The news that during the creation of Bain Capital Mitt Romney sought large investments from some of El Salvador’s notorious “oligarchs” should not be particularly surprising given the extent of the support the US government and private sector provided to the Salvadoran government and political elites during the country’s civil war from 1980-92.

In the grand narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign, I suspect this story will figure as (at most) a very minor footnote. Nevertheless, I wanted to draw attention to it because of my personal connections to El Salvador and the persistence of that country’s civil war in the lives of so many of its residents.

During and after my first year of college, I visited El Salvador for almost 9 months. At the time, I worked with a small community organization called Grupo Tamarindo (that would later be known as the Tamarindo Foundation – warning: link is to their Facebook page).

The Tamarindo Foundation online presence doesn’t really do the group justice. By the standards of the nonprofit and NGO sector, it’s a tiny organization with almost no budget and even less in the way of public relations materials to document what its members have accomplished in the group’s nearly 20 years of existence.

During that time, the group and it’s leader John Guiliano have sought to rebuild the town of Guarjila, El Salvador and, in particular, to create opportunities for the town’s young people to pursue education, arts, athletics, and entrepreneurship.

The Tamarindo has made progress towards all of these goals and more while working on a shoestring budget, microscopic scale, and generational time-horizon. That said, any progress has been slow, and the underlying cycles of poverty and violence that make life in El Salvador and in Guarjila so precarious persist.

In this way, over twenty years since the Salvadoran civil war ended, its effects can still be felt, whether in the gangs that were formed in U.S. prisons by war refugees or in the lack of adequate educational and career opportunities that lead so many of El Salvador’s young people to seek employment and security through illegal migration.

The current goal of the Tamarindo is to build a community center where the organization can continue to do its work. In order to support this goal, John has started a bicycle ride across the United States. After handing in my dissertation draft last Sunday, I joined the first three days of the ride from Boston to New Haven. You can follow the ride through John’s Facebook updates and donate (via their ImAthlete page). The itinerary includes stops across the country and, if you want to learn more about the Tamarindo, the ride, or El Salvador, I encourage you to contact John and attend one of the tour events.

Members of the Grupo Tamarindo training for the ride.


Bike Lane, 41st Street, Oakland. By Eric Fischer

This past week, I returned to the East Bay, where I had the honor of participating in the 149th commencement exercises of the University of California, Berkeley. After a week on the road at CHI, a high speed tour of Chicago, and the chaos of graduation festivities, I’m happy to finally have had the chance to catch up on a little email and bike riding this weekend (not in that order). Here are five things I learned about along the way:

My cousin, Megan Cohen, is not only a badass playwright (the most produced female playwright in the Bay Area!) , but also happens to be a badass interview subject. She had me at: “I write, basically, like I’m screaming one last message out before being hit by a truck.”

Carrotmob seems like an intriguing activist application of crowdsourcing aimed at facilitating citizen-driven enhancements of communities and businesses. The basic idea is that if you can find enough people (a mob) to spend their money (the carrot) at a given place and time and for a given purpose, you can encourage a particular business or government organization to change in some prosocial way.

Some friendly editor sent me a pointer to the third issue of Limn a few days ago and it looks interesting. The theme is apparently “crowds and clouds” (with a heaping spoonful of the occupy movement stirred in for good measure) and it features the work of some wonderful and brilliant people. Also, who doesn’t want to read a well-designed, cc-licensed publication that indexes its issues at zero?

While on a brief excursion to the peninsula this past week, I learned about The San Francisco Public Press, an independent, non-commercial web and print publication featuring in-depth reporting about the Bay Area. The website not only features original reporting, but also a feed of curated local news stories.

The photo above was taken in my Oakland neighborhood by Eric Fischer (link to his Flickr photostream). Browsing Eric’s sets of photos, I found several fantastic sets of images related to maps, public transit, and bicycles in the Bay Area. My personal favorite was this gigantic colorful map of places to go on public transit in the East Bay printed in 1965 by the Alameda County Transit authority.

Kolob Reservoir, Utah (August, 2012).

For this edition of my occasional “five things” series, I’m trying out a twist on the usual theme (ideas, places, people, or things that I’ve run across in the preceding week) by discussing five things I’ll learn about next week.  So, without further ado, here are five things I am excited to encounter in the coming days…

  1. CHI and CrowdCamp – I’m headed to Austin, Texas at the end of the week to present at CHI and participate in the CrowdCamp workshop. The lineup and agenda for CrowdCamp look incredibly exciting – the plan is to rapidly brainstorm, design, and (if possible) implement crowdsourcing projects. Given the past accomplishments of many of the other people who will be in the room, I’m excited!
  2. New Zion Missionary Church (no website) – As part of my Austin trip, I hope to make a pilgrimage or two to as many of the regional holy sites of barbecue as I possibly can. In the case of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church (link points to a 2010 review on the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog), I have heard that the slow smoked brisket can sometimes resemble a religious experience.
  3. May Day Occupy actions in New York – Tuesday marks the first of May and, so it seems, a day of rebirth for the Occupy Movement. A few friends will be attending the New York actions and I’ll try to remember to link to anything they write or photograph.
  4. The Onyx Boox M92 – Perhaps as a result of the extra attention that went to Mako’s setup a couple of weeks ago, I’ve succumbed and ordered my own e-book reader. I chose the Onyx Boox M92 because it checked all the boxes that mattered to me (linux based, large E-ink screen,  file format agnostic, vendor agnostic, and not reinforcing the Amazon empire) and because it seems to compare well against similar devices.
  5. Calibre – Mako and Alan Toner kindly introduced me to Calibre – a very widely adopted and popular piece of free software to manage e-reader libraries –  this afternoon, but I won’t really start playing with it until my reader arrives next week.

For the second time in recent memory, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants delivered a competitive, exciting finale to the NFL season last night, from which the Giants emerged as Super Bowl champs. From a fan’s point of view, the game pretty much had it all: stellar individual and team performances, multiple lead changes, dramatic shifts in momentum, as well as some late-game tension and heroics (okay, maybe this isn’t from a Patriot fan’s point of view). However, upon further review, there was one aspect in which the game was, if not completely predictable, at least not as extraordinary as it might have been.

Let me preface my explanation  by saying that I, like many of my fellow Americans, celebrated the evening with some casual small-stakes gambling. At the party I attended, a bunch of us agreed to buy into a Super Bowl Square pool. For those of you who haven’t seen this before, the rules vary depending on local preferences, but each square in a 10 x 10 grid usually corresponds to a pair of single digit numbers (e.g. 0-1, 9-8, 3-3, etc.). These number-pairs correspond to the final digit of the home and away team’s scores respectively. Each player “buys” a given number of squares for a given price and, if they “own” the square that corresponds to the final digits of the home and away team’s scores at the end of the game (or the half, or a quarter – ymmv), that player wins the pool (or some fraction thereof). Since the game is usually meant to be polite and accessible to party attendees who are neither serious about gambling nor football, the number-pairs are often randomly assigned after everybody has already bought their squares, but before the game has begun.

Now, if you stop to think about it, it should be pretty obvious that the second digits of football scores are not distributed randomly. Points can only be scored in combinations of 1, 2, 3, and 6, and there are some combinations which are historically more common than others. As a result, even though nothing has been decided in either the betting pool or the football game when the number-pairs are randomly assigned, some squares are now worth much less (are less likely to win) than others.

As it turns out, the 17-21 final score of the Patriots and Giants corresponded to one of the most likely combinations of second digits (7 and 1). I didn’t run the calculations myself, but pretty much every. single. person. who did agrees on the fact that 7 and 1 are, relatively speaking, much more likely than most of the 100 possible combinations of home and away team last digits. The precise extent to which people claim this combination is more likely depends on the method they use. I am not sure what the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various methods are, but among the sites I consulted, I intuitively prefer approaches like this one and this one, both of which were written by Dough Drinen and use actual game data since 1994 (when the current two-point conversion rules came into effect). If Doug’s done his math right, a 7-1 final digit outcome was among the ten most likely combinations. In the more precise language used in Doug’s analysis, the expected value of “owning” that square was quite a bit higher than the expected value of an average square.

So, why was the Patriots and Giants outcome almost improbable? When the Giants scored what wound up being the final touchdown with a little over a minute to go, the game seemed likely to finish with a relatively rare 7-2 combination once the Giants kicked the extra point. However (and here’s where both gambling and football get a bit more interesting), Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin chose to have his team attempt a two-point conversion in an effort to reduce the possibility of a tie or a loss (should the Patriots somehow have scored a touchdown in the remaining minute). When the Patriots’ defense prevented the Giants from making the conversion, the score wound up 17-21 instead of 17-22, resulting in an outcome that was…well, almost predictable.

I find it hard to avoid thinking about the material impact of Coughlin’s decision: a truly awesome amount of money was riding on his choice when you aggregate all of the low- and high-stakes betting going on around a major sporting event like the Super Bowl. At a certain level, I guess that’s true at many points in the game, but it’s hard not to see it more clearly when the clock is ticking down and so much clearly depends on the outcome of a single play.

Of course, I have already said that the stakes were incredibly low in the specific case of my Super Bowl party. However, that did not prevent the lucky winner from appreciating the irony of the situation: the final digits in the score had suddenly gone from highly improbable to substantially more probable as a result of the failure of a somewhat improbable play that, on average, results in success a little more than half of the time (sorry if you need to read that last sentence twice). In case you haven’t already guessed it, that lucky winner was me!

A little while ago, I thought that maybe I had an original idea. As usual, the Internet proved me wrong. This is almost certainly a common experience and may even be generalizable.

My idea was straightforward: having stumbled across a copy of Luc Sante’s NYRB Classics translation of Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines, I believed that the book would make for a good twitter feed or something like that. To illustrate just one of the many reasons why Feneon and the Internet might get along, here is a portrait of Feneon painted by Paul Signac in 1890:

If you’re not familiar with Feneon, the French Wikipedia entry on him is a helpful start (and if, like me, you don’t really read French, the Google Translate version of the page is your friend). Other good places to read more about him and his work are this book review by Julian Barnes and this blogpost (authored by one “Mr. Whiskets”). Basically, Feneon was a Parisian anarchist, literature buff, translator, art critic, and journalist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Feneon’s “novels”were actually short “pointilist” reports of current events printed in the newspaper Le Matin. The texts are often funny, violent and ironic, maybe best characterized as a cross between the late, great “bus plunges off a cliff” NYT stories of yore; a poetic police blotter; and “metropolitan diaries” (sans smug New Yorker ‘tude). Here is another, somewhat more serious portrait of Feneon at work:

Nevermind all that, though. In fact, anything of substance about Feneon is besides the point here. A few quick searches revealed that I was late to the Feneon party. There exist no fewer than thirteen (!) Feneon twitter accounts <and> two Feneon-themed tumblr’s. As you would expect, some of this nouveau-Feneon content is good and some of it is crap. However, the point stands that long before the idea was even a glimmer in my eye, the Internet had already found Feneon and had reproduced, translated, imitated, and remixed him.

All of this suggests something like a Feneon Principle, or at least a Feneon Corollary to Rule 34 (H/T to Mako for that one).

Somebody on the Internet has already tried to turn anything you can think of into a meme.

Falsifiable hypotheses and empirical evidence to follow…

Jagdish Bhagwati had an op-ed in the FT last week entitled “Obama and trade: an alarm sounds” in which he reviews the incoming administration’s trade team and economic advisors and concludes that we may be in for a new wave of protectionism.

Protectionists unite!

Protectionists unite!

For Bhagwati, a Columbia professor and long-standing free-trade acolyte, this is a very, very scary prospect.

In an interesting aspect of his analysis, Bhagwait says that it’s not so much the ideology of the incoming team that poses a threat to the free trade agenda, but rather their relative lack of connections into the institutions that have advanced free trading in the past. He then argues that given the current resurgence of Keynesian statism and the generalized fear about the future of American companies, such ill-connected and unaccomplished trade team will not be strong enough to resist the base protectionist impulses coursing through congress and the private sector.

I’m of two minds about these claims. On the one hand, Bhagwati is notorious for dismissing the importance of sovereignty and state-based critiques of free-market ideology. Given that his defense of a utopian vision of purist globalism was so overblown, his fears are likely to be as well.

At the same time, however, I sympathize with Bhagwati insofar as I fear for the fate of the global political economy if the United States starts aggressively advancing an anti-global agenda.

Since the creation of the WTO in the mid 1990s, the United States has functioned as a hypocritical hegemon, advocating that everybody else drop their trade barriers while staunchly defending its own. This contradictory stance has bred a widespread (and well-deserved) distrust of US negotiators by small and poor developing countries (and by numerous fair trade activists). However, it has also facilitated the maturation of multilateral institutions into increasingly transparent and democratic forums for international policy deliberation.

That’s right, say what you will about the negative, anti-democratic aspects of the WTO and UN governing bodies like WIPO, but it’s hard to deny that they’ve become the closest thing the world’s got to legitimate sites of global governance. As such, they may continue to serve as glorified platforms for the pet ideologies of global elites (usually voiced by US, EU, UK or Japanese negotiators), but they have also given rise to compelling counter-examples of low- and middle-income country collaboration.

So where does that leave me on Bhagwati’s piece? I contend that it’s not worth getting too frightened about the incoming administration’s personnel – they’ll gain access to all the insider connections or information that their predecessors left behind and will more than likely maintain continuity with previous administration positions. Few early signals have suggested that Obama intends to deviate from Clintonian or Bushian (?) trade tactics.

Nevertheless, I share Bhagwati’s concern about the extent of generalized panic about exposure to global markets and competition. An ideologically-driven anti-globalist backlash would be quite disastrous and would probably receive a warm welcome in much of the country. Obama’s trade people will probably be unable to do much to confront this likely turn of events alone. Instead, it will fall to the president and globalist executives in the private sector to take leadership positions against post-industrial isolationism.

Racial Profiling Fail

January 2, 2009

‘Safest’ seat remarks get Muslim family kicked off plane –

If you fly AirTran, consider calling/writing to complain. If you don’t fly AirTran, consider keeping it that way.

(H/T Jillian York)