Sunday, September 11, 2011

New York

It was a New York weekend for me.  After visiting the World Trade Center, walking the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time, hearing dozens of kids sing "America the Beautiful" in Union Square, and most recently viewing the amazing Bryant Park 9/11 memorial, I felt compelled to write briefly about the topic that has changed our lives, and indeed the course of history. 
After years of reflection, I continue to be  astounded by the overwhelming influence of the event itself, not to mention the massive chain reaction of geopolitical, economic, religious and social events that followed.  On a personal level, as a New Yorker for almost five years now, I can't help but think that it was people like me who were sitting in those towers ten years ago- just another Tuesday in the office...  Who could have ever guessed?

Whether we like it or not, from the minutiae to the heady, future of the world stuff, 9/11 now colors much of our experience.  When the 47th floor of my office building shook during last month's earthquake, nobody vocalized what everyone was thinking: "have we been hit?  Is this it?"  The cynic in me believes that the cadre of national guard troops on the streets outside our apartment during Hurricane Irene was nothing more than a test run for some future cataclysmic terrorist event.  The possibility of another attack is subdued, but deeply rooted in our minds.  The feeling is glossed away by our daily routine, but screams to the forefront at the first hint of trouble (why is the subway stopping between stops??).   And all this against the backdrop of a substantially weakened Al Qaeda and tremendously improved and better-coordinated security and intelligence outfit.  On my walk home today, I saw no fewer than four police checkpoints, stopping cars, asking questions, keeping us safe.  

In spite of this vigilance, a follow on attack of some kind is perhaps inevitable. Yet we soldier on.  Despite his recent warning of a specific and credible terrorist threat to New York City, Mayor Bloomberg made a point, as he always does, to ride the subway to work on Friday.  A big, NYC middle finger to those who try to disrupt our way of life.  This is one of countless examples of how these attacks have brought out the best in us.  

We have suffered together, and we  have shared together: despair, disbelief, anger, sorrow, hope...  We have been bent, but not broken.  We cannot be broken. 

On September 11, 2001, one reporter watched on live television as the South tower collapsed; he paused, then uttered: "There are no words."  Now, ten years later, we have found our words.  September 11, for better or for worse, has become an indelible part of our collective psyche.  We cannot ignore this fact, nor should we.  We must instead seek to understand and channel this dizzying hodgepodge of emotions and experiences, see through the fog, and move forward together...

But never forget.  

Friday, December 31, 2010

Week 52: Ideas

It is with some relief and some sadness that this project comes to a close. As you know, there are many reasons I undertook The 52 Week Project. Part of it was to learn about new and random topics, part of it was to develop as a writer and thinker, and part of it was to prove that anyone with an internet connection can learn, well, anything. But above all, this project was about ideas. From the top down, this was about actually implementing one of the many ideas I've had over the past few years. From the bottom up, it was about mastering the process of developing and acting on one new idea each week. This may seem overly simple, but that's the point. It's the simple stuff that so often never gets done...

My last post ended on somewhat of a low point; the world is moving very quickly, and it is hard for us to keep up. Labor supply pressure is jeopardizing the lifestyle we have come to expect. People are confused and afraid. But that's not the end of the story. It starts with a basic question: what was it that initially pushed the United States to become arguably the most innovative and successful country in the history of the planet? Ideas, ideas, ideas. From the light bulb to railroads to the internet, ideas have propelled us forward. They are, unsurprisingly, our only option for continuing to improve our collective human experience. Individually and together we need to do more of that which encourages and fosters ideas, and less of that which inhibits and kills ideas.

Guess what? Obstacles abound. From stifling co-workers to excess regulation (try starting a company in Europe) to the omnipresent naysayer, there will never be a dearth of forces fighting the creation and implementation of ideas. But all these obstacles are nothing in the face of our single biggest obstacle: ourselves. Too tired, too busy, too cynical.... too scared. An honest, introspective look will prove some or all of these qualities in most of us. We need to recognize this, recalibrate mentally, and change our attitudes.

I'm not asking you to invent the next internet. There are degrees of innovation, and on every level we can improve. The first question often is, "how do I make millions on this?" Erase this question, and replace it with "how do I make this meaningful?" With this mindset, monetary gains will follow as a second order effect. Too often in the last decade we asked the former question, and ignored the latter. As a result, this decade has in many ways been lost: we squandered a surplus, borrowed tremendously at every level, and failed to invest in our future. Financially, the country is worse off as a result. But the biggest hit is not financial; the biggest hit is to our psyche. We need to overcome this sense that our best days have passed. Put more bluntly, it's once again time to pull ourselves up by our proverbial bootstraps.

The good news is that it isn't that hard; one big idea, or millions of little ideas, would be a game changer. That's all it takes. An idea can come from anyone at anytime. At inception it will be a dim light - perhaps just a conversation. It is our job to develop these pieces of inspiration and shine light onto them. If I sound evangelical here, it's by design; in my opinion, the quantity and quality of ideas are what defines human progress. And to me, that is sacred.

So as you think ahead to your 2011 New Year's Resolutions, I will leave you with one critical question: when was the last time you took an idea and made it real?

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Week 51: Can You Keep Up?

It is now obvious to everyone that the world has become fast. Very, very fast. I can't speak to how fast the world was pre-1985, but my guess is that it was a hell of a lot slower than it is today. Frankly, it's hard to keep up - and this is coming from someone who has basically grown up with the internet, and who has been an early adopter of AOL followed by Gmail followed by Facebook followed by Twitter. I can't imagine how fast the world must be for those who learn this stuff piecemeal; for those who don't think of an iPhone as an additional, indispensable appendage.

I've written about 50 topics in the past year. The process of learning -- and writing -- about a new topic each week has heightened my awareness of time in a way that I had not expected. I mean that on several levels. On a micro level, I now know exactly how much time it takes me to research, write, edit, and distribute a blog post (1.5 hrs, 1 hr, 15 min, 20 min, respectively). But I've also learned to appreciate the passing of a year. While on the one hand the structured nature of the blog (week 1, week 2, etc.) helped me at least recognize in a quantifiable way how time really does fly, on the other, I've realized that a lot happens in one year. More than most of us realize. Can you believe it has been a year since Haiti's disastrous earthquake? That we've had a Winter Olympics, an African World Cup, a US Congressional election, a stock market flash crash... It already seems so distant.

But lately it's been about more than just the discrete events that take place in a year; it's also about the rapidly increasing pace and magnitude of events. In five minutes on a random day in May 2010, stocks fell by almost 10% - FIVE MINUTES! 550 million people - almost 1 in 10 globally - now use Facebook (I was roughly user number 15,000, thank you very much). My point is, as the world speeds up, the new winners and losers are being determined ruthlessly, efficiently, quickly. I believe much of the angst about the future of the United States, the possibility of another recession, and certainly the great and ongoing deleveraging has to do with how quickly an assortment of events have transpired. Suddenly China is here. Suddenly there are no jobs. Suddenly we are forced to watch one stimulus measure after another enacted to keep us from the theoretical abyss. Those with scale and leverage to the global economy are again thriving, and those whose skills or education are provincial are losing out. How can this not create some serious social and political friction? How can the average person keep up with such strong, secular forces? The sheer magnitude of these shifts is hard enough to swallow - simultaneously comprehending the speed at which they are taking hold seems almost impossible.

So what can be done? It starts with an honest discourse. While fraud and greed have undoubtedly caused pain and suffering (as they do at the end of any bubble), what's really going on starts with the massive new supply of labor to the world. Billions globally want their shot at this capitalism game, and will work harder for lower wages to get there. In a world where money flows instantaneously and is agnostic to who has won in the past, this means wage pressures for most low to medium skilled jobs in the United States. We can argue all we want to about the rich getting richer, or about the highest marginal tax rate. That will address only tangentially this basic truth about the supply and demand for labor. When was the last time a politician talked openly about this? Change is happening, and it is happening fast. We need to recognize this, accept its significance, and adapt. Others already have, we are behind the curve.

The final 52 Week Project post will be a more positive piece that picks up where this post left off. As an example of how fast the world is, I've gone back to my old posts and highlighted a few topics for which meaningful changes have taken place since initial publishing:

- Since week 9's post on the iPhone, the iPhone 4 and iPad have come out. Apple's stock has gone up 58% since the post.

- Since my piece on the legality of marijuana, California's heralded Proposition 19 failed to make pot legal.

- Elias, the Bolivian potato farmer to whom I lent $25 on Kiva has paid back his loan in full.

- I've continued to drink more tea than ever and feel very healthy after having stuck to my new regimen of vitamins and supplements.

- The unpronounceable volcano Eyjafjallajökull has dropped from our collective memory.

- The great new beer that you've still never heard of, Old Swatty, continues to be produced on a small scale, although it now proudly sports labels!

- The answer to the question "Are we alone?" became more complicated with NASA's very recent discovery of an arsenic life form.

- Khan Academy has taken off, and is now carried and heavily promoted by iTunesU.

- My view that Borders and Barnes & Noble are dead appears to be a more mainstream view. Last week, the CEO of Simon & Schuster conceded: “My No. 1 concern is the survival of the physical bookstore.”

- The US Postal Service continues to lose money, while its private counterparties continue to increase revenues.

- Blockbuster announced plans to close another 180 stores.

- Finally, and perhaps most personally relevant, my new workout regimen has already been halted in its tracks. Too many pushups and dips have sadly caused some pulled muscles in my arms.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Week 50: The Little White Pill that Could (And Still Can!)

In case you haven't yet noticed, I love items whose genius lies in an elegant simplicity. I also love items whose benefits continue to evolve in surprising, meaningful ways. Duct tape and the iPhone are two obvious examples. I will now write about a third: aspirin. Before your eyes either glaze over or dart to that X in the top right corner of your browser, hear me out. I guarantee that by the time you finish reading this short post, you will have learned at least one new benefit of this wonder drug.

When my Dad learned I'd be writing about aspirin, he pulled from his voluminous bookshelves one relatively thin piece titled "Aspirin Therapy: Cutting the Risk of Heart Disease." He was gifted the book by our former Houston neighbor, the eminent Dr. William S. Fields, who wrote the book's foreword. Most of my research was done online (per my blog's stringent requirements), but I did leaf through the book, and particularly enjoyed this quote: "It has been more than 140 years since the first completely man-made medicine was introduced, 2,000 years since the first aspirin-like substance was used, and 78 years since aspirin itself became widely available. In all that time, no better drug than aspirin has been found for relief of pain without addiction, reduction of fever without side effects, and reduction of inflammation without serious disruption of bodily services." The book was written in 1978, before many of the most important aspirin-related discoveries were made. Yet in the final chapter, the book presciently states that "the present popularity of aspirin may just be the beginning." Countless other books and doctors have sung the praises of aspirin since its widespread adoption in the late 19th century; they have, thus far, proven correct.

Outside its use as a standard anti-inflammatory drug (like Tylenol or Advil), aspirin is most popular as a deterrent for heart attacks and strokes. Many studies have proven a reduced risk of both given a regularly taken, low dose of aspirin. The drug acts as a blood thinner, which allows blood to flow past the blockage of an artery (blocked arteries can be a key contributor to heart attacks and strokes). Doctors also now recommend taking an aspirin during or immediately following a heart attack to limit the associated damages and prevent a second heart attack from taking place. Keep that in mind as you dial 911.

But enough of what you already know. The new research on aspirin is even more positive. A recent study, published in JAMA, shows that aspirin can increase the survival rate of colorectal cancer patients. The study followed 1,300 patients, over a period of about ten years. Those who took aspirin regularly experienced mortality rates that were 30% lower than those who did not. For patients with an enzyme very specific to colorectal cancer, the figure increased to 62%! This incredible finding comes in addition to a much broader study demonstrating the preventative properties of aspirin for colorectal cancer. In the 50,000 person study, aspirin definitively lowered the rate of colorectal cancer for those who had taken it regularly over a period of many years. Yet another set of studies suggested aspirin could reduce mortality associated with esophageal cancer by 60% and lung cancer deaths by 30%.

In addition to cancer, heart attacks, strokes and minor pains, there is ongoing, cutting edge research that suggests further benefits of aspirin. In particular, aspirin's anti-inflammatory properties may allow many additional new drugs to come to market. In the same way that Tylenol can be damaging to the liver, many other drugs have not made it beyond initial testing in the FDA drug approval process due to their potential liver-harming properties. In studies done on mice, these types of drugs - taken in conjunction with aspirin - no longer damaged the liver. In other words, the aspirin was able to offset the harmful effects of these otherwise life saving drugs. This property of aspirin could also have tremendous implications for those who are either overweight or who use alcohol excessively (either can lead to permanent liver damage). While aspirin will not REVERSE liver damage, it is increasingly believed to be able to PREVENT liver damage, if taken at the right time.

For those of you who are being lulled to sleep by all the things aspirin can do for old people, listen up. If you add crushed aspirin to the water in which you place your flowers, they will wither at a slower pace. Rubbing aspirin on mosquito bites or bee stings will reduce inflammation. To dry out pimples? You guessed it, rub on some aspirin. Aspirin tablets on a car battery can give you one more start. Like I said, a wonder drug.

As always, there must be a caveat. For a very small percentage of the population, aspirin can cause internal bleeding. And taking an abundance of aspirin tablets is also probably not a good idea. Clearly any regular dosage of aspirin should be discussed with a doctor to determine if it is right for you. But my cursory research suggests that there can be substantial advantages to regular, conservative aspirin use. Not that this is an earth shattering conclusion: an estimated 40,000 tonnes are already consumed each year. It is also extremely cheap. Why? In most countries, aspirin has been a generic drug since 1919. Bayer, aspirin's original creator, was forced to give up its patent due to a war reparation decreed by the Treaty of Versailles. Moral of the story? There are consequences to losing wars.

To summarize: aspirin is cheap, proven, and readily available, with multiple medicinal and non-medicinal benefits... I guess I should add aspirin to my daily regimen of green tea, fish oil, a multivitamin, calcium, and vitamin D-3. (After I talk to my doctor, of course.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Week 49: The Eighth Wonder of the World

I was embarrassed to learn this week that the Panama Canal is undergoing a major, $6 Billion renovation that began in 2007. I say embarrassed because the Panama Canal is significant from a geopolitical perspective, a global economic perspective, and from a human achievement perspective. For any of these reasons, it is almost inconceivable to me that I did not know of this not-so-new development. And with my little brother finishing his time in Barcelona and heading to Panama for a spring semester abroad, the topic is all the more timely.

Panama is a very small country of about three million located in the southernmost part of Central America. It connects South and Central America by land and, with the help of the Panama Canal, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by sea. Since 1904, the United States has had a considerable presence in the country, as Teddy Roosevelt decided that the failed French canal project would be undertaken by the American government. The canal had been conceived of about 400 years ago, but building had not taken place until the 1880s when the French attempted to cut through over 50 miles of dense rock and forest and link the world's two largest oceans. Over 20,000 workers died in the first effort, in large part due to mosquito-borne diseases. When the US Government stepped in to fund the project, it demanded essentially sovereign control over the strip of land on which the canal was to be built and claimed it would protect this area into "perpetuity." So close was the US involvement that US Dollars became (and continue to be) used as currency in Panama (the Panamanian Balboa trades 1:1 with the USD). Upon the project's completion in 1914, it was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, comparable to the ancient Egyptian pyramids. The amazing feat of engineering used a series of locks that would fill up with water from multiple artificial lakes and then use gravity to lift ships up and down as they traversed Panama.

The new waterway allowed ships to pass through Panama in 10 hours instead of taking an additional one to two weeks to sail around the entire South American continent. This convenience has been leveraged exponentially as global trade has skyrocketed in the last century. But it became clear that an expansion was necessary; the largest ships that can pass through the canals - panamax ships - are limited to fewer than 2,250 containers. Today's largest container ships can carry 6,000 to 8,000 containers. It is estimated that by 2015, without any expansion, 50% of global shipping vessels would be too large to travel the canal. Even the panamax ships have a tough time making it through; these ships are 105 feet wide, and the canal only 110. Navigating the canal has become very tricky business; indeed, it is the only place in the world where the captain of a ship must relinquish his or her control in order to pass through. A team of canal-savvy technicians guide the ships through the canal. In addition to logistical issues, there have been longer lines of ships waiting to pass through the canal as trade volume with China continues to expand.

With the benefits obviously outweighing the costs, the Panama Canal Authority decided to push forward the ambitious renovation, which would essentially involve building a third set of massive locks to allow for larger ships to pass through. It is important to note that the US is not involved in this project. The US ceded direct control of the canal in accordance with the Torrijos-Carter Treaty, in which Jimmy Carter allowed for the Panamanians to take over the canal in 1999. The significance of this development relative to the expansion of the canal cannot be understated: there is a massive difference between a $6B project undertaken by the US Government as opposed to Panama independently overseeing the project. The country's GDP is only $40B per annum, so funding this type of project is a serious undertaking. For comparison, this would be roughly equivalent to the US embarking on a $2.25 Trillion industrial project. If they pull it off, it will be a fantastic achievement for a nation of Panama's size.

However, there are already signs of trouble. Some of the recent wikileaks cables indicate that Panama's Vice President recently called the project and the contractor (Spain-based Sacyr) a "disaster". He apparently claimed that in a few years its failures would become publicly obvious. Further cables revealed suspicions surrounding the winning Spanish bid, which happened to be $1B below all other bidders (including one from American engineering company Bechtel). So it remains to be seen if the project will remain on budget or be complete in time for the Panama Canal's centennial in 2014. Cost overruns would be a formidable problem for Panama, as over 1/3 of the country's population lives in poverty. And not expanding the canal isn't an option, as the canal provides a substantial portion of the country's revenue.

Perhaps 100 years later we will have a repeat of 1904; perhaps a Western European country will fail in its building efforts and the United States will again come in to fix the problem. Or maybe this time it will be the Chinese. Either way, it will get done. The canal is too vital to the global economy, with two many vested interests in its success to not grow in accordance with the world. I look forward to assessing the project firsthand when I visit Panama this spring.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Week 48: Hannibal Barca

The topic of war has come up a few times on this blog. My research on Japanese Samurai, Navy SEALs, and others has convinced me that there exists some innate warrior DNA that transcends time, ethnicity, and geography. War is a fascinating, gruesome, visceral part of humanity. Over time the tactics, instruments, and implementation of battle have changed, but the impulse that drives armies to fight has not. Also unchanged is the supreme importance of a competent and creative commander to lead an army to victory.

This post will focus on one of the greatest generals in human history, Hannibal Barca. I was compelled to write about Hannibal following the strong suggestion of a Tunisian friend. While I knew the basics of the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, in hindsight it is clear that there is much more we should all know about Hannibal specifically. His influence is reflected in many distinct ways; over 300 books have been written about Hannibal since 1900 alone. Napoleon studied Hannibal's war strategy and tactics to prepare him for his own battles. Hannibal undoubtedly influenced Scipio, the great Roman general who ultimately defeated Carthage to end the Second Punic War. Why is this man so studied? What puts him at the same level as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Ghengis Khan?

The answer, simply, is that he alone brought Rome to her knees a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. The entire course of human history hung in his hands, and ultimately on his fateful decision not to march on Rome... but more on that shortly. Hannibal was perhaps destined to fight the Romans - his father witnessed the utter defeat of Carthage at their hands during the First Punic War. The loss was so crushing - and the reparations so steep - that his father made 9 year old Hannibal take an oath of vengeance against the Roman Empire. It was an oath that had not been forgotten when, after a few short decades, Carthage was again rivaling Rome for control of the Mediterranean. Carthage wanted to expand to Spain and Sicily, and the Romans to North Africa. Another collision between the two giants was inevitable.

Carthage had developed the city of "New Carthage" on mainland Spain, where Hannibal had built an army of Spaniards and North Africans. As Carthage expanded its interests on the mainland, Rome became increasingly uneasy. When Hannibal and his forces attacked Saguntum, a Spanish city that lay under Roman purview, the Romans decided Carthage had to be stopped and declared war. It should be noted that Hannibal used the attack precisely for the purpose of pulling the Romans into battle. Predictably, the Romans planned to attack Carthage via Sicily, and Hannibal's forces in Spain via France. The only problem for the Romans was that Hannibal would not be there when they arrived to Spain...

In the move that in many ways defined the historic figure he is today, Hannibal made the astounding choice to march his army from Spain to Italy not along the Mediterranean, but THROUGH THE ALPS, in the middle of winter. Over seven months he led an estimated 90,000 foot soldiers, 37 elephants, and 12,000 cavalry across 1,500 miles of hostile territory (most villages and tribes were unfriendly to Hannibal's army) and some of the most treacherous mountains on the planet. This is total insanity - and in case you were wondering about the elephants, Hannibal used them as terror weapons, plowing them with wine before sending them into legions of Roman soldiers. At one point during the mountain trek, his army was losing 1,000 men per day. At another point, there was a landslide that blocked their only passage; they were forced to melt it to get through. Before he made it to northern Italy half of his men had died and tens of thousands more had deserted. Only about 20,000 men made it to the other side, and those who did were emaciated. Hannibal's forces were lacking in health, supplies, and most importantly men.

The mountain journey was a huge gambit, and one that was executed purely for the element of surprise and for the perceived advantage of using offense as the best form of defense (i.e., better to fight the Romans on Italian soil than try to defend Spain). The element of surprise was a success - the Romans had not expected such audacity and were convinced Hannibal would travel along the coastline, even setting up a plan to intercept his army along the way. Regardless of the success in surprising the Romans, Hannibal was in bad shape. He was unable to forge alliances with any of the tribes in Italy, all of whom had witnessed the ruthlessness with which the Romans tortured its defectors. Hannibal was basically forced to work with what he had, and began planning for his first battle on Italian soil. In an effort to motivate his troops, he had war prisoners fight to the death - the winner walked free, and the loser died. It was a stark example to his troops of the choice they faced in their fight with Rome.

Hannibal soon came face to face with the Romans - in the relatively minor battle of Ticinus, Hannibal used his Algerian horsemen to both defeat the Romans and injure their commander, Scipio senior (who was saved in battle by his 18 year old son and future vanquisher of Hannibal, Scipio). This win convinced some of the tribes from Gaul to ally themselves with Hannibal; nevertheless, in the ensuing Battle of Trebia Hannibal faced a larger, better fed, well-supplied Roman army. Hannibal again used the cavalry to his advantage, sending them ahead before the battle began to torment the Roman camp. As planned, this pushed the temperamental Romans to an all out attack; after they were drawn in, Hannibal's hidden forces attacked from the flanks and delivered a crushing defeat.

With two swift defeats, the Romans were itching for revenge. Hannibal bought his time, waiting for the best opportunity to fight again. He chose to do so at the Lake of Trasimenus in 217 BC. Using a series of decoys, culminating with the lighting of large campfires far away from his actual camp, Hannibal lured the Romans through a narrow and foggy valley into an open space with only mountains and a lake surrounding it. The next morning it was an all out slaughter, as Hannibal's forces streamed down from the mountains and killed over 25,000 Roman soldiers. By now, Hannibal had struck fear into the hearts of Romans everywhere. Nobody wanted to fight him, and the Romans shifted their strategy to starving Hannibal of battle and focused on cutting his supply lines. When Hannibal responded by burning the Roman countryside and their harvests, he was able to lure them back to the fight.

The ensuing Battle of Cannae continues to be recognized as one of the most significant in history, with Hannibal's battlefield tactics judged to be among the best of all time. The Romans put together an army of about 85,000 in an effort to stop Hannibal once and for all. It was viewed as nothing less than a last stand for Rome itself. While the exact size of the Carthaginian army is unclear, the Romans outnumbered them by almost two to one. Hannibal's army was a motley crew of Carthaginians, Libyans, Gauls, Iberians, and Numibians. The Romans advanced with a very deep infantry and hoped to break the center of the Carthaginian army's line. Hannibal, aware of this strategy, sent his cavalry to attack the Roman cavalry on both flanks, while ordering the troops in the middle of his line to retreat slowly. He was taking substantial losses in his front lines to buy time for his cavalry, and to push the Romans to be impatient with their advance. Over the course of the four hour battle, his plan began to work: the Roman cavalry was defeated, and the infantry advanced so quickly that they were cramped and unable to use their weapons due to their tight position. At this point he ordered both sides of his line - which had been assembled in the shape of a crescent - to attack the flanks of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded on three sides. The clincher came when Hannibal's cavalry came from the rear, completely surrounding the Roman army. From this point on, Hannibal's army was ruthless, cutting down an estimated 60,000-70,000 Roman soldiers. Over one-third of the sitting Roman Senate was killed in the battle. This was at the time by far the greatest military victory in history, and it represented Hannibal's third consecutive victory on Italian soil.

The Romans had been totally crushed. Their finest soldiers and leaders were gone, and they had to rebuild armies using prisoners and teenagers. One of the major questions historians remains: why didn't Hannibal march on Rome and vanquish the city after the victory at Cannae? His generals thought he was crazy for deciding against it. Hannibal was instead left isolated in Italy while politics back in Carthage played out and the Romans regined their strength. Instead of fighting Hannibal, Scipio (junior) went to New Carthage in Spain and killed Hannibal's brother. Scipio then set his sights on Carthage, prompting the politicians who had abandoned Hannibal in Italy (denying his requests for additional troops) to call him back to defend the homeland. Throughout his entire life, Scipio had been an adversary but also a student of Hannibal. The day before the two armies met in the Battle of Zama, Scipio and Hannibal met face to face, and Scipio allegedly said: "you didn't finish it in Rome, so now I will finish it in Carthage." Hannibal's army was larger than Scipio's, but was not even close to the pedigree of his battle hardened group that had been victorious in Italy. Instead he was forced to lead a rag tag group of 50,000 and 80 elephants against Scipio's well-trained 30,000. In battle the student outshone the teacher, with Scipio anticipating all of Hannibal's moves. He instructed his ranks to move aside in a coordinated fashion as Hannibal's elephants ran harmlessly by and in some cases turned and devastated Hannibal's own forces instead. Needless to say, Carthage lost the battle and therefore the war, and Hannibal fled. He continued on as a politician for the next 19 years before killing himself to avoid giving Roman assassins the pleasure of doing so. It was clear that the Romans would not - and could not - sleep soundly until the great Hannibal was dead. He had become so feared that nurses in Rome would invoke his name as a scare tactic to convince children to take medication (you don't want Hannibal to get you!).

While Hannibal's military genius is unquestioned, most amazing to me is his capacity to lead. He somehow convinced tens of thousands of men, most of whom were not even from his homeland, to trek through snow-covered mountains without proper clothing or equipment, all to surprise the healthy Roman army on the other side. In spite of many deaths, many defectors, and countless tactical problems, he amassed three stunning victories that brought Rome to the brink of collapse. Had he marched on Rome, history as we know it would have been changed profoundly. It is rare that one man has the capacity to change the course of mankind. Any time this is the case, it is worthy of rigorous study, thought, and dissemination. Hannibal Barca is no exception.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week 47: Throwing the Weights Aside

How many times have you gone to a gym and seen guys furiously "pumping" a weight, throwing form, timing, and in many cases dignity to the wind? These are the guys who on the surface appear to be pretty strong, but if you look a bit harder it's obvious they have no idea what they are doing... If you're not a big gym person, I'm talking about the the guy at the beach with enormous bicep and chest muscles, but scrawny chicken legs to match. Is it any surprise that in our instant gratification, ego-driven society, the most popular question seems to be how big can I get - and not how strong can I get, or how fit can I get? For the record, I've got nothing against body builders or people with enormous muscles - these people for the most part exhibit an admirable level of dedication to their intense fitness and nutritional regimens. What is comical is those who have neither the time nor dedication to "get huge" who nevertheless strive for it - fellas, 18 inch biceps and no core strength is not impressive. I make fun of them in part because I empathize with them: there is no shortcut to an exellent level of total body fitness, and like them I simply do not have adequate gym time. So they focus on the areas that are most noticed by the ladies, and pray that is enough for a second date.

Mini diatribe aside, this week's post stems from a dilemma I have; I suspect it is one that many of us have... What is the best way to achieve and maintain a level of very good physical condition while also "living"? Personally, I have a job that takes up a significant portion of my waking hours, plenty of client dinners, friends who usually want to go have a couple of beers, and this fun blog to write. These pressures can wear on you mentally if not physically, and at least on the margin reduce your ability and willingness to make it to the gym. But that seems like a stupid excuse - anyone who has been in really good shape at some point in his or her life can attest to the fact that it feels awesome. You have more energy, you are mentally more sharp, and life is all around much better. Conversely, anyone who has fallen out of shape knows the negative spiral, the lethargy, and ultimately the apathy it can create. It occurred to me that the reason I may not have stayed in top shape was that getting to the gym seemed daunting enough that it became easy to rationalize not going. After a grinding work day, I had no interest in walking over to the gym, changing, working out, showering and getting dressed again... So, I wondered, was there a workout routine that would involve a consistent commitment to 2-3 brief trips to the gym per week, and a few other complementary exercises outside of the formal gym workouts? Could I get myself in great shape in spite of all of the excuses?

After a few months, I'm sure the answer is yes. While I'm not yet in "great" shape, I am in significantly better shape than earlier this year, and am spending fewer hours in the gym than before. Frankly, I found myself falling into the traps of some of those who I made fun of in the first paragraph. The perfectionist in me would want to make sure to do some type of weight lifting for each body part. This of course took longer than the time I had available, and I ended up with sub-optimal workouts on a less than consistent workout schedule. In short, I was not making much progress and was probably risking injury. So what has changed?

After some research it became clear to me that I could build strength and fitness by a) using only a limited amount of weight training and b) focusing on exercises that worked more than just one isolated muscle or muscle groups. Practically, this meant sticking to the basics: cardio, push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, dips, and most recently air squats and lunges. In other words, exercises that use my body weight - and not a dumbell - as resistance. The current routine involves 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of the other exercises for a total time of just one hour in the gym. If I have more time, there are certain weight-based exercises I will add, but only after finishing my core (pun intended) workout. The best part about the routine, from my perspective, is that it is mobile. Every morning it is very easy to do a set of 50 pushups, and every evening it is very easy during a commercial break to do a set of sit-ups or air squats. You can stay on track even in the midst of an otherwise crazy schedule and, importantly, even if you miss the gym once or twice. This is critical, because a major problem previously was the negative feedback loop of not making it to the gym for one week, feeling hopelessly behind, and having that stretch to two and three weeks.

The key question is: does this kind of body resistance training(as opposed to weight resistance) actually work? Anecdotally, I think the answer is yes. But more credible is Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker's story. He was raised very poor and in high school did not have access to a proper weight room. So his workouts consisted exclusively of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, dips and running. Legend has it that as a college freshman football player at the University of Georgia, after being called out by upperclassmen for refusing to train with weights, Walker promptly got on the bench press and beat the team record. It wasn't until his pro football days that Walker finally incorporated weights into his regimen. So it's clear that with the right attitude and dedication, serious strength can be developed without weights. Similarly, the Navy SEALs workouts are very focused on body resistance and core exercises. As I hope I proved in Week 33's post, it is certainly working for those guys.

The good news is that my new workout regiment is working for me. The better news is there are many ways to continue to improve it. I've done some research on yoga and pilates, and for the first time incorporated some of each into my workout this morning. It felt great and I'm sure I will continue yoga/pilates once every couple of weeks to keep myself from getting too bored with push-ups! One theme that I heard from many different sources is that your workout has to be yours - it has to fit your goals and your life. After a few years in the working world, I'm getting much closer to finding that balance. Now go find what works for you.