02.23.08

Diet soda may sell still more newspapers

Posted in at 12:23 by RjZ

It was such an attractive argument that I am glad there may be some truth to it after all. In this post, I pointed out how the media is quick to jump on an uncorroborated story, simply to sell newspapers (or banner clicks). Well, finally there is some supporting evidence from a Purdue University study linking artificial sweeteners to fat rats. I may wait to savor the sweet delicious irony for a bit more evidence than one study, but CBS, FOX and company can write about it all over again.

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02.22.08

Travel Tips, part 7, or, choosing a tour

Posted in Travel at 15:32 by RjZ

The more you’ve travelled the tougher the decision is to make. To book a tour or not. The problem is that advantages and disadvantages of the organized tour don’t change much from country to country. Once you’ve gathered a bit of experience, you can be confident that you know what to expect and what you’d have to do in order to arrange the darn thing yourself. So, for those of you who don’t yet, let me run down some options.

Just to give you a starting point, suppose you’re in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and you’ve heard of this kitschy elephant training camp that’s not too far away. How are your going to see it?

The organized tour:
Starting in your budget hotel, and nearly everywhere you go, people are offering tours throughout the Chiang Mai area. Virtually all of them have an offering that includes the elephants playing soccer that you read about in your guide book and, it turns out, there’s much more to see in one convenient tour! It always pays to shop around, just to be sure, but it won’t do you much good, because it’s nearly impossible determine which tours are the best. They all promise much the same things. Better, is to ask fellow tourists if they found one that they liked and also why they liked it. Тry to nail down details from the person selling you the tour about what exactly they’re promising and how long things are supposed to last. Ask what happens if your tour group decides they don’t want to see the reptile farm and they’d rather have a few more moments for coffee. Depending on your taste for coffee this may not be a problem for you, but it’s a good idea to know in advance how that’s going to be handled—will they just skip the reptiles after running out of time?

What happens next in the great majority of cases is that you pay your money and a tour bus of some sort comes by your hotel the next morning to pick you up. It’s great service, but tour operators have learned that waiting for tourists to show up is a recipe for disaster so it’s worth it to them. Next, You’re rushed from one site to another, almost always with more time to eat and shop than to see what you paid for. A sheepherder tour guide explains what you’re going to see next and includes stories about why it’s important. While it can be pretty annoying cooling your heels in a terrible cafeteria restaurant after finishing your bland meal while the rest of your group enjoys a second cup of coffee, you’re still going to fit at least dozen different activities into your short day.

Result: you’re part of a possibly annoying, embarrassingly loud, group, and you get to feel rushed while seeing just enough of any site or activity so that you won’t complain that you were cheated. On the other hand, you’ll get chauffeured around to a dozen sites in one day and you might even have a guide in your language to explain what you’ve seen and provide a few cute, memorable stories too.

Your own private guide:
If you look closely at the songthaews (truck-taxis) racing around Chiang Mai (or whatever the local taxi service is for your destination) you’ll notice that some of them have names of the places they go written on them—in English. Your elephant trip is printed right there on some of the songthaews…surely you could just hire one of those. In order to visit the clever pachyderms, you venture out to find a cab or truck-taxi, or whatever you can get. Some negotiation later, your taxi driver insists he understands everything and he’ll take you exactly where you’d like to go.

A private guide, you figure, will give you more freedom and time to do things your own way. Now you’re riding in a back of a cab and hoping he takes you to the places you had in mind. You haven’t paid him yet, (right?) so he’s got some incentive to make you happy, but you have negotiated a price already (and it’s more than you would have paid for a tour, but this is a private tour, isn’t it!) and the driver figures that the sooner he get’s you on your way, the sooner he get’s paid. Plus, if there’s anything chance he can convince you to stop and shop for some souvenir, he might even get a commission out of the deal.

Result: your-taxi-driver-cum-tour-guide rushes you from site to site as much as he can and even squeezes a few upscale souvenir shops into the deal, and though you’re paying more for a trip without meals, you’re completely at his mercy the whole time. At least you can keep him waiting for you at each site as long as you wish, and sometimes he finds something cool that wasn’t even in your guidebook.

Self-catered tour:
If you’ve been doing this a few times already, it’s pretty easy to see there’s no real rocket science to driving you around to places which frequently end up being right next to each other in the first place. If you could only do it yourself, you’d have as much time as you wish and no pressure from anyone to have an extra cup of coffee or to see if the diamond and gold gallery is your kind of souvenir shop. Plus it’s going to be great fun!

Problem is figuring out how to get to these places. Not only where they are, but whether self-drive is the same as taking your life into your hands. Not surprisingly, this information is a little harder to come by. You don’t exactly speak Thai and many locals who do operate tours and tell you everything is too far away or too dangerous to get to. About the only guy who thinks it’ll be no problem is the guy who’s renting the motorbike…but then he really would like to rent that motorbike.

Inspired by the other tourists racing around the town, you rent the bike, buy a map, and begin your adventure. Damn if it doesn’t turns out finding street signs in another language is tougher than you thought and actually getting to places is further and more difficult than you imagined. All the while, you fret about someone stealing your rented bike the whole time you meant to be enjoying the silly elephant show.

Result: it takes more time to plan and execute your self-guided tour and you have no idea what you even missed. You stand in awe of temples that you can’t find on your map, but, without a guide, you won’t even be able to tell people the names of them, let alone what their significance is. Still, nothing gives you a more intimate connection with a new country than being lost on back streets where nobody ever even sees tourists and you’ve got some serious bragging rights about how cool and independent you are. Tours are for sissies.




Elephants Painting, Maesa Elephant Camp, Thailand

It can be pretty irritating taking guided tours in big groups and even worse, it turns the whole world into a big museum. But don’t count them out, above all when you’re time is limited. It can be pretty disappointing to return from a trip having missed a world famous site just because you couldn’t find it before your rental period was up. If you’ve got the time to really figure out where things are and enough books to understand what it is you’re actually looking at, nothing will give you a closer look than getting somewhere yourself and there’s a sense of accomplishment too.

Regardless of what fits your schedule, don’t miss the touristy elephant show near Chiang Mai; they really were amazing. Come on, how many places in the world can you see elephants paint flowers? How cool is that?

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02.21.08

You’re kidding? Texas?

Posted in at 8:36 by RjZ

There is a lot of talk in the media these days about the death of professional media. Amateur journalists (aka bloggers—hey, maybe even me!) are affecting the news and, the dwindling staffs of professional journalists are decrying the state of reporting and warning us that we better keep buying newspapers if we want real news.

Meanwhile CNN reports: “Texans leaning toward McCain in November.” Texas, birthplace of President Bush, has voted republican every presidential election since 1980. What a surprise that they’re leaning toward McCain this time around.

CNN is a 24 hour news channel with a web site as well. It’s hard to keep coming up with news all the time—poor CNN. But let’s face it, reporting the obvious isn’t helping the dwindling ratings of conventional news outlets.

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02.15.08

We need a breakthrough

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:05 by RjZ

Yesterday’s post was supposed to be about the changes in budget travel, but it was really about what happens when the developing world develops. The simple fact is that it’s usually great for individuals to have more cars and cellphones and food and fashion choices, but we’ve got to face that it’s not necessarily so great for trees and bunnies and the earth. As we humans take up more and more space, use more and more resources, and consume more and more energy, we’ll surely race towards a point where our status quo of cars and coal-plants will take too great a toll.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetch to suggest that we’re seeing the results today. And so, we sit in our comfortable homes wondering how the Chinese are going to fix the pollution in Beijing before the Olympics start. In this article a diplomat laments that as a Chinese he is being asked to give up what Europeans and U.S. Americans were never asked to give up. He’s asked to somehow develop his economy without coal and oil. How can we reasonably expect him to make do with a quarter of the CO2 output that we enjoy but still have enough power to produce the wealth and comfort we enjoy?

In Chennai, India, I saw window mounted air-conditioners blocking the view of nearly every apartment dweller, and who can blame them…it’s hot there! But those a/c units also consume plenty of electricity, supplied in Chennai, the same way we get it in the U.S., by burning things in power plants and producing CO2. A/C units are a bit like cars; how low their price can go is limited by the chunks of metal it takes to make them, not simply by the market’s ability to afford them. Despite the high cost, they’re popular in Chennai because the standard of living has increased so much in the past decade.

The correlation is obvious: high standard of living means high levels of energy consumption and since we don’t have many ways to produce large amounts of energy that don’t also make abundant amounts of CO2, expect the problem to get worse before it get’s better. Note: before everyone starts commenting about solar and wind, I said ‘large amounts of energy.’ Also note: comment anyway!

There may be a way out though, although probably no one knows what it is yet. If we’re lucky, along with all the new cars and cellphones that the better standard of living is bringing India, China and the developing world, people will have greater access to communication, information and education. All it takes is one really smart person to come up with the technological break-through that’s escaped us so far. It’s likely that such genius is one in a billion, but very soon, perhaps we’ll have a billion people working on it.

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02.14.08

Where in the world is budget travel?

Posted in Travel at 17:24 by RjZ

I’ve got bad news for you. Most likely it’s good news for the people you’ll visit, but budget travel destinations just aren’t as cheap as they used to be. It’s not a huge difference from a decade ago, and it won’t break the bank of most backpackers, but they’re not likely to get quite as far on their savings as they used to because, well, many of the classic destinations such as Thailand just aren’t so third-world anymore.

I hope you’ll agree with me though, that this isn’t really bad news at all. It means that many people (not all, to be sure) living in these budget destinations are better off. Here’s one sign that I’m right. Sure, there are more cars in Bangkok and Beijing than the roads are designed for, but cars are pretty invariable measure of economic success. Cars aren’t market priced alone like, say, local fruit is. For example, Indian auto manufacturer, Tata, is very excited to have announced the world’s cheapest car at $2500, but when I first visited Indonesia, more than a decade ago, I met quite a few people working in or around the tourist trade who were earning about $30/month. Cars are limited in how cheap they can get because at the end of the day, there’s still heavy pile of metal in them. Just because people make $360/year doesn’t mean local auto sellers can afford to start offering cars to them at prices they can afford.

Fast forward to Thailand, 2008. The majority may not have cars ,and I reckon something like 40% of the vehicles on the road were low powered motor-scooters, but there were plenty of cars. Nice cars. Sporty cars with flashy extras. Venture out to more rural areas and nearly 100% of the vehicles were more practical trucks, but there’s no denying that many Thais can afford automobiles. What that tells us is that many Thais make the same money, or near it, as people in the west do, simply because there is no reason to imagine that cars are magically cheaper in Thailand.

Well it’s about time too! Thailand is modern country with a sophisticated manufacturing and services economy. Bangkok is an unmistakable an incomparable world city on par with Paris, London, and New York. It’s almost a shame that I would write such a presumptuous post! Except that many people visit Thailand, and countries like it, because they can afford the expensive flight, only because once they’ve arrived it’s so cheap.

Rest assured, it still is pretty inexpensive in Thailand (whew !). Food is ubiquitous, delicious, and about a $1 per meal and hotels range from three star quality for Motel 6 prices to run-down-but-clean-and-safe-enough for a few dollars—where in the U.S. or Europe can you stay for a few dollars except for a friend’s couch? Travel around the country is also a great value. It cost $11 to take a bus from my home to the airport and about twice that for a deluxe bus with a meal and a (flight?) attendant for the all night ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Still, the world is changing and while everything hasn’t caught up to western prices in Thailand, I suspect it won’t be long before they do. While many of us may lament the end of true budget travel, can we really begrudge people the same cell-phones and cars that we use back home?

P.S. I sure hope we find an alternative to the gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing automobile soon! While I can’t begrudge the developing world a car in every garage, I doubt that the earth can handle it if everyone acted just like U.S. Americans do!

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02.12.08

Deciphering Rush

Posted in at 16:22 by RjZ

“Couldn’t it be said, if somebody wanted to…that I am secretly supporting McCain, because I secretly do want him to win, but I know full well that if I come out and endorse him, he’s cooked?”

Rush’s telling us now that the only reason he doesn’t directly endorse McCain for U.S. president is because moderates and liberals would never vote for him if he did since they hate Rush so much.

We’re supposed to believe this genius strategic mind? Even if we do, what are we left with? Don’t listen to what I actually say, dear listeners. You need to read between the lines this time. But not that other time, when I meant it. Or didn’t….where’s the secret decoder ring that enables us folks who are not in the club to know whether we should listen to what Rush says, or listen to the opposite?

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02.07.08

Hey, play that fear card whenever you can

Posted in at 13:36 by RjZ

CNN.com reports that “Romney suspends presidential campaign,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Really, how is “suspending” not the same as “backing out” of the U. S. presidential race? Is he assuming that 71 year old McCain really is on deaths door and he can step back in before the republican convention?

Funnier, though is his comment: “In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.” Because, obviously, if a republican doesn’t win, the terrorists will have won.

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