Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Pirate and the Joker

If you have any plans for a trip to Disney World in the next decade, you can expect to see your share of Captain Jack Sparrows.  I saw a Jack Sparrow who looked, sounded, acted, and possibly even smelled like the real thing.  (To the extent that a fictional character can be real, or have a smell).  I was impressed and surprised at just how Sparrow-like he was.

This raises a question: Does Pirates of the Caribbean really need Johnny Depp anymore?  I mean, Heaven forbid they should make another one of those movies.  And of course, Johnny Depp can bring in more fans than an identical replica of Johnny Depp.  But aside from all this, I get the sense that Depp's special, unique contribution was really his idea for the character, not his execution of that idea.

Of course Depp is technically gifted, too.  Depp's technical ability enabled him to execute and communicate his vision.  But now that it's been communicated, there are loads of technically gifted people who can execute the same vision.  As with many things, the hardest part is having the idea in the first place.

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If you think this Johnny Depp discussion is too academic to matter, consider Heath Ledger instead.  He was incredible as the Joker, picking up an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  Surely Ledger would have reprised his role, if not for his untimely death.  

Suddenly the question becomes highly relevant: Why can't we have a Ledger-Joker without Ledger?  What's stopping us?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thailand musings: Instagram?

Quick, what's the most tagged location in the world on Instagram?

The Eiffel Tower comes in at #8.  Times Square is #4.  Disneyland is #3...

You kinda sorta know what I'm about to say, given that I asked the question.  But let's not pretend it actually makes sense.  Bizarrely, first and second place go to Thailand!  Here is the complete list:

  1. Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) ท่าอากาศยานสุวรรณภูมิ in Bangkok, Thailand
  2. Siam Paragon (สยามพารากอน) shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand
  3. Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California
  4. Times Square in New York City
  5. AT&T Park in San Francisco
  6. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  7. Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles
  8. Eiffel Tower in Paris
  9. Staples Center in Los Angeles
  10. Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles

I learned this shortly before my trip, but I have still been unable to come up with a satisfactory theory of why.

Any ideas?  Here are some observations:

  • I am told that Instagram is really super popular in Asia.  
  • I am also told that Chinese tourists have been arriving in Thailand en masse, and what they like to do is go shopping at the Thai shopping malls.  I even observed firsthand the swarms of Chinese tourists in parts of the Paragon.
  • Like everyone, I arrived in Bangkok at Suvarnabhumi Airport.  I even took a picture, although it did not end up on Instagram.

I actually spent many hours at the Siam Paragon, mostly because the second Hobbit movie is many hours long.  Imax!  With Thai subtitles!  I did not take any pictures during the movie though.

Perhaps a coherent story is coalescing in your mind.  However, I feel I must remind you that it still makes no sense.  I mean, look at that list!  The top doesn't belong with the bottom!

If Instagram is so popular in Asia, why isn't there anything else in all of Asia?  And if the massive population of Insta-crazy China is driving this, then shouldn't somewhere in China be on the list?  Shouldn't other noteworthy places in Asia be dominating? And if not at the top, couldn't they at least edge out Santa Monica Pier?  What are people taking pictures of, the bubble machine?  I don't even know if that's still there and it's the only thing I even remember!

For the love of God.  And Siam Paragon isn't even the biggest shopping mall in Thailand...or even in Bangkok...or even within a half-mile radius!  That honor goes to the CentralWorld down the street -- the sixth largest mall in the world -- which you could conceivably get lost in and never come out of.  (Of course you could still interact with the outside world through Instagram).

I just realized I have actually been to every place on that list that isn't a sports stadium.  Therefore I am highly qualified to say it makes no sense.  There is probably some stupid, uninteresting explanation for this data, but for now I am on the record as Highly Confused.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thailand musings: Taxi mismatch

I was flying from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on New Years Eve.  Thanks to some flight delays, I found myself in Don Mueang airport in Bangkok less than 2 hours before the ball dropped.  This is not a good time to be in an airport.  The line for taxis was unbelievably long, with only one taxi arriving every couple minutes or so.

These were the official cabs with standardized metering.  Under normal circumstances, you'd want to be sure to take one.  But New Years Eve is not normal circumstances.  Drivers had no way of adjusting their prices, and evidently didn't want to work the holiday for normal prices.  But however much they didn't want to work, I guarantee you that Western tourists were willing to pay a lot more to not spend 6 hours of New Years Eve/Day in an airport.

There is just no comparison here.  $30 for an airport cab ride is nothing to a Westerner even under normal circumstances, but a lot to a Thai driver even under special circumstances.  $30 goes a long way in a country where you can get a solid meal for $1-2.

Fortunately for me, there was another option: I just hopped in an unofficial cab and was home for $30 in time for the fireworks.  By comparison, a metered cab probably would have cost me $5.

That's great for me, but it doesn't resolve the widespread inefficiency described above.  For whatever reason, there were hundreds of people standing in an unmoving line for cabs that wouldn't come because their prices couldn't adjust.

Why didn't other travelers just do what I did?  I suspect they were just unaware of the option.  Possibly this is an example of herding behavior gone terribly wrong.  Maybe the longer the line becomes, the more you think that what you're supposed to do is stand in line too, instead of looking around for an alternative.

What a terrible recipe.  The more people do it, the worse idea it becomes, and the better idea it seems.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thailand musings: escalators, escalators, down, down, down...

Traveling to another country always stimulates interesting econ thoughts.  I was in Thailand visiting family over the holidays, so over the next week I will share some of my observations.

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In the Thai airport, I waited through a very long security line that included, among other things, an escalator.

This is basically the worst idea in the world.  You cannot have a line that includes an escalator, because people might do something stupid like go down the escalator before they have anywhere to go at the bottom.  Think about what happens when you get to the bottom of an escalator and have nowhere to step off.  It's not "a little uncomfortable," like squeezing into a crowded elevator.  You have nowhere to go and the floor beneath you is constantly trying to push you forward. You could walk slowly backwards as it goes down, except there are people above you too, and who knows what they're doing.  This can lead to a fairly horrific scene as soon as just one person has fallen down.

Fortunately, the scene at the airport was not that horrific.  Instead, the airport staff threw inefficiency at the problem.  An escalator in a line requires not one but two full-time crowd control employees.  One at the top to safely portion people onto the escalator, and one at the bottom to make sure a space is cleared for those people when they get to the bottom.

I guess that's not such a bad solution.  Labor is cheap in Thailand.  But at times like this, it's good to remember a bit of wisdom from Mitch Hedburg: An escalator can never break, it can only become stairs.

Why didn't they just turn the escalator off?

(Because it's Thailand, of course).