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.”


“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

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

to engineer is human by henry petroski

I’ve ogled To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski for several years. So when I saw it at a local used book store for just a couple dollars, I snagged a copy.

Along with some of his other works, such as The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, I’ve found the titles interesting, and the back covers alluring.

Sadly, while the book isn’t bad in and of itself, Petroski’s writing sounds like that of his profession – a professor. His style, while informative, carries the dryness associated with being in academia far too long.

Henry obviously knows a lot about engineering – but his delivery is too formal. Compared to works such as 1421 by Gavin Menzies (review), To Engineer is Human sounds like a graduate thesis. Maybe that was the author’s goal – if it was, he accomplished it.

If it was to make something normal folks would like and want to read, I think he failed miserably.


I love maps. I have a calendar with historical maps on my wall next to my desk. I love books based around atlases (such as the Historical Atlas of series (many by Ian Barnes (similarly related review)). I like going to museums, visiting websites, used book shops, etc and just peruse the maps. I used to have a small collection of rail and bus transit maps from around the world (London, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York City, Washington DC, Chicago …). On my phone I have Apple Maps, Google Maps, MapQuest, Scout, TeleNav, Park Me, and Google Earth.

I love books like 1421 by Gavin Menzies (my review) that have histories of map making, ancient maps reproduced, etc.

When I graduated from HVCC in 2001, I had hoped to join many of my classmates from school at MapInfo. I think GIS is fascinating (and know someone, now, who works for the KY government doing GIS).

I wish I could be a cartographer.

I can’t draw, though – so I sate my appetite for geography via reading maps others have made.

Data visualization, which is all map-making is, is another, broader interest of mine – but also one I don’t have enough of a grasp of to work with intelligently too often.

All this leads me to ask for the best introduction to GIS you have seen for someone interested in cartography, and with a basic knowledge of system design and architecture. What would it be?

the basque history of the world by mark kurlansky

I have long been interested in the Basque people; first introduced to them nearly 13 years ago in an introduction to terrorism class (a year and a half before it was “cool”) with the separatist group ETA.

So it was with great interest I grabbed The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky off the shelf of my local library recently.

Before continuing: wow – Mark’s writing is intensely engaging, wide-sweeping, and both in-line with some of my previous knowledge of the group, and builds and extends that view in new, exciting ways.

Kurlansky has had the opportunity to live in and among the Basque people for years, and brings a great deal of insight from interviews, papers, books, histories, etc that showcase the “Basqueness” of the people in eastern France and northern Spain – aka Basqueland – in contrast to the “Spanishness” of what we think of as modern Spain (and, to a lesser extent, the “Frenchness” of France). For example, it was the Basques who trained the English in whaling, built much of the armada which was damaged so severely in 1588. Basques also largely crewed the exploratory vessels of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan (indeed, the commander who brought Magellan’s mission to a completion after his death was a Basque).

For centuries, Basques have been stereotyped as reclusive, secret-keeping, quiet people. They have been known as smugglers across the France-Spain border, rural, and a nation of people who has never had their own country. For millenia they have lived in the same region of Europe – creating some of what has been frequently credited to others in modern industry: in addition to the aforementioned whaling activities, they also contributed to new steel industry by providing ideal iron ore both to their own factories and to the British blast furnaces in the 1800s which utilized the Bessemer process.

So many anecdotes, triva points, and fascinating facts and stories of the Basque people, region, and history are wrapped in The Basque History of the World, that to do true justice would require reading the book.

Interspersed through the pages are recipes for traditional Basque foods, terms, words, and phrases; having never visited that portion of the world in person, I feel like I have gotten a true taste of the people through this book.

ghosts in the fog by samantha seiple

For much of my life I have been interested in WWII – my grandpa Myers was in the Navy in the Pacific theater on a mine sweeper. My dad read extensively on the war, largely because of his father, and passed along an interest in military history  – the navy in particular – and intriguing stories of battles that rarely get headlines. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Guadalcanal, Midway, George Patton, Chester Nimitz, Eisenhower, The Desert Fox, etc etc.

But not many people realize that the Japanese did, in fact, attack American-owned soil beyond just Pearl Harbor: they launched balloon bombs at the Pacific Northwest, there is a large (though never completed) gun emplacement above San Francisco to guard the Golden Gate, the Japanese developed carrier subs to try to attack the Panama Canal, and there was a relatively long naval, ground, and air war around, in, and over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska – wherin the Japanese even occupied American soil for part of the war.

One weather report given during that campaign indicated that all aircraft were to be grounded because the crosswinds were near 100mph – and fog made visibility too low to takeoff, navigate, and land (fwiw, I don’t know how you get fog and 100mph winds – but it happens in the Bering Sea)!

Samantha Seiple’s book Ghosts in the Fog spends a little under 200 pages addressing the history of that story in a readily-accessible format (aimed dominantly at the pre-teen/teen market). Characterized by an approachable and engaging series of narratives, it well describes this second ‘forgotten war’ in American history (some would say that the Spanish-American War was the first, and that the Korean War (third on my list) was “The Forgotten War” – but this aspect of WWII is certainly not well-enough known). Covering a spectrum of intelligence, operations, and geographical data, Ms Seiple gives a solid showing in this work.

The Japanese first bombed Dutch Harbor – more commonly-known in current pop culture as the base from which crabbing boats operate on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch – which surprised the theater commander who believed that cryptographic intercepts supplied to him were intentionally-false messages on the part of the Japanese trying to lure him away from their real destination. Unfortunately for Admiral Theobald, and the natives and soldiers who called that part of the world home, the intelligence provided which indicated the Japanese were aiming at Dutch Harbor was correct – and he was hundreds of miles east and south of the region when they struck.

I hope more people become aware of this ‘forgotten’ aspect of World War II, as the lives of the airmen, sailors, and soldiers who fought and died (on both sides) should be remembered.