Monthly Archives: July 2015

Impressions from an African Safari

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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 — literally — they would pop their heads up and look around to make sure they were safe, before resting their heads again and shutting their eyes momentarily. 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 where 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 leading 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 to handle. It was unclear who had the larger team. 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 was a loud animalistic scream that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had slipped out earlier had likely killed a zebra, our guide explained. Upon “hearing” the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the dead zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. We drove to watch. 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.

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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.

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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.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

hardlanding1. Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged Airlines Into Chaos. A rigorously researched account of the airline industry in the U.S., especially the aftermath of deregulation. Probably more detail than the casual reader will care to know, but any airline nuts will appreciate the blow-by-blow about United, Continental, Delta, Southwest, the extraordinary impact of computer scheduling technology, safety regulations, code sharing, car rental companies, and many other storylines. One sample nugget:

The self-destruction of Continental Airlines vividly revealed a principle as old as passenger flight itself: people will tolerate many sacrifices to fly, but they will not tolerate surprise. They may sit with their knees to their chest for a low fare, but they will not stand for a lost bag. They may spend all night in the boarding area waiting to clear a standby list, but they will display no patience for a 30-minute rain delay.

2. Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter. Various pop psych experiments, with interesting nuggets on the power of names, colors, and culture. Entertaining throughout.

3. The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing by Michael J. Mauboussin. Super important premise. I stopped reading halfway through — just lost interest.

4. Red Sparrow: A Novel by Jason Matthews. A totally addictive CIA thriller. The usual setup here for this genre, but with especially engrossing storylines, detail, and writing.