Welcome back to "Ask Alex", where I answer all of your stupid questions with even dumber answers. Have a question you need answered? Tweet it, email it or submit it here and I will get to it (maybe) next week.
Alex has been at the beach all week, so she is in a pretty good mood. I have also been solo-parenting, so I am maybe not in the very best mood, but overall, I can’t really complain. We have just kicked off a MASSIVE renovation project, so we are out of our condo for, oh, probably six months or so (8 months. Maybe 10.) We have moved the girls to the “family” beach house for the summer and my husband and I kind of shuttling back and forth to Boston, staying with random friends and family members when we are there. Last week he was down here with the girls and I stayed at my pretend sister’s place (where my real sister is staying during all of this...got it?) and this week I have been here and he is crashing with his sister. Next week, we are both in Boston and the pretend sisters are in charge down here...god help everyone involved!!!
This week, Daryl has some questions about school and rotaries...er, traffic circles...and some giant named "Tesse Relly" has a stupid question, too. After that, we talk a little crowdfunding and then handle some sticky emigration questions...enjoy!
Submitted by: Daryl
What was your favorite political science class?
My favorite Political Science classes were “Politics of Southeast Asia” and a follow-up class that focused exclusively on China. The post WWII history of China was the most interesting part, it was at least the part of those classes that I recall most. Also, they were really small classes, in my Senior year and the professor was great...he moved them out of a lecture hall and into a small meeting room where we could all sit around a table. I am not sure we even had any tests...the group was small enough that it was pretty easy to tell who had read and understood the reading.
I read The Private Life of Chairman Mao for that class, which is long and dense but is a remarkable view into modern Chinese history from Mao’s vantage (caveat: it is not wholly clear that Li was quite as close to Mao as he claims, but the book is still generally reliable). It also, by the way, leads to a truly phenomenal trivia question…Who is the most famous person to ever die of Lou Gehrig’s disease?”
There are a couple of takeaways about Mao. First, he and his compatriots were some seriously tough bastards. Mao and Zhou Enlai rose to power largely based on their leadership of The Long March, a year long 5,600 mile circular retreat through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain in western and northern China. The Communists left Jiangxi in October of 1934 with somewhere between 85,000 and 130,000 people. After savage fighting to escape, engagements with Nationalist troops during their retreat and defections, they reach Zunyi, in Western Guizhou by New Years of 1935 with only about 10,000 remaining soldiers.
They re-organized for a short time in Zunyi (where the pro-Soviet Communists were thrown out in favor of Mao and those more at odds with Moscow), the army started a complex, dangerous and almost impossible campaign to march northwards and evade the Nationalists. They avoided three prongs of Chiang Kai-shek’s army and some local warlords by crossing rivers, mountains and jungles, sometimes multiple times, to avoid confrontation. Mao’s wife gave birth during this time, but they left the baby with a local family rather than, you know, bring a baby with them (and no, they never found the baby afterwards...European researchers claim to have located her in 2003).
In early 1935, Mao’s dwindling army met up with the much larger and healthier army of Zhang Guotao, but he and Mao couldn’t be friends and agree on who should be in charge (seriously, you’re both pretty, guys) so they split up and went in different directions. Good thing for Mao, since Zhang’s army of 80,000 troops got summarily annihilated by Chiang and his Ma clique allies (Muslim warlords). That, however, provided cover for Mao’s First Red Army, He Long’s Second Red Army and the remnants of Zhang’s Fourth Red Army (not sure if there was ever a Third one…) to reach the relative safety of Shaanxi province, where it rested and recovered until hostilities ceased because China was...um…”otherwise occupied” from 1937-1945.
During the war, the Communists fought an aggressive and disciplined campaign against the Japanese, which both strengthened them for their eventual war with Chiang and built support among the people of China. After the war, Mao and his newly-named People’s Liberation Army drove Chiang out of mainland China to Taiwan, and the rest, as they say, is history…
The other key takeaway is that, while Mao was certainly a diabolical murdering monster like the rest of the 20th Century’s Great Despots (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot…) he really terrorized his own people more through administrative incompetence. Like, in 1958, Mao noted that China lagged badly behind the USSR and the West as an industrialized power and tried to undertake a program to rapidly modernize the country’s agriculture, manufacturing and heavy industries. His goal was to collectivize the agricultural sector, improving its efficiency and freeing up labor to work in his newly modernized industrial sector.
He ordered major investments in state-run industrial enterprises, along with a directive that Chinese citizens build backyard steel furnaces fueled by whatever trees and scrub could be harvested and using scrap metal, pots, pans and silverware to make steel. Probably worth noting that Mao was not a metallurgist, and that had he been one, he would have know that you can’t actually do this. Result? Environmental destruction, wasted labor and resources, millions of people who no longer had any pots and pans...and no actual steel. Also planned were monumental irrigation projects that were really well-planned except for the parts where you need actual skilled engineers to plan them.
Net result? Hundreds of thousands of starving rural residents were worked to death, and no improvements were made to the ability to irrigate farmland. In addition, Mao ordered a modernization of farming techniques based on the work of Soviet Scientist Trofim Lysenko. Turns out that Lysenko was more or less the Bill Nye of crop scientists and had no fucking idea what he was doing. Which meant that the farms were no more efficient, but now also had no workers. And just for kicks, the “Four Pests Campaign” led to the killing of millions of sparrows who, it turns out, eat locusts. So, you guessed it...locust swarm!!!
Yada, yada, yada...no food. Oops!!!
Historians place the death toll of the resulting famine at anywhere from 18-55 million people, most likely on the order of 30 million. THIRTY MILLION PEOPLE!!! For perspective, in 1958, there were somewhere around 15 countries that had a population of 30 million. It’s like Mao accidentally starved the entire population of Spain in two years of good intentions. Or all of modern-day Venezuela (“Hold my cerveza”- Hugo Chavez)
Have you ever gotten stuck in a rotary?
Duh...of course I have, I live in Massachusetts. Most people are unlucky enough to get stuck in roundabouts or traffic circles, but us Bay Staters have the pleasure of getting stuck in rotaries! It may look like a traffic circle, but it is 85% more likely to be marked by a Dunkin Donuts and a pothole the size of a VW bus. It is one of the key reasons that we are a better class of people than the rest of you.
So, in the course of writing this answer, I mentioned it to a friend from New Hampshire (mostly to ask what they called them...answer: traffic circles) and learned a couple of interesting things about New Hampshirites. Like, mostly, that they take their traffic circles really seriously,especially as landmarks. The Portsmouth Traffic Circle has it’s own Wikipedia entry, for chrissakes!!! Then he got all weepy because he was recounting late nights in college (at UNH) spent at the 24 hour Bickford’s there that has closed at some point since then, and it got sorta weird, so I am moving on...
Submitted by: Tesse Relly
Why are tall people so much better than everyone else?
Well…”Tesse”...this is a great question. At least in the sense that it is a really stupid question posed by someone who’s assumed superiority is OBVIOUSLY a cover for deep insecurity and self-doubt. But what else would I suspect from a genetically inferior tall person?
Just think about it...most great human advancements involve making things smaller or lighter. Cell phones used to be the size of bricks, TV’s used to weigh 400 pounds and fortunes have been made to make industrial materials that can be stronger while being smaller and lighter. Computer chip makers have created billions in market value and trillions in economic advancements by making the components of their chips smaller and smaller. Have you watched the Tour de France this month? Those bikes use less and less material every year, all in a quest to make them thinner and lighter. They are probably also taking drugs that are effective in smaller, less detectable quantities...
To shed further light on this, I asked a close friend of mine named Maubrey Relly who is about 5’ 2”. She is totally not your wife. She thinks that the thinner air probably deprives your brains of needed oxygen, which accounts for the “slowness”. The good news is that we don’t think you are all actually as ugly as you seem, but rather we just have a really weird vantage point to see your oversized faces from. Every girl over age 13 knows that a slight downward angle on a photograph makes for the best picture, so it stands to reason that tall people would just always be at a bad angle.
Regards, Alex (5’ ½”, 98 lbs)
Anecdote: my kids are super tall. My husband is pretty normal (about 6’ 0”) and I am a midget, but our kids are almost the tallest kids in their class. At their 3 month doctor’s appointment, Twin #2 measured out at the 100th percentile, which made her quite literally the TALLEST BABY ON EARTH!!!
I probably should have been tall. My mother was pretty tall, my father was about average and both of my half-sisters are pretty tall, so I probably have tall genes. The older of my half-sisters (she’s the one I am usually talking about) is about 5’8” and the younger one is almost that tall but likely still growing. I, however, may be some pretty solid evidence that excessive alcohol consumption by a mother during pregnancy and nursing can lead to developmental problems. Thanks, Mom!
Submitted by: Jimmy is Disgusted
What is Gab? Why aren't I getting spam from Gab?
This came in response to a question I asked this week about whether or not anyone else got the Crowdfunding solicitation from Gab. I think that pretty much every registered user got one, so I am guessing that a lot of you did as well.
Gab is a Twitter-alternative, launched in August of 2016 around the time of Milo’s banning and promoted largely under the banner of free speech and a promise to be more permissive than Twitter is, especially of conservative ideas. It seemed like it opened with a lot of fanfare and a lot of excitement (I’m @AFB if you are looking for me, but I don’t actually use it...mostly I wanted to get the cool three-letter handle in case it’s popularity grew and they started to run out of handles!)
Long and short, the solicitation has a couple of really interesting things. First, for all the hubbub, they’ve been pretty unsuccessful at attracting users. Nine months, and they had 191,000 users in May, which is not even double what they had in December. Those users create about 1,000,000 posts per month (which equates to about two minutes of activity on Twitter).
For a seemingly high-profile start-up, those numbers are pretty anemic, which is confirmed by a couple more details of the offering. First, that they are doing the offering at all and have either not found or are not seeking funding from a professional investor or technology partner with more capital and connections and capabilities. Second, that they value the firm (post investment) at about $11 million, which is an...um...insubstantial amount, and also kinda explains the first. Third, the offering spends a lot more time talking about creating a network of creators on an ad-free platform than it does about the free speech ethos that was their early calling card (but they haven’t ditched the frog).
Noteworthy, to Twitter users, is that they are pursuing a different business model that could well preview some changes to Twitter’s much-criticized model going forward. Rather than being ad-supported, the service is subscription-supported, offering premium services to users for a price...most notably verification. Where Twitter verifies people for free, Gab charges $6/mo or $60/yr for the premium service, and only Premium users can be verified. Which kind of makes sense...if you want the service to verify and confirm your identity to users, why wouldn’t you pay for it? There are inklings about creating tipping or micro-payment features that may also be interesting, but they are imaginary at this point.
Bad news for Gab, while the ratio of premium users is pretty high (about 1 in 80) they currently have just under 2,000 premium customers, which translates to annual revenue of maybe $125,000...that’s, um, not much. But, does it give some insight into the sorts of things that Twitter might eventually break off into a premium service? I think it might...if one of every 80 Twitter users signed up to pay Twitter $60/year? Well, now THAT is real money. By my back of the envelope math, $TWTR could erase its net loss by signing up about 1 in 200 users.
Anyway, this is probably boring you all to tears, and I will skip over the exciting new field of non-restricted public equity offerings (I do have a couple of lawyer Twitter followers that may want to follow up on this next week...hint, hint…) and just let you know that this doesn’t jump off the page at me as a super-exciting investment opportunity.
But I will put it to a vote...if you would like me to make the minimum $199.10 investment just so you can make fun of me when it disappears, I will think about it! (I’ve told you all about Scorpio Tankers, right?)
Submitted by: SimonCovfefe
Should Amtrak LDs be saved? I had a pleasurable, if sleepless, ride from DC to Chicago in February 2015.
Amtrak is, and always has been, a giant money suck. While it is less of one now than it used to be, that is largely due to off-balance sheet Treasury financing and it is hard to see a scenario under which it ever stops being a giant money suck. Unlike municipal public transit, it is hard to make the argument that there is a benefit of any sort to non-riders that would justify the continuing taxpayer infusions. Subways in New York, Boston, Chicago, DC and the like move tons of people around (mostly) reliably, lessen the burden on roadways and ease traffic and parking congestion. Those are civic benefits that justify taxpayer funds to supplement rider fees. The winter storms of 2015 (we got 110 inches of snow in February) that overwhelmed the T made clear that Boston is not a functioning city without the subway. Amtrak is not offering the same kinds of benefits to the people who aren’t riding Amtrak.
Which is a shame, because trains are really cool. They are also much easier and more comfortable than planes...I can take the train to New York, leave my office 15 minutes before departure and settle into a large, comfortable seat in plenty of time to go. Factoring in the amount of time wasted at the airport on either end of the trip, and taking the train to New York is barely even a larger time commitment. But...that is about the limit of the distance for which that is true. Flying to DC takes about 30 minutes longer than flying to New York, but taking the train takes several hours longer...to get to Philadelphia or Washington, it is nearly an all day trip: that is not feasible for most travelers.
It is also not that cheap: the absolute cheapest round trip to DC, booking a month in advance, over a weekend and at weird times, is about $200. I can find the same plane tickets for $150 or so. It is easier and more comfortable, but it’s much longer and more expensive...really, it works to travel to and from New York in either direction, but it is something of a novelty for anything else.
But I do have a story!!! In March of, I think, 2014, I went to a meeting in Washington that was scheduled for a day with a forecast of snow in DC. As a result, they were cancelling flights right and left and mine seemed like it wasn’t going to get out (follow-up: there was ZERO actual snow in DC). So, I cancelled my flight and took the train, along with a lot of other people doing the same. In New Haven, a girl got on the train and sat in the seat across from me. She was about my age, maybe a little younger, pretty well put together and relaying a story to someone on the phone about scrambling out of Hartford after a cancelled flight and getting a ride to New Haven to catch the train back to Philadelphia.
She sat down, opened her laptop and ordered...FOUR RED WINES...from the server. She opened and pounded the first straight from the tiny bottle, along with about half the second. Then she started pouring them into the glass they gave her and finished off the other three during a conference call in which she was a pretty active participant. She remains kind of my hero.
I didn’t inquire as to whether or not she was single, boys, but she was pretty cute.
Submitted by: Harry Bergeron
My dilemma is: Should I emigrate to the Hutt River Principality of Australasia? I had pretty much decided to, but Prince Leonard the First has recently abdicated in favor is his youngest son, Graeme.
I need your insight on whether this callow youth will be as benevolent a dictator as his father, and whether important policies will continue, or fall by the wayside.
Taking the example of North Korea, I am encouraged by the continuity of philosophy there.
I am also encouraged by the cheap and easy availability of titles and Ambassadorships -- A Brigadier Generalship is apparently available. I already enjoy such privilege via my dual citizenships in Montenegro and Macedonia.
What say you, Alex?
Duke Harry the First [Prospective, In Waiting]
This, if you have never heard it, is kind of a wild story. Short version: in 1970, Leonard Casley of Northampton, Australia, declared the independence of his farm from Australia in a dispute over wheat production quotas. He has put forth a whole bunch of specious claims supporting his secession, including a fictional two-year statute of limitations on challenging the independence, a single letter mistakenly calling him “Administrator” that he takes as recognition of his claim and that being undefeated in war makes a country sovereign (he declared war on Australia in 1977 and then notified them of the cessation of hostilities three days later.) He has also presented a forged document claiming that he and fellow residents do not need to file income tax returns to Australia.
Somewhat inconveniently, he has undermined his own claim by recognizing Australian courts’ jurisdiction in a variety of civil matters. For their part, the Supreme Court of Western Australia has made clear that any man can declare himself a sovereign in his own home, but that he and his family still have to pay taxes...A$3m worth of them in this case.
So, here’s the thing...everything is fun and games until the Australian Army shows up to throw you into tax jail. It is actually a little surprising that such a thing hasn’t happened yet...it may seem a little heavy handed to send the police out to collect what amounts to a little over $2,000,000 USD, but what this basically amounts to is a guy who just decided to stop paying income taxes, and thus far has been penalized by, well, nothing. That sort of seems like an invitation for other people in somewhat remote places to just stop paying as well. Clearly, that can’t go on forever. Australia isn’t Greece, after all.
The Principality maintains no armed forces (not sure what you would be a Two-Star of...), so its little fantasy world exists solely at the benevolent discretion of the Aussie government. And Australians are pretty nice, but they have their limits...at some point, a horde of special forces kangaroos are gonna show up to collect.
Speaking of which...in my bartending days, we used to say that you can tell a man’s nationality by the number or rings left on his glass after he drinks a Guinness. Americans are sippers, so we leave more than 15. An Englishman will leave 7 and an Irishman 5.
An Aussie leaves 1.
And with that, I am going to hang with the girls for the afternoon until my husband and the rest of the family gets here…catch you next week!
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.