Monday, April 27, 2009

She comes to bury Aid, not to praise it: "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo

Review: Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is Another Way for Africa. By Dambisa Moyo. Penguin, 2009. Pages: xx + 188.


The word looks and sounds innocuous enough. Its basic meaning is simple too: “v. & n. help.” according to one pocket dictionary.

But there’s another side to aid apart from humanitarian assistance and charity, an altogether more pernicious side. This kind of aid involves the transfer of money from governments in developed countries to governments in developing countries for the ostensible purpose of fostering economic development. It is, in the memorable words of the eminent development economist Peter Bauer, “a process by which the poor in rich countries subsidise the rich in poor countries.”

Aid has become big business. Over the past 50 years, African countries have received over US$1 trillion in aid. Every year billions more are poured into the aid industry in Africa. The industry employs many thousands of people inside and outside the continent. The World Bank, for instance, one of the largest conduits of aid, has over 10,000 employees, although ironically only 30% of them are based in developing countries; the rest are in Washington, DC and similar places. Many of the aid workers that are in developing countries are expatriates and are handsomely paid for their work. I have seen many an expatriate aid worker in Lusaka’s top shopping malls lavishly spending their hard-earned hardship allowances—this in one of Africa’s safest and most stable countries. The aid industry also employs many of the brightest and best educated citizens of African countries, precisely those whose talents and skills are most needed and would be most productive in government and the private sector.

Yes, aid has become very big business indeed, but with very little to show for it in the way of positive results. In fact, as Dead Aid, Dr. Dambisa Moyo’s new book on aid and African development, shows, systematic aid is not only ineffective, it is harmful. It encourages corruption; it stifles the private sector; it weakens public accountability; it foments conflict and rivalry; it produces negative economic effects (such as reduced savings and investment and increased inflation); and it inculcates a culture of dependency in its recipients. Dr. Moyo sets out to show how aid is at the very root of Africa’s problems, how it must be removed, and how it can be replaced with better alternatives.

Dr. Moyo certainly has the credentials to match her aims. She was born and raised in Zambia. In 1990, her chemistry studies at the University of Zambia in Lusaka were disrupted by political unrest and she left to study in the United States. She earned a bachelors degree in chemistry and an MBA in finance from the American University in Washington, DC. From 1993 to 1995, she worked at the World Bank and was a co-author of its annual World Development Report. She then went on to earn a masters in public policy from Harvard KSG and a doctorate in development economics from Oxford CSAE. From 2001 to 2008, she worked at Goldman Sachs. She sits on the boards of several non-profit organisations and was recently nominated to the board of Lundin Petroleum, a global oil and gas exploration and production company. It is an impressive mix of experience and expertise: academic and professional; public sector and private sector; developing world and developed world.

In the first part of the book (“The World of Aid”), Dr. Moyo makes the case for the ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of aid. As she readily admits, this case has been made before, first by Peter Bauer (to whom the book is dedicated) and later by others such William Easterly. But the unique perspective and deep passion that she brings to the task makes this perhaps the most compelling case yet. It fell, as it were, to Prof. Bauer and Prof. Easterly to pronounce aid dead, and to Dr. Moyo to deliver a brutally honest funeral oration and see to the burial of the corpse.

In the second and final part of the book (“A World without Aid”), Dr. Moyo proposes a number of market-based funding alternatives to replace aid: international private bonds; financing from China and other emerging economic powers; trade and foreign direct investment (FDI); and microfinancing, international remittances and local savings.

Now that aid is dead and buried, are we potentially on the cusp of a new era of sustainable African development based on the funding alternatives suggested by Dr. Moyo? Are the Dead Aid proposals the final answer to Africa’s perennial problems?

It has been said that to the man (or woman) with a hammer in his (or her) hand, every problem looks like a nail. Therefore, perhaps it’s not surprising that as an economist Dr. Moyo tends to see Africa’s problems and solutions in purely economic terms. If it were true that Africa’s problems were wholly or chiefly attributable to its dependence on aid, then we would certainly be on the verge of a metamorphosis. Sadly, the issue of aid, important though it is, is really only a serious symptom or set of symptoms (i.e., a syndrome); it is not the underlying disease. Or to use a military analogy, aid is a major battle (but still only at the tactical level) and not the war (at the strategic level).

The fundamental problem in Africa is not with the way African governments are funded (as the book asserts). The fundamental problem is with the way African governments are run, that is to say with the nature of government itself. For the most part, African governments act as masters, not as servants (their only legitimate role). There has been much talk about The African Renaissance (the “rebirth” of traditional African identity and culture presumably), but nothing about what’s really required: The African Enlightenment (the creation, adoption [regardless of historical or cultural origin], cultivation and implementation of good ideas and ideals). And so, the approach of the contemporary African government looks (and feels) remarkably like that of the traditional African chief. Government, legitimate government, should be a means, not an end. People should be ends, not means. This order is exactly reversed in many African countries. Not only is government the end, it is literally God, complete with all the divine attributes: omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.

Dr. Moyo argues strongly in favour of economic freedom but, regrettably, downplays the importance of other freedoms like political freedom. In one startling passage, she argues that democratic systems of government may be bad for economic development:
The uncomfortable truth is that far from being a prerequisite for economic growth, democracy can hamper development as democratic regimes find it difficult to push through economically beneficial legislation amid rival parties and jockeying interests. In a perfect world, what poor countries at the lowest rungs of economic development need is not a multi-party democracy, but in fact a decisive benevolent dictator to push through the reforms required to get the economy moving (unfortunately, too often countries end up with more dictator and less benevolence). The Western mindset erroneously equates a political system of multi-party democracy with high-quality institutions (for example, effective rule of law, respected property rights and an independent judiciary, etc.). But the two are not synonymous.
This is a mistake. Ultimately, economic freedom, political freedom, and any other freedom, are only particular aspects of freedom itself. In the final analysis, freedom is one indivisible whole. As one of the journals of the Scottish Enlightenment put it:
Be assured that freedom of trade, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of action, are but modifications of one great fundamental truth, and that all must be maintained or all risked: they stand or fall together.
-The Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. CLV, February 1843, p. 224.
To her credit, Dr. Moyo acknowledges the importance of democratic institutions (such as the rule of law, private property rights, and an independent judiciary) for economic development. However, she fails to adequately emphasise that ultimately such institutions must be the embodiment of democratic principles (ideas and ideals centred on individuals), and cannot, perforce, be the embodiment of certain personalities (not matter how decisive or benevolently dictatorial).

Fortunately, the absolute necessity of good governance is beginning to be recognised in Africa. For instance, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded by the eponymous Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire and philanthropist, focuses on building good governance in Africa through its annual Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership and Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

Dr. Moyo’s gung ho attitude towards Chinese economic expansion (or imperialism, according to some commentators) in Africa is somewhat misplaced. Clearly much of Africa’s economic partnership with China has come at the expense of democratic principles, human rights and good governance. Furthermore, whilst the Chinese government consistently proclaims its policies of not interfering with and not imposing conditions on its African partners, its actions belie its words. For example, in the run-up to the 2006 Zambian presidential elections, the Chinese government publicly threatened to sever all ties with Zambia if the electorate chose the opposition presidential candidate instead of the more pro-Chinese incumbent. More recently, in March 2009, the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to attend a FIFA/Nobel Foundation conference in Johannesburg. This came after the Chinese government “appealed” to the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into South Africa, warning that doing so would “harm” bilateral relations. So much for no interference and no conditions.

As a polemical work of literature, Dead Aid is very well written, in clear, supple prose with the occasional burst of linguistic flair.

In writing this book, Dr. Moyo set herself three ambitious goals: first, to write a book that tackles not one but two major themes (the case against aid and workable alternatives to aid); second, to write a book that is both scholarly and popular; and third, to write a book that addresses multiple audiences at that same time (In her own words: “Africans and African policymakers...[and]...those in the West and broader international community who truly wish to see Africa progress.”).

The first goal is a success: Dr. Moyo makes a well-argued and powerful case against aid and for alternative development financing alternatives. (Readers interested in learning more about the wider debate in development economics, especially central planning versus free markets, should consult the works of Peter Bauer, particularly his detailed critiques of state-led development approaches and his monumental and meticulous studies on indigenous entrepreneurship in West Africa and South East Asia.)

Dr. Moyo’s second accomplishment is to have written a book that is scholarly and yet popular. The end notes and extensive bibliography should prove useful to researchers in development economics and other disciplines. And the easy, accessible style should help almost anyone to become acquainted with the real issues around aid. The importance of effectively presenting these issues to the general public should not be underestimated, more so in these times when aid has become, in Dr. Moyo’s phrase, a “cultural commodity”. The proponents of aid now include all kinds of celebrities who are extremely adept at packaging their message for public consumption (e.g. the “Make Poverty History” campaign). Dr. Moyo’s book should do a lot to present the other side of the argument.

The third and final goal was the most herculean of all: to write a single book that speaks effectively to Africans, African policy makers, Westerners and the “broader international community”. Here, Dr. Moyo has not been entirely successful, but not for want of ambition or effort. The advice and prescriptions she offers to Africans and African policy makers, in particular, may be dangerously misleading in various ways. Nevertheless, the valiant pursuit of such a lofty goal should not be lightly dismissed for, as Browning reminds us, “a man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a heaven for?”

The book has two notable weaknesses, one, an error of commission, and the other, an error of omission. The first is the erroneous claim that aid is the fundamental cause of Africa’s problems. And the second is the lack of emphasis put on good government.

But this is a small price to pay for such a stimulating and readable book.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Whither Twitter?

It's official: 2009 is the Year of Twitter.

On the public front, this was signalled by Twitter getting a whole Oprah show to itself last week; and by Oprah herself joining the Twitter community. Evan Williams, one of Twitter's co-founders (the other two are Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone) and coiner of the word "blogger", was on hand to guide Oprah through the process. Also, there is a rumour going around about a huge potential takeover bid by Google.

On the personal front, and again last week, a friend told me he was experimenting with Twitter for the first time and asked me whether I had ever used it. Answer: No. And I only had the vaguest of ideas about what it actually was: Something to do with posting to websites from mobile phones, no?

So what is this Twitter that all the world's atwitter about anyway? Very briefly: It's an online social networking service built around answering the simple question "What are you doing?" Clear? Umm-hmm, I thought not. Oh, something else: All tweets (that's what Twitterers--Twitter users--call submissions or status updates posted to Twitter) must be no more than 140 characters long (spaces included). Incidentally, there's a nice big Twictionary to keep you up to speed with Twitterspeak which is growing at a twinormous and twerrifying pace. (OK, I just made up those last two myself.) And yes, it really is 140 characters, not words. Which is why it's also called microblogging I suppose. Why 140 characters? Ah, now that would be telling...

Oh, all right then: The 140 characters is to do with the 160 character limit of a text message or SMS--the other 20 characters are reserved for people's names.

So that's it, that is Twitter.

And no, I haven't gotten around to tweeting yet.

But I will.

One of these days.


  • Evan Williams has a great blog, although it doesn't get updated much these days. He's too busy tweeting it seems--in more ways than one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

So what do you wanna be when you grow up?

I heard a fascinating interview on the radio yesterday with Prof. Mark Savickas, a psychologist specialising in the field of career counselling and a pioneer of the narrative career counselling technique. Prof. Savickas explains how the nature of work and careers has changed and how to identify where one belongs. He also demonstrates the narrative counselling technique on the interviewer and some callers. It's very simple and yet very powerful stuff and well worth a listen.

It ties in nicely with Peter F. Drucker's ideas on Managing Oneself in the modern knowledge society.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rita Levi-Montalcini: 100 not out

On 22 April 2009, Rita Levi-Montalcini the Nobel Laureate (Physiology or Medicine 1986) will turn 100. Her personal and scientific life has been characterised by enormous challenges which she has chosen to meet, very deliberately, with equal courage and determination. Apparently, she will be the first Nobel laureate to reach the age of 100. Hers is a very inspiring story indeed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Just a Lifetime: Sir Clement Freud (1924-2009)

Clement Freud's voice was the first thing I noticed. (Naturally, when your first encounter with someone is on shortwave radio-- the BBC World Service in this case--the voice will necessarily be the first thing you notice.) It was a slow, low-pitched monotone, almost a growl, with something of the curmudgeon about it. "Lugubrious": the word so often used to describe it, and its owner, that it's become cliched.

It was a complete contrast to the voice of Kenneth Williams (of Carry On fame), another of the original panelists on Just a Minute. That voice was nasal, high-pitched, shrill almost, extremely camp, and delivering words at a rate at least twice as fast as normal or necessary. But still the conveyor of abundant wit and charm.

The object of the game was simple, ingeniously so: to speak, off-the-cuff, for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition on a randomly chosen subject. Like this on the subject "CHEEK":
Clement Freud: CHEEK is when someone of diminished responsibility, goes to the British Broadcasting Corporation and elects to be chairman of a panel game on the basis that he might have some idea of how to control people whose multisyllabic words he doesn’t understand, whose meaning he is unable to comprehend, and whose hours and time he is unable to keep. I’ve now said unable three times, and no-one has interrupted me…

Peter Jones:
Well I’m not interrupting ‘cos I’m enjoying it…

(Peter Jones was a regular contestant on Just a Minute for 29 years .)
The game has remained largely unchanged for more than 40 years. And Sir Clement Freud (24 April 1924–15 April 2009) was probably its finest and certainly its most experienced exponent.

"Without repetition, hesitation or deviation" seems an apt theme for Freud's own long and colourful life in which he was at various times: a soldier, chef, restaurateur, columnist, actor, author, nightclub owner, food and drink critic, parliamentarian, sporting correspondent, gambler, race jockey, university official, broadcaster, raconteur, wit, and God knows what else.

There are some wonderful anecdotes by and about Freud:
  • In 1978, Freud was on a parliamentary delegation to Japan and returned via China with Winston S. Churchill, a Conservative Member of Parliament and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. On the final day, he asked the Chinese Minister for Information why his junior colleague had been given a bigger hotel suite than his. The Minister, very embarrassed, explained that it was because Mr. Churchill had a famous grandfather. Freud, whose own grandfather was none other than the illustrious Sigmund Freud, observed drily: "It is the only time that I have been out-grandfathered."
  • During the Second World War, Freud was called up to serve with the Royal Ulster Rifles. Informed of Freud's origins (Austro-German, born in Berlin, although Freud was also Jewish of course), his Commanding Officer sent for him and inquired: “Mr. Freud, I don’t quite know how to put this, but are you sure you’re on the right side?”
  • A few days ago, Charles Wilson, Editor of The Times (of London) from 1980 to 1985 who first brought Freud to the paper, received his invitation to a supper for 15 that had been planned for Friday the 24 of April 2009, Freud's 85th birthday. It read: “This is to remind you of the time, date and location - although it may be wise to keep an eye on the obituary column.” Clement Freud: Witty to the very last. (You may cast your eye on the obituaries in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and The Telegraph.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

When Scientific Ideas Meet Public Policy

Scientific ideas have societal consequences.

AIDS Denialism

A paper entitled "Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa" published in a recent issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (JAIDS) conservatively estimated the number of HIV-related deaths in South Africa from 2000-2005 due to the Mbeki Administration's policy of AIDS denialism at over 330,000.

The illustrates just how dangerous it can be for governments to base their policies on unsound scientific ideas.

Which brings us to the issue of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change.

A Convenient Falsehood?

In October 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the IPCC (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and Al Gore "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

A word that crops up again and again in the climate change debate is "consensus": it is frequently stated that there is consensus among scientists about the validity of man-made climate change and what to do about it. We should note here that some synonyms of "consensus" are "agreement, accord, harmony, compromise, consent, unanimity;" an antonym is "disagreement." The first thing to note is that the scientific validity of any scientific fact or theory is NOT established by consensus. Nor is it undermined by its opposite, "disagreement." Consensus and disagreement are not scientific terms, they are political terms (which is why perhaps the IPCC and Mr. Gore won the Nobel Prize for Peace and not for one of the scientific disciplines). On the contrary, virtually all scientific discoveries are born in the minds of one individual or one small collaborating group of individuals. They are not arrived at or established by consensus. Scientific facts and theories are established by appropriate scientific evidence, the validity of which is completely independent of any attendant consensus or lack thereof.

In any case, the simple truth is that there is no consensus about the validity of man-made climate change as this letter signed by more than 100 eminent scientists, including some leading climatologists, clearly demonstrates.

Some of the scientists who have questioned the "consensus" science and public policy around man-made climate change include:
The danger for the developing world like Sub-Saharan Africa adopting public policy based on man-made climate change is that development will be severely hampered which will result in less prosperity and more poverty, hunger, disease and conflict (over limited and dwindling economic resources).


Mama Afrika 1932-2008 - Miriam Makeba

A double CD retrospective from the late great Queen of African music. All the classics are here: Malaika, Pata Pata, Thulasizwe (Makeba's South Africanised version of Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released), and more. The songs are in a number of African languages as well as English and Portuguese.

The music is fascinating, beguiling, moving, soothing.

This release is a beautiful introduction for anyone new to African music and a wonderful re-introduction for anyone old to it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bequest of Pavlov to the Academic Youth of His Country

On 27 February 1936, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, the renowned Russian scientist, discoverer of classical conditioning, and winner of the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, died. He was in his 87th year. Shortly before his death, he had written a scientific credo to share with young scientists. It was published posthumously in the 17 April 1936 issue of Science (p. 369, Vol. 83, Issue 2155):

What can I wish to the youth of my country who devote themselves to science?

Firstly, gradualness. About this most important condition of fruitful scientific work I never can speak without emotion. Gradualness, gradualness and gradualness. From the very beginning of your work, school yourself to severe gradualness in the accumulation of knowledge. Learn the ABC of science before .you try to ascend to its summit. Never begin "the subsequent without mastering the preceding. Never attempt to screen an insufficiency of knowledge even by the most audacious surmise and hypothesis. Howsoever this soap-bubble will rejoice your eyes by its play it inevitably will burst and you will have nothing except shame. School yourselves to demureness and patience. Learn to inure yourselves to drudgery in science. Learn, compare, collect the facts! Perfect as is the wing of a bird, it never could raise the bird up without resting on air. Facts are the air of a scientist. Without them you never can fly. Without them, your "theories" are vain efforts. But learning, experimenting, observing, try not to stay on the surface of the facts. Do not become the archivists of facts. Try to penetrate to the secret of their occurrence, persistently search for the laws which govern them.

Secondly, modesty. Never think that you already know all. However highly you are appraised always have the courage to say of yourself—I am, ignorant. Do not allow haughtiness to take you in possession. Due to that you will be obstinate where it is necessary to agree, you will refuse useful advice and friendly help, you will lose the standard of objectiveness.

Thirdly, passion. Remember that science demands from a man all his life. If you had two lives that would be not enough for you. Be passionate in your work and your searchings.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Detailed Commentary on Keynes' General Theory by Henry Hazlitt

Back in December 2008, I began a detailed critique of John Maynard Keynes' The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). One of the reasons I gave for undertaking this task was because "to the best of my knowledge, there is no such commentary available online."

It turns out I was wrong.

Henry Hazlitt beat me to it with The Failure of the New Economics (1959) by some 50 years! Murray Rothbard contributed an excellent foreword to the book.

Mission accomplished (albeit not by me).

Monday, April 13, 2009

10 Demolition Balls of Economic Destruction

These are some of the 10 most dangerous intellectual demolition balls that have been used to wreak economic destruction:
  1. An Essay on the Principle of Population (1826, 6th edition) by Thomas Robert Malthus
  2. Das Kapital: Vol. I (1867), Vol. II (1885), Vol. III (1894) by Karl Marx
  3. The General Theory Of Employment, Interest And Money (1936) by John Maynard Keynes
  4. The Affluent Society (1958) by John Kenneth Galbraith
  5. Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson
  6. Economic theory and Underdeveloped Regions (1965) by Gunnar Myrdal
  7. Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) by Kwame Nkrumah
  8. The Little Red Book (1966) by Mao Zedong
  9. Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer
  10. Profit over People: Neolibralism and Global Order (1999) by Noam Chomsky
Dishonourable mention:
See also: 10 Pillars of Economic Freedom

The Half-life of Ideas

Good--and bad-ideas are extremely long lived. They have a very long half-life. They frequently outlive their creators.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

10 Pillars of Economic Freedom

The global financial tsunami continues to pummel the superstructure of economic freedom. But as long as its infrastructure remains firm, economic freedom should be able to weather the storm.

Here are my personal picks for 10 pillars of economic freedom in the realm of ideas:
  1. The Wealth of Nations (1776) by Adam Smith
    • Full title: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
  2. The End of Economic Man (1939) by Peter F. Drucker
    • Drucker's first book, begun in 1933 a few weeks after Hitler came to power and published in 1939.
    • Winston Churchill's review of The End of Economic Man published in The Times Literary Supplement on 27 May 1939
  3. The Road to Serfdom (1944) by F. A. Hayek
  4. Economics in One Lesson (1946) by Henry Hazlitt
  5. Human Action (1949) by Ludwig von Mises
  6. Capitalism and Freedom (1962) by Milton Friedman
  7. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966) by Ayn Rand and others
  8. Equality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion (1981) by Peter Bauer
  9. Basic Economics (2007, 3rd ed.) by Thomas Sowell
  10. The Economist (1843-Present)
Honourable mention:
See also: 10 Demolition Balls of Economic Destruction

Monday, April 06, 2009

A monstrous success

Parents of young children must regularly make the pilgrimage to the cinema to see the latest and greatest animated movie that's on release.

Mostly, it's dreary fare for the adults. The only compensation being the delight and amusement it seems to give to the children. Occasionally, the movie rises above the dreary. And on even rarer occasions, it soars towards the sublime.

This past weekend, seeing the inauspiciously titled Monsters vs. Aliens by DreamWorks Animation was one of those very rare occasions.

The movie works superbly well for both adults and children. It has a sharp witty script and some wonderful characters. I loved Hugh Laurie's nerdy Dr. Cockroach PhD, Rainn Wilson as the villainous alien Gallaxhar, and Kiefer Sutherland as General W.R. Monger (a play on "warmonger"). Sutherland's voice, incidentally, was unrecogniseable--astonishing given how much of it we've heard in 24, but I guess that's what makes the man a great actor. The movie is full of action and great one-liners, like when the President of the United States (brilliantly played by Stephen Colbert) tells the situation room: "Boys, set the terror level at code brown, 'cause I need to change my pants."

Oh, and it was made in Digital 3D, which makes it an even more fascinating experience. The technology behind 3D movies is pretty fascinating too.

See it.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

Using one's skills to influence public policy seemed to be a satisfactory middle ground between an ivory tower posture of isolation and disengagement and a posture of passionate advocacy that too often deserted the canons of scholarship.
- John Hope Franklin

The historian John Hope Franklin (2 January 1915-25 March 2009) was a towering figure both physically and intellectually.

He was named after the great early 20th century African American educator and political activist John Hope.

John Hope Franklin, the grandson of a slave, went on to achieve numerous distinctions, any one of which would have represented a significant accomplishment for a single lifetime: he revolutionised the study of American history; he became a best-selling author of serious and scholarly books (his 1947 classic From Slavery to Freedom has sold over four million copies and counting, and is in its 8th edition); he made major contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, such as conducting scholarly research for Thurgood Marshall and the rest of the legal team that successfully argued the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954); he had a long and distinguished academic career in which he earned the respect, admiration and affection of his peers and students; he participated in many major studies and panels, including chairing President Bill Clinton's 1997 One America: The President's Initiative on Race; he won many accolades, including over 130 (!) honorary degrees and multiple awards and prizes; and, most importantly perhaps, he personally embodied the hope of his name for better tomorrows not only for Americans of every complexion, but for everyone around the world. The latter is a remarkable achievement given that historians are by definition concerned with the past.

His life is a testament to the power of moral and intellectual courage. It also exemplifies the power of ideas and intellectual endeavour and discourse as a means for changing the world for the better. Despite the incidence of some pain and one or two controversies, the overwhelming themes of John Hope Franklin's life are about triumph over adversity, the power of hard work and persistence, and, yes, hope. Perhaps nothing symbolises this more powerfully than the state of the United States when John Hope Franklin was born and when he died 94 years later. In 1915, he was born into an America with numerous Jim Crow laws and frequent lynchings of African American men. In 2009, he died having witnessed a man of African descent ascend to the Presidency of the United States earlier that year.

Hope indeed.

See also:
  • A poignant personal tribute by one of his colleagues, Stan Katz of Princeton.
  • The beautifully written obituary in this week's Economist, although I take issue with the characterisation of John Hope Franklin as merely a "historian of America's blacks". He was a historian of America, but I shan't quibble.
  • Duke University's online memorial site.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ayer v. Tyson

Yes, that Ayer and that Tyson.

I suppose the outcome of this encounter has to be adjudged a technical knockout for Ayer:

It was at another party, given a later later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world”. Ayer stood his ground. “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.
Excerpt from p. 344 of A.J. Ayer: A Life, By Ben Rogers, Grove Press, 2002.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Decisions involves two things: making choices and dealing with the resulting consequences. Choiceless decisions and consequenceless decisions are no decisions at all. The intentions of the decisions are secondary; the actual consequences are primary.

The circumstances of, and reaction to, the recent resignation letter by a senior executive from AIG, which was published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times, illustrate the dangers of the woolly thinking involved in linking choices only to intentions and not to consequences.

The letter generated a huge response from readers, most of it negative, some of it even to the point of being scurrilous.

The policy of vilifying and demonising everyone that works in the financial services sector is bound to have the severe and unintended consequence of driving away many talented people from the sector. Which will ultimately be harmful to everyone's interests.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Globalisation and its Malcontents

The protests around the ongoing G20 summit have turned violent.

The protesters appear to be from many disparate groups with many disparate (desperate?) aims. Some just seem intent on causing mayhem, destruction, and worse.

What are we to make of it all?

It's unfortunate, but characteristic, that such protests always produce a lot of heat but very little light.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that some of these protest groups, these anti-something groups, never let the facts get in the way of their good stories. No matter how off-base those stories might be.

Take the anti-capitalist strain.

Despite the fact that free market principles have been responsible for the creation of more wealth, and the concomitant alleviation of more poverty, than any other economic system, the anti-capitalists continue to insist that it must be "abolished" or "reformed". The fact that all the substitutes and modifications on offer have been tried before and failed every time appears to be of little concern to the anti-capitalists. The fact that China, communist China itself, has shifted towards free market principles and prospered as a result is little more than an inconvenient fact that is conveniently ignored.

And it's almost always a bad sign when a group is defined more by what it's against than by what it's for.

What are all these anti-something groups actually for?

The true answer is profoundly disturbing.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Look who's back

Tiger Woods won his first tournament after coming back from reconstructive knee surgery and an eight-month absence from the professional golf circuit.

The Curious Case of the Snooping Dragon

Dr. Shishir Nagaraja and Professor Ross Anderson of the Security Group at Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory document a new type of electronic surveillance attack that they call social malware. The attack involves a combination of social phishing and malware (Trojans, to be precise) The target was the the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL) in Dharamsala, Northern India. Researchers from Canada followed up by hacking into one of the attackers' servers, something the Cambridge team could not do due to the UK's Computer Misuse Act of 1990. In this report, hot off the virtual press (29 March 2009), the Canadian researchers identify and expose the large-scale cyber espionage network behind the attack. They assign it the name GhostNet.

  1. This case illustrates, once again, that information and network security is a game of cat and mouse. Or dragon and mouse in this instance.
  2. Professor Ross Anderson is the author of the technically excellent, yet highly readable text Security Engineering - A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems (2nd edition, 2008).
  3. Coincidentally, the Dalai Lama has been in the news in this part of the world, where he was recently denied a visa to visit South Africa. This was as a result of "representations" made to the South African government by the Chinese government-allegedly. So perhaps not so coincidental after all.