Saturday, September 30, 2017

Qatar: It's Getting Hot in Here

Doha, Qatar is hot. Really hot, even in September. Prepare to use Uber and Careem apps a lot. Careem is better--use the Go option if you want a cheaper fare but an older car, and Go+ if you want to pay a little more and get a newer car model. Regular taxis require a 10 Qatari Rial minimum. 
Despite the heat, Doha's creativity attracts numerous visitors and workers. Its Museum of Islamic Art is incredible. I've never seen so many different and unique items in one place. Guns, pottery, bowls, rugs--you name it, it's here. 

Even the building itself is a work of art, and the view on Friday evening is nice. Not as nice as Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, but a pleasing replica nonetheless. 
Dhows on the water
Before you visit Doha, remember: it's a Muslim country, so hours will vary on Fridays, the start of the weekend. Thursday afternoons are the worst for traffic--most government employees seem to get off work around 2:30pm, and they all want to head back to their homes at the same time.

Regarding the airport experience, Doha is average in service but its security is hi-tech and requires eye scans to enter. It recently waived visas for most developed countries and is now "the most open country in the [Middle Eastern] region," according to the UNWTO's Secretary General. If you fly Qatar Airways, you are eligible for a complimentary city bus tour, but it's first come, first served, and you must go to a specific counter before passing immigration. 

When booking a hotel, try to stay near or in the Souq Waqif, a faux Middle Eastern bazaar. You'll be near most attractions and a lively nighttime experience. I stayed at the Saraya Corniche hotel after seeing a good deal on the Agoda app and liked it. 

Doha's mosques are understated, so you can skip those. In case you want to visit one, the largest mosque is the State Mosque aka Imam Abdul Wahhab Mosque. 

Nearby the Souq Waqif is the Al Shouyoukh Mosque, a small mosque.
Another building near the Souq Waqif is the Sheikh Abdulla Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Center aka Abdullah Bin Zid Almahmud Cultural and Islamic Center (IG: @binzaidqatar). Its displayed literature is too heavy-handed on religion, but it has a mosque (understated, of course) upstairs and a few unique items. I'll post two of them below, both sermons. (Click to enlarge.) 
Other than the MIA (Museum of Islamic Art), the other must-see is Msheireb Museums. It's a collection of four separate houses, with the most interesting one, Bin Jelmood, showcasing a fascinating slavery exhibit. 
Each time a mosque leader calls his community together
for prayer, he follows in the footsteps of a freed black slave.

If you come to Doha, you should see the Museum of Islamic Art, preferably at night, and the Bin Jelmood Museum. The third must-see is Katara Cultural Village. 
Nothing in here now but birds and bird poop.
I checked. My nose hates me.
Katara Village demonstrates the Qatari leadership's vision. Unlike Dubai, which seems to believe architecture is an extended pissing contest, Qatar has not built its sites primarily as tourist destinations. (Remember its understated mosques?) Ideally, if a place attracts local residents and has interesting exhibitions as well as cafes and restaurants, it will become a tourist destination by default. As such, Katara Village includes a music academy, an arts center, a film institute, and even an engineering society. (By the way, if governments built unique places for their most creative residents, they might actually attract the avant-garde, not just prep school wannabes.) Perhaps Katara Village should be judged on whether its 2020 graduates can compete with Julliard and the Royal College of Art, but as a tourist, you will want to visit in the evening, when the restaurants are open and the weather suitable for outdoor seating and a stroll. 

I managed to inveigle my way into the National Library of Qatar, part of the Qatar Foundation's complex. Not to be confused with the forgettable and prosaic Dar Al-Kutub Al-Qatariyya, once the National Library opens to the general public, it will be worth a visit.
National Library of Qatar
A place you ought to skip, at least for a few years, until it is completed and better organized, is the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum. I could only handle being there for ten minutes, and I felt like washing my eyes out afterwards. If the MIA is an example of world-class design and organization, the current state of the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum--basically a house that looks like it threw up its eccentric millionaire's belongings--is an example of how not to run a museum. I won't bore you with details, but the security guard takes the key after you deposit your bag in the designated locker, increasing the risk of theft and confusion the locker was installed to prevent, and the museum charges 15 rial to enter but a whopping 50 rial if you want to take pictures. (I foresee the guards following tourists around if the museum maintains its idiotic photo policy.)

I didn't personally see any of the following locations, but I'll list them in case you want to do more research. Qatar's unofficial mascot is the falcon, and its Falcon Souq is probably worth a visit--I didn't go, but I can't imagine Qatar would screw up an important part of its claimed heritage. 
NOT at the Falcon Souq. At a conference.
The bird was eyeing me the entire time,
even blindfolded. Freaky.

The only major cities in Qatar are Doha and Al Rayyan, about 30 minutes from each other by car. The government is trying to promote sites outside of those two places, but I can't find reliable information about them. Al Khor is allegedly a coastal village known for fishing. Al Shamal and Al Zubara--apparently located in Madinat ash Shamal, though I'm not certain--are supposed to have interesting forts and archaeological sites. In development: Al Wakrah Park, part of Luna Park, and the National Museum of Qatar. 
Construction is everywhere in Qatar.
Qatar's "foodie" highlights are its desserts and sweet drinks. I especially enjoyed the Um Ali dessert and the sahlab drink (cinnamon and cardamom with hot milk). Saffron-based desserts are everywhere and usually delicious.

Given widespread construction and renovation happening now, I wouldn't visit Qatar until after December 2017, unless you are already going to Oman or the UAE. You'd need about 5 nights to see everything properly, and the MIA alone will take 5 or more hours. (If you just want to see the museums and Souq Waqif, two nights is sufficient, and traveling now won't be an issue.)

Additionally, Doha's heat--much hotter than Abu Dhabi and Oman, which are near large bodies of water--demands more innovation. If I were in charge, I'd use drones to drop cold water packets from the sky every 30 minutes and install more portable air conditioning units. I'm surprised Qatar isn't collaborating more actively with Singapore to improve its adaptability to heat. Singapore had a similar problem regarding the weather, leading its founder to remark, "
Air conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history. It changed the nature of civilization by making development possible in the tropics."

In Doha, it's difficult to walk outside or even be outside between 1pm and 5pm, even in September. Use Careem or Uber and check opening and closing times so you can maximize your sightseeing. To truly be open to outsiders, the time has come for tropical and desert countries to move beyond air conditioning and try more innovative ways to encourage outdoor activity. 
For now, Doha's museums are world-class. It remains to be seen whether Qatar can take the lead in other areas. Its corporate CEOs, including from Qatar Airways, recognize the next four years are a wonderful opportunity to take market share from overpriced and overhyped American and European destinations. Qatar certainly has the vision. The next three years will answer whether it also has the ability to execute its ambitious plans. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017) 

Bonus"In Qatar, where it’s estimated that Qatari nationals make up less than 10 percent of the population, citizenship is inherited solely through the father. According to a new residency law passed last month, foreign-born residents who have lived in Qatar for at least 20 years will be permitted to apply for permanent residency." --Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic (October 31, 2018)

Thursday, September 28, 2017

2008 Financial Crisis Was NOT Caused Because of Leverage Changes

I'm reading Andrew Lo's Adaptive Markets (2017). It could have used a better editor, but Lo makes several unique observations. 

Financial leverage helped cause the 2008 financial crisis, but it wasn't because banks suddenly received special permission to increase leverage to the oft-cited 40 to 1 ratio, as 
Barry Ritholtz wrote in Bailout Nation
 (2009). The crisis seems to have resulted due to a combination of excessive leverage plus illiquidity (housing is not a liquid asset) plus Wall Street firms using the same or similar strategies plus lax government oversight over the mortgage business (CDOs, etc.). Here are several passages I found useful--you may find them interesting as well: 

Friday, September 22, 2017

5 Nights in Oman

At first glance, Oman is the redheaded stepchild of the Middle East. It lacks magnificent tall buildings like Dubai's Burj Khalifa. It doesn't have a Ferrari World like Abu Dhabi. It's not calm and classy like Brunei, though local citizens will disagree and swear Omanis are the calmest people in the Middle East. (You'll hear the phrase, "We Omanis don't want trouble," a lot.) 

Setting aside its lowly position in the Middle East's totem pole, Oman is an undiscovered gem. As close visually to Disney's land of Aladdin as any other country I've seen, Oman has exquisite mountains, beaches, and sand, but also perfectly paved roads and highways. 

Muscat, Oman is a port city, and like all port cities, has incredible diversity and excellent food. If you're vegetarian, try an Indian restaurant, but the highlight in any non-Indian restaurant will be the seafood. Many Omanis speak three languages--Arabic, Farsi, and English--and you'll hear many other languages because most people are temporary residents from Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, Morocco, and India. Permanent residency is difficult to attain--buying expensive property is the easiest way to gain it if you're unable to renew work visas for 20 years--but that hasn't stopped millions of people from making Oman their home

Despite the lack of birthright citizenship, Oman contains all the colors you'd expect from a country situated between Africa and Asia. Indeed, it's impossible to determine whether someone is Omani or not Omani, a test of true diversity, i.e., a lack of segregation. The most beautiful mix, in case you're wondering, seems to be an Arab-African one. It wasn't unusual to see Arab women with much darker-skinned brown men. (Note to America: no one cares about race when segregation isn't practiced.) 

Best of all, the Omanis do their own work unless a specialized skill is needed. Unlike Abu Dhabi, where all taxi drivers are foreigners, Omanis drive and often own their own taxis. Uber or Careem does not exist in Oman, but metered and non-metered taxis are numerous. Rides from the airport to the city center should cost about 8 rials; within the city center, rides should cost around 2 to 5 rials, depending on your negotiation skills. Unfortunately, Oman lacks easy-to-use public transportation, meaning its taxi drivers have a virtual monopoly. I expected to get overcharged every time I hailed a taxi, and I considered it an unfortunate cost of being a non-Arabic speaking foreigner. Governments do not seem to realize that an honest, transparent taxi system requires competition from Uber, BiTaksi, Careem, Grab, etc.  It's as if they think tourists want to spend their vacations haggling over basic transportation. 

In any case, if the UAE is the Middle East's prep school graduate who drives a clean white Mercedes S-class, then Oman is its wayward brother who prefers leather jackets and a black, never-washed Ford Mustang. Don't get me wrong--you'll see plenty of expensive Mercedes and Lexuses in Oman (though, oddly enough, few BMWs), but the average Omani resident is perfectly fine with a used car. In short, s
tatus signaling doesn't exist in Oman's mainstream, whereas it seems to be the UAE's primary reason for existence. (If you ask me, too much money has led to complacency in the UAE, but that's a different topic.)

The Omanis embrace ostentatiousness only in their choice of headgear. Many Omanis wear ornate and colorful massars, which Americans would call turbans. They also wear kumas, which the Bruneians would call a songkok. In some cases, a massar is wrapped around a kuma, giving it a pleasantly plump look. 

A certain design may mean the wearer has been to Mecca/Hajj.
Despite the government's efforts to make Oman as posh as the UAE, Omanis ooze blue collar toughness. Step into the wrong building in a formal location, and an Omani--not a Nepalese or Bangladeshi, as it would be in the UAE--will shout at you as if you have violated the most sacred of tribal customs while simultaneously directing you impatiently to the correct entrance.

When I failed to observe proper mosque protocol regarding shoes--you're supposed to take them off before you enter, which I did, but I reflexively put them on when I was about to depart--an Omani ran up to me and heckled me. I heckled him right back and got the better of the exchange, to the point where he actually called the police (a sure sign you've lost an argument). Still, I have to hand it to him--even the shortest, fattest, and ugliest Omani I saw took an opportunity to assert his masculinity in a misguided way. A classier Farsi-speaking gentleman mediated the dispute, and I walked away, satisfied I'd provided my side of the story. (An old-fashioned Italian would have appreciated the animated exchange, including my possible use of the term, "bastard," and the Omani's attempt to rally the small crowd around him by falsely claiming I had called *all* Omanis bastards, not just him.)

In any case, let's talk tourism. 

Most visitors need a visa before entering Oman. You can apply online and as of September 2017, it will cost you 50 USD. Print a paper copy of the visa if you don't go through the newer airport scheduled to open January 2018. Currently, Muscat's only international airport lacks passport e-scanning machines. I showed immigration a photo of my e-visa on my mobile phone, but he was expecting a paper copy and called a supervisor before approving my entrance.

Whereas the UAE's mosques are gaudy and deliberately set up as tourist attractions, Oman's mosques are designed to be places for prayer. Outside of Iran, the most beautiful mosque I've seen so far Muscat's Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Wear long pants, go before 11:00AM, and be sure to see inside the main prayer hall. 
Qaboos Grand Mosque
The Bowshar sand dunes (aka Bashar Dunes) are nearby Muscat's city center. It's a small dune, but still worth a visit if you want to drive an ATV and "dune bash." Tell the cab driver to take you to "rimal bosher" around 5 or 6pm--you'll see lots of ATVs available to rent. 
For great food, try Bait Al Luban or Turkish House Restaurant in Muscat. They're not very cheap, but they're not very expensive, either. Right outside Bait al Luban is the Corniche, a walkway located near the ocean.

Another mosque worth seeing, especially at night, is the Mohammed Al-Ameen mosque. (Note: I can't list all the interesting mosques here--rent a car if you want to see the major ones.)

The Muttrah Souk, a short walk from Bait Al Luban, is listed in every guide book, but it's just a couple of narrow streets with jewelry/gold shops. Skip it. (Also, do not confuse the Muttrah Souk with the Mutrah area or the Mutrah fort.)

There are two main museums: the National Museum of Oman and the Bait al Zubair museum. After the Qaboos Grand Mosque, the National Museum of Oman is the best tourist destination. 

I liked the Bait al Zubair museum, but I wouldn't be upset if I had missed it. Unless you're really into old stamps and old coins, you can skip Bait al Zubair. Ideally, however, you'd visit both museums, since they're near each other, and you'd go to Bait al Zubair first.
Coin gallery in Bait al Zubair museum
A palace is also close to the National Museum of Oman but two security gates block visitors from going near the actual building. It's still worth a quick look as you walk from Bait al Zubair to the National Museum of Oman. 
The Palace -- I zoomed in with my
mobile phone behind the 2nd gate
Outside the city center is the "Rustaq Loop," which includes the Rustaq fort, the Nakhal or Nakhl fort, Al-Hazm castle, and the Nakhal hot springs (aka A'Tawwarah hot springs). Although the term "Rustaq Loop" is mentioned in guide books, locals don't seem to know the term. If you want to hire a taxi driver, you need to mention the specific sites you want to see. From Muscat, y
ou'd first visit Nakhal fort (about an hour away), Nakhal hot springs (ask the location of the hot springs after seeing the fort--it's a small area nearby, and locals bathe in the warm water), then Rustaq fort. Of the three, Rustaq fort, about an hour and half away from Nakhal fort, was the largest. I did not see Al-Hazm castle, which was another hour's drive from Rustaq fort.

Like its mosques, Oman has too many forts to list here, but the main ones would be Bahla, Mutrah, Rustaq, and Nizwa. Within or near Muscat itself, a local recommended the Al Jalali Fort and the Al Mirani fort, but I didn't have time to see them. (Quite frankly, the forts in Oman are nice, but after seeing much more magnificent ones in India, I wasn't impressed. The Agra Fort and Delhi's Red Fort remain my favorite forts.)

About four hours outside the city center is Ras Al Hadd, which has turtle watching. I didn't go, so I can't tell you anything about it. 

Oman may not have Ferrari World, but it does have a world-class opera house. If you're really into opera, check it out. (Why do I get the feeling Oman's government is listening to consultants who don't realize Oman is more interesting than overpriced Western Europe and the glitzy UAE precisely because it lacks things like an expensive opera house?) 

You may use UAE dirhams in Oman, but you'll lose a 4 to 5% premium. You'll get a 10 dirham to 1 rial rate when the actual rate would be 10 to 1.05. I didn't mind--I appreciated the convenience. After all, when businesses convert the dirhams to local currency, they'll presumably pay a commission. 

I hope I've covered most of what a casual tourist would need to know about Muscat, Oman. I did not see Salalah, Oman, another popular tourist destination. I was in Muscat for 5 nights, which was the right amount of time (especially if you, like me, need to rest after trying to run up a sand dune). 

If you have to choose between Oman and Abu Dhabi/UAE, definitely choose Oman. Its unspoiled elegance won't last forever, at least not if the tourism consultants get their way. Finally, don't forget: take your shoes off before you enter a mosque. If the shoe cubbyhole is inside the mosque, don't put on your shoes until you're outside. As the belligerent Omani man told me, "It's a holy place." He was right--but not just about the mosque. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017) 

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 to try: qahwa (tangy, watery coffee), 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 camel meat are the region's specialty, but they're not 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 I just mentioned.

I didn't 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, though some people claim it's saltier. 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 occurred at a cafe called 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 before flying 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" attractions are concerned, Abu Dhabi's claim to fame is its numerous conferences and events. As a result, its hotels are exquisite, and almost every building is creatively designed, yet not as touristy as you might expect. In fact, several of the most pristine waterfront areas haven't suffered development, which surprised me. For a pleasant evening diversion, you can go to the main public beach (the Corniche) and walk along the 8 km pedestrian and bicycle path. 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 contains 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 a sense of piety there, but as a tourist attraction, it's excellent. Take a tour to get the full experience.

Grand Mosque
As of 2017, Abu Dhabi has no reliable 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. Major downsides exist to having so many residents--many educated, many uneducated--without any path to citizenship. People who live or 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 difficulty in using VPNs--Abu Dhabi feels like a very comfortable place in need of an ideology besides money. 

To its credit, their leaders know this. As I said before, the citizens are wonderful, open, and kind--but there are not enough of them to counter the intangible costs of other residents attached to the kingdom only 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. 

Perhaps I was overly 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, and 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 permanent residency. (Correction: earlier version stated citizenship has been made easier, but it's actually permanent residency--the first step to gradually easing in future citizens.) 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. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Update re: VPNs: technically, the UAE claims VPNs are allowed, as long as they are not used for criminal activity. However, not only is this 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.

Update on October 2017: I've seen a few stories of tourists claiming to be mistreated in the UAE, and the common factor is alcohol. Alcohol can be found in the UAE, but it's not common. As a result, drunk tourists are a rarity and not appreciated. Don't get drunk and don't do illegal drugs, and you should be fine. 

To give you an idea of the UAE's openness, prostitution is illegal but tolerated and informally regulated. Prostitutes congregate only on certain streets, and only late at night. Hotels require them to register their passports at the front desk, creating data that can be used by the government to track activities. Enterprising prostitutes use this "passport rule" to negotiate their prices upwards by claiming it will take more time to collect and bring their passport. Interestingly, all the women I saw loitering outside at night were from African countries, but a taxi driver told me different groups work on a few different corners. 

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 Which types of persons stayed? (Government employees? Recent immigrants? Affluent and/or educated residents?)

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? (Germany had to have been at least moderately diverse to generate backlash against "outsiders.") 

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 see history repeating itself. 

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, in and of itself, 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 realizing problems involve 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 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?

Bonus II: my comment above regarding segregation is a precursor and base requirement to 
Kwame Anthony Appiah's worldview, in which he believes change and tolerance come from getting used to each other, not logic or arguments:

"I am urging that we should learn about people in other places, take an interest in their civilizations, their arguments, their errors, their achievements, not because that will bring us to agreement but because it will help us get used to one another--something we have a powerful need to do in this globalized era. If that is the aim, then the fact that we have all these opportunities for disagreement about values need not put us off. Understanding one another may be hard; it can certainly be interesting. But it doesn't require that we come to agreement." 

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.

BonusOld versus the young, it's the same old story, played differently and with greater amplification because of the way modern debt can be structured.

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's 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 Prambanan 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.