Category: Travel

My excellent Conversation with Paul Salopek

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Paul Salopek is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic fellow who, at the age of 50, set out on foot to retrace the steps of the first human migrations out of Africa. The project, dubbed the “Out of Eden Walk,” began in Ethiopia in 2012 and will eventually take him to Tierra Del Fuego, a distance of some 24,000 miles.

Calling in just as he was about to arrive in Xi’an, he and Tyler discussed his very localized supply chain, why women make for better walking partners, the key to crossing deserts, the most difficult terrain to traverse, what he does for exercise, his information prep for each new region, how he’s kept the project funded, why India is such a good for walkers, which cuisines he’s found most and least palatable, what he learned working the crime beat in Roswell, New Mexico, how this project challenges conventional journalism, his thoughts on the changing understanding of early human migration, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: What’s true is true. How is it that you crossed the desert? You’ve been through some of the Gulf States, I think.

SALOPEK: Yes, I’ve been through several deserts. The first was the Afar Desert in north Ethiopia, one of the hottest deserts in the world, and then the Hejaz in western Saudi Arabia, and then some big deserts in Central Asia, the Kyzyl Kum in Uzbekistan.

You cross deserts with a great attentiveness. You seem to want to speed up to get through them as quickly as possible, but often, they require slowing down, and that seems counterintuitive. You have to walk when the temperatures are congenial to your survival. Sometimes that means walking at night as opposed to the day. It means maybe not covering the distances that you would in more moderate climates.

Deserts are like a prickly friend. You approach them with care, but if you invest the time, they’re pretty inspiring and remarkable. There are reasons why old hermits go out into the deserts to seek visions. I was born in a desert. I was born in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, so I’m partial to them, maybe even by birth.

COWEN: Do you find deserts to be the most difficult terrain to cross?

SALOPEK: No, I find alpine mountains to be far trickier. Deserts can be fickle. Deserts can kill you if you’re not careful. Of course, water is the most limiting factor for survival.

But alpine mountain weather is so unpredictable, and a very sunny afternoon can turn into a very stormy late afternoon in a very quick time period. Threats like rock falls, like avalanches, blizzards — those, for me, are far more difficult to navigate than deserts. Also, I guess having been born in the subtropics, I don’t weather the cold as well, so there’s that bias thrown in.

COWEN: What do you do for exercise?

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Privatization Improves Airports

Laurent Belsie summarizes a new NBER paper, All Clear for Takeoff: Evidence from Airports on the Effects of Infrastructure Privatization:

When private equity funds buy airports from governments, the number of airlines and routes served increases, operating income rises, and the customer experience improves.

…As of 2020, nearly 20 percent of the world’s airports had been privatized. Private equity (PE), usually through dedicated infrastructure funds, is playing an increasing role in privatization, purchasing 102 airports out of a total of 437 that have ever been privatized.

…A key metric of airport efficiency is passengers per flight. The more customers an airport can serve with existing runways and gates, the more services it can deliver and the more earnings it can generate. When PE funds buy government-owned airports, the number of passengers per flight rises an average 20 percent. There’s no such increase when non-PE private firms acquire an airport. Overall passenger traffic rises under both types of private ownership, but the rise at PE-owned airports, 84 percent, is four times greater than that at non-PE-owned private airports. Freight volumes and the number of flights, other measures of efficiency, show a similar pattern. Evidence from satellite image data indicates that PE owners increase terminal size and the number of gates. This capacity expansion helps enable the volume increases and points to the airport having been financially constrained under previous ownership.

…PE firms tend to attract new low-cost carriers to their airports, which in turn may lead to greater competition and offer consumers better service and lower prices. With regard to routes, PE acquirers increase the number of new routes, especially international routes, more than other buyers. International passengers are often the most profitable airport users, especially in developing countries.

A PE acquisition is also associated with a decline in flight cancellations and an increase in the likelihood of receiving a quality award. When an airport shifts from non-PE private to PE ownership, its odds of winning an award rise by 6 percentage points. The average chance of winning such an award is just 2 percent.

The fees that airports charge to airlines rise after airport privatizations. When the buyer is a PE firm, there is also a push to deregulate government limits on those fees. For example, after three Australian airports were privatized in the mid-1990s, the price caps governing airport revenues were replaced with a system of price monitoring that allows the government to step in if fees or revenues become excessive.

The net effect of a PE acquisition is a rough doubling of an airport’s operating income, due mostly to higher revenues from airlines and retailers in the terminal rather than cost-cutting. The driving forces behind these improvements appear to be new management strategies, which likely includes greater compensation for managers, alongside investments in new capacity as well as better passenger services and technology.

The future of public transit?

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

Africa’s Megalopolis

An interesting piece in The Guardian by Howard French on Africa’s megalopolis and the difficulties of pulling together five countries with very different governments and colonial histories:

There is one place above all that should be seen as the centre of this urban transformation. It is a stretch of coastal west Africa that begins in the west with Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, and extends 600 miles east – passing through the countries of Ghana, Togo and Benin – before finally arriving at Lagos. Recently, this has come to be seen by many experts as the world’s most rapidly urbanising region, a “megalopolis” in the making – that is, a large and densely clustered group of metropolitan centres.

…In just over a decade from now, its major cities will contain 40 million people. Abidjan, with 8.3 million people, will be almost as large as New York City is today. The story of the region’s small cities is equally dramatic. They are either becoming major urban centres in their own right, or – as with places like Oyo in Nigeria, Takoradi in Ghana, and Bingerville in Ivory Coast – they are gradually being absorbed by bigger cities. Meanwhile, newborn cities are popping into existence in settings that were all but barren a generation ago. When one includes these sorts of places, the projected population for this coastal zone will reach 51 million people by 2035, roughly as many people as the north-eastern corridor of the US counted when it first came to be considered a megalopolis.

But unlike that American super-region, whose population long ago plateaued, this part of west Africa will keep growing. By 2100, the Lagos-Abidjan stretch is projected to be the largest zone of continuous, dense habitation on earth, with something in the order of half a billion people.

The culture that is New Jersey

The digital alerts that debuted on Garden State highway signs last month may have displayed a bit too much Jersey attitude.

As of Wednesday afternoon, messages such as “Get your head out of your apps” andmash potatoes — not your head” are no longer visible on the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s network of 215 permanent digital alert signs throughout the state. Similar messages have been used in other states, including Utah, Pennsylvania, Delaware, California, and Tennessee.

“The FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] has instructed us to cease posting these creative safety messages,” Stephen Schapiro, NJDOT’s press manager, said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement, the FHWA said that it “is aware of the changeable message signs and has reached out to NJDOT.” Representatives from FHWA did not comment on why New Jersey was told to stop using the messages.

Here is the full story, via Mike Doherty.

Ranking of major tourist sites

Mike asks:

Tyler’s ranking of major world heritage/tourist sites (could be buildings, national parks, etc.) in terms of which far exceed/underwhelm expectations derived from casual internet surfing.

This is off the top of my head and not pondered for very long, with eleven or more in the top ten:

1. Northern Arizona/southern Utah, various national parks, culminating in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Yes, #1 in the whole world and overall I am not such a travel nationalist.  So it must be really, really good.

2. Iguassu Falls.

I have seen only the Brazilian side, Argentina would make it better yet.  Beware the coatimundis who like to sniff your balls!

3. Ålesund, Norway.

4. The architecture of Brasilia.

I like modernism.  The view from the Rio Christ statue is pretty good too.

5. The architecture of Helsinki.

Kind of follows!

6, Macchu Picchu, seen properly.  Or maybe Lalibela?

Now the former is too full of crowds, I suspect.

7. Swiss Alps, including the integration of natural beauty, landscape, and human footprint.

Get a car, don’t talk yourself into the train only.

8. Sikh Golden Temple and surrounding site, Amritsar, Punjab.

9. Niagara Falls.

10. Ginza district, Tokyo.

11. Singapore, Marina Bay Sands area, most of all the view from the Infinity Pool, looking out in all directions.

Other contenders: Istanbul on the water, view from the Eiffel Tower, Yunnan province in China, average quality of beauty in New Zealand, the new parts of Copenhagen and also Hamburg on the waterfront, cruising in Mexico City, the very old parts of Rome, Venice in a fast water boat, Marrakesh, Busan, Korea, Faroe Islands, many different parts of Chile including Patagonia, random geothermal parts of Iceland.

I am sure I have forgotten plenty!

Open the Skies!

Here’s a list of the world’s top ten airlines:

  1. Qatar Airways
  2. Singapore Airlines
  3. Emirates
  4. ANA (All Nippon Airways)
  5. Qantas Airways
  6. Japan Airlines
  7. Turkish Airlines
  8. Air France
  9. Korean Air
  10. Swiss International Air Lines

The airlines in this list have at least two things in common: None of world’s best airlines are US owned and none of them are allowed to operate domestically in the United States. The two common elements are related because so-called “cabotage laws” prohibit foreign airlines from serving domestic travelers.

Imagine what international travel would be like if you could only fly on a US owned airline? Ok it’s not that hard to imagine. Restricting international flights to domestic airlines would make international travel much more expensive and more inconvenient. The US State Department rightly lauds the Open Skies Agreements that have brought competition to international flights:

Since 1992 the United States has pursued an “Open Skies” policy designed to eliminate government intervention in airline decision-making about routes, capacity, and pricing in international markets…Open Skies agreements expand cooperative marketing opportunities between airlines, liberalize charter regulations, improve flexibility for airline operations, and commit both governments to high standards of safety and security.  They are pro-consumer, pro-competition, and pro-growth, and facilitate countless new cultural links worldwide.

True! But US domestic flights fly on Closed Skies. Europe has opened up competition to all European airlines. Indeed, Europe is also substantially open to US carriers, but the US is closed to foreign carriers for domestic flights. Cabotage laws are, in effect, a Jones Act for the airlines.

In an good review, Scott Lincicome summarizes:

Europe’s deregulatory experiences—and our own—show that nixing cabotage restrictions would not only put additional downward pressure on fares but also likely improve route coverage and maybe even customer service.

What should I ask Paul Salopek?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is Wikipedia:

Paul Salopek (born February 9, 1962 in Barstow, California) is a journalist and writer from the United States. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and was raised in central Mexico. Salopek has reported globally for the Chicago Tribune, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, National Geographic Magazine and many other publications. In January 2013, Salopek embarked on the “Out of Eden Walk”, originally projected to be a seven-year walk along one of the routes taken by early humans to migrate out of Africa, a transcontinental foot journey that was planned to cover more than 20,000 miles funded by the National Geographic Society, the Knight Foundation and the Abundance Foundation.

Salopek received a degree in environmental biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1984. Salopek has worked intermittently as a commercial fisherman, shrimp-fishing out of Carnarvon, and most recently with the scallop fleet out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1991. His career in journalism began in 1985 when his motorcycle broke in Roswell, New Mexico and he took a police-reporting job at the local newspaper to earn repair money.

As far as the walk goes, he has made it to China.  So what should I ask him?

AEA Hypocrisy

Here’s the AEA’s official statement on inclusion:

The AEA seeks to create a professional environment with equal opportunity and fair treatment for all economists, regardless of age, sex, gender identity and expression, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, health condition, marital status, parental status, genetic information, political affiliation, professional status, or personal connections.

Yet the AEA is requiring any attendees at the annual meeting to be vaccinated and boosted, a standard which excludes half of the US population! How is that equal opportunity and fair treatment? I suppose some people will want to say “health condition” doesn’t include vaccinated or not…dubious legerdemain…but there’s no question the AEA vaccination policy is a huge violation of the spirit of inclusion.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of the TSA

A nice opening anecdote on life at the TSA from the Verge:

People cry at airports all the time. So when Jai Cooper heard sobbing from the back of the security line, it didn’t really faze her. As an officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), she had gotten used to the strange behavior of passengers. Her job was to check people’s travel documents, not their emotional well-being.

But this particular group of tearful passengers presented her with a problem. One of them was in a wheelchair, bent over with her head between her knees, completely unresponsive. “Is she okay? Can she sit up?” Cooper asked, taking their boarding passes and IDs to check. “I need to see her face to identify her.”

“She can’t, she can’t, she can’t,” said the passenger who was pushing the wheelchair.

Soon, Cooper was joined at her station by a supervisor, followed by an assortment of EMTs and airport police officers. The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport’s guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in. Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country’s medical system, they figured.

The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel’s many gray areas. Without a formal death certificate, the passenger could not be considered legally dead. And US law obligates airlines to accommodate their ticketed and checked-in passengers, even if they have “a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities.” In short: she could still fly. But not before her body got checked for contraband, weapons, or explosives. And since the TSA’s body scanners can only be used on people who can stand up, the corpse would have to be manually patted down.

“We’re just following TSA protocol,” Cooper explained.

Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body’s “sensitive areas” — the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks — with “sufficient pressure to ensure detection.”

Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal.

Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.

Later we get to the economics:

Actuaries measure the cost-effectiveness of an intervention — say, a pharmaceutical drug or a safety device like a seat belt — with a metric called “cost per life saved.” This calculation tries to capture the total societal net resources spent in order to save one year of life. For example, mandatory seat belt laws cost $138; railway crossing gates cost $90,000; and inpatient intensive care at a hospital can cost up to $1 million per visit. As long as an intervention costs less than $10 million per life saved, government agencies are generally happy to back them.

The most generous independent estimates of the cost-effectiveness of the TSA’s airport security screening put the cost per life saved at around $15 million. And that makes two big assumptions: first, that the agency is both 100 percent effective and 100 percent responsible for stopping all terror attacks; and second, that it stops an attack on the scale of 9/11 about once a decade. Less optimistic assessments place the number at $667 million per life saved.

My Conversation with Cynthia L. Haven

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

…those two interests converged as they led her to interview and write books about three writers and thinkers whom she also came to call mentors: René Girard, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky.

Cynthia joined Tyler to discuss what she’s gleaned from each of the three, including what traits they have in common, why her biography of Girard had to come from outside academia, Milosz’s reaction to the Berkley Free Speech Movement, Girard’s greatest talent — and flaw — as a thinker, whether Brodsky will fall down the memory hole, why he was so terrible on Ukraine, why Cynthia’s early career was much like The Devil Wears Prada, the failings of Twitter, and more.

And one excerpt:

COWEN: What is your philosophy of what is missing in most other people’s interviews?

HAVEN: I don’t know that it’s a philosophy.

COWEN: You must think you’re adding something, right?

HAVEN: I’m interested in big questions. I think a lot of people aren’t. A lot of interviewers aren’t. It’s not an era for big questions, is it?

COWEN: 2022? I’m not sure.

HAVEN: Really?

COWEN: Maybe the questions are either too big or too small and not enough in between.

HAVEN: That’s an interesting point of view.

COWEN: There’s plenty of ideology in the world and in this country. It doesn’t have to be a good thing, but —

HAVEN: Ideology is different than big questions, I think.

Interesting throughout.

As Goes India, so Goes Democracy

We lost China. It is imperative that we not lose India.

By we, I mean the West and liberal democracy broadly speaking. Many of us thought that China would liberalize naturally as the Chinese people grew rich and demand followed Maslow’s hierarchy. Many other countries had followed this path. But China doesn’t have a liberal history, technology provided irresitible tools for social control, and democracy no longer looks to be as important for riches as it once did. With China lost and the United States in relative decline, the liberal world very much needs India as a large, multi-ethnic, and free democracy. Liberal democracy is also India’s best hope and bulwark against being ripped apart by internal divisions. But much remains in the balance. Suketu Mehta has a very good essay on this issue:

…Indian democracy is one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements. Over 75 years, we built, against great odds, a nation that for the first time in its 5,000-year history empowered women and the Dalits, people formerly known as untouchables. We largely abolished famine. We kept the army out of politics. After independence, many people predicted that we would become Balkanised. Yugoslavia became Balkanised, but India stayed together. No small feat.

But I write this today to tell you: things in India are more dire than you realise. India is a country that is majority Hindu, but it is not officially a Hindu state. The people who are in power in India today want to change this. They want India to be a Hindu ethnocratic state, where all other religions live by Hindu sufferance.

This has practical consequences: people of other religions are actively harassed, even lynched on the streets; their freedom to practice their religion in their own way is circumscribed. And when they protest, they are jailed and their houses bulldozed. Most worrying, much of the judiciary seems to be sympathetic to the Hindu nationalist agenda, and issues its verdicts accordingly.

There is also sustained and systematic harassment of writers, journalists, artists, activists, religious figures – anyone who questions the official narrative. We who have attached our names here are taking great personal risk in writing this: our citizenship of India could be revoked, we could be banned from the country, our property in India seized, our relatives harassed.

There are many others who think like we do but have told us they cannot speak out, for fear of the consequences. I never thought I’d use the word “dissident” in describing myself and my friends who have compiled this document. I thought that word only applied to the Soviet Union, North Korea, China.

It is crucial that India remains a democracy for all its citizens. India is not Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan. Not yet. A lot of India’s standing in the world – the reason we are included in the respectable nations, the reason our people and our tech companies are welcome all over the world – is that we are seen, unlike, say, China, as being a multi-ethnic democracy that protects its minorities.

With over 200 million Indian Muslims, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. There are 30 million Indian Christians. There are Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Atheists. They are as Indian as I am – a Hindu who’s proud of being a Hindu, but not a Hindu as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party seek to define me.

…The alienation of Indian Muslims would be catastrophic, for India and the world. They are being told: you are invaders, this is not your country, go back to where you came from. But Indian Muslims did not come from elsewhere; they were in the country all along, and chose which God to worship. After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, they voted with their feet; they chose to stay, and build a nation.

…The country also has an enormous, restive, and largely unemployed youth population – half of its population is under 25. But only 36% of the working-age population has a job. To meet these challenges, it is crucial that the country stay united, and not fracture along religious lines, spend its energies building a brighter future instead of darkly contemplating past invasions.

In this time when country after country is turning its back on democracy, India has to be an example to countries around the world, this beautiful dream of nationhood expressed in the Hindu scriptures as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – the whole earth is a family. We should all be rooting for this incredible experiment in multiplicity to work. As goes India, so goes democracy.

Will travelers bifurcate into “challenge” and “comfort”?

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

When people are forced to adjust, as happened during peak pandemic times, they learn new things. What many Americans and Westerners have learned is that they enjoy “comfort travel” as much if not more than “challenge travel.” A lot of the new habits are going to stick. Especially with group travel, the preferences of comfort travelers will tend to win out in choosing a destination.

One slightly sorry truth is that many people do not very much enjoy challenge travel, which can be stressful and almost like work. When the social and group pressures to do it are removed or lessened, challenge travel is likely to decline, although the hardcore challenge travelers will remain and perhaps even expand their ambitions.

The future for challenge travel, then, may be that it becomes both less popular and more intense. In this sense it may harken back to an earlier era of travel, where risk and difficulty were ever present and surprises were frequent.

I am posting this from Ahmedabad and headed next to Udaipur…