Category: Travel

*Monocle* and high-altitude cities

Edition Alpino, for this month's issue.  I had not known there was a periodical called Monocle and now I have a piece in it, next to the ads for fancy watches and articles geared toward the European elite.  (Given the business model of this periodical, I believe the piece will never be on-line.)  There is also an article "Radio: Four modern alternatives to Alpine horn blowing."  And "Monocle goes on snow patrol with the Federal Republic's Gebirgsjägerbrigade, the traditional Alpine troops with a very modern mission."  

My fun but not very scholarly bit asks why so many cities of the far north are so pleasant to travel to, the task the editors set me.  Doing the piece got me thinking why cold, high altitude cities such as La Paz and Kathmandu do not always offer the same virtues.

In high altitude cities it is harder to raise large herds of pack animals, cultivate broad agricultural plains, establish critical mass in terms of size, or trade with heighbouring regions.  There are also fewer sea connections.  If we look in Europe, the largest Swiss cities are near the plain rather than tucked into the Alps.

This may be historical accident, but two of the more successful high altitude cultures came in the New World, namely the Incas and the Aztec alliance.  Is that because domesticated animals were less important on this side of the Atlantic?  That tomatoes and potatoes and corn can do well or better at high altitudes?  In and near Tenochitlan of course, the Nahuas built their own extensive network of canals.

Should we subsidize or tax research into time travel?

Treat this as a balanced budget question, so it's not about fiscal policy.  Alternatively, imagine yourself as a benevolent philanthropist: should you support this area of research if you can do so as a free lunch?  Or should you try to hinder it?

I believe no one understands the underlying science much at all.  But there is some chance that the old science fiction movies are correct and that by time-traveling you alter the course of history, thereby obliterating the universe we used to have.  I'll count that as a net negative, while noting there is some chance we end up with a better universe.

On the plus side, the human race will die out anyway.  Time travel seems to yield a fairly safe haven.  As disaster approaches, keep going back in time a few days, or decades, and that asteroid will never hit you.  This is especially appealing if you are transporting back a body (upload?) which is programmed to be more or less immortal and you can take the technology with you, so as to keep on going back as time progresses.

On one side: immortal life for many of the last humans and thus immortality for the human race.  And with time they may learn how to thwart the asteriod.  On the other side: some probability of swapping universes.

So should we subsidize or tax research into time travel?

Markets in everything

At $600,000 per week the 60 metre Lürssen superyacht Solemates designed by the great Espen Oeino is one of the world’s most exclusive charter craft. It’s also one of the most cutting edge thanks to a new system that lets guests control various functions via an iPad. Don’t happen to own one? Not a problem – the captain hands each guest their own iPad when they step aboard. Via the device they can control the shipboard entertainment and climate systems, adjust the blinds and lights in their cabins, and even summon a crewmember to bring more cocktails. The sleek yacht, launched in Monaco earlier this year, boasts a top speed of 15.5 knots with a range of 7,000 nautical miles.

There is a bit more, and a photo, here.  For the pointer I thank Chris F. Masse.

Further thoughts on the TSA debates

The biggest flying/airport outrages are a lack of markets in allocating scarce resources, and the resulting unacceptable airport and flight delay problems in places such as JFK and LaGuardia.  Next come airlines which ruthlessly screw you over, repeatedly, and lie to you and mistreat you.  I do understand the trade-off and prefer the lower prices and fewer quality assurances; still, you can object to their behavior at the margin — it's often unethical.  Let's get worked up over these problems first.    

I view good scans as, in the long run, a substitute for patdowns.  One option is to have very very good scans, nude "photos," fewer patdowns, and to have Americans shift to a more European attitude on nude bodies.  There's even an available status attitude where you don't mind or notice the scans, much as the King allowed himself to be dressed and handled by commoners.  That's the intelligent argument for the current shift in policy.  Maybe the enhanced scans simply aren't useful or maybe Americans can't or won't shift their norms.  Those would be reasons not to do it (and I am not pronouncing a definitive opinion here) but it's simply not, in principle, that objectionable of a policy.  There's a locked-in structure which prevents a competitive test of safety levels and so all alternatives are coercive in some manner, including the difficulty any airline would face in attempting an even more restrictive set of security procedures.

It's worth asking how intrusive a search markets would provide, but keep in mind there are significant negative externalities from exploding airplanes and also there are government bailouts which limit the downside.  Furthermore companies do not always care enough about "extreme negative skewness," as we have learned in financial markets and thus there is a case for regulating a tougher security standard.

Hovering in the background is the reality that a few successful downings will kill many people and furthermore probably wipe out the insurance market and thus lead to nationalization of the airlines.  It's not clear what the freedom-enhancing path looks like and there is no default setting of market accountability.  It's "elephant interventions" all the way down. 

It's worth comparing the current American response to earlier British crises (IRA troubles, and eventual CCTV) or for that matter Israeli responses to Palestinian suicide bombings.  In these kinds of situations something has to give — usually by public demand for better outcomes more than a state usurpation of power.    

I would not say that "we are now at war with the terrorists" but our situation has some war-like elements.  Any persistent war has required major social changes, if only temporary ones, in how the body is viewed and handled.  If we are so unwilling to even consider these changes in body viewing norms, I wonder how we will respond when scarier events happen, as they likely will.  

The funny thing is this: when Americans insist on total liberty against external molestation, it motivates both good responses and bad ones.  It supports a libertarian desire for freedom against government abuse, but the same sentiments generate a lot of anti-liberal policies when it comes to immigration, foreign policy, torture, rendition, attitudes toward Muslims, executive power, and most generally treatment of "others."  An insistence on zero molestation, zero risk, isn't as pro-liberty as it appears in the isolated context of pat-downs.  It leads us to impose a lot of costs on others, usually without thinking much about their rights.

The issue reminds me of the taxation and spending debates; many Americans want low taxes and high government spending, forever.  For airline security, at times we want to treat it as a matter of mere law enforcement, to be handled by others, and one which should not inconvenience our daily lives or infringe on our rights.  At the same time, so many Americans view airline security as a vital matter of foreign policy and indeed as part of a war.  We own and promote this view and yet we are outraged when asked to behave as one might be expected to in a theater of war.  

The main danger to liberty here is not the TSA but rather a set of American attitudes which, at the same time, take our current "war" both far too seriously and also not nearly seriously enough.

Overall, I'd like to see less posturing in these debates and more Thucydides.

Say No!

Here is what New York State's Office of Children & Family Services recommends that you tell your children about inappropriate touching:

  • You are special and important.
  • Your body is your own.
  • You have the right to say "NO" if someone wants to touch you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable, afraid or confused.
  • There are parts of your body that are private. You have the right to say "NO" to anyone who wants to touch your vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks. You have my permission to say "NO" even if that person is an adult … even if it's a grown-up you know.
  • Pay attention to your feelings. Trust your feelings about the way people touch you.
  • If someone bothers you, I want you to tell me. I promise that I will believe you.
  • If someone touches you in a way that does not seem right, it is not your fault.

Children need to know that the safety rules about touching apply all the time, not just with strangers … or with men … or with baby sitters. In many cases …children are sexually abused by people they know and trust [including] authority figures….

Also, abusers seldom need to use physical force…Unfortunately, abusers can use threats successfully because children are taught to believe and obey adults.

Excellent advice for children and for adults. 

Authority figures, for example, may also use threats of violence to engage in abuse against adults, for example, "you will be blown up unless you let me touch your genitals and take naked pictures of you." 

Markets in everything

Via Courtney Knapp, Furry Toys Tours:

You can send your stuffed animal on a romantic trip to Paris. Tours start at €100.00.

We will make your little friend discover the best of Paris, touring its splendid historical monuments, strolling along the city’s beautiful streets and indulging on fantastic French food in typical Parisian places for a full week! We'll be taking it to the locations listed below, and will keep you posted every evening by email (of course you'll also get the 30+ pictures, the traveling certificate and the little Paris souvenir).

Your stuffed animal will visit La Tour Eiffel, Champs Elysées, L'Arc de Triomphe and more.

There is even an upgrade:

If you think your furry friend would love to discover even more of Paris, please check our Extension Tours! We propose 4 thematic 4-day extensions tours in Paris, taking your cuddly toy to special places in the French capital…

Cash Back in El Salvador

Alex, Tyler and I rented a boat and our captain took us to a Salvadoran village, San Francisco, maybe 500 people. 

Speaking Spanish, our captain told us, "The majority of the people from this town are in the United States."  They sent back remittances, which explained the remodeled homes, the satellite dishes, the schoolchildren buying ice cream. 

I thought about Richard Rogerson's paper, "Indivisible Labor, Lotteries, and Equilibrium."  

Rogerson said that there's a high fixed cost of going to work (commuting time, putting on your game face).  So people's work lives will tend to be all-or-nothing: 40 hours or zero hours. 

In that kind of world, it's more efficient for half the population to work full-time rather for the whole population to work half-time; why should everyone have to get up early? 

Rogerson shows such people would rather have a work lottery: The people who draw the short straws have to go to work and have to share their cash with everyone who didn't work. 

The people of San Francisco are living in Rogerson's world: One family member draws the short straw and has to go work in the U.S.  She sends back most of her money, some of which is used to build a vacation/retirement home for the unlucky worker (A Philippine example here).

There is good work on the micro-level causes of remittances: Stark and Lucas for example. But the social causes are underresearched.  One study surveyed here found that even controlling for the usual individual factors, what mattered most was what town you were from.

Key quotes:

“[W]hatever factors governed migrants’ decisions, they operated at the community level"

"[F]urther research is required on the social determinants of remittances"

Rogerson's model is often right, we just don't know why.

Adventures in El Salvador

Tyler, Garett Jones and I visited El Salvador for a few days, just for fun. Here is a travelogue of some of our adventures.

The moment we exit customs Tyler grabs a driver and starts speaking in rapid Spanish. Neither Garett nor I are fluent but we are laughing because we know exactly what 100_5919Tyler is saying. Tyler wants pupusas and not pupasas turísticos but estilo familiar. The driver understands as well so we jump into his van and he brings us to a pueblo with about 8 or 9 pupuserías in direct competition–we learn later that this is the town speciality.  We get Pupusas de chicharrones, queso and lorocco, a herb that is hard to find in the United States.  Bien Gusto. Tyler is sated so we continue on to Suchitoto, the small colonial town that will be our base of operations.

The next day we take a boat tour of Lake Suchitlan, an artificial lake nestled among hills and volcanoes. We ask our guide 100_5939_editedto take us to a local village–it’s an unusual request but we are the only tourists in town so why not.

We climb a long hill, it’s blazing hot but we have a look around, get a drink and having seen all there is to see start to head back down to the boat.  That’s when we hear the sirens and gunshots–other people hear it as well and stop walking. Only now do I remember the advice from Apocalypse Now, “Never get out of the boat!”

Tyler asks the guide what is going on.  He isn’t sure either but he asks a local and tells Tyler it’s “the running.”  Tyler is puzzled and looks as confused as I am–this is not a good sign–the word has many meanings, it could be the running of the bulls, the running of the race, the running?  Well it seems not to be gunshots so I joke to Tyler that it would be awesome if it were the running of the bulls.

Not 15 seconds later I turn around and I am confronted with an angry bull bearing down on me.  It looks like this:


Tyler, Garett and I jump out of the way. What the hell is going on?!  With a second or two to recover, I realize the bull is being driven by a gaucho.  The bull is snorting and none too happy, the sirens and shots are making it skittish, but the guacho slaps it hard, gets it under control and then, as if in a dream, the gaucho and bull vanish around the corner. We breathe a sigh of relief.


The running of the bull–as Tyler, Garett and I have coined the event–however, was not the running.

It was at about this time that things started to get a little surreal.

100_5947The sirens are approaching, the “gunshots” are getting louder and we see a strangely dressed man coming up the hill towards us.  He appears to be tall, very tall, wait…am I in a Fellini movie?

The man is on stilts and is accompanied by a coterie of devils.

As the group passes, we are handed a handsome annual report with pictures of the mayor and the year’s accomplishments.  Ah, this is fiscal policy!  Now we understand.

We head back to the boat, pleased with our luck and well satisfied with the day’s events. 100_5953_edited

Addendum: If you go here are few practical things to bear in mind.  El Salvador is not geared towards tourists–this has positive and negative aspects.  On the positive side you can believe the prices you are quoted, there is not yet a “take the tourist for all they are worth” culture.  On the negative side, there isn’t much to buy. There aren’t many indigenous people and, in part because there isn’t a tourist market, there isn’t a strong artisinal culture, as there is in say Guatemala.  There are a few Mayan ruins but nothing as extensive as in Guatemala or Mexico.  Few people speak English, even at hotels and restaurants. The pupasas are great but the food variety is limited.  We were perfectly happy exploring for two days but this is one of the less exotic countries of Central America.

(By the way, do you see the devil at right, so oddly framed between the bars of the truck.  Why is he looking at me this way?)

100_5952_editedWe stayed in Suchitoto at a small (6-8 room) hotel called Los Almendros de San Lorenzo.  It’s run by a former El Savadorean diplomat who lived 30 years abroad and his partner, an interior decorator. Highly luxurious and recommended but anomalous, don’t take this as representing Suchitoto.

El Salvador has a very high murder rate, more than 10 times the US rate. Suchitoto, however, is safe and San Salvador seems fine for walking around in the main sections although every shop with anything of value has a guy with a shotgun standing outside.

On the way back from the village after the boat ride we were going to take the bus back into town.  We asked some locales where the bus stop was and they volunteered to give us a ride in the back of their truck.  Here’s a nice photo of Tyler (taken by Garett) as we traveled the bumpy road back into town.  I believe we discussed Mundell and optimum currency areas.


Words of wisdom

The best advice about how to conduct yourself at work is to know yourself, and get new information–from outside your own experience–about what is possible in the world. And that is what fiction, and plays, and poetry, and this blog, are about.

More here.  I thank Alex and Garett for having done a short (very short) jaunt to El Salvador with me; more on that soon.

Potential markets in everything business plans to bet against

The Lithuanian company Olialia, pronounced "ooh-la-la", is planning a holiday resort in the Maldive islands.

The firm hopes to pull in the tourists by employing only blonde staff, and offering direct flights to the island crewed entirely by blondes, including the pilots.

The article is here and for the pointer I thank Leonard Monasterio.

Are cruise ships saving the theatre industry?

Cruise entertainment doesn't have the best of reputations, but I took my maiden voyage earlier this year and it was a real eye-opener. I was there to review shows on board the Celebrity Eclipse, and both the productions and facilities were extremely impressive. The theatre itself was actually of a far higher standard than many of the West End's crumbling playhouses – more comfy seats, better sightlines, excellent acoustics and high-end equipment.

Celebrity spends up to $1m per show for three 60-minute productions on every ship in its line. Each vessel has a 1,150-seat theatre, employs a cast of 18, plus nearly 40 musicians, a stage crew of six and various other technical crew across the music lounges on the ship.

And cruising is a huge growth area in the entertainment business. Looking across some of the other lines – P&O has its own on-board theatre company with more than 100 entertainers, Royal Caribbean is staging cruise versions of Hairspray and Chicago, and elsewhere there are licensed versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or other popular shows such as Saturday Night Fever.

But no Chekhov.  The full story is here.