A New Approach to Travel Blogging

Here is my attempt to transition from this haphazard 1990s-era text blog into a few more professional-appearing privately hosted blogs with my their own domain names, which I can monetize as well. This change made me think a bit about my approach towards travel blogging. So far it’s all been about putting a very prosaic sequential description of the places I visited, the people I met, and the things I did. How boring is that?

After reading other travel blogs, I felt that the most effective ones communicate emotion through brief stories. There’s no need to blandly summarize every detail of each day and place, but rather to pick out the magical moments that truly define the travel experience – conversations with new people, unexpected cultural quirks, and amazing sights.

My future blog posts will be more concise, more witty, and contain more pictures. There will be fewer of them, but they’ll come quicker as well being easier to write. They will make you laugh, cry, and want to set off with a backpack all at once.

 

Update: It’s here!

That Childlike Sense of Wonder

Trying, and failing, to imagine the first human looking through a microscope at a dividing cell and the sheer amazement going through his mind. It would be like… peering through the mist to read from forbidden scrolls the deepest secrets of creation itself. What a frightful surge of awe and fear that would be.

Yet now the high school student assigned to replicate the same experiment sits in boredom more interested in perusing the latest celebrity gossip on his mobile phone.

Something is not right with this picture. Where did we go wrong?

 

Side note – I just realized that I don’t have a “science” category. Wow. I’ve never blogged about something like this before? Let’s stuff it under technology for now. I swear, gentle readers, I’m not nearly as much of a travel and econ nerd as the subject of my blog posts may make me seem.

America the Catspaw

It’s really just Sunni vs Shiite, or more specifically Saudi Arabia vs Iran. The Saudis, clever as they are, long since sensed where the wind was blowing. They used their oil wealth to buy off the US. As a result, the US military went on foreign adventures to do their bidding. The Saudis also cleverly leveraged an US-led embargo against Iranian oil, depriving their rival of the asset with which they could have bought influence in the world. Unfortunately, the Saudis overplayed their hand, choosing to strike against Iraq in retribution for 1991 and as a way of making a buffer state against Iranian influence. However, the US is now too weak to invade Iran, much as the Saudis would want. Instead, Syria is playing out as the proxy battlefield for these two bitter oil-rich enemies. It’s the ultimate prize – a wealthy country steeped in history ruled by Shiites but with a Sunni majority. The Sunni coalition want to topple another domino. The Shiite militias want to prop up their kin, who has promised them “anything” in return for their help.

It’s a conflict that most sane countries would want to stay out of. With any luck, if the US were to intervene, both parties would band together to expel the “invaders”.

Singapore’s Birth Rate

Much has been written about the demographic disaster in wealthy countries. Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany are all experiencing bel0w-replacement fertility rates. The knee jerk response has been to encourage more immigration, especially of young people. This introduces some potential complications – angering natives, and creating immigrant ghettos with youth unable to adjust to the new country.

Focusing on Singapore in particular, the government has tried many tactics, from date workshops to modern fairy tales, which seem paternalistic and are definitely ineffective. Maybe Lee Sr is to blame, or maybe Chinese Singaporeans need to pick up some of the seductive “bad boy” traits that Malay men have.

In the end, I see it as a natural progression in world history. When adjusted for the educational achievement of women in those countries, the results are to be expected. Actually, absent an economic incentive for marriage, many women prefer not to be married at all. The US is an outlier in this due to the wide disparities in wealth. Poor and immigrant women in the US are remarkably fertile. The wealthy elites are comparable to those in the above listed countries.

If these countries really do want to arrest a demographic collapse and don’t want to open the immigration floodgates  completely, they could do worse than by adopting some of the incentives Scandinavian countries have used. Increased tax breaks, generous paternity/maternity leave, protected jobs for pregnancy and leave. But such labour market “inflexibility” would go against the neoliberal doctrine that has permeated most of the world.

Random Food For Thought

Wisdom from a pair of nonagenarians, and one who is as ornery and grumpy as to be one.

The first is from an inventor of a deadly weapon – one that will go down in history as the most destructive weapon. The AK47 has been the weapon of choice for revolutionaries, governments, and terrorists alike looking for a cheap but effective killing weapon. The gun has no loyalty, but is generous in its function. It can work equally well in the desert, swamp, or arctic. Its inventor deserves a quiet moment, not for commemoration of his life or work, but for remembrance of his impact on the world.

Another interesting article is from Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of Germany. He is one of the few able to talk clearly and with cutting insight about the problems facing Europe today. Namely, the lack of solidarity and the inevitability of future writedowns for Greece.

Lastly, Simple Living in Suffolk has a snarky as always post about the transfer of power from labour to capital. This may seem strange as it is governments that have control over the unlimited creation of capital, but the control of most governments by the conservative rich make them wary of promoting too much inflation. Labour, on the other hand, is suffering more and more with cutthroat global competition. We’ve seen stagnant wages coupled with a crushing rising cost of living as a result. This is the real effect of globalization: $10 t-shirts, but far more unemployment for the unskilled masses. One can react to this by being a revolutionary, tightening the belt and learning to make do with less, upgrading skills to climb higher up the crumbling ledge, or switch sides from labour to capital.

I’ve made do with a combination of the last 3. Being a revolutionary will likely get me shot, so I’ve chosen to look out for myself and my family/friends by saving as much of my pay as I can, being frugal but not miserly, getting an advanced degree (in one of the few protected fields left, to boot), and gradually switching my income stream over from a paycheck to dividend payments. Aside from this joke (After Orszag went from government to Citibank as a highly paid consultant, a commentator wrote, “Didn’t we used to own those guys? I guess it’s better to be labour than capital.”), it really is better to own shares of many different rising income streams. Not only is that safer and more diversified (What’s more likely to hurt you? Losing your job or one of your divident-paying companies stopping payment?), but dividend payments are always going to rise faster than wages and inflation.

Techie’s Paradise Playground

I’ve blogged on this topic many times in the past. The Bay Area is turning more and more into a haven for techies and no other. The high wages and venture money sloshing around has driven the area into a frenzy. Real estate prices have shot through the roof. World class restaurants are springing up everywhere. And all around the techies sit in their walled off world. Be it at Starbucks or any fair trade coffee shop, they are recognizable by their earbuds, laptops, and mind in the cloud (hyperbole or er… virtual).

It’s a shame that the area doesn’t have room for anyone else anymore. Gone are the ethnic minorities and middle class, driven out by the sky high cost of living. The janitorial and other service staff that support the techies commute all the way from Tracy or Stockton. In the blink of an eye, the Bay has been transformed from a cosmopolitan place to an almost unrecognizable playground for the wealthy. It has transformed into Manhattan, London, Geneva, Hong Kong, or Singapore, only on a much larger geographic scale.

Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live and work there again.

The Pope of Inequality

Pope Francis has turned the Catholic world on its head, reversing several decades of conservative dogma and refocusing the church on solving social ills rather than trying to enforce morality. I applaud this act. The church can be a great instrument for social change and to relieve poverty around the world. This, and focusing on charities, hospitals, and schools around the world will actually do far more to draw in converts than banning female bishops or crusading against gays.

The pope is concerned for good reason. Inequality is growing all around the world, and it threatens to destroy the existing social contract in many countries. There are rebellions throughout the Middle East. Israel saw a wave election electing new populists. Greece and Italy threw out the bums and are on the verge of a leftist revolution. Workers are protesting in the streets of Kiev. Even in socialist Venezuela there are agitations. Brazil’s growing middle class is trying to assert itself. Malaysia’s growing urban/rural divide and anger against corruption has finally trumped racial divisions in the last election. Saudi Arabia only avoided a massive riot by continuing its generous fuel subsidies. At the very least, the world is a pot about to spill over. I fear that this is what will drive the next global crisis (rebellion against debt, corruption, and a failed ladder to prosperity).

And that brings me to a random thought I had. It goes back to how certain countries become rich. City states like Singapore, HK, and Switzerland that are big financial centers actually do have very high inequality. They just do a better job of masking it in official statistics by importing cheap immigrant labour that’s undocumented or not counted in the statistics. So while all the Swiss you meet on foreign travels may be rich, and certainly by GDP per capita they are, it doesn’t mean that the country’s wealth is distributed equitably. It may be that all Swiss are well-paid bankers and service professionals, while most menial jobs are served by foreigners. It’s similar in the US with undocumented immigrants serving as janitors, except that the US is more honest about keeping statistics on these people.

Other countries like Norway or Australia do a better job of spreading their natural resource wealth. But even they are forced to import labour from their neighbours (Swedes, Kiwis, and Indonesians).

The Female Psyche

Not real, but wow, what if it were? There’s a lot of potential here. First, the female side is well-done. Dakota Johnson, culled from the countless hordes of young attractive aspiring actresses, combines the best of a submissive pose, sexually suggestive position, popping colours (black dress, blonde hair, and red lipstick), and the hint of naughtiness in her barely upturned lips and sideways glance. And oh, the veil! Is that throwing the suggestion of chastity and matrimony into the mix? Oh my! The man though, clearly needs more work, which is obvious since he has already been replaced as an actor. Hopefully his face won’t have as many lines, or look as serious. Christian Grey is only 27, after all.

Not sure if I’m going to see the movie or not, but there’s something about 50 Shades that appeals to mature women’s senses, in the same way that Twilight stirs the passions of teens. From my research, I think it’s that these books/shows fulfill the fantasies that women have. See the commonalities between the two: a powerful yet dangerous man with a hidden secret, falls for a shy, inexperienced nymph. The female reader identifies with the heroine in some way – young, “ordinary”, clumsy, sexually naive. Normally these women wouldn’t be able to snare a top notch man, but somehow, improbably, against all odds, one finds her by sheer chance and falls madly for her. Of course, it can’t be all that easy (or there will be no attraction), as he has a hangup that prevents him from fully loving her. Lacking any drama, there’s no real story here; it would be just boy-meets-girl-live-happily-ever-after. Boring!

The man, of course, is a fine specimen of masculinity – unbelievably handsome, well-dressed, cultured, wealthy, older, physically dominant, and never completely there for her, with his flaws as being perhaps *too* masculine in some areas. It is the tantalizing promise of a successful future relationship that keeps women interested. The man has all the raw ingredients; she just has to add some seasoning and smooth out the rough edges, that’s all. Oh, of course there is also the sexual aspect, explicit in 50 Shades and presented as a metaphor in Twilight. The man has absolutely got to be a ravishing beast in the bedroom – experienced, electric, and able to anticipate her every need. Those men who thought women are all docile chaste doves, take note. Women are just as innately sexual as men. Their expression of it in obvious ways is frowned upon by society, even in the most liberal of western countries. Thus, women turn to fantasy and erotic literature, where they can be their fully sexual selves in a way that does not invite social condemnation. Just think of how much slash fanfiction is written by women.

There you have it. That is in a nutshell the ultimate female wish-fulfillment. To tame/snare a man completely out of her league but who is at the same time madly in love with her except for one particular hangup that she will work around in order to have her fantastic future. That future, the cynics among you will note, is never quite explored in words. As with all things, what’s in our imagination is often better than what real life can ever bring.

So yes, gentle readers, these bestsellers offer a fascinating insight into how women think, feel, and fall in lust. By weaving together the above common elements, you could craft a similar story that captivates female fans around the globe. By knowing what women subconsciously find attractive and fulfilling their fantasy, a man can increase his dating and relationship success.

Cost of Living and Housing Bubbles

It’s a growing truism that the desirable places in the world are increasingly unaffordable. Sure, it has always been the case that London, Zurich, Tokyo, NYC, and Hong Kong were always going to be that way. After all, there’s limited land, zoning laws, good high-paying jobs, and the appeal of a cosmopolitan fun city.  But proportionally, they’ve gotten more expensive than the rest of the country they inhabit, cementing further social stratification. The driver has been the rise of a global international rich, who are no longer constrained by geographic borders. They jet in and out easily between their hubs in Monaco, Dubai, Singapore, Malibu, and Key West. Their capital, if anything, is even more mobile than they are, flowing to places with the least tax and regulation.

Now it has spread to my beloved home in the Bay. It is indeed sad to see my home town gradually transformed by techies and VC (I’m sure they were there before, just not as ostentatious) who are insensitive to the impact of their gentrification on local communities. They are driving up property prices, congesting the roadways, and while doing so avoiding interacting with anyone outside of their tech circle. I know this because I was once one of them. They now live in the city and commute to the South Bay or SF companies with company buses and interact after work with fellow techies in coffee shops.  In other words, they have their own silo separate from regular people.

This has also incidentally diverted VC money from promising biotech startups that could yield life-changing innovations in disease control into the latest social media craze. I have a low opinion of most of these companies in general. I don’t think they’re transformative or world-changing in their impact. Sure, Facebook and Twitter may have started a few revolutions, but their time-sucking nature more than contributes enough strikes against them. And I’m just purely disgusted by the proliferation of random mobile app companies and their emphasis on eyeballs before even revenue.

Furthermore, the service industry which can no longer afford to live where they work has been driven further and further afield. In the Bay, Oakland has now become dominated by techies seeking a cheap bedroom community. The new trend is for janitors to commute from Tracy and Stockton. It’s the same in SoCal. The IE was previously the bedroom of LA. Now that the IE has more and more industry of its own, commuters (to LA, OC, and IE!) are being driven into the high desert. Heck, cursory scans of news headings shows it’s not much different anywhere else in the world.

These days, it’s not easy living anywhere in the world, unless you’re part of an elite privileged few. It’s getting more and more difficult to claw one’s way into the middle class. Seriously, even crossing the border or getting a green card doesn’t automatically entitle one to even a sliver of the “wealth” of a country. The outlook is bleak as competition for raw materials heats up and more of the world tries to live an American lifestyle.

The answer to this is minimalism – taking comfort in fewer luxuries and possessions, instead focusing on what really matters and brings true lasting happiness. This comes from new experiences and deep human connections. It’s just a mental shift; if one has a hard time competing with the Jones-es, why not give up and get out of the rat race? You’ll end up better off in health, wealth, and emotional satisfaction.

Genuinely Stupid People

I very rarely get mad, especially over something on the internet (it’s amazing how much bravado the anonymity of the internet brings out), but sometimes the degree of stupidity just makes me frustrated. This came to a head with an article I read today about not vaccinating one’s children. Just a small pet peeve of mine, but sometime far left activists (and new agers) with their emphasis on fair trade this, organic that, and a “holistic” lifestyle just ticks me off. News flash people: life in “pristine nature” 10,000 years ago wasn’t exactly fun and games. Life was difficult, and our scientific advances, albeit bumbling and misguided at times, has increased life expectancy, satisfaction, and prosperity.

True, I get that sometimes science and medicine haven’t exactly been spot on. We all remember cringe-inducing tobacco ads in the 50s that said “recommended by 4/5 pulmonologists”. But for something with as good a track record as vaccinations, such criticism is misguided. In fact, the Gates Foundation, with its emphasis on cost-effective care, has made vaccinations in the 3rd world a top priority due to the high bang for the buck. One of my mentors in pediatrics once said that there by adopting only 3 public health initiatives, a country can reap 90% of the childhood mortality benefit of industrialized countries. They are: prenatal care, vaccinations, and clean drinking water.

Reading through the article, one can tell that it’s a bunch of scaremongering without a solid basis for making claims. By throwing out a list of “potential” side effects that are so rare as to be population risk background noise, and then concluding with “we are getting precious few answers as to what is causing them” is throwing tired cliches together. Even some fantastic claims are without basis. See “vaccine side effects are largely underreported because the passive nature of the legal system puts the onus on the victim to make the connection, file extensive paperwork, and report the issue” Bad journalism all around. The rest of the arguments are a bunch of extrapolations of vague unease, distrust, and shenanigans of doctors, drug companies, insurance companies, the FDA, etc. The writer even admits that the specific complaints aren’t even related to vaccines.

Then there’s the stuff that’s just pure wrong. Yes, some of the diseases are potentially treatable, but that has more cost, worse complications, and lower success rates than preventing disease with vaccines in the first place.

And what are this guy’s credentials? He’s a CEO (ok, anyone can be CEO for $50 company registration fee) of a “project” to “restore the health of America” by “holistic” “revolution” to “empower health advocates”. Nice. A slew of leftist catch phrases that doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Nothing is worse than a righteous crusader for justice acting off his own preformed biases supported by a few anecdotes of unclear veracity. I’ve met these people and have found it *impossible* to have a real debate with them. That is how convinced they are of their own infallibility.

Just to be fair to those on the other side of the political spectrum, I do have similar peeves about right wing intransigence, on albeit different issues.