Friday, May 31, 2019

The world's least-visited countries

Most people haven't even heard of them:
Parisian bridges are weighted down with copycat "love locks," while visitors crowd cheek-to-jowl into Barcelona churches and Dubrovnik's historic center. In Italy, attempts to manage the impact of tourism range from segregating visitors to fines for flip-flops.
As a glut of anxious headlines document overtourism, it's easy to think that the planet is simply full.
But stray from the well-worn tourist trails, and you'll discover another travel story entirely. In much of the world, there are places that are eager to welcome tourists -- and when practiced sustainably, where tourism can even help alleviate poverty. 
The contrast between the most- and least-visited places is stark. In 2017, nearly 87 million international tourists arrived in France. That same year, a mere 2,000 international tourists visited the South Pacific country of Tuvalu, where it's easy to find a beach -- or even an entire island -- to yourself. 
Based on the most recent data (PDF) compiled by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, this list reflects many of the world's least-visited countries and overseas territories, where you'll find gorgeous natural beauty, culture and history without pushing through a thicket of selfie sticks.
I completely understand the tourist-related problems of Dubrovnik, Venice, and Santorini, where we found ourselves packed into narrow streets with other visitors. (Of course, the fact that we were tourists in these places - off of cruise ships, no less - meant that we were part of the problem.) The thing I like about the idea of visiting under-the-radar destinations is that you can actually be part of the solution, rather than the problem, by pumping money into these economies (as long as your trip is done sustainably).

What's interesting about CNN's list of the 25 least-visited countries (which actually contains only twenty sovereign nations; the other five are dependencies of other countries, even if they have some measure of autonomy) is that many of them are also among the twenty-five smallest independent countries that I want to visit before I die, including Tonga, Tuvalu, Kirabati, and São Tomé and Príncipe. That stands to reason, because the world's tiniest, most obscure countries would also see the fewest visitors. (Two of the nations on CNN's list - Lichtenstein and St. Kitts and Nevis - are ones I've already visited and checked off of my list.)

My goal remains visit these countries, although I know it won't be easy getting to many of them. There's also the paradox that countries with few tourists probably don't have a lot of tourist infrastructure. I'll need to do my research before I visit some of these places.

Belated Game of Thrones thoughts

(Spoilers follow.)

The ending of Game of Thrones was pretty much the most disappointing finale I've ever watched.  (I've been underwhelmed by series finales before, but this one was especially unsatisfying.)

Much has been written about the series' unsatisfactory ending, but this video kind of sums everything up for me:


Aside from the fact that the ending of the series left so many questions unanswered, many of the plot "resolutions" delivered by the finale were difficult to believe.

Let's start with Bran becoming king. Maybe that was what George R. R. Martin envisioned, and perhaps his reasoning will be better explained in the books (if and when he ever gets around to completing them), where Bran's character is apparently more central to the story than it was in the TV series. But his character's story in the TV series, where he does little more than stare at people, warg into ravens and get Hodor killed (Bran didn't even appear at all in one of the series' seasons), simply doesn't suggest that he has any business becoming king of Westeros. It's hard for longtime fans to accept.

It's also hard to accept the way that Bran got to be king, which was the result of a decision by a council of Westerosi lords and ladies that miraculously convened outside of King's Landing after Daenerys's death. This council was, in a matter of minutes, able to resolve all of the struggles, wars and intrigue that Westeros had experienced over the previous several years by simply replacing the continent's hereditary monarchy with an elective one (those never work, by the way, and will probably just make things worse in the long run). They made this decision based on nothing more than an impassioned soliloquy by Tyrion (who was supposed at the council to be judged for his crime of disobeying Dany, rather than to chart a new political course for Westeros).*

And don't even get me started on Jon, who somehow is not summarily executed by Grey Worm, the rest of the Unsullied, or the remaining Dothraki** for murdering Daenerys, but is rather sentenced to be returned to the Night's Watch (which no longer has a reason for existing) for his crime. The huge plot reveal that he was the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen served no purpose after all.

The fact is, the entire final season (not just the finale) was pretty much a disaster. It was rushed and contrived, and the character development that had made the series so great over the years was simply tossed aside.

For example, I didn't have a problem with Daenerys's descent into villainy. It follows age-old themes regarding the corruptive nature of power or the idea that well-intentioned tyranny is still tyranny. I did have a problem with how it was manifested. Whether Dany's decision to turn King's Landing into Dresden was the result of emotionally-deranged genocidal madness or a ruthless calculation to destroy the seat of Westerosi power and send a message to the other lords of the continent, the writers simply did not justice to her character's turn. Jaime's decision to return to Cersei after his one-night-stand with Brienne (a regrettably unnecessary and gratuitous hookup, by the way) was similarly hollow. 

Perhaps it was inevitable that the series would degrade the further it got from George R. R. Martin's source material (a viral Twitter thread from a professor of philosophy at UConn explains this situation). And it was certainly a bad decision to shorten the last two seasons, as it gave the creators less "real estate" to work with. In the rush to bring everything to a close with as much spectacle as possible, the series forgot what it was all about.

The bottom line is that Game of Throne's creators, David Benihoff and Dan Weiss, spent the first six seasons painting a masterpiece of lavish character development, intriguing plot twists, and compelling storytelling. Then they spent the seventh season vandalizing it with spray paint, and spent the eight season shitting all over it. It's a very disappointing ending that will forever tarnish the legacy of what was once the best show on television.

* Also, when Sansa made the declaration that The North would opt out of the Bran-led kingdom, Yara Greyjoy should have done the same for the Iron Islands and Nameless Dornish Guy should have done the same for Dorne. Those three kingdoms were always culturally and structurally different from the core of Westeros (i.e. Westerlands, Crownlands, Stormlands, Riverlands, Vale and Reach) and seeing all three of them fall out would have reinforced the idea of a new political era for Westeros. This was a huge miss on the part of the writers.

** We were led to believe that almost all of the Dothraki died in the Battle of Winterfell, but apparently there were plenty of them left to overrun Kings Landing. This was one of the many continuity failures of the final season of the series.

Goodbye to middle school

Hard to believe that Thursday was Kirby's last day of eighth grade. His mom and I attended his promotion ceremony at Lanier Middle School and took some pictures afterward:

He'll be heading on to high school this fall. The "Beast" is growing up!

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Governor signs UH medical school into existence

Obligatory update to a story I've been following for a while:
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill creating a medical school at the University of Houston amid concerns about a physician shortage in the state. 
Under the legislation signed into law Wednesday, the University of Houston's College of Medicine will be the 13th medical school in Texas. It will be based in the UH System's flagship campus in Houston. Nearly half of the Texas medical schools are in the Houston area. 
On Thursday, Abbott described UH as on the way to being "one of the world's preeminent universities." He said he plans to do a ceremonial signing of the bill in Houston. 
“The University of Houston continues to cement itself as a top tier University, and I was proud to sign HB 826 into law establishing the University Of Houston College Of Medicine," Abbott said in a statement. "As Governor, I have pledged to elevate Texas’ institutions of higher education and this bill furthers that goal."
My understanding is that the only hurdle remaining for UH Med is approval from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. If that happens, the college would enroll its first students in the fall of 2020. Stay tuned.

CHVRCHES at White Oak Music Hall

A couple of Fridays ago, Corinne and I went to the lawn at the White Oak Music Hall to see CHVRCHES. It was a good concert at a nice venue that I'll need to visit more often.

Not too much to report form the concert itself. The synth-pop trio from Glasgow played most of their better-known songs; keyboardist Martin Doherty even took over from foul-mouthed frontwoman Lauren Mayberry to sing a couple of tunes. The back-and-forth chatter between band members between songs was just as entertaining as the songs themselves.

The set was rather short, at 15 songs total, and left out a couple of my favorites, including "Gun" and "Lies." My biggest complaint wasn't that, but rather the Gen Z douchebags standing in front of us who were more interested in talking over the songs than watching the show. Such is the nature of outdoor festival-type concerts such as these.

Otherwise no complaints. the late-spring evening was perfect for an outdoor concert. The lawn at WOMC is a small and comfortable space to watch the show. The lines for drinks were short, and a couple of food trucks handled eating options (although they probably could have used one or two more). I have no complaints about acoustics or sightlines.

We didn't try to drive and park, but rather took the METRORail Red Line up from Midtown, got off at Quitman Station, and made the short walk to the venue. I would recommend this option for getting there, if you are able to do so.

The Houston Press review, including the setlist, is here.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Houston's climate and transit use: it's not an excuse

Local public transportation advocate and former METRO Board member Christof Spieler recently spoke to the Kinder Institute at Rice regarding "myths, misconceptions and facts" about transit in Houston. Here's one topic that resonated with me:
Myth: “Nobody walks in Houston or the climate in Houston is too bad for anyone to be able to walk.” 
"Those two [weather conditions and walking] are obviously not the case," Spieler said. "I think people overestimate the importance of climate in these cases. There are cities that have very tough winters and they do transit very well. If you want to compare a summer in Houston vs. a winter in Minneapolis, I don’t think Houston summer heat is a much worse climate than a Minneapolis winter." 
Minneapolis, which has an annual snowfall of 55 inches and winter temperatures in the teens, is one of the few American cities that have experienced increases in public transportation ridership. A part of that increase is credited toward thousands of parking spots being lost in downtown Minneapolis in recent years. 
Further, Houston has also seen gains in public transportation ridership in recent years, thanks in part to a 2015 bus route redesign and the introduction of additional light rail.
Obvious fact: this city's climate can be brutal for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users during the daytime hours in the summer months (which, in Houston, last from mid-May to late October). Houston's not unique in that regard; there are conditions that are challenging to pedestrian, bicycle and transit activity in every climate, as Christof's examples from Minneapolis imply. 

That's no excuse. 

Too many people (including local bloggers who are smart enough to know better, which is why I no longer read or link to them) still use the "but it's soooooo hot" pretext as to why Houston shouldn't spend its time or money improving its transit services, or improving access to transit (or active transportation in general) through better sidewalks or high-quality bicycle facilities. It's a bullshit, purposefully-defeatist argument that puts too much emphasis on temporary personal comfort and ignores the fact that for the vast majority of the time Houston has a perfectly comfortable climate.

But taking this a step further: this argument is, perversely, a reason for better transit service (as well as better access to transit through better bike/ped connections). Walking to and waiting for a bus in the August afternoon might be a brutal experience for most Houstonians today. But imagine that, even during that August afternoon, you can walk no more than a quarter-mile (i.e. a five-minute walk) to a transit stop, and along that walk there are easy-to-provide amenities such as shade trees along sidewalks and non-reflective pavement that make things just a little bit less brutal. Then, once you get to the bus stop or train station (which provides a shade canopy from the sun as well as a bench to sit), your wait is no less than ten or fifteen minutes (i.e. the generally-recognized minimum headway for "frequent" service) until the next transit service arrives. You get into the air-conditioned vehicle, and off you go. 

All of a sudden, that trip gets a lot less "brutal," doesn't it? And this is during the heat of the day; it doesn't address the average morning or evening during Houston's long summer, which is perfectly walkable if not humid.

Christof is correct: people overestimate the importance of climate, and underestimate the ways in which we can combat that climate by providing comfortable (and ADA-accessible!) access to transit, as well as the frequency and coverage of that transit service itself. Let's quit making excuses and give this city the pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure that it deserves.

(Oh and by the way: as bad as Houston's climate can be, I'll take "hot and sweaty" over "trip over snowbanks and slip and fall on ice patches" anytime.)