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New Year’s Newsletter-2011

Much has transpired since I sent out my last newsletter early in December. I’ve spent time in Phuket and Krabi (Thailand), Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Port Dickson (Malaysia), Sulawesi and Bali (both in Indonesia), then back to Bangkok and Chiang Mai (Thailand). I’ll not try to recount all of the significant events, experiences and achievements in these places, I’ll just say that I live a very blessed and interesting life. If you’d like to see pictures, you can visit my Photo Gallery at http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg.

In this edition, I’ll touch on the following topics:

Chiang Mai

Thai Entrepreneurs

Bali—The myth and the Reality

2011 Likely to Bring Serious Challenges to the Middle-class

Investing in the Common Good

Plans

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is still one of my favorite places. I’ve been here several times over the past three years, staying for varying lengths of time. This time I will be here for a month, after which I’ll return to North America for a planned stay of four months. The universe will decide what happens after that, but I have it in my mind to return to Thailand having already booked a return flight from Bangkok to LA and back

What’s the attraction here? There are several. First of all, I have friends here, both social and professional, so it is possible to strike a good balance between work and play. Secondly, I can better afford to live here than in the US. Very clean and comfortable lodgings can be had for $200-$300 per month, complete with private bath, good internet connection, convenient location, good public transportation that means I don’t need to have a car or even a motorbike to get around, and good food that is reasonably cheap. Thirdly, there are cultural attractions, many of which derive from the rich mix of Thais and foreigners. There’s a pretty good live music scene that includes jazz and Celtic music, plus frequent festival events. Fourthly, from Chiang Mai it is relatively easy and cheap to reach other interesting destinations throughout Southeast Asia. I could go on…

Thai Entrepreneurs

In Thailand, there is no such thing as unemployment insurance, and old age benefits provided by the government are so tiny as to be insignificant. That means that Thais need to be enterprising and supportive of one another to a greater extent than westerners. Besides that, Thais seem to have a greater connection to family and friends in the countryside who still have access to land, which makes me think that they will have an easier time adapting to the adverse economic conditions that appear to be on the horizon.

Pa is an entrepreneur. She has a juice stand which she sets up amongst a score of other food vendors every afternoon for the night market. Many of her customers are regulars. Split about half and half between Thai and farang (foreigner), they come back to her again and again, not  only because she makes the best smoothies and shakes, but because she is a bright spirit, happy and congenial. She truly enjoys her work, and that draws people like a magnet.

There is a kind of community amongst the vendors who operate there just outside the gate to the old city. It is a community that includes not only the vendors, but a goodly number of regular customers, as well. The vendors all know and help each other out in various ways, tending each other’s stands whenever it is necessary to run a short errand, or lending a hand when business is brisk.

Each vendor has a wheeled cart that is kept somewhere else in the off hours. They are brought to the market site in late afternoon, then wheeled off again around midnight by other entrepreneurs who make a business of providing the service of moving carts back and forth.

All of these people work very hard for little reward. Their prices seem absurdly low by western standards and in comparison to most of the local restaurants that cater to tourists—a fresh fruit shake for about half a U.S. dollar, a cup of fresh ginger tea for about 17 cents, a plate of pad thai noodles with chicken for less than a dollar. The low overhead expense of operating a street stall is a major factor that makes these businesses viable.

What makes their prices seem cheap to us of course hinges upon the exchange rates between the Thai baht and the currencies that tourists bring from home—dollars, euros, pounds, yen, etc. These foreign exchange rates are determined by mechanisms that seem to defy logic, and that few people understand. They are supposedly determined by what is touted as free trading (buying and selling) in the currency markets, but it is no secret that these markets are manipulated by central banks and big traders. In fact, the central banks of the various countries have a mandate to “manage” the value of their currencies. One has to wonder, what is the difference between “management” and “manipulation” and for whose benefit is it done?

Pa’s day begins early and ends late. I accompanied her a few times to see what her business entails. It starts in the late morning with a trip to the market to buy the fresh fruit ingredients needed for the evening’s business—papaya, pineapple, mango, watermelon, banana, apples, etc., and a separate trip to a roadside stand to collect a supply of the sweetest strawberries I’ve ever tasted. Then it’s off to the place where her cart is kept during the off hours where she washes the fruit and prepares for the evening’s business. The vendor carts get put in place around 4 in the afternoon and customers start coming around 5. It’s a pleasant experience to join the bustle of activity as the dinner hour wears on and waves of customers arrive, place their orders, and sit down at the portable tables to enjoy the food, the conversation and people watching. By 10 or 11, vendors begin cleaning up and shutting down and getting ready to repeat the process again the next day.

Bali—The myth and the Reality

The myth of Bali probably far exceeds the reality. That is not to say that it’s not worth the visit, it is, but if one is envisioning scenes from the movie South Pacific, they are likely to be disappointed. On my two visits, which were three years apart, I’ve spent most of my time in Ubud, so my observations are extremely limited. There are probably some more remote areas that can provide a different experience, but my impression of Bali is that it has become too dependent upon tourism and is rapidly losing its authenticity.

Ubud is purportedly the cultural center of the island, a claim that stands up pretty well. The whole place pretty much closes up around 10 or 11 at night. One notable thing about it is how quiet it is in the early morning hours. There are no late night discos blaring cacophonous sounds and heavy drum beats into the night, and traffic pretty much stops by midnight. The absence of mosques means that there are no artificially amplified “calls to prayers” rousing one from sleep at 4 a.m. as they do in Malaysia and other parts of Indonesia. The only sounds one hears are the insects buzzing in the trees, doves cooing, and the inevitable rooster crowing as dawn approaches. I take these sounds as God’s own call to prayer as s/he reminds us of the great mystery that is life, a mystery in which we all partake and are challenged to make good use of.

I spent the last night of my Balinese visit in Kuta—not really long enough to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of the place. I knew in advance of Kuta’s reputation as being very “touristy” and wide open. It clearly is the former, crowded with foreigners, traffic congested, and filled with trendy shops, but I can’t confirm the latter. Although the two usually go together, Ubud seems to be the exception to that rule. I’ve spent enough time there to get a good sense of the place. There are plenty of tourists there and the town is dependent upon them, but any hanky-panky that goes on there must be deep underground.

I was surprised to see so many family groups in Kuta. I found the beach there to be not at all inviting. The beach itself is far from the broad expanse of golden sand that one imagines of a tropical paradise, and the water was roiled by a heavy offshore wind (and probably other things that go with heavy concentrations of humans).

I had some difficulty finding a place to stay in Kuta. The ones I tried were either too expensive or fully occupied. I did eventually find acceptable lodgings, and after a late check-in and much needed shower, I went in search of food and drink. The beachside restaurant I chose (Blue Ocean) saved the day. It turned out to have free Wi-Fi, pretty good food, and a fabulous band that played a lot of great tunes from the 70s and 80s. The mixed-age crowd included a “mature” couple whose jitterbug skills were a pleasure to watch. Here’s a clue to my persistent question of why people choose to vacation in places that are overrun with other tourists. What for me is a negative, is for them an attraction. Tourists want to be with other people who are like themselves in some place other than home, where they can let their hair down and party.

One last thing about Indonesia, They get you coming and going–US$25 for your visa-on-arrival, and 150,000 Rupiah departure tax (about $17)on your way out—not a lot of money but annoying nonetheless.

2011 Likely to Bring Serious Challenges to the Middle-class

I’ve presented strong evidence in some of my recent blog posts (Inflation Will Destroy the Dollar) that we are on the verge of large price increases resulting from the US government fiscal crisis and massive inflation of the dollar (euphemistically referred to as “quantitative easing”). The last two years have already brought significant increases in the cost of living, despite government pronouncements to the contrary (Chris Martenson: Inflation Is So Much Worse Than We’re Told). Ordinary working people and retirees are being hit with a “double whammy” of stagnant or falling incomes along with an increased cost of living. In their phony political charade, the Republicans are pushing to give us more of the former, while the Democrats want to give us more of the latter—either way, the people lose, and ultimately we will get an increasing measure of BOTH.

As the economic and financial picture worsens, people are getting more worried and looking for answers. I’m often asked for advice about how to invest and protect one’s savings. Financial advice is not my main interest but I can read the writing on the wall, and it seems certain that those who have any savings at all will see the purchasing power of their nest egg shrink badly over the next couple years. Investment advisors typically advise clients to choose amongst three basic investment objectives—income, growth, and capital preservation. In a depression, “cash is king,” but in an inflationary scenario, capital preservation becomes the be all and end all and holding dollar denominated securities, including bank balances and CDs, will not cut it.

Investing in the Common Good

As I wrote in my latest book, The End of Money…, I think civilization is going through a metamorphic change. Making the shift away from the debt-based financial system and the growth imperative and to a sustainable, more equitable society requires that we learn radical sharing, cooperation, and organization. I have for a long time  been arguing that we need to reorganize the exchange function to be decentralized and interest-free, and that we also need to reorganize the finance function. That means shifting our financial investments from Wall Street to Main Street and applying them to support community vitality, self-reliance, and the common good.

In that vein it is remarkable to observe the emergent phenomenon known as “crowd sourcing.” While that approach has been variously applied, in the realm of finance it means gathering small amounts of investment money from a large number of sources. Interestingly, those investments are often in the form of donations rather than loans or ownership shares. People are increasingly demonstrating their willingness to put up money for things that may not benefit them financially, but that are seen to be in the public interest. Kickstarter.com is a well-know web platform on which entrepreneurs can showcase their projects and solicit funding.

A more recent development that I am enthusiastic about goes even further in helping to organize support for emergent projects on an ongoing basis. It’s called CREW (Connect to Resources that Expand your World), and it’s avowed purpose is to “connect people to fund small business for the common good.” It’s not quite ready to “go public” yet, but as a member of the Founder’s Circle, I’ll soon be asking you to join CREW. Watch for it.

Plans

I’ll be returning to the US soon, landing in Los Angeles on February 17. My plan is to remain in North America until the middle of June before going abroad again to continue active collaborations and to participate in conferences in Asia and Europe. I’ll head for Tucson shortly upon my return to rest up, see friends, and take care of some business there, then finalize plans for my North American tour (I have a few invitations pending and can consider others).

Here’s wishing you all a happy and fulfilling year, and may 2011 bring greater peace, justice, and harmony to our world.

Tom Greco

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April Newsletter

Back in the U.S. of A

After spending 3 ½ months in Thailand and Malaysia, I landed back in San Francisco on the ninth of March. Much as I like the Asian tropics for their interesting diversity of cultures, great food, and low cost of living, I felt a combination of things that were at once pushing me out and pulling me back. On the push side, I can mention a few annoyances like the heat and humidity, and the noise. Much of the noise is generated by motorbikes, which are everywhere (I get the sense that if you left your front door open, they’d drive right through your living room). On the pull side, I must also admit that a certain amount of travel weariness had set in, and I was beginning to entertain thoughts of a more settled life in a sustainable community.

Precious

On the flight back from Asia, one of the entertainment selections was the film, Precious. Having watched the Academy Awards ceremonies on television a few nights before, I was curious to see what there was in this film that might have made it worthy of consideration, and of the performance that was deemed to be the winner for best supporting actress.

I found the film hard to watch at first, but as the story developed, I found myself totally enthralled by it. Precious is a heart-wrenching and stark portrayal of life in-the-raw, the kind of film one does not enjoy so much as marvel at, a glimpse into a world of exclusion, poverty, abuse, and dependence that exists right here is the midst of our own cities. It’s also a story of transcendence and heroic overcoming against incredible odds.

Just three weeks later, while hanging out at Harbin Hot Springs, I came across the book (originally called Push) which the movie was based on. It was just sitting there on a table in the library. How could I NOT pick it up? The book, even more gritty and wrenching than the film, is a novel based on the author’s experiences as a literacy teacher in New York City. You can read about it and a hear a 5 minute interview with the author by NPR’s Michelle Norris at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120176695.

The Most Dangerous Man in America

During my month-long stay in the Bay area, I had the privilege to meet Daniel Ellsberg and to be amongst the crowd of several dozen people who gathered at his home to watch the new film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Winner of numerous festival awards, and nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Feature Documentary, the film distills into 90 minutes, the story of government deception and malfeasance and one man’s courageous decision to tell the people the truth.

I’m old enough to remember the events as they unfolded and were reported in the news media, but being highly controversial and scattered as they were over a long time period, their import and meaning did not then penetrate very deeply beyond the veil of my own indoctrination. Now, more than 40 years later, with the pertinent facts gathered together and the inclusion of newly-available audio records of then President Richard Nixon’s maniacal ravings about nuking the Vietnamese into oblivion, we have a compelling picture of the abuse of power and a failed policy that extended over five presidencies from Truman to Nixon.

Since 9/11, Americans have seen an ever greater concentration of power at the top levels of government, finance and industry, along with increasing government secrecy and violation of civil liberties. The USA Patriot Act effectively shreds the Bill of Rights.

This film is the kind of powerful medicine needed to rouse the body politic to face the political realities of our time and, hopefully, reinvigorate our struggle to “escape the “matrix.” It is a film that every American should see, especially those who are too young to remember America’s war against Viet Nam. You can see the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXlmQeSpqI4&hl=en_US&fs=1&.

California Teaming

A main reason for my lengthy stay in the Bay area was to participate in a series of events that occurred between April 9 and 13. The first of these was the California Coop Conference in Santa Rosa which was organized by the California Center for Cooperative Development. I gave a presentation as part of a panel that included Derek Huntington and Chris Lindstrom. That session was titled, Local Currencies: Reclaiming Our Economic Power.

The keynote speaker at that event was Jim Anderson of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center who gave a very inspiring presentation about a community development program in Cleveland, Ohio which has resulted in the formation of the Evergreen Cooperatives. Here’s the link to a short video about it: http://blip.tv/file/2749165. This could become a useful model for other communities to emulate. The following day, Derek and I were joined by Krista Vardabash and Chris Lindstrom on a panel session at the San Francisco Green Festival. The third event was the change Exchange conference in Calistoga that was organized by Chris Lindstrom and the RSF Foundation.

I’m encouraged to note increasing recognition of the empowerment potential inherent in the mutual credit clearing process. It is significant that two major organizations, Green America (formerly Co-op America) and BALLE (the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) have embraced mutual credit clearing and will soon be offering that service to their members.

Coming up, I will be traveling east in a couple weeks to participate in some further events, workshops, and consultations. I’ll be presenting as part of a panel at the BALLE Conference (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) in Charleston, South Carolina on May 22nd (Saturday at 2:30 pm). Our session is titled, Foundations for Credit and Finance in a Local Living Economy. Panelists are Derek Huntington, Sonoma County GoLocal Cooperative; Tom Greco, author, The End of Money and the Future of Civilization; and Jenny Kassan, Katovich Law Group.

Springtime in the Desert

I arrived back in Tucson in mid-April, taking two days to drive from California.

Even California’s Mojave Desert offered a show of spring blooms, but it’s nothing compared to the beauty and variety to be found in the Sonora Desert of Arizona.

The variety of wildflowers, bushes, and trees, the fragrances, the mountains, and open vistas, are some of the things that make me love this place.

After an absence of several years, the gardening impulse has once again begun to stir. I could not resist adding a potted sweet basil plant to my shopping cart when I went for groceries last week. Root-bound in its tiny pot, it cried out to be transplanted into a larger one. Alas, four of the five stems have died …but one survives.

Let us hope that the human race will be as fortunate.

Happy springtime, wherever you may be,

Thomas

Newsletter-March 2010

March 2010 Newsletter

Obama and the Politics of Change

I hadn’t planned to spend my final week in Thailand in Hua Hin, but the fates conspired to take me back there for an encounter with Barack Obama, not in person, of course but in a literary sense. Having finished the Stephen Coontz novel (Final Flight) I had picked up in Penang, I went looking through the small collection of books at my Hua Hin guest house for something else to read. Along with a few books in German, which are of no use to me, I found a handful of books in English. The only one that caught my eye was Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father.

It’s not one that’s been on my list of books to read, I’m generally disinclined to read books written by politicians or other famous people, as they rarely qualify as good literature and most often are simply marketing tools or attempts to capitalize financially on their fame. But for several reasons, I decided to give this one a closer look. To begin with, the cover quotes were full of glowing praise, something which I discounted heavily. More convincing was the fact that this book had originally been published in 1995, long before Obama had become famous. Most importantly, the book purports to be a memoir, and as such I thought it might provide some useful insights into the character of the man who has somehow managed a spectacular ascent to the top of the power pyramid and is now the US president. What might it reveal about his sincerity, his political agenda, and his ability to deliver the kinds of positive change that he has promised?

The book is engaging and well written and reads more like a novel than a memoir. It tells the story of a young man of mixed race seeking his own identity, trying to come to terms with the demands of his fractured families and to understand his place in the world. I was astonished at the candor with which the story is told. Having spent the second half of 2008 abroad and therefore absent for most of the 2008 Presidential campaign season, I have no idea what role this book might have played in his bid for the presidency, or whether it might have been a help or a hindrance in that regard.

There is little in the book to suggest that this man might someday achieve the highest political office in the world. I can’t help but wonder what kind of Faustian bargain he must have made in order to gain sufficient support from the global oligarchy to become President of the United States. What does he hope to achieve from that lofty perch, what compromises has he had to make to get there, what are his personal motivations, is he sincere in his public pronouncements or is he consciously working to intensify the mass delusion?

Another Vantage Point

Another interesting feature of my Hua Hin guesthouse is the selections on TV. This one offers a mere 7 channels, only one of which provides English language programming. FilmMax appears to be a Pakistani channel, which shows mainly Hollywood B movies I’ve never heard of –whatever they can get cheap, I guess. On the plus side, they’ve also shown some vintage films that date from my childhood. A few days ago I caught the tail end of the Wizard of Oz, and yesterday I tuned in just in time to see Flying Tigers from start to finish.

I remember seeing the Wizard of Oz for the first with my mother and sister when I was about four years old. I remember being scared to death when the Tin Man appeared. What makes this film of interest to me now is the fact that Frank Baum wrote the story as an allegory depicting the fraud inherent in the money and banking system and the reality of the people’s power to transcend it. I posted something about that recently on my blog (http://beyondmoney.net/2010/01/19/the-real-meaning-of-the-wizard-of-oz/).

Growing up in the 1940s and 50s I was strongly influenced by World War II. Along with the cartoons and cowboy westerns, we were fed a steady diet of war movies, which I was eager to see. Flying Tigers was one of them. It is a fabled tale about an actual squadron of mercenary American fliers who prior to the U.S. entry into the war fought to help the Nationalist Chinese defend themselves against the Japanese invaders. It contains some classic lines, which now seem pretty lame. John Wayne, the head man, has just returned after leading his squadron in a battle against enemy bombers and fighters. When his Chinese ground crewman points out the line of bullet holes in the fuselage of his plane, he quips, “termites.”

Malaysia

When my Thai visa ran out early in February I flew to Malaysia where I planned to apply for a new visa while exploring parts of the country I had not visited before. Melaka or Malacca, as the British refer to it, like Georgetown in Penang, has been declared a UN Heritage site. I spent 5 days there exploring the old city and near surroundings before deciding I had seen enough and headed for Penang, which is still one of my favorite places in Asia. One of the greatest attractions about Georgetown is the food. I especially like the Indian fare that can be had in the neighborhood called Little India, which is the best I’ve had anywhere, including India–and it’s dirt cheap.

In contrast to Thailand, Malaysia seems a little more developed, and the wealth of the country, despite the inevitable political corruption, seems to be a little better distributed. Along the way I’ve been told that tourism is now the second largest component of the Malaysian economy after petroleum. I suppose agriculture must be third. Palm oil plantations dominate the landscape from top to bottom and Malaysia is the world’s largest producer.

While in Melaka I met Mr. and Mrs. Yee who have a tea shop near the center of town, and as part of the Couch Surfing network, often host travelers. Through them I learned about a Buddhist social action group called Tzu Chi.

With offices in 47 countries, the Tzu Chi Foundation is one of the largest charity organizations originating from Taiwan. For over forty years, the organization has provided services for those in need worldwidehttp://www.tzuchi.org/

The Foundation has impressive facilities in Melaka, which we visited, and from their website, I see that they have a major presence in the U.S., as well. See my pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg/201002Melaka

Work Progress

To start with I want to mention that Richard Flyer has published a Conscious Community Training Guide. Richard’s work has demonstrated the kind of community organizing that needs to be done if the sustainability movement is to achieve significant results. You can download it at the website, http://www.itstimereno.org/calender.asp

The End of Money and the Future of Civilization has been nominated for the Triple Pundit Sustainable Business Must Read list. You can help by casting your vote at http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/02/nominations-are-in-vote-for-the-best-green-business-books-to-create-a-must-read-list-for-all-sustainability-folk/

And if you feel so inclined, you might nominate my work for support from one of these prizes (I surely qualify age-wise):

Purpose Prize for social innovators over 60

Know someone in his/her 60s, 70s, or beyond who is capitalizing on the expertise and experience of a lifetime to find solutions to local, national and global challenges?

The Purpose Prize, now in its fourth year, awards five $100,000 and five $50,000 prizes to social innovators over the age of 60. It is the country’s only large-scale investment in social innovators in the second half of life. Rather than a personal achievement award, the prizes are intended as investments in these social innovators’ future work.

In addition to the ten prizes awarded each year, the initiative also recognizes dozens of other outstanding individuals in “encore careers” – those who are redefining the so-called “retirement years”. If you know someone who fits this description, visit the Purpose Prize website for more information on how to nominate – www.encore.org/prize. (I heard about this through the ASPA-CIVED listserv.)

BTW, I’ve joined Twitter and will be using it to alert my followers to new posts on my blogs and websites. My twitter name is tomazgreco. To follow me, go to http://twitter.com/ and sign up.

I’ll be returning soon to the U.S. and look forward to spending time with friends and helping to implement various currency and exchange projects.

Newsletter–February 1, 2010

February 1, 2010

Thoughts about Thailand

There is no baseball in Thailand, and there is no social safety net either.

Well, that’s not entirely true, I did see the movie Bull Durham on TV the other day, and Pa tells me that when one reaches the age of 60, the government does provide a monthly allowance of 500 Baht.

500 Baht, that’s about US$15 at current exchange rates, enough to buy four roasted chickens in the marketplace or 6 modest restaurant meals. The most frugal Thai might be able to manage to stretch that out to provide a week’s worth of meals at home. But food here is among the cheapest of things one requires to live. Rent on a basic apartment will cost many thousands of baht, a used motorbike will cost upwards of 12,000, and a gallon of gasoline (petrol) costs about 120 baht.

Medical and dental care here are cheap by western standards but everyone must pay for it; there are no government supported programs like Medicare or Medicaid. Everyone here is, by necessity, an entrepreneur, even if that means selling a few trinkets on the street. Tourism and transfer payments from people in western countries support a very large portion of the economy, especially in the cities.

While most Thais struggle to make it, Westerners find living here to be very cheap because we continue to enjoy favorable currency exchange rates (the reasons for that make for a long story). A small pension that may be inadequate for living in the United States can and does provide a comfortable lifestyle in Thailand. Chiang Mai is a good location. It’s a fair sized city and has lots of good features–reasonably priced guest houses and apartments, good food, interesting attractions, lively markets, and a number of good used bookstores. I recently had some dental work–two fillings and my teeth cleaned (by the dentist himself, not an assistant) for the equivalent of $50 total. My very comfortable lodging, complete with A/C, cable TV and Wi-Fi internet costs less than $400 a month, and decent accommodations can be found here for much less than that depending on location and amenities. Longer term rentals are even cheaper. There is no need to have a car unless one wants to take excursions outside the city. Songtaos and tuk tuks provide frequent and cheap transport anywhere in or around the city.

Thailand is the land of mega-Wats. Wat means “temple” and there are plenty of them. I thought I had become jaded to them, but recently I’ve seen a few that inspire awe. One of these is the “white temple” up near Chiang Rai, and the other day Pa showed me two others very close to my place that are truly amazing. The ornate detail and extent of the hammered aluminum artwork in these latter two is suggestive of the level of ecclesiastical devotion that prevailed during the European gothic period.

Activities

When the living is easy, one can get pretty lazy and complacent. I still spend a lot of my time working but at a more leisurely pace than last year, which was pretty intense with the book launch and speaking tour. Trying to keep up with email correspondence and responding to requests for advice and information constitute a major chore, but I’m trying to guide a few important projects that are moving ahead in various places. I’ve also been making frequent posts to my blogs. Recent additions to Beyondmoney.net include, Identification and Tracking in the Brave New World–RFID Chips and You, and, The Real Meaning of the Wizard of Oz.

The presentations I made in North America during the last part of 2009 are now mostly posted. The one I gave at the Economics of Peace Conference in California is available in four parts at http://vimeo.com/channels/theeconomicsofpeace/page:4.

Fortunately, a volunteer has come forward with an offer to translate my presentations into Spanish. Translations of two presentations have already been completed and others are in process. These are being posted at http://beyondmoney.net/ under the sidebar heading, En español.

My other blog, Tom’s News and Views (https://tomazgreco.wordpress.com/) features a new item on the hazards of cell phone radiation and another by Col. Bob Bowman on free speech and popular government.

Since my work involves a lot of reading, I don’t normally read for recreation, but when I’m traveling I’m sometimes inclined to pick up a novel. Most guesthouses have a small library of books that have been left behind by guests. On this trip I’ve discovered a couple popular British fiction writers. While staying in Bangkok I picked up Black and Blue, one of the Inspector Rebus mysteries by Ian Rankin, which I enjoyed immensely. That induced me to read still another of that series, the name of which I’ve now forgotten. The other author is Bernard Cornwell, whose book, Sharpe’s Tiger provides some interesting historical perspective on late eighteenth century India.

In addition, Axel Aylwen’s, The Falcon of Siam, is a rather engaging story that provides a glimpse into what Thailand was like more than 300 years ago when the various European powers were competing for dominance and seeking to exploit the treasures of Asia.

More Blatant Bank Abuses

With the contraction of bank lending to the private sector and the consequent reduction in their interest earnings on mortgages and business loans, the members of the banking cartel have found other ways to exploit the public. Overdraft fees, late payment fees, penalties, and interest rate hikes on credit card debt are among the most celebrated abuses that have even stirred Congress to investigate (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/20/AR2009092002879.html).

I use a credit card as a matter of convenience but I typically pay in full the balance due each month to avoid paying interest and other bank charges, but last November, I made an exception and paid only a portion of the statement balance. I expected to pay interest the following month on the remaining amount, which I did. The next month I paid the full balance thinking that there would be no further interest charges, but when I got my January bill there was a charge for interest on new purchases made in the subsequent period. To make matter worse, there was also a charge for a “foreign transaction fee.” I disputed both charges, first by phone then by email, all to no avail. My telephone complaint was answered by a man with a heavy Indian accent. I could just image him sitting in some crowded call center in Bangalore or Mumbai, or more likely some low rent backwater in rural India. His English was reasonably comprehensible but I still could not understand the reasons for these charges. I thought perhaps it might be because of deficiencies in his vocabulary, but the written relies to my later emails did not make much sense to me either.

The foreign transaction fee I’m told was associated with the purchase of my airline ticket from San Francisco to Asia on EVA Air, a Taiwanese air carrier. This still puzzles me. I had booked the flight online while I was still in the US and I paid for the ticket (I thought) in US dollars. I’ve made similar purchases in the past on “foreign” airlines like British Airways, Air France, and Malaysia Airlines and never been charged such a fee. Does that mean that henceforth any purchase made from a foreign company will incur a “foreign transaction fee?” Apparently it does. Buyers beware!

The Thai banks are no better. When I was here last year, it cost, at most, 20 baht to use an ATM to draw cash from my account at home, and at a couple banks it was free. This year they all are charging the same outrageous 150 baht ($5) for each withdrawal. By way of adjustment I’ve had to start drawing larger amounts of cash each time to keep from being raped.

Another change I’ve noted since last year is a further increase in the already excessive number of massage studios. This includes a proliferation of fish spas. I had seen a couple of these in Malaysia but none in Chiang Mai. Now they seem to have cropped up all over town like mushrooms after the rain. A fish spa is a place where you can immerse your feet (or hands) in a tank of water and have a school of small fish nibble away the dead skin.

If you’re interested, you can see more of my pictures from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Jum, and other parts of Thailand at my online Photo Gallery, http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg.

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BTW, I’ve joined Twitter and will be using it to alert my followers to new posts on my blogs and websites. My twitter name is tomazgreco. To follow me go to twitter and sign up.