Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Axios cites me

piece in Axios discussing a report on the precipitous decline of Chinese investment in the US in 2017, and what it means:

When Chinese investment in U.S. companies plunged by 83% last year, it was the result of Beijing’s crackdown on capital. But it also reflected a reckoning for four Chinese titans who Beijing cut down to size, according to new research. […]

  • But, but, but: When Ma looked at the individual investments, she saw that just four companies — what MacroPolo calls the Group of 4 — accounted for 61%, or $34 billion, of China’s entire 2016 investment.
  • The four: Anbang Insurance, HNA Group, Oceanwide Holdings and Wanda Group.
  • Absent those six deals, 2016 would have been just a tad higher than the three prior years, Ma writes.

Beijing noticed too: For years, Beijing has encouraged China’s companies to “go out” and invest around the world. But that’s not how the government viewed the Group of 4, which it proceeded to treat as something akin to traitors. […]

Oceanwide appears to be the exception. Just two weeks ago, it got final approval for yet another U.S. deal — a $3.8 billion takeover of Genworth Financial, an insurance company, reports Mingtiandi’s Greg Isaccson.

The article cited is “China Oceanwide Gets US Green Light for $3.8B Genworth Deal.”

Lu Zhiqiang Oceanwide

Oceanwide chairman Lu Zhiqiang is the only member of China’s outbound investment Gang of Four to escape Beijing’s regulatory wrath

Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.

Money talks, pageviews walk

A nice lesson about the advantages of quality vs. clickbait in journalism:

So far, Mike Rosenberg, a real estate reporter, is seeing that his in-depth and time-consuming work often drives more subscriptions than the work that took an hour but went viral, he said.

Last year, Rosenberg spent a lot of time on a story about how Amazon made Seattle the country’s biggest company town. It ran on the front page on Sunday and influenced 140 subscriptions, more than anything else he’s covered in his two years at the Times.

He also wrote a quick story last year about tiny apartments. It was the most-read story on the day it was published and got about 100,000 pageviews. It influenced about seven people to subscribe.

“The consensus is we’d rather have a story that had a smaller number of good readers who wind up subscribing than a viral story that a bunch of people in New York and Chicago read but will never come back to Seattle again.”

This isn’t really surprising when you think about it. There is, in general, a proportional relationship between the time/sweat that goes into a project, and the size of the ultimate payoff.

In the case of The Seattle Times, I would think that subscriptions are a more relevant measure of success than pageviews, as subscriptions equal money, while pageviews only indirectly generate money by luring more advertisers to the site. And clicks (like glory) are fleeting. As one Twitter user notes:

I could have said the same thing about blogging. The little viral posts that put a spike in your traffic don’t do much for long term growth. Controversy “for the hits” never pays off, & it’s annoying to be accused of that.

Virality is nice, but subscriptions pay the bills. And you can’t eat clicks for dinner.

Now having said that, I believe that viral articles are useful for branding purposes and to spice up the content of a site and provide some variety and relief to the reader. Viral articles are great, but they should be the seasoning rather than the main content.

That is, unless your business model is based on clickbait, in which case good luck.

Top 6 Scenic and Cultural Hotspots of Nanchang

The below article from 2013 is an attempt at Lonely Planet-style travel writing following a trip to the provincial city of Nanchang, which is notable for its role in spawning China’s Communist revolution (and is therefore a key destination for “red tourism”). As the capital of one of China’s poorer provinces, it’s sort of a backwater, albeit developing fast — the city has since opened its first two metro lines — and an important manufacturing center. It’s a very likeable place with a friendly, laid-back feel despite having a population the size of Chicago. Some of the information below may be outdated by now. Enjoy.

Cradle of revolution and “Hero City” of Communist legend, Nanchang – the capital of southern China’s Jiangxi Province – is gritty, dynamic, and compelling. When not wandering its charming back streets, visitors to this fast-growing but laid-back city can discover a wealth of history, culture, and even entertainment at these popular sites:

1) Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁)

Ascend this nine-story tower to peer at the Gan River from on high, enjoy a traditional music and dance performance, take in the colorful frescoes that decorate the interior, or get photographed sporting the golden dragon robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor.

Originally built in A.D. 653 by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty as a townhouse for his younger brother, the eponymous Prince Teng, the pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries – the current incarnation, in Song Dynasty style, was completed in 1989 – and immortalized by a famous Preface penned by the poet Wang Bo.

In the base of the pavilion you can wander around the China Imperial Edict Museum (华夏圣旨博物馆), housing a collection of – you guessed it – imperial edicts and other government paperwork from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. History buffs may find these bureaucratic relics intriguing, though adrenaline junkies should steer clear of such items as the “Official receipt issued by the Provincial Administration Commissioner and Provincial Judicial Commissioner of Anhui Donation Head Office of the Supervising Department.” Of more interest, perhaps, are a printed silk cloth and miniature books that were used for cheating on the imperial civil service exam.

Admission to the pavilion and grounds is 50 RMB.

Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁 Téngwáng Gé), 榕门路 Róngmén Lù, ticket office hours: 7:30 AM – 6:15 PM (May 1 – Oct 7), 8:00 AM – 4:50 PM (Oct 8 – Apr 30), +86 791 8670 2036, (http://www.cntwg.com/)

2) Musical fountain at Qiushui Square (秋水广场)

Qiushui Square fountain

One of the largest such displays in Asia, this complex, fifteen-minute extravaganza of music, laser lights and elegantly gushing water is fun to watch – even if, like other spectators, you do so with a smartphone held up between the fountain and your face. In the show’s dramatic finale, water spurts as high (allegedly) as 128 meters. The free show starts at 7:50 PM, 8:30 PM, and 9:00 PM every night.

Qiushui Square (秋水广场 Qiūshuǐ Guǎngchǎng), ask around for the fountain (喷泉 pēnquán) (you can’t miss it), +86 791 8388 3496, (http://english.nc.gov.cn/tour/scenicspots/200911/t20091120_187749.htm)

3) Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆)

Explore the rich history and culture of this important province. The museum is divided into wings for Natural History, History, and Revolution. The Natural History wing features minerals, dinosaurs, and wildlife dioramas.

In the History wing, you can check out artifacts from Jiangxi’s many-layered past, stretching from Neolithic pottery fragments to Song Dynasty jewelry and Ming Dynasty ivory chopsticks, and learn about the region’s traditional arts, literature, industry and government (labels in Chinese and English). This wing also houses an exhibit on the Hakka ethnic minority and a jade and precious stone collection.

The Revolution wing chronicles the Communist uprising that broke out in Nanchang through a myriad of historical photos and kitschy propaganda art. Captions are in Chinese only, except for the introductory labels which have English translations.

Admission is free.

Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆 Jiāngxī Shěng Bówùguǎn), 新洲路99号 Xīnzhōu Lù 99 hào, Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 791 8659 5424, (http://www.jxmuseum.cn/)

4) Bayi Square (八一广场)

The first shots of the Chinese Communist uprising were fired in Nanchang on August 1, 1927, occasioning Mao Zedong’s famous remark that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Led in part by future Premiere of the PRC Zhou Enlai, the revolt marked the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and the start of the decade-long “Agrarian Revolutionary War” against the Nationalist government and hated class enemies. Although the Communists were swiftly ejected from Nanchang and then decimated by Nationalist garrisons on the way to Guangzhou, the somber monument looming over Bayi Square – named after the date of the uprising (bayi means “eight one”) – celebrates their extremely short-lived “victory.”

Bayi Square (八一广场 Bāyī Guǎngchǎng), always open

5) Youmin Temple (佑民寺)

First built during the Liang Dynasty in the sixth century A.D., Youmin Temple housed the reportedly huge-tongued Zen master Mazu. Today it’s an active temple with few tourists, and you may get scolded for taking photos in the quiet, serene interior. The sprawling temple complex, decorated in bright primary colors, contains beautiful statuary, including a giant bronze Buddha.

Admission is 2 RMB.

Youmin Temple (佑民寺 Yòu Mín Sì), 民德路和苏圃路 Míndé Lù hé Sūpǔ Lù, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 0791 8529 2203

6) Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区)

Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery Nanchang

Take a taxi about 20 minutes from downtown to spend an afternoon roaming around this expanse of parks, woods, galleries and other cultural sites on the banks of the Meihu Water System.

Follow the signs to reach the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall (八大山人纪念馆), which has a gallery of classic works by the Nanchang-born painter and calligrapher of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. Of particular interest are the gloomy, eccentric master’s freehand “flower-and-bird” works and his literati paintings, which fuse the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry.

On the Scenic Spot’s grounds you can also find the Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery (程允贤雕塑艺术馆), an austere collection of sculptures of Chinese Communist leaders and heroes – including busts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Admission is 15 RMB.

Keep strolling and you’ll find a Painting and Calligraphy Art Showroom (书画文玩展厅), outside of which is a Bansai Garden (盆景园) – I found both places completely deserted – and the somewhat eerie Jiangxi Celebrity Sculpture Park (江西名人雕塑园), featuring statues of historical figures from the province.

Admission to the Scenic Spot is free.

Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区 Bādà Shānrén Méi Hú Jǐngqū), +86 0791 8529 2203

Top 10 rules for writing

I recently remembered a great piece of writing advice from Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English dictionarist. This gave me the idea of putting together a list of the most important writing advice I’ve picked up over the years. Unfortunately, I could hardly think of any other examples off the top of my head. I’d like to think this means I’ve thoroughly absorbed the techniques and principles of effective writing to the point that I’ve completely forgotten what they are, but it could also indicate that advice is worth about what it costs, namely zilch. In any case, I racked my brains and did a little surreptitious Googling to come up with some more pointers that have proven useful to me. (The Amis and Mamet quotes are thrown in more for fun.)

NOTE: No guarantees of any kind are made for the performance or effectiveness of this advice. Results may vary. Use as directed by a qualified literary professional.

  • “Don’t dumb down: always write for your top five per cent of readers.” – Martin Amis
  • “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” – Winston Churchill
  • “If you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said.” – Paul Graham (The rest of the linked essay is quite good.)
  • “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Those who say an assistant director’s job doesn’t allow him any free time for writing are just cowards. Perhaps you can write only one page a day, but if you do it every day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages of script.” – Akira Kurosawa
  • “DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.” – David Mamet
  • “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” – George Orwell (Read the whole essay for 90% of the nonfiction writing advice you’ll ever need.)
  • “You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet… The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.” – Jerry Pournelle
  • “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.” – Mark Twain
  • “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” – Mary Heaton Vorse (Also formulated as “Ass in chair.”)

The instant China expert

Destined to become a classic:

I’m in the business lounge of Shanghai airport, one of 400 world-class international aviation hubs that China is building every week, sipping a macchiato prepared by David, a 23-year-old IT graduate and barista, who speaks four languages and plays the violin like a concert-hall maestro.

I’ve spent nearly a week in Shanghai, running from business meetings to cocktail parties to speaking engagements. It’s hard to believe what’s going on.

Heading to meet the founder of Joystream, an exciting new startup, I ride in a “Didi,” a ride-sharing app quite similar to Uber. It’s ordered by my new Chinese friend Hamburger, a 24-year-old stockbroker and father of one, who moonlights on Didi so he can meet “interesting men.”

I ask Hamburger how he finds time to bond with his child, and he explains that Chinese people consider education sacred. While our kids are lounging around summer camp, toasting marshmallows, Hamburger’s toddler is doing long division and performing minor surgery on woodland animals. Hamburger gives me his number and urges me to call him later; the friendliness here is remarkable.

If you’re at all familiar with this genre of breathless reporting by visiting Westerners, you’ll nod at every single sentence. It’s painfully on target. I especially like the uncritical spouting of ludicrously inflated statistics – a specialty of the “China experts.”

This is also pretty funny – a riff on the “Why I’m leaving China” genre. If you’re not entertained by this, well… maybe you had to be there.

This cuts deep

Cambodia Daily closing

Statement by The Cambodia Daily, one of Cambodia’s three main English-language newspapers:

The power to tax is the power to destroy. And after 24 years and 15 days, the Cambodian government has destroyed The Cambodia Daily, a special and singular part of Cambodia’s free press.

As a result of extra-legal threats by the government to close the Daily, freeze its accounts and prosecute the new owner for the actions of the previous owner, The Bernard Krisher Jimusho Co. is unable to operate The Cambodia Daily newspaper and it will cease publication as of September 4, 2017.

From a New York Times account:

For the reporters and editors of The Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, Sunday was the end of an era as they prepared its final edition after 24 years in operation. […]

The Daily was ordered by the government to close its doors by Monday over allegations that it had not paid millions of dollars in taxes. The newspaper will publish its last print edition on Monday morning.

Seems ominous in context:

In recent weeks, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered at least 15 radio stations to close or stop broadcasting programming from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. The government also ordered the expulsion of the National Democratic Institute, a pro-democracy, nonprofit organization tied to the Democratic Party of the United States.

I can’t claim to have read The Daily, but this echoes what I’ve heard from others with direct knowledge:

Since its founding in 1993, the widely respected newspaper has been an incubator for a generation of young Cambodian and foreign journalists, and it has served as an independent voice in a country with little tradition of free expression.

Of course, the closure of the newspaper is very unfortunate for the editorial staff of 17 Cambodians and 17 foreigners, many of whom I’m sure are very dedicated to their jobs – especially the locals, who can’t simply pack their bags and skip town if they run afoul of the government. I wish them well.

However, I must say that the following fact (interestingly omitted by The Daily in its statement) gave me pause for thought:

Operating under the king’s sponsorship, Mr. Krisher [the founder] never registered the newspaper as a business or nonprofit organization.

But the newspaper’s association with royalty has long since faded. King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 and died in 2012. And Mr. Krisher, 86, who lives in Tokyo, is too ill to come to Cambodia to try to rescue the paper, said Douglas Steele, his son-in-law and The Daily’s general manager.

Mr. Krisher’s daughter, Deborah Krisher-Steele, tried to normalize the business this year. Ms. Krisher-Steele purchased The Daily’s assets from her father in April and will return them, the paper said.

Wait, so the newspaper operated for over 23 years as a non-registered entity? Did I get that right? The Daily was not even a legal business, at a time when it employed 34 editorial staff?

Imagine trying that in the US. The IRS would be far from amused.

Now, I am not up on the Cambodian legal system, and I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of this case. Also, it is disturbing that Deborah Krisher-Steele’s husband, who is the legal representative of the newspaper’s owner in Phnom Penh, has reportedly been barred from leaving the country (Deborah is in Japan).

The lesson I take from this is that a business dependent for its survival on the whims of a king is inherently fragile, especially after that king’s death.

Freedom of the press is important, but so is covering your bases. Unless I am missing something, The Daily left itself wide open to this type of takedown.

Biggest online manhunt ever?

Your writing style is your fingerprint:

The ‘creator’ of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, is the world’s most elusive billionaire. Very few people outside of the Department of Homeland Security know Satoshi’s real name. In fact, DHS will not publicly confirm that even THEY know the billionaire’s identity. Satoshi has taken great care to keep his identity secret employing the latest encryption and obfuscation methods in his communications. Despite these efforts (according to my source at the DHS) Satoshi Nakamoto gave investigators the only tool they needed to find him — his own words.

Using stylometry one is able to compare texts to determine authorship of a particular work. Throughout the years Satoshi wrote thousands of posts and emails and most of which are publicly available. According to my source, the NSA was able to the use the ‘writer invariant’ method of stylometry to compare Satoshi’s ‘known’ writings with trillions of writing samples from people across the globe. […]

The NSA then took bulk emails and texts collected from their mass surveillance efforts. First through PRISM (a court-approved front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts) and then through MUSCULAR (where the NSA copies the data flows across fiber optic cables that carry information among the data centers of Google, Yahoo, Amazon, and Facebook) the NSA was able to place trillions of writings from more than a billion people in the same plane as Satoshi’s writings to find his true identity. The effort took less than a month and resulted in positive match.

Creepy if true.

They’re watching

Related: a fascinating essay on the elusive computer scientist that really needs to be adapted for the screen.