Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Isis update

I got my Isis puzzle open, and having now had a chance to thoroughly inspect the mechanism I discovered two interesting things: the solution on YouTube doesn't actually work, at least not on my puzzle, and the Isis really is every bit as bad a puzzle as I thought.

Warning: spoilers follow.

The internal mechanism of the Isis would make Rube Goldberg proud. The sphere consists of two hemispheres that are screwed together with an inverse thread so you have to turn the halves clockwise in order to open the Isis. The two halves are normally locked with a locking plate that is held in position by a spring. The button on the top of the puzzle is used to push the locking plate unto the unlocked position so that the two halves can be unscrewed. There are two obstacles to moving the locking plate: there are two ball bearings that normally block the movement of the plate. These need to be maneuvered into indentations in the locking plate in order to get them out of the way. And the plunger attached to the button is not quite long enough to push the locking plate into the unlocked position. In order to extend the reach of the plunger, a third ball bearing needs to be maneuvered into yet another indentation directly beneath the plunger.

It is this third ball bearing that causes all the trouble. It is normally stuck to a magnet in the upper half of the sphere, and dislodging it requires striking the sphere on a hard surface with considerable force. It turns out that the problem I was having was that I was just not whacking it hard enough. In order to make it work I had to take the sphere into my garage and hit it against a wooden workbench with about the same amount of force as it would take to drive a nail into a 2 by 4. And the worst part is that there is no way to tell if you've successfully dislodged the ball bearing from the magnet. You have to fly blind.

Once the ball bearing has been dislodged from the magnet, it has to be maneuvered through a maze that has been machined into the locking plate. This is a part of the mechanism that the YouTube video does not reveal because it is hidden behind a steel cover on the locking plate that has to be removed with a screwdriver. Maneuvering the ball bearing through this maze is the step that is supposed to be accomplished by moving the puzzle in circles a few times, but it doesn't work. The maze is too convoluted. It took me quite a while to devise a series of moves that would reliably move the ball bearing through the maze, and that was with the cover off! The resulting sequence is so subtle and convoluted that I can't even describe it in words. I would have to make a video of my own to show how it's done. I'll only do this is someone asks. It is quite possible that different Ises have different maze configurations, so my sequence may not even work on other puzzles.

Once through the maze, the ball bearing ends up in the center of the locking plate. It is not until you get to this point that you get your first bit of feedback that you've made any progress at all: when you press the button now it no longer goes down as far as it did before (because the ball bearing is in the way).

The encrypted clues call this the "halfway stage", but once you've gotten to this point the rest of the procedure is a cakewalk by comparison. All that remains is to maneuver the two other ball bearings into their indentations, which is relatively easy because they run in circular tracks. All you have to do is turn the puzzle upside down and gently "wobble" the puzzle until you can no longer hear the sound of the bearings moving around. Of course, you have to be careful not to dislodge the first bearing while you do this, which is accomplished by exerting *gentle* pressure on the plunger to hold the bearing in place. Once the two bearings are in their indentations, a firm press on the plunger will move the locking plate into the unlocked position. It will snap into place. At this point you can let go of the plunger and unscrew the two halves of the puzzle to obtain your prize, which is...

Nothing! There is, as the YouTube video shows, absolutely nothing inside the sphere besides the mechanism. And, as a final insult, it is trivially easy to lose the crucial third ball bearing. It will just fall out if you turn the puzzle the wrong way. If you should happen to be so unfortunate as to not notice that the ball bearing has fallen out and reassemble your puzzle without it, you will likely never be able to open it again. No wonder they don't accept returns once the seal is broken.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Worst. Puzzle. Ever.

It breaks my heart to write this post because the puzzle in question was 1) very expensive and 2) given to me by someone very dear to me who doesn't have a lot of disposable income. I hope he never sees this.

At first glance, the Isis puzzle looks very promising. It bills itself as the world's hardest puzzle, though I personally give that title to Scott Fredrickson's jigsaw puzzles. The packaging is beautiful, and the production quality appears to be very high. The puzzle comes in what looks like (but isn't really) a black lacquer wooden box with a metal clasp. Just the box is better made (and probably more expensive) than most puzzles. The box is embossed with "ISIS I" in silver lettering above a hologram sticker with what appears to be a serial number (or maybe it's a clue!)

Opening the box reveals a metal sphere about three inches in diameter and weighing about a pound. It feels dense, hefty, solid. Around the circumference of the sphere are three metal bands engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. On the bottom of the sphere is, again engraved, a ten-digit number (which turns out to be -- I'm not giving anything away here -- the actual serial number). On the top of the sphere is a button that goes down about a half a centimeter when you press it but has no other immediately discernible effect. The metal bands with the hieroglyphics turn with a satisfying clicking sound. The thing positively oozes mystery and the promise of an exciting intellectual adventure.


The black lacquer box comes packaged inside a cardboard box, which also contains a very thin pamphlet. One might be forgiven for thinking that this pamphlet is the instruction booklet, but no such luck. It is in fact simply an advertisement for other puzzles in the series, and directions on "How to start your adventure." There follows an eight-step (!) process for logging on to the company's web site in order to get the instructions. And the process requires you to reveal your full name, your mailing address, your phone number, your email address, and the serial number of your Isis before you are allowed in.

It is at this point that you might recall that there was a red seal on the cardboard box that you had to break in order to open it. And on that red seal was what is essentially a shrink wrap EULA:

"If you break this seal to accept The ISIS challenge there is no turning back. The ISIS cannot be returned after this seal is broken or its box is opened. Thank you."

So the situation you find yourself in is this: you have just paid well north of three digits for "the world's hardest puzzle", you have broken the seal so that you can no longer get your money back, and only then do you learn for the first time that you have to turn over your personal information to the company in order to find out what you're supposed to do with the damn thing. You are at this point, though I'm sure most people won't realize it, the victim of a bait-and-switch scam. That personal information you're being asked to provide is valuable, and for the company to withhold an essential part of the product you just bought until you hand it over is shameful at best. In my opinion, the fact that you don't find this out until you break the seal and render the product unreturnable makes it extortion. (If anyone from Sonic Warp is reading this, in my emails to you I used the term "blackmail". That was a mistake. Extortion is the correct term. I regret the error.)

But let's not quibble over terminology. Let's suppose that you do not share my obsession with keeping personal information out of the hands of unknown parties, and that you consider handing over your information in exchange for the instruction booklet to be a fair trade. What happens then? Well, I went ahead and registered (with a false identity). I got my user name and password, but when I tried to log in it didn't work! Instead I got the singularly useless error message, "Illegal input characters. Please remove and resubmit."

Illegal input characters? Say what? I just cut-and-pasted my user ID and password (both of which consist of nothing but letters and numbers) from the email you sent me. Exactly which "illegal characters" do you want me to remove?

At this point I was fed up, so I punted and got the Isis instruction manual from the web. The manual is pretty uninformative, but it does contain ten clues. The clues are encrypted. (You can buy the decryption keys from the company's web site. Was I surprised? No, I was not.)

Warning: spoilers follow. If you want the unalloyed thrill of solving the Isis without cheating, stop reading here.

Fortunately, the clues are encrypted using simple substitution ciphers. It took me just a few minutes to crack them using this handy dandy tool. (The decrypted clues have also been published on the web if you care to look.) I also found that the solution is out there too. The clues turned out to be pretty useless, and by this time I was getting pretty fed up, so I took a peek.

I need to digress here and say a few words about what makes a good puzzle. Puzzle composition is part art and part science. A good puzzle has to be hard enough to be challenging but not so hard as to be effectively impossible. But there's more to a puzzle than mere challenge. Lots of things are challenging. Solving partial differential equations, for example, is quite challenging, but you'd have to be a pretty hard core geek to consider PDEs to be good recreational puzzles. What distinguishes a good puzzle from a merely difficult challenge? There are four things:

1. The objective has to be clear and easy to understand without special training.

2. The rules under which the objective is to be achieved have to be clear and understandable without special training.

3. The challenge presented by a puzzle must be primarily intellectual in nature, not physical. Juggling, for example, is challenging, has a clear objective, and operates under clear rules. But it's not a puzzle.

And finally:

4. The challenge must arise as a direct result of the structure of the puzzle and not from some obscured secret.

To illustrate this last point, imagine a modern re-invention of the classic Rubik's Cube puzzle where the faces are not just colored stickers but little color LED screens. Every time you make a move, the colors of all the faces on the entire cube change. Moreover, the moves are not reversible: if you start with a virgin cube, make a move and then undo it, the result is a scrambled cube.

Just convincing yourself that this variation is solvable at all would be no easy feat, let alone actually solving it. Now imagine that you've spent a fair amount of time twiddling this new cube trying to discern some pattern in the color changes without success. In frustration, you decide to punt and look at the solution. Imagine how you would feel if the solution turned out to be:

Take the cube and whack it against a hard surface. Twirl it (the whole cube, not one of the faces) clockwise in the air a few times. Turn the whole cube upside down. Then recite Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky" backwards seven times (speak clearly so that the cube's internal microphone can pick up the sound of your voice). Congratulations! You have solved the Rondam Cube!

Your reaction might be something along the lines of, "'da f*ck?" And rightfully so. And yet, except for the bit about reciting Jabberwocky backwards, that is in fact the solution to the Isis sphere!!!, or at least the first few steps. No, I am not joking. Whack. Whirl. Tip. That is actually the answer. This is because the actual locking mechanism (oh, I forgot to mention that the objective is to open the sphere) is completely internal and hidden and involves moving ball bearings around on tracks and dislodging them from magnets. Those rings with the hieroglyphics on them? Completely inoperative. Just decoration. Red herrings. Very expensive, carefully machined red herrings that ride on high-tolerance bearings. But red herrings nonetheless.

If that had been all there was to it, I might have just written the whole thing off as nothing more than a white elephant. Unfortunately it was not to be. As they say in the trade: but wait! There's more!

When I tried to open my Isis according to the procedure I found on the web, it didn't work. I tried all manner of whacking and whirling and even recited Jabberwocky just for good measure (amazing how much that poem sounds like cursing when you say it backwards). No luck. My Isis remained stubbornly closed. I wasn't even able to get to the so-called "intermediate stage" where you get a little bit of tactile feedback that you're on the right track. Since I had seen a video of the Isis being opened I knew a bit about the internal mechanism, and all indications were that my Isis was somehow defective.

So I wrote an email to the company asking them to exchange it. To their credit, they responded very quickly (on a weekend even!), and said that yes, they would repair or replace it. But there was a catch: if it turned out that the Isis was not defective, I would have to pay for their time, and for shipping and handling. Which sounds fair enough, until you consider that they will be the final arbiters of whether the Isis was broken or not. And given that they had already demonstrated that they had no compunctions about extorting personal information from their customers, I didn't see any reason to believe that they would have compunctions about telling me that my Isis was in fine working order (and that I therefore had to pay to get it back) regardless of its actual condition. So as I write this we are at an impasse, and my Isis appears destined to remain closed forever.

In my email I also expressed my displeasure over having the instruction manual withheld in order to extort personal information. I asked them to stop doing that. They refused, saying that:

All registered information that we hold is only used if you tick the relevant box, otherwise it is only used to update you as a puzzle owner on new product updates and or to provide support and access to the isis adventure. We never disclose your information to 3rd parties and if you ask us not to send you updates on the puzzle you already own we delete your information from our system. Again we have only ever been asked to do this a handful of times. Please let me know if you wish to have your information deleted from our system. If you ask for this to be done, please ensure you have accurate details of return address for the product your sending to us as we will not have a record on our database for you. The reason we ask you to download the instruction book, is so that you have the most updated instructions. Hard copies can often go out of date.

To this I ask... how can an instruction manual for a mechanical puzzle go out of date? (And who said anything about hard copies?)

As long as we're asking rhetorical questions, why do they require me to provide my mailing address and my phone number and my name? Why is my email address not enough to keep me up to date? Why do they feel the need to be so paternalistic? Do they not think that I am capable of going to their web site myself to check for updates if I want the latest scoop?

As an aside, it is worth noting that when you don't "tick the relevant box" you get a Javascript alert complaining that you haven't checked the box, and offering you a free clue if you do. So even if they respect the user's wishes in this regard, the choice is coerced.

But I digress. There is a much more interesting question to be asked: why would they risk the ire of people like me who value their privacy (and write blogs) when they surely must know that such people are among their target demographic?

Why indeed.

One possibility is that they are simply stupid. They have already demonstrated that they are very bad puzzle designers, so maybe they are just bad marketeers too. Maybe they really believe their own rhetoric. Maybe they really believe that they provide a better customer experience and more value for the money (and it's a lot of money by puzzle standards) if they make absolutely sure that they know each and every customer by name and have a complete dossier on them. That possibility cannot be ruled out.

But there is another, more sinister possibility, that also cannot be ruled out: perhaps they are not in the business of selling puzzles.

Consider this database they are building up. For every customer, they know the person's name, address, phone number, and email address. And they know something much more important: every one of these people was affluent enough (or knew someone affluent enough) to spend a three-digit sum on a puzzle in the middle of the worst economic downturn in living memory. And because you can't register unless you've bought a puzzle and obtained an engraved serial number, their list will be unpolluted by pretenders and wannabes. Because of the way they have set this up, every name on that list will be a certifiable rich person.

That is one mighty valuable list. It is a telemarketer's wet dream. It would be stupid of them not to sell it. And yes, as I've already conceded, it's quite possible they are stupid. But if they aren't stupid then they're duplicitous, if not outright evil. I don't see any other possibilities.

Interestingly, there's actually an experiment one can do to try to determine which of the two possibilities is actually the case. If their actual product is not puzzles but high-quality lists of certifiably affluent people to which to which one might want to market other high-priced goods, one might expect them to take certain precautions against their true intentions being discovered. In particular, they might want to guard against someone like me who, having their suspicions raised about their intentions, might want to do something sneaky like, say, inject a false name into their list. For example, I might try to register my puzzle not under my real name but under an assumed name chosen just for this purpose, say "John H. Doe". If John H. Doe starts to get junk mail then, assuming I haven't used that name anywhere else, that would be proof that the name came from their list. And that might cause them problems down the road.

What precautions might they take against someone doing something like this? Well, one thing they might do is to allow a given serial number to be registered only once. This makes it less likely that someone will infect their database with a false name because a person would have to realize before they took their one shot at registration that something unsavory might be afoot and that they should take precautions.

On the other hand, if their intentions were honorable they would have no reason to prevent the same serial number from being registered more than once. People might want to sell their puzzles to someone else. Surely the company's professed concern about their customers having up-to-date manuals should extend to people who acquire their puzzles secondhand?

Of course I did this experiment. And unsurprisingly, it would not let me register twice, saying "That serial number is already registered under a different email address." If there's a benign explanation for that, I can't think what it could be.

For all these reasons I reluctantly award the Sonicwarp Isis Adventure the title of Worst Puzzle Ever. I take no joy in this. I just think potential buyers have a right to know what they might be getting into.

Monday, December 21, 2009

This is disturbing

I have always dismissed the 9-11 Truthers as a bunch of kooks on two grounds. First, their flagship claim -- that the WTC towers were intentionally demolished -- doesn't stand up to scrutiny. (Frankly, it doesn't even pass the laugh test, but I don't want to get into that.) And second, I have a general prejudice against grand conspiracy theories because I just don't believe that people are very good at keeping secrets, and large groups of people are particularly bad at it. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the more people are involved and more time goes by, the more likely that someone will spill the beans.

But now I just watched this video of David Ray Griffin, professor emeritus of Philosophy of Religion and Theology at the Clarement School of Theology, by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) explaining how the official story about the cell phone calls from the flights hijacked on 9/11/01 couldn't possibly be true. He certainly doesn't sound like a kook, and the facts that he bases his conclusions on are all easily verified by third parties. They also pass my basic bullshit-o-meter. In particular, I believe it is true on both theoretical grounds and from firsthand experience that it is not possible to make a cell phone call from an airplane at altitude.

According to Griffin, the *official* story has quietly changed: the FBI now says that there were no (successful) calls from flight 93 or 77, which is plausible. But the problem with that is that it undermines the basis for the official story that the hijackers attacked with knives and box cutters. If there were no calls, there is no way to know what weapons were used, or indeed if any weapons were used at all, because those calls were the *only* information we had about how the attacks were carried out.

That the official story could change in such a fundamental way and not draw even passing notice from the mainstream media is very disturbing, particularly in light of the manifest failures and subsequent self-flagellation from the media about the handling of the buildup to the war in Iraq.

I am really beginning to think that there could have been a 9/11 conspiracy, not because the secret could be kept, but because the official story is so appealing -- it's such a powerful mythology -- that when inevitably the truth starts to leak no one cares.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Soft-selling atheism

David DiSalvo put together a pair of videos highlighting two contrasting styles of advocating for atheism. Guess which one I think is more effective?

Worth a look.

Video, or it didn't happen

I blogged previously about our experience riding the maglev train in Shanghai. At the time I wasn't able to post the video I had taken because I didn't have a fast internet connection. I finally got around to doing it last night. The original video is here. If that doesn't work for you I also put up a copy on YouTube, but the quality suffered a lot.

Towards the end of the clip we encounter the train on the opposing track. It gives new meaning to the aphorism "don't blink or you'll miss it".

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Xooglers rises from the ashes

Doug Edwards took down the Xooglers blog because he's working on a book about Google and didn't want to leave spoilers out there. Unfortunately, that also took down all the posts that I wrote, but Doug was kind enough to send me a copy. It's a Microsoft Word file, which normally I would not link to, but somehow Word manages to keep all the formatting and links intact. For those of you who just can't stand Word, here's a PDF and HTML.

Warning: it's 251 pages long, though a lot of that is comments.

(For those who don't know, Xooglers was a blog where Doug and I wrote about our experiences working at Google.)

[UPDATE 5/1/11] Thanks to Mayank Jain for producing a PDF with working hyperlinks! So no need to mess with the HTML or Word versions any more. (I'll keep them up for now just in case someone has linked to them.)

Please note that this document is still copyrighted by me, so please do not reproduce it without permission.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Inside the A380

The LA Times has the inside scoop on the A380.

Ron: 1, Dubai: 0

I would just like to note for the record that I called the Dubai crash this time last year:

Dubai is quite possibly the greatest real estate scam of all time.

Now if I could just figure out how to accurately predict *when* these things are going to happen!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life imitates art (I hope)

It's that time of year when the cable channels start to show that old Frank Capra standard, It's a Wonderful Life. I just learned that life may be mimicking art. Phil Agre has gone missing.

To understand the impact that this news has had on me I have to take you back to 1985. That year, an MIT graduate student named David Chapman published one of the very few solid theoretical results that the field of Artificial Intelligence has ever produced. David formally proved that planning was NP-complete. What's more, it was a constructive proof: David actually wrote a planner that was provably complete and correct, the first such planner ever to be produced after years of ad hoc research. And this was David's master's thesis!

For his next trick, David teamed up with Phil Agre to help pioneer what was then a completely new approach to AI. The technical details don't matter much. The point is, in my mind David was a demigod, Phil was his main collaborator, and the work they were doing was wicked cool. Their work ultimately had a huge influence on me, and even today I think it never received the attention and appreciation it deserved.

Back in those days I was, like many graduate students, haunted by myriad insecurities. Would I ever find a thesis topic? Would it have an impact? Was I kidding myself that I was capable of doing original research? Was I wasting my life? And on and on and on. At times it got pretty bad and led to some bouts of severe depression, which I now understand is not at all unusual.

Around the time that I was hitting bottom, there was an AI workshop at JPL that Phil attended. To make a long story short, I ended up taking him on a driving tour of Los Angeles (it was his first visit) so I got to spend quite a bit of time talking to him one-on-one. That conversation influenced me more than any single conversation I've ever had in my life. It got me out of my doldrums and I returned to work with renewed vigor. A few months later I had a thesis topic, and a year or so after that, I phinally phinished.

Now, I can't really say I knew Phil. I only ever met him that one time. We never corresponded, though I followed his work for many years. So I have no idea why he has disappeared. Maybe he's just decided to go walkabout. (He seemed like the kind of person who would do that sort of thing.) But I'm telling this story on the off chance that Phil has succumbed to the same sort of demons that once haunted me, wondering where his life is going, if he's made the right choices, and whether his accomplishments measure up to anything. In that case, and on the off chance that Phil might stumble across this blog, I want him to know the impact that he had on my life. Maybe that will help.

There are details of that period that I do not wish to put on the record, but it would not be unfair to say that Phil Agre once saved my life. It would be fitting if perhaps I could return the favor simply by saying so. Phil, wherever you are, I wish you good fortune.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Logos, meet Mythos

Devdutt Pattanaik in a brilliant TED talk explains the contrasts between Eastern and Western thought, and how each is fundamentally rooted in mythology, albeit very different mythologies. Well worth twenty minutes of this life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Oh, cool!

Our flight back to LA is on an A380!

[Travelogue] Homeward bound

And if you will forgive another cliche, what a long, strange trip it's been. I had been feeling ready to go home for a while, but last night as I was packing I came across a printout of all the shore excursions we has signed up for at the beginning of the trip. For some reason that just took me back to the beginning, when this trip was still a dream instead of a memory, and it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: it's over. It's really over. All of the annoyances and discomforts and crazy traffic and pollution and endless bus rides just evaporated from my mind and for a moment all that was left was the awesomeness of it, the exotic sights and smells and flavors and the novelty of being able to tell people, "Yeah, we're going to be on this ship for two and a half months." And now it was over. Just like that. In the blink of an eye. It felt, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, like a metaphor for life itself. I'm still pretty young, but I am becoming more and more aware of how short life really is. I feel an increased urgency to make the most of what's left, because there's no going back.

So while I'm sad about the trip coming to an end, I'm also glad to be getting back home. The trip was awesome, but I'm not ready to retire to a cruise ship, and although I got some writing done and even a little bit of hacking, it's a lot easier to be productive with fewer distractions and a fast internet connection. And I'm feeling the need to be productive. I've seen too many people busting their humps trying to improve their lives not to get out there and do my bit before I die. I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do, but on the trip I put together a list of half a dozen possible projects, some of which involve travel to Asia :-)

So for pretty much the first time in my life I have no idea what's coming next. But I'm looking forward to finding out.

Monday, November 09, 2009

[Travelogue] Time zone craziness

Trivia question for the day: how many time zones does Australia have?

Answer: six!

The country only spans three hours worth of time difference from east to west, but they manage to cram six different time zones in nonetheless. Western Australia (which includes Perth) is three hours behind New South Wales (which includes Sydney) and Victoria (which includes Melbourne). But in between is a crazy patchwork of daylight-savings, non-daylight-savings, and just plain nutty time zones, including a tiny little piece on the border between Western and South Australia that is 45 minutes ahead of Perth, but one hour and forty-five minutes behind the adjacent South Australia! You can travel west from Queensland to South Australia and have to set your clock forward instead of backwards. You can travel north-south between South Australia and the Northern Territory and have to reset your clock by an hour (which way depends on the direction you're going of course), but in either place you'll still have a half-hour phase difference with GMT. And if you cross the border from Western Australia to South Australia you'll have to change your clocks by a whopping two and a half hours all in one go.

I suppose with Australia being as sparsely populated as it is this all makes sense on the ground. But it looks pretty nutty from the air.

[Travelogue] Back in (western) civilization

Nancy says she could happily live aboard this ship for the rest of her life, but for me there's no place like home. The longest I've ever been traveling before is six weeks, a record we broke about two weeks ago, and I don't know whether it's the time or being in the poorer parts of Asia, but it's starting to get a bit emotionally draining. By the time we reach Sydney in ten days I will definitely be ready to go home.

Since leaving Singapore we've had three ports of call: Java, Bali and Perth. Our visit to Java consisted of three hours of sitting on a bus, one hour of walking around the ancient temple of Borobudur in sweltering heat (Java is six degrees south of the equator), followed by another three hours of sitting on a bus. It could have been worse. Our bus convoy had a police escort, which allowed us to cut through traffic like Moses parting the Red Sea. We felt like VIPs until we found out later that anyone can get a police escort in Java simply by paying a bri-- I mean a fee.

Bali was beautiful, but again sweltering and the street peddlers on the pier were the most aggressive I've ever encountered anywhere in the world, and that is saying something. These people simply would not take no for an answer. I almost had to resort to threatening physical violence to get them to leave us alone. Once clear of the pier, though, the Balinese were very friendly, and some of the local crafts are quite impressive, worth a trip if you're into that sort of thing. The woodwork in particular is comparable to what we found in Africa in terms of value, maybe even better. A master woodworker on Bali makes between two and twenty dollars a day depending on their level of skill, and the intricacy of some of their carvings is mind-blowing.

I have to say, though, that although I found Asia fascinating I am not sorry to be leaving it behind for a while. Dealing with the traffic in particular, even just as a passenger, gets to be very stressful after a while. I tried to pretend that the crazy road rules and the omnipresent diesel exhaust didn't bother me, but the truth is they did. I have learned a new appreciation for Western infrastructure these past few weeks.

On which topic, Perth is a little gem of a city. It's out in the middle of nowhere, the most isolated capital city in the world, but it is gorgeous: clean and modern, chock full of parks and trees, on a river that is too shallow for industrial ships so the waterfront is mostly unspoiled -- except for what must be the most hideous convention center in Christendom. What they were thinking when they approved that monstrosity I will never know. (BTW, if you have $56 million burning a hole in your pocket, there is a stunning home on the riverbank on offer for that amount. It was built by a local mining magnate's wife who lived there for a year and then decided she didn't like it after all. It is rumored that if she doesn't manage to sell it she's going to tear it all down and start over from scratch.)

I have to say that this trip has made me an even bigger fan of Western civilization than I was before. I love Asia, much more than I was expecting to, but the places I like the most were the places that were most Westernized: Japan and Singapore. There's just an awful lot to be said for emission controls and yielding the right of way. And clean drinking water coming out of the tap. And air conditioning. We in the West take these things for granted, but they are in fact unimaginable luxuries in some very large parts of the world. I think Americans in particular would do well to keep that more in mind than we typically do.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

[Travelogue] Singapore: green and squeaky clean

I would not have thought it possible to build a city cleaner than Tokyo. I was wrong. Tokyo is spotless, but Singapore is positively gleaming. Even the container port where we first docked (because the berths in the cruise ship terminal were all occupied) looked like it had a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I had seen people scrubbing the concrete with toothbrushes I would not have been too surprised.

Singapore is a unique country. It's a tiny (20x30 miles) island just at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It grew up similar to Hong Kong under British rule, but with a more varied and eclectic mix of Asian influences. It has also had the benefit of a benevolent dictator who has turned the Island into a squeaky-clean and more fully Westernized version of Hong Kong. Politically Singapore is a very weird animal. It is nominally a democracy but actually a dictatorship. Like Hong King, Singapore is a pean to free-market capitalism. It makes most of its money from shipping and banking services. Income taxes are low (at least according to our tour guide). And yet it has an extremely liberal ethos. The country enthusiastically embraces its multi-ethnic heritage. It is so environmentally conscious you'd think Al Gore was prime minister. Taxes on cars are ridiculously high (there is excellent public transit to compensate) and old cars are simply not allowed on the road. There are clearly emission control laws in place. The black-smoke-belching diesels and scooters that seem to be ubiquitous in China, Thailand and Viet Nam are nowhere to be found here. Even chewing gum is banned!

There are trees everywhere. The waterfront is gleaming and chock-a-block with a wide array of restaurants housed in historic buildings that have been lovingly restored. The cruise ship terminal is part of an enormous shopping mall, again with literally dozens of restaurants overlooking the water. It appears at first glance to be the best example of urban planning in the world. I can't think of any other city that comes close. And to top if all off, everyone is friendly and speaks English. Of all the places we've been on this trip, Singapore is the one I would most like to come back to (well, maybe a toss-up with Tokyo).

The only problem with this place is the weather. It's 1 degree north of the equator, so they have three kinds of weather: hot and humid, hotter and more humid, and ridiculously hot and humid, with an occasional rain shower thrown in for seasoning. They don't get taiphoons, and they don't have earthquakes. I'm not sure I could handle living in a place that never gets below 70 degrees. But it sure is nice to visit.

The downside of everything being so wonderful is that there aren't many good stories to tell. We walked around, marveled at the architecture, ate some great food, and that's about it. So to make up for it, I'll tell another story about something happened way back in Osaka that I just realized I forgot to write about at the time.

Osaka is a sprawling city without a real center, and the cruise ship terminal is kind of out in the boonies, relatively speaking. There's quite a lot of stuff there, including the aquarium (worth a visit) and a giant ferris wheel. There's even a shopping center, but it's kind of an uninteresting one. There are no restaurants beyond a food court and a few chains. So we went on a sushi quest and ended up in a tatami room in a place where no one spoke English and the menu was all in Japanese. We had a great meal nonetheless. After we were done, as we were walking down the street, the proprietor of the restaurant came running after us. It seems I had inadvertently left a brochure on the table and he was returning it to me. He handed it to me with a lot of bowing and a long speech in Japanese that I couldn't understand. For all I know he was saying: stupid gai-jin, why can't you remember to take your shit with you? But it sure didn't sound like that to me.

When I told this story to several people familiar with Japanese custom they all told me that such a thing was not at all unusual in Japan. But it sure seemed extraordinary to me. Americans could learn a thing or two from the Japanese. And the Singaporeans.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

[Travelogue] One night in Bangkok

I don't know whether it was the heat and humidity and noise and pollution or simply the fact that I've been away from home for too long, but Bangkok just did not float my canoe. It didn't help that the drive from the ship into town took more than three hours, the last of which we covered only about four miles. I kid you not.

When it comes to traffic, Asia is a land of stunning contrasts, from the excruciatingly well behaved drivers of Japan at one extreme, and the utterly unconstrained by any rules of the road chaos of Viet Nam at the other. Thailand embodies the entire spectrum just in the greater Bangkok area. There is a splendid eight-lane-wide superhighway -- much of it elevated -- running from Laem Chabang where we docked right into the heart of Bangkok. Traffic flowed smoothly and at full speed. Vehicles passed each other in orderly succession. It was quite the refreshing change after Saigon.

Then we got off the freeway and onto the surface streets and instantly hit total gridlock. I can't remember the last time I've seen traffic that bad, and I live in LA. As I've already mentioned, it took us an hour to go four miles. We could have walked faster than we drove. (To be fair, while the streets of Bangkok were crowded beyond all reason, the drivers were still very courteous even at ground level. That is one thing I can say about Thailand in general: everyone is very friendly.)

I think perhaps too I've seen one temple too many on this trip. Our first stop was a tour of the famous Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is quite beautiful, probably the most ornate asian-style building I've seen yet on this trip, and yet the thought that was foremost in my mind was not: oh my god look at these extensive and stunningly detailed mosaic-covered buildings, but rather, oh my god, it is freakin' HOT out here, I think I'm going to melt.

Even after the sun went down it was still freakin' hot. And crowded. And polluted. I guess if you're a kid looking for excitement, or a businessman looking for cheap tailor-made suits, or a pedophile looking for some action, Bangkok can be the Place To Be. But I am none of those things, so the place just left me cold. I mean hot.

I can't honestly say it was a total loss. We did have some terrific Thai food, and the second day we took a tour of the canals off the main river which was pretty cool. But all in all I'd have to say Bangkok was more trouble than it was worth, which was a real disappointment. I really had high hopes for the place. Interesting how very little in Asia has turned out the way I expected.

We stayed overnight at the Shangri-La. If you do go to Bangkok this is a fine place to stay, and nowadays there are good deals to be had. It's centrally located, convenient to the elevated light rail system (by far the best way to get around), and has really great restaurants. Bring a bathing suit :-)

We were in port for three days, but we decided to cut our stay short and returned to the ship early on the second day. That worked out really well because the ship had arranged for a local Thai dance troupe to give a performance aboard ship last night, which was absolutely delightful. They gave us a little primer about what all the different movements and gestures mean, which made the performance a lot easier to follow.

Today we were still in port but neither Nancy nor I could work up much enthusiasm for venturing back out into the heat. So we took the day off, a vacation from the vacation. It was really nice to have a day with nothing to do. No lectures to go to. No tours. No nothing. Despite that, the day has flown by.

Tomorrow we're at sea, and the day after that we're in Singapore. I hope by then I will have recovered enough enthusiasm to be able to appreciate the place.

Monday, October 26, 2009

[Travelogue] Thai massage, elephant-style

We're in Bangkok tomorrow. Although it's only about 20 miles from the port into town we're told it takes 2-1/2 hours because of traffic, and after seeing what the roads are like in Saigon I believe it. So we're staying overnight in a hotel, which means I have to pack, which means I don't have much time to write. But I just had to tell this story:

We were on Ko Samui island today, which is abeam the more well-known Phuket but on the Pacific side of the Thai peninsula instead of the Indian Ocean side (and hence was unaffected by the famous Christmas tsunami a few years ago). There are a lot of places that advertise Thai massage, most of which are not what you're thinking. (Those places are mostly in Bangkok.) But I had a truly unique "massage" performed by an asian elephant! We were at an elephant training facility and I was "volunteered" to lie down on the ground and have an elephant give me a "Thai massage", which consisted of having the elephant gently pat me on the back with its foot. Still, when you consider that the critter weighs as much as a small car and could have squished me like a bug, it was pretty exciting. I also got a "kiss", which from an elephant comes from its trunk instead of its mouth. It was kind of like having a vacuum cleaner hose stuck to my head. Afterwards they gave me a little moist towelette to wipe off the elephant snot.

it really wasn't nearly as gross as I'm making it sound. I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to use the phrase "elephant snot" in a blog post. Opportunities like that just don't come along every day. :-)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

[Travelogue] A couple of pictures from the Mekong delta

I'e not been posting many pictures because uploading them over the ship's flaky internet connection is so annoying, but I couldn't resist showing these:

These are the distinctive eyes that are painted on most of the boats in the Mekong delta.

Can you imagine American parents letting their kid do this?

[Travelogue] Hidden treasures in Saigon

There's something about Viet Nam that seems to bring out the crazy driver in people. The action at an intersection is so chaotic it's almost comical: the light changes, everyone leans on their horns and charges out into the intersection. There is a moment of chaos as bicycles, scooters (many with multiple passengers -- we saw as many as four on one scooter), cars, trucks and the odd adventurous (or maybe foolhardy) pedestrian jostles for position. And then, somehow, it all sorts itself out, and what seemed destined to become a hopeless snarl at best and a massacre at worst somehow unravels itself, and everyone eventually manages to get through the intersection. For a brief moment, traffic actually flows. Then the light changes and the whole dance begins anew. And yet, amazingly, in three days of being driven through this hair-raising bedlam we did not see a single accident. It is astonishing. There should be casualties lining the streets. But there aren't.

The craziness even seemed to extend to our ship. I was awakened at 6AM yesterday with the ship heeled over at a crazy angle, and the foghorn blaring non-stop. We were careening up the serpentine Saigon river at 20 knots, with our 50,000 ton cruise ship taking the turns like a Ferrari (that is, if Ferrari made trucks). If the ship had tires they would have been squealing. As I write this we are zipping back down the river and it's every bit as crazy as it was on the way up.

We docked in Saigon at about 8:30 and went on an excursion to the Mekong river delta. (One thing they have plenty of in Viet Nam is rivers.) It was a 2-1/2 hour drive each way, but it was worth the trip. If Halong Bay is Venice meets Yosemite, the Meekong Delta is Venice meets ... well, that's the thing, there's really nowhere I've been that I can compare it to, and that's saying something. I was going to say "Venice meets Mumbai" but that's not quite right. The Mekong Delta is poor, but it isn't (or at least doesn't seem to be) desperately poor the way Mumbai is. You can't walk ten paces in Mumbai without being accosted by beggars. We didn't meet any in the Mekong, nor in Saigon. There were plenty of poor people, but not one beggar.

These people live in conditions that in the U.S. would be considered apalling. They have no plumbing. Water for drinking and washing comes from rainwater collected in large galvanized steel tanks. The river is their bathroom. There is some electricity for light, but no heat or air conditioning. Most of the houses barely have walls. The riverbank is crammed wall-to-wall (as it were) with houses, many of which are built out over the water on pilings. Many live on boats with varying degrees of seaworthiness.

And yet there seems to be a thriving economy here. There's a bustling floating market with boats chock full of cocoanuts, pineapples, and various unidentifiable veggies. There is a thriving trade repairing the engines that these people use to power their boats. That anything made of metal survives in this climate is miraculous.

The boats on the Meekong are quite interesting in their own right. They range from small paddle-driven canoes to good-sized (50 foot or so) barges, but they all have distinctive eyes painted on to their bows. The motor-driven ones all use an ingenious outboard motor mechanism that consists of an engine -- any engine -- bolted on to a frame and connected via a chain or gear drive to a long (20-foot or so) shaft, at the end of which is a propeller. The entire assembly is mounted on a gimbal at the stern of the boat. It's very simple mechanically, and allows for easy repairs and interchange of parts, including whole engines. It also allows the propeller to be easily taken out of the water, which is important because the water is shallow and often clogged with water lilies.

We visited a factory that makes cocoanut candy. Actually, calling it a factory is being charitable. It's a shack with some picnic tables, and a few odds and ends. The most high-tech piece of machinery is a large stand mixer, which beats the candy mixture in batches of about a gallon at a time. The candy is processed and wrapped by hand one piece at a time. Actually, each piece is wrapped twice, once in edible rice paper, and then again in regular wrapping paper. This is because the candy is so sticky that you could not remove the wrapper if it were applied directly. A package of 40 pieces goes for $1.50, which is probably two or three times the actual going rate. And it is delicious. It's called Thang Phong coconut candy, and if you ever get a chance to try some I highly recommend it.

Today we went into Saigon proper, and to make a long story short, we ended up at the zoo. We didn't really plan on going there, it just kind of happened. It's a bit of a sad place, especially since we've been to Africa and seen a lot of these animals in their natural habitat. The elephants in particular were not happy campers. But on the other side of the coin, the herbivores actually looked happier and more content than they do in the wild, probably because they know they aren't on the buffet table.

The oddest thing we saw was in the reptile house. There was an exhibit that housed two enormous pythons and one rabbit. Yes, I know what you're thinking, the rabbit is lunch. But the rabbit didn't seem to think so. It was snuggled up against one of the snakes happily munching on a leaf. If this rabbit was in any danger it was utterly oblivious.

We left the zoo with just enough time to catch a taxi back to the ship. Fortunately, there were a bunch of cabs waiting at the main entrance. We got in one whose drive seemed particularly eager to have us aboard, and as soon as we got underway it became clear why this guy was hustling so hard for fares. His engine was shot. We trundled down the street for several blocks, being passed by all the other traffic (including the bicycles) before his engine finally died in the middle of the street. It took us several tense minutes to hail another cab, and happily we had better luck the second time around. I don't know what we would have done if we'd been in a less-travelled part of town.

More to tell but it will have to wait. The dinner gong is sounding.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

[Travelogue] Challenging the Chinese

The Vietnamese are challenging the Chinese for the title of world's craziest drivers. But here's it's not the bus drivers who are crazy, it's the scooter riders. In China there is a very clear rule for establishing the right-of-way: the bigger vehicle wins. So busses run down cars, which run down motorcycles, which run down pedestrians who are decidedly at the bottom of the Chinese mobility pecking order. All of which makes a weird kind of sense with respect to certain economic quality metrics. With busses at the top of the heap, more people get where they're going faster. Of course, the price is the odd motorcyclist or pedestrian casualty (average of three fatalities per day in Shanghai we were told) but when you have 1.3 billion people I guess you can afford to lose a few.

Here in Viet Nam it's the scooters who assert the right of way over everyone else. We rode from some port whose name escapes me to some town whose name also escapes me, all the while watching our bus driver honking and weaving to avoid little scooters who would blithely ride wherever the hell they pleased, apparently oblivious to the rather poor odds of winning a confrontation with a bus.

The fact that I have to look up the name of the last place we were gives you some indication of the impression it made on me. The most memorable thing we saw was three large cargo ships that had been washed up on the beach by a recent typhoon. We had a really delicious lunch. And we saw a lot of rice paddies, and a silk-production facility. That was actually kind of interesting. I've never seen a real silkworm "on the hoof" as it were, so that was kind of cool. I'll never look at a silk tie the same way again. But that was pretty much it.

I'm sure Viet Nam has a lot of really fascinating things to offer, but with the exception of Halong Bay, which is spectacular, we have yet to find them. But tomorrow we're in Saigon. so I'm still optimistic.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Travelogue] Beauty and desperation in Viet Nam

When we get into a new port the first thing I always do is snap a couple of pictures from the balcony of our cabin. Yesterday morning my arrival photo shoot included a sight that at first struck me as charming. Alongside our ship, a small boat was bobbing in the waves. On the boat was a child and a Vietnamese woman, coolie hat and all. The woman was working the oars and the child, who couldn't have been any older than three or four, sat there looking cute.

At first I thought they were just passing through, but then I realized that the woman was begging. It was still early in the morning and very few people were out and about on the ship, but whenever anyone appeared at a railing the woman would paddle over to them and raise her hand in a gesture of supplication, and then point at the child. And she'd do this with a sense of urgency.

Exactly what she hoped that we would do for her was unclear. It's about a twenty foot drop from even the lowest accessible deck down to the water, and the top deck is probably seventy feet up. The water had to be deep: I'm not sure what our draft is, but we displace 50,000 tons so it has to be at least 20 feet or so, so the water must have been 30 or 40 feet deep. And this was an industrial harbor. The water was muddy. Anything that fell into the water and doesn't float was surely gone forever.

I've been to a lot of poor places and seen a lot of beggars. Sometimes I give them something, sometimes not. It depends on the circumstances. If it's a lone beggar and I happen to have some change on me I'll usually give it to them. If there's a crowd I usually won't because I've found that there is a very egalitarian ethic among beggars; as soon as one gets something the other swarm around the newfound patron and demand their fair share. It can be very difficult to extricate oneself from such situations, particularly when children are involved.

But this woman was clearly flying solo. I thought for a bit about what I might be able to do to help her out (and her kid) but the logistics were just too daunting. Besides, I couldn't really figure out what she wanted. Food? Money? Asylum? I decided that the situation was beyond my ability to influence in a positive way, so I hardened my heart (a handy skill if you want to travel in poor places without going crazy), and went about my business. Which included taking pictures of her.

Then I helped to stimulate the local economy by going kayaking in Halong Bay, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's a vast array of monoliths that have been carved out of limestone deposits by rainfall and ocean currents. There are caves only accessible by Kayak that lead into breath-taking grottos. There are hawks flying around. The place is truly awe-inspiring. Cross-breed Venice with Yosemite and you have Halong Bay.

Fast-forward to our departure, about two hours ago as I write this. A crowd began to form against the railing so I went to see what the commotion was about. There in the water was the same floating beggar woman from the day before.

Now, I have to digress for a moment and describe her boat. When I say it was small, I don't mean small compared to our cruise ship, I mean small on an absolute scale. To call it a rowboat would be an insult to rowboats. It was really not much more than a dilapidated wooden raft with oars.

And it was leaking.

The day before, the wind had been calm. Now it was blowing at about 20 knots, and the poor woman had to paddle constantly just to stay in place. Every few minutes she had to stop and bail, and the wind would blow her back towards our stern. After bailing out a few gallons of water she'd start paddling again and with agonizing slowness work her way back to about our midship before she had to bail again. In between paddling and bailing, she would occasionally raise up her hand towards the dozens of people peering at her over the railings. But only for a split second.

She was still there alongside us when we cast off. At that point I really expected her to give up, but she didn't. With 50,000 tons of cruise ship bearing down on her she kept paddling and bailing, paddling and bailing.

Usually when we pull out of a port, the ship uses its side thrusters to push away from the dock, after which they fire up the main engines and we zip on out of there. There have been two exceptions to this. The first was in Shanghai, where there was so much river traffic that we had to go backwards down the river for a while before there was a big enough break in the boat traffic for us to turn around. (Because the ship has bow and stern thrusters, she can do pirouettes in place.)

This time it turned out we also had to turn around, but the maneuvering room was even tighter because of some nearby buoys -- and the beggar woman's boat. At one point our tug boat (there is always one standing by in case something goes wrong) had to go and chase her away. Eventually we got away from the dock and the woman and her boat faded away into the distance. She was still paddling.

I don't know if the woman knew what the ship was going to do next, but it turned out that even with her out of the way there wasn't room to do the usual pirouette -- to get ourselves pointed in the right direction we had to do a three-point turn, which is quite the maneuver in a boat this big.

By that time the beggar woman's boat had been blown so far downwind that it was now barely visible. She had been paddling (upwind) the whole time, and we were now headed directly towards her. She maneuvered herself almost directly into our path, and there were a few tense moments when it looked as if we might actually run her down. As we passed, she turned her boat around. But we were doing about ten knots (and capable of twenty), so although the wind was now with her, keeping up was completely hopeless. Nonetheless, she continued to paddle after us. I watched her for as long as I could, ultimately resorting to binoculars. When she finally faded from view for good she was still paddling after us, heading out into open water. What she was hoping to accomplish at that point I cannot begin to imagine.

Don't ever let anyone tell you that poor people are poor because they aren't willing to work hard or take risks. Just for the time I was watching her, this poor woman had been paddling non-stop (and I do mean non-stop) in a leaky boat for the better part of an hour. God only knows how long it took her to get to us in the first place, or how much longer she had to paddle to get to a safe harbor.

That is, of course, assuming she actually made it.

UPDATE: I think my description of the situation doesn't really do it justice, so here are some pictures:

Now that I see these I realize that the woman's boat is even more rickety than I had thought. The hull of the boat is actually made of reeds, not wood. Little wonder that it was leaking.

UPDATE2: Upon closer examination of my photos, it turns out that the woman who was there when we arrived was not the same as the one who was there when we left. They looked virtually identical at a casual glance. Both had a young child with them, a boy. Both had woven-reed boats with crude wooden decks that looked virtually identical. But the photos clearly show that they were different boats and different people.

Here's a picture of the arrival beggar.

I have since learned that the average per-capita income in Viet Nam is about $1000 per year. That's up from $220 in 1994 thanks largely to economic reforms.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

[Travelogue] Hong Kong

Sorry about the boring title. I just can't seem to come up with a headline for Hong Kong. The place defies succinct description.

I live in the 14th largest city on the world (Los Angeles, measured according to the population of the entire metropolitan area according to this web site). I've spent quite a bit of time in the third largest (New York) and I've recently visited the largest (Tokyo). Next to these titans, Hong Kong is a laggard in 38th place. But Hong Kong is unique in having its development be the most severely constrained of any city in the history of the world in terms of geography. Manhattan is dense because it is surrounded by water, but if push comes to shove you can build a ferry or a bridge or a tunnel and escape the confines of the Hudson and the East rivers. That was not an option in Hong Kong. Although the British-controlled area did include a small piece of land attached to the mainland (the Kowloon peninsula), the border with China was an even more impenetrable obstacle to growth than the Pacific ocean. So when trade happened and prosperity and population growth followed, there was no place to grow but up. As a result, there is no place on earth that can match Hong Kong in terms of sheer skyscraperage. The Hong Kong skyline is Manhattan on steroids, one tall building after another for as far as the eye can see...

... which unfortunately wasn't very far when we were there. It was so hazy that at times you could barely see across the harbor. Still, we were impressed, and we had a wonderful time.

I think Hong Kong is probably the most interesting city in the world. It is arguably the most culturally diverse, with the British and Chinese having had more or less equal influence. Los Angeles is diverse, but it is still undeniably and overwhelmingly American. Hong Kong is not British and it's not Chinese, but a strange and wonderful amalgam of both, unique in the world as far as I know. If you want to dip a toe in the waters of Asia, Hong Kong is a great place to go. Everyone speaks English, but you can't go far without finding something that will nudge you a little out of your comfort zone.

The physical city is as diverse as its culture. Parts of it are astonishingly dense (the natives fancy themselves the most densely populated city in the world, but Wikipedia disagrees). But other parts, particularly the steep slopes of Hong Kong island itself, are completely undeveloped. It has the odd mansion on the odd hillside. It has a race track (horse racing isn't gambling, it's sports, kind of like Chinese capitalism isn't capitalism, it's socialism with Chinese influences). It has a golf course (only nine holes). It has a beach. It has mountains (well, OK, hills). It has parks. The only thing it doesn't have are suburbs. There's no room.

By far the most interesting part of the city for me was the street markets, which are everywhere. If it exists on this planet, you'll find it somewhere on the streets of Hong Kong. It seems that there's a store front or a street vendor around every turn, up every escalator, in every tunnel. And the city proper is thoroughly three-dimensional. In the city center there is an array of pedestrian sky bridges so extensive that you could live your whole life there without ever descending to street level.

We had a great overview tour led by a guide with a charming Hong Kong accent (think Jackie Chan or Martin Yan) who spoke with a disarming mixture of respect and disdain of the "filthy rich" people who live in the higher levels of the city and who (gasp!) drive their own cars. Cars are taxed at rates as high as 100%, and a parking space can rent for as much as an apartment in other cities.

Every night the entire city puts on a spectacular light and laser show that is all coordinated to music. If you've ever been to Vegas and seen the Bellagio fountains, it's kind of like that but with light instead of water and on a much grander scale (if you can imagine that). Dozens, maybe hundreds of buildings, all participate. It's quite the eye-popper.

I would very happily spend a couple of weeks more in Hong Kong.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In which I stomp on Scott Lonklin's stompage of Yahoo Finance

Scott Lonklin rags rags on the folks at Yahoo Finance for their choice of America's top entrepreneurs:

"Dear America: you can’t have an economy based on narcissism, good intentions, marketing, catering to rich bored people, really excellent webpages, and selling underpants on the internet. I’m afraid you’ll have to make something of value."

Well, actually, you can. Scott, like many people, doesn't seem to understand what business, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation are really about. They are not about innovation or creating the latest and greatest thing, at least not necessarily. Great fortunes have been built on very prosaic foundations. The capital that funded the industrialization of the United States of America was built by simply moving things from A to B. In fact, most of the world's great fortunes have been built not by innovation, but by incremental improvements in efficiency of a small number of basic processes. Companies built on breakthrough technologies like Google and Microsoft are the exceptions (that's why they make the papers). And even Google actually makes its money through a prosaic mechanism: advertising. They make nearly nothing from search directly.

Of course, all else being equal, innovation can help you achieve a competitive advantage. But innovation is not free. It merely one among the many costs of bringing a product to market. A myopic focus on innovation can result in spending too many resources on it to the detriment of other more important things, and ultimately making yourself non-competitive, or worse, non-profitable. The ultimate measure of success in business is not whether you've done something new and cool, but merely if you've provided a useful good or service better than your competitors, where "better" is judged by the market. And that means that the quality metric is complicated and multi-dimensional. It varies according to place and time. Two days ago we paid $100 for dinner for two. Was it worth it? We could have sated ourselves at McDonald's for 1/10th the price. But then we would have been eating burgers instead of kung pao chicken, and looking at Ronald McDonald (I presume) instead of the Shanghai skyline. Is that worth $90? We certainly thought so at the time.

So can you have an economy based on catering to rich bored people? Or selling underpants on the Internet? You certainly can, if there are enough rich bored people willing to pay to have help alleviating their boredom, or enough people for whom buying underpants on the Internet is more convenient than shlepping out to the store. I'd buy underpants on the Internet. Jeff Bezos got rich selling books on the Internet. Why not underpants?

The vast majority of people's needs are prosaic: food, clothing (including underpants), shelter, and, if you can afford it, entertainment. You don't have to discover new laws of physics to find ways of delivering these needs to a segment of the market better than the people who are currently doing it -- by whatever quality metric that market segment chooses to apply. Lower the price. Make it more reliable. Get it there faster. Offer more variety. Make it more fashionable. All of these are ways of providing more value. Hardly any of them require a lot of innovation.

This is why I am fundamentally optimistic about the future. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the potential of the Internet to provide incremental value, and thus produce wealth, in traditional industries. This is because technology geeks are at best ignoring, and at worst outright snubbing, prosaic industries like renting airplanes, catering to rich bored people, marketing, and selling underpants or used cardboard boxes.

Which is fine with me. I don't mind having less competition.

[Disclosure: I am an investor in]

[Travelogue] The two faces of Shanghai

When I first moved to Los Angeles I was struck by how quickly the face of the city could change. One street in particular, Los Feliz, illustrated this better than any other. As you go West on Los Feliz you drive through one of the richest neighborhoods in L.A. Movie stars live here. Then you make a 90 degree turn to the South and BAM! you're in the euphamistically-namd heart of Hollywood surrounded by bag ladies and liquor stores. (Actually, that part of town has become gentrified in recent years, so the contrast is not nearly as stark as it once was.)

All this is a pale reflection of the contrasts in Shanghai. On our second day there we decided to leave the beaten path and walk through some of the older parts of town. To call it squalor would be a disservice to the word. We saw evidence of people living literally in ruins -- half-torn-down apartment blocks with laundry hanging up to dry. And these places are, sometimes figuratively and on occasion literally, in the shadow of ultra-modern high-rises.

The city seems to be full of culinary gems hidden in improbable places. We happened to stumble into two of them by sheer dumb luck, which means there must be a lot of them out there to be found. One our first night there we took a shuttle bus from the ship. These shuttles normally drop you off in an interesting part of town, but in this case we drove past all the interesting looking bits and ended up in the middle of nowhere. Empty sidewalks. Closed-up storefronts. Dark. Spooky. We all (meaning all the people on the shuttle) were utterly nonplussed.

Nancy and I started walking in a random direction. We had no idea where we were. We had a map, but all the street signs were in Chinese. We couldn't see any of the high-rises that normally provide landmarks, and even if we could it might not have helped because we were on one side of the river, the landmark high-rises were all on the other side, and the river makes an S-turn as it goes through town. So even if you can see the high-rises that still doesn't really tell you where you are.

By sheer luck we ended up on Nanjing street, a major pedestrian mall. The place was buzzing. All the shops were open and it was chock full of people. There were also lots of what in China are considered top places to eat: McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut. Not exactly what we were looking for. We did find one establishment called "The Good Old Place" where we had a "Good old drink" (seriously, that's what they called it) and an order of samosas (which weren't samosas, but they were tasty and took the edge off our hunger). Then we followed that up with some Margaritas (which weren't really Margaritas, though they did seem to contain some tequila) because we figured that it might be prudent to have a little alcohol in our systems after having consumed some of the local tap water.

We kept walking and ended up at the riverfront in an area called The Bund. This used to be the colonial part of Shanghai, where Westerners built fancy buildings for themselves in the 1920's and 30's where Chinese people were not welcome. In front of one of the buildings we saw a sign for a restaurant, so we went in. A concierge directed us to the fifth floor. We stepped off the lift into a completely bare landing. No restaurant. No indication that there was or had ever been a restaurant. All there was was a black door. We opened it gingerly, and behind it turned out to be a spiffy establishment called Mr. and Mrs. Bund. It was something straight out of Sex and the City, full of trendy-looking young people, with a spectacular view of the Shanghai skyline. Unfortunately, they didn't have any tables available except in the smoking section, so we decided to just have drinks at the bar. We started chatting with the bartender, who turned out to be the owner's son and was apparently impressed by the fact that we had found the place by accident. Ten minutes later we were seated at a table by the window -- in the non-smoking section -- and proceeded to have an incredibly tasty meal. When it was over, we stepped out onto the balcony to watch the skyline and take some pictures. Ten minutes later, they turned out the lights.

I don't mean they turned out the lights of the restaurant, I mean they turned out the lights of the *skyline*. Across the river, just after 10 PM, Shanghai went dark. All of the lights on the skyscrapers were turned out, except for a few to signal errant aircraft (not that there were any errant aircraft -- there is nearly no general aviation in China). It was another stark reminder that we weren't in New York, and how profligate we in the West are with energy that we would take it for granted that city skylines ought to be lit throughout the night.

The second day we had a similar experience -- walking through some of the seedier parts of town and stumbling onto a top-notch restaurant by pure accident. This one was a Chinese restaurant, and we could tell it was high-end because it had a whole section of different kinds of shark-fin soup (we did not indulge) and birds nests. Yes, they are real birds nests, as in nests made by birds. No, we didn't try those either. There' a limit to our adventurousness.

I've come away with very mixed feelings about China. On the one hand, they've accomplished some amazing things. Just building a city like the new Shanghai in twenty years is impressive enough by itself, but they've repeated that feat in Beijing and Dalian, and presumably in other parts of the country as well. I am given to understand that living standards in the countryside have gone from appalling to merely run-of-the-mill poor. When there are 1.3 billion people in your country that is no mean feat.

But on the other hand the Chinese also seem to be shooting themselves in the foot in many ways. For example, by insisting against all reality that they are practicing Marxism (with Chinese influences of course) they are raising an entire generation to think that it is OK, even expected, to deny obvious truths. And this attitude leads to further national self-mutilation, for example, by continuing to insist against all available historical evidence that Tibet has always been a part of China. It hasn't. This claim was invented out of whole cloth by Sun Yat Sen. Everyone alive in China today has been raised to believe that it's true, but it isn't. That, combined with the cultural pressure to not lose face, makes it all but inevitable that China will continue to live this lie, and will continue to burn capital and national prestige for no apparent return except to avoid having to admit that they were wrong. Not that they are the only country ever to make that kind of a mistake. But I -- any many others (including Don Gibbs, from whom I learned a lot about Tibet today) -- would have hoped that the nation that invented gunpowder, paper, moveable type and the stern-post-rudder would be smarter than that.

Oh well.

Monday, October 12, 2009

[Travelogue] Holy freakin' cow, that's fast!

We're in Shanghai, a city whose history should be required study for all those who advocate lassez-faire capitalism. In the 1920's and 30's that's pretty much what there was here, and it wasn't pretty. There's a reason that "Shanghai", like "Google", became a verb.

Today there is again Capitalism in Shanghai, but it isn't lassez-faire, and it isn't called capitalism, it's called "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Whatever you call it, it has produced dramatic change. The city is divided in half by the Huangpu river. Old Shanghai is on one side. New Shanghai, which until 20 years go or so what nothing but rice paddies, is on the other. In less than two decades a fully fledged modern city has risen like a phoenix from the marshes.

The speed of Shanghai's development is captured in concentrated microcosm in one of its tourist attractions, the maglev train, which runs from the center of the new city to the airport, a distance of some 20 miles. It puts the Japanese Shinkansen (bullet train) to shame, at least in terms of raw speed. It covers that distance in exactly seven minutes and twenty seconds, reaching a top speed of 430 km/hr, about 260 mph. (It once hit 501 km/hr in a test run.) We got to ride it yesterday, and boy is it fast. I got a video, though unfortunately I won't be able to upload it until we get home because it's much to big. When you watch the video it looks like it's playing in fast-motion, but it's not. It's real time. At one point on the run the two trains traveling in opposite directions pass each other. It takes less than one second for one train to pass the full length of the other. You can feel the shock wave coming off the oncoming train as it passes. It almost feels like you've collided with something. "Don't blink or you'll miss it" is more than an aphorism on the maglev.

Today we spent the day exploring the older part of the city, and that was quite the adventure. Tomorrow we're going to see the nearby town of Zhujiajao, which is called China's Venice. More about old Shanghai later. Right now we're off to see the famous Shanghai Acrobats.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wealth-production mechanisms: a followup

lkozma over on Hacker News posted a comment about my piece on wealth-production mechanisms that implied that it was a pointless exercise. I disagree, of course, but I do think it's a fair criticism which deserves an answer. I think that enumerating that list has value because there are useful lessons to be learned from the exercise.

The first lesson is not so much the contents of the list per se as the fact that the list is short. Even if I left out a few things (and I did, but not the things most people have suggested), the complete list is almost certainly not much longer than a dozen or so top-level items. I think that's a useful lesson for a certain class of people, specifically, young, bright, ambitious kids who think they're going to come up with a brilliant idea that will make them fabulously wealthy or win them the Nobel Prize or something like that (i.e. the kind of person I was in my teens and early twenties). Since the number of really fundamentally different ways of creating wealth is small, that means that new ones don't get invented all that often. That has two important implications. First, it means that the chances that you will come up with a new top-level item are very small. That doesn't mean you won't have a bright idea; it just means that the chances are extremely high that your bright idea will fit into an existing category, which means that you can and should learn about the current state of the art in that category. It's a way of focusing your attention and preventing you from reinventing too many wheels. A failure to heed this lesson is the reason that Webvan (and many other first-wave Internet bubble startups) failed.

The second lesson is that many of the items on the list are prosaic but extremely powerful. What prompted me to write that piece to begin with was the realization that what made the U.S. the world's leading industrial power was not a brilliant idea, it was, in essence, merely moving things from A to B. Of course, they had to be the right things (and the right choice of "B" -- you don't get to choose "A", it's determined when you choose what you're going to move), but the point is that what made the U.S. ultimately the richest nation on earth was more heavy lifting -- literally -- than anything else.

The third lesson is that by going through the process of figuring out what category your business fits into you can make predictions about its potential to provide a return on investment. Trevor Blackwell, for example, suggested that education should be on the list. I think eduction is an instance of 9c, providing information to people that is useful in and of itself. If you think about it in that way, it suggests that if you want to start a business educating people you will face many of the same challenges that face other industries in that category, like journalism and the music industry. The prediction then is that eduction, while it may make the world a better place and may be personally rewarding, is not likely to make big money. And indeed, that is exactly what we see in the world. So if you want to pitch me a business that is based on educating people you need to have a really good story to tell about what you are doing fundamentally differently than all the other businesses in category 9c that are failing to make money. (And if you really have a good story to tell about that, chances are that you've made a breakthrough in some other category.)

The fourth lesson is that it really is easy to miss the forest for the trees. There were two suggestions for new top-level categories that I consider valid, though they are somewhat arguable. The first is the performing arts, which really doesn't seem to fit in any of the categories in my original list. The second is finance, which includes a heavy dose of category 9 (managing information) but also includes the managing of money, which is fundamentally distinct from both information and material goods. The fundamental physics of money are different in a deep way from the fundamental physics of atoms, which are in turn different from the fundamental physics of bits.

[Spoiler alert]

There is another kind of thing with fundamentally different physics from atoms, bits, and money, and whose manipulation produces wealth. It is energy. Producing, storing, converting, and transporting energy is what I had in mind as the missing top-level category.

We still make stuff?

Turns out that the U.S. is still the largest manufacturer in the world. That was news to me. I thought manufacturing in the U.S. was long dead. I wonder what we make.

My new favorite politician

... is Alan Grayson.

A catalog of wealth-creation mechanisms

One of the guest lecturers aboard the ship [1] (Donald Gibbs, of Pearl-Harbor conspiracy-theory infamy) gave a very interesting talk a few days ago about some of China's semi-recent history. He opened with a little pop-quiz, which I thought set the stage particularly well, so I'll co-opt it here to make a different point:

1. Why was the Panama Canal built?

2. Why was the Lewis-and-Clark expedition funded?

3. Why was the transcontinental railroad built?

The popular answer to these questions, taught to schoolchildren throughout the U.S., is: to link the east and west coasts of the United States. But that answer is wrong, as can be shown by examining historical records of the time. The real reason for all three of these mammoth endeavors was to link the east coast of the United States with China. And the reason for linking the east coast of the United States with China was that a ship full of goods from China (including, for example, high quality china with a lower-case 'c', which at the time was produced nowhere else) could be sold in the east-coast cities of the U.S. at about a 300% profit. The wealth created by this trade ultimately financed the industrialization of the U.S., so this is no mere historical trifle. (Bonus question: what did the U.S. give to China in exchange for its china?)

But the point I want to draw attention to is that at the root of all wealth creation are a very few, very simple and easy-to-understand core mechanisms. It's easy to lose sight of this in today's complex technological world, so I thought I'd draw up a catalog of them.

It's important to keep in mind that there is a distinction between wealth and money. Wealth is a measure of how much stuff people have that they actually value for its own sake. Food, housing, clothing, shelter, and artwork, are all examples of wealth. Money, by way of contrast, is merely an accounting mechanism that humans have invented in order to facilitate trade. Money and wealth often go together, but they are completely different things. You can transform money into wealth, and vice versa (which is the whole point of having money), but you can have money without wealth and vice versa. And you can make (or earn) money without creating wealth, and vice versa. But historically, the most reliable and the most socially beneficial way of making money is to create wealth. So to help encourage that, here's a more or less comprehensive list of fundamental mechanisms of creating wealth.

1. Move things from one place to another. Most things have value only when they are in a particular place. Food, clothing, and shelter only have value for you if they are close to where you happen to be. So you can create wealth simply by moving something from somewhere that it isn't useful to somewhere that it is. It sounds simple, but this is the basis for the shipping industry, which is what more or less what financed the industrialization of the United States of America.

2. Store things. Just as the values of things are often bound to their location, value is also often bound to a particular time. A winter coat, for example, is more useful in winter than summer. Keeping things in serviceable condition until they become useful is often a non-trivial exercise (consider the problem of keeping fruits and vegetables available when they are out of season). So you can create value simply by holding on to something and maintaining it in working order until it becomes useful to someone. Just as moving things around is the basis for the shipping industry, storing things is the basis for the retail industry. Stores are called stores because they used to be places where things were stored, not necessarily places where things were sold.

3. Transform things, either chemically or mechanically. This is the basis of the manufacturing industry. I don't think I need to say any more about that. [Update: actually, it turns out I do need to say more about it. This is indeed the basis of manufacturing, but it's also the basis of a lot of other things, including service industries like automobile repair, plumbing, cooking, hairdressing, painting and sculpture, carpentry, etc.]

4. Farm. Technically, farming could be considered a subset of #3, since you're transforming water, carbon dioxide and fertilizer or animal feed into other, more useful things like crops and livestock. But I put this in a separate category because it relies so much on natural processes. Some day we may be able to engineer entirely artificial crops, but until then I think it's useful to think of farming as an endeavor separate from manufacturing.

5. Build buildings. This could also be considered a subset of #3, but I put it in a separate category because buildings are not easily moved from one place to another, so they have to be manufactured in situ. This fact makes real estate development significantly different enough from manufacturing that it deserves its own category.

6. Extract natural resources from the earth or space. This category includes things like mining, oil drilling, and fishing. It used to include hunting (the answer to the question I posed above about what the U.S. traded to China in the 19th century is "fur") but no longer.

7. Cure disease, or at least ameliorate the symptoms. This is medicine.

8. Find entirely new ways of doing any of the above more efficiently or effectively. This is "research" or "invention." (Note that this is decidedly not the same thing as "having a brilliant idea".)

And finally, the granddaddy of them all for the 21st century:

9. Provide people with useful information.

This one can be broken up into a number of major sub-areas:

9a. Help match supply and demand. The world is so complex and diverse that you can create wealth simply by identifying sources of supply and demand and matching them up. This is the basis of modern markets. I say "modern" to distinguish them from "old-fashioned" markets where merchants display their wares directly. In this case, the information about what is available is tightly bound to the physical goods themselves. Of course, "old-fashioned" markets of this sort are still common. All brick-and-mortar stores are "old-fashioned" markets. But modern commerce decouples information about goods from the physical goods themselves. It is not uncommon nowadays to buy something without ever laying eyes on it. Amazon, EBay, ECNs and Google are all examples of "modern" markets.

A sub-category of 9a is entrepreneurialism. A company is nothing more than a bunch of people providing goods and services for each other with the matching of supply and demand being coordinated by a central planner (management) rather than by a market.

9b. Help people figure out the rules. Modern economies operate by an often byzantine set of laws, regulations, customs and conventions. Lawyers and management consultants fall into this category.

9c. Provide information that is useful in and of itself. This includes journalism and creative writing. Most blogs are an example of 9c.

This last category is of particular note because so many people seem to focus on it. Every scholar, blogger, reporter, novelist, screenwriter, composer and choreographer is working on 9c. A lot of wealth gets created this way, but of all the ways to make money it is arguably the least effective. It is very hard to transform information directly into money. Once upon a time, information was strongly bound to physical objects like books or vinyl records, and you could make money by producing these things because they were instances of #3. But with modern computer technology you can reproduce information essentially for free without doing any physical transformation. The result has been an unprecedented, almost overwhelming creation of wealth, but very little of it gets translated into money because the marginal cost of production is so close to zero. There's a reason Google doesn't charge for its search services. Google makes money via 9a, not 9c.

There is one sub-category of 9c where it is possible to make money, and that is providing information that is difficult to obtain and useful to a narrow vertical market segment. The Y-Combinator company Octopart is an example of this.

I'm pretty sure this is a comprehensive list. Can anyone think of anything I've left out?


[1] For those of you coming from Hacker News, I'm on a cruise ship going through Asia at the moment.

Friday, October 09, 2009

What were they thinking?

Despite my criticisms of him, I'm still a pretty big fan of Barack Obama. He's certainly doing a better job than George Bush did, or than John McCain would have. (Don't even get me started on Sarah Palin!) Still, I don't think the Nobel Prize committee did anyone any favors, least of all Obama, by awarding him the Peace Prize. As the New York Times diplomatically puts it:

"The Nobel Peace Prize is a reminder of the gap between the ambitious promise of President Obama’s words and his accomplishments."

I'll say. Obama has been president less than a year, for crying out loud! Couldn't they at least have waited until he actually did something before awarding him the Prize? The only thing this will do is give fodder Obama's right-wing critics who complain that Obama gets more credit than he deserves. In this case, they'll be right.

[Travelogue] Whirlwind tour of Beijing

I decided to not do my Tiananmen Square experiment. I did, however, take a ride in a bus on a Chinese highway. So I'm still here, but for a while it was looking dicey.

We're at sea today after a three-day whirlwind tour of Beijing and nearby Tianjin. Along the way we spent a total of a dozen or so hours on Chinese roads and rarely have I felt so lucky to be alive. Chinese drivers are insane! I've driven or ridden on a lot of roads in a lot of places, including a lot of third-world countries and major cities, and never in my life have I seen anything like this. Chaotic driving and a cavalier disregard for the rules of the road (to say nothing of common courtesy) are commonplace in less developed countries. But in most places where that happens, the danger is tempered by poor road conditions and heavy traffic so that it's nearly impossible to go very fast. But China combines third-world driving habits with first-world superhighways, and the result is very, very scary. Our bus weaved a serpentine path between trucks and cars at eighty or ninety miles an hour, often coming within what seemed like inches of a collision. In the city it was much the same. Warning to those not having a death wish: pedestrians do not -- repeat, do NOT -- have the right of way in China. If you step out into traffic, they will mow you down. Oh, and cars don't stop for red lights either. Caveat pedestrior.

Despite the chaos, we only had one close call (our bus very nearly creamed a rickshaw trying to pass on the right as it made a right turn -- the rickshaw drivers are as crazy as everyone else) and only saw one accident, which is amazing considering that driving on the wrong side of the street seemed to be standard practice in some places.

Nonetheless, we lived to tell the tale, and I am happy to be able report that Beijing is quite the amazing place. It is a sprawling feng-shui-approved grid of some of the widest streets I've ever seen (twelve lanes is typical) divvying up a sea of skyscrapers stretching out as far as the eye can see, which actually isn't all that far. Beijing is legendary for its air pollution, and it didn't disappoint. Beijing and its sister city of Tianjin were enveloped in a miasmatic grey haze the entire time we were there. Maximum visibility was only on or two miles, and the air smelled palpably smoky. It was nearly impossible to tell if the sky was overcast or clear.

Still, it could have been worse. It didn't rain and it wasn't hot, and that counts as exceptionally good weather in Beijing.

We saw a lot of stuff, but two of the sights overshadowed everything else, those being of course the Great Wall (which the Chines call the Long Wall) and the Forbidden City. It is nearly impossible to convey the colossal scale of these two places. The Wall, of course, is so big that to see it all would take months if not years. It's not a single structure, but an agglomeration of walls, ruins, trenches, and assorted fortifications in varying states of disrepair that stretch for a total of 5000 miles or so (according to Wikipedia) built over a period of 2000 years. The stretch we went to is probably the most famous. Being just outside Beijing it is the one most tourists go to I suppose. It's in very good shape, having been renovated in the 1990's. It's built on some very steep hillsides, and even from a high vantage point it seems, unsurprisingly, to go on forever, because it pretty much does.

The Forbidden City is technically a castle, complete with walls and a moat, but its scale puts every other castle I've ever seen (and I've seen a lot) to complete and utter shame. The monicker "city" is not inapt. You could walk around inside this labyrinthine complex for weeks without seeing it all. And the architecture is breathtaking. I can't remember being so impressed by a place since I first saw the old city of Jerusalem when I was 12.

I am given to understand by people who have been to Beijing in years past that the pace of change is whiplash-inducing. Even as recently as 10 or so years ago the streets were filled with bicycles. Now the bicycles are vastly outnumbered by the cars. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on your point of view, I suppose, but you can't deny that transforming a city this big that fast is an impressive achievement.

As a western tourist it is easy to lose sight of the fact that China is still a communist country with a totalitarian government. There is no freedom of speech, no free press. (Chinese citizens are allowed to criticize the government, but only on approved topics.) The Internet is censored by the Great Firewall of China. (Compare the results of searching for "Tiananmen Square" on versus some time.) We were unable to tour Tiananmen Square because we were there on the last day of a six-day-long celebration of the 60th anniversary of the communist revolution, complete with tanks, missiles, and battalions of troops parading down the boulevard. We did do a couple of drive-bys, and the square, the largest public square in the world, was packed wall-to-wall with people. Detachments of soldiers with very conspicuous armaments were stationed throughout the city to maintain order.

Nonetheless, I have come away with tremendous respect for the Chinese, and an overall sense of optimism about their future, and hence the world's. China is dealing with some of the most intense challenges, and though there are things I personally think they could be doing better, they could certainly be doing a hell of a lot worse. Just before we left on this trip we invested some money in China, and now I'm glad we did. [Update: I may have to rethink this.] Democracy is a Good Thing, but I subscribe to the theory that prosperity produces democracy and not the other way around. If this theory proves to be true, I think it bodes well for China's future.

Tomorrow we're in Shanghai, which has an interesting history all its own. I'll try to write some of it up before we get there.