Posts on September 23, 2012

Italy recap: Day 2 (Vatican tour)
Mood: okay
Posted on 2012-09-23 15:08:00
Tags: pictures travel
Words: 691

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Monday 5 PM

Ahh sleep. I feel much better than yesterday, and the dizziness is almost entirely gone!

This morning we had breakfast in the hotel - the breakfast area is small but good enough, and I got a cup of tea to start my day which is always pleasant. (caffeine was a major reason I was able to stay up until bedtime yesterday!) We took the Metro over to the Vatican for our four hour(!) guided tour, and got there way early. Luckily we've been using our phones as portable Kindles - even in airplane mode it's wonderful having a bunch of books to read when we're out and about; it makes planning for things less necessary and stressful. I also got a cappucino at a nearby cafe; here the generaly way this seems to work is you order at the cashier, pay, then bring the barista your receipt. Hovering over the barista without a receipt accomplishes nothing (especially if you don't speak Italian!) as I've forgotten a few times now.

The tour was decent but long. (and we never stopped for any sort of break) The tour guide had a CB-like radio that he talked into and we all had earphones so we could hear, which is necessary since the Vatican is the most-visited museum in the world. An average of 20K people per day visit, and today seemed like no exception.

I had forgotten that there's a lot of ancient art in the Vatican, even (to my slight amusement) statues to Greek and Roman gods!

Unfortunately, the tour guide talked both too much and too little, so it was hard to figure out what was important/interesting about each room. But of course the art is amazing, so it was fine. After the tour was done at 2:30 we quickly found a lunch place and ate and rested for a bit, then came back to the hotel for a nap.

Aside - I was reading "Be Good" (a book about ethics) while we waited for the tour to start. Then on the tour, a woman with three kids, two of which rode in a stroller most of the time, was in our group. After a while of being on the tour I began to wonder whether it was ethical to bring the kids along. (and I swear I'm trying not to be a stereotypical kid-hating gay man - hear me out!) Firstly, there are a lot of stairs on the tour, so people had to help here carry the stroller around. The museum was also crowded, so it took longer for the group to get anywhere because of the stroller. The kids (who ranged from ages...umm, 4 to 9 maybe? I'm terrible at kid age estimation) were relatively well-behaved, but by the end they were getting loud and cranky. (not that I blame them - I was getting cranky too!) So, I dunno. I just hope that when she bought tickets she knew that there were a bunch of steps. And I'm not sure how much the kids got out of it anyway...

Aside - There are two rules in the Sistene Chapel - no pictures and no talking. (although I guess tour guides are allowed) These seem like reasonable rules - the no-picture one is not terribly common but not unheard of, and it is a chapel so I'm fine with the church making the rules. But - visiting the Chapel is a great way to lower your opinion of humanity - there is lots of noise (to the point where every few minutes the guards say shhh and "Silenzio!"), and lots of people taking pictures. Sigh.

Aside - I saw more than a handful of people taking pictures with iPads/other tablets. What's up with that? Cameras on tablets are generally terrible, right?

After a bit, we walked over to the Trevi Fountain, which was crowded but pretty. Then we ate dinner at a nearby restaurant where they presumably forgot about us, so it took an hour and a half. (dinners are slow here but usually not that slow!) Then we went and saw The Bourne Legacy with Italian subtitles - fun times! Now it is late.


books I read on vacation (minus one)
Mood: cheerful
Posted on 2012-09-23 16:05:00
Tags: reviews travel books
Words: 473

I read a lot of books on vacation. Here they are (minus one that gets its own post!)

In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing DisastersIn Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters by Merrill R. Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Basically a collection of tech companies doing stupid things in the 80's and 90's. Pretty entertaining and possibly helpful!

Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential CampaignsAnything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns by Joseph Cummins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summaries of every presidential campaign and how sleazy it was. (it's not an exclusively modern phenomenon!) Pretty entertaining although a bit long.

Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of EverythingBe Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything by Randy Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ethics advice that doubles as entertainment. I agree with him on most questions but not all (specifically, he recommended publicly posting salaries of other employees that someone happened to stumble across, which I think is a bad idea).

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other StoriesA Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting short stories - I feel like I didn't fully get the symbolism (maybe I'll do a little research) but they're definitely well-written and I enjoyed them.

Seven Keys to BaldpateSeven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good mystery novel, although the language is a bit archaic.

The Little Book of String TheoryThe Little Book of String Theory by Steven S. Gubser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good summary of string theory. A bit hard to follow even though I have a little physics background, but still informative.

Straight Man GayStraight Man Gay by Danny Culpepper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Agony ColumnThe Agony Column by Earl Derr Biggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our FutureThe Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good book although a bit long and depressing for a vacation read. One thing I've heard people say is that there's nothing wrong with inequality - a rising tide can lift all boats. Unfortunately, in the US the rich have been getting richer while the middle class and poor have been doing worse. And Stiglitz points out that extreme inequality is harmful even on its own due to societal effects.

The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly UniverseThe Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe by Frank Close
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting account of how we discovered Quantum Field Theory. I didn't quite understand all of it and I gotta be honest - particle physics is pretty crazy. I miss the proton + neutron + electron model, but progress marches on...

Flight Of The Intruder (Jake Grafton, #1)Flight Of The Intruder by Stephen Coonts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and PatrimonySilvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony by Paul Ginsborg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty review
Mood: cheerful
Posted on 2012-09-23 16:23:00
Tags: reviews travel books
Words: 722

(I read this on vacation, and enjoyed it enough to write this review out longhand!)

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyWhy Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemo─člu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book attempts to explain why there is such a huge difference in income and standards of living between countries. Its thesis is there are two kinds of economic institutions in a country: extractive, which extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to another, and inclusive, which encourage participation for everyone and lets people make choices. There are also extractive and inclusive political systems, which correspond roughly to how democratic the system is. Extractive political systems are highly correlated with extractive economic systems, and these are the poorer countries.

A lot of the book examines particular countries and how they got the way they are. For example, because there were existing native civilizations in Mexico and Latin America when the conquistadors arrived, they were easily able to make an extractive society by taking almost all of the existing wealth and income, and even today most of these countries are still fairly extractive. In the US, there were no societies for the English to enslave (although that was roughly their plan!) so instead the settlers had to start their own development, and they weren't willing to be enslaved. (I'm grossly oversimplifying here - the book goes into more detail)

Some interesting notes:

- One of the big reasons extractive economies don't do as well is that they don't allow the creative destruction of new technologies, since the rulers are getting rich off of the existing technologies.

- But, economies can still grow under extractive political systems, such as the Soviet Union from 1930-1960 (or China now). A centralized government can still allocate resources more efficiently than they were before, but not as efficiently as a free-market system. However, this can't last, and the author predicts China's growth will slow down unless their political system changes.

- There is both a virtuous cycle where inclusive economies/political systems tend to stay that way, and a vicious cycle where extractive economies/political systems do too. Even when extractive governments are overthrown, the framework is still there for whoever runs the country to make a lot of money and have a lot of power - this is known as the "iron law of oligarchy", and it's a good reason to worry about the countries that underwent the Arab Spring. Of course it's not guaranteed to happen - Japan is a good example that broke the cycle.

- There's an interesting contrast between Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. (the Mexican billionaire, currently the richest person in the world) Even at the height of Gates's power, Microsoft was sued by the Department of Justice and lost, even if the penalties weren't extremely damaging. Slim made his money by buying Telmex when it was privatized, and using its monopoly. Telmex has been found in court to have a monopoly, but Mexican law has the idea of "recurso de amparo" ("appeal for protection"), which is a petition saying the law doesn't apply to you(!). Slim has used this effectively. An anecdote - Slim bought CompUSA in 1999 and promptly violated a contract. The other company sued and won a big judgment against him in the US.

- Random: Convicts sent to Australia were sent to Botany Bay - the name of the starship Khan was exiled on! Why did I not know this?

- There's a section about how the US South was somewhat extractive during segregation. Alabama's constitution has a section requiring schools to be segregated (obviously not enforced anymore), but in 2004 it survived a vote in the state legislature! Sheesh.

- Control over the media is essential for an extractive system to survive. When Fujimori ruled over Peru in the 90's, he would bribe Supreme Court judges and politicians on the order of $5-10K per month, but he paid TV stations and newspapers millions of dollars!

Anyway, the book is quite good and I would have given it 5 stars, but it's a bit long. (which is great if you're trying to prove your thesis to political scientists (there are lots of case studies!) but less good for casual observers like me) If you're at all interested in the topic I'd recommend reading at least the first 3 or 4 chapters.

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