Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What Would/Does Modern Polygamy Look Like?

The most common human mating pattern is monogamy, the next most common polygyny (one husband, two or more wives), then polyandry (one wife, two or more husbands). Tibet had both polyandry and polygyny. I know of no society where group marriages (two or more of each) were common, but examples have existed, such as the Oneida commune in 19th century New York and various smaller groups in the 1960's and thereafter.

Under current U.S. law, although monogamy (including same sex monogamy) is the only form of marriage legally recognized, there do not seem to be any serious legal bars in most states to de facto polygamy. All three forms, although uncommon, exist. It is interesting to speculate on what forms polygamy might take in the future in modern developed societies, given  a technological and economic environment different from the environment of past polygamous societies.

On the technological side, two big changes are reliable contraception and paternity testing. The latter solves the most obvious problem with polyandry. Men want to know whether a child is theirs. In the past, the only reliable way of doing so was for the man to have had exclusive sexual access to the child's mother; now all it takes is a reliable lab. So we could have several husbands sharing a wife who bears children by all of them, with each taking a special interest in his own children. The selective use of contraception would even make it possible to decide in advance which men would father children and how many. 

One function of marriage is to produce and rear children, another is sexual pleasure. One woman is physically capable of satisfying several men and some women might enjoy doing so. Reliable contraception makes it more practical than in the past to delink sex from marriage, and to a considerable extent it has happened. But keeping sex within a small group has an obvious advantage for reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and may also make better use of the emotional concomitants of intercourse.

Why polyandry instead of monogamy? Modern technology provides ways in which parents can choose to raise the odds of producing a son, and the result in some societies is a substantial m/f imbalance in the population. Polyandry would make it possible in such a society for the excess men to have wives and families.

What about polygyny, the historically more common form of polygamy? It provides a solution to a different problem. Back when legalized abortion and readily available contraception first became hot political issues, a major argument in favor of both was preventing the birth of unwanted children, meaning children born to unmarried mothers. Both legalized abortion and readily available contraception now exist in most developed societies—and have been accompanied by the precise opposite of the predicted effect, a sharp increase in the number of children born to single mothers.

One possible explanation is that, in a world where intercourse was likely to lead to pregnancy, most women were unwilling to sleep with a man unless he was prepared to offer support to any resulting offspring, typically by being engaged or married to her. Breaking that link meant that women who did not want children and did enjoy sex were willing to engage in it without such a guarantee, which sharply worsened the bargaining position of women who wanted sex, children, and support. Some of those who could not find husbands chose to produce children without them. Polygyny would offer some of them the more attractive alternative of being one of two or more wives of men who wanted children and had sufficient resources to support them. And for such men, it provides more sexual variety than monogamy, more emotional security and less medical risk than promiscuity. Also more children.

So far I have been looking at marriage primarily from the standpoint of sex and children. It is also an institution for the production of household services and the sharing of income. In one traditional form of monogamy there was a fairly sharp division of labor, with the wife running the household and the husband working outside it to bring in income. The combination of low rates of infant mortality, meaning that a family that wants to end up with two children need only produce two, and modern technology—washers and dryers, dishwashers, microwave ovens, food bought already prepared—has converted household production from a full time to a part time job. The usual modern response is for both partners to earn income outside of the household, possibly with one of them, usually the wife, taking some years off for child rearing. An alternative, possibly a superior alternative, would be a family of three or more, with one member specializing in running the household and caring for the children.

One additional feature of modern society might affect how practical various forms of marriage would be. We are used to taking it for granted that most income earning is done outside of the household. That has not always been the case in the past—a common pattern has been for family members to be self employed running a shop or a farm. Telecommuting may make something similar again common. The problem of having someone home to keep an eye on the children is substantially reduced if parents who work do their work at home.

All of this is mostly speculation. Over the years I have occasionally encountered people who were part of polygamous families of one sort or another, but have never done much research into how or why they were organized. There is a literature, largely online, on polyamory, but it seems to deal more with structuring the emotional relationships than with organizing production, child rearing, and associated activities.

Comments welcome, especially from those with first hand experience.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How One Might Climb Over the Great Firewall

One minor irritation on my recent trip to China was discovering that Facebook and Google+, where I normally waste time arguing with people, were both blocked, as was blogspot and hence my own blog—the reason this post is only going up now, from Hong Kong. I gather that locals have ways of evading the restrictions but do not know the details. Which lets me try to figure out how I would do it.

The obvious solution is a proxy server. You connect to it from inside China, it connects you to any other site you like, blocked or not. The obvious problem is that whoever is doing the blocking notices and blocks the proxy server. To which one less obvious and so more interesting solution is …  .

Start with ten thousand proxy servers—or at least ten thousand URL’s, possibly all connected to the same hardware. You email each of your customers a URL to use. 

Unfortunately, some of your customers are spies, employees of whatever state organization does the blocking. They report the URL’s they get to their employer, who blocks them.

At which point you observe which URL's are blocked and note which of your customers got those URL's, hence which of your customers you suspect of being spies. Since customers who got the blocked URL’s now cannot access your server, you send them new URL’s—a different new URL for each of them. You observe which of those get blocked. You now have a pretty good guess which of your customers are spies.

So you have one set of URL’s for the spies, another for everyone else. Whenever a URL gets blocked, you send the customers who had that one a new URL—and add those customers to your list of possible spies. You continue with a policy of sending real customers URL’s that don’t go to confirmed spies and updating your list of confirmed spies on the basis of which URL’s get blocked.

So far as I can tell it should work. I have no idea whether or not I have just reinvented something close to what already exists.

In Praise of Shanghai

I’ve just spent four days in Shanghai, my first visit ever to mainland China, and I like the place. There is street food everywhere, people are friendly, the architects who built the skyscrapers were crazy enough to put a model of half a planet on top of one and of a space station on another.

The evening before I left I went for a walk in the park near my hotel. There was music playing, I suspect from a boom box, and couples, many of them middle aged, dancing to it, not very well. In the same park the next morning there were people doing tai chi exercises, others doing slow motion dance moves, in groups, to music. The feel of the place is almost the precise opposite of a communist stereotype—it feels as though everyone is energetically doing what he wants and half the population are small scale entrepreneurs. The typical "department store" is a large building occupied by (I'm guessing) a couple of hundred tiny stores, with what they sell sorted to some degree by floors of the building.

One interesting question is whether China, at this point, is more or less capitalist than the U.S. So far as Shanghai is concerned, my guess is less in theory but more in practice. I was told that there are regulations on who can cut hair or sell food out of a cart on the street but they are not enforced very energetically and can be dealt with if necessary by a modest bribe to the policeman who is supposed to enforce them.

I am only posting this today, after arriving in Hong Kong, because in Shanghai (and later Xiamen) I was blocked from either reading or writing to my blog (or Facebook, or G+, which left more time free for exploring China), presumably by the Great Firewall. Here too, the restriction is more in theory than in practice. I gathered that most of the Chinese I spoke with had unrestricted access to the internet via a VPN that manages to evade the firewall.

Which provides a subject for my next post.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Korean Puzzles

I've just spent a pleasant few days in Seoul and I have two questions:

1. Why is it that a majority of the population shares a single last name (Kim)?

2. There is no place in Seoul where one is more than a few hundred feet from someone selling food (casual observation, not scholarly claim). Diet soft drinks are considerably less common in Korea than in the U.S. Yet almost nobody is fat. Why?

Korea v China: A Natural Experiment

Until the 15th century, Koreans wrote using Chinese characters. During that century, they invented an alphabet, Hangul, which a linguist of my acquaintance used to describe as the best alphabet ever created.  Learning to read and write in Chinese characters took a very lengthy education. Learning to read Hangul, for someone who knew Korean, should have taken only a few days, long enough to memorize the sounds of the letters. So the introduction of Hangul should have converted Korea from a society where only the elite were literate to a society where almost everyone was.

China retained the traditional writing system. So the history of the two countries ought to provide information on the effect of widespread literacy. In what ways in which the societies were similar before Hangul did they diverge thereafter?

I don't have an answer, but it occurred to me that someone much more expert in the history of both countries might.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

How to Board an Airplane

I've just read an article on different ways of getting passengers onto an airplane, arguing that South-western's current method is the best of those used, although there is at least one alternative that is better still. The article did not consider the method that has long struck me as the obvious solution to the problem—and that no airline, so far as I know, uses.

South-western lines up passengers in an order mainly determined by when they checked in, then lets them choose their own seats as they board. My method uses the same mechanics—lining passengers up in a predetermined order—but in what should be a much more efficient way.  Instead of lining them up by priority, line them up by seat number. The first two people in line are the ones in the window seat of the last row. The next two are in the window seat of the next row forward, and so on to the window seats of the first row. Next come the two in the middle seats ordered in the same way, then finally those in the aisle seats. 

The advantage seems obvious—since passengers go on in the order of their seats, nobody ever has to wait for a passenger in front of him in line but seated ahead of him. Since the rows fill from the window in, nobody has to wait for someone in his row to get out before he can get in. One might argue that passengers will be unwilling to go along with such an elaborate arrangement—but the mechanics are exactly the same as way South-western does now. The only difference is that the order actually serves a function.

What am I missing? Why don't the airlines do it that way?