Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Searchers

I finally got a book back that I had lent out. I'm thrilled to have it back, in part because it's signed by the author, in part because, frankly, it's an interesting book.

It's called White Man's Burden and its author, William Easterly, probably is getting used to receiving death threats from Peace Corp types. His premise is this: our good intentions to save the poor are often the exact same colonial impulses that messed up these countries in the first place. In fact, instead of doing good, throwing gobs of money at countries probably hurts them far more than it helps them.

He divides his book into two sub-topics: Aid and Military Intervention. Both methods do equally miserably. The top-down approach of what he calls "Planners" create these utopian ideals of changing poor, oppressed countries into beacons of democracy and prosperity. In reality, these sudden, major overhauls, be they military or humanitarian, seldom work and often create corruption, famine, and discord. And this from a guy who was career World Bank most of his life.

So it seems like it's a case of "starved if we do, starved if we don't." What, then, shall we do? Easterly, in his Q&A at BYU said, "Nothing. Get a job, work hard, don't worry about it." In his book, though, he's a lot more optimistic.

In opposition to "Planners" (top-down outsiders with grandiose plans for transforming countries about which they know little), Easterly says that the fate of poor countries is best served by "Searchers" (bottom-up locals who want to change something that they need). Here's the thing about Searchers--one size doesn't necessarily fit all. While microloans was an idea that a Searcher came up with for his own Indian home, it may not necessarily be the pancea that it's been toted as. Or even the PROGRESA pay-families-if-their-kids-go-to-school program that Mexico and some other South American countries have adopted. The point is that we have to search-- come up with an idea, experiment with it (literally, like with controls and double blind analysis, etc), and then keep doing what works and drops what doesn't.

Ideally, Church humanitarian aid should work this way. (1) Bishops and Releif Society presidents see a need. (2) Service missionaries + Church humanitarian officials provide technical knowledge/resources and (3) lay members in the church provide the funds through fast offerings and donations. I didn't come up with these numbers; they correspond to Easterly's "(1) Social enterpreneurs close to the poor [...] propose projects to meet their needs; (2) individuals with technical and practical knowledge, and (3) donors who have funds they want to give away." I realize this is best-case scenerio, because the Church still moves like a beaurocracy, but I think the Church's humanitarian move away from growth towards disaster aid has either been influenced by or codeveloped with this growth criticism.

Information is a big part of this theory. We need information about the projects/places where aid is needed (if West African farmers are growing short-fiber cotton because it's easier on the soil and allows them to rotate in food crops, for heaven's sake, don't force them to grow long-fiber cotton). We need information about what the people want (is it more healthcare or more education?) and how they want it (year-round schools or only after the harvest season?). Once we have a project or an organization, we need to follow up with the people we're helping (were the teachers kind or abusive? were they diligent or lazy? were they qualified professionals or sinecured beneficiaries of nepotism?), and then, even if it hurts, adjust our projects based on what works or doesn't work. It's a lot harder than just playing a benefit concert to throw gops of money at some country already plauged with information failures (Bono's next aid concert should be "Another Mercades for Every Warlord," bless his soul).

One place to start implimenting this sort of thing (if you're not, you know, on the spiritual and temperal welfare council for your ward, or a Church leader), is locally. Create surveys and find out what resources are needed. I remember that my (now title 1) high school had plenty of money coming in for cheesy "self-esteem" banners and mirrors ("Look at a Winner--You!"), but no money to buy enough copies of "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" for the 35-odd students in honors English to be able to read them at home, or mixers for the home ec class. If someone had asked me what resources I wanted for my school, I'd have told them to buy us some paperback plays and nix the corny banners. But, then, no one ever asked me.

If you don't have time to become an activist (and that's okay, too), you can research where you give more. Ask for numbers. Find out what their aims are--is it to decrease landminds in Mozambique or is it to erradicate crime, hunger, and ignorance in Africa? (I have to admit, I'm beginning to sour on Heifer International as they begin to add ecological responsiblity, women's liberation, and national pride to what was once a pretty straightforward "fewer malnurished families" agenda.) You can also shop before you buy. Check out Kiva or Global Giving to find a project that you can fund like an investor-- giving to something that you think will yeild significant pay-offs in helping the poor.

Anyway, I'm willing to take suggestions if anyone else has a "searcher" idea. Man, I wish they'd put me on Service Council...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A No-Less-Wonderful Day

Yesterday, I had a wonderful day:

I finished my novel (hurray!), at least a first draft.

My sister told me that she thought I was pretty.

I hosted a writing party that was surprisingly delightsome.

I met up with some old friends and had good chats.

TODAY, can you believe it:

I beat my personal best 5k time. It's an unofficial 26.07, but even unofficial, that's two minutes off my last time.

I got to go to the temple.

My reimbursement check finally cleared and I have a little money! (Until I pay first and last months' rent. Boo.)

I feel a little bad, though, when I know people who are having lousy weeks. I'm just living a dream

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hike that Waterfall!

From Mark's and my hike the other day

Friday, July 17, 2009

The 80s Made Us Fat

I just read the neatest article in the New Yorker where Elizabeth Kolbert reviews several new books with new theories about why we, as a nation, have gotten to be such porkers.

Kolbert points out that while there had been a gradual weight gain of the average american since the 1960s, the biggest jump took place since the 1980s. In the 1994 Journal of the AMA, Flegal et. al found that whereas 25.4% of Americans had been overweight in the 70s, by the early nineties that percentage was now 33%. Whoa, Nelly!

Among some of the familiar explanations (evolutionary "fat genes," dangerous urban centers), it seems like the 80s took their toll in a number of ways:

1. In Eric Finkelstein's "The Fattening of America," the eighties marked a time of cheap fats and sugars. Economically speaking, the real price (adjusting for things like inflation) of fats and oils decreased by 16% between 1983 and 2005. Soda pop alone got 20% cheaper. Since food expenses are income normal (meaning the more money you have, the more money you spend on food), the poorest people are eating the cheapest/least healthy foods. This is one reason why cities with more low-income residents (like Detroit and Philadelphia) have the highest obesity rates while cities with higher-income residents on average (like Denver and Portland, OR), have the lowest rates. ((Not that it's necessarily related, but I'd like to point out that Provo-Orem UT is in the lowest 5 cities for obesity! WOO!)) The eighties revolution in cheap fats and oils made it frugal to get fat.

2. David Kessler's book "The End of Overeating" is evidently far more sinister; he claims that big business goes into make food equal fun, and adding additive combinations of fats and oils becomes sort of a holy grail among junk food companies. Kolbert shares a quote from a products-developer who says that they try to "cram as much hedonics as you can in one dish." And when did these eatertainment companies start to fight each other to create the most novel junk? The eighties. (Remember Pop Rocks? And Push Pops? and all those new flavors of chips)

3.Marion Nestle and Lisa Young of NYU discovered that the amount of food that's "one serving" has jumped in supermarket packages and also in old cookbooks (like Betty Crocker or "the Joy of Cooking")--what used to be sixteen servings is now twelve, or ten, or eight. And when did the number of slices per cake go up? You guessed it--the eighties.

So, thank you, Elizabeth Kolbert for explaining to us how the eighties not only gave us electro-pop and crimped hair, but also expanding waistlines. It might take more than Olivia Newton John's "Let get Physical" to get our nation back on track.

Read the full article at

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Please Don't Stop the Music

It seems pretty obvious to me that music helps me work out. I'm super-tired, I want to die with foot-pounding tedium, I'm planning on walking the next block and then..."Get up, get up, put the body in motion!" and, shoulders shimmying, I'm good for another 5:52. I feel like music helps me get farther, faster, better. But is that what the studies support?

In the Journal of Exercise Physiology, Larry Birnbaum reported that when he made three groups of subjects (fast music, slow music, and no music) run at 5.5 mph for fifteen minutes, the fast music group showed a marked difference: their oxygen consumption (VO2s), cardiac output, number of breaths and other indicators were much higher than those in in slow and no music groups. That means that fast music actual may make you /less/ efficient than slow or no music. On one hand, being less efficient is bad, because then your body can't handle longer or harder workouts, but on the other hand, being less efficient is precisely why we do things like switch up our exercise ruitenes every couple of weeks--we don't want our bodies to be too comfortable with what we're making them do.

Speaking of shaking things up, the International Journal of Sports Medicine recently published a study called "Effects of Differentiated Music on Cycling Time Trial." This study, conducted mostly by H. B. D. Lim, also looked at three groups (but this time of 10-K cyclists): a no-music control group, a group that listened to music during the /last/ half of the 10-K workout, and a group that got to listen to music for the /first/ half of the workout. The scientists didn't find any huge differences between the groups in general, but they did notice that the group that had music introduced at the halfway mark started to bike faster, even 1 km/sec faster at the introduction of the music. Lim et al point out that this, "illustrates the behavioural influences that music can engender during self-paced exercise." In other words, a song can make me kick it up at the beginning.

Finally, the Journal of Sports Behavior challenged college students to ride a stationary bike for 45 minutes or to exhaustion (which ever comes first, right?). This test had four groups: one control group who got nothing, one group that was rewarded with listening to their favorite music, one group was reward with $0.15 for every forty pedal rotations, and one group of lucky dogs who got both music and money. Wanna guess what they found? Turns out money is all that mattered. The two groups that got money worked harder and longer than those who didn't, and the group that got money and music didn't do any better than the group that only got the money. In the immortal words of Puff Daddy, "It's all about the benjamins, baby."

Would I run faster, then, if instead of sweat tunes, I gave myself a quarter for every quarter mile I ran? Maybe, but if I get a dollar a mile, what if I spend that dollar a mile on a new iTunes song? Sounds good to me.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Just Don't Say They're Spineless

I don't know what it is, but this trip to DC, I can't stop myself from going to every invertebrate zoo and exhibit--they're loose like a jellyfish!

Don't these look like evil geniuses?
Or genuses?

This is a cuttlefish. It has such good eyesight that it can see you as well as you see it.

I went to the butterfly house at the Smithsonian, where they feed butterflies rotten fruit. You do not want to mess their fruit; the butterflies will kill you.

I saw some other things (art, monuments, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks) but the invertebrates win this trip! Hurrah for invertebrates! Let's celebrate by not stepping on them today... too often.