Archive for the 'General' Category

Today’s tip

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Watch out. In a 15 billion year old universe with 100-200 billion galaxies, there probably are some critters around. In Scott’s thinking, this could happen to you.

Fun, and not

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017


As Chinese investment overseas surged last summer, one of the most aggressive of those investors, airlines-to-hotels conglomerate HNA Group, got an ultra flashy private jet. A 2,408-square-foot Boeing 787 Dreamliner that normally seats 300, the plane was tricked out with $100 million worth of features such as marble-laminated bathrooms, Hermès flatware and Baccarat crystal. HNA planned to charter it to rich clients as well as to its own executives, according to people familiar with the plane and promotional videos. Since then, China’s outbound fever has cooled. Most Chinese deal makers have reined in purchases abroad after the government—worried about capital outflows—took steps to curb them.

Yet HNA has still managed to keep up a steady flow of overseas purchases—albeit smaller in size than some of the multibillion-dollar deals it signed last year. And the Dream Jet has been busy ferrying executives and clients around the world: during the past few months, plane-tracking sites show it hopping from Shanghai to New York, Denver, San Francisco and Hawaii. “The company is progressing restlessly,” said Gao Jian, the group’s chief operating officer, who says he flew on the plane last year. “Everyone is passionate, full of hormones, dying to achieve things.”

Based in China’s Hainan province, closely held HNA Group started out as a local airline operator but now aims to become one of the globe’s biggest international conglomerates. It has expanded into hotels, tourism, logistics, real estate and finance. Its total assets, at around $146 billion in 2016, grew more than four times since 2010, when the company first started acquiring overseas companies. Its roughly $90 billion revenue last year was also nearly 10 times the level in 2010. Some of HNA’s most high-profile outbound acquisitions have been U.S.-based companies—a $6.5 billion purchase of a 25% stake in Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., a $6 billion deal to buy technology distributor Ingram Micro Inc. and a $4 billion purchase of CIT Group’s leasing business.

China now has the third largest aircraft leasing company in the world. Pretty impressive for a country that basically didn’t have an airline industry thirty years ago. We look to China for some feel-good stories. We just don’t want to write about the strange, sad, and sick civil war.

Bonus tiny tiny fun: for some reason we thought Jonathan Demme was actually a member of the Talking Heads. Oh well.

Media numbers

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017


Daily and weekly newspaper publishers employed about 455,000 reporters, clerks, salespeople, designers and the like in 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By January 2017, that workforce had more than halved to 173,900. Since January 2008, internet publishing has grown from 77,900 jobs to 206,700 in January 2017. 73% of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated in either the Boston-New York-Washington-Richmond corridor or the West Coast crescent that runs from Seattle to San Diego

So echo.

In re hukou

Monday, April 24th, 2017


98% of Chinese housing is now in private hands from virtually none a generation ago. Over the past decade, housing prices have increased as much as 700% in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Property now accounts for 70% of personal wealth in the country. “Housing is everything in China,” said Li Gan, a professor at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics. Unless the Communist Party privatizes land, which is unlikely, farmers will continue to lose ground, he said. Meanwhile, home prices keep rising at a faster pace, with March the quickest in the past five months. China has recently stepped up efforts to fight poverty, including extending medical insurance to the poor and resettling them from areas prone to landslides and other geological threats. It also said it is building a new megacity two hours from Beijing, bringing whirlwind growth to a dusty backwater.

An epic property boom restricted to city dwellers has opened a wealth gap that continues to widen in China, setting back a state campaign to ease poverty and shunting rural dwellers from the middle-class dream. China’s system of hukou, or household registration, a decades-old legacy of the planned economy, binds most Chinese to their place of birth, and denies those outside China’s booming megacities the right to buy property inside them. China has for decades talked about overhauling the hukou system, which economists say undercuts economic growth. Political resistance is strong as city officials balk at providing services to more people.

It will change of course. Just a matter of time.

Names to remember: Chen Miner and Guizhou

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017


Having represented Shanghai over the past decade, Mr. Xi’s switch to Guizhou, a southwestern region boasting revolutionary history but with which he has few ties, struck some observers as a gesture laden with political meaning. The move, analysts say, appears to signal Mr. Xi’s support for a protégé, Guizhou party chief Chen Miner, who is seen as a candidate for promotion at the fall congress—where the president will have a chance to place allies in top posts while sidelining rivals.

“Xi is sharing a platform with Chen Miner” to boost his profile, said Wu Qiang, a former political-science lecturer at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “Chen has been working hard on poverty alleviation” and delivering results in one of Mr. Xi’s signature programs, Mr. Wu said. “He can be said to be Xi’s man, backing Xi’s campaign.”

Mr. Chen, 56 years old, is a member of the party’s Central Committee, comprising about 370 top officials. A native of China’s eastern Zhejiang province, he was a senior provincial official during Mr. Xi’s stint as Zhejiang party chief from 2002 to 2007. Appointed Guizhou deputy party secretary five years ago before rising to provincial party chief in July 2015, Mr. Chen is well placed to gain a seat on the 25-member Politburo in the fall, analysts and party insiders say.

Thursday’s vote in Guizhou, where more than 730 provincial representatives cast ballots, is part of a nationwide party process spanning November to June to elect some 2,300 delegates for the fall congress. State media hailed Mr. Xi’s election as a “huge boost” for Guizhou’s fight against poverty. His candidacy demonstrated “supreme confidence in Guizhou’s party organizations,” the government-run Xinhua News Agency said, quoting provincial delegates. “It’s a huge honor for party members across the province.”

Analysts say Mr. Xi’s candidacy in Guizhou was unusual because he hadn’t grown up or held public office in the province. In 2007, when Mr. Xi was elected as a Shanghai delegate, he was serving as the city’s party chief. His predecessor as president, Hu Jintao, was a delegate for his home province of Jiangsu while in office. As president, however, Mr. Xi has shown interest in Guizhou’s development. He visited the province in 2015 to survey its efforts in economic development and poverty alleviation.

Guizhou goes back a long way in time. Moses goes back a little further, but not much.

Bonus fun and unfun: we were there at the silliness of the first Earth Day, and here’s a piece from 17 years ago commemorating the foolishness. Here’s another. As for what’s going on at places that used to teach kids, make sure Oxford is on the list of those heading down the drain fast.

Take your pick

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Whom would you rather have lunch with, Person A or Person B? Person A: “has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The New Criterion. A frequent guest on Fox News, CNN, and other TV and radio programs, she holds a B.A. in English from Yale University, graduating with a Mellon Fellowship to Cambridge University, where she earned an M.A. in English and studied in Italy through a Clare College study grant. She holds a J.D. from Stanford University Law School.” Person B: “is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.” Just asking.

Murdering Gaia

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Lending to the coal and steel industries in the 1970’s, as we did, we remember when parts of the US environment were as dirty as they are in parts of China today. J&L Steel, Y&O Coal, etc. Seeing the enormous changes since then makes the hysteria of something like this even more laughable. Enjoy.

A partial answer on soundtrack

Friday, April 21st, 2017

MIT 2015:

Scientists have long wondered if the human brain contains neural mechanisms specific to music perception. Now, for the first time, MIT neuroscientists have identified a neural population in the human auditory cortex that responds selectively to sounds that people typically categorize as music, but not to speech or other environmental sounds. “It has been the subject of widespread speculation,” says Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “One of the core debates surrounding music is to what extent it has dedicated mechanisms in the brain and to what extent it piggybacks off of mechanisms that primarily serve other functions.”

The finding was enabled by a new method designed to identify neural populations from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. Using this method, the researchers identified six neural populations with different functions, including the music-selective population and another set of neurons that responds selectively to speech.

the researchers scanned the brains of 10 human subjects listening to 165 natural sounds, including different types of speech and music, as well as everyday sounds such as footsteps, a car engine starting, and a telephone ringing. The brain’s auditory system has proven difficult to map, in part because of the coarse spatial resolution of fMRI, which measures blood flow as an index of neural activity. In fMRI, “voxels” — the smallest unit of measurement — reflect the response of hundreds of thousands or millions of neurons. “As a result, when you measure raw voxel responses you’re measuring something that reflects a mixture of underlying neural responses,” Norman-Haignere says.

To tease apart these responses, the researchers used a technique that models each voxel as a mixture of multiple underlying neural responses. Using this method, they identified six neural populations, each with a unique response pattern to the sounds in the experiment, that best explained the data. “What we found is we could explain a lot of the response variation across tens of thousands of voxels with just six response patterns,” Norman-Haignere says.

One population responded most to music, another to speech, and the other four to different acoustic properties such as pitch and frequency. The key to this advance is the researchers’ new approach to analyzing fMRI data, says Josef Rauschecker, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University. “The whole field is interested in finding specialized areas like those that have been found in the visual cortex, but the problem is the voxel is just not small enough. You have hundreds of thousands of neurons in a voxel, and how do you separate the information they’re encoding? This is a study of the highest caliber of data analysis,” says Rauschecker, who was not part of the research team.

The four acoustically responsive neural populations overlap with regions of “primary” auditory cortex, which performs the first stage of cortical processing of sound. Speech and music-selective neural populations lie beyond this primary region. “We think this provides evidence that there’s a hierarchy of processing where there are responses to relatively simple acoustic dimensions in this primary auditory area. That’s followed by a second stage of processing that represents more abstract properties of sound related to speech and music,” Norman-Haignere says.

The researchers believe there may be other brain regions involved in processing music, including its emotional components. “It’s inappropriate at this point to conclude that this is the seat of music in the brain,” McDermott says. “This is where you see most of the responses within the auditory cortex, but there’s a lot of the brain that we didn’t even look at.” Kanwisher also notes that “the existence of music-selective responses in the brain does not imply that the responses reflect an innate brain system. An important question for the future will be how this system arises in development: How early it is found in infancy or childhood, and how dependent it is on experience?”

The researchers are now investigating whether the music-selective population identified in this study contains subpopulations of neurons that respond to different aspects of music, including rhythm, melody, and beat. They also hope to study how musical experience and training might affect this neural population.

So the research is in early stages. A few years ago we asked if everyone had a soundtrack and got a couple of positive replies. Now we’ve asked a couple of the researchers in the MIT piece and we’ll let you know what we learn.

Update: one of the MIT profs referred us to Oliver Sacks, which indicates there’s not much systematic research on the topic.

Soundtrack questions

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

We linked the other day to the very fine piece by Mark Steyn on Hal David, Burt Bacharach, and others from the golden half century. Now those guys had soundtracks in their brains; they wrote them! A good portion of the time, as we’ve noted, we have a soundtrack going too. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes funny, sometimes kooky. Dorsey, Sinatra, Jo Stafford, for a while a lot of Bach and Brahms, Raffi and ditties we made up for the kiddies, Itchycoo Park, Hooka Tooka, and lots more. We’ve looked for books on the subject but can’t find any as of yet. We dropped Mark a note but apparently he doesn’t respond to individual inquiries. So what determines the soundtracks of individuals? How does the music selection work to create such variations from one time to another? What were soundtracks like before the age of recording? Gregorian chant? Replays of your memorization of the Iliad or the Koran? Are there books on this subject? Any suggestions appreciated.

(BTW, this is not a recent phenomenon for us: we credited hearing the album cut of Light My Fire repeating over and over and over again for no boxes unchecked and getting a pretty good score on the math SAT a billion years ago.)

Fascinating piece

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

From a piece linked at AT:

the notion that we don’t have to worry about North Korean nuclear missiles because they cannot “miniaturize” warheads is a myth. Adm. William Gortney, Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is correct to presume that is the case and to prepare to defend against that threat, as he said last October. Technologically, “miniaturizing” a nuclear warhead is much easier than developing an atomic bomb or a multi-stage missile for orbiting satellites — as North Korea has already done. Ever since the USSR orbited Sputnik in 1957, analysts have rightly credited any nation that has tested nuclear weapons and orbited satellites with the capability to make a nuclear missile warhead.

Miniaturization was no huge obstacle to the United States. According to the “Nuclear Weapon Archive” just a few years after destroying Hiroshima with an A-Bomb weighing 9,700 pounds, the U.S. Army had the T-1, a man-carried atomic landmine weighing 150 pounds.

A major problem with warhead miniaturization was the bulky, heavy vacuum tube electronics of the 1950s. Microelectronics resulted in part from programs to miniaturize nuclear weapons. The microelectronics revolution solved most technological challenges of warhead miniaturization long ago for North Korea and for all nuclear missile aspirants.

A nuclear missile warhead also needs shock absorbers to soften forces of acceleration during launching and deceleration when re-entering the atmosphere. A heat shield to penetrate the atmosphere, in order to blast a city, is also necessary — these are technologically simple and within North Korea’s capability.

Indeed, in 2013, a publicity photo by state media of North Korea’s KSM-3 satellite interior shows a shock absorber cage, allegedly for an earth observation camera but suitable for a small nuclear weapon. North Korea recently conducted another illegal missile test demonstrating a re-entry vehicle and heat shield.

The president and the press is missing, or ignoring, the biggest threat from North Korea — their satellites. On February 7, North Korea orbited a second satellite, the KSM-4, to join their KSM-3 satellite launched in December 2012. Both satellites now are in south polar orbits, evading many U.S. missile defense radars and flying over the United States from the south, where our defenses are limited. Both satellites — if nuclear armed — could make an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that could blackout the U.S. electric grid for months or years, thereby killing millions.

Technologically, such an EMP attack is easy — since the weapon detonates at high-altitude, in space, no shock absorbers, heat shield, or vehicle for atmospheric re-entry is necessary. Since the radius of the EMP is enormous, thousands of kilometers, accuracy matters little. Almost any nuclear weapon will do.

More fun:

Like the frameworks with North Korea and Syria, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015 assumed that Iran would fulfill its obligations and open its facilities to inspectors. The JCPOA assumed that Iran would moderate its behavior and join the international community. Yet unlike its North Korean and Syrian allies, Iran was the largest state sponsor of terror and openly vowed to destroy another state—Israel. Unlike them, Iran systematically lied about its unconventional weapons program for 30 years. And unlike Damascus and Pyongyang, which are permanently barred from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Tehran can look forward to building them swiftly and legitimately in the late 2020s, once the JCPOA expires.

This, for Israel and our neighboring Sunni states, is the appalling flaw of the JCPOA. The regime most committed to our destruction has been granted a free pass to develop military nuclear capabilities. Iran could follow the Syrian and North Korean examples and cheat. Or, while enjoying hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it can adhere to the agreement and deactivate parts of its nuclear facilities rather than dismantle them. It can develop new technologies for producing atomic bombs while testing intercontinental ballistic missiles. It can continue massacring Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis, and bankrolling Hamas and Hezbollah. The JCPOA enables Iran to do all that merely by complying. A nuclear-armed Iran would be as dangerous as “50 North Koreas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N.


Then and now

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Then. Now, with our super media. Now, and more now. Jeesh. Apart from affluence and medical technologies, most things seem worse now, given the declines in religion and the two parent family. Question: would it even be legal today for an author to name a book God and Man at Yale?

Effect and cause

Monday, April 17th, 2017


March data was roundly better than expected. Value-added industrial output, a rough proxy for economic growth, expanded 7.6% from a year earlier, accelerating from a 6.3% increase in the first two months of 2017. Retail sales surged a surprising 10.9% in March from a year earlier, from a 9.5% increase in February.

Electricity consumption and rail freight—viewed by many economists as more reliable indicators of demand than China’s headline gross domestic product figure—also posted strong increases in the first quarter. China’s official manufacturing purchasing managers index also hit a five-year high in March, its eighth consecutive month in expansionary territory.

A still-robust property market contributed to demand. Investment in buildings, factories and other fixed assets grew 9.2% in the first quarter, speeding up from the 8.9% expansion in the first two months. Even though home-sales growth slowed slightly, construction starts rose 11.6% for the full January to March period

And then there’s this:

Credit last year grew at a pace more than twice as fast as the economy, with total debt now at an estimated 277% of the economy, up from 125% at the end of 2008.

Stay tuned.

Something different

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

One of the interesting aspects of the United story is how many people now report that they were bumped from flights, often with the excuse that there were weight problems forcing the removal. What a joke! The max takeoff weight of a B737-800 (not a particularly large aircraft) is 172,000 pounds or so. Well, if you manage to stay on the plane, here’s a fascinating piece. Excerpt: “Turbines are easier to get stable than compressors because the air is flowing to lower pressures (stall is less probable). But it’s very hot. The gas temperature is way hotter than the melting point of even the most exotic high temperature alloy.” Happy Easter!

Caution, geniuses at work

Saturday, April 15th, 2017


“We have to constantly be pushing ourselves to not only respond to culture but lead it,” said MTV President Chris McCarthy in a CNN interview announcing the change.

He went to Wharton, not Brown BTW. Bonus unfun: at least she looks the part.

Social Financing Up to $24 Trillion

Friday, April 14th, 2017


“The overall appetite for credit is still quite good,” said Yan Ling, an economist with China Merchants Securities. “It’s just that the banks are turning the lending activities off the balance sheet.” Chinese financial institutions issued 1.02 trillion yuan ($148 billion) in new loans in March, down from 1.17 trillion yuan in February, the People’s Bank of China said Friday. The lending came in below a median forecast of 1.225 trillion yuan in a Wall Street Journal poll of 13 economists.

Chinese banks normally rush to lend at the end of each quarter, but the central bank’s risk-control efforts, known as its macroprudential assessment, have curbed lending activities on banks’ balance sheet, said Ms. Yan. Overall lending rose, however. Total social financing, a measure that includes nonbank credit, stood at 2.12 trillion yuan in March, up sharply from 1.15 trillion yuan in February. The proportions of bank loans in total new credit dropped to 54% in March from nearly 89% in February.

As Beijing tries to reduce companies’ debt levels, it is counting more on accelerating fiscal spending on infrastructure and other public projects to support economic growth this year, said Jianguang Shen, an economist at Mizuho Securities. National fiscal expenditure — central and local governments included — rose 25.4% last month, compared with a year earlier

We don’t remember the term Social Financing, but it’s been in use in China for a long while, and at nearly $24,000,000,000,000 it’s not trivial.

Fun bonus: map.

Today’s TV show

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Syria was about Syria but it was also about North Korea. Afghanistan was about Afghanistan but it was also about North Korea (look at the photos). HT: PL

Danger, Will Robinson

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

The Global Times subsidiary of People’s Daily:

Washington’s latest threat to Pyongyang is more credible given its just launched missile attack at an air base in Syria. The Korean Peninsula has never been so close to a military clash since the North conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. If Pyongyang conducts its sixth nuclear test in the near future, the possibility of US military action against it will be higher than ever. Not only Washington brimming with confidence and arrogance following the missile attacks on Syria, but Trump is also willing to be regarded as a man who honors his promises.

Now the Trump team seems to have decided to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. As the discussion runs deeper, a situation of no-solution will not be accepted. A new nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile test, if conducted by Pyongyang at this time, will be a slap in the face of the US government and will intensify the confrontation between North Korea and the US.

Presumably Beijing will react strongly to Pyongyang’s new nuclear actions. China will not remain indifferent to Pyongyang’s aggravating violation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution.

More and more Chinese support the view that the government should enhance sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. If the North makes another provocative move this month, the Chinese society will be willing to see the UNSC adopt severe restrictive measures that have never been seen before, such as restricting oil imports to the North. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is intended for securing the regime, however, it is reaching a tipping point. Pyongyang hopes its gamble will work, but all signs point to the opposite direction.

The US is making up its mind to stop the North from conducting further nuclear tests, it doesn’t plan to co-exist with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang. China supports solution of the North Korean nuclear issue under the framework of UNSC and Six-Party Talks. If the US takes unilateral action, it will win little international support. Pyongyang can continue its tough stance, however, for its own security, it should at least halt provocative nuclear and missile activities. Pyongyang should avoid making mistakes at this time.

Danger, but not Will Robinson. Gotta love the “presumably.” It would appear that China has chosen sides, and it’s not on the side of the madman. For a sceptical perspective, check out Wretchard. Update: apparently NK is going to go ahead.

Nuke of Earl

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Apologies to Gene Chandler, but that song is playing in the back of our head as we read about NK threatening to nuke the US. Apparently the US is now messing with fat boy’s head, and looks to have decided to act sooner rather than later. Smart move in our view since there’s no dealing with a guy who murders his brother in a nasty scene at an airport.

Speaking of nasty scenes, here’s a new training video for United Airlines. BTW, China’s media were not happy, not happy indeed. Super fun updates: apparently winning a Pulitzer is not what it once was; also, in the comments section, Putin hacked UAL to create a distraction away from Dr Evil. Funny stuff.

Numbers numbers — 6.8%, 9.5%, 18.4%, and, um, 150,000

Monday, April 10th, 2017


A median forecast of 13 economists polled by The Wall Street Journal was for first-quarter growth of 6.8% from a year earlier, mirroring the relatively strong growth in the previous quarter. That in turn came after the world’s second-largest economy grew at 6.7% in the first three quarters of 2016. The main reason for the high forecast—in a year when Beijing has set a growth target of about 6.5% — was “stimulus-driven investment,” said economists at Mizuho Securities Asia, pointing to a near-10-percentage-point jump in infrastructure investment

A measure of fixed-asset investment mainly in cities was expected to slow from the first two months, at an 8.7% increase in the first quarter after the 8.9% increase in January to February. Retail sales were expected to have risen 9.7% in March, accelerating from a 9.5% increase in the two-month period. The forecast for exports was for a 4.9% expansion on year in March, recovering from a 1.3% drop in February. Imports were predicted to have risen 18.4%, retreating from a 38% surge in February. The country’s trade balance — the difference between exports and imports — probably returned to a surplus of $12 billion, after a rare deficit of $9.15 billion in February.

DM: “The Chinese army has reportedly deployed 150,000 troops to the North Korean border. China’s top nuclear envoy arrived in Seoul Monday for talks on the North Korean threat, as the United States sent the naval strike group to the region and signalled it may act to shut down Pyongyang’s weapons program.” Hmmm.

Pawn to King four and now what?

Sunday, April 9th, 2017


Perhaps mindful of parallels that could be drawn over defiance of international norms, North Korea denounced the U.S. missile strike on Syria as “intolerable,” and reiterated its own right to self-defense. The U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet, in turn, publicly announced that the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and a strike force that includes two missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser were being diverted north from scheduled port calls in Australia to “maintain readiness and presence in the western Pacific.”


North Korea is ready to deliver the ‘most ruthless blow’ if provoked by the United States, its ambassador to Moscow has warned. Kim Hyong Jun claimed Pyongyang had the ‘readiness and ability to counter any challenge’ and that it would act after ‘even the smallest provocation from the United States during exercises’.

Oh wait, that was waaaay back on April 6.