Direct flights to the US from Vietnam

Last week, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced in a press release that Vietnam’s aviation industry meets the international safety requirements. The approval means that Vietnam carriers can now open direct flights from the S-shaped country to the US.

It is a huge announcement. There are hundreds of folks traveling back and forth between the two countries on a daily basis, whether it’s for business, leisure or just a quick family visit. As of this writing, flights from Vietnam to the US have at least one layover. If you live in a less popular city like myself in Omaha, it will require at least two stops. In my experience, it took me 3 stops and at least 33 hours for a one-way trip. Layovers are just a waste of time. It’s not just about the time spent at the airports, but also about the hassle in scheduling.

Direct flights will definitely ease the pain and facilitate the travel between the countries. It’s a boon for tourism and commerce. So much productivity can be saved. American travelers will be more tempted to visit Vietnam as the first destination in the region when the flights are no longer as long and taxing as they were.

I am really excited about this development for my country. Becoming a flight hub matters a great deal to our tourism and economy. There is still a very long way to go, but it’s a bright first step. I really hope the carriers in Vietnam will jump at this opportunity.

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

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!

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.

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.

Tipping culture

This morning, a friend shared with me a passage from an online article, as follows:

A 2018 survey found people ages 18–27 are the most likely to shortchange the restaurant waitstaff. In fact, 10 percent admitted to routinely leaving no tip at all. Here’s a tip for all you millennials: Try leaving a few bucks on the table instead of posting pictures of your food to social media.

I found it baffling. The tipping culture in the US or Canada doesn’t really make sense to me. Wait staff enters a labor agreement with restaurant owners for a reason. They agree to the benefits and compensation offered by the owners. Without any involvement from customers. Customers have nothing to do with that. Yet, customers are forced to make up for the low wage. In some cases, tips are just expected, but in others, tips are automatically added to the bills. For the past two and a half years in the US, I could count on two hands the times when I felt satisfied with customer services at restaurants. Staff repeatedly and unnecessarily interferes in my conversation with the people I am with or rushes us out by proposing the bill when we are not done yet. Yet, tips are either expected or forced. How does that make sense?

As users, we are pissed that companies do something related to us without our consent, such as sharing our data. We are annoyed by others telling us what to do without consulting us beforehand. Then, why should the tipping “standard” be any different and acceptable? And as diners, why should we defend the owners paying low wages by arguing that it’s a standard?

I would love to pay a little bit more for the meals if it meant that wait staff got a higher wage. In that case, I wouldn’t have to tolerate the tips forced on me without my consent or the overly eager services by staff. Tipping is a standard, but it can be changed and should be. For the better.

Matt Damon: It won’t fill you up

My weekly schedule now includes 20 hours as a Graduate Assistant at school, 20 hours of internship, two Capstones which include hours and hours of in-class sessions, team meetings and individual work. Needless to say, I feel pretty much drained and can’t wait to see out the semester and my degrees. 

For some reason, I came across the below interview by Matt Damon. I saw it the first time almost exactly a year ago, the time I was trying to find a way to be happier in life. It was a great coincidence. Today, I saw it again on my YouTube timeline and it was a nice reminder. Listen to what he had to say about his Oscar win


Even though I sleep for only 4-5 hours a day and every morning I feel like crap, there may be a chance that I won’t feel as happy after graduation as I think I will now. There is a chance that grinding for hours like I have been doing is what will make me happy. There is a chance that learning new stuff and doing meaningful work every day like this will make me happy. Who knows?

Nonetheless, have a listen. You may like it as I do 

Winter Tires & Double-layer Window

As it is cold enough every day to force everyone to wear extra layers of clothes, winter is about to enter our life. In an unpleasant way. I, for one, don’t welcome its presence. The darkness makes it hard to get up in the morning. I feel a tad more listless in the morning and the change in weather can easily get any of us sick or at least a sore throat over night.

Every winter, I can’t help but notice a couple of differences in a way Americans deal with the snow and cold, compared to how I saw Europeans do so.

Winter Tires

As far as I am concerned, winter tires are not usually required legally in America, or at least some states such as Nebraska. On the contrary, cars in Europe are required to have winter grippier tires to make driving safer. Given that schools in the US are cancelled when there are only a few inches of snow already (that’s perfectly normal in Finland), it’s surprising that we don’t have regulations mandating the use of winter tires.

Double-layer Glass

I have seen any building in Nebraska that has more than one layer of glass, unlike what I saw in Finland where apartment windows are equipped with two layers of glass. One of my friends in our building had to buy some tapes to stop the cold air from going through the one-layer glass window since it cost too much to keep it warm. Collectively, if we had more cold-resistant windows, how much energy/electricity would be saved?