Longreads + Open Thread

Organs, Talent, Longevity, Algorithmic Collusion, Arguments, Stocks and Flows, Privacy, Numeracy



By the Numbers: Numeracy, Religion, and the Quantitative Transformation of Early Modern England: Go far back enough in history, and just about everyone is illiterate and innumerate. How did we bootstrap from that to this—a textual world where it's perfectly normal to use abstractions like fractions, negative numbers, probability, and the like in everyday conversation? The answer: not easily.

This book is partly a cultural history (more on that in a bit), but a lot of it is the story of how difficult it is to get people to adopt new and unfamiliar mental models. Arabic numerals are far more convenient than roman numerals for both calculation and storage. But they're not perfect, and early critics made the important point that they're easier to forge: you can turn a zero into an eight, add a digit, or otherwise mangle numbers; the unwieldy nature of roman numerals is actually a security feature! There's a similar debate over when and how to adopt a new calendar (England took a century and a half to adopt the Gregorian calendar, mostly because doing so meant letting the Pope tell them what to do).

The real fun of the book is taking a peek at what everyday life was like in a world where people need to deal with quantities but don't have especially good tools for doing so. Some of the early anecdotes sound like world-building from a D&D group that consists entirely of Federal Reserve employees. For example: one way for mostly-illiterate and mostly-innumerate people to keep track of a contractual agreement to pay a debt is to take a stick, make notches corresponding to the amount owed, and then split it lengthwise so each party has a complete record. The two halves can be joined later as a sort of audit to see if either side modified their half. (The half of the stick that the creditor kept was called the "stock," which is where we get the modern term.) These tally sticks could also be issued by the exchequer, and used as a substitute for hard currency—so in fifteenth-century England, M0 might be a quantity of gold coins while M2 was a bunch of sticks. The Bank of England was buying back discounted government tally sticks in 1694, and the last of them were collected and burned in 1834.

No review of distant history is complete without noting the fun analogs to the present. This book abounds with them, especially in the probability chapter. At one point, we learn that mostly-for-fun prediction markets like Manifold are hardly anew phenomenon: "In the eighteenth century, it was possible to purchase insurance on the likelihood of births, marriages, cuckoldry, highway robbery, the fall of a besieged city, and even death by drinking gin." Meanwhile, during the great plague of the 1660s, Samuel Pepys writes about how he was too distracted to work because he and his colleagues were all busy talking about the latest weekly death stats. (And, yes, there were debates over whether the plague numbers were wrong, featuring early discussions of excess mortality.)

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