November 30, 2005

Colonial coffee snobbery

Russell Brown goes to the city with the highest density, and highest expectations, of long blacks south of the equator. Or perhaps the world over ...

Somebody served me a long black without a crema last week. In Wellington. The café had everything else: nice décor, convivial company, Cafenet connectivity, that capital city buzz. But no crema. Certainly, I am a bit of a nut about this sort of thing. I am currently sipping a home-made espresso that is of superior quality to what I could buy at 95 out of 100 Auckland cafes: intense, complex, with a touch of sweetness. And a big, fat fuck-off crema.

Stilll, there's always L'affare and The Astoria .... And it could be London, where according to Nick Smith's interesting Listener story on New Zealanders in London you still can't get a decent coffee in the old town, excepting that you visit a New Zealand-run establishment. .... On the whole trip, the only decent coffee I found was in one place in Amsterdam, and it cost the equivalent of $NZ6.

I fear that we have established a certain domestic coffee culture and simply expected the world to follow.

The disappointment that the world's coffee is not the same as Wellington's is something every Antipodean expat must experience themselves.

UPDATE: 1 December 2005. Other disappointed coffee expats write to Russell Brown. The funniest thing to me was this report:

... the worst coffee I ever had was in Orlando, Florida at the worst large hotel I have ever stayed in, Disney's desperately dysfunctional Swan & Dolphin. There was a coffee cart in the corridor, and I made the mistake of asking for a long black. What I got handed was one of those ridiculous milkshake -container things in which they serve coffee in America

The few times that I have lapsed into New Zealand coffee terminology and used the term "long black" Americans thought I was talking about tall African Americans! And by that twisted logic a short black must be Gary Coleman ...

There is also the "flat white." Which is another kind of coffee, and not a European-descended person who has been hit on the head.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:14 PM

November 29, 2005

Health care

Skimming through the early archives of the National Industrial Conference Board today at the Hagley Library I came across a folder dense with information on how the first effort—between 1918 and 1923—to provide some form of national or state public health insurance was defeated. And the second (in the 1930s), and the third (in the 1940s), and the fourth (in the 1990s) ...

It's really quite simple. Opponents of universal health insurance expressed a lot of sympathy with the idea that everyone should receive coverage, and then threw up enough doubts about changing the current system to peel off enough supporters that any one positive proposal for change could not get through. The emphasis of these doubts has varied from decade-to-decade. In the early 1920s the notion that reasonable men, the leaders of labor and business, could work these things out together without the complicating effort of government was stressed. At all points the idea that public health insurance was "un-American" was mentioned, the notion that this would cost more, the appeal to fear of a new and different system giving you worse care, while others benefitted.

Opponents of public health insurance have a lot to work with. In any rational reform of American health care, some people will consume a lot less health care than they would under the current system. That's a different matter than whether those people will be less healthy. It's well known that parts of the American health care system spend vast amounts of money in the last six months of life, pouring good money after the soon-to-be-dead. But if you're not dead yet, it's not clear why they shouldn't keep spending money on you. The last six months criticism is true as a matter of fact accounting, but also ignores that we don't know when that last six months starts. And who wants to think that in any new health care system they might die a little earlier because less money was spent on them. Not many.

Advocates of public health insurance claim, and probably rightly, that it would save money, at no cost to the overall health of Americans. This is a great argument, at a societal level, in an academic setting. The idea of getting the same health for fewer dollars is surely appealing. But it opens up an avenue for opponents of public health insurance to suggest that it would be you who received less health care with less health care spending. Everyone is in favor of saving money overall, but few would volunteer that the savings come from what is spent on them.

In any case, it's clearly the season for putting out earnest proposals for health care reform. Four articles in this month's issue of the Boston Review, and two posts by the thoughtful Brad Plumer address the issue.

Plumer makes this point:

... like any redistribution of wealth, reform will create winners and losers .... If health care reform, like Medicare-for-all, can lower total health care costs without hurting health outcomes—and the European experience suggests this is very likely—then the winners will win much more than the losers lose. Think of it like free trade. Maybe we'll all be winners.

But if it's like free trade—a good analogy—the benefits will be dispersed and the losses from change will be concentrated. The potential losers—health insurance companies—have money to spend to defeat this. Where I think this round of potential health insurance reform may differ from the past is that the insurance companies may be more isolated than in the past. When health insurers, doctors, and major employers all oppose reform that's a major barrier. Doctors' professional organizations are more open to reform, and some major employers could also support public health insurance. But the American political system makes major institutional change at the federal level difficult to achieve; guided by history it's always better to bet against proposals to expand government social spending succeeding.

update, 30 November 2005 @ 18:30 I should add that one effective line of opposition to public health insurance is precisely that it might well lead to less health care being consumed, even if there was no cost to anyone's health. First off, health care producers—from hospital administrators to nursing aides—would probably prefer not to lose their jobs. Second, even if some health care has no appreciable impact on health status, people might still choose to consume extra health care beyond what's necessary for physical health because it feels good.

And there's the rub. Who should pay for medically un-necessary care that individuals might want because it gives them more pleasure than alternative purchases like massages or health club memberships? In any health care financing system where consumers do not bear the marginal costs of care, public or private, some medically un-necessary health care is inevitably provided.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:39 PM

Shopping across borders

This photo and headline, on the Washington Post site a few days ago, was not unfortunate in its juxtaposition. But it was sort of funny. It did look at first glance as if Mr. Abbas and Mr Suleiman were leading the crowds into the stores at 5am on the day after Thanksgiving. But apparently not. I hear they don't celebrate Christmas so much in that part of the world.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:54 AM

No confidence

The Canadian government lost a confidence vote, and they'll have an election in January, less than two years after the last one. Why couldn't this have happened a couple of weeks ago when I was writing about what a wonderful thing the ability of parliament to force early elections was.

Don't rely on the Washington Post to inform you about how government formation works in a parliamentary system though. They write

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper .... would become prime minister if the Conservatives receive the most seats in Parliament.

Ummm ... not so fast. Yes, generally the party with the most seats in parliament leads the government and the leader is Prime Minister. Obviously if a party wins a majority—as typically happens in plurality single-member district systems—then the leader of the largest party is Prime Minister. But, and this is a significant but, the precise reason the Canadian government lost a no-confidence vote is that no one party has a majority in parliament, and people expect this might be repeated in the upcoming election.

If that's the case, the Governor General typically calls on the largest party to see if they can lead a coalition. But it may be the case that the leader of the second largest party can form a government with other parties. And, of course, the role of the Governor General in politics has had its moments of controversy in Canadian history.

I would put my money on this scenario: the Liberals remain the largest party at the January 2006 election, but can't form a government. Harper leads a short-lived Conservative-led coalition that doesn't last a full-term.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:36 AM

November 27, 2005

Please don't do bad things. They are against ordinance

The English-speaking countries—to use that quaint phrase that glosses over the Celts, various and sundry indigenous people in North America and Australasia, and some French-Canadians—are united and divided by their common language. What's less appreciated is the odd similarities and differences in other aspects of their cultures.

Take public warning signs, for example. Those metal laminated things telling you to pick up dog poop, not to drink alcohol here, and other useful edicts for better living, have a markedly different form in the different countries.

In New Zealand, and as best I can tell from personal observation and report, Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada, these signs are generally polite and relatively informal. "Please pick up after your dog," "Please do not remove the trolleys from the supermarket carpark," etc ...

In Australia and the United States, by contrast, these types of signs are excessively legalistic. Like this one, for example.

It's not immediately clear to me why potential cart thieves need to know that it is a specific violation of Article 11, Section 841 to remove carts from the premises. I suppose that would make the difference. Perhaps if stealing carts was punishable under the more lenient Article 12, Section 359 more people would do it. But I think not. The information about the penalties may give a thief pause, but the section of the law. Why is it relevant? Why are so many warning signs in America and Australia like this?

In America, at least, it seems especially odd because the majority of people are so preternaturally polite that the excessive legalism of these public appeals seems against the temperament of the country. But Americans also love system, formality, and authority which these signs have in spades. You might appeal to the federal system as an explanation, but then those nice Canadians have simple "please do this" type signs and a federal system. In Australia you might explain these legalistic signs with the notion that the people are the criminal descendents of petty thieves and convicts. And in so doing, forsake any attempt at serious explanation.

Sometimes these signs are tragi-comic. I have seen (and have the film photographs somewhere to prove it) signs in America that inform you that committing suicide by leaping from a particular bridge is against some municipal ordinance. An effective mental health intervention? I think not. In a similar vein, I've seen signs in Australia that say that leaping into a tempting-looking swimming hole in a river is against the municipal ordinances, and only lastly mention that there are submerged rocks in the hole that might hurt you if you lept.

I should say, to forestall some comments, that I generaliz(s)e here. You can find both types of signs in all these countries, but you find many of the very legalistic signs in America and Australia.

It would be nice to end with some conclusive insight into why this is so. But I have none. I just offer this as a long-held observation that I've never put on the internet, and invite your comments on examples, explanations or contradictions.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:22 PM

November 23, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Posted by robe0419 at 7:52 AM

November 20, 2005


That was a good way to end the running year. A 4:15 marathon PR in Philadelphia.

It may sound odd to then say I didn't think I had a great day, but I'm happy and it was a good race. In some ways the marathon PR was kind of soft, dating from 1999 and my first marathon. But it also dated from a year when I went on to run sub 34:00 for 10000, and chase the 5000 time into the low 16s. In that marathon, without the benefit of such modern things as gel (this was the twentieth century, kids) I cruised through 20 miles--following the instructions of running friends to not do anything stupid before then. Feeling great I picked it up a little and found out what the wall was a couple of minutes after 37km (23 miles).

The dirty little secret of marathon running is that up to 18 or 20 miles it can be great. Sure, some pain is to be expected in the last 2-8 miles as the mind pushes the body through what it really was not designed to do: race on asphalt for 26 miles and 385 yards. But the first 20 miles can hold some of the sheer delights of running, of running along at a fast pace you can sustain for mile after mile.

Today I didn't get that. But I'll be back for more cracks at the distance. The first mile was ok, but then it was slightly downhill and mile 1. Nothing should be read into how you feel at mile 1. Of course, feeling bad in mile 1 can save you from charging out too fast. Never a bad thing. But mile 2 on, oh my ... Never quite settled down. It was mostly my feet telling me that the shoes were laced just a little too tight, but that discomfort always seems to spread up the leg. Maybe, just maybe from 12-13 I had a taste of that glorious marathon feeling, but after 13 I was applying myself to the task. It wasn't coming as naturally as I'd hoped, but each mile kept ticking over in pretty much the same time so I stuck at it.

But here's the rub: I never felt awful, and that was the making of a 1:24/1:25 PR. I kept on expecting it to feel awful, but it never came. After a first mile that was a tad too quick things settled down into a steady routine of 6:22-6:28 miles that saw me to half-way a sprightly 1 second faster than at Grandmas. The 6 mile haul (14-20) out to Manayunk was enlivened by three things; the first at 16 when the guy I'd just passed (looking a little ragged) ran into the cone and hit the road, then at 18 the woman who eventually got fifth caught up to me. Since at that point I was generally passing others, it was good to have someone to run with in the dead spot before Manayunk and the spectators there. And at 19 I saw the famous Duncan Larkin powering along back to the finish.

Having clocked consistent miles around 6:24 through 21 I knew that I had a good chance of running somewhere in the upper 2:40s if I could hold it together. The 22nd mile was a little slow (6:44) with the hill that Duncan had mentioned and then a sharp little ramp back to Kelly Drive--the riverside road you are on for miles 14-18 and 22 to the finish. But hey, I was at 22 and I had not hit the wall. I could follow the advice in Pfitzinger and Douglas's Advanced Marathoning and take increasing risks all the way to the finish. The 23rd and 24th mile both ticked over in the low 6:30s, so I was losing ground on 2:48 and any brief thoughts at 20 about a negative split were gone. But slipping just 10 seconds a mile in these miles is way better than in previous marathons where I was wondering how 6:30s turned into 7:30s and worse.

The moment you know to expect, where all you can think of is the finish came about half-way through the 25th mile, and I see from revieiwing the watch that that was another 6:44, but with less than 10 minutes to go I was happy to keep telling myself to keep the stride rate up, just focus on getting from cone to cone, and pulled through the last mile and 385 yards in 8:06 (6:39/mile).

I could see the high 2:48s ticking by as I came down the straight, and it was a momentary disappointment not to get there in time. But on a day I never quite settled into it I was happy to take the PR, the decent splits, the renewed enthusiasm for the marathon that comes with it, the prospect of an easy couple of weeks, and then a build-up for a possible half-marathon in Duluth in June, and then the Chicago marathon. If I can push down into the low 2:40s I'd be happy, but to do that I need to spend spring and early summer working on the 5km - half marathon end of the range.

late updated random thoughts I took gels at the start, 7 miles, 13 and 20, and credit them in part for not hitting the wall. All those tempo and marathon pace runs probably helped too.

What's with the silly medals marathons give out? The t-shirt at least is functional, the medal not so much.

Philadelphia has a decent marathon with a nice course that is pretty quick. The major ups and downs are all over by 12 miles. Worth thinking about it for your late fall marathon schedule. Interesting mix of downtown urban with parkway. Kelly Drive was as pretty as any area on the Twin Cities course, "most beautiful urban marathon" and all that. But in Philly you also race down South Street, past stores like Condom Kingdom and Erogenous Zone. How many miles of changing leaves, lakes and rivers does any race need? Great variety at Philly, which I preferred. Of course most-to-all people will have to give up racing the ubiqituous Turkey Trot on Thursday if you do this marathon. The mid-40s with sun they organized for today was also a treat. If they can just manage to order more porta-potties for the starting area they could become an even bigger national marathon.

Amazingly I am able to walk down stairs facing forward with minimal discomfort. I expect that this will change by tomorrow morning, and I will be hobbling around for a couple of days. Maybe I didn't run hard enough?

Posted by robe0419 at 3:50 PM

November 16, 2005

Not quite a parliamentary system

Mark Schmitt has another interesting post up about the continued drift in U.S. politics towards the executive and legislative branches of the majority party co-ordinating with each other more than they ever did in the past. This is a theme that Josh Marshall at talkingpointsmemo has also written about.

Schmitt is always worth reading as someone who writes well, and has a lot of experience and insight round Washington. I think they are identifying something important about the way the Republicans run Washington when they have control of all three branches, and the seeming willingness of House and Senate leaders to defer to and support the executive (though that's breaking down as Bush becomes less popular!)

I'd like to respectfully dissent a little. In part, because I think the test of whether the U.S. system is really becoming more parliamentary is what happens when different parties control the different branches. I think we'd see a reversion to a more traditional form of U.S. politics, with shifting allegiances and compromises to command assent in both Houses of Congress and in the White House.

But more importantly than that I'd make these points

  1. In a real parliamentary system the minority party in the legislature has regular opportunities to hold the executive to account. When parliament is sitting most systems make the Prime Minister and their Cabinet face up to questions from the Opposition. To my knowledge, there is no provision at either state or federal level for the Governor or President to regularly face questions from the minority. This is a hugely important aspect of how a parliamentary system works, given that the executive is drawn from the legislature
  2. While the House and Senate were once a path to the Presidency, the last Senator or Representative elected as President was Kennedy. In 1960. For whatever reason—the primary system, underlying voter preference, a run of bad candidates, success in the legislature developing skills or habits not wanted in a president—American voters don't see national legislative service as the pre-requisite to executive office that it is (by definition!) in a parliamentary system.
  3. At least in the Westminster parliamentary systems (and really, that's the best comparison given the shared language and history, rather than continental European systems) the electoral term is not fixed (though it has a maximum length...). If the government falls, new elections can be held. You can argue about the merits of this at your leisure—I think it's a good idea because if things break down in the legislature there is a mechanism for letting the ultimately sovereign citizens have their say—but it gives the majority leadership in the legislature some pause to know that if they cannot retain the allegiance of their own party, there could be new elections.

    For better or worse, the voting public has short memories. Some of the power of the Republican majority leadership rests on the common knowledge that they can ram things through the House or Senate far enough in advance of the elections that voters will forget what happened. Dissenting members of the majority party who can credibly threaten to defect to the opposition for a confidence vote and cause fresh elections cannot be pressured to quite the same degree.

What we have now in the United States is an ersatz representation of a parliamentary system, in appearance but not form. It occurs because the interests of the legislative majority and the executive coincided temporarily, and they are already beginning to diverge.

Posted by robe0419 at 4:54 PM

November 15, 2005

Walmart as utopia

A little historical reflection about Walmart shows that its current public image troubles are the latest incarnation of anxiety about mass distribution.

Walmart was in the news a couple of weeks ago for an internal memo that suggested various ways the company might reduce its labor costs. Reaction from labor supporters, such as Nathan Newman, was rather critical. The mainstream media quoted lawyers as saying that the ideas could expose the company to litigation, or chided the not-unreasonable idea that jobs at the company could be designed so that all employees ("Associates") got more physical activity during their work-day.

The memo reveals Walmart's concern about its public image, stating bluntly that

Healthcare is one of the most pressing reputation issues facing Wal-Mart. Survey work done last summer shows that peoples perception of our wages and benefits is a key driver of Wal-Marts overall reputation. Several groups are now mounting attacks against Wal-Mart focused on our healthcare offering. These increasingly well-organized and well-funded critics especially the labor unions and related groups, such as Wal-Mart Watch have selected healthcare as their main avenue of attack. Moreover, federal and state governments are increasingly concerned about healthcare costs, and many view Wal-Mart as part of the problem (a view due, in part, to the work of Wal-Marts critics).

In short, Walmart perceives that public opinions of it are driven not by how it performs as a retailer, but as an employer. Walmart's role in production, not its role in consumption, is what attracts attention. This is not surprising, periodic, concentrated hostility to mass distributors is common in American history.

In the late 19th century, for example, the railroads were the target of significant hostility from farmers who perceived the railroads as non-productive and exploitative. The department store was perceived as putting the small store out of business, as well as being morally suspect. Department stores, it was argued, did not pay their single female employees enough, and those young women would turn to prostitution. There is at least a faint echo of these complaints in the complaints about Walmart not paying its workers enough, though the concerns have moved on from prostitution to adequate health insurance.

There was also, and here is where I get my title to this post, an eclectic utopian idea out there, that pondered a world where distribution was so efficient that everything would be available everywhere. An odd little novel, The World A Department Store, was one expression of this utopian view. In this utopian world the problem of distribution, of getting mass production to mass society, had been "solved." Perhaps a Walmart in every town is utopia.

In the 1920s and 1930s with department store ownership consolidating, and grocery chains expanding, the "chain store menace" was a phrase on the lips of economic losers (no value judgment intended) who were being displaced by more efficient chains. As with most economic changes, the losers in this process of increasingly concentrated ownership of, and expenditure at, retail stores, know who they are, and have a stronger self-identity than the winners. The winners tend to be everyday consumers who are not consciously aware that Walmart might be saving them 50 cents on a 12 pack of toilet paper, or $60 on a DVD player.

And these "losers" have a rich cultural heritage of hostility to distributive business (To say nothing of financial intermediaries. And the Merchant of Venice was shifty in part because he was a merchant ...) to draw on. The view of retail and distribution as parasitic and not producing anything may be flawed to the neo-classical economist, but it is not uncommon.

There are all sorts of legitimate questions about the role of Walmart in the American economy, whether local governments should smooth the path for its expansion, whether Walmart is just acting rationally in a screwed-up health insurance system, etc, etc ... And I don't want to come across as arguing that it's just natural, inexorable and all beneficial, that retailing will become more concentrated over time. But this is certainly not the first time that mass retailing has occasioned angst and hostility, and it won't be the last.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:10 PM

Running notes

As Chad notes Saturday was a beautiful day for a longish run round Lebanon Hills park. I say "longish" because 96 minutes is not daunting at all but takes a chunk of time out of the day (1/16 of it. approximately).

I had wanted to race the USATF cross country champs, but a week out from a marathon probably not the best idea. It would have been a fun race, good spread of competitive runners testing themselves over hill and dale. Owing to travel I have missed the other cross-country opportunities round the cities this fall. The USATF champs used to be held 3 weeks after the Twin Cities marathon which, I suspect, reduced attendance. A 10km up-and-down cross country race is not for everyone 3 weeks after a marathon. So moving this race to mid-November was, in some ways, a good call to encourage more participation in a season-concluding race. Combining the mens and womens races into one was also a good idea. Few enough people running post-collegiate cross country in the state that it makes sense splitting up the races.

But ... but ... mid-November? On average, the second weekend in November does not see mid-40s, no wind, and partly cloudy (=perfect racing weather). More often than not, the second weekend in November in the Twin Cities sees rain, low 30s, and a cold wind out of the northwest (Canada!). That does not encourage participation. And what's with making the adult cross country champs for the state just 5km long?! 5km or 5000m is a great distance, on the roads or track. But grown men and women should be running 8km-12km for championship cross-country races. Just my cranky two cents worth on that!

My guess is that they moved the senior champs to this date because the 3rd weekend in October is too soon after Twin Cities, the next weekend is the MIAC championships, and then the first weekend in November is Rocky's Run, already well-established on the local race scene.

Maybe I can race it next year when the law of averages will see the first inch of snowfall accumulate on race day ...

Anyone still reading???

Posted by robe0419 at 3:58 PM

November 14, 2005

DDF seminar presentation

On Thursday I gave a 15 minute overview of my dissertation to other dissertation fellows in the Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship seminar series. The other presenters were very interesting -- it's cool to see what ones peers (in the broadest sense) are doing.

Here is a copy of my slides in PDF format, on the suggestion of one reader who was not able to make the seminar.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:00 PM

Brush with fame

Famous people have been reading my blog! My note of appreciation to the late Susan Porter Benson made it into her obituary in Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association.

I suppose I must be down to 14:59.50 worth of fame for my lifetime now ...

Posted by robe0419 at 12:13 AM

November 11, 2005

More great moments in American-New Zealand relations

Another highlight of American diplomacy under George Bush. More comedic in its low-level hackery than anything sinister. After all, being ambassador to New Zealand is not exactly a post of great global security importance. But let's see what kind of man Washington has in Wellington:

The Anzus Treaty has become so disused and irrelevant that the United States has apparently forgotten how to say it.

New United States Ambassador Bill McCormick described it four times at his first press conference in Wellington yesterday as the "Anzu" treaty - (pronouncing it "Anzoo").


[Here is my favorite part as the New Zealand Herald lets its readers know how completely unqualified the new ambassador is for the job]

Mr McCormick, 66, is new to diplomacy. His wife, Gail, lived in New Zealand as a young woman in 1974.

He owns a chain of 56 seafood restaurants that will turn over US$300 million ($436 million) in the next year. He is also a big donor and patron of the arts, with a special interest in opera.

Comedy gold! "New to diplomacy." That's one way of putting it. But I'm sure he's a quick learner, right? So what are his qualifications. Well, his wife lived in New Zealand for a while? He owns some seafood restaurants? This will sure help out in New Zealand -- they have a lot of seafood there.

But there's your answer, he's a big donor. Knowing how the American administrations dole out ambassadorships, when they say "donor" they don't mean just to the arts and culture. They mean to the Republican party.

Let's go to the numbers! Totally unsurprisingly, it turns out that Mr. McCormick and his company have given bunches of money to the Republican party in states they have restaurants.

In 2004, McCormick gave $20,000 to the Oregon Republican party and $25,000 to the Republican National Committee. Our [sarcasm]friend[/sarcasm] here in Minnesota Norm Coleman got $1000 for his troubles. All up, Bill "Anzoo" McCormick gave $63,824 to the Republican Party in 2004.

In 2002 McCormick was a little less generous, handing out $2000 to Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), and $1000 to his buddy at the National Restaurant Association Edward Tinsley who was running for the open Republican NM-02 seat in Congress.

It could have been a lot worse for New Zealand. Tinsley, who owns the fine dining establishment, KBOBS Steakhouse gave a paltry $3000 to the Republicans in 2004.

But who knew the ambassadorship to New Zealand was so expensive? $63,000! A small price for a quiet life and a newly exalted title when you return home, perhaps?

Posted by robe0419 at 6:53 PM

Feast on rss feeds

Maybe this ain't news to many, but most journal publishers now offer RSS feeds of current contents (Cambridge & Chicago university presses; Ingenta has thousands of journals for example). Somehow I slightly prefer this to the email updates that presses have been offering for a while. I note that Project Muse, which has a bunch of good titles, doesn't have an RSS feed (but does email updates), the History Co-operative has neither.

It's kind of time consuming going through all the various sites, and thinking "might I possibly be interested in articles in this journal?," clicking subscribe, filing it in the bloglines folder ... but time consuming meant a couple of hours on a slow night, RSS will be around for a while, and this will save random web-surfing to see what's in the journals. Not to mention actual physical trips to the library to see what is in the journals. That really is time consuming!

Posted by robe0419 at 6:04 PM


The debate about trade recently has interested me. Democrats are still fighting about that! I guess that's my naive impression coming from New Zealand where the political orthodoxy is that further liberalization of world trade will be a great, great thing [if it ever happens]. It's easy for that to be the political orthodoxy 15-20 years after the wrenching adjustment period.

I guess that's why they call the subject political economy. The American political system gives so much more scope for the potential losers in trade liberalization to try and stop the process.

But before I ramble on too long ... work calls ... the question I always want to ask American opponents of trade liberalization is this: Why should the individual states trade with each other? If Michigan is suffering because car manufacturing is migrating to Tennessee and South Carolina, why shouldn't Michigan be able to place tariffs on Saturns and BMWs so that Peninsula-dwellers will buy a Detroit-made car? The logic of this is precisely the same logic that opponents of international trade are using.

Discuss amongst yourselves ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:24 PM

Armistice Day

It's Armistice Day. I noticed the 11th hour tick by [electronically] and paused momentarily to think of the First World War. I then also reflected—being in America—on how this anniversary passes by without much notice.

Here, by contrast, is the BBC news page for today

Still remembering World War I. Not a peep on any of the major American papers. But then the First World War barely touched America, the casualty rate was just 8%. In Australia and New Zealand the senselessness of war was brought home when 2/3 of men who went to a war that did not threaten their homes directly returned injured or did not return at all. The small towns of Australia and New Zealand are dotted with memorials to the men who paid the "ultimate sacrifice." Who died for King and Country. The social dislocation, the impact of half a generation missing, wounded or dead haunted both countries throughout the next twenty years.

As is the way with death and despair we are left with some great literature from the period, that probably captures better than any historian now could, the sense of loss. Indeed, the best history of New Zealand in that period is still Randal Burdon's The New Dominion because he'd lived through the period, and could sense what it meant to his contemporaries.

Whereas my impression of America in the inter-war period is a period of relative prosperity followed by a Depression, New Zealand between the wars was a place which struggled to get over the war, and may, just may have had a year or two (1925-1927) of normalcy, of a society that felt optimistic, before things headed south again. And the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Australia.

Isolationism gets a bad name in the United States today, but a little bit of caution about rushing off to foreign wars is not a bad thing.

[late updateYes, yes, I know it's Veteran's Day. But really, that just proves my point that America is not really marking the end of World War I in the way that other combatant countries are.]

(Below the fold is a table of the casualty rates of major combatant countries)

Casualties of the First World War
Country Mobilized Killed Wounded Total Casualties
French Empire 7,500,000 1,385,000 4,266,000 5,651,000 75%
Austria-Hungary 6,500,000 1,200,000 3,620,000 4,820,000 74%
New Zealand 110,000 18,000 55,000 73,000 66%
Australia 330,000 59,000 152,000 211,000 64%
Bulgaria 400,000 101,000 153,000 254,000 64%
Russia 12,000,000 1,700,000 4,950,000 6,650,000 55%
Germany 11,000,000 1,718,000 4,234,000 5,952,000 54%
Turkey  1,600,000 336,000 400,000 736,000 46%
Great Britain 5,397,000 703,000 1,663,000 2,367,000 44%
Romania 750,000 200,000 120,000 320,000 43%
Canada 620,000 67,000 173,000 241,000 39%
Serbia 707,000 128,000 133,000 261,000 37%
Belgium 207,000 13,000 44,000 57,000 28%
Italy 5,500,000 60,000 947,000 1,407,000 26%
Montenegro 50,000 3,000 10,000 13,000 26%
Portugal 100,000 7,000 15,000 22,000 22%
The Caribbean2 21,000 1,000 3,000 4,000 19%
South Africa 149,000 7,000 12,000 19,000 13%
Greece 230,000 5,000 21,000 26,000 11%
USA 4,272,500 117,000 204,000 321,000 8%
India3 1,500,000 43,000 65,000 108,000 7%
Japan 800,000 250 1,000 1,250 0.20%
Africa1 55,000 10,000 unknown unknown -
Posted by robe0419 at 1:25 PM

November 10, 2005

Fun with mortality data

Human Mortality Database. What a great find.

Posted by robe0419 at 9:16 PM

Spam from Norway

The Nigerian spam migrates to another oil-rich country ...

Mr Gerhard Toril writes:

Dearest Friend,

As you read this, I don't want you to feel sorry for me, because, I believe everyone will die someday. My name is Gerhard Toril merchant from Norway. On 10th Feburary 2002 myself and my family and my business partner took a flight from kish to sharjah and we flew kish airline.We had a plane crash and all members of my family including my very good friend lost thier lives.

I give thanks to God that i am one of the lucky ones that survived the crash.The airline was under the management of one Mr Shabab Attarzadeh who was later sacked after this incidence.I had to return to my home town in Norway and i am now left with my relatives to take care of me. I have been diagnosed with Esophageal cancer .It has defiled all forms of medical treatment, and right now I have only about a few months to live, according to medical experts.

I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I never really cared for anyone (not even myself) but my business. Though I am very rich, I was never generous, I was always hostile to people and only focused on my business as that was the only thing I cared for.But now I regret all this as I now know that there is more to life than just wanting to have or make all the money in the world.I believe when God gives me a second chance to come to this world I would live my life a different way from how I have lived it. Now that God has called me, I have willed and given most of my property and assets to my immediate and extended family members as well as a few close friends. I want God to be merciful to me and accept my soul so, I have decided to give aims to charity organizations, as I want this to be one of the last good deeds I do on earth.So far, I have distributed money to some charity organizations in the U.A.E, Somalia and Malaysia. Now that my health has deteriorated so badly, I cannot do this myself anymore. I once asked members of my family to close one of my accounts and distribute the money which I have there to charity organization in Bulgaria and Pakistan; they refused and kept the money to themselves.Hence, I do not trust them anymore, as they seem not to be contended with what I have left for them. It is my fervent hope that you will,with open mind,read,and respond positively to this heartfelt message of propagating the God's work.

The last of my money which no one knows of is the huge cash deposit of Twenty Eight Million dollars ($28, 000, 000, 00) that I have with a finance/Security Company abroad. I will want you to help me collect this deposit and dispatch it to charity organizations.

I have set aside 30% for you and for your Effort. May God bless you as you respond to my plea.

Mr. Gerhard Toril

Posted by robe0419 at 9:12 PM

November 9, 2005

Living history

Waiting to get a flu shot yesterday a colleague observed to me that as an historian perhaps I would enjoy the upcoming flu pandemic because then we could see what the 1918 pandemic was like.

Indeed! Since we seemed to be having a replay of the Scopes trial in Dover (PA) until the "intelligent design" supporting board members were turned out of office yesterday, why not have the flu. I also look forward to a depression with widespread poverty, and the government stamping out rebellions by homeless veterans, Japan invading China, not to mention fine jazz and great literature ...

Posted by robe0419 at 2:55 PM

November 8, 2005

the "to go" mentality

<RANT> There are many things I love about America (this list in the Guardian covers about 40 of them) but one thing I have not adjusted to is the apparent inability of coffee shops to serve coffee in anything other than paper cups.

Every foreigner since Tocqueville, and no doubt others before him, has observed that Americans are a busy people, and serving coffee in a paper cup so you can take it with you is just to be expected.

But! If you do want to sit down and drink from a less-wasteful, nicer-to-handle ceramic cup, it would be nice if baristas did not act like the request was so unreasonable. The coffee just tastes better from a ceramic cup too. No doubt there are clever scientists working on this right now, but coffee in a paper cup still manages to take on some of the flavor.

A related bemusement in American coffee stores is when baristas apologize for taking two minutes (or three!) to make your espresso. Good coffee is meant to take a while to prepare. If you have to wait while the beans are ground that's a good sign.

More irritable [mostly] foreigners on this topic than I have time to link to.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:13 PM

November 2, 2005

One year anniversary

One year on from the presidential election I will be wearing this t-shirt for my run today.

Posted by robe0419 at 12:45 PM

November 1, 2005


Today's invocation of a closed floor Senate session by Harry Reid will likely have little direct impact on American voters and their voting intentions. Few people pay much attention to the parliamentary cut-and-thrust of what happens in the Senate and the House.

Precisely because there is a bicameral Congress with a separately elected executive, more of American politics is conducted outside formal settings and in the media. In a parliamentary system, even a bicameral one, there is less need to conduct politics through the media. It is the separately elected executive—President or Governor—that drives American politics into negotiation outside the institutions (sometimes literally, on the steps of Congress, or in the White House garden!). The sheer size of the American electorate extends this tendency towards a public, media-focused politics, because other forms of campaigning and publicity are not cost-effective. More concretely, in the American system there is not time to be absorbed in Congressional business andspend significant time meeting voters in person.

Yet the indirect impact of what occurs in Congress can be quite important. Today's events will have invigorated the Democrats and angered the Republicans. If, as Mark Schmitt argues, Bill Frist's ability to lead the Senate is now "completely in ruins," then the energies of the Republican Senate will be diverted to their own internal politics if there is a move to replace him. And parties consumed by their own internal battles tend not to fight elections so well.

One should not overstate the importance of what Reid did, but neither should it be seen as a sideshow. Parliamentary tactics are still very important to American politics, even if they are rarely seen by the public.

Posted by robe0419 at 6:37 PM