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The bizarre story of China's most prolific bank-robbers, who stole literal tons of cash and spent it on losing lotto tickets

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Writing in Marker, David Gauvey Herbert gives us an extended-play version of China's legendary bank-robber, Ren Xiaofeng, a bank official in a small industrial city who tried to make ends meet by stealing cash to buy lottery tickets, planning to return the money out of his winnings -- but instead lost, and kept on losing, until he'd stolen literal tons of cash.

Ren's story is a snapshot of China in the early 2000s, when banking jobs were corrupt sinecures handed out via patronage and nepotism, allowing Ren to first suborn and then bypass the vault guards; it's also a portrait of China during the peak of its boom, when millions in cash were sloshing around, passing from business-people (many of them out-and-out crooks) to government officials to safe-deposit boxes in the vaults of banks like Ren's, the largest branch of the Agricultural Bank of China in the city of Hendan.

Ren cycled through various confederates during his years of theft, and it was only due to the lax security and corruption in his bank that he continued to get away with it. But things came to a head when he got wind of a looming cash audit that would reveal his thefts, and he planned a final score with his accomplice and fellow vault guard, Ma Xiangjing.

The two stole millions in a breathtaking daylight raid, brazenly carrying it out past the guards, and handed it over to crooked lottery ticket sellers who labored through the day, printing out hundreds of thousands of tickets -- which still didn't net the pair a jackpot.

They split up and went underground, leaving behind a giant plastic bag of losing lotto tickets in the vault. They were ultimately caught and executed -- but they became weird folk heroes on the way.

Handan is an industrial city of three million people in northern China, about a two hour bullet train ride from Beijing. Pollution from coal-burning factories regularly fills the sky and blots out the sun. On April 16, 2007, the fuzzy, grey star had just set, and the bustling streets cast further into darkness, when police detectives arrived at the Agricultural Bank of China. Nervous employees led them to the vault. They didn’t have the keys to open it, so officers broke through the heavy steel door.

When detectives entered the vault, they were stumped by what they found — or rather, what they did not find. There were no tasered guards with their hands bound: Round-the-clock watchmen had worked their shifts without incident. The vault itself showed no sign of forced entry: The 60-centimeter-thick, steel-plated walls were intact. Security cameras and trip alarms operated normally.

Bank officials struggled to explain why they had waited hours to call the police. A lot of money was unaccounted for.

And the suspects had left behind only one piece of physical evidence: a bag full of lottery tickets.

Jackpot: How two lottery-crazed bank clerks cooked up China’s biggest bank robbery of all time [David Gauvey Herbert/Marker]

(Thanks, David Gauvey Herbert!)

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Spoyl
6 days ago
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"Harbinger households": neighborhoods that consistently buy products that get discontinued, buy real-estate that underperforms, and donate to losing political candidates

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In The Surprising Breadth of Harbingers of Failure (Sci-Hub mirror), a trio of economists and business-school profs build on a 2015 Journal of Marketing Research paper that claimed that some households' purchasing preferences are a reliable indicator of which products will fail -- that is, if households in a certain ZIP code like a product, it will probably not succeed. The original paper calls these "harbinger households."

In the new paper, the researchers consider very large data-sets on consumer goods and fashion purchasing, house-buying, and political donations, to examine whether being a "harbinger household" correlates to other predictors of failure, and find that these households are also likely to buy real-estate that makes lower profits (or generates larger losses) than nearby properties; they are likely to buy fashion and consumer goods that get discontinued due to lackluster sales; and they are more likely to donate to losing politicians' campaigns than winners.

The researchers also claim that harbinger households voluntarily cluster: that when a harbinger household moves, it is likely that it will move to another habringer ZIP code (and nonhabringers move to nonhabringer households). Moreover, harbingers don't appear to learn their preferences from one another -- a nonhabringer household that locates in a harbinger ZIP code doesn't alter its purchasing and political contributions to "loser" products and candidates.

Harbinger households tend to be white, suburban and headed by older, less-educated single parents. They tend to make above-average use of coupons, and the coupons they use have above-average values.

The researchers don't claim a causal relationship between these different factors -- donating to losing political candidates doesn't make you prefer Crystal Pepsi, for example -- but rather speculate that there is an "unobserved intervening variable" that explains both factors.

Using data from multiple sources, we have shown that the phenomenon of harbingers is surprisingly widespread. We begin by showing that harbinger zip codes exist. Households in these zip codes are more likely than households in other zip codes to purchase new products that fail. Their adoption of a new product is a signal that the new product will fail. We interpret this finding as evidence that households in these zip codes have tendencies that are not representative of households in other zip codes. We then show that the evidence of unusual tendencies extends across retail product categories and across retailers.

What makes these results particularly surprising is that while we measure the average outcome for a zip code, relatively few households in each zip code participate in each decision. Not every household purchases from the retailers that we study, and relatively few households contribute to congressional election candidates. Moreover, the households that participate will often be different households for each decision. Itis unlikely that the households that purchase from one retailer are all the same households that purchase from the other retailer. They are also unlikely to all make donations to congressional election campaigns. Despite this, we observe similarities in zip code–level decisions across these different purchasing contexts.

We explore two explanations for why households with unusual tendencies cluster together. This analysis uses a sample of households that changed zip codes and reveals that house-holds that moved from a harbinger zip code tended to move to another harbinger zip code. Similarly, households that started in a nonharbinger zip code generally moved to another non-harbinger zip code. This suggests that harbinger zip codes arise at least in part from customers choosing to cluster with other households that have similar tendencies. We did not find any support for the alternative explanation that customers learn their tendencies when they move into a harbinger zip code. It appears instead that harbinger tendencies are relatively sticky and that harbinger households bring their tendencies when they change zip codes, rather than learning them when they get there.

The Surprising Breadth of Harbingers of Failure [Duncan I. Simester, Catherine E. Tucker and Clair Yang/Journal of Marketing Research] (Sci-Hub mirror)

(Image: Mike Mozart, CC BY)

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Spoyl
7 days ago
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Serious goals

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goals Cats funny - 9396839680

Submitted by: (via Cole and Marmalade)

Tagged: goals , Cats , funny
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Spoyl
8 days ago
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Squeaky Curtain divides Europe’s mice in East and West

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  • The house mouse diverged into two subspecies depending on which humans they followed
  • The Western and Eastern European house mice can interbreed, but the results are, well, mixed
  • The continent remains divided between Eastern and Western mice except for a narrow contact zone where hybrids eek out a living

musculus v. domesticus


Smaller and darker than its western counterpart: an Eastern European house mouse\u200b

It's been thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Iron Curtain is now a distant and dimming memory. But that's only true if you're a human. In the mouse world, Europe is still divided in East and West. As this map shows, the line that separates both halves of the continent is strangely similar to the Cold War frontier between capitalism and communism.

The Squeaky Curtain starts at the Baltic Sea, cutting through Denmark, Germany and Austria before almost making it to the Adriatic. Instead, the line shadows the formerly Yugoslav coast before swerving east, keeping the southern Balkans in 'the West', finally diving into the Black Sea.

West of the line lives the Mus musculus domesticus, the Western European house mouse. To the East roams the Mus musculus musculus, the Eastern European house mouse. On average, the eastern mouse is smaller and browner, the western one generally a bit sturdier and usually grey. Both subspecies branched from the same ancestor, some 500,000 years ago in Asia.

What ultimately separated house mice into these two subspecies are the humans they chose to follow. The ones moving through Asia's interior via Russia towards Eastern Europe turned into Eastern European house mice. The ones aiming for the Mediterranean, hitchhiking on ships to reach Western Europe (and eventually also the Americas and Australia) became Western European house mice.

Baltic to Black Seas


The 'Squeaky Curtain', dividing Europe from the Baltic to the Black Seas in two zones, for Western and Eastern house mice.

When the two subspecies met up again in Europe, is unclear. "It has been suggested that source populations first met in the southern region of the current hybrid zone, and only more recently in central and northern Europe, with progressive contact from south to north similar to a zipper being pulled up through Europe," write the authors of Genetic conflict outweighs heterogametic incompatibility in the mouse hybrid zone?, a scientific paper that examines interbreeding between Western and Eastern European house mice (and the origin of this map).

'Progressive contact' isn't necessarily a euphemism for doing the dance with two tails. The long genetic separation means the subspecies have drifted far apart. While males of either subspecies generally don't care whom they mate with, females prefer the company of males of the same subspecies. That limits interbreeding. And hybrid couples usually produce fewer offspring than 'pure' Eastern or Western ones. Both factors help explain why interbreeding only occurs in a relatively narrow and stable hybrid zone no more than 10 to 20 km wide.

The reduced capacity for interbreeding may be an indication that the two subspecies are in the process of becoming two separate species, entirely unable to interbreed. Only at the centre of the hybrid zone do hybrid mice occur in significant numbers relative to their Eastern and Western forebears. But not everything is gloomy for the hybrids: they're more resistant to parasite-borne diseases than both Eastern and Western European house mice.

Strange Maps #1000

Map taken from open-access article by Macholán, M., Baird, S.J., Munclinger, P. et al. Genetic conflict outweighs heterogametic incompatibility in the mouse hybrid zone?. BMC Evol Biol 8, 271 (2008) doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-271

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.



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Spoyl
12 days ago
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That's Pawsome!

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cat facts - 9392228608

Submitted by: (via Cats On Catnip)

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Spoyl
13 days ago
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Many Chinese manufacturers are behaving as though they have no future

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The China Law Blog (previously) reports on the kinds of questions that western businesses operating in China are raising; China's serious economic downturn and rising authoritarianism have turned the site's normally businesslike posts into a glimpse of a kind of cyberpunk stranger-than-fiction dystopia (for example).

A new post on the site describes the consequences of a sharp downturn in the Chinese economy: a new mood among many Chinese businesspeople that they are at the end of the long Chinese boom and that there's no reason not to burn their bridges with non-Chinese firms, because they're not going to be doing business with them for much longer no matter what.

The site's author, Dan Harris, compares the mood in China today with the situation in Russia in the 1990s, when outside businesses would get repeatedly ripped off by their Russian partners, and would go away mystified that these partners would take the short term payouts of burning a foreign partner, at the expense of the much larger upside they could realize from an ongoing arrangement. For these Russian entrepreneur/bandits, Harris says, "They do not believe they will be able to operate freely five years or even one year from now. So though you see them as having irrationally sacrificed massive long term gains for much smaller short term rewards, they see themselves as having quite rationally grabbed what they could while it was still there."

Western firms hiring Chinese manufacturers find themselves taking delivery of junk that is totally unlike the samples they received before placing their main orders; discovering that their trademarks have been registered in China by their manufacturers (which means they can't change suppliers, since the crooked manufacturer now owns the exclusive right to produce their products); finding that their manufacturers have disappeared (or that they never existed in the first place); and claims by Sinosure, the Chinese state-owned insurer that is supposed to protect Chinese manufacturers who've been stiffed by foreign partners, have exploded, as the insurer's foreign offices file legal claims against Western businesses that are having disputes with manufacturers.

Sinosure is China’s state-owned export insurance company that pays Chinese manufacturers that were stiffed by their foreign buyers and then seeks to collect from the foreign buyers that allegedly failed to pay. Before this year the Sinosure cases we handled always involved situations where if the Chinese manufacture did not get Sinosure involved it would almost certainly never get paid. We are now seeing Sinosure cases where the Chinese manufacturer has made what we think are fraudulent policy claims to Sinosure because they are desperate for cash and they don’t care about maintaining their relationship with their foreign buyer.

Lastly, our China lawyers are dealing with an increasing number of situations where the Chinese side of a China joint venture has essentially taken over the joint venture and stops communicating with its foreign joint venture partner. Maybe these joint ventures are no longer even profitable, but our clients are entitled to determine this and if the joint venture should be shut down, our clients are also entitled to a share of the joint venture company’s existing assets. For how to prevent/mitigate such problems, check out this article on China joint ventures. It’s as though the Chinese side in these joint venture partnerships views it as their patriotic duty to kick their foreign partner to the curb.

For some companies, China’s increasing risks now exceed its rewards, but for others this is not at all true. Do you really need a legal entity in China with Chinese employees or might your company be better off with no operations in China beyond a third party distributer or reseller? Our China lawyers have been doing a lot of work in the last six months helping our clients reduce their China footprint and thereby reduce their China risks. No matter what you are doing in or with China, now is a good time to look at how you too can reduce your risks.

How to Conduct Business with Chinese Companies That See a Dark Future [Dan Harris/China Law Blog]

(via Naked Capitalism)

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Spoyl
24 days ago
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1 public comment
kazriko
20 days ago
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I think that China has reached the point where they can stand on their own without foreign companies continuing to prop them up and invest in them. They can supply their own market and keep things going. We built Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong up previously by bootstrapping their economy quickly through the different levels of technology, it's time to help another country build up to a developed country like China has now. Maybe Mexico, Vietnam, or India will be the next one that we should be exporting our manufacturing to.
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