August 24 reading

Animals felt the tremours first. Red ruffed lemurs win hands-down, a full 15 minutes of warning, if you knew what was coming, that is. Flamingos were also pretty clear in their signalling. Pandas proved useless in this instance.

Rest of the world has to pick up the slack.

So resistance to maintain online annominity is futile?

Cheating on tests, cheating on taxes, principle is the same: when people over-estimate other people’s tendency to cheat, cheating becomes rampant.

Boys are maturing faster too, but we are in general all growing up slower.

Global competition doesn’t spare any specific industry.

And the centre of the world keeps shifting, east and southwards.

Adoptions and corruption.

It’s this time of the year again, amusement park rides and fair foods.

August 17 reading

Will more reverse endorsements like this come about in the coming years? Imagine if Burberry offered British soccer hooligans to stop wearing its pattern.

This will not be without consequences. (h/t JW)

Big Pharma in my opinion is scarier than Big anything else.

I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about Ron Paul either.

Yet another example of completely unintended progress, this time in Brazil. This is the hilarious 5 point plan in crashing fertility:

1. Industrialize dramatically, urgently, and late, causing your nation to hurtle through in 25 years what economists used to think of as a century’s worth of internal rural-to-urban relocation of its citizens. Brazil’s military rulers, who seized power in a 1964 military coup and held on through two decades of sometimes brutal authoritarian rule, forced the country into a new kind of economy, one that has concentrated work in the cities, where the housing is cramped, the favela streets are dangerous, babies look more like new expense burdens than like future useful farmhands, and the jobs women must take for their families’ survival require leaving home for ten hours at a stretch.

2. Keep your medications mostly unregulated and your pharmacy system over-the-counter, so that when birth control pills hit the world in the early 1960s, women of all classes can get their hands on them, even without a doctor’s prescription, if they can just come up with the money. Nurture in these women a particularly dismissive attitude toward the Catholic Church’s position on artificial contraception. (See number 4.)

3. Improve your infant and child mortality statistics until families no longer feel compelled to have extra, just-in-case babies on the supposition that a few will die young. Compound that reassurance with a national pension program, relieving working-class parents of the conviction that a big family will be their only support when they grow old

4. Distort your public health system’s financial incentives for a generation or two, so that doctors learn they can count on higher pay and more predictable work schedules when they perform cesareans rather than waiting for natural deliveries. Then spread the word, woman to woman, that a public health doctor who has already begun the surgery for a cesarean can probably be persuaded to throw in a discreet tubal ligation, thus ensuring a thriving, decades-long publicly supported gray market for this permanent method of contraception. Brazil’s health system didn’t formally recognize voluntary female sterilization until 1997. But the first time I ever heard the phrase “a fábrica está fechada,” it was from a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher who had her tubes tied in 1972, after her third child was born. This woman had three sisters. Every one of them underwent a ligation. Yes, they were all Catholic. Yes, the church hierarchy disapproved. No, none of them much cared; they were women of faith, but in some matters the male clergy is perhaps not wholly equipped to discern the true will of God. The lady was pouring tea into china cups at her dining table as we talked, and her voice was matter-of-fact. “Everyone was doing it,” she said.

Housewives and unintended progress

I can’t stop thinking about the interview I saw yesterday on Charlie Rose with SOHO’s billionare founder. One thing has stuck with me since, when Charlie’s asked her whether women fare far worse than men in China, and she answered that Chinese women probably fare the best in the world on a relative scale, when it comes to freedom and choices.

Now, social issues aside (let’s be clear that Chinese women, particularly rural ones, are seriously oppressed through marriage and traditional patriartical values, do in fact have the highest suicide rate of any female groups in the world), this is an interesting discussion to be had. Zhang’s arguement was that most middle-class Chinese women have a lot of support to learn on – child-rearing is supported by parents on both sides, and much household tasks can be off-loaded to affordable and readily available labour that migrates from the rural areas. This frees them up to pursue things outside of their homes, whether intellectually or in business matters. It is not hard to spot women in Chinese boards and high level executivie positions, nor are girls’ aspirations to make themselves a career anything to be surprised about. Compared to its East Asian neighbours, Korea and Japan, the female participation rates in the labour force is far far higher.

But consider how accidental this “progress” came to be – who could have predicted that in a still rather traditional and Confucius society, females in China have achieved what decades of feminist movements and thoughts in the West have fallen short in – an aspiration and a firmer grasp of economic freedom. Most of these are due to two events completely unrelated and unintended to have anything to do with female empowerment: 1) politics ordained official “equality”, and just like East Germany, this communist/socialist value pushed a lot of females into the work force, and 2) when China finally opened up post-80s, the working mentality had already been deeply entrenched in the Chinese female psyches for more than a generation, and urban females jumped on the career fast-track, courtesy of rural migration that bought to the cities wave after wave of available domestic help.

The cloest thing you see to the Chinese phenonemon is perhaps the US, where cheap Mexican labour has also freed up many Americans, men and women, to pursue more economically productive matters. In Europe, on the other hand, through stricter migration and labour laws, higher taxes (which makes it more worthwhile for you to take care of your own children, mow your own lawns, cook your own meals, and paint your own houses), and perhaps a higher level of complancy of females in knowing that their “equality” is realized through legal versus economic means, has practically barred its women from venturing back to the work force after having a family.  So is it Schadenfreude when the continent scratched its head and wonders what other tricks it has under its sleeves as to how it can best motivate and allow its highly-educated female population to become more productive members of society?

Monday Aug 15th reading

One of my university classmates once entered into an inpromptu debate with our labour relations professor on the merits of more private goods. I think I’ve found the perfect rebuttal.

This is the problem with super homogenous societies. Everybody does something out of habit regardless of whether they like it or not, now the silent minorities (or maybe majorities) don’t like it anymore, and have to invent societies to curb it.

Warren Buffet wants to pay more taxes.

Short TED talk for China watchers.  Also, as far as interesting interviews are concerned, search for Zhang Xin at Charlie Rose, the female billionare founder of SOHO real estate corporation in China, self-made from factory worker. Sometimes I worry about how much Europe misses out on the emerging economies, sole because there’s so much 1) navel gazing, and 2) constantly looking up to the US as the ultimate measuring stick, even when the US has long moved on to the next bright thing.

I’m reading again!

It’s been almost a whole year since I last blogged. There were a few reasons, the biggest being that I just simply ran out of things to say, and bloggin became more of a burden than a pleasure.

Now after a year of separation, I think I might be ready to get back to somewhat reguglar blogging again. There’s a lot to catch up on, but first things first, some interesting reading for the weekend.

Unintended consequences

Michael Lewis at it again

Things to think through before killing off a character

Culling of the Middle Class – see also deflationry effect of the Internet, and effect of immigration to the UK on the top and bottom strata of society (still searching for the piece)

American manufacturing strikes back

If you are interested in language and culture, Economist’s Johnson blog always has something amusing to offer

Finland turning into your average frozen and violence-obsessed midwest town

Non-violence - the Knotted Gun - United Nations
Image by Al_HikesAZ via Flickr

With multiple gun shootings in Finland over the last couple of years, a couple of which taking place in schools, Finland is now on high alert.

The response resembles more out of an inner-city school in some hard-knocked American industrial city, than that of a frozen northern tundra of a country famous otherwise for its mobile phones and sauna.

Getting through the door at Järvenpää High School requires an electronic key these days. Once inside, students leave their coats and bags at a monitored rack. Students too are under the close watch of video cameras.

The school’s pupils say the measures add a sense of security.

“It feels safe here, and we’re not afraid to come to school, especially in light of the school shootings. We know outsiders can’t get in,” says Sini Huuskola, a student at the school.

There we have it.  Scandinavia ghetto-rized, one cold corner at a time.

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Your vices are German unemployed’s rights

Drink, smokes, and drink at Spin
Image by thirdrail via Flickr

There are euros enough to spare yet in the German budget yet.

The drug policy commissioner in Germany has has said that when it comes to continuing welfare allowances for smokes and beers, “clearly there is room for luxury items in benefits for the long-term unemployed”.  And that anyone whom doesn’t agree with her is simply populist. For good measure, however, she does adds moderation is important.

Good news for the smokers in Germany though, the government is keen to defend their rights to smoke and refuses to increase the taxes on cigarettes.  Poor Germans are now reduced to rolling their own smokes.

“Regarding the tobacco tax we first need to create a level playing field,” she said. “Many smokers have moved to fine-cut rolling tobacco and roll their own cigarettes now, because it’s cheaper due to the lower taxes.” Instead of raising the tax on a pack of smokes, the government should instead insure that cigarette smuggling is reduced to insure that they are paid at all, she told the paper.

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On pension reforms

Pension is such a boring topic that most people loathe to think about it within their own country/system.  But much of economic unrests in Europe in the coming decade might come from unreasonable pension guarantees and calculations.

In France, private pensions are almost unheard of for majority of the working population. The only group that has private pensions is the executive class. So post-retirement, most people would rely on state pension to get them through the rest of their lives, which is long if you are French.


Most French are compelled to save for their retirement through their payroll in a pay-as-you-go fashion, contrary to the combination of work-place pension scheme and private tax-incentived savings we have in North America.  In the French national system, as it is in some large pubic pension funds – CalPERS come to mind – the money paid into the system today is used to fund those that are currently drawing from the pot.

Needlessly to say, as it is in most of Europe, France has a demographic problem and no private savings to back up the public coffers.  But thinking about the issue from a about-to-retire French’s perspective – they have paid into the system for most of their lives with the explicit guarantee that they will be taken care of.  So that’s perhaps why, out of “principle”, shaving a couple of years off their almost 3 decades of post-retirement bliss is something worth protesting about.

It’s probably a bit too easy to be universally dismissive of what’s been fought here.  The leftist obviously points to other figures getting unjustifiably shifted around in the budget in the riches’ favour, while the centre-right accuses the unions to call strikes just for for the sake of striking.

This video is from 2007, but you can run the story and interview word-for-word without edits today, and nobody would know the difference. Must be comforting to the French to know that nothing changes.

PS. Starting at around 9:40, note how comparably small the French unions are, but are somehow able to call on the general public for support.

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Eat cheese and be Dutch

When my now-fiancé first told his parents about his new girlfriend a couple years ago, me being Chinese-Canadian, the first question my now future father-in-law asked was, “does her family run a Chinese restaurant?”

Now, I love my father-in-law to pieces, who is a lovely man with not one drop of racist blood running through his veins.  But in his mind and through his experiences, perhaps the idea that a Chinese family can do anything other than running Chinese restaurants is a revelation. As far as I know, no members of my immediate family has ever ventured into the restaurant, grocer or laundry business.  So he might be disappointed that I’m not that good of a cook after all.

The point of the story is that when it comes to the issue of race, there’s a lot missing in the collective European psyche.  Through its own lack of experiences with multiculturalism – unlike in North American and other parts of the New World, where barriers and stereotypes get broken down and built up again, Europe is still stuck on Racial Issues 1.0.

I think this ad was meant to be funny, but is it?

Entitled “Ideal” – and to my eyes without the slightest sense of irony, the narrative goes to say that in an ideal world, the Netherlands is a small village, and then goes on to name various members of the farming community that produces the cheese in question.

After what feels like a great start to a propaganda film made for the Third Reich, where wholesome blonde girls and boys are contentedly occupied with various aspects of farm fun, the camera pans to an obviously dark-haired and ethnic girl – Fatima.

Slight pause, followed by the surprised but still jolly voiceover, oh, what the heck!  The implication being that as long as she’s making cheese – and playing by the rules of the farm, she’s part of the village.

Some might say it’s just the ad poking fun at itself for being too serious about the white picket-fence depiction.  Given the political situation in the country, where the far-right anti-immigration party is now projected to become the second-largest party in the country, and tempers are high on all fronts, is this really a sensible subject to joke around?

Call me hard-assed, but there are unspoken rules about what is appropriate to mock, and where. You don’t get to credibly make jokes about race unless your society has reached some level of racial harmony and mutual understanding on the subject.

So, dear misguided cheese company, until your supermarkets take those “negro kisses” off the shelf, your government starts to have some sensible conversations about immigrants and actually treat their children and grandchildren as your own citizens, those race jokes are not yet yours to make.

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Burnt out?

Work Stress
Image by GDS Infographics via Flickr

How do you use the term burn-out in a sentence?  Is it more like, I worked so hard I’m getting burnt out, I’m at the end of my ropes and feel kind of burnt out, or is it more like, another one of my colleague is burnt-out and going on disability leave?

If you are in western and northern Europe, it is likely that the latter is the case.

Are you surprised that countries with five weeks of vacations, solid job security, ample social security on all levels of life, can somehow also cause a significant portion of its working population to claim long-term medical disability because they’ve short-circuited themselves on the treadmill of life?

Must be nice to have a lifeline to cop out from.  Divorce getting to you, adolescent children raking havoc, running a household while working and can’t get your leisurely evening walks in, or just simply not liking your job and want to take some paid leave once in a while?  There’s always “burn-out”.

So it’s probably no wonder that in the Netherlands, a country of just under 16.5 million people, and a working population of around 7 million people (although this data’s from 1990, so the number might be slightly higher, around 8 million or so), at any given point in time, 950,000 of the working population is on long-term benefits.

A more extreme case?  Denmark. The highest-taxed country in the world with the fluffiest welfare schemes also has the highest percentage of its work force on long-term income transfer schemes.  Because those unemployed are always undergoing some kind of government-mandated “training”, they are not accounted for in the dreaded unemployment figures.

In a country with 5 million people, approximately half of which are capable of working, 850,000 people are on some kind of government benefit at any given point in time.  At its peak in 1995, that number was 963,000.  That’s to say, at its worst, just under 40% of the working adults are effectively not working, but subsidized by the other 60% of the population that is.  Approximately 1/5 of those in the group picks up and starts to work again.  That means 4/5 of the 850,000 are stuck in limbo either getting retrained in another profession, or just want to take it easy.

This peeves me in two ways.

One, figures like these are not taken into account when measuring unemployment figures.  So on paper, Scandinavia always has a miniscule percentage of unemployment, while in reality, something like 1 in 3 or 4 ably-bodied labour market participants are not active in the work force.  This is even taking into account the poor female labour market participation – because they are not even interested and looking, which is something like 55% in the Netherlands, and this accounts for both full and part-time work, with part-time work being the most prevalent case.  This is for another day.