Uncategorized

Pictures for Cruising in Cambodia

Here are some pictures which should’ve been included with the article below.

 

cutting corners 2

Cutting corners

Dirt Bikes for Rent

Dirt Bikes for Sale or Rent.

1 cylinder diesel tractors

1 Cylinder Diesel Engines

Always Room for One More

Always Room for One More

Plants for Sale

Plants for Sale

Loaded Up

Big Load

Bit of Rain in Aug 2019

Very Wet in August 2019

Street Scene

Street Scene

Double Parking

Double Parking

Go Carts

Go Karts

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Cruising in Cambodia

Driving in America is exceedingly simple: Stay in your lane, keep a safe distance, watch for brake lights. Traffic is orderly and highly organized and almost all vehicles are four-wheelers. Road rage often ensues when a motorist gets out of line, breaks the rhythm, even sometimes for a minor infraction.

In contrast to the US where there’s only an occasional bike or motorbike to break the pattern, here two wheelers make up about 80% of all traffic with three-wheelers of all sorts along with cars and such making up the rest. Most 2-wheelers here are 125cc or less, what we’d call scooters in America.

In contrast to the strict orderly nature of American traffic, being out on the road here is like entering a miasma of opposing, sometimes conflicting intentions in a panoply of different kinds of vehicles. There are 3 wheel taxis and delivery vehicles and a variety of trailers pulled by motorbikes or sometimes very slow one cylinder diesel tractors. There are hand carts, bicycles and here in Kampot an occasional pony cart. In a car you feel like a big fish surrounded by little ones scurrying about. When they pass you and return to the lane they sometimes come very close.. used to freak me out, still don’t like it, but now I just blow it off.

They can come at you from all directions and not just by cutting corners as they are wont to do, but you often see 2-wheelers driving near the curb in the wrong direction. For instance, you’re coming to an intersection on a bike and want to make a left turn, but there’s too much traffic to cross so you just drive the wrong direction along the curb until you see an opening in the flow where you can slide over. Sometimes your destination is to the left and would mean crossing traffic twice to reach it so you don’t bother and drive the wrong way, sometimes as much as a few blocks.

There’re also pedestrians to consider since sidewalks are often not available. They’re either usurped for parking or commercial purposes or they’re so poorly designed as to be difficult to use. For instance, property owners have free reign to build the walk in front of their place to their taste with no reference to neighboring sidewalks and no government standards to abide by. As a result some will be higher than the adjacent ones and others built on a serious slant. When not encumbered they’re often so ragged it’s easier to walk on the street, but having people walking on the street is dangerous and disconcerting for both walker and driver. It wasn’t always that way, back in the sixties before the country’s troubles all the sidewalks were built on the same level and kept clear for pedestrian use.

In the states you can zone out while driving, especially plying the same route every day. You don’t have to think, you’re like a drone. Last time I was in Portland, Ore. walking around downtown in rush hour I saw two drivers in quick succession almost cause accidents because they were on their phones and running on autopilot. And the thing is neither was even aware of how close they came to causing an accident.

Here you can’t space out for a second; you never know what might be coming in your direction or cutting you off. You might see a big SUV or pickup truck with it’s ass end blocking half of your lane; it’s a small town and drivers are often quite lackadaisical about how they park. It’s worth noting that there were hardly any cars 20 years ago, so most drivers are new to the skill. Sometimes people drive very slowly (like me at 78) or there’s a vehicle in front that can’t move very fast and some sections of street are more potholes than pavement.

What’s most fascinating about driving in Cambodia is that people rarely get bent out of shape over even blatantly bad or incompetent driving. Every time I’m out I see many instances of clueless motoring that would result in road murder back there. Even when someone crashes a red light and forces others to wait for them to pass do you see more than a grimace, they shrug off the transgression and move on. They sometimes honk their horns to warn you they’re coming or to arrogantly insist you get out of their way, but not in anger when someone else forces a quick braking response.

It’s give and take, ebb and flow: an intricate dance that requires a constant readiness to adjust for unexpected behavior. That’s one reason why I’m more comfortable riding a bicycle here than back in the states: here everyone on the road is on the lookout for every possible contingency. Back there 2-wheelers are often invisible, auto drivers don’t expect odd vehicles to be on the road.

However that magical dance where everything goes smoothly doesn’t always work out and there are lots of accidents. Everybody has their souvenir motorbike scars. And since there’s little enforcement of rules of the road, you can drive as fast as you want here; the only time you’ll get into trouble is if you actually cause an accident and even then lots of people just run. Sometimes it’s fear for their own safety that they run since crowds of locals have been known to deal very harshly and right on the spot with dangerous drivers, though that happened mostly in the past and not so much in Kampot.

The police will never try to stop a moving vehicle or chase an offender down unless the case is especially grievous. They consider it too dangerous. The streets are quite chaotic and most drivers would try to outrun them.

The police rarely are out and about, they don’t really patrol, but they’re always near by. The country is divided into 1760 communes and each one has a police station. For instance, Phnom Penh, a city of 1.5 million, has about 100 communes. They’re akin to American neighborhoods except they also have administrative duties.

I know two people who were seriously hurt by motorbike drivers going way too fast in congested areas. One had a serious break in her leg, the other eventually lost part of his leg below the knee. It must be said, in fairness, that both were also known for driving too fast, though in those individual cases the onus was still mostly on the young Khmer speeders. The second probably would have saved his leg if he hadn’t depended initially on the local medical system which can be very rudimentary at times. When he finally decided to go back to the UK to have it worked on it was too late.

A few years back an arrogant, privileged young expat, part owner of a riverside resort, was driving his big bike very fast on a country road when he hit and killed two local people who had turned right on to the road without looking. They do it all the time. He had already been warned by the police to slow down. The upshot was he had to cough up $35,000 for the families, and very likely a little tea money for the police, and was immediately deported.

In another case the son of a government VIP borrowed his father’s car without asking, got stinking drunk and drove very fast in a congested area. He wound up killing a tuk-tuk (3 wheel taxi) driver leaving a wife and four kids. She settled for $3500, a paltry amount for a life, but the little people are quite stoic about being taken advantage of by the powerful. He wasn’t rich like many who have government jobs here, but he does own a car worth $10,000. Both killers should have spent at least a few years in prison, but like a lot of places in the world, standards are different for the peons and the powerful.

One of the things we expats like about living in a third world country like Cambodia is that there are fewer rules and regulations that govern life and enforcement of those that do exist is often lax and/or fungible.

For instance, Cambodia has a seatbelt law, but I’m too lazy to bother. That’s in spite of a story told to me once by a woman I met on an Amtrak trip. She was headed home after a long drive and stopped at a rest stop about 10 miles from her destination. She always wore her belt but getting back on the freeway she figured it was such a short distance it wasn’t worth the bother and very quickly was involved in a serious accident that laid her up in the hospital for months. There are no rules here about car seats for kids. People routinely drive their motorbikes one handed while holding the kid in the other. They dial and talk on their phones while driving their bikes.

However the police do occasionally set up check points where they fine bike riders for not wearing helmets or having rear view mirrors and car drivers for not using their seatbelts. In Phnom Penh, the capital, they are quite strict and nearly everybody wears a helmet, but here in Kampot it’s only about 25%. So far the helmet law only applies to the driver and it’s common to see bikes with one or two or even three extra passengers so they’re not even required to have them.

Driving age is 15, but here in my small town, about 60,000 population, you see kids as young as nine or ten driving their little scooters. No matter how often I see it, I still can’t get used to it. I can’t imagine my little kid out in that chaotic traffic. Some are cautious drivers, others zip around like little demons. They learned all their bad driving habits from their parents and rarely wear helmets, like the general population. Bicycles are dangerous enough in traffic but at least they don’t go very fast.

I did get ticketed once for not having my seatbelt on; cost me $6.25. They never asked to see my driver’s license or car registration. Though they might’ve asked in Phnom Penh or other cities, in Kampot they are quite relaxed about things like that. It used to be very easy to get a license as long as you had a valid one from another country, just pay an agent $35 or so. Now you have to go through government rigmarole. It’s not that big a deal and a lot cheaper at only $2.50, but the only place it can be done at present is in Phnom Penh, about 100 miles away, so for now I’m driving with one that expired a couple years ago. I haven’t been asked to see my license in years, but if I was it’d probably cost $20 or $30 to continue driving. You can often bargain with them, How about $10?

The above paragraph was written six months ago. They’ve increased traffic fines and are strict about driving licenses, now a $30 fine for driving a bike (greater than 125cc) without one and $200 for a car, lots of people who didn’t think it was worth the bother before are scrambling to get theirs. They’ve also make it easier for us expats to obtain and renew licenses.

I don’t drive very far and mostly at night. It’s strictly bicycle in the daytime even when it’s raining unless I need to cart something around that requires a car. Driving at night has special hazards since many motorbikes don’t have working lights: sometimes they’re lazy to get them fixed, other times they’re really poor and don’t have the little money it takes – and maybe there’s a special problem that does cost a few extra bucks – and sometimes they don’t use them just for fun! Especially for someone my age, with waning eyesight, it is disconcerting to say the least to come across nearly invisible vehicles. I was once trying to cross a busy street where my vision was blocked by a truck. It was night so I could see headlights coming, I waited a bit and started off when the way looked clear and almost hit a bike with no lights… I generally drive very slowly so it was no problem stopping in time.

Many auto drivers don’t get the purpose of using running lights while stopping for a short time so they leave their headlights on, which is a particular problem when they’re on the side of the street directly facing you.

The registration card for my car has the original Khmer owner’s name. Most cars here were imported used from the US about ten years old: sometimes they leave the American license plates on till the new local ones are obtained which causes quite a doubletake the first time you see a California plate here. When I bought the car I obtained an official bill of sale and the paperwork for the past owners and that’s enough.

They are trying to tighten up a bit. I bought my first car in 2007, with it I got a registration card and a form to pay my annual road tax, $25 for a 4-cylinder, ten times as much for 6s and 8s. All went well paying my taxes for the first six years. The following year I took the tax form in and the fellow behind the desk said he needed to see my registration card. That was a first. I returned with the card, he took a good hard look and told me the two didn’t match. What the hell? The form was all in the local language so I had no idea what any of it meant. I went home, checked the paperwork I had and the vehicle ID number and it turned out the ID didn’t match the registration card or tax form. All three were different. My guess is the car was imported without paying taxes and that the importers then got tax paperwork, plates and registration from cars that were junked. It was an illegal alien.

Many of the neighboring countries place hurdles and make you go through hoops to be able to drive there, but it’s as easy as can be here and one of the country’s greatest draws for people like us. Scooters can be rented here in Kampot for about $5 day (bicycles for $1/day) and driver’s licenses aren’t needed for anything 125cc and under. A good running older model scooter can be had for about $300 and repairs are dirt cheap. Talking about dirt, dirt bike enthusiasts are in heaven here with lots of funky roads to test their skills. Per capita income in Cambodia is only about $1500 per year so there’s a tremendous backlog of roads that need upgrading. Those rangy mud pit roads will sorely try your patience in rainy season if you only want to get somewhere rather than horse around in the mud on a big dirt bike.

The emphasis on 2 wheelers not just makes it easy to get around, but also they’re very light on the environment. They’re so common, lots of expats here who could afford a car, still use bikes. I don’t like them, for me it’s either bicycle or car. I even feel a little guilty about driving a car; even though my current one is tiny, its still a guzzler compared to a motorbike.

All in all it’s an exciting time on the roads of Cambodia.

Update: since I wrote this I acquired a solar electric tuk-tuk, but that’s another story… coming soon.

Kiddies on scooters.  https://www.facebook.com/100010265837992/videos/989366154748903/

 

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Coronavirus, Uncategorized

Fed Takes Drastic Action to Shield Investors from the Vagaries of the Free Market.

Yet even with the sharp falls of the last few days on March 19 the price earnings ratio of the S and P index was almost twenty to one, one third higher than the historical average, meaning the market was still overpriced. Price/earnings is the only logical way to judge the value of a stock. Simply put, it’s the earnings of the firm over the stock value so, lets say, the company is worth $100 and the earnings are $10 you have a P/E of 10 to 1, or a ten percent return, not a bad investment. If your earnings are $5 your P/E is 20 to 1, or a five percent return, not so good. Back in the dot com boom of the late nineties it was up over 100 to 1. In the Great Depression it was 8 or 10 to 1. Historically, averaged over the last 120 years, it’s been between 14 and 16 to 1 depending on how you calculate it.

So you have the Fed freaking out, throwing trillions around when the market is still too high. In NPRs business show you hear happy music when the market goes up, sad when it goes down, but it’s not a song and dance; if the market is valued too high to begin with you should be hearing happy music when it goes down. It isn’t always supposed to go up, it’s supposed to reflect true value, ‘the magic of the free market’.

Interest rates are slashed to near zero, free money for the banks, but of course not credit card or student loan costs, they’re always a rip-off. Interest rates have been rock bottom for a decade in the near desperate mania for forever growth.

But how can you worry about preventing a recession when people can’t even leave their houses? Whole industries are shutting down, all entertainment shelved, there’s no place to spend money to ‘boost’ the economy. The only task now is to keep people afloat until some level of normalcy returns to society. That obviously is going to take shiploads of money.

If we followed the advice of John Maynard Keynes an extra trillion dollars of borrowing would not be such a big deal. He formed his ideas during the Great Depression. When the economy tanked after the stock market crash of 1929, then president Herbert Hoover responded to falling government income by cutting expenditures. Made sense to him at the time, but he also thought it would hurt people’s self reliance if they received food handouts. Hunger spurs to action, right? Keynes suggested that it was important to spend more in hard times to ameliorate the effects of the depression, but that the govt should also put money away in good times to balance its books. The neolibs embraced the deficit part, but pretended the balancing savings weren’t important and besides that would mean raising taxes. It helps the economy look good when you borrow the equivalent of 5% of GDP but eventually, at least in theory, at some time you have to pay it back.

So where are we now? One trillion dollars of emergency money will be added to the already planned trillion dollar deficit and it’s very likely that won’t be the last tranche of extraordinary expenditures that will be needed. That’s all on top of record student debt, credit card debt,   corporate debt. The country is leveraged to the limit and it could easily all come crashing down when millions seek coronavirus treatment.

The health care industry’s stocks shot up when Biden captured most supertuesday states since he’s positively opposed to M4A and totally behind protecting their profits, but the whole system will implode when it’s overloaded with people who can’t afford treatment. 40% of Americans don’t have $400 on hand in case of an emergency and it’s a good bet most either don’t have insurance or couldn’t come up with co-pays if they did. Even many of the ones who do have a few dollars in savings couldn’t handle the co-pay cost of a day or two in an ICU.

Anyway, it’s going to come to a head way before Jan 2021 when the next president takes the oath. Best estimates are that Covid-19 will take 12 to 18 months to play itself out, about the time it’ll take to have a vaccine ready. But it’ll become overwhelming long before that. Giving everybody a grand or two a month will cushion the blow of unemployment, but cash payments for a year? For how many trillions of dollars?

It’s wise to shut down society now for a month or two to slow transmission, but life must go on, you can’t shut down a whole country for a year.

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Uncategorized, US Politics

Biden Surges, Bernie’s (sadly) Toast

The Democratic Party electorate has swung mightily towards what they consider the safe candidate, never mind that nearly All the polls I’ve seen showed Bernie beating Trump by a larger margin than any other candidate. Anything can happen yet, but President Sanders is a very slim possibility.

With Biden there’ll be no change in America’s endless wars, no relief for the long-suffering Palestinians, no relief from crushing student debt and only minor tweaking of health care and its attendant outrageous medical bills which are the cause of most bankruptcies in the US. He’ll fiddle around while the planet burns, advocate for cutting Social Security as he has for the last 40 years and protect his billionaire buddies from paying their fair share of taxes. However, Bernie has set the stage, he’s brought to the forum all those programs Americans desperately need and made them topic of the day, made it impossible for the so-called moderates to ignore. On Biden’s own initiative, during reasonably normal times, single-payer health care would be a non-starter, but exceptionally, decidedly, not normal times are ahead.

The tanking of the stock market and the plunge in oil prices precipitated by the sharp fall in economic activity caused by the Wuhan virus, not to mention how overvalued it had become will erase Trump’s ‘great economy’ blather and his stunning incompetence in handling the virus will doom his reelection chances. That will also lead to turning the Repug party into a faint remnant of its former self.

By the time old Joe takes the reins of power in nine months the country will be in a shambles. The virus will cause a major breakdown of America’s for-profit health care system. Currently less than 500 people have officially contracted the virus, but that figure would be a lot larger if more people had been tested. Adequate testing isn’t happening now because of the ineptitude of the administration and can’t happen at any time if some people have to pay thousands of dollars to get tested. And if it hits hard? Wuhan with a population of 11 million had to set up places with 4 to 5000 additional hospital beds.

Alex Azar, Trump’s man at the FDA, first said, many people might not be able to afford a vaccine when developed. He quickly walked that back, but really, who’s going to pay for it? Is the US government going to cover all coronavirus costs? If not, large numbers of people will go without treatment and merely infect a lot of others. Those people with their ‘great’ health plans who don’t think good insurance is important for all citizens, will have nowhere to hide.

The virus will also require many people to get locked down in quarantine, thus losing their income and since 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in savings in case of an emergency a monumental crisis will ensue.  A lot of people, including Trump, think I’m overreacting, we shall see.

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Kampot, Cambodia, Uncategorized

Easy Does It

 

This was originally published in internationalliving.com

Cambodia is a blessedly easy place to live. That’s in part from it’s warm, friendly, live-and-let-live people. In Rough Guide’s annual survey of the friendliest countries in the world to travel, Cambodia consistently comes in at the top and by a wide margin.

A young fellow I was talking to at my favorite pub recounted how, after leaving his work-a-day life, he’d spent the previous 5 years in 20 countries, just traveling and checking things out. He said when he crossed the border into Cambodia he immediately felt relaxed. After he got to Kampot, the town in live in, he hadn’t stopped smiling in three days.

I’ve been here for 12 years. I had been teaching in Phnom Penh, the capital, for six years, but as soon as I had the means to leave the big city, I came to Kampot. Big cities have a lot going for them, especially jobs, culture and entertainment, and considering Cambodia has been one of the world’s ten fastest growing countries for the last decade or so, there’s a lot happening there and plentiful opportunities to work, start a business or just have fun.

I’d spent lots of time in some of the biggest cities, but at retirement age I just needed a quiet laidback place to settle. When I first got to Kampot there were about two dozen expats here, now there are about 2000. People come here after traveling around Cambodia, planning to stay a couple days and they don’t want to leave. While we old-timers lament many of the changes over the years from our virtually private, little, light-duty paradise, that essential pleasant feeling we first felt hasn’t been lost, it’s still magic.

The first thing to consider when relocating abroad is the visa requirements. On that score Cambodia has always been one of the countries most open to foreigners. Basically, anyone can come to Cambodia from anywhere in the world and get a visa on arrival that will allow that person to stay as long as they like. Recently visa and residence rules have tightened up a bit. It used to be until the last few years all you had to do was pay your $300 annual visa fee. That’s still true of people over 55. You can get a retirement visa with no documentation, paperwork or minimum income requirements and you can stay permanently without ever having to leave the country to renew your visa. You just pay for your visa and you’re home free.

If you are under 55 you need to obtain a work permit which adds another $130 to your annual cost. There’s a lot of flexibility in the rules here: I’ve known people who were under 55 who got a retirement visa by proving they had sufficient income or assets to take care of themselves.

If you need an income there are lots of ways to do that.

For one thing, Cambodians are hungry for English proficiency so there are plenty of teaching jobs. It’s still possible to get a teaching job based solely on being a native speaker and exuding confidence, especially if it’s young children. However you’d earn a lot more and have many more opportunities by having a degree and/or a TEFL – Teachers of English as a Foreign Language – certificate. They can be obtained online or in special schools. Nearly all higher education is taught in English so it’s not just language teaching that’s available.

If that’s not your thing there are quite a few other ways to earn a living. One way is to open a business. There’s minimal paperwork or government intrusion: A friend had his bar up and running for 3 weeks before he made contact with the authorities to get the permits done. There’s no requirement of a local partner as in Thailand, for instance, so you’re free to create it according to your whim. And even though Kampot is up-and-coming and rents are increasing fast you can still open a bar or restaurant for a relatively small investment, far less than in a western context. However, lots of other people are contemplating the same thing so there’s plenty of competition and no guarantee of success.

Maybe you were a baker or butcher or brewer in your past life, well just get cracking. If you’re working out of your house you might need to get a business license, not all do, and your kitchen won’t need to pass an inspection. What’s more you don’t need to include a list of ingredients or a net weight, something which I personally think should be mandatory. That could all change as Cambodia grows and advances but so far the dearth of rules and regulations is one of the perks of living here.

Serving drinks in a bar can net you enough to live a minimal lifestyle. You might earn only 4 to $500 a month, but in a place where you can rent a studio apartment for $50 and get a local meal for a dollar, eminently doable. For a lot of people, living simply in Cambodia is far preferable to struggling in the West.

On the other hand if you’re more into your comfort there are new 2 bedroom houses available for $200 and up and quality international restaurants if you’re more the gourmand.

As fast as Cambodia is growing and as many luxury cars you see around (many owned by people in government) the vast bulk of vehicles are motorbikes. They’re mostly 125cc and less so we’d call them scooters back in the states. Some pull trailers full of people or loads of freight, but mostly it’s personal transportation. It’s a great way to get around Kampot and old but reasonably dependable ones are cheap to buy and maintain. Most expats ride them, including those who could own a car. Scars and bruises from minor spills are nearly ubiquitous. I almost feel guilty driving my tiny little 800cc car around since it’s still much harder on the earth than a motorbike. In fact, I only use it at night and to haul items too large for a bicycle which I ride in daytime; the town is flat and small enough – about 60,000 population – to be ideal for pedaling around.

Cambodia is still a very poor country. Per capita income is around $1200 per year, so you are surrounded by people living very basic, hardscrabble lives, but smiling still, and you encounter very rough roads and dodgy infrastructure, though conditions have improved greatly over the past few years.

One of the great perks of living abroad is making friends from all over the world. If there are 20 people in the bar, there’ll probably be 10 nationalities represented and the punters will be of all ages. All my friends in the states would be old farts like myself and few are into going out much so I’d be home most nights bored silly.

One of the things I like most about Cambodia is that it levies low sin taxes. At one dollar for a glass of draft beer at my favorite pubs and limited capacity to drink I can hang out with my friends and imbibe almost every night without sinking my meager bank account. And with intense competition, there are spots with 50 cent beers. I shouldn’t say this but you can get a carton of locally-made, off-brand cigs for $1.25! I don’t want to encourage smoking, but at the same time I believe everyone has a right to choose their own poison. Marijuana is illegal, but there are ‘happy’ pizza restaurants in Kampot and Phnom Penh where you can have a little weed sprinkled on your pie for an extra couple dollars and if you’re sensitive to the herb, you have to be careful not to eat too much, because it’s decent quality.

Representative of the laid back attitude in Cambodia is the country’s multitude of public holidays. At 26 days a year it’s the most of any country and that doesn’t even include Chinese New Year which most people also take off and usually for 3 days.

When you have time there are beaches, caves, boat rides and mountain treks to enjoy around Kampot. A must-do experience when in Cambodia is Angkor Wat, one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. It’s a series of impressive, sometimes breathtaking, temples dating back to the 10th century that cover a 50 square mile area.

Climate is also an important criteria for where to locate. This is the tropics so it’ll be hot and sweaty the bulk of the year, with April generally the hottest. It’s relatively cool in December, January and February, going down below 70 – 21C – a few nights. We’re so used to the heat, it feels chilly to us. When it does go above 90 – 32C – in cool season, it’ll be dry. In rainy season centered between July and October it could rain and be cloudy for days or weeks at a time, but it’s cool, green and fresh.

Cambodia is a cool, hip place to be if you’re looking to just hang out for a while or relocate for the mid or long term. There are lots of great places to live abroad, out in the wide wondrous world. Cambodia is one of the best, though not for everybody.

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Politics, Uncategorized

Boris Johnson, the 43.6% Wonder.

The recent landslide election of Boris Johnson in the UK bears a very strong resemblance to Trump’s election in 2016. For one thing, his margin was provided by traditionally working class Labour voters switching parties much as Trump’s winning of old, white, uneducated – meaning less than a 4 year degree – men gave him the presidency. Similar to Trump losing the popular vote by 3 million and winning the office by only 80,000 votes in three states, the total vote for Johnson’s Tory party was 43.6%, hardly a resounding popular mandate.

In fact the combined vote for Labour and Lib Dems added up to almost exactly the same 43.6%. When you consider the Scots are traditionally leftish, if there were no Scottish National Party, their votes would have made an easy majority for the non conservative side.

Johnson’s big push for Brexit was the determining factor for many otherwise Labour voters. The largely uneducated small-town working-class were big Brexiters. While there are many political divergences between the US and UK, people who vote Democratic in America; the young, minorities, women, urbanites, is reflected in the Brexit vote where the young, London, the other big cities, Scotland and N. Ireland all voted to remain.

In both cases the culprit is voting systems which do not truly express the will of the majority. The US Electoral College is heavily weighted towards the small states. Each state gets one electoral vote for each senator and representative, but Wyoming with less than 600,000 people gets the same two senators, thus the same two electors, as California with 40 million. In the UK it’s more a result of dividing the vote between many parties that allows a winner of only 43.6% of the vote to garner a landslide.

UK voters had the opportunity to set up a more representative system a few years back. One of the conditions the Lib Dems placed on joining a coalition with Conservatives was a vote on proportional representation. Unfortunately both major parties campaigned vigorously against it and it lost. It was Labour’s loss since a coalition of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP would have easily constituted a majority in this election.

One other factor in the Trump/Johnson wins was the weakness of the opposition candidates. Some of the weakness was well deserved in Clinton’s case since she’s not a likable person and her politics was decidedly corporate. But a lot of it wasn’t since the Repubs have been harassing the Clintons from day one. The impeachment of Bill over lying about a blow job was an outgrowth of a special investigator the Repubs set up over a failed real estate development in which the Clinton’s lost $90,000, small potatoes, a nothingburger, simple harassment. In spite of a lot of people despising her she still won the popular vote by a wide margin.

Corbyn has been consistently slandered for his position wanting a fair deal for the Palestinians. All the crap about anti-semitism and sympathizing with terrorists comes directly from his opposition to Israeli apartheid and oppression of the Palestinian people. His unabashedly leftist policies also laid grounds for fearmongering from the right. Still, in a system of proportional representation he would be the PM not Johnson.

Ironically, one of the outcomes of Brexit is likely to be Scotland exiting the UK. The big talking point against independence in the past referendum was that Scotland would be kicked out of the EU. I never understood why the EU would make it hard for Scotland to join on its own. At any rate among other things, that was a part of why it failed.

Now Johnson says he won’t allow another referendum in spite of the landslide victory of the SNP winning 48 out of 59 seats. Regardless it’ll happen one day for sure, Scotland voted very strongly for remain and will be very unhappy leaving. Also voting sentiment shows that it’s likely that N. Ireland will opt to join Ireland, They’ll prefer staying in the EU rather than leaving with the rump UK.

Personally, I think the UK will petition to rejoin the EU after about 5 years. In a second referendum as proposed by Labour, remain would’ve won. But it’ll good to leave and get the demons out, Brits have been complaining about the EU and demanding special privileges from day one.

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Climate change

CO2 is Our Friend

Or so the deniersphere would have us believe. One of their favorite themes is that CO2 is good for plants and the more the better. In fact, if you pump additional CO2 into a closed environment with proper temperature and all, plants will grow bigger and faster.

On the flip side, plants don’t grow well at all in 115 degree – 46C – temperatures as experienced in southern France recently. That temperature is typical of hot low-lying deserts, like Phoenix in summer. A news article about the event included a picture of a farmer looking at her scalded grape vines. A day or two of that will set the plants back, but probably not kill them. However, a week will almost surely destroy the crop absent massive intervention like shading and frequent misting.

Without massive intervention on humanities’ part to reduce and eliminate CO2 production those events are virtually certain to become more common and many crops will no longer be viable where they are now grown. This reminds me of an anecdote about a redwood tree that was planted in Ohio. It did well for 50 years, though it didn’t grow the way it would’ve in its own habitat, but then a severe cold snap hit and killed it. It isn’t the little additional heat that causes the worst problems but the occasional extremes that bring the biggest changes and challenges.

The curious thing is the concept of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere has been accepted science, or at least accepted by most scientists for almost two centuries. In 1824 Joseph Fourier deduced that the atmosphere had to be responsible for regulating temperatures on earth and he described the concept by using a box with a glass lid showing its heat retention properties. His ideas became known as the greenhouse effect. In 1896 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first quantified the effect that CO2 had on temperature. I recently saw a photocopy of an article in a New Zealand paper from 1911 which spoke of the CO2 problem and concluded with, It may be a problem a few centuries from now.

Climate denial began in earnest in the late seventies when the oil companies came to realize that the science threatened their profits. The best example is Exxon: their own scientists warned the company’s bosses that CO2 produced in the burning of fossil fuels was going to be a problem for the earth. Instead of responding with conscience and the planet in mind they spent millions financing groups designed to sow doubt on the science.

With Reagan in office starting in 1980, the denier movement had government backing. One of Reagan’s first acts was remove Jimmy Carter’s solar water heaters from the White House roof. No stinking hippie solar was going to happen on Reagan’s Morning-in-America White House. Conservative think tanks, many funded by a billion dollars from the Koch brothers, have been at the forefront of the misinformation campaign. They’ve now spent 40 years attacking scientists and the science behind climate change. They did their job well; there’s now a substantial number of people who have their doubts and plenty of deniers who believe with religious fervor that 97% of the world’s meteorologists are falsifying data and generally lying about climate change. This is especially true in our own wacky America. 17% of Americans think it’s a hoax.

We’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

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Climate change, Uncategorized

The Ice Age Cometh

Well, not so fast. A coming ice age is a central denier argument. It’s based on natural phenomena and if not for the massive quantities of greenhouse gases humanity has pumped into the atmosphere, we would be entering a cooling phase. However an actual ice age would require thousands of years to take effect.

Meanwhile what’s happening now is that it’s now been 415 consecutive months that the global temperature has been above the 20th century average and the last 5 years, including 2019 which is certain to be near the top, have been the hottest on record.

CO2 and temp

If you take a look at this graph which tracks temperature and CO2 over the last 350,000 years, three things stand out.

The first is that the two move in tandem, in lockstep, they are inextricably tied together.

When you point that out to a denier, they want to argue about which came first. While it would be interesting to understand the underlying physics, for our purposes that really doesn’t matter. It’s only pertinent that they move together.

The second is that most of those 350,000 years were much colder than today and the warm periods were brief. It’s easy then to postulate that we’re headed for an ice age until you look at the extreme spike in CO2 at the end of the graph. How is it possible after hundreds of thousands of years of tracking very closely that we’d enter a cooling phase alongside skyrocketing CO2? CO2 up, temp down? Makes no sense.

The other thing to note about the spike is that it’s far steeper than the previous spikes, though they look sharp enough, they still involve thousands of years. The reason why the temperature hasn’t matched the rise in CO2 is the effect of the oceans as a heat sink. It takes much longer for water to heat up so there’s an inherent delay before it catches up. Meanwhile we’ve only warmed by 1°C, though this last July, which was the hottest month on record was up an impressive 1.2C, so we’ve essentially already cached a lot more heat for release later. As you can infer from the graph, the current level of 410ppm CO2 corresponds to a least a couple more degrees of warming.

Up to this date, humanity has produced about 2000 gigatons of CO2: if we want to stay below 1.5°C of warming we can only burn another 500 gigatons. In order to do that we have to halve our emissions by 2030 and in order to do that we have to have plans in place in just 18 months.

For the Green New Deal to be effective it has to be on the level of America’s mobilization for the Second World War. A monumental effort, in other words. Since the US produces about a quarter of all greenhouse gases, the GND would have a massive impact, but it also would inspire others to do the same as well as requiring the US and other developed countries dig deep to provide the funding to help the developing world do their part.

Meanwhile producers of fossil fuels are spending monumental amounts of money locating and developing additional sources. And many governments are promoting and building new coal fired power plants. Will the forces of sanity overcome the juggernaut of profit in time? Stay tuned, it won’t take long to find out.

 

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Cambodia Politics and Development, Uncategorized

Power Down

Phnom Penh of late – April 2019 – has been experiencing power outages of 4 to 6 hours a day, which is no way to run an up-and-coming capital city. Here in Kampot they’ve had mercy on us in the town center where we’ve only been getting momentary outages, but out in the sticks – 5 kilometers away – they’re getting the same long blackouts, so it’s nationwide.

Electricity demand in Cambodia has been growing at 20% a year which would be a challenge to keep up with under any circumstances. But not to leave the govt too much slack, that’s been going on some time so not a surprise and something that could’ve/should’ve been prepared for.

There are several basic reasons for the shortage. One is that the govt has been expanding service to larger parts of the country, soon to be 90% coverage. It wasn’t that long ago that only 20% of Cambodia was connected to the grid: there was nothing in the countryside and most small towns had private companies generating power using diesel at very high prices.

As a developing country, Cambo has a high population growth rate and probably more important is economic growth. For more than a decade it has had one of the world’s ten fastest growing economies and one of the first things people do when they have more money is buy air-con which multiplies power use for many people.

There’s also little consciousness of conservation outside of those locals who minimize use out of necessity and a small number of dedicated expats. But concurrently, many expats are oblivious to conservation. Some years ago a friend invited me to a party at his house in the hot season. He was a first time father of a one-year-old at the age of 50 and he wanted the best for his kid. He gave me a tour of his newly purchased house. When he opened the door to the kid’s room I got hit with a blast of really cold air. As a long time master of frugality and conservation, I was aghast. Why do you have the air-con on if the kid’s not in the room? I asked. Just in case she gets cold, he answers. A one-year-old knows the difference? Personally I imagine a drastic change in temperature, say from 97F to 75F – 36C to 24C – might actually give the kid a cold or such and how long anyway does it take to reduce the temp to a tolerable level once the air-con is turned on? Two minutes? Three minutes? A friend here in Kampot does the same, he keeps his bedroom air-conditioned unless it’s actually cool outside. How often do people leave fans on when there’s nobody around? All a waste. Getting people to conserve is far simpler and cheaper than building new power plants.

So far the country has been totally dependent on private financing from abroad and most of that financing is coming from China. Needless to say they love dams. They’ve submerged some of their country’s most scenic spots in their quest for power. Growing as fast as they are – but lately not as fast as Cambodia – they can’t rest, they’ve got to be continually building out their infrastructure. They’re doing everything, coal, nuclear, renewables.

Over reliance on hydropower is a major culprit in the power shortage. I just recently read a news article from last year saying Cambo was now in good shape power wise since the Sesan dam was finished. Well, not so fast. If it doesn’t rain there’s no power. And the time with the least rain is also the time of the hottest temperatures and maximum demand, so it’s folly to place such great emphasis on hydro.

Otherwise hydro is a great way to produce electricity but unfortunately most dams come with a heavy environmental price. The Lower Sesan dam on a major tributary of the Mekong displaced thousands of people and submerged a large area of fertile bottomland. It also significantly reduced the fishery which many people depend on for their sustenance. The loss is calculated to be about 9% of the total Mekong fishery. When a government official was confronted with that fact, he responded saying people will appreciate having access to cheap electricity. While there’s a bit of truth there, nothing compares to being able to fish for your dinner when you’re at the bottom of the income chart.

Let me digress. Starting in the 1930s the first hydropower dams were built across the Columbia River in the US Pacific Northwest. It’s the fourth largest by volume in America. Before the dams between 10 million and 16 million salmon would return to the river to spawn every year. Mature salmon are large fish averaging 30 kilos, so that’s a lot of food. It’s also very tasty fish, one of the best. Today there are about 100,000 who make the journey and most of those are hatchery fish grown in pens and trucked down river past the dams. I saw a news clip made back in the time which showed lots of fish jumping out of the water while the announcer said, Say goodbye to the salmon, progress has come to the Pacific Northwest. Cheap electricity in exchange for almost unlimited salmon for people in the region. Today in that area many dams on smaller rivers are being breached and the water running free again so the salmon can come back in some places.

There are areas where dams can be built the have minimal impacts on the environment. One such, I believe, is the Kamchey dam just a short distance from Kampot. I’ve heard people say it’s an environmental problem but I don’t see it. It’s in the mountains where nobody or at most a handful of people were living. Being in the mountains, it affected no migratory fish. It could even be stocked with fish and be a valuable recreation spot, but so far the Chinese owners haven’t allowed anyone to go up there.

Meanwhile, Laos is has many dams under construction or planning which will play havoc with natural river flow and migration of fish. They want to be the battery of Southeast Asia and will be able to sell a lot of power… but not when water is low, so not really a long term solution for Cambodia. This country needs to put the brakes on coal and damaging hydro and stick with solar. There will always be sun and small solar projects are happening here. Cambodia is currently buying power from all three neighboring countries to try to partially make up for the shortfall. Even Vietnam which is having its own supply problems is sending power this way, though recently they cut us off to preserve the power for themselves.

At any rate this isn’t the first time lack of rainfall has caused power problems in Cambodia and should have been expected. Then again at a demand growth rate of 20%, it’s going to be difficult keeping up under any circumstances.

The other type of power plant that Chinese and others like to build is coal fired. There are now two operating in Sihanoukville with about 600mw total and a big 700mw under construction costing more than a billion dollars which won’t be finished until 2023. Coal has every possible disadvantage. It’s filthy: even using the most advanced technology, it’s still a big polluter. And who believes that the outfits building these coal plants will use the best technology considering how much more expensive it is to burn relatively clean? The problems don’t stop after it’s burned since you then have to do something with the toxic ash.

It’s always been pushed as the lowest cost source of power, but in many cases it’s not even the cheapest anymore. In most parts of America it’s now cheaper to build new solar or wind power than it is to feed an existing coal plant. Coal is going down in the US because it can no longer compete.

All that’s before you consider climate change. Greenhouse gases are still in an upward trend when we need to be drastically curtailing our production to stay below a 1.5 degree increase over historic levels. CO2 is now increasing at a rate of 3ppm per year and is now up to about 410ppm as opposed to 280ppm at the start of the industrial revolution. The last time CO2 was so high was millions of years ago when the temp at that time was 3C higher. A rise to that temperature would leave most of the earth uninhabitable.

And why now spend a billion dollars for a plant which won’t even be finished for four years when you can have the same amount of power in operation using the sun in a matter of months?

Privately financed power plants often include provisions in their contracts that require the state to purchase a certain amount of power even if it’s not needed or used. That would be a nightmare scenario for the national budget should the world decide that no more coal burning can be allowed. Yet China is currently building 60 coal plants around the world in addition to the many under construction domestically.

China correctly states that most greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today came from rich countries and they are still producing much more per capita than China is so why should they sacrifice the economic growth they need to bring their people up the income ladder? True enough, but the country, having the world’s largest economy based on PPP – purchasing power parity – and being the world’s largest emitter of GHGs, has responsibility to the world to clean up its act and to its people to minimize harmful pollution regardless of what anyone else is doing. Unfortunately, environmentalists there are often treated as enemies of the state so the powers will do as they please with little hindrance.

And burning of fossil fuels continues to rise in the US, mostly petroleum to power America’s increasingly larger vehicles… the cost of gas went down, people switched to bigger vehicles. Dystopia anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

while none of that totally exonerates the government

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China, Uncategorized

Hong Kong Rocks

 

It is tremendously heartening to see the turnout in Hong Kong against the government’s proposed extradition treaty with China. Hongkongers are standing up for basic rights against China’s president Xi Jin Ping. He’s the man, nothing like that bill could come about without his pressure. He wants everybody to fall in line, he hates dissent, but what he got was mass disobedience and an embarrassing climb-down.

He was bested by the people of Hong Kong who refused to bow down, they had too much at stake. As a corollary they also brought home to the people of China the force of freedom. The official press called the protesters violent and influenced by foreigners, but only the gullible believe them. This is another case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. China is still smarting from the humiliation of being forced to lease it to the Brits in 1847 so they could carry on their lucrative opium trade, hated by the Chinese. The lease was up but the UK couldn’t hand it over without some assurance that the colony’s citizens could continue to enjoy the freedoms they had been used to so the one country – two systems regime was established by China to provide that assurance.

And Hongkongers are largely free as witnessed by massive demonstrations. The largest was said to have been 2 million by the protesters. Even the 400,000 estimated by police is a tremendous turnout.

However, Beijing has been slowly tightening the noose, cutting back on their freedoms piece by piece. Like insisting the region’s government could not be fully democratic, that Beijing’s picks had to maintain ultimate power.

One of the biggest reasons for distrusting the Chinese government was the abduction in 2015 of five HK booksellers who had been publishing works critical of Beijing and Xi. One, a Swedish national, was abducted from Pattaya, Thailand. One is still being held, the others were forced to confess their sins against the party.

When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader tried at the behest of Beijing to push through an extradition bill almost on the sly, it was time for the people to push back. There’s a lot of confusion and/or misunderstanding over the meaning of that bill and extradition in general. I keep hearing that Hong Kong couldn’t send back a criminal suspect because it doesn’t have an extradition treaty with China. Maybe HK a special case, but usually it’s not necessary to have an treaty for that to happen. From my understanding and research there’s no rule says a country can’t extradite because they have no treaty. It’s strictly at the discretion of the sending country.

Admittedly, it’s a lot easier with a treaty since it implies an obligation to do so. Even then a requested country can refuse under various conditions. For instance, many countries will not send an individual to a country where they might be subject to the death penalty, torture, an unfair judicial system or other human rights abuses.

Hongkongers are up in arms because they fully understand that China doesn’t follow the rule of law, there it’s rule by law. The judiciary there is an arm of the Communist Party. The party arrests and charges using any flimsy excuse they can come up with and then the courts convict. The head of China’s supreme court proudly announced recently that his court had a 99% conviction rate. With a treaty and a compliant HK government, China could much more easily vacuum up the city’s dissidents and democracy campaigners for their prisons and re-education camps. In China advocating for democracy has gotten people long sentences behind bars.

I’m sure the official Chinese media has tried to downplay and tarnish the demonstrations and undoubtedly a lot of Chinese will believe them since so many have been brainwashed. There are lots of Chinese today who have no awareness of the Tiananmen massacre. But imagine if that happened today, with near ubiquitous smartphones it would be impossible to keep under wraps. That’s what’s happening now and there’s no way for Beijing to hide it.

In the face of such massive demonstrations, chief executive Carrie Lam has backed down and said the bill is dead, but the protesters are not satisfied, they’ve not been mollified, the want to know the bill has been officially withdrawn before they quit their disruptions. They’ve also been emboldened to advocate for full-on one person, one vote democracy. Xi has awakened a monster by trying to limit Hongkongers’ freedom.

 

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