Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sweet deals

Sweet deals at Wal-Mart suddenly turned bitter. For those in a hurry

JACKSON, Mo. -- A collision with a semi-trailer truck seven years ago left 52-year-old Deborah Shank permanently brain-damaged and in a wheelchair. Her husband, Jim, and three sons found a small source of solace: a $700,000 accident settlement from the trucking company involved. After legal fees and other expenses, the remaining $417,000 was put in a special trust. It was to be used for Mrs. Shank's care.

Instead, all of it is now slated to go to Mrs. Shank's former employer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The rule of law is such a wonderful thing.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

When money don't matter

... you can afford to get a $1 salary.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


You can read about pollution in China, but it's hard to comprehend. A simple question from a friend from China makes it easy

And can you see stars in Europe?

Because they can't.

Teaching Scinece

Why didn't they show us experiments like this

in our science classes?


Isn't technology making us stupid?

Well, it probably isn't always making us smarter.


Teenagers have fun in Chile.

To spoil their fun, I would say that the party ends earlier than their think.

News about US 08 elections

Monday, March 24, 2008

Religion in Czech Republic

I don't link to blog posts in Czech, but I will make an exception this time. Patrick Zandl talks about religion in general, but with some connection to Czech Republic.

First, let me give you some background. US Department of State writes about Czech Republic

the vast majority of the citizens do not identify themselves as members of any organized religion. In a 2001 opinion poll, 38 percent of respondents claimed to believe in God, while 52 percent identified themselves as atheists.

This makes Czech Republic one of the least religious country in the world, something most of us are proud of. The reason is not, however, 40 years of communism (as USDoS claims), but the whole history of Czech people.

One of the most influential events was a protestant movement in early fifteen century. The movement was started by Jan Hus, who is now considered a national hero. Why? He was promised him a peaceful negotiation in Kostnice and then burned by catholics alive. Then the "Czech Kingdom" was conquered and population forced to catholicism. We have been oppressed for a few hundred years, catholic church hand in hand with royalty.

Czech National Revival and the first World War put an end to it. Czech Nation was free for about 20 years before Hitler came. Don't even ask what was the official policy of the church. You probably should not even ask where current pope was at that time. After the WWII, we were free for about 3 years and than the communism came. Unsurprisingly, they were no friends of the Church either.

So after the turmoil where Czech people believe in something, were punished for it, were forced into something, then were betrayed and prohibited from doing something, their lack of enthusiasm is understandable. Well, the story did not end there. Till today, Catholic church is negotiating with Czech government how much property they will get back (including schools, hospitals, houses, farms etc.). To a laymen it seems that they care more about their political power and wealth than about anything else. Churches are empty and rotting.

Somewhat surprisingly, many people have religious believes and most of them believe that there is something beyond our lives. Many people believe in God. They just don't believe that any church represents him. Priests and especially higher level officials are so far away from our lives that when they speak, most people think that they are just crazy. Czech society is naturally liberal and mostly cynical. Czech kids drink beer from 15, if not earlier and they have sex from about the same time. They are not being forbidden, but they are taught about condoms, diseases. They know about the dangers of interruption (physical, not moral) and surprise, surprise, the number of interruptions in Czech Republic declined from 100,000 in 1990 to less than 25500. (Numbers reflect artificial (induced) interruption, not naturally occurring one).

When "church" occasionally tries to propose rules that would forbid interruptions (they probably have to do it by order from Rome, because it really does not have any chance in Czech Republic), they try to force their own believes on other people, who don't share their views. It's hardly a reasonable way how gain the trust.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Poverty and living costs

Megan McArdle asks an interesting question "When do you stop being poor?". In other words, what kind of living standard should poor people have (paid from "our" taxes)?

The difference between what Europeans and Americans would answer define the differences between societies. My impression from first months in the USA was that poverty is much more prevalent and much more severe than what I was used to. For example, most people struggle to live off their pension in CR, but they have the pension even if the firm goes bankrupt before they retire. They have free health care, no matter what.

I'm coming from poor (by US measures) or (lower) middle class family (in Czech standards). This means that we were never really poor, but we were always very careful with our money (my parents never had a holiday by the sea, or any holiday outside their home for the last 10 years). It made me conscious about spending money. I know they may not be here in the future. It also made me live rather modestly (by my parents standards, I live in luxury, by standards of my friends with similar income, I live like a monk).

When leave for San Diego, I knew I will get only the minimum stipend. I was curious how much money I will spend and what I will be able to afford. I knew I will spend much more than I'm used to for accommodation (around $700). I also knew I could not afford a car. Fortunately, I live reasonably close to to school, and I wanted to focus on my research anyway.

On other living expenses (food, clothing, and other basic stuff) I spend around $300 a month. For that, I get better food than in CR for the same amount, couple of books (reading is fun for some people, you know), and other things I need. I cook for dinner, but eat in school cafeteria (about $4) and sometimes go to a seminar with free lunch.

It's not trivial to keep expenses that low, but it is possible. I buy things when they are on sale, I have a membership card (for discounts). Since I don't have a car, I have to shop in the local shop, which is not the cheapest, but as you can see, if you pay attention to prices, you can save. I buy (infrequently) clothes in Wal-Mart. I don't go to movies, I don't buy coffee in Starbucks, I choose the cheapest brand when several choice of equal quality are available.

I consider my quality of life higher than in Czech Republic (in material sense). It costs $300 + rent. I could probably save a little more, but this is where I would define the poverty line. If you think every person should have a right to have a car to get to work (bike is way cheaper), then you need to add a couple of hundreds (I think about $300 should be enough). Since I pay probably higher rent than necessary (around $500 is a lower end price for a room), I would put total costs of "reasonable life" to $1000-1100. Note that San Diego is rather expensive region, even though not as expensive as New York as the rent goes.

This sum of money gives a single person a living standard that I consider acceptable for a human. It may seem like a lot, but it's not. For a $7/hour (about minimum wage), it is less than 160 hours a month, which requires 8 hours a working day, standard shift. Minimum wage are plentiful, but not pleasant.

The analysis misses something. First, there is health insurance and pension. I believe that there is Medicaid and Medicare, but this does not cover everything. Moreover, there is no pension like in Czech Republic, where the money you get from the government almost do not depend on your wage before retirement (and thus is relatively higher for poor people). You may not even get anything, just some minimum living standards support (if any, I don't really need to know).

Second part is the non-material life (culture, hobbies, etc.) These things are very often available locally in Europe, and are rather cheap. It seems to me that you have to travel farther and pay more in the USA. But some things are free - library, parks, beach.

To come back to the opening question. I define poverty level as a minimum amount of money I need to live reasonable life. Since I like reading more than drinking and driving car, it is pretty low.

Enron, corporate america and savings

This movie about Enron opens plenty of interesting questions:

I don't want to ask the obvious ones. People steal and those who can steal a lot, steal a lot. Mr. Lay died before sentencing, Jeff Skilling is serving 24 years sentence. And it's great it is so, even though it cannot help the employees who not only lost their jobs, but their health insurance, lifetime savings and pensions.

Most of them could not prevent the loss of job or heatlh insurance, yet most of them could have prevented the loss of savings and (some?) pensions. They shouldn't have put these money into Enron stock. It surely sounds obvious from hindsight, but if there is anything that economics 101 should teach you, it is this.

Don't put all eggs into one basket.

If all people learned that from the Enron story, at least something good would come out of it. But I don't think that's the case. Bear Stearns suggests that it is not - allegedly, many employees had most of their savings in the stock of the BS.

(H/T to PCh for the video)