Dragon Chasers

Dragons are notorious teases. It is well known that dragons can recognize someone that they have only met once, and one meeting with a dragon is all you ever get. They are creatures of novelty. At best they are bored if you attempt to find them again, and their lairs are strewn with the bones of the victims of obsession.

The ones who don’t waste away on their quest to find the dragon they once met; well it is hard to tell if they are lucky or not. The only people who find the dragon a second time are killed by him. See, the dragon doesn’t care about anyone. The only reason he doesn’t kill at first contact is the dragon’s interest in a new obsessor.

Personally, I never cared to see a dragon. While it is rare he kills someone who sees him for the first time, the thought of being that close to a two-ton fire breathing monster terrifies me. And then suppose I become obsessed? Lots of people think they can just find the dragon once and be done, but there’s a dark magic in dragons that we don’t completely understand.

When I first met Akamu, I didn’t know he had ever met a dragon. He had a job and a hut, and seemed to be just a normal island boy. But Akamu didn’t want to hide anything from me. One day I met him at his hut, and we walked back to mine. I could tell he was nervous, and finally he spoke up.

“I should probably just turn around now,” Akamu said, “You won’t want to hang out with me when I tell you, but… I’ve met a dragon.”

I was surprised. Akamu didn’t look like the typical dragon chaser. They tended to become so obsessed with catching their dragon that they forgot to eat. And most of them had scars and burns from close calls with dragons.

“I haven’t gone on an expedition in six months,” he explained. “All the same, most people don’t want to associate with dragon chasers.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” I said. “If you’re done with dragons, I want to stay friends. But if you ever decide to chase the dragon again, I won’t hang around.”

I had known others who were killed by a dragon after trying to catch him, and didn’t want to watch that happen to someone I cared about.

Everything was fine for a while; Akamu and I swam in the ocean, and hiked up mountains. Akamu heard that a friend of his had been killed by a dragon, and this was tough for him.

We laid under palm trees, we basked in the sun. Akamu found out that another friend of his had been eaten by a dragon, which made him very sad.

I had to go out fishing on a boat for a week. Akamu and I knew we would miss each other, but it was only a week. When I got back on the island I ran to Akamu’s hut to say hello.

Akamu was staring at a chart of the island, eyes darting back and forth across it. His hair was longer and messy, and he was much skinnier, more skinny than it would seem possible to become in only a week. He didn’t look like he had gotten much sleep either. He just furiously scribbled notes. He was planning another expedition to catch the dragon he once met.

“Just go,” Akamu said to me, “I can’t stop now. Hearing about my friends… it was too much to think about. But when I am chasing the dragon, I don’t think about anything else.”

I didn’t understand. How could he be comforted by his quest for the dragon, when his friends had died engulfed in the dragon’s flames?

Another lonely week passed, but island wisdom says there is not much we can do for dragon chasers; they have to abandon their obsession on their own. Then, when I was walking in the woods, I saw flames shoot into the sky. I ran towards the fire to find Akamu huddling crouched outside his hut, while it burnt to the ground. Akamu had a burn on his arm.

“He was so close!” Akamu said. “The dragon was so close I could almost touch him.” He started to cry. “I can’t do this! I don’t want to chase him anymore, I wish I had never met that dragon!”

I helped Akamu up, and we started walking back to my hut. He wanted to take a different path, so we walked up a hill, and over a cascading river. Around the corner he stopped and looked toward some rocks.

“There’s a cave in there.” Akamu said. “That’s where I first met him. Sometimes he returns here, and you can see him flying over the valley”.

His eyes were glazed over, and he seemed to forget the world around him as he stared into the cave. A song about dragons came to him, and he smiled as he hummed it. But I didn’t smile. I saw the cave drawing him in.

“Let’s go Akamu. This is the last time you should come here,” I said, and he agreed.

After spending the night in my hut, Akamu and I walked down the island until we came to the beach where small but well built huts were kept. The island people all chipped in to build these huts as far away from the mountainous dragon lairs as possible. Dragon chasers could come to this beach, and rest easy, knowing that they would not spot a dragon in the skies.

I let Akamu be, and after a few weeks, he was looking and acting like his normal self again. Akamu was grateful to me that I helped him abandon his dragon chasing quest. Since his hut had burned down, Akamu came to stay with me while he figured out the best way to move on, and not again catch the obsession with dragons.

One day, I heard Akamu get up early and leave the hut. I hoped that he was going to find another job. When he returned he seemed distracted and aloof. I was suspicious but didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

But then in the middle of the night, I heard a rustling. I got up and found Akamu at the table, pouring over a map. It was labeled with the movements of his dragon, and the most likely places the dragon was to be found.

Akamu was surprisingly efficient at chasing the dragon. He was capable of organizing a fruitful expedition on a moments notice, with hardly any supplies. In fact he was so adept at chasing the dragon, it would have been a marketable skill… if there was a market for chasing dragons.

Akamu’s initial defensiveness quickly turned into sadness and shame.

“I don’t want this obsession,” he cried, “But I just can’t get away from it! I wish I never saw a dragon, it ruined my life.”

“But your life isn’t over, Akamu,” I said. “You are so young!”

“How can I get away from dragon chasing though? Everywhere I go I am reminded of him–his breath is in the camp fire; the glisten of the sun on the waves, becomes the shimmer of his scales. There is nowhere I can go, it is all I think about!”

“When we swam together you didn’t seem distracted. When we ran through the hilly trails, were you thinking about the dragon then?” I asked this dejected.

All the time spent with Akamu had been the best time for me.

“No,” Akamu said, “I didn’t think about dragons then.”

“I know I can’t replace what chasing the dragon gives you,” I said. “But can’t I be your reason to stop looking?”

“It’s not fair to you!” Akamu said. “Dragon chasers are playing with fire, we wrestle with a two ton monster! We can’t have people that we care about.”

“I care about you Akamu, I don’t have a choice in that.” I said. “If you can try to forget about dragons, I can be here for you”.

Akamu shook his head, “But this is what happens to dragon chasers! I can’t promise you I will never pick up another map and start another quest, all I can do is take it day by day.”

“Well, let’s start today,” I said, and walked with Akamu back to the huts on the other side of the island.

As I left and walked back to my hut alone with the setting sun on my back, I started thinking. This was the second time since I had known Akamu that he once again started chasing dragons. I told him that I couldn’t be around him if he continued, but then I didn’t follow through with my ultimatum.

Each time that Akamu went back to chasing dragons, I went back to chasing Akamu. But there was a relief in it. Something in me told me that I could make progress. Something told me if I kept chasing Akamu, then I could get back to the place where we happily began.

Was Akamu as elusive as the dragon he sought? Was I caught up in my own kind of obsession, desiring love from Akamu?

Akamu told me that if I’m involved with a dragon chaser, I can’t expect him to forget his obsession forever.

I told Akamu that if he’s involved with me, he can’t expect me to remember my obsession forever.


How is Wealth Created?

This is a hypothetical short story my Dad wrote a while back for my other blog to demonstrate what wealth really is. It is an interesting discussion of quality of life, and what it means to really create wealth.

Most would agree that America is a wealthy country, but what is wealth and how does it come into being?

It is tempting to think of wealth as piles and piles of money; however, history is replete with examples of worthless currency – Confederate notes at the end of the American Civil War, for example.

What about gold and diamonds? Precious metals and stones are widely accepted as having value, so this is closer to the mark; still, you can’t eat them. To live, humans need air, water, food, and some protection from their environment. We can probably agree that someone who must spend all of his time just to provide the bare essentials to ensure survival is not wealthy. So does free time equate to wealth? In a way, yes, but running around half naked and living in a grass hut does not meet the western vision of wealth, even if you do have only a five hour work week.

In the developed world, we tend to use our extra time, time left over after we meet our need for food and shelter, to increase our standard of living. We strive to obtain better food and more of it, more comfortable shelter, labor saving devices, various forms of entertainment and possessions that increase our sense of well-being. We also take steps to feel good about ourselves such as working for charities or running marathons. This is the essence of wealth: a high standard of living. The higher your standard of living, the wealthier you are. Even those who spend all their time acquiring this high standard of living are considered wealthy.

One could, and some do, argue that this is also the definition of the rat race, that we are not actually better off than our ancestors for all our accumulated wealth. The fact remains, however, that even the marginally wealthy can expect to live a long and healthful life without the threat of epidemic, starvation, being eaten by an animal, freezing to death, or being overrun by a barbarian horde. Thus our working definition of wealth will be a high standard of living.

So where does wealth come from?

Suppose you are stranded on a deserted tropical island with one other person, Alex. You both hunt and gather all day, every day, in order to stay alive.

But Alex is a better hunter than you, and you are a better gatherer. You get an idea; you offer to gather for Alex if Alex will hunt for you. Now, since you are both doing a job you do more efficiently, you have a little free time every day. With that time you develop tools for hunting and gathering, giving you even more free time. Your next innovation is to create fishing gear which you use to improve your diet, and since fish are plentiful, free up more time. With that time you make chairs, hammocks, shelters, and other comforts.

Specialization, cooperation, innovation and motivation have increased your standard of living. You created wealth. All the resources were already present on the island, but this did not raise your standard of living. It was your labor, both physical and mental, that transformed these resources into a higher standard of living.

Next, since life is now easier, you decide to build a musical instrument. It takes a long time. You work hard creating many prototypes that sound terrible. Finally you succeed! You now have music, another boost to your standard of living.

Your island mate would like an instrument too. You teach your friend everything you learned about making this instrument, but to no avail. Alex just does not have the talent required to make one. You are now wealthier than Alex. Your buddy knows how hard you worked to make your instrument and therefore does not ask you to make another. However, Alex is also better off now that there is music on the island. Your wealth benefits both of you.

One day you are walking the beach when you come across two more people who have washed ashore. Their names are Chris and Taylor. You and your island mate introduce Chris and Taylor to island life and get them fed and settled. You assume that, like you and Alex, Chris and Taylor will hunt, gather, fish, and build things. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Chris and Taylor are not very good at fending for themselves.

You and Alex now have a problem; you are spending part of your time to make up the difference between what Chris and Taylor consume and what they produce. Some of your wealth is being transferred to Chris and Taylor. But what can you do? You don’t think it is right to let them starve, so you keep helping them. Time goes by. Chris is still working hard and falling short, but Taylor is only making a half-hearted effort. Taylor’s attitude is “I eat whether I work or not, so why kill myself?”

Alex has had enough and refuses to help Taylor any more. That leaves just you to support Taylor. You are back to square one: working all day every day so that you, Chris and Taylor can survive. The wealth of the island is declining. You are the most productive but your excess goes to Chris and Taylor. Alex helps Chris, but not Taylor, so Alex still has time to create wealth. Your tools and comforts start to wear out and you don’t have time to maintain them. Alex is now the wealthiest, but the island as a whole is poorer. Then you get sick.

Chris and Alex take care of you. Without your support Taylor does not have enough to eat. Taylor has some cash and tries to buy food from Alex, but cash is useless to Alex on the island. The same goes for jewelry and other “valuables”; without an advanced society to create a demand for these items they are worthless. Taylor slinks off to the other side of the island. In time you regain your health.

But Taylor has a serious problem: no shelter, no tools, no companions and not enough to eat. Taylor needs to think of something quickly. Taylor was an accountant before being stranded. This is a valuable skill in an advanced society, but not on the island. Before being stranded Taylor liked to read books about sailing, ship building, and navigation. Taylor sets to work to identify sources on the island for the materials needed to build a sailing vessel.

Taylor returns with a proposal: “In exchange for food I will design a sailing vessel and direct its construction.” Now Taylor has something to trade: knowledge. Taylor knows the important aspects of ship design. Taylor can identify suitable materials. Taylor can navigate by the stars. You, Alex and Chris agree.

With Taylor’s leadership you build a boat and sail it to Hawaii. You have rescued yourselves. With the proceeds from a movie deal you each dramatically increase your standard of living.

You have learned some lessons:

Resources alone are not wealth. Resources must be converted to wealth with labor. The game must be hunted, the berries must be gathered, the fish must be caught, the wood must be cut and worked.

Skill is an important resource. All the other resources in the world are useless if the skill to convert them is not available.

Knowledge is a very important resource. The ability to stuff your head full of things you didn’t know before, recall them, and apply them to the situation at hand is valuable. It is important to note that you need not develop this knowledge yourself. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A written language confers a huge advantage. Knowledge can then be saved for posterity.

Specialization leads to efficiency. When people do what they do best, work gets done in less time. The remaining time can be enjoyed or used to increase the standard of living.

The ability to organize is valuable. People who organize often don’t appear to do much. Stuff can still get done without them. But just muddling through is often not enough. What would a car cost if a whole gaggle of organizers didn’t plan for every nut, bolt, wire and hose to be where it needed to be, when it needed to be there, at the lowest possible price? The answer: too much. This was the situation before Henry Ford applied the assembly line to auto production. Henry Ford did not build cars, he organized the building of cars. In our story Taylor did not build a boat. Taylor provided the knowledge and organization to build a boat. In the beginning Taylor was a drain, but in the end Taylor was the MVP.

There can be no consumption without production. This is obvious. In our story, on day one, no one can eat, or sleep under cover, or play music because none of this has been produced yet. Later, Taylor consumes what you and Alex have produced. In the end you invest some of your wealth (you feed Taylor) in Taylor’s boat project in the hope that you can get off the island. It was a risk; maybe Taylor didn’t really know how to build a boat. You were willing to take that risk and in this case it paid off.

Just as obvious is the fact that shuffling existing wealth around the island will not increase the wealth of the island. If Alex gets your musical instrument and you get Chris’s hammock and Chris gets Taylor’s chair and Taylor gets Alex’s spear, what has changed? There is still the same amount of wealth on the island, it is just in different hands. Maybe the new owners will make better use of these things, but probably not, otherwise the islanders would have traded amongst themselves or produced more of these things. Yet governments routinely take wealth from one group, give it to another group and expect that somehow the country will be better off.

To participate in commerce you must produce something that somebody else wants. On the island Taylor was not very good at manual labor. With just four people there was no need for an accountant. It was knowledge and organizational skills that Taylor was finally able to trade for food.

A rising tide lifts all ships. As the wealth of an area increases everyone benefits. When you made a musical instrument, but Alex couldn’t, Alex still got to hear the music you played. When your productivity exceeds your basic needs you seek out products and services that increase your standard of living. This gives others the chance to produce and fosters competition to supply these items. Competition leads to lower prices and more choices. Think of the things that at one time only the well off could afford. Cars, radios, TVs, stereos, cell phones, computers, travel… The list goes on and on. Now even the poor (in America) have all these things.

So where does the wealth come from? It comes from individuals who produce more than they need to survive and consume no more than they produce. In a perfect world, this would be everybody. On the island it was you and Alex. On the island Chris tried hard but fell short. Maybe in an advanced society Chris could do alright. Maybe Chris could be a doctor or an entertainer. We don’t know enough about Chris. On the island, Taylor was content to live off the efforts of you and Alex. When Alex balked and you got sick, Taylor was forced to find a way to contribute.

And what is the role of government? Government exists to protect the society as a whole from a common threat, and you as an individual from having force used against you. If you decide to buy insurance in order to share the risk of some catastrophe with others in the insurance pool, that is commerce. If Big Al sends the boys around to “convince” you to pay for “protection,” that is force. For society to get the maximum benefit each individual must be free to decide what to produce and what to consume. That individual must also live with the consequences of that decision.

Planet of Sound

In the center of the soundar system existed a behemoth sphere, its own gravity holding it together, referred to as the Sound. Tiny explosions of the gaseous star were relentless and loudly emitted from the Sound as waves; so loud in fact that the noise of the Sound waves reached easily to the third planet from the Sound, in the form of a hum. These explosions did not emit light, at least not enough to break free from the gravity of the star. But the sound waves penetrated the atmosphere of the third, wet planet, and the vibrations reverberated throughout the land and water. The explosions emitted noise with such intensity that the sound waves were still hot when they reached this planet.

No one knows how, but billions of years after this planet formed, life sprang from the crevices. People knew that the building blocks of life were water, and sound waves, but how it started was a mystery. People had been around for some time, though relatively short in terms of the age of the planet. They walked upright, had two legs and two arms, hands with which to feel, and a head on their shoulders. They had mouths to eat with, a nose to smell, and two big ears, that extended about two inches from the front of their face on either side and slightly above their noses.

Their ears were funnel shaped and could be focused in any direction within about 180 degrees of the direction a person was facing in order to hear what was around them. Relatively close, forward facing ears were a sign that people were trackers and predators: hunters in the old days. These ears were extremely sensitive and could pick up on the smallest noises. When the planet rotated every 24 hours and the Sound was out of hear, people would use artificial noise to listen where they were going. Their cars had head-waves to noisen up the path, so that they wouldn’t drive their cars off the roads.

By this time on the planet, science was advanced: everyone knew that sound waves and noise made everything around them hearable; the waves bounced off objects, and thusly told the ears where objects were. But so intricate were the ears that two seemingly identical surfaces could be distinguished based on their buzz. Ink of different buzzes (buzz was in fact just difference noise-wave lengths bouncing off physical objects at different frequencies) could be listened to, so that people heard words on a paper. A low frequency sound wave would show up hot like the Sound, and hum, while the quicker waves sounded cooler, like the sky or the ocean. Many thousands of years ago people managed to mimic the tiny explosions of the Sound, and created their own hum that kept them warm. At first people used hum to see where they were going, and cook their food, until more advanced methods became available.

People had light sensors on the sides of their heads; these were crude and only could distinguish general tones of light. People had developed a language to communicate; it involved emitting small bits of light from the mouth, in certain patterns. The brighter the light, usually the more excited or angry someone was. A typical greeting in one area was to emit a long stream of white light, then taper that into a short red light, finished with another quicker burst of white light. This meant hello, or good morning. When a particularly bright light was issued in a wide open space, sometimes the echo could be detected by the human light sensors, of the light bouncing off distant objects.

Crops were planted across vast fields where the Sound could easily reach unobstructed by hills or larger plants and trees. The leaves absorbed the Sound waves and audiosynthesized their nutrition when combined with water.

Sometime it proved quite convenient for one’s surroundings to be recognized by sound. People on this planet had no larynx, no vocal cords, and no voice box. In fact no detectable noise came from their mouths, only different shades and intensities of light for communication, created by a chemical reaction in the tongue. But if someone happened to find themselves in a quiet room with no sound or noise, unable to listen where they were going or hear what was around them, they could always clap their hands and emit short bursts of noise in order to catch a glimpse of their surroundings.

In fact most life on earth could hardly emit any noise at all. Only when it was very quiet would noise from walking or clashing objects show the area. In day-noise, the sound of clapping would not be heard. But there were some creatures deep in the ocean, and dwelling far underground in caves who managed to evolve with the ability to give off small bits of noise, like a hum. This helped them hunt prey attracted to the noise, or detect where the cave walls were.

There was a man in this world who had lost his hearing, but seemed to gain that much more skill in using his other senses. He could actually detect with his sensors the light he would emit from his tongue enough to artificially “hear” where he was going. The light would bounce back off of objects, and his sensors became so fine tuned that a blurry picture of the world emerged from only the light he emitted from his tongue in small bursts. He could not hear in such brilliant detail as his peers, but he could “hear” general sizes of the objects around him from the sensors collecting the light that bounced off of them.

Such a concept had never much been seen of before this man. Instead of hearing where he was going, and listening to the world, he had to try his best not to bump into things with only a bit of light bouncing back into his light sensors.

People were used to looking with their light sensors at what other people were flashing, in order to communicate. But the light detectors on the sides of this man’s head were used not simply for conversation, but for sight, for seeing the world around him, since he was unable to hear it.

What strides he had made, in a world were everyone else depended so much on hearing all that was around them.