My Christmas 2015: Pai Inacio

What do you do for Christmas if you don’t believe in it and if you live right next to a national park? You go hiking, of course. The 20 kilometers from Lencois to Morro do Pai Inacio seemed like the perfect distance for a day’s march.

With such a view, less than an hour outside of Lencois, I can imagine that even gardening may be enjoyable.

farming with a view

Or maybe less so when fires are raging all around.


The type of landscape I walked through changed by the minute, from creeks with autumn foliage to desert-type landscapes, then again palm trees and boulevards formed by fruit trees.

From about the halfway point on, the path followed an old aqueduct as well as a path of destruction left by the fire.


After walking for around three hours, always uphill, I saw my destination on the horizon for the first time: the prominent flat-topped Morro do Pai Inacio. A scene like in a Western movie, not least due to my fitting hat.

hat wide Western.JPG

The mountain seemed close, the path towards it direct, but both impressions turned out to be illusions. Like in the case of a mirage, the optical distance seemed to remain the same at least for another hour, regardless of how fast I walked.

And like another mirage in the middle of the desert, there was suddenly an oasis not marked on my map. A house which looked to be on its way to ruins, but which had enormous trees in the garden, bursting with mangoes. Assuming that the the estate was deserted (I only found skeletons of animals in the yard), I wanted to climb one of the trees when I spotted some shoes on the porch and a pair of miner’s jeans hung out to dry.

Suddenly, the skulls in the yard had a completely different meaning and I ran, straight through the forest through which I had to battle my way for the last hour, until I finally stood in front of Pai Inacio.

Pai InacioFront.JPG

Only then did I realize “whoa, pretty steep, this piece of rock” and wondered how all the tourists had gotten their photos from the top of this mountain. I doubt that many of them would scale the vertical wall. And indeed: from the back, it’s easy to climb. Everyone else actually drove up by car and only had to walk the last 15 minutes.

At least that solved one problem which had been posed by the quickly advancing day: in two hours, it would get dark. It had taken me six hours to walk to Pai Inacio, and even if I was faster on the way back and wouldn’t make any stops, I would need to cover about half of the way under the light of the full moon. Romantic, sure, but also spooky with all the snakes, pumas and carnivorous cacti. But if there were people with cars, I would hopefully find someone to take me back to Lencois. Particularly on Christmas.

Before I even had to ask anyone for a ride, Davi, a Brazilian who together with two friends had climbed up the face of the mountain, which I had dismissed as unscalable, said hello. If there were pitons in the wall, I inquired. “No, there is nothing artificial in this rock. Here, you can climb as you want, that’s the beauty of it,” he laughed. And when he heard of my hike, he immediately offered to take me back to Lencois.


The more I travel around the world, the more universal truths I learn. One of them is: In any country in the world, national parks and libraries are the places where you meet the friendliest, most helpful and often most interesting people.

Luckily, Davi and his colleagues weren’t in a hurry, so I could enjoy the cooling winds and the spectacular views from the plateau. Unfortunately, there are rangers here who ensure that nobody stays overnight.


On the ride back, I noticed the “Advogado” sticker on Davi’s car and found out that he is a lawyer, too. To the enjoyment of our fellow passengers, we concluded the day with a comparative analysis of constitutional procedural law, which I would have loved to continue all evening. As I got home, a different surprise awaited me. My landlords invited me to join them for cold meat and whiskey-flavored beer.

Like this, Christmas is bearable.

(Zur deutschen Fassung.)

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Christmas in Brazil

Wearing shorts in front of a Christmas tree. What climate change has only recently made possible in Central Europe is normal in Brazil.

Weihnachten Salvador 1

I still don’t get any real Christmas feeling in the tropics, despite all the festooned roads and the Christmas songs being played in shopping malls. And these red hats just look out of place. Some businesses here compel their staff to wear silly hats during work. Even at the Family Court in Salvador two clerks wore red Santa hats while registering petitioners for paternity cases.

Weihnachten Salvador 2

Almost all Brazilians have a romantic view of snow, which they have usually never seen in their lives. “Once in my life, I want to see snow, touch snow, eat snow!”, I hear everywhere. When a lawyer colleague in Lauro de Freitas invited me to a barbecue, I almost couldn’t suppress my laughter when I saw how she had decorated her front door, in 35 degree Celsius heat:

let it snow

“Let it snow!”, like a desperate prayer, which none of the many gods in Brazil almost ever answers. Actually, there is snow in Brazil, but rarely and in the less populated higher regions. Rio de Janeiro last had snow in 1985, Sao Paulo in 1975. And when it snows, then of course in June, July or August. Never for Christmas.

I find it astonishing that no homegrown Christmas tradition has developed in more than 500 years since the “discovery” of South America, but that men with red hats and sledges are used as symbols in the middle of summer instead.

What my Christmas will look like? I will go hiking in Chapada Diamantina National Park. Here are two photos from my last 3-day hike as a teaser for upcoming reports:

Morro do castelo 1Schlucht 1

Sleeping in the jungle is a hundred times better than sitting around a tree with people who tell the same stories every year, eating too much and receiving presents that you don’t need.

(Zur deutschen Fassung.)

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Great Idea from Brazil: Public Phones

In Europe and North America, we all waste a lot of money on our mobile phones (except me). We waste a lot of energy on carrying them around. We constantly have to recharge them. And we have to worry about losing or forgetting them.

In Brazil, I have seen a completely different solution: public phones. They are everywhere. In every little village there are a few of these funny-looking installations. In bigger cities, you find them every 50 or 100 meters. They are in shopping malls, at gas stations and on university campuses.


This is a great idea. Not only don’t you need to buy, carry and charge your own phone. The best thing is that you decide when you want to make a call or when you want to be called. Once you step away from the public phones (which is hard in big cities, admittedly, because they are everywhere), nobody can bother you anymore and disturb you. You have more control over your life instead of allowing a little gadget made by Chinese forced laborers to control your life.

Older people may tell you stories about how we also used to have public phones in Europe and North America in the 1970s and 1980s, but then phones were privatized. What a terrible idea this was. Once more, South America is showing us how to do things the clever way.

Posted in Brazil, Photography, Technology, Travel | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Video Blog: Fire-Fighting Plane

Last week, I helped fighting the fires in Chapada Diamantina National Park in Brazil for a day, after I had stumbled upon a squad of volunteer firefighters while hiking.

It was tough work, particularly because so many fires were in inaccessible areas. Again and again, we had to walk to a river (down a steep slope for half an hour), fill the water canisters with 20 liters per person, out them on the back and climb back up the steep hill. In the meantime, the fire had spread of course and further sources of fire popped up. A depressing job.

The water-bombing plane was thus a welcome support. It flew quite low and dropped the water exactly where it was needed.

We worked out way deeper into the tropical forest to manually extinguish the many small fires which couldn’t be seen from the plane.


Posted in Brazil, Photography, Travel, Video Blog | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

When Brazil was without WhatsApp for a few hours

Crying teenagers, desperate mothers, impatience, despair, rage, destroyed relationships, suicides.

All of that because a court in Brazil ordered that WhatsApp should be blocked for 48 hours. So people actually had to send e-mails to each other, to talk on the phone, or, heaven forbid, to talk in person instead of sending messages with lots of yellow faces and LOLs.

But then it got worse: Most people on the internet, and some media even, blamed competing telephone operators for the ban. Others blamed President Dilma Rousseff, others blamed Congress, and so on. “Censorship”, “human rights”, “freedom”, “net neutrality”, “dictatorship” and other big words were thrown around. The left blamed the right, the right blamed the left, some crazies called for a military coup, silly comparisons with Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea popped up.

All of this was wrong, unfounded, and often outright manipulative. What had really happened? In a criminal investigation, a Brazilian court had asked WhatsApp to turn over transcripts of conversations between suspects. WhatsApp had refused. The court passed an order on 23 July 2015, ordering WhatsApp to comply. On 7 August 2015, the company was informed again of what would happen if they refused to comply. WhatsApp apparently reacted like the people who think that nothing happens to them if they don’t open the mail from the court or the bailiff. After waiting more than another four months, the court reacted with its decision.

Legally, that decision seems acceptable. In any case, it’s no violation of anyone’s freedom of speech because you can still say and write what you want in person, over the phone, in writing and indeed over hundreds of other internet applications. It was funny to see all those highly agitated people getting all hyped up about “internet censorship”, not noticing the irony that they could still write, read and publish whatever they wanted. I also didn’t understand how anyone thought that this was a ban of WhatsApp as a business model. If so, why would it have been limited to 48 hours?

Maybe non-lawyers should generally exercise caution when commenting on court rulings, but many commentators didn’t even live up to the lower standards of logical thinking. The main benefit of the decision was to see who just speculates, makes up stuff, agitates or is outright dumb (96.2 %) and who is interested in the facts and in a genuine debate (3.8 %). Because this effect was achieved within a few hours, another judge lifted the ban before the 48 hours had elapsed.

But by then, Brazilians, the majority of whom apparently understand more about technology than about law or politics, had already found an alternative.

WhatsApp telegram

The telegram? Yes, the good old telegram! Because in 1890, the Brazilian government had the foresight to establish telegraph lines across the whole country, all the way into the Amazon rainforest and to Bolivia and Peru. This effort was led by Cândido Rondon, who as a positivist believed that technological progress would unite the country. This went so far that he took a gramophone with him to play the Brazilian national anthem to indigenous tribes, who often came in contact with the Brazilian state for the first time.

Throughout his life, Rondon laid more than 4,000 miles of telegraph lines, most of them in hitherto inaccessible areas. When his work was completed after 24 years, the radio had been invented, putting the telegraph lines largely out of business before they could barely start operating. Long ridiculed for his efforts as the Don Quixote of positivism, this week finally brought vindication for Rondon.

Candido Rondon

“I told you we will need telegrams again one day!”

Posted in Brazil, History, Law, Politics, Technology | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The Economics of Christmas

Christmas Presents

On first sight, presents sound like a wonderful thing. You receive a surprise or something that you had always wanted, and you receive it for free. An economic benefit, surely. But it’s not that simple, because most people make presents at least in the expectation of receiving something in return (not necessarily presents though). If you never return anything, you will realise that people will stop giving to you as well. Trust me, I have noticed it myself.

What a waste!

You might still think that this underlying quid pro quo may put a dent in the philosophical value of Christmas presents, but it surely is normal economic behaviour. But Christmas presents are in fact quite different from other economic transactions:

  1. In a usual economic transaction, the value of a product is about the same to the seller as it is to the buyer. Otherwise, they wouldn’t agree on a price.
  2. With Christmas presents, the value to the giving person is what he or she spends on the present: 40 $ for a tie. 29 $ for a book. 30 $ for a ticket to the theater.
  3. For the receiving person however, the value is independent of that investment. It is solely determined by how useful he or she will find the present. He might only wear the tie once or twice a year. He might not read the book, for lack of interest or time, or he might have wanted to read it anyway, but wouldn’t have spent money on it and would have gotten it from the library instead. And she might be bored all the way through the theater performance and even have to pay a bus fare or fuel to get there. In all these examples, the economic benefit to the receiving person is much less than the investment made by the giving person.
  4. Thus, economic value is destroyed.
  5. Of course, there is also the possibility of the reverse scenario: A present requiring a small economic investment might bring lots of benefit. A painting that you can finish in a day might decorate somebody’s office for a lifetime (and save him the money he would have to spend to buy a painting). A book that you bought at a flea market for 3 $ might keep someone entertained and happy for a week.
  6. Countless disappointed faces under Christmas trees and the scores of people in shops after Christmas wishing to return gifts suggest that in too many instances, we are closer to the scenario described in no. 3 than the one in no. 5.

This blog is never about nagging, but always about constructive solutions. So we will analyse how to increase the economic value of your Christmas present transactions:

  1. The best approach would be not to give any presents at all. In a free economy, people will buy what they need and want, and suppliers will produce and sell what people want. This radical approach might seem a bit heartless though.
  2. Give money. The receiving person will know how to get the most personal benefit out of your present and we can be certain that they will spend it to maximize their is economic gain.

    Books and cigars are perfect presents – for me.

  3. Give something that everyone needs and would have to buy for themselves otherwise. Examples are bread and milk, or frozen pizzas for bachelors. Toilet paper is another favorite of mine. This will free up the receiving person’s budget for other investments.
  4. Make wish-lists. Let people know what you want and ask what they want. This way, everyone will be happy and we have even demonstrated that a market functions best if all information is freely available.

In line with my last suggestion, I have posted my own wishlist, which will even remain valid beyond Christmas.

Christmas Travel

I have to admit I never got the point of Christmas travel to reunite with other members of your family or clan. Surely, if you have parents to visit on Christmas, you also have them in May and August. My feelings and respect towards my parents might go up and down a bit with certain events and developments, but they are not dependent on a recurring event in a calendar.

From empirical evidence, we know the following facts about Christmas travel:

  1. Far more people than usual travel.
  2. As is normal (and foreseeable), this makes travel more expensive at this time of year.
  3. People start their journeys relatively late (22 or 23 December at the earliest) and all want to arrive at their destinations on the evening of 24 December.
  4. Christmas is in winter (at least in the northern hemisphere). Roads are blocked, sea lanes are frozen, airports are closed. This reduces the travel capacity at a time of hiked-up demand, which can only lead to chaos.

    Engaging in economically neutral Christmas activities. At Nonsuch Park, Surrey in December 2010.

  5. Because of the winter conditions, travellers do not have access to all the substitute options that they would have in other seasons, like going by bike or driving themselves.

We can easily detect a vicious circle of ever-decreasing supply and ever-increasing demand. The only sensible option therefore is to travel at other dates. It will be cheaper, more enjoyable and you have a higher chance of actually reaching your intended destination.

Christmas Shopping

As you are already getting a sense of my rather negative economic assessment of Christmas, I can see you are itching to say: “But I thought Christmas was GOOD for the economy because of all the extra spending and increased retails sales.”

Fair enough, some businesses do indeed make a large junk of their turnover in the two months leading up to Christmas. And Christmas is undoubtedly good for some businesses, for example those that farm and sell Christmas trees, candles, Glühwein (mulled wine), even book stores.

More turnover for these businesses, more profit, more jobs, what can be bad about this from an economic perspective? Well, this part of Christmas does not deserve a negative verdict. But it also doesn’t deserve a positive remark. Because it is neutral. Christmas shopping has no positive effect on the economy.

Why is that? Simply because any dollar, pound or euro that you spend in December, you won’t spend in January or you will have saved in November. Christmas shopping does not increase spending in an economy, it just shifts your spending away from other months and away from other products and services. If this effect is positive or negative therefore depends on which spending you cut to have a party on 24 December. If you decided to forego university to save on tuition fees, it will be a terrible (dis)investment. If you decide to cut back on drug use to buy presents for your family, it will be rather positive.


  • Your Christmas spending has a neutral effect.
  • If you spend your money on presents, do so wisely.
  • Don’t travel on Christmas!

If you do need to get together with your family over Christmas, I hope this blog will give you something a bit different to talk about at the dinner table. Enjoy the holidays!

Posted in Economics, Religion, Travel | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Christmas Video: Treevenge

I don’t believe in Christmas myself, but I nevertheless want to bless you all with this lovely Christmas video:

Have a happy season and don’t kill too many trees!

Here is a suggestion for an alternative Christmas tree:

Posted in Books, Environment, Films | Tagged , , | 14 Comments