The Age of Greece

I have been reading recently about “Hellenistic Civilization”–that is, the greater Greek cultural zone that began in Greece proper around 700 BC, then radiated to the rest of the Mediterranean and of course, due to Alexander the Great, all the way to India. Aside from the short-lived empire, Greek civilization was rarely unified under a single military or political entity, making it somewhat difficult to talk about. If I refer to the “Roman Empire” you won’t be terribly surprised to find out that I am talking about somewhere in Gaul rather than Rome proper, but if I refer to Archimedes as Greek, you may be surprised to learn that he lived in Sicily. Herodotus lived in what was then the Persian Empire, but is now Turkey. Euclid lived in Egypt, in Alexander’s famous city of Alexandria.

Here is a map that shows some of the important players in the Greek cultural world. Rome is in light blue and Carthage, which was Phoenician, is lavender. (Thewestern Med and Indo-Greek kingdom are not on this map.)

The Greeks first show up in the history books back in the Bronze Age/Homeric era as the marauding “sea peoples” who attacked Egypt/Israel/Troy/etc. They made a splash even then, but might have also helped trigger a dark age, so -1 for bronze age Greek culture.

Greece returned a few hundred years later with the founding of the Greek city states that we all know and love, like Athens and Sparta. The famous Pythagoras was born in 570 BC; by this point, Greek colonies spanned the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Spain. Plato was born a bit later, around 425 BC; his student Aristotle taught Alexander, and Alexander conquered much of the known world.

I think we hear more about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle because Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher, and Alexander went around founding libraries (among other things). If Eratosthenes had been Alexander’s teacher, those libraries would have held more of Eratosthenes’s books and fewer of Aristotle’s.

I have yet to see any good explanation for why Greece basically exploded around 700-600 BC, burned like a beacon for hundreds of years, and then faded away around the year 600 AD. The soils in Greece proper are not, as far as I know, the greatest: not soils you’d expect to generate a sudden population explosion, though perhaps gradual degradation of the soils lead people to try their luck elsewhere. Nor do I believe anything so simple as “the sunlight is better in Greece.” The decline of the Greek cultural zone can’t be attributed to the Romans, really, since it survived their arrival by a few hundred years.

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria lived from 30-70 AD and invented a whole host of marvels, including:

  • The first vending machine … when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book Mechanics and Optics. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.[15]
  • A wind-wheel operating an organ, marking the first instance in history of wind powering a machine.[4][5]
  • Hero also invented many mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
  • The force pump was widely used in the Roman world, and one application was in a fire-engine.
  • syringe-like device was described by Hero to control the delivery of air or liquids.[16]
  • In optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light: If a ray of light propagates from point A to point B within the same medium, the path-length followed is the shortest possible. It was nearly 1000 years later that Alhacen expanded the principle to both reflection and refraction, and the principle was later stated in this form by Pierre de Fermat in 1662; the most modern form is that the optical path is stationary.
  • A standalone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy; now called Heron’s fountain.
  • A programmable cart that was powered by a falling weight. The “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle.[17]

You are of course familiar with Greek art (particularly sculpture), mathematics, architecture, and philosophy.

The life of Hypatia shows, perhaps, some of the downfall of Greek culture. Hypatia was born around 360 and died in 415 AD. She was a mathematician and professor at the University of Alexandria. One day, she was set upon by an angry mob of Christians (she was a pagan), dragged from her carraige, stripped naked, and brutally murdered. It was a dark day for academic freedom.

On the other hand, Pythagoras and Archimedes were also murdered, and yet civilization continued unabated in those years.

At any rate, it remains a mystery. It’s late, so just go read about Hero of Alexandria. He’s an interesting guy.

The history of civilization is the history of plague

 

coronaweather
Map of coronavirus outbreaks vs temperature, from Razib’s article, “CoViD-19 and its Weather Dependency”

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SARS-CoronaVirus-2, aka SARS-CoV-2, aka Coronavirus, aka Corona Virus Disease, AKA CoViD-19, is only the latest in a long list of pandemics to travel the Silk Road from Asia to Europe (and back again).

The biggest plague in recorded history, often referred to simply as “The Plague,” was the  Black Death or Bubonic Plauge, caused by the yersinia pestis bacterium. Pestis killed over 200 million people, most of those during its famous European Tour between 1347-1353, but was actually still killing millions of people even in the early 20th century. The Third Pandemic, as the most recent outbreak is known, began in Yunnan, China in 1855, killed 10s of millions in China and India, spread to California (yersinia is now actually endemic to the fleas that infest prairie dogs in the American West,) and Africa, and was only declared over in 1960, when casualties dropped below 200 per year.

The bubonic plague ended because we can kill it with penicillin. The plague began in stone-age farming communities near the Black Sea, known as the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture, around 5500-2750BC. This was a lovely region with some of the world’s largest concentrations of humans and animals:

The majority of Cucuteni–Trypillia settlements consisted of high-density, small settlements (spaced 3 to 4 kilometres apart), concentrated mainly in the SiretPrut and Dniester river valleys.[3] During the Middle Trypillia phase (c. 4000 to 3500 BC), populations belonging to the Cucuteni–Trypillia culture built the largest settlements in Neolithic Europe, some of which contained as many as 3,000 structures and were possibly inhabited by 20,000 to 46,000 people.[4][5][6]

The culture thus extended northeast from the Danube river basin around the Iron Gates to the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It encompassed the central Carpathian Mountains as well as the plains, steppe and forest steppe on either side of the range. Its historical core lay around the middle to upper Dniester (the Podolian Upland).[2] During the Atlantic and Subboreal climatic periods in which the culture flourished, Europe was at its warmest and moistest since the end of the last Ice Age, creating favorable conditions for agriculture in this region.

As of 2003, about 3,000 cultural sites have been identified,[7] ranging from small villages to “vast settlements consisting of hundreds of dwellings surrounded by multiple ditches”.[16]

The inhabitants were involved with animal husbandryagriculturefishing and gatheringWheatrye and peas were grown. …

Their domesticated livestock consisted primarily of cattle, but included smaller numbers of pigs, sheep and goats. There is evidence, based on some of the surviving artistic depictions of animals from Cucuteni–Trypillia sites, that the ox was employed as a draft animal.[31]

In short, the Cucuteni-Trypillia are the most important culture you’ve never heard of:

Although this culture’s settlements sometimes grew to become some of the largest on earth at the time (up to 15,000 people), there is no evidence yet discovered of large-scale labor specialization. Their settlements were designed with the houses connecting with one another in long rows that circled around the center of the community. …

Although trade was not likely necessary, archaeological evidence supports the theory that long-distance trade in fact did occur. One of the clearest signs of long-distance trade is the presence of imported flint tools found at Cucuteni-Trypillia settlements.

Indeed, the Cucuteni-Trypillia saltworks located at the brackish spring at LuncaNeamţ County, Romania, may very well be the oldest in the world.[5] There is evidence to indicate that the production of this valuable commodity directly contributed to the rapid growth of the society.[6] This saltworks was so productive that it supplied the needs of the entire region. For this to happen, the salt had to be transported, which may have marked the beginning of a trade network that developed into a more complex system over time.[7]

The Cucuteni-Trypillia people were exporting Miorcani type flint to the west even from their first appearance. The import of flint from Dobruja indicates an interaction with the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture and Aldeni-Stoicani cultures to the south. Toward the end of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture’s existence (from roughly 3000 B.C. to 2750 B.C.), copper traded from other societies (mostly from the Gumelniţa-Karanovo culture copper mines of the northeastern Balkan) began to appear throughout the region, and members of the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture began to acquire skills necessary to use it to create various items. Along with the raw copper ore, finished copper tools, hunting weapons and other artifacts were also brought in from other cultures.[2] In exchange for the imported copper, the Cucuteni-Trypillia traders would export their finely crafted pottery and the high-quality flint that was to be found in their territory, which have been found in archaeological sites in distant lands.

The Cucuteni-Trypillia farmers lived on the edge of the Eurasian Steppe and interacted with the Yamnaya, nomadic herdsmen otherwise known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. No one knows exactly why the PIEs decided to go on a rampage (perhaps a drought), but eventually they did, conquering (and probably absorbing) not only the Cucuteni-Trypillia, but also almost all of Europe, Iran, and India.

The important thing about the Cucuteni-Trypillia people is that there were a lot of them, living in close proximity to each other, with their animals.

Humans can live with animals, as the low-population density Mongols have traditionally done, without too much difficulty. Humans can live in enormous cities, like the 200,000 citizens of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, without too many problems (well, other than the cannibalism and human sacrifice). But cram humans and animals together, and you get diseases. Add in trade routes, and you get pandemics.

Rome
Source

In the year 1 (there was no year zero, despite what the graph says,) Rome was the capital of an empire with a population of almost 1.5 million people.

Between 169 and 180 AD, the Antonine Plague ravaged Rome, killing 2,000 people a day at its height. The Antonine Plague may have begun a few years earlier in China, but it was definitely brought back from the near east by soldiers returning from campaign. It spread across the Empire, killing approximately 5 million people. We think it was smallpox, but it might have been measles. Epidemiology wasn’t great in those days.

The Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire between 249 and 262 AD; at its height, reports say that it killed 5,000 people a day in Rome. The effects of the plague can be seen clearly in the graph.

In 324, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul), ending Rome’s status as a major city for the next fifteen hundred years.

In 541, Yersinia Pestis made its first major debut with the Plague of Justinian, killing 25-50 million people in the Byzintine and Sasanian Empires. It most likely began in western China, was transported by nomads or merchants across central Eurasia, and then blasted through the civilized world.

Unfortunately, human complexity creates the conditions in which diseases breed.

Even without pandemics, the disease burden of early modern Europe was extremely high: most cities had grown much faster than their ability to dispose of waste and keep their inhabitants clean. The same trade networks that allow for the dispersal of new ideas and technologies (and what are technologies but ideas in action?) allow for the dispersal of pathogens. Indeed, their dispersal patterns are so similar that it is sensible to model ideas and diseases as the same thing, hence our much beloved “memes.”

Unfortunately, the spread of memes is now so rapid that humanity needs to stop and increase its technological ability to cope with the increased spread of disease.

Stay safe, stay clean, and stay healthy.

Hyperstimulus

A hyperstimulus is a regular stimulus that has been cranked up to 11.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar, which we use to power our brains. Since fruits and veggies are part of the normal human diet, we crave sugar and find its taste pleasant.

Through selective breeding and technological refinement, we’ve produced artificially concentrated sugars that can be used to produce everything from candy to ice cream.

Fruit is a normal stimulus; ice cream is a hyperstimulus.

Running downhill is a normal stimulus; a roller coaster is a hyperstimulus.

Singing and dancing with your friends is a normal stimulus; a rave is a hyperstimulus.

Tea is a fairly normal stimulus; cocaine is a hyperstimulus.

TV and movies are both, obviously, hyperstimuli. Mediums like Twitter, with their endless supply of short bursts of opinion, are like the potato chips of the information world.

Even things that are not obviously hyperstimulating may be, because we humans are really good at producing more of what we like and more of what people buy. All domesticated foods have been selected for the traits we humans like in our food, not just sugarcane:

(Just look at that wild banana!)

Do people click more often on headlines that say “Doctors recommend avoiding this one food to lose weight?” or “Local Grandma invents miraculous weight loss cure!”? Whichever one they click, proliferates.

What are the most popular novels? Thrillers and romance. (If you want to break into publishing, write a romance–they’re shorter than thrillers and Harlequin needs a constant stream of them.) These genres are fundamentally about producing strong emotions (and as far as I know, barely existed before WWII). 

What’s wrong with hyperstimuli?

They aren’t inherently bad. One piece of candy will not kill you. Neither will one ride on a roller coaster. But a diet that consists entirely of candy will kill you. Even a diet that is merely 20% candy will probably kill you.

It is very difficult to avoid hyperstimuli because they excite stimulus pathways that we evolved to tell us when we have encountered something good, like fruit. It is very difficult to become addicted to something you are not already biologically predisposed to like: if some mad scientist invented jelly beans that taste like raw sewage, most people would have no problem avoiding them. By contrast, it is very easy to become addicted to something that excites all of the “this is good!” signals in your brain, even if that thing is actually nothing more than the specific chemical that signals “this is good.”

Normal stimuli, like fruit sugars, exist in a “whole package” of other things that are also good for you, like the rest of the fruit. Your desire for fruit sugars would normally lead you to eat the rest of the fruit, since most of us don’t have the required equipment for sugar extraction in our kitchens. Sugar, packaged and eaten with the rest of the fruit, is good for you. Your brain runs on the sugar, the fiber cleans your guts, the proteins build muscles, the fats can be burned for energy now or later, etc.

Refined sugar products contain much more sugar, per ounce, than your body is really designed to handle. You did not evolve to eat Froot Loops, no matter what your kids or the toucan on the box may tell you. And if you eat Froot Loops, you effectively crowd out other, more nutritious foods–or you have to eat twice as much to get the same nutrients.

Humans have gotten really good at eating twice as much, but not everything can be so easily doubled. If you watch TV instead of socializing, that time is lost. If you rack up wins in your favorite video game instead of challenging yourself to develop a skill in real life, that time is lost. If you do drugs, well, we all know how that ends.

And I think there is, similar to the tolerance people eventually build up to psychiatric medicines and alcohol, a kind of adjustment that we eventually make to stimuli. We get used to it. The noise we used to find chaotic and distracting, we just tune out. The music that used to excite us grows dull. Spicy salsa becomes bland as we seek the newer, hotter peppers.

I’m not sure the solution is to “cut the hyperstimulus out of your life.” We are basically stimulus-response machines that produce new stimulus-response machines; long-term stimulus deprivation drives us insane. But neither can we thrive, it seems, in high-stimulus environments (I define “thrive” here as an ecologist would, based on how many healthy offspring a community raises to adulthood. First world nations are basically dying by this standard.)

Striking the right balance is tricky. Some things, like heroin, clearly should not be in your life. Others, like candy, are harmless in small quantities–maybe even good. TV/internet/video games are mixed–they’re probably okay in small quantities but unlike candy, it’s difficult to obtain them in limited quantities. At the very least, you probably shouldn’t get cable and should set hard limits to the time you and your kids spend staring at screens every day.

So stop reading this post and go outside.

Fighting the Bureaucracy

Modern civilization is plagued by many evils, but the most common, in everyday life, is paperwork. By “paperwork” I mean basically all bureaucratic overhead, all of the accounting, regulation and compliance enacted in the past century.

Paperwork is the devil.

David Graeber gets it: 

… as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. …

Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality. These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. …

For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care.

I call these people “lizards” because they do not seem to have human souls.

Some amount of paperwork, of course, is necessary to keep track of things in a modern, industrial economy in which food for 320 million people has to get from farms to tables every single day. The expansion of paperwork beyond its necessary domain is essentially the auto-cannibalization of society, a metastatic cancer of bureaucrats and paper-pushers.

If we want to fight bureaucracy, we have to know what feeds bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy grows because people don’t trust each other to do the right thing. It grows because people over-graze the commons, because they dump toxic waste into rivers, because they build cheap apartments that turn into flaming death traps, because they take bribes and cover up incompetence, because they discriminate against minorities or hand out sinecures to their friends.

The demands for paperwork are generally demands that you prove that you have or can do the right thing–that you will not pollute, that you have car insurance, that your products are not dangerous or defective, that your medicines aren’t poisons and your experiments don’t involve giving people syphilis.

The more people do not trust each other to do the right thing, the more layers of bureaucracy they institute. If I am afraid that police officers are taking bribes, then I propose more oversight and agencies to ensure that they do not take bribes. If I am concerned that mining companies are paying off the EPA to let them dump toxic metals in the groundwater, then my response is to demand another agency come and clean out the EPA and enforce tougher restrictions on dumping. If I don’t trust you, then I hire someone to watch you.

The problem with this approach is that adding more untrustworthy people to a system doesn’t start making them trustworthy. If I can bribe one person, then I can bribe the person who is supposed to make sure that no one gets bribed. In the end, we just end up with more people to bribe.

And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, people are “ethical” and the whole thing grinds to a halt. To get your new building built you first need authorization from the wetlands licensing committee, and the lady from the licensing committee wants thirteen forms in triplicate proving that your building won’t impact the mating habits of a rare toad that you are pretty sure doesn’t even live in your state. To get your study on the efficacy of a survey your clinic already hands out to patients approved by the ethics board of your local institution you first have to prove that you will not be collecting personal data from at-risk patients, but you can’t know if they are “at risk” until after you collect their data. Or maybe the guy who is supposed to send you the form you have to fill out simply isn’t returning your phone calls and you can’t figure out from the website where his office is located.

The more you try to fight bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, the more bureaucracy wins, and the bureaucracy does not care if you starve to death, you Kulak.

To the bureaucracy, you are always a Kulak.

There are two ways to break a bureaucracy. One, total system collapse. This happened to the Soviet Union. It takes a long time, it’s not fun, and you can starve to death in the meanwhile. The replacement system may not be much better.

The other is to increase trust so that people don’t advocate for more bureaucracy in the first place. True, this doesn’t get rid of what you’ve got, but at least it contains the spread.

Trust is hard to get, though. You could do a thousand year breeding experiment. You could try to brainwash children. Or you could look at how the incentives are set up in your society and try to align them with the outcomes you want to achieve. (We can try, at least.)

Aligning incentives requires doing something hard: admitting that humans are human. Communism keeps failing because of “wreckers,” aka ordinary humans. Humans will lie, cheat, and steal if it benefits themselves; this is why we have police. Humans will also fall in love, have sex, and make children. We will then cheat and steal to feed our children, if need be, because we love them.

Accept human nature and align incentives accordingly. (Easier said than done, of course.)

Here is an entertaining example:

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll quote the rest:

The mafia backed company actually had good, fresh food! Most of the mobsters’ kids went to those schools (several I went to school with saw their dads go down). The sandwiches were real hoagies on good bread, there was fresh fruit, juice, etc. All local.

Then, overnight, all their food was gone, and their vending machines too. And they were replaced by the corporate equivalent. And we were excited too! National brands, etc! Now the good stuff! Nope.

The corporate food was shite. No more local, fresh ingredients. The portions were smaller. All the food was overly processed and overpriced. It was just nasty. I remember my dad and others laughing bitterly about it.

At the time, I was struck by how these unintended consequences were the most visceral ones. Later in life, I came to realize that this was the norm: that the unintended consequences of any major political change are often the ones with the greatest impact.

But it was also my first inkling that the real world differences between the literal mafia, and the even greater power of modern corporations, were not as black and white, or clear cut, as those who benefitted from the latter would have any of us believe. Fin/

I knew and dreaded Aramark as a kid. When people, whether kids or prisoners, don’t have a choice about the food they eat, the quality tends to suffer. By contrast, when you are feeding your own children (or the children of mobsters), cooking quality tends to be decent.

The same dynamic as at work in children’s electronics. Electronics that are marketed solely to kids, like the LeapFrog system, tend to be bad (often very bad) because the buyer (parents) tends not to be the users (kids), and kids often don’t have enough experience with electronics to realize they’re being ripped off. (Every augmented reality devices I have bought has been similarly bad to awful.) The only good kids’ electronics systems I have encountered also have significant adult fanbases, like Nintendo.

Capitalism, of course, is the classic case of aligned incentives. Invisible hand and all that. It’s not perfect (corporations will eat you for breakfast if they can get away with it,) but it’s pretty good. People are more likely to protect the commons when they have an expectation of future gain from the commons.

Reputation also helps align incentives. People care about what others think of them. The internet has both expanded our ability to interact with total strangers who have no reputations and to create reputations, with interesting effects. Sites like Amazon and Yelp allow small, previously unknown sellers to build up their reputations, making people more confident about what they’re buying.

By contrast, the recent kerflufle over Youtube, trying to make it more kid-friendly via increased regulation, has done nothing of the sort. None of the things parents want to protect kids from have actually been addressed because bureaucracy just doesn’t work that way, but if you don’t like Youtube, you already have the very easy option of using literally any other content service.

Incentives matter.

The Fullness of America

This turned out to be a popular thread, so I thought I’d  share it over here.

This is a good example of a common misconception: that physical space per person matters.

Things that actually matter:
1. Water per person
2. Farmland per person
3. Cost of housing near city centers
4. Commuting time to city centers

Thing is, while we still eat food, our economy has been, since the late 1800s, something we describe as “industrial” (and now “post-industrial”). This means that the vast majority of people have to live in cities instead of farms, because industries are in cities.

Don’t get your political information from anyone who doesn’t know we live in an industrial (post-industrial) economy, folks.

One of the side effects of living in an industrial/post-industrial economy is that, by necessity, you end up with uneven population densities. We don’t plop cities down on farmland (not if you want to eat) and you don’t try to grow potatoes in city medians.

So a pure measure of “density” is meaningless.

In an agrarian economy, land is the most important resource. In an industrial/post-industrial economy, proximity to industry is itself a kind of resource. People have to actually be able to get to their jobs. This is why in places like Silicon Valley, where housing is artificially restricted, the price of housing skyrockets. You can probably find some super cheap (relatively speaking) land a mere hundred miles away from SF, but people can’t commute that far, so they bid up the prices on what housing there is.

Of course it would be great if people could just build more housing in CA, but that’s a separate issue–regardless, if people could just move to one of those less populated areas, they would.

(By the way, South Africa is also a modern, industrial economy, which is why the idea of taking people’s farms and redistributing them to the masses is absurd from an economic point of view. South Africa is not an agrarian society, and very few people there actually want to be farmers. The goal is not economic growth, but simply to hurt the farmers.)

Many of our other resources are similarly “invisible”–that is, difficult to quantify easily on a map. Where does your water come from? Rain? Rivers? Aquifer?

How much water can your community use before you run out?

Water feels infinite because it just pours out of the faucet, but it isn’t. Each area has so much water it can obtain easily, a little more that can be obtained with effort, and after that, you’re looking at very large energy expenditures for more.

wss-gw-depletion-us-map-trend
Source: Groundwater Decline and Depletion from US Gov

Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900–2008). A natural consequence of groundwater withdrawals is the removal of water from subsurface storage, but the overall rates and magnitude of groundwater depletion in the United States are not well characterized. This study evaluates long-term cumulative depletion volumes in 40 separate aquifers or areas and one land use category in the United States, bringing together information from the literature and from new analyses. Depletion is directly calculated using calibrated groundwater models, analytical approaches, or volumetric budget analyses for multiple aquifer systems. Estimated groundwater depletion in the United States during 1900–2008 totals approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers (km3). Furthermore, the rate of groundwater depletion has increased markedly since about 1950, with maximum rates occurring during the most recent period (2000–2008) when the depletion rate averaged almost 25 km3 per year (compared to 9.2 km3 per year averaged over the 1900–2008 timeframe).

We’re not just “full”; we’re eating our seed corn. When the aquifers run out, well, the farms are just fucked.

There are some ways to prevent total aquifer collapse, like planting crops that require less water. We’re not totally doomed. But the idea that we can keep our present lifestyles/consumption levels while continuously expanding the population is nonsense.

unnamed
The most effective way to stop global warming is to HAVE FEWER PEOPLE living 1st world lifestyles (source)

Eventually something has to give. Someone has to scale back their consumption. Maybe it’s no more almonds. Maybe it’s less meat. Maybe it’s longer commutes or smaller houses.

No matter how you slice it, resources aren’t infinite and you can’t feed cities on deserts.

One more thought:

This is all technical, addressing the question of “How do we measure whether we are really full or not?”

No one has addressed the question of whether being “full” or not is even important.

You could look at my house and say, “Hey, your house isn’t full! There’s plenty of room for two more people in your living room,” and I can say “Excuse me? Who are you and why are you looking in my windows?”

This is my house, and it’s not my responsibility to justify to some stranger why I want X number of people living here and not Y number of people.

If I want to live alone, that’s my business. I am not obligated to take a roommate. If I want my sister and her husband and five kids to move in here with my husband and kids and their dogs, too, that’s also my business (well, and theirs.)

It is not a stranger’s.

Just because we can cram a lot of people into Nevada does not mean anyone is obligated to do so.

A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

What does a good legal system look like?

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, by Leeson, Skarbek, and Friedman. Today we’ll be finishing up with feud law (short wrap-up chapter) and looking at English law of the 1700s.

The application of English law, as described by the authors, cannot help but make the reader wonder how on earth England managed to function at all (as, indeed, I often wonder about the US, laboring under the execress of US law). The suggest that somehow it managed, despite its shortcomings. I suggest that the English people managed, despite the imposition of a terrible system upon them, simply because the English are the sorts of folks who are accustomed to dealing patiently with bad systems.

Any attempt to generalize English economic, scientific, literary, or scientific success via imitating their legal system may therefore be imitating the wrong thing, though this may be true for all legal systems.

But let us back up a step and ask what makes a good legal system in the first place?

Obviously it must do justice, but this is a tautology; what is justice?

A good legal system:

  1. Discourages or prevents future misdeeds.
  2. Compensates the victims

People may object here that a good legal system should also punish evil-doers. People (myself included) have a deep desire to punish the wicked, but this is not the purpose of the justice system, but its means.

Let us analogize to eating. Why do we eat? What purpose does putting a sandwich in my mouth serve?

We can say that we eat because it is pleasurable just as seeing a murderer punished makes us glad, but this does not explain why eating sandwiches makes us happy and eating sawdust does not. The mere act of putting food-like substances in our mouths and swallowing them is not pleasurable, nor do even the most dedicated gourmands among us seek to create whole dishes of ersatz food simply to simulate the experience of eating. Flavor is nice, but it serves a more important purpose: nutrition. We eat to deliver calories and nutrients to our bodies.

Indeed, we do all sorts of things that “feel good,” because they help keep us alive and propagate our genes. Evolution has geared us to find staying alive pleasurable and dying unpleasurable.

Similarly, we desire to punish the wicked because it accomplishes the two goals stated above: it prevents or deters them from committing future crime, and it (sometimes) recompenses the victim.

(Note: I will use the word “criminal” here to refer to “person who has committed what is generally regarded as an evil act by their community,” but of course sometimes things are officially crimes that people don’t actually consider wrong, and vice versa, sometimes things are not illegal that people believe ought to be.)

Number 1, encouraging or preventing future misdeeds, is generally accomplished by physically preventing criminals from further action by imprisoning, exiling, or executing them, and by frightening potential criminals into not offending via the threat of being caught and imprisoned, exiled, executed, tortured, etc.

Number 2, compensation, is achieved by returning stolen property or forcing the criminal (or their criminal insurance group, if you’re in Somalia,) to pay a fine or labor in place of a fine.

We may add two more requirements to our ideal system:

3. It does not punish the innocent, nor place undue burden upon innocent people,
4. It is equally accessible to all classes of people.

Any legal system that causes harm to innocent people would of course become itself criminal.  A system that favors certain classes of people over others–say, by not prosecuting murderers who only kill poor people–obviously doesn’t achieve justice. Such a system also impairs economic activity by limiting people to doing business with partners they can find ways to enforce contracts on.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to measure whether a system actually does any of the above. Crime may go up or down for reasons entirely divorced from the legal system, like the installation of surveillance cameras or a change in demographics. We can compare victimization reports to incarceration rates, but that only tells us about crimes punished, not crimes deterred.

At any rate, with this in mind, let’s plunge into the work, starting with Feuds:

We have now seen a number of societies in which law enforcement was private and decentralized. That pattern, although strange to us, is historically common. It seems likely that in many, perhaps most, societies it was the original legal system on top of which later systems were constructed. I call it feud law.

Feud law is simple and straightforward: if you harm me, then I threaten to harm you until you pay damages. If you don’t pay, you hurt.

The authors list four requirements for Feud law systems to work:

First, threats need to only be effective for correcting wrongs, not as extortion.
Second, I have to be able to actually carry out my threats.
Third, the system has to work for everyone (see my #4).
Fourth, feuds must end. They can’t just go on forever.

It is interesting that the Somali system effectively has no legislature (neither does the Comanche). I suspect that for many groups–especially nomads–this was historically true, due to the nature of their existences and low population densities. In the development of law, it appears that judges came first; legislators and law-givers came second.

The authors then talk about the evolutionary origins of vengeance, which as discussed, is useful strategy:

That you will revenge yourself against anyone who wrongs you, even at considerable cost to yourself, is a reason not to wrong you.

The person who can enforce vengeance against others is strong; the person who cannot is a wimp:

Being known as a wimp lowers your status. It also marks you as a safe target for future wrongs.

The authors are fond of the idea that feud systems can work out for the good of everyone, even wimps, the weak, and poor people, if other people can gain status by taking on their cases for them. This hinges on people not deciding that “taking on cases for poor people is low-status,” “I’d rather take on this much easier case over here,” “I really just don’t care about your problems.”

From all of my reading about historical, decentralized, feud and feud-like legal systems, I must say that I am not convinced that any of them do a particularly good job. For starters, it is rather difficult to end a feud if the other guy is still pissed about. Second, the “money” paid out in feud systems is often taken from relatives (or others in your feud-insurance group,) which puts strain on a bunch of innocent people. Third, the “money” is often not money at all, but women and children, who become effectively slaves. (Think back to the child Okonkwo murdered in Things Fall Apart., because someone in the child’s village had murdered someone in Okonkwo’s village. Obviously the just solution is to… take someone’s innocent child and chop him up with machetes. Well, that is a solution that deters future crime, yes, but it fails on point three, because it harms someone who is innocent.)

… a number of existing legal systems show evidence of having been built on top of pre-existing feud systems.

The clearest example is Anglo-American common law. It evolved out of Anglo-Saxon law. Anglo-Saxon law, at least prior to its final century, was essentially Icelandic law plus a king. The king claimed that some offenses were violations of the king’s peace, hence that offenders owed damages to both him and the victim. Expand that approach enough and eventually the exception swallows the rule, converting all crimes into offenses against the crown alone.

We’ll be looking at the hard to believe it worked, if it did, English law in a bit.

The authors note that just because feuding is no longer the official legal way to deal with one’s problems, it still remains a very instinctive way, and the way folks who don’t have other legal options (like drug dealers) punish folks who’ve done them wrong:

Much of the crime in a modern society can be interpreted as private enforcement. A retaliatory killing in the course of a conflict among urban gangs is one example, a husband who discovers another man in bed with his wife and shoots him another.

It’d be interesting to see some data on this.

There is a summary of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, which I will leave to you to read.

On to merry old England.

The two most striking anomalies are the institutions for prosecuting offenders and the range of punishments.

Prosecution was, in essence, private. There were no police, DAs, or taxpayer-supported Constables, but you could hire your own:

A victim of a crime who wanted a constable to undertake any substantial effort in order to apprehend the perpetrator was expected to pay the expenses of doing so. … Any Englishman could prosecute a crime… It was up to him to file charges with the local magistrate, present evidence to the grand jury, [etc].

The English were opposed to the idea of a professional police force on the grounds that such a thing was “French” and “tyrannical.” (As the authors point out, though, it is the French system that went down in the flames of Revolution and the English system that persisted, so… maybe the English were on to something.)

This system of people prosecuting crimes themselves was, as you might have guessed, a pain in the butt. Poor or busy people who’d suffered a crime generally didn’t have the resources necessary to bring a case to trial, so the government decided to fix things by offering rewards for the conviction of serious crimes.

Naturally, criminals started framing innocent people just to collect the fines:

The most famous of the resulting scandals involved the McDaniel gang who, when one of hteir plots miscarried and they were themselves tried, turned out to have been responsible over a period of about six years for the transportation of two men and the hanging of six and to have received a total of 1,200 pounds in state rewards.

Paid police were introduced in London in 1829, and later to the rest of England.

The authors then note that the strange thing is that this system functioned at all, though I suspect it functioned mostly despite itself, due to the character of the English people and community-level mechanisms such as reputation and social standing.

The other oddity of English law at the time (at least from a modern perspective) is the relative lack of intermediate punishments. Criminals could be hanged, banished, sold into slavery in a foreign country, or pardoned. The moderate punishment of a few years’ imprisonment was rare, most likely because it would have required the building of expensive physical infrastructure (prisons) and staffing them with paid jailers, and the English were obviously leery of putting any taxpayer money into their criminal justice system.

The prisons of the eighteenth century, when they existed, were pretty awful. (I have posted about prisons before.) Rat-infested, unheated, unventilated (though sometimes there were massive cracks in the walls that made them far too ventilated,) no toilets; in general, if you went to prison, there was a good chance you would die there.

As for the offenses themselves, the British had an interesting way of raising their overall IQ:

“Benefit of clergy” originated as a legal rule permitting clerics charged with capital offenses to have their cases transferred to a church court, which did not impose capital punishment. “Cleric” came to be defined as anyone who could read…

Clergyable offenses were offenses for which, absent benefit of clergy, the punishment was death. Manslaughter, for example, was a clergyable felony.

It sounds like this started as the church exerting independent power and claiming the right to punish its own, separate from the secular authorities, with the government potentially going along with it because people who could read were too few and far between to hang, and gradually evolved as literacy spread.

Once the British developed good boats and colonies, they realized they could just get rid of their annoying criminals. At first, they sold them into slavery, though the book shies away from calling it that:

Transportation was by private merchants. A merchant who wished to transport a felon was required to pay the sheriff “a price per head…” After transporting the felon to the New World, the merchant could sell him into indentured servitude…

Merchants made good profits on young, healthy people who’d make good slaves, but old or useless prisoners couldn’t be sold for much and so languished in holding cells.

Transportation became rarer because the receiving colonies began passing laws against it–for some reason respectable folks in Virginia and Maryland didn’t want the English dumping a bunch of criminals into their communities.

Eventually the government decided that instead of selling prisoners to the merchants, they’d get rid of more prisoners if they paid the merchants to take them. They were still sold into slavery on the other side of their journey, however.

As Wikipedia put it:

In England in the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe, later termed the Bloody Code. This was due to both the particularly large number of offences which were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging), and to the limited choice of sentences available to judges for convicted criminals. With modifications to the traditional Benefit of clergy, which originally exempted only clergymen from civil law, it developed into a legal fiction by which many common offenders of “clergyable” offenses were extended the privilege to avoid execution.[10] Many offenders were pardoned as it was considered unreasonable to execute them for relatively minor offences, but under the rule of law, it was equally unreasonable for them to escape punishment entirely. With the development of colonies, transportation was introduced as an alternative punishment, although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself.[11] …

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell overcame the popular prejudice against subjecting Christians to slavery or selling them into foreign parts, and initiated group transportation of military[14] and civilian prisoners.[15] With the Restoration, the penal transportation system and the number of people subjected to it, started to change inexorably between 1660 and 1720, with transportation replacing the simple discharge of clergyable felons after branding the thumb. Alternatively, under the second act dealing with Moss-trooper brigands on the Scottish border, offenders had their benefit of clergy taken away, or otherwise at the judge’s discretion, were to be transported to America, “there to remaine and not to returne”.[16][17]

Probably some of my great-great-ancestors in there.

The Transportation of convicts to Australia is well-known, but plenty of American colonists started out the same way. I don’t know how many were transported–Wikipedia gives estimates between 50,000 and 120,000 for North America and 162,000 for Australia.

The Encyclopedia Virginia has an interesting paragraph contrasting Indentured, Convict, and Slave labor: 

Indentured servants voluntarily entered into the master-servant arrangement for a specified number of years (between five and seven), made the decision themselves to go to the colonies, and had to be given a freedom fee, clothes, and seeds at the end of their service. Thus, it was more economical for some planters to purchase British felons who also served for seven years in most cases, but who did not have to be paid at the end of their term of labor. The purchase price of convicts was also lower than that of indentured white and enslaved African laborers. Late in the colonial period, a male enslaved person cost between £35 and £44. Most male convicts sold for less than £13 and the women for £7 to £10. Even semiskilled convicts could be purchased for £7 to £14 and skilled felons for £15 to £25. A final inducement for buying convicts came from the fact that because they were already outlaws from society’s rules, they could more easily be exploited.

The transportation of convicts to the US basically stopped due to the American Revolution, which probably caused an uptick in demand for other, more expensive varieties of slaves.

Ugh, cheap labor is such a horror show.

Back to the book. The authors note that juries did not always convict people to the full extent of the law:

In other cases the jury failed to include in its verdict features of the crime, … that would have made it non-clergyable the combined effect of acquittals and conviction for a lesser… offense was that, in the sample examined by Beatte, fewer than 40% of those charged with capital property felonies and fewer than 25% of those charged with murder were actually convicted of those offenses.

Of course, in the US system, something like 95% of criminal cases end in plea bargains rather than court cases of any sort.

Convicts could also be pardoned, which resulted in only 16% of those charged with capital crimes actually hanging. (This is still much higher than in our system.)

Evidence that this system worked comes in the form of crime statistics:

Beattie’s figures, based on homicide indictments per capita, suggests that rural homicide rates fell more than fourfold and urban about ninefold between 1660 and 1800. … it seems likely that much, perhaps most, of the drop in the crime rate between 1660 and 1900 occurred prior to the introduction of paid police.

This is in line with the generalized drop in homicide that we’ve seen across the developed world over the past thousand years:

homicide_in_europe_1200_2000

Murder rates tend to track pretty well with development level and IQ, though it’s not clear whether reducing murder makes it easier for people to do business, or raising standards of living makes people less likely to murder each other, or making people smarter makes them less likely to murder each other and better at doing business–but it’s probably all of the above.

World-Murder-Rate-Geocurrents-Map-1024x726

Either way, given the nigh-universality of these trends over time and space, I suspect they don’t have as much to do with the specific penal institutions of 17th and 18th century England and more to do with things like “the rise of capitalism” or “the Hajnal Line.”

The authors discuss a number of other potential mechanisms to make the British system more workable, including, essentially, prosecution insurance groups, ie, an association for the prosecution of felons.

Thousands of prosecution associations were established in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I interpret their main function not as insurance but commitment.

(That is, demonstrating to a potential thief a willingness to prosecute him.)

There was also a system that was similar to our plea bargains, which let criminals (or people accused of crimes) pay off the prosecutor and not go to trial. This benefited the prosecutor (who still got paid) and the defendant (who didn’t hang or go to the colonies.) This sounds rather similar to the Gypsy system of threatening to report each other to the local legal system if the other person doesn’t stop misbehaving.

Viewed from this standpoint, cases that went to trial represent failures, not successes, of the system.

Well, that is an interesting interpretation of the legal system being so unworkable that it functions as an effective extortion threat.

The tactic of starting a prosecution in order to be paid to drop it is familiar in the literature on malicious prosecution.

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.

The authors then discuss why England lacked much in the way of imprisonment, agreeing with my assessment that it was just too expensive.

As for enslaving prisoners, outside of the colonies:

I conclude that galley slaves, at a time when galleys were still militarily useful, probably produced services worth more than the cost of guarding and maintaining the slaves but in other employments France, like England, found that prison labor cost more than it was worth.

Slaves are bad workers.

The authors neglect the enslavement of Scottish coal miners, though.

The authors delve into the role of pardons and paying off prosecutors, and conclude that the majority of convicts getting off with lighter sentences than the ones prescribed by law isn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially if the laws were improperly harsh to start with) if the occasional very public execution of a criminal is frightening enough to make potential criminals afraid to commit crimes. Humans do not generally sit down and work out the exact odds of getting caught and convicted before committing a crime, but watching someone die publicly and painfully can make a sharp impression. Thus only the occasional real enforcement of the full penalties may have been necessary to keep down crime more generally.

In conclusion, I am not quite in agreement with the authors that this was a reasonably good system despite itself. I think the British managed to find workarounds to compensate for a mediocre system. I suppose the distinction I am drawing here is bottom up vs top down. I think if you tried to impose this system on a different group of people, you’d end up with different outcomes because they would invent different informal ways of routing around the system’s inefficiencies, which means the relative “success” of the system is really the success of the people in it.

If I am going to recommend a particular set of rules, those rules should be independently functional, not only functional because people ignored them and set up alternative rules to abide by.

But perhaps I am being too picky, and this is always the way of modern legal systems–top down rules imposed by the powerful combined with bottom-up institutions created by emergent social behavior.

 

Well, that’s all for now. What did you think of the chapter? Any thoughts on the (very short) section on the development of English law over the past millennium? Take care, and we’ll read more in a week.

Dlíthe na hÉireann: The Laws of Erin

800px-cuinbattle
Cu Chulainn, from the Cattle Raid of Cooley

Welcome back to Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be discussing Irish law, insofar as we can reconstruct what it looked like over the centuries before England invaded.

Ireland is one of those countries that it has become popular to over-mythologize, especially in certain New Age/Wiccan circles, so I am always a little skeptical about Irish-related claims–I’m in the uncomfortable position of knowing a lot, but not knowing how much of what I know is actually true.

People want Ireland to be this eternal place with a deep connection to Europe’s mythic past, perhaps because it wasn’t conquered by the Romans, or perhaps because it retained a more primitive agricultural/herding economic system for longer than its neighbors (which strikes me as probably just an accident of geography.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Hunter gatherer’s camp at Irish National Heritage Park Exhibit showing how a 7000 B.C. campsite of Mesolithic period hunter gatherers would have looked. They were nomadic and built temporary houses. Wood, bone and flint were the materials of their tools. They fished using dugout canoes – there is one in the photo.” More photos in the park Credit to David Hawgood  

Ireland was settled relatively late, by European standards, because it was covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age. (If humans lived there before the Ice Ages, we have no evidence of them.) The first (known) humans showed up around 12,500 years ago, but we don’t know if they stuck around; evidence of really continuous habitation doesn’t show up until 10,000 years ago.

These folks were hunter-gatherers who built simple shelters that would have made the first little pig proud.

Around 6,500 BC, Ireland’s hunter-gatherers were conquered by farmers, known as the Linear Pottery Culture or LBK. LBK originated around Anatolia and raised sheep, goats, cattle, wheat, and barley. They also appear to have introduced red deer to Ireland. (I suspect wheat that originated in the Middle East originally struggled to grow in Ireland, but sheep did fine.)

The hunter-gatherer population of Ireland was never very big–Wikipedia estimates it around 8,000 people. The farming/herding population was much bigger, around 100,000 or more.

The LBK people also brought the practice of building stone monuments, such as the famous Newgrange, built ca. 5,200 years ago.

Metallurgy arrived with a new group of people, the Bell Beaker, around 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC). They were probably Indo-European speakers but we don’t know which language they spoke; Irish proper probably arrived a little later, with the Celts. This era is marked by the production of metal objects–jewelry, swords, axes, etc–and of course the development of mining and long-distance trade.

crannog_-_geograph.org_.uk_-_35551
Reconstruction of a Crannog (technically, this one is located in Scotland.) By Christine Westerback  

Housing changed in a rather distressing way–people began constructing their huts (called crannogs) on platforms built in the middle of lakes. This is how you build when either the fishing is very good, or the invaders are very nasty.

As far as I know, the Celts arrived around 500 BC, which on the scale of ancient human migrations wasn’t that long before the Romans invaded Britain, a mere 450 years later.

This is the society whose laws were variously recorded when literacy reached Ireland a few hundred years down the line, around the 7th through 12th centuries CE. The Tain Bo Cuailnge (pronounced “cooley,” because Irish likes to throw in extra letters, but honestly, English has words like “through”, so who are we to judge?) or “Cattle Raid of Cooley,” written in the 12th century (though it may be based on manuscripts that were written centuries earlier and just haven’t survived) about events in the first, offers some insight into the political structure of pre-British Ireland.

Insights from the Tain:

  1. Ireland was ruled by multiple kings, not a single high king
  2. Some of the rulers were women
  3. Wealth was counted in cattle
  4. Particularly nice cows/bulls might be traded or lent for political reasons
  5. Sometimes cattle were stolen; particularly successful cattle raids were immortalized
  6. Warrior culture

There are hints in these stories of the archaeological record–of course, the Irish histories speak explicitly about the migrations of different peoples to Ireland; Cu Chulainn (the hero of the Tain) is himself half Gael and half Tuatha de Danann–depending on the source, the Tuatha are a conquered people, fairies, gods, or people who worshiped a particular god (or goddess).

I propose a fairly straightforward sequence of events: The Celts (or Gaels) invaded and, after some conquering, married a fair number of the locals. In some areas bands of locals and invaders lived side by side for some years; many advantageous marriages may have been conducted to join the estates of local chiefs with invading warriors, and notables like Cu Chulainn with mixed ancestries may have been fairly common. Alternatively, the ancestry may be a bit more attenuated, like when certain American whites claim a smidgen of Native American ancestry. (*cough* Elizabeth Warren *cough*)

The conquering of a bronze-age people by an iron-age people might be remembered in the claim that “fairy folk” have no iron or are allergic to iron. I’d be allergic to iron, too, if the iron were a spear slicing open my intestines.

At any rate, some of the conquered people might have retreated into the hills and bogs and other unappealing places, eventually becoming a memory of an impoverished, violent, “fairy race;” elsewhere, rulers keen on presenting themselves as legitimate to all of their subjects may have played up their semi-mythic Tuatha ancestries, even turning their ancestors into a kind of ancestral cult which eventually resulted in elevating them to the levels of gods and demi-gods.

Or perhaps this is all nonsense speculation. Let’s get on with the book:

Ireland at the beginning of the fifth century was a pagan country with a rich oral literature and an elaborate legal system, also oral. …

Whoever the authors [of the legal texts] were, they showed a strong conservative bias, recording not only legal rules still in practice in the seventh and eight centuries, when the texts were written down, but older rules as well. Their writing thus provides a somewhat blurred window on the pre-Christian legal system, which may have preserved institutions going back much further, possibly as far as the period before the different Indo-European languages separated. The evidence for that conjecture is in part linguistic, similar words in different Ind-European languages connected with the same legal/political institutions, and in part comparative, features that the early Irish legal system shared with ancient Indian law.

This is a fascinating idea which the authors never return to or develop at all in this chapter. We’re never told which terms in Irish law are cognate with terms in other legal systems, nor which traits it shares with the Indian system. (Maybe they’ll get around to it in a future chapter?) People have this funny habit of assuming that Irish things in particular are ancient survivals from ancient Europe, but why would Ireland in particular have any more ancient Indo-European survivals than, say, Germany? or Russia?

To the extent that Irish law looks like Indian (or Somali) law, I’d posit that 1/3 of the similarities are due to the needs of a herding society (Ireland and Somalia), 1/3 the dominance of a warrior elite over a conquered peasant class (Ireland and India) and 1/3 random chance/people  identifying parallels that aren’t really there. Overall, I suspect that Irish law developed in situ, in response to the particular situation in Ireland.

The Ireland described in the law books was divided into a large number of small kingdoms… modern scholars estimate hat there were about a hundred of them, with a population of a few thousand in each.

I feel like this is an abuse of the word “kingdom.” Shouldn’t these be “fiefdoms” or “clans” or “chieftanships” or something similar? The text supplies the Irish word “tuath,” which just means “people,” so I think “clan territory” is more appropriate.

A king might recognize the overlordship of another and more powerful king. … While the idea of a high king of all Ireland existed and the title was sometimes claimed, such a king is mentioned only rarely…

A king who is under another king’s rule isn’t a king.

For the most part, an individual had legal rights only within his own kingdom, although some special categories, such as poets and hermits, had rights elsewhere.

Good poets must have been in short supply.

An interesting custom:

… when the subject of one king was killed by the subject of another, both acknowledging a common overlord, the procedure for collecting the fine for the killing was initiated by the victim’s king taking a hostage, presumably a subject of the killer’s king, in the court of their overlord.

Getting your king to go out of his way to visit another king’s court and take a hostage sounds like an inconvenient way for the common man to achieve justice. I doubt it happened very often, except for cases involving rather prominent or powerful subjects/relatives of the king.

Within the clan, people were divided into kin groups, with agricultural land generally held within a group, called a derbfine, defined by a paternal great-grandfather.

The derbfine, like the much larger dia-paying group in the Somali system, was responsible for enforcing the rights of its members, if necessary by feud, sharing in the payment of damage payments by its members and the receipt of damage payments to its members.

The authors note that networks of mutual obligations, while good when you have debts, limit your ability to make contracts that might impose new costs or debts or obligations on everyone else in the network.

Kind of like how your health insurer would really appreciate it if you didn’t smoke.

Despite the occasional “warrior woman” or queen popping up in the sagas, Irish law wasn’t favorable toward women:

Marriage law recognized a range of possible relationships, depending both on the resources each party brought into the marriage and the degree to which the marriage had or had not been approved of by the women’s kin… A man would normally have a chief wife but could also have a secondary wife or concubine.

A woman was under the authority first of her father, then her husband, hen her sons, and had very restricted rights.

Fostering was common, though:

Fostering of children was a common practice that established a form of pseudo-kinship… a man’s foster father had a claim to a fraction of the blood-money if his foster son was killed…

Irish law was built around a status system similar to the Indian Caste system, which is probably a reflection of the realities of life in a conquered country:

An individual’s honor price determined what he was owed for offenses against him but also the limits to his legal capacity, including the amount for which he could contract on his own authority and the weight of his evidence in legal dispute.

The major categories of status were [noble], non-noble freemen, and unfree. Within each there was a range of sub-categories. …

[Nobles] had a variety of legal privileges, limiting the degree to which legal rights could be enforced against hem… One consequence… was to make contracting with them risky, since it might prove impossible to enforce the contract, a problem pointed out in the period sources.

There’s a system rather like feudalism or sharecropping, in which lords have clients who are provided land or animals in exchange for a share of the produce or other services.

Among the unfree, the major divisions were between the semi-free… who had no land of his own and no independent honor price, the hereditary serf, who was bound to the land, and the salve.

More than one level of unfree. Sounds awful.

Private Law:

The legal sources describe mechanisms for making and enforcing contracts that do not appear to depend on either royal courts or any centralized mechanisms for judgement and enforcement. But there are also references to what appears to be curial law, law enforced in the court of a king. …

Private contract law depended on a system of sureties, third parties with rights and obligations connected with the contract…

Freedom of contract within the system was limited by the network of mutual obligations. … A son was obliged to support his aged father, so a father could under some circumstances cancel a contract the son made that might reduce his ability to do so [and vice versa]. Husband and wife had mutual obligations which gave each the right to cancel some contracts made by the other, with the details depending in part on the nature of their marriage.

The derbfine also placed restrictions on the sorts of contracts and obligations the individual could have–in general, in systems where governments don’t offer social safety nets, such restrictions are the norm.

Anyway, if you did make a contract and then failed to fulfill it, after some back and forth announcements and mediation, the other party could come and drive away your cattle. People probably did not always allow their cattle to be driven away without a fight, though.

Of course, if you’ve entered into a contract with someone of higher social standing than yourself, you don’t get to just up and drive away their cattle. The king has more soldiers than you do; good luck.

So if a king or other noble has wronged you, the proper procedure was a kind of ritual fast outside the noble’s house. For whatever reasons, the nobleman was obliged not to eat while the fast was going on, until he had satisfied the claim against him. How exactly this was enforced, I don’t know. Maybe shame.

More violent crimes, like murder, were settled like the Icelandic system, via feud and payment:

In both, offenses were expected to be open rather than concealed…

Just as in Somalia, there was a pre-existing coalition responsible for both pursuing feud on behalf of a wronged member and assisting with the payment of damages owed by a member.

Ireland did have some sort of court system, with professional judges and lawyers; after a promise or physical pledge to abide by the judge’s decision, the case proceeded in a manner fairly similar to modern courts.

As in Jews and Islamic law, the legal procedure might include the swearing of oaths; under some circumstances someone accused of an offense could defend himself by swearing the charge away. …

the force of an oath was linked to the honor price of the person swearing it; a higher-status individual could overswear a lower-status.

This isn’t really a system that looks out for the little guy, but if several little guys teamed up, they might be able to get their oaths to add up to the same value as higher-status person’s.

Women’s oaths were only accepted if no one else could be found to swear on a thing. In general, they weren’t allowed to be witnesses.

Disputes could also be settled via ordeal or duel.

 

That’s all for now. If anyone knows what these supposed parallels with Indian law or proto-Indo-European legal survivals are, I’d love to hear them.

Next week we’ll hop across the pond and discuss the Comanches, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.

Icelandic Law

 

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Icelandball

Today we’re discussing the legal system of saga-period Iceland in Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.

First, a little background:

Iceland … is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic, with a population of 360,390[4] and an area of 103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi), making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.[b][8]  …Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau characterised by sand and lava fieldsmountains, and glaciers, and many glacial rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands. … Its high latitude and marine influence keep summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

According to the ancient manuscript Landnámabók, the settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island.[9] In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls (i.e., slaves or serfs) of Gaelic origin.

The island was governed as an independent commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world’s oldest functioning legislative assemblies. Following a period of civil strife, Iceland acceded to Norwegian rule in the 13th century.

Iceland today is a small country; Iceland in the saga era was even smaller. Official records weren’t kept until the 1700s, but at that time, the population was a bit under 50,000 and stayed there for over a hundred years, so I think it’s safe to put 50,000 as our max population for the saga period.

Ethnically, the male population was about 66% Viking and 34% Scottish/Irish slaves; the female population was about 60% Scottish/Irish slaves and 40% Viking.

Note that Iceland’s population went from about 50,000 to 350,000 in two hundred years–seven times bigger–yet Wikipedia claims, “Due to a shortage of labor,[21] immigration to Iceland will most likely increase in the future.[22]” How the fuck do you septuple your population and still have a “shortage of labor”?

Utter nonsense.

Anyway, back to the Viking age, when people solved their problems by stabbing each other, setting their houses on fire, and kidnapping the women:

In saga-period Iceland a thousand years ago, if you killed someone his relatives sued you.

Despite being a bunch of Vikings and their slaves, Icelanders still set up a legal system that was sufficiently complex that modern scholars aren’t sure exactly how it worked. (I’m sure if some future legal scholars tried to piece together the American legal system from old episodes of Perry Mason plus some law review articles, they’d also be confused.) Our understanding of the Icelandic system similarly comes from a combination of entertaining stories (sagas) and a collection of legal texts written down later, the Gragas. It’s tempting to claim that Gragas must be correct, since it is actually a collection of legal texts, but I challenge you to read a bunch of US case law and use it to piece together how US law actually works in practice. (You won’t.)

As for what we know:

The political system they developed [in Iceland] was based on Norwegian traditions with one important innovation–there was no king.

At the base of the system stood the godi [note: the d should be crossed]… The original godar seem to have been local leaders who built pagan temples and served as their priests. A godi received temple dues and provided in exchange both religious and political services. The godord was his congregation. The relationship between the godi and his thingmen was contractual not territorial. The godi had no claim to the thingman’s land and the thingman was free to transfer his allegiance.

It’s hard to have a king or exert much power over people when population density is low and they can just move on if you annoy them too much. I don’t think this is really a political innovation so much as a reality of low-density frontiers-like areas.

Personally, I don’t like using non-English terms when perfectly good translations exist. the godi (plural, godar) is a priest. The godord is his congregation.

Under the system of laws established in AD 930, these local leaders were combined into a national system. In 960, Iceland was divided into four quarters, each containing nine godord clustered in groups of three called things. …

The one permanent official of this system was the … lawspeaker; he was elected… His job was to memorize the laws, recite them once during his term in office, provide advice on difficult legal points and preside over the … legislature.

I once tried to figure out how many laws the US has and came up with an official answer of “no one knows, not event he government.” It’s not exactly clear what is and isn’t a law–for example, if the state mandates that parents whose kids have more than 10 unexcused absences from school in a year be charged with truancy, then does the schools’ procedure for reporting medical absences count as a law? Our system is complicated, and no mortal could ever memorize it, much less recite it all in a timely manner.

The existence of the lawspeaker was probably just necessity in a system where not everyone was literate, but it also provides a check on the number of laws (and thus the structure that the law takes,) since it must be humanly possible for someone to memorize them all.

The godord [congregation] itself was two different things. It was … the particular men who had agreed to follow that godi [priest], to be members of that [congregation]. … The godord was also a bundle of rights, including the right to sit in the [lawcourt] and appoint judges for certain courts. … it was the right to be the person through whom ordinary farmers plugged into the legal system.

So everyone has to be associated with some congregation of other, but you get to chose the one you want to be part of. Once you’re part of a congregation, you have to pay your priest an annual tax, which pays for the expenses of the men who attend the annual lawcourt and decide cases. Membership in the congregation and thus the right to sit in the legal assembly and hear court cases could be bought, sold, given away, inherited, etc.

For serious offenses, conviction meant full outlawry. … It was legal to kill an outlaw, illegal to feed him, shelter him, or help him to leave Iceland. … A lesser outlaw had the right to leave Iceland and could return in three years.

If you’re declared an outlaw, then the court takes your stuff and gives it to the victims or their surviving relatives (saving some for any of your innocent children).

Prosecution was up to the victim or his kin… Most cases in the sagas were settled out of court, usually for money damages. … Many were settled by arbitration. .. Calculations by two different scholars suggest tat only about a tenth of cases went to a final judgment by the court.

Lest you think this is a lot, 97% of criminal cases in the US end with plea bargains rather than actual court trials.

Icelandic law distinguished between killing and murder–secret killing. After killing a man, one was obliged to announce the fact immediately. … Murder cost the killer the ability to raise legal defenses, such as the fact that his victim was an outlaw or had forfeited his immunity by attacking [first, I presume.]

Since this is a system of privately enforced law in which people essentially join a legal society and then pay taxes to it, there’s always the possibility that the poor will be too poor to afford justice, or the rich so rich they can buy their way out.

The former was not a problem, the authors argue, because the money for a successful conviction was always potentially available, so even people too poor to prosecute a case could sell their case to someone else who would be happy to pursue it for profit.

The latter case, the rich buying their way out of trouble, became a problem as the poor peasants (and slaves) who made up Iceland’s initial population gradually built up their estates and some families became significantly more wealthy than others:

By the Sturlung period there were many areas where all or most of the godord were held by one family, reducing or eliminating the ability of the individual thingman to choose his godi and creating a de facto, if imperfect, form of territorial sovereignty…

Another possible source of concentration of wealth and power was the introduction of Christianity…

A second and related cause of the breakdown was the introduction into Iceland of a foreign ideology–monarchy. … Several of the leading figures, when out of Iceland, usually as a result of a settlement that included temporary outlawry, became retainers of the king…

Population growth=all of the good land gets snatched up. Over time, some families get richer and accumulate more power. Eventually, they use that power to get more power, setting themselves up as local lords; with all of the good land taken, people have nowhere else to go if they get fed up.

Exit provides a workable system if there are other places to go; not if everything is closed off already. Eventually, bigger societies become more hierarchical, except in Iceland’s case, this led to a total breakdown of the system.

Of course, even during the breakdown, Iceland was still safer than the US at the peak of the crime wave:

According to a calculation by a scholar who went through the Sturlung sagas counting bodies, during more than fifty years of the violent breakdown of the traditional system the number of people killed or executed each year, on a per capita basis, was roughly equal to the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in the United States in 1975.

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001

Today, of course, Iceland is one of the world’s safest countries:

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Murder rate per 100k people in 2012: light blue = 0-1; darkest blue > 20

That’s all for today; next week we’ll look at Somali law. Should be fun. Take care.

Our AI future

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AI generated art

The First AI-Generated Piece of Art Comes to Auction:

AI artwork sells for $432,500 — nearly 45 times its high estimate — as Christie’s becomes the first auction house to offer a work of art created by an algorithm

I honestly think that within ten years or so, a large percent of the “media” people consume, from TV to porn to news to music to art, will be computer-generated and only vaguely checked/edited by humans for errors.

We’re already halfway there. The news content in your feed is already curated by computer algorithms. Your YouTube playlists and recommendations are curated by algorithms.

Walmart uses Big Data, not human logic, to determine that Poptarts should be stocked next to the hurricane supplies. Walmart never had to think, “People want tasty food that doesn’t require cooking in waterproof packaging when hurricanes are coming” to notice a trend in the data and stick the poptarts next to the bottled water.

But those are algorithms dealing with human-produced inputs; some human did actually invent the poptart.

AI generated story (the bold text was my input):

The dark elf walked into an inn, carrying a harp and dagger.  He approached the bed when a rous’do shouted, “Oh, that’s my archer! I got you!”  “Hah! I told you to leave me alone.”  Dark elf pulled out a weapon he found lying on the bed, pointing it at the hooded man, “Oh, I thought that you wouldn’t be so clever. I’ll take your archer with me!  So please, don’t come back!”
Dark elf shouted, “I ain’t leaving you alone!  Don’t come back, you filthy, rotten little whore!”  “I ain’t leaving you alone!  No, this time I’m taking all you have and turning you into a fine specimen!”  “I ain’t leaving you alone.”
The hooded man yelled, “Oh, my God!”  “Don’t you know we have enough to eat?  Come to my house, we’re on the list to have your head on a plate!  I will have you punished!”
“No no!  I can’t.  It’s not fair.”  “I said you can’t!”  “Oh, really?  That’s a great idea!

Some AI generated news:

Donald Trump proposed buying Greenland today.  I wonder if we could do to ourselves what he did to Scotland, to Greenland. Trump’s promise to build a barrier around Greenland would be a major change in tone, considering his attitude toward North Korea as well.
We were reminded recently that it has been three decades since the last time a major American leader came to Greenland to visit.  I can recall only one visit–and it was a very short visit.  I imagine the President’s visit could be as small or as large as he wants, without much of a change in tone.  So maybe we could do it too.
What did George W. Bush do for the people of Greenland?  Well, we probably got our oil, but no oil.  There’s just enough room for one of his family’s homes–but the rest of the land is off limits.  Trump has not been shy in his praise of Greenland’s icecaps, saying: When I see it there, you see the majesty of the icecaps…. When I look and see how Greenland has been working since this summer, people are thanking me for all this ice…. I know Greenland well.  From Greenland is a country where you have to learn about your country.  Ice is also a key economic component for Greenland.

AI generated porn, coming soon:

These technologies aren’t great yet, but they’re improving fast. And besides, how do you know your memes weren’t AI-generated already?

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What does this thing even mean?

In some areas, like art, the AI will be vastly better than us humans. Cameras already are; algorithms trained on the likes of Kinkaid, Wyland, Rembrandt, and Monet will churn out cheap, beautiful art (and calendars) in any style you want.

In other arenas, like novels and news articles, the results will be bad, mostly because so much nuance goes into human language, politics, and communication. People will consume these anyway.

Once the main use of AI-generated art isn’t avant-garde but beautiful, people will argue that it isn’t “real art” and only plebes will buy beautiful AI-generated paintings, while AI-generated news will seep into your feed without you even noticing. Entire classes will consume AI-gen news without blinking an eye.

In a way, they already are.

AI-generated porn has the potential to be good, but in practice will be terrible because no one cares if their porn is terrible.

Eventually, whether one consumes media made by actual humans will become a social marker of sorts–probably first of low status, as only rich people can afford $400,000 paintings; later of high status, as AI-generated memes and incoherent news articles flood the timelines of people who are, unfortunately, not smart enough to realize that they don’t make sense.

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Burned by the machine

Of course, AI will not be neutral. Remember the time Microsoft released an AI chatbot and let it just interact with the internet, but forgot that the internet is full of humans and humans love teaching parrots to curse, so they had to shut it down?

When you think about it, humans are really the weak link in AI-generated content.

The Amish, of course, will just go on about their lives, interacting with real humans while the rest of us watch AI-generated superhero mashups with a never-ending AI-news ticker in the bottom right hand corner of our VR dome, probably while sipping bug-protein based soylent replacement because people were afraid soymilk would give them boobs.

The video games will be awesome, though.