Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush's and Cheney's Retrospection

Very interesting articles on Bush's and Cheney's hindsight perspectives on the last eight years.

Bush's thoughts: (link to Reuters News article. Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

"The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein," Bush said.


"I think I was unprepared for war. In other words, I didn't campaign and say, 'Please vote for me, I'll be able to handle an attack'," Bush said. "I didn't anticipate war."

Cheney's thoughts: (link to ABC News article by Jonathan Karl, Kate Barnett)

The outgoing vice president also disputed former Bush adviser Karl Rove's recent comments about the decision to go to war in Iraq.

While discussing Bush's legacy earlier this month, Rove said he did not believe the administration would have gone to war had intelligence revealed Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

"I disagree with that," Cheney said Monday. "As I look at the intelligence with respect to Iraq, what they got wrong was that there weren't any stockpiles."

"What they found was that Saddam Hussein still had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction. He had the technology, he had the people, he had the basic feed stock."

Cheney added that, given Saddam Hussein's capabilities, reputation and track record of brutality, "this was a bad actor, and the country's better off, the world's better off with Saddam gone, and I think we made the right decision, in spite of the fact that the original NIE was off in some of its major judgments."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Accident" videos from Prevent-it.ca

Intense videos. Fantastic advertising campaign. Forward this one to coworkers - the boss probably won't mind.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Google's 10^100 Prize

Thanks, Mom, for pointing this out!

I posted a response to a comment on this article on the csmonitor website, linked here.


Friday, September 19, 2008

The Lao-American College and Microfinance through Kiva

LAC is a good school, and one of the ways it is able to stay good is its refusal to deal with the foreign donations process. That process can tend to leave an organization more vulnerable to extortion which hurts the organization, 'enables' the extorter, and causes other economic imbalances in a process similar to "Dutch Disease".

So, in order to hire native-speaking English teachers and other expensive professionals as teachers, LAC charges high tuition to cover its fees. Tuition is about $600/year for each of five years. That's comparable to the price tag of a $40,000 / yr school in the USA. (Nominal per capita GDP in USA = ~$43,000, Nominal Per Capita GDP in Laos = ~$620)

LAC is currently the most prestigious college in Laos, and has open admission based on minimal competitive testing, so the tuition price seems to be set primarily by the school's costs and the market demand. However, many students do get their tuition paid by foreign "sponsors," and the school does assist the foreign sponsors with those transactions. Unfortunately, I didn't go scouting for smart students stuck in insufficient schools for my friends stateside to fund. That could actually be a pretty good idea for an organization in Laos, though, because there isn't any useful standardized academic merit testing process in Laos these days, so there's no way to fund an endowment for a merit-based scholarship for highschool students wanting to enter college.

Although... I could ask Ginny (the academic co-director of LAC) about merit-based scholarships for students who attain the highest grades after being enrolled. I just thought up that idea, don't know whether it's a good one or not, what she would think about it, or whether they're already doing it somehow.

Interestingly, LAC's tuition rate is not nearly as high as the new Chinese-language Shanghai University campus slated to open in the same city in 2010, which will be about $1,000/yr. It seems that Chinese parents in Laos have deeper pockets and have more need for their kids' higher education.

In other news, my current favorite place to put my donation-type money is in Kiva.com. Microfinance is a fancy word for no-collateral small business loans. For instance, the market rate for small loans in Laos is 3% monthly, which means 43% annually, while a 12-month CD will return 13%. So it's basically hard to get loans, and that's especially tough because most of the business is done by small businesses. There are a lot of dependable borrowers without collateral, and there are no credit reports.

However, organizations in low-income areas have found ways to zero-in on the dependable borrowers by knowing the community. They sometimes also help borrowers be dependable through peer pressure by organizing them into small groups with responsibility for each others' loans. By these means, the organizations can offer lower loan interest rates than the usual lenders. That's called "microfinance." Unfortunately, there isn't any microfinance available in Laos, but the similar access-to-credit problem is a serious issue in other countries, that do have growing microfinance institutions.

Kiva makes it easy for us to loan money to small businesses in amounts as small as $25. I think, from my experience, that relatively-low-interest lending often has a more empowering psycho-social effect on the borrower than gifts can have on their recipients. Of course there are other ways that things happen, but that has been the trend in my experience.

Kiva is also very convenient. I can lend money, and get it all back within six months, with zero fees (and zero interest). As the borrower repays the loan, the money goes right back into my Kiva account. I can either roll the money over into another loan, or if I need the money myself, I can choose to withdraw it too. So Kiva lets me donate money, but with a safety net that I can have it back if I ever need it. And 100% of the money is going to the borrower I selected, all the management costs are already paid for by the borrower's interest or by other donations.

Although I as lender carry the risk of the borrower's potential default, Kiva's borrowers have an overall 98% repayment rate, so that doesn't happen much.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Attempt at a Macroeconomicgeosociopolitical Opinion

(This is my post about an NPR podcast on the USA's national debt (link). I edited it here, because I still can't say exactly what I want to the first time... can anyone?)

Thanks, Adam and David. Very clear and understandable, on an important modern topic.

In response to George's comment, though, I would like to offer a less confrontational perspective. Even as China grows stronger, it will not be a polarizing geopolitical force in the next ~50 years. The EU, Japan, India, and everyone else are still around to stabilize things. These countries are risk-averse with large populations that don't want another war.

Therefore, we should not willfully dream China into becoming a dangerous military threat, and should rather strengthen our economic, political, and cultural ties with China and these other powers that be.

However, The USA will face some large economic difficulties as our many creditors (not just from China) start borrowing less or even divest their dollar-based portfolios.

In terms of the USA's strategy to address these difficulties, I would choose diplomacy with more multilateral emphasis, coupled with the "Geo-Green" concept and tech-sector focus promoted by Thomas Friedman. (although he is unfortunately also prone to unproductive nation-state-war alarmism)

In agrarian societies, like the 1800s American Midwest, fat was sexy because it was a sign of health. These days, slim body types have become sexier because our modern health problems tend to come more from overeating than from hunger.

Likewise, Americans are realizing that hybrid sedans are sexier than Hummers, central heating is more hassle than convenience. Workers have a growing sense that borrowing a mortgage is a risky way to save income, given the fluid national job market and unstable real estate prices.

Patriots should express their nationalism by trying to buy USA-made products. That's why the new Prius factory in Blue Springs, MS is so important in pointing the way ahead for our recovering oligopolists from Detroit.

However, avoiding China-made products in particular isn't patriotic - this idea sounds rather more xenophobic.

To sum up, the short downturn following a phased-in carbon tax is far easier to handle than an explosion of our growing bubble of dollar debt. It will also speed our development of efficient products.

The high-volume business that the world wants from the USA, and will buy at premium price from the USA, is high-tech efficiency. High-tech reaches far beyond manufacturing, and depends on smart government investment. We need to take the long view and retool to provide our customers the efficiency they demand, and give our workforce the long-term jobs they deserve.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Arrival in USA

We arrived in StL at the house of AyJy's very distant, but very friendly, relatives in StL. Cast of characters features:
- Minh Nguyen, skydiving mechanical engineer that just received an acceptance letter to the Wash. U. StL EMBA program!!! He took us to Walmart where we replaced the battery on the car. We hung out until about 10pm and then he went out on the town. Skydiving is planned for the morning.
- Bai, Kate, and Calista Nguyen, Minh's younger brother, sister-in-law, and 18-month daughter-in-law, all live in the same house. Bai, Kate, and about three young nieces and nephews visiting from Springfield stayed up past midnight playing Starcraft or something on their local area network. Amazing! Calista is running around the house and likes to steal the Catan dice and to imitate people. I spun around in circles and she did too. We both got dizzy.
- Chris Ngo, 4th year KCOM med student studying at Des Pares hospital in StL stopped by to play Catan and update AyJy's fascia situation. Minh and Chris exchanged notes on StL Vietnamese restaurants and the various clubbing scenes. A whole new world.
- Cousin Khong and his family of five inclusive came up from Springfield. His sons Adam and Alex played Wii tennis with us, and Adam played two competitive games of Catan. Except that AyJy roundly thrashed us all both times.

On to Rolla in the morning! In other random events, Minh, Bai, and Kate all did undergrad at UMR Rolla, so they have lots of great advice for us. Moving stuff out of storage will be put off until Monday.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Second week in Laos



I spent the morning learning how to the ride the motorbike in the school parking lot. I was hot, sweaty, and tired after an hour. I took a break and studied. This morning, we skipped laundry. We made a decision to do our own laundry. So we went and got two big tubs, a scrub brush, and some gloves. Steven actually watched videos from YouTube to learn how to wash clothes by hand. After the first time, I have come up with a routine: 1) Soak the clothes in soapy water for about 15 minutes. 2) Knead the clothes for a few minute 3) Rub them clothes one by one, ring them, and toss them into a tub of clean water. 4) Wash the clothes again piece by piece, ring them out and place them in another tub of clean water. 5) Final wash, ring out the clothes and hang them up to dry. Each tub of clothes takes about 2 hours to do. Maybe when I get better, I will become more efficient.

In the late morning, we return the motorbike to the rental place. After some research, much talking to people, and quick rough calculations, we were on our way searching for an electric motorbike. The price of oil soared in the U.S.A. and many countries, Laos was not speared. We thought it would be a good deal to get a cheap electric motorbike, which is both environmentally friendly and economically feasible. We walked up and down the industrial part of Asiane street under the meltingly hot sun. Since we are taking doxycycline as an anti-malarial measure, we have to be extra cautious about being exposed to the sun. So it’s either covering ourselves with clothes or sunscreen. Last time I didn’t worry about malaria in Laos, but this time, just this week alone, I have lost count of how many bites I have gotten on my poor leg, arms, and places that I didn’t think the sneaky mosquitoes could get to.

Not only there were five or six motorbike sales stores on the same street, there were also numerous Chinese owned shops and restaurants. We have met a few Chinese vendors close to the area we live (Ban Phonkheng). We knew they were Chinese because of the Chinese drama blaring on the TV in the backroom. The way a lot of shops are set up here in Laos is pretty convenient for the family. Usually the store is at the front, and then the family either lives in the back or upstairs (zero commute time!) First we would approach the Chinese owners speaking Lao, but as the buying-selling communication got more complex, we tried out Chinese since the knowledge of Lao is limited on both ends. Oh boy, did we surprise them then. One lady said she definitely gave us better prices because we spoke Chinese.

According to Ginny (the director of Lao American College), there will be 50,000 more Chinese people coming to Vientiane in the next year in exchange for a nice building the Chinese are donating to Laos. Wow, the population of Vientiane is only 140,000 (which also includes many Chinese already). How’s more Chinese going to change the dynamic of the city? Already, there exists some tension between the Lao and the Chinese.

Sabaidee from Laos


We have been in Laos for almost a week now. We took a plane from Kunming, China down to Vientiane, all in a couple of hours. Three years ago, we traveled from China to Laos on land. We were on the train for over 30 hours, then took a sleeper bus, then a sketchy vehicle with bags of rice, stacks of cabbages, and several long PVC pipes stretching all the way into the backseat, then a van to Luang Prabang.



After much debate, we decided to go and rent a motorbike and try it out. We ended up in downtown Vientiane. The streets were brimming with people, lot of them tourists. Most restaurants and businesses have both Lao and English signs. There were more fancy buildings and d├ęcor, which is a bit different from the Lao-American college town that we live in. Each province in Laos is divided into ‘Ban,’ which is basically like a town.

After visiting a couple of places (we have gotten used to noting down prices of things we bought and comparing different stores for better deals; buying things here usually takes a little more time, especially if haggling is involved), we rented a motorbike just for one day, to try it out. Steven drove it around the parking lot trying to learn how to maneuver the machine. As easy as other Lao makes it seems, driving the motorbike requires some coordination along with a good sense of balance and judgment. After Steven almost ran into a car, several men who were watching in the parking lot offered their expertise. Meanwhile, I watched from the sidelines with amusement because I was wearing a skirt. (Most women, especially adults, wear the Lao skirt “seen”. It really takes some time to get used to wearing a skirt all the time). So Steven made circles, figure eights, and doodling around the parking lot for the rest of the afternoon.

I got fed up with the mosquitoes biting my legs (oyyye, the skirt!) and I needed to prepare for my medical English class, so I took a Tuktuk (a Lao taxi with no doors) back to the school.


The toughest part of riding a motorbike for a beginner used to bicycle riding is having a light hand on the gas. Twisting the right handlebar counterclockwise toward you is like pressing the gas pedal, and it isn’t easy to feather it to go slow. Going fast and making broad sweeping curves is easy, but we learned by doing tight circles and figure eights starting off. You don’t use those skills often on the road, but meandering slowly through multimodal traffic might occasionally require some sharp turns. Traffic on the streets of Vientiane by numbers is about 65% motorbike, 30% car, 4% bicycle, and 1% large truck. Far fewer bicycles than China, and no animal traffic as compared to India. Pedestrians and dogs are mostly cross traffic, and stay on the sidewalks.

I think the unfortunate predominance of motor vehicles may be a result of the urban sprawl nature of Vientiane, and rural-distributed population of Laos. The motor vehicles aren’t just an environmental problem: Laos imports its fuel, which makes up about 40% of its total imports. And Laos has a growing trade deficit of 50% of imports. Chinese cities in similar geographical regions have more concentrated urban populations, and have lots of relatively cheap residential high-rises within biking distance of the city center. Here in Vientiane, though, nothing rises above four stories except for one hotel by the Mekong. Maybe it’s the difficult marshy soils preventing taller buildings.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Math teacher fired for nonviolence

How bogus is this!


California State University East Bay has fired a math teacher after six weeks on the job because she inserted the word "nonviolently" in her state-required Oath of Allegiance form.

Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker and graduate student who began teaching remedial math to undergrads Jan. 7, lost her $700-a-month part-time job after refusing to sign an 87-word Oath of Allegiance to the Constitution that the state requires of elected officials and public employees.

"I don't think it was fair at all," said Kearney-Brown. "All they care about is my name on an unaltered loyalty oath. They don't care if I meant it, and it didn't seem connected to the spirit of the oath. Nothing else mattered. My teaching didn't matter. Nothing."

A veteran public school math teacher who specializes in helping struggling students, Kearney-Brown, 50, had signed the oath before - but had modified it each time.

She signed the oath 15 years ago, when she taught eighth-grade math in Sonoma. And she signed it again when she began a 12-year stint in Vallejo high schools.

Each time, when asked to "swear (or affirm)" that she would "support and defend" the U.S. and state Constitutions "against all enemies, foreign and domestic," Kearney-Brown inserted revisions: She wrote "nonviolently" in front of the word "support," crossed out "swear," and circled "affirm." All were to conform with her Quaker beliefs, she said.

The school districts always accepted her modifications, Kearney-Brown said.

But Cal State East Bay wouldn't, and she was fired on Thursday.

Modifying the oath "is very clearly not permissible," the university's attorney, Eunice Chan, said, citing various laws. "It's an unfortunate situation. If she'd just signed the oath, the campus would have been more than willing to continue her employment."

Modifying oaths is open to different legal interpretations. Without commenting on the specific situation, a spokesman for state Attorney General Jerry Brown said that "as a general matter, oaths may be modified to conform with individual values." For example, court oaths may be modified so that atheists don't have to refer to a deity, said spokesman Gareth Lacy.

Kearney-Brown said she could not sign an oath that, to her, suggested she was agreeing to take up arms in defense of the country.

"I honor the Constitution, and I support the Constitution," she said. "But I want it on record that I defend it nonviolently."

The trouble began Jan. 17, a little more than a week after she started teaching at the Hayward campus. Filling out her paperwork, she drew an asterisk on the oath next to the word "defend." She wrote: "As long as it doesn't require violence."

The secretary showed the amended oath to a supervisor, who said it was unacceptable, Kearney-Brown recalled.

Shortly after receiving her first paycheck, Kearney-Brown was told to come back and sign the oath.

This time, Kearney-Brown inserted "nonviolently," crossed out "swear," and circled "affirm."

That's when the university sought legal advice.

"Based on the advice of counsel, we cannot permit attachments or addenda that are incompatible and inconsistent with the oath," the campus' human resources manager, JoAnne Hill, wrote to Kearney-Brown.

She cited a 1968 case called Smith vs. County Engineer of San Diego. In that suit, a state appellate court ruled that a man being considered for public employment could not amend the oath to declare: his "supreme allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ Whom Almighty God has appointed ruler of Nations, and expressing my dissent from the failure of the Constitution to recognize Christ and to acknowledge the Divine institution of civil government."

The court called it "a gratuitous injection of the applicant's religious beliefs into the governmental process."

But Hill said Kearney-Brown could sign the oath and add a separate note to her personal file that expressed her views.

Kearney-Brown declined. "To me it just wasn't the same. I take the oath seriously, and if I'm going to sign it, I'm going to do it nonviolently."

Then came the warning.

"Please understand that this issue needs to be resolved no later than Friday, Feb. 22, 2008, or you will not be allowed to continue to work for the university," Hill wrote.

The deadline was then extended to Wednesday and she was fired on Thursday.

"I was kind of stunned," said Kearney-Brown, who is pursuing her master's degree in math to earn the credentials to do exactly the job she is being fired from.

"I was born to do this," she said. "I teach developmental math, the lowest level. The kids who are conditionally accepted to the university. Give me the kids who hate math - that's what I want."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Apologies to Indigenous Populations

Australia's doing it. A step in the right direction. Check out the news reports.

Some of those viewer comments on the article are harsh! Whew! This is definitely a controversial issue. Very interesting how such a majority of the viewer responses are negative.

The USA isn't anywhere close to a similar gesture. Professors debate over the semantic definitions of genocide, and whether it applies to European colonists' actions in the USA. Sometimes it applies, perhaps usually, clearly not always... etc. We miss the point.

I was out of college before I realized that the Native American tragedies were comparable to anything that happened or is happening in the Middle East, Balkans, NYC, Central Africa, Central Europe, South Africa, East Asia, South America, the Philippines, or anywhere else. It was ugly, and I should have known earlier.

I am convinced that if I had discussed this issue more in elementary school and junior high, then I would have developed better, deeper morals and a better understanding of the world. I would have a more useful sense of falliblism about authority figures, especially governments, which would have really improved the quality of my education and life.

Two components are needed to discuss this issue appropriately. A basic moral framework, and very basic historical facts. Let's look at the Ballad of Davy Crockett for our moral framework.

Verse 7:
He give his word an' he give his hand
that his Injun friends could keep their land
An' the rest of his life he took the stand
that justice was due every redskin band
Davy, Davy Crockett, holdin' his promise dear!

So we recognize that according to our values system, European settlers were supposed should have given Native Americans fair treatment. Of course, that's not what happened. Examples: The Indian Removal Act that Crockett opposed. the Treaty of Fort Laramie with four tribes in the modern Dakotas. We didn't do too well in California. For something really graphic, consider Bartholomew de las Casas's description of the 16th century conquistadores, first published in 1552. And the rest of the country wasn't that much better. Even the Quakers had their low points.

Even little kids can understand these unfair events and basic contradictions. If they realize how fallible their government's decisions have been, maybe they'll take more responsibility for future decisions.

Which brings us back to the Ballad of Davy Crockett.

Verse 4:
Andy Jackson is our gen'ral's name
his reg'lar soldiers we'll put to shame
Them redskin varmints us Volunteers'll tame
'cause we got the guns with the sure-fire aim
Davy, Davy Crockett, the champion of us all!

Now, varmints is the same word as vermin, which "describes farm pests which raid farms for livestock" (from wikipedia). Calling people varmints. And this is a song that kids sing all the time. I grew up on the Ballad. Kind of like how I grew up saying "Get your cotton-picking hands off my computer!"

As long as people get excited and feel justified in killing other people, we aren't going to fix abortion, and we aren't going to fix poverty. We need to teach our kids to develop personal integrity and moral values, and not to blindly follow authority figures like lemmings.

We need to stop feeding kids the Santa Claus fairy tales of Thanksgiving and instead do some real-life reconciliation work like Kevin Rudd of Australia, so we can give them some optimism that isn't founded on half-truths.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who is responsible for mitigating poverty?

Wow. Check out this chart:
Interesting, Americans' feelings on how they, as individuals, can affect the world.

However, it seems to me that Americans actually have more ability to mitigate international poverty than they have to mitigate terrorism. A dollar or an hour goes a long way with kiva.org and its partners, Or heifer.org, or microplace.com.

I am much more skeptical of US citizens' ability to personally "fight" terror.

And check out who has responsibility for alleviating standard of living disparities across the world: poor countries' governments.

It makes sense that much of the responsibility for mitigating poverty lies with those who have the ability to to so. I wonder if these numbers will change now that private individuals can work to fight poverty more easily. And more people know about how to do it, too!

source of charts:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Why sell OLPC laptops only to Governments?


What is the original reasoning behind Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child business plan. There is lots of discussion and criticism online, but where is the justification for the only-sell-to-soverign-nations business plan? Please tell me so I can update this post!

More and more, I am convinced by Fonly's arguments about timing, distribution, and (in)appropriateness in different regions within single countries. (Power supply problems seem quite solvable.)

I purchased an OLPC laptop, and it works great. It's so convenient that AyJy and I prefer it for checking our email. It's a new keyboard format and doesn't play videos yet, but we don't need that. I'm looking forward to learning to program Python on long airplane trips.

However, I can't understand the only-sell-to-governments business model. As far as I can see, it would work better to sell in 30-computer batches, to anyone who wants to buy.

It feels to me that product development and troubleshooting could be done by the traditional early adopters: rich people. After selling batches to counties all over the USA, Europe, etc., with prices down and software polished, then market it to the developing world.

Please explain why I'm wrong... but it seems by not following this business model, Negroponte is weakening the project, as well as handing a huge portion of the world market for Linux back to Microsoft. What am I missing?