Category: Travel

Kiwi start-up to the Venus rescue

On Monday, scientists announced the astonishing discovery of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. This chemical could have been produced by a biological source, but scientists won’t know for sure without sending a spacecraft to the planet.

As luck would have it, Rocket Lab, the private small rocket company founded in New Zealand, has been working on such a mission. The company has developed a small satellite, called Photon, that it plans to launch on its own Electron rocket as soon as 2023.

“This mission is to go and see if we can find life,” said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and chief executive. “Obviously, this discovery of phosphine really adds strength to that possibility. So I think we need to go and have a look there.”

Rocket Lab has launched a dozen rockets to space, putting small satellites into orbit for private companies, NASA and the U.S. military. It also has a mission to the moon in the works with NASA, called CAPSTONE, scheduled to launch in early 2021.

…The company’s plan is to develop the mission in-house and mostly self-fund it, at a cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

Here is the full NYT story by Jonathan O’Callaghan, interesting throughout.

How to make yourself happier during the pandemic

There is plenty of relevant psychological advice, here is some more narrowly economic advice from my latest Bloomberg column.  Start with this key point:

…it is a common result in empirical economics that consumption habits are slow to adjust to changing circumstances, especially unprecedented circumstances. It is not enough for you to develop new spending habits — you should double down on them.

And this:

Savings have been so high in part because people are hoarding resources for an uncertain future. But a lot of the explanation, especially for those with higher incomes, is that planned expenditures became impossible, dangerous or inconvenient. Instead of flying to Paris and staying at a hotel on the Seine, they drove to a cabin in Maine or West Virginia. Or maybe they postponed that purchase of a new car or spent less time browsing in a bookstore. In any case, the end result is less spending and more savings, whether conscious or not.

Those may well have been prudent decisions. Still, many of us are not spending enough money having fun. We have been too slow to develop new, Covid-compatible interests.

Furthermore, likely you are underinvesting in driving to go see people, again due to the sluggishness of habit adjustment.  In most parts of America, traffic remains somewhat lower than before, and your human contact is likely lower than before.  Go and have lunch with them outside before the weather gets too cold!

Recommended.

Singapore markets in some things not everything

Singapore Airlines (SIA) is looking to launch no-destination flights that will depart from and land in Changi Airport next month, in a bid to give its ailing business a lift.

Sources told The Straits Times that the national carrier is working towards launching this option for domestic passengers – dubbed “flights to nowhere” – by end-October.

They said SIA also plans to explore a partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board to allow interested passengers to partially pay for such flights with tourism credits that will be given out by the Government.

My Conversation with Matt Yglesias

Substantive, interesting, and fun throughout, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  For more do buy Matt’s new book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  Here is the CWT summary:

They discussed why it’s easier to grow Tokyo than New York City, the governance issues of increasing urban populations, what Tyler got right about pro-immigration arguments, how to respond to declining fertility rates, why he’d be happy to see more people going to church (even though he’s not religious), why liberals and conservatives should take marriage incentive programs more seriously, what larger families would mean for feminism, why people should read Robert Nozick, whether the YIMBY movement will be weakened by COVID-19, how New York City will bounce back, why he’s long on Minneapolis, how to address constitutional ruptures, how to attract more competent people to state and local governments, what he’s learned growing up in a family full of economists, his mother’s wisdom about visual design and more.

Here is one excerpt:

It was so much fun we even ran over the allotted time, we had to discuss Gilbert Arenas too.

Uh-oh Mumbai

And here is the research:

The spatial layout of cities is an important feature of urban form, highlighted by urban planners but overlooked by economists. This paper investigates the causal economic implications of city shape in India. I measure cities’ geometric properties over time using satellite imagery and historical maps. I develop an instrument for urban shape based on geographic obstacles encountered by expanding cities. Compact city shape is associated with faster population growth and households display positive willingness to pay for more compact layouts. Transit accessibility is an important channel. Land use regulations can contribute to deteriorating city shape.

Here is the full paper by Mariaflavia Harari.  “Transit accessibility” — what a funny phrase to apply to Mumbai traffic!  Try some Marathi slang instead.  And in case you are not familiar with Mumbai, some of the lower parts have some of the most valuable land.

From the comments, on alien visitation

…it looks like Avi Loeb (Harvard astronomer) is writing a book that will argue that we have been visited by aliens.

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star.

In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.

https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/Extraterrestrial/9780358278146

That is from Josh P.  And here is the Amazon link.

What should I ask Edwidge Danticat?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, she is the famed Haitian author.  Here is her extensive Wikipedia page.  Or here is part of a shorter bio:

Author Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to André Danticat and Rose Danticat. In 1981, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she graduated from Clara Barton High School and received her B.A. degree in French literature from Barnard College in New York City in 1990; and her M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993.

In 1983, at age fourteen, Danticat published her first writing in English, “A Haitian-American Christmas,” in New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers. Her next publication, “A New World Full of Strangers,” was about her immigration experience and led to the writing of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. In 1997, she was named one of the country’s best young authors by the literary journal Granta. Danticat’s other works include, Everything Inside, Claire of the Sea Light, Brother, I’m Dying, Krik? Krik!, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She has worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme, on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti.

So what should I ask her?

Claims about Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

Viking society wasn’t homogeneous. They had dealings with many different cultures and they lived in varied environments, from Danish and Swedish pasture to the sub-Arctic tundra of Norway and Iceland. In the early 11th century the best-travelled woman in the world must have been Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, whose remarkable journeys demonstrate the great distances the Vikings covered. She gave birth to a child in North America, met people of the First Nations and ate grapes in Vinland, made a pilgrimage to Rome and drank wine in Italy, and died as a nun in Iceland. Vikings lived in close contact with the Sámi people, whom they called Finns. In his earlier book, The Viking Way, Price pointed out that Norwegians and Swedes, at least, might be regarded as in some ways similar to the ‘circumpolar’ cultures which stretch from Greenland to Siberia, notably in what looks like shamanistic behaviour.

That is from Tom Shippey’s excellent LRB Vikings book review, interesting throughout.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

My podcast with David Perell on “the Tyler Cowen production function”

Here goes, it is not for me to judge the quality of the result, but I can say that David is a very good interviewer.  Here are his summary notes:

Tyler ends every episode of his podcast asking about other people’s production function. How do you get so much done? What’s the secret sauce of all that you’ve accomplished? This episode is entirely devoted to that question. But this time, I’m asking Tyler. We started by talking about why there aren’t more Tyler Cowens in the world. Then, we moved to Tyler’s process for writing, such as choosing article topics and editing his work. Later in the podcast, we discussed Tyler’s process for choosing friends, why he would travel across the world to visit a new country for just ten hours, and what he’s learned from high-powered people like Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

I also tried to give a few deliberately “low status boasting answers,” as I call them (rather than high status airy detachment — e.g., “it is not for me to judge the quality of the result”), label it countersignaling if you wish.

Here is David on Twitter, and you can take his on-line writing classes here.

“The purchasing power of money is the same everywhere”

Didn’t Mises insist on that proposition in his Theory of Money and Credit?  The claim always bugged me, as it is true only tautologically.  Here is one counterexample:

In a remote area of Papua’s Pegunungan Bintang regency, purchasing staple commodities will put a far bigger dent in your wallet than in most other areas of Indonesia.

For a sack of rice, typically weighing 10 kilograms, people in the traditional gold mining area of Korowai have to spend at least Rp 2 million (US$138.5), similar to the cost of a low-end smartphone.

For comparison, in Jakarta, 1 kilogram of rice costs Rp 10,000 to Rp 11,000, meaning 10 kg of rice costs people in the capital around Rp 110,000.

The massive price discrepancies are not limited to rice. A box of instant noodles costs Rp 1 million in Korowai. Sometimes, people even pay with two grams of gold.

“A pack of instant noodles costs Rp 25,000,” said Hengki Yaluwo, an administrator of a cooperative in Korowai’s Mining Area 33 on Wednesday.

“Ten kilograms of rice costs four grams of gold. If you pay with cash, you need Rp 2 million,” he said.

One can of fish typically costs Rp 150,000, while a cell phone could cost 10 to 25 grams of gold, Hengki said.

As for arbitrage:

Reaching Korowai is difficult. People must take a helicopter from Bovel Digoel regency, and then continue by longboat, traveling along the Boven Digoel river for one day. After this, they must travel by foot for two days before finally arriving at the Korowai mining area.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.  Here are photos of the Korowai people, ignore the text.  Here is a more sober and probably more accurate Wikipedia article.

Deconvexifying the car, car feature markets in everything

…BMW is planning to move some features of its new cars to a subscription model, something it announced on Wednesday during a briefing for the press on the company’s digital plans.

…now the Bavarian carmaker has plans to apply that model to features like heated seats. BMW says that owners can “benefit in advance from the opportunity to try out the products for a trial period of one month, after which they can book the respective service for one or three years.” The company also says that it could allow the second owner of a BMW to activate features that the original purchaser declined.

In fact, BMW has already started implementing this idea in some markets, allowing software unlocking of features like adaptive cruise control or high-beam assist (in the United States, those options are usually standard equipment). Other features are more whimsical, like having a Hans Zimmer-designed sound package for your electric BMW or adaptive suspension for your M-car. Indeed, the company says that its forthcoming iNext will “expand the opportunities for personalization.” I’m sure y’all can’t wait.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.  In the standard theory of bundling, bundling enables more price discrimination, as for instance with the cable TV bundle.  But if most consumers really don’t value the add-ons at all, which perhaps is the case here, a’la carte may maximize revenue after all.

How to identify interesting boats and sailors

I know nothing about this topic, so thought I should pass along this email from MR reader Edward Dixon:

Having benefited from your advice on restaurants, I thought I would pass on some simple tips for the identification of interesting boats & interesting sailors.

The method is actually a little like finding an interesting restaurant: most of the boats you see are more or less in the form in which they left the boatyard that built them.  You can think of them and their owners as being akin to chain restaurants.   These are the ones to ignore!

Watch instead for boats:
– Ignore anything suggested of a racing pedigree
– Equipped to sail. Two masts are better than one.  Gaff rigs and junk rigs are also interesting indicators.  The limited speed but unlimited range are attributes of sail that act as a sort of filder.
– extra hardware bolted on top, like a solar panel / wind-vane combination
– A complicated-looking wind-vane attachment bolted onto the stern indicates self-steering gear
– A cupola or dome, a little reminiscent of a turret on top of a WWII bomber somewhere on the coach-roof.
– Indications that the boat is a home-build – possible harder for you to assess

Boats with quirks tend to contain interesting people; often they have made Unconventional Life Choices, including of course long sea voyages, often solo.  They have often made extraordinary efforts to go to sea – I once met a man in late middle age who had crossed the Irish Sea in an easterly gale in a 17ft open boat he had constructed himself using (non-marine-grade) plywood, and who was engaged in a boat-based camping tour of Ireland.  This turned out to be entirely consistent with the rest of his history.

Interesting boat folk, like interesting restaurants, are out there to be found, once you learn a few heuristics.

Do walls work?

To be clear, I do not favor building the Trump Wall (at all), still I am willing to present relevant evidence when it appears. Here is the abstract of a new paper by Benjamin Feigenberg:

This paper estimates the impact of the US-Mexico border fence on US-Mexico migration by exploiting variation in the timing and location of US government investment in fence construction. Using Mexican survey data and data I collected on fence construction, I find that construction in a municipality reduces migration by 27 percent for municipality residents and 15 percent for residents of adjacent municipalities. In addition, construction reduces migration by up to 35 percent from non-border municipalities. I also find that construction induces migrants to substitute toward alternative crossing locations, disproportionately deters low-skilled migrants, and reduces the number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, you should be able to click through the captcha and get to the paper.

Singapore facts of the day

At Changi, one of the world’s great travel hubs, traffic plunged from 5.9 million passengers in January to a mere 25,200 in April — a 99.5 percent drop. The number of airlines serving the airport collapsed from 91 to 35. Two of the four main terminals have been temporarily mothballed; plans for a fifth have been set back at least two years.

Here is the full article, about the retreat of globalization.