Category: Travel

What should I ask Patrick McKenzie?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Patrick is a phenomenon of the modern age.  He writes the excellent Bits About Money, which focuses on money, banking, payments, and more.

His blog is Kalzumeus.  He has lived most of his adult life in Japan, and has many excellent posts about Japan.  Here are his greatest hits on the blog.  He has run national shadow vaccine location information infrastructure.   On Twitter he is @patio11.

So what should I ask him?

What I think

From an email I sent to a well-known public intellectual:

I think the chance that the bodies turn out to be real aliens is quite low.

But the footage seems pretty convincing, a way for other people to see what…sources have been telling me for years. [Everyone needs to stop complaining that there are no photos!]

And to think it is a) the Chinese, b) USG secret project, or…whatever…*in Mexico* strains the imagination.

It is interesting of course how the media is not so keen to report on this.  They don’t have to talk about the aliens, they could just run a story “The Mexican government has gone insane.”  But they won’t do that, and so you should update your mental model of the media a bit in the “they are actually pretty conservative, in the literal sense of that term, and quite readily can act like a deer frozen in the headlights, though at some point they may lurch forward with something ill-conceived.”

Many of you readers are from Christian societies, or you are Christian.  But please do not focus on the bodies!  I know you are from your early upbringing “trained” to do so, even if you are a non-believer.  Wait until that evidence is truly verified (and I suspect it will not be).  Focus on the video footage.

In any case, the Mexican revelations [sic] mean this issue is not going away, and perhaps this will force the hand of the USG  to say more than they otherwise would have.

My Conversation with the excellent Jerusalem Demsas

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

In this special episode, Tyler sat down with Jerusalem Demsas, staff writer at The Atlantic, to discuss three books: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves.

Spanning centuries and genres and yet provoking similar questions, these books prompted Tyler and Jerusalem to wrestle with enduring questions about human nature, gender dynamics, the purpose of travel, and moral progress, including debating whether Le Guin prefers the anarchist utopia she depicts, dissecting Swift’s stance on science and slavery, questioning if travel makes us happier or helps us understand ourselves, comparing Gulliver and Shevek’s alienation and restlessness, considering Swift’s views on the difficulty of moral progress, reflecting on how feminism links to moral progress and gender equality, contemplating whether imaginative fiction or policy analysis is more likely to spur social change, and more.

An actual conversation!  This one is difficult to excerpt, and unlike many I suspect it is better to listen than to read the transcript.  Nonetheless here is one short excerpt:

DEMSAS: Yes. The only walls on the anarchist planet [in The Dispossessed] are the ones that surround the space travel, the launching pad or whatever it is. That’s something that’s said very early on, but then you discover throughout the book how much there are all of these other “invisible walls” that he’s discovering. That’s made very explicit at times, sometimes maybe too explicit. [laughs] But I think it’s also a lesson in how much you have to have an other to compare yourself to in order to even understand yourself.

He’s alone for a really long time, and when he’s doing his studies at the beginning or in the middle of the book, and he can’t get these scientific breakthroughs that he inevitably does get to — it’s when he starts interacting with other people and rebuilding those bonds with other humans that you do actually get these breakthroughs. I think that’s also another point in favor of Le Guin pointing out that communitarianism is important.


How to travel in India

An MR reader asks me:

….what have you found to be nonobvious activities with high return on time invested in India?

Perhaps it is all obvious, but here is my list:

1. Make sure you visit a bunch of smaller temples, not just the famous, very well known sites.

2. Never turn down a trip, or side trip, to any particular part of India.  Never say “Nah, it is not interesting there.”  Because it is.

3. Along those lines, try to see many different parts of the country.  Think of India as more culturally diverse than say Europe.

4. Most of the typical “sights” are overrated, the best sight is India itself.  I enjoyed the (Indian) visitors to the Taj Mahal more than the Taj itself.

5. The very best food is often in mid-tier restaurants, smallish, often with lines, find out when you should arrive.  There isn’t a good enough reason to risk street food, given the quality available elsewhere, though in many other countries I do recommend street food.

6. Try to visit residences from all income classes.

7. Noise pollution still matters.

8. You cannot expect people to be on time, or to be able to avoid social pressures to join situations, spend more time somewhere, see another family member, and so on.

9. Unless you have been to India very recently, the infrastructure is much better than what you might be expecting from a previous trip.

10. India has the world’s best hotels, and many of them are less expensive than you might think, especially in off-season.

11. When choosing when to visit, do look into issues of heat, monsoon, and air pollution, before making concrete plans.

What else?

What should I ask Jacob Mikanowski?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is Jacob’s self-description from his home page:

I’m a freelance journalist and writer based in Portland, OR. My academic training is in the history of Eastern Europe, but for over a decade, I worked as a critic and a science journalist. I write about art, books, movies, ancient history, anthropology, and – occasionally – food. I especially like to work on stories about the intersection of science and the humanities, photography, and people who are helplessly obsessed with whatever they’re doing.

For the past few years, I’ve been working on single project which combines all my interests: Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land – a book-length history of Eastern Europe, covering culture, politics, religion and ideology (essentially, everything which made Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe over the past 2000 years)…

I loved the book, and that led me to Jacob.  Here are some of his articles.  Here is Jacob on Twitter.  Here is a good WSJ review of Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land.

The Real UFO Story

Erik Hoel writes that the “the UFO craze was created by government nepotism and incompetent journalism” which makes a lot more sense to me than the other explanation. Here’s a key bit:

To sum up the story as far as I understand its convoluted depths: diehard paranormal believers scored 22 million in Defense spending via what looks like nepotism from Harry Reid by submitting a grant to do bland general “aerospace research” and being the “sole bidder” for the contract. They then reportedly used that grant, according to Lacatski himself, the head of the program, to study a myriad of paranormal phenomenon at Skinwalker Ranch including—you may have guessed it by now—dino-beavers. Viola! That’s how there was a “government-funded program to study UFOs.”

Our current journalistic class, unwilling or unable to do the research I can do in my boxers in about five hours, instead did a big media oopsie in The New York Times, running the story and lending credibility to the idea the Pentagon did create a real serious task force to investigate UFO claims. The fervor in response to these “revelations” memed into existence a real agency at the DoD that now does actually study UFOs, simply because everyone “demanded answers”—which is totally understandable, given the journalistic coverage. However, the current UFO task force is staffed by, well, the people willing to be on a UFO task force. According to the Post:

And who was in charge, during the Trump administration, when the Pentagon created a UFO Task Force to investigate incursions of unknown objects over America?

Stratton—who believes the ghosts and creatures of Skinwalker Ranch are real—officially headed up these Pentagon investigations for years.

The “chief scientist” of this Pentagon task force was Travis Taylor, who is and was a co-star of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel. He currently stars on “The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch” on the same network.

This official embedding makes it difficult to break the veneer of legitimacy unless you know the whole story, simply because there’s likely a lot of coordination by professional UFO enthusiasts behind the scenes, which is why you’ll occasionally read stuff about how anonymous sources from other insiders confirm the accounts.

See also my previous post on Uri Geller and the government’s Stargate Project.

The Mother Church of the Common Law

The Temple Church is a small church in London built in 1185 by the Knights Templar. It’s now hidden behind Fleet Street amid the Middle and Inner Temple, two of the four “Inns of Court”the educational institutions and professional associations for common law barristers and judges. The Temple Church is known as the Mother Church of the Common Law both for its role in the creation of the Magna Carta and because of its location amid the Temple area.

King John used the Temple Church as his headquarters in 1214-1215 and it’s from here that he was forced to issue the first of the Magna Cartas. The real hero of the Magna Carta, however, was the knight William Marshal who negotiated the original agreement, reissued it again under his authority as regent to the boy King, Henry III, and then reissued it again–after, at the age of 70 personally leading troops into battle and defeating a French invasion–thereby cementing the Magna Carta and the rights it guarantees into British life.

William Marshall’s tomb can be found in the Temple Church.

Middle and Inner Temple were the heart of the common law for hundreds of years and the presence of the Temple Church meant that the idea of a bill of rights was always nearby. So much so that the Temple played a role in the American Revolution and not just as inspiration. Six members of the Inner or Middle Temple were signatories to the Declaration of Independence and seven were signatories to the US Constitution.

The Mother Church of the Common Law is well worth a visit if you are in London.

*Travels with Tocqueville Beyond America*

Again, that is the new book by Jeremy Jennings, here is another excerpt:

These grave misgivings [about travel] have persisted.  “I have been reading books of travels all my life,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “but I have never found two that gave me the same idea of the same nation.”  Those who “travel best,” he added, “travel least,” and, in Rousseau’s opinion, they travelled not by coach but on foot.  Others have agreed.  Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Xavier de Maistre (brother to the more famous Joseph) resolved only to journey for forty-two days around his own room, “safe from the restless jealousy of men.”  “We will travel slowly,” he wrote, “laughing as we go at those travellers who have visited Rome and Paris.”  Heading north, Maistre discovered his bed.  On this view, one travelled best by moving hardly at all.  In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill displayed a similarly dismissive attitude.  “In travelling,” he wrote, “men usually see only what they already had in their own minds.”

From another segment of the book:

Gustave de Beaumont not only travelled to America with Tocqueville but accompanied him on trips to England and Ireland and to Algeria.  No one was better able to assess how Tocqueville travelled.  Tocqueville’s way of travelling, Beaumont wrote, was “peculiar.”  Everything was “a matter for observation.”  Each day Tocqueville framed in his head the questions he wanted to ask and resolve.  Every idea that came into his mind was noted down, without delay, and regardless of where he was.  For Tocqueville, Beaumont continued, travelling was never just a form of bodily exercise or simply an agreeable way to pass the time.  “Rest,” Beaumont wrote, “was foreign to his nature.”  Whether or not his body was actively employed, Tocqueville’s mind was always working.  Never could he undertake a walk as a simple distraction or engage in conversation as a form of relaxation.  The “most agreeable” discussion was the “most useful” discussion.  The worst day was “the day lost or ill-spent.”  Any loss of time was an inconvenience.  Consequently, Tocqueville travelled in a “constant state of tension,” never arriving in a place without knowing that he would be able to leave it.

Recommended, buy it here.

Don’t Doubt: Saint Thomas in India

Christianity in India has roots at least as old as in Italy. Millions of Christians in Kerala today believe that their tradition traces back directly to Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, who traveled to India in the first century AD. According to the Acts of Thomas, the apostles divided the world and drew lots to decide their respective regions for spreading the gospel. Thomas, drew India but, ever the doubter, he demurred. “It’s too hot and the food isn’t kosher”, he said, more or less. Jesus appeared to Thomas, however, and bade him “go to India!” Amazingly, he still demurred–what a doubter!–but by a minor miracle just as this was happening an Indian merchant arrived in Jerusalem calling for a master architect and builder to return with him to India. Finally, with this sign, Thomas’s doubts were allayed and his India adventures began.

For a long time, The Acts of Thomas were considered to be more of an unreliable fantasy novel than a historical account and of course the Acts does contain fantastical stories. Nevertheless, the Acts of Thomas have gained credence over time as certain names and places mentioned in the Acts and once thought to be purely imaginary, turned out to be accurate historical references. As William Dalrymple writes in an excellent piece:

…a series of remarkable discoveries have gone a long way to prove that the story contained in the Acts seems to be built on surprisingly solid historical foundations. First, British archaeologists working in late 19th-century India began to find hoards of coins belonging to a previously unknown Indian king: the Rajah Gondophares, who ruled from AD19 to AD45. If St Thomas had ever been summoned to India, it would have been Rajah Gondophares who would have done it, just as the Acts had always maintained.

The fact that the Acts had accurately preserved the name of an obscure Indian rajah, whose name and lineage had disappeared, implied that it must contain at least a nucleus of genuine historical information. Archaeological discoveries have since confirmed many other details of the story, revealing that maritime contacts between the Roman world and India were much more extensive than anyone had realised.

Aside from the Acts, a considerable amount of oral history and circumstantial evidence suggests that by AD 50-52, Thomas arrived on the Malabar coast of what is today Kerala and he began converting an older Jewish population as well as Hindus to Christianity. Indeed, the evidence is strong that the followers of Thomas in India have preserved one of the oldest versions of Christianity. Dalrymple again:

If St Thomas had carried Christianity to India, it is likely that he would have taken a distinctly more Jewish form than the Gentile-friendly version developed for the Greeks of Antioch by St Paul and later exported to Europe. Hence the importance of the fact that some of the St Thomas Christian churches to this day retain Judeo-Christian practices long dropped in the west – such as the celebration of the solemn Passover feast.

Hence also the significance of the St Thomas Christians still using the two earliest Christian liturgies in existence: the Mass of Addai and Mari, and the Liturgy of St James, once used by the early Church of Jerusalem. More remarkable still, these ancient services are still partly sung in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and St Thomas.

The more you investigate the evidence, the more irresistible is the conclusion that whether or not St Thomas himself came to India, he certainly could have. And if he didn’t make the journey, it seems certain that some other very early Christian missionary did, for there is certainly evidence for a substantial Christian population in India by at least the third century.

Not only is there is a substantial presence of Christians in India from at least the third century, many early Western and Eastern Christian sources attest that it was Thomas who was sent to India. Kurikilamkatt writes:

From the third century onwards it had become an undeniable and incontrovertible tradition and belief in the Christian world that Thomas preached in India. And these Fathers and early writers had no doubt that the Thomas they speak about was the apostle who declared for the first time in history that his master was the Lord and God.

Historians tend not to trust oral history but to me it’s the oral histories, the genealogies of Indians who trace their lineage back to someone who was personally converted by Saint Thomas, and the songs that are most convincing. Indians have orally preserved the vedas for some four thousand years so I trust them on Saint Thomas. In the 4th or early 5th century, Saint Jerome wrote that “Christ lives everywhere. With Thomas in India and Peter in Rome.” And of the two, I’d put more money on Thomas.

After founding seven churches in Kerala, Thomas journeyed to the eastern region of the Indian peninsula, near present-day Chennai. Here Thomas’s mission was ended when he refused to bow down to Kali and was killed. Even so he was held in such reverence that his place of death was marked and his body kept and entombed. Fifteen hundred years later the Portuguese built a cathedral over his tomb, both of which you can still visit today as I did recently. Even for those not of Christian faith or any religious affiliation, connecting with 2,000 years of history and considering the distances Thomas traveled is quite moving, especially when it happens in a place which stills seems far from the Christian world.

Albania (Italy) fact of the day

Attracted by its Mediterranean beaches at competitive prices, airline passengers to Albania more than doubled in June compared with the same period a year earlier, according to ACI Europe, an association of airport operators. The opening of low-cost routes to Albanian airports contributed to that jump, ACI said.

Overnight stays also increased, with Eurostat’s latest figures showing 261,000 nights spent by foreign tourists in Albania in the first quarter, up 152 per cent from the same period in 2019.

Travel to Italy has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.  Here is the full FT story.

Doha travel notes

Qatar is a greatly underrated tourist destination.

The Museum of Islamic Art is one of the finest museums in the world, with a collection of unsurpassable quality, drawing on Islamic creations from as far away as Sumatra and the Philippines, as well as the more familiar Persian, Indian, Turkish, and Central Asian items.  The I.M. Pei building offers fantastic views, and there is an Alain Ducasse restaurant on the top floor.

The National Museum of Qatar is more didactic, but still I found it spectacular, including the architecture and external sculptures on the front side of the building.  Usually I dislike audiovisual displays in museums, but their films on the history of Qatar — shown on very large Imax-like screens — were spectacular.  The costumes and jewelry displays are hard to top.  “Culture” and “growth” seemed to be the organizing themes of the exhibits.  The progressions were logical, and at the end of it all I came away thinking that Qatar has had cultural sophistication for a long time, and is not just a place where they throw a lot of money at art.  I fell for their propaganda, but now I am going to read up and see just how true that is.

In value terms, the government of Qatar is the largest buyer of art in the world.  The country has other notable museums as well, but I did not have the time to visit them, as sometimes their hours are irregular, or they are private collections which require special appointments.

In most public spaces you will see some attempt to make them look creative or aesthetic.  By no means do all such displays succeed, but they are always trying.  Many of the contemporary buildings, or sculptures along the road, are worthy of inspection.

In the water you still can see wooden dhows, and on the roads you might see a man in desert gear shepherding his camels across the road.  The main souk has a whole section devoted to falcons and falconry.  The souk at dusk is magnificent.

Overall the place feels cheerier and homier than does Dubai.  Everyone I met was friendly.  English is the lingua franca, and most of the people here do in fact speak reasonable English.

Cultural Village” and “Pearl Island” are hard to explain, but they are parts of town worth a visit, moving at times in Las Vegas and “Venetian” directions.

The nearby development of Lusail (is it a separate city?) has some iconic buildings and is worth a visit, check out the medical center, it looks better in real life than in the photos.

Doha sparkles when it comes to food.  The Parisa Persian restaurant in Souq Waqif (don’t go to the other Parisa restaurant, supposedly it is worse) was the best fesanjan I ever have had, excellent decor too.

Saasna is one local high-quality place for Qatari food.  Not cheap, but excellent ingredients.  The dishes skew in the Saudi direction (“lamb shank on saffron rice,” or “beef stewed with wheat”) rather than Persian.

Good Indian and Chinese places seem to abound, I even saw an apparently high-quality Miami restaurant.  The breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was first-rate, most of all the pistachio labneh.

Based on n = 6, this seems to be one of those countries where they ask if you want lemon in your sparkling water, you say no, and they give it to you anyway.

On Fridays, the country does not open until 1:30 p.m., so if you are doing a short visit try to avoid that day.

The on-line visa form was easy to fill out, and I received a positive response within seconds.

Going in August, as I have done, is not crazy.  Sometimes the temperatures reach 47 degrees or higher, but somehow it is manageable, or at least it was for me.  Perhaps more people are around other times of the year?  In any case you should go, as Qatar ought to join the list of must-visit destinations, and it is easy enough to combine it with other trips, given the use of Doha as an air hub.

My views on the UFO hearings

I found them very interesting to watch, and wrote my last Bloomberg column on them.  Here is one excerpt:

I do not think that the US government has the remains of alien spacecraft, for example, including some alien bodies, as claimed by retired Air Force Major David Grusch. But the rest of the evidence was presented in a suitably serious and persuasive manner. It is clear, at least to me, that there is no conspiracy, and the US government is itself puzzled by the data about unidentified anomalous phenomena.

As for the more serious claims:

Members of Congress, to the extent they desire, have independent access to military and intelligence sources. They also have political ambitions, if only to be reelected. So the mere fact of their participation in these hearings shows that UFOs/UAPs are now being taken seriously as an issue.

The Pentagon issued a statement claiming it holds no alien bodies, but it did nothing to contradict the statements of [Ryan] Graves (or others with similar claims, outside the hearings). More broadly, there have been no signs of anyone with eyewitness experience asserting that Graves and the other pilots are unreliable.

As is so often the case, the most notable events are those that did not happen. The most serious claims from the hearings survived unscathed: those about inexplicable phenomena and possible national-security threats, not the hypotheses about alien craft or visits.

And to conclude:

I suspect that, from here on out, this topic will become more popular — and somewhat less respectable. A few years ago, UAPs were an issue on which a few people “in the know” could speculate, secure in the knowledge they weren’t going to receive much publicity or pushback. As the chatter increases, the issue will become more prominent, but at the same time a lot of smart observers will dismiss the whole thing because they heard that someone testified before Congress about seeing dead aliens.

I am well aware that many people may conclude that some US officials, or some parts of the US government, have gone absolutely crazy. But even under that dismissive interpretation, it is likely that there will be further surprises.

I thank commenter Naveen for the point about declining respectability.  A broader question — which I will continue to ponder — is why it is the United States that held these hearings, rather than other nations (NB: I hope you don’t fall for that Twitter map suggesting that UAP sighting are mainly an Anglo phenomenon).