Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pope To Africa: Drop Dead

If the Church still maintained standing armies of crusaders, and decided tomorrow to send the cavalry into the slums of Johannesburg and Lagos and Nairobi, slaughtering the helpless residents and some of their children, it probably wouldn't go over very well. Instead, they tell their legions of new converts to kill themselves, by refusing to use birth control/protection despite living in the most overpopulated and AIDS-infested regions on Earth.

Pray tell, what is the Church doing to combat AIDS? Fidelity? Yes, that's nice, and I support fidelity. Unfortunately, as Dr. House would say, "People lie." Infidelity is a fact and will not disappear because we want to believe it away. Christianity itself posits that man is inherently flawed, deeply so, but is faith the only tool God has granted us? Surely not. Ingrained cultural mores that seem savage or downright insane to outside observers, such as having sex with a virgin to "cure" sexual diseases or refusing to use protection because it's not manly, are similarly difficult to extinguish. We have an arsenal at the ready, including education, technology, and that elusive bottled lightning, hope, but the hope that the Pope is peddling is tainted by the Church's slow-motion in an age of rapid change.

The real savage, insane belief is that faith should trump reason - the prohibition of condoms is just faith healing in fancier robes. And a funny hat. And you wonder why you're losing believers at terrifying rates in the developed world, Benny...?

More than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, according to a 2008 UNAIDS/WHO report. Nine out of 10 children with HIV in the world live in the region, which has 11.4 million orphans because of AIDS, the report said, and 1.5 million people there died of the disease in 2007.

Enough said.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Billions Here, Billions There

School is taking up most of my time, and what remains I'm pissing away reading the news and messing around on the computer watching Obama's speech to congress. He again shows that given a chance to prepare, he is unbeatable behind the podium, but his plate is awfully full.

Meanwhile, Russia is facing crisis by getting together with its neighbors and creating a $10 billion 'anti-crisis' slush fund through the 'Eurasian Economic Community.' Once upon a time, I did a lot of research on alliances in Eurasia, and even I'm losing count of how many regional alliances and blocs the Russians (and the Chinese) are forming or taking part in. They must be planning to apply to some tough schools to need all these extra-curricular activities.

Well, Russia, in addition to bequeathing the world some of the greatest writers, philosophers and scientists it has ever known, I see you were President of the...what is this, Eurasian Economic Community?

Yes, yes I was. Our responsibilities included uniting former Soviet states in a customs union and forming an anti-crisis fund.

Mmmkay. Well, how do you think this makes you a good fit for our school?

Well, I have significant international experience, especially in dealing with challenges and bringing people together.

Mmm-hmm. Anything else you'd like to add?

Also, I absolutely beat the piss out of a small caucausian country when they attempted to meddle in my internal affairs.

That's nice.

...I was in marching band, too.

Best of luck to them.

Friday, February 13, 2009


TIME is running a feature called '25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis' - you can puruse short profiles, including a caraciture headshot in front of a prison background and then vote on a scale of 1-10 on whether they are guilty or innocent. Featured are Phil Gramm, The American Consumer, Bush, and, interestingly, the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Wen is implicated as the dealer of cheap credit to the Americans, who are similarly blamed for being such junkies. Does this mean we're going to undertake an expensive and wasteful War on Chinese Holders of US Treasury Bonds (Just Say NO to T-Bills!) to protect ourselves from this dangerous menace?

Seriously? I can't even add anything to how insanely stupid this piece is. Now even revered organs of the press are joining overzealous congresspeople in the great financial crisis snipe hunt. I'm waiting for the cover of TIME with a dollar sign and a big red 'x' over it in blood, as they've famously done for Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and more recently, al-Zarqawi (that seems like reaching). Actually, TIME has been horrible ever since they named 'You' the person of the year. You didn't deserve it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Holy Shit

The massive, unfinished hotel that was due to open next to the CCTV building here in Beijing has burned in an amazing pyre that lit up the Beijing night. Early reports were that it was the famous CCTV building (nearly finished) itself, and I'm not sure how one really makes the distinction since they're being built in the same project, but, wow. My old office stared at these two buildings, I cannot imagine the view in the morning. The fire has been extinguished but given how absolutely huge it was, I can't imagine the building is in good shape. I also can't believe I slept through this, and all the fireworks last night, given that I can practically see the building from my bedroom window.

I wonder if they were still running overtime construction shifts over there - hope not.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Back to Beijing

Continental is a more enjoyable flight than United. The food is also markedly better. However, the salmon was not salmon.

Beijing's weather is still described, charitably, as "hazy." The captain on the plane was more direct: "It's a bit...smoggy."

I think I'm jet lagged, again - hopefully not as badly as I was when I visited the US.

I think I'm pretty excited for my new classes - but also excited that this is the -last- semester.

I think this page needs a redesign - so much wasted space.

I think that's it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fear and Loathing on Wall Street

Bear fails and Lehman fails and then all faith is lost and I'm crying in front of my computer, then the government is pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the only way to save the economy is for you to own the banks, and everyone is always saying, this is all your fault, this is all their fault, we need more regulation we need Obama we need to lock the bastards up we need more and more and more.

A lot of people say speed kills. It does, but kindness is the crueler killer. We are a litigious society, cursed with an overabundance of legalistic talent and excellent orators. We even have a President who can string together metaphors, imagery, and alliteration to make a point. Unfortunately none of this particularly guarantees us a bright, shiny future. In fact, forget the President, if you can, and think about yourself. What do you use? What do you need? What do you want? Odds are, unless you have extremely impractical or particular tastes, you need what a lot of other people need, you want what other people want, etc. From here, it's not a long logical leap to making half-decent investment decisions. And yet, nobody does. Because protecting our investments is no longer our responsibility, it's everybody's responsibility, and everybody's fault when things go wrong. Anything that is everybody's responsibility is nobody's responsibility and will never get done. If you can't manage your own money, you'd better find someone you trust to the ends of the Earth to do it for you, and you'd better stay close enough to them that you can hit them with a brick if things go wrong. Having the Man do it for you is bad, even if I concede some degree of involvement by the Man in our lives is necessary.

We look to icons in times of trouble; it's a natural human reaction. We have specialists in society, experts and gurus, all expected to use their luminary talents to lead us out of the dark times and back into the land of honey and milk. So you call up Alan Greenspan. You led the Fed for years, and during the good times were regarded as a sort of lucky totem, despite your dot-com era warnings about irrational exuberance. Did Richard Fuld rub your head for luck? Ah well. Tell us what went wrong, Alan.

"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders."

Actually, you're making a bigger mistake by going in front of Congress and surrendering a lifetime of belief in the ability of markets to regulate themselves. Are you still the same guy who palled around with Ayn Rand? Come on.

So you call up John McCain. Senator, how bad are things, really?

John McCain unwittingly walked into a political minefield when he said that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. He was playing it up to his audience, and when attacked claimed that Barack Obama wasn't respecting the American worker and that Wall Street was corrupt and so on. Bullshit on all sides, but McCain should have known better. We're all stupid and in bad times will be taken in by anger and frustration, and the sort of dogged optimism required to power through bad times isn't popular or easy. Investing is the same way. Lining up executives to be shot for redecorating their bathrooms isn't justified in any way. At the same time, they, too, should have known better. Popular anger isn't easily ignored or brushed off. It doesn't matter if, in the long term, it's not justified. You still have to deal with it now, and Americans won't abide a whiner, even one who may be right.

But if EVERYBODY starts whining, well! It's time to roll up our sleeves and take action, doggone it! So the President, ignoring concerns about too much government intervention, decides to put a hard cap on executive pay. Well, that'll certainly make our leaders better stakeholders. It sure is a good thing that we have all this regulation, post-Enron, post-2000, post-Lehman. Why live with risk when we can live with crushingly obtuse regulations? I'm not an expert; I don't know which are good and which are bad, but I do know that the US is no longer the preferred destination for foreign companies looking to list on a stock exchange. It's just too annoying for them to register here. If these companies end up failing elsewhere because they were badly managed, well, aren't we smart over here. If they end up doing phenomenally well and leading the next global boom, from Mumbai or Dubai or London or Berlin, well, it's time for another lynch mob in the Senate Finance Committee! Who let this happen? WHO?! Answer: We all did. Shut up and get a job.

I remember reading Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. He discusses democracy and its merits and failings, and concludes that without great benefactors and civic morality, democratic capitalism is mostly the cruel system that Marx and others claimed it was. It needs Andrew Carnegie, it needs Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. It needs them to be rich and it needs them to be good. But not just them, I think. We're all participants in the capitalist experiment, and if we aren't good citizens then we will creep ever closer to a socialist democracy where emotion rules more than it ever has. How do you regulate morality, though? I've never been convinced that outside of a circle of family and friends, we're really able to change the moral compass of anyone else. It's good and right to try, but I don't foresee a lot of success. It's like expecting this schizoprhenic blog entry to revolutionize the financial and social viewpoints of its readers. "Yes, Michael, after I read your blog I cut up my extra credit cards, paid off my loans and started donating to public television and charities that I support. I also lost thirty pounds and you saved my marriage." There's no such thing as a moral bailout. It's up to each of us to be good at our own lives. Capitalism is a great system, it's so good that it magnifies our decisions and causes the impact to actually trickle up the chain, and when we're all in our overpriced, depreciating houses that we could never afford to begin with, the whole house starts to fall down around us. And we're left, trapped in the suburbs, wearing our McMansions around our necks like golden albatrosses, wondering how did this happen? Could it be my neighbors made the same bad decisions I did? Could it be we're not so different after all? Shocking.

Did anyone else notice that in the auto bailout, Ford made a big deal of refusing aid? They just had their worst quarter ever and said, nah, we're okay over here for now. You guys go ahead, we don't want you to fail. They're no doubt hoping to turn that in their favor, and curry favor with the bailout-weary American public. It worked with me - I love a survivor. But more and more, I think that this wasn't their main motivation. They aren't running a hyper-risky marketing campaign over at Ford. They're afraid. Afraid of the retribution they might face in what is becoming a public kangaroo court for business and industry leaders, and afraid of being dragged in front of our representatives, so angry on our behalf, and mocked and interrogated on CSPAN. They are afraid of us.

I would be, too.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


The Super Bowl is notable as one of the most-viewed television events in American culture, and accordingly features the best that ad executives can dream up to throw at us. This year featured a one-second ad for Miller High Life,'s declaration of evil, a shitload of talking E-Trade babies, and, in what I can only take as a sign of the times, an ad for Cash4Gold, a scam-laden company that rifles through desperate peoples' jewelry and sends them pittances. Not very Super.

In more alarming news, a company called Cyberdyne, named after (apparently?) the firm in Terminator 2 that creates the Skynet AI that ends up destroying civilization and exterminating most of humanity, has released a robotic exoskeleton, Robot Suit HAL. So you've got not one, but two alarming pop culture evil robot references there. Judgment Day cometh.

And apparently someone threw a shoe at Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier. How uncreative.