Monday, May 31, 2010


The Billionaire Boy’s Club in education:
It has the potential to become Barack Obama’s Vietnam. Not the Gulf oil spill, serious though that is. Nor Afghanistan. Other people’s mistakes are one thing. The ones that haunt forever are the ones you make yourself.

I mean the system of public education.

Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.

Andrew Ross Sorkin is on a roll recently, with an article asking questions about ratings agency failure.

The virus ravaging cassava plants:
That newcomer, brown streak, is now ravaging cassava crops in a great swath around Lake Victoria, threatening millions of East Africans who grow the tuber as their staple food.

Although it has been seen on coastal farms for 70 years, a mutant version emerged in Africa’s interior in 2004, “and there has been explosive, pandemic-style spread since then,” said Claude M. Fauquet, director of cassava research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. “The speed is just unprecedented, and the farmers are really desperate.”

Two years ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation convened cassava experts and realized that brown streak “was alarming quite a few people,” said Lawrence Kent, an agriculture program officer at the foundation. It has given $27 million in grants to aid agencies and plant scientists fighting the disease.

The threat could become global. After rice and wheat, cassava is the world’s third-largest source of calories. Under many names, including manioc, tapioca and yuca, it is eaten by 800 million people in Africa, South America and Asia.

On how minor happenings in Spain moved the world.

Good news!:

Banks in the euro zone will suffer "considerable" loan losses this year and next, which could amount to an additional €195 billion ($239.26 billion) in write-downs and could weigh on banks' profitability, the European Central Bank said.

On brands and Chinese youth:

Hanging from a counter were a series of decorative wall posters depicting some of the essential things a child might learn in their first few years: colors, shapes, different kinds of animals. Right beside the one with colors and shapes (see the cell phone picture I snapped below) was another one — also recommended for ages 0-3 – displaying the different brands of luxury automobiles: BMW, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, Lincoln, etc. (as an import, Chevrolet is also considered a prestigious car in China).

I’ve mentioned before that the Chinese are car-crazy, but this was ridiculous. I could sort of understand a poster that showed different kinds of cars and trucks — a fire truck or a dump truck, for instance — maybe with the brand as one detail of the illustration. But the funny part is, the vehicles on the poster are virtually the same type, as far as a child is concerned – the brands and their logos are obviously the distinguishing feature. Apparently, in China, by age 3 it’s every bit as important for your tot to be able to pick out a Rolls from a BMW as it is for them to tell red from blue, a circle from a square, or a tiger from a giraffe!

How Greece is tracking tax evaders:

…the minions of the moneyed are hauling tarps and tree branches over glistening backyard waters, scrambling to camouflage swimming pools. Under Greek law, swimming pools are luxuries that influence tax status and must be declared; there are hundreds of unreported pools in Athens alone.

But it's too late to hide them now.

Investigators have already gathered Google Earth images of the entire country and are combing through them, one fancy neighborhood at a time.

"It doesn't change anything," Ioannis said. "We already have a photographic map, whether they cover them up now or not."

His agents have been showing up at the doors of houses with undeclared swimming pools, demanding an explanation.

How the black middle and lower class is falling behind in Memphis. (unexcerptable)

Trichet: "In simple words: We are not printing money.” Maybe you should be?

Is Brazil growing too quickly?

What is it with the French and elaborate thefts: “A daring heist by armed bandits who made off with 200kg (440lb) of gold jewellery worth £5.5m has left French detectives baffled and quietly impressed.

Officers described the raid, in which a jewellery wholesaler and his family were held at gunpoint overnight, as a professional job carried out with military precision. In terms of forward planning, audacity and meticulous attention to detail, the robbery resembled the plot of the Hollywood film Ocean's Eleven.”

Are China’s workers demanding better treatment as a result of market conditions?:

That labor supply is running dry might seem strange in a country of 1.3 billion people. But the trend's been discernible for a while, as the effects of an aging population and China's one-child policy kick in. In the past 10 years, the population of 20-to-39-year-olds -- from which most manufacturing labor is drawn -- has fallen 22%, Merrill Lynch says.

How much R&D is being offshored?

The World Cup stadiums in South Africa (slideshow).

The British government is establishing a commission to examine resource depletion—among other things, it will examine:

resources at risk included timber, water, fish, precious metals and minerals such as phosphorus, which is widely used in fertiliser.

Among the countries known to be stockpiling resources, Japan has said it is storing supplies of seven rare metals it believes are "essential to modern life and industry".

Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, James Bacchus, the chairman of the WTO's appelate body, said China was also "hoarding rare elements and other raw materials", but so were many other countries and there had also been a "sharp increase" in actions to protect national resources worldwide.


China appears to be eating into some of its commodities reserves, a potentially worrying near-term trend for commodities producers and investors, analyst said.

The phenomenon could help explain why imports from China in markets such as refined copper, iron ore and lead have declined in the last few months. It also could be a factor behind the recent drop in prices for those commodities.

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