Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ukraine's Political Syndrome

It is hard to believe that today's Ukraine is the same country that had experienced the Orange Revolution just five years ago, a putative democratic transformation gone just a bit awry, to put it lightly. Surely, if one takes a look at the political elite, it is hard not to be disgusted or, at the least, disappointed, though many of us who keep up with recent developments in the "Breadbasket of Europe" would like to deny those not-too-subtle truths.

Indeed, in the past few weeks, the country has been hit by the H1N1 influenza epidemic, which only adds to the country's economic ills. Schools have been closed for several weeks as a result; hospitals are overflowing; and a moratorium has been put on political rallies, or most other types of mass gatherings for that matter.
But while the politicians continue to blame each other for any and all mishandlings, notably Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko blaming President Viktor Yushchenko and vice-versa, Ukrainians have had a glimpse of something more inane: the "demarlizatsiya" campaign.
The aforementioned word is a self-made pun on the local lingo demoralizatsiya (demoralization) and marlya (gauze). It is an attempt by a bevy of skimpily-clad women to be funny, as they are attacking the politicians' uproar over the swine flu and blame them for panicking the masses. Thus, as the Prime Minister has urged all to wear gauze to protect themselves, the "demarlizatsiya" girls took this advice to the extreme (see picture). They claim their gathering is to distract the masses from the panic and pandemonium that they are experiencing both in real life and on TV. In other words, it's an attempt to be funny.
And, to some degree, it is. Not in good taste, per se, but a quaint way to gain the media's--and this blogger's--attention.

Monday, November 9, 2009

I am back :)

Sorry for the unexpected pause in my blogging.

For the past 4 months, I was away in Central America, Eastern and Western Europe, and across the U.S. Now that I am back, I will resume my blogging duties regularly.

Alas, I did not alert any readers of the extended absence, for which I sincerely apologize.

In any case, expect new posts from yours truly within the upcoming days.

Now that the autumn has arrived, there should be many new and interesting topics to blog about in any case.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Trip to Central America, Days 4-5: Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

The reggae-filled and stoned smiles of Puerto Viejo tell it all.

This is a rastafarian-like paradise, or at least for many travellers visiting this small town on Costa Rica's Carribean coast just an hour's drive north of the Panamanian border at Sixaola.

The hedonistic mood is hard to describe. It is similar to the one in Bocas del Toro, yet whereas Bocas offers a flashier nightlife and more diverse options thanks to it being an archipeligo, Puerto Viejo offers a more relaxed vacation it seems: just kicking back and enjoying it all, in any style, is the name of the game here.

The one thing that is hard to fathom--and what I have mentioned before--is that no matter what people say, Costa Rica seems to be overpriced. It offers the same attractions, generally speaking, as Panama, minus the canal plus a more hilly geography and a tad bit more tropical climate. Yet the country is poorer, resulting in a lower quality of life and level of development. However, what surprises me are the prices, which, for many things, are double those of Panama and almost on par with prices for comparative goods and services in the U.S.

Thus, I cannot say that Costa Rica is overrated. Not by a longshot. However, most likely due to the fact that its government was the first in the region to open up the country to mass tourism, its seems overpriced. Again, for about 50% less money, one can get a very similar vacation in Panama.

Well, almost the same. The women in Panama are definitely not as attractive as in Costa Rica. That's for sure.

Trip to Central America, Days 2-4: Bocas del Toro, Panama

The islands of Bocas del Toro are a must for anyone visiting Panama. Located about an hour's drive and a short ferry ride (in the reverse order, of course) from the border with Costa Rica in the country's north, Bocas defines the future of Panama.

Tourists--mainly backpackers--are to be seen everywhere, yet in lower numbers than in neighboring Costa Rica. Likewise, hostels have been sprouting up on every street corner and in between. Restaurants, gift shops, and surfboard-cum-bicycle rental shops are everywhere, too.

However, what makes Bocas so interesting is its small, compact size yet relative wealth of options. One can take a water taxi to a different island, such as Bastimentos. The sub-tropical climate is great, although Panama's rainy reason is a very long one, lasting nearly 9 months. That, though, need not put off potential travelers, for the rain usually comes down in quick downpours, with most of the rainfall occurring during the night and not lasting more than several hours at the most.

Another plus is that Bocas is replete with water taxis, offering to transport tourists to a different island for just a few dollars. Whether it is surfing, snorkelling, tanning on the beach, or just laying back like a sloth and letting the days roll by, Bocas is the place to be.

It's basically a Costa Rica hedonistic experience are half price.

Trip to Central America, Days 1-2: Panama City, Panama

It may be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central America, yet it feels like many different cities in one.

Simply put, the contrasts are striking.

The slums of the Old Town (literally Old Compound), Casco Viejo, contrast to the skyscraper replete skyline (a la Dubai). Beggars roam the streets that are dangerous to visit, according to the locals at least, yet Casco Viejo's architectural beauty is hard to overstate. Its multi-colored buildings have a wiff of Cuba's Havana in them.

The city feels busy any day of the week, as Panama's transport hub. Even on a humid Monday, commerce and globalization are in full blast. And the Panama Canal, located on the outskirts of the capital, is an interesting site. Perhaps not as amazing or particularly interesting as it sounds, but it is definitely worth a visit, not least because it's just one of those sites you have to visit, such as the L'ouvre in Paris or the CN Tower in Toronto.

Prices are refreshingly low for a country of relative wealth. Again, the keyword is relative, since, by global standards, Panama is a poor country. Yet its wealth compares favorably to that of its neighbors, Costa Rica to the north and Columbia to the south.

A conglomeration of many different cities into one, Panama City is definitely worth a visit. True, it may not be the world's most interesting place, but this city better than any other in Central America defines the economic future of the region better than any other. That is, if corruption were stifled and more funds began flowing to the right places, but that is a whole different story.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reforming Healthcare in the U.S.

The recent news that healthcare reform is coming eventually to the U.S. may have a modicum of veracity to it, yet that is as far as it goes.

Quite simply, unless the government truly takes this as its main prerogative, few things, if any, will be accomplished.

For one, the healthcare industry is very wily at lobbying politicians and aldermen to support their insurance policies and other egregious schemes. This is perhaps best exemplified by Hillary Clinton's failure to revamp healthcare back in 1993 when she was the First Lady. Alas, things in this respect have hardly changed since.

In addition, many people are going to U.S.-certified clinics abroad to get first-class treatment at a fraction of the cost in the U.S. Places such as Thailand and China have a plethora of clinics that depend on medical tourism, primarily from the U.S.

Thus, at times of global crises, such as the Great Recession and multiple worldwide crises (from North Korea's bomb and missile tests to Iran's disputed presidential election), it is unlikely that healthcare will be a priority for the U.S. leadership, despite what is being relayed to the public.

If anything nascent does occur in this sector, it will be in at least several years, not months.

Rest assured.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

California's Grim Quandary

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest plan to plug a budget hole of $24.3 billion is one that may be more symbolic than anything else in achieving its goals, but it is most certainly original.

The latest plan to plug the gap is to phase out traditional textbooks in favor of online ones, which would be downloaded to laptops, iPods, and other electronic devices.

While Californian bureaucrats say that digital textbooks would cost much less than the roughly $100 or so students are forced to dish out for each new textbook today, the greater issue (read: problem) is the dire condition of the state's cumulative finances.

Unfortunately, this will only go a very minor way in alleviating California's ills. The state's main reason for such a budget shortfall is a mismanagement of resources and the housing bust, which has resulted in massive foreclosures plaguing the state--and, hence, a shortfall in tax revenues from erstwhile mortgage-paying families. Likewise, the state's resources are strained due to the massive amounts of money it pours into social programs like healthcare. Unsurprisingly, the most populated state in the U.S. also has its largest number of illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico.

Although Mr. Schwarzenegger has ruled out tax increases, other mooted measures include mandatory furloughs of government officials--which have already gone into effect--and a shorter school year. Some prisons may be letting out its jailbirds ahead of time, too.

But cutting the budget by 15% for state departments is easier said than done. Such infamous fiscally profligate institutions will have to get used to this new reality. Yes, moves such as phasing out textbooks may make sense, but they are unlikely to get the job done.

Therefore, I am lead to believe that perhaps precisely such a move had a different goal in mind: creating hullabaloo to garner more domestic attention from Capitol Hill and hence rally more people behind Arni's other budget plans?

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Big 20-Year Jubilee

Today is 20 years to the day that I arrived to the United States of America.

However, at the time I did not know anything about the land I was arriving to.

I had just turned four at the time I left Minsk, the capital of the erstwhile Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) and present-day Belarus.

We were refuseniks, or Jewish refugees, seeking an accommodating land full of opportunities--and opportunism. Or, in other words, any other country that would be a near antithesis to the U.S.S.R.

Boy, America sure didn't disappoint. Today, I own an upstart business, with my father having opened (and closed) several companies. Likewise, I've had at least a dozen places I have worked at--everything from fast food joints and pizzerias to health clubs and retail stores.

It has been quite a ride, to put it lightly.

And I sincerely hope that the next 20 years will be just as interesting, if not more so, than these last 20.

Friday, June 5, 2009

FREE Admission to U.S. National Parks for Three Weekends!

Remember that post about the recession and how, despite all of the obvious negatives of such an occurrence, there are quite a few offers to be had when times are this bad?

Well, here's one of the most enticing ones yet, and it comes courtesy of the U.S. government.

For three weekends -- June 20-21, July 18-19, and August 15-16--the 147 of the U.S. National Parks that usually charge admission (generally up to $25 per vehicle) will be free for all visitors.

The website www.nps.gov/findapark/feefreeparksbystate.htm contains a full list of all the parks that will be offering free admission. This includes the most popular ones, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The remaining 244 national parks are always free to enter. And, for these three weekends, some twelve dozen more parks that are listed on the aforementioned link will be joining the list.

Indeed, not all things are bad in the midst of the "Great Recession." :)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An Economic Mirage

The recent uptick in commodities really beguiles me.

There is a severe paucity of economic fundamentals to support a recovery. Indeed, the recent momentum of the stock market and data across the board that show a deceleration of the rate of decline have acted in concert to push the U.S. dollar down and commodities, such as gold and oil, up to six-month highs. Quite simply, when investors start to feel that the worst is over, they become less risk averse, resulting in a drop in demand of the U.S. dollar, which is considered low-yielding and, thus, an anti risk taker's sweet tooth. And since most commodities are priced in dollars, their price rises when the dollar is weak to make up for the "artificial" shortfall in value that has occurred (and vice-versa).

Yet this is precisely that: a deceleration in the rate of decline (coupled with a modest rise in consumer sentiment).

Indeed, economies the world over are still declining sharply--from powerhouses such as the U.S. and Japan to smaller countries that have been hit by the credit crunch, notably Iceland and Latvia. Even erstwhile tiger economies, such as those of Ireland and Spain, which have relied on a bullish housing market, are still wobbly, to put it lightly.

It is thus why I can't fathom that such a recovery is long-lasting, much less real. It is, perhaps, a mirage that the fundamentals do not support. Yes, a recovery will be under way eventually--and, yes, Asia is likely to be the first region to emerge from this protracted recession--yet this is not a real recovery by any means of the word. Perhaps just a sign that that this is the beginning of the end--yet things are still very, very bad.

Therefore, I wouldn't be surprised to see another correction (read: drop) in the price of commodities in the very near future, as it seems that investors and speculators have again got ahead of themselves. In the meanwhile, such a rapid rise in the oil price to nearly $70 per barrel--up more than 100% since its $32 per barrel low just as recently as February--suggests quite the opposite: that the recession may be prolonged as a result.

Indeed, when consumers are so strapped for both cash and (particularly) credit, it is hard to believe that rising prices, first and foremost at the pump, will spur them to make more purchases and, hence, pull the world economy out of the gutters.

It is much more likely to have the opposite effect.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 3 - Quebec City

Quebec City's parallels with Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, are endless. Both cities are located fairly northward: while Reykjavik is the world's most northern capital, Quebec City is one of Canada's most northern provincial capitals. The populations of both cities are nearly identical: only 170,000. Likewise, their size is similar, too: despite the small population, both are fairly spread out, with hilly parts interspersed with flat ones. The only big difference aside from language is the fact that Quebec City is enclosed by a wall. In fact, it is the only walled city in North America north of Mexico City.

It does, in all aspects, provide for a laid-back and relaxing atmosphere.

To walk its hilly streets and see street entertainers in full swing is one of its big moments. To sit in an outdoor cafe provides for a similar experience, as does visiting the narrowest streets in North America.

The smell of Europe in the air is even more undeniable than in Montreal, which, in just a few areas, still has a whiff of the U.S.A. in the air. The funicular cable car and Upper and Lower Cities provide a stark contrast to the city, but a contrast that tends to make it even more memorable and affable--and also one that makes it appear even larger.

Indeed, at times it is hard to fathom that Quebec's population is less than one-fifth of a million people.

That, of course, doesn't mean it is any less interesting than Montreal or Toronto. It is, though, a completely different story, which is perhaps another reason why this city felt so refreshing after discovering it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 2 - Montreal

As the second largest predominantly French-speaking city in the world, Montreal, unsurprisingly, has many parallels with France itself: the architecture, certain types of food (such as crepes), and overall atmosphere are undoubtedly French in character.

Truly, Montreal feels like a world away from the city that doesn't sleep to its southwest, Toronto. Located in Quebec province, Montreal feels almost entirely European in myriad ways, yet they are difficult to explain.

Quite simply, it is just one of those cities that has to be seen to be understood.

Its contrasts are amazing: the new downtown area full of skyscrapers and the financial district, while literally next door spans the Old Town, filled with its small, narrow streets and alleys. The promenade stretches across one side of the city, while the Latin Quarter is just a kilometer away from the Old Town itself. Quite a compact city for a city its size (some 3.6 million people live in the greater metropolitan area).

Hence, particularly such a city is hard not to fall in love with. Montreal epitomises the part of Canada (Quebec province) that has the least amount of things in common with the country's southern neighbor, the United States of America.

And that is probably another reason why this city captivated me for the day and night I was there. After all, the fact that such a European outlook in both food and architecture exists so close to the U.S. is a refreshing welcome, indeed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trip to Canada: Day 1 - Toronto & Niagara Falls

After crossing the U.S.A.-Canada border just after 5 a.m. on Friday, May 22, Canada didn't feel all that much different from the U.S.

Indeed, after spending a day in Toronto, a city that I last visited a decade ago, it felt like Ontario province in Canada was, at first sight, just like America -- with the ubiquitous Walgreen's, obese people, and decrepit roads excluded.

It is hard to fathom that such a large country has a population of just over 30 million. The U.S.A., though slightly smaller in land area than Canada, has a population that is 10 times greater. Canada didn't seem so sparsely populated when looking at the U.S. over the Niagara Falls, but that is because most of the population lives in cities and towns near the border -- the world's longest undefended border, which lies along the 49th parallel and stretches over 3,000 miles.

In any case, Toronto didn't seem like a small city by any means. As Canada's financial capital and most populated city (with a population of some 6 million if including the greater metropolitan area), it felt almost like Chicago on steroids (read: neon). OK, maybe not so much neon as advertisements, but the city did pleasantly surprise me by its architecture: whereas in Chicago our districts are largely distinct by both their ethnic makeup and architecture, in Toronto it was only the former that, perhaps, is similar to Chicago. Walking around central Toronto, one immediately gets the feeling that skyscrapers, three-story houses, and companies' financial headquarters are oftentimes located side-by-side (on the same street), separated by a shop or two. Not exactly gaudy, but it takes getting used to for an American.

However, this is not to say that I didn't enjoy Toronto. In fact, quite the opposite is true: it is an interesting city that is replete with immigrants and cultures. Within six hours, I saw the fringes of Chinatown, various Lebanese eateries, and a march in honor of the dead in Sri Lanka's war with the Tamil Tigers (or vice-versa, depending on your interpretation of history and current events). It's like the Canadian city that doesn't sleep, seemingly a Canadian version of New York, which it is. And it also happens to be a lot cleaner than the Big Apple, too.

Overall, it is a great start on a warm, sunny day to a trip that will take me further north to Montreal, lying some 300 miles northeast of Toronto in Canada's French-speaking Quebec province, and then to Quebec City, which itself is 160 miles northeast of Montreal, or nearly 500 miles away from Toronto.

P.S. Niagara Falls was an amazing site, too. Having last visited Canada in 1999, I forgot just how intense such a waterfall is. It is also quaint how the U.S. and the Niagara Falls from the U.S. side are literally meters away at places. Indeed, Niagara Falls may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but it surely comes close. Rarely have I seen waterfalls this large or intense in other countries (perhaps what comes closest is the Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland). The sheer adrenaline rush that one unmistakably feels the closer one approaches the water has to be experienced to be believed, almost comparable to walking on the Shibuya crossing in downtown Tokyo in concert with thousands of other people.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Best Hostels Worldwide

When traveling around the world last year, I kept a list of the hostels, guesthouses, and other forms of accommodation that I was most fondest of.

I took into consideration several factors: location, price, customer service/hospitality, amenities, breakfast or other options, etc. Overall, there are 15 hostels or guesthouses that did a terrific job.

I ranked them in order, with 1 being the best. A special mention goes out to the West Lake Youth House in Hangzhou, China, which I have kept separate from the others due to the staff's determination to make my stay comfortable. It was quite an experience when calling Dandong, a city in China's northeast Liaoning province, and not having a Chinese translator here in Chicago; luckily, the staff at the West Lake Youth House called Dandong for me and refused to take any remuneration for it. (The call, in case you are wondering, was to book a spot on a ferry from Dandong to Incheon, South Korea.) And their location, prices, and early morning breakfast (which comes for an extra fee) are unbeatable!

The top 15 are listed below. If planning a trip to any of these cities, I suggest these places with the utmost assurance that you won't regret them.

1. IchiEnSou – Kyoto, Japan
2. Wombat’s City “The Base” – Vienna, Austria
3. Bogeda Hotel – Hanoi, Vietnam
4. Golden Pond Guesthouse – Seoul, South Korea
5. K’s House – Kyoto, Japan
6. Leo’s Hostel – Beijing, China
7. Hotel Raizan South – Osaka, Japan
8. The 3 Ducks – Paris, France
9. Oak Hotel – Tokyo, Japan
10. Zimmer Nice Hostel – St. Petersburg, Russia
11. Friendly Fun Franks Backpackers Hostel – Riga, Latvia
12. Rory’s Pub and Guesthouse – Phnom Penh, Cambodia
13. City Lodge – Stockholm, Sweden
14. Royal Mile Backpackers – Edinburgh, Scotland
15. People’s Square Youth Hostel – Shanghai, China

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lonely Planet Blow-Out Sale!

Everyone knows of Australia's Lonely Planet brand, which was purchased by the U.K.'s British Broadcasting Corporation (more commonly known by its abbreviation, BBC) in early 2006. Lonely Planet produces unique and detailed guidebooks on virtually any place in the world, from common destinations such as the USA and China to the most obscure of places, such as Belize and Bhutan... And, of course, language guides, DVDs, and other cool stuff, too!

So today I scored this crazy deal that is a combination of FOUR coupons, despite the fact that LP's website says special offers and other discounts cannot be combined.

If you're interested, here's how to get it!

1. I found a 30% off online coupon code via Google. The code is LPCONTACT30. It gives you 30% off of Lonely Planet guides (but not guide travel packs, which usually have three books and are already discounted). I tried to use it to purchase the guide packs (sneaky me, right?!), but it doesn't work.

2. If you buy any three books, the cheapest one is reduced to "free." That creates a tricky game, however, since if you're buying two books for $6.99 each and get one for $4.99, then that last one (i.e. the $4.99 book) is free, but if you're getting a travel package, of, say $39 and a book for $29 and another for $5.99, you still get only $5.99 off... Then look what happens when you buy a thick guidebook (such as one on the USA, Europe, or China) for about $30 (i.e. before the 30% discount), a book for $20 and another book for $22: then your $20 book is free. In short, the more expensive items you buy, the more a chance you have of a more expensive book being free.

3. Shipping is FREE for orders of $40 or more. However, this is applied to the discounted rates (after the 30% off coupon). So you're encouraged to buy $40 worth of books, since shipping normally is about $8.99.

4. Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2009 guide comes with a free HOT DESTINATION BLUELIST 2008 book! The latter title normally retails for $17.99, but for $22.99 you get BOTH of these cool books!

5. This is a freebie, but it doesn’t decrease the cost of a purchase further, if that’s at all possible. Here’s the deal: if ordering from Lonely Planet, included on the e-mail confirmation receipt to the purchaser is a free voucher for Lonely Planet’s magazine (for a subscription, I assume, but maybe just for a single issue). Unfortunately, this magazine is only distributed in the U.K. for now, so it's obviously only for U.K. mailing addresses, but if you decide to buy something from the LP Shop and have a friend in the U.K., then they can receive this magazine for free--courtesy of you!

Using the above, I just bought five brand new books for $50.37 (with free shipping) that retail in U.S. stores for $115 (and this doesn't include tax, since it's purchased tax-free online!). And this $115 retail price doesn't include shipping either, since it’s normally about $10 but free for orders of $40 or more. Thus, if considering these two things that we normally would pay for, these books would have cost me about $134!!!

If you’re enticed by the aforementioned, the website is http://www.lonelyplanet.com/ .

Monday, April 20, 2009

Amtrak's Moment of Truth

Amtrak should thank President Barack Obama, who recently harangued about the esteemed rail systems of other countries, namely France, Spain, and Japan. He felt that America could--and should--have a rail system that is just as good as Japan's shinkansen (bullet train).
Which is true.

Except that rail travel is not embedded in the American psyche.
Luckily, the stimulus package has allocated $8 billion for rail development. This is still a drop in the bucket, yet it is a huge increase compared to previous years, when barely anything was allocated to Amtrak.

Hopefully, in the future, America's fastest line will be significantly faster than its current one: the 80-mile per hour link between New York and Washington (and Boston, too).

The new lines currently proposed are as follows:

1. A California line that will include trains covering the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two-and-a-half hours (currently six hours);

2. A link between Texas and Oklahoma;

3. New York state will see an Empire Line running between Buffalo and New York City, which may include several other branches;

4. A northern New England line, likely to connect Boston to cities in Maine;

5. A line linking central and southern Florida, which should reduce travel time between cities such as Orlando and Tampa to Fort Lauderdale and Miami;

6. An upgrade of numerous lines heading to and from Chicago, presumably decreasing travel times between the Windy City and St. Louis and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul).

7. A long line linking Washington D.C. to Florida and the Gulf Coast;

8. Another extension of the Gulf Coast line, this time between Texas and Western Alabama;

9. A Keystone line criss-crossing Pennsylvania, possibly linking to other lines from the Midwest to those of New York;

10. A line between the Pacific Northwest, possibly linking cities such as San Francisco to Seattle and, later, Vancouver.

These are all good ideas on paper. Now comes the hard part: seeing how efficient our federal government is actually implementing these plans.
Unfortunately, this last part is the part I am most concerned--and sceptical--about.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Equation Between Avarice, Human Nature, and Rationality

I was taken aback by the greediness of people, yet it was quite a sight to see.

The “it” mentioned above was the last day of the EXPO Design Center store closing just a few miles north of my home. The high-class home design chain owned by Home Depot has ceased to exist, in what was an outcome made several months ago by the head honchos over at Home Depot Corporate, not least due to the housing bust in the United States.

I got to see firsthand how avaricious people are when prices for everything were 90% off, although, admittedly, there wasn’t too much left. Nonetheless, several people were literally pushing others aside to get their hands on the last granite-something set available. Even things as banal as flowers were purchased with greed and haste.

What struck me most, however, was the fact that much of human nature is contrary to rational thought and sound economic sense, even at prices that are 90% off. This was most obvious when I looked around the check-out line and saw people buying items that most of them would probably never even use. True, several might re-sell them for a slight (or, perhaps, large) profit, but I assume maybe only one-third would do that, at the most.

Indeed, there are hundreds of people buying items that they are unlikely to use as gifts, since many are model displays, big household products, or simply exotic items. Even at 90% off, what is the point of buying something that one does not like?

Just to get a moral high for scoring such a bargain? Or because almost everyone else is doing that? This is an especially poignant question during an economic recession.

Any thoughts?
P.S. For any of you wondering what I was doing at the check-out line, I was simply buying a plastic surface spray. Nothing quite as cool as the head sculptures or faucets that I saw other people buying.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Best Bag: Chronicles of the Whole Foods Market Better Bag

The Best Bag: Chronicles of the Whole Foods Market Better Bag

Need a reliable, environmentally friendly, and cheap bag for your travel needs?

The Whole Foods Market Better Bag is my personal choice, although in retrospect it’s quite unusual how I’ve come to this conclusion. I’ve worked at Whole Foods Market in the past and seen the bag used on perhaps hundreds of occasions daily, but the idea that it’s truly an ultra-durable product stuck to my head only after I’d traveled the world using the Better Bag as my bag of preference—along with my rucksack and fannie pack, of course.

Indeed, all of you are reading the aforementioned and probably wondering, why would anyone in the world ever use such a, let’s face it, uncommon bag for their travels in the first place?

Let me explain in as few words as I can. It started out with a trip to Europe that I organized for nine friends and myself. As usual, I was short on time. Working quite late into the previous evening and getting home exhausted, I collapsed into bed, only to wake up at 4 a.m. the next morning to get all my travel needs done: e-tickets, hostel reservations, and sundry travel itinerary. Worst of all, I hadn’t even packed yet! I hastily got all my belongings together, but after printing out my whole group’s travel itinerary—9 flights, eight hostel bookings, one bus ride, and emergency contact information for each person (and, again, there were 10 of us), as well as PDF-file travel guides for each city we were to visit—I realized that I had about 400 pages of information to carry on board that would be too risky to check in if it got lost. And that’s only the beginning: what about my travel books, magazines, and newspapers that I know I can’t do without on an eight-hour trans-Atlantic flight? Quite soon, I had a 40-pound carry-on that I didn’t know how to take on board. I looked around my room and saw two Whole Foods Market reusable bags lying around, so I decided to take them without giving it much thought. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Actually, since I always travel like a backpacker, having a backpack around the shoulders is the sine qua non of any trip. But what’s one to do once the shoulders aren’t available any longer? Indeed, one’s most valuable possessions—addresses, medicine, and a camera, perhaps—must be carried either on the waist or in one’s hands. This is where the Better Bag comes in. It folds up, thereby saving space, and it’s also very lightweight. But many bags are like this, so what makes the Better Bag so special? For one, each bag is made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled plastic bottles (according to the Whole Foods Market website, each bag represents approximately four 20-ounce plastic bottles). But, again, not much of this might matter for the average traveler who, let’s face it, at least on his or her vacation may prefer convenience and comfort to environmental altruism.

Therein lies the lynchpin to this whole concept. With the Whole Foods Market Better Bag, one can travel comfortably, lightly, and on the cheap—all the while doing something philanthropic for the environment, too!

Indeed, at a price of 99 cents each, the Better Bag may have originally been created for re-use in lieu of the traditional oil-derived plastic bag, but it is a highly durable travel bag, too. For day trips when one’s belongings are left at the base (i.e. hostel, hotel, or wherever one decides to sojourn), it is an amazingly light, resilient, and long-lasting item—and one that can either be carried with the hands or strapped around the shoulder.

So long-lasting, in fact, that last year I traveled with different Whole Foods bags a total of 52,435 miles on three separate trips abroad. My first trip was the abovementioned ground setter in January with nine friends to eight northern European countries. I took another trip, this time for a week, less than five months later to Iceland, again taking the Better Bag with me, mainly because it had proved so unfaltering (and partly because, again, I had no alternative [not that I wanted one at this point], since I had procrastinated and packed at the last instant). Finally, I traveled on a trip literally around the world—starting via the Pacific and ending via the Atlantic—for 115 days from late-August until mid-December 2008. That was a total distance of 52,435 miles (84,368 km) traveled last year to 27 different countries with the Better Bags.

Suffice to say, none of the penultimate generation Better Bags has ever given out on me (I’m talking about the bags pictured in most of the pictures: the light-green and turquise bags with an etching of an apple drawn on one side). On my trip around the world I traveled with two—just in case—and both came back intact. True, the color may be coming off some of the handles, and small holes have started to appear in random places, but the bags survived their unexpected tests and numerous other ordeals. I’ve never had that penultimate generation Better Bag rip on me before, although I must be honest and say that previous versions of Whole Foods reusable bags have, occasionally, ripped, though never during my travels.

For 99 cents, this environmentally friendly product that just so happens to be super-reliable is my recommendation to any traveler.

I’ll be traveling this summer to Europe again, albeit for two weeks. In any case, I don’t know much about my trip itinerary yet, but one thing is for certain: the Better Bag will surely be one of my travel companions this time around, and every time henceforth. Frankly speaking, I can’t imagine traveling without it since in the end I needed only one bag to last me a whole trip around the world: from arid late-August Chicago to the nightless summer Reykjavik sky of Iceland, and from wet Bangkok in the midst of Thailand’s rainy season to the harsh Siberian winter.
It is, quite simply, the best bag in town!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

McDonald's: The Worldwide Phenomenon

For a food chain serving nearly 47 million customers daily, being both creative and profitable may prove a bit hard, or at least many people would think.

McDonald's, though, proves that by employing creativity, tweaking menus and slogans, refurnishing locations, and providing cheap food to millions of customers, a company even this big can turn a profit when times are tough.

With over 31,000 locations and 400,000 employees worldwide, McDonald's has grown both in good times and bad.

True, it may not be my first choice, but oftentimes I always end up going at least to one McDonald's in every country I visit. Sometimes it is because I am hungry; sometimes to escape the rain or, conversely, acrid weather; but usually it is because of my sheer curiosity: indeed, just what will there be on a menu this time around?! In Sweden, surprisingly enough, where there seems to be a paucity of Mexicans, there was a taco burger (which was also both very affordable and tasty). In Japan, there are both teriyaki and shrimp (ebi) burgers; in Korea - bugogi burgers; in Thailand, the McThai chain has Thai-style coffee available; and in Israel there are both kosher and non-kosher establishments, with the former being more pricey, though more ubiquitous and better located (unsurprisingly). And they serve amazing pita burgers, too.

In Belarus and Iceland, the Big & Tasty is advertised just like its U.S. counterpart, yet it is actually big (indeed, about twice the size of the U.S. version) and much tastier (I swear it's some special sauce they use).

Moreover, in Europe, the quarter-pounder is available, but its name is tweaked: it is called the McRoyal, owing to the metric system.

And in Russia, McDonald's offers amazing breakfasts--quite a variety for a country having just discovered McDonald's less than 20 years ago. This expansive variety is also kind of hard to fathom when recalling the monotony of things in the days of Russia's communist past: oftentimes restaurants would have just a few items on their menus, and even many of those scarce items were unavailable upon inquiry. Today, Russia's McDonald's hash browns are the freshest and best I've tasted anywhere, which is surprising, because at least in neighboring Belarus I know that the potatoes McDonald's uses for their hash browns are imported from the Netherlands. Yes, Belarus may be the world's number one potato consumer per capita, but apparently the quality of Belarus's potatoes leaves much to be desired, at least when it comes to McDonald's standards.

I can go on and on.

My point isn't to extol the virtues of McDonald's, for I have no incentive to do so: I've never worked there, although its global headquarters in Naperville, Illinois, are located just 50 miles from my home.

However, McDonald's does seem to offer a good all-around deal for its consumers: quite recently, more upgrades and renovations have made way for a more ambient atmosphere with music, free wi-fi (or, in some countries, stationary computers), an open-late or 24-7 attitude, drive-thru options, and food at fairly low prices. Luckily--and very belatedly--healthier options such as salads have started appearing, too.

It is quite an interesting food chain that keenly caters to local tastes while maintaining a global outlook.

And at times of a global economic slowdown, establishments such as this look only to benefit from penny-pinched consumers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Riverdance Spectacle

I had no idea it would be this good.

In fact, I've only merely and randomly heard of Riverdance before, kind of the way most people hear of Aflac and immediately think of that inane yet humorous duck from television. Indeed, all I knew about Riverdance is that, well, the group dances.

Luckily, now I have much more than rudimentary knowledge about this theatrical show, which consists of traditional, fast-paced Irish step dancing. Arms and legs are largely kept stationary, and the group has been performing for 15 years now to standing ovations worldwide.

Even more lucky for me, the only reason I ended up going to the show this past Thursday at the Rosemont Theatre is that I obtained six complimentary tickets from my parents, who in turn obtained them via a family friend. Thanks!

I highly recommend this show for anyone who wants to get an instant burst of adrenaline. Actually, I recommend this for anyone who likes not only the aforementioned, but also world-class performances, excellent music, and amazingly synchronized dancing at its best. Riverdance, quite simply, contains all of these in abundance.

Don't miss it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ambivalent Dubai

I've always wondered how Dubai can be both a financial business-cum-expat hub and a very conservative country (at least by world, not regional, standards). After all, it is Dubai that is trying to open up to the world in order to diversify its economy, attract hordes of tourists, and make as much money as it can.

Well, it's about to get even more conservative--and harder to attract those tourists and their hard currency.

According to Internet reports, a local newspaper recently published new rules that are either being mulled or that have already been officialized. In any event, quite soon banal activities such as dancing and playing loud music in public will be banned. In addition, couples who are kissing, holding hands, or hugging could facing detention, large fines, or, in some instances, deportation. The Economist adds that "miniskirts and skimpy shorts would no longer be tolerated outside hotels and other private areas." And other illegal activities will include drinking alcohol outside licensed premises, swearing and displaying rude gestures in public, and the like.

Indeed, the latter rules seem to make sense. Drinking alcohol in public in a Muslim country, no matter how secular, just does not feel right, unless the majority of locals do it (such as in Kazakhstan). Swearing and displaying rude gestures are misdeamonors quite common to many of the countries in the West.

And it is true that, by regional standards at least, these rules may seem quite tame.

However, if Dubai is trying to become a global hub, shouldn't it adopt more global, worldly standards? While the aforementioned rules will not be applied to private resorts, the mere fact of someone being detained for wearing a regular bikini to a public beach in one of the most open regions of the Arab world still feels a bit hard to fathom, at least in this blogger's opinion.

The row that erupted between the U.K. and this Arab emirate when two Brits (a couple) were detained in October for having sex in public is only a prelude of things to come, it seems. True, the couple was at a beach, but they should have exercised common sense. They should have been deported, but Dubai's authorities sentenced them to three months in prison for public indecency. For a place that is marketing itself as the global hub of the Middle East (and one currently experiencing severe problems due to the global economic meltdown and an tenuous housing market), this only creates unneeded negative publicity.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The New Oil

Euronews today played a 150-second segment on water scarcity, in connection with the ongoing World Water Forum that is taking place in Istanbul, Turkey. The results of the conference focusing on this increasingly scare resource were covered in a different segment, in which the channel noted that several protestors were ironically dispersed using water cannon. However, that incident is trivial if looking at the bigger picture. And that bigger pictures, according to the pan-European news channel, is quoted as follows:

"Turning the tide on the planet’s water problems will be enormous. It is estimated that one in six people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water and the lack of sanitation is the world’s biggest cause of infection.

Most of our water consumption goes into agriculture (66 percent), industry accounts for 20 percent, domestic needs 10 percent, and about four percent evaporates from man-made reservoirs.

H2O remains one of the most unevenly distributed commodities on Earth. For example, someone in the West who takes a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing world slum uses in a whole day.

In many parts of the world, water shortages are a major cause of conflict. Such is the case in Darfur, western Sudan, and in the Middle East, where water is a major issue between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

One solution for wealthy, water-scarce countries is desalination. But it is a costly, energy-guzzling procedure. It is only an option for rich nations like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, the world’s biggest producers of desalinated water.

An added stress to world water supplies is population growth, with the global population predicted to soar from 6.5 billion to more than nine billion by 2050.

And global water shortage faces another major challenge: climate change. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, the most productive agricultural region in the world, water levels have reached dangerously low levels. A drought emergency was declared last month and along with the soil, farmings jobs have dried up.

Many experts say water has become the new oil and, unless dramatic solutions are found, access to it will become the world’s major source of conflict in the future."

P.S. The two graphs pictured are courtesy of gbagaoisan.com.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Whopper Bar

On Tuesday, Burger King unveiled its plan to take on rival McDonald's McCafe brand: the grand opening of its mouthwatering Whopper Bar.

No, it's not a candy bar that tastes like a whopper, nor is it a venture that will serve alcohol. It is, however, a unique idea that is the first of its kind among major U.S. fast food chains.

The first Whopper Bar opened on March 10 at the Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. Burger King's CEO stated in a recent interview with Fox Business Channel that the next location will be Munich, Germany (this summer), with future Whopper Bars likely in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Rio de Janeiro, and Singapore. If all goes to plan, six such locations will be opened by the end of 2009, with 500 more locations mulled in future years if these ventures are deemed successful. Unlike regular Burger King establishments, though, the Whopper Bar will be targeting such venues as airports, casinos, cruise ships, and stadiums.

The quirkiness of such an idea lies in the underlying, quite revolutionary, concept: customers being able to watch their burgers being made. With a choice of 22 topping available--including, but not limited to, guacamole, smoked bacon, and steak sauce--Burger King cannot be castigated for a lack of trying. Indeed, such a plethora of toppings creates a whole smorgasbord for the consumer, which may help rally BK's stock and create excitement amongst the clientele.

The menu will feature the regular Whopper, as well as its Bourbon and Double counterparts; Pepper Bacon, Three-Cheese, and regular Steakhouse XT burgers; and more. At the moment, there are no plans to add the Whopper Junior to the menu, however.

The design is also new: an open kitchen with a new bar setting (as pictured above). The traditional Burger King colors have also been changed, both in the bar itself and in employees' uniforms, which have been tailored to match the new black, gray, and red look.

Quite original, indeed, but will this grandiose scheme catch on?

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Global Property Bust

Another day, another sign of mounting hardship for millions of people worldwide.

As foreclosures in the U.S. increase, bargains are readily available, yet many of those willing to scoop these homes up at highly discounted rates cannot get their hands on credit as readily as before, if it all. Thus, the toxic assets that burden many U.S. banks prevent a reversal of this vicious circle.

So as these foreclosures continue and sales improve very slowly, many localities find it increasingly onerous to hold on to the properties. The result? They have devised a new method to jettison these properties--a method that smells of prudent economics, despite the numerous protests: auctioning off the properties to the highest bidder.

At least that's what New York is doing. Hundreds of homes are being put on sale in bids starting as low as just a thousand dollars, with many homes scooped up at prices that in many instances were more than 50% off their peak.

Not to be outdone, protesters vociferously voiced their qualms at what they consider to be a flagrant move, as millions are suffering while some of these select few buyers are making money from their misfortunes.

True, there are people who are making money from these properties, but isn't this a better scenario than the alternative: having the state take over these properties, burdening it in the process, only for it to resell the properties to interested parties in any case? Or to have the property just stand there and depress other property prices in the vicinity? Surely this is the lesser evil, or at least in this blogger's opinion.

Alas, New York isn't the only state to suffer from foreclosure. States such as Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California have been struck particularly hard. It will be interesting to see if they will resort to similar auctions to decrease the backlog of unsold properties that blight their communities and budgets alike.

And it's not just the U.S. that is suffering. Skimming the Financial Times' special report on worldwide property markets in today's issue, I was struck by how thin it is this time around: just 8 pages, rather than the roughly two-dozen it was just a year or two ago. Likewise, the "House & Home" weekend sections in 2009 are some two or three times thinner than its erstwhile editions.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Combat in Korea

Another day, another step toward brinkmanship on the divided Korean peninsula.

It has been announced that North Korea may target commercial aircraft entering its airspace, thereby causing many flights of foreign carriers to be diverted for security reasons. Those most affected include Asiana and Korean Air, South Korea's main airlines. Ana and JAL, two Japanese carriers, might also be affected, since flights to Beijing from Tokyo, for example, come close to traversing the North's airspace, but those airlines have declined to heed the warnings for now, unlike Singapore Airlines. The only airlines which quite surely seem to be exempt are those which actually fly into Pyongyang, and they are not many: Koryo Air, the North's national airline, Russia' Aeroflot, and perhaps a Chinese airline or two.

In recent weeks, North Korea has implicitly stated that it may launch a satellite into space and/or test fire a missile, with some pundits construing a satellite as a euphemism for the missile itself. Indeed, in such an opaque country, no one bar the country's eccentric leader has any idea of its true intentions.

What is known without a doubt is that the North's mercurial dictator, Kim Jong-Il, has been none too pleased with South Korea for the past year, as its new President, Lee Myung-Bak, has taken a hardline approach at its communist neighbor, shunning his predecessor's "Sunshine Policy" in return for a tit-for-tat relationship with the North (money, oil, and food aid in exchange for step-by-step denuclearization).

Many believe that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, is trying to get the West's attention, sensing that Mr. Obama's foreign policy priorities include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Russia, and not the heretofore intractable Korean conflict.

Quite possibly.

But the fear is that if there is any regime that is unpredictable in this world, it is that of North Korea.

There is a slight chance that its latest promulgations may be more than mere words, with its irascible leader only more agitated by the news of upcoming military exercises taking place south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between Washington and Seoul.

So it's not quite combat (yet), but tensions have never been as high on the Korean Peninsula since the North tested a nuclear bomb in October 2006.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Excellent Customer Service

Kudos to the Financial Times for providing exceptional customer service.

Here's what happened:

Much to my surprise, I failed to receive today's issue. After deciding to call the circulation desk in New York, I was on hold for less than a minute before being connected to a representative. I explained my situation to him, and he asked me what my name was. I replied that I purchased the subscription through a reseller, and the subscription is probably under his name, so I opted to give my address instead.

In about a minute, the subscription was found, and I was put on hold for another minute.

Then the operator explained that the re-seller, which I had found via eBay, was actually a fraud. This is why my subscription was cancelled. But before I had a chance to ask, he told me that since it's not my fault, my subscription will be resumed the next business day.

And as for the missing issue? Well, I would be given complimentary access to the FT.com, where the whole issue is available in PDF format.

Kudos to the FT for exceeding this customer's expectations. A great business paper with great customer service, period.

The Recession Isn't All Bad News...

Forget all the negative aspects of a recession like the one we're experiencing now. We've heard enough about them.

Perhaps one of the few good things about such a tumultuous economic time is the myriad coupons being made available. When opening my mailbox daily, I am littered with coupons to convenience stores, restaurants, clothing stores, supermarkets, department stores--not to mention online coupons, special deals of the week, early bird sales, and more.

Indeed, it's so nice not having to pay full price for my food that it's become almost like an addiction: having to use the coupon before it expires, G-d forbid! I've received coupons to IHOP, Corner Bakery, a local grill house, and Burger King all within the last week. And rest assured that I'm always keen to use them on time.

In fact, I don't recall when is the last time I paid full price for something during these past few months--and that includes movie theaters, books, and even electronics. Hell, even gas is back to about $2 or so per gallon--roughly on par with its price back in 2004.

One of the best discounted items of all right now are stocks, which have hit historic lows. Now is the best time to buy them, hold them, and then, potentially, make a small (or large) fortune once the market rebounds. Quite a good investment for those who have the resources to invest in such a thing.

Alas, I'm sure I'll be missing all of these bargain prices once the crisis ends, but before there is a turnaround, I could hardly be happier. ... That is, about all of these coupons coming my way.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Israel's Motley Duo

Israel is back in the spotlight, but this time in quite an unusual way: Eurovision.

While no newcomer to the annual pan-European song contest--Israel has actually won the #1 place in 1998 after a performance by the infamous transsexual Dana International--this year it is making headlines with Noa and Mira Awad, its performers for the next (54th) Eurovision Song Contest to be held in Moscow on May 16.

The quintessence of the issue is the ethnicity of the two performers: Noa is a Jew, while Mira Awad is a Palestinian, despite the fact that many think the Jewish half of the duo (pictured right) is actually Arab, while the Arab performer (pictured left) looks Jewish. At least, according to them, that's what many viewers initially believe.

And, as can be expected, this "experiment" of sorts has been lambasted by some as a "cynical attempt" to improve Israel's international image after the recent 34-day Gaza war. In particular, this has caused a backlash in Arab media, with some Arab outlets calling Mira Awad a "traitor," while others are urging her to boycott the performance entirely.

As it stands now, it appears the duo will perform nonetheless, but things can change. Their piece will be called "Faith in the Light," which will also politicize the performance.

Ah, controversy around Israel yet again, which I can't say is exactly unexpected, although it may have been the underlying point all along: to create commotion around Israel, but this time focusing on the country's music-cum-society. A change of sorts, indeed.

However, in any case, I don't think this performance will result in a miracle overhaul of Israel's image in the Arab world, or in Europe for that matter.

But it is a quaint attempt.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Revolutionizing Air Travel

Yahoo! News is reporting that Ryanair is mulling whether or not to implement a paid toilet system aboard its aircraft. Perhaps this is not so shocking considering other methods the airline uses to make additional revenue: charging roughly 5 euros for airport check-in (fair enough, it seems, although airport check-in is being phased out now), releasing a "girls of Ryanair" calendar (pictured left, the profits of which are to go toward charity), etc.

The article is quoted below:

"Irish carrier Ryanair, Europe's largest budget airline, might start charging passengers for using the toilet while flying, chief executive Michael O'Leary said on Friday.

'One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future,' he told BBC television.

He said this would not inconvenience passengers travelling without cash. 'I don't think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound.'

O'Leary has a reputation as a cost cutter, expanding Ryanair by offering low headline fares and charging extra for items such as additional luggage.

Last week, Ryanair announced it was to shut all check-in desks at airports and have passengers check in online instead.

'We're all about finding ways of raising discretionary revenue so we can keep lowering the cost of air travel,' he said. (Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Dan Lalor)"

So what's next, an oxygen tax?

I think charging to use the toilet is going a bit too far, although it is definitely a service nonetheless. But charging for it? What if someone doesn't have pounds or euros, but, say, Latvian lats or Swedish kronas? To be quite honest, when I travel I usually get my change in the country of destination, and only after usually exchanging recently received banknotes from an ATM at a local convenience store or hostel.

Such a move will result in many passengers waiting to use the toilet at their destination airport, so I think the marginal revenues for Ryanair won't be much, perhaps 20 pounds per long-haul flight.

But who knows, maybe I am wrong.

Time will tell.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

European Blackmail or Sheer Hypocrisy?

Reading various newspapers this week, both in print and online, it seems interesting how the EU is trying to influence several decisions of its neighbors, in particular those of Belarus.

Belarus is now playing a hard balancing act between its erstwhile, staunch ally Russia and the European Union. The quasi-dictatorial regime in Belarus knows that nearly one-half of its exports go to the EU, which it borders directly via Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, yet integrating politically to any degree was unheard of until last year.

Indeed, there was little need to do so until the financial crisis hit Russia, thereby hitting the country's global prestige. Belarus, thus (and, perhaps, not only thus), started looking for a way to finally put its much talked about "multi-vector" foreign policy into play.

It started to cozy up to the West by releasing the last of its political prisoners, most notably Alyaksandr Kazulin, a former presidential candidate, last spring. However, releasing political prisoners was only one of 12 conditions the EU laid out that Belarus implement in order to improve relations.

Since then, however, Minsk has made a surprising number of other steps toward the EU, the majority of which were largely cosmetic. Yet they are still noteworthy.

For one, Belarus's most popular semiweekly independent newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, has been returned to the state press distribution network, both for delivery via post and sale via kiosks. The same is true for another (weekly) newspaper, Nasha Niva. Another former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, managed to register his Movement for Freedom, to the surprise of many. Other changes, such as the formation of various non-political state councils, have included members of the opposition for the first time. And, as a condition to securing a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, Belarus has liberalized some facets of its economy by devaluing the ruble, opening up to more foreign direct investment, and reducing a good amount of red tape.

Now the leadership of this Slavic country of 10 million, dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, wants to join the Council of Europe and the EU's Eastern Partnership program, which is an extension of the bloc's broader Neighborhood Policy. From the former, it was expelled after an infamous 1996 referendum that was deemed as neither free nor fair by the West; for the latter, it is keen to join the grouping, as it stands to benefit directly by potentially receiving several hundred million euros of gratuitous aid. For a country suffering from a severe economic crisis, it seems like a smart and timely move.

Yet the Council of Europe and EU have laid out several preconditions, both formally and informally, for Belarus to join these two separate groups. The Council of Europe openly demands that Belarus cancel the death penalty prior to being invited back, which the country has suggested it will do. Fair enough.

However, the EU has set much tougher and tacit conditions for Belarus as it concerns membership in the Eastern Partnership program, but it is trying to strike a balance of its own. For one, the EU is likely to relax travel sanctions against President Lukashenka and some, if not all, of his entourage, at least for six months, if he continues on the current path to democratization. A decision on this can be expected in the next six weeks. But, perhaps, not before Belarus agrees to follow the EU and not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, which Mr. Lukashenka has stated the Belarusian Parliament will mull during its April 2 session. It appears that if Belarus agrees to not recognize the territories, then Mr. Lukashenka is likely to be invited to a May summit in Prague, where Belarus will formally join the bloc, but only under that precondition.

Isn't this (direct) blackmail? Or sheer hypocrisy, for the EU officially stands for its neighbors' sovereignty, yet dictates what they must do to reap benefits? In any case, the EU feels it has a chance to strike a good deal here, with pressure increasing exponentially: the Council of Europe has visited Belarus recently, followed last week by Javier Solana, the Secretary-General of the EU, only to pave way for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commission Commissioner, to visit in the next few weeks.
Normally this wouldn't be such a problem for Mr. Lukashenka, but pundits speculate that Lukashenka promised Russia's President, Dmitriy Medvedev, to recognize the two separatist enclaves in exchange for a recent multi-billion dollar loan from its big eastern neighbor.

For now, one thing is for certain: henceforth, the balancing act for Belarus will only become tougher.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Tasty Snack

If anyone has ever wondered what is a good, healthy snack in between meals to suppress hunger, here is a tasty suggestion: Costco's Kirkland Signature Fruit Nut Medley. The 8+ lbs. bag consists of a cornucopia of, as quoted on the package, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, apples, kiwi, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, bananas, cherries, and raisins. At under $15 (i.e., less than $2 per pound, or, in other words, about a quarter per serving), it's a very good deal.

True, the kiwi, papaya and strawberries are dehydrated, the cherries - dry, and the plethora of nuts may cause allergies for some. However, this is still delicious, and quite addictive.

Just forget the part I mentioned about suppressing hunger. Overindulging in this, as in almost anything, is sure to add to one's waistline... and with that will eventually come a larger appetite.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Protectionism and ... Deglobalization?

So all of the current rhethoric about protectionism--and recent data about the actual fall in everything from global economic growth to world trade to unemployment--has led to a new fearmongering term by economists: deglobalization.

Reading the latest issue of The Economist (both online and in print), I want to quote the following:

"Globalisation - A backwards march

Feb 20th 2009, from Economist.com

The integration of the world economy is in retreat

THE economic meltdown has popularised a new term: deglobalisation. The process of the global integration of goods, capital and jobs is in trouble. The IMF predicts global growth of 0.5% this year, the worst in 60 years. World trade has plunged. Foreign direct investment, a common route to transfer skills and technology from rich to poor countries, fell by 21% in 2008 to $1.4 trillion and will contract by another 12-15% this year. Unemployment is expected to rise by 30m from 2007 levels by the end of this year. A poll taken in the last two months of 2008 by Edelman for the World Economic Forum found that 62% of repondents in 20 countries said they trusted companies less, with a majority keen on more state regulation."

Deplorable, indeed, but are things really this bad? And will this last? Surely, things are this chaotic at present, but I expect the trend to reverse quite rapidly once the toxic assets will be isolated and international banking will restart in earnest. Until then, yes, it'll be this bad, if not worse.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wealth Mismanagement

The Economist published an article about UBS, my former employer, under this title in April 2008. Ruefully, things at UBS have hardly improved since then.

The bank lost a record amount of money in the fourth quarter of 2008, it was revealed a week ago. So much, in fact, that once the Swiss government bailed it out with extra funds, it caused the Swiss budget to register a deficit.

But that isn't the end of the grim news, alas.

It was revealed today that UBS has agreed to pay $780 million (in fines, interest, penalties, and restitution, according to the Associated Press) to the U.S. government in a plea bargain of sorts, as it seeks to quell allegations that it conspired to defraud the IRS of taxes owed by numerous bigwig clients. Purportedly, UBS has agreed to turn over its U.S. customer account information to the federal government immediately, which may go to the nexus of the secretive accounts some of these people hold in Switzerland, one of the world's most notorious offshore tax (evasion) havens.

What a fall from grace from just several years back, when UBS was revered as being the world's most prudent wealth management brand.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Belated Justice?

Some 30 years after one of Asia's worst genocides, its perpetrators may finally be brought to justice.
Today, Kaing Guek Eav (more commonly known as Duch), now a religious Christian, will appeared before Cambodia's genocide tribunal in its first hearing over the infamous (and rueful) Khmer Rouge regime's role in the massacre. Duch is charged with crimes against humanity, including torture, murder, and rape.
Some 1.7 million Cambodians, or roughly one-third of the population, died during the regime's reign of terror, which prosecuted, among others, intellectuals or those deemed to have been "corrupted" by the erstwhile regime.
I had the chance to visit Duch's school-turned-prison, the S-21, which he was in charge of in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's laid-back capital (see attached pictures). I was surprised to read this morning that he has voiced regret for what he did and is now seeking forgiveness, unlike the other accomplices charged by the UN-assisted tribunal. However, he has apparently not made any formal confession, merely admitting that crimes did take place under his watch at S-21.
According to the Associated Press, the trial is to begin in late March, with 33 witnesses testifying over 40 days, with the defense seeking 13 witnesses of 4.5 days.
For years, I've been following this case in publications such as The Financial Times, reading about the incessant bickering between Cambodia and the UN over funding and pay, with former spooks, who to some degree still run amok and pull a fair amount of strings in the Buddhist kingdom, clearly influencing many decisions. It is amazing that this tribunal was proposed 13 years ago--and the court inaugurated 3 years ago--but only now has it got under way.
Alas, many other perpetrators with blood on their hands are still free or at large--and, most rueful of all, they may not even be brought to trial. This, regrettably, will only weaken the authority of the court, no matter what Duch's ultimate fate may be.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Lost Decade Revisited?

If you thought the recession in the U.S. or Europe is bad, then Japan's dire economic state makes the United States' economy look healthy and robust in comparison.

The Economist reports that figures due to be released in a few hours in Japan are expected to show that the economy has shrunk by 10% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2008. Such a contraction can only be compared to those of Iceland and Latvia, putting Japan in the infamous group of countries whose governments have already been ousted from power (the former) or are in the process of becoming precisely such a casualty (the latter).

Having just quite recently emerged from "The Lost Decade," when the economy contracted steeply after its asset bubble burst only to fall into a protracted bout of deflation, Japan's growth has now been stifled by the global economic crisis.

Unfortunately for Japan, this may prove to be its hardest battle yet. For one, the country’s banking system is modern and developed, so it would be hard (i.e. impossible) for Japan to decouple from such a worldwide financial debacle. Even harder, alas, for a country that is a global financial hub, the world's second biggest economy, and one of the world's largest exporters. The latter problem has been exacerbated as the yen has appreciated roughly 25% against the U.S. dollar, 40% against the euro, and some 90% against the British pound in the last six months, thus making Japan’s exports more expensive for its main cash-deprived consumers.

Such an export-oriented economy is bound to suffer greatly, especially when global demand for its products, many of them high-quality cars, electronics, and sundry gadgets, plunges.

And it seems that, as a result, Japan’s Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is likely to follow his (former) Icelandic counterpart in resigning quite soon, possibly in the next few weeks, thus becoming the next PM to resign as a result of the global financial disaster.
Expect many more to follow him.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There is Some Hope for America's Rail System After All!

I was just reading a Yahoo! News article on the U.S. fiscal stimulus and spending package when I stumbled across something that genuinely surprised me in the most pleasant of ways:

"In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday. Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money."

If it passes, perhaps this will be one of the better parts of a bill that has been lambasted by many Republicans and a surprising number of Democrats alike, although chiefly in private by the latter.

Read one of my earlier blog posts--posted on the previous page on January 30--on the wealth of benefits such rail development would have. It is truly surprising that the bigwigs on Capitol Hill have finally realized this; I will be even more surprised, however, if such a big spending increase actually passes, despite all the rhetoric.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Banal Sign of Economic Hardship...

Three weeks ago I went to my local library and found its electronic book catalog. After searching for a "Start Your Own EBay Business" book, I wrote down four books' call numbers and went to find them.

Much to my surprise, three out of the four books have already been checked out.

And what was left was not a good book, at least that's what I gleaned after skimming its pages.

Yes, signs of mass unemployment and a protracted economic crisis.

And I don't expect to see these books back on the shelf anytime soon.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

President Obama's Pitfalls

Remember the times before Barack Obama’s inauguration when pundits and typical everyday folks alike were all wondering—and vociferously debating—how long the 44th U.S. President’s honeymoon would last? Yesterday, it seems, everyone found out the answer.

Opinion polls have shown Mr. Obama’s approval rating, while still high, has fallen from 66% to 61% on February 4—a day after two more resignations were announced from Mr. Obama’s cabinet: first by Tom Daschle, later by Nancy Killefer. The former couldn’t have hurt Mr. Obama more, as Mr. Daschle, the Health and Human Services Secretary-designate, was an ostensibly indispensible part of the President’s key staff. The departure of Ms. Killefer, while considered for a lower-tier role as a “spring cleaner” of sorts (designated with overseeing government programs for waste and other minutiae), only added to the consternation felt at the White House on Tuesday. The reason for both resignations is tax evasion, although whether such actions were accidental or intentional is still a moot point. All this is in addition to the resignation of Bill Richardson before Mr. Obama’s inauguration a fortnight ago, sparked by an ongoing investigation dating back to purported behavior during his days as former governor of New Mexico.

Even more unfortunate is that these resignations could not have come at a worse time, when Congress is mulling a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package while the economy is deteriorating by the day. Such distractions—while Democrats are embarrassed just as the Republicans are furtively celebrating—do not augur well for constructive debates, to be sure. Neither does the new joke that is making rounds around Capitol Hill: “Why are Democrats always for raising taxes? Because they don’t pay any!”

But most ominous of all, perhaps, is that Mr. Obama’s rating is now just about the same as George W. Bush’s was at the same stage of his first term. He must surely be hoping for a quick reversal of this trajectory—and wishing that the blip made while initially uttering the presidential oath does not portend precisely such rueful stumbles ahead.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Latent Cold War

Well, how quaint.

Days after meeting Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev, it became official that Kyrgyzstan's lame duck President Kurmanbek Bakiev has decided to close the U.S. Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. According to the Los Angeles Times, Russia promised Kyrgyzstan a package consisting of a $150 million aid grant, a $2 billion loan on highly favorable terms, as well as cancellation of the Central Asian state's $180 million debt. Oh, and on top of that is assistance in building a hydroelectric power plant, which will partly help Kyrgyzstan wean off its reliance on neighboring Uzbekistan for energy.

So, after the recent flurry of rumors swirling around the imminent closure of the U.S. Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, it appears that closure is the name of the game after all. This is a key development in international affairs, for Moscow's, er, Bishkek’s successful shutting down of the U.S. base in this strategic Central Asian country--indeed, one very close to Afghanistan--means that the U.S. will lose its only base in all of Central Asia.

Russia already has a base in Kyrgyzstan. It is located in Kant—not too far from the site of the U.S. Manas base. In six months, Russia's base will be the only one left in this Central Asian state.

The U.S. was paying Kyrgyzstan millions of dollars per annum for using the base, but apparently Russia's terms were too sweet to pass up.

With the next presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan due sometime next year, a lot can change until then. But don't expect Moscow's support to result in a significant improvement in the standard of living in one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

Hitherto, Kyrgyzstan was considered a relative paragon of freedom, though relative is the key word here: Central Asia has authoritarian regimes in all of its former Soviet republics. By those standards, Kyrgyzstan was, as the region's best political reformer, an exemplar, but in recent year's President Bakiev has reversed many of those gains. Indeed, since coming to power in the spring of 2005 during the country's so-called Tulip Revolution, locals seem to think that things are now getting worse, not better, and not only as it concerns freedom of speech, but first and foremost in the economy.

Thus, it isn't so surprising that Mr. Bakiev is cuddling up to Moscow. Perhaps he is thinking that if it isn't possible to secure a clear majority in free and fair elections, boasted by Moscow's dollops of aid in the interim, than Moscow will at least be duly willing to recognize the elections as democratic regardless of what the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) election watchdog group says. On that note he is certainly correct.

However, winning such an election will not make him any more popular among his own people, who may well prove again that the ultimate result of elections rests with them, irrespective of the likely machinations by the government elite.

Alas, as is all too common in post-Soviet politics, authorities seem too nearsighted to recognize this threat until it is too late.

Déjà vu

I finally had a chance to watch “Milk,” a highly acclaimed movie that has generally been given an “A” rating by pundits. It is a touching story of California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and the gay rights movement in San Francisco’s infamous Castro district, the state of California, and the greater U.S. in the 1970s. Though the movie is a bit long, I didn’t look at my watch once—it was that good. Very interesting, touching, and, best of all, it’s a true story. Highly recommended.

Interestingly enough, while Harvey Milk was California’s first openly gay official, Iceland has been making news again in a similar sort of way. Indeed, Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir (pictured right), having replaced the outgoing Geir Haarde, last week became the world’s first openly homosexual head of state.