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.”
“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 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
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-drive 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
For the first time ever, labourers were able to purchase cheap goods for themselves. The first factories focused on mass production of cheap goods for the poor. Shoes, for example, were produced for the proletariat – the rich bought made-to-measure shoes. This was different from France, where the government’s mercantilist product standards, designed to uphold quality, ensured that nothing was produced for the poor at all. In France, mercantilism continued to be state policy for much longer than in England. This is the reason why industrialisation took fifty more years to arrive on France’s shores.
- This is a typical “I did not know that” moment from J. P. Floru‘s excellent new book Heavens on Earth: How To Create Mass Prosperity, from the chapter about the British industrial revolution.
Well, I myself did not know it. If you did know this particular thing about shoes, you will still probably find a hundred other such titbits in this book that you did not know. In an equal-but-opposite way, this made me think of how we can now buy excellent yet vastly-cheaper-than-before spectacles on the internet, that being a case of a made-to-measure product becoming available to all at a mass production price.
Besides the world-changing success story that was British industrialisation, Floru writes about: the USA and West Germany just after WW2, Hong Kong, China, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. The miseries of despotism are not glossed over, but the inevitable failure of statist economic policies and the almost automatic benefits of free market policies, provided only that you can make them stick, are made unmistakably clear.
I hope, Real Soon Now, to be supplying a longer posting here about this fine book, along the lines of the five star reactions to it here. Short version: it is a fine book.
“We should recognize the issue of communism and Soviet espionage has become an antiquarian backwater. After all, the Cold War is over.” With these words, a typical leftish US historian, Ellen Schrecker, recommends that a whole sector of an historical era should be ignored and work on it effectively closed down. “It is time to move on,” remarks another academic, using the modern terminology that neither denies nor accepts responsibility, but leaves a mess behind for someone else to clear up. Now historians are, by definition, paddlers up backwaters, investigators of things that are “over” and move in, not move on when invited to examine data never before available. When World War Two ended historians started, not stopped, writing about it, just as an unending stream of books about Napoleon has continued in the nearly two centuries since he was bundled off to St Helena. The idea that, just as enormous quantities of material from Soviet and other archives are being released, work on them should be called off is so ludicrous that it could only have been suggested by those who feel the foundations of their beliefs and attitudes crumbling beneath their feet.
- Findlay Dunachie, reviewing a book called In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage for Samizdata, in 2004. I came across that while trying to find something else, and was immediately hooked. Findlay Dunachie is sorely missed, now, still.
The good news is that, following the recent Samizdata makeover, we can now peruse the entire Samizdata Findlay Dunachie author archive.
It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:
So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.
He has also written favourably about fracking.
The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.
The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.
Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:
The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.
Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:
Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.
My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.
The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:
Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.
It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.
Successful people are often born into a world that is not, so to speak, theirs. The world in which they get dealt their first cards is what it is and where it is, but their real world, the world they were meant for, is something and somewhere else. They are born the son of a coal miner or of a provincial shopkeeper, yet their natural place in the world is to be a classical musician or a weather forecaster in a big city or a diplomat or a music hall comedian or a technology billionaire. The mega-successes are those who know, early, not so much what they want or want to do, as where they need to be – where, for them, the action is – and who shift heaven and earth to get to that sweet spot in the world just as soon as possible, often taking truly hair-raising risks to get there. They identify where they want to be, calculate the price of getting there, and pay that price. And then, having got to where they need to be, they are happy! The inconveniences and disappointments – even the humiliations – that they then encounter do not depress them, because everything that happens, however bad, is evidence that they are exactly where they want to be and where they should be.
In the early pages of Think Tank, subtitled “The Story of the Adam Smith Institute”, we are told exactly such a story, of a group of young pro-free-market guns knowing where they need to be, and doing whatever they have to do to get to that exact place, namely within ten minutes walk of the House of Commons, in the centre of London. They juggle finances, scrounge furniture off aunts in faraway places, put money down on a London office lease well before they know how they are going to meet the payments, buy and sell cottages in Scotland, earn extra money by teaching, and generally bet their farms on their new farm being just what they want. (By the way if you want a shorter review of this book than this posting is, try the three short reviews at the other end of the above link. All three are very positive, but also very informative.)
To help me think about this posting, I asked a respected friend what he thought of the Adam Smith Institute. I expected some sort of rumination on what they had achieved and what they might yet achieve, on what they have got right and what wrong. Instead my friend simply said that he liked Madsen Pirie. This is a significant fact about the ASI, I think. Simply, they are nice people, fun and interesting to be with. Following Madsen Pirie’s lead, they exude a gleeful camaraderie that my friend and I, and surely many others of a like mind, find very appealing. Madsen Pirie’s Think Tank radiates a similarly good humoured and companionable atmosphere. When reading it, I kept hearing that Madsen Pirie voice, with its big grin and its self-mockingly over-precise diction.
Cards on the table. I liked and admired this book a lot, just as I have long liked and admired its author. I was given a free copy of it by its author, who had very good reason to hope that I would say nice things about it, and I will. I recommend this book as an entertaining and informative way to acquaint yourself with the Adam Smith Institute and with those who founded and still lead it.
→ Continue reading: What the Adam Smith Institute did
Incoming from Alex Singleton:
I know you’ve described Noam Chomsky as “a monster” before now, so I thought you might be interested in a review that I have written of his book Manufacturing Consent.
Singleton’s review is entitled “Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Herman isn’t just wrong: it is ludicrous”. Chomsky argues that multinational corporations have it all their own way in the mainstream media. Singleton argues otherwise:
As Herb Schmertz, former VP at Mobil Oil, put it in a 1986 book: “[Many people are] under the false impression that the wealthier the organization, the more seriously its views are taken. I wish that were true! If anyone still believes that old canard, I invite them to spend a month working for a major oil company during the next fuel shortage.”
Having worked in the media himself, Alex Singleton now earns his living advising organisations, big and small, about how to handle the media. So, if you run a wealthy organisation, and you are facing some sort of crisis and consequently are liable to get a media beating, why not give Singleton a call? Maybe he could manufacture some consent for you.
Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.
So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.
There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.
The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.
Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …
- and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is -
Well said. → Continue reading: I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature
Ben Pile at Climate Resistance notes Steven Pinker’s latest book:
In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
Sounds good, and all very plausible. But how to explain it?
Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
I am not sure about that government bit. Perhaps “rule of law” might be more accurate. Perhaps the Amazon reviews can shed some light. Says one reviewer:
Pinker challenges the two prevailing views of human nature – Rousseau’s view that the noble savage has been corrupted by civilization, and Hobbes’s idea that human greed and violence can only be curbed by strong government. The first view is common on the left of the political spectrum, the second among conservatives. The reviewers who think poorly of the book may have been upset by the fact that Pinker rejects both positions. Instead he shows, with a mass of evidence and interpretation, that violence has declined through history. We seem likely to have started with the high levels of inter-group killing found in our chimpanzee cousins, eventually to be tamed by the slow development of effective government, peaceful trading and eventually Enlightenment thinking.
Words like `democracy’, `government’ or `gentle commerce’ are not seriously analyzed. Consequentially, his view of history is a very mechanical one: we were extremely violent in the past and thanks to the Leviathan and `gentle commerce’ we have become better persons. We either accept the political and economical assets of our era or we risk going back to violence and chaos.
My sense is that Pinker’s evidence for decreasing violence over time will be very interesting to see, but his explanations for why this is so will be less interesting. I think the answer is that technology makes us less violent, by making our lives overall so much more comfortable that violence seems even more out of the ordinary, and so to be avoided, than it otherwise would.
“I am not one of those who have ever flattered the people, or striven to win favour by telling them that from the Crown or from Parliament that could be got which could not be got from themselves, by themselves. I would impress upon you this. What the State gives to you, the State takes from you first; it further charges you with the cost of collection, and with the cost of distribution. Better by far that you should save for yourselves and spend for yourselves, than put into the purse of the State your earnings of which only part can at best come back.”
- Charles Bradlaugh, 19th Century British parliamentarian and campaigner on issues such as rights of non-believers, contraception, the case against the monarchy, and as this quotation shows, an opponent of socialism. The quote is taken from a review of a book about Bradlaugh by Bryan Niblett, who is known to some of us at Samizdata. Bryan is an Objectivist (as in an admirer of the philosophy of Ayn Rand) and has worked for many years as a private arbitrator concerning areas such as intellectual property. A very good and smart man all round, in fact.
I have already quoted from and commented on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 a couple of times here. Now I’ve read it. Unless I’m being paid to read a book, I only read it to the end if I’m enjoying it, so point one to make about this book is that I wasn’t paid to read it. Samizdata writers and readers are not brought together by a shared fascination for classical music and the world in which it was created and had its first impact, so I don’t know if you would also enjoy reading this book. But I can say a bit about why I did.
I know Beethoven’s music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular, quite well, possessing as I do a large classical CD collection containing lots of Beethoven and more than a few recordings of the Ninth. A painlessly entertaining way to learn more about classical music in general, and Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony in particular, is, for me, always welcome. This book was painless partly because it is all written in a language I can easily follow, English. Many books about classical music use lots of musical notation. I can just about decipher such symbols, but seldom with the fluency that is necessary immediately to get the points an author is trying to make with them. Sachs could easily have peppered his text with such hieroglyphics, having himself been a conductor before he became a writer. He did not. He relied on words. He also avoids using Italian words, saying very loud rather than fortissimo, and so on.
This book is also painless in being quite short. 225 pages, including all the extras. I’m a slow reader, so that, for me, was another plus. → Continue reading: Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after