Saturday, August 24, 2013

Authenticity in Historical Recreation

In a recent thread on an SCA group on Facebook, a number of people discussed modern sources of light that could be disguised as period, including LED "candles" complete with flicker. My contribution was to mention my wife's policy of trying to always get the dinner dishes washed before it gets dark. It occurs to me that this raises a more general issue: What are the reasons for authenticity of various sorts in the SCA or similar contexts?

One reason, and the one that the commenters pretty clearly had in mind, is to avoid damaging the ambiance, the appearance of a medieval environment, for other people. That consideration gives us the ten foot rule, the idea that everything should look period if seen from at least ten feet away. It also gives part of the requirement for participation in my encampment at Pennsic—nothing that is both obviously and unnecessarily out of period.

Fake candles, coolers concealed in chests, cameras built into something that looks period, all solve the problem of damaging the ambiance for other people but not the problem of maintaining the ambiance for the people who are using them. It's harder to imagine that you are a medieval person when you are turning on your candle by pushing a button and not worrying about whether it is too close to things that might burn, or when you are putting ice in your cooler or photographing a battle. If what you are doing poses no problem for other people, other people have no reason to object to it. But it still poses a problem for you, which is a reason why you might choose not to do it—in order to enhance your own experience.

A further reason to prefer the real medieval solution to the modern solution disguised as medieval is suggested by my wife's policy. Medieval people faced a different set of constraints than we do, and one of the differences is that they had no easy way of producing good artificial lighting. By imposing that constraint on ourselves we put ourselves in something closer to their world and give ourselves a push into figuring out how they dealt with it.

By, for instance, arranging to do anything that requires good lighting in daylight.

The Correlation Between Intellect and Pulchritude

I have spent much of my life teaching at reasonably good schools. The students who succeed in getting admitted to such schools tend to be well above average, intellectually speaking (in “intellect” I include not only intelligence but also characteristics such as organization and willingness to work that affect academic success).

In my possibly biased observation, the female students at such schools are not only smarter than average, they are better looking as well. That raises an interesting question. Assuming my observation is correct, why would there be a positive correlation between intellect and pulchritude?

One possible answer is that intellect is an input to pulchritude. The abilities that make a woman academically successful might also make her successful in improving her appearance, whether by diet and exercise, choice of clothing, or in a variety of other ways.

Another possibility is that intellect and looks are both affected by some common cause. Poor nutrition, for instance, might affect both. So might genetic factors or environmental ones, pre or post-natal. Something goes right or wrong with the process that builds a human being, and it goes right or wrong with both intellect and whatever determines physical appearance.

Another and perhaps more intriguing possibility is that the correlation is due to selective pressure in past societies. Consider a society where male status is in part dependent on intellectual ability; Imperial China would be one example, since positions in the Imperial civil service were high status and were obtained by success in competitive exams. But the same pattern could be expected in any context where individuals compete for status and success depends in part in intellect.

Further, assume that the society is polygenous—high status males are able to mate with multiple females, whether as wives, concubines, or mistresses. Men prefer attractive women, so men with unusually high intellect will be mating with women with unusually good looks, producing children with both.

There is one other possible explanation for my observation. I am attracted to smart women. Women I am attracted to appear better looking—to me—than women I am not attracted to, whether or not they actually are in some more objective sense. The phenomenon I am trying to explain may not exist; the observation may reflect characteristics of the observer, not the observed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Debates Old and New

Someone recently webbed a debate from more than thirty years ago between me and George Smith on ethics vs economics as a foundation for libertarianism. I enjoyed watching it and thought some readers of this blog might enjoy it as well.

After a more recent debate, this one with Robert Murphy, my opponent commented in a blog post that "The only major miscommunication is that Friedman just wanted to talk about methodology, whereas I, the moderator, and the Porcfest event brochure all thought we were talking about the ethical foundations of anarcho-capitalism as well." 

I wasn't discussing the ethical foundations of anarcho-capitalism in that debate because I thought the debate was about the Chicago school approach to economics vs the Austrian school approach and the subject of both schools is economics, not ethics. But it occurs to me that my debate with George was on very nearly the same subject that Robert thought was missing from our debate, so anyone who would like to see what I would have said to Robert can now do so. I will leave it to Robert to decide whether George did an adequate job of representing his side of the argument.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Bilateral Hostage via Bitcoin

In "From Imperial China to Cyberspace: Contracting Without the State" I discussed the problem of contracts without court enforcement in the context of past practice in Imperial China and future practice online. There are at least two ways of doing it.

One is to rely on reputation. If both parties have sufficiently valuable reputations there is no problem, since the loss to either of being known to have broken its contract is more than the gain from doing so. All you have to do is to arrange things so that if one party does break the contract, the other can easily prove the fact to interested third parties. If only one party has a valuable reputation, the contract can be structured so that only that party has the opportunity to gain by failing to fulfill its obligations—most obviously, having the other party pay in advance. If neither party has a reputation, they can use a third party who does, an escrow agent or equivalent, to enforce the contract.

The other solution is to structure the contract in such a way that a party is always worse off pulling out than carrying his obligations to completion. In building a house, for instance, if the purchaser pays in advance the builder can pocket the money and leave. If the purchaser pays on completion, he can insist on "renegotiating" the price at that point. They solve the problem by a schedule of payments made as the house is built.

This may be difficult or impossible to do in a world of uncertainty, since we may not be able to predict how much a party will gain by fulfilling the contract or, alternatively, failing to do so. We can make reneging more costly to one party by having him put down a deposit in advance which the other can seize if the contract is not fulfilled. But doing so increases the incentive to the other party to reneg, since if he breaks the contract he can keep the deposit—all of this is happening in a world without courts to make him give it back. A solution to that problem is to replace the deposit with a hostage—something valuable to the party who gives it but not to the party who holds it. If I break the contract you destroy the hostage, but you cannot gain by yourself breaking the contract and holding the hostage. 

Someone recently pointed me at a blog post proposing an elegant bilateral version of the hostage solution: "Contracts Without Trust and Third Parties", by Oleg Andreev. It is a very simple idea. I make a contract with you which gives you the opportunity to cheat me out of ten dollars, perhaps by accepting an online payment but not delivering the goods or services paid for.  Before making the payment, we use bitcoin technology to deposit twenty dollars each in a form that is locked against both of us unless each of us releases it. If you never deliver the goods I refuse to unlock the deposit. I am worse off as a result but so are you, which is a good reason for you to fulfill your half of the contract.

My daughter, reading a draft of my article, pointed out a problem with the hostage solution. The hostage I deposit with you may be of no use to you but it is valuable to me, so after you break the contract you sell the hostage back to me for some substantial fraction of its value. The same problem exists for Andreev's proposal. After you fail to deliver the goods, you point out to me that leaving our deposit forever unclaimed hurts me as well as you, unlock your side of it, and wait for me to unlock mine.

Nonetheless, hostage have, historically, been used to guarantee fulfillment of promises in a variety of contexts, perhaps in part because selling my hostage back to me is a bilateral monopoly transaction with potentially high transaction costs and uncertain outcome, perhaps in part because someone who has just been cheated may be willing to accept a cost to punish the person who cheated him.

I have one improvement to offer to Andreev's scheme, in order to eliminate the deadweight cost of deposits that are never unlocked. Arrange that if the deposit is not unlocked after (say) ten days, it forfeits to a third party. Sell the right, in advance, to be that third party.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Diamonds, Advertising, DeBeers and Sex

This morning I participated in a Google hangout organized by the Huffington Post, along with Mike Huemer and some other people. The topic was engagement rings, inspired by a recent blog post on the subject.

The author of the post repeated the standard story according to which diamonds became popular for engagement rings as a result of an advertising campaign by the N.W. Ayer advertising company on behalf of De Beers. Pretty clearly the author had not read the classic article on the subject, "Rings and Promises" by Margaret Brinig, which offers a more interesting explanation of why and when the giving of an expensive engagement ring became a common custom.

Her explanation starts with the fact that pre-marital sex is not a new invention. In the early 20th century, a common pattern was for engaged couples to have sex with the understanding that if the woman got pregnant they would get married; evidence from several late 19th century European cities suggests that about a third of brides were pregnant. One problem was the risk of that the man, having gotten the sex, would dump his fiancee instead of marrying her. One solution to that, in U.S. law, was the tort action for breach of promise to marry. In a society where marriage was the main career open to women and the fact that a woman was known not to be a virgin substantially reduced her marriage prospects, seduction could impose substantial costs and result in a substantial damage payment.

Starting in 1935 in Indiana, U.S. states started altering their laws to abolish the action for breach of promise. Women responded, by Brinig's account, by requiring a down payment from their fiancees in the form of an expensive ring—which forfeited if the fiancee terminated the engagement. Think of it as a performance bond.

Brinig looked at data on diamond imports and concluded that the demand for diamonds started to rise about 1935, four years before the Ayer marketing campaign that is usually given credit for creating the demand for engagement rings. The evidence also suggested that the custom began declining once premarital sex became widely accepted, largely eliminating the problem it was designed to solve. Since 1980, by her account, engagement rings have never amounted to as much as 20% of all diamond sales.

From which I conclude that the Ayer agency was indeed good at marketing—not necessarily at marketing diamonds, but at least at marketing itself, spreading a story that gave it credit for a stunning effect that began four years before its supposed cause.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Faking It

The son of friends of ours is required by his teacher to spend twenty minutes a day reading and report on doing so. He is being taught that reading is a chore to be done only under compulsion. Someone who follows the rules may never discover that reading is fun, since he will be cutting the book into twenty minute chunks instead of reading right through it. Our conclusion was that the best solution was to read the book and lie to the teacher, reporting a single two hours as six daily twenty minute sessions. The teacher, or whoever made the rules he is following, starts with the observation that reading a lot correlates with desirable outcomes and concludes that the way to get those outcomes is to compel children to read—whether they like it or not. The likely result is exactly the opposite of the one intended.

Years earlier, we observed a parallel mistake in a different context. Our home schooled daughter, considering a career as a librarian, volunteered to work without pay at a large local library. After a week they thanked her and told her that her term of volunteering was over. Pretty clearly, their assumption was that she was volunteering because her high school required her to, or possibly to get something to claim on her college application, and it was now someone else’s turn. Wanting to volunteer to do useful things is evidence of desirable personality traits. Volunteering because someone requires you to or will reward you for it is not. She found a smaller local library that actually had a use for her services and worked there for a couple of years.

For a third example, consider my previous post and the long comment thread. It is a good thing if people in the SCA are interested in learning what people did in period and trying to figure out how best to do it. But too often, people in the SCA are convinced that being historically accurate is not something worth doing for itself but something you do because other people are pressuring you to do it or in the hope of getting rewards and status. The result is “documentation” that consists not of trying to figure out how something was actually done but of trying to find some excuse for claiming that whatever you want to do is period. Sort of.

In each case the mistake is the same, the attempt to create the effect without its proper cause. To fake it.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Creeping Mundanity at Pennsic

(This post is about the SCA, a historical recreation group with which I have been involved for many years—readers unfamiliar with it can get some of the context from essays of mine in the Miscellany, a book my wife and I self-publish.)

Over the years, Pennsic has gotten both better and worse. There is an increasing amount of period mass entertainment such as the shows put on by the commedia del arte troupes, more interesting period work at the A&S exhibition and in the university classes and, I think, a gradually rising ratio of period tents to modern tents. But I think there is also a gradual increase in the acceptance of strikingly out of period things at Pennsic, including entirely unnecessary ones.

The clearest example of the latter this year was the sign, shown below, outside the lost and found tent. It is a reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a popular science-fiction book that not only has nothing to do with the middle ages or the SCA but deals with subjects such as aliens, space travel, and the like, strikingly inconsistent with what the SCA is about. There were other references to the book scattered about the Pennsic pamphlet and elsewhere, all inspired by the fact that this was Pennsic 42 and the number 42 has a special significance in Hitchiker, but this one was obvious even to someone who had never heard of the book. The population of the world was not 6.8 billion at any point in SCA period and if it had been it would not have been expressed in exponential notation.

My conclusion was that at least some of the people responsible for running this year’s Pennsic viewed the SCA as part of science fiction fandom. It is, I suppose, an understandable mistake for someone heavily involved in fandom—sf cons often have SCA demos at them, after all. But it is still a mistake. There has always been a substantial overlap between the two groups, but also many people in the SCA who have no connection to fandom; my impression is that the fraction of such has increased over time. Perhaps more important, the spirit of the two groups is very different. The SCA centers on recreation of real world history, fandom on fiction. Wearing elf ears at an sf con is entirely appropriate, clearly inappropriate (which is not to say it does not happen) at an SCA event. Discussions of modern science and technology fit into a con but not an SCA event.

I found the sign particularly disturbing because it not only clashed with the medieval ambiance, it implied that such clashing was not merely tolerable but a good thing, part of what was being presented by the people running the event. It is hard to see how members of the Pennsic staff can object to elf ears or insist that “You can keep a trailer in your encampment for storage or living space, but it must be disguised to look period” (from the Pennsic web page) when they themselves are going out of their way to present something strikingly out of period.

There is always a temptation, in the SCA context, to make a joke out of the contrast between medieval and modern, as in songs about an SCA knight in chain mail going through an airport metal detector. Such jokes might have been funny the first ten or twenty times they were made, but that was decades ago. And every such joke makes it that much harder for participants to imagine, even for  a little while, that they are actually in the middle ages—something that is, I think, part of the attraction of the SCA, what some people like to describe as the magic.

There are other ways in which the activities of the people running Pennsic subverted the medieval ambiance and endorsed other people ignoring or subverting it. There may be good reasons why some staff people need walkie-talkies, but they ought to be used with a bad conscience, as unobtrusively as possible. There may be reasons why golf carts must occasionally be used for transportation but I find it hard to imagine any good reason why they should be nearly as common as they are. Now that practically everyone has a cell phone, all it takes is one security station somewhere, preferably out of sight, with a couple of golf carts and a few people, to make it possible to get security staff to any point at Pennsic where a problem requiring them arises. As best I can tell, security at Pennsic mirrors in miniature one problem of urban policing—that driving around in a police car is pleasanter than walking a beat but does less to discourage crime. Riding around in a golf cart is not only less work than walking, it marks you as a privileged individual—and humans like status.

So far I have been talking about mundanity creeping in at the top. The situation at the bottom, among ordinary participants, is more complicated. On the one hand, an increasing fraction of participants who cannot walk very far or up and down hill and so require some sort of transport make the effort to pretend that their motorized wheelchairs and similar devices are horses, with suitable modifications. It is not a very good solution, but it may well be the best solution practical.

On the other hand, my impression is that ornamental mundanity, things obviously inappropriate to the medieval ambiance done not for convenience but for show, is becoming increasingly common. The picture shows one example—an encampment one of whose structures was outlined in electric lights.

Within the SCA, any attempt to maintain a medieval ambiance is under pressure from two directions. One is the fact that doing things in a period way is often harder and less convenient than doing them in a modern way—one reason why, outside the SCA, modern technology exists. A Coleman stove is less trouble to turn on, turn off, and cook over than a campfire. A flashlight is a more convenient device than a candle lantern. If we insisted on doing everything in as completely period a way as possible we would do very little and there would be very few of us doing it—the mistake I think of as making the best the enemy of the good. The least unsatisfactory response to that problem, in my view, is to regard mundane conveniences as a necessary evil to be minimized but not eliminated—while at the same time using the problem of how to minimize them, how to provide period alternatives, as a valuable spur to learning more about how medieval people lived.

The second source of pressure is the attraction of the cheap joke. Learning enough about past societies to make medieval or renaissance humor—for example, commedia del arte performances—requires some effort. Wearing elf ears or making jokes about dragons does not. It is unfortunate but not, I think, surprising, that individual participants often yield to to the temptation. It is disturbing when the people running the event do so.