The system needs to be improved and we need to be better

I came across some disturbing facts today. According to the USAToday, below are a few ramifications from the most recent shutdown:

Almost a quarter reduced or eliminated spending on health or medical expenses for themselves or their family

One in four visited a food bank

Forty-two percent took on new debt to pay for day-to-day expenses and bills. Two in five turned to family or friends, while one in five borrowed from a bank or credit union

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released the following:

Auto loan and student debts reach 1.265 and 1.442 trillion dollars respectively. Trillion with a T and one trillion is a thousand billion. Astonishing numbers. Clearly, something is horribly wrong right now when many Americans are living paycheck by paycheck and saddled with debt for things that are supposed to make their life better, namely education and cars. That’s not to mention mortgage or healthcare in emergency cases yet, but you should get the picture.

The facts above mean that many Americans will have little to almost no safety net. If a paycheck stops coming, all hells break loose. Debt payments wait for no one. Food must be put on the table. Utilities bills must be paid. Consequently, all the best years of our lives, theoretically, namely our 20s and 30s, are dedicated to just work and pay our debt. I mean, if we have to spend hours to just survive with little freedom, how is it different from modern slavery? How sad is it that we can’t afford to take time off to enjoy life because of the debt over our head? Or how frustrating is it to not have the freedom to choose and do what we want for the same reason?

I am no policy expert and I understand that it’s complicated to fix any of those issues. But there are things that we can definitely do, in my opinion, on an individual level because I totally believe that some efforts and adjusting our lifestyle can steer us away from a giant amount of debt.

Avoiding a high tuition tab

I met a few guys at UNO who dropped classes after already committing tuition fees for those classes’ credits. Two people in particular considered dropping out after two years into their degrees at the time. Understandably, there are some cases in which we all consider changing majors and hence, future career paths, but such cases are not the majority. Dropping out of classes is just an irresponsible use of money and time. Hence, finishing out classes and degrees will help us avoid getting more debt

I came to the US in 2016 with a graduate assistantship at school. In exchange for 20 hours working at school, I had all tuition fees and around 70% of my insurance waived. At University of Nebraska at Omaha, it meant around $7000 a semester, including summer courses. In total, I saved $49,000 of tuition fees after 7 semesters at school, let alone the insurance subsidy on top of that. If you don’t have a better alternative (a paying job), such a position can mean a lot of money saved and debt avoided.

Lower your textbook expense

High textbook prices are ridiculous in the US and Canada. Brand new textbooks which are usually required by professors for 4-5 courses a semester can amount up to $1,000. Being smart about how to spend on books can lead to significant savings. I wrote about two ways to save on book expense.

Take advantage of disruptions in education

Recent developments in the industry bring about more opportunities for affordable education for students. I wrote a bit about Lambda here. Basically, Lambda allows students to have intensive courses in IT with no down payment in advance. Upon graduation and after securing a job paying more than $50,000/year, students will pay back 17% of monthly salary for two years. The cap is $30,000 and if for some reasons, you get fired, no payment is required until you are employed again.

George Tech offers a $7,000 Master degree in Computer Science while WSJ reported the rising popularity of free college programs in certain states. If possible, take advantage of these affordable options. In fact, if you are an American or a permanent resident, you are luckier than immigrants like I am. The option above from Lambda is only available now to US Citizens or US Permanent Residents or EU Citizens. The rest has to make a down payment of $20,000.

Hold off on that new car

I traveled to Philadelphia last summer. A friend there told me about her roommate getting an auto loan for a new car on top of her 6-figure student debt. While I don’t think the story is typical of every student, it’s not an outlier either. It just doesn’t make sense to get a loan on something that doesn’t create value and instead diminishes in value over time. If a guy like Warren Buffett can live well and happily with an old car, I think broke students or graduates should be fine with driving used cars.

Study personal finance

It’s a pity that we don’t get to learn much about personal finance at school. I personally believe that it’s one of the most important things we should get out of college. Nonetheless, it will be immensely helpful to learn it in your free time and apply it to our life. A lot of our financial trouble comes from the lack of knowledge on personal finance and financial planning.

Humans of New York and Brandon Stanton

I am a big fan of Humans of New York. There are so many great stories told in just ordinary yet moving languages. Whenever I run into those stories, they just create beautiful moments in my days and lift the spirit a little bit. In the time when racism, lack of compassion and cynicism are dangerously present as our time now, stories like the one below offers a pure and beautiful break

Source: Humans of New York

I also recommend the interview between Tim Ferriss and the founder of Humans of New York. It’s an engaging and incredible interview shedding light on his story and the struggle he went through to have his photo project take off

Thoughts on Venezuela and the alleged association between social welfare and socialism

Every time free education and healthcare for all is mentioned in the US, the chief criticism is that the proposal will throw the country into socialism and dismay. Critics cite Venezuela as the failed example of socialism and an outcome that the US must avoid. Seeking for the truth, I decided to do a little bit research on Venezuela and what actually took place to see. My intention is to see if the criticism is well-founded. Below are my findings.

What transpired in Venezuela

Dependent on oil, Venezuela’s economy fluctuates in tandem with oil price. In the 1970s, Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the world, due to rising price of the valuable substance. In the following decade, a decline in oil price brought Venezuela to its knees. The economy contracted while inflation rose steadily, hitting its peak of 81% in 1989. In response, the government cut spending, but its effect was almost nonexistent. Half of the population lived under poverty in the latter half of the 1990s. Inflation rate was 100% in 1996. Deadly chaos saw multiple deaths.

In 1992, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup, was arrested and sent to prison for two years. After his release, he ran for the presidency in 1998, vowing to give the power back to the people of Venezuela and use oil money to re-distribute wealth in the country. He won the election in an impressive fashion and with a significant margin.

After the election, Hugo Chavez started social programs that left positive impact on healthcare, education, unemployment and poverty in the country.

  • Unemployment rate went down from 19.2% in 2003 to 9.3% in 2007 and 7.8% in 2009
  • “The most pronounced difference has been in the area of health care. In 1998 there were 1,628 primary care physicians for a population of 23.4 million. Today, there are 19,571 for a population of 27 million. In 1998 there were 417 emergency rooms, 74 rehab centers and 1,628 primary care centers compared to 721 emergency rooms, 445 rehab centers and 8,621 primary care centers (including the 6,500 “check-up points,” usually in poor neighborhoods, and that are in the process of being expanded to more comprehensive primary care centers) today. Since 2004, 399,662 people have had eye operations that restored their vision. In 1999, there were 335 HIV patients receiving antiretroviral treatment from the government, compared to 18,538 in 2006.”
  • Poverty rate dropped from 55.1% in 2003 to 27.5% in 2007
  • “Access to education has also increased substantially. For example, the number of public schools in the country has increased by 3,620 from 17,122 in the 1999/2000 school year to 20,873 in the 2004/2005 school year. By comparison, in the period between the 1994/1995 and 1998/1999 school years, the number of public schools increased by 915. School enrollment has also increased at all educational levels. For example, in the period between the 1999/2000 and 2005/2006 school years, gross enrollment rates for preschool have increased by 25 percent, for primary education by 8.3 percent, for secondary education by 45 percent and for higher education by 44 percent.”

A labor strike in 2003 at PDVSA, a stated-owned oil company responsible for the exploration, production and exportation of oil in Venezuela, severely damaged oil production and hence the economy, with GDP falling 27% during the first half of 2003. After the strike, Chavez also began a plethora of actions to concentrate his power and radicalize his agenda:

  • Fired highly experienced workers at the state-owned PDVSA
  • Eliminated term limits
  • Established a Supreme Court that was friendly to him
  • Oppressed free press
  • Nationalized key industries in the country
  • Imposed subsidies on food and consumer goods
  • Expropriated private companies

The country’s finance relied almost completely on export income, not taxes, dominantly made of oil export income. In 2004, oil price hit $100 and climbed higher in the years after. The hike in oil price allowed Chavez to fund his social programs, nationalization of key industries, foreign borrowing and import of, well, almost everything.

However, oil price started to decline in 2014, throwing Venezuela into chaos. Years of toxic dependence on oil and lack of proper investment in agriculture as well as manufacturing robbed the country of an ability to be self-sustained. Suddenly, the country no longer had sufficient income to finance its import of food as well as consumer goods, and its debt payment. Food and medicines became rare. Inflation went up dramatically. The economy entered a free fall. After Chavez died in 2013, Maduro took over and started his quest for dictatorship. Electoral manipulation, oppression of free speech, censorship and violation of human rights were the hallmarks of Maduro’s reign. Recently, the United States and other countries refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

Definition of socialism

The freedictionary website describes socialism as follows:

  1. (Economics) an economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are ownedby the community collectively, usually through the state. It is characterized by production for use rather than profit, by equality of individual wealth, by the absence of competitive economic activity, and, usually, by government determination of investment, prices, and production levels. 
  2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) any of various social or political theories or movements in which the common welfare is to be achieved through the establishment of a socialist economic system

The definitions clearly point out that common welfare alone isn’t enough to label a country “socialist”. It has to come with the state-controlled means of production, distribution and exchange.

Thoughts

That is also the exact reason why the US and Venezuela can’t be more different. While the former’s economy is the epitome of a free economy in the world, the latter’s is tightly controlled by the state. Also, the US economy doesn’t have the level of dependence on oil as Venezuela does. Saying that implementation of free healthcare and education is equal to launching America into socialism ignores completely the difference in the two countries’ economic systems.

Would free social welfare lead to chaos? Advanced countries such as Western Europeans, Australia and Japan provide their citizens with free education and healthcare. Yet, those countries’ economies are anything, but similar to what Venezuela presents. Hence, the alleged association of social welfare and socialism seems ill-founded in my opinion. Instead, the fear mongering and propaganda, I believe, are driven by corporations and individuals whose interests would be in jeopardy with the implementation of free education and healthcare.

Every social system has its strengths and weaknesses. As mentioned above, Hugo Chavez managed to do some goods for his people, a fact that has been conveniently ignored by the media and politicians. Yet, socialism is flawed and the flaws in the case of Venezuela are exacerbated by a colossal failure in governance and management. There was no check on the regime that drifted into an authoritarian. Oil money wasn’t reinvested properly into agriculture and manufacturing, areas that could have made Venezuela more self-sustaining and less dependent on oil.

On the other hand, capitalism isn’t perfect either. While free markets allow for innovation, fiscal freedom and growth, it usually comes with income inequality. Take the US for instance. The top three billionaires own more than the poor half of the country combined. While many Americans don’t have $400 ready for an emergency, the US is home to 25% of the world’s billionaires and more billionaires than Germany, China and India combined.

To have a fair society and strong economy, a balanced mix of socialism and capitalism is better than a lone pursuit of either, I believe. In fact, that’s the model adopted by Western European countries. Social benefits are financed by high taxes in a free market to ensure that the less wealthy have more help and the playing field is more even. While a combination of socialism and capitalism may work in theory, the implementation is guaranteed to have many nuances, given the differences in natural resources, cultures, demographics and other factors in each country. The devil is in the details. Any claim that a social system doesn’t work because of a failed example somewhere else without thorough review of each country’s conditions is false, in my opinion. Sadly, that is usually what happens in the news.

References

Some sources that helped me with this piece:

https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis

https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R44841.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/garthfriesen/2018/08/07/the-path-to-hyperinflation-what-happened-to-venezuela/#595ca58d15e4

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/05/venezuela-worst-economic-crisis-wrong-170501063130120.html

https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/15/the-countries-with-the-most-billionaires.html

https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/46713/venezuela_update_2008_02.pdf

Thought on Howard Schultz’s alleged presidential run

There has been significant coverage on Howard Schultz’s intention of running in 2020 as an Independent. The coverage, as I have seen so far, has been pretty negative, coming from multiple angles and parties. Most don’t want him to run. The hostility makes me think about the implications of democracy. Specifically, the reaction from Democrats startles me.

In a democratic society, everyone is allowed to voice their opinion and do what is permitted by the laws. Hence, the criticisms and hostility towards Howard Schultz are perfectly fine. What should have been better is the reaction from Democrats, in my opinion. It’s almost a given that Donald Trump, as the sitting president, will be the GOP nominee in 2020. The GOP so far has shown in multiple instances that it is no longer the party of rules, laws and principles as it claims. As a party that advocates democracy and the word is actually part of the party’s name, the Democrats should encourage the principles of a democratic society.

Instead, they complain about the possibility that Independents such as Howard Schultz will take votes away from their candidates and help re-elect Trump. In truth, so many voters in 2016 sat out of the election because they didn’t like any of the candidates from the two main parties. I myself talked to a few of them in Nebraska. Therefore, if voters don’t like your candidates, what difference would having Independents like Schultz make?

Plus, telling Howard Schultz to stand down goes against the principles of democracy. In the time of confusion right now, the Democrats ought to try to emphasize the principles of democracy. Also, they should just stop trying too hard to be relevant such as Elizabeth Warren’s DNA going-nowhere story or her having a beer in the kitchen on Instagram. Instead, work on practical agendas and communication. Convince voters why your candidates should be elected, rather than criticize or discourage those who just exercise their rights.

At the end of the day, there is a price for everything, including living in a democratic society, isn’t there?

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Holiday

Tomorrow will be the official start of the Lunar New Year holiday in Vietnam. It’ll be the third straight holiday that I have missed since I landed in the US 2.5 years ago. Time does fly, doesn’t it?

Contrary to what may be the conventional thinking, I personally don’t think Lunar New Year, or we call “Tet” in Vietnamese, isn’t a great time to visit for foreigners. Big cities will be seriously less crowded since folks go back to their hometown to spend quality time with their families. Meanwhile, folks who were born and raised in big cities such as myself will likely travel somewhere. Hence, big cities become boring and popular destinations become too annoying.

I’ll let you in a little secret. Tet is only truly great during the days leading up to the first day of the holiday. Families gather and hustle to decorate houses and prepare for the holiday. The sense of togetherness is greater than ever during the 365 days of sunsets of the year. After the first day, it’s just formalities and gift-changing for a few days before the normal life kicks in again. In the past, my family used to prepare marinated allium chinense in jars. But my grandmother, mother and aunts are now too occupied and old to do it. Time doesn’t spare anyone in its wake, does it? I missed that time. The tradition is no longer there and there is something missing during Tet.

Cách làm dưa kiệu ngon, trắng giòn, để lâu không hỏng
Source: sieungon

Personally, I like Tet. Growing up in the economic capital of Vietnam, I grow used to and sick of the terrible traffic in the city. 12 million people hustle every day to make ends meet. During Tet, the majority which is made of ambitious immigrants from poorer provinces go home to spend time with family, a privilege of which life strips them during the other 345 days of the year. Hence, traffic is much more pleasant during Tet and I like it.

This will be my 3rd consecutive time missing out on Tet since landing in America 2.5 years ago. This is not my first rodeo, but it sure doesn’t make it any easier. Anyway, I really hope 2019 will be better than it has been to me so far. The calendar will turn pages in about 22 hours. Finger fucking crossed!

Examples of good and bad user experience

Sometimes we run into designs or features that are either a pleasant surprise or leave us with some degree of annoyance, wishing that they could be better. Below are a few I came across today

Bad – Twitter Mobile App

I was strolling down my Twitter app this afternoon and ran into a tweet that was marked sensitive. When I clicked on the message, I was redirected to the web version of Twitter and prompted to enter my credentials to change safety settings. I wonder why that has to be the case. If that’s my phone and Twitter account, why can’t it take place within the app?

Bad – iMessage Search Function

Great at their intuitive design as they may be, Apple still has one feature that annoys me very much: the search function on iMessage. Both the desktop and mobile versions are pretty terrible in this sense. If you want to search for a particular word in messages, get ready to be frustrated. The software only shows the latest message that contains the keyword. It doesn’t show the other messages that contain the keyword. Users have to search through the entire chat history manually.

Good – ASOS Return Label

On Amazon, if you want to return stuff that you bought, but don’t like, the typical process will be like this:

  • Go to your order history
  • Choose the goods you want to return
  • Choose a reason
  • Either print out the label your own or
  • Save a QR code, go to a UPS store, have the store print out the label for you
  • Send the goods back to Amazon

Depending on how you have your stuff delivered in the first place, you may have to print multiple labels for your returns.

On ASOS, the process is much better. In the delivered package that is pretty fast in my experience, they include a printed label already for you. All you need to do is to mark the reasons for return and paste the label on the package.

Good – Apple Verification Code

With the latest iOS, you no longer have to remember verification codes from software providers. When the code is sent to you, a small window will popup on the screen below the field that you are supposed to enter the code to. One touch on the window and the code is immediately passed to the field. No more multiple touches and remembering the code by heart momentarily.

Source: gadgethacks

Easy guide on how to push code to your GitHub Master branch

This post is a simple guide on how to push your code to GitHub from a command line. I am using a Mac, so it will be a little different for Windows users.

Let’s say if I have a folder called MinhDuong in this directory Documents/GitHub/MinhDuong

Step 1: on your command line, go to the same directory. In my case, it will look like this on my command line

Step 2: set up the remote URL

Basically, you want to make sure you will push the code to the right place. If you have a new repository, run this code:

git remote set-url origin "your repo URL goes here" (without the quotation marks)

If you are updating an existing repo, run “git remote -v” to figure out which repo you’re currently connected to. Here is how it looks on mine, exactly where I want it to be

Step 3: run “git status” to see if there are pending files to be pushed. If you’re pushing to a new repo, this shouldn’t matter much. However, if you are updating an existing repo, this will show the difference between the current folder on your local and the repo.

Step 4: now is the time to add files. If you want to add all files, run “git add .”. Remember the space and the dot after the word “add”.

Step 5: run

git commit -m "whatever comment you want"

Step 6: run

git push origin master

Then you are done.

Lengthen your breath, lengthen your life

I came across an article by Scientific American on the health benefits of deep slow breathing. According to the article, deep slow breathing can improve our health and attention while reducing stress, anxiety and preventing insomnia. The technique seems fairly easy. Sit straight, inhale for 5 straight seconds slowly, and exhale for the same amount of time. Do it for 15 minutes (5-minutes each, 3 times) a day for 365 days. I have tried it for a few days and it has been positive so far.

The method was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.

Cardiac coherence’s stabilization of the heartbeat can dampen anxiety powerfully. Conversely, patients with overactive heartbeats are sometimes misdiagnosed as victims of panic attacks because their racing heartbeat affects their mind.

A typical cardiac coherence exercise involves inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). Biofeedback devices make it possible to observe on a screen how this deep, regular breathing slows and stabilizes the beats. (The space between two heartbeats on the display is never exactly the same, but it becomes increasingly more consistent with this technique.) Several studies have confirmed the anxiety-diminishing effect of these devices, although the equipment probably has more influence on the motivation to do the exercises (“It makes it seem serious, real”) than on the physiological mechanisms themselves. Simply applying slow breathing with the same conviction and rigor could well give the same result.

Each body is different. The technique may work on me, but may not work on you. However, if you are interested in improving your health with an easy method, have a look at the article.

Two good things about professional sports systems in America

As a big NBA fan, I have always been perplexed by the hatred towards the Golden State Warriors. The chief reason for it is that GSW has too many All Stars and that it is unfair to compete against them. I just find it hard to comprehend. If you look at football (I prefer football, but you may know it as soccer), GSW’s dominance is nowhere near the dominance that household names such as Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid has enjoyed for DECADES, if not years. Real Madrid and Barcelona together have won 58 out of 87 La Liga titles. Bayern Munich won 27 out of 56 Bundesliga titles. Together, those three clubs have won 22 of 64 Champions League titles, with Real Madrid winning a record of 13 and the last 4 out of 5. The odds of these clubs not winning their domestic leagues are just slim. Betting against them is almost as good as throwing money away.

These clubs have infinite finance and resources. They have money, brand name, legacy, scouts and infrastructure to attract any footballer in the world. It’s every player’s dream to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona. Even players at some of the biggest clubs in the world such as Manchester United or Liverpool want to play for the top two clubs at one point in their career. Unfortunately, there is no cap limit in football. There are some financial restrictions that forbid clubs to be in too much debt, but given these clubs outrageous abilities to generate revenue, these rules mean little to them. At one point, Real Madrid consecutively made record transfers with Figo, Zidane, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

That’s why I really love the draft pick and salary cap enforced on American sports teams. The two policies level the playing field much more than what happens in football. Draft picks allow inferior teams a chance at future stars. Salary caps ensure that teams cannot buy their way to success. Even if teams want to stack superstars, they run a risk of a hefty tax bill unless somehow they convince some of their stars to take a pay cut. Then, it becomes a management issue, not the money issue any more. If somehow a team can convince the likes of Durant to take a pay cut to help the team succeed, how can you dislike them? If that were your team, would you think that the criticism was fair?

Around 6 or 7 years ago, GSW was nowhere near a mainstream or dominant team that they are today. They used the draft picks to get the players who form the cornerstone of their success today. Curry, Thompson and Green were drafted at 7th, 11th and 35th positions respectively. Teams passed on the chances to sign them and GSW had the foresight to swoop in and take advantage. Plus, Curry signed a ridiculously cheap deal for a star of his stature. Thompson has consistently signaled that he prioritized staying and winning over money. Durant took pay cuts to play and win championships. Cousins earned only $5 million at GSW, a deal far from what he can earn given his talent. GSW is just better at the management than other teams. So don’t hate them for it. Be glad that there are draft pick and salary cap enforcements in the league.

Mattress Shopping

I have been using an air mattress for 2.5 years since I came to the US. It was a gift from two close friends who came here before me. It has done the job and been pretty convenient, especially when it came to moving. I have moved for a total of 3 times and had I had a queen-sized mattress, it would have been much trickier and more laborious.

However, I have been having trouble sleeping lately and back pain after sleep every night, something has to change. Since sleep is one of my priorities this year and moving forward, I can’t afford only 3-4 hours of sleep every night or feeling grumpy and listless the day after. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done before: mattress shopping.

Fortunately, I have a friend working as an assistant manager for a Mattress Firm store. Thanks to him, I learned quite a bit about mattresses:

  • There is quite a bit of science put into mattresses, pillows and bases. In short, a combination of an adjustable base, a reasonable pillow and mattress can help adjust the mattress to your sleeping body form, relieving the pressure, let’s say, from your back. The cooling effect can also aid your sleep
  • Unless you buy mattresses and other stuff out of the box (brand new), you are likely to have quite a considerable discount. Normally, folks can return mattresses in 120 days. When that happens, mattresses can be resold at a significant discount, even though materialistically and practically there should be no difference as the returned goods have to be checked and cleansed before any possible re-sell.
  • Build up your credit score. It enables a finance payment plan at zero interest. Some don’t have that option due to the lack of credit score or having a poor one

Personally, I rarely made any purchase of the size as I did today, but I figure if sleep is of high importance to me and I spend one third of my day on that mattress for some years to come, I’d better have something that I like and actually works. Same thing with almost everything in our life.