Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

Mauve and Cerise, I think


America, circa 1958, according to JK Galbraith:

The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. (The goods which the latter advertise have an absolute priority in our value system. Such aesthetic considerations as a view of the countryside accordingly come second. On such matters we are consistent.) They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?

The point he’s making is about a social imbalance caused by differences between private and public spending. In America, a society of affluence, where the production of comic books and pornography count as valuable economic output, the outlaying of money on roads, parks, policing, education, and other public services is considered nearly valueless and unpalatable.

America is still often considered a land of crumbling infrastructure, but compared to the America described above, some things have improved. The countryside is largely visible, our parks no longer a menace to morality, and the air has been mostly purged from the stench of decaying refuse.

Our private consumption has has also made progress over the decades, seeing as we’ve developed the good taste not to continue buying our autos in the colors of Wild Berry Skittles.

Read Full Post »

IN THE fight against English, France is famously out in front. Now Germany is joining in.


The second world war stripped Germany of its cultural defences, allowing English to infiltrate unopposed. Sat.1, a broadcaster, is “powered by emotion”; Audi, a carmaker, “driven by instinct.” Even scholarship succumbed. Archaeology, a bastion of German-language research, is buckling, lament scholars at the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. So have teenagers, who now chillen and smsen. When Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut takes to the Eurovision stage on May 29th to sing “Satellite” in English, purists will cringe.


Since reunification in 1990, Germany has pushed back. A Neue Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft was founded in 2007. Mr Krämer’s Verein, with 31,000 members, publishes an index of 7,200 anglicisms, four-fifths of which, it claims, crowd out good German words. A pet hate is “blockbuster”, originally a 1942 coinage for city-destroying bombs. Mr Krämer, who lost six relatives to Allied bombing, prefers Kassenschlager (“box-office hit”).

After reading this, I then began watching Ken Burns’ latest documentary, which calls the American’s national park system the country’s “best idea” in part because of how it has protected and preserved America’s natural beauty. One weakness in both these positions is that they assume what’s being preserved is static and pristine.

It’s not as if, for example, that Deutsch has ever been a closed system, free from external influence. Language is constantly evolving, incorporating and discarding various linguistic bits. A broad and more correct viewpoint could never see a language like German as pure, but always as an alloy of sorts. And isn’t an all-knowing authority’s pushback just another bit of meddling?

Similarly, America’s national parks have not preserved and protected nature so much as they’ve attempted to place various ecosystems into a certain equilibrium perceived to be superior by man. I did not rejoice when watching to hear of bison populations decimated or lumber mills working overtime in Yellowstone, but one has to keep in mind that at one point Yellowstone had no bison or trees. Indeed, if one wants to get really absurdist, at one point Yellowstone was very naturally under water. Too bad no one was around to preserve YellowWater, I suppose.

I’m being a touch obtuse, of course, but the irony remains: by attempting to remove the messy influence of man, these preservationists are just reinserting him in a different way.

Read Full Post »

This Foreign Policy article on the West’s deleterious notions towards food production is the best I’ve read on any topic in weeks. After finishing it all I can do is wonder whether there is any other sector of the economy in which marketing and bias has persuaded more people to make choices opposite of what a large body of evidence–scientific, economic, moral–would indicate is best:

Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

What could be more cosmopolitan and progressive than opting to buy from the rich farmer a few miles down the road rather than the poor one a world away?

Keep your government hands off my fat farm bill...rooster.

Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe.

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.


Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

I’ve been inspired to poetry by organic baby carrots, so I am no stranger to organic’s bulbous allure, but underneath hides rot:

If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined. Mass deforestation probably isn’t what organic advocates intend.


While I vigorously support cutting down millions of trees–they often obstruct otherwise pristine vistas–the idea doesn’t seem particularly sustainable.  Contrast that with what’s been happening with industrial agriculture:

In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the “environmental performance of agriculture” in the world’s 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.

I’ve seen films like Witness and Caspar David Friedrich gefällt mir sehr, but the bucolic beauty of dirt-poor peasant agriculture lies only in the eyes of the Western beholder. Farmers earn income based on what they produce, and to produce more they need the trappings of modernity, greasy and grimy in its mechanical glory.

"Let's plant modern seeds...of DESTRUCTION!"

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

Remember, it’s a feature, not a bug (Boll weevil? Could I have just written boll weevil there?) that so many barns in the US are quaint landmarks of a bygone era.

Read Full Post »

I came upon this article while doing the Morning Links on my other blog (where it is cross-posted):

Thorp, the founding principal of Gateway High in San Francisco – one of the most highly touted public schools in the state – has accepted that same position at Gashora Girls Academy in landlocked Rwanda. This means he will leave behind his attorney wife, Donna Williamson; his three adult children; his 3-year-old sheepdog, Jake; and his top-floor flat with a roof deck in order to live in a shared house and spend a minimum of three years swatting at mosquitoes.

“Rwanda is not without its challenges,” he says while stroking Jake in a living room that is sunny and easy and will probably seem sunnier and easier with each passing day until his departure. “There is the risk that at some point during this stint I will get malaria.”

I let out a wee guffaw at that last sentence. Yes, there is “the risk” of getting malaria–it’s even higher than the States(!)–but that doesn’t get you far. This region sees more lightening than anywhere else in the world; why not mention that shocking elevated risk instead? Truth is, your chances of getting malaria in Rwanda are small even if you don’t take medication (like most other expats I know and me), and if you are popping pills (as I’m sure Principal Thorp will), then it’s just silly to mention.

But I’m missing the storm for the clouds, aren’t I? The crux of his comment is not about the risk of malaria, it’s about the general hardship he will have to suffer for his cause. One fights the urge to weep looking over what he will be giving up:

  • Attorney wife Donna Williamson
  • Three adult children
  • Jake, the 3-year-old sheepdog
  • Top-floor flat with a roof deck
  • Sunny and easy living room that will seem sunnier and easier with each passing day
  • Sympathetic journalists

Ok, so leaving your family isn’t trivial, but would this be the chosen framing if his departure were for Belgium? As much as I hate to betray my own winsome exoticism, the expatriate life in Rwanda is not often equivalent to a perpetual safari. If you’re in Kigali, as Principal Thorp will be for at least part of his stay, you’ll be in a house, not a hut, and if you cook over a fire it will be because most ranges here are fueled with gas.

Gérard Prunier, an Africa scholar, has described Rwanda as being the “darling of foreigners” because the “blacks were polite and everything was clean.” In the same book, he later described it as “virtuous, Christian, respectable, and boring.” If Rwanda presents challenges for the expat, it more likely has to do with these than malaria or lightening strikes alike.

Read Full Post »

Via Matt Yglesias via Brad DeLong, we find the following chart from one of the UC professor’s lectures:


I did some quick googling, and found the following current statistics for Rwanda (these are based on total population, not households, and many of them are from newspapers, so beware).

Rwanda Development

Many people separated from us geographically are poor, and we profess to care about them and even pity them. Many people separated from us in time are poor, but we don’t care about them much, despite the fact that our actions can have far more impact on them. This is not the point I’d thought I’d make when I began this post.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

For many in the US, the word “recycling” conjures up images of plastic bins that in many cases do a better job collecting rainwater than anything else. Recycling is thus perceived in the same way as that particular example of it: inconvenient drudgery with altruism as the main motivator. What this misses, however, is that long before recycling bins began lining city streets, striving to turn waste into a resource has been a self-interested effort and the source of much wealth and prosperity.

Gasoline, for example, was considered a waste product of crude oil distillation and discarded until it was discovered to make a good fuel for internal combustion engines. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms came into being only when John Browning, the famous gunsmith, realized that the gases escaping from the barrel after firing could be redirected to operate a reloading mechanism. Today, BMW is working on using the heat escaping from tail pipes to generate electricity and help power the car. Silicon processors generate so much heat IBM has developed a method to cool them with water; the cooling makes the processors more efficient, and now IBM is devising a way to use the heated water to warm its offices and surrounding buildings. Trinidad’s famous steelpans were originally made using empty 55-gallon oil drums from the local oil industry and US naval base. And lest we forget, someone long ago changed agriculture forever by taking note of the fact that the excretions issuing from an animal’s backside made grass grow greener.

These innovations do not occur out of a feeling of guilt or vague altruism; rather, they occur because there are high payoffs for anyone who can figure out a way to turn trash into treasure. Recycling, properly understood, is an integral part of the mechanism of capitalism and enriches modern life.

Now if I could think of some valuable way to utilize rainwater…

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »