Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Propaganda
I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism. And very good it is. Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:
After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal. Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism. Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.
Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control. Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run. Nor was Owen a political revolutionary. What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work. Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.
Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve. Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.
Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester. Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year. Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill. He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time). However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.
Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits. New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families. It was most necessary for orphans. Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands. David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well. By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.
Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.
The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire. According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit. But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.
Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop. Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.
At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer. One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.
As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.
Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical. John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”
Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”
Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia. Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.
Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose. Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan. He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.
Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success. Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”
New Harmony soon started to fall apart. Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all. A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.
The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare. When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate. (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)
After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.
One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.
The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories. He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism. Mexico demurred. Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures. He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year. Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product. The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices. The labour exchanges collapsed too.
Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:
Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.
Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground. One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.
Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world. Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.
Presumably “Paris” doesn’t include La Défense, which is out on the edge of Paris. Those Big Things are very big indeed. What they’re talking about here is building Big Things in the centre of Paris.
And the thing is, this Thing not very tall at all:
In London, this sort of thing would hardly be noticed.
But the fact that this new Thing is not that big is deliberate.
“This project is not a high-rise, but embodies a shift in attitude, and this gradual increase marks a willingness to reconsider the potential of height and will change the city landscape little by little,” said the architects.
They know that if they are to get any new truly Big Things anywhere near the centre of Paris, the first step is to make some things that are not Big, but just a tiny bit bigger. First you get the opposition to concede the principle, with something that doesn’t arouse huge opposition. Then you gradually increase the heights, until finally you get your Big Things, and the opposition unites too late. And by then it’s too small, because lots of people actually like the new Big Things. This is how politics is done. And this is politics.
The last, and so far only new and truly Big Thing anywhere near the middle of Paris (other than the Eiffel Tower) is the Montparnasse Tower, which was completed in 1973. Compared to almost everything else in central Paris, before or since, the Montparnasse Tower is very tall indeed. It aroused a lot of opposition by embodying such an abrupt, even contemptuous, change of Paris skyscraper policy, and judging by what happened for the next forty years, that opposition was very successful. This time around, those who want Big Parisian Things are going about it more carefully, as the above quote shows.
Speaking of politics, who is that geezer in the picture, in the picture? A politician, I’ll bet.
I am reading In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans. The attackers are the post-modernists. In Chapter 3 ("Historians and their facts"), Evans writes about how evidence considered insignificant in one era can become highly significant in a later era:
The traces left by the past, as Dominick LaCapra has observed, do not provide an even coverage of it. Archives are the product of the chance survival of some documents and the corresponding chance loss or deliberate destruction of others. They are also the products of the professional activities of archivists, which therefore shape the record of the past and with it the interpretations of historians. Archivists have often weeded out records they consider unimportant, while retaining those they consider of lasting value. This might mean for example destroying vast and therefore bulky personnel files on low-ranking state employees such as ordinary soldiers and seamen, manual workers and so on, while keeping room on the crowded shelves for personnel files on high state officials. Yet such a policy would reflect a view that many historians would now find outmoded, a view which considered ‘history’ only as the history of the elites. Documents which seem worthless to one age, and hence ripe for the shredder, can seem extremely valuable to another.
Let me give an example from my personal experience. During research in the Hamburg state archives in the I98os, I became aware that the police had been sending plain-clothes agents into the city’s pubs and bars during the two decades or so before the First World War to gather and later write down secret reports of what was being said in them bysocialist workers. The reports I saw were part of larger files on the various organizations to which these workers belonged. Thinking it might be interesting to look at a wider sample, I went through a typewritten list of the police files with the archivist, and among the headings we came across was one which read: ‘Worthless Reports’. Going down into the muniment room, we found under the relevant call-number a mass of over 20,000 reports which had been judged of insufficient interest by the police authorities of the day to be taken up into the thematic files where I had first encountered this material. It was only by a lucky chance that they had not already been destroyed. They turned out to contain graphic and illuminating accounts of what rank-and-file socialist workers thought about almost every conceivable issue of the day, from the Dreyfus affair in France to the state of the traffic on Hamburg’s busy streets. Nobody had ever looked at them before. Historians of the labour movement had only been interested in organization and ideology. But by the time I came to inspect them, interest had shifted to the history of everyday life, and workers’ views on the family, crime and the law, food, drink and leisure pursuits, had become significant objects of historical research. It seemed worth transcribing and publishing a selection, therefore, which I did after a couple of years’ work on them. The resulting collection showed how rank-and-file Social Democrats and labour activists often had views that cut right across the Marxist ideology in which previous historians thought the party had indoctrinated them, because previous historians had lacked the sources to go down beyond the level of official pronouncements in the way the Hamburg police reports made it possible to do. Thus from ‘worthless reports’ there emerged a useful corrective to earlier historical interpretations. This wonderful material, which had survived by chance, had to wait for discovery and exploitation until the historiographical climate had changed.
In an earlier posting I mentioned that I had ordered Marc Morris’s book about The Norman Conquest, and I have now started reading this. (Although for some reason the version of it that I have seems to be the American one.)
The events depicted in the Tapestry are of course highly dramatic, but as Morris relates, so too was the subsequent history of the Tapestry:
By any law of averages, the Tapestry ought not to exist. We know that such elaborate wall-hangings, while hardly commonplace in the eleventh century, were popular enough with the elite that could afford them, because we have descriptions in contemporary documents. What we don’t have are other surviving examples: all that comes down to us in other cases are a few sorry-looking scraps. That the Tapestry is still with us almost I ,000 years after it was sewn is astonishing, especially when one considers its later history. It first appears in the written record four centuries after its creation, in 1476, when it is described in an inventory of the treasury at Bayeux Cathedral, from which we learn that the clergy were in the habit of hanging it around the nave every year during the first week of July (an annual airing that would have aided its conservation). Its survival through those four medieval centuries, escaping the major hazards of war, fire and flood, as well as the more mundane menaces of rodents, insects and damp, is wondrous enough; that it successfully avoided destruction during the modern era is nothing short of miraculous. When the cathedral’s treasury was looted during the French Revolution, the Tapestry came within a hair’s breadth of being cut up and used to cover military wagons. Carted to Paris for exhibition by Napoleon, it was eventually returned to Bayeux, where for several years during the early nineteenth century it was indifferently stored in the town hall on a giant spindle, so that curious visitors could unroll it (and occasionally cut bits off). During the Second World War it had yet more adventures: taken again to Paris by the Nazis, it narrowly escaped being sent to Berlin, and somehow managed to emerge unscathed from the flames and the bombs. The Tapestry’s post-medieval history is a book in itself - one which, happily, has already been written.
What next for it, I wonder?
Today, a fine looking day, a day in which many were to be seen wearing both gloves and sunglasses, I went awandering, down Victoria Street to Parliament Square, and then on across the River.
And in Parliament Square, I chanced upon a demo. I hope to do a longer bit at Samizdata, hopefully tomorrow, about this demo. In the meantime, here is a little horizontality, helpfully laid on by the demonstrators:
Click to get the original bigger picture.
If you want further thoughts from me about “that fatuous construct of political malcontents” called real democracy, follow that link.
And see also what I put in this piece about the Charlie Hebdo demo in Trafalgar Square:
… this was not your usual demo, the sort of demo perpetrated by the demonstrating classes ...
Today’s demo was exactly your usual demo. Here is a report of what they were trying to do, that being something to do with “Occupy”. From where I was standing, they failed.
I couldn’t find mainstream media coverage about this demo between this afternoon and now, which could just mean that there was lots and I didn’t find it. Comments on that very welcome.
LATER: Here is an Evening Standard report. It seems that what I saw was a failed Occupy demo, bolted onto the end of a somewhat more successful CND demo against Trident.
ALSO: Daily Mail.
At that demo a week ago today, there were, of course, and abundance of smartphones being used to soak up snaps:
And there were tablets being used as well:
But more intriguingly, and this was a first for me, I saw smartphones …:
… and tablets …:
… being used actually to demonstrate. And as you can see, I wasn’t the only one who was interested.
I’m not sure what this means. I simply note that it was happening.
Here, as promised, is a big clutch of photos of signs that I took at the Trafalgar Square demo yesterday. If you want to, click on a square to get the original photo. The squares have, in quite a few cases been fiddled out with to make them a bit clearer, but the originals you’ll get to with clicking are exactly as taken.
There were, of course, lots of signs (including many mobile phones and at least one tablet) saying “I AM CHARLIE”, in fact you can see quite a few such if you do some clicking. But, here are all the signs I photographed that said something else as well, or instead:
Of all of these, my two favourites are “Team Civilization”, and “Down With The Tyranny of The Offended” (in French). But demos are at least as much about quantity as quality, and I trust the sheer number of signs shown here (there were plenty more that I didn’t get to photo) makes the bigger point. There were a lot of people turning out to denounce these horrible attacks.
Even the rather or almost completely illegible signs are an encouragement, I think, because what these signs tell us is that quite a few people were present, and feeling strongly enough about it to want to wave a sign, who had never been anywhere near such a demo ever before.
Feel free to reproduce any of these images at will, with or without attribution. If you’d like bigger versions of any of the pictures, my email can be found here, top left, where it says “Contact”.
Like half of London, it would seem, I’ve been suffering with a cough and a cold and a headache, finding it hard to sleep. For some reason it all gets worse at night, especially the headache. Why?
So a couple of incoming emails from Simon Gibbs, concerning some of the pictures I took at that Cost of Living Debate which he organised last October, really cheered me up.
The first email said that one of the pictures I had taken, of one of the speakers, had enabled Simon to flag up, on YouTube, that speaker’s videoed performance, more attractively than might otherwise have been possible. A photo was attached…:
... which Simon described thus:
One of your digital photos on my TV, via the Virgin Media YouTube app.
Then, very soon after that email, another one, longer:
I managed to make some more appear.
The video quality is okay, but the camera was pointing statically at the whole panel. You zoomed in on individual speakers while in action (or at rest), then I was able to crop and add titles and the resulting thumbnail is better than any individual frame of the video.
Here “better” means “better able to encourage someone to click from a list of videos through to the video itself”, meaning they will stand out from the crowd.
And another picture was attached:
I am delighted that my photoing obsession has assisted Simon in his much more strenuous activities. And I got in for free.
Which reminds me that I should long ago have done my own selection of snaps from that evening, and stuck them up here. I may yet do this, and maybe quite soon.
ASI Christmas Party photos
I finally did something for Samizdata
Pictures of Guy Herbert
The illustrations for Christian Michel’s talk this Friday (plus some thoughts from me)
How Bill Bryson on white and black paint helps to explain the Modern Movement in Architecture
Michael Jennings at the Rose and Crown
ASI Boat Trip 7: Other photographers
ASI Boat Trip 6: Crowd scenes
ASI Boat Trip 5: Individuals
ASI Boat Trip 4: Groups of posing people
Why you are wrong
ASI Boat Trip 3: Drink!
Will England get lucky?
Last night at my place
Anton Howes – James Lawson – Will Hamilton
Nothing from me here today
Well that’s a relief
Green screen blue screen
Remembering another Christian name (and flagging up another talk)
Alex Singleton at the ASI last night
Making sense of digital photography
The next five Brian’s Last Fridays
Quotes of the day
Me and the Six Nations under the weather
Better a year late than never
The Qur’an is not science – science cannot be ignored
Brian’s Fridays will resume on the 25th of this month
Is Samizdata in danger of becoming a photo-blog?
Don’t vote Democrat!
Reasons to think Romney is going to win big
How gun control works and how it will defend Libertaria
Why I do not share Johnathan Pearce’s admiration for Bjorn Lomborg
Say it again Perry
A review of Detlev Schlichter’s new book (multiplied by 4)
Release Ai Weiwei
Rally Against Debt signs
Pictures of Detlev Schlichter
Soviet health and safety posters
Yet more redirection
Greenies make a video saying: “We’re a bunch of vile greenie-nazis!”
Tim Evans looking happy
Spare A3 paper
Castro slams Israel
As strong and sweet as the free market itself
A demonstration I could join
This is not Mohammed
Incoming from Molly Norris!
Molly Norris was just kidding!
Three cheers for Molly Norris but also a few small grumbles
Everybody draw Mohammed on May 20th!
Why my libertarianism has the look and feel of socialism
SAY NO TO GOVERNMENT MOTORS
What’s up with this?
Antoine Clarke talks about Facebook and Twitter – Guido and … Ian Geldard?
Why I vote against AGW
Hislop fluffs the rhyme
Patri Friedman versus Chris Tame
Signs of the times in Belfast
Daniel Hannan and the shape of the media to come
Kevid Dowd video now up and watchable
Photoing the Police
Meme for the New Depression
Billion Monkeys liked photoing the nastiest poster!
My Oxford talk on Google video – or summarised by a friendly blogger
Preparing for Oxford
Blogging elsewhere and talks elsewhere
Media bias as asset stripping
Tom Burroughes on the banking crisis
Notes on libertarian tactics August 2008
Keith Windschuttle on history - truth - Robert Hughes
Art is always a value judgement
Those were the days and these are no longer the days
“Better value on goods and services across a wide range of categories …”
Paying a visit to Mum
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Not very ephemeral
Moore versus Stossel on Cuban medical care
“At that moment I suddenly started to view Nagi as an enemy …”
Has global warming stopped?
Billion Monkeys and a Real Photographer at the Golden Umbrellas
Breaking the Left’s stranglehold on the moving image
Links to me elsewhere – and a photo of Marc-Henri Glendening
Bush on Cuba
Talking with Antoine Clarke about Sean Gabb
Will China fail?
Che Guevara was a murderer and your T-Shirt is not cool
Links and guns
Ideas and opportunities
On the appeal or lack of it to Young Europeans of “capitalism”
The (very) slow fade of Bolshevik Cuba
How compulsion deranges the spreading of ideas
“What do YOU think?” - “More -isationisation!”
How to handle the complaints of your fiercest critics
Some plain English
The Great Global Warming Swindle debate now begins
On the ideology of the “climate change” debate
But what is so evil about Powerpoint?
Perry de Havilland on the thinking behind Samizdata
Cute jewelry and ideologically induced woe
The extreme memes spread by moderate Muslims
Patrick and Brian mp3 about libertarianism and spreading libertarianism
Latest Brian and Antoine elections around the world mp3
Bashing on for Samizdata
Brian and Antoine mp3s now into double figures
Voluntary World 2: You’re on your own
More about rhetoric
Blogging fun and blogging profit
Help the struggle against DRM!
I am not too clever
What The Tyranny of The Facts said
On free trade and on being persuasive (and unpersuasive)