Friday, June 22, 2007

Keys to the Kingdom

Several years ago, whilst on a holiday to florida, I took my mum on a backstage visit to Walt Disney World. It was shockingly expensive (although not so bad now at $60), but for me it was worth every penny to see behind the mirror.

Along the way, we were allowed to pick up cards called "7 Guest service Guidelines" I reproduce them here.

-Be Happy...make eye contact and smile!

-Be like Sneezy...greet and welcome each and every guest.Spread the spirit of hospitality...It's contagious!

-Don't be out Guest contact!

-Be like Doc...provide immediate service recovery!

-Don't be Grumpy...always display appropriate body language at all times!

-Be like Sleepy...create DREAMS and preserve the "MAGICAL" Guest experience!

-Don't be Dopey...think each and every Guest!

Little Chef take note.

(Crossposted from my Blog)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nourishing African Obscurity

In the spirit of finding blogs that few people have heard of may I present to you the Malawi Windmill Blogger. The blogger, a gentleman by the name of William Kamkwamba, has become a blogger because he built a windmill generator out of scrap for the family farmat the age of 14. He followed instructions from a book. "I tried it and I made it," he said to a standing ovation at the TEDGlobal 2007 conference in Arusha Tanzania.

This all comes (including some of the phasing because I'm lazy) from the excellent Meskel Square blog run by a Reuters journalist in Addis Ababa. The journalist is apparently now moving to Sudan because his wife, a journalist for the BBC, has been posted there and he has decided to follow.

Amongst the recent posts at Meskel Square as his coverage of TEDGlobal 2007. It is well worth reading the whole hting but I think the key is this part where he explains how different TED was to the usual bureaucratic development conference in Africa:

So how does that differ from a typical tech conference here on the continent? Picture any of a dozen that have been hosted in Addis Ababa's UN complex or African Union HQ over the past year or so. Imagine a parade of government officials and state-appointed telecoms execs spouting phony African proverbs and development platitudes. At the last one I went to, the keynote speaker spent an hour going through his ten priorities for African development – "Last but not least let us remember the need for capacity building...". At the one before that, the event only came to life once a day after lunch, as people rushed to the front desk to receive their DSAs (daily subsistence allowances – the lifeblood of any UN-funded conference circuit).

The difference between all that and what happened in Arusha was best summed up by TEDGlobal speaker and Africa Unchained author George Ayittey when he talked about:

The Cheetah Generation - made up of the youth, specifically the TED Fellows present here, the saviors of Africa who are not going to wait for government and aid organizations to do things for them.

The Hippo Generation - the current political and business leaders who are happy to wallow in their water holes, complaining about colonialism and poverty, but doing nothing about it. [Thank you White African for the summary.]

I have only ever attended conferences with hippos on the centre stage. Arusha was full of cheetahs. There was barely a government official in sight – apart from Tanzania's president Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete who rushed in on the last day, mesmerising the crowd with his diamond-studded watch. I only heard the phrase "capacity-building" mentioned once, and I am sure that was a slip of the tongue.

(Cross posted from my own blog)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Laying Off the Sauce (er, Book)

I just woke up from a deep sleep of about three hours. I've spent the entire day (after working, of course) reading Robert Fisk's book, The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East. I got the book as a Christmas present and have finally had some time to read it, really read it. I'm on the chapter right now about the end of the Iraq-Iran War. In the previous chapter, Fisk was describing the trains the Iranians used to bring back to the cities victims of chemical attacks and ship new soldiers out to the front. Well, in my dream (among many other things), I dreamt I was on a train talking with the mother of my ex-girlfriend and my sister of all people. The train suddenly came to a stop when I realized my wallet and Oakley sunglasses were on the tracks and about to be run over. I woke up with my arm outstretched in the air (no, not from stretching, literally outstretched) as if trying to stop something from happening. Yeah, I need to stop reading this book for a bit.

Shading Obscurity

I said I would put something up for James but it seems that there is no shortage of guest posters...

So, in a Welshcakes moment, here is a picture of one of the Pancakes my lad gave me on Fathers Day.

Thanks Son.


Israeli planes, tanks hit Gaza

By DIAA HADID, Associated Press Writer
15 minutes ago

EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip - Israel fired missiles and sent tanks on a foray into Gaza on Wednesday, killing four Palestinians in the deadliest military action since Hamas militants took control of the coastal strip.

At the same time, Israel eased restrictions on travel in and out of Gaza, letting in a few seriously ill or wounded Palestinians who had been holed up for days at a fetid border crossing.

A teenager with leukemia and four other Palestinians in need of medical care went through the tunnel at the Erez crossing in Israel, the military said. Israeli officials also authorized entry of all foreign nationals living in Gaza. (link)

Most of the people that read this will blame all this on the evil joos. They will neither look at or care about the context of what is happening to Israel or what has been happening to her since her inception in 1948. To them this will simply be another 'act of aggression' on the peaceful (heh) people of Palestine.

Of course, most people don't realize why they feel that way, but hopefully one day they'll be able to come to grips with the fact that they are against a country defending itself against terrorists and be able to grow from there. Of course, I hold out no hope for most of those people. I feel they will continue to ignore the actual happenings in the Middle East until the 'Palestinians' have fulfilled their 'mandate' to wipe Israel off the map (with ample help from the mad mullahs of Iran).

If that day ever happens, I wonder how many of you will be joyful and how many will realize that you had been rooting for it the whole time?

I probably should

post something on here as I did promise James I would. Don't know why he asked me, to be honest. I have been in something of a foul mood of late, but he laid down the challenge for me to try to get his blog shut down.

Pah. Can't be bothered. I'll tell you why I can't be bothered, shall I? Because my head hurts. People are always telling me that going to the gym is bad for me (except my mother who takes it upon herself to tell me when I have put so much as an ounce of weight on) and I think they may be right. The other week I ended up banging my head on the corner of one of the big wooden locker doors and, since I can't remember much of the rest of that evening besides going to a pub and not drinking alcohol), I was informed that in all likelihood I had knocked myself out.

Things then became worse when I went a bit tardy on the tube on the way to work and ended up in hospital and to kick a girl when she's down, I passed out on Sloane Square when I was wearing my new silk dress. (It was very odd, some guy was running round without his shirt on, but thank you to all the lovely people, whoever you are, who looked after me. And especially to the kind person who gave me a goody bag from the gay pride conference they had just been to. That came in handy during the wait in A&E).

Now I am on horrible tablets that I can't drink on, have constant headaches, can't walk very far unaided and might possibly have to wait weeks to see the neurologist. And Aunty Pat thinks the NHS is in a good state? I waited so long at A&E in a hospital gown with no pillow, no water even though I was thirsty, no pain killers and no chance of seeing a doctor that eventually I discharged myself on the grounds that I would me more comfortable and a lot warmer in my own bed. A health service which is the envy of the world? I don't think so.

I haven't even been able to register with my local GP since I moved house because I don't have a utility bill with my name and address on, since I share a flat, so have to go back to old house when I want to see a doctor. All in all, I am a little bit pissed off. There were lots of terrible things about living in Brussels, like foreign gentlemen of a darker hue regularly trying to drag me into their cars, but their health service was good. I had employee based health insurance and a doctor who I could call up and make an appointment in advance for. I could call up a specialist and make an appointment without having to be referred by my GP and thus save myself weeks of waiting and pain, and, of course, uncertainty.

I am off to Brussels tomorrow even though I am sick and if I do have another funny turn, it may be a blessing in disguise as perhaps I might be able to find out what the bloody hell is wrong with me.

I wish people didn't think a national health service was so good, because quite frankly when you're sick in this country, the waiting around and general hassle of everything makes me a lot sicker than I was to start with.

I'm off to have another sleep now, and if that bloody ice cream van drives past one again, he's getting a corneto up his fundament. Complete with chocolate flake.

Excellent Stem Cell News

In April I wrote a couple of posts about stem cells (and one somewhat indrectly) where I based a good deal of my argument on what was (then) the limit of published scientific knowledge. The critical points were that
  1. We can't tell stem cells from normal ones except by seeing how they behave
  2. Adult stem cells only produce cells for special parts of the body and not generalized ones
Well the Instapundit informs me that point (2) may no longer be true. At TCS there is an article about the researches of Shinya Yamanaka who has now published a couple of papers, includng this one in Nature, that appear to show that adding a few proteins to a stemcell it becomes "pluripotent", i.e. able to generate all types of cells. Critically (and unlike a certain Korean stem cell researcher), the research he published last year has now been reproduced by a different lab so it seems like he has got something right. Of course we are still at the "baby steps" stage of research. Prof Yamanaka has got mouse cells to work and there is, as far as I can tell, some confusion about whether what he has produced are "normal" stem cells or some evil thing that will produce tumors and nothing else. There may also (I'm limited to reading abstracts) be some mystery about why the trick he uses works. If you MUST know what he does is "retroviral introduction of Oct3/4 (also called Pou5f1), Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4, and subsequent selection for Fbx15 (also called Fbxo15) expression" and some colleagues have a paper that may explain why it works.

Now all this is excellent stuff and may well allow us to ditch the idea of human embryo stem cell research, but it seems to me that the TCS article is written by a gentleman who is vehemently against research using human embryonic stem cells so I'm not going to take his word for it. Why do I think that you ask? well phrases like the one I quote below seem to be a tad hyperbolic:

Will this disruptive technology open up ethical avenues in the promising field of stem cell research, avenues which do not involve turning women into battery hens for their eggs and destroying embryos?

I also suspect that, contrary to what the article implies, researchers would greatly prefer to use processed adult stem cells to embryonic ones if they can. One good reason why is that it will be very very easy for researchers to get adult human stem cells, from for example a piece of skin or flesh from a biopsy, and they will therefore be far more numerous and varied, becasue to put it simply every researcher can get his own from himself, and hence discoveries will be less likely to be flukes and more likely to work with all humans and not just some. But the bad news is that until we understand why retroviral insertion of Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4 works (and for that matter whether the same proteins work in human stem cells) we can never be sure that such modification is in fact safe. On the other hand the related positive news is that this may hold out the possibility that we figure out not just why adult stem cells aren't as flexible but also how stem cells differ from normal ones so that we can make every cell in a biopsy a stem cell.
(xposted at my own blog)

The Immigrant Experience

I don't know why, but James has invited me to post something during his blog hiatus. I guess he thinks something is better than nothing, which in my case remains to be seen. Of course he's worried about the retention of his fan base and if I can't keep you here, even drive you to click on, maybe some of the other guest bloggers will perk your interest.

Who am I, you ask? I'm a "little old lady", retired from hospital pharmacy, some years ago. I write a very obscure blog called, Nobody Important, which James has been kind enough to highlight on occasion here. I wrote this post very early in my blogging career and I hope you find it interesting enough to keep on reading.

James wrote a post about Immigration in April and he certainly set the cat among the pigeons, with lots of heated comments as a result. This is a gentler post about my experience as an immigrant.


Emigrant, a person who leaves one's own country to settle in another.

Immigrant, a person who comes to reside permanently in a country other than one's native land.

The fact is that the emigrant and the immigrant are the same person.

The one departs from his homeland with great sorrow and regret, leaving behind family and friends. For whatever reasons he leaves, the sorrow and regret are felt, for this is the land of his birth. No matter that perhaps life there has become intolerable. No matter that perhaps the reasons for leaving are happy ones: to join a loved one in another country; to take advantage of a better job; for a better business opportunity; better education opportunities. There is still sorrow and regret.

The other arrives with great hope and expectations for a better life, or at least a different life. New challenges have to be met, involving jobs, housing, cultural differences, religious differences, language difficulties, maybe even racial differences. To be met with hope and excitement.

Yes, this is one and the same person, an emigrant as well as an immigrant who feels both the sorrow and the hope.

I am an immigrant.
I am the daughter of an immigrant.
I am married to an immigrant.
I am the mother of an immigrant.
I am the mother-in-law of an immigrant.
I was the daughter-in-law of an immigrant.
Ninety percent of my friends are immigrants.
For more than 45 years the immigrant experience has been my world.

I, the Australian daughter of a Scottish immigrant to Australia, immigrated to Canada with my Australian husband, whose father had emigrated from New Zealand to Australia. We came, after a two year stay in England, so that he could take a position as a university professor. We really hoped to return to Australia after two years, however we stayed here instead. We had none of the difficulties faced by so many immigrants. Yes there were minor cultural differences and we used different words for some things, like petrol for gas, but still English words. We settled in immediately.

Luckily for us, since Vancouver is such a young city, even the Canadians we met were from the Prairies or Eastern Canada. Very few people our age had family here, so we became each other's families. We had no one else and we relied on each other totally. The most incredible bonds were forged, maybe even stronger than familial bonds because we didn't have the emotional baggage that many families carried. My family has celebrated Christmas with the same Scottish family for more than 40 years. My friends are Scottish, New Zealander, Hungarian, English, Welsh, Spanish, French, Chinese, German, American, Russian, Czechoslovakian, Japanese, and yes, there are even some Canadians.

We all left our homes and families and settled in Canada. Here we established new families and new friends. Yes we are proud Canadians, but we'll always be Australian, Scottish, New Zealander, and so on. But to my mind, the greatest thing that has come out of this immigrant experience is the tolerance we have learned to have for each other.

Sixteen years ago, my daughter left Canada to do graduate studies in the USA. Ten years ago, she married an Italian who had come to do graduate work there, as she had. They have settled in the States and have a daughter. Where will she finally settle? She has three citizenships, American, Canadian, Italian. Unfortunately my daughter, herself a dual citizen, Canadian and Australian, was unable to pass on the Australian citizenship for technical reasons.

Our immigrant line may well continue into the fourth generation, for this is the reality of the world of today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


James often posts about climate change and, back in Cardiff, I had definite proof that it was happening - with a little help from the Cardiff Bay people, admittedly. Few Cardiffians would argue that the development of the Cardiff Bay area has not been a good thing: this area, once the world's foremost coal port, became, with the end of the "golden age" of coal, a run-down, seedy district where you could not walk safely at night. Now people pay up to half a million sterling for an apartment there in which there is not room to swing a cat, there are all sorts of restaurants, people go along there for a stroll at any time of day or night and most Cardiffians are rather proud of it all. My little house was not in the Bay area, but a stone's throw from it and, a few years ago, strange things started to happen: rowan trees started to die in the area, my garden became overrun by frogs [which didn't amuse my dog at all!] midges known as chironomids arrived and - the last straw for me - the ACROBATIC ARACHNIDS took up residence. Here is a copy of a letter I sent to the Cardiff Harbour Authority about three years ago:

Dear Ms N....,


I have just put my wheelie-bin and bags out, a task that has left me virtually hysterical as I have had to battle with a broom past several of the large spiders that have spun hammock-like webs across my garden.

These are no ordinary spiders - I swear they can fly - and they use their webs to loop the loop and then dive-bomb you from the tops of them.

They are resistant to the insect spray that Mr. A.... let me have and their webs are stronger than my clothes-line, speaking of which, I no longer put my washing out, as the spiders think my sheets are trapezes and swing on and from them.

It is no good telling me that spiders won't hurt me or that they will control the wretched chironomids: nothing will convince me of a lack of evil intent on the part of the former and I am just plain scared of them.

Presumably they have been attracted to the area because of the midges? Or have they been introduced into the area as part of the Harbour Authority's attempts to "naturally control" the chironomids? Are they going to metamorphose into tarantulas? The environment has changed so much in this area that nothing would surprise me! [Anyway, they are already tarantulas in my mind!]

I am a city woman who has no desire to commune with nature; I especially do not wish to commune with the arachnidan population; if I did, I would have bought a house in remotest Africa, not urban Grangetown! So please, what can be done about this gothic nightmare and how can I regain the peace of what was always meant to be a city garden?

Yours sincerely,

I copied this email to my Welsh Assembly Member, MP and a local councillor and it got me lots of action in terms of empathy and visits from the Harbour Authority. I think I was supposed to be comforted by the fact that the area had now been declared an "urban wetland"; the problem was that I would never have chosen to live in one!

Marketising universities

From the March archives of the mediocracy blog. Well, James did say I could, and I'm rather fond of this one. It was intended to be a prelude to critically analysing the idea of marketising universities, which a number of pro-marketeers (e.g. Gabriel Rozenberg) seem to favour, and I still hope to get round to that. The point here is that imposing markets in a partial way can do more harm than good.

Now, I think the involvement of the state is a good part of the reason why academia has become mediocratised. And if I was building a university system from scratch, I would keep the state well out of it. But, in practice, any demands for "marketising" starting from here are going to lead to piecemeal stuff — forcing students to take out loans being a good example. And (paradoxically) there is no reason why piecemeal marketisation might not just make the harmful effects of state involvement worse rather than better. As it has probably made things worse for users of the NHS. Free markets are one thing, pseudo-marketisation another. (Note: non-economists may wish to read an earlier post which explains the basics of "perfect competition".)

What does economics have to tell us about how to optimise efficiency, if we cannot achieve PC (perfect competition)? There are two ways of dealing with the "problem of the second best" for policy purposes. The first favours government intervention, the second doesn’t. No prizes for guessing which one is most often stressed in economics courses. (For the avoidance of doubt: the first.)

1) If we had information about the preferences of every individual in the economy, we could calculate what the range of possible optimal states are, given the constraints we have to work with. (Call these states “second-best solutions".) In that case, it might turn out that, if the economy departs from PC in one specific area but is PC elsewhere, we will only be able to get to a second-best solution by departing from PC in other areas as well. In fact, it can be shown that for very simple scenarios, that is the case — i.e. it is better to deviate from perfect competition in all areas rather than just in some.

This is sometimes taken to prove that in certain cases government intervention is better than laissez-faire as a way of generating the best possible outcome, given the constraints. But note that this conclusion depends on knowing everybody’s preferences, which in practice is impossible. The great benefit of the strict-PC model — of being certain that the outcome will be efficient, without having to know anything about people’s preferences — doesn’t apply here.

2) The other way of treating the problem of the second best is to advocate agnosticism. If we don’t have perfect PC conditions and can’t get to them, and we don’t know everyone’s preferences, then we can’t know whether any particular policy change will move things in the direction of greater efficiency. Even if a policy change appears to be moving things in the direction of PC conditions, it might easily result in less overall efficiency.

Now there are two ways to interpret treatment (2), either of which might be appropriate depending on the circumstances.

(2a) One is to be conservative, in the sense of being cautious about doing anything, especially major changes. They might do harm on balance, rather than good. This generates the opposite conclusion to that of (1), in the sense that you should avoid tinkering further with an already imperfect system in case you make it worse.

(2b) The other way to react is to adopt a muddle-through approach, for which there isn’t any strict justification, but which might be the best one can do, on a sort of hopeful common-sense basis. This could be taken to mean, we should try to aim at the nearest thing to PC in all markets, being careful to ensure that we don’t miss out any major areas.

Bottom Line

The one thing second-best theory can definitely tell you is the following: you should be wary of policy changes which involve partial marketisation of a given area. E.g. if the intergenerational market for private capital (= inheritance) is heavily distorted by estate duties, don’t rush to marketise (i.e. remove subsidies from) cultural institutions such as universities or opera houses.

Also — though you don’t really need second-best theory for this — don’t try to impose artificial marketisation, e.g. by making academics or medical professionals try to prove they are generating “value for money”. There is no hard support from economic theory for the idea that anything other than a genuine market (where the genuine end users are able to vote with their wallets) will generate any benefit whatsoever.