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Frog by Mo Yan


The plague of snow here in Boston enabled me to read Frog by Mo Yan.  The book seems more accessible to a U.S. reader in its themes than the typical work of a non-American Nobelist. At the core of the story is an older infertile woman who attacks the fertility of younger women, i.e., in line with a lot of Western fairy tales. The “old witch” in Frog, however, attacks the younger women not with the aid of spells but through a “one-child policy” bureaucracy and the coercive power of the state.

The book opens with a discussion of traditional medicine being supplanted by modern techniques. We learn the philosophy of the wisest midwife in China circa 1950: “The melon will fall when it is ripe.” (Not something the American health care system generally agrees with, as noted in The Business of Being Born.)

The central section is the most familiar, covering the struggle between people who wanted to have at least two children and the state.

The last third of the novel covers the softening of the policy into cash fines, readily affordable for the successful but prohibitive for the poor. As in the U.S., the wealthy infertile also have access to surrogate mothers, though the medical bureaucracy is not as involved as here (think turkey baster!), and the surrogate mom is also the egg donor. Throughout the novel, but especially in the last third, there is a focus on the cash implications of children and child birth, what they cost parents and what has to be paid when things go wrong, e.g., a botched abortion that results in the death of the mother.

For people who’ve recently read The Son Also Rises (see below), Frog is interesting because it highlights how Chinese policy has shaped reproduction by social and educational class. In the early days of “one child” the government encouraged the least educated and economically successful people, i.e., peasant farmers, to have more children. More recently the “you can have as many kids as you want if you pay the fines” system encourages the most financially successful Chinese to have relatively more children. Frog should be interesting to Europeans because the Chinese have been working so hard in the opposite direction, i.e., to discourage fertility rather than encourage it. Frog should be interesting to American political thinkers (oxymoron to have those three words together?). Through immigration the U.S. will eventually get to the same levels of crowdedness as China did. What will we do then and what will it feel like to be a citizen living through it?

More: read Frog.


You know you’re a parent #452…


You know you’re a parent when (1) nobody invites you to an Oscars-watching party, (2) you forget that the Oscars are actually being broadcast, (3) you check out the awards on the Web and realize that you haven’t seen even one of the movies that earned awards.

What’s useful about the long lines at the California DMV?


Under the “success has many fathers” principle (failure is an orphan, of course) I wish to take credit for an awesome new iOS puzzle game: Patchmania. The creator, Jon Grall, was a star student in Software Engineering for Internet Applications (free online textbook) at MIT. Grall figured out the best and cheapest way to test the game: head for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. See his article “Playtesting Mobile Games at the DMV” for more proof of Hal Abelson’s theory that there is an inverse correlation between age and intelligence at MIT.

What happens when you combine the world’s two most arrogant organizations?


“The Government’s Bad Diet Advice” by Nina Teicholz (nytimes, Feb 20) is about what happens when you combine the world’s two organizations most certain that their employees are way smarter than the average American: the U.S. government and Harvard University. Notable excerpts:

the primary problem is that nutrition policy has long relied on a very weak kind of science: epidemiological, or “observational,”

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government’s dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard’s school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard’s most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

Americans have been the subjects of a vast, uncontrolled diet experiment with disastrous consequences.


Health insurance premiums should be counted as tax revenue?


Among advanced economies, the U.S. has a moderate tax revenue as a percentage of the GDP. This chart shows federal, state, and local taxes to be roughly 35 percent of GDP (33 percent is the estimate for FY2015).

With Obamacare, however, the government now forces citizens, either individually or through employers, to purchase health insurance from a set of government-selected vendors. How is that materially different from a European government forcing citizens to pay some extra tax and then providing (or paying for) health care?

If we consider health insurance to be a tax, we have to add in roughly 9% of GDP to the tax burden, bringing the total U.S. tax burden up to over 40 percent of GDP and government spending to over 50 percent (probably higher if the cost of government pension commitments were accounted for properly).  Adding in the nominally private health insurance premium costs, the U.S. would have a smaller private sector than most European countries. We would be more government-dominated than Sweden, Germany, Greece, or the U.K. (Guardian table). We would be in the same ballpark as France and Denmark.

Does it matter? I think so. The share of the economy that is government-run should affect the growth rate that we can expect. Parts of the economy that are run by the government are insulated from competition and therefore don’t bother to strive for higher efficiency. So as investors we should look to buy stocks in countries that have a larger free market. That means putting less money in U.S. stocks and more in Australia, Eastern Europe, and Korea for example.

This can also lead to political unrest. Thomas Piketty’s Capital says that calamity ensues when the rich bastards’ rate of return on capital outstrips the growth rate of the economy, the potential source of the average worker’s pay raise. With a capital-rich but sclerotic government-dominated country like the U.S. has become, it could be the case that investors are getting their returns from fast-growing economies on the other side of the planet but they’re still living here in the slow-growing half-planned economy of the U.S. Piketty says that’s a recipe for burning envy and confiscatory wealth taxes.


What happens when you take the intersection of the two most broken large systems on the planet?


If you had always wondered “What happens when you take the intersection of the two most broken large systems on the planet?” we now have the answer! See “800,000 Using HealthCare.gov Were Sent Incorrect Tax Data” (nytimes):

About 800,000 taxpayers who enrolled in insurance policies through HealthCare.gov received erroneous tax information from the government, and were urged on Friday to hold off on filing tax returns until the error could be corrected.

The incorrect insurance information is used in computing taxes. Consumers can expect to receive corrected data in the first week of March. With the new data, officials warned, some taxpayers will owe more and some will owe less.

Officials said they did not know why the error had occurred.

Will 2014 be the year that historians cite as the point at which the American government had created a system that was too complex for Americans to operate?


The sleepover: American versus French standards


Bringing Up Bébé (Druckerman 2012) talks about trips by French children without parents:

One day, a notice goes up at Bean’s school. It says that parents of students ages four to eleven can register their kids for a summer trip to the Hautes-Vosges, a rural region about five hours by car from Paris. The trip, sans parents, will last for eight days. I can’t imagine sending Bean, who’s five, on an eight-day school holiday . She’s never even spent more than a night alone at my mother’s house. My own first overnight class trip, to SeaWorld, was when I was in junior high. This trip is yet another reminder that while I can now use the subjunctive in French, and even get my kids to listen to me, I’ll never actually be French. Being French means looking at a notice like this and saying, as the mother of another five-year-old next to me does, “What a shame. We already have plans then.” None of the French parents find the idea of dispatching their four- and five-year-olds for a week of group showers and dormitory life to be at all alarming.

I soon discover that this school trip is just the beginning. I didn’t go to sleepaway camp until I was ten or eleven. But in France, there are hundreds of different sleepaway colonies de vacances (vacation colonies) for kids as young as four. The younger kids typically go away for seven or eight days to the countryside, where they ride ponies, feed goats, learn songs, and “discover nature.”

It’s clear that giving kids a degree of independence, and stressing a kind of inner resilience and self-reliance, is a big part of French parenting. The French call this autonomie (autonomy).

It’s not simply that Americans don’t emphasize autonomy. It’s that we’re not sure it’s a good thing. We tend to assume that parents should be physically present as much as possible, to protect kids from harm and to smooth out emotional turbulence for them. Simon and I have joked since Bean was born that we’ll just move with her to wherever she attends college. Then I see an article saying that some American colleges now hold “parting ceremonies” for the parents of incoming freshmen, to signal that the parents need to leave.

 The latest opportunity to see if Druckerman is right comes courtesy of a five-year-old. Here’s a pattern that has been repeated about four times: She invites her five- and six-year-old friends to sleep over on her trundle bed. The other little girl agrees readily, especially if bacon and pancakes are promised for breakfast. If the father of the child is present, he agrees to the idea. If the mother is present, she says to her child “We’ll have to discuss it,” then explains to us “She’s never been away from me overnight and I don’t think she is ready for it.”

Best software for running a small book-anchored online community?



I’m assuming that ArsDigita Community System (old book chapter; current version) cannot, nearly 20 years after its inception, be the right software for running a small online community anchored by a book. But that raises the question of what is the best software in a world where one can’t expect anyone to truly join any community other than Facebook.

Here are some things that the site needs to do:

  • let people read chapters
  • into the text of each chapter add the following:
    • link to Amazon so that they buy a Kindle version
    • Google Ads
    • widgets for readers to promote the page to standard places (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, StumbleUpon, what else?)
    • tags for Google Analytics
  • question-and-answer forum with newer messages displayed in reverse chronological order and older ones categorizable in two orthogonal dimensions (so there are two dimensions for categorization but the categories in one dimension are not subcategories of the other)
  • a blog for news articles about misc. topics (but maybe the blog should actually be the Q&A forum? Just let anyone post a new topic but require approval before a topic/question goes live?); this too needs to be categorized in two dimensions
  • users registering for email alerts of new discussion forum postings, new blog entries
  • ability to log in with Facebook credentials and other credentials (just to get the person’s name and email, not to go poking around among their friends or do anything else invasive)

I think this is basically the feature set of WordPress but I’ve never quite figured out how to make WordPress do the boring static web site stuff. Drupal also comes to mind but it seems like overkill if all that we need is a single blog and a Q&A forum plus some fundamentally static web pages.

What’s the community wisdom?

Thanks in advance for sharing your expertise.

What do readers in Silicon Valley make of the Ellen Pao case against Kleiner Perkins?


Silicon Valley friends: What do you make of the lawsuit by Ellen Pao against Kleiner Perkins? (USA Today) The standard employment discrimination case, to my mind, starts with the principal-agent problem. It is another way for managers to cheat shareholder-owners, the same way that they might by moving the company headquarters to a different suburb in order to shorten their commute. The managers indulge their personal preference for hiring buddies, people that they think will be fun to work with, etc., regardless of the fact that more qualified workers are available at a lower price. But the Kleiner Perkins partners are compensated strictly according to their funds’ performance. (Perhaps still the standard “2 and 20″ structure where they get 2 percent of the fund every year just for showing up and then 20 percent of any profits, even if the profits are driven by inflation and the fund underperforms the S&P 500.) So if Pao’s allegations are true, i.e., that she was doing a great job and producing profits, the greedy venture capitalists stand accused of intentionally making themselves poorer simply so that they would not have to look at an additional woman in the office (25 percent of Kleiner Perkins partners are female, according to Wikipedia, but it is unclear what the percentage would be for the entire office). Econ 101 would predict that those partners would have been happy to have a green Martian in the office if he/she were making money for them.

I haven’t set foot inside Kleiner Perkins for about a decade so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the likely merits of the case. What do Silicon Valley readers think?

Sidenote: Pao is married to Buddy Fletcher, a former hedge fund manager who was a successful plaintiff against Kidder Peabody, initially alleging race discrimination. Wikipedia says that prior to his marriage he was “in a same-sex relationship with Hobart V. ‘Bo’ Fowlkes Jr. for over 10 years” so presumably his lawyers had to choose between alleging that Kidder Peabody discriminated against him because of his skin color or his sexual orientation (at the time).


Gary Shteyngart Watches TV


If you’re a Gary Shteyngart fan, you’ll want to read this New York Times Magazine article where he writes about a week spent watching Russian television. Tough material to work with but Shteyngart succeeds in my opinion. If you’re curious to know about psychoanalysis, the article provides a window into the modern practice.

This is also a great article for Bostonians looking for ideas on how to spend the next few blizzards…



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