Burning Man 2015: Impressions and Lessons

“Burning Man is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” – Elon Musk

I’ve heard variants of this sentiment from many friends over the years. So I’ve intended to go to Burning Man when the opportunity presented itself. 2015 was that year.

I should preface my impressions of Burning Man with one important qualification: I was only on the playa last week for 24 hours total. Due to the last minute decision to go, I didn’t have time to prep, arrange proper sleeping accommodations or fix my schedule to enable a proper multi-day stay. All I brought fit in a school-sized backpack which contained two Whole Food sandwiches and some cliff bars. I “slept” in a friend’s mid-size rental car. Most important, I didn’t have time to go to any of the famous lectures, classes, and other one-time events that tend to require a bit of pre-planning over a few days. So me commenting on Black Rock City (the name of the pop-up city that the festival represents) is like someone commenting on what a major city is like based on a short layover in the airport in between flights.

Me on the playa

Me on the playa

All that said, I did spend a full dozen hours walking around amid dust storms during the day and night. I did talk to a bunch of burners. I did check out dozens of camps and art installations and I did my time on an art car. I think I earned the right to have at least a few impressions.

First impression? Awe. The awe was felt most acutely at night, standing atop an elevated platform at the “altitude camp,” looking out at the city beyond. It really is a city: 80,000 people who have set up tents and RVs and camp sites, with their pop-up structures and art installations. At night, the lights on each camp shine for as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of driving to Las Vegas and seeing all the hotel lights as you approach the city. Except at Black Rock City the lights go on forever and ever in every direction.

Anyone with libertarian sympathies can’t help but be in awe of the scale of self-organization and self-reliance. Tens of thousands of people show up, build an entire city, and then take it all away, not leaving a trace. To be sure, there is a central power structure — the founder and a “committee of six” who make key decisions — along with some full time staff in San Francisco and a $10mm+ annual budget. But there are also thousands of volunteers who, in my conversations with them, did not appear to be all too coordinated with the powers that be. And of course 95% of the work that makes Burning Man what it is — the art structures, the supplies, the events, and so on — is voluntarily offered and coordinated by the 80,000 participants who derive meaning, not money, from their efforts.

Second impression? Hardship. Dust storms make challenging those mildly important tasks of breathing and seeing. Dust particles pollute your lungs and eyes; wind bites at your face and chafes your lips. The desert climate means you sweat during the day and shiver during the night. Pilots who charter planes to Burning Man call the area “Afghanistan.” What’s remarkable about Burning Man, as others have said, is you have some of the nicest people on earth populating one of the most inhospitable places on earth for a full week. And because you’re not allowed to buy or sell anything on the playa, all you have to deal with this hardship is what you bring with you, including food and water and face masks and lotion for chafed feet. Oh — and your cell phone won’t get service, so forget about calling your loved one for help. There are several moments where you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I come here?” Then you see a Pacman art car driving around in the desert night and you think, “Oh yeah, to see that.”

Third impression? The values. Radical inclusion. Radical self-expression. Leave no trace. A gift economy. They’re stated values but as we all know, stating values is easy. After all, one of Enron’s core values was integrity. Walking the walk on values is harder. Best I could tell, the Burning Man values really do permeate the behavior of those who attend. The Burning Man values are good values: the world would be better if more people adopted them.

Would I go back for longer? Yeah, I’d go back. I’d sleep in an RV. I’d coordinate in advance with friends to meet up. (Because of how you must dress to deal with the wind and sand, and the sheer scale of the place, serendipitous social occasions with friends doesn’t happen unless planned.) I’d schedule time to go to different lectures. And I’d spend at least 3-4 nights in order to get the full experience. To do it this way, it’d be expensive. Several thousand dollars, probably. I get the irony in that. As one friend put it, Burning Man is, in a funny way, an homage to capitalism: it’s sufficiently expensive to participate that it’s people spending their fruits of capitalism to participate in what otherwise feels like a non-capitalistic experience.

I’ve said it before after certain trips and I’ll say it again here: awe is an amazing emotion. Burning Man induces awe: at human creativity, at people’s willingness (including your own willingness) to push themselves amid harsh conditions, at the power of cultural norms and values to shape an entire population. Burning Man is worth seeing for yourself. I know there’s more for me to see.

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

books_feature-18968While traveling to Africa a few weeks ago, I read Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Theroux is probably America’s most famous travel writer yet I had not read any of his books until now. Dark Star Safari was excellent and I recommend it for anyone taking a trip to the giant continent. It’s the travelogue of his overland journey — car, bus, animal — from the northern tip of Africa to the bottom.

He does it on the cheap: he reports from wretched-smelling train cars, rat infested hotel rooms, and dusty, poor villages where clean water is nowhere to be found. I read portions of the book in comfortable hotels or cars in Tanzania, often whizzing by the abject poverty. Theroux doesn’t make you feel great about that, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Theroux lived in Malawi back in the day and he doesn’t mince words when he returns and finds the poverty just as bad, the aid programs just as ineffective. Foreign aid diehards should be prepared for tough medicine from Theroux who at one point says that the only people who can fix Africa’s problems are Africans themselves.

The writing is lovely. His descriptions vivid. Below are my Kindle highlights. (And here is my post from 2009 about Theroux road trip in America and my own road trip impressions.)

Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history. The guide says “papyrus” or “hieroglyphic” or “Tutankhamen” or “one of the Ptolemys,” and you say “Yup.”

One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.

Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.

The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesalike mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away.

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease. Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure. Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic. Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use cell phones, send faxes, log onto the Internet, buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

That was my Malawi epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion.

No objects I had seen in any African museum (Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Harare) could compare with the African objects in the museums in Berlin, Paris, or London. Of course, much of that stuff had been looted or snatched from browbeaten chiefs

Visiting the Balkan Ghosts

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone's death year around 1995.

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone’s death year around 1995.

In his book Balkan Ghosts, a travel log and mini-history of the Balkan countries, Robert Kaplan writes: “The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.” It captured perfectly my reaction after reading the book and learning about the histories of Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, and various other neighbors. So much fighting over territorial, ethnic, or religious differences that appear to be so inconsequential relative to the bloodshed.

Much of the fighting has to do with perceived historical grievances. Kaplan writes:

Macedonia defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion.

I read the book because I was visiting Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia. I recently got back from the trip. Seeing the places in person, as usual, made me engage with history that I probably ought to have known but hadn’t prioritized knowing till now. Travel makes you do that. It also makes you keep up with a place in the news after you leave. 80% of The Economist used to be uninteresting to me; now, when I flip through and see one of the random articles about, say, Indonesia, I’ll read it, because I’ve been there.

Sarajevo was haunting. It’s a small and pretty city, especially the old town. And quite cheap. But to be in Sarajevo is mainly to see grave yards all around and to visit museums dedicated to a genocide that happened only 20 years ago. Normally, when you think of the horrors of history, you think of grainy black and white photos. The slaughter of Bosnian Muslims (by Orthodox Christian Serbs) happened in the era of color video and color photos. It was so recent that there are people alive right now in Sarajevo who are missing all the men in their extended family.

The Srebrenica massacre museum really emphasized Western negligence during the ordeal. The cowardice/incompetence of the U.N. peacekeepers was a surprisingly recurrent theme. After the U.N. declared Srebrenica a “safe city,” thousands of Muslim men gathered there, thinking they were safe. In fact, they made themselves a convenient target for the Serbian army who overpowered the hapless peacekeepers and executed 8,000 men and boys in 48 hours. The photo embedded to the right hangs on the wall as you exit the museum. You can’t help but reflect on the costs and benefits of humanitarian interventions.

After Sarajevo, I went to Belgrade. The Belgrade tour guide referred to the 90’s as a “terrible, sad time” where people on all sides made mistakes. He expressed remorse for the 1,000 Serbian civilians killed during the NATO air strikes. No mention of Muslims.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo maintain blockbuster tourist attractions. Sarajevo is prettier; Belgrade maintains a Soviet aesthetic. The Bosnians and Serbians I met were all hospitable and intelligent. In both places I think you visit for a history trip: to learn about Tito and communism, to learn about the Balkan wars, to try to keep up with who hates who for which ethnic or religious reasons, to try to figure out the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Here are Tyler Cowen’s impressions of Belgrade. We were there together at a conference. I, too, am very glad I made it to Serbia. And I hope there can be lasting peace in the region.

Full highlights of the Kaplan book below the fold. It’s a good book to read before a visit.

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Impressions from an African Safari


I recently completed a six night safari in Tanzania (in addition to three nights at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro hiking around). I enjoyed the trip very much, in part because it was unlike any other travel experience I’ve had. Cities can blur together: I’ve been in a million churches, gone on a million city tours. Traversing the African Savannah is something else entirely.

At the most macro level, being in the wild among the animals brought to mind one phrase: state of nature. Every wild animal is simply trying to survive. Well, that, and trying to breed healthy offspring. To achieve these two goals, they’ll attack, ally, retreat, advance, betray, and coordinate. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to be on safari and not think of how similar we humans are to the animals in the wild. How so many of our base instincts are exactly the same as the cheetahs and vultures and elephants: we’re just trying to survive. And we like to have sex.

In the wild, it’s a brutal, Darwinian life. There’s always a chance the wrong predator comes upon them at the wrong time and it’ll be over in a poof. In such an environment, you have to always be on guard. We saw lions trying to sleep but every 10-15 seconds the would pop their heads up and look around carefully. We saw zebras standing in a special group formation with their heads turned in a certain way so that, between the four of them, every angle was covered in case an enemy attacked.

One of the best ways to survive in state of nature is to coordinate with your allies. Indeed, complex social hierarchies exist within every species in the bush to facilitate how they move across the plains, how they split up food, how they defend against an attack, and more. Seeing broad-scale coordination made for the most interesting moments on safari. One day, in Serengeti National Park, we witnessed extraordinary acts of coordination among lions and among buffalo. We were driving along and came upon a rocky hill upon which a pride of twelve lions were lying, about 50 yards from where our car stopped. Meanwhile, a little to the east, more than 300 buffalo were migrating across the low-cut grassy fields, presumably in search of water. The buffalo were walking together, two abreast, in a long line that stretched as far as the eye could see. They walked in a large troupe to make themselves more formidable to their enemies. Unfortunately for them, their route was taking them right next to the rocks the lions were perched upon. As the buffalo approached they smelled the lions and stopped. Lions are the strongest and most feared animals in the wild; it felt like every time we asked our guide about a given animal’s enemies, he answered: “…and Lions.” A lion beats everything. That said, even a large pride of lions can’t handle hundreds of horned, ~800lbs buffalo at once. So the lions didn’t attack. Similarly, while 300 buffalo could easily scare off a single lion a large pride was too much — they’d suffer too much loss — so they were scared as well. Both sides had teamed up and it led to a multi-hour standoff: they just sat there, staring at each other in a ready-to-fight position.

One of the lions slipped off the backside of the rock and departed the face-off. About 20 minutes later, about 150 yards away, there were loud animal screams that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had left earlier killed a zebra. Upon hearing the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the killed zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. When the lions arrived at the scene of the dead zebra, they began roaring and gently fighting with each other like all siblings do at the dinner table, eager for the bigger portion. Meanwhile, the buffalo formation near the rock formation ultimately turned around began to retreat. Well, most of them anyway. It had been a couple hours and we needed to drive on, but our guide predicted that one or two of the buffalo would be slow to leave the scene, or would simply ignore their leader’s advice to retreat. The lions would snatch that last, lonesome buffalo when his family/friends had gone too far ahead.


The state of nature is brutal. But it’s also a thing of beauty. Of course there’s the surface level beauty of bearing witness to a giraffe munching the green leaves of a tall tree or watching a zebra rolling around in the dirt to mark its territory or spotting an elephant nuzzling with a newborn baby elephant. More than that though, there’s simply taking in the fact that gazelles and giraffes and crocodiles and salamanders and leopards and a thousand bird species are all living together in one complex, interdependent ecosystem. We learned how every living organism in the African savannah eats a particular grass or animal, gets eaten in turn by some other animal, relies upon various flies or birds for cleaning, and so on. Pretty amazing.

Cecil the Lion is in the news. It’s upsetting in part because of this ecosystem interdependency. As described here, when poachers kill the most grand lions or the biggest-tusked elephants, they’re not just killing a single animal. When you kill a male lion, infighting in the pride will lead to the killing of other cubs. When the lion population declines, the population of wildebeests and zebras grows larger than normal. When there are too many wildebeests, there’s too much grazing of grass. This means less vegetation for the birds to eat, and so on and so forth. Millions of years of evolution has refined the food chain. You can’t mess with one part of it without messing with all of it. Here’s my previous post on what happened when wolves were taken out of Yellowstone.


The vastness of the parks of East Africa, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the decentralized coordination and allying among the animals, and of course the physical beauty of the animals and the landscape: all were sources of awe for me on the safari. Awe is a good thing and any trip that inspires it is a trip worth taking.

Examining the U.S.-Germany Relationship

Last week I participated in the Young Leaders Conference in Berlin, sponsored by the American Council on Germany. The conference brings together about 20 young leaders from the U.S. and 20 young leaders from Germany for a week of meetings in Berlin with the goal of deepening the ties between the two countries and ultimately building a relationship between the next generation of trans-Atlantic leaders. I was honored to be a delegate.

We had the opportunity to meet with several high ranking officials in the German government, including the Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, minister of interior Thomas de Maiziere (equivalent to the United States’ secretary of Homeland Security), national security advisor Christoph Heusgen, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and other officials. Our conversations were off the record, but here are some of my lessons and insights from the week:

  • Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “When I want to call Europe, who do I call?” Today, the answer appears to be clear: Germany. Germany has the most dynamic economy in Europe; Germany is the country that’s increasingly leading foreign policy in the region, especially around issues like Russia/Ukraine. During the Greek crisis, it was Germany dictating the terms.
  • “The biggest threat to European unity is nationalism,” said one senior German official. The recent economic stress in the E.U. has highlighted perceived cultural differences between the countries. Some Germans see the Greeks as just lazy — work ethic is a culturally charged issue in Germany. The Finnish can’t understand why people/countries wouldn’t pay their debt on time — debt is culturally charged issue in Finland. Etc. One senior official said, “I always tell Europeans who think they are very different from each other — say, Italians and Germans — to travel to Japan. Then tell me how different they are from other Europeans.”
    • Nationalism is on the rise within Europe but not as strongly in Germany because of its “complicated history.” Germany’s “complicated history” came up at several points in our conversations.
  • If Europe can’t stay together as a union, its influence as a region on the global stage will decline. The individual states are not powerful or important enough on their own. But what does it mean to stay together as a “union”? Can it have a common currency without fiscal union? One official we met argued that Europe needs nothing less than a strong federal government chartered with taxing and spending authority over all the states. See: the US of A. Problem is, in Europe there are many languages, many distinct cultures, and a long, long history. I’m not holding my breath.
  • The German people’s view of America runs along generational lines. Older Germans remember U.S. involvement in WWII, “tear down that wall,” and the re-building of the country post-war. Younger Germans know 9/11, George Bush, Iraq, etc. One senior official put it well: “The  modern U.S.-Germany relationship cannot be based only on memories.”
  • NSA spying on German officials, including Merkel’s cell phone, came up over and over again. All of the Americans on the trip were surprised at how upsetting the spying scandal was to the German government and German people. Although I don’t know what the Americans gained through the spying operation, it seems incredibly unlikely that the benefits outweighed the costs. The damage to the trust and cooperation between the two countries appears to be immense. “Are we friends or just partners?” This is a question Germans asked over and over. There’s a difference in their minds. Friends cooperate in all sorts of ways that partners would not; friends do not spy on each other.
  • I entered the conference a bit skeptical of the relative importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship versus the bilateral relationship America has with China, Mexico, and others. Is Europe as a whole as important a foreign policy priority for the U.S. as Asia? No. I walked away from the conference still of the view that the primary U.S. foreign policy focus, as Barack Obama suggested in a “pivot to Asia” speech in 2011, ought to be China and Southeast Asia. And that Latin America, for economic, security, and cultural reasons, is also a more logical higher priority than Europe. But my time in Germany did persuade me that the shared values of the U.S. and Europe make the two places ideal partners to take on common challenges in Asia and elsewhere in the world. If Europe stays united — a big if — then as a trade partner, Europe would be America’s largest market. If Europe stays united, and we can pool the combined resources on both sides of the Atlantic, the rest of the world’s challenges in the middle east, Africa, and Asia look manageable. The U.S. and Europe are all democratic, capitalistic, rich, and maintain common “western values.” They will have an easier time working together. It’d be foolish not to proactively invest in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
  • “Co-opetition” is a phrase you hear a lot in Silicon Valley. For example, Netflix and Amazon compete on certain product offerings (like movie streaming) and yet cooperate around many products at the same time (AWS hosting Netflix movies). In an interconnected world, companies at scale often have to maintain these sorts of complicated relationships. For countries, it’s the same. America is often positioned as a “competitor” to China. But that’s misleading. The U.S. and China governments cooperate on a million fronts in ways that lead to co-dependency. More importantly, companies in each country do a tremendous amount of business with each other and are utterly committed to peace and stability for this reason. All this to say: “Competition” is a funny word to use in isolation when discussing global trade and politics.
  • If you want to understand geopolitics today, who are the actors that matter? Historically, nation-states ruled. Then came international governance organizations and large multi-national companies. Today, the internet has empowered the masses. And social networks like Facebook have “populations” of more than a billion people. Does a Facebook engineer who makes it easier to turn your profile picture into a gay flag (as happened after the Supreme Court ruling) possess more power in shaping social/political issues than a high ranking elected official who gives a speech on the same topic? The levers of power are changing.
  • A lot of the elites in Germany seem dismayed that “the people” hold irrational or unwise views. For example, most German elites support TTIP, the free trade agreement that’s being worked on between U.S. and EU. But many German people are opposed. How do you reach them and better market the ideas around trade and globalization? I didn’t hear a single German government official ever mention social media… (Of course, there’s a similar dynamic in the U.S.)
  • Speaking of TTIP, it was striking just how often that topic came up in our discussions in Germany. And yet, there’s very little coverage of TTIP in the U.S. We’ll see if that changes once the trans-pacific trade agreement is buttoned up.
  • The labor market in Germany, while more flexible than France’s, is still inflexible when compared to the U.S. It’s hard to fire people. The German Work Councils were referenced with pride by a couple senior officials. I need to learn more about them.
  • Exercising leadership means making decisions that some will disagree with. Thanks to its actions on the Greece deal, Germany is now receiving the sort of criticism the U.S. is accustomed to. Germans say they’re ready to lead and the officials we met with said, “Yes, and we’re ready to take the criticism.”
  • Our understanding of modern politics depends so heavily on public opinion surveys. In the U.S. and Germany you routinely hear people cite stats like “40% of Americans think Germany is doing the right thing in the EU.” I need to learn more about public opinion surveys, survey statistics and methodologies, and how reliable they really are at capturing mass sentiment.

Finally, geopolitical musings aside, I really like traveling to Germany as a tourist. The people are friendly and helpful and there’s so much to see, do, and eat. Many thanks to all the Germans who made our visit to their country so fun and so enlightening.

(Photo credit: Patrick Cooper)

Returning to Zurich

At the age of 17, I ventured out of the U.S. for the first time to participate in an exchange program with a Zurich school. I was lucky to be placed with an excellent family in an excellent city. My first impression of “the rest of the world” sparkled with Swiss cleanliness and punctuality, Swiss mountain views, Swiss helpfulness and friendliness, Swiss wealth. It wouldn’t take long, in the years after, for me to discover that Switzerland has few peers. Most of the world maintains no self-obsessed standard of excellence; indeed, much of the world is far poorer.

I’m glad I started in Switzerland: it’s an especially forgiving place to be introduced to foreign travel. On that first trip, I lost my passport (!), got disoriented repeatedly, and didn’t know the meaning of basic German words like Danke. I remember hearing some punk teenagers rapping in German on the train and thinking, “Whoa, it’s possible to rap in other languages?!” My naiveté was for all to see. But being naive means there are opportunities to learn, and the opportunity to learn led me to catching the travel bug. The following year I spent 13 weeks traveling in Europe and Asia, and the rest is history.

Over the years, I’ve returned to Zurich five or six times. Members of the family I stayed with in Zurich have spent time San Francisco and we’ve become good friends.

Last week, I spent a few days in Zurich and re-connected with the place and people. Over the course of a long term relationship, you see how people change. How they date, how they seek meaning, how they approach their careers, how they change their mind, and how elements of their core stay the same. It’s rewarding.

Cities don’t seem to change as much. Zurich as a city seemed more or less unchanged. I’m sure locals notice all the subtle changes; I didn’t. The train stops are the same, the trams look the same, the stores are familiar, the streets are their usual clean, efficient selves. It’s a fact of the developed world, I suppose.

As someone who’s a generalist in many respects, I love having a depth of understanding of certain things, including both people and places. Zurich and its people are in that category for me. It’s a wonderful oasis in Europe.

Turkey: Impressions and Lessons

Istanbul feels like a city on the verge of cracking into the A-list of tourist destinations in Europe/Middle East. I was lucky enough to have a week to check out whether the city lives up to the hype. It did, and I learned quite a bit. Here are some high level thoughts on Turkey followed by a more touristy blow by blow of the trip.

  • Turkey is a modern, secular republic that in theory embraces freedom of religion. Yet its population is 99.8% Muslim, its land is home to a tremendous amount of religious history, schools teach only Islam in religion class, and a call to prayer in Arabic that blankets the city five times a day serves as a reminder of the religiosity of the place.
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest civilizations. America seems so very, very young when compared to much of the world, but especially in places like the former Ottoman Empire. Yet, Istanbul as a city feels modern, hip, energetic. It’s that guidebook cliche of a city “blending old and new”—a cliche that stands true for Istanbul.
  • Given its long history, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the country’s far-reaching cultural and commercial exports. Think of the number of words before which the preface “Turkish” adds unique meaning: coffee, towels, desserts, carpets, baths.
  • Istanbul seemed eminently livable. The Turkish people are quite friendly and helpful, the city struggles with traffic but taxis and public transit seemed ample, there’s obviously a lot of physically beauty to take in throughout the city, and the food is solid. (There’s virtually no ethnic food in Turkey, so it’s solid Turkish cuisine.) Istanbul’s geographic location and full service airport means it’s easy to go anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. The government has announced it intends to build the world’s largest airport outside the city. All this to say: to live in Istanbul for a spell of time would be a lot of fun for anyone.
  • This past week was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s unfortunate that the Armenian issue captures so many headlines in the U.S. media when the topic is Turkey, given how much else is going on the country. But it’s high time for Turkey to acknowledge the issue so everyone can move forward.
  • I like to say that entrepreneurship is everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Turkey — very much so. There are a few good VCs in Istanbul who are backing many bright, ambitious Turkish internet entrepreneurs who are creating meaningful companies. Despite the fact that today’s Turkish internet entrepreneurs seem focused on the local domestic market, I could imagine the country eventually becoming a launch pad for globally ambitious startups given Turkey’s quasi-European, quasi-Middle East status.
  • Cultural quirks. I’m a sucker for small cultural quirks that remind us of just how arbitrary our own customs are. I often notice these quirks in restaurants. In Korean mid-tier to low end restaurants, for example, I love how a pitcher of water is often kept near the front and you can go and re-fill your water cup as much as you want. In Turkey, the restaurant quirk was the moist toilette: each restaurants has their own branded toilettes and you get one with almost every bill.

From a tourism perspective, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul.

To start, it’s pretty easy to get there. Turkish Airlines now serves a non-stop from San Francisco (in addition to LA, Boston, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and New York) and introduced passengers to Turkey from the moment we took off. For example, the flight attendants spoke minimal English — just like most people in Turkey! — and moist toilettes were included in every meal.

Upon arrival, there are a few blockbuster tourist attractions that everyone does on their first jet-lagged day: head to the Sultanahmet district and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The history behind the Hagia Sophia is singular; it’s striking to see both Christian and Islamic iconography in the same building, as it served as both a church and a mosque at different points in history before recently being converted into a museum. The Blue Mosque was massive and beautiful. Every time I step in one of these buildings I behold the power of religion: religious passion has compelled so many thousands of people in so many parts of the world to labor for so many years on end in order to build enormous, architecturally stunning monuments to their gods.

Side note: One can’t help but notice the sexism when you enter a mosque: women must put on headscarves and they are not to pray in the main praying area, which in the case of Blue Mosque holds 3,000 (!) people. Instead they must organize themselves in a small, off-to-the-side “women’s area.” When you examine the sexist story of creation and the present-day customs/rules of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, and most others I’m aware of) it’s not hard to understand the origins of sexism today.

There are plenty of cool things to do in Istanbul that aren’t at the front of the guidebook. Two highlights.

First, a hamam — a Turkish bath. The hamam near the Hagia Sophia is the most famous, most expensive, and oldest (created in 1556!) in Istanbul and for my money was very much worth it. In the men’s side of the building, I was led to a locker room where I changed into nothing but a Turkish towel. From there I walked through the beautiful marble building into a bath area where I was told to use a deep, gold colored dish, dunk the dish into a bin of hot water, and pour it over me. It was all quite elegant in fact, and with steam escaping from the marble under and enveloping me, I felt immediately relaxed. After 10 mins, my therapist showed up to conduct the scrub and massage. He said, “This is best hamam and I am a very good server. I will take good care of you.” With speed and forcefulness, he poured more water over me and then wrapped a loofah-like mitt around his hand and began scrubbing me all over. My back, my arm, my hand, my legs, my chest, my forehead. It was a massive skin exfoliation exercise. Then, he led me to a marble table and instructed me to lie on my stomach. From there, he poured lots of soapy water all over. Big soap suds expanded in size and rose up over my body, kind of like a bubble bath carpet rolling out over my back. He took his loofah mitt and scrubbed more skin. The hamam was physically  intense. The scrub was thorough and at different intervals the therapist slapped me to indicate the close of one segment of the scrub. Although utterly relaxing and an amazing culture experience (in contrast to my Beijing massage some years ago), it’s not for the physically unfit and or for those men made easily uncomfortable.

Turkish breakfast

Second, a food tour. I don’t know why I haven’t done a food tour before in all my travels. It was a highlight of Istanbul and an amazing way to get to know the city geographically, culturally, and even economically. Five of us and an expert tour guide from Taste of Two Continents went to 12 restaurants and street vendors and tasted traditional Turkish food, winding our way through back alleys and less trafficked areas of the Asian side of the city. It wasn’t high end foodie food — it was the food Turks actually eat at home and at restaurants. For breakfast, we bought a simit and a number of different local spreads. The guide explained that traditionally such an expansive spread of breakfast options was prepared by the woman of the house. As women have been integrated into the workforce, they don’t have the time to prepare such a breakfast, and so the “classic” Turkish breakfast is going the wayside of quicker on-the-go options. One example of appreciating economics and demography through food. While Turkish coffee is famous, it’s tea that actually dominates. The average Turk drinks four cups of tea a day (Chinese black tea) and you’ll see people drinking it at all hours of the day. For desserts, the baklava is as delicious as advertised. Their special blend of ice cream requires a fork and knife to eat. But it’s Tres Leches, Latin America style, which wins as the most popular dessert in Turkey right now for some reason.

Cappadocia. We took this photo. Such a different landscape.After five nights in Istanbul, we headed to Cappadocia, the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey. About a 75 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s famous for a moon-like landscape, with huge rock formations jutting out of the ground that look like tall chimneys with “fairy” tops. Below the ground are vast underground cities, complete with rooms and tunnel networks that could hold up to 20,000 Christians who escaped underground they were persecuted by Muslim conquerers. We got unlucky with the weather and so weren’t able to hot air balloon — the most popular activity there — but hiking around the area, above and below ground, was still cool.

Bottom Line: Turkey is a great place to be a tourist — Istanbul is an awesome city. And increasingly, it’s an opportunity-rich place for technology entrepreneurship.

Travel Reminds You: “This is Just One of Many Possible Worlds”


A few years ago, Alain de Botton wrote a book titled A Week At the Airport, about his time living at Heathrow airport for a week. Below’s an excerpt from the book in Harper’s magazine that resonated. It’s a special feeling when you return home from a long trip and put your head down at night and then think back to the place where you woke up. I remember when I once woke up in a small village in Costa Rica where there was no hot water, I then traveled all day, and by night was lying in bed in rich San Francisco. The contrast in my environments was striking. De Botton:

There used to be time to arrive. Incremental geographic changes would ease the inner transitions: desert would gradually give way to shrub, savannah to grassland. At the harbor, the cam- els would be unloaded, a room would be found overlooking the customs house, passage would be negotiated on a steamer. Flying fish would skim past the ship’s hull. The crew would play cards. The air would cool.

Now a traveler may be in Abuja on Tuesday and at the end of a satellite in the new terminal at Heathrow on Wednesday. Yesterday lunch time, one had fried plantain in the Wuse Dis- trict to the sound of an African cuckoo, whereas at eight this morning the captain is closing down the 777’s twin engines at a gate next to a branch of Costa Coffee.

Despite one’s exhaustion, one’s senses are fully awake, registering everything—the light, the signage, the floor polish, the skin tones, the me- tallic sounds, the advertisements—as sharply as if one were on drugs, or a newborn baby, or Tolstoy. Home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativized by the other lands one has visited. How peculiar this morning light looks against the memory of dawn in the Obudu hills, how unusual the recorded announcements sound after the wind in the High Atlas, and how inexplicably English (in a way they will never know) the chat of the two female ground staff seems when one has the din of a street market in Lusaka still in one’s ears.

One wants never to give up this crystalline perspective. One wants to keep counterpoising home with what one knows of alternative realities, as they exist in Tunis or Hyderabad. One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.

(Hat tip Steve Dodson.)

Experiencing Hawaii for the First Time


Having spent most of my life in California and loving to travel, it’s been an odd fact that I had never been to Hawaii.

Well, it’s a fact no more. I had a lovely New Year’s in Maui with good friends, food, and books. And no email or Twitter for five full days, which is always a refreshing respite.

Hawaii is indeed magical in winter time. A few theories. First, the climate: it’s warm there when it’s cold here, with no humidity. Second, the spirit of calm. It’s the natural Hawaain culture, I suppose. More important is the fact that pretty much all the tourists are there to simply chill out is infectious. Most of Hawaii is tourist central and they spread the chill out spirit in all the restaurants and beaches and hotels. Third, unlike Mexico, you don’t have to worry about passports, cell phone plans, currency and so on — further reducing possible stress in a beach front vacation.

(There’s a lot of natural beauty in Hawaii, though I must say, I didn’t come upon many nature scenes in Hawaii that we don’t have in beautiful California.)

Happy 2015.

Lessons and Impressions from Korea

koreaRecently, I spent a week in Korea to speak at the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul. It was fun spending time with the other speakers, such as David Epstein, author of the provocative book The Sports Gene, and friends Tyler Cowen, Jeff Jarvis, and Andy McAfee. Prior to the event in Seoul, I spent a few days in Jeju island on my own, just reading and hanging out.

My big picture, touristic impressions of Korea:

  • It felt very similar to Japan, which isn’t surprising given the country was ruled by Japan in the early 1900’s. Korea is wealthy and boasts advanced infrastructure—just like Japan, a rare thing in Asia. So it’s a super easy country to navigate, tourist-wise. I should note that Korea didn’t seem as weird as Japan, at least on the surface. Korea felt more Western in certain cultural respects whereas Japan is all its own.
  • 60 years ago Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today it’s one of the richest. Despite a jaw-dropping economic transformation, indeed one that’s notable in all of human history, today’s Koreans do not seem exceptionally self-confident about their economic future. Several folks I spoke to worried about whether their culture accommodates entrepreneurship. They see their famous tech giants as imitators more than innovators. These anxious attitudes may, of course, actually help explain their past and potential future success: Koreans are incredibly hard workers, they believe mightily in education, and they take success very seriously. It stands to reason that business leaders would not rest on their Samsung and Hyundai style national laurels and instead collectively stress about their economic prospects.
    • If there’s one reason for Koreans to stress, it’d be because of the demographic trends–it’s the most rapidly aging country in the world.
  • In terms of the local labor market, you might think ideas in The Alliance would not be relevant. It’s true that Korean companies have been “families” for most of recent history. The company-man, die hard loyalty, and so on were strongly held beliefs for decades. But it’s changing. As companies seek to adapt to the global economy, they’re implementing more flexible labor compacts. Most young Korean workers today, according to surveys, say they’d switch employers if there were a better opportunity, and most say they don’t feel particularly loyal to their current employer.
  • Some of the restaurant customs are interesting. Most restaurants have water dispensers that you use to re-fill your glass on your own or they put a pitcher of water on the table right after you sit down. For a water guzzler like myself, this is a great perk. Less fun is Korea’s default choice of napkins. They use the thin, small square napkins that are used in Chile as well. It’s so odd–the napkins are skimpy so you have to use three or four to wipe your hands of even the littlest bit of sauce. At least in Korea, unlike Chile, several causal restaurants will put a mini-trash can at your table so you can dispose of the dozens of napkins you use as you use them!
  • I do not like kimchi.
  • “Selfie sticks” — if that’s what they’re called — are all the rage. On Jeju Island, where I spent a couple days, everyone hiked with a selfie stick that held their phone camera out at a distance to take a nice selfie. One odd consequence is that nobody asks anyone else to take their picture, a usual moment of forced social interaction amongst strangers.
  • I didn’t make it to the DMZ on this trip. Next time.
  • A college degree is a commodity. 98% of young Koreans have degrees from a junior college or university–the highest rate in the world. Amazing.

All in all, Korea doesn’t have any show stopping tourist attractions. But because of its importance to the global economy, it’s a country and culture worth understanding.

Flying there, I read a great general survey book on all things Korea by Daniel Tudor called The Impossible Country. The perfect pre-read for anyone visiting who needs to brush up on their basic history and culture. Below the fold are my extensive highlights from the book.


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