500 years of globalism

A 3.7 magnitude earthquake shook my apartment building hard, woke me up and just like that I ended up making coffee and getting on the Internet. And long before you know it, I was watching a video talk by Thomas Joshua Cooper, an San Francisco- born artistic photographer, who now resides in Scotland. (His photos are here, here, and here.) He talked about his various journeys and many adventures, and the images he made. In his talk he mentioned about Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese adventurer, explorer, and sailor, who was the first to circumnavigate the Earth — going from the (west) Europe to the (east) Spice Islands (Now part of Indonesia.)

Unable to resist, I was soon reading about him on Wikipedia and other places.  He left Spain on August 10, 1519, at the age of 39. He set sail with 270 men and five ships. They returned to Spain in 1522, and only 18 made it back. Magellan wasn’t one of them — he died at age 41 in what is the modern Philippines. The crew never got fully paid, and the Crown made a little profit from the sale of cloves and cinnamon that was brought back. The Spanish Crown funded Magellan’s exploration, and the reward for Spain was a chance to get access to the riches that come from the trade of spices.

It would be fifty-eight years before pirate, and mercenary Francis Drake would circumnavigate the earth again. His backers who also included the Queen made a killing. His reward was a knighthood and a lot of money. When reading up on Magellan, Drake and other explorers, I saw the parallels between the modern world of investing in startups and the original explorations. The explorers, for example, got options in the discoveries and got a chance to get fairly rich from taking on a big risk.

These days it is fashionable to beat up on investors, but history reminds us that the power of the rich and the haves, their ability to invest, greed, and betting on new ideas aren’t unique. Silicon Valley didn’t invent them, though we might have added network-scale to that idea of risk-and-reward.  Back in the age of exploration, if you mutinied against the expedition leader, your head was chopped off. Now, you get fired, and no one ever knows why.

Today, we don’t explore the oceans or look for new lands. Instead, entrepreneurs look for these new lands, funded by not the crown, but other investors, but the rewards can be huge — ask the backers of Google and Facebook. The winnings papers over all sins, and yes, the investors who bet big on risk, tend to make big returns.

I got a little distracted, but was thinking about the first circumnavigation and wondering if that was the genesis of true globalism. We have come a long way — 500 years later, a USB-C cable I ordered on Native Union’s website takes less than 48 hours. It took Magellan to go around the world. I did that once in two weeks with stops in five different cities. Today, we are about two days away from being anywhere else on the planet — no matter how remote it seems. As my dear friend Liam Casey (founder of PCH International) says, “Today the world is smaller and more connected.”

To me, this is yet another example of the long arc of time, and the second, and third order impact of something brilliant isn’t too noticeable for a long, long time. By the way, this ramble is brought to you by a quake now forgotten. Have a beautiful day and see some of Cooper’s image online. He is brilliant — and from San Francisco.

January 16, 2019, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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