Thursday, June 29, 2006


Via Crooked Timber - Gapminder is an incredible tool which lets you view international development statistics as animated graphs.

Have a look at this graph of life expectancy, versus GNP by country, animated by year. And then watch the interactive UNDP human development trends data show (it's on the front page, just scroll down a little).

Here's a snapshot from the Life Expectancy v GNP graph. I've tracked three countries on it. The first, Rwanda, is a tragic illustration of what genocide really means: in a few short years, life expectancy plummets from almost 45 years to slightly under 25 years, then the economy tanks. After that, you see a shaky climb back up to somewhere near where they were in 1975 (maybe a bit richer, but with a slightly lower life expectancy.) The second country I've tracked is South Korea - a development success story with a steady increase in wealth and health. The third country I've tracked is Botswana, which was for many year's considered sub-Saharan Africa's own model of success. Indeed it's trajectory is similar to South Korea's at first (just a decade behind: in 1985 it was where Korea was in 1975). Then, in the early 1990s, AIDS arrives and it drops off the edge of a cliff. Had its initial positive trend continued, Botswana may have had a life expectancy of about 70 come the turn of the millennium; instead it's around 35).

The impact of AIDS.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Johann Hari recently wrote an article criticising Niall Ferguson and his dreams of empire. Fergusson and other right wing historians responded. Hari responded, Ferguson responded again, and Hari published Ferguson's response on his website along with the responses of some of Hari's supporters. One which I wrote. It's sad to admit, but I'm kinda chuffed. This almost fills in the vast gap in my life created when Mr Hari closed the comments on his website...

UPDATE: The Indy, published the letter too. Albiet in an abridged form.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

State intervention is for Muggles!

Foreign Affairs has an excellent review of William Easterly's new book on international aid and its inadequacies written by Amartya Sen. Amongst much well reasoned argument, Sen makes the following point (which is expressed, not untypically, obtusely, but which also turns Easterly’s ill thought-out wizard-wand straight back at him).

Perhaps the weakest link in Easterly's reasoning is his almost complete neglect of the distinctions between different types of economic problems. Easterly is well aware of the efficiency of market delivery when commodities are bought in a market and backed by suitable purchasing power, and he contrasts that with the usual infelicities and inefficiencies in getting aid to those who need it most. But the distinction between the two scenarios lies not only in the different ways of meeting the respective problems, but also in the nature of the problems themselves. There is something deeply misleading in the contrast he draws between them, which seems to have motivated his entire project: "There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can't get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children." The disparity in the results is indeed heartbreaking. But jumping from there to arguing that the solution to the latter problem is along the same lines as the solution to the former reflects a misunderstanding of what makes the latter so much more difficult. (That major issue is clearly more important than the minor point that J. K. Rowling was on welfare support and received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council when writing the first Harry Potter novel.) [My emphasis]

Easterly’s argument turned into a toad…

Easterly responds here but, wisely this time, keeps Harry Potter out of it.

Another Good Hitchens Take Down

Literary magazine n+1 has an excellent takedown of Christopher Hitchens. While I differ from the article’s author in never having been a huge fan of Hitchens*, I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s central thrust. In particular, I agree that Hitchens appears to have degenerated into a single issue nutter; not only that, but someone who has chosen to focus on a single issue which – while important – is far from being the greatest threat “civilisation” is up against. Moreover, it is far from clear that he actually understands his single issue all that well either. These points, combined with is Hitchens’ proclivity for debating straw-men rather than real people – which is well documented in the n+1 piece – is for me, what makes him so annoying.

Nestled amongst the article is a good nuanced explanation of opposition to the invasion of Iraq:

Hitchens has rebuked the American left for its supposedly intransigent refusal to consider supporting the American government in any military undertaking “unless it had done everything right, and done it for everybody.” He is mistaken. I was not, I am sure, the only leftist who at least tried to distinguish between intentions and consequences. It was as plain as day to me (and no matter what Hitchens may say, I can’t help suspecting it was equally plain to him) that the Bush Administration’s chief purposes in invading Iraq were: to establish a commanding military presence in the region where the most important natural resource in the world is located; to turn a large and potentially rich country into a virtually unregulated investors’ paradise; to impress the rest of the world once again with America’s insuperable lead in military technology; to exploit the near-universal hatred of Saddam to legitimize (by establishing a precedent for) the doctrine of unilateral American military intervention expounded in the National Security Strategy document of September 2002; and to unify the electorate behind an administration that was making a hash of the economy and the environment in order to reward its campaign contributors. Still, this is not why I opposed the war. If I had not also believed that the invasion would strike a sledgehammer blow to most of the world’s fragile hopes for international order and the rule of law, I might have calculated that, whatever the government’s motives, the potentially huge expenditure of lives and money it contemplated would be better employed in removing Saddam than in, say, providing clean water, cheap vaccines, mosquito nets, et cetera to the wretched invisibles, and so saving tens of millions of lives. Not likely, but it would have been a decision based on calculation rather than principle.

Would that Hitchens could capture some of this nuance at some stage in his life. It’s unlikely, it seems: once a polemicist, always a polemicist. The writer of the n+1 article attributes Hitchens’ sharp shift from radical left to affinity with the radical right to impatience with gradual change, with progressive reform. I can empathise with Hitchens’ impatience, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it is his revolutionary zeal – whether once well placed or now sadly misplaced – that hinders him from making any serious contribution to the discussions that matter**.

* I’ll do admire his writing ability (except when it spills over into grandiloquence).
** Hitchens seems also to fixate on personalities. Sometimes this, combined with his force and urge for change, leads to his best work – I think. On the other hand it also seems to leave him staggering from vendetta to vendetta and, all too often, prone to pettiness.

humans re-considered

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the guardian publishes things like this, and you expect me not to vomit on it?

as for the Wall Street Journal all I can say is that if you were, at least, readers of the WSJ I might get a bit of variety in my diet, rather than endless canned horse.

I feel a hair-ball coming on.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cats Reconsidered

Ok, ok; after reading this I have to confess to feeling conflicted. I'm still a cat lover but Toxoplasma gondii seems just too intelligent by half.

On paper, Toxoplasma gondii looks as if it ought to be the most famous parasite on earth. This single-celled pathogen infects over half the world's population, including an estimated 50 million Americans. Each of Toxoplasma's victims carries thousands of the parasites, many residing in the brain. As if that were not enough of an accomplishment, Toxoplasma is equally adept at infecting all other warm-blooded animals, as disparate as chickens and kangaroos…Cats play a major role in the parasite's success. They can carry it in their intestines, where they can produce egglike cysts called oocysts. A single infected cat can shed 100 million oocysts in its droppings. The oocysts can survive in the soil for over a year and can contaminate drinking water… Once Toxoplasma enters a host, it spreads quickly. Within hours it can be detected in the heart and other organs. It is even able to infect the brain, which is protected from most pathogens by a tight barrier.

Mercifully the article notes that: “For the vast majority of people, Toxoplasma causes no serious effects.”*

So I guess the cat stays in tonight after all.

However, I’m still somewhat concerned:

For decades, most scientists believed that people with healthy immune systems had no effects from Toxoplasma. But some studies in recent years have hinted that the parasite can exert surprising effects on behavior, at least in animals. In 2000, British scientists demonstrated that rats infected with Toxoplasma lost their fear of cats. They proposed that this strategy increased the parasite's chances of getting into its final host.

I wonder if Toxoplasma leaves a certain other species of mammal altogether too inclined to forgive their cat's faults…

*Toxoplasma can be dangerous to the immuno-compromised and to unborn foetuses.

In Defence of Cats

On the other hand. Who could argue with a species which chases bears up trees.

This Could Only Happen to a Liberal*

Our cat started making chucking up noises the other night**. So my partner grabbed the nearest thing she could find to place between cat and carpet. And it was a success: cat vomited on newspaper not carpet, and everything was happily-ever-after-esque. Or at least it would have been to were it not for the fact that the aforementioned paper was the Guardian Weekly (brand new). We tried to punish the cat by putting him outside, but he gave me that kind of look which said, “punish me, when you're at least partially at fault, that can’t be just”. So I relented and let him stay inside. Do Wall Street Journal Readers have these kind of problems? I suspect not…

*technically left-liberal
**which could be the result of over feeding stemming from redistributionist tendencies on behalf of the cat’s owners co-habitants.