Archive for May, 2011

Well, if you’re on Facebook and you are friends with me, then you know that my girlfriend and I have decided to get married.  The date is Sept 24 of this year.

Hopefully people who know us will understand that this comes as no surprise.  We have been dating for 11 months and we spend a lot of time together.  The fact is that marriage is the natural and logical next step.  It’s like of like “Oh, you two are getting married?  Well, it’s about time, really.”

Having a wedding only four months in the future presents some challenges from the perspective of the timeline involved.  We have to book a ceremony venue, reception venue, send out invitations, get attire for the day, and so forth.  Can it be done in four months?

Well, to date we have done the following:

  • Agreed on a ceremony venue
  • Targeted a reception venue
  • Picked out the style of invitations
  • Selected candidates for the wedding party
  • Drawn up a list of people to invite
  • Picked out officials to do the ceremony
  • Analyzed our existing funds to confirm that we have enough to pay for it… while keeping costs under control.

That last one is key.  The average wedding in the United States costs $28,000.  We aren’t going to pay that, we are trying to keep it to $10,000 (give or take… most likely give, 10-15%).

One thing that we have decided upon is not giving out wedding favors at the wedding.  Those are the trinkets or doodads that you get at the wedding that everyone normally tosses away.  Instead, what we are going to do is that for each person who attends, we will donate $2.50 to Doctors Without Borders, and $2.50 to Engineers Without Borders.  Microsoft will match whatever I donate to charity, so basically it is a two-for-one.  I think that’s a better idea than doing random trinkets.

So there you have it.  Four months is a compressed time frame, but the problem is the following:

  • We had already planned to go to New Zealand in November/December.  Therefore, having it later than that wouldn’t work.
  • My girlfriend refuses to get married in October onwards, all the way through until April.  The weather is lousy (which I deem to be irrelevant since we will be indoors but apparently this doesn’t matter).  That means that either we have it in September (to give us 4 months to plan) or wait an entire year until next May.

    Do we want to wait an entire year?  What’s the advantage?  The advantage is that we have more time to plan.  But, the plan will still be the same.  We’d invite the same people, keep the costs under control, have the same themes and still travel to all of the same places as before.  In other words, there is no advantage to waiting a year other than… waiting.  The drawback is that we have to wait a year to move on with our lives and I don’t like the transition period.  It’s too… transitional.  It’s like how the stock market doesn’t like uncertainty.

So there you go.  I’ll continue blogging even throughout this life change (possibly about the same topics as before, and possibly not).  Stay tuned.

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Last year, I mentioned that I had to write an article for a conference in Vancouver and I had writer’s block.  I had been working on it for 3 weeks and only had 2200 words.  I did end up finishing it and it turned out fine, however.

Well, fast forward to this year and I have similar problems.  It all started with me reading random books and having trouble coming up with an idea.  When I narrowed it down, I had to do research.  It took me forever to do the reading background on it.  Then when I sat down to write, the words would not flow off my fingertips.  That’s the thing about me blogging, most of the time it is easy for me to fire off a post.

I did something a bit different this time, I made myself a schedule.  I wanted to write a certain amount of words per day and finish with two weeks in reserve to send it around for editing and review.  I finished the initial draft this week and completed the first round of edits today.  I figure I have two or three more rounds to go before it will be done.

But the point is this – I always complain that I have writer’s block and that this time it’s different.  But it never is different.

Just like in stock trading.

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The vanish of a coin

The other day I decided to show one of my co-workers some basic magic – a coin vanish.  I walked into his office with a 50 cent piece that I had received as change from a vendor a few days earlier.  I started talking about how unusual the coin way and let him see it.  It’s just an ordinary coin.

I then went to place it into my hand but as I did so, I accidentally dropped it.  I reached down, picked it up and put it back into my hand.  Both of my sleeves were rolled up as I started waving my other hand around it.  I opened it up… and the coin was gone.  Both my hands were shown empty, front and back. 

How did I do it?

This one is pretty simple.  I will reveal this one because it is a technique that I never use in real life because it isn’t practical.  The coin is ordinary and can be done with any coin.  As I placed it into my other hand, I “accidentally” dropped it intentionally onto the floor.  Oops!  Clumsy me!  I reached down to pick it up and as I did, I pushed it with my finger beneath my shoe and only pretended to pick it up.  I then placed the “coin” into my other hand, but of course it wasn’t there.  It was actually beneath my shoe.

With a wave of my fingers, I opened my hand, showing both of them empty.  The coin is completely gone!  Where did it go?  Nobody knows!

Of course, the coin is still beneath my shoe.  The real magician knows how to clean that up so that when he walks away, the secret is still concealed.  And that’s part of the magic that I will still keep to myself.

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New experiences

Now that we have a rental cat, my girlfriend (who has never had a cat before) is starting to learn some of the habits of cats. Lesson #1 – they bring you gifts.

The other evening the cat came to the back door and started to meow like he always does. My girlfriend let him I. But I could see that he had left something on the ground. “Hold on…” I began but it was too late. The cat had had already walked in.

“What?” asked my girlfriend.

“He brought us a gift,” I motioned and pointed to just outside the door. My girlfriend looked down at the ground and saw a dead bird that the cat had caught and brought for us.

At that point, she kind of freaked out a bit. “Ahhhhh!” she shouted. “That’s so gross!” that went on for a minute or two and then I managed to get in a word or two and explain that’s what cats do. They bring their owners gifts.

She scolded the cat. “No more dead birds!”

Somehow I don’t think that will work.

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Today at lunch, I had Thai chili beef on rice.  It’s a beef dish with a spicy sauce that is not particularly spicy, and served over rice.  It’s a pretty basic lunch at the cafeteria at work that is pretty easy on my palette.

Or so I thought.

The description of it said that it was served with peppers.  I like peppers, they are crunchy with a hint of flavor.  I saw a green thing in my food and figured it was a pepper and that I could consume it with little problem.  Sure, it might be a chili.  But I can handle it.

I was wrong.

I put the chili in my mouth and swallowed it and no more than 5 seconds later, my mouth was on fire!  ARGH!  I immediately grabbed for some water but it helped very little.  I darted to the drink machine for some milk because milk is good at dousing spicy foods (much better than water).  I walked there, ran back and chugged some of it down, getting some cool relief.

Let me tell you, the feeling of pain in my mouth was intense.  It wasn’t that this chili was spicy.  It was, but I have had worse.  No, this chili was also physically hot, as in put-your-finger-on-the-stove-and-burn-it hot.  The combination of heat + spice was too much to bear.  That was a very unpleasant experience, I tell you what.

I could not believe that a food could be physically hot to produce a literal burning sensation in my mouth.  That hurt!

Hopefully I never have to go through it again.

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In my previous posts, I explained that the reason that Europeans conquered the rest of the world, and not vice versa, is because they were able to generate food surpluses and they had animals native to the area where they lived that could be domesticated.  With animals, they were able to generate food surpluses and also use them in military ventures. 

But better land and domestication of animals is not the whole story.  Europeans were also able to harness the power of germs.  From our human perspective, germs make us sick and sometimes kill us.  Notable examples of this include Black Death in Europe during the middle ages and the Great Influenza just after World War I.  If germs need our bodies to survive, why do they make us so much weaker?  It seems counterintuitive.

From the germs’ perspective, killing us is a side effect of survival.  When a germ infects us, it needs to also spread itself around in order to propagate the species.  Therefore, it causes us to cough, or are noses to run, or other sorts of things that we associate with sickness.  This is the germ’s way of spreading itself to other hosts so it can keep going.  It may kill its victim, but that’s what happens sometimes in the war of survival.  Of course, germs have evolved over time to incubate in its host so that symptoms do not appear at first and the host survives much longer.

Over time, humans develop a resistance to germs.  Like anything, when a great plague runs through a population and ravages it, there will be some people who are genetically resistant to the disease and survive to pass on their genes to the next generation.  This next generation inherits their parents’ resistance and the disease goes away.  Thus, history is filled with examples in Europe where disease ran through the population and killed many of them but gradually, Europeans developed immunity to the worst ones.

When the Europeans landed in the Americas, they brought over their diseases and those wiped out over 90% of the native population.  No diseases made it back the other way (with the possible exception of syphilis although this is disputed).  Why did the Europeans bring their diseases and wipe out the native population, and why were there no diseases waiting for them and send them back to the void from which they came?  The natives had not developed any resistances to the European diseases and this was the ultimate turning point in the European conquest of the rest of the world.

The answer has to do with animals.  When humans harnessed the power of animals, they generated food surpluses.  Food producing societies can support a larger population than hunters and gatherers, and therefore they have children more often.  The population is both larger and denser.  However, the side effect of supporting larger populations by harnessing the power of animals is that animals transmit their diseases to humans.  Humans and animals lived together in nearby compounds.  The humans would live in the house and the animals would live in the barn or the stable next to the house.  Humans would work with the animals every day.  Eventually, diseases jumped from animals to humans (for example, smallpox came to us from pigs).

Worse yet, epidemic diseases only spread when there are large, dense populations of humans living close to each other.  The disease jumps from person to person to person and spreads very quickly.  All of this led to a perfect storm:

  • Europeans were able to domesticate animals because the land mass where they lived were inhabited by animals that were suitable for domestication – pigs, horses, cows, etc.
  • By harnessing the power of the animal, they became food producers and settled in larger populations.
  • However, by living in close quarters with animals, disease eventually jumped to humans.
  • Because the population was large and dense, disease spread quickly among humans.
  • Those humans who were resistant to the disease survived to pass along their genetic resistance to descendants, thus making them more resistant than their ancestors.

Why weren’t there any diseases waiting for the Europeans in the Americas, or Australia, or New Guinea?  Because the people living there were not able to harness the power of animals because there were no animals suitable for domestication (the one exception is the llama in South America, but the native population never used them for food production – only carrying things; they also never lived with them in close quarters).  Because the native population had no animal diseases to acquire resistance, they were vulnerable to the ones that the Europeans brought with them. The disease that ravaged the Europeans’ ancestors now wiped out their native American contemporaries.

There is one exception to the European conquest using germs as an inadvertent weapon. In tropical areas, particularly in Africa, European settlers were beaten back by tropical diseases such as dengue fever and malaria.  Europeans had a much more difficult time penetrating into these areas because they did not have the resistance built up to fend off those germs.  The native Africans got around this problem by living in highland areas; even today, we still don’t have a great battle plan against malaria but modern states like Singapore and Malaysia have managed to eliminate it.

Had the Africans been able to domesticate rhinos, elephants, zebras and hippos, they could have easily used them to become food producers.  They also could have used them for military purposes.  Had they done that, I’d be writing this in Bantu instead of English.  There’s no doubt that elephants and rhinos could have defeated Roman horses.

But they didn’t.  The reason they didn’t is because rhinos, elephants, zebras and hippos are not suitable for domestication.  The ones that did become domesticated were located in Eurasia.  Thus, the answer to the question of why Europeans ended up with all the power is due to the powerful multiplier effect of being food producers and being able to support a class of people who could advance civilization, for better or for worse.

How did we get to where we are today?  It’s because of an “accident” in geography.

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In my previous post, I explained that the reason that Europeans conquered the rest of the world, and not vice versa, is because they were able to generate food surpluses.  With this food surplus, they could support classes of people not dedicated to the production of food.  They could do this because they lived in a part of the world where the land was very good at producing food, and these agricultural techniques were imported to the region by people emigrating from the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia where food production arose independently.

But better land is not the whole story.  Europeans were also able to harness the power of animals.

With animal power, Europeans were able to hitch them to plows to till their soil.  They could also use them as a source of meat, which is high in protein.  The combination of both of these meant that they could generate even more food surpluses.

The thing about animals is that in order to harness them, they have to be domesticated.  Domestication is the process of taming animals and genetically changing them to be more useful to humans.  Dogs are domesticated wolves.  Elephants have been tamed, but they have not been domesticated.  The ones that work with humans have been caught in the wild and then tamed.

There are conditions to domesticating animals.  Carnivores are not suitable because it is so inefficient to farm them.  In order to feed a 1000 pound carnivore, you need to feed them about 10x as much meat.  So, a 1000 pound carnivore would require 10,000 lbs of meat.  That is clearly inefficient, so carnivores are out. 

Some animals take too long to grow, like elephants.  They have a two year gestation period and take 15 years to mature.  It takes too long.  Similarly, other animals do not reproduce in captivity, others are too skittish (like gazelles), and others yet have too nasty a disposition (like zebras and hippos).  The reality is that in order for an animal to be domesticated, a lot of different variables have to go right but only one thing has to go wrong to disqualify it.  It is not easy to domesticate animals.

Of the 148 mammals over 100 lbs that might be suitable, only 14 have ever been domesticated: horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, one humped camels, two humped camels, reindeer, llamas, yaks, and four more I can’t remember.  Of these 14, 13 of them were domesticated in Europe (Eurasia, technically), and one (the llama) was domesticated in South America.  No animals were ever domesticated in North America, Africa, or Australia.

That sounds surprising about Africa.  We think of that continent as the place where you see animals.  But none have ever been domesticated there.

Eurasians were able to harness the power of animals.  Africans, native Americans, New Guineans and Australians did not.  This factor gave Eurasians a huge advantage in food production.  But for the Eurasians, it also gave them another advantage – horses were used in warfare.  Up until World War I, horses were the primary mode of transportation in warfare. They were fast and efficient and could move armies quickly.  Because they had horses, when Europeans embarked on their conquests of other continents they were able to strike faster and harder than the people they invaded.

This sounds a bit odd to us because in the US and Canada, we tend to think of the native Americans (Indians) as expert horsemen.  But the reality is that there were no horses native to the Americas until the Europeans introduced them (there were species of horses in the Americas but they went extinct 13,000 years ago).  After horses were introduced, the native population within a generation became expert horsemen and used them to form pockets of resistance against the European settlers.

Unfortunately, these pockets of resistance were futile.  As we all know, when Europeans came to the Americas, the native population was wiped out with diseases that claimed somewhere between 90-95% of the population.  Europeans had gradually, over time, built up immunities to these diseases.  The native populations had not, and the diseases ravaged through them and wiping them out.  But why did the Europeans ravage the natives with diseases?  Why weren’t there any diseases waiting for the Europeans when they arrived which would have sent them reeling back to Europe?

That’s for my next post.

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