About my father, plate tectonics and non-linear thinking

My father passed away almost ten years ago. He was 76 years old at the time. Of course, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. That being said, I do remember he had difficulty accepting that gorges and valleys were the product of a river cutting down into its bed or, in the case of a valley, a glacier grinding down its floor and sides. In fact, he had actually difficulty accepting other ‘scientific truths’ as well.

Although he was not acquainted with the Himalayas, I must assume that he would probably also have reservations about the now generally accepted story of its formation: Tibet was once a fairly shallow sea, the Thetys Sea, separating the supercontinent of Laurasia in the north from Gondwana in the south, until about 50 million years ago, when India (a continental fragment of Gondwana) collided with the Eurasian plate (Laurasia). The Thetys Sea became the Tibetan plateau, and the collision zone is the Himalayan mountain range. The collision actually continues and so the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 to 10 mm per year and, as a result, the whole area is seismically extremely active still: here in Kathmandu, everyone is waiting for the next Big Earthquake which, according to geologists, is long overdue.

This is obviously more than just a theory: it is supported by evidence, such as the presence of marine fossils and abundant salt reserves in Tibet  (Tibet’s main export a couple of centuries ago), and scientists can actually observe the ongoing tectonic shifts with modern GPS technology. Still, it is mind-boggling and so I do understand the reservations of my skeptical father. In addition, I also note that the theory of plate tectonics only got general accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, when associated phenomena such as seafloor spreading could finally be observed. My father was entering the second half of his life by then and, hence, probably somewhat less ready to accept such theories, or at least less ready than today’s average schoolboy. [By the way, isn’t it amazing how recent most of our scientific understanding actually is? Think, for instance, about the discovery of the Higgs particle, which completed our understanding of matter and energy (or of the universe in general), or think about the recent advances in biology and medical science, which revolutionized our understanding of life itself.]

I guess one of the main difficulties in my father’s understanding of it all (apart from his lack of a more formal education beyond secondary school) might have been his lack of understanding of geological age. What is 50 million years after all? That’s a lot of time of course, but is it enough really to create something as big and as vast as the Himalayas?

Maybe it helps to note that adding a zero, or a digit, to a number is not a matter of simply adding a quantity to another quantity: it is a matter of multiplying the previous quantity. In our common base 10 number system, it is a multiplication with factor 10. Moreover, adding another zero is another multiplication and, importantly, it is not a multiplication of the original number but of the previous result. As such, it reminds one of the famous fable of the king and the wise man, whom the king wanted to reward: when the king asked the wise man what he wanted, the wise man took a chessboard and said he would just like to have one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, double that number of grains of rice on the second square, and so on: double the number of grains of rice on each of the next 62 squares on the chess board. The king agreed, thinking that the man had asked for a relatively small reward, but after some quick calculations his treasurer informed him that the reward would be far greater than all the rice that could conceivably be produced. To be precise, the total number of grains would be equal to 263. That’s a figure with 19 digits. To be even more precise, the number is equal to 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Now, one kilogram of rice is about 50,000 grains of rice [yes: I know you think that’s not so much – but that fact in itself underscores once again our difficulty in imaging big numbers] so that number is equivalent to more than 184 billion (metric) tons of rice. The current world production of rice is about 700 million tons only. Hence, yes, the king’s treasurer was right: at current rice production rates (which are much higher now than at the time when this story was first told), it would take about 260 years to produce such amount of rice – provided the rice could be kept for such a long time.

Likewise, I think my father had difficulty accepting he could simply not imagine what a period of 50 or 60 million years actually means. Our active life as a human being spans a period of some 60 to 80 years. From 60 years to 600 years… Well… That brings us back to the Black Death epidemic, or the Hundred Years War. We can imagine that, can’t we? Sure. But can we imagine a period of 6,000 years, or a period of 60,000 years? I don’t think so, let alone a period of 600,000 years, or periods spanning millions of years. It’s like the king who could not imagine how much rice he had promised to give the wise man.

The following graph may help to illustrate the point. It displays an exponential function with base 10. The graph below actually only goes to 10 raised to the power of 5, i.e. up to 100,000 only. Now see how that graph soars, and then just note that we are not talking 100,000 years when we talk geology, but millions of years. Indeed, adding zeroes to a number is a process of repeated multiplication (with a factor 10 in our decimal system), and repeated multiplication amounts to exponentiation. I must assume my father always had linear functions in mind when thinking about time and distance, as opposed to exponential functions. Indeed, despite all of the talk about us human beings thinking non-linearly, can we actually do that – in a mathematical sense? I don’t think so. In daily life, we’re used to adding stuff, and perhaps even to adding stuff repeatedly (i.e. multiplication), but we’re surely not used to multiplying stuff repeatedly with itself, i.e. our mind is not very familiar with the mathematical process of exponentiation.


How and when does man appear on these vast geological timescale? Well… The first traces of man go back 200,000 years ago. Now, 60 million years… Hey ! That’s only 300 times 200,000 years, isn’t it? So we can imagine that, can’t we? 300 times 200,000 years. Perhaps my father was right: that surely cannot be long enough to create something as formidable as the Himalayas, or the Alps for that matter? Or can it?

Yes. Read the story above once again: don’t make the mistake which that naive king made – and my father most probably too. I don’t think we can imagine a period of 200,000 years, let alone a period of 60 million years. Our mind is just not made for it. We need fables and graphs such as the one above to remind us of that. When it comes to math, our mind works linearly.

On climate change and global warming

The flash floods in Uttarakhand (and in other areas of the Himalayas – but the burst of a glacial lake made things worse in Uttarakhand) and the increasing number of freak weather phenomena in Europe and the US (such as Europe’s extraordinary cold spell this year, or this year’s record number of hurricanes in the US) have given the issue of global warming a prominence which it did not enjoy before. While that is good in itself, I do not expect it to have any real impact on international and national policies. As one expert puts it: “At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings.” While this expert (his name is Anthony Leiserowitz), after having stated this obvious fact, then passionately makes the case for some kind of New World Order, I think it is entirely unrealistic to expect these decisions and behavior to change over the next decades.

While I was travelling from Nepal to Belgium a few days ago (do politicians sincerely believe that a tax on aviation emissions – the IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change – will change the travel plans of people like me – or you?), I had a pleasant conversation with a representative of a major European lamp producer (yes, lamps: the bulbs you are using to light your house). He just came back from a visit to a factory in Chandigarh, India, to which his company had outsourced the production of their energy-saving light bulbs. The man obviously liked his job – a quality which I greatly admire: because a job is so important in one’s life, I think one should really be passionate about it. That being said, the economist in me quickly grasped the irony: we, in Europe, are now saving energy by using energy-saving light bulbs produced in an Indian sweatshop. What’s the energy saved here – if we’re looking at it from a global perspective?

This is obviously only possible because the costs of international transportation have come down so much, and because markets have effectively become world markets. Even labor has become an international commodity now, as anyone who has traveled through a Middle Eastern airport will have noticed: these airports would not be there if it weren’t for the cheap Asian workers they are exploiting – people who are separated for their country and family for at least a year or even more.

I should write a separate post on this but it is clear there are societal costs to the increased international mobility of labor at both ends: domestically we lose jobs and suffer high unemployment – a key ingredient of social malaise – while the temporary or permanent immigrants do earn good money but struggle with integration and other psychological issues and – in the majority of cases – also leave a gap in the social fabric back home (as I live in Nepal, I could tell more than one story about this – but then this post would be way too long). But, again, humanity – despite all of the forms of collective action it is capable of – will not reverse globalization: it does not want to – and even if wanted to, it can’t.

Indeed, the trends we have observed since the end of the second World War will not change. The costs of international transportation will continue to decrease (and, if they would increase – because of rising energy prices or because of some kind of international tax (no, don’t think about it) – they will not increase significantly) and markets – for products, for capital and, importantly, for labor – will become more, not less, integrated. More importantly, no international deliberations will be able to request or force developing countries to not become developed: cities like Mumbai or Kathmandu (or Kabul, if you want a more outlandish example of a burgeoning urban area) will continue to grow, and the ‘middle class’ in all of Asia’s and Africa’s countries will continue to grow and want what they want: a refrigerator, a TV, and a motorbike (or, better, a little car). That will continue to fuel global warming.

European or American politicians are utterly unable to do anything about this. So, yes, the ice sheets covering the Antarctic and Greenland, and the Arctic sea ice, will continue to melt. And, yes, many island nations (the Maldives, the Kiribati islands, the Seychelles,…) and even some nations (Bangladesh – and large parts of Holland!) are under threat. And, yes, there will be more disasters like the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ of June this year (which killed thousands), or like the tornadoes in the US (which killed dozens), or like the floods in Central Europe – which damaged thousands of homes.

Global warming and its consequences are here already – and it’s only going to get worse. As usual, some will be more affected than others. But history has never been equitable – and humanity has never been able to change its course. We will soon be 7 billion. It will only get worse.

On Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

One of the articles in the latest edition of Time Magazine (I am not a regular reader, but so what else does one read on the plane?) is devoted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Indeed, in this globalized world – with all its crises and more and more people getting involved in them – it would seem that it has become a societal problem in the US.

Apart from the usual talk about the problems and horror which soldiers and development workers have witnessed in a war zone, the article also notes that a large part of PTSD is not related to the difficulties of dealing with bad memories but – quite simply – with the fact that, once you get out of the zone, you no longer have a feeling that one is part of a grander design, that it’s like you’re not trying to make this world a better place any more.

The few people who asked me about how I’ve dealt with bad memories (from Afghanistan, or from my work in Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami) should not bother. I would say that we all see very bad stuff all of the time really (the media around us offer no shelter from horror) but that seeing one of our relatives or friends suffer from an incurable disease (like terminal cancer), or that losing a kid in an accident (or worse), brings much more mental and psychological trauma than the scenes of carnage and disaster (especially because, both in virtual or real reality, the repetition of such scenes numbs you anyway).

I think PTSD is more like a personal crisis of sense-making. In my view (but, of course, I can only talk from my experience only) it has a lot to do with the fact that, while one was trying to do good in some incredibly remote place (but often for very selfish reasons: money, a sense of adventure, ego,…), one neglected friends and family, which makes it difficult to re-connect and find the kind of joy which we should all be striving for in our life, and that is to be a meaningful person for our kids, our parents, our larger families and our friends and relatives. It may sound strange, but it took me a long time to accept that I would not be able to change the world and, more importantly, that I should simply try to do a better job when it comes to taking care of those are close to me. I am still not there actually, but I am trying.

I am getting married. I am so happy life is giving me a second chance to do better.

Afghanistan: another post-mortem analysis

The row between President Karzai and the US which accompanied the much-delayed opening of a ‘political office’ by the Taliban in Doha a few days ago, the continued attacks on Afghan and international security forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s immediate focus on an exchange of prisoners as talks between the US and the Taliban seem to be getting underway (five Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one US ‘prisoner of war’ held who knows where) all show that the Taliban have no intention of yielding any concessions: not to the US, and surely not to the current Afghan regime.

That is not much of a concern for the current US administration as Barack Obama had made it clear, even before his first term as US President, that he just wanted the US to cut the losses – in lives and in treasure – and disengage as soon as the Taliban could offer reasonable assurances that they would not abet international terrorism. Hence, as soon as they’ll do that (and, of course, we’ll trust their word – even if there’s no ground whatsoever for doing so), the US will be happy to cut a deal.

As for national terrorism, well… Who cares? It is obvious for all those who want to see (but then many do not) that since the worldwide War on Terrorism started, US interventionism – or international interventionism in general – has not much to show for in this regard. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are hardly stable, with hard-line Islamic groups threatening whatever improvement was made in terms of political and civil rights as the Arab Spring fanned out. As for Syria, well… As much as I deplore the bloodshed there (the conflict in Afghanistan looks pretty insignificant in comparison), Barack Obama is right in not committing to a military intervention. [If the EU thinks it can help by arming the rebels, let them do so – even if it is not a wise move in my view.] The fight in Syria is a full-blown Islamic war between Sunni and Shia Muslims – and Syria’s minorities, Christian or other, are being crushed in the event. Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s gut feeling about the conflict is correct: stay out! If the West would truly care about human rights and democracy, it should intervene in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, the Taliban’s ambivalence about negotiations – or its outright inflexibility I should say – should obviously worry Karzai, as well as his family and friends and supporters. Let me be straight: I have some sympathy for him. In fact, I admire him – but to some extent only. We should all admire him, if only because Afghan kings and presidents usually end up murdered. More importantly, Hamid Karzai’s personal history is full of bravery and sacrifices – although I do agree that does not justify his erratic behavior.

So what is my prognosis as to Afghanistan’s future? I doubt Afghanistan will hold presidential elections next year. I think President Karzai – who cannot be elected for yet another term according to Afghanistan’s Constitution – will just say it’s too costly and too dangerous for people to vote, and so he will just call it a Loya Jirga – as he did before – and ask the carefully selected ‘elders’ to confirm he can continue without going through the trouble of national elections. And then he’ll preside over another phase of gradual disintegration – one of the many which have marked Afghanistan’s history. Or he might be murdered. Or, else, perhaps I am wrong and there will actually be some kind of elections through which Afghanistan would get another leader – an outcome which the US would surely like to see. Would it make any difference? I don’t think so. Under Afghanistan’s constitutional system, the President is both Head of State as well as Head of Government – which is just one of the many flaws in the current set-up which ensures its non-sustainability – and so that’s a sure recipe for disaster in my view.

The truth is that the Bonn settlement did not integrate the losers of the US-led War in Afghanistan – and now that this War is obviously over (the US got tired of fighting it) – these losers are back with a vengeance. So we’re in for another decade of trouble there. But, again, I think it’s clear to all now that Washington does not look at that as much of a concern anymore: it’s of concern to the Afghans only.

So what went wrong? Well… Washington finally got it: Afghanistan requires a political solution. The problem is: Washington’s decision-makers understood this way too late and so, yes, Washington’s negotiators are basically negotiating the terms of retreat now – if not surrender – and there’s nothing honorable about it.

As I spent more than four years in that country, I pity my Afghan friends. They do have the right to feel betrayed. I also pity those families who have lost relatives there, and those who lost limbs or got permanent trauma – physical or psychological. We all fought an impossible battle there (I myself spent more than four years there)… And that’s the only thing we can be proud of. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

As for Karzai, perhaps he can find himself some safe place to go to. His family got rich enough and so money is not an issue. But perhaps he’ll prefer harakiri. Or perhaps he’ll get murdered. Or perhaps he’ll clear the way for a successor. All of that would be honorable – or, at the very least, more honorable than what the West is currently trying to do – and that is to just get out – regardless of the loss of face and lack of morality it implies. […] But then honor is not something that matters in the post-modern world we’re living in, is it?

Nepal and Olympic mountainbiking

Nepal’s delegation to the 2012 Olympic Games consisted of five athletes only:

  1. Two runners (Tilak Ram Tharu and Pramila Rijal): both could participate (in the 100 m sprint event) because they had gained two ‘universality places’ from the International Association of Athletics Federatons (IAAF). As one could expect, they did not make it into the quarterfinals. [I am not saying this to demean their performance (Tilak clocked a time of 10.38 seconds) but just to acknowledge a well-known fact: Olympic competitors who have not made it through the regular qualification events rarely make the podium.]
  2. Two swimmers (Prashidha Jung Shah and Shreya Dhital): both could participate (in the 50 and 100 m freestyle swimming races respectively) because they had also gained two universality places from the International Swimming Federation (FINA). They also did not advance into the quarterfinals.
  3. One shooter (Sneh Rana): she could participate (in the 10 m air rifle event) because Nepal had been given a wild card in shooting. She also did not advance very far.

While there have been times when things were better (Nepal had some more horses – including boxers and weightlifters – in the Olympics a few decades ago), no athlete from Nepal has ever won an Olympic medal. So do Nepal’s MTB riders stand a better chance? And, if so, how can we make the most of this chance?

Mountainbiking was introduced as an Olympic discipline in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. While this is fairly recent as compared to more established Olympic disciplines (such as running and swimming indeed), one cannot say it is something new. Indeed, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) will see the sixth Olympic mountainbike championship races. Olympic mountainbiking is actually a specialty within the more general mountainbiking discipline. More specifically, the International Cycling Union (UCI) refers to it as the ‘Cross-Country Olympic’ (XCO) discipline and its regulations dictate the format of such races: the course of an Olympic format cross-country event must be between 4 and 6 km in length, and the duration of the race is between 1 hour and 30 minutes and 1 hours and 45 minutes. Indeed, riders who need more time are usually being lapped by the faster riders and, hence, are to be taken out of the race according to the UCI regulations (which is what happened to the participants from China and Guam during the 2012 Olympics). In addition, there is also the so-called 80% rule: any rider whose lap time is 80% slower of that of the race leader’s first lap is also to be pulled out of the race. Finally, technical problems may also force a racer out (this is what happened to the French racer Julien Absalon during the 2012 Games, who was one of the favorites for the podium).

How does one get into the Olympic MTB races?

It is very likely that the UCI will use the same qualification system for the Rio 2016 Games as the one it used for the 2012 and 2008 Olympics in London and Beijing respectively. This system is based on a two-year period of qualification, at the end of which 50 men and 30 women get a rider spot. The majority of these 50/30 rider spots are allocated based on the national rankings as tallied by the UCI. These national rankings are, in turn, compiled from the UCI points which the top three individual riders for each nation accumulate over a season as they participate in UCI-sanctioned races.

There are various types of UCI-sanctioned MTB races: world championships, world cups, continental championships (such as the Asian MTB Championship Race which took place in Chengdu in May this year), national championships and – importantly – ‘various other’ (such as one-day MTB marathon races or multi-stage races). However, it is important to note that the race needs to be sanctioned by the UCI – i.e. one has to get the race on the UCI International Calendar – before it will earn the participating riders any points. Without going into too much detail, it is probably useful to note that organizing a UCI-sanctioned race costs a lot of money and takes a lot of effort. That is why Nepal’s so-called National MTB Championship – the 12th edition of which was organized by the Nepal Cycling Association in Pokhara in March this year (in both the Olympic cross-country and downhill disciplines) – is not a UCI-sanctioned race: among other things, it would require the presence of UCI officials, loads of prize money and plenty of other fees and costs – all of which are meticulously spelled out in the so-called ‘UCI financial obligations.’ While Nepal’s Cycling Association has to be applauded for organizing the Nepali national MTB championship races every year (two disciplines are included: XCO and downhill), it is unlikely it will have the financial capacity to make it a UCI-sanctioned event in the very near future. That is probably a reality we should just accept for the time being.

The good news is that Nepal, through the combined efforts of the Nepal Cycling Association and Himalayan Single Track, does actually have a few UCI-registered riders, who actually have been collecting UCI points this year (as well as last year) – even if there are no UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Nepal (or anywhere near to Nepal even). To be precise: Nepal has four MTB riders in the UCI’s official Mountain Bike Ranking (Narayan Gopal Maharjan, Aayman Thing Tamang, Buddhi Bahadur Tamang and Mangal Krishna Lama) and their participation in the 19th Asian MTB Championship in Chengdu last month (11-12 May 2013), which was sponsored by Himalayan Single Track, earned them 26, 16, 14 and 12 UCI points respectively. Hence, as a national team, they gathered 56 points for Nepal (the points for a national team are calculated by summing the points of the three best riders only), which results in Nepal being ranked no. 66 out of the 79 countries which are registered with the International Cycling Union and, hence, which can join UCI-sanctioned races. There are other good racers as well, including Ajay Pandit Chhetri and Rajkumar Shreshta, both regular winners of MTB racers in Nepal and nearby (e.g. in India, Thailand and Bhutan recently) – but so they are not on the UCI list.

In short, there is plenty of potential. The bad news is that being the 66th is good, but not good enough. Indeed, as mentioned above, only 50 men, and only 30 women, can join the Olympic MTB races. In addition, the better ranked national teams can send more racers and, hence, these better ranked teams take rider spots away from those countries which are lower down the ranking. To be precise, for the men, nations ranked 1st through 5th can (and will) send three mountain bikers to the Olympics; the 6th through 13th ranked nations will send two; and, finally, the 14th through 24th nations will send one rider each. So these 24 nations alone will get 42 riders spots (5×3 + 8×2 + 11×1) out of the fifty. For the women, it is a similar system.

Just to put things in perspective: Slovakia’s team, which is currently 24th in the UCI MTB Ranking (and, hence, which would just be good enough to send only one rider to the Olympics under the current system), has 665 UCI points. Again, this is not meant to demean the efforts of all involved but to present the facts and figures: Nepal’s top riders need to race more and finish better. Just to give an indication of the challenge, one should note that the winner in a UCI-sanctioned national championship gets 110 points, i.e. twice the total points of all riders of the Nepali team taken together. Or let’s take Belgium – whose position is somewhat more secure, as its team is currently 14th in the ranking: it has accumulated 1281 points in the 2013 season so far (this has been written on 18 June 2013) and its three riders (Kevin Van Hoovels, Jens Schuermans and Sebastien Carabin) are ranked no. 30, 61 and 68 in the UCI ranking respectively and participate in a UCI-sanctioned race every two or three weeks – with varying results but usually finishing pretty good.

Can Nepal advance to Slovakia’s or Belgium’s level in the short term? Maybe, but my guess is that it is not all that likely. So what can Nepal do if it would not be able to advance to the top 24 countries?

Well… There’s eight spots left out of the above-mentioned fifty, so Nepal could vie for those. Indeed, African, American, Asian and Oceanic nations who did not qualify riders based on their country’s ranking could qualify riders for the 2012 Olympics MTB race based on individual rankings from their respective 2011 Continental Championships. Indeed, the top two ranked men and the top ranked women from each Continental Championship, if not already qualified through their nation’s rankings, could also go to the Olympic Games. In other words, if Nepal’s riders would be able win the 2015 Asian MTB Championship races (first or second position for male riders and/or first position for women riders), they would also be able to go to the 2016 Olympics.

Unfortunately, Nepal’s best rider (a real hero as far as I am concerned, if only because other national racing teams in that race were able to give their champions a lot more financial and logistical support) during that race ended 23th only. He clocked a time of 1 hour and 46 minutes which, again, is good, but not good enough, as it is 20 minutes slower than the time of the winner of that race (Kohei Yamamoto from Japan): this difference amounts to a performance gap of about 20%. So what should be done? In my view, Nepal’s Olympic hopefuls should follow a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers join more UCI-sanctioned races.
  2. Make sure that Nepal’s top racers in those races finish better by organizing more races at home (i.e. in Nepal).

Let me detail these two complementary lines of attack somewhat further below.

1. Gathering more UCI points

The cheapest way to gather more UCI points is to send Nepal’s top MTB racers to more UCI-sanctioned races. Alternatively, one could also organize one or more UCI-sanctioned races Nepal (first of all the national championship: most national teams gather a fair amount of points in their own national championship races) but, as mentioned above, that costs heaps of money because (a) you need to pay for a UCI team of officials monitoring the race, because (b) prize money will be UCI-regulated (and, hence, fairly high), and because (c) there are other many other fees and costs (calendar fees, registration fees, etcetera) to be paid to the UCI, all on top of the costs of organizing the race itself, which are also fairly considerable in light of the additional technical and organizational conditions.

Unfortunately, there are not that many UCI-sanctioned races in Asia so it is not a matter of just looking across the border. Indeed, while there are hundreds of UCI-sanctioned MTB races in Europe, there are only a handful of UCI-sanctioned races in Asia, and travelling to Europe is obviously not so cheap. There is also the visa issue for Nepali riders, which is probably as big as an obstacle as the money barrier – if not bigger. That being said, it is probably the way to go – if we can find the money that is, and if we can solve the visa issue.

Of course, the disadvantage of this fairly exclusive focus on a top-notch ‘Team Nepal’ is that, well… Let’s be frank, it really doesn’t pay to bet on more than three to five riders, because a country’s UCI ranking (and, hence, its Olympic ranking) is based on the UCI points gathered by its top three riders only. So this approach benefits a few riders only – while of the rest of Nepal’s MTB potential is left untapped.

In addition, one should also bear in mind that other countries which are close to Nepal in the UCI MTB ranking (such as Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, etcetera) will obviously try to do the same in the coming two years (every country nurtures Olympic dreams), and these other countries may find even more money to send some more racers to UCI-sanctioned races thereby increasing their chances to accumulate points more rapidly than Nepal.

2. Doing more races in Nepal itself

The second leg of Nepal’s Olympic MTB strategy should be to ensure that more young riders are competing, and that they are competing more regularly. This can easily be done by organizing more low-cost events in Nepal itself as part of a genuine regular national MTB competition.

Races are relatively simple to organize in Nepal: the Kathmandu Valley is just the ideal ground for doing such stuff, and there is also not much of a fuss about insurance, for example. Another advantage is that people (including the media) are generally very supportive. So it only takes a few individuals to quickly get something together. Indeed, a national championship race – as part of a national championship race series – could be organized every month, instead of every year.

More regular races would ensure there would be constant pressure to perform on the above-mentioned elite ‘Team Nepal’, which is good: the elected ‘Team Nepal’ should indeed feel some ‘heat from below’. In short, the organization of regular low-cost races is, in my view, an essential building block in the competitive MTB racing scene which Nepal’s Olympic Committee and Cycling Association would need to further cultivate.

That being said, it does require some money as well: the prizes need to be attractive in order to ensure that Nepal’s riders will want to join, and train for, these races.

In fact, it should be possible to combine both legs of the above-mentioned strategy in my view: (i) as mentioned above, a regular series of national championship races could be organized, and (ii) the prizes for the top five riders of the series could be the sponsoring of their participation in a UCI-sanctioned race abroad, including but not limited to the Asian Continental Championship races. Such approach would build both upon (a) the current tradition of the annual Nepal National Championship Races (XCO and downhill disciplines), which is organized by the Nepal Cycling Association (but not UCI-sanctioned), as well as (b) the current efforts of Himalayan Single Track – which I admire tremendously – to find the required funds for a fully fledged Nepali Riders Fund consisting of truly elite racers which can bring Nepal where it wants to be: in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

An added advantage of combining both is that a series of national championship races – as opposed to the current one-day event – would allow the Nepal Cycling Association to also build up a national ranking system for riders, under which riders would accumulate national (i.e. non-UCI) racing points over a series of national (i.e. non-UCI sanctioned) events. This would ensure more consistency in the selection procedure for ‘Team Nepal’ (if the national championship race is a one-off event only, the risk of illness, a technical defect or an accident may eliminate riders who wouldn’t be eliminated in a multi-stage approach) and it would also ensure that eligible riders would invest even more in training than they are already doing now – which should improve performance as a whole. Finally, such approach would also allow the concept of teams to be integrated into the local MTB scene here. For example, the various MTB outfits in Kathmandu could each form a team, and a team ranking could be made based on the individual rankings – not unlike the way the UCI ranks nations based on the performance of the individual riders.

Is this approach simplistic? I don’t think so. Why are small countries such as Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Estonia or Slovakia (no. 1, 2, 14, 18 and 24 in the current UCI national MTB ranking) so well represented in the rankings? In my view, it is not only because they are conveniently close to all of those UCI-sanctioned race events (or because these countries happen to be better off economically) but also because there’s a very active local mountainbiking scene, with plenty of very low-cost and low-key MTB racing events which all help to ‘feed into’ the bigger objective, and that is to send a handful of extremely well-trained and generously sponsored national riders to the 2016 Olympics. So Nepal should learn from how they do it in order to increase its chances of success for the 2016 Olympics.

Of course, one should also not forget the Asian Games, but for these the clock is ticking even faster: the next Asian Games are to be held in September 2014 already (in Incheon, South Korea).

What to think of Edward Snowden?

When the outcry over the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program broke out as a result of yet another whistle-blower (Edward Snowden) going public with classified information, I had just finished reading a book which, among other related topics, discusses the inevitability of such programs: ‘The New Digital Age’, written by Eric Schmidt, who leads Google, and Jared Cohen, a former adviser of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After extolling the increased efficiency, innovation, opportunities and better quality of life which comes with this ‘new digital age’, they also write that the “impact of the data revolution will strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in virtual space, and that will have significant consequences in the physical world.”

They then discuss the phenomenon of whistle-blowing in the new information age, focusing in particular on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and the fate of Bradley Manning, the source of much of the classified material which WikiLeaks made public. While they make it clear that they do not agree with Assange’s approach, and while they clearly do not have any sympathy for Manning either, noting that “lack of judgment around sensitive materials might well get people killed”, they also write the following: “How different would the reaction have been, from Western governments in particular, if WikiLeaks had published stolen classified documents from the regimes in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran?” Schmidt and Cohen then conclude that they “expect that future Western governments would ultimately adopt a dissonant position toward digital disclosures, encouraging them abroad in adversarial countries, but prosecuting them ferociously at home.”

This is obviously happening already today. Schmidt and Cohen are optimistic as to the impact of all of this for the future of our democracies. Indeed, they write the following: “While of this digital chaos will be a nuisance to democratic societies, it will not destroy the democratic system. Institutions and policies will be left intact, if slightly battered. And once democracies determine the appropriate laws to regulate and control new trends, the result may even be an improvement, with a strengthened social contract and greater efficiency and transparency in society.”

However, they also note that “This will take time, because norms are not quick to change, and each democracy will move at its own pace.”

I must admit that I am not so sure that ‘our democracies’ will actually move at all and, if they do, that they will move in the right direction. That’s why, for the first time, I actually reacted positively to the Avaaz petition which is currently circulating. I think the ‘lack of judgment’ of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange might indeed have endangered lives. However, for some reason, I feel that this Snowden guy is a different case. For starters, he’s incredibly naive – which is another reason why I think he deserves more sympathy.

On the death penalty

Gruesome murders, such as the recent brutal killing of a serving soldier in Woolwich by Islamic radicals (followed by an equally senseless attempt to kill a French soldier in Paris) or, worse, the 2011 massacre in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik (who was diagnosed to be ‘criminally insane’), usually reignite the debate on the death penalty. I find it interesting, because the debate involves an aspect of justice which is usually not being discussed openly: its retributive aspect.

Indeed, abolitionists neglect this aspect of justice completely. They argue – ad nauseam one might say – that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and, hence, that imposing or re-imposing it has no impact on crime rates. Most studies confirm that. In fact, public execution was generally known to increase (rather than decrease) violent criminality, especially at the time and place of executions – which is why executions were moved inside prisons and away from public view hundreds of years ago.

While such reasoning is essentially correct, it does not address the public call for social justice because the argument behind is that deterrence, rather than retribution, should be the main justification for punishment (hence, the death penalty should be done away with, because its aggressive application did not seem to reduce crime in the past). In addition, despite the introduction of advanced techniques in forensic science (such as DNA profiling), there is always the fear of a mistake. In the 12th century already, Maimonides – a famous Jewish philosopher – wrote that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” So this line of reasoning – which amounts to stating that errors of commission are much more threatening than errors of omission – also leads abolitionists to argue that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty should not be tolerated. Of course, because absolute certainty is obviously not of this world, it is equivalent to stating that the death penalty should be outlawed – which was done in most democratic countries, albeit it very recently in most of them.

I can see the point, even if I do not subscribe to the view that societies should eliminate all risk of errors of commission, because this will, inevitably, come at the cost of too many errors of omission. More fundamentally, however, I believe one cannot neglect the aspect of retribution in justice. In fact, one of the main reasons why some say that individuals such as Breivik or the Woolwich suspects should be executed is actually because these individuals do not seem to be afraid of any punishment – including the death penalty. Hence, the deterrence aspect of the death penalty – or of any alternative punishments, including the maximum sentence of life imprisonment (which, as we all know, is seldom fully implemented) – becomes irrelevant in such cases. In fact, this is what probably irks the public instinct most: the abolitionists’ argument, which focuses on the (non-)deterrence aspect only, misses the point. The death penalty is all about retribution indeed – and that’s why anyone debating it should address it. In fact, I think the emotional center of the debate revolves around it – even if few would dare to admit that because of reasons related to political correctness (which I will set aside for the moment).

Exploring the retribution aspect of the death penalty may well look like trying to walk down a very slippery slope. Let me therefore bring the discussion more down to earth: how would an abolitionist feel if his or her minor daughter was brutally raped, and then slaughtered afterwards (this amounts to committing a double or triple capital offence in those countries which still apply the death penalty)? I know, for sure, that I would like to see the perpetrator dead. Worse, I actually think I would be capable of killing the perpetrator myself – and probably rather slowly and in full consciousness of what’s going on, just like his or her victim. However, I also know I would rather see the offender punished through some kind of collective action – i.e. through a  case in court with, preferably, the involvement of a grand jury. Such thoughts have nothing to do with deterrence. They are all about retribution: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The real question is whether or not the individual is authorized to follow this principle. That is obviously not the case in most of today’s societies: it is generally agreed that such decisions should go through a justice system.

The ‘eye for an eye’ principle obviously sounds primitive and medieval. However, one should not forget that it was the foundation of the so-called lex talionis which is very much part of all Abrahamic traditions – Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Indeed, one forgets easily that Jesus only warned against excessive vengeance, not so much against the principle of retribution (call it vengeance if you want) as such. In fact, doing my usual superficial research on the Web, I was surprised to learn that the Vatican City only abolished its capital punishment statute in 1969 – so the Catholic Church is certainly not holier than Islamic traditions in this regard.

We all too easily forget that an important function of the state is to carry out justice on our behalf. As Hobbes pointed out: life without a government – the state of nature – would be a state in which each person would have a license to everything in the world, including the right to take revenge on someone else. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a bellum omnium contra omnes: a war of all against all. And so that’s why it makes sense to create a proper state – led by a government and governed through laws and regulations, including a justice system which, until very recently, usually included a capital punishment statute.

We should have a closer look at the very recent (and very particular one might say) context in which countries abolished the death penalty: most countries did so as part of a process of rather radical political change, when they shifted from authoritarianism to democracy. As such, the death penalty was often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights. Indeed, Amnesty International considers the death penalty to be “the ultimate denial of human rights.” It is equally often associated with political oppression. Such lack of nuance – especially the ‘denial of human rights’ claim – is totally out of place in my view, and it surely does not convince the crowd. Of course, abolitionists – elitists as they are – will argue that the opinion of the crowd should not matter. Well… Let me just note that a number of very democratic and very well-respected countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have integrated its clauses in their constitution and their laws while retaining the right to execute criminals: the US and Japan are probably the two most significant examples.

Of course, the case of China is also there, and I acknowledge it (even if most, if not all, executions do involve criminals there, not human rights offenders). That being said, I think it is extremely simplistic to suggest that the European Union would not be true to its democratic history and character if, one of these days, it would decide to do away with article 2 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights – which prohibits the use of capital punishment. Besides from reassuring Europeans that the EU is not there to eat into their rights as voters in sovereign countries (which, as we all know, is currently a rather big issue indeed), it would also make it easier for the EU to truly engage with its development partners. On the other hand, it is true that EU countries, if they would reinstate the death penalty (which, I know, they will not do any time soon) would also have a lot more difficulty trying to convince other countries not to apply the death penalty when the case involves one or more of their citizens: when everything is said and done, it would be difficult for, let’s say, the UK to convince Egypt or Indonesia to not execute British drugs smugglers caught red-handed over there if the UK would still have the death penalty in place. In fact, I am using the UK as an example, because the UK only formally abolished the death penalty in 1998, and it did so as part of its EU membership obligations only. Frankly, I find it hard to not see some degree of international opportunism here.

Let me be clear: I am a very staunch defender of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, I think its adoption was probably the most uplifting event in that eventful 20th century – and, of course, of its fundamental clause which states that everyone has a right to life – which should come with all that modern life involves: political, economic, social and cultural rights. I also need to state here that I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of having non-democratic governments and justice systems decide on who is to live and/or die in their jurisdiction. That being said, no right or freedom is or can be absolute. Individuals live in societies, and my freedom may end where the freedom of someone else begins: we all agree that we do not have the right to just go and kill someone else (let alone torture him or her before the murder). If they do, such individuals become criminals and, hence, some kind of collective body – representing what we refer to as society – may well decide to take some of their rights away: first and foremost their right to freedom (to ensure no further harm to the freedom of others is done) but, perhaps, also their right to live.

Of course, this assumes due consideration and due process – which ought to be guaranteed in a democracy. Indeed, criticizing China because of its capital punishment statue is fairly easy: China is not a democracy and, hence, as mentioned above, there is obviously more of a risk of a miscarriage of justice. However, criticizing the US or Japan for retaining the ultimate penalty in their legal code is a rather different matter. Executing criminals for the gravest of crimes, such as murder or sexual assault of minors (or the combination of both in one single heinous act), has nothing to do with deterrence: it is about addressing the public’s sense of social justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that “every human being has the inherent right to life” and that “this right shall be protected by law: no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Applying the death penalty does not arbitrarily deprive someone of his life. It is a legal decision made after much deliberation and – in democracies – only in very rare cases. Indeed, when it comes to specific cases, it would seem that most citizens in our democracies are able to unambiguously answer the most obvious of all of the difficult questions involved: does the criminal involved deserve to be executed, or should he be put behind bars instead? Make the question specific: what if your daughter or son would be one of the victims of an insane criminal? What if he or she would be the only victim? Would it matter?

If it does, you should probably adjust your opinion on the death penalty in order to be consistent.

Roads and development in Nepal

Much of the donor money which was spent in Nepal after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was spent on infrastructure. For tourists, the effort to build roads stands out, as many classic trekking routes have lost their charm because of the road-building drive. Indeed, it is not so nice to trek along a dirt road, or to see jeeps on dirt roads nearby bring the locals to the same place as the ancient trail you’re following – but in an hour or so, while you will be walking all day. According to the third Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS-III), which was carried out last year, not less than 94% of the Nepali population in rural areas now has access to a dirt road within 30 minutes. Access to basic health care centers, primary schools and other facilities also confirm a huge improvement since 2005/2006 (i.e. when the second survey (NLSS-II) took place).

The quality of these dirt roads is abominable. I biked along such roads between Trisuli and Gorkha, thereby avoiding the main highway Kathmandu to Pokhara (which I find too dangerous for biking), and then I also cycled further west of Beni and Baglung, in an attempt to cycle to Dhorpatan and then on to Dolpo. In the Indian Himalayas (I’ve biked through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Ladakh and Kashmir), I would easily cover 100 to 150 km per day. Not here: 50 km per day is a very good average. It’s not the gradient of the slopes: the Manali-Leh road has, most probably, the longest and steepest climbs in the world and, while they’re tough, I don’t mind. It’s the poor quality of the roads. Nepal’s dirt roads are extremely badly constructed: bulldozer roads really – extremely rocky, extremely muddy, or extremely sandy: it is difficult to move on them (the Census reveals that the population qualifies about a third of the roads as vehicle-impassable) and, if you do, it is at the expense of a lot of material wear and tear. Only jeeps, trucks and 4WD buses can go on them, and they break down too. As for me, I had to replace the whole drivetrain after the ride.

But so the roads are there, and they do bring cheap rice and other consumables from the plains. They also bring satellite dishes and TVs, along with other household investment items – but I am mentioning the satellite dishes and TVs in particular because of their cultural impacts. These cultural impacts are not very different from what happened in my home country forty or fifty years ago. My father was the first to buy a black-and-white TV, and the whole neighborhood came to gape at what they presumed to be the American lifestyle. They saw it in color later, which led them to buy their own TV. So that is happening here too (but the black-and-white phase is skipped of course). However, as an economist, I am more interested in the economic effect of these roads – i.e. the effect of the cheap rice and other consumables. What does it do to a village?

Economists tell us that better connectivity – i.e. not only roads but also mobile telephony – integrates markets and reduces transaction costs: roads make it cheaper to ‘export’ or ‘import’ goods and services from one region to another, and the phone makes sure you are not taking too much risk when doing so because price differentials (the price of a bag of rice in the nearest town for example) can be ascertained instantly. There are no surprises any more. Hence, farmers in the hills and mountains can sell their surpluses of rice, wheat or barley – or whatever they are able to sell – and buy cheaper… well… cheaper rice and wheat basically. Huh? How does that work?

It doesn’t. Cheap imports do reduce the incentive to produce food stuffs locally. It is a well-known fact that cheap food imports (e.g. cheap wheat flour) have a negative impact on local food production, changing consumption patterns (who eats manioc in Kinshasa nowadays?) and introducing dependency in the process. Economists do not look at that as a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a process of economic specialization during which countries or regions exploit their comparative or relative advantages vis-à-vis each other. Let me recall the basics of that theory: comparative advantage refers to the ability to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. There is no need to have an absolute production advantage. Even if one country (or region) is more efficient in the production of all goods than the other (i.e. if it has an absolute advantage in all goods – which is probably the case in Nepal: whatever product we are considering, it is cheaper to produce it in the plains than in the mountains), both countries or regions will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies. For example, if, using machinery, a worker in one country can produce both shoes and shirts at 6 per hour, and a worker in a country with less machinery can produce either 2 shoes or 4 shirts in an hour, each country can gain from trade because their internal trade-offs between shoes and shirts are different. The less-efficient country has a comparative advantage in shirts, so it finds it more efficient to produce shirts and trade them to the more-efficient country for shoes.

That’s the theory. So what products or services should be produced in the hills and mountain zones? What is their comparative advantage? In practice, the theory of comparative advantages and/or specialization does not work. If anything, it is labor which is being exported. Indeed, most people in the more remote areas are happy to stop cultivating their land, and families push their men and sons (and their able young women as well) to seek some kind of employment in Kathmandu or, even better, somewhere abroad. Yes, the equivalent of the American Dream in Nepal is to become a dish-washer in Dubai, a security guard in Kabul or a nanny in London (of course, women are also being offered more sinister possibilities for employment abroad: trafficking of women is a huge issue in Nepal).

The roads make it easy: your beloved ones can use them to visit you during the weekend when in Kathmandu (it only takes a dreadful journey on bus and/or by jeep), or once or twice a year when abroad.

The statistics don’t lie. The Census data shows that, over the past decade, Nepal’s population has grown from 23.1 to 26.5 million people but that, at the same time, not less than 27 districts (out of a total of 75 districts) recorded negative population growth during the last decade. [The Census uses the same nice economic euphemism: negative growth. Decrease doesn’t sound right I guess.] These 27 districts are all hill and/or mountain districts and, hence, the conclusion is quite straightforward: the newly built roads in the hills and mountain zone make it easy to leave. There are 17 districts with a population of less than 150,000 now, and they account for 6% of the population only (1.6 out of 26.5 million). All of the districts in the mountain zone (except for Sindhupalchok north of Kathmandu valley) have a population of less than 200,000 people. A quarter of the population now lives in a town (defined as a village of more than 20,000 people) or one of the larger municipalities.

The Census also took stock of the above-mentioned phenomenon of seeking employment abroad or in the capital: in one into four households, one or more members of the household are absent or working abroad indeed. The total number of such absentee family members adds up to close to 2 million people, as opposed to about 760,000 only a decade ago (i.e. in 2001). These people are currently the main breadwinners of Nepal – even if they’re not present in the country.

It is an inconvenient fact that economic development is, more often than not, disruptive and, hence, comes at the expensive of huge social-economic costs. Some win, some lose: one can only hope there are more winners than losers. In Nepal, however, the social costs of development seem to be enormous. Grandmothers or uncles and aunts take care of kids, as their father or mother is trying to earn some money for the whole family in Kathmandu or abroad. As they grow older, they will be sent to a private boarding school – if the family can afford it – because that’s the gateway to a job in Kathmandu or abroad. In the worst case, they will only make the army of the unemployed swell even larger. While Nepal’s social fabric has not broken down – as yet – the current political quagmire would seem to indicate that the system may be close to it.

But so what do the locals think of it all? That question is easy to answer. All of the people I met think the new roads are good: they bring development. So who am I to criticize?