Barère, Bertrand (1755-1841)

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

Does the Pledge of Allegiance harm American students?  Is it mere indoctrination into loyalty to the government, a way to habituate students into seeing the government as superior to God and family?

The life of of one of the most notorious of the French revolutionaries, Bertrand Barere, made me wonder.

One of his most important reforms in 1793 was “the inculcation of national patriotism through a system of universal elementary education.”  For Barere, faith in the state was to replace faith in the Catholic religion.  His religion of the state was given a “catechism, religious rites, sacred emblems, and mystic devotion (Gershoy).”

Given the vulnerability of young people to indoctrination and propaganda, I have always been suspicious of federal government involvement in education.  I have always assumed that such involvement on a federal level began with President Carter’s creation of the Department of Education in 1979.  However, I was surprised to find that we had a “U.S. Commissioner of Education,” Henry Barnard, as early as 1867.

The use of the educational system to create servants of the state in both Revolutionary France and Nazi Germany make me cautious even of something as seemingly innocuous as a pledge to our flag. It would be ironic indeed if, in their support of the Pledge, the self-proclaimed friends of freedom, conservatives, are actually laying the groundwork for tyranny.

Sources:

  1. Gershoy, Leo. “Barère, Champion of Nationalism in the French Revolution”. Political Science Quarterly 42.3 (1927): 419–430.  Web.
  2. Photo: http://bit.ly/1NJWxw5

Bancroft, Edward (1745-1821)

EdwardBancroft
Edward Bancroft

Was Edward Bancroft a British double agent who fooled not only John Paul Jones but also Benjamin Franklin?

American leaders hoped to embroil Britain in a war against other foes (specifically, an alliance of France and Prussia), which they hoped would distract Britain.  Bancroft was unenthusiastic about American independence, and the possibility of a French war against Britain alarmed him; hence he decided to spy for Britain.  Simultaneously, Bancroft pretended to spy for the Americans Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin (Wikipedia, “Edward Bancroft”).

Bancroft reported to the British under the cover of weekly letters to “Mr. Richards,” signed “Edward Edwards,” about “gallantry” (exploits with the ladies).  But between the lines of the cover text, Bancroft wrote his reports in a special ink. Every Tuesday after 9:30 PM, he put the letter in a bottle, tied a string around it, and left it in a hole in a certain box tree in Paris. A British official  retrieved the message and replaced it with new orders.  Bancroft would return later that night to recover the bottle.  Through this method, George III may have seen the French-American Treaty of Alliance just two days after it was signed (Wikipedia, “Edward Bancroft”).

When Arthur Lee accused Bancroft of being a traitor, U.S. Navy Captain John Paul Jones came to his defense (Wikipedia, “Edward Bancroft”).

There is some suggestion by historians that Franklin was aware of Bancroft’s betrayal, citing Franklin’s comment in response to a friend’s warning about British spies (https://fas.org/irp/ops/ci/docs/ci1/ch1c.htm):

“I have long observ’d one Rule which prevents any Inconvenience from such Practices. It is simply this, to be concern’d in no Affairs that I should blush to have made publick, and to do nothing but what Spies may see & welcome. When a Man’s actions are just and honourable, the more they are known, the more his Reputation is increas’d and establish’d. If I was sure, therefore that my Valet de Place was a Spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other Respects I lik’d him.”

Although some historians believe the letter indicates Franklin’s suspicion of Bancroft, others have noted that after the war, Franklin remained on good terms with Bancroft while he shunned other Loyalists, including his own son, William (Wikipedia, “Edward Bancroft”).

The British eventually rewarded Bancroft with a pension of 500 pounds (80,909 in today’s U.S. dollars) (https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/ and http://www.oanda.com/currency/converter/).

Bancroft’s activity as a double agent was not revealed until 1891, when British diplomatic papers were released to the public (Wikipedia, “Edward Bancroft”).

As a sidenote, how did Revolutionary War spies communicate?  While serving in Paris as an agent of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, Silas Deane is known to have used a heat-developing invisible ink, compounded of cobalt chloride, glycerin and water, for some of his intelligence reports back to America (https://fas.org/irp/ops/ci/docs/ci1/ch1c.htm).

Even more useful to him later was a “sympathetic stain” created for secret communications by James Jay, a physician and the brother of John Jay.  Dr. Jay used the “stain” for reporting military information from London to America.  The stain required one chemical for writing the message and a second to develop it, affording greater security than the ink used by Deane earlier.  Later Jay supplied quantities of the stain to George Washington at home  (https://fas.org/irp/ops/ci/docs/ci1/ch1c.htm).

Washington instructed his agents in the use of the “sympathetic stain,” noting in connection with “Culper Junior” that the ink “will not only render his communications less exposed to detection, but relieve the fears of such persons as may be entrusted in its conveyance .. . .”  Washington suggested that reports could be written in the invisible ink “on the blank leaves of a pamphlet . . .a common pocket book, or on the blank leaves at each end of registers, almanacs, or any publication or book of small value.”  Washington especially recommended that agents conceal their reports by using the ink in correspondence: “A much better way is to write a letter in the Tory stile with some mixture of family matters and between the lines and on the remaining part of the sheet communicate with the stain the intended intelligence” (https://fas.org/irp/ops/ci/docs/ci1/ch1c.htm).

banana

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From left to right: plantain, red banana, apple banana, and Cavendish banana.

Courtesy of Wikipedia (“banana”), here are some banana fun facts:

  1. The banana plant is the world’s largest flowering herb; the banana itself is a “leathery berry.”  The bananas eaten in the U.S. are the Cavendish variety.
  2. Bananas are naturally slightly radioactive, more so than most other fruits, because of their potassium content and the small amounts of the isotope potassium-40 found in naturally occurring potassium.  The banana equivalent dose of radiation is sometimes used in nuclear communication to compare radiation levels and exposures.
  3. Ripening bananas fluoresce a bright blue color when exposed to ultraviolet light. Green bananas do not fluoresce.  The fluorescence allows animals that can see light in the ultraviolet spectrum to more easily detect ripened bananas or may add protection against ultraviolet exposure, like a sunscreen, allowing the fruit to remain fresh longer.
  4. Because they reproduce asexually, bananas are vulnerable to being wiped out by disease.  While in no danger of outright extinction, the most common edible banana cultivar Cavendish (extremely popular in Europe and the Americas) could become unviable for large-scale cultivation in the next 10–20 years.
  5. Bananas can be cooked in ways that are similar to potatoes. Both can be fried, boiled, baked, or chipped and have similar taste and texture when served.  Both the skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked.  Banana flowers can be eaten, too.
  6. If bananas are too green, they can be put in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight to speed up the ripening process.
  7. Bananas and plantains are critical to global food security.  Because bananas and plantains produce fruit year-round, they provide an extremely valuable food source during the hunger season (when the food from one annual/semi-annual harvest has been consumed, and the next is still to come).
  8. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that it became more widespread.  As late as the Victorian Era, bananas were not widely known in Europe, although they were available.  Jules Verne introduces bananas to his readers with detailed descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days (1872).
  9. The United States produces few bananas. A few tons were grown in Hawaii in 2001.  Bananas were once grown in Florida and southern California.
  10. Bananas are used to create thread for kimonos.
  11.  Two different parts of the banana plant can be used to make paper.
  12.  Banana peels may have capability to extract heavy metal contamination from river water.
  13. The first joke about slipping on a banana peel was recorded in 1910.
  14. In all the important festivals and occasions of Hindus, the serving of bananas plays a prominent part.
  15. The term “banana republic” has been applied to most countries in Central America, but from a strict economic perspective only Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama had economies dominated by the banana trade.  The phrase comes from the political maneuvers of banana companies, which included working with local elites and their rivalries to influence politics or playing the international interests of the United States, especially during the Cold War, to keep the political climate favorable to their interests.
  16. Plantains have more starch and less sugar than bananas and are cooked.  They can be used at any stage of ripeness.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Banana#/media/File:Bananavarieties.jpg

See also an article about the banana from 1550 found in England:

Ancient London banana unpeeled

Baltic Entente (1934-1940)

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Russian soldier

Is it time for the U.S. to exit NATO?   Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Turkey are all members of NATO.   If Russia were to attack any of these countries, the U.S., as part of NATO, would be obligated to defend them.   Can you imagine any scenario whereby the war-weary American people would be willing to go to war with a nuclear state in defense of Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia?   I can’t.  I also find it hard to imagine Americans laying down their lives to defend Turkey, especially if it transitions from a secular state to a fully Islamic state (as it seems to be doing).

George Washington’s advice to avoid “entangling alliances” holds true, especially if one reads about the hundreds and hundreds of European wars over the past 5 centuries.  I have thought for a long time that the U.S. ought to encourage those who are the closest to the scene and who have the most at stake to form their own alliance.

The article on the Baltic Entente was a good reminder of how difficult and ineffective such local alliances might actually be.  This was an alliance between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to defend themselves against the Nazis and the Soviets.  It ended when the Soviet military took over the Baltic states.  According to Wikipedia (“Baltic Entente”), the alliance failed for several reasons.  It could not agree on what its enemies were.  It was not a military alliance, so there was no military coordination.  There was no economic unity, only competition.  Finally, there was a lack of cultural unity.  (The lack of cultural unity is a major problem I have with Turkey being in NATO.)

To sum up, if you’re young, here’s a map of the NATO countries you’re obligated to defend, along with the date when each entered the alliance:nato_expansion

Photo credits:

  1.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_soldier.jpg
  2.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11050814
  3.  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/NATO_expansion.png

Baldwin II (d. 918)

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Would the world be safer if Malia Obama married the son of another world leader?

Baldwin II “strengthened the dynastic importance of his family by marrying Aelfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great, of Wessex, Eng. (EB).  This made me wonder if America’s rivals had any sons we could marry her off to in the name of world peace.  It was surprisingly hard to find sons for her.  Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has two daughters,  Russian Premier Dmitry Medvedev has one, and Chinese President Jinping has one daughter (Wikipedia).

I started wondering when marriages for political purposes ended.  It seems that monarchies were the driving force behind this custom.  While most of the world was governed by monarchies in the 19th century, “currently there are 43 nations in the world with a monarch as head of state” (Wikipedia, “Monarchy”).

That made me wonder what forces led to the decline of the monarchy as an idea.  What caused this system of government to become unpopular all across the globe at roughly the same time?  Was it corruption, or is the explanation more complex?    Why did the British monarchy outlast so many of the others?  Are there certain kinds of societies that would benefit from a monarchy?  Are there advantages to a monarchy that a republican or democrat might not be aware of?

Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malia_Obama.jpg

auction

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Are misspelled ads an opportunity to make money on eBay?  Is there a strategy for “Rock, Paper, Scissors”?  Why do lobbyists spend so little money to influence our politics?  Why are online betting sites better at predicting election results than pollsters like Gallup?

All these and other questions were raised by the article on auctions.  The EB‘s article is fairly brief, defining English auctions (with ascending prices) and Dutch auctions (used for tulips, with descending prices), but giving little history.  Wikipedia points out that in 193 A.D. the Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire up for auction in 193 A.D.  (Giving new meaning to the phrase “Winner’s Curse,” the auction winner was later beheaded after a civil war.)

I started wondering about the mathematics and strategies behind auctions.  Is one form of auction (e.g., silent, English, Dutch) always better than another, or do some auction forms suit some products better than others?  What strategies and tactics tend to produce auction wins?  Are there behaviors that harm everyone in an auction?  It turns out that economists have done a lot of work in the game theory of auctions.  Here are some fun facts about auctions, with a bit of game theory thrown in occasionally.

1)  In a form of “auction arbitrage,” some people seek out misspelled ads on eBay (e.g., labtop, saphire, or dimond), knowing that there will be fewer bidders and thus lower prices.  They buy at a low price and immediately resell at the “correct” price (http://bit.ly/1HiGIwY).

2)  Takashi Hashiyama, president of a Japanese electronics firm, couldn’t decide which auction house to use to unload the company’s art collection.  He decided to use “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  Sotheby’s left it to chance, and Christie’s used scissors to beat their rival’s paper (http://cbsn.ws/1HiF52j).  Mathematicians have suggested that if there is only one round of the game, chance is the best strategy, but if there is more than one round certain reactions to your opponent’s play will give an edge (http://bit.ly/1HiG2HS).

3)  Why do the 35,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. spend only $2 billion every year trying to influence Congress?  If government spending is $10 trillion for every 4-year election cycle, either lobbyists are getting a fabulous bargain when they “buy” our government, or our government is only .1% corrupt.  You decide (http://slate.me/1HiDMAl).

4)  In the last four presidential contests, the Iowa Electronic Market’s market price odds on the eve of election were off by an average of just 1.37 percent — better than Gallup, which had error margins of between 1.5 and 2 percent.  It is thought that such auctions tap into a consensus of the more well-informed (http://bit.ly/1HiHGtb).

5)  If you spend much time on eBay, you’re very familiar with sniping, which is attempting to win an auction with a bid at the last possible moment.  This is a very old tactic.  In some parts of England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries auction by candle began to be used for the sale of goods.  The end of the auction was signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid.  One highly successful bidder had observed that, just before expiring, a candle-wick always flares up slightly.  On seeing this, he would shout his final — and winning — bid.  Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auction)

So, the next time you are watching the television show Storage Wars, and you see Dave Hester trying to bid up a unit and dump it on someone else, ask yourself “What does game theory have to say about this?”

Illustration source: http://bit.ly/1AYmJfN.

Atlanta Compromise

Booker_T_Washington_-_1911

Are black Americans truly integrated into American culture?  If, instead, they are a separate nation within a nation, is America in trouble?

In the debate over illegal immigration,  It is a common complaint that many Mexican immigrants never truly become Americans in the “melting pot” sense.  They never adopt our language and customs and become within a few generations indistinguishable from the rest of America.

History tells me that any nation without a common culture is destined to break apart, so I share these concerns.

But what if there is a problem with the melting pot that is even more longstanding and serious than Mexican immigration, and that is black America?

It is clear that there is a cultural divide between black America and white America.  The differences are most obvious in language and music, but it is easy to think of other examples, such as names blacks give to their children (DeShawn, DeAndre, Demetrius, Jamal, Shanice, Jasmin, Aliyah, and Roshanda)(http://abcn.ws/1CKbMnE) and the separate black dorms one often sees on college campuses.

Booker T. Washington was in favor of social separation.  In his Atlanta Compromise Speech of 1895, he said that “[i]n all things that are purely social we [whites and blacks] can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/39/).”

“Washington asserted that vocational education, which gave blacks an opportunity for economic security, was more valuable to them than social advantages, higher education, or political office….In return for African Americans remaining peaceful and socially separate from whites, the white community needed to accept responsibility for improving the social and economic conditions of all Americans regardless of skin colour (EB).”

However, even with segregation laws abolished in the 1960’s, it seems that blacks have self-segregated, freely choosing to be “separate but equal.”  Is this separation, often in the name of racial pride, really worth it if studies show, for example, that distinctively black names on resumes get fewer callbacks (http://abcn.ws/1CKbMnE)?  (See also this interesting Freakonomics article on distinctively black names http://slate.me/1EokHeX.)

Another thing that struck me was Washington’s warning that blacks “shall constitute one-third and more of the ignorance and crime of the South, or one-third [of] its intelligence and progress,” depending on whether whites chose to hire blacks.  I was really struck by the sad fact that, despite educational and vocational opportunities for blacks that are far greater than those available in 1895, blacks constitute a very large percentage of people incarcerated.  (The reasons for this go far beyond the scope of this article.  Black economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have discussed this with far better skill and evidence than I could muster, and I highly recommend their writings.  Spoiler alert: It’s not racism, but failed social and economic policies that have done the most damage to black America.)

Washington also warned that blacks should not “permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.”  Unfortunately, I think this is exactly what has happened today.  We have an entire industry based on grievances.   It is run by race hustlers who profit by extorting money from corporations and communities in exchange for promises not to incite boycotts or even riots.

The final thing that struck me was Washington’s comment that “[n]o race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”  This sounds very similar to the main argument for Western trade with China, wherein it was claimed that capitalism would lead to political freedom for the Chinese people.  Cuba, however, has traded with everyone in the world other than the U.S. and yet remains a Communist slave state.  This makes me wonder if free markets really are the catalyst for political freedom that people claim.  It seems to run the other way, with political freedom a necessary pre-condition for economic freedom.

Photo source: http://bit.ly/1NsBq3D