Dynamist Blog


When I travel, which is often, I often use t-Mobile's wi-fi service--in Starbucks, Borders, Kinko's, the Admirals Club, and some airports including DFW--to go online. But, aside from security, there's a big problem: a lot of spam-blockers block email from this source. I can't even send email to my husband! Damn those spammers.

Update: Here's the link I get directed to when t-Mobile mail bounces.


Inspired by my post on yummy grape tomatoes as a sign of progress, Tim Worstall went looking for them in Portugal, where he lives. Turns out they're illegal in the EU, with criminal penalties for selling them.

Why? Not because there's anything wrong with them, even in the imaginations of EU regulators. No, the bureaucrats just didn't know about them when they wrote the laws. Any class of tomatoes that isn't mentioned is forbidden. Tim's post must be read to be believed. Here's just one little snippet:

we are also protected from acquiring undersized tomatoes. And here we have a second reason why grape tomatoes are illegal. They're too small ( freedom from size limits is only for cherry tomatoes or those in trusses ) and they are not sold in trusses.


That's the first question that occurred to me when I read this amazingly credulous LAT article on a "study" of city parks:

Two-thirds of children in Los Angeles do not live within walking distance of a public park, according to a report to be released today by a national land conservation group.

The comparative analysis of seven major American cities by the Trust for Public Land found that 66% of Los Angeles children, or more than 716,000 youngsters under 18, did not live within a quarter-mile of a park. Los Angeles County as a whole fared even worse, with only 31% of children living close to a park, the study found.

In Boston, by contrast, 78% of children live within a quarter-mile of a park. In New York, 59% do, while in San Diego, only 32% can walk to one ï¿ the lowest rate among the cities studied. San Diego County as a whole fared significantly better, with 58% of children living near a park.

Now, I've lived in Boston and I've lived in L.A., and "walking distance" doesn't mean the same thing in the two cities--at least not in the wintertime. In L.A., I routinely walk a mile or more, year-round. Not so in Boston, where my walk to work was so cold and windy on some days that I often paid a cab to take me, despite being broke. (The public transit alternative involved three different train lines to go a relatively short distance.) So I don't believe that "walking distance" and "a quarter mile" are the same thing, especially since L.A. and San Diego, both weather paradises with beaches that don't count as "parks," got the worst scores in this "study."

But even if you accept that definition, the study is garbage, and the article on it is a disgrace to supposedly skeptical journalism. The study compares the vast region of L.A. County with the tiny city limits of Boston. It picks seven cities arbitrarily. What, any sensible reader would ask, are the criteria for looking at these seven and not another group? This list isn't what comes to mind if you say, "Name seven American cities." And why seven? Would a larger list get different results?

Finally, the conclusion is laughable: Kids have it better in those Garden State garden spots, Camden and Newark, than in Los Angeles and San Diego???!!!! This "study" doesn't pass the laugh test. But the article doesn't mention Camden and Newark, except in the chart. And it never explains just how tiny Boston is.

I'm not against neighborhood parks. Indeed, I'm sympathetic to the view that L.A. has unduly emphasized giant preservationist sanctuaries like the Santa Monica mountains, much beloved of affluent Westsiders, at the expense of cheaper, smaller neighborhood parks that would give kids places to play. (I'm not, however, against backyards.) But the report, and the "reporting," make me less sympathetic to the cause they supposedly serve. If they've got such a great argument, why do they need such obvious propaganda? And why doesn't the LAT expect its reporters to ask the most basic questions? Reporter Miguel Bustillo and his editors should be ashamed of themselves.

The press release is here, along with information on how to download the report. (You have to give them your email address, but most of the form is optional.)


I somehow overlooked the best story in Sunday's LAT Magazine, Candice Reed's short and moving remembrance of one of the contractors ambushed and killed in Fallujah:

Scott Helvenston's chiseled movie-star face flashes through my mind whenever I run on the beach. It's mainly because of him that I stay in shape.

Every morning before I head out on my run, I read the paper. Early this month, I stared at the photograph of the charred bodies dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Thank God that isn't anyone I know, I thought selfishly, and turned the page. Two days later my friend Ciaran e-mailed me.

She forwarded the story of the four civilians working for a private company, Blackwater Security Consulting, who were killed by rocket-propelled grenades during an ambush. I read the article, and pieces of it sunk in—Scott had gone to Iraq to work for the contractor to the U.S. government charged with protecting the delivery of food in Fallouja, and to make a large amount of money in a short amount of time for his two children. It couldn't be the same man—but, of course, it could.

"Isn't this your Navy SEAL?" Ciaran asked.

I stared at the name—Scott Helvenston—and remembered the grisly photo. Suddenly I felt sick. Then I burst into tears. It was definitely my Navy SEAL.

Read it all. My thanks to LA Observed, which I rely on when I don't see the LAT--and need even when I do.


The L.A. Times Book Festival was fun and interesting--and sunny and full of people (70,000 on Saturday alone). But I sometimes felt like I was in an alternate universe, where Katrina vanden Heuvel represents the center of American politics. The quick and dirty way to characterize the makeup of the panels, including mine, would be to say they reflect liberal bias. But that would be wrong.

The problem isn't that conservatives or libertarians are missing (though they mostly are) but that liberals--the non-socialist, non-Marxist people who make up the mainstream of the Democratic Party and, for that matter, American journalism--are so dramatically underrepresented. While you can find exceptions, the LAT Book Festival, like the LAT Book Review, represents the world according to David Horowitz, in which there are no liberals, only the left and a few token anti-leftists for "balance."


Reader Ray Eckhart sends this link to a Washington Post op-ed titled "What an Unnecessary Disaster":

Last month in Jonizi, South Africa, I watched my friend Jocky Gumede happily bounce his grandchild on his knee. The recent malaria epidemic had subsided, and Jocky was relieved that the child had escaped death -- for this year, anyway. Jocky can't erase the memory of the toll the disease has taken on his family. Still, he is relatively lucky. In South Africa, the malaria rate is falling. In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, the disease is on the rise. This development has more than one cause, including factors such as insufficient insecticide use, the malarial parasite's resistance to widely used drugs, and malnutrition. But the main cause is the failure of the very campaign organized to combat the disease....

Since the connection between mosquitoes and malaria was first made in 1898, many methods have been developed to control the disease. But the key lesson that has been learned, and perhaps must be relearned, is that overreliance on any single method of combating malaria leads to inevitable failure. There are tried-and-proven methods that in combination are highly effective, but WHO and other aid agencies seem reluctant to fund them.

Preventing malaria means creating a barrier between the mosquito, which is the carrier of the malarial parasite, and the parasite's primary host -- humans. Since malarial mosquitoes bite only between dusk and dawn, WHO's campaign has promoted bed nets, which can protect those who sleep beneath them. But this policy has had limited success. Nets for a whole family are expensive, and mosquitoes can take many blood meals between dusk and bedtime. Also, nets work best if treated with insecticide. But a recent survey in Kenya found that 21 percent of households had one single bed net, and only 5.6 percent of these were insecticide-treated. Moreover, mosquitoes are growing resistant to the type of insecticide with which the nets are coated.

The article points up the importance of having one malaria-plagued country, South Africa, that is rich enough to go its own way rather than depend on international health aid. The difference isn't all about DDT--better drugs are also important--but using DDT makes other tools more affordable and effective.

The article's author, Roger Bate is a health economist and director of a South African health advocacy group, Africa Fighting Malaria,which has a rich website here.


I'm en route to L.A. (from Providence) for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I'll be on a panel Sunday morning at 11:30, and Saturday afternoon C-SPAN is interviewing me for BookTV. I think the interview is live, in which case it will be on the air around 3 p.m. Pacific Time. Free tickets are required for the panels (info is here). Parking is a pain, so if you're coming from the Westside I recommend the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus (or walking, which is my plan).


My latest NYT column looks at the enormous consumer value the Internet creates by expanding choice. Here's an excerpt:

When I wanted a contemporary light fixture in copper, I used Google to find a specialty retailer that had one I liked. I recently did the same thing to find a particular brand of Velcro-sealed envelope that I use for receipts when I travel. I regularly turn to Amazon.com and Alibris for books I cannot find in local bookstores or even libraries.

Online shoppers are not just buying the same stuff for less money. They are buying different stuff. And they are much more likely to be getting exactly what they want than are off-line shoppers. Wal-Mart has low prices, but Walmart.com carries six times as many items as the largest Wal-Mart store, the article says. [Source inserted by copy editor, before the first mention of said article.--vp] "Amazon's slogan is world's biggest selection, not world's cheapest prices," said Professor [Erik] Brynjolfsson, who has done pioneering research on information technology and productivity.

All this variety could be overwhelming. But consumers do not have to sort through item by item. Online shopping includes tools like search engines and customer review sites, or Amazon's many referral services.

You are not only more likely to find what you are looking for online. You are more likely to discover something you like that you did not already know about, Professor Brynjolfsson said. [Attribution again demanded by unusually anal copy editor because God forbid the NYT should let columnists draw conclusions without citing Authorities.--vp] Partly through links and referrals, the Internet increases sales of obscure products. In 1997 and 1998, in the early days of Internet commerce, The MIT Press reported 12 percent annual increases in sales of backlist books, thanks to Internet retailers.

"In effect, the emergence of online retailers places a specialty store and a personalized shopping assistant at every shopper's desk," write Professor Brynjolfsson, Yu Hu, and Michael D. Smith in a November 2003 article in Management Science. "This improves the welfare of these consumers by allowing them to locate and buy specialty products they otherwise would not have purchased due to high transaction costs or low product awareness." (The article, "Consumer Surplus in the Digital Economy: Estimating the Value of Increased Product Variety at Online Booksellers," is available at http://ebusiness.mit.edu/erik/.)

Naturally, I'd like you to read the whole thing.


The Atlantic's Ellen Ruppel Shell wrote about the resurgence of malaria in 1997. Here's her opening paragraph:

DEPENDING on one's perspective, the struggle to gain dominion over malaria can be seen either as a primer of the possible in infectious-disease control or as classic tragedy. All but obliterated in the developed world half a century ago, and suppressed in the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s, malaria has since returned in full force to North Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China, South America, and the Caribbean. Worldwide incidence of the disease has quadrupled in the past five years, and resistance to available drugs for prevention and treatment is growing rapidly. Nearly 40 percent of the world's population lives in regions where malaria is endemic, and millions more live in areas that are encountering the disease for the first time in decades. Europe has had outbreaks, and in the United States 1,000 to 1,200 cases annually have been reported in recent years. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that cases reported in the United States represent only about half the actual incidence. Every year approximately seven million American tourists and business people spend time in regions where malaria is endemic, as do military personnel and foreign visitors to the United States, and it is likely that thousands arrive here with malaria parasites in their bodies. As a consequence, locally transmitted malaria, absent from the United States for roughly thirty years, has returned. Since 1988 locally transmitted malaria has appeared in California, Texas, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, and New York City. Anopheles mosquitoes -- members of the genus that carries malaria parasites -- are common almost everywhere in the United States and, for that matter, in most populated regions of the world.

The article is long, comprehensive, and pretty depressing.


Reader Bryan Spencer, a research associate with the Red Cross, writes:

I haven't read the NYTimes article yet, but I spent many years as a graduate student studying malaria. It's true that DDT is a tool that should still be available given its efficacy and low cost, but it is not true that were it widely used we could save 2 million lives a year. The challenges to eradicating disease in a third world country are vastly greater than doing so in one such as ours, and DDT is just one piece of that puzzle. Having fewer restrictions on its use would no doubt save some lives, but if the article suggests that all malaria deaths in Africa could be averted by DDT use, then the author is pushing fantasy, not good science.

This mistake is mine, not Tina Rosenberg's, and was inadvertent. (Please read the article.) I didn't mean to suggst that all deaths from malaria could be averted by DDT, just that the cumulative death toll of not using DDT is enormous and infuriating. When you throw in the indirect deaths from malaria's depressing effects on economic productivity, which are hard to estimate, the numbers are even greater.

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