Friday, August 14, 2009


His name is Ahmed.

"Ni Hao" Ahmed greets me in his funny Chinese. On any given day, Ahmed would holler at he in either Chinese, English, Arabic, or French, depending on his mood.

Ahmed was born in Iraq, he lived in Lebanon.

"In Lebanon," He would say, "we say hello to people in English, Arabic, or French, everyday." He learned "Ni Hao" from me - without third intonation. Ahmed didn't learn English in school. He told me he was never in school since he came to the States in high-school age.

I didn't know his name was Ahmed, although I had patronized his coffee shop since forever. He didn't bother me with such details besides chatting me up with soccer. Until, a guy upset him one day.

"This guy is a douche bag." His chin motioned to a leaving figure, wide and white, while he prepared for my latte.

"He asks me what my name is, and I tell him I'm Ahmed. Then he starts to ask me what do I think of the Nine-Eleven; his son is in CIA blah, blah. WTF, just because I have an Arabic name doesn't make me have anything to do with terrorist." Ahmed raises his voices a bit. He never raised his voice over anything besides soccer and holler to the girls.

I like South Park, I like douche bags in South Park, so I don't use the word often. But Ahmed doesn't mess around.

I actually caught the end of their conversation, wherein the guy commented that "It would be interesting to see how they would kiss up Russia and China's asses." He was talking about Obama.

"Yeah," Ahmed continued with his no-nonsense approach, "What about kissing asses, who cares, I say it's better than going around killing people."

You don't need to know Ahmed's name to know he is Arabic. His looks, deep and big eyes, shaved bear line, are, for the lack of better words, quite mid-eastern.

Ahmed has a fondness for Asian girls, especially Chinese. "Asian girls are the best." He would say. When Ahmed speaks of Asia, he means East Asia, possibly South East Asia too, but nothing beyond, although he is very proud of Iraqi soccer team beating Chinese in the Asia Cup.

"This girl has her third boyfriend in two weeks. What's up with Asian girl liking white guys?" He was speaking of the girl having ice cream with a masculine guy in the corner. I couldn't answer that question. For a moment, I almost felt guilty I couldn't hook him up with a Chinese girl many times he asked me. He looked pretty white himself, at least to me.

That's when I told him I was going to Australia.

"Really? Beautiful place, but I wouldn't want to go on those beaches though. Do you watch Animal Channel? There was this guy holding crocodiles. He was in TV commercials, he was everywhere."

Ahmed gave me an incredulous look after I replied no, and continued:"One day, he went to Australia, and stung by a fish. Then he was gone. No Animal Channel, nowhere." He inhaled, "He was dead, just like that."

"Good luck man." Now he remembered to add.

Ahmed doesn't mess around.


P.S.: The person Ahmed referred to, I later learned, through google, was Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter". He was fatally pierced in the chest by a stingray spine while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Random conversation

"Read this", F showed me a lengthy pdf file, with half serious authoritative voice.
It was a preface to a book, in Chinese.
"Why?" I'm confused, "I've had enough dealing with editors."
"My Mom asks me to read", she continued, "but I'm hoping you can read it and then tell me what's it about."
I'm speechless.

Half a minute later, randomness picked up again.
"My Mom would love to read your writing." - Apparently, she wanted to stick with the Mom thing today.
"It's the first time I hear of it" - I would have none of it.
- "I told her you were always busy"
- "True, true."
- "I bet you can't write in Chinese either."
I was in searching of words again.
"Seriously, write one, she would love to read it," F adds emphatically, "but she reads only Chinese. Are you the sage one? Write."
- "But, but...I don't have time."
That deterred her for just five seconds. "Aren't you write in Chinese and have random conversation with random people online all the time?"

That's when I remembered this space - to add more random staff for random people.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Oh So Sensitive

This might be old news. When talking about Shangfang, a Beijing University Professor and scholar claims that 90 percent of those repetitive shangfang people are psychologically paranoid. Shangfang is a Chinese word, meaning skipping local judiciary and seeking justice from a higher authority, usually in Beijing. His claim stirs a big commotion.

If you've used Baidu Tiebar, an easy to access forum that is associated with the Chinese search engine, you have probably encountered its "sensitiveness". "Protest" (抗议)obviously is a sensitive word, along with "government" (政府), while complaint (控诉) is ok. Baidu self-imposed so many sensitive words that it's difficult to carry out a normal conversation without using some acronym. Although using sensitive words doesn't mean you can't post them, it means the post needs "editor review" before it can go through, at some point, you just say: f..k this and give up.

Modern technology actually acerbate the censorship problem. When the human were in control, at least they would decipher the true meaning of your message. "Language crime", although egregious, was actually rare. Machine intelligence on the other hand can't differentiate between you protesting someone doesn't blow you a kiss, or protesting some social cause. It makes online communication so much more difficult. True, Baidu might be the biggest offender when it comes to sensitive words censorship, there are many more influential liberal sites out there. But I see this self imposing trend spread to others, like Douban.

In such an environment, it's pretty much given that you are a bit paranoid or compulsive if you insist getting your message through by jumping through all the hoops.

That brings us back to that claim about repetitive shangfang persons. It may well be true that many of those repetitive shangfang-ers are a bit psychologically compulsive. If that Beijing U scholar has any academic credential, I should give him some benefit of doubt. But the question we really should be asking is: what makes them compulsively wanting to skip the local judiciary. What's the injustice that makes them paranoid?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cherry Blossom and What not

It's not about the Japanese restaurant I used to eat out. It's the latest internet buzz of public debate in China. A twosome of mom and daughter was chastised and booed away by students of Wuhan University while posing for photos with cherry blossom, wearing Japanese Kimono. And public debate ensues.

Cherry Blossom and Kimono make great photo ops, since Japan is known as country of cherry blossoms. The beautiful backdrop of Wuhan University campus provides an enticing make-do for those who can't afford a trip to the east. (*Blossom forecast for D.C. is currently at April 1st.) Unfortunately Wuhan is also a city endured intense battle during Japanese invasion in WWII, and the animosity still runs high for a host of historical reasons. For this very reason, the university has a standing regulation that prevent students to pose with kimonos during the blossom season to ensure public safety. The poor mom and daughter wouldn't be able to hang the "same as there" picture in their sitting room, but good thing no one is hurt.

Consider what has been fueling the internet in the U.S., from AIG bonus scandals to newest bailout plans, life is relatively good in China if unpleasant treatment by radical students can cause public buzz. American press is so preoccupied by domestic messes that some border hot-spots in South China sea and skirmish in Tibet have not generated much fanfare.

However, it's one thing to grab the chance to preach forgiveness, and promote individual rights; it's quite another to stretch it to something far beyond. China is quite unique, with its political system and all - I busted a chuckle watching Obama prime time press conference when a reporter uttered "communist" in mentioning China - but some has gone far as to suggest Chinese are different people. Brainwashed is something you hear often. Perhaps they are wired differently emotionally - how can they hold their grudges for so long! It's not always the foreigners who suggest that. Some Chinese actually buy into that. Those folks, somehow, have the wonderful abilities of not counting themselves. Their crystal ball apparently doesn't inform them that there are loons and radicals everywhere, and public anger, even unfounded should be handled with caution. Not to mention, we are all from trees in Africa and are all going to die. Many AIG employees don't deserve the public anger that thrust their way, some even receiving threat mails, after all, many of them don't give out bonuses to themselves. But hey, people are angry.

Some folks have asked me if Chinese are easy to catch public fever. Idolization of Mao was often cited as evidence. I would cast my glance onto images of Obama on the sidewalk. I've seen his artistic contour on the sidewalks, on windows, on graffiti-filled name it. If that's not idolization, I don't know what it is. People like to look up to someone in tough times, it's in our human nature. And, unlike Obama, who hasn't achieve anything significant so far, Mao actually achieved something.

Speaking of AIG and what America is up to, you can read by starting with this rolling stone article. You should get a pretty good idea of why the system failed, and why it's so difficult - it's often pick your poison - to fix it. The U.S. government is proposing using tax payer money, 1.3 trillion of them, to buy up toxic assets, with plenty room for corruption and back-dealing. That's precisely what the Chinese government did to their big banks and financial companies, circa 1998-2000, when they cleaned up balance sheet by absorbing bad assets. In addition, the U.S. seeks to seize too-big-to-fail firms, essentially turning them into state-majority-owned companies. Alas, that again, is precisely the Chinese system, where government controls key big firms and let the smaller ones swim on their own. What has this world turned into?

The doomsters would say apocalypse will arrive sooner or later. But I like Keynes' take: in the long run, we are all dead.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

California Coast

I can never get enough of these.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Look Ma, He doesn't let me spy on his new toy on his curbside

That's essentially what The Pentagon said in a story that breaks out to media. USNS Impeccable, the sonar equipped Navy spy-ship was turned away about 75 miles off the coast of Hainan island, and near the Chinese submarine base.

China, in rebuttal, emphasized that the incident happened in Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles, or 230 miles, from coastline. In general, ships are free of passage in EEZ, but navy spy-ships certainly raises flags. NYT reports that "The United States and other nations consider the area as lying in international waters. " In fact, it is governed by UNCLOS, which the United States accepted all but Part XI as customary international law, although it hasn't ratified it.

In reality, spy incidents like this happens all the time. Although, the U.S. is probably the only country who thinks it has the right to lay hands on anybody's ass - or spy on toys. It's not clear to me whether it's because the ship finally gets intolerably close to the Chinese, or the Chinese patrols suddenly decides to act like they some backbone after the Russia sinking cargo ship incident. Either way, for the U.S. to protest and claim "oh they laid some woods to block our passage" is pretty amusing.

NYT gets one thing right. It draws some similarity to the spy plane incident. Whether who is the initial provoker, it offers some test for the new President. And I'm guessing the Chinese Navy would be a winner out of this too, since it is hotly debated the need to build a Naval Carrier in China. In incidents like this can possibly sway the support.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dark Comedies in Crisis Time

These are the times of dark comedy. They make you laugh out loud, and deeply sad at the same time. Even the best New Year's Movie wouldn't have scripted it. (This year's Chinese New Year's Movie, If You Are The One wasn't very good.)

From CNN, the story of Chinese mistress contest taking tragic turn:

A married Chinese businessman who could no longer afford five mistresses held a competition to decide which one to keep.


When the economy soured, the businessman apparently decided to let go of all but one mistress.

He staged a private talent show in May, without telling the women his intentions. An instructor from a local modeling agency judged the women on the way they looked, how they sang and how much alcohol they could hold, the Shanghai Daily said.

The judge knocked out Yu in the first round of the competition based on her looks. Angry, she decided to exact revenge by telling her lover and the four other women to accompany her on a sightseeing trip before she returned to her home province, the media reports said.

It was during the trip that Yu reportedly drove the car off the cliff.

If you think only laymen are able to provide laughs, you would be wrong.

Zhang Weiying, a prominent Chinese Economist who got his degree from Oxford and a proponent of market reforms, suggests solving China's consumption stimulus problem by giving each citizen a share of the massive foreign reserve. All government assets really belongs to the people anyway, he was quoted saying in open talks, so if we give it back to the people, maybe they can spend it as they see fit.

Hold on, Prof. Zhang, do you really understand what Foreign Reserve is? Official foreign reserve, although sounds like government asset, doesn't really belongs to the government. Every time someone, say an exporting company, brings in foreign currency, like Dollar, and he exchange it with the central bank to domestic currency creates foreign reserve. China has massive foreign reserve only because the central bank forces companies to sell most of foreign exchange holdings to the central bank, and China exports far more than imports. So, although those reserves are "official", they don't really belong to the government. For every reserve deposit that is created on the central bank's balance sheet, there is debt to the private sector in RMB created. If you were to everyone a share of the reserve, and he/she was about to spend it, which requires converting into domestic currency, you would end up creating money twice. Stimulating? Yes. But what a wonderfully messy world would it be.

Not to mention, the U.S. government and the whole financial world would be in panic. In normal times, it actually makes sense to leave the foreign currency and thus risk management decision in the private hands. But, not in crisis times. Imagine now again, an average person is allotted a share of $10,000. He would worry about the value of those dollar immediately. Now, given all the jittery about Dollar, and prospects of the U.S. bailout programs, he would most likely want to exchange at least a large share of that into RMB just to be safe. Since, nobody is stupid, they all know others have the same worry, the best way to preserve value is to run ahead of everyone else in selling dollar. Bam! you created equivalent of bank runs in exchange rate market. On the contrary, the current arrangement, however unsound it was before, has advantage of stability. The Chinese Central Bank has to taken into account the loss of value on their remaining large holdings when it plans to sell dollar.

Mr Zhang's suggestion seems to deserve a hearty laugh. But considering he is one of government's hey advisers, it is actually far less amusing.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

When idiots run asylum

Once upon a time, when we were young and restless - yes we did - we would touch upon these unpleasant political topics. My roommates would refer to Chinese intolerance, extreme in times like cultural revolution, as "asylum".

I had a slightly different take. "Asylum isn't that bad", I would inject my comments, "Asylum actually has its own rules. It depends on who is running it. It only gets that much worse when idiots, or inmates are running it."

That was a distant memory.

Then, when a friend talked about forming a group on Doudan, a Chinese social network, my reaction was that I would only form a group if it was about "the more you read, the more counter-revolutionary you become."

The phrase that later became the group title was an actually phrase from the Cultural Revolution. It was used as my contempt for Douban, and that unduly adulation of an "educated person". "Counter-revolution" was, of course, a word long buried in the history book. No one actually use it in everyday life, except, maybe, to jeer. My tenet of the group was that too much reading wasn't always desirable, it would stymie your original thinking, especially if you half-understand half-cooked ideas or facts. (In fact, that's my understanding of the original intent of the slogan.)

It was never an active group - as lazy as I am, you can always expect that. If I remember it correctly, the longest thread in the group was about "what would you request your daughter to read or not to read", with about 15 replies.

Fast forward to today. I got an email, informing me that the group was dismembered due to "violation of related laws and regulations". I believe it was due to Douban's voluntary compliance of internet censorship. Frankly, although not that I care, I can't quite make out what regulation it specifically violates. But the incident does reminds me of the conversation about asylum we had many many years ago.

I can't pinpoint whether the group was dismembered because of the asylum, or who runs it. But I would like to think I had a point.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Super "Balls"

It wouldn't be Superbowl if it didn't give us some ads to talk about.

Apparently, managed to slip their new commercial (youtube) into the Super Bowl after being formally rejected by the NFL and NBC from airing nationwide. For those of you don't want to google, the website, a Canadian company, is a dating site geared toward married people who want to have affairs. Yes, that's the sole focus of that website!

Ironically, the current economic environment has something to do with the slippage of the standard. According to its CEO, "The effects of the current recession are so profound that many local stations were willing to accept Ashley Madison advertising dollars." And what's more, "In this current economic climate," he adds, "Divorce isn't an option for many women who are stuck in unhappy marriages. We want them to know there's a service just for them."

Oh, this isn't just a North American thing. I've heard stories from my relatives about Chinese white collar girls advertised themselves to be "second wife", allegedly to weather the economic storm.

Ads from the dating website isn't the only banned commercial Super Bowl. A pro-life video portraying President Obama as an unborn child has also been rejected by NBC-TV, alongside with a PETA commercial.

Sometime, you wonder what the world has come into. You know, there is Super Bowl, and then, there is super "balls", as in somebody's got the "ball".

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Friday, January 30, 2009

What does Obama want of China?

The evidence of policy stance of the new administration towards China is scarce. The only significant comment comes from Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary. In talking about the U.S. economic policy, he says that "strong dollar is in the national interest of the U.S.". However, turning to China, he also says of China "manipulating" its currency value, meaning, RMB needs to appreciate.

Now let's set aside first China's right to "manage" (as the U.S. often did during the 80s) exchange rates. Let's try to decipher what the heck he really means. So, in Geithner's mind, China needs to appreciate currency value against dollar, which is against the national interest of the U.S. Maybe he is being deliberately ambiguous? Not likely, he isn't Fed Chairman. Or he may imply the Dollar needs to be strong against other major currencies, like Euro, but weak against RMB. That would imply that RMB appreciates way more against the Euro, which doesn't seem likely, not to mention trillions of IOU notes U.S. issued to China - and continued Chinese support that needs for the new debt. Of course, in the event of RMB appreciation, it automatically deflates. Therefore, the only consistent interpretation, it seems, is that Dollar needs to be "strong" in order to support the bailout plan, but the U.S. wants to get an upper hand in the "currency manipulation" blame game, so it can pressure China to appreciate RMB and thus alleviate the U.S. debt burden later.

I suspect this would be the central theme in US-China relationship during early part of the administration. It would be very interesting to see how this plays out.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

China's New Year Shopping List

With a retrenching U.S. economy and stash of foreign reserve. What's on China's new year shopping list as "Niu (ox)" year approaches? Early indications are that they are not blowing cash on the wall street, like what Japanese did in the nineties. In stead, China keeps her eyes on talent and human resources.

Reports of CIC (China Investment Corp.)'s headhunting in New York has received some media coverage. With much less fanfare, Chinese colleges and universities are making a major push to hire faculties on the U.S. academic market. Record number of schools were present in this year's ASSA meetings (for Economics, Finance, and Social Science). With many of the U.S. markets in hiring freeze and improved incentive packages, they expect better success than previous years. According to a Dean of Beijing University, China has large demand for fiscal theorists now that government surplus creates a happy problem to have, but a problem nevertheless. Even Chinese astronomy observatories are throwing a banquet reception in the field's U.S. annual meetings. Not to be left out, Chinese industries are also quietly making the recruiting push, they don't usually make high-profile noise, but they pop up here and there.

I am not sure this is due to low risk appetite in overseas investing or simply brilliant strategic planning, or, China learning from the experience of the Japanese, but this is not the first time Chinese sophistication surprises me. Cue the Mastercard ads...priceless.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Great...What do they know?

I'm really not in a position to spend time writing right now. But here is a perfect dark humor I come across when doing some work.

You wouldn't be short that Time would run a cover of The New Hard Times, given the current situation. But maybe you would be amused that just a year ago Times (UK) ran a column of Welcome to the Great Moderation. Great Moderation is a term that is used to describe the peaceful growth the world has been enjoying. It has caught some fire in the circle of policy makers. I have come across at least one FedRB's research paper that used the term in the title. The subtitle of the January Times piece says:

Historians will marvel at the stability of our era

Maybe the author is mocked by his ten-year-old son right now. It begs the question: what does commentators really know. Yeah, sure, historians will marvel about something.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is China graduated from "Original Sin"

Some more quick thoughts about the sizable Chinese stimulus package:

Is China graduated from the class of emerging markets, which are often characterized by inability to borrow in the local currency - the original sin, and countercyclical fiscal policy? Many people in the west are in shock of the size of stimulus that was announced. Although the true figure is hard to verify - I have no idea how they arrive at that figure - China is acting more like a matured economy on that front.

Upon further investigation of the detail though, China is unique in many aspects. Perhaps it should not be in the EM class at the first place.

  • Most of the announced stimulus is directive to state-owned companies to invest and expand. The U.S. has been urging its banks to lend more also, but I bet China would have more success in cajoling its companies.
  • China enjoys high saving rate. Although many argue the approach has been mercantilism, the high reserve comes in handy in a time of crisis like the current one.
  • The mere size of a diversified economy. Countries like Chile and Brazil, and possibly Russia who relies a lot on oil revenue, are more likely to be subject to a turn-of-trade shock from their commodity exports. Although China's external component of GDP is about 70%, which is alarmingly high, China also enjoys the advantage of sheer size and a more diversified economy.

This reminds me of a New Yorker critics piece:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

He could be talking about market characterization terminology. Developing, underdeveloped, emerging, BRIC, what else?

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Here and There

  • A trip to grocery store, $68.
    A cup of Spanish Latte, $3.80.
    Keeping the marriage between men and women? $75 million.
  • If politicians like an average voter can not be trusted to lead, can you trust voters to pick the right person?
  • Taiwan, violence broke out upon Chinese official's visit to negotiate direct trade deals. A CCTV female reporter was also attacked during the "siege". Taiwan may think of itself as a vibrant democracy, it has much to learn from the relative tranquility on American streets where close to half of the people don't agree with the person elected.

    If the government should be "by the people, for the people", what if "people" are unruly and violent, happy to take cheap shots, being exploited by politicians in the process?

    I'm not sure what exactly people on the Taipei streets wanted to achieve, it seemed like a whole a lot for nothing, but here are some perspectives from the top, take your pick:
    Ma Ying-jeou:"Tsai(DDP Chairwoman) was responsible for (instigating) the clashes."
    Tsai:"The government that forces people to go into the streets should be held responsible." Hmmm, I'm disappointed in Cornell (where Tsai got JS.)
  • One way to weather the storm in an economic downterm is to take money from haves to have-nots. Then the economic wheel can keep turning. Fiscal stimulus may be one politically acceptable way to do that. By fiscal expansion, government debt would be later financed by increased taxes, which would be shouldered of larger proportion by high-earners, or if not sufficiently financed, would cause inflation, which would bring savers' real wealth down. Large inflation is as ugly as a recession, so is to be avoided. Therefore, the tax burden is to be shared one way or the other.

    While the U.S. congress is contemplating a second stimulus, Chinese government unveils a large stimulus package, featuring mostly State-driven investment project. The success of it depends on who it really benefits - it should be the poor - and how it will be financed later.

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