Monday, December 29, 2003

OK, here I am in the hotel cybercafe in La Paz, second try to post something as the stupid browser lost this morning´s diatribe :-(

First impression, as the plane cames into land, is that this is the least inviting place on earth. We approached the airport over, and then through, oppressively low gray clouds, over impoverished looking farms and a landscape that accomplished the clever trick of appearing both arid and damp at the same time.

We landed in drizzle, with foggy wisps of cloud gusting past at ground level. The airport small but the usual bureaucracy. As the lugage came off the conveyer, my friend Medina discovered his sandals had been swiped from his rucksack in transit.

Outside it was raining hard, and we got a minibus into the city. Our rucksacks, on top, got wetter. The airport is high above the city (as it's hard to get a plane down into the crater!) so we drove down, past the favela-like suburbs of the poor. The poor live on the heights where it´s colder and there´s less oxygen. Which demonstrates that even fresh-air has been succesfully grabbed by the rich and turned into a luxury.

Second impression : what a miserable, god-forsaken hole.

There´s a rumour that the indigenous people piss and defecate in the streets here. And that this gives the people and place a characteristic earthy smell. Some of my friends find this a charming rejection of modern social conventions, but I´m traumatically disgusted as I have to splash through the dark grey rivulets of slurry in the streets. It´s only the cold that prevents a major public health disaster. Or maybe the whole thing´s a slanderous, out-of-date stereotype.

Still, the hotel is good. With hot water. And after the rain stops, walking in the streets I start to get a more positive impression. There are comfortable cafes and tasty food. Many shops selling brightly coloured (warm) clothes and local crafts, panpipes, masks, and CDs of local music. My companions stock up on alpacca jumpers and fleeces.

There are also stalls selling a mixture of sweets and mummified llama foetuses (good luck to have in your house, apparently) With the occasional dried cat and bowl of dead frogs.

We´re all drinking coca tea to help resist the altitude sickness. It´s 3600 metres above sea-level here. At the moment Í haven´t felt much effect apart from bouts of sleepyness. (Not unlike when I was 20% underoxygenated due to sleep apneia) But some of my companions are suffering headaches and feeling worse.

OK, that´s it for now. Tomorrow I´ll probably be in love with the place.

Update : Medina was wrong, wasn't sandals but pyjamas.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Right, I'm off to Bolivia (and then Peru, Chile and Argentina)

I'll blog from a cybercafe if I get the chance. Otherwise, normal services will be resumed mid-January.

Friday, December 26, 2003

David Sifry : A brand new weblog is created every 11 seconds

Sifry's Alerts: Technorati Growing Pains

Good Pilger on Afghanistan (via the saddly unupdated Robot Wisdom)

Guardian Unlimited | What good friends left behind

But Professor Colin Pillinger said he had faith it had landed safely, adding: 'We will hang on testing and waiting.'
He told a press conference on Boxing Day the robotic probe was programmed to make several more transmissions in the coming days.

BBC NEWS | Beagle team 'not giving up yet'
Today I posted this on the Alternative Money and Economics Tribe

Michael, you ask three questions :

1) how do you define poor?

2) what are the necessary conditions for creating new wealth?

3) Why do people in Hong Kong earn 10 times as much as people in China?

Well, to take 3) first, maybe people in Hong Kong earn 10 times as much as people in China because people in China earn only a tenth of the Hong Kong salary.

I'm interested in your reaction to this quote. (Assuming it's true.)

Multinational companies sourcing production in China are having an enormous impact on the global economy, lowering wages and rolling back labor rights. Workers in China assembling healthcare products for companies such as Viva and Sport-Elec are being forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week (with just 12 days off a year) for 16 cents an hour. There is no overtime premium. The workers have no health insurance and no pensions. If they try to organize, they will be fired, perhaps even beaten and imprisoned.

Now we can agree that it doesn't matter if the (arbitrary) value on the wage-slip seems to be falling, as long as the price of what you need is going down as fast or faster. Sure, a number is meaningless. But it seems that with this race to the bottom it's not just the number on the pay-slip. It's conditions of work which are getting worse.

So, one way I'd define 'poor' is not merely that low number on your pay-slip, but a position of economic disempowerment, where you are obliged to take lousy jobs, with long, hard and abusive conditions *because* those are the best of the lousy options available to you.

When I say poverty is increasing, I don't mean just wages going down, but that this group of poor and disempowered people is *growing*. More lower-middle class Westerners are falling into it as they lose permanent jobs and have to take on less secure, lower-paid, temporary jobs. And more third-world farmers are losing their livelihoods and land (due to competition from heavily industrialized and government subsidized Western farmers) and are being pushed into it. Once again, it wouldn't matter if the poor farmers were just freely choosing to exchange hard, unrewarding work on the land for hardish, slightly better paid work in factories. But they aren't. They are really being *pushed* by the market. (And by governments that tolerate rich groups enclosing land. Last week my friend here in Brazil went to look at a slot in a condominium which was built illegally on previously common land less than 10 years ago. The government or other authorities are unlikely to do anything about this theft, although the enclosed land contains 3 rivers and many fruit trees. Before the enclosure that fruit would have been available to anyone who decided to go and pick it.)

So let's get to the second question. Is all this, perhaps, worth it? Do we need this kind of crap exploitative economic system to create wealth and progess in society?

I don't see why.

Between the late 40s and early 70s, under a roughly Keynsian consensus, and where centre-left governments often pushed for improvements in Labor protection, we saw plenty of technological innovation. Scientists and inventors are as much motivated by curiosity and acclaim as they are by wealth. And capitalism could function perfectly well to create new industries and millionaires, despite the greater government restriction. So clearly innovation and wealth can be created without extreme exploitation.
US using social software to track terrorists

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Eastbourne Pagan Circle - Lammas fayre
Reason for optimism or wishful thinking?

Visioning Brasil 2020

What the hell is an evolutionary economist anyway?

Update: This is interesting though :
Today I'm ranting about scientific responsibility on Tribe.

So a scientist can have a social conscience. A scientist *should* have a social conscience, to the same extent you, I and the milkman have a social conscience. But I think if you try to argue she should have *more* responsibility than other people, this can *only* be exercised by either self-censorship, or by society granting an unwarranted authority to the scientist's moral and political opinions.

Tribe:Between Boredom and Chaos

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Recently reading A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet

I like Peter Burke, a historian who looks at knowledge in many contexts : technological, economic and political. Here he describes the rise of the print media, showing the interaction with the continuance of other media (such as oral communication, handwritten letters, wood-cuts, religious paintings, statues, processions, medals etc.)

All fascinating stuff, and good to compare to discussions about blogs, wikis, social networking etc. and makes me think about their interactions with current events.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Good news ... I have an internet connection again.

Bad news ... ordinary phone line, non-flat rate. Boo!

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Java slowly edging towards Perl world

according to Graham


The new language features all have one thing in common: they take some common idiom and provide linguistic support for it. In other words, they shift the responsibility for writing the boilerplate code from the programmer to the compiler. Because the source code is now free of this boilerplate, it's easier to write and read. Because the compiler, unlike the programmer, never makes mistakes, the resulting code is also more likely to be free of bugs.

After reading this, Sun really are starting to get it. What's going on? Realizing how clunky Java is? Fear of C#?

These are great changes :

  • Generics : Finally!
  • Enhanced for : basically a "for each X in collection" operation. Finally!
  • Autoboxing : automatic type conversion between Integer and integer. Finally!
  • Typesafe enums : Enums that look like C++. Good. In fact I've been using Visual Basic recently, and somthing that's really jumped out at me is how handy a decent enum is. But this looks a lot more ambitious. I'd like to try it out. (Although that would mean writing Java again. :-(
  • Static import : One step closer to multiple inheritance ;-)
  • Metadata : Code generation is always handy, but let's see the tools ...

Still no internet connection at the moment (thanks to Brasil Telecom incompetence!), so only online on borrowed machines ...

Finally got some time to run a couple of Optimaes experiments last week. Results are here :

Basically it's just looking at what happens when you increase the size of your social network in gift, barter and money economies. Executive summary : both gift and money economies seem to benefit from increasing social network size, barter economies don't. But I can't see any principled reasons for this. Maybe it's an artifact of the model :-(

All comments wecome on the wiki ...

Sunday, December 07, 2003

OK, I haven't vanished off the face of the earth. But no internet connection.

Bloody BrasilTelecom!