We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Big Bang transformed the City for the better, as I hoped at the time. It broke up the cosy cartel of the old stockbrokers and jobbers, introduced competition into commissions which made share buying and selling so much cheaper, allowed in many foreign banks and brokers with extra capital, new business and job opportunities, and allowed UK institutions to raise serious amounts of new money to operate on a world scale.

It built one of the dominant financial service and banking sectors of the world. The City expanded from the narrow Square Mile around the Bank of England, to encompass Aldgate, Liverpool Street, the Finsbury area , parts of Mayfair, St Paul’s and parts of docklands. Today we earn £60 billion from our financial and business service exports, and have a group of companies and service industries that the world envies. Without Big Bang none of that would have happened, and the UK would be a lot poorer. Instead of blaming Big Bang for financial scandals, people should remember there were scandals before Big Bang, and remember above all that it was Mr Brown’s regulators who helped bring on the crash they were meant to prevent.

John Redwood

I think Big Bang did bad things (speeding up the mess of fiat money) as well as good (doing lots of business in London). The more Austrianist you are, the earlier you will think the rot set in. Nixon takes Dollar off Gold Standard in 1971? Founding of the Fed? Founding of the Bank of England? But Redwood is right that Gordon Brown certainly didn’t help avert the crisis we are now stuck in, even if him keeping Britain out of the Euro may prove to be his most significant decision in the long run.

Remember, just because one of us here selects something as an SQotD doesn’t mean we necessarily agree. We are merely noticing that something significant, and usually true-ish, has been forcefully put.

Happy New Year (again) – courtesy of French TV

Yes, here’s another Happy New Year to everyone, this time from French National Treasure Jean-Paul Belmondo, snapped by me (in amazement at how he looked – I think I last saw him in Borsalino) straight off of French TV (no idea which channel), at or around midnight on Dec 31/Jan 1:

BelmondoHappyNewYear

I thought Belmondo had died several years ago. After seeing him on TV, I still suspect that maybe he did die, and that the museum where they keep all the dead (human) French National Treasures has a highly sophisticated animatronics department.

Samizdata quote of the day

So my New Year message is this. Be less political. Stop caring.

– From NickM’s message for 2015.

If the world that NickM and I, and probably you, want is to happen, some of us probably do have to be very political. But I, and probably you, will know just what he means, particularly if we read the whole thing.

My year in speakers

So here I am in Brittany, alternating between writing this and getting stuck into a New Year’s Eve feast, which explains any typos in what follows, and which is also making me ponder New Year resolutions. One of mine is to write rather more for Samizdata than I have been doing lately, which will not be hard. The idea was that resuming my Last Friday of the Month meetings, which I did in January 2013, would give me more to write about here, but the truth is that there is never any shortage of stuff to write about for Samizdata. The world abounds with good things and bad things, amusing things and annoying things. What sometimes fades is the will to write. But I’ll start as I mean to resume by writing a little about each of the speakers at my Last Friday meetings during this year. I hope these speakers will all agree that me now writing too little, too late, about their various excellent performances is better than nothing.

In January 2014, Alex Singleton spoke about his new book on PR, The PR Masterclass. Not the least of this book’s virtues is that it calls Public Relations Public Relations, rather than something more pompous and evasive. I did at least write here at the time about this book’s launch, which was a definite success, as is the book, packed as it is with what reads to me like lots of common-sense. Alex, however, is still a man worth hiring if you have a PR problem, because it is one thing to read a lot of common-sense in a book, quite another to be able to deploy it in the heat of a PR battle. Talking of the heat of a PR battle, Alex tells me that his next book is to be about Crisis Management. So, if your oil pipeline springs a leak, google Alex Singleton at once and hope that this book is by then available as a download, and that it starts with a short summary of all the wisdom that follows. Seriously, if you run a big organisation, buy this next Alex Singleton book as soon as it appears, and then give it more than a precautionary glance. You won’t be wasting any time, and you could save yourself and your underlings a world of grief.

In February, Dominic Frisby spoke about his then forthcoming book on Bitcoin, which has now forthcome. Our own Rob Fisher, who attended this talk, and who helped Dominic out with some technical details on the software front, later described the book in the first Amazon review of it (see the link above) as “concise, complete, correct, entertaining”. I first wrote, very admiringly, about Frisby and his writing here in this posting. My admiration for Frisby has not dimmed, and I very much hope that more Frisby books will follow.
→ Continue reading: My year in speakers

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.