He has fangs and the capacity for violence

June 23rd, 2017

Josh Eells has written a rather unflattering piece on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the “Killologist” training America’s cops, for Men’s Journal:

After his talk, Grossman and I went for dinner at a nearby sports bar, where he told me about his life. He lives with his wife, Jeanne — his high school sweetheart — and their two dogs in a small town outside St. Louis, Missouri (as it happens, 45 minutes from Ferguson). He spends almost 300 days a year on the road, usually coming home one night a week for what he jokingly calls “a conjugal visit and clean underwear” before heading out again. His oldest son, Jon, runs a family-owned gunsmithing company; his youngest, Joe, helps manage the speaking business. His middle son, Eric, is an Air Force combat controller with nine combat tours and three Bronze Stars.


It was at Arkansas State that Grossman published On Killing, in 1995, to much acclaim. The Washington Post called it “an illuminating account of how soldiers learn to kill and how they live with the experience of having killed”; the New York Times called it “powerfully argued” and “full of arresting observations and insights.” The book even made fans in Hollywood: While promoting his World War II movie Fury a few years back, Brad Pitt told an interviewer, “If you want to better understand the accumulative psychic trauma incurred by our soldiers, read On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.”

Though Grossman calls himself a behavioral scientist, he is not a researcher in the traditional academic sense. He wrote On Combat, a study on how soldiers and police officers cope with the stress associated with deadly conflict, using what he calls an “interactive feedback loop” — gathering stories from combat veterans, then presenting the information to people he trains. He’s more of a Malcolm Gladwell type, compiling anecdotes and fashioning them into a digestible narrative. As his chief qualifications, Grossman cites the “body of information I’ve crafted over the years” and his ability to “speak from the heart.” “I truly am one of the best people on the planet in a couple of areas,” he told me. “Whether it’s preparation for a life-or-death event or walking the sheepdog path, I really feel like I’m the preeminent authority.”


In his famous sheepdog essay, Grossman talked about how sheepdogs can sometimes accidentally scare the sheep. The sheepdog “looks a lot like the wolf,” he wrote. “He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot, and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed.”

Death by whipped cream dispenser

June 22nd, 2017

Instagram fitness model Rebecca Burger was just killed by a faulty whipped cream dispenser.

Rebecca Burger at Santoo Villa in Bali

The top blew off, under pressure, and hit her in the chest hard enough to kill her. Yeesh. This is a recurring problem:

One French consumer group has warned readers for years about faulty connectors on the gas capsules, causing them to break and expel at high speed.

The injuries caused range from broken teeth and tinnitus to multiple fractures and, in one case, the loss of an eye, consumer magazine 60 Millions said. But the magazine says new dispensers made since 2015 appear to be safe.

In 2013, one victim of an exploding cream dispenser told RTL radio: “I had six broken ribs, and my sternum was broken.

“At the hospital, I was told that if the shock and blast had been facing the heart, I would be dead now.”

The number of accidents prompted the government office for consumers to issue a warning, saying the accidents stretch back as far as 2010, and can occur at any time — even after years of use.

At least one manufacturer issued a product recall — but a year after that recall, only 25,000 were returned out of 160,000 sold, Le Parisien reported.

Riot police embrace bicycles

June 22nd, 2017

American protest is changing in the digital age, and in response riot police have enthusiastically embraced a surprisingly low-tech mobility solution, the bicycle:

It was here in Seattle back in 1999 that Dyment himself first pressed bicycles into use for “crowd management”, when 50,000 people showed up to protest at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation. Their numbers overwhelmed the city’s mid-size police department – but this was also a more sophisticated group of protesters than Seattle had ever seen. They were highly mobile, and they used new technologies to coordinate their actions.

“They had great command and control,” says Dyment. “They used blogs and Nextels [a cellular phone with a “push to talk” function like a walkie-talkie]. Out of necessity, we used the bikes.”


“It allows you to be mobile as a group,” says Dyment. “Bikes also allow you to have constant presence with the group.”

This mobility is useful both in ordinary patrol and in first responder situations. In June 2014, when a shooter opened fire at Seattle Pacific University, “bike officers were one of the first ones there. They were the only ones who could make it through the downtown traffic.”

The bikes also turned out to be a highly effective – and cheap – tool for crowd control, allowing relatively few officers to form a relatively long line. “They provide a natural barrier,” Dyment says. “The European model is more on foot. The London Met or the NYPD can just throw resources at situations like that. For mid-majors like Seattle, this is a way of controlling large crowds with minimal resources.” (Historically, horses have played an analogous role, Vitale notes.)

A 2002 article written by the late Mike Goetz, a Seattle bike squad officer, describes manoeuvres including “the crossbow” and “the barrier technique”.

In the first, “the bike squad forms a double column behind the line, far enough behind so they can get a little speed up,” Goetz wrote. “On command, the line makes a gap in the center and the bikes ride through this gap.” In the second, officers focus on “lining the bikes, front wheel to rear wheel, across the area to be blocked or protected”.

Dyment also believes bike squads strike a less confrontational pose than massed platoons of officers in riot gear.

Seattle Bike Squad

There is certainly a Robocop feel to the outfits Seattle’s bike squad wear: despite the polo shirts and (optional) shorts, the officers wear Bell Super 3R helmets and body armour. Nor are the bikes themselves your casual BMX. They have a custom-built hardtail mountain bike frame from Volcanic, a company in Bellingham, Washington that specialises in catering to law enforcement.

Everything else was rather laborious

June 21st, 2017

Recently retired marathoner Ryan Hall, whose distinguished career includes the fastest marathon and half-marathon ever run by an American, has started lifting weights and has bulked up from 127 pounds to 165:

“I’ve been small and weak my entire life — just, like, totally underdeveloped,” Hall told Runner’s World. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be big and strong.”

Ryan Hall as Lifter and Runner

“To be an elite marathoner with a body that’s light and lean: while you’re running, you feel amazing. You’re fluid and economical, floating along without having to carry a lot of muscle mass,” says Hall. “But the rest of the day, to be honest, is not a lot of fun. My energy was super low [throughout most of my career]. I took naps every day and felt pretty much useless when I wasn’t running.”

Hall told me that even during his best years as a competitive athlete, he was “healthy” only in a narrowly defined way. As he put it, he was good at one thing: running. Everything else was rather laborious. Hall said he could be stirring pots of chili while making dinner and feel soreness in his shoulder the next day.

Gygax was “eccentric and frightening”

June 20th, 2017

C.J. Ciaramella filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the FBI’s files on TSR, the company that published Dungeons & Dragons, and found that Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator, sounded hardcore:

An FBI source in the report alleges that Gygax was “eccentric and frightening,” carried a weapon, proudly responded to every letter he received from an inmate, and had a Liberian holding company. It concludes: “He is known to be a member of the Libertarian Party.”

Gary Gygax FBI File from 1995

The FBI describes wargamers accurately enough:

…advised that war gamers are generally extremely intelligent individuals. Often they will live frugally to support the cost of the war gaming hobby. [Redacted] further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance.

All because of a failure of nerve

June 19th, 2017

Theodore Dalrymple was recently accosted by a canvasser for the local Labour Party candidate:

The canvasser was a pleasant lady, and I stopped to discuss educational policy with her. Both main political parties think that more money should be allocated to schools. I said that I did not believe that the abysmally low level of education and culture in much of the country was caused by a lack of money. We spend, on average, $100,000 on a child’s education and yet an uncomfortably large proportion of our children leave school with reading and math skills below those stipulated for 11-year-olds. Moreover, the proportion of such people has remained more or less constant for the last 40 years, despite vastly increased expenditure. The problem, therefore, is not lack of funds, as the canvasser’s party pretended that it was, but something much deeper and harder to solve.

The canvasser was a retired teacher who had taken her retirement as soon as she was able, largely because of the immense number of irrelevant, time-consuming, boring, and intellectually dishonest bureaucratic procedures imposed upon teachers — procedures funded, as it happens, by the increases in education spending.

It also so happened that her daughter was a teacher but had quit after an unpleasant incident. She had given a 14-year-old boy a punishment for bad behavior — he was to stay in school for an extra hour. That night, the boy’s 19-year-old brother came to the teacher’s house and began to smash her car. She was frightened and called the police, who removed the perpetrator from the scene but otherwise did nothing — because, of course, nothing would have been done higher up the criminal- justice chain had they done something: so why bother?

The canvasser’s daughter did not return to teaching. She had undergone what psychologists call one-trial learning. She had taken the opportunity to get a master’s degree and find employment within the educational bureaucracy, into which no misbehaving child might obtrude.

I mentioned that many teachers who had been patients of mine had told me that if they complained to parents of their children’s behavior, the parents blamed the teachers and even became aggressive toward them. This was true in her experience, too, said the teacher.

We agreed, therefore, that there was a profound cultural and moral malaise in the country. The clear implication was that it had nothing whatever to do with insufficient government spending. The schools don’t teach and the police don’t protect, all because of a failure of nerve. We parted amicably, I to my shopping, she to canvassing on behalf of a political party that maintains that all problems arise from lack of government expenditure, problems that will somehow be solved by taxing the rich.

At the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments

June 18th, 2017

Dániel Oláh looks back at the economic ideas of Ibn Khaldun — who is better known to most of us for his notion of assabiya, or social cohesion:

He states that the division of labor serves as the basis for any civilized society and identifies division of labor not only on the factory level but also in a social and international context as well. Khaldun highlights on the example of obtaining grain that division of labor creates surplus value: “Thus, he cannot do without a combination of many powers from among his fellow beings, if he is to obtain food for himself and for them. Through cooperation, the needs of a number of persons, many times greater than their own (number), can be satisfied” (Khaldun p. 87).

His example of the division of production process is completely forgotten by economists and it’s not less expressive than the pin factory of Smith: “such include, for instance, the use of carvings for doors and chairs. Or one skillfully turns and shapes pieces of wood in a lathe, and then one puts these pieces together, so that they appear to the eye to be of one piece” (Khaldun p. 519). What is more: opposed to Smith, Khaldun doesn’t make any distinction between productive and unproductive work.

Based on this it’s easy to understand that Ibn Khaldun presented very similar ideas as Adam Smith, but hundreds of years before the Western philosopher. But Khaldun said even more about the economy.

He analyzed markets which arise based on the division of labor and examined market forces in a simple didactic way which is very similar to the attitude of Alfred Marshall. The invention of supply and demand analysis wasn’t invented in the 19th century: the islamic scholar also described the relationship of demand and supply, and also took the role of inventories and merchandise trade into account. He divided the economy into three parts (production, trade and public sector) since the market prices in his theory include wages, profits and taxes (Boulakia 1971). At the same time he analyzed market for goods, labor and land as well. This structured approach led Khaldun to invent the labor theory of value, which makes the islamic scholar a pre-marxian (or classical) thinker in this sense (Oweiss, 1988).

His idea, that the produced value is zero if the labor input is zero seems surprisingly classical, far ahead of his time.

In the dynamic Khaldunian model of economic development, the government plays a crucial role. Its policies, primarily taxation has a great effect on the development of a civilization. After the nomadic way of life tribes change to sedentary lifestyle, giving birth to urban civilization. The sedentary lifestyle demolishes the original group solidarity and creates a need for a new clientele. Creating a new group identity is costly and needs a new army as well.

So with the deepening of urban civilization, and thanks to the increasing luxurious needs of the dynasty, the ruler has to increase taxes. In the end, tax rates become so high that the economy collapses. “It should be known that at the beginning of the dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments” (Khaldun p. 352) — writes Khaldun, describing the micro incentives behind taxation as well. On the other hand, he rejects customs and government involvement in trade since the economic-political power of government is disproportionately large.

These ideas are so unique in the Middle Ages, that even Ronald Reagan quoted Khaldun’s work stating that they had some friends in common, referring to Arthur Laffer. The reason for this was that even Laffer himself regarded Khaldun as a forerunner of supply-side economics and the Laffer-curve, although Khaldunian ideas have not much in common with the Laffer-curve. The reason is that these should be interpreted in time dimension rather than as a policy rule of thumb.

There was no plan

June 17th, 2017

“The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” Actually, no, the Cylons never had a plan, Ronald D. Moore recently admitted:

Moore said this was, essentially, just something co-executive producer David Eick thought sounded cool, that audiences would love and that they could figure out later. They never did and, said Moore, “For the next 14 years of my life people have asked me ‘What was the plan?’” In short, “There was no… plan.”

The main weapon against rudeness

June 16th, 2017

Muscovites don’t always follow traffic and parking laws, but a polite request from the BodyMania guys can be very convincing:

The war for our minds is waged over neither facts nor opinions

June 15th, 2017

The war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions, but feelings, and one weapon in this war, Eric R. Weinstein explains, is the Russell Conjugation:

Russell Conjugation (or “emotive conjugation”) is a presently obscure construction from linguistics, psychology and rhetoric which demonstrates how our rational minds are shielded from understanding the junior role factual information generally plays relative to empathy in our formation of opinions. I frequently suggest it as perhaps the most important idea with which almost no one seems to be familiar, as it showed me just how easily my opinions could be manipulated without any need to falsify facts. Historically, the idea is not new and seems to have been first defined by several examples given by Bertrand Russell in 1948 on the BBC without much follow up work, until it was later rediscovered in the internet age and developed into a near data-driven science by pollster Frank Luntz beginning in the early 1990s.

In order to understand the concept properly you have to appreciate that most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes:

I) The factual content of the word or phrase.

II) The emotional content of the construction.

Where words can be considered “synonyms” if they carry the same factual content (I) regardless of the emotional content (II). This however leads to the peculiar effect that the synonyms for a positive word like “whistle-blower” cannot be used in its place as they are almost universally negative (with “snitch,” “fink,” “tattletale” being representative examples). This is our first clue that something is wrong, or at least incomplete with our concept of synonym requiring an upgrade to distinguish words that may be content synonyms but emotional antonyms.

The basic principle of Russell Conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?”  While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions. Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated:

I am firm. [Positive empathy]

You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]

He/She/It is pigheaded.  [Very negative empathy]

In all three cases, Russell was describing people who did not readily change their minds. Yet by putting these descriptions so close together and without further factual information to separate the individual cases, we were forced to confront the fact that most of us feel positively towards the steadfast narrator and negatively towards the pigheaded fool, all without any basis in fact.

Years later, the data-driven pollster Frank Luntz stumbled on much the same concept unaware of Russell’s earlier construction.  By holding focus-groups with new real time technology that let participants share emotional responses to changes in authoritative language, Luntz was lead to make a stunning discovery that pushed Russell’s construction out of the realm of linguistics and into the realm of applied psychology. What he found was extraordinary: many if not most people form their opinions based solely on whatever Russell conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts. That is, the very same person will oppose a “death tax” while having supported an “estate tax” seconds earlier even though these taxes are two descriptions of the exact same underlying object. Further, such is the power of emotive conjugation that we are generally not even aware that we hold such contradictory opinions. Thus “Illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants” may be the same people, but the former label leads to calls for deportation while the latter one instantly causes many of us to consider amnesty programs and paths to citizenship.

If we accept that Russell Conjugation keeps us from even seeing that we do not hold consistent opinions on facts, we see a possible new answer to a puzzle that dates from the birth of the web: “If the internet democratized information, why has its social impact been so much slower than many of us expected?” Assuming that our actions are based not on what we know but upon how we feel about what we know, we see that traditional media has all but lost control of gate-keeping our information, but not yet how it is emotively shaded.

Floating tidal turbine off Orkney Islands smashes generation records

June 14th, 2017

A floating tidal turbine off the Orkney Islands generated 18 MWh over a 24-hour period, matching the generation capacity of offshore wind turbines:

The turbine is composed of a floating hull, with two turbines on the lower half of the body which sit just below the sea surface, the prime position for harnessing the energy of tidal flows. The turbines are also designed to fold upwards into the hull of the generator, which reduces transportation costs.

The machine has been designed to perform in areas with fast tidal flows, such as Scotland and Canada, but can be calibrated to perform in areas with softer breaks.

Scotrenewables Tidal Power SR2000

The SR2000 in numbers

Weight: 500 tonnes
Length: 64 metres
Rotor Diameter: 16 meters
Rotor Speed: 16 rpm
Rated Power: 2 MW

Researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets

June 13th, 2017

So far, no one has built a fusion reactor that generates more energy than it consumes, but researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets:

The large fusion reactors under development today, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), usually strive to generate hundreds of megawatts of power. In contrast, Paluszek and his colleagues at Princeton Satellite Systems are designing reactors meant to produce only a dozen megawatts or so. This humbler goal results in a smaller, lighter reactor that is easier to build and launch into space “for practical robotic and human missions,” Paluszek said.

In addition, these small fusion reactors are much cheaper than larger devices. Paluszek noted that, whereas modern fusion experiments might cost $20 billion, a prototype fusion rocket the researchers plan to develop should cost just $20 million. So far, they have received three NASA grants to fund the project, he said.

The aim for the fusion drives is to get about 1 kilowatt of power per 2.2 lbs. (1 kilogram) of mass. A 10-megawatt fusion rocket would therefore weigh about 11 tons (10 metric tons).

“It would probably be 1.5 meters [4.9 feet] in diameter and 4 to 8 meters [13 to 26 feet] long,” Paluszek said.

Nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperatures and pressures to force atoms to fuse, a process that converts some of the mass of the atoms into energy. The fusion reactors that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing uses low-frequency radio waves to heat a mix of deuterium and helium-3, and magnetic fields to confine the resulting plasma in a ring. (Deuterium is made of hydrogen atoms that each have an extra neutron; helium-3 is made of helium atoms, each of which is missing a neutron; and plasma is the state of matter found in stars, lightning bolts and neon lights.)

As this plasma rotates in a ring, some of it can spiral out and get directed from the fusion rocket’s nozzle for thrust. “We can get very high exhaust velocities of up to about 25,000 kilometers per second [55.9 million mph],” Paluszek said.

The large amounts of thrust this fusion rocket may deliver compared to its mass could enable very fast spacecraft. For instance, whereas round-trip crewed missions to Mars are estimated to take more than two years using current technology, the researchers estimated that six 5-megawatt fusion rockets could accomplish such missions in 310 days. This extra speed would reduce the risks of radiation that astronauts might experience from the sun or deep space, as well as dramatically cut the amount of food, water and other supplies they would need to bring with them.

In addition, the fusion reactors could also help generate ample electricity for scientific instruments and communications devices. For instance, whereas NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than nine years to get to Pluto and had little more than 200 watts of power to work with once it arrived, broadcasting about 1,000 bits of data back per second, a 1-megawatt fusion rocket could get a robotic mission to Pluto in four years, supply 2 million watts of power and broadcast more than 1 million bits of data back per second, Paluszek said. Such a mission could also carry a lander to Pluto and power it by beaming down energy, he added.


Previous research suggested this kind of fusion rocket in the 1960s, but the designs proposed for them would not stably confine the plasmas, Paluszek said. About 10 years ago, reactor designer Sam Cohen figured out a magnetic-field design “that could make stable plasmas,” Paluszek explained.

One drawback of the kind of nuclear reactor that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing is that radio waves do not penetrate deeply into plasma. “We’re limited to something like 10 meters [33 feet] in diameter,” Paluszek said. To generate large amounts of power with this strategy, the researchers have to rely on multiple reactors.

Another pitfall is that, while this fusion reactor generates less deadly neutron radiation than most fusion reactors under development, it still does produce some neutrons, as well as X-rays. “Radiation shielding is key,” Paluszek said.

In addition, helium-3 is rare on Earth. Still, it is possible to generate helium-3 using nuclear reactors, Paluszek said.

Princeton Satellite Systems is not alone in pursuing small fusion reactors. For instance, Paluszek noted that Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington, also intends to fuse deuterium and helium-3, while Tri Alpha Energy in Foothill Ranch, California, aims to fuse boron and protons.

Students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems

June 12th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal took a closer look at CLA+ test results, which purport to measure critical-thinking skills, and found that the average graduate shows little improvement in critical thinking over four years:

A survey by PayScale Inc., an online pay and benefits researcher, showed 50% of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace. Their No. 1 complaint? Poor critical-reasoning skills.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

International rankings show U.S. college graduates are in the middle of the pack when it comes to numeracy and literacy and near the bottom when it comes to problem solving.

The CLA+ test raises questions about the purpose of a college degree and taps into a longstanding debate about the role of colleges: Are they are designed to raise students’ intellectual abilities or to sort high-school graduates so they can find the niche for which they are best suited?

The role of a diploma as signal of ability has been in the ascendancy recently, given how having a degree is closely related to graduates’ lifetime earnings. The test data, by contrast, show that many students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems.

Jewelry is money

June 11th, 2017

Nick Szabo describes the astronomical origins of precious metals and then explains how they became money and treasure:

Billions of years later, naked apes evolved with hypertrophied brains and clever hands, living on a planet in this gold-dusted solar system. They dug out the gold and silver they could find and separated it from the more common earth.  Other more common metals were more useful for concretely usable tools; instead they fashioned the precious metals into what looks to our eyes like jewelry. They formed these precious metals into shapes both repetitive and unique, bragged about them, displayed them, stored them as “treasure”, “wealth”, and “money”. They fashioned gold and silver into wearable objects, transferred them to each other or stole them, even injuring or killing each other in pursuit of them. They used the gold and silver to pay each other compensation for those and many other injuries. People transferred gold and silver to each other in order to satisfy important obligations as well as to obtain items of more direct and obvious use.  Since the most important such obligations happened at many of the most fitness-critical junctures of life — marriage, death, injury, war — gold and silver, as treasure and as money, came to be greatly desired.

Some metal collectibles came in a wide variety of artistically skilled forms. Others came in the form of coins: labeled, mass-produced pieces of metal stamped by the blow of a hammer or cast in molds, whereby a mostly-trusted brand named their alleged value. Still others came in forms that look odd to us, resembling neither coins nor fancy jewelry, but rather utilitarian-looking pieces that manage to make precious metals ugly, and that might have been worn but that look, long before the era of factories, like they were mass produced.  People around the world wore gold jewelry proudly, and globe-straddling monetary systems, on which economies were said to be based, were defined around gold and silver objects and debts denominated in weights of those metals.

We can think of collectibles as coming at us at two levels, like railroads and trains, or like pipelines and the oil they carry. At the most basic or “inner layer” is the metal itself that constitutes the substance of the collectible: occasionally iron, more typically copper or bronze for the less valuable collectibles, and the precious metals, especially gold and silver, for the more valuable money and treasure.

So important is the “lower layer” of the traditional cultural understanding of gold and silver, the natural substance itself, evaluated by its weight rather than by any value added via the craftsmanship or its form, that Europeans of earlier generations evolved a word for it: bullion. Bullion is the metal itself, considered and valued only for its substance. Jewelry, coins, and other ways of shaping precious metals are just various forms of the underlying bullion.


In 1959 Paul Bohannan coined the phrase “spheres of exchange” to refer to moral or legal distinctions made between different types of exchange. Often one set of collectibles was expected to be used in one kind of exchange, and another distinct set in another. Since there are several important kinds of wealth transfer besides exchange, we can generalize Bohannan’s idea to the concept of spheres of transfer. In Western cultures (and many other modern cultures under their influence), for example, we make a strong distinction between money, meant for the rapid turnover of earning and spending, and heirlooms that are expected to stay in the family for generations, with feelings of guilt or shame occurring if we have to sell a family heirloom. But it’s fine to use an heirloom ring for a marriage. Similarly, we make a strong distinction between stocks and bonds on the one hand and decorative wealth objects such as jewelry and artwork on the other. So strong is our taboo that if a Western archaeologist finds a wearable (as in forager days they mostly were) collectible, it is automatically and dogmatically labeled “ornamental” or “symbolic”, with wealth-related uses seldom considered. (It also doesn’t help that shells, often scarce and precious treasures in indigenous environments, look like cheap tourist knick-knacks to modern eyes).

Legal or moral sanctions discourage transfer of objects from one sphere to another. In feudal European societies it was shameful and often even illegal to sell or mortgage land: a lord’s duty was to preserve his land and devise it intact to his eldest son. In modern Western society, weddings are one sphere of transfer (where a gift of a finger-ring is expected, as well as some household items from the guests and a feast or party thrown by the parents), whereas commerce and legal remedy in civil law is another (where payment of money is expected). Some aspects of our bodies (such as ownership of humans or payment for sex or body organs) are off limits to monetary compensation — one is expected to donate an organ, not to sell it — while many others are not (most health care, for example). All of these spheres can involve transfers of objects of substantial value, but it is disgraceful and/or illegal if they are the too obviously the wrong ones for the given sphere.

In the modern West, we consider the realm of jewelry and the realm of money to be very separate spheres of transfer. It is considered either a shameful betrayal or a grim necessity if the winner of an Olympic or Nobel Prize medal or a Super Bowl ring sells it to raise money. The finger-ring is a central feature of modern weddings, but few things would offend a typical modern bride more than being paid a bride price, she or her kin being indemnified by money as if she, as we would see it, were a prostitute on long-term contract. Meanwhile, our economists obsess over money while touching on the subject of jewelry hardly at all, and certainly not as any sort of form or variant of money. We moderns can hardly imagine confusing such seemingly very different things, and indeed the very idea offends our sensibilities. But in many non-Western and earlier Western cultures this was far from the case. For them the fundamental protocol layer, the substance itself, is cherished for its own sake, and forms the great majority of the value of the item, while its protocol layer two, the “outer layer”, the particular form it has been fashioned into, while often of considerable interest, is usually quite secondary in determining its value for purposes of the display and transfer of wealth.

This modern Western restriction involves the more culturally local aspect of gold and silver, namely the particular form it takes (jewelry vs. coin), even though these objects are made out of the same underlying substance, and traditionally were mainly prized for the content by weight of that substance. Even in our own culture we have businesses that serve to transfer gold and silver from one sphere to another. Nevertheless, economists and other academicians often act as if money and jewelry are scientifically and objectively very distinct objects, when in fact this is a cultural convention that is largely confined to the modern West.

Globe-trotting gold dealer Roy Sebag has described the differences between Asian and Western views of jewelry. As he describes it, over $2 trillion worth of jewelry is owned by about 2 billion people in India and China alone, constituting a much larger fraction of their wealth on average than in the West. The metal content of the gold jewelry constitutes the vast majority of its sales price and its assessed value as collateral, as it also does in Brazil, Russia, and most other countries outside of Western Europe, the British Commonwealth, and the United States. In the latter countries, precious metal content constitutes only a small fraction of the sales price or pawning value of jewelry. “Jewelry is money” is how Sebag summarizes his observations of the modern Asian jewelry market.

This last point that jewelry is money also comes up in Barton Biggs’ Wealth, War and Wisdom, which discusses preserving wealth through bad times, with examples of what worked or didn’t work during World War 2.

Few left Alsace-Lorraine

June 10th, 2017

Bryan Caplan thinks that expressive voting explains the lack of emigration from Alsace-Lorraine after it became Elsass-Lothringen:

In 1871, the German Empire annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine, known to the Germans as Elsass-Lothringen.  The inhabitants were overwhelmingly German-speaking, but most clearly resented absorption into the new German Empire.  What is striking, however, is how differently this resentment expressed itself in voting versus actual behavior.

For their first five elections, over 90% of the new citizens of the Second Reich voted for “autonomists” — anti-Prussian regional parties.  Their ultimate goal, pretty clearly, was to rejoin France.  Beginning in 1890, autonomists rapidly lost support to the Social Democrats (and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives).  But even in 1912, autonomists remained the plurality party of Alsace-Lorraine.

Given this near-unanimous political resentment against German annexation, you might think that the people of Alsace-Lorraine would be leaving in droves — or at least struggling mightily to do so.  The reality was quite different.  While they were free to escape German rule by selling out and moving a few miles over the border, few chose to do so:

The Treaty of Frankfurt gave the residents of the region until October 1, 1872 to choose between emigrating to France or remaining in the region and having their nationality legally changed to German. By 1876, about 100,000 or 5% of the residents of Alsace-Lorraine had emigrated to France.


To rationalize the divergence between voting and emigration, you need something like Brennan and Lomasky’s expressive voting theory. The essence of the theory: When people decide how to vote, their main goal is to express their support for what sounds good. When people decide where to live, however, they focus on practicalities, not symbolism.

He misses the point that ordinary folks aren’t atomistic cosmopolitans, as commenter Fazal Majid points out:

I’m sorry, but this article is spectacularly callous. Most people feel a visceral attachment to their homeland. Involuntary exile, even self-exile, is incredibly painful for those concerned, and leaves lasting scars.

Shane L. said something similar:

I tend to agree with Fazal here: leaving home means abandoning family, friends, community, and also livelihood. Surely many inhabitants of 19th century Alsace-Lorraine were farmers? If so, their incomes were probably reliant on their lands too.

Finally there could be a sense of bitter nationalist defiance. Inhabitants might have deliberately wanted to remain on land they considered their own, to spite the invaders, and hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be returned to France in due course.

Hansjörg Walther shared some German insights:

Alsace-Lorraine was the only “Reichsland” which meant it was directly subordinate to the Emperor and not a real state of the German federation with a government. Only in 1911 did it get a parliament of its own and also representatives in the “Bundesrat” (representation of the states).

The elections are for the German parliament. So the most you could hope for was that a block of Alsatian deputies could under certain circumstances obtain some concessions. And then you could also signal to the French that you were still waiting to be redeemed.

The good point of not being a state was that you also did not have to pay state taxes, which usually were higher than taxes on the Reich level. That made it also attractive for “Altdeutsche” (Germans from the old parts of Germany) to move to the region, which may also explain part of the shift to “reichsfreundlich” (friendly to the Reich) parties later on.

They wanted their land back the way it was. No individual could recreate home somewhere else.