Category: Travel

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

Alesund notes

Alesund, Norway is one of the most beautiful small cities in Europe.  The setting is picture-perfect, and much of the architecture was redone in 1904-1905 in Art Nouveau style, due to a fire that burned down the previous wooden structures.  The Art Nouveau murals in the town church deserve to be better known.

Image result for alesund norway

This time around, Norway seems vaguely affordable.  The food is “good enough,” especially if you like cod.  Dark chocolate ice cream is hard to come by.  Driving to the puffins takes 3-4 hours, though they are not always to be seen.

A microeconomic guide to travel, including Ethiopia

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:

I sometimes wish the market supplied “travel guides as if microeconomics really mattered.” Most guides outline the major sights and the best hotels, but what about the little things that make up so much of the value of a trip? Here’s my handy introduction to the micro side of travel, based on my recent 10-day stay in Ethiopia. You should consider investigating these same factors before choosing a destination:

How are the sidewalks?

I enjoy walking around cities, but it’s not just the quality of the architecture or the vitality of the street life that matter. The quality of the sidewalks is a central consideration, especially in emerging economies. What good are the sights if you are looking down all the time to avoid a slip or a broken ankle because of gaping holes? Sometimes major thoroughfares have no sidewalks at all.

I am happy to report that in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, the quality of the sidewalks and street paths is high enough to sustain productive walking with your head held high. Most of the time. B, and B+ outside the capital.

There is much more at the link, definitely recommended.

Carl-Henri Prophète emails me

I totally agree about Ethiopia being easy to visit. I went there last December and was baffled by how safe it was. I went outside and easily hailed a Taxi at 11 pm (the blue and white ones that everybody take in Addis not the special ones made for tourists). I’d never find a real Taxi in Port-au-Prince after 8 pm. Except the special (and very expensive) ones you can call on the phone.

What stroke me the most was how cheap Ethiopia was compared to Haiti and low income countries in Africa (especially Tchad, where my wife works). I think this is a major problem for countries like Tchad or Haiti (or Nigeria): they grew too expensive before getting even remotely rich. And this gives me hope that Ethiopia could achieve some significant success in tourism and exports in the coming years. By the way, I think that why a country like Ethiopia is cheaper than Haiti or Chad remains a question to be seriously investigated.

However, the Internet in Haiti is way better and cheaper. Cars in Haiti are also substantially cheaper (3 times cheaper at least, thanks in part to the US being so close). I also think the Internet is largely better and cheaper in Nigeria compared to Ethiopia. This made me think about something you wrote about the future of economic development, with people in countries like Haiti or Nigeria getting more satisfaction from the Internet and relatively cheap electronics instead of jobs and income. My impression is that it’s one of the very few low income country not taking this route currently…

Here is Carl-Henri on Twitter.

China Africa fact of the day America step up to the plate

Chinese travelers are the world’s top tourism spenders, shelling out almost $260 billion in 2017 alone. A growing part of that spend is now happening in Africa, encouraged by relaxed visa rules, increased interested in the continent’s cultural and historical sites, and a initiatives that seek to appeal to Chinese tourists.

Last week, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China launched a joint loyalty program with Kenya’s Stanbic Bank, aiming to create incentives for travel, shopping, and leisure to tourists visiting the two nations. The “I Go Kenya—I Go China” scheme follows the bank’s similar program in South Africa last year, which rewarded its cardholders by offering a range of discounts and special offers from merchants across the travel, hospitality and lifestyle sectors. The state-owned financial behemoth is doing this as part of its plan to internationalize, and push its banking card product abroad.

Meanwhile, Africa is becoming increasingly attractive destination for Chinese tourists. A recent survey by the global travel platform Travelzoo found that the continent was the top destination of choice for Chinese tourists seeking more adventurous holidays in 2018, beating Japan and Australia. Visitors were especially drawn to Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar, and Tanzania.

Here is more from Abdi Latif Dahir.

The Chinese tourist hot water revolution

Bearing backpacks loaded with thermoses, sipping their steaming-hot refreshments with satisfaction, Chinese tourists’ unquenchable thirst for hot water, though odd for many Westerners, is having a huge impact on destinations worldwide, causing a “hot water revolution” in the global tourism industry.

In snow-crested Scandinavia, where chugging ice water is a long-standing habit, several hot water dispensers are being installed in Helsinki Airport to cater to Chinese travelers’ thirst for the throat-scalding beverage.

“We have long traditions in providing services for Chinese, but we want to develop them even further in order to welcome new passengers and make the current ones even happier,” Katja Siberg, SVP Marketing and Communications at Finavia, told People’s Daily Online, who added that the idea of serving hot water was proposed by her Finnish colleagues after they visited airports in China.

Helsinki Airport is not the only transportation hub that attempts to capture the hearts of Chinese tourists by providing them with hot water, and some of its counterparts have pushed the “hot water revolution” even further. In March, an intelligent hot water installation was set up in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where USB heating vacuum cups designed by KLM were distributed to Chinese tourists as Spring Festival gifts.

Here is the full story.

Gonder notes

Gonder is I believe Ethiopia’s third largest city.  It has splendid castles and fortifications from the 18th century, with Moorish and Portuguese styles mixed in; at that time it was the capital.  There are numerous monasteries and churches scattered throughout the area, many with impressive frescoes.

There is no week in my life in which I have seen as many donkeys as I have seen one day in and around Gonder.

I was surprised how good the area is for birdwatching, you don’t even have to try.

There is an Ethiopian Jewish village nearby.  The Jews have left for Israel, but you can go see the synagogue behind a fence.

Two of my drivers have told me the exact same sentence: “They grow everything here: teff, barley, and wheat.”

If the people in the river village ask “do you wish to take out the small boat to go see the hippo?”, the correct answer is “No.

Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand.  Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally.  He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south.  Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.

Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions.  The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…

Image result for gondar ethiopia

The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery.  The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models.  They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.

Image result for gondar ethiopia church

That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian food in Ethiopia

I will compare to Ethiopian food in the United States, so I won’t be starting from scratch here.

The good news is that the product is tastier in Ethiopia.  But the other good news is that the U.S. version of the cuisine is fairly similar, and it really does give you a pretty good idea of at least mainstream restaurant cuisine in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopians really do eat a lot of injera, made out of teff.  Firfir dishes, which use injera soaked in spices, are far more common in Ethiopian cuisine in Ethiopia than in the U.S. equivalent.  Overall, the quality, subtlety, and diversity of injera is higher in Ethiopia, as you might expect.

Bozena Shiro is another staple, present in both countries but again far more common in Ethiopia.

Doro Wat — chicken in the red sauce — is the dish that improves the most in Ethiopia.  The sauce is richer and more subtle, more in the direction of a Mexican mole than just a mere curry.

I had two meals in private homes, one in a well-to-do apartment in Addis, the other in a rural village.  Neither overturned the basic impressions I have been receiving from the restaurant food.

I ate kitfo [raw beef] once and did not get sick or even feel queasy.

The fresh honey is much better in Ethiopia than what you might get in a restaurant in America.  And they pop fresh popcorn rather frequently.

Especially outside of Addis Ababa, prices are very cheap.  I stayed in the nicest hotel at the number one tourist site, namely Lalibela, with its underground, rock-hewn churches.  A single course at breakfast cost about a dollar and was enough for a meal.  Presumably some other prices are cheaper yet.

This is a wonderful country for vegetarians and vegans.  I am told that for the Christian religiously observant, about one-third of all days specify an abstention from meat.  So virtually all restaurants have a wide selection of vegetarian food and it is no worse than the meat dishes, perhaps better on average.

As for foreign cuisines, I had the best outcome with Indian food, perhaps because many of the spices and cooking techniques are similar.  There are Sudanese and Yemeni restaurants in Addis, Italian food is plentiful (it’s not always exactly Italian, but Castelli’s is amazing), and the Chinese meal I had was decent but not sufficiently Chinese.

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.