weekend | 22 March 2013



Philip Gourevitch | The New Yorker

The sure tragedian’s authority with which Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo, an Igbo elder of immense strength and pride, a figure of heroic qualities within the traditions of his culture, who is ill-served, brought low, and undone by those same qualities in his first violent encounters with colonial power, has ensured that still today, with more than ten million copies sold, “Things Fall Apart” remains the best-known work of African literature.

The great African novel? The book could as truly be called a great novel, period. Many writers would prefer to carry that badge of universality, but Achebe—who has gone to his grave without ever receiving the Nobel Prize he deserved as much as any novelist of his era—has said that to be called simply a writer, rather than an African writer, is “a statement of defeat.” Why? Because his project has always been to resist emphatically the notion that African identity must be erased as a prerequisite to being called civilized. Growing up as what he called a “British-protected child” in the colonial order, the young writer came to see that the Empire’s claim that Africans had no history was a violent, if at times ignorant or unconscious, counter-factual effort to annihilate the history of his continent’s peoples.

finance / international


Paul Murphy | Alphaville | The Financial Times

Now, the state of play on Friday morning appeared to be that Cyprus was trying to accede to eurozone demands. The plan was to split Laiki into a good bank and a bad bank, leave insured depositors untouched, while burning those above €100,000. But attempts to limit the damage to the latter by creating a sovereign wealth fund filled with a ragbag of church and state assets seemed to have run into objections from the ECB.

Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of their money here, which has drawn plenty of fury and veiled threats from Russia. But what exactly can the Russians do about this? Sell euros? Tear up double taxation agreements? Murder Cypriot bankers? Medvedev and co could not have played a worse hand during this crisis — and it’s not immediately clear why.

Cyprus now has a binary choice: become a gimp state for Russian gangsta finance, or turn fully towards Europe, close down much of its shady banking sector and rebuild its economy on something more sustainable. The choice is obvious.



Ta-Nehisi Coates | The Atlantic

As we congratulate Chris Hayes on his move to primetime, I think it’s worth looking at the considerable impact of his show. Courtesy of Alyssa Rosenberg, I think this chart from Media Matters is a really important illustration of Up With Chris Hayes contribution to “The Debate.” The comparison here has problems. The other four shows here are rooted in “The Big Get,” and are framed around an interview with a senator or a governor, people who generally tend to be white and male. But Chris features politicians in the way that they feature anyone else. If he gets a senator or governor, great. If he doesn’t, oh well. From his perspective there’s no real reason to believe that John McCain is going to give you the most informed perspective on housing policy.

The implications go beyond merely an amorphous “diversity.” I am almost never surprised by anything a politician says on a Sunday talk show — politicians generally parrot the party line. But I am very often surprised by what I hear on Up With Chris Hayes.



Nicholas Day | Slate

We think of milk as a static commodity, maybe because the milk we buy in the grocery store always looks the same. But scientists now believe that milk varies tremendously. It varies from mother to mother, and it varies within the milk of the same mother. That’s partly because the infants themselves can affect what’s in the milk. “Milk is this phenomenally difficult thing to study because mothers are not passive producers and babies are not passive consumers,” Hinde says. Instead, the composition of milk is a constant negotiation, subject to tiny variables.

For example, she notes, in humans skin-to-skin contact appears to trigger signals that are sent through the milk. “If the infant is showing signs of infection, somehow that’s being signaled back to the mother and she up-regulates the immune factors that are in her milk. Now is that her body’s responding to a need of the baby? Maybe. Is it that she also has a low-grade infection that she’s just not symptomatic for and so her body’s doing that? Maybe. Is it partially both? Maybe. We don’t know. It’s brand-new stuff.”

The new awareness of this sort of signaling is why there’s been a paradigm shift in the study of milk. Scientists have gone from seeing it only as food to seeing it far more expansively—as a highly sensitive variable that plays a wide range of developmental roles.



George Monbiot | The Guardian
[EDITOR: This is a book review from 2010, but I just stumbled across it today. This introductory paragraphs are one of the most outstanding statements of intellectual honesty I’ve ever seen so I include it here, today. Not that I care that much about being timely.]

This will not be an easy column to write. I am about to put down 1,200 words in support of a book that starts by attacking me and often returns to this sport. But it has persuaded me that I was wrong. More to the point, it has opened my eyes to some fascinating complexities in what seemed to be a black and white case.

In the Guardian in 2002 I discussed the sharp rise in the number of the world’s livestock, and the connection between their consumption of grain and human malnutrition. After reviewing the figures, I concluded that veganism “is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue”. I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat.

In Meat: A Benign Extravagance, Simon Fairlie pays handsome tribute to vegans for opening up the debate. He then subjects their case to the first treatment I’ve read that is both objective and forensic. His book is an abattoir for misleading claims and dodgy figures, on both sides of the argument.

politics / policy


Mark Schmitt | The Roosevelt Institute

A reasonable campaign finance regime, one that doesn’t boost incumbents or stifle competition could even be put in place with the existing Supreme Court. (The current Congress is another story.) The thinking he’s proposing is going on right now, and is even being tested, in systems based on the principle of “small-donor public financing.” These systems, which are not theoretical, use some combination of matching funds, tax credits, vouchers or generous public financing to candidates who show a base of small-donor support in order to make it easier for candidates to run who don’t have big-donor support, in order to enhance public participation, and to ensure that elected officials aren’t entirely dependent on big donors or corporations, whether those donors are giving directly to campaigns or to outside groups.

The public financing systems in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, which have been resilient, strongly supported by the public, upheld in the courts, and used by almost as many Republicans as Democrats, fall into this category. So does the generous matching system in New York City, which is a model for legislation that has the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and a growing number of legislators. So does Minnesota’s system, which is currently unfunded but which until a few years ago offered a quickly refundable tax credit for small contributions, along with a match on the candidate side. All those systems can be considered part of a broad experiment, and scholars are looking closely at them to see whether they change who runs for office, who donates, and ultimately, whether the states’ political processes are more responsive to the public.


Ezra Klein | Wonkblog | The Washington Post

What you’re seeing . . . is that Obamacare’s least popular elements — the individual mandate, the employer penalty — are also its best known. And some of its most popular elements — closing the Medicare Part D “donut hole,” creating insurance exchanges, extending tax credits to small businesses — are its least well known.

In fact, the situation is even a bit worse than that. Many of Obamacare’s more popular elements are actually becoming less well known with time.


Susan Davis | Harvard Business Review

The organization I’m part of, BRAC, is known for going to scale with solutions that are often radically low-tech. We’re more likely to scale up birthing kits that cost less than 50 cents apiece than mobile apps that might diagnose disease; more likely to open one-room schools in rented spaces or even boats, where children sit on the floor and learn to think creatively, than insist that every pupil have Internet access.

But I’m hardly a naysayer when it comes to tech. I agree with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, who write in Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think that higher productivity associated with the falling cost of technology is leading us to a world of plenty.
We can take some lessons from Bangladesh, where BRAC is heading full steam into mobile banking with bKash (bikash means “growth” in Bengali), which is now the largest mobile banking provider in the country. BRAC Bank (the commercial bank owned by BRAC) launched the service as a pilot in five branches in November 2011, asking small enterprise borrowers to make repayments via local agents — who would send a receipt via text message — rather than in person at branch offices.

Even though it was designed to save time for hard-working families, asking borrowers to forego their passbooks in favor of SMS confirmations made them extremely uncomfortable. Shameran Abed, who runs BRAC’s microfinance program, explains what happened: “In the first couple months, a lot of our borrowers would send the money through their mobile phones and then physically show up at the branch to check with the accountant that the money had turned up.”



Web Urbanist

Regular readers will know that this site love tree houses of all types, but in researching articles a few have slipped through the cracks, their stories and histories unknown, yet the images of them are too amazing to go un-shown.



Smith Journal | Vimeo

Ray Gascoigne has been around boats his whole life, as a shipwright, a merchant sailor, and now as a ship builder on the smallest dry dock there is: a bottle. This short film by Smith Journal and Melbourne-based production studio Commoner picks through the wood chips to tell the story of a craft honed over 60 years, and the man behind it. A step-by-step account of the process was featured in Smith Journal volume six. More info about the project here: bit.ly/YUU07v

Presented by Smith Journal (smithjournal.com.au)
A film by Commoner (vimeo.com/commonerfilms)
Music by Ben Yardley



Akira Kurosawa | The Criterion Collection | Hulu
[free ends in two days]



Stefan Krikl | Flickr



Lindsey Zoladz | Pitchfork

Sugar, spice, and overnighters in dank Italian jail cells– these are the things that Dum Dum Girls‘ first record was made of. Equal parts girl-group gloss and brash punk energy, I Will Be paired the tinny jangle of Psychocandy-coated guitars with lead singer Dee Dee’s exquisitely aloof vocals to create a vibe of timelessly cool abandon. It sounded like a girl gang had kicked the authority figures out of the principal’s office, barricaded the doors, and taken to blasting their delinquent anthems like “Bhang Bhang, I’m a Burnout” and “Jail La La” over the school’s loudspeaker.

The Dum Dums might have been the baddest girls on the scene, but they certainly weren’t the only ones . . . Some time around the third Vivian Girls LP, you couldn’t help but wonder: Will any of these groups be bold enough to move forward? Will any of them stick around long enough to, well, grow up?

Only in Dreams is the first record of this wave able to form an answer to that question, and for that it feels admirably bold. Spurred by the death of Dee Dee’s mother and the separation anxiety she felt while she and her husband (Crocodiles’ Brandon Welchez) were touring with their respective bands, it’s a statement of thematic maturity and emotional depth we’ve not yet heard from Dum Dum Girls– nor many of their contemporaries. It builds on the momentum of this year’s terrific and shimmery He Gets Me High EP, but it’s even more of a hi-fi affirmation (“It’s cool to record in [an] actual studio and use real mics,” Dee Dee said recently) and an introduction of a whole new set of influences (Mazzy Star, the Pretenders) in the band’s sound.


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