Archive for June, 2009

Realism or Luddism?

In a letter to the editor, a former Peace Corps volunteer voices vehement vituperation at skeeter shooters:

SIR – You seem to support research into “devising laser-defence systems to shoot down mosquitoes and prevent the spread of malaria” (“Zap!”, June 6th). Lasers are not the solution to malaria. Indeed, I think many high-tech development solutions, like one laptop per child and Star Trek-style insect-blasting phasers, are a waste of time and money.

I worked for the volunteer Peace Corps in rural Zambia. The place where I lived had a well to provide clean water, but it sat idle because a simple five-cent plastic washer inside the pump was damaged and neither a replacement nor the tools to open the pump’s housing were available.

My own hut had a sizeable gap between the mud-brick wall and the thatched-grass roof, numerous holes in the thatching and between the wooden door and the wall. I can’t imagine what kind of laser system would have secured my hut against mosquitoes, much less who would have come to fix it when it failed. Were I still in Zambia I might have heard this story on the international news, except that the crank arm for charging my short-wave radio broke off and it never worked again. If there is an answer to malaria it is bednets and only bednets.

Zachary Wells
Monterey, California

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Today I was at Rwandex, as I am from time to time, when one of the Rwandan quality controllers saw me watching a couple dozen women sorting coffee by hand.

“Do you know how much they pay those women?” He asked me.

“No, how much?”

“I think it’s about 1.3 dollars for one 60-kilo bag.”

“Would you work for that much?”

“No way.”

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In Rostock, where I lived for several months, a 23-year-old state-level politician has lost his job and been fined 200 Euro for publishing this photo on the German rip-off of Facebook:

His crime was “Verunglimpfung der Bundesrepublik Deutschland,” or denigrating the Federal Republic of Germany (that’s a German flag in there). In the newspaper article, he claims the photo was intended to counter the nationalism that is accompanying the ongoing Eurocup.

Imagine how Westerners would react if the country were some South American autocracy, say, rather than Germany. Wouldn’t it be criticized–even haughtily so–as deeply illiberal and wrong?

A good way to check for bias is to perform that little thought experiment when considering your stance on any given policy.  Consider if your opinion on e.g. trade, torture, immigration, going to war, etc. would change if it were not your home country advocating it but some unfamiliar foreign land. If your opinion would change, or reverse, it’s worth attempting  to pin down why that is. You might discover your rationale was as soggy as a flushed flag.


Update: What about state-run media?

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Then, if ever, come perfect days.

A few months ago, I blogged about a WSJ article describing Berlin’s problems with boars. I so liked one of the pictures accompanying the article that I decided to link to it in the post, but for a reason I can’t recall had to download it to my hard drive and upload it myself to Flickr to do so.

Little did I know this simple action would thrust me athwart the snorting sounder of international copyright laws!

From my Flickr inbox last week (names have been changed to protect the guilty from further trouble):

Hi there,
I am the photographer and owner of the copyright of the boar photo in your photo stream.
Intended or not, the usage and posting of this image is illegal and an abuse of international copyright laws.
Please, remove the image from your photostream IMMEDIATELY and delete it from your computer.
If that has not been done until Monday, 15th June, 2009, I shall pass this on to my media lawyer.
Best wishes,
Herr Harrumph

As it happens, I had not had much to drink on what was an unseasonably warm June day, so my response was a bit dry:

No problem. We certainly wouldn’t want any more people to see the photo than absolutely necessary. Regards, Jeff

The jocular reply:

A man with an attitude. Rarely found these days. Congratulations.

And what is so rare as a day in June? A man with an attitude, perhaps, or a German who appreciates sarcasm?

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Like Lewis and Clark, I find mosquitoes to be doubly pestilent, as the little red bumps they leave behind are about as annoying as remembering how to spell their name. An article in the current Technology Quarterly from the Economist comes as a soothing poultice:

Researchers at Intellectual Ventures, an innovations company established by former Microsoft executives in Bellevue, Washington, have developed what they call a photonic mosquito fence. It has a series of posts, each of which is equipped with a cheap camera and a light bulb (which will be swapped for a light-emitting diode in future versions). The cameras are connected to a central computer. When a camera detects movement, the computer analyses it to see whether it is consistent with the behaviour of a mosquito. If it is, then the computer trains a laser onto the insect and blasts it into oblivion.

The article also describes an infra-red curtain designed to keep mosquitoes out; not as satisfying as conflagrating the little beasties, I suppose, but in any case more effective than the mosquito net I can’t seem to find the time to install over my bed.

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Taxation is something like a game of hot potatoes, where those who are taxed try to pass on their burden to someone else before times runs out and the bill comes due.  Unlike a hot potato, however, a tax burden can usually only be passed along in chunks because most people aren’t willing to take the whole thing from someone else. In economics, how this steaming tax potato gets divided is called tax incidence.

To use an example, a retailer might respond to a higher sales tax by increasing her prices, thereby passing on the tax burden to her customers. Wary of losing business, however, she likely won’t increase her prices enough to cover the full amount of the tax, and will end up shouldering some–if not most–of the burden herself.

Today as I was poring over the financials of a new fast food place in Kigali I’m consulting on, I noticed they had not only included an estimate of inflation, but also how much of the increase in inflation they planned on passing on to their customers. I’d never thought of “inflation incidence” before (and indeed, googling the term yields no relevant result), but given that inflation is just an implicit tax, it makes perfect sense.

The fast food place will, incidentally, serve its hot potatoes sliced and fried.

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