Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, April 18, 2008

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about geopolitical questions this week, which connects and diverges in important ways with my current research on conflict resolution in primates. While I’m farther from any point of total clarity (which is perhaps impossible in these sort of densely packed ideological and historical conflicts), I’m learning much. I hope to have some “real” posts soon on Arabic/Islamic identity, socio-environmental management, etc. Happy reading!

1.) Americans are fatter and shorter (!) than Europeans. Everyone knows that Americans are obese. Everyone knows that the United States (and a certain small percentage of its population) is extremely wealthy. But who knew that Americans are apparently starting to lag behind Europeans in height! Burkhard Bilger has an article at the New Yorker entitled The Height Gap: Why Europeans are getting taller and taller-and Americans aren’t (Originally published on April 5, 2004):
The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants. In a century’s time, the Dutch have gone from being among the smallest people in Europe to the largest in the world. The men now average six feet one—seven inches taller than in van Gogh’s day—and the women five feet eight. The national organization of tall people, Klub Lange Mensen, has considerable lobbying power. From Rotterdam to Eindhoven, ceilings have had to be lifted, furniture redesigned, lintels raised to keep foreheads from smacking them. Many hotels now offer twenty-centimetre bed extensions, and ambulances on occasion must keep their back doors open, to allow for patients’ legs.

Being tall has its bonuses:

Tall men, a series of studies has shown, benefit from a significant bias. They get married sooner, get promoted quicker, and earn higher wages. According to one recent study, the average six-foot worker earns a hundred and sixty-six thousand dollars more, over a thirty-year period, than his five-foot-five-inch counterpart—about eight hundred dollars more per inch per year. Short men are unlucky in politics (only five of forty-three Presidents have been shorter than average) and unluckier in love. A survey of some six thousand adolescents in the nineteen-sixties showed that the tallest boys were the first to get dates. The only ones more successful were those who got to choose their own clothes.

Height can tell us much more than personal success rates; it can tell us about the health of a given society.

Height, they’ve concluded, is a kind of biological shorthand: a composite code for all the factors that make up a society’s well-being. Height variations within a population are largely genetic, but height variations between populations are mostly environmental, anthropometric history suggests. If Joe is taller than Jack, it’s probably because his parents are taller. But if the average Norwegian is taller than the average Nigerian it’s because Norwegians live healthier lives. That’s why the United Nations now uses height to monitor nutrition in developing countries. In our height lies the tale of our birth and upbringing, of our social class, daily diet, and health-care coverage. In our height lies our history.


Biologists say that we achieve our stature in three spurts: the first in infancy, the second between the ages of six and eight, the last in adolescence. Any decent diet can send us sprouting at these ages, but take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients and the body stops growing. (“Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimetres and fifteen I.Q. points,” one nutritionist told me.)

While height studies in history remains rather marginalized, limited to a handful of researches, the so-called “pope of the field” John Komos, a professor at the University of Munich, has studied historical records to better understand the nature of certain societies. The United States represents a country of contrasts:

When Komlos and his parents arrived in Chicago, in the winter of 1956, America was a land of almost mythical abundance. For more than two centuries, its people had been so healthy and so prosperous that they towered above the rest of the world—about four inches above the Dutch, for example, for most of the nineteenth century. To Komlos, raised on the black bread and thin broth of Communist Hungary, Chicago’s all-you-can-eat restaurants were astonishing. “I was just amazed that these things existed,” he says. But he found the restaurants not nearly as impressive as the giants who fed there.

Komlos now knows that he arrived in America at a pivotal point in its history. Over the next fifty years, by most indicators dear to economists, the country remained the richest in the world. But by another set of numbers—longevity and income inequality—it began to lag behind Northern Europe and Japan.

We generally imagine:

Humans are an ever-improving species, the old evolution charts tell us; each generation is smarter, sleeker, and taller than the last. Yet in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again. Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. “They didn’t look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale,” the economist Robert Fogel told me. “They looked like thirteen-year-old girls.”

“Every bout of diarrhea or measles, [Nevin Scrimshaw] found, can bump a child off his growth curve. Every period of good nutrition can nudge him back on track.” But these short-term trends lead to long-term trends reflected in the average height in a society. As such, historical records on height have much to teach us about the health status of a society:

In both Europe and the Americas, [Stekel] discovered, humans grew shorter as their cities grew larger. The more people clustered together, the more pest-ridden and poorly fed they became. Heights also fell in synch with global temperatures, which reached a nadir during the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century.

While the records reveal that:

America was a good place to live in the eighteenth century. Game was abundant, land free for the clearing, settlement sparse enough to prevent epidemics. On Komlos’s graph, even the runaway slaves are five feet eight, and white colonists are five feet nine—a full three inches taller than the average European of the time…Americans are well nourished.

Things started to change though.

Around the time of the Civil War, Americans’ heights predictably decreased: Union soldiers dropped from sixty-eight to sixty-seven inches in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, and similar patterns held for West Point cadets, Amherst students, and free blacks in Maryland and Virginia. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the country seemed set to regain its eminence. The economy was expanding at a dramatic rate, and public-hygiene campaigns were sweeping the cities clean at last: for the first time in American history, urbanites began to outgrow farmers.

Then something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, “the U.S. just went flat.” In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven’t grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.

The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller.

Things are even worse.

Just in case I still thought this a trivial trend, Komlos put a final bar graph in front of me. It was entitled “Life Expectancy 2000.” Compared with people in thirty-six other industrialized countries, it showed, Americans rank twenty-eighth in average longevity—just above the Irish and the Cypriots (the Japanese top the rankings). “Ask yourself this,” Komlos said, peering at me above his reading glasses. “What is the difference between Western Europe and the U.S. that would work in this direction? It’s not income, since Americans, at least on paper, have been wealthier for more than a century. So what is it?”

The answer perhaps lies in comparison with a country like Holland where “the Dutch have the world’s best prenatal and postpartum clinics, free for every citizen.”

Holland’s growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree…Holland, like the rest of Northern Europe, had simply managed to spread its prosperity around. These days, Dutch heights no longer keep pace with the economy. (“We can’t grow to four metres just because our income quadruples,” Drukker says.) But the essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.

On the other side of the Atlantic:

As America’s rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they’re not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller. “I’ve seen a similar thing in Guatemala,” Bogin says. “The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they’re still going to get exposed.”

Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. “If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need,” he says.

There is a more proof in this direction.

In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.

The source of the U.S.’s height lag is still unclear.

Inequality may be at the root of America’s height problem, but it’s too soon to be certain. If the poor are pulling all of us down with them, some economists say, why didn’t Americans shoot up after the war on poverty, in the nineteen-sixties? Komlos isn’t sure. But recently he has scoured his data for people who’ve bucked the national trend. He has subdivided the country’s heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that’s both so privileged and so socially insulated that it’s growing taller. He has yet to find one.

Perhaps it’s certain environmental factors? Paraphrasing American philosopher John Rawls and his conception of an egalitarian society, Komlos says:

“The best measure of a just society is whether you’d be willing to be thrown into it at random.”

2.) Presidential Hopes and Optimistic Solutions. With increasing famine riots across the globe and dangerous tipping point approaching, former French President Jacques Chirac has an inspiring article up at Le Monde on the food crisis and possible solutions entitled: Crise alimentaire : des solutions existent. Monsieur Chirac writes:

FACE À CE DANGER, LA COMMUNAUTÉ INTERNATIONALE DOIT ASSUMER SES RESPONSABILITÉS, toutes ses responsabilités, dans une totale coopération du Nord et du Sud.

Elle doit se mobiliser autour d’objectifs précis :

  • pour résoudre, d’abord, la question de l’urgence : le Conseil de sécurité de l’Organisation des nations unies, qui devrait se tenir au plus tôt sur la crise alimentaire mondiale, doit prendre toutes les mesures nécessaires pour éviter la déstabilisation des Etats les plus menacés.

L’Europe et les Etats-Unis ont enfin annoncé le déblocage d’une aide d’urgence au profit du Programme alimentaire mondial. Je ne doute pas que les autres grandes puissances, membres du G8, pays émergents et pays de l’OPEP qui tirent des rentes exceptionnelles de l’augmentation du prix du pétrole, auront à coeur de prendre toute leur part de cet effort immédiat de solidarité ;

  • pour résoudre, ensuite, les problèmes structurels : je plaide depuis longtemps pour aller plus loin que les seules mesures d’urgence conjoncturelles. C’est une véritable révolution des modes de pensée et d’action en matière de développement, notamment dans le domaine agricole, qui s’impose.

Chirac reminds us that we will soon need to feed and nourish 9 billion people. He claims that we should aim for worldwide, nutritional “self-sufficiency.”

L’autosuffisance alimentaire est le premier des défis à relever pour les pays en développement. Des outils existent. Nous savons tous ce qu’il faut faire : infrastructures rurales, stockage, irrigation, transport, financement des récoltes, organisation des marchés, microcrédit, etc.

L’agriculture vivrière doit être réhabilitée. Elle doit être encouragée. Elle doit être protégée, n’ayons pas peur des mots, contre une concurrence débridée des produits d’importation qui déstabilisent l’économie de ces pays et découragent les producteurs locaux.

Pour relever ce défi, il est nécessaire d’investir à la fois dans la recherche - pour développer des productions et des variétés adaptées aux nouvelles donnes du changement climatique et de la raréfaction des ressources en eau -, et dans la formation et la diffusion des techniques agricoles. Il faut miser sur les hommes, sur les producteurs locaux, qui doivent percevoir la juste rémunération de leurs efforts. Les échanges doivent obéir à des règles équitables, respectant à la fois le consommateur et le producteur. La libre circulation des produits ne peut pas se faire au détriment des producteurs les plus fragiles.

Chirac proposes the need to implement innovative and imaginary ways to raise necessary resources to improve this situation. For example:

La taxe sur les billets d’avion a permis en 2007 de dégager plusieurs centaines de millions d’euros en faveur de l’accès aux médicaments. C’est un succès. D’autres efforts d’imagination devraient permettre de dégager rapidement les ressources nécessaires pour faire face à la crise alimentaire.

3.) Questioning the Assumed: Friedman on Economic Trial. With the U.S. economy in confusion and a recession in process, the New York Times has an article tackling the so-called “Apostle of Free Markets,” Milton Friedman, and his vision of the economic world. Friedman is known for his minimalist, hands-off conception of the state whose primary job is to provide money and then stay out of the way; “the government should simply manage the supply of money — to keep it growing with the economy — then step aside and let the market do its magic.” Peter Goodman writes:

The downward spiral of the economy is challenging a notion that has underpinned American economic policy for a quarter-century — the idea that prosperity springs from markets left free of government interference….As Wall Street, Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue seethe with recriminations, a bipartisan chorus has decided that unfettered markets are in need of fettering. Bailouts, stimulus spending and regulations dominate the conversation.

“What Milton Friedman said was that government should not interfere,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist for Decision Economics Inc., a consulting group. “It didn’t work. We now are looking at one of the greatest real estate busts of all time. The free market is not geared to take care of the casualties, because there’s no profit motive. There’s no market incentive to deal with the unemployed or those who have lost their homes.”

Friedman is famous for a joke:

“If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.”

It is said that:

His greatest contribution came the following decade, when Mr. Friedman dismantled the consensus view that inflation was a tolerable byproduct of high employment. He demonstrated that high inflation would eventually cost jobs, as businesses were discouraged to invest by the higher wages they had to pay.

4.) Geopolitical Conflict-Resolution. A friend of mine brought to my attention an amazing group/site called the International Crisis Group (http://www.crisisgroup.org) which analyzes in detail and in collective reflection geopolitical issues, current conflicts, and directions towards peace and stability in a multifaceted and occasional, explosively violent world.

5.) Practical Lessons Geopolitical Conflict-Resolution. François Grignon and Daniela Kroslak at the International Crisis Group have a thought-provoking yet brief article entitled “The Problem with Peacekeeping” (originally published in April 2008 edition of Current History). Through looking at two recent “peacekeeping” efforts in the Congo** and in Darfour, this article examines how a viable peace process and a peace agreement needs to be in place in order for a peacekeeping group to properly function. They write:

Conflicts such as those in Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and the DRC are mostly extreme manifestations of power struggles over resources, land, and political representation, combined with problems of ethnic marginalization and state collapse. Their resolution or settlement can only be found in negotiated political agreements that tackle the roots of the conflicts. The protection of civilians must be part of a political strategy that reduces short- and longterm risks for the population while addressing the need for immediate life-saving actions. Yet, tragically, peacekeeping missions dispatched to “protect civilians” have in the past lacked, and still today lack, the support, courage, and/or means to address the political rationales behind the violence.

The military component of a peacekeeping mission is only as effective as the mission’s political masters make it. When asked last year if the 26,000-person force approved for Unamid by the UN Security Council were sufficient, Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s Special Envoy for Darfur, rightly responded that what matters is “not how large a force it is but what they have come to defend,” since “without an agreement on peace, even a force of 50,000 can’t change the situation here radically.”

As such,

A UN Security Council peacekeeping mandate with civilian protection provisions can only be implemented in the context of a political agreement. And the implementation of a mandate depends on the will to interpret it politically and to enforce it with the means provided.

Their practical solutions aim at structural changes necessary such that a peacekeeping operation has something to defend and support:

Finally, military operations usually create a void that needs to be filled by reformed government structures. Any peacekeeping force engaged in forceful disarmament of militias and area domination can only carry out these activities for a few days. Once a vacuum is created, it has to be filled by agreed state structures. If not, the same or other armed groups will quickly regain or expand their territorial control. The protection of civilians can only be successful operationally in partnership with the state. There is no way around that.

Sadly, in Darfur and beyond, the world seems more willing to contribute money to humanitarian efforts than to tackle the causes of conflicts. Peacekeeping missions are often used as a Band-Aid for complex conflicts, and are rarely equipped to do the political work that is vital to addressing the causes. In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.

6.) Updating neurobiological cue-driven memory to computer-age technology? Human memory, as Gary Marcus says in a NYTIMES article entitled Total Recall, is quite undependable and weak compared with that of computers. Computers can memorize instantly concepts and ideas that take us weeks to learn. Marcus asks, “Why can’t we do the same?”

Much of the difference lies in the basic organization of memory. Computers organize everything they store according to physical or logical locations, with each bit stored in a specific place according to some sort of master map, but we have no idea where anything in our brains is stored. We retrieve information not by knowing where it is but by using cues or clues that hint at what we are looking for.

Par contre, human memory…

In the best-case situation, this process works well: the particular memory we need just “pops” into our minds, automatically and effortlessly. The catch, however, is that our memories can easily get confused, especially when a given set of cues points to more than one memory. What we remember at any given moment depends heavily on the accidents of which bits of mental flotsam and jetsam happen to be active at that instant. Our mood, our environment, even our posture can all influence our delicate memories.

And it’s not just humans. Cue-driven memory with all its idiosyncrasies has been found in just about every creature ever studied, from snails to flies, spiders, rats and monkeys. As a product of evolution, it is what engineers might call a kluge, a system that is clumsy and inelegant but a lot better than nothing.

Would you pay for technology to improve memory and human intelligence? Certain technologies already exist like “deep-brain stimulation” to improve memory.

But techniques like that can only take us so far. They can make memories more accessible but not necessarily more reliable, and the improvements are most likely to be only incremental. Making our memories both more accessible and more reliable would require something else, perhaps a system modeled on Google, which combines cue-driven promptings similar to human memory with the location-addressability of computers.

However difficult the practicalities, there’s no reason in principle why a future generation of neural prostheticists couldn’t pick up where nature left off, incorporating Google-like master maps into neural implants. This in turn would allow us to search our own memories — not just those on the Web — with something like the efficiency and reliability of a computer search engine.


Would this turn us into computers? Not at all. A neural implant equipped with a master memory map wouldn’t impair our capacity to think, or to feel, to love or to laugh; it wouldn’t change the nature of what we chose to remember; and it wouldn’t necessarily even expand the sheer size of our memory banks. But then again our problem has never been how much information we could store in our memories; it’s always been in getting that information back out — which is precisely where taking a clue from computer memory could help.

While the left-side of the brain, which is associated with language, is largely the more logical side and much computer technology is focused on the logic, there is much discussion about people and even companies tapping into the capacities of the right-side of the brain, which is associated with spatial perception, non-verbal concepts, non-linear thinking and, as such, is considered the source of imagination and pleasure. Computers (as well as the exported jobs of computer technicians) can compute but they aren’t yet “creative” in a society that is moving towards a “right-brain” or creative-oriented world.

Video / Documentary of the Week:

Frans de Waal on Animal “Love”
Humans are obsessed with love, especially romantic love. One of the world’s leading primatologists talks about friendship and love in our closest genetic and behavior neighbors.

Split Brain Experiments

The brain is divided in two hemispheres, each with its own particular functions. But what happens when you disconnect these two parts? This video provides us with interesting proof into the nature of our cerebral system.

Quote of the Week:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

– George Bernard Shaw