Thursday, November 29, 2018

Capitalism's Fatal Flaw: the Need for Numbers, at Any Cost

In Martin Mayer's The Bankers (1997), we learn that 
Is modern-day capitalism one giant pyramid scheme with many different sub-variations? Even before MLM, organizations focused more on membership growth than morality. After all, can't one more easily leverage membership into profit much more readily than principles? 

© Matthew Rafat (2018) 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Interview with Matteo of Semarang's Gelato Matteo

The Italians may not be the envy of the European Union when it comes to economic growth, but their traditions of excellent food and fashion continue. I met Matteo of Gelato Matteo, and we discussed his journey from Italy to Indonesia. 
Q: SemarangIndonesia seems like an odd choice to open any restaurant or cafe. It's not well-known to tourists. 

A: I came here for furniture because my mother was in the furniture business. Then I met my wife. So it's not totally a business decision, but I think it's much easier here than Jakarta. There's more opportunity in Jakarta but costs, such as rents, are higher than in Semarang. I've always wanted to do an ice cream shop, even when I was in Paris. 

Q: But you don't have an ice cream shop. You have a gelato shop. 

A: Ah, but in Italian, gelato is the word for ice cream. Sorbet has a water base. Gelato has a milk base. 

Q: You opened your first location in the old town area [Kota Lama]. Why did you open a new place about two miles away? 

A: Actually, my first shop was in Jalan Mataram, and the old town location is my second shop. The second shop has been open for two months. 

Q: What do you look for when opening a location?

Indonesia is more difficult than Italy. In Italy, we say there are three things to make success: location, location, location. Here is different. You can open in a mall [and get guaranteed pedestrian traffic], but it's very expensive. Outside [air-conditioned] malls, there's no pedestrian traffic, so my first location was a gamble. I just liked the place. I wanted to make sure people felt like they were in Italy as soon as they came in. I wanted people to stop with their cars and come inside. 
Thinking backwards, there are other areas that were more suitable. For example, this new location is in a touristy area. Kota Lama Semarang applied to be a UNESCO heritage site, so they're re-doing everything, including the roads. Soon you'll see the roads filled with stones used in the old time. We hope to obtain this [UNESCO] certification. 

Q: What are your recommendations to aspiring businessowners who want to minimize risks in case they want to move? Obviously, the longer the lease, the more leverage you have, but what criteria do you look for when opening a store? 

A: You need to have someone local. Best thing. My local person is my wife. She's the owner. I cannot own in my name. Actually, I could own a business here, but I would need to change my company and bring more capital. 

Q: You mentioned your work visa costs 1700 USD for only one year. What was the process like?

A: Even though I'm married to an Indonesian woman, Indonesia does not allow dual citizenship, so I'm retaining my Italian/EU passport. The process for my visa was not difficult because I speak the local language and my wife assisted me.  

Q: What are your most popular gelato flavors? 

A: The basics: chocolate and vanilla. I think our pistachio flavor is the most interesting. When we make a flavor, we sometimes use a water rather than a milk base, which brings out the flavor more. You cannot mask the flavor in a sorbet. Without egg yolks and excessive cream, the flavor will stand out. [Interviewer's note: I liked the pistachio flavor, but the dark chocolate and coffee impressed me the most.] 

Q: Funny you mention that. I just tried the avocado flavor and was turned off by it. I tasted unripe avocado, but if you had added more cream, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. 

A: [holds hands up in apology] Before my gelato cafe, I used to run a restaurant. I hated TripAdvisor. We would check it all the time, and it became a distraction. Some people are just mean for no reason. You can also buy reviews or get your friends to post positive reviews. 

Q: What's the most reliable review site?

A: Word of mouth. If I tell you I went to a place and enjoyed the food, that's the best [way]. Instagram is extremely popular in Indonesia, so we use that as much as we can. 

Q: What is the most frustrating aspect of being a businessowner in Indonesia? 

A: The electricity goes up and down, on and off. You need a generator. The employees here also need motivation. 

Q: Some people say employees aren't motivated because the compensation structure doesn't give them an ownership interest or some other personal interest in the business. 

A: I give a percentage of income to my employees. Like in the States, instead of having a tip, I give a commission. It's called a service charge, and it's automatically added to the bill, whether customers eat-in or take-away. Also, the employees who stand out, I give them extra salary. I have six employees in one shop, something I could never do in Italy or America--it would be too expensive. 

Q: What are the biggest cultural differences between Europeans and Indonesians? Both seem family oriented. 

A: People here are not encouraged to take risks. They never had a French Revolution here. They are not used to criticizing institutions, practices, each other, or leaders. Look at what happened to Ahok [Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, former Chinese-Christian mayor of Jakarta]. Two years' jail for blasphemy. In Italy, we criticize everything and everyone, even the Pope. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Interview with Ayu Nuarida: A Woman for All Seasons

Ayu Nuarida, a Yogyakarta native, recently received a one-year "working holiday" Australian visa, renewable for a total of three years. The conditions of her visa require working in either the hospitality or farming industries. As you might expect, she was quite excited, naming Tasmania, Sydney, and Darwin as potential destinations.
At Gelato Matteo in Semarang
Q: You were born and raised in Yogyakarta

A: Yes. 

Q: What do you like about Yogya?

A: Everything is pretty, cozy, and cheap. 

Q: What's something people don't know about Yogya?

A: Everyone comes to Yogya because of the temples, but neither city is technically in Yogya. Prambanan is half in Yogya, half in Klaten (central Java). Borobudur is in Magelang. 

Q: From the time you submitted your application, how long did it take to get your Australian visa? 

A: Only one month, but getting the necessary letters from police (criminal record check) and an interview with the Indonesian immigration department took several months. So even though I received my visa acceptance in November, I started the process in July.

Q: Wait, the Indonesian immigration department interviews you for an Australian visa?

A: Yes. The department gives one thousand letters to Indonesians to go abroad. Maybe next year, the quota is higher. The age must be under thirty. To work abroad, I need the permission of the Indonesian government.

Q: What is the Indonesian government [in partnership with the Aussie government] looking for? 

A: Passport valid for 18 months, bank account showing 5,000 Australian dollars, a minimum score of 4.5 on the IELTS (English competency test). You also need a college degree of at least three years' study or to be an active student with at least two years of study. 

Q: What is your educational background?

A: I attended public schools from 6 until 17 years old. From 14 to 17, I chose to attend a vocational high school to study computer networking. I expected to work right after high school. 

Q: What did you do after high school?

A: I was working and traveling [in Indonesia]. Then I started college at 22 to study Batik [Indonesian design and dying process on clothing] and fashion. 

Q: What made you attend college, and how much did it cost?

A: I was bored, and I didn't have any goals. Also, people would treat me differently when I told them I wasn't well-educated. For the Australian working holiday visa, I needed a college diploma. Tuition fees each year were 4 million rupiah [275 USD] and the diploma required three years full-time study. 

Q: What do you expect in Australia?

A: I expect to make a lot of money, which will allow me to travel to Europe. My dream is to have a place selling Batik [clothing] somewhere in the world. 

Q: Why are you interested in seeing Europe? 

A: Europe is far from Indonesia. I'm a tropical girl, and I want to see the four seasons. I've never seen snow before. Even in Australia, I can see four seasons, but the four seasons in Europe are different than the ones in Australia, right? 

Q: I don't know--you'll have to tell me later. But many countries have four seasons--what makes you so interested in Europe? 

A: I like the Nordic countries because they speak English, have good healthcare, and I've heard nothing bad about them. 

Q: Did you hear about Norway's 2011 mass shooting targeting immigrants? 

A: Yes. It can happen anywhere. 

Q: What are you most afraid of when you relocate to Australia? 

A: I'm afraid I'll be jobless or I won't find a job quickly. I'm also worried how quickly it will take to adapt to the weather because it's not the tropical climate I'm used to. 

Q: Sounds like you're both eager and scared to experience the four seasons. It's always easier if you know people in a new place to help you adapt. Do you know anyone in Australia? How do you expect to make friends?

A: I know a few people, but I haven't kept in touch with them. [Pauses] I really don't know how I will make friends [in Australia]. 

Q: The Australians have a reputation for being friendly, so it should be okay. What is your impression of Australians?

A: I only know about Hugh Jackman and Mel Gibson, the actors. I think Australia will be totally different than Indonesia. 

Ayu's mobile screensaver

Friday, November 9, 2018

The State of Social Media Today & Our Complicity

The state of social media and "grassroots" journalism by well-meaning Americans and Brits can only be described as a tragicomedy of Shakespearean proportions. 
The man in question is wearing a shirt with a noose--signifying a lynching--over an old Southern flag and the words, "Mississippi Justice." For most discerning folks, the noose, not the flag, is the main issue. After all, Mississippi's official state flag includes the Confederate "Southern cross," and I've seen several stores in Asia selling Confederate flag merchandise to young buyers who probably discovered "Sweet Home Alabama" on Spotify. Here, we have no way of knowing--without further investigation--whether the man wearing it actually advocates vigilantism or racism. 

Basic logic ought to tell us that without due process--a seemingly forgotten value along with its cousin, humility--we don't know if the shirt was his father's and a keepsake, or whether he was wearing it as a reminder of Southern history. Wearing a diamond ring doesn't mean its wearer supports "blood diamonds" and African exploitation, just as driving a gasoline-powered car doesn't mean you hate the environment. 

Unfortunately, in this case, the reasoning is most likely simple: Mr. Clayton Hickey, a former Memphis police officer who resigned after a questionable situation involving a 17 year-old girl, probably just liked the shirt. I wouldn't want my local police officer anywhere near a noose, but my greater concern is we've accepted a society where we cannot easily access his law enforcement conduct--done on the taxpayers' dime--and yet, his voting behavior--which is supposed to be private--was the cause of his downfall. 

Mr. Hickey is an easy target. He has a stereotypically white name, a controversial history, and an apparently large presence. Yet, he seems to have reformed himself as a male nurse, and nowhere do we see any indication his nursing skills were deficient or discriminatory. I wonder if we realize it is the Mr. Hickeys of the world the law and due process are supposed to protect, just as they should if he were named Mr. Daquan Johnson with a juvenile criminal conviction, voting in a booth wearing an N.W.A. shirt. 

Once upon a time, as an employment lawyer, I believed in the law's ability to protect minorities; to protect employee off-the-job behavior irrelevant to one's position; and especially to keep the mob from jumping to conclusions before all the facts were in. Today, I wonder what anyone can really do when the mob is all of us: the hospital that fired him, the man who posted the photo without actually speaking to him, and every online commentator who twists the knife further into the coffin of the once-cherished value of American due process. Have we no shame? Or at least the decency to spend our time on something worthwhile? 

Bonus: most Americans are unaware American hospitals are tied closely to government policies and funding. "State governments became the largest single source of funds for virtually every major hospital in the country, giving them the power to influence--or even dictate--the policy decisions made by these hospitals." -- John Steele Gordon, Imprimis, 9/2018

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Incredible Book on Chinese Influence in the Philippines

I just discovered an incredible book, Chinese Participation in Philippine Culture and Economy (1964), edited by Dr. Shubert S.C. Liao, Professor of Economics, University of the East. 

Dr. Liao took work from other writers like Dr. Mao-Lan Tuan and Dr. H. Otley Beyer, creating a deeply edifying compilation of Philippine history. I heard the term, "Hadramaut Sayyids," for the first time and learned "about 2% of the present Philippine population is descended from Arab or Persian ancestors, either ancient or modern." Other sections of the book detail anti-Chinese legislation throughout Asia. 

Below are a few selections, copied under fair use doctrine: 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Best Museums in the World

As of November 2018, I've visited fifty countries. Below are my favorite museums. 

1. Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar (Doha). Even the building itself is a work of art designed by I.M. Pei. (FYI: the National Museum of Qatar opens on March 28, 2019.)

2. National Palace Museum of Taiwan aka Chinese Taipei (Taipei). The best organized museum of Asian art I've seen so far--quite a feat when one considers the vast amount of artifacts to classify. 

3. Checkpoint Charlie Museum aka Wall Museum in Germany (Berlin). One of the simplest and most unique museums in the world. 

4. Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum in USA. Well-designed exhibitions, including interactive multimedia. Take note of the fact that two Palestinians were wrongfully arrested at the beginning of the investigation into the bombing. 

5. Museum of Anthropology aka Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico (Mexico City). Should be re-named the Museum of Ethnography. A vast treasure trove of artifacts and history. 

6. Museum of Natural History in Austria (Vienna). Hate the city, love the museum. Quite possibly the best natural history museum in the world, suitable for both children and adults. 

7. British Museum (London). Make sure you see the Rosetta Stone. If you like this museum, try the Louvre in Paris. (Note: I liked the British Library, which also has temporary exhibitions, much more than either the Louvre or British Museum.) 

8. House of Terror aka Terror H├íza of Hungary (Budapest). Very heavy-handed but worthwhile. Several startling video clips throughout the museum. Be sure to grab an explanatory leaflet at the entrance of each section. 

9. Aga Khan Museum in Canada (Toronto). A good experience if you're unfamiliar with Middle Eastern art and sculptures. 

10. The Amana Heritage Museum in Iowa, USA (Amana). I loved learning about self-sufficient, religious German pacifists who moved from New York to Iowa to seek better lives. How would locals treat them during the wars? How did they adapt? 

11. Dresden Castle aka Residenzschloss and, to a lesser extent, Zwinger in Dresden, Germany. These two museums are within walking distance of each other. The larger one, which houses one of the most complete currency exhibitions in the world, is Dresden Castle. I saw three items belonging to Martin Luther: 1) a drinking glass converted into a goblet; 2) a book (Hauspostille); and 3) an insignia designed by Luther himself showing a rose, a heart, and a cross. 

Honorable mentions

12. Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. It holds items relating to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) plus "the tray used by Abraham; the staff of Moses; the sword of David; the robe of Joseph; the swords of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions; and the shirt, mantle, praying mat, and chest of Muhammad's daughter Fatimah." I was struck by how the Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) possessions were ordinary on the outside--mostly one color--but when opened, contained ornate designs. An interesting metaphor, perhaps, for some of Islam's practices and customs.

13. War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

14. International Museum of the Baroque in Puebla, Mexico. 

15. Dresden Castle, which is actually several museums in one location. One of the buildings contains items owned by Martin Luther

16. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur

Bonus I: my favorite waterfalls are 1) Niagara Falls, Canada; (tie) 2) Sipiso-piso in Medan, Sumatra/Sumatera, Indonesia; Madakaripura in Probolinggo, Java, Indonesia; 3) La Fortuna in Alajuela Province, Costa Rica; 4) Casaroro Falls, Valencia/Dumaguete, Philippines; 5) Air Terjun Banyu Anjlok, in Jepara, Indonesia; 6) Air Terjun Sarasah near Padang, Indonesia. (I hope one day to visit Argentina's Iguazu Falls and perhaps Rio Celeste Waterfall, Tenorio Volcano National Park, Alajuela, Costa Rica.) 

Bonus II: my favorite libraries are 1) Bodleian Library (Oxford, England); 2) Biblioteca Palafoxiana (Puebla city, Puebla, Mexico); 3) library@harbourfront aka Bukit Merah Public Library (VivoCity, Singapore); 4) Qatar National Library (Doha, Qatar Foundation, Qatar). 

Honorable mention: Biblioteca Publica Universitaria y Fondo Antiguo (Morelia, Mexico). 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Interview with Cebu's Ellen: Single Mom, Three Degrees

Ellen D., a regional manager of a Filipino pizza chain, isn't anyone's first choice for an interview subject. Yet, she provided one of the best interviews I've had. 
Ellen at 32 Umber Cafe in Cebu, Philippines.
Q: You were born and raised in Cebu, Philippines, though you spent ten years in General Santos (in Mindanao province). People like you call themselves Cebuanas. What does it mean to be a Cebuana? 

A: It means we were born in Cebu and our experiences are from Cebu. I prefer here than major cities like Manila. One reason is because I enjoy speaking my own dialect, Cebuana/Visaya, which is not spoken commonly outside of Cebu. 

Q: What do you think about President Duterte? 

A: I voted and campaigned for him. He is one of the better presidents we've had aside from Marcos. He's already implemented two significant changes: one, he's extended passport validity from five years to ten years, and two, he's implemented a national ID system that will give every Filipino bank access as well as reduce welfare fraud

Q: You mentioned Marcos. Wasn't Ferdinand Marcos one of the Philippines' most corrupt politicians? 

A: My older colleagues and my parents told me otherwise. It's true Marcos declared marital law around 1972, which allowed him to imprison many of his critics, including Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. However, after Aquino's assassination in Manila in 1983, Corazon Aquino, his wife, became presidentIt was called the EDSA Revolution.

[Interviewer's note: despite being declared the official victor of the 1986 election, protests in Manila against a rigged political system caused Marcos to flee the Philippines, allowing Corazon Aquino the presidency.] 

Q: The revolution seems to indicate Marcos was not doing a good job. 

A: I try to validate what I read with people 10 to 20 years older than me. The older generation told me [Ferdinand] Marcos wasn't corrupt, but his wealth led to a backlash of envy against himself and his wife. [Interviewer's note: people all over the world can still remember his wife's prolific shoe collection.] 

Q: How much money do you think the Marcos family amassed? 

A: Trillions [of pesos]. 

Q: Do you think Ferdinand Marcos got this much wealth through honest work? 

A: I can't say that. 

Q: So why are you saying that Marcos was not corrupt? 

A: Because he was wealthy before he entered politics. I don't have evidence he received most of his wealth through embezzlement. I'm basing my views on the older generation's opinions. They were saying back then, life was more simple, commodities like rice were cheaper, they could buy sufficient food for just 10 to 20 pesos, and the agricultural industry was more stable. 

[Interviewer's note: rice farmers play an outsized role in Asian countries, including in developed Japan and developing Thailand. Despite the modernization movement post-1945, most of the world's workers are still involved in agriculture. From Max Roser's "Employment in Agriculture" (2018): "While more than 2/3 of the population in poor countries work in agriculture, less than 5% of the population does in rich countries. It is predominantly the huge productivity increase that makes this reduction in labor possible." Furthermore, agricultural products for consumption in Asia went from 4% of imports in 1960 to a 14% share in 2000, a change negatively impacting many farmers.] 

Q: Let's move away from politics. You are a single mom. What has that experience been like for you in Cebu?

A: I gave birth in my early twenties, when I was finishing my second degree at university. It was not easy. People would ask, "Where's your partner?" "You must be married, right?" After I gave birth, with my parents' help, I continued to finish my second degree, so I was a working student and a mom. 

After a year, I finished my second degree and became a manager for a restaurant chain in 2008. I realized working in management would be tough, and I needed to be competitive, so I took a third degree. My first degree was Fisheries and Food Processing/Technology; my second degree was Fisheries in Aquaculture; and my third degree, in 2010, was Business and Administration for Executives [an MBA]. 

Q: How did you deal with health insurance costs in your twenties when you gave birth?

A: Since I was a student back then, I had no insurance. I gave birth in a private hospital. I paid cash, no discount. Since I was working--I was a working student--I had saved up some money. It wasn't enough, so my parents pitched in. 

Q: What did your parents think when you told them you were pregnant?

A: I didn't really inform them ahead of time. It took me seven months to get the courage to tell them. I knew it wouldn't be their expectation. My parents felt sorry for themselves, but not for me. As parents, they felt responsible. They had let me go away for college, and they thought I could have done better had they not let me go to a different city [General Santos] on my own. 

Q: You went to a public school, Mindanao State University. What was it like going to a public college? 

A: I was on scholarship, so I had to maintain a certain grade level. [Interviewer's note: the "scholarship" mentioned here is an allowance.] 

Q: Do Filipinos generally prefer public or private schools?

A: In Cebu, the best private university is University of San Carlos, but we also have public universities like Cebu Normal University and University of Philippines at Cebu. We have options, but when I attended public school, tuition was free.
I attended public university because my parents could not afford a private one. 

At the same time, private colleges have courses not offered in public schools. For example, in my time, the Broadcasting Journalism major was only offered in private colleges. Also, the public university curriculum was more rigid. You could only take certain courses if you had the grades and certain scores on the entrance exam. [Update: before you could be admitted into a university, you had to take an exam administered by that particular university. The higher your score, the more options you had.] Based on my exam results, my only options were within the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Fisheries. I really wanted to be a TV journalist, but that major wasn't offered on my particular campus. 

Also, by studying agriculture, I received an allowance, the result of a public-corporate partnership. (A private corporation's foundation would sponsor students in a particular field.) It turned out I didn't like the courses, but I had to take them because the opportunities were immense. Once I graduated, I was guaranteed a job. 

I had the most fun auditioning for a theater group. My college days were fun because of theater. After I had my son, I was still active in theater, but I discovered my love for theater before him. Theater made me feel like I was doing the closest thing to broadcasting as I could. 

Q: Now you're the regional manager of a Filipino-owned pizza chain. What's been the most challenging part about your job? 

A: Meeting the KPIs [Key Performance Indicators], i.e., the targets related to profitability, etc., not just in one specific branch, but across different regions. If you really wanted to break it down, the biggest challenge has been managing people, and that's where my Executive MBA helps. 

That reminds me--I had taken my MBA courses when I was working in a call center [BPO, or Business Process Outsourcing]. I did that because BPO paid well and you got two rest days, whereas in the food industry, you only had one rest day. I got promoted in my BPO job, and after three years, my former food industry contacts also offered me a promotion as manager of a single restaurant branch. The job offered 30% less, but I had already paid for my MBA, and I liked the position and the opportunity to gain experience. 

Q: What's your favorite part about working in the food industry?

A: It's dynamic. I consider myself a Millennial, but the people I work with are even younger than me. Every day I deal with diverse personalities, plus direct engagement with customers. I also travel for work, which puts me in touch with even more interesting people. 

Q: What advice would you give to single mothers in their twenties?

A: It's not going to be easy, but it's worth it. Having a child is fulfilling, and it gives you a purpose in life. Depending on your outlook, it can make you more driven. As I look back, if I didn't become a single mom, I might not be in the Philippines because I might have decided to follow other paths. At the same time, I would probably be more self-centered, and I have no regrets. In my case, it helped bring my family even closer. I want to credit my parents for really supporting me.