Please take a look at my online photos from an amazing trip to Capetown, Namibia (most of the western half of the country), Victoria Falls (the Zambia side), and Sabi Sabi private game reserver (bordering Kruger Park in South Africa.)
Feel free to e-mail me with any travel questions!
In the style of William Safire (I'll be sad to see him go from the NY Times Editorial Page), here's a conversation I can imagine having happened between George W Bush and Karl Rove after the 2nd election:
W: Well, Karl, that was pretty close!
K: Sure was, Chief.
W: Why do you think we had such a hard time when the economy was doing well, even with Iraq being a bit of a challenge?
K: All that matters is that we won...why we won seems unimportant now.
W: Well, I don't think so. I ran the first time on important principles like free trade and limited government. I don't know much, but I know I believe in these things.
W: Well, on your advice the first term was full of steel tariffs, farm subsidies, and the largest one-time increase in entitlements with the medicare drug benefit. You said I needed to do these things to win even though they didn't go along with my beliefs.
K: Well, we won, didn't we?
W: Yes we did, but I don't know if it was because or in spite of my following that advice. I mean, we beat Gore because people thought he was a man without principle, and then you immediately coax me into abandoning my principles for political gain.
K: It's a tough game we play.
W: Well, I'm not playing any more. There are certain things that are just right and I'm not going to avoid them. It's easy now because I don't have to run for anything. I wish it had been easy last term because in hindsight I don't think those big government laws I signed did anything to help me.
K: What about the future of the Republican party?
W: I'll take the heat for pushing Social Security reform. Once that gets traction the rest of the party can follow when they see that people are behind me on this one. This issue is a winner and is a great way to show the country that big issues can be tackled. If we get something done with Social Security, that will give us good leverage to start talking about income tax and medicare reforms.
K: I hope you're right. It's a big gamble, but the payoff could be big if you're right.
W: I'm not embarrassed to say that I care about my legacy and I can think of no legacy I'd be prouder of than being the first president to cause major reform in the socialist policies of the New Deal, the first to step on the "third rail of politics" and not find deadly current....and boy do I hope this Iraq thing works out.
There's a famous quote from Mark Twain (who claimed to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli): "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics".
I was reminded of this when a Bush administration guy talked about how Bush had cut the deficit when it was the highest reported deficit ever based on the logic that the number came in lower than the prior estimate. It's that kind of BS and political/economic doublespeak which gives politicians a bad name and it's especially disappointing coming from a Republican.
My friend Mike recently read a book called "How We Know What Isn't So" by Thomas Gilovich. It talks about errors in common thinking, especially those coming from misunderstanding statistics and probability, something I think about a lot. Here's a link to the book:
I just wanted to talk about one issue from the book in this post, something you might find interesting:
Imagine two children (from different families)...the children are both "C students", i.e. their grades are mostly C's, some B's and D's and a very occasional A or F. The parents of one child punish the child for a grade worse than a C and the parents of the other child reward the child for a grade better than a C.
Which family will be more satisfied with the results of the way they react to grades, the one that punishes or the one that rewards?
It's important to keep in mind that the next grade or two after the parents take their action do not represent a change in trend...and even if they didn't it wouldn't be large. A C student is not magically going to become an A student...he may become a C+ student or worsen to become a C- student, but that's about it, especially in the short term.
So, imagine what happens: The student who gets rewarded for good grades does well in a class and gets a B+. The parents reward him. But he's a C student by nature so his next grade or two are very likely to be around C, that is worse than the B+ grade for which he got rewarded. To these parents, thinking just about the B+ and what comes right afterward, it will appear that rewarding their child does not help his grades...and maybe even hurts them.
Conversely, the parents who punish see their child come home with a D. They punish him and simply due to the fact that the child is really a C student his next two grades are around C, that is they are better than the grade for which he got punished...but NOT BECAUSE he was punished. To these parents it will appear that punishment improved their childs grades because right after the punishment for the D his next two grades were better.
This is a great example of how people mistake a short term event for a true change in the long term character of something. The parents think that their methods either work or don't work for punishment or reward repsectively when neither is actually doing anything. Or if it is doing something they mistakenly think they can tell by just looking at the next grade or two.
This same problem happens often in life and politics and it's something we should all be aware of. When you hear the government tell you that they've cut the deficit for example (ignoring for a moment the fact that it's really a lie), you need to ask not only whether it's a one time thing or a trend, but also whether the change was actually caused by something the government did or whether it's just in the nature of things for that change to have happened.
There are 4 kinds of Lies: Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Government-Supplied Statistics.
This is written in a slightly jet-lagged state from an internet cafe in Capetown, South Africa, one of the nicest small cities in the world.
Yesterday, my friends and I visited Langa, a township just outside Capetown that is home to about a quarter million black South Africans. On Saturday there was a big fire there which destroyed the homes of thousands of people....some were "temporary", i.e. shacks of wood and sheet metal and some were "permanent", i.e. small concrete buildings, 5 units to a block, with one room and a toilet and several families living in each unit.
We drove through the area and were surpised in many ways, almost all of them good. Although it's an area of real poverty, the township was quite clean (very little trash on the streets), there was no sign of crime and our guide said the place was pretty safe and totally safe during the day, and people seemed generally happy whether giving haircuts or cooking sheeps heads to sell to the local people (they can't afford the good parts of the sheep.) Unemployment in the townships is about 60% and HIV rates are at least 40% yet people still flock there from the Eastern Cape for economic opportunity.
We went to an area of large tents which had been set up as shelter for people who had lost their homes and were surprised to see people who seemed happy with laughing kids and adults just doing what they need to do. Apparently when life has always been that hard, a big fire is not much worse than just another day.
Although one could find the scene very depressing, we didn't. It was nothing like the scenes from places hit by the tsunami, and there was a huge difference: even though thousands lost their homes, only one life was lost in the fire.
We bought blankets as well as school clothes and supplies for kids which we brought as a donation. Although it felt like spitting in the ocean in terms of magnitude, our guide was near tears seeing foreigners do such a thing. She had a lot of interesting things to say, particularly about how foreigners were almost all her business...South Africans never go visit the townships and continue to believe all the worst myths or reputations of those places.
A couple of commercial plugs:
Our hotel, where Kristen and I stayed on our honeymoon last year, is just as great as ever, as is Nick, the English proprietor. If you come to Capetown, which I think you should, I highly recommend you stay here:
The Cape Heritage Hotel
Maybe even more interesting, yesterday we visited (but didn't stay at) the smallest hotel in South Africa and I suppose at least tied for the smallest in the world. I couldn't really tell if it was one bedroom or two, but it's called Vicky's Bed and Breakfast and it's in the Khayelitsha township, which is home to over half a million people. It's basically Vicky's house, nicely done up and comfortable for her guests, most of whom are German or Dutch. They do walking tours of the township while you visit as well as taking you to a township bar or music club in the evening. I'll definitely try it for a night next time I go. The current price is 170 Rand per person per night and the current exchange rate is about 6 rand per dollar...essentially the strongest the rand has been for many many years.
Vicky's B and B: http://journey.digitalspace.net/vicky.html
Capetown is a fantastic city, with great food, music and culture, near to lots of natural beauty, wine country, beaches, and close to perfect except for the crime rate (still much better than any other city in South Africa) and its inconvenient location. South Africans are without a doubt the friendliest people on Earth.
I give it my highest possible recommendation as a place to visit.
I'm a bit too dizzy from jet lag to write a lot more now, but I'll try to post again from Namibia sometime next week.
I'm going back to one of my favorite parts of the world: South Africa and Namibia. I'll be back on Feb. 6, and I probably won't have the chance to post here again before then.
Have a great few weeks!
PUBLISHED in the Boulder Daily Camera, 1/8/05
Re: “Land of Penny Pinchers”, NY Times 1/5/05, Nicholas Kristof
(also Boulder Daily Camera 1/6/05 “Kristof: Yes, we are stingy”
To the Editors:
Mr Kristof’s characterization of American generosity presents a misleading caricature of our financial contributions to the world.
First, the statistics he quotes represent only giving by governments and ignore the massive amounts donated by our citizens to charities which then make their way to people in need around the world.
Second, the statistics ignore the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on sending our military to help recovery efforts.
Third, we must remember that the US pays more than a quarter of the budget of NATO and nearly a quarter of the UN’s budget, funding organizations that have always done much more for other countries than for ourselves.
Other countries only appear more generous when incomplete statistics and deceptive arguments are used to hide the fact that the world’s charitable engine continues, as always, to run substantially on dollars from the United States.
The numbers coming from countries around the Indian Ocean are so large that they leave me, and I suspect others, almost unable to react. I resolve to fight mental numbness.
Many of you know that my younger brother died in May. That was the saddest, most traumatic, most senseless event that has ever happened to anyone in my family. It’s been a very difficult half-year, and the only good that has come from it has been the establishment of the Cliff Kaminsky Foundation (www.cliffkaminsky.org) which my family set up in Cliff’s honor.
Unlike many Americans, I’ve been to many of the places affected by the tsunami, including India, the Maldives, the Seychelles, southern Thailand, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. I’ve met the people, learned about the cultures, seen how life really is in places most people never see and many could not even locate on a map. I feel a profound connection to that part of the world. I feel deeply sad and helpless seeing 6-figure numbers of deaths coming from places of which I have fond memories.
I hear about an entire train full of people washing away and having been on such trains some part of me can almost picture the scene, yet the scene is so horrible and impossible that my mind immediately dismisses it much as my mind did for a long time after hearing about my brother. It just can’t be possible.
A rational brain can’t rationalize it. A sensible brain can’t make sense of it.
Sure, I’ve made a donation to the Red Cross, but it’s absolutely unsatisfying knowing it’s all I can do. People have lost whole generations of their families. This tsunami has washed away not only people and houses but maybe also hope.
Sometimes my mind banishes thoughts of the disaster, as it did after the death of Cliff. Yet I don’t want to banish the thoughts. I want to help. I want it to be better. I want it never to have happened....
Sometimes I think I’d like at least to learn a lesson from terrible events but then I can’t really think of any positive lesson from such senseless tragedy.
Such a sad beginning to a year following what was already the saddest year for my family.
I resolve not to let the tsunami wash away my hope or my joy for life, and to do what I can to help people affected by this disaster recover theirs.
Re: Tug-of-war over Social Security (Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times, 12/30)
To the Editors:
Although Mr. Novak's discussion of transition costs is on target, the case for private ownership of retirement accounts is not just about current costs versus future savings.
Beside the fact that the current system is heading towards bankruptcy there are other powerful arguments against today's Social Security which are not made frequently enough. These include:
1) Payroll taxes are often the largest tax paid by low income workers yet the current system discriminates against two worker families and minorities (due to life expectancy),
2) The Supreme Court has ruled that Social Security is just another tax. It is absolutely not insurance and there is no guarantee of benefits,
3) The current system has no property rights. Once your money is paid in it belongs to Uncle Sam whereas private accounts can not be taken from you by a whim of government and would allow retirement savings to be passed on in one’s will, and
4) Social Security surpluses are spent, not invested, allowing the government to mask even more irresponsible overspending than most people already believe exists.
Re: Lobbying Tab Is $1.1 Billion for Half a Year (LA Times, Dec. 29)
To the Editors:
While there are unsavory aspects to lobbying and its relationship to legislators, lobbying itself even on a large scale is not inherently a cause for worry. It is important to remember that lobbying groups are not magically rich; their funding comes from members or supporters and thus a "special interest" often represents an efficient way for a large number of people to reach their Congressmen. Furthermore much lobbying funding comes from voluntary contributions, a far cry more democratic than unions' diversion of mandatory dues to political causes which members might not support.
PUBLISHED in the Christian Science Monitor 12/31/04
Re: New Year's resolutions for the red and the blue (Christian Science Monitor, Opinion, 12/28/04)
To the Editors:
Mr. Chinni suggests the Republicans "stay firm in (their) beliefs". I think a better resolution for the red would be to figure out what those beliefs are. Bush's first term was characterized by massive spending, growth of entitlements, and policies inimical to free trade. The recent election gives some reason to think that will change. However, if the Republicans don't return to their role as protectors of limited government and free markets, we might find the red and the blue with disturbingly similar resolutions.