Friday, August 31, 2012

On The USA

I'm now back from my sojourns abroad, and in the brief period where one is reminded of what is different about one's adopted country, I thought it would be fitting to round things out with a post on what the same thing would look like if written about these fair shores.

-The system in lifts of labelling the floor that exits to the street level is such a small act of sheer genius, rather than trying to shoehorn everybody into the 'ground floor is the street, no, first floor is the street, no...'. Other countries should take note.

-The US has the best public bathrooms that I've ever seen. (I hear Japan is interesting too, but I haven't been). Due to a combination of squeamishness about hygiene and high technology, you rarely have to touch anything at all. In addition, the divider walls between urinals are a brilliant compromise between efficiency and privacy.

-There is a crassness to some of the people that I can't forebear mentioning. They talk loudly, the women are very made up, and the political culture is very in-your-face. Try sitting through one of the political party conventions if you don't believe me.

-Dedicated bike lanes are good, but freeways (in low traffic periods) are fantastic if you have a nice car. The existence of me having a nice car is entirely endogenous with a number of things that make this place great. Low taxes, and demanding consumers that result in efficient markets.

-Oh Lordy, the restaurant service here dwarfs everywhere else I've been. You don't wait for your bill, but there's no hurry to pay it. You don't wait for your water refill. The soft drink refills are free, virtually always. Give me American restaurants over any other country.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Gdansk

The most striking feature is the grim look on the faces of all the local men, particularly the young men. It's rare to see them smile at each other during conversation, and if they do it's typically a closed-lip kind of smirk. A Scottish guy I met here suggested that smiling may be somewhat viewed as a sign of weakness. I have no idea, but the trend itself of low-level glaring is quite noticeable.

The women, by contrast, are more friendly, particularly in the offhand interactions with waitresses, ticket agents etc. They laugh, often slightly nervously.

I am ashamed that I hadn't heard of the region of Pomerania, except through the dog of the same name.

The Polish language includes far more consecutive consonant combinations (particularly amalgamations of c, z, y, w and j) than I would know how to pronounce.

My travelling companion (a historian of some note) pointed out that there were about 8 million ethnic Germans expelled from Poland after World War 2. You certainly don't hear about it very much here, or anywhere else for that matter. Germans after World War 2, civilian or otherwise, did not seem to elicit a lot of sympathy.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scandi Stupidity on Stilts - Unisex Toilets

If anything captures the 'forced equality at the cost of anything resembling efficiency' aspect of Scandinavia, it's unisex public toilets.

Unisex toilets stem from two desires, one completely stupid, one mostly stupid. The first is a desire to deny that there are any important biological differences between men and women, outside of the purely reproductive aspects (and even those ought to be overcome with technology). The second is a desire to ensure rigid equality between the sexes in all matters, large and small, consequential and trivial.

In matters of bathroom logistics, men have some clear biological advantages. Mechanical aspects of their appendages allow them to pee standing up, and direct the flow with reasonable accuracy. Both of these allow for the urinal, that great time-saving device of the water-closet world. They're not pretty, they offer limited privacy, but damn can they get people in and out of the bathroom quickly.

This has produced the well-known side effect that women end up waiting in line for bathrooms much longer than men. Scandal! Oppressive patriarchy conspires to keep women waiting while men get smug privileges! Stop the bathroom apartheid!

Hence, the brainwave of unisex toilets. Let's do away with urinals altogether, and make everyone use the stalls. That way men can feel the irritation of waiting in line for the bathroom just as much as women. It gets worse, because we can also engineer non-stop friction in public, as well as private, over the clearly demarked gender preferences over whether the toilet seat should be up or down afterwards. It can create irritation by also exploiting gender-based differences in how clean the seat must be afterwards (if the next guy is peeing into the stall as well, does it really matter? Not saying that's my view, but just saying that seems to be a prevalent male view, at least by revealed preference) Instead, we'll create a vibrant community of conversations in line at the unisex toilets as men can express their grumbling during the interminable, unnecessary minutes of delay.

In classic Scandinavian style, this isn't even an efficient way to achieve equality of bathroom waiting time, if for some strange reason that's a big social priority. It's as if somehow only men were biologically capable of driving cars, so they decided that we'd all have to use the horse and buggy instead.

If you want efficient bathroom equality, you'd retain the separate toilets, but just build more space for women's toilets than men's, knowing that they operate with longer time delays. This may be a strange goal, but it's at least pareto efficient. Pure unisex toilets are not. There's no cosmic rule that says men and women must be allocated equal floor space for their bathrooms.

But that would still allow for the chance that men might wait less time than women, and would reinforce the fact that men and women aren't literally, biologically identical. Hence the stupidity must go on.

I think if I had to reflect on these facts for two minutes a day while waiting in an unnecessary line at the toilets, my head might explode.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

On Copenhagen

- If I had to give it a shorthand description, it would be ‘halfway between Helsinki and Amsterdam’. This holds on a number of dimensions besides geography. In terms of visuals, the canals and bicycles are reminiscent of Amsterdam, but the architecture looks somewhat more Nordic in a way that I can’t quite describe. The people seem to have a reserved aspect to their character, although not quite with the same seriousness that seems to mark the Finns (I gather that having a historically hostile Russia on your doorstep might tend to concentrate the mind somewhat in this aspect, reminding one that one’s freedoms are hard-won and precarious). The Danes don’t quite rise to the level of the Dutch that I’ve met in terms of geniality, but they’re definitely friendly. The look of people is probably closer to the Finns, in the Nordic way of blonde hair and (it took me a while to figure out this as a defining trait) slightly narrow eyes that look as if they might squinting somewhat. That's not meant to sound condescending, but it's the only thing I can think of as to why blonde Danish people don't look like blonde Americans. Which they don't.

-If socialism looks like Copenhagen, I can understand why liberals come to Northern Europe and think that it’s a model of how society should be organised. This, of course, raises two immediate concerns.

Firstly, the tourist gets the visually appealing aspects of socialism without most of the costs. Bicycle lanes everywhere and few cars make things convenient when you want to tonk around the city centre, but probably less so when you’re trying to buy a large house 30km from your job. And it’s easy to admire the pretty visuals and afford the high prices when you’re arriving with an income that’s been determined by a tax rate that doesn't have to pay for any of these things. You’ve arrived at the restaurant to eat a delicious meal, and half the cost has been subsidized by someone else – what’s not to love?

Secondly, socialism seems to empirically produce better outcomes in areas that are fairly culturally and ethnically homogenous. This wouldn’t surprise Robert Putnam, who wrote a whole book (with a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ flavour) about how diversity reduces trust. Without which, subsidising a bunch of strangers and relying on them to not shirk becomes a lot more problematic. In other words, if socialism were tried in earnest in the US, do you think the effects would be closer to the cheerful equality of Nordic countries or the disastrous effects of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs? Would we, in other words, end up with something that looked like Copenhagen, or something that looked Detroit or the London Riots? I know which way I’m betting.

-All this is to say that the place itself is visually stunning, and presents a very pleasant aspect that causes an open-minded conservative to perhaps question the certainty of his assumptions about the world. If Scandinavia is the consequence of increasing progressive policies, this may be less desirable than what America has (arguable, of course), but it’s certainly not the nightmare one lies awake at night fretting about.

Then again, I'd probably also like the place even more if it weren't socialist - it's just a lovely part of the world.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Immature, But Hilarious

Every now and again, I worry that this site may be at risk of being too self-serious.

So with rectification in mind, I laughed hella hard at this one:


We now return you to your regularly scheduled high-brow pomposity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Random Thoughts on the Turkey

-It's very refreshing to see people smoking outdoors in restaurants. Not because I smoke. Nor because I like the smell of smoke while eating my food. But just because I love the smell of governments not interfering with how private businesses wish to operate their dining establishments.

-Perhaps related to the above, it was interesting to see large-ish (~15-20 storeys) glass office buildings where the windows actually opened, so the building was basically a glass rectangular prism, but with a few windows tilted open. I haven't come across that anywhere else.

-The 'Stray Animals Measure of Poverty' has another out-of-sample confirmation. There's a fair number of them, tilted mainly towards cats for some reason. They mostly look healthy, so it clearly ain't India, and there's definitely more than what I saw in Greece (a perhaps regionally comparable country in some respects, but not others). Sure enough...

-Out of all the places I've been on holiday, the proportion of tourists (not locals) who were speaking English was probably lower than nearly anywhere else I've been. Except for the beach parts in the southwest, which were populated with uncouth Brits on holiday, with all the attendant delights that that brings.

-If I had to nominate something for the language trait most characteristic of Turkish English (at least on the low level of street tourist interactions) it would be beginning sentences with either 'Yes' or 'Yes please'. So you'll walk past a store, and they'll open with 'Yes please, come look at these beautiful necklaces' or 'Yes, what would you like to drink?'. This was common enough that I'm guessing that it's a feature of spoken Turkish that they're just literally translating across to its English equivalent.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Questions of which I am less sure of the answer than the median person seems to be

It seems to be a commonly-repeated trope that the Olympic Village is a crazy party town of non-stop action and poon on tap. Lots of good-looking athletes, all of whom have been denying themselves fun for years on end in order to nothing but train, and have a very low alcohol tolerance because they haven't been drinking either. Once their event is over, they want to cut lose - if they won, they want to celebrate! If they lost, they want to party to forget it and enjoy the spectacle. Either way, they're up for wild times. You've got lots of exotic strangers that you're never going to see again, and a commonly accepted 'what happens at the Olympics stays at the Olympics' vibe. All of this sounds like the perfect storm for picking up.

We economists, however, do not take all this at face value. Remember, the default assumption is that the probability of getting laid should be the same at all bars in town. If we believe the model applies, the Olympic Village should be no better than a dive bar.

But one of the key assumptions of the model doesn't hold, namely the assumption of free entry. In other words, the Olympic Village is not open to random loser men to gatecrash. If it were, I would wager that the whole 'pickup paradise' thing would disappear really quickly. So on face, the claims might actually be true - like an exclusive nightclub keeping out the riff-raff, the whole athletes-only aspect keeps out the plebs who would otherwise gross-out the Polish volleyball team until they stopped going out for sexy party time. Barriers to entry, literal and metaphorical, keep the market from clearing.

So far, so good - the claims still seem plausible on further reflection.

But there's another aspect that still makes me a little nervous. And it's the following:

Suppose that a male swimmer spends two weeks at the Olympics without winning anything major. Without the glory of victory, his main claim to fame is the awesomeness of attending the Olympics. He comes back, and his friend says to him, 'Hey man, how was it? I hear the Olympics are a pickup heaven! Did you score with any beach volleyball hotties?'

Now, suppose further that said guy didn't in fact score with anyone. Reader, which response to do you think is more likely?

a) "No, that aspect was actually really overrated. I didn't end up scoring at all. But it was still fun!"

b) "Er, sure! I nailed this totally hot Russian gymnast! Then this Swiss Hockey player! It was wild, man!"

In other words, even if the Olympic Village weren't some kind of orgy, all the [male] participants have strong incentives to claim that it was. Because to claim otherwise is to either make everyone think that you were a loser who couldn't score in the middle of a sex party, or alternatively that the Olympics kind of sucked and that you probably wasted years of your life.

So the signal-to-noise ratio of this claim is low - I'd expect this rumour to persist regardless of whether it was actually true or not.

Frankly, I hope it is true. Training for the Olympics is almost certainly a very bad bet in expectation. Those poor buggers have been doing nothing for years but train for that moment, and it's a mathematical certainty that most of them are going to go away disappointed. A two week wild party is a pretty good consolation prize. Then again, when you think about how much they had to pay, in terms of the opportunity cost of those endless hours of their lives, it's still likely to be a rotten deal, more akin to the casino comping you a hotel room after you've gambled away thousands of dollars.

That thought may not be likely to enter your head when looking at the Scandinavian pole vault contingent, but it's probably true.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hierapolis, 2012 A.D.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 
-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Friday, August 3, 2012

Random Thoughts on the Olympics

- It's always good when you're watching a group of runners lined up on the track without hearing the earlier announcements, and you can tell the event purely by the competitors involved. Hmm, Kenyan, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Ethiopian ... it's starting inside the track, so it's not the marathon, meaning it's got to be the 10,000m. Sure enough, it is. Correlations, man - is there anything they can't tell you?

-It was grimly hilarious a few days ago to watch the Australian Olympic officials trying to put on a brave face after winning Sweet F. A. when the swimming was all done.
But fear not, says Australia's deputy chef de mission Kitty Chiller.
"Very early days, we're only just starting the second quarter," she said.
"We've got rowing, we've got track cycling, we've got sailing, genuine gold medal hopes - three in each of those events.
"We're certainly not panicking. There's a still a very positive feel amongst management and the athletes.
"Sure, we maybe have missed out on a few medals that we thought we could've one but we've also won others - 4x100m freestyle wasn't a gold medal favourite.
"There's certainly no fear at the moment that we've failed, that we're not on track.
"We still believe we can genuinely finish in the top five overall."
Translation: the tanks are descending on Berlin from both the east and the west, but the German Army is about to fight a glorious rearguard action!

Why Does the Post Office Always Lose Money, Part 2

Why, that does sound convenient! And some people say that the government doesn't understand customer service.

Part 1 here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why I don't use hotel safes

People focus on the salient risks. OMG, someone might steal my passport!

Fair enough - they might. But truthfully, how high is the risk of this if you're staying in a decent hotel and it's somewhere not in plain sight, such as in a bag?

I submit that it's not very high. The only guy I know who ever personally got anything stolen was while staying in a dorm room in a backpackers, and it was stolen by the other guy in the room, not the maid. As it turns out, the backpacker stole his MP3 player that he'd fallen asleep while listening to, right from out of his ear! Talk about chutzpah. We'll file that as 'one more reason to avoid hippies in backpackers'.

But a low risk of theft is, on its own, no reason at all not to use a hotel safe.

On the other hand, if you're anything like me, do you know what the much bigger risk of you being separated from your passport is?

Leaving it in the damn hotel safe when you check out of the room because you forgot to get it out.

I've done that at least once, years ago, but thankfully I remembered when the taxi was only halfway to the airport.

It's not a salient risk, but it's much, much higher.