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Why barbed wire for fencing lands was as transformative as the telephone

Sep 1, 2017 

Late in 1876, so the story goes, a young man named John Warne Gates built a wire-​­fence pen in the military plaza in the middle of San Antonio, Texas. He rounded up some of the toughest, wildest longhorns in all of the state, or that’s how he described them.

Others say that the cattle were docile. And there are those who wonder whether this story is true at all. But never mind.

John Warne Gates — a man who later won the nickname “Bet‐A‐Million Gates” — began to take bets as to whether these powerful, ornery longhorns could break through the fragile-​­seeming wire. They couldn’t.

Even when Gates’s sidekick, a Mexican cowboy, charged at the cattle, howling curses and waving burning brands, the wire held. Bet‐A‐Million Gates wasn’t so worried about winning his wagers. He was selling a new kind of fence, and the orders soon came rolling in.

An advertisement from 1875 touted this fence as “The Greatest Discovery of the Age,” patented by J. F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois. John Warne Gates described it more poetically: “Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.”

We simply call it barbed wire.

To call barbed wire the greatest discovery of the age might seem hyperbolic, even making allowances for the fact that Alexander Graham Bell was about to be awarded a patent for the telephone.

But while we think of the telephone as transformative, barbed wire wreaked huge changes on the American West and much more quickly.

Joseph Glidden’s design for barbed wire wasn’t the first, but it was the best.

Glidden’s design is the same as the barbed wire you can see today. The wicked barb is twisted around a strand of smooth wire; then a second strand of smooth wire is twisted together with the first to stop the barbs from sliding around.

Farmers snapped it up. Why?

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act. It specified that any citizen — including women and freed slaves — could lay claim to up to 160 acres of land in America’s western territories.

All they had to do was build a home there and work the land for 5 years.

The idea was that the Homestead Act would improve the land and improve the citizenry, creating free and virtuous hardworking landowners with a strong stake in the future of the nation.

It sounds simple. But the prairie was a vast, uncharted expanse. It had long been the territory of Native Americans. After Europeans arrived and pushed west, cowboys roamed free, herding cattle over the boundless plains.

So settlers needed fences, not least to keep those free-​­roaming cattle from trampling their crops. There wasn’t much wood and certainly not enough to fence what was often called the “Great American Desert.”

Farmers tried growing thornbush hedges, but these were slow-​­growing and inflexible. Smooth-wire fences didn’t work either — the cattle pushed through them.

The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study in 1870 and concluded that until farmers could find fencing that worked, it would be impossible to settle the American West.

The West, in turn, seethed with potential solutions: at the time, it was the source of more proposals for new fencing technologies than the rest of the world put together.

The idea that emerged from this intellectual ferment was barbed wire. It changed what the Homestead Act could not. Until it was developed, private ownership of prairie land wasn’t common because it wasn’t feasible.

While barbed wire spread because it solved one of the biggest problems settlers faced, it also sparked ferocious disagreements. The homesteading farmers were often trying to stake out property on the territory of Native American tribes.

And 25 years after the Homestead Act came the Dawes Act, which forcibly assigned land to Native American families and gave the rest to white farmers.

Philosopher Olivier Razac comments that the Dawes Act “helped destroy the foundations of Indian society.” No wonder these tribes called barbed wire “the devil’s rope.”

Old-​­time cowboys also lived by the principle that cattle could graze freely across the plains — the law of the open range — and they hated the wire. Cattle got nasty wounds and infections from running into it. When blizzards came, the cows would try to head south; sometimes they got stuck against the wire and died in the thousands. And while the attraction of the barbed wire was that it could enforce legal boundaries, many fences were illegal, too — attempts to commandeer common land for private purposes.

When barbed-​­wire fences went up across the West, fights broke out. In the “fence-​­cutting wars,” masked gangs with names like the Blue Devils and the Javelinas cut the wires and left death threats warning fence owners not to rebuild. There were shoot-​­outs, even a few deaths. Eventually, authorities clamped down. The fence-​­cutting wars ended, and the barbed wire remained.

“It makes me sick,” said one trail driver in 1883, “when I think of onions and Irish potatoes growing where mustang ponies should be exercising and where 4-​­year-​­old steers should be getting ripe for market.” And if the cowboys were outraged, the Native Americans suffered far worse.

These ferocious arguments reflected an old philosophical debate. The 17th-​­century English philosopher John Locke — a great influence on America’s Founding Fathers — puzzled over the problem of how anybody might legally own land.

Once upon a time, nobody owned anything; land was a gift of nature or of God. But Locke’s world was full of privately owned land, whether the owner was the King or a simple yeoman. How had it become privately owned? Was it the result of a guy with a bunch of goons grabbing what he could?

If so, all civilization was built on violent theft.

That wasn’t a welcome conclusion to Locke or his wealthy patrons. He argued that we all own our own labor. So if you mix your labor with the land that nature provides — for instance, by plowing the soil — then you’ve blended something you own with something that nobody owns. By working the land, he said, you’ve come to own it.

This wasn’t a purely theoretical argument. Locke was actively engaged in the debate over Europe’s colonization of America.

Political scientist Barbara Arneil, an expert on Locke, writes, “The question, ‘How was private property created by the first men?’ is for Locke the same question as, ‘Who has just title to appropriate the lands of America now?’

Locke also made the claim that the land in the new world was unclaimed — that is, because the indigenous tribes hadn’t “improved” the land, they had no right to it.

Not every European philosopher agreed.

Jean-​­Jacques Rousseau, an 18th-​­century French philosopher, protested the evils of enclosure.

In his “Discourse on Inequality” he lamented, “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him.” This man, said Rousseau, “was the real founder of civil society.”

Rousseau did not intend that as a compliment. But it’s true that modern economies are built on private property — on the legal fact that most things have an owner, usually a person or a corporation. (Corporation s are the evil owners)

Modern economies are also built on the idea that private property is good, because it gives people an incentive to invest in what they own, whether that’s a patch of land in the American Midwest, an apartment in India, or even a piece of intellectual property such as the rights to Mickey Mouse. It’s a powerful argument, and it was ruthlessly deployed by those who wanted to claim that Native Americans didn’t have a right to their territory because they weren’t actively developing it.

However, legal facts are abstract.

To get the benefits of owning something, you have to be able to assert control over it. Until barbed wire was developed, Western settlers had legal rights over their land but no way of exerting practical control.

Barbed wire is still used to fence off land across the world.

And in other spheres of the economy, the battle to own in practice what you own in theory continues to rage. One example is digital rights management, or DRM.

DRM systems are attempts to erect a virtual barbed wire around digital property, like a movie or a song, to prevent people from copying it illegally. Even though musicians may have copyright on their music, copyright is a weak defense against file-​sharing software.

Nobody has invented virtual barbed wire that can fence off songs as effectively as physical barbed wire fenced off land, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying.

And the “fence-​­cutting wars” of the digital economy are no less impassioned today than they were in the Wild West: digital rights campaigners battle the likesof Disney, Netflix and Google, while hackers and pirates make short work of the digital barbed wire. When it comes to protecting property in any economy, the stakes are high.

The rewards can be high, too. The barbed-​­wire barons — Bet‐A‐Million Gates, Joseph Glidden, and others — became rich. The year that Glidden secured his barbed-wire patent, 32 miles of wire were produced. Six years later, in 1880, the factory in DeKalb turned out 263,000 miles of wire, enough to circle the world ten times over.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 Tim Harford.

Are making mistakes that essential?

“You show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.” (Mostly?)

God complex.  Almost all professionals in all disciplines believes he is absolutely certain in his convictions

Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems — and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes

Tim Harford. Economist, journalist and broadcaster. His writings reveal the economic ideas behind everyday experiences. Full bio

Speech on July 2011

It’s the Second World War. A German prison camp. And this man, Archie Cochrane, is a prisoner of war and a doctor, and he has a problem. The problem is that the men under his care are suffering from an excruciating and debilitating condition that Archie doesn’t really understand. The symptoms are this horrible swelling up of fluids under the skin.

But he doesn’t know whether it’s an infection, whether it’s to do with malnutrition. He doesn’t know how to cure it.

And he’s operating in a hostile environment. And people do terrible things in wars.

The German camp guards, they’ve got bored. They’ve taken to just firing into the prison camp at random for fun. On one particular occasion, one of the guards threw a grenade into the prisoners’ lavatory while it was full of prisoners. He said he heard suspicious laughter.

And Archie Cochrane, as the camp doctor, was one of the first men in to clear up the mess. And one more thing: Archie was suffering from this illness himself.

1:23 So the situation seemed pretty desperate.  Archie Cochrane was a resourceful person. He’d already smuggled vitamin C into the camp, and now he managed to get hold of supplies of marmite (marmalade?)on the black market.

Some of you will be wondering what marmite is. Marmite is a breakfast spread beloved of the British. It looks like crude oil. It tastes zesty. And importantly, it’s a rich source of vitamin B12. So Archie splits the men under his care as best he can into two equal groups.

He gives half of them vitamin C. He gives half of them vitamin B12. He very carefully and meticulously notes his results in an exercise book. And after just a few days, it becomes clear that whatever is causing this illness, marmite is the cure (lack of vitamin B12. But this is No trial and error. It is an experiment designed to find the cause of the ailment)|By Tim Harford

So Cochrane then goes to the Germans who are running the prison camp. Now you’ve got to imagine at the moment — forget this photo, imagine this guy with this long ginger beard and this shock of red hair. He hasn’t been able to shave — a sort of Billy Connolly figure.

Cochrane starts ranting at these Germans in this Scottish accent — in fluent German, by the way, but in a Scottish accent — and explains to them how German culture was the culture that gave Schiller and Goethe to the world. And he can’t understand how this barbarism can be tolerated, and he vents his frustrations.

And then he goes back to his quarters, breaks down and weeps because he’s convinced that the situation is hopeless. But a young German doctor picks up Archie Cochrane’s exercise book and says to his colleagues, “This evidence is incontrovertible. If we don’t supply vitamins to the prisoners, it’s a war crime.” And the next morning, supplies of vitamin B12 are delivered to the camp, and the prisoners begin to recover.

I’m not telling you this story because I think Archie Cochrane is a dude, although Archie Cochrane is a dude. I’m not even telling you the story because I think we should be running more carefully controlled randomized trials in all aspects of public policy, although I think that would also be completely awesome.

I’m telling you this story because Archie Cochrane, all his life, fought against a terrible affliction, and he realized it was debilitating to individuals and it was corrosive to societies. And he had a name for it. He called it the God complex.

I can describe the symptoms of the God complex very easily. So the symptoms of the complex are, no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution.

Archie was a doctor, so he hung around with doctors a lot. And doctors suffer from the God complex a lot.

I’m an economist, I’m not a doctor, but I see the God complex around me all the time in my fellow economists.

I see it in our business leaders. I see it in the politicians we vote for — people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world works.

with the future billions that we’ve been hearing about, the world is simply far too complex to understand in that way.

 let me give you an example. Imagine for a moment that, instead of Tim Harford in front of you, there was Hans Rosling presenting his graphs. You know Hans: the Mick Jagger of TED. (Laughter) And he’d be showing you these amazing statistics, these amazing animations. And they are brilliant; it’s wonderful work.

But a typical Hans Rosling graph: think for a moment, not what it shows, but think instead about what it leaves out. So it’ll show you GDP per capita, population, longevity, that’s about it. So three pieces of data for each country — three pieces of data. Three pieces of data is nothing. I mean, have a look at this graph.

This is produced by the physicist Cesar Hidalgo. He’s at MIT. Now you won’t be able to understand a word of it, but this is what it looks like. Cesar has trolled the database of over 5,000 different products, and he’s used techniques of network analysis to interrogate this database and to graph relationships between the different products. And it’s wonderful, wonderful work.

You show all these interconnections, all these interrelations. And I think it’ll be profoundly useful in understanding how it is that economies grow. Brilliant work. Cesar and I tried to write a piece for The New York Times Magazine explaining how this works. And what we learned is Cesar’s work is far too good to explain in The New York Times Magazine.  (Explaining meta data analysis of various experiments that have Not much common ground in the designs)

Five thousand products — that’s still nothing. Five thousand products — imagine counting every product category in Cesar Hidalgo’s data. Imagine you had one second per product category. In about the length of this session, you would have counted all 5,000. Now imagine doing the same thing for every different type of product on sale in Walmart. There are 100,000 there.

It would take you all day. Now imagine trying to count every different specific product and service on sale in a major economy such as Tokyo, London or New York. It’s even more difficult in Edinburgh because you have to count all the whisky and the tartan. If you wanted to count every product and service on offer in New York — there are 10 billion of them it would take you 317 years.

This is how complex the economy we’ve created is. And I’m just counting toasters here. I’m not trying to solve the Middle East problem. The complexity here is unbelievable. And just a piece of context — the societies in which our brains evolved had about 300 products and services. You could count them in five minutes.

So this is the complexity of the world that surrounds us. This perhaps is why we find the God complex so tempting. We tend to retreat and say, “We can draw a picture, we can post some graphs, we get it, we understand how this works.” And we don’t. We never do.

 I’m not trying to deliver a nihilistic message here. I’m not trying to say we can’t solve complicated problems in a complicated world. We clearly can. But the way we solve them is with humility — to abandon the God complex and to actually use a problem-solving technique that works. And we have a problem-solving technique that works. Now you show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.

Here’s an example. This baby was produced through trial and error. I realize that’s an ambiguous statement. Maybe I should clarify it. This baby is a human body: it evolved. What is evolution? Over millions of years, variation and selection, variation and selection — trial and error, trial and error. And it’s not just biological systems that produce miracles through trial and error. You could use it in an industrial context.

 let’s say you wanted to make detergent. Let’s say you’re Unilever and you want to make detergent in a factory near Liverpool. How do you do it? Well you have this great big tank full of liquid detergent. You pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. You create a spray of detergent. Then the spray dries. It turns into powder. It falls to the floor. You scoop it up. You put it in cardboard boxes. You sell it at a supermarket. You make lots of money.

How do you design that nozzle? It turns out to be very important. Now if you ascribe to the God complex, what you do is you find yourself a little God. You find yourself a mathematician; you find yourself a physicist — somebody who understands the dynamics of this fluid. And he will, or she will, calculate the optimal design of the nozzle. Now Unilever did this and it didn’t work — too complicated. Even this problem, too complicated.

But the geneticist Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem — trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10; you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. You see how this works, right?

And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle. It looks a bit like a chess piece — functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all. And the moment you step back from the God complex — let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not — you can solve your problem.

 this process of trial and error is actually far more common in successful institutions than we care to recognize. And we’ve heard a lot about how economies function. The U.S. economy is still the world’s greatest economy. How did it become the world’s greatest economy?

I could give you all kinds of facts and figures about the U.S. economy, but I think the most salient one is this: 10% of American businesses disappear every year (No shame in taking risks and going bankrupt). That is a huge failure rate. It’s far higher than the failure rate of, say, Americans.

Ten percent of Americans don’t disappear every year. Which leads us to conclude American businesses fail faster than Americans, and therefore American businesses are evolving faster than Americans. And eventually, they’ll have evolved to such a high peak of perfection that they will make us all their pets — (Laughter) if, of course, they haven’t already done so.

I sometimes wonder. But it’s this process of trial and error that explains this great divergence, this incredible performance of Western economies. It didn’t come because you put some incredibly smart person in charge. It’s come through trial and error.

I’ve been sort of banging on about this for the last couple of months, and people sometimes say to me, “Well Tim, it’s kind of obvious. Obviously trial and error is very important. Obviously experimentation is very important. Now why are you just wandering around saying this obvious thing?”

So I say, okay, fine. You think it’s obvious? I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. Stop giving them lists of questions every single one of which has an answer.

And there’s an authority figure in the corner behind the teacher’s desk who knows all the answers. And if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid. When schools stop doing that all the time, I will admit that, yes, it’s obvious that trial and error is a good thing.

When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, “I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.” — when a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works.

Until then, I’m going to keep banging on about trial and error and why we should abandon the God complex. Because it’s so hard to admit our own fallibility. It’s so uncomfortable. And Archie Cochrane understood this as well as anybody. There’s this one trial he ran many years after World War II. He wanted to test out the question of, where is it that patients should recover from heart attacks?

Should they recover in a specialized cardiac unit in hospital, or should they recover at home? All the cardiac doctors tried to shut him down. They had the God complex in spades. They knew that their hospitals were the right place for patients, and they knew it was very unethical to run any kind of trial or experiment.

Nevertheless, Archie managed to get permission to do this. He ran his trial. And after the trial had been running for a little while, he gathered together all his colleagues around his table, and he said, “Well, gentlemen, we have some preliminary results. They’re not statistically significant. But we have something. And it turns out that you’re right and I’m wrong. It is dangerous for patients to recover from heart attacks at home. They should be in hospital.”

And there’s this uproar, and all the doctors start pounding the table and saying, “We always said you were unethical, Archie. You’re killing people with your clinical trials. You need to shut it down now. Shut it down at once.” And there’s this huge hubbub.

Archie lets it die down. And then he says, “Well that’s very interesting, gentlemen, because when I gave you the table of results, I swapped the two columns around. It turns out your hospitals are killing people, and they should be at home. Would you like to close down the trial now, or should we wait until we have robust results?” Tumbleweed rolls through the meeting room.

Cochrane would do that kind of thing. And the reason he would do that kind of thing is because he understood it feels so much better to stand there and say, “Here in my own little world, I am a god, I understand everything. I do not want to have my opinions challenged. I do not want to have my conclusions tested.”

It feels so much more comfortable simply to lay down the law. Cochrane understood that uncertainty, that fallibility, that being challenged, they hurt. And you sometimes need to be shocked out of that. Now I’m not going to pretend that this is easy. It isn’t easy. It’s incredibly painful.

16:21 And since I started talking about this subject and researching this subject, I’ve been really haunted by something a Japanese mathematician said on the subject. So shortly after the war, this young man, Yutaka Taniyama, developed this amazing conjecture called the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture.

It turned out to be absolutely instrumental many decades later in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. In fact, it turns out it’s equivalent to proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. You prove one, you prove the other. But it was always a conjecture.

Taniyama tried and tried and tried and he could never prove that it was true. And shortly before his 30th birthday in 1958, Yutaka Taniyama killed himself. His friend, Goro Shimura — who worked on the mathematics with him — many decades later, reflected on Taniyama’s life. He said, “He was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to emulate him, but I realized it is very difficult to make good mistakes.”




October 2022

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