Will affluence replace Christianity?

Map of the distribution of Christians of the world
Map of the distribution of Christians of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current edition of the New Scientist contains a fascinating, if I think ultimately flawed, article on the rise – and putative fall – of moralising religions such as Christianity.

Nicolas Baumard, an evolutionary psychologist at the École Normale Supérieure begins by asking how did Jesus go from dying on the cross with a few dozen followers to, inside four centuries, being celebrated as the central figure in the official religion of the Roman Empire – and reasons that this is because the moralising religion of Christianity suited the evolutionary/ideological needs of the Empire’s elite at a moment of profound societal transition.

Christianity, reasons Baumard, was very different from the religions it replaced because it emphasised rewards in the afterlife for morally correct behaviour, as opposed to the material focus on the here and now of the sacrificial approach of ancients. This, he argues, reflects a process seen in evolutionary psychology: when resources are scarce organisms pursue a “fast” psychology, seeking immediate rewards, both sexual and material and eschewing longer-term approaches even if they might bring bigger rewards: if you risk dying young, you sow your wild oats quickly.

In environments where resources are more plentiful then a “slow” psychology dominates – Baumard gives the example of falling birth rates and older parents in affluent societies: babies get more care and attention in wealthier homes.

The key here, he argues, is that around 2500 years ago humans in the Eastern Mediterranean began to enjoy better, more affluent, lifestyles – as measures by the proxy of energy use the per capita usage rose from around 15,000 kcal per day to something over 20,000.

Such affluence was not evenly spread, of course, and those who could afford to practise a “slow” lifestyle were threatened materially and sexually by the continuing “fast” livers – so it suited rulers to promote an ideology and religion that encouraged “slow” living.

Christianity, argues Baumard, was not the only sign of this – the Augustan turn towards morality was another symptom.

So what do I think are the flaws of this? Well, firstly, it does not really explain the first 350 years of Christian growth. Christianity is estimated to have grown by 40% a decade in its first two centuries. There seems to be good evidence that the new religion had a wide appeal across all social strata, not simply for the well off. (I am discounting the idea that the religion grew because of divine providence – after all Islam could make exactly the same, inherently unfalsifiable, claim.)

As Baumard makes clear, exhortations of morality were nothing new – and Augustus’s claim to found a new golden age of morality and honour, strongly supported by his propagandist poets, are the most obvious example. But this ideology seems to be about suppression of revolutionary agitation after a long period of civil war and upheaval – Rome’s need for stability around the turn of the millennium was much more immediate than because of a change in long-term economics.

Then we have the present day – Baumard suggests that as affluence spreads then the need to condemn the remaining “fast” livers will decline and moralising religion will fade too. Yet the world’s most prosperous country, the United States, is significantly more religious than almost anywhere in Europe.

To borrow a term from the Marxists, the argument seems to ignore the relative autonomy of ideology: in other words this religion spread because people liked what it said as much as because it reflected a material change in circumstances.



A horror story with a happy ending (hopefully)

An LGM-25C Titan intercontinental ballistic mi...
An LGM-25C Titan intercontinental ballistic missile in silo, ready to launch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Command and Control is not a piece of light reading – in any sense. But it is an absolutely essential book.


It tells the story of the United States’s nuclear weapons programme from the Manhattan Project to the present day, with an emphasis on safety management (with the story of a particular accident in a Titan II missile silo in 1980 foregrounded).


Finishing it you are left wondering why you are there at all – because it is surely more by luck than design that civilisation has managed to survive in the nuclear age – particularly through the forty-five years of the Cold War when, more or less, fundamentally unsafe weapons were handed out willy-nilly to military personnel who were not even vetted for mental illness.


We read of how politicians – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter – all tried (to various degrees – Eisenhower comes off worst as fundamentally weak man) to get some sort of grip on the nuclear colossus and all essentially capitulated to a military more interested in ensuring their weapons would work when needed, than they were safe when not.


The good news is that the book has a relatively happy ending: in that the end of the Cold War and the persistent efforts of a few scientists and engineers, deep within the US nuclear weapons programme, eventually led to safety being given a greater priority. The chance of an accidental nuclear war is probably less now than it has ever been – but the chance is not zero.


The book, per force, does not give us much insight into the Soviet (or Chinese, or indeed French, British, Indian, Israeli or Pakistani) nuclear programme – was it safer because state control was so much more strict (the fear of Bonapartism), or more dangerous because the Soviets were always running to catch up? The book suggests both at different points.


It’s brilliantly written too – so if you want a bit of chill to match the summer sun in your holiday reading I do recommend it.



The Black Death, immigration and Labor Day

Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs
Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After one year in a job, the average American is entitled to eight days of holiday. In Europe the absolute legal minimum is 20 days (in the UK it is 28 days – the 20 day European minimum plus 8 additional statutory public holidays or days off in lieu of those holidays).

Of course, America is the richest country in the world – but I am tempted to ask what’s the point of being rich if you never get the chance to spend it? People are social democrats for a reason!

Today is of course the US’s Labor Day – while the rest of the world celebrates this on 1 May – partly in memory of the decision of the US authorities to judicially kill four people who had supported a May Day strike after a notorious unfair trial (see the Haymarket Affair for more on that) – and so it has presented Reuters an opportunity to consider the lot of the average American worker compared to her or his mediaeval predecessor.

We learn several things – first of all that the “protestant work ethic” was, at least to some extent, a reaction to the liberality of the Catholic Church when it came to festivals and holidays. I am sure more than a few budding capitalists noticed that the reformers’ detestation of festivals of wine, women and song coincided with their economic interest in increasing the amount of labour their employees undertook.

We also can see that in 14th Century England peasant power was at its height – wages were high and many worked as few as a 150 days (just 30 5 day weeks) a year.

What’s not said is that was partly because half the population had died off in the Black Death – labour was in very short supply and the labourers knew it – so much so that they even turned to revolution – the Peasant’s Revolt – when the oligarchy tried to fight back.

All the same – seems like an argument for restricting immigration. Let’s tighten the supply of labour and we’ll get a better paid and happier work force.

Except that the economics of the 14th century are not the same. There was global trade, of course, but not for much. There was certainly little complexity in the systems that supported everyday life. Technical progress since the Roman Empire had been pitiful. What’s more the law actually mandated the immobility of labour (though this was crumbling) and banking and free movement of capital was little more than a gleam in the Medicis’ eyes.

Annoyed with @amazon and their b0rked business model

Last week I was sent a $50 Amazon.com gift voucher: a very pleasant surprise.

English: First 4 digits of a credit card
English: First 4 digits of a credit card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I immediately loaded the voucher into my Amazon.com account (I had one of these long before I got an amazon.co.uk account) and then thought about what books I’d like to order – picked a couple and thought “that’s nice”.

Despite the Amazon.com website very plainly stating apropos gift cards –

We’ll automatically apply your balance towards your next eligible purchase.

– they did nothing of the sort. They simply billed my credit card.

And when, today, I asked them to rectify their mistake they told me the only way I could get the books charged to the gift card balance was to refuse to accept them when they were delivered so that they would be automatically returned to the United States and then I could place a new order.

Now, the chances of me being actually able to “refuse” a delivery by the Royal Mail (who, according to Amazon, do the fulfilment of the order once it gets to the UK) are in all practical terms, zero. Has anyone reading this in the UK ever refused a package from the Royal Mail? How often would they even get the chance? Quite often packages are left at the doorstep or with neighbours without any further thought.

But aside from that deeply practical consideration, what sort of a business are Amazon running that they are willing to shoulder all these costs (as they implied I would get both a full refund on the shipping costs of the refused order and a free upgrade to the fastest possible delivery method on the new order)? They certainly do not take carbon reduction seriously if this is how they propose to solve what ought to be a relatively minor problem – how can it be impossible to refund the credit card charge and bill the gift card? After all their proposed “solution” amounts to the same thing, just with the addition of significant inconvenience and delay for me, significant inconvenience and costs for them, and utterly unnecessary damage to the environment?

Surely it cannot be because their IT systems are not up scratch, can it? My guess is it is because they simply do not devolve enough power and responsibility to their customer service staff, who are left to propose this utterly bonkers way of working because it works for them and allows them to mark the problem as “solved” even though it must cost the company buckets. I do not blame the staff but the managers who allow this to arise.

PS: In fairness I should add that Amazon have given me a $15 dollar “promotional” certificate to compensate me for the inconvenience – that would be another cost to them – on top of all the additional shipping – if I accepted their “solution”.

PPS: The books I ordered were Elliptic Tales: Curves, Counting, and Number Theory and The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.

So, we are not protected by the US after all

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Let me start this post – on the PRISM programme – by making a few things clear.

Firstly, I think the jihadist terrorist threat is real and dangerous and even potentially existential in nature: if these people had atomic weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them?

Secondly, I think the police and security services need to be able to do their job to deter and catch these people.

And, thirdly, I believe that all such actions need to be regulated by law and need to reflect the fundamental protections we expect.

What we now know is that a US based internet – which is what we have when we consider Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – does not offer those of us who are not US citizens the guarantee that our communications are protected by law. No probable cause is needed to snoop at what we say and do – don’t take my word for it, listen to what the President of the United States has said.

He’s been very clear that the communications of non-US citizens have no legal protection. And I am sure he is right.

Most of us, perhaps until today, sought to resist the efforts to “internationalise” the Internet: why would we want Putin or Assad to have a say on internet regulation? We don’t, and we still don’t.

But equally the current situation is not acceptable either. For Europeans we must now expect and demand that the European Commission intervene swiftly and make it clear to the US internet giants operating on European soil that the current situation is unacceptable and equally make it clear to the US authorities that this is a matter of trade policy: after all communications could be being intercepted to steal trade secrets as much as anything else.

The aim should not be to ban the authorities’ access to communications but to ensure that European citizens who trade with US internet companies are offered the same legal protections as US citizens (and vice versa as far as Europe is concerned).

A small light gets snubbed out

copyright (Photo credit: A. Diez Herrero)

Yesterday there was a brief flicker of hope that the United States might reform its ludicrous copyright and patent regimes – a hope given birth by a study paper published by the Republican Party, of all people.

Inter alia it made the perfectly correct and completely accurate observation that:

Copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism. Under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly.


Now, though, the hope has been snubbed out. The paper has been withdrawn.

In Europe we do not suffer from some of the excesses of the US’s “intellectual property” regime. But we feel the chill wind of every regressive shift there and our politicians – of all parties – are just as susceptible to the arguments used by vested interests to extend copyright – recently the EU simply stole goods off the public by retrospectively lengthening copyright terms in response to big money lobbying from “rights holders” (fronted up by Cliff Richard). There was no suggestion that any of the UK’s three major parties were in any way opposed to this licensed thievery.


The end of Kevin

So many hours in the gym later (believe it people) I have got to the end of the Kevin Mitnickaudio book.

English: Kevin Mitnick Deutsch: Kevin Mitnick ...
English: Kevin Mitnick Deutsch: Kevin Mitnick Русский: Кевин Митник (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do I feel much more sympathetic to him? No, not really.

Yes, he was treated badly at various times. And he spent a lot of time in prison awaiting trial. And the US penal system is a disgrace (though he doesn’t seem to say much about this). But he also kept on breaking the law in the full knowledge of the likely outcome.

He probably should have had medical treatment rather than be slung into a prison, but then he’s hardly the only one that applies to. (He’s clean these days but his behaviour – such as keeping the hours of a teenager – does suggest a deeper physiological problem is at the heart of this: he just wouldn’t grow up.

The book is a salutary reminder that the biggest security weakness of any IT system is the people using it. Mitnick says nothing to suggest he was a particularly skilled programmer – but he was a world expert in manipulating people.

“Hacker culture” drove out women from computer science

I have no difficulty for even a second in believing this:

There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. Partly, it was just a result of the rise of the commercial computer industry in general. There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field. In fact, many computer science programs were first housed within a variety of departments and colleges, including liberal arts colleges where women had already made cultural inroads. Not least of all — and you knew this was coming — women quickly noticed that some programming work could be done at home while the children were napping.

And then the women left. In droves.

From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.

You don’t have spend much time reading the collected works of Chairman Eric S Raymond to understand why “hacker culture” turns so many women off.

Though perhaps the one thing that the article misses is that women were employed in computing, and lots of other “new industries” of the 1960’s, because they were cheap. That drive into the suburbs, tapping the large reservoir of skilled, but lower-cost, labour, profoundly shaped American (and to a lesser extent, European) society and we are still living in a world that has been shaped by it, even if women have given up on geekdom.

The article goes on to say more women are now entering computing than for some time, quoting one of Google’s VPs, Marissa Mayer – but her posed photograph just reminds me of all the reasons to be deeply suspicious of Google – they are just a more socialised version of ESR and another sign of how the right have colonised the libertarian legacy of 1968.

See for yourself…


(As spotted via here)