From Baby Farm to Table

In 19th century England, it was quite common to find adverts soliciting for the adoption of infants.

Ah how nice. Here’s one quoted from James Greenwood’s Seven Curses of London:

NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT—The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and a moderate allowance from her late husband’s friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent’s care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.

Spoiler alert: There was no adoption going on. The childless couple and kindly widow are actually thinly veiled offers to dispose of one’s infant for a fee.

Unwed mothers had a tough time during the uppity Victorian age. In response to widespread complaints about welfare abuse, Parliament passed the Poor Law of 1834 with a specific Bastardy clause barring the mothers of illegitimate children from child support. As Thomas Carlyle argued, giving them relief would effectively become “a bounty on unthrift, idleness, bastardy and beer-drinking.” It’s not so different from Bill Clinton railing against the welfare queens.

So what’s a single mother to do? Orphanages refused to accept bastard kids because immorality was thought to be a disease, and children conceived in sin might contaminate the minds of legitimate orphans. Similarly, unmarried mothers couldn’t find work because no one wanted to employ a moral imbecile. That’s not my terminology – The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act specifically classified unwed mothers as moral defectives to make sure they were institutionalized.

To avoid this trouble altogether, the mother of an illegitimate newborn might simply pay a baby farmer to poison the child and throw the body in the Thames. Extremely late-term abortion, if you will.

Baby farming was a lucrative profession: Amelia Dyer reportedly got paid to dispose of four hundred infants before getting caught. Several decades’ worth of cases came before hers, but baby farmers were rarely convicted if investigated at all. Given the high infant mortality rate and poor medical science of the day, it was difficult to attribute a death to murder vs neglect – and there was nothing illegal about neglect. There simply wasn’t much sympathy for unwanted babies. The Irish Potato Famine was going down, and people were actively starving to death.

There’s a Chinese idiom, 易子而食. It literally translates to “Swap kids to get food.” The phrase first appears in a 4th century BC text describing events of the Zhou Dynasty Spring and Autumn period [1]. Ancient Chinese parents were understandably reluctant to slaughter and consume their own offspring; thus in times of famine, parents would exchange children with their neighbors and eat each other’s kids instead.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure if 易子而食 was a real thing or if it was just a story that my parents told to scare me into submission. Come home with good grades or we’ll eat you, was the Battle Hymn of my Tiger Mother.

Sometimes I wonder if Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal was really all that modest.

1. 春秋左傳 – Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan Book VII: 宣公十五年 (English translation)
2. James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869.

Gold Rush, What Took Ye So Long?

Before the 1849 Gold Rush, Native Californians spent tens of thousands of years practically sitting on piles of gold. It’s not like the metal was buried in deep underground veins; much of it could be retrieved from sediment in the streams. Despite gold being treasured the whole world round, the Native Americans fixated on silly things like beads and feathers. If money is a collective hallucination, maybe the North American Indians simply huffed the wrong peace pipe.

In simple social organizations, individuals have more or less homogenous roles. They hunt, they gather, they mate. Some are more powerful than others, but it’s a fairly one-dimensional measure of environmental fitness. The items they collect are similarly homogenous.

Precious metals emerge when a population undergoes socioeconomic transformation and gains a higher degree of specialization, creating a need for status differentiation. It often coincides with hunter-gatherer tribes transitioning to sedentary life. When a group increases in size and complexity, you care less about where you rank amongst your peers and more about how your peer group ranks relative to greater society. A warrior might not care about being the wealthiest warrior, but it is crucial that the warrior class be considered superior to the farmers.

In the early goldbearing civilizations of South America and Europe, only rulers and religious leaders were allowed to wear gold. The Ancient Egyptians believed that gold came from the sun god Ra, and only kings could possess it.

Gold mask worn by a mummified falcon. The falcon was a god.

We see the same status differentiation emerge in modern times. Early cars all looked the same and every color was black. If you had one, you were well off, and that was enough. Then Packard came along and invented the luxury automobile, a way to distinguish the truly wealthy from the merely rich. Now Tesla takes it to a whole ‘nother level: It’s no longer enough to simply signal wealth; we must also signal virtue.

Eventually, society evolves to the point where a well-marked social ladder becomes less important than distinguishing the settlement within a larger group of city-states. This is when people start building big compensatory monuments like temples and pyramids and walls.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans lived in relatively egalitarian tribes. Their social structures didn’t warrant the effort required to incorporate a distinctive collectible like gold.

It’s not that the Native Californians couldn’t wrap their heads around precious metals – By 1849, over half the gold prospectors were the same Indians who had ignored it just a few years earlier. Just like in 4000 BC, the elite class didn’t like the idea of commoners possessing gold. California passed the Government and Protection of Indians Act of 1850, which made it legal to capture and enslave Native Americans. It’s called a “Protection” Act because before that, white people were simply shooting the Indians who tried to pan for gold. We were such assholes.

See Also:
Price DT, Brown JA. Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers: The Emergence of Cultural Complexity, 1985.

The Ad-Blocker Shakedown

The digital ad industry is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game where consumers install better and better ad blockers while advertising networks continuously fight to circumvent the blockers.

Ad networks like Google’s DoubleClick get paid by brands and agencies to deliver targeted ads to publisher web sites. But the purveyors of ad-blocking software have families to feed, and they need a business model too. Adblock vendors offer to whitelist certain ad networks, for a fee. Eyeo, creator of Adblock Plus, purportedly charges something equivalent to 30% of the network’s ad revenue to let the ads through. Nice.

Advertisers want in on this racket. Google plans to introduce an ad-blocker in its Chrome web browser, and Microsoft may follow suit. The hope is that if browsers preemptively block ads, then consumers will stop installing third-party blockers. At the same time, Microsoft and Google have a way to force more advertisers into their own network, since they’ll obviously whitelist themselves.

Google’s claim is that they’ll only block “unacceptable” ads, but acceptability is a fuzzy idea determined entirely by a closed consortium of ad networks. Adblock Plus also claimed to adhere to acceptability standards, but the company had no qualms whitelisting Taboola – the ad network best known for Three Weird Tricks to Remove Belly Fat. Google might not whitelist Taboola, but its criteria will certainly have something to do with money. Google built the most popular web browser in the world; of course it wants to extract rent from the ads delivered therein.

Taboola’s “non-intrusive” ads.

Consumers have a lot of different reasons for running adblockers, which is why there are many blockers to choose from. Allowing one company to determine which ads make the cut will invariably leave a lot of advertisers screwed. There are a lot of things wrong in the digital media industry, but giving Google greater monopoly control will help none of them.

Man-in-the-Middle in the Victorian Age and Today

It’s all ads!

In Victorian England, people often communicated by placing ads in the paper. Stamp tax was increased during the Napoleonic Wars, and the price of postage could add up to more than a worker’s daily wage. Personal ads, on the other hand, were free.

Ad placements could avoid the cost of letter delivery, but the downside is that everyone can read your messages. To keep communications private, correspondents used coded text.

Early ciphers relied on simple substitution, replacing single letters according to a fixed system. Charles Babbage and his buddies Sir Wheatstone and Lord Playfair would decipher strangers’ messages to mess with them. Playfair recorded one such instance:

On Sundays we generally walked together, and used to amuse ourselves by deciphering the cipher advertisements in The Times. An Oxford student who was in a reading party at Perth was so sure of his cipher that he kept up a correspondence with a young lady in London. This we had no difficulty in reading. At last he proposed an elopement. Wheatstone inserted as an advertisement in The Times a remonstrance to the lady in the same cipher, and the last letter was, “Dear Charlie, write no more, our cipher is discovered!”

This is what we call a man-in-the-middle attack. A postal letter is sealed to prevent interlopers from getting all up in your business, but an ad in the paper is a public broadcast, protected only by the hope that no one will understand it but the intended recipient.

Today, pretty much everything we do on the internet is public broadcast, and a modern-day Wheatstone might insert a message asking the young lady for her bank account password. More commonly, malicious internet service providers like ATT and Charter examine your web traffic and inject ads into your browser.

Why the hell is displaying pop-up shoe ads?? Oh, it’s AT&T.

The good news is, encryption technology is much better now than it was in Wheatstone’s day. It’s no coincidence that unbreakable encryption was invented just after the advent of radio communications, where everything is a public broadcast.

During WWI, the French got their asses kicked, but had the foresight to destroy their telegraph lines upon retreat. This forced the advancing German army to communicate by radio, and gave the Allies plenty of messages to decode.

A weakness of substitution ciphers is that if the codebreaker figures out the pattern used for substitution, the whole message is revealed. Joseph Mauborgne of the US Army figured out that if the pattern was random, the code would be unbreakable. That seems obvious now, but random substitution was such a great idea that it was used to encrypt messages on the Moscow-Washington hotline until the 70s.

One-time pad used by the NSA. It’s a lookup table with a random key. The sender and recipient have a book of these, and use a new page for each message.

Now, when we create passwords, they’re usually not random strings. But the server that stores your password will combine it with a random salt and then hash it. That way, even if the database is breached, the hacker can’t actually access the passwords. The random salt is important, because a hashed password without salt can simply be looked up in a hash table. LinkedIn famously neglected to do this, so hackers got to the plaintext passwords and then applied the same login to break into users’ accounts on other sites. Same thing happened with Yahoo hack.

And that’s why we should never reuse our passwords.

Juice in a Bag!

People are making fun of Juicero’s $400 juicer because some journalists figured out that you can do the same job with your bare hands.

Juicero sells $8 packs of vegetable pulp, but you’re supposed to first pay for the $400 machine in order to use them.

The public backlash was enough to compel Juicero CEO Jeff Dunn to defend his product with the following response:

The value of Juicero is more than a glass of cold-pressed juice. Much more.

The value is in how easy it is for a frazzled dad to do something good for himself while getting the kids ready for school, without having to prep ingredients and clean a juicer.

That’s dumb. If you want a convenient juicebag, Capri Sun solved the problem decades ago. Juicero is a product that addresses a completely different need — That of, How do I best convey that I have an obscene amount of disposable income so that people will want to mate with me?

Dunn’s blog post has a video demonstrating the futility of extracting juice from vegetable pulp by hand.

I don’t know why Dunn is marketing his product this way. It would be like if Louis Vuitton advertised handbags with a woman struggling to contain her cell phone, keys, wallet, and Wellbutrin all in two bare hands.

“The value of Louis Vuitton is in how easy it is for a frazzled mom to transport her items without having to pick them up one at a time,” the CEO might proclaim.

No, this is how you sell a Louis Vuitton:

As Miranda from Sex and the City would say: “If you’re not wearing something [others] can’t afford, how will they know to look up to you?”

Mr. Dunn’s biggest mistake was in cutting the price of a Juicero from $700 to $400. He should have doubled it. The only time you cut the price on a status symbol is to encourage sales of a premium version that costs even more. Like the iPhone 5C: Apple made it very clear that ‘C’ stands for cheap, and encased the phones in gaudy crayon colors to underscore that point.

The value of Juicero is that few people can have one. When the juicer was first launched, the founder restricted the supply and would only deliver to residents in three states. At Recode, Kara Swisher praises the product and explains:

This is an area of interest because there’s a lot of juice going on in San Francisco and now it’s sort of spread like a virus across the United States — avoiding the Midwest, of course.

See? That’s the real value of a Juicero.

Unfortunately, Juicero’s new CEO is a former president of Coca-Cola. His strategy is to get sugary beverages into as many faces as possible. Joke’s on them for believing that any sort of juice is healthy.

See Also: Veblen Good