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]

“Murdered by such a loser, such an incoherent person”

Peak Talk has the perfect summation of the tragic affair of the murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim fanatic.

The Competition Commission and supermarkets

Anthony Batty asks if we really need the Competition Commission to promote competition between UK supermarkets.

In the news recently, the UK’s Competition Commission has been flexing its muscles in the area of supermarkets. Somerfield may have to sell stores, after buying what Morrson’s did not want after acquiring Safeway (a one-time subsidiary of the American supermarket company).

Do these people really feel that by virtue of the fact a supermarket has two stores within some arbitrary distance they have a monopoly? Or are able to raise prices and earn large profits? For starters the barriers to entry for say Iceland to open a new store are simply planning permission. If they feel customers would use the shop I am sure at least one of the major players would open up a store. Not to mention continuous competition from supermarket home delivery, local shops and the fact people may just drive another few miles if they do not like the selection they are offered. Supermarkets are one of the most competitive areas in the modern economy, if a company does not keep pace with the efficient supply chain, changing demand (such as the low carb craze that swept through the UK) it will find itself the target of a takeover bid, or in administration. This is not because of the work of government departments; rather it is the free market at work. Only through this competition can we find which stores give us what we want, at a price we are prepared to pay. If one firm is not performing we go elsewhere, if prices are too high we use an alternative retailer. There simply is no need for bureaucrats to be in charge.

I do agree however, with the basic premise of more competition. For this reason I find myself reverting to a point made by the late Screaming Lord Sutch, why is there only one Competition Commission? (In his day, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.) Surely in the interests of competition we should have several. By allowing new entrants and getting rid of the protected monopoly that exists at present, firms can choose between different conclusions and suggestions. Lower administration costs and fewer worries about whether or not an action will be allowed, means lower prices for consumers. In that way we will have free and fair trade, without the diktats that are not in the interests of firms or consumers.

Imagine

About a year and a half ago, Terence Kealey gave a talk at a Hobart Lunch at the Institute of Economic Affairs arguing that a world without patents would be more innovative. Dr Kealey is a biochemist who is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham and the author of The Scientific Laws of Economic Research.

It was one of the most interesting events I have been to at the IEA, and the audience was very much split which made for an entertaining Q&A session. I disagreed with Dr Kealey at the lunch, but I recognized there was something to what he said. The lunch was something of a life-changing experience because I have subsequently moved towards his position, though I’m not there yet.

One of the most difficult aspects of thinking about a world with less or no patent protection is that it is so hard to imagine. When thinking about a Britain with a denationalized National Health Service, you can visit mainland Europe or America and see how systems work in other developed countries. Country comparisons aren’t so easily available when it comes to patents.

But one market I have written about here recently – that of software – clearly shows that fast innovation can occur without patents, at least in the area of software. If software patents had existed in the US from day one, and if there had been a culture of patenting everything, we might live in a very different world today. We might sit in front of our computers today and see this:

Windows 2005 in an alternative universe

And people would pronounce in public: “Thank goodness that we have software patents. Just as property rights in physical property enables economic development, software patents enable software development.” And they would post articles to that effect on the internet, known in this alternative reality as The Microsoft Network, which might look like this:

The Microsoft Network

And everyone would be thankful that we have a system that clearly and undeniably promotes innovation.

Governor Phibbs

Harry Phibbs is one of those people who is not nearly as much of an ass as he often pretends to be. In fact, often pretending to be an ass is just about the only assinine thing about him.

Here he is, pictured at that Globalization Institute launch that everyone who was anyone was at, talking about I have no idea who, but almost certainly saying that they ought to be horsewhipped.

PhibbsGIlaunch.jpg

But he is and has long been an excellent writer. Here is his excellent description, at the SAU blog, of what it is like being a school governor (while remaining Harry Phibbs of course). I particularly liked this bit of reminiscence:

School governors are entitled, indeed encouraged, to visit the school once a term or so. They also have a chance to report on their visit. I once caused consternation at a primary school in St John’s Wood where I was a governor a few years ago. Reporting on a visit I had made to the school, I named a Bosnian child who had recently arrived at the school. He was unable to speak English but was very good at sums. Essentially his entire time at school was being wasted. For most lessons he stared blankly unable to understand what was going on. In the maths lesson however he managed to correctly complete a whole sheet of sums within seconds which kept the rest of the class going for the whole lesson. Of course he should have been given harder sums and special help to learn English. “We are letting him down”, I declared. Later it was proposed by one of the teachers that reports of governor’s visits should be restricted to general comments as it was “inappropriate” to make comments which should be made by school inspectors.

But I was backed up by the other governors who agreed there was little point in having school visits if specific criticisms could not be made. I never found out if the boy was given harder sums to add up.

Harry also writes about the beneficial effects of Jamie Oliver on school meals, and gives chapter and verse of how much money is spent on each pupil, and who by. (Clue: bureaucracy.)

Read, as we bloggers so often say, the whole thing.

Someone needed to cool off

Now this is what I call ‘global justice’:

A thirsty thief is being blamed for downing a bottle of water, valued at £42,500, at a literary festival.

The two-litre clear plastic bottle containing melted ice from the Antarctic was devised to highlight global warming by artist Wayne Hill….

The piece, entitled Weapon of Mass Destruction, vanished half way through the festival. Mr Hill fears the bottle was taken and then drunk.

“It was there and then it was gone,” he said.

Just like dozens of claptrap, modish, end-of-the-world theories then.

The Texan in the yellow jersey

Yes, yes, I know, his girlfriend is Sheryl Crowe, he is supported by John “doh” Kerry, which may suggest he is in need of ideological help, but can anyone doubt, after winning the Tour de France for 7 times in a row, that Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest athletes to have ever lived?

And he comes from Texas. If I was a Frenchman, that has to hurt.

The EU cracks down on port facility failures by Slovakia and Hungary

More from the “You couldn’t make it up” department. David Carr is fond of saying that the satyrist’s trade is hard these days, because reality has a habit of being so very much more satirical.

This is presumably the kind of thing he means:

Slovakia and Hungary are being served notice that the Commission is about to take them to the European Court of Justice for not complying with certain parts of EU legislation.

Apparently, neither country has implemented a number of directives on maritime safety. Slovakia is being warned about having no legislation to do with passenger ships and prevention of pollution.

Hungary has no “availability of port facilities for ship-generated waste”. Actually, Hungary has no ports or ships, being land-locked, as is Slovakia. That, apparently, is not the point.

The history of the USSR is repeating itself as farce. EUSSR. And the USSR was pretty farcical to begin with.

Speaking of David Carr and the EU being farcical, whatever happened to Bertrand Maginot. I miss him. The imposition of environment-friendly port facilities on landlocked countries sounds like something he would understand perfectly. It would be interesting to hear his view on this issue.

U.K. to issue biometric passports worldwide

Steve Ranger of Silicon.com reports that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is spending 5 million pounds (about $8.7 million) to equip its embassies and consulates around the world with the technology to issue biometric passports. Technology company 3M will install new passport issuance systems that can identify biometric information at 104 embassies, consulates and high commissions.

Great, who needs ID cards, when you get your fingerprints in the passport.

Software patents are anti-competitive

All of the major innovations in software have occurred without recourse to patents. From the creation of the graphical user interface to the word processor to the web browser, consumers and society have benefited from the same ideas being used by different competitors.

Some readers might point out that you can only patent an “implementation”, not an idea. But, as Chris Bidmead points out:

In practice patent lawyers have always attempted to file in a way that generalises the implementation to the point where any practical use of the idea is covered by the patent – tantamount to patenting the idea.

Fortunately, we weren’t locked into using WordStar, the first commercially successful word processor, for twenty years. Even though no one owned the idea of a word processor, companies still entered the market, and Microsoft has been able to keep investors very happy with the money it has gained through being better than the likes of WordStar and WordPerfect. The competitors in the word processor market kept copying each others’ ideas, and that was great because it led to a race to the top. High spending on R&D was a prerequisite of staying in the market. Had WordStar owned a patent on the idea of computer-based typewriting of documents, or on important aspects of the word processor, we would all be worse off today.

Innovation in software occurs because of copyright, not because of patents. Copyright enables people to protect their work. But we are all better off – we all benefit from greater innovation – when companies are able to compete free from the shackles of (software) patent monopolies. Established, vested interests – most notably Microsoft – want to prevent competition. The European Parliament fortunately voted against EU-wide software patents. In order to increase innovation, surely it is time for software patents to be fully repealed?

The Times picks up on bloggers vs. Guardian story

Although they have come late to this story, The Times has also noted Scott Burgess’ TKO of the Guardian regarding their employment of an Islamic extremists and subsequent firing of him once the story came to light.

It is a pity The Times did not also pick up on the bad grace in which The Guardian took their lumps, what with their snarky no-by-line remarks about how “Scott Burgess, a blogger from New Orleans who recently moved to London, spends his time indoors posting repeated attacks on the Guardian”, recalling the “guys in pyjamas” sneer made by someone at CBS following a similar humiliating mauling they received at the hands of the blogosphere. If ever you need a clear indication you have landed a painful blow against a MSM target, you have but to look for a petulant ad hominim response.

Moreover, it is fascinating how The Guardian inaccurately (follow first link to Media Guardian) attributes this incident breaking into the mainstream media down to “rightwing US bloggers” when the truth is that whilst Scott Burgess (an American living in London) sounded the charge, he was rapidly followed by Labour supporting British blog Harry’s Place and ourselves (no great fans of the Tory party either), to name but two of many largely UK based blogs. The Guardian’s take on this is therefore either shoddy reporting or a case of seeing what you choose to see.

Still, nice to see that the broadsheet newspapers do not feel any need to close ranks over this story.

The Tory Taliban strikes

A group of Conservative MPs have launched an astonishing attack on liberal values. Their new publication is skeptical of free trade, making them less free market than the current Labour leadership. The front-man of this Tory Taliban grouping, Edward Leigh MP, has previously courted controversy by saying that he wears his anti-gay stance “as a badge of honour”.

Tory MP Alan Duncan recently wrote that:

“Our achilles heel, though, has been our social attitude. Censorious judgmentalism from the moralising wing, which treats half our own countrymen as enemies, must be rooted out. We should take JS Mill as our lodestar, and allow people to live as they choose until they actually harm someone. If the Tory Taliban can’t get that, they’ll condemn us all to oblivion.”

Yet a tidlewave of social conservatism is currently bombarding Conservative MPs. The main proponents are the Centre for Social Fascism Justice and Conservative Home, a website run by an associate of the Centre, Tim Montgomerie. The risk for the Tories is that if they go fascist authoritarian, the more moderate Tories will defect to Liberal Democrats, where some quite prominent members of the party are openly talking about moving to a more economically liberal position.

Indeed, the Liberals advocated the abolition of the “corporatist” Department of Trade and Industry in the run up to the last general election. The party’s Trade and Industry spokesman Malcolm Bruce said: “Abolishing the DTI and transferring its useful functions to other departments will be the biggest single act of deregulation in history.” The Tories opposed the move.

The Lib Dems, if they want to kick the Tories into third place, should be praying that the Tory Taliban is successful.

Of course I do not get the joke – I am Australian.

The Sage of Edmonton has been listening to the cricket, and has stumbled on Australia’s dirty little secret:

The Australian networks are picking up the BBC feed, so the network observes a strict one-Brit one-Aussie rule at all times in the booth. This leads to a lot of barbed, culturally volatile exchanges covered by a transparent shellac of collegiality. The English are generally poor at hiding their commingled fascination and horror at the gusto and glowing health of the Australians. The Aussies, for their part, maintain a suitable Zarathustran superciliousness–but it sure seems like homo australis is awfully vulnerable to the verbal stiletto that every Englishman above the age of four carries in his boot. Every time the various English broadcasters start to wax acerbic, their Australian colleagues become flustered and try changing the subject to the events on the field (as well they might, since their squad is making England’s cricketers look more like Scotland’s). Has any attention been paid to the Australian sense of humour, or absence thereof? They seem to mostly export soap and pop stars to the wider world while their British and Canadian brethren airlift comedians. It’s not a good sign when your most sophisticated national ironist is Dame Edna Everage.

Most Australians will deny it, but Colby Cosh is right on the money. In my own case, I never had a chance; not only am I Australian, but I am descended from Germans. I could not tell a funny joke to win the Ashes.

This is not to say that Australians do not have a sense of humour. Comedy is a big thing here, but Australian humour does not translate well, being full of allusions that only the locals understand. And I sadly suspect, the quality is not that good either.

Why is it so? Or is it obvious, and, me being Australian, I missed the punchline?