Friday, December 15, 2017

Politicians' Conundrum

Yes, whatever the hell this means

Paul Krugman in NYT writes that Politicians(TM) pursue certain policies -- say, a massive tax cut for big corporations and the 1%, in an environment of record-high corporate profitability and government budget deficit -- despite wildly negative public opinions, because of three fallacies:

  1. Pundit's fallacy: that a politician will improve her standing if she achieves what pundits say she needs to do.  Republicans used to know that they win elections in spite, not because, of their economic program, but they've been living in a bubble for so long, that they imagine the gospel of supply-side economics would become reality if it's preached loud enough.
  2. Points on the board fallacy: that a politician could improve her standing if enough "wins" rack up.  This is the Donald Trump motto: "we're going to win so much, we will be tired of winning."  Worth pointing out: Obama and the democrats passed many legislative victories during his term, but was demolished and lost both houses in the midterms.
  3. Post-career endgame.  A congressperson may buck the party line to win voters, but nobody really knows their representatives anyway;  she would rather position herself for a lobbying/think-tank/Fox News pundit job when she loses re-election -- in which case the best bet is to keep donors and the party happy.

For Republicans, the main argument for pursuing their economic policies now, when they're wholly unpopular and the timing is horrible to do so, is largely driven by their dire political situation.   They have control of all three branches of government, and they know they may lose control of the legislative branch in the 2018 midterms.  Henceforth, their razor-sharp focus on cutting taxes NOW.  Because if not now, when?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bitcoin is a massive waste of power

Close-up of Bitmain mining farm in Iceland

The amount of electricity needed to run the Bitcoin economy, i.e. the electricity needed to operate "miners", has gone haywire.  Mining involves running sophisticated algorithms to verify each transaction in the blockchain, earning newly-minted Bitcoins along the way.  This process used to be done with idle processing power on desktop computers; nowadays, as more and more powerful computers are unleashed to compete for new Bitcoins, miners in China and Venezuela (where electricity is free or dirt cheap) deploy massive arrays of dedicated, purpose-built computers.

According to new research, as Bitcoin prices skyrocketed to US$17,000 from only US$1,000 in less than 12 months, the cost of Bitcoin mining has also gone up: 32 terrawatt-hours on an annualized basis, equal to the energy use of Serbia (population: 7m), or about 1% of energy use in the United States (population: 320m).  In ~10 years the energy use is expected to exceed that of the entire North America.

All this, just to solve meaningless math problems.

Needless to say, this doesn't really bode well for the cryptocurrency-based economy.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Only buy Bitcoin if you're OK with losing money

MtGox CEO Mark Karpeles faces charges of embezzlement 

Like many people, I've been tempted to look at Bitcoin. Look at those prices! $7000, $8000, $9000, every day is a new peak! But seriously, is it a good idea to put your money in Bitcoin? You can lose money just through the daily price seesaw. Some even say the only winners are the early adopters that came in (either by buying or mining) around 2010-11?

Bitcoin is not supported by a government/central authority, but the fact that there's no federal/insurance backing is considered a positive to some eco-anarchists. If that even makes sense at all? So the chances of losing most/all of your money are very real.

Recent news reports shed light to how this works in the real world. There's no widely-accepted way to maintain Bitcoins, much less purchasing them, that nicely balances convenience with safety/security.  Wired's Mark Frauenfelder is a security-freak, so he put his $30,000 Bitcoin wallet offline in an super-secure USB disk -- which he promptly lost the passcodes to. He had to jump through so many hoops: he basically hired someone to hack into his own encrypted drive.

Consider the previous guy lucky: at least he eventually got his Bitcoins back. Gizmodo's Nick Douglas just wanted simplicity, so he invested with the largest global Bitcoin exchange at the time… which was OK until MtGox collapsed amid millions of dollars of Bitcoin theft (theft or criminal misconduct? yes please!).

So yeah, you shouldn't invest in Bitcoin -- it's just not investment-grade yet.  You may consider buying Bitcoin, but only if you know and are mentally prepared if you lose all of it.  Some even say, Bitcoin is just like the dotcom bubble, if people in 2000 didn't know what the internet was for.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

More on Trickle-Down Economics

How the GOP sees the world

The GOP tax "reform" plan -- in quotations because yes, it's basically a tax cut (POTUS45 doesn't have the attention span to manage a major reform) -- doubles down on trickle down economics: that giving more money to rich people and corporations will drive broader benefits for everybody elseNo serious economist believes this.  Even Wall Street is skeptical of the plan; they worry about hot money inflows, appreciation of the US$, inflated asset prices, impact on consumption and housing prices, and how it eventually may trigger another recession(!!!).

New Yorker's John Cassidy summarizes the counterarguments in his article covering a Reuters panel discussion featuring several experts.  Ex-Federal Reserves board member Alan Blinder and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi showed charts showing no correlation between GDP growth and tax rates - -  something that everybody outside the White House readily points out.  Another economist showed that tax cuts have historically gave more money to shareholders (i.e. dividends and buybacks), as opposed to making new investments or giving increased salaries to employees.  Moreover, across-the-board profitability has been high and corporate borrowing costs have been low for some time; companies that wanted to invest would likely have done so already.

The final panelist, billionaire investor Mark Cuban, makes the point from a job creator's perspective: taxes are not the primary driver of hiring, salary or capex decisions; the most important business considerations are always supply-demand dynamics and competition.  Technology is another major factor: in the past 25 years we experienced two rounds of digital revolutions: internet boom of the '90s and smartphone boom of the 2000's, which birthed new industry giants such as Google, Alibaba, and Tencent.  These days a neighborhood store owner isn't losing sleep over tax rates, she is worried Amazon is eating her lunch!  Another round of technological dislocation is at our doorstep, as autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and advanced manufacturing robotics become the norm.  These are guaranteed to create backlash and discomfort as many industries will be upended, putting many inappropriately-skilled workers out of comfy jobs.

Cuban also hits another common-sense point: if the intent is to give more money to the working class, why not cut payroll taxes, which costs the average family 15% of their hard-earned dollars (as opposed to income taxes, which not everybody pays)?

Cassidy summarizes as follows:

"... The Republican tax plan is based on false premises; it won’t give the economy much of a boost; it will raise the deficit; it will primarily benefit corporate shareholders and C.E.O.s.  And, as Cuban said, it is a distraction from the great policy question of the day, which is how to insure at least a modicum of shared prosperity in an economy being roiled by technological change, global competition, and demographic transformation. [...] If Trump wanted to help out the working stiff, why didn’t he take Cuban’s advice and call for a cut in the payroll tax? To pay for the reduction, he could also have proposed abolishing, or substantially raising, the payroll tax’s upper-income threshold, which enables someone who earns a million dollars a year to escape the tax on about seven-eighths of his income. Such a policy package could have boosted take-home pay, financed itself, and also helped to reduce income inequality."

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lesser of Two Evils


In light of the Roy Moore scandal, the important lesson is to NOT choose the Lesser of Two Evils(TM).  NEVER abandon your principles in the face of bad choices.

From Michael B Dougherty (National Review):

"...Telling yourself that 'this is war, and in war you have to make less than ideal choices' is a great way to excuse the destruction of your charity and the lifting of restraint, with collateral damage to your integrity.  Choosing the lesser of two evils is a fantastic way to prepare yourself to do worse and worse evils.  And following it to the end is a bitter fate indeed.

The worst tragedies of recent history were driven by masses of people giving in to existential fear and hatred.  There are many alive today in Central and Eastern Europe who made themselves into Fascists or Communists in order to resist or avenge the Communists and the Fascists. But the names we remember and revere are those who carefully and bravely stood apart. It’s time to think about where the line in the sand will be. What behavior won’t you excuse? Where won’t you follow your party? Because the way things are going, these questions won’t be hypotheticals."

From David French (also at the National Review):

"... I keep hearing these words from Evangelicals: 'We’ve got no choice, the Democrats are after our liberties. They’re seeking to destroy our way of life.'  Some even say that even if the allegations against Moore are true, they’ll still hold their nose and put him in office to keep [Doug] Jones from serving in the Senate.  Sorry Evangelicals, but your lack of faith is far more dangerous to the Church than any senator, any president, or any justice of the Supreme Court. Do you really have so little trust in God that you believe it’s justifiable — no, necessary — to ally with, defend, and even embrace corrupt men if it you think it will save the Church?

Yes, I know there are many instances in which godless kings did good things for God’s people. God can turn the heart of any man. But there is a vast difference between seeking favor from an unrighteous ruler and choosing, defending, and embracing the unrighteous ruler from the start. Evangelicals, you’re putting people like Donald Trump and Roy Moore in office. You’re declaring to the world, “He’s our man.” In graver times, God’s people have demonstrated much greater faith.  We stumble when the stakes are comparatively low.  Our failures will come back to haunt us. There will be woe to those who’ve compromised with evil through lack of faith. A reckoning is coming. May God have mercy on us all."


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Lessons from the Harvey Weinstein scandal

Writing this blog ruined potted plants for me

Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault scandal, which spanned decades before it blew open in October thanks to dogged reporting by Ronan Farrow, is a case study on how the rich and powerful shield themselves from accountability. They use power, intimidation, and money to pressure victims into silence, bystanders into enablers, and the rest of the world into apologists:

LESSON 1: Abuse their psyche

Weinstein, Brett Ratner, and Louis CK not only physically hurt their victims, they also target them psychologicallyThey allegedly forced women to watch while they masturbate.  Experts say these exhibitionists purposefully look to shock their victims.  Because they are angry, they are acting revenge against women, imposing “sexualized hostility” or “eroticized rage” against their prey. That look of horror or humiliation on women is arousing to them.

LESSON 2: Implicate the victim's self-worth.

Weaponization of sexual assault for political goals

The cruelest thing about these acts is the way that they entangle and contaminate everything about the victims and their self-esteem:

"If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide that it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak. If you’re talented, he thought of you as an equal. If you’re ambitious, you wanted it. If you’re savvy, you knew it was coming. If you’re affectionate, you seemed like you were asking for it all along. If you make dirty jokes or have a good time at parties, then why get moralistic? If you’re smart, there’s got to be some way to rationalize this."

Apologists often diminish the 'assault' portion of sexual assault, saying something like: "the actress is only mad because it's ugly Weinstein, if Brad Pitt asks the same woman for a massage, she would probably say yes".  It's worth noting that massages are the mildest among the acts the guy allegedly did.  When abusers can become bigtime Hollywood producers, Oscar-winning directors, Senate frontrunners, and even President of the United States, what's there left to say; sexual assault has been weaponized in 2017.

LESSON 3: Public humiliation

This has been the most-used defense against abuse charges.  "Why did she wait so long to come forward? Is she just doing it for the money/publicity? Isn't it more likely that she just slept with whomever to get big acting roles?"   However, this argument falls apart when the allegations came from Hollywood's most prominent, established female stars: Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie:

Paltrow was 22 when Weinstein “summoned her to his suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for a work meeting” that culminated in Weinstein touching her, “suggesting they head to the bedroom for massages,” the Times reports. Paltrow was “petrified,” she says, and alerted her then-boyfriend, Brad Pitt, who in turn confronted Weinstein, who then came back to Paltrow to threaten her to tell no one else. Weinstein allegedly “made unwanted advances” on Jolie, also in a hotel room, in the late 1990s. As she told the Times in an email, “I had a bad experience with Harvey Weinstein in my youth, and as a result, chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did.”

It should be obvious, but apparently it bears repeating: It is rare that a woman would trade sex for professional success. It is the exceedingly common man who abuses women simply because he can get away with it.

LESSON 4: Private harassment. Throw money at the problem.

The Hollywood mogul hired spies and private investigators -- including ex-Mossad agents! -- to track and harass actresses and journalists who threaten to break the story open.  The Times of Israel tracked down Israeli Defense Forces veteran-turned-hired-spy Stella Pechanac aka Diana Filip, who met with Rose McGowan under false pretenses to extract information, determine whether she was planning to go public with her rape allegation against Weinstein, and even obtained the unpublished manuscript of the actress’s memoir. 

The filmmaker also hired Kroll, a corporate-intelligence giant, who was instructed to collect information on dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles including their personal or sexual histories. He also enlisted former employees to join in the effort, collecting names and placing intimidating phone calls.

When this didn't work, as a last resort the Hollywood mogul paid money to reach private settlements and entangle their victims in elaborate legal agreements to hide allegations of predation for decades.

LESSON 5: Charity as political cover

"The great mystery of evil is not that it persists but, rather, that so many of its practitioners wish to do so while being thought of as saints. Consider the fact that such a bizarre, oxymoronic accolade as the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples once existed—and that it was created after his plans for agricultural collectivization resulted in the deaths of some four million Ukrainians. "

These people use wealth and charitable donations, often to progressive causes, for political cover.  Just like how Bill Cosby was a patron for Temple University, Weinstein was reported to have pledged US$5m to USC toward a scholarship fund for female filmmakers. He also championed Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and donated to the campaign of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Weinstein’s palette of giving earned him the standing as a champion for progressivism.

LESSON 6: Admit defeat. Blame mental illness.

Louis CK blames his misunderstanding of the etiquette of masturbating in front of professional acquaintances.  A defender of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore compared him to biblical figure Joseph seeking an underage Mary for companionship.  Weinstein? He just says he’s a sex addict.

James Hamblin in the Atlantic:
Weinstein posed the conflict as a sort of infection that could be cured: “My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons.” In doing so, he downplays his own active role in harboring or cultivating these demons. “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” The implication was that standards of decency and professionalism had shifted beneath his feet, and he is a naïve old dinosaur who can’t help how much he loves sex. The answer, apparently, is an overdue jaunt to rehab for “sex addiction.”

The acts detailed in the accounts of the many women reporting abuse by Weinstein were often tangentially sexual [....] But to consider these incidents sex is a mode of thinking that fell out of use even before the “’60s and ’70s.” Sex is defined by consent. This way of framing of Weinstein’s problem reflects no reckoning with the nature of the charges; it's a case of excusing something as sex when it is not sex. There are parallels in this misdirection to what happened with the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women, and it was reported in the news as “explicit sex talk.”

It's worth a final note that sex addiction is not real -- there is no such thing under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the authoritative handbook for psychiatric diagnostics.  Regardless of the validity of sex addiction or how badly a patient wants to get better, mental health is not an excuse to sexually assault and shame and coerce victims into silence. 'Choosing therapy' is the powerful's way of admitting defeat, but in his own terms. If someone commits a crime, as Weinstein allegedly has, justice needs to be upheld.  Therapy is no substitute. 

Sex addiction is not real. Repercussions are.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Last wishes

When I die:

1.  I hope my kampung will throw a block party. But not like Saddam, dear God no.

Party in Minneapolis after Prince's death

2.  I hope Ross Douthat can write my eulogy:

"Hugh Hefner [...] was a pornographer and chauvinist who got rich on masturbation, consumerism and the exploitation of women, aged into a leering grotesque in a captain’s hat, and died a pack rat in a decaying manse where porn blared during his pathetic orgies.
Hef was the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution, with Quaaludes for the ladies and Viagra for himself — a father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis, a pretentious huckster who published Updike stories no one read while doing flesh procurement for celebrities, a revolutionary whose revolution chiefly benefited men much like himself."


Friday, September 29, 2017

Earth had life very early

Disko Bay in Greenland

New research found Canadian rocks that are nearly 4 billion years old with signs of primitive life.  At the time, Earth was only ~200 million years old -- still a baby (in geologic terms), and who knows what the climate/atmosphere looked like back then. 

Which goes to show the different kinds of (crazy hellish) environment where life started, and questions where else life may have/still exists in this universe...?


Monday, September 25, 2017

Rohingya Crisis, Explained in 6 Points

Rohingya refugees coming into Bangladesh by sea

1. They are the world’s most persecuted minority group

The Rohingya is an ethnic group, majority of which are Sunni Muslims, which has inhabited the Rakhine (Arakan) district of Burma (Myanmar) over one hundred years.  Before the recent violence, an estimated 1.1m Rohingya live in the country.  They are despised by the country’s Buddhist majority and live in apartheid-like conditions.  The government refuses to recognize them as an ethnic minority, describing them as illegal immigrants and interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh.

The refugee crisis has strained neighboring countries' capacity for compassion

Clashes in the Rakhine state between the inhabitants and military/security forces erupted numerous times since the 1970s.  Since 1982, when a new citizenship law was passed, the Rohingya has been stateless with no rights to vote, study, work, travel, practice their religion, and access to healthcare services.  According to the UNHCR, one out of seven stateless people in the world is Rohingya.

After renewed violence in the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya has fled to neighboring Bangladesh, as well as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.  The UN Secretary General has dubbed the attacks as "textbook definition of ethnic cleansing".

2. They have been in Burma for ages

19th century mosque in Akyab

Modern-day Burma was part of the British India empire back in during the colonial rule (1824-1948).  Migration of ethnic Indians/Bengali into Burma was not limited in any way, as they are considered one contiguous territory;  British policy actually encouraged Bengali inhabitants to migrate into the then-lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm laborers, and in the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in the area seeking manual work in the paddy fields.  The British census of 1872 reported 58,255 Muslims in Akyab District (modern-day Sittwe/Rakhine district); by 1911, the Muslim population had increased to 178,647.

During the Second World War, the land of Burma (like many parts of Southeast Asia) was annexed by the Imperial Japanese Army.  Native Buddhists mostly sided with the Japanese, because they wanted British colonizers to leave.  On the other hand, the Muslim minority, who has made good living and planted roots as agricultural workers as well as other skilled laborers, mostly stayed with the British's side.  The British even armed its ethnic Indian populace, leading to mass killings in the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually Britain, of course, won the war and they remained until Burma's independence in 1948.

After the Burmese declaration of independence, the government passed the Union Citizenship Act.  The Rohingya, along with other minority groups, was initially provided a real pathway to citizenship.  However, after the 1962 military coup and the subsequent 1982 citizenship law, the Rohingya were marginalized and rendered stateless overnight. 

Since the 1970s, a number of crackdowns in Rakhine State have forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee.  During such incidents, refugees have often reported indiscriminate shootings, rape, torture, arson and murder by Myanmar security forces.  Burmese military dictatorship ended with the 2012 free elections, but many central figures of the military remained powerful.  For the victims that suffered atrocities under the military regime, the power that the military still wields means that human rights abuses are expected to continue.
Source: The Economist

3. The Burmese really, really hate the Rohingya

In case you're wondering, Burma's Buddhism is starkly different from familiar western perception of the religion.  Theravada Buddhism (practiced in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka) does not recognize the Dalai Lama, and their teachings can be actually quite militant -- they are staunch defenders of blood purity and against minority groups.

Buddhist nationalist propaganda dehumanizes the Rohingya by calling them "descendants of snakes and insects".  In that manner, mistreatment of these people are considered OK as they are not really humans.  These views continue to be popular amongst the educated and the elites.  With state-controlled media, barrage of fake news and internet trolls, laypeople are generally ignorant of what's really happening to their neighbors. 

Hate pages are easily found on Google

There are many perceptions and historical factors that contribute to Burma's longstanding hatred of its Muslim minority:
  1. They are just different: the Rohingya (Muslim, ethnic Bengali/Indian) starkly differ in appearance, with darker skins and foreign traditions vis-à-vis the majority of Burma (Buddhists, ethnically closer to Chinese)
  2. The Rohingya do not control births.  This is difficult to show, since there is no state-sponsored healthcare service and no census for non-citizens.
  3. The Rohingya are drug smugglers and criminals.  Again this is also difficult to prove, but in many cases marginalization doesn't leave them much choice. 
  4. Finally, a widely held opinion among the elites and educated: the Rohingya are foreign-influenced, jihadi-inspired, overseas-funded, separatists eager to take over the country and overthrow its leadership.  During the years leading up to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the Rohingyas fought in the Mujahid insurgency. They wanted northern Rakhine, where Muslims were concentrated, to be annexed into Pakistan/Bangladesh, and Burma saw this as disloyalty and treason.  More recently local media highlighted ethnic Rohingya who were implicated with al-Qaeda and Taliban.

Massive fires in the Rakhine district, as seen from Bangladeshi borders

4. The government is mostly silent on the humanitarian crisis

Three factors may explain de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence.  The first is domestic politics.  From Darwin Peng in Harvard Politics:

Ashin Wirathu

"..The 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist movement led by monks including Ashin Wirathu, has grown increasingly powerful and is responsible for increase in Islamophobic sentiment among the populace. In addition to encouraging the Burmese to boycott Muslim stores, the movement has also incited violence.  In 2013, monks led rioters to burn homes in the Muslim neighborhood of Meiktila, which led to the deaths of more than 40 Muslims.   
In a country where nearly 90% of the populace practices Buddhism, Suu Kyi risks alienating a sizable proportion of the populace should she condemn the Buddhist nationalists.  Furthermore, many government officials are also sympathetic to the movement, including former President Thein Sein, who not only passed four “race and religion” laws that targeted ethnic minorities on issues like religious conversion and interfaith marriage.  Suu Kyi remains soft on the issue of Buddhist nationalism to avoid offending the monks, and her own government officials...."

The second factor is the military.  By constitution, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar defense forces) has a number of seats in the parliament and discretion to declare a state of emergency.  It also controls important ministries in the government and many other centers of power.  The country’s leadership is managing a delicate balance of power and cannot afford to upset the balance.  In this sense, the Buddhist nationalists and the military have joined forces in their decision to persecute the Rohingya as “deadweight” and “interlopers”.  The government is stuck trying to keep up with the alliance, although many indications also show that the three generally agree on the matter of the Rohingya.

Third, it's just about popular views. There's every indication  that the elites and the majority of the population do not care for the rights of Muslim minority.  More moderate viewpoints see citizenship as the key question: that citizenship rights shouldn't be awarded without extensive scrutiny -- dare I say, extreme vetting.

5. World powers are also silent

It's not because of lack of forewarning.  From Kate Cronin-Furman in Foreign Policy magazine:

"... in 2005, the member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework, which obligates the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their governments are “unwilling or unable” to keep them safe. R2P was borne out of collective guilt over the mass slaughter of civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia and promised a new era of “timely and decisive” atrocity response. In pursuit of this goal, early warning efforts to identify the precursors of mass atrocities became a focus for both international and state actors.
[…] The plight of the Rohingya suggests that early warnings do little to prevent atrocities against vulnerable groups. The high risk of mass atrocities was clear from the escalating communitarian violence, the documented uptick in online hate speech beginning in 2012, and the tightening of official restrictions on the Rohingya’s movement and activities."

Simultaneous humanitarian crises in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Syria and Yemen, have desensitized the world in the face of potential genocide.  UN Security Council permanent members China and Russia, which are battling dissidents within their own borders, refuse to invoke the R2P lest it would be against them in the future.  Furthermore, in the aftermath of the NATO-led 2011 Libya intervention, where R2P was explicitly invoked by the UNSC, decision-makers are concerned they might be making a bad situation worse

Money politics is also a concern.  China has been the largest investor into Burma.  Fmr US President Obama, refusing to let the country fall under the Chinese sphere of influence, made official visits to the capital in 2012 and 2014, praised the country's fledgling democracy, and lifted decades-long sanctions.  It is clear that complex geopolitical games are in play, and unfortunately, the Rohingya and human rights are not pieces in the puzzle.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump's America First is willfully abandoning the world stage, showing apathy and paying diminished attention to human rights issues.

The government and the military, with dominant national support, branded the Rohingya as Islamic militants.  Tapping into international counter-terrorism narratives simultaneously bolsters the legitimacy of the military operation against the Rohingya and undermines their status as innocent victims of state abuse.  Amongst the Burmese people, the rhetoric aborts empathy for the Rohingya by declaring them militants and potentially dangerous.

The neighboring governments most directly affected by the refugee crisis, Bangladesh and India, have generally just allowed the Rohingya into their borders -- but as matter of policy, they declare that the refugees cannot stay permanently, which is understandable given the heavy burden and lackluster, unsustainable conditions of the camps.

6. Finally: you can help

Monday, September 11, 2017


So Jared Kushner, the unpaid White House aide who's now tasked with handling Middle East peace, opioid addiction crisis, and American innovation(TM), used to be a Baltimore-area slum lord.  But he dumped all those in favor of a $1.8bn Fifth Avenue building that can only attract investment from shady origins.  No wonder DC elites don't care much for them....

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

More Soviet Jokes

From CIA declassified files:

A Soviet worker stands in a long liquor line.  He says to his friend, "I've had enough of this.  Save my spot, I'm gonna go shoot Gorbachev."  Two hours later he returns to claim his spot in line.  His friend asks, "Did you get him?"  "No, the line there was even longer than it is here."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Singapore Healthcare: Is it such a good model?

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital - Singapore

With Obamacare repeal talks ebbing and flowing in the States, conservatives mention Singapore ( as well as Scandinavian countries) as a role model for well-managed healthcare systems. But is the Singapore model really that good? The thing is:  Singapore is a really weird country, and generally its model will be difficult to apply to other countries -- especially one as massive and complex as the United States'.

Singapore is an island city-state, with 5 major hospitals which are largely government-owned 

Singapore healthcare system is centralized and mostly government-run, albeit with some private sector support.  Drug prices are controlled, as are doctors -- not entirely sure how it is compatible with conservative pro-business, free-market economics world view.  Hospitals also make non-trivial income from medical tourism: visitors from Indonesia, Malaysia, and China come to Singapore for medical care and vacation at the same time, and the hospitals charge them premium over the subsidized prices set for local citizens.

Unique location

Because of its geographic position in Southeast Asia, strategically located as a major trade hub surrounded by developing countries, hospitals in Singapore can source drugs relatively cheaply.

Singapore culture is also totally weird  

People don't drive that much, due to affordable high-quality public transport in the city state.  People walk everywhere, making obesity a non-issue.  There is no drug problem, as drug trafficking is punishable by death, a rule which is strictly enforced.  There is no guns whatsoever, despite the mandatory draft into the Singapore armed forces.  The young population is very health-conscious, and weekend biking is popular culture.  Air pollution can be a problem at times, mostly due to smog from forest fires in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.

Economics also matter  

The median Singaporean is also wealthier than the American.  In terms of GDP per capita, both countries are at about US$50k, but because of Singapore's small population (5.6m in 2016), there's just less poverty to deal with.

Main lesson:  things are easier when costs are lower

Singapore historians highlight their young, immigrant-welcoming demographics, and well-educated population.  Some also point to the country's sustainable healthcare financing system.  But the main point is that all of the factors above reduce healthcare costs.  And managing a healthcare system is that much easier when costs are lower, and buying powers higher.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Is the electric guitar dead?

A few thoughts on Washington Post's latest article on the woes of guitar companies:

  • An article about guitar spends so many paragraphs on Taylor Swift? I guess that's where we're at right now...   Also it's not all about Clapton or BB King; there are younger guitar gods around: Derek Trucks and Gary Clark Jr. are probably around my age.  Also worth mentioning, musicians dont need to be Eric Johnson-calibre talent to make cool stuff; I respect guys like Ed Sheeran who writes music prolifically and can lead a full-length concert with just his Martin acoustic and loop pedal (no band!). 
  • Millennials don't like/can't afford to spend money in general, thanks to (among others) student loans.  Not just a guitar problem, but look at decline in home ownership. Declining interest in golf. And so on. 
  • Speaking as a terrible guitarist, it's really hard to justify buying a $3,000 American Fender when I can spend $400 (or $200 used!) on something Indonesian-made that sounds just as terrible on my hands. And I reckon 95% of guitar buyers are probably not good players.
  • Music nowadays feels more about the production that about playing instruments, with software such as Ableton and Garage Band. Which makes me respect for musicians and vocalists who really spend the time honing their skills -- people like Mark Tremonti, whose riffs I can probably never play, not even one.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

... that time the Mountains kicked my arse...

Friday (6/24/16) -- H-1 (the day before)
5.00PM - Board Citilink flight BPN-CGK
6.30PM - Land at CGK
8.00PM - Arrived home, had dinner.
9.00PM - Kissed the baby, put stuff in backpack, went to bed
11.00PM - Regretting the ice coffee I had at lunch.  Read last week's Tempo again.

Starting point

Start of the hike

Saturday -- D-day
2AM - Finally got some shut eye
3.15AM - Alarm vibrate goes off.  Get up and shower.
4.00AM - Quick bite, off I go on the loaned Toyota Camry
4.15AM - Picked up friends at Ritz Carlton hotel, off to the freeway
7.00AM - Arrived at Gunung Salak - Gathered at the starting point.  Elevation 700m.  Started our hike up
8.00AM - Left behind, lost track of most poeple in our group
11.30AM - Completely out of breath, almost out of water.  Gave up at Checkpoint 3 - Elevation 1,700m (Peak would be at 2,800m).  Sat down for 15 minutes, decided that resting in the cold is a terrible idea.  Made my way back down
13.00PM - Out of water.  Tapped the mountain spring water pipes.
13.30PM - Got lost, couldn't find tracks.  Thought to myself, "OMG, am I gonna die here?", several times.
14.00PM - After backtracking, rendezvous with groupmate who had already reached the top and went back down
15.00PM - Reached starting point.
16.00PM - Collapsed at a local house.  Got some shut eye for about an hour while waiting for the rest of the crew.
18.00 sun finally sets. Two in our gang still haven't reached the starting point.  A sherpa is sent for rescue.
20.00PM - Left for home
23.00PM - Arrived at KFC - Bought a bucket (9 pieces) for 4 people + sides.

Around the point where I threw in the towel

All I could see is green

Sunday -- The aftermath
2.00AM - Arrived home. Collapsed. Didn't wake up until 11.30AM.

Lessons learned for future hikes (ha!):
  • Bring tons of gear -- more than you think you need.
  • Situational awareness is your best friend. 
  • Bring lots of water, canteen 4 Liters minimum -- I sweat a ton, other people may not.  Regardless of your sweat, you lose water through your sweat glands.  Dehidration, exposure to the elements, are deadly.  Even mild cases of dehidration does wonders to your decision-making.  Find sources of water.  Mountain spring, streams, leaves, moist plants, anything will help you.  Diarrhea later is preferable to dehydration now
  • Bring change of clothes - wet clothes will get you cold faster
  • Don't veer off path
  • Keep track using GPS -- use things like Google's My Tracks, Endomondo or something like that so you can track your way back
  • Altimeter - something as rudimentary as a Casio G-Shock.  Again, situational awareness is key.  Having a sense of how far you are from the top, or from the bottom, allows your mind to re-adjust and ignore the voices that come along with dehydration. 
  • Power bank (battery pack) -- obvious
  • Food (something light): carbs, proteins, sugar. Sweets to get your sugar level back up.
  • Rubber tubing or a small straw - to get water from streams or pipes.
  • Get yourself into shape.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How to read Scholarly Journals efficiently

Pulitzer-quality, if there's such a thing in scholarly journals

If you're in academia, or in the middle of a postgraduate program, you are going to have to read and write a lot of research papers.
It's important to understand how these papers are structured.  They are not the same as the kind of essays we write in undergraduate classes.

In most cases, scholarly papers cover just a small portion of a larger question and shows supporting/disputing evidence on a limited set of hypotheses.  For instance, an astronomy paper may cover the big question: "What is the climate like at Jupiter's moon Ganymede?", and the paper seeks to show that the atmosphere consists of 3.7% Helium gas (Editor's note: I totally made this up), in addition to other gases that have previously been shown to exist.  The "meat" of the paper would show the spectrum analysis of photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.  The paper would then end with what could be the implication of  finding He in Ganymede, conjecturing that the moon was made out of totally different materials from Jupiter itself.

My proposed strategy:

  1. Start with the Abstract.  Read in entirety.
  2. Read the opening section.
  3. Read the closing section.  By then you will have an idea where the problem starts, and where does the research end.
  4. For the middle section, start with all the charts and tables, see if any of these make sense to you in the scheme of the problem statement.
  5. Take a step back and review. 

The above strategy should give you a sense of what the paper's actually trying to accomplish.  If it's interesting, go ahead and read the paper in its entirety.  Otherwise, move on.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Russian in Poland

Vladimir Putin arrives at Warsaw airport and hands his passport to the immigration officer.

Officer: "Nationality?"
Putin: "Russian."
Officer: "Occupation?"
Putin: (smiles) "Not this time, just a short business trip."

h/t Foreign Policy magazine.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Primer on North Korea

Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Fact Sheet

  • Supreme Leader: Kim Jong Un
  • Capital: Pyongyang
  • Population: 24.9mn (2013E)
  • GDP: US$25 bn (2015E)
  • GDP/Capita: US$1,000
  • Main industries: Mining & industrial (34%), services (31%), agri (22%)
  • Trade partners: China, Russia

Note:  South Korea GDP: US$1.3trn (2015)


918-1910 AD: Unitary Dynasties (Korean Empire) included parts of Inner Mongolia. Tributary system with Chinese empire
  • 1868: Meiji Restoration in Japan
  • 1894-1895: Qing-Japan War over influence in Korean peninsula
1910-1945: Japanese occupation of Korean peninsula
  • 1939-1945: WW2
1945-1948: Post-WW2 Division of Korean peninsula (Soviet occupies North, US in the South)
1948: Foundation of DPRK; Kim Il-Sung appointed as Chairman
1950-1953: Korean War:
  • Jun 1950: NK (supported by Soviet and China) invasion of SK.  US forces intervened to defend the SK.
  • July 1953: Armistice; border restored with DMZ
  • 1955-mid 1970s: Vietnam War
  • 1970s: China sought to reset relations with US, re-evaluates NK relations
  • 1991: Soviet Union dissolved; aid to NK stopped immediately
  • 1992: Kim Jong Il
  • 2011: Kim Jong Un

Korean War (1950-53)

The USAF dropped more bombs in North Korea than the entire WW2 Pacific Theater, including tens of thousands of tons of napalm.  Bombing campaigns targeted urban areas, key infrastructure and agricultural farmland.

Pyongyang -- Before and After the War

Over the three years, we killed off maybe 20 percent of the population [of North Korea]
- USAF Gen. Curtis LeMay (1984)

Modern-Day Military and Weapons Program

Size of Military (Pentagon estimates):
  • 1mn soldiers + 3mn military reserves
  • Short-range and intermediate ballistic missiles (200-2,000 miles); 400+ launchers (incl mobile)
  • Small arsenal of nuclear weapons (potentially 10-15)
  • No ICBM yet (+3,000 miles; nuclear payload)
Strategic Goals:
  • Leadership’s existential crisis; needs to demonstrate winnable war strategy; prevents coups and foreign interference
  • Propaganda and national pride
  • Industrial development
Source of Funding:
  • China (+75% of NK trade)
  • Overseas labor/remittances (China and Russia)
  • Weapons sales (several African countries, Iran?)
  • Drugs (methamphetamine)
  • Cyber crimes

THAAD Missile Defense System

Infographic - Lockheed Martin

South Korean objections:
  • Limited range of interceptors (~150km) cannot even protect all of SK
  • Missile defense not worth the massive hit in relations with China and Russia
  • National sovereignty undermined by the rapid and massive increase of US presence
  • “South Korea will pay $1bn [for THAAD]” –Donald Trump
Russian objections:
  • “Deployment of anti-missile system poses a threat to the existing military balance in the region” -Russian FM
Chinese objections:
  • Geopolitics: China remains an ally and major trading partner of NK
  • Advanced radar system has a range of >1,000km, penetrating into Chinese airspace

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The US enters the Syrian War, bigly

Tomahawk cruise missile

The United States under President Trump launched its first strike against Syria, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles with 1,000lb warhead each to hit the Al-Sharyat air base outside Homs.  The US military has been active in Syria for many years since the start of the war in 2011, but past strikes have only hit terror groups (ISIL, Nusra, other al-Qaeda offshoots) and ground troops were merely acting as "advisors" behind the front lines.  This time it's different, as it directly hit assets of the Assad regime -- a close, longtime ally of Russia and Iran.

The strike on Thursday was a decisive response to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed 70 civilians the previous Tuesday.  In formulating this strike, the US military worked to avoid casualties on any sides by giving advance notice to Russians and Syrians and striking at 3am local time.  The intent is to "send a clear message", destroy infrastructure of war while minimizing risk of unintended escalation.  No suspected chemical weapons depot was targeted, since there would have been risk of exposing poisonous plume to civilians in the area (these chemicals would normally be destroyed safely at sea).  Note: local reports say that although several airplanes, fuel depots, and reinforced hangars were destroyed, regime planes were still taking off of the runway after the strike  -- leading POTUS to respond that he chose not to hit the runway because it was "easy to fix"   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In the aftermath of 2013's deadly chemical weapons attack in Ghouta that massacred 1,400, then-President Obama wanted to avoid committing military resources to Syria when Iraq and Afghanistan still needed significant attention.  The Russian-led agreement that followed, in which Syria surrendered all* of its chemical weapons arsenal in return for US military standing down, was a knockout victory for Assad since he received carte blanche to continue killing with impunity -- bullets, rockets and barrel bombs kill just fine.  (*Now we can all see that either Assad still keeps a hidden cache, and/or the country still has industrial capacity to produce chlorine/sarin gas).  After 2013, Assad and Russia knew the US had no willpower to interfere in Syria, and Fmr. Secretary of State John Kerry's delegation was degraded into begging the Russians to allow humanitarian aid into besieged places like Eastern Aleppo.

Is this missile strike against Assad the right move by Trump?  Only time will tell.  However, most Obama-era team involved in the Syria deliberations, including most notably Fmr Secretary of State Hillary Clinton(!!) and her successor John Kerry, supported the move.  Obviously the old way is not working.  If the strike can give the US more leverage in future negotiations, then consider this a successful mission.  But if this leads to retaliation by Russia or Iran, or an emboldened Assad, then we will see the American response or maybe just fingerpointing in the coming weeks.  However, one thing is certain: inaction is *not* neutral.  "Do no harm", or in Obama lingo "don't do stupid shit", can lead to tremendous harm -- if the Syrian war has taught us anything, this is the main, costly, painful lesson.

Friday, March 03, 2017

"Trumped-up" Trickle Down Economics

Pretty much.

The theory propped by Trump and Paul Ryan: lowering taxes for businesses and wealthy individuals leaves more cash in their pockets, spurring more investment and hiring, and boosting growth -- which in turn would also generate new tax income to pay for the cuts. Win-win-win!

Supply-side economics, also known as trickle-down economics or Reaganomics, have been debunked. The simple reason is that regressive tax cuts doesn't have large enough broad economic multiplier.   In other words: If you give $20,000 to someone who makes $30,000 a year, he or she will spend the extra income on food, clothes, education, and healthcare; but give the same money to someone who makes $1m, and that extra money will probably just sit in a bank.  Others went even further:
There is no evidence that the previous repatriation tax giveaway put Americans to work, and substantial evidence that it instead grew executive paychecks, propped up stock prices, and drew more money and jobs offshore,” said Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the [Senate Subcommittee on Investigations], in a statement [in 2011].Those who want a new corporate tax break claim it will help rebuild our economy, but the facts are lined up against them.”

Furthermore, the mythical growth benefits of lowering taxes are largely long-term. As a matter of policymaking, in the short-term, the revenue shortfall from tax cuts would need to be paid for -- or else expenditure cuts (i.e. fiscal austerity) would be unavoidable.  Tax cuts generally never pay for themselves in long-term growth.

Proponents often cite strong economic expansion of the Reagan era, which was driven by decreased marginal taxes and looser regulations.  However, economist Paul Krugman argued that the growth was driven by Paul Volcker's monetary policy and favorable business cycle as unemployment rebounds from a high peak.  Federal spending notably expanded (from 20 to 22% of GDP), and public debt balooned (from 26% to 41% of GDP), implying Keynesian economics at work between 1980 and 1988.

The state of Kansas is already ailing from ill-advised, five-year tax policy experiment.  Clearly tax breaks are no substitute for pro-growth policy of actually building an environment conducive to creating good quality jobs. Otherwise, the United States may end up just like Trump's many past businesses.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Is Bitcoin dead ???

In God We Trust

YES, It's dead as a dog:

  1. Speculators are not buying it in droves for it like they did before.
  2. It's the currency of choice for criminal activities, notably fraud, malware and extortion -- and no legit businesses want to be associated with these kinds of things.
  3. Technological limitations, namely the number of transactions that can be processed per unit of time, mean it's not scalable.
  4. Bitcoin miners are highly-concentrated in China, where the internet connectivity is notoriously laggy, and the whole state censorship defeats the whole libertarian ideology.  Venezuela, where food and medicine are scarce but electricity is basically free, also hosts a lot of Bitcoin servers. 
  5. Since the whole Silk Road debacle, longtime proponents, namely drug dealers, have given up online and mostly went back to back alley trades.
  6. Fractures within the community, as different factions want to go in different directions.

NO, the cat still has eight lives bro:

  1. People have written Bitcoin eulogies many many times before.
  2. Lots of money has been and continue to be invested into bitcoin-related businesses.

MAYBE Yes maybe not?

Bitcoin is too complex, too user-unfriendly to be useful as mainstream digital currency, and doesn't solve real world problems except at the margins -- dollar bills, coins, debit and credit cards are simple enough to use.   It will stay useful in the corporate setting, maybe, and even that isn't guaranteed.  But the blockchain technology may just evolve and morph into something totally new and unexpected.   Who knows?

Best two-fer job interview question

  • "Tell me about the last time you solved a problem."
  • "Tell me about the last time you walked away from a problem.  Explain about your efforts and why they didn't work."

Leave a comment if you can suggest a better question.