Category: Travel

Uber as an ambulance substitute

Using an ambulance to travel to the hospital in an emergency can cost upwards of $1,000 USD. Now research demonstrates that a significant number of people are instead choosing Uber to perform the same service.

The paper – currently being peer reviewed – examines the effect on ambulance usage as Uber was introduced to 766 cities across 43 states. According its findings, even the most conservative estimate shows a seven percent reduction in people traveling via ambulance where the service is available.

Here is the full story, via Jeffrey Deutsch.  File under “Even with surge pricing, bending the cost curve.”

Rabat notes

Is Rabat the nicest city in the Arab world?  It sure seems to come close, but as a capital and major recipient of government largesse its recipe probably is not scalable.  They are building a new concert hall and also a high-speed rail line up to Tangier.  So many vistas are pleasant, the touts are absent, and the food never quite hits Morocco’s peaks, nor is there much in the way of crafts.

The city emits the vibe of not being especially religious.  The medina and kasbah are relatively empty of economic activity, having not yet reinvented themselves as yuppie or millennial shopping districts.  Other than public works projects, it doesn’t feel as if anything transformative will happen here anytime soon, economically or otherwise.  Morocco, of course, did not have an “Arab spring” in 2011, and the monarchy has proven remarkably stable, beyond many people’s expectations.  That is perhaps the #1 social science question about Morocco.

The citizens seem to compare themselves more to Spain and France than to say Egypt or Iran; I am not sure that is good for their happiness.

Nace en Rabat el primer hipopótamo concebido en cautividad en Marruecos.”

The Chellah ruins exhibit traces of Phoenician, Roman, and medieval Arabic pasts, the surrounding landscape design creates a perfect integration.  Winter temperatures are in the low to mid 60s.  If you have never been to Morocco before, doing the whole flight for a mere two days in Rabat is worth it, but neither is it the country’s leading highlight…

My Conversation with Andy Weir

Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:

Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.

WEIR: OK.

COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?

[laughter]

COWEN: No.

WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

Do read/listen to the whole thing

Switzerland is Prepared for Civilizational Collapse

More than any other country, Switzerland’s ethos is centered around preparing for civilizational collapse.

All around Switzerland, for example, one can find thousands of water fountains fed by natural springs. Zurich is famous for its 1200 fountains, some of them quite beautiful and ornate, but it’s the multiple small, simple fountains in every Swiss village that really tell the story. Elegant, yes, but if and when central water systems are destroyed these fountains are a decentralized and robust system for providing everyone with drinkable water.

The Swiss political system is also decentralized. If the central government fails, the Swiss might not even notice. The mountains and valleys also mean that Swiss towns and villages are geographically independent yet linked in a spider-web of robust connections.

Despite being at peace since 1815, Switzerland is prepared for war. Swiss males (and perhaps females in the future) are required to serve in the military (those who cannot, pay a special tax) creating a robust reservoir of trained citizens ready to serve in an emergency.

The Swiss have been tunneling the Alps for hundreds of years creating innumerable secret hideaways for people and stores.

As a further example of how ridiculously well prepared the Swiss are for any and all threats, there are things like hidden hydroelectric dams built inside of unmarked mountains so that in the event of mass bombings, they’ll still have electricity from these secret facilities. And, remember, these are the things the Swiss government has let us know about. It is thought that there are probably more fortifications and hidden goodies scattered about the country’s landscape. (ital. added, AT)

In addition, to thousands of military bunkers permeating the Swiss mountains there are several hundred thousand private and public fallout shelters the largest of which can hold some 20,000 people. Some of the largest installations have been decommissioned and even turned into museums but there is little doubt that they could be rapidly re-purposed.. As the Swiss continue to improve their already fantastic railway system it’s standard practice to convert old railway tunnels to security shelters.

Buried deep alongside the hydroelectric dams, shelters and food stores, the Swiss also have libraries ready to reboot civilization:

“In another [underground bunker], detailed instructions on how to build devices for reading all known data storage formats, even older formats like floppy disks, are kept, so that if that knowledge is otherwise lost, future generations can still decode our data storage devices to access the data within correctly. Essentially, the researchers involved in this particular project have attempted to create a “Rosetta Stone” of data formats and are using a ridiculously secure Swiss bunker as the storage point for that knowledge.”

Switzerland is famous for being the place to store wealth in times of crisis and that remains true today with a few twists. The old-rich store their gold in heavily guarded Swiss banks, the nouveau-riche store their bitcoins in Swiss underground bunkers built to withstand cyber- and nuclear attack:

It’s no surprise that Nassim Taleb likes Switzerland because this is a country that has made itself anti-fragile in order to survive the black swans of civilizational collapse.

Hat tip: Maxwell.

Are corporate jets a waste of money?

Almost certainly not:

While shareholders have strong incentives to limit value-destroying perquisite consumption, it is challenging to identify such perquisites. Many corporate assets that enable forms of perquisite consumption also provide operational benefits. Corporate jets represent a potent example. We find business-related flights increase firm performance. Our results also highlight the channels through which jet use can either enhance or destroy firm value. Consistent with the benefits of information gathering and monitoring, firms with soft and complex information that is difficult to transmit remotely are more likely to fly to company subsidiaries and plants, and these flights positively affect firm value. In contrast, among firms with weak governance structures where flights are more likely motivated by agency factors, jet use is more likely to be value-decreasing. The ability to differentiate has important implications in today’s activism environment.

The full piece is by Lian Fen Lee, Michelle Lowry, and Susan Shu, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Occupational licensing is a barrier to interstate migration

…we find that the between-state migration rate for individuals in occupations with state-specific licensing exam requirements is 36 percent lower relative to members of other occupations. Members of licensed occupations with national licensing exams show no evidence of limited interstate migration.

That is from Janna E. Johnson and Morris E. Kleiner in the NBER working paper series.  Here are ungated copies.

The (pricing) culture that Washington is not

The Interstate 66 toll lanes opened Monday in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs with prices so steep they could be among the highest drivers have paid for the privilege of traveling on a state-owned highway in the United States.

Tolls in the high-occupancy toll lanes hit $34.50 — or close to $3.50 a mile — to drive the 10-mile stretch from the Beltway to Washington during the height of the morning commute.

Bravo, but we’ll see how this develops.

My Conversation with Sujatha Gidla

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

The new political culture that is American Thanksgiving

Using smartphone-tracking data and precinct-level voting, we show that politically divided families shortened Thanksgiving dinners by 20-30 minutes following the divisive 2016 election. This decline survives comparisons with 2015 and extensive demographic and spatial controls, and more than doubles in media markets with heavy political advertising. These effects appear asymmetric: while Democratic voters traveled less in 2016, political differences shortened Thanksgiving dinners more among Republican voters, especially where political advertising was heaviest. Partisan polarization may degrade close family ties with large aggregate implications; we estimate 27 million person-hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving discourse were lost in 2016 to ad-fueled partisan effects.

That is from a new paper by M. Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who are the real fly-over people?

The state flown over the most actually is…Virginia.

Next in line are Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

In part this is because so many flights from the very busy Atlanta airport cross Virginia.  Yet the airport with the most flights above Virginia is Toronto, including most of its flights to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Other than Hawaii, the least flown over state is — surprise — California.  Hawaii is also the “most flown under” state, if you look at the opposite point on the globe.  Most of the continental U.S. “opposites” into obscure parts of the Indian Ocean, but Hawaii opposites into Botswana.

That is all from Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd and Hypothetical Questions.

All the world in New York City

Two exhibits in Manhattan, taken collectively, offer what might be this year’s most rewarding aesthetic and learning experience.  I stated a while ago that for the first time in a long time (possibly ever), America has a peer country in China.  The contemporary Chinese art overview in the Guggenheim is the single best demonstration of this point I have seen, and the show is further evidence that China already may have surpassed the United States in the visual arts.  Read this NYT review: “…a powerful, unmissable event, and an invaluable window onto a world of contemporary art, politics and history that we still, decades on, barely know.”  This is not complacent art, and some of it was so disturbing it had to be removed before the show opened (NB: the Chinese were not the ones censoring).

At the still underrated Morgan Library, you will find Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, in two large rooms.  Are drawings and watercolors better than paintings?  Per dollar spent, for sure.  I cannot think of a better, more easily digestible survey of the brilliant visual intelligences behind the last few centuries of Western art.  This NYT review also has quality visuals.

Montesquieu’s *Persian Letters*

There is a new edition out, edited and translated by Stuart Warner and Stéphane Douard.  This eighteenth century bestseller could hardly be more relevant today.  Is it possible to lead a philosophic life?  How do political leadership and wisdom intersect?  How do Christianity and Islam differ politically?  How does politics reflect gender relations in a society?  Is there a case for optimism in modernity?  I still am not sure we have improved on Montesquieu’s investigations, although I cannot claim he gives us final answers.  This is a volume of polyphony, with travel as a source of learning and liberation as a major theme throughout.

Harems play a role too, here are the final paragraphs from Roxane to her sultan master Usbek:

You were astonished not to find in me the ecstasies of love.  If you had known me well, you would have found in me all the violence of hatred.

But you have had for a long time the advantage of believing that a heart such as mine was submissive to you.  We were both happy you believed me deceived, and I was deceiving you.

This language, without doubt, appears new to you.  Could it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with grief, I could still force you to admire my courage?  But it is done: poison consumes me; my strength abandons me; the pen falls from my hand; I feel even my hatred weaken; I am dying.

The introduction and notes are outstanding, and also of interest for those of you who are piqued by Straussianism.  You will note that the book was first published anonymously.

“Jokes in a serious work are acceptable on the condition that they hide a profound sense beneath a trivial form. It is in this way that Montesquieu, in his novel, Persian Letters, has written one of the most philosophical books of the eighteenth century.” – Alexis de Tocqueville [link]

I am pleased, by the way, to have once had the chance to spend two days with co-editor Stuart Warner discussing Persian Letters and nothing but (thank you again Liberty Fund!).  I cannot think of any person more qualified to have undertaken this endeavor.

You can order the volume here.

On safari in Trump’s America

I very much enjoyed this Molly Ball piece.

…three days into their safari in flyover country, the researchers were hearing some things that disturbed them greatly—sentiments that threatened their beliefs to the very core…

“You’ve got all these parasites making a living off the bureaucracy,” the farmer declared, “like leeches pulling you down, bleeding you dry.” We had been in the state for just a few hours, and already the researchers’ quest for mutual understanding seemed to be hitting a snag.

Others in the group, a bunch of proudly curmudgeonly older white men, identified other culprits. There were plenty of jobs, a local elected official and business owner said. But today’s young people were too lazy or drug-addled to do them.

As we proceeded to meetings with diverse groups of community representatives, this sort of blame-casting was a common refrain. Disdain for the young, in particular, was a constant, across demographic, socio-economic, and generational lines: Even young people complained about young people. “They don’t want to do the work, and they always feel like they’re being picked on,” a recent graduate of a technical school in Chippewa Falls said of his fellow Millennials.

Some of the people we met expressed the conservative-leaning view that changes in society and the family were to blame. One, a technical-skills instructor at the Chippewa Falls school, questioned whether women belonged in the workplace at all. “That idea of both family members working, it’s a social experiment that I don’t know if it quite works,” he said. “If everyone’s working, who is making sure the children are raised right?”

There is much more at the link, but no final meeting of the minds.