Monday, July 31, 2006

Letter to the Editor, published

Click on the link above and scroll down to see my letter, as published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Travel and garden photo of the week

Lotus blossom
Originally uploaded by stiber.
Outside Yang Shuo, near Guilin, China.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Letter to the Editor

I read the above-linked opinion piece in the Sunday Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer and it inspired the following letter to the Editor, which apparently is in the running for publication:

To the Editor,

Robert Fisk's 7/23/06 opinion piece ("The Empire Leaves Beirut to Burn") illustrates well the bigotry and anti-semitism currently running rampant in Britain. He states that we should feel sympathy for the Lebanese not because they are fellow human beings but because they "look like us," "have light-colored skin," and "speak beautiful English and French." Does he imply that his non-light-skinned readers should feel no sympathy? Or shall we jump to the conclusion that dark-skinned or non-European-language-speakers are unworthy of sympathy?

This mindset is then extended to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Israelis (perhaps not as fair or well-spoken as the Lebanese?) are engaging in "some of their cruelest attacks". To Mr. Fisk, the conflict is like that of a soccer match, and he cites a lopsided death toll to support his idea that Israel is in the wrong. It's easy to allow one's prejudices to obscure the facts: that the Israelis are the ones who are defending themselves and that the plight of the Lebanese is the familiar one of people living in a country with no effective government. Maybe Mr. Fisk has lived in Beirut a bit too long, and would benefit from travel to places with less attractive and well-spoken populations.

Travel photo of the week

Originally uploaded by stiber.
Just outside the window, river cruise near Guilin, China.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A trip to China, part 4: traffic (or when local optimization doesn't produce global optimization)

Luckily, I keep independent copies of almost everything I do. Here is the lost fourth installment of my China travel diary.

Riding in a car in Guangzhou is both a frightening and a hopeful experience. I admit there are times when I have had to close my eyes (when riding as a passenger). However, this is still a noticable improvement from even four years ago. Then, the attitude among drivers towards lane markings was probably best summarized as, "What's a lane?" Now, if there's not much traffic, drivers will actually stay in a lane much of the time. When there's not much traffic.

When there is, it's every driver for themselves. Folks will squeeze their cars in between existing lines of moving cars, turning two-lane roads into three or four lane ones. They change lanes regardless of the presence or absence of neighboring cars, trucks, or buses. The make right turns right into moving traffic, and left turns into oncoming traffic, slowly working their way right, dodging oncoming cars until they reach the right side of the road. At first glance, it's amazing that there aren't more accidents. The you realize two things:

  1. accidents are often caused by drivers doing unexpected things and people expect the above behavior, and
  2. nobody is driving very fast -- speeds rarely exceed 35kph.
It's this second thing that becomes most interesting after a while. People are furiously jockeying for every little gap that they can wedge their cars into, but traffic doesn't move very fast even under moderate crowding. It brings to mind laissez-faire capitalism: that a large number of small decisions made by people will result in overall efficiency. In other words, that decisions made that, taken by themselves to be as optimal as possible, will result in global optimization.

Sometimes this works: witness greedy algorithms. But, as Guangzhou traffic shows, this is not always the case. As American and other drivers have learned, sometimes it's better to stay in your lane, rather than cut someone off in a neighboring one. The result is smoother flowing traffic and faster trips for everyone.

Meanwhile, I ponder problems associated with traffic simulation to help keep my mind off the two buses to our right and left that are both merging into our lane...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Garden photo of the week

Rosa 'Dublin Bay'
Originally uploaded by stiber.
After a week or so of cleaning up waist-high weeds, it's nice to be able to take a break and enjoy the fruits of one's labors.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A trip to China, part 5: The journey home

It seems blogger lost most of the fourth part of my travel blogging, so while I see if I can remember what I wrote, I have a couple comments on my return trip.

  • As you might expect, I saw a bunch of movies on the airplane. One that stood out was "Kinky Boots". It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, who you may remember as The Operative in Serenity. This is a very different role, in which he plays a drag queen with a stage name of Lola. I hadn't heard of the movie before, and it was a pleasant surprise.
  • You know that you're back in the presence of Americans when you see your first morbidly obese person.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A trip to China, part 3: the price of (everything but) tea

It's really interesting to walk around a Chinese city and look at how much things cost. I think you can learn a lot about the economics of various industries: how efficiently they deliver their products to the consumer, how much price competition there is, etc.

For example, take electronics. Check out the back of your computer, your iPod, your DVD player, and chances are it is made in China. Logically, then, prices should be lower here where it is made, now that they are widely available here without restriction. But that's not the case. For example, cheap Chinese-brand DVD players (which quite possibly have internals that are also used in Japanese-brand ones, but which definitely are less sturdily made) start off at around US$30 or so: the same as low-end DVD players in the US. And that's after all of the cost getting the product to the US and the markups made by importers and retailers. My guess is, like clothing manufacturers, the electronics manufacturers here don't make much money selling overseas, instead relying on a home market to make their profit.

[As an aside, it's amazing the variety of products that don't reach the US. Many (like iPod lookalikes) probably never get out of China. The other interesting thing is the products you can't get in China. Most people don't have carpets, yet simple stick vacuum cleaners are nonexistent and little motorized brush sweepers made by Philips sell for almost US$100. And don't bother looking for a VCR; most people here won't know what you're talking about, or will point you to a mini-DV camcorder.]

The other major commodity that springs to mind as being comparable in price to the US is real estate. Actually, recent construction in Chinese metropolitan areas is more expensive than in the US. On the one hand, this might not be surprising, given China's population and economic growth rate. But then there's the other hand.

First off, even middle-class urban dwellers here earn much less than their US counterparts, and so logically shouldn't be able to afford homes as expensive as Americans (many of whom can't afford to buy real estate at curent US prices with rising interest rates). They also represent a tiny fraction of the Chinese population, so the actual number of potential buyers is probably smaller than in the US.

A second driver of high real estate prices are investors, many from overseas. In fact, many of the surburban housing developments are only about 50% occupied, despite the fact that they are 100% sold. Half the homes are purchased purely for capital gains, not even rental income. Further signs of this foreign investment are the Canadian schools near or in the developments.

So, does this amount to a bubble or is it merely a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy? I don't know, but it isn't a good thing that most Chinese professionals are priced out of the market.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A trip to China, part 2: where your clothing comes from

I made a side trip to a city near Guangzhou that is filled with approximately 2000 factories making clothing and visited one smallish factory. The common view of such places is that of a sweatshop and, believe me, in the hot, humid weather of southeastern China, there certainly was a lot of sweat. Most of the sweat was probably from me, though, since as a resident of the Seattle area, I'm not used to a climate more similar to the US deep south. So, what were working conditions like? Un-airconditioned, to be sure, but frankly the same could be said of most non-upscale workplaces, especially outside of Guangzhou. Safety was probably not up to US code, but then again was probably above local code, if there is any. There are closed-circuit cameras on the work floors, but the owners don't spend much time actually looking at the workers via TV -- it's more important for them to be seen on the work floors in person.

In many ways, the factory was like many medium-sized, family-run businesses in the US. The owners are around most of the time. When deadlines loom, they put in very long hours, and generally work longer hours than their employees. And they're not getting rich (I'd say, upper middle class for China, a similar lifestyle to their American counterparts). For example, the profit on a pair of jeans is US$0.25 to US$0.50. And this factory specializes in higher-end, lower-volume products. The big factories (ones that turn out a million pairs of jeans a month) make half that.

The workers aren't getting rich, either, but I don't think they're being taken advantage of. They get room and board (required by the government) and a pay that tops out at around US$100/month. Yes, it's not pleasant work and the living conditions are not good, but it's better than living and working in the countryside. It's probably a better situation than clothing manufacturing in the US at the turn of the 20th century (which isn't saying much).

So, who's making all the money? Well, let me tell you a little story. You see, the factories in this city generally don't sell direct to the clothing companies like Levi Strauss. Instead, they sell to middle-men, companies headquartered in places like South Korea. These companies in turn re-label the clothing so that it shows the point of origin as being someplace else and then re-sell them to the big labels. I'd say that most of the money is made in the US or Europe, but that the middle-men take a healthy cut. The US and European companies benefit from this arrangement by being able to distance themselves from the working conditions under which their products are made.

Why do the Chinese manufacturers put up with this arrangement? Because of the intense competition among factories. Remember, there are 2000 factories, some producing up to a million pieces of clothing a month, in one Chinese town. If you won't sell to the middle-men, if you try to work around them, then there are many other companies they can buy from. There are other towns filled with factories, both in China and other countries. The message is, "Shut up and be satisfied with what you have, or we'll take it away." And companies like Levi Straus piously state that they receive every assurance from their suppliers that their products are manufactured in South Korea or whereever under good working conditions. It's like outsourcing to the mob.