Monthly Archives: July 2007

Earth Abides

I’ve just bought my copy of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. He had the great idea to imagine what happens to the Earth if humanity vanishes.

I’ve been surprised that none of the reviews I’ve read have mentioned George Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s a brilliant fictional account along the lines of what Weisman is trying to approach scientifically. What’s startling about Stewart’s work is that it was written in 1949, before environmental thinking became common currency. Although I read it a few years ago, before I became a Berkeleyite, it’s also wonderful that the book is set in the Berkeley hills, although I don’t think Berkeley is ever quite named in the book.

Weisman, incidentally, does credit Stewart in his bibliography. And the book clearly had an impact on him. Here’s the final line of his acknowledgments: “Without us, Earth will abide and endure; without her, however, we could not even be.”

Honk if you love Jesus: who knew?

On the way to my son’s karate practice over the weekend, we heard a great song during one of the breaks on Car Talk (certainly the most unlikely idea for a great radio program). The country and western lyrics were about seeing a car with a “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker. The requested honk, however, produces an unlikely reaction: “I was just flipped off by a silver-haired old lady,” is the crucial part of the lyric.

Today I tried to find the song. So I Googled “honk if you love Jesus” and “flipped me off” (not my usual search, but my kids were hugely amused by the song). No song resulted, but it turns out that the song probably resulted from a real experience. It seems lots of people have been “flipped off” by people with those Jesus bumper stickers.

As to my music hunt, fortunately Car Talk itself has a helpful page with details of all their car-related songs. The song I wanted was “I was just flipped off by a silver-haired old lady with a ‘Honk if you love Jesus” sticker on the bumper of her car” by the wonderfully named Antsy McClain and the Trailerpark Troubadors. Lo and behold, Antsy McClain writes that it’s based on a true story. Here are the lyrics in full:

I was feeling pretty Christian, I was loving all my neighbors,
When I saw that bumper sticker there, I didn’t think twice.
My hand went for my horn, And I pushed it with conviction.
When I saw that lady’s finger, It almost put my heart on ice.

And it makes me want to cry, But I may never have the gumption now
To read those one line sermons In bright yellow, black and white.
I’ve been buoyed up so many times While stuck in rush hour traffic,
And forgive me Lord, for saying, But my faith is weak tonight.

You say, ‘Maybe it’s a rental. She could be the second owner.
She could be a Godless sinner In a loaner from a friend.’
While that helps (I do feel better), I just can’t help but see it
As a sign the world is doomed, And we’re that much closer to The End.

You can even watch the video!

[youtube 4JaZNkjPiHM]

Getting priorities straight

The New York Review of Books remains essential reading. Michael Tomasky reviews the two recent biographies of Hillary Clinton and makes the point everyone else has missed:

Carl Bernstein, in A Woman in Charge, and Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., in Her Way, want to relive the controversies of the Clinton White House. After an unprovoked war built on lies, the deaths of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, illegal domestic spying, government-sanctioned torture, the indefinite incarceration of suspects, a scandal surrounding efforts by the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to install prosecutors willing to undertake blatantly political prosecutions, and astonishing tales of congressional corruption, is it not at least demeaning and superfluous to be presented with one-thousand-plus pages revisiting such questions as how many hours of billable work Hillary Clinton actually performed for Madison Guaranty? It might not be, if we learned useful new information, about both the Clinton presidency and Hillary’s more recent record in the Senate. But A Woman in Charge and Her Way—the former sometimes by intent, the latter almost always inadvertently—tell us less about Mrs. Clinton than they do about the political and journalistic cultures that allowed hysteria about the Clintons to thrive.

Turnabout is fair play

The Financial Times’ Chrystia Freeland interviewed Knut Kjaer, who runs Norway’s massive public investment corporation, NBIM. NBIM manages $350 billion — the bounty of Norway’s North Sea oil — and has an explicitly ethical investment stance. Two parts of the interview were particularly striking. NBIM excluded Wal-Mart from its holdings because of ethics. That sparked this exchange:

When you first excluded Wal-Mart, it didn’t initially respond. Are you starting to get quicker reactions from companies now?
What we did before the decision – and this is standard procedure – we [gave] the company the draft report from the Ethical Council. We sent it to Wal-Mart and I got one of my lawyers to call them for many days, saying that this is very important that you respond.

You phoned them in Bentonville?
Yes, yes. We called for many days, saying this is important for you, this is your chance to give your version.

And your lawyer spoke to people there?
Yes, but they didn’t listen.

Were you surprised by that?
Yes, I was.

That’s entirely consistent with the Wal-Mart portrayed in Charles Fishman’s The Wal-Mart Effect. The hermetic world of Bentonville obviously extends to shareholders.

Less significant, although quite delicious, was this exchange between Freeland and Kjaer:

Do you personally ever feel underpaid?
I don’t and, you know, if you feel underpaid you should quit.

And how much was your salary last year?
Less than $500,000. What’s your salary?

Can I say no comment? I am not running a public fund.
OK, but the press asks me to be more open than the press are.

It’s a fair question. But certainly by fund management standards that’s incredibly modest.
That’s your comment.

It seems clear to me that Kjaer should start a blog.

Recent reading

I can highly recommend two books that I finished recently.

Charles Fishman’s The Wal-Mart Effect stands for the moment as the definitive treatment of one of the world’s key economic actors. When I was reading The Wal-Mart Effect, I rather annoyingly interrupted my wife every few pages to share with her some amazing fact. The percentage of P&G’s sales that go to Wal-Mart. The ubiquity of Wal-Marts in the US (I am apparently one of the few Americans never to have stepped inside a Wal-Mart). The severely Spartan ethos of headquarters. And on and on.

What Fishman does so well is to take a behemoth as controversial as Wal-Mart and present what I consider a balanced view. You cannot read Fishman without marveling and admiring Wal-Mart’s logistical and retailing genius. You also cannot read Fishman without being appalled at Wal-Mart’s blindness to the impacts of its decisions. Is Wal-Mart good or bad? Yes, is Fishman’s answer, and he manages the adroit trick of that not seeming a cop-out. I will make that trip to Wal-Mart one day – for sociological reasons – but after reading Fishman I’m certain that I’ll be both amazed and appalled.

My other recent read, The Economic Naturalist, by Robert Frank, does a better job of helping readers understand key economic concepts than The Undercover Economist, which I also enjoyed. Frank’s contention that most people learn best through storytelling is certainly right, and I found his series of everyday questions and answers guided by economic principles both entertaining and instructive. It’s clear that Frank’s book won’t become a bestseller like Freakonomics (it’s currently 516th on, which isn’t shabby, but the revised edition of Freakonomics – two years after the original publication – is 39th), but it’s more deserving than the Levitt and Dubner blockbuster.

China's environmental deaths

Today’s Financial Times has an important scoop. A World Bank report, Cost of Pollution in China, was heavily amended because of Chinese government fears that it could cause “social unrest”. The draft report originally contained estimates of the number of deaths annually caused by pollution in China.

Based on an epidemiological model used by the World Health Organisation, the report found that about 750,000 people die early every year in China because of the filthy air and water.

The officials in China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and health ministry who vetoed the publication of the report’s full findings may have been most disturbed by a map accompanying the findings.

This gave a detailed regional breakdown of the deaths, with most clustered in China’s coal-belt in the north-west.

But, according to an adviser to the study, the World Bank was told by Chinese officials that it could not publish the information because it was deemed too sensitive and could thus cause “social unrest”.

I understand that multilateral institutions like the World Bank can only operate and do their research with the cooperation on governments. So what strikes me about the story is not the suppression of the results – given the opacity of so much in China, that’s unremarkable. It’s the scale of the pollution problem and the deaths it is causing.

According to the FT, high air pollution levels in Chinese cities are causing premature deaths of 350,000-400,000 people each year. A further 300,000 die prematurely because of poor air indoors. Another 60,000 die prematurely because of poor water quality. The World Bank had already determined in previous research that China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

Here’s another striking data point from the FT:

To calculate levels of air pollution, the biggest killer, the report uses the globally recognised measure – which looks at the concentration of particulates measuring less than or equal to 10 microns per cubic metre of air.

Only 1 per cent of Chinese urban residents live in cities with concentrations of such particulate matter below 40 microgrammes per cubic metre of air. The WHO guideline sets the bar at 20 microgrammes.

That’s after some success in recent years to improve air quality in China’s cities.

Cultivate your orchids

Edward Rothstein in The New York Times:

I also don’t idealize the idolatry that once enshrined the long 19th century of music (roughly 1785-1915) that forms the heart of the Western art-music tradition. But it is astonishing how little is now sensed about what might well be lost with it. And traditions do come to an end. The reading of ancient Greek and Latin — once the center of an educated person’s life — now seems as rarefied as the cultivation of exotic orchids.

I may be falling into the ranks of the guilty, since my children aren’t particularly being inculcated with the love for classical music that I developed as a child (nor do I see any sign of their following my interest in ancient Greek). I was largely self-motivated to explore classical music, although when the passion manifested itself, my parents thoroughly indulged it.

It’s conceivable that one or both of my sons may catch on. I need to see if some more Schubert and Stravinsky can be tolerated over the strains of World of Warcraft.