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]

Don’t think of it as a “power cut”, think of it as an “electricity holiday”

The BBC reports that the National Grid will “learn the lessons” after nearly one million people across England and Wales lost power on Friday.

But what lessons will those be?

The power outage happened at about 17:00 BST on Friday, National Grid said, with blackouts across the Midlands, the South East, South West, North West and north east of England, and Wales.

Industry experts said that a gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, failed at 16.58, followed two minutes later by the Hornsea offshore wind farm disconnecting from the grid.

The National Grid director of operations quoted in this BBC article, Duncan Burt, has said that “he did not believe that a cyber-attack or unpredictable wind power generation were to blame”.

I do not know whether to disbelieve his disbelief. Those concerned with managing the UK’s power supply might have good reasons to keep mum about our vulnerability to cyber attack, and less good reasons for playing down the unpredictability of wind power.

Tim Worstall speculates,

One reading could be……wind farm closes down immediately as wind speed is too high. Gas plant on idle can’t spin up for some reason. Drax is low capacity because it’s burning wood chips, not coal.

On the cyber front, even if this power outage was entirely an Act of God in the insurance sense, the next one might not be. The bad guys have seen how much more damaging power cuts have become now that we are so reliant on the internet. As cashless payments become more common it will only get worse. I love cashless payments! What bliss to no longer have to worry about finding change when you’ve just found the last space in a crowded car park, manoeuvred into it with incredible difficulty while holding up the rest of the traffic, and only then remembered that you have to pay for the damn thing. But an entirely cashless society, as they seem to be moving towards in Sweden, might turn out to have its Orwellian nature tempered only by its lack of resilience.

A final observation: I have read a lot of comments from supporters of remaining in the European Union along the lines of “You think a few hours delay on the railways was bad? Just you wait until we leave the EU without a deal.” However, just as with the chaos caused by the Gatwick drone shutdown, that argument cuts both ways. All their frantic efforts to say “No Deal” must not be allowed to happen because it will cause vast queues at the ports and airports start to look a little silly when the same consequences seem likely to arise every time the wind surges or a cyber attacker gets lucky.

A little phrase to look out for

The Times Saturday magazine features the latest of its series of quick interviews in which a famous person tells the readers “What I’ve learnt”. This one is with that fine actor, Jared Harris. Among the things that Mr Harris has learned and wants to pass on to the reader is that,

“We don’t have another planet. This is it. We’ve nowhere else to go. We’re going through a crisis of denial over climate science. A very small group of people are frustrating the political will to tackle it head on. But when people’s homes become uninhabitable, they will move somewhere else. If you think it’s awkward with tens of thousands of people at the southern border of the US or with a couple of hundred thousand at the borders of the EU, what are you going to do when a couple of hundred million are on the move?”

Very stirring. But I could not help noticing that the little potted biography of Mr Harris at the top of the page says this:

The British actor Jared Harris, 57, played Lane Pryce in Mad Men, King George VI in The Crown and Valery Legasov in Chernobyl, for which he has been nominated for an Emmy. He is one of three sons by the notorious hell-raiser Richard Harris and his wife Elizabeth Rees-Williams. He splits his time between New York and Los Angeles with his third wife, Allegra.

New York and Los Angeles are 2,790 miles apart by road, and 2,450 miles apart by air. It’s a fifty-hour drive, so I think we can safely assume that Mr Harris travels between his two bases by air. Compared to most people’s, his personal carbon footprint is more like a personal carbon Tunguska crater. It must be hard to juggle the claims of a far-flung family and a demanding acting career, so I do not begrudge Mr Harris his air miles. But going from what he said, he begrudges me mine.

When reading the views of celebrities on the environment it is always worth looking out for the words “splits his time” or “divides her time” or equivalents thereof. I first saw this pointed out on a Biased BBC post back in November 2009, about a model called Helena Christensen who held an exhibition of pictures she had taken to document climate change and divided her time between Copenhagen and New York, with occasional side trips to Essex to see her agent.

Boastful Boris’s big bad boondoggle

So, Boris wants to build a new railway line. Between Leeds and Manchester. He says he wants it to do “…what we did with Crossrail in London”. An interesting argument given that the only thing the still-unopened Crossrail has done so far is saddle the people of the South with some very big bills.

But that aside, there really is an awful lot of woolly-headed thinking going on here.

First of all there is the idea that the North should be as rich as the South; that “our” economy needs “rebalancing”, as the saying goes.

But should it? Maybe there are reasons the North is poorer than the South. There was a time – during the Industrial Revolution – when the opposite was the case. Probably due to presence of coal mines and ports. But historically, that was the exception. Historically, London has always been the richest part of the British Isles – doubtless due to its proximity to the Continent.

For how long have I heard politicians going on about doing something for the North? As long as I can remember. Surely, you get to a point when you realise that nothing can be done? Maybe the best option is rather than moving the jobs to the people to move the people to the jobs. Except you can’t because no one can afford to live down South because the government won’t allow anyone to build a house.

Western civilisation will end if anything is built on this land. Oh, it already has. OK, OK, some housing is getting built but very little.

Secondly, we have the idea that the government can do infrastructure. This is not completely stupid. A new rail line can make a profit. But typically it is the owners of land near the stations that gain and not the rail company. This is how Japan’s bullet trains got going with the first line being built between Japan’s biggest city, Tokyo, and its second biggest, Osaka. It was probably – I don’t think anyone was counting – a success. But the problem was that after that everywhere – from Nowhereyama to Nowhereshima – wanted a bullet train. And through the wonder that is that state, they got them. That’s a lot of debt.

Thirdly, we have the idea that railways are the answer to… well… anything really. Actually, I am being unfair. Nowadays, what railways are good at is moving large quantities of people or goods from one point to another. They are great for commuting in large cities. They are great for intercity travel [so long as the total journey time is less than three hours at which point aircraft are better]. They are great at moving huge quantities of grain from Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the St Lawrence. But for everything else they’re useless. There was a time when railways were the national transport. But those days are long gone. Nowadays they are niche players. Roads are better.

It occurs to me that it’s just possible – and I cleave to this hope – that Johnson’s announcement is part of the plan to cancel HS2. “HS2 is a marvellous idea but, zoinks! it’s expensive. Look at Leeds – Manchester. A much better bet. This shows this government’s commitment to rail, blah, blah, blah…”

What comes next after two?

Iran claims to have seized British oil tanker in strait of Hormuz

Second ‘British’ tanker ‘Mesdar’ seized near Iran after veering off course

A Brexit photo

Today I was at Euston tube station, and found myself admiring the antique signage on one of the platforms, the Northern Line I think, done with painted tiles, rather than with a printing press or with electronic wizardry as is the way such things are done now. Way Out signs are not what once they were. So out came my camera.

At this point I realised that there was some weekend, Brexit-related fun to be had, by including also part of the bit where it said, in much bigger letters, “EUSTON”:

If only the way out of the EU was turning out to be as simple as exiting from Euston tube station.

Like Top Gear but not funny

The Times reports,

Son travels 170 miles and beats ambulance to injured mother

In a race between a man travelling 170 miles by public transport and an ambulance starting ten minutes’ drive away, most people would have backed the ambulance.

Mark Clements assumed as much when he left his home in London to help his injured mother in Devon, but when he arrived after four hours she was still on the floor and the ambulance had not yet arrived.

Mr Clements caught a bus, the London Underground and two trains from London to Exmouth on Saturday after his mother fell and broke her hip. The first 999 call was made at 9am but paramedics did not arrive until seven hours later.

The beating heart of NYC

Today I am reading and watching all those weather reports about how extremely cold it is in the US and some of my friends in New York and Chicago have been telling me about it. But what impresses me above all is that these urban hubs, these centres of modern human civilisation, go on. And we take it for granted that apart from certain disruptions, they do. I came across this wonderful graphic item on the web that visually conveys the daily commute volume into and out of Manhattan.

Have a good weekend and keep warm and safe. This global warming is a real bitch.

Spanish practices

Taxi drivers in Madrid are on strike over “unfair competition” from online ride-sharing services such as Uber and Cabify, reports El Pais. In English. On the internet.

Discuss.

Vera Kichanova on micro-homes

Last night I attended a meeting, and although I did not have any arguments with anyone about fake news, I did meet with Vera Kichanova, and learned from her that her Adam Smith Institute “report” (aka: argument in favour of) micro-housing was to be published today. Good. I’m for it.

ASI announcement by Matthew Lesh here. The entire thing can be read here.

I don’t agree with Vera’s title, “Size Doesn’t Matter”. I think that when it comes to where you live, size matters a lot. You don’t want somewhere too big for you, or too small for you. Perhaps the ASI is hoping that, by having a silly title, they will sucker many of those who hate the idea, and who would otherwise ignore it, into instead denouncing it because of its title, thus spreading the word about it. The Trump technique, in other words.

For many, “micro” would indeed be way too small. But, for quite a few others, micro-living would be much preferable to a long commute. I am in favour of people having choices along such lines rather than at the far end of a line. And I am in favour of entrepreneurs having the freedom to bet their time and money contriving such choices.

I’ve not yet read Vera’s piece yet (this being one of those something now rather than something better but later postings), so I don’t know if she makes this point, but one very good reason why many might now be okay with a much smaller living space is that home entertainment and home education can now occupy a tiny fraction of the space that they used to, about one or maybe two generations ago. You can literally now carry your entire entertainment system, and your entire library – words, music, movies, TV shows, the lot – in a small bag. In other words, you can now not merely eke out your existence in a tiny dwelling space, you can actually have a life while living in such a micro-home.

One final point, before I hurry back to the rest of my life. Vera Kichanova works for Zaha Hadid Architects, which is all part of why I believe it to be important that Zaha Hadid Architects thrives.

Dr Stephen Davies on the wealth explosion unleashed by railways

I’ve followed the career of Stephen Davies ever since I got to know him in the 1980s. Here’s a photo I took of him in my home in January 2000, when he spoke at one of my last Friday of the month meetings.

Tonight, I photoed Stephen Davies again. Well, to be exact, he was on TV, and I photoed my TV:

That’s Davies doing a talking head job on the subject of Trains That Changed The World. Good to see the Institute of Economic Affairs also getting a good plug.

I’m watching these shows now, as I write this. The transformation of the lives of the great mass of working people and their families in countries like Britain and America in the nineteenth century is being well explained. Karl Marx, were he watching, would be cursing. Immiseration? Forget it. It was more like a wealth explosion, made possible by railways, probably more than any other technology.

During the last few years, it bothered me that Davies seemed to be doing so much – lots of educational outreach for the IEA, for instance – that he might not be finding time to write any books. Oh me of little faith. In April of 2019, this book will be published:

And oh look. It will be entitled The Wealth Explosion. If what Davies was saying on the TV is anything to go by, and it surely is, then railways will figure prominently in this book.

I just noticed that the Executive Producer of Trains That Changed The World was the famously anti-anti-capitalist Martin Durkin. That explains a lot.

Discussion point: what to do about drones being used to disrupt air travel?

According to the BBC, ‘persons of interest’ have been identified as responsible for flying the drone or drones that shut down Gatwick airport. As it gradually became clear that this was going on too long to be the work of careless hobbyists or malicious pranksters, the profile of the crime (it disrupted air travel but did not kill anyone) made me think that “climate justice” activists might be responsible. The BBC article says that is indeed one of the lines of enquiry being pursued. Still, let us be no more hasty to jump to conclusions or to blame every environmentalist in existence for the possible crimes of one of their number than we would like them to be next time someone loosely describable as “on our side” commits a crime.

The more urgent problem is that now whoever it was has demonstrated the method, anyone can copy it.

Technically and legally what can be done to stop a repetition? What should be done? What should not be? If you are one of those who have enjoyed flying drones in a responsible manner, or who is developing ways to use drones for emergency or commercial use, start work on your arguments now, because, trust me, the calls to BAN ALL DRONES NOW are going to be loud.

The union makes us strong

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.

– From the fifth verse of the union song Solidarity Forever, written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin.

Mind the gap: Tube drivers on £100,000 fly past pilots

Staff who just open and close doors on automatic trains are receiving a 4% rise

Some London Tube drivers have broken the £100,000 pay barrier, overtaking many airline pilots, according to data released under freedom of information (FoI) laws. Their pay packages have gone into six figures even as their jobs have become easier: trains on five of the Tube’s 11 lines are automatic and the driver simply opens and closes the doors. Another four lines will be automatic by 2023.

The pay figures were revealed as drivers on the Central line prepare for a strike on Saturday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year in the West End, over the sacking of a colleague who failed three drug tests.

– From today’s Sunday Times.

Looks like the train drivers’ union ASLEF could give the capitalist exploiters a lesson or two in taking “untold millions they never toiled to earn”. The tube drivers long ago ceased to expend either brain or muscle but have kept their power to stop the wheels turning when, for instance, they feel outraged at the injustice of one of their number losing his job just for failing a drug test or three. They can swing that sort of deal because their employer, Transport for London, is an arm of the government, under no real pressure to keep costs down. Welcome to your future under the next Labour government: Labour has promised to renationalise the railways and ASLEF is affiliated to the Labour Party.