LIBERTY – whatever.


‘Houston, we have a problem…’

Yer may have read an earlier post here on Serf Underground, 8th Edition, ‘The Case for Dynamic Disequilibrium,’ where I discuss Joseph Schumpeter’s famous book, ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.’ In his book, Schumpeter attributes the prosperity of the West, post the Industrial Revolution, to people’s freedom to innovate. The innovative process of dynamic disequilibrium that Schumpeter identifies in the West, moving resources from the old and obsolete, to new and more productive employment, is the very essence of its economic development and a nation’s prosperity. Schumpeter argues that a modern economy is always in disequilibrium. It is not a closed system like John Maynard Keynes macro economy, but is forever growing and changing. It is biological rather than mechanistic.

In the process of dynamic disequilibrium, Schumpeter argues, the only genuine profit is the profit created by the innovator. Profit is not surplus value stolen from the workers but is the cost of staying in business, the cost of capital formation to defray the costs of the future, the cost of maintaining jobs and creating new ones. .

Relating to profit, Schumpeter later identified the problem, during the First World War, of government mobilizing liquid wealth. Through taxation and borrowing, the State had acquired the power to shift income and control the distribution of the national wealth. Where Keynes saw this as a magic wand to achieve social justice, Schumpeter saw it as an invitation to irresponsibility because it eliminated safe guards against inflation. In the past, the inability to tax or borrow more than a small proportion of the country’s wealth had made inflation self limiting, now the only limit against was political self discipline.

Schumpeter was skeptical that governments would be politically self disciplined and argued that capitalism would be destroyed by the very democracy that had helped make possible. For in a democracy, to be popular, governments would buy votes to stay in power. Nations would increasingly become ‘tax states,’ shifting profits from producers to non-producers. Capital for tomorrow would be consumed, democracy would come under increasing inflationary pressure and eventually, Schumpeter predicted, inflation would destroy both democracy and capitalism.

Reflecting on the French Revolution – etcetera.

Edmund Burke, writing in 1791, his cautionary letter ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France,’ saw threats to the basic principles whose observance sustained western constitutional government and free society. Burke recognized the problem of cavalier exercise of authority demonstrated by events in Paris that were based on Rousseau’s doctrine of natural rights, a doctrine that Burke perceived as gaining ground in England. Burke wanted to shake the complacency of those who believed that the French were simply imitating the modest English Revolution of 1688, which he argues was restorative of constitutional and established rights and very different from the clean slate reconstructing of society from scratch, which was taking place in France. Wary of the untutored and unsocial impulses that lie beneath men’s acquired civility, Burke considered that the social institutions that have evolved in a complex, historical process and have stood the test of time are what allow men to live together in any degree of peace and freedom.

The political creed to which Burke subscribed, an off-shoot of the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688,’ was united by hatred of arbitrary power and by a wish to be guided by and governed by the certain rule of law. Burke argues that the Revolution of 1688 did not seek to overthrow constitutional law but to preserve ‘ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that antient constitution of government which is our only security for law and liberty.’ (‘Reflections,’ Oxford Press, P31.) Without the means of some change the State is without the means of its conservation, he argues. Without such means of correction it might even risk the loss of what it most wishes to conserve and these ‘ two principles of conservation and correction acted strongly at the two critical periods of the Revolution and the Restoration.’ (R. P22.)

‘We wished at the period of the Revolution and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers.’(‘R P31.) ‘ In the famous law of the 3d of Charles 1, called the Petition of Right, the parliament says to the king, ‘Your subjects have inherited this freedom, ‘claiming their franchises, not on abstract principles ‘as the rights of men,’ but as a patrimony derived from their forefathers.’( R P32. ) Whereas, says Burke, the revolutionaries in France, operating from first principles rather than empiric study are so taken up by their principles that they totally forget man’s nature. To legislate on the principle of human rationality is to present a one dimensional picture forgetting that men may also be irrational, self serving and violent. With regard to the excesses and social misery brought about by the revolutionary government’s ad hoc decisions, Burke argues that if the parliament had been not been dissolved, it may have acted as a balance and corrective of the excesses of the National Assembly and its judiciary owing its place to the National Assembly, not knowing by what law it judges nor under what authority it acts. ( R.PP 208/9.) .

In Burke’s account there is much to be said for his comparison between the stability of English politics and a non-arbitrary rule of law, and the anarchy in France. The English recognized that property, in its widest definition, defined as certain rights, land, goods and including the value in labor of a pair of hands, each defined and guaranteed in law, was what brought men from the savage to the political state and kept them there. Burke was horrified that the French revolutionaries attacked the corporate property of the Church and émigré nobility and questioned what property could be claimed secure when the French taught examples such as these.

The Abandoned Road.

Friederich Hayek, a century and a half after Edmund Burke, shares many of his views on the nature of society and the proper task of government. Writing in the period of another European cataclysmic event, The Second World War, Friedrich Hayek, in his classic book on human liberty, ‘The Road to Serfdom’ argues that while the crisis to the freedom of nations by German fascism is very real, for at least the twenty-five years before that, the spectre of totalitarianism had become a real threat:

‘We had been progressively moving away from the basic ideas on which European civilization had been built. That this movement on which we have entered with such high hopes and ambitions could have brought us face to face with the totalitarian horror has come as a great shock to this to this generation, which still refuses to connect the two facts. Yet this development merely confirms the warnings of the liberal philosophy which we still profess. We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which political and personal freedom has never existed in the past.’(‘The Road to Serfdom.’ Routledge. 2010. P13.)

Western Civilization, observes Hayek, is also abandoning that basic individualism inherited from classical antiquity, from thinkers such as Thucydides, Pericles, ( say, I’m adding Socrates to this list, ) Cicero, Tacitus through to thinkers of the Renaissance like Montaigne and Erasmus, defined as:

‘the respect for the individual man qua man, that is the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere, however narrowly that is circumscribed, and the belief that it is desirable that men should develop their own individual gifts and bents.’ (P14.)

With the increasing prosperity of western nations as an outcome of the free growth of economic activity, itself the undersigned and unforeseen by-product of political freedom, for some classic liberal philosophy came to be regarded as a negative creed because it could offer to particular individuals little more than a share in progress, a progress that came to be taken more and more for granted.

Some people turned to socialism to replace the impersonal mechanism of the market by collective direction of social forces to consciously chosen goals. What the ‘democratic’ socialists failed to recognize and what the founders of socialism had understood was that their ideas could only be put into practice by a strong dictatorial government with much in common with fascist and communist nations like Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Lenin’s old friend, Max Eastman, felt compelled to admit that ‘instead of being better, Stalinism is worse than fascism, more ruthless … anti-democratic, unredeemed by any hope or scruple.’ (M. Eastman,’ Stalin’s Russia and the Crisis of Socialism.’1940 P82.) Foreign correspondent Francis Voigt, writing of developments in Europe in 1939, observed that ‘Marxism has led to Fascism and National-Socialism because, in all essentials, it is Fascism and National-Socialism.’ (F A Voigt. ‘Unto Caesar.’ 1939. P 95.)

To allay these suspicions and connect with the strongest of all political motives, people’s craving for freedom, says Hayek, increasingly the socialists began to make use of the promise of a ‘new freedom,’ not ‘freedom from coercion,’ since all pulling together is a must in a collective state, but ‘freedom from the despotism of want,’ necessitating a new authoritarian principle in human affairs.



Planning For Freedom?

To assert the complexity of civilization as an argument for central planning is to misapprehend the working of competition, argues Hayek. The very complexity of the division of labor under modern conditions precludes one person or central body from consciously balancing all the details of changes that continually affect the conditions of demand and supply of commodities. Only the price system under competition, because it enables entrepreneurs to gain the information they require by watching comparatively few prices, allows this to happen.

Not only is a central board of experts unsuited to survey and act upon the complexities ‘out there,’ there’s the historical record of failed long term plans and great leaps forward based on ‘expert’ predictions. If you’ve read Nassim Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ concerning unexpected ‘black swan’ events in history and understand the folly of assuming the future will mirror the past, you’ll be wary of long term plans. In Taleb’s chapter entitled, ‘ The Scandal of Prediction,’ he cites a study by Philip Tetlock showing that highly qualified ‘experts’ are not significantly more reliable in their predictions than their less qualified associates and no different from the rest of us when it comes to learning from our mistakes. Having ‘skin in the game,‘ or personal liability that concentrates your decision making is another factor missing in the think tank predictions of a bureaucracy, ie. Paul Ehlich, Joseph Stiglitz et al, but we won’t go into that!

Relating to complexity of modern society, Hayek also states: ’It is no exaggeration to say that if we had to rely on conscious central planning for the growth of our industrial system, it would never have reached the degree of differentiation, complexity and flexibility that it has attained.’ ( P52.) Supporting this, Jane Jacobs (ref my Serf Underground, 21st Edition,) cites the development of Venice and mushroom towns, and other case studies demonstrating that the growth of cities and import replacement is a messy process independent of government planning, and in fact hindered by it. ( Jane Jacobs, ‘Cities and The Wealth of Nations.’)

Arbitrariness All Over Again.

The creation of a broad, permanent framework of laws within which the productive activity is guided by individual decisions, the ‘Rule of Law,’ is very different from the laws governing economic activity by a central authority, which is necessarily arbitrary.

‘When the government has to decide how many pigs are to be reared or how many buses are to run, which coal mines are to be operated, or at what price boots are to be sold, these decisions cannot be deduced from formal principles, or settled for long periods in advance. They depend inevitably on the circumstances of the moment … and in the end somebody’s view will decide whose interests are more important.’ (P77.)

You are now replacing formal law by substantive rulings, imposing moral decisions at the discretion of a central authority or a judge. So here comes the moral imperative bit. Because successful planning requires the creation of a common view, we must all be persuaded to pull together, come to regard the central social plan as ‘our’ social plan.

‘Socialists,‘ says Hayek,’ the cultivated parents of the barbarous offspring they have produced, traditionally hope to solve this problem by education.’ (P117.) But what does education,’ in this sense mean? Why it means the general acceptance of a common weltanschauung, a definite set of values, and the problem becomes how to develop a movement supported by a single world view? An Austrian socialist , speaking of the socialist movement of his country, reports that its characteristic feature was its pervasiveness, creating special organizations for every field of activity of its workers and employees. ( G Wieser. ‘Ein Staat Stirht,’1938. P41.)

Then of course, we have creation of myths, there’s a long tradition in history, from Plato’s ‘Noble Lie,’ to Hitler’s myth of ‘The Master Race,’ those assertions about the connections between facts, which, once they have become ideals directing the activity of a whole community, may not be questioned. Those who retain an inclination to criticism must be silenced because they could weaken public support. Coercion, persuasion and pervasiveness, the methods, the whole apparatus for spreading knowledge, schools, press, radio, cinema, used to strengthen the belief in the rightness of the decisions taken by the central authority.(P164)

A serf sum up.

Well this serf’s not too happy with the way guvuhmints are spending our money as though there’s no tomorrow, no likely black swans on the horizon or inflation. What would Schumpeter or Nassim Taleb say? Then there’s the matter of that individualism we inherited from classical antiquity and the Renaissance, from Socrates, Tacitus to ,Montaigne, Erasmus etcetera, that ‘respect fer the individual man qua man?’ With the need ter have everyone all pulling together towards a single goal, everyone’s activity’s supposed ter derive its justification from a united, social purpose. There must be no art fer art’sake, no science fer science sake – no spontaneous, misguided activity that may produce unforeseen and perhaps seditious results. Ferget individuality. Oh Socrates!

Back ter the turnip field.





In the Xmas break, drove with a coupla’ family members from Melbourne, Oz’ largest city in the south, ter our northern largest city, Sydney. Interstate rivalry, ‘Sydney versus Melbourne’ has been going on fer evah, like barracking fer football teams, but hafta’ say I luv Sydney – these photographs will show you why.



Stayed in an apartment block at McMahon’s Point looking directly across the harbour through the Sydney Harbour Bridge ter that other Sydney icon, the Sydney Oprea House. Is there another harbour anywhere, in all its changing moods, save Venice maybe, as glorious? OMG!




There it is. The Sydney Harbour Bridge. An Australian icon, symbol of the strength and resilience of a nation hit hard by the 1930s’ Great Depression, and symbol also of the wondrous construction capabilities of a nation’s people. When it was built, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a feat to celebrate, the erection of the largest steel-arch bridge in the world, 612 feet longer than the bridge built in 1916 over the East River in New York.



In Australia in 1788, the first English settlement, with its contingent of convicts, was established at Sydney Cove on the southern shore of Port Jackson. As new arrivals came, the settlement spread to the north shore. If settlers wanted to get from one shore to the other, they were obliged to cross the harbour by ferry or punt, or travel the long way round by road. In 1815, ex-convict and architect Francis Greenway considered the question of the building of a harbour bridge that would allow the settlement on the north shore to expand, but it was not until a century later that the proposal could be taken up.

Two people, Dr John Bradfield, and Premier Jack Lang, were largely responsible for getting it up. Dr Bradfield, of the New South Wales Public Works Department, in 1912 proposed the building of a bridge across the harbour as part of his grand vision for a suburban railway network in Sydney. Plans had to be put on hold with the outbreak of the First World War, but after the War, bills were pushed through Parliament for its construction. A report by The Bulletin, Newspaper, 23/03/1932, (P3.) acknowledges Bradfield’s efforts:

‘While the matter was before the Parliament, Bradfield almost lived on the premises. The Minister made a speech or two on the floor of the house. Bradfield made a hundred in the lobbies and the party rooms.’

The second mover and shaker, the New South Wales Premier, Jack Lang, raised the necessary finances for the building of Bridge and ensured its completion during the difficult Depression years.



The winning designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was Ralph Freeman, consulting engineer to the English bridge contractors Dorman, Long and Co. Some facts of its construction. The Bridge is held together by rivets only. There are no welded or bolted joints essential to the main structure. Approximately six million rivets add around 3,200 tonnes to the weight of the Bridge. An Australian firm, McPherson Pty Ltd of Melbourne, supplied all the rivets to Dorman, Long and Co. To ensure the rivets would withstand heavy loads, a system of quality control was set up in which two or three rivets from each batch were tested to the recommended levels.

The Bridge’s arch was built in two separate halves stretching out over the harbour until they were joined in the middle. In August 1930 the steel cables which were anchoring the two halves were loosened and both sides of the bridge were lowered to allow them to be set into place. The completion of this major phase was celebrated with a half day holiday and bonus of two shillings for the bridge workers. The Sydney Morning Special Bridge Number, 16/03/32 describes the response by the Director of Construction to the drama of the event:

‘Mr Lawrence Ennis, a big man who did a big job, has confessed to stress of emotion at the critical stage when the half arches were about to meet. It was night time. He was unable to speak as the parts joined and settled into place. Then after some little time he said, ”Well boys, that ‘s that, and thank God she is home.” Those present shook hands They had achieved something that many engineers in various parts of the world had said was impossible.’




Controversy? Say, when is there not? The Bridge’s official opening, 19th of March, 1932, a gala event. But lots of politics behind it. Say when is there not?

Premier Jack Lang’s loan raising for public works, the ‘Lang Plan,’ which included finance of the Bridge, was highly controversial to many. His threat to suspend interest payments to English bond holders had raised the threat of socialism, even communism.

A rallying protest movement , ‘The New Guard,’ (1)  led by returned service man Eric Campbell, collected 400 000 signatures on a petition calling for Lang’s dismissal. While the movement seems to have revealed some latent fascist tendencies to restructure parliamentary democracy, the New Guard was predominantly a protest response that came to nothing after Lang was later on dismissed from office.  A comic element during the opening ceremony on the day was the cutting of the ceremonial ribbon by a member of the New Guard, Captain Francis De Groote, in a dash on horse back.  Lang had decided to by pass royalty in the Bridge ceremony and cut the ribbon himself. De Groote was seized and taken into custody and later fined five pounds. The ribbon was retied and Lang performed the honours.  The Bridge was now open!




The Sydney Harbour Bridge was to cost 4,217,721 pounds, 11 shillings and 10 pence, but came in at twice that amount. To pay for it a toll was approved. The Sydney Morning Herald,  on 16/03/1932 published the schedule of charges:

‘Motor cars and sidecars, including the drivers, will be charged /6 each and a charge of /3 will be made for each adult (other than the driver, ) travelling on these vehicles.  Each child in a vehicle will be charged /1.’

The Bridge was paid for in full in 1988. Beauty and order out of controversy. Icons and controversy. Hmm … and then there’s that other controversy, the Sydney Opera House. But that’s another story.

(1) Eric Campbell ‘The Rallying Point. My Story of the New Guard.’MUP. 1965.




Art historian Ernst Gombrich, in his essays relating to expression and communication, ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art,’ examines an expressionist theory that art and music are the natural language of emotion.

According to this theory, the resonance theory, a natural equivalence exists between emotional states and sensations, sights and sounds. We experience, for example, sensations such as ‘warm, light, bright, red, fast, high,’ as ‘friendly,’ while sensations such as ‘cold, heavy, dark, blue, slow, deep,’ are experienced as ‘hostile.’ Gombrich uses an analogy from wireless to describe the resonance theory, ‘the artist as transmitter, the work as medium, and the spectator as receiver,’ the artist broadcasting his message in the hope of reaching a mind that will vibrate in unison with his own. Say, sounds romantic don’t it? (p 56.)

While Ernst Gombrich accepts that there is some inborn disposition in all of us to equate certain sensations with certain feeling tones, he argues that whatever message an unstructured canvas of blue paint conveys to the applauding critic is not inherent in the blue paint itself but relies on its meaning within a context. Gombrich argues that expression and communication do not function in a void but take place within an evolving traditional art form and genre. Without such shaping, messages would die on route from transmitter to receiver, ‘not because we fail to be ‘attuned’, but simply because there is nothing to relate them to.’ (p 68.) Without acquaintance with the potentialities of the artist’s medium and tradition in which he works, the natural equivalence which interests the expressionist could not come in to play. What strikes us as dissonance in a Haydn symphony, for instance, would pass unnoticed in a post Wagnerian context, and even the fortissimo of a string quartette may have fewer decibels than the pianissimo of a symphony orchestra.

Gombrich explores form and function in the visual arts, which, though they play no part in the resonance theory, are the great divide between traditional conceptual art and the illusionist styles of China, ancient Greece and the Renaissance. Concerning form and function in the evolution of art, Gombrich observes that substitution may precede portrayal. Meditating on a child’s creation of a hobby horse, Gombrich identifies two conditions needed to turn a stick into a hobby horse, firstly, that its form makes it possible to ride on, and secondly, that riding is something that matters. For the child creating a hobby horse, as for the conceptual artist creating his image, the creation does not need to be a faithful imitation of an object’s external form, it needs only those relevant aspects that function as a key that fits some biological or psychological lock. A baby sucks its thumb as a substitute for the breast, a child rides a stick as if it were a horse. The stick, in another setting might function as a sword, or in the context of ancestor worship act as a fetish for a dead king. (p 7.)

Keeping in mind that representation is originally substitution, the greater a child’s wish to ride, the fewer may be the features that will do for his hobby horse. But at a certain stage a horse will need eyes for how else can it see? In Egyptian funerary art, the man- made image must be complete, the servant for the grave will need hands and feet, but must not be dangerously life-like to take on, perhaps, a life beyond strict conventions. (p 8.)


H.Wolfflin makes the observation in ‘Principles of Art History,’ (New York, 1932.) that all pictures owe more to other pictures than they do to nature. All art is image-making and even the ‘illusionist’ artists made the ‘conceptual’ image of convention their starting point and trial and error process of schema and correction.

Archaic art starts from the schema, the symmetrical frontal figure conceived from one aspect only. The conquest of naturalism is a gradual process of corrections, based on observation of reality. The witty Alain cartoon encapsulates the problems of style, of function, schema and correction.


Once the idea develops that an image need not exist in its own right, but may refer to something outside itself, as Gombrich argues, the basic rules of archaic art can be transgressed. The image of the man on the Greek vase no longer needs an arm or a leg in full view and when medieval art broke away from the narrative symbolism into which the formulas of classical art had frozen, Giotto made particular use of the figure viewed from behind. The idea of the picture as a reality outside itself leads us to a rationalization of space, the filling in and development of perspective as the picture becomes a window into the world the artist creates for us there. ( p10.)



And once we think of the artist and public less as minds mysteriously attuned to one another, and more as people ready to appreciate a choice of alternatives within an organized medium, we recognize the firm guidance which tradition and experience give us. As Gombrich notes, ‘we are all marvelously adept at playing the game of ‘classifiers’ and ‘modifiers’. Our ability to separate what is called the local colour of things from the colour of illumination is based on this skill. We easily recognize the difference between a white wall in the shade and a grey wall in sunlight.’ ( p66.)

In traditional art forms, genre offers the first pointer. Without this context, a grim scherzo or a melancholy waltz would not deliver its ‘resonance.’ In the visual arts as well as music and literature, the artist’s breach of decorum and the ‘receptor’s’ readiness to receive hints create the fizz. Contrasts in tempo and meter, tone and key, intensity of colour or volume, even breaches in form may strike the artist’s audience with expressive force.

A dissonant splash of red in a green canvas in a painting by Judith Alexandrovics.


In a Rembrandt’s self portrait, the light focused on unimportant details while the eyes are in shadow, inviting the viewer’s co-operation in reading expression.


Wordsworth writes in his poem ‘The Prelude,’

‘Like harmony in music, there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society.’

In reference to artistic form he’s not wrong. So introducing a deus ex machina dramatic element in a play, you might say is a no-no. When Greek dramatist Euripides, makes Medea the hero of his tragedy, ‘Medea,’ her violent actions and deus ex machina rescue by the gods likely challenged his Athenian audience as a breach of artistic decorum.

But Euripides’ puzzling play needs to be understood in terms of its context. When Athens’ three tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote their plays, Athens was experiencing a period of political and social experiment. Their plays were presented at the annual Athenian Festival, in an outdoor theatre accommodating around 1700 spectators. These festivals were considered more than mere entertainment. The dramas of the festival, E.F Watling tells us, were expected to ‘touch the deepest centers of a man’s individual and corporate consciousness.’ ( Preface to Penguin translation of Medea.)

When Euripides wrote his tragedy, he had many variants of the Medea myth to draw on but chose to create a more shocking version than any of the old stories. By the version he presented, and by Medea’s heroic language and his surprise ending, Euripides was certainly challenging his audience’s individual and corporate consciousness.

When Jason dismisses his oath breaking as insufficient cause for Medea’s act of vengeance, she replies:

‘And is that injury
A slight on, do you imagine, to a woman?’

Medea does not doubt that the gods do not find it a slight injury and by the deus ex machine ending where the gods rescue Medea, they show that it is not. Euripides is posing a challenging question to his audience. ‘Should a society where men have the power to carelessly break a marriage vow with impunity be surprised if moral chaos and social disintegration follow?’

Some more fizz from Shakespearean tragedy. Hamlet, Macbeth ,Othello and their kin are among the most charismatic speakers in the world of drama. The language of these Shakespearean tragic heroes owes much to the development of a poetic language suitable for tragedy.

Russ McDonald in ‘The Language of Tragedy’ looks at this development through Christopher Marlow’s break from the monotony of an earlier fourteen syllable line to explore the rhythmic possibilities of the iambic pentameter. Following Marlow, Shakespeare further exploited the possibilities of the iambic pentameter to create the eloquent language of his tragic heroes. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies he manipulates word patterns and modifications of the expected forms to express the visionary propensities of the hero and to signal or underscore the emotional and psychological moods that move the audience. Shakespeare’s control of meter, in addition to employing other dramatic devices, is revealed in the tragedy of ‘Othello,’ by the contrast in its protagonist’s early sonorous language with its later deterioration.

Here in Act 1, Scene 2 Othello’s poetic lines:

‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,
Good signior, you shall more command with years …’ (Act 1 Scene 2.)

His speech to the senate in the same scene, a maneuver in defence of his marriage, is the language of an accomplished story teller, romantic, poetically powerful and commanding:

‘My very noble and approv’d good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;
For since these arms of mine had seven years pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have us’d
Their dearest action in the tented field;
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle;
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjurations and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.’

Contrast the above with Othello’s abuse of his innocent wife in Act 3, Scene 3, an outburst that depends for its force on its triply repeated verb and the spondee, ‘lewd-minx.’ ‘Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her! Damn her.’

And now as a finale let’s hear that dark inscrutable workmanshop of harmony in music. No one does it better than Bach, here the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in G Major.

Some context. Within the classical tradition of the sonata, the symphony and the concerto, the Brandenburg Number 5 conforms to their three movement structure, first movement exposition in the dominant key and ending in the tonic chord, second movement of development and digression, and third movement of recapitulation that returns us to the opening key and theme once more. That’s the form. But lots of surprises along the way.

In his Brandenburg Concertos Bach adopted the concerto grosso orchestration of the Italian composers like Vivaldi, in which a large ensemble alternates with a soloist or solo group. Bach uses this orchestration to create oh so lovely contrasts in texture, dynamics and melody. Listen at 3.07 – 4.22 to the fugue between violin and flute with its heavenly bird piping and trills. OMG! Then there’s the harpsichord, usually a supporting, unifying part of the ensemble, but not here at 6.38 – (really hotting up by 8.40,) surprising us with a pounding virtuoso performance , tempo furioso. Lots of fizz in this!



Fer R.T. a trial and error practitioner.
Trial and error, messiness and fizz, that’s it! Ferget top-down forward planning and efficiency regarding human innovation and adapting ter circumstances. Trial and error and serendipity rule, in human affairs, as in naychur.

In Naychur.


Primo Levi in ‘The Periodic Table,’ described somewhere as the best science book ever written, is a book yer’d think is all about chemistry, and yes it is, but it’s also a mixture, messy yer might say, an interaction of Primo Levi’s profound human experience and the meaning of chemistry. What comes across in his book is not chemistry as an arcane experience, but as the underlying reality of organic and inorganic stuff, trees, rocks, clouds, you and me.

Primo Levi describes his first months as a student at the University of Turin in the late 1930’s, and the day in his classes in General and Inorganic Chemistry, that he is assigned to the preparation of zinc sulfate. He describes the laboratory process:

‘The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions, the one in praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.’ ( P.L. Ch 3.)

As an Italian Jew living under Mussolini’s Fascist political system, Primo Levi reflects on his Jewishness. Since the publication of the magazine ‘Defence of Race,’ there was much talk about racial impurity and Levi says he began to feel proud of being ‘impure,’ where before he had scarcely considered his origins:

‘In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed. Fascism does not want them, forbids them, – wants everybody to be the same.’

Primo Levi offers parallels between the reactions in a test tube and the larger world.
In his chapter on ‘Potassium,’ he recounts how, during the War, when he had to distil benzene and couldn’t find the sodium necessary for its purification, he uses its twin in the periodic table, potassium, which reacts with air and water with even greater energy and is liable to ignite. After distilling the benzene Levi washes the now empty flask and it explodes, almost blowing up the laboratory. Now that’s fizz! From this he notes that one dare not trust the ‘almost-the-same,’ and concludes:
‘The differences can be small, but they may lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects.’

To which he adds, ‘And not only in the chemist’s trade.’

Jane Jacobs and Messiness in Cities.

Lots of people think we’d be better off without large cities, that large cities are inefficient and impractical. Certainly, as we know, there are problems in large cities regarding the most routine activities, getting people to work, moving goods around, making space for playgrounds, disposing of garbage and so on. While cities magnify an economy’s practical problems, they can also solve them by new technology and new work. Town planners, though, would like to create more efficient cities, have people and factories moved on to other places.

But here’s a paradox for you. Jane Jacobs is arguing in her book, ‘The Economy of Cities,’ that large cities are economically valuable, not in spite of their inefficiencies and impracticalities but rather because of them. She makes her case with comparisons of various cities in different countries and times, beginning with two English manufacturing cities, Manchester and Birmingham.

A Tale of Two Cities.

Back in 1844, because of the stunning efficiencies of its immense textile mills, Manchester was viewed as the poster city for the Industrial Revolution and a portent of the cities of the future. Marx based much of his analysis of capitalism on Manchester. Birmingham with relatively few large industries was just the kind of city that seemed to have been outmoded by Manchester, a muddle of all sorts of hardware and tool manufacturing that had been added to its earlier manufacture of horse saddles and harnesses. Most of Birmingham’s manufacturing was carried out by small concerns employing a dozen or less workmen. A lot of these small factories did piecework for other organizations and there was a lot of waste motion and overlapping that might have been eliminated through consolidations.

But today, says Jacobs, only two of all Britain’s cities remain economically vigorous. One is London. The other is Birmingham. For Birmingham’s fragmented and inefficient little industries kept adding new work and splitting off new organizations while Manchester’s efficient specialization contained the seeds of its own stagnation. For when people in cities in other countries learned to spin and weave cotton efficiently and began replacing imports Manchester had no other industries sufficient to compensate for
its lost markets. Where Manchester was pouring its economic energy into efficient repetition of the same work, Birmingham was evolving by trial and error development leading to new successful activities. Today Manchester is a city in long decline.

Efficiency is Not the Name of the Game.

Efficiency of operation, in any case, is a sequel to earlier and messy development, time-consuming development work by trial and error, with no guarantee of success, like the beginnings of the car industry in Detroit. But the exorbitant amount of time and energy involved and high rates of failure doesn’t mean that development work is being done ineptly. As even the U.S. Air Force analytical organization, the Rand Corporation notes, this is part of the process. Duplication of effort in development work, while theoretically wasteful, is empirically necessary, for one thing, because people bring different preconceptions to development work.

Jane Jacobs looks at cities of the distant and recent past that stagnated when development work ceased. The prehistoric cities of the Indus valley, Mohenjo and Harappa, were marvelously developed, but when development work ceased, the two cities continued endlessly producing inefficient tools and clumsy solid wheels for chariots while other people were developing the spoked wheel and efficient bronze tools and weapons.

In the United States, in the 1920’s, Detroit, after its earlier innovative successes has shown a low development rate. Jacobs asks why cities like Detroit, highly efficient in developing large industries, do not afterwards succeed in developing new goods and services. One factor that Jacobs identifies is that large, efficient industries, creating company towns if you like, discourage breakaways from the company by workers who seek to start up their own enterprises. Breakaways are a successful means of developing new work. But parent companies do not like breakaways and when the parent company is powerful enough, it will inhibit them, as Kodak did in Rochester, New York.

Jacobs argues that cities with many small and overlapping suppliers of bits and pieces of work are indispensable to a high rate of development. Both Buick and Dodge themselves began as suppliers in this way, Buick in sheet metal and Dodge in motor engines. Back in 1903, Henry Ford got started by assembling car parts that were made by other people. Later, these overlapping small suppliers were no longer an efficient arrangement for the big car manufacturers who came to dominate the Detroit Automobile Industry.

Another factor for developing new work is access to capital. But the most efficient way to invest capital is through few large investors putting capital into already efficient
producers of goods and services, not into new work enterprises. For a city to develop new work, however, access to inefficiently dispensed capital is a crucial requirement.

Seems like the messy process of trial and error promoting development work, that Jane Jacobs describes in ‘The Economy of Cities,’ appears to be in jeopardy with the conditions that promote efficiency.

A Vindication of Trial and Error.

Nassim Taleb has a chapter in ‘Antifragile’ concerning misconceptions of what he calls ‘History Written by the Losers,’ (Ch 13.) the losers being those historians and Harvard Business School professors prone to misattribution of technical innovation across domains, from its real life sources to academizing science. Taleb labels this effect as ’lecturing birds how to fly.’ He questions whether academic science has lead to technology rather, whether universities have prospered as a consequence of national wealth created by technology.

Nassim Taleb charts his investigations of the origin of developments across many fields. The first section of the chart describes the development of the jet engine. Turns out that engineers had been building and using jet engines in Britain in a completely trial and error experiential manner before anyone fully understood the theory. Theory came later. Jane Jacobs refers to the jet engine, in 1937, already being developed in Birmingham, when a committee of experts in the United States were coming to the conclusion that it was impracticable to attempt. (JJ Ch 3.)


About architecture in Table 5, Taleb asks us to consider how the Romans, admirable engineers, built their aquaducts. Roman numerals did not make quantitative analysis easy. Seems they built their aquaducts without benefit of mathematics. Then there’s the medieval cathedral builders relying on heuristics, empirical methods and tools. According to medieval historian, Guy Beaujouan, before the thirteenth century no more than five people in the whole of Europe knew how to perform a division.


Regarding cybernetics, which led to the ‘cyber’ in cyberspace, seems that Norbert Wiener, in 1946, was articulating ideas about feedback control and digital computing that had been in practice in the engineering world, long before Wiener’s mathematics.

In conversation with a well known economist who wondered how traders could handle complicated transactions without understanding the Girsanov theorem, Nassim Taleb was struck by the incongruity of such a statement, having worked as a pit trader himself in Chicago and observed veteran traders who refused to touch mathematical formula.
Yet these people had survived, their prices were more sophisticated and more efficient than those produced by formula and it was obvious to Taleb which came first. This conversation led to Taleb and a partner investigating the question.

The investigation produced proof that traders had vastly more sophistication than the formulas and preceded them by a century of trading experience. Taleb says that he himself has been an eye witness to results ‘that owe nothing to academizing science, rather evolutionary tinkering that was dressed up and claimed to have come from academia.’ (p 275.) Taleb claims ‘that two fragilistas, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, got the memorial prize in Economics called ‘Nobel,’ for the packaging of a formula that other people discovered in much more sophisticated form before them.
(p 220.)

In the case of medicine, lots of serendipity by way of researchers who failed to follow the tight scripts of academic programs. James Le Fanu, doctor and science writer, finds that a large number of effective therapies of the post war years were not ignited by scientific insight but came ‘from the realization by doctors and scientists that it was not necessary to understand in any detail what was wrong, but that synthetic chemistry blindly and randomly would deliver the remedies that had eluded doctors for centuries.’ (p 231.)

Statistics illustrate, says Taleb, the gap between public perception of academic contribution and the truth, that private industry develops nine drugs out of ten.

Easy to show the Industrial revolution and technology owed little to science but were very much the result of trial and error tinkering and the curiosity of the enlightened amateur. The main technologies that led to the jump to the modern world were the empirical efforts of craftsmen like James Hargreaves who invented the spinning jenny that mechanized spinning, John Kay who invented the flying shuttle that mechanized weaving, Richard Arkwright who invented the water frame, and talented amateurs like the Reverend Edmund Cartwright, who invented the power loom.

Taleb is not saying that theories or academic science are not behind some practical technologies but questions the role of the epistemic base has played in the history of technology. He likens the process to the recipes used in cooking derived without conjectures about the chemistry of taste buds. ‘We can observe ancestral heuristics at work : generations of collective tinkerings resulting in the evolution of recipes. These recipes are imbedded in cultures. Cooking schools are entirely apprenticeship based.’
( p 224.)

Seems collaboration on the ground, says Taleb, letting ideas interbreed can have explosive consequences, forget the long term plan, ‘since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you can’t see where the world goes. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundations for prosperity and, no you can’t centralize innovations. We tried that in Russia.’ (P 234.)
Well that’s it! Yer may have noticed little reference ter ‘fizz.’ That’s because I was goin’ ter add another section herewith on ‘Trial and Error, Art and Fizz,’ but me essay was becoming’ too long and messy, so I’ll postpone that until the next New Year edishun. And to anyone readin’ this, I’ll wish you a Happy New Year and conclude with a brief.

NGS Picture ID:422890


The Evolution of Birds.

Making do with what’s at hand,
In this case ‘hands,’ –
Used to be ‘legs’ but they became
Useless little arms with
Claw appendages, the kind
You find on odd marsupials like kangaroos
And on that two-legged oddity
Of the Jurassic, dinosaur Therapod.
By God! There’s a black swan development
If ever there was one.

Fossils unearthed in limestone quarries
By homo sapien with evolutionary tools,
Stone axes won’t do it,
Record the evolution of the therapod hand
From flexing wrist of Velociraptor to
Unenlagla’s wing-like flaps and
Primitive feathers of Caudipteryx,
Say there’s a giant step for birds,
Then the momentous uncovering of
Flight feathers on fossil Archaeoterix
And we have lift off!

While precisely ‘how’ or maybe ‘why,’
The wings of birds evolved remains a mystery.   Bird-Flock-In-Blue-Sky
Just when homo sapiens think – they – may
Have some sort of handle on the evolution of
Birds, tricky Nature calls up another black swan,
Or cygnet maybe, seems some new and
Up – to – now unknown phenomenon
Has been at work in the evolution of birds.
For yet another evolutionary technology,
X-ray CT scanning of birds’ skulls
Throws some light on their progression,
Or rather regression, progenesis
They call it, seems birds are really
Baby dinosaurs. Precocious maturation of birds
In just a few weeks, a portion of the life span
Of therapods becomes the whole life span
Of a new successful species.

A new successful species, Praise be
To tricky Nature for the evolution
Of birds! Lords of the air, of updraft
And perilous tumbling,
Of utterance of sweet song, of joy
To the world and tremulous longing,
Of feathers rivaling in pattern and profusion
The spangled universe, touching the imagination
Of homo sapien, inspiring the visionary words
Of poets, expressive of delights and lamentations
Of mature lovers and yearning dreams of adolescents.



Far out, weird, whatever.


Rising before dawn I venture out,
climbing the moonlit hill
beyond the house.
My feet make no sound
crushing the damp grass.

As the comet, fiery tailed,
follows its timeless course
through the meteor belt,
I manoeuvre myself
through a barb-wire fence.

As transmitting stars, light years apart
send static signals across your rushing path,
I walk among the staring cows,
motionless in groups as though
enacting a nativity scenario.

Glittering planets, diamond sharp,
Litter the vast vault of night.
to the south-east I think I see you,
a faint smudge above the cow shed,
as pale dawn lights up the eastern sky.

B_T_, 33, Halley's comet_jpg

Halley’s Comet has been at the centre of a few historical events. The first known recording of the comet was on the Bayeux Tapestry made after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Astronomer Edmond Halley after whom the comet was named, was the first observer, in 1705, to date its fly by of Earth approximately every 76 years. Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Clements, was born and died during Halley’s Comet visits to Earth. Mark Twain was born in 1835 and died, as he predicted, in the year of its next visit, one day after it appeared at its brightest in the year 1910.


‘Walter Mitty Space Oddity.’


If an evil genie escaped from some smoking urn
in a subterranean cave, somewhere, I dunno,
somewhere, and crossed my path in that
serendipitous way that genies have,
come out of nowhere, black swan-like,
to offer just one wish, three being
over generous in the circumstances,
and this one wish heavily circumscribed.
‘You will become something other than
what now you are, something, not someone,
non-animal, even non-vegetable, that’s it, okay,
these will be the genie rules by which you’ll play.’
So what’s it to be apropos this circumscribed
scenario? I know, I’ll choose to be, risen
phoenix-like from the ashes, the Alexandria
Library. Oh those books, those journeys
by human minds now extinct. What thoughts,
scintillating in their day, rays of enlightenment,
motes of glinting imagination, gone. Kaput!
Never to reverberate down the ages, dammit!

Until today.


Wonders will never cease! The human brain
weighs about three pounds, give or take a few grams,
made of matter laced with interactive pathways
that transmit signals in the blink of an eye.
Think about it, consider what’s been created via
human matter transcending its limitations:
languages for instance, Bantu, Latin, lingua-franca,
Fortran, Lisp, also beverages, wine in glass goblets,
tea sipped from china cups, tea-dances, tight-rope
walking and all those other circus-tricks. Then
there’s serious stuff, alphabets ‘n such, philosophy,
poetry, sonnets and sonatas, symphonies, ‘The Sound
of Music.’ musical instruments, pianos, piccolos,
violins and all those other technologies from
Promethean fire-stick to bows and arrows,
steam-powered machines, jet-propelled moon-
flights, trial and error practices likely to
involve abstruse physics and mathematics.
Far out when you think about it, all this
evolving from the machinations of
a three pound human brain.


Nerdy types will likely
have heard of Aristarchus
of Samos, ancient Greek
astronomer and mathematician
who first hypothesized,
almost two millennia
before Copernicus, that
Earth revolves around the
sun on the circumference
of a circle. Furthermore,
Aristarchus suspected that
the stars were also suns,
too far distant for parallax
to be observed by us here
on Earth, travelling our
heliocentric course. This
was, of course, before
the advent of the telescope.

COPERNICUS. 1473 – 1543.

For he once held a universe
in his imagination, questioned
the consensus of fixed stars in
the heavens and an unmoving
Earth that’s circled by the sun.
In his imagination he envisioned
and calculated in its place
the space odyssey of
a restless Earth orbiting
the sun. – Until this, the rush
of blood to his cortex,
obliterating consciousness,
destroying a universe.


Space measurement facts to keep in yr head:

*One light year =587,849,981 x 1012 miles or 186, 282 miles per second. Think about it!
Tempus fugit, dear reader.

*Although a couple of dozen minor galaxies lie closer to our Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is our closest large galaxy neighbor, just 2.3 million light years away. You can see it with the naked eye, using the M or W shaped constellation Cassiopia to find it with the star Schedar pointing to it.





A serf’s overview of an important book by Jane Jacobs, ‘Cities and the Wealth of Nations.’


Say, Who Commands the Enterprise?

Remember when Mao Tse-tung decreed the economy of China was to take a Great Leap Forward?

Remember when Khrushchev at the United Nations foretold a Soviet economy that would overtake America’s and thereafter ‘bury’ the West?

Remember, after the Second World War, when the British thought they were constructing a prosperous welfare state?

The recipes and ideologies for accomplishing their economic goals may have differed in each of these nations, but in each, a similar disillusionment. Macro economy entrusted with the theory and practice of fostering national and inter-national economies has become a shambles.

Consider the funds poured into Marshall Plan post-war development of Europe. The Marshall Plan was touted as a successful venture yet the realities were there to see. While aid did become self generating to the economies of the Netherlands and West Germany, funding conspicuously failed to metamorphose stagnant economies like the economy of Southern Italy or that of Great Britain.

Jane Jabobs observes that since that time many already advanced countries, among them the United States, have also become victims of an insidious problem, the problem of stagflation, a combination of rising unemployment and inflated prices. In theory this should not exist, but it does.

This does not compute!

Keynes’ quantifiable fiscal interventions yielding quantifiable predictable results were tried and found wanting. As the Keynes’ camp succumbed to stagflation and bafflement, the Monetarists had a go, attaching inflation with high interest rates and cuts in government spending. But turned out, Monetarists’ measures to fight inflation were ruinous to many producers and their workforce and measures to help producers enlarged government deficits. Via state run policies of price subsidies and over-manning enterprises, the Marxist economies, too, were hit by stagflation.

Attempts to save their theories by tortuous claims that the intervention see-saw works indicated that structural flaws have not been taken into account by economic planners. They do not understand, says Jacobs, how to catalyse development in backward countries and they do not understand how to prevent developed economies from slipping backwards themselves.  (Chapter 1 ‘Fool’s Paradise.’)

Questioning mercantilist assumptions of gold and silver reserves as the source of a nation’s wealth, Adam Smith in his great work, ‘Enquiry into Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations’ argued that wealth came from capital and labor and from domestic and foreign trade. What he did not question was the mercantile view that nations are the salient entity for understanding the structure of economic life. Jacobs argues that once we remove the mercantilist blinkers, we can’t help seeing that most nations are grab bags of very different economies, of rich and poor regions within the same nation. (Ch 2, ‘Back to Reality.’) She quotes Henry Grady editor of a newspaper in Atlanta, in 1889 describing a funeral he had attended in Pickens County some eighty miles away:

‘The grave was dug through solid marble but the marble headstone came from Vermont. It was in a pine wilderness but the pine coffin came from Cincinnati. An iron mountain over-shadowed it but the coffin nails and the screws and the shovel came from Pittsburgh…The cotton shirt on the dead man came from Cincinnati, the coat and breeches from Chicago, the shoes from Boston, the folded hands were encased in white gloves from New York, and around the poor neck, which had worn all its living days the bondage of lost opportunity, was twisted a cheap cravat from Philadelphia.’ (Op cit.)

The items Grady mentions were products of American cities replacing imports instead of interminably importing them from London or other English cities. And behind the items lay other products, often innovative adaptations, lathes, knives, dye vats, freight axles. These products were not generated in rural areas but in cities. Economic life, Jacobs demonstrates, develops by grace of innovation in cities; it explodes by grace of import replacing, which are functions of city economies.

We Have Lift Off!

Charles Sabel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1982, described the proliferation of small firms that occurred a decade earlier in clusters of small cities between Bologne and Venice, firms employing as few as five workers, specialising and innovating in every phase of production of textiles, automatic machine tools, automobile and agricultural equipment, the process feeding on itself as parts in a chain reaction.

Cities own regions, the artifacts of cities, may benefit from the opportunities the city generates. Not all cities generate city regions. Atlanta did not but New York and Boston did so. The expansion that derives from city import replacements consists of five forms of growth, abruptly enlarged city markets for new and different imports, new uses for technology, increased numbers and kinds of employment, increased growth of city capital, increased transplant of city work into non-urban locations as older enterprises are crowded out.

The largest city region in the world today is Tokyo’s, says Jacobs. She describes the benefits of an expanding city region on the rural village Shinohata, as the five forces of expansion came to bear. Beginning in the late 1950’s, people in Shinohata found they could make good money from things not previously in demand, like peaches and grapes, ornamental plants for city gardens, and increasing demands for their rice crops. Productivity soared through purchases of labor saving devices. Oak mushrooms were a new product in demand. In the 1960’s three farmers began expanding oak mushroom production with a new method of growing them by stacked log production. By the 1970’s these farmers had forth to fifty thousand logs each and by using heated glass houses in winter, were making daily shipments to Tokyo all the year round. The villagers themselves were the first to admit that the wealth of the community was not because they were more innovative than their forebears, but due to the benefits of Tokyo’s regional expansion.

japan paintings mount fuji katsushika hokusai thirtysix views of mount fuji 4457x2946 wallpaper_www.wallpapername.com_9

Lost in Space.

When those five forces reach out into distant regions as they always do, it’s as if a city’s bonds unravel at the borders of the city region and their separate strands, in supply regions, distort into bizarre economies and eventually shrink into poverty.

Jacobs shows this effect in Uruguay, which for several generations was un unusually rich supply region. Most of the population of Uruguay had migrated from Europe in the latter part of the nineteenth century and to spur immigration, the government had encouraged homesteading. Efficient homesteaders supplied meat, wool and leather, but little else, to distant markets and could afford to import what they needed, refrigerating unites, cranes, and other things necessary to keep their advanced transport and communication systems going, along with hospitals, schools and theatres.

Uruguayans called their country ‘the Switzerland of South America.’ Turned out it wasn’t. In the 1950’s, countries in Europe that had been begun to recover from the effects of the Second World War became preoccupied with protecting their own meat and wool producers from competition, while ranchers in Australia and New Zealand were seeking to enlarge their own markets. In the meantime, substitute products for wool and leather were  being  manufactured. Uruguay’s exports and imports plummeted. To pay welfare and transfer payments the government began printing money and Uruguay is now a third world economy. What they did, they did well, notes Jacobs. What they did not do was create a productive city diverse economy for themselves.

Other supply regions, New Zealand, New Brunswick in Canada, Appalachia, Central and Southern Scotland, have the same problem of narrow specialization. France today has only one import replacing city, Paris, and rural France is a stunted supply region.

An Act of Faith.

‘Say, I’m from the guvuhmint and I’m here to help you …’  If you happen to live in a supply region, forget it because the only forces which transfer economies, argues Jane Jacobs, are the five great forces of markets, new technologies, jobs, and city transplants that occur organically.

Money from immigrant workers sent home to supply regions doesn’t help. The new funded taxi breaks down, its owner hasn’t earned enough to pay for its repair.

Subsidies and grants providing labour saving technology puts traditional subsistence farmers, often women, off the land. Large capital projects like the Volta Dam in Ghana resettled 80,000 people on to poor farmland most of whom are now probably landless indigents.

Transplants by order to outer regions brings in self sufficient industries like Lockheed,  that do not  contribute to the region’s economy and government industries that are inflexible and a drain on the national economy.

Taking a look at history, when the Roman Legions pulled out of their western empire in Britain and Europe, these regions sank into subsistence living, the period known as the Dark Ages. Rotation of crops dropped under pressure of survival and were then forgotten, metal agricultural tools wore out and were not replaced, whole ranges of manufactured and craft good disappeared from economic life. Well woven cloth became a lost skill, except for one small enclave in the low countries. A bright future for Europe was probably touch and go. For a new city to form, requires one or more initial cities with which to begin its initial trading.

To Boldly Go Where …

Luckily for Europe there was a little settlement on the mud flats and marshes at the head of the Adriatic which discovered a market for salt and later timber, with nearby Constantinople. But Venice, this pioneer city of the European economy, did not remain a mere supply depot. It began  diversifying its own products  and producing a market for other supply depot settlements to the north and west, which then, each in its turn, began to build up its own city production.


Lots of examples around of leaders trying to generate, by top down planning,  the economic miracle that was Venice and its surrounds. Peter the Great attempted it in Russia, the Shah  of Iran attempting to buy a developed economy by selling oil, but it seems that development is a do it yourself process, As Jane Jacobs reminds us, all of today’s developed economies were once backward economies yet managed to transcend their backwardness by building up city import production.

 Danger Will Robinson.

Jane Jacob presents a hypothesis of flawed feedback from national currencies. Jacobs argues that today we take for granted the benefits of multiple currencies being replaced by a few to create stability in economic life. She argues that this assumption warrants questioning if you understand how feedback controls from currencies work in their own terms, that national currencies have an inbuilt flaw because nations are not discrete economic units. What ever export or city happens to contribute most heavily to the national exports is apt to be the region or city best served by the national currency. If one city and its region get the edge, argues Jacobs, we must expect that the edge, once gained will become self reinforcing because the more heavily its production will weigh in the total and foreign trade of the nation’s cities and the more closely the feedbacks will suit that specific city. But it won’t coincide with the differing needs and timing of other cities and over the passage of time nations will become dominated by one dominant city and others becoming passive and provincial. (Ch 11, ‘Faulty Feedback to Cities.’ )

To illustrate the flaws in national currency, Jacobs offers an analogy of a group of people with their own diaphragms and lungs but who share one single breathing centre. In this bizarre arrangement, the breathing centre would receive a consolidated feedback on carbon dioxide but without discriminating among the individuals producing it, some sleeping, others walking or running, etc. Of course no such flawed system could survive in nature but nations, from this point of view, receive currency feedback where the predominant message makes no distinctions between the differing units.

Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore have a built in design advantage that many cities of the past enjoyed with their own currencies triggering specifically appropriate feedback corrections to specific responding mechanisms Montevideo in Uruguay would have benefited from such admonitory currency feedback  as would have many cities in the US today. During the last eight decades, city after city in America, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Seattle, Detroit have declined, due to the structural flaw that goes with the territory of national currency. Jane Jacobs’ pessimistic conclusion:

‘We must be grateful that world government  and a world currency is only a dream …As far as I can see, there are no remedies at a city’s or a nation’s command whatever, short of separation in the pattern of Singapore, for correcting the flaw.’ (Ch 11.)

Jane Jacobs identifies what she calls ‘Transactions of Decline,’ ( Ch 12.) policies and transactions that make it impossible for cities, handicapped  by currency flaws in any case, to renew themselves. The policies and the transactions she identifies as killers of city economies are “

(1) Prolonged and unremitting military production.

(2) Prolonged and unremitting subsidies to poor regions.

(3) Heavy production of trade between advanced and backward economies.

Regarding war production, Jacobs observes that cities, not prolonged military production, incubates economic life, History shows that military developments do spur civilian economic developments  and conversely, civilian technology spur military technology, but only when production oscillates between them. Prolonged military production, however, retards development and drains the earnings of cities.

The trouble with transfer payments and unremitting subsidies, not just one-off disaster relief donations, is that they feed voraciously on the earnings of cities and divert earned city imports to regions that do not develop through replacing imports. Heavy trading with backward economies reduces inter-city trade and opportunities to serve as good customers for one another’s innovation, with no ongoing benefit to developing backward economies as import replacing cities themselves.

Is It Dead, Jim?

I’m not going to say much about the pessimistic conclusions of the two final chapters of Jane Jacobs’ book regarding the predicaments of modern cities and whether we might be able to bell the cat.  A few suggestions to stave off decline. Avoiding VAT imposts on improvisation, avoiding nation-wide or international product standards hindering economic development other than the relatively few standards strictly required for health and safety… Cities solve pressing problems themselves and may then export their solutions to one another and the rural world. Attacking monopolies … when Bell Telephone Systems’ monopoly was broken endless varieties of new products appeared.

Says Jacobs:

‘These are instances in which a nation, without damage to itself as a political unit, has made a little more room in itself for open-ended economic drift.’
(Ch 14, ‘Drift.’)

A Serf ponders.

Jacob’s ‘Cities and the wealth of Nation’s reminds a serf of Nassim Taleb’s book, ‘Anti-Fragile,’ in which Taleb sees ‘experts ‘ transferring fragility to others  and would welcome addressing top down asymmetries of risk by the ancient code of Hammurabi.’ ( Re ‘Hammurabi’ see me 12th  Edition of Serf Under-ground Journal.)

If you’ve read Taleb’s “Antifragile’ and his other book, ‘The Black Swan,’ you’ll be aware that ‘experts’ and governments are no more successful than individuals at predicting the fuchure, even ‘experts’ like Paul Ehrlich, say, or  Alan Greenspan or Joseph Stiglitz.

‘It is obvious to anyone before drinking time’ says Taleb ‘ that we can put a man, a family, a village with a mini town hall on the moon, and predict the trajectory of planets or the most minute effect in quantum physics, yet governments with equally sophisticated  models cannot forecast revolutions, crises, budget deficits, climate change. Or even the closing prices of the stock market a few hours from now.’ ( ‘Antifragile.’ Ch 8, ‘Prediction as a Child of Modernity.’)

Taleb describes Switzerland, with its small central government, as economically the most robust place on the planet. He tells the tale of another economy, the province of northern Levant, prosperous for over twelve thousand years, from the time of pre-pottery neolithics to traders on the silk road right up to the trading souks, or traditional markets, of the twentieth century.


Two events ended all this. After World War1 one region of the northern Levant was integrated into the newly created nation of Syria and separated from the rest, which is now part of Lebanon. Up to then, the entire area had been part of the Ottoman Empire, largely autonomous as long as taxes were paid. Cities minted their own coins and operated as city states where commerce flourished.

Hey, how ter transform gold into mud … When the socialist Baathist Party came to power it centralized government, removed the souks and enforced statist laws. The effects were immediately visible. Aleppo and Emesa went into instant decline and trading families departed to New York, New Jersey, Beirut and Lebanon.( NT Ch 5 ‘The Souk and the Office Building.’)

So can we predict the fate of the West and its nations? Jane Jacobs has a go and offers some hard case studies on decline of the cities. She may well be right but there’s NassimTaleb reminding us that humans aren’t all that good at predicting. Say, we serfs recall those Dark Ages but then Venice rose from the marshes like a phoenix from its ashes. Today we have Switzerland in the west, Singapore in the east, with small government and good currency feedback … black swans abound, the next innovation …?



Ever git that locked in feelin’ that’s common ter serfs? …  Sometimes in Spring when yer in the fields hoein’ turnips, yer watch the welcome swallows flyin’ fast and free over the fields, returnin’ from their long migration … You wish, serf, you wish.

The Wise Move, the Good Stay Still.

Concerning journeys and interconnections. In ‘A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Fung Yu Lan quotes Confucius in the Analects:

‘The wise man delights in water, the good man delights in mountains. The wise move; the good stay still. The wise are happy, the good endure.’ (V1,21.)

This quote by Confucius, Fung Yu Lan says, suggests something of a different mind set between the people of ancient China and those of ancient Greece that relates to their geographical experiences. China is a continental country. From the time of Confucius until the end of the 19th century, no Chinese thinker had the experience of venturing upon the high seas, whereas Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, living in a maritime country, traveled from island to island. There are two expressions in Chinese which can be translated as ‘the world.’ One is ‘all beneath the sky,’ the other, ‘all within the four seas.’ Fung Yu Lan observes that to a maritime people like the Greeks, these would not be synonymous expressions.

The ancient Chinese and Greek philosophers also experienced different economic and social conditions. In China, most people made their living by agriculture. In the thinking of the Chinese philosophers, there is a distinction between what they refer to as ‘the root’ and ‘the branch.’ Agriculture is concerned with production, ‘the root,’ and commerce is merely exchange, ‘the branch.’ Throughout history, philosophy and policy gave emphasis to the root and slighted the branch. The two honorable classes of Chinese society were the scholars, who were usually landlords and whose fortunes were tied up with agriculture, and the peasants who worked the land. The lowest classes of society were the artisans and merchants who dealt with the branch.

In the’Lu-shih Ch’un-ch’iu,’ a compendium of various schools of philosophy written in the 3rd century B.C, there is a chapter entitled ‘The Value of Agriculture’ comparing farmers with merchants. Simple farmers, their material properties complex and difficult to move, do not abandon their country in times of war and are obedient and unselfish. Corrupt merchants, disobedient and selfish, have simple property, easy to move, and are able to abandon their county in times of danger.

Confucianism and Taoism, the two main Chinese philosophies,  says Fung Yu Lan, (p19.) though ’poles apart from one another, yet are also the two poles of one and the same axis and both express, in one way or another, the aspirations of the farmer.’ Confucianism reflects and rationalizes the social system of an agrarian society based on the family, Taoism expresses an unworldly idealization of nature.

The poetry of the two philosophies reflect these different attitudes:

‘The Master said.’ by Confucius.

’The Master said,
“It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused.”
It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is
“It is from music that the finish is received,”
The Master said,
“The people may be made to follow a path of action.
But they may not be made to understand it.’

The Taoist poet T’ao Ch’ien:

‘I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach,
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant mountain hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we express it, words suddenly fail us.’

Over the Sea.

‘All things are made of water, ‘said Thales of Miletus, believed to be the first of the Greek philosophers. This view may not be as far fetched as it first appears, says Bertrand Russell, (Wisdom of the West.) Hydrogen, the stuff that generates water, has been held, in our time, to be the chemical element from which all other elements can be synthesized. Living near the sea, Thales would easily have observed that the sun evaporates water, that mists rise from the surface to the clouds, which again dissolve in rain.

Thales lived on the Ionian coast, a busy cross-roads for trade and commerce. The centuries preceding Athens’ experiment in political democracy had seen the development of a new sea faring class, dramatized in Homer’s two great epic poems, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey.’ Among the civilizations of the world, Greece was a late-comer, but what changes it brought. Western civilization has evolved its great philosophic and scientific traditions from these beginnings in Greece, two and a half thousand years ago.

When Greeks took to the sea and began to trade and build colonies around the Aegean Sea, coming into contact with other cultures, the old tribal certainties began to weaken.The philosopher Heraclitus developed the idea that all things are involved in some form of movement, a concept of change unfamiliar to tribal societies where social customs were regarded as god-given immutable regularities. Another philosopher, Democritus, formulated the doctrine that human institutions, language, customs, laws, are man-made, followed on by Socrates’ teachings in Athens, that we are responsible for our individual actions and his argument, in the spirit of scientific criticism, that we should have faith in human reason but avoid dogmatism.

You Will Not Move.

Socrates pupil, Plato, rejected the faith in an open society, expressed by these earlier philosophers. Born into a period of political turmoil, the period of the Peloponnesian Wars and its aftermath of civil war and epidemics, Plato sought to arrest all change. Through his theory of immutable essences, Plato was able to extract something permanent from the Heraclitean process of flux and historical corruption. From his theory, Plato was able to argue for a return to a previous golden age period that might stem the tide of change by creating an hierarchical social system based on Plato’s  necessary ‘noble lie’ of the metals in men.

Like ancient Greece, prior to the entrenched hierarchical system that developed in China under the Ming Dynasty, there was a time when China might have engaged with the rest of the world. In the period when the Tang Empire came to an end and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms fought incessantly, China experienced its most spectacular burst of invention and prosperity. By the late 1000s Chinese were masters of silk, tea, porcelain production, paper and printing and made coke from coal to smelt high grade iron. Industrious peasants were working for cash as well as subsistence and using their cash to buy goods.

Then came the calamities of the Mongol invasion and the Black Death. The Black Death,  as in Western Europe, decimated the population and presumably resulted in surplus land to supply disposable income. In Western Europe however, there were regions of independent city states run by merchants who would adapt positively to these challenges. China was governed by the Ming emperors who nationalized industry and created state monopolies for salt  iron, tea, foreign trade and education. The first of these Emperors, Hongwu, forbade all trade and travel without official permission, forced merchants to register an inventory of their goods once a month, and permitted peasants to grow food only for their own consumption .

Before the Ming period, China had been extending its sea power for three hundred years. Chinese merchants had developed a trade network in spices and raw materials with Indian and Muslim traders to the fringe of the Indian Ocean. By the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, China had reached a peak of naval technology, including development of the magnetic compass, that was unsurpassed in the world. The second Ming Emperor, wishing to impress Ming power on the world, had a massive treasure fleet built, greater than the Spanish Amada, which made seven voyages, sailing as far as East Africa.

China had the means to trade with the world and the Chinese people were ready to do it but Yong-le’s successor brought an end to China’s maritime history by banning ship building and trading abroad. This was steered by the Emperor’s officials who instinctively distrusted innovation as a threat to their own positions. As Matt Ridley points out in ‘The Rational Pessimist,’(Ch5,) the officials had high status and low salaries, a combination that bred corruption and rent-seeking.

Postscript: China has a rich history of peasant rebellion before and following the Ming dynasty era. Chinese society was founded on Confucian principles of an established social order in which each human being accepts his or her destiny as a constituent element. The mandate of Heaven guarantees the overall harmony of this world. Only if this harmony is disrupted through degeneration of dykes and canals, crop failures and failure to maintain grainery reserves collected by the taxes of the peasants, may the emperor, as its holder, and his corrupt bureaucracy be overthrown. Peasant rebellions were frequent and were sometimes powerful enough to bring down an emperor, including the Ming emperor in the seventeenth century. But as one dynasty was replaced by another, sometimes a new dynasty of a peasant leader, Chinese society was never able to free itself from the historical fabric of ancient China. No industrial revolution in China.

An Anatomy of Melancholy.

Robert Burton, Oxford don, devoted an immense amount of scholarship in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ to showing that travel was a cure for melancholy, for depressions brought forth by the sedentary life. Nature itself shows the way…

‘The heavens themselves run continually round, the sun riseth and sets, the moon increaseth, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds,  the waters ebb and flow, to their conservation no doubt, to teach us  that we should ever be in motion.’

Geoffrey Chaucer was aware of it :

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendred is the flour:
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes, and the yonnge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve course yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.’

(‘Canterbury Tales.’)

Melville’s Ishmael knew it too:

‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … and especially whenever my hypos gets the upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’

Bruce Chatwin in ‘Songlines’quotes Darwin’s example of Audubon’s goose that when deprived of its pinion feathers, started out to walk the  yearly migration journey on foot. Darwin also describes ‘the suffering of a bird, penned up at the season of its migration, which would flail its wings and bloody its breast against the bars of its cage.’

Say, here’s another journey, and what a journey. Giulio Tonono, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has written a book exploring the mysteries of human consciousness entitled, ‘Phi ; A Voyage From the Brain to the Soul.’

A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul.

Tononi’s book is not a scientific paper but instead, a poetic narrative with a dreaming Galileo as its central character. With Galileo, we are taken on a journey of discovery about different facets of consciousness and as in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the traveller is accompanied on his journey by a guide.

Galileo’s voyage is in three parts. In each part Galileo’s guide is a different famous scientist. The first guide is Frick, the biologist Francis Crick, who reveals to Galileo, through meetings with historical figures suffering from different brain diseases, the parts of the brain that reveal consciousness. The second guide is the mathematician Altura, Galileo is hard of hearing and mishears the name Alan Turing. Turing debates with Galileo his belief that even simple machines can produce conscious experience.Galileo’s third guide, known only as the old bearded man, is Charles Darwin, who conducts Galileo through the implications of Phi, the concept of integration of ideas that Galileo dubs ‘consciousness.’

This allusive voyage through the labyrinth of consciousness is by way of metaphor and rich imagery and a medley of voices talking to each other, even including the echoing narrative of a bat in a cave. At the end of each chapter, a mysterious note taker comments and gives context to the artistic and scientific references. Some examples:

Chapter 4 Cerebellum. In which it is shown that the cerebellum, though having more neurons than the cerebrum, unlike the cerebrum, does not have consciousness.

Cerebelum 1


 Cerebellum 2


   Chapter 16. Integrated Information, the Many and the One. In which is shown that consciousness  lives where information is  integrated by a single entity above and beyond its parts

 conciousness 1


 conciousness 2

   Chapter 27, Consciousness Evolves. In which it is said that animals are conscious too.


Evolution 1

evolution 2

Well, time ter git out and about, I guess …

Gaudama Buddha’s last words to his disciples: ‘Walk on!’

Wilhem Kempff , ‘The Tempest.’ Beethoven