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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

KOREA




The Korean Peninsula is 621 miles north to south and 134 miles wide. Habitation started half a million years ago, before Homo Sapiens. Hanyang (now known as Seoul) became the capital city in 1394 and the Hangeul (alphabet) was invented in 1443.

The Japanese invasion of 1910 ended the Joseon Dynasty, which had lasted for more than 500 years. After the war in 1945, the country was split into the North under the communist bloc and south in the free world. Then came the Korean War in 1950, which accomplished nothing positive, ending with a truce in 1953, when the South’s first president, Sigman Rhee, was voted into office. South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, leading to the simultaneous admittance of North and South into the United Nations as recently as 1991. My SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity Chapter 1 provides the differences between North and South, so for this blog, will only focus on the latter, which has nearly 50 million people.




The South Korean flag has a circle in the middle, representing the red proactive cosmic forces of the yang and the blue responsive forces of the yin (sometimes called ying). You probably never noticed that those four black trigrams are different, and starting with 1 o’clock going clockwise, represent water, earth, fire and heaven. The national flower is the Rose of Sharon, which is just about now out of season, symbolizing immortality, because it is a tenacious plant with a beautiful bloom. Korea co-hosted the World Cup in 2002 and the 2012 World Expo, Oceans of the World, will be held in Yeosu, where there are 300 islands.



October is the best month to be here, as it is dry and the fall colors are vibrant. Seniors are respected, 43% are Kim, Lee or Park, and tomorrow begins Chuseok, a three-day period of Thanksgiving, when ancestors are honored and people go home. To the left is the traditional Hanbok seen everywhere during this celebration.


Politically, there seems to be no hurry for a united Korea. The people in the south observed the problems Germany suffered through, and are developing a more optimal strategy.
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The Dow Jones Industrials dropped 30 to 9712. Gold is up to $1009/toz and crude oil dropped below $70/barrel.
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Typhoon Ketsana continued to take lives, now nearing 500. Meanwhile, Super Typhoon Parma appears not be turning north as predicted by experts, and now at 150 MPH, will almost surely make landfall in northern Luzon on Saturday. Also on Saturday, Typhoon Melor, now at 75 MPH, will strengthen and move just north of Guam.




There have been four earthquakes of recent in the South Pacific, an 8.3 south of Samoa, which created a tsunami said to be up to 20 feet high, killing more than a hundred, followed the next day by a 7.6 quake hitting Sumatra. There were two more significant aftershocks, and the death toll in Indonesia could also reach 500.


These cyclonic storms and earthquakes remind me of Chapters 5 and 6 from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth. Speculations on why all this might be happening are provided.


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Monday, September 28, 2009

SOME NEWS FROM THE ORIENT

The rain seems to have stopped, which is a more significant statement than you might think, as it has continued to pour since I first landed. So here is a clearer view of Hong Kong Island from my room.


Oh, did I tell you that breakfast is killing me? During my five week ordeal this summer I lost eleven pounds. I gained back half of that by the time I left on this trip, but fear that I'm now back to past normal, which is five pounds too heavy. Breakfast has been free thus far, and will largely remain so for the rest of the journey. Yesterday, for example, I saw this immense buffet of a dozen fruits, twenty kinds of rolls/breads, a wide assortment of fruit drinks and an enormous salad bar. You could even make your own bloody mary. I was a bit disappointed, but nevertheless created a major salad, returned to my seat and saw that I still had to order my breakfast. There were sets for Japanese, Chinese, Oriental, American, and more. Just the Japanese meal, which I selected, would have cost $40 at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, for the salmon was just grilled and was all of at least half a pound. Today, I was wise, made a small salad and ordered an egg benedict with waffle. Well, two cholesterol filled egg benedicts came and three large waffles. I must remember to be more specific on numbers the next time.

Remember my earlier mentioning that I did not need to pay anything for meals because breakfast is extravagant, I miss lunch to maintain a semblance of body neutrality and have those appetizers for cocktail hour (three hours, actually) at the executive club? Well, last night I finally decided to go to Morton's, which is located in the building of my hotel. At the last moment, though, I decided to bring a large glass of Robert Mondavi cabernet plus bottle of Foster's into my room, then rushed out on a short one block walk for a MacDonald's quarter pounder with cheese, plus large fries..all for about $3.50. Tonight, I splurge in Seoul.


Some thoughts and a prediction from the Orient.


  1. Hong Kong appears to be losing financial leadership to Shanghai. One problem is that wages are much higher in HK, so things can be accomplished more economically in Shanghai. China appears to be planning for two financial centers, and is targeting 2020 as the point of equality, when the new deep-water port close to Shanghai becomes operational. Shanghai will be hosting a major world expo next year.
  2. You would think that China has been around for ten thousand years, but Communist China will on Thursday celebrate only a gala 60th year anniversary party, directed by Zhang Yimou, the movie director who orchestrated the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. There will be a cast of hundreds of thousands, with 60 floats and a parade of military arms to Tiananmen Square, 150 planes trailing colored vapors, 60,000 pigeons and a monumental fireworks show. There will be 800,000 security “volunteers”…but the people have been told to stay home and watch everything on television. For some reason, though, there seems to be a somberness to the proceedings. Almost like what is the big deal about a 60th anniversary. Well, in China when one attains 60, a new cycle of life is initiated. There is something symbolically significant about this age. A contrary point of view is provided by Foreign Policy today.
  3. Friday is a big day for the Olympics sweepstakes. Tokyo is one of four finalists to gain the 2016 Summer Olympics. From all indications, new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, Prince Naruhito and Princess Masako, and, maybe, even, the most popular one of all, Ichiro Suzuki, might attend the decision-making event in Copenhagen, which also hosts the pivotal global warming convention in December. However, Japan’s odds are one chance in five, better than Madrid’s 1:8. The toss-up decision is between Chicago at 11:8 and Rio at 4:11. Yes, the U.S. is favored, and will probably get it if Barack Obama shows up, as he and Michelle have said, despite the tired carping of Republicans. After all, Tony Blair went to Singapore to secure London 2012 and Vladimir Putin traveled to Guatemala City for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. However, there is sentiment for Brazil, as South America has never hosted any Olympics, so this would be a transformational moment for the country and continent. I predict Rio de Janeiro as the winner, partly because King Juan Carlos of Spain has pledged his votes to Brazil if his country is eliminated, and, even, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is lobbying for this underdog. Of course, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil will be there for the presentation. The country will be prepared, as they host the World Cup (of soccer) in 2014.

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The Dow Jones Industrials settled 47 to 9742, while world markets were mixed. Gold rose $2/toz to $933 and crude oil slipped below $67/barrel.

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Ketsana slammed into Vietnam and is gaining a reputation as a killer storm, with nearly 300 deaths in the Philippines and 25 at this time in Vietnam. Tropical Storm Melor is now at 45 MPH and continues to head towards Guam. Strengthening will occur, but it is uncertain at this time if typhoon status will be attained. Tropical Storm Parma, now at 50 MPH, will become a typhoon, but most models still see it moving north and only bring some winds, waves and rain to the Philippines. There is a fourth storm, but signs are it is not a threat.


An 8.3 earthquake triggered a tsunami affecting the Pacific islands around Western Samoa. Waves as high as 20 feet were mentioned and Japan has issued a tsunami alert. It is reported that 25 people have been killed, but information is only now being received. Wait a minute, Hong Kong is about the same distance away from Samoa, and both this hotel and airport are at the sea level line. Making a quick calculation, noting that tsunamis move at the speed of sound, the tsunami should strike Hong Kong while I'm on my way to the airport...at sea level. Departure has been trying thus far, and this one could well become the most monumental. Nah, I made it to the airport lounge, where I'm having a prepared in front of you rice noodle with fish and dried scallop congee, with a bloody mary and Tsingtao. As I scan the ocean, no sign of a tsunami.

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HONG KONG



The Hong Kong Special Administration Region (SAR), about six times the size of Washington, D.C., is a territory of the People’s Republic of China. The chief of state is, thus, Hu Jintao. There are more than 200 islands. The life expectancy is 82 years, #6 in the world (by the way, the USA is at 78, or #50...yes, we pay around twice as much for health coverage/capita compared to most developed entities, and yet suffer from a mediocre life expectancy).

Human habitation is speculated as early as the Paleolithic Age, which ended 14,000 years ago. Hong Kong, in Cantonese, means frangrant harbor, an apt term today if putridity can also be considered as frangrant. There are three parts to Hong Kong: the island of Hong Kong, the sprawling metropolis Kowloon, and everything else in the SAR. Seven million people live here. Interestingly enough, the fishing town of Shenzhen had in 1980 all of 25,000 people. Located on the China side of the border, only a short train ride away, Shenzhen now has more than twice the population of Hong Kong.


The modern history starts with assumption by the United Kingdom as a Crown Colony in 1842, following the First Opium War…in short, China did not want opium and the UK thought that was not acceptable. The Second Opium War resulted in the rest of the territory coming under British rule, with a 99-year lease signed in 1898. Opium was a weapon of mass stuporfication. One of the most amazing displays of political integrity was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returning Hong Kong to China in 1997. Then came Sarah Palin, who on 23September09 addressed an investors’ conference, garnering a hefty fee. Okay, that was a bit of sarcasm, but I still wonder why the UK just gave in. After all, as Senator S.J. Hayakawa repeated, in the matter of the Panama Canal: we stole it fair and square. But we also rightfully returned it.


After an edgy first few years, China delivered on allowing Hong Kong almost total autonomy on form of government, fiscal matters, including currency, judiciary and all other matters, except for defense and foreign affairs…for 50 years. Oh, oh. Their capitalist economy has now been rated #1 as the freest in the world by the index of Economic Freedom…for the past 15 years. GDP/capita is $43,700. Unemployment was 5.4% in August.


I’ve been to Hong Kong on numerous occasions, but never even thought they had a flag. Well, in 1997, when returned to China, the Bauhinia, a five-petal crimson orchid, became this symbol.

The flag itself depicts a white flower, which is incorrect. The significance of five has to do with the 5 stars in the flag of China, and more arcanely, something to do with ying and yang.


I always have a Peking Duck meal on a stop here. Nearly two years ago, on Thanksgiving, Eddie Chiu took us for an outstanding PD meal. Tonight, it was raining, so I went to Celestial Court on the second floor and found what looked like an expensive PD...the whole duck. The Manager, Barry Lai, talked me into he preparing a plate, with the pancake, etc., which would not overwhelm me at an appropriate price. This was about the best PD I've ever had, and just the right quantity. Look up Barry if you are ever in or near the Sheraton. He is a most sensible and reasonable restuaranter.


Finally, I took this photo looking towards Hong Kong Island from my room. It has not stopped raining since I arrived 12 hours ago, thus the slightly foggy effect.

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The Dow Jones Industrials surged 124 to 9789, while world markets, except for Sweden, were also all up. Gold is steady at $991/toz, while crude oil is at $67/barrel. September 29 a year ago saw the largest one day drop in DJI history, minus 778 (-6%, ending at 10, 365), with the second worst drop occurring a little more than two weeks later of -733 (close to an 8% decrease, because the DJI ended at 8578). Of course, the three biggest increases were also about a year ago: +936 (+11%) on October 13, +889 (11%) on October 28 and +553 (+7%) on November 13. Those were volatile times. Now, the market is boringly stabilized.

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Ketsana, after causing major damage and lost of life (144 at current count) around Manila as a weak tropical storm, is now up to 105 MPH as a major typhoon and is just beginning to slam into Vietnam between Hue and Danang. There are two more disturbancies in the West Pacific, both strengthening, with Tropical Storm Parma to become a typhoon by Thursday night, heading in the general direction of the Philippines. This one, though, might just skirt up north and spare Manila.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

HO CHI MINH CITY



Saigon (more accurately, Sai Gon) was merged with a surrounding province, plus few other jurisdictions, and renamed Ho Chi Minh City (actually, Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh) in 1976 after the end of the Vietnam War. The airport, Tan Son Nhat, remains SGN. The population is nearing 10 million and is expected to reach 20 million in 2020. The city is located 1100 miles south of Hanoi.


Interestingly enough, it is cooler in September than January and February because of monsoon season, but it only rained less than an hour during the daylight hours during my three-day stay. I was adventurous and walked around, making the obligatory t-shirt purchase at Ben Thanh Market—a more organized version of those you see in Bangkok and Seoul. As I’ll be back in a few months with a Tauck group, I did not bother with tours. I spent all of a dollar each for the cab (all the more reason not to walk) and entrance fee to the Saigon Botanical and Zoological Park, which is 132 years old and about ten times bigger than the Honolulu Zoo and Foster Botanical Park combined. This is the entrance:

Here are a few other photos, starting with a blue dragon (I collect them):

That is a cassowary below, in honor of my fantasy football team of, oh, 40 years ago at LSU: the East Baton Rouge Cassowaries.
















There are 78 universities and colleges in the city, with Vietnam National University rated the best. The 10:1 ratio I mentioned yesterday is really only 4 million motorcycles to half a million cars. Walking can be hazardous to your health. Certainly, you don’t want to jog, for there is the added hazard of air pollution.


The Sheraton is located in the same complex in the middle of town as the Park Hyatt and Caravelle. There is the old (6 years) building and new grand tower. The latter is more expensive, with a fabulous Executive Club (as separate from the other one). Their cocktail hour is from 5-8PM, featuring a full kitchen where they provide an assortment of appetizers, ranging from pasta, to fish dishes, plus the standard buffet of foods…and any drink you want, as often as you want. You really don’t need to pay for dinner here. They also continue to place new fruits and chocolates in my room even if I never touch it.


Breakfast is extraordinary (and also free if you stay in the Grand Tower), with a Pho station





to go with a grill that prepares whichever type of meat you choose.

There is a juice bar, with several types of melon refreshments prepared at the site, and an interesting range of local fruits.


Internet access in free.

Most remember Vietnam and Saigon from war movies, the most memorable being Full Metal Jacket (directed by Stanley Kubrick), Apocalypse Now (Ford Copolla) and Platoon (Oliver Stone), but there were also Good Morning Vietnam (Robin Williams), Born on the Fourth of July (starring Tom Cruise) and Deer Hunter (Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro.


Finally, while I saw no yellow tree, a few interesting factoids to share at your next cocktail party can be:


  1. The biggest freshwater fish, a 9 foot catfish (Pangasianodon gigas), weighing in at 646 pounds, was caught in the Mekong River (Thailand). The record catfish verified in the USA was 121 pounds.
  2. The largest freshwater fish, though, is suspected to be the Chinese Paddlefish (also known as the elephant fish, because of the long snout, in the Yangtze), said to be up to 23 feet and 1000 pounds…except, it might be extinct, for the last caught was in 2003.
  3. The largest arapaima from the Amazon of any credence, was only 440 pounds. You see versions of this fish in pet stores for your aquarium.
  4. The largest stingray caught in Cambodia (also the Mekong) was a 13 footer, which was too big to be weighed, but one of 20 feet and 1000 pounds has been mentioned as real, and another of 16 feet and 1320 pounds has been mentioned.



My cab ride to Ton Son Nhat International Airport was harrowing. At 3:45AM, vehicles, at some speed, go right through red lights. Thus, I felt safer sneaking through a red light because the driver was somewhat cautious. A red is taken to be yellow here. However, barreling through a green light was high adventure because who knows what was coming from right or left. On arrival, there was a mob outside the airport, so I thought it was closed. Oh no, not another Cairo experience (see Chapter 6 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity). I persevered through the crowd and saw the gate open, so I went in. I still wonder what those people were doing outside, many of them with suitcases, for this was the departure floor, not the arrival area. Through the whole process of check-in and immigration, I did not see anyone else being served. It was 4AM, but, still, strange. The airport lounge had a fancy pho bar, so my day began, unlike in Bangkok, four days ago, as it should, in serenity, with comfort and free food/drinks. I celebrated my good fortune with a glass of chardonnay...at 4:25AM. The United 747, furthermore, is only 25 yards to my left, just outside the window. Next, Hong Kong.

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Ketsana is now a typhoon at 90 MPH, and after dumping a monumental amount of rain on the Philippines, with deaths now reported in three digits, and homelessness in six digits, will make landfall on Wednesday between Hue and Danang. The size of this storm is so large that it is even rainy and windy in Hong Kong, where I am now situated. There are two more storms brewing, one heading west for the Philippines, maybe even through Manila again, and a second scouting Guam.

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Barbados just visited this site, increasing the number of countries to 105:


5681-105-474


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Friday, September 25, 2009

I MADE IT TO VIETNAM




Well, I made it to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon. Note that HCMC is actually south of Bangkok, and so positioned, will miss the brunt of the storm to hit Vietnam in a couple of days.


The red in the flag represents the blood spilt fighting for independence, while the star is symbolic of the workers, peasants, soldiers, intellectuals and young people working together to build socialism. Adopted first in 1955 after beating the French, it was then mostly used in the north. Upon the departure of the Americans, the flag became national.


I just caught a cab from Ton Son Nhut Airport, and noticed that the road to the Sheraton Towers was not the best, and what I saw of the city in the dark sort of reminded me of Seoul thirty years ago. There must be ten motor bikes for every car, and making a turn at any intersection requires a rather intricate choreography because of the continuous stream of these two wheelers. Somehow, they don't hit each other and amazingly miss those attempting to cross the street.


Human habitation in Vietnam can be traced to 2000 BC. Two millennia ago, China ruled over the country, lasting for around a thousand years. Independence was obtained just before 1000AD. Then came the French in 1858, as this area was known as French Indochina from 1887. The second world war brought Japan, but France regained control after the war, only to be forced out by communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh in 1954, when the country was split into North and South Vietnam. American economic and military aid to the South increased throughout the 60’s, when Ho Chi Minh again prevailed, booting out the Americans in 1973. Not dissimilar to China, a renovation policy began to govern from 1986, and the country has made good economic progress since then.


The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a communist country, is slightly larger than New Mexico and has a population of 87 million, where more than 80% have no religion. The chief of state is President Nguyen Minh Triet. There is one party, the Communist Party. Life expectancy is approaching 72, or #127 in the world. The GDP/capita is only $2,800, making it #169.


The country produces about a third of a million barrels of oil/day, but imports more than it exports. Natural gas is being developed. The danger issue is Spratly Islands, a couple of hundred islands and almost islands, where fossil fuels and fishing conflicts involve China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.


The exchange rate is 17,841 dong per US dollar. I'm now a multi-millionaire in what's in my pocket.


Go to ThanhNienNews.com/ and Viet Nam News for the latest information from the country.

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The Dow Jones Industrials slipped 42 to 9665, while world markets almost all also dropped. We are now at a tipping point, for next week could be monumental, in either direction. Gold fell $4/toz to $991 and oil is now at $66/barrel. The Brent Spot is at $64.55/barrel.

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Tropical Storm Ketsana is now up to 50 MPH and is scheduled to affect Vietnam from Monday. I leave early that morning for Hong Kong. There is one disturbance each in the East Pacific and Atlantic.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

IF IT’S THURSDAY, I MUST BE IN SAIGON

Unfortunately…I’m not. Woke up at 5AM for pickup at 6. Checked in with Thai Air, and found out that I needed a visa to get into Vietnam. I specially asked United when I made the original reservation, and the person on the other end of the phone said that all I needed to do was sign a form after I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City( HCMC) airport.


It was now 6:30AM. My only option was to talk to someone at the Vietnam embassy in town, but the office opened at 8:30 and the plane was scheduled to leave at 9. There are only two daily flights, and the 6 PM flight was overbooked. As United created this mess, I thought I would get them involved. Alas, there was no one from United at the airport, and their office in town opened at 9AM. So I made a command decision to return to the Westin Grand and have them help me get that visa. Two phone numbers were provided for the Vietnam Embassy. It was now 8AM.


It took only 20 minutes to get to the airport, but more than an hour to return, because of the morning rush. I re-checked into the Westin, and almost got my same room, but they gave me another one instead. The Executive Club staff was marvelous. They tried calling those two numbers of the Vietnam embassy, but no one answered. So they called United Airlines, and learned several things. First, the Vietnam Embassy never answers their phone (can you believe this?). Yes, many have had this problem, and they all had to go to the Embassy for a visa. What about someone earlier telling me about not needing a visa before the flight? Oh, that was only if I caught a United flight into HCMC, and there was none from Bangkok.


So I was put into a cab for the Vietnam Embassy. I filled out a form and waited in line for a while. When I was served, I learned that I needed a photo. No problem, they said, just get one taken. They gave me an address, which they said was a short walk away. Well, with my travel attire (sport coat), I ended up walking more than half a mile in the hot (more than 90 degrees F) sun. The photo service asked what size I wanted? I didn’t know, but we settled on the smallest. The staff was quick and equipment really high tech. Six photos for a bit less than $5. I should have caught a cab, but I trudged back to the Embassy (which I might have earlier mentioned, was really, really, dingy…especially the visa area).


After standing in line again, and noting that the office closed for two hours from 11:30, and it was 11:30 when I eventually made it to the front. Have you counted how many stress points I have had today? Plus, I thought I would have breakfast at the Thai version of the Red Carpet Club…so I still had nothing to eat that morning.


Then came the unexpected. They asked for 3000 baht (almost $100)…which immediately concerned me, but it turned out I barely had that sum with me. Remember, I had just about checked out of the country. Then, I was told I could pick up the visa at 4PM the next day, which would have made me miss the flight, for the traffic to the airport at that time on a Friday afternoon was supposed to be horrendous. I must have looked totally distraught, for the lady then retorted, you can, then, come at 4PM today, which I did, and picked up my visa for Vietnam.


To celebrate a kind of victory, I asked the concierge what would the most memorable dining experience in Bangkok. She recommended the Vertigo Grill on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, and was able to gain a reservation for me. So this evening I caught a cab, and to my surprise, it pulled into where once was the Westin Hotel. When the new one was built (the one I’m in), Starwood must have sold the old one. I must have stayed here a half dozen times when it first opened. But this rooftop restaurant was only built seven years ago. I don’t remember the old Westin being so tall. This is the Vertigo Grill when it is not raining:



But, it was, so, the story of my day, all diners were relocated to the floor below, which itself was okay. The food was quite good, and not that expensive: wagyu steak, garlic spinach, mash potatoes, sauteed shiitake, fancy corn on the cob and a beer, for around $50, including all services charges and taxes.

I should be able to leave Thailand today. I had one of those non-refundable reservations at the Sheraton in Vietnam, but, thanks to the Westin in Bangkok, an arrangement was made for me to use the cost of night in Saigon I missed for dinner and other expenses.


If it’s Friday, I should be in Vietnam. We’ll see.

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The Dow Jones Industrials sunk further, 41 to 9707, while world markets, except for Sweden, also fell. The significance of this two day decline is that the volume was high. A few more are now speculating that this technical correction probably will mean 9000 before 10,000. Oil is almost crashing, now below $66/barrel, while gold dropped $13/toz to $995.

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Tropical Depression Nora in the East Pacific should become a remnant by tomorrow. However, Tropical Depression 17, now on the east side of the Philippines, will zoom over land tomorrow, and then head straight for me...if I ever make it to Saigon.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

GLOBAL LEADERS ON GLOBAL WARMING



As you know, many made speeches at the United Nations yesterday. President Barack Obama remarked that the U.S. has entered a new phase of cooperation and action. True, for the Bush Administration made a mockery of these types of proceedings. The reality is that the Senate will, at best, pass a tepid, no, make that, toothless, cap and trade compromise. Obama's silence in favor of any kind of health legislation, is just as well, because that global warming remediation legislation is embarrassing, and the best thing that could happen is for the Senate to wait until next year.


President Hu Jintao effectively one-upped Obama by actually showing concern and indicating that they are now setting domestic targets for reducing carbon dioxide. He didn't exactly mention numbers, but the difference this time was one of attitude and commitment. The Peoples Daily Online indicated that Hu's message was inspiring. The U.S. Congress will not act, and should not, if China and India are again waived out of the limits.


There is, though, one disquieting reality. The globe has not really heated up during the past decade. Scientists explain that away, linking the stability to certain oceanic and otherwise naturally cyclic conditions. But, cyclonic storms this year are at a 30-year low.


It has long been my contention that nothing much will happen until tens of millions perish one hot summer, which, of course, was not the case this year. I see a tough time for the Senate passing anything useful this year and Copenhagen in December will be supremely disappointing.


Why they pick such a cold site in winter is beyond my comprehension. The next one should be in Beijing or Delhi in July. Maybe they're stuck with December, because the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 also occurred in December. Well, change it!


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The Dow Jones Industrials sunk 81 to 9749, and world markets were also mostly down, but the major economies appear to be recovering. Crude oil dropped to $68/barrel and gold, too, -$10/toz to $1008.
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In the East Pacific, Tropical Storm Nora is now at 50 MPH, and is heading for Hawaii...but has probably peaked, and will most probably be weakened by something called shear, and within three or four days, if not sooner, should become a remnant low. There is another disturbance right behind Nora, but it should face similar conditions.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

THAILAND: LAND OF THE NICE


Human habitation in Thailand can be traced back 600,00 years. Today, with a population of 65 million, it is about the physical size of France and somewhat smaller than Texas. Racial harmony has characterized this country even till today, although more recently, the government has shifted from democracy to military dictatorship, back and forth, all watched over by the King. Yet, the people are all really nice on a personal level. Ninety five percent are Buddhist, but there are two million Muslims, mostly Sunni. Yes, they have caused problems.


Since 1792 there have been nine kings, all named Rama. The one you must know is Rama IV, King Mongkut, played by Yul Brynner (because Rex Harrison was busy) in Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, both on broadway (1951) and in the movie (1956). Mongkut’s son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the 40th ruler of Siam, abolished slavery (guess that Uncle Tom’s Cabin play produced by Anna Leonowens—Deborah Kerr—at around the time of the American Civil War, must have had an important influence on Chulalongkorn). He ruled for 42 years, and deftly played off the French and British to remain largely independent.

Rama IX King Bhumibol Adulyadej, ruler since 1946, 53 years as sovereign, is now 81 and appears to be very ill. The current Queen is Sirikit and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is destined to become Rama X.


This country was called Siam (land of the white elephant) by the Portuguese in 1511, but a transition began to be made in 1939 to Thailand (land of the free) as a nationalistic gesture, excluding the Chinese. Thailand became official in 1949.


Sixty years later, Bangkok is about the sprawlingest metropolis you can find. However, the mass transit system has helped to alleviate total gridlock. Fifteen years ago, it took me two hours on a tuk-tuk (powered ricksaw) to travel two miles, where I showed up an hour and a half late for a meeting with an important government official…and he rather blithely, just invited me to join him for lunch. However, you wonder how this can happen, but there are three metro/train systems, and they are all totally independent. Sort of like the JR and Tokyo subway rivalry, except at least they share many similar stations. Not necessarily so for Bangkok. But an all day pass on the BST is a little more than $3, and the trains are really air-conditioned, clean, efficient and a terrific bargain. The taxis are also cost-effective...and the traffic, it turns out, can still be a problem, especially if it rains a lot.


By the way, you can still have three (make that five) suits tailored, with a couple of shirts and ties tossed in…for all of $150. The reality is that you'll end up paying more for a better tailor with higher quality material. Oh, watch out trying to cross busy intersections. There is no totally safe strategy. I would recommend a taxi, for it only costs a couple of bucks (Tokyo’s equivalent would cost ten times more) to go a rather long way. Yet, I still walk, for it is hot, sweaty, and I’ve gained enough weight over the past month that I need that exercise. You would think that living would take priority, but, for some reason, it doesn't.


Let me close for now, but posting this blog, I note that there is a violent thunderstorm outside, so I guess I will have to remain in the Westin for Kissho, rather than cross the street (there is an overpass, because two separate mass transit stations are just outside this hotel) to Rossini’s in the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit, a terrific Italian restaurant I just love. There is a Kissho at the shopping complex next to the Tokyo Westin, where I will stay in a week. I had my one Thai meal today for lunch, and it did have a tinge of fermented fish sauce that I hate, for it is endemic to all traditional Thai cuisine.

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The Dow Jones Industrials jumped 51 to 9830, while world markets were also mostly up. Will the DJIs soon hit 10,000, where it was almost a year ago? Gold leaped $13/toz, now up to $1018, while oil is at $71/barrel.

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There are two disturbances south of Baha, but they don't appear to be threats. Tropical cyclones appear to be at a 30 year low. This is the first time in a long time during the peak period that there has been no tropical cyclone anywhere in the northern hemisphere for the second straight day, and this condition should continue for the next few days. The only dark spot on the map is significant rain projected for Vietnam over the next five days...and I leave for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) tomorrow. Ten inches are expected. By the way, did you know that recently, the Atlanta area has been just about the the rainiest spot on the globe, even wetter than Mr. Waialeale on Kauai? Nearly 20 inches have fallen over the past three days and more is expected today.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

TEACHING RAINBOWS (Part 10)

Thus far, everyone I've talked to cannot remember even one yellow tree in Bangkok. They mention several other cities with these trees. I'll keep searching. At least I don't see any sign of flooding and the sun is actually out this morning.

The following continues Chapter 3 on education from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:


Then There is Singapore

Singapore, with a population approaching 5 million with more than three-fourths third generation Chinese, is the closest thing to a benevolent dictatorship that calls itself a parliamentary democracy. First colonized by the British in 1819, it became an independent republic in 1965. It is the smallest country in Southeast Asia and the 18th wealthiest nation with an area about 3.5 times that of Washington, D.C. By all standards, Singapore is a remarkable marvel and deserves its reputation for order, prosperity and modernity. Like in Norway, everything works and is clean.


How did this happen? Lee Kuan Yew was its first prime minister in 1959, and his reign prospered until 1990, when he willingly stepped down at the age of 67. There is a president, but the PM runs the country. Lee’s eldest son, Hsien Loong, in 2004 became prime minister. The People’s Action Party has always controlled the politics. That continuity, clever planning and some ruthless control made the country. They set and meet goals.Singapore Airlines is the #1 airline, Changi Airport is always #1 or #2, the World Bank rates the country as #1 out of 175 in “doing business,” Foreign Policy Magazine ranks it #1 of 62 countries in globalization and Transparency International gives it a #5 (meaning good) rating among 163 countries in corruption.


While Singapore did not participate in the above (below, actually, in this blog) evaluation of 15 year olds, there is no great surprise, then, that their fourth and eighth grade students, in both math and science, ranked #1, followed by countries of the Orient: South Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan. The U.S. made it to #9 in 8th grade science. Maybe there is hope for the younger generation.


However, there is a reason why The Economist ranks Singapore as #84 out of 167 in their Index of Democracy and Reporters with Borders ranks them as #146 out of 168 in the Press Freedom Index. Singapore also has the highest execution rate per capita. Reference can be made to the tip of the iceberg represented in the Michael Fay case reported in Chapter 1.


There is a way any country can become the best, and Singapore has found a way to not only survive, but excel at it, through their form of government, whatever you want to call it. A book to read to gain understanding about the country is Economic Growth and Development in Singapore. Singapore, certainly, is worthy of consideration as the best place in the world to live, if you are willing to sacrifice some alienable civil rights...or was that inalienable.

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The Dow Jones Industrials dropped 41 to 9779, while world markets, save for Hong Kong, all sank. Gold decreased $2/toz to $1005 and oil stayed at $70/barrel.

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Except for a weak disturbance in the East Pacific, all is clear.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

ANOTHER JOURNEY BEGINS

Well, the ride from Honolulu was semi-bumpy thanks to Super Typhoon Choi-Wan, which is quickly weakening and moving away from Japan. It's now Monday afternoon, September 22, at Narita Airport. I'm stuck here for five hours, but what a place to wait. I was upgraded to First Class, and if you've been to the Red Carpet Club here, there is a higher floor about the same size, but with a lot more food, a wider assortment of drinks and almost total privacy. While the lower floor must have more than a hundred scurrying about, there are only around five people on this entire floor.

My snack consists of maguro and hirame sushi, Castello blue cheese, soba, cream corn soup, beer and sake. Yes, that's a hot towel.

I read where there was a major riot close to my hotel in Bangkok today, even though it was raining so much the city is flooded. More thunderstorms and a high of 93 are predicted for tomorrow. Great! I hope to reach my hotel at about 1AM, which will be 23 hours after I left home. I'll continue this tomorrow.
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There are two minor disturbances, one each in the East Pacific and mid-Atlantic.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

THE GOLDEN SHOWER TREE


Input from various friends pinpoints Pearl's yellow tree as the:

Golden Shower Tree (Cassia fistula)

Compare this picture from Wikipedia to my September 13 photo, and they do look similar:


This is the national tree of Thailand, for the flowers are the same color as the Thai Royalty yellow and of Buddhism. As the trees all bloom at the same time, this unity also reflects the Thai culture. It is known there as dok khuen, ratchaphruek, Khun and Chaiyaphruek. I board a plane tomorrow for Bangkok to look into how to obtain seedlings. Really.

The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek flower festival was held from 1November06 to 31January07 in Chiang Mai, hosted by King Bhumibol on his 80th birthday. As I will also return to this city next year (as part of a Tauck tour), I'll want to check with my friend, Norkun Sitthiphong, former mechanical engineering professor at Chiang Mai University, youngest dean of engineering ever in the country, then, deputy minister of energy and now president/CEO of a major energy company. Perhaps he can advise me on how best to bring these trees to Hawaii, although I suspect the more difficult part will be American importation hurdles.

In Thailand, this plant is known as a disease killer, for millennia of herbal practice have identified various medical applications. Very little has recently surfaced regarding actual medical validity, however. The wood is strong and durable.

The Golden Shower is also the state flower of Kerala, India. In Japan it is called nanban saikachi. You see this tree on various stamps and national emblems.
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Typhoon Choi-wan is now at 75 MPH and heading away from Japan, as all models predicted. The two disturbances in the East Pacific do not appear to be any threat.
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Bosnia and Herzegovina have joined this blog site, so I'm now up to 104 countries:

5207-104-215

Aloha.
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Friday, September 18, 2009

TEACHING RAINBOWS (Part 9)

The following continues the serialization of Chapter 3 on education from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:




The South Korean Example

You will note below (blog of 17Sept09) that South Korea scores well. This is good and bad. During his presidency in the 1980s, Chun Doo-hwan (mentioned in Chapter 6 about my dinner with the Kims) banned hogwons, or private cram schools. This prohibition was lifted in 1990, changing the life of a South Korean student.

Always, there was the parental goal of their child getting into the SKY universities, the acronym of the three top schools, Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei Universities. Jobs with the chaebols (big business groups) and government are predicated on being a graduate of a SKY college, as, for example, 12 of the 18 top ministers in the federal government today are graduates of SNU. Suitable marriages and assured success are also drivers.

How best, then, to gain acceptance? First, you must get into the right kindergarten, then complement regular school with more intensive lessons that could well mean arriving home after midnight. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child complained that children in South Korea were having their right to play violated. The size of the average Korean class is 37 students, more than 50% larger than the 24 for the typical OECD nation. There are thus perceived gaps in the public school system. Thus, the rise of cram schools, which could cost up to $1000/month/child. It is estimated that parents spend at least $16 billion per year for this service. Remember that outrageous $16 billion per year sum suggested to raise the bar for gifted students and convert a potential criminal into a model citizen? South Korean parents pay at least that amount just for cram school.

All this begins to reach a peak as the time comes for the national College Scholastic Ability Test. Nearly 700,000 students seeking entrance spend a day determining their future life. American college boards are tense. In South Korea it is pathological, or certifiably nuts.

Daechidong (location in Seoul where the cram schools are located) moms (see photo above)spend up to 100 days before that date praying in a church for an hour and a half every afternoon, chanting for success and bowing to Buddha a thousand times with a photo of their child at their feet. You think the child will not be affected by all this effort?

That day, the entire country delays the start of work until 10 AM so that these students will not be inconvenienced by traffic jams. The exam itself starts at 8:40. Emergency vehicles are available if necessary by calling 119, honking is prohibited, aircraft takeoff and landing times are rescheduled, sellers of good luck charms make a handsome profit and the cheerleading junior class sings comforting words of encouragement. There is a slight exaggeration here, but not much.

In Korea, moms were asked about their educational system, and the general response was that their children were too lazy and there was insufficient homework. In the U.S., the complaint was there was too much homework and more should be done about boosting student pride. Huh?

Well, is homework bad? Two American books actually back up the U.S. mom. The Homework Myth (Alfie Kohn, Da Capo Press, 2006) and The Case Against Homework (two mothers, Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, Crown Publishers, 2006) argue that homework torments families and serves to turn students against learning. Further, cited is a study by Duke University showing that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for grade school students. And, even further, those who study 2 hours or more in high school tend to get lower scores. What? Oh course, most of us don’t realize that we had it easy. Since 1981, homework has gone up by more than 50% in the U.S. And we are still doing so poorly in those comparative surveys? That is, indeed, a concern.

Shouldn’t childhood be fun? Yes, of course, so, perhaps, achievement is being overdone in South Korea. Also, cheating has become a problem. Bribes, just to have your child accommodated in regular classes, are not uncommon, because, in addition to the test score, you must also do well in school. Plus, during the past few years, it was reported that nearly 500 students committed suicide as a result of this process. Frighteningly, nearly 50% of students, it was found through a Ministry of Education survey, actually contemplated this act. Thus, success is coming at a price.
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The Dow Jones Industrials passed the 6October08 high, increasing 36 to 9820, while world markets mostly went down. The question now is, will 10,000 come before 8500. Oil did not change much at a bit below $72/barrel, and gold dropped $7/toz to $1007.
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Typhoon Choi-wan is now south of Tokyo at 125 MPH, and will actually strengthen over the next day or so. However, the computer models appear to be very accurate, as this dangerous storm is beginning to head northwest, and appears destined for the Aleutians. There is a new disturbance in the Atlantic that is expected to follow the same path as those previous storms. In the East Pacific, Tropical Storm Marty is now moving west towards Hawaii, but will significantly weaken over the next few days. Another disturbance will most likely head north toward Baha.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

TEACHING RAINBOWS (Part 8)

The following continues the serialization of Chapter 3 on education from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:




U.S. versus the World on Education

Somewhere between 82% and 85% of the world adult population is literate, depending the study and parameters. Europe is at 99%, U.S. just below that and Africa 73%. But literacy is only a step towards competency.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brings together the governments of 30 countries committed to democracy and market economy. It is headquartered in Paris and exchanges views with 70 countries. Their Program for International Student Assessment surveys 15-year olds in the principal industrialized countries. In 2003, the poll (a free 471 page report can be obtained through the internet) showed that the U.S. ranked (out of 38 countries):


SUBJECT.............RANK.............TOP THREE COUNTRIES

o Mathematics............24............Hong Kong Finland South Korea
o Science......................19............Finland Japan Hong Kong
o Reading.....................12............Finland South Korea Canada
o Problem Solving......26............South Korea Finland Hong Kong

China, India and Singapore were not surveyed. Germany and France did better than the U.S., but were not in the top ten.

Was it government support? The Czech Republic, in the top ten for math, spent only one third as much as the U.S. per student. Teacher’s salaries? The average American teacher is paid about $40,000/year. The pay for a Finnish teacher is about $33,000.

In just another of innumerable comparative tests, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study reported that Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore topped 45 countries in a fourth-grade reading test. Even with No Child Left Behind, which stresses reading competency, the average for U.S. students dropped, and we ended up in 18th place. To accentuate this decay, reading scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (taken by high school students) declined to a thirteen year low in 2006.

The New York Times reported on December 7, 2003, “Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens are among the worst at math.” Nation at risk? Blue ribbon panel convened by the President? Nope! Nothing. We are awaiting the 2007 report, to, no doubt, still do nothing.

USA Today sponsored a debate on improving education, and two points drew my attention. First, it was shown that teachers and unions were fighting a plan by President Bush to build an adjunct teacher corps of 30,000 experienced scientists and mathematicians to assist schools. The unions resisted by saying that teacher pay had to be increased and working conditions improved. There are two sides to this question, so let me just say that there must be a way to justify higher salaries, plus use this cadre of citizens.

Second, it was shown that, in the U.S., 15% of undergraduates received degrees in science or engineering. The figures for our competitors, courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences, were: Singapore (67%), China (50%), France (47%) and South Korea (38%). This is not to say that only scientists and engineers are important to a society, but this wide discrepancy has to be of some, if not a lot, of concern. But is all this crucial to the future of the Nation? Maybe not.
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The Dow Jones went down 8 to 9784, while world markets all went up, except for Canada. Gold slipped $3/toz to $1014, while crude oil is at $72/barrel.

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Tropical Typhoon Choi-wan has weakened to 125 MPH, but most importantly, is still expected to not quite make it to Japan, slipping along the eastern seaboard.



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