12.30.09

I’ve never done this before

Posted in at 11:34 by RjZ

I just played the lottery. I received a ticket in a holiday card from one of my employer’s vendors. I didn’t know what to do, but I logged onto the Colorado Lottery website and looked up the past draw dates for the numbers under 23 December 2009 on the ticket.

I didn’t get a single number.

It was oddly exciting.

I still subscribe to the idea that playing the lottery is a tax on people who can’t do math and I don’t plan on playing again in the future.

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12.29.09

China Travelogue-10: Sunrise, take 2

Posted in Travel at 17:35 by RjZ

For the rest of the day, we just wandered around the mountain trying to see how our map had anything to do with the maps all around the park. Trails lead everywhere, up steep mountains and down to ravines and lookouts, but it’s not at all obvious where you are at a given moment and we spend most of our time either thinking we’re lost, or actually being lost. There was one goal in mind: to avoid repeating the previous morning’s sunrise hike to a spot that was supposed to be less than five minutes away.
Being lost in a pretty place makes things easier to tolerate. The afternoon was filled with views and vistas from all around the park. The middle of the day doesn’t make for the best photos, but we made do, and we had definitely scoped out tomorrow’s sunrise vantage point. We bumped into tourists from dozens of countries, and even saw some local short tailed monkeys. Park rangers were very keen to ensure everyone kept their distance.

On our way to a new sunset viewpoint we noticed the crowds thinning to a point where we were actually alone. It was an odd feeling as Huangshan is packed everywhere, but as we pressed on we were able to discover why: the trail was closed. I guess everyone else had tour guides to explain the dead end. No matter, there was a lovely bridge with low angle sunlight still hitting it on the way, and it felt good to be alone. As we hiked back, we passed a party or two heading out towards the dead-end. We wanted to tell them of the folly, but the language barrier meant they had to discover it on their own.


The next morning we donned the red hotel coats once again and struck out for our pre-selected spot. The area we had found was narrow, like a small pier jutting out slightly into the canyon. We were the second pair of people there, and then, suddenly, the pair with the perfect spot, left, leaving us with prime spots to view the forthcoming sunrise.

The little pier started to fill up long before the sun arrived. People pressed against and we hoped the railings would hold. One man set up his tripod, a great plan as people made a bit of room for him. A pair of older women kept trying to push passed us. Finally, we relented so they could take a shot. When we demanded our four-in-the-morning-earned spots back, they promptly squeezed passed us and we would trade back and forth now and again throughout the sunrise making them very happy.
The women nearest to me kept peeking at the LCD on the back of my camera and tried to ask me how I was taking a picture like that, but explaining to her how to turn off the flash of her point and shoot was beyond Mandarin language skills.

There was still no “sea of clouds” which delights visitors and makes for the stunning photos that lured so many tourists to this spot. Still, this morning was clearer than yesterday. At 6:09 am, the sun officially rose somewhere, but had many minutes before it would come out from behind some spiky rock formations blocking our view.

Sunrise at Huangshan, take 2At the sun’s first gleam, I set the camera to autowind and fired off dozens of shots. In retrospect, the sun looks pretty much the same in China as it does in Colorado, so I am not sure what motivated me to get up so early. After breakfast we’d be packing and hiking down, so there’s a big day ahead.

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12.22.09

Scrooge was doing you a favor

Posted in Society at 17:55 by RjZ

Like I do every year, I opted out. I am not running around finding Christmas gifts for friends and family and, inspired by my stingy behavior in previous years, I can assume they are treating me the same. Like every other year, I read about the stress of struggling through shopping crowds and hear stories of stress from choosing, buying, wrapping presents and I am surprised how easily everyone forgot the economic collapse around us.

My family was nominally Jewish. Sometimes we celebrated Chanukah; sometimes we had a tree, decorated with blue and white, of course. I didn’t always get to open presents on Christmas morning, and looking back, not necessarily expecting anything worked out to be one of the best gifts I received. Today, I enjoy the relaxing, low stress time of year. So, with all the extra free time, I’ve given some thought to the holiday gift exchange frenzy that I thought I’d share.

Blame the feminists.

Alright, this is a stretch, but hear me out. Back not so long ago, people used to get gifts of what they needed, but that’s changed. Few children are receiving a new bicycle for Christmas this year. If they need a bike, they’ve already got one. Christmas gifts are more expensive, but can’t be spoiled by ‘need’; gifts ought to be what you want!

I think it all started with my mother. Like many women in the Feminine Mystique age, she grew tired of getting mixers and irons and vacuum cleaners for the holidays. Rightfully, my mother pointed out that a new vacuum was a gift for the house and not for her. Arguably, she was the one who was going to do the vacuuming, so any tool that could make that job easier would clearly benefit her, but this wasn’t an argument my father was willing to make. Smart man. Not alone in that conclusion, I think.

The idea caught on, and pretty soon nobody was getting new ties and shoes. Those weren’t considered gifts, but rather necessities. Nobody wants a new vacuum cleaner or dress shirt, even if they need one. As long as we have enough money (or, apparently, can borrow it) people want things that they wouldn’t think to buy for themselves.

The perfect gift

I am not anti-sentimentalist. I understand that people enjoy giving and receiving gifts. For example, I think the perfect gift is something that you didn’t even know that you wanted, yet shows that the person who selected it really understands you and cares about you. There’s no need for it to be expensive or even practical. Often families aspire to get a person on their list a gift of something they would like, but wouldn’t likely buy for themselves. It’s almost the same thing and a lovely strategy, but it still leads to gifts of things that I didn’t value enough to save up for, but still wound up having. Maybe I didn’t need that blu-ray player so much after all?

In his now (in)famous article, Wharton School professor of business Joel “scrooge” Waldfogel puts a value on “The Deadweight Cost of Christmas.” He estimates about 10 – 30% lost value of the gift. In other words, even if you really needed a sweater and your auntie bought you one, it still might not be exactly the one you would pick out on your own. Of course Dr. Waldfogel doesn’t put an economic value on the sentimental value of gifts, but then again he doesn’t put any value on time it takes to take an ill fitting pair of socks back to the store for an exchange. Nor does he put a value spending money you didn’t have to get something that’s not quite as desirable (or even downright ridiculous) as what you might have spent the money on yourself.

What to get for the person who has everything?

We face this challenge more often since society encourages us to fulfill desires instead of identifying a needs in our loved ones and friends. People with sufficient resources already have an iPod or a digital camera. I’ve already hinted at how difficult it is to buy clothing that is perfectly to someone’s taste and actually fits.

I did a brief survey at work of how many men buy sexy lingerie for their significant other. The enticing idea just doesn’t work. Women who don’t actually share the measurements of Victoria Secret models can barely find lingerie that fits and flatters all by themselves. Armed only with a size and imagination, the men I interviewed seemed to have realized, by their almost unanimous, and singular attempts, that buying what they thought would be awesome is a bad idea at best.

If the goal is get something someone really wants, we risk getting something they quite likely already have, or perhaps something just too expensive to justify. Families who try to overcome this problem by pooling resources are faced with far greater risk in gift giving. Buying a trinket that isn’t exactly what you brother wished for isn’t perfect, but at least it has relatively little deadweight cost. Buying a GPS receiver with just the right features is much harder to figure out, and the cost for failure is greater.

Fine, that’s where gift cards come in. Yet, even here, there is deadweight cost. If I am on my way to Best Buy anyway, there is little downside, but if the object of my desire is not available, or I’ve found it cheaper at REI, my choices have been needlessly limited. Of course, the ultimate gift card, cash, might work. Except, of course, exchanging cash would be pointless, wouldn’t it? It certainly doesn’t do a very nice job meeting the sentimental value of gift giving.

Deadweight cost isn’t a problem of wealthy and privileged alone. The less you have the greater the impact of deadweight cost. The disadvantaged child will likely appreciate even simple gifts. Of course, people suffering through these hard times can really use the change an unneeded gift brings beyond just the necessities. Yet, taken to the extreme, a starving child can’t eat a doll.

Unintended obligation

Suppose I decide, solely from the kindness of my heart and honestly with no expectation of anything in return, to buy you a gift, say, a game for your new PlayStation 3? It’s a nice gift, not too expensive, and might be something you really want. Where’s the cost here? No matter how sincere I was in expecting nothing in return, I bet you’re a nice enough person. While playing that game later, you’ll get to thinking ‘wow, that was nice. You know, I really ought to get him something!’ Come on, you feel obligated. You may not be annoyed by my gift and exchanging them will probably improve our friendship with all the warm feelings we get from thinking of the nice gifts we got, but you’re still out there paying for this new game with your time and money, and if you really wanted Final Fantasy 13 you probably would have just bought it.

Even in the best case scenario, a stronger friendship and a great new game, you’re now out buying something for me that you didn’t intend to. Indeed, I don’t really need it, I wasn’t kidding when I said there were no expectations, and yet, my selfless act has created extra work and stress for you—that’s the opposite of what I intended, but there is almost no way around it.

Imagine there were no gifts

If folks really do love the carols and cheer, if the holidays are really is about family and friends, why don’t more of them join me? There are plenty of stories of families opting out this year, just like I do, although many of them are about how angry the rest of the family was at ruining their fun. I hope they can still find some joy in it as I do. If the spirit of Christmas really is about creating memories together, then do it. Make your own decorations for the tree. Light the Channukah candles together. Eat. Go for a hike together. Write each other a poem. Read a story. Turns out being stingy can increase value for everyone. The absolute deadweight cost is decreased, but the joy and warmth of each other is hardly diminished. Do you really need a new 46” flatscreen LCD with 3 HDMI inputs, internet access and 10000:1 contrast to make this time of year complete?

Note: this article is not a veiled gift list. Really.

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Spread the word

Posted in at 9:54 by RjZ

I’m trying out Meebo which puts that disturbing bar down at the bottom of your browser for this site. I’ve noticed all the cool kids are on those “social networking” sites like faces book, and flicker, and that the hipsters like to tell their friends they dig something or stumbled on it. Oh, you kids today. With Meebo you can easily share links and point your friends to the humorous, insightful and interesting things I have to say. It’ll make you seem all connected and in the loop and stuff to point out this blog to people. I’m sure it will. You can even chat with online friends on the book of your faces there and discuss the clever things I’ve written. Oh, and maybe you’ll appear worldly or something. With your help, my readership might double from seven to maybe fourteen….or twelve,or whatever.

If you haven’t seen Meebo before, maybe try it out and let me know what you think.

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12.20.09

China Travelogue-9: The sun’s paparazzi

Posted in Travel at 22:56 by RjZ

I remember from my first foreign trip how often I was told that American’s are loud. Fellow travelers would even point out the rambunctious tour groups in shorts, white socks, and tennis shoes: “see? Americans.” One night in Tours, France, I was trying to sleep in my charming room with a window opening to a quiet lane of the old town. Bellowing shouts and laughter stirred me to the window to see the “Americans.” There, a large group in shorts and dark socks was carousing, oblivious to anyone around them…in German. Eventually, I realized It’s not that Americans and Germans are particularly loud, it’s that people in larger groups are loud. We don’t notice the quiet American couple watching their countrymen in horror from a distance, so they don’t count towards our quiet score. And, as Americans frequently travel abroad in large tour groups, we only notice the loud ones.

In China, traveling in large groups is even more common. My Chinese colleagues were astonished that I wasn’t planning on taking a tour. Probably not because it might be more challenging for non-Mandarin speakers, but because they couldn’t really imagine doing so themselves.

I know the Chinese like to visit their country in large groups because you can’t miss them. They don bright matching baseball caps and are proceeded by a standard bearing tour-guide urging her troops on with a megaphone. And they’re loud. The Chinese are hardly a demure people to start with. But like everyone else in the world, put them in a group and they become a swarming mass aware only of each other.

So at four in the morning, long before my alarm was set to wake me to see the sunrise on Huangshan, I was roused out of bed by tour groups passing my hotel room, bellowing, laughing and being ordered along by megaphone toting guide. I guess it’s time to get up.

The plan is to catch the sunrise at one of the nearby viewing spots. I don’t think we’ll need much time, but it’s not like sleeping will be possible anyway, so up we go, wearing bright red, hotel-issued, down coats. We start out in the direction we think the view point is and come across one of the many map signs around the mountain. Unfortunately the maps don’t jive with the version printed from the internet. It’s dark and hard to read. There are signs are at junctions in the path, there are signs where there is no need for one, and they’re as often missing entirely. In spite of custom most anywhere else in the world, the maps here are oriented so the top of the map is however you’re facing, instead of north. Sounds practical, if there were, maybe, an indication of this anywhere on the map? Or if it were consistent…? but it isn’t, and the sky is starting to brighten. After backtracking a couple of times and trying to ask other lost tourists, we follow the crowd…maybe they know where to go.

What was supposed to be a five minute walk, turns out to be a 45 minute running-hike, up and down stairs, to a lookout I-don’t-know-where in the park. The sky is still brightening, but the sun isn’t nearly up so there’s still time to find a spot. When we make it somewhere, the whole area is thronged with more people than a rock concert. Probably all the good spots are taken, as if we can tell what a good spot is, so we smoosh ourselves under a pine tree, into a group that might be able to see something and look out over the slightly overcast canyon below.



Sunrise at Huangshan

We’re packed together like canned sardines which makes the heavy down jackets we’re all wearing superfluous. Video cameras and digital SLRs jostle with point and shoot cameras flashing at the misty overcast skies. Alas, no sign if the famous “sea of clouds” we’ve come for and, while it’s still pretty, it’s not easy appreciate in the bumping mass of people. No one seems to have any sense of space. Cameras are raised right in front of others snapping pictures, and others wave hands, hats, and umbrellas in front of cameras.

6:09 am. The sun officially peaks above the horizon and a cheer rises from the crowd. They actually cheer and clap and push harder to get a better view of today’s celebrity, the sun. Except there’s nothing new to see behind the clouds. Some even giggle self-conscientiously after they realize there is really nothing new happening, but the fun is slightly infectious and no one complains. The video cameras are rolling, but having trouble focusing on the featureless cloud bank and the sky continues to brighten but with no sign of the sun. Finally, the crowd thins out and we can move around enough explore the area and enjoy misty views of the canyon. The remaining people continue to stand right in front of each other posing for snapshot after blocked snapshot and no one seems to notice or care.

After the crowd has dwindled to a few hardcore photographers, the shy sun peeps out from behind the clouds and lights up the hilltops with golden, low angle light. It’s not a perfect sunrise, but it isn’t bad either, improved a bit after each of the tour troops gathered behind their respective flags and marched off to breakfast. At last, no one is around to jump up in the middle of a photograph.

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12.16.09

China Travelogue-8: Cable Cars vs. Laborers

Posted in Society, Travel at 12:29 by RjZ

Perhaps it was a bit foolish. While tourists, both Western and Chinese, loaded into the Yungu cable way to take the tram up to Huangshan (literally, yellow mountain) we began our hike up White Goose Ridge to the plateau at the top of the scenic area, nearly 700 m (2300 feet) of steep stairs above us. This east ridge is the easier way up to the UNESCO recognized area which is a jumble of incredibly steep peaks and over 50 km of improved trails going straight up and down them. The trails are mostly stone stairs, sometimes broad and even, other times narrow and much closer to a ladder than a staircase.

Even with backpacks on, it’s not terribly difficult climbing, at least in the beginning, but that’s not to say it isn’t a sweaty, steep, and exhausting hike. We pass by loads of smiling tourists skipping down, but almost none going up. Yet, we’re not alone trudging up these stairs. Men carrying large loads of laundry in white sacks suspended on either ends of a bamboo bar across their shoulders are practically running down the stairs towards us. They are careful when the pass more men hoisting heavy steel gas bottles, probably filled with propane and as tall as the men themselves, onto their shoulders and up the mountain.


At the beginning of the hike the stairs aren’t so steep.
Too bad this part doesn’t last.

The bottles are balanced on their shoulders with the help of a bamboo stick and some rope which they use to balance the bottle on when they stop to take a rest. A few are wearing a vest with printing from the hotel they apparently work for over thin t-shirts or bare chests, and many have green army issued sneakers on their feet. Some have worn dress shoes. They aren’t all young, but most are friendly and find enough breath to respond to our “Ni hao” greetings.

At the top are several Chinese four-star hotels. They are not cheap by anyone’s standards and they’re not good value either, offering considerably less quality than two and three-star hotels I’ve stayed in elsewhere in China. There is no other option and everything is expensive on the mountain. Many, who have seen the porters carrying these loads, seem to understand. Since everything must be carried in, it’s understandable, they explain.

Except everyone has conveniently forgotten the cable car whisked them up here without breaking a sweat. There are several cable cars around the mountain and they don’t carry tourists at night. Couldn’t the hotels contract with them to carry loads of necessities up the mountain? Couldn’t they build their own cable car? The obvious conclusion is that it’s cheaper to use human labor than the cable car.

Except that doesn’t seem possible to me. There are probably hundreds of porters going up and down the mountain everyday. Perhaps more. Many of them surely live in Tangkou and other villages at the base of the mountain. I had already popped into a little grocery store at the base for some water for the hike. It didn’t appear to be a tourist trap of a grocery store and prices were similar, or perhaps a bit cheaper, than I had just seen in Shanghai or elsewhere in China. Of course, I don’t really know the real costs of living in a village in China, but I can bet it’s more than a couple of dollars a day. If the men are so cheap, how do they survive and raise their families in the villages below? This isn’t a particularly rural part of China and heating costs alone would break the bank of many a poor family living on too low of a wage, but houses and apartments, while small are hardly mud floored shacks. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to pay these men enough to even feed themselves and still be cheaper than simply loading the cable car a few times every day.

I’ve also heard that the Chinese government subsidizes many jobs in an effort to ensure that its citizens are gainfully employed and not sitting idle, plotting their leaders’ authorities downfall. It’s a plausible explanation, but it’s not clear how sustainable it is. For now, judging by their rush descending, it’s likely the men are paid on a per load basis and the wear and tear on their bodies is clear. The cost of the eventually necessary medical care is not so obvious; China has not yet solved its medical care problems.

Almost as interesting as the sights, China is constantly offering these sort of economic puzzles. Are these men subsidized by the government? Is it really cheaper, even in the short run, to pay hundreds of laborers when the idle cable cars are already there? What’s going on here? I never did come up with a satisfying answer. If you’ve got a better idea, discuss it here!

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Conscience Capitalism

Posted in at 9:01 by RjZ

According John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, capitalism has done a bad job marketing itself. Looking at how pretty much everyone sees Wall Street and business everywhere, it’s easy to think he’s right.

If you ask the ordinary person what the purpose of a business is, they’ll say, “Well, it’s to make money.” Which is kind of a strange answer, because you don’t get that answer if you ask what the purpose of a doctor is or what the purpose of a teacher is or an architect or an engineer or any of the other professions, yet they all have to make money. To be a doctor, you can’t operate at a loss, at least not for very long.

Most entrepreneurs I’ve known—and I’ve known lots of them—none of them started their businesses primarily to make money. Instead, they were pursuing some type of dream, some type of passion. They wanted to make the world a different place…It’s not why I started Whole Foods Market, to make as much money as possible. It was to sell healthy food and help people earn a living, do something I felt good about. I was on fire about eating healthy food; I had passion about that.

He explains more in his interview at Reason. It’s definitely worth the read.

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12.15.09

China Travelogue-7: Marketing by Mr. Hu

Posted in Travel at 16:11 by RjZ

Mr. Hu found us when we arrived at the train station around a 40 minute taxi ride from Tangkou. Mr. Hu is famous after his appearance in Lonely Planet’s guide to China. He’s earned it. Kindly and trustworthy, at least according to page after page of testimony he’s received in dozens of languages from travelers around the world. He handed us the book to read through during our ride to his hotel.

Travelers wrote about him as an island of honesty, an all purpose travel guide who appears out of nowhere to rescue weary travelers. That’s not exactly how it was for us, but, close enough. We were tired after the train ride, and we weren’t mobbed by people offering us transport alternatives. They were busy thronging around all the Chinese tourists, but we had a few choices. Eventually, his offer of transport and arrangements seemed the best so we followed him to his taxi and hotel.

Mrs. Hu prepares lunchWe had planned on taking the train from Huang Shan area to Guilin after we hiked the mountain, but we promptly discovered that there weren’t any compartments left on the train! Suddenly, we’ve got no idea how to get from here to our next stop, even with a couple of days of advanced planning. Mr. Hu came to the rescue (we’ll see how that works out later…) by pointing out that we can take a sleeper bus from Tangkou to Wuhan, a giant city west of where we were, and from there, we’ll surely be able to make a connection to Guilin. Mr. Hu wound up finding the bus and arranging tickets for us. He helped us to book a hotel up on Huang Shan, yellow mountain, where we were headed and we had an early lunch prepared by his wife.

40 RMB: Taxi drive from the train station to Tangkou
12 RMB: Breakfast from Mrs. Hu
235 RMB: Bus ticket to Wuham
330 RMB: Four star hotel up on the mountain. They only have four star hotels up there.
2 RMB: Bottled water for the ensuing hike

Mr. Hu is one of two economics questions in this and the next China Travelogue post. Many travelers he meets are on a budget. They don’t always stay in his hotel and it’s clearly quite a bit more effort to work with these Chinese illiterates. Worse, according to Mr. Hu, himself, maybe 1% or fewer of the people coming to this popular tourist attraction are Westerners. He circles the train station hunting Westerners (they’re easy to spot) and generously gives them a good deal on the ride to his hotel and restaurant. He walks them to the bus stop or makes hotel arrangements for them on his own time (although, you can bet he does get a commission on those hotels at least.) All of this without any obligation at all. What’s his deal?

Mr. Hu has found a market niche. It may not be the most profitable niche, but in a town with a lot of competition for tourist yuan, it’s not such a bad plan. We didn’t end up staying in his hotel, but we did have lunch there and on our way back down from the mountain two days later, we stopped there again. We even took the time to write in his book. In a country where catering to Westerners is far from the norm, Mr. Hu has a well defended market niche with barriers to market for his competitors (language skills) and free advertising (effective testimonials from his customers and Lonely Planet). Quite the business man, this Mr. Hu.

(2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
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12.11.09

China Travelogue-6: Night Train

Posted in Travel at 3:49 by RjZ

Venerable traveler Paul Theroux is little more impressed with trains than I am. They’re definitely an effective way to get around, but the affection that many people reserve for them is seems out of line with their utility. The little compartment with two bunk beds on either side, a tiny table in the middle and a hot water thermos for tea or noodles underneath the table, is simple and comfortable. The upholstery is worn, but not run down and the sheets provided for sleeping are clean and comfortable. It’s a comfortable ride, but at no time does one feel transported to a Jeeves and Wooster story. Except maybe when the pair of Germans entering the compartment with too large of a suitcase called three more of their tour group for help wedging the case into the space above beds. Comedy ensued.

They didn’t speak much that evening, preferring to join their tour group in their own compartment, only returning to snore after I had dozed off. The train rocked me to sleep fairly early while Chinese drank, smoked, and played cards in the compartment next door until rather late.

The Germans were more talkative the next morning, still groggy, in their t-shirts and pajamas. I had recognized their accent…sort of. I could tell it wasn’t High German and it sounded Bavarian, except definitely not. The two were part of a tour group from former East Germany and spoke to each other (but never to me, only High German to me) in a Sächsisch accent which is, indeed, next to Bavaria, but not an accent any German would mistake for a Bavarian dialect, his grin seemed to tell me.

The tall, thin, more curious, of the Laurel and Hardy like pair, did all the talking. He explained that they had quite a lot of time, having recently retired. Neither looked very old and Laurel was actually quite fit. It was quite amazing for them to be able to travel so far after growing up in Soviet influenced East Germany, he continued. They were impressed by all the similarities, like slogans everywhere and a very visible police force. I’d noticed the slogans, but didn’t see the police as more present than anywhere else. He wanted to describe the look of the people and the place and how much it was like East Germany before the wall had fallen. I had been to East Berlin in 1989 and have a friend who escaped from Dresden 1986, so I have a few ideas what he was trying to explain, but it was still lost on me.

We talked about how the news is obviously biased, but that they learn to avoid the analysis, and how people generally ignore their government in every way they can. His group seem to share a certain kinship with the Chinese for having to do this, and he seemed to appreciate their bravery in doing so. He was impressed by all he had seen but still seemed to think they had so far to go. He asked if we’d been to any rural farms, telling us that the way of life there is positively medieval and a stark contrast with life in the cities. I asked him if he thought it was really like communism here and how that made any sense to have such a difference between rich and poor. The question was obviously silly and he just waved off the idea, mumbling about authority.

Eventually the pair adjourned to their group for tea and a review of the tour plans, and we packed our things and tried to decide whether the train would be stopping in the little town of our destination of 60 km away.

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12.07.09

The Döner Index

Posted in Travel at 5:43 by RjZ

I did a double take when I saw a sign outside of the Frankfurt railway station for “Döner Kebab—3 €” Döner kebab was an extremely popular German street food since before my first visit in 1989. Immigrants from nearby Turkey were hungry for a taste from home from rebuilding Germany after World War II. The turkish kebab made from a tall stack of thin lamb slices turning slowly on a vertical stake in front of a heat source. Small strips are cut or shaved off the arm long kebab while it is still turning and then folded in a large flat bread. Tomatoes, salad, onions, and above all garlic yogurt sauce are all mixed in, wrapped in some paper or foil and served, right out a window.

It’s not that I was surprised to see them; of course they’re still around. I was surprised at the price. Exactly what I remembered. Döner is more popular in the north than in the south of Germany and the prices vary. Back then, I researched pretty carefully trying to keep my budget under $20/day and Berlin had the cheapest lunch, at about 3 DM. They’ve been rising steadily, of course, but that’s why I was surprised at first, the number hadn’t changed at all! The Deutsche Mark was only half of the value of the Euro. In 20 years the price has more than doubled for the ubiquitous Döner kebab.

It can be said that inflation is the thief of wealth. For the simple Döner to increase two-fold in 20 years requires an average inflation of only 1.5% (it’s actually quite a bit higher) and yet, while I do make twice as much today as I did when I first tasted a Döner kebab, it’s only because I was an unemployed college student!

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