Archives for March 2013

All The Books I’ve Read, Running Through My Head. This Is Not Enough.

Over the past week I’ve completed one of my most significant projects, though I’m not megalomaniac enough to think it will present much interest to other people.

It’s a list of all the books I’ve ever read.

Well, not all of them, of course. That’s unrealistic. Since completing it, I’ve remembered a couple more. But I almost certainly got more than half, and perhaps as many as 75% of the real total. And forgetting a quarter or a third of them isn’t a great tragedy anyway, since me reckons that if you can’t recall reading a book, chances are it wasn’t worth your time in the first place.

Some interesting things have emerged out of this exercise. For instance, almost 40% of the books I’ve read have been sci-fi, fantasy, or speculative. Even so, they unfortunately don’t include Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and the Strugatsky brothers. My familiarity with the classics, especially in Russian, are extremely patchy. Self-help and self-improvement books total almost 10%, of which 2% are about poker. Here are the detailed stats:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 103 4 107 33.9%
Literature 54 5 59 18.7%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 118 3 121 38.3%
Self-Improvement 29 0 29 9.2%
Total 304 12 316
96.2% 3.8%

Here is the same data, but by total page numbers:

English Russian Total
Non-Fiction 45,442 936 46,378 36.4%
Literature 15,544 2,000 17,544 13.8%
Fantasy & Sci-Fi 52,108 1,021 53,129 41.7%
Self-Improvement 10,311 0 10,311 8.1%
Total 123,405 3,957 127,362
96.9% 3.1%

I highly recommend everyone do something similar. It’s easy (Excel and Google suffice), and though it will take some time – two days, in my case – it will pay off by bringing back good reading memories that would otherwise indefinitely remain dormant, as well as provide an incentive to start systemically writing book reviews. If you can’t write a review about a book you’ve read, chances are the time you spent reading it was wasted. But by writing a review of a book, you decant and internalize the best of what it had to offer.

It will also enable you to make some useful macro-generalizations. For instance, this exercise really drove home the point that my classics base is very weak. Many giants of literature are missing entirely. This is something I can start working on remedying. Another advantage is that you can make some observations about what types of books make an impression, and what types don’t. For instance, I observed that the books that tended to garner 5 stars were usually shorter than others in the same series or broader category. I guess brevity really is the soul of wit.

Russia Moving Into The Fastlane

One of the most reliable indicators of influence is access to cars. They are the standard symbol of affluence and middle-class status the world over. They are also far more understandable at the everyday level than things like the PPP GDP per capita, or the number of burgers your national McWage will buy.

Following on my last post, which focused on production, let’s now examine another indicator: The number of cars bought in any given year per 1,000 people.

auto-sales-russia-cee

As we can see from the graph above, Russians (22/1,000 as of 2012) are now buying more new cars per person than any other Central-East European country. Now, this is NOT to say that they are richer than the Czechs (18/1,000), or even the Poles (9/1,000) and Estonians (18/1,000). The latter countries’ markets are already substantially saturated and close to Western levels of auto ownership, while Russia still has some catching up to do; furthermore, they don’t have tariffs on imported second-hand cars, whereas Russia’s are quite substantial. It is also probably true that on average Czechs buy higher quality and more expensive cars than Russians. Nonetheless, the difference between Russia and countries like post-crisis Latvia (7/1,000) and Hungary (7/1,000) are now so wide that it’s hard to argue that the latter are still substantially more prosperous.

auto-sales-russia-and-other-countries

The difference is of a similar magnitude to today’s Greece (6/1,000), in the wake of its economic depression – and has also gained on other countries that were part of developed Europe but hard-hit by the crisis like Spain (17/1,000), Portugal (11/1,000), Ireland (20/1,000), and Italy (26/1,000). In a very real sense, the fact that ordinary Russians can now more readily afford relatively big-ticket items like automobiles than citizens of some countries long considered to be past of the developed world is quite a momentous affair. In fact, not only are they being overtaken by Russia, but by Brazilians (20/1,000) and the Chinese (14/1,000) too, even if the last BRICS member India (3/1,000) continues to be mediocre. That said, there is still a very considerable gap between Russia and the truly front-tier countries like Germany (41/1,000) and the US (47/1,000).

Book Review: Arthur H. Smith – Chinese Characteristics

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free hereRating: 5/5.

chinese-characteristics-arthur-h-smith-intellectual-turbidity

In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

[Read more…]

Russians Produce 7 Cars For Every 10 They Buy

One common trope about the Russian economy is that it has virtually no manufacturing to speak of and lives off “oil rents” that can collapse any day.

Whiles there is a small nugget of truth to this assertion, but by and large it is simply false. It is true that a great chunk of Russian exports do accrue to hydrocarbons and metals, because that is its comparative advantage in trade. That said, there are plenty of Russian products on the domestic market. The automobile industry is a good and representative example of this because they it’s a stalwart of many national economies and there exist reliable and easily accessible statistics on it.

Car Production Car Sales Autos self-sufficiency
Czech Rep. 1,178,938 193,795 608%
Mexico 3,001,974 987,747 304%
South Korea 4,557,738 1,530,585 298%
Poland 647,803 328,532 197%
Japan 9,942,711 5,369,721 185%
Germany 5,649,269 3,394,002 166%
Turkey 1,072,339 817,620 131%
China 19,271,808 19,306,435 100%
Argentina 764,495 832,026 92%
Brazil 3,342,617 3,802,071 88%
South Africa 539,424 623,921 86%
France 1,967,765 2,331,731 84%
Russia 2,231,737 3,141,551 71%
USA 10,328,884 14,785,936 70%
UK 1,576,945 2,333,763 68%
Sweden 162,814 326,441 50%
Italy 671,768 1,534,889 44%
Ukraine 76,281 263,604 29%
Australia 209,730 1,112,132 19%

As such, I decided to compile a representative list of countries, with data on production and sales for 2012 drawn from OICA, in order of the ratio of their auto production to new auto sales – that is, their degree of self-sufficiency in cars.As we can see above, while Russia is perhaps rather lower than average, its domestic auto manufacturing industry nonetheless manages to satiate 71% of demand for new cars.

This is quite comparable to France, the US, and the UK, and is vastly higher than a similarly resource-dependent rich country, Australia. Quite a lot of other resource-heavy countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Norway don’t produce cars at all. Mexico is a huge exception, but the reason for that is that it borders the US and the US has outsourced quite a lot of its auto industry south of the border to take advantage of lower labor costs – a situation analogous to the Germans’ outsourcing of car production to Spain in the 1980’s, and Central-East European countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland in the 2000’s.

Russian Is The Internet’s Second Most Popular Language

In the wake of Russia’s Internet penetration breaking the 50% mark (now – 55%) and overtaking Germany in total number of users last year, we now have news that Russian overtook German as its second most popular language. It is used on 5.9% of all the world’s websites. It is projected that Russia will maintain this position for a few years. Also .ru has become the world’s most popular country-level domain.

internet-most-popular-languages

This is quite a remarkable achievement considering Russia’s limited number of Internet users relative to the much more populous Spanish and Chinese speaking worlds (even if Internet penetration in the latter regions is a bit lower). I wonder why that could be the case? One theory is that Latin Americans simply don’t read much, while creating websites in China may be trickier than in the West because of greater controls over the Internet. (Also hanzi are much more space-economical than alphabet-based writing systems, so what might take a few pages in English may only require one page in Chinese; that is another possible explanation). That would also explain why the world’s less than 100 million native German speakers are also far ahead of those far more numerous nationalities. Alternatively, maybe there’s simply more spam blogs or pages hosting copied content in Russian.

Here is a trends graph. As of March 27 (the date of this article), Russian has clearly at 5.9% edged past German which is now at 5.7%.

On The Cyprus Deal

As a Greek with contacts in Cyprus, his opinion is one of the most valuable ones out there. Here it is:

We have now the latest bailout plan and contrary to the spin in parts of the western media it is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from the plan we saw last week.

What was utterly outrageous about last week’s plan was its seizure of money from deposits held in every account in every bank across the entire island of Cyprus. This offends against every principle of banking, the rule of law and of private property I know of. By what logic, if solvent debtor A owes me money, am I required to lose money to bail out insolvent debtor B with whom I have no connection at all? The Cypriot government and the Troika compounded the outrage by extending it even to deposits that held less than 100,000 euros. This was blatantly illegal since it violated the EU’s own deposit insurance scheme. As I said, what all this managed to do was transform a problem of two Cypriot banks into a systemic problem of the entire Cypriot banking system.

Though you would not know it from the way it is being reported by the western media this morning, the entire calamitous idea of a deposit raid has been entirely dropped. There will be no raid on deposits whether above or below 100,000 euros. What is happening instead is what should have happened last week. The two insolvent banks, Laiki and Bank of Cyprus, are being merged and restructured. Since they will not be bailed out and since Laiki is being effectively liquidated, the bondholders of Laiki (one of whom is a Russian businessman) will be completely wiped out. The big deposit holders in both Laiki and Bank of Cyprus will also take a big loss. This is not because their deposits in Laiki and Bank of Cyprus are being raided as was proposed last week. It is because they will suffer a commercial loss (or “haircut” if you prefer) as creditors of debtors who have become insolvent.

What proves that the Cypriot authorities and the Troika were at all times aware of the blatant illegality of last week’s proposals, is that the statement setting out this week’s agreement that has been issued by the the eurogroup specifically says that deposits below 100,000 euros (including those in Laiki and Bank of Cyprus) will be fully protected in accordance with the EU’s deposit insurance scheme. What is that if not an admission that last week’s proposed raid on those deposits was illegal?

We now therefore have a bailout agreement that at least conforms with the law. What are its further implications?

[Read more…]

Berezovsky RIP

berezovsky-death

I will either return to the Kremlin on a white horse, or in a black limousine to the Mausoleum.

It is customary to say something nice about the recently deceased, so here goes… *ahem.* If not for Berezovsky, Putin probably wouldn’t be President.

UPDATE: As expected, the conspiracy theories have inevitably began to crawl out of the Internet’s woodwork. As one of my Facebook friends put it, my own radical conspiracy theory is that Berezovsky was rather old, depressed, and out of shape.

The “depressed” part, in particular, is backed up by this account of Berezovsky’s last interview at Russian Forbes, which is full of regrets about his life choices. This also supports Putin’s PR spokesman Peskov’s claim that Berezovsky had written to Putin to ask forgiveness and allow him to return to Russia without facing charges. My guess is that Putin simply didn’t answer him. Certainly no other response could have disturbed a man as narcissistic and beset by delusions of grandeur as Berezovsky the more.

UPDATE 3/25: Richard Behar: Did Boris Berezovsky Kill Himself? More Compelling, Did He Kill Forbes Editor Paul Klebnikov.

Book Review: Matt Forney – Confessions of an Online Hustler

Confessions of an Online Hustler by Matt Forney, published in 2013. See the Amazon version of this review. Rating: 4/5.

confessions-of-an-online-hustler-matt-forneyLet’s get one thing straight right off the bat: This book isn’t for the casual reader. Despite the title, it’s not a “life interest” story with a morass of prurient and scandalous details, nor is it a deep social or philosophical commentary. It is very specifically written for those who want to grind a living from online writing and punditry (especially those who write on controversial subjects like HBD and feminism, as does Matt Forney). If that doesn’t describe you, I can’t in good conscience recommend you buy this book. On the other hand, if you enjoy writing and wish to make a living as an iconoclastic blogger, then this book will definitely add much value and save you a lot of trouble.

Much of the book is taken up with the technical details of setting up a WordPress blog and publicizing it. As someone who has been blogging for 5 years and counting, I can testify that this book has an accurate and succinct summary of all the most important things you need to bear in mind. You can find the same information for free elsewhere, but the problem is that the Internet has a low signal to noise ratio – it will take time, and may well lead you down dead ends. Why not fork up the equivalent of an hour’s worth of a minimum wage job and spend a single evening’s reading time to avoid going through all that?

But at least to me the most interesting and original part was Matt’s (well, not entirely his, but he refined it) concept of “tiered blogging.” I have come to much the same conclusions on my own, if via annoying and costly errors, but it was great to see it so lucidly formulated and systematized. Here’s the lowdown. A Tier-3 blog is an everything-that-interests-me kind of blog, where you post whatever the fuck you feel like. The problem is that unless you develop a cult of personality, like Tucker Max, then you’re not going to get massive amounts of traffic (or money) through that alone. But you will notice that some posts of yours are going to get a much better response than others. Say, to take my own example, while most readers couldn’t care less for my ramblings on Human Biodiversty and dog pictures at AKarlin, a great many of them are interested in reading my ramblings on Russia. So I create a far more narrowly specialized Tier-2 blog like Da Russophile that is specifically about Russia just for them. This audience is much more homogeneous than my AKarlin audience – they, at least, are all interested in Russia at a minimum, whereas the AKarlin folks may be interested in HBD, dog pictures, professionally trolling me, and any combination thereof.

Once you get your Tier-2 hustle going, you can start thinking of making money. But it’s not as simple as putting up a ton of ads and retiring with your laptop to the Caribbean; unless you manage to become a “superstar” blogger, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever make any significant money from running ads. It’s virtually impossible if you are an original thinker and would rather cut off your hands than engage in the vacuous vapidity that passes for mainstream commentary. Getting money through donations and affiliate marketing can be more profitable, but they will (realistically) only get you a modest secondary income – and an unstable one at that. Selling information products is where the real game is at: DVD’s, software, music, and, of course, books. This is Tier-1, the “summit of hustle mountain.” Almost every “professional” pundit does that: Liberals like Glenn Greenwald and conservatives like Steve Sailer, players like Roosh Vorek and “online hustlers” like Matt Forney himself. And for that matter I too will soon be joining their ranks with my upcoming book The Dark Lord of the Kremlin about the Western media’s war against Putin’s Russia.

But at this point, I have to make my own confession. I lied to you back there. In reality, I got the whole “tiered blogging” thing ass backwards. I started out writing at Da Russophile, but did not have the discipline to keep it confined to Russia period, and started mixing it up with unrelated things like peak oil and my shifting political ideologies. That drove away a lot of people. Only gradually over several years did I realize the vital importance of compartmentalizing my interests – which can be fickle as well as controversial – away from “hustles” with dedicated but easily alienated audiences. To illustrate the concept, say my Da Russophile audience consists of 100 liberals, 100 conservatives, and 100 people who care nothing for anything not Russia related. Now suppose that for every post about Russia there I were to also write a post defending gun rights and a post on global warming. I would alienate both the liberals and the conservatives, bore the hardcore Russia watchers, and create three times the work for myself to boot. It’s raving lunacy!

But unfortunately, that’s only obvious in retrospect. I could have saved myself a lot of time and disillusioned readers had I practiced “tiered blogging” from the very start.

This does not mean I agree with everything here. I think Forney’s attitude to regular blogging is too strict and disciplinarian, and may well be part of the reason that writing a new blog post now brings him about as “as much joy as a crack whore sucking off another dirtbag behind the club dumpster.” While there’s no disputing that discipline in blogging is a good thing, is it really worth it if it sucks all the joy and passion from what should really be a hobby? If that’s how you look at it, then how is it any different from your bog-standard, soul-crushing 9-5 job then?

I appreciate Forney’s nods to the Cracked school of writing that intersperses bouts of flippant levity in between paragraphs of actual information. This makes it much more readable than your standard, dry as a nun’s nasty self-help book. (See what I did there?). For all that, perhaps the reader could have done with a couple less allusions to pasty-faced virgins and homosexual orgies, Matt.

The one very substantial issue I disagree with him is on optimal book pricing, especially as applied to e-books. He claims that $10 is an entirely normal price for a Kindle book, and that charging less can even hurt your total sales because customers have learned to associate low prices with poor quality. A nice and plausible enough theory, with only one problem: Actual data doesn’t support it. The “sweet spot” for Kindle books in terms of maximizing revenue has been convincingly demonstrated to be $3-$4 (with a 40% markup if said book is non-fiction).

Self-improvement is a roadmap, not a guided tour. There can be no guarantees of success – as Matt himself, unlike the vast majority of self-help gurus, is honest enough to admit. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that reading this book will appreciably improve your chances of success. And considering that a hell of a lot of money can depend on this – maybe even a new career – this book way more than pays for itself in terms of the additional positive expected value it generates for you. If you wish to make serious money through blogging – well, through writing books and propagandizing them on your blog – then you could do a lot worse than getting hold of Matt Forney’s literary debut and spending a couple of hours digesting the hard-won wisdom in its 120 pages.

At the very least, as Matt himself might say, it would be “healthier than some of the other things people do in their spare time, like going to furry conventions.”

The Western Media’s War Against Cyprus And Russia

If you ever manage to get a troupe as diverse as Latynina, Mark Adomanis, the Cypriot Communist Party, virtually every financial analyst, Prokhorov, and Putin united in condemning your crass stupidity and cack-handedness, it’s probably time to stop and ponder. But it’s safe to say that’s not what the Troika – the European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF – tasked with managing the European sovereign debt crisis is going to be doing any time soon. They seem to be living in la la land.

Here is the low-down. Contrary to German/ECB propaganda, Cypriot public finances, while nothing to write home about, are not in a catastrophic state. The debt to GDP ratio, far from ballooning out of control like Greece’s, was actually lower than Germany’s as late as 2011! This was despite Cyprus being steadily hammered by the global financial crisis and the massive explosion at a naval base in 2011 that cost it about 10% of its GDP.

cyprus-debt-dynamics The main problem was in its financial sector. Although it should have been safe on paper, Cypriot banks had the bad fortune to have had many operations in Greece – which hemorrhaged money as Greek debts were restructured under EU guidance. These involved painful austerity, but the principle that bank deposits would be inviolable held across the PIIGS. But for Cyprus, the Eurocrats – egged on by Schäuble in particular – decided to make an exception, demanding a “bail-in” as part of any financial rescue package. For the ultimately trifling sum of $6 billion, they were prepared to erode basic principles such as sanctity of property that the EU is founded on.

According to Edward Scicluna, the Maltese Finance Minister, his Cypriot counterpart Michalis Sarris was for all intents and purposes brow-beaten into accepting the deal – a 6.75% levy on deposits of less than 100,000 Euros, and 9.9% on everything above that – that the country’s parliament would later decisively reject. The Europeans, according to him, were dead-set on “downsizing” Cyprus’ supposedly overgrown financial sector and in particular its status as a tax haven and alleged center of Russian money laundering. After 10 grueling hours of discussions, Sarris finally conceded, and as soon as that happened, “Schäuble demanded that all wire transfers to and from the Cypriot banks would cease forthwith.”

In other words, they wished to destroy Cyprus’ financial system, and it seems certain that they have succeeded in this. As soon as the banks reopen (now delayed until at least May 26th), who exactly will continue to keep their deposits in a Cypriot bank?

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The Juche Response To British Lawlessness

My latest for VoR’s Experts Panel. (Incidentally, good to see that site getting revamped, and entering the Web 2.0 era).

London has a reputation as a “safe sanctuary” for shady people of means from the ex-USSR and other less-developed places, and I think it’s loath to lose it – as it would by extraditing the likes of Borodin – in return for the chance of improving its relations with Russia.

In general, I think we should treat the idea that Western countries give political asylum out of genuine humanitarian concerns with skepticism. See the Dutch refusal to give Alexander Dolmatov, wanted in Russia in connection with the May 6th riots, political asylum. Was it because of their respect for Russian judicial sovereignty? Or did it have something to do with his work at military factory – and possibly, his preference for suicide over spilling military secrets?

In short, it’s a very cynical game they play. London calls Russia a “mafia state” while sheltering those very mafiosi in Mayfair. The Europeans lecture Moscow about rule of law, but then see it fit to grab 7-10% of the value of all deposits in Cypriot (where many Russians bank, far from all of whom are money launderers).

From Russia’s perspective, we have to note that concessions and a pacifistic attitude have never brought much in the way of benefits from the West. For instance, Ukraine has allowed in Europeans visa-free for years now, but it is Russia – which insists on mutual reciprocity in relations – that is far more advanced in negotiations to institute visa-free travel with the EU.

As North Korean diplomat Jon Yong Ryong said, “a high-handed policy should be countered by a tough-fist policy.” In other words, nobody will respect you if you don’t first respect yourself. Instead of piteously whining about British “hypocrisy” and “double standards” and other moralistic claptrap, Russia should take a cue from the DPRK and retaliate in kind. In this particular case, it could make it clear that big-time British financial fraudsters and tax evaders (no need to bother with little fishes) are welcome in Moscow provided they make the requisite “investments.” Not only will it feel good to give the “doctor” some of his own medicine, but it actually stands a chance of incentivizing future British cooperation on financial crimes by hitting their Exchequer. As an added bonus, it also wouldn’t hurt Moscow’s quest to become a global financial center.

It’s all nice, civilized, and pathologically passive-aggressive. In other words, if Russia were to follow my advice, it would be all the closer to “convergence” with true Western standards. And I’ve been told that’s a good thing.