Category: Travel

My favorite things Israel

1. Film: A rich and rapidly improving genre.  My favorites are Lebanon or Waltz with Bashir, with a sentimental nod to Yana’s Friends, which isn’t great but I saw it on my second date with Natasha.

2. Movie, set in (non-Israeli): I don’t like Exodus, so can I cite the Mel Gibson movie?  Are we totally sure that it is indeed set in Israel?  What else am I missing?  “Painting, set in” would be a fun category, but too hard to choose.

3. Actress: Natalie Portman is excellent in Closer.

4. Classical musician: Daniel Barenboim, Yefim Bronfman, Ivry Gitlis, and Eliahu Inbal would be at the top of a pretty long list.  Perlman has a style too aggressive for my taste, at least as it comes across on disc.

5. Fiction author: I very much admire and enjoy David Grossman’s To The End of the Land.

6. Philosopher: Joseph Raz, especially his The Morality of Freedom.

7. Non-fiction author: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is splendid.  Tom Segev could be a runner-up.

8. Co-author: Amihai Glazer, from UC Irvine.

9. Other economists: Donald Patinkin, Ariel Rubinstein, Ehud Kalai, Jacob Frenkel, Dan Ariely, Robert Aumann, Sergiu Hart, Elhanan Helpman, Reuven Brenner, Zvi Hercowitz, Oded Galor, Michael Bruno, and Stanley Fischer would be a few others.  Overall the country is strong in game theory and monetary economics, as well as economics more generally.

I strike a zero when it comes to popular music.  I don’t like Kiss/Gene Simmons, and Israeli popular music I don’t know well but from a distance I do not expect to like it much.  The visual arts are also not obviously strong, though perhaps you can enlighten me in the comments.

There is a great stagnation

Singapore Airlines Ltd. (SIA) will end non-stop services to Newark, the world’s longest commercial flight, next year as it phases out the aging planes used on the route.

The all-business-class flights will end in the fourth- quarter of next year, along with similar services to Los Angeles, the airline said in a statement yesterday, as it announced an order for 25 Airbus SAS aircraft. The Toulouse- based planemaker will acquire the five four-engine A340-500s used on the non-stop routes as part of the deal.

The end of the almost 19-hour service to Newark will lengthen Singapore travelers’ trip by more than three hours as they will have to change planes in London.

Here is more, and note that the new aircraft are designed to serve the budget market in the future.

Where oh where are they?

Bringing the search for another Earth about as close as it will ever get, a team of European astronomers was scheduled to announce on Wednesday that it had found a planet the same mass as Earth’s in Alpha Centauri, a triple star system that is the Sun’s closest neighbor, only 4.4 light-years away.

Here is more.  Planets, planets everywhere…

Seoul notes

It is remarkable how well everything works here, even relative to expectations.  The economic ascendancy of South Korea has been more rapid than that of Japan, and for a larger group of people than Hong Kong or Singapore.  The initial level of education was much lower than in Japan.  The Korean social miracle is no less impressive than the Korean economic miracle.

By the way, can you explain the South and North in a single unified theory of culture and regimes?

French-Korean bakeries are extremely common here.

The Samsung Museum is of higher quality than the National Museum, including for patrimony pieces not just Warhol and Koons.

My hotel toilet is complicated and I am afraid to press the one button which simply says “Enema.”

I saw the two main Korean presidential candidates “debate,” both of them using communitarian redistributionist rhetoric with a rather flat delivery, preceded by and followed by a bow.  Toward the end one of them endorsed the work of Malcolm Gladwell, in front of Gladwell.

I am pleased to have spent one minute inside North Korea, with Alex, guarded by five South Korean martial arts experts and one U.S. soldier.

The question I hear most often is what I think of Gangnam style and the video.  The second is whether I am a Christian.

There are so many coffee shops here.  But why?

South Koreans have now dominated the game of Go for about fifteen years.

Crowdsourcing the lowest fare

Travelers with complex travel plans may have noticed, however, that the search results aren’t necessarily consistent. This has created a business opportunity for Flightfox, a start-up company based in Mountain View, Calif., which uses a contest format to come up with the best fare that the crowd — all Flightfox-approved users — can find.

A traveler goes to and sets up a competition, supplying information about the desired itinerary and clarifying a few preferences, like a willingness to “fly on any airline to save money” or a tolerance of “long layovers to save money.” Once Flightfox posts the contest, the crowd is invited to go to work and submit fares.

The contest runs three days, and the winner, the person who finds the lowest fare, gets 75 percent of the finder’s fee that the traveler pays Flightfox when setting up the competition. Flightfox says fees depend on the complexity of the itinerary; many current contests have fees in the $34-to-$59 range.

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank @ArikSharon.

My all-time favorite things Ontario

1. Short story author: Alice Munro I consider one of the very best writers ever, from anywhere or any period.  Read them all, and there is a new collection coming this November.  Here is one place to start.

2. Movie, set in: Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg, one of my favorite films period.

3. Director: After Cronenberg there is James Cameron, hate me if you want but I find his movies splendid.  Sarah Polley remains underrated in the United States, start with Away From Her, another of my all-time favorites.

4. Novelist: Margaret Atwood, especially Cat’s Eye.  I used to like Robertson Davies, but somehow his novels have not stuck with me.

5. Pianist: I used to think that only half of Glenn Gould’s recordings were tolerable, but in the last five years I have come to see his Haydn and Brahms recordings as masterpieces.  Now it’s only the Mozart and Beethoven I can’t stand.  Don’t forget the Berg Sonata and of course the Bach and also his writings.

6. Architect: Frank Gehry comes to mind, though I do not like the new rendition of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

7. Alanis Morissette song: “Head Over Feet.”

8. Comedian: I love Mike Myers in “Wayne’s World” and Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura” and “The Cable Guy.”

9. Favorite Neil Young album: Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

10. Blogger: AhemCory Doctorow deserves mention too.

We haven’t even touched the painters.

What strikes me is not only how strong this list is, but how little thought was required to compile it.

The next transformational technology?

Noah Smith writes:

Addendum: I seem to be the only person talking about Desire Modification as a transformational technology. Greg Egan and Vernor Vinge have written books in which this technology plays a central role. In my “spare time” I’m writing a couple of sci-fi short stories based on the idea. It’s a really big deal, and I’ll write a post about it soon.

How to eat well in Beijing

Look for the hutongs (traditional, alley-based neighborhoods) which are not too far from the wealthy areas, but not right on top of the wealthy areas either.  At the outer “lip” of those hutongs there will be numerous small restaurants and food stands, serving a mix of hutong residents and passers-by.  A typical small restaurant of this kind might have five to ten tables, plus there may be some larger establishments, comparable in size to small restaurants in the United States.  There also will be dumpling, kebab, fish, and other stands facing onto the street.  Eat in these places and sample as much as you can.  There will be superb snacks for less than a dollar, and in the small restaurants superb main courses for less than two dollars, and in the larger restaurants superb main courses for less than five dollars.

Try an expensive place in a fancy hotel.  Eat Yunnan food, preferably at a place with a fixed price menu.  “Dali” is a very good one.  Eat “Chinese Muslim food.”  Eat Sichuan and Hunan.  Don’t worry too much about duck, the classic Beijing dish is a little boring.  Dumplings are better here but dumplings get only so good (which is very good indeed but the gradient isn’t that steep).  Don’t neglect breakfast as an important meal.

That is how you eat well in Beijing.

Pictures of Spain

Grandiose projects across Spain now sit empty and dying. The New York Times focuses in on Ciudad de la Luz, a mega-movie studio built far from cultural centers that is now foundering.

Ciudad de la Luz has become a prominent example of Valencia’s frenzy of modern-day pyramid building, which left a legacy of $25.5 billion in regional debt and bankrupt infrastructure projects as well as the backlash now building against it.

Valencia’s other investments included a harbor for superyachts, an opera house styled like the one in Sydney, Australia, a futuristic science museum, the biggest aquarium in Europe and a sail-shaped bridge, not to mention an airport that never had a single arrival or departure. It also attracted extravagant events like the America’s Cup and Formula One racing.

The Daily Mail takes a look at Spain’s “ghost airport,” a billion Euro project that was meant to serve 5 million passengers a year and is now closed after just three years in operation.


The Socialist regional government spent millions propping up the venue, promoting the project with advertising campaigns and approving a €140 million guarantee to keep it afloat.

But, last October, it saw its final commercial flight, by Vueling. The airport remained open for another six months, the staff still being paid to deal with a handful of private arrivals.

It finally closed in April, but even though it is now closed to air traffic, maintenance tasks still have to be carried out.

The 4,000 metre runway has to be continually painted with yellow crosses, so pilots flying over the airport will know they cannot land there.

Private money appears to have also taken a bath on many of these projects although it’s always difficult to say after government guarantees and kickbacks. The Times quotes one tourist on the meaning:

“I understand now why there’s a financial crisis in Europe,” said Bryce Matuschka of New Zealand. “The bridge is a real work of art, and the aquarium is great, but for some of these buildings you just have to ask, What was all that money spent for?”

I don’t think that’s quite right. My view is that rather than causing a crisis, bad investments are mostly masked by a boom and revealed by a crisis. Still, “infrastructure spending” doesn’t always create jobs; sometimes it’s better to stick with slow rail and sewers.

Which are the best walking cities?

I will nominate London, Paris, and Buenos Aires as leading contenders.  New York is for me too familiar for me to judge objectively and so I exclude it.

Reasonable safety is a prerequisite, and then we have the following dimensions:

1. Chance of seeing a striking yet non-famous piece of architecture.  All three cities are strong here.

2. The right mix of broad boulevards and narrower streets.  Ditto.

3. The chance of spontaneously encountering good bookstores or excellent dark chocolate:  London wins the former, Paris and Buenos Aires win the latter.

4. Cheap, convenient cabs, and places to sit and drink sparkling water: Buenos Aires is #1 on these.

5. Strangers are willing to talk to you: Tough to call, though NYC would win hands down if it were in the running.

6. Strategic and frequent use of historic plaques: London wins; yesterday I saw “George Canning lived here” and “Clive of India lived here,” among others.

B.A. loses points for imperfect safety and also capital confiscation, though it has by far the warmest weather of the trio.  Overall I am inclined to pick London as first, perhaps because I prefer English to French for bookstores.  Paris offers fewer surprises, even if it has a higher average level of beauty.  Paris is also worse for spontaneous cheap dining in restaurants, though it has far better food stores for urban picnics.  Berlin is perhaps the best city right now for living, but it is too spread out, and with too many broad boulevards, to be the best walking city.  It is an excellent city to take a cab in.

Walking cities on the rise: Istanbul.  I suspect it’s long been splendid, it’s now reaping the gains of being modern.

Underrated walking cities: Moscow, Mexico City, Toronto, parts of northern England, Los Angeles.

Overrated walking cities: Budapest, Krakow, Munich.

Best city to take the subway through: Tokyo.

If I had to pick a fourth in line: Barcelona.

The culture that is Germany (Bavaria)

A sex shop in Munich’s main railway station has got special permission to sell condoms, porn DVDs and sexy skin lotion on Sundays after three local judges ruled they were legitimate travel supplies.

The owner of Erotic World had appealed against the city council’s decision to stop him opening on Sundays – on the grounds that shops in the railway station were exempt from Bavaria’s strict Sunday trading laws.

But this only applies if they sell products that can be considered souvenirs or travel supplies such as food, disposable cameras, newspapers, magazines, books, DVDs, and CDs.

The shop argued in court that it also had such goods on its shelves, even if their content was rather more spicy than what the station’s newsagents had to offer.

“This is the decision of the court … since the above articles can be considered ‘travel supplies,’ regardless of their content,” a court statement issued Wednesday said.

Nonetheless the rule of law prevailed:

But the judges added that the shop could not sell other erotic items in its range, such as sex toys. In fact, especially sex toys.

Three administrative judges visited Erotic World ahead of the court hearing to inspect the shop’s goods, carefully assessing whether each item might come in handy on a long journey.

Condoms were considered useful enough, but the judges ruled that the old favourite sex game “Erotic Ludo” should still be taboo on the day God has designated the day of rest.

The full article is here, and for the pointer I thank CR.

Memory as a consumer durable

From Garett Jones, now guest-blogging (!):

…the idea of a durable is more important than any official definition: And memory, wholly intangible, is quite durable.

People often shrink from driving to a distant, promising restaurant, flying to a new country, trying a new sport–it’s a hassle, and the experience won’t last that long. That’s the wrong way to look at it. When you go bungee jumping, you’re not buying a brief experience: You’re buying a memory, one that might last even longer than a good pair of blue jeans.

Psych research seems to bear this out: People love looking forward to vacations, they don’t like the vacation that much while they’re on it, and then they love the memories. Most of the joy–the utility in econospeak–happens when you’re not having the experience.

Vacation purchases jump around just the way you’d expect if they were a durable: People spend a lot less on them during recessions, about 15% less in the Great Recession. Food spending, by contrast, only fell 5%.

Read the whole thing.

Be a travel parasite

From Jodi Ettenberg:

2. Be a travel parasite.

No, this does not mean mooching off friends or family. What it means is learning how to use guidebooks to your advantage. While they are useful to have for the history of a place or the basics in itinerary planning, I rarely look to guidebooks for the name of a hostel or restaurant. Instead, I look at their recommendations as things to piggyback on. Lonely Planet recommends a place as “Our Pick”? Great, I go there, and walk two doors down to stay nearby. Rough Guides says “this is the best restaurant in town”? Perfect! Almost every one of those recommendations will spawn another restaurant within walking distance. Industrious entrepreneurs quickly learn that when these books recommend a place, they quickly get overcrowded and prices go up. The solution: they open a place right next door or nearby to handle the spillover. Without fail, those are the places that are cheaper, more delicious and not jaded. Being a parasite isn’t always a bad thing. (Having parasites? Not so much.)

There is much more at the link, all related to travel insights.

Richard Branson tries to fool people with his new currency

Richard Branson and Virgin Holidays have reacted to holidaymakers’ frustrations over exchange rates and poor value by launching a new currency today.

The ‘Branson’ will be accepted as legal tender at all Virgin Holidays destinations from April 2nd and can be bought through one of the company’s 100 retail outlets in the UK as well as in resorts upon arrival.

The ‘Branson’ launch follows research commissioned by Virgin Holidays and think tank Gray HL Division which found poor exchange rates polled highest in reasons for not travelling to a holiday hotspot, followed by bad weather, having to take vaccinations and deadly insects.

The story is here, and for the pointer I thank Angry Accountant.

Am I too rude to call this a lock-in effect, and perhaps price discrimination to boot?  How is this for a cynical sentence?

With two Bransons the equivalent of one British Pound, Virgin Holidays holidaymakers can forget about being stuck by fluctuating exchange rates – and enjoy more for their money.