Wandering Thoughts

September 27, 2009


Filed under: Aortic Valves,Reactive Arthritis,Surfing — terence @ 6:55 pm

I woke from a God-awful dream. For a little while I just lay there, letting it melt away; leaving the place where anxieties shape reality and returning to the world where they only reflect it. The Southerly was blowing. Listening, I started to go over the plan, born of a mid-week weather map and argued ever since. A Tasman low, a west swell and a reef tucked in out of the wind. My doubts moved across the wind (too strong?), the swell (already gone?) the crowds (everyone knew), before settling on the real issue – my body.

I’d tried surfing three times since surgery and since the arthritis came back. Each effort a mixture of failure and success. In the water, (in the water!), but in aching joints, meaning I could only just get up, slow and awkward, often as not too late to my feet.  This time though, I figured I had an almost solution, I’d started taking Methotrexate on Wednesdays, so as that the full force of the drug would be felt over the weekend. The difference wasn’t huge but it might be the enough to allow me to surf properly.

“Get up and give it a try,” I told myself.

Written now, after the fact, it seems simple enough. Give it a try, and if it doesn’t work, oh well. But as I drove along the weaving road the sea, with nervous internal chatter I managed to pull the problem apart and look at it a hundred ways.

At the ocean’s edge, my doubts were answered one at a time. The swell: small but a perfect size for me. The crowd, mostly just guys milling around in the car-park complaining that the swell wasn’t bigger. And the wind, strong, but ok.

I paddled out on my own, in the channel that ran between the point and the reef itself. Out the back, heart hammering and breathless as ever, I waited for a wave. Behind me, at the head of the valley that tilted down into the bay, a giant white windmill spun, turning the Southerly into electricity with patient sweeps of circling arms. Beyond it, the hurrying sky carried clouds and blue off into the north.

Eventually, a wave came my way and I set my own arms circling, trying to build speed to tap into the steepening slope. Paddling, paddling and then in an instant I had it and reflex took over. To my feet and this time, in time. Slow. Sore. But fast enough and free enough to have me up and off down the line. The swell steepened and walled up and I sped along the face, around the bend of the reef and into the bay, where I coasted over the shoulder and into deeper water.


Behind me, the windmill kept spiralling away. And out to sea another set of waves lifted the shimmering water, and I took protesting arms and constricted lungs and paddled out the back just as fast as I could. So I could catch another. So I could catch as many as possible. Making the most of the window I had.

September 21, 2009

What’s Left

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:34 pm

More jotted notes, sorry…back to the hillsides and horizons stuff soon, I promise!

I’m trying to think my way through a technical, and neutral, definition of left-wing politics. Historically, the left was defined by a concern with equality but I don’t think this is true any more – quite a few on the left would be happy to tolerate inequality if it led to absolute increases in welfare.

So my draft definition would be:

An active concern with the welfare of the less well off, and a belief in the need for collective action to improve the welfare of society’s less well off.

The key distinguishing feature between left and right being the belief in the need for collective action (collective action, not state action so as to include anarchists). It’s not that the Right doesn’t have concern for the less well off, but rather that they’re more sceptical of active collective efforts to improve things.

Obviously, this is all about degree: most centre right parties favour some collective action in the area of improving welfare, but typically it’s less than advocated than by groups to the left of them.

One other type of definition I thought of was that the left tend to argue that actions that appeal to a deontological ethics (sharing, cooperation etc) will lead to better outcomes in a consequentialist sense too. Of course some segments of the right, particularly libertarians, do this as well, with a completely different set of deontological ethics (particularly geared around self-ownership and property rights), but much of the right (classical conservatives, if you will) argues against the deontologically appealing with the claim that it just won’t work.

September 19, 2009

In Defence of Globalisation

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:48 pm

Once upon a time people felt the need to write weighty tomes defending globalisation. If they really wanted to defend it, all they needed to do was this.

(H/T Chris Blattman)

September 13, 2009

District 9 – a really short review

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 10:30 am

For a couple of years I was stalked by the movie Independence Day. People would suggest we go see it at the cinema, I’d stop round to visit friends and they would have just got it on video, I’d get on a plane and it would be in-flight entertainment. Arrgghh. It was insufferable. A long series of cliches and improbabilities held together something a generous observer might mistake for a plot. People called it escapism. Me, stuck watching it again, I just wanted to escape.

Possibly the most grueling element of the movie were the implausibly evil aliens and the flag wavingly fantastic American heroes. On about the third watch, as an antidote I day-dreamed what I figured a more realistic alien encounter movie would look like. For a start we’d be the baddies; the history of human conquest and colonialism makes that pretty likely. And we’d be convincing ourselves we weren’t bad all along, like we’ve always done.

In my day dream movie we, the humans, would be the ones venturing into outer space, made more dangerous than ever with superior technology and interstellar travel. I’d never thought about bringing the aliens here…

…and so I was pretty chuffed by District 9, with it’s alien refugees and realistically detestable humans. It’s an achievement when a movie takes you out of your own collective identity and has you cheering for another race or nationality. It’s an even bigger achievement, I think,  when by the end of District 9 you’re cheering as the lobster-like aliens vaporise human villan after human villan.

Of course, it wasn’t perfect, the plot bulldozed over a quite a few holes. And the portrayal of the Nigerians made me queasy. Surely, a movie set in opposition to xenophobia and simplistic depictions of the Other, could have avoided basing one of its groups of villans on a bunch of stereotypes of Nigerian refugees? Still, the Nigerians are far from the greatest villans in the tale, that title is awarded fairly and squarely to Us, which makes a pleasant change, poor old Them having been tarred with it for so long.

[Update: Here’s a Nigerian who thinks District 9 isn’t racist against Nigerians.]

September 10, 2009

I was wondering as I drove home…

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:10 pm

is William Easterly a kind-of conservative or  a sort-of libertarian. By which I mean, are his objections to aid and planning driven by a cautious conservative incrementalism that recognises the need for collective action but also appreciates its limits and argues that we should work slowly to improve practice and expand the boundaries of what we can successfully do, rather than making large leaps into the unknown (so something vaguely akin to the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott).  Or does he really believe that collective action itself is mostly unnecessary and that we have the answers we need to the problems of the world in the system of free exchange (libertarian, in other words).

Either way he could be right, I’m not using these terms pejoratively here, I’m just curious – both tendencies can be found in his writing at different times.

September 9, 2009

Irrational Reassurance

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:58 pm

Robert Shiller’s talk on behavioural finance at the LSE is worth a listen (you have to scroll down to find it). It’s rambly, but that seems ok; almost the right tone for a talk on the less rational aspects of economic behaviour.

Listening to it, it seems to me that you there’s a very plausible argument to say that the bank bailouts and stimulus package worked, not just because they freed up capital flows and pumped money into the economy but also because they reassured people that there was something that could be done. And would be done. And that reassurance changed behaviors from the types perpetuating the economic unravelling (cinema, smoke, I’m heading for the door!), to types that slowly started to counter it.


On this theory everything could still go belly up if people were to lose confidence in the ability of governments to act. If they were confronted with government failures to match the market ones we’ve just seen.


Meanwhile, being pessimistic, if the worst of the GFC is behind us, presumably we’ll be shortly returning to the other crisis it interrupted – commodity shortages. Not to mention the climate crisis on its way…

September 6, 2009

War, Aid and Photos

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 5:18 pm
Tags: ,

William Easterly now has his own watch site, which might be interesting. Although I reckon they should have called themselves Aid Watch Watch.

Meanwhile, Easterly’s co-blogger Laura Freschi has a post taking MSF to task for an advertising video.

Ignoring the specifics of the MSF add, there is an interesting more general debate to be had about the use of images in fund-raising. One which development NGOs have been having for a long time. At its heart is the question “is it right to use advertising images of people in developing countries that perpetuate (unfair) stereotypes of utterly dysfunctional countries and desperate, passive poor people waiting for our help?”

Here’s the dilemma: assume that these sorts of images are very effective in raising money (their continuing presence suggests they are) and assume that the money is put to good use.

The question you then have to answer is, “is that good overcome by the harm caused by the adds?”

This question itself has two parts:

1. Do these adds really do much to shape people’s perspectives of the lives of the poor in developing countries?

2. And, if they do, does that really matter? I.e. is any real, significant, tangible harm done.

On question 1, I think the answer is probably yes, but it’s arguable whether the impact is significant when added to the impact of ongoing media reporting of bad news from developing countries.

On question 2, I really don’t  know: if middle New Zealand had a more accurate understanding of the lives of the poor in developing countries would that change much? Maybe some of our policies towards these countries might alter, maybe? And would that have an impact? Potentially, I guess.

Of course, if you’re talking about the USA or Europe, the impact of changed policies would potentially be much larger. But even then you have to ask what policy changes are currently being hampered currently by stereotypes?

I don’t have the answers but that is what the debate is about. Because if the adds do no real harm, then you’d have to say the good done through the money raised makes them ok, at least from a consequentialist standpoint.

September 2, 2009

Utopian Thinking for Development Folk

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 8:27 pm

Development work is arguably the death of utopianism. You enter it wanting to save the world, after a few years you’re just happy if your spreadsheets reconcile.

More seriously, development is a business of enforced pragmatism, compromise and incremental change – there isn’t that much room for dreaming of utopia. Nevertheless, Erik Olin Wright’s guidelines for utopian thinking provide a useful schema for development thought.

Wright suggests thinking about Utopias in terms of desirability; viability; and achievablity.

Is your utopia desirable – i.e. would it actually be a nice place.

It it viable – that is, would it ever work – would the constraints of human nature ever allow it to exist.

And is it achievable – could we ever get there from here.

Something similar works for development:

In the case of desirable – you can ask ‘what do you really want from development?’ What will the end goal look like if everything goes well? Is it simply material wealth; or human development; or are you unsatisfied with these and seek one of the alternative developments the post-development people talk about. Maybe you think development is an undesirable objective full stop.

So ‘desirable’ is treated more or less the same. But viable and achievable are shifted from descriptive criteria to questions about change.

In the place of viable – what you really want to ask is: what does country/region/community X need to do to get to this desirable state? What needs to change?

And in place of achievable, what you want to ask is what can we as external agents do to contribute to what is needed. It’s this last question that is, I think, the real kicker for aid agencies. It’s not that hard to envisage what a better development state might look like for most places; its also not that hard to describe what needs to change. It’s much, much harder to outline just what you can realistically do to bring about this change.

Ok – enough rambling for the evening…

September 1, 2009

Efficiency of What

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 9:03 pm
Tags: , , ,

More random musings…

When economists talk about efficiency, whether they know it or not, what they’re really talking about is efficiency of Utility (well being, happiness, or something similar). While it’s easier, and often a necessary approximation, to think of efficiency in terms of dollars and cents, doing so is meaningless on its own. It needs to be anchored eventually back to welfare.

Following from this, the point I take from Michael Sandel’s first Reith Lecture (well worth a listen; don’t let my rambling put you off) is that, while markets are quite efficient at some things, seeking to extend them into parts of society that have traditionally been the domain of impulses other than self-interest weakens the moral bonds that govern these spheres, and risks undermining social capital.

[Update: Continued the next night] And undermining social capital can reduce people’s well being. Or, to put it another way: if you get to fixated on dollar and cents efficiency and start expanding the reach of markets into moral realms you’ll ultimately undermine efficiency of Utility.

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