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To mark today's UK publication of The Rational Optimist in
paperback, I have written an article for The Sun newspaper:
FOR the past month, the news has been all bad -
war, recession, riot, tsunami, earthquake, nuclear disaster,
inflation, cuts... and the cricket.
Guest post by Andrew Mayne
"Too much choice can be a bad thing-not just for the
individual, but for society."
Tim Worstall riffs on William Baumol to
One way of putting which is that increasing
labour productivity in services is more difficult than improving it
in manufacturing. Canonically, we cannot get a symphony orchestra
to be more productive by playing at twice the speed. So, ally this
with wages being determined by average productivity, we'll see the
amount we need to spend on labour to get services to rise against
the amount we need to spend on labour to get manufactures. Services
will become more expensive relative to manufactures over time.
However, this is not certain. A tendency,
yes, but not a certainty. For it is possible, through innovation,
to turn a service into, if not a manufacture, at least an automated
operation. Think replacing bank clerks with ATMs. Skilled typists
with dictation software. We can record the symphony once and play
it many times on a gramophone/Walkman/iPod.
As a general rule, if George Monbiot agrees with you, start
worrying you may be wrong. The Fukushima nuclear crisis has
made Monbiot a fan of nuclear power, at just the
time when my doubts have been growing.
You will not be surprised to hear that
the events in Japan have changed my view of
nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed
it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer
nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.
A crappy old plant with inadequate safety
features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The
electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The
reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a
familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as
we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
My latest Wall Street Journal article is on Nick
Humphrey's theory of consciousness, as set out in his fine new
book Soul Dust
In 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments," published in 1759, Adam
Smith boldly recast the question of virtue in terms of what we now
call empathy (but which he called sympathy). Smith argued that we
are good to each other because empathy allows us to imagine both
the pleasure and the suffering experienced by our fellow beings.
Even when alone, he suggested, our morality comes from adopting the
perspective of an imagined "impartial spectator."
I have written two articles in the past few days on the
implications of the Fukushima nuclear crisis (accident?, incident?
drama? -- not sure what the right word is).
This was for The Times on 16th March:
Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail writes:
Of course, the modern world is better
equipped than the ancients to survive these cataclysmic disasters.
We have stronger buildings, better communications and international
aid agencies to help the recovery process. But older societies had
a more realistic sense of their place in the world.
Which would you rather have? A more realistic sense of your
place in the world -- or your life? The remarkable thing about the
Japanese earthquake and tsunami is how many more they would have
killed if Japan had still been a poor country.
This is a draft of a piece that I wrote for The Times last
week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly
recommend Brian Moynahan's wonderful book on Tyndale:
This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the
King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie
and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But
I have an
uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a
key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the
authorized bible's wonderful English - William Tyndale.
Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Photo: Jon Erlandson
The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early
on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the
dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the
drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation
of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no
good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries
were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been
unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing
marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let
alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free
at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works'
is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
atest Mind and Matter column from the Wall Street Journal:
When did you last read an account of how microchips actually
work? You know, replete with all that stuff about electrons and
holes and "p-doping" and "n-doping" and the delights of gallium
arsenide. The golden age of such articles, when you could read
about them in the mainstream press, was the early 1980s. Today
nobody writes about semiconductors, at least not about how they
My point? That when a technology is new, everybody wants to
understand how it works. When it is mature, nobody is interested in
such details. The fascination with how things work fades, and the
technology becomes a black box.
My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall
Three years ago Queen Elizabeth II asked a group of speech
therapists if her father's stutter had been caused by his being
forced to write with his right hand despite being a natural
left-hander. Though it's a more plausible theory than movie
psychobabble about conflict with a domineering father (a theme of
Oscar front-runner "The King's Speech"), the experts told the queen
that this commonly held explanation for stuttering remains
unproven. It may be just an urban legend, based on the fact that
stuttering is more common among the left-handed.
The connection between handedness and speech runs deep.
Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain and so is motor
control of the usually dominant right hand. It is possible that
this connection says something about the evolutionary origin of
language, if language was first expressed through gestures rather