We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

More tunnelling under that moral high ground

This looks interesting, from today’s Independent:

Claims that dozens of politicians, including some from prominent anti-war countries such as France, had taken bribes to support Saddam Hussein are to be investigated by the Iraqi authorities. The US-backed Iraqi Governing Council decided to check after an independent Baghdad newspaper, al-Mada, published a list which it said was based on oil ministry documents.

The 46 individuals, companies and organisations inside and outside Iraq were given millions of barrels of oil, the documents show. Thousands of papers were looted from the State Oil Marketing Organisation after Baghdad fell to US forces on 9 April.

“I think the list is true,” Naseer Chaderji, a Governing Council member, said. “I will demand an investigation. These people must be prosecuted.” Rumours had circulated for months that documents implicating senior French individuals were about to surface. Such evidence would undermine the French position before the war when President Jacques Chirac staked out the moral high ground in opposing the invasion.

I don’t remember Chirac staking out any moral high ground, just that some people thought he had, perhaps including him. But I do recall learning, although I forget how, that Saddam had a bribery network that covered the whole Middle East, and I recall thinking that it probably did not stop there. Of course, it is hardly news that France is riddled with corruption. The news is that a semi-major newspaper is saying it, today, again.

Samizdata quote of the day

He’s a shark in wolf’s clothing!
– Gabriel Syme

(I’d love to tell you the context… but alas I dare not)

Taking vs. making

Thought Mesh has a post that captures the lefty/statist mindset like an entomologist with a nice long needle.

I made the mistake (again!) of listening to the local NPR station. One of their features is a segment where a law professor opines on society and the law. She’s not always a complete loon. Today she was only semi-loony in a paean to an associate of hers who was a crusader for the poor. What he did, according to her, was encourage the “oppressed” to become involved in politics. The view was that this was not only a good thing in itself, but enabled those involved to “take charge of their own lives”. But politics is primarily about taking charge of other people’s lives. It is precisely those in charge of themselves that have no need of politics. The commentator then listed the marvelous things that this involvement in politics had yielded – primarily recreational projects built at taxpayer expense. So it boiled down in the end to forming gangs and using the power of that gang to extract money from other people. I was hoping for “started businesses”, “got jobs”, “became educated” kind of things. But apparently that’s not the way the poor and oppressed should improve their lot, by improving themselves and their families. Instead they should get together to get their slice of pork. Not quite the uplifting saga of the American Dream one might hope for.

Of course, the fact that this particular lefty statist found a taxpayer-subsidized outlet on National Public Radio is just the icing on the cake.

Spacer Days of Remembrance #2

On this day eighteen years ago, seven astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger died when their ship broke up during boost.

Dick Scobee
Ellison Onizuka
Mike Smith
Greg Jarvis
Christa McAuliffe
Ron McNair
Judy Resnick

Situational update

As a few (very few) kind emailers have noticed, I have been pretty much out of circulation the last couple of months. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, there just isn’t much going on that has caught my eye. We are seeing a bunch of pre-existing patterns play out, with little new in such arenas as the Iraqi war or domestic US politics. Its all blah blah blah, same old same old. Bush lied, Halliburton is a bunch of crooks, you are all helpless victims of the corporations, etc. ad nauseum, but very little new in the way of facts to move the discussion forward, really. I find the Democratic primaries intensely uninteresting – none of the candidates will do anything to make the US a freer, more vibrant society, so a pox on all of ’em. If GWB ever does anything on the domestic front that I approve of, you will be the first to know, but don’t hold your breath. I certainly won’t.

Second, my apathy toward current events probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have been laid off (Friday is my last day), and have been spending most of my energy scratching for a new position. The circumstances of my departure (law firm political backstabbing) are guaranteed to produce a jaundiced attitude in even the most callous of self-reliant free-marketeers, which has doubtless colored my view of the larger world.

One ray of sunshine – the Wisconsin Senate voted last week to overturn the Governor’s veto of a concealed carry bill. The even more Republican Assembly has it calendared for today, which they wouldn’t do unless they also have the votes to overturn (barring an outbreak of utter incompetence from Assembly leadership, a possibility I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand). So, it looks like Wisconsin will legalize concealed carry at the exact instant that I lack the funds to score a new gun. Bah.

Speaking of which, suggestions from the commentariat on concealed carry guns are hereby solicited. I have one, and only one, non-negotiable requirement – .45 only. No Europellets, no marketing department hybrid calibers like the .40, just good old, puts-big-holes-in-people, .45s for this Samizdatista.

Spacer Days of Remembrance #1

Thirty-seven years ago today Astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee and Ed White died in an on the pad test of an Apollo capsule.

On WiFi pricing, and the cluelessness of large bloated former state sector quasi-monopolies

I have recently got myself a laptop computer with built in 802.11b/g wireless, and I have therefore spent a fair bit of time looking for hotspots in which I can connect to the internet, preferably for free.

There seem to be three business models for public WiFi access points at this point. The first one seems to be provide it for free in your cafe or restaurant and hope it increases custom, or at least ensures that custom does not go elsewhere. The second involves charging extortionate amounts of money, and hoping that enough people who are really rich and/or travelling on expense accounts will pay for it for you to make some money. The third is for people with existing internet infrastructure to plug wireless access points into their infrastructure and figure out how to make it pay later. The obvious candidates to try this third option are owners of existing internet cafes, who have wired ethernets present already, lots of internet capacity already, and for who the total cost of buying an access point and plugging it in is around £40.

All three of these models are present in the UK. The most common is sadly the second. There are lots of wireless access points in Starbucks, other coffee chains, in McDonald’s restaurants and the like that are trying to charge me £6 per hour or similar. Now this pricing is ridiculous. I can use a terminal in an internet cafe for £1 per hour, and the costs of running such a business are vastly more than providing WiFi. (I have my own WiFi hotspot in my home. This cost me £69.99 for the all in one router/DSL modem/wireless access point and the DSL internet access costs me £25 per month. A business would be able to reclaim the VAT on that and get it ever cheaper. This is not something that requires enormous capital investment)

This second, high charging option tends to involve the owner of the cafe outsourcing the WiFi provision to an existing telephone company. T-Mobile are providing WiFi for Starbucks, and BT, Britain’s former public sector monopoly and the largest telephone company in the UK, is providing infrastructure for a variety of establishments. (The problem with this model is that the provider has to make a buck separately from the cafe). BT is a reasonable company at a wholesale level, but they have a legendary cluelessness as a retail business. Although they own most local loop telephone lines in the UK, their ISP is nowhere near being the market leader. I was a customer, but I switched due to poor service and high prices. (Even less impressively, although they had huge incumbency advantages and about ten year’s head start on the third and fourth entrants, their mobile phone business managed to come in fourth out of four in the UK in terms of customers when they eventually spun it off).

I suspect that the owners of such services have discovered that they are not doing much business, and a shakeout is starting soon which will end up with prices more closely reflecting costs. In any event, BT are now providing a variety of free trials, presumably in order to collect information about likely customers, and in the hope that some people will sign up for the pay service after the free trial ends. A 30 day free offer seems to be included with many laptop computers, and this week BT are offering a free trial for anyone who registers. Okay, sensible move on their part. They get my personal details and I can then get some free internet access. Fair trade.

So, this morning I found a BT hotspot in a cafe. I sat down, and got myself a cup of coffee. They asked me to register. I gave them some information about myself, including my e-mail address. After clicking through a couple of pages, I was told that my registration was successful, and that my password would be sent to me by e-mail. However, I was not logged in, and therefore I couldn’t access my e-mail and get the password. To use the free trial I was required to connect to the internet somewhere else, download my e-mail, and then go back to the BT hotspot to log in.

As Douglas Adams once said, ten out of ten for style but minus several million out of ten for good thinking.

Two new libertarian blogs

One of the most welcome commenters in my part of the blogosphere, including here of course, is Mark Holland. So it was a great pleasure to learn, some few weeks ago, that he now has his own blog, called Blognor Regis, which is the name of a famous English seaside town plus an L. Take a look. What can you lose?

It definitely is a libertarian blog, let there be no doubt about that. When he mentions car tax, for instance, he says there ought not to be any. But when I went looking for further items of libertarian holy writ that has not yet sunk into the archives I found almost nothing else that was really hard core. He does not hit you over the head every day with his libertarianism, in other words.

Nor does Richard Garner’s new blog, which I heard about by reading Blognor Regis, but that is because Richard seems to post less frequently than Mark Holland does. Otherwise, Richard Garner’s Thoroughly Enthralling Weblog could hardly be more different. This is a blog with long quotes (scroll down to “EDUCATION (HEALTH CARE, FOOD, ADEQUATE HOUSING… ADD GOOD OR SERVICE AS YOU FEEL APPROPRIATE – IS A PRIVILEGE, NOT A RIGHT” – January 25 – blogger archiving …) from hard core libertarian luminaries, world famous and not so world famous. Hairs are split. Doctrinal purities are distilled still more. Libertarian colours are nailed to the mast and carried into battle. Peace movement people (“PEACE AND THE STATE” – also Jan 25), for instance, are politely and patiently told why, if they believe some of their more benign slogans, they ought to follow the logic of them a little further and be libertarians rather than statists.

This is the kind of thing I used to do but – and I intend no disrespect here – have now lost the taste for. Like playing international rugby or going out on all night drinking sprees, debating the ins and outs of libertarianism and libertarian doctrine, against anti-libertarians and with fellow libertarians is, I feel, a young man’s game, and yes I think I do mean man. And as I enter my old woman phase of life, I find myself less inclined towards it, in writing at any rate. (I just did a spot on Radio Humberside about the merits of privately owned public space, and I suddenly sounded to myself about a quarter of a century younger. I sounded, that is to say, like Richard Garner.)

In pre-Internet days, both of these gentlemen would either would have become regular contributors to the Libertarian Alliance or to something like it, or they would have been frustrated at not being able to do that because it was too much of a bother, what with them having to worry about whether someone like me would like their stuff enough to publish it. Now they can just blog. Beautiful. For both, I am sure that this is a huge liberation.

Such blogs as these may or may not immediately set the world alight, but they, and other blogs like them, are part of an immensely important process, and a huge step forward for the libertarian movement.

There are two important things about libertarian publishing, one of which is very widely understood by libertarians, and the other of which often has to be explained to libertarians in tortuous detail. → Continue reading: Two new libertarian blogs

Bug stomping continues…

We are still stamping on bugs which a minority of people have reported due to the major Samizdata.net re-design.

Some of the ‘hard to reproduce’ bugs people have reported in some OS/browser combinations are proving a tad challenging to hunt down but we are still persevering.

No longer “Marx et Coca-Cola”

Sitting here in London, I am horrified at the decision by Coca-Cola to remove its brand logo from drinks dispensers (which sell Coca-Cola) in English schools, afraid of being branded (!) exploitative.

It must therefore be all right – according to les bien-pensants – to prohibit freedom of commercial expression in England and Wales, but it is not all right to keep religious bigotry and bullying out of school in France?

Let us be clear, if wearing a scarf were no more than a style preference or an expression of belief, it could only be objected to on grounds of taste, which is something that bureaucrats and politicians collectively, are not known for having. However, the scarf is too often the product of beatings, threatened rape, and patriarchal oppression, with state schools juggling the demands of children’s rights versus political correctness.

If Coca-Cola were truly capable of using the illuminated front of a drinks-dispenser to brainwash children into switching from Pepsi, vodka and crack cocaine, then there could be a case for the school’s prohibition of the display. It is rather strange to assume that children would naturally rather drink soy milk. I would find it odd to go to a school where girls were beaten by Islamic bullies with impunity for not wearing modest clothing and where children were harangued by teachers about the evils of Coca Cola.

The next time that I hear French Imams condemn the use of compulsion against girls who dress according to Western norms, I shall withdraw my support for the headscarf ban. In the meantime, in protest against spineless Coca-Cola, I shall make a point of ordering Pepsi.

Biometrics Enters Third Dimension

A three-dimensional mug shot may soon be the only ID you’ll ever need Wired reports.

DuPont Authentication Systems and A4Vision, a company that sells facial-imaging products, have developed a biometric security device that generates in-depth, three-dimensional facial portraits similar to holograms and secure enough to be embedded in documents.

Using A4Vision’s Enrollment Station, people can have their 3-D facial image embedded in a film called Izon and registered as digital data in a database in less than 10 seconds. The device outputs both a 3-D biometric template and a standard color image of the person.

The image in the biometric template carries enough detail to view a subject’s head from ear to ear. The template can be affixed to cards or passports; once the image is embedded, users need only be scanned to see whether their facial characteristics match. The biometric data obtained is more comprehensive than 2-D imagery since it contains information along three axes instead of two. Donald P. D’Amato, a biometrics expert at Mitretek Systems, a nonprofit research organization says:

I believe that the matching of 3-D images can probably be made more accurate than that of conventional face recognition using 2-D imagery. However, the set of 3-D and 2-D features that are chosen will be crucial to the level of accuracy achieved.

Right now the device is said to be accurate enough to distinguish between identical twins. Working with SRI International’s twin registry, the company has tested the device with 36 twin sets, and it was able to distinguish one twin from the other.

Accuracy is a big concern. Identity theft appears to be the fastest-growing crime in America, with identity-related crimes projected to rob the global economy of $24 billion this year. If not well-protected, biometrics may cause even more spectacular cases of ID theft, such as the gummy bear fiasco. Evans says 3-D facial identification is secure, however, because the facial image is only stored with the holder of the biometrics data.

It takes the card or 3-D facial image, the holder and the database to match before security can be breached. So just swiping a card won’t allow me to use someone’s credit card anymore, for example. Or just breaking into a database will not supply me with sufficient data to construct a 3-D facial image.

The issue here is: Can someone not be recognized? Yes … but can someone fool the system into thinking it is someone else? No.

Herons, Shephards and restaurant reviews

Last Saturday I decided to treat a friend of mine to a dinner at a restaurant, the Painted Heron, that received one of the most glowing reviews I have ever come across. It appeared in the last week’s Sunday paper magazine (no link, alas) and it certainly inspired me despite the fact I am not too keen on Indian food.

The dinner was an extraordinary experience. Despite our high expectations induced by Matthew Norman’s raving review, we were not disappointed. Everything – the decor, food and service – was excellent and the price commensurate with the quality we enjoyed. For our London-based readers I recommend to make a trip to 112 Cheyne Walk, SW10 and sample the gastrogasm-inducing fare we enjoyed.

I also applaud Matthew Norman whose restaurant review in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine is one of the sections of the paper I read regularly. His razor sharp witt is refreshing as he uses it to punture many a pompous restaurant’s pretentions. However, his vitriolic sarcasm had a day off when he wrote a review for the Painted Heron – one of the reasons I wanted to see this culinary marvel. And as it was substantiated, I am ready to trust his opinions in the future. He is by no means the only one to give high marks to the place. Although I cannot link to his review, I found another reviewer making pretty much the same points:

The food is bloody marvellous. Every single dish made me stamp my feet and howl at the moon.

The tandoori baby chicken came. And I came over all funny. This was a good strong bird not much bigger than a greedy quail, served whole, orange from the oven and trickling juices and runnels of bright yoghurt, served on onion kulcha bread.

I picked it up and tore in. Sweet Jesus. And then I was sorry again because the chicken in your local curry house is not fit to cluck orisons over the carcass of this princely bird-child.


Still reeling from the culinary delights of the night before, I opened this week’s Sunday Telegraph and right in the news section I find out how Matthew Norman’s review of another restaurant has earned him a letter from the owner threatening to sue.

It was, both parties will submit, not quite a glowing review. Indeed, phrases such as “the eighth circle of hell”, “among the very worst restaurants in Christendom” and “meals of crescendoing monstrosity” may have conveyed the impression that Matthew Norman, the prize-winning restaurant critic of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, was not entirely enamoured with the food on offer at Shepherds in Westminster, central London.

Last week, alas, things moved from the kitchen towards the courtroom. Richard Shepherd, the owner of Shepherds, whose restaurant has long been a favourite of politicians, is threatening to sue The Sunday Telegraph for libel because he was so hurt by the review.

Unless Mr Shepherd received damages paid to the charity of his choice, and the opportunity to write a letter defending his restaurant, he would have no choice but to sue.

It is not just a matter of free speech and the right to express one’s opinions, especially when one is getting paid for doing so, but the manner in which Mr Shepherd’s reacted to Mr Norman’s sharp and let’s face it, witty criticism.

Where do you start with somewhere like Shepherds? You don’t. If you have any sense you finish with it.

There is so much about Shepherds that is wrong that it would, in a more elegant age, merit a pamphlet rather than a review.

This is a man who likes his food and dislikes the kind of pretentious ‘concept’ restaurants that has sprouted all over London in the last decade or so. Apparently, many customers have written letters to the Telegraph expressing support to the restaurant with colourful insults directed at Mr Norman. One has to remember though that Shepherd’s is frequented by politicians whose palates are not necessarily amongst the most discriminating, what with having to kiss arses all day long…

Mr Shepherd’s response, or more accurately his lawyers’ response, is a seriously po-faced letter that completely misses the point of Mr Norman’s job and talent. It is almost distressing to see the kind of corporate bullying normally reserved for customers directed at a restaurant reviewer. There was at least one dissenter, John Blundell of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who wrote:

Thank you a million times for your brilliant review of Shepherds. I stopped eating there four years ago when we had to send back three of our four main courses.

Mr Norman himself appeared unrepentant, although he did admit that he had one regret.

The lawyers’ letter was far more amusing than my review. That’s the sad thing.

Somehow I doubt it…