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    Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    Samuel Alito's Confirmation

    Samuel Alito's confirmed and now what?  What should we make of the aftermath?

    "Only one of the Senate's 55 Republicans voted against Alito's confirmation ... [and] four Democrats ... broke party ranks and voted for Alito." ( CNN)

    Also from CNN, "only 24 of the chamber's 44 Democrats went along with the filibuster ... Among the 24 Democrats who supported the filibuster were five senators being mentioned as possible 2008 White House contenders -- Kerry, who lost to Bush in 2004; Hillary Clinton of New York; Evan Bayh of Indiana; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; and Joe Biden of Delaware."

    The future holds two paths--"the after-Bork path" and the "partisan path."  The "after Bork" path saw a reaction by politicians that made the next two supreme court nominees essentially bipartisan appointees.  The second path shows a severe partisan split from now on.

    What may increase the likelihood of the second path is the number of democrats who supported the filibuster.  No, not a whole lot, but the presidential hopefulls.

    They are pandering to their party base--a very left base--already, for a run at the whitehouse.  This means that severe strides must be made to get back to the center before taking office should they win.  This separation almost insures that he or she who wins would be devisive in the white house and keep this partisan atmosphere moving.

    I hope it doesn't.  I could see a republican or democrat winning in 2008--both parties have some weak candidates right now that leaves the race wide open--but I hope the rancor goes.

    Monday, January 30, 2006

    Balance of Powers

    I think I might write a novel called: Balance of Powers.  Here's a preview:  The year is 1950, and America's at war.  President Truman has a euphoric people at his back and an international crisis in front of him.

    General McArthur, architect of Japanese reconstruction, hero of the people, bucks at Truman's authority, saying the only way to win in Korea is to take the war to the Chinese -- bomb the heck out of the new People's Republic of China and help the nationalists on Formosa to retake their country.  This might call for the use of atomic bombs, many of them, but because America has the lead in the arms race, nobody will retaliate. 

    In response, Truman recalls McArthur to America, and relieves him of command.  McArthur sits in front of congress and details his actions, people hail him as a hero, throw impromptu parades in New York City when he visits, and support his nomination for president by over 80% of prospective voters.

    McArthur then takes the presidency in 1952.  Having successfully bucked the authority of the president as commander-in-chief, McArthur blocks the ratification of the 22nd amendment (presidential term limits) citing his actions and those of the beloved FDR.  Pres. McArthur proceeds to rule from 1952 to 1974, when he is forced to abdicate because of advancing bad health. 

    During that time, Korea was unified and democratic, Vietnam was unified and democratic, Germany fell under total control of USSR only to be won back through the short, 3 year WWIII (China and USSR against the USA, France, GB), and China becomes broken into three parts (southern and northern one-party democracies and Mongolia).

    Also during this time the President acquires the right to veto any legislation by congress without its ability to override.  Executive orders are extended to 18 months in duration.

    ****So this is a fictional story?  It wasn't until McArthur won the presidential election.  The crazy part is that if he had won, history very well could have ended up this way.  I'm currently reading Colossus: The rise and fall of the American empire, by Niall Ferguson, and he brings up the interesting comparison between Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and McArthur returning home(which made me think of the book).  More importantly, he argues for the incredibly delicate balance of powers in our government that very well could have been overturned.

    Which brings me to the second, semi-related thought (boy I have long intros, don't I?).  Today, the blog Captain's Quarters had a post about the Democrats and their stupid filibuster of Alito.  What I like are Senator Obama's comments that the Democrats have "overreliance on procedural tactics and an inability to convince voters of the erosion of their 'values.'"  Sen. Obama is right on.  Democrats need to position themselves to win seats in the midterm elections and run for the presidency if they want to influence the court.  That is obvious.  Why they don't see it themselves, we may never know.

    However, he also states that

    "Obama doesn't connect the dots all the way. In truth, Alito represents a mainstream school of thought that argues the court has arrogated far too much power to itself over the last several decades, and the only solution for that requires the appointment of judges that will send policy questions back to Congress where they belong."

    True, but Captain Ed doesn't connect the dots all the way either.  The judiciary has collected a lot of power over the last twenty years, and appointing Alito might stem some of that.  But the caveat is that Alito will not necessarily shift the power back to Congress.  The Bush administration has gathered more and more power over the last six years, and a court with Alito could confer legality on many dubious practices by the current administration.

    I have supported the nomination of Alito, because of the political situation--the inability of the democrats to effectively mobilize support for another alternative.  However, recently, I have started having serious doubts about its effect.  Such legality given to the Bush administration's actions make the crossing of the Rubicon by the next Republican president much more of a possibility.

    Sunday, January 29, 2006


    Here's a boy excited that I am two meters tall.  I guess that comes from growing up in Texas -- everything's bigger in Texas

    Vietnamese boy

    Friday, January 27, 2006

    Blog upgrade

    So, I'm thinking of upgrading my blog. There's a couple options, and I'd like opinions.

    First, my blog deals with a couple different topics--namely Vietnam, US and international politics, and sports...and my life. There have been a variety of reasons for my keeping a semblance of anonymity (although this blog isn't that anonymous...I have my first name on it), including the fact that I often talk about political issues. These don't directly lambast any particular country besides my own, but I've never said I'm going to be flattering to all I write about either. With America, I reserve the right to throw it through the ringer every chance I get.

    So, secondly, that means that any change must preserve or enhance my anonymity. Enhance is preferable. However, these changes don't necessarily do that.

    One, I was thinking of switching to typepad or somewhere with an advanced account so I can have hosting space--the ability to modify my blog a little more.

    Including, two, the ability to post audio or video. Something I've really wanted to do for some time is start a podcast on US-Vietnam politics and the unrelated topic of health care (hey, I'm going to be a doctor). In order to do that, I need server space to hold my podcasts.

    Now I've heard of videocasting. That inrigues me, because it is the way of the future. If I can reconcile anonymity with video, I'd love to go there.

    So, what do you readers think...I know you're out there. Send me a personal email if you know it or just comment (for the benefit of those who don't know my email). I want to know your opinions on the direction of this blog, additions/deletions, video and/or audio, podcasts, etc. Please be detailed and critical. Thanks.

    Monday, January 23, 2006

    Sports thoughts

    Alright, so a couple things I've been thinking about sports-wise.

    Kobe Bryant will never score 100 points. Today's game isn't set up that way. Yes, getting 81 on a bad team is amazing. Downright amazing. Yes, it's one of the best offensive displays ever seen in basketball. But 100 is different. 19 more points are a lot of points. And in a closer game, against a team with a better defense, if Bryant got similar numbers he'd never get 100 without two overtimes. And all this is coming begrudginly from my heart, because I hate to acknowledge anything by Kobe-the-spoiled-ball-hog Bryant.

    Secondly, I am SO happy that Dominic Hrbaty is out of the Australian open. I about puked to see him in that UGLY shirt.

    Here's an unrelated, funny quote I found on a tennis chatroom while looking for pictures of that ugly shirt:

    "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized that The Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked him to forgive me."
    Finally, I think the Steelers are the underdogs in the Superbowl. Nobody gives the Seahawks the respect they deserve. Heck, last year they were one good receiver away from winning in the playoffs. People act like they just appeared. They have been winning for a couple years now. Don't expect them to roll over and play dead. The best team in the NFC all year does not do that.

    I do want Pittsburgh to win. I want to see Bettis get a ring. But it will be the hardest game yet. Seattle is for real. Here's the latest line.

    Vietnamese Motorbikes 3: The Washing

    Maybe I should make it a horror film? Kinda sounds like one. Actually it was not even close.

    The day I took my bike to get the oil changed I also got it washed. I went to a BP shop. In Vietnam, the "typical American oil companies" don't do gasoline like they do in the US. In America, when you want gas, you stop at a Shell station, Exxon station, or Chevron. But in Vietnam, most gas stations are companies called Petrolmex, or Mexigas. Maybe they're all mexican.

    I dunno. All I know is that BP shops usually do oil changes and wash bikes. Esso is a brand of oil sold at Petrolmex, and every once in a while you see a Shell shop similar to the BP shops.

    Here's the guy working on my bike.
    They drug it into the shop, basically a hollow house with tile walls, and sprayed it down, then they took it outside for "detailing," which you see here. Finally they wiped it off clean. Oh, and they readjusted my newly adjusted idle because the water blast had knocked it off-kilter again. Not bad, especially for only 9500 VND ($0.65 USD).

    P.S. In my previous posts I talked about the "BMW 700 series" of motorbikes. Well, this bike is the top of the top for luxury--the Honda @ 150cc. There's a Piaggio model this big as well, but these are more common. Still, with the Honda Dylan 150 at 98,000,000 VND, these Honda @ must be way over 150,000,000 VND.

    Thursday, January 19, 2006

    Vietnamese Motorbikes 2

    So I spent a good part of an hour yesterday getting some pretty decent pictures to describe driving in Vietnam, but then I had a great experience with my motorbike, so I will hold off on describing driving and give you another post on motorbikes.

    Yesterday I went to the Honda shop to get my oil changed and brake pads replaced. Since I had just described the outside of a bike, I thought understanding a little more about the inside would be interesting. Or, maybe it's the surgeon in me. Or, maybe it's that my father's an engineer and my grandfather owned an auto shop. Genetics...either way, at least I'll find this post interesting.

    When you first get to the shop, the garage has five or so lifts that look like this.
    Picture 112
    Two workers worked on my Honda Wave Alpha--this guy replaced my break pads after the other put my bike up on the lift.
    Picture 110
    Here are two pictures of him working on my pads. He took off the whole wheel, then unscrewed the rod that goes through it. Once free, he took off the brake on the side of the wheel, took off the pad, and replaced it with a new one. Then he just screwed everything back together and put it back on my bike.
    Picture 111Picture 115
    Meanwhile, the other worker changed my oil and refilled my battery. I found this incredibly interesting. First, he opened a hole in the bottom of my bike and drained the oil.
    Picture 113
    Then he pulled off a side plate, unscrewed a couple screws, and pulled out the battery. In the pictures you see it facing us lengthwise, but in the bike it goes perpendicular to how it's facing in the picture.
    Picture 114
    He proceeded to pop off all the yellow knobs and grab a container filled with water. He used the water to refill each cell in the battery.

    I asked if it was water or a special fluid and he said, "Water. Water is used for all old batteries. If you had a brand new bike, we'd give you a special fluid, but since it's old, you get water."

    He then proceeded to use general SAE 40 motor oil to replace the stuff he drained.

    "On a new bike," he continued, "the oil should be changed after the first 500 kilometers. From then on, it can be changed every 1500-2000 kilometers."

    Finally, he finished off my bike by adjusting up my idle (which was a little low). Again, the design team of the Wave alpha was smart. All he had to do was take a regular phillips screwdriver and insert it into the aerodynamic hole on the side and turn a screw. Done and done!

    "How many bikes do you see a day?" I asked.

    "Hundreds," he replied. "Sometimes as many as three hundred in one day."

    That's a lot of bikes. But it's no worry for me, because the total bill comes to just 98,000 VND after taxes. About 24,500 VND for the oil change, 37,000 VND for the brake pads, 22,500 VND for labor, and the rest tax (prices are estimates because I can't remember the exact prices right now). Not bad paying $2 USD for new brake pads, $1.50 for an oil change, and $1.40 in labor? I'd take that in the USA any day.

    Labor Strikes in Vietnam 3

    Thanks to the anonymous reader who sent me this link.

    The IPS News Agency reports that
    Before this recent wave of strikes, the Vietnamese government had not raised the minimum wage in six years. During that time, the Dong had lost almost 15 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. At the same time, inflation totalled 28 percent.

    The strikes, running for more than month now, worsened after an 18,000-strong walk-out by workers at Freetrend, a Taiwanese company whose factory makes shoes for brands like Nike and Addidas.

    ...Faced with this new growing grassroots pressure, the government finds itself in a tough spot and the Communist Party has chosen not to react to wildcat strikes showing the effect that the newly opened economy has on getting authorities to respond to the needs of civil society.
    That's the key. With almost 16000 VND to a dollar now (it was 15000 VND to a dollar just one year ago), people's wages must increase to keep up with inflation. I expect that, since the minimum wage in Vietnam is still less than China ($55 vs $63), workers will continue to pressure the government. If Vietnam wants to enter the WTO, it needs to not only conclude the talks it's currently having with the United States, but show that progress is being made. Increased worker strikes do not highlight the best of the Vietnamese economy, nor a reason why the USA should permanently normalize its trading relations with Vietnam--a requirement for Vietnam to enter the WTO.

    [NOTA BENE]: In my last post I said the highest pay increase was to 810,000 VND. It is, in fact, 870,000 VND.

    Tuesday, January 17, 2006

    Oregon's Assisted Suicide

    Well, I have to admit I'm not surprised but I am depressed. That the US Supreme Court would uphold Oregon's law on assisted suicides is indicative of the legal state and moral state of America today.

    It should be enough that all doctors must take the hippocratic oath. As a future doctor, I have read this oath many times and take it very seriously. The oath has two versions, which must be explained.

    The original version separated doctors and surgeons. There is a section that says "I will not use the knife, even on sufferers of stones" and it is referring to surgeons and bowl problems. In it, the oath says
    I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.

    This very clearly prohibits doctors prescribing medicine that will kill or abortions--two hot button issues today.

    In the modern version, written by Louis Lasagna at Tufts Medical School and often used today, says,
    I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
    And so you see that things have become more muddled. We are supposed to treat with care matters of life and death, but it does not explicitly prohibit taking a life.

    What it does do, and what we do not do, is stress the importance of trying to save lives. Yes, many doctors would be offended by that statement, because they do try to save lives. But in the situation at hand, too many people are passing the buck, dishing responsibility on someone else, giving up. Nowhere was a doctor prohibited from giving medicine to dull pain. However, medicine to kill implies a giving up, and opens the door for greater, egregious, violations of what is seen as mercy for people with 6 months left to live.

    How much good can be done with 6 months? How many times have things changed? I have a coworker who's uncle recently passed away--fifteen years after doctors gave him two months to live. What a loss if he had been given medicine to end it and taken them. Gone would be 15 years he spent with his wife and kids, blessing the lives of others.

    Medicine is an art for a reason. There is unpredictability. There is variability. There are miracles. Give painkillers if you're merciful, but do not end lives. You take something away from all of us.

    Vietnamese Plastic Surgery

    Caught this article at Thanh Nien News. It seems that more and more Viet Kieu, Viets that live overseas, are returning to Vietnam for breast implants and other surgeries. They are cheaper.

    Knowing how extremely popular plastic surgery is to the Vietnamese people in California, it does not surprise me that they would start to come back here for it. Nor does it surprise me that they want it, because the Vietnamese are often a very superficial people.

    90% of all Viets in America hate mexicans. Why? "Because they're fat," they say. Every Viet is worried about being fat, yet at the same time they enjoy the abundance of food in a better economy by force feeding their children until they are little sumo wrestlers. Yes, Saigon is fatter than the rest of the country, but the combination of food as a sign of wealth and infant formula as a sign of westernization has created a tragic fattening (past healthy levels) of the Vietnamese. Eventually they will catch up to the Americans.

    Plus, every Viet woman is concerned about her breasts. I've heard countless women look at westerners and ask if her (the viet woman's) breasts were pretty compared to the westerner's. Many think that they don't have enough milk to breastfeed because their breasts are small (false). In a culture where keeping your face is paramount, and people want to differentiate themselves from the country workers by keeping themselves lighter skinned and without blemish, I expect plastic surgeons to become very wealthy.

    But I guess, nothing I've said above is any different from anywhere else in the world, right?

    Labor Strikes in Vietnam 2

    I finally found an official media source in Vietnam that mentioned the strikes. It's the Saigon Times Daily, an english language Business newspaper. Even then, it only has it in Monday's print edition (16 Jan 06), so if you're looking it up--good luck. I couldn't find it on the net.

    I also talked to a very prominent lawyer in Saigon about the situation. The two sources confirm old news and shed some new light on the subject.

    Typically, workers at private (and government) factories live in the outer areas around the big cities (in this case Ho Chi Minh City). They work, on average, 12 hour days, and make a total of about 626,000 VND a month. This was based on a previous labor contract with the government. So, even if they work for a private company, the government mandates a minimum wage of 626,000 VND per month.

    There is nothing uncommon with this--America is exactly the same. We have a minimum wage (although there are people like me that oppose it being raised...but that's another issue). In this case, as you can expect, workers for over 25 companies said, "hey, 626K per month is not nearly enough for the time we work." In fairness, the wage was set years ago by the government, when 626,000 VND was the proper minimum wage for factory jobs.

    A couple companies had workers go on strike, and it spread to other companies. In response, the Vietnamese government raised the minimum wage by about $4 USD, to 710,000 VND. But actually, this is misleading, because the minimum wage is gradiated, and many workers will make between 790,000 VND and 830,000+ VND. Depending on the nature of the job, hours worked, and experience, pay will be increased to one of those levels--with most increases going to the 790,000 VND level.

    It is also mandated that many workers make 7% more than the minimum wage--I don't know all the details, but it's safe to say that most of the workers striking, under the law as written, should earn more that 710,000 VND a month.

    However, there was a second wave of strikes--this one not aimed at the government but at employers. Once employers were forced to increase wages, they decreased benefits, putting the workers back at the old wage--and obviously ticking them off. So, the government has stepped in again to force the employers to pay the regular benefits and "encourage" employers to pay workers more than the minimum wage.

    A couple thoughts on the situation.

    1. This sounds an awfully lot like labor disputes in America. The US government frequently gets into the market mess and dictates to employers the amount of benefits and wages to pay employees. Currently, it is helping numerous legacy carriers through bankruptcy (including the horrible United Airlines--never fly them) and one of the reasons commonly quoted for the bankruptcies are the enormous benefits packages owed to retirees and insurance for workers. The government is trying to help these carriers get out of bankruptcy without shedding all benefits for the workers.

    This issue is especially salient with today's medical insurance crisis.

    2. This problem stems from the inefficiency of socialism with a free market. It exists here because the government has to dictate to private employers what to pay. Dictating other things besides a minimum wage might help workers and the economy more overall. However, this is not special for Vietnam. America's practices of minimum wage, etc., cause the same inefficiencies.

    3. This sounds a whole lot different than the Chinese riots. Whereas China visited peacefully protesting citizens with death and violence, the Vietnamese government not only allowed the people to strike, but brokered a deal--first with them and now with the companies--to increase wages. In fact, Vietnam has a history of allowing strikes (see the Thanh Nien News). The Vietnames government's ability to tolerate strikes, and flexibility to work with the demands of the people, are a big reason why I originally (and still do) felt that the society of Vietnam is relatively stable and transition to a society with more protected basic rights and more open government system will be peaceful and natural. China should take a better look at Vietnam and try to emulate it.

    Monday, January 16, 2006

    Vietnamese Motorbikes

    Many people reading this blog have wondered about driving in Vietnam. I will address this in the future, but to start, I wanted to address the amazing, versatile, motorbike. It is the crux of what driving in Vietnam is all about.

    Caveat emptor: Driving in Ho Chi Minh City is quite, almost night & day, different from Hanoi or Hue. So, with allowance made for different driving styles (not unlike Californians versus Utahns), I will describe the motorbike and then later driving.

    First, go to Virtual Doug's different posts on "Two wheeling in Vietnam." They do a good job at showing some driving thoughts.

    Second, this is what a typical motorbike looks like.
    100_1588 This particular bike is a Honda Wave Alpha. I venture to say it is the most common motorbike in Vietnam. There are numerous chinese knockoffs, including a "Panamacyan Wave Alpha" with the exact same paint job that I saw earlier today.

    The average motorbike in Vietnam runs at about 110cc to 125cc. There are new ones, like the Honda Dylan 150cc or the SYM Attilla 150cc that are the equivalent of the BMW 700 series for motorbikes. There are also smaller, 50cc and 100cc motorbikes, but most people have some version of the Honda Wave Alpha and run at 110cc or 125cc.

    By the way, a brand new Honda Wave Alpha is currently selling in Saigon (more expensive than Hanoi) for $13,000,000 VND ( around $900 USD). The new SYM Attillas are going for more than $6000 USD. Also remember that the market has driven down prices here. A 125cc bike in America would cost a ton, since the old 50cc bikes are going for $2000 USD.

    The dashboard of a motorbike looks like this:100_1593 You can see that central to everything is the odometer, in kilometers/hr. This makes things interesting, because you always think you're going faster than you are. You feel the wind blowing through your hair and look down read "45" and you think "Wow, I'm really flying!" until you realize that 45 kmh is more like 27 mph.

    It is connected directly to the front tire--you steer right, your wheel goes right, and vice versa. Also on the dashboard is the gas gauge to the right. Typically, a Honda Wave Alpha guzzles gas compared to newer models like the SYM Attilla, so I fill up every 2-3 days (more like two, because city driving in Saigon is very VERY stop and go and I drive all over the city for work and stuff). It takes about 20,000 VND to fill up every time. So, I put about $1.33 USD in my motorbike every 2 days (or 3 times a week) making price per gallon pretty comparable to the US, but actual money spent is less, because at $1.33 per fillup, I'm spending about $4 USD a week on gas, compared with $12/week in the USA in my gas-guzzling 1990 Toyota.

    In addition to the gas gauge, to the left of the odometer is the gear indicator which shows whether you are in neutral, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th.100_1596 The new Honda Dylan 150s and SYM Attilla 150s are called "xe ga" because they are automatic, but most, maybe 90% of motorbikes, are manual. You start the bike in neutral, and cruise in 4th. When weaving through densly packed intersections, most use 2nd or 3rd. You change gears with a lever on your left side by your foot.100_1597 The big black knob is where you rest your foot. The smaller black knob is pressed down to shift from 1st to 2nd and so forth. The heel of your foot is used to press down on the flat silver knob at the other end of the shaft to downshift. This system is incredibly simple and easy to use, even for someone like me who cannot drive a stick back at home. The clutch is automatic, and if you let off the gas a little, you can usually hear it kick in easily.

    On the left handle, you get maybe the most important piece of equipment on a motorbike (not the lights)--the horn. 100_1594 The horn is used to signal when you are coming up on someone fast, or to make other people aware of your presence. It's used far more common in Hanoi than in Saigon, but it is still heard ubiquitously, especially because the streets are usually a mix of motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, and insanely driven buses.

    The right handle is the gas, a break, and the starter (the yellow knob). Gas is given like a motorcycle, by turning the handle towards you.

    The second most important piece on a motorbike is the break. You can see it here as the flat silver lever in front of the black footpeg on the right side of the bike (opposite side from the gear shifter lever). Since traffic laws are in their infancy in Vietnam, and the roads are shared by everything from cows to buses, breaking is almost as ubiquitous as honking.

    Also on the right side of the bike with the break is the foot crank.
    Sometimes the electronic starter fails (like it did for me this morning) and the footcrank is used to get it going. My morning was a freak morning, and my alpha actually started electronically after a bit, but on older bikes, the footcrank is used often. Also seen in this picture is a second footpedal.
    Each motorbike as a second set of footpedals (one on each side) for the second passenger on the bike to rest his/her feet. As you will find out later, two people on a motorbike is not only common, it is few. You cannot go longer than a day without seeing one motorbike carrying four people. The Vietnamese are ingenious people, and they've turned their ingenuity to their mode of travel very well.

    On either side of the dashboard rest clips where you can hang your bags. Very handy after going to the grocery store.100_1592

    And finally there's the kickstand. 100_1598 It looks similar to a regular bike kickstand, and allows the bike to rest at a slant like you see in the first picture. When people want to stand the bikes closer together, they will use a second, double kickstand, which acts as two training wheels on a bike do to stand the motorbike straight up.

    Well, that is the general overview of a motorbike--perhaps one of the most fun and dangerous ways ever to travel. Hopefully soon I will describe the various ways a motorbike is used and traffic in Vietnam. Until then, here's a picture of an intersection I was at recently (taken while stopped at a red light).

    Labor Strikes in Vietnam

    I have heard faintly about the labor strikes in Vietnam. That's the interesting part of Communism. It is just strong enough to force companies like Google and Yahoo to censure their searches, so I can't get all the information I'd like.

    Basically, they're bad, but not that bad. The problem I see is two fold:

    1. The doi moi instituted in 1997 has done a great job liberating the market, but the government has not done enough to keep up.

    The most recent numbers I heard from an international NGO was that the poverty line was 150,000 VND/month for people in the countryside and 300,000 VND/month for people in the city. That equates to about $9 USD/mo in the country and $18 USD/mo in the city. The problem with these numbers aren't the numbers (that's a yogi berra-ism if I ever heard one). People in America get all worked up over people making only a dollar a day. Well, $1 USD/day is about $30 USD/mo or about $480,000 VND. No, that's not alot, but since you can get food for about 5000 VND a meal, you're paying for your food there. And that's in the city. The dollar a day wage mostly comes from the countryside where things are cheaper.

    No, a dollar a day isn't bad, per se, but what is is the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and the country with the city. Someone who makes 150,000 VND a month in the country will never be able to move to the city for work because he or she is way underneath the poverty line. Also, going to the city for education or English classes is near impossible, because prices in the city are based on the city's economy, which has more wealth. So, the disparity between country and city keeps the people in the country there, or when forced to urbanize, relegates them immediately to the poorest of the poor.

    The other problem is that many Vietnamese can easily, easily, spend $480,000 VND on one dinner (or more). I go into fashionable shoe shops and any brand not Vietnamese goes for at the least 550,000 VND, and some Vietnamese brands are that much too. A whole month's salary for a pair of women's shoes. On the flipside, I saw an old man riding a bike a couple nights ago, trying to sell the last three of his balloons for 2000 VND a piece (I bought one for 5000 VND). Someone would do a lot of good in this country who could mobilize the wealthy Vietnamese (of which there are many in Ho Chi Minh City) to intelligently give extra discretionary income to industrious people at or around the poverty level instead of buying shoes (I think fashion is bigger in Saigon than in most of America, and that's saying a lot).

    The government's big problem since the doi moi has been just that--allowing the industrious to become wealthy and profit off of their industry, while still giving opportunity to the industrious without means of production. It's a problem in America too, but far more poignant here.

    2. Most companies hit by strikes are Taiwanese (and some from Singapore).

    What has happened, and why haven't I heard about it?

    Well, first off, everyone knows that television in Vietnam hovers somewhere between pointless and deadly (as in, if you watch too much of it, you'll have a brain aneurism). Yesterday I got my biggest laughs watching a shameless knockoff CARTOON of Mr. Bean. Most shows on Viet TV are cheap knock-off gameshows (I saw one the other day where two teams of three contestants each squared off to name the titles of popular songs. Supposedly famous singers who I've never heard about sang the opening few measures. If the contestants got it wrong, the singers sang the whole song. No contestant got even one question right. It was a lot of not-so-good singing.) or variety shows with decent dancing and not so decent singing.

    That means that if you get reception, you don't get much news. If you do get news, it's all "yeah for us" news. So, most of the strikes are happening outside of Saigon (some inside) and I haven't heard about them.

    But secondly, I haven't SEEN them either. These strikes deal mainly with specific companies. Yes 70% of Vietnam's GDP comes out of Ho Chi Minh City, but almost 70% of Vietnam's GDP comes from private enterprises now. And although these strikes have struck some private enterprises, they are not nearly big enough to be seen. Plus, most businesses in Vietnam are mom&pop businesses not affected by any labor strike (except the kids not wanting to work after school).

    I have written earlier on the state of affairs, economic and social, in Vietnam compared to China (see here, here, and here). Although Vietnam is experiencing labor strikes, I still stand by my conclusions. The strikes deal with specific employers, not the government. The government actually comes out pretty favorably because it mandated an increase in the minimum wage. It was individual employers responding to the increase by cutting benefits that caused the strikes. In Vietnam, benefits are dished ot in a real way, so cutting benefits is essentially cutting salary, just under a different name. Anybody promised a raise by the government only to have it taken away by their employer will strike--plain and simple.

    So, the mood here is still very calm. People like living here. It's a beautiful country, nice people, and crazy drivers. People are generally content to live under the system currently in place.

    Sunday, January 15, 2006

    Quick thoughts

    Can anyone else step down for the republicans before the midterm elections? The more that step down, the better shot the Republicans have of not losing too many seats to Democrats. Distance from the evil--always a good maxim in politics. As I see it, I think the senate will take a blow from the House's whoredoms, and drop seats. Probably go from 55 Republicans down to 52+/-1. The House, I could see the house losing a lot more seats. The Cook Overview says:
    The re-election rate for Senators averages 80 percent. It's closer to 95 percent in the House.

    So in order for Democrats to win a majority in the Senate they would have to win the open seat in Tennessee, which is hardly a sure bet, and then defeat five incumbent Republican Senators. Today, only three look particularly vulnerable: Sens. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Mike DeWine in Ohio.

    ...It appears today that Democrats will pick up two to four seats, which would leave Republicans with 51, 52 or 53 seats instead of the 55 seats they hold now.
    See? They agree with me, and I didn't even have to do the pontificating.

    I've thought that without the retrenching of the house by Republicans (which they are currently trying to do) they will lose about 15 seats. However, if they retrench effectively, it may be as few as 3-5. In this, the Cook overview disagrees with me. I put more weight in the discontent of electorates. Cook puts more weight in historic incumbant reelection numbers.

    there just aren't enough competitive open seats or vulnerable Republican incumbents on the table for Democrats to have a realistic shot at winning a majority.

    ...As of mid-December, there were just 21 open seats (14 Republicans and 7 Democrats). Of those 14 GOP seats, just three of them are highly vulnerable: AZ-08 (Jim Kolbe), CO-07 (Bob Beauprez) and IA-01 (Jim Nussle). There are three more open seats that are competitive but lean Republican: CA-50 (Duke Cunningham), MN-06 (Mark Kennedy) and WI-08 (Mark Green).

    ...While there may be more Republican retirements in the coming months and some of those might be in competitive districts, and while Democrats do have some time before many filing deadlines for candidates pass, it is unlikely that they will be able to put the 50 Republican seats in play that is thought to be necessary to have a reasonable chance of scoring a net gain of 15 seats. A more likely result is that Democrats end up with a net gain of between four and nine seats, roughly cutting the Republican margin in half in this midterm election campaign.
    It will be an interesting year. That's for sure.

    Especially now that the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning a Holocaust Conference. Historically, when people have been concerned with foreign policy issues, Republicans gain seats. Any fear Americans have about Iran becoming a global force for terror or destruction will have people voting Republican even if they dislike Iraq. Also, Jews, historically democrat, are moving republican and may shift faster since the Iranian president keeps making anti-semitic comments.

    So, the Republican losses may be a lot less than we all expect if Iran gets louder. That would give the Republicans more strength, and ironically, strengthen the political party President Ahmadinejad should be trying to oust.

    Oh 2006 will be interesting.

    The Steelers Steal From Me

    Man, I had this great post written out in my head--the one where I explain to all the football fanatics everywhere why Denver would beat Indianapolis and the Colts' dream season would end before the superbowl.

    It was simple, really. Denver went 13-3 during the regular season, but never looked slow although they were tested along the way. Won their last couple games, four to be exact, and smoked the patriots in the first round. What does that mean?

    It means a 13-3 team that is firing on a cylinders.

    Meanwhile, the Colts, although 14-2, lost two of the last 3, and the starters hadn't played much in almost a month. Don't tell me you aren't rusty. Anyone who plays any sport knows that sitting for more than part of a game leaves you OFF your game.

    So, I had the Colts beating my favorite team this year (the Steelers) because of the slow offense the steel city has, and then getting shook up by the Broncs.

    Unfortunately, I underestimated my team. It looks like the Steelers were able to jump all over that rust and survive a thriller. Colts miss last second field goal. Serves them right. Another point for always playing your starters.

    Ah, and while I'm on the topic of football, one more thing: What's all this about the Patriot's dynasty ending?? I think Dr. Z and Peter King are two of the best sports writers around, but for the first time in a long time, I disagree with his opinion that the dynasty is over.

    One big reason: The Patriots' "dynasty" (which I still hesitate calling it until they win one more) was win, loss, win, win, loss (this year). Three superbowls in four years is great. But who's to say that they won't make it four in six years? or 4 in 7? They made an incredible comeback from an injury-filled season (something the Panthers couldn't do a couple years back ... you may remember--it took them a full season) just to make the playoffs, and the only reasons they didn't win was they played a good team and had an off game. Only one of those two reasons might have still ended in a victory for the Pats.

    So let's hold off on the end of a dynasty until Coach Belicheck or Brady, or Bruschi is gone for good. When the cogs aren't in place anymore, then the dynasty has fallen.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2006

    What's up with Sam Alito?

    Why in the world do people have to be so stupid??

    I'm talking about democrats this time...don't get me started on stupid republicans (Tom Delay).

    Mr. judge honorable what's-his-bucket Samuel Alito finished sitting for the second day of questioning by the senate and all he got was a stick up his rear by Schumner and bloated pontificating by the very bloated (physically) Kennedy. Which, by the way, if you want conflict of interest, you should look at him and his state of Massachussetts. But I digress...

    I am surprised that the firebrands and fat lards of the democratic party continue to obliviate about nothing when Samuel Alito will be confirmed. Why?? Well, because the Republican party has been burned. They've been burned bad by Harriet-I look like the emperor from Star Wars-Miers and the Valery-who really cares-Plame affair that caught Karl Rove just enough to delay return fire about Iraq.

    Ok, so I'm in an epithet mood. I just changed jobs and now I teach English (rather poorly). So sue me. But I digress...

    The republicans have 55 seats in the senate. Democrats argue about filibustering. They need republicans to break rank for it to work. It won't happen because the republicans are retrenching. They must work together to overcome Tom-I'm an idiot and sleazy-Delay's stupidity as well as Iraq or they will lose seats in the midterm elections this year--and nobody wants to lose their seat, because then they don't get the Senate stipend and free trips to play golf at St. Andrews.

    So the republicans won't break rank and Alito, yes, conservative Alito, will be confirmed. What does this do?? Well, two real things:

    1. It makes the democrats look like idiots, eroding their power with the crucial moderates and independants in society, thereby effectively negating their ability to steal seats in the elections coming up.

    2. The erode their logic base by arguing he's so far outside the mainstream.

    Mainstream is not the point of a supreme court justice. If that was it, we'd vote. And it wouldn't be a lifetime position. Has anyone ever met a 90 year old who's in the mainstream?? I haven't. I had grandparents that still called people "colored," for one example. Not mainstream.

    The point of a supreme court justice is to interpret the laws reliably and logically, and provide the victorious party which holds the presidency its spoils. THAT is the point of a justice. As long as justice can look at the problem in front of him/her and make a logical sound argument as to why he/she rules the way he/she does, then the law of averages states that in most cases, the 9 justices will provide a ruling that fits the view of the constitution best for that generation. Does it always happen that way? No. Should it? No. For just as we got stupid rulings like Kelo, we also got Brown vs. Board of Education. Neither are "mainstream" for their time.

    So, if the left continues on it's bent that Alito isn't mainstream, then next time, when the democrats have the white house (which might well be in two years) and they get to pick a justice that supports full marriage rights for homosexuals (which, by the way, is still opposed by 70-80% of America), they will be open to the same illogical attack that they shot at Alito. And I will laugh it down as well.

    For in the law of averages, that hypothetical judge and Alito will influence a result that will be remarkably mainstream.

    Monday, January 09, 2006

    Texas #1 in HS and College

    You guys don't know how hard it's been to get to a computer over the last two weeks. However, now that things are settling down, and i know where some computers are, I think i will get back to a bit of regular blogging. Plus, with the mining accident, alito's confirmation coming up, and everything else that's blown me by, i've gotta put in my two cents.

    First, hurrah for the Longhorns. I, like so many others of you, I'm sure, have been utterly sick of hearing about USC this past season. Yes, I know they were good. Yes, I know they won last year's national championship, but come on, it was too much.

    Look at it this way: Technically, the BCS champion of two years ago was LSU, not USC, meaning USC was NOT going for a three-peat this season like all the self-absorbed sportswrites/casters seemed to want to point out every three minutes.

    Secondly, USC's defense was not that great. They barely, and I mean barely, beat Notre Dame, which got spanked by Ohio State. Life, which is football in Texas, so I mean college football, is a game of matchups, and when properly played, can give a technically inferior (on paper) team a win, because it is really superior. Only the final line counts.

    Which means that all those people dogging Pete Carroll for going for it on fourth and two need to (in the words of Black Bush) "shut the **** up." (P.S. If you haven't watched that skit by Dave Chappell yet, I highly recommend it ... but it does have language issues). It was that gutsiness that won the day in South Bend, and you can't begrudge a coach for going to lendale white for two measely yards when USC undoubtably had a high octane offense with an amazing running back going for it. If he had made it he'd be hailed a genius. Hypocrits.

    What it also means is that people who say that USC was the better team but lost are also stupid. Give me a break. That mentality was also shown after USC's beating of Notre Dame--ND was the better team but USC got lucky. Sorry boys and girls, but luck is a part of everything. The three fates from greek mythology weave our lives in an amazing tapestry, and they can use any color, any patter, and any length that they want. We just have to deal with it.

    So no, USC was not the better team out there. You could say Texas was the better team for the first half and be right. You could say USC was the better team over the first three quarters, and you'd be right again. But a game is a full 60 minutes, and if you come away with less points at the end, then you played worse than your opponent over the 60 minute span. Buck up and get over it.

    Which brings me to my final point--eat your pie ESPN! I've wanted to hurl the last month as they ranked the 2005 USC Trojans among the top ten best college teams of the last 50 years. The final ranking put them third (although it wasn't unanimous--they could have been higher). Well if that bull is correct (which you can tell I disagree with) than Texas must be 1 or 2 because it beat USC, right? hmph.

    Thursday, January 05, 2006

    Texas on top of all the college polls as well

    Well, you Texans sure know how to play a good football game. At least you guys and gals never give up with a few minutes left in the game. I only heard the stories about 4th and goal. 19 seconds left on the clock. It sounds like something you always told your friends on the elementary school playground. The championship is on the line, and you have to score. WELL, Texas scored BIG time.

    Congratz to Texas. I believe you earned it.