Redrawing the map

I caught up on a lot of podcasts today, notable ones include Planet Money’s final Iceland report and the intriguing birther/Trump vs Obama political wrangling on both KCRW’s Left, Right and Center as well as the New Yorker’s Political Scene. Of course I was consumed, as much of the world was, by the news that Osama bin Laden was killed outside Islamabad early this morning.

What I find most interesting though is the stalemate that has developed in Libya. Last week’s Economist had an article about the siege of Misrata and the necessity for US drone and A-10 support for any real success to emerge for the rebels. It’s become clear though that Qaddafi is not likely to simply be overthrown by emboldened supporters turned against him (either the unwashed masses or those closest to him) nor by that rag-tag coalition loosely headquartered around Benghazi. As such, NATO stepped up its selected “strategic targeting” of military compounds that all just happen to be places where the Qaddafi family hangs out (but this is definitely not an assassination attempt). It seems we’re hoping that cutting off the head of the snake will dissolve the defenders of the status quo. This move succeeded in Iraq – after Saddam’s death no one remained to defend his government really – but it was a frying pan/fire situation at best.

Which is why I found an Economist online poll ( interesting. Is simply partitioning the country appropriate?

A simple look at the map of Africa reveals far too many straight lines, a sign of arbitrary colonial cartographers rather than national and ethnic association. Many of the current problems come from this awkward hodge-podge of countries, with Muslim sections fighting Christian regions (Sudan, Ivory Coast, Nigeria) or historical autonomous regions smarting from distant rule (Morocco). Letting these countries redraw the map wouldn’t promote the western liberal multicultural ideal (that few western countries practice despite their preaching, France being only the most recent example). But with each nationality firmly in control of their state, disagreements could be compromised in a meeting of equal heads of state, rather than in contentious, rigged elections for winner-take-all. As the AU gains power, a loose set of guidelines could become prevalent, deferring to an authority that normally would be rejected for internal matters.

Of course, nations wage devastating war and in this instance such a partition would only change the name of Libya’s war, and the end game would still be a unified Libya sans Qaddafi. But such a change might gain some breathing room for the rebels to learn how to govern and save some face for Qaddafi to promote a bloodless (relatively) transition from power.

Media type: Online poll
From: The Economist
Title: Would the partition of Libya be a bad thing?
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Ads versus content

I’ve had an iPhone for just over two years now, so you can imagine how eager I am to switch carriers and phones.  In my early research I was leaning towards a smart new up and comer: Samsung’s Galaxy.  The phone itself has some nice features (automatic wifi music sync, no cords necessary) and has been highly reviewed by all the right techies.  Even better was that it was being heavily promoted by T-Mobile, so the discounts would be decent on a cheaper network than the abysmal AT&T.

Assuming you’ve turned on a radio/TV/website in the past week you know where this is going.  I could talk about the crappy state of American telecoms if 4 became 3, the pathetic auctioning of cellular frequencies that will surely be repeated for the 4G services that managed both to not raise much money and to exclude new entrants  (especially compared to Britain’s awesome auction proceeds AND new companies), or the lack of handheld tech innovation we’ll see when Apple et al can only shop their wares at two companies.

Instead I’m going to talk about the Economist.  They wrote a two-page brief on the negative effect this acquisition would have, focusing mainly on rebuffing AT&T’s claims that it would bring infrastructure investment (it didn’t as the Ma Bell monopoly, after a similar promise) and that there still would be regional competitors (consumers focus on national plans, hence AT&T’s marketing campaign about covering 97% of Americans).  As if the Economist wasn’t clear, they dedicated one of their leaders stating just how much they condemned such a deal.  And then, they printed two full-page ads AT&T had bought.

My first thought was: bully for the Economist, not letting advertiser dollars purchase editorial influence.  Afterall, how many of us are brave enough to tell our boss they’re a moron and not to be trusted?  But my second thought was: I wonder if AT&T will buy space in next week’s edition, and why did the Economist take the money?

I know why they took the money, the advertising section is assuredly separate from the editorial staff, I doubt they ever talk (as it should be, to allow independence).  But it would be foolish for AT&T to continue plowing money into a publication that will devote equal copy to their competitors for free.  Of course, that’s not really true, the Economist isn’t arguing that we as consumers shouldn’t buy AT&T, just that their business strategy is harmful.  But in the end, readers of the Economist are going to be more influenced by the articles than the ads, and the telecom’s brand will diminish.  I’d think it’d be better for the company to advertise on more neutral ground: Wired, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, etc.  While each of these has published something nasty about AT&T, they do not frequently keep up on on-going stories like the Economist, which surely will carry the AT&T story at every stage.

Case in point: Bahrain.  For months I saw successive ads touting the pro-business, politically-free environment of the Gulf emirate.  And then the Arab Spring started and it wouldn’t matter how many ads King al-Khalifa took out when the Economist covered the riots and editorialized against the government.  AT&T is better served getting its house in order.

Media type: Magazine
From: the Economist
Title: An audacious merger with a poor reception
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People Power vs Actual Power

Unless you live in China, you can’t escape the near constant reporting on the upheaval in the Middle East and north Africa over the past two months.  The jasmine revolution continues to inspire demonstrations, riots and outright rebellion from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic.  We may be witnessing a world-changing event on par with the various color revolutions in eastern Europe of barely a generation ago.  It is easy for the media and the casual observer to get swept up in the belief that when the people truly want change, change is inevitable.  Numerous articles in such high-thinking publications as the Economist, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times tell us that regardless of short-term stability we should always be pro-democracy, or else we end up on the wrong side of such history!

No one can deny the power of an outraged populous, and current events serve only to remind us of that.  The theory that greater access to communication and information help break authoritarian rule suggest that as xerox and personal computers were to the Soviets, so twitter and facebook are to the Arab autocrats.  But that is hardly the end of the story.

People have continually risen up against oppressive regimes.  Prague Spring, Tienamen Square, and the Green Revolution in Tehran are all examples of people power trying to burst the dam but ultimately falling short.  All three of these examples were quashed by a no-nonsense military crackdown.  As with all things political, one only has to look back to the Roman Republic crisis to see that a disrupted population can be brought to heel with the use of a disciplined military and its unflinching commander.  For all his craziness, Qaddafi seems to have understood this fact and despite near-universal disgust may yet cling to power.  Even civilized Bahrain toys with more forceful tactics as it inches closer to instability.

So while the west’s role in propping up dictators may be outdated, instead of backing various pro-democracy groups we should instead put our focus on creating tighter bonds with nations’ armies .  In the chaos of a new order, revolutionaries can get shut out of the very government they helped make possible in favor of stronger figures; but those with the biggest guns always seem to find a seat at the table.  Such influence may be enough to convince leaders not to let loose the dogs of war.  Slow, steady influence may even help convince them that their fate is tied with the citizens-at-large.  While some demonstrations have overcome armed response (Kyrgyzstan, the Bolsheviks, even the American Revolution), few regimes have stayed in power when the army takes itself out of the equation.

Media type: Online news
From: Al-Jazeera
Title: Thousands protest in Bahrain
Read it at: Thousands protest in Bahrain – Middle East – Al Jazeera English

The agony of choice

What to start this blog with?

I’m an OCD type: after skimming the current week’s Economist, I put it in a pile of magazines (stacked chronologically) to revisit in my spare time.  Which means I’m finally getting to the double-edition put out at year’s end.  As one would expect, there are a number of gems in this issue.  One of the highlights was a much-forwarded article on the futility of going for a PhD (popular in the academic circles).  Of course the issue also had an article on the history of the modern suit…

Still, I was struck by the insight of ‘You Choose’.  In it the authors examine how the increasing amount of choice has come to paralyze our decision-making abilities, decreasing sales, increasing frustration, and fueling a whole new branch of self-help.

On first glance, more choice seems like more money: diminishing returns, but always better.  Try finding a vegetarian-friendly restaurant in a small town or watching a good sitcom during the summer.  Indeed, in an age where inequality seems a product of limited options available to the disadvantaged we are indoctrinated with the power of choice.

But it’s not always so.  ‘You Choose’ makes good use of available marketing studies as cautionary tales.  A California grocery chain found that customers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam after a taste test if there were only six flavors as opposed to 24.  This despite the fact that more shoppers stopped by with more flavors.  Head & Shoulders saw a 10% uptick in sales when it downsized from 26 to 15 varieties of shampoo.

The article quotes very-informed sounding individuals who point out that greater choice means a greater chance of finding the perfect choice, and our frustration at failing to find said perfect choice rises as we waste more time searching.  As an undergrad I experienced this same feeling searching through an exhaustive course directory looking for an elective; and then again when it came time to purchase my first car (Scion tC, no regrets on that front).

When reading this argument I was struck by a particular predicament I find myself in.  As a graduating doctoral student I am faced with a plethora of choices right now: which companies to apply for a job, which city do I want to live in, is my girlfriend ‘the one’?

This last point may sound unrelated, but recently I heard the analysis that when to marry is at its basic an economics question: is my mate better than what I’m likely to find if I continue to look, discounting the time?  In other words, consider finding a spouse like picking a dollar bill from a hat.  The denomination of bills in that hat ranges from $1 to $100, and the proportion of each bill is inverse to its value.  If you pull a $20 are you likely to throw it back and keep picking?  Of course you are if you know there’s only a few more $20s than $50s.  But what if you know that for every five $20s there’s but a single $50 but 100 $1s?

Thus, in a world where we are connected to an ever-wider group of people of ever-more diverse backgrounds and personalities, our choice for spouse is almost exponentially greater than the previous generation (and mind-boggling greater than their parents’).  Similarly, the author hypothesizes that modern women have greater choice on when to have children and feel ever more stressed about having a family.

Am I arguing against choice because of my own indecisiveness (and stereotypical fear of lost youth)?  No.  More choice means a wider availability of niches, supporting more individualized tastes.  Amazon makes more money off all the books in its “long tail” then on the few blockbusters that Dan Brown produces.  More choice means more competition from businesses, driving down prices and increasing the pressure for innovation.  Of course, being a newly minted PhD, the current plethora of choice in the labor market means fewer offers and lower pay!


Media type: Magazine Article
From: The Economist – Dec 16 2010
Title: ‘You Choose’
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