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]

The Flying Formula One

If, like me, you were vaguely annoyed that Livingstone acquired the Olympics, then you must hope that you are either away during the hell that will be the summer of 2012 (my holidays are accumulating now!), or you must campaign for new sports to appear in the Olympiad. The more violent, the faster, the more dangerous, the better. And free drugtaking, of course. Why not allow genetic modification for athletes. “It’s at their own risk”.

One candidate is the decidedly cool Rocket Racing League. This flying Formula One has not acquired lift as yet, but races are looked for in a year’s time. The origins of this competition lie in the Ansari X Prize, with a nod to their barnstorming ancestors back in the early days of aircraft.

A debut exhibition race is planned for the X Prize Cup in September 2006. In the six months after that, the league expects to see races at an additional two air shows and two car racing events, with a championship event in New Mexico at the 2007 edition of the X Prize Cup.

The events will take a leaf from motor racing’s book.

Rocket planes called X-Racers will compete on a sky ‘track’ in the design of a Grand Prix race, with long straights and the added dimenson of vertical ascents and deep banks. The race will run perpendicular to spectators and be about two miles long, one mile wide and 1,500m in the air. The X-Racers will be staggered upon take-off and fly their own ‘tunnel’ of space, each separated by a hundred metres or so.

Pilots will be guided by differential GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to help them avoid collisions.

Necessity may be the mother but thrillseeking is the father of invention: on second thoughts, the Olympics would ruin it. But I would still welcome a ‘skytrack’ in London, and you can submit your own idea for a rocker racer name on the website

So why not rename it CV?

Those of you who follow space will be aware the cornerstone of the ‘Moon, Mars and Beyond’ program which NASA has been tasked to impliment is a new vehicle. The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) is in many ways a return to the Apollo era but does have many useful features, not the least of which is putting the travellers on top. This avoids foam strike problems and at the same time allows the use of proven-in-anger escape tower technology.

It is still a rather old design. Nonetheless it had some features which those of us in the space community apploauded. The biggest win of all was the use of Methane-LOX propulsion. When I read a late draft of the new system plan, this was the single item I found exciting. M-LOX meant someone was serious about going off Earth to stay. It meant someone had read and understood what Bob Zubrin has being saying (perhaps yelling from the prayer town would be a better description) for nearly two decades. You see, M-LOX can be manufactured while sitting on the surface of Mars. The gases of the Martian atmosphere are all you need to manufacture it using a more than century old indstrial process. If you are going to Mars and going to stay, this is the fuel you will use.

That must be why NASA is dropping it although the external excuse is:

Any costs associated with accelerating the five-segmented booster and modified J-2 development programs will be offset in part by dropping plans to develop a liquid-methane fueled engine for the CEV, Hecker said. “From a budget standpoint, it came up as a wash,” he said. “We’re not asking for more dollars.”

NASA is dropping the most important thing they are doing in order to speed up a return to the Moon which will probably be done privately by 2025 anyway.

You may disagree with NASA doing anything at all, but whatever you may desire, they are there. They are a fact of life in the space game. It is much preferable for us to see them waste taxpayer money on something that is at least marginally useful to private sector space ventures.

You can read more discussion on this issue at On-Line Ad Astra, a publication of the National Space Society.

Please excuse any errors as my glasses disapeared whilst transiting Toronto Airport last Thursday and I am writing this by squinting at the screen…

Samizdata quote of the day

“Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. No one can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the real historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.”

Ludwig von Mises, Socialism, (as quoted in The Wisdom of Henry Hazlitt, page 347, also well worth reading).

That passage, while written in the 1940s, carries a certain resonance now, I think.

The Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill – or for once we can say evil politicians

Today Mr Blair and his cronies will bring their banning Incitement to Religious Hatred (i.e. death to another part of what is left of free speech) idea before the House of Commons.

Normally one must be careful not to use the word “evil” in politics. One must not claim a monopoly of virtue for one’s own side in any political debate as one may always be wrong and, even if one is correct, the people on the other side may simply be honestly mistaken. They may be voting for a bad statute, but they are not themselves bad people.

However, the vile scheme that is the banning Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill has been exposed so many times (and in so many places) that no member of the House of Commons can honestly say that they did not know what they were voting for.

There is no question of (say) “the balance of argument” or “people of good will taking different sides”. The people who vote for this bill (in the hopes of their party getting some Muslim votes – and, of course, not from tolerant Muslims) are voting for something they know to be evil, and that makes these members of the House of Commons bad people, unfit to serve in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

I hope that a full list of the Members of the House of Commons, and their constituencies, who vote for this measure is published and widely distributed so that people will know who not to vote for in the next General Election.

I also hope that people who live in the constituencies of the MPs who vote for this bill write to them to, politely, express their horror and disgust with what they have done.

The ‘Satanic Cartoons': the story that refused to die

The story of the satirical pictures of the Prophet Muhammed published by Jyllands-Posten just refuses to die away. I first posted an article about this on 12 November 2005, followed by another on 9 December 2005, indirectly on 10 December 2005 and finally on 23 December 2005 [with a picture of the cartoons].

Usually, a week or so after an article has appeared on Samizdata.net and fallen off the front page, comments pretty much drop to zero 99% of the time. Yet there has been a steady trickle of comments still coming in, presumably via Google hits.

For the most part what is so interesting is what a complete non-meeting of minds these comments represent and they fall into three broad categories:

  1. Muslims who simply cannot conceive of tolerating people disrespecting their beliefs. Many seem to claim that disrespecting Muhammed is not ‘free speech’ at all (in which case quite what they mean by the words “free speech” is unclear)
  2. People who just loath Muslims and like the cartoons for no other reason than it upsets them
  3. People who understand that free speech means tolerating others saying things you do not agree with and which may upset you

Not being a religious person myself, I find it particularly baffling that so many comments by earnest Muslims start with flowery religious language and go on to make religious statements, as if that was going to convince what must obviously be an audience of very secular non-Muslim blog readers.

I like to think that if I went to a Muslim site and left a comment, I would at least make some attempt to phrase my remarks in language that at least tried to address the manifest axioms of the readers, even if I intended to challenge those axioms.

Yet to all intent and purposes, this might as well be a ‘dialogue’ between different species. It really does seem to be a dialogue of the deaf. The internet is awash with anti-Christian images, or ones that make profane use of Christian imagery that many would find offensive and yet do you see many vocal Christians getting so bent out of shape about it that they call for temporal ‘punishment’ for the people expressing those views? No. Most have the maturity to just say “Oh, another one of those daft atheists/agnostics” and keep moving, not accepting what they see but tolerating its expression just as most atheists generally tolerate expressions of religion they may find offensive (provided they are not being asked to pay for it) without actually accepting there is any truth to them. But what is it about the Muslim psyche that makes the contempt of others who do not share their beliefs so intolerable?

By the way, here is a better link to the ‘satanic cartoons’ so you can see what all the fuss is about.

Superman is risen

Captain America is probably remembered as one of the worst films spun off the Marvel franchise. Whilst the film wrought untold damage to the origins of Steve Roger’s alter ego, it did strike one historical chord. In the comic book, Steve Rogers is a sickly individual, denied the chance to demonstrate his patriotism, until he takes the serum that transforms him into a super soldier. In the film, Steve Rogers is a polio victim, perhaps the only plot device that provides some insight into the historical context of Captain America and the rise of the superhero.

The definition and origins of the superhero are traced back to the nineteen-thirties even though there are a number of forerunners in the pulps. The genre coalesced around costumed heroes with a variety of powers, often enhanced beyond human norms, who had strong moral codes, a secret identity and fought off evil in a variety of guises, usually the enemies of World War 2. The cultures that informed the origins of superheroes came from both contemporary sources and Judaeo-Christian narratives.

Superman’s backstory was Biblical in tone. Richard Donner, director of Superman, recognised the parallels between the Man of Steel and Christ, as referenced by Anton Karl Kozlovic, in his paper, “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah”, published in the Journal of Religion and Film.

However, many years later, Donner gladly admitted to the Christic subtext: “It’s a motif I had done at the beginning when Brando sent Chris [Reeve] to Earth and said, ‘I send them my only son.’ It was God sending Christ to Earth.” It was a dramaturgical decision that made good sense, for just as Superman was literally a super-man, Jesus was “the ultimate Super Jew of his day,” the “Christian super-hero,” the pop culture “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Indeed, many Jesus-Superman parallels exist within S1 and S2 because both films were planned, scripted and partially shot back-to-back.

Whilst Superman bundled biblical myth into a new package, Steve Rogers as Captain America transformed another demographic. We forget the large numbers of the debilitated and disabled who suffered from a young age with consumption or polio during the interwar period. The sickly Steve Rogers is a recognisable figure from the Depression, and his transformation acts as the inclusion of suffering invalids into the superhero myth and the war effort. Superman is an alien but Captain America is drawn as an everyman, and a patriot.

It is possible that superheroes would never have acquired their longlasting popularity without the war. The diverse backdrops that authors used to appeal to as many readers as possible proved an important innovation. Yet, just as the new pulp genre of science fiction showed that the horizons of plausibility were widening, the Macguffins deployed by the creators of superheroes hinted that such transformations were not too far away for humanity itself.

A computerized Jeeves

The Japanese are working on a robot that can operate as a butler. Hmm. If they can create a character that can talk like Stephen Fry portraying Jeeves, make the perfect gin and tonic and do my ironing, I might consider one. Second thoughts: I’d probably be irritated as hell with the thing after a while.

For when too much is not enough

Exhibit A from the United States. That 100 pattie burger looks tasty…

(Spotted on Marginal Revolution)

Exhibit B from the United Kingdom – wait a few seconds to be diverted.

Both sites for the epicureans amongst us, most certainly.

There are taxes, and then there are taxes on taxes, and then….

I recently decided that I wanted to upgrade the CPU on my desktop computer. As it happened, the particular CPU I wanted was in short supply in the UK, and as prices here were substantially higher than in the US I decided to buy it from a shop in Seattle via ebay. It was quite possible that I would have to pay British VAT when the CPU was imported into the UK, but even after this I would still save substantial amounts of money.

So I ordered the CPU, and yesterday it arrived. I received a note in my mailbox telling me that some taxes were owing. Oddly, though, the taxes stated on the note came to about 26% of the price rather than the 17.5% VAT rate. I went to the depot, paid the taxes, and picked up the CPU. A sticker had been placed on the package, and this explained the discrepancy between the amount I calculated and the amount I was being charged. In addition to the VAT I was being charged a £8 “clearance fee”. You see, I was not just being charged taxes. I was being charged an additional amount to pay the tax collectors to charge me taxes.

Forgive me for being pissed off by this.

Banana past

Whenever I write about something touching on my experience of communism, I get a few kind commenters encouraging me to share more of it. I rarely do so, as busy life takes over. Still, today I managed to post an article on my other blog, Media Influencer, that I felt was perhaps not coherent enough or too personal for Samizdata.net. For those interested, follow the bananas…

bananas.jpg

The inefficiencies of the mobile phone market slowly go away

Like those in most developed countries, British telecommunications regulators several years ago introduced something called ‘mobile number portability’, which simply means that if you change from one mobile phone operator to another, you are able to transfer your number to the new network. Legally, this is basically a statement that phone numbers are the property of telephone company’s customers and not the companies themselves, and I find this entirely reasonable. As items of property, telephone numbers are now transferable and tradeable in a way they were not before. Certainly it means that when your contract is up you can shop around for any deal on the market, change to that deal, and then not have to tell all your friends and acquaintances that your number has changed.

As it happens, a few months back I took advantage of this. I switched over from Orange (whose customer service had been questionable, and whose network has poor coverage at my workplace) to O2 (formally BT Cellnet, and but who have managed to transform themselves into a surprisingly good business since being divested by BT). Normally what one does in such circumstances is get a new handset and sign a new 12 month contract. (British networks seem to be trying to lengthen this 12 month upgrade cycle at the moment – many of the cheapest deals now seem to be offered on 18 month contracts, and there are plenty of post-pay deals out there that provide substantially cheaper calls if you don’t take a new handset). Coming from Australia (which typically used 18 month contracts when I got my first mobile phone in 1999 and switched to 24 month contracts in around 2001) I was struck by the shorter contracts and higher prices.

However, my circumstances were that I wanted a Pocket PC running Windows Mobile. The best selection of these devices in the UK seemed to be the XDA range offered by O2 from HTC of Taiwan. (Also, a friend had one of these and it was really cool). So I got an XDA IIi with a mobile contract with O2. There was a hefty up front cost for this, but it was still substantially cheaper than buying a Pocket PC without a mobile contract. The XDA works fine as a phone, but it is big and bulky. (Most people want to want their mobile phone to be stylish, but the XDA is a device for people who want everything including the kitchen sink in their phones, but who do not care about being uncool). My plan was to transfer the phone number from my old phone over to the new O2 SIM, and then to use the O2 SIM, which I could transfer between the XDA and the old phone (a perfectly fine Motorola v500) as need be.

So, after I had worked out the Orange contract I did all this. The next problem was that very irritatingly (like most UK mobile phones, even those you get on a contract) the v500 was “locked”, meaning that it could only be used with one network. UK mobile networks do this, principally because they want to add an extra little hassle to leaving the network, and because they want you to pay their extortionate roaming rates rather than a local SIM in some other country. As a consequence, a large (and perfectly legal) unlocking business has sprung up in the UK to unlock phones like mine. Rather than using one of these businesses I paid to download some unlocking software and an unlock code over the internet, and did the job myself. This greatly relieved one of my female workmates, who saw me talking into a PDA and assured me that if I kept doing this there was no way I would ever find a girlfriend.

So, anyway, that was all resolved. One further reason that I wanted to get the v500 unlocked was that it is quad band GSM, whereas the XDA is only tri band. Although both phones will work in the US, the v500 will therefore likely provide better coverage. And as I got all this done immediately prior to a trip to the US, this was important to me.

Another thing that is interesting about number portability is that despite the fact that it has been in existence for several years, most people seem unaware of its existence. → Continue reading: The inefficiencies of the mobile phone market slowly go away

Criminal identification

Bureaucrats only expect compliance under threat of punishment. Other people will figure out, even if only by trial and error, how to break any system at its weakest points. See Kevin Mitnick on ‘social engineering’, or–if you are the sort of authoritarian who won’t listen to a felon but is impressed by prizes and tenure–any anecdote by Richard Feinman. I can also thoroughly recommend this post by edjog of the Distreputable Lazy Aliens website:

I don’t usually go into much detail about offences I committed whilst in active addiction, for a number of reasons which are beyond the scope of this post but, with the UK Government’s headlong rush toward ID Cards seemingly based in much part around the notion that such a scheme will reduce crime, it seems appropriate. I’ve been prosecuted for what I’m about to talk about anyway: paid my debt to society and no longer commit crime. You don’t think a self-confessed law-breaker has anything relevant to say about this issue? Fine: bury your head in the sand; it’s your taxes paying for the scheme.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

The author has kindly offered NO2ID syndication rights, so any magazines interested in new angles on the lamentable scheme for a non-webical audience should get in touch.