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]

50 Things on the radio

Recently a friend who works for the BBC asked if I knew of any good general interest but topical stories coming up any time soon, and I said that when they finally finish London Gateway, the new container port now being constructed and even already slightly used, on the north bank of the Thames Estuary, that will be made a big fuss of.

She then told me about a series that the BBC World Service is doing about 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. I said that the Container certainly should be one of these Things. She later determined that the Shipping Container does indeed feature in this series, and she sent me that link. Amazing what a difference an email with a link makes to your willingness to attend to something.

This piece about the Shipping Container lasted under ten minutes, and, although I had heard most of the story before, I liked it. So I then sampled a couple of the other Things, about which I knew less and nothing, namely: the Barcode, and the Haber-Bosch Process. The latter is for turning the nitrogen in the air into fertiliser.

The next Thing I listen to will be Concrete. I already know what concrete is, but I expect to learn a lot more, about it, and about what it did to and does for the world. Made life a lot easier for farmers, apparently. Which, to a townee like me, is one of those many things which is obvious, but only if someone makes me think about it.

Recommended. An economist and economic historian by the name of Tim Harford has done a number of these Thing broadcasts, including the ones about the Container and about the Barcode. He is already very well known, but not so well known to me. But, I can already tell you that he also is to be recommended, going only by how he talks about these Things.

LATER: See also this earlier posting here, about similar Things.

16 comments to 50 Things on the radio

  • Shlomo Maistre

    Idk how to explain it but almost nobody gets across his tone and manner of speaking through the written word quite like Brian does. Seriously impressive. Adds a unique flavor to his prose too, which is enjoyable.

  • Darin

    Haber process is keeping all of us alive, but wait when Paul Marks comes and explains how Professor Fritz Haber made WWI possible.

    Mr. Marks forgot 10 times more about WWI that I ever learned, his articles and comments alone make this blog worthwhile for me 🙂

  • Shlomo Maistre

    I just realized that if only Samizdatistas and their ~20 most regular commenters (commentators?) voted in a country then the result would be superior to monarchy.

    Well, maybe. 🙂

  • Mr Ed

    Mr Harford is a journalist who I understand to work for the Financial Times. He does a statistical ‘myth-busting’ programme on the BBC’s Radio 4. I always seem to hear a Leftie sneer when he is on, perhaps I need to check my tuning.

  • Matthew McConnagay

    Why’s concrete good for farmers?

  • mike

    Among other things, different types of concrete are used in the construction of dams, spillways, sluiceways, retaining walls, levees, irrigation canals and other stuff used for water conservation and distribution. In hot and humid climates roller compacted concrete is sometimes used as it has better resistance to deformation under high temperatures and heavy loads.

  • Why’s concrete good for farmers?

    At a guess: yards, barn floors, drainage channels. Getting out a sea of mud is always good on a farm.

  • CaptDMO

    Concrete? Good for farmers?
    Hoover Dam comes to mind.
    Dairy Farm milking parlor floors too.
    Makes for better vaults/bunkers to defend the profits of opium and cannabis farming.

  • A lot of cannabis farming in the UK is done in high-rise flats, made of concrete 😉

  • “Amazing what a difference an email with a link makes to your willingness to attend to something.”

    Did John Podesta think the same? 🙂

    Part of the value of containers is that machinery for moving consistently-sized, lego-brick-shaped objects stably (e.g. at height, in high winds, etc.) is much easier to build than in the case of general shapes. Even as I type, new products, exploiting the gyroscopic principle, are being developed to change this. Containers may be about to pass their peak (though they will be with us for many decades yet).

  • Sean

    The cement industry is one of the primary producers of carbon dioxide – a major plant food!

  • Paul Marks

    The container is indeed a very useful thing – as is the container port (such as Felixstowe).

    The Labour government “Dock Labour Scheme” listed specific ports for its mad regulations – thus destroying them. But, fortunately, little villages grew into great container ports.

    Of course – to find where the power lies one goes to where the full containers are coming from (not the place that sends back empty containers)

    A population that relies on borrowing money to pay for imported goods is bleeped.

    The H-B process.

    Yes – it led to terrible disaster in the short term, it allowed the Germans to last four years in the First World War. The same man went on to develop poison gas for the Germans – at least if memory serves.

    Sill the long term consequences of the H-B process were good.


    Roman concrete has lasted for thousands of years – no steel rods to rust.

    The Romans were “fortunate” to have a hundred mines in the city of Rome alone producing both the stone that hardens when exposed to air (ideal building stone) and the volcanic dust (basically the same family of stuff) that the Romans used for their various grades of concrete (the higher up the lighter – the lower down the more heavy), which could even set underwater.

    “Fortunate” BBC? Dear me no.

    The stone and the volcanic dust is why people came to the site of Rome.

    Those mines are old – VERY old. As are the great drainage systems.

    Short, broad men with an obsession with practical engineering?

    I think I know what the Romans started off as – they were miners. The slaves came later – first it was the Romans themselves who did the mining (although they did not like to be reminded of that – later generations regarding manual work as literally “servile”).

  • Paul Marks

    No Mr Ed you do not need to check the tuning – the leftist sneer is present (not all BBC programmes have it – but this one does). As one can tell from the “myths” he chooses to “bust”. Even with my “O” level maths I can tell he is playing games of his own.

    Of course just working for the F.T. is NOT enough for a conviction – but it is a enough for there to be a case-to-answer. It raises an obvious doubt as to moral character. Although, doubtless, there are a few decent people there.

  • Paul Marks

    In case someone does not know why the H-B process was vital to the Germans in the First World War – otherwise they would have to import fertiliser and the Royal Navy would not have allowed them to do that. Thus it horribly prolonged the war.

  • @Shlomo Maistre

    I just realized that if only Samizdatistas and their ~20 most regular commenters (commentators?) voted in a country then the result would be superior to monarchy.

    You probably don’t want to do that. Whilst I might enjoy the anarchy that such rule would bring, it would cause the conniptions within the welfare underclass when they found out that they couldn’t sit around the house all day watching telly and get paid for it.