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October 16, 2004

Some Random Facts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I enjoyed noting down some of the interesting facts I ran across during the last week. So please indulge a cleaning-off-my-desktop posting.

  • In America, between the ages of 50 and 64, there are 93 men for every 100 women. But in the older-than-65 category, there are only 70 men for every 100 women.

  • "Fiscal conservative" President Bush has increased domestic discretionary spending by 25% in four years; nutty Democrat Bill Clinton increased it by only 10% over eight years. Bush, by the way, hasn't seen fit to veto a single Congressional spending bill, no matter how pork-laden.

  • In an Economist poll of 56 econ profs, 70% said that President Bush's first term deserved poor or very bad marks. On the other hand, 368 economists have signed a letter to the effect that Kerry's economics program will lead to disaster.

    By Natasha Law

  • Jude Law's painter sister Natasha Law makes images that look like illustrations for the Playboy Advisor, but they're real gallery-artworld creations.

  • I've wondered for years about the effect our nutty immigration policies might be having on our poverty rates. After all, most newcomers are poor ... We get millions and millions of 'em, year after year ... Surely our poverty rates must be higher than they'd be if we ran a sensible immigration policy. Newsweek's daring economics columnist Robert Samuelson spells out some of the cause-and-effect::

    The increase in poverty in recent decades stems mainly from immigration. Until our leaders acknowledge the connection between immigration and poverty, we'll be hamstrung in dealing with either ...

    Compared with 1990, there were actually 700,000 fewer non-Hispanic whites in poverty last year. Among blacks, the drop since 1990 is between 700,000 and 1 million, and the poverty rate—though still appallingly high—has declined from 32 percent to 24 percent ... Meanwhile, the number of poor Hispanics is up by 3 million since 1990.

    Well, now we know. By the way, I see that Latino teens are twice as likely as blacks to drop out of school, and three times more likely than whites. So I guess the poverty problem we're importing won't be going away anytime soon.

  • I didn't realize until this week -- three months late -- that 2004 is the 25th anniversary of the first Sony Walkman.

  • Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the ruler of the African state of Equatorial Guinea, likes to kill his enemies and eat their testicles. Though Equatorial Guinea is rich in oil and low in population, Teodoro doesn't spread much of the wealth around: he's thought to be worth over half a billion dollars. Meanwhile, clean water and medicine are scarce in the rest of the country, and most Equatorial Guineans live on monkey, porcupines, and rats. Nonetheless, Nguema is considered to be only the sixth-worst of the world's current dictators. (Source: The American Conservative.)

  • Are you thinking about buying a big, flat-screen television? Plasma TV screens tend to go dull and then burn out over time. On the other hand, LCD screens don't refresh as quickly, so aren't as good for motion-heavy viewing like sports. Prices on both plasma and LCD TV's, of course, are falling rapidly.

  • Most people use only one or two computer passwords. Half choose family names or pet names to use as passwords; a third use the names of celebrities. Office workers on average have to remember passwords for between six and 20 systems. Forcing employees to change passwords may be necessary, but it frequently causes employees to forget passwords; businesses spend $18 per person per year to deal with this problem. (Source: The Economist.)

I've also been picking up some some neat trivia from the history-of-Rome audio lecture series I mentioned a few postings ago.

  • Punishment for seduction in Rome was much harsher than punishment for rape was. First, radishes were shoved up the seducer's butt. Then a fish with a tall and spiny fin on its back was inserted. The fin was flat on insertion, but when inside the fish was expected to raise the fin up and cause fatal damage. If the seducer didn't die at this point, he was tied up in a bag with rats, and was thrown into the Tiber.

  • Early on, the Romans overthrew their kings and were faced with the question of how to rule themselves. It quickly emerged that the biggest split was between patricians and plebeians: how and why shouldn't the plebs have as much access to power as the patricians? The patricians, of course, didn't see the question that way, and dug in their heels. So the plebs picked up and left; they literally packed up their belongings and moved across the Tiber, thereby leaving the abandoned patricians struggling with basic life questions such as how to feed themselves. Rather quickly, the patricians folded. Me, I think this is a good model for our relationship with our own political class. What say we skip the stupid election, pack up, and move across the river?

  • I'd always thought the Romans invented the arch. In fact, although the Romans perfected and developed the arch, it was the Etruscans who invented it; Rome picked the idea and techniques up when they conquered the Etruscans. The Romans also picked up their ideas about city planning from the Etruscans.

  • The Romans hadn't run across stage drama until they conquered Sicily during the First Punic War. At the time, Sicily was inhabited by, among others, many Greeks; the place was a hotbed of theater. The Romans were instantly smitten by the Greek-style New Comedy they encountered in Sicily -- but partly because the laughable characters onstage weren't Romans, they were Greeks. Romans thought of themselves as too dignified for ridicule.



posted by Michael at October 16, 2004


Dear Blowhards,

Greetings from Brasil!
I need to tell you right away that I use your texts (and sometimes the blogs you link) in my English classes here in Brasil. Being Brazilian, I find in them, both “food” for my own spiritual / critical appetite, and challenging stuff for my English students.

Nevertheless, I have to say that being an English teacher is not a bad job even when you consider the money. It leaves you time to do your own stuff, it allows you to meet interesting etc. But please don’t consider the “not bad money” in American terms, which are positively different from Brazilian.

My relationship with this blog site dates back to the repercussions of the “bookpeople moviepeople posting” which caused flak among some of your Brazilian counterparts. Since then, curiosity and interest has led me to check out what has been going on in some other American blogs (to be honest, this blog has been my no.1 portal to all the others, followed by

While our own native blogs seem to be more concerned with pale idiosyncrasies and black humor, I have indulged my ambition for more reasonable and intelligent discussions with your writings and some of the blogs you link. Thank you very much for that.

Discussions here in our native blogs, I strongly believe, occur at a very sad and down-to-earth, somewhat uneducated level. For instance, when it comes to discussions of politics, they are usually either about “spiting on the Mercedes-Benzes” or “defending driving Mercedes-Benzes” (variations on Dumb and Dumber!). It is really sad to see how we keep wallowing in such simplistic, violent and even misleading concepts of what people think of “the other” side. It is sad, but at the same time we here are all to blame for it. I sometimes ask myself if the investment in such discussions is worth the effort. I usually keep my mouth shut, but that makes me feel hopeless. It is obviously all part of our “lousy” educational system and political propaganda (remember that not so long ago, here in Brasil, we were in a long and dark age of military dictatorship). Democracy and the democratic spirit are not things people are used to. Actually, in a way, they are yet to be created.

On the other hand I should add that photoblogs are very popular. Of course they are mostly about people’s daily lives, parties and narcissistic contemplations of each other’s faces and body parts, for subjects, like politics, remain far beyond their reach. Well, it couldn’t be otherwise, in a country of illiterates (no matter what the “statistics” say – to hell with those numbers –, people do have a hard time understanding texts, and the majority of the population, albeit able to pronounce the words and recognize the letters, cannot understand their combinations in long sentences or paragraphs).

Our own media is a sad reflection of the poor state of our country’s health and intelligence. Even in São Paulo, our most cosmopolitan and educated city; newspapers tend to portray the image of the politics of extremes that leaves no common ground. Thus, leaving the population without any hope of conciliation or improvement. Opinion columnists tend to be arrogant and far too inflexible (when not hiding behind some suspicious skepticism or even estheticism!). The TV and news media, in my opinion, are completely immature and irresponsible. They have proven themselves (with rare exceptions) utterly incapable of educating the population in ways to deal with these crucial subjects, or to provide any sensible or sensitive perspective on things.

Not that I should idealize your news media either. I am constantly reading articles from The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post and even Details! The feeling I have is that either a communist revolution is going on, or President Lula is showing up drunk as a skunk for work. Fuck!! Could these guys be more off the point or misleading?

So now I find myself browsing the net for good sense and well-reasoned material. I like and appreciate the fact that good discussions are available online and that fact really contributes to making sensible advances in thought, at least with the few people who read them (my students included). My favorite subjects are not very different from yours, as they range from art, books, films, architecture, urbanism, politics etc.

Well I think that´s it. I feel as if I´ve rambled for too long.
Please keep writing, (if it does you good) and sharing, and believing, and making this world a better place. It comforts me to believe our actions are like those ripples on a big lake. Thanks again.



Posted by: andre on October 16, 2004 5:52 PM


Here are some thoughts from a Norte-Americano on what ails Latin America.

The key is the middle class. Without the creation of a significant middle class - in terms of a percentage of the overall population I would say 20% at a bare minimum - despair and the repression and violence that follows from widespread despair will continue to be the dominant political fact throughout the continent.

Of course, how to get there, how to create a large class that is at neither extreme economically, continues to be THE central problem.

There is hope from an unlikely quarter. Fundamentalist Protestant Christianity is spreading like wildfire throughout Latin America. For a whole complex of reasons the Protestant mindset provides a much more fertile ground for the kind of economic activity that gives rise to an economic "middle" than does the Catholic mind. But this takes time to develop. The instantaneous "solution" that Communism offers is much more seductive to most Latin American intellectuals. The solution is a catastrophic trap.

Hoping the forces behind moderation and gradualism win.

Posted by: ricpic on October 17, 2004 11:13 AM


I'm curious: have you read Robert Klitgaard's "Tropical Gangsters"?

It's the account of an IMF economist's encounters with the Obiang regime in the '80s, and is still the best introduction to African despotism.

Thirteen years since it came out, it's still in print, which says something. It's certainly a fun and fascinating read.

I know of few Africanists who don't put it in their top three.

Posted by: Vera Kochring on October 17, 2004 3:06 PM

Andre -- Wow, what a gorgeous note. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and info, and thanks for stopping by. If you don't mind, I'm going to copy and paste your note into a separate posting -- I'd hate it if more people didn't get a chance to read it.

Ricpic -- I had no idea that fundamentalist Christianity is spreading through Latin America. Fascinatin'.

Vera -- Never heard of it, so am thrilled to hear your suggestion, thanks. I'll order the book pronto. I confess to knowing next-to-nothing about Africa, so it's good to know I'll be starting out on the right foot. How do you react to Ryzsard Kapuscinski's books, forgive the misspelling? I don't take them too seriously as factual journalism, but I've always found them very intense as evocations. But maybe I'm just a sucker for good writing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 17, 2004 3:30 PM

MIcheal -

If you get a chance, you should read Philip Jenkins's The Next Christendom". He explores how Pentecostalism is exploding through Latin America, while both protestantism and catholicism are expanding in Africa. In fact, some African churches have started sending missionaries to Europe and the U.S. in order to convert the "heathens"!

Posted by: jimbo on October 17, 2004 7:13 PM

Oops - sorry about the non-tag-closing,,,

Posted by: jimbo on October 17, 2004 7:14 PM

Klitgaard? Kochring?

there was a young man from Nantucket...

Posted by: playrink on October 17, 2004 10:28 PM

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