Weregild and the Price of People

Among the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, every male tribe member has a legal and property interest in every one of his kin.

Beginning with the practice of bride purchase:

An average bride might cost about 8 strings of dentalia. The husband then has full claim over the wife and any offspring she bears. If the wife dies before bearing at least three children, then her kinsmen must either supply a replacement wife, or provide a pro-rated refund of the bride price depending on the number of children she produced. If the husband dies first, the wife marries one of his brothers. If they don’t need any more wives, they can sell her.

If a prospective bridegroom is poor, he can choose to buy a half-marriage. In that case, he is only paying for mating rights — The wife still belongs to the father-in-law, as do any offspring. Half-married men can buy ownership of their children – 5 dentalia strings for the first child, 3 for each additional kid.

Indians wearing dentalia shells

These price schedules also apply in the case of weregild, or blood money. If a person is killed or injured, the guilty party must pay the same dentalia amounts to the plaintiff’s kinsmen.

An adult male is valued at 10 strings of dentalia. Bastards are worth 5. Prices vary depending on a person’s social status.

When every human has an absolute value, creditors can seize debtors as slaves, and parents can use their children to pay off loans. Disputes can be settled without litigation.

Reference: The California Indians: A Source Book, 1970.

Weregild stops making sense when the cost of injury exceeds the value of a life.

Here’s an article from China about an unofficial traffic rule, “Better dead than bruised.” If a driver hits someone with a car, they’re responsible for the victim’s medical care, loss of work, disability compensation, and any other associated expenses. This can add up to millions of yuan.

However, if a driver causes a death, there is a fixed death fee that varies by city. Beijing’s death fee is 353,060 yuan, or about $50,000. That was the highest in the country in 2006. As a result, there are numerous accounts of drivers who hit a pedestrian, and then back over them again and again to make sure the victim is really dead.

Here are a couple of cute red pandas to offset that depressing story:

Landowners Have a Duty to Protect Trespassers

My friend, um, Bob, was walking along a trail when he encountered this very intriguing sign.

Driven by a healthy inquisitive nature, Bob climbed over the fence to see what was on the other side.

A lot of yellow tape, orange cones, and safety barriers.
Oh no, the rain caused the trail to wash out!

Who are all the safety barriers for? Bob wondered. Isn’t the locked gate supposed to keep everyone out? Why do they need to put up orange cones for visitors who shouldn’t be there in the first place?

Because our wonderful civil justice system holds landowners legally responsible for the stupidity of trespassers.

In the 1982 case of Bodine v. Enterprise High School, Rick Bodine climbed onto the roof of a school building to steal some spotlights. After removing one spotlight, he was on his way across the roof to reach another when he stepped on a skylight and fell through the glass.

The fall left him paralyzed and brain damaged. The school district declined to press charges, figuring he had suffered enough. Instead of being grateful, Bodine’s family sued the school for negligence.

Bodine’s family demanded $8 million, and the school settled for the nuisance sum of $260,000 plus $1200/month for life (those are 1984 dollars, so I’m not sure how much that would be today).

Taxpayers were rightfully outraged, especially since the quadriplegic Bodine would be on government welfare for the rest of his life regardless of the settlement. California Civil Code 847 was enacted in 1985 in response to that backlash, and now states that a property owner shall not be liable if the trespasser is injured while committing a felony. The trespass itself is not a felony.

And they all lived tortfully ever after.

Byzantine Fault Tolerant Airplanes

Most engineering goals involve making something faster, better, cheaper. But when it comes to aircraft manufacturing, it’s always about making things safer. More reliable. It’s very boring.

It’s also very wasteful. A Cessna Skyhawk has a 361 cubic inch (5.92L) engine that puts out 160 HP. For comparison, my old rat Ford Escape puts out 155 HP with a 2.0L engine. If I put wings on my car, it could fly. (just kidding, more likely it would roll over)

What’s Cessna (actually Lycoming, the engine manufacturer) doing with all this spare engine capacity? Both the Ford and the Cessna have four cylinders, but the airplane engine has bigger pistons turning at lower RPMs. Giant slow pistons don’t wear out as quickly as small fast ones — That’s good, because if your airplane blows a gasket you can’t just pull over and call AAA.

It’s not just the engine. The whole aircraft control and autopilot systems are designed for Reliability First. Modern aircraft fly by wire, meaning digital signals transmit input from the cockpit to the control surfaces (instead of rack and pinion steering like in a car). Aircraft control signals have to be robust against a mouse chewing through a wire or a hacker transmitting evil messages.

This is an airplane.
This is a car.

In other words, avionics systems have to be Byzantine fault tolerant! Like a blockchain. The Boeing 777 and 787 use the ARINC 659 SAFEbus network, where each node uses duplicate transmitters to send messages through two bus pairs. Recipient nodes each receive four copies, and only record the message if all four are identical. Each transmitter controls its partner’s drivers and will silence the whole node if informed of too many errors. The SAFEbus works as long as at least one node is honest.


As a result, a Boeing 777 uses 2500 pounds of electrical wiring for a 300,000 pound airplane. Airbus A380 carries 13,000 pounds of wire for a 611,000 pound aircraft. And yet they complain about the size of my carry-on bags 😠
Aircraft manufacturers could save a lot of weight by tossing the wires and doing it all through Bluetooth, but then the passengers are at risk of a remote hijack. Commercial aircraft are horribly inefficient because they have to optimize for reliability. Everything else is secondary.

Uber’s flying car

It’s because of the whole Reliability First mentality that I think the likelihood of Uber building a flying car is pretty close to zero. Uber will certainly build prototypes, but prototypes are easy. People have been building flying car prototypes since 1917. Building something that can withstand repeated use without fail, and convince the FAA of that fact — Now that’s hard.

Curtiss Autoplane, 1917.

1. SAFEbus, IEEE AES Systems Magazine, March 1993.
2. FAA Data Network Evaluation Criteria Report

Health Care in the Age of Jackson

Did anyone come down with swine flu after Coindesk Construct? I did 🙁

As recently as a century ago, the doctor-recommended treatment for influenza was bloodletting. Sick people actually paid money to have their veins cut open. Before the development of medical licensing laws, they would simply go to the local barbershop. Barbers conveniently doubled as surgeons because they had lots of sharp razor blades on hand. The red, white, and blue spinning barber pole represents blood flowing from the veins and arteries.

The field of medicine saw many advances in Europe during the 19th century, thanks to the work of scientists like Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur.
Not in America though. America was all about populism and Jacksonian Democracy. Education was rejected as elitist, and American doctors weren’t gonna let snotty European aristocrats tell them how to treat their patients.

On that note, here are some fun articles from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

  • Yellow Fever should be treated using castor oil laxatives and an enema. (1883)
  • Eclampsia puerperalis can be treated with bloodletting. (1883)
  • Epilepsy should be treated by sawing out a piece of the skull to relieve cranial pressure. (1903)
  • Rheumatism can be treated with bloodletting. (1904)
  • Heart disease and coronary thrombosis should both be treated with bloodletting. (1908)
  • Asthma is best treated with morphine. (1909)
  • Pneumonia should be treated with bloodletting. (1922)
  • Hemophilia can be treated with bloodletting. (1938)
  • Jacksonians regarded professional licensing and medical regulations as antidemocratic. This attitude persisted until the Progressive Era, when social activists rallied to regulate everything. In 1910, the American Medical Association finally established some medical standards in the Flexner Report. It also noted that the country had way too many doctors and recommended that the number of medical schools be reduced by 80%. By 1935, state boards had closed 60% of the medical schools in the country, and the number of annual medical graduates fell by more than half.

    Now America has a doctor shortage. Today’s medical care is better than it was in the 1900s, but it’s still pretty terrible compared to what you might get if you were a dog.

    Athens built a wall, and made the Delian League pay for the wall.

    In 461 BC, Athens built a wall. A big, beautiful wall. Athens built a great, great wall, actually two great walls, and Athens made the Delian League pay for those walls. Mark my words.

    After the Greeks destroyed their Persian invaders in the Greco-Persian Wars, Athens and other city-states formed the Delian League as an alliance to defend against future attacks. Most of the city-states didn’t have military resources to contribute, so instead they paid tribute to Athens and became protectorates.

    The Long Walls of Athens

    The Persians stopped being a significant threat after the war, but Athens kept collecting tribute anyway. The Athenians used the tribute money to build their walls, and the Parthenon, and other stuff that had nothing to with the Delian League. Any city-states that tried to secede were attacked and had their land and ships confiscated.

    Eventually the city-states got tired of paying for Athens’ dumb monuments so they allied with Sparta and destroyed Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Then they tore down the walls. The End.