Posted by: elambend | December 11, 2008

Russians Hedge as Ruble falls

“Russians are shifting their cash into foreign currencies and buying things they don’t need as the economy stalls and the central bank weakens its defense of the ruble, signaling a larger devaluation may be on the way. The currency has fallen 16 percent against the dollar since August, when Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia helped spur investors to pull almost $200 billion out of the country, according to BNP Paribas SA.”

I once read an interesting science fiction short story set in a near-future world where inflation was so rampant that people would buy something almost immediately after being given cash as a hedge against inflation.  Commodities often make the best hedges and precious metals are doubly helpful because they can be made into jewelry and become a movable bank.

I’m not sure what these Russians are thinking though:

“Those who don’t want to spend are keeping more money at home or in safe-deposit boxes because the government guarantee on bank accounts is limited to 700,000 rubles, said Yulia Tsepliaeva, chief economist in Moscow at Merrill Lynch & Co.

Alfa Bank, Russia’s biggest non-state lender, said demand for boxes has increased about 40 percent since October, and there are few available.

“The Russian experience with saving is not that good and people prefer to consume and enjoy rather than save in pre-crisis situations,” Tsepliaeva said. “Buy cash dollars and put them in mattresses or safe deposit boxes but not in accounts because most crises are accompanied by banking crises.””

Relying on the Russian government to a) honor it’s 700,000 ruble guarantee and b) not raid safe deposit boxes strikes me as a risky bet.

Posted by: elambend | December 11, 2008

23 Seconds in Mexico

In Mexico the term Drug War has real meaning. Mexico is undergoing a convulsion of violence as the cartels are trying to out-violent each other. It is not just a matter of gangsters killing gangsters, in some places, such as Tijuana the narcos are killing innocents just to show the cops that they can bring anarchy whenever they desire.

This LA Times article is about 23 Seconds in that war.

Posted by: elambend | October 28, 2008

The Importance of Military Hygiene

Or, Something I did not know this morning:

“Russian combat casualties in the conflict [in Afghanistan] were quite low-under 3percent-but the Soviet army suffered horrendous rates of illness, especially infectious illness.  Three out of four soldiers who fought in Afghanistan – 75 to 76 percent of the entire Soviet army in the country-had to be hospitalized for disease.  Some soldiers were stricken by bubonic plague, but malaria, cholera, diphtheria, infectious dysentery, amoebic dysentery, hepatitis, and typhus were, if anything, more common….According to the [US Army] report, one important factor was military hygiene.  The average Russian soldier changed his underwear once every three months, washed his uniform and blankets at about the same rate, drank untreated water, left his garbage unpicked up, defecated near his tent rather than at a field latrine, and, even when involved in kitchen work, only washed his hands after a bowel movement when an officer made him.”
p. 75 of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time, by John Kelly

Posted by: elambend | September 10, 2008

European Isolationism and the Development of the Frontier

Over the last few days I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.”  The book is an account of Theroux’s jouney by train through Europe and across Asia and back, a repeat of a journey he took over thirty years ago that formed the basis for his book “The Great Railway Bazaar”.

At the very beginning of his book, he gives the account of his travels through southwest Europe, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.  His description is one of a dreary, backwards landscape, filled with sullen people, universal in their desire to escape west to the more developed lands of Europe.

“Stubborn seediness has great appeal, and this ramshackle railway had not changed in thirty-three years.  It was, if anything, worse, almost a parody of my previous experience.  The Hungarian border was farcical too, the customs-and-immigration people tramping through the carriage in wet boots and ill-fitting brown uniforms.  The Romanian border at Curtici was even grimmer, as though another act in the same farce:  big beefy-faced brutes with earflaps and gold braids, a dozen of them swarming ove the train demanding passports, opening bags.

The Third World sting and disorder were strong in Bucharest, its suburbs looked blighted, its farms muddy and primitive.  Romania was another country people were leaving, all of them headed west.  The look of Bucharest was desperate and naked, the look which is without shame or self-conciousness: everyone struggling, everyone dressed as though for a hike on a rainy day or dirty job.

Certainly, these aren’t happy places, people are leaving or just not having children, and not participating in old customs and institutions.  In short, they are cultures in collapse.

Arriving in Istanbul, he sounds like the explorer, happy to return to civilization.

“Nikolai [a fellow passenger, a Romanian] was speechless.  It was obvious that he had prepared himself for a shabby Asiatic city of oppression and torture, crumbly mosques and fez-wearing Turks and backward-looking Muslims.  Instead he was greeted by a grand and reimagined city of laughing children and beautiful women and swaggering men which had been ignored by Europe and sneered at by the Islamic republics.  It was a city of ancient gilt and impressive modernization.  He could see that the old city had been preserved – we were passing through it…Nikolai shriveled into a country mouse and, with his forehead pressed against the train window, looked as though he were going to weep in frustration.”

I was especially intrigued by his descriptions of southwest Europe because my city is home to many recent immigrants from those countries.  If his descriptions are close to accurate, I can see why they left and I’m happy they made it here.

It struck me that these countries form an undeveloped and uncontrolled frontier for Europe and they represent a huge challenge for the EU if it is to expand its common market and infrastructure eastward.  Indeed, it might be analagous to the US’s expansion and development westward accross North America. Taking the analogy a step futher, during it’s western expansion, the US underwent a period of some of its strongest isolationism.  Simply put, it had bigger issues at home.  Seen in this light, Europe’s reluctance to spend more on defense or entagle itself in external matters to a greater degree, may be an indication of the level of work it has to do at home.  No doubt, the European welfare system consumes a lot of capital, but given the condition of Europe’s frontier, it may be a while before Europe can be counted on to contribute more on the global stage.

Posted by: elambend | August 6, 2008


Juan Del Mar speaks terrible Spanish. He’s fluent enough, actually he’d gotten quite better since meeting his wife several years ago, or so I’ve been told. Yet his accent was so thick that it would confirm what a look at his blond hair and blues eyes would have already questioned, he wasn’t really from Central America. His friends called him Blanco.

Yet, according to his passport, his birth certificate, and to Juan, he was born in a little village in Nicaragua. Some speculated that he had been a Soviet advisor for the Sandanistas, for it was obvious to everyone that Juan was Russian. Juan knew about these rumors and did not dissuade them, although he was far too young to have taken part in that war. He had only been in his late teens when the USSR ceased to exist. He preferred that no one knew the true story of his background, particularly if it meant he never saw another Russian again.

I first met Blanco on a scouting expedition on the southern coast of Costa Rica. I was looking for some undeveloped land to purchase with some investment partners. At the time the area was kind of the back of beyond, the government hadn’t paved the main road up the coast, yet. My partners and I hope to take advantage of all the Baby Boomers would be retiring in a few years and looking for a cheap tropical place in which to live on their fixed income. Up in the area I was looking there was one old beach hotel and Juan was working the bar.

I didn’t know the hotel was there until I saw it and was happy to have a reason not to drive back down into the city that night. After checking in, I went to the bar, which was empty except for Juan and the hostess, and ordered a beer.

“Are you Russian?” I had asked him, in Spanish, after hearing him talk.

“Nicaraguan.” He’d replied.

I started to open my mouth and he continued, in English, “you’re pretty nosy considering that I know where’ll you’ll be sleeping tonight,” and then he winked at me.

Posted by: elambend | August 6, 2008


Looky Here



Posted by: elambend | March 25, 2008

The American Empire

“There are more Koreans in California than any place outside of Seoul and more people of Mexican ancestry in Los Angeles than in any community other than Mexico City. The Golden State is seen by some as a tremulous new world where everyone is a minority. At Hollywood High School, eighty languages are spoken.”
from this book:
Lasso the Wind

I have come to see America in general as an empire for everyone else. They can send their people here to prospers and be pioneers to this day, and they do. The quote above exemplifies that to me.

Also: There are more Tongans and Somoans in California than in Tonga and Samoa, think about that.

Ht: Ben Casnocha

Posted by: elambend | March 12, 2008

Everyone needs to get ahead and get along

David Mamet explains why he is no longer a “‘brain-dead’ liberal” (his words) and comes up with an eloquent recommendation of the basic libertarian world view:  get out of the way, we’ll figure it out.

We all do so well, when we just muddle along.

HT: Travis at TJICistan.

Posted by: elambend | February 29, 2008

Notes from a Buffet Meeting

These have been making the rounds.  Also Charlie Munger speaking.

Posted by: elambend | February 29, 2008

Living in the Monkey House

Modern Parable:

When you first enter the Monkey House, your first reaction is “Man, it stinks in here!”

After a while, you can stand it a little bit.

Soon enough you don’t even notice the smell.

Thus, you become incapable to smelling what anyone else who hasn’t been living in the Monkey house would recoil from.

I worry about just this kind of thing, particularly when it comes to my reading (especially blog reading).  When you are exposed to a single viewpoint or set of ideas, it becomes easy to forget how marginal those ideas really are.

This occurred to me when I saw this post at Tim Ferris’s blog.  Two of my interests had come together, constant self-tinkering (Ferris’s thing) and alternative views of fitness (introduced to me by Art DeVaney).

I’m past the point of reading alternative viewpoints just for the sake of it, but I try to be open to anything that could be counter-factual to something I believe, for the very least so that I can argue against it.

HT for the Monkey Story – Tim Gunn

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