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September 2011
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November 2011

Mali Journal

My older daughter, M, is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali. She had access to the Internet this weekend:

I’m in Sikasso for a meeting about Thanksgiving, which we host here in Sikasso since we have the most food of any of the regions. I dropped off the Velveeta and taco spices as long as I’m here, and I’m picking up R’s two last outfits at the tailor. Then on to a Halloween party in Bougani. I’m going to be going dressed as the Malian flag because I had an outfit made for every day use but it turned out more cartoonish than I’d expected so I think that it’ll make a good costume.

There were a couple scorpions. One was in my negen at night, and scurried into a corner when I shined my flashlight in. I’ve been waiting for that to happen, since it has happened to T a bunch of times at her site 14 km away. The second scorpion my little deaf buddy S, three or four years old, found one amongst my moringa seedlings, and he squealed until he got my attention and then pointed it out. He’d scared it into a corner and I had my host sister D come and kill it.

I started my girl’s soccer team. First I had to have a bunch of meetings with the secondary cycle school (7-9th grade) director, and then even after that he no-showed the first day of try-outs because he went to another village. He stopped by in the evening to apologize, and we started the next day. Basically I’m just going to the PE classes, and one of the teachers, named W, is running the girls through a scrimmage while I watch and write down the names and likely positions of the better girls. The girls do show some talent. So far I’ve seen the 8th grade and half of the 7th grade. They seem to go through puberty between 7th and 8th grade, because the 8th graders were much bigger and stronger and more assured. The 7th graders were a lot more emotional and did a lot more pushing and shoving. I wrote down 7 names for the 8th grade and 4 for the 7th grade. I have some definite defenders, and a possible goalie. My dream team is going to be 22 girls, and will probably get divided into a varsity and JV should I ever get it together for us to visit other schools for games, like Niena and Dugukolobugu, which have secondary cycle schools for sure, but I’m not sure if they have girls’ soccer teams. The girls are ridiculously happy to be given access to a soccer ball, the field, and jerseys. They play a little like 5 year olds in America, since they’ve never actually been coached. It is, as Dad used to say, “bunch ball.” They all run to the ball in a tight pack, and occasionally the ball gets out and a couple of the faster girls run with it for awhile by themselves. I got the jerseys from Peace Corps, but I had to buy the ball myself. I bought it in Niena from a guy who turned out to be a former homologue himself. I bought the nicest ball he had, which makes it the nicest ball in village, if not the commune, and girls (!) are using it. I’m revising my expectations of what I can accomplish as a coach, but I think even if I just get them together a couple of times, they’ll be happy, and if we actually play games, they’ll be happy just to get to travel to another village.

I started my work in Sibirila, the village in the mobile bank with the best record so far. The meeting went well, and we implemented the changes, and everyone liked them. We’ll see if any problems crop up long term.

We had another meeting in N’tjilla with all three of the villages. It ended up being a pretty long affair. It was supposed to start at 9 am, but we didn’t get everyone until around 10:30, which is standard, but it is something we addressed at the big meeting. There were a bunch of the usual small errors. Nothing malicious, people here just have a slim grasp on numeracy and literacy so problems occur, but it is hard to communicate the errors because of the level of my Bambara combined with their insecurity with basic math, so everyone involved tends to get frustrated.

The Sunday before last I brought my little sister B with me to Niena for market day. She is nine years old. I’d been teasing her about coming, figuring she’d never get excused from all of her chores, plus she has no money, but I guess I took it over the edge because she got ready to come with me and my homologue came to ask me if I’d really take her. Since she’d taken a bath and put on her nicest going to market princess dress I couldn’t very well say no. She rode out on the back of my bicycle the 7 km to the main road, then I paid her fare on the bus into Niena. I bought her a couple of sodas, a pair of earrings, and some gum she wanted to sell at school. She was having the time of her life. We always do a lot of walking in Niena, because T and I have errands at the post office, the bank, the market, the tailor, etc. Then we go hang out at A’s old house since we have the keys until the new volunteers come in January, actually they are arriving right now, but they won’t be done with training until January. T and I bought a deep fried chicken for lunch to take back to the house. As we were ripping into it and sharing it, T made a disturbing discovery. Maggots. Lots of them. Little tiny white worms that were very much alive. The meat was cooked all the way through, so it wasn’t intestinal worms, plus you tend to get those through a fecal-oral route and don’t actually see them in the food. That was actually the reassuring news when we called the Peace Corps doctor. Since B was there, there was no way the news wasn’t going to get back to village. I was worried that I’d get in trouble for not only spending a ridiculous amount of money on food, but for also being stupid enough to get cheated in the process. We did take the remains of the chicken back with one of the neighbors and demanded our money back, which was returned grudgingly. When we told the story to people were more sympathetic than mocking. I had been cheated by a not very nice lady, they agreed. Food sellers here if they don’t sell something one day will just take it home and then re-fry it to re-heat it the next day. And since there’s no refrigeration, bad things can happen inside. Ewwwwww. Obviously, I’m never going to that chicken lady again. It was almost disturbing how nonchalant the explanation was, so this obviously happens all the time. At least I did not get sick afterwards, nor did T , nor did B , and it barely put a wrinkle in B ’s day. Still the best day ever. The maggots just made for a fun story for her to tell friends.

There has been a lot of corn, cotton, and peanut harvesting going on the last couple of weeks. They have little parties where people sit around in a circle and shuck corn or take peanuts off the plant or shell them. Sometimes I participate, sometimes I just watch. There was also a guy with a mobile grinding machine who came from a neighboring village and went quartier by quartier grinding shea nuts for butter. That was the most entrepreneurial business I’ve seen in Mali so far. Brilliant. That’s a service that is in definite demand, and with a machine and a donkey he saves the women the trouble of having to carry the goods in both directions to the stationery machines, or the actual work of grinding. I also had a small Halloween party in village the last day before I left. It was a hybrid Halloween-Easter. L helped me hide the candy around the compound, and then when the kids came back from their break from school they all ran around and looked for it. I would have liked to exclude some older kids, but they were just as excited as the little kids, so I couldn’t say no to them. There was chewing gum, lollipops and coughdrops which pass as candy here. After the candy was found we made mango juice from a Nestle packet, which advertises itself here as having lots of vitamins and is beyond the normal price point of a Malian family, so a nice treat. I used the face paint and stencils and temporary tattoos and stickers mom sent to tattoo the kids until I got to tired and sweaty to deal with them anymore, then I made them all go away. I think it was a success over all. I am bringing the decorations mom sent with me to re-use in Bougani along with the cocktail napkins and face paint.

So, lots of ups and downs these last three weeks. The break came at the perfect time. There’s no internet at the house, which is super annoying, but yesterday T and I went to the Mamelon hotel and restaurant and I was able to have a couple beers with my beef and plantains and internet, and things started to seem more doable again.

Political Briefs

Puss In Boots

3 stars out of 5

Amazing voice talent! Fantastic CGI. What's not to like? Well, a scatter-shot story with a few good gags, a few clever old movie references for the adults, and a lot of draggy parts that not even Antonio Banderas can save. I had plenty of time while watching the movie (I was the only adult not accompanied by a five year old) to consider the question of what's wrong with this film. The answer finally came to me, and it's a movie reference. In Frankenstein after the lightning strikes, the good doctor says "It's Alive." The problem here is that all the parts are in place, and sewed together, but the lightning never struck. It is NOT alive. OK, good enough for the kiddies, but adults or even teenagers shouldn't bother.

In Time

4 stars out of 5

When I was student teaching high school English, my master teacher prepped me to teach 1984. "Remember, all literary science fiction, the good stuff, is an allegory about the time in which it is written, not the time in which it is set." Thus 1984, as virtually everyone knows, is really about Britain's slide into socialism in 1948. Brave New World is about the Great Depression. Farenheit 451 is about America's Red Scare of the 50s, as is the short story on which Invasion of the Body Snatchers is based. So, In Time is about income inequality, and is allowed to make points that couldn't be made directly in a Hollywood film set in the present day because, instead of money, characters buy, sell and stockpile time. A cup of coffee costs 5 minutes, a hotel room two months. You earn time at work, or inherit it. Kind of like money, huh?  My wife, who saw the film with me, gave me several good comments. The allegory here is about as subtle as a two-by-four across the side of the head. The film is a cross between Bonnie and Clyde and Robin Hood, with pieces of several other movies thrown in. Still, Justin Timberlake continues to impress as a serious actor, and the whole thing was entertaining, excitinng and well written. If you want subtlety, see a play or read a novel. If you want to be entertained, see In Time. Late Addition: If there is any justice in this world, this film should win one or more awards for sound. The sound of time transfer, and the sound of time running out were amazing.

Dalton recommends Inside Job, Dan Grobstein File

Richard Dalton writes of Inside Job:

This Oscar-nominated documentary identifies the players behind the financial crisis of 2008, then conducts piercing interviews of many of the rascals involved.    Truly compelling, although somewhat nauseating at the same time.  If you wonder why there are "Occupy" gatherings throughout the country with people carrying "99%" signs, this is the reason.  This film should be shown around the country just as An Inconvenient Truth was--and just as widely discussed.
See my review here.

Dan Grobstein File

  • 999 out of 1000 small business owners are not millionaires and even if you have a "small business" and if tax rates were raised on the top earners you would only have to pay ***if you were making a lot of money*** and if you aren't profitable you aren't taxed anyway. These people mix up gross and net. I had a small business for 29 years and there are plenty of tax breaks and deductions and they always have been available. Health care premiums are the big worry. You know they're going up. You just can't plan for the increase. Wages, taxes, rent, supplies are predictable and you can plan.  The Republican Party works for the rich.
    Ah, my senator Mitch McConnell once again showed a keen grasp on Sunday of what his constituents want from a Washington politician.
  • Are we doomed? We're turning the entire country into California.
    N.Y. / REGION   | October 25, 2011
    Communities Rebel Against Cuomo's Cap on Local Taxes
    Many town boards in New York want to override a law championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that caps growth of property taxes at 2 percent, which amounts to a restriction on spending.
  • Steven Greenhouse (@greenhousenyt) NYT's Carr: "Why Not Occupy Newsrooms" cuz so many news execs slash operations while earning huge salaries 
  • Brendan Nolan (@Noles20) @PaulBegala Everyone that thinks teachers are overpaid should experience the day I am having. 5 minute break over, back at it.
  • National Priorities (@natpriorities) Ready for some lunch? Since 9am, tax cuts for the top 1% have cost the U.S. Treasury $23.1 million. See for yourself
  • Bob Pierpoint via James Fallows: I was sad to hear that Robert Pierpoint died yesterday in California, at age 86. But I have to smile when I think about him.
  • China Announces ‘Occupy America’

Fixing Conress, More Bad Economic News

Fixing Congress
There's a grain of truth in the Warren Buffett chain e-mail that's going around. But I feel quite certain, as usual, has the true story.

In July 2011, discussion about raising the debt ceiling heated up as the August 2nd deadline loomed. (Had the matter not been resolved, as of that date the U.S. would have been unable to fund its various programs and other expenditures.)

Opinions about what should be done were sought from various quarters as news organizations struggled to keep up with the battle waging in Congress and behind closed doors. Business magnate Warren Buffett waded in with his opinion on the matter in an early-morning 7 July 2011 CNBC interview conducted by Becky Quick. It was during that exchange that the Oracle of Omaha made his now famous statement about rendering ineligible for re-election all sitting members of Congress whenever the deficit exceeded 3% of gross domestic product.

So yes, it's true that one of the most respected businessmen of modern times did indeed voice the quote now widely ascribed to him in various e-mailed forwards. However, the rest of the lengthier e-mail in circulation (second example quoted above) has nothing to do with Warren Buffett.

More Bad Economic News
BofA Moves Derivatives Into Insured Institution

This is very bad news. The FDIC, which was underfunded before this latest round of welfare for the rich, and which was intended to insure the deposits of ordinary people (up to $100,000 and then $250,000 per account) is now being put in the position of arguably insuring about a notional amount of $75T (that's trillion) of derivatives which are contributing to the monumental bonuses being paid to bankers (for example at Goldman Sachs) even when their institutions are losing money as reported here.

Note that funds paid out to "insured" derivatives will not be available to pay ordinary depositors.
At June 30, 2011, there was just $3.9 B (billion) in the FDIC Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) ( If nothing else goes wrong (and this is an extraordinarily big "IF"), the DIF will not reach even 1.15% of insured deposits (the $75T notional amount of derivatives are apparently not counted as deposits for the purposes of this calculation by the FDIC) until 2018. To make this heroic projection (or what some might refer to as a blind leap of faith), the FDIC asks the public to believe (see 2nd sentence of the Oct. 11, 2011 press release at the preceding link) that bank failures which cost the FDIC fund an estimated $23B in 2010 alone will cost an average of under $4B per year from 2011 through 2015.

The Three Musketeers

3 stars out of 5
A spritely and entertaining slaughter of the Three Musketeers legend, with a large dollop of gratuitous female involvement in the role of eye candy. Definitely does not pass the Bechdel Test. I'm not a militant lesbian, so I watched the movie anyway. Lots of explosions, lots of improbably long and complicated swordfight scenes. It is a CGI orgy! You certainly couldn't have made this movie 20 years ago, not that I am sure you would have wanted to. There did seem to be a great amount of effort invested in setting up all the loose ends for a sequel. Since this $75 million film can in 4th with a gross of $8.8 million, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Musketeers 2, even if  I was reviewing the film and not the box office. Don't expect fidelity to the text or the era, but if you want  two hours of amusing and mindless entertainment, this is the film for you. Why no mention of the directors, writers and stars? Why should I work any harder at writing a good review than they did at creating a good movie?