middle east gulf piracy expected to actively continue for a minimum of 10 years

report (Managing Supply Chain Risk: Understanding Piracy Threat) released from the 4th ‘Gulf Petrochemicals & Chemicals Association Supply Chain Conference.’

this year marks a turning point in piracy activities. the number of vessels captured in 2011 compared to 2010 reduced by over 50 per cent and further reductions are expected in the coming years.

however, as the success rate for capturing ships decreases, ransom requests are getting higher and Somali pirates are becoming more aggressive and strategic, said the report… pirates are acting further off the coast of Somalia, and are now in the Gulf of Oman, positioning themselves closer to traffic lanes in search of vessels of opportunity.

piracy is symptomatic of the socio-economic predicament of the Somali nation and eradicating it depends on the economic future of Eastern Africa. ultimately, the long-term solution must include rebuilding the country and providing alternative economic opportunities to “would-be” pirates addressing the root causes of piracy: the impoverished circumstances of many of the actors.

even in the “best-case” scenario, when all measures are successfully implemented, and root-causes are fixed, the real piracy threat is expected to remain for at least the next 10 years.

i am not sure that means what you think it means (origins of metaphors in development, german folk-stories edition)

thanks to having professors who are curious about the origins and use of phrases, i have recently had the occasion to consider two phrases in common use — and likely mis-use. these would be hilarious mid-understandings as the basis of a sit-com or, as here, folklore. as the basis of policy, not so much.

1. magic bullets.

to be sure, i learned about this one because i went to see the black rider, not because i can claim a love of german opera or a deep understanding of german folklore, though both would be good life goals. the underlying story of ‘magic bullets’ – from the German freischuetz (marksman) folk-narrative – is a faustian bargain in which someone needing to prove hunting prowess takes n special bullets from a stranger, n-1 of which will do what the bargainer needs and 1 of which is under the control of the devil. oops.

why ehrlich would choose ‘magic bullet’ to represent the quest of his research, i am not quite sure. in the end, magic bullets may be a fairly apt metaphor for much that we actually do in public health (and development — targeted, purposive actions in one area with unintended consequences in another) but as a description of what we are trying to do, it seems less desirable.

silver bullets (from ancient Greek mythology) seem the slightly more appropriate aspirational metaphor (also good for killing werewolves); however, maybe this whole confusion with the unintended consequences and deal-with-the-devil thing is a good reason to drop the idea of looking for single causes &/or solutions?

or else, we need to have charlie daniels’s fiddle skills involved in a whole lot more of our work.

2. pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

bootstraps are those loops on the back of your boots that help you pull them on. using them to pull yourself up, on the other hand, is apparently physically impossible (“for a force to accelerate an object it must come from outside it. you can’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. anyone who says you can is literally wrong.”).

which is why it made for such a hilarious story as originally told — it’s an adynaton (new word of the day!).  the original version came in one of two forms. either from tales of davy crockett who, along with other feats, was said to have pulled himself over a fence by his bootstraps or from the german tales of baron muenchhausen‘s adventures, who described how he fell into a swamp and lifted himself out by pulling on either his ponytail or his bootstraps. if you watch ‘house’ or are just otherwise savvy, you’ll recognize that his name also serves as the  basis of the disease of fictitious disorders.

there may well be counterparts to these stories in other literary traditions — i’d be happy to hear about them!!!

(the end of one of the referenced posts also reviews daily show’s coverage of candidates out-bootstrapping one another (not an actual over-the-fence, out-of-the-swamp competition, although that would be amazing and i would like to suggest it in place of one of the debates). surely it owes something to monty python’s four yorkshiremen sketch, which culiminates with, “right. i had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before i went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘hallelujah.'”)

(thanks to guenther fink & josh salomon for raising these issues, as well as the magic of wikipedia)


altered definition of piracy

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday on the legal definition of piracy, saying an armed attack on a U.S. vessel can be considered piracy even if no one ever boards or robs the ship.

Read more.

pyrates: this has a familiar ring

a small excerpt from ‘a general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pyrates,’ likely by daniel defoe (published under the name of captain charles johnson) (1724). more prescient on the issue of employment than on the bottomless fish supply, of course.

We have given a few Instances in the Course of this History of the Inducements Men have to engage themselves headlong in a Life of so much Peril to themselves, and so destructive to the Navigation of the trading World; to remedy which Evil there seems to be but two Ways, either to find Employment for the great Number of Seamen turn’d adrift at the Conclusion of a War, and thereby prevent their running into such Undertakings, or to guard sufficiently the Coast of Africa, the West-Indies, and other Places whereto Pyrates resort.

I cannot but take notice in this Place, that during this long Peace, I have not so much as heard of a Dutch pyrate: It is not that I take them to be honester than their neighbors; but when we account for it, it will, perhaps, be a Reproach to our selves for our want of Industry: The reasons I take to be, that after a War, when the Dutch Ships are laid up, they have a Fishery, where their Seamen find immediate Business, and as comfortable Bread as they had before. Had ours the same Recourse in their Necessities, I’m certain we should find the same Effect from it; for a Fishery is a Trade that cannot be overstock’d; the Sea is wide enough for us all, we need not quarrel for Elbow-room: Its stores are infinite, and will ever reward the Labourer… if there was a publick Spirit among us, it would be well worth our while to establish a National Fishery, which would be the best Means in the World to prevent Pyracy, employ a Number of the Poor, and ease the Nation of a great Burthen, by lowering the Price of Provision in general, as well as of several other Commodities.

As Custom is a second Nature, it is no Wonder that, when an honest Livlyhood is not easily had, they run into one so like their own; so it may be said, that Privateers in a time of War are a Nursery for Pyrates against a Peace.

other wisdom from the same era (jonathan swift & microcredit): due diligence h/t marginal revolution & marginal revolution


a few pirate tidbits from an exibition i did not attend

but this nice woman did. some highlights of her highlights:

slave ships

  • ‘pirates liked to steal slave ships (en route from Africa), since they were built to carry large numbers and could be remodeled to fit their needs.
  • ‘the ships included craftsmen, including people who could remodel captured ships to fit the pirate crew’s needs and maintain the ships.
  • ‘the Whydah was a slave ship that was captured and converted into one of the most successful pirate ships in history in the early 1700s. after only two months of plundering and conquests, the ship sank during a storm off of Cape Cod, taking Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy and all but two of its crew with it

democracy & niceties

  • ‘pirates tried to avoid battles, hoping their threats would suffice. after all, they didn’t want to get hurt and wanted the ship and loot to be in good shape.
  • ‘when a ship was captured, pirates would sometimes ask the crew about their captain. if he was cruel, they might torture and kill him. if he was good to his men, they sometimes would reward him with treasure — and sometimes gave him a ship.
  • ‘on merchant ships, the captain had his own quarters while the crew slept where they could find room. he also was paid handsomely compared to his crew and was clearly in charge. Pirate ships operated differently. the captain had no more rights than his crew (except during battles and for navigation decisions) and was paid the same. he also slept in the same quarters as his men.pirate ships were run democratically, with everyone getting equal pay and treatment – after you signed an oath.
  • there was racial equality on pirate ships. many of the slaves joined the pirates when their ship was captured. some ships even had all-black crews.


  • ‘to make their long voyages tolerable, pirate ships often had band concerts and one-act plays.
  • ‘pirates would sometimes “take” musicians from ships they captured.

pirates make UN sexy — but at high price

key points:

  • pirates (as a topic, apparently, not as guests) make a meeting sexy
  • 219 piracy incidents in 2010 cost  “the shipping industry, insurers, navies and law enforcement more than $7 billion”
  • speeding may not be the answer but impregnable citadels are (?). shockingly, “it may be futile to expect shippers to run at full speed through an entire danger zone, as recommended in the industry’s current Best Management Practices.” (seriously?)  “rather, with better information sharing among the various navies in the Indian Ocean and timely assessments of pirate action from risk consultants and shipping companies themselves, ships’ masters can learn what particular areas to avoid or speed through.”
  • “the IMO should support the for accreditation and certification standards of private maritime-security companies, and push for a global convention that would create a legal structure for prosecuting open-water piracy — a Hague for the High Seas. “the guidelines could cover everything from rules of engagement to the management of firearms to training in lifesaving.”

is this how you repay the pirates for jazzing up your organization?

the author notes that “the only “cure” for Indian Ocean piracy will be stability and economic growth in Somalia” but doesn’t say much about increasing piracy “off western AfricaSouth America and Southeast Asia.”

i know – but couldn’t we have asked, too?

things i know & understand:

  • this is cool research from @poverty_action
  • it’s fun and important to show and know that ‘we’ (development types) have poor assumptions about what will work
  • time and budgets are always constrained
  • this comment is super-predictable coming from me. but…

when i read this:

our results showed that although the consulting intervention caused short-term changes in business practices, these impacts dissipated within a year after the consulting ended. on average, we found no long-term benefit from the consulting, and actually lower short-term profits. we believe some business people hoped the advice would work and thus took it. but better bookkeeping and other business practices potentially took time away from the physical act of sewing clothes. once profits took a hit, enterprise owners likely abandoned the practices and reverted to their previous methods. [emphasis added]

i think to myself, ‘heather, why is it that you so rarely read:’

  • the respondents believed this program did/not have the intended effect because…” (this would be based on more qualitative research during our at the end of the study)
  • or, something along the lines of, “the respondents felt that future efforts could be improved by…” (more of that open-ended goodness)
  • or, “from our observations during the implementation of the intervention, we believe what happened is…”
  • or, “the implementers feel that x happened, that z presented serious challenges, and y could improve it in the future”
  • or, radically, “the respondents (or implementers) feel that a better way to have approached the same goal would have been…”

i am well aware that absolutely none of these things will provide definitive – or even ‘true’ – answers about what worked and why. but surely other people’s opinions besides the reseachers’ count and should be collected, despite the extra collection and analysis time? wouldn’t it be fun to have more information about why we are seeing the treatment effect that we see? among other sources, see here.


eu carries out airstrikes on mainland somali pirate bases

eu is now allowing airstrikes on on-land targets, a move about which the somali government was aware. however, no eu boots are ashore in these operations.

By bringing its fighting strategy more in line with that of the US, Europe is playing “a very dangerous game,” says Bronwyn Burton,  deputy director of the Michael S. Ansari Center at TheAtlantic Council and an expert on Somalia. “Both sides would probably agree that the solution to both piracy and terrorism is state building in Somalia,” she said. “But despite a lot of lip service being paid to that kind of policy, what we have now instead is first the US and now the EU pursuing a policy of diplomacy by airstrike.”


Bile Hussein, a pirate commander, said the attack along Somalia’s central coastline destroyed speed boats, fuel depots and an arms store.

“They destroyed our equipment to ashes. It was a key supplies center for us,” Hussein said. “The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared.”


The EU is the main donor to the Somali transitional government. It also trains Somali army troops, and is reinforcing the navies of five neighboring countries to enable them to counter piracy themselves… Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, Operation Commander of the EU Naval Force, said the attack will increase the pressure and disrupt pirates’ efforts to get out to sea to attack merchant shipping and dhows.

The EU Naval Force is responsible for the protection of World Food Program ships carrying humanitarian aid for Somalia, and the logistic support vessels of the African Union troops conducting operations there. It also monitors fishing activity off the coast of Somalia, which has been without a functioning government since 1991, when dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown.

The EU’s more robust mandate for its naval force allows it for the first time to mount strikes against pirate targets on Somalia’s “coastal territory and internal waters.” When the policy was announced, officials said the new tactics could include using warships or their helicopters to target pirate boats moored along the shoreline, as well as land vehicles or fuel tanks used by the pirates.


fun tidbits from grading (medicare and expensive treatments)

every year i am re-astounded by the things we discuss about medicare in norm daniels’s ethics class. among them:

1. it is not permissible for medicare to consider cost, cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit, or opportunity cost when deciding to cover a new medicine or treatment. only effectiveness (‘reasonable and necessary’) (see D Brock 2010). this is true despite the establishment of the patient centered outcomes research institute under the ACA

2. there are no cancer drugs in the pipeline that cost less than USD 300,000/QALY (again, see Brock 2010)

3. medicare is not allowed to negotiate drug prices (as a large purchaser) with pharma companies.

how is a raven like a writing desk? (smartphones as sanitation metaphor)

i have raised my eyebrows once or twice here about some of the discussions on the ipad or smartphone of toilets and sanitation. now i have gotten through the @gatesfoundation challenge paper and have a few more things to say. i briefly summarize the three key topics of the paper in  terms of approaches to improving sanitation and then consider the extent to which a smartphone is a reasonable guide to a reinvented, universally appealing and affordable toilet.

first off all, the premise of the paper, in part, is that we have managed to meet the world drinking water MDG early, though i cannot find a clear explanation of how we did that. but, if we did, we have somehow found a way to bring water in without having it flow back out to carry away waste. are there any cool lessons we are supposed to have learned from successes in the provision of drinking water (despite the fact that gains are uneven, that they may not be sustained, etc) that can  be applied to sanitation or development efforts more broadly?

but the authors want to suggest that not having water to carry away waste is not a bad thing: not only is it the reality with which we have to deal for the foreseeable future (governments are not adequately setting up sewer systems, leaving TMNT homeless) and waste processing — but using large amounts of water to move waste to an energy-intensive plant may not be the soundest idea in general. the authors lay out three  main approaches to improving sanitation. first is the unfortunately acronym-ed* Community Led Total Sanitation (could we not have gone with CoLTS instead of CLTS?), which is about altering social norms around sanitation – open defecation in particular. communities strive to become open-defecation free communities (welcome to pleasantville! open-defecation free since 2008!). of course, behavior change depends on the maintenance of a viable alternative to open defecation – i.e. functional and pleasant toilet facilities. also, it is worth noting, as the authors do, that ‘open defecation’ can occur even when people use latrines; emptying the septic tank out in the open is the equivalent of just having gone in the open in the first place — meaning that open-defecation remains both an urban and a rural problem.

the second idea, which is linked to the third, is that toilets should be able to create useful products out of the waste, namely fertilizer and/or energy. linked to this idea of profit- or product-generation is the need to come up with better services for emptying latrines and processing ‘fecal sludge.’

the third idea also has to do with reconceptualizing the toilet – this is where the smartphone metaphor comes in. the idea (with prototyping currently funded by gates) is to come up with a cool toilet that not only will it be a reasonable technology for those currently without access to safe sanitation but it will become the new gold standard everywhere. because of it’s high water and energy use, the authors suggest, the water closet’s reign is – or should be – nearing an end.

i understand that the ‘smartphone of sanitation’ is nice because it is alliterative and rings of the birth-of-social-marketing-catchphrase, ‘why can’t we sell brotherhood like soap?’ it lets you talk about poop in the same way you discuss technology. the main point of the metaphor seems to be about toilets being designed and marketed as an aspirational item that, again, will become the new gold standard for everyone, as the authors say, “from sitters to squatters and washers to wipers” the world over.

it seems worth pausing to consider how toilets could be like smartphones. spoiler alert: i have not yet come up with a better metaphor, just starting the conversation.

first, what is currently the height of toilet technology? japanese toilets (further reading here.). these are presently the aspirational toilet, with a wide array of features and services — and it is probably aspirational in ways that a reinvented toilet would not be (since the new toilet designs are supposed to use less water and energy, assorted spraying and heating would seem to run counter to this).

how could a new toilet be like a smartphone? what works about this metaphor?

  • like the move away from landlines, the new toilets will be off-the-grid
  • it will be hard to remember how you ever lived without one & everyone will need/want one
  • the user scale will be at the individual or household level, rather than the community
  • the user interface and experience is emphasized — finally moving us to a conversation that we need to not only provide safe sanitation but pleasant sanitation that people will want to use (moving beyond it just being free of flies and unpleasant odors as criteria for satisfaction with sanitation)
  • an industry has grown up around the maintenance, transport, decoration, and so on, of smartphones
  • it may (?)  be able to overcome “issues of high cost, slow adoption, and limited benefits” that previous technologies have faced (suggesting that our present flush toilet model is the equivalent of fax machines and desktop computers and that we will leapfrog over it?)

but, part of why we buy smartphones are features that will likely never be captured in a toilet (perhaps my imagination is not sufficiently active) — and which we may not want to emulate.

  • part of the aspirational aspect of smartphones is that everyone is pulling theirs out all the time, so you get to see and be seen. they are a profoundly public and social technology.
  • there is an ever-proliferating pool of new apps and functions that smartphones can take on, making the phone constantly novel in some way.
  • smartphones can be tailored and customized in various ways
  • people can be bewildered by their phones (not me, of course) but the reinvented toilet is explicitly supposed to be “fool-proof” (echoes of birth control in the 1970s, anyone?)
  • if you run out of money or time to do maintenance (let’s say, topping up your phone with credit), it doesn’t become totally unusable — you can still receive calls & texts. but, if you forget to charge it, it doesn’t work
  • there is a constant desire to upgrade
  • they are constantly getting smaller

so, smartphones as the model for toilets work in some ways but not in all. even if we chat about the novelty of the japenese toilet on the first few trips to a fancy restaurant, in the end, toilets are fairly private and socially disconnected. and it is not clear that they need to be high-tech to be pleasant, safe, and useful. the ways in which we will make people want to invest in a new toilet will be quite different from the ways that smartphones have become desirable. though we may be able to harness nutrients and energy from waste in these reinvented toilets, there probably won’t be a constantly flow of new things that a toilet can do for us.

the comparison with smartphones may help us start the conversation about sanitation but it can’t completely guide us toward the toilet of the future. toilets may remain more like dishwashers and washing machines and vacuum cleaners, in which case, they may well need to be marketed towards moms – either to make their life easier or to help them care for their family better (whether or not you think that is an appropriate or fair marketing strategy for household appliances, it is certainly the strategy).  (happy belated mother’s day mom! i’ll get you a new toilet when they come out.)

remaining questions:

  • thoughts on must-have features for a new toilet, which may or may not have a smartphone parallel? 
  • also, if these are going to be the hip new toilet for everyone, how long do you think it will be before we BOGO toilet schemes pop up?
  • absent flushing toilets, how will dead goldfish get back to the sea?

*there really needs to be a business that checks acronyms and baby names/initials before anyone  makes final decisions on such things.