Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Amazing Race 13, Episode 2

Salvador, Bahia (Brazil) - Fortaleza, Ceará (Brazil)

Last week, The Amazing Race 13 was all about physical ability: the episode came down to a 200 vertical foot climb down a cargo net, followed by a run (with loaded packs, of course) along the waterfront to the boats to the finish line.

This week the racers had more opportunity to show their travel skills. Ken, the former NFL player, carried both his and his wife's luggage to victory over Bill and Mark (who dropped one of their packs, and had to go back to pick it up) in the final footrace. But the self-described computer-game geeks had gotten to the front of the pack not just by choosing the quicker of two alternative challenges, but also by an approach to their task from which other travellers could learn.

From the start, the "gamers" seem to be taking travel as a game -- not in the sense that it isn't real, but in the sense that travel decisions are rarely as important as they seem, and don't warrant too much stress. That's actually even more true for the cast of "The Amazing Race" than it is for independent travellers, since the television producers have everything from security guards to medical treatment standing by just out of sight, or on call, to protect the racers against most hazards other than reckless driving. The consequences of other travel mistakes are generally limited to minor delay and discomfort. Travel stress can easily lead us to invest travel decisions with much more practical and emotional weight than they deserve.

Bill and Mark also note that, as "just friends" rather than family or lovers, they have less emotional investment in their relationship than most of the other teams in the race. That's probably true for a short trip, but there's a catch: After long enough together on the road, the relationship between travelling companions who are together 24/7, including sharing hotel rooms, becomes as intense as that of many lovers. Most of your casual friendships would probably survive 24 hours trapped together in a stuck elevator or a jail cell. After a month or so without a break (coincidentally, the typical real-world duration of each season of "The Amazing Race"), however, small annoyances can become intolerable, especially because the situation makes them constant and inescapable. We'll see if Bill and Mark can maintain their emotional detachment and ability to double-check each others' work without argument as the race goes on.

The gamers seem to approach travel decisions analytically, and like game problems. Insight helps, but this isn't just a question of "intelligence". We've seen plenty of quick-thinking contestants on "The Amazing Race" over the years, and I've seen my share of smart real-world travellers, who've made all the wrong travel choices. Success in the sorts of computerized simulation and role-playing games that Bill and Mark play requires a particular way of thinking about the question, "What should we do now?":

  • What's the problem we are trying to solve? (The definition of the problem may be less obvious than it seems. A task that seems daunting on first impression may prove to be inessential to the actual goal.)
  • In what way(s) might this problem be solved?
  • What skills and resources (time, knowledge, experience, tools, help from others, etc.) will these solutions require?
  • What skills and resources do we have to apply to this problem, and which might we lack?
  • How is this different for our competitors, and where does this give us an advantage or disadvantage?

People who are used to relying on being smarter, stronger, or having some other advantage over other people often lack an accurate sense of their own weaknesses and limitations. But effective gaming, like travel, requires an accurate awareness of one's own limits and vulnerabilities. In addition, simulation and role-playing games often assume the existence of different abilities and forms of personal power, such that players can each excel in different aptitudes without it being clear how they will fare in competition against each other.

I don't mean to suggest that travel is or should be, in real life, a competitive sport. But game-playing can be one way to develop your ability to evaluate a situation, think it through, and choose a course of action when you have limited understanding of what is happening or what other actors intend, and must make choices despite those uncertainties. This is what independent travellers have to do every day in a new or strange country.

Bill and Mark chose the "needle in a haystack" task, as they put it, of finding a particular specified shipping container at Salvador's container port. If you thought of Brazil as a Third World country, you may have been surprised that their search started with a computerized inventory database. That's typical of the country, though: Brazil is unique among places I've visited in its mix of low and high technology.

There are millions of people living as comfortably as typical North Americans, but there are also tens of millions of desperately poor people (especially in the Northeast where "The Amazing Race" has been this season, and in the interior), many of them de facto slaves. Labor is cheap, and people who think of themselves as "middle class" routinely have live-in servants. In some countries like India, situations like this have limited the demand for "labor saving" automation or technologically advanced infrastructure. Not so in Brazil, and in ways that are obvious to visitors. Wireless handheld touchscreen order-taking devices, rare in the USA, are routine in Brazilian restaurants. Even second-class Brazilian bus companies have computerized reservation, ticketing, and seat-selection systems unheard of in the USA.

Brazil has no silicon chip manufacturing and little computer hardware industry. (The reasons why are a long story, in which my father played a bit part as operations manager in Rio for Digital Equipment Corporation, then the world's second largest computer maker, during DEC's attempt to start a Brazilian manufacturing subsidiary.) But Brazil has a huge programmer and hacker population and a software industry almost as large as those of India or China. It's the domestic market that sustains Brazilian industries like the manufacture of home appliances, unlike in China where they were originally developed solely to serve wealthier foreign markets. Similarly, most Brazilian software is written for customers within the country -- the automation of Brazilian manufacturing, services, and infrastructure -- rather than for foreign customers as in India, where local infrastructure and business technology languishes amid a software and high-tech services export boom.

The racers ended this episode in Fortaleza, having flown from Salvador (via Recife) on GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes ("The Smart Airline"; choose "other countries in the drop-down menu under the Brazilian flag for the English-language section of the Web site). As I mentioned last week, GOL is the only competitor to TAM on most routes in Brazil, and direct flights between provincial cities -- without connecting through São Paulo, Rio, or less often Brasilia) are few. So don't be misled by GOL's lowest advertised fares into expecting cheap flights within Brazil to be readily available at the last minute: If GOL's few seats at those prices are sold out, all other fares can be much higher, and it could be a long wait for the next flight or seats may be unavailable at any price, as they almost were for the racers.

The finish lines for both episodes of the race thus far this season were at photogenic landmarks, rather than the actual "pit stop" hotels or resorts where the racers (and the TV production crew) spent their time between legs. So the only place we know the racers spent a night was in the middle of last week's episode, when they were accommodated in tents inside the walls of an active army garrison post. There was no mention of the ironies: the Northeast was the region of some of the worst human rights abuses by the former military dictatorship in Brazil. It was also the region of some of the strongest resistance to Brazilian fascism, and was the only place in Brazil where we saw public memorials to those imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared by the military.

Today, Brazilian attitudes toward the institutions of law enforcement -- the military, the police, and the even more numerous private security forces -- are complicated, sometimes polarized between races, classes, and regions but also often ambivalent or even schizophrenic within individuals and communities. Racialized fear of crime is an increasingly dominant factor in the shape of the Brazilian built environment and the way Brazilians live their lives. But there is also a memory, at least for some, of the danger of unchecked military and police power.

One of the most difficult things for a visitor in Brazil or anywhere is to figure out how much credence to give to local informants' perceptions of danger and crime. When they say, "It's very dangerous", does that mean that it is very dangerous compared to my neighborhood back home? Compared to a police state (perhaps the one they remember from some past time)? Compared to a Hollywood fantasy of of American small-town safety? Or compared to a Hollywood fantasy of American urban violence? Until you know their frame of reference, it's hard to say. For what it's worth, the U.S. Consul whom I met thought that crime (and not just fear of crime) was the largest obstacle to the expansion of international tourism to the Northeast of Brazil (despite great beaches and direct charter flights from Europe), or probably the rest of the country.

Brazil is not, of course, alone in any of this. Foreigners are right to be concerned about crime in the USA. That's precisely what makes it so interesting to see and compare how these issues play out in the São Paulo, Los Angeles, or Guateng (Soweto/Johannesburg/Pretoria) metropolitan areas, among others around the world. If you are interested, I highly recommend Teresa P.R. Caldeira's City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo . Drawing out the comparisons with Los Angeles in particular, it's a richly detailed exploration of the way our fears and expectations not only shape our perception of a place but can actually reshape the place itself. It's intended for anthropologists and urban geographers, not tourists, but it provides a useful framework for visits to places where it takes an effort to cross the physical boundaries that separate people and communities, whether between neighborhoods or between the "upstairs" and "downstairs" sections of a house for homeowners and servants.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 5 October 2008, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)

What did you think of GOL's sudden change of planes to accommodate all the racers? It seems strange to me that an airline can even do that; at least it was the first time it happened in all the Races I've seen.

Posted by: Rick, 8 October 2008, 00:11 (12:11 AM)

Rick asks "What did you think of GOL's sudden change of planes to accommodate all the racers? "

I wasn't there, so I don't really know. But I suspect that as the racers arrived arrived, one team after another, they looked to the GOL staff like a large and steadily growing group of high-revenue potential passengers: 40 passengers (20 cast members on 10 teams, and the camera and sound person accompanying each team), the cast members all from the USA (i.e. presumptively well-to-do) and the crew with obviously expensive broadcast-quality video and sound gear. All prepared to pay full fare, and equally prepared to take the next flight on the competing airline (TAM) if they didn't get on that GOL flight. I don't know how many planes GOL has based at SSA, but if they had a larger one available, I can see why they might have been motivated to substitute it for the FOR flight.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 8 October 2008, 15:14 ( 3:14 PM)

I, for one, would be interested if you would favor us with an brief outline of why Brazil has no significant computer hardware industry.

I worked at DEC for a few years during its hey-day in the '80s (including four years in the Mill), and I have a vague memory of the company trying to get started in Brazil. But as that effort was far outside my purview, I do not remember any details or the final result.

My hazy recollection is that Brazil has strong protections that favor local interests over outsiders. I think foreign companies looking to do business there must partner with Brazilian firms and cannot own a majority stake in the venture. This may understandably give pause to large corporations who are reluctant to cede control.

As silicon foundries are becoming prohibitively expensive for all but the biggest players, I can understand why there is no home-grown chip manufacturing in Brazil. But general computer hardware doesn't face such a steep financial curve, and given their protectionist stance, I would have expected a healthy local hardware industry.

That they have a thriving local software sector in Brazil comes as little surprise, again, given their trade polices. Also, Brazil has the largest concentration of Portuguese speakers in the world. Localization of software is not a trivial exercise and involves far more than simply translating the prompts, help text, and error messages of a program into another language. And, if memory serves, the Brazilian government has made major moves toward the adoption of open source software for official use. These three factors would encourage local software business.

Posted by: Anon Y. Mouse, 11 October 2008, 11:10 (11:10 AM)

The short answer to the previous comment is, "smuggling through Paraguay".

There's lots of literature on what went wrong with DEC, and why. "DEC Is Dead, Long Live DEC" is a book-length business-school case study; "The Ultimate Entrepreneur" is a more journalistic, less analytic corporate history.

In Brazil as in the USA, DEC erred in assuming that a growing market for computers would be like the existing market for DEC minicomputers, only larger. As it turned out, the personal computer market was very different. Large institutional computer buyers were willing and able to pay the higher up-front price of hardware that was built to last, and software that was tested and reliable. For the "personal" computer mass market, the key factor was how low the price of entry-level systems could be reduced, even if that meant compromises on quality that DEC was unwilling to make (and that DEC's existing customer base, who used DEC systems for mission-critical applications, wouldn't have tolerated).

I used a DECmate II word processor from 1984 to 1995. I never had to reboot it. Not once. The hardware including the printer and other peripherals was still all working fine when I replaced it after more than a decade. But it cost twice as much when I bought it as some other PC's did at the time.

In Brazil, where there is a large class that can afford PC's, but their incomes are still less than what is considered "middle class" in the USA, much more of the computer market is at the absolute bottom end of cheap entry-level PC's.

Most PC's in Brazil are no-name clones assembled locally from the cheapest Taiwanese, Korean, and PRC components. Local labor is cheap; more importantly, less duty is owed on the components than would be due on assembled systems. Most PC's are sold with bootleg copies of Windows, although there does seem to be larger market share for desktop Linux systems than in most other countries I have visited.

The main reason the high import duties on electronic compnents haven't led to a local import-substitution industry producing at least some of those components is that almost all of the most highly-dutied components are smuggled into Brazil (and the rest of Mercosur) via Paraguay, avoiding the duties.

DEC had hoped to manufacture hardware in Brazil for the local and Mercosur markets, but some components such as chipsets still had to be imported and remained subject to import duty. In addition, DEC was unable to persuade regulators to treat locally-printed copies of DEC software as domestic rather than imported goods for purposes of import duties. Even with lower Brazilian labor costs for local assembly, DEC prices remained too high, and sales volume for their high-quality products too low, for the economies of scale they would have needed to make the investment in local manufacturing facilities profitable.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 29 October 2008, 09:19 ( 9:19 AM)
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