Will China Crash – Part 2

I am from New Zealand, and we look at the world from about as neutral a perspective as I think is possible. Which is not to say neutral, but maybe somewhat less biased than other nations. It is when you start analysing what is going on in the world that you can quickly lose objectivity and start taking on a more judgmental approach. And certainly when you engage in debate with people from other nations, it becomes very difficult to maintain objectivity.  Nevertheless, I will state from the outset that I am trying to be as objective as possible here.

Will China crash? I know I said in part 1 that No, China wont crash, but I am starting to wonder now what the future for China is – is it overstepping the mark? Are internal tensions going to tear it up? Are the systems China operates on (Guanxi etc) compatible with the rest of the world, and how much of the news that makes it out of China (GDP Reports, basically ANY governmental report) realistic, and if not, how much can you expect that they are out by.

First up – is China overstepping the mark. There is one clear case of where the rest of the world is confronted by this question – the South China Sea, and the Island building going on there. To those who dont know some of the intricacies, here is a map of the south China sea and the claims of China (in Red), and the international 200 Nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that is the normal marker for territorial claims:


Basically China has claimed the entire area for itself. Why?

China’s reason: It was traditionally our waters, we have fished there since ancient times.

More likely reason: Fossil Fuel reserves, Fishing, and sea lane control.

China’s reason for the claim has been challenged, by its own records: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/ancient-maps-spark-debate-between-china-and-philippines-020179

The Chinese map referenced which dates from 1169 shows that the southernmost limit to China was Hainan Island. Yet China is saying that the claim of the entire South China Sea dates from ancient times.

Whatever it is, the claim is dubious at best, and goes in direct contravention of the U.N. Convention of the law of the sea (which China has ratified) that stipulates a 200 Nautical Mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from the shoreline of each country. So even without the claims to rocks and features, China is blatantly in breach of this (its closest claim to the Philippine mainland is 80 Nautical miles, and is not covered by any EEZ derived from its island claims)

So – to return to the question – has China overstepped. The answer, in the perception of many other countries is clearly yes, and in a very troubling way. Troubling because it is building military bases in the South China Sea to extend what it claims to be its indisputable sovereignty in the area – and there is no easy solution – the other claimants have ever friendlier bonds with the USA (even Vietnam…), because they fear China, and the stage is slowly being set for an eventual confrontation. Not lost on these nations is Chinese incrementalism. A little bit here, a little bit there, an Island here, an ADIZ there, nothing that in itself could trigger a major response, but gradually China is getting what it wants, step by small step.

The question then becomes – what is the motivating factor behind China’s expansion, and why does China think it will prevail?

In the case of the South China Sea, I think you see the locus of Chinese thought, Chinese perceived might, and Chinese projection and protection of its mainland. Ancient fishing ground is a convenient, if not somewhat disingenuous, excuse to claim an area that can be exploited for the tremendous gain of China.

It will (and has) provoked a reaction. The USA nor her allies are going to get into a military engagement here – the long term reaction will be an economic humbling of China, and one that it cannot avoid. This will be covered off in a future post. As will the other questions above. But China has made quite a strategic blunder here – while it may gain and hold ground, it should have instead made friends. China has no real friends, except for North Korea, Laos and Cambodia. This is where it is critically weak. China has a somewhat clearly articulated policy of no alliances. My post on Great State Autism goes into this further – suffice it to say here however that this is counterproductive on any conceivable level. It is a massive country and increasingly willing to throw its weight around, maybe it thinks it doesn’t need friends, but instead of a battlefield outcome, the battle will be one of perceptions, and in this, the USA is winning comfortably against a country that is starting to show worrying signs of belligerence.

So nothing happens in isolation – while the USA isn’t dumb enough to start a fight in the area, both economically and strategically, China is being undermined both externally and by itself in ways that it cannot overcome. Some of them are demographic, some of them are based around cost-of-labour and China’s sprint to become a middle or high income country, but their dependence on foreign multinationals whom are already looking to lower cost alternatives to China (Google “PC-16 Straftor” for a clear explanation of this) has the ability to hollow China out. China is an export driven country – it is heavily dependent on exports to maintain stability. Currently China exports around 24% of their GDP per year. (The US around 13% and Germany around 45% – and Germany is in crisis – they are major creditors and when the debtor countries start winding back  on the credit – where does Germany export to? – that is another story – Google “German export problem Ambrose Evans Pritchard” – This more than anything else is the European Achilles heel). Back to China. If China withdraws credit to the US – “Calling in her debts” – China will be the one who loses – there will be immense pain, but the US already has diversified manufacturing and is quickly reducing its dependence on China as the sole source of products. If China makes conditions bad enough there that foreign companies pull back manufacturing (Microsoft, Intel and others have recently relocated to Vietnam) – China loses. The legitimacy of the CCP is predicated on delivering a slowly improving standard of living, to offset the increasingly authoritarian method of governing the country. They have made huge steps, but now they face huge challenges which they have not had to deal with before.

The South China Sea as I see it is a trap for China, and they’ve created it and walked straight into it. There is no doubt that China’s actions there have frightened and annoyed all the surrounding countries. China’s plan to change the reality on the ground by its own say so, regardless of the wishes of her neighbours seems to follow (some of this hasn’t happened yet, so there is a bit of conjecture here) 3 steps:

A) Appeasement. “We don’t want the trouble, and the pain is not over the threshold that really requires a response”

B) Naked Opposition. 10 years ago,  things may have stopped at appeasement for some time. After which the facts on the ground would have been established and it would be essentially too late to do much about it. With the rise of nationalism and a rightward swing in many countries (most recently in the Philippines with the election of Duterte) – you dont have to be a big player to cause trouble – China loves to bully its neighbours as is clearly visible in the case of SCS – but the neighbours are increasingly less and less afraid to fight back.

C) War. No one wants this, because there is no telling how it would end. The chances of it going nuclear are very real. A national conflict involving China and a US ally that could either conceivably draw the US in, or cause humiliation and a withdrawal from the US in the area – the US currently is clear that That calculus alone means

So why is it a trap for China? If you look at cost/benefit, the costs to China are enormous. The US has many bases abroad, but very few of them face opposition. They are a fact of life for many countries. SCS reclamation, development and defense on the other hand faces universal opposition. China may well think this is just a cost of doing business, but nearly every surrounding country has a vested interest in amplifying that to make the cost to China as great as possible. I think many people are incredulous that China could be so tone deaf to the consequences of their actions, and even more so about their current methods of achieving their desired outcome. I can only imagine that this makes the 6pm news in Beijing the best hour of the day for many Chinese, we’re socking it to ’em everyone, you better keep cheering for the home team. Elsewhere however, people are pointing to agreements and treaties that they have signed, and blatantly ignoring. The US sometimes does exactly the same thing, except they drag others along with them and convince them to add time and resources (think Iraq and the coalition of the willing) – China doesn’t even bother with this sop. It just charges in and thinks it can do as it likes.

In some small part, and I think this has not really been picked up at all in the media, I think Donald Trump’s rise is in some small part attributable to the rise of nationalism in China. President Xi Jinping is one incredibly scary guy. Very widely considered to be the most authoritarian leader since Mao, has taken over direct leadership of the military  (Financial Times article), Xi must walk a tightrope of conflicting demands, rising social tension, falling growth, a population that is aging faster than any other country (and even the relaxation of the one child policy is neither showing any effect, Economist article from 2011, nothing much has changed even though the law was changed in exactly the way the article describes), the fracturing of the country along the relatively affluent coastal cities who are the trade hubs with the west, and the impoverished west – none of these are problems that are going away quickly, and the CCP response to all of these has been to increase the repression and block the media. I’m fairly ambivalent on all of this – it remains to be seen what the outcome will be – I only mention it to point out that the good run China has had to date is well and truly over. What’s next is anyone’s guess.

As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War “When weak, appear strong, when strong, appear weak”

China is appearing a little too strong currently. Look beneath the surface and the reality over there is not good. Do I take back what I said in the original post about China wont be crashing any time soon – I’ll rephrase it – I don’t think anyone can tell what is going to happen over there now. China is not the west, refuses to be dealt with on western terms, and how thing plays out from here are anyone’s guess.

Will China Crash

The answer in short: No.

There is a level of paranoia about China, the rise, the methods, and who stands to gain and lose out of this ascent. They are an unknown quantity, an opaque figure with seemingly few friends, but an enormous and growing influence that buys a seat at any table it chooses.

I’ll take a different tack in the way I look at this. To start with, galling as it is for China, they have a lot to thank the Japanese for in their strategy. What China has done is more or less a carbon copy of what Japan did 40 or so years ago. With one critical difference that we will get to. Japan figured out very early on that manufacturing and export earns cold hard cash. The first trade deficit they had in 30 years was in 2011.


This was as a direct result of the Fukushima eathequake and the idling of their nuclear power stations and follow on reliance on fossil fuels.


$248 billion in 2012 for fossil fuels. It isn’t hard to see why they need to restart the reactors, but thats not the point here. The point is despite the “lost decade”, Japan’s economy is still very strong, and natural disasters aside, it would have remained so. Healthy trade surpluses are healthy trade surpluses. They weren’t made a big point of in Japan, everyone seemed a bit too focused on growth rates or the lack thereof. Back to China. They have followed Japan in making their economy export driven. And its working for them. Even with the downturn in Europe and the US only now getting back on its feet, China still posts solid gains in export earnings.


How much you believe that is up to you. By other measures it looks on the high side:


Li Keqiang  (Chinese Premier) said in 2007 that the GDP figures are “Man-Made” and for “reference only”


So its hard to draw a solid conclusion, and will get even harder as China’s economy slows – local governments are told to reach a figure, but no one knows how they do it – borrowing, debt fuelled construction, who knows, the figures are not available, and what is seems questionable.

So to go back to the subject line – will China crash – we need to draw in 2 more points before making any conclusion. Firstly is who owns the businesses in China that export, and secondly demographics and cost-of-manufacture and how this is changing. No mention of debt levels, shadow banking industry or corruption – thats in another post.

Ok, so who owns the industry in China – the exporters are generally not Chinese brands, with a few big exceptions. Apple, Nike, Sony, Toyota, etc, all use Chinese labour. But they dont HAVE to, they use it simply because the cost is cheaper. There are very few Chinese name brands – Huawei, Lenovo and Haier are among the few exceptions. As wages in China rise, the very thing that China offered to the world vanishes – cheap labour. And its unfortunate that the world regards China as a factory to make its goods for it, but the jump to a “knowledge Economy” and a move away from manufacturing is very difficult to do in practise. It cannot be done quickly. And it makes for massive inequality along the way. Factory workers are the backbone of an economy. Certainly true in China’s case. But the squeeze is on for China – on one hand rising wages, and on the other hand non-Chinese brands who will move if the price is not right. Stratfor has posted about the 16 countries identified as follow-ons for China, the “PC-16”


One quote from that report “The arcs along which nations rise and fall vary in length and slope. China’s has been long, as far as these things go, lasting for more than 30 years. The country will continue to exist and perhaps prosper, but this era of Chinese development — pyramiding on low wages to conquer global markets — is ending simply because there are now other nations with even lower wages and other advantages. China will have to behave differently from the way it does now, and thus other countries are poised to take its place.” – it makes for interesting reading, even if you dont agree with it.

And the final point before the conclusion is drawn – demographics.


This is a problem that many countries are facing, but will likely hit China much harder than others. The “one child” policy and the lack of immigration are going to put massive strain on the country as the population gradually ages. This has to be tackled now, and they are starting to relax the one Child Policy in the latest 5 year plan. As in Japan’s case, immigration on a large scale will be avoided at all costs.

So – conclusion – will China crash? Up until now China has had a good run, and the west has a lot to thank China for, but the pressures are steadily mounting – growth is slowing, population is aging and wages and costs are rising. To add to this, local governments are now saddled with mountains of debt and there is corrption on a grand scale.


For a taste of how far the corruption goes there.

So for now, China wont crash in any major way, but it is likely to slow a lot more.

It will still be an important player on the world stage, I doubt it will ever reach no.1.

Predictions for the next 30 years

I’ve been reading with interest someone in Australia pulled out a letter stashed in a wall in 1995, that turned out to have some eerily prophetic guesses as to the future.

Now’s my turn. I promise not to be too negative. I’ll break that, but my intentions are not bad.

First up – Artificial Intelligence. Some of the work I do is in Machine Learning, and I am reasonably confident when I say that we’re a long way off General Artificial Intelligence. Just today we had Glenn Gore, chief architect for Amazon Web Services come and speak to a group of us, and the questions he took at the end mainly revolved around AI/ML, its applications and future. He gave a quick breakdown of all the companies who thought they were working on ML – 90% are working on clever spreadsheets – analytics. Clever, but not real ML. Of the remaining 10%, 9% of those were working on ways of adapting ML to simple use cases within their industry. I fall squarely into that category – we’re moving things out of a simple engineering environment and into a data science environment – and learning about feedback loops and reinforcement and how we can improve our system in this way. It’s very early stages for a lot of this stuff. The remaining 1% was deep learning, where the machine was developing new ideas, and basically this is the preserve of research institutions and places like Google. I only make mention of the stuff I am working on to highlight the simplicity of what we are doing – the use cases are so simple that the whole thing can be done faster and better using a logic engine and a set of correlations. No feedback required. The challenge we have is when a machine makes a decision, we need to be able to tell if it did a good job or not. Possible if your job was to sit there and monitor this thing, but not so easy if this is a minuscule part of the many things you do in your day.

We keep well abreast of AI/ML, and I both agree and disagree with Elon Musk’s statement about regulation of AI – yes, we should, but basically it’s impossible. The main drivers behind AI are state actors with nationalistic imperatives. The following talk is one of DARPA’s director of information innovation – this is the US military’s advanced research lab – the talk is both understandable and frightening if you consider the implications of the very last piece on contextual learning.

You can imagine that China has its own lab, along with other major nations. Now talk to me about regulation. End of. I would give AI about a 15% chance of a major breakthrough that changes everything, otherwise incremental achievements will finally get us to our goal, and given that neural networks have been around since the 80’s, we have a long way to go there.

Secondly – Resource Depletion. I think we have our finger in the dyke on this currently – we’re holding back little issues, in the knowledge that they will snowball over time and become critical. Just take fish as an example.

BBC Article on declining fish stocks

While I think this is a bit alarmist, this is hardly the point. The point is that we have this out of sight out of mind approach to a very rapidly depleting resource. Documentaries like “End of the Line” paint the decline out in graphic detail, along with the incredible amount of unwanted (dead) fish we just toss back. We have a 20th century attitude to a very 21st century problem, and the longer we leave these things unaddressed the more parts of any available solution disappear. Governments don’t want to deal with it even though the science seems reasonably clear.

Before too long I believe we will see one of the first big shocks – a resource that we have depended on drying up in very short order. Candidates are:

  • Freshwater on a regional level. This is a global problem, but it will have regional effects first – we are already seeing this in places – sinkholes, aquifer depletion, water tables going down etc. There hasn’t been a city run dry yet, but some of China’s northern cities are running perilously close. Beijing’s water table has dropped 300 m since the 70’s:

China’s Northern Cities running dry

  • Phosphorous. You know, the fertiliser. We have around 50-100 years worth remaining.
  • Fossil Fuels. You all know about this one. Depending on whether electrics and renewables kick in and to what degree, even if you have an electric car it still needs to draw its power from somewhere, and fossil fuels are still a massive part of the energy production mix.

You could go on – there’s lots. Point is more and more (population is expected to top 10 billion in this century) of us puts more and more strain on resources. As it is we’re heading towards zero on a lot – and I don’t subscribe at all to the idea that we’ll figure this one out like we did for food production in the 1800’s and all of the other obstacles we have overcome. We’re dealing with hard limits here – not just our abilities to adapt. This will becoming a sharply growing problem over the next 3 decades.

Third. Mental health problems, and societal dysfunction. The first two were obvious and very current in the media. This next one is something that I think is just starting to come into focus now. It is talked about in a range of ways, but none that I think really highlight the overall risk to society in a way that encompasses the problem.

From snowflake syndrome to social anxiety to the perception (and I do make the point of saying perception – because who knows…) of reduced social mobility, Governments washing their hands of social responsibility, the most unbelievable things happening in the US with regards to healthcare (to highlight the point of how much government is winding back its support), substance abuse epidemics etc.

I made another post some time ago about Universe 25, the mouse universe that tore itself apart because of abundance of everything, except it seems space. To me, space is absolutely a perceptual concept. Sure it has it’s hard edges – crowded stations, full lunch canteens – etc – these aren’t the problem. The problem as I see is that there isn’t the ability to disconnect anymore. It’s the very perception of being hemmed in by society, that you HAVE to be a part of this, don’t miss out, and in the midst of it you have some very bad actors, people are arbitrarily attacked for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the rise of terrorist events, and the dislocation and dissociation of self – you can see above it’s little slices of problems, all gnawing at us from different angles.

I see this problem steadily continuing to deteriorate. And I don’t see any solution to it either, except for some major depopulation event, after which we can start to build up again. Already the natural population growth in 1st world countries is generally below the 2.1 children natural replacement rate. The population however is still expanding rapidly. This is being fueled by comparatively disadvantaged countries, with much lower standards of education – and we need these people to fill roles in our society. If you take Japan as an example of a country which restricts immigration to an incredible degree, there are currently on average 2 job openings for every applicant.

My gut feeling is that to all of these problems, it’s only after a massive shakeup – in whatever form that takes, that these problems become so overwhelmed by a much more basic issue – survival, that it takes a long time for the distortions to start appearing again. Case in point here is WW2 until now. After the war there were a number of fairly revolutionary things happen – the new deal (which was well underway by the time, but it was very popular and continued for decades afterwards), the welfare state, the Marshall Plan etc – all growth and support plans that encouraged social mobility, education, nation building etc. Growth was explosive, national debts were kept in check as a result of this growth, and many of the problems seemed fairly manageable. Contrast that to now – in the US, a growth rate of 2%, government debt to GDP of 106% and they want to talk about tax cuts and axing of medicare.

Mental health is an unseen problem – we’re not talking schizophrenia, dementia or anything obvious, we’re talking about our natural ability to deal with ever increasing stresses, every decreasing (it seems) empathy, and extrapolating from this what might be the long term consequences.

I dont think I am pushing things too far by saying that I feel this is the biggest underlying threat that we have. It will manifest itself in some major catastrophe, but this present and growing instability is one of the central causes.

You read what some people think on this subject – that we are going to back to the natural survival of the fittest mode of life where the strongest weed out the weaker and less deserving. Except when you have the ability to destroy the planet now, I’m not so sure that this way of thinking necessarily ensures any long term chances of survival. Over the next 30 years I think this idea will be put to the challenge like never before.



Syria and the flavour of bombs

If you read the mainstream western media, you get the distinct impression that there are two types of bombs – good ones and bad ones. Good ones are those dropped by the west, and bad ones come from Russia. This is how stupid the media has become, or how much of a bunch of idiots they take us for. We hear all the time about how terrible barrel bombs are (while things like Napalm like the US used in Vietnam, or white phosphorus like Israel uses in the Occupied Territories are OK – because its us that’s using them).

The level of dipshitery in the media is amazing, but seemingly effective – when you speak to others about things like the war there, they love to parrot how bad Assad is and how the rebels deserve better given the violence that is dished out to them. Well, its a war, and I’m pretty sure the rebels are giving as good as they get, and if you stop to see who these rebels are – jihadists, and traditional enemies of the Alawites (Assad’s tribe) – just picture what a Syria run by them would actually look like. Just as brutal, only now hardline Muslim instead of the secular government of Assad. The problem with Assad is not Assad, its who’s backing him. The west has supported a lot of very bad leaders in the past. For a weak Russia who is running out of money and a declining population as well as a whole raft of other problems, we seem to be seriously afraid of them. I dont think they are on an expansionist bent. They dont have the money for it. They could have invaded Ukraine (like properly invaded, not just turned the Donbass area into a soup) – and won. The consequences would have been pretty catastrophic, but I doubt they even were seriously thinking of it. In Syria, Assad is their guy there, and things look to be heating up to dangerous levels as Russia steps up support, and the US is slowly becoming more directly involved. But why – who gives a fuck if Syria is a Russian ally. This isn’t the cold war, Russia is done as a superpower, and the sooner the war ends the better for everyone. The US can demand all it likes for Russia to stop supporting Assad, but they should stop supporting the Jihadists – they are not moderates. Moderates dont carry weapons.

Every time I hear the words “Barrel Bomb” I think of “Napalm” and “White Phosphorous” and remember its all just fucking propaganda. If you want to stop the killing, then one side has to win. If the jihadists win, then the killing wont stop.


The War Machine

This is going to be a very cynical post.

There are few things as confusing as war – it has the power to destroy lives, cities, countries, cultures, and with the advent of the nuclear bomb – potentially life as we know it.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address as President said:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.


Well, it appears we have not listened. Any superpower keeps military strength as the absolute cornerstone of its hegemony. Might means right. Might buys you a seat at any table you wish to sit at. And the strongest country writes the rules.

But what happens when that strength is not required? What happens when things are peaceful in many parts of the world (I’m not saying they are – this is hypothetically) – there has arisen this century a huge industry centered on war. If there is no war, then this industry starts to lose meaning. It is not something that can switched off and back on with the flick of a switch though.

This is where the cynical part of me says that in order to keep the wheels of this industry turning, conflicts become “made-to-order”. At the very least, they are exploited to support and industry that needs them to survive. I was yakking with some mates the other day and the question came up – do you think Ukraine could be the start of WW3? I answered no – of course not. We have seen the one event that may have triggered a much larger conflict – the downing of MH-17. I think the world collectively held its breath for a day or two when that happened, the US claims of “Putin’s Missile” (Does that make the missile that shot down Iran Air 655 “Reagan’s Missile”)? – one could quickly imagine things escalating then, but if that didn’t do it, I doubt there is much that would.

Instead there looks to be some cold calculus to this – from both sides. From the US/European side there was a lot of meddling going –


That is a bugged recording of Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet speaking to Baroness Catherine Ashton, Vice President of the EU Commission. Head to the 8:30 mark and listen to Peat saying that the snipers were not Yanukovych’s guys, they were from the new administration, and they were killing people on both sides – pro-government *and* the protesters. When you couple this with the fact that John McCain (former US presidential candidate – Sarah Palin’s mate and outright fuckface)  and Victoria Nuland (US Department of State) were keeping some very poor company when they went on a business trip to Kiev – they met Oleh Tyahnybok – a Ukrainian nationalist and leader of a neo-nazi movement – Svoboda:


The EU and the US had their hands dirty. On the Russian side – of course they were funneling troops and weapons into Eastern Ukraine. Putin was faced with little option there. But – he could not win and humiliate Kiev and its western backers, and he could not lose, and be humiliated himself – and so we see exactly how it all played out – a stalemate. This is where we are at now. Stalemates are great for the war industry. Yes – it is a leap of logic to say this was all intended to work out this way – and no I dont necessarily believe that this was planned from the start – but the calculus here is to exploit a situation to create a conflict, and then to keep that conflict going, and then you need to beef up security, establish bases and be ready in case of escalation. With enough of these conflicts, military spending becomes more and more justifiable. This didn’t happen directly in the Ukraine – but the fomenting of trouble part certainly did. Supply of weapons was pushed for, establishing bases was never considered (Big angry bear next door would have thrown a tantrum)

We saw it just about happen with Iran (And meatsack McCain was in there again):


Yes folks, that was real. But the Obama administration did something that really pissed the republicans off – they did a deal with Iran:


– That was from 2010 – and that is pretty much what happened. The US will not push itself into any situations that they think will get out of hand. If Iran was attacked, then if there wasn’t a nuclear program prior, there would be one soon after, with every incentive in the world to use it. Attacking Iran doesn’t make sense unless you want to destroy them completely.

The point to all of this is that the military industrial complex has to justify its existence. We have seen over recent years the US engage in pointless wars, and agitate for even more. This has come at huge expense to the US, and left the rest of the world incredulous – but lurking in the background is a mighty war machine that is doing very nicely thank you very much.

Lets hope the US doesn’t break the bank as a result. But as that is likely to end up in some sort of conflict, that contingency has probably been pencilled in too.

A few more tales from Ukrainsky

1 May 2008 at 09:25

Firstly the price of alcohol. Ridiculously cheap. Its no wonder this country has a reputation for consuming vast quantities of Vodka when you can pick up a litre of the good stuff for around $5. And when your average store devotes half its shelf space to that and other types of alcohol you know you have a problem. I’ve never really been a Vodka person, I mean its just so bloody tasteless, you only really know when you have a bad one. While you can sip on a scotch and talk about the flavour, Vodka serves one solitary purpose – to get you legless in a hurry. Its one brutally functional drink. Just like most things Russian, lacking a little in the elegance, but definitely not be taken lightly.
I was catching the taxi to work the other morning and had to wait for the taxi driver to finish his shotty of Vodka. He explained that it was just to warm him up a bit…

I have finally gotten bored of having nothing to watch on TV. 100 stations in either Ukrainian or Russian can get pretty frustrating, the best one was the discovery channel – I flicked it on one night and the ads were in English. There is a god! I thought, but alas as soon as the ads were over the program was overdubbed in Russian. That was a cruel trick. Anyway I have splashed out and bought an AppleTV. Those guys at Apple are bloody clever. I now have 100 movies to pick from. In English!

Now the weather. Its shit. And that’s about all I have to say on that one.

The roads are about as good as the weather. They are shit too. There’s not many cops around because even on the main highways there are so many potholes you’ll just wreck your suspension if you tried fanging it. I went out to the car markets at Gorlovka (some little town 50km north of Donetsk) a couple of weeks ago with Andrey, the senior Kyivstar engineer. He wanted an early start so he picked me up at 5am and we were off. Andrey was with a couple of friends, who just happened to be bodyguards. Big mean Russian beefcakes. Except they were hilarious. Andrey was busy accusing one of them of not really knowing his sexual orientation, was giving this poor guy heaps, and he just rolled over and took it. Good fun if they’re on your side, I would imagine not so much fun if they weren’t… These guys could cause serious amounts of damage when they are not busy being cream puffs.

The work has kindof dropped off. I really think everyone has lost interest a bit. Kyivstar is busy hassling everyone to do a good job and then I find out that they are not paying certain people – they say that if they do a good job on this part of the project then they will strike it rich later on. I think you can tell where that will probably end up. So when ever I get on the phone to the subcontractors (the guys who aren’t being paid) to shake them up a bit (they are pretty slack, for obvious reasons) I am met with a disinterested “we’re doing all we can” I’m sure they are… Another trick Kyivstar has pulled on us is giving all of our (“our” being Ericsson, the company I am working for) technical surveys to our competitor Huawei to check. This has made life difficult for us as we are now not allowed to make any mistakes. Any you can bet those sneaky Chinese are picking every hole they can in our work, because they want our jobs. This has slowed everything right down as we have to double check everything. And then check it once more just to be sure.

1 month to go here and I am off. What a crazy place this is.

P.S. Russian Caviar… I can see what all the fuss is about. I just got the cheap stuff. If someone said “Beluga” I would say no. No conundrums about sustainability.

A few tales from the Ukraine

A few tales from the Ukraine

2 April 2008 at 15:24

Just a few tales and stories from my time here in Donetsk. I recall arriving here in february, just over 2 month ago to be precise. I caught the overnight train from Kiev, and hadn’t really gotten to see too much of the countryside as I was staying right in the middle of Kiev and hadn’t really had the chance to look around too much. Internal connections in the Ukraine are by train, apparently take the plane has yet to catch on here – It’s deadly expensive. The train ride was a good 600 miles and took 11 hours, that’s 7pm till 6 am. This was after finishing work the day before, and the guys here wanting me to start on time the next morning, so sleep on the train was top priority. (more on that later) I was in a 4 bed cabin with 2 dudes I had never met before, and Evgeniy, who I had met 2 days previously. You’ve heard of places not big enough to swing cats? You’d wouldn’t have swung a field mouse in this cabin. Small is being very generous. The bit that got me was the total indifference that they all treated it with. No one complained about anything and before we knew it the two strangers were drinking with us for the next 4 hours. We arrived in Donetsk, had a couple of hours to check into the hotel, clean up and then get to work. The building I work in is a real horror of Soviet architecture (or lack of). Grey, drab, half falling apart, I remember saying to Evgeniy “this just cant be it… check the address again” sure enough this was it. You can imagine my surprise then when we get inside the Kyivstar office and find that we’re in the lap of luxury. The outside may be enough to give an architect a nervous breakdown, but the inside was quite a different story. Well impressed I was.

Russians are notorious for being hard bastards.. There’s more than a thread of truth to the rumour too – they are deadly hard bastards. In a very strange sort of way my trip to back Kiev the other day (by the way we had 24 hours notice that we had to be in Kiev for a meeting, and the deal is that you finish work, catch the night train, arrive in Kiev, do a full days work, catch the night train back and be back at work at 9am two days later. If you cant sleep on trains, now’s a good time to learn), anyway my trip to Kiev was the highlight of the stay so far. Zurab, the other Ericsson engineer and myself happened to be sharing a cabin with a former member of the Russian special forces. This guy was in the Afghan war. Now I may never know for sure whether he was spinning a good tale or not, but just his general demeanor suggested that he was most likely legit. And when he started telling me about how the Americans used to teach the Afghans how to beat the Russian’s tactics, that pretty much left me in no doubt. We spoke for hours and the guy was truly fascinating. He said the Russians always knew what was going on, but the Yanks always seemed to have a few tricks they weren’t ready for. And not to believe everything you read in the news – the Yanks as well as the Afghans copped an absolute battering there. If there was any fighting on the open battlefield the Russians would pretty much destroy everything, it was just they would run out of food beacuse the afghans had managed to find the supply convoy and blow it up. He said that was the way it always seemed to go. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. Hows that for bad…

Another big thing here is bananas. Everyone here loves bananas. I asked why and was told that during communism, there Russians didn’t really deal with too many banana producing countries, and bananas are a bit of a novelty item. So while Russia might have propped up a few banana republics in its time, those banana republics didn’t really produce any bananas for Russia. Now that it’s the 21st century and the iron curtain is a distant memory, everywhere has bananas. Bananas are in. Same for Pineapples.

There’s another stereotype that is pretty much bang on – Russians and Vodka. They drink it like water. Its actually more alcohol in general, the don’t stop at vodka… I was working last weekend when one of the subcontractors bought us lunch. There was the usual bread and cheese and slabs of meat, and lurking down the bottom of the bag was a bottle of Cognac. I thought to myself “surely this isn’t part of lunch?” and surely enough I was wrong! Once we’d gotten the sammys out of the way it was time to start on the main course. Andrey and Denis (the two other engineers I work with) put on a fairly brave show of enjoying the sandwiches, but they pointed out that this was good cognac and we need to eat quickly as there was no time to waste! Roger that. The sandwiches disappeared with alarming speed and it was onto the cognac! 5 minutes later there was no more cognac either. I remember thinking to myself after the second glass of cognac “what the fuck! These guys are fucking lunatics!” I did however match them drink for drink and we forgot about work shortly after and sat around and yakked for the rest of the day. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

That’s about it for now. I leave here in a few weeks, I am visiting Chernobyl before I go, my one and only chance, so I’ve got to go! Hopefully I wont be glowing in the dark when I get back.

Audi R8 v10. Review.

My Audi R8 V10

I always thought the letter R and the number 8 went together well. When you add “v10” to it it then starts to sound a little bit silly. But there is a massive difference 2 cylinders (and 1l of engine capacity) can make. I have driven the V8 before and it looked good, sounded good, but it didn’t have the one thing you want – balls to the wall speed. It was fast in a “well I am racing a merc here” sort of a way, but to take on a real challenger and qualify for supercar status, something more was needed.

Some clever wig at Audi suggested bolting on a Lamborghini Gallardo engine, management said sure, give it a try, and the R8 V10 was born. Be in no doubt then, while its pedigree is Audi, who is known for good construction and a slight boringness, its heart is that of the raging bull – the 5.2l Gallardo engine is anything but timid. take 35hp off the stock Gallardo engine and you are still left with something near the performance of a nuclear ramjet. (Yeah ok, I know that engine is taken from the S8. Or something. Dont wreck my story)

First drive. Boring. Given that I had already bought the car my heart sunk. Blew cash for what – an ultimately unimpressive ride that looked good. I bought the car for the experience, and that experience sucked. At low speeds you felt like you were driving a battle tank. Difficult to turn, so bad even that the universal joints popped out at full lock and I was busy revving the car with no movement back or forward. Absolute dissapointment, but too late, it was mine, and I had to put on a brave face and show mum and dad the lemon that was mine.

Wait. One. Second. The speedo clicked over 50km. The transformation from “Heavy handed unwieldy battle tank” to “5.2 liters worth of pure fun” was pretty quick. Now. Drive from Auckland to Tauranga. Take the back roads where you know there are:

A) No cops

B) No one else

C) Tight roads

D) Speed

I was grinning like a schoolkid. And fuck was I moving. Getting over 200 without even pushing it. I hit 230 and was still accelerating fast.

The car was suddenly transformed from a deadweight (last car was an AMG Merc which was as easy to park as a mini. This was like parking a oil freighter) into the most sure footed, heart racing, electrifying supercar I have ever driven. Jeremy Clarkson has been quoted as saying that “this is the best car I have ever driven” I have never driven another supercar. I doubt very much I will. You point and it shoots. Some of the shit that I got up to was solely as a result of the car teaching me to drive it – shooting gaps I would never have thought possible otherwise. Taking corners marked 35 at 100, simply because you knew you could without any trouble. I dont know what to compare this thing to, because as I say I will probably never have the chance to buy another supercar. This is it. The only one I will ever own. But I could have done way worse. Everything about this car says that it was designed and built by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Except for making the car not feel like an embarassement at low speed. Maybe they did that on purpose to make you go faster. Works for me. I have given a couple of my better friends a drive and the results were unanimous. Big smiles. If anything I feel relieved that I have taken some of my money out of the sharemarket and turned it into something have enjoyable. There is no joy in stocks, but there sure as hell is in possibly one of the most well engineered machines invented.

Bottom line is you only live once. Plan for the future – but if time permits, live for today.


Footnote – for any law enforcement official who happens to read this – I was of course lying about my speed. It was sub-100 all the way.


The chronicles of Kohoku.

To start with, if someone could find a worse part of Tokyo to live in, point me in the right direction and I’ll check it out and get back to you. The first time I lived here I was in Takanawa. Just south of the heart of Tokyo, and whilst it felt pretty cramped (yeah, you try 20sqm, including balcony and see how you like it), it felt like you were in a party of town that said “Money”. Everyone had a Gucci bag and was getting around in the latest fashion. Oh, wait, that’s everywhere in Tokyo, Japanese simply hate to be seen with last years designs on. But anyway, it was nice. In a concrete jungle nice sort of a way. Now head 20km south, and a couple of km left and you end up in this dusty little spot called shin-yokohama. From my 7th floor window, I can see nothing but monotonous soul less office blocks. And Love Hotels. Yes, as bad luck would have it, my employer was kind enough to put me up smack in the middle of dodgy love-land. Cos I just love getting up at 3am when I cant sleep and watching the siftiest of shit taking place right outside my window. The other night (I’ll keep this breif) whilst insomnia was attacking from all angles, I thought I’d sit on the balcony and see if there was anything worth watching. I should have brought a deck chair and a cigar. I will, at this point, inform you this was a Tuesday night, and it was 3am. Insomnia never waits for the weekend. Neither, it seems, does Mr Salaryman and his couterie of mistresses. There were cars circling the block. People running in and out trying hard not to be noticed, gangster style black SUV’s with some seriously good looking girls of eastern european origin parked up, waiting for I don’t know what. This is one seriously weird part of town. If the whole idea of love hotels you find kinda repulsive, then this is not your place. And I fall squarely into that category. Given that its Japan, discretion and cleanliness is assured, but well, nah fuck that. 3am’s have never been quite so interesting however. The first time I brought my Fiancee (yay!!) back here, I think I was getting the long sideways glance from her. She’s not a love hotel fancier any more than me.

I was talking with a mate the other day about what constitues a wealthy “look” amongst various different nations. The Japanese have a very subtle way of doing it. China, on the other hand has this gaudy “flaunt it like you got it” approach, where it doesn’t matter how bad the clash is, as long as there are nasty looking stone dragons and everything is draped in gold and red, and maybe with a tiger penis or two or a bit of ground up rhino horn as a pick-me-up, then everyone will be seriously impressed. The middle eastern sheiks just go for the most expensive of absoolutely everything they can get their hands on. One trip the burj-al-arab convinces you of this. And again, if it clashes, well, that’s just too bad. Japan on the other hand is a little bit the opposite. Minimalistic everything. They love to strip things down to the basics, and get the combination of “this goes well with that” spot on. And they do a great job of it. Except for the seats with no legs. Whoever thought that wild idea up should have been disembowled. They are the most uncomfortable things ever. I think the story behind them dates from Shogun days where the Shogun’s seats *did* have legs, and no one else was ever allowed to have his (or her) head above the Shoguns at any time. That made life pretty tough for the servants bring the food in, who were basically forced to shuffle around kackhandedly serving food, all the while ensuring that the head *never* went above the Shogun’s, or else they would have said head lopped off for their insolence. And ruin dinner in the process. So yes, minimalism that looks good and works well is the key around these parts. With a touch of batshit insane thrown in for good measure. Japan is to crazy as oceans are to marine life, it’s their home environment. Its adorable however. Except for those damn seats. And Bic Camera, where every TV is playing something different, and the stereos play music fueled by chipmunks on speed. If you were ever going to have your first panic attack, just head there.

One thing that Japan is not the future on is paperwork. Sure, when they want to be futuristic, and minimal, they excel at it (nearly every other nation have 5 different bank notes, generally there is 5, 10, 20, 50 and one hundred of your flavour of currency) here you have 3. 1000, 5000 and 10000. Try going to a hospital, you get a magenetic card which all your details are kept. Diagnoses, what tests you have had done, and of course how much you owe them. All pretty efficient. To get that card however, you have to fill out reams of paperwork. To register at the ward office, another ream of paperwork. (and don’t EVER be late in registering there. I was 2 days late and they were gonna sting me 200000 yen for it. That’s $3000. The nice lady just winked at me and said “please change the date you moved into your apartment”) I understood instantly, and so with 2 days less in my apartment, a nasty fine suddenly dissapeared. But, it can go either way, so stick on the side of the rule book that is guaranteed not to cause trouble. Outside of Tokyo, things can start getting very backwards however, like ATMs that only work with that prefectures bank (and there are no other branches outside that prefecture, so if you want to come to Tokyo for the weekend, you bring a pile of cash along with you), and 90% of the time, its cash only. Restaurants  – cash. Supermarkets – cash. Taxi’s – cash. Cards not welcomed. I doubt the visa company is particularly amused. But mr Visa can take a hike if he thinks that Japan is gonna change their rules to suit him. One of the headaches of Japan is “that’s just the way it is” with a lot of things, and don’t try and change it. That’s just gonna cause trouble. And it wont change. One classic example of this is the idea of “Key Money”, which, when you want to rent an apartment, is basically a bribe. A bald faced no-fucking-around bribe. Usually about 1-2 months worth of rent, which is already enough to leave you gasping for air. But it gets worse. Oh yes. When you sign up for a contract, say 1 year (or two if you are lucky) then, you can pull out any time you like, but upon completion of the contract, then you have to pay ANOTHER bribe, equal to the first bribe, on top of your rent, just to stay where you are. In $US, just to get in through the front door, I was looking upwards of $10k. No furnishings, that was just the bribe, (to call it by its proper name…), 1 months rent, guarantors fee, agency fee, deposit and something else that I couldn’t decipher. You can guess where that ended up. Nice house however.

And finally, I’m engaged. Yay!!.

But that’s another story…