Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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- A Shiny Thing and a friend also photoing it - with an iPhone
- Reading Anton Howes again
- Along the river towards Battersea
- Lovely light
- Animals not understanding cameras
- The Wires get mentioned! (But it makes no difference!)
- More Big Olympic Thing photos
- Snohetta does zig zag roofs for competitive cities
- Going from knowing a piece of music to also knowing what it is
- Don’t mention The Wires!!!
- White Van Brians
- A Shiny Thing by Frank Stella Hon RA
- Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
- Another from the archives
- Big 4
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Category archive: Books
Around ten days ago, I took lots of rest (the medical term for sleeping) during the day, and then couldn’t sleep properly at night. Since then the lurgy has persisted and I haven’t really got back to sane hours.
In the meantime, what did not help - did not help at all - was the latest from Madame Harry Potter, who now, some of the time, goes by the name of Robert Galbraith. I read the first Cormoran Strike tale when it came out, and a few days back I was awake all night reading number two. It was daylight when I finished it.
One of the many things I like about Cormoran Strike is that he operates in London. His lair is a flat on top of one of the shops in Denmark Street, which is London’s pop musical instrument street.
Here is a clutch of Denmark Street photos I took recently:
Lots of amateurish reflections there, in among the occasional deliberate ones, but what the hell? I am an amateur. (Spot the selfie.)
That grey-blue front door (on the right of the picture bottom middle) is how I imagine/presume Strike’s front door to look.
Having kept up with all the Rebus books, I found it much more fun actually knowing a lot of the places haunted by The Detective. And with this in mind, I have now started on this first crime novel by Tony Parsons. All this searching has just told me that it is the first of three. This is (these are) also set in London. This morning I was reading about The Detective visiting something called Westminster Public Mortuary in Horseferry Road, which is a five minute walk away from where I live. (The Tony Parsons detective is called DC “Max Wolfe”. Why can’t fictional detectives ever be called something like Colin Snail or Brian Sludge or John Watson?)
“Robert Galbraith“‘s Cormoran Strike is a freelance, but Max Wolfe is regular police, so he often visits New Scotland Yard, which is not much further away from me than that Mortuary, another five minutes walk in the same direction. Here is a photo I took of New Scotland Yard from the roof of my block, in 2006:
London possesses roof clutter arrays that are denser and more voluminous, but none that I know of is more elegant.
The other day (to be more exact: on this day) I described England as a “dead team walking”, in the currently unfolding Cricket World Cup. So, if England now turn around and start winning and winning well, well, that’s good because hurrah England. But if England carry on losing, and losing badly, then hurrah me for being right.
How to snatch happiness out of thin air: be a prophet of doom proved right. There are other ways to place a bet besides spending money.
This explains a lot about the world, I think. Basically, as Steven Pinker has pointed out in the first half of that excellent (because of its first half) book of his, everything (approximately speaking) is getting better, slowly and with many back-trackings, but surely. Yet to listen to publicly expressed opinion, both public and posh, you’d think that everything was getting worse, all the time. And it’s been like that throughout most of recorded history. But people are not really that pessimistic. All that is really happening is that people are predicting the worst in order to be happy if the worst happens, and also happy if the worst does not happen.
This coming Friday I have another of my Last Friday of the Month meetings at my home in London SW1. This coming Friday is, after all, the last Friday of the month, so the logic is inexorable. Every Friday (even if the last Friday of, say, December 2014, happened to be Boxing Day, as it was) there is a Last Friday of the Month meeting at my home.
I have been having email problems, in the form of people using gmail suddenly not receiving my emails, so even if you thought you were on my list but hear nothing via email, be assured that this meeting will happen. Try emailing me (which should work) and then telling your spam filter not to reject my reply, which you will have to do despite it being a particular individual reply. I know, crazy. I hope to write more about this problem in a posting at Samizdata, Real Soon Now.
Or, if you intend coming to this particular meeting, you could leave a comment below, and I will respond saying message received and look forward to greeting you.
Anyway, this coming Friday (Feb 27), Pete Comley will be talking about inflation. He has recently published a book on the subject, which you can learn about in this posting at Comley’s website. And you can hear what Comley sounds like and a little of how he thinks by listening to this short interview with Simon Rose of Share Radio.
The thing about Comley is that he takes a long-term - very long-term - view of inflation. He began a recent talk I attended by discussing inflation at the time of the Roman Empire.
And in the long-term, there are not one but two major influences on inflation. There is, of course, the supply of money, by the powers that be who have always insisted upon supplying money. And when they make too many coins, too many bank notes or create too much bank credit, the price of regular stuff in shops goes creeping, or rocketing, up. But there is also the demand for that regular stuff. In particular, human population fluctuates. At some moments in history, population shoots up. At other times it falls, or at the very least the rate at which it increases falls. Just now, in country after country, the birthrate is falling, and that has consequences for inflation.
Before you say it, I’ll say if for you. Many simply define inflation as the first of these two processes but not the second. Inflation is what money issuers do to the money supply. A price rise caused by rising demand is simply not inflation. It is a mere price rise. Fair enough. It certainly makes sense to distinguish these two processes from each other, however hard it may be for consumers to do this when both are happening to them. And if you do that by restricting the definition of inflation in this way, then be aware that Pete Comley’s talk will be about inflation thus defined and about price rises sparked by rising demand, and for that matter about price stability caused by static demand. (He says, by the way, that we might be about to enjoy just such a period of price stability. And although you can never be sure about such things, better handling of the recent financial crisis, and we might have got there already.)
There is also the question of what causes money issuers to inflate, in the second and more restricted sense of inflation. They seem to do this more at certain historical junctures than at others. Inflation, restrictively defined, does not just cause bad economic experiences; it is itself caused, more at some times than at others.
All very interesting, or so I think. Libertarians like me tend to be quite well informed about recent monetary history and about the evils of fiat currencies, the Fed, the Bank of England, and so on and so forth. We tend to know a lot less about similar episodes in the more distant past to what he have recently experienced. In general, we are more interested in the fluctuating supply of money than in the way that population fluctuations influence prices.
Pete Comley has a small but particular soft spot for me, on account of me having been the one who drew his attention to this book about the long-term history of prices (The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer), which seems to have had quite a big influence on his latest book, which is called Inflation Matters. It certainly does.
Lynn writes about English history, and recommends this book about the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century, which sounds good and which I immediately ordered from Amazon, together with this book, which also sounds good.
Lynn mentions the Bayeux Tapestry, which is apparently one of the key sources for what happened during the Norman Conquest. I knew very little about this, but the Internet answers all questions and answers most of them quite quickly. Lynn herself links to a site about a Victorian copy of the Tapestry (in Reading (I had no idea about that)), in her next posting.
It turns out that the Bayeux Tapestry is the ultimate in horizontalised (that link is to a clutch of horizontalised viaducts here) graphics, as in wide but thin top-to-bottom. It is 230ft wide. And it is 20 inches high. You want wide and thin? I do. That’s wide and thin. Here is a picture of the actual Bayeux Tapestry, as it is now displayed, that makes it look like a giant Metro advert.
In a perfect world, I would be able to find a giant long and thin graphic of the entire thing, which you could scroll through horizontally. And, guess what. It is a perfect world. Thank you note 3, here, towards the end.
Anyone know how I could shrink that down to 500 pixels wide?
Lexington Green, here:
What if … ?
What would a history of the British Empire look like if it did not use the “rise and fall” metaphor?
What would that history look like if it examined not just the political framework or just the superficial gilt and glitter, or just the cruelty and crimes, but the deeper and more enduring substance?
What if someone wrote a history of the impact of the English speaking people and their institutions (political, financial, professional, commercial, military, technical, scientific, cultural), and the infinitely complex web of interconnections between them, as a continuous and unbroken story, with a past a present … and a future?
In other words, what if we were to read a history that did not see a rising British Empire followed by a falling Empire, then a rising American Empire which displaced it, but an organism which has taken on many forms over many centuries, and on many continents, but is nonetheless a single life?
What if we assume that the British Empire was not something that ended, but that the Anglosphere, of which the Empire was one expression, is something that has never stopped growing and evolving, and taking on new institutional forms?
What if it looked at the unremitting advance, the pitiless onslaught, universal insinuation, of the English speakers on the rest of the world, seizing big chunks of it (North America, Australia), sloshing up into many parts of it and receding again (India, Nigeria, Malaya), carving permanent marks in the cultural landscape they left behind, all the while getting wealthier and more powerful and pushing the frontiers of science and technology and all the other forms of material progress?
What if jet travel and the Internet have at last conquered the tyranny of distance which the Empire Federationists of a century ago dreamed that steam and telegraph cables would conquer? What if they were just a century too early?
I recall musing along the same kind of lines myself, a while back.
The important thing is, this mustn’t be advertised first as a plan. If that happens, then all the people who are against the Anglosphere, and who prefer places like Spain and Venezuela and Cuba and Hell, will use their ownership of the Mainstream Media to Put A Stop to the plan. What needs to happen is for us to just do it, and then after about two decades of us having just done it, they’ll realise that it is a fate (as the Hellists will describe it) accompli.
Because, guess what, we probably are already doing it.
Sadly Jacob Rees-Mogg is not taking part, his cat wasn’t feline up to it. The big pussy. ...
Guido keeps going on about the Guidoisation of politics. But he, it would appear, is on the receiving end of the ever rising tide of internet cat references.
I’ve just been listening to Christopher Hitchens reading out what is apparently one of the chapters of his book God Is Not Great, and there is a cat reference in that also. Although down on dogs, it seems that the Muslims have tended, historically, to be nicer to cats than the Christians, because Christians have been in the habit of associating cats with the Devil.
Good grief! More Guido moggy-blogging.
Spent the middle of the day at the demo, taking my usual excessive number of pictures, and then the evening trying to divide them up into clumps to show here, or somewhere.
My main impression was that this was a real demo, rather than some faked up exercise in pretending to be angry about some bit of bad economic or political news that some bunch of people have just been hit by, but not very hard, with lots of identical signs all printed out by the same dubious Marxist agitprop organisation, and then afterwards lots of moaning about how the evil Mass Media paid no attention. There were a lot of people there:
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of French people present, what with London now containing so many French people. Also not surprisingly, the average age of those present was young, what with there being so many young French people in London.
My thanks to Goddaughter 2, now back in London, who told me that she and a friend were going to attend. Had she not done this, I would only have twigged that it was happening when it started happening and I saw it on the telly.
I have in mind, Real Soon Now, to be posting a clump of pictures of the signs and pictures that people were holding up, along the lines of these photos, that I took of a much smaller demo in London a while back, including the one above, and also including this one, which I especially like:
My immediate reaction to the Paris brouhaha was not: “I am Charlie Hebdo!” It was to take another crack at reading the Quran, to check if it really is as obnoxious as I remember it being the first time around. So far, it is, even more than I remember.
From time to time I like to stick bits from books up here, usually quite short, but sometimes quite long.
With the short bits, there is no legal or moral problem. Fair use, etc. But with the longer bits, there might be a problem. Here’s how I operate. I put up whatever bit it is that I think deserves to be made much of, on the clear understanding that it might disappear at any moment. Because, if anyone associated with the book I have got my chosen bit from complains and says please remove it, I will do so, immediately.
Many might think that such persons would be being rather silly. I mean, what better way could there be to reach potential readers of the entire book in question than for readers of a blog, and a blog written by someone who already likes the book, to get to read a relatively small chunk of it? Win-win, surely. Because of course, I only put up big chunks of writing if I approve of what the chunks say.
But what if a publisher is trying to insist on the principle, that copyright damn well means what it says? Such a publisher might want to proclaim, and to be seen to proclaim, a no-tolerance attitude to the copying of bigger than small bits of any its books. Even if that particular book might be assisted by this particular recycled chunk being here, the larger principle might feel far more significant to the publisher. That principle being: If we allow this, where will it then stop?
And I get that. As I say, if any publisher or author did complain, for these kinds of reasons or for any other, then I would get it, and the bit from the book in question would at once vanish from this blog. So far, I’ve had no such complaints. Which could just be because they reckon this blog to be too insignificant to be worth risking a fight with. They wouldn’t have a fight, but they might have a rule about letting sleeping puppies, like this one, lie.
Whatever. All I am saying here is that if I put up a big bit of a book, and anyone connected to that big bit cries foul, then the big bit will immediately vanish from here, with no grumbling, or worse, self-righteous campaigning, attempts to mobilise other bloggers, etc. etc.
Think of all this as an example of Rule Utilitarianism. And I am myself a Rule Utilitarian. My libertarian beliefs are not the absurd claim that libertarianism is inscribed into the very physical fabric of the universe, an inherent fact of life itself, which we humans either recognise or fail to recognise, but which are there anyway. Tell that to the spider I just squashed into the pavement on my way home to write this. No, I like libertarianism because it works. Libertarianism is a set of basically fairly simply rules which all we humans either choose to live by or choose not to live by. If we choose to live by these rules, life is good, happy, comfortable and it gets better and better. If we don’t live by such rules, life goes to shit and stays there.
And here comes the Rule Utilitarian bit. Even if this particular bit of thieving, by the government or just by some bod like you or me, is very insignificant, and even if what the government or the bod like you or me wants to spend its or his or her ill-gotten gains on is wonderful, absolutely wonderful, my rule says: No. Not allowed. Don’t get into complicated discussions about just how little thieving is too little to be bothering about, or just how noble a noble project has to be for it to be noble enough to be financed by a spot of thieving, because that way lies the slippery slope we are now on, where the government gobbles up at least half of everything, to very little benefit for anyone other than itself. Stick to the rule. No thieving, no matter how petty its scale or how noble its supposed object.
So, I get Rule Utilitarianism. And if any publisher decides to inflict his Rule Utilitarianism, in the manner described above, upon me, I would get that, and act accordingly.
What got me wanting to spell all this out is that I have recently been reading Dominic Frisby’s excellent Bitcoin book, and I find myself wanting to put bits of it up here, quite longish bits. And in general, having just followed the link at the top of this and read some of them, I feel that postings of this sort are among the better things that I do here, and I want to do more of them. But, to all of the bits from books that will follow, I want to attach the above mentioned caveat about how the verbiage that follows may vanish without warning, and a link to this posting is the way to summarise what is going on in my head without me banging on for however many paragraphs there are here.
Yesterday I took this photo, in the remainder shop on the other side of the intersection from the Old Vic. I thought I was photoing that book about procrastination. My immediate thought was that I should buy it, read its contents carefully and apply those lessons straight away to my hitherto hideously postponed life. But then I thought: I’ll get it later.
But look on the right there. A cat book. I didn’t even see that when I took the photo. They’re everywhere, I tell you.
And as if determined to prove my point, today is also a Feline Friday at the Daily Mirror:
I’m talking about the front page on the right. The story, of which I can make neither head nor tail, can be read here.
The catification of the mainstream media continues. Make way tasered cannibals. Flesh eating zombies, your days dominating the front pages are also numbered.
Did the junk mail phenomenon always exist? Or is it relatively new? What I have in mind is the way that an entire category of communication becomes broken because it is overused by semi or total crooks shouting rubbish at you, thus overwhelming the actual human persons sending you individually useful messages. Even real messages just sound like arseholes yelling at you. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes so stupid that eventually, no genuine signals get through.
A few days ago, I received an email from something called Macmillan Distribution (MDL). A package was due. There were various buttons for me to press so that I could track the package, or tell them where else to deliver it, or some such thing. I immediately assumed that this was an industrialised garbage message, the purpose of which was for me to tell crooks about myself by pressing one of the buttons. Having received many junk messages just like this in the recent past, I assumed that this one was similarly fraudulent.
I noted that they had my name and address, and this might have supplied me with the clue that this was actually a genuine message about a genuine delivery, from a genuine enterprise, with buttons for me to press which actually did what they said they would do. But instead, I merely thought: oh dear, now the international conglomeration of bastard junk emailer fraudsters knows my name and address. Oh well, more crap to delete.
But this morning, the package actually arrived, at a time that the emails had been referring to. The emails from Macmillan Distribution (MDL) (there were three emails in total) had all been genuine. It was a book that I had already paid for and wanted to read. So, good.
The actual delivery was a mess. Some arsehole just smacked the door of my flat (sounding like when the cleaners vacuum the landings and bang their machines into our doors), and then just stuffed the package through my mail flap (which very luckily was big enough). No electronic buzzing from outside and downstairs, to get my attention while I slumbered, like a proper delivery. And how the hell did this arsehole contrive to get through the downstairs front door in the first place? (We’ve had robberies from people claiming to be delivering things, but actually hoovering up the deliveries of others from our (unlocked and wide open) cubby holes.) So, very unsatisfactory, as home deliveries so often are. But, the thing itself did arrive, which means the delivery scored one out of one on the one measure that really counts.
And, as I say, those emails were all for real.
No doubt there are various twenty first century, social media like methods that I could have used to track this parcel and its delivery, methods which screen out junk and preserve a benign signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe, any decade now, I will have to get with the twenty first century and dump email completely.
I vividly recall when having email first became a necessity, when you suddenly started getting dirty looks at parties if you didn’t have it. And when fax numbers ceased mattering. (Remember those?)
As of now, regular twenty first century people half my age still seem to do email, or so it says on those little cards they give me. But how long will this last?
More about package delivering from 6k, here. “Wumdrop” sounds sort of like Uber, only for things.
Spent the whole day fretting about not enough people coming to my Last Friday of the Month meeting this evening. Richard Carey would, I knew, be fine, but would the number of listeners be insultingly small? Happily, two people showed up who hadn’t emailed that they were coming, and the room was, if not full, at least not embarrassingly empty.
Better yet, I also fixed my speaker for next month, which I had also been fretting about. Priya Dutta, who attended this evening, will be speaking about Education, libertarianism and similar things. The Gove reforms, the various attempts to set up cheap new free enterprise schools of various sorts, that kind of thing. She is a teacher, so this is bound to be good. I’ll say more as I learn more.
Too tired to expand on what Richard said (about English Republicanism and its influence in the American colonies and later the USA), other than that in the brackets is what it was about and that it was very interesting. But since this is Friday, here is news of Cats on Kickstarters, and of Catstarter , which I think is a book, or maybe a blog. Also cat related: Ceiling Netanyahu is watching you tunnel.
I’ve started reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, years after everyone else who has read it. I haven’t got very far yet, but I am delighted to discover that one of the Enemies that Postrel takes several cracks at is John Gray, that being a link to a crack that I took at Gray at Samizdata a while back.
And I see that Postrel, like me, does not confine herself to analysing and criticising Gray’s arguments, but notes also the cheapness of the tricks that Gray often uses to present his arguments.
What disguises the trickery, at least in the eyes of Gray and his followers, is the air of profundity that is regarded as being attached to the process of foreseeing doom and disaster. In truth, incoherent pessimism is no more profound than incoherent optimism, which is to say, not profound at all.
Says Postrel (p. 9):
Although they represent a minority position, reactionary ideas have tremendous cultural vitality. Reactionaries speak directly to the most salient aspects of contemporary life: technological change, commercial fluidity, biological transformation, changing social roles, cultural mixing, international trade, and instant communication. They see these changes as critically important, and, as the old Natinoal Review motto had it, they are determined to “stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’” Merely by acknowledging the dynamism of contemporary life, reactionaries win points for insight. And in the eyes of more conventional thinkers, denouncing change makes them seem wise.
Seem. Amen. I’m still proud of this in my piece about Gray, which makes that same point about the seeming wisdom of being a grump rather than a booster:
He trades relentlessly on that shallowest of aesthetic clichés, that misery is more artistic than happiness, that any old rubbish with a sad ending is artistically superior to anything with a happy ending no matter how brilliantly done, that music in a minor key is automatically more significant than anything in C major.
There are plenty more Gray references in Postrel’s book, if the Index is anything to go by and it surely is. My immediate future is bright.
Overheard in a TV advert for sweeties:
You can’t trust atoms. They make up everything.
Talking of which, I am now reading Lee Smolin’s book about String Theory. Basic message: It’s a cult. I haven’t yet read him using that actual word, but that’s what he is saying.
I am, of course, not qualified to judge if Smolin is right, but you don’t have to be qualified to express a judgement, and I judge that Smolin is right. And the way I like to learn about new stuff is by reading arguments about it, starting with the argument that says I am right about it. Smolin is basically telling me that my ignorant prejudice that String Theory is one of the current world’s epicentres of the Higher Bollocks is right, although he is careful not to express himself as crudely as I just did, for fear of upsetting his physicist friends, and because, unlike me, he sees some merit in String Theory.
I have known that String Theory was in trouble for some time, because Big Bang Theory’s resident String Theorist, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has been having doubts about it. He wanted to switch to something else, but they said: We hired you as a String Theorist and a String Theorist you will remain.
The above link is to a blog I had not heard of before, entitled Not Even Wrong. Not Even Wrong is the title of another book I have recently obtained with has a go at String Theory. I have not yet started reading this.
It’s true. You can’t trust atoms. And grabbing both ends of one and stretching it out into a string doesn’t change that. It makes it worse.
Mick Hartley writes about England’s loss to Italy last night in their opening World Cup game:
Much football punditry has always seemed to me to be an effort to provide a plausible post-hoc storyline for what was to a considerable extent a matter of chance. … as though the whole enterprise must be made sense of by virtue of the winning team being the team that deserved to win.
Very true. (I’m guessing that, with luck (ho ho), this book will have a lot more to say about this tendency.) Actually, much of the appeal of football (to those to whom it appeals) is that the “best” team on the day often doesn’t win. This means that the supporters of bad teams can live in constant hope of upsets.
This also explains why, at the early stages of a season, surprising teams are often at the top of the table. Later, the law of averages asserts itself inexorably, and the best teams arrange themselves in logical order at the top, and the surprise early leaders sink back into the pack where they belong.
All of which makes something like the World Cup quite good fun. All you have to do to win it is win five or six of your first six games. All the best teams have to do not to win is lose one or two of their first six games. One of the great moments of all World Cups is the one when a Much Fancied Team gets on its Early Plane Home.
What the pundits seem to have been saying about England is that, because the “expectation level” is low, they might do quite well. The expectation level is low so it’s high, in other words. My take on England is that they are a fairly bad team, who played fairly well against Italy, and lost, and that they will probably do fairly badly, but you never know, because there are only half a dozen games for each team to play. I will video-record all of England’s games, such as they are, just in case. I live in hope of a small series of upsets.
I also video-recorded the Spain Netherlands game, by far the most remarkable one so far. Will Spain be this time around’s Much Fancied Team early departure home?
And I also videoed the first game, between Brazil and Croatia, with its truly dire opening ceremony. This was a real collector’s item of awfulness. What is it about these terrible opening ceremonies, with their meaningless costumes and absurd dance moves? Witnessing them is like listening to someone talking in a language has only recently been invented - for aliens to speak in a movie, for instance - which consists of no actual words, only meaningless sounds.
The opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London contained many things I disagreed with, and I continue to disagree with the entire principle of me and all other anti-Olympickers having to pay for the damn thing for the next thousand years. But at least that ceremony contained stuff that meant something. Although come to think of it, maybe the only people who understood it was us Brits, and for countless mllions elsewhere, that was also the gibbering of aliens.