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

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

Samizdata quote of the day

So few people have any understanding of the importance liquidity plays in markets (which is why ‘speculator’ is a dirty word to the ill-educated twats who don’t grasp the essential role speculators play).

– Perry de Havilland

Samizdata quote of the day

“But if this really is the moral equivalent of war then history teaches us that wars can be won on the battlefield but lost on the home front, and just as nations have been defeated because they ran out of food or a revolution broke out, so the Government’s strategy could collapse because the millions of civilians stuck indoors lose patience.”

Tim Stanley

What’s the UK equivalent of ‘NeverTrumper’?

Did you know that Boris doesn’t know who won the battle of Stalingrad? If you did not know this, please continue not to know it, because it is not in fact true. Should you encounter a reader of The Economist, however (one of life’s occasional joys of which I am now deprived by the lockdown), you may be told that Boris’ biography of Sir Winston Churchill reveals this and other remarkable lacunae in our current PM’s historical knowledge – told in a tone of great certainty and with the firmest assurance that any milder speculations you offer (for what Boris might have said to appear to mean such things) are not possible, so established are the facts.

I have never once in my entire life given money to The Economist in exchange for the doubtful privilege of reading it (and see very much less than no reason whatever to begin now), so I encounter copies but rarely in airplane lounges and on other people’s coffee tables. I therefore cannot tell you whether Economist readers believe this because an Economist writer once told them that or implied it, or merely because reading The Economist renders one credulous of such urban legends (insofar as the habit of reading The Economist does not reveal that one already is).

So astonished was I to be assured of this claim (by the undoubtedly educated and well-read) as a matter both unsurprising and beyond all doubt, that I have now once in my entire life given money to Boris (not to some cause he also espouses) in exchange for a copy of his Churchill biography – something I deduce Economist-readers are more loath to do even than I am to buy their rag. It struck me as a more primary source for verification than tracking down whatever years-old copy of The Economist had reviewed it or made a passing reference to it, or tracing the origin of its readers’ urban legends about it.

I was not surprised to learn that Boris knows what the gardener, the hairdresser and even the teenager all know – that Stalingrad did not end well for Adolf. I was not surprised to find I was correct in my pre-purchase guess that some throwaway one-liner about how far Adolf got despite Churchill (to suggest how dangerously further he might have got without Churchill) would be the sole basis for the bizarre claim that Boris didn’t. But after reading right through the book I am very surprised to discover just how vicious and/or deranged a reviewer would have to be to pretend and/or imagine that the text even remotely suggests such a thing (and likewise for the other claims).

That, however, is secondary. In her study of anti-semitism, Hannah Arendt explains that establishing the history of how ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ was forged is secondary. The historian’s primary subject is that the forgery is being believed. That someone – maybe originally some writer for The Economist but maybe, for all I know, originally just some reader of it holding forth to other readers in an upscale SW1 pub – claimed that Boris did not know a historical fact so famous that even an update of ‘1066 and all that’ might call it ‘memorable’, is secondary. The greater strangeness is that this claim is being believed – not by Jeremy two-Es Corbyn and his Momentum followers but by at least a few highly educated people who, in the late 1980s, were voting for Thatcher’s and Reagan’s economic policies even as they virtue-signalled disdain for their populism. What goes on in otherwise-intelligent minds to let a person move from that to this? How can their sense of reality be so deficient that they can be told Boris does not even know who won Stalingrad and still hear no alarm bell, no, “Maybe I should just check whether even Boris could really not know even that”?

The Economist was founded in 1843, not so long before Mill explained that democracy works best when:

“the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they have always done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.” (‘On Liberty’, John Stewart Mill, 1859)

By this definition, The Economist has always been just what it claims to be: ultra-liberal. It is said that a senior editor once gave a junior colleague terse advice on how to write his first Economist leader article:

“Pretend you are God.”

The Economist has sometimes changed its mind in fact – it was rather late to abandon its Keynsianism for monetarism in the 1980s but it did. What never changes is the unapologetic arrogant smugness of a pretence that one suspects senior editors do not always recall is pretence. The Economist’s latest editor, a woman named Beddoes, is a Keynsian who thought Obama was wonderful. She belongs irredeemably to those whom Dominic Cummings described as:

aways writing about how ‘shocking’ things are to them – things that never were as low probability events as they imagined

Brexit winning, Trump as president, Boris as PM – how shocking that the omniscience of pretend-God be challenged by such unforeseen events. Late last year, I was aware from my acquaintance how much Economist-readers loved Fintan O’Toole’s ‘explanation’ that Brexit arose from the idiocy of backward-looking British voters (Fintan O’Toole: ‘Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain’, published November 2019). Fintan laughed when Brexit-supporting reviewers warned him to worry instead about a real ugliness in his own Southern Irish electorate – until he was again shocked by an Éire election result that was (regrettably but foreseeably) never such a low-probability event as he and EU-negotiation-supporting taoiseach Varadkar imagined. (Corbyn’s success in 2017 is one on-balance-hopeful analogy to draw; there are others.)

It is said of communists that they think their party is God – a God sadly lacking the attributes of forgiveness and absolution. People who have the sense to know communism is stupid can still be very wilfully deluded about how much they themselves understand and how unshocking it should be to be proved not merely wrong but clueless.

So what is the UK equivalent of ‘NeverTrumper’? We all know what ‘Guardian-reader’ means. Is it time to be aware what ‘Economist-reader’ can mean?

Samizdata quote of the day

“There must logically be a point at which the cost of the containment measures, in terms of human welfare and even of fatalities, outweighs the cost of the virus.”

Daniel Hannan.

Samizdata quote of the day

“President Trump can’t do right by some critics no matter what he does. For three years he’s been denounced as a reckless authoritarian, and now he’s attacked for not being authoritarian enough by refusing to commandeer American industry. The truth is that private industry is responding to the coronavirus without command and control by the federal government.”

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. Unfortunately, no-one is likely to find a cure for Trump Derangement Syndrome this side of the heat death of the universe.

I have taken the liberty of adding this excellent comment by Ross Clark, in the Daily Telegraph today. He seems to be one of the saner voices out there:

The year 2020 has already brought many firsts: never before has the British population been confined to home, nor has a UK government previously offered to pay the wages of private sector staff. But here is another: it is the first time that Donald Trump has stood out as a rare voice of reason amid a cacophony of panic.

At any other time, and coming from anyone else’s mouth, the statement “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” would hardly raise an eyebrow. It is surely a principle which ought to be baked into all government policy. But, no, it aroused instant condemnation from the President’s critics.

As for his hope that he could get the economy roaring again by Easter, it led to an eruption from senators who appear to be enjoying the global emergency, are who have no doubt sensed that coronavirus could be the black swan event that succeeds where impeachment failed.

Sure enough, Trump has not bathed himself in glory over coronavirus, foolishly calling it a ‘hoax’ at one point. But he is right to recognise that there is a balance to be struck between fighting the disease and maintaining a functioning economy. So far, much of the developed world has embarked on a course which pursues the former to the total exclusion of the latter.

Last week, our own government published a dossier of the modelling which has informed its policy on coronavirus. There was plenty of epidemiological evidence in there, yet not a single paper modelling the economic effects of a lockdown. It is merely assumed that what will almost certainly be a steeper decline in economic output than either the 2008/09 crisis or the Great Depression can be put right by oodles of public money, much of it printed by central banks.

I am sceptical: what is this crisis going to do to the entrepreneurial spirit of millions who invested time and their life savings to set up businesses only to find them forcibly closed by the government? It is going to take a long time to recover that.

The most foolish remark you hear made in these situations is “lives are too important for money”. As Trump quite rightly points out, unemployment will itself cost lives. So, too, will social isolation. There are 7.7 million Britons who live alone, many of them elderly. There will be a serious cost to life now that enforced confinement will reduce them to the point of invisibility.

In any other situation, the Left would be jumping up every five minutes to claim that poverty costs lives. How often have we heard this fanciful figure that Tory ‘austerity’ has cost 130,000 lives over the past decade? That is nothing compared with the toll we face from mass unemployment.

Philip Thomas, Professor of Risk Management at Bristol University, calculates – in a study which has yet to be peer-reviewed – that if a lockdown causes the economy to shrink by more than 6.4 percent then the recession will have cost more lives than coronavirus itself. I would say a 6.4 percent shrinkage in GDP is on the seriously optimistic side.

We don’t normally seem to have a problem balancing the needs of medicine with those of the economy. We could save lives by going into lockdown every winter – the US Centers for Disease Control estimates that seasonal flu kills between 300,000 and 650,000 people annually.

But we don’t because we know the economic havoc would be even worse. Covid-19 is a serious disease, and one to which we began this year with no resistance. But its most damaging effect has been to destroy our ability to make a trade-off between medicine and the economy.

A little thing you can do to help businesses struggling due to the quarantine

You could pay now for a session with a business such as a hairdresser, gym or restaurant that has been forced to shut during the quarantine, the voucher to be redeemed whenever the establishment re-opens. The appointment could be for your own use, or as a gift for someone else. It might be a way that someone who has been in isolation can thank whoever did their shopping, while helping the proprietors of the business get some cash coming in when they need it most.

Samizdata quote of the day

There are no limits to our commitment to the euro.

Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank. The linked Guardian article in which I found the quote is titled “ECB U-turn shows it fears coronavirus could destroy eurozone project”.

Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

Beneath and beyond all the fretting we’re all now doing about The Virus, the onward march of technology continues.

I get emails from Google about advances in 3D printing, and each email contains lots of links, far more links than in any other Google emails I get on other subjects.

Links like this one, to a report about some newly contrived magnets:

Note the bit at the bottom on the right, where you learn the size of these things. They are very small.

Why are miniature magnets like this so important? And why do they have to be 3D printed? That’s what ignorami like me want to know. The anonymous writer of the report accordingly begins it thus:

Magnetic materials are an important component of mechatronic devices such as wind power stations, electric motors, sensors and magnetic switch systems. Magnets are usually produced using rare earths and conventional manufacturing methods. …

A bit later he says:

Permanent magnets are incorporated into a number of mechatronic applications. Traditional manufacturing methods such as sintering or injection moulding are not always able to cope with increasing miniaturisation and the resulting geometric requirements for magnets, and this is a trend which is sent to continue in the future. Additive manufacturing processes offer the necessary freedom of design. …

I had to look up sintering. Blog and learn.

→ Continue reading: Thoughts provoked by some 3D printed miniature magnets

Random thoughts about our predicament

With the virus encouraging more people and businesses to develop online, remote working models, it is going to put a premium on things like high-speed, reliable internet, video, two-way video, etc. And paradoxically, that means digital viruses are even more a threat (and often come from the same places as the biological ones, such as China). So I expect that spending on cyber-security, as well as developing more resilient business models (diversified supply chains, closer-to-home manufacturing of essentials such as medicines), and leaner, more scalable medical services, will increase. That should happen as a free market response, rather than because the State wills it.

This virus will be used to bash free trade, encourage protectionism, and so on. But the verities about the division of labour and comparative advantage remain. Complete self-sufficiency cannot be squared with a high standard of living; autarky means a cramped, sclerotic world. There is a reason that the 1970s sitcom, The Good Life, was indeed a comedy because it took the piss out of the idea of freeing oneself of a complex division of labour. It brings enormous costs.

Protectionism, like its twin, anti-trust, are often the playthings of sore losers in business, and hit the consumer or smaller-scale entrepreneur. We should not lose sight of the enormous gains made since the end of the Berlin Wall and wider expansion of trade.

The current disruption should encourage a more clear-eyed understanding of the risks of doing business with dictatorships and closed societies such as China, and a need to find alternatives where possible. Wholesale theft of intellectual property can no longer be tolerated as easily as in the past. How to deal with that remains a difficult question.

On the need to avoid undue risk, it is worth pondering the following: According to the US broadcaster Tucker Carlson, 95 per cent of generic drugs used in the US are imported from China, although I am not sure what he uses as a data source for this. Most good investors understand the need for good portfolio diversification, so the same surely will apply to supply chains after this virus episode.

The developments might also encourage, or they should, a more self-reliance culture (people should learn first aid, store more non-perishable foods at home and other necessities), and in countries where people have not become too sheeplike, encourage a more robust approach to self-defence and respect for property. Imagine what happens if looting breaks out in certain situations.

Another takeway: this horrible episode has put certain rather silly (at least they are to me) concerns into perspective: PC pronouns for certain genders, “woke” remakes of action films like the much-delayed Bond film, “cancel culture”, etc. It might even remind people that screaming that the world is coming to an end unless we switch off industrial civilisation RIGHT NOW is so silly, and so monstrous, that it blunts the public to legitimate worries out there. Greta needs to put a sock in it, and go back to school and hit the books. And the man formerly known as Prince Harry simply must, for our sanity, fuck off.

Samizdata quote of the day

The Guardian, wrong about everything, always. Doubly so on anything economic.

Tim Worstall

How a standard rut gauge created a standard rail gauge

Some MapPorn:

This is a map of the world’s different railway gauges.

Fun fact, if fact it be. In the schmoozing after a talk I attended earlier in the week, someone told me that Britain’s four foot eight-and-a-half inch gauge is the result of how far apart horse-drawn carriages had their wheels, in the pre-railways north-east of England, that being where the railways in Britain got started. The point being that such carriages also had a standard gauge. Their wheels dug ruts in the un-tarred roads of those times, so if your carriage had a different “gauge”, it couldn’t travel in those ruts, and thus couldn’t travel at all. These ruts were rails before rails. And that regular distance apart transferred itself to the newly emerging railways.

I haven’t checked this. I didn’t want to bother with any facts that might destroy my story, until I’d told my story. But as of now: feel free to destroy away.

Another question: Will the railway gauges of the world ever change? By which I mean get somewhat less numerous. Say: As a result of some sort of new intercontinental high speed rail system being developed. I seem to recall reading that in Spain, the new high speed trains are the same gauge as those in France (and thus also Britain) and different from the regular Spanish gauge. Or would a some futuristic global high speed system will just add yet another standard? (Will Brunel’s preferred seven foot gauge for the old Great Western line rise from the dead and conquer the world? Guess: No.)

Cue the commentariat who will, I predict, change the subject to the QWERTY keyboard, and then disagree about how that happened, and about how keyboards will be in two hundred years time.

I just did a bit of copying and pasting

Of this:

Born in New York City in 1945, Tesler eventually studied computer science at Stanford University before working in the school’s artificial intelligence research lab in the late 1960s. He moved to Xerox in 1973, where he devised the time-saving concepts to cut, copy and paste in computer systems.

“Your workday is easier thanks to his revolutionary ideas,” Xerox tweeted Thursday to honor Tesler.

Oh, it goes far beyond that, for me and surely for many others. My whole life was made possible by this sort of stuff.

With thanks to Instapundit. It’s little postings like this that keep me going back there. If all there was there was politics, I’d keep going back, but surely not so often.

Imagine having to copy out just the two links above, letter by letter, number by number. Absurd.

A BIT LATER: I put together all of the above for my personal blog, but then I thought: this should go to Samizdata. So I copied and pasted it across. Took me about two minutes.