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A slice of Auckland

Auckland cops a fair bit of flak as a city. There are various complaints made. People object to Auckland traffic, the perceived snobbish attitude of the people and more. In spite of those complaints, it is a city with undeniable charm. My assessment, limited though it is, comes from the excellent weekend I have just enjoyed there.

It started soon after I disembarked my plane at Auckland airport. Heading out of the terminal, I confirmed the address of my sister (she lives in the city and I would visit her for dinner) and went to catch a Skybus. I didn’t know precisely where I was going but gave a staff member her address. The super helpful fellow told me which bus to catch and even told the driver where I wanted to get off which he announced when the moment came. I had a short ten minute walk from the bus stop to my sister’s place. The Skybus only cost $18. That’s quite reasonable. It rained on Friday night but Saturday’s forecast was good and the weather didn’t disappoint. The sun was high in a clear bright blue sky. That was great because my friend William and I had decided to take the ferry to Rangitoto Island. It is a DOC reserve 25 minutes from the mainland. It offers stunning panoramic views of Auckland city.

Take a look at this one.

Rangitoto 1

The walk to the summit is an easy climb of just under an hour. The summit affords probably the best views on the island. Here’s one of my friend William and I at the top.

Rangitoto 2

Descending from the summit we circled round to wait for our return ferry. Back on the mainland we strolled around Wynyard Quarter. I like walking around cities. There’s something about being surrounded by the buzz of social activity that you get in cities. There wasn’t the flurry of action you would get on a weekday but there were plenty of people out and about enjoying themselves and libations hot and cold. Wynyard Quarter has a cool vibe. Mission Bay, where we headed next, is a nice spot to sit down and enjoy an ice cream which we did. The ice cream was tasty but expensive. A treat but sod it I thought “I’m on holidays!”.

That evening, I joined William, my sister and some other friends for dinner on Dominion Rd. Lucky for me, my wonderful cousin with whom I stayed, had lent me a car so getting around was easy.

Parking in the city on Saturday night, ultimately, wasn’t such a drama. That’s because I stayed cool under pressure. I had headed down a side street in hopes of nabbing a good spot only to see vehicles bumper to bumper. I turned around and came back. I stopped. A woman clutching takeaways pushed the button to unlock her car and moved in. She spent an age inside the stationary vehicle. Pressure was building. Cars were piling up behind me. I heard some frustrated horn honks. Others may have faltered at this point but I had my eyes on the prize. Finally she moved and I swooped. It was a top spot. We enjoyed good Chinese dumplings (I thought beef with cumin was the best of the three flavours) and, of course, splendid conversation.

This morning it was brunch followed by a walk up to the top of Mt Eden. That vantage point afforded good views of other parts of the city including Eden Park.

Great weekend.

After the Storm

Marginal Revolution blogger Tyler Cowen posted a few weeks back that Japanese film After the Storm was the best movie he had seen this year and that it was a study in Japanese “complacency”. Complacency is on Cowen’s mind having this year published his latest book The Complacent Class on the decline of American restlessness, characterised by changes such as fewer people moving to different states within the USA in recent decades, and its impact on American dynamism. That book sits as yet unread on my beside table (to read it immediately when I read MR nearly every day would seem itself an act of complacency). Cowen film commendations are, however, nearly always well considered so last night I went to see After the Storm which didn’t disappoint.

Yes, the film is about complacency but nostalgia was the word that came to my mind. I wonder whether nostalgia is always tied to complacency and whether one can be complacent without being nostalgic. Our main character is middle aged man Ryota. He is, ostensibly, a novelist. Well he was. Having written a prize winning novel 15 years ago, he hasn’t written in years. Now he works as a private detective. It’s a tawdry business, most of his work involves tracing husbands or wives having extra marital affairs. What money he does make, he promptly gambles away. Ryota is also a father to a son, Shingo, aged somewhere between 10 and 12. Ryota sees Shingo just once a month whereby he annoys ex-wife Kyoto because he never pays the child support he owes. It is on one of these visits that the title narrative develops. Storm clouds are gathering in the city as newscasters warn that the 24th typhoon of the year is imminent when Ryota takes his son over to his grandmother’s place for dinner. He has now kept the boy out longer than Kyoto expected. She is then invited to Ryota’s mother’s apartment but the storm worsens and Kyoto decides to stay with the boy rather than taking him home late at night so they are all drawn together for the evening. Ryota has not moved on from his ex wife and still wishes to rekindle their relationship. She has taken another partner who she doesn’t seem to have strong affection for but is attracted to for pragmatic reasons (he is reliable, has a well paid job and can provide well for her and Shingo).

Kyoto has feelings for Ryota, we see her at one point glancing through one of his previous books on the shelf, and might still love him but that isn’t enough for her especially when she must take care of Shingo.

Ryota’s nostalgia is the strong narrative arc throughout the film. The film features moments of deep character reflection on relationships and life meaning.   Ryota is sort of stuck in nostalgia. His mother offers help when she tells him at one point that “you can’t find happiness until you let go of something”. Asked at one point during the film what he wanted to become as a child, Ryota says a public servant. When Ryota asks Shingo the same question, the boy gives the same answer. That probably tells you something about contemporary Japan though I do not know that country well so I will leave it for others to make that sort of deep analysis. The film is more than merely a study in Japanese complacency because the themes of loss and nostalgia are universal. These psychological traps hold us back from being who we want to be and accomplishing what we want whether writing that next great novel or something else. For these reasons, After the Storm is well worth a watch.

Here is the trailer.

Messy by Tim Harford

What do jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and German field marshal Erwin Rommel have in common?

On the surface not much.  But Tim Harford says in his excellent recent book Messy that all these people have demonstrated the ability to improvise and embrace messy situations. Mess is a natural state and our efforts to impose order on a disordered world often backfire. Conversely, those who embrace mess can develop their own creativity and, in competitive endeavours, so confound their rivals as to gain a significant advantage. Harford begins by talking about jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s famous Koln concert. Jarrett turned up to the venue to find a hopelessly out of tune piano.  The 17 year-old concert organiser Vera Brandes begged him to play. He agreed. That turned out to be a very good thing for Jarrett.  As Harford recounts, the piano pushed Jarrett to play keys and notes he usually avoided and in so doing he was able to break out of his normal patterns. The album of the Koln concert sold more than 3.5 million copies making it the most successful solo album in jazz history and the best selling piano album.

The point about Jarret’s unlikely success in Cologne is that forcing ourselves into messy situations where we have to work harder can sometimes be beneficial.

Tech company Amazon expanded well beyond their capacity in the early days. Founder Jeff Bezos was selling more product than he actually had the capacity to deliver. Harford writes that in the first week of operations, Amazon sold $12,000 worth of books but shipped only $846 worth. In the second week sales were up to $14,000 but Amazon only shipped $7,000. The early weeks sound hectic. Many would have taken stock at that point and slowed down. Instead, Bezos embraced the mess of those early days and kept taking big orders and expanding the company.

Donald Trump confounded his political rivals in the lead up to winning the Republican party nomination by constantly changing the terms of the political debate. Trump made bold, in some cases outrageous, agenda setting statements and while his professional politician rivals scrambled to prepare a carefully scripted and work shopped policy response Trump moved on to the next issue. His scripted rivals couldn’t keep up (Harford’s book was written before the election result but the comments about his rival Republican candidates equally seem to apply to Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton).

German field marshal Erwin Rommel was effective because, like Trump, he did not play to a script. Harford recounts examples where Rommel found himself outnumbered behind enemy lines but counter punched anyway correctly reckoning that his enemy was in a messy state of disarray.

The subtitle to Harford’s book is: how to be creative and resilient in a tidy minded world. He gives us example after example where spontaneous mess beats the over planned course of action. I thought it very much built upon an earlier Harford book “Adapt: How Success Comes from Failure” where he pointed out the effectiveness of trial and error methods.

“Mess”, if I read Harford correctly, works when we have the autonomy and adaptability to change course midway through a course of action. Overly planned and imposed creativity does not seem to work too well. An example he gives is of advertising guru Jay Chiat (whose firm Chiat/Day had devised Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 advertisement). In building a new office for the firm, Chiat tried to impose creativity from the top. All desks were removed and furniture Chiat thought to be creativity inducing such as “curvaceous two seater pods from fairground rides” was installed. He also insisted on a digital, paperless office (this was in 1993).

The result was not the outpouring of creative zeal from an inspired workforce Chiat hoped for. Rather, resentment grew within his workforce who felt a loss of the autonomy linked to the creative instinct.

The book also devotes a fair amount of space to the problem of “homophily” (that means love of the same) and the benefits of diversity. Group diversity helps us challenge status quo thinking. As Harford writes: “adding a new perspective or a new set of skills can unstick us, even if the perspective is off the wall or the skills are mediocre”.

Harford talks at length about music composer Brian Eno who uses cards with random instructions such as “change instrument roles” to push musicians in strange and potentially creative directions and unstick them.

Fresh thinking can help to shake things up.

That’s easy to say but it’s harder to actually practise than to preach. It’s also something we instinctively resist. Musicians didn’t like Eno’s cards. Jarrett did not want to play on the out of tune piano. And more ordered enemy generals didn’t want to embrace Rommel’s messy approach.

But we can all gain from a little bit of mess.

The great thing about Harford’s book is it does contain lessons for everyone not just corporate titans, jazz piano maestros or politicians. The two that I took out of it were the problems of imposed creativity and the big gains from adopting out of the box “messy” solutions.

The book is well worth your time. Do read it.

PS: A Ted talk by Harford on “How frustration can makes us more creative”. He talks about Jarrett and Eno.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a thought provoking book.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a book with the subtitle “a brief history of humankind” covers a lot of ground but while the book was a times a bit of a slog (I took my time getting through it), author Yuval Noah Harari relays some very interesting information about homo sapiens and suggests reasons why we have advanced so far beyond other creatures.

It’s our ability to flexibly co-operate which is the chief reason. So what, you say, bees and ants who collectively build colonies and, in the case of bees, produce much much more as a hive than an individual could also co-operate. But that co-operation, impressive though it is, differs dramatically from the more sophisticated type of co-operation humans achieve.

As Harari points out to Russ Roberts, in this EconTalk interview from 2015, bees cannot overthrow the Queen to establish a republic of bees or a communist dictatorship of bees (the reader can judge whether either of these would progress bee society).  Furthermore, bees and ants in a colony or a hive are all related. Humans co-operate with many different types of people who are not family in the biological sense.

The point is that human beings can readily adapt their social structures. Other animals cannot.

We co-operate through corporations, churches, political parties, the broader economy, and in other ways.

There was a time when these things did not exist. They had to be created.

So, why did we create them?

Harari’s answer is as interesting as it is challenging.

He says it’s all about “stories”.

Sapiens’ capacity for imagination, Harari argues, allows us to create these stories which foster co-operation over a shared “myth”.

There are many examples. Religions created gods to establish group norms of morality* which consolidated in group identity. Political parties created ideologies based on shared “myths” such as exploitation around which group members could coalesce. Capitalism is an ideology centred around the fiction of money to establish norms of trust in the market economy. Why should little green pieces of paper with a dead president or prime minister on them mean anything?

It’s interesting when you really think about these things.

Religion is, for the most part, in our modern liberal society the “easy” story to discard. Marx’s observation that religion is the “opiate of the masses” has simply become de rigeur and I do not think that Friedrich Neitzsche’s Zarathustra really shocks any longer (there is an odd cognitive dissonance in the increased western sacralisation of Islamic religion at the same time Jewish or Christian practices are demystified and ridiculed but I digress).

So which other “ideologies” used stories?

Harari adds liberal democracy to the list. And human rights. The latter, Harari clinically but factually notes to Roberts in that EconTalk conversation, are not a biological reality. This jarred with me (in a good way) because I believe in universal human rights and I think, generally speaking, the performance of liberal democracy and capitalism is quite good. Yet, Harari is right when he tells Roberts that you can cut open a body and not see any rights. They are a “myth”.

Harari’s dispassionate analysis of these respective deeply cherished stories is, in itself, reason for reading the book.

It’s also worth reading because of the interesting historical tidbits Harari relays.

Before reading the book, I did not know just how industrious the ancient Sumerians (a people who lived in modern day Southern Iraq) were. Not only did they derive the first primitive written script but they also came up with a form of money as a means of exchange. That’s interesting and I’m glad I learned it.

I do have one point of criticism or perhaps more an additional observation about Harari’s own “myths”.

The Israeli  historian is a vegetarian. Harari spends much time lamenting humans’ terrible environmental impact on the earth. It’s true that humans have caused the extinction of a lot of animal species though I think there is reason to believe that modern legal farming is less likely to cause extinction or indeed harm to animals than earlier forms of exploitation.

And yet, Harari’s views on battery hens and on animal suffering in general did challenge my priors.  I am happily a meat eater. Perhaps it’s my contrarianism at heart but I don’t buy “free range” eggs either though I like to think animals whose meat or other produce I eat are humanely treated (animal welfare is, of course, yet another “myth” in the Harari sense). Here’s what interested me. Harari cites research on monkeys where a baby chimpanzee was given two fake mothers, one which was metal and contained milk, another which had no milk but had warm cloth. Though “she” offered no sustenance, the monkeys preferred the cloth mother to the metal one and spent more time with her. That animals should have emotional as well as physiological needs isn’t surprising. Any pet owner could tell you, though they are not an impartial judge, that this is so. Nonetheless, dogs and cats do recognise their owners and forge connections with them. I am unconvinced that animals are better off in the wild. Wild animals are subject to such horrors as being eaten alive which the domesticated do not face.

Harari finishes by opening up further avenues for questions. Humanity has come far with fewer people starving to death or suffering through horrible wars but how much further can it go? That is the subject of his next book, Homo Deus, which I was given as a Christmas gift. I shall report on it in due course.

*Jonathan Haidt discusses group morality in some detail in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and region which I have just recently finished. I will endeavour to make some comments on that book soon.

Additional links: A Financial Times profile of Harari.

The aforementioned EconTalk episode.

Peter Thiel

So, there’s a lot of talk about Peter Thiel gaining New Zealand citizenship five years ago. (For those who haven’t caught up on the news, it has only been revealed today because a company owned by Thiel bought property last year in Wanaka deemed “sensitive” by the Overseas Investment Office.) Thiel* is a billionaire tech entrepreneur, the founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook. He is a seriously smart investor and someone Tyler Cowen referred to as a “public intellectual” in an interview with the tech billionaire back in 2015. If you read Thiel’s book “Zero to One” then you might understand what Cowen was getting at. The book is an excellent primer on entrepreneurship from how good salesmen make it look easy to how you should best advertise your product and more. It is also a detailed analysis of the state of the world and the United States. Thiel laments the decline of the American political system and innovation as he sees it. He once scathingly remarked of recent technological advances that “we were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters”. Thiel looks to an earlier era of great scientific advances (man landing on the moon) which took place quickly and wonders why those things aren’t happening now. Thiel is impatient and wants progress in the big things (not just the trivial ones such as, say, the creation of a certain social medium). In “Zero to One” he divides up people and countries into four spaces in a rubric; definite pessimists who expect and plan for the worst, indefinite pessimists who expect the worst but do not plan to avoid it, indefinite optimists who expect a better world but do not plan towards making it happen, and definite optimists who expect the world to get better and work towards making it happen. So, I wonder, in which category does Thiel put New Zealand and New Zealanders?

PS: Here’s a good rundown on the Thiel Optimist/Pessimist rubric.

PPS: Here’s Tyler Cowen’s interview with Peter Thiel. Cowen asked Thiel whether New Zealand was underrated to which Thiel replied that smaller countries such as New Zealand were underrated because they had the ability to adapt. I’ve extracted that exchange below:

TYLER COWEN: A follow-up on that, Peter. New Zealand arguably is the most democratic country in the world, I would say, or very close to the most democratic. Given that, New Zealand, overrated or underrated?

PETER THIEL: Again, I think it’s more like a representative democracy or republic.

TYLER COWEN: There’s no constitution. There’s close to only one branch of government, very little federalism.

PETER THIEL: I think a lot of these smaller countries are somewhat underrated generally because you have an adaptability, an ability to change things that can move a lot faster. Again, I don’t think it’s the form of government that matters so much. I think it’s often the culture . . .

*Thiel also endorsed Donald Trump for president last year and has been on his transition team.

Norberg on extreme poverty

Spiked Review’s theme for this month is “The Future” and Johan Norberg has a very good article chronicling the decline of extreme poverty entitled “And the Poor Shall Rise”. Here’s a slice comparing the rise of China and India to the West’s development in the 1800s :
When the Western world began to industrialise in the early 1800s, its population consisted of approximately 200million people and it took 50 years to double their average income. China and India alone have done the same thing with 10 times more people, five times faster.
Last year (yes it really is now 2017) I named Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future my pick for book of the year. I think he should be essential reading for anyone interested in public policy and politics.
In Progress, Norberg recounts via a compelling narrative the most important and underappreciated story of our time: across a range of indicators (falling child mortality, improved literacy, vaccination to protect against disease, and more) economic growth is delivering a far higher quality of life to many more people all over the globe. Norberg provides a much needed factual story using a range of statistical measures of progress amidst a growing political climate of cynical pessimism.
More money, most essentially at lower levels of income, gives people more choices and helps improve quality of life. While “inequality”, an often porous and not well understood term, is cited as a major political problem in developed democracies, third world poverty is more immediately pressing and it is actually in retreat. Extreme poverty, now marked by the World Bank at $1.90 per day, has declined markedly. It has fallen from 37 percent of the global population in 1990 to just ten percent in 2015.
That’s amazing! It is actually possible that grinding miserable extreme poverty could be eradicated in my lifetime (I am 30 years old). As the above quote about China and India’s rise note what is so remarkable about global economic development is that it is happening at such a fast pace compared to earlier development paths. There are political trends which threaten this path to progress to be sure and there is still far to come but it’s important to recognise the staggering and very real progress humanity has seen in a very short period of time.
Read Norberg’s whole article and then read Progress.

Progress

The Otago Daily Times asked contributors to recommend their “best book of 2016” for a two page spread published in Saturday’s paper and online. My pick was Johan Norberg’s Progress. Each contributor was reduced to a short word count. Here’s what I wrote:

Progress is everywhere. With a statistical onslaught, Norberg points out how more human beings are enjoying a better quality of life than ever before. Fewer children die of preventable diseases. More boys and girls go to school for longer. Being gay is no longer a crime in a growing number of countries. War and famine are becoming rare. In a year of pessimistic political sentiment, Norberg’s book should be required reading.

Those are all remarkable developments which Norberg sets out as part of an interesting narrative in his book. (He breaks it down into ten chapters;  “food”, “sanitation”, “life expectancy”, “poverty”, “violence”, “the environment”, “literacy”, “freedom”, “equality”, and “the next generation”.) Here are some more ways in which the world is getting better as relayed by Norberg:

  • Global life expectancy has increased from a pitiful 31 years in 1900 to 71 today;
  • The polio virus, once a debilitating illness is nearly eradicated;
  • Child labour is much rarer than it once was; Norberg reports that, in 1950, an estimated one quarter of the world’s children between 10 and 14 years were economically active but now the global number is “certainly less than one in ten”; and
  • AIDS related deaths have fallen by forty two percent since 2006.

It’s easy to forget that privation and misery, now something we associate with smaller numbers of tragically held back and underdeveloped countries, was much more common in what is now the “developed” world including countries such as Sweden.

Norberg opens by quoting from a tragic scene of famine in a Swedish household in the 18th century. That picture is grim.

“We often saw mother weeping to herself, and it was hard on a mother, not having any food to put on the table for her hungry children. Emaciated, starving children were often seen going from farm to farm, begging for a few crumbs of bread.”

Lives were, at the time of Norberg’s Swedish famine anecdote, for many many more people than today, in Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Not having experienced such conditions, it’s hard in our comfortable modern perch to fathom such an existence.

 Let’s take another example. Measles, writes Norberg, is estimated to have killed about 200 million people since the mid 1800s. Several million of those died each year before the first measles vaccine was invented in 1963. Last year only 134,200 died from the illness. Now, to be sure, this is still far too high when a vaccine is readily available (I received the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella jab as a small child as you might have, too) but, nonetheless, this demonstrates remarkable progress.

 But people don’t buy it

 The core message of the candidate who ultimately won the presidency of the United States was an explicitly nostalgic one and the public is more pessimistic about the state of the world. A yougov poll, conducted at the end of last year, found only 3 percent of Australians, 6 percent of Americans, and 10 percent of Norberg’s fellow Swedes thought the world was getting better (Chinese bucked the trend with 41 percent saying the world was getting better).

Why, given these splendid developments, are people so gosh darned glum about the world?

My industry, the news media, as Norberg points out in the paragraph below, surely bears some responsibility.

 “War, crime, disasters and poverty are painfully real, and during the last decade global media has made us aware of them in a new way – live on screen, every day, around the clock – but despite this ubiquity, these are problems that have always existed, partially hidden from view. The real difference now is that they are rapidly declining. What we see now are the exceptions, where once they would have been the rule.”

This is visibility bias. Improvements have been gradual as progress occurs over a long time frame whereas a spate of violent crimes in a developed country or the sight of starving children in an impoverished country are urgent and jarring (most particularly so when we are confronted with such images on our television screens).

You’ll perhaps notice, in reading this list, that I’ve not cited some measurement of “increased wealth”. But, Norberg is clear, progress on all of these metrics is the product of greater economic growth throughout the world*.

There are great statistical tools now available to track this progress. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder shows a graphic representation of this change over time where you can easily compare two metrics on an X and a Y axis to show how they have, almost everywhere improved over time, in different countries.

What you’ll notice if you go to Rosling’s site and play around with the data is that countries with high GDP per capita tend to have pretty good outcomes for just about everything else – higher life expectancy, lower childhood mortality, more years in school for women, the list goes on.(Another terrific source of information is Max Roser’s “Our World in Data” website.)

 And what is the source of all this progress? In a word, exchange. Global exchange of goods and ideas. It is freedom and openness which has made this progress possible. The problem we now face, as Norberg argues, is that because people don’t know the state of the world their fear and worry could lead to measures curbing the openness on which progress depends.

This very real progress doesn’t mean that people do not face problems in developed countries. Of course they do. But without the progress humanity has managed, the most serious problems humanity faces would be much more common and much more serious.

Climate change is the issue on which Norberg is less bright. He notes that rising temperatures may cause drastic results likely to most severely impact the least developed parts of the world.

While Norberg argues this means that it might make sense to take policy action to insure ourselves against such worst case scenarios, we should be cautious not to introduce climate policies which “hurt our ability to create more wealth and better technologies and to bring power to the poor”. Norberg says “[t]hat would be a case of killing the patient to cure the disease”.

Human beings also have a remarkable capacity to adapt so the overall picture remains bright.

Next time someone suggests to you that the world is getting worse, gently recommend Norberg’s book. With growing public scepticism about the globalised world that exchange has made, it is essential reading.

*Norberg does spend a chapter on poverty where he explains how fewer people around the world live in conditions of extreme poverty. That is a dramatic and positive story. The World Bank reported earlier this year that between 1990 and 2015, the number of extreme poor (defined as people living on $1.90 per day) was “estimated to have fallen from 1.9 billion to about 700 million”.