Note: If you missed reading the explanation on Page One, please be aware that this is not an active blog at this time.
It’s a Corporate Raider, Me Bucko!
Ambivalence is a difficult feeling to handle. One example that immediately comes to mind: What if your daughter marries a Wall Street banker. On the one hand, you’re happy that she’ll eventually divorce him and her multimillion dollar settlement will guarantee her security for life. On the other hand, your new son-in-law is a member of (to put it as delicately as possible) an elite group of morally bankrupt individuals who would gladly gut-shoot their own mothers if it improved the quarterly profit and loss statement.
Naturally, telling friends and relatives that your little darling married a banker is horribly, horribly embarrassing. I certainly understand if you prefer to tell people that she married a pornographer.
However, bankers are not the only ethically-challenged group doing business in America today. More and more, it seems our corporate boardrooms are jam-packed with sociopaths, who couldn’t possibly be any more depraved without being elected to the US Congress.
When I was growing up, people told jokes about used car salesmen. At the time, they were considered the most unscrupulous lot of businessmen in the country. Today, used car salesmen are paragons of virtue compared to Fortune 500 CEOs. Big business today is a whole new level of organized crime. Meanwhile, colleges and universities still teach a required course called Business Ethics, which is more familiarly known to most serious MBA students as Third Period Nap.
To be fair, every country in the world has many businessmen deserving of respect. The quasi-slimy remainder rely on apologists, whose arguments are persuasive from a certain perspective. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” “Business is tough all over.” And my personal favorite, for which I must credit Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury, “The pension fund was just sitting there.”
Yes, the corporate world has run amok, and thanks to wily herds of congressional lobbyists, it’s all very legal and very profitable.
Compared to big business in days gone by, our modern corporate giants’ behavior could be considered angelic, and most should have “Johnny Milquetoast” tattooed on their foreheads. Big business the old fashioned way was an entirely different experience.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted a royal charter to the ‘Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies’, better known as The East India Company. This established the world’s first limited liability corporation. The company began with 125 shareholders and the then huge sum of £72,000. The company was granted a monopoly on all trade east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. And if you place your tongue firmly in cheek, you may use the company’s other name, The Honourable East India Company.
But how had The East India Company gained the queen’s confidence? It was because of prior voyages where the British had gained business and trade experience in the world market.
On April 10, 1591, under the command of Captain George Raymond, three ships set sail from Torbay in Devon, sailing for the East Indies. This was the first voyage to Indian waters by English merchants. Though small in number of ships, Raymond was determined that his fleet would have a profitable voyage. However on September 12th, Captain Raymond’s ship was lost and he was never heard from again.
The remaining ships continued under the command of Captain James Lancaster. The ships reached Pulo Pinao, an island in the Malay Peninsula in June, 1692. They then began to “trade”.
Then our captain, Mr. James Lancaster, with his lieutenant, Mr. Edmund Barker, the author of this narrative, having manned the boat, went on shore, to see if we could fall in with any inhabitants… Being by no means shy, we killed about eight dozen of them with small shot, and having spent the day fruitlessly, we went on board in the evening.
Early Voyages of the English to the East Indies, Volume 7, Chapter 9, Section 6
Killed about eight dozen! On my fruitless days, I watch a ball game!
Despite murdering lots of natives and pillaging every ship they could find, the voyage was a disaster. Only twenty-five men, including Captain Lancaster, survived to reach England in May, 1594.
Unwilling to be deterred, the merchants of London fitted out several more ships for Captain Lancaster’s second voyage, begun in the same year of his return.
English “trade” headed to Brazil. Although this trip was more openly acknowledged to be a “privateering voyage”, it served the purpose of proving that the British could indeed make a profit in the overseas market. They were not afraid of a little competition, or much else it seems.
The expedition…was a complete success. The port of Pernambuco was surprised, taken and held for thirty days in spite of repeated assaults by the Portuguese. About thirty ships were captured and rich cargoes of sugar, dye-wood, and cotton were brought home. [to England]
The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present
by Wm. Laird Clowes, 1897
The capture of nearly thirty ships from foreign nations made the voyage not just profitable, but obscenely profitable. Even better, the cost of doing business was negligible, hardly worth mentioning…most of the casualties were natives, blacks and Portuguese. The merchant ship’s owners were ecstatic. The queen believed she’d found a new source of revenue to tax for the crown, and much to her delight, the gentlemen of The East India Company, that is, the private sector was footing the cost of stealing exotic goods from foreign lands, killing or enslaving the natives, pirating foreign ships, etc. Best of all, they were bringing home the booty to bonny, bonny England!
Basically, The East India Company was upholding the most rigid and moral business practices of the day. Their CEO, Beelzebub made sure of it.
In all of this, the queen had no liability, having granted a royal charter and a trade monopoly to the London merchants. And who did The East India Company choose to lead the first “company voyage” in 1601?
“Captain Lancaster, might we have a word?”
Among other possessions, The East India Company held the subcontinent of India under its control for one hundred and one years using its own private army and navy, both very heavily armed. Despite sometimes horrendous casualties, mostly among the native population, The East India Company’s books consistently recorded a profit.
Wall Street bankers and Fortune 500 CEOs may have vermin-like ethics, but we can at least be thankful that, for the moment, they’re foreclosing on little old ladies and no longer shooting them.
Space may be the final frontier, but at one time European explorers had a lot of frontiers. And I’d like to set the record straight right up front; any that are now missing, I didn’t take them.
We all admire the adventurous heroes who will brave the vacuum of space or dive the deepest trenches of the ocean floor, but centuries ago travelling to the world’s frontiers was considered borderline insane. Even the strongest and most well prepared traveler could easily be killed by merciless, black-hearted pirates or in some brutal foreign war. They could fall prey to strange, incurable diseases. They might even find themselves in possession of a large harem of barely-clad, strikingly beautiful barbarian women.
Now that I think about it, pirates, war and disease don’t seem all that risky.
Although not the first, Marco Polo is the most well-known of the early European adventurers to travel deep into Asian lands. Historians still argue whether he made the trek all the way to China, but he told me that he did.
The Most Serene Republic of Venice (Now in modern Italy), 1320 AD
Cole: Marco Polo, Venetian adventurer, the most famous European to travel the Silk Road, wealthy merchant, envoy of a Mongol Emperor, noted author and possibly liar extraordinaire, so nice to see you well, sir. Forgive me if I start off with a really difficult question. Did you play Marco Polo as a child?
Cole: Never mind. I understand your father and uncle were also merchant travelers. Is that what influenced you to travel to China?
Polo: My father, Niccolo, and my uncle, Maffeo had travelled extensively in the East, establishing trading posts in Constantinople, Crimea and the Western Mongol Empire. They traded mainly in silk, gems and spices, but anything of value was considered. I was only six when father left on his first trip, much too young to accompany him. I went along on father’s second trip. I was seventeen.
Cole: After your father left the first time, you were raised by your mother?
Polo: Mother died when I was young. I was mostly raised by an aunt and uncle, but I had a good childhood. I was educated in the classics, the Bible and theology. I also learned merchant skills such as foreign currency, appraising and the handling of cargo ships. I’m afraid I didn’t pick up much Latin, but naturally I studied Italian and I learned French well enough to conduct business.
Cole: French? That must have come in handy while travelling in China. I mean, uh… Travelling the world at seventeen, you must have been a very confident young man.
Polo: Do you know any seventeen year-olds who don’t know everything?
Cole: Still, your story is very confusing. The history of your early years is poorly documented, and there are estimates of one-hundred fifty different texts claiming to be your original book, Il Milione, (The Million). How is it possible for a brilliant, incredibly handsome and dedicated historian, such as myself, to decide which manuscript is the correct version?
Polo: I wrote one book about my travels. And the original title was, The Description of the World. I can’t be held responsible for the way publishers do business. However, even when my original book came out, many people referred to it as The Million Lies. Bastardi!
Cole: I doubt that was French. Why do you think your countrymen questioned your story?
Polo: I personally believe it was difficult for Europeans to admit that a society existed in Asia that was more advanced than ourselves.
Cole: What made the Chinese more advanced than Europeans?
Polo: They bathed.
Polo: Of course. Also, Emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, had a well administered government connected by an extraordinary communications network, using both foot couriers and fast horses. Major cities and markets were linked by canals. I describe this communications network in great detail in my book. The Khan used it to control an empire that was millions of square miles.
Surprisingly, I also saw the Chinese use paper money, which was unheard of in Europe. Substituting paper for gold and silver… It would have been impossible except for the great strength of the Khan and the stability of Chinese society and their economy under his rule.
Cole: Anything else?
Polo: The Chinese burn rocks…coal for heat in the winter and hot water. I had never seen that before entering China.
The Mongols also had a unique social structure. A Mongol man could have many wives. If he died, the eldest son married his father’s wives, except his mother. A man would also take on his brother’s wives if they were widowed. Everyone was cared for.
Cole: Wait a minute! You’re saying that, in the right circumstances, a Mongol man could be married to his own many wives, his father’s many wives and his brother’s many wives, all at the same time. How could any man survive that?
Polo: Do you know a liquor called arkhi?
Cole: Okay, last question: Is it true you wrote your book in prison?
Polo: Yes. I returned home to find Venice at war with Genoa. I ended up a prisoner of war. I dictated my story to my cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, a writer of romances. He transcribed it.
Cole: Dictated your book! Talk about lazy! And to a fiction writer! No wonder your story has problems. Did you even bother to read it? Marco… Marco… Where are you going?
I Wanna Be First
The human race is naturally competitive. We all want to run the fastest, jump the highest, and wrestle with women who let us win.
The motivation for individuals to compete is quite clear (See Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, specifically the chapter entitled, “The Winner Gets the Whoopee.”), but the motivation for nations rarely is. Kings and presidents sometimes act simply out of national pride. They want their country to run the fastest, jump the highest, and being politicians, they will gladly wrestle with willing women as long as there are no paparazzi in the neighborhood.
Hubris makes great headlines when a country arrives first-est with the best-est in any field of endeavor, but it doesn’t solve social problems or pay off the national debt. However, no politician wants a photo op with a food stamp program or an interest payment to China; certainly not when compared to a picture shaking hands with Neil Armstrong or the winning Super Bowl team. Pictures with winners infer that the politician himself is a winner. And as a bonus, he gets to ignore the food stamp program and the national debt for one more day.
The average citizen also feels a sense of pride when we see winners on the front page of the newspaper. We will happily chant, “We’re number one!” and also ignore the food stamps and national debt for one more day. We can be so easily distracted from our problems because everybody likes to win. It feels good, and we honestly don’t care if it was a personal win. If it was a win for the home team, that’s good enough.
“I had great seats for the championship game. I was so close I could smell their cologne.”
“They just played sixty minutes of football. I don’t think that was cologne.”
We don’t even care if “our win” was real or not. Human beings will gladly take pride in national myths, legends and apocryphal stories.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘apocryphal’, it refers to a story or statement that is widely circulated as being true even though its authenticity is doubtful, or even already debunked by competent authority. An example would be President Harry S. Truman’s supposed deathbed statement, “I bitch-slapped Hirohito.”)
We are all only human, and having a few foibles will not make us any less decent. Every nation has its winners, and if anyone expects our winners (and us vicariously) to settle for second place… Let them prove it!
The Portuguese are a wonderful people. (Anyone who makes great Madeira is a wonderful person!) They have been extraordinarily good seaman for centuries. Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama is credited with being the first to circumnavigate Africa, the first to round the Cape of Good Hope and the first European to reach India by sea. He arrived in Calicut in May, 1498. However, there are a few problems with da Gama’s story.
First, a minor point, the Cape of Good Hope is not the southern tip of Africa. Geographically, Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point on the African continent. No need to look it up. I learned it watching Jeopardy, so it must be true.
Second, the Phoenicians may have circumnavigated Africa more than 2000 years before Vasco da Gama!
From The Histories (c. 440 BC) of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus:
(Note: Libya refers to Africa as it was known at that time.)
Libya is washed on all sides by the sea except where it joins Asia, as was first demonstrated, so far as our knowledge goes, by the Egyptian king Necho, who….sent out a fleet manned by a Phoenician crew with orders to sail west about and return to Egypt and the Mediterranean by way of the Straits of Gibraltar. The Phoenicians sailed from the Arabian gulf into the southern ocean, and every autumn put in at some convenient spot on the Libyan coast, sowed a patch of ground, and waited for next year’s harvest. Then, having got in their grain, they put to sea again, and after two full years rounded the Pillars of Heracles in the course of the third, and returned to Egypt. These men made a statement which I do not myself believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya, they had the sun on their right – to northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered by sea.
Herodotus, The Histories
There are problems with this story as well. The Egyptian king referred to by Herodotus is King Necho II. He reigned from c. 610 to c.595 BCE. That means Herodotus recorded the story almost 200 years after the event, more than enough time for intervening generations to have embellished the story. Also, King Necho’s court did not document the voyage. Perhaps the voyage was a military secret. Perhaps one of his scribes took a sick day.
However, there is one clue affirming the Phoenician voyage. Herodotus chooses not to believe the sun was on the sailor’s right, or to the north. Such a sighting was unknown in the Mediterranean world, but this is exactly what you would see while sailing west in Africa’s southernmost waters.
Did the Phoenicians beat Vasco da Gama in circumnavigating Africa? Some historians say ‘yes’ and others ‘no’, but we are unlikely to locate a 2600 year-old authoritative source for confirmation. Perhaps with tea leaves and Tarot cards…
Spare the Rod and Spoil the Colony
It’s been said that war is hell, but the human race seems to love it. We declare war on other nations, terrorism, poverty, drugs and various incurable diseases. Although, I’m fairly certain that no one has yet fired a cruise missile at poverty, which now that I think of it, I probably shouldn’t have mentioned since I don’t want to give the Republicans any ideas.
The Gulf War, AKA Operation Desert Storm (17 January 1991 – 28 February 1991), was the first war fought with live news coverage. Thirty-four nations joined forces under a United Nations mandate to spank Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who illegally invaded neighboring Kuwait. Apparently, Saddam was unaware that opposing the entire world generally doesn’t work out well for the dictator if things escalate to open warfare. Two obvious examples:
- Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated and exiled to damp, windy St. Helena, an isolated island in the South Atlantic, where he was forced to live out his worst nightmare, all of the restaurants were British.
- Fearing capture by the Russians as they advanced on Berlin, Adolf Hitler spent his last hours in an underground bunker, where he married his mistress, then shot himself, but it’s unknown if the latter two events are related.
Regardless, Saddam finally did learn his lesson. We all watched live television coverage from the BBC and CNN as reporters embedded with the frontline troops detailed every horrifying event as the coalition forces punished Saddam and Iraq, and forced the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
This was television history!
For the first time since the Apollo moon landing, television news programs had better ratings than reruns of Gilligan’s Island. It was even rumored that the Skipper, the Professor and Mary Ann watched avidly as the coalition forces pounded Baghdad, which is certainly believable if you don’t know that the Skipper was dead at the time.
Then, it occurred to me how much the viewers at home missed by not having television reporters embedded with the troops in previous wars. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we had excellent television coverage available at the battles of Marathon, Carthage, Verdun, Iwo Jima and Stalingrad. So, I proposed this as a new reality show to an unnamed major studio, and they are seriously considering financing the sixty trillion dollars necessary to overcome the minor time travel difficulties.
In the meantime, I’ll give you a sneak peek at next season’s number one reality show,
The Real Survivors, by giving you a look at the pilot’s studio transcript.
History’s Shortest War
Commentator: Good evening. Tonight, The Real Survivors will present History’s Shortest War, the Anglo-Zanzibar War, which was fought between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate on August 27, 1896.
When pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini died on August 25th, power in Zanzibar was transferred in what amounted to a palace coup to Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, who the British believe will make a lousy puppet government. The British want Hamud bin Muhammed to be the new sultan since he will look more favorably on British interests in the region, which is the diplomatic speak for he’s willing to take a bribe.
Since Acting-Sultan Khalid bin Barghash did not get British permission before he stole the throne, he is in violation of an 1886 treaty and the British consider this a casus belli, which is a Latin expression formally meaning justification for war. Informally, it means start building a bomb shelter in your backyard…NOW!
At this very moment, the usurper, Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, is barricaded in the palace, and we’re now going live to the scene.
Reporter: This is Ward Blabber, embedded with British troops here in Zanzibar. The British have five warships on station in the harbor, and though I can’t see their names, one of the ships has just raised flags telling the fleet to prepare for action. It’s 9:00 AM local time as I, courageous reporter Ward Blabber, and the British marines work our way up to the palace.
Commentator: Actually, Ward, it’s 8:58 AM local time.
Reporter: This is the Rolex my uncle gave me. It never loses time.
Commentator: Well, the cheap wall clock here in the studio disagrees with you.
Reporter: Hold on, there’s something happening. The British have opened fire. They’re firing on the palace and I can see that the palace guard is running for cover. I know the sultan is protected by his palace guard, some armed civilians, and his servants and slaves, about 2,800 in total.
Commentator: What are they doing, Ward? Can you see?
Reporter: It’s like a kitchen light on cockroaches, here. They are running in all directions. I can see now that the palace artillery was hit with the first British broadside. It is out of commission.
Commentator: Do they have any other…
Reporter: Wait! The palace is on fire! Can you see it? That’s official, the palace is on fire. And right next to the palace, there goes the sultan’s harem. It’s also burning.
Commentator: We need ratings, Ward. Can you see what the women are wearing?
Reporter: No, but things are now heating up out in the harbor. The sultan’s yacht has opened fire on a British cruiser.
Commentator: Have the British returned fire?
Reporter: Yes, and the sultan’s yacht is sinking; only its mast is now visible. And I have an update now, Sultan Khalid bin Barghash has left the palace. He’s running away. The war is over. It looks like the British have won in only forty minutes.
Commentator: That’s thirty-eight minutes on our clock here in the studio.
Reporter: Did you hear me? This is a Rolex.
Commentator: One of our cameramen timed History’s Shortest War as forty-five minutes. Thirty-eight, forty or forty- five… Who cares. We’re out of time. Tune in next week for The Second Punic War.
What a Great Idea!
Technology fascinates us. If it’s even moderately viable, we adopt it faster than SPCA puppies.
Having spent the hard earned money that we borrowed from our parents on the newest, latest and greatest Gizmo-tronic, we are now the recipients of its marvelous features and benefits:
- Gizmo owners are much cooler than Gizmo-less losers.
- Whenever my friends try to one-up me, I can wave my Gizmo in their faces.
- Waving a shiny, new Gizmo in my friends’ faces may interest them in helping me decipher the obscure dialect of Farsi-Chinese-Australian which masquerades as English in the user’s manual.
- Someone… Anyone… Please, please, please help me with this intuitive interface because apparently my intuit is broken.
- And where’s the damn Off button!
- Found it! Okay, I’m cool.
We certainly do love technology, even if sometimes we don’t recognize it.
Technology has numerous definitions, some rather sketchy. I found one dictionary that claimed technology was the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. If ever there was a definition that sucked all the flavor from my Juicy Fruit, that one qualifies.
Technology may often be the application of scientific knowledge, but in many cases the inventor has no such knowledge. He or she may simply be aware enough to notice something that works well for a particular circumstance.
Lower Awash Valley, Ethiopia, 3.4 mya
Og traipsed along the Awash riverbed, tracking through the dry, gritty sand with his friend Mog. It’s blistering hot and the afternoon sun is far from setting. The pair drag the carcass of a large, male zebra. It’s sweaty, exhausting work. “We should have brought more guys or killed a smaller zebra,” said Og. “This thing weighs a ton.”
“I just wish there was a way we could cut this carcass up into smaller pieces without being out here for days on end pounding away with sharpened sticks.”
“Look,” said Mog, “a geologic disconformity has broken those rocks. Some of them are razor sharp.”
“Wow! You’re so fortunate to have scientific knowledge to use for practical purposes?”
“Get serious! Grab a sharp rock and do this.” Mog slices into the carcass. “Aha! This is great! It cuts through zebra like butter.”
“Maybe I can learn to break sharp rocks. I’ll start my own business, Mog’s Stone Knives. And I’m warning you, I own the patent.”
“What’s a patent?”
Mog stood up with a neatly sliced, roast-size hunk of zebra meat. “It’s the basis for my next new inventions, licensing agreements and royalties.”
Clearly, scientific knowledge is not always a prerequisite for technological innovation.
And yes, stone tools are a technology. While the occasional sharp stone may have appeared by accident in nature, most stone knives and axes were manufactured by flint knapping, that is, hitting one rock with another, flaking off the excess to produce a sharp edge while striving not to smash your thumb. Stone tools may well have been the first technology man ever invented, although I’m voting for the bent-stick backscratcher.
The second part of our dubious definition of technology — That is, “for practical purposes”. — can also be considered somewhat misleading.
Let’s be honest, what is practical about building a robot that will run around on Mars for a few months, then breakdown and die? You can’t eat it, drink it, smoke it, or put it up your nose. It won’t fill in potholes, babysit the kids, or pay your taxes. What’s practical about a Mars rover?
Couldn’t NASA have just launched a Subaru into space; then at least we’d have the warranty when it broke down?
Don’t get me wrong. If it were up to me, I’d double NASA’s budget without a second thought. Increasing our knowledge of the universe in which we live is one of the noblest pursuits mankind has ever attempted. However, the practicality of it… I must admit that’s arguable.
On the other hand, mankind has invented a ton of technologies that are eminently practical. Some of them were so surprisingly innovative that they inspired remarkable jealousy among the have-nots.
The Vikings are remembered as fierce barbarians, who raided coastal towns throughout Europe, killing without mercy and stealing your ancestral grandmother’s good silver. However, if you inherited blue eyes and blond hair, it’s also possible that grandma wasn’t all that upset about the missing silver.
The fierce barbarian Viking is a minor part of a much larger picture. While not averse to the occasional thieving raid, the Vikings were explorers, traders and settlers in many locales. Their success was due to a truly inventive Norse technology.
The Viking longships were the culmination of Norse boat building technology that had its beginnings in the Stone Age. There were two classes: warships or langskip, and merchant ships called knorr, used for cargo, passengers and funerals. From the 9th to the 13th century, the Viking longships successfully travelled from Scandinavia to as far away as North America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
An innovative design allowed these ships to be fast (10 knots) and highly maneuverable. The longship had a true keel, making them strong, flexible and stable, but their draft was often less than a meter. This allowed the longships to sail in shallow rivers and inland waterways. They could also easily beach themselves for trade or to raid an enemy. The ships were
clinker-built, riveting overlapping planks together and caulking them with wool and pine tar. The ends of the ship were identical, so it could reverse direction quickly, a very useful combat maneuver. And they had dual-propulsion, both sail and oars. (Dealer optional on some models.)
In the 9th century AD, the Vikings had a new Gizmo!
Technology is everywhere, from a stone tool to a space shuttle. Whether we actually need it or just love having it, it’s great fun. Almost as much as the SPCA puppy.