a blog

by Josh Nicholas


An island of stone money?

The Island of Yap plays host to one of economics' most interesting stories. It's said that the inhabitants of Yap used gigantic round pieces of limestone as a form of currency.

I've encountered this story in a few popular books and even a podcast, but the academic literature seems pretty thin. I've just started my research, but I can only find a few papers and books with more than a passing allusion to the stones.

And many of the few references are to one book from 1910, called, funnily enough, the Island of Stone Money. I'm not going to dwell too much on the book itself as it's so full of orientalism the author thought nothing of beginning:

"Like all other primitive people (it hurts one's feelings to call them savages or even uncivilized, - one is too broad and the other too narrow) they are shy at first, either through mistrust or awe..."

But the book is a good starting point to investigate the stones. It's got an entire chapter on money and currency. And it's all there - fei stones, sea shells, coconuts. Anything you'd want to trade on an island paradise.

"...as far as mere existence is concerned in Uap, there is no use for money. But nature's ready- made clothes, though useful, are not ornamental, and the soul of man, especially of woman, from the Equator to the Poles, demands personal adornment."

Of course, there are a few criteria for something to be considered money. It has to be a medium of exchange, a store of value and a unit account. And looking through this story, the stones do appear to tick all the boxes.

They are used for exchange. Although, mainly for high value transactions, as they are cumbersome and rare. These same two points also make them a rather convenient store of value - they were created hundreds of miles away, on another island, in another time, and are far too big to be stolen. And the book clearly denotes several goods in terms of the fei.

The book even makes a halfhearted stab at connecting the stones with the labour theory of value.

"Here then the simple-hearted natives of Yap, who never heard of Adam Smith nor of Ricardo, or even if they should hear of them would care no more for them than for an English song from the phonograph, have solved the ultimate problem of Political Economy, and found that labour is the true medium of exchange and the true standard of value."

But there's one great story that exemplifies the problem with taking this book at face value.

"...my faithful old friend, Fatumak, assured me that there was in a village nearby a family whose wealth was unquestioned, - acknowledged by everyone, and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid eye or hand on this wealth; it consisted of an enormous fei, whereof the size is known only tradition; for the past two or three generations it has been, and at that very time it was lying at the bottom of the sea!... The purchasing power of that stone remains... as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner's house..."

The entire thing is anecdote. We need something more.

Ideas are nothing without execution

Robert Hooke is the poster boy for the notion that it is not sufficient to have a good idea.

As I've lugged Lisa Jardin's biography of Hooke around over the past few weeks, it's been hard to explain who exactly Hooke was. You may remember him as the ugly cretin in Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos series.

But Hooke was so much more than that caricature. He was a brilliant polymath who coined the term "cell", redesigned much of London along with Christopher Wren, built instruments for Robert Boyle, and was long-standing curator of experiments in the early years of the Royal Society.

He dabbled in so many things. Had so many ideas. But no one I encountered had ever heard of him. Hooke consistently got himself 90% of the way there, but it was others that scored the goals.

"...Hooke is the man who almost made great discoveries now tied to the names and enduring fame of others: Boyle's law of pressure of enclosed gases; Newton's inverse square law of gravitational attraction; Huygen's theory of the isochronous pendulum clock; Harrison's longitude timekeeper.

It's the notion that Hooke came up with Newton's inverse square law of gravity, or inspired it, or something in between, that best illustrates this point. From my little research, it seems clear that there is something to Hooke's claim. But it was undoubtedly Newton that had the mathematical brilliance to prove it, and for that he is remembered and Hooke is not.

It wasn't enough to have the idea. The idea is nothing without execution.

"In Newton's mind, priority lay with the person who had produced the mathematical proof of the elliptical motion of the planets, not the one who had proposed such a motion hypothetically in conversation, as part of a broad speculative discussion of planetary movement."

I really recommend The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine. I've now read a few of her books, loved them all, and am shooting for the set.

The curious life of Charles Darwin

Your ideas are the sum of your influences. This is something I first came across in Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From:

“ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

And it's this concept, what Steven Johnson calls the "adjacent possible", that kept coming to mind as I read Paul Johnson's brilliant, short biography of Charles Darwin.

The story is packed with Darwin's influences, from Malthus to Lyell, and, of course, The Beagle. These are the dots that Darwin eventually joined in his scientific work.

"At intervals in the five-year voyage, Darwin was able to spend a total of three years and one month on land, traveling widely... He shot a wide variety of birds and animals, went on an ostrich hunt, studied the effects of a large-scale earthquake, observed a major volcanic eruption, and visited at length tropical rain forests, high mountains, sierras, pampas and other grasslands, rivers, lakes, and a wide variety of scrub and brushwood areas, as well as scores of native villages, settler towns, mines, and cities."

As we can see from that one passage, Darwin was voracious. In an age of specialisation, its easy to forget that people like Darwin dabbled, slowly expanding horizons and building up the bricolage.

"In 1838 he came across... Malthus's Essay on Population... This had a huge emotional impact on him, equivalent to the ones he had felt when he first experienced the savages of Tierra del Fuego..."

"He liked to have several projects going at once and switch from one to another as the spirit or the excitement generated by results moved him - from zoology to botany to physiology or anthropology, from insects to plants, the invertebrates, to men, and back to insects again."

The voracity of the ideas doesn't even seem to matter. Even in Darwin and Malthus' day, the evidence was against Malthus' Iron Law of Population. But it inspired something else and was reworked. The important point is to be open to fresh thinking.

"Darwin was a polymath. It was his great strength. Without the breadth as well as the depth of his knowledge, it is doubtful whether Origin could have succeeded.

This is a great, short intro to Darwin. Although, it will probably leave you wanting more. If anyone has any suggestions for a longer Darwin bio I'm all ears.

Mozart was a village

It's hard to fathom the mind of a genius. Although I really enjoy biographies, I often learn more of and from the world around them than I do from the subject itself.

In the case of Paul Johnson's short, brilliant biography of Mozart, it's Mozart's father that piqued my interest. The endless renditions of concertos, operas and symphonies went over my head. But the dotted references to Leopold Mozart, WolfGang Mozart's father, humanises both the story and Mozart himself.

"Leopold Mozart... the son of a bookbinder, was a well-educated man with a degree in philosophy who had come to Salzburg in his late teens and joined its musical fraternity as a valet instrumentalist.

He loved music and became one of the most learned musicologists of his day. He specialised in the violin, and his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, published the year of Mozart's birth, is not only a handbook of instruction but a theoretical work that made him well known in musical circles throughout Europe."

Mozart didn't suddenly appear, fully formed. He might have been phenomenally gifted from an early age, but that had to be nurtured by someone with time, passion and knowhow.

Unfortunately, its these stories that often get lost. We value and laud the individual, not the village. Leopold Mozart was well known by his peers, but how many know him now?

When you listen to Mozart's music, if that is your wont, do you appreciate the wider sacrifice that went into the prodigy?

"Leopold Mozart's ability as a composer in addition to his work as a violin expert should not be underrated. But about 1760, according to Nannerl, he "abandoned violin teaching and composing music to devote himself to educating his two children"...

After 1762 he composed rarely and never after 1770-71. He is often seen as a tyrant toward his children, but the fact is, he surrendered his own future as a musician for their sake, and their progress justified his sacrifice."

Definitely recommend Mozart by Paul Johnson. Even if you are a musical philistine (as I am), you'll smash it out in a couple of hours and learn a lot along the way.