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May 31, 2007

A Sincere Environmentalist: "If I Was a Student, I Would March Against Myself"


 

ConlinMichelleEnvironmentalist.jpg   Environmentalist Michele Conlin scooters around New York during the winter.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

(p. D7)  Ms. Conlin, . . . , said she saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in an air-conditioned movie theater last summer. “It was like, ‘J’accuse!’ ” she said. “I just felt like everything I did in my life was contributing to a system that was really problematic.” Borrowing a phrase from her husband, she continued, “If I was a student, I would march against myself.”

 

For the full story, see: 

PENELOPE GREEN.  "The Year Without Toilet Paper."  The New York Times  (Thurs., March 22, 2007):  D1 & D7.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




May 30, 2007

As Online Book Sales Increase, So Do Total Book Sales


   Source of graphs:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

The graph on the left would not surprise Chris Anderson of The Long Tail.  Selling books online supplies greater variety, so that when online sales grow, overall book sales grow too. 

 

(p. B1)  For six years, Borders Group Inc. has pursued a distinctly unfashionable strategy: betting big on bricks and mortar while paying little attention to the online world. But with online sales capturing an ever-increasing share of the book business, the No. 2 book retailer is reversing course.

Today, Borders announced its intention to reopen its own branded e-commerce Web site in early 2008, ending an alliance with Amazon.com Inc. that had been the core of its online strategy.

 

For the full story, see: 

JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG.  "Borders Business Plan Gets a Rewrite; It Will Reopen Web Site, Give Up Most Stores Abroad, Close Many Waldenbooks."   The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., March 22, 2007):   B1 & B2. 

 

BordersStore.jpg JonesGeorgeBordersCEO.gif  Photo on left is a Borders store; image on right is of Borders CEO George Jones.  Source of photo and image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




May 29, 2007

Beautiful Downtown Burbank, Runs Amok


Cultural history background for the young:  at the beginning of every installment of the "Rowan and Martin Laugh-In" TV comedy review (circa 1968-1973), someone would sarcastically intone that the show was being broadcast from "beautiful downtown Burbank." 

Excerpted below is Daniel Pink's incredible conversation with a Burbank city clerk:

 

(p. 199)  What led me to this 100,000-person city in California's San Fernando Valley---past the fish fountains, to the steps of City Hall---was a rumor I'd heard that Burbank puts free agents in jail.

. . .

(p. 200)  After fifteen minutes of probing, here's the gist of what he tells me:  If I want to write from a home office in Burbank, I first must apply for a home occupation license.  The city would examine my application, and then come to my house to inspect the office from which I intended to work.  Once the inspector deemed my home office safe for writing and unthreatening to my neighbors, I could begin earning a living, my workplace now officially blessed by the city.

But that was only the beginning.  I'd have to pay a special tax.  And I'd have to abide by the strictures of Burbank Municipal Code Section 31-672---which, among other things, said:  My office couldn't be larger than four hundred square feet or 20 percent of my home's square footage.  I couldn't put my home office in a "garage, carport, or any other area required or designated for the parking of vehicles."  The only "materials, equipment, and/or tools" I could use to do my work were things used by "a normal household."  I couldn't use my home office to repair cars, sell guns, or operate a kennel.  And the only folks who could ever work with me in the office were people who lived with me.

That last provision alarmed me.

Pointing to Section 31-672(c), I ask, "Does this mean I can't have a meeting at my house?"

"Yep," says the clerk.  "You'd have to somewhere else."

"Let me get this straight," I say.  "Let's say I'm a writer collaborating on a screenplay.  If my collaborator comes over and we work on the screenplay together, that's against the law?  It's a misdemeanor to have a meeting at your house?"

"Yep," says the clerk.

"Isn't California a 'three strikes and you're out' state?"

"Yep."

Burbank, we we have a problem.  I hope it's unlikely that a free agent who has three meetings at her house, and gets caught, prosecuted, and convicted each time, goes to jail for the rest of her life.  But the mere possibility reflects a wider problem with America's legal, policy, and tax regimes.  They were built for a (p. 201) work world that has largely disappeared, and are ill equipped for the new world that has arrived.

 

Source:

Pink, Daniel H.  Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live.  New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

(Note:  italics in original; ellipsis added.)

 




May 28, 2007

"The Odor of Stagnation"


 

(p. 244)  Whenever I walk into a public school, I stagger a bit at the entrance.  The moment I step across the threshold, I'm nearly toppled by a wave of nostalgia.  Most schools I've visited in the twenty-first century look and feel exactly like the central Ohio, public schools I attended in the 1970s.  The classrooms are the same size.  The desks stand in those same rows.  Bulletin boards preview the next national holiday.  The hallways even smell the same.  Sure, some classrooms might have a computer or two.  But in most respects, the schools American children attend today seem indistinguishable from the ones their parents and grandparents attended generations earlier.

At first such deja vu warmed my soul.  But then I thought about it.  How many other places look and feel exactly as they did twenty, thirty, or forty years ago?  Banks don't.  Hospitals don't.  Grocery stores don't.  Maybe the sweet nostalgia I sniffed on those classroom visits was really the odor of stagnation.

 

Source:

Pink, Daniel H.  Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live.  New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

(Note:  italics in original.)

 




May 27, 2007

Destroying Dams Can Hurt the Environment Too


 

SandyRiverDamRemoved.jpg   In response to environmental concerns, the Sandy River Dam is destroyed.  Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

The WSJ summarizes an article from the March Scientific American:

 

Environmental concerns have led the U.S. to pull down an increasing number of aging dams in the last decade, returning water to dry streams, birds to wetlands, and migratory fish to rivers. But environmentalists are also learning a torn-down dam can leave a host of challenges, writes Jane C. Marks, an ecologist at Northern Arizona University.

Sediment that has accumulated behind the dam can muddy the waters of a river, choking insects and algae that fish need to survive. Seeds buried in the sediment might unleash alien crops that kill local species and contaminated sediment might make fish poisonous.  . . .

Exotic fish can also become a problem. A dam in Arizona had been blocking exotic fish such as bass and sunfish from getting into a creek. Biologists were concerned that, without the dam, local fish in the creek would be wiped out as the exotic fish arrived.

. . .

Dams can cause dilemmas beyond the environment. Ms. Marks mentions how a father and son bitterly disagreed over the Loire dams' removal. The father wanted the salmon and wild waters of his youth to return, whereas the son wanted to preserve the swims and boating trips of his youth.

 

For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; Environment; As U.S. Tears Down Dams and Rivers Rebound, Scientists Find a Flood of Ecological Risks."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., February 21, 2007):  B12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




May 26, 2007

"A Triumph of Engaged Amateurism"


 

Steven Johnson has a great passage on the contribution of the amateur in The Ghost Map story (see below).

This is a theme that resonates.  In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson makes the case for amateurs in astronomy.  (Is it he, who points out that the root of the word "amateur" is to love?)

Stigler had an important early paper in which he discusses the professionalization of the economics profession.  He praises the results, but what he presents provides some grist for the mill of criticism too.  For example, the exit of the amateurs, reduced the applicability of the work, and turned research more toward internal puzzle-solving, and model-building.

The web is a leveler in science, as suggested in an NBER paper.  Maybe the result will be a resurgence of amateurism, and maybe that won't be all bad.

 

(p. 202)  But Broad Street should be understood not just as the triumph of rogue science, but also, and just as important, as the triumph of a certain mode of engaged amateurism.  Snow himself was a kind of amateur.  He had no institutional role where cholera was concerned; his interest in the disease was closer to a hobby than a true vocation.  But Whitehead was an amateur par excellence.  He had no medical training, no background in public health.  His only credentials for solving the mystery behind London's most devastating outbreak of disease were his open and probing mind and his intimate knowledge of the community. 

 

Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

 

(Note:  A probably relevant, much praised book, that I have never gotten around to reading, is Martin J.S. Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy:  The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists.)

 




May 25, 2007

Global Warming Would Give Access to Huge Oil and Gas Now Under Ice


 

The WSJ summarizes a Feb. 18, 2007 article from the Boston Globe.  Here is an excerpt from the summary:

 

(p. B12) Among the many changes global warming might bring, the melting ice in the Arctic could eventually give access to the oil and gas under the ice, estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to amount to a quarter of the world's reserves. Fifty-five million years ago the region was a warm land of crocodiles and palm trees whose remains have since become fossil fuel, reports Drake Bennett. The Arctic ice has made the fuel practically inaccessible by making drilling hard and blocking ships.

 

For the full summary, see:

"Informed Reader; Global Warming; Arctic Melting May Clear Path to Vast Deposits of Oil and Gas."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., February 21, 2007):  B12.

 




May 24, 2007

Chambers of Commerce Dump Commerce and Embrace Big Government


 

The Chamber of Commerce, long a supporter of limited government and low taxes, was part of the coalition backing the Reagan revolution in the 1980s. On the national level, the organization still follows a pro-growth agenda -- but thanks to an astonishing political transformation, many chambers of commerce on the state and local level have been abandoning these goals. They're becoming, in effect, lobbyists for big government.

. . .

In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses -- at least those not connected at the hip with government -- to prosper. Journalist Tim Carney agrees: All too often, he notes in his recent book, "Rip-Off," "state and local chambers have become corrupted by the lure of big dollar corporate welfare schemes."

. . .

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce boasts that the organization's "core mission is to fight for business and free enterprise before Congress, the White House, regulatory agencies . . . and governments around the world." The national chamber has done just that, pushing tort reform and free trade -- but in the states, chambers have come to believe their primary function is to secure tax financing for sports stadiums, convention centers, high-tech research institutes and transit boondoggles. Some local chambers have reportedly asked local utilities, school administrators and even politicians to join; others have opened membership to arts councils, museums, civic associations and other "tax eater" entities.

. . .

"I used to think that public employee unions like the NEA were the main enemy in the struggle for limited government, competition and private sector solutions," says Mr. Caldera of the Independence Institute. "I was wrong. Our biggest adversary is the special interest business cartel that labels itself 'the business community' and its political machine run by chambers and other industry associations." 

 

For the full commentary, see: 

STEPHEN MOORE.  "Tax Chambers."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., February 10, 2007):  A8.

(Note:  ellipses added, except the one in the quote following the word "agencies.")

 




May 23, 2007

Private Money Can Top Government Money in Space, as in IT


 

Lots of people are building new IT companies. You can start a company and sell it to Yahoo! or Google in a couple of years. But so can anyone else. Aerospace is different. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy in 1962: We choose to go to the moon not because it's easy, but because it's hard.

That's why, as a long-time investor in IT and Internet start-ups, I'm now spending more and more time on private aviation and commercial space start-ups. I'm trailing an illustrius crew of IT pioneers: Elon Musk (Space-X, rockets, formerly with PayPal), Vern Raburn (Eclipse Aviation, very light jets, formerly at Microsoft, Symantec and Lotus), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin, rockets, and still at Amazon, too!), Jeff Greason (XCOR, rockets and formerly with Intel) and Ed Iacobucci (DayJet, air taxi operator, and founder of Citrix).

. . .

On the space side, there's a . . . strong parallel with the world of IT. The establishment in "space" is the government and especially the military, just as it once was (along with academia) for the Internet. I remember the days when commerce on the Internet was considered sleazy—but look at the innovations and productivity it unleashed.

In the same way, the current priests of space are dismayed by the privately funded space start-ups—unsafe, sleazy, frivolous. Imagine: Ads on the side of a rocket ship! Well, why not, if it helps pay for the fuel... and the R&D that designed the thing?

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ESTHER DYSON  "New Horizons for the Intrepid VC."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., March 20, 2007):  A19.

(Note:  ellipses added, except for the ellipsis following the word "fuel" which was in the original.)

 




May 22, 2007

Why Starbucks Coffee is a Bargain


 

(p. 161)  These coffee places, most of which didn't even exist ten years ago, had several virtues.  They were always in convenient locations.  They permitted, even welcomed, patrons to sit and talk for several hours.  And they had tables for spreading out my materials and electrical outlets for plugging in my equipment.  In short, they provided a four-hour office rental for the price of a three-dollar latte.

. . .  

(p. 162)  Starbucks and its caffeinated cousins are part of what I call the free agent infrastructure.  The components of this infrastructure, which I'll review in a moment, include copy shops, office supply superstores, bookstore cafés, overnight delivery services, executive suites, and the Internet.  Like America's system of federal highways, the free agent infrastructures form the physical foundation on which the economy operates.  But unlike the federal highway system, which was planned and paid for by the government, this infrastructure emerged more or less spontaneously.  Like so many other aspects of Free Agent Nation, it is self-organized.  Nobody is in charge of it.  That's why it woks.  It  works so well, in fact, that few people realize that this collection of commercial Establishments even constitutes an infrastructure.

 

Source:

Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

 




May 21, 2007

Internet Transmits and Applies Libertarian Ideas


 

Source of book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/1586483501.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg

 

Today the Internet has become, Mr. Doherty notes, an efficient way to transmit libertarian ideas and show their practical application. (With its decentralized, free-wheeling ethos, the Internet is itself libertarian without even trying to be.) Jimmy Wales, the man who started the interactive online encyclopedia Wikipedia, believes that "facts can help set the world free." The largest retail market in the world is eBay, which allows anyone to buy and sell without a government license.

Louis Rosetto, the "radical capitalist" who founded Wired magazine, notes that, even if libertarian ideas must now push against a statist status quo, "contrarians end up being the drivers of change." Among the most ornery contrarians, he says, are the libertarians "laboring in obscurity, if not in derision." They have managed "to keep a pretty pure idea going, adapting it to circumstances and watching it be validated by the march of history." Mr. Doherty has rescued libertarianism from its own obscurity, eloquently capturing the appeal of the "pure idea," its origins in great minds and the feistiness of its many current champions.

 

For the full review, see: 

JOHN H. FUND.  "BOOKSHELF; Free to Choose, and a Good Thing, Too."  The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., February 15, 2007):  D7.

 




May 20, 2007

Should Netscape Be Viewed as a Failed Company, or as a Successful Project?


 

(p. 53)  Recall the story of Netscape, once the darling of the New Economy.  Netscape was formed in 1994.  It went public in 1995.  And by 1999, it was gone, purchased by America Online and subsumed into AOL's operation.  Life span:  four years.  Half-life:  two years.  Was Netscape a company---or was it really a project?  Does the distinction even matter?  What matters most is that this short-lived entity put several products on the market, prompted established companies (notably Microsoft) to shift strategies, and (p. 54) equipped a few thousand individuals with experience, wealth, and connections that they could bring to their next project.

And Netscape is not alone.  A University of Texas study found that between 1970 and 1992, the half-life of Texas businesses shrank by 50 percent.  Likewise, a Federal Reserve analysis of New York companies found that the type of firm that created the most new jobs (microbusineses with fewer than ten employees) often had the shortest life span.  The life cycle of companies has been that jobs, too, have diminishing half-lives.  Ten years ago, nobody ever heard of a Web developer.  Ten years from now, nobody may remember Web developers.

Most important, at the very moment the longevity of companies is shrinking, the longevity of individuals is expanding.  Unlike Americans in the twentieth century, most of us today can expect to outlive just about any organization for which we work.  It's hard to imagine a lifelong job at an organization whose lifetime will be shorter--often much shorter--than your own.

 

Source:

Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

 




May 19, 2007

Medicare Part D Privatization "Has Succeeded"


 

The author of the commentary excerpted below, won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2000. 

 

Last year, Medicare underwent a major expansion with the addition of Part D prescription drug coverage. A controversial feature of this new program was its organization as a market in which consumers could choose among various plans offered competitively by different insurers and HMOs, rather than the single-payer, single-product model used elsewhere in the Medicare system. Proponents of this design touted the choices it would offer consumers, and the benefits of competition for product quality and cost; opponents objected that consumers would be overwhelmed by the complexity of the market, and that it was unnecessarily generous to pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

Part D is a massive social experiment on the ability of a privatized market to deliver social services effectively. With the support of the National Institute on Aging, my research group has monitored consumer choices and outcomes from the new Part D market.  . . .

. . .

My overall conclusion is that, so far, the Part D program has succeeded in getting affordable prescription drugs to the senior population. Its privatized structure has not been a significant impediment to delivery of these services. Competition among insurers seems to have been effective in keeping a lid on costs, and assuring reasonable quality control. We do not have an experiment in which we can determine whether a single-product system could have done as well, or better, along these dimensions, but I think it is reasonable to say that the Part D market has performed as well as its partisans hoped, and far better than its detractors expected.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DANIEL L. MCFADDEN.  "A Dog's Breakfast."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., February 16, 2007):  A15.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 




May 18, 2007

"Free Agent Nation" Still Rings True


 

   Source of book image:  http://g-ec2.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/ciu/10/ae/8ca3d250fca0f5b077de4010.L.jpg

 

Daniel Pink's 2001 Free Agent Nation has been on my to-read list since it first came out.  It finally made it to the top---at least in the author-abridged two-cassette incarnation.

I always found the basic idea appealing:  the appeal of the freedom of working for yourself---Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, but for real. 

But I also was a little anxious; fearful that the book would place too much emphasis on seeming flash-in-the-pan dot.com labor market phenomena and rhetoric.

To my relief, I can report that little in the book depends on the dot.com over-exuberance.  The internet appears, as an infrastructure enabler, but the free agents are mainly doing more standard stuff, but doing it from a home office, and doing it project-by-project.

Pink is not an academic, which has pros and cons.  One of the pros is that his prose is pleasant.  Another is that he has an ear for a good story and a telling example.  Perhaps a con is that he often hasn't had the time, or the interest, (or maybe the data just don't exist) to often follow-up with how widespread his examples are.

Still there's some good stuff here.  Like suggesting that free agency is what you would expect more of us to pursue, as we work our way up Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs.  (In college I was enthused enough about Maslow that I was thinking of minoring in psychology, until they told me how many hours I would have to run rats through mazes before I'd be allowed to open a Maslow book.)

And there's plausible discussion about how in some ways free agency is more secure than a regular job (multiple clients means diversification).  And there is more freedom to control your own time, and be your authentic self.

There's also some good discussion of how the government makes free agency harder through health care and taxation policies.

All-in-all, this book helps make the case that labor can thrive in a Schumpeterian world of creative destruction.

 

Reference to the book:

Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. New York: Warner Business Books, 2001.

 




May 17, 2007

The Best Case for Supporting a Tariff


 

I doubt the veracity of George Pendle's humorous, but unkind, comment about Millard Fillmore's views:

 

“His firm support for tariffs, . . . , seems to have been based on a misapprehension that a tariff was a long-legged marsh bird.”

 

Pendle is quoted in: 

THOMAS VINCIGUERRA.  "Why He Gets the Laughs."  The New York Times, Section 4  (Sun., March 18, 2007):  5.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

Pendle's forthcoming book, is:

Pendle, George.  The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President.  Three Rivers Press, 2007.

 




May 16, 2007

DNA Scientist-Entrepreneur Venter at Sea


VenterSeaMap.jpg   The projected path of Venter's Sorcerer II ship in collecting sea organisms.  Source of map:  http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=706

 

Craig Venter's private gene-sequencing effort beat the government's effort.  His new research is being funded by a $24.5 million private grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.  (For more information beyond the WSJ article excerpted below, see the Scripps Institution of Oceanography press release.)

 

(p. B1)  Marine microbes are among the most abundant life form on the planet and among the most mysterious. Now, results from the first phase of a global expedition are expected to provide a glimpse into this long-hidden world while potentially leading to new drugs and even fighting climate change.

Craig Venter, the brash biologist who helped crack the human genome seven years ago, says he and other scientists have used DNA-analysis techniques to discover millions of new genes and thousands of new proteins in ocean microbes. These microscopic life forms are mainly bacteria and organisms known as archaea.

"Everything we've seen is a surprise," Mr. Venter said in a phone interview from his marine research vessel, Sorcerer II, in the Sea of Cortez. The unexpected variety of microbial DNA he's found overturns earlier notions that the oceans are a homogenous soup of bacteria and other microscopic life. The details are being published today in the Public Library of Science Biology, an Internet-based scientific journal.

A diverse supply of microbial DNA from the oceans could be a rich lode for scientists. Drug companies are hunting for new compounds in sea creatures, especially to attack cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. The new data will also allow researchers to compare the DNA of oceanic bacteria to the genetic code of microorganisms that cause human disease.

"This is the largest DNA sequence ever obtained, and the magnitude of what's being done is entirely unparalleled," said Douglas Bartlett, professor of marine microbiology at the University of California, San Diego, who isn't involved in Dr. Venter's project. Marine microbes "have all kind of metabolic activity. It is expected that [Dr. Venter's team] will discover new pathways for making drugs and treating infectious disease."

 

For the full story, see: 

GAUTAM NAIK.  "Seafaring Scientist Sees Rich Promise In Tiny Organisms."  The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., March 13, 2007):  B1 & B5.

 

   Photo on left shows Venter (on left) on his Socerer II research ship.  Photo on right shows a slide of sea bacteria collected by Venter.  Source of photos:  http://scrippsnews.ucsd.edu/Releases/?releaseID=706

 




May 15, 2007

Commodity Trading Philistines Were Actually Not Very "Philistine"


  Inscriptions on Philistine pottery are being interpreted as evidence of a Philistine written language.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

Archaeologists have applied more polish to the long-tarnished reputation of the Philistines.

In recent years, excavations in Israel established that the Philistines had fine pottery, handsome architecture and cosmopolitan tastes. If anything, they were more refined than the shepherds and farmers in the nearby hills, the Israelites, who slandered them in biblical chapter and verse and rendered their name a synonym for boorish, uncultured people.

Archaeologists have now found that not only were Philistines cultured, they were also literate when they arrived, presumably from the region of the Aegean Sea, and settled the coast of ancient Palestine around 1200 B. C.

At the ruins of a Philistine seaport at Ashkelon in Israel, excavators examined 19 ceramic pieces and determined that their painted inscriptions represent a form of writing.  . . .

. . .

“We had no direct evidence of their early writing,” Dr. Stager said. “We knew they had weights and measures for trading commodities, even precursors of coinage. So we assumed they had some notation or writing system.”

 

For the full story, see: 

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Philistines, but Less and Less Philistine."  The New York Times  (Tues., March 13, 2007):  D3.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

  Philistine excavation.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above 

 




May 14, 2007

Why More Cancer Screening May Not Lead to Longer Lives


(p. D8)  Most of us interpret “increased survival” to mean fewer deaths. But it does not, because survival is subject to two powerful distortions.

The first is called lead-time bias. Simply advancing the time of diagnosis (as with CT screening) will always increase survival.

Imagine two patients with lung cancer. Even if both die at age 70, a patient with cancer diagnosed by spiral CT screening at age 59 has a longer survival than one with cancer diagnosed because of symptoms (cough, weight loss and so on) at age 67. The first patient survives 11 years; the second 3 years. But both died at the same age. Survival is increased, but mortality is the same.

A second source of distortion results from overdiagnosis, when screening finds cancers that were never destined to progress and cause death. Overdiagnosis bias can also drastically inflate survival statistics, even if mortality is unchanged.

To understand why, you need to understand the definition of the two statistics. Both are fractions. Survival is calculated over a fixed period, for example 5 or 10 years.

Overdiagnosis inflates both the numerator of the survival statistic (number alive at a specified time) and the denominator (number of diagnoses). For the mortality statistic, overdiagnosis has no effect on the numerator (number of deaths) or the denominator (number studied). Perhaps the easiest way to understand this is to imagine if we told all the people in the country that they had lung cancer today: lung cancer mortality would be unchanged, but lung cancer survival would skyrocket.

The goal of lung cancer screening is to reduce mortality — to save lives. Because the New England Journal study examines only survival, it cannot tell us whether any lives are saved. Because the JAMA study examines mortality, it is the more valid study. It also corroborates the Mayo trial finding that a significantly increased survival rate can coexist with no difference in mortality.

 

For the full essay, see:

H. Gilbert Welch, Steven Woloshin and Lisa M. Schwartz.  "ESSAY; How Two Studies on Cancer Screening Led to Two Results."  The New York Times  (Tues., March 13, 2007):  D5 & D8.

 

The New England Journal of Medicine article was published on Oct. 26, 2006, and the lead author was Claudia Henschke.

The JAMA article was published in March 2007.

 

 

 




May 13, 2007

New York Times Reports Al Gore Inaccurate and Alarmist on Global Warming


 

   Al Gore lectures.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

 

(p. D1)  Hollywood has a thing for Al Gore and his three-alarm film on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary. So do many environmentalists, who praise him as a visionary, and many scientists, who laud him for raising public awareness of climate change.

But part of his scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore’s central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.

“I don’t want to pick on Al Gore,” Don J. Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology at Western Washington University, told hundreds of experts at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. “But there are a lot of inaccuracies in the statements we are seeing, and we have to temper that with real data.”

. . .

(p. D6)  Geologists have documented age upon age of climate swings, and some charge Mr. Gore with ignoring such rhythms.

“Nowhere does Mr. Gore tell his audience that all of the phenomena that he describes fall within the natural range of environmental change on our planet,” Robert M. Carter, a marine geologist at James Cook University in Australia, said in a September blog. “Nor does he present any evidence that climate during the 20th century departed discernibly from its historical pattern of constant change.”

In October, Dr. Easterbrook made similar points at the geological society meeting in Philadelphia. He hotly disputed Mr. Gore’s claim that “our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this” threatened change.

Nonsense, Dr. Easterbrook told the crowded session. He flashed a slide that showed temperature trends for the past 15,000 years. It highlighted 10 large swings, including the medieval warm period. These shifts, he said, were up to “20 times greater than the warming in the past century.”

Getting personal, he mocked Mr. Gore’s assertion that scientists agreed on global warming except those industry had corrupted. “I’ve never been paid a nickel by an oil company,” Dr. Easterbrook told the group. “And I’m not a Republican.”

 

For the full story, see: 

WILLIAM J. BROAD.  "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype." The New York Times  (Tues., March 13, 2007):  D1 & D6.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

EasterbrookDon.jpg   Geologist Don Easterbrook.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

 




May 12, 2007

GE Stands Up for Innovation and Free Choice


MoorheadRandallLightBulbs.jpg   Randall Moorehead's Phillips Electronics wants the government to force us to switch from the incandescent bulb on the left, to bulbs like the Phillips bulb on the right.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

WASHINGTON, March 13 — A coalition of industrialists, environmentalists and energy specialists is banding together to try to eliminate the incandescent light bulb in about 10 years.

In an agreement to be announced Wednesday, the coalition members, including Philips Lighting, the largest manufacturer; the Natural Resources Defense Council; and two efficiency organizations, are pledging to press for efficiency standards at the local, state and federal levels.  . . .

. . .

The Australian government said on Feb. 20 that it would seek to ban incandescent bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescents. Shortly thereafter, the environment minister of Ontario, Laurel Broten, said her province was considering a similar step, and a California assemblyman, Lloyd Levine, introduced a bill to do the same.

“Incandescent light bulbs were first developed almost 125 years ago,” Mr. Levine said, “and since that time they have undergone no major modifications.”

Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, one of the groups in the alliance seeking to end the use of incandescent bulbs, predicted, “I think you’re going to see these disparate efforts adding up to this great tidal wave.” The problem, she said, was that “the incandescent spends most of its life making heat, not light.”

But General Electric, which traces its origins to Edison, said that could change.

“It’s shortsighted to freeze technology in favor of today’s high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps,” the company said in a statement. ”We’d rather keep innovating and offering traditional, commercial and industrial consumers more energy-efficient choices — not fewer choices.”

 

For the full story, see: 

MATTHEW L. WALD.  "A U.S. Alliance to Update the Light Bulb."  The New York Times   (Weds., March 14, 2007):  C3.

(Note:  ellipses addd.)

 




May 11, 2007

Hospital Heart Care Better on Weekdays, than on Weekends


   The open spaces in the weekend hospital parking lot on the left, compared to the crowded weekday lot on the right, is consistent with the findings of lower weekend staffing levels.  (These photos are from Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital.)  Source of photos:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

An extensive study of heart attack patients in New Jersey finds that those who arrived at hospitals on weekends were less likely to receive aggressive treatment and were slightly more likely to die than those who arrived on weekdays, researchers are reporting today.

The study, based on an analysis of 231,164 heart attack patients admitted to New Jersey hospitals from 1987 to 2002, found a gap of almost 1 percentage point in heart attack death rates over one three-year span, 12.9 percent for weekend patients and 12 percent for weekday patients.

The deaths occurred within a month of admission.

In that period, 1999 to 2002, 10 percent of weekday patients had angioplasty to open blocked arteries on the day they were admitted, compared with 6.7 percent of weekend patients. Angioplasty within a few hours of the start of heart attacks can interrupt the attacks and save lives.

The study, led by William J. Kostis, a fourth-year medical student at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J., who also has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, is being published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Donald A. Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto who wrote an accompanying editorial, said the higher death rate on weekends “has everything to do with staffing in hospitals.” It can mean, Dr. Redelmeier said, that not enough expert medical staff members are available on weekends for prompt and aggressive treatment.

“It’s not just that there are fewer people around, but those who are around are often spread thinner,” he added. “And there is a shift in seniority, as well. The most skilled and savvy people don’t work weekends.”

 

For the full story, see: 

GINA KOLATA.  "Death Rate Higher in Heart Attack Patients Hospitalized on Weekends, Study Finds."  The New York Times  (Thurs., March 15, 2007):  A19.

 

 




May 10, 2007

Communist Hugo Chávez: Is He Loco to Fight Inflation with the Locha?


 

   Hugo Chávez expects to end inflation by bringing back the "locha" 12 ½-cent coin (held in this picture by coin dealer Antonio Allesandrini).  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.   

 

(p. 8)  CARACAS, Venezuela, March 17 — Of all the startling measures announced by President Hugo Chávez this year, from the nationalization of major utilities to threats of imprisonment for violators of price controls, none have baffled economists quite like his venture into monetary reform.

First, Mr. Chávez said the authorities would remove three zeroes from the denomination of the currency, the bolívar. Then he said the new bolívar, worth 1,000 old bolívars, would be renamed the “bolívar fuerte,” or strong bolívar.

Finally, at the behest of Mr. Chávez, the central bank said this week that it would reintroduce a 12.5-cent coin, a symbol of Venezuela’s prosperity in the 1960s and 1970s before freewheeling oil booms ended in abrupt devaluations, after three decades out of circulation.

Mr. Chávez champions these ideas, which will take effect in January, as ways to combat inflation, which in recent weeks crept up to 20 percent, the highest in Latin America.  . . .

. . .

“We’re witnessing policy in the form of window dressing, all carried out at the whim of one man whose strong point is not economics,” said Hugo Faría, an economist at the Institute of Higher Management Studies, a private business school here. “Anyone who sees a 12 ½-cent coin as a remedy for this country’s problems isn’t thinking too clearly.”

 

For the full story, see: 

SIMON ROMERO.  "Venezuelan Lender Sets Siights on Currency Valuation."  The New York Times, Section 1  (Sun., March 18, 2007):  8.

(Note:  ellipses added.)

(Note:  the online version of the title is the slightly different, "Venezuela to Give Currency New Name and Numbers.")

 




May 9, 2007

To the Ultimate Luddites: "Build Coffins, That's All You'll Need"


   Charlton Heston as Robert Neville, the last scientist on earth.  Source of photo:  http://datacore.sciflicks.com/the_omega_man/images/the_omega_man_large_09.jpg

 

In the 1970s, one of my favorite films was "The Omega Man" (1971) starring Charlton Heston as the doctor/scientist who was the last healthy man on earth.  A plague had killed most of humanity, leaving a few in a demented "tertiary" condition.  Heston as "Robert Neville" had developed a vaccine, but only had been able to test it on himself, as the world collapsed.  

Those in the "tertiary" state had been organized by a former broadcast commentator named "Matthias" into the "family" whose goal it was to burn books, and destroy all remnants of science and technology. 

At one point near the end, the family captures Neville, and as the family destroys Neville's paintings, and laboratory, Matthias rants that Neville is the last scientist, the last remnant of the old world, and that all will be well when they have destroyed him.  Then comes one of my favorite exchanges.

 

Matthias: Now we must build.

Robert Neville: Build coffins, that's all you'll need.

 

When I saw the movie again today (3/16/07) for the first time in decades, I was worried that I had built it up in my memory, and that the reality would be way disappointing. 

I was relieved to see that the movie, though not perfect, was still plenty good enough.

 




May 8, 2007

Pushing the Flywheel of Business (and Life)


 

FlywheelGiant.gif   A flywheel lathe from the mid-1700s.  Source of image:  http://www.stuartking.co.uk/articles/lathe.htm

 

In Jim Collins' book Good to Great, I really liked his flywheel analogy, that makes the point that in business (and life), success often is mainly due to the day-in-day-out exertion of effort and care.  The version below is from a Collins article, based on his book.

 

Now picture a huge, heavy flywheel. It's a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It's about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons. That flywheel is your company. Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum -- mass times velocity -- is what will generate superior economic results over time.

Right now, the flywheel is at a standstill. To get it moving, you make a tremendous effort. You push with all your might, you make a tremendous effort...and finally you get the flywheel to inch forward. After two or three days of sustained effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster. It takes a lot of work, but at last the flywheel makes a second rotation. You keep pushing steadily. It makes three turns, four, five, six turns. With each turn it moves faster, and then - at some point, you can't say exactly when - you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren't pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing.

 

Source: 

Jim Collins.  "Good to Great."  Fast Company 51 (September 2001):  90.

 




May 7, 2007

Under Capitalism, the "Innately Conscientious" Usually Earn More


 

In the excerpt below, the WSJ summarizes an article that appeared in Forbes on March 12, 2007.  The summarized study implies that those who are innately conscientious end up being rewarded with higher income.  I hope it is true.  My guess is that the world comes closer to working that way under capitalist institutions, than under other economic systems.  (Note that this study was done by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, which implies that we're talking about what happens in the United States.)

 

The insight originates in 1979, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics paid 12,700 young people $50 to take a range of tests, one of which required a simple code to be deciphered. The BLS has since surveyed the test takers regularly. Going through the data, Carmit Segal, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Business School, found a strong relationship between someone's score in the coding test and his or her income over 20 years later, even taking into account differences in IQ.

Ms. Segal argues those who did well on the test were driven entirely by an innate conscientiousness, because candidates had nothing to gain from doing well on it.

 

For the full story, see: 

"The Informed Reader; Workplace; Job Test That Predicts Effort Gets Help From Professors."  The Wall Street Journal  (Mon., February 26, 2007):  B6.

(Note:  the online version has a different subtitle:  "A Tricky Test Could Reveal Job Applicants' Work Ethic")

 




May 6, 2007

"We In Las Vegas Reinvent Ourselves All the Time"


 

   Dust from the implosion of the Stardust.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

If any city in the United States has dynamism, it is Las Vegas.  Yet, note in the passage below, that even in Las Vegas there are those who want dynamism to die.  

 

Las Vegas has become known in recent decades for tearing down the notable resorts that first put the Strip on the map, and famous places like the Dunes, the Hacienda and the Sands have been replaced by the Bellagio, the Mandalay Bay and the Venetian.

“The Stardust was the Bellagio of its day, the most dazzling casino out there,” said Nicholas Pileggi, who spent four years researching the exploits of Frank Rosenthal, the mobster who ran the Stardust, for his best-selling nonfiction book “Casino” and the fictionalized screenplay for the Robert DeNiro film of the same name. “But time moves on.” 

The oldest casino structure on the Strip now is a part of a coffee shop at the Sahara and dates back just 55 years.

“Unlike most other cities, we in Las Vegas reinvent ourselves all the time,” Mr. Boyd said. “In order to keep up with the competition, you have to keep improving your product. That’s what we’re going to do here at the Stardust. But we still have great memories.”

Some are not so accepting of the changes in the city. Joel Rosales, 23, owns the Web site LeavingLV.net, which pays tribute to each property that is razed.

The loss of the Stardust, Mr. Rosales said, is particularly disappointing.

“Having been born and raised here in Vegas, it’s always been a rock,” he said of the resort. “I wouldn’t say I’m as upset as I am disappointed that we as a city have no sense of preserving our past and heritage, no matter how tacky or out-of-date it may be.”

 

For the full story, see: 

STEVE FRIESS.  "Aging Resort Demolished to Make Way for a Young One."  The New York Times  (Weds., March 14, 2007):   A14.

 

    Celebration of, and then demolition of, the Stardust.  Source of the photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




May 5, 2007

George Stigler on Astrology


 

I remember George Stigler saying (I think in conversation with me, but maybe as an aside in a lecture), that at first he had been inclined to reject a paper for the JPE that empirically tested astrology.  His reason was that, while he liked what the authors were doing, he was not sure that what they were doing, most appropriately belonged in an economics journal.

But when the authors convinced him that they would not be able to publish it anywhere else, he changed his mind and published it.

The episode tells us something about Stigler, and something about scientific method.  About Stigler, the episode provides strong evidence of the importance that Stigler placed on evidence, relative to theory.

On scientific method, the episode can be taken as an illustration of Karl Popper's distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification.  There are many sources of hypotheses (the context of discovery).  Famously, Kepler's inspiration for the elliptical paths of planets, had a somewhat mystical source in the "perfect" solids.  But what makes a theory "scientific" is not its context of discovery, but its context of justification, viz., is the theory subjected to empirical test?

Hypotheses are not ruled out of science ab initio, but by being inconsistent with the evidence.  I agree with this view, which explains why I am a (passive) member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is devoted to the empirical testing of politically incorrect theories (such as UFOs, the Shroud of Turin, ESP, the Loch Ness Monster, etc.)

 

The JPE astrology article, accepted by Stigler as editor, was: 

Bennett, James T., and James R. Barth. "Astronomics: A New Approach to Economics?" Journal of Political Economy 81, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1973): 1473-75.

 

A more recent empirical test of an astrological hypothesis is:

Wong, Ka-Fu, and Linda Yung. "Do Dragons Have Better Fate?" Economic Inquiry 43, no. 3 (July 2005): 689-97.

 

For more on Popper's views of science, consult:

Popper, Karl R. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

 




May 4, 2007

Venturing Into the Mean Streets to Get the Job Done


 

(p. 108)  It is worth pausing for a second to reflect on Snow's willingness to pursue his investigation this far.  Here we have a man who had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian medical practice---attending on the queen of England with a procedure that he himself had pioneered---who was nonetheless willing to spend every spare moment away from his practice knocking on hundreds of doors in some of London's most dangerous neighborhoods, seeking out specifically those houses that had been attacked by the most dread disease of the age.  But without that tenacity, without that fearlessness, without that readiness to leave behind the safety of professional success and royal patronage, and venture into the streets, his "grand experiment"---as Snow came to call it---would have gone nowhere.   The miasma theory would have remained unchallenged,

 

Source: 

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

 




May 3, 2007

Reuniting the Victims of Communism


RussianSiblingsReunited.jpg   "Sergei and Pyotr Leontiev are reunited on the Russian TV show, 'Zhdi Menya.'"  Source of the caption and photo:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. A1)  MOSCOW -- In a television studio here, two old brothers hug and weep -- reunited on prime time 60 years after Stalin's terror tore them apart.

They are stars on "Zhdi Menya," or "Wait for Me," one of the most popular TV shows in Russia. With its mission to reunite loved ones, the program probes Russia's 20th-century history and the scars it left on the lives of ordinary people. It has become a must-watch for Russians still trying to make sense of their tortured past.

The brothers in this episode, Sergei and Pyotr Leontiev, were separated in 1941 when their mother was sent to a prison camp 1,800 miles east of Moscow. She took with her Sergei, then 2 months old, but left behind seven other children whom she never saw again. Meanwhile, Pyotr and his sisters left home, taking jobs at factories in nearby towns.

Since its launch in 1998, "Zhdi Menya" has brought together 30,000 people sundered by Stalin's purges, war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. That's earned it a unique, and cherished, place in popular culture.

"We reconstruct the real history of this country," says Igor Kvasha, the program's host. "Not the garbled version in the text books."

Yet the program is ostensibly unpolitical. A tear-jerking cross between Jerry Springer and the History Channel, it recounts the crimes of communism without apportioning blame. That makes it palatable to Russia's leaders, for whom Soviet-era might is still a political touchstone.

. . .

(p. A12)   This focus on the victims of the communist regime contrasts with most mainstream media, which these days tend to humanize Soviet-era leaders and gloss over their crimes. A TV drama, "Stalin.Live," has been panned by critics for portraying Stalin as a sympathetic old man.

"There's a lot of pseudo-historical stuff on TV these days," says Irina Petrovskaya, a television critic. "'Zhdi Menya' is different because it's totally authentic. That's why it's so popular."

Pyotr Leontiev wrote to the program in 2001 in search of his brother. He had spent years trying to trace him through official channels, but was rebuffed at every turn.

The Leontiev family had been devastated by war and terror. Their father, drafted in 1941, was declared missing in action in 1943. Their mother was arrested on charges of "speculation" -- neighbors informed on her for selling a few pounds of tobacco and she was packed off to the Gulag with Sergei, her youngest son, still a babe in arms. His siblings had only his cradle to remember him by.

Researchers at "Zhdi Menya" contacted police in Karaganda, Kazakhstan -- the site of the mother's prison camp -- and after trawling archives they found a Sergei Leontiev whose records matched Pyotr's description. Within weeks they had tracked down Sergei, a retired carpenter. After a childhood in orphanages in Karaganda, he'd spent most of his life, impoverished, in workers' barracks.

In the studio, Pyotr told his story: "The tragedy that befell our family wasn't unique." He described how his mother was wrenched from her children, how their last sight of her and baby Sergei was on a prison train bound for the steppes. "We never heard from them again." The children, raised by a 19-year-old sister, were lucky: Children of "enemies of the people" were often separated, their names changed, and sent to orphanages thousands of miles apart.

To the strains of Mozart's Requiem, Mr. Kvasha spoke to the audience: "It's hard to imagine how many stories there are like this. They didn't just take away people's husbands, wives and parents. They deliberately destroyed archives, concealed people's names. They took away their memory."

In a heart-rending moment, he led Pyotr Leontiev to his brother, who was sitting weeping in the audience. The two embraced.

Pyotr had mixed feelings about the encounter. The joy of seeing Sergei was clouded by the revelation that his mother had been worked to death in 1943. "It was very hard, a very sad day," says Pyotr.

The two men broke down and looked deeply into each other's eyes. "We survived," Pyotr said to his brother. "We survived."

 

For the full story, see: 

GUY CHAZAN  "Family Viewing: TV Show Reunites Russian Siblings; Sundered by Stalin, Long-Lost Brothers Embrace on Prime Time."  The Wall Street Journal  (By  March 9, 2007):  A1 & A12.

 

 KvashaIgor.gif   The actor who hosts "Zhdi Menya" ("Wait for Me").  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 




May 2, 2007

Futures Markets Would Reduce Chinese Volatility


 

ChinaFinancialMarket.gif   Source of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

Market participants consider futures the next big thing for China's financial-sector development. The exchange currently trades contracts in copper, aluminum, natural rubber and fuel oil -- commodities that China imports in large quantities.

But trading is largely closed to foreigners. Futures on financial products, such as stock indexes and currencies, don't yet exist in China, though they are integral to other market economies.

Reviving Case for Futures

China banned exchange-traded financial derivatives in 1995 in response to a meltdown in its bond-futures market. Within minutes, $10 billion in market value was wiped out, in what remains the country's most damaging market debacle to date. By contrast, last week's drop in stocks has revived the case for financial futures.

Officials now say share prices probably wouldn't have fallen so abruptly on Feb. 27 if index futures existed. That's because shares probably wouldn't have surged as quickly as they did last year -- the Shanghai Composite Index rose 130% -- if investors had had the chance to use stock-index futures to bet against the market on its way up.

Futures contracts are thought to build more of a two-way market, because they give investors the right to buy -- and sell -- based on expectations about how the value of an index, stock, currency or commodity might move within a particular time frame. Without them, the only way for investors to make money is in a rising market, a risky prospect over the long term.

 

For the full story, see:

JAMES T. AREDDY.  "Futures Could Help Cure China's Boom-Bust Cycles."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., March 8, 2007):  A2.

(Note:  the online version had a slightly different title:  "China Tries Longer-Term Response to Stock Volatility.")

 




May 1, 2007

Somaliland Works, Without Foreign Aid or Recognition: More on Why Much of Africa is Poor


 

   In Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, there is sufficient public safety (in contrast to southern Somalia) for a money exchange to operate with large amounts of money on display.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

HARGEYSA, Somalia, March 1 — When the sun rises over the craggy hills of Hargeysa, it sheds light on a different kind of Somalia.

Ice cream trucks selling bona fide soft serve hit the streets. Money changers, unarmed and unguarded, push cash through the market in wheelbarrows. Politicians from three distinct parties get ready for another day of debate, which recently included an animated discussion on registering nomadic voters.

It’s all part of a Somali puzzle: how one area of the country, the northwest, also known as Somaliland, can seem so peaceful and functional — so normal, in fact — while the rest continues to be such a violent, chaotic mess.

This tale of two Somalias is especially striking now, as thousands of African Union peacekeepers prepare to rescue Mogadishu, the nation’s bloodstained capital, from itself. The internationally backed transitional government that seized Mogadishu in late December with Ethiopia’s help says it cannot survive without foreign aid and foreign peacekeepers to quell clan fighting and an escalating insurgency.

Somalilanders, who have wrestled with their own clan conflicts, find this ridiculous.

“You can’t be donated power,” said Dahir Rayale Kahin, the president of the Republic of Somaliland, which has long declared itself independent from the rest of Somalia. “We built this state because we saw the problems here as our problems. Our brothers in the south are still waiting — till now — for others.”

But Somalilanders are waiting, too: waiting to be recognized. In 1991, as Somalia’s government disintegrated and clan fighting in the south spun out of control, Somaliland, traditionally one of the poorest parts of Somalia, claimed its independence. But no country acknowledges it as a separate state and very few even contribute aid — which makes Somaliland’s success all the more intriguing.

. . .

“It all goes back to the Brits,” according to Hajji Abdi Waraabe, an 89-year-old member of Somaliland’s upper house of Parliament.

When the colonial powers sliced up the Horn of Africa in the 19th century, the British got Somaliland and the Italians got Somalia. While the British relied mostly on clan chiefs to govern, the Italians created an entire Italian-speaking administration and imported thousands of people from Italy to farm bananas, build cathedrals and teach the people how to pour espresso.

One result was that Mogadishu, along the southern coast, became a major commercial hub and one of the most beautiful cities in Africa, but its traditional systems of authority were weakened. That is partly why, many Somalia analysts say, warlords were able to outmuscle clan elders and dominate Mogadishu in the vacuum that formed after the central government fell.

The British, on the other hand, never invested much in Somaliland, leaving it poor and dusty but with its traditions more or less intact.  . . .

. . .

But the one issue that unites most Somalilanders is recognition. Somaliland has its own money, its own flag, its own national anthem and even its own passport.

“And we have peace, a peace owned by the community,” said Zamzam Adan, a women’s rights activist. “You’d think in this part of the world, that would count for something.”

 

For the full story, see:

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN.  "The Other Somalia: An Island of Stability in a Sea of Armed Chaos."  The New York Times  (Weds., March 7, 2007):  A11. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

 

SOMALILANDmap.jpg  Top photo shows women selling jewelry.  Middle photo shows a traffic cop performing a defensible function of government.  At bottom, the map shows Somaliland relative to the rest of Somalia.  Source of photos and map:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




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