Donating Food, Wasting Money

21 Sep

Who does US food aid help most?

Here’s another one for the annals of pseudo-altruistic aid: turns out that for every dollar of US taxpayer money spent on food aid for Africa, a dollar goes into the pockets of the American shipping companies that take it there. That’s the finding of a new study from Cornell University as reported by IRIN News.

In a nutshell,  75 percent of US food aid is required to be shipped on privately owned, US registered vessels, even if they do not offer the most competitive rates. Result: lots of cash wasted to subsidize the American shipping industry.

“About 20 years ago the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent investigative arm of Congress, looked at the costs of shipping food aid in US-flag vessels rather than using cheaper foreign ships, and estimated that it cost $150 million each year. Another report in 1994 put the cost as high as $200 million a year”, adds IRIN. And how much more might they save by buying food from closer-by sources, rather than shlepping our surplus stuff halfway across the world?


The Military’s Incredible Hulk

14 Jul

Tiny article, great picture, seriously badass machine.

Read all about it in less time than it takes to trigger a landmine:

Bikers of Montreal

14 Jun

Grabbez-vous un bike!

So elegant and practical they made me want to weep for joy on a recent trip: these are the public bicycles of Montreal.  Available to everyone, any time. You find one of the many stations around town where the bikes are kept, swipe a credit card and for less than the price of a bus ride you’re off on a merry two-wheeled ride. When you get to where you’re going, you just park the bike at another station and forget about it.

Bike-sharing is such an obviously good idea that even in carjacked America, more and more cities are starting similar programs. Minneapolis just launched theirs last week, and Washington DC is set to increase the size of theirs by a factor of nine. They’re not necessarily easy to do right, though. The New York Times reports that 80 per cent of the bikes in Paris’ fleet of 20,000 have been stolen. Montreal’s Bixi system seems to have figured out a better way, though. Minneapolis and DC are using the Canadian-designed bikes and parking apparatus. Because who knows more about bicycling than people who live in a country that’s 90 per cent frozen tundra?

And here's how you pay

The Real Problem with the Gaza Blockade

9 Jun

Much more important than the back-and-forth about Israel’s (lethally bungled) raid on a boatload of (deliberately provocative) protesters trying to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip is the bigger question it raises: what to do about the blockade? Without a doubt, its critics are right to say it inflicts terrible human suffering on civilian Palestinians. But it’s also a fact that without it, Hamas would smuggle in even more rockets to lob at Israeli civilians, not to mention whatever other weapons they could get their hands on to help further their goal of wiping Israel off the map.

But here’s another fact about the Gaza blockade: as a tactic, it just doesn’t work. This kind of attempt to pressure another nation into doing your will by squeezing them materially almost never does. It pretty much only ends up hurting innocent civilians. The economic sanctions imposed on  Serbian-controlled Yugoslavia during the Bosnian war didn’t make Belgrade stop supporting Bosnia’s genocidal Serbs. They just made life incredibly difficult for ordinary people, without changing the behavior of their leaders at all. Ditto the sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Ditto, for that matter, the bombing of civilian centers in World War Two. (There might be a case to make about sanctions having helped end  apartheid in South Africa, but to me that looks more like they at best hastened something that was inevitable anyway. Very different from these other situations.)

If anything, this kind of collective punishment tends to make the locals rally around their leaders, not seek their overthrow. There’s nothing to suggest Hamas is losing popular support in Gaza because of the blockade – probably the opposite. I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s pretty obvious the status quo just isn’t working, and never will.

One of the Gaza flotilla ships, impounded in Ashdod. Thanks,

LA Times Love for a Worthy Magazine

2 Jun

A nice bit of recognition for Miller-McCune magazine, for which I happen to be a contributing editor. Including a shout-out for one of my pieces therein:

Miller-McCune stakes out provocative ground. One piece looked at safe-injection drug sites in Vancouver. It suggested addicts could find better outcomes with government cooperation, not crackdowns. As a subhead declared, “Let Junkies be Junkies.”

Let Convicts Make Calls, They Break Fewer Laws

26 May

Not someone you want calling you. Photo: Wired

Last year I did a piece for Wired about cell phones in prisons – how they’re being smuggled in by the thousands and are being used for literally everything from calling Mom to ordering murders. Prison reformers opined that the best way to beat the problem is to make it easier for inmates to call their loved ones more easily. In most lockups, their only option is artificially overpriced collect calls. Cheaper legit calls would reduce demand for smuggled mobiles, goes the thinking, and the result would be fewer handsets floating around for bad guys to use for evil ends. Well, according to Nebraska correctional authorities, it’s true. As the Omaha World-Herald reports,

State Corrections Director Bob Houston said Nebraska has made it so cheap for prisoners to use the regular prison phone system that there’s no monetary incentive to smuggle in phones.

Only six cell phones were confiscated from Nebraska inmates during the past year, Houston said. He attributes the low number to a decision made years ago not to seek profit from inmate phone calls.

In Nebraska, inmates pay only 50 cents for a local telephone call on the regular prison lines….By contrast, Iowa charges $2 per local call.

Safer prisons, happier moms – but sad news for phone companies, which rake in millions from overpriced inmate calls.

Sensory Overloader

26 May

Eye candy in the form of a short piece I’ve got in the new Wired. When you really need a good look at the interior of a 30-foot-high human brain,  or to watch the movements of subatomic particles blown up to the size of Volkswagens, you need the Allosphere, a three-story-tall aluminum sphere with a catwalk running through the center and six hi-def 3-D video projectors that spray 360-degree images onto a spherical screen. Worth checking out just for the visuals.

This is your brain in the Allosphere. Courtesy UC Santa Barbara.