The return of tuberculosis?

Dirty Lungs!

Jeneen Interlandi writes in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010 about the return of tuberculosis (TB), an infectious diseases that is thought to be well under control but is in fact returning with a vengeance to many countries around the world. While focus on infectious diseases has been placed heavily on HIV / AIDS and malaria, tuberculosis has been left “to fester” as it continues to kill on average 5000 people daily, much more than “swine flu has killed in the past year”.

Medication against tuberculosis has been present since 1944, but the tuberculosis bacterium continues to develop drug resistance to newer drugs over time. The development of MDR-TB (multi drug-resistant TB) and XDR-TB (extensively drug-resistant TB) has been a worrying trend, not just in poor continents like Africa where many infectious diseases continue to rage, but even in more developed regions like Eastern Europe. TB specialists argue that money for research into curing TB is insufficient, and most of the research focus on infectious diseases is on other “headline” diseases like HIV / AIDS. This old but still strong bacterium is “exposing all the cracks in our multi billion-dollar global health system”.

Solutions? One that is already being undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to tackle TB together with HIV / AIDS, since the reduced immunity of these patients will make them especially susceptible to TB. This approach does seem to have its own problems, as manifested in Swaziland.

Hence a more comprehensive solution needs to be developed that prevents diseases from occurring in the first place: “clean water, nutritious food and functioning clinics”. Vaccine development and drug discovery needs to continue, but we should not forget the real basis that will bring about good health in the first place, especially in disease-ravaged continents such as Africa. We cannot afford to ignore XDR-TB, in particular, because while it has high mortality rates of 90%, patients “usually live for several months”, enough to spread this extremely virulent form of TB to more people and create more havoc on the health system.

America’s greatest risk: Terrorism or itself?


In Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010, Stephen Flynn writes about how America’s greatest risk is itself: the danger that the American government will overreact to the terror threat, and hence disrupt how America has been operating all this while.

Flynn argues that “the greatest peril today is not of an attack but the danger the country will overreact”. A terrorist attack might make huge headline news and cause much panic and trouble, but it seems like the government is in the meantime neglecting other disasters that could potentially claim as many, if not more, lives. For instance, hurricanes and earthquakes or even H1N1 and avian flu. The threat of terror certainly remains, but overreaction could cause huge trauma on top of the damage already done by the terrorists. The blockade of the US economy thanks to the grounding of all flights and closing of all borders post-911 would have accomplished exactly the economic damage that the terrorists aim to inflict upon America.

Flynn then proposes that the government should abandon the “muscular but unrealistic ‘protection at all costs’ approach”. Bush may have claimed that “terrorists need to get things right just once, the nation’s defenders have to be right 100% of the time”, but this is an “impossible standard” since no government in history has ever accomplished this. Singapore may be close to this, but only in recent history: one only needs to think back to the Konfrontasi period in the 1960s when the Indonesians struck the McDonald House to recall that Singapore has not been exactly immune to acts of terror (in particular, one inflicted by the government of an opposing force).

In essence, the government needs to get the citizens involved and not just be the big nanny and take charge if and when terror strikes. Flynn states that “terror works only if it convinces people they are vulnerable and powerless”, so if the government can give people ways to “address their vulnerabilities”, terrorism might not be as “terrifying” as perceived to be. The citizens should “share the responsibility for preparing the nation to cope with man-made and natural disasters”, so that people will become better able to “withstand, recover and adapt to catastrophic risks”.

Sanction no more?

Rolled Bills
No more trading!

In January 27’s The Straits Times, Susan Long writes in the Review column about why sanctions will not work in curbing Iran’s nuclear tendencies. Whether sanctions work or not has been a long debated issue, and simply googling the title of Long’s article “Why sanctions dont work now” will yield many articles that have been written on this subject, mostly arguing for the end of sanctions against “evil” countries like Iran and Cuba.

First, regarding Long’s write-up. She asserts that sanctions may not be as messy as outright fighting or war, but they harm the innocent civilians most and not the leaders and perpetrators. The poor suffer the most as they have limited access to food, medicine and daily necessities amongst other things, whereas the rich are not affected very much by economic sanctions since they already have the monetary ability to purchase high-end goods like “Swiss chocolate”. The elite will “thrive on the black market” while the poor suffer unnecessarily.

Sanctions can also backfire, such as when it unites a country against the perpetrators of the sanctions (often the United States of America together with the United Nations). Take the sanctions against Iran. Instead of isolating the Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khamenei & President Ahmadinejad and causing displeasure towards the leaders by the populace, it could end up bringing together the forces that wanted to overthrow Khamenei & Ahmadinejad, led by the Green movement whose leader is Mir-Hossein Mousavi. This would make it even more difficult to “overthrow” the current Islamic regime should the incumbents unite with the opposition against the United States and the outside world.

Of course, sanctions are only sanctioned when the country that imposes the sanctions does not stand to lose much. And often countries that impose sanctions or threaten to do so end up revoking them out of other motivations, such as the United States’ threat to impose sanctions on Myanmar which in the end were not realised because such sanctions would have benefitted China and other rogue regimes that would increase their sphere of influence in the country.

Some other articles that disbelieve in sanctions can be found online as well. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has similar views to Long, published in the Global Policy Forum. David Henderson of Hoover Institution in Hoover Digest even goes as far as to propose that free trade with “rogue” nations would help to engineer collapses in these regimes when the people open their eyes to the world out there and what is on offer. Dursun Peksen in Foreign Policy names other plausible alternatives such as “engagement / dialogue” and even economic incentives like foreign aid.

In essence, the idea seems to be that should the stick fail, the carrot might be the only way out. In a globalized world such as ours, penalties like sanctions have a high chance of backfiring.

Bundles of Cables

Straw Bundle
Which color?

James Surowiecki from New Yorker talks about the effects of the recent Fox vs Time-Warner Cable affair on public perception. His focus was that the event reminds viewers that much of the money they pay are for stuff they don’t use or don’t want – the idea of bundling, allowing consumer surpluses in one product/good spill over to others which are bundled together with it. This allows less mainstream stuff to be sold to the mass market or introduced to consumers since without bundling their proceeds wouldn’t pay for the cost.

The complexity of the modern economy supports bundling; it helps people make some of their choices. Imagine if you’ve to assemble exactly which channels you want each month based on what is going to be screened on them; or to decide every single module running in your computer during installation (the Linux style); or to decide which brand of sugar, type of coffee beans, water and cup to use for takeaway coffee at breakfast. And James show how customers like them:

The appeal of bundling is partly that it reduces transaction costs: instead of having to figure out how much each part of a package is worth to you, you can make a blanket judgment. Bundling eliminates the problem of fretting about small expenditures, which may be one reason that flat-rate pricing is very common in the vacation industry (cruise ships, all-inclusive travel packages, and so on). It also offers what economists call option value: you may never watch those sixty other channels, but the fact that you could if you wanted to is worth something. Many consumers also perceive bundles as bargains; getting a bunch of things for one price feels like a deal, even when it’s not.

Of course, like what James mentioned at the end of the article, when components of the bundle start fighting over the cost of each of them or the proportion of their share over the entire bundle’s proceeds, it will raise the appeal of à la carte. Imagine when the addition of a Sashimi palette into the buffet table results in the waiter going around to collect extra money from the patrons still in the restaurant and able to enjoy the Sashimi. Those who don’t want the Sashimi and just entered the restaurant would opt for à la carte while those leaving would protest.

End of Packages

The Reading Packages have been discontinued after 12 weeks. Thanks for all the reading of those links and watching the interesting videos featured. We might continue to do this now and then but no longer regularly and on Saturdays. Those interested in checking out the packs we have previously can click on the links here:

Past Reading Packages

Week 1 – 24 October 2009
Week 2 – 31 October 2009
Week 3 – 6 November 2009
Week 4 – 13 November 2009
Week 5 – 21 November 2009
Week 6 – 28 November 2009
Week 7 – 5 December 2009
Week 8 – 12 December 2009
Week 9 – 19 December 2009
Week 10 – 26 December 2009
Week 11 – 2 January 2010
Week 12 – 9 January 2010

All reading packs and future ones will still be filed under ‘Reading Packs‘, so check it out to view the archives. Get on reading and viewing!

The Tsunami’s Application to Haiti

All Gone Now...

An article in The Economist discusses the lessons learnt from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 which can be applied to the recent devastating Haiti earthquake. Apparently, aid agencies concur that it is not the matter of the amount of aid being delivered to Haiti, but more of the local capabilities and responses to the earthquake that will make or break the relief efforts.

Post-tsunami, 9 months later, only 39% of money promised to be spent has been dispersed. It is not that more money is needed, but the types of aid being donated must correspond with the need. When “Viagra, ski jackets and Father Christmas costumes” can be donated to the tsunami victims, it does indicate that there is the lack of sensibilities in terms of what people donate and how they provide aid. We cant really fault the kind-hearted for wanting to do something, but to donate such unsensible and insensitive stuff to people who need more than those seems to smack of sheer stupidity. Or is it just a chance to clear one’s home of junk?

In addition, local administration has to be strong and in charge during a disaster. Malaysia’s response to the tsunami (Penang was affected) contrasts vastly with Aceh’s response. Malaysia’s effective governance made relief efforts useful while the political conflict in Aceh made it even more difficult for relief efforts, even if we ignore the fact that the epicentre of the disaster was in Aceh. Even the proliferation of too many NGOs can create headaches, as each NGO fights to distribute aid and contribute to relief efforts, which can make control and management very messy for the local administration. This was proven in Aceh with 180 NGOs operating there at one point, and may prove to be another problem in Haiti which had “more NGOs per capita than anywhere else in the Americas”.

Another article by the BBC on the differences between Haiti and Aceh points out other problems that Haiti faces that Aceh did not face, such as the lack of coordination and information on security forces operating in Haiti, which made Haiti appear to be like a “war zone” as portrayed on TV. And considering that Haiti at its best of times is already a nightmare, one can imagine how the earthquake would make things so much worse.

So the Haiti government as well as other governments and NGOs helping out in Haiti have to make sure they learn some lessons from the tsunami response efforts, or else even more will suffer.

Your oil comes from… Venezuela?

Oil Pipes
Pipe Source Unknown...

Following up from my write-up on why petrol is expensive in oil-producing Alaska, another article written by The Green Conservative Jim DiPeso in The Daily Green argues that pumps should feature where their oil comes from. And the reason for such features are not just for the geography student like me keen to know where my products come from.

“Country of origin labels on gas pumps” are being advocated in the USA, the land where federal regulations dictate that agricultural products be labeled for their country-of-origin and customers like to demand for the right to knowledge about the products they consume. It helps people choose which country’s oil they want to use, and hence avoid supporting “despots” like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Vladimir Putin of Russia. But it will be too complicated, as much as it sounds like a really cool idea. As mentioned in my previous write-up, all that oil from different countries are pooled together then sold, so chances are the gas / petrol in your tank comes from all over the world literally. An alternative he suggests is the proportion of oil coming from which country, so consumers get to know.

And perhaps choose to boycott petrol stations that buy oil from “evil” countries to sell. (Venezuela, Iran & Russia for starters…) Not that they would have much of an option, considering that coincidentally many oil producing countries happen to be rather undesirable in aspects ranging from democracy and freedom of expression to living standards, so if you wish to make a statement you’d probably have to stop driving to stop using petrol.

The Bigger Brother

Not so cute...

A search query on Wikipedia for ‘Big Brother‘ offers a disambiguation page that offers a link to their ‘Authoritarian personality‘ article. Today, we sometimes allude to the concept of ‘Big Brother’ when we talk about our governments but we hardly picture the government being authoritarian, perhaps just more of nannying. Today’s problem for the world, however, is that our Big Brothers are getting too big, as Leader of The Economist this week pointed out.

The cover of The Economist features a big fat monstrous lump attempting to devour a corporate executive reflecting their perception of how appallingly huge and scary governments have become. As a matter of fact, developed world governments might have taken up to much of economic breathing space because of the recent events and will need to scale down their footprint more. It’s always easy to get involved in many activities in the economy but difficult to pull out. The Briefing talks about state spending ballooning and makes a fierce assault on the weaknesses of government.

One of the case mentioned was their failure to make good use of management consultants, who ends up being portrayed as conman treating “the public sector as dumping grounds for airy-fairy ideas”. Oh well, in a crisis everyone suffers, even the management consultants themselves are not doing well.

The Feast

French Laundry
Burger Stuffing?

The Economist Lexington reports on The Fat Plateau, highlighting that Americans are no longer getting fatter. This is the point of time when American Healthcare is a core concern of the Americans’ lives and obese might penalize the healthier individuals in a system that pools all their risks together. Either the number of people who can’t quite control their diet has reached the peak of their obesity potential, or that all the complex forces that pushes weight up and down for the general populace has finally reached a point where both forces cancel each other out – at least temporarily.

On food and eating, Mark Vanhoenacker compares the French Laundry, a 3-Stars Michelin Guide restaurant with McDonald’s on moreIntelligentLife. He harps on the interesting similarities between them and points out the curious fact that no one seems to bother about nutritional values of gourmet cuisine:

The mere mention of nutrition in any discussion of haute gastronomie is a cheerless business. Still, I’m certain that my waistline and arteries were affected more by our French Laundry feast (did I mention that the foie gras had chocolate on it?) than the day I had a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit for breakfast ($4.49 with hash brown and coffee), the Angus Burger meal for lunch ($6.19) and a Chicken Selects dinner ($7.39).

Of course, it’s probably because we don’t have foie gras with chocolate for breakfast as often as we have a Sausage Muffin with Egg. And comparing French Laundry with McDonald’s simply shows how universal our preferences might be whether it’s for expensive gourmet cuisine or plain junk food.

Public Education


Traditionally education has been mostly funded by the governments, at least mass education. Things didn’t start out this way of course; education started out as some sort of pastime for the rich kids and subsequently became a tool to distinguish the aristocrats and peasants, serving the function of supporting what was eventually called ‘high culture’.

In fact, education wasn’t so focused on writing, reading and arithmetic in the beginning – it consists mostly of life-skills like archery, horse-riding, a little hand combat, a couple of classics. But then people realised that civilized behaviours helped cultivate deeper relationships between people and improved interactions between strangers whose education has resulted in some sort of informally synchronized norms. Crude traders therefore decided to become ‘educated’.

As technological advancement made education an economic necessity, government started to intervene in the market for education. Theoretically speaking it is because the rising external marginal benefit resulting from education so the good becomes more of a market failure as the potential positive spillover effects increase. Mass education became important as the educated bunch tend towards a critical bulk. When everyone around you are educated then the cost of not being educated rises. When all your trading partners consist of educated people who demand certain standard of conduct when doing business, then there’s more pressure to be educated. Government spending on education thus climbed, but in a good way.

It’s then a pity that budget deficits caused by the economy education have been helping to support all the while is causing funding for education to be slashed. Yet like what is mentioned The Economist article, this is an important opportunity for private sector education providers. For-profit education might sound like a bad idea since they have all the incentives to dish out qualifications to those with ‘financial quality’ and shun the poor smart ones; this is the moment for them to correct their image and raise their standards of education to those of public education; this selectivity will benefit them long after a boom in private-section education industry.