Archive - Oct 2013


October 30th

Third World Philanthropy

Oh, the wonders of the interwebs. Because I follow the writer Nina Munk on Facebook, (I met her while we were on the same summer program at Cambridge University in 1986 and haven't talked to her since) I knew that she was going to deliver a lecture in Albuquerque today on her latest book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,   I made a point to come through the city in time to attend. 

I think Nina was a little freaked out by seeing a face from her distant past at the lecture, but it was well worth my while to hear her talk about the efforts of American academics and philanthropists, specifically Sachs, in imposing their ideas of economic development on African villages. 

To study the matter, Munk spent seven years researching and following two of Sachs' projects. She actually lived in the remote, primitive villages which were chosen for the project and watched, through several visits over time, the effects of the money on the way of life of nomadic Somalis, in one instance, and more agricultural Ugandans in a second instance. 

Nina has made something of a career out of puncturing the hubris of famous movers and shakers, most prominently Jerry Levin of Time Warner and Steve Case, the founder of AOL. After ripping Levin to shreds in a book, he called her and said, "You know, Nina, I think you hit the nail on the head." 

No such luck with Sachs, who is pretty upset with Munk's portrayal of the mixed record of his huge philanthropic initiatives. 

Nina pointed to a typical event: Sachs' group dug a well in the desert, fitted it with a pump, and then left. One year later, the pump failed. Nobody knew how to fix it. Nobody had parts. And nobody in Sachs' organization seemed too concerned. 

The human cost? Women were leaving their children and walking with a donkey over 30 miles to get water, only to find there was none. They were in tears, as they were in drought and near starvation. 

Where the wells were dug, economic activity did indeed spring up. However, you could argue that it was more disruptive than helpful, especially without follow through. 

In another village, the people grew corn, but yields were pretty pitiful. Western philanthropists came in and gave the farmers fertilizer, a concept unheard of in this region, and provided them with better varieties of corn. The farmers quadrupled their yield. What happened? The price collapsed. In fact, the people didn't even like corn! In the end, the worthless corn was dumped on the ground because there was no way to get it to a market which valued the crop. 

So, I asked, are their any philanthropies Munk to which Munk would donate after all her research? 

Yes! She replied with enthusiasm. She does donate. But only to small philanthropies with specific, small goals--like one which provides schoolkids meals. The meals draw the hungry kids to school and makes the parents more eager to let the kids go to school. One less mouth to feed. 

I haven't read the book yet, so it is not wise to sum it up here, but Munk made several interesting points. 

•A lot of progress has been made in eliminating poverty in the past twenty years. In fact, world poverty has been cut in half. However, one must consider what that means in terms of actual money for those who have been thus uplifted: If you have more than $1.25 per day to live on, you are no longer in poverty! 

•Most of the progress against poverty has been made in India and China. 

•The Chinese are coming in and building infrastructure in Africa, thus winning billions of dollars of African business. Our foreign aid, both from our government and from philanthropies, does nothing of the sort. However, the price of Chinese involvement is they treat their African workers horribly. 

•Ironically, despite Sachs' spotty record on fighting poverty--all indications are that the charismatic professor has moved on to other concerns--his goal of eliminating poverty, as defined above, by 2025 may be achieved. 

Nina Munk is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Nina has always had an interest in those in poverty. But don't mistake her for a nun. She has a sharp tongue, both in person and on paper, and because she has run in the circles of the wealthy, famous and ambitious all her life, she doesn't give the oligarchs and celebrities the fawning respect they are used to. 

She has a contempt for the annual reports which go out to donors to large philanthropies. Mostly bullshit, she says. And she is awfully cynical (rightly so) about people, such as Sachs (you remember him running over to Eastern Europe to help the new governments set up their economies after the Revolutions of 1989), who are confident that they know what is best for other cultures. 

The lecture was given in an odd venue. Although the announcement made it look like it was an event for the general public, it was given at a medical school and I actually had difficulty getting in. (Three policement were shot and injured yesterday in ABQ, and their families were using the building for peace and quiet from the press.) When I did find the event, the room was filled with a bunch of doctors, many in scrubs, and about three lay people, including me. 

But it sure was an interesting break in a long day of driving. And it was all due to technology-induced serendipity: I would never have found out about the lecture without Facebook, and I would never have found the building if I wasn't directed to the front door by the lady inside my iPhone. 

Tomorrow, Tucson. 


October 28th

Call home

As I crossed Nebraska today, I decided to give Aunt Olive a call. I was really calling to see if she could hear her phone, as she lost her hearing aid again last week. She could, and she answered, but the conversation was a little tough.  

"I am in Nebraska!" I said. 

"You're in the bathtub?"

"No, I am in NEBRASKA!"

"In a box?" 


"Oh! For heaven's sake. What are you doing in a bathtub in Nebraska?"


The hearing aid showed up in the laundry. In pieces.

In other news, the lesbians in the dining hall are staring at her again. 

"Why can't they just give up?" she said, exasperated. 

Aunt Olla is pro-gay marriage, but very much against staring lesbians. 

October 27th

Off to AZ

After a harried few days of social activity and packing, I am on the road. 

It is always tough to say goodbye to Aunt Olla, as she is 102 years old. I stopped at the Hilton this morning, and it took a while for my departure to sink in. 

Aunt Olla doesn't skirt the issue. 

"So, do you think I'll die before you come home?"

I said I didn't think so. 

"Time goes fast," she said, recovering her optimism. 

I don't want to exaggerate my importance, but it is both reassuring and sad to be missed by somebody that old. 

However, we've been having the same conversation every winter since she was 90. 

Aunt Olla is in good hands as my sister is home and takes great care of her, to say nothing of the great staff at the Hilton. 

Olla started listing them. 

"Well, I still have Truman!" she said of one of her favorite nurses. 

But, she confided, Truman, who is male, has apparently been overthrown by female staff. 

"The women are in charge here now," she said, ruefully. Not even the owner of the Hilton, Barry, has escaped unscathed by the revolution. 

"He's a nice guy, but once the women take over..." Olla's voice trailed off. 

This is a change of tune from earlier in the week when Olla was reminiscing about how lucky she was to be raised in a household without a father. 

"The neighbor kids always came to our house and stayed until four in the morning playing cards because Mama didn't care."

"If we had some old Norwegian dad in the house like everybody else, it would have been no fun at all."

She also added that her Dad, who died at age 40, leaving seven kids and a 35 year-old wife, wasn't much of a businessman and they wouldn't have hung onto the farm if Mama hadn't been forced to manage it by his death. 

Yes, all things work out for the best!





October 22nd

Indict Cheney, other news

•The introduction of torture of human beings as American policy has been one of the most shameful abandoments of our ideals in our history and it was primarily caused by one man: Dick Cheney. Cheney is one of the darkest figures in our recent political history. 

•The owners of the Minnesota Vikings are running an amazingly brazen con game to get the people of Minnesota to make them amazingly rich. And it is working. 

•Okay, it isn't the greatest campaign video, but this Texas judge has had enough.

•In news that affects only me, I completed my first colonoscopy yesterday. It took all of the rest of the day to sleep off the anesthetic. The procedure itself was, of course, not traumatic. The preparation was somewhat unpleasant. The thoughts provoked are more sobering: A colonoscopy is truly the last step into adulthood. You do it, not to get healthier, but to prevent illness. Most procedures––dental fillings, tonsillectomy, hernia repair––up to now have been to improve one's body. A colonoscopy does little more than stave off death. It is a psychological adjustment to act happy when the doctor tells you everything is normal. 

The procedure had an interesting random twist: A neighbor kid and former employee of mine, now in training to be a Physician's Assistant, showed up to watch! I could have said no, but I wasn't going to let him off the hook that easily. He now knows me inside and out, whether he wanted to or not.

October 21st

Hilton Report

Aunt Olla called yesterday morning.

"I just read in the Fargo paper that gays can get married!"

Yes, I said, in Minnesota, at least.

"Well, isn't that nice!" 

She informed me that her schedule was clear enough so she could see company again. I wasn't aware that it had been full, but I usually go in once per week. So, I went in yesterday afternoon. 

I was digging in her desk drawers looking for her wallet, which she very successfully hides from herself and everybody else, when I came across an envelope of pictures from the 1920s through the 1940s. I had never seen the pictures before, and many of them had no writing on the back describing who was in the picture.

I started handing the photos to Aunt Olla. The stories came back, ones I have never heard. One picture was of Olla and a friend rowing a boat on Lake Koronis in 1943.

"Oh!" Olla said, "Helen told me the dirtiest joke that day!"

Seems a man was in the shower and a knock came at the door, so he grabbed a picture off the wall to cover himself with while answering the door. The person at the door kept staring down at him and so the naked man said, "What you looking at?"

Turns out the frame was empty. 

That's a pretty racy joke, at least by Aunt Olla's standards. 

I found two pictures of a boyfriend I never knew she had. "He was a nice guy, but not very bright. I didn't..." and she faded off shaking her head.

She's complaining about her hair, which is pretty long. I set up appointments, but then I think she cancels them because she's certain that all the hair dressers have taken to drink. Not sure what to do about that. Breathalyzer? 

Bring back home ec

I don't think some young people today know how to boil an egg. A good article here

When I went through high school, junior high home economics was still cooking and sewing. Nothing wrong with that at all. But it was also completely segregated. Although some girls had rebelled in the 1970s and registered for industrial arts, only one did in our class and she was resisted by the administration of the time. One year later, thanks to her example, everything changed and several boys enrolled in home economics without resistance. (I should note that the upper grades featured a lot of girls taking construction trades, etc.) 

What should not have changed is the downplaying of nutrition, food preparation and the running of a household. Credit card use should be an entire chapter. Savings. Insurance. Stocks. 

We did taxes as seniors, and that was useful. 

Most of us just need training getting through daily life, much less learning algebra. 

October 18th

Beneath Central Park

The amazing phenomena that is New York City just got more amazing as the tunnel that has been in progress for 43 years has been completed and Lower Manhattan's water supply is secured for generations. Look what lies beneath the leafy 778 acres of Central Park. 

Or, maybe...Sarah!

Watch this video of our near-Vice-President and try to distinguish it from this legendary video

We need a beauty queen for president!

And the winner is...Jennifer!

A fascinating map

Rumors and lies

There are lots of rumors about the Obamacare "disaster," (the website has been a disaster) and, from Sean Hannity, pure lies. Provable, verifiable, blatant lies. Anybody who takes that clown seriously should check out the article.