Category: Travel

A dialogue in Seherli Tandir restaurant, this evening

There are three tables, all close enough to chat, and at them there was TC, a Saudi family with a husband, two kids and a woman in full burkha, and a woman from a fine New York City neighborhood, perhaps 65 years old.  Suddenly, the NYC woman paused from her chat with me:

NYC woman, to Saudi table: (With a strong NYC accent) So where are you all from?

Saudi Man: Saudi Arabia.

NYC woman: Is that your wife in there?

Saudi Man: Yes.

NYC woman: Is she driving yet?

Saudi Man: No

NYC woman: Why not?

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: I was just wondering, because they made such a big deal out of it on TV.  And I was thinking maybe they aren’t all driving yet.

Saudi Man: She does not need to.

NYC woman: But why not?

Saudi Man: Madam, you live in New York City.  Are you driving yet?

Which ten restaurants would you most want to live next door to?

Seherli Tandir, in Baku, Azerbaijan is now on my list, but let me first explain the criteria.  This is not about the best restaurants, it is about the ones that give you the most consumer surplus.  For most of the “next door restaurants,” as I shall call them, you want them to be inexpensive, to offer some healthy options, to satisfy some of your cravings, to offer unique dishes, and not to take too long serving you.

It is not a mistake, if you are visiting Baku, to simply have each and every one of your meals at Seherli Tandir — the other restaurants in town are dominated assets.

The menu allows you to order three different types of cherry jam.  Get the one in the middle, the sour one (don’t let them tell you that you should not be ordering a jam, and don’t put it on anything, just eat it).

Have I had better yogurts and rices?  Order the little dumplings with sumac (gurza), asking for yogurt sauce on the side.  The qutabs — thin breads stuffed with either pumpkin or meat — are the surprise knock-outs.  The soups, the stews, the dolmeh.  Did I mention the pilaf with the chestnuts?  The “tandir” bread-baking oven in the middle of the restaurant?

The typical entree costs about $4-6.  And the staff is friendly and helpful.

The restaurant is located in the old city, on the “restaurant street,” near four or five other excellent but nonetheless inferior options (when in doubt in those order dishes with pomegranate seeds).  Go to the tower, and start walking up to the right, maybe 5-7 minutes.  No taxi can take you there, as it is in a pedestrian zone.  Simply ask when you get lost, as the restaurant is quite famous.  You can’t make a reservation and may need to wait out in the sun, thus another reason why it should be next to my home

In general, Azerbaijani food lies in the space between Persian and Georgian cuisines, a double yum.

Which other restaurants should be in the top ten you want right next to your home? And why aren’t those restaurants simply the best period?

p.s. watermelon jam tastes better than you think.

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

My favorite things Ukraine

I am just arriving, and for the first time  Here are my favorites:

1. Pianist: Emil Gilels, most of all for Beethoven and Chopin.  Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, he was often best in unusual pieces, such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, and John Philip Sousa.  But there is also Cherkassy, Pachmann, Moiseiwitsch, Lhevinne, and others.  Simon Barere was one of the greatest Liszt pianists.  So we are into A++ territory here.  But wait…Richter was born in Ukraine!  My head is exploding now.

1b. Violinists: You’ve got Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Leonid Kogan, the Oistrakhs, among others, with Milstein’s Bach recordings as my favorite.

2. Composer: Prokofiev was born in eastern Ukraine (or is it now Russia again?), but somehow I don’t feel he counts.  Valentin Sylvestrov would be an alternative.

3. Novelist: One choice would be Nikolai Gogol, then Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kiev but ethnically Russian.  But I can’t say I love Master and Margarita; it is probably much better and funnier in the original Russian.  His The White Guard is a more directly Ukrainian novel, and it should be better known.  A Country Doctor’s Notebook is perhaps my favorite by him.  For short stories there is Isaac Babel.  Joseph Conrad was born in modern-day Ukraine, though I don’t feel he counts as Ukrainian, same with Stanislaw Lem.  Vassily Grossman is a toss-up in terms of origin.  The Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, now very much in fashion, was born in Ukraine.

4. Movie: Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, a 1930 take on agricultural collectivization.  With Dovshenko as my favorite director.

5. Movie, set in: Man With a Movie Camera.  It is remarkable how fresh and innovative this 1929 silent film still is.

6. Painter: David Burliuk, leader of the Ukrainian avant-garde and later member of the Blue Rider group.  Ilya Repin was born in modern-day Ukraine, though he feels “Russian” to me in the historical sense.

7. Sculptor: Alexander Archipenko was born in Ukraine, though he ended up in America.

8. Economist: Ludwig von Mises.  He was born on territory near current-day Lviv, part of Ukraine.

9. Actress: Milla Jovovich is pretty good in The Fifth Element and Resident Evil.

10. Tech entrepreneur: Max Levchin.

11. Israeli: There is Golda Meir, Natan Sharansky, and Simon Wiesenthal, among others.

12. Legal scholar, blogger, and First Amendment advocate: Eugene Volokh.  And don’t forget Sasha!

Other: Wilhelm Reich deserves mention, though I’m not really a fan.  The region produced a few good chess players too.

Overall, this is a stunningly impressive list, though there are legitimate questions as to who and what exactly counts as Ukrainian.  They’re still trying to sort that one out, which is part of the problem.

Cross-Mediterranean migration to Europe is falling

Fewer successes, more deaths:

Between 2015 and 2017, according to United Nations data analyzed by The Washington Post, about 95 percent of migrants taking the so-called central Mediterranean route ended up on this continent’s shores.

Last month, however, the success rate was 45 percent — the lowest of any month in at least four years. A large proportion of migrants were intercepted and returned to North Africa. But deaths have spiked. According to the International Organization for Migration, 564 people died in June — or more than 7 percent of those who attempted the crossing. That is the highest percentage in any month since at least 2015. For the year, 3.4 percent have died attempting the journey, compared with 2.1 percent last year.

“Outsourcing” seems to be a major reason for this change:

Many migrants don’t make it to Europe because they don’t make it past the fleet of Libyan patrol vessels. The coast guard, rebuilt with E.U. and Italian funding, has become the most important player in the Mediterranean. Though the unit has been patrolling its coastal waters for more than a year and a half, data suggests it is becoming far more proficient at its job: intercepting migrants, placing them in detention on Libyan shores and keeping them from Europe.

In 2017, the Libyan coast guard managed to catch about 1 in 9 migrants attempting the journey. This year, it is intercepting almost 2 in 5. In June, it intercepted 47 percent.

Here is the full WaPo story by Chico Harlan.

The portfolio approach

Do you favour beach, city or rural destinations?

City and rural. I keep returning to my two favourite cities, Reykjavik and Addis Ababa. They’re such different places, yet my life is deeply entangled with both. I spend most of my time — holiday or no holiday, physically or mentally — in one of four cities: Berlin, Copenhagen, Reykjavik or Addis Ababa.

That is from artist Olafur Eliasson in a very good FT travel survey.

My Conversation with Vitalik Buterin

Obviously his talents in crypto and programming are well-known, but he is also a first-rate thinker on both economics and what you broadly might call sociology.  You could take away the crypto contributions altogether, and he still would be one of the very smartest people I have met.  Here is the audio and transcript.  The CWT team summarized it as follows:

Tyler sat down with Vitalik to discuss the many things he’s thinking about and working on, including the nascent field of cryptoeconomics, the best analogy for understanding the blockchain, his desire for more social science fiction, why belief in progress is our most useful delusion, best places to visit in time and space, how he picks up languages, why centralization’s not all bad, the best ways to value crypto assets, whether P = NP, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could go back into the distant past for a year, a time and place of your choosing, you have the linguistic skills and immunity against disease to the extent you need it, maybe some money in your pocket, where would you pick to satisfy your own curiosity?

BUTERIN: Where would I pick? To do what? To spend a year there, or . . . ?

COWEN: Spend a year as a “tourist.” You could pick ancient Athens or preconquest Mexico or medieval Russia. It’s a kind of social science fiction, right?

BUTERIN: Yeah, totally. Let’s see. Possibly first year of World War II — obviously, one of those areas that’s close to it but still reasonably safe from it…

Basically, experience more of what human behavior and what collective human behavior would look like once you pushed humans further into extremes, and people aren’t as comfortable as they are today.

I started the whole dialogue with this:

I went back and I reread all of the papers on your home page. I found it quite striking that there were two very important economics results, one based on menu costs associated with the name of Greg Mankiw. Another is a paper on the indeterminacy of monetary equilibrium associated with Fischer Black.

These are famous papers. On your own, you appear to rediscover these results without knowing about the papers at all. So how would you describe how you teach yourself economics?

Highly recommended, whether or not you understand blockchain.  Oh, and there is this:

COWEN: If you had to explain blockchain to a very smart person from 40 years ago, who knew computers but had no idea of crypto, what would be the best short explanation you could give them, basically, for what you do?

BUTERIN: Sure. One of the analogies I keep going back to is this idea of a “world computer.” The idea, basically, is that a blockchain, as a whole, functions like a computer. It has a hard drive, and on that hard drive, it stores what all the accounts are.

It stores what the code of all the smart contracts is, what the memory of all these smart contracts is. It accepts incoming instructions — and these incoming instructions are signed transactions sent by a bunch of different users — and processes them according to a set of rules.

Lower travel costs boost scientific collaboration

Here is a kind of gravity equation for science:

We develop a simple theoretical framework for thinking about how geographic frictions, and in particular travel costs, shape scientists’ collaboration decisions and the types of projects that are developed locally versus over distance. We then take advantage of a quasi-experiment – the introduction of new routes by a low-cost airline – to test the predictions of the theory. Results show that travel costs constitute an important friction to collaboration: after a low-cost airline enters, the number of collaborations increases by 50%, a result that is robust to multiple falsification tests and causal in nature. The reduction in geographic frictions is particularly beneficial for high quality scientists that are otherwise embedded in worse local environments. Consistent with the theory, lower travel costs also endogenously change the types of projects scientists engage in at different levels of distance. After the shock, we observe an increase in higher quality and novel projects, as well as projects that take advantage of complementary knowledge and skills between sub-fields, and that rely on specialized equipment. We test the generalizability of our findings from chemistry to a broader dataset of scientific publications, and to a different field where specialized equipment is less likely to be relevant, mathematics. Last, we discuss implications for the formation of collaborative R&D teams over distance.

That is from a new paper by Christian Catalini, Christian Fons-Rosen, and Patrick Gaulé.

My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .

And:

COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”

And:

COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.

Which cities have people-watching street cafes?

D. asks me that question, citing Morocco, BA, and Paris.  Here are a few factors militating in favor of such cafes:

1. The weather should be reasonable.  This militates in favor of Mediterranean climates, with Paris eking through nonetheless.  It hurts much of Asia.

2. The broad highways and thoroughfares should be removed from where the cafes might go.  This factor harms Los Angeles, which otherwise has excellent weather, and helps La Jolla.  Note that BA and some of the larger Moroccan cities were designed and built up around the same time, based on broadly European models, and to fit early 20th century technologies.

3. Street crime must be acceptably low.  Bye bye Brazil.

4. Pollution should be fairly low, otherwise sitting outside is unpleasant.  This harm many Indian and Chinese cities.

5. Streets must not be too steep.  Sorry La Paz, and yes here at MR we adjust steepness coefficients by altitude.

6. Skyscrapers must not be too plentiful.  This harms Manhattan, because the sunlight is mostly blocked.

7. Explicit or implicit marginal tax rates on labor should be relatively high.  Another boost for the Mediterranean.  And is cafe culture therefore correlated with smoking culture?

7b. Explicit or implicit land rents should be “low enough.”  After all, they have to be willing to let you sit there all day.  Just try that in midtown Manhattan.

8. The cities should have mixed-use neighborhoods, well-connected to each other by foot, conducive to many diverse groups of people walking through.  This hurts many parts of the United States and also some parts of Latin America.  It is a big gain for Paris.

9. The city dwellers need some tradition of “being alone,” so that these individuals use the cafe to connect to the outside.  You will note that in many parts of Italy, the people-watching street cafe is outcompeted by the “stationary street conference, five guys who know each other really well yelling at each other about who knows what?”  They never get around to that cafe chair.  So the city needs some degree of anonymity, but not too much.  This harms some of the more traditional societies found around the Mediterranean.  On the other side of the distribution, too strong a tradition of television-watching hurts cafe life too.

10. Another competitor to the people-watching street cafe is the zócalo town square tradition of Mexico.  I myself prefer the centralization of the zócalo (though admittedly it does not scale well fractally).  So the city also has to fail in providing just the right kind of parks and park benches and focality in its very center.  Surprise, surprise, but dysfunctional local public goods are by no means unheard of around the Mediterranean, Paris too, BA, and cities such as Casablanca.

What else?

How many places do you visit anyway?

The study, titled “Evidence for a conserved quantity in human mobility’ is published in Nature Human Behaviour is based on analyses of 40,000 people’s mobile traces collected in four different datasets.

It is also the first of its kind to investigate people’s mobility over time and study how their behavior changes.

Behind the project are Dr. Laura Alessandretti and Dr. Andrea Baronchelli, researchers in the Department of Mathematics at City, University of London, together with Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Technical University of Denmark and the research team from Sony Mobile Communications.

“We first analysed the traces of about 1000 university students. The dataset showed that the students returned to a limited number of places, even though the places changed over time. I expected to see a difference in the behavior of students and a wide section of the population. But that was not the case. The result was the same when we scaled up the project to 40,000 people of different habits and gender from all over the world. It was not expected in advance. It came as a surprise,” says Dr. Alessandretti.

Old places disappear

The study showed that people are constantly exploring new places. They move to a new home, find a new favorite restaurant, find a new bar, or start going to another gym, etc. However, the number of regularly visited places is constantly 25 in a given period. If a new place is added to the list, one of the places disappears.

The pattern is the same when the researchers divide the locations into categories based on how often and how long time they spend at the location.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness…

That is by John Stevenson, via K., here is the original research by Laura Andressetti et.al.  On this question I retain an open mind.