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As some of you know, my mom's side of the family has consisted of quite a few more girl babies than boys for several generations back now. My sister and cousins have all had girls (five daughters between my sister and four cousins). My mom and aunts all had girls (six of us). My grandmother had five girls, and though I don't have the records, I've been told that her twelve siblings had several times more girls than boys. In her generation, there were five girls before the first boy, and in my grandpa's family, there were also a number of girls born before the first son (which I think was him, the youngest).

I've always figured my family was just a statistical anomaly. My sister has looked into various chemistry or dietary reasons for this (wanting to have a boy next), but the research I've seen on this has generally been pretty sketchy and incomplete, so I've decided to chalk it up to chance -- at least, until I see compelling evidence otherwise.

Well, I read an interesting article today that seems to indicate that there are some chemicals out there that do noticeably tip the scales. I've long known that the benzene and other chemicals in sunscreens mimic estrogen, shifting the sex of fish toward the "default" female, even during an individual fish's life, and having similar effects in rats and other animals. I have blogged about the cosmetics safety database listing the safety of sunscreens. (It looks like the famous "wear sunscreen" column, in which the author said the only sure advice she could give was to wear sunscreen, might have been wrong after all.) I had also heard that PCBs, common in flame retardants and coolants, and other chemicals had documented effects on development, especially sexual development. But this is the first I've heard of the chemicals actually causing a shift in sex ratios at birth.

According to the article, the Arctic populations that the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program studied had imbalances that were particularly pronounced (twice as many girls as boys, where before the ratio was 1.1 boys for every girl) because of their reliance on marine meat, which is high on the food chain and thus had heavy concentrations of these chemicals.

Though it's doubtful that anything like this has caused the generations-long surplus of girls in my family, it does make me reconsider my "just-chance" stance on the trend. It also places even more importance on one of my main reasons for being vegetarian for 9 or so years through my youth and into college. Read more... )
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Everyone's posted about the great news from the California Supreme Court today. There are two things about the story that I haven't heard discussed much, though.

The first is that there is likely to be a proposition to amend the California constitution on the ballot next November to reverse this decision. Since the arguments overturning the decision were based on close readings of the California constitution, I've read that the case is very unlikely to go to the Supreme Court, but opposition groups have vowed to get the issue put on the ballot. I figure most of my (California-based, US citizen) friends are planning to vote anyway, but let this be another reason. Such a proposition will certainly bring more opponents wanting to overturn this decision out of the woodwork, and such a possibility worries me, both for the future of this decision and about the election results more generally.

The second is just an observation about the ahistorical hubris of the opposition's "this goes against the will of the people" argument. This assertion of theirs is based on the results of a 2000 proposition, put on the ballot in a very small election, to define marriage in the usual narrow and bigoted way -- and it passed. But even aside from this narrow definition of the "people" as those (relatively) few who turned out for that election, I hate this "will of the people" argument. It was equally "against the will of the [majority of] people" to do away with slavery, to integrate schools and public services in the 1950s, to allow interracial marriage, and to enforce equal rights in various other arenas, but that doesn't mean the will of the people is right, fair, or just. The same "separate but equal" arguments have been applied in separating "marriage" and "civil union" as were used to legalize (continued) segregation. The California Supreme Court rightly recognized the historical and logical flaws in this argument and ruled that the civil and legal institution of marriage, or whatever you want to call it, has to have not only the same rights and benefits but the same name for all.
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With quals just behind me and research ramping up, I've been struggling to come to terms with my academic identity and to rekindle a passion for my research that I know is there, but has been dormant for the last little while. It struck me that one book in particular has influenced me more than any other in the last year -- and this has been a particularly mind-expanding year for me. (I'll post more article and book summaries soon to demonstrate.) But for anyone interested in development, modernization, globalization, or Africa -- or any combination of these -- I highly, highly recommend Global Shadows by James Ferguson. It's extremely well-written, and though certainly not an "easy" read, it is very illuminating. In a way, it has both opened my eyes and (temporarily, hopefully) paralyzed me -- I can't help but think that there's just too much that I don't know for me to make any useful difference. But Ferguson himself would not accept such an excuse (I've taken a class with him and am pretty sure of this), so I'm back in the ring, taking more anthropology, equipping myself to grapple effectively with such thorny, complicated issues. (As a side note, I scoff at anyone who thinks computer science or statistics is harder than this stuff. I've done both; I know.)

Below is the summary I wrote of the book last November. It's very long, but for those of you interested in these topics, I think it is worth the time and effort -- and the book even more so! (I was thinking of dividing this across multiple posts, but wanted any ensuing discussion -- and I hope there's some! -- to happen in one place, so I chose not to.)




What is “Africa”? What are globalization, development and modernity? These concepts – though they may be at times vague and ill-conceived – nonetheless play a central role in discourses, economic and otherwise, about the fate of the many interconnected yet unique groups on the continent. It is understandable, James Ferguson argues, for anthropologists to dismiss the notion of a unitary “Africa” as culturally absurd, but the fact remains that just such a notion is used by many around the world, including those in Africa, to justify political and economic decisions from which anthropologists have been largely absent. In this book, Ferguson proposes ways of defining (or redefining) the idea of “Africa,” as well as the ideas of “globalization” and “modernity.” He calls on anthropologists to face these and other similar issues head-on, and to address themselves to wider audiences, in their own work.

How is “Africa” defined? Africa is a place that confounds the definitions of modernity, development, and globalization: many of the usual hopes and fears associated with these concepts simply don’t fit the case of Africa. Ferguson says Africa is often defined “through a series of lacks and absences, failings and problems, plagues and catastrophes” – when Africa is even present at all in discussion, it is as a “shadow” place of “black” markets and informal economies, parallel to, or echoing, the “legitimate,” “authentic” ones. But this view is inaccurate and inadequate, just as anthropologists’ status-blind celebration of the cultural diversity of Africa is. The latter, Ferguson argues, blithely ignores the stark economic inequalities between various regions of the world.

Globalization )and modernity )and development, oh my! )

a 'native' perspective from Zambia )

the real face of modern foreign investment in Africa )

Economic language and Africa )

Complicating neat definitions of 'local' and 'national' ) (As a side note, this strikes a chord with me because my home discipline of communication has been working to address this issue for years.)

These new definitions suggest intriguing directions for anthropology and for thinking about Africa, modernity, development, and globalization (and “civil society”) more generally. First, how could this be taken up in our own work? What issues are there with the definitions as Ferguson has presented them – do we buy them? Second, how do they reflect on other authors we’ve read: Charles Piot’s arguments for African modernity in Togo (Ferguson explicitly critiques this on page 167), the “informal” but highly organized and hierarchical economic structures Janet Roitman documented in areas in and around Cameroon (seems to fit with Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/national/international to some degree), Liisa Malkki’s discussion of how refugees in Tanzania imagine themselves, Donald Moore’s documentation of discipline and skirmishes between local and state in Zimbabwe (where would Ferguson’s deconstruction of local/state fit with this?), Louise Meintjes’ overseas-focused musicians in Johannesburg, Nuttall and Mbembe’s ideas around Johannesburg modernity and their call to approach studies in Africa not as intrinsically “other” but a place like any other place? Finally, what can we make of Ferguson’s rallying call to anthropologists to actually weigh in on political debates, instead of (sometimes purposefully) standing by the sidelines and remaining in academic circles – do we buy that, and what are its implications? What is the future of anthropology in an increasingly non-local, status-defined world?
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First Berkeley, and now Stanford is cracking down on "illegal use of file-sharing technology." Sounds like they're leaving it up to the RIAA/MPAA to determine violations and to establish a definition of "legal" -- a bit dangerous, if you ask me, given how liberally they're flinging about takedown notices (and how difficult it is to challenge one). Also, both letters have the usual misuse of DMCA, implying that it applies to file-sharing generally rather than to just reverse-engineering or otherwise circumventing copy protection technologies (e.g. DeCSS). Also, there's no mention of fair use in either letter. Anyway, thought some of you might be interested in seeing both of these.

The Stanford letter (5/15/2007) )

The Berkeley letter (4/3/2007) )
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I've realized that I could never effectively argue with most anti-choice activists about birth control and abortion because we would be making completely different assumptions about the world -- different and fundamentally incompatible paradigms, in Kuhn's terms (since I've been reading lots of and about him in my philosophy of science class). Their arguments about what the Bible says about sex and other topics hold no weight for me. My arguments about problems of abused and neglected children, overpopulation, and a woman's right to control the course of her life hold little or no weight for them.

The point where we might be able to actually speak to one another, rather than past one another, is the issue of viability and when "life" starts, but even there they take what I see as ridiculously extreme views such as "life starts at conception" or sometimes with the possibility of conception (thus, the fight against birth control as a preventative measure) that I can't possibly agree with, given the messy realities of life: so many fertilized eggs don't implant, so many proto-fetuses don't last even a week, etc.

Furthermore, if they take this stance, why aren't they attacking in-vitro fertilization as vehemently as they are abortion and birth control? Multiple fetuses are grown and then one (or sometimes a few, but certainly not all) is implanted, and the rest are discarded. Isn't that murder in their eyes? Shouldn't all viable fetuses be given the chance to live in that case too? Funny how the intention of the couple seems to change the morality of the fetuses: people who are going through in-vitro fertilization want to be parents while people practicing birth control don't.

Along those same lines, it's also very strange that some anti-choice people take childlessness to be irresponsible, while from an environmental perspective, I think that having children is the more irresponsible choice (which, of course, some eco-minded parents mitigate in various ways, as I hope I would too if/when I have children -- but all things considered, that's still another person using a lifetime's-worth of resources, which is not small even when minimized). And moreover, making sure that one has children at a point in one's life when they can be best provided for seems to be, to me, a lot more responsible than risking having kids as soon as one starts having sex, which for a very large part of the population is very young (even with abstinence-only education like I grew up with, as a recent study shows). Of course, the anti-choice people would say one shouldn't be having sex until one is prepared to have children (which is the often-unsaid corollary to most of their points), but that's a whole 'nother can of worms with its own set of worldview incompatibilities, and I'll save that for another post (though you're welcome to rail in the comments if you want to).

No wonder this is such a hotly-contested debate. Except that it's not really a debate at all.

(NOTE: I don't mean to imply that one side is more "rational" than the other, even though I have made it clear which "side" I am on. These sorts of disagreements happen all the time, in many areas. My main argument is that the incommensurability of worldviews prevent the two sides from even seeing eye-to-eye.)
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Interesting -- I heard on NPR today that Muslim cab drivers (UPDATE: just at the Minneapolis airport) who refuse to give rides to people carrying alcohol (even closed bottles in checked luggage, as from a duty-free shop), citing religious freedom, will have their cab licenses revoked for 30 days the first time and two years the second time. My mind immediately jumped to a parallel issue that has generally enjoyed more favorable treatment in the last couple years: the refusal of some pharmacists (and doctors) to fill (or prescribe) birth control prescriptions, citing religious beliefs. The religious argument in both is the same: those involved believe it's a sin to abet something they believe is sinful. So why the harsh ruling in one case, and permissive treatment of the other? Could it be a prejudice against Muslims in the former case, or perhaps a more tolerant attitude toward alcohol? A prejudice against birth control or women in the latter, or perhaps a more tolerant attitude to homegrown religious extremism (i.e. evangelical Christianity)? What do you think?
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I don't have time to expound on the implications of this as I would like to just now, but I heard on NPR's The World earlier today about a new addition to Google Earth: high-resolution images of burned villages and refugee camps in Darfur. Those involved hope that the imagery will function as a call to action to stop the genocide. Another fascinating use of photos as unquestionable "evidence," of the surveilling power of photographs, and of the (hoped-for) power of photos to make events more real and immediate.

http://www.ogleearth.com/2006/10/darfur.html
http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N10439052.htm
http://www.ushmm.org/googleearth/

Selected quotes:

It's hard to picture a genocide ... Officials at Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum hope that visualizing events in Darfur in specific detail will move people to act. ... We want ... perpetrators to understand that they are being watched. ... Knowing about a genocide has not been enough in the past to stop it. The question is whether seeing it -- especially in this large-scale, high-tech way -- will help make the difference.


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I do think it's very important to be ethical in one's research, but I've had enough run-ins with IRB's ridiculous demands and timetables (at three institutions now) that I'm ecstatic to see an article like this, and on one of the front pages of the New York Times, no less. Zephoria, I'd bet you had twenty people send this to you already today, but I did think of you -- and Jean -- as soon as I read this.

To be clear, I don't object to the existence of IRBs; I object to their current form. In addition to the characteristics described below, IRBs really don't understand ethnographic research -- how can you have a fixed set of questions to ask participants when even your research questions are evolving with your observations? Almost every project I've ever submitted has needed at least one round of revisions. Furthermore, at Berkeley, one round -- even for exempt projects -- could take the good part of a year! That's a significant part of one's schooling in which one isn't allowed to even start on a research project! (They are trying to address that; I don't know how it's going since I'm not there anymore.) The IRBs I'm familiar with only meet a few times a year, so approval may take only a few weeks if you happen to submit right before they meet, or several months otherwise. And now, they require everyone to take a certification course -- and I've heard that if you are too efficient in taking it, they make you take it again.

As Ethics Panels Expand Grip, No Field Is Off Limits

By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: February 28, 2007

Ever since the gross mistreatment of poor black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study came to light three decades ago, the federal government has required ethics panels to protect people from being used as human lab rats in biomedical studies. Yet now, faculty and graduate students across the country increasingly complain that these panels have spun out of control, curtailing academic freedom and interfering with research in history, English and other subjects that poses virtually no danger to anyone.

Read more... )
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Here's your daily dose of evil, as heard on NPR a few minutes ago. Donegal International bought a portion of Zambia's national debt, worth $55 million, for $3 million a few years ago, counting on rumors that Zambia's debts would be canceled (and relying on precedents of another vulture company successfully suing two Latin American countries for canceled debts it purchased). Sure enough, the Zambian debts were canceled, and now they're suing the Zambian government for the full value of their "investment." One Zambian official said that this amount could have hired 6,000 teachers and opened a hospital ... but instead it has to be spent on making some billionaires even richer. Sort of defeats the purpose of debt cancellation, dunnit?

"A British court recently ruled that Donegal International ... has the right to profit from its purchase of millions of dollars worth of Zambia’s debt – acquired for a tiny fraction of its face value eight years ago. ... The Donegal case in Zambia shows just how skewed the current financial system is towards the interests of the wealthy. Before reaching a debt cancellation agreement, an impoverished country must borrow from the international financial institutions in order to repay wealthy creditors and those same financial institutions."
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An Inconvenient Truth is a powerful movie. Bay Area friends, see it now if you haven't already. Utah friends, see it starting on June 16 at Broadway (downtown), Century 16 (33rd and state), Layton Hills 9, or the Redstone 8 in Park City. (Others, see when it's playing in your area.) While I've heard much of the information in it before, the presentation is incredibly well put together, engaging, and persuasive, and everyone should see it. (Shows were sold out in some Bay Area theaters last weekend, but I guess that's to be expected in this area ...)
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This. is. fantastic.

President Cecilia Fire Thunder of the Oglala Sioux tribe has declared that she is going to build a Planned Parenthood clinic on tribal land. In South Dakota.

Donate directly to PP! Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] corpsefairy for the heads-up.


Utah Quicksilver, Park City and Salt Lake City's best transportation service
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Anyone else (in California, anyway) getting automated phone calls supporting Proposition 73, the one that would require parental notification for abortions on minors? I've gotten several, and they piss me off on so many levels. First, I don't know where they got my name or mobile phone number, but I am completely the wrong audience, and I really don't appreciate them wasting my mobile phone minutes and clogging my voicemail with their drivel. Second and more importantly, their recorded message features the parents of young women who had abortions without telling them. They say things like "my daughter needed me, she would have wanted me to be there, but I couldn't be there for her," or "my daughter was so happy that I found out and visited her in the hospital." What crap! Their daughters withheld the fact that they were pregnant from them for a reason! These parents should work on getting to know and understand their daughters rather than requiring their doctors to notify them in their daughters want an abortion. This proposition would just result in more young women considering unsafe, illegal abortions. And the young women who are affected by this bill can't even vote on it! Anyway, I hope all you California residents get out tomorrow and vote NO on almost everything (except maybe 79), especially this proposition.
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This is, at last, the final installment of my notes on Unlocking the Clubhouse. My other posts on this are here and here. This post is much more of a mish-mash of information, summarizing chapters three through six, than the other two, which summarized one chapter apiece. Ah well, better late than never. Feel free to point out inconsistencies in my summary and I'll elucidate if I can.


In college computer science, most men are interested in computing (programming, tinkering, gaming, etc.) for its own sake, while many women are more interested in computing's effects on and applications in other fields and how it can be useful to society. The focus in many introductory CS classes on technical details makes some women disillusioned, and they drop out of CS, not realizing that it's not just about silly technical details.

Many men have wanted to study computer science since before they could remember, and think of it as a "no-brainer" to be a CS major; most women decided to study computer science in high school or college, and the choice was much more rational. Their reasons for choosing CS are much more broad than "enjoyment of computing," most men's primary reason.

Men are more likely to like programming for its own sake, and are more likely than women to spend endless hours programming outside of classes. When asked about their ideal computer, teenage boys described machines that give them super powers; teenage girls described machines that helped in tasks or offered companionship. One researcher notes that "the feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself." Many high-school and college kids erroneously see computer science as "number-crunching" and computer games as one of the main applications of computer science (when they have any conception at all of what computer science is); many high-school and college curricula support this misconception by focusing on banalities of programming languages and pointless programming exercises, especially in lower-division classes. (My experience with programming contest problems support this, perhaps explaining the dearth of women in such contests.)


Students in top-ranked programs like Carnegie Mellon's are very aware of the intense geek culture in such programs - of the expectation that they spend all their time in front of the computer, for work and play. (This is backed by some practices in industry such as providing bunk beds at work.) A well-rounded set of interests is undervalued and sometimes actively shunned in this culture. Women on average are more disturbed at this ideal, and how badly they fit it, than men. They are more likely to decide such an intense culture is not for them, and they drop out at a rate three or more times that of men.

Top-ranked programs are also so overzealous, in general, that novices, especially minorities, feel hopelessly behind. Between male "posturing" and lack of programming experience in high school and before, women feel that everyone catches on more quickly than they do and that they can never catch up, even though performance between women and men, in terms of grades, is nearly identical. Many also assume that such passion for computers is required to be a computer scientist, and if they don't have it, they should quit. They're also more likely to keep confusion to themselves because of comments like "what's your major, again?," or the threat of them.

(Some interesting trends in attrition: American women and women from wealthy families are more likely to drop out of CS, the former because many Americans credit intelligence to innate ability and not to hard work, and the latter because these women aren't as worried about having a good-paying job to support themselves or their families.)

Women also have to deal with "you're only here because you're female" talk that men never have to face. Expectations that women will not do as well may have a huge effect of performance, as shown by Claude Steele's experiments at Stanford (repeated elsewhere) that showed that an expectation of a gender difference on performance on a math test resulted in one, while an expectation of no gender difference resulted in near-equal scores. (There are similar results for race if participants are asked to note their race on the test.)

Admissions policies that value previous programming experience or high math SAT scores are biased against women. CMU found that prior programming experience does not affect success in the program, and others have found that math SATs "systematically underpredict" women's college performance (though it was the opposite for me, at least according to my GPA :~)).
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More from the book ...

In late junior high and high school, the computer lab becomes a place where boys who are often socially marginalized can prove their masculinity. These boys and sometimes even their teachers will ostracize or openly mock girls and minorities in computer science classes. Computer science teachers often give sports-related or mechanics-related examples or projects, rather than examples to which girls could relate. (In the book they have some particularly odious examples.) Computer science books will focus on technical detail rather than real-world metaphors or applications. Thus, many high-school girls see computer science as a "math elective," "supersmart and unemotional," and "a place for nerds" and not as a powerful field which affects many others.

Computer games are one of the primary ways these computer geek cliques "prove masculinity," explaining the prevalence of gory, destructive games. Boys also like fantasy or adventure games to prove their independence from parents and other authority. These games provide a safe, predictable, controllable surrogate for social interaction, which can be unpredictable and lead to intimacy and opportunities to be hurt or seen as weak. Many girls are bored or disgusted with gory games, games with a lousy plot, or games without connection to the real world, and they thus turn away from the junior-high and high-school computer culture. The people designing games are mostly male, and don't make games that cater to girls' interests. (At the same time, "Barbie games" that are "based on the crudest stereotype of what girls like" are also not enough!)

Teachers watch for and give special privileges to the classic "boy geeks," typically obsessed with the mechanics of computers, but don't watch for "girl geeks" who often have interests in computers that are not as mechanics-driven. Teacher influence makes a big difference: many of the girls who applied for CMU's computer science program out of high school had teachers encourage them to take computer science classes, usually in high school.
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I'm rereading Unlocking the Clubhouse and realizing how much my parents countered gender paradigms. The book cites interesting studies that find that parents give girls girl-themed toys and boys boy-themed toys, even if they set out to make their toys gender-neutral, because parents are more likely to react to boys' excitement with, say, Legos than to girls'. Additionally, parents call their daughters back more often than their sons when their kids are playing on playgrounds, resulting in girls covering less ground and being trained to more cautious. People are more likely to label a boy baby's cry as anger and a girl baby's cry as fear. Men and boys are more likely to be seen as a family's technology experts, while women and girls (especially mothers) are often seen by other family members as clueless or techno-phobic. Boys are much more likely to be labeled "computer whizzes" and given special treatment than girls with similar capabilities, at school and at home. And parents are more likely to allow boys to monopolize a computer (often even putting it in their room) than girls. Regardless of the "nature" arguments, there are definite "nurture" arguments to why few girls are in science. Most men AND women majoring in computer science have at least one parent who is technically-inclined, but most women report growing up on the "technology sidelines," not allowed or not able to explore much on a computer by themselves.

Not much of this sounds familiar to me. Sure I had dolls (though my mom forbade Barbies for a long time), but I also had my Legos and transformers and micro-machines and lots of homemade clay. My sister and I played outside all the time, and for several years our best friend was a next-door boy my sister's age, who was one of the only kids in the neighborhood. Both of my parents worked, but my dad had a much more flexible schedule and was often the one driving us to school, picking us up, tending us, or taking us with him on landscaping jobs where we'd play in the sand and sod piles; my mom would spend time with us too, but she was the "breadwinner" with the fixed schedule. Though neither of my parents are technically-inclined, my mom used computers first for her master's degree and then for her work, but my dad has never used computers much. I had no brother to hog the computer. Still, I didn't learn more than basic DOS commands, probably because I had no one to teach me. By high school, the computer classes were definitely boys' territory, and several geeky acquaintances went out of their way to make CS sound incredibly complicated (surely to make themselves look smarter :~)).
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I learned today that my Healthy Cities poster got into UbiComp, and got great reviews besides! *cheers*

Yesterday my car did not pass smog. What kind of environmentalist am I? (Answer: a broke one. I'd buy a Civic hybrid if I could ... or use public transit if it were more reliable! Speaking of which, the bus was 18 minutes late yesterday, and the driver was a prick. Good thing I'm finally close enough to campus to rollerblade - and maybe my neck is better enough to bike again.)

Today I started yoga, databases, and compilers, and talked again with A.J., my research advisor at U. Washington. Today was also the first class of Political and Economic Development in the Third World. The professor is an incisive, expressive fellow from Guyana, full of stories and anecdotes and seditious comments. Each student has to lead a panel discussion this semester, and I asked him if he could add a panel on information technology in developing countries. I also volunteered to make a website for the class, of course. Here are a few anecdotes from class:

The US economy depends on continuous expansion of demand. If the mean income in the US drops, the very basis of our economy - spending as much as possible, the sale of luxury goods, etc. - starts to erode, investments drop, people spend even less, fees go up, and we spiral into depression. Your interests are vested in the system, even though the system is unsustainable; in this way, we are all exploiters, just by living in this country.

What about Cuba? The income range in Cuba is $15-$25/month, but they don't have to worry about education, health care, or housing (10% of your income covers housing). They have trouble imagining a system where you have to worry about having a high income to cover housing, transportation, and health care - just as we have trouble imagining a system where there is no clean water, sewage, or access to food and other goods.

How do you get out of an unsustainable system, like the US? How much would nationalized health-care make a difference? How would nationalized health-care be paid for, and how would it affect the current economic situation?

Overseas work is cheap - more in the range of $1/day, rather than the US $20/hour (for comparable work with benefits etc.) - and transportation is cheap also, so it's no wonder companies export labor.

What convinces people that they have to pay $120 for Nike shoes? The shoe is produced for $9 - labor is cheap since conditions are poor, there are no benefits, and factories employ women - and the rest is marketing, plus maybe pumps, lights, etc., changing every three months. The differences go to the shareholders; it accumulates wealth, generates taxes, and creates the conditions for infrastructures and public education.

How does the system justify exploitation? There are concepts of "deserving", along income, racial, gender, etc. lines. Presumption of innocence goes to the wealthy, and excuses emerge. Why does A. Shwartzenegger deserve to run California? He's from Europe, white, wealthy, and male. Say a qualified woman originally from Rwanda was to run - people would presume that because she's from Africa, black, female, she couldn't possibly be in a position of power. A.S. claims the Horatio Algiers story - his family in Austria was poor, and he came to California with little - and since he made it when others didn't, he's obviously more deserving. We all believe we deserve what we have, or more ... and all it takes is more effort, morality, or to get more.
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I'm listening to newscasters blather about a huge power outage across the east caused by overloads of the system, and while they fuss over the effects on hospitals and airports and subways, my first reaction is to shrug and turn it off. Let New England get a taste of the rolling blackouts California has been experiencing for years; let them learn the lesson of conservation the hard way. This is my response to many of these catastrophes or impending disaster due to overuse of gas, or water, or electricity ... ideally we could reduce our demands before these problems happen, but I'm not holding my breath. And though I turn off lights and try to conserve water and all, I'm part of the problem, just by living in this country, by living in the developed world.

I had a conversation with David earlier today about globalization, and why a laissez-faire economy doesn't work. It's all just amateurish opinions, of course, since neither of us know much about economics, but it's still interesting to discuss. My argument is that because their bottom line is solely economic, companies will tend towards collusion and exploitation to undercut competition and establish a monopoly.

We also discussed other aspects of bottom-line economics, such as overseas exploitation to reduce prices and environmental degradation. In our (surely simplistic) view, companies move manufacturing overseas because even though shipping costs are higher, manufacturing costs are SO much lower because of pittance wages and lack of taxation, so it's overall cheaper to produce overseas. If there was a global minimum wage - say, $4 a day, double the global poverty level - then perhaps shipping costs would push expenses over what they would be locally. Perhaps production would move closer to consumption - more sustainable because of the lack of environmentally-harmful shipping and the increase in accountability. And even if production didn't move, at least workers worldwide would have a higher standard of living, even if it was at the expense of our overly-high standard.

Suppose, for a moment, that there was a reliable quantification of environmental and community damage - never mind the impossibility of such a feat. If companies were taxed or fined for this damage and the money was put back into the harmed community, would this provide incentive to be more environmentally and socially responsible? If companies just payed the fines, would the money really help offset damage in any way?

David and I also talked a bit about cities and suburban sprawl. In my annual reading of the last year's National Geographics here in Michigan, I even found an article on this, discussing mixed-use and compact communities and "new urbanism" and other strategies we discussed in my sustainable cities class. It's nice to see all this explained to a wide audience, if an affluent one. I wonder if these ideas really are becoming mainstream, or if it's just select urban planners a few weirdos like me that espouse them. The feeling I have about anti-war ads, anti-SUV commercials, and the like is that while many react violently and unthinkingly to them, at least it's known that there is a movement, and the movement has the power to be heard. But ... how valuable is awareness, anyway?

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January 2011

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