Category: Travel

Is “the better car experience” the next big tech breakthrough?

That is the question I raise in my new Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Another reality of the contemporary automobile is that Tesla has managed to rethink the entire design. The dashboard and interior are reconfigured, the drive is electric, software is far more prominent and integrated into the design, voice recognition operates many systems, and there are self-driving features, too. Whether or not you think Tesla as a company will succeed, its design work has shown how much room there is for improvement.

You might object that cars have numerous negative features — but that’s where there is much of the potential for major transformation. Cars cause a lot of air pollution, but electric cars (or maybe even hydrogen cars) are on their way, and they will lower noise pollution too, as hybrids already do.

Cars also create traffic congestion, but congestion pricing can ease this problem significantly, as it already has in Singapore. Congestion pricing used to be seen as politically impossible, but the Washington area recently instituted it for one major highway during rush hour. The toll is allowed to rise as high as $40, but on most days it is possible to drive to work for about $10 and home for well under $10, at speeds of at least 50 mph. Manhattan also will move to congestion pricing, for south of 60th Street in Midtown, and the practice will probably spread, both within New York and elsewhere, partly because many municipalities are strapped for cash. As for building new highways, transportation analyst Robert W. Poole Jr. argues in his new book that there is plenty of room for the private-sector toll concession model to grow, leading to more roads and easier commutes.

In other words, the two biggest problems with cars — pollution and traffic congestion — have gone from “impossible to solve” to the verge of manageability.

There is much more at the link, and here is the closer:

Right now there are about 281 million cars registered in the U.S., and they have pretty hefty price tags and demand many hours of time. The basic infrastructures and legal frameworks are already in place. So, despite the current obsessions with robots and gene editing, it should be evident that the biggest tangible changes from technology in the next 20 years are likely to come in a relatively mundane area of life — namely, life on the road.

Markets in everything those new service sector jobs

TITUSS BURGESS doesn’t like to travel and says he knows “zero” about South Africa, which would seem to make him an unlikely host for a 10-day tour of that nation, especially one that costs nearly $27,000 a head. But on a chill March night, the actor, best known for his role as Titus Andromedon on the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” patiently posed for selfies with travel journalists at a Manhattan wine bar to kick off Heritage Tours’ new Spotlight Series of trips. The company describes the tours as “immersive small-group experiences enhanced by the presence of expert personalities and influencers.”

…While Mr. MacMillan says that the hosts for his trips were chosen for their connection to the destinations, the link can seem tenuous. Courtney Reed, who played Princess Jasmine in Disney ’s “Aladdin” on Broadway will be hosting a trip to Spain focused on wine, fashion and food. She’s never been to Spain, but is “extra thrilled” about going. “I think my role is just to provide social ambience,” she said. “I’m a very easygoing person and I can create extra flair just having fun and appreciating our surroundings. I’m like a cheerleader….We’re going to have a blast!”

…Other travel companies are hitching their wagons to stars who don’t merely gild the travel experience, but add bona fide knowledge or expertise. “There’s only so much caviar and champagne you can give passengers, so we like to enrich their experience in an intelligent way,” said Barbara Muckermann, chief marketing officer of Silversea Cruises. The cruise line, which has at least one expert lecturer on each of its ships, invited nine artists, writers and other creative types including authors Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer and Saroo Brierley to make appearances during its 133-day World Cruise 2019. Besides giving lectures, each is contributing to a commemorative anthology that Silversea line is creating for the passengers.

There is more at the link, by Kevin Doyle at the WSJ, via the excellent Samir Varma.

My Conversation with Margaret Atwood

She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening:

COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.

COWEN: How so?

ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.


ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.


COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”


COWEN: You think that’s still true?

ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.

The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —

COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.

ATWOOD: You think?

COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.

ATWOOD: Did it?

COWEN: Center of manufacturing.

ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?

COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —

And from her:

ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”

And a question from me:

COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?

In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.

Solve for the (tri-state) equilibrium

New York recently approved congestion pricing, a plan to make it more expensive to drive into the heart of Manhattan. Officials in New Jersey are enraged and have griped, half-jokingly, that it will cost less to travel to California than to cross the Hudson River.

And they are vowing revenge.

The mayor of Jersey City suggested that New Jerseyans should toll New Yorkers entering their state.

Here is more from Emma G. Fitzsimmons at the NYT.

The ferry subsidy culture that is New York City

One of the new routes Mr. de Blasio announced this year — between Coney Island and Wall Street — is projected to require a subsidy from the city of $24.75 for every passenger, according to a report from the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic organization.

The commission said that the average subsidy for each passenger in the system’s first year of operation was $10.73, far more than the $6.60 subsidy the de Blasio administration originally estimated.

…Although it would cost $27.50 per person to ride the ferry from Coney Island to Wall Street, according to the Citizens Budget Commission’s report, the estimated 1,100 commuters will only pay $2.75.

Those are some high costs for a boat that sits on the water…here is the full story by Patrick McGeehan (NYT).

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.


COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Do female board members matter?

Maybe less than you might think, at least once you adjust for geographic distance:

Recent literature has shown that gender diversity in the boardroom seems to influence key monitoring decisions of boards. In this paper, we examine whether the observed relation between gender diversity and board decisions is due to a confounding factor, namely, directors’ geographic distance from headquarters. Using data on residential addresses for over 4,000 directors of S&P 1500 firms, we document that female directors cluster in large metropolitan areas and tend to live much farther away from headquarters compared to their male counterparts. We also reexamine prior findings in the literature on how boardroom gender diversity affects key board decisions. We use data on direct airline flights between U.S. locations to carry out an instrumental variables approach that exploits plausibly exogenous variation in both gender diversity and geographic distance. The results show that the effects of boardroom gender diversity on CEO compensation and CEO dismissal decisions found in the prior literature largely disappear when we account for geographic distance. Overall, our results support the view that gender-diverse boards are “tougher monitors” not because of gender differences per se, but rather because they are more geographically remote from headquarters and hence more reliant on hard information such as stock prices. The findings thus suggest that board gender policies, such as quotas, could have unintended consequences for some firms.

Here is the paper by Zinat S. Alam, Mark A. Chen, Conrad S. Ciccotello, and Harley E. Ryan.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Raghuram Rajan

Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:

How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?

RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.

And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.

COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?

RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.

Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.

So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.


COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?

RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.

COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?

RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.

There is much more at the link.  And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Damien Hirst markets in everything

The Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas is taking the concept of luxe travel to a whole different level. Its new Damien-Hirst-designed Empathy Suite costs $100,000 a night.

The room is the most expensive in America, beating out one at The Mark hotel, which previously held the accolade at $75,000 a night. And Empathy is also one of the world’s most expensive hotel accommodations, according to The Palms. (In fact, it’s potentially the most expensive: The Royal Penthouse Suite at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva — at about $80,000 a night — was the world’s most expensive suite in 2018, according to Lonely Planet.)

…The room was designed by world-renowned artist Hirst and showcases a number of his well-known original pieces, like the iconic “Winner/Loser,” with two bull sharks suspended in formaldehyde.

Hirst — who is known for controversial pieces — also created a 13-seat curved bar filled with medical waste, and hanging above the bar is Hirst’s “Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time,” which features a marlin skeleton and taxidermy marlin.

Here is more text and photos, noting that perhaps the high price is in part “advertising” so that major gamblers feel good when the room is comped to them?

Via the excellent Samir Varma.

My Conversation with Sam Altman

Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI.  We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent.  Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is one excerpt:

ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.

Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.

We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”

Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.


COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.

ALTMAN: I might not.

COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?

ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.

COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?


COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?

ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?

COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.

ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.

Definitely recommended.

How to travel to India

From a reader:

I have really enjoyed your travel posts on various countries, and am currently planning a trip to India for the month of November. However, I have struggled to find much writing of yours on the country. Perhaps a post on tips/places/cities/culture is in order? It would be much appreciated.

I have only a few India tips, but I can recommend them very, very strongly.  Here goes:

1. You can’t just walk around all day and deal with the pollution, the bad sidewalks, and dodging the traffic.  This ain’t Paris.  Plan accordingly.

2. When Alex set off to live in India, I said to him: “Alex, after a few weeks there, I want you to email me “the number.”  The number is how many consecutive hours you can circulate in an Indian city without having to stop and resort to a comfortable version of the indoors.”  You too will figure out pretty quickly what your number is, and it won’t take you a few weeks.

3. India is one of the very best and most memorable trips you can take.  You should go repeatedly.

4. Every single part of India is interesting and worth visiting, as far as I can tell after five trips.  That said, I find Bangalore quite over-visited relative to its level of interest.

5. My favorite places in India are Mumbai, Chennai, Rajasthan, and Kolkaata.  Still, I could imagine a rational person with interests broadly similar to my own having a quite different list.

6. India has the best food in the world.  It is not only permissible but indeed recommended to take all of your meals in fancy hotel restaurants.  Do not eat the street food in India (and I eat it virtually everywhere else).  It is also permissible to find two or three very good hotel restaurants — or even one — and simply run through their menus.  You won’t be disappointed.

7. Invest in a very, very good hotel.  It is affordable, and you will need it, and it will be a special memory all its own.

8. Being driven around in the Indian countryside is terrifying (and I have low standards here, I do this all the time in other non-rich countries).  If it were safer, I would see many more parts of India.  But it isn’t.  So I don’t.

9. If you go during monsoon season, your trip will be quite memorable.  I cannot say I recommend this (I don’t), but I am myself glad I did it once, in Goa, when monsoon season started early.  I got a lot of work done.

10. Do not expect punctuality.

11. Most of the sights in India, including the very famous ones, are overrated.  The main sight is India itself, and that is underrated.

12. “In religion, every Indian is a millionaire.”

I thank Yana and Dan Wang and Alex for discussions relevant to this post.

Why is Expedia banning Haiti?

Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada and France that have led to at least one booking company — Expedia — blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.

People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following violent protests that erupted on Feb. 7. Though Haitians were shuttered in for more than a week, with schools and businesses closed, international carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying.

But Expedia didn’t seem to care…

The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning.

“Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites,” said Philip Minardi, director of communications for the Expedia Group. The block will remain in effect until the advisory lifts, he said.

Here is the full story, I find this troubling.  On top of everything else, State Department Level warnings are inefficiently sticky.