Traveling and not traveling, this is what I do.
That is from Bernard-Henri Levy (NYT), it was preceded by this:
I do not live very differently when I travel and when I don’t, which means I do my duty. My duty is to read, to write and to fight. These are the three things that are my duty.
She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript. Here is part of the CWT summary:
She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?
WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.
COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?
WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.
And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.
COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?
WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.
COWEN: Great idea?
WILSON: Yes, yeah.
COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?
WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.
COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?
WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.
Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.
COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?
You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.
Maybe less than you might think, at least once you adjust for geographic distance:
Recent literature has shown that gender diversity in the boardroom seems to influence key monitoring decisions of boards. In this paper, we examine whether the observed relation between gender diversity and board decisions is due to a confounding factor, namely, directors’ geographic distance from headquarters. Using data on residential addresses for over 4,000 directors of S&P 1500 firms, we document that female directors cluster in large metropolitan areas and tend to live much farther away from headquarters compared to their male counterparts. We also reexamine prior findings in the literature on how boardroom gender diversity affects key board decisions. We use data on direct airline flights between U.S. locations to carry out an instrumental variables approach that exploits plausibly exogenous variation in both gender diversity and geographic distance. The results show that the effects of boardroom gender diversity on CEO compensation and CEO dismissal decisions found in the prior literature largely disappear when we account for geographic distance. Overall, our results support the view that gender-diverse boards are “tougher monitors” not because of gender differences per se, but rather because they are more geographically remote from headquarters and hence more reliant on hard information such as stock prices. The findings thus suggest that board gender policies, such as quotas, could have unintended consequences for some firms.
Here is the transcript and audio, we covered so much, here is the CWT summary:
How much has the U.S. actually fixed the financial system? Does India have the best food in the world? Why does China struggle to maintain a strong relationship with allies? Why are people trading close-knit communities for isolating cities? And what types of institutions are we missing in our social structure? Listen to Rajan’s thorough conversation with Tyler to dive into these questions and much more.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: A lot of observers have suggested to me that the notion of a kind of Anglo-American liberalism as ascendant in India is now a dead idea, that ideologically, India has somehow shifted, and the main currents of thought, including on the so-called right, are just really not liberalism anymore. Do you have a take on that view?
RAJAN: I’m not sure I would agree. I would say that we’ve had a government over the last five years which has elements of the majoritarian, Hindu nationalist group in it. But I would argue the country, as a whole, is still firmly secular, liberal in the Nehruvian idea, which is that we need a country which is open to different religions, to different ethnicities, to different beliefs if we are to stay together.
And democracy plays an important role here because it allows some of the pressures which build up in each community to essentially get expressed and therefore diffuses some of the pressure. So I think India’s ideal is still a polyglot coming together in this country.
COWEN: But someone like Ramachandra Guha — what he symbolizes intellectually — do you think that would be a growing part of India’s future? Or that will dwindle as colonial ties become smaller, the United States less important in global affairs?
RAJAN: I think that an open, liberal, tolerant country is really what we need for the next stage of growth. We are now reaching middle income. We could go a little faster. We should go a little faster there.
Once we reach middle income, to grow further, I think we need an intellectual openness, which only the kind of democracy we have — the open dialogue, a respectful dialogue — will generate the kinds of innovative forces that will take us more to the frontier.
So I keep saying, and I say this in the book, we’re very well positioned for the next stage of growth, from middle to high income. But we first have to reach middle income.
COWEN: Will current payments companies end up as competitors to banks or complements to the banking system? Or are they free riders on the banking system?
RAJAN: I think they’re trying to figure out their space. As of now, sometimes they’re substituting for . . . Certainly, my daughter uses her payment system completely separate from her bank account. But longer term, we’ll find ways of meshing these in and reduce the costs of making payments. Those costs are really too high at this point, and reducing those costs makes a lot of sense.
COWEN: Will banks ever be truly excellent at doing software?
RAJAN: I think we will have a combination of the guys who are truly good at software — the fintech companies — merging with banks who know how to do the financial side. They’ll bring each of their talents together. I’ve seen a lot of fintech people who have no clue as to what finance is really about. And I’ve seen a lot of banks who have no clue as to what tech is about. I think some merger will happen over time.
There is much more at the link. And here is Raghu’s new book The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave Community Behind.
As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different. Here goes:
Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.
Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.
Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.
David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.
Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.
Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.
Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.
Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.
Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort. Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures. Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.
The room is the most expensive in America, beating out one at The Mark hotel, which previously held the accolade at $75,000 a night. And Empathy is also one of the world’s most expensive hotel accommodations, according to The Palms. (In fact, it’s potentially the most expensive: The Royal Penthouse Suite at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva — at about $80,000 a night — was the world’s most expensive suite in 2018, according to Lonely Planet.)
…The room was designed by world-renowned artist Hirst and showcases a number of his well-known original pieces, like the iconic “Winner/Loser,” with two bull sharks suspended in formaldehyde.
Hirst — who is known for controversial pieces — also created a 13-seat curved bar filled with medical waste, and hanging above the bar is Hirst’s “Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time,” which features a marlin skeleton and taxidermy marlin.
Here is more text and photos, noting that perhaps the high price is in part “advertising” so that major gamblers feel good when the room is comped to them?
What to do and where to eat? I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and counsel.
Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI. We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent. Here is the transcript and audio. Here is one excerpt:
ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.
Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.
We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”
Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.
COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.
ALTMAN: I might not.
COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?
ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.
COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?
COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?
ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?
COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.
ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.
From a reader:
I have really enjoyed your travel posts on various countries, and am currently planning a trip to India for the month of November. However, I have struggled to find much writing of yours on the country. Perhaps a post on tips/places/cities/culture is in order? It would be much appreciated.
I have only a few India tips, but I can recommend them very, very strongly. Here goes:
1. You can’t just walk around all day and deal with the pollution, the bad sidewalks, and dodging the traffic. This ain’t Paris. Plan accordingly.
2. When Alex set off to live in India, I said to him: “Alex, after a few weeks there, I want you to email me “the number.” The number is how many consecutive hours you can circulate in an Indian city without having to stop and resort to a comfortable version of the indoors.” You too will figure out pretty quickly what your number is, and it won’t take you a few weeks.
3. India is one of the very best and most memorable trips you can take. You should go repeatedly.
4. Every single part of India is interesting and worth visiting, as far as I can tell after five trips. That said, I find Bangalore quite over-visited relative to its level of interest.
5. My favorite places in India are Mumbai, Chennai, Rajasthan, and Kolkaata. Still, I could imagine a rational person with interests broadly similar to my own having a quite different list.
6. India has the best food in the world. It is not only permissible but indeed recommended to take all of your meals in fancy hotel restaurants. Do not eat the street food in India (and I eat it virtually everywhere else). It is also permissible to find two or three very good hotel restaurants — or even one — and simply run through their menus. You won’t be disappointed.
7. Invest in a very, very good hotel. It is affordable, and you will need it, and it will be a special memory all its own.
8. Being driven around in the Indian countryside is terrifying (and I have low standards here, I do this all the time in other non-rich countries). If it were safer, I would see many more parts of India. But it isn’t. So I don’t.
9. If you go during monsoon season, your trip will be quite memorable. I cannot say I recommend this (I don’t), but I am myself glad I did it once, in Goa, when monsoon season started early. I got a lot of work done.
10. Do not expect punctuality.
11. Most of the sights in India, including the very famous ones, are overrated. The main sight is India itself, and that is underrated.
12. “In religion, every Indian is a millionaire.”
I thank Yana and Dan Wang and Alex for discussions relevant to this post.
Haiti’s tourism sector is up in arms over recent travel warnings from the U.S., Canada and France that have led to at least one booking company — Expedia — blacklisting the country’s two international airports and hotels as illegal.
People seeking to book flights and hotel rooms on Expedia and subsidiaries Travelocity, Orbitz, Hotwire and CheapTickets are being blocked from doing so following violent protests that erupted on Feb. 7. Though Haitians were shuttered in for more than a week, with schools and businesses closed, international carriers like American, Spirit and JetBlue kept flying.
But Expedia didn’t seem to care…
The block, said an Expedia spokesperson, is linked to the State Department Level Four travel warning.
“Once governmental advice reaches a certain level of travel concern, we take action to close off destinations on our sites,” said Philip Minardi, director of communications for the Expedia Group. The block will remain in effect until the advisory lifts, he said.
Here is the full story, I find this troubling. On top of everything else, State Department Level warnings are inefficiently sticky.
Missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can now call, text or video chat weekly, the First Presidency announced Friday.
This update to guidelines regarding communication between full-time missionaries and their families follows a decades-long tradition of missionaries only calling home twice a year — on Christmas and on Mother’s Day.
Effective immediately, the Church’s 65,000 missionaries are authorized to communicate with their families each week on preparation day by text messages, online messaging, phone calls and video chats, in addition to letters and emails.
UCLA students call about 11,000 Uber and Lyft rides that never leave campus every week, raising concerns about the environmental impact of unnecessary trips.
Here is the article, via Jessica Roberts. I can’t say I am crazy about the framing however — have you tried walking across UCLA campus? You could just as soon write an article criticizing the people who don’t do bulk shopping, thereby creating unnecessary car trips to the store. Students who live on campus hardly seem like the worst environmental offenders or anywhere close to it.
Here is a reprise from my January 17 column:
The real power here is held by government employees, especially those in critical jobs. Let’s say that more TSA screeners decided to walk off the job. It’s already the case that the TSA absentee rate has gone up to 7.6 percent, from 3.2 percent a year ago. It is possible to imagine screeners staying home in much greater numbers, thus crippling the entire nation. That could either force President Donald Trump’s hand or lead to a congressional override of a potential presidential veto.
And the close:
So what does the final equilibrium look like? Some number of extra weeks (months?) of talking about Trump and the wall. Trump over time becoming less popular. Congressional Republicans folding, and Trump lying about both the outcome and the process. Democrats looking better, at least relatively. Federal workers emerging with bruised morale, but mostly intact.
If you think those are implausible outcomes, you haven’t been paying close enough attention to the last two years.
File under Prophets of the Marginal Revolution…
Dozens of air traffic controllers are keeping Austin-Bergstrom International Airport functioning smoothly through the longest government shutdown in US history — and all without a paycheck.
Friday was the first payday since the shutdown began and while hundreds of thousands of federal workers can expect to be paid for the work they put in during the shutdown, they are not receiving paychecks until it ends. Tuesday marks Day 25 of the shutdown.
Austin pilots want to do what they can to help their aviation fellows who are affected by the shutdown.
“Those controllers have always had my back, during the normal flights and the rare times that I’ve had a slight abnormal flight that caused me concern,” Ken VeArd said, a longtime pilot.
VeArd recently posted on social media asking his fellow pilots to help him give back to ABIA’s controllers.
“I just made a post saying this is what I am thinking about doing and before I knew it, it just got out of control,” he said. “Whether you need diapers, milk or eggs, or even if all you need is a six pack of beer,” VeArd hopes it’s the small things that will make a difference.
He’s been buying $20 gift cards from H-E-B for the controllers.
“My biggest concern with this thing is that we try to do something nice for our air traffic control friends and it turns out to be a problem, we don’t want to make problems any worse than it is,” VeArd said. “So we capped it at $20.”
This was a really good one, here is the text and audio. The opening:
TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.
Here is one excerpt proper:
COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?
MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.
The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.
COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?
MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —
COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.
MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.
COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?
MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?
COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?
MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.
COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.
Try this part too:
COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?
MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —
COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?
MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.
COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?
MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.
First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.
But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.
And also, from me:
COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?