Archive for May, 2011

Recently, I finished a book by a biologist by the name of Jared Diamond.  Diamond is an expert on the bird life in Papua New Guinea.  But 30 years ago, he was asked a question by one of the locals of the island: “How come you white men have so much cargo?  And how come we Papua New Guineans have so little cargo?” (Cargo is the word for “stuff”).  It’s a good question.  Try to answer it yourself.  Why is there so much imbalance in the world?  Why is the distribution of wealth and science so heavily concentrated in Europe?  Why did the Europeans go out and conquer the rest of the world, instead of the rest of the world going out and conquering Europe?

At first you might say that Europe had better technology than the rest of the world.  But that only begs the question – why did the Europeans develop better technology faster than the rest of the world?  How is it that they came to acquire it and others did not?

Do you have any theories?

Diamond answers the question in his book.  The answer is very complicated, and yet it is also very simple.  20,000 years ago most humans were living more or less the same existence.  We were hunters and gatherers with stone tools and lived a very basic life.  We would go out and kill animals for food or gather nuts and berries and bring them back and eat them.  When the game moved, so did we.

But something changed.  Some societies developed faster than others – much faster.  When Europeans landed in Australia in the 1700’s, they found native Aborigines still using stone tools.  Why did the Europeans build complex states while the Aborigines were still hunting and gathering?  What advantages did they have?

The answer is not racial.  Europeans are not more innately talented than others.  To put it simply, the answer is food.  Food is the answer.

What do I mean?  In any society, survival is the basic requirement.  You spend your day just sustaining yourself and that requires food.  However, if you have a surplus of food, you can now support a class of people that are not dedicated to gathering food.  Instead, this class of people can invent things, create bureaucracies and maintain standing armies.  If one society is spending all of its time gathering food to live, while another only spends part of its time gathering food, it will develop more rapidly because the people who are not gathering food are advancing society.

That’s why Europe advanced more rapidly than others.  They had a surplus of food and was able to support a non-food-gathering class.  But that begs the question – why did Europe generate food surpluses?  Why not the Africans?  Or the native North American population?  Or the New Guineans?

It all started in a part of the world known as the Fertile Crescent.  It is called this because the shape of the landmass that it forms looks like a crescent moon.  It starts in the Palestine/Israel area and forms an arc over to Mesopotamia. 


The Fertile Crescent is where agriculture first started.  It is an area of land that is particularly receptive to growing crops.  It had the best soil and rain flow.  Mesopotamia is the birthplace of civilization (but not humanity), and the reason is that this is where large human societies first started to settle.  The crops that could be grown here are wheat and barley, two of the most important crops even today because of the high protein content.  The crops were native to the area and could be domesticated (domestication is the modification of organisms thereby making them more useful to humans).  When humans figured this out about 8500 BC, people began to settle in one area rather than wandering around as nomads (agriculture and hunting and gathering co-existed for a period of time before hunting and gathering was supplanted).  The Agricultural Revolution was beginning.

The people of the Fertile Crescent got a head start because they discovered at an earlier age that they could grow crops and reliably produce food rather than have to hunt it down.  However, food production began natively (without input from people who wandered into the area and brought it with them) in other parts of the world.  In southern China, they began producing food around 7500 BC.  Food production also occurred independently in Papua New Guinea (about 4500 BC? I forget), in Mesoamerica (Mexico) about 3500 BC and the northeastern United States around 2500 BC.  However, the crops grown in these parts of the world were not as useful as the Fertile Crescent because they were harder to grow (such as corn in Mesoamerica) or didn’t provide the same amount of protein as wheat and barley.

As the cradle of civilization grew, they expanded west through northern Africa and into Europe, bringing their agricultural techniques with them.  But you may be wondering – if Mesopotamia and the middle east started producing food the earliest, why aren’t they the world powers today?

Indeed, why aren’t they?  The reason is that humans are not very good at managing the land.  Because of deforestation, they would clear the soil and eventually the Fertile Crescent became more desolate.  Iraq today is a desert but it wasn’t always that way.

But look at Europe – it is farther north but has a much wetter climate.  It is more resilient to deforestation.  Humans can work on the land but it recovers much faster.  Thus, humans in Europe were able to produce more food and generate food surpluses much more than anyone else in the world because of the climate zone they lived in.  This food surplus enabled them to support a warrior class (soldiers) and develop technology to go out and conquer the rest of the world.  They were able to do this because they had the time to do it.

The reason Europe conquered the world, and not vice versa, is because the inhabitants of Europe just so happened to live in a part of the world that was conducive to food production.

More in my next post.

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If there’s one thing that I know, it’s this – humans are smarter than cats.

As I have written about in the past, the rental cat that swings by my place is feisty.  He is prone to biting and scratching from time to time.  Obviously, he has never dealt with an adversary as clever as I am.

What do you do with a cat who sometimes scratches?  You let him scratch but prevent him from doing any damage.  You see, the other day I went and got one of my heavier oven mitts out of the kitchen drawers and put it on my couch.  When I start harassing the cat and he gets “scratchy” (he has clear signs that he is thinking about it), I put the oven mitt on.  I continue to bother him.  He then tries to bite and/or scratch me.  Of course, since I am wearing the oven mitt with a ton of padding, these bites and scratches have no effect on me.

“Ha, ha, ha!” I laugh at the cat.  “You can’t beat me!  You know why?  Because I’m a human and we’re on the top of the food chain!  And you’re just a cat! Ha, ha, ha!”  I’m not sure he understands that.

But it doesn’t matter.  The net effect is that I have figured out a way to cut down on the amount of punishment the cat dishes out to me and now most of it is one way.

It seems to be working.  He’s not as skittish as he was before.  Now he insists on coming inside, jumping up on a chair or couch or sometimes just the floor, and having a 2 to 3 hour nap.  From time to time I wake him up by rubbing his belly.  He seems to enjoy that because he purrs.


The other day while he was sleeping on the couch, I decided to put a pillow on him.  He didn’t react at all, I guess he didn’t mind.


He is learning to be a nicer cat after all.

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My co-worker and I like to make wagers on sporting events.  Typically, if there is a tournament like in hockey (the Olympics or the NHL playoffs), we will bet money on the outcome.  The problem is that these normally come out even because if there are 8 series, we each get half of them right and therefore our debts cancel out.

However, this year is a bit different.  My co-worker bet me that Philadelphia would win game 3 of its NHL conference semi-finals, but they lost.  He owed me $5.  The next night, his beloved Washington Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs.  He was in a state of shock.

We were discussing these events today and he was in a state of shock.  I said “Don’t feel bad, Philly was down 3 games to 0 last year and came back and won the series.”  He didn’t believe me.  I said that just last year there was an inevitable come back.  He insisted it wasn’t true.  I offered to bet him $5.  He accepted, I did a Bing search, found out that it was true and I won the bet.

That leads to an important lesson – only bet on things that you know are a sure thing.

That’s true in so many things in life.  Make the odds work in your favor.  If you’re a politician, run in a locale where the people always vote for your party.  If you’re trading stocks, buy in an uptrend near the beginning.  If you’re betting on sports, only do it if you know what the outcome will be.  Take the easy path!  You’ll make more money!

This is really a post on risk management.  Don’t over extend yourself; many successful people get that way because of less competition.  During the 1930’s the birthrate collapsed.  That means that kids born during the Depression had an advantage because the schools were built for a larger demographic.  Instead of having too few classroom space, there was too much.  That made it easier to get into your choice of schools.

There’s satisfaction to achieving challenges, but even more satisfaction when it comes to success.

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My girlfriend and I were browsing some jewelry pages the other day (gee, what on earth could we possibly be shopping for?) and she was showing me a web page from a company based out of Hippieville – I mean San Francisco – that sells ethical jewelry.  Basically, they sell “fair trade” precious jewels.  That is to say, they extract and import their precious metals from parts of the world that are politically stable such that their diamonds are not used as payment in human trafficking or political cronyism the way they are in the developing world.  Furthermore, they also come from regions where there are stricter environment standards (such as Canada).

Historically, I’ve never been a big fan of the left wing environmental movement, nor the left wing human rights movement.  In my view, they are a bunch of self-centered ignorant loud mouths who mean well and cause more damage than they prevent.  For example:

  • The environmental movement succeeded in their quest to ban DDT, a chemical that was sprayed to prevent mosquitoes.  The hippies got the chemical banned in the first world, but also went and got it banned in the developing world.  The result?  Millions of people die from malaria because of mosquito bites.  Nice work, hippies.
  • The environmental movement preaches about saving the rainforest, unaware (or maybe they are aware) that the reason people in South America are clear cutting it is for farmland in order to feed their families.  It’s really easy to eat your lobster and drink your chardonnay and then criticize others for wanting to do the same (when they don’t even have enough to begin with).  Quite frankly, unless you and your family are starving then you need to keep your mouth shut.
  • They criticize sweatshops as exploiting human capital.  However, people do not work in them because they are forced to do so, but because there are no other market opportunities in the country.  Thus, without the sweatshops, people would have even higher unemployment and poverty.  Now there’s a head scratcher.

Hopefully you can understand my reticence to associate myself with the environmental movement.  However, when it comes to purchasing jewelry, I am A-OK with purchasing from this particular web page.

As a consumer, I have a range of options of where to buy things from.  And while I don’t know exactly what goes on in the mines of west Africa, I do know that continent is plagued with corruption and human rights violations.  I don’t know for sure where my money goes if I send it there, but if I do buy from this other location, then I do know that the place if probably environmentally responsible because it gets its precious metals from Canada where there are stricter regulations.

Furthermore, Canada also has a strong record on human rights for its own citizens (that’s why we exported Celine Dion to the United States).  Thus, I feel much better about sending my money back to Canada where the extraction of the raw materials is (probably) done ethically as opposed to Africa.  Yes, Africans need the money and market opportunities are the best way to do that… but I don’t have confidence that sending my money there will actually get there and instead get distributed to the kleptocrats.

And thus, I buy from the land of the Hippies.  Even ones in San Francisco.

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I got my tax refund this past week and I deposited it two days ago.  Today, the check cleared.

As I said I was going to do, I donated $1000.00 to the American Red Cross.  I was going to do a direct debit from my bank account, but instead I put it on my credit card.

I wonder what Dave Ramsey would say about that.

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The other day, my girlfriend and I were in a department store – Target – and were picking some things up.

Now, I have been through this drill enough times to know that my girlfriend has a habit of getting lost and/or distracted whenever we have plenty of things already and are walking back to the checkout counter.  For example, we’ll have everything on our list and will walk back.  We will pass by something-or-other and she’ll say “Oh! We have to look at this!” and then spend 5 minutes looking at it.  To be clear, it is not we who are spending 5 minutes looking at it, it’s only one of us.  It doesn’t even matter what the object is, but with great reliability this disruption on the way back to checkout is frequent occurrence.

In my brilliance I decided to think ahead.  On our list of things to get was a couple of cases of bottled water.  We were getting this for a friend’s party as she was going to hand them out to the homeless.  Thus, we wandered through the aisles getting random doodads, and on the way back we passed by the bottled water.  I picked up two cases of 24 bottles each, giving me a grand total of 48 cases.  48 cases of bottled water is 24 kg, which translated to 53 pounds.  It’s not overly heavy (like half my body weight) but it’s not light.  It’s a struggle to carry it for a long period of time.

Pay attention – we picked these up after we had gotten everything else on the list.  And I made sure that it was obvious that carrying these cases of water was not easy and that we couldn’t dilly-dally.

And it worked!  As we were walking back and I was struggling a bit, my girlfriend got distracted by something or other in another aisle, as is her custom.  “Carol!” I said.  “These things are heavy!”  Realizing that I had been forced to carry 53 lbs of water, she stopped looking at whatever she was looking at and we headed off to the counter.  Making me stand in place and holding these things was clearly a drawback to looking at something that wasn’t very important.

Success!  My plan worked!  The very reason I picked up those heavy bottles is in order to signal to her that stopping by something random on the way out and inspecting it would not work; I couldn’t hold them in place that long.  The only option we had was to head straight to the check out counter and pay for these things so that I could put them down. 

As I was grunting and heaving, carrying these things out of the store, I was impressed by my own cleverness.  You see?  Thinking ahead really does work!

I was chuckling out loud as we were walking out, and she figured out my plan.  But it doesn’t matter, it was a plan that was flawlessly executed.

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In case you’ve been living in a cave (bin Laden sure wasn’t), news broke last night that Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 terrorist attacks and founder of al Qaeda, was killed by a force of US Navy Seals and CIA operatives.  No sooner had the news broke than political one ups-man-ship began along with people putting their own spin on things:

  • Die hard Democrats started claiming that Obama accomplished what Bush could not.
  • Republicans claimed that Bush started the fight and Obama completed it.
  • Others claiming that we shouldn’t have anything to celebrate because celebrating the death of a person is sick and twisted.
  • Still others claiming that bin Laden was a normal person in need of spiritual redemption, and that we should not rejoice in the stumble of our enemies.

I think that administration officials did a good job in relaying the message when they said that they caught bin Laden and the people behind it did an excellent job in execution.  However, Obama warned that the struggle was not complete.  Indeed, the most reasonable voices out there are saying that the mission is not over.

Here’s my take:

  • Capturing and killing bin Laden is a great achievement for the American intelligence and military community, and even the current administration.  It should be celebrated because it was a goal that was set out ten years ago.
  • The problem is that bin Laden’s inner circle, al Qaeda Prime, has been mostly marginalized for years.  His death is largely symbolic and it remains to be seen whether or not his passing will demoralize others who take action in his name, or he inspires them with his death as a martyr (similar to Che Guavara).  Most elected officials are warning the latter.
  • Even though the Obama administration has stated that this does not mean that they will pull out of Afghanistan (the US is fighting the Taliban which provides sanctuary to terrorists, something the US fears will happen again if they do not defeat them), it will be politically difficult to maintain the operation there.  If the main reason for invading Afghanistan, as sold to the public, was to get those responsible for Sept 11, then with bin Laden dead that justification is no longer there.  Political opponents will exploit that fact, whether it be Republican or Democrat.
  • The US will have a lot of questions for Pakistan.  For years, the US has accused the Pakistani ISI of supporting the Taliban.  That’s the reason why they didn’t share their intel with Pakistan and acted alone – they thought that Pakistani intelligence would tip off bin Laden.  Pakistani officials denied for years that bin Laden was within their borders, but he was – only a couple of hours north from the capital in a large compound, not in the caves on the Afghan-Pakistan border like everyone thought.
  • Osama bin Laden knew what he was doing when he launched terrorism attacks, multiple times, against the United States.  There is no need to feel sorry for him.

That’s my take.

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