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]

Global Warming Ghouls

Whilst the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina will take weeks to unfold, the ‘experts’ flocked to the disaster. They squawked the usual litany of ‘climate change’ and oiloholic armageddon, overjoyed that they now had a ready-made disaster to cite as evidence. And, of course, such relish could not be served without the knowledge that their moral certainty had been strengthened by the dead Americans; corpses that will serve as an additional accusation in the long list of crimes attributed to President George Bush.

James Glassman, over at TCS, quotes some of the “environmental extremists” who wrote before they thought.

But that doesn’t stop an enviro-predator like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from writing on the Huffingtonpost website: “Now we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged. Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and – now — Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children.”

Or consider Jurgen Tritten, Germany’s environmental minister, in an op-ed in the Frankfurter Rundschau. He wrote (according to a translation prepared for me): “By neglecting environmental protection, America’s president shuts his eyes to the economic and human damage that natural catastrophes like Katrina inflect on his country and the world’s economy.”

The bright side of Katrina, concludes Tritten, is that it will force President Bush to face facts. “When reason finally pays a visit to climate-polluter headquarters, the international community has to be prepared to hand America a worked-out proposal for the future of international climate protection.”

He goes on, “There is only one possible route of action. Greenhouse gases have to be radically reduced, and it has to happen worldwide.” In other words, thanks to Katrina, we’ll finally get Kyoto enforced. (He might start at home, by the way. Europe is not anywhere close to reducing CO2 to Kyoto standards. In fact, the U.S. is doing much better than many Kyoto ratifiers.)

Tritten is unrepentant about his article.

Yet, despite the uproar he has caused, Trittin remains unrepentant. On Wednesday, his spokesman Michael Schroeren even said that he “can’t understand … at all” why Americans are upset. Trittin’s comments “are true and he wrote what he meant.”

Perhaps he would understand if he had to hand out food parcels to the homeless or dig out corpses from the mud. But we know one universal truth about politicians from the European Union: they never dirty their hands because of their pristine ideals.

A new Marshall Plan for Belgium?

Drieu Godefridi, the Director of the Institut Hayek, looks at plans for a “new Marshall Plan” for a region of Belgium with incredulity

Politicians in Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, think their region needs “a new Marshall Plan”. Excuse me? The Marshall Plan was designed to help Europe rise from the ashes of World War II. Surely there has not been any war in Belgium since then. So what is the point?

This plan would benefit the socialists who govern Wallonia by helping their lagging economy to recover. But to recover from what? Basically, from sixty years of socialist governance.

Truth be told, Wallonia does need an urgent boost to its economy. With an unemployment rate of 18% and almost nil growth for years, Wallonia is now on the verge of being outclassed by Poland and Slovakia, countries that started from zero in terms of their economies just 15 years ago.

This “Marshall Plan” consists of massive public investments in some parts of the Walloon economy duly selected by the government. But it will not work any better than other plans the socialists have come up with over the last three decades. (Some years ago, the same socialists said that one of their plans at that time would turn Wallonia into a “Wallifornia”).

What is comforting to learn is that the main goal of the Walloon government is now to encourage the creation of new businesses and to help to develop existing ones.

But these socialists need to understand that the creation and growth of companies are not only a question of political will. For businesses to be created and to grow, some basic conditions have to be put in place.

Probably the most important two conditions sine qua non for economic vitality currently do not exist in Wallonia: reasonable taxes and a reasonable level of regulation.

Belgian taxes are among the highest in the world, second only to France. Not every tax can be lowered by the Walloon government, but many of them could be. Unfortunately, Walloon politicians do not seem to understand the link between low taxes and economic prosperity. The Cour d’arbitrage, Belgium’s Supreme Court, recently struck down a Wallon law raising the rate of the inheritance tax at 90%.

The amount of regulation in Wallonia is ridiculously high. In every jurisdiction that it has inherited from the Belgian federal state, be it urbanism or environment, the Walloon Parliament and government have enacted several new regulations to restrict business, often developing new controls in new areas. The idea that the burden of such regulations should be measured, and compared with their merits, is foreign to the socialist elites.

That the politicians of French-speaking Belgium understand the need to create new businesses for their economy to thrive is good news. But to expect that anything like would happen without a plan that entails the drastic lowering of taxes and the abrogation of complete areas of nonsensical environmental and city planning regulations? That is just another Belgian joke.

“We escaped with little more than a suitcase…”

It is very hard to know what to say, from the comfort of London, about the horror that has engulfed New Orleans and nearby places. Johnathan Pearce did his best yesterday, concentrating on what he knows about, which is the financial fall-out and the British news coverage.

But Ben Jarrell‘s situation is very different. Finding the words to describe this catastrophe is the least of his problems, because he and his wife have been personally hit by it. He added what follows as a comment on Johnathan’s posting, but his words, and his predicament, surely deserve a bit more prominence here than that.

I live in uptown New Orleans, and my wife and I evac’d Saturday morning – but as reports of the levees breaking and the city’s poor looting (I’ve heard reports they are looting on my street) I don’t expect to have much of anything left when I get home.

This global warming bullshit is ridiculous, and despite the amount of aid the US provided to the tsunami victims, I still expect the global community will pretend to care while choking back a smirk.

As for FEMA, despite my libertarian leanings, I will be standing in line for whatever I can get. My belongings are insured, but my insurance company won’t pay off on the policy until an adjuster can go in and look at the damage – which could be months.

We escaped with little more than a suitcase full of clothes, and it will be nearly impossible to function for the months it might take to get any resolution to all of this.

It is really surreal. It’s hard to think that we are homeless refugees, but that pretty much sums up our situation.

Greenspan-o-rama

Longevity in an office is no automatic guarantee of worth. So the fact that Dr Alan Greenspan, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, has been in the post for 18 years and is shortly to step down, does not mean he must qualify for greatness. But even a sceptic of the need for central banking like me believes that Greenspan, who is nearly 80 years old, is a remarkable man. His career spans the financial crash of 1987, the recession of the early 90s, the long stock market boom, the Asian financial crisis, the Russian debt default and the rescue of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management, and of course, 9/11 and its aftermath.

I am not going to chart every nip and tuck of his tenure to state whether he was a monetary policy genius, a wise man who realised his limitations and that of his office, or just very lucky. I suspect that luck played a part but what jumps out at me, from reading articles like this, or this fine biography by Jerome Tuccille, is that Greenspan was a very wise operator indeed. America, and indeed most of the western industrialised world, has enjoyed a relatively long period of economic growth and low inflation. The United States has certainly done so. And Greenspan, being at heart a classical liberal, had the intelligence and humility to chalk up 99 percent of the credit to entrepreneurs and their employees rather than to the supposed fine arts of macro-economic policy.

I remain a sceptic, though, of the need for central banking. Greenspan has left no ideological or operative legacy that could be enshrined in doctrine and used as a clear guide to future policy. Although determined to protect price stability, he could be daring and flexible when required, far more so than the more conventionally monetarist European Central Bank. The problem though is that Greenspan’s replacement could be made in a far different mould.

America, and indeed the world, has been very lucky to have a man as wise as Greenspan at the helm. But it is surely dangerous that an economy as big as that of the United States should allow so much economic power to be held, ultimately, in the hands of one man – even if he does have very smart folk working with him. Of course, the business of “doing monetary policy” has become better over the past decades. Britain’s own central bank runs monetary policy with a studied approach unimaginable in the horror years of the 1970s when money was treated as a metaphysical abstraction. But things could go wrong. Sooner or later the men with the interest rate levers are going to make a big mistake and the results could last a while.

Meanwhile, this article scans possible successors to the clarinet-playing former disciple of Ayn Rand and gold-backed currency.

Hurricane related woes

Our woes may be minor indeed compared to the hapless folks who incurred Hurricane Katrina’s ire, but Samizdata.net’s server have been intermittently gasping today under some weather-aftermath related issues.

Elvis recharges the mobe

Americans are working on nanotubes. In Germany, they are making artificial diamonds that are tougher and denser than the naturally occurring kind.

Here in Britain, in Somerset to be precise, we are harnessing, as Ananova reports, hamster power:

We’ve often wondered for what purpose exactly hamsters were put upon this earth, and now we know: to charge mobile phones.

Sixteen-year-old Peter Ash, of Somerset, finally cracked this age-old poser after his long-suffering sister complained of pet hamster Elvis scuttling away for hours during his nocturnal exercise wheel regime.

Ash told Ananova: “I thought the wheel could be made to do something useful so I connected a system of gears and a turbine.” He then patched the output to his mobe’s charger and voila! – free hamster energy at around thirty minutes’ talktime for every two hamster wheel minutes.

My thanks to Michael Jennings for emailing me the link to this important news. In his email, he noted the educational angle. Apparently this was a school project, but was not marked very highly.

Surprisingly – and considering all the current moaning about falling exam standards, etc, etc – Ash only got a “C” for this contribution to his GSCE science course and, undoubtedly, a clean-energy future for all our children. Perhaps if he’d knocked together a desktop cold fusion reactor powered by supercharged, neutron-emitting guinea pigs suspended in deuterium gas he might have earned himself an “A”.

To be a bit more serious, I think the real story here is not just a new way to get power, but the fact that nowadays a little bit of power can go a whole lot further than it used to. Hamsters have long had it in them to crank out a dribble of electricity. What is new here, surely, is the “mobe” which makes such good use of it.

Over the weekend, Bill Oddie fronted a TV show about dinosaurs, in which, in order to learn how fast dinosaurs could run, an ostrich called Sharon was asked to run on an exercise machine. She apparently enjoyed doing this a lot. (The point was that ostriches have similar legs to what dinosaurs used to have. Work out how fast and for how long ostriches can run, with their legs, and you can calculate how fast and for how long the dinosaurs could run.) Maybe Sharon and her sisters and brothers could get jobs generating electricity.

Maybe gymnasia could double up as places where you can recharge your phone. By the sweat of your brow, I mean. Not just by handing it in at the desk and collecting it later. That way, you earn the right to spout rubbish over it to your idiot friends.

Hurricane Katrina – some thoughts

Reports about Hurricane Katrina make for grim reading. Not just the immediate human and physical toll, which is the worst of all. Also worrying must be the financial impact, both in terms of the likely huge insurance payouts and the rising price of oil – although high oil prices may eventually trigger a supply response, if the market works as it should.

More than 90 percent of the Gulf of Mexico oil production has been shut down and for how long, is as yet unclear. Crude oil is now over $70 a barrel and could even march higher, particularly if another hurricane takes hold, or if political and military affairs take another bad turn in the Middle East, or for that matter other places such as Nigeria and Indonesia. The black stuff is getting ever more expensive and of course, makes a mockery of the sort of anti-SUV posturing of the sort I mentioned a few days ago here. As the price rises, people will not change their motoring habits to please non-drivers like Andrew Sullivan, but because it makes plain common sense. Alternative energy sources, even those once branded too offbeat, starting to attract more venture capital and support.

Britain’s Channel 4 news had an item on the hurricane in which the general gist of the commentary went like this, to paraphrase a bit: “Is America getting the payback in weather for being the world’s largest carbon polluter?” The broadcasters may mean well but it came across as almost gloating in tone. I hope that was not the intention.

Some more thoughts on African (and other) mobile phone networks

Brian recently wrote a piece about the importance and usefulness of mobile phones in poor countries, particularly in Africa. I couldn’t agree with him more, but there is another interesting story in just where the expertise and money to build these African networks are coming on, and it is an oddly positive story.

But first, a seeming digression. When mobile phones came along in the early to mid 1980s, there were generally two patterns of licensing. Firstly, there were countries (eg Australia) where the incumbent telephone monopoly was given a monopoly on the new technology. Secondly, there were countries (eg Britain) where two mobile companies were licensed. One of these was usually the incumbent telephone monopoly, and the second was usually a new company that was brought into being to provide the new service. It is worth remembering that few people at this point expected that there would be a large market for mobile phones, so often these second players were small start up companies that paid very little for the licences. (The US issued no national licences and instituted called party pays pricing, and its market thus evolved differently from the rest of the world. Discussing this is an article in its own right, and I won’t go into it further here). In both instances additional networks were licensed when second generation digital services came into being in around 1993. Even in 1993 nobody realised what a big deal mobile phones would be, and although it generally took pre-existing companies to raise the necessary capital, it was still possible for relatively small players to enter the market at this stage. In some instances the companies that took out these licenses were mobile companies that already had networks in other countries, but usually these were companies new to mobile telephony.

However, the market share of companies in various markets seems to depend very much on which choice was made in the early 1980s. In cases where the existing telecoms monopoly was given a mobile monopoly, that company is usually to this day the dominant player in that national market. In most such instances, that player has a market share of around 50%. Other players can be more profitable, have most of the premium customers, or be perceived as providing better service, but it has been difficult in such markets for the later players to gain large amounts of market share. (Australia is a good example of such a market. Telstra (formerly Telecom Australia) has a market share of around 50%, and Optus and Vodafone (which entered the market with 2G licences in around 1992) have about 30% and 15% respectively).

In markets where there were two operators licensed from the start, the incumbent was usually unable to entrench a large market share in this way. Often, although the start up competitor had much less in terms of resources, it made up for this by having a nimbleness and a better cost structure than the incumbent. When additional competitors entered the market in the early 1990s with the introduction of 2G phones, they were often able to challenge the incumbents more effectively than was the cases in markets that were previously monopolies. The classic example of this is the British market, from which Vodafone initially became the strongest player, but in which the later entrants were able to grow to similar sizes to the existing players. There are four networks in the UK, and all four presently have about 25% market share. (Although a powerful but dominant player in the UK, Vodafone was able to expand internationally to become the biggest player in Europe and the world).

In about 1999-2001, the strongest players in the various European markets went on an acquisition binge, generally buying the weaker operators in other European countries (and further afield), leading to cross-border brands in Europe. The three dominant players that came out of this were Vodafone (originally the second operator in the UK), T-Mobile (former German telecoms monopoly) and Orange (former French telecoms monopoly), all three of who own networks in many European countries, and elsewhere. Sadly, these companies have not grown into pan-European networks in a way that would be good for consumers. Although there might be a Vodafone network in Germany, it still costs a huge amount for a Vodafone customer from Britain to use it. International roaming is so expensive, and such a profit source for the mobile networks, that it is not in their interests to break it down and leave us with networks that appear international in scope to their users. This will happen eventually, but not until cellular networks face competition from vastly more operators or from other technologies. This may be happening – I have a PDA that runs the Voice over IP client Skype and from which I can make free calls whenever I can find a WiFi hotspot in a foreign country – but it is going to take a few years to really happen.

So that is where we are. We have brands that are international, and it is a truly miraculous thing that I can turn my mobile phone on almost anywhere in the world and it will just work, but pricing mechanisms and a regulatory environment that is are sadly far too subject to national borders.

But what does this have to do with Africa? → Continue reading: Some more thoughts on African (and other) mobile phone networks

Strange presuppositions

Today’s Guardian is as ever full of fascinations, but this, from a TV review by Mark Lawson struck me as gloriously, perplexingly weird:

The notable balance of the film is shown by the fact that both liberals and conservatives are offered a harrumph-moment: the former when we note that the Guildford Four were locked up for these bombings rather than the people who actually did it, the latter when we learn that those who actually did it were freed from jail as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

It beats me why conservatives should not care about false convictions, nor liberals about murderers being released as part of a dodgy political deal. But then, I do not see liberalism and conservatism as irreconcilable opposites, which is probably why I still have trouble predicting what the PC attitude among media folk will be, even after 20 years of working on the fringe of the media.

Elsewhere in the same issue, the reliably barking John Sutherland takes a story about a US alternative medicine quack, and manages to find it is proof, not of human wickedness and human credulousness, but of the evils of capitalism:

But the runaway success of Natural Cures also bears witness to genuinely troubling aspects of the American healthcare system. It has been estimated that some 50 million citizens have no health insurance. For these desperate people, who fall sick like everybody else, “natural cures” are all they can afford. “Socialised medicine”, as the Clintons learned the hardway, has no place in America. Capitalistic medicine does. What John le Carré calls “Big Pharma” has made America the most drugged nation in history.

Which “explanation”, unfortunately fails to account for some important facts: (1) the purportedly natural non-cures offered by quacks are not generally cheaper than the products of Big Pharma, even at US prices; (2) the most drugged nation in history, is on average (i.e., including all those without health insurance) rather healthier than Britain if you look at survival/recovery patterns for pretty much any disease; (3) The European quack industry is also fabulously successful, and expensive, despite the subsidised competition from socialised medicine.

What is particularly enjoyable about this lunacy is it appears in the same issue of the paper as a nice clear feature by the impeccably rational Dr Ben Goldacre explaining why alternative medicine offers comforts not available from a scientific physician.

The vibe of it

On Saturday evening I checked into a hotel in Odense in Denmark. The Danes are fairly relaxed, and I was not asked to produce my passport as I might be in some European countries. They did ask me for “something with my name on it”. I handed them my “Barclaycard Premiership Mastercard” (ie a credit card with English soccer logos on it) and my English driver’s licence. I did not show them my passport (it was in the car) and I did not mention my nationality.

However, the next day I got my receipt and it had “Michael John Jennings. Australia”. written on the top.

I am intrigued as to how they figured this out. It is true that my licence does have the endorsement “70AUS” amongst the fine print on the back, indicating that I did not ever have an English driving test, but was issued an English licence on the basis of having an Australian one already. However, I did not see the hotel clerk study the fine print on the back of my licence, and I would have been impressed had he known what that endorsement means.

Perhaps it was my accent? However, I have lived in England for nine of the last thirteen years, and English and Australians often cannot figure out my accent. (Often they can, too, but mistakes are often made). The Danes are excellent linguists, but I didn’t realise they were that good.

Or perhaps Australians just give off some vibe. Perhaps it is one that annoys British immigration officials, makes the French like us, and is instantly visible to Danish hotel clerks. Who knows?

Yet another unnecessary umpiring error

Yesterday I expressed the hope that England would beat Australia at Trent Bridge, and today they did.

TestScore.jpg

But England fans like me were once more put through the ringer. England should have had no difficulty knocking off the 129 runs they needed in their final innings. But the Australians fought like hell to claw their way back into the contest at exactly the moment when they should have been accepting the inevitable, and once again they nearly succeeded, England scrambling home by a mere three wickets. Warne and Lee are such ignorant fellows. They never seem to know when they are beaten.

The general opinion is that this is one of the greatest Ashes series ever. And this England win is good for that series in the sense that if England had lost this game, Australia would have retained the Ashes, no matter what happened at the Oval. As it is, the Oval game is winner take all.

The closeness of this Trent Bridge game makes it all the more regrettable that this otherwise fabulous contest was disfigured by yet another important and hideously mistaken umpiring decision. Australian batsmen Simon Katich was given out leg before wicket, at a time when he was batting very well and might have gone on to help set England a lot more than 129 to win. We all make mistakes. Umpires cannot be infallible. But on this occasion, technologically generated evidence made it clear to everyone before the unfortunate Katich had even walked off the pitch that the ball (a) pitched outside the leg stump, and (b) would have gone over the top of the stumps, and that the umpire was accordingly wrong on both counts to give him out.

Some erroneous decisions by cricket umpires take many minutes to deconstruct fully, but this Katich decision was immediately revealed to be wrong. So, if the umpires had had the same technology in their hands as the commentators now have, not only would a correct decision have been given at a crucial juncture in this very close match; it would have been given with almost no delay.

The current circumstances, in which umpires are made public fools of within seconds of giving their verdicts, cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.

The LBW decision that did for Gilchrist also looked dodgy, but, assuming that I understand the finer points of the LBW law, the technology was able to show that this decision was almost certainly right. But that just means that the umpire guessed right, this time. He should not have had to guess. He should have known.

Cameras are already used to settle run outs, to the general satisfaction of all involved. Today, cameras were used to show that a possible run out was not, because England’s wicketkeeper had knocked the bails off before the ball arrived, and again to establish that the catch which later on dismissed Andrew Strauss was properly held and had not hit the ground first. There was a bit of a delay, but not an excessive one given the importance of such decisions.

I understand how this situation has arisen. This clever LBW technology could not immediately be given to the umpires. It had to be refined and proved to be satisfactory. But now it has proved itself. We all – fans and players alike – now trust its verdicts more than we trust the umpires. Had the umpires had it in their hands today, who knows how the result might have gone? Who knows how many runs England might have had to chase in their final innings?

All of which made the characteristically sporting manner in which the Aussies took their defeat today all the more impressive. Considering how little practice they have had at it during the last fifteen years, they are good losers.

Perfect 10 screwed by Google?

Perfect 10, an adult website, sued Google last November for infringing upon its copyrighted material, its trademarks and, to get bang for their bucks, unfair competition. The original complaint was covered by Wendy Seltzer.

Now, Perfect 10 has requested that Google is prevented from showing any of their copyrighted images. Their argument is that, through advertisements accompanying these images, Google profits from their display even though it is perceived to be a free search engine:

Perfect 10 sued Google in November of 2004. It says that Google is displaying hundreds of thousands of adult images, “from the most tame to the most exceedingly explicit, to draw massive traffic to its website, which it is converting into hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising revenue.”

Perfect 10 claims that under the guise of being a search engine, Google is displaying, free of charge, thousands of copies of the best images from Perfect 10, Playboy, nude scenes from major movies, nude images of supermodels, as well as extremely explicit images of all kinds.

Dr. Norm Zada, the founder of Perfect 10, argues that the business model of Google, whereby images can be displayed and downloaded for free without accessing the original website, reduces the profitability of pay-per-view pornographic websites. Furthermore, as the majority of searches are for pornographic images, this represents a misappropriation of intellectual property, since Google depends upon lust for its profits, at the expense of companies like Perfect 10.

Overture’s Key Selector Tool indicates that most searches on the internet are sex-related,” says Zada. “Google’s extraordinary gain in market cap from nothing a few years ago to close to eighty billion dollars, is more due to their massive misappropriation of intellectual property than anything else,” says Zada.

This court case represents an attack upon the business model of Google. It also demonstrates the unresolved tensions between the perceptions of intellectual property that pervade new and old media. Zada explains why his injunction is beneficial to other traditional media outlets:

Any website publisher can sign up for Google AdSense. It’s an easy way for publishers to display Google ads – those being paid for by its AdWords customers – on their content pages. AdWords customers pay Google and Google pays a commission to AdSense publishers. So Google can maximise its revenues by maximising the traffic that it sends to AdSense affiliates. Perfect 10 does not suggest that Google is weighting its search results in favour of AdSense-supported sites; but it does argue that Google profits directly from the popularity of porn, and its particular concern is that it profits from Perfect 10′s porn that has been stolen by others.

Zada believes that the outcome of Perfect 10′s motion for preliminary injunction should have a major impact not only on Perfect 10, but also on traditional media outlets which are losing the ad revenue war to search engines, in part because of all the nude and semi-nude images search engines offer for free.

Right now, he says, consumers who want to view a nude scene involving Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, or other Hollywood beauties, can view that scene for free by visiting a search engine without purchasing the DVD. “If all an infringer needs to avoid liability is to provide some sort of a ‘search function,’ that will be the end of intellectual property in this country,” says Zada.

Is this a principled defence of intellectual property or an opportunistic front in the war against the new media?