The past several days have witnessed the flare up in the State of Wisconsin over how the State is to deal with teachers, who are employed by the State, to teach children in government schools whose attendance is compulsory. America has witnessed the spectacle of Wisconsin Democratic Party elected officials fleeing the state in order to avoid a vote over a reduction in benefits that are paid to teachers, while some 30,000 - 60,000 teacher unions supporters have besieged the capitol in Madison. Meanwhile, Tea Party groups counter attacked yesterday, staging their own rallies to support Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. This is a pivotal moment in American political life, that will reverberate on whether more resources will continue to be sucked into the political economy, or whether America will start back down the long road to freedom.
Why Labor Unions, and what they're after
A good question to start off this discussion is this: what are labor unions after? It's a simple question, but if we're going to have anything resembling a rational analysis of what's going on in Wisconsin (or about labor unions at all), we're going to have to go back to first things first. The answer is simple: labor unions organize, presumably to help their members achieve a better life, whether that can be achieved through better working conditions, better pay, better non-wage benefits, more vacation time, shorter working hours, or by some other means.
So, a big question for labor unions is, how do you go about achieving your goals? A second, but more subtle question I will ask, but not address here is this: Would competitive labor markets secure what unions would otherwise be after?
In an economy that is organized around markets, and to a large degree the United States economy is still organized around markets, people are for the most part paid at their marginal level of productivity. If you can make 10 widgets per hour and get paid $10 per hour, but then figure out a way to make 15 widgets per hour with all other things being held constant or with nothing changing, then you will eventually start getting paid for your higher level of productivity.
This idea or principle makes life difficult for would be labor unions. If your goal is to improve compensation for the workers in your labor union, then either you have to figure out a way to make them more productive, or else you're going to have to figure out ways to force would be employers to start compensating workers more.
Yes, labor unions do offer training and educational courses for apprentices in some of the construction trades, but for the most part labor unions choose to do the latter. In the parlance of economics, labor unions engage in what is known as rent seeking.
So what things do labor unions do to try to compel employers to reward them more than they would otherwise? There are a number of different things that labor unions do, and they do them for different reasons. First, one must recognize that competition in labor markets is an anathema to labor unions. Therefore, the logical thing for labor unions to do would be to act in such ways that stomp out the competition and yes, the Wizard knows - corporations and business do the same thing, but if you think about the matter carefully, sometimes the interests of business and labor unions meld together!
So, how would a labor union go about shutting out the competition via the political process?
1) Go to elected officials and get them to pass closed shop legislation, or alternately union shop legislation, which would outlaw non-union competition labor in the labor market. The Wikipedia entry notes that Closed Shops are outlawed in the United States after the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was passed, which in turn amended the Roosevelt Era National Labor Relations Act. More about this later.
2) Shut down anything resembling free trade with other countries, as trade invites competition, but it also frees up resources for people to pursue gains to be had via comparative advantages. That's why labor unions went berserk when their man, Bill Clinton, managed to push through the NAFTA free trade agreement back at the beginning of 1994.
3) Try to attempt to interfere with the free movement of capital, since business can invest their money in places where there is non-union labor competition or labor union unfriendly legislation in place, such as right to work states, or investing in other countries. Unions have largely not been able to prevent the movement of capital.
4) Employ the political process and the law to create barriers to entry into the job field in order to reduce the number of people who can legally enter and practice in the job field. Doctors and lawyers come to mind, and doctors voted to unionize in America back in 1999. Licensing of workers is widespread in union dominated job fields, including employing the use of teaching certificates to be employed as a teacher, and licensing in the construction trades.
5) Labor unions will often support such ideas as minimum wage laws. Why? Because gentle readers, minimum wage laws are a floor on the price of labor, ergo some people who might be willing to work in labor markets for lower than the minimum wage will be banned from doing so, which diminishes competitive pressures in labor markets.
But this isn't the end of economic analysis of labor unions. As we have seen, unions try to justify their existence by increasing compensation for their members, but in order to do that, it implies that unions will form in organizations and markets that will be around for a while. People who want to form labor unions will not bother to waste their time organizing for spot markets, say for example, fire works stands (which pop up for the Fourth of July and for New Years, but are dormant for the rest of the year). Instead, labor unions will target situations where they can sit down and dig their claws into. Examples include the automobile industry, which has been a huge economic force now for the past 100 years, the oil and gas industry (or more carefully, the oil refining industry), employment at shipping ports (which could be around for centuries), and yes - governments.
In other words, what labor unions want is a marketplace where there will be an inelastic demand curve for the labor that the labor union provides. That in turn means that unions can really only thrive in an environment where the factors of economic productivity are stuck in place, or stuck in country. Anything that promotes mobility of economic productivity is a death sentence to unions, whether those factors are people or investment capital. It's impossible to capture economic rents when productive factors are mobile and can run away from you.
Governments are particularly attractive for labor unions simply because they have a monopoly on force, and once formed they stay stuck in place and never go away - unless they are overthrown! Talk about setting up an inelastic demand curve for union labor! The London Tube system has been around for over 100 years, and yes, the labor union that Tube workers belong to has been very successful at extracting rents. The City of Houston was founded in 1836, and received its home rule charter in 1905, and doesn't look to be dissolved any time soon.
More pertinent to what's happening in Wisconsin (and in Ohio, and it may well come to Texas within the next month or two), attendance at government schools is compulsory and is enshrined in law for 12-13 years of a child's life in many places around the world. In Texas, Chapter 25,094 of the state education code makes failure to attend school a Class C misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a $500 fine. The legal compulsory universal attendance of school literally sets up a politically created market, composed of a never ending river of kids that will go through the system, that literally will never end as long as kids are compelled to attend school by state fiat. It should be absolutely of no surprise to anyone that eventually school district employees around the country eventually unionized. They knew they were going to be there today, and that their jobs were guaranteed to be around tomorrow, so why not sit around and unionize and start extracting some economic rents via the political process?
More to the point, compulsory schooling and its drawing of education into the political economy, has turned schools into jobs programs. This past week, the Wizard attended a forum in the Texas Capitol, where I picked up a booklet about Texas government schools. The booklet stated that 665,000 Texans were employed by the Kindergarten - grade 12 school system, with 4.8 million kids enrolled, with a little over 50 percent of those employees being actual teachers. Maximum student to teacher ratios are in fact enshrined in section 25.111 of the Texas education code at 20-1, making for a rigid regime, and guaranteeing that vast taxpayer resources are to be dedicated towards schools (albeit, to be fair to Texas government school teachers, they are not members of unions). In fact K-12 government schools in Texas (and America) employ some 6-7 percent of all Americans in the labor force, and as we are witnessing in Wisconsin, when you have that many people employed by the state, they (and their spouses and families) become powerful voting blocs to be reckoned with.
And that leads the Wizard to his next topic, which is....
A short history of labor unions in America, the law, and assaults on freedom of contract
Labor unions were not around at the time of America's Founding, though there were earlier versions of what could be classified as labor groups. Many countries in the Middle Ages had trade guilds, which could be seen as a form of unionism (as well as cartelism).
But the modern version of what we've come to know as unionism really got its start a little over 100 years ago, and particular when the legal assaults on the freedom of contract were waged and prosecuted over a period of some 60 years. University of Chicago law Professor Richard Epstein artfully describes how this assault occurred in his book, How the Progressives Rewrote the Constitution. The opening skirmish in labor unionism and labor law was in the famous case of Lochner vs. State of New York, which invalidated state laws to regulate working hours.
But the Progressives didn't stop their attacks on freedom of contract, and they usually employed moralistic tones when pushing through their legislation that started placing curbs in freedom to contract, such as in the prized political achievement of outlawing child labor. Now, most Americans living today would be horrified at the prospect of children working, but it's quite easy for us to forget amidst our lavish wealth that children were (and in some areas of the world still are) sent to pick the fruit and work the fields since time immemorial.
Moreover, and this is extremely important, Professor Epstein notes in his book that child labor in America was already on the decline while the Progressive era was unfolding! In other words, the legislation prohibiting child labor was largely unneeded for the simple fact that parents of the era were starting to recognize that the jobs of the future were going to require that kids learn their readin', writin', and 'rithmatic, and that it would be a better thing if they started investing time and effort educating their children, rather than send them off to work a job.
But what was important is that America was stuck with the precedent of using legislation to assail the freedom of contract, and once you start traveling down that road, each legal step along with way is justified by the previous step, and each step enshrines state action.
But freedom to contract was not only assailed through child labor laws. Over time, labor unions were granted more rights enshrined in law, culminating in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act). It was this act that established that workers and unions could engage in collective bargaining with private employers, but even the New York Times notes that Franklin Roosevelt did not go so far as to allow within the law for unions to engage in collective bargaining with governments, calling the idea "unthinkable and intolerable." But it wasn't until 1959 that states first started allowing for government employees to engage in collective bargaining with elected officials, and ironically the first state to do so was.... the State of Wisconsin. But the practice soon spread, and now we have numerous states that are hemorrhaging in red ink from underfunded pension woes, a problem that lurked out there until it was - like so much - finally brought out into the open by this ongoing recession.
So why was there so much political and legal support for collective bargaining? One big insight can be gleaned from reading a passage in Professor Epstien's book, where Epstein quotes former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who wrote in 1920 in the Yale Law Review:
"Collective Bargaining" is the starting point of the solution and not the solution itself. This principle must, of course, receive ungrudging acceptance. It is nothing but belated recognition of economic facts - that the era of romantic individualism is no more. These are not days of Hans Sachs, the village cobbler and artist, man and meistersinger. We are confronted with mass production and mass producers; the individual, in his industrial relations, but a cog in the great collectivity. The collectivity, must be represented and must be allowed to choose its representatives. And it is through the collectivity, through enlisting its will and its wisdom, that the necessary increase in production alone will come. Needless energy is wasted, precious time is lost, precious feelings are diverted and disturbed by the necessity of fighting for the acceptance of the principle of collective bargaining instead of working out the means and methods of its application.
In other words, according this world view expressed by Frankfurter mirrors the world view of the "Progressives" of 100 years ago. Much like how John Maynard Keynes created an economic theory that emphasized an economy that was composed of nothing but aggregates, America (and indeed the world) was, according to the Progressives, filled with nothing more than empires of massive corporate employers, employing faceless masses of people, all doing soulless and meaningless work. The only way forward in this new, 20th century, mass industrial world was to allow the troops to organize themselves into a mob empowered by Democracy, and, if it came down to it, hold the big evil employer at ransom if that's what it came down to it. Yes, unions are thuggish. After all, this was politics, and in this new world there was no room for the individual. Such ideas - and that included the freedom to contract - were held by Progressives to be antiquated and belonged to the horse and buggy world of 1776 and 1789. Congress in modern day America was now held to have the power to do anything needed to alleviate any alleged miseries and alleged social problems, all in the name of the public welfare, and government solutions to problems ultimately involve socializing costs and enacting some form of collectivism. That's what the Progressives dumped on America, and that's what they're still fighting for.
But what about now and what about the future?
The Tea Party movement erupted in late 2008 - early 2009, in part because big corporations like General Motors and Chrysler, along with their labor union employees, were being bailed out instead of being allowed to fail when the American economy went south, and for when there wasn't a desire to buy their products. The perception amongst millions of Americans (and that perception was in fact the reality) was that Congress, and President's Bush and Obama, were bailing out favored and privileged groups, while sticking the taxpayers with the bill. What we are seeing now in Wisconsin, and which will probably spread to other states, is round two of what happened two years ago: that another group of workers, this time employees of the government who are in the political economy, who are ostensibly paid to educate kids, are also fighting to hold onto privileges that they've been granted via the political process, and that they somehow believe that they should be immune to the economic forces that have wiped some 8 million jobs away from the American private sector economy.
One issue that freedom minded Americans, and that includes Tea Party members, are going to have to confront is the issue of government involvement in education. I've discovered over the past two years that there are plenty of people (including Republicans and Tea Party members) who believe in the status-quo, and that includes State government mandates that the state is to compel kids to attend school by force of law. At a deep and fundamental level, such an idea is incompatible with true liberty and freedom.
It may well be that for the meantime with regards to State governments, liberty fighters will have to content themselves with merely holding back against the powerful wave of constituencies, including Medicaid recipients and the medical profession, as well as fierce political demands to keep things as they are for the government school empire. I'm not sure how many Americans are ready to deal with home schooling their children, or putting them in private schools, which would be the ideal solution for dealing with the problem of government schools and government school labor unions. My suspicion is that many business leaders also politically support government schools, on the precept that they would be afraid of what kind of labor force they would get should the government school system be abandoned.
Having said that, America has in general managed to mute much of what labor unionism did in the private sector. Companies can move their investments away from labor union disruptions and reach, and the marketplace can always act to discipline participants. Union membership is at an all time low, and is not expected to come back. Most Americans seem to understand and accept the idea that they are not entitled to their jobs, and that's important. That idea now has to be enacted and extended to government.
Greetings everyone: The Wizard returns to blogging.
Much has happened since the Wizard laid down his
poison pen keyboard. Just two nights ago, Mr. Obama made his State of the Union address to America, something that Becky reminds us that only our first two Presidents did before Presidents simply started writing reports to Congress. Then came Woodrow Wilson, who started making an annual appearance before Congress, and all Presidents did so. She then links to a book that says that America's Imperial Presidency started with Wilson.
But the Wizard digresses. Actually, Mr. Obama's State of the Union address isn't the most exciting thing going on in the world right now, nor will America's budget problems be the most exciting issue in the year 2011. So what is, pray tell? The answer, gentle readers, is that we are not even finished with the first month of 2011, and already 2011 is shaping up to be the year that people all across the Arab world may finally rise up and overthrow the despots that have kept them in chains. 2011 will be the most exciting year in world affairs since 1989, when the Communist bloc of Eastern European countries finally threw off the yoke of 45 years of rule from the Soviet Union, in addition to revolts that happened in Burma, the Philippines, and in China.
First, less than two weeks ago, citizens in Tunisia rose up and overthrew the government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, because citizens were demanding jobs and an end to corruption. Mr. Ben Ali, who had won five consecutive terms in office, with between 90 - 99 percent of the vote, then subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers had suggested that he keep his nerves and talk to the rioters.
Word comes from Britain's Daily Telegraph that the rioting started when a young man set himself on fire after having his fruit and vegetable stand - his meager livelihood - taken from him because, you guessed it, he didn't have a license. And you know what that means, don't you? That means that this was done because of that hoary old excuse that all governments use, which was that the government has to protect the public. It goes without saying that the state needed to pinch a few dinars off the poor young man through granting the license, and grant him the privilege to operate his meager fruit stand.
In other words, it is critical that we understand where the spark came from with respect to why this unrest has exploded.
Based on early analysis, the causes of all this unrest have different sources, and their outcomes will probably vary as well. In Jordan, citizens are protesting high food prices and corruption, while in Yemen the fight is over "proposed constitutional amendments that would abolish presidential term limits and the timing of the upcoming parliamentary election in April", according to the Christian Science Monitor. The CSM story reports that the opposition will refuse to take part in elections this year if these proposed political changes take place. In Egypt, the issues are poverty and corruption, along with the fact that Mubarak has ruled for 30 years ever since he took control over the country after Sadat was assassinated.
All this unrest puts America into a conundrum. Some of the rationale that American neo-conservatives like William Kristol and Robert Kagan gave for getting America stuck in the swamp morass invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan was that America had to have a muscular foreign policy that included promotion of democracy, free markets, and liberty. The problem with this idea is that the regimes that we were recognizing, like Mubarak's, were and are effectively "soft dictatorships" (for a lack of a better term), which were most likely backed by America for fear that something worse would take their place, at least from the point of view from Washington. Statecraft is an ugly business, but no doubt that Egyptians are wondering whether the posture that America's political leaders would mean that their demands are seen as illegitimate from America's view.
But this still does not explore the entirely of the situation. We do not yet know what the outcomes of these protests and riots will be, nor do we know how far this unrest will spread. Just several days ago, Sheik Al Sabah of Kuwait made a sudden announcement of a 1,000 dinar ($3,559 in U.S. dollar) handout to all Kuwaiti citizens, stating that this was in celebration of several national milestones, including 50 years of independence, and the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that drove out Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
A true libertarian would say, well all this is not America's problem. The problem with that supposition is that we never quite know if the political leaders of other countries might try to make all this unrest America's problem, or whether protesters may see America as part of the problem, such as is suggested in this Wikileaks story in Forbes. Other issues may arise, such as whether the unrest will spread to Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, this unrest is so widespread that there may well be little that America can do, other than to simply let the chips fall where they may and then deal with matters after the dust settles. It should go without saying that the world is watching what Mr. Obama is going to do, because these events will show what kind of person he really is.
Then there is the very important matter of whether America should do anything about this. That in turn breaks down into whether you look at the rising unrest from the perspective that the people of the Arabian world are rising up to overthrow dictators, or whether you think America must continue to tend to the military and economic interests via Realpolitick.
One thing that all this unrest underscores is that America needs to get its own domestic financial house in order, lest our staggering $1.5 trillion per year federal deficits finally spiral out of control and leave our country vulnerable to the winds of the world. The bills of the welfare and entitlement state that was created in the 20th century, and which today's "Progressives" are still trying to push even further, are now coming due, and that in turn means that America needs - for our children's sake - to have a self examination of what our government is really all about.
Addendum: The Sydney Morning Herald has a very interesting take on the rapidly developing events in Egypt, noting that
[U.S. Secretary of State Hilary]Clinton uttered the ''stability'' line early in the week - before the seriousness of what is unfolding in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria came in to focus. Consider how it might be interpreted by ordinary Egyptians - the human rights of 80 million people have been trampled for 30 years but what the US Secretary of State is most concerned about is the stability of the state.
Commentary: Many of these photos are of central London. You can tell this by viewing the street scape, all of which are of buildings that were constructed many generations ago. The buildings are almost uniformly 4-7 stories tall. Compare those areas of London to the row housing in suburban Acton Town. Sam Staley wrote an email recently where he described Manhattan as a walking urban area. Inner London, built before the age of the Underground, is the same.
My company's London offices can roughly be located on the far right hand side of photograph #11. They are across the Thames from the London Eye, which was visible in a westerly direction from my company's cafeteria.
Finally, another item I look for when seeing a City from above is how much lighting of the city can you see from the sky? This is a rough proxy for the relative affluence of an urban area. I've traveled to many countries and have seen cities all over the world when flying over them at night. In poor areas of the world, you will notice that when you fly over their cities that there is very little light that is visible from the sky. In contrast, in the economically wealthy areas of the world, you can clearly see considerable lighting from the sky and these photos of London are a brilliant example of this phenomena.
The Wizard's world has many secrets. Unfortunately, one of those secrets was blown this past week, once again by Wall Street Journal, which recently featured a friend of the Wizard who is in a beach front property rights battle down in Surfside. This time, my secret that was compromised is that one of my neighbors drives an electric car. He was featured in a Journal story entitled "You Know Gas Prices are high when Texans start driving golf carts", carried in the July 31, 2008 issue of the Journal and which can be read here.
My neighbor featured in the story, Andrew Kunev, actually lives in the part of our compound next to mine. He's been here for some time now and I pass by his three wheeler, white colored Zap Zebra Sedan, parked just inside our compound gate nearly everyday. The car always has a bit of an unbalanced look to it, which would cause me never to consider buying a Zap, but I've never seen any performance problems whenever I've seen him on the road. I saw him zooming eastbound along Westheimer last Friday evening as I was coming home from work. Mr. Kunev can be seen at 1 minutes 3 seconds, 1 minute 40 seconds, and 2 minutes 12 seconds in the Journal's online video, which accompanies the story.
Another encounter I have had recently is that I have seeing a teenager in the neighborhood north of where I live driving around on an electric scooter while I run workouts. He goes pretty fast down the street - probably 20 miles per hour - but the scooter makes a lot of noise. Nonetheless, he told me once while stopped at an intersection that he was coming back from the grocery store, something obvious from the fact that he was carrying two small bags in a backpack while on his scooter.
These stories have got me all pumped up about the idea of owning my own electric car, possibly as a project. Many years ago, I owned a green colored Volkswagen Rabbit convertible, much like this one. One idea I have is to go look online for an old VW convertible and convert it into an electric car. I love convertibles and am starting to hanker for another one. I spotted one website actually sells custom converter kits for doing it. Here are some photos of cars whose owners have done the job. Another idea would be to convert my current car into an electric car and buy another gas powered one.
The Wizard doesn't drive all that much, ergo I sorely doubt that on most days I would tax the capacities of an all electric car. My job and most amenities are within easy driving range of an all electric vehicle. I would probably keep a gasoline powered one for longer trips.
The Wizard believes that General Motors is making a mistake with the Chevrolet Volt, that being that at first GM was telling the public that the Volt would be in the $15-20,000 range. Then we heard that the Volt would run $30,000 - $35,000, but now we are hearing that the Volt might retail at $40,000. $40,000 is rather steep for most families.
The Wizard thinks that what Mr's Peters and Kunev are the ones on the right track. Their vehicles cost only $7,000 - $18,000. The main worries are how well the batteries will hold up over time (and when they will need to be changed), along with inclement weather and safety issues.
Still, this is low cost, non-gasoline dependent mobility, which can scale and which is within the price range of most developed economy families right now. I know from much travel and experience that motorcycles and scooters are a heavily used form of transportation in Malaysia and Thailand, where annual incomes are in the $200 - $5,000 range, much lower than those found in the West. Familiarity, along with preferences and tastes will count for much, but the Wizard thinks that solutions like this may be a realistic part of our mobility future.
Between December 2006 and April 2007, I was sent to the UK three times by my Big Evil Company employer. The first trip was a stop over on my way to Algeria, while the latter two trips were made to backfill for my counterpart while he took time off for knee surgery and for paternity leave. I spent a total of nine weeks over in the Sceptered Isles.
While I was on the other side of the pond, it was impossible not to notice the amount of environmental hysteria that was being broadcast in the news, whether watching the BBC or reading the newspapers. Hardly a day went by where it seemed that there wasn't some reference to the Kyoto Treaty or that the Labour government was working towards some commitment to cutting greenhouse gases and telling the public that it must have shared sacrifices and belt tightening, all in the name of the Greater Good.
Well, lo and behold, here were are in July 2008 and we now hear of the news that in a recent by-election, the Labour Party lost a stronghold Parliamentary seat in Glascow. For those of you who are not quite up to snuff on your British politics, the world - very broadly - breaks down like this. The Labour Party has long held a very strong grip on Scotland and the north, while the Conservatives do better in southern England. To reiterate, this is a generalization, but as a broad picture statement, it does hold true. Hence, the fact that the Labour Party lost a long time seat to the Scottish National Party is quite a shocker.
As things stand now, the Labour Party majority in Westminster is now down to about 60. When Tony Blair first ascended to power in 1997, Labour had 418 seats. Now Labour has under 350 out of some 646 seats. It is in this context that the loss of a seat in Labour stronghold does not bode well for the Party come 2010, which is when the next general election must be contested. However, it may well be that there may need to be a coalition government formed in order to maintain a majority in the next general election.
But circling back to Labour's woes, much of the political commentary has been centering on the idea that people are starting to get fed up with paying high taxes on fossil fuels, all in the name of environmentalism. One adviser to the Labour government, Richard Parry Jones, warns that if Labour does not ditch its heavy taxes on automobiles, then UK voters are going to throw them out at the next election.
This is a fate that has happened to the Socialists in France and in Germany, where Sarkozy's rightists outright defeated the Socialists and Angela Merkel came to power via a grand coalition. As as this article points out:
In recent years, almost all of Europe's social democratic parties have lost in national elections. The collapse of support for Gordon Brown and his policies reveals a general decline of Europe's social democracy as a whole.
There are many good reasons for the deterioration of the centre-left's political influence and power. But perhaps one of the most crucial is the abandonment of their traditional core value of progressive optimism. After all, the left used to derive large amounts of its popular appeal from a firm belief in social and technological advancement, a political philosophy of societal optimism and hope. During the last couple of decades, however, it has eagerly adopted a green ideology that has replaced its confidence in future progress with the ever more intimidating prediction of climate catastrophe and environmental disaster, culminating in calls for economic sacrifices and collective belt-tightening.
In short, Britain's Labour Party has discarded its "progressive" principles for environmental fear-mongering and salvationist rhetoric in the expectation that voters would accept that only government control, central planning and higher taxes could prevent global disaster.
Eighteen months ago, Labour's David Miliband proposed the introduction of carbon "credit cards" that would be issued as part of a nationwide carbon rationing scheme. He suggested the allocation of an annual allowance for basic needs such as travel, energy or food. Two days after Labour's disastrous defeat in the local elections, the whole scheme was hastily abandoned.
Motorists in the UK are paying the highest fuel taxes in Europe, an average of almost £900 annually. In the name of climate change mitigation, the government has progressively increased fuel, road and car taxes. It has burdened companies with a so-called Climate Change Levy and introduced an emissions trading scheme -- costly policies that have had damaging effects on British competitiveness, energy prices and living standards. As a direct result, a record number of people, particularly Britain's poorest, oldest and most vulnerable, are increasingly falling on hard times. As many as five million households, more than 20% of the UK's population, are today living in "fuel poverty."
Progressives in America have, in many ways, followed a similar pattern. It used to be in the early years of the 20th century that progressivism meant that there was a belief in scientific and technological progress that would make our world a better place. This belief would be coupled with some kind of redistributive and social safety type measures to uplift the poor and catch those who had fallen through the cracks. Instead, it seems that Progressivism now substantially means that technological advancements are not to be pursued because of fears or objections to science and technology. Instead, we are told that we have to cut back, all in the name of saving the planet from some imagined environmental catastrophies, damned the cost.
All the Wizard has to say is that Progressives had better take a look at what has happened across the water and pause, lest they find that voters decide eventually to drive them off of political agenda.
The year 2007 saw a number of weather incidents which startled the world, including snow in Baghdad, winter storms which stranded millions of Chinese during the Chinese New Year, record snow falls in the North America, China, and Siberia, and a recent thickening of the ice packs.
And now the data is in for 2007 from all four of the world's major sources of climate tracking (Hadley, NASA's GISS, UAH, RSS). The worldwide temperature drop from 2006 to 2007 was 0.65 - 0.75 centigrade. Apparently, that is the largest single year drop since record keeping began and enough to wipe out all of the global warming that has occurred since the late 19th century.
For my .02 worth, I've long had a gut feeling that solar activity, or perhaps changes in heat coming from the core of the earth, would overwhelm any climate change effects from human activity. All one has to do is think of what the atmospheric conditions are like on other planets to see how huge of a role the Sun plays in our fragile and pathetic existence.
One person I know wrote me back:
Interesting year-to-year change, which will, depending upon the point of view of the specific advocate, will be:
1. Shouted from the highest hilltops, or
2. Ignored; critiqued as improper, unreliable, and the product of puppets of the oil cartels; belittled as meaningless and unimportant; and rebutted with countless stories of the "local" impacts of global warming.
In truth, this is interesting, but it is kinda like charting the times posted by the competitors in the Olympic Marathon between for the third 100 meters of the race and using that to attempt to predict the winner.
Let's face it, we simply do not know a whole lot about short-term, by which I mean periods of hundreds of years) climate change on Earth, despite the
large number of people who appear to be saying that they do.
Another wrote to me saying:
I've seen quite a few folks agree with you on that - ie. that the human effect on climate change is small.
No. They have already changed the banner from "Global Warming" to "Climate Change."
It's the same way with pollution. No matter what we do to improve air quality, "Experts" will continue to claim pollution is worsening. It's called Political Science.
Sigh... I can only see the arguments getting fiercer if the world actually does enter an era where the earth starts cooling.
And so the world awoke to news of the death of the King of Chess, Bobby Fischer. There is little I can add here that probably hasn't been written elsewhere, other than to add that it somehow all seems so right that Bobby would leave us at the numerical age - 64 - which also happens to be the number of squares that are on a classical chess board.
I have vague memories of the tall, lanky, intent, and striking looking Bobby when he was at the height of his playing powers. I can dimly remember as a small boy that my older brother was wrapped up in following the 1972 Spassky-Fischer match up. I remember that he used to play with my mother and that I would watch them, wondering about this strange game and how it was supposed to work. I do remember watching Bobby play tennis with Gail Goodrich at a tournament, but then it seemed that he disappeared from the public consciousness. I went to a parochial school where athletics was the past time of choice and none of my neighborhood friends played chess. In another time and another place, I might have become a master level player myself, but we were fated to play the newly created type of game called role playing games as teenagers. We then saw the onset of video game arcades in the 1980's, the precursors of today's home computer games. As it was, my memories of Bobby had faded like a ghost.
But it need not have been that way, and much of whether young people a generation ago might have picked up chess as a past time would in fact have depended upon Bobby Fischer. Chess, as a past time, has to compete with all other past times for time, money, and social attention, in order to thrive. In that sense, the Royal Game is no different in needing a charismatic figure than basketball needing Earvin Magic Johnson or Michael Jordon, or golf needing Tiger Woods. As it was, since he dropped out of the game, and out of public view, the surge of interest in the game - the "Fischer Boom" - was brief, like a fiery comet in the night. Bobby was literally fielding offers to play chess in Vegas for millions of dollars in the aftermath of his 1972 triumph. Anatoly Karpov became the first man to become a chess millionaire, but Fischer would have beaten Karpov to that title by 15-20 years had he stayed playing. It is a widely accepted observation that Fischer was literally 20 years ahead of his time when he was at the height of his game. Most people have no idea how much effort Fischer put into studying the game. Frank Brady wrote in Bobby Fischer - Profile of a Prodigy that Bobby owned some 480 chess books and thousands of chess magazines from all over the world in his apartment, many of which written in Russian, a language which Bobby taught himself how to read. He wrote that nearly all of the books had annotation notes written by Bobby under their board position diagrams. He had to part with some of them because he didn't have enough room to store all of them.
My thought is that Fischer, had he been a different person, would have held the title until around 1990 or so, probably losing it to a late 20's Garry Kasparov, who by that time had finally broken through the 2800 Elo rating barrier. What a match that would have been! Even today - 35 years later and armed with 3 gigahertz, 1 terabye sized disk computational power, and research assistants at their disposal - there are only perhaps 4 players in the world (Vladamir Kramnik, Viswanathan Anand, and Veselin Topalov, as well as Kasparov) who have achieved Elo ratings that are generally equal to or greater than that which was achieved by Fischer, who incidentally did all of his analysis on his own in the final age before the advent of personal computers.
Fischer could have easily amassed a fortune of over $100,000,000 had he kept playing, and could have been a hero to two entire generations of young American children. Instead, he found that once he had achieved the summit of being recognized as the greatest chess player in the world, he found that he literally didn't know what to do with himself. He gave a good chunk of his 1972 Championship winnings to a church which he then denounced (and with good reason) for malfeasance. Interest in the game cooled down after Bobby refused to defend his title in 1975. The game never really recovered and as a result, most really strong players struggle here in America to earn enough money to pay the bills. An acquaintance of mine who is a master level chess player has told me that there are only about 200-300 master level players in America (with an elo rating of 2200 or higher) who actively play the game. Most simply retire or go on to do something more lucrative.
It's hard to say where Bobby's anti-Semitism started, but it seems to me that it probably had the same roots which caused Bobby to be so difficult with his rock star, prima donna like demands which he imposed on tournament directors and game promoters. Maybe the rage from having been brought up in an unstable, fatherless household was too much for the chess board to bottle up, but that's an issue for the psychiatrists to chew over. As it was, I still find it hard to believe that he is gone. I hope that God has forgiven him and that he has left us for a better place.
Bobby Fischer - RIP.
The front page story on today's Houston Chronicle bespoke of the travails of $100 per barrel petroleum to modern day society. It was a good article, underlying the fact that the oil and gas industry does not waste one drop of a barrel of petroleum, but instead finds a way to use all of it. I write here because there was one aspect of the price rise of petroleum in recent years that was not covered by the story and that is the weakening of the United States dollar as a currency. This matters because petroleum is denominated in U.S. dollars when it is traded on world markets.
To give gentle readers a sample of how much the U.S. dollar has weakened in value over the past 5 years, I point you in the direction of the excellent Yahoo Finance and world currency website. What is really great about the Yahoo finance pages is that a reader can easily compare how the dollar has fared in world currency markets and what effect this can have on tradable goods.
Examples of how much the dollar has weakened include:
1) The dollar verses the euro. The dollar has gone from being worth 1.20 euros in 1999 to 0.96 euros in January 2003, all the way down to a petty 0.678 euros in January 2008. Put it another way, the euro was worth some 85 cents when it was created. Now a euro is worth about $1.50. The dollar has effectively lost some 44 percent of all of its value against the euro in the past 9 years.
2) The dollar verses the Brazilian real. I went to Brazil in 2003 on vacation. The real, (pronounced "hey ais"), was trading at 2.8 to 1 dollar when I went there. As one can see from the chart, the real has gone from 3.5 reals to 1 dollar in January 2003 to 1.76 reals to 1 dollar in January 2008. That's right folks. The Brazilians, who possessed currencies which suffered massive hyperinflation during long stretches of the 20th century, are now in possession of a currency which has doubled in value against the dollar in the past 5 years.
3) The Canadian dollar verses the U.S. dollar. The loonie has gained 1:1 parity on the dollar for the first time in some 30-40 years, having been worth only 64 cents in January 2003. So the loonie has also gained 55 percent in value against the dollar.
4) The U.K. pound verses the U.S. dollar. When I first went to the U.K. on holiday in May 2002, the Queen's money was worth $1.50. Now the pound, which hit $2 earlier this year, is just under, currently trading at $1.97. The dollar has lost 30 percent of its value against the pound in the past 5 1/2 years.
5) The Thai baht verses the dollar. The baht was trading at 43 to the dollar in January 2003, but now it only takes 30 baht to buy a George Washington note. The dollar has slid some 31 percent in value against the baht in the past 5 years.
6) The Russian rouble has gone from 32 to the dollar in January 2003 to 25 to the dollar in January 2008.
But then we compare these numbers against some of America's big trading partners, including Mexico, Japan, and China.
7) The Mexican peso has held steady against the dollar, losing only 8 percent of its value since January 2003.
8) The Japanese yen continues to bounce around the 110-120 yen to the dollar mark, a range it has done with some exception of the endaka period of the Clinton years.
9) Even the Chinese yuan, which traded at 5.2 to the dollar when I was in China, and which was revalued at 8.28 o the dollar in the 1990's, has been gaining strength and is now at 7.4 to the dollar.
As is well known, the Asian and Middle Eastern countries have routinely purchased untold amounts of U.S. Treasuries, both to help buoy their own currencies so as to continue to be able to sell something to America on terms helpful to themselves, and as a hedge in case markets lose faith in their own currencies. They also need a place in which to invest which is relatively safe and where their money will be put to productive use. They find all of these when they buy American treasury notes. In contrast, countries which have done little to interfere with currency markets have seen their currencies strengthen considerably against the dollar.
The Wizard thinks that what we are seeing is a long slow correction in the world's terms of trade with America. The United States has been running astronomically large current account deficits for 25 years now, and we have run up trillions of dollars of debts on our federal treasuries. Americans have essentially stopped saving money. Moreover, we will see in the next decade the retirement of the Baby Boomers en masse, which will per force require the United States to either raise taxes to meet the political demands of the Baby Boomer cohort retirements, cut their benefits, or continue to let things stay as they are and run up deficits and inflate them away through a punitive devaluation of the U.S. dollar.
The logical conclusion here is that world currency markets have spoken and have decided that the United States will not put its financial house in order, hence world markets will force America to put its house in order via the devaluation of the dollar. This of course revalues the terms of trade in all tradable foreign goods. As the Chronicle article notes, Americans will find foreign travel much more expensive, but we know that petroleum is also one of those traded goods. The Wizard postulates that had the dollar retained its strength, then we would be seeing oil prices at $60-$70 per barrel and not $100. That of course still means that the price of a barrel of oil has gone up 2-3 times since 2000, but that is different from a 5 fold increase in prices. What is interesting though is that a continuing slide in the value of the dollar would presumably improve terms of trade vis-a-vis the rest of the world, but it would also continue to push up the cost of petroleum imports which in turn would offset the improvements of the balance of America's terms of trade.
It is hard to tell how much of a correction would be required for America to come back to an equilibrium. The Wizard supposes that the Chinese, Japanese, and the Middle Eastern countries would need to be convinced that the dollar would continue to erode in value to the point where they would quit buying them. That in turn would send the dollar into a fully corrective tailspin. Maybe the dollar needs to lose another 50-75 percent of its value, on top of what it has lost already, before our current accounts finally balance out once again. On the bright side, manufacturing and other aspects of the economy which are not stuck in country would find it more preferrable to stay in America rather than to flee offshore. Jobs would be more likely to stay in country, indeed some of them might come back here.
As for what that would do to the price of a barrel of oil? Well, are you prepared for oil selling at $200 - $300 per barrel? Hold on to your seat folks. That would be a great reason for those jobs to come back here if we see prices like that. Prices like that also might finally make alternatives like cellulose ethanol a viable competitor to conventional petroleum. Hmmm. Now is that another reason why those Middle Eastern governments buy up our treasury bills? Think about it.
I am wishing everyone out there a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
The Wizard is celebrating some of his 2007 Christmas by doing a bit of site clean up. Notably some static web pages that I have had hanging out there for years, and which look as though they were created in 1997, are being redirected to my blog page. Hence, the next 5 entries to be found here are redirects from elsewhere.
March 27, 2004
Some time in 2002 or 2003, I was at home one evening watching The History Channel on television, when a curious television program came on. The program was entitled A History of God. Broadly speaking, the program was essentially about how our ideas of God have taken shape over time and what forces may have been involved in how the process took place. Being the history buff that I am, I was absolutely spell bound by both the subject matter and by the things that some of the people who appeared on the program had to say. In particular, there was one dignified British woman by the name of Karen Armstrong who enunciated some fascinating thoughts about the matter of God, and how our concepts of the Divine have both stayed stable and how they have evolved. The program mentioned that Ms. Armstrong, a former nun but who is now practicing writer / journalist, was the author of a book called "A History of God," so I wrote down this information and promptly headed over to a nearby bookstore to hunt down the book.
As for the book itself, I've read a lot of books in my life, but A History of God is a challenge to read. The paperback version of Armstrong's tome tops off at 399 pages, with another 60 pages of definitions, citations, notes and bibliography thrown in for good measure.
The book is composed of 11 chapters. The book's first 5 chapters start, as one might imagine, at the beginning of faith, and take the reader through the time of Muhammad. All of this was worth reading. However, in chapters 6 - 7 (and part of chapter 8), she writes about how God became the God of the philosophers and mystics during the era of the Middle Ages. This part of the book proved to be rather difficult to read because there are a few times where she - in a sense - repeats herself because by this time, many of the ideas of God that our ancestors had are now familiar to the reader. The book does pick up towards the end when in the last 2 - 3 chapters, she starts to approach more recent centuries. She begins to write about the rise of human rationalism and science. Topics like the "death of God," what ideas may we have about God in the future, or whether God even has a future are examined.
This is a difficult book to review, not because the topic is difficult, but because it is hard to distill so many ideas and thoughts into a relatively short review that touches on the many topics and ideas in this book. I may find that I might rewrite this book review sometime in the future in order to encompass matters I might have missed, or to extend the review so that I write more about the last half of the book.
I should clarify what I mean by the book being a challenge to read. The book is in fact quite readable and quite extraordinary. Ms. Armstrong has a gift of being able to delineate and get to the root of some complicated matters involving monotheism (the book does touch on Buddhism and Hindu ideas too), and do so in a way that a layman can grasp. Where the book becomes a challenge is that the reader has to make sure that he / she is staying alert and following along with the vast, ongoing train of Ms. Armstrong's great story. Readers encounter many personages, nation states, conceptual ideas, and conflicts that Ms. Armstrong covers in the course of this book. For example, at different times in history, men of different times and places have reached similar ideas about God, but in order to remember who had reached these ideas before, one has to look back at who had reached such conclusions before and why they had come to these conclusions. I found that in order to really get the most out of this book, I had to reread the book a second time and take notes in order to keep track of everything.
Armstrong starts the book off with her own story of her religious and spiritual journey. She clearly had some experiences that I think most people can smile at. For example, she writes about how easy it is for most people to conceive of Satan, but how are we to conceive of God? Or, for that matter, isn't the majesty of God supposed to be inconceivable to begin with?
I myself went to a parochial school growing up and I had to chuckle at Ms. Armstrong's efforts to "find God" when she was a nun. We all know full well that Satan is a red colored fellow with horns, but are we supposed to think of God as some huge, old, bearded fellow with a book that has everyone's name in it. Doesn't God look down on us from the heavens, waiting for us to die so that He can look at our report card and check off whether we are allowed into Heaven? Well gentle readers, things are not quite so simple in this world, and I'm sure things aren't so simple in the next one either!
There have been many theories about the origins of religion, but Armstrong writes about the idea that the ancients may have had ideas about religion because they may have been trying to deal with issues of the Unseen. She writes that what makes religious belief come alive for people is that religion works for them. Ideas and thoughts that may be relevant at one point in time might very well make little sense years later. People are spiritual animals, Armstrong points out that there are other ways in which we can have deeply meaningful experiences other than those experienced by religious belief.
Armstrong writes about the influence of Babylonian and Sumerian gods and their influence on monotheism. The Babylonians (and later the Greeks) thought that gods were not distant, unaccessible, or shut off from humanity. Ergo there was not any need for revelation. Faith wasn't something intellectual, or organized into Dogmas. Rather faith for the ancients was something that was held because the God Yahweh (or any other belief that was held) made good on his / her promises. Because of this view about faith, the Israelites had quite a struggle trying to let go of their old deities like Baal, and embrace Yahweh.
The God Yahweh was, as many Christians know, a jealous God. He (Armstrong traces how God became a "He"), also is a partisan God. Yes, Old Testament incarnations of Yahweh were later to be a source of frustration and consternation to later Jews and Christians. Similarly, the Unmoved First Mover of Plato and Aristotle seemed to many to be elitist. Later admirers of Greek thought, including educated Muslims and Jews, were to admit this. There must be some kind of Anthropormophism in religion, because we won't be able to identify with any faith that doesn't have such an element in it.
Religious faith needs to be effective in order to be successful, writes Armstrong. We watch while as the Israelites are overrun and exiled to Babylon, Yahweh makes a transformation. Yahweh becomes a Mover of History. Even enemies of the Israelites are His instruments. And yet, God relies on Man to act in the world, which became an important idea in Judiasm.
Later, we see the encounter of Greek philosophy with the Jewish faith. Armstrong devotes an entire chapter to the coming of the New Messenger, Jesus of Nazareth. She writes about the slow development of the concept that Jesus was Divine, which takes place over the next four centuries. She writes about the theological struggles that took place in early Christianity as Christian thinkers from all over the Roman empire battled to come up with a "workable" theology of The Trinity, which could encompass the story of Jesus and how Jesus the Man could also Divine.
Some interesting issues that Armstrong writes about were about how Jews, who used to be proselytizers of their faith, stopped doing so. This was because groups of monotheists, called God Fearers, who did not want to adapt all of the "baggage" of Judiasm, such as diet and various Laws, eventually convert to the new Christian faith. Jews became much more suspicious of converts. There were many converts to the new faith, but in the early centuries, such people were often slaves or lower classed people. What Armstrong believes brought "socially better off" people towards Christianity was the impressive social welfare efforts of the Church, as well as the intellectual efforts on the part of some educated Romans to expound on the new faith. Eventually of course, Constantine makes Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Armstrong also delves into the difficult legacy that St. Augustine left Christianity, especially regarding the roles of women and sexuality. Of course, this was only part of St. Augustine's legacy. St. Augustine was having to deal with the world shaking fact that Rome herself had been sacked by barbarians in the year 410 A.D. This event literally marked the end of the empire, and nobody knew what was going to come next. His great polemic, The City of God, was partly written to answer the charge made by pagans that Rome had abandoned her earlier gods, which had protected her for over 1100 years. It was when the new God had been adapted, so went the thought, that Rome fell.
Another strong area of the book revolves around the story of Muhammad. She writes about the changes that were going on in Muhammad's world, and about how the Last Prophet, who had never read the Bible, nor had ever heard of any of the Patriarchs, ended up having a story that nearly parallels the stories of all of the previous Prophets and Messengers of God. She writes about the political genius of Muhammad, who managed to weave together a workable faith that synthesized the traditional laws and customs of Arabian tribes, along with a strong element of togetherness. His message was that all men were the same before the One God. All peoples of God, including Jews and Christians, were to be seen as brothers. This chapter is a must read for anyone.
The story of Muhammad reminds me that one of the strongest points of this book is that it gives just enough insight into the character of each and every person who makes an appearance to make the book nearly as much a history of religious figures as it is a history of God. There are many more figures in the later half of the book. I will not write about the last half of the book because that would make this review twice as long as it already is. I hope that reading this review will give you enough of a feel about what the book is like to read. I may add a "part II" to this review in the future.
If that is not enough for you, I will end this book review with one last story. I purchased two additional copies of this book for two co - workers who were the type of people who I thought would be interesting in reading Ms. Armstrong's book. One of my co - workers was a girl, a college student in her early 20's, who happens to be from a practising Muslim family. She told me that this book just absolutely blew her away and that this was one of the best books she has ever read! She told me that her father, who is a highly educated man, saw her copy of this book and immediately stole the book out of her backpack! She told me that her father was so amazed and enthralled by this book that he would not give the book back to her so she could finish it. This book was a New York Times best seller and the Wizard highly recommends that you find yourself a copy and see for yourself why this is so.
I stumbled across this story on Thailand's election in the International Herald Tribune. The IHT article sums up the entire political situation in the country quite nicely, to the point where I wish I could have written it. That is the biggest complement I could pay to Mr. Mydans.
It is becoming clear that the election that Thais are holding is not going to solve the question of Thaksin Shinawatra and the problems that Mr. Shinawatra's previous elections posed for the old guard in the country. Thailand as a nation will not make breakthroughs in achieving a truly pluralistic political society until the old guard of the Monarchy, the army, the bureaucracy, and economic elites realize that the country's large population of working poor represent its political power in the Democracy. If you are going to have a Democracy, then that is where the political power lies, not in the privileges enjoyed by the old guard. All Mr. Shinawatra did was cater to the country's vast population of rural peasantry and not to the palace or so much to the army. Until these questions are solved and the answers accepted by everyone, then look for more tensions to come.
Addendum edit: A pro-Thaksin party has won a substantial minority of seats in the 480 member Parliament and will reach out to minor parties to form a coalition government. It also seems the old guard military has passed an "internal security law" which blunts pluralistic progress. And so it goes that the stalemate will continue.
And so it has come across the news that South America's latest Caudillo, Hugo Chavez, is not pleased with the Venezuelan constitution which he himself wrote and is putting up for vote revisions. All this to push along his so called 21st century socialism, which of course is no different from the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries that succeeded - as the Wizard personally knows - in keeping billions of people throughout the world in dire poverty. Some people just never learn.
Today's epistle is about a specific aspect of the latest Chavez bombasts and threats - threatening to kneecap America by cutting off oil shipments in the event that America tries to intervene. In short order, such a threat will not work and the Wizard will tell his gentle readers exactly why.
As Daniel Yergin explains in his master work on the world oil and gas industry, The Prize, in the 1980's petroleum started being traded on world oil markets. Not all oil is created equal, as some petroleum from some places has lots of gunk in it like sulfur, metals, and other content in it which makes it more difficult to refine into useable products than other petroleum. The petroleum from Venezuela tends to be of the less desireable kind.
But the fact that Venezuelan crude is less desireable than petrol from other places doesn't mean it is not desireable at all. Indeed that's the whole point. Say for just a moment that Chavez make good with his promise to cut off oil exports to the United States. He needs to remember that in order to carry out his
19th and 20th century 21st century socialism, he needs oil revenues. As such, the country's fields need to continue to produce. There are supply schedules to follow and those schedules need buyers.
Now then, Chavez could try to command that the country's oil be sold to China or India, presuming that there would be enough buyers to use it. However, what would buyers do once their hands are on it? That is the problem is Chavez's threat. Petroleum is fungible and there is nothing preventing others from turning around and simply selling it to the United States at prices which are set by world oil markets. Indeed that is what happened to a large degree in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Petroleum exports still eventually reached the U.S. through other countries, once the world's oil and gas industry figured out how to reconfigure the supply lines and shipping routes.
The real problem for America in 1973 was self created - namely that the Nixom Administration imposed price ceilings (price controls), which as every first year economics student learns, results in shortages in supply. Because prices were not allowed to rise, rationing had to occur somehow and that rationing came in the form of waiting in line for gasoline, with the entire country wasting time, money, and gasoline trying to get more gas.
And so gentle readers, Chavez's threat is little or nothing to worry about. If Chavez does not want to sell us oil, then some other corrupt government in some other heavily politicized (hence making it a disordered and disastrously run country) will.
It was front page news the Wednesday before Thanksgiving on Houston's paper of note that Archbishop Daniel DiNardo will be vested into the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. Somehow it seems appropriate that the good Father will receive his appointment into the august body the weekend after that most American of holidays.
I was raised in a house of Protestant Lutherans. I was an occasional church goer as a kid, but I've had many people tell me that despite my cranky acerbic attitude towards a lot of things that I really am a sweet heart. So my religious upbringing might have done some good after all.
But one thing that attending 9 years of Lutheran school, nor 4 years of public high school tell me was that all that schooling really didn't give me a truly rounded understanding of things like faith and how religious beliefs had riveted human societies from time immemorial. It wasn't until I had gone through some long conversations with some of my school friends (who were raised Catholic), had watched some amazing History Channel programs, had traveled to other parts of the world, and done an enormous amount of reading on the ideas and doctrines of religious faith that I truly began to understand what the Roman Catholic Church meant to the world and why it is the way it is today. So I write this entry about Archbishop DiNardo's elevation to the Cardinal hood as a somewhat interested outsider, a wide ranging and curious layman if you will.
I have no special insider knowledge of the the ideas, troubles, or counsels of the Catholic Church of today. For some, most likely very secular lawyers, the Church has been only of interest when the some sexual abuse scandal erupts. For others the Church is a target of historical anger, whether because of forced conversions to the Catholic faith from their own indigenous beliefs or because of the Crusades it led to recapture the Holy Land. But what many people short change or overlook is the quiet piece of mind the Church has given literally billions of people over the past 2,000 years. It may never cross the minds of the Church's detractors of the countless newborn or infant children who were left abandoned to die by anguished parents, but were rescued by the Church believers. Even to this day, by the Church's own account the American branch of the faith alone assists more than 7 million people. Despite what many readers of this blog might imagine, I would far rather have dinner with someone like Cardinal DiNardo than with any computer programmer or politician.
So what to make of the Archbishop's promotion to the College of Cardinals? Well, what is of interest is that the College itself was expanded by Pope John Paul II when he was alive to 120 members (others say 180). The Catholic Church of America has some 70 million members, but already has 13 ordained Cardinals. Considering that this hoary Church has over 1 billion adherents, and that it becomes quickly clear that America is overrepresented in the College of the Cardinals and Europe is even more so.
Does this lack of democratic representative fairness matter? Well, one could argue both yes and no. The Cardinals choose who shall be the Pope, who in turn chooses who shall be in the College of the Cardinals. The yes side of the democratic fairness argument says that the Eurocentric focus of the Cardinals detracts from where the attention of the church should be, while the no argument says that Pope Benedict has made it expressedly clear that a substantial focus of his papacy is going to be to shine a light on the - if you will - spiritual impoverishment and to combat what he sees as the dangers of moral relevantism of today's Europeans and Americans. As such, who said we were talking about having a Democracy here anyway, given that that Church was a European faith whose aspirations were universal? What was interesting is that when Pope John Paul passed away, it did not take very long for the Cardinals to choose Cardinal Ratzinger as the new Pope. That could be seen as a signal that Church leaders were largely united in their deliberations on where they wanted to go and focus their energies on. DiNardo's appointment can be seen as a continuation of the struggle against moral relativism and as a nod to the fact that Hispanics in America are often Catholics. I attended the funeral of the mother of a Hispanic former co-worker last year, who was given Catholic rites, including a rosary.
I've traveled to Brazil, the Phillipines, Argentina, and to France, all of which are nations with substantial populations of Catholics. I've been inside some cathedrals in places like Rio de Janeiro which are hundreds of years old and are nothing short of works of art. Despite all of the concerns about the affairs of the West, it would have been interesting to see the election of a Brazilian Pope, or a Pope from Africa or Asia. I suggested this to a Catholic girl I used to work with who was from Trinidad. She went bananas, telling me that it wasn't right that a Pope be anyone but from Europe.
To me, what made John Paul so successful was that he was seen as an every man's Pope; a man who came from a modest background and whose life was colored by the fact that his homeland was under the thumb of Communism. People from all over the world loved him. A successful Pope has to not only have convictions, but also has to have a kind of identifiable charisma which John Paul had in spades. So far, Benedict seems not to have that magic touch that his predecessor had.
So I suppose one might say that yes, in the larger scheme of things, DiNardo's appointment makes some kind of sense. If the church allows some creativity for DiNardo's role, one could see him as a kind of ambassador for Americans to those south of our borders, strengthening the bonds of the Church throughout the Americas.
Enough musings for now about the affairs of the world's largest religious faith. I'm watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade as I finish this. Y'all have a Happy Thanksgiving!
One thing that I've kept promising myself about over and over again, but never actually do, is write more book reviews. One of my ambitions in starting this site was to write lots of book reviews instead of posting them to Amazon or elsewhere. I do get plenty of views for my Karen Armstrong book reviews (which I will be transferring to my blog page), so there are people out there who are interested in such things.
This review is of course about the book Sprawl: a Compact History, by University of Chicago historian and Architecture professor Robert Bruegmann. I actually was loaned a copy of this book from a fellow activist, which saved me the immediate trouble of ordering my own copy. I still think I will get around to purchasing a copy sometime soon.
I've certainly gone through my share of academic tomes over the years. Bruegmann's book clocks in at 230 pages, along with 50 pages of footnotes and reference pages. For an academic publication, Sprawl is a fairly easy read, with no dense calculus equations, a mere 10 graphs and 23 images of various cities and urban layouts, along with replications of various plans of cities and models. The book is simply laid out, with three parts. The first describes sprawl from a historical perspective and looks into ideas as to why sprawl takes place. The second part covers the various anti-sprawl political campaigns which have occurred over the past century. Last, Bruegmann looks a prescriptions and remedies for the alleged problems.
Amongst items I noted were the following:
1) Early in chapter 1, Bruegmann notes that there is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes sprawl. His footnote on the topic is over a page long. In the footnote, Bruegmann argues that "it has been the non measurable, especially aesthetic aspects of sprawl that have constituted the emotional heart of the debate on the subject."
The term sprawl has a negative connotation, much like the terms elitism or conspicuous consumption, but what's funny is that the target of that negativism has been rather ephemeral. An implied undercurrent is that sprawl is caused by other people and that it results from the poor choices by which others have decided to live their lives.
My comment: The definition issue should be of no surprise since we are largely talking about the study of social sciences and of urban settings. The entire field of urban studies is rife with definition problems, which often contribute to spill over problems such as having to control for data comparisons and mismatches. In case you want to debate the point, try determining what the population of the Houston metropolitan area is. Do you want to determine the population of the City of Houston, Harris County, the SMSA, the PMSA, or the H-GAC metropolitan area? Bruegmann notes that frequently when the urban population spreads outward, it triggers the addition of a new county to the metropolitan area by the U.S. Census Bureau. Metropolitan density may appear to plummet simply because of the addition of the new county, no matter whether the density of the actual urbanized portion of the area was rising and falling.
Since we don't have a firm definition of what exactly sprawl is, then anti-sprawl campaigners find themselves falling back on the old saw that I know it when I see it.
2) Bruegmann says that many of the things that anti-sprawl campaigners fear is based upon outdated data or evidence. For example, there is a pervasive fear amongst some that sprawl is accelerating and spiraling out of control. Bruegmann shows where the rate of new sprawl in most metropolitan areas is actually slowing down and that many cities are slowly growing denser. That statement is in fact true for Houston.
Bruegmann states that lot sizes reached their peak in the 1950's and 1960's, while houses built on newer lots since then have been getting larger. He says that quite a bit of newer development at the edge of urban areas consists of row housing and apartments.
3) Bruegmann writes that distant "exurban" sprawl, what could be described as very low density development in rural areas past the urban periphery, has been accelerating. This is mostly because the parcels of land are very large and there are more people (often very wealthy) moving out to those areas who still want to be within striking range of towns and cities to access their amenities. At the same time, we have seen the creation of affluent, distant work areas far away from cities where people make very long commutes to get to them.
4) If you are a James Howard Kunstler fan, it may be of interest to you (I already knew this) that the large cities of the ancient world, such as Rome, had population densities of 150,000 people or more per square mile. It's possible to imagine that Mr. Kunstler, who lives in a town whose density is less than 1,000 people per square mile, would be thrilled to live in such a city.
5) The first sprawl in ancient cities and those of the Middle Ages was due to activities which were performed that were often objectionable within the city walls, such as smoke arising from metal working or burial of the dead. Bruegmann correctly notes that historical cities faced the crushing economic burden of building and maintaining walls around their perimeters. As Barton Smith told us in class one day, there were economies of scale in defense, so sprawling outside of city walls was a problematic issue in a world where your enemies could come from out of nowhere. Suburbanites of the ancient world lived outside the walls of cities because they could not afford to live in them. They gave up access to services and protection of the walls in return for living in tiny hovels near roads. Meanwhile the extremely wealthy of the ancient world lived in extravagant villas near the seaside or other desirable country areas.
Intriguingly, Bruegmann notes that London was the first modern city in the sense that it abetted sprawl because for many decades it was the only city in Europe which did not have a wall around its perimeter.
6) Bruegmann says that many of the wealthy in today's American cities live in areas which were already inhabited by wealthy people at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike other places in urban settings where neighborhoods may rise, fall, and perhaps redevelop and rise again, wealthy areas stay wealthy.
7) Bruegmann describes the massive sprawl away from urban cores which happened all over Europe and America in the early decades of the 20th century. Until that time, it was the rich who had moved out of urban cores. Now the masses were rich enough to follow them. The availability of public transportation was augmented by the automobile. Curbs, gutters, sewers, street lights and electricity, which we take for granted today, were all installed and completed in this era. Contrary to the belief that it was people moving outwards, it was often the case that jobs in factories and manufacturing that moved outwards first, then families followed the jobs. This in turn left lots of cheap, empty space behind in city cores which later on were often used by new residents or enterprises that in turn helped to revive the cores of some urban areas. (My note - this just goes to show how complicated cities really are).
8) While writing about the central cities of Europe and America, Bruegmann states that he thinks that an average of 10,000 people per square mile seems to be a threshold whereby very extensive use of public transportation takes place. The two cities in America that have higher densities than this are Chicago and New York (I think Bruegmann may be getting a bit sloppy here as San Francisco also has density above 10,000 per square mile). Even then, use of public transportation is mostly a strong force only for transportation into central business districts. Or as Wendell Cox might put it, its all about downtown.
9) Tirades and battles against sprawl are often triggered in periods where there are large economic booms, such as in Europe and America during the 1920's, America in the 1950's, and in numerous places in the world during the 1990's. Those are times when the numbers of people with the means to move grow rapidly. Bruegmann writes that campaigns against sprawl often occur in the largest and fastest growing cities, which strangely enough are often much denser than smaller towns, cities, and villages. Brugemann notes that anti-sprawlers are much more active in Los Angeles than they are in Little Rock Arkansas or Lubbock Texas.
10) European cities have rapidly been approaching American and Canadian levels of automobile ownership and use, but I already knew that.
11) Bruegmann looks at the possible causes of sprawl. Anti-urban attitudes and racism are examined, but Bruegmann notes that minorities are just as likely to move to the suburbs as white people are if they have the money. As for "anti-urban attitudes", Bruegmann says that:
It is probably only possible to call Americans anti-urban if one accepts a specific set of assumptions about urbanity made by members of a small cultural elite. This group likes to think of urbanity as the kind of life lived by people in apartments in dense city centers that contain major high brow cultural institutions. In these dense centers, the believe, citizens are more tolerant and cosmopolitan because of their constant interaction with other citizens unlike themselves. Bruegmann goes on to say that most Americans, and increasingly people around the world, are rejecting or simply ignoring such ideas for an idealized city.
My note here - from my time of having spent 9 weeks in London, I can confidently say that having people live in dense areas does not make them any more tolerant or cosmopolitan than anyone living in low density areas.
Bruegmann writes about the idea that sprawl is "the inevitable unhappy result of laissez-faire capitalism." Bruegmann goes on to say that this assertion is a complete turn around of the thoughts of urban reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who believed that unregulated private real estate markets would inevitably lead to massively high densities. Benjamin Marsh, an advocate for the working poor, wailed that it would be logical for developers to crowd as many people into a single acre of apartment housing, as that would maximize their profits.
Bruegmann says of various government created causes of sprawl, such as tax deductions for home ownership, that other countries do (or do not) have such deductions as does America, but sprawl is still taking place. He correctly notes that the home owner tax deduction primarily benefits the rich and not those in the lower or middle class income brackets. Yet people with lower incomes buy homes anyway.
As for the "Americans do not choose to live in the suburbs because they would obviously choose a hip urban lifestyle over the dreary suburban life" argument, Bruegmann writes that this seems to point to an idea that greedy developers are in cabal with politicians to deny what people really want. Bruegmann notes that if developers were really to possess as much fiendish guile that is attributed to them, then they should be able to make as much money developing high density lots in cities as they do in the suburbs.
He also discusses the Who framed Roger Rabbit urban myth, where the demise of rail and streetcars was allegedly because General Motors supposedly bought up all the rail and streetcar lines to put them out of business. More to the point, Bruegmann notes (quite correctly) that motorized automobiles and trucks did not replace rail, trolleys, and street cars. What the automobile replaced were horse drawn wagons and carriages and it is important to note that the first automobiles were known as horseless carriages. It was buses that replaced rail and streetcars.
To get a visual look at this, I consulted my copy of Historic Photos of Houston by Betty Trapp Chapman. For the first 85 of the 216 pages of her book, there are very few photographs of automobiles or trucks. There are many photos showing groups of people who have neatly parked in front of buildings in their horse drawn wagons and carriages. There is a photo of a mule train of men and equipment moving along a road in South Texas going towards the oil fields. There is another photo, taken circa 1890, of volunteer firemen in a horse drawn service truck that looks to be about 40 feet long. When President William Howard Taft visited Houston in November 1909, he had a public procession where he was taken by horse drawn carriages and not in a street car. There are only 12 photographs with streetcars, including one where streetcars are jostling for road space with horse drawn carriages and pedestrians circa 1900 (it looks like the streetcar is going to hit a crowd of them!). In the next to last photo, there is a photo of a street car taken in September 1924 which has the caption, "Please step inside and look me over. I am one of your 15 new Houston street cars. I cost $13,000." That streetcar in 2006 dollars would cost $153,263. After the 1910's, there are no more photographs of horse drawn carriages or wagons.
12) The anti-sprawl campaigns: Bruegmann notes that aesthetic tastes of urban development amongst critics changes over time. When London continued to sprawl extensively in the early 20th century, architect critics at the time raged about the row housing that is a feature of London suburbs like Acton Town. They demanded that such development be stopped on grounds such as that Britain's farmland was being consumed. Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century and the spiritual descendants of those urban planners and critics rave these days about how wonderful those same suburbs are and that this is how developers should build cities because it economizes on space.
Bruegmann also says that the first anti-sprawl campaign in Britain witnessed the idea that building new roads filled up, ergo the argument of later anti-sprawlers "we can't build our way out of congestion" is actually far older than many assume it to be. As a side note, Julius Caesar banned wheeled vehicles from the streets of ancient Rome during daylight hours due to traffic congestion. No wonder when your city has population densities of over 150,000 people per square mile.
13) The anti-sprawl campaigns in the America of the 1950's came about, as noted above, because of the increases in affluence and population. William H. Whyte, he of the Organization Man fame, sponsored what was perhaps the first conference on sprawl and targeted Los Angeles as its epitome. Interestingly, Bruegmann says that Los Angeles has densified, but he says that the cost of transporting sufficient water to the L.A. metropolitan area has acted as a curb to more sprawl.
New arguments emerged, such as the costs of sprawl, social and environmental problems, arguments in the 1970's were advanced about the limits to growth, and attacks on the automobile became more and more shrill. Bruegmann states that the economic problems of the late 1970's such as stagflation, drove such concerns off the public agenda. However when Western advanced economies recovered and sprawl continued.
Bruegmann then goes on to list the latest wave of anti-sprawl complaints, which now include social concerns and equity problems, sustainability, and global warming. However the old aesthetic issues crop up again, which Bruegmann thinks is because societies have solved basic problems such as food production, shelter, water, and so forth. Since those problems have been solved, then people have time to - well - look for more issues to complain about.
The last part of Bruegmann's book covers various anti-sprawl remedies which have been attempted during these anti-sprawl campaigns, including a sharp analysis of the bizarre political marriage between Britain's Labour Party and the conservative aristocratic landowners of Britain which resulted in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. He covers regional planning, environmental impact statements, anti-road building and highway crusades, and the case of the highly successful anti-sprawl efforts employed in building Moscow. I will leave it to the reader's imagination as to why it was that the Soviets were successful in curbing sprawl in the nation's capital. He also notes that the most recent anti-sprawl campaigns have now drawn a backlash in which there are now people who are willing to speak up for benefits that are produced by sprawl.
This has been a long entry, but it hope it provokes interested parties into reading the book and mulling over what Sprawl has to say.
A quote from Chris Moyles, a British D.J., speaking to the crowd at Wembley Stadium in London during a Live Earth show, an event aimed at raising awareness about global warming.
Answer: Maybe. But I really don't know if the world needs saving just yet. So far the summer in Houston has been quite rainy, but it also has been quite cool. Temperatures have been several degrees cooler than average for some weeks now. On Friday July 6, 2007, the high temperature was a mere 84 degrees fahrenheit. The normal temperature for this time of year is 93 degrees.
Bjorn Lomborg hopes that everyone enjoys the shows, but he doesn't think climate change is the most pressing matter facing mankind.The World at Large
So yesterday I managed to catch an HPRA meeting featuring Jeffrey Friedman, editor of the journal Critical Review, as the guest speaker. Critical Review is one of the few journals out there which is genuinely worth reading. The Economist is still a good read, as are various online newspapers throughout the world. On rare occasions I still pick through Foreign Affairs or some other journal. Good history books are always fun to read. These days though, much of my spare time for reading has been swallowed up by reading on IT issues, though I still can draw upon a vast background of reading which I have done over the decades.
There is plenty of economics or political blather out there for people to read no matter what your views are on these matters. Materials have become even more available with the advent of the Internet. However little of what is out there is really interesting. I can usually tell within the first 2-3 pages of reading an online academic paper or a print journal article whether the treatise is worth reading or whether it was probably written to keep tenure. I stay away from anything written by English professors, as well as most Sociology. If I exert serious effort, I can tell whether an Economics paper simply rehashes an old idea with newer and more complicated math.
What drew me to Critical Review was an incident that happened about 9 years ago. I was in a bookstore which used to be on South Shepherd, across the street from my auto mechanic. While getting my car worked on one day, I went across the street and perused through their offerings. That is when I saw a now classic issue of CR where they debated the issue of Public Ignorance and what such matters might mean for republics and democracies. I picked up the issue and probably learned more about how decision making goes on in the political arena than I had learned in years of reading anything else. I was hooked. I have read the journal on and off ever since. Most recently, Friedman has republished Philip Converse's 1964 classic paper on public ignorance, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics", along with an issue of scholarly debates surrounding the subject.
Friedman started off his talk by saying that he started CR in 1987. He talked about how the modern world really is too complicated for anyone to understand, and that this really has immense implications for those who would desire to craft public policies to shape the future in certain directions amenable to them. He then went on to describe the Converse paper and said that the great man's research is just there and is known in the political science community, though not widely known outside of it. Nobody has challenged or successfully rebuked what Converse wrote. It just sits there seeming to be something of a curiosity.
But there is far more to it than that. Friedman went on to say something that is not well known about some political polls, namely that many people do not know an answer or do not have answers to questions that might be asked of them in polls. What happens in such situations is that pollsters will push such sample members in their polls to take a position on poll questions when they say they don't know what to say. I found that to be very interesting.
Friedman mentioned that 90+ percent of the public knows little about politics, while the other 1-10 percent do know quite a bit. The more you know, the more dogmatic you tend to become. That does not surprise me one bit.
For my two cents worth, I have long felt after reading my original issue of CR that a big reason for public ignorance is economics. Time is scarce and there is little monetary gain to be had from spending endless hours reading about or becoming knowledgeable about politics, unless you happen to be a politician, a lawyer, a political scientist or other university professor, a bureaucrat, military officer, or a professional such as an engineer or doctor, or perhaps a single issue activist. Otherwise you would be better off simply concentrating on improving your job skills so that you would get better paid.
Friedman went on to talk about what he called "The Hobson's Choice (or Rule) of Democracy". We can basically have rule either by the largely ignorant masses or the dogmatic elites. Ignorance of politics is a worldwide phenomena, not something peculiar to the United States. So if you think that the French are all sitting at Left Bank cafes, sipping coffee at tables and holding forth on deep discussions about philosophical and public affairs, then think again.
Friedman says that dogmatism largely comes from the huge number of decisions and complications arising in our modern world in an array of issues. This results in huge amounts of data which need to be collected and analyzed. What dogmatism does is simplify understanding of complex issues and helps people screen most of the complications out. Friedman went on to say that one idea or theory is all it takes to change or see the world in a different way. You need an idea as a peg to hang your hat on.
So what do we have as alternatives, if any? Friedman went on to say that one Nobel prize winner stated that there are two forms of participation in life. One is what was called "Exit" and the other is "Voice".
What Exit denotes is the process of the personal and economic life of an individual. Life is a process of experimentation whereby someone feels their way forward towards the things that make them happy. Friedman gave as an example how someone might experiment with smoking cigarettes. If the would be smoker didn't like the taste of a cigarette, that is all that mattered. That person would not smoke that cigarette again. There was no need for the smoker to understand the cause of why that cigarette was disagreeable to her, whether the manufacturing was bad or the tobacco was bad or any other reason. All that mattered was that the product was disagreeable. Our female smoker will never try that cigarette again, ergo the "Exiting" or quitting of the action. The world then becomes a better place for it.
What "Voice" is denotes the world of politics. What politicians or political activists do is that they try to actively look for and identify "problems". They then try to dissect the cause of these "problems" and offer some "solution" using the coercive powers of the state. Using the above example, those in the political sphere might start investigating the tobacco company, complain about the product, the health care costs on the public dime, the habit forming aspects of smoking (note I didn't say its addictiveness), and so forth.
Wisdom is the accumulation of knowledge. The big problem here for people is that political outcomes or solutions are so hard to interpret that we end up arguing the same issues over and over and over again, going round and round in circles in the process. Rarely do the best ideas get into the arena because powerful organized groups who might get threatened by them will see to it that they get stomped out.
A question was raised where Friedman was asked to differentiate between a public ignorance critique of politics verses public choice. Friedman mentioned that two big problems of public choice are that public choice often allows its subscribers to go about demonizing politics and that public choice is arguably part, but not the whole picture. A fuller picture of politics is that the arena has both selfish interests who are out to gain something for themselves at public expense, but that there are idealists (often misguided ones) who need to be dealt with too. In a memorable turn of phrase, Friedman characterized public choice a kind of "right wing Marxism".
Friedman addressed the issue on how do voters make decisions. Citing Converse, voters often fall back on two big things. First is the "Nature of the times", meaning that if a war is going well or if the economy is going well, then voters often stick with incumbents. The second is nationalism or voting along ethnic / religious lines.
Another topic of discussion came up and that was whether free market economics is common sensical? Arguably, Friedman says no it is not. He pointed out that good economics often has unseen aspects to it (Amen brother!) and that you often have to think abstractly in order to grasp its implications. Meanwhile our brains which evolved during hunter gatherer times did not weed through the gene pool for men and women who were good economists, but they did weed out for beauty, brains, strength, and being able to hunt deer. The field of economics itself was invented in Britain in the 18th century and the complexity of the modern world has complicated its study even further.
Other topics Friedman spoke about had to do with the "Myths of Democracy". Does everyone's vote count? The answer is - No! Another myth of democracy is that voters should have had time to be fully informed going into the voting booth. That is true, but they rarely have much information digested, nor does it help that the vast majority of journalists who are supposed to be responsible for disseminating information to the public rarely have had any formal study of economics. Instead they rely on heuristics instead of detailed knowledge of issues and candidates in order to guide them.
Friedman stated that the goal of his journal and his seminars was to try to reach young people and educate the future judges, bureaucrats, and politicians of tomorrow so that they would at least have some grounding in freedom and free market arguments since they are often so bitterly attacked. They need defending, whereas as one member of the audience pointed out, wherever you look in the political economy of modern day America, everything is an absolute mess. That includes Social Security transfer payments, Medicare, Medicaid and health care, transportation, farm subsidies, education, policing and law enforcement, the list is endless. Even if the whole of the political economy is a mess, every program has plenty of defenders and well monied interests who have every incentive to make sure that things stay that way or get even worse.
In all, Dr. Friedman gave a fascinating talk and one I will always remember. I never thought I would get to meet the professor. I brought my copy of the latest issue of CR and had him sign it. He said he was thrilled to meet long time readers and was happy to hear that there are people out there really valued what he was doing since he didn't hear enough of that.
Bye for now...
The World at Large
And so it is that the newspapers are full of stories describing what the world is like in Hong Kong 10 years after the British handed over their old colony to the Chinese Communists in Beijing. The general consensus is that the Beijing government has not made a basketcase of Hong Kong, much to the relief of many. It seems that what we have is a case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme.
I stayed for six days in Hong Kong during my last break while I was in China. I actually went down to Guangzhou with a girl I knew after I left Zhouxian for good. We stayed there for several days before going to Shenzhen. I later went to Zhuhai and Macau on day trip while I stayed in Hong Kong.
I found Hong Kong to be a fast paced city which glittered with light and intensity. It would have been difficult for me to really make myself feel at home there though. It would have taken a long time to lay down roots and make my way in the world. I had few job skills at that time that would have been in demand which could not have been filled by locals. Housing, then as now, was also expensive.
Since that was 1992, the handover to Beijing was still five years into the future. Nevertheless, there was plenty of talk of Hong Kong denizens trying to secure visas to Canada, Britian, Australia, and the U.S. People just didn't know what was going to happen and many were effectively hedging their bets that Beijing was going to shut everything down - the media, speaking English, general rule of law in favor of cronyism and rule by the most politically connected, a reasonably efficient civil service, and so forth. Fortunately little of that has happened. There is a strong argument to be made that China has become more like Hong Kong rather than the other way around. Shanghai will surpass Hong Kong as China's busiest port this year and other coastal cities now look like Hong Kong.
I suppose the question to ask for the future is whether China will successfully reform itself from within before it wears Hong Kong down whether by accident or purpose. So far the Beijing government has played its cards well and has gotten everything is has wanted out of Hong Kong and there is no reason why from Beijing's standpoint why the status quo cannot continue. Look for Democracy or elections to be a long time coming.
The summer of 1666 was long, hot and dry. In retrospect it is easy to see how it must of reduced a city of wooden buildings to the condition of a tinderbox.
For the last several weeks I have been picking my way through London - A Traveller's History. The book is a solid general history of London as it has developed over the past 2,000 years. Perhaps the biggest lesson I have discovered is that changes in how a city is laid out come from catastrophes, often man made ones, which allow those those who have ideas to partially reshape the future when most people are busy trying to deal with the uncertainties and contingencies of the present. In recent centuries, the two biggest tragedies which have shaped modern day London are the visits which the Luftwaffe paid London during WWII and the fire of 1666.
The idea that a fire might sweep through London and reduce the city to ashes had been an issue which had worried the Crown for several generations and some attempts had been made to pass building regulations which would reduce the probability that a fire induced catastrophe would engulf the city. Alas, none of them passed.
The fire of 1666, which had its start in an neglected fire in a royal baker located off of Pudding Lane, ended up consuming over 13,000 houses and left scores of thousands of people homeless. Firefighting in those days largely consisted of attempting to create firebreaks in order to stop the spread of blazes. Unfortunately, the Lord Mayor hesitated in ordering such breaks and the narrowness of the streets inhibited escaping the inferno and fire fighting efforts.
Mr. Tames falls into the camp which believes that a beneficial side effect of the fire was that London was never touched by the Plague again. However a competing view on this matter is that the fire itself might not have been the reason for this. Other historians and epidemiologists have noted that the Plague was beginning to disappear from other European cities around this time as well.
In the aftermath of the fire, Tames notes that a rebuilding along long straight wide streets and avenues and creating a new order to the city ran into the issue of property rights, a concept which had already been rooted in centuries of English common law. This would have led to long and very costly negotiations over property ownership and property values. The Crown, which had only recently regained its place in English society in the aftermath of the English Civil War, probably did not have enough money to compensate all of the owners for their losses and was only recently reestablished in the minds and hearts of the public. A wholesale reworking of the city would have probably been much resented. The Crown itself, fearful of another potential rebellion from a restless public, was having to reassure the English people that foreigners or terrorists were not the ones responsible for the disaster. King Charles II did send out for rebuilding plans anyway and indeed was bombed with new plans, but these ideas largely came to naught. People were too much in a hurry to rebuild anyway.
Still, in the decades that followed, London did rebuilt itself with a real face lift. The old city of the Middle Ages was gone forever. Over 100 streets were rebuilt to be at least 14 feet wide. The first raised pavements for pedestrians were introduced. Walls of buildings were mandated to be built of brick or stone. Parliament passed new rules in 1707 and 1709 stipulating that houses which fronted onto main thoroughfares were required to be four stories high, while lanes of note were to have buildings of at least three stories high. Back streets, which often were organized into mews type development, were to be two stories in height. If you walk around London today, you cannot help but notice that most of the city is organized around these stipulations. Curiously, I have also noticed that many structures are built to the four story standard and rise no higher than that. Those buildings fronting major streets that do rise higher than four stories rarely rise more than 1-2 stories above that. Gentle readers of this blog might ask themselves why is that?
The other main lesson is that many people seem to admire this kind of urban development today, but it seems that London's development was largely in response to the safety concerns from 300+ years ago and not because of some master plan. The fact that the London has stuck with this kind of development since that time has led to many of the problems which the city faces today, including apartment type housing (flats) that sometimes is not equipped with all mod cons, traffic speeds (from all forms of transportation) which move along at an average speed of 10-15 miles per hour and having to stipulate that on street parking be charged to non-resident permit holders at a rate of 20 pence every 5 minutes (2.40 pounds per hour) in order to try to deter any further rises in motor vehicle use. These parking charges come with a caveat that vehicles have to move every 4 hours and that they are not allowed to come back to the same parking space within one hour.
Enough for now. Ever since I first came to London on holiday 5 years ago, I have wondered why it is that London looks the way it does. I would not be surprised if many other European cities have similar rules in place, at least for their inner cities (their suburbs might well be a different story). Now I know the answer.
Well, yesterday's Grand National came and went. And how did the Wizard fare? Well gentle readers, I hate to admit that the Crystal Ball was cloudy when it came to viewing this event, but me thinks that many had clouded visions when it came to picking winners yesterday.
A brief rundown on the Grand National yesterday. Of the 40 horses which entered the race, only 13 finished. There were several false starts and the Brits don't start the horses out of a gate when running this race.
I put a total of 200 pounds down on three horses, Point Barrow, Dun Doire, and Le Duc, none of whom finished. Point Barrow was heavily backed, but stumbled jumping over the very first grass fence! There are thirty grass fence jumps in this 4.5 mile race. Dun Doire pulled up at fence 23, while Le Duc unseated his jockey at fence number 6. The winner finished in the 4.5 mile distance in 9 minutes and 12 seconds and had 33-1 odds. The horse who finished fourth had 100-1 odds. In all, I think the bookies went home happy, as did the tiny number of those who actually bet on the long shots.
In other news, Prince William and his longtime beau Kate Middleton have split. How sad. Ms. Middleton has that classic Brit Girl look to her which makes my head turn. Somehow I hope that the two of them will reconsider maybe in another 3-4 years and end up getting married anyway.
Two Tolkien related items of note:
1) Yesterday afternoon I watched a soccer match between Sheffield United and West Ham United on the BBC-1. And guess who happened to be in a private box at the stadium enjoying the match?
The answer: Sean Bean. It seems Mr. Bean had childhood dreams of being a football star and playing for the hometown team.
The first TV shot showed Sean Bean with a bit of an unhappy look on his face, but the score was 0-0. Later after the Sheffielders put in a few through the net and won the game 3-0, Mr. Bean got just as pumped up as the rest of the crowd and went home with a smile on his face.
2) Today I took a long walk this afternoon to Camden Town and happened upon the famous street markets which stretch for many blocks. If any of you ever have a chance to come to London, you really should make an effort to see the Camden markets. These markets are probably the biggest hidden gem that tourists and short time folks like myself should see, but rarely do since they aren't widely advertised as part of touristy London.
Anyway, as I wended my way through the stalls and houses, I found myself walking into a place which advertised lots of old maps. I love looking at old maps (though I rarely buy them), but I so happened to stumble onto a used book store which was right next to where the maps were kept.
I had stumbled upon my own mines of Mithril.
For 30 pounds cash, I will be burdening myself on the trip home with the following books:
1) A 1985 Unicorn / Unwin Paperback version of The Silmarillion.
2) A 1981 copy of The Tolkien Quiz Book, compiled by Nigel Robinson and Linda Wilson.
3) A 1993 copy of The Tolkien Companion by David Day.
4) A 1968 copy of Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, written by William Ready.
5) Four copies of The Hobbit, including a 1975 edition which had artwork depicting Smaug from Tolkien himself; a 1993 edition which has cover artwork depicting Smaug from John Howe; a 1988 edition with cover artwork depicting Smaug from David Garland; and a 1989 edition which has cover artwork depicting Rivendell from Ted Nasmith.
6) And last by not least, my Precious! I found a 1995 printing of a one book edition of The Lord of the Rings which is none other than the one with the classic John Howe portrait of Gandalf on the cover. I thought I would never find one of these. I fell in love with it on the spot and I already know that this version will become my favorite of all my Tolkien collection. The cover artwork has a dark green tint to it, but I consider this to be priceless.
As it was, I also threw down money on some incense, a City wide map of London, and some t-shirts from British rock bands The Jam, the Cure, and Joy Division which you just can't get back home. I ended up dropping about 100 pounds today, but had a blast doing it!
Ciao for Now.
You would think that an American, especially a relative Anglophile such as myself, would know a lot of what goes on in a country like the United Kingdom. Wrong! This morning while eating breakfast with my colleagues at VLICA (the Very Large Industrial Corporation of America), I took a look at the television only to discover that tomorrow afternoon is the annual running of The Grand National horse race. The race, held at the Aintree Racecourse, promises to be quite a spectacle for a sometime gambling man such as yours truly. My colleagues told me that the premier race to be held tomorrow will feature 40 horses running in the race over a course of 4.5 miles. Furthermore, the horses have steeplechase type barriers that they have to clear! This ought to be blast to watch.
Clearly a 4.5 mile race with steeplechase barriers thrown in is a major endurance test for horses and predictably the animal rights freaks have come out squealing. Nonetheless, they should realize that nobody wants to see horses come to a nasty end over a mere human passion.
Though I am not in shape, I have done distance running for many years. If there's anything I know, that is that endurance races of all kinds throw the field wide open. There are so many things that can go wrong, especially in a race like this, that it only makes watching the spectacle that much more exciting.
This evening the BBC had a program where the sports writers made their picks as to who was going to win. They did expose spots on famous trainers and jockeys. I discovered that the Brits allow amateurs to race with the pros in the event, though an amateur hasn't won the race in 17 years. All of Britain's major newspapers have Grand National pullouts and guides in tomorrow's editions. I am getting pumped up!
I briefly thought of trying to get to Liverpool in order to see the race in person, but I'm thinking that I'll have to get up pretty early in order to make it up there. On second thought, I think I'll just stay and watch it on the telly.
But watching the Grand National at the hotel doesn't drain all of the excitement out of the event. I just need to make sure that I peer into the Crystal Ball first, take a look at the field, then go to a Ladbrokes and plunk down 50 or 100 quid on a 100-1 horse! Why not? After all, even the horse many think has the best chance of winning, Point Barrow, is being offered 11-1 odds over at Ladbrokes.
The World Awaits!
And so it was that I find myself in the Imperial City again. This time the weather is far better than it was during last January. The weather has been in the 60's and 70's during the day, with an occasional sunny day thrown in. I will write an analysis of London's transportation system very soon and hope to have some pictures thrown in of salient points as well. The purpose of this post is to draw attention to city issues which might interest people back home.
1) The 2012 London Olympic Games: Remember when the elites were battling furiously for Houston to be the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games? A former City of Houston council member named John Kelley founded an organization called the Houston 2012 Foundation and raised $6 million to try to
foist the games off on Houstonians bring the Games to Houston.
I forgot to write about the London Olympic Games when I was here in January, but the subject should have been something I could have committed to the blog. Briefly, the politics behind the cost of the games got really hot while I was here three months ago. Here are some web sites which discuss the final bill that Britons are facing for the privilege of hosting the Games. You gotta love that possible 9 billion pound final bill - about $17.5 billion at April 2007 exchange rates for a half month of taking in athletic pleasures. That is 4 times the original estimated cost of hosting the games. A combination of constructing new housing, new sports temples, providing security, and some transportation are all contributing to the cost overruns. Residents of London are (as of this writing) being taxed to the tune of 38 pence per week in order to help cough up 625 million pounds of local money to pay for the games.
And to think that all of this could have happened to Houstonians! One of the rationales for building the downtown Light Rail line was that it was mandatory because we were going to host the Olympic Games!
2) The famed London congestion charge: As one might have expected, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and his friends on the London Council both upped the congestion charge in 2005 for entering the City from 5 pounds to 8 pounds. Moreover, the size of the congestion zone was increased, essentially doubling in size. One person has commented that the municipal powers in London have raked in 677 million pounds from the charge as of February 2007, but that only a fraction of the overall monies have been used to improve transportation capacities. That brings into question the entire issue of whether municipal authorities anywhere should be charging for road use, if only on the grounds that the collected monies will not be used for transportation but for - say - paying off the transportation union workers. Apparently money was supposed to be used for improved bus service.
Another matter that cropped up was that motorists were apparently driving right up to the edge of the zone and then driving around to find a parking space. Once they found one they would then jump on the Tube or onto a bus to get the rest of the way to where they were going. This prompted outrage amongst the local residents in those areas who were finding their assigned parking spots being taken by commuters. The general complaint was that congestion was (and is) being shifted around, rather than being slayed.
3) Now a pollution charge is scheduled to come into effect. Motorists who own what are deemed to be heavily polluting vehicles will be slapped with a whopping 25 pound charge.
4) I watched on Saturday as Cambridge beat Oxford in the 153rd annual boat race.
Ciao for now. More later.
Tonight I am working on uploading images from my recent work trip to London. My weekend trip to Paris is bundled in the photos. I would also like to write some stories of my trip to Algeria from last December. An analysis of transportation, living conditions, and the historical development of London and Paris is also forthcoming as part of a presentation to be made in the future to the Houston Property Rights Association.
Ciao for now.
I promised everyone in my last post that would write about my trip to Paris. Well, I've decided to lie. I've decided to write a summary of various news topics which have been hitting the headlines while I have been here in the Sceptered Isles. Think of this as my continuation of a previous post where I talked about Silpa Shetty, David Beckham, and the potential breakup of the United Kingdom.
Amongst various happenings have been:
1) An intentional grounding of a cargo ship off the southwestern coast of Britian on January 22nd. I watched this on television with my colleages at lunch time at VLICA. This event provided plenty of fodder for jokes over what had happened. Apparently people came from as far as the Midlands and Kent in order to try to plunder the shipwrecked goods. Meanwhile the police were given new powers to stop people from hitting the beach in hope of making off with the goodies. Word had it that motorbikes were being sold on Ebay within a day after the ship ran aground.
2. Global warming and climate change have been ongoing topics over here, seemingly much more so than back in America. I can only think that it is because parts of Europe actually have glaciers, while glaciers have melted away. Recent winters have been mild for once. There are plenty of pious noises being made about how fossil fuels are running out and how Europeans have gotten their act together about environmental cleanliness.
Still, I have my doubts about the whole matter. Not about warming, mind you. I do submit that world temperatures have gone up about 1+ degree Celsius over the past 100 years or so. Wow! No doubt that there will be some losers over rising seas, which will do doubt submerge some low lying islands and force some people to move.
But here's the kicker. I have my ear to the ground fairly closely and there is no doubt in my own mind that there are more than a few people out there that love the fact that the world is warming up a bit! Global warming? Bring it on!
Another aspect of this debate that governs my thoughts is that several months ago I was in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia on holiday. While there, I visited the National History Museum, which was not too hot. Try visitng the Muzium Negara or the wonderful Islamic Arts Museum instead.
But I digress. While I was in the KL national history museum, I saw a map of the Malay peninsula from 5,000 - 10,000 years ago. The map showed that the Malay peninsulsa was actually a couple dozen miles narrower at that time then it is now. In other words, the seas were higher at that point in time than they are today and covered parts of the landscape.
Meanwhile, Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs and Steel that the Aboriginies (or Indigenous Australians) arrived on the Australian continent tens of thousands of years before when a land bridge still existed between Aussie Land and probably modern day New Guinea. If that was the case, then the oceans have obviously risen since that time (40,000+ years ago) and have pushed that land bridge below the waves. All of this happened while our ancestors were still struggling with figuring out how to create fire.
My point here is that even if we have global warming happening, then is it really going to matter in the big scheme of things? It seems to me that the Earth goes through cycles of warming and cooling regardless of whether we do anything or not. It just so happens that we may be going through a period of warming which we have had no experience with before. And I would rather have global warming than global cooling! It was only after the last Ice Age receeded 12,000 or so years ago that we humans rose to our current heights of civilization.
3. And finally, the current Labour government announced yesterday that homosexual couples would be allowed to adopt as everyone else would. Obviously, this directive angered religious groups, with Islamic faith groups siding with Catholics - imagine that! This was an extension of what is called the Equality Act. I am willing to put money down that religious adoption agencies will start shutting their doors within 2 years rather than comply with government mandates.
4. Meanwhile, a scandal has enveloped the Blair government where the PM's government is accused of selling Honors for Cash. And this from a government which wanted to do away with the hereditary honors and sweep up the House of Lords.
Enough for now. And I do promise my next posting will be about Paris!
Ciao for now. TMW
This past weekend I went to Paris. It was my first trip there and I had a fabulous time, even though I had only 45 or so hours to enjoy the City of Light. I would love to pay a second visit to France in the not too far distant future.
I will write about my visit to Paris in my next blog entry, but I wanted to share with readers my trips from my hotel to the airport, both to London Heathrow and to Paris Charles De Gaulle. I very nearly missed flights at both Heathrow going over and from Charles De Gaulle (nee CDG) coming back. In both situations, trams leaving from hotels to airports split. Going to Heathrow, the Piccadilly line train splits at Acton and either goes to Heathrow or Uxbridge. In the case of CDG, the RER B splits at the stop of Aulnay sous-Bois and either goes to CDG, or goes to the town of Mitry Claye. In both situations, the tram doors shut before the train operator had announced that the tram was headed in the direction which I did not want to go, ergo I had to get off at the next station and head back around.
The situation was freaky in the Heathrow case because the trams were full and I had to pass two trains before I could get on one. Even after I got on a Heathrow bound train, the tram I got on stopped at the Northfields station. It was announced the train was going no further leaving passengers stranded and having to wait for the next tram which arrived about 15 minutes later. While I was waiting for the Air France flight to Paris, I overheard a British man talking to someone about house inspections and he also took 90 minutes to get to Heathrow via the train.
In the case of my CDG adventure, I faced the hair raising scare of not speaking the language. The tram stop I was at had three platforms, leaving me to figure out which platform I had to get back on in order to make it back to the Anlnay sous-Bois station. I managed to get my predicament across to a French woman and did make it in. In both cases, taking the tram took about 1 hour 40 minutes to get to the airport. In the case of London, the distance from Heathrow to Central London is about 15 miles, while for CDG to central Paris is about 17 miles. This meant that rail travel amounts travelling at speeds of about 10 miles per hour.
Sigh. I could have saved myself some time by forking out some more money and catching a bus or van to get me to both places. A taxi service from my hotel in Paris to CDG was only 20 Euros, while taxis from CDG to Paris generally run 35. All I can say is that I have learned my lesson in taking trains to and from airports to city cores. It is cheaper than taking buses or taxis thanks to massive subsidies. If you do, allow yourself at least 2 hours due to potential uncertainties. There is no doubt in my mind that taking a car would have been much faster than taking the train, something I need to keep in mind since it took me 1 hour to go 25 miles from downtown Houston to Bush Intercontental a while back during full bore rush hour traffic.
Enough for now. My next post on Paris will be a happy one!
Well once again rail fans, your favorite form of transportation went haywire here in jolly ol' London. On Tuesday January 23, 2007, London and much of Britain had a dollop of snowfall. London received about 1 inch of snow along with some thin layers of ice which formed in the late night hours. In another blunder, I failed to grab my camera to take photos of Trafalgar Square with its famous Admiral Nelson statue and lions covered with the white stuff.
As it was, once again the horror stories continued with rail transportation. One of my VLICA colleagues lives just west of the town of Slough. She didn't make it in to work on Tuesday. On Wednesday she told us her story over lunch. In what could have been the title of a short story, she said her train had made it just past Slough, then stopped. The train backed up to the town and the passengers were dropped off at the station. There, they were told they would have a bus come by to pick up passengers, but the bus never showed up. Several other trains came and went, but the train conductors refused to stop for the beleagered passengers. Finally my colleague said "it had been three hours to nowhere!" and decided it was time to hang it up and go back home.
The Evening Standard on January 24 read "Beaten by an Inch of Snow". The article went on to detail some of the chaos:
1) At 8am, the East London and Metrpolitan lines from Amersham and Rickmansworth were suspended due to faulty trains or weather problems.
2) Severe delays hit the Central line due to signal failures at Hainault. The Jubilee line had a signal failure at NEasden. Those tracks are shared by the Metropolitan line.
3) Minor delays hit the Victoria and Piccadilly line.
4) Suspensions or delays not weather related hit the Circle Line due to signal failures at Westminster. The Bakerloo line between Elephant & Castle and Paddington had fire alerts.
5) On mainline rail, severe delays hit soutwest trains going into Waterloo, southern routes going into Victoria, southeastern routes going into Charing Cross, and Cannon Street.
Wow! All this from 1-2 inches of snow!
Ciao for now - TMW
This is The Mighty Wizard, London Calling.
The past two days here have seen the makings of a major natural disaster. Massive gale force winds struck the British Isles on Thursday and moved on to the European continent today (Friday January 19, 2007). Here in London, I found myself chasing after my umbrella twice in the mere 4 minute walk from my hotel to the VLICA offices because it was blown out of my hands. Winds gusted up to 80+ miles per hour in the capital, the worst winds to have hit Britain in 17 years by many accounts. The gale force winds continued, reaching Germany and central Europe today. The death toll across all countries is at 47 as of this writing, the worst since 1999 when massive storms took 120 lives. On the economic front, insurers in Britain estimate that the insurance bill will run over 500 million pounds ($1 billion at current exchange rates). I myself saw a large aluminum scaffold drop to the streets below. Fortunately nobody was hurt and some London Bobbies (Metropolitan Police) were on hand to cordon off the area.
On the transportation front, there were over 120 flights cancelled out of Heathrow Airport alone. Cancellations numbered into the hundreds across Europe as a whole. Delays are to continue into today, but the weather seems to be turning colder and much less windy, ergo airport conditions should return to a situation where passengers will mainly be inconvenienced by delays rather than flight cancellations.
CNN reports from back in America that there are icy road conditions back home, but before the pro-rail types gleefully rejoice about snarled automobile traffic jams, they should read what I read in today's papers over here.
Before going any further, many of my co-workers at VLICA's London office came in very late today or not at all. I've watched over the past two weeks as several tram riders have consistently come in after 9:00am on many mornings. Here are some direct quotes out of some of the West End newspapers. The London Paper wrote on its front page headlines on January 18, 2007:
80MPH GALES SPARK TRAVEL MELTDOWN
Here are some words out of their front page story:
"The chaos included a Piccadilly line train smashing into a tree on the line in Hillingdon, west London, and severe delays on all rail services in and out of the capital."
"A power cut closed King's Cross Tube station during rush hour and signal failures on the Victoria and District lines compounded the misery. Train services on all routes will be severely delayed tonight after rail bosses imposed a 50mph limit on drivers."
Meanwhile, the London Lite newspaper had headlines of "Killer gale blows in rail chaos". Trees falling caused cancellations and disruptions on routes from Kent and areas southeast of London into Charing Cross, Cannon Street, and Victoria stations. Tracks between Canterbury and Dover were disrupted. On Friday's edition, the paper carried a story of an ordeal where train passengers were stuck in a train from Milton Keynes to Euston were left stranded in pitch darkness for 8+ hours.
Several deaths were reported both on rail lines and from those travelling by car, where debris from the gale force winds struck passengers.
On a final note, here is a small article that was printed in a giveaway magazine on the street news stands called In London:
TUNNEL OF HATE
It features as one of the most frustrating things about London in almost every poll taken. It's the love-hate relationship we have on a daily basis with London's world-renowned underground network. Vast and well connected, it also has the worst time-keeping records and cost per mile ratios in Europe. How many times have you been late for work because "the wrong type of leaves or snow has fallen" or you have succumbed to the dreaded words of "points failure and late finishing engineering work"? As with any service you expect to get what you pay for so the next time you are delayed, click on the link below to get a refund for that journey. It's quick and easy and as long as you don't tell porky pies you can make quite a lot of money back for your inconvenience.
Ciao for now - TMW
As I wrote in an earlier epistle, I recently was sent on a 2 week work trip by VLICA (the Very Large Industrial Corporation of America). I went for 5 days to London, followed by a trip to the deserts of the Sahara before coming home to Houston. In addition to coming home to a story about zoning ordainances in Houston, I also found myself staring at yet another Metro rail story. This time we find the local public transportation behemoth agency fully determined to get that rail line westward at all costs. And so it was that, predictably, I found myself arguing with the local blogging punditry once again about transportation. With that in mind, I thought that I would share some new insights that I discovered while on my recent far away travels.
First, I left Houston on a flight to London which took off at 7:00pm from Houston Intercontinental Airport on a weekday evening. I left VLICA (which is located in downtown Houston) circa 4:30pm in the afternoon. I took I-45 out to the airport, a trip which was 24+ miles in length and which took 1 hour in very heavy rush hour traffic.
Now then, I have heard from time to time the suggestion that Houston build some kind of high speed rail link from the airport to downtown. Now that I know the distance from downtown to IAH, I can start to put some perspective on what such an idea would demand. First, a light rail line which would directly connect downtown and the airport would probably cost in the neighborhood of $1.2-2 billion, since light rail lines often are often estimated to cost $40-50 million per mile and costs on nearly all transportation infrastructure projects (including roads) are lowballed to the tune of 10-100% before they are actually built. Those figures also do not consider the issue that property, home, and business owners will not receive compensation to move, shutdown, or to pay their legal costs, which means that a pretty large amount of the true social costs are fobbed off on private parties along rail or road routes. Since LR lines are built at grade and have frequent stops, their average speeds (which is what really matters, not their top speeds) come out to about 12-15 mph. That would mean that a full length trip on an LR line running from downtown to the airport would take about 90 minutes to 2 hours. Since Houston is not a big convention center, having a mere 150,000 - 300,000 visitors per year from conventioneers, local political pressures would certainly rise to have frequent stops occur on such a line, since that would be the only way to justify building such a project and for having any hope of obtaining federal funding for such a venture.
In an editorial published in today's Houston Chronicle, Mr. Planner himself, Peter Brown, envisions "convenient high speed rapid transit to...our three major airports". Well CM Brown, if we are going to start talking about high speed rapid transit, then we are talking another ball game altogether. That would mean one of two things. Either that would involve building an LR line with few or no stops (effectively trading ridership levels for speed, and probably giving up federal monies in the process - which is a great way to start rationalizing transportation policy to begin with), or we start talking about building a monorail or heavy commuter rail line with few or no stops. The price tags on either of those options usually start at $100 million per mile and only go up. Ergo, the price tag on a monorail or heavy commuter rail line would start in the $2.5 billion range and go up. Neither project would probably do much for the 90-98% of Houstonians who commute to work, school, or get to social activities via their automobiles.
As things are, most higher end hotels in Houston offer shuttle services via bus from the airports which are flexible, are entirely adequate to deal with the matter, and are far cheaper to boot. I did hear a complaint from a customer engineer at work one day where he said his flight didn't make it into Houston until nearly 1:00am. He was upset that he had to take a taxi from the airport to downtown Houston and that it set him back $65. However, spending well over a billion dollars to accomodate people like this would not necessarily have solved this guy's problem since rail routes in many cities stop operating by 1:00am anyway.
Interestingly, one thing I noticed both on the ride back and forth on this trip and on a previous vacation trip I took to SE Asia in October, is that the stretch of Beltway 8 which leads from I-45 to JFK Boulevard, which is three lanes wide in each direction (I think either 10 or 12 lanes wide when you add in the frontage lanes), is getting rather congested during the daytime hours. This is a far cry from as little as 15 years ago. I can remember zooming along the Beltway with little traffic congestion when I first went to China in 1991.
I find this rather amusing. While I argue with fellow bloggers and while the Chronicle and other pro-rail talking heads go on and on about mandating the spending of billions on a few dozen miles of rail, the roads which are 20+ miles from downtown Houston have already gotten quite busy! The world went right by the pro-rail advocates and they don't even seem to realize how far away the horse has already run from the stable doors.
But I digress. Many bloggers might want to know what London was like? Surely they will have their revenge upon yours truly. Well gentle readers, I went to London on holiday for 2 weeks in 2002, just before the 2002 World Cup and Queen Elizabeth's 50th anniversary ascention celebrations, so I already have experience with using the Tube. My flight landed at Gatwick Airport late in the morning. I had a Lonely Planet Britain guidebook with me from a travels 4 years ago. In order to get to my rather ritzy hotel in central London (paid for on the company dime), I could use the Gatwick Express. The tram would take me from Gatwick airport to the Victoria tube station. From there, I would need to get on the Circle Line to get to the Temple station. From there I could walk perhaps 600 yards to get to my hotel.
It turned out that the Gatwick Express ticket ran me 14 pounds, about $27 at December 2006 exchange rates. That ride, which is a distance of 28 miles, was basically non-stop and took about 30-35 minutes. There is a slower version of the tram which sets you back 9 pounds, but stops several times along the route. In all, I would have to guess that the Gatwick Express has at least $3 billion of captial sunk into it. I had a conversation with a very attractive 30 something British woman and her father while on the tram. Amongst other things, there is plenty of housing stock that is located fairly close to the tram and is probably within hearing range of when trains roll by. In fact we spotted a handful of houses which literally had switching stations or small electrical plants literally at the edge of their front lawns! The layout of many suburbs of London is low density and doesn't look too terribly different from those in Houston. I should make an exception to that statement in that the housing stock, especially the Edwardian and Victorian era homes and apartment blocks, are mostly made of brick and are usually 2-4 stories tall.
So I made it to Victoria station. No this is where things get interesting. When I first went to London in 2002, I had no personal references or experience from which to draw upon when going there. One of my co-workers told me that "You have to rent a car, mate!" So I did. I made arrangements to rent a car, which would have set me back 300 pounds for the two week period. Great! But, still having my doubts, I decided to hold off for one day before doing the car rental. So I landed in Heathrow Airport, then took a shuttle bus to my hotel in Paddington. It was there that I discovered that parking is next to impossible in central London. THERE WAS NO FREE PARKING ANYWHERE IN THE IMMEDIATE AREA! I discovered that parking a car was going to cost 1 pound every 30 minutes. Ouch! Not only that, but there were requirements that one had to move your car every 4 hours or your vehicle would be subject to - as the Brits call it - a clamp down (in other words, it would be towed). The signal was clear. I was in a city which was first started 2,000 years ago in Roman times. The streets and roads of London which are within 4-5 miles of the Thames were all built many hundreds of years ago (though they might have been bombed by the Luftwaffe and repaired). Those streets were (and are) frequently only one lane in each direction, essentially being designed for horse and carriage traffic. Even many major thoroughfares, such as Oxford Street, are often only 2 lanes in each direction, ergo parking space was at a major premium. I could potentially rent a car and spend up to 48 pounds per day in parking fees, or I could take the Tube. The decision was a no brainer.
Bear in mind that not all of London was like this. The main point was that parking in the Paddington area was for the locals - the people who lived there, the local business owners, the Royal Mail and other business deliveries, etc. If you were a mere tourist, then feel free to take the Tube or a Red Double Decker bus to get around. And so I did. Tube tickets in the number 1 and 2 zones ran 1 pound 60, not bad considering the exchange rate was about $1.55 to the pound at the time.
Now then, fast forward 4 1/2 years. What do I see when I get to the Victoria station, carrying 2 fully loaded bags with about 60+ pounds of clothes, laptop, work books, and work gear with me (hint hint about travelling around on foot)? Well, I discover that Tube tickets have gone up, way up! They now cost 3 pounds (about $5.75 - December 2006) for a zone 1 ticket, a whopping 90 percent mark up over the past 4 years! Startled, I went ahead and ponied up the 3 quid and took off for the Temple station, wondering all along what the hell Ken Livingstone, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair have been doing to transportation in London. Did they buckle to the labor unions? Hell, I don't know.
And so it was. I reached the Temple station and proceeded to hike my ass up a hill with all that baggage, dodging the incredibly heavy street traffic, and made the 5-6 minute walk to the hotel.
Now then, the wikipedia entry for the London Underground mentions that the Tube system carries about 2.7 million passengers per day. Since the population of Greater London is estimated to be about 7.5 million (2005 figures), then a reasonable estimate as to how many total transit trips are taken in the Greater London area on an average day is probably around 20 million. That would mean that the Tube is transporting probably around 13-14 percent of all passenger trips taken in Greater London. I did recently read that 7 million people take either the Tube or use the bus system, which would mean that about 4.5 million people per day are taking the bus. That in turn would mean that about 35 percent of all transit trips are taken either by bus or by the Underground. Note that I have not looked up a website which shows all the goods. These numbers are nothing but educated guesses.
Additionally, the Wiki entry for the London Underground mentions that the system is composed of 253 miles (408km) of line, with 55% of that line being above ground. What is notable is that much of the Underground was already in place by 1920, which was around the time that Henry Ford had made automobiles affordable to millions via mass production. If I were to make a SWAG as to how much capital has been sunk into the London Underground since 1863, I would imagine it to be over $100 billion in today's money. The wiki site mentions that 16 billion pounds of taxpayer monies have been promised through the year 2030, which would equate to about $1.3 billion per year. Running the Tube ain't cheap folks!
I made it into VLICA's London office and found that one of my London colleagues, an transplanted Aussie from Perth, lives in Brighton. Now for you Americans out there, Brighton is on the coast. This guy's daily commute is about 47 miles and on a good day takes 1 hour and 10 minutes! So much for the idea that we have to stop building roads and start building tons of mass transit because that will stop people from living dozens of miles away from their places of work.
Now here's the kicker though about this guy's commute. You see, he showed up at 10:30am that morning. Why? because the tram had an electrical problem which caused another rail carriage to stop. That in turn caused all other rolling stock to have to stop, including the one on which my co-worker was on. His commute that day took 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Two of my London colleagues take motorbikes in from their flats. They live 20 and 30 kilometers from the office respectively, and it takes them 40 and 50 minutes respectively to get to the office. When I told my co-workers about the issue that Tube tickets now cost 3 pounds each, one of them said, "Oh, yeah! What a fu***ng rip off! And they don't tell the tourists either!" And what was it that they (the Transport for London agency which runs the public transit system) don't tell the tourists? They don't tell them about the Oyster cards, that's what. A monthly Oyster card will set you back about 90 pounds, about 3 pounds per day for access to the entire system. It has been mentioned that the price discriminatory behavior practiced towards buying old fashioned tickets verses buying passage via Oyster cards is an effort to encourage people to buy into the Oyster card system, but again tourists or business travellers will often have little or no knowledge or incentive to purchase into the regime, especially if they are only going to be in town for a few days. Ergo, the Oyster card system works to effectively fob off costs onto non voters, and that includes non-London Brits. I met up with a girl from Sheffield whom I had not seen in 15 years while I was in town and she didn't know about Oyster cards either.
As it was, there also was a considerable amount of maintenance and engineering work going on during the weekend I was there. As such, several Tube lines were shutdown and would be passengers had to find other ways of getting around.
Enough for now. More is to come on the subject of mass transit in Houston in my next few posts. If you are looking for some entertainment on the London Underground, I would suggest visiting this site. In particular, read this entry which says that the average British commute clocks in at 46 minutes. That is 20 minutes longer than the average commute in Houston. Enjoy!
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
One thing you might not find on any of these stories (correction - this was mentioned in the New York Times obituary, if not others) is that Friedman, who will be lionized by everyone as probably the best known free market economist of the 20th century, made one gigantic error which affects all of us to this very day.
A little known fact about Friedman is that in 1942, Friedman took a U.S. Treasury
post. In that position, he found himself as part of a committee charged with coming up with a tax policy which would help pay for America's massive war mobilization effort.
What Friedman's committee recommended was that Congress extend the income tax policy, which had up until that time been largely a tool of class warfare, and extend it to the masses of the American public. Up until that time the income tax, which had been passed in 1913 via Constitutional amendment, had usually affected only the top 5 or so percent of the American public. What that committee recommended was that the federal government start withholding income taxes on each and every paycheck from broad masses of the working and middle classes. This could be achieveable from an administration aspect because the Congress had already passed Social Security in the 1930's, ergo the federal government already had a system in place to keep track of everyone's income. All they had to do was extend the system that was already in place.
Needless to say, this recommendation was put into place and was awfully successful at what it was intended to do. The federal government's grip of the economy went from about 5 percent of GDP to 20 percent and has never gone down ever since. There was a brief rollback of money flowing into Washington after the war, but that ended in 1950 when Truman got America embroiled in Korea. America has remained in a semi-mobilized state of war since that time.
This endless river of money has also allowed successive Presidents and Congresses to divert ever greater sums of money towards an endless array of programs enacted to supposedly combat various social problems. For example, it is doubtful that we would be having the divisive battle over light rail (or any other kind of rail) if it weren't for the river of money flowing to Washington. This river of money has also been another source of divisiveness because of the fact that the federal government has used that money to roll the states over and over again into doing its bidding, arguably doing much to centralizing political power in Washington. How many times has the federal government told the states to do things or have their highway money taken away from them for example? Remember the issue of raising the drinking age in the 1980's? Many other examples abound.
Enough for now. Enjoy your day.
As the rock band U2 sang in the song Sunday Bloody Sunday, "I can't believe the news today". And so it was that today the news came across the wires that the beloved Aussie Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin met his match with a stingray off the Great Australian Barrier Reef.
Readers of this site will know that one of my first posts involved Irwin's famous incident where he held his infant son in one hand while feeding a 4 meter croc with the other. In that post, I questioned why people would get so freaked out that Irwin would do this while tolerating abortion practices. After all, Irwin was potentially threatening his infant son, but what do people who decide to abort their children do?
I suppose that the easiest thing to do would be to say (like everyone else) that at least Irwin died doing what he loved best. There could hardly be a better way to go. One does have to think about his wife and children. I hope that things turn out well and that they will be looked after.
There is something inside me which wonders whether Irwin might have started to get a bit too adventureous as he got older. The incident with his son and his final trip against the sting ray makes one wonder. Still, I loved watching his shows as much as everybody else. To me it seemed that Irwin was almost a caricature of what everyone wants Aussies to be like - fearless adventurers of the Outback, casually dressed in their khaki colored clothes, and capable of... well taming crocodiles. Then everyone would go back to the ranch, fire up a barbie and have a laugh and a Fosters afterwards.
One wonders what the future would have held for Irwin. I imagine he would have continued to do television. He sure made it a lot more fun to watch that those dreadfullly boring Jacques Cousteau documentaries which we had to put up with as kids in the 1970's. I wonder if one of Irwin's kids will take up the torch in memory of their father in another 20 years? Wouldn't that be a great tribute to their father?
Steve Irwin - RIP
Sorry about my usual paucity of postings, but I can plead that I have been active locally on the anti - rail front. I have been busy both at work and on my off time.
The news came through the other day that two of America's top Generals, Gen. John Abizaid and Peter Pace (Chairman of the Joint Chief's of Staff), testified that it was quite possible for Iraq to slide into civil war. Well, all I can say is that yours truly said on April 30, 2004 that perhaps the Arabs should be allowed to slug it out amongst themselves and let a new political reality emerge. This echoes Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq who told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that a defacto partition of Iraq was more likely than a transition to democracy.
It's pretty sad when I wrote this 28 months ago, but that the political classes - as heavily educated as they are - could not bring themselves to state this after all that taxpayer money and lives were spent in pursuit of imposing democracy from afar.
But the real "surprise" over the past few weeks has been the outbreak of war between an inflamed and rejuvenated Hezbollah and the state of Israel. If nothing else has been driven home by this conflict, then the generally unattentative world at large now knows that:
1) How small physically the State of Israel is. Israel is on a small strip of land. The news that Hezbollah has been firing rockets far into the country has been - I would submit - a real shocker to many, not the least the Israelis.
2) The fact that Hezbollah has been able to fire missiles dozens of miles into Israeli territory raises questions along the line of a) how did they get ahold of such weapons? and b) how did they get the funding to buy such weapons? The usual suspects in the matter are Syria and Iran.
Still, I have written before that this is nothing for the U.S. to get worried about. After all, it is Israel that is being attacked, not the United States. But oh those interest groups and moralists...
Politics, sigh...what a joy.
As a libertarian, I have been opposed to my country's war in Iraq from the start. I was watching an old CNN TV series which aired a number of years ago, called "Cold War." I was watching an episode on the Vietnam war which showed Clark Gifford, who replaced Robert McNamara as President Johnson's Secretary of Defense. During the interview with Gifford, Gifford started asking questions of Johnson's cabinet and of Johnson himself like:
"Mr. President and cabinet, what is our strategy to win the war?"
"We don't have one."
"What are we doing to organize a strategy to win the war?"
"We haven't done anything to do this."
"Then if we have no strategy to win the war, then what are we doing to withdraw from Vietnam?"
And so on. And so it goes with Iraq. Ergo, this is why I was opposed to the war in the first place.
Having stated all this, I was a happy man to find out Thursday morning that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed by American guided bombs. I had no idea who al-Zarqawi was until the beheading of (an arguably already dead) Nicholas Berg. The beheadings, the bombings of the Amman Jordan wedding receptions, the videos of al-Zarqawi holding a hot gun and needing help in how to operate the weapon. There was something about al-Zarqawi that made me go grrrrrr! Upon hearing the news, I found myself wishing that someone had pissed in his mouth and beheaded him before he was shown to the world.
More to the point, this wasn't even al-Zarqawi's war, just as it really isn't America's war. This is Iraq's war. In this article posted by The Atlantic, it is made clear that al-Zarqawi was a small time thug as a teenager who drifted to Afghanistan, then bounced around the Middle East until he became something of a stooge for the Iranian policy of trying to influence and control the political outcomes in Iraq. As usual, it was a U.S. government pronouncement that al-Zarqawi was a link between Al-Queda and Saddam Hussein (?) which brought al-Zarqawi into the spotlight.
The article also makes the case that Osama bin Laden didn't care very much for al-Zarqawi, in particular, al-Zarqawi's campaign of war against Shiite Muslims, the mosque bombings, the beheadings. All the markings of a low rent jackass version of Saddam Hussein.
But he who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Al-Zarqawi lived dangerously, had no state apparatus to protect him, was operating in a foreign country a la Che Guavara in his later years, and was a wanted man back home. Moreover, it seems that the U.S. had a reasonable idea where he was operating from for a while. In contrast, Osama bin Laden is smart. He hides out in friendly, remote territory. He never lives dangerously, and has built an apparatus which will outlive him. The differences between the behavior of the two men really needs to be noted, as it says much about them. Al-Zarqawi made much of his close scrapes and his cat like nine lives, but he finally was dealt a set of cards which went against him. As my own U.S. Senator, John Cronyn stated, Mr. al-Zarqawi has made his last video. The only good jackass is a dead jackass.
The word came over today's news wires that Italian multi billionaire, the perma-tanned media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi,stepped down from power after holding the Italian PM office for 5 years. His party lost the recent general elections to his rival (and former PM) Romano Prodi.
What is interesting is that Berlusconi, along with Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra, and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi., have all managed to hold on to the highest political offices in their respective countries for 4-5 years apiece. This feat is a near miracle in each of these countries. Thailand has been a country which until democracy finally took root in the 1990's resulted in 19 military coups since 1932, while both Italy and Japan both possess democratic political systems which have tended to inhibit a leader from forming governments which would last more than 1-2 years. In the case of Italy, the issue was (and is) that the country has a proportional representation system which resulted in something like 55 governments being formed since World War II. In Japan, the Liberal Democrats have had a near permanent lock on power since 1955. Koizumi is the first PM that I can recall which held the top job long enough to have to be "forced" to step down as per party rules of the Liberal Democratic party. That in itself is a curious arrangement, since the party is requiring Kozumi to step down and not the Japanese public.
My speculations on the future of these three men is that Berlusconi and PM Thaksin are both going to continue to contest the political arena even after they step down. Both men are multi billionaires and de facto lead large politcal parties. They have led their respective parties both in power and out of power and will probably be of significant influence behind the scenes even after having to step down. The fate of Koizumi is a bit more difficult to imagine, but I don't see him resigning a seat in the Japanese Diet. He is a lifelong politican and once in, you're in for good. I suspect that he may play musical chairs and be offered another very high government post in a future LDP government until he retires, in a way that might resemble the fate of a former Japanese PM Kiichi Miyazawa.
Ciao for now.
On Friday, February 24, 2006, Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel,came to Houston. He lectured at the Hotel Intercontinental in the Galleria area.
I had read in the Houston Chronicle that Diamond was coming to town the previous Sunday, but because of work I had neglected to purchase tickets before the event. Gambling that there would still be seats available, I drove over to the hotel and sure enough, there were tickets still to be purchased. Tickets were either $34 or $54, but there were only the $54 tickets available. But for a Mighty Wizard like me, that didn't matter. I simply conjured up the money and in I went! :)
Professor Diamond's visit was put on by an organization that calls itself The Progressive Forum.Any time I hear the word "Progressive", the antenna immediately goes into warp drive, as I instantly start wondering what kind of progressive enslavement is being advocated. Progressive Forum bills itself as non-partisan, but judging from the crowd and some laughs that were generated when the words "Property Rights" were bandied about, it wasn't hard to guess where the sympathies of this organization belong to. To boot, the Forum has David Crossley on its' board. Sigh...
We'll set these matters aside for now, as the real star of the night was Professor Diamond. I have to admit that I had heard of GG&S a number of years ago, but had other issues on the mind. I finally broke down and purchased the book about 3 months ago. Diamond's book is a stellar read. As of this writing, I have finished about 325 pages and am about to get to the parts of the book where Diamond writes about how China became Chinese and how Sub-Saharan Africa became Black. Fascinating topics. In reading GG&S, one comes to the conclusion that Diamond falls into what is sometimes referred to as the "geographical determinism" camp of human development (or lack of thereof). I hope to finish the book in another couple of weeks and have yet to purchase Diamond's follow up book, Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,but based on overall reviews that I have read, I would have to say that the evening's talk was something of a summary (or rehasing) of what Diamond has to say in Collapse.
Before going any further about Diamond and his works, I will write here my hand written notes that I took during the lecture:
1. The attendance of the event was somewhere around 1,000 people.
2. The organizer of the Forum, Randall Morton, introduces Diamond and makes a statement that Diamond, aged 68, is "healthy, wealthy, and wise". After Diamond himself takes the stage, he says, "I am healthy, I am not wealthy, and I will leave it to you to judge whether I am wise."
3. Diamond tells a story of his first visit to Houston back in 1956. He went as a debater for his university where two people would go and debate opponents at other schools around the country (William F. Buckley did this as an undergrad at Yale. Such events were big hit items back in the 1950's). He and his partnet went to Texas Southern (TSU), and went up against their opposition, one of whom was a woman. That woman had fiery and impassioned personality and many thought she carried the day. That woman was Barbara Jordan.
4. Why write a book about why socieites succeed or collapse? Why did some civilizations build cities in jungles or the desert, then abandon them?
5. Diamond tells the stories of Norweigans in Greenland who settled circa A.D. 984 and whose civilization of roughly 5,000 members died out circa A.D. 1440. Meanwhile, the Norse who settled Iceland survived and are amongst the most successful people in the world today. Why?
6. Diamond elaborated about the story of Japan. The Japanese have managed to survive for 14,000 years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a wood / timber shortage which was handled via rationing and the creation of wood / forest plantations.
7. Diamond contrasted the social choices made between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, an interesting comparison as both nations occupy the island of Hispaniola. The Haitians have cut down all their trees while the Dominicans have lush forests. The Haitians are extremely poor, while the Dominicans have a living standard in the low several thousand dollar range per capita. Why?
8. The story of China. Is there an Ecocide issue going on?
9. Diamond identifies five different major issues that go far in determining the fates of human societies:
A) Human / Environment interaction
B) Climate change
C) Enemies - or lack of thereof. He briefly speculated on the collapse of the Roman Empire, an issue of major historical signifcance.
D) Friends / trading partners - and potential problems with them.
E) The social institutions and the role of elites.
10. Diamond spoke of the fate of Easter Island, which was settled between the years 800 - 1680 A.D. It looks as though a number (13?) tribes fought over wood and other resources until the entire civilization died out. He joked about how students at his U.C.L.A classes said that property rights would have solved this problem (drew huge laughs from the crowd - but not from me), or that technology would bail them out (again big laughs from this largely progressive crowd).
11. He mentioned that a social choice the United States has made is that air quality is about 30 percent better than it was in 1970, despite the fact that we have 100 million more people, some 50 million more vehicles on the roads and that we drive farther than we did 35 years ago. This because of various Clean Air Acts.
12. A biggie here? Why do some societies solve their problems and others don't?
A big issue is whether a society's elites end up suffering from the broader problems of the society, or whether they can insulate themselves from the bad things that go on around them. Diamond gave the example of how in Los Angeles, the wealthy have gated communities with their own private security patrols. They send their kids to private schools, drink bottled water (or other water substitutes), have private health insurance, and live in areas where environmental threats are relatively low (as they can be in earthquake prone SoCal). This is in contrast to those who have to face the the broader problems that involve crime and police departments, public schooling, and so forth. Diamond also mentioned the example of Holland, where in 1953 the North Sea flooded broad areas and killed thousands. Among the dead were rich, poor, and political elites. When the politicians were affected, you bet your last dollar something was done to deal with this. He also spoke of Louisiana and the costs of inaction.
13. Diamond thinks that America would do well to rethink our core values of rugged individualism and spoke of the need to engage the world and not pursue isolationism. He spoke of our social choice of fighting in Iraq vis - a - vis the cost of about (in his view) $25 billion to bring malaria and AIDS under control (really - that cheap?). He also thinks that America is mishandling its forests and fisheries. If that is the case, then it would do well to remember that a large swath of America's forests are - and have been since the time of President Theodore Rosevelt - under the management of... the United States federal government.
14. Diamond finished up by saying that he is positive about the future. He is positive because the past is different from today. We do have more people, better weapons, but also better tools. Technology is morally neutral. He thinks we are in for some tough times involving energy, as he said that the oil companies are not spending the money exploring for oil and that we would be in the best position to know how much is out there (not true for the first statement, true for the second).
Diamond would up by his talk by saying that one thing we have in our favor is that we have the media and that globalization can be positive in that we can learn from the mistakes made by other societies. This also holds as we have archaeologists and historians who can teach us about the past and lessons the past holds for us.
There was a Q&A session after Diamond finished, with some of the usual blatherers who asked questions that had little or nothing to do with what was being discussed. One woman asked - at length mind you - what he thought about the effects of children taking Rilatin. I went to get my copy of GG&S signed and went home to digest what this man had to say. More on that later.
Ciao for now.
The Bushies have been pusing Democracy, Democracy, Democracy throughout the world as a remedy for the world's ailments. This is part of the overall script that American conservatives have been pushing for a while now, all in an effort to offer the American public a reason as to why they should be put in office. We defeated the Soviets, now Saddam, now we will make noises against Iran, and we have pushed for democracy in Palestine for time immemorial.
Well, well, well. It seems that the Palestinians finally decided to hold an election and the avowedly "Destroy Israel" Islamic party Hamas won. Now the Bushies are upset. Funny thing this democracy business. It's a great thing, that is until the United States government doesn't get the outcome it wants in some foreign election. Craig Hines, a Houston Chronicle columist who fits right in with the somewhat liberal tint of the modern day Chronicle editorial board, wrote of similar thought to mine. Hines also wrote of the issue that the U.S. government apparently gave $2 million to the Fatah movement (Yassir Arafat's movement) and former government during the middle of the election season, ostensibly for non political purposes. Yeah right.
In our own hemisphere, there is the outcome of elections in Bolivia. There, Bolivians elected a coca grower into office. I am sure that the Bushies and all you pro drug war types out there are just fuming over that outcome. What! How dare those people in all these places end up not electing our guys and not see things from America's point of view!
I am a religious agnostic, and unlike most Americans I don't have any special sentiment towards Israel. I get burned out by the rantings of the Charles' Krauthammers' of the world who go apocolyptic over anything having to do with Israel. Those Palestinians are just waiting to wipe the Jewish state off the map. What has Israel done for America? NOTHING! They have no petroelum or other mineral resources, they have (or had) a semi-socialist economy, and American intervention on Israel's behalf has brought nothing but headaches for all the Wilsonian worldview types.
The word has it that Condi Rice is going to hop on another jet airplane at American taxpayer expense and go talk to the Europeans about cutting off the money to any Hamas led government which doesn't forswear the destruction of the Jewish state. The problem with this idea is that the Palestinians really don't have much money to begin with. The Israeli settlements, which started after the 1967 six day war, has cut the would be Palestinian state into enclaves. I cannot think of any other nation state or country in the world which is composed of an area of land that effectively would look like a slice of cheese with holes in it. It is diffcult to get any economic activity going when you cannot reap peace, stability, or economies of scale.
One could muster a very strong argument that recent events have been brewing for a while. The Fatah movement was widely considered to be corrupt. So, following the good practices of democracy, throw those corrupt bums out and replace them with a new set of corrupt bums. As the Krauthammers of the world endlessly decry, Yassir Arafat and company turned down the Bill Clinton brokered peace agreement where the Palestinians would get large swathes of the West Bank (but maybe they were thinking they could get a better deal, perhaps?). Well, if the Fatah movement didn't get them anywhere after all these decades, then why not vote for Hamas? So put that in your democracy pipe and smoke it. I have gotten rather bored with keeping up with politics in recent years, but I just can't wait to read what the pro Israeli talking heads will have to say now.
Moreover, on a somewhat related but larger topic, I have a warning for the conservatives having to do with their worldwide crusades to stamp out terrorism and bring democracy everywhere. Namely that America has about 30 years left as the world's greatest undisputed power. After that, it's all over. Both India and China will have large enough economies to field armed forces which conceivably could contest American moves in the Eurasian landmass if they were to wish to do so. The Asia Pacific century has begun.
Good riddance to 2005. It has been a tough year for Houston and the Gulf Coast in general. We took our own near miss with Hurricane Rita and we had to deal with well over 100,000 evacuees from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Although there has been a spate of crime recently, we here in Houston can clearly reply to the old saw, "Houston, you have a problem" with a resounding, "Yes, and we handled the problem with aplomb!"
In reading the usual blah, blah, blah over the previous year, I can wholeheartedly link to the website of the yearly list of annoying and banished words and phrases. So, if you are a person of interest, You can freely hunker down and visit this surreal list of words which I have to admit I have used a few of. Another site of interest was a story on Yahoo the popularity of hookah bars. Oh my goodness, people are discovering that they like smoking! Why, don't we have laws in place to BAN such activities? Why such despicable activities need to be stomped out once and for all!
Enough for this epistle. More later. It reminds me that you should never try to control such things as consensual adult behavior. Sigh...
Ciao for now - TMW
Sorry about not posting, but I have to admit that I had to take some time off in order to recharge the batteries. There is a lot to talk about, so I hope to get posting again on a regular basis.
This week, a fair swath of the news coverage has been on the December 26, 2004 Tsunami which struck the countries surround the Indian Ocean basins. From following links on Arts and Letters Daily, I found two articles on the post Tsumani recovery, one from the New York Times and the other from the Washington Times. Both papers, which are pretty far apart from each other on the ideology scales, reported that only about 20 percent of the 2 million or so people whom were rendered homeless from the waves are now in some form of permenant housing. Moreover, untold more numbers of people are still living in makeshift tents. The situations surrounding people getting reemployed in new jobs, or perhaps going back to their old lines of work, is a bit more mixed.
In general, the tsunami and the two hurricanes have bred the usual bureaucratic nightmares and political animosity, mostly over money and holding disaster victims hostage. The Washington Times article reported that Oxfam apparently had to pay close to $1 million to customs officials for the simple privilege of getting 25 four wheel drive vehicles into Sri Lanka in order to distribute aid. It seems that every Third World kleptocrat out there instantly became aware that a pile of money and goods were coming down the pipeline and were more than happy to do whatever it took to make sure that their retirements were padded.
A brief detour: America for that matter hasn't been too different. CNN carried coverage several weeks ago where there has been local politicking in New Orleans over where FEMA (nee taxpayer) paid for trailer parks, meant to provide temporary shelters for Hurricane Katrina victims, were going to be located. If there were going to be lots of people whose skin color or ethnicity was different from yours, then you could complain to your local City Council member and that councilmember would do his / her damndest to make sure that those trailer parks were not going to be put in your area. The question then remains... where are those trailer parks going to go and what was the point of buying them in the first place if the whole project was going to be held up by Louisiana politics?
But back to the tsunami: To read the stories on the ground from both newspapers above, the recovery efforts have been hindered by aid groups coming and then leaving after having promised help? So why did those aid groups leave after promising help and not delivering it? The New York Times article doesn't say too much about that.
One shining light in all of this is that the fighting in Banda Aceh in far northwestern Indonesia, which was physically closest to the epicenter of the earthquakes which caused the tsunami, has stopped. Rebels have given up their guns and have decided to enter the political arena to contest elections, but both sides eye each other warily. Things don't look quite so rosy in Sri Lanka betwen the Tamil Tigers and the government there.
The Washington Times article goes more in depth over the heavy handedness of both Non Government Organizations (NGO's), and the United Nations. While the U.S. military rushed in with a few ships to help stranded Indonesians, the U.N. bureaucrats were holding press conferences about their indispensibility for handling crisises in the world. But don't governments everywhere always like to hold press conferences?
One idea I have thought of would be that seaside towns and villages would either be required to not build within 1/4 mile of shorelines, or to put up defensive walls which would - if not be able to withstand the full power of a tsunami wave - then at least give some time for people to run away from the disaster. Sadly, I don't think that such an idea will fly in many places and people seem to be putting their hopes in new tsunami detection systems being run by Asian governments. If I were living in an Asian country, it would be a good time to start fingering those prayer beads.
The World at Large
Good news: My webhosting service is offering a whopping 50 mb more of space for this website. Ergo, I think I will try to start posting again.
Over the past two days, the Houston Chronicle has run stories in its business section (probably the best part of an otherwise awful newspaper) having to do with unemployment. In the Monday May 23, 2005 edition, the Chronicle ran a story entitled "Wages starting to outrun inflation", which stated that the U.S. unemployment rate is currently at 5.2%. Of course, the Federal Reserve Board is on the lookout for bottlenecks in the economy and will most likely continue to raise interest rates over the upcoming year.
Yesterday May 24, the Chron ran a story entitled "Work search taking longer", which seems essentially to contradict the story run the day before. The article stated that long term unemployment amongst middle aged women and older people in general seems to be rising.
I was an economics major while in college and unemployment was, and indeed always has been, one of those topics that fascinates me. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistently measured unemployment with the following statements:
The BLS counts employment and unemployment (of those over 16 years of age) using a sample survey of households. (http://www.bls.gov/cps/cps_faq.htm) In BLS definitions, people are considered employed if they did any work at all for pay or profit during the survey week. This includes not only regular full-time year-round employment but also all part-time and temporary work. Workers are also counted as "employed" if they have a job at which they did not work during the survey week because they were:
* On vacation;
* Taking care of some other family or personal obligation (for example, due to child-care problems);
* On maternity or paternity leave;
* Involved in an industrial dispute (strike or lock-out); or
* Prevented from working by bad weather.
Typically, employment and the labor force include only work done for economic gain. Hence, a homemaker is neither part of the labor force nor unemployed. Nor are full-time students nor prisoners considered to be part of the labor force or unemployment. The latter can be important. In 1999, economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger estimated that increased incarceration lowered measured unemployment in the United States by 0.17 percentage points between 1985 and the late 1990s. In particular, as of this writing (2004) 3 percent of the US population is incarcerated.
On the other hand, individuals are classified as "unemployed" if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks, and are currently available for work. The unemployed includes all individuals who were not working for pay but were waiting to be called back to a job from which they had been temporarily laid off.
Finally, it is possible to be neither employed nor unemployed by BLS definitions, i.e., to be outside of the "labor force." These are people who have no job and are not looking for one. Many of these are going to school or are retired. Family responsibilities keep others out of the labor force. Still others have a physical or mental disability which prevents them from participating in labor force activities.
Children, the elderly, and some individuals with disabilities are typically not counted as part of the labor force in and are correspondingly not included in the unemployment statistics. However, some elderly and many disabled individuals are active in the labor market.
Ergo with the caveats listed above, I would like to bring up the following blurbs which were carried by Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen over at the Marginal Revolution about 2 months ago. Cowen made an entry dated March 31, 2005 entitled "Sweden fact of the day", which linked to a
Daily Telegraph post stated that a Swedish trade official blurted out that the official unemployment rate of 5.5% in Sweden was masking a "real unemployment" rate of 20 - 25%!
The trade official stated that the real unemployment rate included many who were drawing long term sick pay benefits and state granted retirement benefits. The article went on to claim that a whopping quarter of working age Britons had no job, but that the Blair government was paying 2.7 million Britons long term sickness benefits. Alex Tabarrok posted this entry into TMR about American disability, noting that Americans claiming disability rose from 3.8 million in 1984 to 7.7 million in 2000. Also, to reiterate the above statement, workers who are "disabled" are not counted as being unemployed.
Finally, when I get home from work everyday, I drive down some busy streets of the Galleria area in Houston where I live. I often see a number of individuals who are holding signs begging for money. They are mostly white people. What amazes me is how hard they work at it. I once drove past a woman who was begging at 6:15pm and saw her again two blocks down the road at midnight!
Enough for tonight.
Ciao for now. TMW
As the world knows, last week the Labor Party won the Parliamentary elections of 2004 and Tony Blair won a third term as Prime Minister of the U.K.
I took a course in European politics when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Houston. There are some curious features to British political life, amongst them are:
1. There has been a growing centralization of political power in the Prime Minister's post and in the cabinet over the 20th and 21st centuries. This has been at the expense of so - called "backbenchers" in Parliament.
2. There has long been an officially recognized code of secrecy in British decision making. Surprises result, both good and bad. For example, Britain has an "Official Secrets Act". Other examples of secrecy in decision making include Churchill's decision not to allow publication of wartime figures on how many ships had been lost in the Battle of the Atlantic to Nazi U-Boats.
Another example was what was Tony Blair's first major act when he gained power in 1997 - the decision to grant the Bank of England decision making independence from the grasp of Parliament. The Bank had been under the thumb of Parliament for 300 + years. The markets cheered, as it was (for all of the flaws of central banks) a decent move. Nonetheless, it came as a complete surprise to everyone, not to mention the recently booted out Conservatives, who lamblasted the move.
3. There has been a lot of reading that the election was a referendum on the war with Iraq. I think Blair will lay down the reigns of power and hand them to Gordon Brown, but my thoughts are that it will be because the British public will have become tired of Blair rather than because of various other reasons given. Although there are exceptions, Democratic publics often tend to tire out of the same faces in executive branch jobs after about 10 - 12 years, no matter how popular the office holder is. This isn't quite so true in legislative jobs, where office holders in city councils, state or federal posts can hold their jobs for decades. This seems to hold true for Britain.
4. One of the most curious features of British political life is that the Prime Minister personally has a very thin claim to legitimacy. The reason I say this is that PM's get elected to a single constituency of perhaps 90,000 - 100,000 people (Blair's is a constituency called Sedgefield) out of the 650 or so seats in the Parliament. In other words, the PM cannot truly claim to represent a national constituency. The PM is simply the chosen leader of the party who wins the most seats in the election. The one office that has the greatest constituency in Britain in the Lord Mayor of London, who represents 8 million people (12+ million if you include the suburbs).
In the U.S on the other hand, the Presidency is the only nationally elected official in the land. The seat is gained by winning the most electoral votes amongst all 50 states. It is not truly democratic (as Al Gore can tell you), but the Presidency has a form of federal legitimacy.
5. It has been frequently commented that British people often do not participate in the political process as much as people's in other democracies. The general idea is that British people will stay clear of the political process for years, then pass judgement in their elections.
6. It is also interesting that the British election cycle is (in some ways) mercifully short. The "election season" lasts a matter of a couple months at most, then bam! the election occurs. None of this months and months of waging war the way we Americans do when it comes to campaigning for the White House. There are pros and cons to such an approach. I won't deal with them here.
Enough for now. Ciao
Well, well, well. It seems I haven't been writing too much in my weblog lately! Actually, I had to take a bit of a break from this writing business. It was a combination of things - heavy work stress, along with some political activism, and writing for other issues. A lot of things have happened, so I will not try to immediately catch up on what has gone on. Rather, I will go about touching things as they come.
One good thing that has happened is that my web hosting service has added 50mb to my space available on the TMW site. One reason I was trailing off writing in my weblog had to do with the amount of space that previous posts were taking up. The main bulk of my website has to do with images of trips I have taken, along with photo stories. That was the first and foremost thing I ever wanted to do with my site. The weblog was secondary. But I feel like writing again, so on it goes:
Today, April 30 2005, marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the capitulation of the Republic of South Vietnam regime to the North Vietnamese Communists which ended the Vietnam war. I was 9 years old and vividlly remember watching the television at dinner time that night. I will never forget watching as the last of the American helicopters left the American embassy in Saigon, with hordes of desperate Vietnamese clutching at them as they left. No doubt, it was a day of national humiliation for the United States. The History Channel has carried some moving documentaries as to what that surreal world was like in the final days before the 140,000 strong NVA closed in on the city.
And so it was. America absorbed the Vietnamese refugees. Since Houston has absorbed about 70,000 of them, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of them. They are a curious and varied lot, with many just grateful for being here. One of my co-workers, who happens to be one day younger than I am, went back to Vietnam this past year and brought over a 20 year old girl for his wife. One of our 20-something interns a number of years ago moved out with a white boyfriend and earned the anger (i.e was disowned) by her family in the process. Another Vietnamese girl, who I liked for her hot pepper temperment, would only visit Vietnamese doctors.
The United States proceeded to put a 20 year stranglehold on Vietnam for its insouciance. Since nothing ever happens under Communism (I know from personal experience, since I worked 17 months in China), Vietnam continues to be a place where time stands still. Vietnam will never be a place where huge numbers of patents and inventions come from. It will never contribute cultural ideas to the world (though Vietnamese Americans will do so), and it will not be a place where many will want to visit. Nothing has changed in 30 years and if the Vietnamese government doesn't give up its ways, then nothing will change in the next 30 years either. It will take a giving up of pride to admit that they were wrong to do that however, and people who go into politics hardly ever admit to doing the wrong thing. But admitting the error of its ways has its advantages. Look at China...
Ciao for now.
This post is about 2 weeks late, but the subject concerning the death of former Chinese Communist leader Zhao Ziyang was something that I could not simply let slip by. As some of you may be aware, Zhao Ziyang passed away on January 17, 2005, after suffering a series of strokes.Zhao was premier of China from 1987 - 1989, and held the post during the turbulent spring of 1989, when China erupted in chaos which threatened Chinese Communist Party rule. Zhao sympathized with the student and worker protestors, declaring that he was "too late" when he went to meet them in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. As Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Yang Shangkun, Li Peng, and the other party elders decided to strike, Zhao was put under house arrest and the dirty business of crushing dissent commenced. It has been noted everywhere that Mr. Zhao was never seen again in public.
It was on this last issue that I wanted to shed a little bit of illumination to gentle readers as to why Mr. Zhao was placed under house arrest instead of being executed for "treason" or some such other charge. The policy of the Chinese Communist Party of keeping political leaders who happen to lose out in power struggles under house arrest instead of killing them was instigated under Deng Xiaoping. Deng was dethroned three times in his long career when Mao Zedong ruled China. Deng, whose son was paralyzed during the Cultural Revolution when he jumped out of a building to avoid being murdered by Red Guards, obviously had long memories of the viscious paybacks, nursed desires for vengence against personal enemies within the Party, the witch hunts, social campaigns, merciless backstabbing, and political infighting that endlessly roiled the Party when Mao ruled.
When Deng gained power in 1978, he set into motion the policy of simply keeping party leaders and their families under house arrest - i.e. keeping them quiet - if they lost power. He also did this to lower tiered allies of the fallen leader. Deng also set up a more "career path" oriented and professionalized party during his reign. This was designed not only to try to rule China better, but to bleed off some more of the intensity and bitter competition for power within the Party that resulted in the behavior I described above. By offering more predictable "growth paths" and trying to get older leaders who had reached their career peaks to retire instead of holding on to power forever, Deng strongly hoped that such mechanisms would help the Party hold on to power. That is truly what Deng wanted more than anything else in the world. Deng Xiaoping truly believed in the Chinese Communist Party - the Party he had given his life to - even if he believed that Communism itself was a failure and that it needed to be dismantled. Ergo, it was under the ageis of this policy that Zhao was put under house arrest and silenced for the last 15 years of his life. It is notable that Zhao's family is still alive and were even able to publicly comment about Zhao to the press at the time of his death.
In the end though, I still have to judge that even though many Chinese may remember Zhao with fondness, I still would have to say that in the end, Zhao didn't end up making any difference. We are only left with "what might have been's" when considering Zhao and his life.
Ciao for now.
Doubtless, people all over the world are now aware of the vast tsunami that resulted from massive 9.0 level earthquakes that shook the southwestern coasts of Indonesia. The awesome waves from the tsunami reached all the way to the eastern coasts of Madagascar and Somalia, a distance of more than 3.000 miles. The death toll, initially estimated at 13,000, climed to 22,500 by this morning and now the numbers are up to 33,000. The final estimate will probably be somewhere around 60,000 or more. That does not include those who may die from disease outbreaks like malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and other ailments that will result from human corpses decomposing. Also, others will suffer from a general lack of adequate medical care, food, water and so forth.
Much has been made of the news in Thailand, particularly Phuket. When I first visited Phuket when I worked in China, the furthest thing in my mind was that anything such as a massive tsunami would ever hit these islands. Everyone knows that there is a rainy season from June to early October, but nobody ever expected something like this. One of the attractions of visiting Thailand (and for that matter Malaysia) was this general perception that the country generally didn't have storms or hurricanes like the islands in the Caribbean. One needs to remember that all of these countries are poor. Hence no early warning systems or storm walls though that may change after this.
Again, the last thing on my mind was that some massive storm would hit that strip of paradise. I met a Thai woman who sold me some CD's and DVD's while I was walking about one morning. There is no doubt in my mind that her businesses (she had three small businesses) were all wiped out by the storm.
One tragic story out of many was that King Bhumibhol's (the King of Thailand) 21 year old grandson was killed during the storm. He was riding a jet ski out on the water when the storm hit. Nature, unlike the political classes, does not discriminate when it comes to picking out victims. Neither social class, high powered prestiegous jobs, nor money count for anything when Nature shows her wrath.
As always, governments screw things up just when they need to get out of the way. I was just watching CNN tell a story of charities which are having to get through all of the red tape in India to give assistance. Apparently, the Indian government has passed a law that requires that if certain foreign drugs are to be sold or distributed, one needs a license to do so. So, any medical drugs coming into the country are going to require permits just to dispense the drugs. This is the case even if the drugs coming in are to be given out in the name of charity. God bless...
Ciao for now, and don't forget to give blood, money, or supplies to charities who will be helping victims.
Recently, I've been grateful to have gotten some comments to some postings to my weblog. Unfortunately, I've also started getting visited by spam robots who happen to be posting more than a few comments to various entries to my weblog. Amongst the most prevalent were advertisements for Texas Hold'em Poker, advertisements for generic drugs, and an occasional sex related robot post. For about a week, I've been dealing with these posts by deleting them. Unfortunately, it has become apparent that these advertisement comments are not going away anytime soon and regretably have decided to do away with having anyone make any comments on any of my web posts.
Here are some of my observations from days of being a couch potato for the past two weeks and indulging in my Olympics' romance:
1) Did anyone notice that there are athletes that are now competing for countries that they are not from? Merlene Ottey, a legend in the women's track and field sprints from Jamaica, was competing for Slovenia! I wonder how much money Ms. Ottey made from that?
To once think that I so admired Ms. Ottey, as did people in Jamaica. She is called "The Lion Queen" in her home country. But I also happened to be glad that Ms. Ottey didn't make it to the finals in either the 100 or 200 meters. It's entirely a farce that she's still out there at age 44! Go home Merlene!
2) I choked up big time watching Fani Halkia of Greece win the women's 400 hurdles in 52:82 seconds. The hometown crowd went wild!
3) I watched Hicham El Gerrouj of Morocco finally get his just deserts in winning both the men's 1,500 and 5,000. Not since Paavo Nurmi of Finland in 1924 has that feat been pulled off.Hicham finally makes up for running tactically poor races in both Atlanta and Sydney, where he finished out of the medals both times.
In the 5,000 El Gerrouj ran a 13 minute 14 second time, with the final mile in 4 minutes and 1 second! The Kenyans and Ethopians were absolutely stupid to think that they could run their typical races and simply kick at the end with Hicham in the race. El Gerrouj is the greatest miler ever, having run 3:43 for the distance.
4) John Capell of the United States was kicked off of the U.S. sprint relay squads for testing positive for marijuana. Well, our last two Presidents who have sat in the White House smoked pot, but I guess that didn't disqualify them from getting elected...
Come to think of it, maybe proof of smoking pot should be a formal disqualifier from seeking political office. In this day and age, it sure would weed out (no apologies made for the intentional pun) the number of schmucks who would enter the fray.
5) I'm sure that too much has been written about the U.S. men's basketball team. We don't own the gold medal in the sport and basketball is a team sport. Moreover, the skill level of players abroad has been climbing.
6) Maurice Greene: I've always liked Maurice Greene. I've always enjoyed watching him strut around and prance before and after his races, although at age 30, he doesn't do this so much as he used to when he was younger.
Athletically, Greene has always run like a bull. He always runs has races strong, running hard all the way through. But injuries bit into him slightly this time. Nonetheless, he narrowly missed coming back from behind to gun down Gatlin in the 100, and nearly saved the U.S. 4x100 relay from poor baton passing. In both situations, Greene lost by only .01 second. In all, it was a tough Olympics for the Greatest of All Time, but that's because he sets his own standards so high. Way to go Maurice!
7) My favorite Olympic story was watching Shawn Crawford race a zebra! The zebra won, but Crawford subsequently accused the zebra of executing a false start!
8) The men's Olympic Marathon: Americans won a bronze in the women's race by Deena Kastor. Now adopted American, Ned Khazedzi wins the silver for the American men. Times: Stephan Baldini of Italy wins in 2:10:54, followed by Mr. Ned in 2:11:29, and Brazil's Lini (who was run into by a protestor at 36 kilometers, arguably costing him the race) in third at 2:12:11. The U.K's John Brown, who finished 4th in Sydney, finished in 4th AGAIN here in Athens in 2:12:30. Some guys just don't have any luck.
The Kenyans and Ethopian men were no factors in this race. The world record holder from Kenya, Paul Tergat, ran 9th in 2:14:44, after saying 2:15 would be the winning time. America's Alan Culpepper got by a number of guys at the 333 meter Olympic track, including 1992 Olympic Champ from Korea, Li Bong Ju. Culpepper ran 2:15:25, while Lee ran 2:15:30.
9) I watched plenty of Women's Volleyball and Beach Volleyball. I just love watching those tall lean bodies. Sigh...
And so it was. I always hate to see the Olympics end. As much as I hate the corruption, taxes, and money grubbing, there is still the romance of watching them. Now I have to go back to the dreariness of ordinary everyday life.
I spent most of Sunday watching the Olympic Games again. I've taped most of the Olympic television coverage since 1984, but this time I declined. Too many tapes sitting in my VHS / DVD collection!
That said, I'll never forget that exciting women's marathon. I watched pre - race favorite Paula Radcliffe from Great Britain run the 5,000 when I went to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Back then, Paula was 23, and just beginning to reach her prime years. She was outrun in the 5,000 final where she finished fifth.
Since that time, Radcliffe, who does not have a blistering finishing kick, has continued to find herself a bridesmaid but never the bride in big races. In World Championship or Olympic competition, she has a slew of second to fifth place finishes to her credit, but no victories. She does hold the world's best time for the women's marathon. In 2001, Paula took some lumps in the media for trying to campaign to keep the sport clean of athletes who compete in a pharmaceutically enhanced state.
I felt so sad for Paula when she broke down at 36 kilometers (22.4 miles) and quit the race. She appeared to be doing fine up to a few minutes before she stopped, but in the last minutes before she quit her form seemingly started to sag. I don't know whether the severe heat (90 degrees) or whether the harsh course, packed with hills is what got to her. She may have not had enough sleep in the nights before the Olympic marathon, or she may have simply knotted up under the pressure of being expected to bring home the gold.
Bill Rodgers, who I watched as a boy finish 40th at the Montreal Olympic marathon, said that the marathon will sooner or later humble you. And so it did to Paula at the most cruel of times.
I have run three marathons myself. In my first attempt, I went out too fast, hit the wall at 19 miles and failed to finish. In my second attempt, I was doing well but experienced bowel problems and had to stop twice. I finished in three hours, 12 - 15 minutes slower than my hoped for time. I finally came through in my third marathon and finished in 2:41. The moral of this story: Anything can and will go wrong in the marathon. No matter how talented you are and how hard you train, the marathon has the power to make a complete mockery of your wildest hopes and dreams.
You tried so hard, so please don't get down on yourself. This track fan from America says to you, Paula Radcliffe, keep your chin up and give us your winning smile!
When I was a boy growing up, I dreamed about becoming a famous sports star. My first great dream was that I wanted to play basketball for John Wooden at UCLA. However Coach Wooden retired in 1975, so at the tender age of 9 I found myself having to change my career plans.
My next dream was that I wanted to become a world class distance runner. I had been inspired by Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers when I was a teen, even as I played the more popular sports. I sometimes wonder whether I should have started running. I could really kick a football and a soccer ball when I was 12 - 14 years old. Had I stayed with football, it is quite possible that I could have been a professional field goal kicker or punter. Running killed my legs and it turned out that I didn't have the speed or talent to become really good in the sport.
These thoughts well up inside of me when I see the Olympics. Considering my love of history, the classical world, and the Olympics, it should have been a no brainer for me to have planned a trip to the Athens Olympics, but I was concentrating on buying property and other such issues. It really makes me sad because over the past few days, stories have been cropping up in the newspapers saying that a lot of venues for various events have been only half full.
On a whim, last weekend I spent several hours trying to arrange a flight to Athens. I found one path which would have put me through Frankfurt Germany, then through to Athens, but it cost $1,800. Even if I had taken that flight, I would have been faced with the problem of trying to arrange a hotel room. I know nobody in Greece and hotel rooms would have probably started at $250 per day. Even for a one week trip, it would have come out to a good $4,000+. If I had only thought of this a year ago... Sigh.
A new thought came into my head. The Olympics are in Beijing in 2008. Start making those travel plans now! I could go see Zhouxian again and see how it's changed!
I watched the opening ceremonies on the 14th. I absolutely got choked up. I loved the Greek drum that mimicked the heartbeat of a human who was exercising. The pagentry was unbelieveable.
And so it is. My Oracle (yes, I'll do one this month!) will be on how many medals the United States will win in these Olympics.
The World at Large
Well well well,
I am back after an absence of some days! The reason I was not tending to my own little ranch in cyberspace is that I was busy moving. That's right, gentle readers, The Mighty Wizard moved into a new pad and had to wait one week before getting my ol' dial up access back thanks to a certain local telephone monopoly that isn't supposed to be a telephone monopoly. I will be getting either cable or DSL soon, I just haven't decided which one yet.
I can say that it feels good to have moved! I ended up dumping about 20 boxes full of former possessions. That amounted to about one third of everything I owned. I was absolutely stunned to find out how much I had accumulated over the past six years. My last move was relatively painless, but this one was an absolute nightmare. It took plenty of driving back and forth between my old place and new one to get the job done.
For the record, I have moved about five miles away from my old place. I purchased a condominium that had about 500 more square feet than my old apartment. It certainly feels roomier and I often feel that my mind is more open and lively than it was when I was cramped up in that ol' apartment.
Enough for now. It should be enough for my enemies to know that The Mighty Wizard is back in action!
My website statistics are showing that a bunch of people are coming to my site looking for stuff about Tiananmen Square, China, executions, tanks, and so forth. I thought that I might want to put my own two cents worth in on the subject.
Last night, I sat up reading Linux books and watching Larry King on CNN. The guests on his show were none other than New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his Chinese American wife Sheryl Wu Dunn (who by the way, looks better than ever - you lucky dog Nick!).
For those of you who are uninitiated in the fine art of China watching, Mr. Kristof and Ms. Wu Dunn were the Times Beijing bureau correspondants from 1988 - 1993. They were amongst the journalists who were caught up in the entire Tiananmen story as it unfolded. After they came back to America, they wrote one of the more interesting accounts of Westerners living in China, called China Wakes. I still have yellowed newspaper articles sitting here in my apartment from my time in Asia that they wrote.
Rather strange how things change but still stay the same. 15 years later, all three of us still labor in the jobs which took us to China to begin with - Mr. Kristof and Ms. Wu Dunn still write for the Times, and I still labor in the arcane world of computer systems which produce seismic data which is used to look for petroleum.
The Kristofs maintain that much of what the idealistic Chinese were hoping to get has been achieved. The mainland Chinese are much freer than they were 15 years ago. Most of this newly granted (yes Virginia!) freedom has to do things like not assigning you to a job (or commanding you to go to a job) when you get out of school, having to approve marriages, and so on. Chinese still don't have free political speech, at least not publicly. All of these are signs of a society which is muddling along with a bunch of huge problems. For all that people come down on China, this fact should never be forgotten.
Watching the Kristofs on television made me consider taking a vacation to China sometime over the next few years, just to see for myself what has changed. Last October when I went to Rio de Janeiro, I met an American Chinese man who works as a research chemist for a major drug manufacturer. He and I spoke some Chinese and talked about China. He said he was astonished how much has changed, especially over the past 5+ years.
Still, sometimes when I read weblogs of expats who are currently living in China, I get the feeling of - you guessed it - plus ca change, plus ca meme. Despite all of the new buildings, golf courses in Beijing, and new construction, I can't help but think that somehow things would still feel the same way as they did when I was there back in the early 1990's.
So how do I know this? Well consider that just 3 or so years ago, I received a letter from my one time Chinese girlfriend who still had my parents' address. She wrote me basically saying that she still thinks about me all the time and that she wanted to get the hell out of China and be with me.
I had to admit that I was initially shocked that she wrote me the letter, but that I was not entirely surprised. I had a feeling all these years that somewhere down the line, she would try to write such a letter. That was a major reason why I left her behind. She was nice, but I couldn't get over this idea that what she really wanted out of me was to get out of China so that she could get an MBA, a high powered job, and start chasing the good life. I don't blame her one damned bit. However, it would have been a loveless marriage, and in the end I really wouldn't have given a damn about her. Plus ca change, plus ca meme.
Maybe I should go back and see for myself how China has turned out. And hopefully I won't cross paths with my old girlfriend if I do...
So, the Congress Party of India scored an upset victory in India's recent general elections. PM Vajpayee seemed to have a lot going for him, but voters seemed to think otherwise.
Sometimes in politics, voters will out politicians simply because they are tired of them. They overstay their welcome. This often happens in big city politics in America. In Houston, our last non - term limited mayor, Kathy Whitmire, held office for 10 years (being elected 5 times) before a slow economy and a crime wave caused by a judge ordered early release of prisoners led to her defeat in 1991 by Bob Lanier. Similarly, Former NYC mayor Ed Koch was thrown out of office in the late 1980's because people were seemingly tired of him.
I have to admit that I haven't read too deeply, nor have I read between the lines as to why the BJP led coalition in India failed to hold on to power. Many people have commented about China's growth, but India's economy has been picking up steam, powered by IT industry growth. This should have worked in the BJP's favor, but it is possible that the current beneficiaries of Indian growth were "few and far between." There are a billion people there...
The Congress party was historically rooted in the Indian national independence movement. Congress tried to be an "all India" party during colonial British rule, but ultimately could not get Muslims under their tent. Ergo Muslims founded the Muslim League, headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
As with many independence movements in the 20th century, the Congress party embraced a kind of socialism which was put into practice after India gained independence. Much of the sentiment that was involved in leaning towards socialism was that going into socialism allowed independence minded colonial leaders to symbolically reject Western imperial free markets and capitalism. Also, socialism and communism were just starting to be put into place during the early 20th century and it wasn't clear to people that free markets were better. That test would have to wait until after 1989.
In the meantime, vast bureaucracies formed and economic development in India slowed to a crawl for more than 40 years after 1947. I would wager that Indians have to be thinking about what has been going on in China and that they have been thinking about how to engineer their own development. Meanwhile, stock markets have taken a pounding because traders are wondering if Congress is going to be able to eject its historical baggage of economic ideas.
One interesting thing I could not help but notice as an American. I was traveling in Argentina and Brazil when Arnold Schwartzenegger was elected governor of California. This was much noticed around the world. I was asked about this several times when I was down in South America by the locals. I pointed out to them that in America, the only office that I am aware of that foreign born people are not allowed to hold is the United States Presidency. Our Founders didn't want a Manchurian Candidate in the White House. Even so, a lot can be deduced about a country as to whether said country's political system allows foreigners to enter politics and hold high offices and honors.
Clearly, some formal mechanism doesn't seem to be in place in India to ban foreigners from holding the PM office. I still remember reading the headlines in 1990 when Sonia Gandhi's husband was assassinated, and can also remember when Indira Gandhi was assassinated when I was in my last year of high school. It was these events that propelled Ms. Gandhi into politics to begin with.
If I remember correctly, Ms. Gandhi was rather hesitant in entering politics at that time and for good reason. There was much headshaking in India as to whether Ms. Gandhi should be playing in Indian politics. As such, the Italian born Sonia Gandhi seems to have bowed to public pressure to not accept the PM job. It will remain to be seen as to what role Ms. Gandhi will play in the future Congress led coalition government.
Now THAT would be a nice question to consult the Palantir / Crystal ball over!
Last Saturday, the History Channel aired a program about the legendary German Autobahn road system. I absolutely love the History Channel and programs like this are why I tune in all the time.
The program started off by showing a German man who makes specialty cars for high end buyers. He was taking a brand new car, whose buyer was from Britain, out for a test drive. He took the car up to a whopping 212 miles per hour! WOW! Of course, this man tested his car late at night and over a stretch of the Autobahn that was in the countryside.
The program then covered the origins and concepts behind the Autobahn, which was conceived during the time of Hitler. The original vision was for 2 lane roads to connect the cities. Also, the Autobahn was designed for speed from day one. The roads NEVER slope more than a handful of degrees up or down, and they have very gentle turns. The roads are paved to a thickness of 27 inches, which is about twice as thick as American interstate roads. Anytime there are cracks noticed along any stretch of the Autobahn, the roads are immediately repaved, due to the potential for accidents.
Keeping up with this level of infrastructure is costly, but with it goes a mindset that these roads were designed for speed. German automobiles are engineered to handle the stresses of traveling at high speeds along the Autobahn, which accounts for their quality.
Another aspect of the Autobahn is that German drivers take their driving along the Autobahn much more seriously than drivers in other countries. Drivers licenses cost $1500 a pop. Also, it is really frowned upon to be doing something else while driving. This is unlike America, where you see people talking on cell phones, eating food or drinking, while they are driving. It is also illegal to "insult" drivers along the Autobahn. Doing some kind of verbal or bodily insult results in tickets. What all this adds up to is that Germans are encouraged to have a mindset in which they concentrate on driving.
However, the dream of speed demons all over the world is under some threat. Why is this? Because since 1970, Germans have gone from owning 14 million private vehicles to 50 million. As such, Autobahns near every major city now resemble rush hours found in American cities. German authorities now monitor traffic quite extensively via cameras and computers. If it is deemed appropriate, authorities will allow the side lanes, which are normally set aside for stalled vehicles and trucks, to be used by the public. But here's the kicker: One monitor said that opening these spare lanes result in an improvement in travel speeds by 60 - 80 percent!
The reason I got excited by this program is because it verifies a number of issues involving modern day life which I have been preaching about since I became an activist in transportation politics:
First, the fact of the matter is that German governments at all levels consume about 50 percent of GDP, verses about 35 percent in America. One of the things that all this extra government taxation was spent on was the construction of a vast public transportation infrastructure, which of course is common in most European countries. Despite all that public transit spending, Germans have been buying and driving private autos by the droves since 1970, abandoning the use of public transportation in the process. This is yet another confirmation that people value cars over public transportation despite the fact that the public transportation infrastructure is already there! Also, don't forget the Europeans everywhere pay vastly higher gas taxes than Americans!
Secondly, I was most intrigued by the statement by the transportation monitor worker that opening only one lane during rush hours result in much greater travel speeds. Over the past 2 years, I have been traveling to my job along a stretch of road here in Houston that has had 2 lanes shut down, leaving only 2 lanes open. This has added about 2 - 4 minutes to my commute time. Luckily, there have been few (if any) vehicle breakdowns, but cutting down even only 1 - 2 lanes result in much greater traffic congestion. Maybe that in fact is the goal of the "Smart Growth" types.
Anyone who is even remotely interested in transportation issues should catch an opportunity to watch this program. Don't miss it!
While reading Houston's Leading Misinformation Source, AKA the Houston Chronicle, there was a blurb in their world brief's section about a blast that occurred in the city of Chongqing. The story mentioned that a leaking chlorine gas line at a chemical plant killed 9 people and forced 150,000 more Chinese to flee their homes. The story went on to say that a gas well leak that occurred last December near Chongqing killed 243.
Ah! What do the French say about these things? Isn't it something like (pardon my French since I don't speak it!), "Plus ca change, Plus ca me me"? Translated: The more things change, the more things stay the same.
The Chinese probably have had the modern world's worst environmental and safety record for the past 20+ years. Of course, their erstwhile comrades in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe gave the Chinese a run for their money, as we found out after the Berlin Wall fell. For all of the amazing effects on the rest of the world that China's rise has had, yesterday's story about ongoing environmental and industrial accidents reminds me that nothing has been done in the country to make sure that workers labor in even modestly safe conditions and that China's buildings and infrastructure are well built and maintained.
Much of this can be blamed on the awe inspiring corruption that prevades mainland Chinese society. The CCP's monopoly on power, a general lack of property rights, and consistent rule of law all bundle together to make sure that ordinary everyday people all over the country continue to work, live, and play in fire traps.
Speaking of the lack of rule of law, one of the ongoing dramas that has gripped the internet underground in China has to do with a story that occurred on October 16, 2003 in the northern city of Harbin. That day, a peasant farmer named Dai Yiquan and his wife Liu Zhongxia were driving a tractor full of onions when they swerved to avoid hitting another vehicle. In the process, they hit the left rear view mirror of a 790,000 yuan ($96,000) Mercedes Benz that happened to be owned by one, Su Xiuwen. Ms. Su, who happens to be the wife of an engineering and building tycoon, was with her sister when the incident occurred.
The full story can be read here:
So, how do Ms. Su and her sister react to this? They jump out of Ms. Su's fancy car and start whipping up on Mr. and Mrs. Dai. She reportedly screamed, "how are you going to pay for this!" The Dai's didn't fight back, but the drama didn't end there. The fracas naturally attracted a crowd. When someone said that Ms. Su should back the car up to get some of the onions which had fallen onto the car off, Ms. Su got back into her car, put the car into into forward gear, and killed Ms. Dai (Liu Zhongxia) on the spot. 12 others were injured.
In court, Ms. Su ended up getting a 2 year jail sentence, reprieved 3 years. The Su's paid off Dai $11,000 U.S. and paid $22,000 in compensation to the 12 who were injured.
Naturally, the local media (this being China) didn't report this, but the story took a life of it's own via the Internet. With plenty of wild speculation as to what really happened that fateful day, the Central government in Beijing took an interest in the case. But such a case clearly has become symbolic of a haves / have nots world that the Chinese find themselves in. It doesn't really help that the country is going through the usual tremors that any rapidly developing society goes through. Stories like this are white hot in a money and status conscious society like China. That is where the rule of law / corruption / suspicion laden beliefs that plague such a society only make matters worse.
The last thing I will write about concerns the ongoing reprocussions that are resulting from China (and India for that matter) achieving rapid economic growth. In the past 2 - 3 years, commodity prices for many goods have started picking up, reflecting the massive increases in demand that are resulting from Chinese (and again Indian) economic growth. Increased trade with China is helping the Japanese economy out of its 12+ year doldrums, debunking that trade between rich and poor nations is nothing but a loser for the rich ones.
On April 15, 2004, the International Herald Tribune noted that after a decade of contributing to low inflation throughout the world via offering low labor (and other) costs, inflation in China itself seems to be picking up. The story can be found here.
Well known Chinese economist and analyst, Andy Xie of Morgan Stanley, thinks the Chinese economy is in a bubble. This could clearly have reprocussions all over the world, because the Chinese have been eating the lunch of numerous other developing countries that they compete with, such as Mexico, the Carribean countries, and those Latin America.
All of this is absolutely fascinating. Now you know why I still stay abreast with what goes on in the World's Largest Insane Asylum!
I haven't posted too many entries about Iraq, but a few people have written me emails wondering why I don't write more about it. The reason is really simple - Iraq is far away and I've never served in the military. More to the point, there is little I can do about the matter. However, in the last week, Iraq has flared up both in Washington and over in Iraq itself. Ergo, I might as well write something to please the masses.
As an aside, the Houston Chronicle carried a story some days ago (in the aftermath of the killing of a some Americans) about Halliburton contractors working in Iraq. The article duly noted that, yes, people have to be paid A LOT OF MONEY to go over there. Also, quite a few of the people who do go over there have family and friends who quite frankly think that they are nuts for going. Conservative readers and Iraq war supporters - especially those of you who have never served in the military and have not future plans for doing so - should take note. If you really believe America is doing the right thing, then you should drop what you are doing and get your asses over there. Actions speak louder than words.
One website that I recommend everyone should read if one wants to understand the neo conservative mindset is The Project for the New American Century.
When I think of the neo conservative mindset today - the mindset of guys like William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and so on, my mind goes back to a World History (A.D . 1450 - to the Present Day) course I took at the University of Houston. During the course, we eventually reached the late 19th century and what the situation was like in Europe. Of course, the French Revolution had taken place 100 years before and that awe inspiring event had shaken every last monarchy throughout the entire European continent to their very cores. The debate about Democracy and Republicanism was very hot, but had - in general - made little progress. Of course, Marx and Engels complicated the picture in 1848 with their ideas about how workers of the world needed to unite.
A big reason for this overall slow progress of Democracy was that European conservatives of the era (monarchs and their conservative supporters) were very worried that if the rainbow riot of Democracy were to take hold, then the masses would naturally vote themselves bread and wine. Of course, the 20th century pretty much vindicated the fears of conservatives, as Western Europeans proceeded to construct vast welfare states, consuming 40 - 65 percent of national economic wealth. Of course, the 21st century will show that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that most of these regimes will come crashing down to one degree or another, but that's a story for another time.
So what did conservatives in late 19th century Europe try to do to stop the progress of Democracy? Well, you may have heard of something called Imperialism. For the most part, conservatives throughout Europe started banging the drum about ideas such as "National Greatness" and empire building. They appealed to national pride and glory. They talked about "The White Man's Burden" and all of that. Put a gun and a military uniform on the poor uneducated drecks of society, teach them how to march, and then send them off to Africa (or Asia) now that we have discovered how to build railroads and how to produce quinine. Sounds like a plan doesn't it?
Well, when I think of neocons and some conservatives in America today, I think that they are essentially repeating what their European conservative forerunners did 100+ years ago. It seems that they are worried that they will not be able to win the argument for rolling back the growth of American government, ergo why not focus attention on American National Greatness. Pump up the military back to Cold War strength, flex American muscle abroad, send astronauts to Mars, wave the flag, and so on. All of this to try avoiding nationalizing the health care system, having the government pay for day care centers, taking the place of fathers in marriages, and continuing to prop up Social Security forever with tax rates of 20+ percent (from today's 12.4 percent). Ergo, time to declare war on the Iraqi regime and promote a project for stuffing democracy down the throats of all those pesky, despotic Arab regimes that hate America's guts.
Now THAT sounds like a plan worthy of American National Greatness! As Condoleeza Rice (apparently called "The Warrior Princess" by the Bush White House, despite not having served in the military) said in testimony before the 9 - 11 commission:
"Bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events – events which create a new consensus that allows us to transcend old ways of thinking and acting."
Well, at least it's all a grand plan as long as OUR children get into an Ivy League school so that they won't have to serve in the military that will be ordered to carry out such a plan.
My worst nightmare about this whole scenario is that America ends up with BOTH WORLDS! America would end up with a Federal Government that consumes 30+ percent of GDP, supporting BOTH the conservative National Greatness agenda as well as the entitlement state desired by the Democrats.
Hopefully, if such an event were to occur, America would fulfill Jefferson's vision and finally have a revolution to overthrow Hamilton's National state.
You're just the happy go-lucky type. You might have
your pet peeves, but other than that, you're
mainly calm. Blending in with your
You're the type of person who
everyone likes. Usually it's you who cracks
jokes at social gatherings - after all,
laughter is the best medicine.
What Type of Soul Do You Have ?
brought to you by Quizilla
These two quotes are from a new site I am linking to, the Economics Journal Watch:
I have been increasingly moved to wonder whether my job is a job or a racket, whether economists...should cover their faces or burst into laughter when they met on the street.
Frank H. Knight - former University of Chicago economics professor.
[Being editor of the AER] (American Economics Review - TMW) turned out to be shattering. What was remarkable was the absolute dullness, the lack of any kind of new idea, that predominated in the selection of the papers I got.
Robert W. Clower - UCLA economics professor emeritus.
Tonight's epistle is about a rather trivial subject that only Americans could get righteous and fired up about, but in fact has seemed to travel across the world's oceans. And what, pray tell, is that subject you ask? Well, of course, that subject is FAT PEOPLE! In fact, I'm going expand the subject matter just slightly because I would like to touch on the subject of cigarette smoking at the same time.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don't smoke and I've been running since January 1982, when I was in my second year of high school. I currently weigh about 175 - 180 lbs (80kg).
What brought this subject to my attention today was reading this week's (March 6 - March 12, 2004) issue of The Economist. In their Britain section, it seems that the need to get fired up over something has led Britons to join Americans and declare their own war on obesity. It says quite a bit about our modern age when people start worrying about whether large numbers of their compatriots (but never themselves!) have gotten out of shape and that these worries actually begin to spill over into politics and public policy.
Just to make the conversation interesting, I should let unenlightened readers know that the Nazis were zealots about physical fitness. It wasn't all about having blond hair and blue eyes. Hitler himself was a rabid anti - smoker. Don't believe me? Well let me ask you this gentle readers - when was the last time you saw Hitler in one of those WWII films with a cigarette holder in his hands, ala Franklin Roosevelt? Or how about puffing on a nice big stogie like Mr. Churchill? It was Nazi scientists that established the statistical correlation between smoking and cancer.
Also, don't forget that Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Germans might have lost a few gold medals to Jesse Owens, but they won plenty of medals in other events. You can watch tons of old films on The History Channel showing youthful Germans exercising outdoors en masse.
So why would the Nazi regime have been so interested in the physical fitness of their population? Some of it surely had to do with racial superiority ideas. Other parts of the matter may well have had to do with the idea that a fit citizenry makes for better soliders who can be used in the service of the state. And surely a fit populace doesn't tax the resources of the regime so much. Oh, the horror!
The Economist article mentioned that PM Tony Blair's strategy team floated the idea of imposing a "fat tax" on the populace. That idea, which is the obvious solution to such a "problem," doesn't seem to have been admitted publicly as a "valid idea" here in America. At least in Britain, people seem to be a bit more willing to admit that such an idea is the obvious solution.
And the matter of a "fat tax" should be brought up! Don't pick on the food companies or fast food restaurants! Information on calories and nutritional value of food is widely available if you only make the effort to look! If you genuinely want to discourage a behavior, then make it more expensive via government intervention! In early September 2003, two separate American courts ruled against plaintiffs who had sued McDonalds over weight issues. In one of those cases, the plaintiff was a 45 year old man who weighed 300 lbs. (136kg) who had suffered 4 heart attacks.
A fat tax both makes the issue clear as to who pays and it makes it clear what government is really all about! Don't get too righteous about your weight! We've already done this to cigarette smokers, so why not fat people!
To be more accurate, in the case of cigarette smokers, American State government Attorney General's used their power during the late 1990's to extract rents from the tobacco companies to the tune of $300 billion over 25 years in return for protection from lawsuits. In most cases, the trial lawyers who extracted the rents were private attorneys who contributed campaign monies to political campaigns, not attorneys who were employed with the State AG's offices. In the case of most states, they've already blown the money to plug budget holes via issuing "tobacco bonds" that would get an up "present value" front payment in return for handing over the 25 year payments from the tobacco companies. Here in Texas, our current State Comproller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, wants to raise cigarette TAXES even higher - on top of the monies that smokers are paying to pay off the Tobacco Resolution.
If readers are truly interested in reading an academic treatise on the American Tobacco Resolution, I will direct them to the website of Oxford University Economics Professor, Paul Klemperer. In 1998, Dr. Klemperer wrote a 67 page classic treatise analyzing the Tobacco Resolution . Amongst other things, the Tobacco Resolution erects massive legal barriers to entry against new entrants into the tobacco industry who might otherwise be interested in entering the business to snap up market share against old Tobacco Resolution laden encumbants.
It would seem that a "fat tax," if it were enacted, would be imposed against foods that have certain caloric values. Such an idea wouldn't fly when imposed directly against the populace, but never say that it will never be imposed...
Just when you thought it must be impossible for America to get involved militarily in YET ANOTHER nation's affairs, Uncle Sam is now embroiled yet again in Haiti. Haiti of course is in America's backyard, ergo this little adventure requires a more low key response than what has been ventured in - say Afghanistan or Bosnia.
You do remember, gentle readers, that we DO have troops in those countries, don't you? I hope you or your children haven't had to do tour duty in those forgotten places. After all, you've got better things to do, such as write conservative opinion weblogs and columns about National Greatness from the safe confines of your own home here in the United States, right? Just remember that your freedoms are being defended by placing troops in Bosnia and invading an Iraq that had lots and lots of WMD's. And wasn't Iraq well on the way to developing nuclear weapons while American and British aircraft were flying over its territory since the end of the last Persian Gulf War in 1991?
One rationale as to why American (and French) troops were beached in Haiti is that 20,000 American civilians are there. Really? What's worth spending your time in Haiti? 200 years after Haitians led the world's first slave revolt whose outcome resulted in independent nationhood, the country is still an absolute mess. At least in a large country like Brazil, there are reasons for going such as lots of natural beauty, a fascinating stew of cultures, music, and great people.
I know one thing that might be worth some people's while. A Houston Chronicle article printed March 2, 2004 mentioned that some men in Bertrand Aristide's government and law enforcement might be involved in drug trafficking. Money laundering and so forth were said to be pervasive in Haiti. Sigh.
What was nice to learn today is that Aristide's supporters and his opponents were both heavily armed. Both camps were refusing to surrender weapons to American occupational forces. Now that's the spirit. Just remember that, all of you American supporters of eviscerating the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Meanwhile Aristide himself, who happens to be in the Central African Republic, is proclaiming that he is still in charge of Haiti. How did Aristide wind up in Africa, pray tell? Well it seems that he is claiming that he was kidnapped and flown away, coutesy of American taxpayers and military transport. That charge was denied by U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Now what? I have absolutely no idea. A fellow named Boniface Alexandre has been installed as the new strongman, presumably by American forces. Meanwhlie, Aristide is calling for resistance from Africa. Former President Clinton used 20,000 troops to restore Aristide to power in 1994. We haven't heard much from Haiti since.
If it weren't for the media, we could let the Haitians just slug it out and see who wins. For now, The Palantir seems to be showing visions of perhaps an election that may be organized in the not too far distant future. That is, if the populace can be disarmed and made to behave like the noble savages all you Jean Jacques Rousseau loving types imagine people to be.
Well, I took the Libertarian Purity Test found at:
So how did The Mighty Wizard score on the test? I scored a 98, meaning that I... "have entered the heady realm of hard-core libertarianism. Now doesn't that make you feel worse that you didn't get a perfect score?"
From other websites, I found out that the National Review's 'The Corner,' Rick Brookhiser scored a 40, Jonah Goldberg scored a 41, and Ramesh Ponnuru scored a 73.
Why do a get the feeling that lots of guys at the National Review and the Weekly Standard probably never served in the military, but want to send other people's children overseas to carry out their plans for "American National Greatness?"
So why is it that I don't write too much about international affairs in my weblog? The main reason is that events from far away don't affect ME too much, ergo why should I pay attention to them? I can't do too much about what is going on regarding, say, the democracy battle that has been developing in Hong Kong. After all, "isn't all politics local" as Tip O'Neill used to say? Most Americans (and others around the world) rationally have views like this, at least until situations like September 11, 2001 come along and slap America in the face. Then Americans wake up to the blowback from our involvement in far flung affairs which few are aware of. That is why I am an activist in Houston politics.
With that, I'll start this week's commentary on international affairs with some words about Iraq. It appears that an agreement over an internim constitutuional structure was worked out and signed. This constitution will be in place until next year, when a new constitutional framework is supposed to be worked out and voted on throughout the Iraqi nation.
What makes me laugh (or shake my head, I'm not sure) about the matter was that several weeks ago, President Bush's appointed local American despot, Paul Bremer, made a public statement saying that, "Islam was not to be part of the framework of the Iraqi Constitution." Islam could only be an inspiration, but not woven into the framework. In other words, Iraqis can have a form of democracy, but only a form of democracy that America approves of. My suspicion is that next year, if / when a new constitutional framework is put into place, the Iraqis will decide to rewrite their constitution so that Islam IS woven into the constitutional framework. In other words, if the normal democratic process is allowed to take its course, Iraq may well end up like another Iran but with a Shiite Muslim majority instead of a Sunni Muslim majority.
That is, if the new Iraqi state lasts that long. I will have to pay a visit soon to my Palantir and take counsel with regards to this matter. That session will require me to bend my mind very hard and for a very long time in order to divine what fates are in store for Iraq...
As readers know from reading my February 24, 2004 entry into this weblog, I work in the IT field. At home, I run what is known in computer jargon as a "dual boot" computing system environment. What this means is that I have two operating systems, Microsoft Windows on one hard drive, and Linux running on another. During boot up, I can make a decision to boot into either Linux or Windows.
Lately, my "computing experience" as some might term it, has been less than thrilling at home. This is because my Windows Update has been searching for (and dowloading) updates from Microsoft's website and seems to find an endless number of updates that I "need."
I put the word need in quotes because although I do not have a hardware firewall (yet!) due to living in a cramped apartment, I do have antivirus software that has updated continuously for some time. I was caught when Nachi / Blaster came out, but that was because I had been working on my website nearly the entire weekend before the worm came out. Ergo, I was a sitting duck for Nachi / Blaster. It wasn't a big deal. I quickly found out what it was, downloaded a patch, and was good to go. Otherwise, I've been fine.
Not so, thinks Microsoft. The real issue here is that I also have a dial up connection, which has been a continuous source of jokes amongst my IT Geek co - workers who laugh at my expense. The other day, a Microsoft update took about 5 hours to complete. And with Microsoft's newest OS, dubbed Longhorn, it appears that Microsoft is going to set things up to where Longhorn will automatically update whether you like it or not. This isn't such a big deal for the 10 - 20 percent of the market which has cable modems, DSL service, or perhaps good wireless. It REALLY is going to be a big deal for the 75+ percent of home users who still have dialup access.
And so it is that I'm seriously thinking about ditching Windows for good and migrating to Linux.
The second part of this epistle involves having conversations with IT Geeks at work. Unbeknownst to many people, not everyone who works in IT is a "Geek." There are plenty of people who work in IT who are smart, well rounded people who may have stumbled into the field or simply work in IT because it pays well.
Having conversations about home computers with my Geek co - workers is an exercise that I am probably going to abandon soon. This is because the minute I open my mouth about what I have installed at home, there are immediate come back replies that are almost universally derisive. For example, I mentioned above that I have dialup access. I am probably only one of a handful (out of perhaps 80 people) of IT people who works in my company location who still has dialup access. Everyone else has cable or DSL. "Mighty Wizard, why don't you just break down and get cable?!", goes the reply.
Another comment has to do with my above mentioned dual boot computer that I'm working on right now. I described my home setup to two of my co - workers today, and immediately a reply came back from one saying, "Why aren't you using VM?" What he means by that is that it is possible to run a "virtual machine" where Windows will host a "virtual session" of Linux. This skips the boot process. The reason for that is that I don't have that installed on Windows, but I didn't tell that to my co - workers. They would have immediately told me to go get it!
Another source of derision involves my above mentioned modem and processor. My current machine was built 2+ years ago. It is a 1.4 Ghz processor, but that also is a source of derision amongst my geek friends. "WHy don't you upgrade?" comes the reply. Indeed, when I purchased this machine, several of my co - workers were jealous. Ergo, they went out and one upped me by purchasing a faster machine.
As for my modem, my boss and another co - worker, who helped with my current cheap customized build, installed what is called a "Win Modem", which is a type of modem where the processor does all the work. You would not believe how many howls I got when I told this to several people.
You can't win for losing when it comes to talking geek with geek co - workers. Ergo, it's time to 1) Shut up about my home computing at work, and 2) With its $800 Office Suite and OS, it's time to migrate to Linux for good and kiss Windows goodbye.
Of course, my Microsoft geek administrator friends would absolutely, DESPERATELY insist that before I move to Linux, I would really need to try harder to somehow find a hacked or bootlegged version of Office or Windows!
Today, the news came about the South Korean researchers had successfully created stem cells from a cloned human embryo. This is supposed to be a significant first milestone towards a medical possibility of growing human body parts for humans, which could, I suppose, complement or supplant organ transplants. It goes without saying that the specter of human cloning is still lurking in the background.
My two cents worth on this matter, as a layman, is that I support stem cell research as long as it could lead to generating human organs. To the end that organ generation could alleviate suffering in humans, I fully support stem cell research. There are plenty of people in this world who could benefit from this. I should say that I haven't given any money towards this end, as though I have lots to give away in the first place!
My attitude towards cloning is one of "SO WHAT!" What's the point of trying to create a human clone? Just to say that we can do it? Look at the clever human ape. He has learned how to clone himself. "Look at what I can do!"
"Look at what have I done!" cries the scientist in ecstasy, after succeeding in creating the first Golem. Fuck you pal. You won't win any plaudits from this corner. While you're at it, since you're so proud of what you've done, why don't you go have intercourse with your brand new creation!
Some anguished parents who might be despondent over losing a child might say that they would want to clone their lost child in an attempt to regain what they have lost. THAT'S BULLSHIT! Your child is gone - end of story! Our impending deaths, along with losing our loved ones is part of what makes us human. We are all given one chance, or at least SHOULD be given one chance (see final remark below). It should make us cherish the short, pathetic lives which we are given to live in this huge and uncaring universe.
Finally, since I am a pro - life type guy, I can't help but wonder what the opinion of pro abortion supporters is with regards to human cloning!
I had been considering the idea of starting a weblog for quite some time. I was attracted to the idea for the same reason that millions of others were - because I would have an opportunity to voice my opinions and reach a wide audience at low cost. I just happened to be a bit slower with regards to jumping on the blogging bandwagon than most.
The issue that finally pushed me into starting a blog was watching the worldwide outrage at "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin feed a 13 foot alligator a piece of meat with his right hand, while holding his one year old son in his left. Obviously, Irwin was quickly likened to Michael Jackson, who last year held his infant over a railing high above a street. The outrage of course, has to do with both placing their infant children in some danger. It's obvious that either situation could possibly have gotten out of control and that would have been the end of either child. Why do I have a vision that in 20 years, both of these kids will end up meeting each other and becoming fast friends?
As a side note, the news came today that two Australian government agencies, a Workplace Safety agency and a Family Services agency, both sensibly declined to put Irwin through a legal wringer for his behavior.
Meanwhile in the here and now, what bent me out of shape about both matters was not that there was outrage at Jackson's and Irwin's behavior. What burned me up was wondering exactly how many of all those outraged people in the world are pro - choice abortion supporters?
I know, what does being pro - choice have to do with being angry about Irwin and Jackson? Well gentle readers, if you were angry with Jackson and Irwin, then why aren't you angry about the millions of abortions all over the world that are legally sanctioned every year? They both amount to the same thing, don't they? All other things being equal, unless a mishap occurs, that lifeless 2 - celled blob of a foetus will within a year turn into Steve Irwin's and Michael Jackson's child right?
But wait! There's a difference you might say. A woman has to have command over her body, while both of these men willingly brought these children into the world. Well my reply to that is that, yes, a woman does have command over her body. Women have won much of that battle, at least in the West. She could choose say no to sex and she could remember to take those birth control pills. And how about cajoling her man into perhaps cutting down on the risks by wrapping that rascal?
Twisting that argument around, one could say that Irwin and Jackson willingly brought these children into the world, now they are fully responsible for what happens to them. I would imagine that if anything would have happened to to either man's child, that Jackson and Irwin would have both lived through private personal hells that would have been worse than anything that public righteousness and legal strong arming could have ever visited upon them.
Exceptions have to be made for women who get pregnant through rape or when pregnancy becomes a threat to their own lives. In either case, the woman is not responsible for what has transpired.
Again, my irritation is not directed towards everyone who was mad at Jackson and Irwin. My annoyance is directed towards those whose attitudes towards childbirth and infancy may not entirely be consistent. You make your bed, you lie in it.
On January 21, 2004, Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, is making an appearance at Rice University. He will be speaking at the Jesse Jones school of Management from 4:00pm - 6:00pm. I was told of this by a friend of mine last week.
With that, I managed to hunt down a copy of TSE on Sunday and have scanned through the book. The book is 350 pages, has 2930 footnotes, and a 70 page bibliography. I've already found a few gems. Paul Ehrlich is on record in 1987 as having predicted that the world would have another energy crisis in the 1990's. That adds to his already long and sorry record as forecaster. At least, I'm better at forseeing the future than he is!
I understand that Rice is not pushing publicity, so I'm wondering what the situation is going to turn out like. It ought to be interesting to see how many of the hardcore environmental crowd out there show up to give the man problems.
TMW.Houston and Texas matters , Houston and Texas matters , The World at Large