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]

Book review: First Hook

Simon Gibbs has a review of Clive Fox’s cute quick techno-thriller ‘First Hook‘, which has launched today.

The series is modelled on shows like the A-team, but produced natively for consumption in written form as a serial short story. Much as Bleak House was originally published by Charles Dickens as a regular newspaper feature this punchy little story will be added to over time in the way that a TV show is added to with a new episode broadcast each week, except that future episodes are not yet all written. As such it borrows something of the currency of a soap opera, able to evolve and adapt constantly, but is firmly in the sci-fi category. This is an interesting and novel form of written fiction.

Anyone questioning why a lightweight techno thriller should be reviewed on Samizdata would do well to read Brian Micklethwait’s summary of The Power of Fiction, a talk given by former City AM managing editor Marc Sidwell. Anyone wondering what on Earth they might do about it, finding themselves unable to write fiction of their own should read the thoughts of Richard Gleaves, author of Ride Headless and Ride (itself reviewed on Libertarian Home).

So anyway, here is the Amazon review. You can buy it, read it and write your own review on Amazon:

Clive Fox is making an important contribution at a critical time.

When business paper The Financial Times offers advice to tech CEOs it is to warn them of their waning popularity and their “responsibilities”. Tech giants in California bring fantastic wealth to the area, and amazing technology to mankind, only to be slammed for the crime of gentrifying impoverished San Francisco – their staff hounded on company minibuses. Those companies branch out to the UK bringing us world changing products and brilliant new services, only to be pumped for more cash. Modern society fails to appreciate the source of it’s modernity.

Aftermath clearly know all about the problems of modern – and future – technology. Yet they have the balls to value it, master it, become one with it, and when necessary to beat it. The resulting tensions and dramas are evident in this first outing. I am thirsty for the next instalment.

– Simon Gibbs

Dog biots Mon

Sam Dumitriu of the Adam Smith Institute has written a piece called “Fake news in the Guardian.

Oh dear, how embarrassing. The Guardian’s George Monbiot appears to have fallen hook, line and sinker for Nancy Maclean’s poorly (dishonestly?) researched book Democracy in Chains.

Democracy in Chains smears Nobel Laureate James Buchanan (amongst others) with deliberate misquotes and pernicious accusations of racism. It asserts that Buchanan sat at the centre of an elaborate academic conspiracy to undermine democracy and replace it with ‘a totalitarian capitalism’.

Yeah, I know, the presence of fake news in the Guardian is not news. It’s a “Dog bites man” story if ever there was one. But Mr Dumitriu’s article is still well worth a read. With terrier-like tenacity (I had to justify the “dog” bit of my title somehow) he worries away at the arguments made in George Monbiot’s article and by extension at the arguments in Nancy MacLean’s book. Dumitriu backs up his claim that MacLean misrepresents Buchanan with copious supporting links to Buchanan’s actual words, demonstrating that he has actually read the books concerned. Monbiot usually prides himself on providing references to enable the reader to check his sources but appears to have taken MacLean on trust.

This paragraph shows how little she deserves that trust:

This wasn’t Maclean’s only ‘mistake’. David Henderson at EconLib highlighted a particularly egregious misquote.

Maclean writes

‘People who failed to foresee and save money for their future needs’, Buchanan wrote in 2005, ‘are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to . . . animals who are dependent.’

Contrast that with what Buchanan actually wrote

The classical liberal is necessarily vulnerable to the charge that he lacks compassion in behavior toward fellow human beings – a quality that may describe the conservative position, along with others that involve paternalism on any grounds. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” can be articulated and defended as a meaningful normative stance. The comparable term “compassionate classical liberalism” would approach oxymoronic classification. There is no halfway house here; other persons are to be treated as natural equals, deserving of equal respect and individually responsible for their actions, or they are to be treated as subordinate members of the species, akin to that accorded animals who are dependent.

Maclean doesn’t just get this quotation wrong—she edits it so that it says exactly the opposite of what Buchanan actually wrote.

This isn’t an aberration. It’s not a sloppy mistake in an otherwise well-researched book. This is Maclean’s modus operandi.

Added later: Gene in the comments has pointed out this detailed and damning analysis of MacLean’s book by Professor Michael C. Munger. It begins,

This essay is a response to the recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by my Duke University colleague, Nancy MacLean, a professor in our distinguished Department of History.

It is, let me say at the outset, a remarkable book.

He makes very clear that he does not mean “remarkable” in a good way. It is indeed remarkable that the Professor of Political Science, Economics and Public Policy at Duke University is willing to say the following about a colleague he might meet on campus:

The misuse of the cut-and-paste feature of MacLean’s word processor is not accidental, and it is not intended ironically. MacLean knew perfectly well that the main points of Public Choice are that checks and balances are actually crucial, and that “social consensus in favor of the Constitution” is good, not bad, for Public Choice scholars. Thus, it is not “fair to say” that Cowen was writing a handbook for fifth-column subversion. But the truth is rather boring, and that just wasn’t the story she wanted to tell here. As you read the book, you may notice that when something like “fair to say” is used for a paraphrase, that paraphrase is destructive of the meaning the person being quoted actually intended.

Tim Marshall on chaps and maps

History, goes the old rhyme, is about chaps, while geography is about maps. Tim Marshall’s book, Prisoners of Geography, is all about how these two matters are actually very hard to separate. What the chaps think and do, says Marshall, is profoundly influenced and often downright determined by the circumstances described in the maps.

When I bought this book, in a remainder shop, I did not know who else was reading it. I am fascinated by the impact of geography upon history, but is anyone else? Since buying the book I have learned that it is now a best-seller. This pleases me, because it is a very good book, and in particular a very unsentimental book.

Britain and Western Europe, and then the other parts of the world where English is the dominant language, have mostly been blessed with a degree of geographically conferred freedom of manoeuvre that is denied to the inhabitants of pretty much all other nations. That is why these places got rich first. And it also now means that we Euros and Anglos are able to believe, as a matter of practical political policy rather than merely as privately pious aspiration, in a wide range of idealistic things of very variable value – things like freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, freedom for women, “social justice”. and so on and so forth – things that geographically more constrained people can only, as yet, dream of, and which they often regard as more as a threat to their own ways of doing things than as any kind of promise.

Another book that Marshall refers to quite frequently in this book is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which also offers a fundamentally geographical explanation for these facts. I share Marshall’s admiration for this book , and it heads the bibliographical list at the end of Prisoners of Geography, but this is an accident of spelling. I was also intrigued to see in that same list two works by Halford Mackinder, in particular Mackinder’s Democratic Ideals and Reality, a title which Marshall might have picked for his own book had it not already been taken.

Why, for starters, did the modern industrial era that helped to create all that freedom of political manoeuvre for the world’s luckier people, having kicked off in Britain, then, after an imitative surge in Western Europe, then see its centre of gravity shift to the USA? Well, there are many reasons.

→ Continue reading: Tim Marshall on chaps and maps

How to win like Trump

Marc Sidwell’s book How To Win Like Trump: Nine Simple Rules for Victory Against the Odds explains how Donald Trump won the US presidential election. It is written in the style of a self-help book and in simple Trump-like language. This makes it a fast and easy read: it does not take itself too seriously. And it avoids “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity”. But it is packed with insight.

For example, politicians and the press are between them largely acting out a fiction which has similarities to the kayfabe of professional wrestling.

Trump had two insights, thanks to his grasp of kayfabe. First, Trump recognised the widespread fakery of modern politics. That let him see past the curtain of narrative, revealing the limited insight of political experts and the vulnerability of “inevitable” candidates whether Clinton, Rubio, Bush or Cruz. Second, Trump realised that by injecting the kind of entertainment and character common in wrestling narratives into the meek, grey world of political illusion, he could slam everyone else to the mat.


It’s underappreciated how much of the mainstream media’s tremendous influence lies in its power to frame big events. Hundreds of thousands of New York Times readers and millions of public radio listeners get taught the same framing story, and learn the socially acceptable limits for discussing whatever just happened.

As such, media organisations and a one-man master framer like Trump were always going to tread on each other’s toes. But Trump had an efficient, reframing response. All attacks on Trump through the media got reframed as evidence of a biased media persecuting a man it hated. This sidelined questions about the merit of any accusation. It established a catchall frame presenting Trump in a flattering light. And when negative stories did run, they only reinforced Trump’s favoured frame. That’s how to frame your way to victory.

It explains that Trump’s tweeting is partly about direct contact with people, and partly about quickly testing the product with real users.

Trump’s constant movement is also an endless process of improvement. It’s always looking for what works better. It is an evolving strategy, one that never gets to the end of the line. And that made his presidential bid more like a startup than a campaign. The Lean Startup movement believes in constantly evolving towards a product that fits the market through a cycle of building, measuring and learning. Rather than sweating to get something perfect, Lean Startups aim for the minimum viable product. Then they test it on an audience. Get it in front of a customer. See what they make of it. Improve it. Rinse and repeat.

This explains his constant changes of mind and hiring and firing, something that his opponents have claimed as a weakness. Another supposed weakness is his apparently defensive and petulant fighting back at anyone who criticises him, as he did with Megyn Kelly.

There is one very, very big way — and it’s so big, gigantic really, massive — that Trump’s haters and losers fail to get him. They think his temperament is unpredictable. Yuuge mistake. Believe me.

Marc argues that Trump’s consistent strategy is to maintain peace until he is attacked, and then consistently fire back, and that this is good game theory.

Trump’s essentially peaceful strategy relies on consistency and clarity to work. Every time he does what he always does, he reminds people of the consequences. The more disproportionate his reactions, the more Trump signals he is willing to bear any cost to get someone back.

This makes him not such a bad person to be holding the nuclear button:

What Trump understands by instinct, and demonstrates consistently in action, are the principles of nuclear deterrence. No first use. Credible threat of massive retaliation. That policy has kept the world safe from nuclear holocaust. Its creator Thomas Schelling worked it out using game theory, winning the Nobel for economics in 2005 in recognition of his breakthrough. Schelling even worked out that it helps if your enemies also think you are a little bit crazy and capable of attacking them at very high cost to yourself. It’s called the Madman Theory. President Nixon used it.

I am left wondering just how much of Trump’s strategies are luck rather than judgement, and it remains to be seen how long they will continue to work. But I do have more understanding of how the things he does that work, work. It is nice to see it all enumerated and made obvious.

Highlights I have not mentioned so far include the description of the way Trump picked off his opponents one by one in the primaries, how he used Clinton’s 3AM phone call commercial against her, and how he makes himself relatable to ordinary Americans. And there is a good bit about how Trump gets inside his opponents’ OODA loops (a concept I heard about years ago from one of my favourite sources of inspiration, Eric Raymond).

Book review: Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam by Innes Bowen

In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.

Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.

For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.

Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.

Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.

I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.

We are all well aware of the religion’s major dos and don’ts: praying, fasting (which includes liquids in case you didn’t already know), pork, alcohol, Halal etc. But there are others. The Deobandis, for instance, deprecate watching TV and listening to music. Almost all sects oppose celebrating the birthday of Muhammed which I assume gets extended to birthdays in general. There isn’t even the avenue of creativity in the service of the religion. Christianity has inspired great art, great songs and great buildings. But Islam has nothing to show for itself – at least not recently. The fact is that to be Muslim is to be miserable.

Of course, people are free to be miserable in private. What we really want to know about is whether they are going to blow us up or not. The news is not good. Islamic thought – of whatever strand – has little time for infidels and their institutions. Almost all sects are inward looking and wish to isolate themselves from the surrounding society. In this, they are helped by the welfare state and an ideology of political correctness. There seems to be no inquiry as to why it is that the followers of the one true God have ended up so poor while the non-believers and wrong believers are so rich. At best infidels are to be tolerated. At worst, to be eliminated. As such, Islamic terrorism is a bit like a genetic disease. Millions of Muslims by their faith can carry the disease without ever showing the symptoms but every so often it becomes virulent and people die. Islam and violence are inseparable.

This even has an impact on language. In the West words like “scholar” and “pious” tend to have positive connotations. But when they are applied to Islam – as Bowen does from time to time – they imply something altogether more sinister.

The only real challenge to Islam and violence comes from Ismaili doctrine which allows women to go around unveiled and for alcohol to be drunk in moderation and whose adherents do not appear to have got mixed up in terrorism. Ismailis have never had political power (at least not recently) and have a long tradition of trading. It is a general rule that the more trading that goes on in an Islamic community the less likely it is to produce terrorists. Even so the very small amount of tolerance that the (Nazari) Ismailis permit is largely – if not entirely – due to the influence of the Aga Khan. A different Aga Khan could easily change things.

Immortal instead of selfish?

I did not know this:

Dawkins began writing the book in 1973, and resumed it in 1975 while on sabbatical. At the suggestion of Desmond Morris, the zoologist and author of The Naked Ape (Jonathan Cape, 1967), Dawkins showed some draft chapters to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who strongly urged that the title be changed to ‘The Immortal Gene’. Today, Dawkins regrets not taking the advice. It might have short-circuited the endless arguments, so beloved of his critics and so redolent of the intentional stance (in which we tend to impute mental abilities to unconscious things, from thunderstorms to plants), about whether selfishness need be conscious. …

That is Matt Ridley writing In retrospect about Dawkins and The Selfish Gene.

“Immortal” would certainly have been accurate in a way that “selfish” was not. But perhaps having what was arguably a mistake in the title caused heat as well as light in the responses to The Selfish Gene, and thereby enabled this great book, in the end, to spread more light than it might have done if more precisely titled.

Ridley continues:

… It might even have avoided the common misconception that Dawkins was advocating individual selfishness.

Indeed. Actually, Dawkins has rather orthodox leftist views about such things as individual selfishness (unlike Matt Ridley). But by incurring the ignorant wrath of PC-ers, Dawkins has, I think, been driven away from unthinking leftism, towards more thinking non-leftism, of the sort that Matt Ridley espouses. He is certainly not a member of the PC tribe.

This is a common story. Oafish PC virtue signalling has caused many a good leftist to find himself on the wrong end of his own opinions, and thus to learn at least some of the errors of his ways.

Had he called The Selfish Gene instead The Immortal Gene, might Dawkins have remained, or been allowed to remain, a more orthodox leftist? And if he had, would he, for instance, have been so ready to denounce Islam as strongly as he has, alongside his denunciations of Christianity? Would he now be so ready to mock feminism, and thereby incur yet more PC wrath? (“We believe strongly in freedom of speech … However …”) Dawkins probably would have got involved in such scraps anyway, but he might have had more to lose.

Matt Ridley’s central point is that, whether correctly titled or not, The Selfish Gene combined being original science with successful scientific popularisation in a way that is very rare.

Vox Day on Social Justice Warriors

Vox Day is a game designer, science fiction and fantasy writer, blogger, and a prominent figure in the #GamerGate and Sad Puppies movements. His book SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police describes social justice warriors and is a strategy guide for dealing with them and for winning the larger culture war.

SJWs are the people whose hobby it is to get offended.

They have also invented the useful concept of the “microaggression”. This is an inadvertent offense committed by an offender who violates the Narrative without even realizing he has done so. It is the most insidious violation because it means that the hate is buried so deeply inside the offender that he doesn’t even realize it is there. Needless to say, SJWs have a highly developed ability to observe these microaggressions being unwittingly committed.

They would be nothing more than a minor annoyance if they did not currently seem to have the ability to cause the sort of controversy that can lose people like Brendan Eich or Tim Hunt their jobs for having the wrong kind of opinion or making the wrong kind of joke.

It contains the sort of advice that should be passed onto one’s children:

The reason SJWs demand apologies is in order to establish that the act they have deemed an offense is publicly recognized as an offense by the offender. The demand for an apology has nothing whatsoever to do with the offender. It is focused on the SJW’s need to prove that the violation of the Narrative involved is publicly accepted as a real and legitimate offense for which punishment is merited. […] it is absolutely and utterly futile for the target of an SJW attack to apologize for whatever offense he is said to have caused

This is indeed what happened to Eich and Hunt. Once they apologised, the media attacks only increased.

There is also advice for the sort of people who feel the need to post articles like this as Samizdata Illuminatus:

It’s much easier to put pressure on someone who works for a university or a large corporation because the attacking SJW knows that he can count on the support of fellow SJWs in the faculty or the Human Resources department. […] The action itself only matters insofar as it indicates that the individual is a Bad Person, and since there is NO PLACE for such Bad Persons in the university, the corporation, the club, the group, or the organization, the only possible solution is for the target to be promptly expelled.

There is a chapter that describes the various stages of an SJW attack, from the moment you wake up to a Twitter storm demanding your scalp to the demands for an apology to your final ejection from polite society. Then there is a follow-up chapter explaining how to deal with each of these stages and maybe even put your attackers on the back foot by not playing along how they expect.

The first thing to do when attacked by SJWs is to recognize that you are under SJW attack, remain calm, and realize that no one else cares. […] A refusal to play along with their game quickly strips the mask of sanity from their faces and reveals the angry, shrieking madness underneath.

→ Continue reading: Vox Day on Social Justice Warriors

Bitcoin: The Future of Money?

Dominic Frisby’s book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? is now available.

The first chapter describes what Bitcoin is and how it works. The achievement of this chapter is that Dominic has described Bitcoin in plain English without missing any important details and without simplifying to the point of error. Too often when I read writing intended for the general audience about something I know about, I notice how wrong it is and how ill informed the general audience must be about all things. Not here.

Technical description out of the way, the rest of the book deals with the culture of Bitcoin’s early adopters, the various scandals we may have heard about and what they mean, what Bitcoin means for the state and for you, and what the future might hold for Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general.

The longest chapter is about the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, who wrote the original paper and developed the first versions of the software, and who has successfully remained anonymous. It is not particularly relevant to understanding Bitcoin, but it is very intriguing, and I think there is a good chance Dominic has reached the right conclusion about Satoshi’s identity.

There is discussion of the problems of inflationary fiat currency: the author has read his Detlev Schlichter. There is discussion of how the decentralised nature of Bitcoin sidelines governments and opens up new markets with people who are otherwise difficult to trade with. And there is discussion of the problems, too: the volatility, the technical challenges, and the dangers of being defrauded in a new marketplace where we are still learning what are the best business practices and how to decide who to trust. Finally, there is some advice about where to buy Bitcoins. It is not out of date yet!

The book is concise, complete, correct, entertaining, and a very good introduction to what Bitcoin is all about.

A deadly review of the Piketty book everyone is supposedly talking about

“Saving is mostly just delayed consumption, as generations of economists have taught, and the only way for capital to grow exactly at the interest rate is for nobody to consume it. Every bit of consumption pushes down the growth rate of capital.”

Garrett Jones, who has written a gently devastating review of a much-heralded book, Capital in the 21st Century, by someone called Thomas Piketty. The reason it is worth drawing attention to it is that this is the sort of book that you just know is going to get bandied about in the usual quarters as a source of supposed wisdom, when in fact its central contention is based on sand. In some ways, the claim that the rich get so proportionately rich that they gobble up the rest of us, so to speak, is hardly a new assertion. Piketty has repackaged it and added in new supposed facts to make the case.

Over to Jones:

There’s an extra reason to think that capital isn’t going to permanently grow at a faster rate than the overall economy: Piketty says it won’t. He places great weight on the mainstream economic idea that in the long run the natural tendency of market economies is for capital and the economy to both grow at the same rate, whatever that rate turns out to be. That “twin growth rate” might be high if population and technology are advancing quickly, or it might be low if both are in the doldrums, but there’s no inherent tendency for capital to outpace the economy forever, even when Piketty’s “central contradiction” of high interest rates holds.

The reason is simple. If the first machine is more productive than the second (i.e., diminishing returns), and if machines wear out and fall apart at a fairly predictable rate—a depreciation rate, in accounting-speak—then it’s a safe bet that in the long run capital and the economy will grow at about the same rate. Double the machines mean double the machines wearing out, so at some point you have so many machines (and houses and outdated software and office buildings) wearing out each year that a nation spends an enormous economic effort just replacing them. And of course if interest rates are high, business owners look for alternatives to capital (such as workers); private demand for capital thus shrinks. So growing replacement costs and the quest for cheaper alternatives both make it hard to imagine capital growing as far as the eye can see.  I’ll spare you the math, but it’s getting harder all the time to see a central contradiction.

And then there is this paragraph, containing a nice little nugget:

But while Piketty’s contradiction is less an iron law and more a chalkboard speculation, there’s still plenty of room for class warfare in our future. A final way to see if capitalists are going to exercise unprecedented influence in the economy is to see whether their share of the economy is at unprecedented levels. Here, Piketty’s arduous historical research pays off. For the two countries for which he has data going back more than a century—Britain and France—the answer is clear: Capitalists are claiming a substantially smaller share of the economic pie today than they did in the mid-19th century. Back then capital income was a bit more than 40 percent of total national income. Now it’s a bit under 30 percent. So if capitalists—savers, landowners, entrepreneurs, and all the rest—are going to become a bigger deal in the future, they’ve got a long way to go before they’re at 19th-century levels. (Emphasis added to original.)

The author is fair in pointing out that there are useful insights in the book, although given that its central contention appears to be a crock, that is not a lot of praise.

Children of the night

President of the Adam Smith Institute Madsen Pirie is recruiting them even younger than Brian suggests in his previous post — in a way. He has written children’s books. I recently read Children of the Night.

My older son is only three, but I am keen to fill the house with books that he might like to discover when he feels like it. Whenever I read novels I worry about how the author’s worldview infects the fictitious world he has created. With Madsen Pirie I can relax, confident that his fictional universe will have sensible laws of economics and will not subconsciously implant socialism into my children’s heads.

Not only that, it is a very good adventure story. In genre it is a kind of steampunk — it has an outward appearance of fantasy but is really science fiction, which is the best kind of fantasy because it leads to an internally consistent and believable world. This leads to consistent and believable politics, which are never spelled out in exposition but form the backdrop to the action. And it is nearly all action, as makes sense for a children’s book, but there are many lessons.

On the origins of political power:

Shocking though the violence was, he was used to it. That was the way the world seemed to work. Those on high bullied and terrorised those below them.

On class and ambition:

“I do know this,” Quicksilver thought back, “that a wagoner’s son is destined to become a wagoner, and a nobleman’s son is destined to become a nobleman. But those with special talents can break free of this destiny and achieve things their parents could not dream of. Extraordinary things.”

In fact the protagonists are a poor orphan, a nobleman’s daughter who would rather be a pilot than a nobleman’s daughter, and an engineer dwarf, who all end up friends because of their differences.

On the intersection of economics and politics:

“It’s partly the cost,” Calvin replied. “There aren’t many places where people need to go up a mountain, and it would cost too much to lay miles of track and cable across open country.” He shrugged before adding, “And of course the Church limits the number of dwarf machines allowed into the Realm. They don’t want anything to upset the social order. That’s fine by us. We make the machines, not the decisions.”

On taxes:

“This stuff isn’t for sale anyway. It’s the share we have to pay to their high mightiness.” There was a real bitterness to his voice as he said it. “Who’s that?” inquired Mark, puzzled. “A far-off fat bishop who never set foot out of his abbey, and a far-off lazy lord who never did a day’s work in his life.” “You mean tithes,” said Mark, “a tenth for the church.” “A tenth?” Anderson laughed bitterly. “Round here it’s a sixth. And another sixth in taxes for using the land and sea which some noble calls his own.” Gene uttered a low whistle. “That’s a third gone before you start! Do they take a third of everything?” “Everything.” The word was spat out in bitterness.

On changing the meta-context:

We spread stories and provoke people to see the injustice of their rule, and to resent it.

There is also a problem with a fuel source that is mined by slaves. Many an author might have his characters fight against the slavery, and Madsen does, but he also has them realise the importance of the fuel, the suffering that its increase in cost would cause, and the possibility of a technological solution. This is a world in which technology offers hope and improvement despite its problems, rather than simply causing problems.

And there are murder mysteries, exotic flying machines, chase scenes, narrow escapes and double-crossings aplenty. It is all good, wholesome fun.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age ; The Phoenix Exultant ; The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright.

Politics, which is the recourse to the use of force to organize interpersonal relationships, was unknown to the majority of the citizens of the Golden Oecumene.

I am always looking for science fiction that is not lessened by the author’s flawed worldview. In the Golden Age trilogy I found that and then some.

There are three volumes but this is one long novel. I found it to be money and time well spent.

This is a far future tale set in what is almost a post-scarcity economy: humans have immortality thanks to mind recording; vast energy and computational resources; can tailor their sensory experiences however they wish; and can choose between living in their own invented universes, the real world, or anything in between. But the laws of economics still apply: the author realises that there is still scarcity of human effort and attention. Phaethon, the protagonist, is attempting to achieve “deeds of renown, without peer”, and it is a struggle. Says the author in an interview he gave:

There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes).

There is artificial intelligence, the most advanced of which are self-aware computers called Sophotechs who have intelligence vastly superior to humans, and it is possible to argue that the existence of these would make humans redundant. However, from the novel:

“It is true that the Sophotechs can perform any of these operations more swiftly and more efficiently than can we. But it is also true that they cannot do everything at once, at every place at once, as cheaply as everyone wishes. There is always someone somewhere who wants some further things done, some further work accomplished. There is always someone willing to pay much less for work moderately less well done.”

The setting is the Golden Oecumene, a solar-system spanning civilisation. In the interview the author describes the depicted society as a libertarian utopia with no public property. This state of affairs has persisted for so long that characters find violence unthinkable. If there were to be violence it would be dealt with swiftly by robotic constables. There is a parliament which does very little, and a rarely used court system. Most contractual disputes are worked out by Sophotech arbitrators. Finally, there is the College of Hortators. → Continue reading: The Golden Age

The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster

First I read Leo McKinstry’s Boycott book, and loved it. Then I read his Spitfire book, and liked that a lot also. But while reading Spitfire, I thought to myself that what I would also like to read – would really like to read – would be a book by Leo McKinstry about the Avro Lancaster, the big four-engined bomber that inflicted most of the British bomber damage on the cities of Germany during the latter half of World War 2. The Lancaster was one of my favourites during my Airfix years. Seeing a real live Lancaster flying at Farnborough in the summer of 2010 made me even more curious about this famous airplane. The more I thought about it, the more I realised how ignorant of the Lancaster’s history I was. So when McKinstry obliged with Lancaster, I did not hesitate. I bought it, and devoured it.

Ever since doing that, I have been meaning to write about this book here, but I never got around to finishing what I started. So instead of trying to say everything I might want to say about this excellent book, I will instead now focus mostly on the most interesting thing among many interesting things that I learned from reading Lancaster. I will focus on what a very strange birth the Avro Lancaster had.

In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.

So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.

This strangeness was caused by Rolls Royce then being engaged in producing two engines, the Merlin and the Vulture. The Merlin was proving itself to be very good (arguably it became the greatest single piece of mechanical kit of the entire war), but the Vulture was only revealing itself to be terrible. The idea was that the Vulture would power the two-engined bombers. But, with the Vulture already looking so bad, Handley Page quickly got permission to change their Vulture-powered two-engine bomber into a Merlin powered four-engine bomber. They switched specifications, in other words.

Avro persisted with their two-engine design, the Manchester, and Air Officialdom, in addition to ordering lots of Halifaxes, also ordered two hundred Manchesters to be made, long before they could be sure that it was a good airplane. Soon, they upped the order to over a thousand. Despite the Manchester being, to put it mildly, unproven, Avro started manufacturing them.


But the Manchester was a clunker. It was slow. It couldn’t carry many bombs. It handled abominably. It was a death trap. The pilots hated it. Avro did everything they could to make the Manchester work, but it never did, not least because Rolls Royce were never able to make much of their Vulture. As the Merlin began to prove itself to be the Merlin, Rolls Royce understandably concentrated on that.

At which point, in 1940, Avro proposed the Halifax solution to the Manchester problem. Turn the Manchester from a Vulture-driven two-engine bomber into a Merlin-driven four-engine bomber. Avro dramatically illustrated this idea when they showed a model of a Manchester to a visiting party of Air Officialdom. Right in front of their little audience of grandees, they took off the Manchester’s wings and shoved on different and bigger wings with two more engines attached to them. That, said Avro, is what we should be building.

→ Continue reading: The strange birth of the Avro Lancaster