Category: Travel

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

If UFOs are alien beings, are they just doing mood affiliation in visiting us?

Robin Hanson has a long and very interesting blog post on that question.  The point is not to argue that the UFOS are alien beings of some kind, but rather if they were which kinds of theories might help us understand them? Here is just part of Robin’s much longer take:

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. So as such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens…

Stylized fact #2: Aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.

Indirection –  We can think of a number of plausible motives for rare limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And there’s the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. Third, independent alien origins could be a rare valuable datapoint about far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer.

My best bet is this.  The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes, if only because the stresses of long trips through space would keep the actual alien beings close to home.  So the relevant social science question is what kind of highly generalized software instructions you would give such drones.  “Seek out major power sources, including nuclear, and seek out rapid flying objects, and then send information back home” would be one such set of instructions roughly compatible with the stylized facts on the ground (or in the air).  Of course the information sent back to alien worlds will not be arriving for a very, very long time, so long that the concrete motives of the aliens may not be the major consideration.  Collecting the information about other planets across some very long time frame might simply seem worthwhile, relative to the cheap cost of the drone probes.  It reminds me a bit of that “put the DNA of all the species on the moon” project we have started, or those seed banks up in the Arctic.  Why exactly did we do it?  Why not I say!?  And yet most humans do not even know those projects are going on.

A further generalized software instruction would be “if approached or confronted, run away fast.”  Indeed that is what those flying vehicles seem to do.

The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around.  The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is.  Yet given the constraints imposed by the speed of light, it is difficult to do much with them that is very useful to the decision-makers that send (sent?) them out.  So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals.  Not even for the grandkids.

In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality.  And short usable wormholes.

By the way, don’t those photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap?  No tail fins, no “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” music signature, no 3-D holograms, just a superfast vehicle.  Like something a second-rate alien non-profit picked up at the local Walmart and sent off into space en masse with solar-powered self-replication.  Which is consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.

A problematic question for any theory is whether competing drone navies have come to visit us, and if so are they fighting over the spoils?  Colluding?  Hiding from each other?  Or what?  If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them?  That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, at least speaking in Bayesian terms.  Aren’t there at least both Klingon probes and Romulan probes, maybe Federation probes too.

Robin’s hypothesis, that they are elatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me.  Bayesian logic suggests in any case that the chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?

Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us!  They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.

Of course since the photos are of such poor quality, and since there is no corroborating evidence of any kind, these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Iceland liberation of the day

Iceland will open its borders to vaccinated foreigners from Thursday, making the north Atlantic island one of the first countries in the world to reopen to tourists after coronavirus. Iceland’s government had already allowed vaccinated travellers from the EU to enter without quarantine, but the new decision means visitors from its main tourist destinations of the US and UK will be allowed to enter…

Visitors to Iceland will have to show proof of full vaccination from a jab that has been approved by the European Medicines Agency, which currently excludes vaccines from China — a significant source of tourists to the country — as well as Russia’s Sputnik V.

Here is the full FT story.  Here is further coverage.  As an exercise, consider why vaccine passports might make more sense for Iceland than for the United States.

Why vaccination passports probably won’t work well

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

One issue is what exactly constitutes proof of vaccination. For my vaccinations, I have been issued a rather flimsy, easy-to-forge paper document from the Centers for Disease Control. Unlike a passport or a dollar bill, it has no embedded watermarks or other protections. Anyone with a moderately sophisticated copy machine could create many fake documents, or perhaps steal an existing stash of these documents and sell them on the black market. Once you have the documents, you can simply note that you have been vaccinated, and it is not easy for outside parties to dispute such claims.

Soon enough, of course, it may be easier for most adults to get a vaccine than to forge a vaccine passport. Still, U.S. laws and regulations work better when they can refer to clear, verifiable standards of evidence. It is hard to imagine a set of laws or procedures based on criteria so loose that they basically allow anyone to claim they are vaccinated. A more stringent standard, however, would be hard for most vaccinated Americans to meet.

Another knotty question is which vaccines will count for the passport. Pfizer’s, Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s for sure, but what if you are a U.S. citizen living in Canada who received AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has been approved by some 15 nations but not the U.S.? Is the federal government willing to tell a whole class of responsible individuals that they cannot fly on U.S. planes? Or will the vaccine-passport bureaucracy be willing to approve vaccines that the Food and Drug Administration will not?

These dilemmas can become stickier yet. What about Sputnik, the Russian vaccine, or the numerous Chinese vaccines, which are being administered around the world, including in Mexico?

Do Americans really wish to create a country to which most foreigners would not be very welcome? Furthermore, what counts as proof of foreign vaccination? Some Asian countries, including China, are creating elaborate and supposedly secure vaccine verification systems, using advanced information technology. Good for them — but how would that connect with U.S. regulations? How many different passport systems would a flight attendant or gate agent have to read, interpret and render judgment upon?

The likely result of all this: Many foreign visitors to the U.S. would never quite know in advance whether they could board an airplane or attend a public event.

And how would the passport reflect any new vaccines deemed necessary? What if new Covid-19 strains require booster shots? What if you’ve had Covid and thus get only one shot for now rather than two, as many experts are recommending? What will happen as the number of vaccines around the world proliferates? Given the slowness of the FDA and CDC, it is hard to imagine any new U.S. approvals coming quickly. A vaccine passport system could end up being fetters not only for foreigners and anti-vaxxers but also for vaccinated Americans.

Recommended, there are additional arguments at the link.

The traffic impact of Covid

For the first time since 2007, preliminary data from the National Safety Council show that as many as 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020. That marks an 8% increase over 2019 in a year where people drove significantly less frequently because of the pandemic. The preliminary estimated rate of death on the roads last year spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period, despite miles driven dropping 13%. The increase in the rate of death is the highest estimated year-over-year jump that NSC has calculated since 1924 – 96 years.

Here is the full story, the Great Psychometric Test continues.  Via Nick A.

Modestly silly Australian markets in everything

To combat the “border blues,” Australia’s national carrier said Wednesday that it is launching three mystery flights to unspecified domestic destinations.

The announcement came a day after government officials announced the country’s international border closure would stretch through at least June, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Mystery-flight travelers will find themselves roughly two hours away from the departure airports in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. In addition to “low-level scenic flybys of key landmarks en route,” the trips will include a day’s worth of activities on the ground. The airline says that could include a winemaking course or live music on a tropical island — and promises to give passengers clues so they know what to wear and pack.

Here is the full article, is the potential for regional surprise so great relative to the costs of avoiding the boring locations?  At least this is better than speeding recklessly in a car…

Singapore sentences of the day

Singapore has developed a “globally inter-operable” standard based on blockchain technology to facilitate cross-border verification of health documents, such as pre-departure COVID-19 test results, said Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (Feb 26).

Speaking at the Committee of Supply debate for the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Balakrishnan said that these notarised pre-departure test results will be available on the SingPass mobile app. The Government will also look into extending this to vaccine certificates.

Here is the full story.  Of all those sentences and catch phrases, perhaps “Committee of Supply” is my favorite.

My Caribbean podcast with the excellent Rasheed Griffith

One hour, fifteen minutes, almost all of it about the history and culture and economic future of the Caribbean, here is the audio.  It starts with Rasheed interviewing me, but later becomes more of a back-and-forth dialog, covering Cuba, Trinidad, Barbados, the best music from Jamaica, why Haiti has failed so badly, whether the Caribbean will be Latinized, and much more.  This one is pretty much entirely fresh material and I enjoyed doing it very much.

Rasheed is from Barbados, he is a very recent Emergent Ventures winner, and more generally his podcast focuses on the role of China in the Caribbean.  Newsletter and some prestigious podcast guests coming soon!

Here is Rasheed on Twitter.

How much do we value Covid safety?

The grand experiment of blocking the middle seat on airplanes has proved what we have known all along about air travel: More people care about a cheap fare than comfort, or even pandemic safety.

Delta announced on Monday that it was extending its middle-seat block for one more month, to the end of April. Delta, the last U.S. airline to block all middle seats in coach, will consider further extensions based on Covid-19 transmission and vaccination rates.

So far, Delta thinks it’s earning goodwill and confidence with customers, particularly business travelers, who aren’t traveling now but will come back. Some who’ve flown during the pandemic have been willing to pay Delta more for more space onboard. Most have been price-sensitive leisure travelers willing to sit shoulder-to-shoulder for cheap fares—on airlines not blocking middle seats…

The bottom line for Delta during the pandemic has been bigger losses than rival airlines selling all their seats. Delta was the most profitable U.S. airline in the final six months of 2019. That flipped during the pandemic. In the last six months of 2020, Delta had the biggest losses, with a net loss of more than $6 billion, greater than United and Southwest combined.

Mr. Lentsch says Delta can’t keep blocking middle seats forever.

Here is more from the WSJ.  I do get there is an externality here, so people are not paying enough for those more spacious Delta seats, as they do not take their higher risk to others into sufficient account.  Still, a lot of the risk here is private, and I feel the public health community in the United States has not been willing to look such data in the face squarely enough.  Is the public policy problem about minimizing “lives lost,” or maximizing “welfare,” or giving people “what they want”?  Or some combination of those?  Who exactly has been good at thinking through those trade-offs?

Have the pandemic population flows been into the relatively strict Vermont and California, or to the relatively open Florida and Texas?

To what extent is the real externality a kind of degradation of the public sphere, and the spread of stress and mental health problems, rather than the health of others per se?

Worth a ponder.

Live and Work in Croatia With a Digital Nomad Visa

EuroNews: On January 1st, Croatia became one of a small handful of European countries welcoming digital nomads through the introduction of a long-stay visa. New legislation covering the residence of this category of foreign remote workers was introduced in December 2020 as part of reforms to the foreigners’ law….Under the terms, they are not allowed to provide services to Croatian businesses and are not subject to income tax.

I could work in Dubrovnik for 6 months. Details on how to apply here.

A simple model of grabby aliens

According to a hard-steps model of advanced life timing, humans seem puzzlingly early. We offer an explanation: an early deadline is set by ‘grabby’ civilizations (GC), who expand rapidly, never die alone, change the appearance of the volumes they control, and who are not born within other GC volumes. If we might soon become grabby, then today is near a sample origin date of such a GC. A selection effect explains why we don’t see them even though they probably control over a third of the universe now. Each parameter in our three parameter model can be estimated to within roughly a factor of four, allowing principled predictions of GC origins, spacing, appearance, and durations till we see or meet them.

That is a new paper from Robin Hanson, Daniel Martin, Calvin McCarter, and Jonathan Paulson.  And here is Robin’s associated blog post.

What should I ask Sarah Parcak?

Yes I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Sarah Helen Parcak is an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and remote sensing expert, who has used satellite imaging to identify potential archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome, and elsewhere in the former Roman Empire. She is a professor of Anthropology and director of the Laboratory for Global Observation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In partnership with her husband, Greg Mumford, she directs survey and excavation projects in the Faiyum, Sinai, and Egypt’s East Delta.

And here is Sarah on Twitter.  Here is her very useful bio page.  Here is her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes the Past.  So what should I ask her?