Monday, September 27, 2010

Moving on...

So, you've probably already noticed that I've more or less given up on this blog...I've had it for years but it never really got much readership. I've been blogging recently at, a blog about urban planning and the free market, and I post pretty often, so if you're interested, add it to y'all's feed readers. And, of course, if you've got any job offers for a recent graduate, email me! (smithsj -at- gmail -dot- com)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Israel eases its Gaza blockade, smuggling tunnels go unused

I've written quite a bit in the past about the flourishing smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt which supplied the blockaded territory with goods not available through legitimate trade (one source put the number at 90%, though I can't vouch for this figure). The tunnels were dangerous and Hamas was known to tax them, but they served their purpose.

It looks like now, however, they are falling into disuse as Israel has eased its blockade:

"Israel now allows more food, different kinds of it, juice, electrical equipment and even fridges, therefore merchants shifted their business to the old regular way and abandoned tunnels," he added.

Israel relaxed its restrictions in June in the wake of its raid to halt a blockade-running flotilla from reaching Gaza in a military operation that killed nine activists and drew widespread international condemnation.

While counterfactuals are difficult, this easing appears to be a direct result of the Gaza flotilla raid and the attention that it brought to the situation. At the time, I thought the activists were drawing more attention to themselves than anything else – there were way more people on the "aid" boats than there needed to be, and the used clothing and toys that made up the bulk of the cargo were relatively useless. But I suppose now that the blockade has been eased, I stand corrected.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The FHA picks up where Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac left off

As if New York City's rent control (which regulates rents in about half of all units in the five boroughs) hadn't done enough damage to the city's housing stock and renters' wallets, the Federal Housing Administration is currently doing its part to ensure that no luxury Manhattan condo goes unsold:

At least nine Manhattan condo developments south of 96th Street have sought approval for FHA backing since the agency loosened its financing rules in December, according to a database of applications maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The change allows the FHA to insure loans in new projects where only 30 percent of units are in contract, down from at least 50 percent. About 1,900 apartments in New York’s most expensive neighborhoods would be covered by the applications.

This is precisely the sort of mission creep that led Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to move outside their core mission of offering home loans to the needy, and which eventually brought down the two companies, and likely played a key role in bringing down the world's economy. One economist's assessment of the risk the FHA is taking on sounds pretty familiar:

Caplin testified before Congress in March, arguing that FHA may need a taxpayer bailout because the agency relies on overly optimistic assumptions on unemployment, home prices and loan performance to predict losses.

This trend is not necessarily new – I noticed it first two years ago – but the fact that the FHA is still growing its housing portfolio suggests that whatever meager recovery the US housing sector has managed may not be sustainable. History is full of people repeating mistakes, but America's housing czars seem downright amnesiac.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nothing green about fake meat

Caring for the environment is the latest and most trendy reason to go vegetarian (or...*gasp*...vegan!), but apparently if you're making up for meat by eating a lot of fake meat, you might be hurting Mother Earth more than if you'd stuck to chicken and fish:

In general, Eshel says, it's true that raw veggies are an excellent nutritional bargain: For every 100 calories of energy put into producing conventional beef, from farm to supermarket shelf, you get only six calories back to eat. Compare that with apples, which yield 110 calories, or raw soy: an amazing 415. In terms of greenhouse gases, switching from a diet that includes red meat to a plants-only one is roughly equivalent to trading in your SUV for a Camry.

But a girl can only eat so much roasted kale before she starts craving protein: tofu, veggie burgers, and the (okay, creepy) occasional piece of fakin' bacon. But coaxing soy into a red-and-white rectangular strip takes work—which is why Eshel believes most veggie burgers are the caloric equivalent of "shooting yourself in the foot." A 2009 study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology found that while producing a plate of peas requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce the same number of calories of pork, the energy costs of a pea-burger and a pork chop are about equal.

That's not the only issue with fake meat. Consider the process that keeps your veggie burgers low in fat: The cheapest way to remove fatty soybean oil is with hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and suspected neurotoxin. A 2009 study by the Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming nonprofit, found that Boca, Morningstar Farms, and Gardenburger (among others) market products made with hexane. The finding was enough to turn Cornucopia researcher Charlotte Vallaeys off of fake meat. "I can't think of a single meat-alternative product where I could explain how every ingredient is made," she says. "With a grass-fed burger, well, there's one ingredient. And with grass-fed burgers I actually might be doing something good for the environment."

Mormons and Mexico

The Economist has an otherwise-not-very-interesting article about Utah Republicans' decidedly non-Arizonan attitude towards immigration, but I thought this part about Mormons was interesting:

It might also have helped that virtually everybody at the table was Mormon. The Arizona state senator who sponsored SB1070, Russell Pearce, is also Mormon, which has led to speculation that this is why the Mormon Church has not yet expressed a moral opinion on the matter. But as Mormons, many of Utah’s politicians have either been in Latin America as missionaries in their youth or have loved ones who were. Mr Herbert’s son has been to Puerto Rico. Mr Sandstrom once proselytised in Venezuela and says he even has a permanent-residency permit there (through a fluke of paperwork). He once sponsored a Venezuelan family to come to America legally.

Mexico looms large in the history of the Mormons – it was one of the original destinations of East Coast Mormons like Jospeh Smith fleeing persecution in the 1840's back when what is now the American Southwest was Mexico. Even after Mexico lost California and Mormons found a home in the Salt Lake Valley, migration to Mexico became appealing again in the 1880's, when Mormons were forced to renounce polygamy in order to join the Union. The Mexican Revolution eventually forced the Mormon families out of Mexico in the early 20th century and back to the US where they became leading members of the Mormon church (including the Romneys).

Despite its history as a sanctuary for white fundamentalist Mormons, vast majority of the 1.2 million Mormons living in Mexico today are Mexican converts and do not practice polygamy. Despite the Economist's rosy picture of international travel breeding tolerance, I have a feeling Utah's tolerance of immigration relative to Arizona has more to do with it not being a border state and Mexicans' propensity to convert to Mormonism.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Kids don't talk on the phone anymore


Nearly all age groups are spending less time talking on the phone; boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are the only ones still yakking as they did when Ma Bell was America's communications queen. But the fall of the call is driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, whose average monthly voice minutes have plunged from about 1,200 to 900 in the past two years, according to research by Nielsen. Texting among 18- to 24-year-olds has more than doubled in the same period, from an average of 600 messages a month two years ago to more than 1,400 texts a month, according to Nielsen.

Young people say they avoid voice calls because the immediacy of a phone call strips them of the control that they have over the arguably less-intimate pleasures of texting, e-mailing, Facebooking or tweeting. They even complain that phone calls are by their nature impolite, more of an interruption than the blip of an arriving text.

Friday, August 6, 2010

New York City's many Chinatowns

This isn't breaking news, but I thought it was interesting: Queens has two Chinatowns, Flushing and Elmhurst, and Flushing has a larger Chinese population than Manhattan's Chinatown. Brooklyn also has its own Chinatown in Sunset Park, which is dominated by immigrants from Fujian Province. This is not to be confused with Little Fuzhou, an enclave in Manhattan's Chinatown of immigrants from the capital and largest city of Fujian Province. There is apparently a budding Chinatown in Edison, NJ, though it's more like a downsized version of Monterey Park rather than the traditional crowded urban Chinatowns. Monterey Park was the first suburban Chinatown, which has expanded such that Asians constitute a majority of the population of the sprawling San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles (which, of course, has a more traditional downtown Chinatown).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Republicans who legalized gay marriage

Well, I'm not sure if he's a Republican, but he sure has a conservative pedigree. Quoteth David Boaz, via Reason:

In other words, this “liberal San Francisco judge” was recommended by Ed Meese, appointed by Ronald Reagan, and opposed by Alan Cranston, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, and the leading gay activist groups. It’s a good thing for advocates of marriage equality that those forces were only able to block Walker twice.

He also notes that two other very prominent pro-gay marriage judges – the one involved in Iowa's surprise gay marriage legalization and the one in Boston who overturned DOMA – were also appointed by Republicans.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The culture that is Kuwait

Apparently Ramadan ain't so great for the live-ins:

And in the coming weeks, when Ramadan starts, the number of maids seeking protection is expected to grow, perhaps by the hundreds, straining the capacity of the improvised shelters, embassy officials say. With Kuwaiti families staying up into the early hours of the morning, some maids say they cook more, work longer hours and sleep less.

Rosflor Armada, who is staying in the Philippines Embassy, said that last year during Ramadan, she cooked all day for the evening meal and was allowed to sleep only about two hours a night.

“They said, ‘You will work. You will work.’ ” She said that she left after her employers demanded that she wash the windows at 3 a.m.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Deportations rise under Obama

The increase hasn't been dramatic, but it's there, reporteth the Washington Post:

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush's final year in office.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why drilling in American waters is good for the environment

As much as I despise big oil survives for it reliance on government transportation policies and not market forces, all things equal, I think it's best for the environment to drill in American waters. Why? Because if you don't, things like this happen:

BP will start deep-water drilling off the coast of Libya within weeks in spite of concerns about the UK group’s environmental and safety record after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. [...]

Barack Obama’s imposition of a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has highlighted the growing importance of new exploration across the Mediterranean. Diamond Offshore, a US deep-water driller, is moving a rig from the Gulf of Mexico to Egypt, while Australia’s APX started drilling last week between Tunisia and Italy. Shell plans to start exploring soon off western Sicily.

Italy has speeded up its procedures and granted 21 new exploration permits. New limits imposed on near-shore drilling in response to the Gulf of Mexico spill apply only to future operations and barely affect the most promising areas off Sicily.

With cash-strapped governments courting Libya’s oil-fuelled sovereign wealth funds, countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta – all within a radius of 500km (310 miles) of the Gulf of Sirte – have refrained from commenting on Libya’s plans.

However, environmentalists and politicians have expressed concerns. A proposal by Günther Oettinger, Europe’s energy commissioner, for a moratorium on deep-water drilling in European Union waters failed to get a response from Mediterranean states.

If a rig like Deepwater Horizon exploded and started spewing oil off the coast of Libya, I doubt it would be contained within three months. Apparently oil has been leaking into the Niger Delta for decades and shows no signs of slowing. It's possible that environmentally-minded northern EU countries would step in and force Gaddafi and Berlusconi to take an oil spill seriously, but if BP thought that way, I'm not sure they would have bothered moving.

Ted Haggard's new ministry

Ted Haggard, the disgraced Evangelical megapastor caught doing meth with a gay prostitute and last seen hocking debt reduction software, has started up a new church in his backyard. The whole article is almost too good to excerpt, but I'll try:

He acknowledged grave lapses of judgment in the episode he refers to as "my crisis." But Mr. Haggard also said that in his sorrow and shame, he accepted too much guilt after the scandal broke.

"I over-repented," he said. [...]

He portrays his encounter with the prostitute as a massage that went awry and said he doesn't have same-sex attractions. He dismisses as a "witch hunt" the findings of his former church that he engaged in a pattern of misconduct, including sordid talk and inappropriate relationships. (He said his only fault was cracking a few crude jokes.) [...]

Mr. Haggard plays up his new regular-guy image. At the picnic, he asked a friend whether anyone noticed he had said "hell" in the sermon—and not in a Biblical context.

"I cuss now," he said proudly.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tea Party tacitly backs states' rights to gay marriage

I've written about the Tea Partiers' surprising amount of principles before, and it looks like they're at it again, bein' all principled and such:

While many conservative organizations immediately decried a federal judge's decision last week to invalidate the federal ban on recognizing gay marriages, tea party groups have been conspicuously silent on the issue.

The silence is by design, activists with the loosely affiliated movement said, because it is held together by an exclusive focus on fiscal matters and its avoidance of divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Privately, though, many said they back the decision because it emphasizes the legal philosophy of states' rights.

One hopes that if California's Prop 19 passes and there's a California vs. federal government showdown over legalized marijuana, the Tea Party will side with California, or at least not touch the issue.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Drugs in North Korea

An excerpt from this New Yorker article, available only to subscribers:

Many of the teen-agers, Song-hee included, didn't go to school regularly and often hung out at home. Sometimes they did drugs, usually the cheap amphetamine known as "ice," which was produced in North Korea and was readily available. If one of them had electricity, they would gather at that person's house to watch pirated DVDs smuggled in from China. It is illegal in North Korea to watch foreign DVDs, and radios and televisions are set to government stations. Nevertheless, illegal DVDs were easy to find in Musan. "I saw a lot of Chinese films, Indian films, Russian films," Song-hee told me. "We watched action movies and sometimes porn. Only American and South Korean movies we couldn't get. You could really get in trouble for having those."

Song-hee was a relatively well-off 17-year-old from a city near the Chinese border, but not well off that white rice with a fried egg on top was eaten more than a dozen or two times a year.

North Korea is a notorious exporter of (meth)amphetamine, but this still surprised me. Especially the implication ("usually the cheap amphetamine...") that there are other drugs available.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Russian media and the spy story

It looks like the acerbic Yeltsin years were a rare glimmer of press freedom, as Putin's Russia has descended back into authoritarianism:

On Russia's main national state-run television channels, the spy story led broadcasts only on the first day the news broke. The reports, delivered in a neutral manner, focused on official statements from Russia and the U.S. As both the Kremlin and the White House played down any impact from the scandal on relations, it faded from newscasts in Russia. The reports that did run adopted the ironic tone set by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who joked about the cloak-and-dagger nature of the accusations in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

"Americans Don't Understand Who the FBI Has Caught," was the July 1 headline in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper on a story about reports in the U.S. that questioned whether the accused spies had obtained any sensitive information.

Meanwhile, the public apparently has a sustained interest for the story, as the WSJ's chart indicates that online searches about the scandal haven't abated since the story broke a week ago. Broadcast TV is by far the most common source of media in Russia, and the government generally doesn't try to censor smaller news outfits and those existing only online who repeat stories (though it does come after their reporters).

Interestingly enough, Russia Today – the government's English-language channel shown abroad – has maintained focus on the story, which seems like an obvious (but effective) way to portray Russian media and society as open:

One Russian state-run network has stayed with the story: Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language news channel mainly distributed outside Russia. "Ever since the first reports....this has been the top story on RT," Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's editor-in-chief, said in an email. "More than 250,000 people have watched RT videos about the spy scandal on YouTube," she said.

Drug smuggling in 1970

From a Time article published in 1970 about Americans locked up abroad for drug smuggling:

Often the youthful smugglers are suckers from the start. In Lebanon, tourist guides around Baalbek's famous Roman ruins sidle up to adventurous-looking American kids and sell them not only cheap hash but identical cheap cardboard tourist suitcases to carry it in. Airport customs officials are so familiar with the suitcases that they almost yawn as they arrest the tourists who show up with them.

Then there's this:

Beirut's notorious Sands prison, where seven Americans are currently awaiting trial, is filled with rats, homosexuals and filth.

Planting the Disney seed in China

Whoa, so this headline from the Financial Times is pretty weird – "Disney to expand language schools in China" – but the cynical take on it is even weirder:

The growing Chinese middle class means there is no shortage of parents willing to pay $2,200 a year for tuition of two hours a week. But the schools also enable Disney to forge a bond with a new generation of consumers who may be unaware of the company’s characters and stories.

The president of Disney Publishing Worldwide tries, unconvincingly, to downplay that part:

“We wouldn’t enter this business just to use it as a marketing tool to get Disney in front of people,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that a side benefit is broader exposure to Chinese consumers and to build familiarity with the rich heritage of Disney storytelling.”

Government media controls and quotas restricting the number of films shown in cinemas have prevented Disney from establishing its brand in China in the way it has in Europe and the US.

The success of the programme has convinced the company to explore other markets. “The next 12 months will be focused on rapid expansion [in China],” said Mr Hampton. But it was also “a very exciting time to invest in Brazil”.

An investment for Robin Hanson's got a contract on its own existence that last traded at 94.9, redeemable for 100 if is still "open for business" by the end of 2010. (InTrade pages are hard to link to, but you can find it by going to, clicking "" under the "The Prediction Markets" heading in the left-hand column, and then clicking on the one contract listed.) Each contract pays out $10 if it's successful and charges $0.10 as commission for in-the-money predictions, meaning that if InTrade's still in business, you paid $9.49 for something that would be worth $9.90, for an annualized return of 9.11%. And with the bid at 90 and the ask at 94.9, there may be room to negotiate. Does Robin Hanson's portfolio average 9.11%, and if not, why hasn't he invested yet?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Obama aides get no invites to teachers' union conventions

Quoteth the NYT:

For two years as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama addressed educators gathered for the summer conventions of the two national teachers’ unions, and last year both groups rolled out the welcome mat for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But in a sign of the Obama administration’s strained relations with two of its most powerful political allies, no federal official was scheduled to speak at either convention this month, partly because union officials feared that administration speakers would face heckling.

Normally I'd take this is a good sign, but unfortunately, from what I understand of Obama's education policy, the teachers are being misled by a PR machine. He's big on bashing unions in public, but has no problem saddling up to them in private. Then again, despite allowing the DC voucher program to die and showering public schools with cash as "stimulus," his $4.3 billion Race to the Top program has been pissing off teachers unions, so maybe he is doing something right?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

SVR defector/double agent may be at heart of Russian spy bust

With the recently busted Russian spy ring collecting no information of actual value and having no real access to policymakers, I often asked myself how they got caught in the first place. Stratfor (search for the article title on Google to access for free) thinks it has the answer:

The criminal complaint did not suggest how the U.S. government came to suspect these people of reporting back to the SVR in Russia, although we did notice that the beginning of the investigation coincides with the time that a high-level SVR agent stationed at Russia’s U.N. mission in New York began passing information to the FBI. Sergei Tretyakov (who told his story in the book by Pete Earley called “Comrade J,” an abbreviation of his SVR codename, “Comrade Jean”), passed information to the FBI from the U.N. mission from 1997 to 2000, just before he defected to the United States in October 2000. According to the criminal complaint, seven of the 11 suspects were connected to Russia’s U.N. mission, though evidence of those links did not begin to emerge until 2004 (and some as late as 2010). The timing of Tretyakov’s cooperation with the U.S. government and the timing of the beginning of this investigation resulting in the arrest of the 11 suspects this week suggests that Tretyakov may have been the original source who tipped off the U.S. government. So far, the evidence is circumstantial — the timing and the location match up — but Tretyakov, as the SVR operative at Russia’s U.N. mission, certainly would have been in a position to know about operations involving most of the people arrested June 27.

This poses another question, though: if the Russians knew he defected and knew knew that he knew about the illegal program, why didn't they dismantle it? I can think of a few explanations: they didn't know he knew, they're incompetent, or they're playing a deeper game and did this all on purpose.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Loyalty to the Russian Federation?

While I understand the motives for most of the recent Russian spies – basically, money and power – what I can't understand is Juan Lazaro's insistence that he's still loyal to "the Service" (i.e., the SVR, or the Foreign Intelligence Service):

He allegedly told federal agents that he was not born in Uruguay, that "Juan Lazaro" is not his real name, that his house in Yonkers, New York, had been "paid for by the 'Service' and, although he loved his son, he would not violate his loyalty to the 'Service' even for his son," he said after he waived his Miranda rights, prosecutors say.

What values exactly is he staying loyal to? As heinous and murderous as the Soviet Union was, at least they had nice platitudes that you could pretend they upheld. But the Russian Federation? What, does he just really hate Georgians or something?

My best guess is that it's just a bargaining tactic, but it sure would be odd if he really truly believed in Putin's Russia.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Al-Qaeda's new video: apparently they read the newspaper!

Al-Qaeda's got a new video out, and this one's in English! Produced by al-Qaeda's media arm and featuring its American spokesman Adam Gadahn, you can find it in three parts on YouTube (1, 2, and 3).

It starts out with the order that "We Do Not Permit Musical Accompaniment With Our Productions," just as a reminder to those slack terrorist-sympathizing Muslims that the revolution will not be remixed. "Barack," Adam Gadahn begins, "I know that as you slither snakelike into the second year of your reign as a purported president of change, you are finding your hands full with running the affairs of a declining and besieged empire and — in the process — proving yourself to be nothing more than another treacherous, bloodthirsty and narrow-minded American war president..."

It goes on like that for a while (that particular sentence wasn't even half over). It's clearly targeted towards an American audience, and sounds sort of like it's come from a drunk Nation writer who hasn't spoken English in a decade; I have a feeling that their Arabic-language videos place a bit more emphasis on killing Americans and Israelis. ('s story is titled "Al-Qaeda Spokesman Gadahn Proposes Peace Conditions With US.")

Gadahn tries to show us he's been keeping up with the news, dissing the Democrats for losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat and even making an inadvertent plug for the Salahis' new reality show:

And honestly, Barack, as a president who has proven himself to be incapable of keeping intruders out of his own executive mansion, do you really expect anyone to believe that you will be successful in your attempts to keep the Mujahideen away from an entire continent?

The personal attacks against "Barack" abound, including this stinger: "Make no mistake about it Barack, you're no longer the popular man you once were."

His analysis of American politics falls flat when he tries to claim that Obama's falling popularity is due not to healthcare and his domestic policies, but rather to foreign wars. The video then cuts to clips of American veterans criticizing Obama's ongoing wars, thus ensuring that no veteran will ever say anything like that again, out of fear that they'll be coopted by al-Qaeda.

Overall, I think Adam Gadahn could benefit from an editor – that guy just doesn't know when to shut up.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hugs kill terrorists

This is the best thing I've read in a while, via Bruce Schneier:

In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The NYT's shitty drug war coverage

Despite the paper's supposedly liberal slant, the New York Times' drug reporting is oddly deferential to the government's pro-drug war line, and its reporting suffers either as a cause or an effect. Though they line their articles with caveats and doubts, they spend the bulk of their time repeating the claims of the government, and don't seem to look very far to find opposing point of views to include.

Take as an example this article in Saturday's paper about Afghanistan's poppy problem. While opium poppy has been a lucrative crop in Afghanistan for decades, a recent combination of disease and poor weather has stunted this season's yield, shrinking it by as much as half. Rather than a sober discussion of opium's next season (which, let's face it, are good), the Times' C.J. Chivers article starts out by telling us that there's a chance that within months, the shift away from opium is going to begin.

The first paragraph that essentially tells us that Afghan opium farmers have never had it this bad (doubt it). In the second we learn that apparently there's also some program run by the US Marines, and as a result "the start" of a shift away from opium "could be possible" within mere months:

As farmers around Marja, the heart of Afghanistan’s opium industry, confront harsh environmental conditions and new interdiction efforts, they are also receiving offers of aid in exchange for growing different crops. Both they and the military said that the start of a shift to other sources of income could be possible by the end of this year, when poppy planting would resume.

In the third we get a generic affirmation and a rebuttal (opium prices are up because of the shortage). The next few arguments are non-novel and pretty general ones for and against the program's success, and slowly the reader gets the impression that there isn't anything more to learn about the specific programs, and moves on, with the impression that there's a vague government program that might help rid Afghanistan of heroin.

So it's a huge surprise that half way through the second online page we learn that, in fact, an unknown but potentially huge portion of this program that's supposed to transition farmers from opium to legal crops is a huge sham:

Assessing the program’s effect remains difficult. In many cases, according to Marines on patrols who had to verify that poppy fields were destroyed, farmers were paid based on estimates of a field’s size, which Afghans often inflated.

Marines and poppy farmers also agreed that many farmers waited until the end of the season to register for payments. Then they quickly harvested their opium, plowed under the stalks and collected payments nonetheless.

“That was the only bad thing,” said Cpl. David S. Palmer, who led the squad that provided security for the verification team. “A lot of people were double-taking on us, and there was nothing we could do about it.”

The only bad thing indeed. But never fear, because it's the thought that counts – in the next too many paragraphs we learn that it's an important "stepping stone," it might be working because "what began as a trickle of cooperative farmers...became a busy queue," the program's helping them "reseize the moment," it's providing "much-needed assistance to some of the poorest people in the world," and the "ultimate hope" is peace and a drug-free Afghanistan. Oh yeah, and "[t]he Taliban’s murder and intimidation program is still ongoing." But don't worry, because "through the subsidies, groups of farmers have begun to meet and cooperate with the Americans and Afghan troops."

No real background or reference about past efforts at anti-poppy campaigns, and no citation of any critical voices. And obviously the copy editor wasn't paying attention, because the giant gaping hole in the subject of the article isn't even mentioned until three-quarters of the way through a two-page articles. Let's give it up for another drug war hack job from the New York Times.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

South Africa's World Cup failure

Large domestic and international sporting events, along with a lot of one-off things like conventions, are usually economic drains, and it's a real shame when the country is poor to begin with. Such it is with South Africa:

The World Cup is set to be a major financial disappointment for the host nation South Africa, after it became clear that international fans have decided to stay away and their tickets are being sold cheaply to South Africans.

Less than three weeks before kick-off on 11 June, South Africa's revamped airports and spruced-up cities are staging an impressive show of readiness for the arrival of international fans – although now it seems there may be half a million fewer than expected.

Does this really surprise anyone? South African cities are notorious for their crime, and in Britain it has the reputation of not being a friendly place to whites (rightly or wrongly deserved), and they are generally the only soccer fans who can afford to travel. Apart from this metaphorical distance, it's also literally really far away from pretty much everywhere, especially rich northern/western hemisphere countries. Even southern hemisphere Australia and New Zealand are a very long way away.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Was the Danish cartoon controversy manufactured by a Russian intelligence agency?

As you may or may not have heard, tomorrow is Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, which has pissed off half the internet and even got Pakistan to block Facebook. I think the most recent trigger was a (double) episode of South Park that either displayed or mocked the image of the prophet, but I'm not really sure. What I have found interesting about this whole controversy is its possible origin: more than one former Russian spy has claimed that it's a ploy by the Russian secret services to drum up anti-American resentment, as part of a broader campaign of active measures dating back to Soviet times.

This all sounds pretty outlandish, but here is what Thomas Bogart, a historian at the International Spy Museum and Oxford Ph.D. recipient had to say:

Contemporary active measures are not confined to Russian soil. In fact, the recent controversy over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad may well have been choreographed by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. The evidence is circumstantial but compelling. For one, Kalugin says, the KGB has a history of using Danish journalists to plant disinformation in the Western press. And Flemming Rose, the Jyllands Posten cultural editor who commissioned the cartoons in 2005, happened to serve for several years as a correspondent in Moscow where, Kalugin observes, he published a spate of obviously government-sponsored, anti-Chechen articles. According to Litvinenko and journalist Adlan Beno, Rose also happens to be married to the daughter of an ex-KGB officer. This does not per se make Rose a Russian agent, of course, but Russian intelligence may well have availed itself of this “in-house” connection to influence the Danish journalist. “This guy may have been used,” Kalugin says.

As the cartoon controversy spread across the globe, scores of brand new Danish flags turned up mysteriously all over the Middle East just in time to be set ablaze by enraged demonstrators at internationally televised protests. Predictably, Muslim anger quickly turned toward the West at large. “Some obscure Danish newspaper [prints these cartoons], and all the sudden across the Western world, everybody knows what’s it all about. Who organized it? Who ignited the process?” asks Kalugin, identifying a top suspect himself: The SVR. It wouldn’t have been the first active measure of this kind. When a Jewish militant went on a rampage at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1981, the KGB planned to stage an anti-American Muslim rally in New Delhi, says Kalugin. At 5,000 rupees, the proposed operation was ridiculously cheap.

Kalugin is not alone in suspecting Moscow’s hand behind the recent cartoon controversy. Says Peter Earnest, a former senior CIA clandestine service officer who served in the Middle East: “As a way of fueling anti-western feelings among Muslims, publishing of cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad in an obscure Danish journal was a no-brainer, if it was done deliberately, particularly if you are prepared to use resources elsewhere to keep the controversy alive and pulsating.” And what’s in it for Moscow? The Kremlin seeks to compromise and undermine the United States and “make Russia look [like] an alternative” international partner to Middle Eastern nations, says Kalugin. Emphasizing the continuity between Soviet and Russian active measures, he concludes: “It’s a tradition, it’s not something new. That’s important to see the pastprojected onto the present—and the future.”

That's one former American spy (Peter Earnest, director of the museum), one author (Adlan Beno), and two former Russian spies. One of those spies was Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated (almost certainly by the Kremlin), and the second was Oleg Kalugin, a very well known former FSB director who supported Boris Yeltsin against the hardliners' attempted coup early in the '90s and later turned against Vladimir Putin and is now a well-known critic of the regime and its secret services. And while the article doesn't directly quote Litvinenko and he died before the article was published, a Salon article written posthumously article also cites his claims of Russian involvement.

While this would be disturbing in and of itself if true, I think the bigger worry is that this is a resurgence of the Russian secret services. They mostly fell into disarray immediately after the collapse of the USSR, but the rise of Putin (himself a former FSB director) has signaled to many that the KGB is back.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How Basel regulations fucked over both American real estate and Southern European governments

A blog dedicated to explaining the causes of the financial crisis has an excellent summary of the argument that Basel regulations doomed us all, both Americans and Europeans.

Basel regulations essentially tells large banks and institutions (and only them) precisely how much risk they can take with certain asset classes. Under Basel I, adopted in the West in 1992, banks were allowed to take huge risks in mortgage-backed securities and small risks in vanilla business loans. Basel I is in the process of being phased out in favor of Basel II, which went into effect in Europe in 2006-07. The second incarnation allows institutional investors to plow all of their clients' money in certain classes of sovereign debt (which at the time included Greek or Portuguese government bonds) without leaving a cent left over in case the bonds default. Obviously, it was precisely the asset classes that required little capital that have been taking down the global financial system, more slowly that us Americans realized.

As Jeffrey Friedman explains in the first piece, these rules only applied to large institutions such as banks and pension funds. While other investors were not as heavily invested in these risky products, they did fall victim to the mania to a lesser extent – though in the end, it's the banks who need the bailouts (and the public pension crisis in America is coming), not hedge funds and S&L's.

Those who call for more regulation of financial risk are frequently unaware of how minutely risk is regulated for large institutions. Proponents of regulation that are aware often argue that these are merely ceilings on risks and that an unregulated market would have been able to go even wilder on these risky loans, but the truth is that regulations are more than just ceilings. As they used to say in IT procurement, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM – a company whose big break was FDR's 1935 Social Security Act and the lucrative federal contracts it created. And when you lower ceilings on risk – presumably the Democrat's desired regulatory policy – you're only entrenching the idea of relying on the government to tell you what is a good investment and what is not.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

US judge kills LimeWire, used by 60% of music pirates

A few days ago, a US district court judge ruled against LimeWire, effectively forcing the company to fold its extremely popular filesharing product:

While Wood's decision won't come close to killing online piracy--there's still BitTorrent and plenty of other ways to share files--she likely has scuttled a peer-to-peer service used by nearly 60 percent of the people who download songs. She also may have ushered out the era of large, well-funded file-sharing services, at least the kind that help distribute mostly copyright-infringing content. By making Gorton personally liable for damages, Wood served notice that operating these kinds of businesses is now a very risky financial endeavor. If the RIAA gets its way, Gorton, Lime Wire, and Lime Group will collectively be responsible for paying damages of $450 million.

BitTorrent is still the major player in the filesharing game, with the protocol carrying about half of all internet data. It's harder to use than LimeWire and other standalone filesharing applications (especially to download individual songs), but it's possible that the death of LimeWire will spur either easier-to-use BT clients, or broader consumer knowledge about how to use BitTorrent as is. And once consumers learn to use BitTorrent to download albums, it's only a short step to video piracy, BitTorrent's niche, which has the potential to be much more disruptive.

The Taliban never really banned opium

I often hear about the Taliban's short-lived ban on opium cultivation in 2000, but according to this paper (pdf), the ban likely had nothing to do with religion, morals, or international pressure:

Under the ban, poppy cultivation was reduced by more than 90 percent; it continued to flourish only in areas controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces.

Though the West initially applauded the Taliban’s about-face as a sign of a new willingness to join the international community, the enthusiasm was probably premature. Analysts now believe that the Taliban had a large stockpile of opium and heroin on hand from previous years of bountiful production, and that the ban was simply an attempt to use Afghanistan’s monopoly power to raise prices in a weak market.

It looks likely only a profit motive can stop Afghanistan's heroin exports.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

€500 note taken out of circulation in the UK

The Brits have withdrawn the €500 note from circulation in the UK, on evidence that the vast majority of them are used by those conducting illegal business:

However, fed up with abuse of the currency, Britain's Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) has decided with the Treasury and Home Office to remove €500 notes from circulation in Britain. Soca's ban follows an investigation which revealed that 90 per cent of the €500 notes in this country are being used for criminal purposes. It's the latest of a number of high-denomination bank notes favoured by villains that have fallen out of favour. Richard Nixon halted the circulation of $10,000 bills in 1969 because of their association with organised crime; these days the 1,000 Swiss franc note, while rare, is another popular choice for those engaging in nefarious deeds, and the 1,000 Dutch guilder note was a black-market favourite before the introduction of the euro.

It's not exactly clear to me how they're doing this, since the euro isn't a British currency to begin with – are they forbidding banks from accepting them in transactions?

Did Google's unsubsidized Nexus fail in a free enough market?

The Tech Liberation Front has a post about Google's failure to attract customers to its unsubsidized smart phones, and reasons that the widespread subsidization of phones by wireless providers (the reason your iPhone only costs $199) must be the market, revealed.

I'm a bit weary of the "market has spoken" kind of talk, though, considering how managed the wireless market really is. The government doles out spectrum rather arbitrarily, shaping the market in a pretty heavy-handed way. Even an auction system is still imposing a perhaps unnecessary layer of government control – open spectrum and competition in interference avoidance might utilize the spectrum more efficiently than either the status quo or an auctions.

I'm not sure how exactly the government intervention is pushing carriers towards offering subsidized phones, but the whole industry is just too managed to be accepted at face value as a working market. I'm not saying that there should necessarily be a complete free-for-all, but until the government does with long distance-capable bands what it did with the frequencies now used for wifi, I'm going to be skeptical of any weird things that the wireless industry comes up with.

Here is my archive of open spectrum-related posts, for those interested in the idea of ending government control of the airwaves.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Would Germany be better off now if it were on the pound rather than the euro?

I don't really feel very qualified to talk about European monetary and macroeconomics, which is why for the most part I've avoided writing about Greece and the Eurozone's crisis, but – and maybe it's just the benzos – I feel like I have something slightly relevant to say.

First of all, Tyler Cowen has a great round-up of recent events and indicators (although I hate his first point) here. Additionally, I hear that even Paul Krugman – someone who, sometime during his transition from serious economist to columnist, turned into a man who never met a bailout he didn't like – thinks Greece is going to be dropped from the euro. (Although later in the article he seems overjoyed at the fact that a Greece back on the drachma would be able to destroy the currency to its heart's content.)

As far as I can gather, the consensus among economists is that debt restructuring (in Krugman's words, "a polite term for partial default") is certain, a more serious default is likely, and Greece leaving the eurozone – an that was seen as very fringe a few weeks ago – is now a distinct possibility. In the end, I think that the quicker Greece leaves the euro, the better. Many in Europe worry about the resultant instability won't be worth the risk – after all, even Greek dogs like to riot. But in the end, Greeks have become too accustomed to capitalism and liberal democracy, and once its leftist protestors no longer have the euro and lack of monetary and fiscal sovereignty to blame, the rioting will stop and the hard reforms will begin. Greek voters are too sophisticated to give into geography and regress to the level of its Balkan neighbors, who despite Greece's problems, they still make it look like Switzerland in comparison.

The big European monetary debate has always been whether the UK and Scandinavia should give up their pounds and crowns in favor of the euro. But it now looks like it would have been better for Germany, the Benelux, and Scandinavia to give up their marks, francs, guilders, and crowns in favor of the pound sterling.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dots on soda cans in Cuba

Yoani Sánchez, by far the most famous Cuban blogger, has fascinating post on one of Cuba's clandestine industries, framed by a friend asking her why soda cans have different colored dots on them. It's not long, but here are some excerpts:

So the colored dots indicate who owns the drinks that have been sold. Those of the local administrator might be marked in red, the waitress’s marked in blue, and the cook probably decided to opt for an orange dot. Everyone gets a share. [...]

Also, clandestine factories produce Bucanero and Cristal beers with the same appearance as the originals and even long time drinkers can barely tell the difference. These knock-off industries are located in what looks like family homes, in whose rooms a canning device snaps on the lids. [...]

A labyrinthine network of counterfeiting and resale that undermines the dysfunctional centralization and diverts profits to thousands of private pockets.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Russian neo-Nazis mistake bubble blowers for gay pride marchers, beat them up

The Moscow Times, eternal font of all weird Russian things, has this dispatch from the motherland:

Young people who gathered to celebrate spring by blowing bubbles at an annual flash mob in central St. Petersburg were attacked by a group of suspected neo-Nazis who mistook the gathering for a gay pride event, flash mob organizers said.

Some 500 people stood blowing bubbles on the steps of Gorkovskaya metro station and in the surrounding Alexandrovsky Park at about 4 p.m. Sunday — the agreed time for the start of the flash mob — when about 30 men ran up and started beating them and firing rubber bullets.

Several people fell to the ground before the attackers fled at the sight of approaching OMON riot police officers. A reporter saw officers detain at least one attacker. Police also detained about 30 bubble-blowers for five hours on suspicion of walking on the grass, a charge that they denied, organizers said.

Emphasis mine. True story: I've actually been vaguely threatened with arrest by Romanian police officers because I was standing on the grass (an Eastern European euphemism for mud, as far as I can tell). I think they were shaking me down for a bribe (or at least sizing me up/priming me for one), though eventually they left me alone.

In this specific case, I think the, uh, "mix-up" was probably genuine and not directed on high, but I think the Kremlin deserves ultimate responsibility for the rise of Russian neo-Nazism generally. And not just for indirect reasons like a poor economy and the government's political scapegoating of immigrants; rather, the Russian is literally training them:

Human Rights researchers in Moscow have published documents showing "Nazi skinheads are being encouraged, organized, and used by Russia's ruling circles in their own interests." And Isvestiya reported that "Nazi skinheads from an openly fascist organization, the NNP (People's National Party), were being trained at the Moscow OMON special-purpose police detachment facilities and that they were being trained specifically by OMON coaches." Several years ago Russian historian Vladimir Ilyushenko asserted that "some parties view skinheads as their reserve. The process of encouraging fascist sentiments in Russia is steered by government officials."

Saturday, May 1, 2010

South African cities and their multipolarity

So, I knew that South Africa's capital/city situation was a bit odd, but I never realized until today just how weird it truly is. Officially, South Africa's has three capitals – Cape Town is the legislative capital, Pretoria is the executive capital, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. It's unclear to me where Jacob Zuma, the country's president, actually lives, but he has official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town. The parliament meets in Cape Town, however oddly enough, despite being the judicial capital, Bloemfontein is actually not where the nation's highest court, the Constitutional Court, meets – that honor goes to Johannesburg – which despite being the largest in the country, is not an official capital.

The largest and most important city not being the capital is actually something that's common throughout former British colonies. Washington, DC is not even within the top 10 American cities by population, Ottawa is only the eighth largest city/fourth largest metro area in Canada, and Wellington is essentially tied for second in New Zealand with Christchurch (Wikipedia seems to be confident enough that the 100 person difference is accurate, though).

At first I was going to say that this is due to their fluctuating populations, but now that I think about it, that's not the case with the US, for which, if I understand correctly, DC was a compromise between the North and the South after the Civil War. A lot of state capitals in the US are similarly insignificant – Sacramento in California and Albany in New York, for example. In fact, none of the six most populous US states have the same capital/largest city; not until number seven, Ohio, do you get Columbus as both the largest city and capital.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Jogging in Moscow

The Moscow Times has a hilarious article about the trials and tribulations that joggers face in Moscow. It starts with an anecdote about a foreign correspondent in Moscow in 1981 who was trailed by the KGB because his jogging routine aroused suspicion, but here's the best part of the article (especially the last paragraph):

Greg Walters, a former Moscow Times reporter and now a guitarist in Brooklyn-based indie rock group Red Wire Black Wire, used to jog in Chistiye Prudy when he lived in Moscow.

“If I ran through after 2 p.m., I’d get heckled by groups of men drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. A couple times, some of them sarcastically jogged along with me, laughing uproariously. They thought I was hilarious,” Walters said in an e-mail.

The woman who answered the phone at the Russian Athletics Federation simply sneered. “We have nothing to do with people who just run around outside for exercise. We have athletes, professionals who run in competitions.”

Now that I think about it, I never saw people jogging when I lived in Bucharest.

...and I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Moscow Times is a great paper.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

To beg the question

Mark Liberman, of the famously descriptivist bloggers at Language Log, has just posted an intimidatingly long treatise on the phrase "to beg the question." After tracing the genesis of the now-misused phrase's corruption back to a medieval Greek-to-Latin translation, he advises the following:

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use "assume the conclusion" or "raise the question", depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

Bimonthly, too. Totally ambiguous – is it every two weeks or every two months?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Military press conferences as "hypnotizing chickens"

The NYT has a weird article about PowerPoint (over)use in the military, but the last-liner is the funniest thing I've read in the NYT in months:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Apple's secrecy kills...literally

In the wake of the leaked iPhone 4 there has been a lot of discussion on the interwebs about Apple's notoriously tight controls on its yet-to-be announced products, and while reading about them I found this fascinating and slightly chilling article published last December about Apple's "Worldwide Loyalty Team," a.k.a. the Apple Gestapo. Here's an excerpt:

The operation, as Tom calls it, is not anything special. It is not one of a kind event. It's just a normal practice, and the process is pretty simple: The manager will instruct all employees to stay at their desks, telling them what to do and what to expect at any given time. The Apple Gestapo never handles the communication. They are there, present, supervising the supervisors, making sure everything goes as planned.

All cellphones are then taken. Usually, they collect them all at the same time, which means that the process could take a long time. If you need to contact the exterior during the time your cellphone is under examination, you will have to ask for permission, and your call will be monitored.

They don't ask for cameras because there are no cameras at Apple: Employees are not allowed to get into the campus with them. If the cellphone is an iPhone, it gets backed up onto a laptop. "In fact, at the beginning they used to say that the iPhones were really their property, since Apple gave every employee a free iPhone," he points out. All the employees are asked to unlock and disable any locking features in their cellphones, and then the special forces will proceed to check them for recent activity.

They back up everything and go through all the other phones' text messages and pictures. If you have porn in your phone, they will see it. If you have text messages to your spouse, lover, or Tiger Woods, they will see them, too. Just like that. No privacy, no limits.

In fact, the pressure to keep secrets is so strong that Foxconn – one of Apple's Chinese supplier who produces the iPhone – once had its "security team" drive an employee to commit suicide after he lost an iPhone prototype. Not Apple per se, but I have a feeling that if he had lost a Palm prototype, he'd still be alive today.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Supreme Court struggles to understand what a text message is

The Supreme Court, struggling to understand what a text message is:

The first sign was about midway through the argument, when Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. - who is known to write out his opinions in long hand with pen and paper instead of a computer - asked what the difference was “between email and a pager?”

Other justices’ questions showed that they probably don’t spend a lot of time texting and tweeting away from their iPhones either.

At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked what would happen if a text message was sent to an officer at the same time he was sending one to someone else.

“Does it say: ‘Your call is important to us, and we will get back to you?’” Kennedy asked.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrangled a bit with the idea of a service provider.

“You mean (the text) doesn’t go right to me?” he asked.

Then he asked whether they can be printed out in hard copy.

“Could Quon print these spicy little conversations and send them to his buddies?” Scalia asked.

I've heard stereotypes of Supreme Court justices as old and out of touch, but damn! John Roberts is barely 55!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

DC public schools spend as much as private universities

I see this fact every now and then, and I'm sure I've posted on this blog about it before, but it still astounds me every time:

The District of Columbia public school system spends over $28,000 per child annually.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

NYT links to Lew Rockwell essay on medieval Iceland

A New York Times article about Iceland's reaction to the (perhaps overblown) volcanic ash hovering over Europe has this extremely uncharacteristic link to an anarcho-capitalist history of Iceland posted on kinda/sorta/maybe racist Lew Rockwell's website:

It may seem to outsiders that Iceland has leapt on to the world stage, but Icelanders say otherwise. Sparsely populated with about 310,000 residents, they say it has long had a streak of influence elsewhere far out of proportion to its economic power or population. Settled in the ninth century by Norsemen, it was for several centuries thereafter a zone of experimentation in radical free market economics known as the Icelandic Free State, with no taxes, no police or army, and certainly no bureaucrats.

It was those settlers’ descendants — spiritually, at least, and known, unflatteringly, as “the Vikings” — who ran all over the globe in the last decade brokering wild, overleveraged deals that led to the crash in 2008.

Based on the context and the subprime dig, I'm going to guess that the author just thought it was interesting and clever and isn't actually an anarcho-capitalist sympathizer. But even so, I'm surprised that it got by the copyeditor – there aren't many links to outside sites in NYT stories (though their bloggers and columnists have more).

In any case, the link is quite interesting. In general I'm wary of Lew Rockwell and his circle (mostly due to this little scandal, which forever tarred Ron Paul as a racist), but I think that one thing that anarcho-capitalists do well is history (especially founder of the ideology, Murray Rothbard, with his masterful, underrated four volume history of pre-Revolutionary America, Conceived in Liberty), so I'm inclined to believe that it's probably at least close to accurate.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Labour's new manifesto, for the slow ones

Just in case you were under the impression that UK politics were somehow more enlightened than America's, via the Browser:

Aliens in America

Quote of the day:

"We have dealt a severe blow to an alien-smuggling industry in Arizona that feeds thousands of aliens into the far reaches of the U.S., including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles," said ICE chief John Morton.

Aliens, you say?

The whole article is about a record ICE raid that dismantled a Nogales-centered human smuggling network that was tied up with shuttle bus services. Interestingly enough, unlike the market for smuggling drugs, the market for illegal entry of humans looks to be more competitive and less oligarchical than drug smuggling (I'm talking specifically about Latin America-to-US drug smuggling, not domestic dealing):

"We have dealt a severe blow to an alien-smuggling industry in Arizona that feeds thousands of aliens into the far reaches of the U.S., including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles," said ICE chief John Morton.

I'm guessing this is because the political barriers to entry in the human smuggling industry are lower than with drug smuggling. Drug cartels and control of certain plazas are determined often times politically, through access to corrupt political figures, which leads to oligarchy. The reason is the nature of the product – drugs are distinct and need to be constantly handled, and when they show up in a marketplace anywhere near the border they're bound to be discovered. People, on the other hand, don't leave much of a mark, and can disappear on their own, it being their mission to go unknown. Also, you don't need much monetary capital to smuggle people – no buying of expensive drugs.

I also like this part, where Janet Napolitano claims this strategy is somehow more humane:

Hitting the smuggling network, rather than the immigrants themselves, is one of the hallmarks of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's approach to border enforcement. Ms. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, also has stepped up inspections of U.S. companies that hire unauthorized workers.

Alcohol prohibition caused people to go blind and cocaine, heroin prohibition causes people to die of overdoses and shoot-outs over drug territory, and migration prohibition is no different. The laws as they are marginalize immigrants enough as it is – with things like this happening – and further enforcement is just going to drive illegal immigrants further and further underground. As with drug prohibition, sure, some people might choose not to come to America/do heroin, but those people are coming at the expense of those who do continue to come and to use.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Seriously, Reason? You think this is a libertarian thing to do??

The Case for Privatizing California's Prisons: They'll cut state costs and save taxpayer dollars.

At least its commenters get it. Commenter Danny says it best:

This is the new "Libertarian" message? How to do mass incarceration on the cheap?

Gee, I wonder how Libertarians got tagged as being nothing more than Republicans who are gay.

To be fair, the article seems to have leaked out of, which tries to be more politically feasible than, but ends up supporting anything with the word "privatized" in it, regardless of how much it reeks of corporatism.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

David Leonhardt: The rich hide their income from the IRS, but the poor don't

In an otherwise relatively informative column, David Leonhardt makes an assertion that I don't think holds water:

If anything, the government numbers I’m using here exaggerate how much of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. These numbers fail to account for the income that is hidden from tax collectors — a practice, research shows, that is more common among affluent families. “Because higher-income people are understating their income,” Joel Slemrod, a tax scholar at the University of Michigan, says, “We’ve been overstating their average tax rates.”

Is he really claiming that, proportionally, the rich hide their income more than the poor? Aren't the poorest of the poor the most likely to be earning their income from under-the-table (or even outright illegal) jobs? Literally every person I know on welfare (be it 3+ months of unemployment, or food stamps) also currently (and often) has a significant second source of unreported income.

Sure, very rich people have off-shore bank accounts and accountants who fix things so that they pay lower taxes, but the average person earning $150k+ isn't getting large amounts of unreported income. The average person reporting less than $15k in yearly income, on the other hand...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Match fixing scandal rocks Korean gaming scene

I guess this mean Starcraft is officially a big-time least in Korea?

The largest scandal in e-sports history is currently unfolding in Korea, with revelations that a number of current pro gamers are involved with match set-ups and illegal betting.

While the gamers are un-named at this point, the story is said to touch many A-list StarCraft celebrities – including sAviOr, Ja Mae Yoon – one of the best-known and most successful players of all time.

At this stage, we hear that various pro gamers have been found intentionally losing matches, as well as leaking their team’s replay files to illegal gambling groups.

The article als includes this interesting bit about the Korean legal system:

As part of Korea’s human rights laws, it is illegal to release criminals’ names – they can only be implied – which means that as the police have now gotten involved, we may never be officially told who was involved in this drama. Unofficially, however, it’s only a matter of time before fingers are pointed and pro gamers find themselves without a job.

I know Japan has a notoriously high (99.8%?) conviction rate, so it's surprising that (South) Korea affords so much protection to the prosecuted. (Not trying to conflate Japan and Korea, but I know they share a similar cultural and legal [I think?] heritage.) I'm guessing it has something to do with East Asian shame culture – prison is one thing, but the shame of having gone to prison is probably worse.

John Edwards' Asian sex scandal

The National Enquirer might not have won its Pulitzer (though, considering the contenders, it probably should have), but maybe it's for the best after all, because the Buffalo Beast has beasted them in the John Edwards sex journalism genre with this exclusive (yet still relatively unreported) mega-scoop:

“In order to give rise to close to nearly one billion children, [John Edwards] must have begun sexual activity in the late 5th century, sometime during his first marriage to a woman who had ovarian cancer,” said Dr. Eli Irving, a geneticist at Northwestern University. “It really is quite remarkable.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tea Partiers have farm subsidies principles

Apparently some Tea Partiers are bothered by the fact that their Tea Partying reps are taking farm subsidies:

But for one important detail, Stephen Fincher could be a perfect "tea party" candidate: a gospel-singing cotton farmer from this tiny hamlet in western Tennessee, seeking to right the listing ship of Washington with a commitment to lower taxes and smaller government.

The detail? Fincher accepts roughly $200,000 in farm subsidies each year.

Some tea party activists say Fincher, a Republican candidate in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District, isn't "pure" enough to deserve the backing of a movement built on the idea that government must spend less. But others have pledged their support, highlighting a division over what constitutes orthodoxy in the amorphous cause -- and who gets to decide.

Though some (including Gawker and its commenters) see this as hypocrisy, I'm inclined to see the glass as half full and say that the fact that the Tea Partiers even recognize the problem and are trying to do something about it is a relatively positive step. Few (no?) Democrats or Republicans are principled enough to let something like that get in the way of them supporting a candidate, and the fact that the rep promised (sort of) to vote against them is a good sign.

John McCain – surprisingly enough – is also generally against farm subsidies, although who knows if the rhetoric would have translated into action come the bidecennial farm bill scam.

That having been said, it sure would be nice to have a real mainstream advocate for a free market in agriculture – in either party – but sadly I don't see it coming anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hamid Karzai on drugs

Hamid Karzai, apparently, has a "fondness" for opium/heroin. Which he probably buys from his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, reputed to be the nation's biggest drug dealer.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Russian bloggers think Moscow bombings were false flag attacks

A couple of days ago I wrote about the bombings in Moscow and my suspicion that the Russian security services themselves were behind the attack. My theory wasn't based on any particular facts about the case itself, but rather the Kremlin's long history of committing false flag attacks in the name of terrorists from Russia's North Caucasus.

No more details about the attack have emerged to support this theory (though I suppose they will in the coming months and years, if not sooner), but apparently the Russian blogosphere shares my sentiments:

It is too early to say who organized this terrorist attack. Russian bloggers discuss mainly two versions: Chechen rebels and the state security services. However weird it may sound, the latter version is at least as popular as the former one.

Naturally, no English-language newspaper or magazine has even raised the possibility. I really wish I could read Russian, so that I could investigate the bloggers' claims and accusations, but as it is I'm stuck reading filtered versions of what actual Russians are thinking.

Edit: The NYT has an angle that I hadn't picked up on – while the small-scale, little-reported but quite frequent bombings in the Caucasus (like the one today in Dagestan) almost always targeted police and government officials, the metro bombings was obviously meant to kill civilians. This is probably the most compelling reason to think that it wasn't committed by an insurgent group – people are much more likely to sympathize with terrorists who attack the government than those who attack ordinary (and relatively poor, if they're using mass transit) people.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cindy McCain was still on drugs during 2008 campaign

Whoa, apparently Cindy McCain was still using painkillers during the 2008 campaign. Quoteth The Exiled in September 2008:

What is it with Cindy McCain’s eyes? Everyone’s noticed that there’s something odd about them. Even Katie Couric was caught in an unplugged moment omigodding about how weirded-out she was by Cindy McCain’s mysterious, odd-looking eyes.

To anyone who has ever enjoyed the opium poppy plant’s many wonderful by-products–Vicodin, Percocet, heroin, morphine, methadone, Codeine cough syrup, or just plain opium to name a few–Cindy McCain’s “weird blue eyes” are about as much of a dead giveaway about her real condition as, say, the folds in Trig Palin’s down-turned eyes are a giveaway about his Down Syndrome.

The clue to solving this mystery lies in Cindy McCain’s pupils, which always, under any light and in every photo, have a “pin-pointed” quality to them. Her tiny pin-point pupils make her eyes seem so freakishly pale and vampiric–which sorta remind one of the eyes that heroin-bard Lou Reed crooned over in his smack-ballad “Pale Blue Eyes.”

34% of all seafood sold in America is counterfeit

The WaPo writes of the apparently common phenomenon of mislabeling food. The anecdotes (and there are many) fall into two categories: fish, and premium foreign foods. Between 1988 and 1997 a study found that 34% of all seafood sold was "mislabeled and sold as a different species." As for the high-priced specialty items, it's things like caviar and honey (like heroin, it's cut with sugar). "Legitimate" manufacturers are, naturally, clamoring for government intervention. The customers and vendors don't seem to notice:

Still, of the hundreds of customers who bought 10 million pounds of mislabeled Vietnamese catfish -- including national chains and top rated restaurants -- only one or two caught the deception, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Johns, who prosecuted the Fairfax fish importer. "It was the rare exception, not the norm," he said.

Can you tell the difference between Vietnamese and domestic catfish? How about the difference between 100% honey and a 90% honey/10% sugar mixture?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Possible new attack in Moscow Metro

The NYT and Guardian are reporting as breaking news, without details, that an explosion has killed 25 in Moscow's metro. Before I know anything about the incident, I'm going to make a prediction. If the explosion wasn't an accident (a big if, given Russia decrepit infrastructure), then I predict that rather than a genuine act of terror, it was a false flag attack committed by the Russian state itself, designed to give the Kremlin an excuse to crack down on someone, somewhere. I'm basing this on the fact that nearly every single major "terrorist" incident in Russia has turned out to be the work of Russia's own security forces.

Let's not forget that a similar bombing in 1977 was blamed on Armenian separatists, though Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov has argued that it was really a KGB operation to discredit dissidents within the Soviet Union. I have yet to find specific allegations against the state in the case of the 2004 Moscow Metro bombing, but given that such accusations have been levied concerning nearly every other major post-Soviet breakup act of "terrorism," I wouldn't be surprised if some day that one too can be pinned on the state's own secret services.

Stay tuned for more details...

Edit: Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention that the Metro stop where the explosion occurred is called Lubyanka, and is below Lubyanka Square, which houses the infamous Lubyanka building – a metonym for the Soviet/Russia secret services, and current home of the FSB and the Border Guard. Do they really have to make it so easy?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Overreach of the day

A professor at Tufts has an op-ed in the NYT in which he laments the increasing regimentation and scheduling of children's lives, framing it around the idea that some school districts are looking to hire – *shudders* – "recess coaches." All well and good, until he gets to this part (emphasis mine):

Now that most children no longer participate in this free-form experience — play dates arranged by parents are no substitute — their peer socialization has suffered. One tangible result of this lack of socialization is the increase in bullying, teasing and discrimination that we see in all too many of our schools.

Huh?! First of all, I see no link or evidence presented. But even so, it's at least possible that bullying and teasing are up (though I doubt it) – but discrimination? Seriously? I grew up in the 1990s so hey, what do I know about new-fangled kids these days, but I sort of doubt that there's more racism, homophobia, and anti-semitism on today's playgrounds than, say, oh...any time in the past??

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dissent in North Korea

The Washington Post has an article about dissent in North Korea, and it looks like the trends mirror those in Eastern Europe during the last days of communism:

The survey found that cynicism about the government -- and willingness to crack jokes about its failures -- was higher among refugees who come from elite backgrounds in the government or military. It also found that distaste for the government was strongest among those deeply involved in the markets.

The most striking finding of the survey was the reach of those markets across all strata of North Korean society, with nearly 70 percent of respondents saying that half or more of their income came from private business dealings.

In addition, more than half of refugees who have fled North Korea since 2006 said they listened or watched foreign news reports regularly. North Korea outlaws radios and TVs that can be tuned to foreign stations, but consumer electronics have flooded into the country from China.

"Not only is foreign media becoming more widely available, inhibitions on its consumption are declining as well," the report said, referring to broadcasts from South Korea, China and the United States. "The availability of alternative sources of information undermines the heroic image of a workers' paradise and threatens to unleash the information cascade that can be so destabilizing to authoritarian rule."

The author adds the caveat that the refugees whose opinions are represented in the survey have strong self-selection biases, although he tempers this by saying that most defectors left for economic rather than political reasons, and that "their demographic background roughly mirrors the shape of North Korean society."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Anatomy of a regulatory healthcare smothering

A doctor in NYC has come up with a barebones pseudo-insurance package to reduce health costs:

Hi, America, is it too late to propose a new health care plan? Because Dr. John Muney has an idea. The AMG Medical Group, which he founded last year, offers a $79-a-month buffet of unlimited office visits. [...] For $79 a person, it’s almost unheard of in New York, though AMG’s plan should not be confused with insurance, and it does not cover hospitalization or specialists.

But of course the whole arrangement was a little too convenient for the government:

Such service is unusual enough to have attracted the attention of the New York State Insurance Department, which last year informed AMG that it could not continue to offer the $79 plan. It amounted to unlicensed insurance, the department said, but AMG’s profit margin was too narrow to prepare for unexpected situations (like 500 people showing up at once with the flu). As a compromise, Dr. Muney agreed to charge $33 extra for sick visits.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Adults eating baby food

From the Guardian:

German firm Hipp says one in four consumers now grown-ups who find baby food easier to swallow and digest

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gaza's proliferating tunnels

Foreign Policy has an excellent article about the ubiquitous smuggling tunnels sustaining the Gazan economy. Apparently the smuggling market has become incredibly saturated:

One smuggler, who used to ply his business in the days of the Israeli occupation when a single shipment of weapons could earn him $5,000, bemoaned the fact that there were so many tunnels these days that he barely earned $50 per load. Indeed, some commodities are now actually cheaper than when they were imported from Israel, with the lower cost of goods originating from Egypt offsetting the cost of smuggling them in. On the days when the [Palestinian Authority] pays salaries and Gazans go shopping, some tunnel operators find it more profitable to drive a taxi.

Apparently the banalization of the tunnels has been pretty complete:

This set the stage for a number of fraudulent schemes that came to light last summer, with Gazans of modest means investing in tunnels that turned out not to exist. Tens and possibly hundreds of millions of dollars were stolen in this way, and some suggested senior members of Hamas might somehow be implicated. The Hamas government arranged partial compensation of the victims.

For all previous posts on the Gazan smuggling tunnels, check the archive.

The unintended consequences of child labor laws

The German weekly Der Spiegel has a report about the unintended consequences of child labor laws in one Pakistani city known for producing soccer balls. Apparently children were frequently employed in the factories, until child labor "advocates" in the West forced companies like Nike and Adidas to ensure that their suppliers weren't employing children. But what happened to the kids? Surely after they were freed from their toiling in the factories they went to school and now have well-paying office jobs, right?

Parents now send their children to the brickworks and into metalworking companies where no one is worried about corporate image. The families need the money to survive. The local sports companies are aware of what's happened but they want to fulfil the wishes of their Western customers. After all, the people who spend a lot of money on footballs want to do so with a clear conscience. The customer in a sports retail outlet doesn't realize that young girls are now hauling bricks right next door to Danayal, the stitching factory.

"Ten or 12-year-olds were well off here," says one manager who asked not to be named. "They learned a trade here that secured them an income for life. Now we're having trouble finding new stitchers."

Something tells me that making bricks is considerably more difficult and hazardous than sewing soccer balls, and probably pays less. Let's just hope they don't shut down the brick factory, too, or prostitution might be their next job.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Current pope covered for sexually abusive priest decades ago

Whoa, this is a pretty damning indictment of a sitting pope:

In 1980, the future pope reviewed the case of Father Hullermann, who was accused of sexually abusing boys in the Diocese of Essen, including forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The future pope approved his transfer to Munich.

It would be one thing if the then Archbishop Ratzinger had totally ignored the allegations – at least then he could say that he didn't believe them. But the fact that he moved to Munich "for therapy" indicates that Ratzinger had at least some inclination that something was amiss.

Wikileaks faces existential meta question...

...and passes with flying colors:

What’s Wikileaks, the net’s foremost document leaking site, supposed to do when a whistle-blower submits a list of email addresses belonging to the site’s confidential donors as a leaked document? [...]

Wikileaks, which has been criticized for lacking discretion in deciding whether to release documents or not, published the email and the donors’ email addresses on Wednesday. The entry noted that the email was submitted "possibly to test the project’s principles of complete impartiality when dealing with whistleblowers."

One notable email address belongs to convicted former hacker Adrian Lamo, who now runs his own security company. In a Twitter post on Saturday, Lamo noted the screw-up, writing "Thanks WikiLeaks, for leaking your donor list.[...] That’s dedication." See more in his comment to this story.

HSR crowding out local transit projects

Yet another way in which Obama's high-speed rail plans are derailing actual progress in getting Americans out of their cars:

BUENA PARK, Calif. — Mayor Art Brown spent years pushing for a commuter train station combined with nearby housing in his community. But as townhouses are being finished around the $14 million Metrolink station, he's facing the prospect that California's high-speed rail line may plow right through his beloved project.

"The only option they presented to us was either losing the condo units or losing our train station," Brown said of an engineering presentation to city leaders last year.

That a successful effort to get car-dependent Californians to embrace mass transit could be derailed by another transportation project may strike some as ironic. But it's also one of the hidden costs — and a potential harbinger of delay — in the ambitious plan that would enable passengers to speed the 430 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 2 1/2 hours.

By the way, the projected cost of a one-way ticket on the high-speed rail line from LA to SF has risen from $55 to $105. Despite the fact that intraurban trips account for the vast majority of transportation use in America, the Obama administration and other politicians prefer to focus on expensive boondoggles like high-speed rail, often at the expense of more mundane, but much more important local projects like these.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Atlantic Yards and ACORN

I've heard a lot of nasty things about the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, where NJ Nets owner Bill Ratner wants to use a combinatino of eminent domain and state giveaways to build a heavily subsidized basketball stadium and 16 mixed use high-rises, but I didn't realize that ACORN was also in on it:

New York, in short, would give Ratner an unfair advantage, and he would return some of the profits reaped from that advantage by creating the “economic benefits” favored by the planning classes. Architecture critics loved Frank Gehry’s design for the arena. Race activist Al Sharpton loved the promise of thousands of minority jobs. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn) loved the prospect of administering the more than 2,000 units of “affordable” housing planned for the development, as well as the $1.5 million in loans and grants that Ratner gave it outright. When the state held public hearings in 2006 to decide whether to approve Atlantic Yards, hundreds of supplicants, hoping for a good job or a cheap apartment, easily drowned out the voices of people like Goldstein, who wanted nothing from the government except the right to keep their homes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shocking China fact of the day

Quoteth New Geography (albeit uncited):

As the mainland has given rise to rapidly-growing and increasingly prosperous 1st tier metropolises, there are now almost 110 cities with more than 1 million people in China.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Russia's porous borders

Apparently half of Russia's cell phones are smuggled into the country:

Counterfeit phones currently make up 2 percent to 3 percent of the Russian market, according to estimates by, a telecoms portal. Total contraband phones, a category that includes both counterfeit and authentic phones that have been smuggled into the country, account for about half of all mobile phones currently sold in Russia.

It sounds shocking at first, but I wonder if the rate isn't much different from that of other ordinary products like cigarettes and computers.

And by the way, the English-language Moscow Times is a surprisingly good paper.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Gay men: protecting you from dying from karaoke in the Philippines

The NYT, in an article whose premise is too ridiculous to summarize (I'll try: Filipinos get really violent about their karaoke songs):

But in karaoke bars where one song costs 5 pesos, or a tenth of a dollar, strangers often rub shoulders, sometimes uneasily. A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons.

In one such bar in Quezon City, next to Manila, patrons sing karaoke at tables on the first floor and can accompany a G.R.O. upstairs. Fights often break out when customers at one table look at another table “the wrong way,” said Mark Lanada, 20, the manager.

“That’s the biggest source of tension,” Mr. Lanada said. “That’s why every place like this has a gay man like me.”