Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Stiffness that Blocks out the Light

Yesterday I happened to listen to an old song I hadn't heard in years, Morphing into Primal by Swedish metal band In Flames. Typical of their genre of 'melodic death metal', In Flames in this album sing most tracks with guttural growls that make the lyrics difficult to hear. One section from the chorus did stand out to me however:

I owe this to the animal inside,
And a stiffness that blocks out the daylight.

A stiffness, eh? That odd image sent me searching for the rest of the lyrics which, when I found them, made me laugh:

Detonation
Fireworks and alchemy
Genes spliced and triggered
Into the future and her organic cave

Semiorgasmic omnipotence
Scenes of magma in my eyes
Eruption stones my system...

'Organic cave': ah, so it's sex he's talking about! This is a musical celebration of sex as a trancendental act. Or at least it might be, In Flames use pretty cryptic language:

My shot is genesis and carthasis
Penetratonaut in a cosmology of lust

But this is typical of In Flames, with album after album of fuzzily mystical lyrics on baffling themes. The growly vocals mean only mysterious individual lines are coherent:

The privilege of a 22 kilometre tombstone
- Jotun

Gather the faithful and propose a toast
To the epoch of indifference
- Ordinary Story

I see beauty in dead flowers
I let the tide show me what's next
- Another Day in Quicksand

A little silly sometimes perhaps, and rather over-serious. But these garbled lyrics were one of the attractions for me of In Flames, and of metal as a wider genre.

I have been thinking about this lately because a friend mentioned that her daughter wanted to know why so many songs are about love. My friend explained that love is the most important thing in life, but her philosophical little daughter suggested that 'No, the most important thing is yourself'. Well love is powerful stuff but it's not the only stuff so I have to agree with the child! And metal bands were always pushing the envelope to explore other emotions and other themes.

American death metal band Nile, for example, sing entirely about Ancient Egypt. Their album Black Seeds of Vengeance includes quite in-depth explanations of the lyrics, some of which are taken, untranslated, directly from genuine Egyptian manuscripts. In some cases these are millennia-old magical spells, like the Chapter for Transforming into a Snake that uses words of power for the dead to become animals of their choice in the next life.

Nile indicates something of the obsessiveness of many metal bands, a compulsive focus on one area generally ignored by the rest of the world. A more fun example is German group Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle-Earth, an album based entirely on JRR Tolkien's novel The Silmarillion. Or Canadian metallers Fear Factory's Obsolete, imagining a technocratic future where 'man is obsolete' and struggling for freedom. Sure it's a bit silly and adolescent but it's still a relief that not everything comes down to love.

Other metal groups looked at social ills. Death metal pioneers Death sing about sickly children born to cocaine-addicted mothers in Living Monstrosity. New York band Biohazard's Punishment added a hiphop sense to its observations of a ruined society where 'the majority of the people are out there smoking crack'. Fellow New Yorkers Pro-Pain rasped about the recession and Gulf War of the early 1990s, oddly prophetic now:

Young, dumb and helpless - in the States
You say you ain't got no money - I can relate
I lost my job and my house and my - peace of mind
We're in the deepest depression of - modern time

Pro-Pain even have a song called Iraqnophobia:

Oh say can't you see that the conscience in me said go back
When the clouds in the skies and the tears in my eyes turned to black
There's a fear I may die in a chemical weapons attack
Iraq - nophobia

American band Mudvayne took a different approach, wearing bizarre blue masks and claiming to be aliens called Chüd, Güüg, Rü-D and Spüg. Their lyrics in The End of All Things to Come are cryptic and weird:

Why do they observe me?
There's nothing here to cure,
I can see the silhouettes,
That sit behind the mirror
I'm just like a clock upon the wall
Always moving, but never going anywhere

Brazil's Sepultura have songs exploring traditional Brazilian cultures, their album Roots using folk drums, with one song actually recorded along with the Xavante Indian tribe in the Amazonian jungles.

There are wide genres of Satanic or gore metal I don't listen to much, bands like Deicide growling vicious anti-Christian lyrics while Cannibal Corpse focus on absolutely repulsive descriptions of carnage, rape and murder. In the early 1990s a black metal genre developed in Norway that moved from Satanim to Norse Paganism, both violently opposed to Christianity. Some of these bands would develop racist elements, imagining a monoracial Viking Scandinavia that was freed from American, Judeo-Christian and non-white immigrant cultures.

Less extreme metallers would mix metal with folk musics and singing in non-English languages. A bizarre metal subgenre called troll metal developed in Finland, singing about fighting goblins and hating humans - especially Christians!

To counter that are plenty Christian metal bands like Tourniquet, whose Where Moth and Rust Destroy advises listeners to remember the judgement of the afterlife:

Enjoy all that He gives you
But make sure you can see through
The haze that blocks the clarity
Of seeing the eternity

Meanwhile Swedish Meshuggah go for musically ambitious stuff mixed with difficult and dark lyrics which might - I'm really not sure - touch on environmental issues. Their compatriots Hypocrisy cover similar environmentalism along with pessimism about science in Seeds of the Chosen One, gloomily concluding that 'Time is up for the human race/We've passed the point of no return'.

Beloved thrash metallers Megadeth looked in their glorious Rust in Peace at environmental themes too ('Awakened in the morning/To more air pollution warnings') and ponder nuclear war in a track written months before the end of the Cold War. Rust In Peace...Polaris dealt with fears of nuclear holocaust with boastful indifference:

Launch the Polaris, the end doesn't scare us
When will this cease?
The warheads will all rust in peace

All very silly - these guys are hardly poets - but I'm still happy to hear this stuff and to know that when I start listening to such an album I have no way of predicting its lyrical contents. Megadeth's thrash metal cousins Metallica had other fun themes. Creeping Death was about the Biblical plague of Egypt where the Angel of Death killed the first born sons of the Egyptians, sparing only the enslaved Jews. One is the grim tale of a soldier whose limbs are blown off in war and cannot communicate his wish to die to the doctors.

Not all metal songs are pessimistic or dark. Metallica would write some pretty up-beat songs, Wherever I May Roam imagining a life of nomadic freedom unburdened by posessions. In Flames appear to be celebrating life and beauty in several of their songs, while brilliant American prog metal band Tool take a much deeper approach. Their album Lateralus urges listeners to trust their intuition instead of being paralysed by over-thinking:

I embrace my desire to
feel the rhythm, to feel connected enough to step aside and weep like a widow
to feel inspired to fathom the power, to witness the beauty,
to bathe in the fountain,
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral
to swing on the spiral of our divinity and still be a human.

Their song Grudge challenges bitter and negative people to let go, forgive and transcend their sorrow:

Give away the stone. Let the oceans take and transmutate this cold and fated anchor.
Give away the stone. Let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold.

System of a Down take another mystical and optimistic approach, with Aerials:

Life is a waterfall
We’re one in the river
And one again after the fall

All good stuff!

Before I started to listen to metal as a teenager I saw only posturing young men shouting in an attempt to look tough. I guess a lot of other people also miss the diversity of this cheerfully weird genre. Troll wars, Ancient Egyptian magic, environmental collapse and philosophy: daft, yes, but never predictable.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Superman the Tyrant

I just turned on the television and caught this odd scene from 1987's Superman IV, as the hero addressed the United Nations with the following statement:

I can't stand idly by and watch us stumble into the madness of possible nuclear destruction. So I've come to a decision. I'm going to do what our governments have been unwilling or unable to do. Effective immediately, I'm going to rid our planet of all nuclear weapons.

The crowd of UN diplomats go wild as Superman promises to rob them of their nuclear arsenals. Self-appointed decision-maker for the world, with no democratic mandate, Superman seizes and destroys the world's nuclear weapons, flinging them into the sun.

Tyrannical! Real benevolent dictator stuff, this, and it seems at odd with Truth, Justice and the American Way. Investing such power in the hands of an individual seems contrary to the ideals of American democracy that Superman is supposed to support! Odd stuff, no wonder the film would be panned by critics!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Right in the Baby-Maker

Looking at economist Stefan Karlsson's blog yesterday I noticed this look at changing populations in the EU27.

First, the EU population is growing, both naturally (500,000 more births than deaths) and through immigration (900,000 more immigrants than emigrants).

Ireland is an unusual case right now, because it has net emigration due to the economic problems, but still a rising population. This is because Ireland has a uniquely high birth rate, 16.5 births per 1,000 population, far ahead of the UK in second place at 13 per 1,000. Germany, at the bottom end, had only 8.3 births per 1,000.

Ireland's death rate is also extremely low, 6.2 deaths per 1,000 compared with 9 per 1,000 in UK, 10,5 per 1,000 in Germany and 14.6 in Bulgaria. Ireland's is the lowest in the EU, probably because Ireland's population is much younger (11% of Ireland's population are above 65, compared with 20% in Germany) and because standards of health are relatively good.

The result is that even while Ireland experiences some of the highest emigration rates in the EU, second only to Lithuania, its population grows comfortably, though at a much slower pace than it did in the recent past.

This all interests me because until now I had tended to think mainly about fertility rates instead of birth rates.

The total fertility rate:

...estimates the number of children a hypothetical cohort of 1,000 females in the specified population would bear if they all went through their childbearing years experiencing the same age-specific birth rates for a specified time period.

The magic number here is 2.1 children per woman, that being the figure at which a population will remain exactly stable. (In a perfect world it would be simply two children per woman. The extra 0.1 is to compensate for mortality as some children will never make adulthood. In poorer countries with higher mortality rates the replacement rate is higher, as many as 3.3 children per woman needed to simply sustain a population. This is why moderately high fertility rates in developing countries need not always imply a population explosion.)

Total fertility rate does give us some idea of whether a population will grow or shrink. However it does not take into account the present nature of a population. A high fertility rate in a country with a very old population will still mean only modest growth because there are not many women of fertile age to give birth.

This is what makes Ireland interesting. Because of relatively high fertility rates in the past, and because women of fertile age migrated here during the boom years, our population is unusually young and our birth rate exceptionally high.

World Bank estimates for 2009 put Ireland's birth rate at 17, lower in Europe only than a few poor eastern countries like Kosovo. Ireland's birth rate is higher than that of many developing countries around the world, like Lebanon (16), Puerto Rico (12) and Costa Rica (16).

The US is sometimes compared favourably with Europe for having a more sustainably high fertility rate. In birth rates this is also true, though Ireland and Iceland (16) are higher than the US (14).

So it seems likely that Ireland will continue to experience reasonable natural growth. The fertility rate is around 2.1, mortality rates are low. To the best of my knowledge this is good economic news. While Germany will struggle with an ever-increasing retired population being funded by an ever-decreasing labour population, Ireland will have fewer dependents and less strain on social services.

Stork clipart from Clipartheaven.com

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Peace breaking out all over Ireland

With lots of gloomy economic news these days it is great to see crime rates continuing to fall in Ireland. In Quarter 2 of 2011, recorded crime rates fell for every crime group compared with the same quarter last year:

Attempts/threats to murder, assaults, harassments and related offences: -15%
Dangerous or negligent acts: -26.3%
Burglary and related offences: -1.4%
Theft and related offences: -5.5%
Fraud, deception and related offences: -11.2%
Controlled drug offences: -19.1%
Weapons and explosives offences: -24.9%

Some commentators had predicted increases in crime due to the recession. This may be correct for some offences, burglary for example is still higher than it was in 2009, though down slightly from 2010.

But during the boom years Ireland experienced increases in some forms of crime that were directly related to the presence of surplus income. Drug and alcohol use soared, fuelling both drunken brawls and drug gangsterism. Declining economic fortures make drugs less profitable, alcohol less affordable. Some of the young men who used to be involved in crime have probably emigrated. Falling traffic levels probably play a role in dropping road deaths.

These are positive developments and a reminder that bad news in one aspect of society can mean good news in another.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Update: The Norwegian killer sounds familiar

The latest reports about the Norwegian mass murder describe the killer as a fanatical anti-Muslimist and anti-Marxist. I have been reading snatches of his alleged writings online and I am just staggered by how familiar they all seem to me. His words are almost exactly like those of extreme anti-Muslim members of Orkut discussion forums, his fears of a Muslim invasion mirror theirs, his belief in a left-wing "Marxist" conspiracy in education, media and the EU (what both call the "EUSSR") is their belief.

The similarities are so strong that I want to wait a few days for more information. If the killer does appear to have been inspired by the kind of anti-Muslim views I've encountered in online debates then there are very important implications and I will be writing about it again.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Panama's economic experiment: no central bank

Panama has no central bank, attracting it praise from libertarian economists:

For a real-world example of how a system of market-chosen monetary policy would work in the absence of a central bank, one need not look to the past; the example exists in present-day Central America, in the Republic of Panama, a country that has lived without a central bank since its independence, with a very successful and stable macroeconomic environment....

This market-driven system has created an extremely stable macroeconomic environment. Panama is the only country in Latin America that has not experienced a financial collapse or a currency crisis since its independence.

In recent years Panama has experienced an economic boom, but this is reported with caution instead of optimism by the BBC:

Five years of unprecedented economic growth - and a continued projected growth rate of 8%-9% over the coming years - has turned Panama into a regional giant on wobbly legs.

Since 2007, 50 skyscrapers have been built or are being finished within the next year.

The size and scale of Panama's growth goes far beyond the rest of Central America.

But the growth spurt raises serious questions about overdevelopment.... it has grown as haphazardly and unregulated as a 19th Century gold-rush town.

So is Panama's growth unsustainable? Will we see the kind of speculative bubble, followed by a traumatic decline, that the first article says has been absent throughout Panama's history? If Panama really grows and sees real improvements to standards of living then the libertarians may have a helpful example. If it pops the way bubble economies have popped elsewhere, they must eat humble pie.

So the future of Panama has wider implications, and could help us to improve our understanding of economics.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Homicide rate distorted by survival of victims

In June I argued that modern medical developments were changing the costs of war and hampering our ability to compare modern wars with historical ones. This is because soldiers who would have died in the past are now treated with high-tech medicine and surviving. As a result, the deaths to wounded ratio of American soldiers in the Iraq War (1:7.3) is totally different to that of soldiers in World War II (1:1.65).

In the comments section I suggested that this could have implications for homicide statistics too. As emergency medical responses improve, violent assaults should become less deadly. Even if the number of attacks remain the same, the number of attacks proving fatal should decline.

So when we compare countries by homicide rate, we need to remember that. The very same assault that kills someone in a poor, underdeveloped country could be treated and leave the victim alive in a rich country. Pondering this, I turned to Gapminder to compare life expectancy with murder per 100,000 people for 2005:

An incredibly clear correlation. As life expectancy rises, murder rates fall. There are lots of ways to interpret this - countries with higher life expectancy tend to be richer and can perhaps expect a more functional society with less poverty and unrest for example - but it does seem to support my suggestion that some declines in homicide rates are caused by the survival of victims.

This makes any increase in homicide rates in developed countries more disturbing, since it shows that murders are increasing even while victims are more likely to survive. The natural trend for homicides should be downwards, as victims are treated with ever-improving medical technology.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wild wars

I happen to be living now in the rural west of Ireland where I grew up. My work desk looks out on a wooded area where wild birds dart down from the trees to pluck insects from the leafy earth.

I see wild dramas played out in this little theatre, especially now with summer. In June a male chaffinch dominated the clearing: all puffed up and aggressive, this macho little guy posed and sang in the sunlight before fleeing back into the shade.

More recently a fat little juvenile robin has been hopping about, still being fed by a parent robin barely larger than he. I'm amused to see this healthy and plump youngster still squeaking for food every time his parents fly by.

With my vantage point inside the window I saw an odd thing in spring, a blue tit landing into a conspicuous sunlit patch on the ground, bowing foward and spreading out its tail and wings as if in worship of the sun. Astonished, I searched online and found it described as a female mating display. Just yesterday I saw this:

Probably a female blackbird, crouched down onto a sunlit patch and fanning its tail and wings out. I presume that once more I'm seeing the brief signal this bird is making to watching males, too terrified of predators to linger in the sunlight longer than necessary. I've lived in the countryside for the bulk of my life, yet never saw such behaviour before.

Days ago I saw another odd avian among the trees, a ruffled bird of some kind that kept hopping vertically up tree trunks:

That picture is a little unclear, but it looks plausibly like a juveline treecreeper. To match its name, this little bird did indeed keep creeping vertically up trees to peck at insects.

I saw rather different behaviour a week earlier, when I startled some bird of prey from a bush by the road. I'm not sure what bird this was, but the curved sweep of its wings and its rapid ascent was typical of a raptor. Immediately this hunter was surrounded by swallows, who swooped down on all sides and drove it away, protective perhaps of a vulnerable nest nearby.

I found broken egg shells among the conifer trees behind the house, though whether from some successfully hatched bird or the victim of a cat or magpie I can't say. Cutting back some overgrown Lawson Cypress outside my workplace window I found the broken sections of this nest, line lines of grass and roots woven into mud like a natural wattle and daub:

Invertebrates have surprised me too. Several times lately I have seen some small black insect devouring the corpses of earthworms squashed on the road, possibly a devil's coach horse beetle. I certainly saw one of those characters last summer, since it flicked its tail upwards like a scorpion in a warning as I passed.

Weeks ago, during a warm and humid spell, I was disgusted by a huge greenish earthworm squirming grotesquely on the road, what I now guess is the earthworm species allolobophora chlorotica, which 'very rarely come to the surface'.

Some invertebrates have ignored the boundary of the house walls. This little grasshopper (a common green grasshopper, I think, to be geeky about it) hopped up onto the kitchen table a few days ago. I brought it outside where it sat patiently wiping its antennae until I got tired of waiting and dropped it into the grass.

And yesterday I spotted this little moth on a window, possibly a mottled beauty moth which the Collins Irish Wildlife book says has 'superb camouflage on tree bark'. That advantage clearly lost when sitting conspicuously on a grubby pane of glass.

Last summer I discovered a small group of common lizards squashed on the road in the midlands of Ireland. Fond of sunbathing, these lizards had probably been warming on the black tarmac when a car came. Foreign friends may be unsuprised by lizards but Ireland has only two native reptiles and I have never seen a lizard here before.

It's past midsummer now and things are beginning to ripen.

Already the conifer wood is bubbling with weird fungi decaying the damp litter of needles.




And later the frosts will kill off the insects and send small mammals into hibernation. Last winter brought snow and cold so fierce that a local fox lost its usual caution and came creeping around our house.



I've sometimes heard the argument that one should know one place well rather than travel and know lots of places poorly. I like to travel, it's a kick being abroad and constantly surprised. But in the most familiar place I know I still find odd things. There are surprises right here under my nose, whole worlds of wild conflict I barely notice.

Egypt's spring turning to autumn

In early February I compared the Arab uprisings with the wave of revolutions across Europe in 1848. I pointed out that the latter had early successes followed by disastrous setbacks as the internal contradictions of the revolutionary alliances began to work themselves out. Middle class liberals joined ranks with the monarchists they had just defeated to block the rise of socialist radicals. Ethnic nationalist revolutions pitted Danes against Prussians, Poles against Ukrainians, Croats against Hungarians, and the monarchs - playing them off against one another - gradually crept back into power. Within a few years most of the successes had turned to failure, most of the countries were once more under autocratic rule.

I noted something similar in modern North Africa:

In Egypt, just as in 1848 Europe, the anti-government forces are a mixture of contradictory ideologies. Then it was liberal nationalists and socialist radicals, now it is democrats and Islamists.

Now Shadi Hamid and Samuel Plumbly write that Egypt's revolutionaries are beginning to fall apart:

Egypt has not had its second revolution, and remains governed by an institution—the military—that was long the backbone of the Mubarak regime. With tens of thousands returning to protest across the country on July 8, the frustration with the military regime’s performance and a lack of revolutionary dividends has reached a fever pitch. Protesters representing a wide range of factions, from liberal youth movements to the resurgent Salafis, turned out to voice their anger over the military’s foot-dragging....

Oddly enough, many of the liberal and leftist groups participating in antimilitary protests have also supported the “constitution first” movement, which would effectively delay September elections and keep the military in power even longer. Among other things, they believe they need more time in order to organize to counter an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and members of the former ruling National Democratic Party.

Troubling fractures, these. With liberals turning a blind eye to military rule to prevent an Islamist takeover, I'm reminded of the 1840s liberal deals with monarchs to prevent the rise of early socialism. Europe was to find liberal democracy, but the hard way, via fascism, communism, genocide and two world wars. Let's hope rival Arab factions find a way to peacefully solve their differences and build healthier societies. Just as I did in February, I wish them luck. There is nothing inevitable about success.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Zionism: just ethnic nationalism

I often see Zionism being denounced, which puzzles me a little because Zionism, as far as I can make out, is just Jewish nationalism. I wonder why Zionism is attacked in particular, even by people who are open to other forms of ethnic nationalism. Norman Davies describes early Zionism in Europe: A History:

Political Zionism differed from other manifestations of European mainly in the fact that its sacred national soil lay outside Europe. Otherwise, it possessed all the characteristics of the other national movements of the day - a dedicated, visionary elite; a complex ideology based on nationalist interpretations of history and culture; a wide spectrum of political opinions; a mass clintele that still needed to be convinced; a full panoply of enemies; and, at the outset, no obvious chance of practical success.

The formation of ethnic nation states in Europe often involved war, forced migration and mass murder. The modern borders of Germany, for example, were decided by the victorious Allies at the end of World War II, and 12-14 million Germans were expelled from Poland, Czechoslovakia, USSR and other East European countries. Over 500,000 Germans were killed in the migrations, yet today there is little sympathy or controversy over these atrocities.

Some of these Germans were Nazi-era colonists established in Eastern Europe after Nazis ethnically-cleansed the region of native Slavs. Many others, though, were essentially natives, living on territory long belonging to Germany or Prussia:

Polish communist leader Władysław Gomułka supported the expulsion of Germans from Poland's new land on the grounds that 'countries are built on national lines and not multinational ones', and massive sections of German territory were seized and repopulated by Poles. New Germany would be greatly reduced in size.

The forced migration of Germans dwarfs the mass-migration of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Casualties in European migrations were far greater than those in Palestine. Today, though, the various nationalisms of Poland, Russia, former Czechoslovakia and other countries are uncontroversial, while Zionism is highly controversial. I do not see outsiders complain about Polish or Czech imperialism, I do hear this about Israel

Perhaps a more useful discussion would explore Zionism in terms of ethnic nationalism instead of as a discrete movement. The idea that some kinds of ethnic nationalism are good while others are bad seems misleading.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bachmann denounces porn, probably loses election

I wrote recently about the puzzling tendency for what foreign policy expert Paul Pillar calls 'the airhead wing of the Republican Party, as represented by Sarah Palin' to play such a significant role in right-wing American politics. I thought it was a pity because there seem to be sensible perspectives on the right: intellectual conservatism, libertarianism and the like.

So I was astonished to see that one of the candidates for the Republican Party's shot at the presidency, Michele Bachmann, has signed a declaration which, among other things, opposes pornography.

The full text of the socially conservative declaration is here, and looks at a list of ways that the traditional structure of families has allegedly collapsed. Marriage, it argues, has been debased by 'quickie' divorce, by spousal abuse, non-committal cohabitation, infidelity (including among celebrities) and 'anti-scientific' bias that holds that homosexuality is genetically determined.

Candidates who sign the declaration vow to support a number of points, like support only for monogamous heterosexual marriage. There is a lot to discuss here, but I think the most fascinating point is this:

Humane protection of women and the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy - our next generation of American children - from human trafficking, sexual slavery, seduction into promiscuity, and all forms of pornography and prostitution, infanticide, abortion and other types of coersion or stolent innocence.

All that in one breath. Interesting to see sexual slavery equated with pornography here. The 'seduction' suggests that women who become involved in prostitution, pornography, or just 'promiscuity' are innocent victims and not independent actors choosing their own lifestyles.

But I'm not going to get involved in the moral questions raised by the declaration. Instead I'm going to point out the gargantuan own-goal Michele Bachmann has just scored: she's against pornography.

Being against homosexuality might not have done too much damage, because most people are straight. In cynical political terms, it makes sense to pick on tiny minority groups if the majority aren't so keen on them.

But lots and lots of people like porn, even if they don't admit it. If she honestly promises to ban pornography then there will be lots of people publicly applauding her, and privately voting against her. This is a Google Insights for Search graph comparing search terms people have been looking up in the US over the last 30 days:

Bachmann can't even attract more Google searches than gay pornography, let alone straight stuff too!

If Bachmann pushes forward with this and genuinely calls for prohibitions on pornography, I expect her chances of electoral success to vanish. People may not admit to it in public, but Google Insights for Search show that behind closed doors, searches for pornographic material are extremely prevalent. The people, this time, vote with their fingers.

"You're not gonna BELIEVE this shit"

I mentioned that I am reading a collection of stand-up gigs by deceased comedian Bill Hicks, some of which occasionally connect with issues I've raised on The Harvest before. In one New York City performance in 1990, Hicks imagines what will happen if AIDS is cured:

I don't know how much Aids scares y'all, but I got a theory: the day they come out with a cure for Aids, guaranteed one-shot, no-problem cure - on that day there's gonna be fucking in the streets, man. 'IT'S OVER! Who are you? Come here. What's your name? No, it's over! YEAH! WHOOOOOOHOO!' Man, there's gonna be news cameras on every corner. 'They're fucking everywhere! This is Dan Rather and you're not gonna believe this shit.'

It might seem ludicrous, but I wrote before about a possible role of modern medicine and sanitation in causing the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. Until the mid-20th century, such promiscous behaviour was dangerous, but the development of decent treatments decreased the health costs of promiscous sex:

Thornhill et al. (2009) noted that the predictions of the parasite-stress model are consistent with the marked increase in the liberalization of social values that began to occur in the West in the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, anti-authoritarianism, etc.). In the West, but not outside of it, infectious-disease prevalence was reduced dramatically a generation or two earlier as a result of widespread availability of antibiotics, child vaccination programs, food- and water-safety practices, increased sanitation and vector control...

The AIDS disaster in Africa seems to have reversed this development in some places, with people taking extra precautions and drifting towards monogamy to avoid disease.

So Hicks is broadly right! If they cure AIDS there could be another Sexual Revolution, albeit not necessarily played out by people 'fucking in the streets'!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Critic Wears Prada

Last night I watched The Devil Wears Prada. Just to be clear, I am writing this wearing a hoodie and Spiderman t-shirt: a clue, perhaps, that the high fashion world of The Devil Wears Prada is rather strange to me. As depicted in the film, the fashion industry is highly competitive and cruel, with ambitious young women obsessing about weight and a tyrannical boss played terrifyingly by Meryl Streep bullying them all into obedience.

Yet there are interesting elements to the world too. Streep's character Miranda makes a fascinating defence of fashion, arguing that even those of us who dress down in casual clothes are actually buying into trends started by fashion elites years earlier. Miranda says the the 'lumpy blue sweater' worn by Andy, played by Anne Hathaway, is a colour chosen first by a powerful fashion designer, which gradually seeped down into popular culture:

And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of 'stuff'.

So I, in my comfortable old Spiderman top, am at the final ripple of a wave generated by elites on another continent. In another scene Stanley Tucci's character Nigel makes a similar defence:

This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for... oh, I don't know... let's say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight. You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls.

So this is an assertive, deeply elitist culture that takes itself very seriously indeed. Interested by this, I looked up Wikipedia's article on the reception of the film to see if there was any debate about it. From there, I found this article in The Guardian by Hadley Freeman, denoucing the film for sexism, because Andy's relationship falls apart when she prioritises her work at the fashion magazine:

Similarly, Andrea's boyfriend finds it equally annoying that she now has to work late and occasionally misses having drinks with him because of her job. In fact, this becomes such an issue that he threatens to leave.... "You had a choice!" is his repeated cry, as though it is perfectly normal to demand your girlfriend quits her job because she couldn't have dinner with you. But then, men who work hard are manly; women who work hard are blinkered to the important things in life like, you know, being on time for dinner.

The problem is not that these women work in fashion - it's that they work, full stop.

Alright. After this I flicked over to BBC 1 where the Nicholas Cage film Lord of War was showing (I had a productive evening indeed). Cage plays a cynical arms dealer who sells weapons illegally to brutal warlords around the world. His wife is oblivious and remains at home while he travels between wartorn Africa and the collapsing Soviet Union. Lo and behold, minutes after reading Hadley Freeman denounce The Devil Wears Prada for showing conflict in a relationship because a woman was prioritising work, Lord of War was showing Cage's relationship falling apart because he was prioritising work.

In other words, the exact same narrative was at work in both films: one member of a relationship becoming obsessed with work to the point where the other feels neglected. Hadley's view that this indicated an anti-female sexism, an unwillingness to show women as being happy in work, does not fit Lord of War.

Actually I can think of lots of films where the male protagonist loses his female partner because of obsessive dedication, especially to a job. A few examples:

Zodiac - Robert Graysmith loses his wife and children when he becomes obsessed with tracking down a serial killer.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Roy Neary's wife leaves him when he becomes obsessed with sculpting the Devil's Tower mountain, implanted in his head by aliens.

Falling Down - police officer Prendergast is retiring to be with his troubled wife, but decides that he loves the job and decides to remain. Similar theme: choosing between family and work.

Invincible - Vince's wife leaves him when he prioritises playing American football over looking for a job. Vince ends up becoming a professional footballer.

Fantastic Four - Reed Richards is obsessed with science and his work, almost loses his fiance Sue Storm.

Liar Liar - Fletcher Reede is a work-obsessed lawyer who compulsively lies to his ex-wife and child about spending time together while really prioritising work.

Rocky IV - Rocky Balboa decides fight a Russian giant who has already beaten his friend Apollo Creed to death in the ring. His wife Adrian argues bitterly against his decision to fight: 'It's suicide. You've seen him, you know how strong he is. You can't win.' She lets him go to train in Russia alone, before relenting and joining him later.

Batman Begins - Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne that they cannot be together until Gotham City does not need a Batman. That is, Wayne's obsessive drive to fight crime as Batman blocks his relationship with Dawes.

Spiderman films - Peter Parker repeatedly tries to form a functional relationship with Mary Jane, but his determination to fight crime makes him too busy or too scared of endangering Mary Jane to marry.

I'm sure I'm missing others. I have it in my head that the idea of a police officer, in particular, who loses his family because of his unhealthy devotion to the job is a rather tired cliche. But these examples at least challenge Freeman's claim that 'men who work hard are manly; women who work hard are blinkered to the important things in life like, you know, being on time for dinner'. Again and again we see male characters in movies struggling to balance home and work life. In some cases their failure to form relationships is seen as heroic: a sacrifice like Batman's crusade against corruption and crime. In others, like Fantastic Four, the over-working man is seen as flawed, he has to learn to edge away from academic things and engage with his fiance. There is nothing manly about Reed Richards's geekiness.

So where on earth does Freeman take her outraged idea about there being double standards between the portrayal of working men and working women? She picks the single example of The Devil Wears Prada and another example of Sex and the City, both of which she says show working women struggle to form balanced lives. She does not look at the great number of films which show men struggling over the same thing.

It it unwise to make angry conclusions when looking at only a fraction of the available information. One could watch Batman and conclude that the writers believe men who try to make the world better are destined to loneliness and solitude. That would be an poor interpretation, though, just as Freeman's interpretation seems to be here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vindication! Now let's start drinking cactus juice

I remarked on another post that as a young child one of my schoolfriends and I used to imagine living in a desert. We based this game on a simple Ladybird book in the school, which told us that occasionally deserts would experience brief but severe rain storms, and then go years without water.

We decided to push that a little further, imagining snow storms: I can still remember us pretending to ski about the desert in the schoolyard! Older friends or siblings put us right, saying it could not snow in the desert.

So I am delighted to see this story about a snow storm in the Atacama Desert of South America! We were right all along.

...Seeing as another of our ideas was that cacti contained not only water but also 7-up, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, I think it's time people started tapping cacti on a more industrial scale.

Bill Hicks accidentally observes psychological phenomenon

I'm reading transcriptions of comedian Bill Hicks's stand-up gigs, in Love All the People, and coming across surprising connections to some ideas I've covered in this blog. For example, from a 1991 gig in Pittsburgh:

Watch CNN: it's the most depressing thing you'll ever see, man. 'WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION, WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS.' Over and over again. Then you look out your window: (makes crickets chirruping sound). Where's all this shit going on, man? Ted Turner is making this shit up.

Hicks here is touching on an idea explored by Dan Gardner in Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Gardner pointed to surveys showing that people tend to think their own localities are unusually peaceful and safe, while over-estimating the risk of crime in society in general. This is because we know about wider society through news media, who tend to focus on negative stories and sensational crimes, giving us a sense that society is much more dangerous than it really is. But we know about our own locality because we live there, we see how it is, we look out the window as Hicks does, and there are no burning cars or rotting corpses, ebola-stricken refugees or terrorists.

I'll report again if I see other relevant stuff!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Countries: too big to fail

Private companies sometimes fail, and that's no big deal. Actually, as economist Tim Harford points out, they fail very often:

In a complex world, things fail – a lot. According to the economist Paul Ormerod, 10 percent of U.S. firms go bankrupt every year.... A more rigorous attempt to look at this question, a study by Kathy Fogel, Randall Morck, and Bernard Yeung, found statistical evidence that economies with more churn in the corporate sector also had faster economic growth. The relationship even seems causal: churn today is correlated with fast economic growth tomorrow. The real benefit of this creative destruction, say Fogel and her colleagues, is not the appearance of “rising stars” but the disappearance of old, inefficient companies. Failure is not only common and unpredictable, it’s healthy.

This is an important point, yet not really that counterintuitive if we think about it. I often hear about small businesses set up by individuals with redundancy pay. The collapse of old businesses can spawn the birth of new ones.

(I'm tempted to compare this with the fall of a mature tree in a forest. The tree dies. But there is a gap in the canopy and light pours down to the forest floor. Saplings rise into the new space. The death of the tree rejunivates the forest. We need only be concerned if the entire forest is wiped out in one go.)

The collapse of a business can mean that individual investors lose money. But a wise investor will spread their investments out so that they won't lose everything by the fall of just one firm. Individual employees have to look for work, which is awful for them but their presence on the market may help other companies who need fresh labour. The tree falls but the forest continues.

But the collapse of a country is a disaster indeed. There, no wise investments make any difference, every taxpayer is stuck paying back debt that can last generations. The only escape is emigration.

The difficulties in Greece now perhaps show what happens when a government fails. There is no opportunity for Greeks to switch their investment from one high-risk company to another low-risk company: the only way to escape Greek debt is to abandon Greece. The panicked efforts by EU to negotiate a 'bailout' loan along with austerity budgets show that the bankruptcy of a state is much more difficult to handle than the bankruptcy of a private company.

In recent times there have been debates about those private firms so massive and significant that governments subsidise or nationalise them when they risk failure. Can private companies be 'too big to fail'? I don't know, but its seems countries can be.

One of the complaints about governments bailing out big business is that it creates moral hazard: by insulating businesses from the consequences of risky behaviour they encourage risky behaviour.

If states cannot be allowed to collapse, does this encouage risky behaviour by governments? I'm not sure if I'm understanding this properly. The implications also puzzle me. Should we keep governments small, on the grounds that any organisation too big to fail will become corrupt, complacent and will take risky behaviour? Do we empower governments to cut up huge companies to prevent them becoming 'too big to fail'? Any thoughts are welcome!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Was Bertie Ahern a socialist?

In 2004 Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern caused scornful amusement when he claimed that he was, in fact, a socialist. Ahern's party Fianna Fáil had been in coalition with the neo-liberal party Progressive Democrats, and was widely seen as being an ideological partner to their right-leaning agenda too. Some commentators reacted with anger at Ahern's claim:
Speaking as a panellist on RTE TV's Questions & Answers, the journalist Marie Mulholland was excited about "all the things we now have to look forward to: free healthcare for all, redistribution of wealth, eradication of poverty ..." She may have been speaking ironically.
I was one of those bemused by Ahern's claim at the time. But was there any truth to it? Let's look at the data. Below is an OECD graph showing Ireland's government spending on social protection as a percentage of GDP from 1994 to 2005.
After falling a little, spending soon rises past the point when Ahern took office. OECD's graphs unfortunately stop in 2005, while Ahern remained in power for another couple of years.

Anyway, since Ahern's government was criticised a lot for its health policies, lets look next to health.
Just for comparison, let's also look at expenditure on law, order and defence as a percentage of GDP over the same period:
So far Ahern is looking like a left-leaning hippie who abandoned police and military spending in favour of health and social welfare. But the years covered here involved considerable changes in GDP itself, which could make the graphs misleading. OECD's source data allows us to look at social protection per capita also (at current prices and current PPPs, in US dollars):
We see rapid and sustained increases in social expenditure: by 2007 spending was up 143% per capita from Ahern's first year in 1997. The same measure in constant prices (2000) and constant PPPs (2000):
Up 87% per capita from 1997 to 2007.

There were also demographic changes over this period though. Most European countries had relatively low fertility rates meaning that populations were growing older. This could result in rising expenditure on pensions (which is covered in social protection figures). Yet if we exclude all payments covered under 'Old Age', we still see a dramatic increase in spending on social protection, from $2,520.5 in 1997 to $5,974.6 in 2007 ($2,617.9 to $4,789.8 at constant 2000 prices).

In any case, Ireland is unusual in Europe, with a relatively high fertility rate and, during most of Ahern's time in office, massive inward migration. As a result the elderly proportion of the population was very low, one of the lowest in the OECD. In Ireland the ratio of inactive population over 65 to the total labour force was 24% in 2000, dropping to 23% in 2005 and rising back to 24% by 2010, suggesting that increases in spending on pensions over this period reflects real improvements in the income of elderly people rather than simply an increase in the proportion of people receiving pensions.

In other words, Ahern's government increased spending on old people and on other kinds of social protection. Unemployment benefit spending increased only marginally, probably reflecting the low unemployment over this period. At constant prices, health spending doubled from 1997-2007. Spending on family allowances rose two and a half times, as did spending on incapacity benefits and pensions.

The general picture is one of massive increases in social welfare of various kinds over the course of Ahern's time as Taoiseach, what we might expect from a 'socialist'.

Yet in other areas Ahern took right-wing decisions, privatising state companies, like the airline Aer Lingus and telecommunications firm Eircom.

Let's dig a little deeper. Here is Ireland's tax revenue as a percentage of GDP during Ahern's reign:
This slow decline suggests that GDP either grew faster than tax revenue, or that revenue actually declined. In fact tax revenue per capita rose almost threefold, even while population was also rising. The clue, then, is that GDP was rising even faster.

And this gets at the heart of the socialist Ahern riddle! His government did massively increase social expenditure, but did so without increasing taxation, relying instead on the rising tax revenue caused by a booming economy. The problem, of course, was that reduced revenue caused by the recession threw the budget immediately into deficit. Ahern wanted it all: reduced taxes and increased spending. Rather than a socialist or neo-liberal, Ahern largely took the path of least resistance. He was a populist.

(Bertie photo from ProhibitOnions at Wikipedia.)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Equatorial Guinea: a strange one

Browsing world statistics I sometimes come across real outliers, strange results that don't seem to match the general trends at all. Equatorial Guinea is a perfect example.

On paper the country is one of the richest in Africa, richer for instance than Saudi Arabia or Poland.

Yet that wealth does not seem to have filtered down into improved standards of living for the people. Equatorial Guinea has a life expectancy of 51, no higher than Rwanda, lower than Niger and Ethiopia. It's infant mortality rate is 88 per 1,000 live births, worse than Liberia or Sudan, nearly fifteen times worse than Poland.

Equatorial Guinea's growth is atypical too. Here is a Gapminder graph showing the growth of GDP per capita (PPP inflation adjusted US$) from 1990 to 2009, comparing Ireland, USA, Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic:

The US grew from $33,710 to $41,256: a growth of 22.4%. Ireland experienced very healthy growth, even including the latest recession, rising from $16,905 to $35,693, a total of 111% growth. Central African Republic performed dreadfully, slipping back from $851 to $696, a decline of 18%.

Equatorial Guinea, on the other hand, simply exploded. In 1990 GDP per capita was $1,028. By 2009 it was $15,342, an increase of 1,392%! In one single year GDP per capita rose 29%. To compare Equatorial Guinea with other African countries with similar levels of wealth back in 1996...

...Is almost comical. So citizens seem to enjoy incredible improvements in wealth with very slow improvements in health. What is the key to this puzzle? Oil. From the CIA World Factbook:

The discovery and exploitation of large oil and gas reserves have contributed to dramatic economic growth but fluctuating oil prices have produced huge swings in GDP growth in recent years.... The government has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and misuse of oil revenues...

The Factbook give further signs of Equatorial Guinea's weird economy. A 2009 estimate for unemployment is 23.3%, yet public debt is incredibly low at 4.1% of GDP.

An OECD study confirms the impression of mixed blessings from the oil boom:

The sustained economic growth and the increase in oil revenue, however, have had very little effect on poverty reduction in the country and on improving the general standard of living of the population. The poverty rate in Equatorial Guinea remains extremely high....

The contribution of hydrocarbons to GDP in 2006 was 87 per cent. The oil industry has without doubt become the engine of Equatorial Guinea’s economy, a long way ahead of other industries, including agriculture and wood.

The study adds that vaccination programmes are slow but proceeding, while health infrastructure is slowly improving. Let's hope Equatorial Guinea can turn its oil boom into the kind of wider economic development that directs its other figures in the right direction too. With GDP per capita higher than Chile, at the moment Equatorial Guinea's life expectancy lags behind Chile by nearly three decades.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Trading with authoritarian countries

On a British politics talk show yesterday I saw a member of the public call for an end to British trade with China on the grounds that such trade was aiding an undemocratic and dysfunctional regime.

It got me wondering how great is trade between undemocratic countries and liberal democracies like Ireland or UK. If the democracies did suddenly cease trading with China, what would happen?

Let's look first at Ireland. From January to March 2011, there was €646.4 million worth of imports from China and €602.1 million exports to China. So China made up 5.2% of Ireland's total imports and 2.6% of Ireland's total exports. These numbers of course tell us little about the quality of that trade, whether or not other countries could make up for the products and markets lost by ending trade with China. Yet they do show that China is still a small part of Ireland's trade, dwarfed by trade with other democracies like UK.

So let's expand it a little. Every year The Economist releases a Democracy Index, ranking countries by the health of their democracies. In 2010 Ireland came 12th highest in the world, considered a 'full democracy'. Ireland's official trade numbers look only at the bigger trade partners, and of these the following countries are listed among The Economist's 'authoritarian regimes':

Saudi Arabia
China

And three more belong to 'hybrid regimes':

Russia
Singapore
Turkey

The combined totals of imports from Saudi Arabia and China is just 5.2% of total imports (Saudi imports are very low in value) and 3.1% of exports. Throwing the hybrid regimes into the mix, combined imports make up just 6.8% of all imports, exports make up 4.8% of all exports.

Now there is an 'other countries' section and a 'country unknown' section so Ireland may be trading with other autocratic regimes. Yet the general picture of Irish trade is that it is overwhelmingly with democratic countries, especially fellow EU countries and the US. If Ireland overnight ceased trading with authoritarian countries then the direct impact would be relatively small (even if indirect effects of sourcing materials and less favourable markets elsewhere could be more destructive).

How about the EU as a whole? Here too the value of Chinese trade is still relatively small, 13.8% of imports and exports in 2009. Other 'hybrid regimes' make up even smaller portions of EU trade: 3.1% for Russia and 2.9% for Singapore. The bulk of EU trade is internal or with democracies like US and Japan. That balance is shifting, however, and by 2009 trade with China was greater than trade with the US. So China's importance, while still relatively low, has risen massively. If the EU ended trade with China it would have a significant impact and one that has risen with time. But the vast majority of EU trade would continue.

The final part of this puzzle is in China's trade data. Ireland's mighty trade with China in 2009 (US$3.2 billion) is 0.32% of China's total trade! So if Ireland decided to cut off all trade with China, they might not notice.

UK makes up 0.8%, the United States a more significant 7.7%. The entire continent of Europe, including non-EU countries like Switzerland, Russia and Ukraine, still makes up only 16% of China's external trade.

Putting together a casual and totally informal estimate for developed democracies (North America, Europe, Australia and a scattering of East Asian states like Japan), we get a healthier chunk of China's trade, something resembling 61%. So if all the OECD countries, plus Russia, could arrange a simultaneous boycott of China then it would devestate their economy, but individual countries would make very little difference.

So for the person who advocated that Britain cease trading with China, think again. China will keep going strong without Britain's insignificant little sector of their trade.