Enter the Chinese Philanthropy

NGOMore than 500,000 NGOs have registered over the past 25 years, a figure that some think will double over the next couple of years, as rules are relaxed. Many of these, admittedly, are quasi-state bodies, like an official youth foundation, or businesses in disguise, like private schools, but a growing number are the real deal. And a further 1.5m-odd NGOs operate without being registered, including some that the party suspects of being too independent or confrontational, according to Economist.

The essay from Economist reminds me of my recent experience about charity and NGO in China. I have never connected with any NGO in China before. However, in the past four months, I participated in an everyday philanthropy campaign for helping collect free lunch for poor kids in China villages from the beginning till now, launching online this Saturday (May 10th). We corporate with a Chinese NGO named “Free Lunch”, which especially helps with collecting money from companies and buying food for the kids who couldn’t eat hot meal for lunch. Our campaign is trying to ask young people overseas contribute simple actions (social media likes/shares, taking a photo/video) in exchange for free lunch (donated by companies) for starving kids in China. We named it “One Way“.

It’s not easy to communicate with a NGO group in China well, actually it became one of our biggest troubles. More people enter into NGO and help with charity should be a good thing. However, we haven’t set up a standard or rules for everyone to operate the group smoothly.

” Working with a Chinese NGO requires being flexible and adapting to sudden personnel or regulatory changes,” according to China Development Brief The report shows that we still not in a stable situation or circumstance for the development of NGO in China. I hope we could have more regulations in the near future and make it easier for young people who want to contribute to Chinese charity.


ChiNext Pioneers-Young Chinese Entrepreneurs

ChiNext is an important component of China’s multi-tier capital market system, which offers a new capital platform tailor-made for the needs of enterprises engaged in independent innovation and other growing venture enterprises. ChiNext Pioneers represent those entrepreneurs who are trying to start or operate their own businesses in US.


Tianyi Zhong is one of those pioneers who are trying to start their own businesses. After getting his master degree in Information Technology and Services from USC, he and his girlfriend, Yi He opened a Chinese fast food delivery company, Chopopfoods.

“I always want to start my own business…I don’t like the food around our campus…so I think if I have chance to cook I would make it more delicious and healthy…Then I talked to my girlfriend and she supported my idea…Actually USC has a lot of Chinese students,” said Zhong.

After deep conversations with their parents, they decided to start their new business with the money, 50,000 dollars, supported by their parents.

As the largest segment of enrolled international population, USC has 2,515 Chinese students, which ranks NO.1 in US universities, according to annual Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education.

In September, after eight-month preparations, Zhong finally signed a contract with a professional catering kitchen in downtown area, Los Angeles and officially started his business in October.

They set up a website and an app, which both could search their menus and order meals online. After the first month, they built connections with some returned customers and their friends. On Chinese twitter, Weibo, they launched special order promotions for attracting customers and got much more followers than before. However, the booming market didn’t bring them more orders.

“…Eight to nine dollars for a combo is actually cheap for lunch…we plan to have 30-50 orders every day after the first month, but it’s much harder than we imagined…the truth is that we only have less than 15 orders every day…under our expectations,” said Zhong.

In December, China News, one of the largest Chinese news agencies, reported their story on Chinese websites. They were getting popular on Chinese Internet and even attracted Chinese investors who are in US.

“ The investor told me that he could invest around one million dollars…we met once in bay area before…it’s just unbelievable…We are going to meet again after New Year,” said Zhong.

In Las Vegas, Zhong and his girlfriend met their investor Mr. Xi. After two-day negotiations, 10,000 dollars would be put at the beginning stage for new products research such as fresh fruit juice and marketing plans, which means they have to change their original business model.

“ With the money we can hire more people to help us with market research and other stuff…but it’s getting a little bit different with our original goal… we are still thinking over the whole business plan,” said Zhong.

More than 200 million businesses are started in US every year, according to a study released today by the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, nearly 20 percent of immigrant-owned businesses started $50,000 or more in startup capital, compared to 15.9 percent for non-immigrant-owned business.

Zhong has entirely stopped his food delivery since February. They might need more time to adjust their dream and try to find a way to achieve it in the real world. They still have a long way to go.


Is China ready for Tesla?

In April, the initial delivery of Tesla arrived in China. As one of the first customers, Dongfeng Wang got the key from Elon Musk who is the founder of Tesla Automotive in Beijing. Wang described that driving Tesla reminds him of the experience using a new smartphone, according to Phenix.com.

“I fall in love with it at first sight, I paid 40,000 dollars for ordering a Tesla while I visited Tesla in Silicon Valley,” said Wang.

Building up the marketing team in China at the beginning of 2013, Tesla already received 5,000 orders all over China by the end of the year, even though they hadn’t set up any service store in Beijing yet. It became a new luxury fashion among Chinese rich people. The average price of a Tesla Model S costs about 800,000 RMB (around 150,000 dollars).

Tesla–the apple of auto industry 

Founded in 2003, Tesla, as an electronic car company, has been making records in the past few years not only for their plan to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory, but also for the new Arizona bill that would allow the company to sell cars and bypass dealers, a win in its ongoing battle in other states against dealer licensing regulations, according to Forbes, the interview with Eugene Groysman, an Apple expert at Marketocracy.

“Just like Apple, Tesla has an opportunity to revolutionize a market. With Apple it was the unique products of the iPod and iPhone that revolutionized the digital music and mobile phone markets,” said Groysman.

Elon Musk, as the founder of Tesla and Space X, created a new revolution in auto industry. Electronic car technology was not latest developed but Musk made it as a new fashion of driving. In Tesla’s 10 years of existence, the company has suffered through embarrassing delays and leadership overhauls, verged on bankruptcy at least once, and been a favorite target of short sellers. In May 2013, it posted its first profitable quarter, with earnings of $11.2 million; sales for the first quarter rose 83 percent, to $562 million. Now more and more young people love to choose a Tesla or make it as one of their dreams to achieve.

profit margin

Following Tesla’s lead, General Motor and Ford have started hiring software developers in its technology department. “The carmakers see kids opting to watch movies on their iPads instead of on pricey, built-in infotainment systems, and know they need to find a way to keep up”, by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Tesla has just released its Q1 financial results. Adjusted earnings per share came in at $0.12 per share, which was higher than the $0.07 expected by analysts surveyed. During the quarter, the company produced 7,535 models S and delivered 6,457, according to Bloomberg. The stock is down by around 6% in after-hours trading. Management expects about 7,500 deliveries in Q2 and says it’s on track for 35,000 deliveries for the year.

“We are expanding our factory capacity to support increased Model S production later this year and the introduction of Model X next year,” said Musk.


Tesla’s Competitors

In the traditional auto industry, there are several old electronic car brands such as Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus EV and Nissan Leaf. Tesla’s sedan may fall short of some of its electric competitors’ efficiency, but its driving range blows every one of them out of the water, according to an assessment website, Car and Driver. However, Tesla was outstanding on sales in the first quarter.

The company’s supercharger network is expanding quickly, it feels like a new location opens almost every other day. With 65 chargers in the U.S., 14 in Europe, and plans to expand it to China, Tesla is doing what it can to make it possible to drive its cars long distances given the constraints of current battery technology. The network is especially strong in California and along the west coast, where Teslas have been especially popular, according to Forbes.


Coda and Fisker were two main competitors in the new electronic vehicle industry. Parent company Coda Holdings filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013 in Delaware. Bloomberg Business Week says Los Angeles-based Coda Holdings is seeking to sell its assets to a publicly traded private equity group, Fortress Investment Group, for $25 million. It listed assets of up to $50 million and debt of $100 million. Fisker lost money on its first model. Unlike Tesla, though, Fisker ran out of cash before it could rein in costs and establish tighter controls. Fisker stopped production in the summer of 2012, and was seeking new investment. Fisker eventually declared bankruptcy in November 2013, and in February 2014 the company was bought by Chinese auto-parts conglomerate Wanxiang Group, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.


At the same time, Tesla was also struggling with government rules in US. It has to overcome strong political opposition in many states. It is one of significant hurdles about which there is much disagreement.

If there’s a secret to Tesla’s success, it’s been to outsource as little as possible. According to Bloomberg, the company has insisted on doing just about everything it can in-house, which has helped it develop intellectual property and control costs. Tesla built the battery pack replacement feature into the Model S, for example, and then designed the robots that will do the work. None of the engineers came from the auto industry; they were largely solar-powered car hobbyists and gadget makers. A key decision by the founding crew was to lash together thousands of the lithium ion batteries found in laptops to form a giant battery pack.

charger station

To the investor, the biggest concern is that the Model X and the new sedan won’t be cheap enough to attract regular buyers.

It won’t break down sales by state, though the company has opened multiple stores in New York, Texas, Illinois, and Florida, and says about three-quarters of revenue comes from outside California, according to Bloomberg, and its next test will be in Europe and Asia. Investors will be watching closely to see whether Germans and Chinese take to the car the way wealthy American geeks and eco-absolutists have—and if they do, how well that Fremont factory holds up under the stress. These are predictions for Tesla.


Tesla vs. BYD 

Founded in 1995, BYD has developed very quickly at the early ages in China. Recent years, it has been losing power in China’s auto market. However they put more effort on digging into US market. A battery-powered, 40-foot bus is set to roll off the assembly line in a former recreational vehicle factory in Lancaster, California, a blue-collar desert community north of Los Angeles. The $38 billion Chinese conglomerate makes everything from electric cars to LED lighting to solar panels, according to Los Angeles Times.

losing power in China market-BYD

Most of media focused on BYD’s rocky entry into the U.S. market and his famous investor-Warren Buffet. California state regulators last year docked the company $99,245 for violating state labor laws by under-paying Chinese engineers it brought over to work at the Lancaster factory. The labor commission later dropped that charge and reduced the fine to $37,803 for minor infractions of state labor laws. However, it didn’t stop BYD to become the “official electronic vehicle”.

“BYD could make a Tesla any minute if consumer demand for electric cars really ramps up.” that was the latest bold claim by Wang Chuanfu, chairman of BYD.

Wang also acknowledged Tesla got an astonishing success at developing high-end electric cars, changing consumer-buying habits, and training environmentally conscious drivers. However, Wang believes that Tesla’s high-end electric car strategy is not compatible with BYD’s low-end consumer strategy. not planning to go head-to-head competition with Tesla.

“For us, the technology for pure electric car is not the problem. The problem is the market. To scale up new production capabilities, it takes about 4-5 years,” said Wang.

Holding 10% stake in the company back in 2008, Warren Buffet is BYD’s rock. At the moment, BYD’s all-electric e6 car—not a high-performance sports car like Tesla’s has been sold only in Shenzhen, where it is mainly used for taxicabs. It has struggled to gain traction due to a high sticker price, which costs about $60,000 in China, according to the Wall Street Journal.


As a hugely important market for Tesla and BYD, China will be their direct battlefield in next decades. According to Quartz, Dougherty & Company analyst Andrea James has said it has the potential to be the company’s second biggest market. Tesla unveiled highly competitive pricing for the Chinese market earlier this year and plans to start selling cars in April. Whatever Musk may have said in 2011, BYD may now be the company he has to beat.

Is China ready for Tesla?

A group of 23 Chinese Tesla buyers from cities other than Beijing and Shanghai has filed a class action against the company addressed to Tesla Automobile Sales (Beijing), Chinese retailer of Tesla, and CFO of the company Deepak Ahuja. Tesla is accused of consumer fraud or false advertising for changing the shipment order of the preordered automobiles without noticing the customers, according to TechNode.

The customers complained that Tesla promised consumers to ship products based on the payment order of deposit, which amounts to 250,000 RMB ($40,150), but customers in Beijing and Shanghai received emails to take their preordered cars recently, while buyers in areas other than these two cities are left behind. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla visited China last month and amid customer complaint turmoil.

Musk had another “mission” for his tour in China, handing keys to first delivery customers. He ever described China as a “wild card” in the company’s future. It’s all about timing.

China has set a target of having 5 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2020 as part of efforts to curb pollution, and other automakers are closely watching to see if Tesla can win over consumers in the market, according to LA times.

Beijing recently held a special auction for electric-vehicle license plates. The government also offers special incentives to buyers of Chinese-made electric vehicles, for instance, the Beijing municipal government enforced a quota of about 13% for hybrid electric and full-electric vehicles in the license plate registration lottery. And this share will keep increasing through 2017 to about 40%. The incentive has not been appealing enough for many in China. At the latest draw, while each permit for conventional gasoline autos received more than 90 bids, only 1,428 people applied for the 1,666 NEV plates on offer, according to ckgsb.edu. However, Tesla does not qualify for the program.

Besides government incentives, subsidies and tax reduction benefits provided for electric vehicles are certainly attractive in China.


Based on the targets set out in March 2013, the overall number of NEVs must reach 0.5 million in 2015 and 2 million by 2020. This revised target is less than half of the target of 5 million set earlier for 2020. Also, according to IHS data, at the end of 2012 there were only 27,800 such vehicles on the road, of which 80% were electric buses. Last year China sold a total of 17,642 NEVs including the 11,963 passenger NEVs (refer to the graph). This brings the total number of NEVs in operation to 45,442 units.

Among the first nine buyers to receive their Model S cars, which sell for about $122,000 in China, were influencers such as Cao Guowei, CEO of Internet company Sina, and Yu Yongfu, chief executive of the mobile Internet browser company UCWeb, according to LA Times.

Tesla ever said that they would make the price “fair” in China. In fact, At least 800,000 RMB per car is a kind of rich people’s toy. For instance, Chinese automaker BYD’s all-electric e-6 car can be bought for under 400,000 RMB, and its model Qin for even less.

Tesla recently announced that they would produce a mass-market electric car” in three years. They are planning to build a large-scale factory that will allow it “to achieve economies of scale and minimize costs through innovative manufacturing, reduction of logistics waste, optimization of co-located processes and reduced overhead”.

At least, China still need more time to be ready for a big warm welcome for Tesla or other electric vehicle companies.













China’s E-commerce Giant Go to Public in US

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on Tuesday filed for its long-awaited initial public offering, one of the largest in history.

Alibaba –described as eBay, Amazon and Google rolled into one – was evaluated at $150 billion to $200 billion. Its stock debut immediately gave it a higher market value than Facebook and Amazon.

It was estimated that the Hangzhou-based tech behemoth to raise $15 billion to $20 billion, exceeding Facebook’s record-breaking $16 billion IPO in May 2012.

Alibaba was founded in 1999 by Jack Ma, who was turned down for a number of jobs before starting his own e-commerce empire, including a manager post at a Kentucky Fried Chicken store.

Alibaba’s businesses include online shopping, business-to-business sales, online payments, shipping, wholesale trade and cloud computing. Alibaba’s retail marketplace last year processed 11.3 billion orders from 231 million active buyers for a total of $248 billion in purchases, more than the transaction volume on eBay and Amazon combined. On Singles Day in November, a popular holiday in China for online shopping, the company’s online retail portals processed $5.8 billion in spending. Alibaba earned net income reached about $1.4 billion last year with $5.6 billion in revenue.

While little known outside of China, Alibaba dominates the e-commerce market in the world’s second biggest economy. The company’s Taobao service has 800 million product listings from 8 million sellers. About 80 percent of all Chinese e-commerce transactions go through Alibaba.

The company also has strong U.S. ties. Yahoo owns a 22.6% stake in Alibaba. The IPO is great news for Yahoo investors and Yahoo shares rallied on that report. The Alibaba IPO filing followed the debut of Weibo , Chinese version of Twitter, which raised $286 million in April.

In the past few months, Alibaba invested $215 million in Mountain View mobile messaging service TangoMe, pouring $250 million into San Francisco ride-sharing app Lyft and $206 million worth of investment into ShopRunner, a delivery service for online purchases.

Alibaba has dropped billions of dollars to acquire other Chinese companies as well, including a $1.2 billion purchase last week of 16.5% share in China’s Youku and Tudou, Chinese equivalent to YouTube and Netflix.

However, Alibaba faces the challenge of convincing investors it will be a good buy.

The biggest concern has to do with transparency. People have suspicions about the way Chinese companies are operating, and they want know specific numbers and details about Alibaba’s books.

Analysts estimate the company could be worth $136 billion to $245 billion when it started to sell stocks, according to Wall Street Journal.

One key concern is where Alibaba’s core revenue growth is coming from and the company’s system for recording and reporting sales.





Crowdfunding – investment method of the future?

The advent of the internet allowed, for the first time, a more participatory, two-way form of communication. In the past, corporations and media companies broadcasted messages for the public to digest without offering a truly significant out for feedback save for letters to the editor. The internet however, created a collaborative platform in which not one single entity controlled the message. Users from around the world for the first time could engage in discussion and share ideas.

It is unsurprising, then, that the disruption of the model of communication would be echoed in the disruption of the traditional ways an entrepreneur would seek funding. While in the past entrepreneurs and hopeful business owners would have to rely on investors, loans or their own money, the emergence of the internet has allowed for a fairly new form of funding: crowdfunding.

According to Investopedia, crowdfunding is defined as “the use of small amounts to capital from a large number of individuals in finance a new business venture.” Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and crowdfunding work in perfect tandem to attract as many investors as possible for the business venture.

There are two main models of crowdfunding: donation-based and investment crowdfunding. As the name suggests, with donation-based crowdfunding, funders willingly donate money towards some collaborative goal. More often than not, these funders will receive some sort of reward based on how much money they donate. For example, in the case of funding a new album for a band, a funder may receive a CD for donating $10, or a private concert for donating $10,000.

Investment crowdfunding is different in the sense that funders will gain a portion of the business in form of stocks, equity or debt in return for their investment. In this model, funders have the opportunity to make money off their investment as opposed to the donation-based model, where funders will only receive a product or service (similar to pre-ordering an item.)

Research conducted by Massolution, an association dedicated to researching crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, showed that “crowdfunding platforms raised $2.7 billion and successfully funded more than 1 million campaigns in 2012.” Forecasts see these numbers increasing dramatically over the next few years as the successes of crowd-sourced projects continue to catch the public’s and potential business owners’ interests.

Crowdfunding offers many advantages over traditional forms of investment. First of all, it greatly benefits small businesses which lack the cash or resources in order to grow. When seeking funding for a project, the business sets a time limit (varying from a few weeks to a few months) and a target goal. Furthermore, details of the product are made available to the public, and the business’ financial records are made more transparent. Funders are also able to see the progress a business is making towards achieving that goal. Funders can be as involved as they like in the process by tracking progress, asking questions and offering suggestions. This creates a closer bond between the funder and the project owner, which creates a greater sense of loyalty and a better chance of retaining the funder as a potential customer.

There are various different crowdsourcing platforms available, but the most popular and most successful websites are Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Crowdfunder. There are also more industry-specific crowdfunding websites such as Pledgemusic, which allows fans to contribute money towards their favourite artist to help them fund their next album or music endeavours.


Kickstarter, the biggest crowdfunding platform, was founded in 2009. In 2013 alone, 3 million people pledged $480 million to Kickstarter projects. 19,911 projects were successfully funded, resulting in the development of those products or services that were offered.

There are many projects which have become famous and popular in their own right after being funded on Kickstarter. Pebble – a customizable smartwatch which can connect to one’s iPhone or Android phone – is one of the most successful projects successfully funded by Kickstarter. The project attracted 68,929 backers and raised $10,266,845 out of the $100,000 goal it set. While the project is no longer open on Kickstarter, its enormous success allowed it to grow as a business and offer new and updated models from their website.

What made Kickstarter such an effective and popular platform was its unique business model. Kickstarter adopted an “all or nothing” approach. A project must achieve 100% of its funding goal in order to receive the funds. If a project is unable to reach the goal, the funds are returned to the backers. For every successful project, Kickstarter receives 5% commission. This means that with just the Pebble project alone, Kickstarter received $513,342.25 by simply hosting the project on their website. If the product is distributed on Amazon, Amazon will also take a commission of 2%.

However, Kickstarter – and crowdfunding – has its downsides as well. One of the general misconceptions of crowdfunding is that it is an easier way of obtaining funds. However, backers need to have faith in the product or service that is being offered – their ‘donation’ is essentially a vote of confidence. This means that one can’t just have an idea and post it on Kickstarter – they need to have already invested some of their own money in creating a prototype, videos and pictures to show the public. There is a risk on the backer’s side too: by pledging an amount of money, the backer is risking receiving a delayed, faulty, and/or low quality product that may not reach their expectations.

A committed community is also essential in order to reach the required number of backers. Due to Kickstarter’s “all or nothing” business model, it is imperative that a project receives at least 100% of their goal – else their efforts will have gone to waste. Kickstarter is also purely online. It is difficult to translate the efforts to raise money offline, and offline donations do not count towards the Kickstarter goal.

Overall, crowdfunding opens up many opportunities to small businesses that may not have otherwise been able to raise fund, and generates interest in creative and unique ideas. Crowdfunding, when done correctly, can clearly encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. With any investment, however, there is a risk in something not living up to one’s expectations. One also needs to keep in mind that the more investors, the more people one needs to please.

Additional sources:










Entertainment, South Korea’s Darling Export





These images above are some of the most recognizable icons in the South Korean entertainment industry.  The Korean Wave, or hallyu, is still going strong, continuing to shape East Asian culture and trickling to parts of Europe as well. As an outsider, it is easy to ask, “What makes Korean entertainment so great?” What has made this tiny peninsula–divided in half–an Asian entertainment powerhouse?

The success of South Korea’s entertainment industry can be traced back to the Kim Dae Sung Administration in the late 1990s. During this time, the government’s investment in cultural products increased dramatically. One motivation was to strengthen its domestic market against the Japanese cultural products lingering from the colonial days. Another reason was to recover from the crippling Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, when the country’s GDP dropped 7%. In order to reinvigorate the economy and to raise South Korea’s global profile, President Kim put his faith into the entertainment industry, planting the seed of the hallyu phenomenon. In 1998, the Culture Ministry executed its first five-year campaign, including an increase of culture and fine arts departments in colleges. In 2002, the ministry opened the Korea Culture an Content Agency to encourage exports, sparking the beginnings of the Korean Wave, and injected funding into the Korean Film Council. The results were astronomical. The size of South Korea’s entertainment industry, jumped from $8.5 billion in 1999 to $43.5 billion in 2003. Cultural product exports were so insignificant before 1998 that the government could not even provide figures. Five years later, the number would grow to $650 million.

According to a Oxford Economics report titled, “The economic contribution of the film and television industries in South Korea,” the film and television sector have directly contributed 7,749 billion Won to the South Korean GDP in 2011. It has also supported 67,600 jobs and 3,752 billion Won in tax revenues. Average growth of this industry from 2005-2011 has been 10.7%. From this figures, it is clear this industry provides direct support to the country’s economy.

Cultural exports have promoted tourism and business into Korea, particularly from South East Asia. Past work by the Korean International Trade Association (KITA) suggested that Hallyu related tourism amounted to $825 million in 2004. I definitely experienced the impact of hallyu when I visited Seoul for a cultural immersion program. The hot tourist spots were cafes that were themed with a certain popular drama (for instance, the “Coffee Prince Cafe”). There was a statue of the famous lovers from the classic soap opera, Winter Sonata, one of the most successful Korean dramas to date. Many tourists sign up for hallyu-themed tours that take visitors to production sites of famous dramas and films.


What South Korea ultimately gained from their investment in entertainment was soft power. There have been instances where the government leveraged its cultural exports as means of diplomacy. For instance, the official Korean Overseas Information Service gave airing rights to “Winter Sonata” to Egyptian television. They even paid for Arabic subtitles in hopes of generating positive feelings toward South Korean soldiers stationed in northern Iraq.

Another crucial factor of the Hallyu wave has been the web. There is greater access to content than ever before. Anyone can consume foreign content with the swipe of their phone. Online fan communities were formed to share and distribute Korean content. Youtube channels or content websites like mysoju.tv effectively crowd-source translators, graphics personnel, and coders to recreate original Korean content with subtitles and high quality streams. In 2010, an website turned app called “Viki” was launched by a group of Harvard and Stanford students who aggregated the fan-created content to one platform. According to their website, “Viki, a play on the words video and wiki, is a global TV site powered by a volunteer community of avid fans.”

It seems South Korea’s  investment in entertainment exports was money well spent. I am scheduling a 20-hour binge session of “Alien from Another Planet” after finals as we speak.



Why Aluminum needs to replace Plastic beverage containers and why bottled water is the biggest sin of them all

There’s a lot of debate over how to say the word “aluminum” or is it “aluminium.” I personally believe in the former pronunciation but the latter spelling. But this debate has little consequence. The question that should be asked is: Aluminium is the third most abundant element, why are we wasting petroleum, a non-renewable resource on plastic bottles? There a many much more important industrial and medical uses for plastics that cannot be substituted.

Here’s a brief introduction on the benefits of Aluminum:

–       It has remarkably low density that makes it very light relative to its strength. Ever wonder why Airplanes are made out of aluminum?

–       Living organisms do not metabolize aluminum. It’s everywhere and exposure to it doesn’t affect your health at all – meanwhile if you leave a plastic water bottle in the sun you’re giving yourself a little dose of carcinogens!

–       Re-iterating how healthy it is – Aluminum has an LD50 of 6207 mg/kg which means that to run a 50% risk of dying an adult human would have to eat slightly over one pound of the stuff.

–       Aluminum is way more recyclable than plastic. Actually it’s nearly infinitely recyclable because it’s so easy to separate chemically from other compounds.

–       Aluminum prices have declined over the last 25 years… clearly it’s not being used enough

Aluminum isn’t perfect, nothing ever is. It also would stand to reason that there’s no one-stop solution to sustainability. The problem is over-reliance on one resource. The US Economy is addicted to Oil and Corn, for example.

The thing is consumption of plastic, especially plastic bottles is a really understated problem. Plastic, which is a petroleum product – is causing serious environmental harm, raising toxicity levels in the environment and killing or disfiguring animals, especially birds and marine life. Let’s not even discuss the Pacific Garabage Patch sitting in the Pacific gyre. Even the recent Malaysian Airlines flight disappearance has brought to light how much plastic debris is just floating everywhere in the ocean.

A serious downside of Aluminum is that making it is a fairly high-energy process from Bauxite ore. Critics of Aluminum point to this as being a key reason why plastic is better, especially plastic wrap versus aluminum foil. Except as Slate’s Nina Rastogi points out:

“if you use one piece of foil three times, it will contribute less aquatic toxicity than using three pieces of LDPE [plastic cling wrap], and it just about matches the plastic on fossil-fuel usage and eutrophication. You’d have to use that foil six times, however, before the greenhouse gas emissions and human health impacts were comparable as well.”

Eutrophication is the response aquatic ecosystems have to aritifical materials, especially plastics, being introduced, which is characterized by prolific toxic algae blooms.

Even when it comes to re-usable bottles, steel or aluminum are better options than plastic. Toxins from plastic will always leech into water while the worst that happens with metal is a slight metallic taste but no physiological harm.

When it comes to the disposable bottle versus the can the can is also clearly the better option. According to the EPA the US overall plastics recycling rate is 9 percent, or 2.8 million tons in 2012.[1] This means that some 28.3 million tons of recyclable plastics is put into landfills each year. By comparison to all waste this is a disaster considering that in 2009 Americans recovered 34% of waste generated.[2] By comparison when looking at Aluminum cans: “The U.S. recycling rate for aluminum beverage cans reached 58.1% in 2010- a rate that is more than double that of any other beverage container.”[3]

Because Aluminum is so recyclable it quickly offsets the initial energy cost of making it from virgin ore. Aluminum cans in circulation typically contain 68% recycled aluminum and “twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.”[4]

The “Story of Bottled Water” really reveals the problem with plastic water bottles:

Several points are made in the video:

–       We shouldn’t be buying bottled water anyway because tap water is prefectly safe in most places.

–       Tap water typically tastes better than bottled water.

–       Bottled water costs thousands of times more than tap water.

–       The consumption of bottled water relies on an economic principle called manufactured demand. Manufactured demand play on people’s emotions, specifically fear, to create an artificial need for something. A deceptive yet clearly commonplace and accepted practice.

–       The plastic water bottle industry has resulted in the US Government under-investing in tap water infrastructure by $24 billion dollars.

–       The billions of dollars spent on bottled drinking water and cleaning up the mess it causes could be used to address the actual challenge of communities with poor access to water. It could also be spent on making tap water the best water to drink!

So this seems fairly daunting. The evil capitalist machine is going to destroy humanity? No, because we are all individuals living in a society and with free will you can easily do things to change the current predicament:

1)   Boycott bottled drinking water

2)   Reuse the plastic bottles you do buy

3)   Support your local politicians who want to invest in public water infrastructure including treatment, purification and public drinking fountains.

4)   Ask for tap at a restaurant!

5)   Spread the word that Bottled Water is a colossal waste. With social media it’s very easy because you can share an article or a funny comedy sketch.

Students at universities often demonstrate how institutional change can be affected. As a member of USC’s collegiate sailing team I served on the Pacific Coast Collegiate Sailing Conference’s (PCCSC) Executive Board. During my tenure I witnessed the then 24 teams of the PCCSC ban plastic water bottles at regattas. I have done a little bit of math to demonstrate how much a big deal this is.

Let us assume that a team buys two racks of 30 water bottles for a two-day regatta. I would also hazard that the typical PCCSC regatta conservatively has 20 teams attending and the average team sails 10 regattas over the course of an academic year:

2*30*20*10=24’000 plastic water battles

That’s the amount of plastic water bottles reduced just by banning them for college sailing in California, Arizona, and Hawai’i. Make a difference, don’t use plastic water bottles at events your club or organization participates in or hosts.

Imagine now that plastic bottles were banned or made obsolete at a university of tens of thousands of students. Seems unlikely? Think again. Many students have pushed to remove plastic water bottles from their campuses. Most recently students at University of Wisconsin – Fond du Lac began a fundraising effort, not to ban plastic bottles but to encourage re-using plastic water bottles.

They hope to purchase water fountains for the university that are designed to fill water bottles. In other words with a tap style spout rather than your typical up-facing waterspout. By making sustainability easier they are reducing the effort required and making a behavioral appeal for good.




[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm

[2] http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats

[3] http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats

[4] Idem

What Asian Females Are Looking For When They Watch A TV Show

Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes has gone on to become a global best seller after it appeared in a Korean TV show.

[ The Jimmy Choo high-heel shoes made headlines after being worn by a leading character in a popular Korean TV show. ]

Korean TV series My Love From the Stars became a hit among Asian female viewers this spring. The story, which talks about a reputed actress’s encountering with a handsome alien guy with supernatural power, diverts little from what a typical Korean soap opera is: faithful love of good-looking couples.

But in the digital era, its commercial value has gone far beyond media coverage and fan meetings. Successful Korean soap operas have prompted the birth of a variety of revenue streams, ranging from sales hike of sponsoring brands to quick turnover of even the knockoffs.

When you have a female leading character whose profession is a star, it makes sense to package her with top-of-the-line fashion garments and accessories — the likes of Burberry, Celine and Lanvin. But when Korean film star Jun Ji-hyun, the actress who plays the role of the female protagonist, changes her outfit more than ten times in just one episode, you’d know how much business potential there is when you have a fad running on screen. The Hermès poncho she wears in episode 15 went out of stock just a few hours after it was broadcasted, and the news went viral on China’s social media. The makeups she uses in the show have gone to the top of Chinese girls’ shopping list.

[ Hermès poncho: one of the heavily sought after luxury items presented in Korean TV series My Love From the Stars ]

On Taobao.com, China’s biggest e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba, a new industry has emerged, and is now rife with churning out knockoff outfits advertised in TV shows. The moment a Chinese female viewer sees the Hermès poncho and falls for it, private production houses are already on their way to duplicate it at a lower cost. The client would find not just one, but many affordable alternatives within the next few days.

A search on Taobao for outfits from My Love From the Stars would come back with more than tens of thousands of options. The price of a red blazer that comes off its high-end original varies from 100 yuan ($16 dollars) to 700 yuan ($112 dollars), depending on the level of resemblance and the quality of textile. Chinese media reported in February that one of the online stores selling the blazer took in 280,000 yuan ($44,935 dollars) in revenue in just one month from selling 1,450 pieces at about 200 yuan ($32 dollars) each.

Then came the staggering jump in China’s import of Korean beer in March. The figure grew two fold from a year earlier after the combination of fried chicken and beer, a Korean snacking tradition in the show, caught on among Chinese youth. Perhaps Samsung will get some inspiration from this as it wrestles with Apple for the China market.

The Miracle of Corn

Ask the average, everyday American what they think the most important agricultural product the US produces and you might get several answers. Beef, perhaps, given due to the dominance of McDonalds in this country. Soybeans or cotton are also two fair guesses. (Ask the question in California, and you might even get the avocado as your answer.)

What many people don’t realise is that while the aforementioned products are important, their significance in the economy, in politics and indeed this very society pales in comparison to corn. Corn is the most produced crop in the US, with 84 million acres being dedicated to the harvesting of corn. The cash receipts from sales of corn alone amount to $63.9 billion per year. Indeed, the US produces about 34% of the world’s total corn, by far the largest corn producer and consumer of the world.


Corn almost literally makes the world go round – at least, in the case of the US. There are about 4,200 uses for corn. For the large part, corn is found in many food products, some medicine, starch, and alcohol. However, corn is also used in the production of plastic, glue, oil, and ethanol – a source of energy. Most of the nation’s livestock is also fed with corn which, in theory, drives down the prices of meat for the American consumer.

It is hardly a coincidence that the US is also the world’s “largest consumer of sweeteners, including high-fructose corn syrup.” High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is just one of many uses of corn, and is found in an astoundingly wide array of foods in the US. Here is a list of 10 items that contains HFCS that you may or may not have expected:

  1. Yogurts
  2. Breads
  3. Frozen pizzas
  4. Cereal bars
  5. Cocktail peanuts
  6. Boxed macaroni and cheese
  7. Salad Dressing
  8. Tonic
  9. Applesauce
  10. Canned Fruit

The average American eats 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year. What is even more alarming is that medical studies have shown that HFCS – especially when consumed in such large quantities – is extremely hazardous to one’s health. First of all, excess consumption of sugar in any form is a leading cause for diabetes and obesity. Due to government farm bill corn subsidies, HFCS can be used as a cheaper, sweater substitute to cane sugar, increasing its presence in food products and therefore our daily intake of sugar.

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Furthermore, despite what corn lobbyists may say, cane sugar and HFCS are not treated in the same way by our bodies. According to the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, “free fructose from HFCS requires more energy to be absorbed, and soaks up two phosphorous molecules from ATP. This depletes the energy fuel source in our gut required to maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining.” Despite the medical evidence, HFCS continues to be an integral part of our diet – whether we like it or not – due to the high tariffs the US places on imported sugar and the generous subsidies they grant the corn industry.

Corn clearly is an important part of the American economy – but at what price? There are some who argue that relying so heavily on one crop is dangerous; that America should expand and diversify its economy for security and practical reasons. However, the corn’s industry’s hold on US politics, governments, and decision making is strong.

An article by the Washington Post illustrated some examples that the corn industry influences society around us. Researcher and a Harvard-trained cardiologist who runs the Rippe Lifestyle Institute presented “30 peer-reviewed studies showing that there is no nutritional difference between sugar and corn syrup.” His research is not only funded by corn refiners, but he also personally receives a “consulting fee of $500,000 a year from the corn refiners.”

Furthermore, a non-profit group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, launched a television, newspaper and online campaign to defend corn syrup safety. The $3.2 million that funded the non-profit organization came from the corn refiners.

The influence the corn industry has on American politics most clearly manifests itself in the Presidential elections. The Iowa caucuses have historically been extremely important in the nominating process for the President of the United States. Since 1972, Iowa has been the first major electoral event, and serves as an early indication of which candidates will be successful in receiving the nomination of their political party in order to run for presidency.  Ethanol production consumes about 1/3 of Iowa’s corn production. Historically, presidential nominees have to support the ethanol production industry in order to win Iowa – and therefore even stand a chance of winning the election.

Whether we realise it or not, corn is around us. Who knew such a simple crop would have such a significant impact on our meals but the very economy, society and political environment we live in?


Additional Sources:








The struggle against textbook prices

It is no surprise that the price of college tuition has increased dramatically over the last few years. With the Great Recession, many public colleges suffered from a severe cut in funding from their respective states. Prices were hiked, followed quickly by a rise in tuition in private colleges. Unfortunately, however, tuition prices are just the first thing that students have to worry about. Other college related expenses – housing, food, and transportation for example – have also seen drastic increases in prices. What is most alarming, however, is the dramatic increase in textbook prices.

Technological advancements in the last decade have allowed for new ways for students to obtain textbooks such as the advent of e-books, online retailers, textbook rental services, and free textbook databases. Furthermore, there have been initiatives taken by the government on both the state and federal level to combat textbook prices such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Despite all of this, however, textbook prices continue to rise. What is the main cause for increasing textbook prices? What sort of disruptions – if any – is the textbook industry seeing, and how is that affecting them?



Historically, textbooks in the US have been high – and prices of textbooks have only risen over the last 30 years. According to a study conducted by The American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry, the prices of college textbooks in 2013 have increased 812% since 1977. (In comparison, the Consumer Price Index – a standard measure for inflation – has increased by 250%). In fact, the rate at which textbook prices have increased is higher than all other expenses related to college – including college tuition. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that from 2006 to 2011, the cost of textbooks increased by 38.6% while the cost of tuition had increased by 32.2%.




Rising textbook prices – along with rising tuition costs – have long been a concern. According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), students spent an average of $370 on course materials during the fall 2013 term. Furthermore, “40.6% of students said they usually pay for course materials with grants, scholarships and student loans during the fall 2013 term. Financial assistance covered, on average, 57% of the costs of the course materials for those students.”

However, in a survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, “7/10 students stated that they had not purchased a textbook at least once because the price was too high.” A significant percentage of students receive financial aid or student loans – however it is evident that this aid is not nearly adequate enough to cover the full cost of college – both tuition and textbooks. The gap between the cost of textbooks and the amount of aid a student receives and subsequently, their ability to afford the textbooks is steadily increasing.



There are several reasons that help explain the expensive nature of textbooks. First of all, printing and publishing any book is a hugely expensive process. Textbooks require many additional costs compared to a novel, for example. Textbooks deal with highly specialized material. The content of any textbook is often the result of extensive academic research that also needs to be constantly updated in subsequent editions. Furthermore, many textbooks have multiple authors – all of whom the publisher needs to pay a copyright fee to. This fee is increased exponentially in textbooks like literature anthologies which contain the works of dozens of different authors.

Textbooks also often come with supplementary materials – online-access codes, DVDs, or subscriptions – the costs of which are bundled in the cost of the book itself. Furthermore, traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores (such as the ever-present college bookstore) can be expensive to run. Rent, utilities, shipping in the supplies and salaries are just a few of the costs that bookstore owners have to worry about. It is no surprise that these costs often trickle down for the consumer to pay in the form of a more expensive textbook.

NACS reported that, on average, new textbooks in college bookstores are sold with a margin of 21.1% (the average difference between the cost price and the retail price of a textbook) After all expenses have been paid, “a college store makes less than 4 cents on every dollar’s worth of new textbooks sold.” For the majority of cases, this money goes back to the school in order to pay for financial aid, scholarships, and student programs.

If the profit margins for college bookstores are so small, then it clearly must be the publishers or the authors who are reaping the benefits of soaring textbook prices. The textbook industry is highly oligopolistic in nature. As mentioned previously, the subject material in textbooks are highly specialized and require extensive research; as a result, there are substantially fewer options when choosing a textbook in a specific field of study as opposed to a novel of a particular genre. Furthermore, there are often no alternatives offered to a textbook which is assigned for a class – the student may opt out of buying a book but at the cost of their grades: Nicole Allen, program director for the Scholarly Publishing Academic Resources Coalition, an alliance of academic libraries noted that “Publishers have been able to drive up textbook prices because students “have to buy whatever textbook they’ve been assigned.” As is the case with any other scarce good, when demand exceeds supply, the prices of the good increases.

5 4


The actual textbook industry is dominated heavily by just a few players. According to a report conducted by the Council of Economic Advisers at the Whitehouse, there are just three companies which almost completely control the textbook publishing industry: Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton-Mifflin. Between the three companies (including smaller companies that they own), they control over 85% of the textbook market. In 2013, for example, Pearson reported £5,690 million in sales and £736 million in adjusted operating profits. The North American Education division was responsible for the vast majority of these figures. In sales, the North American Education division reported £2,779 million, and in profits £406 million – accounting for 55% of Pearson’s overall profits. In addition, McGraw-Hill’s profit margin was 25% in 2012.


Despite these impressive figures, these companies are actually showing some struggles in maintaining – let alone improving – profits in the educational sector. In February 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that Pearson “issued a profit warning amid continuing weakness in its core U.S. education business.” The metric for North American education “fell 24%.”

According to Chief Executive John Fallon, “Our biggest business, North America, is facing the most difficult trading conditions in a decade.” The company blamed the tumultuous education sector in the U.S. as well as the “short but difficult transition” its business faced as it transitioned from print to digital.

Clearly, traditional textbook publishing companies are feeling pressure from the new technological age and various alternative methods of textbooks. But what are these alternate methods, and how popular are they among students and professors?


Surprisingly, the most disruptive force in the textbook industry is not the e-book, but the market for used textbooks and textbook rentals. This doesn’t mean that the digital market is not significant, however. According to Forbes, e-book sales make almost a quarter of all consumer book sales. Digital textbooks – especially in K-12 – have slowly become more accepted and more widely adopted by schools, with more than “20% of all schools saying they now use digital textbooks and another 37% saying they will within the next five years.”

Recognizing the gradual and inevitable shift to digital textbooks, in 2012, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that they would be partnering with Apple to include textbooks in Apple’s ‘iBookstore.’ These e-books would not be merely digital versions of the analogue version; instead, the textbooks will be designed to be interactive and multimedia to utilise features that the iPad offers and create a different learning experience.

However, these statistics do not directly translate to college. According to a study conducted by the research firm Student Monitor, only “2% of college students surveyed said they bought all of their textbooks in digital form, and only 14% said that they had classes that required online texts.” The NACS reported that “e-textbooks made up only 2.8 percent of total U.S. textbook sales in 2010.” Furthermore, a study conducted by the non-profit arm of the Pearson Foundation showed that “55% of students still prefer print over digital textbooks.”

There are several factors which account for college students’ ambivalent feelings towards e-books. Many students who were surveyed stated that they preferred the hard-copy so that they could highlight passages and take notes in the margins (features which are available in many e-books.) Most importantly, however, was that e-books are not significantly cheaper than the print copy. Forbes investigated the differences in the prices of textbooks using the example of “Chemistry” published by Brooks/Cole. According to Forbes, “the new book costs $205. For a used copy you’ll pay somewhat less than $155, and be prepared to fork over $167 for the digital version.” Renting the book however, costs a mere $65.

The internet has been instrumental in facilitating the growth of the textbook rental industry. For one, the internet allows students to easily search and compare prices for textbooks. Several key players such as Amazon, Chegg, and TextbookRentals offer textbooks for rent at a substantially lower cost than buying digital or used versions of the books. NACS reported that students can expect to save between 35% – 55% when renting a textbook, and that about 3,000 campus bookstores now also offer this service (albeit at a higher cost) The vast amount of online retailers also enable students to easily sell and buy used textbooks from each other, further undermining the profits of the publishing companies.

The textbook rental industry is clearly growing. While they charge students a significantly lower price compared to buying a textbook outright, the cost still adds up. There are several initiatives that aim to absolutely minimize the cost to students and relieve some of their financial burden.



Boundless, based in Boston, Massachusetts, is a company which creates both free and inexpensive textbooks and distributes them solely online. Boundless has online textbooks in over 20 college level subjects, and offers these books for free. Paying $19.99 will get you the premium service, which includes “interactive study materials for each subject, including flashcards, quizzes, and summarization to help students retain information. It will also give students access to enhanced content and the native mobile apps.”

They also recently released 18 textbooks under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (the same license used by Wikipedia.) This will allow students and professors to use, change, and share the textbooks for free. Other similar initiatives include Flat World Knowledge, OpenStax College, and Bookboon.

The Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation supports “non-profit initiatives, for-profit start-ups, and policy thought leaders that utilize disruptive digital technologies to create a “higher education 3.0” system that can sustainably increase access, affordability, and student success.”” They provide free textbooks on a limited range of subjects, as well as a search engine to find the cheapest new, used, digital and rental textbooks online. Other non-profit organizations which fund similar initiatives include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

The idea of creating a database of free, open and high quality textbooks have also been supported by the government. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation which would “fund the creation by California universities of 50 open textbooks targeted to lower-division courses.” The textbooks would be hosted by the California Digital open Source Library, with the California Open Education Resources Council overseeing the book approval process. The books would be free to download or a physical copy could be purchased for $20. Similar initiatives have been made in Utah, Florida, Main and Washington State.

In November, 2013, Senators Durbin and Franken introduced “The Affordable College Textbook Act.” This piece of legislation would “authorize the Secretary of Education to make grants to institutions of higher education to support pilot programs that expand the use of open textbooks in order to achieve savings for students.” The main goals of the act are to help “achieve the highest level of savings for students, expand the use of open textbooks at other IHEs, and produce open textbooks that are of the highest quality.” Unsurprisingly, such initiatives have been met with some resistance from the major publishing companies who claim that these actions interfere with the free market.


It is clear that textbooks will remain an integral part of a college education, despite the rising costs. Unfortunately, the mind-set of today that “everyone should have and deserves a college education” has justified these skyrocketing prices. However, the textbook industry is shifting. The initiatives to cut the costs of textbooks are still fairly recent, and its effects haven’t been fully realised yet. The continued rise of textbook prices suggests some sort of bubble; the intrinsic value of a textbook has not increased, so the prices must be a reflection on a tumultuous industry. It is possible that in the future, textbooks will be free or a minimal cost to a student’s education – or that textbooks will settle at a constant yet expensive price. In any case, if textbooks and indeed tuition continues to increase at the same rate at which it has over the last few years, it is not clear whether the investment in one’s education remains a sound and smart choice.