Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Priorities

It's strange how things are prioritized differently in different cultures.

Things that medium-fancy hotels in Gabon have: beautiful new tile floors, a swimming pool or pristine beach, a really overpriced restaurant, air conditioning, gorgeous landscaping, extremely diligent-to-the-point-of-annoying and thorough room-cleaners.

Things they don't have: rooms without fleas and ant colonies, hot water, towels that wouldn't be rejected from Goodwill, shower curtains, "do not disturb" signs.

Things trains have in Gabon: a well-stocked bar, overpriced restaurant, flushing toilets, soft benches to lay down on.

Things they don't have: cockroach-free compartments, running water, any indication whatsoever of the stops or schedule.

Etc for restaurants.

I'm not complaining; on the contrary I find it refreshing that silly things like nice towels and a few cockroaches aren't the end of the world. People freak out about the tiniest things in the U.S. Everyone should try backpacking for at least a week, or long enough to wear the same set of clothes so many times that rinsing them off in the river with a little 18-in-1 soap no longer helps the smell, various insects have gotten into all your food bags, everything in your backpack is molding because of the damp tent from last night's rain, you're drinking water filtered from a stagnant algae-covered pond, you have duct tape on your toe to prevent worsening blisters, and you've eaten mashed-as-small-as-possible-for-transport bread, just-add-water hummus, beef jerky and dried fruit for the last 10 meals. You don't even notice those things when the clear sky and fresh pine air and wildlife-only soundscape is so exhilarating.

Those are the important things, the things that make you feel maximally alive.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

connected

Tips for the internet-dependent in developing countries:
  1. 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.

  2. For the times you need to upload or download something and the cybercafe is closed, bring an unlocked international smart phone to tether from.

  3. 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

happiness

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

what taxis and feral dogs have in common

I can't believe I never mentally articulated the following isomorphism, between two areas of science I find immensely fascinating and devote a great deal of attention to (I am, after all, an economist, and my boyfriend is conveniently an evolutionary biologist...):

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

Morocco

does not seem especially different from Europe. Although Jake says he's surprised how different than Europe it seems, so apparently these impressions are determined by expectations.

The landscape reminds me of Oklahoma; the palm tree-lined streets remind me of California; the weather reminds me of Seattle; the Arabic signage and ubiquitous hijab reminds me of al Jazeera or similar middle east newscasts; and French everywhere reminds me of Europe. My brain is doing a continuous multi-take.

Could be because of the sleepless nights + timewarp + compensatory red bull though.

Moroccan food is unique. Was that the least informatory sentence you've read today? Not if you've seen a Geico commercial too. "15 minutes could save you 15% or more". Wow I'm impressed! But not by the savings.

...as I mentioned, sleeptimecaffeine delirium. It induces rambling. Goodbye for now.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gabon!!!

I'm about to go to Gabon for a month. Jake is an ichthyologist and is going for a conference on fostering international collaboration in Central African biodiversity research, and to do some collecting in the Bateke region, and since the most exotic place I've gone since I was 12 is Banff, I'm going too.

When it's a little less fresh and a little more of a funny story, I will relate the six week visa saga. Let's just say that it's not so much of a mystery why some of these otherwise stable and potential-ful countries can't quite get things together. The reason they're having trouble attracting tourists isn't just the lack of modern hotels, it's the fact that they require an inordinate amount of documentation and fees to get a tourist visa, which you can't get at the border or in the airport, and even then regularly deny them on a whim. Firing the consulate at the D.C. Embassy is probably the number one best thing they could do for their tourist industry. I have never in my life had to deal with such a witch of a woman.

(Luckily, her incompetence stretches so far as to be uninformed, or more likely just spitefully deceptive, about the other possibilities for obtaining a visa. ONLY deal with the New York consular general...)

Anyway. See you in a month! Hopefully with some photographs of low-land gorillas or elephants. Unfortunately we won't be in the part of the country with the pygmies...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

education reform

Fantastic and interesting article on education reform by Joel Klein, former chancellor of the NYC school system. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

cat incentives

Well I would certainly be motivated to behave well in prison by the prospect of a pet cat, but I don't know about most violent criminals!
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.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

wow

I've never seen the internet so unanimously preoccupied with a single story. When before have a billion people all been talking about the exact same thing? When else can someone tweet "'I loosened it.' -Bush" with no other context needed?

Probably 9/11, except the internet didn't really exist in the same form back then...