Thoughts on the Mongols

The lifestyle of the nomads who populated the Eurasian steppe; known by names as various as the Mongols, the Huns, the Xiong-nu, Kipchaks, Tatars hold a particular fascination for me.  

To imagine that everything you own could be folded up, displaced, and moved to another location within a matter of hours; the fact that your ‘home’ was wherever you decided to set up camp in the entire grasslands across the Asian to European landmass; the fact that you grew up riding horses before walking, and were so connected to horses that you slept and ate on  them, even opening up their veins to drink their blood when you were thirsty; the fact that the very concept of a city, which represented a sedentary lifestyle, was so foreign and unimaginable to you that it was worthy of contempt…

The Mongols under the rule of Genghis Khan are a fascinating study because it seems almost all of their battles were one-sided victories, massacres that left entire cities pillaged and raped.  The Mongol engine bulldozed its way into Europe and south through China, usually outnumbered, but always more nimble, and almost always, victorious.  

There are explanations for this success.  The usual ones are: that the nomads under Genghis Khan were united like never before.  That the Mongol system of organization, and its meritocracy, brought out the best tactics and operational implementation.  That the Mongols used their superior quickness and stamina to bait enemies into open fields, exhausted them, and then killed them without mercy.  That they used fear tactics to decrease morale in their enemies.

It seems to me that the Mongol contempt for cities stemmed from their lifestyle advantage, which led to their success in battle.  They had no home bases to destroy.  Unless their enemies set fire to the entire Eurasian steppe grasslands, the Mongols would always have a feeding ground, base for resources and replenishment, and ways to evade and hide.  Their lifestyle led to no focused point of attack, because their quickness on horses meant they would scatter in all directions into the endless plain.  

It also meant that the entire nomadic lifestyle was very binary.  It was one based on grazing and hunting (living off the land), or war and pillaging (living off other people).  It was a lifestyle that was inherently unstable, veering between those two modes as resources grew scarce.  They did those two things very well, and in this modus operandi, what is sacrificed are the things that can occur in the sedentary life: development of civilization, literature, art, sciences.  

It strikes me that the conflict between the sedentary lifestyle and nomadic lifestyle was waged over an epoch, over almost two millennia, and there was no clear winner during the entire time.  During certain centuries, the latter had the advantage.  And during others, the former had the advantage.  The Romans fought Attila and were sacked by the Visigoths.  Then one thousand years later, the Mongols using essentially the same tactics at a higher speed and organization, took over Asia and parts of Europe.  Then three hundred years later, the Manchus pillaged China in the 1600s.  

This was a war between two lifestyles: one composed of people who ate only red meat, hunted, grazed, and depended on sheer movement as their standard operating mode, and another composed of people who ate the vegetables that they planted, grew, and lived lives of stability within the security of the city walls.  

And while the nomads regarded the city-dwellers with contempt, whenever they took over a civilization they were themselves consumed by that civilization.  They fell into riches.  They fell into comfort.  They could not help but succumb to stability.  They became effete relative to the standard by which they had conquered the former civilization.  And the elders saw this happening: Genghis Khan himself foresaw that his grandchildren would succumb to the pleasures of civilization and lack the vigor with which he had conquered nations.  The Manchu sent their children to be indoctrinated in their ancestral homelands in Manchuria, going so far as to try to establish a seat of administration there in an attempt to preserve their ‘Manchu-ness’, feeling that in the course of establishing an empire they were losing the values that had brought them there.  And gradually, their children and their children’s children did indeed lose their grasp on the empires their forefathers had established.  They grew weak.  

There is something so gripping about this drama between these two modes of life.  The nomadic one, while one-dimensionally superior in war, was a lifestyle of ongoing consumption, a sustenance-based one that consumed so many resources in its development and support of warfaring abilities that nothing was, or could be left behind.  The sedentary one, one that spread its resources more evenly but thinly, relying on stability for the architecture from which to grow, to produce the fruit of civilization.  But one whose pleasures could ultimately be its own downfall.  In this you can make so many analogies to entire civilizations, companies, and even individual human lives.  And I’ll leave that to you to interpret.  

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When I was living in Hong Kong, I liked leaving the house early, because it’s always good to start the day at a measured pace.  And you only had two windows of ‘measured pace’ in Hong Kong – either really early or late at night.  The streets turned somewhat insane around 8:30 to 9.  The air was still balmy in the morning, but on good days, you could walk the whole way from the escalators all the way down to Central without breaking a sweat.  As you passed Soho you would see the street sweepers come out and clean up the devastation of the night before.  The shops weren’t open yet, and the deliveries are just starting.  There would be the slightest tinge of a coolness in the air, one that would quickly turn muggy and suffocating as the day went by.

When I left the apartment and went downstairs, I would greet Mr. Wong, who would already be there or just arriving.  Alert, attentive, even when he was sitting there behind the counter, he was unlike any other doorman I encountered in Hong Kong.  He would press the button to let you in or out, the moment you were within two steps of the door.  His peripheral vision and motion detection abilities were superhuman.  The moment you stepped into his line of sight, he pressed that button to let you in or out.  He greeted you with a loud ‘Good morning!’ or ‘hello!’  Unlike our other doorman, who either ignored you entirely or watched you like a curious specimen, as you passed by or waved.  He never ate in front of the tenants, but there were times he disappeared from sight, into the little cubby-hole behind the desk, where I assumed he was taking his lunch or dinner.  And he was there from the time I left for work at 7, until the evenings past dinnertime.  There were only two shifts of the doormen during the entire 24 hour period, and he worked most of it.  Sometimes when we got back from a night out, he was still there, talking to the lady who pretty much kept the building running.

At various times I would see her cleaning the elevator, flattening the boxes, hauling the trash out one floor at a time from all 24 floors (2 buckets per floor).  Sometimes at midnight I would see her walking across the street with a cart loaded with cardboard and wood, and during the day I saw her eating, or talking with a friend in front of the apartment.  Once I asked her about her hours, and she told me it was from 6 am to 10 pm, although I saw her on the streets much later than that.  She had a gentle face and big, strong hands.

At night, the city slowed down.  There was a weary fog that hung over it, like exhaust from the day.  The escalators are going back the other way, the lights are out like stars, in the buildings that are so close together you can right through to all the little exhibits of life in them.  It becomes a city of individuals, instead of a city of crowds.  And for me, they were two of them – always hard-working, always there.

 

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Recollections of Japan

I read this article about Japan and almost cried with nostalgia; I went to Japan occasionally for business and leisure for a period of about two to three years.

One thing any person can learn from Japan is its cultural pursuit of excellence.  In the belief that this is a neverending quest; whatever you call it, perfectionism, craftsmanship, obsession, a pursuit of unattainable ideals, its a mindset that there is a right, and a wrong (poorer) way to do things.  It’s a belief that presentation matters, that there’s an absolute standard by which one can be judged to do their job, that the way you do your job is a reflect of your own self.

Here are some highlights:

  • I lost 300 dollars in a restaurant, it fell out of my coat pocket.  After wandering around Osaka for 3 hours, I returned to the restaurant.  As soon as I walked in, before I could say anything, the server looked at me, exclaimed something with wide-open eyes, and went into the kitchen.  He brought out the 300 dollars folded neatly into a bag and handed it to me, his face exploding in red, as if embarrassed on my behalf.  I nodded deeply as I took it, just saying thank you, thank you.
  • I was on an ANA flight that landed in Narita.  There was a gift for me in the form of a box of candies/pastries.  I ate one, but wasn’t in the mood for any more and put the rest in the seat back pocket.  I left the plane and was already connecting through another terminal when a stewardess rushes up to me, out of breath, with the box in her hand, asking if I had left it.  I had left it there on purpose because I didn’t want it, but now I felt bad I did.  Thank you, thank you, I said.
  • I stayed at an onsen once.  This was out in the middle of nowhere, east of Kyoto, and to get there I had to take a cab that cost a few hundred dollars.  I watched the meter tick up with tears in my eyes and a pit in my stomach.  When I finally got there, it was past midnight and the staff had been waiting up for me, and it turned out they had been calling and emailing my travel agent because I hadn’t arrived yet.  Because I had missed one of the meals, they went into the kitchen and made me a midnight snack.
  • Also, I’ll never forget the time I was in a train station and wanted to use my spare change.  I was hungry, so I bought a chocolate mochi ball at a little kiosk.  I see her take out the mochi from the glass case, then she wraps it in a tissue paper.  Then she places it in another clear plastic bag.  Then she places the clear plastic bag in a box, with some dry ice all around it.  Then she wraps the box in wrapping paper.  Then she ties the whole package in a ribbon, then places it in a gift bag for me to take away.  I watched the whole ritual, which was mesmerizing.  Even though I was hungry, carried it for a while because I felt bad about eating it.
  • I once wanted to leave a tip at a hair salon.  With horrified expressions, the girl held up her hands in the form of an ‘X’, and shook her head violently ‘no’, ‘no’.
  • The taxi drivers wear suits and white gloves.  When they can’t find a place, they turn off the meter in the general vicinity of the place, such is the level of their responsibility.
  • One time I worked with a local REIT, who was our partner on the project.  When I work in other countries, it is common that they shunt all the responsibility on us – meaning that we’re responsible for the research, interviews, data, etc.  On this project, they had everything prepared in both paper and in files stored on USB drives, translated, neatly categorized into folders, color coded.  They delivered it all in a package with additional brochures and even souvenirs, like a stamp collection!  Understand that they were paying us, not the other way around.  The best part is that for about five years afterwards, they sent me personally a hand-signed Christmas card that always had some crazy feature to it, whether it was a pop-up diorama of a city, or an intricate cut-out of a nativity scene.

I’m not being naive about Japan, I know I’m only looking at the rose-tinted version of it, but nevertheless.  The lesson is still there.

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Story of an Addiction

For about two months, I was addicted to Candy Crush.  As is common in these types of situations, you can’t write or reflect on something while you’re engaged in it.  Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the addictive-prone qualities of my own mind, let’s get right into it.  

First, does anyone else notice that after a long time logged out from the game – ‘long’ being relative here, of course; let’s call it a day – that upon returning, you suddenly have a ton of dormant chains in your start screen?  Also, has anyone been able to get anything besides the fish, single candy bomb, or wrapped candy from the Daily Wheel?  Somehow the wheel always seems to automatically speed up or slow down to prevent my winning the really good stuff.  Thanks, King.  

The greatest satisfaction of Candy Crush is the fact that it magnifies the results of your decisions.  But before I get into that, there’s another variable.  This is the fact that there are enough options, enough small decisions you need to make whether in the form of the swaps or the powerups, that you get the feeling that there’s a true strategy here, that you have an array of weapons at your disposal and that this is a deep, strategic game.  It’s engaging.  

Now back to the magnification factor.  The only way to win the game is to set off chain reactions.  I played many a losing round where I spent 50 turns just eliminating three candies each time.  No dopamine surges result from this.  They only result when, after swapping two innocuous colors, suddenly there’s a bombardment of action and explosions, entire rows and columns disappearing, detonations of bombs.  When combined with the fact that you’ve made a lot of small decisions along the way, as above, you get – a sense of achievement.  You feel like these explosions are your accomplishment, due to your decision-making abilities.  It provides immediate feedback to you in this way.  Where else do you get that in this day and age besides social media?  

The juxtaposition of the normally calm, go-like, methodically decisions and the cascading, psychedelic destruction is also psychologically exciting.  I’m sure there’s some kind of principle in play here.  On a more macro-level,  I noticed also that they interspersed insanely difficult levels that necessarily require striped candies with others that for some reason, wouldn’t have been out of place in the teen or twenties levels.  There’s a good sense of pace and variation.  

Also, it’s too easy to access.  When you’re at the point in your day when your willpower is flagging, when you’re at the point when you’re staring at the screen and have forgotten why, there it is.  Good luck not clicking or opening it, after the memory of those dopamine rushes blasts the reptilian part of your brain.  

I didn’t spend any money on the game except in terms of opportunity cost, at my billing rate.  But I can see why the business model works.  

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Spellbound

In New Zealand we joined the Spellbound glowworm cave tour in Waitomo.  By the way, the signage as you approach the general Waitomo area becomes vaguely official-looking, as if the Kiwi equivalent of a National Parks Service were pleasantly guiding you to the proper destination.  

As I was surprised to learn, all of the outfitters in Waitomo are private.  The signs you see are most likely Blackwater’s, who from a tourist consultant’s perspective (me) has done a remarkable job in making it seem like they are the officially-sanctioned tour guide there (even taking out the entire domain of http://www.waitomo.com), and that everyone else is amateur hour.  I have learned a lesson from this and hope to use it some day.  


 

It was dark in that cave.  Of a darkness you don’t see in normal human life anymore.  We went inside with our headlights (what do you call these?  spelunking lamps?) and at the first bend, Norm ordered us to switch off our lights.  It was pitch dark.  ‘Can you see your hands in front of you?’  No, we all said.  It was disorienting, this complete blackness.  There was only the sound of the river underneath us.  It was cold, dark, uncomfortable.  I recalled that Norm had said that spelunking was, unfortunately, not as big as it was when he was a kid, and it made sense.  

‘Remember that,’ he said, as he switched his light back on.  

Here and there, as I swung my headlight around, there was what looked like bits of shiny mineral embedded in the walls and ceiling.  These, I was told, were the glowwworms.  They emitted a light that looks like a faint green, tiny LED.

Taking any pictures was futile.  If you’ve ever been in a Los Angeles and tried to take pictures of a particularly starry night, it was like that.  Maybe you might get the North Star.  Maybe Venus, if it’s that kind of night.  

Now deeper in the cave, we climbed into a raft.  Here, you could see greater clusters of the worms, again, looking like the stars as you would see them from a city, faintly there through the light pollution.  

Once again, we switched our lights off.  From the platform Norm asked us, ‘can you see me?’  We could not.  

We set off.  And I was looking at cavern roof and the lights there the whole time, but I can’t say how it happened.  It was so gradual.  We drifted in the water.  And the lights began to grow.  Into a multitude, into stars.  Into prickles of light with growing intensity scattered across the ceiling.  You looked, but you couldn’t believe that this had been there the whole time.  The worms completely covered the ceiling, and you could make out the undulating curves and texture of the cave.  

At some point you began to see constellations reflected in the water; then there was enough light you could see the walls.  We moved slowly, as if in reverence, like we were traveling through a nave toward the roar of a waterfall.  In the other room of the cavern, as I could now see it, there was a separate lower-tiered level of the cave, like a lake, with an entire new galaxy of lights there.  There was enough light to see the back of my hands.  I could faintly see my wife’s smiling face.  

Under those stars, everyone was silent.  

Afterwards, Norm climbed out first.  ‘Can you see me now?’  We could now.  We exited without turning our lights on again.  

In the original first location, he asked us again if we knew where we were.  Now, I could faintly see everyone.  

Artists talk about looking at something and not seeing it, or gazing at something long enough so that you discover depths and breadths that you didn’t notice before.  The tour was like that.  You would never notice something like this if you had the lights on, if you were looking at a phone screen, if you were distracted.  It struck me again that there are levels of ‘seeing’.  

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Gravitas

I have a few clients in their 70s and 80s.  One a movie mogul, another a former Drexel Burnham banker, another a gentleman managing his family’s wealth.  They show up to work every day.  Two of them work out of small offices crammed into apartments they either own or used to own, papers strewn everywhere in columns whose organization patterns only they know.

None of them is any longer in the day-to-day, direct operations roles.  Their greatest career accomplishments are behind them – and they plod along in hollow, but deliberate steps.  When speaking, all three of them reply in the prerogative of older men, with jumbled statements that are either not apropos of anything, with statements that vaguely, tangentially may relate to the subject at hand, as they sift through their memories.  Of transactions and deals, of spectacular sums of money gained and lost, personal tragedies, people who remind them of other people.

Still, they command enormous sums of money and resources, assistants, the respect of people around them.  All of them show up to work every morning.  Things would probably all fall apart if they didn’t.

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Panama City (Panama, not Florida) Notes

Landmark architecture.  And you know who that is.

Landmark architecture. And you know who that is.

 April, 2014

  • I noticed a lot of banks, a lot of tall buildings, endless construction, a lot of luxury condominiums, and more of a downtown there than in say, downtown LA.  And yet Panama City has a population of less than 2 million people.  
  • Panama is clearly a money capital.  And like other money capitals like Hong Kong or Dubai, it has the same kind of physical terrain: High-rise condominiums.  Skyscrapers housing bank headquarters.  Landmark architecture.  Dense waterfronts.  My guess is that high-rises in the form of offices and residential are the highest value land use next to water, so in a free market these tend to get built first, especially where the governments are more concerned with being business-friendly than being besieged in all directions by interest groups.  
  • 80% of GDP is based on services and less than 5% on tourism.  I found that astounding.  
  • The metro just opened…about a week or so ago.  And it is exponentially faster than using a taxi along the same road, especially along the Transistmica.
  • Similarities with Bangkok: a highly urbanized city with dense traffic, the ability to get by reasonably well without speaking the local language, a tropical environment with the same ubiquity of, what shall I call it, professional women, and a tall, sprawling city.  Except that buildings in Panama are on their way up, not going the other way to disrepair like in Bangkok.  
  • As is common in Latin America, the taxis do not have meters, and fares must be negotiated in advance.  
  • Here is the price I got to/from the airport – $30 from, $33 to.  Good/bad?  The price to/from the Canals from the city center: $10 to, $20 from.  
  • Before going to the Canal, check the websites (like this one) to see when the ships will be coming through.  Don’t be like me and arrive 10 minutes after a ship passed through, and 3 hours before the next one.  But even without seeing the ships, the attached museum is well-done and a must-see.  The museum explains almost everything I wanted to know about the canal: how the locks work, the breakdown of shipping traffic, the tolls charged, how the canals were built, and how the new locks will be built.  Take in the monumentality of the achievement.  It struck me how mind-blowingly complex the actual process engineering of building the canal was: in the sheer range and variety of rail-bound machinery, boats, and equipment used to do the seemingly simple task of removing  dirt.  
  • Check out Casco Viejo; this was the one place everyone told me to go see.  Which of course, all manner of jet lag-borne sicknesses and itinerary malfunctions prevented me from seeing.  
  • One really good place to eat: El Trapiche for actual Panamanian food.  Good lunch and daily specials.  

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