Sunday, December 02, 2007

Oil Cost Averaging

As posted on

As of the writing of this article the price of oil has dropped from almost $100 to about $88 in one week. There is still plenty of uncertainty in the market, however, and counting for wars, attacks, natural disasters, and just standard complications in getting enough oil from the pumps to the refineries to the gas stations to your car, we can say that the one certainty is uncertainty. Prices will fluctuate, we just do not know when, by how much or in which direction. So this begs the question: Do these circumstances have any opportunity for saving money? As a matter of fact, they might.

For those of you who have invested in stock for a while (or have seen Boiler Room one too many times), Dollar Cost Averaging might be a familiar term. For most of us it is not. Dollar Cost Averaging is an investing strategy, attractive because it can maximize revenue but can be applied very passively over time. The general idea is that you invest a set amount, say $100, every month in a certain stock (or group of stocks, or fund, etc). If the stock is cheap, say $20 per share, you will be buying 5 shares, but if it climbs up to $25 per share, and therefore is more expensive, you will only be buying 4 shares. This means you will be buying more of the stock when it is cheap and less of it when it is more expensive.

How do we apply this to gas (or petrol if you’re in Britain)? One way would be to establish a certain amount. For example, when gas was at its cheapest point this year, I could fill the gas tank in my car for about $25. Price has been fluctuating a great deal in the meantime, so at times it could cost me close to $40 to fill up my tank. On the other hand, I realized that no matter what the price was when I filled up the tank, a day or two later it would usually be quite different.

So if I choose to constantly spend $25, I know at best I will be able to fill the tank. But when gas is more expensive, I will be buying less of it and if it then becomes cheaper, I will buy more. Applied in the long term, therefore, this simple and passive method should allow me to maximize the amount of gas I buy at lower prices, while minimizing the amount I buy at higher prices. This can be a handy way of averaging out your cost of gas.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

We, the Dumb Agents

As posted on

Here at, we are using economics and economic theories in order to enhance personal wealth. This isn’t really a new idea and, in some ways, it has become all the rage in recent months. We can see this through books such as Freakonomics (and a review of it by yours truly is shamelessly plugged right here.) by Stephen Levitt, Discover your inner economist by Tyler Cowen and The Economic Naturalist by Robert Frank (Go Big Red). So why start this weblog? Good question. Let’s see if we are any different from what’s already out there.

Economics can teach us many things. We can learn how to maximize utility and minimize costs in many different circumstances. In other words, it can tell us how to behave in an economically rational manner. But will this help us in a practical manner, as in helping us make financial decisions? Let’s experiment with a certain scenario to see how this works:

Say that all you need in life is a new TV and a new car. One day you read an ad in the paper for a car that’s being sold at 10% off, but the sale is ending in 15 minutes, while right next to it is another ad for a TV being sold at 50% off and this sale is also ending in 15 minutes. The shops for each of the items are on opposite ends of town; each 10 minutes away from your home (which is somewhere in the middle).

In other words, you are faced with a decision between buying a car with a 10% discount or a TV with a 50% discount. Which would you choose? Well, easy enough, 50% is more than 10%, so let’s buy the TV.

You may ask what‘s wrong with this. Well, a 10% discount on even a cheap car can save you around $2,000, while a 50% discount on a high end TV will save no more than $500. A very simple percentage calculation can mislead you because it is counter intuitive (and for this reason expensive items will always tend to show a dollar amount as a discount, while cheaper items will show a discount in terms of a percentage).

Fair enough?

This is a lesson in economics that can benefit us all and not unlike those you can learn from the books mentioned before. So let’s bring this to the stock markets, since that is where we tend to apply most of our financial decision making skills. Let us say there are two firms you can invest in: the TV store and the car dealership, with their respective discounts. Which would you choose? Taking into account what you have learned above the choice is obvious: the car company will provide the greater absolute savings and therefore the most sales.

But is that true? If all consumers have read what you have read then it is. But if a majority went with their first instinct without having learned the economics lesson, then the TV company will make more sales and its stock price will increase more than the car dealership’s.

Economics is an important mechanism to teach us how people ought to behave. Unfortunately it is a very faulty mechanism at teaching us how people actually do behave. In order to make a profit in the stock market it will not pay to be economically rational if all other participants are not as well.

This blog will not talk about lofty economic ideas that sound cool because they counter conventional wisdom. Well, it might, but it will only do so if these ideas can also help increase your bottom line. We will be applying theories, not to anecdotal occurrences, but to everyday occurrences that can help whoever reads it with their personal finances.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Capitalism rescues Communism

Montargis is a town with a population of 15,030 and located about 110km south of Paris. It is a town much like many of the surrounding towns except for one characteristic: it was the cradle of Chinese communism. During the 1920’s there was a significant Chinese community in this town, and leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Enlai lived and were introduced to Marxist doctrine here. They then, of course, moved back East and helped create China as we know it.

Because of this, Montargis features prominently in Chinese revolutionary history. The town, taking advantage of this source of fame, has erected memorials, built a Chinese website and has sent delegations to China. Despite these efforts, however, hardly any of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists that visit Paris every year has stopped by this town.

So now the Montargis government has decided to build a visitor center, new stores with name brand perfumes and high-end French goods and value-added-tax refund programs. The hope is that better shopping will at least attract the Chinese tourists who travel South from Paris to stop along the way, thereby tempting their communist brethren to stop by thanks to their new capitalist enticements.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Why I hate Esperanto

I have friends who, in recent years, have expressed an interest in Esperanto, including one friend who is able to speak it. Without fail, they all profess this to be the language of the future. Even after having been shown that it has existed since the 1880’s, they persist by explaining that, thanks to the Internet, this language can become universal and soon our children or grandchildren will all be speaking Esperanto, and so everyone in the world will understand each other and we will have peace on earth and live happily ever after.

I find this a load of hogwash.

Universal languages have been around since the beginning of time. Ever since people started realizing that languages are different and change, they have been trying to overcome this. At first it was by trying to recreate the Adamic language form (or ancient Hebrew). To a great extent, Kabbalah scholars are still trying to do this. Once Latin fell into disuse among the masses in Europe, around the 4th or 5th century AD, philosophers have been trying to unite all languages into one. Dante’s Divine Comedy, in the common vulgate, is one example. He did not write in Italian, or in a Tuscan dialect, but gathered different expressions and forms from all the Italic dialects he encountered, trying to find the most communicative form in doing so.

On the other hand, Dante, unlike many scholars before and after him, understood that languages cannot remain the same. When in Paradise, Adam tells him that the language spoken at the time of the Tower of Babel is very different from that which he spoke, because it is the nature of man to change, and therefore his language will change throughout time.

There are some variations to this theory which I should mention. They came about when Europeans discovered the Chinese language and, more specifically, Chinese characters. When the first traders and missionaries came back from the Far East, Europeans were enthralled at the idea that, even though there were many different languages in China, everyone could be understood by writing down universally recognized characters. They could also communicate with the Koreans and Japanese in the same manner, although these also spoke completely different languages. Kircher spent his life trying to prove that Chinese characters derived from Egyptians Hieroglyphics, which had been a sublime form of writing for him. Leibniz, on the other hand, saw Chinese characters as a form of Binary code, or mathematical language (although he did so through a flawed translation of the I-Ching).

The more modern versions of these international auxiliary languages are Volapuk, Solresol and Esperanto. Out of these, Esperanto by far has had the most support. A country between the Netherlands and Prussia was supposed to be founded in 1908 with Esperanto as its official language, but this never came to fruition. Likewise China, after the Xinhai revolution, thought to establish Esperanto as its official language in order to break from the past. This also did not occur.

Therefore, despite all these studies, an international language has not emerged. There is one glaring exception to this: numbers. The Hindu-Arabic numeral system, as we know it today, is used by a vast majority of the world and is understood at sight by virtually every literate person. In other words, if I were to show the symbol “5” to someone, this person would know right away what it meant. Whether this person called it a different name, or spelled it in a different manner, would not matter. The concept would remain the same. Well then, why can we not expect the same out of a language in the future? In order to understand this, we should understand the past, or how the Hindu-Arabic numeral system came to be universally adopted.

The symbols themselves (from 1 to 9) came from India and were adopted by the populace and picked up by traders. From there they traveled through Arabia and Northern Africa, where Fibonacci picked them up. We can credit him with spreading their use in Europe, where people soon discovered they were easier to use than the current Roman numerals (imagine writing an algebraic equation in Roman numerals). But why was this so? It has less to do with the shape (there is nothing extraordinary in the shape of 4 or 5) than with the format. The structure of numbers fits a numerical system with a base number of 10. This is fortunate, since 10 is our base number (in earthly mathematics, at least). It is also relatively easy to writing long numbers and, most importantly, there is no ambiguity in these numbers.

Of course, our numerical system is not perfect. It would be nice to have concrete numbers for such important constants as π and e, as it would be nice if we could find the roots of a quintic equation by following the same methods as we do for a quartic, cubic, quadratic and linear equation. But so far, this is the best system we have, so we stick with it.

Another example, briefly, is chemical formulas. If one person wants to convey Sulphuric acid to someone else, he or she could do so by writing H2SO4 and it would be universally accepted. I mention this only briefly because chemical formulas are not commonly used among the populace of different countries. They are also not commonly found in everyday international conversation. I would be hard pressed to find an example of chemical compounds having been used over pints at a bar in order to convey a message between strangers of different nationalities. On the other hand, both patrons of this bar would understand the total numerical amount of the tab, even if they hadn’t been able to communicate one word between themselves.

Which brings us back to the initial question. Why couldn’t we expect a universal language in the future? It has worked with numbers and with chemical formulas. The next step should be languages, right? Wrong. Language is not numbers or chemical formulas. As much as we would like to find greater meaning in the words we use, linguistic patterns develop along a semi-chaotic sequence of popular abbreviations, borrowings and expressions which no one person can control.

If we say “I’ll talk to you later”, someone may abbreviate that to “Talk to you later”, and someone else to just “later”, while another person will start typing “ttyl”. Other expressions, such as “Late” and “Laters” will pop-up, and soon enough the language itself has changed to accommodate peoples’ perceptions. This is how we developed words like textbook and aqueduct, how Bucks became synonymous with Dollars (itself of Slavic origin) and how Milan took the place of Mediolanum. It is for this reason that the Dictionary needs to be updated at least as often as the Encyclopedia, while numbers and chemical formulas are updated only as new ones are discovered to add onto the list we already have.

In short, even if a universal and utopian language were invented, within a couple years there would be different forms of slang; within a generation there would be different dialects and, within 100 years or so, different languages altogether. At this point, a universal language such as Esperanto would just become the modern version of what Latin was during Dante’s time: a universal but dead and artificial language. Then someone may develop a new universal language that will grab peoples' imagination, and the cycle will continue.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The New Hermit Kingdom?

HR 1 became public law on August 3rd, 2007, after having passed the House and Senate votes and being signed into law by the President. This bill was a recommendation by the 9/11 commission, with one alteration: the requirement that 100% of cargo shipped into the United States be inspected before entering our borders. As reported by the World Shipping Council (in a statement dated June 30), this provision was opposed by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all major cargo shipping organizations, ocean carriers, the European Commission, as well as the governments of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The reason for this was not cost nor a lack of belief in security, but because it is an unfeasible law. Section 1701 reads:

a) Container Scanning- Section 232(b) of the SAFE Ports Act (6 U.S.C. 982(b)) is amended to read as follows:

(b) Full-Scale Implementation-

(1) IN GENERAL- A container that was loaded on a vessel in a foreign port shall not enter the United States (either directly or via a foreign port) unless the container was scanned by nonintrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection equipment at a foreign port before it was loaded on a vessel.

For those not familiar with the mechanics of international commerce, here are the main problems with this bill:

1) Who will do the scanning? This is not addressed in the bill. The United States government does not have the resources, so will it be foreign governments? The importing companies? The cargo companies? The foreign ports? Let us remember that the last congress determined Dubai Ports World to be an unacceptable security risk in operating a U.S. marine terminal, yet are we now to assume Congress would allow this same company to scan incoming cargo?

2) Who pays for, operates and maintains the technology? This relates to the point above, yet is not answered by Congress.

3) Which standards do we apply? The rest of the world has different safety standards than those of the United States. We are not able to analyze all incoming cargo according to our own criteria, yet are we asking other entities to find the means to do so?

4) What if other countries decide they’ll do the same with us? The United States does not scan any outgoing cargo. In fact, it would not be able to scan all exports to all 600 ports around the world. Could not another government, or many of them, decide to implement similar legislation as ours and require we start doing so? Do we then terminate trade with these countries?

5) What is “nonintrusive imaging equipment” and what do we do with the data collected? No recommendations are made to this effect.

6) Who will analyze the data and when? Does our government analyze it? Do the foreign ports? Do we wait until all data has been analyzed before starting to import cargo? Do we just keep a file for our records?

Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), a cosponsor of the bill, attempts to refute these objections. His press release on the matter includes this statement:

DHS will set the scanning standards and will have to address some of the logistics of how the scans are to be taken and transmitted to U.S. government officials. We intentionally gave DHS flexibility to work out implementation with foreign governments, particularly because port operations are not the same in every single country and at every single port.

Congress is therefore mandating operations to be taken in overseas ports, according to heretofore-unspecified U.S. standards, which the DHS is to implement at each overseas shipping origin. No discussion has yet been had with these “partners” concerning what the U.S. Congress has decided will take place in these “partners’” own ports.

The simple fact is that this law cannot be realistically implemented, even if we had prior agreement with all foreign countries involved. This, in reality, is not a law but a political stunt. It is one out of many that have been sprouting recently and that can do nothing but harm the health of the United States’ economy, all in the name of National Security.

The effects of these stunts can already be seen; for example: a) Royal Caribbean, the second largest cruise operator in the world, has established a starting point for its cruises in Panama, in order to avoid the ever-tightening Visa controls its passengers must undergo when departing from their current starting point in Miami. b) United States resort locations have long attracted foreign retirees who, because of stringent Visa requirements and terrorist fears, are now finding it harder and harder to buy houses in our country. As a real estate agent in Florida recently put it: "These people aren't taking American jobs, and they're not living on welfare, they're bringing their dollars to feed our economy." Well, they were in the past.

With our current account deficit setting new records, and the world awash in dollars, the U.S. needs to attract more foreign investment, not drive it away. The hysteria in Washington over the proposed Dubai Ports World acquisition of the P&O US ports operation was watched with incredulity from overseas, much like the furor caused by the failed sale of Unocal to the Chinese. With their money not wanted, and finding it difficult even to visit America to examine acquisitions, is it any surprise that foreign investors are turning to other countries for investment opportunities? Couldn’t this be one of the reasons why the dollar is at such a low level?

We should learn from history. The Ming dynasty in China was one of the strongest ever known. It had a standing army of 1 million, managed great explorations, maintained a flourishing iron trade, printed books in moveable type and oversaw a population of 160 million that was, in many ways, more advanced than the European continent. Following piracy along the coasts and currency inflation, the Ming rulers decided to close their borders, build up the “Great wall” and turn inward during the 15th century. This caused the iron industry to collapse, inflation to continue, rebellions to occur and, ultimately, allowed the Manchus to conquer China and establish the Qing dynasty.

These times require enhanced security, but they also require closer worldwide teamwork. Instead, the United States is closing in on itself, discouraging trade, tourism, and foreign investment. We need to remember that all Hermit Kingdoms throughout history have been unsuccessful. Let’s hope politicians don’t turn our country into a cautionary tale.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Fröhlich Geburtstag! Bon anniversaire! Buon Compleanno! Bun di da naschientscha!

During the 12th century, the dukes of Zähringen were lords of what is now Western Switzerland. When Berchtold V died in 1218, the Zähringer dynasty ended, and these Swiss cities became Reichsfrei (or city states within the Holy Roman Empire). It was during this time that the Kyburg were fighting the Habsburg over these territories.

During this time, also, the alpine passes in Raetia and St. Gotthard gained in importance as ways to pass through the Alps. This suited the Reichsfrei of the Forest Cantons of Uri, Unterwalden and Schwyz. Unfortunately the Kyburg dynasty became extinct in 1273, thereby eliminating all rivals to the Habsburgs for control of these territories. Once rulers, they promptly revoked the Cantons' Reichsfrei status.

At this point, the Forest Cantons decided to conspire against the Habsburgs. They drafted the Federal Charter of 1291 and this formed the Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstätten, signed on August 1st, 1291, effectively bringing Switzerland into existence. The famous Oath on the Rütli (or Patto di Grütli, as I learned in my History class) is said to have occurred in 1307, although evidence has never been found to corroborate that it ever happened.

Through wars, alliances, luck and necessity, Switzerland was able to keep its independence and add territory, until it became the country we know today.

Some points of interest:
1) Although many claim that Switzerland joined the Nazis during WWII in order to maintain their "neutrality" this is certainly not true. The Germans did draft a plan of invasion for Switzerland but never followed through. The Swiss were also able to maintain independence thanks to economic concessions (made to both Axis and Allied powers), through a general agreement that Switzerland was to remain neutral and (most importantly in my view) due to the fact that Germany had many other issues to occupy its time. It should be noted that there was a Swiss Nazi party, but it never gained any real power, due to the divided and different cultures forming Switzerland. The Swiss newspapers also tended to be very antagonistic towards the Third Reich, with many articles infuriating the German government.

2) Between 1798 and 1803, the Swiss flag looked like this:

3) William Tell never featured in this. His legend only came about in the 15th century, with similar legends featuring in Norse, British and Danish folktales.

Friday, July 20, 2007


This morning I saw queues forming outside the Bookstores that line my road to work. Since I go to work an hour or two before these stores open, I realized they must be Harry Potter fans waiting to buy the last installment of their favorite series. Only when scouring the news, later in the day, did I read that this highly awaited book is being released at midnight tonight, at which point these devoted fans will have been in line for over 15 hours.

This leads to a confession I have to make: I have never read a word of any Harry Potter book.

Nor, for that matter, have I watched any of the movies. I realize this makes me sound like a contemporary literature snob, but I thought I should redeem myself by confessing it, as well as discussing Harry Potter in this post. Not knowing anything about the story, however, it will probably be a very short post.

I can start by surmising that Harry Potter will survive at the end. I do this by combining my faith in futures markets (which I have previously discussed here and here) with the fact that lists the chances of Harry Potter’s survival at 75% (as of this writing. The chart below updates automatically so it may show a different number).

© NewsFutures

By just past midnight tonight we should know if this is correct, but I will be following the numbers very closely until then because the last minute changes tend to show the direction the ending will go in more precisely.

There, are, however, some caveats. First, there needs to be enough liquidity. The NewsFutures site lists 20,354 contracts held by players. Since one player can buy in excess of 1,000 contracts, however (once you sign up they award you 200 contracts for free), this is a very low level of liquidity.
Secondly, when I first looked at the site there was a 91% chance that he would survive. This could mean one of three things:

1. The trends have started reversing towards Harry Potter dying and therefore he will not survive.
2. There is not enough liquidity, as I mentioned before, and therefore few trades can skew the market.
3. These being the final hours of trading, there is just a great amount of volatility in the market.

Despite these caveats I'm standing by the theory and betting that Harry Potter lives.

Update (9:20 pm): Harry Potter now has a 99% chance of survival. It looks like he'll pull through.

Update (12:20 am): It looks like I was right, the theory worked, and good ol' Harry Potter made it in one piece.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Terrorism is Vulgar

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.
Oscar Wilde - The Critic as Artist, Pt II

The ‘War on Terror’, while embraced by some, is ridiculed by others. Those who embrace it tend to call for war against the terrorists “on their turf” (in other words, the battlefield), those who do not condone it tend to prefer dialogue with presumed representatives of terrorist factions. Both of these views are flawed.

Terror is, by definition, a state of mind. A Terrorist is someone who utilizes systematic violence and intimidation to perpetuate this terror. As real-life examples, 22 theater-goers are killed when a bomb goes off on the first night of the season, or an airport is attacked with assault rifles and grenades, with 24 people killed and 80 more injured. These, however, were not acts performed by Al-Qaeda, its sympathizers or even, for that matter, Muslims. The first was performed by anarchists in Bologna in 1893, the second by members of the Japanese Red Army faction in the Lod Airport Massacre of 1972. In fact, long before Bin-Laden ever picked up a rifle, many terrorist organizations had brought about widespread havoc.

The anarchists of the late 19th century utilized the telegraph and newspaper as a means of modernizing their terror. Focusing on targeted killings, they were able to assassinate President Carnot of France (1894), King Umberto I of Italy (1900), United States President William Mckinley (1901) and Spanish Prime Minister José Canalejas (1912), among the most well-known. This, in addition to many violent acts and threats throughout Europe and the United States, as well as the calls to violence by several anarchist publications, made the Anarchist movement, or at least its violent wing, a full-fledged terrorist organization.

The RAF (also known as the Baader-Meinhof group) of Germany, the Red Brigades and Ordine Nuovo in Italy, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and the Communist Combatant Cells (CCC) in Belgium all contributed to the terrorist attacks some older generations may still remember. These groups would at times work in conjunction with the PLO and Carlos the Jackal, among others, and they contributed to a multitude of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, Japan and North Africa. These led to the Lod Airport Massacre (1972), the German Autumn (1977), the assassination of Aldo Moro (1978), the attempted assassination of Alexander Haig in Belgium (1979) and the Bologna Massacre (1980), among many others.

These similarities may well be interesting, but what do they have to contribute to solving current problems and with today’s terrorists? Well, for starters, these groups no longer exist. The ones that do are now either mainly peaceful, such as the anarchists, or simply irrelevant, such as with the Red Brigades. How did these groups dissipate? Was it through tough military action, or through two-way dialogue? The truth is that it was neither. They merely went out of style, so to speak.

The world forgot about anarchism with the advent of the First World War, while most pro-communist terrorists lost their raison d’être with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Does this mean that Islamist terrorists will cease to exist only when a great historical event occurs? Possibly. The fact is, these historical events also made people less enthralled with the movements (the Ordine Nuovo was a far right-wing movement and should have therefore strengthened with the collapse of communism, but it died out like the rest). Therefore, it stands to reason that Oscar Wilde may have been right. Only when people stop viewing them as fierce freedom fighters and start seeing them as vulgar street thugs will terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda lose their appeal, and the world will be ready to move on. Unfortunately we cannot know when that will happen nor, more importantly, what will happen in the meantime.

This article can be found on the helium website.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bon Anniversaire!

Today is Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and a day which always reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in Europe with an American father I knew that the United States’ Independence day came 10 days before the French national holiday, and imagined them to be more or less the same. As I grew some more, however, I learned more of the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two; and how two insurrections that had occurred for much the same reason could have such different outcomes.

On July 4th, 1776, fifty six men signed the Declaration of Independence, which made official the American Revolution, where we all know the Americans defeated the British and with it, the yoke of monarchy.
It was what happened after this that is unique. The Americans had said theirs would be a country with elected leaders, who would represent the populace and be voted out of office after their terms had finished. What seems to us to be such a natural form of government had never been accomplished before. It was like saying we would be living in Thomas More’s Utopia, or the lost civilization of Atlantis.

When George Washington finished his second term almost all citizens expected him to find a pretense to continue his presidency. In fact, even after John Adams took office, senators would continue seeking George Washington’s approval and favor (which he would respectfully decline) and rather than listening to President Adams, people would heed George Washington’s opinions (until Adams asked him to please stop making public speeches). The fact that democracy endured is, in many ways, more incredible than the military victory against the British.

On July 14th, 1789, insurgents stormed the Bastille in Paris in order to attain the ammunition and weapons stored inside.
Once again, this was done for the purpose of shaking off the “yoke of monarchy”. The insurgents were, of course, successful, monarchy was abolished and a republic was proclaimed. Here, however, is where the story differed. The revolutionaries still did not feel satisfied. The sentiments of revolution had to be appeased through blood sacrifices by the thousands to La Sainte Guillotine. Victims upon victims were found, seldom with any chance to defend themselves, until just an accusation would be enough to have one’s head chopped off. Many personal scores were settled during this time.

What followed was a reaction that we can now say, with the benefit of hindsight, was inevitable. A Counter-revolution broke out, with people wanting to return to normal lives on one side (secretly missing the days of monarchy), and the Jacobins commanding strict loyalty to the republic (by means of supporting the executions) on the other. By the time Robespierre, Deputy for Paris and de-facto leader of the republic, was himself beheaded, around 18,000 souls had been lost to the guillotine.

Then, of course, came the Napoleonic era, the restored monarchy, the Third Republic, two World Wars, a Cold war, and the France we know today. So should the poor French be forever stigmatized because Le quatorze juillet commemorates the spark of an extremely violent, calamitous and ultimately unsuccessful revolution? The fact is, officially speaking, it does not. Officially it commemorates July 14, 1790. This was the date of the Fête de la Fédération, a feast commemorating the events from a year earlier. The French senate decided that this day, as opposed to that in 1789, "cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood".

Vive la France!

Monday, April 23, 2007


The common theme in all these gripes will be China, and one of them probably includes Mark. But these are still just personal gripes.

My main gripe has been ongoing for a couple years. It has been ongoing against China, but this part includes the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, which apparently refused to take in a group of North Korean refugees.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Upon arrival in Shenyang, I notified the authorities at the Consulate of our identities and intentions, to seek asylum and protection for these NK refugees. I took extensive measures, as always, to remain discrete, speaking over safe phone lines and using words and phrases that would signal our situation to educated Consular staff, but not to an eavesdropper. As the group waited a few hundred feet from the main gate of the US Consulate, in view of the United States flag and gates, I was told that someone would call me back.

A while later I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as a member of the US Consulate. He referred to me by name, and said that they could not accept us, and that they suggested for us to “take the North Korean refugees and go to the UNHCR in Beijing.” It goes without mention that US posts are subject to intense electronic surveillance, and sure enough, a short while later large numbers of Chinese authorities and police began to show up in the vicinity of our location.

You can click on the link above for the full article. I just want to know what kind of sick person is running this consulate (his name is Stephen Wickman, as per the article) and somebody in that consulate needs to be fired immediately.

Secondly, this morning on the way to work NPR had a segment on forced abortions in Guangxi, China (Click on Listen for the full report). Yes, apparently they were over their birth quota so they decided to literally drag pregnant women (some already nine months pregnant) into abortion clinics without explanation. I don't really know what to comment on this. Listen to it for yourself.

Thirdly, most people will have heard of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. If not, here is a paragraph from Wikipedia:

The Mugabe administration has been criticized around the world for corruption, suppression of political opposition, mishandling of land reforms, economic mismanagement, and the deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. According to most analysts his administration's policies have led to economic collapse and massive starvation over the course of the last ten years. Currently, Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world, and according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Africa's worst economic performer.

He is also famous for Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, during which some 700,000 Zimbabweans lost their homes. He is also known to despise Nelson Mandela and has a curious Hitler-style mustache. The Economist has a pretty good article on him.

Either way, the generous Chinese government decided to give Mugabe $25M in aid.

I understand it's naive of me to think that, simply because China is becoming a global powerhouse, it should be more accountable than it has been in the past. On the other hand, these days, in order to function in this global economy, countries should adhere to a minimum level of internationally accepted decency. China will not lose its permanent seat on the Security Council, but only because the council is outdated. It will also keep receiving inward investment because of the market that it now is.

It's also true that many other developed countries can act indecently. The main difference is there is open debate about it in these countries, which very often leads to change. Pressure from within or without is the primary catalyst for progressive change. Of the three articles I mentioned one was simply ignored in China, one was leaked using clandestine methods and one was justified with implausible excuses by the Chinese government. This government can feel secure about a lack of repercussions, simply because all forms have been stymied. Not for nothing this blog cannot be read in China.

I also know there are many countries much worse than China. But, as the latest example of a developing country turned superpower, for the next 50 to 100 years China will be looked up to and emulated by possibly hundreds of nations trying to develop. I hope, for millions of peoples' sake, pressure forms and forces it to change before then.

Added May 9th:
And now China is ordering the resettlement of 250,000 Tibetans to "socialist villages" at their own expense. While I think Tibet has used the victim card in the past, I also believe Tibetans deserve a place to live and not be harassed. Not to be confused the the Falun Gong, who I think are now plain opportunists.