China’s bank

This past week, a multilateral infrastructure bank proposed by China notched a significant victory. The UK said it would join. The Obama administration was furious with what it perceived as a defection, but London’s move opened the way for other US allies to join, both in Europe and in Asia. This leaves the US and Japan isolated. It is a big political win for China.

I wrote about this issue in December, about three months before the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) became news. I had already by then come to the conclusion that the US should drop its opposition to the bank; better yet, it should try to join.

Whether the Brits or others will actually be in a position to make this new bank transparent and governed along best practices is anyone’s guess. The UK establishment has become rather craven when it comes to dealing with China. But in this case, they probably did the right thing.

You can check out my reporting on AIIB and what it means here, at FinanceAsia.com.

Pivot fun

Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, first articulated in 2012, is missing a key component: culture.

While Googling around for something else, I came across data from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, a US Congressional agency. It reports that about 4.5 million Americans visited Asia in 2014.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s not. Last year, 25.4 million US citizens visited Mexico, 12.1 million visited Canada, 11.8 million visited Europe and 7.2 million visited the Caribbean. The same number of US citizens visited Central and South America (ex-Mexico) as all of Asia.

Indeed, of the 68.3 million outbound trips by Americans in 2014, only 6.6% went to Asia; or 7.5% if you include Australia and New Zealand. Continue reading “Pivot fun”

Roll the digital dice!

imagesI just watched this New York Times video about digital apps, thinking it was about companies choosing how to use apps – but it was actually about ones that help people make decisions. And it had a freaky ending.

It presents three apps. The first, for iOS, helps you select a purchase, such as a car. The second, for Android, is similar but enables groups of people to vote for choices, like what restaurant to select.

The third app is a “wheel of fortune” that chooses what to do for you. Go skating? Go bowling? Watch a movie? Just let this app spin its karmic wheel, and go with the flow.

This is the exact premise of Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, a subversive (ie, entertaining) novel from the 1970s. Written as a self-styled memoir of a New York psychiatrist bored out of his skull from analyzing his patients’ sexual deviancies, Rhinehart decides on a whim to let a single roll of a die determine his next move. Continue reading “Roll the digital dice!”

Breaking ground

DSC00943_2I have begun writing chapter one of a non-fiction history book on Bagan and its magnificent temples. Bagan, the original capital of Myanmar/Burma, still boasts thousands of temples, monasteries, ordination halls and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries. Most of them are ruins, some have been badly restored, and a few have remained active sites of worship for a millennium. Collectively the monuments are stunning to behold and fun to explore.

Bagan is Southeast Asia’s other great, pre-modern legacy city. It is the natural destination for me after The Story of Angkor was published in 2013. Of course, Burma’s story is different to Cambodia’s, and the structure of the book will have to reflect that. Continue reading “Breaking ground”

Kano

Kano-2014-film-poster-122048_copy1Last night’s choice of film was “Kano”, a baseball film from Asia, or “Rocky”. We plumped for “Kano”, which, it turns out, is about more than baseball.

The two films are similar in that they feature underdogs in sport, who despite losing the big contest nonetheless win the general sympathy – the moral victory – because of their never-say-die spirit.

For both the Kano baseball team and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, the path to honor involves literally bloody work, whether it’s Rocky’s bare-knuckled training on frozen slabs of beef or the Kano team’s pitcher, Go, whose stress causes him to bleed over ball and bat. Continue reading “Kano”

Mostly dead poets society

Last year a hedge fund manager I’m friendly with floated the idea of a bunch of guys sitting around with a few drinks reciting poetry. I said that sounded pretty cool and it finally happened. Eight of us gathered for dinner and a night of reciting – and declaiming – poems.

The older gents from the UK were amazing. They knew classic British poetry inside and out, and could often spill out stanzas from memory: Shelley, Keats, even Pope and Kipling, rolling and rollicking tales of empire, and a few hilarious limericks and epithets as well.

For me, the evening was a brief and wonderful immersion into the education of upper class Britons. Although Americans also acknowledge our literary roots going back to the poetry of Chaucer, our public education touches lightly on it. Shakespeare remains core to any American school system, rightly so, but agendas skim lightly over the British Romantics. This demotion is cultural (dead white male stuff?) but it is also political, for many of these works are tied to the British Empire.

(That’s a fancy way of saying I was way out of my league.) Continue reading “Mostly dead poets society”

Nuts

A Korean court sentenced the daughter of Korea Air’s chairman to one year in jail for violating aviation safety regulations. Cho Hyun-ah is an executive at the company and made headlines when she threw a fit at how she was served macadamia nuts as the flight was readying for takeoff, and ordered the plane to return to the terminal in order to remove the offending steward.

Not too long ago, this sort of haughty behavior would go unremarked and, even if it the local media picked it up, there would either be no charges filed or she would have been found innocent on some technicality.

That she will do jail time, even if it is the minimum sentence allowed, shows that Korea is changing. Tycoons and the heads of its chaebol (family-owned conglomerates) no longer enjoy total impunity. It raises interesting questions about what’s happening across the world as traditional societies rush headlong into our globalized capitalist order. Continue reading “Nuts”

Effort and the effortless

My wife is a terrific cook. She possesses the ingredients to being a professional chef other than the drive to be one. She is a gifted amateur who puts a lot of effort into a meal, whether a humble stew for the two of us, or a multi-course blowout for as many guests as we can fit around the table.

Either way the food goes down effortlessly. A meal for the two of us we can stretch out to maybe 45 minutes, and a dinner party for two or three hours. But inevitably the food disappears, and individual plates may not last more than ten or 15 minutes.

This always leaves her a little wistful, knowing how many hours went into creating each dish. Even the simplest ones require shopping and planning ahead, and a few demand plenty of time standing at the counter, chopping, slicing, marinating, boiling, what have you. And that doesn’t account for the longer dedication into understanding food, equipment, recipes, the way a little of this goes – or doesn’t – with a bit of that. Continue reading “Effort and the effortless”

The Shackles of the Past

Every nation is shackled to its history but R. Taggart Murphy argues that Japan’s chains are not only thick and heavy, but forged by its own hand in modern times.

Although the Tokugawa era, Japan’s feudal period of seclusion, forged Japanese culture, the modernizers of Meiji and post-war Japan have failed in their quest to return the country to isolated splendor.

Murphy’s fine book, “Japan and the Shackles of the Past”, posits the goal of Japanese rulers has been to make the country totally independent, free of ever having to worry about outsiders. But the Meiji clique failed to institutionalize their rule, and the country’s sense of mission gradually died with them. Continue reading “The Shackles of the Past”

Dean Martin drinking

I’m finalizing a business trip to Korea. I like visiting Seoul: it’s big enough to matter, diverse enough to always surprise, but sufficiently small and friendly to network well. Although Korean society is wired pretty tightly, the tensions now come more from the pressures of success rather than from an existential struggle.

It’s a great place to do business if you like to have a drink.

Yet for such an economic (and increasingly cultural) powerhouse, a country at the heart of the world’s most dynamic region, Korea remains territory incognito for most people, especially Westerners. Continue reading “Dean Martin drinking”