Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Prisoners Dilemma on Steroids

A NYT article on Martin Nowak, who uses mathematical models to study a whole host of things. The general theme of his work is cooperation, and the prisoner's dilemma is one of the main tools.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma may be abstract, but that’s why Dr. Nowak likes it. It helps him understand fundamental rules of evolution, just as Isaac Newton discovered that objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

And what does he say about evolution?

In recent papers, Dr. Nowak has argued that cooperation is one of the three basic principles of evolution. The other two are mutation and selection.

Monday, July 30, 2007

In Pictures: The Disgrace that was the American Panamerican Basketball Team

Skipping to the Ending First. PANAMA!
Aside from that two cool innovations: every player's stats on the screen, plus look above and they have automated searchlights instead of humans.

Rio Olympic Arena. Not even trying to hide Rio's 2016 ambitions. The blue walkway is the temporary portable entrance to the stadium since it appears they didn't finish a real one in time.

As you can see, basketball is popular in Brazil. Or maybe they just knew how bad our team would be.

A large number of fans brought their local soccer team's flag. This guy and his sons were yelling at the camera man to put them on the jumbotron the entire game to no avail; it was clear they were avoiding soccer flags of all types.

Most of the game looked like this. Note future NBA big man Roy Hibbert being no use. These were amateurs, yet the US had the best college players we've got. Every one of them was better than basically every player on the Panama squad yet they were terrible together. The worst part of it is the limited number of fans still cheered like a soccer goal for every three.

Most Brazilians cared more about the NBA when we had Jordan. This Brazilian remembers the good days. Also of note is that this arena is basically in the middle of an F1 track. And sorry to burst your bubble, Wu, but Yaeger's F1 takes Brazil upon further investigation. On a brighter note, people at least didn't boo us like they did during women's volleyball.
Derick confused the US team tryout roster with the actual roster and thought Kansas (his alma matter) had two players. He wore the shorts and brought signs and everything. He yelled out for Mario (a KU player) to the US coach, badly scraping his knee on the seat in the row below in the process. A fitting ending.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pan-American Games

For the past two weeks Rio has had the pleasure of hosting the 15th Pan-American Games. This is like the Olympics for the Western Hemisphere. Quick trivia question: how many countries are participating? Now my hint is you probably guessed too low like I did. What do you guess this time? There are 42 countries participating, including a bunch of islands and such (did you know Puerto Rico participates as its own country?).

Rio is trying to use it as its audition for the 2016 summer Olympics. Someone said the top candidates are probably Rio and Chicago. I thought Rio did an excellent job and would be a great host for the Olympics.

I went to a handful of events and watched a handful more on TV. It's always great to see sports at the highest level (this will appear sarcastic if you read my future post on the American basketball team).

US vs. Puerto Rico Men's Volleyball (US won 3-0, eventually took Silver to Brazil)

US vs. Cuba women's volleyball (Cuba won 3-0, eventually took gold over Brazil)

Beach Volleyball (various countries, Brazil was the best that day Nicaragua the worst)


This was a flier for a party my friend Breno put on while I was traveling with Tyler. In Brazil, majors at schools often throw parties. Sometimes they can get quite elaborate. Breno is a biology major and planned their party. It was held in a rented out adult movie theater and called "Biolorgia". I don't think I need to translate that. Anyway it was a smashing success and 1,500 people came.

A few observations:

a) this wouldn't happen at a US university. The main culprit in my opinion: the drinking age. I wonder if I'll always think the drinking age being 21 is a bad policy, but at 24 I have never agreed more. Being abroad will do that to you....

b) Would the biology students in the US be able to get 1,500 people to come to a party? It's not known to be the most social major.

c) this idea of majors throwing parties also happened in Chile, and I imagine happens all over Latin America.

Income Inequality

(Salvador, Brazil).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Learning about money from the rest of the world

This was an excellent post from a personal finance blog I read frequently, Get Rich Slowly.

While you are drowning in debt up to your ears paying off your mortgage, the guys who did the actual work to create your house have no debt and their income so far exceeds their spending they are able to save big time and send money back home.

Basically, a few takeaways:

a) Americans spend too much energy in the "rat race" trying to get ahead of others.

b) In other countries, it is socially acceptable to live with your parents, a major savings.

c) This is NOT simply attributable to things being cheaper abroad.

Bottled Water is Tap Water!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Maybe the red light running isn't so great

I was talking to Vanessa tonight and boom! Right on the corner by my place. Most surely was the result of what I previously wrote about.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sette Said It

It's amazing what rappers come up with as grammar. Now imagine how much more "unique" it gets when you have Brazilians impersonating it.

My Brazilian friend Sette has a series of burned rap CDs titled, in black marker, Ridin' Ur Mom. Each one has a subtitle. My favorite - Ridin' Ur Mom: Vandalizin' Her, But in a Nice Way.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Friends' Blogs

I know there are several of you with blogs, and I would love to link to them.

If you want me to link to yours, let me know. Even if you're not a close friend, just ask I have no problem with it.

Here's who I've got so far:

Clay Condon - Spending at least a year working in Doha, Qatar.

The Global Buzz - multiple friends write or have written for this on global affairs.

John Coleman - Just finished 2 years with my future employer.

Grace Armstrong - doing a Fulbright on community media, she writes random thoughts on life, Rio, and Brazil, and has an impressive list of music videos with Rio in them.

Pedro Barros - My Brazilian friend Pedro started a blog, in English, about making money. His English is excellent.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Porto Seguro

After Salvador, we spent some time in Porto Seguro, the city where the Portuguese first landed in Brazil (it means "safe port") and now basically a vacation town. I didn't get a ton of pictures; our days consisted of wake up, go to the beach, go out at night, go to sleep, rinse, repeat.

I looked like this a lot of the time:

Salvador da Bahia

When people think of Brazil they probably think of Rio first. Second might be Sao Paulo, the center of business. Brasilia is the center of government. But the state of Bahia, and especially its capital Salvador, is the cultural center of Brazil. Major music trends and artists most often originate out of Bahia. Dance trends originate out of Bahia. Religious trends even originate out of Bahia. In short, Bahia often defines Brazil.

We arrived after a flight from Iguazu Falls. We headed to two places in Bahia, Salvador and Porto Seguro. First, Salvador. Salvador has about 3 million people, mostly Afro-Brazilians. In terms of people, Brazil loosely goes from white to black as you go from the deep south north. This centers largely around the existence of the slave trade in the north, which centered around the Pelourinho area, now the central tourist attraction of the city.

As you walk around, the Pelourinho area just oozes history. The buildings are old and the streets have large stones that are hard to walk on for anyone and would be impossible for a girl in heals. They say there is a church for each day, and I believe them. The buildings are beautiful, but worn from heavy use.

At this point the area is more or less for tourists. Drum groups and capoeira troupes roam the streets eager for that elusive donation. Vendors give you these lenbranças, which are little ribbons that you tie around your wrist. The mass influx of tourists from other areas of Brazil often return with them to use as gifts. I bought a handful myself. The charm, culture, and overall friendliness of Bahia means people will always come back.

This picture I thought did a good job of showing old and new Bahia. The foreground used to be a large estate (probably a slaveowner) overlooking the ocean. Now it serves as a museum and developers built a high-rise apartment complex behind it, even closer to the ocean. There are multiple of these in Salvador.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

You don't see that everyday

Today I went out for a run on the beach and for some reason everyone was looking east. There was a big clump of people at this one spot on the beach, and also a few police cars on the street. Then an ambulance came.

I went to the beach and there was an airplane in the water with its tail all messed up. Here's what happened (if you can read Portuguese you can read here). This was one of the propaganda planes that runs banners behind it for everyone on the beach to see. They don't know why, but it crashed in the water. A few surfers rescued the pilot, who was taken to the hospital but who was likely unhurt. Then a group of 50 people pulled the plane from the water to the shore.

Anyway it certainly added spice to my run.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Things I can't stand - above 4.0 GPAs

One thing that irks me is "ratings inflation" - when we take something used to evaluate people and distort its usefulness by making so many rate highly. GPAs above 4.0 are one example. Here's part of a listing from Prosper (a peer-to-peer lending site):

Size of Loan: $15,200
Interest Rate: 28.5%
Purpose of loan:
I will use this loan to pay the $15200 in school tuition and expenses for my daughter's high school. The loan is needed because our financial aid from the high school was significantly reduced this year. We do not want to remove our daughter from this school because she is very happy and has GPA greater than 4.0; she has several honors courses.

Now, aside from the fact that these parents have ruined their personal credit to the point they're desperate to borrow money at 28.5% and still insist on spending so much for a private high school, let's talk about the GPA.

The way a lot of high schools do it now is that you get an extra letter grade (called an "honor point") if you take an honors class. So a C counts as a B, a B counts as an A, and an A counts as an A plus a point, or whatever you want to call it. With it easy to take half or more of classes as honors, students can easily get above a 4.0 GPA using this scale.

The problem with this is that it renders the GPA figure totally useless. If you're a college admissions officer, what does a 4.0 GPA mean? It could mean the student got all A's. Or it could mean the student got mostly B's, but in honors classes which are supposedly more difficult grade-wise. There's no way to tell.

My friend John even had a 4.7 GPA in high school. Don't get me wrong, he's a smart guy, but I always shook my head when people would find that out and be like, "wow you must be a supergenius."

It has gotten to the point where universities such as Stanford say as plainly as possible that want a student's unweighted GPA, meaning no honor points.

I thought my high school used to get it right. You had an unweighted GPA, with 4.0 being the highest (and I think maybe only one or two in the whole grade got that) and a weighted GPA, out of 6. A GPA of 4.5 sounds much less impressive once you admit it's out of 6....

But the best measure was class rank. Each student was ranked from 1 to 476. This was the most informative. Even on an unweighted scale, an admissions office or someone else evaluating a GPA would want to know how that compares to others.

But back to the listing - if you really want to lend to a family that based on their credit has a very high chance of not paying you back, just don't think you're supporting a budding Einstein based off the GPA. She may be smart for all I know, but you really don't know anything because some GPAs have become so uninformative.

And that is the problem with ratings inflation.

Comment of the Day

From Sette (who we're cautioned from before doesn't represent mainstream Brazilian opinion), last night in response to why he was out at 3am when he had to be at work at 9:
Eh, I work for the government. I don't try anyway. There's no benefit to it. I tried the first couple weeks but then realized that there's just no possible way it can benefit me.
Then another friend said, "we have an expression: he's drinking from the government's tit."

I heard his hourly pay - it's quite generous.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Money vs. Idealism at the WSJ

I've been following News Corp's possible purchase of the Wall Street Journal since it first came out. What I think is interesting is how the staff at the WSJ is going to react if it happens.

Here's one anonymous money quote from a reporter from a NYT article:

“We understand that for the Bancrofts this is a choice between getting much richer, and holding onto something because they believe in it,” a reporter said. “What they may not realize is that many of us in the newsroom have made the same choice. There are a lot of people here who could be traders or lawyers, people with M.B.A.’s, who could be making a lot more money. To us, this is not an abstract choice.”

As someone who might face similar choices in the future, I'm particularly curious.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

TAM Flight 3054

I had a brief moment of panic yesterday. After a couple weeks visiting me, Tyler departed at 6:30 pm from Rio headed to Sao Paulo. A flight to Sao Paulo takes about an hour. Sometime after 7, Fatima, the lady I'm living with, came running in and said there was a plane crash in Sao Paulo. My heart sank, and I thought it could be Tyler's plane.

I kept trying to find info and finally found out it wasn't his flight. What a relief. (article)

Alas, it was actually at the other airport in Sao Paulo, not the one he was traveling to. The accident, which will go down as the worst in Brazilian history, happened just before 7. The plane had 186 passengers on board and was landing in the rain and wasn't able to stop in time on the runway. One report says that the pilot actually tried to take off again, and the jet then crossed a major highway and crashed into a building, creating a large explosion and killing everyone on board plus an undetermined number on the ground.

It's a tragedy by any means, and the second big plane crash in as many years. What will linger here is that the likely cause of the crash- too short of a runway unprepared for landings in rain - was known and complained about. One court even ruled that large planes wouldn't be allowed to land there, but a higher court overturned that ruling on economic grounds.

Today the country is mourning, but tomorrow the debate will begin. I'm just glad it wasn't Tyler's plane.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Frequent Rio Problem- corroded metal

These "big ears", as the telephone booths are known, came crashing to the ground one night after the corroded pole that was holding them up finally gave way. I see sights like this all the time in Rio. The most conspicuous to me are the numerous pull up bars that are always falling down. Maybe an engineering friend could tell me if it's the climate, just old metal, or another reason. I'd like to know.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

High prices = desirability

Bryan Caplan makes an excellent point. He talks about all the whining that people in LA are doing about their quality of life, yet they still stay in a million-dollar house rather than move to another city. Clearly if the houses in a given neighborhood are worth that much, there is something desirable about the area.

There are engrained and semi-permanent reasons why some places will just always cost more than others.

Yet about an elderly resident tight on money yet in a million dollar house - you really ought to think about taking the million dollars and moving to a cheaper place. You will enjoy your last years a lot more.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Clay in BusinessWeek

My friend Clay, who came down to Rio for Carnaval, is working for ExxonMobil in Qatar. I was going through my RSS feed for BusinessWeek today when I see the headline Skipping the States: An Arizona Economics Grad Packs His Bags and Explores the Mideast Energy Sector. I knew it had to be Clay. Congrats!

Also last fall my friend and business partner Eric Wu was one of BusinessWeek´s top 25 entreprenuers under 25.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Iguazu Falls

At 2.7km wide and as tall as 269 feet, the Iguazu Falls dwarf Niagara. I had been wanting to go for a long time, and when Tyler was coming to visit it made sense logistically. They straddle the Brazilian and Argentinian borders, and you really need to visit both sides to see it all. So we did, and we even contemplated an illegal entry into Paraguay, but in the end called it a couple days and headed on a plane to Salvador, the cultural center of Brazil.

My homestay´s new dog Toshe

He´s the size of my shoe, but loves my sandals.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Taxi Inefficiencies

Sorry for the lack of any posts in a bit. Tyler Watters, a good friend from high school and even back to elementary school is visiting for 17 days. We´re doing a whirlwind tour of Brazil. We started in Rio, then went to Florianopolis, then went to Iguazu Falls, then went to Salvador, and now are in Porto Seguro until Sunday when we go back to Rio (where I´m living this year) to catch the Pan-American Games. I have lots of cool pictures that I will get up at some point, but the taxis here in Porto Seguro so badly reek of inefficiencies I had to break the posting drought.

Taxis can be a great thing. They can reduce the overall vehicle fleet in a city, supplement mass transit for those without cars, allow tourists and visitors to not have to rent a car, and reduce the space needed for parking.

But one aspect of taxis can be terribly inefficient: queues. Have you ever seen 5 taxis waiting outside at, for instance, a restaurant when it will take all night for 5 people to need one? And then when one taxi finally gets a passenger he comes back and goes to the end of the queue and there are once again 5 taxis waiting for way too few people. That´s an inefficient taxi queue. This happens more abroad than in the US, but it can happen anywhere.

But the inefficiencies of the taxi queues in Porto Seguro are worse than normal. Taxis here get very high fares by any standard. I´d say it costs 5 times as much for a cab here as it does in Rio, even though everything else here is much cheaper than Rio. And also they don´t use fare meters, which presents even more opportunities to rip people off. What this means is that a lot of people want to carry passengers in their taxi, which inflates the supply (both in terms of number of vehicles and hours of operation) way beyond the socially optimal point. When someone can easily make US$15 or $20 for a single passenger trip, they will go to great lengths to carry a passenger.

So the queues here can get ridiculous. Last night there were 14 taxis (plus at least 5 motorcycle taxis) near where we went out yet I would guess that only 3 people ended up using one. Yet those 14 waited there probably an average of 5 hours each. But here´s the ridiculous part. For those that did actually get to carry a passenger, it was totally worth the long wait. And taxi queues prevent competition because all the cab drivers know they have to force an passenger to negotiate with the first cab. So while the last cab would be willing to take you for $2, in Porto Seguro you are forced to pay the first cab say $15.

Today we asked our hotel to call us a cab to go out at about midnight. When the cab came, it was a lady that had awoken from bed to come get us. And she lived on the other side of the city! So she dropped us off, we paid the ridiculous fare, and then she told us she would get up again to pick us up. Nevermind that we woudn´t be getting home for 5 or 6 hours. The first time she came she made the same amount as a construction worker would all day, and if she could do it twice!

We actually didn´t end up calling her, even though she had offered us a steep discount since coming to get us would allow her to avoid the tyranny of the queue. The guy at the front of the queue had been there all night without a single passenger, and it looked like he would soon have to go home without a passenger, and given our excellent BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement), he matched her price in a heartbeat.

This isn´t to say queues can´t serve a purpose. At least if they´re in a queue, they aren´t wasting gas driving around. And they have to wait somewhere, so might as well have a shot at a passenger. And high volume queues, like at an airport, can be great. But when the queue sucks because prices are completely out of whack, the system just looks flawed.

But taxi inefficiencies can be rampant, and are all over the world. And of course I´m just complaining about it when at some point some brilliant entrepreneuer will develop a GPS system that helps coordinate taxis better. I can´t wait.

What are your inefficient taxi stories from abroad? Or just vents about taxis and taxi drivers in general?