Entries Tagged "history of security"

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Primitive Food Crops and Security

Economists argue that the security needs of various crops are the cause of civilization size:

The argument depends on the differences between how grains and tubers are grown. Crops like wheat are harvested once or twice a year, yielding piles of small, dry grains. These can be stored for long periods of time and are easily transported ­ or stolen.

Root crops, on the other hand, don’t store well at all. They’re heavy, full of water, and rot quickly once taken out of the ground. Yuca, for instance, grows year-round and in ancient times, people only dug it up right before it was eaten. This provided some protection against theft in ancient times. It’s hard for bandits to make off with your harvest when most of it is in the ground, instead of stockpiled in a granary somewhere.

But the fact that grains posed a security risk may have been a blessing in disguise. The economists believe that societies cultivating crops like wheat and barley may have experienced extra pressure to protect their harvests, galvanizing the creation of warrior classes and the development of complex hierarchies and taxation schemes.

Posted on May 18, 2016 at 9:11 AMView Comments

Scams from the 1800s

They feel quaint today:

But in the spring of 1859, folks were concerned about another kind of hustle: A man who went by the name of A.V. Lamartine drifted from town to town in the Midwest ­ pretending to attempt suicide.

He would walk into a hotel ­ according to newspaper accounts from Salem, Ore., to Richmond, Va., and other places ­ and appear depressed as he requested a room. Once settled in, he would ring a bell for assistance, and when someone arrived, Lamartine would point to an empty bottle on the table labeled “2 ounces of laudanum” and call for a clergyman.

People rushing to his bedside to help him would find a suicide note. The Good Samaritans would summon a doctor, administer emetics and nurse him as he recovered.

Somehow Lamartine knew his situation would engender medical and financial assistance from kind strangers in the 19th century. The scenarios ended this way, as one Brooklyn reporter explained: “He is restored with difficulty and sympathetic people raise a purse for him and he departs.

Posted on April 11, 2016 at 6:49 AMView Comments

Security Trade-offs in the Longbow vs. Crossbow Decision

Interesting research: Douglas W. Allen and Peter T. Leeson, “Institutionally Constrained Technology Adoption: Resolving the Longbow Puzzle,” Journal of Law and Economics, v. 58, Aug 2015.

Abstract: For over a century the longbow reigned as undisputed king of medieval European missile weapons. Yet only England used the longbow as a mainstay in its military arsenal; France and Scotland clung to the technologically inferior crossbow. This longbow puzzle has perplexed historians for decades. We resolve it by developing a theory of institutionally constrained technology adoption. Unlike the crossbow, the longbow was cheap and easy to make and required rulers who adopted the weapon to train large numbers of citizens in its use. These features enabled usurping nobles whose rulers adopted the longbow to potentially organize effective rebellions against them. Rulers choosing between missile technologies thus confronted a trade-off with respect to internal and external security. England alone in late medieval Europe was sufficiently politically stable to allow its rulers the first-best technology option. In France and Scotland political instability prevailed, constraining rulers in these nations to the crossbow.

It’s nice to see my security interests intersect with my D&D interests.

Posted on January 22, 2016 at 6:44 AMView Comments

"The Medieval Origins of Mass Surveillance"

This interesting article by medieval historian Amanda Power traces our culture’s relationship with the concept of mass surveillance from the medieval characterization of the Christian god and how piety was policed by the church:

What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. Those who have exposed the extent of surveillance are fugitives and exiles from our paradise. They have played the role of the cursed serpent of Eden: the purveyor of illicit knowledge who broke the harmony between watcher and watched. The rest of us contemplate the prospect of dissent with careful unease, feeling that our individual and collective security depends on compliance.


Eight centuries ago, in November 1215, Pope Innocent III presided over a Great Council of the Church in Rome known as the Fourth Lateran Council. It was attended by high-ranking members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the monastic world, together with representatives of emperors, kings, and other secular leaders from throughout Christendom. Their decisions were promulgated through seventy-one constitutions. They began with a statement of what all Christians were required to believe, including specifics on the nature of God­by this time: “eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable”—and the view that salvation could be found only through the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who disagreed, according to the third constitution, was to be handed over to secular lords for punishment, stripped of their property, and cast out of society until they proved their orthodoxy, or else be executed if they did not. Anyone in authority would be punished if they did not seek out and expel such people from their lands; their subjects would be released from obedience and their territories handed over to true Catholics. There was nothing empty about this threat: the council occurred in the middle of the bitter Albigensian Crusade, during which heresy—likened to a cancer in the body of Christendom—was purportedly being cut out of Languedoc by the swords of the pious.

The Fourth Lateran Council was talking about crimes of thought, of dissent over matters of belief, matters not susceptible of proof. But whether individuals were heretics could not, in theory, be established without investigating the contents of their minds. To this end, the council decreed that bishops’ representatives should inquire in every parish at least once a year to discover “if anyone knows of heretics there or of any persons who hold secret conventicles or who differ in their life and habits from the normal way of living of the faithful.” These representatives were to follow these external indications of nonconformity into the recesses of the mind and establish their meaning in each case. Over the decades the role of the inquisitor was developed into an art and a science, and elaborate handbooks were produced. But in 1215 it was stated merely that individuals should be punished if “unable to clear themselves of the charge.”


What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? Our trust is so strong that it seems to have found its own protective rationality, deeply rooted in Western consciousness. It’s an addict’s rationality, by which we’re unable to refrain from making public a stream of intimate details of our lives and those of children too young to consent. One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. It would be a trifle paranoid to reveal less—a little eccentric, not quite rational.

Posted on December 21, 2015 at 1:09 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.