Africa: Land of Hope and Exploitation

September 9, 2008

The residents of the Magenge Mapya Charcoal Camp in Tanzania face an uncertain future — the trees they rely on to make charcoal are being cut down to plant oil-producing plants for biofuels

Roughly a century ago, the Ottoman Empire was considered “the sick man of Europe” because of its poor economy, backwardness, and misrule. Today, the continent of Africa and in particular the sub-Saharan part could rightfully be considered the sick man of the world. Disastrous economics, shoddy rule, violent wars, and the plague of HIV have left a once promising continent the failure of the world.

Decade after decade of foreign aid have not been able to lift Africa out of its mire. Even the so-called “benevolence” of wealthier states has left a situation best described in dependency theory as: “the way in which resources flow from a “periphery” of poor and underdeveloped states to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former”. This exploitation continues today as Africa is now being utilized for the sake of biofuel production at the expense of locals. Der Spiegel reports about this new exploitation in Green Gold Rush: Africa becoming a biofuel battleground. An excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »


Sports Fandom Is More Positive Than We Once Thought

September 8, 2008

Fans of the legendary English soccer team Liverpool FC display their support

Fans of professional sports are a derided bunch. Usually associated with belonging to the lowest common denominator intellectually and culturally, others have gone as far as to claim that they represent the most prevalent form of social conditioning present in our modern society.

An observer in first century Rome coined the phrase bread and circuses to describe how Romans of that era chose food and fun over freedom, thus giving up their civic duty in favour of decadence. To people like Noam Chomsky, little has changed. In Manufacturing Consent Chomsky explains the role of sports in social conditioning:

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.

Is being a fan of professional sports all that bad? New research by economists and psychologists suggests that sports fandom actually has some benefits.

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Why Gordon Gekko Got it Wrong: Michael Shermer and Evolutionary Economics

August 18, 2008

Michael Douglas
“Greed is Good” – Michael Douglas as the corporate vulture Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”

The scene is certainly an unforgettable one. Gordon Gekko, the notorious Wall Street corporate vulture, stands in front of a shareholder meeting playing Robin Hood to the unsuspecting people in attendance as he confronts the executives of the company and pulls off a hostile takeover by appealing to peoples’ baser instincts when explaining that “greed is good”.

Although Gekko was meant to represent the cutthroat corporate culture of America in the high-flying 80s, many took his philosophy to heart. The argument went that man’s selfishness is what has propelled human invention and evolution. But is that the case?

Michael Shermer, writer, historian, and founder of The Skeptics Society tells us that this argument is in fact completely wrong. Read the interview with Michael Shermer here. Here’s a sample:

Why, if capitalism is so great, did the Enron scandal occur? Some have suggested that it was a few bad apples in the corporation.

The “bad apples” theory doesn’t explain what really happened at Enron, and it doesn’t explain the nature of corporate evil. Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron, set up what he thought was a Darwinian marketing environment. Skilling was a fan of Richard Dawkins’s important book The Selfish Gene, which Skilling misread. He took it to mean that evolution is driven by cutthroat competition and self-centered egotism. He liked the notion of the “survival of the fittest.” Skilling set up a Peer Review Committee, which became known as “rank and yank.” Everybody was ranked on a scale of one to five, and 20 percent of all fives had to be fired. The reviews were posted on a company website with a picture of the employee, increasing the potential for personal humiliation. Good luck being able to go out and have some fun with your teammates. Teammates! These are people who may be taking my job. Once you set up an environment like that, people begin violating rules. Skilling’s evaluation system led to a lot of behind-the-scenes wheeling and back-door dealing between department heads and managers, swapping review evaluation points. In addition to his belief in an outdated and untenable doctrine of social Darwinism, Skilling was a high-risk taker — short on dopamine, we might conjecture. What causes corporate corruption is an environment of evil established by the founders, corporate executives, and managers — a corporate psychology — that creates situations that encourage our hearts of darkness to beat faster.

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Are the Cities of Northern England Doomed?

August 14, 2008

North Englanders
A UK conservative think-tank suggests that cities in the North of England are declining without a chance of recovery

The conservative UK think-tank Policy Exchange has sent a shockwave through English politics by suggesting that England’s northern cities are declining without hope of recovery. Furthermore, they propose that residents of cities such as Liverpool and Sunderland move to the more prosperous Southeast of England and that government help this internal migration by building three million new homes to house these people.

The outrage is compounded by the fact that Policy Exchange is tied to UK Tory leader David Cameron and will no doubt have an affect on Tory support (what little that they do have) in these post-industrial cities.

As for these northern cities, Nigel Morris reports:

In its report, the think-tank said: “We need to accept above all that we cannot guarantee to regenerate every town and every city in Britain that has fallen behind. Just as we can’t buck the market, so we can’t buck economic geography either.”

Policy Exchange said many large coastal cities had lost their raison d’etre with the decline of shipping and raised the alarm over the future of Liverpool, Sunderland, Hull, Scunthorpe and Blackpool. It said it was unrealistic to expect the prosperous cities of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle to regenerate less well-off neighbours such as Liverpool, Rochdale, Bradford and Sunderland. It said such places were not “doomed” and could not be abandoned, but people had to face up to the fact that they had “little prospect of offering their residents the standard of living to which they aspire”. The think-tank said all three million new homes earmarked for England by 2020 should be built in the South-east, making it easier for people in less well-off areas to move. It also called for massive building in Oxford and Cambridge, taking advantage of their high skills base and favourable location.

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25 Internet Startups that didn’t make it

July 29, 2008

GlobalTek Solutions


Big ideas with big money backing them couldn’t turn these sites into winners

It was only a little over a decade ago that we were told the internet would completely revolutionize how we would shop, read, interact, learn, invest, and smell. Maybe the order was a tall one and maybe the internet didn’t replace our traditional methods of doing all of these things, but it certainly has given us more options. The 1990s saw the proliferation of websites devoted to e-commerce of one sort or another as well as e-applications. These resulted in the boom that became a fizzle as everyone tried to tap into this new online market for their products and services. From Homer Simpson and his Compuglobalhypermeganet Systems to The Onion’s, everyone was taking a swipe at the hysteria.

Some sites have managed to survive and thrive, and being the two most notable.

The Business Pundit lists for us the top 25 Internet Startups that didn’t make it. All your favourites are there, including,, and the spam-friendly

Speaking of which, whatever happened to these guys?


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Bling Culture: Why Those With Less Money Spend More……

July 29, 2008

bling bling

Bling Bling! Conspicuous Consumption is more prevalent amongst those with less money

Bling Culture has become a part of the American fabric thanks to the commercialization of crass hip hop that has occurred over this past decade. Label whores, big rims, oversized and too-too bright jewelry and accessories……but why?

Virginia Postrel gives us the lowdown in A New Theory of the Leisure Class:

Conspicuous consumption, this research suggests, is not an unambiguous signal of personal affluence. It’s a sign of belonging to a relatively poor group. Visible luxury thus serves less to establish the owner’s positive status as affluent than to fend off the negative perception that the owner is poor. The richer a society or peer group, the less important visible spending becomes.

On race, the folk wisdom turns out to be true. An African American family with the same income, family size, and other demographics as a white family will spend about 25 percent more of its income on jewelry, cars, personal care, and apparel. For the average black family, making about $40,000 a year, that amounts to $1,900 more a year than for a comparable white family. To make up the difference, African Americans spend much less on education, health care, entertainment, and home furnishings.

Read more at the link.

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The Secret of Switzerland’s Success

July 26, 2008

Bern, Switzerland's capital

Bern, the Swiss capital, being sheltered by the Alps in the background

Quick question: What are the first three things you think of when you hear the word “Switzerland”? The most common answers tend to be The Alps, chocolate, and banking (with watches coming a close fourth).

Having lived in Switzerland for a year, I was shocked to see how rural much of the country is and by “rural” I mean rustic. I was always under the impression that Switzerland has wealthy for most of its several centuries existence but was shocked to learn that it was quite poor until this past century.

Being a strong admirer of Switzerland’s highly autonomous and decentralized political system that quite often relies on localized direct democracy, I learned that their system had much to do with their economic success. A highly skilled workforce combined with high exports, a stable currency and most of all, a stable financial/political regime has allowed Switzerland to prosper and become the envy of the world.

Could it all be thanks to the Gnomes of Zurich? John Fund explains the success story that is this alpine country in: Cuckoo for Switzerland.   Read the rest of this entry »