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
I like those elongated cakes with raisins in them referred to on the package as “finger madeleines with raisins”. A few days ago I purchased another stash of them, from the Afghan-run corner shop nearest to me.
They looked like this:
Sorry about the strange blue reflections of something blue in the transparent but shiny packaging, but it is important that you realise that this is a photo of these finger madeleines before I opened them.
Same sized package. Same price. But, six empty spaces where there used to be six finger madeleines. Twenty four finger madeleines instead of thirty finger madeleines.
We are seeing quite a lot of this in the UK just now. Soon the packages and/or the prices will change, but meanwhile, the quickest way to adapt in the short run is just to reduce the amount in the package.
Brexit is not proving to be an economic catastrophe, and I remain very optimistic about it in the longer run, that being why I voted for it. But it is proving something of a dislocation in the short run, if only because the sort of people whose job it was to foresee it mostly did not foresee it. I don’t blame them for this. I did not foresee Brexit either. I merely voted for it.
With blogging (as with life in general), there is often a tug-of-war between doing it soon, and doing it right. This posting is strictly a case of me doing it soon. And what I am doing soon is saying: watch this. It’s psychology academic Jordan Peterson, denouncing (the word “bloody” occurs quite a lot) the legal imposition upon Canada of identity politics (excused by, among others, some of his fellow academic psychologists), and all the chaos that this misuse of law is going to and is starting to cause.
The video goes on for the best part of two hours, and I have so far only watched twenty minutes of it. Like I say, doing it soon. But I already know that this is the kind of thing, and the kind of man, that many Samizdata-readers will want to see, and at the very least to learn about, perhaps by other and quicker means. The phrase “individual freedom” gets quite a few mentions, along with “bloody”, bloody being the word Peterson uses to describe the ideas which and the people who threaten individual freedom.
See also today’s QOTD here, which points towards the same intellectual territory and the same battles. Before posting this, I checked in the comments there, to see if anybody had made any mention of the above video, or of Jordan Peterson. Had they done so, I’d have had to write this differently. So far: not. I could have appended this link to that comment thread, but I reckon it deserves a bit more prominence.
David Thompson has more to say about this, as does his commentariat. My thanks to him, because this was how I found out about this video, and about this man.
The basic foolishness of flying cars is the idea that it makes sense to fly around with a huge car engine for turning the wheels of a car, as well as with the engine and the wings that do the flying, all in one gigantic and gigantically impractical conglomeration. Car engines are one thing, flying machines are another. You either have two entire engines, one to do each job properly. Or you somehow contrive for one engine to do both jobs, sort of how the Harrier Jump Jet gets the same engines to do both its jumping and its jetting. That works, after a very fuel inefficient fashion, for Harrier jump jets, because jumping and jetting are sufficiently similar for one engine to be able to do both jobs. But car engines and flying engines are very different.
But now here comes this Airbus idea, where, instead of flying the entire car, you fly just the box that the people sit in. When being flown, the box is carried by a flying machine. When being driven, the box is carried by a driving machine. Note that once our container is plucked away from its road-driving engine, that road-driving engine can still then drive itself intelligently, to a park, for instance. Or, it could make itself useful by carrying other human containers. Robots, unlike engines, can be very light, so having several in one contrivance, cooperating as needed, is entirely possible.
I always believed that only when robots fly the cars will flying cars become a real possibility, because only robots can fly well enough and with enough collective discipline. This, it seems to me, is how the robots will do it. This is what they will fly.
Flying cars and robot cars, in other words, are all about human shipping containers.
Once you talk about containers rather than entire machines, you realise that these containers could perhaps also, in addition to being individually flown, be bulk flown in bulk carriers, over vast distances, for a fraction of the cost of driving, and if desired, a fraction of the time. All the nonsense of packing and unpacking, of clambering onto and extricating yourself from an airplane could then be dispensed with, as would all the ridiculousness of airports. All that can be handled by the robots, at their leisure. Also, at your destination, you’d be able to go on living in your own container. Multistory car parks would mutate into cheap hotels.
What all this illustrates, I think, is how very radically the robotising of transport, and of life generally, is going to change transport, and life generally. I don’t say that we will for certain see exactly the sort of human transport system that these Airbus envisagers envisage. Nothing is certain, when it comes to exactly how our new robot overlords will choose to go about their business. But this is the kind of change that the robots will surely bring. You can envisage, for instance, a world where we each own one or two human containers, while merely hiring whichever engines we need at any particular journey.
Might the same or a similar container shape then find itself being used for transporting other things besides humans? The possibilities are endless.
Or, maybe … not. The above ruminations are only that, ruminations. Please sprinkle words like “it seems to me” (there actually was one of those) and “surely” and “presumably” and “maybe” and “my guess would be”, for what you have just read is only me guessing, and what do I know? I am looking forward to the comments on this, because this is the kind of thing our often very tech-savvy commentariat is really good at commenting on.
If you haven’t already partaken of this bit of video, then you really should. It lasts just under twenty minutes.
Tim Harford is speaking, in 2011, at some gathering of the clever and the smug, but it’s better than that. The name H. R. McMaster comes up several times, and this is, among other things, a very good quick way to learn why McMaster’s appointment by President Trump as his National Security Adviser might turn out to be such a very good one. It certainly explains why this appointment is already so very popular. You don’t have to believe that the USA rearranging matters in faraway countries is always or even ever a wise policy to get the points that Harford is making.
Harford also mentions, in passing, Hayek. From this, you may guess that this is a talk about decentralised decision making, and how on the spot knowledge, again and again, trumps the wisdom of the Central Committee or the High Command. If that is your guess, you would not be wrong.
The story that Harford tells reminds me of another transformation of policy that happened in China, and gave rise to what is now called the Chinese economic miracle. This miracle is now starting to look rather less miraculous, but it was still a massive improvement over what preceded it. That change too is usually attributed to a change of top leadership and of its top-down policies, but that policy also, I seem to recall reading, began at the bottom of the chain of command and in spite of the chain of command.
I even seem to recall having linked to stuff about that from here. Yes, here is that posting, about teeth of all things, and here is the article at Planet Money that the posting linked to. It’s the same story as Harford tells in the above-linked-to video.
In a recent posting here, which I called How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party, and which I might have called (as I said in it (but never mind, I can use that title for this)) “Brexit has unified the Conservative Party and divided Labour”, I explained how Brexit had unified the Conservatives and had divided Labour.
Last night there was a vote in the House of Commons about whether Britain should proceed with what its voters had voted for.
Total number of Conservative MPs who voted against the bill, despite Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May commanding them to vote for it: 1.
Total number of Labour MPs who voted against the bill, despite Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn commanding them to vote for it: 47.
See what I mean.
The irony being that the demand that the House of Commons have its own vote on the matter has only served to highlight this Conservative Leave-inspired unanimity and Labour Remain-inspired division.
For how long will EUrope divide the political left in Britain? From where I sit, the longer the better.
Ever since digital photography became something I could afford, I have been wandering around London, digitally photographing it. I show a few of these photos here from time to time, and more frequently at my personal blog.
I have learned, as many photographers do, that the ephemeral is more likely to be significant than the fixed. Yet another picture of Big Ben to add to the billions of such pictures already taken is of zero interest. But something like this, on the other hand, becomes, I think, more interesting as time goes by:
That photo was taken in December 2003. Tony Blair, the man in the posters, was Prime Minister and still riding quite high, and Britain seemed doomed to EU-ness for ever.
The words on these posters help to confirm, for me, what a very wise decision we Brits made, narrowly yet decisively, to get out of this fatuous and delusional enterprise.
I say delusional, because the defining quality of the EU, for me, was the way that it encouraged all manner of people to say and to think things that were nonsensical.
BLAIR! GIVE US A VOTE ON EUROPE’S FUTURE
BLAIR! GIVE US A VOTE ON EUROPE’S FUTURE
Where to start? The “us” doing the voting would be British voters, and yet these British voters would be deciding – deciding “on” – the future of the whole of EUrope. Which these voters plainly could not determine. All that this British decision “on” EUrope could ever amount to would be either a mere protest vote (or more likely: a vote in the EU’s favour) in our Parliament, or else an official and very expensive public opinion poll.
Yet such was the pervasive unreality of all thoughts concerning the EU, and Britain’s membership of it, that this poster was considered worth printing and worth sticking up.
You may be saying to yourself that this is only some permanently delusional left-wing splinter group, consisting of a combination of dysfunctional permanent students of nothing, and trainee MI5 agents, and you would almost certainly be right. Yet numerous votes and numerous referenda of exactly this delusional sort did actually happen in the EU, and continue to happen. Most recently, I believe, there was just such a vote in Italy, although I could be wrong about that and I don’t care if I am because it really did not and does not matter. Time and again, individual EUro-nations choose or are invited, in one way or another, to pass their mere judgement on this or that aspect of the EU as a whole, and there then follows: nothing.
I think it was the sheer bloody confusion that I most hated about the EU, caused by the fact that the EU is in no way a real community, merely a gaggle of communities brought together and ruled by another community. No “decision” was ever what it seemed. Even those decisions that we Brits often thought we were making entirely for ourselves had at least two faces to them, the public face, which concerned what seemed to be the actual decision, and the less obvious face, which concerned whether and how this decision assisted the EU in becoming more EU-ish. In the end, no amount of voice was worth a damn. Only the threat, and in due course the reality, of exit counted.
Thank goodness that this ghastly episode is, for Britain, now coming to its end. Thank goodness we recently had a big old vote, a vote that actually decided something that we Brits were able to decide for ourselves, following something resembling a single mega-argument in which all who wished to could participate, and could hear all the micro-arguments, for or against, that they wanted to hear. And thank goodness we decided to get shot of this great big confusion machine. No matter how much of a mess us leaving the EU turns out to be, this process cannot in my eyes rival the relentless mess that remaining in the EU would have condemned us to. It’s the difference between a mess that will eventually end, and a mess that would have gone on until the entire EU itself finally fell to pieces.
For the rest of the EU, the delusions and confusions persist.
Instapundit just linked to something calling itself An open letter to Trump from the Press Corps. I clicked on the link, because I thought it might be a masterpiece of self-parody. It is.
No comments allowed on the open letter itself, but I clicked on the Instapundit comment thread, suspecting that there might be some entertaining and quite well crafted abuse to enjoy. Again, I was not disappointed.
An odd thing about this open letter is that it seems so lacking in the very knowledge which you might expect the “Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review” to know quite a lot about, namely how the technological context of journalism has altered in recent years. He says to Trump: You need us to say nice things about you! You need us to get your messages across! But everything that Trump has said and done since he first got into his stride as a seemingly long-shot candidate has said, right back at them: “No, I don’t.”
It will be interesting to see if Trump’s current anti-social media heckling of his Obama-worshipping media opponents keeps happening. I suspect that he’ll start being more polite to them, but only if and when they start being more polite to him. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part.
More generally, one of the things I notice about effective people, including me at those times in my life when I have been effective, is that effective people often do things that they “can’t” do, but which actually, they can do, and which if they do do will serve their purposes very well. “You can’t do that” actually only means that until now you couldn’t do that. And it often also means: Now that you can do that and now that you are doing it, we want you to stop.
Until recently, no President of the USA could tweet back at his media critics, very quickly and cheaply and easily, without in any way having to beg from them any right to reply to their criticisms, and without irritating anyone else who isn’t interested. Now, the President can. The claim that he shouldn’t, because “proper Presidents don’t behave like that” needs him to be persuaded of this claim. But if ignoring this claim is a major reason for his effectiveness, why would he be persuaded?
If all the approved policies fail, but a disapproved policy looks like it might work, then the disapproved policy is what might very well end up being done. Discuss.
While you’re discussing that, allow me to throw in this titbit of news, from the Czech Republic, which I encountered in the Washington Post:
Now the country’s interior ministry is pushing a constitutional change that would let citizens use guns against terrorists. Proponents say this could save lives if an attack occurs and police are delayed or unable to make their way to the scene. To become law, Parliament must approve the proposal; they’ll vote in the coming months.
From the bit linked to in that paragraph, this:
… it is not always possible for the police to guarantee a fast and effective intervention and fast action from a member of the public could prevent the loss of many lives.
Spotting Muslim terrorists is hard because so many Muslims behave like about-to-be-terrorists that it’s hard to know which ones to pick on and stop. And when one of them does strike, it could be anywhere, and the government can’t be everywhere. Only people can.
One of the bigger long term impacts of Muslim immigration into Europe could prove to be an armed European citizenry. Discuss some more.
Yesterday, at my personal blog, I expressed extreme gratitude to Christian Michel for letting me talk last Friday, at his home, on a subject which, when I first floated it to him, must have seemed very vague and vacuous, although judging by what he said about my talk afterwards, he was almost as pleased by it as I was.
Tonight, I will be attending another meeting organised by Christian Michel, partly out of gratitude for last Friday’s meeting. There is a London tube strike happening today, and I am pretty sure that Christian is now feeling a bit nervous about attendance, so I will make a point of being there.
The title of tonight’s talk is “The Collision of Fintech and Traditional Banking”. The speaker will be Sasha Karim. (I’m guessing that this is the Sasha Karim mentioned here.)
I am hoping that what Sasha Karim will say is, among other things, that, by radically lowering transaction costs and thereby making the life of a “financier” (formerly only available to ultra-clever (but not necessarily ultra-wise) people who had access to or who were attached by ultra-rich (but again, not always ultra-wise) employers to expensive machines in expensive buildings) “fintech”, aka the new world of financial transactions on mobile phones, now available to all people who are above dirt poor, is creating a world in which the old dream dreamed by the likes of Friedrich Hayek of denationalised money, can become a reality and rescue us all from the great catastrophe that has been governmentalised fiat paper currencies, of the sort denounced by another friend of mine, Detlev Schlichter. We shall see. But maybe I am being too optimistic, both about the talk and about the world. Concerning the talk, I will report further.
Hayek’s crucial little book on denationalised money has long been available on the www as a free .pdf download, but I only just found out that Detlev Schlichter’s book is now available as a free-to-download .pdf file also. Blog and learn.
As I work away at a talk I am to give tomorrow evening at Christian Michel’s, I am also, of course, wandering about in the www. And during the latest wandering I was provoked into thinking about another talk, one that I will be hosting rather than giving, on the last Friday of February. Marc Sidwell will, that evening, be speaking about: “Twilight of the Wonks? Promoting freedom in a post-expert world”.
This rather witty cartoon, which I came across here, is very pertinent to Marc Sidwell’s talk, I think:
This cartoon is now to be seen all over the www, partly because, I surmise, both sides of the argument that it alludes to are drawing attention to it. The Clintonians are pointing at it and saying: there, look at those silly Trumpsters, all voting to crash and burn America. And the Trumpsters are pointing at it, and saying: look at those smug liberals assuming that they are better at flying the airplane of government, in the way that a pilot obviously is better than his mere passengers at flying an actual airplane. They just don’t get it, blah blah.
The point being: there is being an expert, where you actually do know essential stuff. And then there is being an “expert”, where what you say you know or think you know ain’t necessarily so.
Personally I favoured and favour Trump, partly because I put Hillary Clinton into the latter category, of being an “expert” with sneer quotes rather than without them. She has a long career of crashing whatever metaphorical airplanes she flies, her email fiasco being only one of the more recent of such crashes. Crashing rather than flying is what she is “expert” at. And her speeches over the airplane intercom only convince those already convinced. Many feel the exact same way about Trump, but my impression, reinforced both by his campaign and by how he has conducted himself since his campaign ended in victory, is that when it comes to being less un-expert, Trump wins compared to Clinton. We shall see.
I also prefer, with all the usual libertarian reservations, the ideological agenda that Trump, almost despite himself, is now dragging into greater prominence. The agenda (see this gigantic crash) that Clinton would have kept in great prominence is one I that detest.
I will now send the link to this posting to Marc Sidwell. If you would like to learn more about attending the meetings I host every month, and/or those that Christian Michel hosts, email me by clicking on where it says “Contact”, top left, here.
LATER: See also what Instapundit says.
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.