Money: What the heck is it?

January 26, 2015 by

You know, Today I get why gold as a standard is dumb.  I may not know much about money, but I know that somehow it must reflect the true value in the economy, at least on average over the long term.  But the amount of gold available doesn’t have anything to do with global net value. It has to do with the value of itself, and that it turn means it’s price is primarily concerned with the efficiency that it can be dug out of the ground, the discovery of a more environmentally sound way to extract if from the ore, the economic well being of cultures, such as India’sthat value gold for things like weddings and the subsequent ability to own more in good times, whether another alloy might provide better contact resistance in a data plug, or the seeming all-in desire of Fox news personalities to promote gold as an investment. Fundamentally it is a shiny hunk of metal and doesn’t have any correlation with how hard a factory worker in Viet Nam is working, or whether a grandmother in Shenzhen decided to retire early to make sure her six year old granddaughter gets on  and off the school bus on time, or whether the engineers and sales reps in a startup are able to reach 10 times the customers with their labor saving product because they’ve just been bought out by a company with a global marketing department.

But this is a negative knowledge. I’m clear on what money isn’t.  Which is miles ahead of where I was ten years ago.  And if I am honest I wouldn’t have even gotten this far without a Podcast called “Planet Money”.  This is a 1-2 times a week production, highly professional but fun, that asks the questions many us may fear might be too basic, or naive sounding, but that actually get to the fundamentals of the issue at hand.  I think I would have been at the level of “Gold Standard – some people are for it, some against it, and I don’t know what to think”, if it wasn’t for that Podcast.  I heartily recommend it for everyone who wants to understand how an economy works and isn’t afraid if the answer is that “even professionals disagree” but here’s something important.

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“Three Minute Words” -China’s Passive-Agressive Internet

January 26, 2015 by

Can a country entry reap the benefits of the connected age while successfully tieing down the Internet? That’s what China is attempting, and as an expat living the last three years in Shanghai, my family and I are a daily part of that experiment.

Just in case anyone here is still living way back in the twentieth century, let me destroy any illusion that a modern economy can function without the internet. As an employee of a Fortune 500 multinational I need to use connectivity in every single facet of my daily life, from submitting or approving expense reports to accessing suppliers product offerings ( if a company was formed in the last ten years it probably doesn’t even have a printed catalog). Chinese corporations are no different in their need to communicate electronically with their suppliers and customers. So how can China have made such huge economic strides while simultaneously trying to lock down the entire internet?

Their solution makes life… interesting. It turns out that very little web activity is actually banned here. Day to day control is much more passive aggressive but very pervasive. For example, one night at a brewpub I met three expats who turned out to be the China marketing department for an online game that most readers here would recognize. Very popular in China, but the government is concerned about youth playing video games rather than studying. They told me that in order to prevent their access to the market being cut off they worked out a deal. So today, if you are connected to a Chinese server, after 2 hours of play in a single day your connection will start to slow down, at 4 hours it slows again so as to be just this side of unusable and at 6 it cuts off cold. At no point is there a warning or message indicating anything has happened so most people will just think it is their internet provider, or their computer. They don’t get angry at the government.

Another example of the censor’s passive aggressiveness: one day at the lunch table I heard one of my colleagues say “… and that’s a three minute word”. It turns out he was an experimenter who likes to characterize the censor’s handiwork. When you typed that word into your browser, it would cut off your internet connection completely for 3 minutes. Again, no warning, no message and you might think it was just one of many failures of the connected world. Other words cause a temporary slowdown rather than a drop, or if the word is sufficiently “bad” it may cause a longer drop out and maybe an alert to an actual human censor rather than the automated programs that do the bulk of the monitoring.

You may have heard that Gmail has finally been completely blocked in China and that is true, but is only the end of a long story. When Google refused to give the Chinese government access to subscriber records, the first step in retaliation was to slow down access. Loading your gmail involved a lot of sitting and looking at the spinning wheel. Next, every other time you tried to visit the Gmail page you got a message that said “server not responding”. Then it was two out of three times, three out of four times until finally it wouldn’t connect at all. And all done is such a way that most users would just say “hmm, this gmail isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”. Sophisticated users would know that the government was behind it and perhaps they would want to stick to gmail. So for the past couple of years you could access your gmail account by registering it with Apple Mail or Yahoo Mail or something similar. Only fairly sophisticated users would think to do this though. That’s what the recent news was actually about. This latest change simply means Gmail is now thoroughly rather than inadequately blocked.

One way around this is to use a VPN, a Virtual Private Network. This software gets added to your computer or device and sits in between you and the internet. No matter what address you type into your browser it gets encrypted and sent to the VPN server, which is usually located in the US or other friendly country. That server makes the actual request for whatever web page you asked for, gets the results, encrypts it, and sends it back. To the Chinese monitors it is just a stream of nonsense sent back and forth to a single web address. Or at least that’s the theory. But I’ve tried using some very good and fairly expensive VPN’s and find these are frequently completely blocked and I ended up spending half my online time in secret communication with the VPN hosts trying workarounds and new IP addresses to little avail. So right now my whole family is using a cheap but ubiquitous VPN. Up until recently it worked fairly well. But I have to wonder: why does the Chinese government let this cheap one go through but block the heavy duty ones? I don’t have any evidence, but I know that an effective way to monitor people (rather than simply block them) would be to steer them to a VPN that was under my control. And if they want to do more than just monitor, say around the anniversary of a certain event, I would make it tougher and tougher to connect. Sure enough, whenever that significant anniversary comes around it becomes harder and harder to connect and stay connected to the VPN.

Given my family’s pathetic Mandarin and our interests, virtually everything we do requires accessing western sites. Among the ones that have been blocked without using a VPN are the NY Times and more recently the Washington Post. But Andrew Sullivan is now blocked, and IMDB and TV.com. Outside the Beltway has been blocked for the last six months or so. So our lives consist of lots of dropped connections and waiting for VPN’’s to connect. Calls of “which hotspot are you using” echo throughout the house. And anyone who has teenagers can easily imagine how panicked these cries can become. So on our most frustrated days my family agrees that although we well miss many things when we finally leave, the joy of putting the Great Firewall behind us will help a little bit.

Thank you, Alfonso Cuaron

October 6, 2013 by

If I ever meet Sandra Bullock or Alfonso Cuaron or Jonas Cuaron and I can do so without being an asshole, I am going to thank them on behalf of all engineers for crafting “Gravity”. We engineer types don’t get much from Hollywood or television so I really appreciate the portrayal of admirable but human problem solvers, people who aren’t preternatural but simply hardworking, competent and who manage to keep their heads despite all odds. The two main characters in Gravity don’t solve their problems by being (literally) unbelievably smart or by having every cockamamie scheme they try work the first time. They are competent people, one better trained then the other but both unable to work miracles, only magnificent competencies. And that’s what we engineers strive for in our best moments: not MacGyver but Bullock’s Ryan Stone. I haven’t felt this grateful to a character since Keith Stewart in Neville Shute’s “Trustee from the Toolroom”

I don’t get it (1930 vs. 2012)

August 10, 2012 by

Sitting in my high school and college history classes, I often wondered just why the 1% of the 1920’s completely turned around and allowed Franklin Roosevelt to come to power and to so radically change our country.  Over time I came to the conclusion that it was all about the Bolsheviks and, later, the Maoists.  Don’t get me wrong, I think they were monsters, little more than thugs with a lust for blood. But when the Gatsby set here saw their Russian and Chinese brothers stood up against the wall and shot and their wealth confiscated, they knew in their bones they had to allow reform.

But just in case we think history actually teaches us anything, I look at the fact that thievery and fraud on an unimaginable scale is going unpunished in this country, at least as long as the perpetrators are from the “right” class.  Oh sure, they fine the company, but the people who pulled the trigger go unpunished. Look at LIBOR.  We know the individuals who committed the fraud.  We have them on tape and know exactly who they are.  And our press doesn’t even ask the question “Shouldn’t these guys go to jail?” The US Secretary of the Treasury knew what these were doing and let it continue, and no one dares to suggest he should be in jail.  “Crisis” they say.  Well there is no crisis now.  Isn’t it time to round up the bad guys?

All this comes form watching a Canadian sci-fi show, “Continuum” and realizing it simply could not be shown in the US because it highlights these issues. 

The horrors the communists inflicted are almost unimaginable, and are an order of magnitude worse than anything the robber barons did. But I wonder, when history repeats itself, who will be the examples and who will change based on those examples.  Three generations ago it was Russian and China who paid the price and the US and Europe who averted disaster.  I have to wonder if today it may play out exactly in reverse.

Notes for the Traveller: JFK, KAL

July 29, 2012 by

July 29, 2012

JFK continues to astound me. Drop my car off at National and I am hauling a families worth of luggage by myself.  Get on the AirTrain Elevator.  Check the sign: “Terminals – 3rd Floor”.  At the third floor there is a yellow tape strung across the door, barring my way out of the elevator.  OK – I go under it.  A bunch of people are heading toward the elevator.  Turns out there is no service on this floor.  No sign to tell them that. but they’ve been waiting and gave up.  Went down to the second floor, which is for Jamaica station.  All signs still say third floor to go to the terminals.  No one quite knows whats going on.  Nobody to help.  Eventually we get on the train to Jamaica station, because, Why Not?  It goes there, comes back to the station we are at and then continues on to the Terminal.  So I made it.  But, c’mon people, maybe a sign? I realize it is NYC so I would expect the sign to be hand lettered and hung with fingerprinted scotch tape but hey, as long as it said something.

KAL business class lounge in terminal one.  Kind of run down and musty smelling in places.  Good coffee and the liquor selection was good. Snacks are limited but fine. Kept very clean in terms of tidying up.

Trying to like Alcatraz

January 20, 2012 by

I was a total “Lost” geek and I’m trying to like Alcatraz because it comes from the same team but after two episodes it’s going nowhere for me. It is almost the exact opposite of Lost. In that show, you learned about a character, really felt for them, and then you found out a game changing revelation that made you look at them differently. So far the only character that is the tiniest bit more than a set of lines delivered on cue is the Jorge Garcia one (he actually managed to get a moment towards the end of the second one where you felt something for him). Game changing revelations? Oh yeah. Maybe three, four per show so far. But it feels like a group of writers just sat around thinking up plot twists.

Characters. That’s what the show needs. So, hey writers! You’ve got some good actors to work with, how about giving us some characters?

Ways the Modern World Is Not Like You Think It Is

November 24, 2011 by

We imagine we are cataloging and compiling our lives in this digital age as never before…

…but the reality is our records are ephemeral. When the school system upgrades their records to a new software system, will they allocate the funds to convert 25 year old records to the new format? When Patch, the replacement for your local newspaper, does the same or simply goes belly up, what will happen to the picture of your child’s championship swim meet? And when you die, will your children have the password to your email account? And will that one be the same one you used while wooing your spouse? And given that unliklihood, will they have the patience to sift through tens of thousands of notes and FYI’s and grocery lists to find the one special email where you declared your love?

So we are returning to the pre-literate days. The only records we leave behind will be a few official ones.

Taking Flight

November 19, 2011 by

So I lift off in an incredibly strong aluminum tube, stretching east out of Singapore and banking so steeply I can peer into the islands visited by a thousand wooden ships a half dozen lifetimes ago. A single light shines through the dusk, and that bright enough to pierce the thin strip of cloud stitching across a hundred beaches. What is that beacon?

The Party of Nothing

November 19, 2011 by

There is an article in the New York Times that really crystalizes where the Democratic party is today, and by default, what the Republican party has become. The Democrats, however flawed, offer the only home for those people who want to do something. The Republicans have become the party of nothing. I am a “on the one hand, and on the other” kind of guy by nature, so this lop sided and harsh judgement does not come naturally to me.

The Times article describes the hard work done by the Democrats in Massachusetts to understand and deal with the health care cost crisis in their state. It is a multi year effort, and one that the party leaders are actually engaged in. Martha Coakely is quoted on just one small but crucial issue: is there a justification for reimbursing the prestige hospitals and physicians at the higher rates they currently demand. She checks off a number of reasons this might be justified but then refers to research to show that these reasons are not borne out by the facts. I know something about how this works and it takes a number of iterations to nail these things down. You do a study. Possible flaws are raised. You revisit the data or do another study. Repeat until it is nailed. This is hard work.

So, honestly, can you imagine this type of effort coming from a collection of Republicans today? No chance. Republicans are punished by their base for even entertaining complexity. They are defined by what they are against, and justify their lack of accomplishments by disparaging those as fools who think progress is possible.

Issues are complex and their landscape is strewn with facts of various shapes, sizes and worth. If you are the type of person who looks at that confusing jumble and starts to plan how to evaluate each piece and plan how to build something solid and useful with the best of them then your only recourse today is to join with the Democrats, whatever their flaws. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who has no interest in those pieces except to judge which has the best heft and sharpest edges for throwing at your enemies, whether they be gold or copralytes, then you are today’s Republican.

Shanghai Surprises

September 3, 2011 by

So one of my big surprises here in Shanghai has been the availability of really great bread. Crusty loaves of all shapes and sizes are available in virtually every neighborhood