That ‘tulip-mania’ meme…

Historians are such spoilsports: they undermine stories that are too good to check. Consider this distressing piece by Anne Goldgar:

Tulip mania was irrational, the story goes. Tulip mania was a frenzy. Everyone in the Netherlands was involved, from chimney-sweeps to aristocrats. The same tulip bulb, or rather tulip future, was traded sometimes 10 times a day. No one wanted the bulbs, only the profits – it was a phenomenon of pure greed. Tulips were sold for crazy prices – the price of houses – and fortunes were won and lost. It was the foolishness of newcomers to the market that set off the crash in February 1637. Desperate bankrupts threw themselves in canals. The government finally stepped in and ceased the trade, but not before the economy of Holland was ruined.

Trouble is, the story is mostly bunkum. Detailed excavations in Dutch archives for her book — Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age— failed to find much evidence for the ‘mania’ beloved of us commentators.

Tulip mania wasn’t irrational. Tulips were a newish luxury product in a country rapidly expanding its wealth and trade networks. Many more people could afford luxuries – and tulips were seen as beautiful, exotic, and redolent of the good taste and learning displayed by well-educated members of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also bought paintings or collected rarities like shells.

Prices rose, because tulips were hard to cultivate in a way that brought out the popular striped or speckled petals, and they were still rare. But it wasn’t irrational to pay a high price for something that was generally considered valuable, and for which the next person might pay even more.

And it wasn’t a ‘frenzy’ either.

Tulip mania wasn’t a frenzy, either. In fact, for much of the period trading was relatively calm, located in taverns and neighbourhoods rather than on the stock exchange. It also became increasingly organised, with companies set up in various towns to grow, buy, and sell, and committees of experts emerged to oversee the trade. Far from bulbs being traded hundreds of times, I never found a chain of buyers longer than five, and most were far shorter.

Oh – and she found no records of anyone throwing themselves into canals.

Sigh. The slaughter of a beautiful meme by ugly facts.

Brevity is the soul of wit — and of citation indices

The Journal of Economic Bahavior & Organization has an interesting article by Yann Bramoulléa and Lorenzo Ductor entitled “Title Length”. The Abstract reads:

We document strong and robust negative correlations between the length of the title of an economics article and different measures of scientific quality. Analyzing all articles published between 1970 and 2011 and referenced in EconLit, we find that articles with shorter titles tend to be published in better journals, to be more cited and to be more innovative. These correlations hold controlling for unobserved time-invariant and observed time-varying characteristics of teams of authors.

Highlights include:

• Strong and robust negative relation between the length of the title of an article and its scientific quality.

• Articles with shorter titles are published in better journals.

• Articles with shorter titles tend to receive more citations, controlling for journal quality and team characteristics.

• Title length is negatively associated with the novelty of the article.

• The association between title length and citations is stronger in better journals.

Wow! Who knew?

The bounder’s charm

I’m reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s NYRB review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s last book.

It’s a fine review — perceptive, affectionate but also critical. PLF was a charming writer but he was also a show-off and a bit of a cad. Still, when he was on song he was terrific. As in this passage from another of PLF’s books, Mani, quoted by Mendelsohn:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

Wonderful.

Politics and the English language

From this morning’s Observer:

Theresa May is facing a growing revolt among party donors, with one senior backer warning that the Tories will be “decimated” at an election unless the prime minister ends her indecision and shows leadership.

With mounting accusations across the party that May is dithering over Brexit and lacking an inspiring domestic agenda, Sir John Hall, the former owner of Newcastle United, told the Observer that the prime minister was facing a make-or-break period of her premiership. wipeout

If one is being pedantic (and one is) this doesn’t sound like much of a threat. Losing a tenth of her MPs in an election would not be good news for Mrs May, but it wouldn’t be the wipeout that Sir John is envisaging. Could it be that he has fallen prey to the dreaded Etymological fallacy?

Trinity Hall at night

Seen from Clare bridge, one evening recently. I was walking in to give a talk in Trinity Hall and just stopped briefly to take in the scene.

Click on the image to see a larger size.

How to handle difficult customers

This (from The Register) made my day:

One Boxing Day (December 26th for US readers who inexplicably don’t get it as a holiday) Ant met “an especially unpleasant and angry woman” who showed up with a computer in a shopping trolley.

“She stormed straight past the lengthy queue shouting ‘you’re all a bunch of stupid wankers’ and loudly proclaiming things like ‘how can you be so fck!ng stupid and sell fck!ng computers that don’t f*ck!ng work’.”

Ant and his crew decided it was better to let her jump the queue than let her stand in it shouting obscenities, so made her case a priority even as she continued to complain that her sound and CD drive were both “f*ck!ng faulty”.

This incident took place back when speakers slotted into the side of the monitor. The customer’s were still in their plastic wrapping with the cables tied up inside. Ant rated this fix “pretty easy”.

So did other customers still waiting behind the abusive woman in the queue. Ant told us those other shoppers “found it amusing when we pointed out – super and artificially nicely – that you had to plug the speakers in.”

The rude customer responded with “Well the CD’s f*ck!ng stuck”. She was right, Ant told us, because when he used the manual eject button to pop the tray open there was a a CD-ROM in the tray. Still in its plastic sleeve, which rather impaired the drive tray’s operation.

“It was lovely explaining to her, in front of the now openly laughing queue, that you had to take CDs out of their covers before putting them in anything.”

“That made the rest of the day fly by.”

Lovely!

Freeman Dyson: Rebel without a PhD

You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem almost proud of that fact.

Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy. So I have opposed it all my life without any success at all.

From a lovely interview with Dyson on his 90th birthday.

Countering the wisdom of hindsight

We went to see Darkest Hour last night. Spellbinding performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. The only parallel I can think of is Bruno Ganz’s evocation of Hitler in Downfall. There are a couple of dramatic-licence slips which are understandable in terms of the script dynamics but overall it’s a fascinating and occasionally moving film. Its most redeeming features are (i) countering the complacency of hindsight by conjuring up the desperation of the British plight after the invasion of France (and before US aid kicked in); and (ii) its revisionist interpretation of the peacemongering activities of Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain in the early days of the War Cabinet.

Well worth seeing IMHO.

ps: Makes me realise that I need to read Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Days in May. No rest for the wicked.

The Winklevii rise again!

Well, well. This from Fortune, no less:

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss—the brothers who tried and failed to gain control of Facebook after alleging that it had been appropriated from them—have rebounded big-time.

The Winklevoss twins own one of the largest portfolios of Bitcoin in the world—and recent surges in the digital currency’s value have put the value of that portfolio at over $1 billion. That’s an impressive return on an $11 million investment just four years ago.

The brothers have reportedly not sold a single one of their Bitcoins, sitting on them and watching them accrue value. And it’s been a stunning thing to witness: when the Winklevoss’s invested in Bitcoins, the currency was trading at just $120. As of Monday morning, a single Bitcoin’s value was $11,247, according to Coindesk.

My favourite clip from The Social Network is their encounter with Larry Summers (then President of Harvard).

Larry Summers thought it was broadly accurate too:

Keeping calm and carrying on, Cringely style

From Bob Cringely:

This is probably the last picture ever taken of our house in Santa Rosa, California. The time was 11:30PM Sunday and a neighbor had just pounded on our door. Fifty mph winds had been blowing all day but nobody expected fire. Yet the glow you see is from burning houses behind and beside ours. They, too, are gone.

We left with what clothes we could grab. I forgot my computer. I’m still blind and awaiting surgery so Mary Alyce drove one car and we left the other to burn.

By 8AM we were on the Mendocino coast with crappy Internet service and this iPhone. But we were all safe.

Certainly I’d been stupidly feeling a bit sorry for myself, but that ends now.

The schools are closed so with Fallon at my side we’ll buy a notebook and resume writing. Look for my next column as early as tomorrow.

The heading on this blog post is what caught my attention. “I Have No Boils” it read. Bob explains:

Finally, about the headline, my old neighbor Ella Wolfe complained to her doctor once that she was suffering all the trials of Job from the Bible (Ella was approaching 100). “You have no boils,” said her doctor.

Neither do I.

Heartwarming stuff. The good news is that he and his family are safe.