Twilight Zone Memories

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Rod Serling went on to create The Twilight Zone after experiencing some surreal events in World War II.

Maureen Dowd shares this version:

Serling also had a devastating experience while serving in World War II. During a lull at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Pacific, he was standing with his arm around a good friend and they were having their picture taken. At that moment, an Air Force plane dropped a box of extra ammunition that landed on Serling’s friend and flattened him so fatally that he couldn’t even be seen under the box.

“Many ‘Zone’ episodes are about that split-second of fate where somebody arbitrarily gets spared or, absurdly, does not,” Brode said.

Tom Ricks reports a different version:

Wikipedia reports that Serling was in the 11th Airborne Division, and that the incident he witnessed was slightly different, that a private named Melvin Levy “was in the middle of a comic monologue as the platoon sat resting under a palm tree when a food crate dropped from above, decapitating him as the men watched.”

What Tom Ricks didn’t know about Karachi

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Tom Ricks shares some things he didn’t know about Karachi that he learned from reading Steve Inskeep’s Instant City:

To my surprise, a lot of the book is about fights over land development, which gets wrapped up in ethnic and political tensions. Imagine Donald Trump as a Pashtun warlord/developer. One of the most striking sections of the book is about a man who protested the misuse/theft of park land, and the day after giving a press conference was shot in the head and killed. His successor in the save-the-park movement also was murdered.

Here are some of the other things I learned about Karachi and Pakistan.

  • The military is the single largest property owner in the city, and control of land (not necessarily ownership) is the biggest game in town.
  • At the time of the Pakistani independence, Karachi was majority Hindu. That changed quickly.
  • Pakistan’s parliament building and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. had the same architect. (One more Pakistani grievance against America!)
  • The city’s police answer not to the mayor but to the provincial government.
  • Most of the city’s violence is not related to Islamic extremism.
  • Karachi has 70,000 Boy Scouts
  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, owned 200 fine English suits. Also, he was Shiite, as was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most important leader of Pakistan since Jinnah.
  • You always see news photographs of torched busses when ethnic violence breaks out because the bus business is seen as dominated by Pushtuns, and their busses are attacked in retaliation for the burning of shops.

Major Highlights in the History of Space Opera

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

This list of major highlights in the history of space opera — the sub-genre most people identify as “science fiction” — collects familiar and unfamiliar “classics”:

1901: George Griffith’s A Honeymoon in Space:

Considered by some commentators to be the first-ever foray into the genre, the story concerns newlyweds Lord Redgrave and Zaidie travelling to the moon, only to learn its inhabitants have devolved into fish-people. Dismayed, the couple journey to each of the other planets in the solar system, meeting the angels of Venus and giants of Mars along the way. (Interestingly, the couple skip Pluto, which hadn’t been discovered by 1900, but has since been dismissed as a planet.) Although forgotten today, Griffith was a best-selling author whose stories outsold even H.G. Wells.

1917: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:

This groundbreaking novel contains no spaceships but did help to popularize interplanetary travel.

1925: Terrano the Conqueror by Ray Cummings:

Cummings was a personal assistant and technical writer for Thomas Edison (who had previously starred in the proto-space opera Edison’s Conquest of Space in 1898).

The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Long before historian Peter Brown wrote The World of Late Antiquity — which traced patterns through the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Baghdad — a number of bestselling novelists got there first:

What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.

“There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon’s magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars — from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov’s narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy. The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.

Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert’s Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war — a jihad. Herbert’s hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. “I cannot do the simplest thing,” he reflects, “without its becoming a legend.” Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be “only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad”.

There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham’s biography may have been the first to survive — but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous. Fresh evidence — wholly unsuspected by Muhammad’s earliest biographers — would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier’s eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

Herbert’s novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography — in which Paul has become “Muad’Dib”, the legendary “Dune Messiah” — with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this — so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a “Year 22″. But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad’s life — or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?

There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad’s life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God. The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero — who was supposed to have lived long before — was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court. The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one — so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.

Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it “the work of giants”. Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcnéas, and orthanc enta geweorc — “elves and orcs”, and “the skilful work of giants”. These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. “Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets.”

So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that “awful scene”. What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge. An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, “falling year by year into decay”. Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains — and suffer a similar fate. Tolkien’s ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, “was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it”. In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.

It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome’s declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire’s collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions. Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured — and on occasion forgotten completely. The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.

A Playmobil Game of Thrones

Friday, April 20th, 2012

If you love Game of Thrones, and you fondly remember Playmobil figures, you should watch this Playmobil recreation of the Game of Thrones trailer (from the first season):

Revolutionary Reading List

Friday, April 20th, 2012

Zygmunt F. Dembek and Dean Cheng present their revolutionary reading list — a few strategic words from the opposition:

My War with the CIA by Norodom Sihanouk and Wilfred Burchett:

Cambodian crown Prince Sihanouk describes his years of struggle in fighting U.S. government covert and not-so-covert operations, with assistance from neighboring countries, including China.

Ho Chi Minh: A Life by William Duiker:

The definitive biography of the son of a civil servant, and founder of the Vietnamese Communist party, who became president of North Vietnam. His 30 years in exile, and 50 year struggle to liberate Vietnam, are described. [Not sure I'd include biographies (as opposed to autobiographies), for this list. Which isn't to say that this isn't worth reading!]

Guerilla Warfare by Ernesto “Che” Guevara:

This 1960 treatise provides tremendous insight into a Latin American revolutionary’s methods for overthrowing dictatorships (and democracies) by a small determined groups of guerilla fighters.

How We Won the War by General Vo Nguyen Giap:

North Vietnam’s top military strategist describes how victory from occupying forces was won, from the founding of the Army in 1944 to the departure of the U.S. in 1975.

On Guerilla Warfare by Mao Tse Tung:

Mao’s textbook on guerilla warfare is the result of his fighting the Japanese in China, and is a timeless reference to the organization and conduct of a successful guerrilla campaign.

The Triple Agent: The Al Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA by Joby Warrick:

A well-researched description of how the Jordanian double-agent Humam Khalil al-Balawi, while promising to help the CIA assassinate Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, became a suicide bomber, killing seven CIA operatives, the agency’s worst loss of life in decades.

Balik Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf by Zachary Abuza:

A technical treatise that provides great insight into the origins, organization, and operations of a primary terrorist group opposing the Philippine government. This writing can be obtained as a free download from the Army’s Strategic Studies Institute.

Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall:

The 1961 classic about the hubris and blunders of French forces in Vietnam, leading to the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. An epic book in many dimensions, the most important of which may be its omission from the readings of American military leaders during the 1960′s and 1970′s, facilitating a repeat of history.

Surrender to Kindness: One Man’s Epic Journey for Love and Peace by Joseph David Osman:

Wisdom acquired by first-hand experience and shared by an Afghan-American on how to actually win “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan. Personally recommended by those who know Osman and of his work.

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Time of Emir Abd el-Kader by John W. Kiser:

A thoroughly researched book on the life and tactics of a Muslim military leader who fought the French occupying forces in Algeria during the 19th century, and won their respect.

The Science of Military Strategy, edited by Peng Guangqian and Ya Youzhi of the Chinese Academy of Military Science:

Translation (in 2005) of a Chinese military textbook published in 2001. It provides a distinctly Chinese view of concepts such as deterrence and military strategy.

The Quranic Concept of War by S.K. Malik:

One Muslim perspective on war in the context of Quranic teachings.

I’m Elmo, and I know it

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

This is what the Internet’s for — mashing up risqué party rock and beloved children’s TV. I’m Elmo and I know it:

(Hat tip to Aretae, oddly enough.)

If you’re not familiar with LMFAO‘s original, voilà:

While we’re at it, here’s Katy Perry singing “Hot and Cold” to Elmo:

I’m still waiting on a decent “Every Day I’m Snufflin’”  — although LMFAO’s own post-apocalyptic take on their “Party Rock Anthem” isn’t too bad, despite its lack of Snuffleupaguses.

Hong Kong’s Accidental Freedom

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Hong Kong has a long history of economic freedom, largely due to historical accidents:

The truth is, that Hong Kong was rather like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: There was no There, There. Until Britain took over the barren rock in the 1840s, there were only a few fishing villages. There was no long established substantial civilization on Hong Kong with a legacy of entrenched institutions and interests. Everybody who came to Hong Kong was an opportunist or refugee. It started with a clean slate. It was established as a British trading post just at the time when Britain itself was scrapping agricultural protectionism and moving to free trade. It was formed just at the right moment in the tide of political fashion.

From the beginning it was a free trade port. Hong Kong has a deep water natural harbour. The ocean currents flush through the harbour, keeping it crystal blue, in sharp contrast to the muddy brown effluent of the Pearl River which flows out to sea just a few miles to the west. Hong Kong means ‘Fragrant Harbour’ in Chinese, and it was an excellent anchorage for British trading ships.

Apart from that it had little else going for it. Hong Kong Island and the neighboring mainland are mountainous: there was virtually no flat land at all when the island was acquired by the British ‘in perpetuity’ in 1842. (What flat land there was was promptly set aside for the cricket pitch and the race course). There were a few fishing villages, but not much else. London didn’t really want it at all, grumbling that their local man on the spot had exceeded his authority in adding it to the British Empire.

In 1844, the British colonial treasurer in Hong Kong, Robert Montgomery Martin, predicted, “There does not appear the slightest probability that, under any circumstances, Hong Kong will ever become a place of trade.” His miscalculation was to overlook the importance of the rule of law and other institutions that have made Hong Kong the freest economy in the world. He looked only at physical resources at the time.

One of the first proclamations of the British administration promised that Hong Kong’s inhabitants would be ‘secured in the free exercise of their religious rites, ceremonies and social customs.’ And all Chinese trade was to be exempt from any charge or duty of any kind to the British government.

Almost immediately real estate speculation developed. Property protected by British Law in a free trade port had obvious attractions. Not only British merchants but also thousands of Chinese rushed in. In a matter of months more than 12,000 Chinese were living on the island attracted by the construction boom.

Over the next hundred years Hong Kong grew and prospered, an island of civility and stability next to turbulent China. In 1862 a small piece of the mainland was added, the Kowloon peninsula, and in 1898 a much larger chunk, the New Territories, was leased from China for 99 years. Even with these additions it came to just over 400 square miles (making it only 40% of the size of Rhode Island.)

As mainland China became increasingly unstable, more and more people moved into Hong Kong. The population of the colony doubled in the nineteen thirties, to over 1.6 million people.

The Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War 2 and by the time a British military administration was re-established in the summer of 1945 the population had fallen to only 600,000. Within months the people of southern China were flocking back into the British territory, obviously relieved to be out of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and back under the yoke of Western colonial exploitation once more.

Which brings me to the second historical accident which contributed to Hong Kong’s freedom. At a time when the intellectual fashion in the mother country was swinging strongly towards socialism, under Clement Atlee’s Labour party, Hong Kong was being swamped with refugees. In the late forties as the Communist swept southward the flow of Chinese refugees into Hong Kong became a tidal wave. By 1948 the population had risen back up to 1.8 million.

Austin Coates, the writer, was a young British government official arriving 1949. He described the scene:

Hong Kong presented and extraordinary spectacle… The place was already overcrowded when the communist putsch began. In the past few weeks, about half a million refugees had poured in from China by air, by train, by steamer and junk, and on foot: and as the months passed, well over another half- million arrived. By early 1950 the population stood at the alarming figure of 2,350,000.

It really seemed as if half Shanghai had descended upon the place, together with all the gold bars in China. Money was flying about… Apartment blocks, shops and houses, many of them illegal and sub-standard, were going up at staggering speed, but still not fast enough. All over the rocky hillsides near the urban area, tens of thousands of ramshackle little huts were sprouting day and night, built of packing cases, sacks, kerosene tins, linoleum, worn-out rubber tyres, anything anyone could lay their hands on, tied together with bits of wire and even with rice straw.

Entire shanty towns were going up in a matter of days. In the streets… Hundreds of maimed and wounded Nationalist soldiers, who had somehow managed to beg their way south, hobbled or lay about begging alms, sleeping at night where they lay by day, many of them unable to speak Cantonese, utterly uncared for, futureless and helpless… it was a situation verging on the chaotic.

(and) Nowhere, as I quickly discovered, was the state of crisis more apparent than in the offices of the government, most of which were severely understaffed to meet the extraordinary conditions prevailing…

The red tide of communism swept all before it. In the autumn of 1949 Canton fell, and a few days later contingents of the Chinese Red Army reached the Hong Kong border.

And there, they stopped. The unexpected happened. The communist regime left Hong Kong alone. They sealed the border and relations between Hong Kong and the mainland became virtually non-existent. Air communications with China, formerly excellent, came to a stop, as did river steamer services to Canton. Trains were no longer allowed to run through from Kowloon to Canton, as they once had.

There was an eerie silence.

Hong Kong was left in peace, but also in terrible isolation. I say terrible isolation because Hong Kong was now deprived of its original raison d’ etre, to be a trading post for China. So there they sat, two and a half million people, barely believing they had survived and were alive, but wondering what on earth they were going to do next.

You can understand from all this that in the post war period the Hong Kong government was simply not capable of grand socialist designs. It was totally overwhelmed by a demographic deluge..

“All of a sudden, you had the best people shoved into this tiny place,” said Daniel Ng, executive chairman of McDonald’s Restaurants (Hong Kong). “I suppose we are fortunate the government didn’t have time to react. It was simply overwhelmed.”

Even if the British Government had sought to impose grand New Society plans on Hong Kong in the post war period, its administration was so stretched and resources so scarce that it was out of the question. In fact the British government didn’t even try. Colonies were things to be got rid of, to be ashamed of, not places for ideological ambition. Socialism began and ended at home. The British government was financially overstretched as it was, so the only thing it required of Hong Kong was that it not be a drain on the mother country. Fortunately Hong Kong readily obliged. The Hong Kong administration was financially self sufficient by 1947. Although the Hong Kong people were desperately poor and undoubtedly worthy of foreign aid, the only amount of money they ever received was $44 million – but not from Britain- from the United States.

So, at key moments in Hong Kong’s history, when it was established in the 1840s and when free markets were ideologically most under threat in the nineteen forties, Hong Kong squeaked through unscathed.

Our Noisy World

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

A.J. Jacobs recently became aware of just how loud our world is — and how this secondhand smoke of our ears harms us:

What’s the problem with this high-decibel world? “The most obvious one is hearing loss,” Dr. Bronzaft says. Some 26 million adults are walking around with noise-induced hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Noise also has a surprisingly potent effect on our stress level, cardiovascular system and concentration. In Paleo times, a loud noise signaled a threat, so noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure.

A University of British Columbia review of 6,300 people who work in noisy jobs found that they suffer two to three times more heart problems than those who work in quiet settings. A former World Health Organization official estimates (with a bit of alarmism) that noise-induced strain may cause 45,000 deadly heart attacks a year.

Noise also wreaks havoc on the brain. Dr. Bronzaft conducted a landmark study at a public school in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, published in the journal Environment and Behavior in 1975. Some of the classrooms directly faced an elevated subway track. Every five minutes the students heard a train rattle by. Other classrooms were tucked on the opposite side of the building, away from the noise. The difference? By the sixth grade, the kids on the noisy side were nearly a year behind. Since then, her conclusions about the effects of noise on concentration have been backed up by a pile of other studies, on both students and adults.

After meeting Dr. Bronzaft, I pledged to turn down the volume on my own life. I started in my kids’ room. I dug out all of their beeping, yammering electronic toys and spent a half-hour putting masking tape over the plastic speakers

“What are you doing, Daddy?” asked my son Zane. “Just fixing the broken toys,” I half-lied.

It’s a jungle out there

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Michael Yon describes the Sundarbans, between India and Bangladesh:

When a man says, “It’s a jungle out there,” he means, “It’s the Sundarbans.”  Among the many wild and unforgiving places in the approximately 65 countries I’ve traveled, most are fairly safe when approached with good judgment and aforethought. The Sundarbans is not one of those places.  Few jungles are this dangerous.

The natives here rub shoulders with mortality on a daily basis.  And so before venturing into the labyrinth waterways, one should acquire a guide, which in my case was a government employee with a powerful FN-FAL rifle to ward off man and beast.  Competent, local guides are always your best insurance, and if I had a choice of any rifle in the world to bring here, the FN-FAL would be high on the list.  And so those boxes were checked.

Within about a week previous my arrival, eight people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded in personal combat with tigers.  Nobody knows why the tigers kill so many people here.  None of the eight people recently killed were eaten.  The tigers often devour their prey, but sometimes they just murder, and of course there is always a market for tiger parts.  It’s a bloody mess.

Add to that the giant saltwater crocodiles, sharks, incredibly venomous snakes, mosquitoes and so on and so forth, and the Sundarbans is a mysterious place that remains off of the backpacker beat.  I’ve wanted to come here for years but was rudely interrupted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The vast jungle and mangrove swamps cover about 10,000 square kilometers.  Many sights and smells can nearly mirror places in Florida, and so at times it felt like home and could have made me homesick it weren’t so fun and interesting.  Anglers who tool around the estuarine river areas of Florida, and who cast for snook near the mangroves, would find reminders in the form of beautiful white egrets, kingfishers and relentless sun.  The mostly compliant alligators we see basking in Florida are replaced here by extraordinarily ferocious crocodiles.

Noticeably missing are the turtles.  Whereas in Florida it would be normal to see a hundred turtles per day sunning themselves on white-worn branches elbowing out of the waters of the Peace River, it can be rare to see even a single turtle after spending long days on many Asian rivers.  This is true ranging from the mighty Mekong, to the Mae Ping, the Salween, over to the Ganges or up at the Bramaputra in Nepal.  I rarely if ever see turtles in Asia, though there were land turtles in Afghanistan.  There has been a program to introduce thousands of snapping turtles into the Indian Ganges to eat the thousands of human corpses, but apparently the turtles could not keep up.  My guess is that the people ate the turtles.

Numerous substantial rivers including the Ganges feed the Sundarbans.  About one third of the Sundarbans drains from India and the rest from Bangladesh.  Due mostly to Hindu funerary traditions, the Indians dump countless tons of human flesh into “Mother Ganges” (Ganga Ma) each year, which flows and fans to the delta by the crocodiles, the crabs, and the tigers.  Some people believe that the Royal Bengal Tigers of the Sundarbans may have gotten their taste for man from the stream of corpses flowing into their abode.

Taxation, American Style

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Contrary to common belief, the American tax system is more progressive than those of most industrialized democracies, Veronique de Rugy reports:

A comparison of France and the U.S. is revealing: The top marginal income tax rate in the U.S. is 35 percent and kicks in at $379,000. In France the top rate is 41 percent and kicks in at $96,000.

The U.S. federal government also relies much more heavily on the income tax, rather than the regressive consumption taxes — such as the value-added tax (VAT), retail sales taxes, and gasoline and tobacco taxes — favored by most OECD nations. European countries generally have lighter taxes on capital as well, another regressive feature.

Finally, the U.S. tax code allows large deductions and personal exemptions for low-income households, distributing social benefits in the form of policies such as the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. These adjustments increase progressivity.

Judging solely from government outlays, it appears to be true that the United States has a smaller, more efficient government than the big welfare states of Europe. Relative to the size of GDP, U.S. government spending is about 16 percent smaller than the average for the European Union. But the difference is largely illusory. European governments tend to channel much less spending through their tax codes than the U.S. does. A November 2011 OECD paper titled “Is the European Welfare State Really More Expensive?” calculates the share of tax breaks used in OECD countries, separating out those used primarily for social purposes. The data show not only that the U.S. offers more tax breaks for social purposes as a share of GDP than any other country (almost 2 percent as opposed to the 0.5 percent OECD average) but that roughly two-thirds are tax breaks toward current private benefits (such as encouraging people to have children). These breaks, which total some $84 billion a year, are better thought of as welfare spending via the tax code.

Only by measuring tax breaks do you begin to see the true girth of the American welfare state. The chart at the top right shows social spending as a share of GDP in major countries, taking into account tax breaks for social purposes, direct taxation of benefit income, and indirect taxation of consumption by benefit recipients, all of which consume economic resources but do not show up in the budget or other measures of government spending as a share of GDP. According to these OECD data, net social welfare outlays in the U.S. consumed 27.5 percent of GDP in 2007 — above the OECD average of 23.3 percent.

Snake Bites

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

In the United States, to see people petrified of snakes is almost comical:

Practically nobody dies from snakebites in America.  The chances are far higher of being hit by lightning.  The most deadly snakes in the US are still second-chance serpents, like rattlers or moccasins.  If a diamondback hits you, you’ll almost certainly live because you’ll probably get to a hospital and suffer through.  But if a cobra or other super-snake hits a villager, he’s likely finished.

There are about 216 types of snakes just in India, of which about 52 are venomous.  Nearly all the deaths are caused by “The Big Four”: Indian Cobra; Common Krait (the bed snake); Russell’s Viper (which Indians call “Daboia”—the lurker); and the Saw Scaled Viper, a vicious little snake that some people consider the most deadly in the world.

There are many lists for the “most dangerous” or “most venomous” snakes in the world.  The snakes that count most are not the ones with the most toxic juices, or the most dangerous bites, but the ones who actually fill the most graves.

The deadly Krait likes to come inside homes where it often slithers in bed with people.  Its bite is so painless that many victims do not realize they have been envenomated.  Some Indians believe the Krait just licks people.  Victims are found dead in their beds, or wake up and die.

Cobras are not much better; they also like to move into people’s homes to chase rats.  Getting bitten by a cobra is like being blasted by a shotgun.  There was once a practice of putting cobra venom inside musket balls and arrowheads, though I have no idea if this still occurs.

In India alone, it is believed that snakes kill up to 50,000 people per year.

How to Fail Less

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Derek Thompson interviews Steve Blank on the secrets of start-ups — or how to fail less:

Can you really teach entrepreneurship?

Many people say you can’t. They’re ignorant. But it was true that we didn’t know how to teach entrepreneurship for decades, because we didn’t understand how start-ups were different from large companies.

Large companies execute. Start-ups in their early stage don’t execute. They search. And for a long time, we had no tools for search. But in the last few years, we’ve started to build the equivalent of an execution plan for start-ups. We’ve cracked the code for early stage ventures. We can say that we know how to make start-ups fail less.

Tell me how you teach entrepreneurship. What does it mean to learn how to search?

The old entrepreneurship class was: Let’s write a business plan do a PowerPoint presentation for the investors. But that plan is a static item. It says, “Here’s my idea. Here’s the opportunity. Here’s the team. Here’s the forecast.” It has no learning. I teach at Stanford and Berkley. Let me tell you, the smartest kids in the world can put together a great plan with no bearing on reality.

So I came up with the idea of a “Lean Launchpad.” It’s been picked up by various universities and the US government. The Lean Launchpad says: We don’t care about your initial hypotheses. The hypothesis is just a thought. The safest bets are probably all wrong. Your initial guess about customer and price are going to be wrong. About 950 of the 1000 best start-ups don’t execute their first plan.

The old process — Does you hypothesis seem good? Here’s a grade. — is great for professors because we can grade it. In my class, you test these hypotheses. You talk to 15 customers a day. You’re doing constant iterations. Every once in a while, you come up against the facts just don’t match. That major change is called the pivot.

A pivot sounds terrifying for a team that put months and thousands of hours into executing what they thought was a great idea.

It is scary. But embracing the pivot is neat way to look at things. In the old days, we fired the VP of sales and the VP marketing if the plan didn’t work. Our thinking is, don’t fire the people first. Fire the plan first. Your first start-up ideas are just guesses you pulled out of somewhere. They’re probably wrong. The new way to teach is as hypothesis-testing.

Why Airport Security Is Broken — And How to Fix It

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Kip Hawley knows that airport security is broken, because he headed the TSA for years, and now he suggests how to fix it:

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings—such as guns, toxins and explosive devices—it is time to end the TSA’s use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an “Easter-egg hunt” mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.

2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable: No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability. TSA officers should have more discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports. And TSA’s leaders must be prepared to support initiative even when officers make mistakes. Currently, independence on the ground is more likely to lead to discipline than reward.

4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.

5. Randomize security: Predictability is deadly. Banned-item lists, rigid protocols—if terrorists know what to expect at the airport, they have a greater chance of evading our system.

Apparently he didn’t have the political capital to get any of that done while he was “heading” the Transportation Security Administration.


Monday, April 16th, 2012

In modern use, scot-free means free of penalties — he got off scot-free — but that’s not quite what it originally meant:


From Old Norse skot, later influenced by Old French escot (Modern écot), itself of Germanic origin. Compare shot.

(UK, historical) A local tax, paid originally to the lord or ruler and later to a sheriff.

I can’t remember the last time we got off scot-free.