Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
- Buy a kindle. Free internet everywhere! Well not everywhere, check the coverage map, but I've found that the map is actually conservative about where you can connect.
- For the times you need to upload or download something and the cybercafe is closed, bring an unlocked international smart phone to tether from.
- And when the cellphone tethering is inevitably too slow too load gmail, ssh to a unix server and use lynx. Whoddathunk that the text-only browser still had a purpose or even worked with gmail, but it does!
Sunday, May 22, 2011
I love Africa. I know I've only been here for 5 days and I know Africa is an enormous and diverse place, but whatever the common denominator is, I love it.
And there is a common denominator. On a continent so large, I would expect that music from Mali and Zimbabwe, Congo and Tanzania, would be completely different. But it's not. Listen to Afel Boucoum and Habib Koite from Mali and Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe and Congolese dance music and sure there are differences but the fundamental je ne sais quoi is the same, and wonderful. Even comparing traditional African music to the more contemporary stuff that is playing everywhere in the streets, it all has the same exuberant rhythmic base.
Somewhere along the line there is a break from African music to African American music, progressively morphing into hip hop, and the transformation from exuberance to anger absolutely kills it for me. That seems to be a more general distinguishing attribute between Africa and the West, actually. When you look around New York City, how many people look utterly content with the world, thrilled to be alive in that particular moment? No one, that's who. The dogs in the park, or kids on the playground not old enough to have learned to be miserable, maybe. Yet in a country with one tenth the income per capita, 90% of the people in the street are laughing or dancing or playing around with friends and family and look as though they haven't a worry in the world. When did we in the West lose this contentedness, and why do we think it is a sign of progress? Sure, I would not want to give up air conditioning or the freedom to travel or advanced health care, but at some point the tradeoff between moment-to-moment stress and unhappiness for bigger horizons and a longer lifespan is certainly no longer worth it.
It's hard to draw the line though. The unhappiness results from putting so much pressure on ourselves to be at the frontier of production, lifestyle, and influence, but that's a good thing to an extent too. I am bound and determined to be an academic economist who comes up with at least a few insights that improve our understanding of humanity, and I'm determined to be financially successful enough to have the air conditioning and health care and worldwide freedom of movement. I don't want to settle for less even if it means reducing my stress levels by 90% and sacrificing many many hours to unpleasant obligations. But at the same time, I don't care about having the big house in ths suburbs and private-school kids and a brand new car every few years and groceries from Whole Foods. I find the idea of sacrificing so many individual joyous moments for such marginal and dubious improvements in life satisfication revolting, in fact.
We are so strongly driven to be as successful as our most successful peers. When a subset of society is obsessed with success, it is contagious to their friends who judge themselves by their peers' standards. Soon the epidemic has spread to the entire society, and you a country of miserable workaholics.
And yet, I love New York City! Nowhere has this been taken to such an extreme as Manhattan, and the air is electric with energy pushed to a frenetic density. Everything is bigger and better and more competitive, and being constantly bombarded by the pinnacle of human achievement is inspiring and exciting. Every moment is an extreme version of that thing, designed to stimulate the relevant neurons in the most efficient way possible, and of course that is intoxicating. How can a single person love New York City but be happiest on an empty field in Nevada with only a tent, motorcycle, and camp stove? How can one unambiguously value both simplicity and contentedness, and vigorous competition and ambition?
Maybe the key is to be inspired by human achievement without one's happiness being dependent on relative success. Then to the extent that we are caught in the rat race, it's because it's what we genuinely want to do, and what genuinely maximizes our long-run happiness, independent of everyone else. Then NYC is a place of concentrated inspiration, rather than a pressure-cooker to measure up. And then to the extent that we also choose to live in converted shipping containers in abandoned hills in southwest Texas, it's not because we're stuck there with no other options, or because we are settling for mediocrity. It's, again, our genuine ideal.
Don't be afraid to do what truly makes you happy. I'm not sure there exists a simpler life philosophy than that. But who really follows it?
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
free market efficiency via the 'invisible hand' <-> evolution via natural selection.
In the free market (biosphere), slight deviations in trade agreements (mutation) lead to heterogeneity (biodiversity). Only the most efficient (fittest) of these survive. The result is a highly efficient marketplace (ecosystem) in which every sector (species) thrives in its niche, arising seemingly from magic. The only difference is that markets converge much more quickly than life because mutations are chosen by people to be most likely to work, rather than randomly by DNA processes, and the time span between mutation adoption isn't bounded below by lifespan.
Yesterday in Libreville I encountered beautiful examples of each of these processes that are absent in the United States due to various types of central planning: taxis and dogs.
The taxis in Libreville are ubiquitous and cheap. I'm pretty sure it's cheaper to take cabs everywhere than to own a car, because the taxis take advantage of two economies of scale not possible with individual cars that allow the marginal profit margins to be tiny enough that hardly anyone would want to buy and maintain a vehicle to avoid them: First of all, the taxis are shared vehicles so marginal costs are divided between up to four passengers. The taxi can stop anywhere along the route to pick up additional people, as it desires, and can reject anyone who is not traveling along the same route. Second of all, taxis of course drive around for many hours every day, spreading out maintenance costs between many more people than an individual's car.
On every trip, the passenger proposes a price and the driver can accept or negotiate freely. As a result, supply and demand are always in sync. During busier times of the day, more taxis are on the road, and they can charge more because customers are competing for service. At slow times of day, fewer taxis are out, and three people can get where they want to go for less than a dollar altogether. (In fact, even at rush hour we only paid $2 for three people to travel approximately five miles. The supply of cabs efficiently responds to varying demand throughout the day to keep the price fairly level. I've seen neither empty taxis driving around nor passengers unsuccessfully trying to hail one. This morning the person we travelled with who speaks French rejected three cabs who wanted more than $2 for the three of us, and we still got in the fourth within a minute of trying to hail the first one. This system is WAY better than public transit!)
In the U.S., this situation is impossible for many reasons: fixed fares, legal requirements to accept any customer any time, and ride shares arranged exclusively on the demand end, to start with. (Note that even though cabs are shared in Libreville, I'm sure passengers could negotiate a higher price to avoid picking up other people if they so desired. The shared arrangement is a strict improvement.) Central planning of supply via licensing regulations, and labor unions that drag the equilibrium point kicking and screaming in a direction that directs a higher percentage of social surplus to them; the list goes on.
When I got back from spending about 75 cents to get ten miles back to my hotel, I walked onto the beach to watch sunset and attracted two feral dogs looking for handouts. These dogs were gorgeous, sweet, personable, healthy (except for some fleas of course), and acted like they had been diligently very well-trained since puppies. They licked my hands (and gave my back a thorough bath when I let them. Sweat and DEET is a delicious combination you know...) and wagged and let me scratch their heads all I wanted, and then when I sat down to eat, they nuzzled me a bit trying to get to the food but after I gently waved them away they laid down quietly a couple feet away and merely looked at me imploringly. I gave them bits of things periodically, and every time they went right back to sitting there politely. I've never met a domesticated, trained dog in the United States that is as well-behaved as these two were. (And gorgeous! If they went to a pound in the U.S. they would be adopted immediately.)
It seems that when "survival of the fittest" means "best-liked and fed by humans", dogs naturally evolve to be ideal pets. No selective breeding required.
America is a country of overconfident control freaks (myself included =). We need to remember that frequently the best outcomes arise precisely when nature is allowed to take its course.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Saturday, May 14, 2011
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
James also posits a way to reform prisons, which he dubs “violentocracies.” His proposal: smaller facilities that house no more than 24 inmates and are part of a larger, incentives-based system. At a Level 1 prison, for example, you get a lawyer, a Bible, and around-the-clock supervision; at Level 5, a cat and a coffee machine. At Level 10, you can earn a living and come and go with relative ease. The idea, James says, is not only to reduce the paranoia-fueled violence in large prisons but to encourage prisoners to work their way up the ladder.(Article stolen from MR, which Tyler labels 'interesting', but is really not surprising in the least if your impression of law enforcement is more shaped by real life than by crime-busting TV shows. Bad incentives and lackadaisical/incompetent investigations/trials? Well, of course.)