Travel

newfoundland

Of course the United States should take in more Syrians, but we are not the only laggard:

Of the 4 million Syrians who have fled their country since the war began, including hundreds of thousands who have poured into Europe, the number who have been resettled in Britain could fit on a single London Underground train — with plenty of seats to spare.

Just 216 Syrian refugees have qualified for the government’s official relocation program, according to data released last week.

By the way, not long ago there were over 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria (pdf), I wonder how they figure in all the recent numbers we are seeing.

Before the 1920s, large numbers of Syrians (Syrian-Lebanese) emigrated to Brazil, most of all to Sao Paulo, with a second and smaller wave coming in the 1950s.  As of March:

Since 2013 when Brazil opened its doors, 1,740 Syrian refugees have been registered in the country – far more than in the US.

But still that is not many compared to the preexisting total.  According to the above link, Brazil has about 15 million Arabs and about three million people of Syrian descent, and by virtually all accounts this connection has benefited the rest of Brazil too, not just the migrants.

Here is my earlier post Will Latin America Stay Underpopulated for Another Century?  And can you guess where that top photo is from?

I very much enjoyed this Live Chat, and I thank the participants for all of their stimulating questions and remarks.  Here is one excerpt:

Ben Casnocha:

How do you think your career and life would have been different if blogging, twitter, and digital media had be ubiquitous in your teens and 20’s? Would you have still pursued an academic path or would you have become a full-time columnist/commentator/speaker earlier on? I seem to recall you saying at one point that you’re glad the internet didn’t exist early on in your life as it gave you the time to read the classics and develop a substantive base of knowledge.

Tyler Cowen:

I am glad I was forced to live in “book culture” and “meat space’ for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It’s like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move is.

[and later] …contemporary academic is overly bureaucratized and there is a very good chance I would [if I were starting today] look for another model of success and contentment. It is an open question whether or not I could find one. Whatever its limitations, there is still a followable formula for academic success, which of course is part of the problem.

Other topics include when is the best age to live in various parts of the world, Alban Berg and Rilke, Marc Andreessen, my one hidden talent, Rene Girard, labor market networks, optimal travel into the past, and which is the most underrated or overrated wisdom tradition.  Do read the whole thing.

“I would never have been able to arrive at my destination without my smartphone,” he added. “I get stressed out when the battery even starts to get low.”

That is from Osama Aljasem, a 32-year-old music teacher from Deir al-Zour in Syria, who took a boat to Greece, walked to Belgrade, and hopes to continue to parts further north and west:

In this modern migration, smartphone maps, global positioning apps, social media and WhatsApp have become essential tools.

Recommended.  And yes, disintermediation is kicking in:

“Right now the traffickers are losing business because people are going alone, thanks to Facebook,” said Mohamed Haj Ali, 38, who works with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital — a major stopover for migrants.

Facebook groups are used to pass along GPS coordinates and the prices charged by the traffickers have fallen in half.

Tim Urban at Wait but Why has a fascinating longform series on How and Why SpaceX Will Colonize Mars which itself is part of a longer series on Elon Musk and his companies. Here’s just one bit:

The Scary Thing About the Universe

Species extinctions are kind of like human deaths—they’re happening constantly, at a mild and steady rate. But a mass extinction event is, for species, like a war or a sweeping epidemic is for humans—an unusual event that kills off a large chunk of the population in one blow. Humans have never experienced a mass extinction event, and if one happened, there’s a reasonable chance it would end the human race—either because the event itself would kill us (like a collision with a large enough asteroid), or the effects of an event would (like something that decimates the food supply or dramatically changes the temperature or atmospheric composition). The extinction graph below shows animal extinction over time (using marine extinction as an indicator). I’ve labeled the five major extinction events and the percentage of total species lost during each one (not included on this graph is what many believe is becoming a new mass extinction, happening right now, caused by the impact of humans):1

1062px-Extinction_intensity

…Let’s imagine the Earth is a hard drive, and each species on Earth, including our own, is a Microsoft Excel document on the hard drive filled with trillions of rows of data. Using our shortened timescale, where 50 million years = one month, here’s what we know:

  • Right now, it’s August of 2015
  • The hard drive (i.e. the Earth) came into existence 7.5 years ago, in early 2008
  • A year ago, in August of 2014, the hard drive was loaded up with Excel documents (i.e. the origin of animals). Since then, new Excel docs have been continually created and others have developed an error message and stopped opening (i.e gone extinct).
  • Since August 2014, the hard drive has crashed five times—i.e. extinction events—in November 2014, in December 2014, in March 2015, April 2015, and July 2015. Each time the hard drive crashed, it rebooted a few hours later, but after rebooting, about 70% of the Excel docs were no longer there. Except the March 2015 crash, which erased 95% of the documents.
  • Now it’s mid-August 2015, and the homo sapiens Excel doc was created about two hours ago.

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do?

You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s why Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars.

On a related note the latest Planet Money podcast is How to Stop an Asteroid. It’s funny and informative and yours truly makes an appearance. Worth a listen.

Why should you?  They want you to do it, which is already reason to be suspicious.

It makes you all the more emotionally committed to buying a car whose immediate feel you enjoy.  You might save a few hundred dollars on the bargaining by refusing to take that step of commitment.

Furthermore you might expect that every plausible new car can in fact survive a test drive from a potential customer.  Let others test drive it for you.

And let’s say you didn’t so much like the test drive.  Is that a bad sign or a good sign about the car?  Does your dislike very well predict you will dislike it a month from now?  I doubt that.  In fact if you are somewhat typical and others dislike the test drive too, that might mean the car is all the more a bargain.  And you are letting a mere mediocre test drive persuade you away from exploiting that bargain.

I readily admit this advice does not apply to very tall people and other outliers.

Question: to how many other spheres of life might this reasoning apply?

Belgrade notes

by on August 9, 2015 at 1:20 am in Food and Drink, History, Travel | Permalink

Belgrade

Upon arrival, the taxi driver was a lumbering hulk with a huge back, but his cab radio spewed out Engelbert Humperdinck songs.

Communism as an economic system is gone, and the government is democratic, but still the place seems to have the character types and status markers of a communist society.

Neither Americanization nor Europeanization seems to have progressed very far here; with respect to the latter category, I think of Belgrade as the anti-Barcelona.  Nothing here is very attractive, yet in a quite charming way.  The place conjures up, still, some of the better sides of 1920s Europe and also 1980s communism.  That said, infrastructure and services are quite acceptable.  Prices are reasonable.

The food is good but not so varied or original and it seems like a waste of time to look for true peaks.  There are no noteworthy or signature sights.  Museums still refer to “the former Republic of Yugoslavia” and the Serbs seem to be searching for a new identity.  There is lots of talk about the past.  The country is stuck in the middle income trap.

I recommend this place for all those who feel they are sick of Europe, but actually are not, but who would be, unless they came here.  That includes me.

The ghost in the machine

by on August 7, 2015 at 7:30 am in Film, Science, Travel | Permalink

I visited two wonderful churches in Barcelona. The first, of course, was La Sagrada Familia. Ramez Naam put it best, this is “the kind of church that Elves from the 22nd Century would build.” I can’t add to that, however, so let me turn to the second church.

The Chapel Torre Girona at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona is home to the MareNostrum, not the world’s fastest but certainly the world’s most beautiful supercomputer.

BSCC

Although off the usual tourist path, it’s possible to get a tour if you arrange in advance. As you walk around the nave, the hum of the supercomputer mixes with Gregorian chants. What is this computer thinking you wonder? Appropriately enough the MareNostrum is thinking about the secrets of life and the universe.

In this picture, I managed to capture within the cooling apparatus a saintly apparition from a stained glass window.

The ghost in the machine.

ComputerSaint

Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.

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Singapore as an independent nation will be fifty years old this August 9.  In the comments, a number of you have asked me why I find Singapore so special.

I would cite three features of the country above all else:

1. It is a place where large numbers of people are obsessed with both food and economics.

2. The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy.  In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action.  In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, this is one of the best and most important sights of the contemporary world, more interesting than most natural wonders.

3. Singapore has created what is possibly the highest quality bureaucracy the world has seen, ever.  Imagine a country where you can have a serious debate as to whether there is a brain drain into the government rather than out of it!

Singapore of course, like all places, has various problems and imperfections, but I believe its significance does not receive enough recognition from outside commentators.

Here is a good article about how Singapore is seeking to export its own expertise.

Split, Croatia bleg

by on July 30, 2015 at 2:02 am in Food and Drink, Travel, Travels | Permalink

What to do?  What to see and where to eat?  Our stay there will be brief, but thanks in advance for your assistance…

All-robot Japanese hotel

by on July 20, 2015 at 12:37 am in Economics, Science, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink

robothotel

There is no great stagnation:

The English-speaking receptionist is a vicious-looking dinosaur, and the one speaking Japanese is a female humanoid with blinking lashes.

“If you want to check in, push one,” the dinosaur says.

The visitor punches a button on the desk, and types in information on a touch panel screen.

And so starts your stay.  All or most of the other functions are automated in some manner or another.  This bit is clever:

Another feature of the hotel is the use of facial-recognition technology, instead of the standard electronic keys, by registering the digital image of the guest’s face during check-in.

The reason? Robots are not good at finding keys, if people happen to lose them.

The establishment is called Weird Hotel.  Snacks are delivered by drones, but the robots still cannot make the beds.

You will find additional details here, good photos here, and a room goes for only $73 a night.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

Yunnan notes

by on July 18, 2015 at 12:48 am in Food and Drink, Travel, Travels | Permalink

yunnan

In the summer, up to half of a multi-course meal may consist of mushrooms, the best I have had.  Fried goat cheese is served, and the ham exceeds that of Spain in quality.  I had not thought that buckwheat flour pizza, dipped in fresh honey, would be a staple in Chinese food.  There is also flower soup of numerous kinds, corn dishes, pumpkin, and donkey.

Even the largest city in Yunnan — Kunming — has fresh air, a rarity in China.  The weather is perfect year round, and the faces have Burmese, Tibetan, Thai, and Mongolian features.  About one third of the population is explicitly classified as “ethnic minority,” and most of the others look like a blend with Han Chinese.

Dali, the second largest city, is nestled into a lake and mountains as a Swiss city might be.  You could explore the neighboring villages around the lake for months.  I recommend Xizhou, stay at Linden Centre.

The population is pro-American, not always the case in China, and the Flying Tigers, who flew bomber missions against Japan from Yunnan, are cited frequently, including in dinner toasts to visiting scholars.

Yunnan University has a significant program in cultural economics, and as my hosts I thank them for the invitation and for their extreme hospitality.

Yunnan is arguably the nicest province in China to visit, and one of the best trips in the world right now.  The quality of infrastructure and accommodations is good, but exoticism and surprise remain high, the perfect combination.  Go before it’s too late.

Infrastructure words of wisdom

by on July 17, 2015 at 1:44 pm in Economics, Travel | Permalink

The chief problem with our airports is not (pace Larry Summers) that they’re not as sleek and modern as the vast white elephants you’ll find in East Asia. Rather, it is that they are congested, and the reason they are congested is that the federal government doesn’t provide for market-rate pricing for take-off and landing slots. This straightforward reform would greatly increase the productivity, not to mention the pleasantness, of our aviation system. Yet it doesn’t involve spending billions of dollars and cutting ribbons, so politicians are by and large not interested.

That is from Reihan Salam.

Arrived in my pile

by on July 10, 2015 at 1:35 pm in Books, Economics, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

From the Other Side of the World: Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Unlikely Places, by Elmira Bayrasli.

Catalonian Roark

by on July 9, 2015 at 12:50 pm in The Arts, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

Gaudi was so self-assured and committed to executing his designs without intervention from clients or bureaucrats that he ignored not only criticism but building codes. The municipal architect Rovira i Trias refused to approve the plans for the Palau Guell; Casa Calvert was higher than regulations allowed; work on Casa Batillo was halted as it had begun without authorization; the dimensions of Casa Mila exceeded permitted limits, and a column at street level blocked pedestrian traffic. Unfazed by these issues, the architect responded in each case by confronting the authorities. It must be said that government officials ultimately celebrated his excesses and made exceptions to accomodate Gaudi’s designs.

From Gaudi of Barcelona.

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Jaan, in Sinagpore

by on July 8, 2015 at 12:13 pm in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Why should you seek out French food in Singapore?  Yet I did.  I would describe my meal as at the San Sebastian level for quality and presentation, and one of the best I’ve had in the last five years.  I also enjoyed the best view of any meal of comparable quality, looking out onto Marina Bay Sands and the Straits.

P1100344

In fact, Singapore rarely disappoints.  There is an all-vegetarian menu as well.