How New York was turned around

One of the sites I read regularly (and link to on the right) is that of Lew Rockwell, the head of the Mises Institute. The site is devoted to the libertarian philosophy. What surprises me is how much I actually agree with many of the articles there. I doubt the philosophy would work in the extreme form that they espouse, but certainly they have some very valid ideas.

Another (faux-)libertarian blog that I read, but don’t really recommend, is Don Luskin’s. Unlike Lew Rockwell’s writers, Luskin’s self-proclaimed libertarianism only seems to extend as far as tax cuts. Lew Rockwell and the other writers on his site loathe the Bush administration, because they have done more than any other government in US history to undermine civil liberties, increase government intrusion into every aspect of life, and wage unnecessary war at taxpayer expense. Don Luskin loves the Bushies, because they keep cutting taxes.

Incidentally, till some time ago, Luskin’s main agenda — practically his only agenda — was attacking Paul Krugman, Princeton professor of economics and NYT columnist. Since the NYT columns disappeared behind a pay firewall, Luskin seems a bit lost for subject matter (other than tax cuts).

Nevertheless, now and then Luskin does come up with some interesting links. For example, his site is where I found a link to this story on how Rudy Giuliani turned around New York City.

When I was growing up, in the 1980s, distant New York merely inspired visions of crime and horror. And with good reason. Since the 1970s, its economy had been going down the tubes, as firms relocated, and street violence had become rampant.

Giuliani turned that around in an astonishingly short time. His strategy was twofold: he was tough on crime, and he was easy on business (big or small). To quote the article: “The private economy, not government, creates opportunity, he argued; government should just deliver basic services well and then get out of the private sector’s way.” In particular, the most basic service was maintaining law and order. He had the reputation of using harsh methods, particularly in minority neighbourhoods, but the article argues that his administration’s record, in terms of dubious police violence, was better than its predecessors’. Meanwhile, to deal with unemployment, he encouraged business by cutting taxes (that were at insanely high levels): the tax cuts caused a boom that actually increased tax revenues. Giuliani also cut spending on a lot of things, including welfare, emphasising jobs (however lowly) instead.

The result? Today New York City (where, post-Giuliani, I spent two years) is among the safest cities in North America, and easily the most vibrant and dynamic. Unemployment has crashed, business and tourism have boomed, you can be on the streets at 3 am and find your way safely home — or find a place to hang out and enjoy yourself, if you prefer.

What can we learn from this? Indian cities (other than Delhi) are not terribly prone to violent crime, but petty crime and sexual harassment are rampant, and unemployment and lack of services are severe problems. Can we replicate some of Giuliani’s success here? I don’t know, and I’m sure that a lot of what Giuliani did won’t work here (and I doubt we have city officials of his commitment and energy). But I wholeheartedly agree with Giuliani’s premises: that the government should supply basic services, and that the government should not be an employer beyond what is necessary to supply those services. In India, we have the opposite situation: basic services are terrible, and the government is an employer on a massive scale (and is expected to be).

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Random traffic

Of the three Indian cities I’ve driven in, Chennai is by far the most civilised — but that’s not saying much: the other cities are Delhi and Bangalore. Visitors from those cities have remarked the same to me.

Some days back I read a humorous post (via desipundit) on gadgets to help you defend yourself from maniac drivers; the gadgets are what I’ve always wanted, but I was taken aback by some of the comments, particularly comment 10. Is Bangalore really that bad?

I have been pulled up by policemen in Chennai, once for going through a light that had just turned red (I was blinded by a bus) and once for taking a left on a red (I’m not sure how I did that). The policemen were remarkably courteous, and one of them was so taken aback when I said “it’s my fault, I know” that he fell chatting with me on all the traffic problems in the city, and eventually waived the fine. (On one previous occasion in Chennai, some years ago, the policeman waived the fine — but that’s because I insisted on a receipt and he couldn’t give me one, and I offered to give him a ride to the police station to get one…)

A couple of days ago, there was a news item that fines for certain Chennai traffic violations are being increased steeply.

Yesterday, I saw policemen pulling up motorists in the wrong lane (seeking to go straight but standing in the left lane, which at that point is divided from the straight lane) and making them turn left instead. The resulting detour would certainly have cost them half an hour, given the jam at that junction, which would probably have hurt them more than a fine. I applaud the idea.

Nevertheless, all these traffic offences are merely annoying, not
dangerous. Here’s what I’d like to see the police crack down
on:


  • Frequent lane-changing, changing lanes without signalling, weaving fast through crowded roads (two-wheelers do this all the time, but many cars and SUVs do too)
  • Tail-gating, that is, following close behind another vehicle at high speeds
  • Overtaking from the left at a left-turn (two-wheelers going straight frequently do this)
  • Moving to the extreme right of an undivided road to overtake, when there is oncoming traffic (Is might really right? If you’re driving a big SUV, bus or truck and flatten that tiny Maruti-800, you may not die yourself, but you’ll be in trouble anyway).
  • Driving in the city with high-beam headlights, or flashing headlights at oncoming traffic (how does it improve your safety to blind the guy coming in your direction?)
  • Unnecessary honking (why do people honk at a red light? I never could figure that out)

Any additions to that list? (We can get to more advanced things like “stop for pedestrians at a crossing without being asked” later, primary education comes first…)

I have never seen the slightest action being taken for such things. They go quite unpunished, unless two vehicles actually hit each other. And even then, unless the damage is severe or someone is injured, the drivers just ignore it and continue their ways.


Another pet peeve… why can’t our traffic signs be standardised? Internationally, there are well-accepted signs for “no entry”, “no parking”, and so on. Here we seem to invent our own at each intersection. And Chennai is full of octagonal red “stop” signs at the most ludicrous places (eg, on the main road, 10m before a traffic light, where — if you do choose to stop — you have no view of the side roads). Apparently nobody bothered to look up what a “stop sign” means.

Random traffic

Of the three Indian cities I’ve driven in, Chennai is by far the most civilised — but that’s not saying much: the other cities are Delhi and Bangalore. Visitors from those cities have remarked the same to me.

Some days back I read a humorous post (via desipundit) on gadgets to help you defend yourself from maniac drivers; the gadgets are what I’ve always wanted, but I was taken aback by some of the comments, particularly comment 10. Is Bangalore really that bad?

I have been pulled up by policemen in Chennai, once for going through a light that had just turned red (I was blinded by a bus) and once for taking a left on a red (I’m not sure how I did that). The policemen were remarkably courteous, and one of them was so taken aback when I said “it’s my fault, I know” that he fell chatting with me on all the traffic problems in the city, and eventually waived the fine. (On one previous occasion in Chennai, some years ago, the policeman waived the fine — but that’s because I insisted on a receipt and he couldn’t give me one, and I offered to give him a ride to the police station to get one…)

A couple of days ago, there was a news item that fines for certain Chennai traffic violations are being increased steeply.

Yesterday, I saw policemen pulling up motorists in the wrong lane (seeking to go straight but standing in the left lane, which at that point is divided from the straight lane) and making them turn left instead. The resulting detour would certainly have cost them half an hour, given the jam at that junction, which would probably have hurt them more than a fine. I applaud the idea.

Nevertheless, all these traffic offences are merely annoying, not
dangerous. Here’s what I’d like to see the police crack down
on:

  • Frequent lane-changing, changing lanes without signalling, weaving fast through crowded roads (two-wheelers do this all the time, but many cars and SUVs do too)
  • Tail-gating, that is, following close behind another vehicle at high speeds
  • Overtaking from the left at a left-turn (two-wheelers going straight frequently do this)
  • Moving to the extreme right of an undivided road to overtake, when there is oncoming traffic (Is might really right? If you’re driving a big SUV, bus or truck and flatten that tiny Maruti-800, you may not die yourself, but you’ll be in trouble anyway).
  • Driving in the city with high-beam headlights, or flashing headlights at oncoming traffic (how does it improve your safety to blind the guy coming in your direction?)
  • Unnecessary honking (why do people honk at a red light? I never could figure that out)

Any additions to that list? (We can get to more advanced things like “stop for pedestrians at a crossing without being asked” later, primary education comes first…)

I have never seen the slightest action being taken for such things. They go quite unpunished, unless two vehicles actually hit each other. And even then, unless the damage is severe or someone is injured, the drivers just ignore it and continue their ways.


Another pet peeve… why can’t our traffic signs be standardised? Internationally, there are well-accepted signs for “no entry”, “no parking”, and so on. Here we seem to invent our own at each intersection. And Chennai is full of octagonal red “stop” signs at the most ludicrous places (eg, on the main road, 10m before a traffic light, where — if you do choose to stop — you have no view of the side roads). Apparently nobody bothered to look up what a “stop sign” means.

How to agree with a wingnut

Watch Stephen Colbert massacre Dinesh D’Souza by choking him with cream here (part two, youtube link).

Some background: Dinesh D’Souza is one of those American “conservatives” who believes that Osama bin Laden hates liberal, secular Americans who allow gay rights, and is the author of a book expounding the thesis that the liberal left caused 9/11. The book has largely met with the contempt it deserves, but D’Souza has managed to get op-ed space in the LA times and elsewhere to expound his thesis.

Meanwhile, Stephen Colbert is a “fake interviewer” who (like Sacha Baron Cohen) achieved much notoriety in 2006. Both were already well known, Cohen for “Da Ali G Show” and Colbert for his previous role in “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”; but Cohen’s movie “Borat” and Colbert’s TV show “The Colbert Report” (which debuted in late 2005) brought them to new audiences, as did Colbert’s infamous live roasting of Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — something few, if anyone, have done to Bush’s face, before or since.

Unlike Cohen, Colbert wears no disguises and does not change his name for his alter ego — he only changes the pronunciation of his surname. His chosen “role” is an aggressively right-wing TV host in the mould of Bill O’Reilly (not the cricketer). Thus, where a typical liberal may try to argue with Dinesh D’Souza, Colbert merely pretends to be O’Reilly or Sean Hannity and eggs him on, but exaggerates the material to such a ridiculous level that even D’Souza is left squirming and attempting to deny the premise of his own book.

Most of Ali G’s and Borat’s hilarious interviews were made when the guest had no idea who the interviewer was: “Borat” was made in America partly because Cohen and his characters were less well known there than in the UK, and with his new celebrity it is unlikely that we will see a “Borat II” (Cohen is planning a new movie on his third alter ego, “Bruno”, but it remains to be seen how that works out). Colbert, too, has suffered a shortage of right-wing targets lately (with left-wingers such as Neil Young, his role tends to descend into buffoonery, since he’s not actually disagreeing with them — though it’s fun to watch all the same). But he still seems capable of occasionally ambushing the likes of D’Souza.

Yes, DHMO is indeed dangerous

For some years now, there has been a campaign devoted to banning a widely-used but often lethal compound, dihydrogen monoxide. The town of Aliso Viejo, California, nearly did ban it in 2004. But the pro-DHMO lobby won out. A few days ago, Jennifer Strange, a mother of three in Sacramento, California, died of DHMO toxicity (and, more specifically, because she was ignorant of the possibility that DHMO could be toxic). She was not the first and will not be the last.

In fairness, DHMO isn’t all bad. It certainly has its legitimate uses. Banning it would have adverse consequences. But every dire claim about it listed here is true. Unfortunately, when people learn that its everyday name is “water”, they laugh off any possibility that it could be bad for you.

Innumerable people have told me that, for good health, one must drink n litres a day, where estimates of n range from 1 (fairly normal under most conditions) to 3 or 4 (which approaches what Ms Strange seems to have consumed). Perhaps because I am not a doctor, perhaps because I’m often skeptical of “alternative medicine”, they are unconvinced by my arguments that (a) the body, for most healthy people, indicates pretty reliably whether one needs water or not; (b) the capacity of one’s kidneys for processing fluid waste is not infinite; (c) consuming large amounts of water dilutes the blood, it doesn’t enrich it.

While (b) can kill in the long term, it is (c) that holds the immediate danger of water intoxication. A low concentration of sodium causes an osmotic flow of water into cells, bloating them. An immediate symptom may be a headache because of swelling of neurons in the brain, causing pressure on them. Other kinds of cells may be affected too. Often the condition is not even diagnosed correctly. (Following the California case, the BBC had a good story on this.)

Marathon runners and other high-endurance athletes are particularly at risk, because they mistake the symptoms for dehydration and drink even more water, eventually putting their lives in danger.

Meanwhile, the “hold your wee for a Wii” contest that did Ms Strange in was doubly stupid: it is dangerous to drink too much water, and it is dangerous to “hold your wee”, as the 14th century astronomer Tycho Brahe is supposed to have found out.

(Aside — I wrote above of peoples’ skepticism that water could be bad for you — but until the middle ages, that was indeed the belief in Europe, as someone pointed out in a talk I attended a few years ago. Water carried deadly diseases; it was a poison even in small quantities. The Europeans, therefore, only drank ale. In Asia, they drank boiled water, or tea.)

The rewards for being wrong

Radar Online has decided to follow up on four prominent moderate journalists who egged on the Iraq disaster, as well as four who were against it from the start, to see what the costs of being wrong were. Answer: “Something is rotten in the fourth estate.”

Two of the four pro-war names will interest Indians: Fareed Zakaria, son of Rafiq Zakaria and international talking head, and Thomas Friedman, flat-earther, best known in India for his wide-eyed reports on Bangalore.

On Zakaria, there is an interesting little nugget about his small behind-the-scenes role in the planning of the war, which doesn’t seem to have excited wide comment.

Friedman, meanwhile, has been one of my pet peeves for years. I used to read (and detest) his drum-beating columns in the run-up to the Iraq war, but Radar seems to have spotted quite a lot that I missed: they offer Friedman quotes that suggest Friedman knew all along that it was a war of choice, that WMD weren’t the issue, that failure was likely, that the consequences of failure would be devastating, and that the Bushies were incompetent idiots. But he rooted for the war anyway.

What I remember from those columns is his child-like faith in the honesty of the US government’s intentions. Even if he thought that they may screw it up, he didn’t think that their motives were anything other than watching democracy flower in the Middle East.

I wasn’t impressed either with the other topic of Friedman’s punditry, globalisation, or the excerpts I read from his book “The world is flat”. (I’ve stopped reading him since the columns disappeared behind a pay firewall, so I don’t know what he’s up to now.) Apparently I’m not alone: here’s The Economist’s scathing review, an equally unflattering review by The Hindu’s Siddharth Varadarajan — one of the few Indian journalists to be less than impressed by him — and here is Matt Taibbi’s hilarious (though sometimes below-the-belt) take. (Friedman is not so much wrong about globalisation — except, as Taibbi points out, in his metaphors — as painfully obvious and uninsightful. In the Economist’s words, “[Mr Friedman’s problem] is that he has so little to say…. Rarely has so much information been collected to so little effect.”)

And finally, here’s Our war with Friedman, that I wrote in 2003 in response to (and based closely on) this Friedman column. (I mailed it to a few friends, who were amused, and to the NYT, who didn’t respond.)

Perhaps a TimesSelect subscriber can tell me whether Friedman has since written a column titled “France was right…”

Wishing you a very happy 2003

Back in 2003, it is well documented that the US expected to be greeted with flowers, as liberators, in Baghdad. It is also well documented that they had an elaborate programme for the Iraqi economy, which they set about implementing as soon as they entered Baghdad. This basically consisted of closing down state-owned factories (that employed over 100,000 Iraqis), radical privatisation, and of course, getting control of the oil.

General Jay Garner was the first man put in charge to oversee the “new Iraq” — but they didn’t tell him what they wanted upfront. When he expressed his opposition to the plans and his preference for putting the Iraqis in charge, he was replaced almost overnight with Paul Bremer. Bremer (obeying his neo-con bosses) disbanded the Iraqi army (only to be forced to put them back on rations), fired the civil servants with Baathist connections (that’s all of them, obviously), closed down the state-run industries, put hundreds of thousands out of work, and generally led the country into the chaos where it still is today. Dissenters were regarded as disloyal, and we know how highly Bush values loyalty.

Today? According to the Washington Post, Bush thinks the dissenters who quit under Bremer may have been right, and wants them to return to Baghdad. Some quotes:

Timothy M. Carney went to Baghdad in April 2003 to run Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals. Unlike many of his compatriots in the Green Zone, the rangy, retired American ambassador wasn’t fazed by chaos. He’d been in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, Phnom Penh as it was falling to the Khmer Rouge and Mogadishu in the throes of Somalia’s civil war. Once he received his Halliburton-issued Chevrolet Suburban, he disregarded security edicts and drove around Baghdad without a military escort. His mission, as he put it, “was to listen to the Iraqis and work with them.”

He left after two months, disgusted and disillusioned…

The decision to send Carney back to Iraq — and to abandon the policies that so rankled him in 2003 — represents a fundamental shift in the Bush administration’s approach to stabilizing the country.

[Lt Gen David H.] Petraeus, who spent 2003 commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, grew dismayed by the heavy-handed tactics fellow military commanders were using to combat insurgents. He also opposed the methods by which Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and fired Baathists from government jobs. And he chafed at the way reconstruction funds, personnel and decision-making were centralized in Baghdad. The CPA’s policies, he said in 2004, should have been “tempered by reality.”

It’s a view the White House now seems to accept.

The plan unveiled by Bush last week calls for many people who lost their jobs under Bremer’s de-Baathification decree to be rehired. It calls for more Sunnis, who were marginalized under the CPA, to be brought into the government. It calls for state-owned factories to be reopened. It calls for more reconstruction personnel to be stationed outside the Green Zone. It calls for a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes providing security to the civilian population over transferring responsibility to local military forces.

Carney believes such measures could have been effective three years ago. Today, he worries they will be too little, too late.

Indeed. I’m amazed Carney, and people like him, want to go back at all after being once bitten by the Bushies.

On another note, it is risible that the neocons — Adelman, Perle, and the rest — who dictated not just the course of the war but the course of the “reconstruction” effort (really the effort at destroying Iraq’s economy) now blame the administration for mismanaging it all.

Of mouse and pen

“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else. Index I copy from old Vladivostok telephone directory.” — Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”

Despite Lehrer’s lampoon, there is no evidence that the real-life Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was a plagiarist. But in the real world, there are many (who have probably never even heard of Lehrer) who take his advice to “plagiarise… only be sure always to call it please, ‘research'” a bit too literally.

When a previously unknown Kaavya Vishwanathan does it, it makes headlines. When The Hindu‘s movie reviewer Gautaman Bhaskaran does it, it is quickly forgotten. When Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz does it, it is largely ignored (and he is exonerated by a former Harvard president).

So what does one do when an undergraduate student does it?

Now and then I take on undergraduates who want to do a short-term project. Three times now I have had students submitting documents to me (twice a project report, once a project proposal) which were crude cut-and-pastes from web sites or review articles. Thanks to the internet and Google, it is easy to do this (I’m told this is how a lot of homework is now done in schools). But Google works for me too — it helps me confirm my suspicions. (Why would I suspect anything? Perhaps because, after all, I am familiar with these students’ command of written English…)

The first time, the students were suitably abashed and turned in more original material. The second time, the student didn’t seem to think it was wrong, and later emailed me saying his college doesn’t object and it’s “only” a preliminary report; luckily he decided not to continue working with me. As for the third time, I’m still awaiting a response… but the copying was so blatant (and it was from a review article that I had supplied!) that, again, I suspect the student didn’t think it was wrong.

Why do they all seem to think it is acceptable, even expected, to write with a mouse? Is it because our educational system encourages students to “mug up” answers and reproduce them verbatim?

A new kind of phone

A very exciting new device is on its way — a mobile phone with just two buttons, and an enormous touchscreen with VGA (480×640) resolution. The touchscreen dynamically shows buttons relevant to the application, so you can go from a phone dialer to PDA-like functions seamlessly. It also includes a GPS chip, GPRS (2.5G), bluetooth, and other essential stuff. Meanwhile, under the hood, it’s a computer running a Unix-like operating system.

And it’s not Apple’s iPhone. In fact, it’s everything the iPhone is not. It’s the FIC Neo1973 Smartphone, running OpenMoko.

The presentation explains the idea. The phone will have only three features out of the box: calling, sending SMS, and “apt-get install”. In other words, you can install what other applications you like — it’s an open development platform based on Linux.

In contrast, the much hyped iPhone

  • will only work with designated carriers (Cingular in the US, who knows when the thing will come to India)
  • won’t let you install third-party software
  • won’t let you sync with your computer wirelessly via Bluetooth or WiFi
  • Has a built-in battery that you can’t replace yourself

(The net has longer lists of complaints, though I see some of them as advantages.)

With the iPhone, Steve Jobs has made one of the world’s smallest computers (it runs Mac OS X, which is Unix under the hood!) and claims it is not a computer (he even used the occasion to remove “computer” from Apple Computer’s name). He further claims that “You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore…”

Well, my PC does not run Windows (and nor, I imagine, does Steve’s Macbook), so installing applications doesn’t cause anything to “not work anymore”. And when I pay $499 to $599 for a device running a form of Unix, I would like to think of it as a computer, and be able to customise it — ideally, program it, but at the very minimum, install what applications I want. But no doubt I don’t constitute Steve Jobs’ main market.

However, I am looking forward to the OpenMoko phone.

Taste

I first encountered the online essays of Paul Graham some years ago: I think it was his essays on programming languages that attracted me. He has long argued that the best tools are not the “most popular” ones, but the ones that experts use, and therefore a manager who wants to attract smart programmers should base the project on Python and not Java. Elegance is as important as power here.

In a recent essay, he explores the question of what constitutes good taste in art, observing early on that

One problem with saying there’s no such thing as good taste is that it also means there’s no such thing as good art. If there were good art, then people who liked it would have better taste than people who didn’t. So if you discard taste, you also have to discard the idea of art being good, and artists being good at making it.

But this is not just another attack on leftie notions of cultural relativism. He essentially argues two things: (1) that taste is determined by the audience, and (2) artists try to trick you.

Art is man-made. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage, and in addition the people who make it often try to trick us. Most people’s judgement of art is dominated by these extraneous factors; they’re like someone trying to judge the taste of apples in a dish made of equal parts apples and jalapeno peppers. All they’re tasting is the peppers. So it turns out you can pick out some people and say that they have better taste than others: they’re the ones who actually taste art like apples.

Or to put it more prosaically, they’re the people who (a) are hard to trick, and (b) don’t just like whatever they grew up with. If you could find people who’d eliminated all such influences on their judgement, you’d probably still see variation in what they liked. But because humans have so much in common, you’d also find they agreed on a lot. They’d nearly all prefer the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to a blank canvas.

I buy that, up to a point. People admire Michelangelo because it is supremely well done, depicts a scene in pitiless detail, and speaks to them directly. They admire Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain because the art critics have told them to admire it. (I don’t suppose anyone admires Duchamp’s “La Joconde aux moustaches”, though it may elicit a smile.)

But is that all there is to it? There is much art that appeals to experts but not to the general public. There is a lot of art that met with initially hostile, even violent reactions (Impressionist painting, Stravinsky’s “Rite of spring”, Bob Dylan’s first electric folk-rock performances) but won over the critics and, eventually, the audiences (in some cases, the other way around). I doubt any of these examples would appeal to someone from a very different culture. Was everyone brainwashed or “tricked” into agreeing that it was good? Or does good art “grow on you”, requiring some time (and some self-education) before it can be assessed?

Who is an expert? By analogy with an expert in programming, let us say that an art expert is not an armchair critic, but someone who produces art that appeals to other experts. (A circular definition, but it doesn’t matter.) To paraphrase what Graham argues in the case of programming tools, perhaps the best art is not the most popular, but what the experts enjoy.

But if we grant that, what do we make of twelve-tone music? Originating from Schoenberg, it caught on with practising musicians and composers to the extent that it dominated “serious” music for the first half of the twentieth century. Yet it never found much favour with audiences, and eventually composers too started to abandon it. Twelve-tone music is still played and recorded, but the market is very small and will likely get smaller.

When do we decide that the experts can see or know something we don’t, and when do we decide that the experts have “tricked” themselves? It appears that, for the most part, history has to be the judge.