Leftists should appreciate The Case Against Education

April 24th, 2018

Bryan Caplan argues that there are many results in The Case Against Education that leftists should appreciate:

1. Lots of workers — especially less-educated workers — are paid less than they’re worth.  If signaling is important, there are bound to be numerous “diamonds in the rough” — good workers who are underpaid because they lack the right credentials to convince employers of their quality.

2. Lots of workers — especially more-educated workers — are paid more than they’re worth.  Again, if signaling is important, there are bound to be lots of bad workers who are overpaid because they obtained misleadingly strong credentials.

3. A lot of education is meaningless hoop-jumping.  Campus radicals have long accused the education system of imposing an irrelevant, backward-looking, elitist curriculum on hapless kids.  I say they’re right.

4. The education market is inefficient.  In signaling models, education has negative externalities.  My story therefore implies a serious market failure, where self-interest leads students to pursue more education than socially optimal.

5. Locked-in Syndrome.  Due to conformity signaling, the market for education isn’t just inefficient; it’s durably inefficient.  The education market doesn’t just fail; it durably fails.

6. The government’s “ban” on IQ testing is grossly exaggerated, and does next to nothing to explain employers’ reliance on credentials.  While the Griggs case nominally imposes near-insurmountable hurdles on IQ employment testing (as well as virtually every hiring method), it is cursorily enforced.  Lots of U.S. employers admit they use IQ testing, and the expected legal costs of doing so are tiny.

7. Credential inflation is rampant.  Technological change explains only a small fraction of the evolution of the modern labor market.  The popular perception that workers need far more education to get the same jobs their parents and grandparents had is deeply true.

8. Working your way up takes ages.  While there’s good evidence that worker ability raises pay, the process takes many years.  If you’re smart but uncredentialed, even a decade of work experience isn’t enough to fully catch up.

9. In many ways, the labor market used to be better for people from poor and working-class families.  Sure, average living standards are much higher today than in 1950.  But in 1950, there was far less stigma against high school dropouts, and very little stigma against workers who didn’t go to college.  Moderns who look at college graduates from poor families and see “social justice” are neglecting the troubles of the massively larger number of kids from poor families who never get college degrees.

10. Forcing middle-class aspirations on everyone causes misery and failure for poor and working-class kids.  Lots of kids loathe school.  They’re bored out of their minds, and humiliated by teachers’ endless negative feedback.  Such kids disproportionately come from poor and working-class families.  But since the middle- and upper-classes control the curriculum, they’ve stubbornly moved to a “college-for-all” approach to school — and turned vocational education into an afterthought.  The result: Most poor and working-class kids endure thousands of sad hours, then leave school unprepared for either jobs or college.

Trader Joe’s eschews the long tail

April 23rd, 2018

What Megan McArdle and her neighbors love about Trader Joe’s is not a particular product, or even the store’s subtle hippie aesthetic, but its business model:

That business model can be summed up in two things: “private label” and “low SKUs.” Private label is self-explanatory; Trader Joe’s house-brands most of its products, which means they’re cheaper (no need to pay for all those national advertising campaigns).

But maybe you already realized that. It’s the low SKUs that really offer a hidden benefit to millions of unwary shoppers. SKU is an industry acronym for a “stock-keeping unit,” a.k.a. “one product.” The average grocer carries nearly 50,000 SKUs. Trader Joe’s, by contrast, carries only about 4,000. That’s an immense difference — though you’ll only realize how immense when you think through the implications.

Real estate, for instance. The new Trader Joe’s near my house is, by the standards of a Trader Joe’s, quite roomy, with wide aisles and lovely high ceilings. But compared to the local grocery stores, it’s still compact. In a dense, urban area like Washington, that’s a big savings on rent — which can be passed on to you in lower prices.

The advantages hardly stop there. When you only have a few SKUs, all of which have to earn their place on the shelf by selling briskly, you end up with less spoilage than a normal grocery store. Given the razor-thin margins typical of the industry, spoilage can be the difference between turning a profit and running into the red. Minimizing your SKUs gives you even more room to cut the prices on the products you do sell.


The thing about having 50,000 SKUs (or 100,000, as is typical of a Walmart) is that no employee can be familiar with more than a small fraction of them. It is not possible, in such a place, to deliver the kind of service that Trader Joe’s does. For example, the new outlet’s store captain, Rebekah Eagle, told me that the store regularly holds employee tastings to familiarize the staff with what they’re selling. A great idea, with a limited stock selection; not feasible in a conventional grocery. And since it is actually impossible for front-line workers at conventional stores to deliver Trader Joe’s-level service, it doesn’t necessarily make business sense to invest in the kind of training and retention policies that Trader Joe’s does.

The private-label branding allows Trader Joe’s to attract loyal customers with cheap prices. And the low number of SKUs allows it to generate extremely high revenue per square foot, enabling it to pay the rents even in expensively dense urban areas and to lower prices even further. It’s a pretty neat trick, if you can manage it.

The manner of their arrival was unscripted

April 22nd, 2018

On Friday 11th June 1999, at the headquarters of KFOR, the NATO army being assembled to act as peacekeepers in Kosovo, British Lieutenant General Mike Jackson, KFOR’s commander, and US Navy Admiral Jim Ellis, Commander-in-Chief of all Allied Forces in Southern Europe, met in a run down shoe factory just outside of Skopje, Macedonia. General Jackson’s men would begin to cross the border into Kosovo the next day — but it looked like someone else might beat them to the punch:

At about 10:35, the two men turned on one of the TVs in the operations room and tuned it to CNN to see how the press was reporting that breakthrough. What they saw instead amazed them. There, on the screen, were pictures of a column of about 250 troops and vehicles advancing out of Bosnia, with KFOR painted hastily on them. The voiceover helpfully explained that this was the Russian contingent of KFOR, which their sources said was heading to the Kosovan capital, Pristina.

This was news to both Ellis and Jackson — because KFOR didn’t have a Russian contingent.

“It was fair to say the manner of their arrival was unscripted.” Jackson commented later.

Before the two men could properly digest this, the main phone in the operations room began to ring. Simultaneously, the men realised this probably meant that the one person they didn’t want to see this footage yet almost certainly had.

When they heard the voice on the other end of the phone, this was confirmed.

“General Jackson.” Said Wes Clark, US General and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR). “You will secure Pristina Airport before the Russians arrive.”

The little green men have been at this a while.

Shotgun or sidearm?

April 21st, 2018

Shotgun or sidearm? This 1976 Sid Davis police training film for the Pasadena Police Department should help you decide:

Watch the first couple minutes, with the shootout and its immediate aftermath. How far away did the robber appear to be? And what kind of spread should you expect from buckshot at that range? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that pellets should not be hitting six feet off line at a couple dozen yards.

I was pretty surprised when they set up the scenario at the target range at “the same distance, about 50 yards.” OK, at that distance you should expect a fair amount of spread, but more like a four-foot diameter — which is still plenty dangerous on a crowded sidewalk.

The attitude toward revolvers is, well, it’s quite optimistic: “Most cops get a fair amount of practice with their sidearms, but they don’t fire a shotgun very often.” I especially liked this comment: “With his thirty-eight, Don would have hit only the suspect. One shot.” Yeah, a cop shooting a double-action revolver at 50 yards, while getting shot at, is going to hit the suspect with one shot?

Enjoy the whole thing.

Premodern and prenationalist

April 20th, 2018

India seems postmodern and postnationalist, Steve Sailer notes, but it might be more accurately called premodern and prenationalist:

India is the land of diversity, which is another word for inequality. India is kind of a subcontinental-scale version of a Democratic-ruled American city, such as Baltimore, where world-class talent such as Johns Hopkins resides side by side with intractable social problems.

India puts much of its effort into higher education, while allowing its mass schooling to be awful. Two Indian states tried the PISA test in 2009 and both scored at sub-Saharan levels, with the northern state doing even worse than the southern state. In math, Indian eighth graders performed at the level of South Korean third graders.

India’s ruling party at present is the strident Hindu nationalists under Prime Minister Modi, who are unfashionable in the West. They are trying to introduce the kind of old-fashioned patriotic indoctrination, such as playing the national anthem before movies, that Western countries adapted a century ago.

Good luck to them. You can see why they are trying so hard to instill the kind of national pride that the Chinese accomplished through violently throwing out the foreign devils. Indian infrastructure, for instance, remains shoddy, especially its shameful lack of sewage systems.

But that’s a small price to pay in the minds of American elite opinion for India rising above patriotism.

Another feature that makes our commentariat comfortable with India is that Indians don’t seem to be all that mechanically facile, perhaps especially not the priestly Brahmin caste, with whom Western intellectuals primarily interact.

And the Indians tend to be more verbally agile than the Chinese and more adept at the kind of high-level abstract thinking required by modern computer science, law, and soft major academia. Thousands of years of Brahmin speculations didn’t do much for India’s prosperity, but somehow have prepared Indians to make fortunes in 21st-century America.


Indians are made up of roughly three groups comparable to those who populated Europe since the last Ice Age. First came hunter-gatherers, then Dravidian-speaking farmers from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East (more Turkish for Europe, more Iranian for India). Finally, the Yamnaya steppe nomads, who were more or less the Aryans of 19th-century German racist legend, invaded both vast peninsulas.


In India, however, unlike Europe, the Aryan conquerors eventually imposed a stupendously elaborate caste system dividing the subcontinent into thousands of inbreeding jatis. While the medieval European system of Three Estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners) could conceivably have some deep Aryan ties to the four main castes of Hinduism, there’s little in Europe like the jatis.

Who are the Brahmins? They appear to be the descendants of Aryan conquerors who rigged Indian culture to keep their heirs on top for thousands of years. [...] In other words, some of the racist Aryan theories of European scholars have turned out to be partially correct.

It’s homogeneous, nationalist, and modernist

April 19th, 2018

In an age of postmodern postnationalism, China is old-fashioned, Steve Sailer suggests:

It’s homogeneous, nationalist, and modernist. China seems to have utilitarian 1950s values.

For example, Chinese higher education isn’t yet competitive on the world stage, but China appears to be doing a decent job of educating the masses in the basics. High Chinese scores on the international PISA test for 15-year-olds shouldn’t be taken at face value, but it’s likely that China is approaching first-world norms in providing equality of opportunity through adequate schooling.

Due to censorship and language barriers, Chinese individuals aren’t well represented in English-language cyberspace. Yet in real life, the Chinese build things, such as bridges that don’t fall down, and they make stuff, employing tens of millions of proletarians in their factories.

The Chinese seem, on average, to be good with their hands, which is something that often makes American intellectuals vaguely uncomfortable. But at least the Chinese proles are over there merely manufacturing things cheaply, so American thinkers don’t resent them as much as they do American tradesmen.

Much of the class hatred in America stems from the suspicions of the intelligentsia that plumbers and mechanics are using their voodoo cognitive ability of staring at 3-D physical objects and somehow understanding why they are broken to overcharge them for repairs. Thus it’s only fair, America’s white-collar managers assume, that they export factory jobs to lower-paid China so that they can afford to throw manufactured junk away when it breaks and buy new junk rather than have to subject themselves to the humiliation of admitting to educationally inferior American repairmen that they don’t understand what is wrong with their own gizmos.

Reich doesn’t yet have much ancient DNA from China (the Chinese government tries to limit high-tech grave-robbing to Chinese researchers), but the basics are evident. The mighty Han ethnicity, which Reich describes as “the world’s largest group with a census size of more than 1.2 billion,” originated among two separate peoples: millet farmers on the Yellow River and rice farmers on the Yangtze River.

But over the past 5,000 years or so, the two original groups have largely merged genetically into one Han race, so only a north-south cline is left.

Why? The Chinese seldom had many caste restrictions on marriage; the Emperor would assign China’s most eligible bachelors, his mandarin bureaucrats, to rule regions far from their families to cut down on nepotism; and China was gifted with excellent east-west water transport on its rivers, and augmented that with the ancient north-south Grand Canal, which runs for 1,100 miles.

That all contributed to blending together a rather genetically homogeneous nation.

This Chinese lack of diversity is out of style, and yet it seems to make it easier for the Chinese to get things done.

It’s hardly the megawatt monster military scientists dreamed of

April 18th, 2018

The U.S. Navy’s most advanced laser weapon looks like a pricey amateur telescope, and, at just 30 kilowatts, it’s hardly the megawatt monster military scientists dreamed of decades ago to shoot down ICBMs, but it is a major milestone, built on a new technology:

The mission shift has been going on for years, from global defense against nuclear-armed “rogue states” to local defense against insurgents. The technology shift has been more abrupt, toward the hot new solid-state technology of optical-fiber lasers. These are the basis of a fast-growing US $2 billion industry that has reengineered the raw materials of global telecommunications to cut and weld metals, and it is now being scaled to even higher power with devastating effect.

Naval Laser by MCKIBILLO

Industrial fiber lasers can be made very powerful. IPG recently sold a 100-fiber laser to the NADEX Laser R&D Center in Japan that can weld metal parts up to 30 centimeters thick. But that high of a power output comes at the sacrifice of the ability to focus the beam over a distance. Cutting and welding tools need to operate only centimeters from their targets, after all. The highest power from single fiber lasers with beams good enough to focus onto objects hundreds of meters or more away is much less — 10 kW. Still, that’s adequate for stationary targets like unexploded ordnance left on a battlefield, because you can keep the laser trained on the explosive long enough to detonate it.

Of course, 10 kW won’t stop a speeding boat before it can deliver a bomb. The Navy laser demonstration on the USS Ponce was actually half a dozen IPG industrial fiber lasers, each rated at 5.5 kW, shot through the same telescope to form a 30-kW beam. But simply feeding the light from even more industrial fiber lasers into a bigger telescope would not produce a 100-kW beam that would retain the tight focus needed to destroy or disable fast-moving, far-off targets. The Pentagon needed a single 100-kW-class system for that. The laser would track the target’s motion, dwelling on a vulnerable spot, such as its engine or explosive payload, until the beam destroyed it.

Alas, that’s not going to happen with the existing approach. “If I could build a 100-kW laser with a single fiber, it would be great, but I can’t,” says Lockheed’s Afzal. “The scaling of a single-fiber laser to high power falls apart.” Delivering that much firepower requires new technology, he adds. The leading candidate is a way to combine the beams from many separate fiber lasers in a more controlled way than by simply firing them all through the same telescope.

There’s much, much more.

Be careful this week

April 17th, 2018

Greg Ellifritz recommends that we be careful this week:

Terrorists and crazy people put a lot of credence in the importance of symbolism. Historical anniversary dates are important to them.

This week contains the anniversary dates of:

  • The Boston Bombing
  • The Columbine Shooting
  • The Virginia Tech Massacre
  • The Waco Hostage Siege
  • The Oklahoma City Bombing
  • Hitler’s Birthday

Dog training techniques work on children, too

April 17th, 2018

Dogs and children are surprisingly similar creatures:

Might dog training techniques then teach us something about parenting? Strictly speaking, this should work for human children up to age two to two-and-a-half, though so-called “super dogs” have mental abilities akin to a three-year-olds, says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at University of British Columbia and author of The Intelligence of Dogs.

“This works both emotionally and cognitively,” he tells Quartz, “so the techniques that will work for a two- or three-year-old child will work for a dog and vice versa.” By the time children reach age four or five, they begin to diverge from dogs by using language and intellect to reason things out.

Here are the recommended techniques (with edited-down descriptions):

Give them physical cues

Dogs require a consistent physical signal to focus their attention on a specific task or command. This is also true of human infants, who have been shown to learn better when prompted with social cues to direct their attention (for instance, turning our head or directing our gaze). “With children too,” Johnston tells Quartz, “it’s really important that you call their attention and signal to them that you’re trying to tell them something. Even infants are much more ready to learn when you use special cues.”

Know what they can and can’t handle

Typically children’s brains begin developing the capacity for self-control between the ages of 3 and 5, though the process continues until about age 11.

Dogs act out when their frontal lobes are over-worked. That’s why they chew up furniture or bark uncontrollably when left alone to simmer in their anxiety. This is also why young children throw tantrums at toy stores or while waiting for a meal at a restaurant.

“You figure how to engage him in an appropriate behavior before he engages in an inappropriate behavior.” In these situations, distracting a child before they act out is more effective than waiting to punish them.

Use positive reinforcement

In MRI scans of young children, neuroscientists found that negative reinforcement requires complicated reasoning that is difficult for their brains to grasp. In essence, small children fail to understand where they made the mistake. As they approach adolescence, though, negative reinforcement, which takes more complicated reasoning, becomes more effective, though scientists have yet to identify why this change in cognition occurs.

Model good behavior

Johnson recently conducted research at Yale University’s Canine Cognition Center that built on a previous Yale study of toddlers. In the previous study, the toddlers watched an adult run through a series of steps to open a puzzle box and get a prize. One of the steps was completely superfluous, yet the toddlers in the experiment did it anyway, without discriminating between what was necessary and what wasn’t. In Johnson’s study, dogs watched people go through steps to open a puzzle box and retrieve a treat. The people pulled one lever on the box that was irrelevant to the task. When dogs tried to solve the puzzle, they began to skip the lever step as soon as they learned to just open the lid instead.

Researchers believe that children meticulously repeat an adult’s sequence of steps because, unlike dogs, human socializing involves many behaviors that are not directly related to survival.

Run with their personality

“Kids are similar to dogs—at least before they can talk—because you can’t ask them questions. But you can ask them to make choices, and we can find out a lot about how they see the world when we use this method,” Hare, of the Dognition lab, says. “Some dogs are super communicative, while others might rely on their exceptional memories. You would teach these dogs in different ways, playing to their strengths.”

Guide them with calm, controlled authority

The rules vary based on a dog’s or child’s unique personality, but one thing must remain constant: the authority figure’s calmness and self-control.

When the press hates you, it doesn’t matter

April 16th, 2018

It seems to Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the conventional press is dead:

And let me give you the evidence: we did an embargo on the book [Skin in the Game]. We did this for several reasons. The first one is what I call the IYI syndrome. In the past, my targets in The Black Swan were academic/finance people.

In Fooled by Randomness, the targets were rich idiots. Who — anyway — by now are poor. But — a rich idiot at the time. So,  journalists, you see, they loved it: “Someone is going against power, and it’s not us.” So phase one, they loved it. Although I criticized journalism, they said I was criticizing someone else.

In phase 2, I went against economic people who use the bell curve… and statisticians. And again, journalists cheered.

Now phase 3 — phase 4 actually — I went after the classes of people that include some people who review books. Therefore, I did not want to give them the chance to play with the book.

So we did an embargo.

What happened in London is someone managed to get a copy of the book. And sure enough, in succession, on the publication date, you had The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Guardian trying to hammer the book.

In spite of that — or maybe thanks to that — the book was the best seller in London. Now, surprisingly, the book was not reviewed in the United States. Nobody heard of it. And guess what? It was also a big surprise in the United States.

Which tells us something: When the press hates you, it doesn’t matter. It’s a very nice experiment. You can bypass conventional media by staying in the online field.

I still think the cover of the book should have been a beaver, raccoon, mink, and chinchilla all playing cards.

Heat management is crucial

April 15th, 2018

If you’re not already familiar with “hard” science fiction from Atomic Rockets and Tough SF, this “Because Science” video on the truth about space war serves as a light introduction:

People can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face

April 14th, 2018

A new study demonstrates that people can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face, with decent accuracy:

Bjornsdottir and her co-author, psychology professor Nicholas O. Rule, had undergraduate subjects of various ethnicities look at gray-scale photographs of 80 white males and 80 white females. None showed any tattoos or piercings. Half of the photos were of people who made over $150,000 a year, which they designated as upper class, and the other half were people who made under $35,000, or working class.

When the subjects were asked to guess the class of the people in the photos, they did so correctly 68 percent of the time, significantly higher than random chance.

I think most of us — here, at least — would assume that the kind of people who become upper class are different from the kind of people who become working class, but what kind of academic paper would suggest that?

The effect is “likely due to emotion patterns becoming etched into their faces over time,” says Bjornsdottir. The chronic contraction of certain muscles can actually lead to changes in the structure of your face that others can pick up on, even if they aren’t aware of it.

When the researchers showed the undergrads photos of people looking visibly happy, they could not discern socioeconomic status any better than chance. The expressions needed to be neutral for the subtle cues to have an effect.

“Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” Rule told the University of Toronto. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

Finally, to show how these kinds of first impressions could come into play in the real world, they asked the undergrads to decide who in the photos would be most likely to land a job as an accountant. More often than not, they went with people from the upper class, showing how these kinds of snap judgment can create and reinforce biases.

“Face-based perceptions of social class may have important downstream consequences,” they concluded.

Ape-men and dactyloscopy

April 13th, 2018

When I first read Tarzan of the Apes years ago, I was surprised by a number of things, including how fingerprints were still seen as cutting-edge science in a novel from 1912:

The ape-man was anxious to proceed to America, but D’Arnot insisted that he must accompany him to Paris first, nor would he divulge the nature of the urgent necessity upon which he based his demand.

One of the first things which D’Arnot accomplished after their arrival was to arrange to visit a high official of the police department, an old friend; and to take Tarzan with him.

Adroitly D’Arnot led the conversation from point to point until the policeman had explained to the interested Tarzan many of the methods in vogue for apprehending and identifying criminals.

Not the least interesting to Tarzan was the part played by finger prints in this fascinating science.

“But of what value are these imprints,” asked Tarzan, “when, after a few years the lines upon the fingers are entirely changed by the wearing out of the old tissue and the growth of new?”

“The lines never change,” replied the official. “From infancy to senility the fingerprints of an individual change only in size, except as injuries alter the loops and whorls. But if imprints have been taken of the thumb and four fingers of both hands one must needs lose all entirely to escape identification.”

“It is marvelous,” exclaimed D’Arnot. “I wonder what the lines upon my own fingers may resemble.”

“We can soon see,” replied the police officer, and ringing a bell he summoned an assistant to whom he issued a few directions.

The man left the room, but presently returned with a little hardwood box which he placed on his superior’s desk.

“Now,” said the officer, “you shall have your fingerprints in a second.”

He drew from the little case a square of plate glass, a little tube of thick ink, a rubber roller, and a few snowy white cards.

Squeezing a drop of ink onto the glass, he spread it back and forth with the rubber roller until the entire surface of the glass was covered to his satisfaction with a very thin and uniform layer of ink.

“Place the four fingers of your right hand upon the glass, thus,” he said to D’Arnot. “Now the thumb. That is right. Now place them in just the same position upon this card, here, no–a little to the right. We must leave room for the thumb and the fingers of the left hand. There, that’s it. Now the same with the left.”

“Come, Tarzan,” cried D’Arnot, “let’s see what your whorls look like.”

Tarzan complied readily, asking many questions of the officer during the operation.

“Do fingerprints show racial characteristics?” he asked. “Could you determine, for example, solely from fingerprints whether the subject was Negro or Caucasian?”

“I think not,” replied the officer.

“Could the finger prints of an ape be detected from those of a man?”

“Probably, because the ape’s would be far simpler than those of the higher organism.”

“But a cross between an ape and a man might show the characteristics of either progenitor?” continued Tarzan.

“Yes, I should think likely,” responded the official; “but the science has not progressed sufficiently to render it exact enough in such matters. I should hate to trust its findings further than to differentiate between individuals. There it is absolute. No two people born into the world probably have ever had identical lines upon all their digits. It is very doubtful if any single fingerprint will ever be exactly duplicated by any finger other than the one which originally made it.”

“Does the comparison require much time or labor?” asked D’Arnot.

“Ordinarily but a few moments, if the impressions are distinct.”

One reason this all surprised me was that I was certain I’d read about Sherlock Holmes using fingerprints in much older stories — but Holmes was ahead of his time, and the stories weren’t quite as old as I’d assumed:

Conan Doyle made Holmes a man of science and an innovator of forensic methods. Holmes is so much at the forefront of detection that he has authored several monographs on crime-solving techniques. In several instances the extremely well-read Conan Doyle depicted Holmes using methods years before they were adopted by official police forces in both Britain and America.

Holmes was quick to realize the value of fingerprint evidence. The first case in which fingerprints are mentioned is The Sign of the Four (1890); Scotland Yard did not begin to use fingerprints until 1901. Thirty-six years later in the 55th story, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” (1926), fingerprints still figure in detection. In “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” (1903), the appearance of a fingerprint is the key piece of evidence in the solution of the crime. It is interesting to note that Conan Doyle chose to have Holmes use fingerprints but not Bertillonage (also called anthropometry), the system of identification invented by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris that pivoted on measuring 12 characteristics of the body. The two methods competed for forensic ascendancy for many years. By having Holmes use fingerprints rather than Bertillonage, the astute Conan Doyle picked the method with the soundest scientific future.

Fingerprints have a long history:

Jan Evangelista Purkinje (1787–1869), a Czech physiologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Breslau, published a thesis in 1823 discussing 9 fingerprint patterns, but he did not mention any possibility of using fingerprints to identify people.

In 1840, following the murder of Lord William Russell, a provincial doctor, Robert Blake Overton, wrote to Scotland Yard suggesting checking for fingerprints but the suggestion, though followed up, did not lead to their routine use by the police for another 50 years.

Some years later, the German anatomist Georg von Meissner (1829–1905) studied friction ridges, and five years after this, in 1858, Sir William James Herschel initiated fingerprinting in India. In 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta) he instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures and he registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. Herschel also fingerprinted prisoners upon sentencing to prevent various frauds that were attempted in order to avoid serving a prison sentence.

In 1863, Paul-Jean Coulier (1824–1890), professor for chemistry and hygiene at the medical and pharmaceutical school of the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris, discovered that iodine fumes can reveal fingerprints on paper.

In 1880, Dr. Henry Faulds, a Scottish surgeon in a Tokyo hospital, published his first paper on the subject in the scientific journal Nature, discussing the usefulness of fingerprints for identification and proposing a method to record them with printing ink. He also established their first classification and was also the first to identify fingerprints left on a vial. Returning to the UK in 1886, he offered the concept to the Metropolitan Police in London but it was dismissed at that time.

Faulds wrote to Charles Darwin with a description of his method but, too old and ill to work on it, Darwin gave the information to his cousin, Francis Galton, who was interested in anthropology. Having been thus inspired to study fingerprints for ten years, Galton published a detailed statistical model of fingerprint analysis and identification and encouraged its use in forensic science in his book Finger Prints. He had calculated that the chance of a “false positive” (two different individuals having the same fingerprints) was about 1 in 64 billion.

Juan Vucetich, an Argentine chief police officer, created the first method of recording the fingerprints of individuals on file, associating these fingerprints to the anthropometric system of Alphonse Bertillon, who had created, in 1879, a system to identify individuals by anthropometric photographs and associated quantitative descriptions. In 1892, after studying Galton’s pattern types, Vucetich set up the world’s first fingerprint bureau. In that same year, Francisca Rojas of Necochea, was found in a house with neck injuries, whilst her two sons were found dead with their throats cut. Rojas accused a neighbour, but despite brutal interrogation, this neighbour would not confess to the crimes. Inspector Alvarez, a colleague of Vucetich, went to the scene and found a bloody thumb mark on a door. When it was compared with Rojas’ prints, it was found to be identical with her right thumb. She then confessed to the murder of her sons.

Women clerical employees of the Los Angeles Police Department being fingerprinted and photographed in 1928.
A Fingerprint Bureau was established in Calcutta (Kolkata), India, in 1897, after the Council of the Governor General approved a committee report that fingerprints should be used for the classification of criminal records. Working in the Calcutta Anthropometric Bureau, before it became the first Fingerprint Bureau in the world, were Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. Haque and Bose were Indian fingerprint experts who have been credited with the primary development of a fingerprint classification system eventually named after their supervisor, Sir Edward Richard Henry.

The Henry Classification System, co-devised by Haque and Bose, was accepted in England and Wales when the first United Kingdom Fingerprint Bureau was founded in Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan Police headquarters, London, in 1901. Sir Edward Richard Henry subsequently achieved improvements in dactyloscopy.

In the United States, Dr. Henry P. DeForrest used fingerprinting in the New York Civil Service in 1902, and by 1906, New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Faurot, an expert in the Bertillon system and a finger print advocate at Police Headquarters, introduced the fingerprinting of criminals to the United States.

The Scheffer case of 1902 is the first case of the identification, arrest and conviction of a murderer based upon fingerprint evidence. Alphonse Bertillon identified the thief and murderer Scheffer, who had previously been arrested and his fingerprints filed some months before, from the fingerprints found on a fractured glass showcase, after a theft in a dentist’s apartment where the dentist’s employee was found dead. It was able to be proved in court that the fingerprints had been made after the showcase was broken. A year later, Alphonse Bertillon created a method of getting fingerprints off smooth surfaces and took a further step in the advance of dactyloscopy.

We used to own the night

April 12th, 2018

We used to own the night, but so many night-vision devices have fallen into enemy hands that we no longer do:

Taliban fighters, many now outfitted with night vision goggles and infrared lasers, have more than doubled nighttime attacks on Afghan and U.S. troops between 2014 and 2017, according to a new report from The New York Times.

This has presented U.S. military officials with quite the conundrum: Do we give more night vision to our Afghan allies to protect themselves, even if that gear has a good chance of ending up in Taliban hands?


The Pentagon sent 210 night vision devices to the Afghan National Army 215th Corps in Helmand Province, for example, but only 161 of them were returned. While the 215th Corps attributed the discrepancy to “battle losses,” according to the Times, it’s also quite common for Afghan troops themselves to dump their own gear on the black market to make a quick buck.

“Free reminder: almost every item issued to Afghan soldiers ends up in Taliban hands,” C.J. Chivers, a Times journalist and Marine vet, wrote on Twitter. “If U.S. opts for wide issue of night-vision equipment, within months the Taliban will have even more.”

This was entirely predictable.

To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it

April 11th, 2018

In January 2017, Ryan Holiday was offered a potential position inside the newly forming Trump administration as communications director for a cabinet member, and he surprised himself by even considering it:

In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist or simply endure the political rulers of their time. Socrates, the incorrigible free spirit, was a soldier in the Peloponnesian War and a citizen who lived through Athens of the Thirty Tyrants. Aristotle, who wrote brilliant works on justice, happiness and government, worked for Alexander the Great, a murderous warmonger.

Or consider the case of Seneca, a man whose political life mirrors much of the chaos of the Trump administration. In A.D. 49, the well-known writer and Stoic philosopher was recalled from exile to tutor the successor of the emperor Claudius, a promising teenager named Nero. Like many people today, Seneca entered public service with ideals mitigated by a pragmatic understanding of the reality of the politics of his time.

Although just a few generations earlier, the Stoics had been ardent defenders of the republican ideals (Cato, Seneca’s hero, famously disemboweled himself rather than live under Julius Caesar), by Seneca’s time most of these objections had become futile. As Emily Wilson, a translator and biographer of Seneca, writes: “Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Mark Antony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under whom he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.”

We can imagine, too, that he saw the inexperienced Nero as an opportunity to advance his own interests and influence. Only time would reveal that fusing his fate to Nero was a Faustian bargain.

Though Nero had good qualities, he was obsessed with fame and had an endless need for validation. He was also unstable and paranoid, and began to eliminate his rivals — including murdering his own mother. Was Seneca personally involved in these decisions? We don’t know. But he helped legitimize the regime with his presence, and profited from it as well, becoming one of Rome’s richest men through his 13 years of service.

Seneca was torn. To the Stoics, contributing to public affairs was a critical duty of the philosopher. Could Seneca decline to serve because he disagreed with the emperor? Could he leave a deranged Nero unsupervised? In time, Seneca would also come to the conclusion that when “the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.”

As Nero worsened, Seneca attempted to leave. Joining Nero’s administration was easy, but an exit was not. Nero could not afford to lose his most influential adviser, or allow the perception that someone as well known as Seneca was cutting ties with him. Seneca was granted a quiet sabbatical at Nero’s whim — the modern equivalent of a jointly issued news release.

Seneca had finally come to experience the truth of the words of the Roman poet Horace, whose work had greatly influenced him: “To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it; those who have, fear it.”


In a remarkable essay titled “On Leisure,” published after Seneca retired, the philosopher wrote in an oblique way about his own experiences: “The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.”

Removed from the day-to-day of Rome’s geopolitics (helping the many), he seemed to have a newfound appreciation for helping the few. Seneca seemed to realize only belatedly that one can contribute to his fellow citizens in ways other than through the state — for instance, by writing or simply by being a good man at home. There is some irony in the fact that as an individual, the famous letters and essays Seneca wrote would not only have a bigger impact than his work in politics but also in time would whitewash his contributions to a horrible regime.


Conspirators began to plot against Nero’s life, and Seneca, finally accepting that the monster he had helped create needed to be stopped, appears to have participated — or covered for those who did.

The effort failed but provided Seneca an opportunity: His life up to that point had contradicted many of his own teachings, but now when Nero’s guards came and demanded his life, he would be brave and wise. The man who had written much about learning how to die and facing the end without fear would comfort his friends, finish an essay he was writing and distribute some finished pieces for safekeeping. Then, he slit his veins, took hemlock and succumbed to the suffocating steam of a bath.

Another Stoic politician, Thrasea Paetus, who had chosen to challenge Nero while Seneca had collaborated, would ironically outlive Seneca by a year. His last words before his own death sentence: “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” This line had come from Socrates.