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.”

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Would-be non-orphan orphans were really restavecs

Earlier this week, I wrote about the Haitian "restavecs" and general Haitian predisposition towards sending your children off, years after they're born, to live with someone else – essentially putting them up for adoption – with the hopes that they'll be better off.

It turns out that this is probably what happened in the case of the infamous Haitian non-orphans being sent by American missionaries to a an orphanage in the Dominican Republic:

The Haitian government is accusing Laura Silsby and nine other American missionaries with illegally abducting 33 children, most of them from the small town of Callebasse, in the mountains south of the capital.

But some of the children's own families and friends here disagree. On Friday, some said they willingly handed over the children, want the Americans freed, and want them to continue with plans to have the children live in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

It makes sense. The Dominican Republic is much wealthier than Haiti, and they promised them that they would give them free yearly trips to see them (more than you get when you send them away to your cousin in Port-au-Prince). Contrary to the government's much-publicized concerns about kidnapping, the parents saw this opportunity as a blessing, and given their relatively modest hopes for their kids, they seem to have been realistic in their expectations:

He said he considered the chance to send two of his three children off to school no less than winning a lottery.

"The chance to educate a child is a chance for an entire family to prosper," he said, as neighbors—many of whom also sent children with the Idaho church group—nodded in agreement. To the question, what kinds of adults might these educated children become, they shouted: "nurse," "doctor," "airplane pilot," "mechanic," "plumber" and "someone with a job in an office."

In fact, the practice is so pervasive that for some of the children, this wouldn't have been the first time they were sent off by caretakers. The WSJ says this like it somehow implicates the missionaries in wrongdoing, but I think it's the opposite – it shows just how acceptable this is in Haitian society:

At least three people who agreed to send their children weren't their birth parents. Milien Brutus, 28, the brother of one nine-year-old boy, authorized passage with the Idaho group, as did Melanie Augustin, 57, who agreed to send a girl she adopted as an infant, nine-year-old Loudinie Jovene. Natanya Geffraid, a 24-year-old woman with no children of her own, signed off on sending a child to whom she said she is godmother.

Update: Here's an article (.pdf) about restaveks that's great, once you get past all the academese.

Drunken Russian axe murders

The Moscow Times has a fluffy piece about an old lady-on-old lady axe murder, but this bit at the end caught my eye:

Typically the ubiquitous ax murder in Russia is fuelled by alcohol. According to the Interior Ministry, more than half of all murders in Russia are alcohol-related, and most of those are carried out with knives and axes.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

French neo-colonialism and the pax franca

Someone with the same name as me has an article in the London Review of Books about France's historical (and waning) influence in Africa. It starts out by talking about France's dreams of a post-colonial empire in la Françafrique:

Gaulle envisaged the new arrangement as a ‘French system where everyone plays his part’. It was to be based on elite co-optation, within what the anthropologist Jean-Pierre Dozon calls the ‘Franco-African state’. This was not a formula involving a series of relationships between the erstwhile colonial power on the one hand, and the newly independent states on the other, but a unitary Jacobin entity, with big brothers and smaller brothers governing and an unmistakeable centre of power, Paris.

Surprisingly (or not?), this kept the violence down:

The most impressive aspect of the French military shield was its breadth: it wasn’t simply a protection for lackeys and minor potentates. Between 1960 and 1990, 40,000 people are believed to have died as a result of internecine violence in French Africa, half of them in Chad; by comparison, roughly two million died in former British Africa, another two million in former Belgian Africa, 1.2 million in the former Portuguese colonies and another million in the residual category that includes Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia and Equatorial Guinea. A different indicator, which corrects for demographic imbalances, confirms the value of the pax franca: the number of ‘victims of repression or massacres’ is put at 35 per 10,000 inhabitants in ex-French Africa, 790 in postcolonial Anglophone Africa, 3000 in the Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, and a staggering 4000 in the Portuguese colonies, which didn’t achieve independence until the mid-1970s.

To ruin the ending, French involvement and the relative peace end after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jews and taxes in Berlin, ca. 1900

Arnold Kling writes about a book called Capitalism and the Jews, says some interesting things about a link between Keynes' economic theories and his anti-Semitism, but here's an unrelated fact that I liked:

By [1900], Jews, who constituted about 4 percent of the inhabitants of Berlin, paid 30 percent of the municipal taxes.

Coming soon to North Korea: liberal reforms?

An excellent two-paragraph summary of North Korea's non-military, non-diplomatic history over the last few years, via NK Econ Watch:

“Right now, North Korean officials are busy blaming each other for the failed currency reform and Pak, who spearheaded the revaluation, is believed to have been sacked,” said a diplomatic source in Beijing. “Markets have come to a grinding halt following the currency revaluation and prices have soared,” the source said. It seems North Korea hoped to stabilize prices through the currency reform and then credit the achievement to Kim Jong-il’s third son and heir apparent Jong-un to consolidate his grip on power, but this flopped, the source added.

Some North Korea watchers in China predict that the regime may perform a U-turn back to timid market reforms now that Pak, who led the crusade against capitalism, has been fired. One North Korea expert in Beijing said, “There is a strong possibility that high-ranking North Korean officials who led the drive to crush market forces since 2004 will be removed from office, while policies will shift toward market reforms starting in the second half of this year.”

Edit: It may already be happening.

Edit II: Oh yeah, it's on. The person in charge of Office 39, whose most important duties are "drug-trafficking, sales of weapons and missile technology, and the production of counterfeit US dollar bills," has been sacked.

LA's partial parking privatization

The LA Times reports that Los Angeles is considering "privatizing" ten public parking garages to fill a budget shortfall. The story is, unfortunately, a reminder of how infrastructure "privatization" is often little better than the status quo, and how media reporting of the issue can doom real reform.

Whereas pure privatization would mean selling the buildings and underlying land to anyone for any use, this scheme is actually a 50-year outsourcing of the garages' management (mostly, at least) and profits (again, mostly). The new "owners" could only use the structures to park cars, and using them to house people and businesses that would increase the walkability of the areas where the garages are located is out of the question.

True privatization would also bring in more money for the city, which is the stated goal of the privatization. The garages would be worth more if they were being sold with complete development rights, and the tax revenues from whatever's built on them (not to mention possible increases in adjacent properties' values) would probably exceed the "small negotiated share of future proceeds" that the city "could retain."

The only possible benefit I can see to this plan is that parking rates will move upwards towards the true market price. But even that would be too much for the city to stomach, as the city would "retain authority over parking rates at the garages" – and who wants to guess which way they'll be pressured to push prices?

The potential downfall of this plan, however, is that the public may forever associate privatization with this pseudo-corporatism, as happened in Russia in the early 1990's and Chicago's parking meter privatization scheme last year, which could impede future, more truly libertarian urban reforms.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

North Korean racism

Christopher Hitchens has a review at Slate of a book about the North Korean regime's racist policies. It isn't surprising that a "black Cuban diplomat was almost lynched when he tried to show his family the sights of Pyongyang," but I guess the racism is so virulent that even their East Asian neighbors are reviled as racially impure:

North Korean women who return pregnant from China—the regime's main ally and protector—are forced to submit to abortions. Wall posters and banners depicting all Japanese as barbarians are only equaled by the ways in which Americans are caricatured as hook-nosed monsters.

And then there's this horrifying statistic:

Second, a North Korean is on average six inches shorter than a South Korean.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Haitian orphans, trafficking, and restavecs

The NYT has a story today about a group of ten Americans arrested in Haiti for allegedly trying to take 33 Haitian children – supposedly in an orphanage before the quake struck – to a house the group owned in the Dominican Republic. Haiti has suspended all adoptions not already in process, out of fear that amidst the chaos children who are not really orphans will be taken.

However, at the end of the article, the author notes that for some Haitian parents, parting with their children is a more desirable option than not being able to provide for them:

Still, some parents in Haiti have openly said that they would consider parting with their children if it meant a better life elsewhere. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and while the country is in need of help, many citizens have mixed feelings toward Christian groups and their missions in Haiti.

“Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners,” Adonis Helman, 44, told The A.P. “I’ve been thinking how I will choose which one I may give — probably my youngest.”

Even before the earthquake, Haiti had a tradition of this sort of child mobility. "Restavecs," as they're known (from the French "reste avec" – live with), are sold by their parents to wealthier families (edit: sorry for the error; they're not sold, they're given away – big difference), with the promise (sometimes empty) that they'll be educated, in exchange for the child doing work around the house. (Edit again: I think I emphasized the exchange part too much in the original. Really, they're just sending their kids away – all kids in third-world countries do housework, not just restavecs.) Obviously there are cases where the restavecs become de facto sex slaves, but given that the institute has survived for two centuries, there must be some redeeming value in it. (Here is an article about one restavec after the earthquake.)

The iTunes Store: just a detour on the way to a world without intellectual property

Tim Lee has an interesting analysis of the shortcomings of Apple's iPad, but at the end he makes what I believe is a very prescient, more general point about the future of intellectual property and digital media:

This is of a piece with the rest of Apple’s media strategy. Apple seems determined to replicate the 20th century business model of paying for copies of content in an age where those copies have a marginal cost of zero. Analysts often point to the strategy as a success, but I think this is a misreading of the last decade. The parts of the iTunes store that have had the most success—music and apps—are tied to devices that are strong products in their own right. Recall that the iPod was introduced 18 months before the iTunes Store, and that the iPhone had no app store for its first year. In contrast, the Apple TV, which is basically limited to only playing content purchased from the iTunes Store, has been a conspicuous failure. People don’t buy iPods and iPhones in order to use the iTunes store. They buy from the iTunes store because it’s an easy way to get stuff onto their iPods and iPhones.

Apple is fighting against powerful and fundamental economic forces. In the short term, Apple’s technological and industrial design prowess can help to prop up dying business models. But before too long, the force of economic gravity will push the price of content down to its marginal cost of zero. And when it does, the walls of Apple’s garden will feel a lot more confining. If “tablets” are the future, which is far from clear, I’d rather wait for a device that gives me full freedom to run the applications and display the content of my choice.

Even though Apple's managed to stave off some amount of piracy with the iTunes Store, I think this is likely to be temporary as it becomes easier and easier to pirate media. (Streaming music – legally through YouTube and MySpace pages – and movies – through illegal content hosted on sites like – have already been essentially freed, and as soon as the internets' pipes become thick enough that you can download quickly without resorting to BitTorrent, I think it's over for online movie/TV sales.)

This same analysis could be applied to the Wall Street Journal – it has a niche now, but it may not in the future, and I doubt any company (including the New York Times) will be able to emulate its online strategy.

My advice to content providers in it for the long haul would be: make it all free, find a good behavioral advertising firm, team up with a company like Facebook or Amazon which already has a lot of mineable data stored in already-established profiles, and, most importantly, hire a damn good lawyer, lobbyist, and PR firm.