The Lay of the Land

Imagine a map of the world in which land and sea are both drawn in the same colour, so as to be indistinguishable from one another. Imagine also that areas inhabited by humans are drawn in a different colour than areas that are relatively uninhabited by humans.

Such a map might reveal a great desert in the Northern Hemisphere, encompassing most of Asia, the Pacific Ocean, and the western half of North America. Within this great desert there would be a great oasis: Northeast Asia. There would also be many lesser oases such as California. The Indian Subcontinent would also appear to be a great oasis, between the desert of Central Asia and the desert of the Indian Ocean. But it would not be as remote an oasis as Northeast Asia.

world map at night

Now imagine that all of the oceans on this map were to be greatly shrunk in size, in order to account for the ease of transporting bulk cargo by sea, whereas all of the mountain or hilly rainforest barriers on the map were to be greatly increased in size, in order to account for the difficulty of transportation in such areas. This map would now reveal the key position of the habited parts of Europe and the Middle East, which would now be seen as being extremely close to most of the inhabited parts of the Americas and Africa, as well as to much of the inhabited parts of Asia.

It would not now be surprising to learn that the watershed of the narrow Atlantic and Mediterranean seas is where an estimated two-thirds of global economic activity occurs. Nor would the fact that the Mediterranean economies have mostly struggled to keep up with those of the North Atlantic be surprising, given the mountains or deserts which surround the Mediterranean on all sides.

China, in contrast, would still seem to be in an isolated position. The mountains or hilly rainforests that make up much of the terrain of Southeast Asia and the east coast of India, plus the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, would now appear to further isolate China from India. China would now also  appear to be more internally divided. China’s non-natively-Mandarin-speaking areas along its southeast coast would now seem to be further from the Mandarin areas of the north (since mountainous lands lie between the two).

At the same time, China’s coastal areas would appear to be located closer to the rest of the world (including to the world’s Chinese diaspora, which disproportionately comes from southeast China), since the world’s seas would now appear to be much smaller than before.  Japan, in contrast, would appear more internally unified when looked at using this map, as all of its lands border the sea and so would now seem to be closer to one another.

Going forward 

Of course, this is a very, very rough imagining of the practical realities faced by human economics, based on a number of assumptions that may be wrong, including most importantly on the idea that navigability and habitability are among the most decisive economic and historical factors. Arguably, it helps to explain some key questions – why Europe and Middle Eastern religions spread so widely, why Atlantic and Mediterranean are economies are so large, why China has often struggled with internal regionalism, etc.. Even, however, if we do accept it as a decent model of the world today, it does not tell us how the world might soon change.

If modern technology tweaks the realities of this world-map we have tried to imagine — if, for instance, autonomous vehicles make it far easier to transport bulk cargo in mountainous areas, or in hilly rainforests — that could alter what we might expect the world economy, political or financial, to look like.


  1. “Chindia” (and Chargentina)The term Chindia became somewhat popular during the BRIC boom a decade ago. It was used to refer to the idea that East Asia and South Asia would become economically much larger and somewhat better integrated with one another, together forming an Indo-Pacific economy that would rival (even if only a friendly rivalry) that of the  Atlantic world, while also allowing China and India to dilute the global power of the US.
    This scenario would also put Southeast Asia, Southwest China, and  Northeast India in a key position in the world, controlling the trade routes (and much of the freshwater) of East and South Asia. Overland trade between China, Southeast Asia, and India might also threaten somewhat the position enjoyed by Singapore, Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Indonesia, all three of which benefit from ships sailing a long detour through the Straits of Malacca to get from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. But, will any of this actually happen? It has not happened yet: trade between China and India remains quite low, given their sizes. karte-topographie-zentralasien-01.pngWe should also not overlook the possibility of a similar economic integration between two large countries that are separated by the world’s other great mountain range, the Andes, namely Chile and Argentina. Unlike China and India, these two nations speak the same language. Their population centres, though separated by high mountains, are located quite close to one another. Chile’s largest city, Santiago, and Argentina’s fourth largest city, Mendoza, are only 175 km apart, as the crow flies. But they are separated from one another by mountains reaching over 5 km high.Greater integration between Argentina and Chile could help both to balance against their much larger, Portuguese-speaking neighbour Brazil. It could perhaps then allow (Ch)Argentina and Brazil work together towards a greater level of South American or Latin American economic or political integration. This could turn out to be as important as anything that might happen between East Asia and South Asia.physical-3d-map-of-south-america.jpg

    2. Return of the Mediterranean(s)

    In our map of the world we saw the key position held by the Mediterranean, but also that the mountains of Mediterranean countries have limited their development as compared to the flatter lands like northern Europe and the eastern half of the United States. If, however, technology allows for economical transport in mountain areas, then the Mediterranean region might regain some of the influence it enjoyed historically.

    Drainage Basins, rivers

    Drainage Basin (millions of square km)

    So too might other “mediterranean” seas that are surrounded in large part by rugged or rainforest lands. Most notable of these, perhaps, is the American mediterranean, the Gulf of Mexico & Caribbean, which, like the real Mediterranean, is centrally located (next to the narrow Atlantic, and between continents) but has much of its nearby population living in mountainous areas, in Mexico and Central America. The Caribbean, in turn, is near another “mediterranean” basin, the Amazon River and its many navigable tributaries.
    3. The Heartland

    Works of “Classic Geopolitics”, notably Halford Mackinder’s book Democratic Ideals and Reality (which I recommend reading)written a century ago at the end of WW1, lays out a vision of the world that is somewhat similar to the one I have tried to describe here. It identifies Europe and the Middle East as the economically-geographically central spot in the world, and argues that, given the Middle East’s relatively arid climate (the Middle East and North Africa had a far smaller population relative to Europe in 1919 than it does today), and given the spread of railways into landlocked areas, it would be the vast flat lands of Eastern Europe that might give rise to a political entity potentially capable of dominating Europe, the Middle East, and by extension the “World-Island” (meaning the Asia-Africa-Europe supercontinent), and by extension the world as a whole.

    In this view, the devastating German-Russian wars of 1914-1917 and 1941-1945 were about who would control East Europe; the Cold War, the 1917-1918 part of WW1 (when Russia left the war and the US entered it), the 1939-1941 part of WW2 (before the Hitler-Stalin pact was broken), the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, or various conflicts during the 19th century, such as the Crimean War or the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” in Central Asia and the Middle East, were about peripheral powers (Britain, France, Japan, the US, etc.) preventing an East European power like Russia and/or Prussia from expanding its influence.

    Regardless of whether or not this Mackinderian perspective is an adequate one, it does seem that the central position of Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East arguably really does exist, and may persist. Eastern Europe continues to house by far the largest state and population in this area (Russia), and the Germans still by far the largest economy. But the more mountainous states and populations in Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, and much of the Mediterranean and/or Arab worlds are also large, oil-rich, and centrally located. How this story will unfold going forward is anyone’s guess.


North America

Wall-Ball: Sport of Heroes

With technologies like online shopping, ride-hailing, and perhaps eventually autonomous vehicles, it may be that parking lots will more and more often be unfilled, outside of peak shopping hours.

Wall-Ball, therefore, (or Wal-Ball, if Walmart ponies up the $$ for it), is a sport that could be played in a jumbo-sized parking lot. Here’s how it’s played:

1. It’s played in an area the same size as a football/soccer field
2. The ball is a tennis ball
3. Each player wears rollerblades
4. Each player carries a hockey stick or a tennis racket. They can switch between the two as much or as little as they like, whenever they like. (This is where some of the strategy comes in: in deciding which to use, and when). If they want, they can also use both at the same time: they can wear their tennis racket sheathed in a pouch on their back, and pull it out to use as needed while holding their hockey stick in their opposite hand.
5. A goal can be scored in one of two ways: by scoring the ball in the net (the net is a soccer net), or by scoring in the ball through a hoop (think quidditch) high above the net
6. The goalie, who also wears rollerblades and uses a tennis racket or hockey stick, is the only player who can touch the ball with his or her hands. No other players can enter the goalie crease.
7. There is an offside line, as in hockey, rather than a moving offside as in soccer
8. When a player hits the ball out of bounds, the goalie on the opposing team immediately puts a new ball into play
9. There is no checking or slashing, with one exception: if a player sandwiches the ball between his or her racket and hockey stick, then a player on the opposing team can hit that player or slash at his or her racket
10.  Sort of like major league baseball, where every venue can be shaped differently, so in Wall-Ball every rink could have a wall around some or all of the edge of the rink, with the height or placement of the wall differing from venue to venue. (It could also played without any walls or boards). Players can bounce the ball off it strategically like hockey players do off the boards in ice hockey.

So, that’s how you play Wall-Ball!


North America

Unconventional NHL Strategies, continued

  1. Playing 5.5-on-4 

    Pulling your goalie tends to be less beneficial on a power play, since icing calls can’t be called against penalty killers (so they can attempt a long shot at an empty net goal without a consequence if they miss) and since the marginal benefit of the extra attacker is smaller when you compare the difference between 6-on-5 and 6-on-4 to the difference between 5-on-5 and 6-on-5. As such, while trailing teams will still usually pull their goalie during the last minute or two of the game if they are on a power play, they tend not do so on a power play with, say, three minutes left in the game.

    But what if, instead of pulling the goalie to get an extra attacker, a team instead uses its sixth man as a safety: positioning the sixth man around centre ice, so that he can help prevent a long empty net goal, while also being able to jump forward into the play as needed, in order (for example) to help prevent the puck from clearing the offensive zone, or to take a point shot. The sixth man would be playing, in effect, as both a goalie and a defenseman. And when he does jump into the zone at one point, a teammate from the opposite point could fall back to fill his safety position.

    This strategy could perhaps even be usable at some times when not on a power play, in order to take advantage of having the puck in the offensive zone (or in order to take advantage of tired defenders) at a time earlier than the coach would otherwise be willing to pull the goalie. If, for example, a coach is not comfortable with pulling his goalie with 2.2 and 20 seconds left in the game, but would rather wait until the 2 minute mark to pull his goalie, he could have the option of using a 5.5-on-5 strategy for 20 seconds first.

    2. Power play specialization and trade

    Power plays arguably consist of two different skill-sets. One is getting the puck set up inside the offensive zone, the other is scoring a goal. Many of the league’s star players or power play specialists are excellent at both of these skill sets. But there is unlikely to be a clean overlap between the two. Getting the puck inside the zone on a power play, for example, depends more on skating, while scoring on a power play depends more on skills like passing, shooting, obstructing the goalie’s vision, and winning face-offs.

    As a result, teams that do not have many great stars or power play specialists might want to think about a different strategy than the conventional “top power play unit, second power play unit” division of duties that NHL teams generally use. Instead, they may want to use a “specialization and trade” strategy: have one lineup optimized to getting the puck set up inside the zone, and then another lineup (some star players can play on both lineups) optimized for scoring a goal once already in the zone. The latter line would be subbed on the ice whenever there is a face-off inside the offensive zone on a power play. The former line could be subbed on (sometimes) on the fly when the opposing team shoots the puck down the length of the ice. This type of one-two punch strategy might also be useful at times playing 5-on-5.

North America

Ontario: Low-Cost, High-Comfort Rail is much better than High-Speed, High-Cost Rail

Average is over. Long live average.

“High-speed rail” is a bit of misleading name: airplanes travel at a much faster speed. It might be better to call it “high-speed for rail” instead. Or call it “average-speed by rail”.

Of course, if you did refer to high-speed rail by any of those names, you probably wouldn’t have governments like Ontario’s pledging to spend 11 billion dollars to build a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Kitchener-Waterloo and London, Ontario. Even to those who support rail transport over less efficient, more polluting air and road transport, this move is difficult to justify from an economic perspective, given the population density of Southwest Ontario.

While high-speed rail is a good idea in populous areas where conventional rail options are already numerous (although even the Boston-New York-Washington corridor does not have one yet, which should set off alarm bells for those who think the Toronto-Guelph-Kitchener-London corridor, or even the larger Toronto-Windsor corridor, should build one) there are five main problems with high-speed rail in a place like Ontario.

One, it is much more expensive to build than conventional rail. Two, it has fewer stops and so can serve fewer cities than conventional rail. Three, it is less fuel-efficient than conventional rail. Four, it has much less capacity than conventional rail (if you double the speed of a rail line, you generally also must double the safe and comfortable distance required between each train, and so end up halving the capacity of the rail line) and so is much more expensive than conventional rail (unless wastefully subsidised by governments).

And fifth, yes it goes faster, but what’s the rush? What’s so bad about the existing 2.5 hour train from Toronto to London, Ontario…especially now that most people will soon have noise-cancelling wireless headphones and ultra-lightweight computers? And especially if e-commuting means that people will not have to make the trip as often as they otherwise might, or might be able to get work done while on the train. And anyway, don’t we continue to be told that automation and digital outsourcing going to do more and more of our work? Why exactly is someone rushing to or from Toronto so frequently that so much of our tax dollars should go to this “high-speed” train?


Instead of high-speed, high-cost rail, what Ontario could spend that 11 billion on instead is low-cost, high-comfort rail: rail on which it would be easy to work, relax, or sleep, and on which the needs of aging Baby Boomers who make up the biggest chunk of Ontario’s population, who are now already in their 60s and 70s, could be catered to more (making it easier to stow heavy suitcases, more bathroom capacity, etc.).

Indeed, what is really needed is not a way for to reach cities like London, Ontario or Kitchener-Waterloo, or even Windsor(-Detroit) without having to take a slow conventional train, but rather a way to reach more distant cities like Ottawa, Montreal, Chicago, and New York (all roughly 400-800 km from Toronto) without having to take a slow conventional train or an airplane. Ideally, we would have a train that is affordably priced, and so comfortable and smooth (i.e. with so few accelerations, decelerations, or bumps) that, at a low speed of 50-100 km an hour, a passenger could sleep easily though the night and wake up 400-800 km away. Even that would probably cost less than high-speed rail.










North America

Boomeroomba, part 2

In a previous article, on the topic of playing tennis, I talked about the Boomer-Roomba test. An idea passes the Boomer-Roomba test if it is something that might be impacted by Baby Boomers reaching their 60s and 70s and by the introduction of everyday robots.

Downhill skiing, sadly, does not pass the test: many Baby Boomers will stop skiing in the near future. But what about less dangerous snow activities: snow shoeing, cross country skiing, sledding, skating, etc. etc.? These many Baby Boomers will still be able to do for a long time, with friends or with their kids and grandkids. Indeed many Boomers may soon have much more time for activities such as these, as they cut back on or retire from their jobs.

The management of snow and ice is also a task that robots (or at least, remote controlled machines) could be uniquely suited to handle. Clearing snow off roads, for example, is challenging mainly because it is both time-sensitive (you generally want it done as soon as possible, even if that means working overnight) and time-intensive (it takes a long time to clear heavy snow). Clearing snow off rooftops is even more difficult. For rural snowbelt areas that get walloped far more than even the snowiest cities like Syracuse, being able to plow and de-ice roads robotically could be a godsend. Advanced safety features in cars and busses, and advanced cruise control in cars, could also help these areas.

Creating and maintaining skating rinks — whether by clearing snow off a frozen lake, or by creating an artificial rink — is also highly labour-intensive work that could benefit from automation. And people really enjoy long-distance outdoor skating rinks, and skating on lakes. Skating also puts much less strain on the body than, for example, jogging does.

But perhaps the main reason that snowbelt areas might do well in the Boomer-Roomba test is a relative one: they might do better than northern cities in general. As Baby Boomers age, and as robots do more and more work in the economy in general, more people (whether a retired Boomer or an e-commuting Millennial) might move south, as snowbirds during the winter or (as many have already done) as year-round Sunbelt residents.

The reverse is also true, however: more people might move north in the summer, as reverse-snowbirds. Snowbelts could be well-placed, therefore, to become year-round attractions: serving reverse-snowbirds in the summer, and winter sports lovers in the winter. In contrast, non-snowbelt northern areas might see a boom in summer, and yet still see a continuation of the current trend of growing much more slowly than Sunbelt areas in general.


Europe, North America

On Pulling Your Goalie: Unconventional Factors to Consider

NHL teams generally look at three factors to determine when to pull their goalie: the score of the game, the amount of time left remaining the game, and the location of the puck (i.e. if it is in the defensive zone, the goalie will not usually be pulled). It seems to me that two extra factors are needed:

  1. the exhaustion level of the opposing team’s five on-ice players
  2. the purpose of pulling your goalie

1. Exhaustion Level of Opposing Team’s Five On-Ice Players

Here’s a riddle: if your team was trailing by one goal, would you rather have the goalie pulled with 2 minutes left against a relatively well-rested defense or, instead, pulled with 3 minutes against a defense that is utterly exhausted as it is being caught on the ice during a really long shift?

There is no empirical evidence by which we can attempt to answer this riddle, because coaches almost never pull their goalies when down one goal with 3 minutes left. My guess, however, is that playing 6-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left may be better than playing 5-on-5 against exhausted defenders with 3 minutes left and then waiting until around the 2 minute mark to pull your goalie. Here’s why:

1) an exhausted defense is less likely to clear the zone and/or score an empty net goal

2) if an exhausted defense tries to score a long empty net goal and misses, resulting in an icing, then they will pay a big price for it: the other team will be able to bring on fresh players, which will make the difference in tiredness between the two teams even greater.

3) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is less likely to get a lucky bounce or turnover that would allow them to clear the zone (or, if they do clear the zone, to clear it enough to get many of its players to reach the bench)

4) an exhausted defense playing 5-on-6 is more likely to have its goalie screened, so the odds of the goalie making a save to stop play and allow a line change is reduced.

5) by bringing a 6th attacker on the ice, you have the opportunity to seamlessly bring on a top player on who is fully rested himself.

6) pulling your goalie early means that the exhausted defense has less of a chance of winning the game by simply running down the clock. From a psychological perspective also, it may be more difficult for an exhausted player to muster his remaining energy when he knows he is not closed to being ‘saved by the bell’.

7) the exhausted players may not be that team’s best defenders; whereas with 1 or 2 minutes left in the game to play, a team normally has their best defenders on the ice. Moreover, if they cause an icing, you can bring on your own team’s best players

8) If the opposing team knows you might employ this strategy at some point during the game, they will be less willing to use their ‘coach’s challenge’ and so risk losing their time out. They will also be less willing to use their time out earlier in the game, even at times when they may need it. Your team gains an advantage by them being less willing to use their time out or coach’s challenge.

9) If the other team does manage to clear the zone and change lines, you can then use your own time out in order to rest your top line so that it can stay out on the ice for the rest of the game.

10) If you are playing a division rival or wild-card rival, and would like to deny them the chance of getting a point from an OT loss, this strategy gives you a (small) chance of winning the game in regulation

For all these reasons (some much more than others, obviously), I suspect that if you are facing a scenario where the opposing team’s line is exhausted with 3 minutes left and you are down a goal, you may be better off pulling your goalie then rather than waiting to do so with 2 minutes left against a better(-rested) line. If I were an NHL coach, I would try to simulate this scenario in practice during the offseason in order to try to answer this riddle. The reason I would run such an experiment is this: if it is true with 3 minutes left, what about with 4 minutes left? What about with 10? What if you were down by more than one goal? In other words, how exhausted do the opposing team’s players need to be, and much time left does there need to be, and how many goals down in the game do you need to be, to make this strategy worthwhile? We don’t know, as teams never try it.

We do know, though, that teams get caught out on long shifts fairly frequently. And we know that players’ effectiveness tends to drop dramatically when being caught on a long, tiring shift. So, if the strategy really were to prove effective, whichever team discovers it and implements it first may actually gain a significant advantage. (If it proved really effective, there may even be a case for waiting until the playoffs to deploy the strategy for the first time, in order prevent other teams from adopting the strategy themselves after seeing you use it). If successful, the benefit of simulating these scenarios in practice in the offseason could far outstrip the cost (of time and energy) that will be required to properly simulate the scenarios as required.

2. The Purpose of Pulling Your Goalie  

We assume that the purpose of pulling your goalie must be to score a goal playing 6-on-5. But what about pulling your goalie to increase your odds of scoring a goal 5-on-5? Consider the following scenario: your team is trailing by a goal with 3 minutes left in the game, and is in control of the puck in the offensive zone. Some or all of your players on the ice are physically exhausted, and your best offensive player is on the bench. You would like to swap out one of your tired players to bring your star on the ice, but you don’t want to change on the fly because you are worried the other team might take advantage of the brief swap to try to gain control of the puck and clear the zone. Well, maybe you should think about pulling your goalie for a few seconds to bring him in, and then, once he joins his teammates in the offensive zone, have another player exit the game as quickly as possible so that your goalie can reenter the game. (This plan also works better if the players on both teams are tired, as at best they are only likely to get a chance to score an empty net goal from behind centre-ice, so they would be risking an icing). If done smoothly, you might be able to improve your odds of tying the game by trying this move.



Gliders, Gondolas, and Gravity

Gravity keeps us land-bound, most of the time. But there are two transportation technologies that worth with rather than against gravity: cable-cars, which use the weight of anything they are carrying downhill to help lift anything they are carrying uphill; and gliders/parachutes, which mainly travel downhill. The use of cable-cars is limited, however, by their low carrying capacity (relative to trains, trucks, or ships), while the use of gliders and parachutes are limited by danger and imprecision and by the fact that they must still fight gravity in order to get aloft in the first place.

New technologies may overcome these limitations, at least to a certain extent. In the case of cable-cars, there low capacity can become less of a problem as a result of automating loading/unloading/warehousing and automous trucks/cars. With these autonomous sytems in place, a cable car sysyem could run 24-7 (cable-cars are very quiet, so they are not annoying to run at night), with autonomous trucks being autonomously unloaded at the entrance of the cable-car, and then autonomously unloaded and re-loaded onto another autonomous truck at the exit of the cable-car. Similarly, with autonomous cars (or busses), a passenger could disembark his or her car to get on a cable-car, then have another automous car waiting for him or her at the other side.

Autonomous capabilities are even more useful to cargo-carrying gliders or parachutes (or gliders dropping precision parachutes), helping to overcome the limitations of danger and of imprecision. The US military has been making great strides in this area in recent years in Afghanistan, with systems like JPADS (joint precision airdrop system) and research into gliders.

Of course, these systems must still use aircraft get airborne in the first place, which is not sustainable from either an economic or environmental standpoint. This is where things get interesting: what if instead of gliders being released from aircraft, they were instead released from high-elevation cable-car stations? In a mountainous or archipelagic region, this could allow cargo to be transported during times when roads or ships are temporarily out of service as a result of snowfall, flash flooding, avalanches, earthquakes, low tides, etc. They might even be usable by human passengers, to travel to or from an island that lacks an accessible port, or to reach an island on windy days without facing sea-sickness.

Cable-cars might similarly be able to work well with cargo (or passenger) drones in general. They could serve as a sort of ferry for drones. By flying up to land on a cable-car, drones could reduce their energy expendtures, recharge their batteries, and, as a result, reduce their battery sizes.