Saturday, October 7, 2017

Midnight in the Oasis or Why Can't My Toyota Get Pregnant?

Currently the stock market is having a bull market, meaning that stocks are overall rising in price while the market generally has confidence that business conditions will remain favorable.  If stocks were mostly declining in price, we would call this a bear market. 

No one knows the precise origin of these terms, but there are a couple of good theories.  The most commonly quoted origin has to do with the differing ways the two animals attack.  Bulls spread their feet, lower their heads, then charge while thrusting their horns upward.  Bears, however, attack with powerful downward blows of their front paws. 

On the other hand, my favorite explanation goes back to the late seventeenth century and the start of the London Stock Exchange, which was originally just a bulletin board in a coffee house on which prospective businesses would advertise for investors.  When the business climate was good, there were lots of bulletins, or “bulls”—as opposed to times when conditions were less favorable, so that the board would be “bare”. 

That’s a cute story, and while I like it, I also doubt it.  It's not really important:  never let the truth get in the way of a good story.  Four hundred years from now, the recent presidential campaign will probably be regarded by historians as an urban legend while the movie Titanic will be considered a documentary. 

In any case, the wrong animal is being used to symbolize a good economic market:  it should be called, "a camel market".  After all, international trade was literally started on the back of a camel. 

Interestingly, the world’s camels all originally evolved in North America, which is now totally devoid of any wild camels.  While humans were migrating eastward over the Bering Land Bridge to North America in search of large game, some of that large game was migrating westward across the same bridge to Asia.  As the population of people expanded in North America (reaching roughly 100 million by the time of Columbus), horses and camels vanished completely from the new world.  While no one can prove it, they may well have not just emigrated to Asia but may have been hunted to extinction here by the new two-legged immigrants from Asia and their descendants, too.

It is strange to think of camels as "American", but in reality, they are more American than apple pie.  Apples originated in Central Asia (you know, where camels are still used).  That is just as well, since "American as camel pie" conjures up the wrong image.

In the Old World, the camel’s future was still in doubt.  The camel is slow and an easy target for all sorts of predators. While there are herds of feral (escaped domesticated) camels almost everywhere—half a million in Australia, alone—wild camels can only be found in the Gobi Desert.  After the brief experiment with camels in the American Southwest in 1859, feral camels were still periodically sighted there as late as World War II.

Camels would probably have become extinct had it not been for the camel’s ability to give milk.  That’s right!—Long before people rode camels, they raised them for milk, wool, and meat.  Camel milk is so rich that you can live on it for a month without any other form of sustenance and in Somalia, camels are still far more likely to be eaten than ridden.

Somewhere about six thousand years ago, people began milking camels and probably didn’t start riding them or using them to carry cargo until about 3,500 years ago. 

At this point, the camel assumed a new role—in international trade.  The Silk Road was the trade route that connected the Mediterranean to the Far East.  It was the trade route for goods from China, Korea, and Japan, passing through Central Asia (picking up those apples), then coming through India and the Middle East to the Greeks and Romans.  It was how the fortunes that could be made with land trade stimulated ocean travel and eventually led to the discovery of the New World.

Without the camel, it is doubtful that trade along the Silk Road would have developed as it did.  The distances were great, water holes and oases were few and remote, and the route was frequently too rough for horses and mules.  While everyone knows of the camel's ability to go days—even more than a week in an emergency—without water, few realize the true logistic efficiency of the camel.

One camel could carry 500 pounds of freight, and a single camel herder could easily handle eight to ten camels in a caravan, moving as much as two tons of cargo up to sixty miles a day.  Caravans crossing Asia frequently had as many as 500 camels.  The profits this trade brought prompted people along the route to construct caravanserais for the travelers.  If you are unfamiliar with the word, think "motel" but usually constructed with an inner courtyard for the protection of the camels. ("I'm Aladdin for Cameltel 6, and we'll leave the lamp on for you.”)

If you are like me, you can read all that and it sounds great….But, what does it mean?  I’m just a poor dumb ol’ country boy, and if I’m going to understand what I’m reading about the Silk Road, I need to put this in perspective.  I need numbers I can understand.

Historians who study logistics have a method of studying the relative efficiency of various forms of transport.  Saying that a camel could carry more freight than a horse doesn’t really tell you much, since you could always add more horses to your supply train.  A better method is to tell you how many miles a ton of material could be carried with a ton of fuel.  This is known as ton-miles per ton-fuel.  (Don’t worry, I’ll do the math for you.)

For a reference point, let us compare camels to wagons and steam-powered railroads at roughly the time of the American Civil War.  I‘m arbitrarily picking that date, since we are all at least a little familiar with the kind of wagons and trains used during that period.  Let’s compare those methods of travel to camels (AKA "ships of the desert").

A team of six mules drawing a wagon carrying 1.5 tons of supplies could travel approximately 333 miles on one ton of food, but since the mules aren’t traveling through Virginia, they will need to carry a lot of water with them.  Working mules need eight gallons of water a day, so the mules pulling that wagon will consume a quarter of a ton of water every two days.  After we do the math, that mule-drawn wagon has an efficiency of 180 ton-miles per ton-fuel—only 56 per mule.  In contrast, a Civil War-era freight locomotive could travel only thirty-five miles or so on a ton of fuel, but its payload could be as high as 150 tons, yielding 5,250 ton-miles per ton of fuel consumed. (Steamboats, incidentally, did even better.)

Okay, now, let’s look at camels:  A camel needs more forage a day than a mule, but can go days without water.  Accordingly, a camel can travel about two months on a ton of food, but can only carry about 500 pounds.  After we do the math, the camel gets an impressive 430 ton-miles per ton fuel!  A single camel is more efficient than two wagons and a dozen mules.  That means a dozen camels is as efficient as a steam-powered train. 

Let us look at this another way.  Just for fun, let us take the example of my Toyota Pickup.  I can carry 1000 pounds and get 15 miles per gallon.  Gasoline weighs 7 pounds a gallon, so a ton of gasoline is about 286 gallons and will allow my truck to go about 4290 miles carrying half a ton of cargo.  This yields a ton-miles per ton of fuel ratio of about 2143.  This makes my truck only as efficient as 5 camels.  No wonder they are still using camels in the desert.  (On the bright side, my Toyota is about as efficient as 12 wagons and 72 mules, which explains why  no one is seriously using mules anymore.) 

One last point in favor of the camel.  While my truck has a radio, it cannot be milked or eaten in an emergency.  Nor is it capable of reproducing itself no matter how many times I let it play with other pickups.

1 comment: