Sunday, July 30, 2006

Syria 2005 - Night View of Damascus

On the evening of 29th May 2005, I was stunned at the top of Jebel Qassioun, a 1200m-high mountain towering northwest of Damascus - the capital of Syria - surrounded by exhuberant locals (and almost no tourists), in front of the spectacular night view of Damascus (above).

(If you don't think the above photo is beautiful, then it is my fault - as it was very cold at the top of the mountain, all the photos I took were blurred. Check out this photo by Abenaa instead.)

The manager of the guesthouse where I was staying told me that the night view of Damascus from the summit of Mount Qassioun was the only place he liked in Damascus.

Locals came here with their family members or friends. They brought a pot of tea with a portable stove or narghile (the Middle Eastern water pipe for smoking), spending a relaxed evening with a fantastic view. Even girls became adventurous - this was the only place I was approached by a young Syrian girl. Remember Syria is a rather conservative Islamic country. The sense of euphoria abounded.

Lonely Planet Syria & Lebanon (2nd edition, p.76) quotes a legend of the Prophet Mohammed - when he, on a journey from Mecca, looked down from the Mount Qassioun on Damascus, he refused to visit the city because he wanted to enter paradise only once.

What's different from night views of Western or East Asian cities is the myriads of green lights. Mosques in Syria are lit up with the color of green at night. And Damascus is vast without high-rise buildings. As a result, it was as if I had seen an ocean of jewellery.

When you have an opportunity to visit Damascus, never ever miss this view.

Travel Tips:
1. There is no public transport from the city centre to Mount Qassioun. Hail a taxi. As most taxi drivers in Damascus don't speak English or even read alphabets, ask a member of staff at your hotel to write down the name of Mount Qassioun in Arabic letters on a piece of paper and show it to the taxi driver.
2. It's colder at the top of the mountain. Grab a jacket or something to wear.
3. There are several retaurants with a panoramic view of Damascus. Some are incredibly tacky, though.
4. Catching a taxi on the way back is quite difficult. (It took me half an hour to catch one.) You can ask the taxi driver to wait for, say, half an hour at the top of the mountain. But I'm sure that you don't want to leave only after half an hour or so. So it's a dilemma.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fairtrade and Cotton Farmers in Mali

An FT Magazine article last weekend investigated whether Fairtrade has improved the life of cotton farmers in Mali, a West African country.

Fairtrade works like this:

In coffee, for example, the grower of any arabica (higher-quality) coffee beans is guaranteed whichever is the higher of $1.26 per pound or five cents above the world market price, which is currently around $1 per pound. [Farmers'] cooperatives are also paid a variable "social premium" to be spent collectively on projects of communal benefit.
Does this work for Malian cotton farmers? In early June, Alan Beattie, the article author, visited Batimakana, a village in Kita - "a region that will supply cotton for M&S jeans."
Every third or fourth dwelling [which is a typical Malian hut of mud, thatch and straw] has a motorbike outside - a lifeline more than a luxury, given that the nearest medical clinic is 10 kilometers away.
The male elders of the village are swathed in robes and turbans and dignified with venerable age, several with eyes rheumy or sightless from river blindness disease.
For a kilo of raw cotton, the Fairtrade minimum price is 36 eurocents; this year conventional cotton will fetch 24 eurocents.
It lets families send children to school. It means they can buy seeds fro vegetables and ox-drawn ploughs for their fields. It also ... bought the plastic chairs that the translators and [the FT correspondent] are sitting on.
How about the effect of paying "social premium"?
[T]wo years' worth of social premium has built a concrete grain store. ... The village uses the store to prevent big swings in food prices, buying grain cheaply after harvest and releasing it gradually through the year.
In Dougourakoroni, another Fairtrade certified community in the region, the rremium has built a brick school in the village. Previously, children had to walk 7km to school, and fewer attended.
Critics argue that Fairtrade, by paying above the market price, "encourages farmers to stay in unprofitable sectors, inducing oversupply and pushing down prices for everyone else." Does it?
Since cotton is a greedy plant that strips the soil of nutrients, it has traditionally been rotated with other crops, and that has not changed.
In Batimakana, just as before, only 20 percent of the land is used for cotton.
Any co-operative growing any product anywhere in the world can sell only as much at Fairtrade prices as has been ordered from that co-operative by buyers. Cotton is an annual crop, so farmers know their demand before planting. ... If farmers produce more than contracted under a Fairtrade agreement, they can sell the rest at conventional prices, but are not guaranteed to make money from it [because all of Mali's cotton is bought by the state marketing board, which sells it on to the big cotton brokers of Europe and America and is criticised for passing less than half the export earnings on to the farmers].
It seems to be the state marketing board that hinders diversification:
[I]t does deliver seeds, pesticide and fertiliser to farmers on credit ... and collects the cotton after harvest. Malian farmers growing other crops will often also contract to grow cotton because it is their only source of fertiliser.
So everything with Fairtrade is rosy? Turn to the long-term future:
Mali is struggling to rebuild the fully integrated cotton-to-clothing industry it once had before it was blown away by Bangladesh and China. [B]ecause the batch needs to be kept separate, spinning Fairtrade lint requires a faintly bizarre and time-consuming ritual. Every machine has first to be shut down and cleared of conventional cotton from the previous run before the Fairtrade bundles are fed in. It can take several days to do the switchover, and ... some Fairtrade batches are too small to make it worthwhile.

Cited by Ping Pong

I'm shocked to find that Ping Pong - a contemorary Chinese restaurant in London - cites MY blog entry on the restaurant on their website ALONG WITH reviews by The Times and Evening Standard. See the official website's review section and scroll down a bit.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Measuring and Realizing Good Governance in Poor Countries

Sean, a Jamaican friend of mine working in social policy evaluation in his home country (and a staunch reader of this blog), sent me an email in which he asked the following:

> Tell me, what new and interesting work has been done in economics with
> reference to good governance? I am specifically interested in what
> indicators economists have used and what findings they have obtained on the
> factors that influence the quality of governance.

Some readers of this blog might be interested in this as well. So I copy and paste my email message below:

The latest trend in development economics research on good governance is to look at micro-level objective data rather than country-level subjective data such as International Country Risk Guide, Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, or the World Bank's Governance Indicators. (See

La Porta, Rafael, Lopez-de-Silanes, Florencio, Shleifer, Andrei and Vishny, Robert W., 1999. The Quality of Government. Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, 15(1), 222-279.
for the comprehensive investigation in this line of research.)

Let me cite three papers.
Olken, Benjamin A., 2005, "Monitoring Corruption: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Indonesia." NBER Working Paper no.11753 (download the PDF file)

This paper was recently featured in The Economist magazine, by the way.

The paper is about road construction in Indonesian villages. Here,
good governance means road construction without the budget siphoned
off by public officials, doesn't it? To measure the degree of
corruption by village leaders in charge of road construction projects,
Ben Olken asks engineers to dig holes in newly-built roads to measure
the quantity of materials used (sand, rocks, gravel). By obtaining the
prices of these materials, he estimated the actual expense for road
construction. Then he compared this to the reported expense by village
leaders. The difference is the degree of corruption. The author also
collects data on the actual and reported wages paid to construction

This is one major contribution of this paper - measuring corruption.
But more importantly, the author evaluated two different types of
anti-corruption measures by randomly assing these interventions across
villages. One anti-corruption measure is to send an auditor from the
independent government audit agency with probability one. The other is
to hold villagers' meeting in which village leaders must explain road
construction projects. A recent trend in the development assistance
community on anti-corruption programmes favors the second type,
doesn't it? But the result is the first type - government audit -
works better than the second.

With this piece of research, Ben Olken has become a junior fellow of
the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, which tells how ground-breaking this study is.

Another set of papers is on absenteeism:
Chaudhury, Nazmul; Hammer, Jeffrey; Kremer, Michael; Muralidharan, Karthik; and Rogers, F. Halsey, 2006. "Missing in Action: Teacher and Health Worker Absence in Developing Countries." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 91-116. (Download the PDF file)
Banerjee, Abhijit V. and Duflo, Esther, 2006. "Addressing Absence." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(1), 117-132. (Download the PDF file)

I'm not sure if this is an issue in Jamaica, but, as you know, in many
developing countries teachers don't come to school to teach children
and doctors and nurses don't come to clinics to see patients. As
schools and clinics are mostly public in these countries, this is an
issue of good governance as well, isn't it?

The first paper conducted the survey for 6 developing countries in
which enumerators visit ten randomly selected schools (or health
clinics) in ten randomly selected admnistrative districts. This visit
is unannounced beforehand, and takes place twice with several month
intervals. Then whether teachers (or doctors, nurses) are present or
not is directly checked instead of interviewing the headmaster or
checking the attendance logbooks. This creates an indicator of "good

The second paper tackles how to reduce absenteeism based on, again,
randomized evaluation - a fashion in empirical development economics
these days. Effective ways to make teachers come to school turn out to
be these two:

1. Give them a camera with tamper-proof date and time function and ask
them to take a photo of himself/herself and students everyday at
opening and closing times. Based on these pictures, the number of days
each teacher actually taught is calculated and the higher their salary
is the larger the number of days they teach. What's good about this
incentive scheme is its cost-effectiveness - 6 US dollars per child
per year for an increase of over 30 percent in the number of days the
child is taught. The cost is mainly to develop films.

2. Annouce that, at the beginning of the school year, the highest
scoring female students will be awarded scholarships that cover next
two-year tuitions and expenses. This not only boosted the attendance
of female students but also that of male students AND teachers as
well. The authors speculated the reason for this as scholarships
boosted demand for good teaching from students' parents, who then
exerted pressure on teachers to come to school.

The paper also discusses failed attempts. These include
1. A similar incentive scheme as above but the headmaster, instead of
cameras, checks the attendance. The headmaster allows every teacher to
win a prize though these teachers actually didn't show up at school.
2. Giving teachers incentive payments based on test scores of
students. Although test scores actually went up, teacher's attendance
didn't change.
3. Letting local residents monitor the presence of health
professionals at clinics once a weak, on unannounced days, without any
formal reward to doctors for showing up. This didn't affect attendance
rates - a similar result to Olken's in the sense that "social capital"
doesn't seem to work.
4. Providing school meals to students coming to school. This might
increase demand for teaching from parents. But it didn't. Teachers'
absenteeism didn't change.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Syria 2005 - Quneitra

Maybe time is right to update Syria 2005 - the travelogue of my trip to Syria a year ago.

On 1st June 2005, I visited Quneitra, the former administrative capital city of the Golan Heights. Following what's written on page 129 of Lonely Planet Syria & Lebanon (2nd ed.), I first went to the Ministry of the Interior early in the morning to obtain a permit to enter Quneitra. The Ministry building located in north-west Damascus was guarded by a man with a machine gun. After passing my passport to an official and waiting for around 15 minutes next to the machine-gun wielding man, I received the entry permit.

Then I went down to the Baramke bus garage in south Damascus. If I remember correctly, I walked down to the bus garage for an hour because Syrian taxi drivers were not reliable at all - they don't speak English at all and don't know how to get anywhere in Damascus.

At the bus garage, I just asked anybody there for which bus goes to Quneitra, by just repeating "Quneitra" as most Syrians don't understand English. Syrians always try to be helpful, if they're actually not helpful. I re-read Lonely Planet, learning that a bus from here only goes to Khan Arnabah, a town about 10km short of Quneitra. I showed people at the garage the Arabic letters written next to "Khan Arnabah" on Lonely Planet, and finally managed to take a microbus - a white van (perhaps Toyota or Nissan) used as a bus - which goes to Khan Arnabah.

After an hour or so, the bus arrived at Khan Arnabah. I don't really remember how I got to Quneitra after that, but somehow I managed to get on a final ride to Quneitra.

On the way, the car pulled up in front of a police(?) office at which I presented the entry permit. A "tour guide" appeared and he joined my journey to Quneitra.

I finally arrived at Quneitra. The guide took me around the town.

Literally flattened houses

Everything here has remained the same since Israelis withdrew from the town after the 1973 cease-fire. Syria alleges Israelis for destroying Quneitra upon their withdrawal while Israelis claim that the town was destroyed by battles between Israel and Syria during their occupation of the town (1967-73) - see an article by Alex Safian.

A former hospital with a billboard attached by Syria which reads "Golan Hospital - Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!"

Inside the hospital

In any case, this ghost town vividly shows how deeply Syrians - or at least the government of Syria - distrust Israelis.

Taking picture of this town was no problem unless my camera headed for where Israeli soldiers were stationed.

By Googling "Quneitra", I found that the former pope visited Quneitra in 2001.

Monday, July 24, 2006

This is a life in London.

After almost four years of living in London, I'm no longer surprised by most inconveniences repeated in this city. No matter how many times London Underground causes delays and suspensions, no matter how many times supermarkets sell broken eggs on the shelf, no matter how many times I hear London's running water is wasted by leaking water pipes, no matter how many times LSE's Research Lab lift has a fault, I no longer get upset.

But this time, I'm a bit upset. I noticed my home phone has been quiet recently. I thought maybe something was wrong with my phone equipment. So I called my home number from my mobile handset. No sound from the home phone. A message of answering machine came into my ear through my mobile a few seconds later.

I then checked if my home phone was capable of making a phone call. I called my mobile number. My mobile rang. So it worked.

I picked up my mobile, seeing an unfamiliar number showing up on display.


I called this number back from my mobile phone.

My home phone rang!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Modernism and Economics

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever tried to associate modernism with economics. When you talk about modernism, it's usually about architecture and furniture.

Visiting V&A yesterday was not just to see the Jameel Gallery but also not to miss its Modernism exhibition (which ended today - you can download the panel text that succinctly explains the evolution and different aspects of modernism).

It was educational in many ways. I understand why buildings in socialist countries are extremely modernist (ie. made of concrete and purely geometric) - the origin of modernism is intrinsically linked with socialism. I understand what modernism did to Europe is what aid agencies try to do to developing countries today - allowing ordinary people to enjoy hygienic, healthy life. The chair invented by Dutch architect Mart Stam - the two-leg cantilever chair - must have been an inspiration for the iconic Panton Chair, designed by Verner Panton in the late 1960s.

The concept underlying deep in modernism is an extreme distrust in anything human. This is well reflected in Oskar Schlemmer's dance The Triadic Ballet. Dancers in this ballet wear geometrically-shaped costumes (like this) which deprive the wearer's body of freedom to move. Even though this is a ballet, the variety of body movement is severely restricted - one of them simply keeps jumping and that is. This kind of extremism in modernism created a reaction such as Chaplin's Modern Times.

So the exhibition helped me synthesize different bits and bits of my knowledge.

Then I came to think that perhaps the general equilibrium theory (or so-called the Invisible Hand) and macroeconomic theory before the Lucas Critique are a manifestation of modernism in economics. The fundamental idea of the general equilibrium theory is that even if everyone behaves selfishly, the market disseminates information on everyone else's behaviour through change in prices of goods, leading to the efficient allocation of resources. Macroeconomics before the Lucas Critique saw a macroeconomy as a machine - that's why William Phillips created this to demonstrate the circular flow of income in an economy. Yes, it's machine - one of the keywords representing modernism. This view on macroeconomics certainly led to the idea of central planning economy. If it's a machine, the government can run it. (See this article appearing in The Economist a couple of weeks ago for the evolution of macroeconomics during the last century.)

But, as we now all know, this is too simplistic a view on economics. The Lucas Critique along with the rise of game theory in economics has overcome the deficiency of "modernism in economics".

Some people critical of economics still think that economics is a manifestation of modernism. That's no longer the case. Such critics can be said to be part of the anti-modernism camp - which has long been out of date.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Jameel Gallery of V&A

Impressive more than the Ardabil Carpet itself - the world's oldest dated carpet - is its display design. Carpets of archaeological value tend to be hung on the wall in museums. But that's not really how carpets are supposed to be viewed.

The V&A had the courage to lay the Carpet on the floor even though this takes up a huge space available for the gallery room. But they didn't just lay it down. The Carpet is covered by the mirror ceiling with many small lights - which are turned on only for 10 minutes in half an hour to preserve the color of the Carpet. The mirror ceiling itself hangs by wire from the gallery's celing. Plus, viewers can sit down on a sofa on the shorter edges of the Carpet (that's how I took the above picture), allowing them to appreciate the Carpet in a relaxed way - that's what the Carpet does to your mind, isn't it?

The Jameel Gallery, just opened last Thursday, now becomes another favorite place of mine in the V&A. (See also FT magazine's article on this gallery.)

Haruki Murakami's account of Japan

Just to cite a couple of Haruki Murakami's accounts of Japan in his interview that appeared in FT Magazine on 1/2 July 2006 (subscription required). (I found that the whole of this article can be read for free here.)

"I wasn't interested in working for a big company like Toyota or Sony. I just wanted to be independent. But that's not easy. In this country, if you don't belong to any group, you're almost nothing."
"You know the myth of Orpheus. He goes to the underworld to look for his deceased wife, but it's far away and he has to undergo many trials to get there. There's a big river and a wasteland. My characters go to the other world, the other side. In the Western world, there is a big wall you have to climb up. In this country, once you want to go there, it's easy. It's just beneath your feet."
(Thanks goes to Ameet, who brought this interview into my attention.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Under-5 Mortality in sub-Saharan Africa

We often hear the number of children dying from a certain cause of death in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. I always wonder where such information comes from.

I learned that since the 1990s, there has been an effort to estimate the number of deaths by cause for different age categories across different regions of the world. It's called the Global Burdern of Disease project. Estimates for year 1990 were published in The Global Burden of Disease: A comprehensive assessment of mortality and disability from diseases, injuries, and risk factors in 1990 and projected to 2020 edited by Christopher J. L. Murray and Alan D. Lopez (Harvard University Press, 1996). Follow-up estimates for years 2000 to 2002 (for 2002 estimate, country-by-country statistics as well) are provided by the WHO website.

Regional categorization for the 2002 estimates is different from the 1990 estimates. However, this page of the WHO website offers a comparable data for the 2002 estimates.

Comparaing these two sets of estimates for sub-Saharan Africa, an interesting picture emerges. Of course, the issue of data reliability is a significant concern given that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa lacks vital event registration. Still, it's worth taking note of.

Under-5 mortality (here I simply divide the number of deaths for children under age of five by the population of such children) has declined from 42.87 deaths per 1,000 in 1990 to 39.54 in 2002. Given that the population of under-5 children went up from 94 million to 115.4 million, this should have been something. Major causes of death for children under five in 1990 were, in a descending order of importance, diarrhoea, lower respiratory infections (mainly pneumonia), malaria, measles, and perinatal conditions (e.g. low birth weight, birth asphyxia). These five causes account for nearly 80 percent of deaths of children in sub-Saharan Africa. By 2002, the order of importance has changed: malaria, lower respiratory infections, diarrhoea, perinatal conditions, HIV/AIDS, and measles. These six factors still account for nearly 80 percent of child deaths. Under-5 mortality by cause has increased only for malaria and HIV/AIDS. Diarrhoea and measles have seen a sizable decline. Mortality from lower respiratory infections and perinatal conditions has moved sideways.

People keep talking about corrupt governments and dismal conditions for well-being in sub-Saharan Africa. It seems, however, that some changes were under way during the 1990s.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Electoral rigging as partial enfranchisement

The Economist magazine is probably one of the best Western media in English to get to know about poor countries (which of course does not mean that it is the perfect source of information - The Economist is certainly biased towards free market and democracy in a bit naive way). The latest issue includes a survey of Pakistan. The third article in the survey describes how General Musharraf rigged the 2002 election:

Step 1: "[E]nsure that judges in the provinces are sympathetic, because they appoint the magistrates who conduct the polls in the constituencies." This is done by "[Requiring] senior judges to swear allegiance to [General Musharraf] and sack the ones who won't."

Step 2: Tell the returning officers in areas dominated by the opposition to "put polling stations in inaccessible places and select compliant people to staff them."

I've come to think that electoral rigging abundant in today's developing countries is the 21st century form of partial enfranchisement. In Western Europe during the 19th century (and Japan during the early 20th century as well), the suffrage is gradually expanded. First, only rich men are allowed to vote. Then the income threshold for acquiring the voting right is gradually reduced. Later, all adult men gain the suffrage. Finally, all adult women become entitled to vote.

Presidents and prime ministers in today's poor countries cannot do this form of gradual suffrage expansion either because Western donors dislike it or because the enforcement mechanism to ensure that the income threshold requirement is observed is lacking due to the weakness of state capacity.

But poor countries' presidents do not want all adult citizens to vote if they will otherwise be kicked out. (See Llavador and Oxoby (2005) for the formal modelling of this kind of logic.) Therefore, they manipulate the electoral process in a sophisticated way. The location of polling stations as in the above example of Pakistan is one thing. The registration of voters can also be done arbitrarily. This way, only a fraction of citizens who are presumably the supporters of the ruling party are allowed to vote.

If this is true, there is one implication. If citizens engage in retrospective voting - that is, they decide to vote based on the performance of the incumbent - the government has an incentive to target transfers to a certain group of citizens in order to "buy" their votes. During the 19th century, European governments could do this by favouring rich people or men. Today, poor countries' governments can do this by targeting citizens region-wise rather than their socioeconomic status or gender. Why? Because rigging the voter registration or the location of polling stations can only be done region-wise. By targeting government policies to a certain region and allowing citizens in this region to vote, the government can ensure re-election.

This suggests that there must be a correlation between electoral rigging and regional targeting. Which requires empirical investigation.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Public "Art" at LSE

During the past couple of months, several weird sculptures have popped up around the LSE campus.

Before moving on, click here to open the map of the LSE campus in a seprate window to understand the location of each sculpture .

It was a couple of months ago that a penguin and a baby elephant suddenly appeared on Clare Market (a street between the Old Building and St Clement's Building). Look at this:

Do you think these two sculptures have improved the landscape? I seriously don't think so. First of all, the color of these sculptures, especially the penguin, does not match the landscape at all. Second, this is NOT art at all. It's just animals that we are used to seeing at a zoo or on television. It does not evoke any new sensation. I really thought that vandalism wouldn't be a public nuisance in this case.

The LSE didn't stop there. At the centre of John Watkin's Plaza, a newly-paved square in front of the Library building, a weird sculpture was erected a couple of weeks ago. Look at this:

Can't see it clearly? Let me zoom it up:

Do you think this fox head has improved the landscape? I seriously don't think so. I liked John Watkin's Plaza. Its design is quite contemporary. With this sculpture standing at the centre, however, the Plaza has become a very dull public space that you can find anywhere else. You certainly know at least one public space where a weird, incongruent public art scuplture stands at the centre, don't you?

A few days ago I realized that the LSE has erected 12 sculptures in total around the campus. From which I learned that the disgusting sculptures outside Tower Three were also part of this public "art" project. Look at this:

Do you think this contemporary(?) sculpture has improved the landscape? I seriously don't think so. Again the colour of these three poles DOES NOT match the landscape AT ALL. Plus what's on the top of each pole is this:

Hedious. Absolutely hedious.

This passage called Clement's Inn is just next to the Royal Courts of Justice. Entering from the Strand, it's quite nice a view:

But if you keep walking, then you'll see


Worse, at the other end of Clement's Inn sits an eagle head


Admittedly, the location of each sculpture seems to be a solution to the contrained optimization problem - choosing the best combination of a sculpture and a place among sculptures donated by Canadian businessman Louis Odette (according to the LSE's explanation) and locations within the LSE campus. Each scuplture is erected at the best place around the campus. I would like to take my hat off for the LSE staff in charge of this decision. But this is a solution to the CONSTRAINED optimization problem. If the choice set of sculptures hadn't been limited to those donated by Louis Odette, the LSE staff wouldn't have chosen these ANIMALS. If the choice set hadn't been limited to the LSE campus, these sculptures would have been erected somewhere FAR AWAY from the LSE campus.

True, this kind of thing is a matter of personal taste. I don't like them, but somebody else might like them. I'm sure Louis Odette - "a noted patron of sculptures to public spaces" according to the LSE's plea - likes them.

Why don't you just appreciate them in your personal space, rather than forcing people to appreciate them in public spaces?

I would like to know what you would say. Am I the only person who is strongly offended by these ANIMALS? Leave your comment, please.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Japanese exceptionalism

A book review article appearing on the latest issue of The Economist (subscribers only) writes about Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. The main claim of the book seems to be that those kamikaze pilots - suicide bombers during the Second World War - were all forced to commit suicide under the order of their superiors (who themselves never wanted to do something like that). They were not brainwashed under Japan's fanatic militarism. As evidence for this, the diaries of these pilots are full of emotional dilemma, fear for death, and other feelings and thoughts understandable to Westerners.

Which is nothing surprising for us, Japanese people. We know - or are taught in school - that those kamikaze pilots were victims of the war.

And perhaps this accounts for our lack of understanding - especially among Japanese politicians - of the feelings of victims in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. The majority of Japanese people would say, "We were victims as well."

A Japanese friend of mine told me that those class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni were also victims because these criminals actually didn't want to wage a war.

This view is somehow reflected in the exhibition of the Yushukan museum at Yasukuni: Japan was forced to wage a war by the United States (see this post on my visit at Yasukuni).

By looking closer at the war history of Japan, this sort of irresponsible perspective is actually understandable. Since the 1930s until the end of the war, Japan was de facto ruled by some factions in the military. These guys started a war on their own. The government in Tokyo couldn't do anything but follow the suit. But we are talking about elusive Japan. These military factions never claimed for executive power, which firmly remained in the hands of the Emperor, who was in turn never ever an absolute monarch. This sort of situation where no one knows who is ultimately responsible is still pervasive in today's Japan. As a result, everybody thinks that they are not responsible for anything. They did what they did because someone else started doing it.

This raises other mysteries, however. Why does no one try to be responsible in Japan? Why isn't there any social pressure on those responsible to recognize themselves as responsible?

Another book review article (on a different book on Japan) appearing in FT Magazine last weekend talks about "Japanese exceptionalism". The more you learn about Japan's involvement in the Second World War, the even more you don't understand it. I'm now in the middle of such a cycle.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Foreign exchange tips for Londoners

If you are a Londoner, how do you exchange your sterling when you travel to the Euro area?

I knew Marks and Spencer (M&S) did money exchange service. But I thought it was expensive.

It seems I was wrong.

On 8th July 2006, the interbank rate of 1 British pound is equal to 1.44007 euro according to On the M&S website, its exchange rate on the same day is 1 quid equal to 1.396 euro.

I went to Italy last month to attend Alberto's wedding. I withdrew 50 euro in Venice by my Maestro card. It was on 12th June. Including cash advance fees etc., 50 euro cost 36.31 pounds. So the effective exchange rate was 1 pound equal to 1.377031. With, you can check the exchange rate on a specific day in the past. On 12th June, 1 British pound was 1.45579 euro at the interbank rate. Even though the interbank rate becomes more unfavourable for sterling owners during the last one month, the M&S rate yesterday is better than the effective rate last month.

So it's obvious that the M&S offers a better deal than withdrawing cash in the euro zone. Of course, it makes every sense. If M&S offers a worse deal, who will bother to go to a M&S store to exchange money before their trip to Europe by sacrificing their precious time in London?

Anyway, next time I go to the euro zone from London, I will use M&S Travel Money service.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Black Buddafly ft. Fabolous - "Bad Girl"

Not again. Every time I like some tune played on BBC 1Xtra and try to legally download it at Napster or iTune, it's not available.

This time, it's a tune titled "Bad Girl" by Black Buddafly featuring Fabolous. It's been at least two months since I first heard this track on 1Xtra. So it should be about the time for it to be released. According to Black Buddafly's website, it was released last February. It doesn't seem to be the case in the UK, however. As you can't buy tracks at Napster USA or iTune USA with a credit card issued by UK banks, I can't download it legally. This is why I stopped checking the latest pop music. In the end, I cannot consume it because of stupid Napster and iTune. Do you know any way to legally download music tracks that are only released abroad?


I like the chorus of this track. The lyrics turns out to be cheesy - "Ay if you feel me. Move wit me and don't stop. Put your hands up. Soon as the beat drops. Cuz usually I'm not like this but tonight. I'm a bad girl. I'm a bad girl. And tonight we gonna show u how we get down" (taken from this message board) - but it doesn't matter because I, as a Japanese, can't catch it at all anyway. But it's very rhythmical until the phrase "I'm a bad girl" in which Black Butterfly (I don't know who she is at all) sings melodiously. This contrast just does the thing to me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Refreshing my desk

Over the last weekend, I refreshed my desk at the School. Not surprisingly for a PhD student (?), my desk was completely covered with piles and piles of paper, showing how disorganized I was. I came to think that this was depressing, disorganizing my thought as well.

But how did I refresh this? It took a while to figure out. All these piles of paper must be stored in a cabinet at the back while those academic papers neatly organized in magazine file boxes inside the cabinet right now must be brought onto desk. Actually, I more often open the cabinet to pick up some academic papers than I search for something amid piles of paper on the desk.

The problem was that most of these magazine files were coloured in red - I used to love red, but not anymore because it makes me feel uncomfortable, especially with my brain exhausted.

What colour will work instead? I thought lime green with grey would be nice. Lime green is now kind of popular in my mind. It goes well with black, the colour of most of my clothes. But black and lime green is a bit too much. The contrast is too strong. Grey instead of black would be more soothing.

I went to the Bureau stationary store. They didn't have any grey magazine files. I'm not a compromising type. I went on to other stylish stationary stores such as Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road and Ordning and Reda on the ground floor of the Selfridges, while English people on streets were all glued to any television screen (at pubs or at electronics stores) to watch the devastating England's defeat against Portugal in the World Cup quarter final. But these stores didn't have grey ones either. Plus their magazine files are more expensive than Bureau's. I need to buy at least 12 magazine files.

That was last Saturday. I went home, rethinking about my desk-refreshing plan. I came to conclude that white magazine files would work. During this process, I also realized that lime green looks nice only if it is used as an accessory. This colour must play a role of spice, not of the main dish. Nine white, three lime green, and four black that I already have will be randomly mixed. Yes, this is it.

I went to Bureau again last Sunday, buying 12 magazine files for 18.90 pounds (10 percent student discount inclusive). Then I went to the School and refreshing my desk. Here's the result:

Bureau is a nice shop, just a couple of minute walk from Leicester Square tube. On the same street (Great Newport Street) stands the Photographer's Gallery (free to enter). Opposite sits a Japanese pizza place Abeno Too (a branch of the one near the British Museum).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Why blog? (continued)

In a response to last Wednesday's post, a reader named Chen kindly left the following comment:

Blogging is more than telling people stuff. It is more about bloggers themselves. For economists, writing or giving opinions should be a huge part of career. To bad, Ph.D. training does not entail many of the writing training. Blogging is definitely a good way to do that. [...]
This reminded me of two things I totally forgot. Yes, blogging makes you a better writer. Yes, economists need to write and give opinions in their career.

These days I find it a bit difficult to orally express my ideas. I guess it has something to do with the recent infrequency of updating my blog. You may say there is a logical jump here. The above comment talks about writing, not speaking. For me, it's closely connected. I'm no doubt less good than the average people at transforming ideas in my mind into words understandable for other people. Without incessant practice of this transformation, my skill at it naturally deteriorates. (And this is the biggest factor for my kind of depression.) As I'm not the kind of guy who hang out with other people every day and keep talking to them nonstop, only blogging forces me to express something.

By the way, I have a question for you, Chen. Why do you think "some people out there are actually interested in [my] life"? Unless my life is somewhat unusual, this won't be the case. What aspect of my life is not totally predictable?

A museum as a place for culinary delights

Went to V&A Friday Late. The theme of this month it Cuba. But it wasn't really Cuba at all - I can tell because I've been to Havana, the capital city, twice.

Having said that, barbequed whole chicken served at the renovated John Madejski Garden was absolutely excellent - tender and juicy. I don't think this is a Cuban dish, but it was worth visiting V&A only for this chicken. I didn't know a museum could give you a culinary sensation. (Actually, when Friday Late featured Africa last year, I had a stunning Tanzanian stew at V&A. So I should have known this.)