fees and mandatory contracts. This could introduce a much-needed element of competition for data services among carriers, who have already started competing more fiercely for regular voice service. Unfortunately, I fear that perhaps the American market favors the subsidized phone/long-term contract for a reason – because of some market-altering policies that I'm not aware of, but that will work against the Nexus One.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not fooled, knew he was in Poland

It seems that a third Eastern European CIA black site has been found in Lithuania, this in addition to the ones in Romania and Poland. (Non-Russian Eastern Europeans love America, for Cold War reasons. The Albanians and Georgians named streets after George W. Bush.)

But anyway, the Lithuania thing isn't that shocking or interesting. What I liked about the article was this quote from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed later told a team from the International Red Cross, who questioned him in late 2006, that he thought he had probably been held prisoner in Poland. "I think the country was Poland," he said, according to the Red Cross report. "I think this because on one occasion a water bottle was brought to me without the label removed. It had (an) e-mail address ending in '.pl'. The central-heating system was an old-style one that I would expect only to see in countries of the former communist system."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blair: Even without WMDs, I would have found a way to invade Iraq

Quoteth the Guardian:

Tony Blair has said he would have invaded Iraq even without evidence of weapons of mass destruction and would have found a way to justify the war to parliament and the public.

The former prime minister made the confession during an interview with Fern Britton, to be broadcast on Sunday on BBC1, in which he said he would still have thought it right to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

"If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?" Blair was asked. He replied: "I would still have thought it right to remove him [Saddam Hussein]".

Significantly, Blair added: "I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat." He continued: "I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons in charge, but it's incredibly difficult. That's why I sympathise with the people who were against it [the war] for perfectly good reasons and are against it now, but for me, in the end I had to take the decision."

Longtime readers of this blog will recall this post from its very early days, in which I mentioned a Nation article that claimed...well, let's let them do the talking:

Back in March 1988, [Colin] Powell was National Security Adviser to President Reagan. While images of the [Halabja] massacre shocked, albeit briefly, a Western public jaded by reports of slaughter in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Administration moved quickly to protect its ally Saddam Hussein. Within a week of the attack, US diplomats began publicizing the canard that the Halabjans had died from Iranian chemical weapons, thereafter eliciting a Security Council resolution with no specific condemnation of Iraq that urged both sides to refrain from use of chemical weapons. [...]

The following March, when news of Iraq's revival of poison gas as a weapon finally surfaced in the press, the State Department condemned "the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs," while Rumsfeld was sent back to Baghdad to pass the word that the condemnation had been essentially pro forma and that the American desire to improve relations "at a pace of Iraq's choosing remain[s] undiminished." Meanwhile, US diplomats worked to quash discussion of the issue at international forums.

Is it the Scandinavian model, or the Scandinavians themselves?

Via Joel Kotkin, this great quote from Milton Friedman, which puts the success of the so-called Scandinavian model into some perspective:

When a local economist told Milton Friedman “In Scandinavia we have no poverty”, he replied: “That’s interesting because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty, either.”

The Nobel laureate's land war in Asia

Thoreau, with what has to be the best one-liner about Obama's Nobel:

...the Nobel Peace Prize was just accepted by a man currently escalating a land war in Asia.

DEA: most marijuana is laced, smoked at rock concerts; Rohypnol common, but rarely encountered

This is what the DEA had to say about marijuana consumption in Delaware in 2008:

Adults remain the predominant users of marijuana, especially in large social gatherings, such as rock concerts. Reports indicate that marijuana is typically smoked in combination with crack cocaine, heroin, and PCP.

In my book, "typically" means "most of the time," or close to it. Also – "rock concerts"? Seriously?

Update: I also found another doozy in the DEA's 2008 California summary. In the prescription drugs section, it says "Rohypnol is rarely encountered by law enforcement within in the greater Los Angeles area," but then a couple paragraphs later, in the other drugs section, it says "Vicodin, Ritalin, Rohypnol, Ketamine, and Valium are commonly diverted pharmaceutical narcotics."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hasidic Jews, ecstasy, and prostitutes

So this might be almost a decade old and a bit esoteric for some, but I found a fascinating article today on the former Israeli ecstasy kingpin Jacob "Cookie" Orgad, who had Hasidic school boys and strippers ferrying drugs across the Atlantic for him and ended up as a rabbi behind bars. The whole thing is almost too good to excerpt, so before I remember all the other great parts, here are two that stood out:

As much as 90 percent of the world’s ecstasy supply is manufactured in secret, high-tech labs scattered throughout the Netherlands, where the materials to make the hallucinogen [ed.: ecstasy isn't actually a hallucinogen] are not as closely regulated as they are in the rest of Europe and the United States. For years, a cabal of Israelis have used Holland as a base for diamond smuggling through the ports in Antwerp and Rotterdam. In the mid-nineties, some of them noticed that an even more lucrative trade had blossomed around them, one with few players as well positioned to cash in as they were. "Israelis are everywhere, and they get to know each other very fast because of the language and the tradition," says an Israeli intelligence official familiar with his countrymen’s stronghold on the world ecstasy market. "It doesn’t take long for a guy like Cookie to get big."

According to documents seized by the feds, Cookie began making frequent trips to Amsterdam, where he set up a connection with a Dutch chemist who had a lab in an industrial building north of the city. The ecstasy trade was quickly consolidating as well-connected players staked out their markets. The alleged former diamond smuggler Israeli Oded Tuito was already said to control much of Miami. Tuito also had a major piece of the New York market, along with Ilan Zarger (also an Israeli) who was the head of BTS, the notorious Brooklyn Terror Squad infamous for beating and robbing clubgoers and other dealers to insure their dominance of the market.

Something that annoyed me, though – and this happens with most reporting on drugs – is when journalists take the police's value estimations seriously. The police will always take the highest price they've ever seen for a drug – retail! – and then multiply that by the total amount. At one point, the article claims a pill can sell for as high as $40 – an absurdly high price that you couldn't even get a gullible and rich 13-year-old to pay. At another point it claims that the street value of 9 million pills is more than $27 million, implying an average retail price of $30 per pill. In actuality, you can only get away with selling a pill for even $20 if you're taking great risk and vending within some sort of music event (generally on the dance floor itself). The further away you get from the probing eyes of security, the lower the price. So, a pill bought on the dance floor will be more expensive than a pill bought outside the venue, which will in turn be more expensive than you'd get it for at a huge festival (where there are even fewer police), all of which is more expensive than if you buy it from a normal dealer in the outside world. Generally at that point the price will fall to around $10/pill.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor

James Bradley wrote a very intriguing Sunday op-ed for the NYT that's been floating around the libertarian blogosphere. The gist of the article is that had Teddy Roosevelt not supported the Japanese against in the Russians in 1905, the Japanese empire might never have materialized and attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941:

In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an “understanding or alliance” among Japan, the United States and Britain “as if the United States were under treaty obligations.” The “as if” was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act. [...]

Roosevelt had assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and the British. But such a wish clashed with his notion that the Japanese should base their foreign policy on the American model of expansion across North America and, with the taking of Hawaii and the Philippines, into the Pacific. It did not take long for the Japanese to tire of the territorial restrictions placed upon them by their Anglo-American partners.

Japan’s declaration of war, in December 1941, explained its position quite clearly: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Farmville vs. Twitter

Fun fact: Farmville, that annoying farming game that all your friends on Facebook bug you to play, is bigger than Twitter. Farmville has 69 million users active every month, and 26.5 million active daily users. Twitter's apparently at just 18 million – not clear if that's total users or daily (monthly?) active users, but whatever it is, it looks like Farmville wins.

Eastern European inferiority complex

The NYT's website is currently featuring an interesting article about an ethnic German politician in Romania, and it touches on something that I've always found interesting about Eastern Europeans: they have a tremendous inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West. The article is about Klaus Johannis, mayor of the town of Sibiu (Hermannstadt auf Deutsch), who very well might become the country's prime minister.

Mr. Johannis also benefits from the positive stereotypes Romanians associate with the German population, known as Transylvanian Saxons, who have called the region home since the 12th century.

The Saxons, known in German as Siebenbürger Sachsen, are considered hard-working, precise and uncompromising, an attractive mixture in a country tired of mismanagement and corruption, and one of the hardest hit in Europe by the economic crisis. It also does not hurt that the country experienced some of its best moments under German kings more than a century ago, even though the monarchs were unrelated to the local German population.

“I think it’s a real advantage that he’s German,” said Bianca Florea, 18, a student, as she passed through the main town square in Sibiu on Friday. “Well, not exactly German, but Saxon.” Asked why, Ms. Florea responded, “We Romanians are a bit lazy, that’s my opinion.”

Romania's once large German minority mostly moved back to the Fatherland (sold by Ceaușescu to West Germany for a couple thousand bucks each), so Johannis is a bit of a novelty. Despite its power, the Eastern European inferiority complex apparently doesn't override Eastern European pessimism:

But like most of the dozen residents interviewed here, she was skeptical about Mr. Johannis’s prospective move to Bucharest, despite praising his work as mayor.

“He could go there and do a good job for a while or he could be a puppet for others,” Ms. Florea said. Mr. Johannis belongs to none of the major parties, but instead to the small German Democratic Forum, which represents the 60,000 ethnic Germans remaining in the country.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The "date rape drug" is a myth

I'd been following this story for a while, but it looks like it has come up in the media recently – stories of men surreptitiously dropping some sort of tasteless drug (generally Rohypnol or GHB) in their drinks and then taking advantage of them sexually once they pass out. Every college student knows a few people who claim to know a few people who have been "roofied," but the actual evidence is scant. I personally have been around a lot of illegal drugs in my day but I have never heard of anyone selling or using GHB or Rohypnol (a powerful benzodiazepine, similar to oft-prescribed anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium). But anyway, a study in Australia showed that exactly zero out of 97 people who claimed they were slipped the date rape drug actually were:

Earlier this year, Australian researchers found that no[t] one of 97 young men and women admitted to hospital over 19 months to two Perth hospital claiming to have had their drinks spiked, had in fact been drugged.

I've seen other studies that put the percentage of people who claim to have been roofied and actually were at under 3%, depending on what one classifies as a "date rape drug." Like I said, Rohypnol (the namesake of "roofie") is related to many other commonly-perscribed medications, and it seems order of magnitude more likely that someone who believes they were roofied actually just took a benzo and didn't how poorly they react with alcohol (something that psychiatrists should be more fastidious in mentioning).

Schneier, a fascinating "security" blogger, summarizes the study's suggestion as to why the myth of the date-rape drug myth is so persistent:

Basically, the hypothesis is that perpetuating the fear of drug-rape allows parents and friends to warn young women off excessive drinking without criticizing their personal choices. The fake bogeyman lets people avoid talking about the real issues.

It's worth mentioning that the idea of a drug leaves you vulnerable to attacks is older than Rohypnol and GHB. Some may recognize the term "Mickey Finn," or the phrase "to slip someone a mickey" – meaning to drug them by putting something in their drink without their knowledge. The story – I don't know whether it's as apocryphal as the modern date rape drug ones – is that a Chicago bartender named Mickey Finn used to drug people (whether by chloral hydrate, antimony, or potassium tartrate) and then rob them. Not rape, but the same idea – watch your drink, or something bad could happen to you. Nevermind that excessive drinking is usually the culprit, and spiking drinks almost never is.

Newfoundland, mumming, cross-dressing, and Shakespeare

Via Reason, a particularly odd article on the old European roots of "mumming and disguising" – something that will sound familiar to Philadelphians, who hold the Mummers Day Parade in early January. It's about some holiday rituals practiced by Newfoundlanders fishermen as late as the 1960s, who were supposedly so isolated that they persisted in these odd practices longer than any Europeans. It's a long article, but here are some excerpts:

A party of mummers would gather in someone house, gear up, and set off for whatever house was closest that they figured would let them in. Once in, the group would entertain their uncomfortable hosts by singing, telling stories and dancing, in other words, each member doing some routine, speaking and singing in a peculiar but traditional manner that disguised their voices. As soon as the hosts recognized one of them, off would come the mask and the gloves and the monster would metamorphose into a relative or neighbor. As soon as everyone’s identity was guessed, on went the disguises again and they were off to the next house. This was through piles of snow, of course, so far north, so they were bundled up against the cold as well. Needless to say, a great deal of alcohol was consumed in the process, along with various homemade holidays treats.

That men generally dressed as women and vice versa probably says something about the emotional satisfactions of the tradition as a factor apart from the need for total disguise. It may also suggest that the gender-bending in Shakespeare’s holiday plays have a broader basis in tradition than modern critics, fond of ascribing it to various psycho-sexual factors, are willing to acknowledge.

Apparently the revelers had an idea that what they were doing was a bit odd:

The anthropologists said that it was very difficult to get the people to talk about their holiday practises. They were shy about talking to strangers about anything, and particularly shy about this tradition. The scientists got the feeling that they weren’t being told everything. This for at least two reasons. First, such holiday practises were dangerous. Shameful things could happen during this period when everything was turned upside down. It was not only a time of making merry, it was potentially a time of reprisal, of setting things straight, of settling old scores. There was a lot of drinking. Things could get rough.

And then here's the sociological money shot:

Several things came clear from this that were not discussed by any of the researchers. First, it is clear to me that these people who lived so close to each other year in, year out, whose families all knew each other intimately, and knew everything there was to know about each other’s family histories, some of it no doubt shameful or embarrassing, needed a break from being themselves. They desperately needed a few hours of being with people without the burden of their ordinary identities.

This is not something that would be immediately understood today. If anything, people today, city-dwellers in particular, tend to suffer from the opposite problem, from being too unknown, too anonymous. Today, if we should feel the need to shuffle off our identities for a time, we can go downtown or to the mall or take a drive to another town or city. If we live in the country, we can go to the city, or we can fly off to some distant beach resort. But for people living in small, isolated, unchanging communities for their entire lives, the ritual may have been a psychological necessity.

There's tons more, including a bunch of links to Shakespeare and other bits of Elizabethan culture.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

North Korean monuments around the world

So apparently North Korea has another cash cow along with drugs, counterfeit money and cigarettes, and nuclear extortion – scary authoritarian-ish monuments. The blog North Korea Economy Watch has the scoop, along with links to pictures of monuments that North Korean workers – apparently skilled in bronze work – have built around the world. (And by "world," I mean a few select hellholes in Africa and the Middle East.)

Astute North Korea watchers will realize that the Hermit Kingdom has been exporting its particularly nasty brand of authoritarianism long before the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, took over from the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, the Eastern Bloc leader with the strongest cult of personality, is said to have learned everything he knew about being a creepy cultish dictator from a trip to China, North Korea, and Vietnam in 1971 (.pdf).

Ahmadinejad, the libertarian

The NYT reports:

If it goes awry, the plan to phase out Iran’s system of state subsidies, which has existed for decades, could profoundly destabilize the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has aggressively championed change. But it could also help wean Iran from its dependence on foreign gasoline and insulate the economy from new sanctions — which are a strong possibility if Iran continues to defy Western pressure over its nuclear program.

The Times claims that the subsidies are regressive, because the rich have more money and buy more goods. I have to admit that I don't remember ever having heard of subsidies being described as progressive or regressive, but it seems to me that this is actually a flat subsidy, in that it rises and falls at about the same rate as one's income.

But anyway, I digress. Here's the most interesting part of the article:

Oddly, one thing that might make subsidies reform easier is more sanctions, the tool most widely discussed by Western leaders as a final option to put pressure on Iran if current nuclear negotiations fail. Economic sanctions or a gasoline embargo (assuming one could even be organized) would force down consumption and help the Iranian government’s finances, because there would be no more need to pay for gasoline imports, Mr. Parsi said. That could disguise the pain of subsidies reform, allowing the government to blame the West for any ensuing inflation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kabul's wedding singer district

Apparently, in Kabul, there's a "wedding singer district" – or at least a part of a street – where you can insist on a live demonstration before hiring someone to sing at your wedding. Jan Chipchase's blog is always pretty interesting – he's a UI researcher for Nokia who travels the world in search of novel uses of technology, from high and low.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The economics and political economy of Gazan smuggling tunnels

I've written a lot in the past about the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, but the London Review of Books has what has got to be the best article I've ever seen. As the article says, data's hard to find, but the anecdotes are pretty good. Here's an excerpt:

According to World Bank officials, 80 per cent of Gaza’s imports currently come through the tunnels. Once black-market smuggling had turned into Gaza’s formal trade, Hamas inspectors began to impose controls and licensing fees. Some tunnel merchants now operate a telephone order service and send out catalogues: office equipment ordered by phone arrives in 48 hours. ‘Goods move faster now than when Rafah terminal was open,’ a businessman told me. With the rise in trade, prices have fallen. Egyptian goods cost less than Israel’s, sometimes even after Hamas and the smugglers have taken their cut. Petrol is half its pre-siege price.

There are precious few macroeconomic data on the effect all this is having. ‘For us Gaza’s a bit of a black hole,’ a World Bank economist reliant on Ramallah’s figures admits. Even so, he says, unemployment rates in May dropped 3 per cent from a high of 32 per cent. ‘My tiler’s gone underground,’ a UN civil servant complained to me: he couldn’t compete with the tunnel smugglers, who pay four times the £12 daily wage he was offering.

More tangible signs of recovery can be seen among Gaza’s numerous money-changers, who help smugglers launder their earnings. The weight of a million dollars in hundred dollar bills to the nearest decimal point trips off their tongues. In June, the Gaza-based Bank of Palestine doubled the size of its trading rooms, which are linked electronically to Nablus, Cairo and Dubai stock markets, and installed rows of plasma screens. With investors keen to park their profits, share-trading volumes doubled in a year, and this summer the Bank of Palestine share price reached an all-time high. Traders who used to go home at lunchtime now stay till four.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Is Russia liberalizing its economy?

The Russian government has recently announced that a new round of privatizations of state firms will occur next year, and Stratfor seems to think that this is a potentially monumental step for the Russian state. According to Stratfor (the first two parts of a five-part series have already been published),* this is the beginning of a sort of "clan war" within the Kremlin.

Stratfor frames it as roughly being between the old siloviki and the new "civilviki." On the side of the old (lead by Igor Sechin) is the FSB and the state-owned giant Rosneft, and on the "civilviki" side (led by Vladislav Surkov) is President Medvedev, liberal reformer Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, the GRU, Gazprom, and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Anyway, Surkov and his clan are being given an opportunity to shake things up with their liberalization plan. Putin isn't taking any sides, and is waiting for it to play out before siding with the victor. Definitely not a textbook case of good vs. evil, but all in all, I think we should be rooting for Surkov and his clan.

* Stratfor is a private intelligence agency with a subscription-only site, but if you search the title of the article in Google and click the link from the search results page, you can access anything you want. This trick also works with the Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Aspirin and the 1918 flu

The New York Times has an interesting article on a new paper that claims that some of the 50 million deaths worldwide attributed to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic may have actually been caused by aspirin overdoses, a common (but sometimes deadly) treatment at the time. But this passage stood out to me:

Aspirin packages were produced containing no warnings about toxicity and few instructions about use. In the fall of 1918, facing a widespread deadly disease with no known cure, the surgeon general and the United States Navy recommended aspirin as a symptomatic treatment, and the military bought large quantities of the drug.

I'll bet a lot of the New York Times' readers read that paragraph and come away thinking, "Thank god we have a government agency to make sure there are warnings on medicines." But personally, it was the second sentence that struck me – maybe if the government hadn't been in the business of giving out health advice, the use of high doses of aspirin in 1918 wouldn't have been so widespread.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Russian natural gas market = capitalism?

In an article about natural gas pipelines to Europe, the New York Times makes the egregious error of implying that Russia's natural gas industry is anything other than an arm of the Russian government:

It is a free-market capitalism that post-Communist Russia has cannily exploited, says Pierre Noël, a professor at Cambridge University and a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is an open, competitive, capitalist economy,” he said. “People build the pipes they want to build.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

With his Nobel, Obama will slay the communists and the godless

Here's Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the committee that issued the award, comparing what Obama's about to do to the fall of the Berlin wall, which liberated (to various extents) the 300 million people of the Eastern Bloc:

He compared the selection of Mr. Obama with the award in 1971 to the then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt for his “Ostpolitik” policy of reconciliation with communist eastern Europe.

“Brandt hadn’t achieved much when he got the prize, but a process had started that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Jagland said.

Not to be outdone, Shimon Peres comes dangerously close to calling Obama the messiah:

[A]nother laureate, President Shimon Peres of Israel, sent a letter to President Obama on Friday morning, saying: “Very few leaders if at all were able to change the mood of the entire world in such a short while with such a profound impact. You provided the entire humanity with fresh hope, with intellectual determination, and a feeling that there is a lord in heaven and believers on earth.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

FTC sees into the future, corrects problem

The FTC is imposing rules on internet publishers (bloggers, tweeters, etc.) for the first time, in terms of disclosure and some other things. But just in case you thought that this new spate of regulation was in response to an actual problem, the FTC wants to disabuse you of that notion:

Richard Cleland, assistant director of the division of advertising practices at the F.T.C., said: “We were looking and seeing the significance of social media marketing in the 21st century and we thought it was time to explain the principles of transparency and truth in advertising and apply them to social media marketing. Which isn’t to say that we saw a huge problem out there that was imperative to address.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oops! – Afghanistan's VP is a drug lord and we knew it all along

The NYT on Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, former secretary of defense and potential new vice president:

But by 2002, C.I.A. intelligence reports flowing into the Bush administration included evidence that Marshal Fahim was involved in Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade, according to officials discussing the reports and the internal debate for the first time.

He had a history of narcotics trafficking before the invasion, the C.I.A. reports showed. But what was most alarming in the reports were allegations that he was still involved after regaining power and becoming defense minister. He now had a Soviet-made cargo plane at his disposal that was making flights north to transport heroin through Russia, returning laden with cash, the reports said, according to American officials who read them. Aides in the Defense Ministry were also said to be involved. [...]

Some United States officials in Washington and Kabul argued that there was no smoking gun proving his involvement in narcotics trafficking, and thus no need to break off contact with him. And eventually, the Bush administration hit on what officials thought was a solution: American military trainers would be directed to deal only with subordinates to Marshal Fahim, and not Marshal Fahim himself.

That would at least give the Bush administration the appearance of complying with the law.

Interestingly, there was a period when it seems that Karzai kicked Fahim out of the most obvious positions of power, which the NYT writer seems to think was to win an ethnic bloc in the coming election:

By late 2003, officials said, the Bush administration began to realize its mistake, and initiated what officials called its “warlord strategy” to try to ease key warlords out of power. Marshal Fahim remained defense minister until 2004 and was briefly Mr. Karzai’s running mate as vice president in elections that year, but Mr. Karzai then dropped him.

Marshal Fahim remains a powerful figure among Tajiks, the ethnic group in north Afghanistan, and Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun from the south, calculated that an alliance with the general would help him increase his support in northern Afghanistan.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why (many) development economists don't know shit

For any of you economics-of-development buffs out there, here is a scathing academic critique (pdf unfortunately) of the widely-read Doing Business reports issued by the World Bank. The report's subtitle says "measuring business regulations," but givers of development aid (including the US and EU) often use it as a proxy for general liberalization, and make it a condition for countries to receive aid. Academics are also enamored with the reports, and many a complex econometric regression has relied on its data.

The problem is that the data don't capture the reality on the ground very well. I'm not really in the mood to summarize the paper, but a major issue is ex ante vs. ex post costs – that is, whether ease-of-registration in the beginning is gained at the expense of a lot of hassle later when disputes have to be adjudicated. Doing Business measures the fixed costs, but neglects the later costs that are incurred if a business has to prove things that in a system weighted towards ex post costs would already have been taken care of. The author's point isn't that a system of ex ante costs is necessarily better, but just that the World Bank doesn't take the later costs into account at all.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Remittances up in these hard times

Two remittances-related blog posts popped up on my feed reader today. The first, from International Political Economy Zone, is about how, despite economists' expectations, remittances in the Philippines are still increasing. This post, from the World Bank's Private Sector Development blog, discusses how the World Bank and the Economist believe that immigrants are engaging in currency speculation on the margin – the strengthening of first-world currencies compared to developing countries' currencies is causing immigrants to send more money home, since they know their families will get more local currency for their dollars/euros/pounds.

The overall remittance picture according to a World Bank report (.pdf) is that remittances to Latin America (presumably mostly from the US and Spain) are mostly down, whereas they are still growing in countries in South and Southeast Asia, albeit at slower rates. That is, with the exception of Pakistan, whose growth rate in remittances is actually up so far for 2009. The Philippines' growth rate in remittances slowed from 14% from 2007-08 to 3% so far in 2009 – obviously lower because of the economic slowdown in the US, with its 4 million Filipino immigrants, but perhaps mitigated due to the fact that demand for healthcare, where many Filipinos in America work, has been more robust than the demand for construction, where many Mexicans work[ed]. The growth in the rate of growth of remittances to Pakistan baffles me though – I'd suspect that most overseas Pakistanis worked in the Gulf and the UK, which haven't exactly been thriving as of late. Perhaps the growth is driven by Pakistanis in India? Is there even significant immigration from Pakistan to India?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Does the average American smoke pot at least once a week?

I don't know if I've ever seen any estimates of how much marijuana is consumed annually within the US, but this number hints at it:

Since the beginning of 2007, the report states, Mexican security forces have seized about 65 tons of cocaine and more than 9.3 million pounds of marijuana.

Assuming all the weed was destined for the US, that means that about 7.5 grams of weed were inderdicted for every man, woman, and child. A rough estimate – the marijuana was likely consumed in Mexico and Canada as well as the US, but then again both Canada and the US have non-trivial amounts of domestic production. This amount of weed is a bit more than the street equivalent of a "quarter" (aka, a quarter of an ounce), and is roughly enough weed to get one person high about 15-40 times, depending on quality and tolerance. I would be very surprised if even half of all marijuana produced was seized before it reached smokers – I would put the number at about one-quarter, which would mean that the average American gets high at least once or twice a week. But this seems a bit unrealistic...did I mess up the math, or are my suppositions incorrect? Or do Americans just smoke a lot more weed than we realize?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Global warming started with farming

I read about this theory somewhere a few months ago, but had no real basis for assessing its validity. And just now, via Megan McArdle, I find that it's been written up in the Economist:

The ice-core record shows that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere made an anomalous upturn about 7,000 years ago, and that methane levels, which were also falling, began to increase about 5,000 years ago (see chart). These numbers correspond well with the rise of farming in Europe and Asia.

I can't find the quote now, but I remember reading that someone hypothesized that this human-driven global warming might have staved off an ice age.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Zoning as a tool for class exclusion

Discovering Urbanism has a nice post up about early 20th century urban planner Charles Mulford Robinson and his planning textbook, and it includes the following corrective to the notion that zoning originated as a way to separate polluting industry from places of residence and commerce:

There’s a common narrative about how zoning unfolded in America. First, planners needed to find ways to separate dangerous and unhealthy factories from the places where people lived. Once the legal basis for this tool was secured, it was eventually employed to separate businesses from residents. The final stage of zoning was to segregating different kinds of people from each other. That’s how we reached where we are today.

However, the Robinson textbook indicates that this progression was, if anything, reversed. In reality, residences at the time couldn’t be separated much from industry, because many of the working classes had to be within walking distance from their jobs. On the other hand, some of the very earliest uses of zoning were explicitly intended to separate “exclusive” neighborhoods from the lower classes, whether by requiring minimum densities or barring anything but detached single-family housing.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Daily Mail: Kim Jong-il is bisexual...O RLY??

So, according to the Daily Mail, Kim Jong-il has bisexual tendencies (emphasis mine):

Kim Jong Il has ruled it with absolute authority since 1994. He was born in the Forties, but his exact birthday is asecret [sic]. He wears platform shoes and a teased hairdo and is reputed to have had a string of lovers, both male and female. His hobby is watching old Hollywood movies including Rambo, Friday The 13th and James Bond.

...and yet, I can't find any other mention of that in any other media source. Not only that, but the Dear Leader supposedly overlooking his second son, Kim Jong-chul, as a successor because he was "too effeminate."

In other words: it looks like the Daily Mail is makin' shit up again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The WaPo burries the lede on a story about Fannie and Freddie

Talk about burying the lede – here're the last two paragraphs of a Washington Post story about the federal government doing some bureaucratic shuffling with Fannie and Freddie:

The administration's discussions on the future of the companies began in earnest earlier this year during the regulatory reform planning process and are just entering a more serious phase now. National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers has long wanted to overhaul the structure of the companies and warned as far back as the late 1990s that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac posed a threat to the financial system.

I'm embarrassed to say this, but I didn't realize how good of an understanding Larry Summers (and Tim Geithner, for that matter) had of the causes of the financial crisis (check out this liberal Fox Business Channel commentator's critique of him). It's sad that someone with such a good understanding of economics before he was vested with so much power can so easily fall into the trap of supporting interventions that in a past life he might have known were a bad idea.

But here's the real kicker:

The government seized the firms last fall as the financial crisis worsened and has since used them to help reduce interest rates on mortgages generally and to assist borrowers who are at risk of losing their homes.

I wish the Post would make clearly that Summers' fear back in the late '90s was exactly that Fannie and Freddie's were doing too much of exactly that – reducing interest rates on mortgages.

Obama plans to socialize the internet?'s headline: Broadband Is This Generation’s Highway System, FCC Chief Says

Scary words, those are. In 1956, when Eisenhower set out to construct a national, socialized network of highways, he was fulfilling the dreams of many progressives since the turn of the century, who believed that a road system designed and funded by the government ought to replace the privately-owned networks of streetcars and other rail-based mass transit that had up until then been the mainstay of urban and suburban transportation. Their plans profoundly transformed America, giving birth to venerable American icons like the road trip, fast food restaurant, and large-lot suburban subdivision.

But it hasn't been all white picket fences and manicured lawns. Suburan and exurban sprawl consume ever-increasing amounts of energy and land, and are at the root of many of America's ecological and foreign policy problems. Our obesity epidemic may even stem from our car-based culture, and while the isolation that suburbs provide can be nice, there's something to be said for the diversity and culture that one finds in cities.

If the Obama administration doesn't back off the internet, it very well may end up as interesting as a suburban subdivision and as fast as a SoCal highway during rush hour.

Monday, August 3, 2009

NYC cabbies talking on phones: government solution vs. free market solution

The NYT discusses the issue of New York cabbies talking on the phone with hands-free devices – a common occurrence, though technically illegal in New York City. The discussion of remedies focuses almost entirely on the government enforcing its rules, with the free market alternative mentioned only in the last two paragraphs:

This being New York, the most effective means of cutting off a conversation may be found not in the offices of city regulators, but in the customer’s wallet.

“When I talk all the time, the passengers get angry,” said Mohammad Forazi, 42, of the Bronx. “They don’t give tips.”

In a totally free market, one could plausibly imagine a cab company that bills itself as a safer alternative, and bans its drivers from talking on the phone. One of the benefits of brands is that they have reputations to uphold, and thus have an incentive to make customers want to come back. New York cabbies, however, are totally indistinguishable. This is supposedly a feature of the cab cartel in New York and many major cities of the world, not a bug.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The staggering costs of clinical trials

From a Wired article about a novel medical use for FD&C blue dye no. 1:

Nedergaard agrees that more research is necessary, and her group hopes to pursue a phase I clinical trial as soon they can get funding. Unfortunately, because blue food dye is so cheap, they’re not likely to find a drug company to sponsor the trials. “There’s no commercial interest because you can buy it by the pound,” Nedergaard said. “We’re planning a clinical trial here in Rochester, but we’ll have to wait for funding from the government.”

They're talking about common blue food dye – which cannot be brought to the medical market without these trials. They are mandated by the government, and drug companies routinely pay tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to put their drugs through them. I can't find a good source on this (other than an episode of EconTalk, where I heard it), but I remember hearing someone say that 80% of the cost of bringing new drugs to market is in the clinical trials.

There's been a lot of debate about healthcare recently, with Obama's reform package getting a lot of criticism, but I haven't yet heard someone mention the high cost of mandatory clinical trials as an area to look into.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A teachable moment

You may have seen this story about a black professor of African-American history at Harvard who was arrested while he was trying to break into his own house, but I'll bet you didn't read this far down:

Professor Gates said Tuesday that he did bring up race during the confrontation but that he was not disorderly. He also said he wanted to make a movie about what had occurred and take other steps to keep it from happening to someone else.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

DRM is dead, says RIAA

The RIAA, America's recording industry lobby, has apparently acknowledged that DRM is dead, according to TorrentFreak:

Jonathan Lamy, chief spokesperson for the RIAA declared DRM dead, when he was asked about the RIAA’s view on DRM for an upcoming SCMagazine article. “DRM is dead, isn’t it?” Lamy said, referring to the DRM-less iTunes store and other online outfits that now offer music without restrictions.

DRM is the technology that limits people's listening of an MP3 – you can't just copy it ad infinitum and do whatever you want with it if it's got DRM in it. I believe within the last few months the iTunes Store has either mostly or totally taken DRM off of the songs that they sell.

Also of note: TorrentFreak is probably the best resource on the internet I can think of when it comes to online copyright and filesharing news. Those sound like geeky and esoteric topics, but I think they'll be key to the future of all serious and popular music and video.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Telegraph spouts the Chinese government line on Urumqi Uyghurs

To provide a counterpoint to what I wrote earlier today, Peter Foster at the Telegraph is reporting from Urumqi that the Chinese government's story checks out:

There was a presumption among the foreign media - made from afar as correspondents scrambled to get to Urumqi - that most of the 156 victims of Sunday’s riot were Uighurs. The implication being that they had been killed by security forces - another Tiananmen, if you will.

This never quite stacked up, as very few witnesses reported that the police had opened fire. In fact most reported the use of batons, electric prods and tear gas and other non-lethal methods to disperse the riot.

And why, if security forces had been responsible for the bulk of the deaths, would China be facilitating such unprecedented access to hospitals, holding press conferences (planned for later today) and allowing reporters to tour the city.

There are a couple problems I have with what he is saying. First of all, earlier in the piece he talks about how the Chinese government has "corralled the large international media presence in a single hotel," but that doesn't appear to him to be a sign that the government has something to hide.

But more importantly, where is he getting his information? He repeats some Chinese government numbers – "of 274 patients being treated in the People’s hospital 233 were Han" – but he admits that he got them straight from the government and that he hasn't been able to find any "firm details." Could it be – just maybe – that the "unprecedented access to hospitals" is actually the government trying to...I dunno...hide something?!

And why is there no mention of the president of the World Uyghur Congress' accusation that there are over 500 deaths, mostly Uyghurs? Surely Rebiya Kadeer is not a totally unbiased source, but then again, neither is the Chinese government.

Given that the Christian Science Monitor did a whole story on how difficult sources were to find in Urumqi and how residents and scholars absolutely refused to speak to the foreign press, I'd be curious to know what Peter Foster's secret is to reporting on what the CSM believes is unknowable to Westerners at the moment.

Urumqi death toll may be as high as 500, mostly Uyghurs?

Exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, accused by Beijing of orchestrating this weekend's violence, says she believes the true death toll is more than 500:

Chinese authorities have accused Kadeer of inciting violence between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese, in which at least 156 people have been killed. The riots broke out Sunday in China's Xinjiang region.

Kadeer disputes the number of fatalities, saying she believes at least 500 people have been killed in the riots.

Interestingly, the AP in this article doesn't mention that the 156 figure comes from the Chinese government, despite mentioning Kadeer's opinion of the purported death toll.

Previous Urumqi riots coverage here, here, and here.

Rebiya Kadeer has a pretty interesting story herself, summarized in this Times of India article:

Kadeer has emerged as a somewhat unlikely foe of China's government. In the 1980s and '90s, she became a symbol of the prosperity that China's newly launched market reforms were creating after decades of Communist poverty. The entrepreneurial mother of 11 built up a successful trading company and was named to a prestigious government advisory body. Government officials often took visitors to the department store she founded in Urumqi to show that Uighurs were also getting rich.

Also, in following with my investigation of who exactly has been the victim of the violence (the Chinese government claims it's mostly innocent Han Chinese, the Uyghurs claim it's their people), that same Times of India article gives Kadeer's opinion:

She said she and her organizations mourn the loss of life of both Uighurs and Han Chinese, but she estimated that more than 90 percent of those killed have been Uighurs.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Anti-Uyghur propaganda from Xinhua

Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, has a hilarious piece of propaganda up today. In response to the demonstration by Uyghurs in Urumqi that allegedly turned lethal (which I've covered in two posts), Xinhua has some statements supposedly by Uyghurs involved in the violent brawl between Uyghurs and Han Chinese that sparked the protests this weekend in Urumqi. The whole article is pretty funny, but here are some highlights:

"The rioters used our injuries as an excuse for their violence," said Atigul Turdi, 24, who was injured when she was running out of the scene of the fight on June 26 in Xuri toy factory in Shaoguan City, Guangdong. "I firmly opposed the violence in the name of taking revenge for us." [...]

"I believe the government will handle the brawl appropriately," Turdi said. "Why did the rioters destroy our beautiful and peaceful Xinjiang region in such cruel manners?" [...]

Turdi said she would stay in Guangdong to work after recovery. As one of the first workers to arrive at Xuri factory from Shufu County of Xinjiang on May 1 [a big Chinese holiday], she missed the happy days to work with her colleagues harmoniously. [...]

"They have damaged my health and ruined my prospect to find a good job. I have no idea why the rioters claim to be pursuing happiness for us."

This part, though, is the scariest. The Chinese have worked very hard in cultivating the image of Uyghurs as Islamic terrorists, in an attempt to get the US to buy into their oppression of this Muslim people. It's not unlike what Putin did with the Chechens and the Uzbeks did with the Adijan massacre – both quite successfully.

Xinjiang Communist Party of China (CPC) chief Wang Lequan said Monday the riot in Urumqi revealed the violent and terrorist nature of the separatist World Uyghur Congress leader Rebiya Kadeer.

"The riot has destroyed the spiritual support with which the terrorist, separatist and extremist forces cheated the people to participate in the so-called 'Jihad'," Wang said. "The incident also revealed Rebiya's nature of fake human rights, fake democracy, true violence and true terrorism."

Fortunately for the Uyghurs, the West does not appear to be inclined to believe China's accusations of homegrown terrorism among its ethnic minorities (at least not any more). When you accuse the Dalai Lama of suicide bombings, you kind of lose your credibility.

Urumqi update – death toll and media reporting

Yesterday (and throughout the day today) I posted about the unrest in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur region of China known as Xinjiang. Since then I've been very interested in the death toll, and the Western media's reporting of it. The Chinese state media continues to claim that over 100 have been killed (156 is the latest figure), although it hasn't specified how many of those were rioters, how many were the victims of rioters, and how many were police. The NYT article says that an American living in Urumqi saw the violence but saw no signs of deaths, and it does seem a bit odd that a protest involving only about 1000 protesters would result in over 100 deaths.

Despite these incongruities, the Western media has generally reported the figure without much qualification, and it figures prominently in headlines and subheads about the event. The Times article does a passable job, reporting the number along with its source (the Chinese government), but doesn't directly address the fact that there isn't much evidence that that many people actually died, and doesn't really discuss who died. The Guardian is completely uncritical, and reports the number as straight fact without even mentioning the source, nevermind that the source has obvious prejudices. The BBC is a little better, reporting the figure uncritically but at least mentioning that it's unclear who died.

The Christian Science Monitor gets the award for most candid coverage, admitting the difficulty in reporting facts right in the headline: "Sources in Urumqi? They’re (very) hard to come by." They also accurately portray the difficulty in teasing out who were the victims and who were the aggressors:

The key question is: Who died? Muslim Uighur demonstrators, cut down by the police, as Uighur exile groups claim? Or innocent Han Chinese bystanders, butchered by a mob of Uighurs, as the government-owned media are making out?

I should mention that the Christian Science Monitor ceased publication of its print edition a couple of months ago, and is now a web-only publication (with the exception of a weekend magazine, I believe). Just keep that in mind when someone tries to tell you that the death of the printed newspaper will spell the end of foreign reporting.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Uyghur riots in Urumqi

There's been unrest among the Uyghurs in Urumqi, China over the weekend. Urumqi is the capital of the Xinjiang, a massive province in the west of China, and home to the Uyghur people, a non-Han minority which has accused China of trying to Hanify its homeland:

Uighurs are the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang but are a minority in Urumqi, where Han Chinese make up more than 70 percent of the population of two million or so. The Chinese government has encouraged Han migration to the city and other parts of Xinjiang, fueling resentment among the Uighurs. Urumqi is a deeply segregated city, with Han Chinese there rarely venturing into the Uighur quarter.

Xinjiang is an absolutely enormous province – it takes up one-sixth the size of China and is larger than the entire nation of Mongolia – and the Chinese government is scrambling to turn it majority Han, so that if one day they lose their iron grip on the country, they'll have one more excuse not to let the Uyghurs, who are more closely related to the Turkic Central Asian peoples than to the Han Chinese who rule the prosperous coastal regions in the east, secede.

Update: I wouldn't take this at face value, but Reuters is reporting that the Chinese state news agency is reporting some deaths caused by Uyghur rioters. First they claimed "three ordinary people of the Han ethnic group" were killed, but later amended that to one police oficer and "a number of innocent members of the public." I suspect what probably happened is that the Chinese propagandists realized that they'd gone too far in stoking ethnic tension by accusing the Uyghur rioters of killing Han, so they backtracked. I'd be surprised if any police officers or innocent Han civilians were killed.

Update II: The NYT is now reporting that Chinese officials are putting the death toll at over 100 (!!), however neutral observers say they haven't seen any bodies in the streets (which would be expected if that many people died). Also puzzling is the fact that news agencies put the number of protesters at about 1,000, which would mean that one in ten protesters was killed...which doesn't seem likely.

Update III: The aforelinked NYT article says that Xinhua has upped the death toll to 156, and that the Chinese have learned their lesson from recent events in Iran and have disabled Twitter (along with the rest of the internet):

Local Internet service was largely disabled, and online bulletin boards and search engines across China were purged of references to the violence. The social networking service Twitter, which effectively rallied demonstrators in Iran last month, was also disabled. China Mobile, the nation’s largest cellphone provider, curtailed service in Urumqi, and cellphone calls from some Beijing numbers to the area were blocked. But Chinese television carried images showing some of the violence.

Update IV: Enough of this. I made a new post that concentrates on the death toll and the Western media's coverage of the protests.

50 reasons why Waxman-Markey is a bad, bad, bad idea

I can't recommend this article enough for those looking for all the arguments against the Waxman-Markey climate change bill.

Bottom line: the law may very well do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, and even make the problem worse, all while adding tons of cruft and handouts to an already-byzantine system of energy/agriculture regulation.

There are literally 50 reasons on that list why Waxman-Markey is a bad idea, and it's really hard to pick just a few to excerpt, but seeing as how I've been working at a lobbying firm this summer and so that's what's on my mind, let's do this one:

3. With its rich menu of corporate subsidies and special set-asides for politically connected industries, Waxman-Markey has inspired a new corporate interest group, USCAP, the United States Climate Action Partnership — the group largely responsible for the fact that carbon permits are being given away like candy at Christmas rather than auctioned. And who is lined up to receive a piece of the massive wealth transfer that Waxman-Markey will mandate? Canada Free Press lists:

Alcoa, American International Group (AIG) which withdrew after accepting government bailout money, Boston Scientific Corporation, BP America Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Chrysler LLC (which continues to lobby with taxpayer dollars), ConocoPhillips, Deere & Company, The Dow Chemical Company, Duke Energy, DuPont, Environmental Defense, Exelon Corporation, Ford Motor Company, FPL Group, Inc., General Electric, General Motors Corp. (now owned by the Obama administration), Johnson & Johnson, Marsh, Inc., National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, NRG Energy, Inc., Pepsico, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, PG&E Corporation, PNM Resources, Rio Tinto, Shell, Siemens Corporation, World Resources Institute, Xerox Corporation.

Pew, NRDC, and the Environmental Defense Fund are what stood out to me. I guess you can cross those off your list of organizations you can trust on environmental and energy issues.

One thing that I would like to have seen in that article, though, are some more links. For example, can anyone at the National Review explain to me the lack of citation here (number 11 on the list)?

Two peer-reviewed scientific papers suggest that no-till either does nothing to decrease carbon dioxide or actually increases the level of greenhouse-gas emissions by upping emissions of nitrous oxide — a much more powerful greenhouse gas.

Unlicensed and unregulated private schools in the Third World

In the City Journal (one of today's most underappreciated publications, in my opinion), Liam Julian has a quick book review of The Beautiful Tree, a book by James Tooley (published by Cato) about unlicensed, unrecognized, and unregulated private schooling among the world's poorest children. Here's an excerpt from the book that stood out to the reviewer, where the book's authors did a study to determine how well these private schools actually taught:

The results from Delhi were typical. In mathematics, mean scores of children in government schools were 24.5 percent, whereas they were 42.1 percent in private unrecognized schools and 43.9 percent in private recognized. That is, children in unrecognized private schools scored nearly 18 percentage points more in math than children in government schools (a 72 percent advantage!), while children in recognized private schools scored over 19 percentage points more than children in government schools (a 79 percent advantage).

And it's not just those without access to free public schooling who are taking advantage of the private schools – even many of those entitled to free public schools don't trust them. It sure makes you wonder about the UN (and pretty much everyone else in the development community) putting so much emphasis on free, universal primary and secondary schooling.

Like most book reviews, this one is little more than a summary, but here's an interesting bit of criticism from reviewer D. W. MacKenzie:

The one nit I have to pick with the Cato crowd is on vouchers. Entitlements to education, like vouchers, can produce the same results that the author of this book decries- corruption and waste. But this disagreement does not detract from the general value of this book. Read it and learn more about learning.

I'd like to see some figures on the breakdown of where the world's poorest parents choose to send their children to school, and how many of those sending them to private schools have access to public schools.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Joe Biden says the US won't try to stop secession in Iraq?

Quoteth the New York Times:

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told Iraqi leaders on Friday that he and President Obama were committed to helping them resolve their political differences, but he warned that the United States would be unlikely to remain engaged in Iraq if the country reverted to sectarian violence, American officials said.

First of all, I doubt this is true. Even if the American public would not tolerate another over internvetion in the case of possible secession, I have no doubt that the Obama administration would pick sides and try to throw money and guns at whoever is promising to keep Iraq whole.

But besides that – what kind of message does Joe Biden think he's sending, exactly? I assume he intended it towards Malaki and his parochial interests, but it sounds like something that would please the Sunnis and Kurds (and even Malaki's rivals among the Shiites, like Ayad Alawai).

The reason I think that Joe Biden's promise of nonintervention is hollow is that the secession of the Kurds – who would likely be the first to split if the US declared a hands-off approach – would greatly offend US ally Turkey, which is doing everything it can to keep hold on to its own restive Kurdish region. The US would lose a rare friend in the Middle East, and Europe might lose the opportunity to break Russia's monopoly on transiting natural gas from the Caspian Sea with the Nabucco pipeline (though admittedly the Russians have already all but killed the deal).

I imagine that the inspiration for Joe Biden's remarks are his own personal convictions – back in 2006, when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his play for Iraq was to split it up into three autonomous regions loosely bound into one nation. That was probably the most intelligent thing I'd ever heard Biden say, though I wish he'd gone further and called for three totally independent states, Turkey be damned.