25 November 2007

Reframing

Here is Matthew Yglesias talking about how the question of success in Iraq is being reframed in light of recent successes and failures (all of which is in the context of this NYT article):

...[the surge has] created a situation where it now once again looks -- as it did in 2003 and 2004 -- that we might be able to stay in Iraq forever. And, of course, if you don't consider financial costs to be costs, and don't consider small numbers of casualties to be costs, and don't believe in opportunity costs, and try not to worry to much about the risk of war with Iran, and don't mind the lack of benefits except to the egos of the war's supporters, then this looks like a pretty smart policy.
Certainly, this will continue to look like a smart policy until at least January 20th, 2009, it's just a real question of whether it will continue to look so smart of January 21st. That, of course, depends on who is shacking up in the White House on that point. Given my biases, I fear that for any Republican candidate, particularly Mr. 9/11 Giuliani, it will continue to be the smart policy. Even under Clinton who is constantly afraid of appearing soft on defense, that could appear as a reasonably smart policy. Under Obama, Edwards, or several of the second-tier Democratic candidates, I'm confident that it would be clear that ignoring all of these relevant variables is not smart policy.

Given the irrationality of the American electorate (any electorate, really), it's interesting to wonder how this will turn out.

Merry Thanksgiving Day!

One unanticipated pleasure of working for a treasure hunting company is that I get to deal directly with Chinese suppliers because, when cost is your primary motivator, there really isn't anywhere else to turn.

Most recently, I bought 100 promotional LED blacklights to give to players. We often use invisible ink in our clues thereby making blacklights an indispensable part of the effective treasure hunter's toolbox. I spent a good amount of time looking for the best price online until I came across Quality China Goods. In addition to the confidence-inspiring name and the website full of flashing HTML, they had ridiculously low prices and the option of getting the Ravenchase logo printed on them for a reasonable charge. I ordered them through "Joel", my customer service representative who was very attentive and professional. I had to get the express shipping to be sure that they would be here in time for the Paris Expat Olympiad (otherwise shipping would have been free) and they arrived on Saturday. I opened the box and, well, they are a little crappier than I was expecting, but still worth the price I paid for them. Suffice it to say that I'll be going back to Quality China Goods and their parent company, Shenzhen Wholesale, for future blacklight needs.

Beyond the general pleasure I get, as an economic liberal, from dealing with a Chinese manufacturer/wholesaler, I also get to read nearly perfect emails from their customer service reps. In their quest for good relations with their American customers, they are careful to never forget a national holiday (would we, in comparison, remember the date of the Zhonghe Festival?) which, when mixed with nearly perfect English results in well wishes of the sort that I received from "Joel" which serves as the title to this post.

Mmm, globalization. Merry Thanksgiving Day to all, and to all a good turkey!

22 November 2007

Quick Summary of French Strikes

NYT video. Unfortunately, they don't offer an option to embed directly here, but it seems to get to the heart of the matter. Sarkozy, with a strong electoral mandate, promised to reform the special benefits enjoyed by some public sector transit workers. They have a very strong, very well organized union. Sarkozy sits back and lets the demonstrations run their course. My money is on Sarkozy.

21 November 2007

Rail Sabotage is the Perfect Lesson in Etymology

I was struck by how appropriate this all was. From an article in the NYT about the ongoing transit strike here in France, we learn,

As a national transit strike stretched into its second week, arsonists disrupted high-speed train service on four main routes today. Government officials called the disruptions a “coordinated act of sabotage.”

The early morning outbreak of fires among the electrical lines supplying the high-speed TGV trains happened hours before talks began between transit union and government officials...

The sabotage — a distinctively French word coined in railway strike of 1910, when workers destroyed the wooden shoes, or sabots, that held rails in place — took place at the start of the morning commute.

How appropriate!

The article says that "there is no end in sight", but at least service is slowing coming back on line. I even took the metro once today. It wasn't crowded.

It's also interesting the level of fervor present in French unions (assuming that they were behind this). Perhaps it comes from the fact that union members, along with any other supporter of leftist politics, are called "militants" here. Just can't give up on the good old days of Communism I guess. For more on that, look here.

15 November 2007

Perspective

Here's a graph that compares US investment into alternative energy research to the cost of the Iraq War.

If you think that a lot of our geopolitical problems are a result of reliance on oil from unstable regions and that our presence in Iraq isn't doing anything to burnish our image, then the graph may be a bit upsetting. Be prepared to scroll.

Originally found on Matthew Yglesias.

10 November 2007

Ravenchase: The Expat Olympic Adventure Race!


Brits? Yanks? Aussies? Canucks? Kiwis?

Just which national allegiance claims the title of the wittiest, the cleverest, the most cunning Paris expat community? Well, on December 1st, Ravenchase, with the help of several meetup.com groups, intends to determine just that. On that day, I'll be running an event for several different Paris Expat meetups, I've already got the Brits and Yanks on board, whether the Canucks, Aussies, and kiwis come out is yet to be seen, but it's hard to imagine that they could turn something like this down.

Ravenchase is offering this as a free event for the meetup groups as means to get our good name out in front of interesting, adventurous people. With just the Brits and the Yanks, I'm expecting at least 30 people, throw in the other nationalities and that could climb rapidly.

All in all, it's good news for Ravenchase Europe. It gives us some practice in creating larger events and, naturally, shows people how awesome we are. (Anyone other than myself notice how I've begun to refer to Ravenchase in the third person? I think it helps me separate the professional life from the private life which is, in general, a good thing to do.)

If you know any Anglophones in Paris, let them know, it should be a real hoot!

08 November 2007

Halo 3 Promotes Suicide Bombing among Lower Classes

In the game, at least. Here is an interesting first-hand account from Clive Thompson, writing in Wired.

It was after pulling this maneuver a couple of dozen times that it suddenly hit me: I had, quite unconsciously, adopted the tactics of a suicide bomber -- or a kamikaze pilot.

It's not just that I'm willing to sacrifice my life to kill someone else. It's that I'm exploiting the psychology of asymmetrical warfare.

...

I, however, have a completely different psychology. I know I'm the underdog; I know I'm probably going to get killed anyway. I am never going to advance up the Halo 3 rankings, because in the political economy of Halo, I'm poor.

Specifically, I'm poor in time. The best players have dozens of free hours a week to hone their talents, and I don't have that luxury. This changes the relative meaning of death for the two of us. For me, dying will not penalize me in the way it penalizes them, because I have almost no chance of improving my state. I might as well take people down with me. Full article.


The pointer to this comes from a Freakonomics post describing the surprising finding that most suicide bombers are not, in fact, from the lowest, least educated classes of society, but are often rather middle-class. Link.

Should have invested in the Loonie...

Or better yet, the Twoonie! Once again, a sad day falls upon American currency. I thought that these images from XE.com were illustrative. If you're familiar with the rate tables at XE, you know that there is something a bit off about the below table (click to enlarge):



What's that little blue question mark next to the rate in the USD/CAD cell? That's not normally there... Well, what happens when you hover over it? Let's see (again, click to enlarge):



Yikes, you know it's bad when XE, a favorite site of professional currency speculators the world over (not to mention Japanese housewives), goes to the trouble to tell you that, yes, you are reading it correctly, the US Dollar is worth less than its Canadian counterpart. Ouch... Just for historical perspective, eight years ago today, one US Dollar was worth about $1.46 Canadian. That's about what the Euro will get you in US Dollars today. Oh how the tables have turned.

It's gotten so bad that everyone's favorite French President has had to give the US Congress a lesson on fiscal responsibility! The shame! A financial lesson from France! What is the nation coming to? What's next, a France backing the US on matters of national defense? Apparently yes.

06 November 2007

Normandy for the Weekend?

Sounds great! That's what we said and it was a great time. The countryside was really beautiful and we saw some amazing landscapes. Naturally, I spent plenty of time with my camera in hand and took plenty of pictures. Despite the grumblings of my travel mates, I think that the results merit the effort. The first set of pictures are mainly on a walk that we took near Villerville, where Esther's family has their house. We also went to Trouville and Deauville during this set. The following set finds us in Etretat, walking around its cliffs, in the city, and then, finally, in Honfleur.

Without further ado, the pictures!

Normandie avec Elise et Dan


Normandie avec Elise et Dan, Pt. II

31 October 2007

Ravenchase!


So, now that we're happily married (it's true! we're really happy that we got married!) I've had some time to dedicate to other things, like my job. "What's your job?", you ask. "Have you been living under a mushroom?", I respond.

It's working for Ravenchase Adventures, of course! According to my business card, I am "Regional Director, France". Translated, that means that I do everything, from creating their games, to finding actors, to finding clients, to putting on the games, to... well, you get the point. I do it all, but, thankfully, with a lot of help and support from the US.

"So, wait, back it up a little bit. What is Ravenchase?", you ask in wonderfully colloquial American English. Well, according to the website (now also linked in the sidebar on the left), "Ravenchase is the best thing that has happened to guide your adventure since the compass." I'm pretty sure that maps came before compasses, so if the list goes:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Ravenchase
I think that I would have to agree with it. More directly, Ravenchase creates experiences, adventures really. Most of the adventures are something like treasure hunts, but not your average, everyday treasure hunts. These events have stories, actors, magic potions, and gadgets. There are public games, corporate games, and custom private games. In brief, if you can imagine it, it's safe to say that Ravenchase can create it and a lot more that you could never have imagined.

My job, then, is to produce all Ravenchase operations in France, based out of Paris. So far, things are off to a good start. We had our first event this past Saturday. It was called, The Quest for the Docteur's Dark Secret and it revolves around a World War II figure named Dr. Marcel Petiot who used his profession to kill dozens of Parisians. Mix in the Freemasons, a secret society in the Freemasons, executions, prison, and plenty of other ugly things. (Here's the promotional flier I created for it.)

All in all, it went really well. Everyone that played said that they had a great time and it would seem that it was sufficiently immersive that they were willing to run around with treasure maps without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Here are pictures from that event:
Ravenchase - Event 2007-10-27

I'm already working on the next game, it should be a lot of fun.

That's about it for now, I'll be trying to post more soon, but chasing ravens is hard work... And if you know anyone in Paris looking for a good time, tell them to give me a ring.

20 October 2007

For all the motorheads out there...

Now I know that I haven't been taking the time to post a lot here, but this only takes a second and is really amazing. It's a camera inside an operating combustion chamber. Unfortunately it's missing the full exhaust stroke but you can see everything else, the valves, the plug, the fuel/air mixture, the piston, it's all there! It's not something that I would have expected to see, suffice it to say, it's ridiculously awesome. Apparently it was taken with a high-temp resistant camera at 1000 frames per second (normal TV speed is 30 frames/second):


16 October 2007

Our (Second) Wedding

September 30th, 2007

Before the wedding, we went with Yona to take pictures in the Parc de Belleville, near our house:

Pictures in le Parc de Belleville


Then came the wedding. An absolutely unforgettable experience (again, thanks to Yona for all of his great work behind the camera):
Our (Second) Wedding

(I've not yet had time to put in captions for these, you'll have to provide the witty commentary yourself by posting comments to the pictures.)

A Meal Together

Once everyone had arrived in town, we got together at the Rozenkier's house to share a meal together. Here are the photographic results of that evening (thanks to Yona Rozenkier, Esther's cousin, for taking all of the pictures):

Un repas tous ensemble

Fun with the Rozenkiers

The Rozenkiers were able to come for about two weeks altogether so we made sure to have fun both before and after the wedding. Here's a bit of what we did:

First we went up to Burt Lake:

Rozenkiers at Burt Lake


While at Burt Lake we went tubing:
Tubing!


Then we went to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Ludington:
Rozenkiers at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Ludington


After the wedding we went to Chicago:
Rozenkiers in Chicago


When we came back, we went to Detroit:
Rozenkiers in Detroit


Followed by Harsens Island (specifically, the Turkey Shoot):
Rozenkiers at Harsens Island


And, to finish off their travels in the United States, a trip to the indoor gun range at Bass Pro Shops!
Rozenkiers Shooting



Great times all around!

Our (First) Wedding

August 25th, 2007
Rochester Community House

Our (First) Wedding

Sorry for the delay....

So, you might be saying that it's been about a month since I last posted anything and, in that previous post, I promised to have pictures and other exciting things up "soon". Yeah, sorry about that. Turns out that being married (rather, getting married) can keep you really busy. Especially if you do it twice. In two different countries. With one side of the family traveling in each case.

The upcoming posts will links to pictures and brief summaries of what all happened. I don't have a lot of time to post in great detail (I'll explain more in a later post) though I imagine that the pictures (and their captions) will pretty much speak for themselves.

17 September 2007

Married Blogging Begins!

And we're back! It has been quite a month, quite a month indeed. Obviously, the big news is that Esther and I are now married. Folks are inclined to ask, "How's married life?" and all I can tell them is that it involves a lot of traveling, a lot of planning, huge amounts of craziness, followed by separation. Suffice it to say that things are not yet "back to normal." Esther is in Paris, I'm still in Michigan waiting for my French papers to come through which is, clearly, not the ideal way to be enjoying married life. We're working on fixing that. But that's the boring present, the fun stuff is everything that we did just before and just after the wedding, not to mention the wedding itself. To properly explain all of this I knew that I needed to have pictures ready and, given that I took about 2,000 pictures in about three weeks, processing those images has added to to the delay in getting this post up. (I've been put to shame by Chris and Stashia who got married six days after Esther and I, immediately moved to Seattle, started a new job, found and moved into a new house, took care of their kid, and still had the time to start and post to a new blog. Make sure you visit the blog, their son, Tryson, is pretty much the cutest thing ever. Here's the link: http://christashia.blogspot.com/)

So without further ado, here come the pictures, the stories, and the craziness of the past month!

(Of course, the following posts will be above this one because of the reverse chronological order of blogs... Newfangled logic of the internets...)

14 August 2007

Cheney is SO Right

...was so right, rather.

The Oracle himself, circa 1994:



The man has a gift.

(Coming from boingboing which adds the caption, "Of course, this was before Saddam Hussein personally flew those airliners into our buildings on 9/11/2001. That changed everything.")

Brain in a WoW Server

From an article by John Tierney in the NYT today:

"...if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits."

Read the article, it encourages movement in the brain-o-sphere, though I imagine that many WoW fans have already had this realization.

Basically, it's a variation on the brain in a vat argument that's been rehashed and reinterpreted for successive generations (follow the link just for the picture, if nothing more). What's new about this one is that it attaches the same sort of questionable "certainty" to the claim that has been problematic for other arguments and hypotheses. (See here and here for two examples.)

I find this sort of speculation immensely fascinating but ultimately inconsequential. Certainty with this sort of question is impossible to attain, just as it is in regard to theological, metaphysical, and meta-ethical questions. So instead of spending my days beating myself about the head in the hopes of having an answer fall out, I take what I think to be, the most reasonable answers, that is, the simplest explanation with the most readily observable evidence. Wondering is fun, but only for so long.

Ultimately, it's questions like these that caused me to lose interest in any form of philosophy except for political and applied moral. Sorry Adam, but I really hate analytic philosophy. (For an amusing criticism of the field, read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's remarks in this Freakonomics post.)

On a final note, what I do find particularly interesting about this comes from Tierney's follow-up on his blog where he asks whether it would be ethical for us to create such a simulation. Despite all of the suffering in the world, we think it is better that it exists rather than the contrary. Then would creating a simulation with all of the horrors of our world and "people" who are as real to themselves as we are to ourselves who would suffer as we have, would that be justifiable? If we wanted to experiment on these virtual people, could we? Lawyer Peter S. Jenkins says yes, and I'm inclined to agree.

I hope that I live long enough to see these questions resolved and the technology realized.

Efficient Giving

It's always been a difficult question for me and I'm sure it is for many others but I'm finally getting some traction on it, thanks to some good old economic principles.

If you live anywhere with a certain level of urban density (even Ann Arbor counts) you're sure to run into the situation. Someone, often looking extremely desperate, asks you for money in the street. What are you supposed to do? You know that you have money in your pocket, probably some coins that would be relatively easy to give. Should you give?

There are several approaches available to answer this question:

1. The deontological approach.
If you happen to ascribe to a certain moral or religious code that is 1) deontological in nature, (i.e. it's the action and not the consequences that count) and 2) gives direction for this situation, then you probably have nothing to worry about. Just give as you're told to give and don't look back, consequences be damned.

2. The consequentialist approach.
If you are a consequentialist by accident or choice, then you have to think a little bit harder about what to do in this situation. This is where economics comes in handy as I'll show below.

3. The "other" approach.
Maybe you don't care or you can't be bothered to care and you pass by indifferently. Presumably this is even easier than the first approach though I wouldn't recommend floating through your life without giving consideration to what's happening around you.

Analysis
I used to ascribe to the first position. I thought that inequality was a terrible thing (I still do) and that I would do well to empty my wallet whenever asked by someone who appeared to be poorer than me. I gave away a bunch of money like this and, as you will read, I'm now quite certain that I accomplished very little, except, perhaps, encouraging the very situation that I was trying to eliminate. Whereas I used to believe that right actions made me a good person regardless of their consequences, I can no longer support that position. For a number of reasons, I'm now a confirmed consequentialist.

Back to the issue at hand, what is a person concerned with the consequences of his/her actions supposed to do when someone in the street asks for money?

Simple: Never, ever, ever give money to someone who makes their "living" from begging.


Begging in Brussels

Explanation
Like I said above, inequality really bothers me and I think that you should give your money to poor people, just not those who are putting all of their effort into begging. Rather, give it to the poorest person who expects it the least. This idea comes courtesy of Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution fame. Here is his original post on the topic.

Basically, the idea is that giving to beggars only encourages more beggars which guarantees only that begging will continue. In fact, it also guarantees that an economy will grow around this industry, with "producers" providing the beggars and collecting the majority of the profits. Here is a shocking story from the BBC about doctors in India cutting off the limbs of beggars so that they are more valuable to the gangs that "own" them.

I strongly suspect that there are criminal gangs exploiting the disabled in Paris as well. When you see a woman who is so crippled that she cannot walk on her own begging four floors below ground in the metro, it stands to reason that someone brought here there, set her down, and will collect her when the day is over. Presumably they give her food and shelter but they money that goes into her cup does not stay with her. It is imperative to not support this form of exploitation.

Even in less extreme cases, where there is not the criminal exploitation of the disenfranchised, it is not wise to encourage begging. If a beggar knows that a particular begging spot is worth $5,000 per year, he will devote $5,000 worth of effort to get that spot, effort which could have been spent on far more healthy and productive pursuits (paraphrased from Cowen's comments here). If you don't like the situation of beggars, don't give to them!

Finally, getting to the point that finally motivated me to write this today, the beggar might not be as poor as you think. This Freakonomics post suggests that, in some cases, beggars might be making more than police officers. It's something that I've thought about often. Imagine the Paris metro, it's really busy. If a beggar sits in one place he might see 150 people go past him/her in one minute during a busy period, perhaps as few as 20 in a less busy period. There are easily three busy periods per day, each lasting at least an hour each. Let's assume that the beggar is there for seven hours each day (it is France after all, can't work more than 35 hours per week), that would put the beggar there for three busy hours and four not so busy hours. Given the sixty minutes in an hour, that translates to 31,800 people passing by the beggar each day (some, perhaps most of these people are passing twice, meaning that there are maybe 16,000 unique metro-users). This is really easy to imagine given that RER Line A (there are four others, plus the 16 metro lines) regularly handles more than one million passengers per day. So, if 1% these 16,000 unique metro-users gives a euro, the beggar makes 160 euros for seven hours of "work" for an hourly rate of about 23 euros per hour. Not bad at all. Even if only half as many people give money, it's still 80 euros per day, or about 12.50 euros per hour.


Gypsy women begging with their children in Lyon

To wrap it all up, giving to beggars encourages only more begging, which is bad for the individuals and for the society. It can, and often does, encourage criminal enterprises to exploit the most vulnerable members of society, to the point of for-profit mutilation. And finally, beggars may not be as bad off as you think and, when the global financial markets as well constructed as they are, you could easily give to someone in much more need who will use the money for more productive endeavors. Case in point, Tyler Cowen's newest project, giving his personal money directly to individuals in India.

Just to be certain that my point is not lost: poverty and income inequality are bad things, I don't like them at all. I think that I, and everybody else who can afford it, should give a lot of their money to people who need it more than they do. Just do it in a responsible way. It may not be the most convenient way of doing it, but if you're going to do the right thing, it's your duty to do it the right way.

13 August 2007

Logic vs. Conventional Wisdom

This NYT article is a great example of how conventional wisdom doesn't always stand up to logic. The subject is the great disparity in the average number of sexual partners between men and women. Some surveys produce self-reported results with men having an average of 7 partners to women's 4. That's a 75% difference. That's big. But, it makes sense with what we think about the reproductive strategies of men and women, right? You know, men want to reproduce as often as possible to guarantee the continued existence of their genes. Women, on the other hand, want a stable relationship to help raise the kids, thereby ensuring that they reach reproductive age and pass on her genes. This makes women jealous and men infidel. Right?

Sure, except that it's logically impossible. The math professor in the article, David Gale of UC Berkeley, provides the following example:

"By way of dramatization, we change the context slightly and will prove what will be called the High School Prom Theorem. We suppose that on the day after the prom, each girl is asked to give the number of boys she danced with. These numbers are then added up giving a number G. The same information is then obtained from the boys, giving a number B.

Theorem: G=B

Proof: Both G and B are equal to C, the number of couples who danced together at the prom. Q.E.D.”

For a closed population, that has to be true. Like, logically. Think about it.

The moral for today, kids: Conventional wisdom may not be as wise as originally thought.

06 August 2007

The French Caveat

France is great, I really enjoy living here. Of course I miss people and places in the US, but if I had to choose a city to live in for the rest of my life, Paris would be very high on the list. It's pretty, but not in a sanitized way. It's exciting, but also predictable. I'm just saying it would make a good long term partner.

The thing is, however, in France, whenever something is good, there has to be this other "thing." Nothing is free (above all, not my internet service which is called "Free"), there's always a caveat. The medical care is top-notch and "free", but we all know how my experience went dealing with them. The Parisian métro is great, except when they are on strike. France is great, except...

The latest installment is Vélib, the fantastic public bike system. There are about 700 stations all around Paris, about 300 yards away from each other. At these stations are about 10,000 bikes that you withdraw from one station and return to any other. You can get a yearly membership for 29 euros or pay one euro for each half hour. With the yearly membership you get one half hour free each time you take a bike. Really, it's an awesome system. Fantastic, every city should have one...

Except...

In deciding whether or not to sign up, he obvious choice was to take the yearly membership. Naturally, you could sign up online. I found the site easily enough and began filling in my information. Name, birth date, nationality, address, all of the standard fields were there. I provided my credit card number for the one time fee and my bank information as a guarantee against me stealing, destroying, and/or selling their bikes. Even better, I was able to associate my Vélib subscription with my magnetic métro pass so I only need to carry one pass with me.

Anyway, the whole process is going great. I'm thinking that I'm going to hit the "Subscribe Me" button and be able to take my pass outside and cruise around for 30 minutes. It will be great, it will be fantastic, I'll fall in love with Paris all over again. So there I am, hopes up, shoes on, ready to ride. I click the button and, and, and....

It gives me a PDF that they have filled in with my information from the previous pages that I am now supposed to print out and mail in. Huh? What? Gwah?

IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!!! All that typing that I just did, now it will have to be re-typed by some French administration slave, duplicating the opportunity for transcription errors, costing everyone money (but that's what the VAT is for), clogging the mail (though providing jobs for people like the communist revolutionary postman, Olivier Besancenot, who ran for president a few months back).

Wow, France, you really had me there. I really thought that something was just going to be awesome from start to finish, without any caveat. You got me. You got me real good. I should have known better, I really should have. And really, it doesn't change anything between us, you're just like I always knew you were, really wonderful, except...

La Fête de la République

Just like back in 2005, Esther's dad found some tickets for us to go to the military parade on the Champs-Élysées on July 14th, known as Bastille Day to foreigners but "la fête de la République" to most French. It's always a bunch of fun, plus I've always liked parades since I was a kid.

Below are some pictures that I took. Some personal favorites are those of Sarkozy, the Republican Guard and the French Foreign Legion (very scary). I took the time to put captions on them, hope that you enjoy them!

La fete de la Republique

Lyon!

Esther and I had the opportunity to go to Lyon for the wedding of two of her friends. Click below to see some pretty pictures!

Travels - Lyon

02 August 2007

A little behind on things...

It would appear that I've fallen a little behind on keeping the old blog up to date (understatement intended). Here are some possible excuses that I've come up with:

  • Impending wedding and related planning
  • Uncertainty regarding some major educational/professional decisions
  • Sudden-onset super-morbid-obesity (can:t m thuyp, fdkiingeers toioio fqat@!!~)
  • Intensive French classes (20 hrs/week!)
  • un ennui indéfinissable
Some of the above are true, others are not, you take your pick. Just to prove how behind I am on posting, here are some pictures that I took while still in the US!

Autocross at Oakland University


More posts to come as wedding planning subsides, I make some decisions, I lose 65% of my body mass, my classes come to an end, and/or I stop being annoyingly French.

24 June 2007

Back to Ann Arbor!

Well, I've been back in the US and have made it to Ann Arbor a few times with these pictures to show for it. It was great to see everyone!

09 June 2007

The Big Announcement

Given the two very important facts that a lot of people already know and that nothing is official until it is posted on my blog and Facebook, it's time to let this into the public sphere:

Esther and I are getting married!

Seriously. It's official, the date is set for August 25th in Rochester with a party in Paris in late September. It's short lead time to get everything arranged, but we wanted to condense the suffering of wedding planning into as short of a time as possible as well as enjoy the benefits of marriage as soon as possible.

Obviously we're both extremely excited and a little bit nervous. Though our feelings about the ceremony itself are a bit mixed (after all, Esther has to buy and wear a dress), our confidence that this is the right decision is absolute.

Finally, because I can take nothing completely seriously, an engagement picture done in the style of lolcat:



A more appropriate picture will come soon. All apologies to those who are offended...

22 May 2007

New Feature: Labels!

If you have a look over at the left side of your page you'll see a new section called "Labels" with a bunch of words under it. I've gone back and labeled all of my posts with appropriate terms such that if you want to see all of my posts about France, or all of my posts with pictures, you simply click on the appropriate label on the left. Give it a try, I'd appreciate feedback if you think that it could be improved (more accurate labels, fewer labels, more labels, etc...).

La Politique Francaise, Part 2: Some History

Briefly, about the French electoral system:
French presidential elections use a run-off system whereby, if no one candidate receives 50% or more of the vote in the first round, the top two vote getters move on to the second round. The candidate that receives 50% or more of the vote then is then elected President. The term is now five years (which changed in 2000, down from seven). The first round of voting is held on a Sunday near the end of April and the second round, if necessary, is held two weeks later. This has the effect of putting May Day (or Labor Day, May 1st), a historically important day for protests and demonstrations, in between the two rounds. This has had explosive results in the past.

On to the history:
This election, as all elections do, took place in the shadow of its predecessor, the 2002 Presidential Election. This previous election had something of a scarring effect on the French psyche as a result of the success of the extreme-right/nationalist candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the first round, earning him a place in the second round against Chirac. After founding his party, the National Front, in 1972, Le Pen ran for President in 1974, 1988, 1995, and, of course, 2002. His presence was always a thorn in the side of the French political mainstream (particularly the left) though the fact that it seemed unlikely that he would ever make it to the second round (getting about 15% of the vote in most elections) minimized the appearance of his threat. In 2002, however, the vote amongst the left was divided between upwards of 8 parties, each getting between 16.2% (Socialist Party) and less than 1% (Party of the Workers). The majority of these smaller parties received between 2% and 6% of the vote. (To see how divided the left really was, one need only to look at the names of the parties which included the French Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist League, the aforementioned Party of the Workers, the Workers Struggle party, and, of course, the Greens.) Given this division on the left, no major center-right candidate other than Chirac, and Le Pen's historical best performance (16.8%), the result of the second round put Chirac and Le Pen together for the second round.

The majority of the political spectrum, any one left of the extreme right, was shocked and, to some degree, ashamed that such an extreme figure could make it to the highest electoral round. Esther tells me about her experience that night where, as soon as the results were announced at 8pm, you could here the demonstrations beginning in the street. She joined them and remained out until 4 or 5am when finally the gendarmes came out with tear gas and water hoses to send everyone home. (Esther informs me that tear gas hurts.) This, of course, was just the night of the election and happened without any advanced planning. On May Day over 1.3 million people across France (more than 400,000 in Paris alone) demonstrated against Le Pen and made it pretty clear that at least he wouldn't be President.

When the second round came, Chirac prevailed, receiving the largest portion of the vote (82%) in the history of the fifth French Republic. It really stuck in the craw of the leftists to have to vote for Chirac and to contribute to his third-world-like landslide victory, but given the choices, there was no other option.

So, Chirac became president and did his thing for the next five years. His opposition to the Iraq War earned him a great deal of appreciation here and abroad but really, his second term was not particularly remarkable. In retrospect, what was perhaps most notable, was the ascension of a short-in-stature but big-in-presence, "tough on crime" firebrand through various ministerial positions. Though his name wasn't particularly well-known before the 2005 riots, it is certainly well-known now: Nicolas Sarkozy.

18 May 2007

La Politique Francaise, Part 1: A Disclaimer

[Chalk it up to my future career in law that I begin this with a EULA...]

To get this ball rolling, let's start with a platitude that you should keep in mind throughout the future posts:

  • France is not the United States and the United States are not France

Obviously true but often forgotten when analyzing current events in another country. The guys over at Marginal Revolution (a hugely insightful, economics oriented blog) gave the issue a once over here. The main message is that the model of government, social policy, and economic policy that you have for the United States doesn't do you much good in terms of analyzing the situation in Western Europe. What could be (and generally is) good policy in Western Europe, single-payer socialized health care, for example, can't be simply imported to the United States and be expected to work. The conception of government, particularly the balance of trust/skepticism that the public keeps in regard to the government, is completely different between the two countries. Certainly the cause of this is historical, but I'm not prepared to do that analysis now.

So, consider that a disclaimer, when you read about French politics, don't immediately interpret the information in terms of American politics. Remember, there are almost no situations in life in which a direct comparison between two complicated systems is possible, if someone tries to tell you that a situation is actually really simple and that you already understand it in terms of another situation, be skeptical. Nothing is simple, nothing is straightforward. It sounds daunting but, in reality, it's what makes this kind of analysis so much fun. (Your conception of fun may vary...)

It's coming, I promise

I've been trying really hard to write a summary of the recent presidential election here in France but I'm finding it really difficult and not for lack of trying (seriously, it's been bugging me for a while now). The conclusion that I've come to is that I can't write about this election without writing first about politics in France more broadly, and I can't do that until I write about France in general. Without this context there would be unconscionable lack of subtlety and it would sound like any other generalized assessment of France and it's politics (Sarkozy=Bush, France is tearing itself apart, etc...) no of which is true, at least not completely true.

With this in mind I am going to begin writing a series of several installments reflecting on France, her politics, and this most recent election. In the meantime I'll try and jazz things up with posts on other subjects as well. Mark this as my return to the world of the blogging, expect updates shortly (seriously this time).

04 May 2007

Long Time, No Post

Sorry to all of you that have been checking this from time to time, things got a little busy and I didn't have much time or motivation to direct toward updating this. Be not afraid, I have plenty to post about and plenty of pictures in particular so just you wait, there is much to come!

As for now, I imagine that a general update will suffice. Things are going well. I'm done with my job and have only a few weeks left in my class. It's a truism, but the time really has passed quickly. My time right now is mainly directed toward preparing for the LSAT. This is going pretty well, but I'm not yet satisfied with my scores, this being some five weeks from the test date.

Also I want to say congratulations to all those who have finished another year of college, particularly those who graduated. Enjoy your summer, do something new.

09 April 2007

07 April 2007

A Glimmer of Hope

The previous two posts have been oriented more towards me venting some ex-patriot steam than anything that could be construed as productive. To get away from that trend, I have to share something that I have discovered that I've found to be immensely interesting and believe represents a real glimmer of hope for human progress.

Imagine if you could take a university course entitled "The World, the Universe, Everybody and Everything in It." As you might expect from the title, this class hits on all major subjects from economics, to philosophy, to religion, to third world development, to astronomy, to... This course is taught by not just a good professor, and not just a great professor, but everyday by one of the leading specialists in the various fields under the broad umbrella of the course. Better yet, these professors aren't allowed to self-gratify by speaking at length about the topic of their choice, rather they are required to get the point across in 18 minutes or less in non-specialist language. Sounds pretty good right? So good, it might even be worth paying a fair dollar for it. In fact, about 1,000 people pay $6,000 for this invitation-only course, even though it lasts for only four days. What injustice, right? That's where the democratizing effect of theinternet comes in.

This wonderful thing, enchanting as it seems, goes by a rather lowly name. It's called TED. It stands for Technology Entertainment Design. It has been going on since 1984 and, from what I can tell, has been gaining considerable steam in the past few years. It's goal is to bring together creative, successful people who are interested in making the world a better place. It's greatest benefit is that it brings these great minds together for some serious problem solving and networking. A substantialancilliary benefit is the publication of what have been dubbed TEDTalks, online videos of some of the talks. I've downloaded several to my iPod and have been watching them on my way to and from work. By and large they are fantastic, enchanting, inspiring, and sometimes breathtaking.

The suggestion from TED is to watch at least three at once to get a sense of the cumulative effect of the conference. Here are three that I found particularly spectacular. I've embedded the videos from various sources because the TEDTalks site doesn't provide embed code. I would suggest watching them at the original site. Here is the link to that: TEDTalks Main Site

(Note of warning: TEDTalks are sponsored by BMW and I can't help but notice an incredible desire to go on a cross-country blast on a BMW R 1200 RT. ...can't...break...marketing's...grip...)

Here is journalist and author Robert Wright talking the arc of human history and the solution to the "clash of cultures" that everybody seems to think is inevitable:



Astrophysicist Sir Marin Rees looks at our position in things from the very large and very small perspective:



tedtalks TEDTalks (video) - TEDTalks : Sir Martin Rees (2005) video

Finally, here is Jeff Han showing off a new multi-touch interface that could significantly change human-computer interaction. This is to show that not everything at the conference is super heavy, some is just super cool:




I've watched about 15 of these and have really been impressed, I'll be sharing and offering commentary on more from time to time, though you should really check it out for yourself. Here's the link again if you don't want to scroll back up to the top: TEDTalks

06 April 2007

The Other Side of the Coin

<rant>

Seriously though, maybe we bring it on ourselves. In the previous post I argued that people in general tend toward a habit of victimization and egoism. I wrote about this in the context of the bevy of anti-American sentiments that I've encountered here.

Naturally there's another side to this coin. To put it mildly, I've been less than impressed by the comportment of my compatriots. It's an unfortunate paradox that the Americans that spend the most time abroad are generally those that we would want to be represented by the least. They are a self-centered, ungrateful and inconsiderate lot. They are characterized by being, by and large, white, female, and decidedly upper-middle class. They are loud and opinionated and exude a pomposity typically reserved for old-timey oil barons. They are American university students, in their sophomore or junior years (placing them at that age of grand wisdom, 19-20), engaging in the revered ritual of the "semester abroad."

If you would like to become a member of this rarefied breed, here is a crash course:

  • Come to class about 60% of the time
  • When in class speak in English to your neighbor (of course only if neighbor is American, if neighbor is not American ignore him or her completely)
  • Make no attempt at concealing the fact that you are speaking in English (even though you are in French class, in France)
  • Repeat funny-sounding French words until you are doubled over laughing at your own hilariousness
  • Never follow along so that when the professor calls on you you have to mumble and flip through pages in an attempt to answer
  • Complain about the fact that someone else, for the benefit of the 15 other peopme waiting, answered for you while you were searching for the answer
  • Do not try to pronounce French words correctly (just because other people pronounce the French "r" differently than the English "r" doesn't mean that you have to!)

Seriously, it's bad. I regularly observe better behavior from the French high school students that I teach and they 1) aren't paying for their school and, 2) are required to be there. The worst aspect of this is that the rest of my class is filled with people who are making a considerable personal investment in terms of time and money to be in this class. They are in the 24-35 age range and have either lived in France for some time or have recently relocated here. The Americans come off as a bunch of ungrateful buffoons, seeing the world on their parents dime and getting nothing out of it. Some concrete examples:

  • When asked about traveling, one American replies that he has been to Mexico. The professor asks where and if he saw some of the ruins of the previous civilizations. He replies that he was in Cancun the entire time, didn't leave his resort, and spent the majority of the time drunk. (Remember that a good number of the other students in my class are proud Latin Americans, I imagine that his response didn't demonstrate "respect" for their cultures.)
  • An American girl who never follows along in class constantly shouting, "What does that mean?" immediately after the professor explains what something means.
  • An American girl wears a big, stupid hat to class. France has a more traditional approach to education so wearing a hat in class is looked down upon. You are expected to come to class, sit up straight, face forward, and work hard. The professor asks why she is wearing a hat and she attempts to directly translate "I'm having a bad-hair day." Naturally no one understands this idiom so she puts her head down on the table. A few minutes later she takes off her shoes and socks and puts her feet up on the chair next to her so that her bare feet hang into the aisle, obstructing the movement of the professor as she passes out papers. Not exactly appropriate behavior by American standards, let alone French standards.

Now, I don't want it to seem that I'm getting down on Americans, but the six Americans in my class are doing nothing good for our image abroad. They act according to one of the worst stereotypes of Americans, that we have no appreciation for foreign cultures and behave if we are at home even when we are guests. I don't understand why they are wasting an opportunity that such a small portion of the world would ever have the chance to enjoy. It's unfortunate for them and unfortunate for our national image. Esther told me that her university had a big seminar before she came to the United States for her year abroad. They told her to respect local traditions, be generally non-confrontational, and to work to improve the image of France. I'm not sure if the American students had anything like that before they left, if they did it certainly had no effect. Bottom line, I'm embarrassed to be associated with them.

</rant>

01 April 2007

Unclear Thinking

The good news is that I've found that living in a foreign country goes a long way in understanding people, specifically what traits tend to be more universal. The bad news is that I've found people to be prone to disastrously unclear thinking and completely irrational behavior. Naturally, a few examples:

Two weeks ago I had a coffee with a woman in my French class from a Central American country. After a little bit of chit-chat about our common experiences as foreigners, she launched into a series of accusations and speculations against the United States. This isn't anything new, most people have some pretty strong emotions about the United States and I understand their desire to share them when they meet an American. When in this situation I try my best to explain that, yes, the United States has done and is doing some bad things but that it also does plenty of good things as well. Yes, there are plenty of crazy, nationalistic people in the United States but that they are vastly outnumbered by the good, normal people. Normally people grasp this and I feel that, even if they haven't changed their mind about the United States, they are a little more balanced in their analysis of it.

In this case, however, there was something qualitatively different. My classmate would concede that, yes, surely there are good people in the United States, but that it is an evil empire out to destroy the little countries and people of the world. For example, she told me that she had read that there are private citizens camping out on the Mexican border trying to "defend" it. I told her that this was correct, that they call themselves the Minutemen, that I think they are wasting their time, and that they just want to play soldier. She told me that they were actively hunting and killing immigrants. I told her that they had never killed anyone, at most they notify the Border Patrol who then arrests the immigrants. She told me that she "wasn't sure" about that, which is to say that she went on believing that the American government is letting its citizens kill immigrants because they are considered "less than human, like animals" (her words). In a different story, though in the same conversation, she told me about a friend of hers who had won a full-ride scholarship to an American university. When applying for the required long-stay visa, however, she was turned down and wasn't able to take advantage of her scholarship. Obviously that would be rough, I commiserated a bit and then said that there must have been some reason to deny the visa, that the State Department doesn't simply deny visas at random. (If they did, it would be a much cheaper and quicker process.) To this, my classmate said, "You really think so? I'm not so sure, the entire experience is designed to be psychologically terrifying. There are huge walls around the embassy, there are soldiers with automatic weapons guarding it and then they give you a scholarship and then take it away." This line of logic was simply stunning to me and I found it really difficult to respond. The whole conversation was a real mess, I got up to leave in frustration at one point, explaining that I wasn't the ambassador of the United States, that I didn't need a lecture about the bad things that my country does (there are enough easily substantiated ones that these ridiculous, half-baked theories that she was telling me weren't at all necessary). In the end, I was polite and we went away from it saying that it was a worthwhile exchange (though we haven't spoken since).

This conversation left me thinking, why was it that someone would spend so much time concocting absurd conspiracy theories about another country and then feel the need to explain them to a citizen of that country? Was it something peculiar to Latin Americans? I have noticed far more anti-American hostility from this quarter than from any other, including the Iraqis and Iranians that I have interacted with.

[Side Story: At one point the classmate from the above story along with a group of other Latin American women questioned me about why we call ourselves "American". I said that I could see why they wanted to ask this, they, of course, are "American" too. I said something about the original distinction between "American" and "European" dating from the creation of the country and that the name has just stuck. Also, it's difficult to create a descriptive from "United States of America", what else could it be, "United Statesian"? Anyway, they already seemed to know the answer and were only to happy to tell me it. That answer is, "Because you (i.e. Americans, or United Statesians) take the whole continent for yourselves." You can't really say anything to people when they confront you like this, they already have their minds made up so I just let it drop.]

Why were these people behaving like this? I get the sense that they are blaming the US for a lot of the problems in their countries. Certainly there is some support for this, the US has had a long history of not-so-positive involvement with Latin American countries that has led to a general anti-American sentiment there. But, it ignores all of the ways that the leaders of the countries have driven them in the wrong direction for so long. I get the feeling that there is a sort of victimization present, that people want to believe that somebody is out to get them. The appeal of this is intuitive, by blaming a huge outside power you get to feel that you are doing all that you can to improve the situation. Since the huge outside power is unchangeable, the most that you can do is complain. Also, there is a certain egoism involved in this too. Take the case of the friend of the classmate who got the scholarship but was denied the visa. In thinking that there is a big machine working against you you have to believe that you, yourself or a group that you belong to, are important enough to get the attention of this machine. This is almost never the case. There are huge, bureaucratic policy decisions that create these massive government machines that can chew a person up if they don't navigate it well. It's awful that it works this way but it is a reality of modern governments. If you were denied a visa, it's not because the US government is out to get you, it's because the series of bureaucrats pushing their papers around came to a systematic decision. That's all, it's not as romantic as being the victim of some terrible hegemony, but it's the ugly truth of it.

I don't want to give the impression that this tendency toward victimization and egoism are peculiarly Latin American traits, by all means they are not. In fact, that is the central point of this post. These are universal traits that people across all nationalities and cultures share that are most often, but certainly not always, expressed in relatively difficult economic times (by which I mean situations where there are close neighbors who are doing much better than you). In fact, when I was jotting some notes for this post, I overheard a discussion of some American girls. They were talking about the difficulty they had registering at the Sorbonne, that it took a long time, etc... What was their conclusion, "I think that they are purposely delaying our paperwork because we are American." Are you serious?! Why would they do that? What interest of the Sorbonne's would that serve?

The most serious problem that I see with this trend is that it leads people to misunderstand the problem which, in turn, prevents them from finding a good solution. One response of Latin American countries to the transgressions of the United States is to elect leaders like Hugo Chavez who do silly things that are almost certain to be harmful for the country in the long run. This victimization and egoism leads people to blame the bad guy next door rather than look inward and see the more serious problems therein. This misses the point and leads to only more problems in the future and sets the whole process of reform and improvement back years.

On a final note, one of the topics that came up often in the big conversation with the classmate was immigration to the US. She was arguing that the US should be more open to letting immigrants in, although she said that she understood that they couldn't let everyone in (though offered no opinion on where the right balance was). I was reminded of an interview I saw of Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Robotics, inventor of the Segway scooter and many other vastly more useful devices, on the Colbert Report. Colbert, in character as always, asks about some water purification and engery generation devices that Kamen has invented and whether they can be used to solve the illegal immigration problem. Kamen answers yes, saying that if they can be used to raised the standard of living in these other countries, they will reduce the demand to come to the United States to have clean water, regular electricity, and to earn a decent wage. This is where I think the focus should be, helping other people get into situations where they are no longer wanting basic services or some particular luxuries. How to best do that? That's another post all together...

28 March 2007

Portrait of France

It's been a slow time for posting, I know, but many of you already know that this has turned out to be a very busy time for me and Esther. I have a couple of posts that I've been preparing and they should be up in the coming week.

In the mean time, here is an article from the New York Times that gives a good look at sentiment in France just before is presidential elections. Make sure that you read all the way to the end as there is a little blurb from the AP about an unrelated event that adds a nice bit of context to the main story. As a teaser, here is the last sentence, "The youths responded by throwing trash cans and other objects at the officers." Ah, la France...

15 March 2007

What's the word...

...oh yeah, that's it, UNCONSCIONABLE.

Have a look at this post on the Freakonomics Blog regarding the markup on generic drugs at pharmacies compared to the price at Costco and Sam's Club. Here's the meat of it:

Even once you factor in the cost of buying a membership at Costco and Sam’s Club, the price differences were astounding. Here are the prices he found at Houston stores for 90 tablets of generic Prozac:

Walgreens: $117

Eckerd: $115

CVS: $115

Sam’s Club: $15

Costco: $12

Those aren’t typos. Walgreens charges $117 for a bottle of the same pills for which Costco charges $12.

Now, I'm all for the market deciding the price of goods in most cases. If someone is willing to pay $20 for a pound of bananas, by all means someone should sell them at that price. However, drugs are not bananas and high prices encourage non-compliance with doctors' orders, thereby putting patients at considerable risk. Furthermore, as the author of the post notes, one explanation for this is that elderly people, the largest consumers of prescription medications, are most likely to continue shopping at the corner pharmacy rather than shop around for a better deal. As the blog author says, "Talk about information asymmetry; talk about price discrimination."

This is a very clear example of "Just because you can, doesn't mean that you should."

Found originally on Boing Boing.

08 March 2007

So French

Some days in France are more French than the rest. Spring is beginning to arrive in Paris and, desiring to take advantage of that, I went to the park and studied a bit. Naturally I took my camera along with me and was able to come up with the following picture.


Accordion, beret, this guy has it all. What's more, when I gestured to him with my camera, asking if it would be OK to take his picture, he gave me a shrug with his accordion squeezing shoulders that said, "I'm so indifferent it actually hurts." Seriously, so French.

(Click for a larger image.)

Film Revenues and Piracy

Here's are some interesting numbers and commentary on last year's film revenues. It seems that the largest increase in film revenues has come in the countries that have the most piracy (Brazil, China, India). Especially interesting is the method that the film industry uses to calculate the losses it has suffered as a result of piracy:

Piracy loss calculations are based on the number of legitimate movies - movie tickets and legitimate DVDs - consumers would have purchased if pirated versions were not available.

Not exactly the method that I would use... How do you calculate this? Any ideas?

50 is a lot of states...

Following up on the previous post, here is a link to the same game for the 50 US States.

Tough, but not as tough. Again, results will go in the comments and thanks to kottke.

192 is a lot of countries...

Here's a great game that will make you feel like an uneducated fool. Try and name the 192 member states of the UN. It's hard, really hard, and it will make you wonder what you were doing in geography class all along.

I'm going to post my results in the comments section (including all of the countries I missed) so as not to give those who read this post an unfair advantage.

Try it, it's fun, and it will make you want to buy a map.

(Found this thanks to kottke.)

07 March 2007

Public Transportation, Detroit Style



This is the entire circuit of light rail public transport in Detroit. It is sped up, I estimate at 10 times, but it still takes only 1:20.

By comparison, here is a link to the Paris Métro system (PDF).

Draw your own conclusions from here...

I'm Coming Home

It's all set, I have my ticket home. I'll be back in Michigan on May 29th. I don't yet know how long I will be staying in the US, it depends on the type of visa that I will be returning to France under. I expect to be home for at least a month, probably more. Obviously, I'm seriously looking forward to seeing everybody, I miss you all quite a bit. Ah yes, one caveat, I will be taking the LSAT on the morning of Monday, June 11th which means that I will be spending my first two weeks home preparing for that. I'll see people, go out, hang out, and what not, but nothing too crazy. Craziness starts on June 12th.

26 February 2007

The Intersection of Private Equity and Environmentalism

The largest leveraged buyout ever is taking place and it has a uniquely environmental twist to it. Two private equity firms, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company and Texas Pacific Group, are working to buy TXU, a Texas utility company. The price on the table is currently $45 billion. Not a small chunk of change for a bunch of individuals to bring together.

Though the deal is certainly remarkable for being the scale of the numbers involved and it may be interesting to ponder the consequences of utilities being traded around by investors, the most remarkable aspect is the degree to which environmental groups have been involved in the negotiations. The New York Times has this analysis of the situation and Business Week has this to say, but basically the deal went like this; KKR and Texas Pacific thought that buying TXU would make a good investment. One complication, however, was that TXU has long been the bane of environmental organizations because of its heavy reliance on coal power plants and its plans to build more of them in the future. (Coal is the least efficient fuel when considering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy produced.) So, what did the private equity firms do? They brought environmental groups, specifically the NRDC and Environmental Defense, directly to the table and worked to find a solution that the environmental groups would agree too.

Here's the result, taken from Marc Gunther:
1. TXU will drop plans for eight of the 11 coal plants.
2. TXU will support federal legislation regulating carbon emissions.
3. TXU will form a “sustainable energy advisory board” whose members will include Ralph Cavanaugh of NRDC, who knows more about the utility business than anyone else in the environmental movement, and Jim Marston, head of Environmental Defense’s Texas office, which had filed a couple of lawsuits against TXU.
4. TXU says it will “adopt corporate governance and executive compensation programs that tie the operations and goals of the company to climate stewardship.” In other words, executives will be paid more if their operations emit less.

So this seems pretty amazing and forces you to wonder why the private equity firms had such an interest in getting into the good graces of environmental groups before buying this utility company. Well, personality surely had something to do with it. David Bonderman is the co-founder of Texas Pacific and has plenty of environmental sensibilities to his name, serving on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund, The Wilderness Society and other environmental organizations. William Reilly, the EPA administrator under George H. W. Bush and long time conservationist is an investor at Texas Pacific.

So, was it just that these guys with a tinge of green at the private equity firm felt bad about buying a utility company and tried to clean their consciences as best as they could? Maybe, but I wouldn't discount for a second the interest that these guys have in making fiscally sound investments. That is their job after all and they aren't going to do anything that is going to hurt the bottom line of their deals. It would seem, then, that the answer is that these guys realize the economic consequences of pollution and, specifically, global warming. One the one had there is the threat of constant litigation against environmental groups and on the other hand is the fact that eventually the US Congress is going to begin to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The bottom line is that being environmentally irresponsible is quickly becoming an inefficient way to operate a corporation.

This, to me, is a great sign and is exactly as environmental regulation should work. There should be no expectation that corporations will act in the interest of the environment on their own. Their primary obligation is to their shareholders, plain and simple, and whatever costs they can externalize they should and will. Thus, all of the environmentalists who get upset at the corporations themselves are misguided and wasting their breath screaming at corporations to change their ways. Only insofar as environmentally-sound behavior is in the interest of the corporations shareholders should the corporation be expected to behave as such. The second main obligation that corporation has is to follow government regulations. As a purely free market would offend our moral sensibilities (people buying and selling other people, contract killers hanging up their shingle next to the barber, 7 year-olds working 16 hours a day in a factory, etc...) it is the place of the government to look at the consequences of the market and constrain it where necessary. Since individual most corporations have no desire or interest in considering the environmental consequences of their actions it falls on the role of the government to do so. Furthermore, other groups of interested individuals can make it their objective to lobby the government for increased regulation and work to ensure that corporations are behaving according to the regulations.

In this case we see all of these aspects coming together in a way that pleases the shareholders of the corporation, the private investors buying the corporation, and the environmental groups concerned about the activities of the corporation, not to mention the people of the world who will suffer less as a result of the reduced emissions. All in all, I find this to be great news and I hope that a trend develops and continues. I would think that, given the noteworthy size of this deal, that other investors will have to take notice of the environmental aspect as well.

25 February 2007

Why Gmail?

Here's an introductory video about Gmail, produced by Google and starring various office products. If you use Gmail already you won't learn much but if you are not yet a user it could be interesting.

UPDATE: Ahh, la France...

Yesterday (Saturday for those of you keeping track, not Monday) I received a letter from the Social Security office saying that I had full coverage. It's not my official card, but it will work just the same. It seems like this chapter of French bureaucracy is over and with my new health coverage I'm looking forward to getting really sick and putting it to the test. That is, before it expires in two months...

19 February 2007

How a Corporation Succeeds

Here is a great article from the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the remarkable trajectory of Toyota, especially compared to its American competitors. It's a long article but well worth the read if you have any interest in matters of economics, corporate governance, or group decision making in general.

In my opinion, the fact that is most telling of Toyota's method of success comes on the final page:

Toyota began developing the Prius at a time, 1991, when gas was plentiful and cheap.
There aren't many words there, but it says a lot about the perspective of the company and how it goes about making it's decisions.

A longer quote says essentially the same thing:
Toyota expects to be in business 100 years from now, one person in the company’s West Coast office told me, long after oil has been depleted or rendered unusable because of its carbon content, and for that reason it has placed all its bets on hybrid technologies. Indeed, Toyota created its hybrid systems not so much with the current era in mind, but because it views hybrids as more practical and energy-efficient. Whether the future is in biodiesel, ethanol or hydrogen doesn’t seem to matter; the hybrid system could be adapted to any of those fuels, says Bill Reinert, Toyota’s U.S. engineer in charge of advanced vehicle planning. Reinert also told me that the current Toyota system already has the ability to accommodate the larger battery capacity of a plug-in hybrid, which would use electric power for local trips and fuel only for longer excursions. But those large batteries don’t yet exist. Was that extra capacity put there on purpose? “Hell, yes,” he says. “This company is not stupid.”

Of course, this is just about product decisions, not the processes that have also been key to Toyota's success. That you can read about in the article. It's long, but I guarantee you that it's worth it.

17 February 2007

Ahh, la France...

It's been a while since I've written anything specifically about France but the time has come again. Let me preface my remarks by saying that I really enjoy living in France, the people are wonderful and the food is delicious (though a bit heavy on the meats, but nothing like Germany). What could a person like me complain about? Well, the same thing that all of the French people complain about, the French Government and, specifically, the health care system.

Here's my story. I came to France to teach in their public schools as an English assistant, that means that I'm an employee of the government. As a visitor with a temporary residency permit I'm entitled to coverage under the national health care program. It sounds like a great idea until you actually get down to the nuts and bolts of it. To make the long story short, though I've been in France since September 2006 and have been working since October 2006, I won't get full coverage until March 2007. Then I leave the country in April 2007. Seven months in the country. Two months of coverage. Oh, and of course I've been paying for this since I began working.

Now, how is this possible you ask? Well, like many jobs you don't get immediate coverage and it's the same thing here, 90 days are required at the job before you get the benefits. This doesn't come as so much of a surprise, but again, the details. It's not that you someone turns on the tap and your benefits begin flowing on your 91st day of employment. No, you can apply to get your benefits starting on that day. As you may know from some of my previous rants, applying to the French Government for anything substantial is at least a 45-day process. This time it has taken a bit longer.

Since I am always looking for the opportunity to help others (and complain about the French government) here's a guide to getting government medical coverage in France, compiled from my own experiences:

  1. Get message from employer that I can begin the application process.
  2. Ask where I do that and get conflicting advice until Esther calls the central number and gets some correct information.
  3. Take my papers to the Social Security office and attempt communication with civil servant.
  4. Civil servant is surprisingly patient with mumbling foreigner and demands one more document, a pay stub from the employer.
  5. Ask at place of employment how to get a pay stub. Get response that the only person who can possibly do that is sick for two weeks.
  6. Wait for person to get healthy.
  7. Talk to said person and get pay stub.
  8. Take pay stub back to social security office. Speak with another civil servant who speaks very quickly. Leave a bit confused but understanding that you need to wait "a good month" before you will receive my coverage and card.
  9. Wait said month.
  10. Receive fat envelope in the mail from the Social Security office and eagerly open it.
  11. Feel crushing disappointment when you see that they returned the entire file with a letter at the front explaining that you are not eligible for coverage because you are not authorized to work in France.
  12. Feel confusion set in. Deep confusion. Didn't you include a pay stub? And a copy of your residency permit that says that you can work right on the front of it?
  13. Realize that the first page of the file is a copy of your temporary temporary residency permit, the paper that you got while you waited for them to make the real card. This thing says that it itself doesn't authorize you to work, though, of course, the real one does.
  14. Remember that you include a pay stub. Look for it in the file and realize that it is the second page.
  15. Emphasize that your pay stub, from the French government is the second page.
  16. Ask yourself, "If a person saw this pay stub from the government, how could they possibly think that I'm not authorized to work?"
  17. Realize that this person never saw this pay stub because... THEY NEVER LOOKED PAST THE FIRST PAGE OF YOUR FILE!
  18. Anger.
  19. Realization that this person will get to retire with 80% of his/her salary (plus full benefits) at the age of 55 for such job performance.
  20. More anger, though of a different sort, more visceral this time.
  21. Anger flows to Esther who talks to her parents. Her mom resolves to go with you to the Social Security office together.
  22. Go to the Social Security office with Esther's mom. Speak with civil servant who explains that you need one more little piece of paper in your file. She says it came with your residency permit when you picked that up. Respond that you never received such a little paper.
  23. Go home with Esther's mom to make calls to figure out how to get a replacement for this paper.
  24. Learn that the paper came from your medical examination ("Turn your head and cough...") not with your residency permit.
  25. More anger because you had this little paper with you the whole time though no one ever told you that they needed it.
  26. Return to Social Security office with Esther's mom.
  27. Realize that you forgot the file at home. Run home and get it. (OK, I admit, this was my fault, but it didn't help the frustration level at all.)
  28. Give civil servant little paper.
  29. Civil servant promises that you will get your card on Monday.
  30. Wait for Monday.
I'm still on Step 30, I'll tell you all tomorrow how it works out.

So that's been my experience with the French system so far. Pay for benefits you cannot receive and be told conflicting advice from different civil servants and their agencies. But hey, c'est la vie, non?

That said, I've counted that there are 10 weeks left on my working contract and four of those will be spent on paid vacation, beginning with the next two. Ha! Maybe this system isn't so bad after all...