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.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

[Travelogue] Not in Kansas any more

Today we reached China, and for the first time in my life I set foot in an actual communist country. We were in Russia earlier on the trip, but Russia isn't communist any more. China is. We were in Dalian for all of six hours, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. Tomorrow we're in Tianjin (near Beijing) for three days, which is not quite so ridiculous. Even so, we're on a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall and Beijing proper. Not much blogging for the next few days.

The difference between China and Korea/Japan is palpable. Korea is clean and Japan is immaculate. Both countries are thoroughly modern and westernized. China, by contrast, feels very much like a third-world country. Parts of Dalian are clean and modern, but big chunks are dirty and run down. We took a "Dalian highlights" tour, which took us, among other places, to the local fish market. Tsukiji it ain't. It wasn't quite as bad as some fish markets I've seen in Mumbai and a few other places, where the fish is not even refrigerated. Here at least most of the stock was on ice. But the floor was littered with fish bits, and it smelled very fishy. Still, next door at the meat market, the chickens (with heads and feet still attached of course) and other dead critters were at room temperature.

The most remarkable part of the tour was a visit to an actual Chinese family's "house", by which is meant in China "apartment". It was one of the smallest apartments I've ever seen, maybe 300 square feet or so, and I'm sure this is one of the nicer places in town. Twenty or so tourists squeezed into this place and spoke for half an hour, via an interpreter, to the seventy year old woman who lives there. It was mostly smalltalk. Nobody was willing to broach touchy subjects like how much the government controls their lives. I did get a chance to ask our interpreter, a 19-year-old student from a nearby university (studying English) if Chinese people still need permission from the government to travel outside the country. I honestly didn't know. I thought that some of the recent economic reforms may have included easing restrictions on travel, but apparently they haven't. Her answer was, "Of course." When I told her that we American's don't need permission from our government to travel outside the U.S. she seemed genuinely surprised. I wonder how many Chinese people don't know that needing permission from your government to travel is not necessarily part of the natural order of things.

I really wonder what would happen if I brought up the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. If you never hear from me again it may well be because I decided to conduct this experiment.

(I wonder, is anyone from China reading this blog? Could you admit it without putting yourself in danger? As far as I can tell I have not been banned by the Great Firewall, but that's probably only because I haven't registered on the Chinese government radar. Yet.)

Monday, October 05, 2009

A tide timing puzzle

An odd thing just occurred to me. We entered Inchon harbor this morning at about 7 and left this evening at about 6, in other words, pretty close to sunrise and sunset. The moon was full, so it was very close to the horizon in both cases. So why was there a high tide? The way I was always taught about tides would seem to predict a low tide under those circumstances.

[Travelogue] A whirlwind tour of Seoul

Rolled into Inchon (which the Koreans spell Incheon) harbor this morning, and rolled out again ten hours later. Inchon harbor is interesting because of its extreme tides, as much as 30 feet. The harbor itself is set apart from the bay by locks, and ships can only come and go at high tide. The tide actually figured prominently in one of the most famous military actions of all time, Douglas MacArthur's invasion of Inchon during the Korean war. All of his advisors said that it was madness to try to invade Inchon because the timing had to be so precise, otherwise the boats would get mired in mud at low tide and be sitting ducks. MacArthur insisted that the plan would succeed precisely because it was so unlikely to succeed, so the North Koreans wouldn't be expecting it. MacArthur was right, and the rest, as they say, is history. If not for MacArthur's audacity there might not be a South Korea today.

I was pleasantly surprised by Korea, at least what little I saw of it in the few hours we were here. I was expecting a sort of run-down version of Japan, but it's not like that at all. Seoul is not quite as spotless as Tokyo, but still much cleaner than many American cities. It's as modern as any city in the world (except that, like Japan, ATMs are unaccountably scarce). The people are friendly, prices are reasonable, the food is delicious (but beware the kimchee), and the architecture is stunning. In Japan, the eaves of the traditional pagodas are all painted black and white with simple geometric patterns. The Koreans, by contrast, paint their eaves with intricate designs and bright colors. The effect is dazzling. I'm adding Korea to my list of countries to which I'd happily return some day to spend more time.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Who's out there?

I was keeping my travelogue mainly for friends and family, but it seems more people are following along, including, apparently, people I don't know. I'm curious who all is reading this, so if you wouldn't mind, would you please check the "read it" box below so I can get a rough idea of how big my audience is? And if you feel motivated, please leave a comment or drop me an email and let me know who you are. Thanks!

[Travelogue] Cultural and culinary adventures in the land of the rising sun

If Dubai is Vegas on Steroids then Tokyo is New York on Valium. It's superficially like New York in much the same way that Dubai is superficially like Vegas: the weather is similar (it sucks most of the time), it's crowded, there are lots of skyscrapers, great for walking around in, etc. etc. But where Dubai takes Vegas and gives it a hard edge (and takes most of the fun out of it), Tokyo takes New York and softens it up. It's clean. Everyone is polite. People line up for the bus. (When it comes to queuing up, the British have nothing on the Japanese.) Drivers stop for pedestrians. No one honks their horn.

I have to say, though, that as much as I loved Japan, I found the extreme politeness ultimately to be a little off-putting. For one thing, Tokyo-ites are so good at not making eye contact that whenever I wanted to stop someone on the street to ask directions I felt like I was committing a major breach of protocol. And maybe I was. There are so many unwritten rules in Japan (did you know that it's horribly rude to pass food using chopsticks?) that it's nearly impossible for a casual traveller not to break half a dozen of them before breakfast. I found myself in constant fear of committing a major blunder and bringing dishonor upon my fellow gai-jins.

I don't know whether it's because I'm just more familiar with the culture, or if really is simpler, but it seems to me it's a lot easier to learn how to get along in New York than in Tokyo despite the rough edges. You can get along in New York knowing only one simple rule: don't waste someone else's time. That doesn't mean that people are unfriendly; they aren't. They just don't want to wait around while you dither. Paris has two basic rules: learn some French, and don't ask for salt in restaurants. London has one rule: don't cut in line. But I don't know of any way to distill how to get along in Tokyo to a pithy slogan. Maybe if there are some ex-pats reading this you can help me out.

Japan is particularly challenging because of all the places I've been it's the one where people were least likely to speak English. On top of that, the language is completely alien to me. I speak three and a half languages (English, German, Hebrew, and kinda sorta Spanish) and that gives me an anchor to pick up enough Italian or French or Arabic to get along nearly everywhere we've been. But Japanese is nothing like any of those languages. I suppose the Japanese have the same problem with English.

Nancy and I are big sushi fans, and we ate almost nothing else the entire time we were in Japan. It was not until we got to Nagasaki that we discovered to our dismay that there is in fact mediocre sushi to be had in Japan. But that's still a pretty good track record. We mostly just chose places at random, and nearly all of them were excellent, as good as or better than anything you get in the States. Uni (sea urchin) in particular is a completely different beast in Japan. In the States, uni is considered "advanced" or "challenging" sushi, an acquired taste. It turns out that this is because uni in the States sucks. It tastes like it has been sitting out in the sun for three days. In Japan, the uni doesn't taste the least bit fishy. It's nutty. If you imagine taking a really rare steak and making it more and more tender until it becomes maguro tuna, then do an analogous transformation on foie gras and you'd have proper uni. It's absolutely delicious. Even in Nagasaki, where the rest of the sushi we had was just so-so, the uni was delicious.

The Japanese also serve their sushi without the glob of wasabi that invariably accompanies it in the States. You still get pickled ginger, but wasabi is pre-applied in the proper amount by the sushi chef, and you don't get to mess with that. Surprisingly, it turns out that even in Japan, what is called wasabi usually isn't. It's horseradish dyed green. Real wasabi root is only found in the very top-end sushi establishments in both countries, which is really odd because wasabi root is not expensive. We found it in the market for 500 yen (about $6) for a root the size of a small tube of toothpaste, which would be easily enough for a dozen servings. That's not quite as cheap as rice or ginger, but not enough to break the bank either. But it was never offered to us, not even as an optional add-on. Is a puzzlement.

One one occasion in Osaka we decided to forego sushi and go for noodles instead. We ended up in this tiny little noodle bar in Osaka, where we were served the slimiest, fishiest noodles you can imagine, along with this duck-and-egg concoction that seemed to be made more out of duck feet than meat. We looked at each other and wondered how we were going to eat enough of this so that we could leave without insulting the proprietor. So we dug in, and a very odd thing happened: as we slogged through the meal, it started to grow on us, and by the time we were done we'd eaten nearly all of it and it seemed downright tasty. It was the strangest thing.

Oops, gotta run. Dinner time. They're serving duck.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

[Travelogue] Nothing to talk about but the weather

Among the many interesting things to do aboard a ship traveling for days at a time at 20 knots is watching the weather. No, really. It changes a lot faster than usual on both short and long time scales. We began this trip in summer, it's now fall, and before it's over we'll cross the equator and it will be spring. (And a month after we get back home it will be Winter -- all four seasons in just under four months). But the really interesting changes come in the short term. When I woke up this morning it was bright and sunny, and the sea was so calm that for a moment I thought we were somehow back in port. It stayed that way for most of the day. But just ten minutes ago we sailed into a little squall. In just a few minutes it went from calm and sunny to cloudy and windy enough to make the ship, which displaces 50,000 tons, heel to port as she were a sailboat. And this is a pretty small weather system. I wonder what things will be like when we head into typhoon territory.

[Travelogue] The time has come for us to say sayonara

We left Japan yesterday. Our last port of call was Nagasaki, which was the target of the second and last (so far) nuclear weapon ever deployed in anger. The evidence of that event is now evident only in museums and monuments. There is no trace of it at ground level. Still, it felt a little creepy to be standing at ground zero thinking, "If I'd been here 65 years ago I would have been instantly vaporized."

I used to think that dropping the bomb was justified on the grounds that Japan was the aggressor in WW2, and there were pretty compelling reasons to believe that more people would have died had the bomb not been dropped than if it had. But recent revelations have made me rethink that. If Japan really was baited into attacking Pearl Harbor by F.D.R. that puts a whole different spin on things. Of course, Truman was not part of F.D.R.'s inner circle and so almost certainly didn't know about the plot (assuming it was a plot).

An interesting tangent: since I'm writing these entries opportunistically as time allows, real events often interleave with my narrative in unexpected ways. Since I wrote the previous paragraph I went to another talk by Dr. Gibbs where he exhibited a fascinating photograph that he took while we were docked in Nagasaki. To understand the significance of this photograph I have to go back in time and give you a little more background: it is commonly believed that the Japanese fleet maintained radio silence as they crossed the Pacific. Radio silence is, of course, crucial to the narrative of a surprise attack. But Gibbs maintains that not only did the Japanese not maintain radio silence, but the whole proposition is absurd on its face. The diesel-powered aircraft carriers of the day did not have the range to cross the Pacific without refueling, and the only way to rendezvous with the tankers was via radio. After talk, Gibbs was challenged by a rather vociferous and apparently well read Australian fellow who insisted that the Japanese did maintain radio silence. The photograph that Gibbs displayed was an array of three tall but otherwise nondescript towers. These were the actual radio towers used to communicate with the fleet as they crossed the Pacific, one of the few pre-bomb structures left standing. It is, says Gibbs, common knowledge among the residents of Nagasaki that the myth of Japanese radio silence is just that. The implications are truly staggering.

Anyhoo... we were very well received in Nagasaki despite having nuked them. The city is vibrant, and but for the monuments, memorials, museums, and myriad folded paper cranes you would never guess that this place was the site of near total annihilation not so long ago. Our visit was mostly uneventful, except for a bit of an adventure trying to find a sushi bar in the maze of charming side streets and alleyways off the main drag.

Despite being out of Japanese radio silence, internet access is still sporadic, as is the availability of free time to write. So I'm going to go ahead and post this. Tomorrow we're in Seoul, our one and only port of call in Korea. I'll try to find time to fill in some of the details about Japan before we get there.

Friday, October 02, 2009

[Travelogue] A fish story

[Note: this entry was actually written two days ago.]

When we got back from dinner I was dead tired, having gotten up at 3AM to go to the Tsukiji fish market, and when I woke up the next morning we were back in Japanese territorial waters and so back in radio silence, hence the long delay in posting this. So where was I?

Oh yes, Tsukiji fish market. Did I mention that it was big? Oh yes, I believe I did. But it bears repeating. If you're a fish you can imagine a sign on the door that says, "Abandon all hope ye that enter here." After seeing Tsukiji it's a wonder there's a fish left in the sea. And in fact, Japanese fishermen are making a pretty good dent in the world's population of tuna. I am given to understand that the bluefin tuna is nearly extinct, and a damn shame too because it's really tasty. Bluefin tuna definitely drew the short straw when it came time to decide how attractive they would be for human consumption.

The scale of the market is matched by the scale of the tuna that pass through there. Every morning at 5AM is the famous tuna auction, which is well chronicled in educational videos. It has become so famous that the auction area is now off-limits to the public. I drew a very stern rebuke when I tried to sneak in to take a picture. ("Out! Out!" with a finger pointed at me. Given how polite Japanese usually are that's probably the equivalent of a New Yorker saying, "Get the f*ck out of here you little piece of gaijin sh*t!")

Shortly after my failed attempt to surreptitiously photograph the tuna auction I discovered that there's actually a visitor's area where they will let you go in and watch. Under the auspices of officials holding signs in English with stern warnings about how to conduct yourself ("No flash photography!") you file into the auction area, which is a huge refrigerated warehouse, one of many. Inside, the floor is covered with the biggest fish you have ever seen, all frozen completely solid. (There are other areas where they sell thawed tuna.) The smallest was probably 80 pounds, and the largest was easily several hundred. They move them around with huge meat hooks, and the largest require two or three people to wrangle.

But the most remarkable thing about Tsujiki is not its size but the fact that the world's largest fish market doesn't smell like fish. I don't mean that it doesn't smell *much* like fish, I mean that it doesn't smell like fish *at all*. And thereby hangs a tail (pun intended).

At the tuna auction, the bidders assess the quality of the tuna by taking small samples from the base of the fish's tail. In order to take these samples they have to thaw the tail out a bit, which they do by running water onto the fish with a hose. While this operation was proceeding there was a man whose job it was to squeegee the floor in order to usher the water into a drain. He was actually doing this the entire time the water was running, which seemed to me to be a complete waste of effort. Why not just let gravity do the work? I came up with a theory, having to do with the Japanese veneration of tradition and unwillingness to question the established order of things, about why this person would engage in such an apparently useless activity. But I learned later that there is actually a good reason for him to do this: when water is flowing over the fish, little bits of fish flesh and scales get washed off. If the water were allowed to simply run into the drain, these fish bits would settle out of the water like silt and stick to the floor, where they would rot. If you actively squeegee while the water is running, you keep the place clean. And that sort of attention to detail is why the world's largest fish market doesn't smell like fish.

All of which leads me to wonder why the Japanese have not (speaking in terms of economics now) taken over the world. They are industrious, bright, incredibly well organized, and they clearly have a meticulous attention to detail, which is why they make the world's best cars, the world's wizziest electronic gadgets, and the world's cleanest fish markets. I used to think that the U.S. was on the path to long-term decline because we don't make anything any more. But here in Japan they not only make stuff, they make really good stuff. And yet they are in still in the throes of a recession that has lasted fifteen years and counting. Apparently my model of how the world works still needs some tweaking.

Pearl Harbor truthers rejoice

One of the many time sinks (so to speak) aboard ship is a series of lectures on a wide variety of topics, usually (but not invariably) having something to do with the places that we're visiting. Just got back from one of the most interesting I've ever seen, a fellow named Donald A. Gibbs, who spoke about Pearl Harbor. He made a very compelling case that not only did F.D.R. know about Pearl Harbor, but he actually engineered the attack in order to drum up support for entering WW2 among the American public, which before P.H. opposed getting involved in a foreign war by an overwhelming margin. Haven't been able to find any writeup about this on the web, and there's no way I could reproduce enough of the details to do it justice so I'm not even going to try. But he convinced me, and I like to think I have a pretty good bogometer.

Which, of course, opens up the disturbing question of whether 9/11 was engineered (or at least not allowed) by the Bush administration in order to drum up support for attacking Iraq. I had been of the opinion that there is no way that that a secret of such magnitude could be successfully kept, and so the 9/11 truthers are almost certainly wrong (actually, I would have phrased that in more categorical terms before today) but this lecture has be rethinking that position. During the Q&A I asked Gibbs if he thought it was possible that Bush had done with 9/11 the same thing that F.D.R. did with P.H. in order to drum up support for attacking Iraq, and he rather pointedly refused to answer on the grounds that it was his role only to present historical facts and not to draw interpretations from them. I pressed him on this, asking if there were any historical facts that he was aware of that would allow one to categorically rule out such a parallel and he again demurred.

Makes you wonder.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

[Travelogue] Never a dull moment

Good thing I decided to post that last article when I did because when I got back from dinner we were back in Japanese territorial waters on our way to Osaka and so the internet was down again. Since then things have been going non-stop. I've barely had time to jot down notes about all the stuff that has been going on, let alone compose actual travelogue entries. We're at sea today, so hopefully I'll be able to catch up, but even at-sea days can be busy. I spent about three hours today just catching up on email and laundry. Doing laundry is one of the most annoying parts of cruising. The laundry facilities aboard the ship are badly inadequate for the number of people they have to serve, particularly when the ship is at capacity. I miscalculated badly when I figured that the day *after* a segment boundary would be a good day to do laundry. The idea was that no one could possibly work up a load of laundry in one day, so we'd only be competing with the other people who were doing multiple legs for access to the washing machines. I still don't know how, but this morning every single machine was being used, and people were queued up. Maybe people who embarked in Osaka had already been traveling for a while. Doing laundry aboard ship is one of those experiences that make me swear up and down that I will never go on another cruise again.

Then I had to catch up on email after being off line for two days. I had nearly 1000 spam messages stacked up, which took a very long time to download over the ship's slow and flaky internet connection. I really should install a spam filter on my server instead of doing my spam filtering on my laptop, but the problem is that as far as I know there is no spam filter that runs on a server that has a training client that integrates into Mac Mail. Hm, sounds like a business opportunity.

Just to bring you up to date on the high points in case I don't get another chance to post before we hit Nagasaki, we left Tokyo and spent a day and a half in Osaka. When we got there it was raining, and my first impression of the city was something along the lines of, "Tokyo it ain't." But the second day the sun came out and we spent the whole day exploring on our own and the place really grew on me, along with the cuisine (but that's another story). Unlike Tokyo, which has a central core that is easy to explore on foot, Osaka is more spread out and it take a little hunting to find the good parts -- kind of like LA. But once you find them, Osaka is an amazing place. It boasts some of the largest covered shopping arcades and underground shopping areas anywhere in the world, and they are a wonder to behold. Osaka is also a stop for the Shinkansen, the famed Japanese bullet train, which we decided on the spur of the moment to ride. We ended up (after all of twenty minutes, which includes the time we spent waiting for the train) in Kyoto, which is another story in itself. Finally we returned to Osaka and had dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall sushi bar. No one spoke any English, and we got the impression that we may well have been the first westerners ever to set foot in the place. But that's yet another story. First I have to rewind and catch up on Tokyo.

In case I don't get back to this before we enter Nagasaki's cone of silence, we're there for one day, and then we leave Japan so posting should get a little more regular after that.