Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Historians in 2255: the Simulacrum Society vs. the Savages

It is now 2255. Two historians review the recent past…

Historian 1 and Historian 2 have been trying to understand why the United States of America entered its downward spiral in 2016. At first, when they were told about the country and its military spending, advanced technology, and two oceans to protect it, along with some of the best people from all over the world, they struggled to understand its collapse in 2166. 


2166 was the year of America’s Second Civil War, when nationwide militias banded together, refused the central government’s demands to give up their weapons, and went on the offensive. Many Americans tried fleeing to Utah, but people in Utah had been preparing for such an event for decades and refused entry (but not assistance) to most internal refugees. Canada had, by chance, built a wall several years ago, which now prevented Americans from fleeing north. After the militias were beaten, the United States of America existed in name only. The country continued its core strength of security products—no other place protected and transported physical items so well—but there was nothing united about a country where cities and states revolving around academia competed each year with cities and states revolving around military culture, with both factions trying to increase funding each year for their own side at the expense of the other.

H1: I really don’t get it. On the surface, all the data in the year 2000 indicated the United States would continue to dominate for centuries. 


H2: I thought the same as you, but once I did a deep dive into the data, I realized America’s strengths were also its greatest weaknesses. At the same time greater clarity of direction was needed in a fragmented world, America’s checks and balances began working against it. Nothing could get done, and all change became necessarily incremental. 

H1: What’s the problem with incremental change

H2: In ordinary times, nothing. The problem with America in 2016 was that it had already borrowed money from future generations to pay off senior citizens in ways that distorted federal, state, and local budgets. Today, we’re all under some centralized government—well, most of us are, while others prefer to live more simple lives—but back then, America had to deal with political factions on three different levels. It’s a great system to prevent centralization of power, but Americans didn’t realize that increasingly dangerous cyber threats plus a reduction in the efficacy of its naval power meant its system of government was less effective than competitors. 

H1: Ok, so America’s engine of progress would have slowed down a bit. That’s the price people pay for checks and balances, isn’t it? 

H2: Sure, but what good are checks and balances if the politicians before you 1) made promises based on artificial financial engineering; and 2) used debt to give their constituents everything they wanted, but in unsustainable ways? 

H1: We’ve solved these problems today with everyone guaranteed a basic standard of living so why was money such an issue back then? 

H2: Today we’ve realized there’s no point in an economic system that prioritizes labor arbitrage (i.e., currency manipulations, outsourcing, insourcing) when robots can do most of the work for us. Back then, humans were stuck in a winner-take-all system not only because of technological threats that made it harder for small businesses to grow without debt and costly third-party assistance, but regulations that made it difficult for small and even mid-sized businesses to be truly global. How do you compete with larger, established players when your website can be easily subjected to a DNS attack, or when you need import-export permits and connections to make sure your goods aren’t “lost” along the way to the customer? 

H1: Wait, didn’t Amazon offer excellent tech services at a low cost to everyone, including small businesses? 

H2: Yes, and in doing so, it increased its own dominance because it had software to analyze the data coming from those third-party accounts. In effect, America’s technological leaders used data and AI to further distance themselves from their smaller competitors or just bought them out. 

Think of it this way: today, we see no point in having separate armies in each independent country or community. We realized the costs—both financial and otherwise—for smaller, developing countries to rise to the technological aptitude of larger countries were prohibitive and counter-productive to world peace. We also realized any war between advanced countries or their proxies was potentially catastrophic—and by catastrophic, I mean world-ending—not only to residents in each country, but to everyone else. 

Once we agreed the usual models wouldn’t work because human decision-making wasn’t yet developed enough to predict or even prevent human error—the 2018 Hawaii false missile alarm being one example—the only solution was increasing cooperation between all nuclear powers and satellite owners. I’m not saying countries still don’t try to disrupt other countries, but we mostly agree that using resources that could improve residents’ domestic conditions is preferred to an arms race with no end and assured global destruction. 

Developed nations did try to encourage less developed countries to boost infrastructure, but imposing the same regulations of a developed country on a developing country soon proved counterproductive. I read somewhere that a traveler passing through a developing country’s airport had a much easier process than a traveler to a so-called advanced country, which gives you an idea that technology wasn’t working in the way humans intended. There was even a story where humans replaced retail workers with machines but there were so many inefficiencies in the software, the human worker had to work more to help complete transactions, obviating the tech’s utility. Initially, developed countries relied on labor arbitrage to fix these gaps, but soon it became obvious having separate systems in each country that weren’t at least minimally compatible with each other made no sense. 

H1: I understand what you’re saying, but even today, we have tech issues. I’d like to think we won’t collapse just because we have technological issues. 

H2: Yes, but because we can manipulate our DNA, we don’t have similar social problems. If you want to be a different skin color, a different body type, and so on, you can accomplish that—as long as you consent to 24/7 neurological surveillance so researchers can gather biological data that helps improve our systems. 

Unlike today, back in 2016, artificial differences separated humans, who put up artificial barriers to protect themselves. Almost every so-called legal advancement served only to increase segregation and inequality, which led to social strife. As lawyers were busy discovering new ways to segregate their clients’ interests from political unpredictability, people post-Snowden realized they had unwittingly sacrificed privacy for little to no increase in efficiency or security. The government tried to recapture credibility by becoming more transparent and encouraging open debates, but in an age where knowledge and the ability to absorb it logically was highly dependent on multiple factors outside the individual’s control, these attempts backfired. 

In short, governments in the 21st century found themselves outmaneuvered by the more nimble private sector, hamstrung by union and other rules prioritizing politics over customer service and merit, and generally at a loss on how to deal with the vestiges of prior administrations, who had made promises based on economic assumptions no longer necessarily true. Would China continue to buy debt denominated in U.S. dollars? Would the U.S. consumer accept a free trade paradigm where a strong dollar improved their quality of life while shifting production to other countries? How would “most-favored nation” status work fluidly in an age of multiple superpowers? 

H1: [chuckles] Ok, you’re getting too wonky for me. So the old ways weren’t working for everyone. Why didn’t the leaders change things? 

H2: If only it were that easy. Remember we said all political change was incremental? Once you include massive, multi-generational debt into the equation, change becomes even more tricky. In the United States, the majority of the federal budget was on autopilot after 2001. The way the government kept funding operations, including foreign overreach, was through a legal maneuver called appropriations, which were designed only for short-term use. Lacking fiscal discipline, even basic changes such as legalization of drugs and reducing the ROI on long-term obligations couldn’t be done uniformly, much less internationally. For example, why would a country like Singapore, which could actually control drug imports due to its small size, sign up for drug liberalization? In the case of Singapore, the cost-benefit analysis fell firmly on the side of drug enforcement, whereas in America, police were outmanned and often outgunned against drug enterprises, starting as early as Miami in the 1980s. 

H1: Why do you focus on drugs? Today, we can get any drug we like, and scientists are working on even better ones. 

H2: You have to remember that our economic system today is much different from the ones around the Earth in 2018. Today, when we are born, we all receive a pre-set allocation of BlockCoins that can last us our entire lives if we are reasonably careful. Different pods and different countries have rules on how we can spend these BlockCoins, but they are universally transferable, though prices are different depending on one’s location. Most countries provide a staggered number of BlockCoins until the age of 40 (the age limit increases as more anti-aging advances are made) to promote prudent spending. If someone runs out of BlockCoins today, they will most likely relocate to a less expensive pod or country or even go “savage” and move to a non-technologically advanced pod. As we know, under this economic system, women gained much more political power and wealth, and now dominate most high-level non-military governance positions. 

H1: I dislike the savage pods. They receive our protection and some  of our medical advances without contributing any biological data. Some of them come around when a child gets sick, and even I felt sorry for the savage who received CRISPR treatment for his son in exchange for an eye lens implant that allowed a BlockCoin billionaire to secretly spy on his colony in sector B6. 

H2: Anyway, humans in the 21st century were faced with the opposite economic scenario, but in one way still surprisingly similar to us. They worked all their lives to gain enough wealth so they could finally pursue their passions and dreams in old age; in contrast, we go to school to learn what most interests us and then receive training to help us choose occupations based on our specific abilities and desires. 

What surprises me is that earlier humans also agreed to have their data mined—but without compensation. They paid for medical care, education, housing, and so on. Many people even went in debt for such essential items. 

The reason we are able to enjoy such a high quality of life today is because we voluntarily provide constant, real-time biological data to the pods and central research unit. Most of us accept the tradeoff between a lack of privacy and the goal of the perfect singularity, i.e., a human being with at least the same level of abilities as the most advanced machines. The data is anonymized before being sent to the pods and central research unit, but you and I are able to access results and CRISPR suggestions based on our individual data. I’m not sure anyone wants to visit North Korea now that they’ve upgraded their personal hardware to resemble the Incredible Hulk, but they pose no threat to us because central military command can freeze and/or obliterate any specific area immediately with the unanimous consent of the revolving 7-member Security Council, chosen every three years based on the countries producing the most innovative breakthroughs in science, music, math, and engineering. Members with a conflict of interest must abstain from voting, but generally speaking, since everyone is born with the same number of BlockCoins, persons in all countries are somewhat valuable to other countries, so cross-border violence and aggression is counterproductive. 

My point is that because human beings delayed their passions and dreams until old age, they suffered from numerous neuroses. To assuage their neuroses, they engaged in terrorism, violence, illegal drugs and other diversions we find anachronistic today. Such improper behavior necessitated large budgetary outlays for police and military forces, obligations which grew larger with each passing year. Funding such expansion required debt at levels that would never be paid off completely as well as non-financial complexity such as infiltration and surveillance. 

For example, it was not uncommon for a police unit to pay undercover officers to infiltrate or surveil a gang dealing in drugs. In other words, while the police were infiltrating drug dealing gangs and sometimes even running drug operations themselves, they were spending money trying to stamp out the same operations, which were busy expanding into other areas of business, sometimes even stealing donations to nonprofit centers for resale online. Illegal drugs formed the core of the revenue that allowed crime to expand, which led citizens to authorize more funding for crime-fighting, which then allowed more surveillance, less overall privacy, more segregation, and so on. At some point, humans realized they needed to decriminalize drugs and not waste funding on self-defeating strategies, but until that moment occurred, citizens bickered over a lack of funding for other areas even as most local tax revenue was going to public safety operations. 

H1: Violence, debt, crime, not being able to pursue one’s passions until old age…and you haven’t even mentioned disease and sickness yet! I don’t mean to be rude, but why did these people even bother? 

H2: Many of them didn’t. Suicide rates and depression were highest in the most developed countries. You despise the savages, but they mock us, too. When they’re not calling us a “Simulacrum Society,” they’re comparing us to the pods in The Matrix (1999). 

H1: I’ve heard those criticisms before, and they’re evidence of the savages’ less than fully developed tastes and intellect. In The Matrix, the machines were using us, but we are using the machines. 

H2: Are you sure about that? If the machines took over, wouldn’t they be advanced enough to use neuro-data sets and AR/VR technology to make us think we were still in charge? Anyway, to answer your original question, why did humans endure under such counterproductive systems? A review of literature would lead you to the answer of love. No matter how low or damaged someone was, it was normal to persist in the belief that someone, somewhere loved him or her or would love him or her. 

H1: Ah, so gender relations were optimal then? 

H2: [Sighs] Actually, in America, they were quite low in 2018. 

H1: Surely you’re joking. 

H2: Humanity many centuries ago recognized that men and women comprised two sides of the same puzzle that needed union for happiness, but in practice, men and women could rarely get along unless the male met a female when he was starting out or not successful, and the female stayed with him even when she could have chosen someone more successful. The best case scenario was stated most aptly by comedian Chris Rock: “You can be married and bored, or single and lonely!” 

H1: I’m not going to say we’ve solved gender issues, but at least it’s much easier to keep occupied and motivated without a significant biological other. Very few humans today think love is the central goal anymore. We live too long, and it’s not difficult to find people who are ok with short-term relationships. 

H2: But that’s exactly why the savages mock us. They say we’ve discovered every innovation except the most important ones. Do you remember their last line in the most recent debate? “Give me a life difficult enough to value the important things, enough time to find them, and enough life to enjoy them—no more, no less.” They say the difficulty is the point. In the struggle is my salvation, and so on and so forth. 

H1: They have all kinds of ideas. One of them argued that although we can better analyze specific DNA sequences or identify harmful strands, we still don’t know the total impact of modifying one DNA sequence on all the other sequences ad infinitum. But of course the researchers have accounted for this issue and use AI to run simulations on all possible outcomes. 
H2: I think the argument was that AI only knows what data it receives under a specific rule set, so if a human being programs the AI with data only known up to x date, what if the human being is unintentionally eliminating mutations not in the data as of x date? 

H1: Once again, the researchers account for these possibilities by running all possible sequences. 

H2: But how can AI know what it doesn’t know? Are we correct in assuming biology follows very specific rules like chess or that the simulations can account for all possible mutations? 

H1: [Cocks eyebrow] Are you getting wonky on me again? 

H2: Fine. Back to relationships. The correct answer is, “I don’t know.” Some couples worked out, some didn’t. Our lives are far more predictable than theirs, but we are less likely to engage in permanent relationships or reproduce naturally. 

I remember reading an author discuss his time watching couples on the London Underground. He said he didn’t know what love was, but he could always see it when it was there. According to him, love wasn’t at all abstract—it was literally there in the quickness and shape of a smile, the subtle ways happy couples mimicked each other’s body movements without realizing it, and so on. Once he realized he could see love, that’s what he aimed to achieve. Right after he set the goal, he realized how silly he was. He could not accomplish such a goal on his own, and he could not predict when or if it would happen. There was probably an equal chance of him never seeing love in his own life as seeing it. 

Yet, realizing he could see love, that it wasn’t entirely abstract, encouraged him to spend more time on people and to try to see why they behaved the way they did. Why was that woman wearing that brand, that color? Perhaps she believed it helped present her as a better version of herself, and she wanted a better version of herself to attract a specific someone. Or had she saved up for months to get an item because it meant she’d have an easier time being spoken to with respect? What did she intend to convey by choosing this color, this dress, over another? Was it just that it was the only clean laundry that day? One never knows with the savages. Maybe that’s the point. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lisbon: Extremely Touristy, but Tastefully Done

Lisbon (or Lisboa in Portuguese) grows on you. It doesn’t have a specific central attraction like Disneyland or the Eiffel Tower, so the city is often overlooked by non-EU tourists. It hasn’t fully integrated its fascinating history in a meaningful way, but even the most casual visitor will notice an Arab-style castle near French-themed architecture near a Catholic Church that claims to have archeological remains of a mosque. The good people of Lisboa’s Tourism Board might direct you to Belem’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (aka the Jeronimo Monastery, a must-see), where an entire room on the top floor is dedicated to Portuguese and world history, and they’d be right to do so, except the exhibit doesn’t teach you about the rise and fall of different rulers in a coherent way.
Geronimo! Wait, wrong country.
If I lived in a country that had history involving the Moors (don’t miss the exhibit inside Castelo de S. Jorge), Napoleon, and the Crusaders, I’d at least try to explain why Portugal and Brasil are the only major countries today that speak Portuguese. Hint: apparently when Napoleon, the greatest military strategist of his time, arrived in Portugal as part of his fearsome sweep across Europe, some of Portugal’s royalty fell out with other family members, fled to Brasil, and then declared Brasil’s independence. I can’t be entirely sure, though—as I said, there’s no attempt to merge everything together in a meaningful way for English speakers. I read elsewhere that Portugal’s navy found the best route to ship spice from Goa, India, an admirable niche because there must have been fierce competition from the East India Companies as well as the Spanish Armada. In any case, if you visit Lisbon, consider staying in the Rossio or Restauradores district, near the beautifully-designed Estação do Rossio (Rossio Train Station).
I stayed at Hotel Gat Rossio, which had excellent breakfast. After two nights, I walked to the train station and went to Sintra, which was the best decision I made. Sintra is wonderful, and well-managed as a World Heritage site that includes Parque Natural de Sintra and Parque de Monserrate. Before I get to Sintra, let’s finish up with Lisbon. Why come to Lisbon when more intrepid tourists go to Coimbra or Sintra instead? 

First, Lisboa is easy to navigate. If you’re a new traveler and seeing Europe for the first time, it might be a fine idea to go to Lisbon first. Except for its malfunctioning tram ticket machines, it’s idiot-proof. All three “touristy” sections in the city centre are walkable (you can try www.lisboaautentica.com for walking tours, but you won’t need a guide if you have Google Maps) or accessible by bus. A Lisboa Card, available in 24, 48, or 72 hour increments, provides discounts to most tourist attractions along with free public transportation, including buses, trains, trams, and the subway. A direct airport transfer bus isn’t free but it’s discounted with the card. (I’m just happy a direct bus exists, even when the subway or a more circuitous bus route will get you to the airport as well.) 

The Lisboa Card comes with a booklet listing numerous attractions all over the city, along with helpful and detailed blurbs. I don’t know why every major city doesn’t offer such a card, along with a detailed booklet. It’s perfect advertising for lesser known attractions, especially away from the city centre, and it helps subsidize the local transportation system. I’m sure consultants are busy right now figuring out nickel-and-dime strategies (e.g., in small print, insert an additional charge to take photos in a museum) to increase revenue rather than more straightforward, sensible solutions. Those erratic tram ticket machines I mentioned earlier? You don’t need to bother with them if you buy the Lisboa Card. As I said, except for the direct airport bus, all public transport is included. 

Second, both Lisbon’s food and service are good, a rare European combination. Seafood and pastries are the highlights. Everyone will suggest going to the Belem neighborhood and getting the pastel de nata (aka egg tart), but the egg tarts everywhere in Portugal are excellent. I’m having one now in Lisboa Airport (code: LIS) with extra cinnamon in the soft center, and it’s delicious. I also found a plain flan—like flan pudding but without the caramel—but don’t expect to see it on every menu. I saw it only twice in the windows of nondescript restaurants, the kind where construction workers come to take shots together before returning to finish the day. 
Coming from Morocco, I was unhappy with Lisboa’s dining prices, but my trip afterwards to London convinced me I was wrong to complain. (If you’re going to a country that uses the euro, get used to things being at least a little more expensive than a usual backpacker/early retiree itinerary).

Third, if you stay in Rossio, you will have access to the train and can visit my favorite part of Portugal: Sintra. Sintra’s decision to protect its natural beauty has resulted in a park with castles and scenery that look straight out of a Disney film. Within a few minutes after entering Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira, Parque Natural de Sintra, and Parque de Monserrate, I felt a kind of awed calm I haven’t felt in years. Sadly, when one travels often, regular and “ready-made” tourist attractions become bland. So many places use the same experts and consultants, every museum in the world will eventually have the same Moroccan tiles, cobalt-blue Persian bowls, Christian Orthodox mosaic tiles, antique guns, and Greek pottery. In Sintra, I remembered why I travel.
Most tourists will need one to two nights in Sintra, and two to three nights in Lisbon. I didn’t go to Coimbra, but I imagine it would be an excellent daytrip. I have a flight in a few hours and just enough time for another cinnamon-infused pastel de nata. Adeus and abrogado. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Casablanca, Morocco: Most Underrated City in the World

I wasn't expecting much when I arrived in Casablanca, Morocco. The Bogart-Bergman movie was not filmed here--it took place almost entirely in a Hollywood movie studio. Even so, several enterprising businesses have not disavowed the link, and a Rick's Cafe replica exists. 

When I arrived, I realized I had stepped into the equivalent of Morocco's NYC. Although Rabat is the official capital, most of Morocco's economic activity occurs in Casablanca, its largest city. Pollution is not noticeable, but grime is. Here are two photos, unfiltered, of the exact same area. 
Beautiful place, beautiful weather.
Neglected.

For whatever reason, no one has cleaned up Casablanca, so fewer tourists choose it over Marrakech, Chefchaouen, and Fes--a big mistake. Casablanca has medinas, beautiful architecture, attractive costs, and arguably the grandest mosque in the world. While London and Vancouver suffer rain or snow, the weather is almost perfect in December. 
Hassan II Mosque.
In addition, just one hour away by train is Rabat, which houses the Tomb or Mausoleum of Mohammad V, another stunning attraction. Cost of the train ride? About 4 USD--the same from the airport to the city center. (I stayed at Ibis Casa Voyageurs next to the train station, avoiding the need for taxis.) 
Outside the Tomb.

Although Rabat has its own large mosque (Assounna) and a surprisingly good museum of modern art, nothing can compare to its tomb. You need only one day in Rabat, but it will be one of your most worthwhile experiences. 

You will want to spend three to five nights in Casablanca. With its fairly new Alstom-built tram, getting around the city is convenient, though the ticket machines could use an upgrade. (Choose the English option on the home screen and buy two trips, which should generate a renewable card.) 

A typical itineary will include seafood at the Central Market (tram stop: Marche Central); 

the modern Seddiq mosque in the business district; the Habous district, which contains incredible Andalusian-style architecture and the beautiful Muhammadi Mosque or al-Mohammadi Mosque; and of course the Hassan II Mosque. (Don't forget to wear respectful clothing, as you would if you were visiting the Vatican.) 
Cafes are everywhere, so you can try tagine with beef or lamb and the famous Moroccan mint tea. The avocado shakes were an unexpected bonus. 
Avocado shake with mint tea. Inside the teapot are mint leaves.

I enjoyed pastries at Patisserie Serraj, an institution since 1954, and sugarcane from street vendors (about 50 cents). If you see an outdoor market, you can buy meat or liver from a butcher and take it to BBQ at a nearby stall. 
Cost: 60 dinars or about 6.40 USD

Not one person overcharged me, and everywhere I went, I saw an old elegance, the kind you expect to exist only in movies. 
Morocco is famous for its tiles. Visit the museum inside the Hassan II complex.
Perhaps Casablanca wasn't filmed in Morocco, but I don't mind--no movie could ever capture its variegated beauty. Come visit before everyone else discovers this gem. 

Bonus: I took the train to Fes (about three and a half hours from Casablanca). I didn’t like Fes except for a cute crafts bazaar (Poterie de Fes) located outside the walled medina. 
On the way back to Casablanca, I stopped at Meknes, which has the best vibe of all the Moroccan cities I’ve seen. Meknes is where the youth are, and it might be the most open-minded city in Morocco. Perhaps that’s one measure of a society’s success: the more the adults let the youth roam free, the more the circle of life can continue. Why? Because all kids stretch the boundaries of authority as much as possible to see if the social fabric foisted upon them is stable. If the adults are fair and confident rulers, the rules they’ve made—both formal and informal—will bend but not break. This generational testing, this stretching, is what we call progress—if we’re lucky. #Youth #DontTrustAnyoneOver30

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Tunisia

I have never felt as sorry for Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s name and spirit are missing. The men here dally in dark cafes, drinking tea with mint leaves, watching soccer. There is no trace of any revolution. Ben Ali is somewhere comfortable, his Saudi backers even more comfortable. The new-old government in Tunisia’s capital have banned a political party, forgetting Britain's lessons with Sinn Fein. Hundreds of people dead in 2011, for what?

I have never felt as sorry for Arabs as I did in Tunis.

In 1956, freed from the yoke of French colonialism, President Habib Bourguiba convinced the Tunisian National Assembly to pass the Personal Status Code, which prohibited polygamy, defined court procedures for divorce, granted universal suffrage, and required the consent of both parties to a marriage. “With this one law, women became equal to men before the courts.” (Third World Women Speak Out, by Perdita Huston)

But Bourguiba miscalculated. Tunisia’s rural villagers did not know about the Personal Status Code. When a country is illiterate, how can they know the capital city’s intentions for them? They continued the old ways.

What happened to the ideals of this leader of women’s rights, this Arab feminist? Where is his spirit in Tunis? It is in a street named after him and a statue. (At least the street is lively.)

I have never felt so sorry for Arabs and Muslims as I did in Tunis.

A capital city should be filled with activity and discussion, but Tunis at night is dead. Most shops close at 8pm, street lighting is irregular, and finding the way back to my riad is difficult. Only stray cats, graffiti, and small garbage heaps acknowledge me. Sanitation workers cannot clean the garbage heaps from the busy day quickly enough—the streets are too narrow, too winding, too dark. I have seen men using handheld carts, the kind farmers attach to the back of oxen, hauling garbage alone.
There may not be enough money to fix potholes, install proper lighting, clean graffiti, create a flag that doesn’t look like a Turkish copy, or improve sanitation, but the police near the presidential palace ride shiny BMW motorcycles. In the city centre, numerous security forces carry the latest semi-automatic weapons.

Tunisian women have not convinced politicians to pay them to stand around with guns, but they have their own defense tactics. When an impatient grandmother wearing a black headscarf crosses a busy street, she wags her finger at each oncoming driver, not bothering to look, confident cars will stop.

I have never felt so awful for Arab Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Wherever I go, I enter at least one government building and take a photo. I take the photo behind the security barrier or entrance check. The photo is always of something harmless or within easy sight, something I can zoom in from outside if needed. In San Francisco, California, the police officers do not bother me, even when I loiter in their lobby. They have discretion and are above following pointless rules for the sake of following rules. Their job is to keep the peace and bothering a potential taxpayer does not make sense.

In Havana, in Tunis, and in any society with too few women workers and too much security spending, the story is always the same. When I step inside Tunisia’s Ministry of Finance and take a photo of the tiled wall, an armed and uniformed security guard runs up to me and grabs my arm, angrily ordering me not to take photos. He knows his job is pointless, but he must follow orders, tu comprends? Not following rules affronts his manhood, and in Tunisia’s post-colonial world, enforcing pointless rules is his raison d’ etre.
Other government workers, equally useless, not used to commotion, come outside their offices to observe. They have very nice suits. A nonconformist in a Tunisian government building must be an interesting sight to behold. Meanwhile, EU finance ministers approved a blacklist of 17 jurisdictions deemed as tax havens. Tunisia is on the list.

I have never felt so despairing for young Arabs as I did in Tunis.

When I ask a guide the following day if we can enter a government building, the one over there with the interesting tiles, he calmly explains the building I would like to enter is for government employees. He does not need to add the word “only.” It is understood in Tunisia, which held democratic elections for the first time in 2012, the government does not work for him.

I have never felt so sad for young Muslims as I did in Tunis.

My host, a kind man named Oussama, the owner of both French and Tunisian passports, tells me politicians loyal to Ben Ali, the president who fled to Saudi Arabia after the student-led revolt in 2011, are re-gaining power. It is unclear whether the police or military would arrest Ben Ali if he returned, despite outstanding warrants for money laundering and drug trafficking.  

Oussama opines that the students’ 2011 nonviolent approach may have been a mistake. He does not look like a man who favors violence. He is slender, calm, has many books in many languages. He explains that after the revolution, the state disappeared and the mafia entered the void, but now the state is making a comeback. Unfortunately, Tunisians have lost the most important thing—their energy, so palpable in 2011. Young Tunisians today say they—the politicians—are all the same, which is the worst possible outcome. I do not tell him my successful Arab friend in America refers to the “Arab Spring” as the “Arab Winter.”  

I have never felt so happy for Arab Muslims as I did in Sidi Bou Said.

The sidewalks are (mostly) clean, excellent coffee exists in enough places, students with laptops write eagerly, and no one objects to people taking harmless photos. Posh restaurants, late hours, and stunning views of the sea and mountains seem indigenous, as does the color blue. It is impossible to be sad in a city where almost everything has been painted blue by man or Allah.
I have never felt so optimistic for African Muslims as in Sidi Bou Said.

Men and women sit together on rooftop salons, black and Arab Africans walk side by side, and men do not need soccer or cigarettes to socialize. Police officers with shoulder-strapped guns are also here, but they bring a different energy. They are more purposeful, more determined, more proud. One plainclothes officer in Sidi Bou Said is worth ten uniformed personnel in Tunis.

I have never felt happier for African Arabs as in Carthage.

Carthage has the nicest houses, the most money, the best-paved roads, and the most interesting history in Tunisia. Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca, was born here, his military tactics striking fear and respect into the hearts of the Roman Empire.

Tunisia’s most vibrant cultural center is here, away from most government ministries. Inside, surrounded by movie posters, I see, for the first time, Heinrich Böll speaking on television. Outside in December, young men and women of every shade of color mull about, chatting and laughing.

I have never felt so happy for Arabs and Muslims as in Carthage. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Simple Truths: De Facto Segregation


Author's note: I just discovered this post from many years ago. It's a draft, but I can't capture my original train of thought, so I am publishing it below "as is." I'm very surprised at #3, because I now firmly believe segregation, assisted by poor public transportation, is the cause of almost all major issues in modern countries. I don't mean only race-based segregation--I mean segregation of all kinds. In nature, birds of a feather may flock together, but if the human race's survival depends on "getting used to each other," segregation must be actively fought with the same planning and precision militaries fight wars.

Truth #3: Segregation may help minorities, at least in modern-day America.

Look at the history of assimilation in America. Which groups have been successful? How have they been successful? And why have we had so much "white flight"? Is "white flight" just a term for rich people trying to avoid an influx of poor people of a different color? Or is it a practical response to unwanted cultural change?

I don't know the answers to the aforementioned questions, but I do know there is safety in numbers. In America, as much as we advance the "melting pot" theory, the real power is in concentration, not integration. Democratic societies function based on elected representatives. Who chooses the representatives? The majority. If your group--whether professional, religious, or racial--is in the majority, chances are, your group will maximize its political potential. In contrast, if your group is in the minority, you will be dependent on the kindness of the majority to ensure your prosperity.

In good times, everyone is usually on the same page--it's the bad times that cause miscommunication and violence. History shows that when things get bad enough, majorities have no problem gassing millions of Jews, locking up Japanese-Americans, detaining and torturing Arabs and Muslims without due process, and so on.

In short, when the economy is doing well, Americans love assimilation; however, problems tend to arise whenever a recession occurs.

Truth #4: Most people don't even know our two biggest problems.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a massive problem--so is trying to compete in a globalized economy. Sure, other major problems exist, such as cybersecurity, a crumbling infrastructure, and a declining K-12 education system, but nuclear weapons and globalization stand out because we don't necessarily have the answers yet. 

Prague: Deservedly Weird

The Czechs are weird. My first day, a college student took pity on me, a confused-looking tourist on the tram (I should have downloaded the Jizdni rady IDOS app earlier), and invited me to a show. The show by Barbora Temejova turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip and better than the 300 koruna performance at a fancy Prague museum. 
How did I get into this small gathering? Through a revolving door filled with heavy books. Why a revolving door? Because this is where the Czech intellectuals met, in secret rooms, to plot against their Soviet occupiers. 

Like much of Europe, the Czechs were occupied by the Nazis. Just three years after the end of WWII expelled the Nazis and fascists, they had to battle Communism, which included the Soviet re-taking of property returned to their rightful Czech owners in 1945. The three-years' bout of independence wasn't forgotten when the Soviets came; if anything, the sight of the sickle and hammer reinvigorated the Czech spirit. 

Consider the (pre-Soviet) heroic but ultimately tragic Heydrich assassination attempt, memorialized in the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. Short version: the British helped a small team of Czechs successfully assassinate the local Nazi police chief, then received cooperation from local church leaders to hide the Czech shooters in an underground crypt below a small church. The way to the crypt requires pushing through an inconspicuously heavy, half-revolving door. (See a pattern?) Unlike visitors today, the Czech shooters had to hide in darkness, armed only with candles for light. (I didn't see a toilet, by the way.) Unfortunately, one of the parties involved in the assassination split after things didn't go exactly according to plan, and it's unclear whether he knew the Heydrich hit had worked. He eventually betrayed his colleagues, but the fact remains: the Czechs, unlike other Europeans, resisted. 
Tales from the Crypt

Adolf Kajpr, a Jesuit priest, attracted the Gestapo's attention for his anti-Third-Reich publications and was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Yet, he never wavered in his faith and published still-relevant thoughts, such as the idea that liberal capitalism leads to atheistic humanism, but Communism promotes various forms of oppression and injustice, especially against religious adherents. Why? "[P]ure religious truths were regarded as a form resistance against those who claimed to possess the entire truth, freedom, and power." (Note to self: totalitarians hate competition.) 

Incredibly, Czech nonconformity can be traced back to the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk. He was expelled from Catholic school, married a rich French-American woman from Brooklyn, took her last name as his middle name, and as a matter of principle, generally refused to honor convention. (Politicians matter, folks. For better or worse, they help shape a country's image and ability to credibly claim a particular value in the future.) 
If this isn't available on Netflix when I get back to California, I'm gonna be disappointed.

Other Czech iconoclasts include playwright and eventual President Vaclav Havel. Below are two of my favorite passages from perhaps the Czech Republic's greatest citizen: 
From Disturbing the Peace (1990)
Imagine meeting in secret cafe rooms with a playwright and plotting to drive the law-and-order Soviets so insane, they'd give up and leave. It actually happened. The Czechs managed to resist non-violently and in crazy enough ways to make a report sent to Moscow impossible or incomprehensible. For example, when the Soviets first came, Czech resisters removed all the street signs. In a non-GPS era, this action rendered the efficient Soviet machine slow, making navigation and mapping impossible. 

And the Czechs were just getting started. Try to envision a 22 year-old Soviet soldier patrolling the streets of Prague with a Kalashnikov. He doesn't know where he's going because there are no street signs. When he walks around, trying to maintain order, he sees this: 
"What is going on?" he thinks. No one is attacking him, so he can't shoot. The artist cleans up after the performance, so there's no litter. It's not against the law to "crow." Does he just stand there, looking like an idiot? How does he explain this incident to his local superiors, who then have to send a written report to straitlaced Moscow? If you're the 40 years-old local military commander, and you receive a call describing this performance--and others like it--do you even write a report? If you don't, you'll be accused of hiding information from Moscow, but if you do, you'll look like you've lost your mind and you might lose your job. What do you do? What do you do?

Suffice to say, Vaclav Havel and his band of misfits prevailed--but only after college students, who so often sacrifice themselves to shame adults and the Establishment into doing what should be done, set themselves on fire. Remember these names: 
Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc, and Evžen Plocek--they are heroes and better men than you and me. 
Memorial at Charles University

When women make the popular V-sign in photos today, they may not know its full history. It was in Wenceslas Square where President Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, made the V-for-victory sign to thousands of Czechs who had finally won their freedom from Soviet occupation. 
At Wenceslas Square, the site of Palach's self-immolation.
After I left Prague, I read a delightful book by an Australian woman who moved there in search of a more interesting life. The passages below are from Rachael Weiss's book Me, Myself, and Prague (2008), but I recommend you start with her more polished and recent work, The Thing about Prague (2014). Her insights are spot-on about the Czechs, whom she politely calls "eccentric." 

Weiss correctly describes the Czechs as rude by Western standards, but one must also remember much of the world thinks Westerners are idiots for walking around smiling all the time for no reason. Me, I say the Czechs have earned the right to be any way they like. If they want to be eccentric, rude, and notorious for having affairs, more power to them. Anyone repelling armed soldiers using art, nonviolence, and sheer confusion ought to be able to put a man on an upside-down horse in the middle of a bazaar and act as if that's perfectly normal. 
Your eyes do not deceive you. It is what is is.
If you visit Prague, try Medovnik (honey cake), and think of the Czechs as perpetually drunk Germans. Czechs are usually blunt, so it often feels like you're getting yelled at or ignored with no middle ground. I'm not a linguistics expert, but the way Czechs speak English indicates their language prefers to be precise and concise when possible. 

Just don't take anything too personally, whether it's the museum employee trying to be helpful by warning you not to buy a ticket because it's too late ("Why did you wait until you only had one hour left? You come tomorrow." I bought the ticket after realizing she wasn't actually giving me an order); to the sitting newspaper stand owner loudly demanding to know why you're standing in front of his stall (an American would just ignore the potential customer); to the waiter who ignores you even when you wave your hand trying to catch his attention. 

Despite the rudeness (an unintentional linguistic limitation?) and weirdness, you'll be pleased to know the Czechs, unlike most of Eastern Europe, have successfully integrated about 60,000 to 80,000 immigrants and made about half of them citizens. These Vietnamese immigrants weren't necessarily fleeing the North Vietnamese regime--some relocated voluntarily as part of the Communist alliance between Chinese-backed North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, which is why Vietnamese food in Prague is sometimes different from Vietnamese food in America.

Prague has too many tourist sights to list, but you should try to see the following: Charles Bridge, 

Basilica of St. James (aka Church of St James the Greater), 
I don't read Dan Brown's books, but look closely.

Church of St. Nicholas (in Old Town), the Dancing House, 
St. Vitus Cathedral (in Prague Castle aka Prazsky Hrad), the Franz Kafka Monument, 
Yes, the guy who wrote a weird story about a man who turns into an insect is Czech.

National Gallery aka Narodni galerie v Praze (with permanent and changing exhibitions in different locations--I enjoyed Julian Rosefeldt's "Manifesto," starring Cate Blanchett), Wenceslas Square (for its historical value--it's just a shopping area now), National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and Lobkowicz Palace. Five nights is sufficient. 

Lastly, here's a photo of dogs in the aforementioned royal palace. As you can see, you will never, ever be as weird as the Czechs. They are the original hipsters, and others will always be poor imitators. Unlike most artists today, their art and nonconformity had purpose, bravery, and substance, helping the Czechs achieve independence. The next time someone asks whether art and philosophy are useful, you can respond affirmatively--as long as you thank the Czechs. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Role of Patents in Monopolies

One of the lesser-known reasons behind M&A and consolidation of markets (aka less competition) is the role of patents. Even if a small company has great ideas, at some point, to get access to the broader market, they will need licenses. Over time, the cost of such licenses may become prohibitive, encouraging consolidation. This is why open source is so important, but it's also why governments have lost credibility over time.

Rather than address the causes of needlessly prohibitive barriers, governments have attempted to deal only with the results of an increasingly unwieldy legal framework, which merely adds to its complexity--and which generates even more contempt for the elites who benefit from it. 


Let's take a couple of recent examples: Uber/Waymo and Fitbit/Jawbone. They've sued each other, a process that is supposed to create a check and balance protecting innovation. Problematically, it's impossible to know whether any party actually committed legal violations or trade secret theft without each side spending millions of dollars in legal fees that do nothing to promote innovation. In some cases, companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars arguing about superficial similarities in mobile phone design, down to the curves and grooves in a mobile phone's case (e.g., Apple vs. Samsung). 

If you are a small company threatening the market share of a larger company, the larger company has an asymmetrical payoff in suing you early and often--even if its case has little merit. The smaller company then has to raise funding for non-innovative purposes or become more dependent on outsiders to survive. As such, the status quo biases winners and losers based on which innovators have access to the best or most powerful venture capitalists and lawyers, many of whom are connected to the existing political establishment, especially in states where judges run for election. 

Worse, governments cannot unilaterally reform the patent development or certification process, partly because the procedures are often based on subjective interpretation and therefore the random assignment of a particular government employee. (e.g., is Amazon's "one-click" technology truly deserving of a patent? If so, which parts?) 

Meanwhile, laws and regulations relating to interpretation continue to expand to resolve increasingly complex or new issues, frustrating even sincere government employees who may not have recent technological expertise or who may be receiving such expertise secondhand from biased experts. Absent wholesale removal of patent application screeners who disagree with the executive branch's interpretation of truly non-innovative or innovative patents--a definition that may change every four years--lawyers once again take the helm. Compounding problems, as law school tuition has increased, legal fees have risen, making experienced (and even inexperienced) lawyers less accessible for smaller companies.

Conclusion: every system of any kind, once it achieves stability (often misconstrued for success), has three choices: bar newcomers, which increases social tension, reduces consumer choice, and renders diversity impossible; make competition outside the established system affordable and feasible, which often increases segregation; or adapt and suffer sacrifice. The primary cause of almost all problems in the developed world today is the inability of all parties--both public and private--to choose the third option.

Bonus: from Peter Thiel's From Zero to One


Bonus II: Much of globalization's discontents is merely new or freshly made capital moving from developed countries (that have not chosen to adequately reform existing legal systems) and into developing countries which lack similar barriers--exactly as one would expect new capital to behave in a rigged system.