Archive for November, 2010

Monday Miscellany

  • Alex Strick van Linschoten writes about “Five Things David Petraeus Wants You to Believe” about the war in Afghanistan. Van Linschoten’s five things are: (spoiler: he doesn’t think you should believe them) 1) The momentum has shifted in our favor, 2) “The Night Raids and Targeting of the Insurgency’s Leadership is an Effective Tool,” 3) “The Military Effort is Subservient to Broader Political Goals,” 4) “Mullah Mohammad Omar is irrelevant,” 5) “Don’t mind the Afghan Government.”
  • Patient safety is not improving at US hospitals despite lots of efforts to reverse the trend. Maybe the moral is that changing big institutions is really hard, even in a wealthy country that spends a huge chunk of its GDP on health care.
  • Roving Bandit writes about being censored for blogging about development work.
  • Chris Blattman on whether Brazil, China, India, and South Africa should get UN Security Council seats.
  • Ian Desai writes about the largely-hidden assistants who helped make Gandhi great.


11 2010

Africa is Really Big

This has been going around the development blogs, but I think it’s still worth posting in case you haven’t seen it. The Mercator projection maps that we’re so used to seeing greatly exaggerate the size of objects far from the equator while shrinking those close to it. Africa (at 11.7 million square miles) is larger than North America (9.5 million square miles) but appears roughly the same size as Greenland (a measly 0.8 million square miles).

But this is the true size of Africa in comparison to the continental US, China, India, and most of Europe:

The True Size of Africa infographic

(h/t to the always fascinating Information is Beautiful)

This map also reminds me of an ODT map on display in one of the hallways at Hopkins. While it also uses the Mercator projection, it has the South as up and the North as down, showcasing just how arbitrary are designation of North as up really is. Something like this:

If any readers want to get me the Peters equal-area South-is-up map as the ultimate geek gift for the holidays, I would be eternally grateful.


11 2010

Aid Workers vs. Journalists?

UPDATE: I mistakenly assumed the commenter name “ansel” was a pseudonym, so my comments on anonymity in the final paragraph may not be as applicable. Updates in brackets.

Interesting debate going on at Tales From the Hood: First, J (the anonymous aid worker blogger behind Tales), wrote “Dear Journalists: What to look for in aid programs,” which includes suggestions like “Understand that you cannot evaluate a project, program or organization during one-day visit….Ask about learning…. Ask about outcomes….Use logic… Understand ambiguity…[and] Understand that things are almost never the way they seem.” The summary sounds pretty basic, but the details aren’t necessarily as simple.

Which prompted a lengthy comment from someone named ansel [Ansel Herz of MediaHacker]: “Dear aid groups, Do not invite us on one-day tours of your programs and expect them to be useful to us in any way…. We need to be able to come out to where you’re working unannounced and talk with you – your people in the field….Do not send out press releases over and over simply listing off the sheer numbers of stuff you’ve distributed or have stocked in warehouses as if it indicates how much you’ve accomplished. Quality of life is not measured by those (nearly impossible to verify independently) numbers.” Etc.

J responded at length with a follow-up post (that probably stand alone if you’re only going to read one link). There are several points of agreement — on NGOs needing to be more open, for example — but the main disagreement is over “supply and demand” of lousy, feel-good information. Do NGOs give it to journalists because the journalists demand it, or do journalists take it from NGOs because it’s all they can get? (I know, a bit simplified — so check out the links.)

Of course, some of the debate  was prompted by J and [Ansel]’s tone, which is unfortunate. While I understand the necessity of anonymous blogging, I think this debate is one where the tones would have been slightly different — and more productive — had both writers been commenting under their own names. Still, seeing the [partially] anonymous back-and-forth gives you an idea of the animus that can exist between the different actors.


11 2010


If you’re a fan of reading long articles online (such as from Long Form) or just read a lot of different things on your web browser, I recommend checking out the excellent Readability plugin.

Here’s how Readability in Google Chrome renders this Atlantic article on parallels between mutations in genetic code and mutations in the text of hand-copied ancient manuscripts. The default version of the article:

Readability version of the article, with ads and other distractions removed, larger font, and more pleasing background color:

You can customize your settings, including font, font size, background color, and width of the text body. Check it out.


11 2010


Here are two semi-related articles: one by William Easterly about how aid to Ethiopia is propping up an oppressive regime, and another by Rory Carroll on the pernicious but well-intentioned effects of aid tourism in Haiti.

Basically, it’s really hard to do things right, because international aid and development are not simple. Good intentions are not enough. You can mess up by funneling all your money through a central regime, or by having an uncoordinated, paternalistic mess.

A couple confessions. First, I’m a former “aid tourist.” In high school and college I went on short-term trips to Mexico, Guyana, and Zambia (and slightly different experiences elsewhere). My church youth group went to Torreon, Mexico and helped build a church (problematize that). In Guyana and Zambia I was part of medical groups that ostensibly aimed to improve the health of the local people; in hindsight neither project could have possibly had any lasting effects on health, and likely fostered dependency.

Second, I’m an aspiring public health / development professional, and I’m afraid. I don’t want to be the short-term, uncoordinated, reinventing-the-wheel, well-intention aid vacationer — and I think given my education (and the experience I hope to continually gain) I’m more likely to avoid at least some of those shortcomings. But I’m scared that my work might prop up nasty regimes, or satiate a bloated aid industry that justifies its projects to sustain itself, or give me the false impression of doing good while actually doing harm.

I think the first step to doing better is being afraid of these things, but I’m still learning where to go from here.


As evidenced by my posting schedule, things have been busy. The quarter system is kind of fast — since August we’ve already had first quarter midterms and finals and second quarter midterms and are now finishing those up and gearing up for finals.

I have a lot of thoughts I want to share — and a whole folder full of PDFs to post about — but for now I’ll just share this comic I drew in my biostats class:


11 2010