Category Archives: economist

Will Morgan Tsvangirai give back the farms stolen by Mugabe?

Bob Mugabe is a bad guy. He has really brought Zimbabwe to it’s knees and almost anything or anyone would be better than him. And it is starting to look like Zim may soon be rid of him, but how much do we know about the new guy, Morgan Tsvangirai?

That is a question asked in a recent Economist article. Nobody really knows what he will do, but The Economist does have some information on his plans:

  • He plans to focus on saving the economy. Stop printing money (to slow inflation), scrap price and foreign exchange controls and bring back market forces
  • Farms confiscated from white farmers by Mugabe’s cronies will not all be given back, but farmers will supposedly be reasonably compensated. It’s not entirely clear what will happen on this crucial issue
  • The MDC want to amend or replace the constitution in order to limit presidential powers

He would undoubtedly be an improvement on Mugabe, but would Tsvangirai be a good president? The Economist also lists a few worrying points:

  • Tsvangirai does also have an autocratic bent. In 2005 he flouted a decision by his party and did his own thing causing a split in the party
  • He has also been criticized for ignoring violence within the ranks of the MDC

We don’t know what Tsvangirai will be like – but it seems certain he will be an improvement on Bob

From The Economist to lightning balls to 1930s comics to World War 2 fighter pilots to UFOs to Dave Grohl to the Foo Fighters

I recently read an unusual article in The Economist about a controversial phenomenon known as ball lightning. Basically ball lightning is a rare and unpredictable phenomenon where lightning forms a glowing ball which can persist and move around for several seconds rather than the normal flash.

Ball lightning appears to be inconsistent in color (pale blue, yellow, green, red and white), size (pea sized to several meters) and behavior (dropping form the sky, moving along the ground, and sometimes nailing people).

Yeah it sounds like bull, but they have been seen thousands of times by thousands of witnesses over the last few centuries. Several scientific groups are working on explaining ball lightning. Hell, even The Economist (normally very skeptical) has written a detailed article about the studies attempting to explain them.

Wikipedia has a detailed article on lightning balls which mentions that they were often sighted by fighter pilots during World War 2. Now we need a little aside: early in the war poorly trained Japanese pilots often flew erratic trajectories and the Allied pilots developed a derogatory term for them – foo fighters. The name came from a comic strip popular at the time, Smokey Stover, which often made use of the nonsense word foo.

So when the pilots repeatedly saw the erratically moving balls of fire they became known as foo fighters. Because lightning balls (foo fighters) were/are largely unexplained a lot of people think that they are UFOs (rubbish). Someone who is fascinated by UFOs is Dave Grohl who therefore chose the name for his band the Foo Fighters.

It’s like the whole 6 degrees idea but for concepts instead of people. Awesome.

The Economist on private education

The Economist recently published an article on private schools. It focuses on schools and data from Britain, but I think that a lot of what is said is generally applicable.

The first part of the article discusses how extremely expensive private schools are getting (this is something that is true in South Africa too). However in Britain it seems that there are good returns on paying for private education:

  • Those who left private schools earned on average 35% more than those who left public schools
  • Only about half of this gain was attributed to a better background (contacts, intelligence, etc)

The researchers used some more analysis and research to figure out how private schools achieve this benefit: better exam results. When they compared graduates from private and public schools with equal exam results their earnings were the same!

So it seems that if you can get your kids to achieve good exam results, it doesn’t really matter what school they went to. Perhaps there is a cheaper way of achieving those results?

The end of the article discusses a survey of parents who sent their bright kids to ordinary schools with excellent results:

  • The more average schools paid special attention to their talented students, going out of their way to extend and assist them
  • However, this result does appear to depend on parents playing an active part in their children’s education

People are less rational when they’re hungry

The Economist has this article about a study recently published showing that when blood sugar levels are low, people use more intuition to make decisions. You know, when you have been thinking hard about something for a while and then there is one last decision that you just can’t be bothered with? That is what the scientists were studying.

The scientists got a bunch of students to do a mentally taxing task and then gave half of them lemonade with sugar and half lemonade with another sweetener. Using a psychological trick (read about it in the article if you want) the scientists were able to show that those who had been mentally worked and not given sugar were more likely to make decisions using intuition instead of reason.

So it turns out that you really should take food into exams and that you really shouldn’t make important decisions on an empty stomach…

Arthur C. Clarke quotes

Arthur C. ClarkeArthur C. Clarke was a very well known science fiction writer who died on March 18 at 90 years old. The Economist always has superb obituary articles (probably my favorite section of the magazine) and this week the obit was about Clarke. It is an interesting read, but I enjoyed the quotes that were dropped in – some I had heard, some I had not.

  • Asked if extra-terrestrials exist: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”
  • Asked about UFOs: “They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe, but they do prove how rare it is on Earth”
  • Probably his most famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
  • His self-penned epitaph: “He never grew up; but he never stopped growing”

Price really does impact enjoyment

The Economist recently ran an interesting article on the impact of price on our perceptions of quality. It seems obvious that price would have an impact on the expectations of quality.

However, a recent paper has used brain scans to show that people really do enjoy wine more when they think it is expensive.


  • Volunteers were asked to rate 5 wines of differing prices (from $5 to $90 a bottle)
  • What the volunteers didn’t know is that there were actually only 3 different wines – 2 of which were served twice at different prices
  • While tasting the part of the brain responsible for registering pleasant experiences was scanned


  • The wines tasted twice at different prices were rated as better when served at a higher price
  • The brain scans showed that people really did enjoy a wine more when they thought it was more expensive

A follow up blindfolded experiment was done where volunteers weren’t given the prices. In that case they rated a wine tasted twice as the same both times. This shows that it is the price that substantially impacts enjoyment.

So the ideal is to have a situation where you are paying for a medium quality product but you believe it is worth a lot more. The key is making sure that you actually believe it is worth more.

The relationship between chocolate consumption and frequency of sex

The Economist had this special Valentine’s graph (a bit late I know) showing the relationship between chocolate consumption and frequency of sex.

I like their introduction: “On Valentine’s Day the relationship between chocolate and sex becomes, at least for gentlemen considering the ideal gift, less a matter of theoretical musing and one of stark practicality.”

However, it seems that there isn’t much of a relationship. Just be glad you don’t live in Japan where chocolate consumption and frequency of sex are pretty low…

The Economist on our crooked police chief – Jackie Selebi

The (hopefully former) head of police in South Africa is a crook. As the Economist reports he has “admitted to being a friend of Glen Agliotti, a drug trafficker who was implicated in the murder in 2005 of a shady mining magnate”. Now there are new (well-founded) allegations that “as well as handing out bags of cash to Mr Selebi, Mr Agliotti also paid for some of the police chief’s shopping. In return, Mr Selebi protected Mr Agliotti’s friends and shared confidential documents with him”.

Unfortunately out of loyalty Thabo Mbeki has been protecting Selebi from prosecution – I always complain about the ANC being more concerned with loyalty than competence.

We are now left in a crazy situation:

  • The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) are trying to nail Selebi as the crook he is – this is their job
  • Mbeki made sure that the head of the NPA was fired in September for going after Selebi
  • Now the NPA have followed through and are going to charge Selebi anyway
  • In retaliation the police arrested the NPA investigator on trumped up charges

This stuff is crazy. We need a new government. The ANC have done some things well, but at the moment they are doing a lot of things particularly badly. This is the last paragraph from the Economist:

This murky sort of business would scandalise any country. But in one plagued by some of the highest levels of violent crime in the world, it is tragic that South Africa’s law-enforcement officials should expend so much energy fighting each other rather than the criminals. The police judged that they needed no fewer than 20 armed officers to arrest Mr Nel at his home. On the hopeful side, the charges against Mr Selebi show that no one yet is above the law. But if they turn out to be true, it will further reduce confidence in a police force that is often perceived, at best, as merely incompetent.

Nuclear power is good – it has an unfair reputation

Humans need a lot of energy. We consume energy for light, heat, transport, food… Basically everything we do requires energy. The problem is that using energy in it’s popular forms is doing some serious damage to our environment.

Currently most of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) which we burn to create energy. Unfortunately burning those fossil fuels also pollutes the air and drives global warming. Global warming = bad.

So we need to change our habits (waste less energy) and we could change our energy sources (to those less damaging). There are renewable sources like solar and wind power which basically make use of the copious amounts of energy the sun beams down to earth every day. However, these sources are expensive, inconsistent, and chew up large amounts of space.

Nothing is ideal, but you should be rational and not emotional in your decisions.

There is another great option, also not ideal, but the best (in my opinion) currently available. Nuclear power has an unfairly bad reputation. When used properly it is an excellent energy source – and it produces no air pollution! As the Economist says:

  • Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas and more reliable than wind. And if cars switch from oil to electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free sources will increase still further. The industry’s image is thus turning from black to green.

The Economist has articles here, here, here and here describing that:

  • Nuclear power is very clean as the graph below shows.
  • Nuclear power can be safely generated. Even taking into account Chernobyl (4,000 dead) and Three Mile Island (0 dead) nuclear power is extremely safe – and getting safer.
  • Nuclear power can be generated cheaply. Initial costs are extremely high, but over time it makes economic sense. This would be especially true were the negative environmental costs of fossil fuels built into their already high cost.
  • There are pretty good ways of storing the radioactive waste generated.
  • Many previous nuclear protesters and “greens” are changing their minds and advocating nuclear power.

The Economist weighs in against Mbeki, Zuma and the ANC in general

Two imperfect candidates - one will decide the future of South AfricaThe Economist has some interesting articles on ANC leadership election happening this weekend (here is the best one, but also here, and here). Basically they are saying that it is a pity that the ANC are choosing “between two deeply flawed candidates, neither of whom should be running the ANC or the country after next year”.

The article has scathing criticism of both candidates:

  • “Mr Zuma should have been ruled out on several counts. His dreadful views on sex were revealed during his trial for rape last year. He was acquitted, but claimed that he could tell by the way a woman sat whether she wanted to have sex with him and that his Zulu culture demanded he should oblige her; also that he could avoid contracting HIV by taking a shower. He may soon be charged again with corruption.”
  • “Mr Mbeki is standing just to stop Mr Zuma. But Mr Mbeki has shown by his own autocratic ways and weird views on AIDS—which he seems to think is not caused by HIV—that he too should no longer be leading the ANC”.

The real problem in South Africa is something that the articles do mention: there is no competition for the ANC.

“14 years of unbroken power have given way to corruption, factionalism, paranoia and arrogance” within the ANC. Although the ANC has “on the whole done a good job” since 1994, it is now no longer the party that should be leading the country. The ANC should spend a term in opposition so that it can “purge or renew itself”.

The problem is that the masses are an unthinking lot who blindly vote along historical lines despite the current problems in the ANC. If only they would see past race and think rationally they would know that there is a better, if imperfect, alternative – just look to Cape Town!

“South Africa deserves a lot better.”