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Iron, How Did They Make It, Part IVb: Work Hardening, or Hardly Working? (acoup.blog)
107 points by shalmanese 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

This is one of the best-written blog series I've ever seen. It reminds me of some of my favourite history books, the ones that focused on topics such as the development of chemistry from alchemy instead of which king was stabbed in the back by some long-dead politician.

The blog has multiple such awesome series. So far my favourite is "Bread, How Did They Make It?": https://acoup.blog/2020/07/24/collections-bread-how-did-they...

Gave me a real epiphany when it explained how subsistence-farming peasants had no incentive to increase productivity because they had no way to realiably store or invest a surplus into productivity enhancements - any material asset they had could be taken away too easily. Instead they would invest a surplus into social capital by "banqueting the neighbours", which could save their lives in case of a bad harvest.

And this is exactly what we see in places like Africa today and tend to belittle: people have little incentive to save and invest because there is a strong expectation that they'll share any "riches" with their friends, family and neighbours.

But this is entirely rational when you live in a society not far removed from subsistence farming, threatened by civil wars and with relatively weak civic institutions: social capital is simply more reliable than material capital.

Goes well with the African proverb “the best way to store food is in your friend’s stomach”

Yes, it's exactly what's behind that proverb.

Attempting to paraphrase into Expanse Belter: Sekrip gut bi setashang. Kopeng mogut bi bikang. (Money is good at a station. Friends are better at a [distress] beacon.)

That's interesting, and it meshes well with my perspective that before modern "material wealth" really took off, the only real wealth people had was measured in calories.

"Material wealth" dates to prehistoric times, that's why we keep finding all these shiny objects in graves, including ones shipped remarkable distances. What people did with it, and the relationship between status, wealth, society, and material conditions, is a much wider field.

"Banking" is continuous back to 1472: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banca_Monte_dei_Paschi_di_Sien... but recognisable systems of credit existed in Roman times.

It goes beyond that and into risk management, and how "material wealth" requires institutions to protect it.

> social capital is simply more reliable than material capital.

See also Amartya Sen's eye-opening Nobel-winning work on famines in the modern era; he explains these mostly in terms of social capital. They don't tend to happen in situations where the country as a whole is short of food, but in situations where a particular sector of the society is unable to make a claim (economic/political) on it.

Except a materialist would simply say that those people lack the social capital because they lack the material capital. Lack of Social Capital stopped them getting the access to the food, but those people without social capital seemingly always just _happen_ to be poor, almost as if social capital is simply a path _to_ material capital that you need to cash out into capital to actually have any power.

There is a californian saying that water flows uphill towards money. I wouldn't be surprised if the irish had an equivalent for food.

> But this is entirely rational when you live in a society not far removed from subsistence farming, threatened by civil wars and with relatively weak civic institutions: social capital is simply more reliable than material capital.

Heck, I worry about that in our society as well. The generations after the Baby Boomers have not saved terribly much, and as they begin to age and retire the social pressure to support them will get higher and higher (which is good: one doesn't want folks to be indigent). But ultimately that is likely to mean legalised raids on the retirement accounts of those who did spend.

Why save today if it will just be confiscated in a couple of decades? Might as well spend today and enjoy whatever one buys. Or buy portable wealth …

Thanks, you just gave me a more charitable observation of Our Ford's observation that "history is more or less bunk" (1916).

Assuming Ford was remembering history as taught to him in 1870-1880, it may well have been a New World variation on Alfreds and Edwards and Ælfweards and Æthelstans. Even if he were keeping up on outside reading, the earliest non-exclusively elite history I can think of at the moment wasn't written until the 1920s.


Edit: it looks grim. Ford had a point. among the collection in https://digital.library.pitt.edu/collection/19th-century-sch... the only one which makes claims to cover anything further back than "American History" (all few centuries of it at that point) is the 1857 https://digital.library.pitt.edu/islandora/object/pitt%3A00z... which contains the remarkable claim that "It seems far more probable that the first settlers of America were from Egypt." Eat your heart out, Giorgio!


This is the first article: https://acoup.blog/2020/09/18/collections-iron-how-did-they-...

I wish it was easier to read though.

Easier in what way? The format or the language?

I'd suggest format. Low-contrast light on dark isn't great at the best of times, and the particular pairing used causes dark persistence-of-vision stripes to appear across the text after a short period of reading. Nothing a reader mode couldn't fix, but a poor choice in any case.

As the other chap said, in the style. Not to worry, I found Pocket and that made it much easier to read.

I don't think I've ever seen a blog, perhaps besides Dan Luu or Paul Graham's, so regularly hit the front page of HN. And it's not about high tech, but low tech! Kudos to Bret Devereaux.

I need one of those color calibration cards from the sword photo. Any chance any of you know where to buy that one? I have found others, but that layout is exactly what I'm looking for.

Every time a new post appears on his blog, I drop whatever I am doing and read it. The style is so delightful and the quality is outstanding.

An amazingly good series on a topic I’d never thought I’d have any interest in. Highly recommended.

Probably a tech we'll need again.

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