Archive for September, 2011


The MacArthur “genius” grants this year went to — as always — some awesomely creative people. It’s exciting to see this award given to those you already admire because it’s $500k in absolutely no-strings-attached cash; they’ll be able to do a lot more of the good stuff they’re already doing.

One recipient is Jad Abumrad, of the show Radiolab. If you’re not already listening to the show it’d be a disservice to just say it’s a radio show about science. A better take comes from Ira Glass in this appreciation of Radiolab:

Take the opening of their show on the mathematics of random chance, stochasticity. The first aesthetic choice Jad and Robert make is that they don’t say you’re about to listen to a show about math or science. They don’t use the word stochasticity. They know those things would be a serious turn off for lots of people. In doing this, Jad and Robert sidestep most of the conventions of a normal science show – hell, of most normal broadcast journalism.

Or try the recent short episode “Damn It, Basal Ganglia.”

Another recipient is author/journalist Peter Hessler. He’s written three books on China: Country Driving (which I haven’t gotten to yet) which was preceded by Oracle Bones and River Town, his first book. The best thing about these books is that they convey (as nothing else I’ve read has) the incredible pace of change in China. Hessler picks and chooses stories and builds them into a narrative arc that would make a novelist weep for joy. In this post-MacArthur interview Hessler says his next step is to learn Arabic in Egypt and write about the Middle East. This bodes well for fans of long-form journalism.

So who will win it next year, or in years to come? MacArthur’s tend to go to folks who are decently well-known within their own field, not for being the best at a traditional discipline but for pushing the boundaries of that field in some way. My picks for people who might win in the next 10 years include:

  • Jonah Lehrer, science writer extraordinaire. (Proust was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, blog).
  • Sheri Fink (MD/PhD) is a journalist currently working for ProPublica. She won a Pulitzer recently for her reporting on deaths at a hospital following Hurricane Katrina, but I think her best work today is still her first and only book, War Hospital, which tells the story of the people (and half dozen doctors) trapped in the Srebrenica enclave during the Bosnian War. It’s incredibly under-appreciated.
  • Siddharta Mukherjee, obviously.
  • Honorable mention: David McCandless of Information is Beautiful (if he just moved to the US he’d be eligible…)

Who else do you think — or hope — might win?


09 2011

Pascal's Wager of Ebola

An argument for always assuming the worst when you get sick:


09 2011


Why is so much real policy debate done behind closed doors? Joseph Stiglitz’s “The Private Uses of Public Interests” (PDF) argues that sometimes it’s for security… but most of the time it’s to protect private interests:

The one argument that may have some merit is that hiding information may sometimes provide a tactical advantage in the political bargaining game. But my own experience is that all too often, secrecy is neither justified by national security interests, nor as a prerequisite for rational and thoughtful debate, nor even as a tactical necessity in a broader strategy, but rather, secrecy serves as a cloak behind which special interests can most effectively advance their interests, outside of public scrutiny. There is an old expression that sunshine is the most powerful antiseptic. In this sense, I understood why discussions concerning privatizing the production of enriched uranium-the critical ingredient of nuclear bombs-had to proceed in secrecy. It was not because national security would have been jeopardized, but because there rightly might have been a public outcry if it was known that we wererisking nuclear proliferation for at most a meager few hundred million dollars. I also understood why discussions concerning ethanol had to be conducted in secret-again, private interests seeking favorable treatment might have might have failed to get what they wanted had there been an open public discussion, especially amidst accusations that campaign contributions seemed to affect public policy.


09 2011

Machine gun roundup: the story gets worse

Machine Gun Preacher opens widely today. I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy that went up last night titled “Machine Gun Menace.” It’s mostly a summary of what I’ve written before on Childers (here, here, and here) but with some new material — including Childers’ denial to me of ever having sold arms — and some further thoughts on the perils of armed humanitarianism. It starts with my favorite quote from Childers’ book: “The Lord I serve is the living Lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!” You can read the full article here. Thanks to Joshua Keating at FP for the chance to take the arguments I’ve made here to a broader audience (and to my friend Jesse for editing help).

Dave Gilson brings the story to another audience at Mother Jones and Scott Baldauf at the Christian Science Monitor, who expressed early interest in the story, also writes about it there.

But the biggest new information on Sam Childers comes in this Christianity Today story by Mark Moring (with reporting in South Sudan by Uma Julius and Esther Nakkazi). I’ve been a bit frustrated by this whole Childers story since I first started writing about it, as I don’t have the resources (or time, as a full time grad student) to travel and do the research necessary to address all the doubts raised by Childers’ stories. Since I started writing on him I’ve received several emails from folks who previously or currently work in South Sudan, expressing a range of doubts — but most of them did not want to be quoted by name for various reasons.

It looks like Moring, Julius, and Nakkazi have done the hard work of asking around to people in the community — moving beyond the sort of trip where journalists only see what the charity wants them to see. If even half of the allegations they convey are true then this whole series of events is an absolute travesty: dozens if not hundreds of media outlets have interviewed, written about, or featured Childers. It seems that very, very few asked any critical questions or presented his story with much complexity. Some of this may be about resource constraints, but the questions are beginning to be asked now that the movie is coming out, so it’s hard to say that’s the whole story. I think one lesson for the future is this: when you talk to a supposed humanitarian making outlandish claims, it is not OK to only talk to them. Their actions affect others, and media should be more than megaphone-holding cheerleaders or fundraisers.

Back to the Christianity Today story. It opens:

Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals—including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military—tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation.

Community leaders want his orphanage in Nimule—near the border with Uganda—to be shut down immediately, and for local ministries to take over. In a September 2 letter to Childers, 14 local leaders—including the man who says he gave 40 acres of land to Childers to build the orphanage—wrote that Chiders has “dishonored our agreement” to take care of orphans, and that they demand “immediate closure of the compound.” Childers told CT he never received that letter.

So it sounds like Childers may not have the community support you’d expect if he was doing good work. Childers predictably blames the allegations all on a disgruntled former employee. (Careful followers of aid scandals will note the almost exact parallel between that and Greg Mortenson’s reaction to allegations against him — Mortenson at first blamed almost everything on a disgruntled and dishonest former employee). If that was the only source of these accusations there would be plenty of reason to doubt them. But here’s more from an American doctor who visited in 2009:

Wilson said no adults—including Childers—were at the orphanage when his team visited in 2009, but that they left medicine and antibiotics with clear instructions how to administer them. But when they returned two days later, none of the medicine had been given to the children.

“I don’t know what to do,” Wilson said, “but I have to do something.” He ended up asking CT to investigate, and several people we spoke with recently confirmed what Wilson and the nurse observed.

They go on to talk about the health problems many of the children were having. Really, read it. There’s also a claim that echoes a criticism someone in South Sudan emailed to me, that Childers often stages photographs and acts differently when media are around:

Okumu and others said they witnessed Childers staging photographs of himself fighting against the LRA in order to make his story sound more compelling and to attract more donors to his ministry. Okumu said Childers used guards and children from the orphanage to stage the photos nearby. “He claimed to be rescuing kidnapped children from the LRA,” Okumu said. “But it was false. He just took pictures of the children in the bush around the compound here.”

Seth Trudeau, who is involved with another orphanage in Nimule, South Sudan, says that Childers’ orphanage was shut down by the local government last month. If that’s true, it raises the question of why and how Childers is still promoting the movie to raise money for his charity (I haven’t read that the orphanage was actually shut down anywhere else). Seth writes this:

Over the course of the last year, Sarah and I knew extended families who were taking their children away from the home, which surprised us. As the LRA’s strength had waned in South Sudan, this children’s home had broadened its focus from rescued child soldiers to all orphans and vulnerable children – which made it all the more shocking to us that families would be taking their children back: by definition, these children had come to the home because the families were so ill equipped to care for the children in the first place. At CCH, we had families who would lie about their circumstances in order to get their children in, so it struck us as strange that the opposite phenomenon was taking place on the other side of town.

Very strange indeed. If the children had extended families that could take care of them but just lacked the resources, it raises the troubling question of whether an orphanage was an appropriate charity model in the first place. Why not just support the families so they can care of the kids themselves? That — along with the stories of Childers being absent for long periods of time and the lack of adults on site — remind me again of criticism of orphanages as an aid model (here and here) at the blog Good Intentions Aren’t Enough. Hopefully the attention from the movie and these first critical reports will lead to more questions being asked and answered.


09 2011


Elizabeth Warren:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Spot on, from the social contract to the big hunk and paying it forward. (h/t Jesse)


09 2011

Monday Miscellany

Amanda Taub of Wronging Rights writes on private cities in Africa.

Ben Goldacre explores a common statistical mistake in neuroscience journals, based on this article in Nature Neuroscience.

Over the last decade the CIA has increasingly focused on killing people.

“Pakistan views India as the perpetual enemy and the US as an unfaithful ally.” (source)

The always interesting (at least for evaluation nerds) World Bank Development Impact blog has this post on “partner selection bias,” which is evidently about organizations — not STI transmission dynamics or gender roles.

Princeton professors reflect on 9/11:

When [Woodrow] Wilson School professor Stanley Katz remembers 9/11, his first thoughts are not of Sept. 11, 2001, but rather of the walk to his office in Robertson Hall the very next day. That his workplace and the now-demolished World Trade Center at the base of Manhattan Island had been designed by the same architect — Minoru Yamasaki — had never, before the morning of Sept. 12, stood out in such high relief to Katz, who began to notice eerie similarities between the buildings.


09 2011

Music for math + econ

Music for math: “I Will Derive”:

And music for economics: “Fear the Boom and Bust,” a Keynes vs. Hayek rap battle…:


09 2011