How Armenians excel in chess, and Georgians in Eurovision

The tiny Armenia, with a population of 3M, has 27 chess grandmasters (out of 1,200 in the whole world), proving repeated exposures to an activity will create the cluster of “geniuses”, as posited by Tyler Cowen here.

As for Armenia’s monopoly in chess, much of it can be attributed to a nation-wise obsession with the sport, connecting the sport with nationalistic pride, materialized by an outpour of both prestige and financial rewards for winners, and the infrastructure to replenish the stock.

A sophisticated structure is in place to develop the next generation of Aronians. Down the road from the match venue is a classroom where the country’s best juniors are brought to train. There’s a boy who won the European under-10s, another who was under-12 world champion. In fact, all the children have won medals in national or international competitions. In the afternoon they watch the grandmaster games. In the morning, after physical exercise, there are four or five hours of chess coaching: three-minute blitz games, opening theory, endgame technique and sessions on tactics. To inspire them, the floor is made up of 64 black-and-white squares.

The path to success sounds unsurprisingly formulaic, also applied in earnest by the Georgians in its attempt to capture Junior Eurovision. The key?  A psyched up nation with high expectations, combined with systemic training and ample resources.

Last year, Georgia stormed to victory with three children singing in an imaginary bee language. Eager to defend its title, Georgia put this year’s act through four months of training and arrived in Kiev with an entourage of 21 people, including two vocal coaches, a stage producer, a choreographer and a psychologist.

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It’s a white, white world, after all

The world is bracing for a pretty white winter by the look of it, no doubt vexing the climatologist and throwing the curve off a little bit with the cold.

  • India is unaccustomed to, but dealing with and extreme cold across the north, where temperature’s dropped below zero.
  • In north east China and South Korea, particularly around the capital Beijing and port city of Tianjin, as well as Seoul, were blanketed in up to 30 centimetres of  snow, temperature has dropped to minus 32 degrees Celcius, and 90% of all flights were cancelled.
  • Eastern US is also expecting more snow in the coming day, between 4 to 8 inches around the Great Lakes, between 1 to 3 over the rest of the region.
  • All around Europe, from England and France, to Germany and Poland, from Norway down to Spain, stretching to the seasonally brutal Ukraine and Russia, it’s snow, snow, snow, and more snow.
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How British and Americans differ in their reactions of Chinese execution

In a classic example of how we internalize outside events through our own experiences, however incomplete, and how our opinions about “them” say more about us than anything else, consider this.

China executed Briton Akmal Shaikh December 29.  It’s a relatively straightforward case, the guilt of the executed was never in dispute.  Various human rights organizations, along with the British government protested, citing his mental state, and asked for clemency.

And netizens reacted.

The British audience, as seen in the Daily Mail’s comment thread that counted 1,650 in total, with little exception, fiercely supported the Chinese decision. It says quite a bit about how the British feel about their government and the current state of affairs.

– People are genuinely fed up with Britain’s lax laws, and lament a system that preserves due process and individual liberty at the expense of protecting the well-beings of the greater society.
– Many have firsthand experienced of a society traumatized by poverty, fearful of its youth, and unable to contain or control the combustion when drugs are added to the mix.  There’s little sympathy or public support for rehabilitation of drug dealers – a system plagued by re-offenders perhaps, and the term that captures the overwhelming majority of sentiment is “vehement hatred”.
– There’s a splash of racism here and there.
– Gordon Brown is not well-liked, to say the least.

Americans, on the other hand, faced with high incarceration rate and nagging security concerns both inside and outside of the homeland, guilt-ridden with almost-certain wrongful convictions and executions that have taken place throughout the years, and disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of its harsh penal system, are much more critical of the Chinese.

And true to matters close to the American heart, the discussion swerves from criticizing Chinese protectionist policies, its abysmal human rights records, to the greater “war on terrorism”.   More so, Americans seem much more concerned with the idea of due process, the potential error of executing an innocent man, and seem to give much more credence to Shaikh’s defense of mental incapacitation – one that almost all British readers view with cynicism.

Some thoughts on Meltdown Iceland and Iceland in general

Reykjavik - Borgartún

Image by jaime.silva via Flickr

I finished Meltdown Iceland a while ago, and have been meaning to post some thoughts on the book.  Compared to the epic by Andrew Ross Sorkin, which I’m slowly munching through now, Roger Boyes’ story of the Icelandic collapse is a fast read at only 200+ pages.  The actual events surrounding the financial collapse in Iceland happened quickly, but the lead-up much longer. Outside of war time reports and travel journals, this is probably one of the closest examinations of this small island by an outsider in a pretty long time.

Boyes offers a number of explanations for Iceland’s collapse, and much of it to do with the incongruence between its attempt to modernize its economy, and its inability to modernize its political system first.  This was in stark contrast with Michael Lewis’ portrayal of Iceland last year, where he squared the failure on pride, arrogance and lack of diversity of the islanders.

Outsized ambition

Can the Icelandic be faulted for being ambitious?  Michael Lewis attacked the country on its most rampant expansion of the banking industry in the history of mankind, amassing debts amounting to 850% of its GDP.  And he asks point blank:

Why should Iceland suddenly be so seemingly essential to global finance? Or: Why do giant countries that invented modern banking suddenly need Icelandic banks to stand between their depositors and their borrowers—to decide who gets capital and who does not? And: If Icelanders have this incredible natural gift for finance, how did they keep it so well hidden for 1,100 years? At the very least, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, or his sister, you might have thought that the moment Stefan Alfsson walked into Landsbanki 10 people would have said, “Stefan, you’re a fisherman!” But they didn’t. To a shocking degree, they still don’t.

In a country that has whole-heartedly embraced privatization, from its fishing stocks to its banks, and one that has managed to go from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest in a matter of a decade, there’s no dream too large.  In a country where almost everyone knows, is related to, and can see the Prime Minister any time, ego and a fierce sense of individualism nurture the island’s sense of “specialness”.

Similarly to the way its political culture can be at once transparent and rampant with cronyism, it’s social structure, when it comes to gender, is equally contradictory.  The country may deserve a pat on the back for sitting on top of every international survey that measures gender equality and human development, but in a parallel dimension, it is a culture where the men are wholly disconnected from its women. In a history where taking outsized risks is memorialized and idealized, where arrogance passes as confidence, it is a history of men.  With no checks built in a culture to prevent itself from self-destructive behaviour, the country head-dived into something it didn’t understand.

Why don’t we get more foreign news?

Kosher McDonalds restaurant in Ashqelon, Israel

Image via Wikipedia

Alisa Miller’s entry in Seth Godin’s new eBook caught my attention (pg 34).  In the entry, and a TED presentation, she talks about the abysmal state of global news coverage by the US press corps. Anybody who’s ever been subjected to around-the-clock styled American news programs can nod at the following.

Too often, American commercial news is myopic and inwardly focused.

This leads to a severe lack of global news.  And increasingly, a shortage of “enterprise journalism” – journalistic depth built over time through original sources – that provides the context and enables thoughtful response.

Too often, the news sticks to crime, disasters, infotainment, and horse-race politics.  Many important topics such as education, race and ethnicity, science, environment, and women and children’s issues are often less than 5% of all news combined.

Much of widely-seen online news isn’t better – it’s often just re-circulates the same stories.

The result: much of our news can’t be called “knowledge media” – content that builds insight about our world.

Things happen all the time, everywhere.  What gets made news, and what doesn’t, more often or not depends on where the news take place, and whether the happenstance in question belonged to one of the above-mentioned items deemed headline-worthy.  When we think about it, it’s really not at all unlike an abundance of trees falling in a remote forest.  Trees fall all the time, but only those that fall at the right time, at the right place, witnessed by the right bystander that deem it important enough, will have their fate made known to the world.

As indicated by Miller, Americans are becoming more, not less curious about what’s going on around the world, aove and beyond what the cable networks are able to deliver. It is evident, because British media outlets  that do a much better job with their foreign correspondents are eating into the audience pie. BBC and Guardian, not to mention the revered Economist, all command respect and eyeballs of those across the Atlantic.  But with cost-cuts and and ensuing shutting downs of foreign bureaus, especially for on-air networks in the US, we hardly get a glimpse of the outside world beside bombings and disasters.  That job has been relegated to public broadcast outlets such as PBS, NPR, and new private outfits the likes of Current and GlobalPost.

How did it come to this?

1. First and foremost, the race to top of the ratings league, and the focus on profitability have most likely doomed the industry to short-sightedness.  Should one fixate on ratings numbers and profit to the exclusion of any long-term vision, then the quality of stories will most likely keep falling to meet the lowest denominator. Until one day, 75% of your programming is spent chasing after Anna Nichole Smith, MJ, the balloon boy or Jon and Kate+8.  When that happens, you have essentially stooped so low as to talk to the entire American demographic as though they are stay-at-home moms.

Export cultural sensitivities, or keep them to ourselves?

{{nl|eigen foto, Looi}}

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Last weekend was Sinterklaas in the Low Countries.  I can hardly explain why a thinner version of Santa Claus would want to takes off from sunny Spain to the cold and wet Netherlands by boat while dressed like the Pope, then once transferred on horseback, manages to deliver presents to adoring Dutch children and adults alike.  Long story short, Sinterklaas and all the gift-giving activities take place beginning of December, whereas Christmas is de-coupled from more shopping, and is celebrated without too much more fuss.

Sint does not come alone, but with helpers.  Not with elves, because that would just be too silly.  They are called Zwarte Pieten, or, black Piets.  Which in a country as white as the Netherlands, means scores of blonde children would cover their faces and hands in black paint.  It’s all good and well for the happy-go-lucky Dutchies, but make any racially aware outsiders perk up.  In a recent gathering with Dutch and non-Dutch alike, a Canadian compatriot asked tentatively (and I suspect fully aware of the answer but curious of the response nonetheless): “are Zwarte Piets black because they are, umm, African, or because they get dirty from climbing down chimneys?”

The answer is of course the latter.  But our Dutch friends’ cheery answers clearly reflect the lack of awareness, that, its history as one of the pre-eminent slave trading countries in Europe back in the days has largely escaped public consciousness, along with the ironies and cultural sub-contexts of “black helpers”.

A few years ago, the name of a popular chocolate-covered marshmallow teacake made headlines in the Netherlands.  In the US, they are marketed as Mallomars; in Canada, chocolate puffs. But over here on the Continent, they were sold under various names that translated to “negro kisses” in English (Negerkys in Danish, Negerkuss in German,  Negerzoenen in Dutch, and most hilarious of them all, Negerinnentetten, or negress tits, in good old Flemish).

The Germans and French were somehow hit on the head with political correctness circa 2006, and moved to force name changes on those products in quick succession. The Dutch Foundation of the Victims of Slavery picked up on the wind of change, and demanded similar re-branding campaigns by the original manufacturers. The industry resisted the change at first, citing potential drop in sales if consumers can no longer recognize a name that’s been around since the 1920s.

The business eventually relented, and the product is now sold under the name Zoenen, or, simply, Kisses.  An outpour of public outrage soon followed, dismayed by the change, and demonstrating a clear preference to preserve history at the expense of political correctness, or, progress, depending on how you look at it.  The general consensus seemed to be (turn on Google translation if you are curious at what the comments say): if 86 years of negro kisses haven’t offended anyone, why should it start now?  The obvious flaw in the argument? A willingness to overlook the myriad of cultural, social, and political shifts that separate the world of the 1920s, and the world of today.

Towards a cyborg future, and other questions

International Mother Language Day Monument, As...

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I have trouble keeping up with my blog, not because there’s a lack of subjects I want to explore, but because of lack of resources – in both time and knowledge, to find a satisfactory ending to the questions at hand.  Here are some thoughts that never got finished and made it to the blog.  Maybe in 2010, I’ll be able to figure out a better way to articulate them in full.  I cannot be the first to ask such questions.  So, please share if you have opinions, theories, or answers to the below.

– What drives one country or region to excel in painting, and others to writing, and yet another to, say, architecture? What kind of geo-political, cultural, social, and economic tour de force were in place to allow for one area of arts to flourish over another?  For its size and population, Ireland has produced a disproportionate number of brilliant poets, playwrights and writers, known for their caustic wit and insight into human nature.  Is literary genius somehow correlated with economic misery?  That could explain how Russia also pumped out a whole generation of writers that produced account of sufferings and tragedies on an epic scale.  While for Germany, philosophers ruled in the 18th century, in response to the nation building tasks or merely a coincidence resulting from a cluster of highly intelligent and timely chatters within a single linguistic group at that time?  I would like to know what makes Scandinavians such greater designers, is there a history of industrial design in the region?

– There are books I read for the pure linguistic pleasures rather than the stories.  For books like, say, Lolita, what would translation into another language mean?  On the flip side, how much of the nuance, wordplay, and irony is lost when we read books translated from Russian, French, or German literature?  If our mother tongue do not belong to one of the more widely published languages in the world, and much of our readings is dependent on the success of translations, then how much gets lost in translation?

– Musing more on linguistics, are English-speakers increasingly living on the inside of a one-way looking glass, where rest of the world is able to access and understand our vantage points, but our inability to master or penetrate others’ cultures, en masse, will increasingly prevent us from communicating with the rest of the world on equal footing?

– Developed countries seem like they are run by politicians that climbed up the system through careers in law and local politics (US, UK), whereas many prominent developing countries (China, India) are run by technocrats.  Power at the top seem to dictated choices the next generation makes in universities.  What does this mean for the future?  Will there be a dichotomy where the west will increasingly focus on social progress, approaching global issues from the perspective of justice and political frameworks, where others will make decisions based on more quantitatively defined metrics?

It’s not always what it seems

not-what-it-seems My friends have stopped asking me about what it’s like to live in the Netherlands now. Those that have never set foot in the country have images of a land of hedonism, where prostitutes seduce their customers from behind glass windows in the Red Light District, coffee shops with herbal goodies and space cakes line the streets, where people are happy and gay with no fears of reprisal.

Those that have walked the cobbled streets of Amsterdam light up when they reminisce the pretty canals and friendly neighbourhoods. It’s clean, safe, compact, and anything goes.  The place has the kind of post-modern, post-religious, post-gender reputation that’s the wet dream of left-leaning liberals.

It’s not so, simple. Northern Europe can be very deceiving that way, because on the surface, they just seem like a blonder, more homogenous, more socialist, and more compact version of North America, with a bit more history.  Travelling to any of the capital cities of those countries, you will find that everyone speaks English, menus in restaurants are more or less the same trendy fusion stuff with a local twist, basic infrastructure and layout of cities uniformly confusing.

But don’t always believe the advertising.  Here’s what took me a couple of year to figure out.

Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. Obviously, a country is much more diverse than its capital.  Leaving Amsterdam and venturing into the rest of the country, you would rightly expect to hear less English, see less foreigners, and experience next to no flamboyant display pleasure-seeking activities.  In reality, most Dutch do not consider Amsterdam Dutch.  Instead, many are apologetic for the way the country is defined by the exaggerated reputation of one city and its liberal policies.  Which leads to the next point.

The Dutch are conservative. Not conservative like bible-thumping moralists that rant and preach.  But conservative in a post-religious society, where Calvinism holds much sway in what’s acceptable and what’s not .  The Dutch’s foray into legal prostitution has more to do with their attitude of “to each their own”, than a whole-hearted acceptance and embrace of the practice.  Besides, it’s hard to regulate, never mind tax an activity, unless you legalize it.  And the Dutch wants to tax everything.

No “packaged liberalism” practiced here. In North America, socio-political beliefs usually come in a package.  For example, if you are left of the centre thus can be labeled as a socially liberal, you are most likely pro-choice, pro same-sex marriage, for gender and racial equality, for sex education, for reforming immigration policies, etc.  If you are right of the centre and socially conservative, then you are most likely against abortion, against legalizing same-sex marriage, for policies that encourage women to be primary caretakers, and for abstinence education in school.

The sum of its parts is greater than the whole – making more out of our online presence

network When we think about our web presence and connectivity, many of us have a number of overlapping networks roughly sectioned-off – public versus private, personal versus professional, all-encompassing versus interest-based.

This is all too obvious for a large group of professionals that leverage LinkedIn to network, generate sales leads, recruit, and get hired for jobs.  LinkedIn effectively brought recruiting to the 21st century, by mirroring our offline behaviour with online equivalents.  Work experience?  Check.  Education?  Check.  References in the form of recommendations?  Check.

LinkedIn took offline professional networking online, thus creating a space where all the schmoozing can take place, plus it stores your Rolodex for all to see. It works extremely well on many levels – its popularity and profitability is a testament to that success.  But I wonder whether if it will be comfortable with its current demographic profile – middle-aged, manager-and-above wealthy clientele, or innovate along with its younger generation of users.

The biggest flaw I see with LinkedIn, is how closely it parallels our offline career trajectory and all the limitations that come with it.  A resume is backward looking, because it reflects choices we’ve made in the past, whether they be our educations or careers. And it can be incredibly constraining, because it doesn’t open one up with more opportunities, should they want a chance at a non-typical, cross-industry move.  At least not without a degree or piece of paper to signal that intention.

When I was in university, we had a bunch of career counselors that implored us to develop “transferrable skills” by telling us how people our age will have more likely than not, have between 5-10 different careers throughout our lives.  Not jobs, not industries, but careers.  That seems fantastical, even in today’s economy, where fluidity is at its peak.  Moving into an entirely different career path without connection, a huge break, or getting further educated in that field, is next to impossible.

For example, many companies return to the same university campus to recruit year after year, because they are after that ultimate “fit”.  And the school – through its molding and cultural immersion, will more likely than not spit out the type of candidate the firm is looking for.  Some even go as far as putting a premium on applicants belonging to a specific sports team or fraternity, all in that illusive search for fit.  Surely, the signaling effect of attending a certain institution, belonging to certain clubs, and playing a certain sports is strong.  But as recruiting matures in a post-campus environment, there are more signals that can be, and should be taken into account when it comes to assessing candidates.

Right now, LinkedIn does little to facilitate and gather signals of change, should one become curious in an area outside of his/her immediate career path.  That is a great shame, because so many of us are, in every age range and point on the career ladder.  And given an outlet, a channel, and a community, many of us would take the plunge and invest our time and energy into learning, participating, and even contributing to a knowledge base of our “curiosities”, that may or may not eventually blossom into a change.

Imagination please, when it comes to business plans

content-delivery-platform Why the content delivery business is a hard business, if subscription and advertising’s all you got.

For something truly disruptive to occur, the current system has to be broken beyond repair, and the incoming “disruption” has to be powerful enough (momentum driven by adoption), and sustainable enough (financially feasible, as far as business models are concerned), to overwhelm the status-quo.

A lot of individuals and businesses are fawning over the demise of “old media”, by attempting to deliver content in a way that’s fast, unique, exclusive, customizable, or pushed and pulled in whichever direction that users want.  Most are convinced that money can be made if only the formula is tweaked just so.  I’m not so convinced.  Remember this, “just because somebody destroys an existing business model, doesn’t imply it is itself, a good business model.”

Bearing in mind that all of the below already exist and are available for free, the next generation of content delivery platform will have to have all of the following wrapped in a free package, and more:

  • It will need a Friendfeed-esque system that floats the best of the best, aggregating someone’s social media profile along with their friends’, including Twitter, Digg, Delicious, RSS readers, and direct web surfacing.
  • Recommendations should be provided based on both one’s social network, customizable settings, and automated filtering.
  • The quantity and quality of the content should both be adjustable.  One should be allowed to set both thresholds according to their needs. After all, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the quantity, nor underwhelmed by the quality.
  • The content should be personalizable, but not so personalizable to the extent that it prevents you from discovering cool new things out there.

If and when this technological and design feat is accomplished, it’s time to worry about the business model. Consumers are hard to please: they are fickle, prickly, cheap, and worst of all, not all that loyal.  This is all but spelled out in the success, or for some, the lack of, that many social networks have encountered.


  • MySpace and Facebook make money from advertising, and on-site sales of “gifts”.  Nobody pays to use those services.
  • Twitter has no revenue model just yet.  But it’s likely they will capitalize on premium subscriptions and partnerships with the likes of Google or Yahoo, by integrating the Twitter network with their respective systems. The recent deal with India’s mobile carrier is an indication that putting the service in front of as many users as possible is the primary goal at the moment. I’m a loyal user, and I would be prepared to pay.  I’m not sure about the other 75% inactive users though.
  • Evernote, Spotify,, etc have revenue from premium subscriptions.
  • LinkedIn has revenue from premium subscribers, mostly those that rely on networking to make their living.  Majority of subscribers do not pay. But those that do keep the lights on, and some.

Analyzing my own online reading habits

cat reading While talking to someone today, I realized how far we had come in terms of the way we consume information online.

We used to be destination driven.  Which is say, we used to visit sites directly, bookmarking sites that we visited frequently or going straight to the url.  RSS changed all that by pushing news out.  The services like delicious made the task of bookmarking thousands of interesting links online more manageable, by taking it to the cloud.

Still, we are constantly looking for better ways to reach more information that’s pertinent to our lives – both to enhance our professional life, and to keep us entertained.  I still go to a few sites directly both on the web or through my mobile – a few of the mainstream sites where quality and quantity are consistent.  Everything else I read online comes to me through one of a number of ways.

For breaking news, one of my favourite sources is BNO News, which also comes with a highly recommended iPhone app that I haven’t had the chance to try out yet.  It’s short, it’s to the point, it’s consistently 10-15 minutes ahead of sources like the CNN and BBC.  As far as keeping up with fact-based, time-sensitive, large-scale events, this is nothing different than the hourly bulletin we used to get on TV.  Only it’s on demand, and takes 10 seconds to scan.

I still spend a significant amount of time scanning through my RSS reader, though I wish there could be something better.  The quantity of content I get in a reader is sometimes too overwhelming in quantity and underwhelming in quality, with the number of unread feeds easily surpassing 1,000 if my account is not scanned for a day or two.  To keep this under control, I’ve set up a number of folders to organize feeds by topic, which can then be prioritized when reading.  I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of high-post sites. Time is limited, either it goes off the radar completely, or I go to the site directly.

What has helped in stemming this tide of content torrent are the various features which allows social sharing, and a couple of short-cuts I take in outsourcing this tiresome hunt for interesting content to other people. GoogleReader – the RSS feed reader of my choice, allows me to see what my contacts and colleagues are reading.  I trust them, and I know they have good taste.  Therefore, content that they filtered through get my attention.

Some people look to Twitter for solution.  Admittedly, Twitter is great at breaking news, passing around viral information and picking up trending topics.  It is a great tool for keeping your finger on the pulse that is cyberspace.  When it comes to specialty content discovery, however, Twitter is too scattered, noisy, and time-consuming to do that job effectively. Even when I apply some “straining” applications to filter, group, and scan tweets that come my way, the switching time that my brain requires to process random chattering, self-promotion, re-tweeting content from people I don’t know, feeds from their own blogs, from truly interesting links, is just too much to make this exercise worthwhile. Especially when there are easier ways.

Tightened drug laws, red light district, and social equality

netherlands Some random observations and the going-ons of life in the Netherlands.

An era of liberal backlash

Over the past half year, the Dutch government has reduced the number of legal prostitution businesses in the Red Light District.  Amsterdam city officials see their duty to deliver their city from sleaze, even as they scrap a 100-million euro business.  The official line is the concern over human trafficking and illegitimate operations linked to prostitution.  But skeptics see the sudden enthusiasm for gentrifying Amsterdam as nothing more than greed, where the city is buying up real estate with public fund, and will most likely make some good money by selling or leasing out properties later.

The moral crusade is spreading, where talks of preventing soft drug sales to tourists and limiting the consumption of such to locals has turned into reality.  It looks like the whole drug-tourism trend will come to a quiet close in the Netherlands, supposedly putting an end to drug-related crimes, including smuggling and trafficking.

It is interesting to ponder why the Dutch adopted the legalization of pot in the first place in the 1970s.  That was the time when heroin was fast becoming the hard drug of choice in the underground scene.  And the legalization of soft drugs was introduced to separate the legal soft drugs market, and the illegal, hardcore drugs market.  It then allowed the government to regulate, and, effectively, tax, the soft drug market.  Similarly, prostitution was legalized so the government could more effectively monitor, and control the entire trade.  To put it cynically, government became the ultimate pimp.

Prostitution and the “red light district” in Utrecht

The red light district area in Utrecht is one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen all across the Netherlands.  In small towns, it’s not uncommon to see a turn off a regional highway, where a number of parking stalls are set up for quickies with some ladies of the night picked up close by.  In Amsterdam, the infamous district is full of tourists and gawkers.  But in Utrecht, it is most definitely open for some real business.

The area is more or less embedded in a residential district, across the street from a Home Depot-like hardware store.  If it’s not for the scores of cars lining up to get in on a Friday night, the cul-de-sac that leads you into the area is totally unremarkable.  If you follow the slow succession of cars along a two-way round-about, you will be confronted with a number of houseboats lined up along the canal, each displaying a working girl in scantily-clad lingerie.  The working ones will have the curtains closed.  Otherwise, they are sitting on a stool, facing the street and the streaming cars and potential clients, chewing gum, smoking a cigarette, filing their nails or talking on a cellphone.

How to get women to have more babies?

kids Many rich (and some not so rich) countries are watching the train wreck that is their demographic profile, heading for the cliff.  Japan is the obvious case, Germany and some southern European countries are doing almost as badly.  A number of surprise entries – South Korea, Russia, and even China, are facing rapid changes in their population make-up, thanks to rapid growth and a number of previously unforeseen second-order social changes.

There are two ways to slow down an ageing population.  The most obvious one – immigration, means you can cherry-pick the young and taxable coming in the door.  The other one is, to put it crudely, is breeding.  Now leaving the immigration option aside, to achieve a birthrate high enough to hit the replacement number is a huge challenge for a large number of countries.  It’s time to realize this: consistent low birthrate is the culmination of rational decisions made as a result of unresolved, and sub-optimal social, cultural and financial concerns.

1. Public and private policies must be geared to alleviate the burden of childbearing. For women, leaving well-paying jobs behind to rear children with little guarantee of career security once they are back in the workplace, makes those lost years so much more unpalatable.  Maternity leave options and firm-sponsored daycare options in a few countries are still too few and far in between, and those “benefits” are still the first to go in times of budget cuts and economic turmoil.  Additionally, the added burden of children, and the loss of one income during those cash-strapped years will make couples think twice before rearing a few in succession. Thus, both public and private sectors must work in parallel to alleviate and compensate women for this lingering wound.

2. Gender equality is essential. Why, you might ask?  Don’t conservative societies typically lead to more stereotypical gender roles, so either contented or suffering housewives will fulfill their duties in birthing babies? Not in economically developed societies with a chauvinistic bend.

Italy and Japan, for example, has two of the lowest birthrates in the world.  Both have deeply ingrained patriarchal roots.  Japan is infamous for its gender conservatism.  Japanese nowadays can still feel the effect of an almost feudal bias that supports various incarnations of its geisha culture.  As for Italy, it ranks 67th out of 130 countries based on a report by the World Economic Forum on gender gap. Translating that into the mundane that we can appreciate: an average Italian women has 80 less minutes of leisure time a day than their male counterparts, presumably to cook pasta and do laundry for the entire family.

So it’s little surprise that given a good education and financial independence – which are inevitable by-products of economic growth, faced with male chauvinism – whether incompetence or indifference, women are making their dissent known.  As of 2000, one in four Japanese women between 30-34 were unmarried.   In Italy, women are unwilling to take on the additional burden of raising children, leading to one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.  It is beat by only, Germany and Japan.

US versus Europe, can there be a winner in this debate?

europe_or_us I’ve followed this US versus Europe discussion with some interest, as I get asked a similar version of the question occasionally (substitute US for Canada).  Having read the comments here and here, I agree with some of the more measured comments made.  There is no short, one-size-fit-all answer to the question.  Because it depends on so many factors: why you are there, who you are with, what you do and what you really, really believe in.  Self-anointed cultural gurus that jump in those debates with unwavering points of views and sweeping generalizations rub me the wrong way: a few months, or even years of living in any place does not make anybody an expert in comparative politics or sociology . Therefore, with the utmost humbleness, I submit a few observations.

1. Positive externalities come at a dear price and minute size.

When it comes to Europe’s real or perceived beauty, there are usually two camps.  One group is full of adoration – oh to live within such loveliness, cultural diversity and respect for history and culture. The other group is dismayed by the implications of (sometimes lack of) infrastructural spending needed to keep them running, and more importantly, and the day-to-day realities of living in centuries-old towns.

It is not easy.  I have been to some old Amsterdam houses.  The ones built back in the day when property tax was levied based on the horizontal width of a house.  To maximize living space, stairs were made as narrow as humanly possible, to the point where going up certain ones requires crawling on all fours.  Most constructions prior to the 70s have no elevators.  Property developers stopped just short of 4 stories to avoid having to put one in, as per regulation.  You can then appreciate the difficulties of getting heavy furniture up the stairs.  To alleviate that problem, many canal houses were built slightly slanted to allow for a hook-and-rope lever system to haul things up through the front balcony.  Comfortable and convenient it’s not, but tolerable and pragmatic? Most of the time.

It’s not all that bad though. In the city I live in (pop 300,000), housing in the centre of cities or towns are very expensive, both in terms of unit price and ongoing upkeep. Most people, regardless of their attitudes towards historical homes, are simply priced out of the market. Therefore, most live in outer rings that are not quite urban, yet not suburban, by American standards.  A handful of neighbourhoods just outside of city centre can all be reached within 5 to 10 minutes by train or bus. Or, if weather allows, which it does most of time, I can make it on my bike in 15 to 20 minutes. And rest assured, dwellings in those mid-burbs tend to be much newer and spacious than the older constructions.

2. The service-oriented mindset is something you will miss greatly. But only to a point.