Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is like NYC, but with better traffic, no subway, and no soul. Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed my three days here. The cuisine and service are excellent. If you like sweet pastries and even sweeter drinks, this place can be heaven on earth. I didn't try all the drinks, but here's a short list of ones you can try: qahwa (tangy, watery coffee), karak chai/tea, karak chai/tea zafran, Turkish coffee (the go-to in any respectable cafe here), date milkshakes (my favorite), jellab (I didn't see this one during my stay), and habbath al hamra.

Camel milk and meat is the region's specialty, but it's not something widely available. I don't think the natives favor the camel-inspired industry--they're all in Starbucks, which doesn't serve Turkish coffee or any of the interesting drinks here.

I did not have time to try the camel burger at Le Cafe (inside Emirates Palace), but I did try their camel milk cappuccino (aka Camelccino). I'm sad to say it didn't taste much different than a normal cappuccino. The highlight for most people with social media accounts will be the Emirates Palace Cappuccino, which is topped with 23-karat gold flakes. (By the way, the Emirates Palace is a fancy hotel, not an actual palace--but a must-see regardless. Their high tea is great.) 
There's gold in dem coffee!
My "foodie" highlight was at Petek, where I ordered far too many drinks and pastries and could not move from my chair. (Worth it.) 
The lime-colored pudding was the best.
Cost for the whole spread: 30 USD.

Before I continue, let me say the UAE, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is not cheap. It is on par with San Francisco prices. If you're a foodie, you can stay at a reasonably-priced hotel here for a few days as a stopover to another location. I stayed at Hotel Mercure--if you book on a third party website, you'll incur a tax/fee upon check-in, so have about 45 to 50 dirhams ready.

Insofar as "typical" tourist attractions are concerned, let's do a general overview. Abu Dhabi's claim to fame is its numerous conferences and events. Its hotels are exquisite, and almost every building is creatively designed. It's not as developed as you might think--in fact, several of its most pristine waterfront areas haven't been developed yet, which surprised me.  You can go to the main public beach (the Corniche) and walk along the 8km pedestrian and bicycle path as a pleasant evening diversion. The beach has warm water, so feel free to swim.

Other than the Emirates Palace/Hotel and the Corniche, the main tourist spots are as follows: Manarat Al Saadiyat, Qasr Al Hosn (closed for the time being), Heritage Village (a faux old market with a restaurant), Yas Mall (connected to Ferrari World), Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Yas Waterworld, and Ferrari World. (The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open November 2017.)

Of these, the Emirates Palace, Corniche, Grand Mosque and Ferrari World were my favorites (I did not have time to go to Manarat Al Saadiyat or Yas Waterworld). If you're a thrill-seeker, you've got to go to Ferrari World, which has the fastest rollercoaster in the world. I was drenched in my own sweat afterwards, and I only managed to open my eyes for a split second during the ride. A local citizen saw me stumbling around after the ride and quickly brought me water.

The Emirates Palace has Le Cafe, which has the gold flakes cappuccino and camel burger, along with high tea. Wear jeans/slacks and shoes or you won't be allowed in--no sandals or shorts allowed.

The Grand Mosque is relatively new, so you won't feel any sense of piety there, but as a tourist attraction, it is excellent. Take a tour to get the full experience.

Grand Mosque
Abu Dhabi has no VPNs [Update: see below], no Uber, Careem, or OTaxi. If you want to get a taxi, you need to wait at one of the numerous taxi spots/stands, and one will eventually arrive. Minimum fare is 12 dirhams. The bus is much cheaper. 

Most people are from somewhere else. In the event you meet a citizen, you will feel immediate warmth and friendliness. The citizens in the UAE are alive and well, but almost everyone else walks around without any real connection to the country apart from work. There are major downsides to having so many residents--many educated, many uneducated--without any path to citizenship. People who live and work in any country without a meaningful way of gaining citizenship will feel and act differently than the natives.  Given the obvious surveillance that occurs--not just CCTVs everywhere, but also the inability to use VPNs--Abu Dhabi feels like a very comfortable place in need of an ideology besides money.

To their credit, their leaders know this. As I said before, the citizens are wonderful, open, and kind--but there are not enough of them around to counter the intangible cost of having so many people in the country temporarily.

Despite the numerous glitzy attractions available, my most memorable experience was meeting a humble Afghan immigrant making bread the traditional way. Cost of the delicious bread? Just one dirham, or about 25 cents. 

I was a bit harsh in the beginning when I said Abu Dhabi has no soul. Much of what people call a "soulless vibe" comes from the country being so new. With time, Abu Dhabi may feel different. Few other countries can match its diversity, wealth, and leadership. In short, the UAE's future, unlike most developed nations, is completely open. It can go almost any direction it chooses. Neighboring Qatar has already recognized the citizenship issue and made it easier for non-natives to gain citizenship. Once UAE workers begin to feel as if they can truly be a part of the country's future, there will be no stopping the UAE.

Update re: VPNs: technically, the UAE claims VPNs are allowed, as long as they are not used for criminal activity. However, not only is such a standard subjective, but Abu Dhabi's public WiFi networks don't appear fully compatible with mainstream VPN providers. Abu Dhabi is the only country thus far where I've had to reinstall my VPN several times and where using a VPN didn't work after just one to two minutes of connection time. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Data is the New Gold, but Not Everywhere

"We are largely collaborative –except when institutions get in the way." -- Nassim Taleb

If data is the new gold, how do developing countries compete when their homegrown companies don't typically own popular social media or other data-capturing apps? Let me tell you how not to do it. 

I wrote before how foreign capital from rule-oriented, developed nations is changing cultures in more communal nations; however, I did not predict the strange hybrid culture that would result from the tug-of-war between the old and new values. Unsurprisingly, I suspect the lawyers are to blame.

In the Philippines, I rented a condo through Airbnb. Though Airbnb is known for allowing you to stay in someone else's house or room, hotels and absentee owners of multiple condos also use it to generate revenue. When I rent through Airbnb, the advantage is I know Airbnb--they're based in S.F.--and if anything happens, I can go through a trusted intermediary. It's not the inventory or the technology that gives Airbnb its value--it's the fact that users can book a room online and know if they show up and unexpected problems arise, Airbnb will be there to assist. For a hearing-impaired traveler like myself, the need for a trusted intermediary is extremely valuable.

In the Philippines, as foreign capital and foreign-built condo residences have flourished, I saw a three-part comedy of errors:

1) condo associations are demanding additional, non-negotiated terms from their owners to keep track of Airbnb demand. I was asked to sign two legal contracts upon arriving at my condo (I initialed one innocuous one but refused to sign the other one until I'd had a chance to review the terms);

2) condo staff appear to have a new requirement to register with local governments rental contracts, especially for long-term visitors (perhaps to gain data the old-fashioned way about visitors?); and 

3) private security is asking guests to add details to a sign-in sheet every time we use the pool or other amenities, indicating a lack of trust due to few owner-occupied units or an attempt by the condo association to generate additional revenue from guests at the expense of common sense.

Elsewhere, Proctor & Gamble is cutting online ad spending, indicating the "new" digital world isn't always superior over its analog counterpart: 

“What it reflected was a choice to cut spending from a digital standpoint where it was ineffective, where either we were serving bots as opposed to human beings or where the placement of ads was not facilitating the equity of our brands."

Even with the Nasdaq near all-time highs, some observers can still differentiate between useful and non-useful technology. To sum up, when technology reduces human error and opportunities for hijinks--such as in food preparation--or improves customer service and trust, it is valuable. When it does not do these things, technology is not very useful. For all the talk of a new, new world, Airbnb's value isn't technology per se; it's the trust it builds between renters and owners and the opportunity for a human connection. In fact, Airbnb has a straightforward policy in case landlords or owners demand additional legal terms upon arrival: 
Policy as of July 31, 2017.

Just as I thought, I was right not to sign the additional legal terms given to me when I checked in. After some back-and-forth between the owner and myself, everything turned out fine, but few people and local governments will learn the appropriate lesson: people want to collaborate freely, and requiring terms or actions that do not increase trust or that do not reduce human error will backfire. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Uncomfortable Questions about Germany for Americans

I am not a history expert, but I proffer several questions historians ought to ask about Nazi Germany: 

1.  When Adolf Hitler was appointed or elected, who were the alternatives? Were they more distasteful than Hitler in some way? 

2. It seems clear the first way to isolate a minority is through laws. (Violence is too obvious and its showcasing results in weakening the image of law and order.) 

What were the first laws that targeted minorities? What did the enforcement of those laws look like? How did the national government incentivize local police to turn against their own residents or at least to look the other way? 

3. What were immigration patterns from 1919 to 1937? Which types of persons moved away?  Recent immigrants? Affluent and/or educated residents? Which types of persons stayed? Government employees? 

4.  Obviously, propaganda existed, but how was it made pervasive? For example, did the government arrest certain people and highlight their situations extensively? Did they use coercion to silence or blacklist persons who questioned the status quo? What specific methods did they use to dissuade behavior they deemed unacceptable? 

5.  What were marriage, divorce, and childbirth rates in Germany from 1900 to 1945? Can we break down statistics by each year to see useful patterns?

6.  What were immigration patterns--both legal and unauthorized--into Germany from 1900 to 1945? 

As an American citizen but a minority, I've left the United States. Whether my absence is temporary remains to be seen. Obviously, I have to return before April of each year to pay taxes, but the more I travel, the more I see other areas of the world that feel like America, pre-9/11. Part of the reason I've left is because I can see odd similarities between American society and other historical events. 

America elected someone who wasn't presidential but who was still better than the alternative. Vested interests within the opposition/losing political party elevated someone they favored rather than someone more electable, angering their base. 

Economic gains were not distributed to all corners of society, rendering some people vulnerable to propaganda, especially against minorities, tearing apart any common social fabric. Inflation in essential items increased, but without wage increases.

Being part of a group became worthy of respect and heroism. For instance, merely being part of the military or police entitled someone to automatic respect--regardless of the presence or absence of specific actions. 

This patina of heroism translated into less accountability for certain groups, leading to a "uniform culture" that allowed consolidation of power--and government funding--for special interests, especially the military. 

Economic gains continued not to be diversified, with old and now new special interests caring less and less about results and accountability. All sides in power begin to realize problems touch upon fundamental issues that cannot be solved unilaterally or that require sacrifices they were elected to avoid implementing. Rhetoric such as "Drain the swamp" becomes muted as the new political establishment resorts to extreme signaling or headlines to avoid losing power or legitimacy. 

Political discourse becomes progressively more toxic, throwing people into two or three camps: 1) yelling to become heard, i.e., the rise of the outrageous as the new normal; 2) taking no substantive positions but remaining agreeable, losing the support of anyone with principles (Note: appeasement comes in many forms, including economic appeasement); or 3) advocating solutions that cannot be implemented without massive changes (i.e., politically impossible solutions that require a dictatorial approach advocates would say they despise). 

In many cases, outliers are highlighted by both sides to justify their political positions or at least to blunt criticism of the status quo. As outliers become used more commonly, the media loses its ability to rally the public to act as a check and balance against government overreach or against the government's honest mistakes. 

Such political toxicity permeates the culture, causing children to grow up in a desensitized as well as unstable environment. For children growing up during a toxic time, the abnormal becomes normal. The children, unlike adults, don't have an earlier time to which they can compare their current lives. The shift from normal to abnormal occurs without any obvious outward signal because the new generation is mimicking the only behavior they know.

Reasonable, empathetic adults see what is going on and leave or self-segregate. They reject such an environment in which to raise or have children or self-segregrate in ways that may require ever-escalating costs to maintain their positions. Many people within this camp will be among the most successful members of society or its most principled--exactly the kind of people who would otherwise stand up effectively for minority rights. Without them present or fully integrated in their communities, little resistance exists against actors wanting to remake society in their own image. 

The lowered number of sensitive, empathetic, principled, or quietly diligent people--whose absence occurs gradually and is therefore difficult to register in any official capacity--causes a collective shift to a new, desensitized normal. At some point, even the less sensitive and empathetic residents realize something is wrong and they, too, leave, self-segregate, or disconnect psychologically from broader society. Yet another barrier of resistance to conformity is removed, leaving strongmen, radicals, and fools to dominate the culture. 

The children in this society grow up to become the new SS. Threats not otherwise perceived by any reasonable person in the previous generation are suddenly seen where few to no new substantive threats actually exist. (e.g., the North Korean nuclear threat is not new; however, NK's increased ability to survive without any need to be connected to countries other than China renders conventional solutions more impotent with each passing year.) This distortion leaves less time--and taxpayer funding--to deal with real problems, the causes of which become less obvious as more time passes. 

Society decays inexorably as more people hold onto power by any means necessary, whether through propaganda (fake news), new laws (CBAs, etc.), or brute force. The inability to resolve fundamental problems means fewer resources to be divided, leaving charity--both psychological and financial--less viable ("compassion fatigue").  Segregation becomes the new normal as fewer people care about others, especially persons who do not look or act like them. 

Segregation is crucial to understanding how a society changes its character because as more and more groups segregate themselves from each other, the information they receive is different. For example, despite living just 15 to 100+ miles away from each other, Community 1 may believe in a totally different reality than Community 2. In addition to making communication and therefore collaboration more difficult, segregation also allows Community 1 to hide its activities from outsiders. To take an extreme example, Community 1 may be brutalizing a minority group, but Community 2 has no realistic way of discovering such activity if the media no longer captivates the general public's attention or continues to lose readers/viewers and therefore status, revenue, income, access, and jobs. In the alternative, a "Neil Postman scenario" may result where excessive information functions the same as deliberate misinformation, leaving too few persons able to ascertain reliable facts, making broad or nationwide cooperation extremely difficult. 

In this future, everyone wonders how such normal, nice people changed in just a few decades. Most people are convinced by academics and media that some unique phenomenon occurred in the past. Some historians highlight positive outliers to provide people with hope when they ought to be warning that atrophy has occurred in every society and could occur again, right here. Otherwise reasonable people have left or spend their time battling misinformation, leaving them exhausted or with less time to contemplate solutions to fundamental problems--the same ones that continue unabated, as distractions and noise increase. 

More people leave or self-segregate through laws, legal agreements, harsher police enforcement, and/or physical barriers. Society's only hope is to allow more immigrants who still believe in the country's advertised principles, which are no longer actually true. Whether the government and existing residents allow new immigrants or some other source of fresh idealism to save their country dictates the direction of the society's future. Many countries, after a certain point in this cycle, choose war. 
From Bremmer's Superpower

The key is the youth. Do they choose the old ways, or do they forge a new path? 

Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Bonus: when my family came to America, I remember being assisted by multiple native-born Americans who took pride in assisting my conservative and socially awkward father. (Like father, like son.) I remember this kindness vividly, even though I did not communicate verbally with any of the persons I saw. I was too young and, as noted, socially awkward. 

Yet, I still remember minute details: the family from Davenport, Iowa who took the time to guide my family around unfamiliar territory, but who became separated at a highway offramp, leaving us to attempt to re-connect unsuccessfully in an era without cell phones or GPS. Being separated from this family distressed me greatly, even though I was not close with them. Why? I knew these people had made sacrifices to assist us, even if just losing time, and their sacrifice meant something. It meant I felt I was welcome in their community, and if I followed the rules, one day, it could be my community. Do recent immigrants to America have similar assistance and feelings that come with such generous assistance?  If not, how do they forge a bond, if any, with their communities? 

The Only Legitimate Civil War is against the Establishment

The only legitimate cause of internal social strife is the old versus the young, or change against the established ways. Once a society moves into any other kind of conflict, decay is inevitable.

If you see your media, intellectuals, or government focus on minorities without political power or some other domestic threat, you must learn from history. They are trying to distract you from their own incompetence. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Borobudur and Prambanan

I’m in Yogyakarta, Indonesia aka “Yogya.” Yogya’s city center, the area around Malioboro mall, is very touristy—think Khao San Road in Bankgok—but only 1 to 1 ½ hours away are gorgeous temples, including two UNESCO sites. 

Borobudur is one of the two UNESCO sites. It is located on an area designated as a nature preserve, so if you walk around, you might see elephants playing in a pond. No one was around the baby elephants when I saw them, even though they were a short walk from the temple, so perhaps elephant-seeing isn’t a usual event. In any case, allow 3 hours or more if you want to see the entire place. I walked about 5 miles and hitched a scooter ride to the other side of the grounds, where I unsuccessfully lobbied to see inside the conservation department’s offices. 

The Borobudur temple itself is based on Mahayana Buddhism and has three levels to designate different levels of enlightenment. Two small museums, including, oddly, one about ships, is near the temple, but neither appealed to me. The walk up the temple is relatively easy. If Malaysia’s Batu Caves are a 6.5, then Borobudur is a 2 (assume 0 is flat terrain). 
If you want to sleep on-site, check out the Manohara Hotel/Resort. It’s pricey, but you’ll be on the temple grounds. I stayed at Wahid Borobudur Hotel, which is much cheaper but still classy and only a 4-minute walk to the temple. To get to the temple, you’ll have to brave persistent hawkers, but I ignored them and went straight to the ticket booth. Prices are different for foreigners and natives—I paid about 25 USD in local currency.

There are sunrise (4:30AM) and sunset tours available for purchase separately, but the weather this particular September was cooler than usual. Many more dark clouds were present, blocking the sunrise, and providing no advantage for the sunrise tour package.

About an hour’s drive from Borobudur is Prambanan, the site of another UNESCO temple and about four smaller ones within walking distance. Prambanan is basically a farming village, and one of the highlights was seeing farmers on rice paddies and elsewhere using centuries-old techniques to cultivate the land. The sunset at a local coffeeshop, Resto Wedang Kopi, was beautiful, and the coffee and tea were amazing. Right around the corner is another temple site called North Klaosan.
North Klaosan
I preferred Prambanan to Borobudur. Although Borobudur’s temple is more majestic, Prambanan feels more like a village that happens to have temples rather than a city that has built its entire existence around one. The main Prembanan site, also with a 25 USD admission fee, has several temples on it, but after you exit, if you keep walking, you’ll see four other standalone temples, including Candi Sewu, the best one. A small tram carts tourists around if you don’t want to walk, but don’t miss the tiny AV museum, which shows how the temples were built. 

Overall, 3 to 4 nights is sufficient to see all of Yogya. Happy travels. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Uber/Grab Taxi Conversations

Sun Star Cebu (July 2017)
In Cebu, Philippines, I had very interesting conversations with Filipino drivers. Grab, a Singaporean company, competes with Uber. (As of July 2017, Lyft's international footprint is non-existent.) Grab's app is like Uber's but more intuitive. Grab users can message faster with drivers and can take advantage of a "notes" section when booking. I use the notes to tell the driver what I'm wearing ("red shirt, sunglasses, 6 ft," etc.). Interestingly, Grab uses Google Maps whereas Uber appears to use its own mapping system. (Update: in Indonesia, both Grab and Uber drivers do not trust any of the navigation apps and so rely on their own memories/knowledge or other people's directions. I'm not surprised--Google maps told my driver to turn into a one-way street several times.) 

Because Grab and Uber are fairly new entrants to countries outside North America, most drivers have worked for them less than a year. I heard two very interesting stories from Grab drivers I'd like to share and paraphrase:

Driver 1: Been working less than three months for Grab. Before, he worked in SEO. Speaks perfect English. Attended college but left with one semester to graduate. Why didn't he finish? He realized he didn't want to work in the profession. (In the Philippines, when you attend a college program, your final year consists of actual on-the-job experience.)

He's 37 but looks much younger. 

He's married to a Chinese woman. Much to my surprise and delight, Chinese women and Filipino men are becoming a more common pairing. If you don't already know, Filipinos do not generally like the Chinese--their cultures are completely different. In this case, the wife's entire family had college degrees, so they imposed a requirement on him to get a degree before he could join the family. I guess by the fourth year, the family realized the love was real and didn't need a piece of paper from an accredited college for verification. My Pinay friend, after hearing the story, remarked, "Ah, the Chinese."

He works about 14 hours more each week driving than in his SEO job but makes slightly less money. Why doesn't he go back to SEO? He controls his schedule as a Grab driver, and he can see his family more often.

Driver 2: Been working one month as a Grab driver. Before this, he supplied lechon (pork) to restaurants and restaurant suppliers. (Cebu is famous for two products: lechon and mangoes.) 

He owned his own business selling lechon. Why did he quit? He wasn't paid on time. Most customers would pay 50% up front and 50% when the lechon was sold. Enough people stiffed him that he's better off working as a Grab driver, where payment is guaranteed if the work is done.

Does he work more or less than before? He works more. He works from 6AM to 10PM, seven days a week(!). Getting paid timely is always a struggle as a small business anywhere, and I'm surprised no one has created an app that evaluates people and business's ability to pay suppliers and vendors. The app would be straightforward. Businesses and vendors would confirm when payment was made; whether it was timely; and if not, how many days late. The data would be used to create a "reputation" score for each business and vendor accepting products from suppliers. Over time, payments could be made directly into an escrow account handled by the app's company, creating a more accurate paper trail--and a very profitable, useful business. Why hasn't this app been created already?

The startup costs would force unprofitability for years, as the app's customer service reps mediated conflicting information about when payment was made. They would also need to identify forgeries and fakes, as well as build relationships with banks. With all the bad press banks have received, you'd think they'd be at the forefront of such small-business friendly apps. It tells you something about American capitalism that banks have invested so much in Fintech and online shopping but not in a version of the app I've just described.

Small businesses can benefit tremendously from technology and have benefited greatly as costs have declined. For example, savvy American business owners can use Intuit products to improve efficiency, avoiding expensive experts. Broadband access usually makes everything easier by leveling the playing field in terms of information access. Although Westlaw/Lexis and other accounts can be very expensive, they are still faster than having to go to a library and sift through hardcover volumes for hours to find what you need. Yet, somehow, in the year 2017, no one has figured out how to improve the basics--getting paid on time--for small businesses that lack a substantial online presence, a category that covers most small businesses in the world. What a shame. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Days of Yesteryear: Newspaper Edition

In high school, I eagerly awaited Sunday's newspaper so I could read syndicated columns by Dave Barry, Mike Royko, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Krauthammer, as well as the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. I didn't care about anyone's political affiliation. Most writers who made it into the Sunday paper were undeniably authentic and had in-depth personal knowledge. I was interested because each of them cared about the topic discussed and provided relevant research, even if only anecdotal. If any journalist had a chip on his or her shoulder, I couldn't feel it on my ink-stained fingers. I would save articles I loved in my cabinet, a shrine to the many words of wisdom I felt lucky to read. 

A few days ago, when a newspaper--from the same publisher--unexpectedly arrived on my parents' porch, I went to throw it in the recycling bin, asking my mom along the way whether she wanted it. She demurred, and off to the bin it went, unopened. How times have changed. But why? 

Despite more information publicly available than ever before, I learn more about a scientific topic by speaking to my sister, a PhD scientist, for 5 minutes than anything online. Writers can fit only so much context in a short article, but they don't have much competition--the number of experts able to provide "big picture" context is extremely limited. As the always interesting Nassim Taleb might say, oftentimes, it's not what you say, but what you leave out. 

A lawyer/analyst recently published an article arguing record consumer debt wasn't a cataclysmic problem but missed an issue: are his numbers and data based on organic, sustainable growth--such as steady, predictable tax receipts--or artificial, unsustainable catalysts, such as government borrowing at ever-increasing interest rates? Without knowing the answer to the aforementioned question, the entire article as well as its research is useless. This author, the editor of the blog, The Big Picture, somehow missed the big picture--despite doing considerable research and using diverse data sets. 

I emailed him, saying, "You... failed to list overall liabilities, such as pension and other local gov obligations. If local and state govs borrow more and transfer their debt/revenue to local residents, of course the overall picture will appear better." 

He responded, "These are current, not future liabilities." 

This expert accepts an analytical approach where if 100 people owe 1 million dollars now and have jobs that can reasonably cover the interest on their debts now, it doesn't matter if their government--local, state, and federal--or their private sector employer owes 100 billion in bond or other payments due tomorrow. 

But without knowing present and future liabilities, one cannot determine whether last year's tax receipts and accompanying job growth are sustainable. If governments or private employers owe 100 billion tomorrow, they might require higher taxes, fewer new hires, and more debt (presumably at different interest rates, impacting present-day revenue). 

If the debt is pension-related, then more revenue would be needed to replace the retired workers as well as to pay ongoing pensions unless the pension fund was 100% funded. In short, future liabilities can dramatically change the assumed rates of job growth, tax revenue, consumer demand and inflation, rendering prior data almost useless. It's as if there's a Black Swan event we can actually predict, but no one wants to do the additional math because it's too complicated. 

So I wrote Barry Ritholtz back: "[I]f we have a bill due tomorrow, analyzing only today's liabilities and GDP makes no sense if the entire structure depends on rolling over massive debt and other financial engineering." 

That's when it got interesting--and slightly snippy: 

My response: 

The value you were trying to provide was context, not knocking down a strawman, I hope. 

If since 2007, govs have borrowed more money and transferred that money to their residents on local, state, and fed levels while doing little to resolve systemic issues such as lowering pension obligation interest rates, etc., then the result won't be the same. It'll be different, of course, but serious problems will remain, meaning your article promotes complacency rather than true context.  You want the "big picture"? So do I. 

Barry: "See how it's totally not the same because of a lack of defaults and overall population and other changes that I'm going to examine without trying to see if the growth is merely because govs borrowed more money?" 

Skeptical Guy: "Dude, analyzing only today's data makes no sense if you're unable to determine that consumer/mortgage borrowing wasn't merely replaced by gov borrowing, which then was transferred to residents, leaving systemic issues alive and well, but with a larger fuse and more dependence on low interest rates."  

Barry: "Dude, I was just analyzing why it ain't exactly the same." 

Guy: "What value is that if your goal is to analyze the big picture?"

And that's where the conversation ended.  

When I opened my newspaper in the 1990s, I never once suspected Mike Royko wasn't an expert on everything Chicago. When Peggy Noonan taught me that politics is all about "Whose ox is being gored," I knew she was speaking from a reservoir of personal experience. Today, in contrast, when I click on content, I sense people consider themselves experts after one-hit wonders or because they know the "right" people. Worse, I sense journalists and experts no longer have power behind their pen. Even if they manage to capture eyeballs, the public's threshold for outrage has risen so high, nothing will be done unless an army of paid meme creators and politically-connected groups manufacture simplistic slogans that fail to capture any complexity. 

Maybe that should be the modern journalist's motto (and epitaph): "So simple, you'll be outraged and demand change without really understanding a damn thing." 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

3 Nights in Brunei Darussalam

I'm in Brunei, and I'm pleased to tell you more about this city-state because almost no independent literature exists to assist tourists. In a nutshell, Brunei is a combination of Malaysia and Indonesia, with many features borrowed from Singapore.

Where to Stay/Quick Overview

If you're rich or enjoy the finer things in life, stay at the Empire Hotel and Country Club in Gerudong. You'll be on the beach, see beautiful sunsets, swim in a lagoon-shaped pool, and receive excellent service. 
No filter. Right outside Empire Hotel about 7pm.
If you want an upscale hotel near the locals instead of a beach resort, try the Rizqun International Hotel in Gadong. It's connected with a mall frequented by locals, and you'll be closer to lots of activity, including a fun amusement park (Jerudong Park). 

If you're a cheap bastard like me and have a budget, consider the Jubilee Hotel, where I stayed. (I booked on Agoda and got a great deal.) It's within walking distance of most tourist spots and Bandar's major bus terminal. The taxi drivers loitering in the bus station appeared to be unlicensed but offered very reasonable prices. Away from competition, most taxi drivers tried to charge me inflated prices. As a general rule of thumb, going from Bandar--the city hub--to any well-known tourist destination should cost between 5 to 15 Brunei dollars. If you're going to a different district, like from Bandar to Jerudong, which is a 15 to 20 minute ride, then you're looking at 25 to 30 Brunei dollars. Your hotel will generally has access to a shuttle, which can take you almost anywhere for around 10 Brunei dollars.

As of August 2017, Brunei doesn't have Uber or Grab. Brunei is one of the smallest countries in SE Asia and doesn't have tons of tourists, so it's not yet a cost-effective destination for companies whose business models depend on economies of scale (i.e., lose money up front, but eventually become profitable as more customers use your service--a strategy easier to do in China than Brunei). Brunei does have an online taxi app called Dart, but phone service from the local carrier, PCSB, is out of network for my T-Mobile plan, so I wasn't able to use it. The good news: Brunei's bus system is fantastic--you can get to and see many places in an air-conditioned bus for just 1 Brunei dollar, including the spectacular Jame' Asr Mosque.
Not supposed to take pictures. Oh well.
Too beautiful not to share.
In any case, let's get you familiar with Brunei.
Taman Haji Sir Muda Omar Ali Salfuddien
1. Brunei's Dollar is Pegged to the Singaporean Dollar

Brunei has a central bank, but its dollars are interchangeable here with the Singaporean dollar. (I don't know if the reverse is true in Singapore.)  If a business gives you Singaporean dollars back instead of Brunei dollars, don't fret--they're the same because their value is pegged exactly to your currency based on the Singaporean dollar's strength.

2.  It Should Cost about 15 to 22 Brunei Dollars to Get from the Airport to Your Hotel

I landed at 10:30pm, so half the airport was closed, and only two taxi drivers were available. One offered to charge me 25 Brunei dollars to go to my hotel, but I counter-offered 22 Brunei dollars, and he accepted. It turns out my hotel would have picked me up for 10 Brunei dollars, but that's what I get for not planning ahead. Oh, in case you're wondering why 10:30pm seems late, almost everything closes by 10pm in Brunei. If you want nightclubs and cheap beer, go someplace else.

When you arrive in the airport, once you exit security/immigration, go to the second floor. You'll be able to withdraw money from the ATMs there. 

Even with a non-ASEAN passport, I had zero problems with Brunei's airport or its security. Everyone was courteous.

3. Brunei Embodies Asian Fusion

As I said earlier, Brunei is basically a micro-sized combination of Indonesia and Malaysia, but with more money per capita. Everyone speaks at least some English, but quite a few people are more comfortable with Malay. If I had to guess, English is the official language of instruction in schools, but the farther you go from the city center, the more people speak Malay exclusively in their homes. 

Regardless of the language spoken more fluently, every single Bruneian I met was friendly and open. Two separate Bruneians, after no more than two minutes of conversation, offered to take me directly to tourist spots by their own car or a taxi. One of them even paid for a boat to a taxi, then helped me find the Arts & Handicrafts Centre (definitely worth a visit).
Wearing the national hat, the songkok, at the Handicrafts Centre
You must understand--I'm fairly annoying as a tourist. I dress shabbily, assume every vendor is going to defraud me and my heirs, walk everywhere, ignore signs (especially ones asking me not to take pictures), and ask tons of questions. On this trip, I battered the wife of a petroleum engineer with about 25 questions once she told me she worked for the central bank. After a few particularly complicated questions, she said she was low on the bank's totem pole (an excellent way to save face), prompting her husband to remark, "It's the weekend--her brain is turned off and will start again on Monday." We all had a laugh, but if I behaved similarly elsewhere, I'm almost certain the couple would not have driven me back to my hotel and shown me their equivalent of the Royal Palace and Gadong Night Market along the way. Bruneian hospitality is incredible. 

A few other observations: 

A.  Despite lacking a train, subway, or tram system, Brunei does not have the traffic jams familiar to most SE Asia residents. You know what it does have? The most courteous drivers in all of SE Asia. 

B.  I've been to Indonesia and Malaysia before, so it's normal for me to see Muslim Asians, but if you don't already know most Muslims in the world live in the Asia-Pacific region or that Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, you might be surprised to see beautiful Asian women wearing hijabs or headscarves.
C.  Brunei's food is typical Malay: every menu will have nasi lemak, mee goreng, nasi goreng, and teh tarik. Milo is really popular here. I mean, really popular. Nestle has done too good a job advertising the health benefits of its fortified chocolate milk, which plays into Brunei's biggest problem: obesity. With the weather at 88 F (31 C) in August, it's hard even for me, a former wrestler, to walk my usual 3 to 5 miles a day, so less athletic Bruneians can't burn calories naturally when they drive everywhere and do much of their walking straight from their cars into air-conditioned buildings. Still, it's depressing to see so many little kids overweight.

4.  ASEAN is Creating Incredible Opportunities for Tourism within SE Asia

It's the 50th anniversary of the free trade agreement originally made with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, now expanded to all of SE Asia between Bhutan and Australia except Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste. China and Japan are noticeably absent from the bloc, the idea being that Vietnam, Singapore, and other smaller Asian countries can get a better deal for their people by working together rather than individually. So far, ASEAN has worked exactly as it should. In 2017, it represents a growing population of 628 million consumers and a combined GDP of over 2 trillion dollars. If you visit Brunei's tourist centre, you'll see this picture of Brunei over the years. Notice the rapid jump from 2004 to 2008? 
Politically, America's "pivot to Asia" never happened, and China stepped into the void. Most ASEAN members were stunned when both American presidential candidates rejected the TPP. Meanwhile, in 2015-2016, China led the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and lent almost 2 billion in 2016 alone. (I joke that America's war against terrorism isn't over, but SE Asia has already won. I realize it's not a very funny joke.) 

What does this mean for you? If you're part of ASEAN, when you travel to another member country, you will generally have your own separate check-in line and almost all major businesses and tourism operators will cater to you in your own language. This phenomenon is most pronounced in the Philippines with Korean tourists, but as Chinese tourists become more common (as opposed to their younger Japanese counterparts, who seem to prefer long-term travel via student visas), all countries are starting to cater to each other's languages and tastes. The days when people mocked Japanese tourists taking too many photos are thankfully over. Everyone today wants a piece of the tourism pie. 

(People like me, who avoid packaged tours and travel frugally, don't maximize revenue for countries, so we're left to fend for ourselves against hucksters, especially in the taxicab department. As a result, it's hard for me to suppress my desire to assault anyone criticizing Uber or Grab, both of which increase transparency and safety for international travelers.) 

5. Conclusion 

As more people learn about Brunei's hospitality, it will become more popular. For now, it's a pleasant, safe place to stay for two or three nights, especially on your way to KL or Indonesia. Don't miss seeing the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at night, the Jame' Asr Mosque, and the Royal Regalia museum. Kampong Ayer is much-mentioned on tourist sites promoting Brunei, but I suspect the hype has to do with a unique hotel there called Kunyit7 Lodge rather than the place itself.
No idea why this area is popular with tourists.

My favorite place, after the Jame'Asr Mosque and Royal Regalia museum, isn't on the official walking tour map, but it should be: the Brunei History Centre. You shouldn't miss it if you want to learn more about Brunei's history. 

Happy travels!