Category: Travel

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

The economics of Ethiopian floriculture

Most cut flowers have a high value-weight ratio, and are very perishable.  Flowers are consumed throughout the year, and must respond to varying consumer requirements through time.  Thus, the industry depends on air transport and cold-chain logistics throughout the value chain.  Air transport fees account for more than half the total cost of the product…and combined with marketing account for up to 75 percent of total costs.  Frequency and timeliness of flights and other logistical arrangements are of utmost importance in meeting orders on time and ensuring that flowers arrive fresh to maximize vase time.  The strategic and role of EAL [Ethiopian Air Lines] becomes clear from this perspective.

That is from Arkebe Oqubay’s Made in Africa: Industrial Policy in Ethiopia.  In Ethiopia, they sell this book for less than half of its Amazon list price.

Yes I am headed to Ethiopia

Blogging might be more erratic, if so I apologize.  Please don’t think I am getting sick of this — I am not — it’s just that convenient internet connections might be hard to come by in the more rural parts of the country.

Like from 2017:

Ethiopia has cut off internet access nationwide until at least June 8 to try to stop cheats from posting high school exam papers on social media, a government official said on Thursday.

The good news is they just turned internet access “back on” last month.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

At the very least, I have posts on autopilot.  Let’s hope I can add to those, and at the very worst MR will be back to normal and normally timed service in less than ten days.  The modal scenario is that in fact you will get more than average, but I can’t promise that either.  Wish me luck.

Transportation speed matters

High skilled workers gain from face to face interactions. If the skilled can move at higher speeds, then knowledge diffusion and idea spillovers are likely to reach greater distances. This paper uses the construction of China’s high speed rail (HSR) network as a natural experiment to test this claim. HSR connects major cities, that feature the nation’s best universities, to secondary cities. Since bullet trains reduce cross-city commute times, they reduce the cost of face-to-face interactions between skilled workers who work in different cities. Using a data base listing research paper publication and citations, we document a complementarity effect between knowledge production and the transportation network. Co-authors’ productivity rises and more new co-author pairs emerge when secondary cities are connected by bullet train to China’s major cities.

That is from Xiaofang Dong, Siqi Zheng, and Matthew E. Kahn.  Of course, supersonic air travel should be next…

My Conversation with Balaji Srinivasan

Here is the transcript and audio, and this is the intro:

Marc Andreessen has described Balaji as the man who has more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area. He is the CEO of Earn.com, where we’re sitting right now, a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly a general partner. He has cofounded the company Counsyl in addition to many other achievements.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is the venture capital model so geographically clustered? So much of it is out here in the Bay Area. It’s spreading to other parts of the country. Around the world, you see Israel, in some ways, as being number two, per capita number one. But that’s a very small country. Why is it so hard to get venture capital off the ground in so many areas?

SRINIVASAN: That’s actually now changed with the advent of ICOs and Ethereum and crypto. Historically, the reason for it was companies would come to Sand Hill Road. One maybe slightly less appreciated aspect is, if you come to Sand Hill Road and you get VC financing, the VC who invests in your company typically takes a board seat. A VC does not want to fly 6,000 miles for every board seat if they’ve got 10 board seats and four board meetings a year per company.

What a VC would like in general, all else being equal, is for you to be within driving distance. Not only does that VC like it, so does the next VC in the B round and the next VC in the C round. That factor is actually one of the big things that constrains people to the Bay Area, is VC driving distance, [laughs] because VCs don’t want to do investments that are an entire world away.

With the advent of Ethereum and ICOs, we have finally begun to decentralize the last piece, which was funding. Now, that regulatory environment needs to be worked out. It’s going to be worked out in different ways in different countries.

But the old era where you had to come to Sand Hill to get your company funded and then go to Wall Street to exit is over. That’s something where it’s going to increasingly decentralize. It already has decentralized worldwide, and that’s going to continue.

COWEN: With or without a board seat, doesn’t funding require a face-to-face relationship? It’s common for VC companies to even want the people they’re funding to move their endeavor to the Bay Area in some way, not only for the board meeting. They want to spend time with those people.

We’re doing this podcast face to face. We could have done it over Skype. There’s something significant about actually having an emotionally vivid connection with someone right there in the room. How much can we get around that as a basic constraint?

And here is another:

COWEN: Right now, I pay financial fees to my mutual funds, to Merrill Lynch, all over. Anytime I save money, I’m paying a fee to someone. Which of those fees will go away?

SRINIVASAN: Good question. Maybe all of them.

And:

COWEN: Drones?

SRINIVASAN: Underrated.

COWEN: Why? What will they do that we haven’t thought of?

SRINIVASAN: Construction. There’s different kinds of drones. They’re not just flying drones. There’s swimming drones and there’s walking drones and so on.

Like the example I mentioned where you can teleport into a robot and then control that, Skype into a robot and control that on other side of the world. That’s going to be something where maybe you’re going to have it in drone mode so it walks to the destination. You’ll be asleep and then you wake up and it’s at the destination.

Drones are going to be a very big deal. There’s this interesting movie called Surrogates, which actually talks about what a really big drone/telepresence future would look like. People never leave their homes because, instead, they just Skype into a really good-looking drone/telepresent version of themselves, and they walk around in that.

If they’re hit by a car, it doesn’t matter because they can just rejuvenate and create a new one. I think drones are very, very underrated in terms of what they’re going to do. 

Do read or listen to the whole thing.

Why are Americans so loud?

From Julia Belluz at Vox:

…Americans are loud

A final point about why restaurants are so loud. This has nothing to do with restaurateurs or designers or acoustic engineers. It has to do with Americans — who I believe are a slightly louder people, on average.

As a Canadian working in the US, I am often struck by how much louder my fellow diners in restaurants seem to be, and how much more loudly the people I’m walking near on streets speak to one another or into their cellphones.

This is not a scientific observation, but it’s one that’s fueled Reddit discussions and even a ban on “loud Americans” in a pub in Ireland. Sietsema, for one, also agreed with my view. “When Europeans imitate Americans, they shout,” he said. “We tend to be louder people — we’re louder talkers; we’re bigger with our expressions.”

And Alex W. asks me: Since you’re so well traveled, is this true, and if so, why?  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. At least originally, Americans had much more space than did Europeans, and this is still true to some degree.  That induce norms of loudness, which have to some extent persisted.

2. America is a nation of immigrants, with English-language proficiency of varying quality, including historically.  For whatever reason, good or bad, we tend to shout a bit when the listener is not fluent in our language.

3. Taleb has suggested that higher status people shout less, talk in more hushed tones, and are more likely to whisper, to grab the attention of the crowd.  Perhaps America has fewer high status people to set social norms.  Or perhaps our high status people derive status from their wealth, and feel the need to emit fewer cultural signals, just as wealthy Americans often dress more poorly or eat a worse diet than European elites.

4. Characters on TV speak more loudly, and Americans watch more TV and admire and mimic it more.

5. Americans command a broader personal space, keeping a greater distance, and thus they have to speak more loudly to each other (and they feel Italians are intrusive with respect to how close they stand).

6. Loudness is perhaps a byproduct of individualism.

7. American culture values “forthrightness and self-confidence.”  Plus maybe it’s a regional thing?

What else?

Meet me in Mongolia? (North Korea fact of the day)

As officials scramble to convene the hastily announced and once-unthinkable meeting in the coming weeks, the site itself remains an open question. It is unclear whether Mr. Kim’s fleet of Soviet-era planes can fly him more than a few thousand miles from North Korea.

“We know he has a plane, but it’s an old plane,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council aide who worked on Korea issues. “No one really knows if it works.”

Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim is not known to have flown outside his country, and the question of his transportation adds a layer of political complications to a fraught and uncertain summit meeting…

With the expected range of Mr. Kim’s planes, a trip to Hawaii or Guam, the closest United States territory to North Korea, would almost certainly require a refueling stop or a borrowed plane. Korea experts call that an indignity that Mr. Kim would not accept.

That is from Ali Watkins of the NYT.

What can we plausibly hope for with North Korea?

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

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don’t have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the U.S. is likely to.

And the concluding sentence:

Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.

Do read the whole thing.

What should I ask Juan Villarino?

I’ll be doing a Conversation with him in early May.  He is often known as “the world’s greatest hitchhiker,” here is a NYT profile of him.  Excerpt:

Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

He is from Argentina, and worked for a while in a Belfast cheese factory.  He is described as from a “downwardly mobile middle-class family” and:

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realized who he was, the thieves gave him money.

And:

They [Villarino and his wife] continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the highway, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Here is his blog and also a link to his self-published book.  Here is his blog in Spanish.  So what should I ask him?

Mexico City travel tips

I’m a loyal MR reader and follower of your work.  I’m so grateful for your work and your generous spirit.  I’m sure you get inundated with email and other correspondence but I’m adding to the pile by requesting that someday you’ll post advice for a Oaxaca or Mexico City visit.  I assure you that it would be carefully studied and utilized.

Happy Easter!

Here are my tips for Mexico City, taken from an email I sent to a friend a while ago, note I start with food but do not end there:

“1. Your number one task is to find a seller of tlacoyos in the street. This is likely a solo woman with a stand, on a corner. They are all over Mexico City, though whether in Condesa I am not sure. The vegetarian offerings are no worse, also, with beans and blue corn tortilla and cheese.  Get these, and they are in general quite sanitary.  You simply need to ask around, they will not be in highly visible places. I think about them often.

2. Ask for “tacqueria” rather than tacos, the latter might lead you into a restaurant.

2b. Most food in Condesa will be fine but underwhelming, think Clarendon. Try to find street food there.

3. The street food is the best food there and it is safer to eat than the restaurant food (though the latter is usually safe too).

4. Try a sandwich once or twice, just ask around, no need for a fancy place, these usually close by mid-afternoon. My favorite sandwich is the Hawaii, though I believe that is a purely subjective judgment, I do not think it is the best per se. The whole bakery culture there is quite interesting and often neglected by food people but it is important.

5. When you take a taxi out to the pyramids, there is excellent food along the way, in the middle of nowhere, have the driver stop and bring you somewhere. The pyramids are one of the best sights in this hemisphere, by the way, better than those in Egypt I think. There are also smaller pyramid sites on the way to the big pyramid site, worth visiting and also near some superb food.

6. Favorite fancy place there is Astrid and Gaston, not cheap but it won’t bankrupt you either.  Peruvian/Mexican fusion, nice to sit in too.

7. If you need a break from Mexican food, the Polish restaurants there are quite good, that would be my back up choice. Of Asian food the Japanese offerings might be the best. French and German can be quite good there, though not original.  Avoid “American.” Other Latin cuisines will in general be quite good there, including the steakhouses.

8. Go to Coyoacan (a suburb, sort of, but not far) and see the Frida Kahlo museum.  The food stalls (“comedores”) there are not only excellent, but they look the most sanitary and mainstream of just about any in Mexico. Even your aunt could be tempted to eat there. A good stop, try a whole bunch of things for $1.50 a piece, you could spend two hours there eating and not get bored and get to sample a lot of the main dishes.  Also a fun hangout.

9. When we flew into the airport, we immediately asked the taxi driver to bring us somewhere superb for a snack. Of course there was somewhere within five minutes, right nearby. Do this if you can open a line of communications.

9b. Walking is often the wrong way to find great food there, unless you are walking and asking. Walking and looking doesn’t work so well, because you are on the wrong streets if you are walking to just be walking around. Vehicles are the key, or asking and then walking to follow the advice, not to follow your walking instincts.

10. Chiles en Nogada is a seasonal dish, superb, I am not sure if they will still have it but ask around and get it if you can. It is delicious and a real treat, not to be forgotten.

11. Treat breakfast as a chance at some street food, don’t fill up on a traditional breakfast, least of all a touristy Mexican one. It will always be OK, but rarely interesting, even if it sounds somewhat authentic. Get a tlacoyo or something in the street. Any food represented by an Aztec word will be excellent, pretty much as a rule.

The non-food tips I will send separately. But the food is all about improvising, not about finding good restaurants. Most of the mid-tier restaurants are decent but for me ultimately a bit disappointing. Either go fancy or go street. Don’t trust any of the guidebook recommendations for mid-tier places, they will never be bad but mostly disappoint compared to the best stuff there.

Non-food

The Anthropology Museum is a must.

My personal favorite museum is Museo del Arte Popular, the popular art museum downtown, but I consider that an idiosyncratic preference.

Visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the murals there, and across the street House of Blue Tiles, get a juice there and see their murals too. Then walk from there down to the Zocalo on the main street, there is the number one walk in Mexico for a basic introduction to downtown. In fact that is the first thing I would do to get an overview of downtown and the older part of the city, even though that is not where you will end up hanging out.

The mural sites are in general excellent, I believe the best one is called Ildefonso.

I often find male clothes shopping there to be highly profitable, good mix of selection and prices. Polanco is the part of town you would go to for that, right near Pujol and also Astrid and Gaston, in fact.

Hotel Camino Real is a classic site, you can get a drink there at night with the funny colored lights. The movie Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot there in part, a great film. The Mexico City movie is Amores Perros, a knockout. Y Tu Mama Tambien is another, you probably know these already. I also like the old Mexican movies of Luis Bunuel, made while he lived there for a while.

The classic Mexico novel is Roberto Bolano, *The Savage Detectives*, a great read and one of the best novels of the latter part of the 20th century, the English translation is first-rate too, as good as the Spanish in my view.

I don’t like much of the music, but perhaps that is the point.  Control Machete, a Mexican rap group, works pretty good as soundtrack while you are being driven around the city.

The Alan Riding book, while now badly out of date, is still an excellent overview of the older Mexico, great for background, Distant Neighbors it is called.

Have a cabbie drive you around different neighborhoods, to see rich homes, poorer sections, particular buildings. Mexico City is first-rate for contemporary architecture although most of it is quite scattered, no single place for walking around it that I know of.

Art galleries there are good for browsing, often in or near Polanco, the wealthy part of town.

Insurgentes is a good avenue for cruising.

Avoid Zona Rosa altogether at all costs, bad stuff, lots of pickpockets, no redeeming virtues whatsoever, do not be tempted.”

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.

[laughter]

NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.