A Girl’s Best Fiend

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtmlThe Greeks believed diamonds were tears of the gods. The Romans thought they were splinters of fallen stars. Today, “Diamonds are a con, pure and simple.”

So says Cecil Adams, and as usual, he’s right. Over the last 60 years South Africa’s De Beers diamond cartel has manipulated emotions, markets and social conventions to make a fortune out of thin air. And you may well be one of their victims.

De Beers didn’t invent the diamond engagement ring — that goes back to 1477 — but it was their 1938 marketing campaign that established it in the popular consciousness as the final symbol of true love.

The company’s PR agency, N.W. Ayer, created a new form of advertising, with no brand name, just the idea of “the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond.” They planted romantic stories in movies and magazines; they paid fashion designers to promote the trend; they even got the English royal family to promote it.

Meanwhile, the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” discouraged women from selling diamonds or from buying them secondhand from other women. With no secondary market, the cartel controlled the price, which explains why it varies widely, unlike gold’s. De Beers focused on controlling supply, too, limiting production, cutting off competition and buying up surplus gems.

It worked. Worldwide diamond sales rose from $100,000 in 1932 to $2.1 billion in 1979, all on the strength of a manufactured emotional impulse. Japan even adopted them as a Western status symbol — today it’s the second largest market for retail diamonds.

It’s De Beers that tells you to spend two months’ salary on an engagement ring, and it’s probably De Beers who’s selling it to you. “The value of diamonds rests on a number of assiduously cultivated myths,” write David Pallister, Sarah Stewart and Ian Lepper in the book South Africa Inc. “One is that diamonds are special.”

Photon Finish


I’ve been sleeping badly this winter. I’m dead tired in the evening, but I wake up unaccountably at 3 a.m. I’m not positive what the reason is, but I’m going to blame daylight saving time.

I had to do some research even to understand why we follow this barbaric practice. Some people think farmers are somehow to blame, but farmers actually hate DST, because farm animals, pretty sensibly, don’t observe it.

The real point is supposed to be that when the days are long we shift an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. That way, there’s still plenty of daylight after work, so everyone uses less light, TVs, VCRs, etc., which together use 25 percent of our energy. In the winter, pitch-black mornings start to take their own toll, so we shift the clocks back again.

That’s the idea, but it doesn’t make sense. I may use less light if the sun’s up, but I’ll still be watching Scrubs. And now I’ll have my A/C on. I guess they figure I might go out and play football instead, but is that really happening? Two-thirds of this country is overweight.

Worse, the time change zonks people out. This country loses $56 billion a year to sleepiness, plus 24,000 deaths, 2.5 million disabling injuries and 52 million work days. Sleep deficits contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. We’re actually sleeping 2 hours less each night because of Edison’s light bulb.

So what’s the answer? Just drop it. Arizona, Hawaii, and most of Indiana stay on standard time year round. And having lived in Indiana, I can tell you it’s wonderful.

In 1947, the magnificently crotchety Robertson Davies wrote: “I don’t really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it, but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.” Hear, hear.

Well Suited

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtmlBryan Berg builds houses of cards — mansions of cards — and his Cardstacker Gallery has some astounding photos, including a record-breaking 25-foot tower.

When the Christian Science Monitor asked whether he could build a 100-foot tower, he said, “Sure. But it’s going to take a while.”

“I have to look twice before I move,” he says. “I basically go into slow motion.”

(A 100-foot tower could actually be dangerous. The 25-footer took more than 1,500 decks — about 250 pounds — of cards. “With something that big,” Berg says, “if it fell and you were near it, you’d run the risk of being buried.”)

Berg teaches architecture at Iowa State University, but he says his training didn’t help with the cards. Vice versa, actually: “I would even say that the majority of what I know about the structural behavior of real buildings and building materials came from my experiences building with cards.”

In the Stars

http://www.sxc.hu/index.phtmlMy horoscope today on astro.com says “this is a good day for a short recreational trip to indulge your desire for beautiful surroundings,” “you should be able to negotiate in business to your advantage,” and “anything that you buy today should prove to be a worthwhile investment.”

Now, let’s think about that. The current world population is about 6.5 billion, and a twelfth of us are Pisces. Can 540 million people all negotiate favorable business deals on the same day?

Astrologers would say no, those general predictions are worthless, what really counts is a personal reading. Okay, then astrologers should be able to match a person’s birth data with a personalized questionnaire, right? Well, no: A 1994 experiment showed they might as well flip coins.

Even if you accept astrology’s tenets, its reasoning doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the stars are drifting. Due to the precession of Earth’s axis, the stars have moved by 24 degrees during the last 2,000 years. Following the old charts, astrologers are now placing planets in the wrong signs.

For another, that 2,000-year starting point is arbitrary. The heavens change all the time. Four thousand years ago Taurus was the constellation of the vernal equinox. Six thousand years ago it was Gemini.

Anyway, if you’re into this stuff, the rather creepy Horoscopes of Our Time lists precise birth dates and times of various famous people, so you can practice.


How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?

“We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb (or light source, or non-dark resource) and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life, and tinted — all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”

Null and Loyd?

The stupendously brilliant Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles, Tricks and Conundrums, with Answers, originally published in 1914, is now available online.

The riddles are pathetic (“What vine does beef grow on? The bo-vine”), but the rest is mostly terrific. One problem: Loyd withheld the solutions to some puzzles, offering a cash prize. He never followed up with the solutions, so they’ve become stumpers. Here’s one, called “The Trader’s Profit”:

A dealer sold a bicycle for $50, and then bought it back for $40, thereby clearly making $10, as he had the same bicycle back and $10 besides. Now having bought it for $40, he resold it for $45, and made $5 more, or $15 in all.

“But,” says a bookkeeper, “the man starts off with a wheel worth $50, and at the end of the second sale has just $55! How then could he make more than $5? You see the selling of the wheel at $50 is a mere exchange, which shows neither profit nor loss, but when he buys at $50 and sells at $45, he makes $5, and that is all there is to it.”

“I claim,” says an accountant, “that when he sells at $50 and buys back at $40, he has clearly and positively made $10, because he has the same wheel and $10, but when he now sells at $45 he makes that mere exchange referred to, which shows neither profit nor loss, and does not affect his first profit, and has made exactly $10.”

“It is a simple transaction, which any scholar in the primary class should be able to figure out mentally, and yet we are confronted by three different answers,” Loyd says. “The first shows a profit of $15, such as any bicycle dealer would; while the bookkeeper is clearly able to demonstrate that more than $5 could not be made, and yet the President of the New York Stock Exchange was bold enough to maintain over his own signature that the correct profit should be $10.”

I’m thinking the accountant’s right, but then I was a journalism major.