Lost in Translation

A young man from China arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. He knew very little English but was eager to adopt a convenient English name for a new life. His friend had advised to use Sam Ding, which was simple, easy to pronounce, and sounded more or less like his Chinese name.

During that era, many immigrants did not have travel documents for various reasons. Ding was one of them. The US immigration staff would meet them at the port of entry to do screening and registration.

An officer had just finished registering Antonio Fuentes, the man waiting in front. He then turned to Ding and asked for his name.
“Sam Ding”, Ding tried to pronounce as accurately as he could.
“Okay! Same thing”, the officer acknowledged.
He then wrote down “Antonio Fuentes, Jr.” on the form.

The Chinese immigrant came out of registration with a fancy name. Instead of Sam Ding, he wound up with one that he could not even pronounce!

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Answering the Herbalist’s Call

I was born in 1950 into an herbalist family in Guangzhou, Southern China. We moved to South Vietnam because my father got a contract as a Chinese herbalist in the Cantonese Hospital in Cholon, the sprawling Chinatown adjacent to Saigon (Now Ho Chi Minh City).

After completing his contract with the hospital, my father decided to stay in Cholon and opened an herb shop of his own just two blocks away from home. Living next door was Grandma on Mom’s side. She was a midwife operating a small 10-bed maternity ward. We felt like having two homes which were connected through a backdoor.

We maintained a home office catering to many clients who came at odd hours. Since my father never said no to his clients, the rest of the family helped out when a client came unexpectedly (We had no phone and no advance-booking tradition). During the flu season when the workday typically started at 6 AM and ended at midnight, the whole family was mobilized including the kids. Among the four siblings of two boys and two girls, I ranked second, and was the most willing helper because I found the job more interesting than school work.

I often wondered how Dad could remember all the herbs being used. Dad showed me the classical herbal dictionary where about 1000 herbs were listed and described. “Try to learn five a day and you’ll be done before the year’s over.” So this became my goal before turning a teenager. It took me about an hour to read and remember five herbs. I was also encouraged to spend time at the shop to look at, feel, smell and taste them. I was surprised they did not taste as terrible as the tea brewed from an herbal mixture. Several months later, I was proud to show that I could identify most of our inventory even if blindfolded.

Learning the herbs is only the first step. The art of Chinese medicine involves putting together the right mixture of herbs that reinforce rather than conflict with each other in order to bring about a cure for a particular illness of a particular person. It is always custom-made according to the condition of the patient.

Dad taught me not to be lazy intellectually. By that he meant not to copy blindly from the many “ancient secret formulas” floating around, and not to take the words of those “wise men” for granted. A good herbalist should draw his own conclusion based on knowledge and experience, tempered by logic and empirical evidence. The only criterion of a good herbal prescription is its cost-effectiveness, not where it is copied from.

As time went by, I found myself often sitting next to my father to observe how he interfaced with each individual client employing the cardinal rule of “Look, feel, ask and pulse read”. We kept a record of the client’s condition for each visit and the corresponding herbal mixture being formulated. Gradually, I could understand the reasoning and subtleties in the process of writing an herbal prescription.

While Dad graduated from the Guangzhou Herbal College, my training involved apprenticing with him, which was an acceptable alternative for entering the herbal profession. Since we owned and managed the business, my herbal education was a 24/7 immersion because it was actually our livelihood around which most activities revolved.

As the Vietnam war began to escalate, we moved to Hong Kong in 1964 where most of our relatives had long settled. In 1968, I left for college in America to study Physics, a subject I had scored high in the public certificate exam and my teachers said I was good at. However, I ended up with a B.A. in Economics (Berkeley) that I really liked. This was followed by 6 years of work in Hong Kong in the economic consultancy profession, capped by an M.A. in International Relations (Chicago) in 1978. The following year, my family immigrated to America where I first worked as a technician in Silicon Valley, then as an engineer after obtaining an M.S. in Engineering (Stanford) in 1989. During those years, while my father carried on his herbal profession uninterrupted, my herbal training turned into a hobby due to the demands of a full-time job, higher education, and raising a family of four after getting married in 1979.

In 1993, something unexpected happened. My company went through a massive layoff, a victim of the personal computer revolution. I suddenly discovered the potential of partnering with my father in the herbal business. We opened an herb shop called Herbs & Tea in San Jose. Since we were the only duos operating the business, it became a 24/7 immersion just like the good old days, except that the clients might phone beforehand for a consultation and would not come during odd hours anymore.

I find it very satisfying for being able to help my clients solve their health problems. In the process, we also become friends. After all these years, I have finally heard my calling and settled in the profession I truly love. It may seem like a long wild detour, but I think fate has brought my career back in a great circle to where I originally began as a little boy.

Although my father wished that I would follow in his footsteps, he never insisted upon it because he wanted to see me develop my other potentials. On the day we opened the herb shop in San Jose, Dad was so happy that he was moved to tears. He said we were finally in full control of our own business and destiny. He also said that in this profession, you could never retire if your clients still wanted to see you. Dad passed away in 2006, one year after seeing his last client at the age of 96. I guess this is also my fate because I am still professionally active although having retired officially since 2015.

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World’s Biggest Middlemen

In everyday life, we try to eliminate the middleman in order to cut cost and foster closer relationship between producer and consumer. How successful are we doing that? I can see four areas where the middleman seems indispensable despite all the scandals and damages they’ve done. They are the so-called too-big-to-fail entities that need urgent reforms.


Since ancient times, humans prefer to worship God through an agent such as a village elder, a priest or an organized church through established rituals. Have we thought about seeking hope, comfort and salvation directly from God? Does God really prescribe that we must go through an agent? Being a Catholic since young age, I began to ponder this question only recently. I guess I’ll never find an answer unless through divine enlightenment.

Internet Platforms

The Internet has produced many big companies that bring large numbers of consumers and producers together through their versatile website platforms. Their success owes to the great services they provide in terms of choice, efficiency and lower price. Examples are Amazon, Uber and Airbnb. They are fast evolving and growing with plenty of things to learn and unexpected problems to solve.

Another group of companies establish the social networks that bring people together by facilitating the sharing of interests and experiences. Ironically, the dating websites have successfully revived the ancient role of the matchmaker that seemed dying in this modern age. Examples are Facebook, LinkedIn and Match.

Banking and Finance

We trust the banks by depositing our hard-earned money with them. We also trust the government to bail them out or take over responsibility when a bank fails. We never care what the banks do with our money which they use to make loans to other people, hopefully producing a profit. On the other hand, we scream when the government uses taxpayers’ money to bail them out when they fail. We tend to forget it was the big banks’ subprime-mortgage fiasco that precipitated the great recession in late 2008 from which we are still recovering almost ten years later.

The stock market represents another big middleman for sellers and buyers of financial instruments called stocks, shares and mutual funds. Since luck plays a significant part in stock trading for the average consumer (so-called small investor) who has no leverage in a bidding auction system, Wall Street operates more or less like a traditional gambling house under the heavy influence of big players and the seducing investment analytics they produce. The stock market is the best place where the strong legally eat the weak and get away with it by blaming the capitalist market and the economy.

A third big middleman operates in the insurance business. As customers, we pay regular premiums, and trust the insurance companies to compensate for our losses in case we die (life insurance) or suffer from an accident (fire, flood, earthquake and auto insurance). Again, we never care how they make use of the premiums we’ve paid because we assume they invest wisely. In any case, Warren Buffett has said that insurance is a good business where the insurers receive the money first before paying out any. When the insurer pays compensation, it mostly wins because in reality only a small percentage of the insured get into accidents or die. The laws of statistics favor them. The insurance business is based on the principle that the majority subsidizes the small minority, thus allowing the insurer to pocket the profit as a middleman. The only condition is that the insurance market must be big. It won’t work if only several thousand people buy insurance.

Health Care

Health care insurance has become the norm in industrialized countries as a health maintenance program rather than an accident-compensation program. Where universal health care is practiced, the government runs the health insurance as a single payer. On the other hand, people in developing countries pay for their own health care on a piecemeal basis when they get sick. Strangely speaking, with all the medical technology available, health care is much more expensive for the average person in industrialized countries than in developing countries, especially in the United States where there is no universal health insurance. What are the causes? They can be summed up in two words, corruption and lack of competition.

The situation is very complicated in the United States where relentless health care inflation has priced out tens of millions of citizens. I will discuss this further in another post.

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The German Solar Effort

Although not known for its sunny weather, Germany initiated the world’s solar revolution about 20 years ago with a vision that other countries would later follow. The goal is to increase the share of all renewable sources in German electricity consumption to 35% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Compared with other top solar producing countries, Germany is way ahead of the pack in terms of goals and achievements.

The solar vision is based on the simple fact that the new industry needs an initial dose of sustainable heavy investment which must come from the government. Why? Private industries do not have the patience to wait for the big payoff over a long period of time especially facing the powerful resistance of fossil-fuel interests like coal, oil and natural gas.

The government policy hinges on the feed-in tariff (FIT) where all German consumers are required to pay an extra percentage for their electricity bills. This new source of revenue is used to reimburse solar (and wind) producers who feed their electricity into the grid. This incentive has resulted in the explosion of solar and wind energy over the last decade. As these renewables are coming up to speed, the FIT subsidy is gradually being reduced starting 2011.

The spinoffs from the German renewable efforts have greatly benefited the world. By 2015, German CO2 emission had fallen to 908 million metric tons from 1248 in 1990; and is projected to reach a low of 200 by 2050 (Source: German Environment Ministry). The other great benefit is technology advancement where solar and wind have gone through tremendous price drops surpassing coal, oil and natural gas, especially after China has entered into the market.

The technology improvements in solar and wind cannot be underestimated because they make electricity much more clean and economical. Higher efficiency and price drops have brought about a worldwide boom especially in China, USA, Japan and Italy. Furthermore, solar and wind have stimulated battery research due to the intermittent nature of sunshine and wind. Sooner or later, an advanced battery will come into being that will store surplus electricity generated during periods of good sunshine and heavy wind. The advanced battery will also give electric cars a big boost by increasing their travel range, which is the only barrier limiting their sales.

Ranking 4th largest economy in the world with a responsible green vision, Germany has triggered the solar revolution that will also lead to a battery revolution down the road. The German solar effort has greatly contributed to the integration of a modern clean energy system comprising the sun (energy captured by solar roofs or farms), the house (lighting, heating, cooling and others), the factory (electric machines), and the electric car, ship and airplane (transportation). The catalyst is the advanced battery that is light, with high storage, and made from common materials. The search is now on for such a battery that will further boost the solar revolution.

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Rape of the Middle Class

The decline of the American middle class has been happening since the 1980’s. If you are younger than 40 years, you probably do not notice it that much. Let me recount what I have experienced. To begin, what do I mean by the middle class? Well, if you think you are neither rich nor poor, the middle class means you, and me too.

I came to America for the first time as a foreign college student in 1968. The things that impressed me most were: the multilane highways, the big cars, gasoline at 25 cents per gallon, cheap food, cheap housing, low medical costs, and plentiful jobs. None of these exists nowadays except the multilane highways that need repair. This is a self-inflicted wound due to long years of corruption and lack of investments for the future, despite the fact that the politicians and a segment of the population want to blame globalization and other countries for their own government’s failures.

What hurts the middle class most is high inflation across a broad range of life essentials. The two most obvious are health care and college education. If wages rise and jobs increase, the people will not feel the pain. However, wages and jobs have not kept pace with the inflation rate in America. Uncontrolled inflation can easily wipe out the middle class and lead to social instability as amply demonstrated by the hyperinflation in Germany after the First World War that eventually brought Hitler to power.

Health care inflation has made life miserable for the American middle class. Up to the mid 1960’s, doctors in private practice would come to the patients’ homes for an affordable consultation price. Are you surprised by that? Nowadays, the doctor cannot even tell you how much a consultation costs. The insurance companies have taken complete control as the biggest middlemen between patients and doctors. You pay the insurer a monthly premium and you will receive medical care under the unfair terms such as “preexisting conditions” and “deductibles” that lead to fast rising prices and limited access for sick patients.

In 1993 when I became self-employed, I had to buy health insurance that was no longer provided by my employer. The premium was still affordable at around $350 for my family of two adults and two kids. However, it kept on rising faster than the general inflation rate. By 2014, the monthly premium had swollen to $1800 for just me and my wife even after the kids were kicked out by the insurance company. Fortunately, Obamacare came to the rescue with a $1300 federal subsidy that reduced my monthly premium to $500 for two people.

The high insurance premiums had caused 50 million Americans unable to afford health insurance by 2014. In two years Obamacare has reduced this number to 30 million, which is still too high for any developed country. Furthermore, Americans spend more than twice the amount on health care compared with other developed countries, nearly all of which provide universal health care for every citizen. In addition, the quality of health care delivered in America was far worse than that of the other countries. I think this shameful state is a result of corruption that involves the insurance companies, the hospitals, the big pharmaceutical companies and the US government; and to some extent, the health care professionals who remain purposely silent while reaping the high profits.

Besides health care, college education has gone through the roof that puts huge financial burdens on the young generation. Back in 1970 when I was studying at the University of California, my cousin who was a California resident paid $400 for tuition per year. He had no problem with payment while staying at home with his parents. He worked full-time in the summer and part-time the rest of the year at an hourly rate of around $2 an hour (the minimum wage at that time). All he needed was to work a total of 200 hours during the whole year to cover his tuition. Despite being a foreign student paying a much higher tuition of $2,000 per year, I was able to cover half of my expenses through summer and part-time jobs which were plentiful. Nowadays, the annual tuition is $14,000 for California residents and $50,000 for non-residents. At the current minimum wage of $10.50 an hour, a California resident has to work 1,333 hours to afford tuition at the University of California. This means 33 weeks of full-time work per year. Is this possible? How much time will be left for school?

As a consequence, most young Americans need bank loans to pay for their college tuition. The banks are more than happy to offer student loans because young college graduates stand a better chance to pay off the loans than most other borrowers. The colleges (especially private ones) are more than happy to connect the students with the banks while charging more tuition every year without fear of their students’ inability to pay. So you must blame the colleges as well as the banks for this shameful state that turns millions of young people into heavy debtors even before they graduate and find a job. In 2016, student loans in America totaled a staggering $1.4 trillion spread out among 44 million borrowers, averaging $32,000 per head.

Since the US economy is heavily dependent on the auto industry, the continuous rise in oil prices since the 1973 Arab oil embargo has created enormous pressures on the American auto and associated industries. On the other hand, the auto industries in Japan and Germany, and South Korea in recent years have prospered and grabbed an increasing share of the American market. Can you blame the American auto woes on rising oil prices? Only partly. The real culprits are American companies failing to meet the oil challenge to produce better fuel-efficient and reliable cars than their foreign counterparts. Back in 1970 when I was a student, nobody wanted to buy the cheap Toyota sedan that looked and drove like a tin can. Today, I am a proud owner of a Honda and a Toyota in California because American cars still need to catch up to foreign quality standards after all these years. The auto industry is only one example of the falling American competitiveness that inevitably leads to job losses that hurt the middle class. Can you blame foreigners or globalization for that? You can but then you will never improve for it is your own fault.

To come back to my main theme, what is the big deal about the decline of the middle class? The big deal lies in the big picture. All over the world, poor and under-developed countries have no middle class to boast. The middle class demonstrates the richness and power of a country. The middle class is the inevitable result when a country industrializes and develops. The best example is the huge vibrant middle class created in China since its opening and industrialization that began around 1980. If a country is ruled by a dictator like North Korea, or Maoist China before 1980, the middle class cannot develop. In addition, the middle class is much weaker in an authoritarian or oligarchic country like Russia. Therefore, when the middle class in America is weakening for four decades now, what is going to happen to the big picture? We may be wise to note that in 1949 when the middle class in China had been decimated after many years of corruption, hyperinflation and wars, a communist revolution and dictatorship led by Mao took over the whole country. It was a successful revolt of the 99% poor that overpowered the 1% rich. The result produced no middle class but 100% poor with all the riches going to the communist party and being disguised as state assets.

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To Bet or Not to Bet

Everyday living involves taking some degree of risk all the time. I wish to find out what I need to do to ensure a productive and enjoyable life.

Obviously, the least risk is to stay at home and watch TV, but that won’t work for most people. If I go to work, ride a bike or take a walk, there exists the risk that I may get involved in a car accident which is not uncommon. If I fly out of town, the airplane may crash although I hope that it will happen to some other flights instead of mine. So I find myself always betting that I won’t wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all these years, it seems that these are pretty good bets because I’m still safe and sound like most other people.

Regarding health, I always bet that my immune system and my moderate lifestyle will maintain good health. This is an ancient wisdom before the dawn of modern medicine. If I succumb to cancer or other terrible diseases, I will take it as God’s will. In order to maintain sanity, I never allow myself to be bombarded by constant news, commercial or otherwise, promoting various products or methods for preventing cancer or other diseases. The reason is that they merely play on human fears. I believe keeping life simple without noisy interference will make me healthy.

Regarding happiness, I am willing to bet on no pain no gain. I appreciate the pure joy of reading, singing, playing musical instruments, hobby, sports, and even difficult scientific or artistic work. They all involve years of learning, training, and competing that includes failures before one can reap the fruits of pleasure and satisfaction. The same goes with raising kids and a family. Although pains and disappointments abound, the investments are never wasted. Extending your love and care to other people will also bring incredible happiness, but you have to do it before you can appreciate it.

There are some worldly pleasures that I am not willing to bet. Sexual pleasure is only temporary despite the occasional urge and its overblown interpretation. Your body cannot tolerate too much of it. Besides, sex without atmosphere is no fun. A more dangerous pleasure is addiction to drugs or other substances. Not only will it destroy you, but also the rest of your family. Finally, gambling is a bottomless pit, where the addict is willing to bet anything including himself and his beloved to the point of losing everything.

In the grand scheme of things, we must never bet on technology. It only goes one way — up. Technology progresses naturally by building on the things humans have discovered. “In technology, whatever can be done will be done”, said Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel. The question is when will the new inventions come into market.

The other big thing we must never bet on is Mother Nature. Although she tolerates all the pollution we’ve inflicted on the environment, she will one day strike back with a vengeance. Like the debts we accumulate, we will have to pay back plus interest. A selfish person may not care because the revenge may not happen in his lifetime. However, for most people who care about future generations, our children and grandchildren will have to suffer the recklessness we commit today.

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The Military-Industrial Complex

When President Dwight Eisenhower completed his second term in 1961, his farewell speech drew Americans’ attention to the “military-industrial complex” that might pose a danger to world peace in the future. For a general who was also Supreme Allied Commander in World War II to issue such a surprise warning, it is wise for all of us to take heed and reflect.

The weapons market is one of the most profitable valued at $400 billion annually worldwide (Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Most of the manufacturers are American companies such as United Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As you know, all private companies must make a profit to stay alive in business. One thing that bothers me is that if a private company makes weapons, it will always try to enhance them and push their sales regardless of endangering world peace and stability. Herein lies a major force that propels the arms race.

In communist and authoritarian countries, the government assumes total control of the weapons industry because they cannot allow the opposition to be armed. As a consequence, their weapons industries lack the profit push of a private enterprise characteristic of the capitalist system. This explains why American and European private manufacturers are always one step ahead in sophisticated weaponry. The state monopolies of non-democracies can only play catchup for their talents lack the profit incentives to move forward except to follow orders.

All governments will make or buy the weapons they need either for defense or offense, locally or overseas. Besides this huge military market, the drug lords and radical groups around the world are also buyers of lighter weapons in the black market. Since the attacks of 9/11, there is a new worry how to prevent terrorist groups from getting a nuclear bomb.

Being the top manufacturer, the United States is also the top buyer of weapons. In 2016, the US defense budget amounted to $600 billion compared with $1,000 billion for the rest of the world (Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies). The huge weapons spending leads to some simple questions — What will they do with such a big stockpile year after year? Do they take pleasure in just looking at them, or find an excuse to use them?

Fortunately, a third world war has not occurred since 1945 perhaps due to the fear of nuclear weapons where nobody wins. However, the world is full of regional conflicts such as in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq where the US was directly involved with a huge loss of lives and resources. Although wars are complicated to understand, the American public correctly believes that all the wars since Vietnam are stupid wars that also prove to be quagmires. Wars are cruel for ordinary people, but are profitable for arms dealers and private military contractors, especially without an end in sight. Will these self-serving merchants try to promote wars? You bet they do. But how?

In communist or authoritarian countries, the leaders make wars for their own survival or to solidify their political positions. They don’t need to make money out of wars because their high positions already guarantee their lavish lifestyles. They are restrained not by the people or the constitution, but by their own capabilities and the military strengths of their opponents.

On the other hand, the US and other democratic countries make wars by employing high-sounding excuses like defending freedom and democracy. Occasionally, they employ highly technical smokescreens like weapons of mass destruction as seen playing out in the Iraq war. These excuses are good enough to garner public support. But how can they persuade the legislators to approve the war and its budget? Some money in the form of campaign contributions will help. As the Iraq war gradually unfolded, the public finally discovered that the Bush Administration invaded Iraq under false pretense. Many legislators and top officials have benefited hugely either from military contracts or from campaign money donated by the weapons manufacturers and war merchants. The sad thing is that this is all legal under US laws even though it brings tremendous sufferings to the American people.

Now we understand why President Eisenhower cautions the American people to be vigilant about the rising power of the military-industrial complex whose salesmen will seduce the country into war that will endanger world peace and stability.

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