Category: History

That was then, this is now (sacred robot edition)

From the Amazon summary of the forthcoming book Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend by Elizabeth King and W. David Todd:

An abundantly illustrated narrative that draws from the history of art, science, technology, artificial intelligence, psychology, religion, and conservation in telling the extraordinary story of a Renaissance robot that prays.

This volume tells the singular story of an uncanny, rare object at the cusp of art and science: a 450-year-old automaton known as “the monk.” The walking, gesticulating figure of a friar, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is among the earliest extant ancestors of the self-propelled robot. According to legend connected to the court of Philip II of Spain, the monk represents a portrait of Diego de Alcalá, a humble Franciscan lay brother whose holy corpse was said to be agent to the miraculous cure of Spain’s crown prince as he lay dying in 1562.

In tracking the origins of the monk and its legend, the authors visited archives, libraries, and museums across the United States and Europe, probing the paradox of a mechanical object performing an apparently spiritual act. They identified seven kindred automata from the same period, which, they argue, form a paradigmatic class of walking “prime movers,” unprecedented in their combination of visual and functional realism. While most of the literature on automata focuses on the Enlightenment, this enthralling narrative journeys back to the late Renaissance, when clockwork machinery was entirely new, foretelling the evolution of artificial life to come.

Ross Douthat, telephone!  (I did, of course, pre-order the book.)

Happy Birthday Singapore!

Singapore is a wonderful instance of the advantage of the unrestricted enterprise of free trade: so late as the year 1822 there was scarcely a native hut, certainly not one European habitation on the island; in eight years it had not only grown into the most important settlement in the whole of the Malay Archipelago, but was the emporium of more trade than the whole of the other ports put together.  The trade is almost exclusively one of barter, the English merchant procuring profitable exports in exchange for English goods.  The annual value of importations in 1830 was five millions sterling.

The advantages the native merchants experience in finding free trade established at Singapore has withdrawn the whole commerce from the neighboring Dutch ports.  On my subsequently going to Batavia I found the harbour there perfectly denuded between 300 and 400 at anchor bringing produce from every island in the archipelago.

The society of Singapore was tolerably extensive, and most hospitable, and conviviality and good fellowship reigned pre-eminent.

That is from Major Thomas Skinner, Fifty Years in Ceylon, published in 1891, largely compiled in 1868.  Overall an interesting and forthright book, mostly about Ceylon of course.

Transcript of taped conversations among German nuclear physicists (1945)

Here is one excerpt:

> HEISENBERG: […] I believe this uranium business will give the Anglo–Saxons such tremendous power that EUROPE will become a bloc under Anglo–Saxon domination. If that is the case it will be a very good thing. I wonder whether STALIN will be able to stand up to the others as he has done in the past.
> WIRTZ: It seems to me that the political situation for STALIN has changed completely now.
> WEIZSÄCKER: I hope so. STALIN certainly has not got it yet. If the Americans and the British were good Imperialists they would attack STALIN with the thing tomorrow, but they won’t do that, they will use it as a political weapon. Of course that is good, but the result will be a peace which will last until the Russians have it, and then there is bound to be war.[…]

> KORSHING: That shows at any rate that the Americans are capable of real cooperation on a tremendous scale. That would have been impossible in Germany. Each one said that the other was unimportant.

Here is the link, via Fernand Pajot.

Clean Hands, Clear Conclusions: Ignaz Semmelweis as a Pioneer of Causal Inference

My next series is a few things at once. It’s a reminder that sometimes people will do everything in their power to present evidence supporting scientific facts, be unpersuasive and be sent to a mental hospital by their best friend where they spend the next two weeks being beaten by guards mercilessly and then die. But it’s also a discussion of difference-in-differences, and perhaps the challenges of estimation if you’re not entirely clear what the treatment is. And the last thing is just a puzzle I wanted to share in the context of trying to make a broader point about precisely what is implied by the identification elements of a traditional difference-in-differences design.

An excellent introduction to Ignaz Semmelweis, a pioneer in causal inference and medicine, by Scott Cunningham.

Behavioral Economics and ChatGPT: From William Shakespeare to Elena Ferrante

We prompted GPT-4 (an artificial intelligence large language model) to use literary fictional characters to play the Dictator game, a classic behavioral economics experiment. We prompted GPT-4 with 148 characters from the 17th century to the 21st century. Their 888 decisions were used to compare characters over time as well as characters to human players. There is a general and mainly monotonic decrease in selfish behavior over time in literary characters. 41% of the decisions of 17th century characters are selfish compared to just 21% of the decisions of characters from the 21st century. In the Human-AI comparison, Humans are much more selfish than the AI characters with 51% of humans making selfish decisions compared to 28% of the AI characters. 

Here is the full (short) paper by Gabriel Abrams (a junior in high school).

Scrap AML/KYC Laws

Bruce Fenton writing on twitter  X:

It’s time to scrap AML / KYC entirely.

The idea that politicians should know how citizens spend their money is a new and deeply flawed idea.

An entire generation has been fooled into thinking this is a necessary part of finance and the world continues to double down on an unworkable system.

Only 30 years ago when I started my career as a stockbroker/ financial advisor I could call you on the phone and sell you MSFT or IBM stock and I did not need your DOB or your social security number. You didn’t even need to have money in the account.

The 1990s to the post 9-11 Patriot Act (which was a horrible law) saw a radical increase in AML /KYC requirements. These seem to get worse every year.

In my office when we were first required to take a drivers license, the older brokers were incredulous: “What do you mean we need an ID for someone buying stocks?!? What’s next, you need an ID to buy gas or groceries?”

Now, just 25 years later an entire generation thinks this is normal or how it should be. Worse yet, some think the system won’t work without it. The opposite is true — the compliance gums up the works and adds friction where it should not exist.

While the regulator class arrogantly acts as if AML KYC is their birthright and ending it is some sort of untouchable rail, the justifications are weak. Why do we have these regimes? To stop “money laundering”? What is that? Who is the victim? Is it to stop “human trafficking” or “terrorism”? If so, how? Is it to “stop” the 12,000 entities on the OFAC list by messing with the 2,000,000,000 people not on the list?

Are major criminals somehow stopped by this? Has it stopped crime? Even if it did, is it worth burdening millions of firms and billions of people with paperwork and procedures that slow down commerce? Shouldn’t efforts be made to go after the actual criminals rather than encumbering the entire world with an inefficient compliance regime?

Money must be able to flow and move. People must be able to take risks and make investments as they choose. This is the lifeblood of a solid economy and the jobs, growth, prosperity and peace that comes with it. The US (and by extension much of the world due to our influence) is sacrificing jobs, innovation and opportunities by chasing an extremely ineffective and indirect compliance regime.

The entire idea belongs back in the dumpster of history. Let the investigators chase terrorists & human traffickers for those actual crimes and let the other billions of us use and move our money as we wish.

Fenton is correct. As I pointed out earlier, the AML/KYC laws costs about $300 billion a year and recover perhaps $3 billion a year in illicit funds (a tiny, tiny fraction of the amount of illicit revenues). Indeed, AML/KYC laws have probably increased crime because they require so many companies to store personal information which is then vulnerable to hackers. More importantly, it’s absurd that the government forces you to show ID to buy a stock.

Victory City

In the upper deccan of India lies Hampi, today just a village and ancient ruins but once the seat of the Vijayanagara Empire which ruled most of South India from 1336 to 1565. The Vijayanagara Empire was the last big Hindu empire in India before the Mughals and then the British took over, so it holds a special place of admiration and wistful longing among many Indians. The glory of the empire is attested to by foreign visitors. Will Durant writes:

The capital, founded in 1336, was probably the richest city that India had yet known. Nicolo Conti, visiting it about 1420, estimated its circumference at sixty miles; Paes pronounced it “as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight.” There were, he added, “many groves of trees within it, and many conduits of water”; for its engineers had constructed a huge dam in the Tungabadra River, and had formed a reservoir from which water was conveyed to the city by an aqueduct fifteen miles long, cut for several miles out of the solid rock. Abdu-r Razzak, who saw the city in 1443, reported it as “such that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, of any place resembling it upon the whole earth.” Paes considered it “the best-provided city in the world, ‘ .. for in this one everything abounds.” The houses, he tells us, numbered over a hundred thousand-implying a population of half a million souls. He marvels at a palace in which one room was built entirely of ivory; “it is so rich and beautiful that you would hardly find anywhere another such.”

The Vijayanagara Empire and its capitol are the subject of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Victory City. The conceit of Victory City is that it’s told through the life of a demi-god, Pampa Kampana, who literally breathes life into the city and lives through its 229 year history. It’s a fine story, although not one of Rushdie’s best. Wordplay is kept to a minimum which makes it more accessible but less challenging. As the subject is the city, the characters fade somewhat into the background leaving less at stake. Vijayanagara was a commercial city, open to people of all faiths, but Rushdie also feels the need to insert into the narrative 21st century notions of gender equality which stick out like a sore thumb.

Still, if you were planning to visit Hampi (a short flight from Bangalore), Victory City would be a fun primer. Let’s turn back again to Will Durant;

We may judge of its power and resources by considering that King Krishna Raya led forth to battle at Talikota 703,000 foot, 32,600 horse, 551 elephants, and some hundred thousand merchants, prostitutes and other camp followers such as were then wont to accompany an army in its campaigns…Under the Rayas or Kings of Vijayanagar literature prospered, both in classical Sanskrit and in the Telugu dialect of the south. Krishna Raya was himself a poet, as well as a liberal patron of letters; and his poet laureate, Alasani-Peddana, is ranked among the highest of India’s singers. Painting and architecture flourished; enormous temples were built, and almost every foot of their surface was carved into statuary or bas-relief.

…In one day all this power and luxury were destroyed. Slowly the conquering Moslems had made their way south; now the sultans of Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golkonda and Bidar united their forces to reduce this last stronghold of the native Hindu kings. Their combined armies met Rama Raja’s half-million men at Talikota; the superior numbers of the attackers prevailed; Rama Raja was captured and beheaded in the sight of his followers, and these, losing courage, fled. Nearly a hundred thousand of them were slain in the retreat, until all the streams were colored with their blood. The conquering troops plundered the wealthy capital, and found the booty so abundant “that every private man in the allied army became rich in gold, jewels, effects, tents, arms, horses and slaves.” For five months the plunder continued: the victors slaughtered the helpless inhabitants in indiscriminate butchery, emptied the stores and shops, smashed the temples and palaces, and labored at great pains to destroy all the statuary and painting in the city; then they went through the streets with flaming torches, and set fire to all that would burn. When at last they retired, Vijayanagar was as completely ruined as if an earthquake had visited it and had left not a stone upon a stone. It was a destruction ferocious and absolute, typifying that terrible Moslem conquest of India which had begun a thousand years before, and was now complete.

…It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precarious thing, whose delicate complex of order and liberty, culture and peace may at any time be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within.


Top 5 places to visit in Hampi on your 1st trip to great historical site

My excellent Conversation with David Bentley Hart

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

David Bentley Hart is an American writer, philosopher, religious scholar, critic, and theologian who has authored over 1,000 essays and 19 books, including a very well-known translation of the New Testament and several volumes of fiction.

In this conversation, Tyler and David discuss ways in which Orthodox Christianity is not so millenarian, how theological patience shapes the polities of Orthodox Christian nations, how Heidegger deepened his understanding of Christian Orthodoxy, who played left field for the Baltimore Orioles in 1970, the simplest way to explain how Orthodoxy diverges from Catholicism, the future of the American Orthodox Church, what he thinks of the Book of Mormon, whether theological arguments are ultimately based on reason or faith, what he makes of reincarnation and near-death experiences, gnosticism in movies and TV, why he dislikes Sarah Ruden’s translation of the New Testament, the most difficult word to translate, a tally of the 15+ languages he knows, what he’ll work on next, and more.

Hart is probably the best-read CWT guest of all time, with possible competition from Dana Gioia?  Excerpt:

COWEN: If you could explain to me, as simply as possible, in which ways is Orthodox Christianity not so very millenarian?

HART: Well, it depends on what you mean by millenarian. I’d have to ask you to be a bit more —

COWEN: Say the Protestant 17th-century sense that the world is on the verge of a very radical transformation that will herald in some completely new age, and we all should be prepared for it.

HART: Well, in one sense, it’s been the case of Christianity from the first century that it’s always existed in a time between times. There’s always this sense of being in history but always expecting an imminent interruption of history.

But Orthodoxy has been around for a while. It’s part of an underrated culture, grounded originally in the Eastern Greco-Roman world, and has a huge apparatus of philosophy and theology and, I think, over the centuries has learned to be patient.

The Protestant millenarianism you speak of always seems to have been born out of historical crisis in a sense. The rise of the nation-state, the fragmentation of the Western Church — it’s always as much an effective history as a flight from history.

Whereas, I think it’s fair to say that Orthodoxy has created for itself a parallel world just outside the flow of history. It puts much more of an emphasis on the spiritual life, mysticism, that sort of thing. And as such, whereas it still uses the recognizable language of the imminent return of Christ, it’s not at the center of the spiritual life.

COWEN: How does that theological patience shape the polities of Orthodox Christian nations and regions? How does that matter?

HART: Well, it’s been both good and bad, to be honest. At its best, Orthodoxy has cultivated a spiritual life that nourished millions and that puts an emphasis upon moral obligation to others and the life of charity and the ascetical virtues of Christianity, the self-denial. At its worst, however, it’s often been an accommodation with historical forces that are antithetical to the gospel, too.

It’s often been the case that Orthodoxy has been so, let’s say, disenchanted with the millenarian expectation that it’s become a prop of the state, and you can see it today in Russia, in which you have a church institution. Now, this isn’t to speak of the faithful themselves, but the institutional authority of the state — of the institution, rather, of the church more or less being nothing but a propaganda wing of an authoritarian and terrorist government.

So, it’s had both its good and its bad consequences over the centuries. At its best, as I say, it encourages a true spiritual life that can teach one to be detached from ambitions and expectations and the violent projects of the ego. But at its worst, it can become a passive participant in precisely those sorts of projects and those sorts of evils.

Recommended, interesting throughout, and yes I do ask him about the Baltimore Orioles.

Toward a theory of military loyalties

A critical element in civil wars is military fragmentation. Yet, we have a limited understanding of why military elites fight in civil wars and on what side. In this article I develop a theory of the economic and professional motivations of military elites. I test this theory using the case of West Point graduates in the American Civil War. I argue that in addition to home state, economic and professional interests were a major influence on West Pointers. Graduates with connections to Southern cash crops were less likely to fight for the Union and more likely to fight for the Confederacy. Higher ranking graduates were more likely to fight for both sides, as they were better positioned to compete for promotion. I test this argument using a new dataset of more than 1000 West Point graduates’ wartime allegiances and antebellum careers and find strong evidence in support of my expectations.

That is from a newly published paper by Peter B. White.

*Germany in the World*

The author is David Blackbourn, and the subtitle is A Global History 1500-2000.  The focus is on Germany’s global influence abroad and no I don’t mean the Battle of Stalingrad, though that era is covered.  Here is one excerpt:

There was global demand for German scientists of every kind.  The Southern Hemisphere offers two striking examples.  One is Latin america, thanks partly to Humboldt’s legacy.  There were hundreds of Germans scientists in Argentina alone by the early twentieth century, and many others in Chile, Peru, and elsewhere.  German scientists also played an equally outsized role in Australia.  We have already seen the impact made by the botanist Richard Schomburgk and his circle of ’49ers in South Australia.  Among the many German scientists who arrived after midcentury and shaped Australia’s scientific landscape were several who were well connected internationally.  The geophysicist Georg von Neumayer is a perfect specimen of the type.  Neumayer enjoyed support in British scientific circles and was a disciple of the American astronomer and oceanographer Matthew Maury, who had himself been inspired by Humboldt.  In Australia Neumayer established an observatory in Melbourne, before returning to Germany, where he chaired the International Polar Commission in 1879.

Neumayer is a reminder that German remained, as they had been in the era of Forster and Pallas, inveterate scientific travelers.

Recommended, this is quite a good book.

Income inequality in the Aztec empire

Today, Latin American countries are characterized by relatively high levels of economic inequality. This circumstance has often been considered a long-run consequence of the Spanish conquest and of the highly extractive institutions imposed by the colonizers. Here we show that, in the case of the Aztec Empire, high inequality predates the Spanish conquest, also known as the Spanish–Aztec War. We reach this conclusion by estimating levels of income inequality and of imperial extraction across the empire. We find that the richest 1% earned 41.8% of the total income, while the income share of the poorest 50% was just 23.3%. We also argue that those provinces that had resisted the Aztec expansion suffered from relatively harsh conditions, including higher taxes, in the context of the imperial system—and were the first to rebel, allying themselves with the Spaniards. Existing literature suggests that after the Spanish conquest, the colonial elites inherited pre-existing extractive institutions and added additional layers of social and economic inequality.

Here is the full article by Guido Alfani and Alfonso Carballo, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*The Ruble: A Political History*

That is the new, highly useful, and thorough book by Ekaterina Pravilova, here is one excerpt:

Reutern was adamant about exterminating private currencies, but not everyone in the government shared his view.  The minister of justice, Konstantin Pahlen, argued, for instance, that the right to issue private notes should be granted “to all Russian subjects.”  Anyone willing to issue private monetary units should simply inform that local governor about the amount of issue, denominations, and the place these notes could be exchanged for state credit bills.  The issue should also place an “exchange fund” consisting of state money or securities at the disposal of the local administration and order the printing of notes at the Expedition for the Production of State Papers, which would guarantee them against counterfeiting.  In other words, private money should mirror the system of state credit bills and compensate for their deficit…

The debate between the opponents and the proponents of private money revealed an interesting ideological paradox.  Private money in Russia stood for the ideological legacy of serfdom: a system that substituted an entire structure of local administration, p olice and judicial authority, and financial management, all concentrated in the figure of one landowner.

Of course most of the rest of the book covers the rather different directions that we taken.  You can buy it here.

The Harried Leisure Class

How easy is it for a male breadwinner to raise a family? Oren Cass argues that the cost of “thriving,” is increasing. That’s false. When you do the numbers correctly, Winship and Horpedahl show that the cost of thriving is falling. It’s falling more slowly than we would like–but it’s still the case that current generations are, on the whole, better off than previous generations. 

Still, Winship and Horpedahl face an upward battle because while they are right on the numbers many people feel that they are wrong. Almost every generation harbors a nostalgic belief that circumstances were more favorable during their youth. Moreover, even though people are better off today, social media may have magnified invidious comparisons so everyone feels they are worse off than someone else.

I offer a third reason: the Linder Theorem. Real GDP per capita has doubled since the early 1980s but there are still only 24 hours in a day. How do consumers  respond to all that increased wealth and no additional time? By focusing consumption on goods that are cheap to consume in time. We consume “fast food,” we choose to watch television or movies “on demand,” rather than read books or go to plays or live music performances. We consume multiple goods at the same time as when we eat and watch, talk and drive, and exercise and listen. And we manage, schedule and control our time more carefully with time planners, “to do” lists and calendaring. A search at Amazon for “time management,” for example, leads to over 10,000 hits.

Time management is a cognitively strenuous task, leaving us feeling harried. As the opportunity cost of time increases, our concern about “wasting” our precious hours grows more acute. On balance, we are better off, but the blessing of high-value time can overwhelm some individuals, just as can the ready availability of high-calorie food.

So, whose time has seen an especially remarkable appreciation in the past few decades? Women’s time has experienced a surge in value. As more women have pursued higher education and stepped into professional roles, their time’s value has more than doubled, incentivizing a substantial reorganization of daily life with consequent transaction costs.

It’s expensive for highly educated women to be homemakers but that means substituting the wife’s time for a host of market services, day care, house cleaning, transportation and so forth. Juggling all of these tasks is difficult. Women’s time has become more valuable but also more constrained and requiring more strategic allocation and optimization for both spouses. In previous eras, a spouse who stayed at home served as a reserve pool of time, providing a buffer to manage unexpected disruptions such as a sick child or a car breakdown with greater ease. Today, the same disruption require a cascade of rescheduling and negotiations to manage the situation effectively. It feels hard.

By the way, the same theory also explains why life often appears to unfold at a slower, more serene pace in developing nations. It’s not just an illusion of being on holiday. In places where time is less economically valuable, meals stretch more leisurely, conversations delve deeper, and time itself seems to trudge rather than race. In contrast, with economic development comes an increased pace of life–characterized by a proliferation of fast food, accelerated conversation, and even brisker walking (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999).

Linder’s theorem, as you may have correctly surmised, is related to Baumol’s theorem. In fact, Baumol (1973, p. 630) explained Linder’s theorem succinctly, “rising productivity decreases the demand for commodities whose consumption is expensive in time.” In essence, Baumol’s theorem is about the cost of production while Linder’s theorem is about the cost of consumption. I discuss Baumol and Linder at greater length here (ungated).

If the value of time fell, we might find ourselves eating more leisurely meals and taking more time to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. But, contrary to popular belief, neither Baumol nor Linder effects reduce our well-being; instead, they are a byproduct of economic growth and greater wealth. Rather than lamenting the rise in relative prices, we should recognize and appreciate our ability to afford them, and even acknowledge that on certain occasions, they are worth paying.