Thursday, January 31, 2008


Signed up for another month at my language school. My teacher said he thought I could skip two months and move on to the preparation course for the next level of exams. I'm not convinced this is the best course to take next, but he is an exceptionally gifted teacher; it cheers me up to turn up at 9 and watch him in action for 3 hours.

Today he talked about the days before the fall of the Wall. When he was young West Berlin was a demilitarised zone, by requirement of the Americans, French and British; this meant that Germans living in West Berlin were exempt from military service. At the time he thought Communism was A Good Thing and would go out on anti-American demos against the Vietnam War; West Berlin was a good place to do this, because the S-Bahn belonged to East Berlin, even the parts that were in West Berlin. Even the tracks were East German. So demonstrators could disappear into an S-Bahn station, or jump onto the tracks, and the West German police couldn't do anything. When his family came up from Karlsruhe to see him they all wanted to see East Berlin, so they would all go over for the day; it was necessary to pay 20DM per person per day to do so. That is, they were required to exchange 20 DM per person into Ostmarks, but prices were so low it was impossible to spend them. A meal in a restaurant would cost 1.35 Ostmarks. One might buy a book; it would cost 1.75 Ostmarks. It was strictly forbidden to take Ostmarks back to West Germany; if one was caught carrying Ostmarks one could get a year in prison. People would think, OK, I'll give them to an Ossi; they'd see someone near the station who looked like an Ossi and try to hand over the money. But this was dangerous because it was forbidden to have any contact, the Stasi was everywhere watching, someone who was caught could face 5 years in prison.

There is a deal for immigrants and refugees that I am just too competent to benefit from. Foreigners who have been in Germany a long time - those who have married Germans, or have the right to stay for some other reason, or are EU citizens, or some others - are legally entitled to 600 hours of German language instruction and 45 hours of Orientation. Those who are unemployed get this for free; the rest pay 1 euro an hour, the remainder subsidised by the government. Unfortunately the Integrationskurse only cover linguistic instruction up to Level B1, which I have just completed, and the deal covers only designated courses, not any course at the relevant level. It's a bit silly, because part of the point is to facilitate employment, and the level of competence certified would not be enough to qualify one for much of a job. Be that as it may, I thought this was a fabulous deal that might be of some use to the incomparable TAR ART RAT, who is married to a German, has lived here for years, gets by in German but has an approach to the grammar which is an invention of his own. I thought he might extract grammatical enlightment from the B1 end of the range. Which he might well. Unfortunately - and again idiotically, given the purpose of connecting participants with employment - none of the language schools offering IK have evening courses, or rather the only evening courses start at 5.45 or 6.

There have been pieces in the press deploring the fact that only about 45 percent of participants complete the course and take away a certificate, also that only a tiny proportion land a job. It's hard to see this as surprising, given that those providing the courses have neatly eliminated from the pool all the people who have managed to land some kind of job. TAR ART RAT works for a PR firm, but it's easy enough to imagine people who, without being positively unemployed, are underemployed - making less use of their skills than they could - for want of better linguistic competence. The fact that there is no support for the level of study that would qualify people for good jobs presumably means that the not-so-good jobs are heavily oversubscribed. Not that it is not a good thing as far as it goes, better than anything comparable in the US or Britain.

Anyway, meanwhile, no good deed goes unpunished. Over a year ago, in December 2006, I gave a end-of-book party to celebrate the second completion of Your Name here, and I sent an invitation to a reader who had sent me an e-mail, a Russian musician. It is not possible, obviously, to invite people to a party without disclosing one's address. It is not normally necessary to spell out the fact that an invitation to a party does not constitute a standing invitation to turn up one's doorstep. So there has been a year of phone calls and reader on doorstep. Most of the time I leave the phone unplugged to avoid interruptions. I have explained that I don't like people turning up uninvited. To no avail. Perhaps I should move to China.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

testing testing

I have a couple of books on the TestDAF, a test of German proficiency for foreign students who want to study at a German university. I thought I'd have a look at them. I had a look. The test was clearly devised by someone who is completely bonkers.

The written and oral sections of the test both require the candidate, among other things, to summarise the statistical information presented in a graph and comment on it. The oral section also requires the candidate, among other things, to demonstrate that he or she can competently chat with fellow students about sport, vacations and the like.

The first of these makes perfect sense for the many students who come to Germany to study 'technical' subjects with a substantial quantitative component. It's simply irrelevant to the type of student who comes to Germany to study, as it might be, classics, or philosophy, or, um, German literature. One might perfectly well be able to quote from memory

Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten
Das ich so traurig bin
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten
Das kommt mir nicht aus den Sinn


Wer jetzt kein Haus hat baut sich keines mehr
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben
Wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
Und wird in den Alleen hin und her
Unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

and yet stare appalled at a bar graph. Same for the wretched candidate who has toiled through the Kritik der Reine Vernunft or the Phänomenologie des Geistes and for one reason or another wants to study philosophy on German soil. I am all for statistics, I like statistics, but that has nothing to do with the question of whether the ability to speak fluently for 90 seconds on a statistical subject has a bearing on one's ability to cope with philosophical German. And as for sport! I submit that the ability to chat about football in German - well, what I submit is that the anglophone philosophers I have known would be unable to chat fluently about football or cricket in their native tongue, so it would be a bit hard on them to ask them to come up with 60 seconds of friendly chat in a foreign language as a prerequisite for studying, as it might be, Frege.

The thing that really is odd, anyway, is that the test gives the candidate no opportunity to show knowledge of, as it might be, Heine or Rilke, Kant or Hegel, Adorno or Habermas. The teacher of my German class says 80% of foreign students at German universities fail to finish a degree. I wonder if this is so very surprising. If you require foreign students to demonstrate that they can engage in chit-chat about football and holidays, and make no attempt to determine whether they are competent in the area of German relevant to the subject they wish to study, you are not selecting for students with the best chance of profiting from study at a Germany university; you're selecting for the type of student who has a good chance of making lots of friends in, as it might be, Berlin. If you require students to engage with randomly selected scholarly texts, you're again failing to select for the kind of student who has sensibly focused on the kind of German necessary for his/her field of specialisation. There is, I comment in passing, every reason to expect such a student to have worked on the language independently, precisely because most language programmes share the broadbrush approach of the test.

Anyway, there is more to be said, but work to be done.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

less clueless than commonly supposed

The FT has a little Flash movie explaining monolines, how they work and why they matter, here. Good news. (For all of you who've been taken aback by yet another crisis in the finance industry, again triggered by some obscure financial entity of whose existence you were previously unaware.) But they have billed it as an interactive graphic. I don't know about you, but when I am promised interactivity I expect something more than the opportunity to click the arrow for Play. It's always inexpressibly cheering to find someone has plumbed depths of cluelessness unknown even to me.

In the same issue of the FT I find a piece by Peter Carey, who has taken his website live. Carey had a look on Google and was appalled to find that, as one of THE great living writers in the English language (my words, not his), his fame had gone before him - that is, the first 85 hits or so for Peter Carey were for totally unrelated sites with idle chit-chat about one of THE GREAT LIVING WRITERS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (my words, not his), with the result that the fledgling website was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay Down Under. I'm actually baffled by this, because he paid someone to set up the site, and normally when you pay someone one of the things they do is register it with Google and Yahoo! as the eponymous website. Google does not say, What do you think we are, dumb or something? when you suggest that people running a search for YOU would probably be deeply thrilled to have your very own personal website at the top of the hitlist - they have a mechanism in place that enables you to accommodate the madding crowd. For reasons that remain unclear Carey's designer skipped all that boring stuff. I used to be aggrieved because my ex-webdesigner seemed to be more interested in her gigs with Sugar Cowboys than in my website, but she certainly did the boring paperwork (or rather etherwork) to get it squared with the search engines.

Carey's life, it has to be said, has not been made easier by coming late to the parade. A realtor in San Jose has staked a claim to, the domain name on which fans are likeliest to gamble a dime, and he seems to have rejected pleas to relinquish it to the more famous bearer of the name. (Talks about talks have clearly taken place, since the site of the California realtor includes a tip: Are you looking for Peter Carey, the Australian Author? If so, go to, or Click here!) Anyway. Even if you weren't LOOKING for Peter Carey, the Australian Author, but just hoping for more idle chit-chat about Our Man in Port Moresby (another Australian Author), why not Click here?

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Another Country, the English-language bookshop in Kreuzberg, will be showing Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (with English subtitles) on Thursday 24 January (8.30) and Sunday 27 January (5pm). For Berliners new to the bookshop, the address is Riemannstraße 7, nearest U-Bahns Gneisenauerstraße (U7) and Mehringdamm (U7 & U6), also just around the corner from a bus stop for the 140 (runs between Ostbahnhof and Tempelhof). Full announcement below:

This Thurs with a repeat on Sunday we will begin showing R.W. Fassbinder´s *
* Berlin Alexanderplatz **(with English subtitles) Check out
for an excellent article on this wonderful film. Of all the films we have
shown at the bookshop this is one of the few films I recommend that no one
should miss, this is a true masterpiece by one of the greatest film
directors of German film, no 20th century film. If you are going to live in
Berlin you owe it to yourself to see this film and learn some of the history
that makes Berlin Berlin. Give the first part a try and enter into
Fassbinder's vision of Berlin in the 1920's, meet the bums, cheats,
prostitutes and the every day people of Berlin all just trying to get by in
hard times in one of the most Interesting cities of the world. (we are
working on getting some of the people who worked on Berlin Alexanderplatz to
come and have a discussion about working with RWF on the film)
** Thursday 24 January 8:30
**Berlin Alexanderplatz Part 1 Die Strafe beginnt (1980)***

**Sunday 27 January
Bookshop open 12-6pm around 5pm Film
**Berlin Alexanderplatz Part 1 Die Strafe beginnt (1980) *

the examination mafia

I went up to Lichtenberg last week to register for the TestDAF, the Test für Deutsch als Fremdsprache, which most universities accept as proof of German proficiency. Our teacher has been discouraging members of the class from attempting it without further preparation (we are in Mittelstufe 1, he recommends completion of Mittelstufe 2, which would take another 3 months). Today we were told again about the difficulties presented by the exam - 3 reading comprehension passages in 60 minutes! 2 hearing comprehension passages in 60 minutes! 7 oral expression tests!

This simply shows yet again why it's more or less impossible for me to find a class at the right level. When we do reading comprehension in class I'm finished in 5 minutes. I understand the hearing comprehension passages first time round. Let's put it this way, if you can read Habermas in German you are not going to find yourself struggling with the TestDAF. If you have managed to read Wilamowitz' seminal (and by no means short) Asianismus und Attizismus in its native tongue you are unlikely to stare appalled at anything the TestDAF can throw at you. My problem is simply that I've can't speak or write grammatical German. There are plenty of people in this position in Berlin, but there are no classes for them. (Having said all that, if I'd gone to this school rather than Akkusativ 2 and a half years ago I would have kept slogging away and would certainly have ended up more proficient than I am now.)

Our teacher, anyway, talks about the Prüfungsmafia (the examination mafia). The school used to hold exams every other week, and they were always full, with 50 or 60 people; then the school dropped back to once a month, and the rooms were half empty. Where were all the people? They started hearing a name: Friedländer. This was a language school allegedly established by academics from East Germany who found themselves politically incriminated after the fall of the Wall. The school was closely linked with the Humboldt Universität (our teacher nods and winks), so students who passed its exams were always accepted. Students were allegedly studying at our school and taking exams at the Friedländer, where they could be sure of passing. The Friedländer was now allegedly making its exams harder because none of the other universities would accept its qualifications. Our teacher talks about a feud between our school and the Goethe Institut: the Goethe Institut holds exams which are open to external students, but students from the Goethe Institut always got excellent marks while those from our school did not do so well - despite the fact that our school's course is allegedly harder.

This is all very entertaining; the thing that remains baffling, however, is that it is so hard to find a course that is suitable for adults. Most of the students already have advanced degrees in their country of origin; they want to use German to study at university or pursue a career. It's peculiar to do exercises for page after page of Konjunktiv I about a man and wife squabbling over the housework. Our teacher frequently makes the point that the TestDAF requires one to read wissenschaftliche Texten, but that is certainly not the intellectual level of the sentences covered in class. (The last school I tried was even sillier; I'm not convinced that I would have done better at another school. And this course is in fact MUCH better than a course I took at the Goethe Institut in London years ago, which was completely disorganised.)

One thing that's good about this system, anyway - something that compares favourably with that prevailing in most school systems. I'm now in my third week in a class where I'm learning some things but am in other ways dramatically overqualified. But the fact is, the teacher can tell the class 'Leute, Leute, es gibt wissenschaftliche Texten' and warn them off and I can go up to Lichtenberg and sign up and take it anyway. I'm not stuck in this class for a year. How much better school would have been, how much less excruciatingly boring, if it had been possible to sit an external examination in a subject after a month and skip up to a more challenging class!

...Later... I have been having a look at sample oral expression tests in a book I bought a while ago. This may not be such a walkover, given that I'm not much given to talking even in English. Three weeks left to prepare, though. Perhaps all will be well.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Our Man in Port Moresby

My co-author Ilya Gridneff is now in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, having taken up the position of correspondent for the Australian Associated Press on Jan 14. A piece on a fence-mending mission by the PM of the Solomon Islands in AdelaideNow, here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


A reader writes that he thinks a self-explanatory interface is a goal (perhaps unattainable). I'm not sure that it actually is a goal, at least for most of the things I want to use computers for (the discussion started a long time ago in connection with Chinese, Japanese and Korean input on the Mac).

Natural languages are almost entirely arbitrary systems of signs. The number of spoken words that sound like the things they represent is generally a very small fraction of the number of words in the language. The number of written words that look like the things they represent is very small even in languages that use ideographs; in languages with phonetic writing systems ALL written words are arbitrary. And as we all know, mastery of even the simplest writing systems takes years of practice. English and French have atrocious spelling 'systems', Italian and German fairly sensible ones - but even an Italian schoolchild does not read and write fluently after an hour's exposure to the alphabet. Ancient Greek is tricky; written Chinese and Japanese are fiendish.

If we take the case of ancient Greek, there are no native speakers of the language. The thing that would be really useful would be a print-out that not only explained the keystrokes needed to input letters and diacritical marks, but also actually explained the use of accents and breathings to the novice. To type the language correctly, the novice needs to know, for instance, that a final acute accent normally changes to a grave before another word; that a circumflex may be take the form of a rounded French circumflex in some fonts, a tilde in others. Virtually all published Greek is input by novices - that is, by typesetters who are at home in Quark or Indesign but have never studied the language. They would be better served by a crib sheet which gave the information needed. It generally takes students a week or so to use smooth and rough breathings correctly without thinking about it; accents take much longer to use correctly. It would be surprising if the casual typist or typesetter could get this sort of thing right without any explanation at all.

It would be easy to multiply examples, but I spent yesterday translating English into English and I have a headache. The singer/songwriter Alyosha Blinov asked me to go over his band's entry on Myspace, which had been written by a fellow Russian and bandmember. Poor head. The revised entry for Classic a la Punk can be seen here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I know that Aha! moment

I felt a warm rush of gratitude to the speaker, a bespectacled doctor. It made no difference that he was Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, or that he was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans. He spoke a slow, clear fusha, the formal version of Arabic I had been struggling to decipher on the page for 10 hours a day. Even better, his words matched my limited vocabulary: arsala, “to send”; jaish, “army”; raees, “president.” I was almost drunk with exhilaration.

Robert F. Worth, Beirut bureau chief for the NY Times, in the Sunday Book Review. (The rest here.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008


1. The Serenity Prayer as used in AA:

God, grant me the patience to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

2. Virtues of a programmer, according to Larry Wall, Randall L. Schwartz and Tom Christiansen in the second edition of Programming Perl.
  1. Laziness - The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don't have to answer so many questions about it. Hence, the first great virtue of a programmer. Also hence, this book. See also impatience and hubris.
  2. Impatience - The anger you feel when the computer is being lazy. This makes you write programs that don't just react to your needs, but actually anticipate them. Or at least pretend to. Hence, the second great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and hubris.
  3. Hubris - Excessive pride, the sort of thing Zeus zaps you for. Also the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won't want to say bad things about. Hence, the third great virtue of a programmer. See also laziness and impatience.
3. Praxis at Axxel, my 24-hour gym.

Axxel is open 24 hours a day 361 days a year (362 in leap years). On Christmas Eve it closes at 3 pm, opening again at 11am Christmas Day. On New Year's Eve it closes at 3 pm, opening again at 11am New Year's Day. It offers some 250 classes a week.

A few days before Christmas I was working out on a crosstrainer when one of the trainers came up and asked if I would like to join a half-hour Power Circle on weights machines. Ääääähm... My legs are very strong, but my arms are pitifully weak, result of never really understanding the weights machines. I go along for this class, in which one puts in one minute on a machine, changes machines in 30 seconds, puts in a minute, changes machines, and so on, for two circuits of 10 machines. The instructor explains various machines which I have never used before.

Although I have never been back for the class, I do use most of the machines almost every day now that I know how to use them. In fact, knowing how to use them increases the likelihood that I will go to the gym; I had a very nasty flu at the beginning of the year, when I was really not up to an hour of aerobic exercise, but half an hour did not look too bad and doing half an hour on the weights gave me something else to do afterwards.

The gym costs something like 450 euros a year. The classes come free with the membership. It is available, as I've said, for all but 40 hours in any given year.

4. My knowledge of German is rather like my level of physical fitness. It is very good for reading newspapers, books and so on, not so good for bureaucratic forms; it is reasonably good for listening (I can understand the radio, am easily lost in colloquial conversation), feeble for speaking and writing. Spoken and written sentences come out like flea-infested pets, crawling with grammatical mistakes that must be combed out.

5. My German course operates on the basis of a convenient fiction - that a language can be divided up into Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2 and so on. If you can read Adorno you should know the declensions of definite and indefinite articles like the back of your hand. The course runs for a month, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, 198 euros. As far as I know there is no language-learning facility comparable to my gym, where you can go in at any time day or night, day after day, and work on your weaknesses.

6. My stepmother, who is Brazilian, has lived in the US for 17 years and still does not speak English fluently; she keeps making the same mistakes, just as I keep making the same mistakes in German. My 12-year-old half-brother understands only a little Portuguese and doesn't speak it.

7. A New Year has begun, a time when people often try to break bad habits and form good ones. As anyone knows who has tried, it is certainly within our power to change habits; doing so requires not courage but patience. If one has fallen into the habit of muddling by in a language, one can change this by performing a simple task on a daily basis: one can go over the principle parts of irregular verbs every day for a month, for instance, until one knows them by heart. One can go over verbs with fixed prepositions on a daily basis. One can learn three nouns and their plurals every day for a year.

8. My father has been in AA for some 20 years, and he has succeeded in the only goal required by AA: he has refrained from drinking every day for 20 years. The principles as formulated by AA, however, have not been conducive to producing a situation that would have made life much easier for my father, stepmother and brother. My stepmother was once a senior civil servant in Brazil; she attended a language course upon coming to the US, and it was an -- I will not say an exceptionally bad one. It was, like most language courses offered by universities, not remotely on a par with the language training given my father by the State Department, training whose purpose was to enable Foreign Service officers to use the target language at a professional level.

Attending the course produced in my stepmother the conviction that she could not master English, that she did not have a gift for languages. The language courses of the Foreign Service Institute, however, routinely produced competent speakers of the languages of the countries to which officers were posted; the courses were a sort of linguistic boot camp, in which students were required to memorise dialogues and repeat these until they were automatic. The level of tedium which both teachers and students were required to endure has no equivalent in most language schools. And yet, had she had access to a first-class language programme, she could ultimately have found employment in the US at a level suitable to her professional qualifications. Which is to say, in the absence of government-sponsored language training, the patience required to master a simple task on a daily basis may make the difference between social marginalisation and full participation.

9. The prevalence of New Year's Resolutions and their high rate of failure remind us that it is exceptionally difficult for individuals to alter their habits one day at a time. The impatience of the computer programmer may be what's needed to create structures in which it is easy to change habits.

Both my gym and my language school are commercial organisations. The former operates by aggressively selling memberships. Its machines represent a very high capital investment (it has 5 Woodway treadmills, for instance, which sell for about $10,000 apiece); the teachers of its classes come at a cost; it makes a profit because all members do not make use of its facilities 365 days a year.

The language school operates by compelling students to pay for the time they use, pulling students into the system and pushing them out again a month or two later.

Both physical training and language learning rely on repetition over a long period of time. The business model of the typical gym is one in which the delinquency of the many subsidises the assiduity of the few - and in which most reps are performed on machines, not sentient human beings. It is well suited to the requirements of physical training, in that it offers all members the opportunity to train effectively at a low price. Generally speaking, when gyms get overcrowded they do not raise their membership fees, they open another branch; the potential subsidisers always outnumber the determined users.

The language school, on the other hand, is set up in a way that precludes the first requirement of language learning, namely repetition on a daily basis over a long period of time.

The gym offers classes at fixed times which may be attended ad hoc, as well as equipment which members may use at any time at their own convenience.

The language school caters for a wide range of nationalities - in my class of 12 are students from 12 different countries. It has pragmatic reasons for adhering to the purism so common in language instruction, that is to the practice of providing all instruction in the language to be taught. Use of German as meta-language leads to all sorts of problems: students whose native language does not feature a particular grammatical concept must grasp the concept through an explanation in a language often imperfectly understood. Exercises are immensely time-consuming for those whose vocabulary is limited, since each involves the looking up of several words. It is consequently not possible to focus on the specific grammatical point to be mastered. This does not present problems for me, but there, is course, something counter-intuitive about a method of instruction which depends on a student possessing an extensive vocabulary.

The gym, unsurprisingly, permits one to focus on specific muscle groups, specific forms of training (cardio-vascular, strengthening, stretching and so on). It is much easier to see rapid improvement at the gym if one bothers to go at all.

10. Both America and Germany sometimes find that the issue of immigrants who do not master the language of the host country is a contentious one. Unfortunately the structure of the institutions which provide language instruction is not conducive to producing fluency. The issue of preserving the linguistic heritage of the children of immigrants is, of course, not on anyone's political agenda.

My brother has only one living grandparent, a grandmother who lives in Brazil; he is unable to speak either with her or with any of his mother's other Brazilian family unless they speak English. I like hearing my stepmother speak Portuguese, which I can generally understand pretty well, but I can barely put a sentence together. All very American. All very Australian (my colleague, Ilya Gridneff, is the son of a Russian father but grew up speaking no Russian.) One way and another, there is an immense loss of cultural capital. On a personal level, this causes many problems for my family; on a national level, well, I wonder whether there is any country in the world that can afford to squander talent in the way that is now the norm.

11. TBC. I talked a while back to Johanna about German on Demand. Then I talked to Rose who was going to have a meeting with Nadja of the Exberliner. Then Nadja had flu. Rose is meeting Nadja today. Yesterday I went over to Another Country, the English-language bookshop in Kreuzberg, to talk to Alan before the Planning Meeting about whether AC might be willing to keep materials of a sadistic grammatical nature in stock for commitment-shy transients. I think what's needed is not a politician, but the sort of person who has the kind of genius that makes for a good gay bar.

12. NB. Re resolutions. It is easier to rectify sins of omission than sins of commission, easier to acquire virtues of commission than those of omission.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

marginal utility

I had a bad habit. I would get up, check e-mails; next thing I knew, several hours of surfing would have gone by. As 2007 wound down, I worked out 1) that the marginal utility of spending an extra two hours online was infinitesimal compared to the utility of going to the gym (2 hours including travel and changing) and 2) that the marginal utility of spending an extra 4 hours online was negligible compared to the advantage conferred by going to a language course 5 days a week and tackling German. If I had replaced 6 hours of time online with those 2 activities daily for the whole of 2007 I would now be 1) thin, fit and cheerful and 2) in a position to get a job. I say 'year' but 3 months would have done the trick. So I have been getting in touch with my inner Utilitarian.

Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen has a post on Marginal Revolution referring to his article with Karl Bordeaux about microcredit, the full text of which is available at Wilson Quarterly. He says:

Sometimes microcredit leads to more savings rather than more debt. That sounds paradoxical, but borrowing in one asset can be a path toward (more efficient) saving in other ­assets.

...Westerners typically save in the form of money or ­money-­denominated assets such as stocks and bonds. But in poor communities, money is often an ineffective medium for savings; if you want to know how much net saving is going on, don’t look at money. Banks may be a ­day­long bus ride away or may be plagued, as in Ghana, by fraud. A cash hoard kept at home can be lost, stolen, taken by the taxman, damaged by floods, or even eaten by rats. It creates other kinds of problems as well. Needy friends and relatives knock on the door and ask for aid. In small communities it is often very hard, even impossible, to say no, especially if you have the cash on ­hand.

...Under these kinds of conditions, a cow (or a goat or pig) is a much better medium for saving. It is sturdier than paper money. Friends and relatives can’t ask for small pieces of it. If you own a cow, it yields milk, it can plow the fields, it produces dung that can be used as fuel or fertilizer, and in a pinch it can be slaughtered and turned into saleable ­meat or simply eaten. With a small loan, people in rural areas can buy that cow and use cash that might otherwise be diverted to less useful purposes to pay back the microcredit institution. So even when microcredit looks like indebtedness, savings are going up rather than down.

In other words, read Keynes's chapter 17, go long on animals (liquidity premium exceeds carrying costs), go short on money (carrying costs exceed liquidity premium, at least in poor countries), and increase your future expected net wealth.


and now I must go to the gym before returning to verbs and their prepositions.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

In brief

A reader has sent me a link to his review of The Last Samurai on amagnificentbastard, which includes a fuller discussion of ethical questions raised (including those relating to suicide) than was offered by most reviewers.