Recently in History Category


Sorry about the lack of posting lately; I wrapped up my job at the end of last week, went straight from that to a pair of friends's wedding in Ithaca over the weekend, and have been entertaining my sister, who's visiting from out of town, since Tuesday.

While on the Air Train on the way to pick up my sister at Newark International Airport I saw a fellow with an ID badge hanging from his pants pocket. This is not abnormal in and of itself, as most buildings in New York require employees to wear ID badges for security purposes. What was interesting was the fellow's name: Dave Hume. I was half tempted to, at the next train stop, grab his luggage, run away with it, and shout over my shoulder at him, "The circumstances of justice do not obtain, loser!" Of course, since I'm neither violent nor larcenous, and certainly wouldn't become so simply for the purpose of making a joke about a philosopher, I didn't. Also, in the grander scheme of things, the circumstances of justice DID obtain. So I sat quietly humming to myself and waited for my stop.

On the Genealogy of Geeks


I consider myself something of a geek (well, a lot of a geek) and as a result I'm interested in the classification geeks and the history of geekdom. Where did we come from? Where are we going? These are the questions that pound through my brain when I ought to be studying. Like now!

Let's start by defining terms. I think of a geek as somebody who has at least one hobby with which they have become unreasonably obsessed. This hobby should either be 1. well outside the mainstream, or 2. an unusual variant on a mainstream activity. The hallmarks of a geekly activity are that it should be introverted and easily susceptible to obsessive-compulsive behavior. You might discuss your hobby with fellow geeks, but the majority of the effort you put into the hobby is done by yourself. The obsessive-compulsive aspect can be satisfied in a number of ways, but generally through either an emphasis on collection and preservation or on the keeping of arcane statistics.

It's often tempting, when looking at a social phenomenon, to assume that it is some sort of novelty. Every generation thinks that they invented sex, and every generation thinks that they were the first geeks, which is why it's always surprising to read about people engaging in what can only be called geeky behavior fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago. What did geeks do before mass-market geek culture, before computers, video games, comic books, and action figures? Lots of things, just things you might not have made the geek connection to.

I think the best example of a pre-computer geek hobby is stamp collecting. It involves sitting quietly away from anyone else, it emphasizes maintaining a complete and ever-expanding collection, and it encourages meticulous preservation. I always had a tough time figuring out what could possibly interest anyone in stamp collecting. It's so boring and there's no apparent reward. But then I realized that the appeal is the same as that of Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic cards, the obsessive need to collect something, regardless of what it is. This is what people collected before there were comic books or action figures. When you read about some historical figure who enjoyed collecting stamps, you can say to yourself "Ah-ha! One of history's many geeks!" (Side note: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a stamp collector; Teddy Roosevelt wasn't. This fits pretty well into our images of the two; TR the extroverted, outdoorsy hunter, going on safaris on the savanah. He had a life! He had the great outdoors! While FDR, stricken with polio and confined to a wheel-chair, cultivated an interest in boring things like stamp collecting and statistics.) It's hard to understand the existence of the National Postal Museum until you see it as a memorial to geekdom past.

Another interesting geekly activity: Baseball statistics. One day in middle school my gym teacher took the class out to the field and taught us how to mark down a baseball game. If you've never done this, you get a sheet that you fill out with the batting roster for the two teams. Next to the roster are a series of boxes. Each time a player comes up to bat, you fill out the box next to his name to indicated what happened, for instance a k denotes a strike out. At the time I had no idea why we were learning this. None of our other sports involved any record-keeping component beyond scoring, but here we were detailing every aspect of the game without doing it in an interesting narrative way.

The answer is that a culture built up around baseball stats in a bygone era, leading to a well-developed system of tracking baseball stats. You use those sheets to record field data, then add it to your collection to crunch out statistics for players like batting average and runs batted in. The coach taught us this because he was, himself, an old geek, but one who's geeky hobby was perhaps no longer recognized as such. With professional league statisticians tracking all the games and computers to crunch the numbers, there's just no need for amateur record-keeping anymore. That doesn't mean he or the other old baseball statistics geeks are going to stop, it just means that the whole hobby has acquired an air of "what's the point, exactly?" which makes it hard to pass on to another generation.

And I have to say, baseball statistics is a classic geek hobby. It takes an activity that is outdoorsy, social, and fun, going to a baseball game, then impedes the social aspect (it's harder to chat when you have to make sure you catch all the plays to record them) moves the majority of the fun indoors (when you compile your numbers later) and transforms the fun from the visceral thrill of watching a sport being played to the subdued, abstract thrill of translating human actions into numbers and playing around with them, perhaps making a graph if you're so inclined. And baseball statistics lends itself to the primary extroverted aspect of geekdom: Arguing with other geeks about the minutiae of the hobby. Is RBI a valuable statistic, or is it really just a reflection of management decisions? How good a measure of batting ability is the batting average? Is a player with a better On Base Percentage a better batter than one with a higher batting average? Mantle vs. DiMaggio was an earlier generation's Kirk vs. Picard.

So, any other candidates for geekdoms past? Other activities that make no sense today but suddenly do when obsessive collecting/compilation is seen as an end in and of itself? I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

I've been reading off-and-on an interesting survey history of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (It's called Egypt, Greece, and Rome, though I suspect the title was not the author's; there's actually a whole chapter arguing that the Persians get far too short a shrift from Greco-centric historians of the ancient world). In it, there's a discussion in there of agriculture in ancient Egypt. It's quite interesting. We tend to think of Egypt today as this great barren desert, but in the ancient world it was something of a bread basket. Egypt consistently had surpluses of food that it used as a trade good, and as late as the Roman era it was a heavy grain exporter.

Anyhow, Egypt had a rather peculiar agriculture. Farming was centered around the Nile, naturally enough. There was, at the time, little or no irrigation. Rather, farmers relied on annual floods to nourish their land. Egypt had great flood plains around the Nile that were underwater roughly from April to September, from the Spring rains until Autumn. Planting happened in Fall, ripening in Winter, and then harvest in Spring. So these annual floods served as natural irrigation.

The interesting thing is that, at least according to the book, the archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptian society had private property for individual citizens (there was apparently a large centralized bureaucracy that kept records of administrative and judicial decisions, and it's from these records that a sense of Egyptian property rights has been derived). So this raises all sorts of interesting questions about how you adjudicate property rights to land that's underwater half the year. This was important stuff; food was Egypt's main export, so you can imagine how important it was to maintain your rights to agricultural land. But how do you tell who's land is whose when it's gone for half a year, and any markers you leave are likely to be washed away? And what do you do when the geography changes thanks to erosion? I mean, the river itself has to be constantly shifting in its path. How do you figure out who has the better claim to a piece of land when noone can be sure where that land is in relation to where it was last year?

Sadly, the book provides no answers. It mentions that there were property disputes that were adjudicated by Egypt's courts, and that the nature of Egypt's agriculture made these disputes particularly troublesome, but it doesn't discuss how the legal rules evolved to handle the situation.

Now that I've thought about all this, of course, I will inevitably have a nightmare in which I walk into class and find that I have a final in Ancient Egyptian Property Law, a class I've never attended. Naturally, the test will be administered in hieroglyphics, and our answers are to be in hieroglyphics as well. All the other students will have brought their stone tablets and papyrus to work on, and I'll be standing there with my useless laptop. In my underpants. Tiger-print polyester underpants.

Faith and Incarceration

Courtesy of ABC News, we have a report on a faith-based prison in Florida.

Florida is where nearly half of all felons released end up back in prison within five years. The state's prison system doesn't seem the most likely to enlighten its inmates.

In December 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush converted the medium-security Lawtey Correctional Institution into the nation's first entirely faith-based prison.

The governor put his plan into motion by stating "people of all faith, people who believe in a higher power are compelled to take actions in their lives that improve their chances of living a wholesome life that is crime-free."

At Lawtey, 28 different religions are represented — Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Wicca, Scientology.


Since Gov. Bush oversaw the conversion of Lawtey, Florida's Department of Corrections has opened two more faith- and character-based prisons — one for inmates serving long sentences and another that's exclusively for women.

The state plans to open as many as 30 more. The state believes that these kinds of programs mean less disciplinary action and lower recidivism, but no scientific study has proved anything of that nature.

There are a lot of interesting thing to talk about here, and I'm going to ignore a lot of them for now (though feel free to raise issues in comments). Obviously there are constitutional issues, fairness issues, broad questions of compulsive rehabilitation, and pragmatic questions of how effective this scheme actually is. The report is quite brief and maddeningly short on details about how the prison actually works; are prisoners forced into services? Are there provisions for the non-believing? How, exactly, is this prison run, and how is it different from the average Florida prison? The article says nothing other than that there are a lot of religions represented and that this prison somehow involves more religion than other prisons.

These are all excellent topics for discussion, but they aren't what I'm most interested in here. What's notable about this scheme is that it harkens back to the original concept of incarceration in the United States.

Incarceration as a form of criminal punishment is actually a fairly new phenomenon in the world, and one that was first widely implemented in the early Republican period in the United States. Incarceration was pretty rare before then. There were jails, to be sure, but they were used mostly for holding the accused between arrest and trial, and for holding the convicted between trial and punishment. They were temporary holding cells only. Punishments in the colonial days and earlier tended to involve a combination of fines, public humiliation, corporal punishment, and the death penalty. Further, all of these punishments were highly public. This served two purposes: public humiliation shamed the criminal into behaving well, and public punishment demonstrated the power of the government to the public at large, in theory scaring them straight.

With the birth of the Republic came a uniquely Republican form of punishment: the loss of freedom. Americans value their liberty above all else, so we shall punish the criminal by taking his liberty away from him. This led to the construction of the first modern prisons, designed to house large numbers of inmates and accomodate a new form of punishment: long term incarceration.

The other major shift between the old style of punishment and incarceration-oriented punishment was in the religious aspect. The old style of punishment involved an elaborate ritual of penitence and absolution. It is well known that the death penalty applied to a great deal more crimes in the colonial period than it does now, and that the death penalty was far more commonly applied. What is less well known is that clemency was also far more common in those days. Those condemned to die would write elaborate confessions (often published for the public to read, and many times copied and handed out at the execution), explaining where they went wrong in life, taking responsibility for their sins, resolving to devote themselves to a life of virtue, and begging for forgiveness from the community and, particularly, the governor. The prisoner would go through the entire ceremony of the public execution up until the last second, at which point, if clemency was granted, the noose would be removed and he would be told he could go free. I don't have statistics with me now, but I believe that the majority of death penalties in the colonial period were commuted in this manner. I could be wrong, however, so don't take that as gospel.

There was a shift in this view in the period of the early Republic. The emphasis on clemency of the executive had a rather monarchical character; the ritual made it seem as though the executive was acting as God's surrogate. We have a sinner who is to face eternal punishment, and, if the governor/God decides that the sinner has a truly penitent soul, the governer grants absolution for the criminal's sins. Throw in the background of Divine Right of Kings political theory, and you can see why this relationship between governor and governed would be uncomfortable in the United States.

In the early Republic, the idea was that we put our faith in The People, not in some omnipotent sovereign. The citizen, in this view, is basically good and moral, intelligent and capable of self-governance. For this, they are given the privilege of liberty. Sometimes, of course, they go astray, and in those cases their liberty must be restrained until they can set themselves right again. The emphasis in imprisonment was on self-correction. Prisoners were put in solitary confinement to meditate upon their life and upon God, and to see how they had gone astray. They were given some make-work and basic training in skills, on the theory that learning a trade was a major element in being a productive person of moral worth. And they were given Bibles, that they might read them and learn from them lessons of how to live rightly.

It's at this point that punishment shifted from public to a private. Punishment was no longer about shame; rather, it was about an internal moral journey, to be made by each prisoner for himself. They were handed the tools of moral redemption, locked in a room with them, and left to their own devices to reform themselves. It is from this view of punishment as a means of personal redemption that we get the term Penitentiary, meaning a house for penitence.

Without going into the details of the further evolution of the American penal system, things didn't work out so well at these early faith-based prisons. The strict solitary confinement and utter lack of human contact caused a lot of prisoners to lose their grip on sanity. Prisoners were also not as inclined to reform themselves on their own as the prison theoreticians would have hoped. There was a lot of small-scale rebellion, which led to corporal punishments and other means of keeping prisoners in line. Further, it's not very economical to have a system of prisons with elaborate solitary confinement schemes; in short order the prisons became over-crowded and solitary confinement was abandoned.

These are all problems with the peculiar early Republican scheme of penitentiaries, and says nothing about the current faith-based prisons in Jeb Bush's Florida. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that this new scheme is a hearkening back to the early days of incarceration.

Historical Inquiry


I've got a question that I should probably research, but I'd be interested in an answer. Why were Americans so afraid of paper money two hundred years ago? Obviously paper money is popular now (c.f. the repeated failure of the dollar coin) but they really distrusted it in the period around the founding. I was reminded of this question because I was reading the Federalist Papers for Constitutional Law and Madison, in one of them, argues for the importance of curbs on the popular will. Among the specific popular (and evil) causes that Madison argues need to be prevented are "the repudiation of debt, the equal division of property, and the printing of paper money." So bankruptcy laws, International Communism, and the Federal Reserve.

So what gives? Concerns about hyper-inflation? Concerns about regular inflation? A feeling that paper money wasn't real money? Distrust of the printing industry? Campaign contributions from America's Mining and Metallurgy firms? (Interesting side-note: Benjamin Franklin was an early and strong advocate for paper money. When the government eventually decided to print paper money, they gave the contract to mint the money to Benjamin Franklin. So the American tradition of kickbacks for lobbyists goes back to the days of powdered wigs)

Also, can you imagine if they'd written a ban on paper money into the constitution? You'd have to pay with change every time you went to the store! In fact, we probably wouldn't have a concept of change, since all money would be coins, except in relation to those weird foreigners, with their squirrelly paper money.

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