Monday, February 03, 2020

The Coronavirus Panic


I have been interested in “risk” for my research on pesticides, and as part of my work on magic and the supernatural. I therefore look at the world response to the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan with a slightly different perspective. While I understand the fear of a novel illness (having lived through SARS in Hong Kong), I also see that a lot of the fear is unnecessary and irrational, if understandable.

Every year, influenza kills thousands of people in the US and around the world, and people accept that as somehow normal. Pneumonia is the 2nd leading cause of death in HK (8032 people in 2017, causing 17.5% of deaths). And the death-rate from pneumonia shoots up for people over 74. In the US, 55,672 people died of influenza and pneumonia in 2017. The press regularly mentions large numbers of infected and dead (14,300 and 305 as I write) which seem like large numbers, but in comparison to the overall population of China is small. For the US, the NY Times reports
For perspective: The flu kills roughly 35,000 Americans every year. This season, it has already sickened an estimated 15 million Americans and killed 8,200, according to C.D.C. estimates.
  • Influenza kills more Americans every year than any other virus, Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, told Liz Sabo at Kaiser Health News. But the flu is rarely paid such attention, and fewer than half of adults get a vaccine.
  • “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Ms. Sabo. “Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison.”
As Elizabeth Rosenthal (a physician and NY Times journalistwho lived in Beijing through SARS) says, “Remember, by all indications SARS, which killed about 10 percent of those infected, was a deadlier virus than the new coronavirus circulating now. So keep things in perspective.” As you can see from the table below, influenza regularly kills between 0.2 and 0.4% of patients who see a doctor for the flu, and 7-13% of those who are hospitalized for the flu. It is estimated that 10% of those affected by the Spanish flu of 1918 died. The main reason for the fear today is that the coronavirus is new, so we don’t know everything about it. But much about it is already quite clear: the mortality rate appears to be at most 2-4%, and it spreads through heavy water droplets (i.e. sneezing and direct contact). This is not Ebola.



The media tend to emphasize the risk because fear attracts viewers. Readers are much more likely to forward and make viral an article that warns about the virus and emphasizes the danger. The NY Times had a photo essayentitled “China’s Battle with a Deadly Corona Virus” and “The Test a Deadly Coronavirus Outbreak Poses to China’s Leadership” but it was already clear on Jan. 21 that this virus is not as deadly as SARS or Ebola. And though we don’t know some things about the new coronavirus, we do know a lot, and it is misleading to call it “mysterious” (as Fox News did here)

Lest I be considered distant and unaffected by the virus, let me add that my wife has a colleague in China whose father-in-law is among the dead, so I fully understand how serious and tragic influenza can be. But we need to take reasonable precautions and not panic. Often, panic causes more problems than the problem that sparked the fear. The point is, as Ian Johnsonputs it, “This outbreak is serious but not catastrophic.” (His essay on the government's Aksionismus or "actionism" is excellent, like most of his writing.)

There has been a run on masks, but as Rosenthal notes, masks are not that effective. They help in crowded places, but they have to be replaced frequently, because if they work and get viruses on them, they are contaminated. It is basic hygiene, like washing your hands frequently, and staying home if sick, that helps prevent the spread of viruses. There are many draconian measures undertaken in China that are pointless (like shutting gates to apartment complexes at night). Lest Americans think they are more “rational,” I hasten to point out that our local drug stores have sold out of masks. We tried to buy some for a friend who wanted to send them to Hong Kong, but even in St Louis, there has already been a run on masks!

Many of the bans being put in place are informed as much by xenophobia as by public health concerns. Particularly worrying are bans on all Chinese (like in Singapore), as if being Chinese was a marker of likely being ill. Stories that focus on Chinese eating wild animals have gone viral (pun unintended) but have nothing to do with the cause or spread of the disease (see the weird case of “bat soup”here). Jason Oliver Chang, Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut, has created a Googledoc with resources to teach about “Yellow Peril” to try to counteract these racist and xenophobic narratives that unfortunately fit into Trumpian anti-foreign sentiments.

It is natural to be cautious and afraid. I remember from the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, and Emily Feng of NPR in Beijing said the same thing last week, you can know the chance of getting sick is small and not worry about yourself, but you worry more about transmitting it to others. You think, “What if I’m the person that spreads the disease to my workplace?”

Those of us who lived through SARS in Asia changed our habits, as Rosenthal notes. In addition to washing our hands more often, we push elevator buttons with our knuckles and not our fingertip, and we stay home if we are sick. I’m struck that many people with a cold or flu symptoms in the US do not quarantine themselves, but continue going to work and social events. And how many people who are worried about the coronavirus did not get their flu vaccine this year?

It is not that we don’t have to be vigilant. In fact, Laurie Garrett (Pulitzer-prize winning author of books on epidemics and public health) notes that the US is totally unprepared for an epidemic because: “In 2018, the Trump administration fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure. In numerous phone calls and emails with key agencies across the U.S. government, the only consistent response I encountered was distressed confusion.” Not that is alarming.

Another thing is also clear: governments are under tremendous pressure to "do something" even if it is not necessary; no one wants to be blamed for not doing enough. And the weird thing is, if public health efforts succeed and there is no pandemic, or the virus burns out naturally before becoming a pandemic, both health and political officials will be accused of overreacting! It is not easy to make the calls right now. But we individually can at least avoid panicking.

PS: Here is a good NPR Morning Edition story from Monday Feb. 3rd that argues there is no need to panic. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Observations on the Hong Kong Protests in Early December

I was in Hong Kong for ten days at the end of November and early December, and though I had been following the protests fairly closely from afar, there were several things that struck me once I was there. I arrived the morning after the election, and since I had no idea how the election would turn out (Would a “silent majority” turn out to support the government? Had protester violence alienated the public?), I quickly checked the results on my phone as the airplane taxied to the exit. I was surprised to see how strongly the pro-democracy candidates had won. It was an unprecedented repudiation of the pro-establishment parties and the government, and of Beijing. There could be no doubt that the protesters represented the anger and frustration of a large segment of the public.

Kowloon Tong MTR
I should mention that many in the US seemed worried for me, but this was ridiculous. The protests are usually announced in advance, and are very localized. Most people go on living their life. Images on TV focus on the "action" but that occurs in small pockets, and it is fairly easy to avoid the protests. There can be traffic jams caused by protests, and the MTR did close early for a while. But Hong Kong's protests are not a civil war. I was not worried for my safety in going on this visit. I just hoped the wedding I was planning to attend would not have to be canceled because of protests. But everything went well. There was in fact a lull in the protests following the election. The odd thing, actually, was the lack of response from the government or Beijing.

There are many reasons for the high level of anger and frustration in Hong Kong, and it is wrong to try to identify the single or primary cause. Thus, the government’s strategy (pushed by Beijing) of focusing on economic and livelihood issues is not likely to resolve the protests. There can be no doubt that the high cost of housing, rising inequality, and limited prospects for many young people are contributing factors, but they are not the “material base” on which all other elements rest, to use Marxist theory. There are identity issues, and ideas of justice, that are harder to address. And we have to be frank that a layer of anti-Mainlander bigotry also adds emotional power for some of the protesters.

Graffiti, Hong Kong Island
Another explanation that Beijing has for the protests, aside from economic issues, is “foreign interference.” The assumption that foreign “black hands” are behind the protests might seem plausible from afar, and the CIA has certainly promoted and organized protests and coups in the past (Iran 1953Guatemala 1954, Bay of Pigs 1961, etc.). But it surely is an exaggeration of American power to think the CIA can mobilize the thousands of protesters who have repeatedly come out on the streets to protest. It is, of course, also an insult to them, assuming they are being manipulated. But this belief in “black hands” is probably not insincere; communists believe in organizing protests, and it is hard for them to believe that people would spontaneously and of their own individual will come out to protest. Pro-Beijing protests on campuses overseas, and the flag-waving crowds greeting Chinese leaders at various venues in China and overseas, are all organized by the party, so it is only natural, in their minds, that protesters against the Party must also be organized but some secretive forces.

Instead, what I heard from many people I spoke to was how ordinary people felt compelled to donate supplies (masks, umbrellas, clothes, etc) to support the protesters. People leave change and single-trip MTR cards on subway vending machines to help protesters leave without leaving a trace on their Octopus cards that would record their travel. People with cars have driven protesters away from police action. I suppose it would be naïve to think foreign agencies are not supporting the protests, but that is hardly an explanation for what is going on.

Graffiti against police violence
The degree to which ordinary members of the public are involved is striking. Several friends commented with awe and surprise that on the Monday when a general transportation strike occurred (Nov. 11), and buses were stuck for hours on Nathan Road, passengers who got out to walk were not angry, but said things like “Yes, this is inconvenient for me, but I understand why the protesters need to do this.” This was surprising because during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, much of the public complained about the inconvenience caused by the protests.

A sociologist in Hong Kong who studies protest movements made two interesting observations. He noted that the protests may seem to have erupted suddenly from nowhere, but there are protesters who have over a decade of experience in battling the police. From battles over Queen’s Pier, the Kwu Tong redevelopment  and the high speed train station, protesters and police have years of experience in fighting with each other (my retired police office friends refer to them as “professional protesters”). Indeed, at the outbreak of the Umbrella Movement, the very first day when tear gas was first used (to the shock of Hong Kong society not used to such methods), we saw protesters with defensive equipment from masks to plastic wrap arrive prepared for battle. So these tensions have been simmering for years. Each side has learned from the other, and escalated in their tactics, but their attacks also have a ritualized quality.

The sociologist’s other observation was that the protesters have deliberately and successfully provoked a violent police response. In fact, the protesters and police engage in verbal sparring and name-calling during protests. It seems the protesters calculated that the public would support the protesters if they saw the police using violence against them. Though this has indeed occurred, it is hard to know how deliberate this was. Another argument claims that the police withdrew and allowed the protesters to enter and vandalize the Legislative Council chamber, believing that this would turn the public against the protesters. Indeed, many are puzzled as to why the police retreated and allowed the protesters to enter the chamber. In any case, if it was deliberate, it did not work, but only further polarized society, with pro-establishment people horrified by the anarchy and defacing of national symbols, and protesters emphasizing the symbolic nature of the damage (e.g. that the protesters did not touch the library and that they left money for the drinks they took).

V for Vendetta sign in Mong Kok 
Another surprising aspect of the protest is how deep the frustration of the protesters is. Many are willing to tear down all of Hong Kong if their demands are not met. One of the slogans spray-painted on walls and on the streets says “If we burn, you burn with us” (a famous line from The Hunger Games). The common Cantonese expression is 攬炒 lam chau (or in Jyutping romanization, laam5 caau2See article on the term here. Lam literally means to grasp or to pull something into one’s arms; chau means to stir fry, and by extension to speculate (e.g. in stocks), as well as to fire (sack) someone. But here the expression means to go down together, taken from a poker strategy. This nihilistic attitude of course alarms many people. The circle with a letter V on it, from “V for Vendetta,” is a common graffiti around Hong Kong, expressing the anarchistic idea that a chaotic interim period is necessary before a functioning society can emerge.

Protesters use many leftist quotes from Mao and from the communist party, but also anti-globalization ideas from the far right. The Hong Kong protesters mimic a segment of Trump supporters in the US, but the idea many protesters have that they have to “blow it all up” is similar to the “drain the swamp” and anti-establishment ideas of many Trump supporters. Thus, while it may seem odd that pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have Pepe the Frog dolls and masks (see "Know-your-Meme" that does not see the meaning here and NY Times article here), these protesters identify with the anti-establishment ethos that the Alt-Right has created for the frog (much to the dismay of the frog’s creator; see a Reply All podcast and transcript here). The protesters do not see Pepe as a symbol of hate, but they correctly identify it as a symbol of protest, and some of the anti-Mainlander bigotry (as noted in the excellent This American Life episode) also fits with the Alt-Right's use of Pepe as a symbol of hate. So, many pro-establishment people are probably right when they say that Americans and Europeans would not be so sympathetic to the protesters if they were protesting like this in their countries.

On the other hand, a European friend in Hong Kong said that only now, with the protests, does Hong Kong feel like home. Before, with everyone worrying about making money and about brand-name clothes, she felt alienated from Hong Kong society, but now that people are political in a way that she understands and recognizes from her youth back home, she feels much more of a connection and bond with Hong Kong. She cares much more about the society now that she knows others care about society’s future too.

But most people are more negative. One friend has begun the process of emigrating to Malaysia (which for a Chinese person seems, at least superficially, to be like "out of the frying pan into the fire"). Several other recently retired friends who are strongly anti-protester are now planning on moving to England, though they had planned to remain in Hong Kong. They say they do not recognize their city any more.

CUHK graffiti: "would rather be dead than not free"
It is not clear how things will end. The protesters are unorganized by design, to prevent the government from arresting the leadership like they did vindictively several years after Umbrella Movement had ended. It is hard to imagine Beijing yielding on direct elections of the Chief Executive. Indeed, all pro-Beijing figures keep talking about how Hong Kong people need to be educated to be more patriotic, which, of course, is precisely the attitude that mobilizes people to go out on the street in the first place. Even the protesters’ demand of an independent commission to investigate police violence seems impossible, because the government is simply hiding behind the police. If the government were to announce an independent commission, the police would feel they were being thrown under the bus and would refuse to prop up the government. It seems clear that it is not in the interest of Beijing to send in the PLA. It is also not clear what the PLA could do to quell the protests that the police has not tried, short of shooting hundreds of people, which would have huge international repercussions. It is said that some protesters are hoping to provoke just such a response by Beijing to put more pressure on the authorities. Most people see this as a mad fantasy.

It seems the government intends to simply wait out the protesters, hoping they will tire. In the meantime, the reputation of the police, until recently touted as “Asia’s finest,” is in tatters. Stories of summary arrests and beatings by police, even of innocent bystanders, are common. And a surprising number of people believe that the police has killed protesters at the Prince Edward MTR station and disposed of the bodies. Rumors about the toxic chemicals in the tear gas and blue dye shot from the water cannon are rife. There is no trust in the government. The government claims to have foiled two recent bomb plots. Such an escalation would be tragic, and probably self-defeating. But it is hard to predict anything about these protests, given how unpredictable they have been thus far.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Are Paved Roads "Unnecessary Government Spending"? What is Government in a Democracy?

Yesterday we went out into the countryside to visit a friend who lives on a farm. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the leaves are just starting to turn colors. On the drive back home, we saw a Jeep Wrangler (a large 4 by 4) with a spare wheel cover like on the right. It says, "PAVED ROADS: Another Fine Example of Unnecessary Government Spending."

This struck me as peculiarly American. Of course, I understand that this is partly in jest; the website where this spare wheel cover is sold sells other humorous tire covers (see below) and notes that with this cover you can "and enjoy the stares when the guys behind you read it." (I'm actually not sure how you're supposed to see the faces of people behind you without crashing into the people in front of you, but that's another issue.)

The website where this is sold is called Extreme Terrain Off-Road Outfitters, and they have a smaller sticker for $5, about which they say: "Does your rig rarely see the road? Happier on the trail? Government annoy you? (You're not alone!) Get a few grins with this decal."  So they think it is funny. But at the same time, it is not. It is serious political propaganda.

The notion that the government is an oppressor is not new in the US, and it goes back to the 1776 Revolution, as exemplified by the famous Gadsden Flag with the coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me" and the anti-tax Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Anthropologists also view states as fundamentally oppressive and exploitative institutions. Most people view the rise of states as the beginning of "civilization," but in fact, they are just created when a minority (a priesthood, an oligopoly, a nobility, elites, etc.) take control, organize armies and food deliveries, and maintain their superior power, usually through some sort of force (think military, or police, or praetorian guard). Since the first state, leaders have controlled the state to their own advantage. They may claim they need to do so to organize production or for defense, but the fact is the leaders of states have benefited at the expense of the majority of people (the peons).

But it seems a bit Luddite to believe that we can live, in our current world, "independently," "free" of any government constraint. That Jeep Wrangler was, after all, driving on I-64, a 6-lane interstate paid for by the federal and state governments. We would not be able to travel 30 miles to have lunch with friends if we did not have paved roads--which are paid for by the government!

The genius of American politics in the past was the combination of a belief in small government, to avoid bureaucracy and high taxes, along with the belief that science and technical progress supported by the government could solve human and social problems. From the battles between the two approaches, or rather, compromises between the two, progress could be made. But in the past few decades, a Libertarian ethos has arisen that holds that all government programs are evil: they waste money, undermine people's freedom, and don't work to boot. The fact is, this is sometimes true, but not always. The trick is to know when to use government programs, and when they do not work. The assumption that all government programs are bad is an ideological position promoted by a few super-wealthy Americans like the Kochs and Mercers, and it has grown in influence over recent decades.

Now the US electorate is again debating healthcare: progressive Democrats are proposing "Medicare for All." How this will be funded is not clear, and this is making many centrist voters nervous, especially those who have good health insurance and who worry that it will be taken away and that they will be forced to go into a bureaucratic government-funded health system. And yet, it is incredible that there are still millions of Americans who have no health insurance.

Two days ago, I went to a "Gala" (a fundraiser) for a local charity called "Gateway to Hope." They support low-income women who have cancer by helping them maintain their insurance payments, or helping them pay their mortgage and food bills, so they can concentrate on their treatment. Fact: 36% of women with breast cancer cannot work. If they lose their job, they can lose their insurance! It is shocking that people who get cancer risk losing their job and their house, or that they have to scrimp on food while they are trying to recover from chemotherapy. So it is shocking that such a charity is actually necessary, in one of the richest countries in the world. Why does this charity have to solicit from private donors? Everyone should be contributing, through their taxes, to spread the burden evenly. One would think that everyone would receive this kind of support as a matter of course, but that is not the case.

Hong Kong has also long been governed by the principle of limited government, but Hong Kong has a good public health care system that is very inexpensive to the patient. It is true that there are long waits for some specialties (especially for psychiatric care--suicidal patients have to wait many months to see a psychiatrist), but patients with money can pay out of pocket or buy insurance to get private treatment. Emergency treatment is available to all; the registration fee is HK$100 (US$13). Hong Kong also has many NGOs providing social services, but their funding does not totally come from private sources; many receive all or nearly all their funds from the government. The government audits them and makes sure the money is well spent, but the services are provided in a less bureaucratic form by NGOs. Even many private schools in Hong Kong get significant portions of their funds from the government.

I find that when people in Taiwan, China and even Hong Kong find that there is something wrong in society, they expect the government to step in and address the problem. That is not true for many Americans; Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." The odd thing is that in a democracy, "the government" should be "we, the people." It is a sign of how much more democratization we need in America that people still see the government as an oppressor, even though they supposedly elect it every election.

So a wheel cover claiming that public roads are a waste of taxpayers' money is not funny. I wish it was, that we could agree that it was absurd. But as long as extreme individualist libertarians proclaim their notions of very limited government, it is not a joke but an example of an anti-social and selfish ideology.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Benefits of Life in a Smaller City


One of the advantages of living in St Louis is that I can attend events that would be crowded or not accessible to me in larger cities. St Louis is not small; the metropolitan area has 2.8 million residents and ranks 21st in the nation (it fell below 20th for the first time in 2017 because the population is not growing here, while it is growing in the south). So St Louis has more events than I could possible attend. And this week, I discovered a subculture that is interesting as a cosmopolitan competition and network of fans.

Two days ago, I attended the St Louis Rapid & Blitz chess tournament. Chess has its own subculture, about which I knew next to nothing. By coincidence, I had just heard about blitz chess for the first time in a great podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, and when I heard there would be a tournament in St Louis, I thought I would go to check it out. In blitz chess, players each have a total of 5 minutes to make all their moves, so they have to decide quickly. I thought that for a non-chess expert like me, this would be more interesting than watching players ponder their next move, as in regular chess. I went on day 4 of the 5-day competition, the first day of blitz (the previous days had been “rapid”, which allows 15 minutes per side).

Watching the competition live on the 1st floor
It was only $10 to attend, and to my astonishment, there were only about a dozen spectators. There are 10 players in the competition, and they play a game every half hour. The setting is the St Louis Chess Club, which is not a large building, really just a pair of townhouses, connected in the middle. On the 1st or ground floor, they had set up three rows of seats with a TV, showing the television commentary covering the tournament. The competition was on the 2nd floor, to which I was admitted only upon surrendering my phone and watch (I was told it was to prevent noise, though people with SLR cameras were clicking away during matches). Tables are lined up on one side and a belt separates them from the area for spectators. I was 5 meters from the players.  
Spectators very close to the competitors

I decided to watch the Chinese players (since I had no other logic to follow). I noticed that both Yu and Ding were among the first to sit down at their positions for their match. As in sports, the players shake hands (perfunctorily, I may add) when the second player arrives, and again at the end of the match. Players are given a one minute warning, then a voice calls out (with no microphone) that play is to begin. Play goes very quickly for the first 10 or so moves; they obviously have certain opening moves they all know, so it is only later that play slows down. Then at the end, play can be frantic, as each tries to avoid losing by running out of time. In fact, the timer adds 3 seconds to each player’s clock each time they push down on the timer indicating the end of their turn, so if they move quickly (almost impulsively), they should actually never run out of time, but of course that is when mistakes are made.

Grand Master Maurice Ashley offering post-match commentary
My ignorance of chess is great, and I have no idea why these 10 players were invited, and why the American Hikaru Nakamura, last year's winner, was not present, for example. But in addition to the issues of the organization of the tournament and tour, it was impressive, while watching on TV on the 1st floor, to hear the commentators analyze each move. At one point, world #1 Magnus Carlsen made a mistake, failing to see a move that would have led to a victory. The commentators said that those watching at home (I guess some cable companies carry this channel) should gain confidence from seeing that even someone of Magnus' caliber could make such a dumb mistake. 

Screenshot of TV, live during tournament
The technology supporting the tournament was amazing. Each table had cameras focused on the board and players. The timers, I later realized, were connected to the TV feed, so time remaining was displayed on the TV too. The commentators had various computer programs that allowed them to review the players’ moves and to draw arrows to show potential moves. For someone who knows chess well, it must be thrilling. I was just amazed at the rapid discussion of Qe4 and pawn h5, which I understood literally but knew I did not understand the full meaning.

In all of the three games I saw finish, I was not entirely sure what had happened because they ended so suddenly. One player reached out and shook hands with his opponent, but I could not be sure if he had lost or tied. The problem for me was that the players, and all chess experts, know various endings, so they already know how the game is going to end after a certain point. But I have no clue. You can see the last minute and a half of an ending here (or in the box below, and jump to the 1:57:50 point in the video) and if you turn down the sound, you may experience the confusion I felt. With the sound up, you can hear the excitement of the experts.

Screenshot showing mistake in YU Yangyi's name
Despite all the technology and internationalism of players from 8 different countries, it is a bit disappointing to see that in much of the promotional and television material, they confused the surname and given name of the Chinese players. You can see this in the banners on the 2nd floor of the Chess Club (right), and on the screens on TV (see screenshot above). The surnames of the Chinese players are Ding and Yu, not Liren and Yangyi. In fact, it is actually quite easy to identify Chinese surnames, as 99% of surnames are one syllable long. (Some given names are also one syllable, but that is another matter). Plus, his Wiki page notes "This is a Chinese name; the family name is Yu." It is a bit surprising that this was not caught and corrected. And I assume the Chinese were too polite to point out the error.

Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Hall of Fame
St. Louis has actually become the major center for chess in the United States, and the reason for this, as for many things, is money. Rex Sinquefield [pronounced sink-field] is the donor who funds the World Chess Hall of Fame, the St Louis Chess Club, and the two annual competitions in St Louis on the Grand Chess Tour, which are called the STL Rapid & Blitz and the Sinquefield Cup. The World Chess Hall of Fame last year celebrated its 10th anniversary by holding an exhibition and releasing a publication that looks like a newspaper entitled The Sinquefield Effect.

Rex Sinquefield is an interesting character. While still a student, he became a believer in the “efficient market” theory, which says that it is very difficult if not impossible for investors to do better than the market. He acted on these ideas and made a fortune in Chicago as an early creator and manager of index funds. Index funds do not pick stocks; they invest in stocks to match an index, like the S&P500, which reflects the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the US, or a fund that mimics the Consumer Staples component of the market. Research shows between 64 and even over 70% of mutual funds do not beat their sector’s index (depending on the sector). Since the cost of running an index fund is so low (no research), they always do better than most stock-picking mutual fund.

Sinquefield has said he got bored with his index fund work when he was 61 (and a billionaire), and moved back to his hometown of St Louis in 2005 to make a difference. He is politically very conservative, and gives money to politicians and organizations to try to lower taxes, believing that will help spur economic "growth". He particularly despises St Louis City’s 1% income tax, and even has promoted the total repeal of the state income tax. He has created the “Show Me Institute” (website here, or see pithy Wiki summary here) (Missouri is known as the “Show Me State”) as a think tank to promote his conservative, libertarian, and free market ideology.

Sinquefield was widely believed to be the éminence grise behind a push to combine St Louis City with St Louis County. The county has over 80 different cities and villages and towns, most with their own police and fire department and other services. The duplication of services and inefficiency of the system is obvious to all, but the status quo also protects rich towns from having to contribute to the costs of poverty alleviation, and makes their public schools well-funded, while poorer towns have underfunded and struggling schools. These inequalities are huge, and difficult to tackle, and in fact the proposed merger was not really going to address them directly, but might have started the process. He funded a group, Better Together, that submitted a proposal and held town hall meetings to try to gain support. But as it happened, the St Louis County executive, Steve Stenger, who was to have become the executive/mayor of the combined county-city, was arrested and has now been sentenced to 46 months in prison for corruption, so the push for county-city merger has died, again. The issue seems to come in 10 year intervals.

Prize money and points for STL Rapid & Blitz
Sinquefield has bragged, “If you get involved at the locallevel, you will be amazed at how much influence you can have.” I do not have millions of dollars to influence local politics, but I was able to see a major world chess tournament, and rub shoulders with Grand Masters like Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, YU Yangyi and DING Liren (or, should I write, Yangyi Yu and Liren Ding?), in a way that would not be possible in big cities like Hong Kong or New York, where there would be hundreds if not thousands of fans and spectators. The prize money is not like some sports (hm, is chess a sport? That was a topic for week one of my Sports and Culture course) but is not insignificant. St Louis is the capital of chess in the US today.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Hong Kong Protests: It’s more complicated than pro-democracy vs pro-Beijing

There are so many things I could comment on regarding the Hong Kong protests, but many observations would not be new to those who follow the situation closely, and would probably not be of interest to those who do not follow it closely. But there is one observation that non-specialists should know: the dispute is not just between pro and anti-democracy sides, but much more complicated.

The press often speaks of “pro-democracy protesters” (see here and here) but that label masks a great range of opinions, motivations, and factions among protesters. There are indeed many who support universal suffrage, that is, a more direct system of electing the Chief Executive (a position like a mayor) instead of the current system of election by a committee of 1,200 people mostly picked by Beijing. But the protesters also include a small but very determined number of activists who want more autonomy for Hong Kong. Some want autonomy as promised under the Basic Law and “one country two systems.” But some want virtual, de facto, or actual independence for Hong Kong, so great is their frustration with Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.

Many of the protesters, both pro-democracy and the more autonomy/independence minded, are “nativists,” in the sense that they resent the migration of Mainlanders to Hong Kong. They are more motivated by anger at Mainlanders, both those in Hong Kong and those who run Hong Kong, than they are motivated by a love of democracy and human rights. Since the 1980s, 150 Mainlanders are allowed to migrate to Hong Kong every day, and in addition, students from the Mainland who study and earn college or graduate degrees in Hong are allowed to stay and work in the territory. This, plus competition with Mainlanders for real estate and college places, adds an economic dimension to the discontent. This discontent is personified by the parallel traders (peddlers mostly from Shenzhen who cross the border multiple times per day to buy goods in Hong Kong to sell at higher prices in the Mainland) who have become a target of anger for many Hong Kongers. While nativists in the US, Germany and Italy are right-wing, many of the anti-Mainlander nativists in Hong Kong are pro-autonomy and often make common cause with the pro-democracy activists, because they are protesting against the current government and against Beijing. But their nativism is sometimes quite hateful; some say Trump-like things like "go back to where you came from" and they have physically attacked tourists, and many Mainlanders who live and work in Hong Kong are quite fearful.

While the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have marched on weekend protests are very peaceful, there is also a small minority that is convinced that peaceful protest does not work, and that some violence is going to be necessary (see WSJ article on this here). Their theory got some confirmation when Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she withdrew the proposed Extradition Law, as the SCMP paraphrased her, “to ensure there would be no more violence and injuries.” There was a debate as to whether the protest had been a “riot” or a “disturbance”  but in any case, the threat of violence was one of the factors that led to her decision.

The forces arrayed on the other, pro-government side are just as diverse, and are likely be roughly the same number as the protesters, or only slightly fewer, but less visible and energized. There are pro-government people who are center-right in their politics and who prefer order and see no need for protests. There is a small but very dedicated “Patriotic” faction that is deeply offended by the defacing of national symbols like the flag. They are now beginning to call for volunteers to come out to sing the national anthem at the protesters and to take photos of protesters’ faces to turn them over to the police. Many of these patriots are members of long-established communities in Hong Kong that were pro-Communist Party and anti-colonial. They had patriotic schools and read pro-PRC newspapers. Others are more recent immigrants from the Mainland. These patriots are convinced that Hong Kong people still have a colonial mentality, and cannot understand how Hong Kong people can wave the old colonial flag (Answer: it is a symbol of protest more than actual pro-colonial nostalgia).

Among the pro-government forces there are also many people who think protests will never succeed because Beijing will not allow direct democracy, so protest is pointless and even risks undermining the freedoms Hong Kong still does enjoy. They recognize that Beijing is encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy, but think it is foolish to resist. They may be right; if the PLA has to intervene, then Hong Kong really is just another Chinese city. On the other hand, democracy was never given as a gift, it was always struggled for.

Also among the pro-government forces are also people whose livelihoods are impacted by the protests, including people in the tourist trade dealing with the decline in Mainland tourism and travel generally. And of course there are the tycoons and entrepreneurs who have investments both in Hong Kong and Mainland China who do not want uncertainty. They have ways to work around the authoritarian system (having money helps), and see no need for these protests.

The disparate forces in the protester camp would fission if they had to come up with a common set of proposals or demands. Since they are just protesting against the government, they remain relatively united. I’m sure someone closer to the protests could describe the differences in even finer grain, but I believe these broad strokes are already better than seeing just two sides.

The protests are poorly led, because after the protests five years ago (what came to be called the Umbrella Movement), the government charged and convicted the three leaders (one minister and two professors) with “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause a public nuisance.” Benny Tai and Chan Kin Man were sent to jail in late April, and no doubt added to public frustration and anger with the government and with Beijing. This time, protesters have used encrypted social media to communicate, but the movement is acephalous. With no leaders, it is impossible for the government to negotiate an end to the protests. Ironically, lack of leadership and lack of negotiation keeps the protest movement united. It is a measure of public frustration that people are still willing to come out to protests despite differences in opinions and goals.

It is hard to see how this “summer of discontent” will end. The government keeps arresting protesters (420 as of yesterday), hoping the protests will burn themselves out. No one (neither the Hong Kong government, nor Beijing, nor any protesters) wants the PLA to intervene, which puts a break on the level of violence. But one has to worry that the frustration and emotions of protesters or the feeling of disrespect and humiliation by officials, may lead to loss of life and to violence that would destroy the ideas of civility and freedom that Hong Kong represents.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The AT&T Saga Continues

I have posted before about how AT&T keeps sending me bills for $0 to my old Hong Kong office address, and of my frustrating efforts to get them to stop (see here 11 years ago, and here 18 months ago). After my last post, I actually got a phone call from a supervisor in the southwest, and he seemed very competent and determined to solve the problem. You could say he reached out and touched me. But the problem persists!


 The bills never stopped coming. It has been well over a decade since I used an AT&T card. I've tried calling them, writing, sending back the bill. Nothing works.
And they are still spending US$1.15 every month to send me this phantom bill. People like to complain about government services like the DMV, but this is a private company, spending over $23 a year in just postage to send me a bill for $0.

The only thing that makes this comical is that I don't actually have to pay anything. It would be upsetting rather than annoying if they were actually billing me for something and I could not get them to stop. It is astonishing to me that a company could be so big that it cannot control something like this.

AT&T's new slogan in the early 2010's was "Rethink possible." I'm beginning to think impossible.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

How do you pronounce Huawei?

I noticed today on NPR Morning Edition that in one story, Senator Mark Warner, the host Steve Inskeep and White House correspondent Ayesha Roscoe all pronounced Huawei as "Wah-wei." I was about to email NPR to tell them that their pronunciation guide is wrong, but first googled "How to pronounce Huawei" and found this video, which is produced by Huawei itself (on Gizmodo Australia), but they pronounce it wrong! They say it should be "wah-wei", but in Chinese it should have an "h" before the "wah". It is not a common sound in English, but if you can say the Spanish name Juan ("hu-ahn"), then you can say Huawei ("huah-wei", two syllables).

Interestingly, the Gizmodo video/commercial was produced by Huawei to teach foreigners how to pronounce the company name. From my point of view, it makes the common Chinese assumption that foreigners cannot pronounce Chinese, and gives up. They butcher the name, but it's "close enough" and they assume at least foreigners will remember the name. But there is no reason why Americans, at least, should not be able to say Huawei correctly (I can't be sure about the Brits, and Italians can never pronounce an initial "H" so for them it is hopeless.)

Some on the web (e.g. this Quora reply) speculate that some Chinese are mispronouncing it because the Cantonese pronunciation of the character 华 is "wah", but the name of the company is romanized in Mandarin, so "wah" is definitely wrong. But the company is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, so it does make me wonder whether their marketing person was a Cantonese speaker who could not hear the difference between "wah" and "hua." Unlikely, but possible.

Part of the reason it is important to pronounce it correctly is so Americans do not sound stupid to the Chinese. It is often a sign of disrespect, I think, to not pronounce names correctly. And the first part of the name, Hua, happens to be a character or word that means "China" in Chinese, so it is pretty important to get that right.

I am not the kind of person who, when speaking in English, pronounces "Mexico" and "Guatemala" in Spanish. Doing that was a marker of being a true "lefty" and "in the know" in the 1980s, e.g. to say "nee-kah-rrah-guah" (with a rolled R for best effect). I don't think my insistence on pronouncing Huawei correctly is in the same category. I think of it as just pronouncing it correctly within the limits of what one's native language allows. And I'm not going to insist on getting the tones right; the vowels and consonants should be enough.

This is why I also complain about the way Americans mispronounce Beijing; the "jing" should be pronounced like "jingle bells", but may pronounce the "j" like "je" in French, which only serves to make Beijing sound French and exotic. There is no reason why Americans can't pronounce "Beijing" correctly, and pronouncing "Beijing" in French is wrong.

We're going to hear a lot of news about Huawei; we may as well pronounce it correctly, as close to the Chinese as is easily possible.