Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is this true? Just when you thought the climate change fun was over

I've heard vaguely about the problems with the climate change "hockey-stick" graph before. This article about it is excellently written, and coming from a mildly leftist British magazine, I'm inclined to believe it. Can anyone give me a reason not to?


Jazz at Club Miles in Gwangju

I'm quite chuffed to have found this place. Nothing beats live Jazz. I'll be there this friday.


Korea Business Central.com

Although primarily aimed at people and companies who are trying to do business in Korea, this website also has a lot of interesting interviews with top people discussing various aspects of modern Korea. Check it out.

h/t to Marmot's Hole


Monday, March 29, 2010

Zapiro nails it again.

Zapiro is an icon of the South African press. Here is his latest. Its spot on.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The problem that is North Korea

This is a very good, though scary, analysis of what may be going on in North Korea right now. Particularly with the recent navy ship sinking under dubious circumstances, perhaps we should be ready for things to start changing more rapidly?

h/t to Gusts of Popular Feeling


Friday, March 26, 2010

The culture of Korean English instruction

Korea has what sociologist Geert Hofstede calls a "strongly uncertainty averse" culture. In practice this means that Koreans tend to love rules because of their ability to structure life, seemingly reduce uncertainty, and provide direction. My partner is an English instructor at a Korean after-school tutoring center (영어 학관). Ninety percent of her lessons focus on teaching English grammar. I am also a part time English teacher at a few public schools that are distributed across the islands near my home. While teaching we have both had several experiences that illustrate the impact that Korean culture's rule preference has on how and what English grammar is taught in Korea.
English grammar is notoriously difficult. Exceptions to grammar rules abound and the flexibility of the grammar and large vocabulary make it especially difficult for people from cultures, like Korea's, who prefer operating through clearly established rules. Korea's own language has a fairly simple grammar and alphabet (한글) compared to English, although strong Chinese influence complicates things at times.

A few short anecdotes are suggestive.

1. In Korea the difference between the use of "will" and "be going to" to indicate future tense is defined by a rule. "Will" is said to be used for events that will happen in the distant future, while "be going to" is used for shorter time horizons.
2. In Korea the following sentence is taught to be grammatically incorrect, "They pronounced everyone of the accused guilty." The reason given is that "guilty" cannot be grammatically placed at the end of the sentence. It must reside next to "pronounced", as in "They pronounced guilty everyone of the accused." Similar sentences must follow this rule.
3. It is taught that the difference between "shall" and "will" is that the former is always used as an imperative, as in "Thou shall not murder." A sentence such as "I shall go to the store tomorrow" is considered grammatically incorrect.
4. While holding up a picture of a "lazy boy" chair several students responded that it was indeed not a chair but a sofa. Although their English ability did not allow them to articulate why, they assured me that their other teacher had given them very clear rules on how to differentiate a chair from a sofa. Despite my efforts, they insisted that I was wrong to call the "sofa" a chair. This same dynamic has occurred when I have introduced words such as cap and hat, and table and desk. Korean students are generally loathe to admit that a clear categorical distinction between these terms does not exist.

To me this stuff is fascinating. Nor are these anecdotes merely interesting (or not?) but devoid of any real consequences. Imagine yourself as a Korean student who must always make a determination about how far in the future an event will occur before being able to utter a future tense sentence, remembering that in Korea's uncertainty-averse culture the fear of being wrong is much higher than in most Western cultures.
But also notice how self-inflicted and manufactured this difficultly and fear is because the rules, at least amongst native speakers, do not actually exist. And yet again there is an incredible market for them. As proof one only needs to witness my partner's (full) grammar classes at which such rules are taught or see the disappointed, and generally incredulous, look on a student's face when I tell them that "there is no rule" or its "just a matter of style."
Again it is a fascinating dynamic to behold.

That's so gay, Zimbabwe style

A lot of people I talk to are upbeat about Zimbabwe's prospects, but stuff like this leaves me pretty skeptical.

Last week, the Sunday Mail newspaper (controlled by Robert Mugabe's party, Zanu-PF) published a report that Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party supports the extension of constitutional rights to gays. Apparently, them's fighting words; the MDC categorically denied the claim and fired back with the rough equivalent of "I know you are, but what am I?"

"For the record, it is well-known that homosexuality is practised in Zanu PF where senior officials from that party have been jailed while others are under police probe on allegations of sodomy. It is in Zanu PF where homosexuality is a religion."

H/T to Wronging Rights for this one.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Mariana Trench

Cool picture (click here to see in full size) of the deepest place on the planet.

H/T to Aguanomics.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My view of American healthcare, courtesy of Greg Mankiw

Here is what Harvard economist Greg Mankiw says about the new healthcare paradigm coming to America. I agree with him 100%.

"Well, it appears certain that the healthcare reform bill will become law. One thing I have been struck by in watching this debate is how strident it has been, among both proponents and opponents of the legislation. As a weak-willed eclectic, I can see arguments on both sides. Life is full of tradeoffs, and so most issues strike me as involving shades of grey rather than being black and white. As a result, I find it hard to envision the people I disagree with as demons.

Arthur Okun said the big tradeoff in economics is between equality and efficiency. The health reform bill offers more equality (expanded insurance, more redistribution) and less efficiency (higher marginal tax rates). Whether you think this is a good or bad choice to make, it should not be hard to see the other point of view.

I like to think of the big tradeoff as being between community and liberty. From this perspective, the health reform bill offers more community (all Americans get health insurance, regulated by a centralized authority) and less liberty (insurance mandates, higher taxes). Once again, regardless of whether you are more communitarian or libertarian, a reasonable person should be able to understand the opposite vantagepoint.

In the end, while I understood the arguments in favor of the bill, I could not support it. In part, that is because I am generally more of a libertarian than a communitarian. In addition, I could not help but fear that the legislation will add to the fiscal burden we are leaving to future generations. Some economists (such as my Harvard colleague David Cutler) think there are great cost savings in the bill. I hope he is right, but I am skeptical. Some people say the Congressional Budget Office gave the legislation a clean bill of health regarding its fiscal impact. I believe that is completely wrong, for several reasons (click here, here, and here). My judgment is that this health bill adds significantly to our long-term fiscal problems.

The Obama administration's political philosophy is more egalitarian and more communitarian than mine. Their spending programs require much higher taxes than we have now and, indeed, much higher taxes than they have had the temerity to propose. Here is the question I have been wondering about: How long can the President wait before he comes clean with the American people and explains how high taxes needs to rise to pay for his vision of government?"


Feathers in the Wind (깃)

Its boring. I can't recommend it. Its about a guy who waits for an old girlfriend to visit him on an island. Somber and boring. But I like the movie poster.


Why is this a stupid idea?

So I had to take the early ferry to my island the other day which meant I had to wake up at 5:30am. I'm not very good at that anymore and here is what I thought about.

What if the government passed a law saying that no one in the U.S. could earn more than 1 million dollars a year? Companies that were currently paying any of their employees over that amount would be ordered to redistribute the excess amongst their employees at a ratio that was inverse to an employee’s salary so that less well paid employees would receive a higher percentage wage increase than those earning closer to the million-dollar-a-year mark. There would be no imposed effort to reach complete wage equality, but a simple reduction in every company’s overall GINI coefficient would arise. Those who were self-employed and making over 1 million a year would also be required to disburse their excess income to whomever they saw fit so long as they could prove that the money was not given with any legal strings attached, or they could give it to a non-profit charity, or to the government to disburse. Income earned from capital gains or stock portfolios would also be subject to this rule although I am not economically savvy enough to delineate the exact mechanism by which this could be achieved. No property or asset would be seized by the government that was held by people before this rule came into effect. I.e. Bill Gates and others like him would keep their houses and other assets, although admittedly in all likelihood over time many of these ultra-rich would find it difficult to afford such assets on only 1 million dollars a year.

At this time the objections to this idea that I am interested in hearing about are not procedural/practical ones or ethical ones. I’m not suggesting that these are unimportant aspects of this hypothetical but for the moment I’m only interested in hearing why this would destroy our economy in a functional sense. In other words, I don’t want to hear that such a rule is “unfair” or “unworkable” but that it would wreck havoc on the American economy for reasons a, b, and c.

And pre-emptively I think it should be said that arguments about this hypothetical ushering in socialism or communism are non-starters. Remember the government isn’t getting any of the wealth that will be redistributed, unless the self-employed decided they wanted to give it to them. It is simply imposing a pay ceiling.

I am a libertarian by instinct but I also firmly believe that power corrupts and that in the modern world (always?) money = power. I am also convinced that pure market competition leads to high GINI coefficients, but that government regulation beyond a certain amount, usually makes this situation worse, not better. And so my question arises. What’s so bad about a pay ceiling? And again, for now, ethical, and practical objections are not allowed.

My suspicion is that this is a stupid idea but I am not economically intelligent enough to know why.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

"But apart from sanitation...and the fresh water system what have the Japanese ever done for us?"*

Here is another interesting article by Andrei Lankov talking about how the development of clean water supplies in Korea's cities under Japanese colonial rule helped increase the average Korean's life expectancy from 24 years in 1911 to 45 years in 1945.

*Bonus point if you got the obscure Monty Python reference.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Fat Boy" and his big mouth.

I generally shy away from boisterous rhetoric but I'll admit that the rantings of Julius Malema have kept me coming back for more. Having previously lived in South Africa, and with plans to return, the prospect that he could ever wield true power in South Africa truly frightens me. So although on principle I am against the practice of labeling any speech a crime, it was reassuring to see Malema convicted of hate speech earlier this week because it was a sign (I hope) that South Africans themselves are beginning to tire of his irresponsible outbursts.

On the other hand the existence of a Malema in South Africa should not be suprising to anyone. The anger that he represents is not illegimate. There is much over which poor South African's can be righteously furious; corruption, politician's broken promises, and callous middle and upper classes to name but a few of those legitimate grievances.

Nor is Malema's hypocrisy without precedent or contemporary comparisons. Apartheid was hypocrisy incarnate and many of those who benefited from that regime continue today to be almost criminally indifferent to the poor, feeling no responsibility for, or guilt over, the yawning socio-economic gap between themselves and their poorer black countrymen. This is disgraceful.

However, in the same way that righteous anger cannot justify the rampant violence and theft occuring in South Africa, Malema too should never be given the chance to turn his rantings into government policy. That would be disastrous. But until the legitimate concerns that fuel such anger are resolved, and the middle and upper classes recognize their deep hypocrisy, we would be fools to believe that the Malemas in South Africa will be silenced by anyone for very long.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Michael Lewis on those who saw the financial crisis coming

This is a good interview by Charlie Rose with the author of "The Big Short" which tells the story of how the big firms on Wall Street became "dumb money."

The "ABC" approach to ICM project implementation

I posted my last blog entry on a great forum, Dlist.org , that connects coastal managers working in Southern Africa. Here is the response I got to my suggestion that ICM proponents may be walking into troubled waters, so to speak, when they set up new management organizations.

"....it appears that the choices in how one approaches a recalcitrant local government structure are: a) win their favour (which in some cases is possible only by offe[r]ing kickbacks), b) wave a big stick at them, if there is indeed a big stick to wave, and c) facilitate the formation of a pressure group which hopefully, through democratic processes, will ultimately bring about a change in the local government structure."
In other words option C. is better than options A. or B. and therefore justified. And here is part of my response to that response-
"Notice that in none of the abc options are we as ICM proponents called upon to do any self-reflection upon our own ICM objectives or to understand further the objections of resistant groups.  Instead each option, though programmatically very different, takes for granted that ICM objectives are unequivocally "the right thing to do."

Yet given the diverse cultural, social, and political settings in which ICM proponents work, such a self-assured paradigm doesn't seem suitable for number of reasons.

1. Such a paradigm severely limits the amount and character of negotiations that ICM proponents will have with resistant groups. If we are right, the rationale for any negotiations cannot be to achieve inter-subjective satisficing, but merely to persuade. Resistant groups are likely to "smell," and be resist to engaging with, such close-mindedness.

2. It also tends to demonize "recalcitrant" groups by casting them as (a.) greedy and therefore susceptible to bribes, or (b.) irrational/childish and therefore in need of punishment, or (c.) illegitimate and therefore ethically sidestepped by the formation of new organizations and power groups.

3. It also limits ICM proponents’ ability and desire to be adaptive to local contextual realities.

4. And finally it tasks ICM proponents with a role more similar to that of an ideologically-driven political campaigner (we have even adopted political terminologies such "pressure group" "constituency building," etc.) than that of a problem solving coastal manager."

I hope she responds. What do you guys think?


Monday, March 15, 2010

The (unintended?) consequences of committee formation in ICM projects

I am currently writing up a narrative on the implementation of an integrated coastal management project in Ecuador.
ICM projects in developing countries invariably establish new management organizations or committees, often at the village level. By their very construction these committees challenge pre-existing governance structures. Often the new committees are infiltrated by members of those pre-existing structures and thereby give some local legitimacy and lineage to them. However just as often the new management structures are used by ambitious but politically marginalized locals to seek increased standing in their communities.
Usually the foreign proponents of these ICM projects do not fully grasp the local political situation and so unwittingly become entangled in local political battles which have nothing to do with improving coastal management.

Perhaps instead of setting up new management organizations which can become chess pieces for local political battles, foreign ICM project implementors should try their best to work within existing local governance structures.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Narrative Research: An Excuse for Historicism or a Voice for the Marginalized?

My doctoral supervisor has suggested that I present my research in a narrative style rather than in the more traditional modernist form in which one states a hypothesis, tests it, and then discusses. My masters dissertation was written in the later style and I am certainly more comfortable with it.
However I agree with my supervisor that using such a traditional modernist format in my doctoral thesis would create quite a bit of cognitive dissonance because the theories that I am working with, primarily Performativity and Symmetrical Analysis, imply a fairly relativistic epistemological approach to the world.

I am, however, quite sensitive to the critques of Narrative Research. I have an instinctual aversion to strongly ideological accounts of history or any other topic for that matter and accept that the narrative style is very susceptible to historicism, or as it is called in it politics, "spin."

On the other hand I am also convinced that relying on explicit methodologies is neither as practically possible as we would like to think or even an effective barrier to historicism. Rather in practice such methodologies simply tend to privilege the knowledge derived from them and in doing so marginalize alternate explanations. Which is why narrative research is important and valuable because it gives those alternate explanations, or narratives, a place to be told.


The Gods Must be Crazy

A funny, old, (1980) South African movie about a San tribesman* that needs to walk to the end of the earth in order to get rid of an 'evil thing.' Check it out.

*My original posting used the word "Bushman" but I have since learned that this term is derogatory (see the comments). I apologize for any offense caused.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is Korean "business (bars) as usual" an impediment to Gender Equality?

To commemorate Women's Day here in Korea a foreign reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked Korea's Finance Minister for his opinion as to whether the widespread practice of conducting business negotiations within brothels was an impediment to achieving gender equality in the Korean workplace.

Given Korea's strongly nationalistic character this was a very provocative question, as the reporter surely knew. In response the Finance Minister gave a very politically measured response, dismissing the premise of the question as "incorrect" and refusing to speculate on the reasons for Korea's steep gender inequality.

Following the press conference this same reporter, while defending his Korean female colleague from some unkind words coming from the Finance Minister's spokespersons, cursed at those spokespersons.

Korea's largest news organization, Yonhap, was predictably outraged at such a perceived affront to Korean dignity.

Wow. Talk about unproductive. If the Wall Street Journal and Yonhap are engaging in this kind of juvenile hot-headedness, can we really expect anything better from the general population on either side of the Pacific?


Welcome to Dongmakgol

This movie goes along way in helping foreigners understand how many Koreans view the Korean War and their own pre-modern history. Its also quite funny at times. However for my tastes the the script is a little forced, not only when the dialog is in English (which you would expect) but even when it is in Korean. Its also a little long. Nevertheless its educational, amusing, and the cinematography is adventurous. Check it out.

Monday, March 8, 2010

King of Kong

So as usual King of Kong is an old documentary (2007) that I just discovered. Its full of quirky mildly interesting people playing Donkey Kong and being obsessed with it. If you've got a free 90 minutes it wouldn't be a complete waste of your time.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Korea Inc., more on Korea's economic development

South Korean President and former CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction Lee Myung Bak talking at a recent strategy meeting to promote the Korean IT industry.

Here is another quote from the Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea.

"Students of the Japanese growth "miracle" have frequently attributed importance to the close cooperation of government and business in that country, and, to emphasize the closeness, have referred to as "Japan Incorporated." The term is, in fact, much more applicable in Korea, but in Korea there is little doubt that the chief party in the corporation is government, This may come as a surprise to those who have been accustomed to think of Korea as a free-enterprise economy. It is free in the sense that private enterprise has flourished, and the role of market considerations looms large in the formulation of both private and public economic policy. But there is no denying that it is government that establishes the framework within which firms operate, sers the rules, and excercises a close oversight of performance."

For development economists who like to champion a small-government and market orientated approach to economic growth, such as Bill Easterly (with whom I usually agree) this is not welcome news. In the West we tend to think of government as a restraining and regulating force on economic markets and consequently those who favor markets invariably also favor smaller government. However in most Asian economies the picture is very different. Governments in Korea, Japan, and of course most recently in China, have played a central, and usually dominant role, in planning and promoting the growth of private companies.

I'm not sure if this approach would be applicable to African nations, but I am sure that it hasn't really been tried.

Gender discrimination prevalent in Korea

Here is a good article that discusses Korea's gender discrimination problems. Unfortunately my, admittedly anecdotal, experiences do not make me optimsitic on this issue. The Korean feminist movement is tiny. This is not to say that the traditional position of women in Korean society is one completely deviod of power. Although it is certainly a deeply patricarchal society outside of the home, within the home, Korean women wield considerable authority. Much more so, I would argue, than did women in traditional Western families.

The Death of Western Civilization?

Here is an interesting, though I think far from convincing, talk by British historian Stephen Davies about why he thinks Western Civilization is dead.
hat tip to Cafe Hayek for the pointer.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Too much of a good thing: when democracy becomes the enemy of development

Here is an excerpt from the preface to the landmark research project conducted by Harvard University in collaboration with the Korean Development Institute, and funded by USAID, back in 1989 which sought to explain Korea's rapid economic growth in the later half of the twentieth century. The title of the book is The Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea.

"In the short run, for example, a period covering the years 1963 to date [1989], we have reasons for believing that a government able to maintain political stability (law and order if you will), undertake economic policies that a more democratic government would find it difficult or impossible to do, and implement these policies through a disciplined and well-organized bureaucracy, has been a significant factor in explaining Korea's growth. Whether the increase achieved in standards of living was worth the limitation of public participation and of civil liberties imposed on the population is a different question and one that is sure to provoke different answers."

Although the reluctance of the writer is evident, his conclusion is still glaringly, and uncomfortably, obvious. Rapid economic growth leads to social turmoil that can threaten such growth if given a democratic voice. To put it even more starkly, the willingness of Park Chung Hee to ignore his people's suffering was, to borrow the report's words, "a significant factor in explaining Korea's growth."
This does not mean it was the only factor, or that by itself it was sufficient. But we should dare to say that it was necessary. It may be an ugly truth, but that should not make us turn away from it.

Yet in the Western world of development experts, democracy is a holy fetish, its righteousness unquestionable.
It has not always been so. The founders of America's democracy were not nearly so enthralled. For them democracy was a means to an end and their disdain for mob rule led them to craft the U.S. Constitution in such a way that still frustrates "majoritarians," as we are now witnessing with the current Healthcare debate.


Senegalese Wrestlers

Hat tip to Africa is a Country for these pictures. These guys should start their own African WWF.
The photographer, Denis Rouvre, has a great website where you can check out more of them and his other work as well.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Super K

Courtesy of Marginal Revolution, this is a very cool picture of a "Super K" neutrino detector. To give you some perspective the orange thing is a raft with two men on it. Here is a link to more pictures of it.

The Difficulty of Inter-cultural Dialog: The Case of Korean Blogs.

Since starting this blog a few months ago I have tried to acquaint myself with the other expat run Korean blogs out there. I like many of them. See my Blog roll for a small selection. Some of these blogs feature lively arguments, usually between expats who are critical of some aspect of Korean culture and others, often of Korean descent, who choose to defend it. These discussions can be informative and interesting. However often they follow an unfortunately formulaic and unproductive trajectory.

1. An expat will say something negative about Korean culture.
2. Another person will defend that aspect of Korean culture.
3. The expat will restate his criticism as if it were incontrovertible fact.
4. The defender will state or imply that the expat is racist.
5. The expat will deny the charge and may throw it back at the defender.
6. Potty mouth ensues.
7. More potty mouth.
8. More potty mouth.

Often emotions on both sides fuel this kind of bickering. For expats living in a foreign country and adapting to a foreign culture can be a frustrating experience, especially when one's job depends upon acting in accordance with it. On the other hand, Koreans, or those of Korean descent, easily tire of hearing complaints about their country from those whom they consider guests.

Venting can be feel therapeutic. Voicing legitimate criticisms can seem constructive And defending one's country against perceived bigotry can feel honorable.

However true inter-cultural dialog is more important and, thankfully, more enjoyable.
Two suggestions, one for each group.
Expats in Korea have a tendency to express only their negative reactions to Korean culture. Instead try to pair every negative comment with a positive one.
Koreans, or those of Korean descent, often tend to reflexively defend their culture, responding more to who is making the statement than to what is actually being said. Instead, if a criticism has any truth to it all, try to acknowledge that, and then respond substantively to that which you disagree.