Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q & A

A reader of this blog posted the following question to me:

A question for a cosmopolitan Japanese, connoisseur and graduated in the art of living: where is that, in this city called London, I can order for delivery Japanese and oriental flowers?
I'm sorry I don't know the answer. You may want to visit the Japan Centre on Piccadilly and ask its shop assistants. They may know something.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Latest Research Findings on Corruption

Let me put on a hat as a development economist today.

The November issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics (or QJE for short), one of the top 5 academic journals in economics, is released today. It features two papers in the field of development economics.

One paper, written by Marianne Bertrand, Simeon Djankov, Rema Hanna, and Sendhil Mullainathan, analyzes corruption involved in the acquisition of driver's licenses in India. They find the following facts in a convincing way (there are other findings in the paper, but these are less convincing):

1. If a man in Delhi is more willing to obtain a license quickly, he will be more likely to obtain one without taking the licensing exam.

2. Such a man pays about 50 percent more fees over and above the official fee for licensing.

3. But he is no more likely to bribe bureaucrats at the transport office.

4. Instead he is more likely to hire an "agent", a professional who helps individuals obtain a license in return for a fee. Presumably, these "agents" pay bribes to bureaucrats on behalf of license applicants.

5. These agents can procure licenses irrespective of the applicant's driving ability. They don't even charge a higher fee for applicants who can't drive.

6. These agents are, however, less likely to procure licenses for applicants who don't have documents required for application (proof of age and area of residence).

Maybe these findings are obvious to Indians or people from developing countries with rampant corruption. For development economists, however, this is a "finding", especially the presence of "agents". We always believed that when corruption occurs, citizens directly pay bribes to bureaucrats. That's not the case, at least for driver's license applications in India.

Another lesson from this paper is that corruption is socially harmful. Some economists in the past argued that corruption is good because it speeds up the lengthy bureaucratic process. But the study shows that corruption increases the number of people with a driver's license who actually cannot drive.

Finally, finding 6 suggests that corruption to bend official rules is more difficult for rules that are easy for higher-up government officials to check.

For the other development economics paper published in the QJE this month, please wait.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Japan and its consumption culture

Last week the publication of Tokyo Michelin Guide hit the news headline. A Swedish colleague of mine was surprised by the total number of stars awarded to Tokyo restaurants which exceeds any other city in the world (including Paris).

What I was surprised is, however, the lack of the Michelin Guide for Tokyo until now. It well reflects the Westerners' ignorance of the quality of services in Tokyo, and in Japan more generally.

The year of 2007 already saw a change in this: the launch of Monocle magazine, the magazine I keep talking about since day one. Every monthly issue introduces the reader in the West to Japanese top quality players in the service and consumption goods industry, from hotels and airlines to cosmetics, foods, and bags. And the magazine recognizes Tokyo and Kyoto as among the 20 most livable cities in the world.

But it's not enough. The world isn't fully aware of how demanding Japanese consumers are and how great, as a response, is the services provided by companies, both domestic and foreign, in Japan.

What I recently discovered is a stark difference in HP's website between Japan and UK. I was trying to find the best HP printer for me. But electronics shops in Stockholm are stressfully unhelpful because each shop stocks a different set of printers. The comparison of all the available products in the market takes a lot of walk. Also, each shop is pretty much under-staffed. It's difficult to seek assistance, or it takes a lot of time by waiting to be served. So I did search on the web.

As the Swedish website is, as always, hieroglyphic to me, I turn to the UK one. But the website doesn't help me choose which one suits my need. I then access to the US website. It looks like a search result on, which means that it's not easy for me to spot the best printer.

So I visit the Japanese one. And it is amazing. When I see the list of HP printers, it's almost immediate to learn which functions are available for which printer. Each function takes up one square in a 3 by 5 matrix shown next to the printer image. If a printer lacks in a particular function, the square for that function is left blank. As the position of each function in the matrix is fixed for all printers, just a glance at the list tells you the difference among printers. So I immediately learn which printer is what I'm looking for. Compare this to the British version in which each printer's functions are listed in the bullet-point style.

Usually, this method of searching the best product in the market doesn't work because what's available in Japan is often unavailable in Europe. This is because the range of products in Europe is smaller or because the European electronics market lags behind the Japanese one by 6 to 12 months. Thankfully, this time the best printer in Japan was available in Stockholm.

Since I'm used to this Japanese-style product catalogue during the 24 years of my life in Tokyo, shopping electronics products in London was, and in Stockholm is, (and, I believe, in other European countries will be) such a pain in the neck.

I'm not sure whether this difference in consumption culture between Japan and the West (or at least UK and Sweden) comes from the difference in awareness (ie. people in Europe have never imagined that such a level of service quality is feasible) or the cultural difference at a deeper level (ie. Japanese people are materialistic while Europeans derive satisfaction from invisible things---travelling abroad, staying with family members, etc.).

But I'm sure that daily life in Japan, such as things described in this post, should be intriguing to Westerners. This blog keeps trying to spread the word on what's standard in Japan but not in the rest of the world (the post below is an example).

The latest Japanese mobile handset

The Japanese mobile market is so isolated from the rest of the world (e.g. Apple's iPhone is not available in Japan, and Apple has no plan to sell it in the Far Eastern country) that its evolution is beyond your imagination (just like animals in Australia is different from the rest of the world).

By clicking here (this is a news video clip in Japanese, but just keep watching the images), you will see the latest mobile handset in Japan (called Infobar 2). The round-shaped edge of the handset is amazing. And this handset allows you to watch digital television channels (called "1-seg").

Once you are aware of Japan's latest mobile handsets, mobile shops in Europe start looking so boring.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A tip for development economics fieldworks

The number of blogs written by development economists appears to be on the rise. One of such blogs, the one by Chris Blattman, offers a tip for fieldwork:

[When] running surveys ... [i]n western Kenya, parents were reluctant to name their exact number of children lest it be seen as boastful, provoking God to take one of them away. ... [W]e learned with time to ask about an eldest child, counting down child-by-child without ever mentioning the total number.

By the way, I don't try to make this blog as another development economics blog. I prefer a more personal blog, juxtaposing various topics that interest the blogger. But from time to time, things on development economics will show up in this blog as I'm interested in them.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Allkort is a Swedish term for a credit card. Or so I believed. When I opened my bank account, I applied for a credit card. A week later, my credit card was delivered by post. So far so good.

Then I tried to pay by this credit card. It didn't work.

The card was rejected. I called the bank up. They said I needed to activate the card. So I asked them to do it.

Then I tried to pay by this credit card. It didn't work.

In Britain, debit cards are clearly different from credit cards. That's why I applied for a credit card. My Swedish debit card, however, can be used as a Mastercard. So I actually don't really need a credit card.

So I just left aside the useless credit card.

Today, I need to visit my bank to obtain my ID card. The ID card is an essential item in Sweden because you are often asked to show it when you pay by credit/debit card. (You also need to show it when you rent a DVD, or so they say. I don't watch DVDs, so I don't know for myself.) It takes 4 to 6 weeks to issue after placing an order either at a post office (which is almost non-existent in this country, by the way) or at a bank.

When receiving my ID card, I ask the bank staff why my credit card does not work. They say,

"Because you don't put any money on the credit card account."


I'm totally confused. By definition, you can use a credit card when you don't have money, can't you?

The bank staff at the desk cannot answer my question in English. She asks for help from her colleague. And I learn this. You can use your credit card by transfering your money in the standard bank account to the credit card account. (And the money in the credit card account earns a higher interest rate than the standard bank account.) You can also use your credit card by applying for a credit limit with your income statement as proof of your payment ability.

In Japan and in UK, when I applied for a credit card, I could immediately use it without applying for a credit limit. The credit limit is automatically provided. And there was no such system as depositing money in the credit card account to use the card.

I don't know if this applies to other Swedish banks as well. So I cannot generalize this to Sweden as a whole, especially because my bank appears to be the worst one in Sweden. (I couldn't choose because it's almost part of my employment contract.) But I didn't know that the system of using credit cards could be different from country to country.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Luna Sea's back. X Japan's back.

By visiting a tiny bookstore selling Japanese books and magazines in Stockholm today, I learn that Luna Sea, my favorite rock group since my secondary school days, will hold a gig on the Christmas Eve this year, 7 years after they broke up. The gig is aptly titled "One Night Dejavu". This news was actually released last September. I just didn't know it until I found the September issue of a magazine at the bookstore. (This bookstore sells Japanese magazines with a few month delay.)

X Japan, another favorite Japanese rock group of mine since my secondary school days, will soon release a new single "I.V." for the first time in 10 years after it broke up. The new single is featured in the ending credit of US film "Saw 4".

These news bring back my memory during those days, which I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with. These rock groups mean a lot more to me than you would imagine.

Added on March 28, 2008
Luna Sea's gig on December 24, 2007, can be seen in this post.
X Japan's gig on March 28, 2008, can be seen in this post.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Proof of Impossibility Theorem: Step 2

This is a sequel to the previous post.

Ray Fisman, an economist at Columbia University's business school, empirically proved the following. (These are quotations from Fisman's column at Slate.) In choosing whom to date with,

Finding #1: "Men avoided women whom they perceived to be smarter than themselves. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date. When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better."

Finding #2: "Women of all the races we studied revealed a strong preference for men of their own race: White women were more likely to choose white men; black women preferred black men; East Asian women preferred East Asian men; Hispanic women preferred Hispanic men."

Finding #2 is a serious threat to my marriage perspective. In Stockholm, there are very few East Asian women. What's worse, an additional finding says,

"East Asian women did not discriminate against white men (only against black and Hispanic men). As a result, the white man-Asian woman pairing was the most common form of interracial dating—but because of the women's neutrality, not the men's pronounced preference."
So the precious East Asian women in Stockholm are likely to date with white men. (Of course, this assumes external validity of the finding. What happens in U.S. is the same as in Stockholm.)

Proof of the Impossibility Theorem moves one step forward.

Finding #1, on the other hand, implies that the smartest and most ambitious women and the dumbest and least ambitious men are left out. This could be a good news for me, because I'm an outlier. I don't mind dating with a woman who is smarter and more ambitious than myself. But for some reason, finding the smartest and most ambitious women left out in the marriage market is extremely difficult in this world. (The only explanation of this seems to be that the smartest and most ambitious men are smarter and more ambitious than the smartest and most ambitious women, but I don't want to go down this line of reasoning.) Or I'm probably the dumbest and least ambitious man in the world, especially in terms of communication skills.

Proof of the Impossibility Theorem moves one more step forward.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Customer Services

I didn't know that asking help from customer services is the most difficult thing for a person who lives in a country whose native language he/she doesn't understand.

My broadband connection at home has failed since two days ago. Since making a phone call to the broadband provider's customer service just ends up in an automated message in Swedish (which of course I don't understand), I emailed them writing my request in English yesterday.

Within an hour, an auto-reply message came to my email inbox, which is of course written in Swedish. I initially thought this was just an indication that they received my email. So I didn't try to ask somebody Swedish to translate it for me.

One day later today, no further response. I asked a Swedish colleague at the workplace for translating the auto-reply message. She said, "You need to click this line in the message to confirm your email message."

So I clicked it today, which took me to a webpage which is of course in Swedish. I asked the colleague again to translate it. It says that this is your inquiry number and they will respond shortly.

Fixing the broadband connection is, therefore, delayed by one day.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Dark winter has begun.

After coming back from Boston, the summer time has ended in Sweden.

Which means that the sunset time is now 1 hour earlier.

After 3pm, the sky starts darkening; by 4:30pm, darkness prevails. It's early November, but I'm here in Stockholm.

Temperature does not exceed 5 degrees celcius these days. A couple of days ago, the landscape was covered with snow when I woke up, this winter's first snowfall in Stockholm.

I've decided to wake up early and go to bed early so that I can maximize the exposure to the sunlight, from dawn to dusk.

Welcome to dark winter in Stockholm.