Saturday, November 02, 2013

Academic Freedom and Hong Kong

I recently posted on a listserv an announcement about the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship, a great scholarship that pays for PhD studies in Hong Kong. I was surprised to receive a query by an anthropologist who does research on minorities in China, asking “How much academic freedom is really possible in Hong Kong as an anthropologist? Is it that much different from the mainland?” I was stunned. Hong Kong universities are funded and administered totally separately from the mainland. I think anyone who knows Hong Kong would agree that Hong Kong has a high degree of academic freedom, with no restrictions on teaching or research, a free Internet and plenty of books on Taiwan and Tibet in the libraries. We are quite vigilant about academic freedom. But obviously the perception out there is different.

As I thought more about this, I realized that there are periodic stories that will pop up in the international news (e.g. The New York Times) that might make Hong Kong seem less open than it is. In fact, we are living through one such story right now. This is the case of Hong Kong Television (HKTV). Hong Kong has two free-to-air TV companies, TVB and ATV, which broadcast one Cantonese and one English channel each. There has long been talk of expanding the market, and a process of adding more stations has been dragging on inexplicably for over four years. A couple of weeks ago, the HK government announced that only two of the three applicants for new licenses would be granted, and that HKTV would not get one. The astonishing part of the story is that the government has refused to explain its decision. It says that Executive Council decisions are confidential. This is true, but it is bad politics not to give any explanation. It has emerged that consultants’ reports said that all three licenses could be issued, but it seems that there is some worry that the Hong Kong market, with only a bit over 7 million people, is not big enough to support five TV companies (and ATV is considered the weakest of all; TVB currently has an astonishing 80 percent market share).

Protests have erupted, confidence in the Chief Executive has declined, public opinion ratings of the government have hit an all-time low, and even some pro-government politicians such as Michael Tien and former ExCo members have said this decision needs to be explained or perhaps reversed.

It is not clear why the government is being so silent about the reasons. In the silence, speculation fills the gap. Some suggest that the tycoons who control the existing stations pressured the government, since the winning bidders are companies owned by tycoons who run cable TV companies in the SAR. Many were quick to suspect interference from China, but HKTV owner Ricky Wong said he doubted that, noting that he was not involved in any politics and that his proposed station was all entertainment and no news or current affairs. On the other hand, there has been speculation that his mistake was not including any mainland officials on his board to make Beijing comfortable with his company. It  has been suspected that because he is truly independent and has no investments in the mainland, that Beijing put pressure to have his license application denied. This is all speculation, however. It would explain why the government cannot reveal the reasons for denying him a license, but so would the tycoon conspiracy theory. Part of the reasons for the protests and speculation, however, is that people in Hong Kong are very vigilant about their freedoms.

Someone reading about this story from overseas might rightly worry about Hong Kong’s freedom. The Edward Snowden story also raised questions about Hong Kong’s autonomy. But the Snowden case also affected international relations (as well as legal process), so was at least partly under Beijing’s mandate. (As an aside, I find it hilarious that Hong Kong claimed they could not hold Snowden because of discrepancies in his middle name on the documents provided by the US. This is the kind of bureaucratic idiocy and procedural rigidity we often face in Hong Kong, both with the government, in the university, and even in banks. It made for a believable excuse in the Hong Kong context, though sounded ridiculous to Americans--as it indeed was. If he had been wanted by the HK police or PRC authorities, there is no doubt they would have detained him).

But when it comes to things like political and academic freedom, we in Hong Kong definitely do not think of ourselves as part of China. Indeed, I was surprised to read in Slate the sentence that said “... Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks advisor who has reportedly been by Snowden's side since he was in China.” I wanted to say, “Hey, he was never in China, he was in Hong Kong!” This is not to deny that Hong Kong is part of China, but that there is a big difference between his being in Hong Kong and being in mainland China. The tragedy of the Snowden affair for Hong Kong is that in the contradiction between following legal procedure and the need to follow Beijing on international relations, the law may have been bent.


Academic freedom everywhere is very important, and needs to be constantly protected and even expanded. This is why MarshallSahlins’ article in The Nation on the Confucius Institutes is important (see also an earlier NYTimes story here). These Institutes are established within leading universities abroad but have teachers hired by the Chinese government. Of course, every donor has an agenda when they donate money to a university. But universities who accept such funds need to take more care to assure they maintain control and academic freedom. In the meantime, I can assure readers that we are quite free to research controversial topics in Hong Kong, from religious groups to the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement to environmental pollution. Whether we get government grants for some of these projects is another matter, but then the problem there seems to be more that our government is most concerned with promoting research that supports the HK economy. But that is another problem. When it comes to freedom, we in Hong Kong even have professors who are a thorn in the side of the government and are organizing "Occupy Central," and no one is talking of them being punished or fired. There are costs to activism (see Chan Kin Man's case here), but not in the form of retribution from our administration. So far, at least, we have maintained a high degree of autonomy, and freedom.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Daniel Ng, 1937-2013

Last week I attended a memorial for Daniel Ng, the entrepreneur who brought McDonald's to Hong Kong. He had a PhD in chemical engineering and worked first in the US (and I understand he had a patent for a fuel cell for pacemakers), and then at 35 years of age in 1972 moved back to Hong Kong to work with a venture capital fund. In 1974 he went back to Chicago for a year to learn the McDonald’s system, before opening his first restaurant in Hong Kong in 1975. He had a 20 year franchise and was extraordinarily successful, so that when McDonald’s exercised its option to buy back the franchise, he was very wealthy. He ran the company so well, and kept McDonald’s prices so low, that no other hamburger chain has ever had much success in HK. It was he who suggested the "Big Mac Index" to the Economist.

I knew him because he was the primary supporter of AFS Hong Kong, and was the chairman of the board, on which I am a member. The success of McDonald’s in HK was due to many factors, but top among them were: 1) his deep understanding of branding (he also created a logo and brand image for AFS worldwide); 2) his sense of humor and love of fun (he liked McD because it sold fun); and 3) his belief in persistence and determination. Apparently he loved a quotation from Calvin Coolidge to this effect, but while Coolidge said talent, genius and education were not enough, Daniel had all those characteristics PLUS persistence!

Daniel was quirky. One friend described him as “weird,” even. But he was genuine. He was gentle, and not abrasive, but decisive. Often he got his point across with humor. Whether due to intelligence, experience, or a well developed “executive function” in the brain, he was very decisive. He was completely bi-lingual and bi-cultural, with native English and Cantonese. He was also apparently notorious among his friends for only buying second-hand cars, and not spending a lot of money on clothes (those who know me will see why I feel a connection with him).

He was passionate about many things. He was a strong supporter of music, and commissioned a number of works to promote young composers. He was a strong supporter of the Ronald McDonald House and had been working in the past few years to make sure that a second house would be opened with the new specialty pediatric hospital on Kai Tak. And he was a strong believer in intercultural understanding. He wanted Hong Kong youth to be more cosmopolitan by going overseas on exchanges, and by meeting exchange students who come to Hong Kong for a year. He did not suffer fools, and he thought a particular horse-related charity in Hong Kong was being very narrow-minded when they decided only to sponsor outgoing Hong Kong students and not incoming foreign students (they claimed they only wanted to support Hong Kong students, as if Hong Kong students don’t benefit from having an exchange student in their midst).

Daniel died on August 23rd of cancer at age 76, which is still young by today’s standards. As his children’s statement put it, He had been ill for some time, but never wanted to let anyone know, choosing as always to focus on living. he had a formidable spirit, insatiable curiosity and zest for life that served him well even at the end.” His memorial was attended by probably over 400 persons, and it was by invitation only, or it would have been many, many more. Everyone had humorous stories to tell. Former employees and colleagues were very grateful for his mentoring and guidance.

There is one image of Daniel that captures his youthful spirit for me. Years ago, shortly after the iPhone first came out, he already had one. He also had several apps, and he had a blast showing them off. He had the “lighter app” that would allow you to hold up a “lighter” at a rock concert, and he had the “beer app,” which appears to fill the iPhone screen with beer, and then allows you to “drink” the beer as you tilt the iPhone to your mouth. He loved to laugh. Almost every picture you will find of Daniel has him smiling broadly or laughing. He was truly an impressive figure.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The lessons of North Korea

Juche Monument, Pyongyang, North Korea (aka DPRK) with a human standing in front, for scale. There should be an index that measures the size of national monuments. I can't help but speculate that the larger a nation's monuments, the more authoritarian is the state. I think of the pyramids, and the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in Rome. Perhaps there are other, stronger, correlations. Maybe the larger monuments indicate a stronger state elite (elites who build things to impress the masses with their power, and to get the masses to be "proud" of the state--i.e., the elite). And maybe this is all too crude. After all, the US seems to have had its peak of monument building well before its recent peak of centralized power. The biggest monuments in DC arethe Washington Monument (built between 1848-1885) and the Lincoln Memorial (1914-1922).

The DPRK is sociologically fascinating. Social scientists spend much of their time showing that people's choices are shaped by the culture and society (well, except for economists, who still believe in the autonomous individual). When we face a society where choices are really constrained, like the DPRK, then we are forced to recognize that choice is, in fact, important in most modern societies. Yes, all societies limit our choices and mold us in certain ways. But the DPRK is at an extreme. The task of combining structure and agency is never easy, and new terms such as "structuration" don't help much, except to highlight the challenge. Every society is weird in some way. The DPRK's weirdness forces anyone who dismisses choice and markets as not important to recognize that freedom to choose actually does matter. It is an exotic culture of our time that shows the limits of what humans can bear and do, a fascinating example, and one in the end that highlights why some level of individual freedom is in fact necessary and desirable.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Hong Kong Has "The Most Efficient Health Care System In The World"

The Huffington Post has an interesting article that shows that according to a recent Bloomberg ranking, Hong Kong has the most efficient health care system in the world. The real point of the story is to show that the US is 46th of 48 countries: 
"In other words, the world's richest country spends more of its money on health care while getting less than almost every other nation in return."
Of course, all such rankings depend on how variables are measured. In this case, though I'm happy to have Hong Kong's success recognized, I think the measure is a bit too primitive.
Each country was ranked on three criteria: life expectancy (weighted 60%), relative per capita cost of health care (30%); and absolute per capita cost of health care (10%). Countries were scored on each criterion and the scores were weighted and summed to obtain their efficiency scores.
So life expectancy is the only measure of health outcome.  A bit primitive, but not invalid.

The main message from the story is that all the top (most efficient) systems are heavily state controlled, and are universal.
Despite being considered by some as having the freest economy in the world, Hong Kong's universal health care system involves heavy government participation; its own health secretary calls public medicine the "cornerstone" of the system. Public hospitals account for 90 percent of in-patient procedures, while the numerous private options are mostly used by the wealthy.
Many Americans will just dismiss this. Nothing will shake their faith in the "free" market.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Hong Kongers vs Mainlanders, episode 1375: The Case of the Suitcases in the Nullah

Yesterday I heard a story on the radio that made no sense. Two passengers took a taxi from the airport to Lok Ma Chau, the Hong Kong border with the Mainland. Along the way, the two passengers realized that the Hong Kong dollars they had would not be enough to pay for the fare. When they got to the destination, a dispute ensued and the enraged taxi driver drove off with the passengers' suitcases and threw them in a nullah. (A "nullah" is one of those interesting words in Hong Kong English [and perhaps it exists elsewhere in the Commonwealth, but not in the US] that means drainage canal or ditch. In present-day Hong Kong, nullahs are all cement-lined. With all the rain we've had recently, they are all full of water).

The story left me perplexed: how could a taxi driver get so angry?!

Today I read the story in the newspaper, and got more details. Now I understand how such an incident could happen. Not that the taxi driver was right, but the story makes sense, and is not an odd and bizarre tale.

The key pieces of information that were left out of the radio story were: 1) one of the passengers was a Mainlander; 2) he tried to pay in RMB; 3) the taxi driver wanted a HK$1 = 1 RMB exchange rate, when the official and market rate is 1 RMB = 0.79 RMB; 4) the Mainlander refused.

The Mainland passenger offered to pay 0.90 RMB to the HK$, but the taxi driver refused. At the official exchange rate, the HK$280 fare should have cost 220 RMB, and the passenger was offering 250 RMB. How could a difference of  RMB 30 (less than US$5) lead to such a dispute which found the taxi driver hurling the passengers' suitcases with HK$60,000 in electronic and photographic equipment into a nullah?!

Here's how. From the Mainland passenger's point of view, the RMB is "real money" and he sees Hong Kong as a part of China so he thinks the taxi driver should accept RMB. He feels he is compromising by offering 12 percent more than the actual fare. Plus, he is splitting the difference between the actual 0.79 rate and the 1 to 1 equivalency that the driver wanted.

But from the taxi driver's point of view, here is a traveler who is expecting him to accept a foreign currency. Since when do clients insist on paying in foreign currencies? The arrogance! Sure, Hong Kong is part of China, but he cannot go to his local supermarket or 7-11 and pay with RMB. Only shops that cater to Mainland tourists in accept RMB in Hong Kong. In fact, it is not uncommon in shops selling candy, newspapers and trinkets at the train station, for example, to charge 1 RMB for 1 HK. It is a hassle for the driver to accept "foreign" currency (and it is foreign for him) that he has to convert somewhere in order to use it. And when he goes to covert the money, he will be charged a commission on that conversion. If the passenger is careless enough to travel without enough Hong Kong money, he should expect to pay a bit more for the currency exchange. The exchange kiosks in the airport charge a lot more than the official rate, in fact.

Thus, a story that initially seemed senseless and bizarre is in fact just one more chapter in the ongoing saga of Hong Kongers vs Mainlanders, with both sides not really understanding the other, and convinced the other is not respecting them. The Mainlander is quoted in the SCMP as saying, "I thought Hong Kong was safer than the Mainland. I never thought this kind of thing would happen in Hong Kong." He views this as a case of "disorder" or even lawlessness, and does not see how he created half the dispute.

The taxi driver was originally charged with stealing the luggage, but claims he tossed it in the nullah in a rage. It will be interesting to see if they do find it in the nullah, or in a pawn shop. It is possible, after all, that the possibility of stealing the luggage was also part of the reason the dispute developed like this. Though Hong Kong taxi drivers are overwhelmingly honest, the newspaper article does note a few cases of cheats and frauds that got caught. One thing Hong Kong does have is inspectors who take taxis to test for honesty. That is in part why the story of this fight seemed so preposterous and bizarre when I first heard the partial outline on the radio.

And now you know, the rest of the story.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Everything is Verboten

This is a snapshot of a sign in the middle of the large lobby of the Esther Lee Building at CUHK. In case it is hard to read, it says, "Any activity here without authorization is not allowed." It is signed "EMO" [Estate Management Office] "Housekeeping and Building Management Section."

This strikes me as a tad authoritarian. It reminds me of the principle for parking in Hong Kong: you can only park where parking is expressly designated as allowed, not anywhere that it is not forbidden. Rather than specify what it is that EMO is trying to avoid, they avoid everything, and make everyone seek EMO permission to use the space. There is no number to call to get permission; the message is clearly: go away.

Since this is the lobby to many auditoriums and concert venues, it is clear that EMO cannot have students rehearsing their "dem-beats" (a form of cheering) in the lobby. At the same time, such a sign is not very welcoming to visitors, I would think. I've shown the picture to several students and friends, and they all also found it a bit odd. It is not representative of CUHK overall, but there is this strand of thinking in the university, and in Hong Kong generally, that perhaps harks back to colonial practice. Or to the Qin dynasty.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Snowed by Bureaucracy

By now everyone knows that Hong Kong claims that an error in the US provisional arrest warrant request led Hong Kong to let Edward Snowden leave the SAR. Hong Kong's Chief Executive C.Y. Leung insists that since Hong Kong follows the rule of law, it must also follow proper procedures (see WSJ blog story here). At the same time, Americans are incredulous; one senior US law enforcement official said, "Is this the best they got?"

There can be little doubt that politics entered into the decision-making process, and that Beijing had a hand in the decision.  Beijing's influence is not necessarily a violation of the one-country, two-systems formula. Beijing is, after all, responsible for security and diplomatic affairs for Hong Kong.

I think the excuse of improper paperwork seems a lot more believable in Hong Kong, where bureaucrats can be real sticklers for proper paperwork and procedures. I still remember my shock when we were required to produce our childrens' birth certificates to get a library card in the Shatin Public Library. I had brought our passports, but that was not good enough. Never mind that it is actually impossible to prove that the birth certificate actually belonged to my kids, while the passport has a photograph. Our university is also notoriously bureaucratic. Last year, I discovered that our Graduate School had been insisting that students spell "fulfillment" as "fulfilment" in the first page of the thesis, in statement that reads "A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfilment...." Students had learned not to argue with the clerk in charge, but to misspell the word in order to get the thesis accepted! The model had a typo, and the clerk just insisted that all theses have the same typo!

Thus, the notion that all the "i"s need to be dotted and "t"s crossed makes sense in Hong Kong. This must have seemed to be a perfect excuse to let Snowden leave. But it looks ridiculous to an American audience which knows that, if Beijing wanted something, it would have gotten done regardless of such bureaucratic details.

I still don't know if his name is Edward Joseph Snowden or Edward James Snowden.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Science and Racism, Again

The story of Jason Richwine and his racist PhD thesis is fascinating on many levels.  To summarize the facts, Richwine was a co-author of a Heritage Foundation study that estimated the costs of immigration reform to be $6.3 trillion, so high that even many Republicans dismissed it as incredible. In the controversy over this report, someone noted that Richwine's 2009 Harvard PhD thesis (in Public Policy) was a racist argument that immigrants should not be allowed into the US because of their low IQ scores. You can find a Slate story here, a The Nation view here, and a shrill defense of Richwine by Michelle Malkin in the National Review here.  After a few days of controversy, Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation.

You can also read his thesis; it is here. It is only 134 pages of text, and here is its Conclusion:
As the previous six chapters have discussed, today's immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives. The IQ difference between the two groups is large enough to have substantial negative effects on the economy and on American society. The deficit cannot be dismissed as meaningless or transient. It is transferred across generations--whether via genes, environment, or both--in a manner that we do not yet know how to prevent. Although this is a depressing conclusion, it does help us focus on a new opportunity. In trying to reverse the cognitive decline of immigrants, we could begin to seek out underprivileged people  who have the raw mental ability to achieve personal success, while still helping ourselves at the same time.
For anthropologists, it is stunning that in 2009, one could graduate with such a thesis. To just touch on some of the problems, the IQ test claims to measure "intelligence" but we know that this concept is culturally constructed (i.e. each culture has a culturally specific definition of what it means to be intelligent). For the IQ test, people familiar with test-taking will do better. We therefore cannot say that, say, Mexican peasants with little schooling who score lower on the IQ test are necessarily less intelligent that Indiana residents. "Race" itself is also a social, not biological, fact. "Hispanics" is especially problematic, as members of that group come from many continents and exhibit many different phenotypes.

Right wing apologists like Matlin claim that this is a witch hunt, and that Richwine has just been "crucified" because race and intelligence is a taboo topic in the US. Many in Asia might be tempted to agree. Many East Asians believe that Asians are biologically more intelligent than other "races," and believe that liberal Americans are just in denial. (Eugenics has no negative connotations in China.) But they are just not aware of all the research that shows the problems of measuring intelligence, and the little or no correlation between "race" and almost everything else. Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology, became famous for his studies showing that the smaller brains of immigrants (which was the basis of "scientific" racism in the early 20th century) was only the product of poor diet in the Old Country; he showed children of immigrants had brain sizes comparable to those of other Americans. The reason racism appears to be taboo is because there is so much evidence against it. One has to question the intelligence of people who continue to peddle these ideas.

The real issue is how one could graduate with such a thesis from Harvard in 2009. This is especially  surprising because one of Richwine's committee members, Christopher Jencks, is considered a liberal/leftist. The fact that he approved the thesis is being cited by Rush Limbaugh as evidence that Richwine is being treated unfairly. When Jon Wiener of The Nation asked Jencks for a comment, he declined.

I have a theory of how this could happen. Over the years, I've noticed that some committee members in some universities do not really read the theses they are asked to read. At least, they do not read it as closely as they should. Richwine's thesis was not that long, only 158 pages in all (134 of text, plus appendices and references). And several lines that have been quoted, including the very end of the thesis quoted above, should have raised red flags. But if Jencks had not read the thesis before it was submitted, and if Richwine had a job lined up after graduation, then it would have been very difficult to insist on changes. Criticism at that point could even have been taken as a criticism of the thesis supervisor.

To avoid this problem, our Anthro department requires students show a near final draft to all committee members before the student submits the copy for the oral defense and for the external examiner. That gives teachers a chance to flag major problems. Furthermore, we would never allow a student to begin such an unsound and unscientific project. But in a place like Harvard, everyone is too busy with their own research. Most students at Harvard are very smart and can do a good thesis on their own (which is good, because at most elite schools you are on your own). But "Public Policy" is not the elite part of Harvard; it is on the applied side, in the Kennedy School, not one of the traditional disciplines like economics, political science, or sociology.  Students should think of this when they choose where to study.

It is a bit discouraging that racist ideas are so powerful and seem so naturally correct to many people. It is surprising that these ideas need to be repeatedly and constantly addressed, and that despite all the science and all the research and teaching that anthropologists and other scholars do on race, they live on. It looks like the AAA's Race Project will need to be extended for many more years.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Course Textbooks

Four years ago, students the introductory anthropology course I teach, ANTH1010 Humans and Culture, said that they would have preferred having a textbook rather than individual weekly readings. So I've used a textbook the past few times I've taught the course. The book I've used, by Haviland, is a bit "textbooky"; it now has four co-authors and looks like it was written by committee. It touches on all the main topics, but to fit it all in, it says very little about everything so seems to make little sense.

I've been looking for and alternative, so was happy to receive a review copy of Cultural Anthropology by Serena Nanda and Rchard L. Warms (11th edition). It seems more coherent, and to have a more consistent political economy theme. The publisher Cengage can make that book available in an International Edition here for HK$307 (about US$44).

I was shocked to see that the book sells on Amazon in the US for US$183.49. One of the comments on the Amazon site says:
This is a perfectly fine cultural anthropology textbook. It is well-organized and reasonably well-written

The problem with this book as that that it is extremely overpriced. The issue is that editions 9E, 8E, 7E,... are equally good. They publish a new edition with an inflated price ($150) every year and the differences in editions are negligible, The publisher and the authors (Nanda and Warms) should be ashamed of themselves.
 This is actually a good point. How can a textbook cost that much? Is anthropology really advancing that rapidly that we need new editions every 3 years?

The international edition has cheaper paper (both thinner and a bit more grey), but that does make it more portable. But even at HK$307, few students will buy the book. Last time I taught the course, I think only about 10 students in a class of 50 or so bought the book (the rest copy it from the library copy). 

I looked at using a different book, but it does not come in an "international edition" so the publisher would not even tell me what the price would be. I guess the sales rep was too embarrassed.  So perhaps publishers do have some shame after all.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

University as a Business Seeking Patents

Economists are great at finding an economic aspect to almost anything. Gary Becker famously even studied the economic incentives in families. It would be impossible to deny that economic factors do not affect the number of children born in almost any culture, though there are, of course, many other factors at work. But I find the dominance of economism and the creeping of business logic into the university to be quite annoying. There is no doubt that costs and benefits of education need to be considered (students with a humanities degree from third rate schools who cannot find a job and are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans did not sufficiently consider cost/benefit). But there is a lot more to an education than the cost benefit calculation.

But it is the idea that the university should "make money" that makes me very angry. Universities, whether private (non-profit) or public (subsidized by the state, i.e. the people), should operate for the public good. They should be doing the research that will help society, and will help business and industry but that is too advanced (e.g. theoretical) or expensive for individuals or companies to do on their own. Usually it is fundamental research in the sciences, or it can be public policy research which informs the public. Or it can be research in the arts and humanities that makes life better for those who enjoy and want to understand these works.

At my university, I am periodically asked what patents I have obtained. There is increasing emphasis not only on making discoveries, but on cashing in. We are increasingly evaluated on how much money we can generate for the university, be it in grants received or patents that produce an income stream. This is fundamentally wrong, in my view. University professors are not given labs and offices so that they can generate patents that make money for the university. Indeed, businesses should complain that the universities have an unfair advantage when doing patentable research. Universities get funds from the public, and then turn around and patent their discoveries for the benefit of the universities. But the sponsors of that research were "the people", i.e., the taxpayers. Why should the benefits go to the university and not to the public? Granted, the universities do not pay "shareholders", so one could say that the money goes back to "the public" when the university gets that income. But that is not true. The extra money in fact goes in part to administrators who have been earning increasingly large salaries (especially in the US). These administrators are then like CEOs, and they set up more incentives for professors to do research that can lead to more "profits."  The money also pays for things like a "Research Administration Office" and a "Knowledge Transfer Office" that has staff to promote the idea of making money off of discoveries.

Most infuriating is that the idea has taken hold that if you do not incentivize researchers and professors, they won't produce innovation. This widely-accepted nonsense ignores the long history technological and biomedical progress that did not produce patents or profit the inventors directly. Louis Pasteur did not get a patent and become rich from his discovery of the germ theory of disease and his development of a vaccine for rabies and anthrax. Nor did Watson and Crick get a patent for their discovery of DNA.  In fact, James Watson has been a vocal opponent of the patenting of genes. But now Myriad Genetics has attempted to do just that for normal human genes, in a case that has made its way to the US Supreme Court.

Conservatives should be angry at universities claiming patents because they should see it as the expansion of the state into private enterprise; state money is going into research and competing with business for innovation and its resultant profits. Liberals and radicals should see this as a business takeover of the public interest, as commercially motivated research projects gradually crowd out and replace projects that might be of broader public interest. So whereas we once would have expected universities to do research on public health problems like malaria, the same commercial pressures that lead drug companies to concentrate on the illnesses of the wealthy are going to drive research in universities away from malaria research.






When I got the above message in an email, I initially thought it was a parody. The University is inviting me to attend a meeting with biomedical scientists so I can learn "best practices in business development and commercialization"! How is this different from a meeting I might attend if I were working for Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY)? Why is a university so concerned about "business development and commercialization"? What has happened to universities doing research for the public good? Is income earned the only way we can measure what is "good"? What about numbers of lives saved (even poor people's lives)? 

I had the fleeting idea of going to the meeting and asking all these "embarrassing" questions. Then I noticed I have a departmental meeting that day and cannot attend. Probably all for the better. When I once raised similar issues (arguing against allowing a thesis to be kept secret so a patent application could be made) I think I was the only one who was embarrassed. This commercialized thinking is rapidly becoming the norm. And when you try to argue that the emperor has no clothes, they look at you like you are naked.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pseudoscience and the Beauty Complex in Advertizing Dove Soap

Dove soap has an online commercial that has gone viral, with over 11 million views in the 7 days since it has been released. It is discussed in the New York Times here. The crux of the commercial campaign is that only 4 percent of women consider themselves to be beautiful. Dove hired a "forensic composite artist" (the artists who draw faces of criminals for the law enforcement) to draw pictures of women in an experiment. First, and without seeing the women, he drew a portrait just from the a woman's own description. Then he mad another drawing based on another women's description of the first woman. All the while, the women were behind a screen, and not visible to the artist. The point of the ads is that the portraits are much more attractive when they are based on the description of others than when based on women's own descriptions.

The ad has obviously struck a nerve. Many women have low self-esteem. You hear women in the ad saying "My mother says I have a big jaw." And apparently women mentioned moles and scars more than others did. One woman in the commercial is teary-eyed when she realizes that a stranger described her as more beautiful than she had described herself.

(Full disclosure: I use Dove soap, having been recommended it as a milder "superfatted" soap by a doctor).

It is clear from the Dove videos that this was not really an experiment. The artist himself says he wants to change the way women see themselves. He, subconsciously if not consciously, most certainly made the second portrait more attractive. The artist says in the video that he was interested in doing the project for the sake of his two daughters: he obviously also sees the burden that women carry to be "beautiful," so it is clear that his drawings were not simply "objective" or neutral. Several women in the ads say they did not know what was going on, but that is irrelevant. The artist needed to be "blinded" or kept from knowing what the point of the experiment was, just as much as the women. In a controlled experiment, both the subjects and those running the experiment must be "blinded" (i.e. double-blind). The temptation for the artist to make the second portrait more beautiful, so as to fit his preconception, would have been very strong.

In addition, the women (and a few men) who described a woman were talking about someone they had just met. In the video, we see them say things like "cute nose" and "very nice blue eyes." But of course these people will be complementary. It is not realistic to expect strangers to describe someone they just met in a friendly social encounter with any negative language. Again, the experimental set-up is not designed to really create "objective" descriptions of a woman's looks. Even if the artist could be objective in his drawing, it would not be surprising that the second drawing would be, as one woman says about her own second portrait, "more open and friendly and ... happy."

In one of the videos, Melinda says "I think there's kind of a stigma around the word beautiful, feeling confident and using that word about yourself. We should put more energy on the things that we do like about ourself as opposed to the things that we don't." At first it sounds like good advice. But it also reflects contemporary infatuation with "self-esteem". When one thinks about this in terms of pre-WWII values, or Amish values, the notion of speaking of oneself as beautiful sounds vain and lacking in suitable humility. I don't think that the problem is that people don't say they are beautiful. They would be obnoxious if they did say that about themselves. The issue is, on the contrary, the fact that women are made to feel inadequate. And though it is common to blame one's mother, she is not the source of the pressure: it is the beauty industry.

Thus, the problem with these commercials is not only that they are bad "experiments" and bad social science. It is also that they whitewash the advertizing industry's and cosmetics industry's roles in creating this feeling of inadequacy in women. Everyone has to balance a feeling of being beauty with a more humble sense that being proud is obnoxious. But ads and magazines, with their impossible images of "beauty", create an unattainable standard for what is beautiful, impossible for 99.9 percent of women to achieve. It is not surprising, then, that women feel inadequate. Mothers may say things that reflect that standard and say hurtful things like "You have a big jaw," but they are only reflecting the standard created by industry. It is thus ironic, and a sad joke, that Dove tries to sell more soap by associating itself with a critique of what it (and its parent company, Unilever) have created with their relentless beauty advertizing. The ads suggest that this pressure on women, and the consequent loss of self-esteem, are simply caused by "society," or by mothers. They ignore the role that advertizing and cosmetics companies have played in emphasizing the dominant standard of beauty that torments the women in the commercials. The good news is that the millions of hits suggest people want something different. But if we don't see the role that advertizing plays in creating this unhappiness and low self-esteem, we will never free ourselves from the tyranny of the beauty complex.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Rugby Commercial Analyzed


This year's Cathay Pacific ad video for the Hong Kong Sevens, Always Game, has several themes that I've noticed over the years. Obviously, the ad highlights the flight attendants' beauty. Their approach is not as crass as that of Nok Air, but they are still selling the women's looks (pretty face, shapely bodies, and friendly smile). This has been a long-standing theme for Cathay Pacific. It seems that 80% of their flight attendants are female, and they still are able to impose strict standards on the colors of the make-up, to hire based on good looks, and to force older attendants to retire.

The ad also is a "feel good" ad about Hong Kong. It has local allusions that many non-locals might not get. There is the double-decker bus, the Star Ferry, and of course the skyscrapers. The dim sum steamers also are a local touch, and the flying dumplings are like rugby balls being kicked, trying to link Hong Kong with rugby. The flight attendants' numbers on their backs, the lifting of a flight attendant like in a lineout, and the running with the bag (think ball) all refer to rugby.

Other parts of the commercial refer back to the popular 2011 Cathay ad (which was so popular it was recycled for 2012, which was a bit disappointing). The ad agency was McGann Worldgroup, and according to CulturePub, the title was "Mind vs Muscles" (but their video and caption seems to miss the point that the ad was for the Hong Kong Sevens, and the players in black are not the All Blacks, but anyway. It is not really clear why the players--several of whom are recognizable HK Sevens team players, are dressed in black.)  In case you were not sure about it, they show parts of the video on a screen in the background, as the flight attendants walk around. The girl brushes off the boy's chest, just like in the old commercial. And the high heeled cleats refer to the amusing ending of the 2011 commercial.

There is one comment by a fan on the Cathay website that sums up the many people's views of the ad:
I LOVE this commercial! I can't understand it but then its got everything. great music, hong kong elements, gorgeous girls, rugby
As an aside, when the flight attendants were threatenting to work to rule over the 2012 Christmas holidays if they did not get a better deal from Cathay management, a certain C. Anderson wrote to the SCMP saying:
Where is the 'care' Cathay crew pledged?
Do Cathay Pacific flight attendants have a death wish for their company?
I am no fan of incompetent management and have no idea if Cathay is run well or not, but I do take exception to a union whose members have claimed to care about their passengers, but who seemingly care more about what lines their pockets than their travelling customers or the Hong Kong institution that employs them.
See the rest of the letter here [subscription required]. This letter is hilarious in its ignorance. It seems to believe that the ads are put out by the flight attendants' union, rather than by management that is selling its flight attendants under the guise of "good service." While it is true that service on Cathay Pacific is far superior to that on United, for example, it is also true that Cathay is a allowed to set rules that would not be legal in the US.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pharma Spam as Informal Economy

I have long been interested in the informal economy (the businesses that avoid some taxes, but offer legitimate services), so I found a Planet Money story about the companies that sell drugs via SPAM to be fascinating. See story here. Two companies got into a dispute so released each other's records (I'm not sure what they were doing with the other company's records in the first place, but anyway) giving a trove of data for researchers. Brian Krebs is one of the researchers who used this data, and like a historian or anthropologist (because anthropologists also only see a small part of the story, even when they live it), he has reconstructed how these companies that sell Viagra and Accutane operate. Among the interesting tidbits: profit margins for drug sellers is about 20% (less than Apple), and most customers are actually satisfied (ie the companies mostly sell the real pharmaceuticals, not poisons or fakes). And the spammers are different companies, who work on a commission of about 30-40%.  Not mentioned in the story is that this informal economy exists because of irrationalities in our global patent system. This is the real globalization from below.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cooking meat without heat

Our department had a "Turkish night" yesterday, with members of a Turkish cultural association called "Anatolia Cultural and Dialog Centre" (or ACDC), which is like a British Council office for Turkey (but with better food). They demonstrated a number of food specialties, and Turkish tea. We had exchange students from NYU in the US (themselves, of course, of various ethnic backgrounds), and our mix of students, plus volunteers from ACDC, hosted by the CUHK school of hotel management in their wonderful teaching kitchen--one of the few examples in CUHK of collaboration across different faculties. A fun night for all.

I had two anthropological observations. One was of how "Turkish cuisine" was being constructed by the ACDC speaker. He began by saying that Turkish cuisine is one of the great cuisines of the world. I'm not a foodie or a food expert, so am perhaps ignorant, but I found this surprising. It made me wonder how many "world cuisines" there are, and if soon every nation-state will have its "traditional cuisine." He mentioned that Turkish cuisine is based on Ottoman cuisine, and that it is "rich" because it is "not just one taste" but incorporated many dishes and specialties from different parts of the Ottoman empire: the Balkans, Mediterranean, and the Middle East. He then stumbled slightly, and it became clear that, well, these dishes were not originally from Turkey, and are still eaten in Armenia, Syria, etc., so he added that though they are originally from different places, "they are still Turkish cuisine." It is not that the Turks "invented them, but they became Turkish." Everything he said was unobjectionable, but it does show the constructed nature of "Turkish cuisine," especially as it later turned out that not only are many "Turkish" dishes originally from non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman empire, but even within modern Turkey, there is great variation in cuisine. Southeaster cuisine is much spicier, for example. So what, really, is "Turkish"? It is clearly pointless to deny there is something called "Turkish cuisine," and yet, the variation in origins and in current forms makes it difficult to pin down. This is so typical of culture generally, that it could be the topic for a treatise on the nature (and ambiguity) of culture.

The second observation came as I discussed one of the dishes we saw prepared. This was çiğ köfte, a dish made with raw beef or lamb and eaten wrapped in a salad leaf. We had a vegetarian version, made with potato instead of the usual beef. As part of the preparation, they had explained that it needs to be mixed, kneaded really, and we had a strong young man demonstrating the heavy work that is required. We were also told that this tends to be a "male" dish, something men make when they get together, as opposed to sarma, which is more commonly made by women. So far so good; we know about gendered foods (in fact, when I tell Chinese that I like "sesame oil chicken", they usually laugh, because that is a food prepared for women in the month after childbirth, so not something men usually eat, or like).

In talking to some Turkish friends afterwards, they mentioned that it is supposed to be much spicier than the version we got, and that one recipe even calls for a proportion of 2 kg of meat (and they said the meat had to be special, high quality and lean, with no fat or tendons), 1 kg of bulgur wheat, and 300 to 400 gr of peppers. Then they said you need to knead the meat to cook it.  I said, "Cook it? But there is no heat." "Yes." Start over. Why do you knead it? Another friend tries to help explain this, and he says you need to "kill the meat."  What? The meat may be fresh, but once it is ground up, it is surely quite dead! After some further exploration, they explained that in Turkish, the word is literally to "cook" the meat, even though it does not involve heat. What changes in the meat, however, is that it no longer tastes like meat. I wondered if Turks thought beef tastes bad, as some Italians do (which is why they prefer veal, and why they often fry it or put lemon on it, I suppose). But they confirmed that Turks like the taste of meat, and that it is not to mask an unpleasant taste. In this case, however, it is raw (though very fresh), and so perhaps there is something in the taste of raw beef that needs to be hidden. I'm not entirely sure why raw beef that has been mixed with bulgur wheat and peppers is considered "cooked." But I found it fascinating that, in speaking in English, they borrowed words like "kill" and "cook" which made no sense to me, but that capture the idea of making the beef edible. And that was exactly how they explained the term: they said they needed a term to describe making it edible, and so chose those terms. Levis-Strauss (author of The Raw and The Cooked) must be smiling. He long ago described how the term "cooked" was used to describe making something edible, and here we have another example.