Institutions and Empire

3 November, 2006

As a maths nerd with an interest in history I find attempts to actually quantify various historical effects extremely interesting, even if they are ultimately often flawed. This article in The Economist shows how economists, or really more accurately statisticians, are trying to sort through various historical outcomes to measure the value of different institutions as an explanation for wealth and poverty.

Of the many proposed solutions to that riddle (technology, geography, the Protestant ethic) the current favourite is rather bland in the abstract: “institutions”. In rich economies institutions—meaning the formal laws and unwritten rules that govern society—function rather well on the whole. In poor ones they don’t. That much is indisputable.

What is tricky is showing that good institutions are a cause of economic progress rather than a by-product of it. You cannot run controlled experiments in which a particular institution is randomly imposed on some countries, but not on others, in order to compare how they fare. Or at least economists can’t. But perhaps imperialists can. Maybe the colonial adventures of the past provide the natural experiments economists need to put their theories to the test.

What is ingenious about the recent economic studies of empire is how they overcome this problem. Imperial institutions may determine prosperity, but the reverse may also be true. The trick is to find some third factor that is securely linked to institutions, but entirely unconnected to economic success. Such factors are called “instrumental variables”, because the economist is interested in them not for themselves, but for what they tell him about something else.

That name, however, now seems quite ironic. Because all of the fun in the recent spate of papers is in the instruments themselves. Economists are outdoing each other with ever more curious instruments, ranging from lethal mosquitoes to heirless maharajahs, or, most recently, wind speeds and sea currents.

It has often been said that you were better off being colonised by the British than say the Spanish and Portugese and in general the studies bear this out. Although also pointing out that it wasn’t necessarily a positive.
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Port Arthur

26 September, 2006

While down in Tassie I visited Port Arthur for the first time. It was a clear sunny day, and it is a really beautiful place. The water, buildings and parks make it difficult to reconcile with the various miseries inflicted there.

I was a little surprised on the tour that its original conception were based on the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, essentially “a machine for grinding rogues honest”. It featured separation of different classes of prisoners based on their offenses which was novel at the time, and indeed the first boys prison in the British Empire. As a child at school of course I had learnt of the cruelty and of the dog line at Eaglehawk Neck, but not that it was in many regards an attempt at enlightened reform for its time.

Then of course there is the massacre, to walk through the hollow shell of what was the Broad Arrow Cafe its kind of hard to imagine over twenty people being shot there in a matter of seconds. The space seems so small and difficult to conceive how anyone could indiscriminately slaughter at so close a range. For me I can conceive how someone might do such a thing, long range, where the act is more abstract, but the relative confines of the Cafe were a surprise to me. I had imagined it as much larger.

Port Arthur is a worthwhile place to visit, beautiful with an oppressive overhanging history.


James Clerk Maxwell and his beautiful equations!

13 June, 2006

Today is the 175th anniversary of the birthday of James Clerk Maxwell, without doubt one of the top echelon of physicists, and certainly the greatest physicist of his era. Working across a number of areas, he is now probably chiefly remembered for his complete set of field equations describing electromagnetic theory. While this may have been his crowning achievement it was not the only work which still bears his name, with him doing important work in statistical mechanics, and even providing some of the foundational work on explaining colourblindness and colour perception in the human eye. Strangely while most physicists would likely rank him up with or just behind Newton and Einstein he is generally vastly less well known.

Seventy five years ago, Einstein celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Maxwell’s birth by saying Maxwell’s work was the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.” Maxwell’s equations described electromagnetic theory in short set of equations in terms of fields, a description which was later to inspire Einstein to achieve the same thing with gravity and resulted in the General Theory of Relativity. His discovery that light travelled at a constant speed, led ultimately to the development of the Special Theory of Relativity.
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Colour Blindness

12 June, 2006

I am colour blind. As was my brother, both my mother’s brothers, and my great grandmother. It runs in the family. More specifically I am red-green colour blind, and even more specifically appear to be suffering from Protanopia, an absence or at least weakening of the red portion of the spectrum. Most colour blindness, particularly red-green colour blindness is due to a recessive genetic condition on the X chromosome. Men, with only the short Y chromosome, have no way of masking the recessive gene and so are much more likely to express the condition. Colour blindness in some form is quite common. Around 8% of the male population in Australia has some form of colourblindness with Red-Green being far and away the most common, although some may have it mildly enough not to realise it until made do a screening test. Colour blindness was first described scientifically in 1794 by the chemist John Dalton who diagnosed himself and published the paper Extraordinary facts relating to the vision of colours. For a long time afterwards colour blindness was known as Daltonism.

When I tell people I’m colour blind, you usually get the same set of questions. What colour is the grass, the sky etc. These questions are annoying but I guess understandable. My answer always is that the sky is blue and the grass is green and that these are basically definitional to most peoples conception of colour. The issue with colour blindness is distinguishing between colours, in my case any colour involving red. Thus green, brown and red can all look very much the same, particularly when there is either not strong light, or there is only a small amount of the colour.
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The Defenestration of Prague

23 May, 2006

Today, the 23rd of May, is the 388th anniversary of the second defenestration of Prague, one of my favourite historical events. The day that Calvinist Bohemians revolted, seized the ministers of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and flung them out a 15 metre high window in Prague Castle. The event triggered the terrible Thirty Years War, left parts of Germany devastated and depopulated for several generations and ultimately culminated in the Peace of Westphalia the first international agreement to acknowledge countries sovereignty over their internal affairs.

C. V. Wedgewood in her classic The Thirty Years War described the incident like this:

A hundred hands dragged them towards the high window, flung back the casement and hoisted them upwards. Martinitz went first. “Jesu Maria! Help!” he screamed and crashed over the sill. Slavata fought longer, calling on the Blessed Virgin and clawing at the window frame under a rain of blows until someone knocked him senseless and the bleeding hands relaxed. Their shivering secretary clung to Schlick for protection; out of sheer intoxication the crowd hoisted him up and sent him to join his masters.
One of the rebels lent over the ledge leering; “We will see if your Mary can help you!” A second later between exasperation and amazement, “By God, his Mary has helped,” he exclaimed, for Martinitz was already stirring. Suddenly a ladder protruded from a neighbouring window; Martinitz and the secretary made off under a hail of misdirected missiles. Some of Slavata’s servants, braving the mob, went down to his help and carried him after the others, unconscious but alive.

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Tacoma Narrows Bridge

19 May, 2006

I imagine that the story of the Tacoma Narrows bridge will be familiar to most people. For those that aren’t, the bridge was a suspension bridge in Washington State built in the late 30’s. On the 7th of November, 1940, it began to be shaken by strong gusting winds. Most disturbingly it began to resonate with the winds, in several modes including tortionally, and increasingly violently.

The situation was described by Leonard Coatsworth who drove onto the bridge.

Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car… I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb… Around me I could hear concrete cracking… The car itself began to slide from side to side of the roadway.
On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards [457 m] or more to the towers… My breath was coming in gasps; my knees were raw and bleeding, my hands bruised and swollen from gripping the concrete curb… Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time… Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.

The story is a cautionary tale for engineers, and a classic example of the power of resonance on a structure. Fortunately, other than Tubby the Dog stranded in one of the cars, no lives were lost. If you want to know more read the wikipedia entry.

The pictures and video of the event are always worth a look – the reason for the post! I really can’t see this enough times.
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Last of the Magicians

3 May, 2006

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

In 1936 Sotherby’s auctioned a large collection of manuscripts of Isaac Newton. These manuscripts consisted of papers that had been donated to Cambridge but were discarded as “non-scientific”. The papers principally focused on Newton’s writings on alchemy, theology and biblical chronology. The auction had little interest and most of the papers were dispersed to dealers. Much of the collection was eventually bought and put back together by John Maynard Keynes who began a study of their contents, what they told us of Newton’s less well known researches and the man himself.
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