antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

the genie of the lamp

A Polish gentleman was walking through Krakow one afternoon, and found a curious object covered in dust and grime.

As he was cleaning it, out popped a genie.

“I am the Genie of the Lamp™. I will grant you 3 wishes. Choose wisely.”

The gentleman asked, “3 wishes? Any 3 wishes?”

“Yes, any 3 wishes you choose.”

The gentleman thought for a moment and said, “I wish for the Mongol invasion of Poland.”

To which the genie replied, “The Mongol invasion of Poland? With Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hordes? You’re Polish, you know – are you sure?”

“Yes, quite sure.”

“OK. Give me a few minutes.”

Up from the ancient battlefields, graveyards, and mausoleums across Asia rose Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hordes. Sweeping across the steppes of Asia. Havoc! Bedlam! Death! Destruction everywhere! Into Poland! Leveling everything in their path.

And back to their resting places went the Mongol Hordes.

“Phew – that was probably the biggest wish I have ever granted. Are you satisfied, sir?”

Looking around decimated Krakow, the gentleman replied, “not bad, genie, not bad.”

“What do you desire for your second wish, master?”

“Easy – the Mongol invasion of Poland.”

“You want..the same wish. Again‽”

“Yes – is that against the rules?”

“Well…no. But. Well. OK. If you insist, sir.”

Up from the ancient battlefields, graveyards, and mausoleums across Asia rose Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hordes. Sweeping across the steppes of Asia. Havoc! Bedlam! Death! Destruction everywhere! Into Poland! Leveling everything in their path.

And back to their resting places went the Mongol Hordes.

“I have never been asked for the same exact wish twice in a row before, master. How did that suit you?”

With barely a stone left atop another, the man said, “Genie – that was better than the first time.”

“Thank you, master – I live only to please.”

“Genie, I know what I desire for my third wish.”

“Yes, master?”

“The Mongol invasion of Poland.”

“…AGAIN‽

“Yes – unless wishing for the same thing three times in a row is against the rules.”

“Master, you must be the most peculiar possessor of the lamp I have ever had. As you wish, sir.”

Up from the ancient battlefields, graveyards, and mausoleums across Asia rose Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hordes. Sweeping across the steppes of Asia. Havoc! Bedlam! Death! Destruction everywhere! Into Poland! Leveling everything in their path.

And back to their resting places went the Mongol Hordes.

“Sir, I must ask – I have been in this business a very long time. Why, praytell, did you wish for the Mongol invasion of Poland – and why did you wish for it three times?”

The Polish gentleman replied, “that’s easy, genie – every time the Mongols invade Poland, they invade Russia. Twice.”


I don’t know the original author – but I’ve found this hilarious since I first heard it probably 10 years ago or more

the fishing’s great!

Several years ago, we lost my great-uncle Don. This is a story from him, as handed-down by my dad.

We had been fishing all day. Rowed north and south across the pond. Rowed east and west across the pond. Saw turtles sunning themselves on low tree branches. It was hot. It was muggy. It was cloudless.

Hours went by. And more hours. As dinner time neared, we had caught precisely….nothing. Bupkis. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Don even brought out the Vibra-Bat. When the Vibra-Bat came out, you knew it was time to pack it in: if Don had ever caught something with the Vibra-Bat, I’m pretty sure he would’ve died of a heart attack. The Vibra-Bat was the lure of last resort. If the Vibra-Bat came out of the tackle box, you knew there were no fish. Anywhere. The pond was empty. There might not have even been an amoeba. No fish could pass-up the Vibra-Bat! So if it came out, you knew the day was up: because no fish was EVER caught with a Vibra-Bat. Not. Even. One.

The Vibra-Bat was out. It was time to row for the Bronco. It was time to put your poles away, folks. It was time to plan for dinner – no explanations as to why there were no fish coming home: the Vibra-Bat had come out!

As we came ashore, a station wagon pulled-up. Out hopped an excited dad! There was a whole friggin’ posse of kids in the back.

“How’s the fishing?” he asked.

“The fishing’s great!” replied Don.

“Hey, kids! Let’s get out and start fishing!” exclaimed the dad.

As the boat was hurriedly tied atop the Bronco, Don said, “boy – I’m sure happy he didn’t ask how the catching was.”

That was my uncle Don. Always ready to answer what, exactly, you asked.

facebook is aol

Facebook is AOL.

Yes, that AOL.

America Online.

The one that advertised 20 years ago in conjunction with companies things like, “search AOL keyword ‘ford'”.

That’s what Facebook is now. It’s AOL – but without the ISP aspect.

Check that – Facebook is (or “has”) an ISP: just look at internet.org.

So we’ve come full circle.

The ISP that millions of Americans used to get online, send email, chat, read news, keep up with friends, follow/participate in chat rooms, and see “the web” (through an extremely walled garden, mind you) has been replaced wth a website that hundreds of millions of people around the world use to send messages, chat, read news, keep up with friends, participate in groups, and, apparently, get online (if you’re in a part of the world Facebook is targeting with its ISP, of course).

steam by andrea sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe’s book Steam: The Untold Story of American’s First Great Invention was a pure joy to read. Being the second review I’m writing with my “new” system, I hope you find this book as interesting as I have.

In 1784, James Rumsey designed a boat that could, by purely mechanical means, move its way upstream. What he devised was truly brilliant: imagine a catamaran or pontoon boat with a platform across the two hulls. Anchored to the platform is a waterwheel. The waterwheel dips into the river, and is connected via a linkage to poles that push the boat against the current like a Venetian Gondola.

Why did he develop such a device? Because at the time, shipping by barge etc was incredibly simple downstream – you load-up the barge, give it a small crew, and float downriver. But because there was no way of mechanically returning the vessel upstream (without using sail power, which can be fickle to use, and uses a lot of otherwise-usable cargo area). So barges and shipping vessels tended to be crudely made so they would only ever go downstream – at their destination they’d be turned into building materials. And the crews would have to return on foot. To put this in perspective, it took about 4 weeks to float a barge from Pittsburg down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. And it took about 6 months to get home.

Enter the need for reliable mechanical ship propulsion.

Beginning in his teens as a surveyor for the 6th Lord Fairfax, George Washington became enamored with the idea of inland navigation – that is, using streams, canals, rivers, and lakes to transport people and goods instead of the ocean. During his tenure as a surveyor, then an engineer, then a general, he never lost sight of what he viewed as the budding nation’s biggest hurdle to westward expansion – the overwhelmingly high cost of transporting goods from east to west, and vice versa. Along the coast, transport was simple and cheap. But to go far inland made prices exorbitantly high for both consumers and shippers – which made markets hard to tap.

The initial days of the steam wars are proof that ideas are worthless. Stationary steam engines, like those made by Boulton & Watt were too heavy and inefficient to possibly consider putting on a boat – at any scale. So while the idea of steam-powered travel had been running around folks’ minds for 20+ years by the time Rumsey built his simple mechanical boat, there was no way to practically use it.

What was needed were major improvements on steam engine design and implementation before wider applications for their power could be found. This is where the steamboat wars start to become exciting. Independently, Rumsey and a man named John Fitch (with his business partner) developed the pipe boiler which reduced the amount of water needed for operating an engine for the same power output, increased fuel efficiency, cut heating time, and lightened the engine itself. Traditional steam engines used a pot boiler – effectively a massive tank of water that would be heated in gestalt. As anyone who has ever timed how long it takes to start boiling water in a tea kettle vs a stock pot knows, water is very difficult to heat, and lots of energy is needed to move it even a couple degrees.

The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom none of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. –Thomas Jefferson

Fascinatingly, Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of patents and copyright law, and likely would have campaigned heavily against it in the Constitutional process had he not been Minister to France. From a letter he wrote years after serving on the first Patent Commission Board:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising form them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society.

Contrast this to the efforts of both Fitch and Rumsey who lobbied for patent boards of some kind (at both the state and federal levels) between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Unites States Constitution.

Sutcliffe’s account of the first “steamboat wars” shows that intellectual property litigation is an expensive, time-consuming, and distracting effort – whose end may or may not have any value.

Progress is an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. –George Orwell

Thornton’s condenser is undoubtedly one of the best calculated to condense without a jet of water, but I conceive the difficulty of getting rid of the air insurmountable .. when [the air] is drove back again by the steam to the cold condenser, it becomes nearly equal to common air in density, and skulks into the bottom of the condenser for security. –John Fitch (describing a new condenser design in 1790)

Based upon the extensive research Ms Sutcliffe has done into the early history and designs of steam engines and their associated mechanical conveyances, an old idea of mine has newly gained plausible validity: that of a steam-powered tank. Back in high school I postulated that both the power-to-weight and power-to-size ratio of steam engines had advanced sufficiently by the late 1850s that, in conjunction with a primitive form of caterpillar track design (which Fitch would have called an “endless chain of feet” (vs an early idea of his to use an “endless chain of paddles”)), that the first fully-mechanized war machines could have been built and sent into battle not in WWI, as the first tanks actually were, but instead during the Civil War – 50 years sooner. Leonardo Da Vinci has designed a human-powered armored car in the late 15th century. Replacing man power with steam power could have been a logical thing to have done – but no one ever did.

In the availability of men willing to persevere with a possibly “ridiculous” idea, America had an advantage. –Frank D Pager on the early successes of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Fitch and Rumsey took their war to the people in a series of “pamphlets” published over the course of many months. From Sutcliffe’s description of a “pamphlet” in this context, it seems they were the late 18th century version of a sourced blog or op-ed. Ranging from 20 to 50 (or more) pages in length, with affidavits, letters, and histories presented, the pamphlet was the common man’s research or position paper. I suppose they may have been used by others, too – but the context given in Steam shows them used as marketing and propaganda pieces.

He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations unborn, for it is impossible that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him. –Oliver Evans

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. –Tony Benn (British Labour politician)

Seems that’s where Ghandi may have gotten the inspiration for this famous quotation:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or perhaps it was Benn who was inspired by Ghandi. Or maybe they just realized the same thing independently.

coolidge by amity shlaes

Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president. Has been for a long time.

So when I saw Coolidge at my local bookstore recently, I was very excited to grab a copy and read Amity Shlaes rendition of his life.

In just the first 18 pages is enough to inspire anyone to love the man we call our 30th President.

Some choice excerpts form the introduction and first chapter:

Under Coolidge, the federal debt fell. Under Coolidge the top income tax rate came down by half, to 25 percent. Under Coolidge, the federal budget was always in surplus. Under Coolidge, unemployment was 5 percent, or even 3 percent. Under Coolidge, Americans wired their homes for electricity and bought their first cars or household appliances on credit. Under Coolidge, the economy grew strongly, even as the federal government shrank. Under Coolidge, the rates of patent applications and patents granted increased dramatically… Under Coolidge, a man from a town without a railroad station, Americans moved from the road and into the air… Under Coolidge, wages rose and interest rates came down so that the poor might borrow more easily.

Coolidge kept government out of the way of commerce.

Indeed, Coolidge was a rare kind of hero: a minimalist president, an economic general of budgeting and tax cuts. Economic heroism is subtler than other forms of heroism.

It was Washington whom Coolidge emulated in his deliberate decision not to seek reelection in 1928.

Without knowing Coolidge, Americans cannot know the 1920s.

Most presidents place faith in action; the modern presidency is perpetual motion. Coolidge made virtue of inaction… “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he wrote… In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do. Coolidge is our great refrainer.

“The Coolidge family recipe collection contained instructions for ‘Scripture Cake’:

One cup of butter. Judges 5:25
Three and one half cups flour. 1 Kings 4:22
Two cups sugar. Jeremiah 6:20
Two cups raisins. 1 Samuel 30:12
One cup of water. Genesis 24:17
Two cups figs. 1 Samuel 30:12
Two cups almonds. Genesis 43:11
Six eggs. Isaiah 10:14
One tablespoonful honey. Exodus 16:31
A pinch of salt. Leviticus 2:13
Spices to taste. 1 Kings 10:2
Two tablespoonfuls baking pow. 1 Cor 5:6
Follow Solomon’s advice for making good boys (Proverb 23:14), and you will have good cake.
Bake in a loaf and ice.

Calvin wrote to his grandmother in 1887 while at boarding school,

“I am in first rate health and I am having a good time but having a good time is not everything to think about in this world.”

I pity anyone who does not appreciate Coolidge, and anyone who believes that emulating the leader of our most successful decade is a poor idea.

If only every president lead like Coolidge did.

kingmakers by karl ernest meyer and shareen blair brysac

Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac present what should be a fascinating history of the modern Middle East in their recent book Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East.

I have been interested in Middle Eastern history (ancient and modern) for many years, and so was excited to see this book as I was browsing my local library recently. A couple years ago I read Gideon’s Spies. And I have read various articles, books, and treatises that either focus on the Middle East, or reference it in less-than-passing ways over the years.

Sadly, like so many other books I’ve read in the recent past, Kingmakers stays too academic to read comfortably. I couldn’t get through more than a couple chapters before deciding I would learn more about Middle Eastern history from Al Jazeera and Wikipedia than from this book.

why nations fail by daron acemoglu and james a robinson

I first came across Why Nations Fail at my local Half Price Books. After seeing it on the shelves a couple times, but still being unsure about whether I really wanted to read it or not, I reserved it at my local library.

Now I wish I had bought it (and likely will) – Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, while sometimes slipping into an academic, journalistic tone, present a fantastic historical, economic, cultural, and international view into the similarities, and differences, of “national” failures around the world over the last several centuries.

They spend a great deal of time expounding on the differences of countries that succeed and those that don’t – and offer insights into how failing nations could, potentially, turn themselves around.

Interestingly, the factors that play-into national success and failure are similar throughout history – critical junctures, inclusive/pluralistic political and economic environments vs extractive/exclusive political and economic structures, empowered citizenries, overbearing rulers, literacy, economic incentives (positive and negative), etc.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy:

the overthrow of a regime presiding over extractive institutions heralds the arrival of a new set of masters to exploit the same set of pernicious extractive institutions (p366)

My recommendation? Buy it. Read it. Share it. The background and conclusions this book presents and reaches should be required reading for anyone who wants to see their nation “do better” – politicians, businessmen, citizens, NGOs: all would benefit from applying what is demonstrated in this excellent work.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: 4.5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Educational value 4.5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5