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The Xenophile Historian

K. U. P.

(Kimball's Unauthorized Perversion)

If You Can Read This, You've Got It Made

Where do you stand in the so-called "Global Village?" Well . . .

"If we could shrink the earthís population to a village of precisely one hundred people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, the village would include . . .

60 Asians,
12 Europeans,
15 from the Western Hemisphere (9 Latin Americans, 5 North Americans, and 1 Oceanian), and
13 Africans.

Of those one hundred people . . .

50 would be female,
50 would be male,
80 would be nonwhite,
20 would be white,
67 would be non-Christian,
33 would be Christian,
20 would earn 89 percent of the wealth,
25 would live in substandard housing,
17 would be unable to read,
13 would suffer from malnutrition,
1 would die within the year,
2 would give birth within the year,
2 would have a college education, and
4 would own a computer."

Source: The Winnerís Manual: For the Game of Life, by Jim Tressel, courtesy of Compassion International:

If you can read this, chances are that you are one of the privileged four percent with a computer. Therefore you are better off than most of the people who have ever lived; by their standards, youíve got it made. Iíll venture to say that even the kings and queens who lived before 1800 A.D. would envy someone in your situation. Why? To answer that, first weíll look at what monarchs have that you donít have, then vice-versa. So what have they got?

  1. Wealth. No surprise there; wealth is probably the most important difference between a ruler and yourself. Still, there are things that money cannot buy, as we shall see.
  2. Power. If youíre not an absolute ruler, chances are you wonít have an army of servants waiting on you hand and foot, and you wonít get your jollies by lopping off the heads of those you donít like. And you arenít likely to pull extravagant stunts like the ones the craziest Roman emperors are known for (think of Caligula, Nero, Commodus and Elagabalus). Nor are you going to lead armies; if you want to conquer the world, youíll have to do it in a game. On the other hand, thanks to the political revolutions of the past few centuries, most of todayís monarchs donít have much power, either.

    Also, keep in mind that statistically, being head of state is the most dangerous job ever created. Throughout history, a lot of kings, queens and emperors have died of "unnatural causes." Today some jobs like coal mining are notorious for work-related injuries and deaths, but the percentages of workers killed in those jobs is still less than the percentage of murdered monarchs. Those of you who have watched Game of Thrones know what I mean. In my European history series I chronicled how bad it was in two countries where at least a third of the rulers suffered violent deaths, the Byzantine Empire and Scotland. Of course, the job was a lot more appealing when the person who had it exercised real power. Have you noticed that since most of the worldís monarchs became figureheads, the length of their reigns and lifespans has increased, too?

  3. Fame. If a king or queen does anything at all, he/she is sure to get mentioned in the history books. And they can build monuments so the world will remember them for ages to come. The drawback is that these days, members of royal families are also constantly pursued by paparazzi.
Okay, now what do you have to make your life better than theirs?† Mainly creature comforts, hereís the list:

  1. Your home is more comfortable. Before the modern era, the best way to escape extreme weather was to move into a cave; the temperature in a typical cavern stays constant all year round (e.g., it is always 54į F. in Kentuckyís Mammoth Cave). Most manmade architecture by itself doesnít do as good a job protecting those inside; for example, a drafty castle wonít keep out the heat of summer, or the cold of winter. In our own time, however, air conditioning and central heating have made it relatively easy to escape natureís worst tantrums by staying indoors.† Any king will tell you that an air conditioner does a better job of keeping you cool than slaves waving fans behind your head!

    And what about pests? A cave wonít keep you safe from bugs, mice and other vermin. Heck, when I lived in Florida, I had to get used to critters invading my house regularly. Thatís why exterminators are still in business today. Still, you have to admit they do a better job of keeping the ants, rats and roaches away than whatever passed for pest control in the past; at least we donít try to distract flies with honey-covered slaves, as one pharaoh allegedly did!

  2. You are healthier--and cleaner. You have soap and shampoo; you probably would not want to try the products that were used before soap and shampoo were invented (e.g., the Incas used fermented urine for hair care). Whatís more, you can bathe every day without being viewed as eccentric; some of the greatest figures in history were also notorious stinkers.† And click here to find out why you would have dreaded answering nature's call, in Roman or medieval times. If you feel put out because you donít have a golden toilet like Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the African tyrant (see below), remember that for most of history, monarchs didnít have flush toilets!

    Bokassa's toilet

    Consider also the quality of your health care. Compared with todayís doctors, most of the physicians who lived before the mid-nineteenth century were outright quacks. I donít want to begin listing all the crazy remedies they thought would work. Remember the scene in Star Trek IV where Dr. McCoy hears two twentieth-century doctors discuss a patient's treatment, and he feels like he is listening to the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition? You would probably feel the same about the doctors that lived three hundred years or more before your time. Because they didnít know about the danger of germs, their surgical instruments might only get cleaned when they were left in the rain, so imagine how dangerous an operation must have been. And they didnít have anesthetics, either; ouch!

    Thanks to antiseptics and antibiotics, most of the minor infections that killed people in ancient/medieval times are childís play for todayís doctors and nurses, and minor operations donít have to be life-threatening. Modern dentists can make sure most of your teeth donít rot out of your head before you reach the age of thirty. In addition, you can take vitamin supplements to avoid deficiency diseases like scurvy, rickets and beriberi. And in a worst-case scenario where you lose a limb, or are born without one, you can get a prosthesis that works nearly as well as the real thing, or even a transplant.

  3. You live longer. This ties in with the previous item. Before the nineteenth century, life expectancy for most people was forty or less. Back then, you would be considered blessed if you lived long enough to see your grandchildren. In Tudor England, for example, you stood a good chance of getting killed by drowning, house fires -- or sugar.

    Worldwide, life expectancy is now 67.2. In the United States it is 75 if youíre male, 80 if youíre female. Therefore you are likely to enjoy at least thirty more years than most of your ancestors did. "Fifty Shades of Grey" isn't just the name of a famous book anymore; it's also a description of the hair colors you can see in a modern-day workplace.

    Even cancer is a sign that we're living longer. Granted, having it is no fun, and I don't wish cancer on anyone, but the two most important factors that cause cancer are age and carcinogens. The longer you live, the more carcinogens you are exposed to; it's as simple as that. Even if you can avoid chemical carcinogens, you may develop cancer when one of your cells doesn't divide properly, or you are exposed to radiation from space (ultraviolet from the sun, cosmic rays, etc.). So in this imperfect universe, anyone who lives long enough will have cancer eventually. You can think of cancer as nature's last resort. The people who die from cancer today used to fall victim to smallpox, vitamin deficiencies like scurvy, and minor infections, but today's doctors have beaten most of those ailments. Anthropologists examining the remains of people who lived before the industrial revolution seldom find evidence of cancer, for two reasons--they came in contact with fewer chemicals, and they died of something else before cancer could appear.

  4. You travel faster and more comfortably. You can hop on a plane right now and be on the other side of the world a day and a half later. Whatís more, the speed of todayís transportation means you no longer have to live in the same community where you work. Before the industrial revolution, the speed of transportation was a constant; you could only go places as fast as feet, animals or ships could take you. Most people spent their whole lives within twenty-five miles of their birthplaces. How far are you right now, from the place where you were born? Case closed.

    In The Outline of History, H. G. Wells observed that Napoleon didn't move his armies any faster than Julius Caesar did, more than 1,800 years earlier. After his disastrous invasion of Russia he fled from Vilna to Paris, a distance of 1400 miles, in 312 hours; this makes for an average speed of less than five miles an hour, though he had every conceivable advantage to keep him moving. Napoleon fought his wars just before the first railroads were built; not only did the railroad speed up transportation, but because ordinary people could afford to travel on it, it revolutionized the lives of everyone.

    Sure, we complain about traffic, bad service on airliners, etc., but it beats weeks of suffering from saddle sores, sore feet, or seasickness. Back in the day, the best you could hope for on a long trip was a bumpy stagecoach ride. And consider how in the past, many ships were lost at sea, and many travelers were intercepted by barbarians or highwaymen; youíve got a better chance of arriving safely at your destination.

    In my case, I live in the eastern United States. I can fly to Oregon with three movie DVDs, and be in the Portland airport before I have finished watching all of them. Compare that with how people traveled to Oregon in the 1840s. You're probably familiar with the computer game about what the trip was like, when those making the trip ran the risk of starvation, dysentery, Indian raids, or drowning in an ice-filled river.

    Oregon Trail dysentery screen.
    One hazard you won't have to worry about, when flying to Portland.

  5. Instantaneous communication. For most of history messages, like transportation, could only travel as fast as a person or animal could carry them.† Today you can know more about somebody on another continent than you do about your next-door neighbor.

  6. Your food is better. The typical supermarket is a marvel of modern economics. Even in the middle of winter, you can go there and find a far greater variety of food than most people have had over the ages. In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, the average person lived on bread, onions and beer most of the time; meat was a special treat. By contrast, todayís grocers offer food items that canít be grown locally, or are out of season in your area. Recently I heard some environmentalists telling us to buy only locally grown foods, to cut down on the amount of fuel needed to bring them to market, but you have to admit our diets will be much poorer if we do that.

    Dorito tweet.

    And you should be thankful you have a refrigerator. That way your food stays fresh much longer than it used to, and you donít have to cover your meat with spices to hide the fact that it is past its prime. True, in the past food didnít have growth hormones and other additives, but if I am willing to pay extra, I can go to a health food store and buy food without the chemicals.

    Also keep in mind that over the course of history, most of our crops have been taken from their native lands and successfully grown elsewhere. For instance, there once was a time when only Southeast Asia had rice; do you think you would have recognized Chinese or Indian cuisine back then? Likewise, chickens and their eggs were only known in Asia before 1000 B.C.; if you lived anywhere else and wanted eggs for breakfast in those days, you probably would have gotten duck eggs, turkey eggs, etc. The biggest introduction of new foodstuffs happened after the discovery of America; it has been referred to as "the Columbian Exchange." Imagine Italy without tomatoes, Ireland without potatoes, Madagascar without vanilla, Thailand without chili peppers, Florida without oranges, or South America without coffee, and you will realize what a difference this made.

    A map of the Columbian Exchange.

    Quick now, what is your favorite fast food? Chances are that if you lived far enough in the past, you would never taste it, even if you were a great king. Hamburgers, French fries, and fried chicken are all nineteenth-century inventions. The Italians were making pizza as early as the Middle Ages, but of course it couldnít have tomato sauce on it before they discovered tomatoes. The place to sell those items also first appeared in the nineteenth century. Credit for the invention of the fast-food restaurant goes to an English baroness, Angela Burdett-Coutts, who got the idea that workers would eat a better lunch if they could buy fried potatoes and fried fish at the same establishment; that is how the English discovered fish & chips!

    A few years ago, the Hungarians produced a commercial which asserted that they had a delivery service before they became civilized. But even if this is true, you can be sure they didnít have as many items on the menu as they have today.

  7. You can be entertained 24/7. For most of history, any form of entertainment required a live performance. Usually this meant watching musicians, jesters, jugglers, and acrobats; for a dramatic performance, you went to a theater to watch a play; for sports, you went to a stadium, racetrack, or whatever venue was appropriate. Well, thanks to our ability to record and store pictures, video and sound, you can watch/listen to those events any time you want, whether or not any entertainers are available. When I was a kid, I needed a record player or radio (neither of which was portable) to listen to music; now I carry my whole music collection on a device that fits in my pocket. And if you want to listen to the same song a hundred times, or watch the same game a hundred times, thereís nothing stopping you. Finally, our ancestors had access to just a few forms of entertainment in any given place; they might only get to see one sport, for instance. By contrast, radio, television and the Internet give us access to entertainment from almost anywhere in the world; e.g., I can listen to bhangra if I get tired of bluegrass music.

  8. You can read, period. Before the invention of movable type printing, books were prohibitively expensive because each one had to be copied by hand. And when people wrote with hieroglyphics rather than with a simple alphabet, it took twelve years just to learn to read and write. I believe that the reason why schools used to concentrate on teaching the three "Rs" ("reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic") is because by the time the typical student mastered that, he was grown up and there wasnít much time left to learn anything else. All this meant that in ancient and medieval times only a fraction of a nationís population could read and write. The highest pre-modern literacy rate I have seen was 30 percent, for people living in the cities of the Roman Empire; in most cases single-digit figures would have been more likely. Schools and libraries in those days were usually run by the state religion, because most of the people who could read were priests and monks. That is why the terms "cleric" and "clerical" used to be associated with the Church, but now have to do with accountancy. On a positive note, the low literacy rates virtually guaranteed a good job for anyone who could read. So if you were transported back in time and could master reading in the language of whatever place you reached, you would have an automatic advantage over the other job-seekers.

  9. The world's knowledge is at your fingertips. Not all of it, of course, but if you have Internet access, the lion's share of it can be reached with a few mouse-clicks. It wasn't that many years ago when we had to go to a library to do most of our research; I have fond memories of spending many hours in libraries during my younger years. Do you remember the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf gets the idea that Bilbo's ring is one of the magic rings Sauron made, and to find out for sure, he rides many miles on horseback? In the library of Minas Tirith, we see him going through stacks of old books and loose parchments, reading whatever he can find about the One Ring. Fortunately, the libraries I have used were better organized than that. And according to J. R. R. Tolkien's notes, Middle Earth was about the size of Europe, so a journey from the Shire to Minas Tirith would be like traveling from France to Greece. Unless Gandalf used some magic to speed up his horse (and neither Tolkien nor Peter Jackson gave us reason to believe he did), his research trip, including the return to the Shire, would have taken at least a year.

    Thanks to the Internet, we no longer need real-world libraries to do research. Appropriately, my first Internet experience was in a library, back in 1986 or 1987. My professor was telling the class about a service named Compuserve, and how great it was to have it. To demonstrate what Compuserve can do, he took us to the university library, and logged in to a bulletin board, so we could see the comments other Compuserve users had typed about Frank Herbert's last novel, Chapterhouse: Dune. I was only vaguely aware of what he was talking about, but it did seem to me that the authors of those comments were having a good time. Little did I realize how much that would change our lives, just a decade later.

    I bet you haven't visited a library much, since you got access to the Internet. In recent years, the only times I have set foot in a library was to take advantage of their wi-fi connection, like when the Internet wasn't working at home. My guess is that the main reason libraries are still in business is because some people are still not "wired" at home, even now.

    You may think that you can find anything with Google and Wikipedia. This isn't true, but you're close. And with smart phones and tablets, we can access those websites from almost anywhere. Case in point: a couple years ago, I was in Oklahoma, sitting with a bunch of other people from Kentucky and Indiana, and I casually mentioned that in Florida, the fireflies don't have yellow lights like Kentucky fireflies--they have blue lights. The guy next to me said he majored in entomology, whipped out his smart phone, and looked up blue fireflies to make sure I wasn't pulling his leg! In the past, he would have had to hit the books, either in a library or in a set of bound encyclopedias at home, to verify my statement; imagine how much time and effort that would have taken, by comparison.

    Having unprecedented access to information is a mixed blessing, though. For a start, we have needed to develop new skills to get it. I remember when I taught a computer class for educators, each semester I would spend two or three sessions on how to find things online. Second, a lot of the information on the Internet is worthless; there are even websites devoted to information you may never use. I trust you know by now that you can't believe everything you read or see online (e.g., see the picture below of Abe Lincoln with his iPhone!). Third, because of the ability to post links, it is dreadfully easy to get distracted while surfing the Web. We have all gone online to find one thing, and ended up wasting hours looking at other interesting things we found, that had nothing to do with the first item. This may be the information age, but it's also the age of information overload!

    Abe Lincoln using his iPhone.

  10. You have "First World problems." These are things people only get upset about if they live in the wealthiest, most advanced nations. Problems that people in the Third World would kill to have. Stuff like "My dinner got cold because I took too long to find something worth watching on Netflix," "I bought coffee but I forgot to swipe my loyalty card, so I had to pay full price," and "My wrist is sore from opening Christmas presents."

    If you're in a developed country, you may have noticed that a lot of problems people complain about these days fall in the "First World problem" category. Especially on college campuses, where students fuss about "microaggressions," not enough "safe spaces" where they can avoid hearing opinions they don't like, seeing the names of politicians they don't like written on sidewalks with chalk, the shortage of black people winning Oscars, or food that is "racist" because white people prepare ethnic dishes from parts of the world where nonwhite people live. Funny, no one calls it "cultural appropriation" when my Asian wife tries her hand at cooking "white" recipes. So if you're upset about things like these, or if you think "affluenza" is a real illness, congratulations!

All things considered, I'll venture to say that if they could, even some of the god-kings of the ancient world might be willing to trade places with us. What do you think?

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