Pirates and the invisible hook

May 31, 2009

Where there is a sea, there are piratesGreek proverb

 The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.  Bern Williams

 Merchant and pirate were for a long period one and the same person. Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality. Friedrich Nietzsche

             Blackbeard, Sir Henry Morgan, Anne Bonny, Black Bart Roberts, and Calico Jack Rackam – these names have become part of our collective consciousness. These pirates come from a different age but the word is also in vogue now. The other day I typed it into the Guardian search engine and got 438 hits just for this year. This is not just about those Somali pirates wreaking havoc in the Horn of Africa. The scandal about Westminster expenses is all down to a pirate disk that the Daily Telegraph acquired. Last April saw the conviction of Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm, and Peter Sunde, the men behind Pirate Bay, the world’s most notorious filesharing hub. And finally the worst news of all Hollywood is planning to unleash Pirates of the Caribbean 4 in 2012. Oh, I can’t wait for that one! What can you expect from a film that has its origins in a Disney amusement park ride? Give me the real stories about the pirates.

              As the Greek proverb shows piracy goes back a long way – maybe the second ship that was ever built was built by pirates. Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates from Asia Minor as a young man. When the pirates asked for twenty talents, the future dictator was most miffed and suggested that they should actually ask for fifty. He warned them that they would pay for their illegal act. They were captured and Caesar had them crucified. The period we most associate with pirates is The Golden Age of Piracy a period spanning from the 1650s to the 1720s. This is where we get our image of the pirate.

             In his book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, l Peter Leeson looks at pirates as economic actors. They may be operating outside the law but they still respond to economic incentives. They are businessmen who seek to maximise their profits. Violence had to be used in a calculated way. Your victims needed to know that if they resisted they would suffer the consequences but if they surrendered it was important to treat them well to incentivise this behaviour in the future. They preferred to surrender the minute they were approached by a pirate ship, seeing piracy as one of the costs of doing business. If there had been resistance, this would have been more costly for the pirates. A lot of the pirate cruelty shown in the movies did not really happen. Walking the plank seems to have been a myth. If the pirates had wanted to get rid of someone they would have just thrown him overboard.

            Pirates are also interesting terms of their organisational structure. One intriguing paradox is the parallels between our modern democratic constitutional government and in the institutions created by the pirates. Leeson points out that they created self-regulating, democratic societies aboard their ships, complete with checks and balances, more fifty years before the American and French revolutions. They also initiated an early system of workers’ compensation, health care plans, and in some cases they practised racial tolerance and equality. They operated in this way not out of the goodness of their hearts but because they needed to stick together in order to pursue profits. This is what Leeson means by the invisible hook, an obvious allusion to Adam Smith.

            Modern piracy is not really about getting booty – it’s about taking hostages.  Now we face the threat of the Somali pirates. The majority of them used to be fishermen. After the collapse of the Somali government in the 1990s, the coast around Somalia was subject to over-fishing. Some of the fishermen banded together to protect their resource. They armed themselves went to try to stop the over-fishing, making trawlers pay a toll. They soon realised it was a much more lucrative business and inevitably it experienced huge growth. Under maritime law it is illegal to carry weapons so these pirates could get easy prey. It is a hostage-taking business. In general they treat their hostages well – of the 815 people kidnapped last year by the Somali pirates, only four were killed. This is pure economic rationality. It looks like pirates will be around for many years to come.

Pirate code

May 31, 2009

I came across this agreement among pirates on the internet.  This is the pirate version of a written constitution and here are a few of the articles drawn up by the crew of Captain John Phillips in 1723:

 Every man shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full Share and a half in all prizes;The Master, Carpenter, Boatswain, and Gunner shall have one share and a quarter.

If any man shall offer to run away, or keep any secret from the Company, he shall be maroon’d with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm, and shot.

If any man shall steal anything in the Company, or game, to the value of a piece of Eight, he shall be maroon’d or shot. 

That man that shall strike another whilst those Articles are in force, shall receive Moses’s Law (that is 40 stripes lacking one) on the bare back.

 That man that shall not keep his arms clean, fit for engagement, or neglect his business, shall be cut off from his share, and suffer such other punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.

 If any man shall lose a joint in time of engagement shall have 400 pieces of eight; if a limb 800.

 If at any time you meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her, without her consent shall suffer Death.

My media week 31/05/09

May 31, 2009

Private Eye’s Ian Hislop  analyses Henry VIII has been depicted down the years from the Holbein portrait  to Jonathan Rhys Meyers in HD television. Contributors including Alan  Bennett discuss The Six Faces of Henry VIII.


The Telegraph had a piece about a controversial new book  that claims animals possess a sense of morality that allows them to tell the difference between right and wrong: Animals can tell right from wrong.


The Bottom Line is back and in this week’s episode Evan Davis and his guests look at the current status of the recession, the MPs’ expenses debacle and whether optimism is a good thing in the workplace.


Finally The Onion had this piece: KFC No Longer Permitted To Use Word ‘Eat’ In Advertisements

Sketches #4 John Law

May 24, 2009

The man who invented the stock market bubble


We have had an endless diet of financial scandals in recent years but there is nothing new under the sun as the case of the Scottish economist John Law demonstrates. Law was born into a family of bankers and goldsmiths from Fife in 1871. At the age of fourteen Law joined the family business, where he worked and learned the ropes, until the death of his father in 1688. This led Law to abandon the firm and go off to London where he lost a fortune gambling. Things were about to get worse for the young Law. On 9 April 1694, he fought a duel with Edward Wilson over the affections of one Elizabeth Villiers. Wilson was killed, and Law was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to a fine for manslaughter but when Wilson’s brother appealed the sentence, Law was imprisoned.  However, he managed to escape to Amsterdam. At this time the city was the world capital of financial innovation – with the world’s first central bank and the invention of the company. This was the perfect place for Law and he was able to amass a huge fortune through financial speculation. It also gave his some ideas about financial engineering – he now needed a country where he could apply them.


In 1705, he returned to Scotland, and wrote a book – Money and Trade considered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money. The same year, he made a proposal to the Scottish Parliament for the establishment of a national bank, but his suggestion was turned down. He would have to take his schemes back to the continent.


In 1715, he settled in France, and soon came to the attention of the rakish Philippe Duc d’Orleans, Regent for the young king of France. Both Law and the Duke enjoyed frequenting gambling dens. In 1715 Philippe succeeded his uncle and would be Regent to the new king five-year old Louis XV, until 1723. Law now had his foot in the door. In 1716 he persuaded the Duke to allow him to set up the Banque Generale with the power to issue banknotes. Although it was a private bank, three quarters of the capital consisted of government bills and government accepted notes. The economic difficulties faced by the French government gave Law just the opportunity he had been waiting for to put his revolutionary ideas into practice.


We need to look at the historical context of these events. Under Louis XIV France had been at war with England for many years and this left the French economy with its rampant inflation shortage of coins and unstable prices, in a parlous state. It was on the verge of bankruptcy. Law’s plan was to convert government debt from fixed-rate annuities to shares paying a lower rate.  He was going to create the Dutch model but on steroids combining a trading company and a public bank.


In 1817 the Banque Generale became the Banque Royale. Not content with having the French money supply under his tutelage, he then sought the trading concessions of the Compagnie d’Occident and he also had the Royal Mint. This was not a good idea because it gave Law and the Regent the incentive to print money.  Law floated the Compagnie d’Occident as the Mississippi Company, which owned a quarter of what is now the United States in the Companie were originally issued at 500 livres, but rose to 10,000 livres in the course of 1719. When the Companie issued a 40% dividend in 1720, the share price rocketed to 18,000 livres, far-outstripping the capital base of the Companie. This was the biggest financial bubble in history, surpassing what happened in the United States in the 1920s before the onset of the great Depression. The atmosphere is captured by these observations from the time:

It is inconceivable what wealth there is in France now. Everybody speaks in millions. I don’t understand it at all. But I see clearly that the God Mammon reigns an absolute monarch in Paris.


The problem was that the Mississippi Company was based on marketing and had little fundamental value it was basically a Ponzi scheme. In 1720 after those spectacular gains, speculators resolved to take their profits and run. The share price dropped as dramatically as it had risen.  As panic set in investors sought to redeem their bank notes and promissory notes, but the Companie did not have the funds it and went bankrupt. In 1720 with a false passport in his hand, Law fled France returned to his nomadic existence, and died, penniless, in Venice in 1729.


What about the consequences for France? It set back French finances and Louis XV and Louis XVI were permanently hamstrung by a lack of resources, surely one of the most important factors behind the revolution of 1789. Interestingly Britain suffered a similar crisis, The South Sea Bubble, but it did not have the same disastrous effect. The British government took a too-big-to-fail stance, nationalising the company and a resolution was proposed in parliament that bankers be tied up in sacks filled with snakes and tipped into the murky Thames. The lesson I would draw is that is that venality is a constant theme in society but it is also important not to renounce financial innovation completely. Financial innovation has also created a lot of wealth and it would be a grave mistake to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Bad movie reviews

May 24, 2009

The other day the Guardian had a piece about bad movie reviews which featured such barbs: “There are inflatable toys that are livelier than Stone, but how can you tell the difference? Basic Instinct 2 is not an erotic thriller. It’s taxidermy.“ and this one for Striptease: “Not funny enough, or dramatic enough, or sexy enough, or bad enough, to qualify as entertainment in any category.” I had a look on the web and I found some more:



Patch Adams made me want to spray the screen with Lysol. This movie is shameless. It’s not merely a tearjerker. It extracts tears individually by liposuction, without anaesthesia. Roger Ebert, Patch Adams



I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it. Roger Ebert, North



There is something hoary and semaphoric in the actors’ gestures, as if they were meant to be viewed from a distance; the Phantom, for example, keeps swishing his cloak to one side at random intervals, like Batman getting rid of a bad smell. “Touch me, trust me, savour each sensation,” he demands. Would you mind awfully if I don’t? Anthony Lane, The Phantom of the Opera


Mark Steven Johnson’s insufferably precious “reduction” of John Irving’s popular 1989 novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” might be described as the movie equivalent of a piece of stale angel food cake. Bite into it, and what you’ll find is a nearly flavourless mixture of air and sugar and more sugar and a texture so parched that a mouthful is almost impossible to swallow without risk of choking. Stephen Holden, Simon Birch


Should we mind that forty million readers—or, to use the technical term, “lemmings”—have followed one another over the cliff of this long and laughable text? I am aware of the argument that, if a tale has enough grip, one can for a while forget, if not forgive, the crumbling coarseness of the style; otherwise, why would I still read “The Day of the Jackal” once a year? With “The Da Vinci Code,” there can be no such excuse.

The movie is baloney; the movie is an accurate representation of the book; therefore, the book is also baloney, although it takes even longer to consume.”

“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, except at Columbia Pictures, where the power lunches won’t even be half-started. The Catholic Church has nothing to fear from this film. It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not conceivably cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith. Anthony Lane, The Da Vinci Code


“Go tell the Spartans, passer-by, that here, by Spartan law, we lie.” So reads the ditty Simonides wrote about the Battle of Thermopylae, where, around 480 BC, Sparta’s King Leonidas led a force of only 300 in a suicidal defence against a Persian army perhaps a thousand times bigger. Their brave stand has been the subject of poems, novels, and films – the latest being 300, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the 1998 graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. In short, 300 is a perfect combination of moral wrong-headedness and inept filmmaking. On any level beyond the pictorial, Snyder makes clunky Cecil B. DeMille epics like The Ten Commandments look positively deft. It presents itself as an instructive case study in nobility and bravery, but the only lesson I came away with was, “When in doubt … kill the hunchback.”

Go tell the Spartans, indeed. Tell them to go fuck themselves. LA City Beat,  300



Like ‘Tootsie,’ only without the drag. Or the class. Or the laughs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 



There are good movies. There are bad movies. There are movies so bad they’re good (though, strangely, not the reverse). And once in a while there is a movie so bad that it takes you to a place beyond good and evil and abandons you there, shivering and alone. Watching The Love Guru (Paramount Pictures) is a spiritual experience of a sort, but not the sort that its creator and star, Mike Myers, intended. This tale of a guru who brings joy to all who meet him is the most joy-draining 88 minutes I’ve ever spent outside a hospital waiting room. In the course of those long minutes, Myers leads you on a journey deep inside himself, to the source from whence his comedy springs—and it’s about as much fun as a tour of someone’s large intestine. Dana Stevens, The Love Guru

My media week 24/05/09

May 24, 2009

NPR has a feature on the science of spirituality. More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyse the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.


After a recent court case, Julian Baggini asks whether should we defer to Aristotle or Plato on the potatoness of Pringles? Or ask a child? A court case raises essential questions: Crunch time for Pringles’ sense of self


This week The Philosopher’s Zone examines the problem of guilt and responsibility. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886. It was hugely successful and has given us one of the archetypes of our time, but what does it have to tell us about our attitudes to guilt? Was Dr Jekyll a murderer or does the fact that the crimes were committed by his alter-ego, Edward Hyde, get him off the hook?


BBC Radio 4 presents dramatisations of all eight of John Le Carré’s George Smiley novels, with Simon Russell Beale playing George Smiley throughout. The first one is Call for the Dead.

Swearing: a guide

May 17, 2009

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.  Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.  King James Bible, Matthew 5:34-37:

…there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the Galaxy except one, where they don’t know what it means. That word is Belgium. From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Some guy hit my fender the other day, and I said unto him “be fruitful and multiply. But not in those words. Woody Allen

We all swear a lot during our lives — it’s almost from the cradle to the grave. According to research by psychologist Timothy Jay, we swear on average from 0.3% to 0.7% of the time we engage in speaking. This may not seem much but frequently used personal pronouns occur at approximately 1.0% rate in speech). Men do it more than women. People with Type A personalities (A temperament marked by excessive competitiveness and ambition, an obsession with accomplishing tasks quickly, little time for self-reflection, and a strong need to control situations.) Swearing is not just for the uneducated or people of a lower socio-economic class; it cuts through these divisions.

There is something fascinating about bad language. I can still remember when I was 13 and one of my classmates brought in a dictionary that specialised in naughty French words – it was the only time we took a serious interest in the subject. Swearing is a fundamental part of language. There is a theory known as the “poo-poo theory” which argues that speech arose through people making instinctive, automatic sounds in response to pain, hunger, danger, etc. there is something very basic about swearing. Science has shown that the brain processes swearing in the lower regions, along with emotion and instinct and brain-damaged patients who are incapable of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like sailors.

In his book The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker lists five functions of swearing:

Dysphemistic swearing – Exact opposite of euphemism. Forces listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. (Example: He fucks her!)

Abusive swearing – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others (Example: You motherfucking son of a bitch! Fuck you asshole)

Idiomatic swearing – swearing without really referring to the matter.. just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. (Example: Fuck, man.)

Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing. (Example: It was so fucking big!)

Cathartic swearing – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. One evolutionary theory asserts it is meant to tell the audience that you’re undergoing a negative emotion[citation needed]. (Example: Aww, fuck!, Damn this coffee)

He also lists these five sources of swearing:

The Supernatural – Evokes emotions of awe & fear. (Examples: damn, hell, Christ)

Bodily effluvia & organs – Evokes disgust, since effluvia are major disease vectors. (Examples: shit, piss, asshole)

Disease, Death, & Infirmity – Evokes dread, fear of death or disability. These are words which are normally avoided or treated euphemistically. (Examples: A pox on you!, A plague on both your houses!)

Sexuality – Evokes images of revulsion at depravity. Profanity of a sexual nature conjures images of illegitimate or exploitive sexuality, jealousy, etc. (Examples: fuck, cunt, prick)

Disfavoured people or groups – Evokes hatred and contempt. Such groups include infidels, the disabled, enemies, or subordinated groups. (Examples:, gimp, fatso, fag, kiner , kike, kafkar, nigger, cracker, coon, raghead, niglet, chink, golly, wog, gollywog)

Most languages have a hierarchy of swearing, some things are more offensive than others. It’s something we have to learn as we grow up. We need to know in what company we can say what word. These things are different depending on the time and place. In a more secular world something like Damn you! is pretty mild. But when the prospect of hell was more real it was much more powerful. Pinker provides a modern version of what it would have felt like to be damned with this contemporary equivalent:

I hope you are convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to twenty years in prison. I hope your cell is hot and humid and is crawling with roaches and reeks of urine and excrement. I hope you have three vicious cellmates who beat and sodomize you every night”:

Place is also important. For foreigners this can be tough. I remember Michael Swan in his Practical English Usage had a whole list of phrases and he would then put asterisks by them depending on their seriousness. Hell had one asterisk; cunt came in with five. This is very different to Spanish where coño is very mild. I know you hear those things like Japanese has no swearwords but I am a bit sceptical of this.

Swearing does have its uses. It can be very cathartic, allowing us to get rid of feelings of anger and frustration, and it is certainly better than resorting to physical violence. But we should not forget its ugly side because it can be a form of aggression. When it is used intelligently I am a big fan but too often it is used in a lazy way. There are some people who can only express themselves using expletives. I find it very off-putting. I am against censorship but we should be aware of the effect it can have on listeners. Language is a wonderful tool – we need to use all its possibilities.

The origins of human language

May 17, 2009

I found this list on the Internet; you may have seen it before. It looks at the different theories about the origins of language: How did we get from animal vocalization to human language? Here they are:


1. The mama theory.  Language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.


2.  The ta-ta theory.  Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language.  Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements — like the way a child’s mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar.  This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.


3.  The bow-wow theory.  Language began as imitations of natural sounds — moo, choo-choo, crash, clang, buzz, bang, meow…  This is more technically refered to as onomatopoeia or echoism.


4.  The pooh-pooh theory.  Language began with interjections, instinctive emotive cries such as oh! for surprise and ouch! for pain.


5.  The ding-dong theory.  Some people, including the famous linguist Max Muller, have pointed out that there is a rather mysterious correspondence between sounds and meanings.  Small, sharp, high things tend to have words with high front vowels in many languages, while big, round, low things tend to have round back vowels!  Compare itsy bitsy teeny weeny with moon, for example.  This is often referred to as sound symbolism.


6.  The yo-he-ho theory.  Language began as rhythmic chants, perhaps ultimately from the grunts of heavy work (heave-ho!).  The linguist A. S. Diamond suggests that these were perhaps calls for assistance or cooperation accompanied by appropriate gestures.  This may relate yo-he-ho to the ding-dong theory, as in such words as cut, break, crush, strike…


7.  The sing-song theory.  Danish linguist Jesperson suggested that language comes out of play, laughter, cooing, courtship, emotional mutterings and the like.  He even suggests that, contrary to other theories, perhaps some of our first words were actually long and musical, rather than the short grunts many assume we started with.


8.  The hey you! theory.  A linguist by the name of Revesz suggested that we have always needed interpersonal contact, and that language began as sounds to signal both identity (here I am!) and belonging (I’m with you!).  We may also cry out in fear, anger, or hurt (help me!).  This is more commonly called the contact theory.


9.  The eureka! theory.  And finally, perhaps language was consciously invented.  Perhaps some ancestor had the idea of assigning arbitrary sounds to mean certain things.  Clearly, once the idea was had, it would catch on like wild-fire!

My media week 17/05/09

May 17, 2009

Bruce Schneier believes that it is not so easy for terrorists to attack our food supply: We Shouldn’t Poison Our Minds with Fear of Bioterrorism


NPR’s Talk of the Nation looks at Wolfram Alpha the new search engine which seeks to challenge Google. Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, explains how Wolfram Alpha works:  Can A New Search Engine Outdo Google?


In this week’s Daily Mail AN Wilson has a rant about the 30th anniversary of the Sony Walkman.


To the Best of Our Knowledge looks at nerds.  There is a discussion of how the nerd stereotype is harming children and a look at a new kind of music called nerdcore hip hop, alias geeksta rap: Revenge of the Nerds.


BBC’s Business Weekly looks at the case of the drug trial in Africa where children died, and the hospital in Philadelphia that believes prevention is better than cure. Also, should extreme action be taken against tax havens? And why big bonuses can actually mean less productivity.

My favourite links #32

May 17, 2009

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is a British multi-disciplinary institution, based in London, whose notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, Charles Dickens and Guglielmo Marconi. For brevity it is known as the Royal Society of Arts. The Society runs a public lecture programme which seeks to introduce new and challenging thinking. These lectures are made freely available as podcasts on its website. Recent lecturers include Al Gore, Joseph Stiglitz, Francis Fukuyama, Amartya Sen, Daniel Dennett, Anthony Grayling, Alain de Botton and Peter Singer. Here is a link to the RSA’s lecture podcasts.