Modern Problems: Balinese Rice

Meet the New Boss, Not as Good as the Old Boss

The Ramp Rules, Unless You're Talking Rice

Sometimes . . . The Rice Rules

There’s a long list of stories in history where Europeans tried, and miserably failed, to apply European farming techniques to other places around the world.

It turns out that you need to adapt your techniques to your environment, not the other way around. The Ancient Greeks had a relevant term: metis, or local knowledge. It’s important to know how things work where you live.

One of the most interesting European agricultural failures occurred in Bali. The Balinese had, over millennia, developed incredibly complex rice farming techniques. Rice is absolutely central to Balinese Hinduism and cuisine. Rice is so important that the Bali word for rice, nasi, means “food.”

Incredibly complex water terraces cover Bali, running up and down hillsides, with equally complex irrigation systems all over the place. They have farming cooperatives known as subaks that consist of every farmer sharing a water source. Everything is orchestrated by the intricate and complicated calendar known as the tika. And, thanks to all of that, Bali was able to maintain an immense population density.

Rice is Essential

Yours truly, about to order a rice dish.

Then the Europeans came along, decided all of these old methods were nonsense, and decided to replace them with more modern techniques. They failed to significantly change anything.

After Indonesia gained independence, the Indonesians, in an effort to modernize, began applying those same European techniques in Bali. The water districts quickly fell into mismanagement: the new rice strains they’d introduced were more vulnerable to pests, and uniform rice crops were more vulnerable to disease, etc., etc.

In the 1980s, scientists began actually modeling the differences between the old and new systems and realized exactly how brilliantly adapted the old systems had been to Bali’s climate and ecosystem. Today, Bali has slowly reintroduced modified versions of the old system back in place. They’re not bringing back the old rice strains, but they’re reworking things to run off the tika calendar again.

It pays to understand your environment. The real world always beats theories.

The Golden Repair

Making Lemonade: Pottery Version

Succeeding...where Humpty Dumpty didn't.

Kintsugi Action Figure

When we break a vase or a bowl, most of the time we just throw it away. We might be upset about breaking Grandma Esmeralda’s keepsake, but it's still usually going in the trash.

On the rare occasions when we try to repair it (say, under orders from Grandma Esmeralda’s daughter), we do our best to make sure that the repairs are as inconspicuous as possible.

In Japan, however, they do the complete opposite.

When a piece of Japanese ceramics breaks, they actually seal it back together with precious metal—gold, silver, or a lacquer containing powdered gold. The result is that they emphasize the breaks.

The art is known as kintsugi, which comes from a combination of kin (golden) and tsugi (repair). The fundamental philosophy of kintsugi is one that treats breaks and repairs as part of the history and essence of an object, not merely a mistake to be hidden. It's also an embracing of imperfection, which—if you ask me (or Grandma Esmerelda’s daughter)—can oftentimes be a pretty healthy attitude.

One reason this might not be as present in the West? The greater role of plastic. We use plastic constantly, and, unlike just about everything else, plastic ages terribly.

Old wood, pottery, or metal ages into beautiful antiques, but old plastic? It just looks terrible. There's no reason not to treat plastic as disposable in this sense.

The situation goes well beyond that. We've got a general culture of disposability. The huge geographical size of America means we have no problems creating huge garbage dumps wherever we want. American consumer culture demands that we keep filling our homes with the cheap stuff.

Of course, Japan isn't completely blameless in this regard. They have plenty of cheap disposable stuff they also throw away. Disposable wooden chopsticks, or waribashiare notable offenders, resulting in massive deforestation every year.

Still: kintsugi offers us an interesting pathway toward rethinking the way we deal with the objects in our lives.

Edsel: Famous for All the Wrong Reasons

Or: Is That a Citrus Fruit You’re Driving?

The Ford Edsel: Not Very Good Looking

Lemon? Or Lemonade?

In the automotive world, if there's a name that's synonymous with “lemon,” it's Edsel.

Produced in the late 1950s, the Edsel is something auto buffs commonly refer to as the worst car of all time. Ford lost $250 million on the Edsel—an absurd amount of money in the 1950s.

You know what, though? In many ways, the Edsel actually wasn't that bad of a car.

We hear a lot of claims about the Edsel. One of the most common: it was underpowered. That's actually not true. At 345 horsepower, it was one of the most powerful mass-produced American cars at the time (only three or four other cars were more powerful during its production run).

Another claim? That the Edsel was unreliable, which is also somewhat untrue. Since the Edsel was only assembled in Ford and Mercury factories, not in its own factory, quality control was difficult. And so a certain number of Edsels at certain factories turned out pretty badly, often with missing parts.

The Edsels that were completed—and had all their parts—were quite reliable, even for an already-reliable mid-century Ford. It was also the first car to include self-adjusting brakes and automatic lubrication, which later became industry standards.

So, why did the Edsel fail? There were a couple reasons, starting with Madison Avenue.

The Edsel was so drastically over-hyped that the American public was, essentially, expecting a spaceship. When they just got another bland, boring Ford, the public turned against it in droves. (Or, rather, they just didn't buy it in the expected numbers.)

Despite those problems and statistics, the Edsel remained a high-selling car (accounting for 5% of total car sales in 1958).

Original expectations, though, were for sales to be much higher, so Ford manufactured too many. And now combine that with a short economic recession in 1957 and 1958, and you see the lemon status come into full bloom.

Yes, the Edsel had other problems, including a lack of name brand recognition. What might have put the kibosh on the entire effort, though, is this: the Edsel was a really ugly-looking car.

East Meets West

Or: Is This Progress?

Go West, Old Country

Days of Future Past

I meant to be already retired by now, but HR tells me they’re still looking and can I stay a bit longer, and otherwise they’ll sue me. So, I stay. (I think Maggie is bribing HR.)

The closer I get to that possible retirement, the more books I find myself reading. I’ve always been a reader, though I seem to have more time for it now. If you've followed my blog, you can probably guess I tend toward history, with an emphasis on logistics, architecture, and construction.

My most recent read is Daniel Brook's A History of Future Cities. Despite the name, it's not science fiction. Instead, it's a history of four cities (St. Petersburg, Mumbai, Dubai, and Shanghai) that have undergone rapid Westernization and industrialization by their rulers in an effort to turn them into world class cities.

These “instant cities” all have histories that eerily echo one another. They all seem to have gone through remarkably similar life cycles:

  • They began as nothing, or as a provincial backwater, then were built up massively in a very short time by order of their rulers.
  • They undergo a period of absurd Westernization, to the point of hiring exclusively Western architects, who often never even go to the cities before designing their buildings.
  • They all undergo a period of rejection and resentment by the rest of the nation.

These cities are most strongly characterized, however, by their rejection of the traditional ways of their country.

Each city is, of course, still extremely distinct from one another. Dubai, for instance, has a population that's 97% foreign workers, divided between affluent foreign businessmen and poor itinerant laborers shipped in from other countries and paid a pittance.

Mumbai is surrounded by and interwoven with one of the world's largest slums.

Shanghai disguises all of its poor workers it imports in uniforms and houses them in dorms on the outskirts of town.

Brook does an excellent job exploring the rise and fall of cities in regions trying to rapidly adapt to and join the technological West. The result is that these cities become not just comparable power players but places actually trying to be the West, in a very real sense.

Though A History of Future Cities definitely tends towards the somber at times, it's a surprisingly gripping read.

Very Superstitious

Cat Got Your Tongue?

superstitions, explained

Dashingly Superstitious

I love researching the historical underpinnings of superstitions.

Take spilling salt, for example. A common superstition says that if you spill salt, you need to throw a little bit over your shoulder. This isn't actually the whole story, though.

You're supposed to throw it over your left shoulder (into the eye of the devil lurking over it) without touching the thrown salt with your thumb or index finger.

The superstition has a few possible origins. Some claim that Judas spilled salt at the last supper. Da Vinci actually painted Judas spilling salt in “The Last Supper.” Others think it came from the fact that salt was extremely expensive in the Middle Ages. That one seems rather reasonable to me, except that then throwing it over your shoulder as a cure for the bad luck doesn't make a ton of sense.

Another superstition says that you should hold your breath when passing a cemetery. If you don't, a spirit might fly into you. I'm actually going to argue that this one doesn't make sense anymore. In the Middle Ages, graveyards were dank, miserable places. Graves were cramped, placed close together, and often shared. Burials were often shallow, so bones would stick out. The gravestones were decorated with grim and gloomy reminders of eternal suffering. They were dank, awful places—both by design (to compel people to the Church) and by poor urban planning (cities tended to be cramped and without green space).

In the 1800s, this began to change. People began to have a very different view of humanity: rather than being doomed, sinful creatures, we instead began romanticizing humanity, and began considering it naturally good.

Graveyards became cemeteries. The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, meaning “place of rest.” We started honoring our dead, placing them more widely apart, and giving them beautiful, well-tended green space. In fact, the first cemeteries built this way were such popular tourist attractions that they began inspiring American cities to begin building parks and having more green spaces in the city.

So why doesn't that superstition apply anymore? Well, it would make perfect sense that spirits would want to leave a dank, miserable graveyard. A cemetery, though? Sounds to me like a pretty nice place to rest once you're gone.