Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday October 31 2008

Well I don’t get it.  The previous posting, about a church dwarfed by modernity, shows up in Firefox, but not in IE.  It was one of those troublesome ones where the picture needed to be shoved around, but this has never happened before.  So, will this posting do the same?

No sign of this in IE either.  The strange thing is, I used IE to input the postings.  Yet, IE won’t show it in the blog.  Weird.

I’m going to switch off my computer, and see if that makes any difference.

imageAs a result of seeking out Michael Jennings’s latest my-travel-year-in-pictures Samizdata posting, to mention in this Samizdata posting today, I was reminded of this fine contribution to the church dwarfed by modernity genre of Billion Monkey snap.  It’s the first picture of Michael’s posting, and was taken by him in January 2007.

Here is a bigger version.

There was some confusion posting this, caused by the picture being too big.  This extra bit of babble should sort it.  In the midst of which the posting showed up on Firefox, but not on IE.  Very peculiar.

And that’s still happening.  Will more babbling correct that?  How very strange.

Thursday October 30 2008

I enjoy whatever I do at least three times as much if I write about it, here or somewhere.  That way, instead of merely doing it, I do it, write about it, and can read about it later.  Also, others talk to me about it.  But the ratio of doings to writings can get way out of hand, with far too much getting done and hardly written about at all, to the point where it might as well not have happened.

So, for instance, I spent the whole of last weekend at the LA(/LI) Conference, but have so far managed only two short and exhausted postings about it, and have written nothing at all yet about what anyone said, and may never.  Then, on Monday night, I and three other Transport Bloggers went out to dinner, at a restaurant where the tables double up as computer screens and you can order your food with a laptop-type mouse-pad thingy.  I took pictures of all of these excitements, but so far have only managed to post a blurry picture of Marc-Henri Glendenning.  Yesterday I went out and about, and then immediately wrote about it here, which was all well and good but also caused those earlier excitements to fade that little bit from the memory.  I need a few days of staying in and catching up.

To say nothing of cleaning up and sorting out.  In, up, up, out - what a peculiar language ours is.  My small but should-be-adequate home is suffering from infrastructure overload, another sure symptom of having too much of a life, and the resulting chaos is simultaneously becoming covered in dust, so that I dare not move anything without unleashing throat cancer.  In this case I am turning the cleaning up and sorting out into a pleasurable activity by writing about it here beforehand.  When I finally get down (down?) to doing it (if I do it – I promise nothing) my worldwide fan base will for some while have been asking itself: I wonder if Brian’s now doing his cleaning up and sorting out.  And I will be thinking: yes I am.

When younger I enjoyed all the great slam-bang concertos, played by someone who, as Evelyn Waugh said of one of his characters, could “wack hell out of a piano”, or a violin, or a cello, or something.  As I get older I find I still like such slam-bangery, but that I also like tenderness and solace.  Which maybe explain the otherwise rather odd title of the latest James Bond.  It’s demographics, and the Baby Boom (me) now wants solace alongside proper James Bondery.

So anyway, and getting back to classical music, I find myself liking, say, solo piano pieces and gentle little items of chamber music, rather than only big bellowing pieces like Mahler 3.  I do still like these big pieces - I recently bought this, but I like the solacious ones also.  And come to think of it, Mahler 3 is not all slamming and banging, is it?  “Oh mensch”, etc.

Solace comes in the form not only of the playing but also of the recording.  Remember those clangy, edgy old CBS recordings, done by the likes of Rudolf Serkin and George Szell?  Well, maybe not, but take it from me, they were clangy and edgy.  I didn’t like them much then, and like them even less now.  On the other hand, do you know about the lovely complete set of the Schubert piano sonatas done by Martino Tirimo?  Lovely, and much underrated I think.  In particular, I loved the soft, un-edgy recording.  And hear also Tirimo’s superb Chopin piano concertos, now available as a bargain on Regis, which are remarkable in a very similar way, and similarly under-rated.  I know of no other recording of these concertos remotely like this recording.

imageAnother Tirimo-like antidote to the up-close-and-edgy style is John Lenehan. I recently heard him praised on CD Review, a lot, for a recording he did of some piano pieces by Philip Glass, which they compared favourably with another cheaper recording of the same pieces which was done, fatally for this music, prosaically rather than poetically, hard rather than softer.  Lenehan is definitely a poet, as they proved by playing some of his CD.  When I encountered it not long ago, going for very little, on my CD hunting travels, I snapped it up and was very happy.  John Lenehan, I thought.  A name to watch out for.

The latter day inheritor of the CBS up-close-and-edgy piano recording style is, I have too often found, Naxos, and this has tended to go along with a rather legato-light, matter-of-fact style of actual playing, by the likes of Jeno Jando.  But, when I encountered, also going for nearly nothing, a Naxos CD of John Lenehan playing the piano music of John Ireland volume three, I said, well why not?  Lenehan (tick), Ireland (also tick – I especially like his piano concerto), what’s to lose?  And what did I think of that?  Well, I immediately bought vols one and two at full Naxos price, that’s what.  Lovely playing.  And equally important, okay recording.

Some time in among all this, I noticed that John Lenehan is the pianist in one of my favourite chamber music groups, the Joachim Trio, who were responsible for one of my all time favourite CDs, of the Saint-Saens piano trios.  The playing of, in particular, trio one’s slow movement is magical, unlike any other performance I have ever heard, as I have probably said before, here or somewhere.  But then again, who the hell reads everything I write or cares if I repeat myself?  You can hear a small snatch of that here.  I’m talking about track 2, Andante.

Wednesday October 29 2008

This afternoon I and Elena the Struggling Actress went round to Gerald and Christine Hartup’s, and as soon as we got there were went out to lunch locally.  Excellent.  Then Christine and Elena went off to do their various things, and Gerald and I went back to collect a walking frame which Christine no longer needed for her recently acquired and I trust temporary state of hobbledness, and which Guy’s Hospital had said they’d like back.

Here are two pictures I took from a slightly different balcony to the one I usually take snaps from at Chateau Hartup:

imageimage

The big reflecting wall is of the huge office building they have put there to wreck the Hartup view, of St Paul’s and the City.

imageAnd then I took this portrait of me and Gerald in the lift back down.  I visited Poland in 1984 and East Berlin in 1986.  And the thing in the West that most reminds me of that Sovietised East is undoubtedly: Western lifts.  This picture has a very USSR feel to it.  Apart from the camera of course.  A Soviet camera might be quite nice, but it would be big and boxy, not small and cheap and plastic and clever.

Then we walked from Chateau Hartup, aka Rowland Hill House, which is near Southwark tube, to Guy’s Hospital, which is near London Bridge tube, so we could have taken the tube.  But the walk was massively better.  The light was perfection and all manner of amusing things presented themselves to my lens.

imageimageimageimageimageimage

When we got to Guy’s, which is a huge and hugely ugly concrete tower, we discovered that Guy’s didn’t want the walking frame and would just bin it.  Weird.  But that walking frame had got me inside the building, and from there Gerald and I journeyed upwards, first by lift, then by stairs.  Guess what floor we reached.

imageimageimageimage

In the second of those four last snaps, there looks to be a fire in progress, somewhere in the great grey expanse of South London.  I tried news-googling “Fire South London” but turned up nothing.  Maybe it’s just something industrial and deliberate.

The final snap is another view of a similarly dreary scene, but this time unimpeded by grubby glass.  We found one small opening into the breezy sunny open air.  Sadly though, there seemed no way to get a view of the river, the City, in fact the stuff that the Hartups used to see from their home.

It really is time I got Flickred.

Tuesday October 28 2008

I recently bought and started reading The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg’s biography, as his subtitle calls it, of the English language.  I did this because I wanted to learn more about how English mutated from being, in 1300, the mere language of the native English to being, by 1400, the language of the government of England, supplanting Norman French.  But the rest of the story is pretty interesting too.  This is the beginning of Chapter 9 (pp. 105-7 of the 2004 paperback edition), which is entitled “William Tyndale’s Bible”:

The prediction of the Lollards, that Wycliffe’s Bible would live on, was not a vain prophecy. Early in the reign of Henry VIII, the new king was still promising the Pope that he would burn any ‘untrue translations’. By these he meant Wycliffe’s Bible which, despite all the efforts of the court and the Church, was still relentlessly circulating in the land in hand-copied editions.

Henry VIII set his powerful and efficient Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to hunt down heretical books. Wolsey, aware that Martin Luther had shaken the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 with the demands he had nailed on the church door at Wittenberg, and as anxious as his master to please the Pope, instituted a nationwide search. On 12 May 1521, a bonfire of confiscated heretical works was made outside the original St Paul’s Cathedral. The flames, it was said, burned for two days. The great book-burning was clearly a foretaste of what could and would happen to those who insisted on challenging the Pope’s authority.

This was the year in which William Tyndale began his public preaching on St Austen’s Green and set out on the path which was to bring about a radical change both in the English language and in English society.

It is not always easy fully to comprehend or even imagine what was at stake. It was a great power battle. The reach of the Roman Catholic Church across many countries, states, principalities and peoples was unique. It was wealthy and a sought-after ally in war.  It demanded obedience through its monopoly of the one true faith.  Its parish priests covered almost every acre of ground, heard confessions, had the power to absolve sins, enforced attendance at church, the paying of Church taxes ,and conformity with the Church’s rulings on all matters of public and of private morality; even sex was a Church matter. Its great cathedrals, splendid artefacts, dazzling robes, processions and festivals provided a backdrop of glamour and excitement to what was very often a bleak and meagre existence. Above all, and key, the Church had unique access to God and so to eternal life. Only through the Roman Catholic Church could anyone contact God and have any chance of resurrection.

Wycliffe, Luther and Tyndale challenged that. They wanted ordinary people to have direct access to God, and a Bible in the language of the people was the way to make that happen. The battle over language became outright rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church as the gatekeeper to God, the claim to be His sole representative on earth, whose earthly laws all Christians must obey every bit as much as they obeyed the laws of heaven. This had proved intolerable to different groups over the centuries and now the river of protest was swelling. The rebellion was led by deeply religious men and women. They too believed in the virgin birth, in the divinity of Christ, above all in the Resurrection. They were light years away from atheism or even agnosticism. They wanted the souls of the people to be saved but not through orders and sermons handed down from a central Latinate control in Rome for whose authority they found no evidence in the Bible. And to the rebels, the face of the soul was the most vital matter in life: it was worth dying for.

Centuries later there would be those who would feel much the same about liberty, but even they could not have been more zealous, even fanatical, more totally convinced of the rightness of their cause as men such as William Tyndale were of theirs. After all, Tyndale was doing no less than serve the one true God, the maker of all things, the Creator, the Almighty, the giver and taker of life, the judge of all men and women, the harvester of the good, the slayer of evil. There could be no greater service in life than to do His work.

To Tyndale, English was, in effect, the way in which God could best reach the people of that language and the way in which they could best reach Him. The fight for the English Bible was a battle for salvation through the scriptures. To a priest who challenged him, Tyndale replied, ‘Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.’

Like Wycliffe, Tyndale was an Oxford classical scholar and like Wycliffe he wholly contradicts the idea that such a scholar who was also, as Tyndale was, an ordained priest, was faced to be a mild, place-seeking conformist. Tyndale took risks and lived a life comparable to that of any twentieth-century revolutionary ‘hero’, and met an end worse than most of them.

Monday October 27 2008

imageFor the third day running, this is a holding posting, the blogging equivalent of blogging but not blogging.  Tonight, I will be consorting with my fellow Transport Bloggers.  I’ve done no Transport Blogging for quite a while, so this may galvanise me.  But, I promise nothing.  But I do I expect an enjoyable evening.

Meanwhile, there’s a random transport picture, one of this set.  See also this recent snap.

Sunday October 26 2008

imageWell, I’m back from the conference, but I’m totally exhausted, having got up an hour earlier than I needed to this morning, what with the clocks going back an hour.  So instead of writing exhausted rubbish now, I’ll write about it a bit more coherently tomoprrow.  Meanwhile, that’s a picture of the final speaker, Marc-Henri Glendenning, looking cool.  Just to confirm, it is me that’s knackered.  He wasn’t knackered at all.

Despite my exhaustion, the conference was, for me, and to my certain knowledge for many others, very enjoyable.

Saturday October 25 2008

Yes, today I will be at Liberty 2008, all day, and then most of the evening at the Saturday dinner.  Michael J has acquired a dongle for me which I hoped would enable me to post stuff from there, but I can’t make it work, and he is in China.  So, probably no more bloggage here until Sunday evening.  On the other hand, I will still take Jesus-the-little-laptop with me, and may concoct some stuff, and just shovel it in when I get back home Saturday night.  But, I promise nothing.

Friday October 24 2008

Quoth Fraser Nelson:

It’s funny to hear politicians solemnly talk about “debt-financing”, as if the cash comes down on a moonbeam from the lending gods. In truth, some poor souls have to buy the gilts the Treasury are flogging – and with what? Governments may well find it as hard as the rest of us to find creditors in this global downturn. Especially seeing as the Treasury is flogging a tanking pound, now tainted with the risk of Britain losing its AAA rating (unlikely, but so was the nationalisation of the banks). Consider the sheer scale of cash Brown wants from the City. In 2007/08 net gilt issuance was £29bn – bad enough, but that’s likely to more than treble to £100bn this year.

Meanwhile, I have been snapping every Evening Standard billboard for the last I don’t know how many days.

image

My idea, illustrated there, is to snap not only the billboards (although one of every one of those I see will make a fine collection), but also to capture something of the surroundings of each billboard.  So, in that one, the joke is that Mr Brown can get the Government Credit Card and get 125 billion quid out of a wall.  You see?

And here, we have a world turned upside down:

image

That was at Vauxhall tube station, on Thursday night.  And the one about the 125 billion was taken on the way to my home from Pimlico tube, outside the off-license.

Thursday October 23 2008

Thanks to the Graham Norton show for alerting me to this important circumstance:

image

Story here.

I also learned that Ricky Gervais is on the The Top 25 Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians list, at number 3, just below Kim Jong-Il.

The reason I like Sarah Palin is all the BBC lovies who hate her, and they really do hate her. And the reason I hate Obama is that all the lovies adore him.  Both judgments are doubtless flawed, but there you go.

Now they’re showing joke record covers.  I seem to remember a blogger doing all the work for that.

Wednesday October 22 2008

As a general rule I am not a fan of the twentieth century A-Chimpanzee-Could-Do-That style of abstract art.  If, approximately speaking, a chimpanzee could indeed do it, where’s the art?  Also, the randomness of such paintings is, I believe, a deliberate attempt to undermine a central assumption of the Bourgeois Way of Life, to which I enthusiastically subscribe, which says: We Can Make Sense Of The World.  We can understand it, tell stories about it with beginnings, middles and ends, represent it accurately and illuminatingly.  Erecting A-C-C-D-T squiggle and splodge pictures says: Oh no you can’t.

There’s more to Modern Art than this (see this posting and my comments on this one), but I definitely think that deliberate senselessness - anti-sensibleness - is a part of the story.

But when what you see is actually the consequence of someone doing something sensible, and it merely happens to look like A-C-C-D-T Art, that’s different.  That can be rather fun.

Consider this, vaguely Pollockian effort:

image

Click to get the real story there.  It’s really an advertising spot on the Tube where they’ve been tearing off the old posters, and have yet to scrape off the last of it, or whatever they do next.

Or this soothingly Rothkotic daub, snapped in the evening sunshine by me today:

image

That’s a square of paint of the sort they replace graffiti with in my neighbourhood.

Or these window patterns:

image

That was taken on Tuesday night, which was totally cloudless.  Hence the bright blue on the slightly open window, which is thus looking up to the sky.  The thing is, “glass” has changed a lot lately.  It used to be completely flat.  Not any more.  Now it is stronger, but wobbly and curvy.  It bends.  And the reflections go all over the place.  My camera is not very good at doing pictures like this, but you get the idea.

But my question is: If it were not for A-C-C-D-T Art, would I enjoy these things that merely look like A-C-C-D-T Art, but are actually sensible, so much?  I believe not.  I believe that these mere consequences of sanity, done by people who get zero prestige in the wider world for their efforts, and quite rightly because they weren’t even trying and it wasn’t at all hard (there was very little Art involved), are a standing reproach to the insanity of doing, and worse, worshipping things that look like this, done deliberately, just for the sake of how they look, with no sensible other purpose in mind.

Or, does A-C-C-D-T Art justify itself, by causing us to enjoy what would otherwise not be that amusing?

I also like this:

image

It’s just a chipboard slab protecting some work they were doing on Westminster Bridge.  I came across it while getting the other pictures above ready for this posting, and its relevance is, I think, pretty obvious.  And pretty too, I think.

Tuesday October 21 2008

If I lived in a central London office, high up, I’d have seen this sight many times before, but for me, it was a first.  I took it from the top of Tower 42 last week.  It’s of a bus, with a white roof and a number.  The white roof got my attention on the day, hence the photo, but I only realised there was a number on it later.  Here’s the bit of the picture that matters, photo-enhanced to counter the mistiness of the day and the crappiness of my Billion Monkey zoom lens:

image

As you can just about see, the number on the top of the bus is not the same number as the number on its number plate.

Is this how each bus stop with an electric sign that says how soon to expect all the buses that are due and where they are going knows how soon to expect all the buses that are due and where they are going?  If so, I’m for it.  Those signs are excellent.

Monday October 20 2008

Instapundit offers an interesting angle on why the mainstream media have been so very biased during this latest US election in particular.  Asset stripping:

I think they also feel that as the big media lose viewers and circulation, this may be their last chance to swing an election, and so there’s no point saving their credibility for future engagements.

To hell with the future of the business, because it has no future.  Only this time, instead of just pocketing some money by selling an asset, they are using an asset up to achieve something else.  Interesting idea.

Personally, I think that the power of the big bad media to swing elections is always rather exaggerated.  The assumption often is that the voters follow the media, but really it’s the other way around.  And anyway, if the media are against you, tough.  Deal with it.  Other sections of society are with you, and biased against the other fellow.  Same here in the UK.  Politics means, as the golfers say, playing the ball where it lies.

As for the Palin thing, which I wrote about here earlier, I think all this financial turmoil has turned this election away from the question: Who do we like?  And instead it’s now about: Who are we punishing for all this shit?  And: What do we do now?  And: Who looks cooler in a crisis, now that we have a crisis?

Palin is not so much a good choice that has gone bad, as beside the point.  Personally, I don’t think she has gone bad.  I stick with my opinion that she is no worse than the other three, and I don’t think she has harmed McCain at all.  It’s more that she is now rather irrelevant, and her continuing likeability no longer counts for so much.  Biden, on the other hand, looks like death warmed up.  Regular, old, untransformed politics at its dullest,most off-putting and most uncharismatic.  And that doesn’t matter either.

If McCain now wins, or if McCain merely loses more narrowly than is now being assumed, will it then be said that this was because of the power of the big bad blogosphere?

Further thought: I find that I have the same feeling about Obama as I had about Boris Johnson for Mayor of London.  Curiosity.  It will just be very interesting to see how an Obama presidency plays out.  My guess is: business pretty much completely as usual, but enough little stuff to enrage the right, and somewhat disappoint the left.

Sunday October 19 2008

I have spent all my spare blogging time today finishing this, which is a review of this.

Saturday October 18 2008

Here’s what I learned about democracy from the whole 1970s 1980s switch.  Democracy tolerates economic mediocrity, but it won’t tolerate economic catastrophe for any length of time without demanding radical corrective action to restore mediocrity.  The only way you can utterly ruin a democratic country is to abolish the democracy bit.  So, leftists now exulting that they have finally contrived the ruin of the British economy in the form of a dose of nationalisation so serious as to ruin the British economy are due for some serious disappointment.  If financial services no longer enable the nation’s books to be balanced, something else will have to be found.  To make this kind of uncorrected ruin stick, they will have to stop having general elections, and place themselves in permanent command.

Which is not going to happen.  Once the seriousness of the current British economic predicament becomes clear to Britain’s voters, the electorate is going to demand public spending cuts, tax cuts, the whole libertarian economic shebang.  It worked last time we were in this kind of mess, and it will work again.  (See this earlier posting, and this SQOTD.)

Until mediocrity is restored.  Which is when it becomes the turn of us libertarians to be disappointed.  We will want the policy momentum towards true economic excellence to be maintained.  But the voters will be satisfied with mediocrity, again.  And then the voters will get bored with mere mediocrity, without wanting anything done to improve on it, and they’ll vote for another dose of ruin.  And so on, for ever and ever and ever.

Actually I don’t think that all this will happen, because history doesn’t ever quite repeat itself.  As soon as you have yourself a plausible pendulum theory of perpetual see-saw, something happens to smash the see-saw.  But which bit of this see-saw theory is wrong?  Is there now no ruin?  Will general elections be abolished?  Will the voters, this time around, settle for ruin?  Will the voters not want ruin, but will no political party be willing to offer what it takes to avoid ruin?  Will the voters demand, this time around, something better than mediocrity?  Will they demand it, but not get it, because no political party in Britain will be willing to offer it?  If they do get back to mediocrity, will they never vote to mess it up again with further ruin, ever?

Interesting times.

By the way, all this Laffer talk is a reason to be really sorry for Americans.  They are still on this side, the good side, of the Laffer Curve.  There is no more ruin for the lefties to play with in Britain.  In American, there’s plenty more, God help them.

Friday October 17 2008

James Forsyth turns to fast medium bowling in cricket to describe Gordon Brown:

To use a sporting analogy, Brown reminds me of one of those workhorse English swing bowlers who is devastating in the right conditions but on an unresponsive wicket gets carted around the park. Looking at the medium-term economic prospects, I suspect that the juice will have gone out of the pitch for Brown before the next election.

But swing bowling depends on the state of the atmosphere, not the pitch.  He means seam bowling.  Besides which, the reason the pitch is now helping Gordon Brown is he spent the previous ten years trampling all over it.

Still, it makes a change from spin.

Thursday October 16 2008

This posting by Guido several days ago has me puzzled.  Unless I am much mistaken Guido gets the Austrians 180 degrees wrong on the subject of the recent interest rate cut.  I questioned Antoine Clarke closely, during this conversation, about the difference between what Monetarists say about cutting interest rates now (yes) and what the Austrians say (no), yet Guido, following a picture of the cover of The Theory of Money and Credit by Von Mises, says this:

Guido can summarise the primary policy response to the situation we are in succinctly: cut interest rates.

The clear implication being that this is a summary not only of the current Monetarist position (as recently derided at Samizdata by Paul Marks) but also of the Austrian position.

There are 188 and counting comments after Guido’s posting, but a brief skim through them found no complaint along these lines, although mention was made of how Monetarists do support a nationalised money industry, which makes it hard to complain when it screws up.  But if any commenter there picked up on the particular matter of this particular muddling together of the two positions, I missed it.

I have used the word “genius” to describe Guido Fawkes in the past, and will surely do so again.  He is a propagandist without peer, just now.  But that’s all the more reason to bellow when he gets something important wrong.  So, Antoine (in particular), I think Guido does have this wrong, and I think you do too.  Doesn’t he?  Don’t you?  And this is no small error.  It goes to the heart of what this market turmoil is all about and what should now be done about it.  I want to get this very clear, here in the privacy of Brian Micklethwait dot Com, before removing the question marks and writing further on the subject, slightly more publicly, e.g. at Samizdata.

Wednesday October 15 2008

imageToday I and a friend willing to tolerate me taking photos instead of having Intelligent Conversation all the time visited the top of the London Tower formerly known as NatWest, now Tower 42.  I duly took lots of photos, but the weather was misty and my pictures were duly mistified.  This view was my favourite, partly because it has a foreground, which makes the background mistiness if not less misty then at least less annoying, but mostly because it features the Gherkin, and the Docklands Towers, two of my London favourites.  And, roof clutter!

This picture also shows why the view from the Gherkin is not perfect.  Tower 42 blocks a large lump of it.  You nearly can’t see the Gherkin from the restaurant we were in, which is called Vertigo 42, but you can, partly, suficiently.

To go to this restaurant you have to ring up and book between 9 and 10 am.  Just turning up doesn’t work.  I know, because I tried this.  Have you a booking?  No.  Well then piss off, or words to that effect.

imageFingers crossed they will still build the Shard of Glass, despite all the recent financial turmoil.  The picture on the right, more typical of the dreary snaps I took, includes the place where that will be built, if built.  At the foot of the big grey tower there are red cranes at work.  They are dismantling what remains of the big building under the white sheeting.  When that is gone, either it will be replaced by the Shard of Glass, or there will be a big empty space.  As for the SoG, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Tuesday October 14 2008

The conclusion that Antoine and Michael arrived at in this conversation was that there should be no more inflation, but that there should be public spending cuts, but that whatever was done there would be huge grief in the short run.  The only question was how soon the grief could be got out of the way, and something like normal service resumed.

Thinking about this some more, I think we libertarians are in a position to be a bit more upbeat about all this, because we have the only real answer to this mess.  Serious public spending cuts and serious tax cuts are how you get an economy to go from mediocre to good.  We know this.  And this is also how you get an economy to go from disastrous to non-disastrous.  Politically, getting people to want better than mediocre is hard.  But getting people to prefer non-disastrous to disastrous is automatic.  You only have to say it.  It’s the difference between most people having an okay life and you threatening to poke them with the stick of economic dynamism, and most people having a seriously depressing life and you promising to wave the magic wand of economic dynamism.  Similar policies, but opposite politics.

That’s one reason to be optimistic about the immediate prospects for libertarian-ish ideas, certainly in Britain.  Another is that as soon as measures like these are even talked about, the prospect of economic improvement, which would definitely be perceived by “the markets” if not immediately by the general public, becomes an economic fact in its own right, now.  Announcing measures like these is the only feasible way for the government to effect any improvement in the economy, now, and it would indeed achieve benefts now.  The politicians are all running around bleating that they must somehow, anyhow, restore “confidence”.  This is the way to do it.  Even shouting from the touchline that this is the way to do it will improve things a bit.  So, we should shout as loud as we can.

In terms of such things actually being done any time soon, everything hinges on the difference between what people who matter would like to be true, and what they actually think is true, the latter being the important thing, as George Stigler (I think it was) explained long ago in a particular good essay (link anyone?).  Many people, including some very powerful people, would like nationalisation to work.  They would like to be able to command the economy to become more dynamic, in fact they would love it.  They would love to believe that they possess the power to micromanage the world into being a better place.  But far fewer such people any longer believe that such things are actually possible.  The evidence is now in that if you want to get an economy to motor some more, or in this case to motor at all, you have to cut public spending and cut tax rates.  Whether you like these policies does not matter.  Reality does not care what you think of it.

Some now fear a depression, basically because, then as now, the answer to the problems caused by inflation was widely believed to be more inflation, at least in the short term.  Which is what has just happened.  But there are, thank goodness, differences between now and circa 1930, one huge difference in particular.  Then, the option existed greatly to expand government spending, government regulation and government interference in markets local, national and international, and there were an appallingly large number of people who thought that such interference would improve matters.  But we now live in a world in which such illusions are far harder to sustain.  We’ve tried all that nonsense, and look what happened.  Those delusions were what created the Great Depression, and the great war which followed.  The Crash only caused the Depression in the sense that it provoked idiots into doing these idiotic things.  I think think that policy makers are now still rather foolish, but not this foolish.

The bad news is that this open goal for libertarian measures only exists because things have become seriously worse than adequate, not because there is any widespread hunger for things to be seriously better than adequate.  The public would still be content for us to jog along at the top of the Laffer Curve.  All that has happened is that we have now, very suddenly, been revealed to be sliding down the far side, the right hand side, of the Laffer Curve, the bit where tax rates are seriously more than the economy can survive, and the public demands whatever corrective action will work.  But correcting the mere mediocrity of life at the top of the Laffer Curve, by demanding a slide down the left hand side of it, to tax rates and tax yields that are seriously lower than the economy could manage, resulting in life that would in most ways be seriously better, is something that electorates don’t yet seem to be ready to accept.

Monday October 13 2008

My blogroll is getting much too big and unwieldy, and there is a reason for this.  I add people because they look fun and interesting, but am reluctant to chuck them off, because that feels like I think they’re evil or something, when all it really is is: thanks, Sir/Madam, fun while it lasted but just for now I am off reading other stuff.  Plus, you never know when I might get interested again.  Nothing follows from this.  I’m just, ATSIA (a new acronym I have just invented – what do you think it means?), saying.

imageIf you are thinking that this is the kind of stream-of-conscousness bollocks I write when my self-imposed midnight deadline is approaching, and I can’t find or can’t be bothered to put up anything more interesting, you are right.  All that seriousness yesterday afternoon, and then having to post it in the evening took its toll.

The picture to the right (click click) is (pause while I dig up a picture) scaffolding for people to work on a roof.  It reminds me vaguely of medieval and military things, like that tower from which comedy Frenchmen hurled insults at comedy Englishmen, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail I think it was.  It’s the sticking out shape, I think, like it’s been deliberately made to be hard to climb up the outside of, and the zigzagged edge of the top suggests it was done in a grea hurry.  I took this photo today.

Sunday October 12 2008

Having last week got a very good description of what the problem is from Tom Burroughes, this afternoon I got some good answers from Antoine Clarke and Michael Jennings to the what-should-be-done? question.  Doing nothing would be better than what they are doing now.  Better still would be to cut public spending in all countries (notably the USA) where the budget deficit is big.  Yes that will all be horrible, but the horror will be sorted relatively soon.  What they are actually doing will prolong the misery, which is what they have done in Japan, as Michael J explained.  Trying to ensure a soft landing, as they are now, will merely leave the wreckage on the runway indefinitely.  The runway wreckage metaphor did not occur in the conversation but lots of other regular get-the-grief-over-with-quickly metaphors did, notably surgery.  If you have to have an operation, you want it all done at once.

Michael made the point that a lot of what has passed for “prudence” during recent years was: not.  He spoke with feeling about how he had been mocked for not buying a house.  But he looked at the cost of houses, and compared it with the rents you could charge for them, i.e. the income that houses yielded, and said: no deal, I will rent.  We did not also mention, but might have, that choosing a bank to put your money in entirely on the basis of the interest it is offering, with no thought of its chances of failing, is likewise imprudent.  These are not things that our politicians will be stepping forward to say in the next few weeks, but they are surely true, are they not?

But, recent incoming from Michael:

By the way, I think I was far too sanguine about employees sympathetic to management being able to help a company adapt its way through a liquidity crisis. In truth I think any company is pretty much dead the moment it misses payroll.

In other words, Michael reckons he tried to make the short term misery sound not quite as miserable as it will really be.  A temptation that all our politicians will understand only too well.

What a mess.

By the way, this conversation was recorded straight into a laptop computer, not with the lapel mikes usually use, and quality has suffered a little.  But we can all be heard, I think.  Saying quality things is what matters with this kind of exercise.

Saturday October 11 2008

This is a famous photo of a Spitfire “wingtipping” a V1, that is, shoving its wing under the V1’s wing, raising its wing, and making the V1 go off course:

image

I’m doing a review of this book (which includes this photo), which will go up at Samizdata Real Soon Now.  Where I found it involved too much scrolling down for convenience, so I’m putting it here, and will then link to here.

Friday October 10 2008

This is me celebrating the fact that I can now sit down in my living room with Jesus (aka my ASUS micro-laptop that cost just over 200 quid) and type stuff into my blog, which previously I couldn’t because Jesus wasn’t able to tune in to my router.  Don’t ask me to explain if you didn’t get that.

Oddly, this has not been an urgent problem, which is why it has taken so long to get it set up.  My main uses of Jesus so far have been: showing pictures to my Mum, and typing longer essays in local coffee shops.

The showing pictures to Mum thing is no mere triviality.  Printing out actual pictures, which is the obvious thing to do for pre-computer people, doesn’t work well for Mum, because she doesn’t want to keep pictures, which is because she has enough stuff already.  Her problem is getting rid of stuff, not acquiring more.  That being the case, she doesn’t like print outs, because she dislikes the thought of print outs only for her but only of temporary value to her.  They’re a waste.  So, a temporary display pleases her far more.  And since the object of the exercise is to please Mum, this is, as I say, no triviality.  It is also no triviality that Jesus’s screen is really very good – at its price it is amazingly good.

And the other thing I now use Jesus for is writing longer pieces, which I don’t find nearly as easy as writing little throwaway things like most of what you get here, and like, for instance, this.  My longer, polished pieces are worth the effort, but they are an effort.  Especially in my home, where there is so much to distract me, like all the great classical music ever composed that I like, the internet, little things like that.  So, what I do is I take Jesus to a local coffee shop and do the writing there.  The keyboard is not so convenient, but it can be got used to.  But the good thing is: no distraction.  Nothing else to do but type stuff into Jesus.  No CDs.  No internet.  No books, magazines, TV, DVDs, food (other than what I’ve paid for), drink (ditto), and no incoming phone calls, given that my mobile is known to only about five people.

One thing I have found, though, is that to use Jesus comfortably, I need a coffee shop that positively welcomes laptop computers and the geeks who use them.  I don’t like even the slightest hint of my laptopping not being welcome.  So, signs outside advertising the internet connection rate per hour are a big plus, even though I will not be purchasing such a connection.  Such signs tell me: geeks welcome.  Equally important: people who look askance at geeks, not welcome.  Such things matter to me.  I care about the opinions of passing strangers, and the whole point is to find some place where writing on Jesus is not just possible, but downright comfortable.  Yesterday I found just the kind of place I mean, a nice walk away from where I live, the best yet.  Cheap all-you-can-eat salads (defined pretty much any kind of food that can be served cold), and coffee with lots of milk that I actually like, in thosetall glass mugs with handles.  Lovely.

And ... posted.  All that while The Guru has been doing other stuff on my regular computer.  The first thing The Guru having done was to set up Jesus as described above.  Thank you The Guru.

imageIncoming from Patrick Crozier, transport blogger and transport podcaster:

Didn’t you cover this?

Indeed I did.

Anyway seems the cat has saved the whole railway.

Tama the stationmaster now has two assistants, Miko and Chibi.

Thursday October 09 2008

Just now on BBC4 they’re coming over all nostalgic about the railways, and I watched a show about a woman walking along a defunct railway line in Wales.  Very restful.  The climax of the show was arriving at this:

image

The lady on the telly approached it from the other side, I think, but apart from that, that was pretty much how it looked.  So, I couldn’t ignore that, could I?

UPDATE: This is good too.  And this.

Yes, incoming from Antoine:

I’m giving the quarterly Putney Debates talk this Friday at the Evans’.

Here’s the topic and a short description which was not included in the mail shot. I’m sure many of you will not be able to attend, but I thought the topic might interest you.

Your comments are appeciated.

TITLE: The Corporate Welfare State in crisis: its impact on the current US elections and the failure of free market movements

The collapse of several banks and other financial companies in recent weeks has been met by an incredible attempt by governments to spend their way out of debt problems.

As anyone with a minimum of common sense could figure out, the solutions being applied can only make things worse, like giving cash to a crack addict in exchange for a promise he’ll try to stop soon.

At this time, I don’t anticipate private currencies as emerging to gain significant use, although a resurgence of the LETS and similar schemes can be expected at a local level. However, they would offer some advantages over the collective insanity we are experiencing at this time.

The sad truth is that one man could have stopped this only last week: Senator John McCain. If he had refused to go along with this nonsense (which I understand is both the Republican candidate’s own assessment and a view supported by three quarters of US voters) the “rescue plan” would have collapsed and with it, the massive additional debt and government waste piled into the bail out package. He went against his instincts, I gather out of a misguided sense of duty and a lack of confidence in his economic judgment (which has been rather better than most Republicans in recent years).

For free market movements, this state of affairs can only be described as a defeat. We have utterly failed to perpetuate the wisdom acquired in the 1970s in the UK and the USA, when stagflation nearly brought about the collapse of our societies.

What do we do now?

I agree that this has been a defeat but I think only a partial one.  I don’t think that we have “utterly” failed to perpetuate the wisdom acquired in the 1970s.  I think that “we”, especially the American libertarian movement (Reason, Cato, Von Mises Institute) have perpetuated this wisdom, and are now making quite a lot of public sense.  But merely keeping ideas alive is one thing.  Making them dominant is a longer job.  We need not be too depressed that this still remains to be done.

To book into the Putney Debate and get the address, email Tim Evans at: tim dot evans78 at btinternet dot com.

Wednesday October 08 2008

The paucity of posts yesterday was because last night the server that hosts this blog developed problems of some kind, which meant that this blog loaded very very slowly, if at all, and it was the same for me when I tried to post stuff.  A phone call and the pushing of a few buttons at the far end sorted things.  A switch was rebooted (whatever that means), and all should now be well.

Meanwhile: apologies.

Tuesday October 07 2008
Monday October 06 2008

imageThe only SDHC card reader (see below) I could quickly obtain was a replacement for my previous multi-card reader rather than a smaller addition just for SDHCs.  But, it works, and I celebrate with another characteristic Billion Monkey snap, taken only moments after the one below.  Billion Monkeys keep still, which on crowded pavements and in fading light can create some nice effects.

Sunday October 05 2008

Says Wikipedia, concerning the Secure Digital card (SD card to us Billion Monkeys):

The format has proven to be very popular. However, a change in the format, while allowing capacities greater than 4 GB (SDHC), has created compatibility issues with older devices which cannot read the new format. Since SDHC format cards have the same physical shape and form factor as the older format, this has caused considerable confusion for consumers.  SDHC cards require an SDHC capable device firmware, generally not found with older devices.

Indeed.  On Thursday I bought a 4GB SD card, and on Saturday I went a-snapping.  4GB SD cards of the sort I bought cost £14.95, which was too good to ignore, given that with a 2GB SD card, I sometimes run out of space.  My Billion Monkey camera had no problem with the new 4GB SD card, but today I discovered that my regular computer’s add-on card reader does have a problem.  I noticed that my new SD card had the letter HC next to SD.  Luckily Jesus was my saviour.  I put my SDHC card in Jesus, my mini-laptop computer, and Jesus read it.  So I picked a good picture that I took, and transferred it to Jesus, and from Jesus onto an SD not HC (i.e. not High Capacity) and from that into my regular computer.

Many might respond to this silly circumstance by saying: why didn’t you realise beforehand?  It’s not as if this problem was unknown, or even complicated.  Well, frankly, I find it easier to jump my technological fences when I get to them, instead of studying fences beforehand that I may never face.  When I read a book I don’t do it to ensure that whatever camera picture cards I use will always work, but to learn about something interesting, like the fourteenth century.

imageWhat I like about the picture is how the three central figures form a quite complicated sculpture, with their heads all at the same level, the complication being made necessary by the steps.  The man and the woman both want the Wheel behind the man they are photoing, and the other woman wants to see the screen on the Billion Monkey lady’s camera, which you can’t do unless you get up close to it.

Tomorrow I will try to buy a reader for SDHC cards, and I hope it will be cheap.  If I fail then I fail, and will have to think of something else, probably involving wires, which I hate.

Saturday October 04 2008

imageLast Thursday Tom Burroughes – aka, I am now allowed to reveal, Johnathan Pearce of Samizdata – and I sat down to talk, chez moi, about the recent dramas on the financial markets and banking industries of the world.  What the hell is happening?  What should be done about it?  And finally, and a bit of an afterthought: what effect will these dramas have on the libertarian ideological enterprise to which both of us have long been contributors.

The entire thing lasted for fifty minutes.  The first half, roughly, was a description by Tom of what has been happening, with me only asking the occasional question.  Half of the rest was Tom saying what to do about it, and then we both talked about the impact of it all on the ideological background.  I was happy with part one, and with part three, but somewhat less convinced by part two.  As I said to Tom during our talk, he came over as a libertarian being asked to clean up a nationalised industry, and it was not a question he seemed comfortable with.  It was a bad sign, I felt, when he began his answer about what should be done by talking about what shouldn’t.

But the point of these things is not simply to instruct the masses with perfect fluency, who in any case are unlikely to be listening in mass type numbers.  It is to educate us.  If Tom agrees with me that he has a bit of a way to go before he has a convincing answer to the what-is-to-be-done? question, well this recorded conversation will speed up his thinking on that.  So, no worries about that.

More about all this from Tom Burroughes aka Johnathan Pearce here, here, and here.

I also particularly like this.

Friday October 03 2008

Is this a wind-up, ho ho?  Well, no it’s not.  At first I thought some bright spark had finally created a mobile computer powered not by batteries filled up with electricity with a wire attached to a wall, but by batteries replenished by the user winding them up, like those wind-up radios.  But this particular “wind” (as in moving air) merely means rather more batteries than usual, and hence rather longer battery life, nine hours instead of nearer to three.  But a wind-up computer sounds to me like a really good idea, unless of course winding-up would take ten hours, to get ten minutes of computer time.

So, although this is not happening now, could it ever, I wonder?  Let’s see if google can enlighten me.  It appears that there was a lot of excitement about such a device a few years ago, but nothing much seems to have come of it.  Or, if it has caused any stir, I entirely missed it.

Thursday October 02 2008

Last night I went out to dinner with two of my closest friends, and discovered something that regular diners-out must be very familiar with, but which was new to me.  If what follows is all very obvious and not in your opinion worth blogging about, well, it’s my blog and you read it at your own risk.

So anyway, I have always been fond of dining/coffee-ing/pubbing with one other person, because that way there is just one conversation, and you both concentrate on making it an interesting conversation.  What I had not appreciated until last night was that the upper limit to such concentrated conversational effort is not two but three.  This is because if two people are having a conversation at a three headed dinner, number three cannot be conversing with anyone else, and is simply obliged to participate, and numbers one and two are likewise obliged to include number three in their conversation.  To do otherwise would be absurdly rude.  But, as soon as you get to four, the dynamic changes completely.  Suddenly there are conversational choices to be made, and a felling that politeness demands that various different permutations should be sampled. Depth gives way to variety, and not always in a god way.  One choice is all four in one conversation.  But there are three different pairings of conversations that can also occur without any descents into nastiness, making four possibilities in all.  From one to four is a big change.

So, where did this notion come from that two is company, while three is a crowd come from?  The answer is that when someone has the alternative of leaving the threesome and doing something else, like going out or sulking in a bedroom, that changes everything.  Then, two can develop their own world, leaving number three out of it.  But dinner together cuts off that alternative, temporarily but definitely.

And together, three can do even more depth than two, if all three listen to each other.

Wednesday October 01 2008

imageHere’s another of my photos (click to get it bigger) that looks rather more like a painting, or perhaps this time a rather flat sculpture, this time a very sharply painted abstract, from the 1960s, say.  What it really is is the inside of Kings Place (see also this posting), the new arts centre stroke office block new home of the Guardian, which is on the way from Kings Cross station to where I teach every Tuesday night.  It opens today, with some event or other.  Last night it was almost deserted, and rather dull.  It needs people in it.  This particular view is looking straight upwards, up to the very roof of it all from its very deep lowest floor, with the cylindrical bit on one side of the space, and rectangular bits on the other sides.  This was taken from within my bag using my sneaky twiddly screen, because this does not look like the kind of place where they encourage photography, by any but their preferred Real Photographers.