Read me a book

Posted in Reviews at 17:50 by RjZ

While I haven’t been keeping up with book reviews lately, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading. People are still handing me books to read and I am slogging through them. Recently, for the first time, I had a book read to me. I received a trial audiobook from Audible.com and decided to give it a try.

I was immediately faced with a dilemma: how to choose. One of the advantages of reading books that people let me borrow is that my choices are dramatically limited. I choose faster in restaurants, too, now that I don’t eat meat, since there’s simply fewer things on the menu. Audible, meanwhile has thousands of titles to choose from and seeing their website I’d suddenly forgot all the books I’d heard about and hoped to borrow some day soon.

One did pop up pretty quickly, so I decided to listen to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Dr. Diamond is a credited as an evolutionary biologist and teaches geography at UCLA, but, above all, this book promised to address a question I think about quite a bit. Why are the artifacts one group of people so much more advanced than the artifacts of another. During my recent trip to Peru many tourists were amazed by the fantastic rock masonry of the Inca. I too was impressed, but, let’s face it, the people who built the beautiful Machupicchu around 1460 CE hadn’t yet discovered the wheel. Europeans had been building gothic cathedrals for a few centuries and were moving on to the renaissance  around this time, and Gutenberg invented the printing press.

I recommend Machupicchu to anyone, but not necessarily because of the heavy stone that was moved around. Egyptians were built the even more impressive pyramids only 4500 years previous. Seeing these monuments, and even the people living in one place or another, I have often wondered why one society lives one way and another seems to require cars and laptops. The short answer is that it has nothing to do with the relative intelligence of one group of people over another, and much more to do with the luck of location and the geography of the land around them. It’s easier to trade ideas and advance when you live near other societies, and it’s equally easy to get by without even the wheel if you’re able to feed your people and no one else comes along to kill you.

The book was excellent and has filled me with new stories and new insights. I highly recommend it to anyone who travels the world where you can experience Diamond’s observations first hand. As far as having it read to me? It certainly is easier than reading it yourself. The reader had excellent diction and, in retrospect, it’s quite the impressive achievement to read the entire volume out loud. The production values were top notch and it was as if the reader never even had to take a breadth. The experience, on the iPhone was satisfactory enough; the media player remembered where I was each time I stopped and I could easily read while driving; a feat I otherwise can’t recommend.

In the end, though, I didn’t remain an Audible member. Reading is a simple pleasure. When the pilot says to turn off all electronic devices, the book can remain open. When I get in a car to go somewhere I put down the book, saving it for a quieter, more focused time. It’s convenient to listen to an audiobook supported by hundreds of dollars of technology, but it’s not as simple as just opening a book. And simple is how it shall remain for me. Unless someone wants to lend me another audiobook.

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And the first shall be last

Posted in Society at 14:36 by RjZ

We’re in a rush. After all, if you’re not first to the buffet table, there may be nothing left when you finally arrive. But being in a rush ends up meaning spending money we don’t yet have. Beyond the housing crisis, the failing banks, the badly managed car companies, The root cause of the economic crisis we find ourselves in probably has more to do with that brisk pace everyone is trying to maintain than anything else. What can we really learn from this?

Everyone is pointing fingers and trying to find the cause of the Wallstreet to Mainstreet break down. Regardless of who was holding the till of the ship of state, conservatives or progressives, for answers we can look to a lack of transparency for complex financial instruments that were developed to make money with a minimum of investment. Like Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme which pays early investors with the money paid by later investors, packaging up mortgages into funds and selling them off works so long as no one defaults. 

Or take “credit default swaps”. These abstract financial instruments, it’s becoming clear, may have had an even bigger role to play in our financial meltdown than even the mortgage backed securities did. These insurance policies for bonds were speculated upon and traded against their future worth based on the strength of the underlying bonds they were insuring, even though the purchasers didn’t even own the bonds in question. 

All these products enable investors to make money on cash they don’t necessarily have. If I can insure a $100 billion Lehman Brothers bond with the assets from my $100 million hedge fund, I am making money, ie. the insurance premiums, on money I don’t have. In other words, I can’t pay that $100 billion asset back if it comes due…which is what happened—oops. If, just to be safe, my hedge fund covers my insurance policy with another policy from someone else I will be able to pay back the asset; so long as my insurer can do. The dominoes all remain standing until any bank or investor in the line falls, and then we all fail. Sound familiar?

Making money on cash you haven’t got is called leveraging. Businesses do this all the time in order to grow. If I decide I want to meet growing demand for a power plant, I can’t really wait for half a million people to knock on my door holding extension cords. It takes years to build a power plant, so I’d better get started today. Since I am not yet making any money from those customers (they haven’t even moved in, and some may not even be born yet!) I’ve got to invest cash now. If I don’t have a billion lying around, I can borrow it, hoping to pay off the investment and even the interest from my future profits.

Even normal folks leverage. If I buy a $300,000 house with only $30,000 down and sell it for $400,000 then I make $100,000 on a $30,000 investment. This too, works, when values are going up! Unfortunately, I am also on tap for the $300,000 I signed a mortgage for even if the house is only worth $200,000 sometime later. Sound familiar?

Everybody’s leveraging. Everybody from investment banks to big businesses and from local shops to home owners is in debt. This debt is the fuel of our economic growth. If kids waited till they had enough money to buy a bicycle to start delivering newspapers, and then saved up for a car to deliver pizzas, they’d lose out to the neighbor kid who had got a bike for Christmas. If we all waited we wouldn’t be in the debt we’re in now, but we wouldn’t have a job either.

So blame the short sighted homeowners who couldn’t afford their mortgages. Blame the conservatives for encouraging home ownership without regulating banks’ lending practices. Blame the liberals for missing their chance to regulate credit default swaps and demanding these insurers to actually have the assets they were insuring. But above all, blame our need for speed. Because, our need to get their before everyone else does is the root cause of this crisis and it means that our whole economy, perhaps the whole world’s economy is based on a flawed plan that doesn’t take into account the cost of growing faster than our real resources will allow.

Great, now that we’re finished with the blame game, how do we both grow our economy in a way that creates jobs for the next generation; improves the lives of not only people, but perhaps trees and bunnies too; and, is ultimately sustainable for both society and the planet? Maybe more importantly; how do we do it while everyone else is racing to the head of the line?

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The view over Jordan

Posted in Travel at 14:21 by RjZ

On an earlier (than my previous post) trip to Israel, between the Intifadas, one of my local colleagues took me for some sightseeing. Avigdor was a secular Jew. Jewish in the same way I am; not so much by belief, but rather because he had little choice about the matter. His mother and five thousand of years of Jewish tradition decided for him. He was also a fairly liberal fellow, more interested in just keeping his representative business going than the details of politics. 

Earlier that day we had been walking through the streets of old Jerusalem and seen a man walking away from us down an ancient cobblestone street. Reaching up and hold his hand was his tiny daughter walking quickly to keep up with him. Slung over his back was a large, imposing looking, machine gun.

Avi pointed it out with a sneer. “Look at that man,” he said. “He let’s his machismo endanger his own daughter.” Avi claimed that this man wasn’t protecting his daughter, but rather attracting danger. It was a relatively peaceful time in Israel, and, in spite of the news we get in the United States, there is still little more reason to warrant a machine gun to protect yourself in old Jerusalem than there is in New York City. Probably quite a bit less. He wasn’t a military man walking back from his post, Avi explained, but a man brandishing a big gun and asking for trouble.

Later, we found ourselves on a hill in a parking lot of the University, with vistas to Jerusalem in the west and out, over the desert to Jordan in the east. Avi’s children were playing near us when Avi asked me: “look west, what do you see?” “Jerusalem,” I answered, “a modern city and this university decorated with light Jerusalem sandstone.” “And to the east?” I saw an expansive desert and a lone man herding his goats among the desert scrub.

Here’s this liberal secular Jew, with his kids playing within earshot, who begins to explain what I could see. To the west, Israel. I thriving modern country sprouting literally right out of the desert. A land made fertile in only 50 years and a society that enjoys religious freedom and a middle class economy. To the east, a goat herder shepherds his goats like his ancestors have done for millennia. It was a desert 50 years ago, 2000 years ago, and will be on into the future. They do not want anything more than this he told me. They would leave the place a desert and know nothing better, yet they covet what we have.

It seems Avi, too, was a Zionist. While it’s judgmental to assume that there must be something inherently better about the modern, also known as Western, way of life compared to the goat herder, who, as far as Avi knew, might be very happy, thank you very much, it would be hard to deny that there is a difference and that the Israelis had accomplished so much in such a short time. That’s not what bothered me though. 

What disturbs me about this view was what it means for the prospect of peace in the middle east. This wasn’t some right-wing conservative damning the dirty arabs. This was a relaxed, mostly a-political (at least as much one can be, in Israel) guy, describing his neighbors like they are lesser people, and doing so within hearing range of his kids. Until that goes away, and it’s going to take a generation or two, I don’t see what their path to peace will be.

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The Reluctant Zionist

Posted in Travel at 15:57 by RjZ

It was an extremely hot day. Hot even for the Dead Sea valley in Israel. That day, I drank over six liters of water and never even needed to visit a toilet. I was taking a break in the shade near a fresh water spring in Ein Gedi national park. In spite of the little snail creatures living in the water, the map said that this spring was safe to drink. I was hesitant but when a young ranger joined me to relax in the shade, she encouraged me that the spring was, indeed, safe.

She interviewed me for a while, curious about my trip and what brought me to Israel. “Business travel,” I answered. I was living in the Netherlands at the time and Israel was close enough to be considered part of our European territory. I had been to Israel a couple of times already, but this time had a weekend to see some sights.

Suddenly she asked “when are you going to move here?” The question took me completely by surprise. “Why would I do that?” I asked. She explained that Israel was my homeland, of course. I’d gotten used to the fact that Israelis have Jew-dar at least as accurate as homosexual’s reputed gay-dar. I don’t see what looks so damn Jewish about me, but while U.S. American’s don’t always notice, Israelis certainly do. Still, “I live in the Netherlands now, but my homeland is the United States. I am quite proud of that, actually. Why would Israel be my homeland?”

She was unmoved by my American heritage and explained that it was my duty to return to Israel and help build the nation. I really like Israel too. The climate is much like California with both mountains and deserts. The people are attractive and the food is absolutely delicious. But I have no desire to move there.

It was difficult to understand where this young woman was coming from, until I realized, she was probably brought up by Zionists. For her, it is her duty and the duty of every Jew to return to Israel and build this nation. I can appreciate this view, but it gets to the bizarre notion that Judaism, unlike nearly every other religion seems to enjoy status not only as a belief system, but is also considered a race and a nationality.

I had been speaking with an orthodox colleague earlier in that trip and had commented that I am a terrible Jew and don’t even know about all of the rituals involved in being Jewish, let alone practice or even believe in them. He rejected this notion, saying there was no such thing as a bad Jew. I was still Jewish. I don’t mind telling you, this drives me crazy. To quote David Cross, I am Jewish, as long as my mother’s vagina was Jewish. What I believe in, how I act, or what I want, doesn’t really enter into it. It reminds me of being a high school and some adult claims to know all about you and what you think, even though they’ve just met you! No one wants to be pegged so easily; we all want a bit of individuality and mystery about ourselves and we offer it as a little reward for those who take the time to get to know us.

I still have no plans to move to Israel, and the arrogance of this ‘chosen people’ attitude comes through pretty clearly, but Israelis also enjoy a race-independent-welcoming to everyone (with a Jewish mother). Israel embraces new citizens, in spite of everything else. If I get kicked out of the the states someday for, I don’t know, inflammatory blog postings, Israel will grant me citizenship the moment I step off the plane in Tel Aviv. It’s hard to hold a grudge against that sort of unconditional (provided you’re Jewish) openness.

At home and abroad, people notice my “race” pretty soon after I start speaking, and while I am not going to start lighting a menorah any time soon, I won’t hide who I am. If an anti-semetic demagogue comes to power somewhere in the world, I won’t run and hide. Sure, I am concerned that the ranger’s blind zionist patriotism brings Israel no closer to peace (I’ll have a follow on post about that) but I won’t, and apparently can’t, deny where I came from even if I can’t understand how this one religion got the special treatment to be considered a race.

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Missed opportunities

Posted in at 15:00 by RjZ

Former Vice Presidential candidate, Ms. Palin’s self-proclaimed credentials were that she is from an energy producing state and was looking forward to bringing that expertise to the White House. Surely, with that experience she would have been instrumental in guiding our energy policy and selecting the energy secretary.

Contrast that with who we’re going to be stuck with. To think, we have to settle for Dr. Chu, nobel prize winning physicist and head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory where’s he been trying to turn the lab into “the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy.”

Just imagine what Ms. Palin might have brought to the table compared to that.

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Tell me where to go

Posted in Travel at 16:36 by RjZ

I decided to go to Indonesia because the travel agent we spoke to recommended it. We marched in there and just started asking questions about places to go that weren’t too expensive and a little exotic. I was living in the Netherlands at the time so perhaps it’s not too surprising that the agent suggested a former colony, but it was great trip.

It’s gotten much more difficult lately. Budget travel is hardly dead but it’s becoming much more scarce (which surely separates me from more cash than I’d like but is usually a good thing for the folks I travel to visit.) I am working on my next trip now, and mostly all I’ve been successful at doing is ruling things out. Kilimanjaro will have to wait—very, very expensive. Galapagos isn’t really much cheaper, so it’s only hold as well.

Time is a limiting factor too. Some day I’ll give it all up and do a round-the-world trip, but let’s not forget the advantages of short trips. I get to buy some really nice things to remind me of the experience when I’ve returned home and I actually have enough time to make sense of all the pictures I took and even put together a slide show for friends. I can also afford to squeeze a whole bunch into a short trip and rest up after vacation. Some places are just too difficult to visit in a short time though. The Lonely Planet Guidebooks don’t really even have a two week tour of Papua New Guinea. In that little time a backpacker can’t really get very many places in this remote land.

I don’t care for beaches much and I don’t have much interest in fancy hotels either. Of course weather, or at least timing, is a factor too. Carrying only one change of clothes makes me want to avoid cold muddy places until they’re a bit dryer and easier to move around in, and doesn’t make me a candidate for the Ibiza dance club scene. (And not for that reason alone, either.)

My dear readers can help: where in the world do you want to go next. More importantly: why?

I’m not saying I’ll take you’re advice on my next trip, but I would be curious to hear where folks are headed next, and other readers (all seven of you) might be interested as well!

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