New Markets

Yale economist Paul Krugman published a curious paper in 2010: “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”:

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

He added, “While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

(Paul Krugman, “The Theory of Interstellar Trade,” Economic Inquiry 48:4 [October 2010], 1119-1123. See The Telltale Mart.)


Preparing a time capsule in 1939, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company asked Albert Einstein to compose a message for the people of AD 6939. He sent this:

Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.

However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence & character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce some thing valuable for the community.

I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.

The message was recorded on microfilm and resides 50 feet below Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in New York City.

(“Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy,” 1939.)


Letter to the Times, Oct. 23, 2001:

Sir, As a schoolboy in the 1940s I heard the late Sir Robert Wood, Principal of the (then) University College of Southampton, proclaim at a school speech day:

‘The advantage of a classical education is that it teaches you to do without the money it makes you unable to acquire.’

Yours faithfully,

Bill Kirkman
Willingham, Cambridge

“Prisons for Animals”

This short composition was discovered in the Stanford University Library, tipped into the inside cover of a bound first volume of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1909 magazine The Forerunner:

Spring is in the air. All creatures feel it. The fish are shooting up the rivers, the birds hard working and happy; every animal feels the lift and stir and new life. Even those which are in prison. …

What excuse has the Prison for Animals? What have they done to merit this life sentence?

Spring is in the air. The trees are misty with soft color, blurred with swelling buds, all aslant with curly tassels of young blossoms. The grass is pushing up in joyous vigor, green as it is never green again; soft, sweet, the delicious new first growth; beginning of a long summer’s feasting.

Here are the deer prisons. They have a high iron fence around them, another railing outside that. They have a wooden house for shelter. They have underfoot, cinders — gravel and cinders. …

To keep in a prison yard an animal built for speed, accustomed to wide ranging, to long swift flight, is cruelty. …

And for what? For whose benefit? Does it give pleasure? Those who find pleasure in gazing at helpless pain had better go unpleased. …

These beasts in prison, these who bear no burdens, provide neither food nor drink, wool nor hide — what excuse have we for tormenting them?

Here is a bald eagle. A bird of freedom. … The eagle sits huddled, dull as a brooding vulture. …

Here is a hawk, fierce-eyed. He beats his wings to tatters … against the bars.

Here is an elephant, huge, patient, with small, smouldering eyes that see more than we think. Manacled, this beast, chained at both ends, fore foot and hind foot, to stout posts. The elephant is a water lover. His dry hide itches for water. He wants to wade into it, to draw it up and pour it all over himself. …

All wild creatures have a keen, delicate sense of smell … We imprison them in fetid odors. They needs must breathe, night and day, the repulsive smell of their enemies, odors of danger and distrust. …

(Via Robert Alexander, ed., Spring Phantoms, 2018.)

Another World

In Maps Are Territories (1989), David Turnbull offers this as an example of a map that “can only be understood within the cultural specifics of the circumstances that it portrays.” It’s a Chippewa land claim presented to the U.S. Congress in 1849. The rightmost figure is the totem of the chief, who is of the Crane clan. Following him are members of allied clans — Martens, Bears, Man-Fish, and Catfish.

“To the eye of the bird standing for this chief, the eyes of each of the other totemic animals are directed as denoted by lines, to symbolize union of views,” explained ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft. “The heart of each animal is also connected by lines with the heart of the Crane chief, to denote unity of feeling and purpose. If these symbols are successful, they denote that the whole forty-four persons both see and feel alike — that they are one.”

The line drawn forward from the crane’s eye denotes the course of his journey, and another line is drawn backward to a series of small lakes for which he is seeking the grant. The long parallel lines below the figures represent Lake Superior, and the small parallel lines that diverge from this represent a path from its shore to the villages and interior lakes where the Chippewa hope to live.

Schoolcraft wrote in 1851, “The entire object is thus symbolized in a manner which is very clear to the tribes, and to all who have studied the simple elements of this mode of communicating ideas.”

(H.R. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Volume I, 1851, 416-417.)

In a Word

n. a faculty or facility for forgetting; faulty memory

n. the practice of self-discipline

n. the action, process, or faculty of looking back on things past

adj. liable to vanish

“King Darius, so as not to forget the harm he had received from the Athenians, had a page come every time he sat down to table and sing three times in his ear: ‘Sire, remember the Athenians.'” — Montaigne

Cato the Elder ended each speech with the phrase Carthago delenda est, “Carthage must be destroyed.”

Tertullian observed that a slave was stationed in the chariot of a triumphant Roman general to whisper in his ear, “Remember that you are human.”

A nomenclator was “a slave with a good memory who accompanied a public figure when he went out and whispered in his ear the name of anyone important he was about to meet.” (Anthony Everitt, Cicero)

Much later, Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign manager, James Farley, would keep a file on everyone Roosevelt met so that the candidate might later ask after a spouse or child. Modern politicians maintain “Farley files” for the same purpose.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. … It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must first find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism’. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

— C.S. Lewis, “Bulverism: or, The Foundation of Twentieth-Century Thought,” 1941

Ground Truth

In October 2005, Neil Armstrong received a letter from a social studies teacher charging that the moon landings had been faked. “[O]ver 30 years on from the pathetic TV broadcast when you fooled everyone by claiming to have walked upon the Moon,” he wrote, “I would like to point out that you, and the other astronauts, are making yourselfs a worldwide laughing stock … Perhaps you are totally unaware of all the evidence circulating the globe via the Internet. Everyone now knows the whole saga was faked, and the evidence is there for all to see.”

Armstrong replied:

Mr. Whitman,

Your letter expressing doubts based on the skeptics and conspiracy theorists mystifies me.

They would have you believe that the United States Government perpetrated a gigantic fraud on its citizenry. That the 400,000 Americans who worked on an unclassified program are all complicit in the deception, and none broke ranks and admitted their deceit.

If you believe that, why would you contact me, clearly one of those 400,000 liars?

I trust that you, as a teacher, are an educated person. You will know how to contact knowledgeable people who could not have been party to the scam.

The skeptics claim that the Apollo flights did not go to the moon. You could contact the experts from other countries who tracked the flights on radar (Jodrell Bank in England or even the Russian Academicians).

You should contact the Astronomers at Lick Observatory who bounced their laser beam off the Lunar Ranging Reflector minutes after I installed it. Or, if you don’t find them persuasive, you could contact the astronomers at the Pic du Midi observatory in France. They can tell you about all the other astronomers in other countries who are still making measurements from these same mirrors — and you can contact them.

Or you could get on the net and find the researchers in university laboratories around the world who are studying the lunar samples returned on Apollo, some of which have never been found on earth.

But you shouldn’t be asking me, because I am clearly suspect and not believable.

Neil Armstrong

(From James R. Hansen, A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong, 2020.)


On Aug. 20, 1961, Harvard physicist Percy Williams Bridgman was found dead at his home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. After suffering for months with metastatic cancer, he had shot himself in the head. He left a two-sentence note:

“It isn’t decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself. P.W.B.”

Brave New World

A Canadian notice to new telephone users, 1896:

To Listen: Place the telephone fairly against the ear, with an upward motion, so that the lower extremity or lobe of the ear is gathered in, into the cavity of the telephone; in this position it will be found to fit snugly and comfortably — the lobe of the ear acting as a cushion and at the same time closing out all ulterior sounds, thus enabling the voice to be heard with clearness and precision.

One California instruction read, “Speak directly into the mouthpiece keeping mustache out of the opening.”

With no social conventions to follow, users had to be taught propriety. AT&T promoted a “Telephone Pledge” that read, “I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be Courteous and Considerate over the Telephone as if Face to Face.” The winner of a 1910 Bell essay contest wrote, “Would you rush into an office or up to the door of a residence and blurt out ‘Hello! Hello! Who am I talking to?’ No, one should open conversations with phrases such as ‘Mr. Wood, of Curtis and Sons, wishes to talk with Mr. White …’ without any unnecessary and undignified ‘Hello’s.'”

In America Calling (1992), Claude S. Fischer notes, “Companies cut off service to abusers and obtained legislation that fined or even jailed profane customers.”