It costs $300 to move a 40-foot container from Rotterdam to Shanghai…Here’s some more context. Let’s say that you want to travel for a year; it’s cheaper to put your personal belongings in a shipping container as it sails around the world than to keep it at a local mini-storage facility.

That is from Ryan Petersen, via Dan Wang.

Cargo cruise markets in everything

by on October 30, 2015 at 12:48 am in Economics, Travel | Permalink

In recent years, big cruise operators such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Star Cruises have spent heavily on soaring atriums, sushi bars, cabaret shows, and on-deck water slides to woo vacationers. Don’t tell that to John McGuffick, who’s spent months at a time at sea on cargo vessels—happily ensconced in quarters more suited to a Trappist monk than a Caribbean cruiser.

“The food can be pretty ordinary, and you have to be prepared to go with the flow,” says the 72-year-old retired farmer from Australia whose 10 trips via ocean freighter have taken him to dozens of ports across Asia, Europe, and North America. His personal maritime endurance record: 110 days nonstop from Dunkirk, in northern France, to Singapore. Explains McGuffick: “I like the solitude.”

Shipping companies like the dollars passengers such as McGuffick can bring aboard. In a slowing global economy, freight prices have fallen so far that hauling a person from Shanghai to Rotterdam brings in at least 10 times more revenue than a 20-foot container full of flat-packed furniture.

It’s not luxurious and not exactly cheap: About $115 a day secures travelers a bed and three meals on some of the largest vessels ever built. The handful of paying passengers—ships typically take no more than a dozen at a time—dine with the crew, have the run of most of the ship, and can chat up the captain on the bridge or engineers below deck.

The story is here, and I thank Stu Harty for the pointer.  But beware: you have to wash your own clothes, and your window view might be blocked by shipping containers.

NASA’s mantra for finding alien life has long been to “follow the water,” the one ingredient essential to our own biochemistry. On Wednesday, NASA will sample the most available water out there, when the Cassini spacecraft dives through an icy spray erupting from the little Saturnian moon Enceladus.

…in 2005, shortly after starting an 11-year sojourn at Saturn, Cassini recorded jets of water squirting from cracks known as tiger stripes near the south pole of Enceladus — evidence, scientists say, of an underground ocean kept warm and liquid by tidal flexing of the little moon as it is stretched and squeezed by Saturn.

And with that, Enceladus leapfrogged to the top of astrobiologists’ list of promising places to look for life. If there is life in its ocean, alien microbes could be riding those geysers out into space where a passing spacecraft could grab them. No need to drill through miles of ice or dig up rocks.

As Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory, said, it’s as if nature had hung up a sign at Enceladus saying “Free Samples.”

It is sad the American public is not more excited about this, but kudos to the NYT for making it a feature story.

The standard story is that traffic deaths will dwindle, cities will spread out magnificently, and you’ll all be reading MR on your morning commute rather than fighting the traffic.  Maybe so, but what other options are at least worth considering, if only out of contrarian orneriness?:

1. Driverless cars are not actually much better than the really good German streetcar systems.  Those come closer to door-to-door service than many people realize, and of course they have lower energy and congestion costs.

2. The need for exact mapping of streets will restrict driverless vehicles to well-known, well-trodden paths, much like bus lines.  There is nothing wrong with that, but ultimately it won’t do more than save the cost of the bus driver.  Or worse yet — some automobile lanes may be turned over to municipal driverless vehicles in a way which makes traffic problems worse.  It will end up as a way to push cars out of the picture, without building up the broader mass transit network very much.

3. Driverless cars will give governments a chance to “redo” the whole driving side of American life.  Is this so great?  (Imagine if we had to write a new Constitution today.)  Just think, with driverless cars and laissez-faire there will be so many car trips, a city might collapse under the weight of its own congestion.  So a quantity-rationed system will be introduced, and ultimately all of driving will end up more controlled and more regulated, based on licenses in fact and no I don’t mean drivers’ licenses.

Most generally, your predictions for driverless cars should depend heavily upon: a) will there be rational congestion pricing?, and b) how rapidly will cities rezone to take advantage of the new opportunities?  I am not sure we should be especially optimistic about either a) or b).

Or put it this way: the absence of congestion pricing in most major urban centers means we are already bad at running roads, for whatever public choice reasons.  So maybe we’ll get a bad version of driverless cars too.

For a conversation related to this post I am indebted to Alex Tabarrok and also Joe Bous.

I enjoyed many passages in this book, here was my favorite:

As well as these untranslatable terms, I have gathered synonyms — especially those that bring new energies to familiar phenomena.  The variant English terms for ‘icicle’ — aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cambria) — form a tinkling poem of their own.  In Northamptonshire dialect ‘to thaw’ is to ungive.  The beauty of this variant I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift — an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

Also of note is the discussion of how places names in Gaelic (and many other languages and dialects) are becoming unintelligible, even if much of Gaelic is surviving.  And so:

The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy and urbanization.  The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’).  It has become a blandscape…It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing, rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen.

Definitely recommended, buy it here.

While tech companies in America have focused on personal automated cars, China has gone big with what could be the beginning of mass, unmanned bus transit. The spacious vehicle, unveiled at the end of August after three years of development, recently managed a 20-mile trip through the crowded city of Zhengzhou without crashing into other motorists or bursting into flames. That same driver stayed behind the wheel, true, but maybe as technology progresses he’ll be replaced with a Johnny-Cab robot.

There is more here, including photos and video, via Air Genius Gary Leff.

Due to status quo bias, maybe so:

New analysis of the London tube strike in February 2014 finds that it enabled a sizeable fraction of commuters to find better routes to work, and actually produced a net economic benefit.

Analysis of the London tube in February 2014 has found that despite the inconvenience to tens of thousands of people, the strike actually produced a net economic benefit, due to the number of people who found more efficient ways to get to work.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, examined 20 days’ worth of anonymised Oyster card data, containing more than 200 million data points, in order to see how individual tube journeys changed during the strike. Since this particular strike only resulted in a partial closure of the tube network and not all were affected by the strike, a direct comparison was possible. The data enabled the researchers to see whether people chose to go back to their normal commute once the strike was over, or if they found a more efficient route and decided to switch.

The researchers found that of the regular commuters affected by the strike, either because certain stations were closed or because travel times were considerably different, a significant fraction – about one in 20 – decided to stick with their new route once the strike was over.

The original paper, by Rauch, Larcom, and Williams, is here, and for the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

The unknown Anacostia

by on September 7, 2015 at 1:24 pm in Food and Drink, Travel, Travels, Uncategorized | Permalink


I am known for giving house guests, especially if they are from abroad, strange tours of random parts of the United States.  Yesterday it was a mix of Northeast D.C. and Anacostia.

Maketto on H St. offers Cambodian and Taiwanese cuisine in hip surroundings.  The Dolcezza factory near Union Market serves gelato without freezing it, so it is superior to the other branches, and Righteous Cheese is the best shop of its kind in town.  St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, in Anacostia, was the first federally supported mental hospital, dating from the 1850s; John Wilkes Booth spent time there.  The architecture looks like something from Shutter Island or a Stephen King novel, and if you are clever you can talk your way in through the front gate.  The Frederick Douglass House is the standard Anacostia site, worth more than one visit.  The Big Chair originally was an advertisement for a furniture company, but has evolved into an Anacostia landmark and it was renovated in 2006.  It since has fallen from the biggest chair in the world to no better than number three.  At The Big Chair Coffee and Grill, reopened by African immigrants I might add, drinks are remarkably cheap.

Overall Anacostia is improving at a rapid clip, with lots of new town home construction and even some shops.  In terms of greenery and views, it is one of the nicest parts of town and someday it will be very expensive indeed.


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


…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


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.


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.


Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.