Category Archives: history

What if Men Got Pregnant?

If you question the positive effects of the enlightenment on the quality of life in the west, consider this bit of data from merry olde England

In the Seventeenth Century around one in four children died before the age of ten. The average woman gave birth to six or seven children. Half or fewer than half were likely to survive to adulthood.

And that does not convey the dangers of birthing to the mother. If that shocks you, read on. The full story is even more shocking.

Things have gotten better, but not as quickly as you might have thought. Consider this

  • While women had served as physicians and spiritual healers since ancient times, in mid-19th-century America there was not one female M.D.
  • The first successful (menstrual) pad appeared in 1921, when the Kimberly-Clark company introduced Kotex (the name derived from the phrase “cotton-like texture”).
  • Margaret Sanger opened America’s first birth control clinic on October 16, 1916, in Brooklyn, New York.
  • In 1931 New York gynecologist Robert Tilden Frank delivered a paper in which he noted his interest in “a large group of women who are handicapped by premenstrual disturbances.” Frank was the first modern physician to speculate that these “disturbances” were linked to the ovarian cycles.
  • In May 1960, the FDA approved the sale of the first oral contraceptive, the birth control pill Enovid — or simply, The Pill.
  • groundbreaking technical advances in mammography led to the creation in 1969 of low-radiation mammograms, and the modern era of mammography was born.
  • Growing out of the fortuitous meeting of 12 women at a 1969 women’s liberation conference in Boston, the book Our Bodies, Ourselves revolutionized views about women’s bodies and sexuality.

In other words, we just woke up to the idea that women have special health needs that men do not understand. And a major aspect of their health needs relates to child bearing. My question — if men gave birth instead of women, would we be discussing whether men would have the right to choose whether to go forward with a pregnancy?


Why Did Quakers Dominate the English Chocolate Business?

The Quakers have been a stubborn lot.

(They) were prohibited from getting academic degrees, so some of the traditional routes to respectable careers — medicine, law — were blocked off. The courses of study weren’t in keeping with Quaker religious standards anyway (“pagan” philosophy, “lascivious” poetry), and as Quakers increasingly engaged in wider English society and “worldly” activities like banking, commerce and retail in the 18th and 19th century, integrating their religious and ethical precepts into their business practices.

So what does that have to do with chocolate?

Chocolate was considered an “innocent trade,” as it was believed to have medicinal purposes and didn’t lead people into evil. Selling chocolate brought enjoyment and good health through the gifts of God’s nature. There was no moral corruption in making a nice cup of cocoa as there was in manufacturing weapons. Quakers went into the chocolate business when it was purely a beverage, developing it into the bar and candy empire that it is today. By the early 20th century, the three top chocolate and confectionary companies in England were Quaker owned and operated.

But things took a more controversial turn in 1899, when Queen Victoria desired to send specially ordered chocolate bars to British troops fighting the Boer War. What happened? And how does that relate to an auction that closes on July 10th?

Read on my friend from the very entertaining History Blog! And enjoy a cup of hot cocoa. while you are at it!

What Happened in 1177 BC?

We all have heard about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. It is claimed that this led to the so called “dark ages”. As Sir Kenneth Clark described in his first episode of the Civilisation Series”, Europe did not really emerge from those dark ages for around 500 years. Civilization was nearly wiped out.

But most of us do not know that this was not the first time that Mediterranean Man suffered this type of calamity. Something as devastating, if not more so, happened around the year 1177 BC. As with the fall of the Romans, many of the advances that were fueling prosperity were lost. Cities and whole cultures were wiped out.

What caused this? We are still arguing about what caused the fall of the Roman Civilization. Most recently, for example, scholars have advanced the notion that plague had a lot to do with it. We are even more in the dark about the earlier collapse that ended the bronze age.

As with the Romans, the immediate cause seems to have been invasions. But what caused the invasions? In this video, Dr. Eric Cline gives us a peek at possible explanations. At the core appears to have been climatic changes that caused famine and drought. It is a fascinating exploration!


Worried that there are Too Many People?

That worry plagued Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834). BTW, he never called himself “Thomas”. Instead, he used his middle name Robert. No idea why. Here is good old Tom … errrr … I mean Bob

Image result for Thomas Malthus

What was the big deal? Malthus observed that  an increase in food production led to a corresponding increase in population.  And at some point, the population size is not sustainable. Mankind is stuck in what  has become known as the “Malthusian Trap”.   While Malthus was no doubt a nice fellow, he is remembered for this rather grumpy and pessimistic view of our fate as a species.

As Al Wenger points out, Malthus was indeed at least half right. Prosperity did bring a population explosion.  We have moved from the 1 billion figure —which Malthus thought was an upper limit — to 7 billion. Yikes! Here is a global population chart that might get your attention

Image result for population growth chart

It’s a hockey stick! That looks pretty scary. And it would be disastrous except for some factors that Malthus had not considered.

Malthus had no clue about how technological progress might affect prosperity. He did not foresee improvements in ag tech that would enable humanity to use less land and labor to feed itself better despite having to feed many more people. Stuff like this

Image result for early tractors

More recently, we expect drone tech and AI to help us much more. That vision is called “Precision Agriculture”

According to a McKinsey & Company report in 2016 on how big data will revolutionize the global food chain,  about one-third of all food is lost during production each year globally in developing and emerging countries, while at the same time, 795 million people go hungry.


Nor did Malthus foresee technological change that would directly and positively affect our level of prosperity by making workers more productive. Stuff like vastly improved ability to find and use energy. That leads us to folks like Julia Child in the kitchen using lots of gadgets that were somewhat new in the 1950’s

Image result for Julia Child

. The mere fact that people had the time to watch Julia on TV — another new fangled invention — shows how life had gotten easier.

But … perhaps Malthus was not so wrong after all! What if population growth continues and eventually outstrips our capacity to further improve agricultural productivity and technologically based prosperity growth?

These are matters of speculation rather than fact as neither has happened yet, except in isolated and temporary situations. But the possibility has to be acknowledged. And acknowledging it helps us understand the critical importance of sustaining innovation rates. Given our current trends in population growth, we have to stay ahead of the curve.

In the above link to a section of his book “World After Capital”, Al traces these arguments, and he raises one more. In fact, we do not know if population will continue to trend upward. There is evidence that population growth slows at certain points in time as prosperity reduces the incentives to have  multiple offspring.  That may mean that humanity will reach sort of a “peak population” at some point.

So there is room for optimism. And knowing why we can be optimistic should help us focus on what is important — supporting further innovation that adds value by enhancing productivity.

One last point. Malthus saw the costs involved in feeding ever larger numbers of people.  He did not consider that each person has amazing cognitive capacity. He did not ask this question — on the average, how much of our cognitive capacity do we actually use for adding value to society? Is that number fixed or does it fall as population goes up, or can we level up?  The more we can get out of people, the more amazing our future might be.

That might sound a bit fantastic. But it is something that already happened. After universal education became the norm in the 19th century, we saw a dramatic uptick of young people moving into knowledge based professions. This trend accelerated in the 20th century. That added number of knowledge workers has — I think — contributed to the acceleration in the rate of innovation that we got used to in the 20th century.  And as Sir Ken Robinson points out, this happened without significant education reform of the type that would promote more knowledge creation.

Food for thought!

Was Napoleon “great”?

I had always thought so. But then I bought and read a book by Paul Johnson about the man and began to have my doubts.

Image result for Paul Johnson Napoleon

Johnson’s main problem with Napoleon is that his fame was largely a matter of brilliant PR that Napoleon himself stage managed.  The reality was much more shabby, which led to the deaths of thousands and the debasement of France. You cannot dismiss Johnson’s argument completely. Napoleon used PR as a weapon, and it colors how we view him still. An, in the end, _Napoleon did not lead France to “greatness”.

So I was delighted to see that more recently, Intelligence 2d hosted a debated between 2 experts on that era on whether Napoleon deserves the “Great” descriptor. I enjoyed the debate immensely. In part, I liked the substance. I also liked the manner of presentation. There was a sharp disagreement,  but that did not stop the debators from further informing us about the subject. Lot’s of fun! Enjoy!