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.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Week 46: The Three Wise Men

It should be apparent to regular readers that I very much enjoy a good wine or beer. Over a glass of wine this Thanksgiving weekend, the conversation turned to a different alcoholic beverage: whiskey. While I have thus far enjoyed my limited exposure to whiskey, there is no question that I am by all accounts a rookie. Recognizing the risk of coming across as an alcoholic, I have nevertheless chosen to plow forward on my brief introduction to the three wise men - none other than Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels.

Whiskey was allegedly invented by Irish monks roughly 1,000 years ago. Its Gaelic translation (ulsce beatha) means "water of life", and if the monks said it, it has to be true, right? The major producers of whiskey are Scotland, the US, and Canada, followed by Ireland and Japan. While only the world's number two producer, the United States is by far the world's largest consumer of whiskey. Globally, whiskey is second only to vodka as the spirit of choice. But whiskey is hardly a homogenous drink... Why does my good friend make fun of Jack Daniels and instead drink some esoteric, unpronounceable single malt from Scotland? What makes a bourbon different from other whiskies?

The one similarity shared by all whiskies is that they must be made of some type of grain, whether from corn, rye, or barley. The key differentiators between whiskies are the type or blend of grains used, the nature of the distillation process, and how long the whiskey is aged. After finishing this week's research, it is clear that whiskey producers, for reasons of taste, process and perhaps most importantly pride, are to be divided and explained geographically.

We will start with arguably the most notorious whiskey producer. As of 2008, Scotland produced over 750 million liters of whiskey per annum. This staggering supply comes from Scotland's 90 distilleries, and makes whiskey Scotland's top export, accounting for roughly $6 billion in annual revenues. While Scotland produces many whiskey blends, it is most famous for its more expensive single malt scotches. "Single" refers to the fact that the whiskey is made from one distillery, and "malt" refers to the fact that a scotch has been made exclusively from malted barley. Calling something a "scotch" - in spite of the fact that the Scottish do not themselves call their whiskey by this name - typically means the whiskey has been distilled and matured in oak barrels in Scotland for at least three years. Popular scotches include Johnnie Walker, Glenlivet, Auchentoshan, Talisker, and Glenfiddich (althogh my colleagues would probably be annoyed if I didn't also include Oban and Macallan). Lucky for me, the dinnertime discussion that inspired this blog post also inspired my parents to send me back to New York with a bottle of Glenlivet that had been stored in their basement for some time. By volume, Glenlivet is the second largest producer of scotch, and its distilleries use an incredible 30 tons of malted barley and three million liters of water per day. Any serious whiskey drinker's collection will start with Scottish whiskies and branch out from there.

Of course the Irish would take issue with my deference to Scottish whiskey; after all, it was in Ireland that this wonderful experience started! Irish whiskies use both corn and barley to produce their flavors. Distinctive to Ireland is a triple distillation process that creates a much more smooth, silky texture to its whiskey. This in turn allows for more floral or fruity flavors to come through. Irish whiskies are aged in used bourbon barrels, as "virgin" barrels would destroy their coveted light flavors. The most popular brand of Irish whiskey is Jameson; since 1998 Jameson has doubled its production to 25 million liters per year. Anecdotally I can say this is in large part due to Jameson's appeal to a younger generation of whiskey drinkers. Whether you prefer straight Jameson, or as part of your Irish Coffee or Irish Car Bomb, you can count on the Irish for a good whiskey experience.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that the US, too, has a very strong whiskey tradition. It is one that dates back to President George Washington, who by the time of his death had become the largest distiller of whiskey in the United States. And like tea, whiskey has an 18th century anti-taxation story of its own. The Whiskey Rebellion was a strong, armed response to the newly created federal government's attempts to tax the whiskey trade as a means to pay back the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. Washington had to send the milita to Pennsylvania to subdue protestors, and ended up sending more troops to fight the whiskey revolters than he did to fight the British!

In terms of modern production, we have to focus on Tennessee and Kentucky, the homes of Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, respectively. The difference between the two is that Jim Beam is a bourbon, while Jack Daniels is a straight whiskey. Jack Daniels filters every drop through sugar maple charcoal, giving it a distinct flavor. By definition, bourbon cannot have any flavor modification and must be distillate and water, aged in oak. Also distinct to Jack Daniels is its iron-free natural spring water supply. The lack of iron affects the fermentation and by extension the taste. Jack Daniels is the world's best selling whiskey at 24 million gallons per year; while it is sold in over 135 countries, it amazingly cannot be sold in the dry county in which it is made! JD is a blend of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye, but according to the company, over 50% of its flavor actually comes from the wood sugar of its oak barrels. As for bourbon, Jim Beam is the world's top seller. Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, and the corn must be tested for proper moisture, weight, and lack of disease. Unlike barrels used in other whiskies, bourbon barrels can only be used once for making bourbon; they are then sent to Scotland, Ireland, or Canada for use making other styles of whiskey. Outside of Kentucky and Tennessee there is a nascent craft whiskey movement, similar to the beer movement I wrote about in week 28. One new whiskey maker in Colorado described the movement as "another rebellion against the homogenization of America." Among other experiments, these whiskey distilleries are making the first American single malt whiskies - exciting stuff!

We now move north to Canada, whose whiskies tend to be a blend of rye and neutral grains. The Canadian whiskies represent the lightest and most delicate in the world, and are therefore among the easiest to embrace. Because of this lighter flavor, Canadian whiskey is known for its use in mixed drinks. The most famous Canadian whiskey is Canadian Club, a corn distillate with most of its grainy flavors distilled out. Of particular note historically is Canadian whiskey's rise to prominence during the Prohibition. Al Capone and others developed a substantial whiskey trade with the Canadians, allowing approximately 80% of liquor made in Canada during the Prohibition to end up in the United States.

It's clear that I have my work cut out for me if I want to become a whiskey connosieur. This blog has only scratched the surface, so please let me know if you have any thoughts or recommendations. Until then, I'll work on that bottle of Glenlivet - my first bottle of scotch - and perhaps get started on the list of the top 10 NYC whiskey bars.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Week 45: Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout's story has been a long, winding, mysterious tale that has recently come much closer to resolution. Arguably the most notorious international arms dealer in history, Bout now sits in a jail cell less than a mile from my apartment, following the end of a prolonged extradition battle between Russia and the United States. Thai authorities had been holding Viktor for over two years thanks to a Thailand-based sting operation executed by an elite US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) team. There are quite a few public sources of information on Viktor - he was on tonight's episode of 60 Minutes, you can find dozens of links on his Wikipedia page, and there are even more news articles featuring the man. In spite of this trove of readily available information, I ultimately decided I couldn't NOT write a post about Viktor Bout.

Most interesting to me is not that Bout was able to both arm the Taliban while simultaneously flying hundreds of shipments on behalf of the US government. Or that he carried out these US shipments while an executive order from President Bush expressly prohibited Americans from doing business with him. Or that the Taliban hijacked one of his planes ten years prior to again doing business with him (business that allegedly included sending planes full of jihadis from Sharjah to Afghanistan). While all these nuances and sub-plots are fascinating, I am most interested in two things; first, I am in awe of the technical proficiency and savvy with which he operated his business, and how this allowed him to navigate and survive unbelievably treacherous waters over a long period of time. Second, it is always amazing when we - the non-CIA, special ops, or shadow world operators - are given a tiny glimpse of the world's underbelly. It is an underbelly we all know exists, but is a part of the world about which most of us know very little. These types of stories are by their nature so complex that a simple official script cannot overwrite or explain away the underlying realities. With a little reading between the lines, it is through these stories that we can learn more about the global push and pull of power.

Perhaps I should start with the basics: Bout is a man suspected to have multiple identities, fluency in six languages, and a staggering $6B in personal wealth. Shortly after starting his career as a Soviet military translator (rumor is he's ex-KGB), Viktor Bout took advantage of a crumbling USSR and purchased a few planes, which he then used to transport cargo to and from various places. He soon built, deal-by-deal, a fleet of some 60 airplanes that would quickly and efficiently deliver whatever you needed, wherever you were located. From his headquarters in Sharjah he and his fleet filled a massive void in Africa in the 1990s; while others were pulling out in the face of multiple civil wars, he and his fleet were going in. In particular, Bout's many front companies did significant arms business with Charles Taylor in Liberia, with both sides of Angola's bloody civil war, and with rebels in the Republic of Congo.

Over time Bout developed a reputation for being a "door to door" service; he could fly his planes into very dangerous situations, load or unload aircraft cargo, and exit. There are many people around the globe with weapons, many with contacts, and many with strong logistical capabilities. Bout's services pulled them all together. And by the end of the 1990s he was no longer a niche player. He was global, integrated, and dynamic. For prospective clients, best of all was his complete lack of an ideological bent. He would sell his services to radical Islamists, Americans, Colombian guerillas, African warlords, you name it. And he seemed to be immune to prosecution. The NSC wanted to arrest him in the 1990s, but could not figure out how to do so given problems of jurisdiction. According to the New York Times, as of 2000 the US government had never once prosecuted a case of arms trafficking. Bout was famous for being one step ahead of whatever authority might be on his tail. He would register an aircraft in Liberia, then move the registration to the Central African Republic, followed by Equatorial Guinea and then Moldova. By the mid-2000s when he was being traced by the Americans for violating UN sanctions, he would simply shut down the companies on the "problem" list and re-open new companies, using the same planes, crews, and technology. It would take months for the new companies to be identified and forced to shut down, at which point the cycle would repeat itself.

But in the late 2000s it was becoming increasingly clear to the Americans that his existence was not acceptable. In the past, he had been tolerated because his pilots were among the few who could and would complete the perilous flights into Iraq. But it was also clear he had access to huge stockpiles of former Soviet weapons, possibly including nuclear weapons. In 2006 he was suspected to have been operating with rebels in Somalia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It was obvious that he had no qualms arming enemies of the United States, from FARC rebels to Al Qaeda. And so the American authorities devised a plan: the DEA hired a former acquaintance of one of Bout's lieutenants to approach his friend about an arms deal. In this fake deal, the DEA pretended to be FARC operatives seeking surface-to-air missiles, among other weapons. Bout's employee apparently trusted his old friend, and took the deal proposal to Bout. The undercover FARC rebels pushed for a face-to-face with Bout, initially suggesting Bucharest as a meeting place. When it became clear to Bout that he was not welcome there, Thailand was chosen as the destination. Upon arriving at a five star hotel in Thailand, Bout and his colleague were arrested, not for arms trafficking but for conspiring to kill Americans.

As described above, his legal situation remained in limbo for two years while he and the Russians fought extradition. In a very brief prison interview, Bout said: "In my case the charges are very general. There is no concrete data: what time, where, what happened. No! They just say: he is bad, he is dangerous... Whatever there is in my story today... it's a Hollywood movie." And in fact, a Hollywood flick - "Lord of War" - was based on Bout's escapades. But Bout's point relates to the same difficulty the NSC had prosecuting him in the 1990s. Could the US prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he had intent to kill Americans? That question will be answered in the coming months as Bout heads to what is sure to be a high profile trial.

However none of the tactical drama surrounding the sting operation or his arrest get to the crux of the issue. Why did the Americans want him so badly, and why were the Russians defending him so aggressively? The Christian Science monitor came up with a few good reasons for the American arrest: it sends a message to smugglers around the world that the United States is still the global policeman. Alternatively, Bout probably has a tremendous amount of valuable intelligence on Russia and on other conflicts with relevance to the United States. The conspiracy theorists - and Russian defenders of Bout - claim the US wanted to put him out of business because he had taken such a chunk of the CIA's illicit dealing business. Of course it is possible that the US was just tired of him supporting its enemies, and no longer needed his help in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for the Russians, there are a few ways to interpret their intense, public support for Bout. It is possible that Bout made a deal with the Russians whereby in exchange for his mobility, freedom, and access within Russia, he kept Russian security services updated with the on-the-ground intel his business generated. Alternatively, it is possible that Bout was a part of something much more vast. I hesitate to speculate here, because it is very much outside of any expertise I have. But what if Bout were nothing more than the underworld "public face" (ironic, given his secrecy) of a broader international smuggling ring endorsed by the Russian government? They would certainly be angling for their man... A fascinating 2003 New York Times profile seems to support this idea: "I began to understand why Bout was both eager to talk and reluctant. Cornered by multiple governments, selling off his assets and hounded by the press, he wanted to complain that he had merely become the fall guy for a criminalized -- and quasi-legal -- political structure much larger and more significant than Victor Bout. But if he revealed too much, he said, he would be perilous."

As is the case with most high profile geopolitical mysteries, I'm sure that over time these questions will be answered. At a minimum, the reverberations of his capture supported that Bout had become the leading global operator in his field. It is also evident that one way or another, there is a hell of a lot more going on here than what meets the eye. In terms of his actual capture, it seems like a surprisingly amateur move on the part of Bout and his lieutenant. Bout knew the supposed FARC rebels were not senior leadership, and apparently did not bother to do background checks, choosing instead to trust his associate. Why would he be so careless after decades of meticulously covering his tracks? Why did he feel like he needed so badly to do this deal? Perhaps the freezing of his assets by the US Treasury was affecting his liquidity needs... Perhaps he needed to show he was still the preeminent global trafficker... Perhaps he was too trustworthy of his closest advisors... Or perhaps he was just tired?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Week 44: Bye-bye Blockbuster

For those of you who know me it will come as no surprise that I am hilariously, sadly behind in the great American pastime that is watching movies. A few weeks ago, a group of guys at the office went through a list of the basics, and I hadn't seen 90% of them. I'm talking Indiana Jones, Tommy Boy, Ferris Bueller's Day Off kind of basic... Embarrassing, I know. For some reason I've instead been spending my time learning about random topics and forcing Sunday night writing deadlines on myself. As a kid, I was too busy learning state and country capitals to watch movies (thanks, Mom and Dad.... no, really). I can't tell you how many times someone has quoted something, everyone laughs, and I say "what's that from?" It is basically a miracle that I have been able to exist in a very social, often judgmental line of work without knowing where "Show me da money!!!!" comes from.

So with an eye toward the inevitable end of my 52 week project, a new service has entered my life... One that might just fill my soon-to-be void. I'm talking of course about Netflix. My girlfriend and I recently signed up for a free 30 day subscription to Netflix. I can feel your eyes rolling. Why am I writing about a service you not only know, but likely already use? I want to frame the Netflix story in a very specific way, because like my prior posts on ePublishing and on Apple, the Netflix case study represents how understanding and embracing a new way of thinking is the only way to succeed going forward. Any entrepreneurs out there, listen up. Four years ago I wanted to make a website that would help people identify and remember the songs they heard in random places, or had stuck in their heads. My idea was to create a collaborative, web-based community that could somehow help users based on just the few song snippets they knew or remembered. One year later the iPhone came out, the Shazam app was invented, and my idea seemed antediluvian. Needless to say, I felt pretty stupid. But it was a great learning experience. To succeed in the future, you have to recognize that any business you create must be flexible enough to survive and adapt to not just a more connected world, but to an exponentially more connected and efficient future world. Your assumptions must not be lazy or based on what has worked in the past, and more than ever, you must be laser focused on the convenience and functionality of your service or product.

Let me start by telling you what Netflix it is not. It is not Blockbuster. An ex of mine worked at Blockbuster, and I could never figure it out. To me it was an enigma - why were people were willing to drive all the way to a store (often to find that their desired movie was not available), wait in line, pay $4, and then drive back to drop it off? And oh by the way, they would then slam you with late fees if you didn't return that sucker in a few days! What a crappy business model... Netflix understood that while some people for some period of time would go through the tedium described above, in an increasingly digital world, the Blockbuster model could never succeed. So they started with a monthly subscription service that delivered DVDs of the movies you picked to your house. You would watch the movie, and could keep it for as long as you'd like. When you were finished, you would put the DVD into a pre-paid envelope, place it in your mailbox, and it would be sent back to Netflix. All for $8.99 per month. More convenient, less expensive. Pretty cool.

This delivery based part of the service continues to exist, but most recently Netflix has moved to a newer, better model: streaming video. As I type this from my iPad (which can stream Netflix content from anywhere, by the way... as can the iPhone), my roommate is streaming a movie from Netflix, as is my girlfriend on a different laptop. The TV is turned off. Neither of them know my post is focused on Netflix, and that they are my guinea pigs. But this wireless, on-demand delivery of video entertainment is becoming increasingly common. Movies and TV had to be the laggards to eBooks and iTunes. The file sizes are large by modern standards, and the bandwidth and infrastructure had not been enough to support wireless mass distribution. Given the ubiquity of 3G and now 4G phones, as well as wireless internet, this is no longer the case. From your phone you can now video chat with someone else, so why not watch TV and movies in real time, from anywhere?

This is not to say that TVs are obsolete, by the way. Sony has recently come out with a new, internet friendly television powered by Google TV. Netflix predicts that within one or two years all TVs will have wifi, and therefore movie streaming capabilities. Think about this. Cable companies must be shitting themselves. No wiring necessary. This is the future, ladies and gentleman. I've harped on this in prior weeks: brick and mortar book chains are done, Blockbuster is done, cable companies will be brought to their knees. And they deserve it. In New York City each time a person moves to a new apartment, Time Warner charges an "installation fee", as if that unit had not been wired up fifteen times previously. Again, crappy business model.

The retort here is simple: Blockbuster has already filed for bankruptcy, and everyone already knows about Netflix. Fine, conceded. My point relates specifically to DISTRIBUTION - Netflix's new streaming strategy is the future. Blockbuster thinks it is reinventing itself by copying Redbox's $0.99 rental kiosks. This is laughably short-sighted. Who cares about a DVD rental kiosk for $0.99 when your TV is connected to the internet and you have a streaming service that delivers in real-time the content you want? Nobody. I will say it again: bye-bye DVDs, bye-bye new and improved Blockbuster.

Thanks to Netflix, last night I checked off one of the must-sees: Jerry McGuire. That's right -- I now know where show me da money comes from. You can bet I will be laughing with the rest of them next time. And you can bet I'll pay the $8.99 per month once my free subscription expires.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Week 43: 20 Million Lives

A few weeks ago, my boss asked me the following: what country experienced the second highest number of World War II deaths? I got the answer wrong multiple times before giving up.

The Soviet Union had the highest casualty figures, with an inconceivable 24 million total deaths (civilian and military combined). Following the Soviet Union, surprisingly, was China, with an estimated 10 to 20 million total deaths. Chinese official statistics estimate 20 million dead and 15 million wounded - truly staggering figures. The overwhelming majority of Chinese casualties came at the hands of the Japanese, who invaded China beginning in the early 1930s. As World War II became a global war - waged on both the Pacific and European fronts - the China/Japan conflict (officially called the Second Sino-Japanese War) became a part of the broader strategic calculus. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: why did the Japanese invade China in the first place?

In 1927, the Japanese Emperor allegedly asked his Prime Minister, Tanaka Giichi, to develop a plan to take over the world. This plan, since referred to as the Tanaka Memorial, was based on the premise that global domination could only happen if China were conquered first. The strategy was first to invade the resource rich province of Manchuria. Following this would be a broader attack that would force China into surrendor, thereby guaranteeing Japan access to cheap Chinese labor. Japan would then move south to the Indies and would finally attack the US. The initial phase of this plan took place in 1931, and the Japanese were quite successful in taking Manchuria. The Chinese were in an almost hopeless position; Japan was economically and technologically advanced, while China was basically a country full of peasants. Politically China was divided, and the internal struggle to consolidate power prevented a unified leadership that could adequately defend the country. In short, Japan was a focused, organized, military imperialist regime fighting a diffuse, fractured and poor China.

While Japan continued its assault on China in the ensuing years, most historians agree that the war between the two countries did not start until 1937. By now, Japan was focused on phase two of the global domination plan - in other words, they wanted to crush the Chinese into submission. Perhaps the most noteworthy - and horrific - event was the Nanking Massacre, an attack on the Chinese capital that is also referred to as the Rape of Nanking. The Japanese army quickly destroyed Chinese forces, and went on to slaughter hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. The city was bombed, large groups of people were buried alive, and many women were forced to become sex slaves. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Chinese women were raped by Japanese soldiers. This sickeningly barbaric display was a crushing military and psychological defeat for China.

One positive from the Japanese attack was that it dramatically accelerated Chinese unification, and Chiang Kai-shek was soon firmly in control of China and its war strategy. This strategy shifted significantly following the attack on Nanking. Aware of their inability to defeat the Japanese army, China developed a strategy based on two assets of which they had an abundance: land and people. First, the Chinese retreated to the west in what is now considered to be the largest mass migration in history. As they moved, they employed a scorched earth policy, destroying roads, bridges and villages. They were effectively trading space for time in an effort to slow the advance of the Japanese and give themselves the opportunity to regroup. Most incredibly, the Chinese military destroyed massive dykes in the Yellow River, causing a massive flood that by some estimates killed 500,000 Chinese civilians. The move was intended to slow the Japanese army, and in this regard it seems to have been successful. However, the decision to destroy the dykes without first informing its citizens (to maintain the element of surprise) has been justifiably criticized.

Once the Chinese leadership and people had migrated west, they launched a massive mobilization that included women and even children receiving military training. Additionally, millions of Chinese worked together to build new roads and underground factories, often by hand. In the more eastern areas (where Japan continued to have control), Chinese farmers often launched guerilla attacks on the Japanese and then blended back into their roles as farmers. By 1939, China had managed to reach a stalemate with Japan.

Eventually Japan decided to move forward with its global domination plan in spite of having not achieved its phase two goal of forcing China to surrender. With the US getting stronger every day, Moscow bogged down and Britain hurting, Japan could no longer wait to attack the US. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the US officially brought China into the Allied forces. Incredibly, at different times in its war with Japan, China was allied with Germany (earlier), the Soviet Union, and later the United States. With Allied technological support and air cover from the famous Flying Tigers, a group of US pilots who were given the mission to fly for the Chinese, the battle dynamics were significantly changed. The Flying Tigers recorded 300 destroyed Japanese planes, compared with losing only 12 of their iconic shark-faced planes. Obviously the Japanese had a significantly more difficult, global fight after atacking the United States. The war with China continued until the Japanese were defeated and forced to surrender at the end of World War II. This ended almost fifteen years of fierce, ruthless fighting on Chinese soil.

It is a very fine line to discuss war casualty statistics. Life is precious, and a number on a webpage of course does not do the meaning behind the number any degree of justice. However, reseraching this week's topic helped me remember how the proportions of these events can be lost on people. How can I even begin to give perspective on what 20 million deaths means? How can we as a society know so much about certain wars - in which total deaths can be measured by the thousands - and so little about one country's immense suffering in a war that ended not even a full generation ago? Is it any surprise that China continues to attack the Japanese Prime Minister for each year visiting and worshipping the country's war "heros"?

If you're so inclined - a simple moment of reflection or prayer on the unmeasurable pain experienced by those tens of millions of Chinese civilians, who like so many others unfairly became collateral damage in just one of humanity's many wars.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Week 42: USPS Blues

In early August, I read a WSJ article headline that astounded me: Postal Service Reports $3.5 Billion Loss. Even more astounding was the article's revelation that this was a QUARTERLY and not an ANNUAL loss. In other words, at this run rate the postal service would lose $14 billion in one year. As a society I think we've lost sight of just how big that number is - what with the Federal Reserve printing hundreds of billions of dollars and Travis McCoy flippantly singing about how he wants to be a "billionaire, soooo friggin bad"... At this rate each American citizen (children included) would have to pay about $50 per year just to make up the USPS gap. How is this possible? What is going on here?

The most illuminating source for answers came, ironically, from a government agency - the Government Accountability Office. The US Postal Service's financial viability was discussed as part of the GAO's regular watchdog report, and in 2009 the USPS was put on its "high risk" list. This list "calls attention to agency and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, or mismanagement, or are most in need for broad reforms." The GAO cites the most obvious reason for the terrible financial figures at the USPS: "declining revenues." There is no question that mail volumes have dropped significantly, with both the advent and widespread acceptance and use of email and, frankly, the better reliability of services provided by FedEx, UPS and DHL.

But like any comprehensive financial evaluation, the revenues only tell part of the story. What about costs? As of 2009, the USPS employed 630,000 full-time employees and 94,000 temporary employees - almost 0.5% of all adult workers in the US! I hope I'm not the only one who thinks this is insane. To its credit, the USPS has gotten it down to about 584,000 by offering early retirement packages. Unfortunately, this only marginally reduces costs, as benefits are paid out for life (and early retirees by definition will be receiving these benefits for longer than "usual" retirees). The post office in 2009 operated 38,000 facilities, 37,000 of which were retail operations. The bi-weekly payroll of the postal service was $2 billion, or roughly $52B per year (here we go with the big B again). Hell, the post office has to pay about $5.5 billion annually just to fund its pension liabilities! Out of curiosity, I decided to look up FedEx's comparable statistics. For the last year FedEx paid slightly over $8B in "salaries and employee benefits" for its roughly 280,000 employees. This would suggest that FedEx's rough cost per employee of $28,571. As for the USPS? Over 2.5 times this number. Is it any surprise that FedEx reported net income for its last quarter of $380 million compared to the postal service's $3.5 billion loss? No. Of course not.

Before this becomes a diatribe, I will continue with my findings. After hearing all of these basics, I decided to listen to about an hour of the Congressional testimony given earlier this year by Postmaster General John Potter (who two weeks ago stepped down after nine years at the helm). If you've never taken the time to listen to Congressional hearings, it is imperative that you do. The almost laughable ignorance, hubris, and sheer idiocy from both sides of the political aisle never ceases to amaze me. They did not disappoint. The politicians said things like "we are meeting here to ensure the post office continues to thrive" (only in Washington is a $3.5B quarterly loss considered "thriving"), or "the decline of the postal service is through no fault of its own, given private competition", or my personal favorite, "given all the cuts to date, it is hard to believe there are more efficiencies that are possible at this point." You literally cannot make this stuff up. Another congressional member spoke conspiratorially about a "so called 'decline in volume'" (as if the downtrend was even remotely debatable), while many others focused on what I guess is the biggest political problem: the Postmaster General's pay of roughly $800,000 for the prior year. While I agree there are some screwed up things going on here - namely that "employee job satisfaction" is a key driver of the postmaster general's pay - this is the epitome of losing sight of the forest for the trees. The post office has a clear structural problem that will end up costing you and me billions of dollars, and the committee members want to spend their only five minutes of questioning focusing on a figure that does not move the needle.

The broad outlines of a "solution" according to the politicians and the postmaster general, revolved around a plan to switch from six delivery days per week to five delivery days per week. More specifically, mail would no longer be delivered on Saturdays. One relatively astute Congressman asked why they would not stop delivery on a different day, like Monday? The postmaster general responded something to the effect of "my employees and I like our weekends, too." Sounds like a good way to check off the "employee satisfaction" part of his bonus conversations, if you ask me. Apparently this move to five days would save north of $3B per year (ignoring, of course, the possibility that revenue declines because fewer people will use a service that operates only five days per week). The postmaster and politicians also heralded $2 billion of cuts that have already taken place.

Let's call a spade a spade: this whole discourse is disingenuous. We just saw the numbers - how does $2 billion (existing savings) + $3B (expected savings) even get close to the $14 billion run rate of losses per annum? Why won't the trends of increased labor costs and decreased volume continue? (Never mind the fact that the politicians rejected the strong recommendation of the USPS, and the cut to five days never happened.) The post office recently failed in its efforts to again raise stamp costs, from $0.44 to $0.46.

The operations are not fiscally sound, and they are not fiscally sustainable. The American people are not stupid - if they use the US Postal Service, they will continue to buy more and more forever stamps thereby mitigating or eliminating gains from stamp price increases. They cost the same as regular stamps, and will hold their value in perpetuity. Of course, like many other government led initiatives, the forever stamps program was intended to be temporary and is well on its way to becoming permanent. Witness the official USPS "Forever Stamp Fact Sheet" - this fact sheet, still on the USPS website, claims "there is only one Forever Stamp — it features an image of the Liberty Bell." Also on their website is a recent press release heralding the new "Holidays Forever" forever stamp, featuring not a liberty bell but a pine cone. Right. So what's the lesson here, besides the obvious tale of government inefficiencies and unintended consequences? It is, simply, that the Forever Stamp represents the greatest investment opportunity out there: it is a combination of the US Government's sterling credit rating AND a hedge against inflation! You get all the upside of holding a US treasury bond with none of the downside inflation risk. Now all we need for the bankrupt cycle to continue is for Wall Street to invent "Forever Stamp Futures"... Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Week 41: All Hallow's Eve

With the crowds gathering on my street for the annual, wacky New York City Halloween parade, it dawned on me that I don't know why we celebrate Halloween! Whatever its origins, there is no question that Halloween has become a cultural phenomenon, at least in the United States. New York is a great place to experience Halloween - where else will you see people dressed as ghouls and goblins sharing a subway with suits intently reading the daily news? Or see children run into a laundromat demanding candy? Even in the uber-intense world of finance, the Halloween spirit pervades. On Friday we had a trading floor "trick-or-treat" for the kids of the company's employees. Things quickly became less stressful as a little girl dressed as a piglet made the candy rounds. So what are the derivations of this collective, uninhibited, fearful joy that is Halloween?

From my cursory research, the most influential contributor to Halloween as we know it is the Old Irish Samhain "end-of-summer" festival. It took place November 1 of each year, and marked the end of the "light" part of the year and the beginning of the "dark" part of the year. With the advent of Christianity, the name of the festival changed to "Hallowmas", meaning All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day celebrates those saints who have died and are in heaven. It is followed (on November 2) by All Souls' Day, which celebrates the dead believers who continue to be stuck in purgatory - those who have not yet made it to heaven. The night preceding Hallowmas became a more pagan commemoration of the dead, and was called "Hallows Eve." Anyone who knows an Irishman's drawl can see how this articulation over time could evolve to "Halloween." A similar celebration called Calan Gaeaf took place on November 1st in Wales to mark the first day of winter. It, too, had dark undertones. One of the Calan Gaeaf customs was "Coelcerth"; apparently families built a fire and wrote their names in stones. If your stone was missing the following morning, you had less than one year to live. The best part about Halloween - trick-or-treating - also came from Britain. Poor people would go door-to-door begging for food, which came to be called "going a-souling." Over time the town children made the rounds, and were given apples and other holiday treats.

The potato famine of the 1800s brought many Irish and their Halloween customs to the United States. The turnips used for lanterns switched to pumpkins, eventually evolving into Jack-O-Lanterns. These Irish customs mixed in with American Colonial stories of witchcraft and also Native American visions of ghosts. The idea of costume themed parties took hold in the US in the 1920s. As I type, the shrill cries from the parade down the street are getting louder and louder. With that, I am going outside to experience what has by now become a uniquely American blend of religion, debauchery, candy, and mystique.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 40: The Last Lecture

Thanks to a nostalgic weekend visit to my alma mater, I decided to go to the Cornell section of iTunes University for this week's dose of inspiration. One lecture that caught my eye was a "last lecture" given in 2008 by former Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. The last lecture series was created by Mortar Board, a senior honor society I had the privilege of joining. Each year a distinguished professor is asked to give his or her theoretical last lecture, the idea being that smart, successful people will say insightful things when the chains of regular course lecturing are unshackled. Professor Rawlings chose to give his last lecture on the virtues of what classicists call "close reading." Perhaps the best way to define close reading is by describing what it is not - blogs, tweets, and texts would most certainly not fit the bill. Close reading is digging into the heavy, deep, and allegedly fulfilling type of stuff you dreaded being assigned back in college. In short, Rawlings thinks that most reading today is the opposite of close reading - it is superficial reading. While Wikipedia and Google are tools for accessing information quickly, they are not substitutes for meaty, enlightening, and yes, dense, texts. The former will get you to the easy truths in life, but Rawlings correctly notes that those aren't all that interesting or important. If this sounds simple or hokie to you, I would encourage you to ask what Rawlings asked the audience: How often do we read concentrated, sophisticated ideas? How often are you confronted with careful, subtle, complex ideas? If you are like me, the answer is not very often.  

Rawlings gives three examples in which a rigorous approach to reading has had a meaningful impact on his life. While studying the classics at Princeton in 1968, Rawlings found strong parallels between Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War and his own struggles with the Vietnam War. But coming to realize these underlying similarities was not easy; Thucydides wrote in a sophisticated and complex manner. To top it off, he used an esoteric form of Greek, making translation a chore. It was in Rawlings' own words "not fun", but from the experience he was able to understand with more depth what war can do to a democratic society.

The second example was Rawlings' study of James Madison, which revealed a fascinating portrait of a man who was not charismatic, but who was tremendously influential. One story I cannot help repeating begins with George Washington asking then Congressman Madison to review his innaugural address, which had been written by Washington's speech writer. When Madison found it to be terrible, he was asked by Washington to write a new inaugural speech. The Madison speech went exceedingly well - so well that Congress wanted to reply with its own speech. Guess which Congressman they elected to do the honors? James Madison, of course! And the Congressional reply went so well that Washington wanted to again reply to Congress. Naturally, he asked Madison to draft this reply to the reply. And, naturally, Madison did - one for the Senate, and one for the House. How incredible that at the inception of our democracy, Madison was having a conversation with himself that would set the tone for the relationship of our executive and legislative branches for centuries!

The final example given by Rawlings is his readings and re-readings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's rhetorical skill and ability to communicate at perhaps the darkest time in American history may have saved the country - more Americans died in the Civil War than in World War I, II, Vietnam and Korea combined. In the midst of tragedy and chaos, we were lucky to have someone who had worked arduously and for decades on his speaking, reading, and writing. As Rawlings noted: "a masterful reader can take the rhythms and phrases from great texts and can turn them into powerful instruments to deal with terrible situations." Rawlings can speak to the development of Lincoln's communicative power, because, for instance, he took the time to read all of Lincoln's speeches, in chronological order. Close reading.

I fully recognize the irony of writing a blog post on the importance of serious, thoughtful study. I am doing so because Rawlings' point is valid, and it struck a chord: words mean something. To understand and internalize the dimensions of an important speech or historic book takes proactive thought, careful consideration, and, frankly, time. How many times recently have you read something for which the words were the clues and you had to search for the meaning? It is sadly laughable how we are exposed to new information - my morning routine consists of reading the Wall Street Journal (on my iPad, of course), scrolling through the Bloomberg headlines, skimming a few market research bullets, and checking my Twitter feed. In other words: cursory, tactical, shallow. While I'd like to think that a certain extracurricular weekend project of mine has absolved me from guilt, it has not. This project has been wonderful for learning superficially about an array of topics. It has also helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a thinker. I have learned that communication is a craft, not a college major. By definition, a craft takes an incredible amount of time and effort to master. The speech given by Professor Rawlings reminds me of one glaring, painful truth: I've got a lot of work to do.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Week 39: The Oval Office

Thanks to the help of a college friend, I was recently lucky enough to take a tour of the famous (and infamous) West Wing. My only prior trip to the White House - also with my Dad - took place during the Clinton administration, when the Hungarian Prime Minister came for an official state visit. One distinct difference between the two visits relates to security - on the first, pre-9/11 visit, I vividly remember my Dad showing a bewildered White House guard a picture of me on the front cover of the local sports section as my "official" ID. How times have changed... This time I had to send my personal information (including social security number) ahead of time, and make it through two separate checkpoints before being allowed to enter. Once inside, I remember speaking very infrequently (those who know me will recognize how rare this is). The aura of the place was simply overwhelming. As we walked by the Roosevelt Room, the Rose Garden, the Press Room, it was almost impossible to comprehend the history, people, and decisions that had taken place in their confines. But by far the highlight of the tour was seeing the Oval Office.

Prior to this visit, my exposure to the Oval Office was limited to an intuitive understanding of what it represented - the office of the most powerful person on the planet - and visually to a few photos and important Presidential speeches. So as we walked down the hallway, I wasn't sure what to expect. My immediate impression was that it was significantly smaller than I had expected. I suppose you expect an office in which the most important decisions are made to be large, imposing, formidable... and it is just not the case. The next thing I noticed was a bowl full of ripe apples on the table - my research would later show that this was a decision made by Obama to symbolize his commitment to healthy eating. It also made me wonder who would be bold enough in his or her limited meeting time in the Oval Office to dig in to a Presidential apple. Behind Obama's famous "resolute" desk you could see through the window the playground set up for his two daughters. As my Dad noted, it is strange that all our Presidents sit with their backs to such a lovely and peaceful garden and lawn. Gone was Bush's bust of Winston Churchill, replaced by one of Martin Luther King, Jr., as was Bush's notoriously optimistic "sunshine" rug. In its place was a somewhat drab carpet with a number of inspirational quotes. Apart from the size, I was most amazed by the circa 1995 phones and fax machine. Also amusing - the antiquated phone outside the office read: 7 Missed Calls. I had seen enough to be intruiged, and wanted to learn more.

The office was first occupied by Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Since FDR, each President has added his own personal decorative touch. The resolute desk was first used by FDR, who added a door to its back, preventing visitors from seeing his wheelchair. This door gained legendary status when JFK junior was photographed playing in it while his father worked. The office commands such respect that early in his administration Obama was taken to task for not wearing a jacket while at his desk. Obama waited almost two years to make his ritual renovations given the economic recession. As his new furnishings were unfurled, he called the Oval Office the "greatest home court advantage", a message echoed by many former Presidents. Some of the most important speeches in the last 60 years have come from the office, including JFK's speech on the Cuban Misssile Crisis, George W. Bush's 9/11 address, and Nixon's resignation and subsequent pardon. The Oval Office is simultaneously a historic space and a bustling nexus of the country's political and economic business, a mix of the new and the old, the left and the right...

I pointed out the old phones, the apples and the intimacy of the place not to belittle or demean the White House or the Oval Office. These characteristics reminded me in a very tangible way of the human element in all this. It seems that over our short history, the US Presidency has acquired almost mythical status - as if the reason for or the solution to any problem is one man (or woman). At the end of the day, those who run countries, companies, religions, armies... they are all people. They are people with different motives, different ideals, different backgrounds. Care for an apple?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Week 38: Small Inventions, Big Impact

This week's post is pretty simple: it is a tribute to three inventions that aren't really similar except that each is so damn handy! These are the kinds of items that you don't miss until they aren't around, and then boy are you in trouble. I'm talking of course about WD-40, duct tape, and light bulbs. I recently moved from Murray Hill to the West Village and found myself thankful for one of these items and in great need of the other two. Duct tape was invaluable in keeping my stuff boxed up for the move, but a dearth of light bulbs kept me literally in the dark for the first week at my new place. And no WD-40 continues to plague my roommate and me, as a stubborn, sticky, and just plain nasty gate has become both a running joke and the cause of a few bruised hands. This will be a relatively short one, so I encourage you to post in the comments section your favorite handy items. What are the incredible devices or inventions that get you through the day but that you often take for granted?

I feel obligated to start with WD-40, because to me the iconic blue can and its powers have always been a mystery. The story is great: this guy named Norm discovers a blend of chemicals preventing corrosion on rockets that oh-by-the-way solves just about any other lube-based problem you might have (get your head out of the gutter, folks, this is a family blog). The name itself also invokes an element of magic - so simple (five characters), yet so complex (what the hell do they mean?!). It is actually not so mysterious - WD stands for water displacement, and 40 represents good old Norm's 40th attempt to produce the perfect blend. How appropriate. Norm's perseverance paid off, as the consumer product has for decades been an international success. Another fun fact is that there is no patent for WD-40. Why? Getting a patent would require the company to reveal it's secret formula, which by the way is the stuff of urban legend... apparently a Chinese bus driver used it to remove a stubborn python that wouldn't untangle itself from the bottom of his bus! An email list went viral in 2007 with all of the wonderful things WD-40 does; my favorites include: keeping flies off cows, protecting the Statue of Liberty from the elements, and removing all traces of duct tape. Which brings me to my next point...

Duct tape is just awesome. My research lead me to an episode of Discovery Channel's "Myth Busters" in which the producers determine that it is possible to lift a 5,000 pound car using nothing but duct tape, as well as create a working sailboat (which they used to sail around the San Francisco Bay). They were also able to create a cannon that fired a real cannonball... You guessed it, out of noting but duct tape. Duct tape is also used as a fashion statement - each year one manufacturer hosts a duct tape prom dress competition. The "Duct Tape Guys", who have written books about duct tape and have listed thousands of uses for it, had this appropriate quote: "Two rules get you through life: If it's stuck and it's not supposed to be, WD-40 it. If it's not stuck and it's supposed to be, duct tape it." Noted, Duct Tape Guys.

And last but certainly not least, the now ubiquitous light bulb! There are two primary reasons for the light bulb's inclusion on my "dream team", oft taken for granted invention list: my utter inability to get anything done the week I lived without one, and my surprise that you can buy a four-pack of light bulbs in Manhattan for $1.50! That is less than a pack of gum; put another way that will cover 1/4 the cost of a pint at any bar (tip not included). It is amazing to me that something so valuable has become so cheap. I don't have much to add here, except a note to all aspiring entrepreneurs. Apparently there were over 20 inventors who simultaneously (and in some cases previously) came up with a very similar incandescent light to the one invented by Thomas Edison. Edison's won out in large part due to his ability to develop a delivery system that helped his invention's actual implementation. There were powerful incentives in place to keep the gas-light model and its infrastructure in place. Simply having a new idea wasn't enough... This is in many ways similar to Apple's current success in not only developing devices that can play new music, games and books, but also creating the iTunes and iBooks delivery platforms. The iTunes platform helped destroy the large CD companies, and iBooks is already doing the same for large, brick and mortar book retailers.

No sweeping conclusions this week - leave a comment with your favorite devices/items/inventions...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Week 37: The British Bulldog

There's not much I can add to the trove of biographical work done on the life of Winston Churchill. So why write about Sir Winston? Simple: it is unacceptable for me to know so little about such an important historic figure. He is one of the most respected and celebrated statesmen of the 20th century, and played a tremendously important role in saving the world from Nazi Germany.

I've often thought about the fact that my generation has not been called upon to sacrifice in the same way that prior generations have sacrificed. We have had the incredible priviledge of growing up without having to practice hiding under our desks in school or worrying about being drafted to fight in wars. I have tremendous respect for those from my generation who are willing to put themselves in harm's way to defend my freedom. But the calling today is different than the calling of soldiers in World War II, when literally a generation of young men were summoned to fight. Winston Churchill was in many ways the iconic figure in this struggle between good and evil.

Like most wars, World War II was a war between nations, but it was bigger than that. The victory shaped the course of humanity, and superseded any one nation. For his role in tirelessly fighting for freedom, Winston Churchill is arguably as loved outside of Britain as he is within the empire. Indeed, along with Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill is the only person to receive an honorary US citizenship while still alive.

While one of the highest profile awards received by Churchill, honorary US citizenship was just one on a very long list of honors. There is an entire wikipedia page devoted to this list. He has a mountain range named after him in the Canadian Rockies, countless roads and schools, two Royal Navy ships, honorary doctorates from a dozen schools... Oh yea, and then there is the Nobel Prize he won in Literature in 1953. Did I mention that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II? Or that he was elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 25 (my current age)? And with all of his free time, Churchill was an amateur painter (see his study of boats here.)

Of course, Churchill is also known for both his wit and his love for brandy. In addition to the obvious - and fantastic - "our finest hour" type of quotes, there are a number of others that I enjoy (e.g., "You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life."). Occassionally, his quotes and his drinking mixed together - when told he was drunk by Bessie Braddock, Churchill replied "And you, Madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning." Also famous was this comment to Saudi King Saud, whose kingdom forbade drinking: "I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them." Suffice it to say that Winston Churchill was not afraid to say what was on his mind.

I could go on and on about Churchill - but the point is there are many reasons to study his life in more detail. Perhaps the best part of this blog is that I've been introduced to dozens of new topics. Next year I look forward to spending more in depth time learning about some of them. I can assure you that a biography of Winston Churchill will be at the top of my reading list.