Battlepanda: October 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The little airforce that couldn't

This is sad. Just sad. A Korean tanker carrying benzine capsized in the seas near Taiwan. The Taiwanese airforce was unleashed to try and sink the vessel before too much poisonous benzine gas is released into the air. You'd think two F-16s and two AH-1W Super Cobra helicoptors would get the job done, considering how the target was completely immobile, being a tanker, frickin' huge. But no.

If China really wanted to invade Taiwan for some reason, they could probably overpower the Taiwanese military with a butter knife. Crap.

(This post is bought to you by Battlepanda, a Taiwanese/American blogger in London, who got the link via Rob Farley at Lawyer, Guns and Money who got it from the Budding Sinologist at MeiZongTai who got it from NorthSouthEastWest who got the original story from the Taipei Times. Phew, how's that for blog globalization.)

Born-again virgins, Chinese style

A reminder that things are often weird in Asia and NorthSouthEastWest is worth reading:
So it will comes as no surprise that fake virgins have come into being. Take a look around in China. Most of the hospitals and clinics offer "hymen repair surgery." Even cosmeticians and underground doctors offer the service. Medically, this is a simple process that is no different from stitching together a skin surface tear. This is a simple surgical procedure that should take about 40 minutes and the patients can move around immediately afterwards. The cost of the procedure is usually between 1,000 to 3,000 RMB. This is a simple procedure with a huge profit margin, and that is why hospitals are delighted to offer it.

According to one doctor, he began offering the service in 1997 and he has treated more than 1,000 cases. All of them are females younger than 30 years old, including a 16-year-old. The "re-created virgin" service emerged several years ago in Beijing and Shanghai, and it is now present in many cities around the country. One Guangzhou hospital conducted more than 300 operations last year.

Too cheap to shell out for an operation? Get your virtue back at rock bottom prices with an artificial hymen:
* "Your virginity back in 5 minutes"
* "The product of high-technology! Your unspeakable secret will be erased!"
* "Get your virginity back for 260 RMB!"
* "No surgery, no shots, no medicine, no side-effects. Only 260 RMB!"

The user instructions remind people that "When the time goes, please remember to act like you are a virgin!"

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And to think in the U.S. all you'd need is a silver ring thing

What can't go on for ever...

The Brits are also riding on the roller-coaster of a housing-fueled spending frenzy on credit. They're a little ahead of us on the curve though, so expect to get a dose of what they're getting now shortly in the United States. Their property bubble has definitely sprung a leak, and the combination of mounting debt and shrinking equity has curbed their consumers' free-spending ways. The following excerpt is from a New Statesman article by Liam Halligan:

Britain's personal debt burden recently topped 1 trillion pounds (that's 1 followed by 12 zeros), and, while the bulk of that is morgages, more than a fifth is unsecured debt -- on credit cards and personal loans.(...) Consumer bankruptcies have hit record levels. New official figures show individual insolvencies up 37 per cent on 2004...Millions of households have sunk into debt on the expectation that property prices will keep rising. But prices have fallen for 14 months in a row. The danger is that, as our economy slows and unemployment rises, mortgage defaults will go up. House prices could then fall more rapidly, possibly sparking an early-1990s style crash...Middle England's debt burden is likely to drain household incomes, acting as a drag-anchor on our economy for many years to come. As the realisation sinks in, British consumers -- up to their necks in debt -- are opting to consume much less. By doing so, they areseriously undermining the single most important factor driving the growth of the British economy. And that affects us all, indebted or not.
"I look at people on the high street," says Sam Drew, "and wonder how many others are in too deep. There are millions out there like me. We've become so used to living beyond our means we're now in a debt pandemic."

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Morality for businesses

Mark Kleiman has put his finger on why business cannot be excused from behaving morally (as opposed to merely maximizing shareholder profits) much better than I tried to.

Failing to maximize profits out of private moral concerns is like giving that money away. If corporate officers want to be charitable, says Friedman, let them do it out of their own bank accounts, not their shareholders'. After all, a truste who made a charitable contribution out of a trust account would be justly criticized for that. How is a corporate officer -- a trustee of the shareholders' money -- any different? Since profit maximization points companies toward the socially most efficient uses of resources, says Friedman, maximizing profits is precisely the social responsibility of the corporation.

The problem with this argument, it seems to me, is that it proves much, much too much. For one thing, it must apply to omissions as well as acts. So by this standard a corporate officer must have an affirmative duty to seek out ROI-maximizing opportunities, no matter how morally disgusting, as long as they are not not actually illegal. (That would include, of course, establishing, as necessary, subsidiaries in countries where the terrible activity isn't illegal, and using lobbying and campaign contributions to change the laws, if feasible.)

By this standard, engaging in the slave trade, back when it was legal, would have been not merely permissible but required. So would working children to death in mines and mills, or inventing and marketing any dangerous and addictive drug that wasn't (yet) illegal. So would financing munitions plants for the Nazis during the 1930s, or helping the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or Iraq in 2001, or Iran or North Korea today, as long as it managed to skirt actual illegality.

And of course, corporate executives would also have had, and continue to have, a fiduciary duty to lobby to keep any currently legal and profitable activity legal: so shipping companies would have had a fiduciary duty to oppose the abolition of the slave trade in 1808 and companies doing business with the Axis the same duty to oppose the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1941.

"When the time comes to hang all the capitalists," said Lenin, "the capitalists will compete to sell us the rope." Friedman would add, "As well they should." And Bainbridge would add to that, "The law of fiduciary duty requires no less."

Can you say reductio ad absurdum? I was sure you could.

And yet there is no sharp line between the obviously obscene cases and such ordinary actions as looking for a good pretext to fire an employee just before his retiree health benefits vest. Once we admit that there are some things too awful to do just to maximize shareholder value, then whether some particular thing is really that awful or just a little bit less awful than that is necessarily a matter for judgment, not for bright-line rules.

Unless we believe that the laws should embody a complete moral code -- a belief no liberal shares -- then it must be the case that there will be some actions that are immoral but should not be illegal.

In the long run, it is probably more efficient to exhort businesses to behave in a moral manner than to erect countless laws of conduct to try to force them to do so. Yes, there will be business who'll play dirty. Their action should be condemned as immoral and punished by good people withholding their purchases from that firm.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

John Emerson could have saved my parents a lot of money

...if only they read this before they put down a pretty penny for my Amherst college education. Actually, I guess I'm an accidental liberal arts major -- I applied to a whole bunch of schools, my application was rejected as incomplete by almost all of them (it was an international application and the paperwork was a nightmare), and I accepted the Amherst offer before I even knew what the term 'liberal arts' even mean, because my aunt who lived in Boston told me Amherst is a well-regarded school.

In hindsight, a liberal arts education was not exactly the most sensible option for me, career wise. Not that most people from Amherst aren't doing excellently (reading the alumni magazine is sickening), but having made some unfortunate decisions along the way, I'm not one of them. I (personally) would have been better off doing my business degree at NYU.

But heck. I'm sure I had more fun at Amherst. I can't quite bring myself to regret my choice.

Incidentally, I agree with John in that the pleasure of intellectual pursuits is completely open to anyone willing to invest their time and use their noggin'. Personally, I don't think I really came of age intellectually until I left the academic environment.

As for John's call for separating 'enrichment' from practical education, I have a slightly different take. I think too much of higher education in general has become about signalling -- you don't learn what you need to know, you show that you have the ability to learn what you need to know. Or, that's the more charitable view anyhow. It's a problem because, from a social justice point of view, spreading higher education becomes a self-defeating -- if everybody has a status symbol, it ceases to be a status symbol.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Who knew?

George Takai, Mr. Sulu to us Trekkies, just came out publically as gay.

Slash fiction writers are certainly going to get typing. If you don't know what slash fiction is, you can go to Wiki as John suggests, or, just reflect that it is named for the slash in "Kirk/Spock" stories that started the whole phenomenon.

When is racism OK?

I don't think I've had a chance to mention on this blog what a terrible time I've had with unreliable and incompetant builders and contractors in London. With so many cowboys out there and so much that needs fixing, what's the answer?

"Ukranians," pronounced my (Iranian) doctor. "They are the best. Not lazy. They would work through lunch. They don't eat, they just smoke a lot of cigarettes" Others swears by Hungarians or Poles. "But don't trust the chinese guys to do anything but rip up carpet", my (Chinese, of course) aunt sniffed "they're cheap but they do shoddy work." Angelica-the-landlady is taking notes. Angelica-the-liberal is feeling kind of queasy. I mean, before getting a quote should I casually inquire, "Oh by
the way, are you an Ukranian? You know, the kind that runs on cigarettes?" Are Czechoslovakians and Moldovians just as good?

I kind of justify this kind of racial profiling to myself by arguing that, since they
involve recent immigrants, they are more about the socioeconomic conditions and building practices of the said immigrant's erstwhile homes, rather than implying anything intrinsic and unchangeable about one race/culture producing more competent builders than another. Nor are this attitude limited to Europe. My friend Matt reports that: "My bastard Satan roofer swore by Mexicans. "They come to this country, work sixteen hours a day, live on chicken and rice, then go home to their own country after a few years and live like kings. I'd go out of business if I hired Americans." But wait! Isn't the stereotype that Mexicans are supposed to be lazy? Now I'm totally confused.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Patrick Fitzgerald made me bald

I think this whole situation is making me a little punchy, and very antsy. I've been grafted to the computer, scrambling for whatever bits of rumor and innuendo I can wring out of the blogosphere, because there sure as hell aren't any good leaks out of the Fitzgerald's office. Much as I miss her, I'm glad Angelica isn't around to see me like this.

The rumors of indictments and the constant pulling of the rug out from under my feet has been getting to me a bit. My eyes are going glazed and it's hard to concentrate. Needless to say, this became a problem this morning when I decided to cut my hair.

For the past year or so, I've been shaving my head. It's easier to care for, and I don't have to spend time and money at the barber. This morning, however, I pulled out the clippers and made that first buzz across the forehead before I realized that I forgot to put the length attachment on the razor. So thanks a lot, Patrick Fitzgerald; you've made me look like Jeff Gannon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

You could cut the irony with a knife

Who is this guy, and why does he look and sound so much like the president?

But...I thought we didn't torture people.

This is just repellent. Can someone explain to me exactly what the hell has happened to my country?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Indictments on the way? Tomorrow?!!

That's what I've just read on the internets anyways, according to some blogs. I'm doing my best to tamp down my excitement in the event of an anti-climax, but it's really tough not to be a little giddy at the prospect.

As Angelica will tell you, I've been unnaturally fixated on the Plame affair since the investigation really started ramping up over the summer. Among the current GOP scandals, this kind of has a special status for me. Am I glad that Tom Delay's mendacity and corruption are catching up with him? Yes. Do I revel in watching Bill Frist squirm as his stock holdings go under the microscope? Sure. Am I speaking in rhetorical questions and then answering them like Donald Rumsfeld? You bet!

Watching Fitzgerald's investigation progress is satisfying in such a different way, though. Money laundering, insider trading, crooked deals with lobbyists and the like, while very serious indeed, are ( and I hate to put it this way) kind of routine in the American politics. The Plame affair, on the other hand, is a far graver matter. You have an administration using battered-spouse mentality (" 9-11! 9-11! Remember 9-11!") to work the country into a lather for an unnecessary war, and then use their lapdogs in the press to expose a CIA non-official cover, someone who was actually doing the legwork on the WMD issue, to put a hurt on a political opponent who was calling them on their B.S. and put a chill in the air for anyone else who might be tempted to do the same. It burns me up to think the people America put in office would commit such a wanton abuse of the public trust, and compromise our national security to serve their own ends.

It is gratifying to imagine that justice can still be served in America.

Cheney was a source


Monday, October 24, 2005

No duh!

So, people board planes faster when there are no seat assignations? You don't say!

Chalk up another mildly obvious one for constructive anarchy, then.

Now there goes an Edwards fan

The werewolf met Edwards in person, and his lupine heart is all aflutter, it seems.

Why Bethesda?

Tyler Cowen quotes Tim Hartford thus:
A small African state like Chad has an economy smaller than that of a Washington suburb like Bethesda and a banking sector smaller than the Federal Credit union set up for World Bank staff.
In Globalization and its discontents, Joseph Stiglitz compared Ethiopia's banking system as being smaller than that of Bethesda, pop. 55,277. I wonder if the Bethesda will become the standard unit of measurement of banking sector size for very poor countries the way internet fame is measured in David Brooks.

Battlepanda = 2.94milibrooksies, almost as low as Kevin Drum's Mom.

One Fed Chairman coming up

And no. It's not Glenn Hubbard, a blessing for which we can all be grateful.

It's Ben Bernanke, and MR has a good short introduction to the man and his work.

Partisan Hatred? Not Quite...

I take issue with Angelica's portrayal of my current mood in terms of the current political climate. Hatred is not something I usually engage in lightly, not even for the New York Yankees. I think that, like most of the politically astute left these days, I'm indulging more in schadenfreude ( gotta love those Germans; no other culture I know of has made a word to describe delight in someone else's misery). When I think hatred in a political context, I think of people like Rush and Coulter; people so wedded to their party that it ceases to be about ideas or principles, and turns into this struggle of sticking up for the home team, even when that means apologizing for traitors.

Admittedly, I'm probably inclined to give a pass to liberals and dems, but I'd like to think that if Al Gore had sold out a CIA agent, I'd have been calling for his resignation at the very least.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

New Blogger

Well, I finally convinced my boyfriend Gene to join the blog. By the time I wake up in the morning he's usually already had several cups of coffee and an hour of Air America under his belt, and absolutely seething with the ol' partisan hatred. Hopefully posting will provide a useful outlet for the vitriol.

Also, I know there are those of you out there who are not bloggers yet but have had interesting things to say. Perhaps keeping a blog simply seems like too much of a commitment. I know that since I've gotten busier I've found it harder and harder to keep the blog fresh with something new every day. Why not consider becoming an occasional blogger on the Battlepanda blog to see if blogging is for you? Email me at angelica dot oung at gmail dot com and tell me who you are, what you'd like to say.

The most unamerican charge

The American Embassy in London is leading a revolt against the congestion charge in central London. Currently, to drive a car in London during a weekday incurs an 8 pounds congestion charge, which the Americans have refused to pay, claiming diplomatic immunity on U.K. taxes. The mayor argues the charge is not a tax but a toll, and have fined the U.S. embassy a total of 150,000 pounds, which of course they are not paying. Up to 55 other embassies are following the lead.

What I don't understand is, why the embassy doesn't just pay up. 8 pounds per day per vehicle is nothing to keep relationships cordial. But I also don't understand why Livingston doesn't just give the embassies immunity, as embassy vehicles hardly form a significant component of the traffic in London. Instead, there is a row.

As for me, I have no firm opinions on the congestion charge. I don't have a car, but I can see things from the drivers' point of view: 8 pounds per day is tantemont to a prohibition to drive in London on a frequent basis for most drivers. Not being able to drive at all is exactly an ideal solution for traffic congestion. What I would like to know is, what is the congestion charge being collected being used for? Is it reducing petrol usage, or are people just driving further to get around the congestion zone to shop in out-of-town shopping centers? Are busses getting around any faster than they were before?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The superfluity of free-will

Kevin Drum muses that a positive, concrete demonstration that free-will is an illusion will drive us all to despair and mass-suicide. That's almost as silly as saying since physics proves that all seemingly solid surfaces in fact comprises of tiny atoms suspended in space, we should be afraid of walking around in fear of falling through. Why fear the implications of something theoretical if your ordinary existence contradicts that implication every day?
Say if scientists did manage to build a machine that can account for the position of every atom, every neurological impulse, every piece of information about our present so that it can completely predict our every reaction, our every act. I would call that a machine that looks into the future. Not a machine that destroys my will to live. I might prefer not to look into the machine, for the same reason that I do not look to the back of a book for the ending before I'm done with it. But just knowing that the machine have this ability would not, I don't think, make my life meaningless. The big temptation would be, as with a time machine, to peek into the future and change things about the present to avoid mistakes. But I think we've all seen enough sci-fi movies to know that this strategy would be, on the whole, a bad call.
Julian Sanchez gets it exactly right on this occasion:
Free will, it seems, is a little like God in this respect: Believers often seem
to think it's so centrally important that without it, life would necessarily be
meaningless. Yet those who don't believe seem to get on just fine

Monday, October 17, 2005

Another devil in the details

Could the way the infamous "swiss cheese" map was presented in Oslo II have impeded the progress of peace? Shari Motro, who was there, makes a convincing case.
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Arafat stormed out of negotiations after seeing the map on the left (dubbed the "swiss cheese" map). He later came back to the table, but his credibility was damaged among the Palestinians for accepting what does look like a hopelessly fragmented series of bantustans.

The map on the right is a less inflammatory way of representing the information. In it, the rest of the West Bank is colored to associate it with the rest of the palestinian territory rather than with Israel. Under Oslo that territory will initially be under Israeli control, but the door will be open for bringing them under Palestinian control at a later stage.

I don't know whether Motro's article is making me more hopeful or less about the peace process. Nobody's suggesting that had a better map been used every would be hunky dory by now. Far from it. But it's a compelling reminder of how, when trust is low and the stakes are high, details cannot be taken for granted.

(via Bradford Plumer)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Becker: brilliant economist -- weird ideas

Do Corporations Have a Social Responsibility Beyond Stockholder Value? Economist Gary Becker argued 'no' on his blog a while ago. At the time I read it I found his argument rather cold and unsatisfactory. The gist of it is: deviating from the most profitable mode of operation, no matter how socially negative, is only acceptable if the customer goodwill thus generated makes it the most profitable mode of operation. Thus, Becker approves of Ben and Jerry's charitable givings because it burnishes the company's crunchy granola image to profitable ends, but he would not approve the raising of wages for sweatshop laborers above the market wage if it does not provide value for the stockholders.

It is true that if you have a number otherwise identical companies in perfect competition, it is moot to exhort individual companies to raise their moral standards. The companies who behave in an altruistic manner would swiftly be driven out of business as long as there is even one unscrupulous company. This is exactly why as consumers, we should not stop at exhorting companies to be good but to reward or punish them appropriately by applying or withholding our purchasing power. Our approval or disapproval (or Becker's, for that matter) of a company's practices is nugatory without being backed by exercising either our purchasing power (or more indirectly, through the legislations we push through with our voting power). Becker ends by saying "I am bothered only when managers, founders, or others in control of corporations that behave in a "socially responsible" manner try to pass the cost of behaving in this way on to others rather than bearing the costs themselves." Let's see...environmental degradation and child labor did not bother him. But altruistic behavior that does not fatten the bottom line does. "

Even stranger is Becker's views on crime, as quoted by John Kay's very absorbing "The truth about Markets". I would write more on the book itself, but I am afraid that this blog is fast becoming "Angelica's periodic book review depository". Anyhow here's Becker in his Nobel lecture, as quoted by Kay(186):
In the early stages of my work on crime, I was puzzled by why theft is socially
harmful, since it appears merely to redistribute resources, usually from richer
to poorer individuals. I resolved the puzzle by pointing out that criminals
spend on weapons and on the value of their time in planning and carrying out
their crimes and that such spending is socially unproductive.

Yes...that must be why theft is frown upon...because it wastes the thief's precious time and gun-money. Implausability is not the word.

Connecting the dots

Yes, yes. I know nobody watches MSNBC, but it's still nice to hear (via Republic of T) of Keith Obermann's recent spunkiness.
Last Thursday on Countdown, I referred to the latest terror threat - the
reported bomb plot against the New York City subway system - in terms of its
timing. President Bush’s speech about the war on terror had come earlier the
same day, as had the breaking news of the possible indictment of Karl Rove in
the CIA leak investigation.
I suggested that in the last three years there
had been about 13 similar coincidences - a political downturn for the
administration, followed by a “terror event” - a change in alert status, an
arrest, a warning.
We figured we’d better put that list of coincidences on
the public record. We did so this evening on the television program, with ten of
these examples. The other three are listed at the end of the main list, out of
chronological order. The contraction was made purely for the sake of television
timing considerations, and permitted us to get the live reaction of the former
Undersecretary of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson.

Friday, October 07, 2005


I'm sure we're all heartily sick of those periodic article that arrives on our broadsheet and glossy magazines alike with predictable regularity about how more and more professional, ridiculously well-qualified women are forsaking their high-powered careers in droves to stay at home with kiddies. The revolution comes, it seems about every six months, and each writer smugly repeats the same cliche-ridden "mommy war" rhetoric as if they are the first lucky 'journalist' to hit this rich seam of cultural conflict.

Leave it to a science magazine, the excellent New Scientist, to present an actually interesting take on the stay-at-home revolution.
In 1986, there were 445 stay-at-home fathers in the UK. Two decades later, that
number has risen to over 21,000. And in June this year, the UK's Equal
Opportunities Commission (EOC) announced that 79 per cent of men questioned said
they would be happy to look after their young children while their wife or
partner went out to work. In a single generation, a behaviour that was once
considered eccentric has become mainstream.

The rest of the article goes into fascinating detail about how changing attitudes about male fatherhood could actually precipitate hormonal changes in the individual, triggering an increase in caring behavior. I know frequent commenter John Emerson would find this interesting. It's kind of freaky how our hormones determine who we are and how we respond with the environment, yet hormonal levels are in turn influenced by the environment.
In the company of a pregnant female [marmoset], the level of the hormone
prolactin in the males' blood begins to rise and it continues to increase up to
the time of the birth. Prolactin is of ancient origin and in mammals it promotes
lactation and fostering behavior. Clearly, this mechanism serves to prepare male
marmosets for a proactive paternal role in childcare. But what about
In men who were cohabiting with pregnant women, prolactin rose steadily,
increasing 20 per cent on average during the three weeks before their partner
gave birth. Also, at the time of birth the men's testosterone level dropped
dramatically, by up to 33 per cent. What's more, it made "surprisingly little
difference" to the result whether the cohabiting male was the father of the
expected child, or knew that he was not, suggesting that the changes are a
cooperative adaptation, and not straightforward kin selection.

The article is subscription only. So if you want to read the rest of it, go buy it.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

I need to stop reading the local papers...

A BABY narrowly escaped death when a bullet fired into an Upper Clapton flat
ricocheted around the room and came to rest between the tot's legs.

The 10-month-old child was lying on the floor of the lounge when the bullet
exploded through the ceiling and bounced off the walls.

The frantic mother, who was in the room at the time, found it lying just
millimetres from her baby and called police.

Yep. I now live in beautiful Clapton. Every night we hear the sirens. Yesterday, two gunshots as well. Lovely. Slightly disconcerted that there is a stretch of road around here called "murder mile".

I'm not exactly fearing for life and limb though. After all, the house we're living in has sat empty for years (with furniture and stuff in it) without getting burgled and vandalized. We seem to be situated in a bad neighborhood but a "good street". Neighbors are super nice. Worst case of crime we've encountered so far was a gang of neighborhood little girls picking apples from our yard. They thought the house was unoccupied and I gave them quite a scare when I appeared. When they heard that Gene and I came over from the States, they asked us, quite obviously, if we knew any stars, like Fifty Cents, and were very disappointed that we didn't.

'flu season

Sorry for the paucity of posts lately. The combination of being stricken with the flu and internet no-worky at home will do that. Half of London seems to be laid low with the same strain -- lots of sniffling plus the empty, hacking cough that usually signals, in a movie anyhow, that one's character is not going to make it to the final reel.

If you find yourself similarly afflicted, get to a Chinatown if you can and pick up one of these bottles. This is the best (and best tasting) cough syrup ever made.
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The English transliteration is something terrible like "Nin Jom Pi Pa Kua" or something. But you're best off just looking for the right packaging. It's magical stuff. As soon as you swallow a little bit you can feel the soreness in your throat subsiding and the yucky phlegmminess dissapating. It works best if you take it in tiny tiny sips. So it's just as well that it's really yum -- kind of soothing and herbal like Ricola drops. But better.