Category: Travel

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.

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.