Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Theft of Cultural Treasures

Neil Brodie et al (2000), Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, Commissioned by: ICOM U...

This is a wonderful article, and I think it fits here precisely because exploiting the desperately poor nations of the world to make money off of antiquities is an age old problem. This is not a recent phenomenon--there are well-to-do museums all over the world that still feature the looted valuables of cultures that will never get them back unless someone starts to address the issue of what constitutes theft and what constitutes preservation.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Not Everyone Who Owns a Wireless Phone Is Going to Fly

I cannot fault the marketing hype behind this "info-graphic" presentation. The idea that the airlines are going to cater to people who use cell phones is kind of a no-brainer. Anyone who understands that flying is really getting to be more and more of a rich person's endeavor already knows this.

I would predict that, as more and more airlines begin to realize that their product has such enormous costs built into what they do, they'll begin to price potential customers out of using their services. By charging more for a flight, fewer people will be able to afford to fly. The airlines will then structure their services based on getting just the right number of people to pay the right amount of money to keep them in business. That will mean that fewer people will fly, and those that do will pay just enough to make the airlines profitable. It could totally go the other way--what with cattle calls and all. But security nightmares, cost overruns, and labor costs are eventually going to make flying in a passenger plane a rich man's fancy, I would guess.

Anyway, the arrow points to a part of the info-graphic that bothers me. It says that "73.4% of the Earth's Population Subscribe to Wireless Services." I think it should have read "subscribes," but I'm nitpicking.

No, the real issue here is, so what? 73.4% of the Earth's population is not going to be flying on planes, ever, probably not even one time in their lifetime. That's because many of those "subscribers" actually use a pre-paid wireless phone and live at or below the poverty line. You see, wireless providers know that they can make money off of pre-paid handsets. There are just enough people who make just enough money to afford the basic luxury of having a phone with 50 or 100 minutes of service per month, and those people number in the millions. Are any of them ever going to fly on a plane? No, sadly they will not be able to afford to fly.

This is why I like to question the statistics that are out there. Sometimes you find things like this, which are minor, but do misinform.
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Sunday, June 19, 2011

America's Housing Crisis

11-06-14 US Housing Crisis Officially as Bad as Great Depression - Real Estate _ US _ News _ Story - CNBC

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A New Take on Homelessness

Miss Colorado Blair Griffith had this to say about her experiences with being homeless:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

All too often, we associate "ugliness" of some kind with homelessness. That's impossible in this case.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Gentleman's Pawn Shop

Since the average American pawn shop loan is somewhere around a hundred bucks, why not go with an upscale version that allows the wealthy to get rid of their crap for cash AND avoid having to rub elbows with a desperate, unemployed commoner?
Launched earlier this month, Pawngo mostly works just like a regular pawnshop. Customers seeking a short-term loan offer an item. Pawngo appraises it and then offers a loan smaller than the item's assessed value. For instance, a watch appraised at $1,000 might act as collateral for an $800 three-month loan with 5 percent monthly interest. If the customer pays Pawngo back, she gets her watch returned to her. If not, she keeps the cash and Pawngo keeps the watch.
There are a few marked differences, though. One big difference is physical. Nearly all U.S. pawnshops are strictly brick-and-mortar businesses, selling unclaimed goods and appraising new items on site. But Pawngo—backed by Lightbank, an investment fund started by two Groupon founders—is a posh website. Business is conducted via email and over the phone. The customer sends in and gets back her collateralized item by FedEx overnight. Her loan comes not in cash, but by bank transfer. Pawngo eventually plans on opening up its own Web shop for acquired (that is, unredeemed) goods. For the moment, though, it sells those goods through other online retailers, auction houses, and eBay. 
The money goes right to the old bank account? Well, that's not going to lead to any abuses, now is it?

I love pawn shops. If it wasn't for this system, I wouldn't have any guitars. But, the larger thing to remember here is that the pawn shop business model has always flourished during hard times. Is this an indication that we are really living in desperate times? Or is this just someone cashing in on the fact that you can buy and sell crap on the Internet?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You're Not Making Much These Days, Are You?

This helps explain how wages have gone down over the years:
What do you make? I bet you just flashed on your salary. Or what your last direct deposit pay stub said was transferred into your checking account. If that’s your answer, you’re coming up about 30 percent short of what you’re really paid once all the benefits your employer covers are added in.

According to fresh data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total average hourly compensation, which accounts for both salary and benefits, in the first quarter of 2011 was $30.07. Of that total, $20.91 (69.6 percent) was straight up salary and wages, while the other $9.15 (30.4 percent) was the value of benefits paid by employers, including health insurance, vacation and sick days, and the employer share of Social Security and Medicare.
When I recently read my MoneyWatch colleague (and fellow freelancer) Amy Levin-Epstein’s take on 5 Myths of Freelancing, I nodded in agreement that the pluses of freelancing outweigh the minuses. But spending some time poring over the BLS benefits data sure does make for a painful day of benefit-challenged freelancing.
Benefits are the key to understanding how important compensation is when you factor in what a person makes now as opposed to what they used to make. When you take a job now, as opposed to ten years ago, the real shift in wages centers around the fact that employee benefits just aren't worth as much anymore.
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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Depletable Self Control

See if you can spot the problem here:

Flannery O’Connor once described the contradictory desires that afflict all of us with characteristic simplicity. “Free will does not mean one will,” she wrote, “but many wills conflicting in one man.” The existence of appealing alternatives, after all, is what makes free will free: What would choice be without inner debate? We’re torn between staying faithful and that alluring man or woman across the room. We can’t resist the red velvet cake despite having sworn to keep our calories down. We buy a leather jacket on impulse, even though we know we’ll need the money for other things. Everyone is aware of such inner conflicts. But how, exactly, do we choose among them? As it turns out, science has recently shed light on the way our minds reconcile these conflicts, and the result has surprising implications for the way we think about one of society’s most intractable problems: poverty.
In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”
Basically what they're saying here is that any time you have to make a compromise and resist temptation, your brain won't work as well when confronted with a problem you couldn't solve anyway. I don't know if that's a valid experiment, since it seems fairly common sense to me that if you deny yourself, and set that denial of gratification up in your brain, your brain will be less effective. Consider the same sort of experiment. But run it this way. For half of your subjects, tell them their car has been towed. They cannot resolve this issue until they complete the puzzle you put before them. Now, compare their results with the results of the people who didn't have their car towed away.

How is that much different from the original experiment and how is that a valid experiment?

Anyway, here's where we're headed with this:
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.
Again, how is this relevant? People who are living at a subsistence level exist from situation to situation. Let's consider Maslow's hierarchy of needs:

Plenty of people have issues with Maslow, and that's fine. I'm not using Maslow to attack anything. I'm just pointing out that if you are living at the bottom of the pyramid--and are looking for basic sustenance--your mind is not going to be free to accomplish great mental tasks unless you are an extraordinary individual. Maslow identified this in the 1950s with a rather stilted experiment. He used brilliant subjects to perform a basic organization of wants, needs, and all that. And, let's remember something--there are brilliant people who can function under such stress and accomplish great things. These are generalizations, not hard facts.

If you want to come up with another excuse as to why there's poverty, okay. I just think that anything that detracts from the most basic causes--unemployment, lack of education, lack of opportunity, an absence of basic social justice--you're handing the opponents of things like welfare and social programs another half-baked scientific theory.
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Monday, June 6, 2011

Never Get Between Someone Better Than You and the Gate

My, this sounds like an interesting day at the airport:
"Keeping Up With the Kardashians" star Scott Disick is continuing to prove why he's not the most popular guy, according to a fellow flier.
As Southwest Airlines passengers waited to board a Long Island-bound flight from Chicago on Sunday, Kourtney Kardashian's beau tried to get to ahead of the crowd as he made his way back to New York. Disick "refused to wait in line (to board the plane) ... and tried to cut ahead of a young couple holding twin babies," passenger Jeff Glass of New York told The New York Post.
When that didn't work, "he offered $20 to the gate attendant to let him on ahead of everyone else," Glass said. (At least Disick didn't shove the cash into the employee's mouth this time, as he did when he lost his temper at a Vegas restaurant on an episode of "Keeping Up.") The paltry amount failed to impress the employee, who "yelled at him two or three times."
You can tell just how desperate our economy is right now--twenty dollars really doesn't buy people off the way it used to. There are two Americas out there--one for the lowly people who have to follow the rules of a civilized society and one for the artificial and classless people who think that money entitles them to instant status and gratification.

What's even more ironic is that Mr. Disick, being of thin stature and build, would never face the sort of discrimination that Southwest Airlines is famous for. If he had been obese, they probably would have had him arrested.
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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Behold, the $850 Flat Iron

You can get one of these things for less than $15, I would imagine:
After you've stepped out of your champagne bath and dried off with a towel made from the fur of a genuine Bigfoot, make sure your in-house stylist uses the Linea Pro flat iron to fix your hair. It features 2543 genuine, hand applied Swarovski crystals and comes with a certificate of authenticity and a plaque from the Swarovski factory in London to prove it. $850 - Aveyou
Some parts of this world are a little out of touch with reality, and with the way things actually work. A jewel-encrusted flatiron is ridiculous beyond words. I don't believe in trying to make the argument that the money spent on a flat iron would be better spent helping poor people. Whoever wants to use an $850 flat iron doesn't really care about effectively spending money anymore.
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Friday, June 3, 2011

Climate Change and Global Starvation

Starvation rates throughout the world are beginning to be affected by how our climate is changing:
Areas where food supplies could be worst hit by climate change have been identified in a report.

Some areas in the tropics face famine because of failing food production, an international research group says.

The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) predicts large parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be worst affected.

Its report points out that hundreds of millions of people in these regions are already experiencing a food crisis.

"We are starting to see much more clearly where the effects of climate change on agriculture could intensify hunger and poverty," said Patti Kristjanson, an agricultural economist with the CCAFS initiative that produced the report. A leading climatologist told BBC News that agriculturalists had been slow to use global climate models to pinpoint regions most affected by rising temperatures
There's more information about this problem here, here and here (watch out for PowerPoint and pdfs) but there's very little that can be done, beyond the mandate being given to the United Nations to so "something" about these issues. It takes actual, concrete involvement in developing and trading with a country's agricultural sector in order to deliver real change. Change isn't going to happen unless someone undertakes the effort to do business with the nations that are being affected here. Too often, the fluctuations of the markets drive down prices and choke off any chance for farmers on the international scene to see a fair and honest price for what they need to sell, and what they need to buy.

Issues like this one, noted above, are not helpful.
In 2006 the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their aim is to alleviate poverty and hunger in Africa by increasing food production. Much like the original green revolution, which still plagues farmers throughout India and Latin America, their mission is to increase production by increasing the amount of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and chemical dependent high-yield seed varieties farmers use. They are also aggressively pushing genetically modified seeds and the involvement of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto—currently being investigated by the Department of Justice for monopolistic practices in the United States seed market. 
“The biotech seeds are patented. You cannot replant. You cannot harvest and store them before replanting. You’re totally dependent on Monsanto.”
-Josphat Ngonyo

Many civil society groups in Kenya are outraged by AGRA’s plans and wonder why they have not been involved in deciding what is best for Africans. Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare and member of the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, states, “AGRA didn’t involve the people in Africa. This was an idea pushed onto Africa that does not work. If Africans aren’t included, it’s clearly not about us.” Ngonyo, along with many other organizers and farmers, often asks a basic question that the foundation has yet to answer: Why do you want to spread the very same farming methods that have made our farmers poor and hungry?

Many farmers’ biggest worry, however, is losing control of their seeds. AGRA’s grantees are teaming up with Monsanto and other seed companies to distribute free, patented seeds to farmers and discourage farmers from saving seed. As Ngonyo explains, “Now we’re having seeds from Monsanto, the biotech seeds that are patented. You cannot replant. You cannot harvest and store them before replanting. You’re totally dependent on Monsanto.”
What's good for Monsanto isn't necessarily good for Kenyans, nor is it the best way to adapt to climate change.