Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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- Legal eagles versus illegal drones?
- A rejected Grand Chose that shouldn’t have been
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- A busy day and a collection of Big Things
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- A Japanese torpedo bomber that could use some zoom
- A good time of the year
- 148 to Burgess Park
- A Big Thing and a Much Bigger Thing – on a not-black cab
- Another way to photo my meetings
- Quota Pavlova
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Category archive: Libertarianism
Last Friday evening, at that meeting, I talked with Perry de Havilland about writing for Samizdata. I told him that I have recently been taking longer to finish my postings, to get them nearer to completely right. He compared blogging to rock ‘n’ roll. The clear implication being that blogging, like rock ‘n’ roll, is most truly itself when done, so to speak, live.
Each to his own. I now find that one of the symptoms of advancing years is that I am no longer as confident as I once was about the first thing that comes out of my mouth, or about what emerges from my tapping fingers. I prefer to have several reads-through of it, with gaps of time between them to think more.
Such polishing is not new, for me. I used to do it to stuff I wrote for the Libertarian Alliance. Stuff like this piece, which Patrick Crozier kindly linked back to, in one of the comments on the first of those two recent Samizdata pieces. As Patrick said, what that earlier piece said was very similar to what the Samizdata piece said. Appropriately enough, both pieces (separated by a quarter of century) were about how reluctant people are to change the basic way that they think about things.
Then as now, such polishing did not make my writing perfect. But it did make it quite a lot better.
Well, now, I seem to be reverting to writing more considered and revised essays, short or not so short, rather than “blog postings”. Rock ‘n’ roll is a young man’s game, and I do not feel comfortable writing in that manner. I used to. If Perry de Havilland still does (and he does), I am very happy for him. But it seems now not to suit me so much.
However, I do actually think that rock ‘n’ roll is now less appropriate. The novelty of just anyone being able to shovel stuff onto the internet has now passed. The mainstream media have now thoroughly internetted themselves, and the “any old stuff” approach (such as prevails here) does not get a blog like Samizdata the traffic that it used to get. I think that some of us at least should be polishing. More and more, my role model is becoming the late Findlay Dunachie. Not in the sense that I intend only to review books from now on. I mean that I find myself wanting to write more in the way he wrote, more thoughtfully, in a way that is more considered.
I am not now deciding to write differently. (I promise nothing.) I am merely noting that this is what seems now to be happening. An earlier stage in the change of attitude I am describing was earlier described in this posting here.
By which I mean, what seems to be happening at Samizdata. Here will continue to be the impulsive, sloppy, last minute, thinking aloud, what you get is what you get operation that it has always been. I did a little polishing of this piece, but not a lot.
Yes, I have struggled over the years to get good photos of what my meetings are like. The problem typically is that I can never get everyone into the same picture, and the pictures look like about half as many people attended as actually did. Since the number wasn’t that huge to start with, that’s not what you want.
Here is a different approach:
That was the scene today following last night’s meeting, me having done almost zero tidying up to that point, bar hoovering up a few crisps. Now, Imagine that space with as many people sitting in it as you can fit in. That was what it was like last night.
If you reckon that the “table” in the middle looks like it could be improved upon, you are not wrong. There was a disaster when it collapsed last night, luckily not during the Tim Evans talk, and some fruit juice hit the carpet, along with lots of potato crisps. And it was then only imperfectly reassembled. More work is needed on that front. But it was a great evening, partly because of the table collapsing, because that sort of thing adds to the anecdotage factor. But mostly because it was an excellent talk, and because a very classy group of people who came to hear it. Including a baby, who was very welcome.
Talking of unsatisfactory tables, I wasn’t feeling so good myself today. My sleep last night was full of weird dreams, which I can still remember bits of, which is not normal. Plus, I have a new blender, and this morning’s concoction was terrible. The trouble with most vegetables is that they don’t taste of anything. Or, they taste rather nasty. Thank goodness for cherry tomatoes. But, all my current stash of cherry tomatoes got consumed last night by all the people that you can’t see in the picture.
This is weird. When I did a posting at Samizdata called My 2015 in pictures, I intended to include a picture I took of one of my meetings last year, the one at which Aiden Gregg spoke. But, although I talked about it, I didn’t actually include the picture. Rather humiliatingly, nobody noticed, or if they did notice, they didn’t care, or if they did care, not enough to complain.
So here is that picture:
I have also added it to that Samizdata posting, which absolutely nobody at all will notice. But, get it right, eh?
I think I got this picture by standing on a chair.
I mention all this now because I have another of these meetings, the first of this year, tomorrow evening. Speaker: Professor Tim Evans (also mentioned in that Samizdata posting), talking about Jeremy Corbyn and all that. Turnout looks like being just right, with the room comfortably as opposed to uncomfortably full. Luckily the seating arrangements have been improving.
Here, for good measure, is the photo I took of Tim when he gave his Inaugural Professional Lecture at Middlesex University, last summer, and which was also included in that Samizdata posting:
Not being accustomed to the ways of Academe, that get-up makes Tim look, to me, like he is in a very trad production of Wagner’s Mastersingers.
Today I spent my blogging/libertarian time transcribing a talk given by Syed Kamall MEP to Libertarian Home, back on June 4th of this year. The following very early bit from this talk, which was no more, on the night, than the self-deprecating self-introduction, convinced me that transcribing the whole thing, even though it will also be available to view on video, might be worthwhile.
Having joined the Conservative Party in 1987, I actually stood for my first election in 1994, in the London Borough of Lambeth. As you can imagine, I lost. A year later, I had my first post-doctoral job at Bath, and they asked me to stand, and I lost, in some local elections. In 2000, the Greater London Council was formed, and I stood in the GLA elections for the first time. And I lost. This is going somewhere, I promise you. [laughter]
In 2001, I stood in that well-known Conservative stronghold of West Ham, and thought I could defy history. And I nearly did. I think I lost by about fifteen thousand votes. [laughter] And then – a year later, no, when was it? - in 2004, I stood in the European elections, and I was fourth on the list, and we got three Members of the European Parliament in London. So therefore I lost, but a year later another MEP became a MP, … she became a Member of Parliament and, thanks to the list system, I moved up.
So, you can summarise my political career up to that date as: stood five times, lost five times, and ended up as an MEP. I know my Party is supposed to be against Proportional Representation, but I’ve done all right out of it, thank you very much.
There is an old cliché that goes: it matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game. I only know this because it was mocked in Beyond The Fringe, but in times gone by people took this sort of thing very seriously. Well, the case of Syed Kamall illustrates that there are circumstances when this cliché can literally be true. Because you see, the secret of Syed Kamall’s success, is that he lost all these contest so very gracefully and sportingly. That way, everyone in his Party liked him, and he levitated.
There is also the fact that, in politics, it is probably unwise to win any of your early elections, because then you have to hang around and actually do a rather insignificant job, instead of moving on to a bigger and better contest, and winning that.
Blatant quota photo, in the form of an interestingly informative vehicle snapped by me earlier this evening:
Shame about the superfluous piece of punctuation.
Earlier, my host and his guests were chuckling at a big flag host had in his living room, which said: DONT TREAD ON ME. For DONT read DON’T.
Shame the apostrophe cannot somehow be transferred from the car to the flag, thereby bringING (see comment) the grammar universe into alignment.
Back to the car: COMERCIAL is missing an M.
None of which should be brought up if he is rescuing you and your vehicle from a predicament.
And, I bet this posting contains a grammar or spelling mistake, because this is one of the subsections of Sod’s Law. Whenever you sneer at someone else’s grammar or spelling, yours goes wrong.
I say new. New for me. Old and superfluous to requirements for the people who were getting rid of them.
Audiences for regularly repeating events tend exactly to fill whatever comfortable spaces and places are offered to them. Given that my speakers tend to be pretty good, the single best way for me to persuade more people to attend my Last Fridays of the Month meetings (there will be another such meeting tomorrow evening) is to improve the seating arrangements. More and more comfortable chairs are the best way to make these events better.
When these meetings resumed, in January 2013, there was a rather ungainly sofa, which seats two in comfort and three in discomfort unless all three are very thin, and one other comfy single chair. The rest was all stools and upright chairs and old loudspeakers and suchlike.
Worst of all there was this:
That picture having already been shown here, here.
But, to replace the above abomination, there is now this:
Despite appearances, these two beauties work very well as a three seat sofa. Better yet, they cost me: nothing. I went out shopping a few months back, and Goddaughter 2 happened to be with me. We saw these two semi-sofas being inserted into a skip. So we skipped the shopping and grabbed them, all this being only a couple of dozen yards from the front door of my block of flats. Moments later, and they’d have been covered in subsequent rubbish. No Goddaughter 2, and I don’t know how I would have managed. Almost certainly, not. Amazing.
And then, about a week ago in a charity shop I encountered these two little numbers, also very comfortable:
I had to pay a few bob for them, and some more bob for a taxi to get them home, but it all added up to far less than I was thinking of paying for something similar, singular, new, to see if another similar, singular, new, would be worth a further quite large outlay.
The above improvements may not seem like much, but they increase the number of truly comfortable seats at my evenings from three-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half. So the chance of a comfy seat have now more than doubled.
All I need now is to replace that goofy original sofa, with its goofy great arm rests that take up about one and half people’s worth of space, and things would be looking even better.
Last night I did a posting at Samizdata about Milo Yiannopoulos.
Until today, when I dug him up on YouTube, I didn’t even know what nationality this guy is. American would have been my guess, but basically I didn’t know, although I did learn yesterday what he looks like. But for me he was basically a name, that I couldn’t spell.
Turns out he’s British. Very British. Who knew? Everybody except me, presumably. Blog and learn.
I asked for the opinions of Samizdata commentariat, and got some. I don’t know why, but I expected more variety in these responses, more doubts, more reservations. Actually, the Samizdata commentariat has, so far, been uniformly approving of this guy.
Now I’m listening to him babble away, and it turns out that, being a libertarian and an atheist, I’m “touchy” - meaning oversensitive about being criticised - times two. As a libertarian I’m obsessed with marijuana and with computer hacking. (Actually: No, times two.) As an atheist, well, it turns out I dress stupidly. (Yes. True.) He does love to wind people up, which he does by saying slightly untrue and quite funny things. He’s like that classic old Fleet Street type, the Opinionated Female Columnist, whose job is to overgeneralise in ways that are quite popular and pile up the readers, and to make the Outraged Classes really really outraged, and who eventually gets … old.
I’m starting to think he may soon be a bit of a has been. But, at least he now is.
I think the article that I linked to from Samizdata may have been a peak. It is truly brilliant.
What I do like is his interest in the tactics of how to spread ideas, how to win arguments, how to be able to make arguments despite the efforts of people who want nothing except to shut him up, by saying things that shut them up.
On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.
These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders. Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:
It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.
And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.
Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.
AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees. It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.
The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.
One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition. I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).
I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.
What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.
I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.
Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.
Indeed. There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.
This posting is not so much me passing on advice as me seeking to solidify some ludicrously overdue advice from me to myself, about how to photograph speakers.
Don’t try to do it when they’re speaking.
Last night I took about two dozen photos of Dominic Frisby, who was addressing the Libertarian Home crowd at the Two Chairmen pub in Westminster. Almost all these photos were useless. This was because Frisby was talking, and when people talk, they move. The indoor light was very scarce, so the slightest motion meant a blur, and a succession of blurs was accordingly all that I got. My only photographic successes during the Frisby talk were when I switched my attention to the people listening to him. They were keeping still.
People like Richard Carey:
I think Rob clocked me, don’t you?
The only half-decent Frisby photos I got were during the Q&A, when, just like the two persons featured above, he too was listening rather than talking:
Doesn’t he look adorkable.
As to what Frisby said (on the subject of Bitcoin), well, it was all videoed, although the video camera was being hand-held, as this further snap of Richard Carey, helping out with that, illustrates:
I include that snap also because of the John Lilburne reference, Lilburne being a man whom we libertarians should be bigging up every chance we get.
Finally, a book photo. On account of Frisby’s talk beginning a few minutes earlier than I had been expecting it to, I arrived a few minutes late, and the only seat I could find was the one with Frisby’s books on it, which he had presumably earlier been sitting at. That explains the odd angle of this photo:
Both books highly recommended. More about Frisby by me (+ further links) in this Samizdata posting. In this I mentioned that Frisby was working on a Bitcoin book. As you can see, that book has now materialised.
It helps that books, like people who are listening, or for that matter doing photography, and unlike people who are talking, do not move.
It’s actually the final sentence of the Samizdata quote of the day:
Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.
It’s Edward Snowden, in one of those unwieldy comment thready things that I never read.
Guy Herbert doesn’t add what comes next, which is also good:
A free press benefits more than just those who read the paper.
Here is a picture of Edward Snowden, that I took in June of last year ...:
... in Battersea, right across the road from where the big new US Embassy is being constructed. (Pictures of that, as recently was and as soon will be, here.)
A Last Friday last Friday, then a performance at a fringe meeting at LLFF15. But, the problem was I wasn’t completely clear of the lurgy. A performance always holds illness at arms length for the duration, but only for the duration. So today the lurgy was back with a vengeance.
Tomorrow may be similarly laconic.
Here (pp. 143-5) is how Thiel explains the difference between humans and computers, and how they complement one another in doing business together:
To understand the scale of this variance, consider another of Google’s computer-for-human substitution projects. In 2012, one of their supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy. That seems impressive-until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly. When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other - they’re categorically different.
The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps. And that’s the point: computers are tools, not rivals.
Thiel then writes about how he learned about the above truths when he and his pals at Paypal solved one of their biggest problems:
In mid-2000 we had survived the dot-com crash and we were growing fast, but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10 million to credit card fraud every month. Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of transactions per minute, we couldn’t possibly review each one - no human quality control team could work that fast.
So we did what any group of engineers would do: we tried to automate a solution. First, Max Levchin assembled an elite team of mathematicians to study the fraudulent transfers in detail. Then we took what we learned and wrote software to automatically identify and cancel bogus transactions in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach wouldn’t work either: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics. We were dealing with an adaptive enemy, and our software couldn’t adapt in response.
The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily. So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy. Thanks to this hybrid system - we named it “Igor,” after the Russian fraudster who bragged that we’d never be able to stop him - we turned our first quarterly profit in the first quarter of 2002 (as opposed to a quarterly loss of $29.3 million one year before).
There then follow these sentences.
The FBI asked us if we’d let them use Igor to help detect financial crime. And Max was able to boast, grandiosely but truthfully, that he was “the Sherlock Holmes of the Internet Underground.”
The answer was yes.
Thus did the self-declared libertarian Peter Thiel, who had founded Paypal in order to replace the dollar with a free market currency, switch to another career, as a servant of the state, using government-collected data to chase criminals. But that’s another story.
Libertarian Home have been having their meetings in several different venues of late. Last night’s event was in the Prince of Wales, Covent Garden, which is on the corner of Long Acre and Drury Lane. I got there a bit early, and filled the time by strolling along Long Acre towards where the old Alternative Bookshop once was, hoping for photoable diversion, and I was not disappointed. Through a window, just across the road from Covent Garden tube, I spied, and photoed, this:
I’m pretty sure I don’t like it, but it’s definitely a Thing worth photoing. This time I remembered to photo enough information about the place to be able later to identify it. The outside didn’t actually say what the place is, merely the address. But that was enough for googling purposes. It turns out this is a Fred Perry place, where Fred Perry and Co ... does things. And this wooden Thing is a combination of reception desk, seating and window logo. The Fred Perry enterprise makes, I assume sporty stuff and in particular sporty clothing, although that’s only a guess. That Fred Perry website is all design but bizarrely little information.
It would be a lot more logical to have a reception desk, some seating, and a company logo in the window, each separate, each doing their own job, each replaceable as and when, or if decreed to be imperfect in some way. Why do all these things need to be connected? They don’t. They need not to be connected. And the reception desk bit must be very inconvenient actually to do receptioning on.
Thinking about this some more, this Thing makes me think that the Fred Perry enterprise is all about “design”, way beyond the bounds of intelligence or sanity or usefulness. The website exudes the same atmosphere. It tells you almost nothing, very prettily. The whole company seems like one of those arrogantly stylish twats whose attitude is: I don’t have to explain myself. I have your attention. I am not going to deign to use it by actually talking to you. I am wonderful and wonderfully stylish me. That is enough for mere you. Consider yourself lucky to be even seeing me.
But then, I guess that I am not their target demographic. I am neither sporty (as in actually doing sport), nor stylish (as in myself wanting to look stylish).
While trying to find some kind of link to this enterprise, I learned that Fred Perry, the man himself, Wimbledon tennis champion in the year whenever it was, was also the 1929 world champion at ping pong. Blog and learn.
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.
I kept the Samizdata posting short, and there follow a couple of paragraphs I decided not to include, because … well, I just decided not to. The posting, which was basically just saying how about this for a clever guy go and watch him was becoming too unwieldy and too full of ponderousness. So, the rest of this is me recycling my cuts here. I can’t really put what follows as a quote, but it sort of feels like maybe I should. Anyway, here we go.
There are around a dozen or more fascinating notions expounded in Thiel’s talk. One thing in particular interested me, because it is an argument that has always interested me. Extreme pessimism, says Thiel, often causes people to think that there is nothing to be done, because whatever they do is bound to fail. Very true. But extreme optimism (optimism being my preferred stance when trying to do anything) is also dangerous, because it is liable to tell you that you don’t need to do anything. Good things will happen automatically. Says Thiel: avoid both extremes. Steer a middle path. Do of a bit of both. All of which may seem very obvious to you, but I have never heard it put quite like that, and certainly not so succinctly.
Another nice and counter-consensual thing Thiel says is that failure is over-rated, because you generally only learn one of the reasons why you failed, when in fact there were probably about half a dozen.
See the early comments at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, for other bits of cleverness from this extremely clever man.
More Thiel spiel here.