Impressions of Dubai

dubai

I spent a few days there recently. Some generous hosts had me give a couple talks; thanks to them for having me. Some quick impressions of the city:

  • Add “largest/tallest/biggest in the world” in front of any basic landmark in Dubai and there’s a decent shot it’ll be true. Everything in excess.
  • The winter months, when I was there, are quite pleasant weather-wise. Perfect, actually. I hear summer is unbearable.
  • The infrastructure is super advanced and the overall feel is cosmopolitan — 80% of the people are expats. But so long as the internet is censored, as it is in Dubai, it won’t quite feel 21st century.
  • Two days is probably all you need for basic tourism. A day in the city; half day to lounge around; half day for a safari in the desert. Worth seeing it all.
  • The entrepreneurs and businesspeople I met tell me that the transience of the population makes it hard to retain talent for very long. Few people are “from” Dubai. Makes sense. Dubai seems like an amazing place to post up for a few years and use as a Middle East hub, or even a gateway to Asia and Africa, but maybe not a long term place to build a life.
  • The real estate bubble is back, folks. Very, very back. The reason? Expo 2020. I’m not joking. Everyone I talked to talked about Expo 2020, and when I asked two smart people, separately, what was fueling the run up in real estate prices, their answer was the same: Expo 2020. It’s become the catch-all rationale to build build build.
  • Despite the opulence of the city, Dubai airport is not over the top. Some parts of the airport even feel just average, which is unlike the rest of the city. And Dubai/Emirates Airlines, while amazing in so many ways, loses out to Hong Kong/Cathay Pacific in terms of overall experience.

Visiting the Panama Canal

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.” – David McCullough

A couple months ago, I watched a video on Bill Gates’s blog about his visit to the Panama Canal. He called it one of the Top 10 places he’s been to, and given that he’s been to a lot of places, this caught my attention. My Mom and I headed down there for a weekend to see the Canal and greater Panama City, and I’m happy to report that it is now on my Top 10 list too — even though my overall list is probably considerably shorter than Bill’s!

The flight into Panama City at night was beautiful. Out my airplane window, I saw dozens of ships lined up in the water, waiting to enter the Canal Zone. The next morning we explored Panama City. It’s the most developed city in Central America. Half of the tallest sky scrapers in Latin America are in Panama, we were told. The water is drinkable. The taxi drivers are professional and friendly. The malls are as fancy as anywhere in the world, and all the usual A-list hotel brands have outposts along a main strip. The old town is lovely to stroll around in, and it’s one the part of Panama City that does feel genuinely Latin American, so long as you ignore the eye-catching streak of sky scrappers visible across the water.

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The Canal is the main attraction, of course, and it’s worth setting aside an entire day for the effort. Before going to the Canal — or even if you can’t go — read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas. It’s the authoritative account of how the canal got built against all odds. McCullough starts by recounting the French effort to build a canal in Panama. After 20,000 French died and untold tresaure expended, the French gave up. Then he masterfully recounts the debate in America’s government about whether to attempt to build something that almost everyone said was impossible. Then he covers the actual construction, the enormous public health challenges that were overcome, and the eventual mind-blowing triumph — the most impressive civil engineering project in history.

There are so many stats about the construction and end result. Here are a few:

  • “Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.”
  • With the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 to the Compagnie Nouvelle, the United States had spent more for the rights, privileges, and properties that went with the Canal Zone—an area roughly a third the size of Long Island—than for any actual territorial acquisition in its history, more than for the Louisiana Territory ($15,000,000), Alaska ($7,200,000), and the Philippines ($20,000,000) combined.
  • The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
  • Largest overseas effort in U.S. history.
  • Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.
  • “The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.”

But as McCullough says, no recitation of stats could do justice to the grandeur.

To be sure, the actual visual of the canal when you’re there is not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or even the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel. The canal is alive and functional — a centerpiece of global commerce — it’s not a national park or historical piece. That’s why it’s helpful to have the historical and political background to fully appreciate the impressiveness.

We went on a partial boat tour — you’re in an actual boat in the canal and you cross through two sets of locks which raise up the ship by 85 feet by pumping 27 million gallons of freshwater into the locked off area in less than eight minutes. I’m glad we were in a boat and not viewing the canal from the Miraflores Locks museum, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the full seven hours riding across the entire canal. It’s not necessary to get a good sense of what’s happening.

As I learned about canal on the tour, I reflected on how little I knew before my trip. I cannot remember ever hearing about it in school. I remember studying the building of the Hoover Dam, and man-made flight, and entering outer space, and learning about other science achievements. Yet, even though the Panama Canal is as or more impressive than any of the above, it doesn’t seem as prominent in the history books. Most likely this because the U.S. government has blood on its hands in Panama: it seized/stole the land from Colombia in order to ensure the Canal was built, an event which kicked off a series of shameful intrusions in Central America sovereignty.

It’s worth learning more about. And given how easy it is to get in and out of Panama, it’s worth visiting in person.

At the end of the McCullough book, there’s a moving quote by John Stevens, who was chief engineer at the Canal from 1905-1907. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote soon before dying. The great works had still to come: “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean…”

Other direct quotes from McCullough’s book below.

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Nassim Taleb on Living in the City vs. Country/Nature

On Facebook, he writes:

I have a question about true vs constructed preferences, wondering if some of my personal observations are general. Feel free to share your own.
Places held to be touristically either uninteresting or unattractive (or not particularly special) are associated in my personal memory with a lot better souvenirs than places held to be attractive. These “attractive” places evoke boredom (after the first contact and “wow! how beautiful” the scenery), rich farts, gold-diggers, Saudi “princes” in convertible Italian handmade sports cars, tourists being fleeced by locals, etc. This is easily conceivable based on habituation: inside a café, trapped in conversation, you forget that you are in West Philadelphia. Kahneman had a paper indicating that people who live in California are not really happier than those in the rest of the country, but don’t know it, and live under self-sustained myths. After a brief period, you treadmill to baseline. But as with people who are in California telling themselves that they have to be happier, because that’s the prevalent belief, we end up living in a postcard-like system of constructed preferences.
I agree that being exposed to natural beauty, once in a while, brings some aesthetic contentment, or episodic visits to the country bring some relief. And I accept that it is better to have some fractal dimension (trees, nature) in one’s permanent landscape. But I wonder if, for day-to-day life, one needs much more than ample sunlight and view of trees outside the window: beyond that, no postcard life can be a tradoff for absence of trusted and warm neighbors, plenty of relaxed friends, stimulating conversation, ability to walk places, and a consuming activity.
When I look into my personal raw preferences, I feel I prefer Brooklyn to the South of France, ugly West Philadelphia to the scenic Amherst (Mass), Milan to Florence, and Clerkenwell to Kensington. Question: Do we tend to follow the current culture as punishment?

(Hat tip: Ted Gonder)

India for a Second Time

lotus

(After meditating inside the Lotus Temple in Delhi, a beautiful structure built by people of the Bahai faith but free/open to people of all orientations for prayer and meditation.)

A common dilemma when scoping international travel is whether to travel to a new place or re-visit a place you’ve already been. Early on in my life, my passport alarmingly unwrinkled, I prioritized the new — fewer days in each country, more countries. More recently, I prioritized the old — more days in countries I’ve already been to (e.g. Switzerland, Japan, Chile). These days, I am feeling slightly more interested in travel novelty. Of course, unless you’re a full-time traveler, why you end up in one place or another is a function of many criteria, such as where your work demands take you. But the broader idea of where you are on the novelty/familiarity continuum is an important one and plays out in my life across all dimensions (work, friends, relationships, travel, food, etc.). I think pretty actively about the extent to which I turn on the novelty spigot in any particular dimension.

This past week, I visited India for the second time, and while work brought me there (keynote speech), I in part agreed to do it because I wanted to have a second go-around as a tourist in this massive, complex, important country. I wanted more depth. India in 2006 kicked my ass. I had some great moments — riding in the back of a rickshaw for the first time in Bombay with a blog reader who was hosting me; going to a Bollywood film with a different blog reader; seeing India Gate in Delhi; seeing first hand the remarkable entrepreneurial energy and optimism of the Indian people that persists today. But gosh, the poverty was so in my face, so ubiquitous, so loud, that it overpowered all my experiences, and when I think back to the memories I have of that trip, the visuals that predominate are naked kids playing in huge piles of trash on the side of the road, stray dogs everywhere, diaherrea, Air India’s definition of airplane seats. These were reasonable reactions, I think, given it was my first time, and it was two weeks at the end of a long six week Asia adventure.

On this trip, I spent only a couple days on tourism activity (so I had more energy) and was steeled to the India realities. I spent a day in Delhi and a day in Agra. In Delhi, I visited and meditated in the Lotus Temple and attended the Kingdom of Dreams Jhumproo show in Gurgaon. In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. All told, I enjoyed it.

This time around, I noticed India’s beauty more often. I don’t mean this in some vague travel guidebook sort of way (“the culture is beautiful”). I mean that several times I had a very specific reaction to something that caught my eye as beautiful. For example, I noticed the saris (dresses) the women were wearing. The saris were truly beautiful. I noticed how most transport trucks were painted front to pack in rainbow colors. Imagine if the big trucks that lumber up and down the U.S. highway corridors were each wrapped in technicolor paintings or artistic graffiti of flowers. At the Kingdom of Dreams show in Guragon, I noticed the big bold costumes, and how good random people’s voices were as they belted out Hindi tunes from the seats.

The Taj Mahal was beautiful too, of course. But it’s the #1 tourist attraction in all of Asia (outside of Thailand sex tourism). Your expectations are so high and the actual experience of visiting it is so affected by the thousands of other people gawking at it next to you, that subtle perceptions of beauty are not exactly in the cards. Rather: Get in, take photos, look at the incredible marble carvings done by hand, and then get out, all without someone pick pocketing you.

While I noticed beauty more this time, it’s not like the poverty disappeared in my seven year absence. One weird but reliable litmus test I came up with a while ago for “you know you’re in a poor country when…”: on the drive from the airport to your hotel, how many random piles of rubble do you see on the sides of the road? Abandoned construction and demolition activity is pervasive throughout the developing world. India is no exception to the rubble rule. But rubble is the least of the attractions/problems on the side of the roads in India. You name it, India’s got it. Want to see people taking a shit? Just look out your car window. Pumping the ground for water? Yup. Burning trash? Of course. Sleeping in tents? Sure. Beggars with their arm cut off, holding out a cup? Certainly.

There are hundreds of millions of poor people in India. I wonder how much better-off Indians talk about it, or even notice it. When I asked my guide about poverty in Agra, he told me that many of the beggars are actually not poor, but rather professionalized beggars. Replace “many” with “some” and I’d agree. But he seem on the whole unmoved by it all. He grew up in Agra. He’s been there his whole life. He’s never been outside the country. It is what it is for him. We are all fish in water when in our own countries and cultures.

One lesson from this trip is the value in spending targeted money to make certain complexity go away. In 2006, I tried to take the train from Delhi to Agra. But when I arrived at the train station, I entered a scene that resembled an unruly drunk crowd at a Mike Tyson Las Vegas fight. The decrepit station packed with people as far as the eye could see, with no one queueing whatsoever to speak with the agents, ridiculous smells, and touts surrounding me, following my every step, pitching me on a rickshaw ride or pulling at my pockets or trying to get me to buy some stupid pin with the India flag on it, leaving me so confused and exasperated that I left the train station and vowed to walk aimlessly in Delhi for as long as it would take for the touts to give up and leave me alone. This time around, an air conditioned car pulled up my to hotel, a car that featured cold water bottles and towelettes, and over the seven hours of roundtrip driving I listened to several of my favorite podcasts and dozed off peacefully. An English speaking guide met me in Agra, hopped in the car, and took me around the sights. And the whole day cost me roughly $315 USD.

From the safe confines of the car for many hours, I had plenty of time to contemplate the traffic around me. The traffic situation in Delhi is a mess, though not as bad as in some places, like Jakarta. Cars don’t drive in lanes. Enough roads in the city/country do not have lane markers that no one seems to have internalized the helpfulness of staying in place as opposed to drifting across the full width of the highway. In the book Traffic, I recall reading that when people change lanes they think they’re optimizing for their own speed, but it rarely turns out that way, and all the lane changing causes slower overall speed on the roads for everyone. Amusingly, most trucks in the India on the back bumper contain the words “Blow Horn” — encouraging other cars to honk their horn to alert them to their proximity as they drift around. At least the honking in India tends to be practical; in China, where car honking is maddening, I think it’s more habitual than anything.

Three other random points: 1) Last time, it was only at the end of my visit that I realized that Indians rock their head side-to-side to indicate acceptance, agreement. I thought everyone was mocking me. This time, I knew exactly what was happening! 2) As in China, everything in India is wildly overstaffed. The medium sized hotel gym had four people staffed there, trying to be helpful, when I was the only person there. It’s like this all over. 3) Russ Roberts’ must-subscribe podcast recently had a conversation with noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati on the India economy. Ignore Bhagwati’s LOL-worthy self-regard (“this article I wrote would be what would be cited if were to win a Nobel prize”) and there are some interesting nuggets on the pro-trade, free market reforms he claims led to Indian economic growth in the 90′s, and some of the current reversing policies that may be responsible for the recent slowdown.

Finally, a thank you to all the Indian business leaders and HR managers I met the first part of the week. An extremely impressive group, and left me optimistic about the future of India. I’ll be back.

Map of the Day

map
(via Reddit)

Quick Impressions of Paris, 2013 Edition

Some quick, mostly banal impressions after a week spent hanging out with a couple good friends in Paris:

  • As a general point about travel, I prefer nature and outdoors to old buildings, churches, and museums. I am in awe when absorbing a tremendous nature scene, whereas being in the presence a church with great historical meaning doesn’t do much for me. But still, it’s hard to complain about Paris as a city. It’s an A-list destination for a reason: beautiful, functional, full of pretty people, and super easy to get around in.
  • Everything felt small for my oversized body. The chairs at the cafes, the tables at the cafes, the hotel rooms, the apartments, the cars, the sidewalks.
  • The trip was primarily about spending time with two friends. To that end, I arranged few meetings or other commitments, which allowed me to stay on Pacific Time while there — my friend (from New York) and I went to bed at 4 or 5 AM, and woke up at around 12 noon. I experienced basically no jet lag when I came back.
  • A highlight was going for runs along the Seine river listening to music on my iPod — so beautiful, so relaxing.
  • The Airbnb apartment in the heart of Saint Germaine worked out well. It was my first Airbnb rental as a traveler; I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Bottom Line: Paris in the spring is totally easy. An excellent mini-vacation spending quality time with good friends.

New Year’s in Moose, Wyoming

New Year’s in Grand Teton National Park was marvelous. Snow shoeing, cross country skiing, and season 1 of the The Wire (at night). Triangle X Ranch — a working dude ranch in the park itself — hosted us with three meals a day and all the necessary equipment and local knowledge. The landscapes of the American west continue to captivate me...

Happy 2013!

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(Hiking in sub-zero temps)
2012-12-31_1356985901(The view from lunch at the ranch)

You Don’t Need to Be Nomadic to Be Focused

Derek Sivers writes that he’s giving up on maintaing a home base and giving up on maintaining physically proximate friends, events, activities. Instead, he’s directing his energies “globally” (i.e., on the web) and becoming a permanent traveler:

I lived in Portland, Oregon for 3 years. I worked every waking hour, growing CD Baby and Hostbaby. It was incredibly productive. I made some dear and deep friends worldwide, but none in Portland. I never hung out in Portland. My attention was still focused outward.

Then two years ago, when I moved to Singapore, I decided to do the opposite. I wanted to get to know my local community. I met with over 400 people, one-on-one, went to every conference and get-together, and said yes to every request. I spent most of the last two years just talking with people. And I really got to know the Singapore community.

But something never felt right. After a day of talking, I was often exhausted and unfulfilled. Two hours spent being useful to one person who wants to “pick my brain” is two hours I’d rather spend making something that could be useful to the whole world (including that one person).

Then people around the world email to ask why I’ve been so silent. No new articles. No progress on my companies. Nothing.

So there’s the trade-off. By being so local-focused, I’m not being as useful as I was when I was making things online.

So I’m finally admitting : I’m not local.

I moved around so much that I’m not from anywhere. I feel equally connected to London, Los Angeles, New York, New Zealand, Singapore, San Francisco, Iceland, and India. I care about people in all of those places. They’re all equally home. Just because I live in one now, doesn’t mean I should ignore the others.

To me, the emphasis on local stuff never felt right. When I was in Woodstock and Portland, people would ask what I was doing to promote the local music scene there. I’d argue that I shouldn’t favor Woodstock or Portland any more than Wellington or Prague.

For me, for now, I’m going to stop doing in-person meetings, and turn my attention fully to writingprogramming, and recording things that can benefit anyone anywhere.

I get what Derek is saying in terms of reaching a larger global audience. I understand his view that hard focus with minimal distraction is important. But better to think of hard focus and serendipity as spigots that can be turned off and on at different times, not as ideas that determine whether you have a “home” or are a nomad.

You can live close to friends or family, in a big city, and still say no to things and not go to conferences every day. You can be cosmopolitan in identity and in your moral calculus and yet still invest in real life, stable relationships in one or two or three key locales.

Sure, being a permanent traveler will grant you more time than ever to focus on key projects and publish them to your global audience. But no permanent traveler I’ve met is actually happy. Most are lonely. Most have a hard time building a meaningful career. I wrote about this in detail a few year ago in my post on Urban Nomadicism.

Derek says he’s going to abolish in-person meetings. I can’t think of a more likely path to unhappiness than abolishing regular in-person interaction with friends/family/colleagues.

I have a long respected Derek’s writings and thinking. So I look forward to seeing how this new lifestyle plays out.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

A Magical Dinner Spot

It’s at the Velassaru Maldives resort.

Where the Hell is Matt? 2012 Edition

Required viewing. Tell me this doesn’t make you want to buy a ticket to somewhere, anywhere right away…