Archive for October, 2013

Upon reading the news about a proposed barter deal where Thailand would trade rice and other agricultural products for high speed train components for its high speed rail megaproject, it occurred to me that this is another example of bypassing the petro-dollar. There are already a bunch of China currency swap deals aimed at bypassing the US dollar in international trade. Barter deals are another way to achieve that end.

Instead of buying agricultural products in the traditional way, which involves currency transactions that end up passing through the USD, they would barter agicultural goods directly for train components. The amounts involved are fairly significant. They are talking about more than one million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of rubber per year for the next five years. Price per ton for rice varies quite a bit depending on the type and quality (see the Thai Rice Exporters’ pricing page here), ranging from USD400 to nearly USD1200 per ton currently. Let’s just take the average as USD800 for arguments sake. That would be USD800 million per year for rice. Maybe they will hit a billion USD or more per year with the combined agricultural products. Not bad.

A couple years ago China and Iran were talking about a barter deal so Iran could sell oil without being hamstrung by U.S. sanctions. There are also deals or proposed deals between Iran and India and South Korea. These bartering deals, especially involving big ticket items like oil, could add to the erosion of the petro-dollar’s strength.

I’m into the third week of the UI (user interface) design course I am taking via Coursera called Human Computer Interaction. The lectures for this week include a discussion of some prototyping techniques to use to quickly create a mockup of the interface for your system. The objective is to have a prototype to put in front of users to see how they interact with it and identify issues early in the development cycle. One of the techniques is called the “Wizard of Oz” method.

The name is inspired by the movie of the same name in which the wizard is really just a small man behind a curtain who is pulling the levers to make something much bigger appear operational. This technique is really great for early evaluation of user interfaces because you don’t have to spend a lot of time solving complex issues in the backend. You just need to have an interface that looks somewhat realistic. A “wizard”, which is a person behind the scenes not usually visible to the users, operates the controls to make it appear as if an automated system is actually running everything.

Today I was reading a story at Natural News with the headline “Head fake! Is only an empty shell MOCKUP of a working Obamacare exchange?” and it struck me right away that maybe really is just a mockup in a Wizard of Oz prototype fashion. All the evidence would seem to indicate that. Like the fact that the people in charge can’t even say how many people have signed up through the system. That kind of information just falls out of a real system. Maybe they don’t know because it really is just a mockup with a bunch of people behind the scenes pulling the levers and they have to poll all them and collate the information before they know.

Another reason to think it might just be a mockup is how quickly and thoroughly it has been overwhelmed. Seriously, any system designed for this purpose would have to consider this volume of users at initial roll-out. I don’t think there is really any system on the backend.

And finally, anyone who has done contract work for the government knows how ridiculous it is. It is standard procedure to have specifications thrown at you that are bloated, poorly written, and often times scoped by inexperienced people. Then the specs get changed repeatedly, causing rework and delays. Then there is a funding issue at the end of each fiscal year when funding runs out, the project has to shutdown, and then later gets restarted again when the funding finally comes through, but in the mean time the previous development team went off and found other jobs. I know this one well from my previous work at an aerospace firm where I was a project manager.

My guess is that the system was not completed in time due to all the vagaries of government contracting. The government was firmly committed to a roll out date, but the system wasn’t ready so they threw up a mockup. The wizards, of course, were immediately overwhelmed.

Starbucks sues Thai street vendor

Posted: October 21, 2013 in Thailand

In what might seem a case of a large multinational bullying a small local business, Starbucks is suing a Thai street vendor for infringing on its logo. The street vendor’s business is named Starbung and the owner claims his logo is his own original work that is based on how he makes his coffee and the color green for his religion. Here are the two logos side by side:
Uh, yeah. That right there is what you call infringement. It’s so obviously a direct takeoff. That vendor probably thought Starbucks would never bother a little guy like him. He doesn’t realize that they have to, because if they don’t fight such obvious infringements, even small time ones, they eventually lose their copyright. Starbung should have just dropped it when the cease and desist letter arrived. Trading on the Starbucks logo may have been good while it lasted but he has been found out.

On the other hand, enforcement in Thailand is pretty lax so even if Starbucks pursues and wins the lawsuit it is unlikely that anyone will be interested in enforcing the judgement. Although, if local police were to learn of the judgement it would offer them a fresh extortion opportunity – a small regular payment to keep them from shutting down Starbung. That’s probably how it will go.

List of China currency swap deals

Posted: October 19, 2013 in Economy

I saw the news that China and the EU have now signed a currency swap deal, the latest in the big move by China to cut the USD out of their global commerce affairs. I keep reading one story after another about these deals so started searching for a list of which countries have entered into currency swap arrangements with China. I read that as of October 15 there were 24 currency swap arrangements but I could not find a consolidated list so here is my attempt.

Countries with currency swap deals with China:

  • EU
  • Indonesia
  • South Korea
  • UK
  • Australia
  • Iceland
  • UAE
  • Malaysia
  • Nigeria
  • Chile
  • Singapore
  • Vietnam
  • Brazil(?)
  • Taiwan (still in talking stage)

What are the rest of the 24? Some stories I read sounded like the deals were not fully implemented but still in the trial stages. So I’m not sure of the rest. Most of them are in the range of a few tens of billions of US dollar equivalent. Small change taken individually but a few billion here and there adds up after a while. And of course if things go well the swaps will grow in size as time goes on.

I have been living in Thailand for more than ten years now. It was an adjustment at first (major understatement). But after figuring out how to find the things I need and get things done I have settled into a very comfortable lifestyle. For me, it is far superior to living in the U.S. Your mileage may vary – many westerners never adjust and bail out after the honeymoon period.

There are a few things I miss about the U.S. Being from Southern California where we are spoiled for choice of Mexican food I do miss that. There are just a handful of Mexican restaurants in all of Thailand and they are all located in Bangkok. I don’t live there so the best I can do is buy some packaged seasonings and make my own. Recently the local Makro mega store started carrying tortillas so that is a plus, although they are not fresh for sure, and seem kind of weird as if they are specially processed for long shelf life, nothing like the fresh ones back in SoCal. Ok, so lack of Mexican food is a pretty trivial issue given how many other great food choices we have here. So what are the real disadvantages of being an expat in Thailand?

After all this time I finally encountered something that I consider a real issue for an expat in Thailand like me. It came up during the first week of a Coursera course I am taking called Human Computer Interaction. I am taking that course as part of a program to flesh out my web app development skills. Recently I completed 10gen’s MongDB for Nodejs Developers. MongoDB is a NoSQL database that is rapidly gaining usage. Prior to that I completed the Stanford Startup Engineering course where we put together a complete development flow and built a web app using Git, AWS, Nodejs and Bootstrap. When I built mine I added MongoDB, hence the 10gen course to boost my skills there.

So now I am developing skills to put a top quality user interface on my web app via the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) course. One of the first steps in creating an effective interface is what is called “needfinding”. It involves directly observing users performing the tasks that you are attempting to address with your system, noting how they do things and the issues they encounter. The tools and methods for doing this that we are learning in HCI are very effective. With great interest I am diving in.

And I have encountered an issue. Because of where I live and the nature of the surrounding population I am pretty well inhibited from doing any real needfinding. My interface is in English. That means the vast majority of the Thai population cannot be engaged for needfinding. In my local area there are no Thais I know of who can read English. So that leaves me with a few choices.

  1. I could translate the interface to Thai and do needfinding with locals. This is quite cumbersome because translation also involves localization to reflect local usage norms. That could be as big a project as the interface itself. That would make sense if my target was Thai people, but for my initial interface my target is a particular segment of the English literate population.
  2. I could try to do it all online via Skype or screencasts. This has potential but one of the main thrusts of the needfinding step is to observe users in the actual environment they would use the interface. Another strong theme is to avoid investing a lot of time in a high fidelity mockup in the early stages, certainly not before you have done neefinding. Creating a screencast is just wrong at this stage. Trying to observe via Skype is just such an incomplete observation.
  3. I could try to connect with westerners and “internationalized” Thais in Bangkok. There are a number of meetup groups and co-working locations where I could potentially find users for my needfinding efforts. This would require a lot of scheduling to coincide with meetup dates and travel (3 hours drive each way from my location to a meetup in the Sathorn area of Bangkok).

Given my constraints it looks like I will have to settle for the Apprentice track of the HCI course rather than the Studio track that I wanted to follow. I do plan to complete as much of each assignment as possible but will not have the types of observations and interviews that are required to be graded. However, the interface I am developing is for the itinerary rating app I previously created and the motivation for it came from observing the issues on travel forums. So I am going to do try to do the observation steps, albeit indirectly, by analyzing forums postings.

The motivation for this post came from reading a story by someone who wrote about bootstrapping a startup in Thailand that I saw mentioned on Linkedin. The writer talked about how great it was for 6 months in Thailand and kept mentioning how cheap the food was. Those are typical impressions of a short term resident, newbie impressions if you will. Food is cheap until you get tired of eating cheap food. If you want a decent steak you will pay at least triple what it would cost in the U.S. Electronics are more expensive. Cars are way more expensive. The list goes on. But the newbie comments weren’t what motivated me. It was the discussion of isolation. In some ways that is good. But when it comes to doing UI/UX development isolation is not good.

I shouldn’t be smug about this. Being smug tempts fate. But I can’t help it, because I don’t have to sign up for Obamacare! That’s right. Because I am an expat I can completely ignore all the nonsense and overreach of the U.S government as it forces everyone residing in the U.S. to purchase a product even if they don’t want it. As an expat who resides more than 330 days per year outside of the U.S. I am presumed to have “Minimal Essential Coverage” under the ACA so I am not required to purchase health insurance and am not subject to any penalty for not doing so.

So now that I have tempted fate by gloating about this I will worry that the USG overreach will extend further, and in the future they will force people like me who don’t even visit the U.S., and therefore cannot receive medical care in the U.S., to purchase U.S. health insurance anyway. They could very well do that since they already do many things that are completely unreasonable. Perhaps if they do force that on expats they will make some sense of it by requiring insurance benefits to be paid to where we actually use medical services, which is at our local medical facilities outside the U.S. That might be reasonable, although it is likely that the cost of insurance will far exceed any benefit we receive. That’s because I can meet my “Minimal Essential Coverage” by paying out of pocket since I get better health care at a fraction of the cost compared to the U.S. Here’s a good example, my foot surgery at Siriraj Hospital.

After I had that surgery I wondered how much would it cost in the U.S. Questions like that have long been tough to answer due to the sleazy evasiveness of the U.S. medical industry who won’t quote prices and just drop a bomb on you afterwards with outrageous fees. For this post I did some Googling and found something interesting called They list a “fair price” of US$16,398 for foot surgery consisting of $2,074 for physician services, $13,855 for hospital services, and $469 for anesthesia services. Here is the link. Interesting. That is 20 times the price I paid when I had my surgery at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok by one of the top foot specialists in the country. Let me just say that I am a bit surprised the multiple is that high. I was expecting a multiple of 5 to 10.

Now what would happen if I had to buy insurance under Obamacare? I’m guessing that a single year of premiums would be more than the US$709 I paid for the surgeon + two nights in a private hospital room + anesthesia that I paid for my foot surgery. And of course I would have some deductible, probably at least 10% of the bill which would be at least US$1,600 for that surgery in the U.S. So probably at least, I mean the very least, I would be US$2,500 out of pocket for that procedure if I had U.S. insurance and did it in the U.S. And of course I would not have enjoyed the warm care and hospitality of the Thai medical staff; they are so nice and make you feel so comfortable even in difficult circumstances.

So no thanks America. I will stay right where I am. I just need to keep working on how to protect my hard-earned assets from the next attempted grab by the USG. We all do, no matter who we are or where we are.