Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

December 3, 2017

 

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Recently BBC Radio 4 the series Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy finished. There were fifty inventions chosen by the economist Tim Harford and one from the listeners. Harford’s eight-minute, 1200-word audio essays have now been turned into a book. The book is full of fascinating nuggets of trivia and important economic insights. Here is my selection:

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Google

The media’s scramble for new business models is one obvious economic impact of Google search. But the invention of functional search technology has created value in many ways. A few years ago, consultants at McKinsey tried to list the most important. There are time savings. Studies suggest that googling is about three times as quick as finding information in a library, and that’s before you count the time spent travelling to the library. Likewise, finding a business online is about three times faster than using a traditional, printed directory such as the Yellow Pages. McKinsey put the productivity gains into the hundreds of billions.

TV Dinner

American families spend more and more on eating outside the home—on fast food, restaurant meals, sandwiches, and snacks. In the 1960s, only a quarter of food spending was on food prepared and eaten outside the home; it’s been rising steadily since then, and in 2015 a landmark was reached: for the first time in their history, Americans spent more on food and drink consumed outside the home than on food and beverages purchased at grocery stores. In case you think Americans are unusual in that, the British passed that particular milestone more than a decade earlier.

The data are clear that the washing machine didn’t save a lot of time, because before the washing machine we didn’t wash clothes very often. When it took all day to wash and dry a few shirts, people would use replaceable collars and cuffs or dark outer layers to hide the grime on their clothes. But we cannot skip many meals in the way that we can skip the laundry. When it took two or three hours to prepare a meal, that was a job someone had to take the time to do. The washing machine didn’t save much time, and the ready meal did, because we were willing to stink, but we weren’t willing to starve.

The Pill

The answer is that by giving women control over their fertility, the pill allowed them to invest in their careers. Before the pill was available, taking five years or more to qualify as a doctor or a lawyer did not look like a good use of time and money. To reap the benefits of those courses, a woman would need to be able to reliably delay becoming a mother until she was thirty at least—having a baby would derail her studies or delay her professional progress at a critical time. A sexually active woman who tried to become a doctor, dentist, or lawyer was doing the equivalent of building a factory in an earthquake zone: just one bit of bad luck and the expensive investment would be trashed.

Of course, women could have simply abstained from sex if they wanted to study for a professional career. But many women didn’t want to. And that decision wasn’t just about having fun; it was also about finding a husband. Before the pill, people married young. A woman who decided to abstain from sex while developing her career might try to find a husband at the age of thirty and find that, quite literally, all the good men had been taken.

The pill changed those dynamics. It meant that unmarried women could have sex with substantially less risk of an unwanted pregnancy. But it also changed the whole pattern of marriage. People—particularly people with college educations—started to marry later. Why hurry? Even women who didn’t use the pill found that they didn’t have to rush into marriage, either, because there would still be plenty of single men to marry a little later in life. The babies started to arrive later, and at a time that women chose for themselves. And that meant that women, at least, had time to establish professional careers.

Video games

In 2016, four economists presented research into a puzzling fact about the U.S. labour market: the economy was growing strongly, unemployment rates were low, and yet a surprisingly large number of able-bodied young men were either working part-time or not working at all. More puzzling still, while most studies of unemployment find that it makes people thoroughly miserable, against expectations the happiness of these young men was rising. The researchers concluded that the explanation was . . . well, they were living at home, sponging off their parents, and playing video games. These young men were deciding they didn’t want to be a Starbucks server. Being a starship captain was far more appealing.

Air-conditioning

Without air-conditioning, glass-fronted skyscrapers are not a sensible option: you’d bake on the upper floors. With air-conditioning, old workarounds become irrelevant and new building designs become possible.

Air-conditioning has changed demographics, too. Without it, it’s hard to imagine the rise of cities such as Houston, Phoenix, or Atlanta, as well as Dubai or Singapore. As new housing spread rapidly across America in the second half of the twentieth century, population boomed in the Sun Belt—the warmer south of the country, from Florida to California—from 28 percent of Americans to 40 percent. As retirees in particular moved from north to south, they also changed the nation’s political balance: the author Steven Johnson has plausibly argued that air-conditioning elected Ronald Reagan.

Reagan became president in 1980. Back then, America alone, with just five percent of the world’s population, used more than half the world’s air-conditioning. Emerging economies have since caught up quickly: China will soon become the global leader. The proportion of air-conditioned homes in Chinese cities jumped from under one-tenth to more than two-thirds in just ten years. In countries such as India, Brazil, and Indonesia, the market for air conditioners is expanding at double-digit rates. And there’s plenty more room for growth: from Manila to Kinshasa, eleven of the world’s thirty largest cities are in the tropics.

Bar code

But over time it became apparent that the bar code was changing the tilt of the playing field in favour of a certain kind of retailer. For a small, family-run convenience store, the bar code scanner was an expensive solution to problems the store didn’t really have. But big-box supermarkets could spread the cost of the scanners across many more sales. Such stores value shorter lines at the checkout. They need to keep track of inventory. With a manual checkout, a shop assistant might charge a customer for a product, then slip the cash into her pocket without registering the sale. With a bar code and scanner system, such behaviour can be pretty conspicuous. And in the 1970s, a time of high inflation in America, bar codes let supermarkets change the price of products by sticking a new price tag on the shelf rather than on each item.

It’s hardly surprising that as the bar code spread across retailing in the 1970s and 1980s, big-box retailers also expanded. The scanner data underpinned customer databases and loyalty cards. By tracking and automating inventory, it made just-in-time deliveries more attractive and lowered the cost of having a wide variety of products. Shops in general, and supermarkets in particular, started to generalize—selling flowers, clothes, and electronic products. Running a huge, diversified, logistically complex operation was all so much easier in the world of the bar code.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of that fact came in 1988—when the discount department store Wal-Mart decided to start selling food. It is now the largest grocery chain in America—and by far the largest general retailer on the planet, about as large as its five closest rivals combined.8 Wal-Mart was an early adopter of the bar code and has continued to invest in cutting-edge computer-driven logistics and inventory management.

The cold chain

The cold chain is one of the pillars of the global trading system. As we’ve seen, the shipping container made long-distance commerce cheaper, quicker, and more predictable. The bar code helped huge, diverse retailers keep track of complex supply chains. The diesel engine made huge oceangoing ships amazingly efficient.

The cold chain took all these other inventions and extended their reach to perishables. Now meat, fruit, and vegetables were subject to the economic logic of global specialization and global trade. Yes, you can grow French beans in France—but perhaps you should fly them in from Uganda. Different growing conditions mean this kind of shipping can make both economic and environmental sense. One study found it was eco-friendlier to grow tomatoes in Spain and transport them to Sweden than it was to grow them in Sweden. Another claimed that raising a lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to England emits less greenhouse gas than raising a lamb in England.

The Billy bookcase

And that’s what seems to explain the enduring popularity of the Billy bookcase. “Simple, practical and timeless” is how Gillis Lundgren once described the designs he hoped to create; and the Billy is surprisingly well accepted by the type of people you might expect to be sniffy about mass-produced MDF. Sophie Donelson edits the interiors magazine House Beautiful. She told AdWeek the Billy is “unfussy” and “unfettered,” and “modern without trying too hard.”

Furniture designer Matthew Hilton praises an interesting quality of the Billy: anonymity. Interior design expert Mat Sanders agrees, declaring that IKEA is “a great place for basic you can really dress up to make feel high-end.” The Billy’s a bare-bones, functional bookshelf if that’s all you want from it, or it’s a blank canvas for creativity: on ikeahackers.net you’ll see it repurposed as everything from a wine rack to a room divider to a baby-changing station.

But business and supply-chain nerds don’t admire the Billy bookcase for its modernity or flexibility. They admire it—and IKEA in general—for relentlessly finding ways to cut costs and prices without reducing the quality of its products. That is why the Billy is a symbol of how innovation in the modern economy isn’t just about snazzy new technologies, but also boringly efficient systems. The Billy bookcase isn’t innovative in the way that the iPhone is innovative. The innovations are about working within the limits of production and logistics, finding tiny ways to shave more off the cost, all while producing something that looks inoffensive and does the job.

Intellectual property

The modern form of intellectual property originated, like so many things, in fifteenth-century Venice. Venetian patents were explicitly designed to encourage innovation. They applied consistent rules: the inventor would automatically receive a patent if the invention was useful; the patent was temporary, but while it lasted it could be sold, transferred, or even inherited; the patent would be forfeited if it wasn’t used; and the patent would be invalidated if the invention proved to be closely based on some previous idea. These are all very modern ideas.

And they soon created very modern problems. During the British industrial revolution, for example, the great engineer James Watt figured out a better way to design a steam engine. He spent months developing a prototype, but then put even more effort into securing a patent. His influential business partner, Matthew Boulton, even got the patent extended by lobbying Parliament. Boulton and Watt used it to extract licensing fees and crush rivals—among them Jonathan Hornblower, who made a superior steam engine yet found himself ruined and imprisoned.

The iphone

Ask yourself: What actually makes an iPhone an iPhone? It’s partly the cool design, the user interface, the attention to details in the way the software works and the hardware feels. But underneath the charming surface of the iPhone are some critical elements that made it, and all the other smartphones, possible.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato has made a list of twelve key technologies that make smartphones work. One: tiny microprocessors. Two: memory chips. Three: solid state hard drives. Four: liquid crystal displays. Five: lithium-based batteries. That’s the hardware.

Then there are the networks and the software.

Continuing the count: Six: fast-Fourier-transform algorithms. These are clever bits of math that make it possible to swiftly turn analogue signals such as sound, visible light and radio waves into digital signals that a computer can handle.

Seven—and you might have heard of this one: the Internet. A smartphone isn’t a smartphone without the Internet.

Eight: HTTP and HTML, the languages and protocols that turned the hard-to-use Internet into the easy-to-access World Wide Web. Nine: cellular networks. Otherwise your smartphone not only isn’t smart, it’s not even a phone. Ten: global positioning systems, or GPS. Eleven: the touchscreen. Twelve: Siri, the voice-activated artificial-intelligence agent.

All of these technologies are important components of what makes an iPhone, or any smartphone, work. Some of them are not just important but indispensable. But when Mariana Mazzucato assembled this list of technologies and reviewed their history, she found something striking. The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of these twelve key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments—often the American government.

The bank

The Knights Templar were warrior monks: they were a religious order, with a theologically inspired hierarchy, mission statement, and code of ethics. But they were also heavily armed and dedicated to a holy war. How did those guys get into the banking game?

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. In 1099, with the First Crusade, Jerusalem had been captured from the Fatimid Caliphate, and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe. And if you are a Christian pilgrim, you have a problem: you need to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet you also want to avoid carrying huge sums around, because that makes you a target for robbers. Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could deposit funds at Temple Church in London and withdraw them in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying a purse stuffed with money, he’d carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the Crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the identity of the traveller? We can only guess. But that wouldn’t be the only mystery to shroud the Templars, an organization sufficiently steeped in legend that Dan Brown set a scene of The Da Vinci Code in Temple Church.

…The Knights Templar did much more than transfer money across long distances. They provided a range of recognizably modern financial services. If you wanted to purchase a nice island off the west coast of France—as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with Oléron, northwest of Bordeaux—the Templars could broker the deal. Henry paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, and when his men took possession of Oléron, the Templars made sure that the island’s previous owner was paid. Oh, and the Crown Jewels of England, stored today at the Tower of London? In the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were stored at the Temple—security on a loan. That was the Templars operating as a very high-end pawnbroker.

The Knights Templar weren’t Europe’s bank forever, of course. The order lost its reason to exist after European Christians completely lost control of Jerusalem in 1244; the Templars were eventually disbanded in 1312.

Razors and blades

The model of cheap razors and expensive blades evolved only later, as Gillette’s patents expired and competitors got in on the act. Today two-part pricing is everywhere. Consider the PlayStation. Every time Sony sells one, it loses money: the retail price is less than it costs to manufacture and distribute. But that’s okay with Sony, because Sony coins it in whenever a PlayStation 4 owner buys a game. Or how about Nespresso? Nestlé makes its money not from the machine, but from the coffee pods.

For this model to work you need some way to prevent customers putting cheap, generic blades in your razor. One solution is legal: patent-protect your blades. But patents don’t last forever. Patents on coffee pods have started expiring, so brands like Nespresso now face competitors selling cheap, compatible alternatives. Some companies are looking for another kind of solution: technological. Just as other companies’ games don’t work on the PlayStation, some coffee companies have put chip readers in their machines to stop you from trying to brew a generic cup of joe.

Two-part pricing models work by imposing what economists call “switching costs.” Want to brew another brand’s coffee? Then buy another machine. Two-part pricing is especially prevalent with digital goods. If you have a huge library of games for your PlayStation or books for your Kindle, it’s no small thing to switch to another platform.

Switching costs don’t have to be just financial. They can come in the form of time or hassle. Say I’m already familiar with Photoshop; I might prefer to pay for an expensive upgrade than buy a cheaper alternative to it, which I would then have to learn how to use. That’s why software vendors offer free trials. It’s also why service providers (anything from your gym to your cable provider) offer special “teaser” rates to draw people in: when they quietly raise their prices or make the terms and conditions less attractive, many customers won’t bother to change.

Tax havens

The economist Gabriel Zucman came up with an ingenious way to estimate the wealth hidden in the offshore banking system. In theory, if you add up the assets and liabilities reported by every global financial centre, the books should balance—but they don’t. Each individual centre tends to report more liabilities than assets. Zucman crunched the numbers and found that globally, total liabilities were 8 percent higher than total assets. That suggests at least 8 percent of the world’s wealth is illegally unreported. Other methods have come up with even higher estimates.

The problem is particularly acute in developing countries. For example, Zucman finds that 30 percent of wealth in Africa is hidden offshore. He calculates an annual loss of $14 billion in tax revenue. That would build plenty of schools and hospitals.

Zucman’s solution is transparency: creating a global register of who owns what, to end banking secrecy and anonymity-preserving shell corporations and trusts. That might well help with tax evasion. But tax avoidance is a subtler and more complex problem.

To see why, imagine I own a bakery in Belgium, a dairy in Denmark, and a sandwich shop in Slovenia. I sell a cheese sandwich, making one euro of profit. On how much of that profit should I pay tax in Slovenia, where I sold the sandwich; or Denmark, where I made the cheese; or Belgium, where I baked the bread? There’s no obvious answer. As rising taxes met increasing globalization in the 1920s, the League of Nations devised protocols for handling such questions. They allow companies some leeway to choose where to book their profits. There’s a case for that, but it opened the door to some dubious accounting tricks. One widely reported example may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the logical extreme of these practices: A company in Trinidad apparently sold ballpoint pens to a sister company for $8,500 apiece. The result: more profit booked in low-tax Trinidad; less in higher-tax regimes elsewhere.

Most such tricks are less obvious, and consequently harder to quantify. Still, Zucman estimates that 55 percent of U.S.-based companies’ profits are routed through some unlikely-looking jurisdiction such as Luxembourg or Bermuda, costing the U.S. government $130 billion a year. Another estimate puts the losses to governments in developing countries at many times the amount they receive in foreign aid.

Leaded petrol

And what of the scientist who first put lead in gasoline? By all accounts, Thomas Midgley was a genial man; he may even have believed his own spin about the safety of a daily hand-wash in tetraethyl lead. But as an inventor, his inspirations seem to have been cursed. His second major contribution to civilization was the chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC. It improved refrigerators, but destroyed the ozone layer.

In middle age, afflicted by polio, Midgley applied his inventor’s mind to lifting his weakened body out of bed. He devised an ingenious system of pulleys and strings. One day they tangled around his neck and killed him.

Paper

Today, paper is increasingly made out of paper itself—often recycled, appropriately enough, in China. A cardboard box emerges from the paper mills of Ningbo, 130 miles south of Shanghai; it’s used to package a laptop computer; the box is shipped across the Pacific; the laptop is extracted, and the box is thrown into a recycling bin in Seattle. Then it’s shipped back to Ningbo, to be pulped and turned into another box. The process can be repeated six or seven times before the paper fibres themselves become weak and unusable.

When it comes to writing, though, some say paper’s days are numbered—that the computer will usher in the age of the “paperless office.” The trouble is, the paperless office has been predicted since Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century. Remember those wax cylinders, the technology that ushered in recorded music and introduced an age of vast inequality of musicians’ incomes? Edison thought they’d be used to replace paper: office memos would be recorded on his wax cylinders instead. Even Thomas Edison wasn’t right about everything—and when it comes to the death of paper, many other prognosticators have been made to look like fools.

The idea of the paperless office really caught on as computers started to enter the workplace in the 1970s, and it was repeated in breathless futurologists’ reports for the next quarter of a century. Meanwhile, paper sales stubbornly continued to boom: yes, computers made it easy to distribute documents without paper, but computer printers made it equally easy for the recipients to put them on paper anyway. America’s copiers, fax machines, and printers continued to spew out enough sheets of ordinary office paper to cover the country every five years. After a while, the idea of the paperless office became less of a prediction and more of a punchline.

Perhaps habits are finally changing: In 2013, the world hit peak paper. Many of us may still prefer the feel of a book or a physical newspaper to swiping a screen, but the cost of digital distribution is now so much lower, we often go for the cheaper option. Finally, digital is doing to paper what paper did to parchment with the help of the Gutenberg press: outcompeting it, not on quality, but on price.

Paper may be on the decline, but it’s hard to imagine it disappearing any more than the wheel itself is likely to disappear. It will survive not just on the supermarket shelf or beside the lavatory, but in the office, too. Old technologies have a habit of enduring. We still use pencils and candles. The world still produces more bicycles than cars. Paper was never just a home for the beautiful typesetting of a Gutenberg Bible; it was everyday stuff. And for jottings, lists, and doodles, you still can’t beat the back of an envelope.

Paper money

For governments, fiat money represents a temptation: a government with bills to pay can simply print more money. And when more money chases the same amount of goods and services, prices go up. The temptation quickly proved too great to resist. Within a few decades of its invention in the early eleventh century, the jiaozi was devalued and discredited, trading at just 10 percent of its face value.

Other countries have since suffered much worse. Weimar Germany and Zimbabwe are famous examples of economies collapsing into chaos as excessive money-printing rendered prices meaningless. In Hungary in 1946, prices trebled every day. Walk into a Budapest café back then, and it was better to pay for your coffee when you arrived, not when you left.

These rare but terrifying episodes have convinced some economic radicals that fiat money can never be stable: they yearn for a return to the days of the gold standard, when paper money could be redeemed for a little piece of precious metal. But mainstream economists generally now believe that pegging the money supply to gold is a terrible idea. Most regard low and predictable inflation as no problem at all—perhaps even a useful lubricant to economic activity because it guards against the possibility of deflation, which can be economically disastrous. And while we may not always be able to trust central bankers to print just the right amount of new money, it probably makes more sense than trusting miners to dig up just the right amount of new gold.

Insurance

Then, in 1687, a coffeehouse opened on Tower Street, near the London docks. It was comfortable and spacious, and business boomed. Patrons enjoyed the fire; tea, coffee, and sherbet; and, of course, the gossip. There was a lot to gossip about: London had recently experienced the Great Plague, the Great Fire, the Dutch navy sailing up the Thames, and a revolution that had overthrown the king.

But above all, the regulars at this coffeehouse loved to gossip about ships: what was sailing from where, with what cargo—and whether it would arrive safely or not. And where there was gossip, there was an opportunity for a wager. The patrons loved to bet. They bet, for instance, on whether Admiral John Byng would be shot for his incompetence in a naval battle with the French (he was). The gentlemen of Lloyd’s would have had no qualms about taking my bet on my own life.

The proprietor saw that his customers were as thirsty for information to fuel their bets and gossip as they were for coffee, and so he began to assemble a network of informants and a newsletter full of information about foreign ports, tides, and the comings and goings of ships. His name was Edward Lloyd. His newsletter became known as Lloyd’s List. Lloyd’s coffeehouse hosted ship auctions, and gatherings of sea captains who would share stories. And if someone wished to insure a ship, that could be done, too: a contract would be drawn up, and the insurer would sign his name underneath—hence the term “underwriter.” It became hard to say quite where coffeehouse gambling ended and formal insurance began.

Naturally, underwriters congregated where they could be best informed, because they needed the finest possible grasp of the risks they were buying and selling. Eight decades after Lloyd had established his coffeehouse, a group of underwriters who hung out there formed the Society of Lloyd’s. Today, Lloyd’s of London is one of the most famous names in insurance.

 

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Monopoly: a brief history and what it tells us about being human

November 12, 2017

 

The Monopoly board game, which was created in 1935, is currently produced in 47 languages and sold in 114 countries. There is a world championship, which is held every four five years. The winningest countries are the United States and Italy with two wins apiece, although the former have not won since 1974. The winner takes home $20,580 – the total amount of play money that comes in each version of the game. I am not sure if this is an apocryphal story, but according to the Chicago Tribune, Fidel Castro was not a fan and banned the game, decreeing that every set be destroyed.

The traditional story behind the creation of the Monopoly was a feelgood one. Its inventor Charles Darrow had been unemployed during the Great Depression. The year was 1933. Desperate to support his family, the unemployed salesman went down his dark, damp basement, where he would toil away until he came up with the game. He developed the game using materials from his own home. The cards were handwritten and the board was covered with a piece of oilcloth.

It is a beautiful story. However, this story is leaving an important part out. It is the role of one woman. The woman in question was Lizzie Magie, a Washington resident, who in 1903 invented the Landlord’s Game. It was ironically intended to be a teaching tool that argued against the concentration of wealth and the injustices of capitalism. It was a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” She was backing the theories of Henry George. This 19th century political economist and journalist saw landlords as parasites and proposed a “single tax” on them to replace all other taxes. The game was not, however, a great success. I guess this is the genius of capitalism. It took Magie’s anti-capitalist idea and turned it into billions of dollars of revenue.

There are numerous versions of monopoly. There have been more than 300 licensed versions of the Monopoly game developed themed with topics such as sports teams, pop groups and movies. There is now a fast version, wcich can be played in an hour, as opposed to the three or fours it usually takes.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped that he thought that it was wrong that only one company made the game Monopoly. And Parker Brothers in the past, and Hasbro now have indeed aggressively defended its patents. Nevertheless, it has inspired alternative versions. One of my favourites is from Ralph Anspach a professor at San Francisco State University, who was living in Berkeley. His two young boys were playing Monopoly and Anspach didn’t like what he saw. He decided to create his own version – Anti-Monopoly. This led to a long-running legal battle with the official version. More radical was Bertell Ollman, who taught dialectical methodology and socialist theory at New York University. His game was called Class Struggle.

One of the most interesting things I learned while researching this post is a famous social science experiment carried out by social psychologist Paul Piff. He wanted to investigate how wealth changed people’s empathy towards different social classes. As part of his research, Piff ran a study using a rigged Monopoly game involving 100 pairs of strangers. The pairs played games in which the academics randomly picked one player who they would favour. The chosen player started out with more money, threw two dice instead of one, and was given twice as much cash on passing Go. Given all this help, they were bound to win. But what was interesting was how the winners reacted. They ate more of the pretzels that were on the table, became more aggressive and would openly mock their opponents. The put down their winning to their own play and the strategies they had employed. I don’t know how much these experiments shows. It does ring true, though. It speaks to our immense capacity for self-justification.

I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of Monopoly. I can’t remember the last time I played. Nevertheless, I do find the history fascinating.


Does money make you mean?

November 12, 2017

In this video Paul Piff talks about the Monopoly experiment and its wider implications.


Welcome to Fantasyland

October 22, 2017

But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Kurt Andersen writing in The Atlantic

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Before the 2016 the British satirist John Oliver did a piece in which Trump came out with a shocking revelation before the November election. It had all been a hoax – he had just been trying to show how broken the system was. Alas, Trump’s victory is no joke. Kurt Andersen started his new book Fantasyland before Trump had even entered the presidential race. Nevertheless, it provides an indispensable historical guide to recent events.  Andersen looks at the long-running tension between Enlightenment values and magical thinking that has characterised has the former British colony in nearly 500 years of history. On leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against “the military-industrial complex”. In this book Andersen is more worried about the “fantasy-industrial complex”, the news business, religious, political, and entertainment organisations that have created this Fantasy world. What Andersen shows us is that in America there has been a strong tradition of magical thinking, anti-elitism, scepticism of authority and a desire to ignore reality. This book gives us a historical background. We are not dealing with a new phenomenon. What is new, however, is the enabling power of the internet.  I am not going to write about the whole book; rather I am going to look at a couple of the influences that Andersen mentions.

I realise that the term American exceptionalism may be a bit of a cliché, but there is something bizarre about American religion; nobody does religion quite like the Americans. Their society is a product of a country founded by the Puritans in New England who sought to create a Christian utopia, a City on the Hill. This was a theocracy as the faithful waiting for the imminent Second Coming of Christ and the end times. America is a huge, vibrant religious marketplace. Two of its more bizarre creations have been Mormonism, which Andersen describes as the “All-American Fan Fiction of Joseph Smith”, and Scientology. But it goes beyond this. It is such things as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the prosperity gospel that give certain strands of American Protestantism its unique flavour.

A part of the book I found fascinating was his exploration of the 1960s. A profound shift in thinking emerged in the ’60s – anything and everything became believable. Many in academia turned away from enlightenment values; in particular, we saw the rise of postmodernism. Andersen is not arguing that Donald Trump read Foucault and came to the conclusion that truth was all relative. Indeed, many Conservatives have attacked relativism. Nevertheless, this fast-and-loose attitude towards the truth has been adopted by the right to promote climate-change denial, black helicopter conspiracies*, and increasingly hysteric gun-rights activism and a general anti-science bias. Andersen expresses it like this:

The term useful idiot was originally deployed to accuse liberals of serving the interests of true believers further on the left. In this instance, however, postmodern intellectuals—post-positivists, poststructuralists, social constructivists, post-empiricists, epistemic relativists, cognitive relativists, descriptive relativists—turned out to be useful idiots most consequentially for the American right.”

I found this book a stimulating read. However, the USA does not have a monopoly on magical thinking. This American idea of reinventing yourself is also what makes America great. What intrigues me is that you have the greatest scientists in the world alongside people who believe that dinosaurs shared our planet and that Noah was able to fit hall the animal species onto the Ark. bout Ben Carson embodies this duality. A candidate in the Republican presidential primaries and currently Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Trump, Carson came out with the outlandish claim that the pyramids were built to store grain. He has a science background. He was the Director of Paediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland from 1984 until his retirement in 2013. Indeed, he was a pioneer in developing a procedure for the successful separation of conjoined twins joined at the back of the head, and many other innovations. The guy is not stupid.

All this magical thinking has not prevented this country from becoming the world’s leading superpower. Conservatism is not an illogical ideology, but I have to agree with Andersen that in recent years the adoption of magical thinking has been asymmetric. It is frightening the way in which the Republican Party has taken on board this flight from reason. Just look at the recent 2017 special election to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General. Trump’s candidate was actually preferable to the eventual winner, Roy Moore. Wikipedia provides a summary of the “Ayatollah of Alabama’s” ideas:

  • Moore has stated that the September 11 attacks were a divine punishment for Americans’ declining religiosity and the Sandy Hook shooting was “because we’ve forgotten the law of God.”
  • He has been prominent in the anti-Obama birther movement, which claims that Obama is not a U.S. citizen. He has also argued that the previous president is secretly a Muslim.
  • He believes that homosexuality is inherently evil should be outlawed. It is an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it. Moreover, the legitimization of “sodomy” will cause suffering in the United States.
  • He opposes the theory of evolution, arguing “There is no such thing as evolution. That we came from a snake? No, I don’t believe that

This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. To be frank now I’m feeling nostalgic for George W. How did we come to this? Just imagine if Trump were impeached. I can’t say that the thought of President Pence makes me feel any calmer.

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*Wikipedia defines it thus: Black helicopters is a term which became popular in the United States militia movement and associated political groups in the 1990s as a symbol and warning sign of an alleged conspiratorial military takeover of the United States, though it has also been associated with men in black and similar conspiracies.[citation needed] Rumours circulated that, for instance, the United Nations patrolled the US with unmarked black helicopters, or that federal agents used black helicopters to enforce wildlife laws.

 

 


A couple of videos

October 22, 2017

Here are a couple of videos in which Andersen talks about the ideas in the book:

 


No, Franco is not alive today

October 8, 2017

Even in the worst Franco years I don’t remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on Sunday. If your government annuls your basic democratic rights and cuts off your freedom of expression, if it distracts and confuses public opinion with incendiary messages, what can you do but confront it? That’s why for me the time is up for Catalonia belonging to Spain. We must insist on a binding referendum to decide our future. Jordi Borrell Celades, head of sales at a chemical company based in Barcelona writing I the Guardian

In Catalonia we have seen how the EU does ‘democracy’. Why can’t Remainers see it too? Nigel Farage

_____

Spain is facing its greatest crisis since the Tejero’s attempted coup in 1981. The images of civil guard hitting pensioners who were trying to vote have gone round the world. I have been following the UK media and I can see that Spain has been getting an awful press. Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have all condemned the actions of Spain. Personally I think it was a massive mistsake to send the Civil Guard in. We live in era of soft power and social media in which images and videos can be transmitted in seconds. It is true as Peter Preston argued in today’s Observer that in an age of fake news we need to look into the reliability of the statistics. Apparently one of the pictures that went viral was actually from miners’ strike five years ago. Preston continues:

That woman who had all her fingers broken. She hadn’t. That six-year-old boy, paralysed by police brutality? It didn’t happen. Serious injuries on the day: just two.

Be that as it may it has to be said that the Catalonian government has understood the importance of soft power and getting your message across. But today I want to look at the bigger picture

What has made me increasingly angry over the last few days is the outrageous comparisons with the Spain of Franco.  Mr Borrell’s comment that even in the worst Franco years he could not remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on last Sunday seems to reflect the tone of much of the coverage I have seen. Spain is democracy, an imperfect one. To give just one example Spain introduced gay marriage before the UK, the USA and Germany. The Spanish Civil War is often brought up, but people forget that Madrid and Catalonia were on the same side in this conflict. Franco bombed Madrid! It’s true that more of its politicians should be in prison. But that would also apply to Catalonian politicians who are no slouches when it comes to kickbacks.

What is happening in Catalonia is related to the global financial crisis and the subsequent rise of populist movement. This has seen the rise of the rise of radical parties both on the right and left. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Curiously, as happened in the USA, Russia has been trying to destabilise the situation. Obviously, if there was no sense of dissatisfaction, such attempts would not be successful. It is curious to read articles in the Daily Mail where Brexit supporters attack the EU for not intervening in a sovereign state. Isn’t that what they what they are against?

España nos roba – Spain is robbing us is what you hear in Catalonia. Financial arrangements can always be negotiated. But when I hear that Catalonia pays more than it gets back, I shake my head. But this is perfectly normal it is the third richest region of Spain behind Madrid and the Basque Country. To complain about this is like France complaining about paying more into the European Union than it gets out.  In this sense there are parallels with the Lega Nord in Italy, who resent paying for the lazy southerners.

When I hear the term self-determination, I do get a bit nervous. It sounds like a wonderful idea. Woodrow Wilson wanted loads of it in the Treaties of Paris after WWI It didn’t turn out so well did it? Country borders are complex. Whenever you create a new state, within those states there are minorities. Territorial integrity is not something that should be thrown aside lightly; I admit I prefer stability. The fact that it is not easy to create a new state is a good thing. I had hoped in the 1990s that with the EU this kind of nationalism was waning.  How wrong I was! The backlash of the last few years has been sobering.

I also wanted to look at how most Spanish people have such a negative perception of last Sunday’s vote, many even compare it to a coup d’état. In the UK there is no written constitution, which allows a more flexible approach. Under the Spanish Constitution sovereignty rests with the whole of the Spanish people. You may criticise this but it is not undemocratic and this constitution was voted for in 1978 with a massive majority including in Catalonia itself. There are rules to be followed and the Govern has ridden roughshod over them. And I would like to know if the constitution of a newly independent Catalonia will include the right for self-determination within its borders

If Catalonia were to become independent, they would be out of the European Union. Even if Spain didn’t veto their membership, I think that other European countries, with their own potentially rebellious regions, would view an independent Catalonia with any relish whatsoever. It will certainly be an adventure. Robert Hardman, writing in the Daily Mail tried to play down the dangers:

Meanwhile, Catalonia is now being warned of the usual plagues straight out of the Remain camp’s Project Fear handbook.

Alas, I fear that the outlook for the Catalonian economy in the short and medium term at least is not great.  A number of banks and other companies have already decided to move their headquarters to other Spanish cities. If independence came, it could become would the last company to leave Catalonia, please turn out the lights? Reality is not optional. Of course we have seen how emotions can make people vote against their interests.

We are living in interesting times. I have to admit that I’m rather worried. This has been a massive political failure. The Spanish government has a delicate tightrope to walk. On the one hand they do not want to see constitutional order undermined, but if they are too heavy-handed there will be a powerful backlash in Catalonia. There will have to be some kind of negotiation. Maybe the constitution will have to be revisited But I don’t see the consensus for it. I’m a bit pessimistic. Many of the people in Catalonia who favour remaining in Spain, the majority still in recent polls, are the older generation. They will die off. The younger generation brought up (indoctrinated?) in a pro independence climate are going to be the majority. Will they be satisfied with greater autonomy?

 


Where do country names come from?

April 23, 2017

I was listening to the BBC’s Word of Mouth podcast this week and they had a fascinating feature on how countries got their names. It was a very informative programme, which made me want to investigate further. Some of these origins are pretty straightforward; France is the land of the Franks, Poland of the Poles, Uzbekistan of the Uzbeks and Thailand of the Thais. However, some are more interesting.

Some places got their names after real or legendary people:

Bolivia Simón Bolívar

Colombia Christopher Columbus

Éire (Ireland)             Éire (Ériu), a Celtic fertility goddess

El Salvador Jesus (literally, The Saviour)

Israel Jacob, who was also called Israel in the Bible

Mozambique             Mussa Bin Bique

Philippines    King Philip II of Spain

Saudi Arabia             Muhammad bin Saud

Wikipedia also has some interesting dependent territories named after people:

Bermuda        Juan de Bermúdez

Cook Islands             Captain James Cook

Falkland Islands Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland

Martinique     Martin of Tours

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands George III of the United Kingdom and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Virgin Islands Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins

The programme also looked at certain controversies or curiosities regarding names. For the Dutch, Holland is just a region of the country. Indians call their country Bharat and the official transliterated name of the People’s Republic of China is: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty. The programme also cited the theory, which I first heard on QI, that America is not named after Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard ap Meryk, whose name is anglicised to Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a fifteenth-century Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer and, sheriff of Bristol. I remain sceptical, but it is an interesting theory. I also learned that Pakistan’s name is a semi-acronym: the P is from Punjab; the A from the Afgania province; the K from Kashmir; the S from Sindh, and the -Stan from Baluchistan. They also featured what must be the most misleading name in the atlas. The Viking Erik the Red managed to persuade 500 Icelanders to go to barren, frozen land, where they set up two colonies. In a brilliant piece of marketing he had called it Greenland.

There are a lot of inaccurate folk etymologies. Brunei is one example. According to legend, Brunei was founded by Sultan Muhammad Shah. Upon discovering the place he is said to have exclaimed Baru nah, which is loosely translated as “That’s it!” or “Eureka”, from which the “Brunei” was derived. It sounds funny, but a more credible theory is that Brunei comes from the Sanskrit bhūmi, which means ‘land’.

Venezuela means ‘Little Venice’, and was so named because it reminded explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city. The connection does seem somewhat tenuous, although more apt now after years of misrule, the country does seem to be sinking fast.

The Oxford dictionaries blog has an A-Z of country name origins. Here is a selection:

Andorra The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.

Argentina The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.

Japan The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters rì, ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.

Liberia Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.

Madagascar The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.

Nauru The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.

New Zealand The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.

Panama Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Sierra Leone Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.

Solomon Islands The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.

Spain Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Zimbabwe Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.

The programme featured Avalon, as an example of a fictional country. They could have included more. I am currently watching the second series of The Man in The High Castle, which of course has its origins in a Philip K Dick novel. After the Axis victory in WWII the Greater Nazi Reich, a fascist puppet state on the East coast, is created. And the coming week an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown on Hulu. So Gilead, a Christian-fundamentalist theocracy will become more famous. Some 500 years ago Thomas Moore invented Utopia. The name was a Greek pun meaning both no place and good place. Hollywood gave us Freedonia in Duck Soup and Bacteria, a satire of Italy under Mussolini in The Great Dictator. And finally I remember Qumran from the original Yes Minister series of the 1980s. The hapless Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker is on a visit to this oil-rich sheikdom located in the Persian Gulf. Hacker is not looking forward to “five hours of orange juice” and so a communications room is set up near the reception, which will contain illicit liquor. Then Hacker is periodically called to the room with messages from Mr Haig, Mr Walker from the Scotch Office, Mr Smirnoff of the Soviet Embassy, and a delegation of teachers.

The examples we have seen have been from books films and TV shows. But the New York Times actually invented a Central Asian country Kyrzbekistan, instead of Kyrgyzstan. The mockery directed at the paper on social media was unceasing:

Rumour has it that #Kyrzbekistan has been given the go-ahead to enter Eurovision 2015.

 Austranians don’t like Kyrzbesistanis ever since they have sided with Luxemstein in the United States of Amigos question #Kyrzbekistan

I suppose, if all nations are “imagined communities”, the NYT making one up just took that to its logical conclusion. #kyrzbekistan

You can’t just will a country out of existence… Stand up for #kyrzbekistan!

This concludes my journey into the origins of country names. I will conclude with a map about country etymologies that featured on the internet. I think I may have seen it already on Facebook, but it makes a lot more sense now. This is definitely one for the geography geeks. However, there are some errors on the map, so this would not be appropriate for a university thesis. i recommend clicking on the full -size version once you have opened it up.