Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Jane's Blogosphere: blogtrack for Natalie Solent.


( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Albion's seedling is an Anglosphere group-blog featuring (natch) Jim Bennett, along with Lexington Green, Helen Szamuely and others. I particularly liked this post of his on resilience and disaster.

The resilience and disaster post features steam trains. For most of my male relatives that is reason enough to go there. For those eccentrics who want politics too, be advised that Jim Bennett argues that the apparent wastefulness and incoherence of infrastructure systems built for profit by many different companies (a) helps sort out what actually works, and (b) comes in handy in an emergency.

Point (a) reminded me of the story of Brunel's broad gauge railway. Stephenson adopted the 4' 8½" gauge for no better reason than that was the gauge commonly used in horse-drawn colliery railways. (Saying "no better reason" as I just did is unfair: being able to use existing trucks & truck-building stuff¹ must have saved a packet.) In tests carried out by the Gauge Commission in 1845, Brunel's wider gauge trains satisfied the testers that they could pull heavier loads faster.² Yet it was the narrower gauge that prevailed, mostly because it already had prevailed on the main national trunk route. The Great Western eventually had to convert from broad to narrow gauge at vast expense.

Thus far this story looks like - and often is - a textbook example of path-dependence. Some people wrongly see path-dependent choices as irrational choices. In his book for the IEA, "", Robert C. Miller argues against this view. He also makes the point that in the history of the railways the path-dependent choice was not necessarily inferior:

While the broad gauge may have had some advantages, these were offset by its extra expense - wider tunnels, cuttings, bridges and embankments, and the extra land required.
Standard didn't get to be standard without something going for it.

Robert Miller makes another point too. Converting down from broad to standard may have cost a lot, but it was still an awful lot less than converting up would have.

Jim Bennett's point (b) reminded me of something, too. Unfortunately all the effort I put into remembering how to spell "gauge" and do fractions in HTML has un-reminded me. Wait! It's come back! The internet! We free-market types cannot claim the internet as our own. It was created by the government - the dear old Pentagon, to be precise. (Folk religion has it that a sinner in Hell may have his tongue moistened once a year on account of one long-forgotten good deed. Tim Berners-Lee will take an annual cold beer across the chasm to some bigwig of the military-industrial complex under this clause.) However the demands of defence had a similar effect to the results of the market: this new internet thing was meant to withstand nuclear attack, so it had to be decentralised and endlessly re-routable.

It worries me that government schemes to control the internet in order to catch terrorists may in fact wipe out its structural resilience against terrorist attack.

¹Spot my effortless grasp of technical terms.

²Actually railway experts are still arguing about this. It may have been Brunel's engine design rather than his choice of gauge that was better.