The culture that is Singapore

Thanks to the always great James Crabtree (@jamescrabtree), I learned two awesome facts about Singapore this morning.

First, they have children’s books about “famous urban planners.”  I’m not sure which is funnier, the fact that there are famous urban planners or that there are children’s books extolling their virtues.  I guess this is handy for nights when your kids can’t fall asleep. Here’s a photo of one of them and a link to where you can buy it (and even read a sample):


Here’s the synopsis that’s given at the publisher’s link:

“How does a spoilt young boy and party-going dandy become the man who housed a nation? Discover the passion that drives Lim Kim San from his comfortable, carefree life into a mission that would change Singapore forever.”

This seems like the worst superhero story ever. Maybe Zac Snyder can direct it.

Second, if your kids reads the book and cannot get enough urban planning, you are in luck.  The Singapore Housing and Development Board has a treat for you.  Here is their description of the fun you can have on a tour:

Come visit the HDB Gallery and share a slice of Singapore’s public housing story through the multi-sensory and self-exploratory exhibits. You can also watch the 3D fly-through video and take a virtual tour of the different zones, or download our brochure.

I cannot recommend the “fly through” highly enough–it is a crack up and definitely worth checking out.  This saved me a 17 hour flight and thousands of dollars!

Scientific Socialism, or the cult of Pooty-poot

Thanks to The Guardian, which has a tremendous slideshow up this morning on Putin’s teenage fan club.  The photos are the best part but some of the comments are hysterical too.  Here are some of my favorites:

“I like how Putin treats his children and wife, I think he’s a great husband.”  Didn’t Putin cheat on his wife for years with an Olympic gymnast and then recently divorce her?  Here is the fangirl in question:  (she seems like a well-balanced teenager)


“Putin is my hero, he inspires me, adds science to my actions.”  Hmm, science to her actions?  Scientific socialism?  Scientific kleptocracy?  Scientific imperial aggression?  Here’s our budding scientist in a t-shirt with Putin’s face in the moon.  wow!


Vika says “Putin is like God to me. I perceive him as daddy. He is a perfect man – politician, sportsman, family man. I want my husband to be like him!”  Another well-balanced individual. She wants a husband that cheats on her and then leaves her for a much younger, athletic type?  Maybe she should check out this guy:


The culture that is Japan

I’m teaching Comparative Economic Systems this semester and we just finished discussing Japan. Among other things, I had them read Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, a new and terrific book by David Pilling.  I also had them read selected chapters from an oldie but goodie called Japan: Why It Works, Why It Doesn’t : Economics in Everyday Life (edited by Kazuhiro Igawa, Shyam Sunder, James Mak, and Shigeyuki Abe).  The book was published in 1997 and I really wish the authors had put out a more recent edition, but it still is a fun read.  Here are some of the chapters I had my students read:

Why Do Students Take it Easy at the University?

Why Do Japanese Companies Hire Only Spring Graduates?

Why Are There So Many Small Shops in Japan?

Why is Japan a paradise of vending machines?

Why do ATMS shut down in the evening?

The chapter on vending machines made me curious about what innovation in this industry might have taken place since the book’s publication.  There’s supposedly a machine for every 23 people in the country, so there is a lot of room for creativity.  Here’s one site that lists a lot of cool new vending machines and a couple of my favorites:







You could buy transportation and be set for dinner!

Here comes Putin’s worst nightmare

There is some very interesting news coming out of Mexico recently, such as:

Mexico says catches senior Knights Templar drug gang boss

and this:

Mexico legalizes vigilantes (EPN has gone from denying the existence of the vigilantes, to demonizing them, to now incorporating them into the police force!)

but the news that really caught my eye was the mariachi-inspired skiwear of a Mexican Olympic skier.  Here it is in all its glory:


The skier has the unbelievable name of Hubertus von Hohenlohe, but according to Wikipedia, that is only the beginning of all his monikers: “Prince Hubertus of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (born 2 February 1959 in Mexico City) is a Mexican Alpine skier, photographer, businessman, and a pop singer known as Andy Himalaya and Royal Disaster. He is descended from the reigning dynasty of a former principality in what is now Germany.”

That is almost a truth is stranger than fiction kind of background. While he was born in Mexico, he doesn’t seem to have spent a lot of time there.  When asked about the uniform, he said Until I went to Mexico recently to make a documentary, I never realized what a beautiful, amazing, rich past and culture they have and what a proud people they are. It actually moved me to see how much they suffered and how much they fought for what they have. The power to have your own identity is so strong and something I believe in so I want to give it a go in a very cool, elegant way. I want to celebrate who they are, but of course in my own style.”

Yep, truth is definitely stranger.  Here is a photo of the Royal Disaster himself in his new Sochi spandex:


Religion and culture as obstacles to development?

PRI has a thought-provoking article about a town called Awra Amba in Northern Ethiopia that eschews traditional customs and religion as obstacles to development.  Awra Amba, with a population of about 500 people, has an average per-capita income of about double the national average, and lower mortality and higher literacy rates than surrounding regions.

Zumra Nuru, the founder of the town 40 years ago, dreamed of it being an economic and egalitarian utopia.  So what specifically have they done differently?

First, the population does not “follow organized religion” and thus does not rest on the Sabbath or holidays. Second, the town places a lot of emphasis on gender equality and education: “You will see women here doing what is traditionally considered ‘men’s work,’ like plowing, which effectively doubles the workforce.”

Apparently the neighboring towns were initially less than impressed and labeled the residents as heretics.  Nuru notes that “They threw a grenade right into the center of the village once, but luckily, no one was hurt. They’ve tried shooting members of our village. They’ve sabotaged our harvest on occasion.”  One neighbor from a Christian community argues that the residents are “selfish” and that he “hates them.”  Hmm, how Christian of him.

The development community of course has had a different reaction and the town has quickly become a darling of that group.  The article claims that neighboring communities are starting to be less angry and more curious about what the town is doing right and how they might be able to replicate it.  For instance, they are starting to send their kids to schools in Awra Amba, bring their corn to the town mill, and shop at the stores in town. So perhaps the message has started to spread.

Explanations of development that make me uneasy

Enrico Spolaore & Romain Wacziarg have a new NBER Working Paper called “Long-Term Barriers to Economic Development.”  In it they explore the barriers to technology adoption.  As they write in the abstract, “What obstacles prevent the most productive technologies from spreading to less developed economies from the world’s technological frontier?”

The answer, they argue, has to do with culturally transmitted traits. Empirically, they look at neutral genes (ones that don’t confer any competitive advantage) across populations, which indicate how long certain populations diverged from one another.  This genetic distance is a proxy for “all divergence in traits that are transmitted with variation from one generation to the next over the long run, including divergence in cultural traits.”

So what’s the argument?  Namely that populations that are genetically distinct also have quite different cultural traits.  These traits, in turn, determine how easily societies can adopt innovations on the technological frontier.

This is an interesting argument and I need to read their paper carefully, but I have to admit that explaining differential development with culture makes me uncomfortable and doing so with genetic differences (even if they are “neutral”) makes me even more so.