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Anton Howes on the Golden Age that never stopped

One of my favourite up-and-coming libertarian intellectuals is Anton Howes, who manages to combine being both a hugely effective libertarian activist and a very promising academic. He, along with a great gaggle of others, runs the very impressive Liberty League, and he is doing some very interesting historical research.

The particularly good Anton Howes news, from the point of view of the sort of people who read Samizdata, is that Anton Howes now has a blog, Capitalism’s Cradle. It reflects Anton’s research interests. He is studying the origins of the British Industrial Revolution by studying the biographies of several dozen of the key industrial innovators who set that Revolution in motion and who then kept it in motion. I first learned about this blog when Anton himself told me about it at the Adam Smith Institute Christmas Party last week. Anton is the rather solemn looking guy in the third row down, on the right, in this selection of photos that I took at that event.

Below is a quote from the very first posting on Capitalism’s Cradle, entitled Why Capitalism’s Cradle? I take this posting to be both an explanation of why the Capitalism’s Cradle blog is called that, and a question about why Capitalism’s Cradle did its stuff where it did and when it did. The question Anton is trying to answer is: What was it about the British Industrial Revolution that caused it to do better than various other “Golden Ages” that had preceded it in earlier times and in other places? Because it was indeed very special. It didn’t just happen, and then revert back to business as usual. This particular Golden Age never stopped. It spread, and it is still spreading. Why?

Innovation existed before the Industrial Revolution. Of course it did – you need look no further than the invention of agriculture, writing, bronze, crop rotations, horse collars, windmills, gunpowder, printing presses, paper, and bills of exchange to know that innovations have occurred throughout history before the IR.

The difference is that these were few and far between. Some of them, often grouped together, resulted in Golden Ages, or “Efflorescences” as Jack Goldstone likes to call them. The 1st Century early Roman Empire; the 8th Century Arab World; 12th Century Sung Dynasty China; the 15th Century northern Italian city-states; and 17th Century Dutch Republic are all good examples.

Britain could have been just like any of the other Golden Ages. It could have had Abraham Darby’s coke-smelted cast iron, Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine for pumping mines, John Kay’s flying shuttle to allow weaved cloth to be wider than the length of the weaver’s arm-span. Perhaps we would have had Lady Mary Wortley’s inoculation against smallpox, some canals much like the Romans’ or Medieval Chinese, and Jethro Tull’s seed drill.

But like every previous Golden Age, that would have been it – until the next Golden Age, wherever and whenever that would end up being.

But the British IR was different. It started off as a ‘mere’ Golden Age in the 18th Century, but the pace of innovation was maintained and then quickened. And it hasn’t stopped for the past 250 years or so. Despite the occasional downturn, we still expect at least 1-2% GDP growth. Anything less than that is considered stagnation.

That isn’t the answer to the question. It merely restates the question in somewhat greater detail. But I particularly like this elaboration, because I have heard Anton refer in passing to these Golden Ages, these efflorescences, in various talks that I have heard him deliver, but I didn’t make a note of what they all were. Now, I have this blog posting, and this blog in general, to enable me to chase up such notions, and also to help me ponder all the other notions that will be needed to get towards an answer to the question that Anton is posing.

I do not think I will be the only Samizdata reader who will also be a regular reader of Capitalism’s Cradle.

Samizdata quote of the day

Pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech. It is the first freedom to die.

Myles Jackman

Quoted at the end of this Adam Smith Institute blog posting by Charlotte Bowyer

Keeping colleagues out of the frame

I am suspicious of almost all political state apparati. But I make an exception for the State of Israel. My attitude towards the State of Israel is one of unconditional positive regard. Their fight is my fight, and they are actually fighting it. Whenever I hear that Israel has done something bad, I assume that (a) if it was bad they definitely had some very good reasons for doing it, but that (b) it almost certainly wasn’t that bad, and that whoever is telling me that it was that bad is deceiving me, either because he is himself deceived or because he is a malevolent fool.

This article, by Matti Friedman, explains some of the many reasons why I think and feel as I do about Israel. The article focuses in on, so to speak, a subject that has been very dear to my heart for the last decade and more, which is the vital role in the modern world played by photography, professional and amateur, and especially in its digital and hence instantaneously communicable form. Friedman includes a very telling photograph in his article, of a sort you don’t usually see, of a rally in Jerusalem in support of Islamic Jihad. Does the camera ever lie? It certainly squirts out a stream of lies by omission.

Says Friedman:

Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t mention the existence of reporters. In a conflict like ours, this ends up requiring considerable exertions: So many photographers cover protests in Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example, that one of the challenges for anyone taking pictures is keeping colleagues out of the frame. That the other photographers are as important to the story as Palestinian protesters or Israeli soldiers – this does not seem to be considered.

In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail of press psychology to a major deficiency. Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists. One of the reasons it works is because of the reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas has a strategy based on co-opting the media, this raises several difficult questions, like, What exactly is the relationship between the media and Hamas? And has this relationship corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave the other photographers out of the frame and let the picture tell the story: Here are dead people, and Israel killed them.

Mick Hartley, at whose blog I first learned of this article and first read the above quote, thinks that Friedman’s article is worth reading in full. I agree.

Samizdata quote of the day

Being happy is really just an ability to accept survival as success.

Robert Stacy McCain

Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars

Great confidence is being expressed about how robot cars are about to change the world. Robot cars, says a typical headline that Google (one of the prime movers in this new technology) has just today alerted me to, may be coming sooner than you think. But doubts are also being expressed:

A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can’t.

Case in point: Google’s self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can’t do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow.

Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved – or is on the verge of solving – all of the major issues involved with robotic driving.

“Essentially”. That’s a word that often means “not”. And “on the verge of” often signals a problem that turns out to be hideously intractable, as year after year passes with nobody any nearer to a definitive answer. I seem to recall an entire British high speed train project being abandoned because they just could not make the tilting of the carriages work perfectly. It worked okay, but okay wasn’t good enough. It had to be perfect, and perfection proved elusive. Here is what wikipedia says about that, for whatever wikipedia may be worth when reporting a story that remains controversial.

Even that constantly repeated refrain about how robot cars are coming “sooner than you think” is, if you think some more, an acknowledgement from robot car boosters that there are actually widespread doubts out there in the regular, non-techy world about how well these devices really will work, and how completely, above all how quickly, all the problems that they will face have really been and will really be solved. Yes, the techies will eventually get their robot cars working, probably. But for a few more years yet, there will surely be a nasty little clutch both of known unknowns and of unknown unknowns to deal with, all of which will have to be thoroughly dealt with. Crucially, such problems will all have to be solved. If robot cars get the go-ahead and work flawlessly for two months, followed by a lurid catastrophe like something out of a disaster movie, when a bunch of robot cars all follow each other into a swamp or over a cliff, or just run amuck and kill dozens or even hundreds in one catastrophe like in a plane crash, then their introduction will be judged a failure rather than given nine out of ten for technical accomplishment and an A plus for effort.

This strikes me as a lot more immediately promising:

MercedesRobotLorry
→ Continue reading: Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars

Closing DECC – Bishop Hill and commenters on why and how

Bishop Hill has a posting up today about the gigantic folly that is the D(epartment) of E(nergy) and C(limate) C(hange).

Says the Bishop:

As we look at UK energy policy now, DECC has had the country make a massive financial gamble on the back of a prediction that was wholly unfounded and which has been obviously so for many years. We now learn that DECC has also distributed this astonishing wave of public money in a manner that can only be described as monstrously incompetent, and which many will assume to be monstrously corrupt…

Comment (Oct 3 9.32am) from “fen tiger”:

I have a relative who works at DECC, and has done since getting his masters. He’s an environmental economist (one of many in DECC, I imagine), briefing the likes of Huhne, Davey, and Gummer. He appears to know nothing whatever about the climate question, but is fully invested in the warming scare (condition of employment, I guess).

Closing DECC would obviously benefit the country: but it would also benefit many of those who work there. My relative is not an untruthful man, but he has worked since leaving university in an environment where systematic untruthfulness and wishful thinking are the norm; an environment where the taxpayer would get better value if he were paid to stay at home and do nothing. He desperately needs to get out and find a real job (although his qualifications won’t help with that).

This comment is anonymous partly because I don’t want to foment a family rift, and partly because I am ashamed of having a family member employed in this way.

But how to close DECC?

“Roger Tallbloke” (Oct 3 9.08am) had already commented earlier, thus:

Strategic action on the part of the consumer could actually make a difference and help get rid of DECC. This action is quite simple, and won’t take long or cost the consumer anything. Here’s what they need to do.

Vote UKIP.

Would that work? Is this a case where your vote might actually make a difference?

UKIP has turned into a me-too operation on most of the big items of state spending, as Ben Kelly writes in this Libertarian Home report of the recent UKIP conference. But on UKIP’s energy policies, Kelly writes this:

Energy – Ah, Roger Helmer; an intelligent and articulate man, an asset until you get him on the subject of gays or the finer details of rape. Then it’s hide behind your hands time. Luckily he was simply talking about energy policy today. He wants to scrap the Climate Change Act, cut all green taxes, end subsidies for wind farms and get fracking, creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income. It is the Guardian’s worst nightmare, and I like it.

Me too. It would be a worse Guardian nightmare if there wasn’t that bit there about “creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income”. But when it comes to voting, the question is not: What gets me everything? It is: Does anything get me anything?

Bill Bryson on the architectural achievements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

One of the many felicities of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I am currently engaged in reading and am enjoying greatly, is that noted warriors and statesmen do get mentioned, but for their peacetime activities.

The Duke of Wellington, for instance, gets just the two brief mentions, on page 128, for his habit of consuming a very large breakfast, this being an illustration of the then breakfasting habits of rich personages generally, and before that on page 49, when in his dotage Wellington was in nominal charge of an army of militiamen whose task would have been to quell any revolutionary outrages that the masses gathered for the Great Exhibition of 1851 might have felt inclined to perpetrate, outrages which were greatly feared at the time but which never materialised.

Concerning two big military and political movers and shakers on the other side of the Atlantic, Bryson has more to say, because they, unlike Wellington, made two very impressive and influential contributions (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon) to the art of domestic architecture, and in consequence to architecture generally:

Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built. That really is quite an achievement.

Monticello’s celebrated contraptions – its silent dumbwaiters and dual-action doors and the like – are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labour-saving devices, and helped to make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied – almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington’s fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, he also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years of meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became the leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.

It is remarkable to think that much less than a century separated Jefferson and Washington living in a wilderness without infrastructure from a Gilded Age America that dominated the world. At probably no time in history has daily life changed more radically and comprehensively than in the seventy-four years between the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and the beginning of the following century …

A “ha-ha”, in case you are wondering, is a fence set in a ditch, which works as a regular fence for impeding animals, but which doesn’t spoil the view.

Concerning those “proper materials” that Washington and Jefferson lacked, I particularly enjoyed reading (pp. 424-8) about the infuriations suffered by rich pre-revolutionary Americans when trying to get Brits to send stuff over to America for them to build and furnish their houses, in sufficient quantities, of the correct sort, not ruined in transit, and for a non-extortionate price. The Brits insisted that everything that Americans bought from abroad had to go via Britain, even stuff originating in the West Indies. Of this draconian policy, Bryson says (p. 428):

This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.

Despite such things as the dramas now going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, most of us now live amazingly peaceful and comfortable lives, when compared to the hideously warlike and uncomfortable lives lived in the past. That being so, more and more of us are going to want to read books like this one by Bryson, about how life became as comfortable as it now is, who contrived it, and how, and so forth and so on. We are now becoming the kind of people who attach more importance to things like why forks are the way they are, or why wallpaper started out being poisonous, or how vitamins were discovered and itemised, or how farming got better just when big new industrial populations needed more food, or how gardening became such a huge hobby or how meat, fruit and vegetables first got refrigerated, than we do to such things as the details of the Duke of Wellington’s or George Washington’s battles.

All this peace and comfort may turn out to be a mere interlude, if all-out war between Great Powers is resumed, and if that happened, the people in the formerly comfortable countries, like mine now, would soon rediscover any appetite they might now be losing for learning about war rather than about peace. But despite recent claims that our times resemble those just before WW1, I personally see little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon between two or more Great Powers. Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany; the Muslims are mostly killing each other rather than us; and attacks with H-bomb barrages remain as utterly terrifying now as they have been ever since they were first made possible.

Katabasis on the climate science cowards

I am in the midst of cleaning my home in advance of a meeting this evening. That is a big task, still not nearly done, so I will be brief. Read all of this, if not now then very soon. It’s about climate scientists and the immoral fools that they are almost all now making of themselves.

It is by “Katabasis” (and yes it is indeed disgusting that he has to use a pseudonym for saying it so like it is (he explains why)), and it deserves to go viral.

I have spent years cheering on the efforts of those who have unmasked those political activists dressed as scientists who, still, peddle the CAGW line (on second thoughts: skip that n). What Katabasis does is nail what you might call the anti-anti-CAGW peddlers for the immoral fence-sitting cowards that they are. This is an absolute masterpiece of the polemicist’s art, and I am very, very envious. Not being any sort of climate scientist, I could not possibly have written it myself but I still wish I had. Go read.

Margin Call on TV

At 10.30pm tomorrow, Saturday September 27th, BBC2 TV is showing Margin Call, a movie about the beginnings of the financial meltdown we now all live in the becalmed and depressed and resentful aftermath of.

I wrote admiringly about this movie when it was first being shown in British cinemas, to near-zero audiences if my experience was anything to go by. Maybe this time around more people will pay attention to it, what with the BBC’s Radio Times giving it four stars.

Nice libertarianism

For some while now, leading London libertarian Simon Gibbs has been telling his many libertarian friends and acquaintances about a Libertarian Home event which he is organising which will happen on October 23rd in the Drama Studio of the Institute of Education. At this event, a group of speakers from across the political spectrum (somewhat biased towards libertarians but with non- and anti-libertarians definitely also being heard loud and clear), will take it in turns to speak about the The Causes of the Cost of Living Crisis.

Attendance will not be free of charge. It will cost £11. But, over the years, libertarians have shown themselves willing to pay quite a bit more than that for similarly well organised conferences. Simon is an energetic and conscientious organiser of such things, and I think I would have been optimistic about this event even if he had not offered me free entry in exchange for my best efforts as a photographer.

For quite a while now, but especially during the recent Labour Party Conference, Labour leader David Ed Miliband has been making this notion of the cost of living crisis a central theme in his ongoing attempts to become our next Prime Minister. City A.M.’s Ryan Bourne, before the Labour Conference got started, wrote thus:

Labour’s party conference will see Ed Miliband try to shift public focus away from the Scottish referendum fallout and back towards the choice at next year’s general election. In particular, he’ll seek to refocus our minds on the “cost of living crisis” narrative that he’s been composing since 2011.

And so it proved. I heard this phrase a day or two ago in a radio news item where the words “Miliband” and “cost of living crisis” emerged next to each other. Whether Miliband will succeed in persuading the country that even more taxing-and-spending will do anything to abate this cost of living crisis, as crisis it certainly is for a great many people, remains to be seen. Whatever. But if you want a minority cause to get some little sliver of majority notice, what you must do is supply your minority answer to a majority question. So kudos to Simon for identifying this particular debate as something libertarians can get in on, and get in on very eloquently. I am really looking forward to this October 23rd meeting.

→ Continue reading: Nice libertarianism

Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.

Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?

The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.

→ Continue reading: Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

Some Brittany holiday snaps

Earlier this week I got back from a week in Brittany. During the first few days of my stay, I and the friends I was staying with visited the island of Belle Ile. Their daughter is my god-daughter, and she was singing (very well) in a classical singing festival that happens in Belle Ile every year.

While in Belle Ile we also enjoyed other sorts of music making. In particular, at midday, in the fish market of Belle Ile’s biggest town, La Palais, we listened to a small beat combo called, as I later learned from the small print in some of my photographs, Les Gadgos. Les Gadgos are a bunch of blokes, but they have engaged a lead singer for their latest clutch of songs and their latest CD, a blond chanteuse named Mélody Linhart, who looked weirdly matter-of-fact in her days clothes. But she sang very well, in English. She did various venerable American standards, like St James Infirmary, and slightly more recent American movie tunes, including I Want To Be Like You. She made the latter piece of froth sound almost as profound and existential as St James Infirmary.

But take a look at this other Les Gadjos person, who I now know to be called Clément Lenoble:

Brittany01

A classic French type, I think you will agree. But that cigarette was actually quite a surprise, because Clément Lenoble was one of the very few people whom I observed during my week in France who was smoking. There were a few. He wasn’t the only one. But the basic news is, those Frenchies are no longer fumer-ing. Not the sort who live in or summer in Brittany, anyway.

Instead, this business is on the up and up:

Brittany02

That was just a clutch of e-cigarettes in the window of a shop that also sold other stuff. But later, I came across an entire shop devoted to this one product:

Brittany03

French smokers are a dying breed. No doubt, anti-smoking fanatics would reply that they’re a dying breed because smoking is killing them all off, and I do agree that this change of habit is probably a good thing. But even so, I miss guys like this, singing their gravel-voiced chansons in bars, with their whiskey glasses on the piano and their gauloises hanging down from their creased and lived-in faces. Or maybe I just miss the idea of such people, being around, in France.

Smoking is now illegal in most public places in France. I just wish les pouvoirs-that-be had been content to let the habit die away of its own accord. But that is not how such people think.

I also photoed many other more fun things.

→ Continue reading: Some Brittany holiday snaps