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 day after judgement?

Pre-empting the failure of the national ID scheme to deliver total surveillance soon enough, HMG is opening the other portals to its totalitarian hell.

When even former cheerleaders for centralised government by technology and datasharing get scared, you have to wonder can it be stopped after all? Michael Cross of The Guardian, now gets it, it seems:

Ministers are preparing to overturn a fundamental principle of data protection in government, the Guardian has learned. They will announce next month that public bodies can assume they are free to share citizens’ personal data with other arms of the state, so long as it is in the public interest.

The policy was agreed upon by a cabinet committee set up by the prime minister, and reverses the current default position – which requires public bodies to find a legal justification each time they want to share data about individuals.

This is straight reporting, there is none of the sneering at privacy advocates we are used to from Cross.

But extended government data-sharing is already happening. This, for example, was unwelcome news to me.

The ever closer union of human and machine

Reading the cyberpunks in the 1980s or watching Cronenburg’s eXistenZ, provided visions of a noir future where brain computer interfaces were commonplace and you could jack into cyberspace, virtual reality, or whatever hyped up term was collecting reputation dust. In the current world of information chop suey, it is hard to detect truly important developments. Here is one.

Harvard scientists have moved closer to an effective neural interface with engineered silicon nanowires “that detect, simulate and and inhibit nerve signals along the axons and dendrites of live mammalian neurons.” They are able to attach a non-invasive wire to a single nerve cell as a hybrid synapse and allow signals to travel between wire and cell. The next step in the research programme is the development of larger scale contacts between wires and nerve cells. As Charles Lieber, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard speculates:

This work could have a revolutionary impact on science and technology,” Lieber says. “It provides a powerful new approach for neuroscience to study and manipulate signal propagation in neuronal networks at a level unmatched by other techniques; it provides a new paradigm for building sophisticated interfaces between the brain and external neural prosthetics; it represents a new, powerful, and flexible approach for real-time cellular assays useful for drug discovery and other applications; and it opens the possibility for hybrid circuits that couple the strengths of digital nanoelectronic and biological computing components.”

(Hat tip: Betterhumans)

We are all getting chubby, but is it the government’s business?

British government scientists claim that Britain faces a growing crisis of obesity. And of course such predictions, which carry all the usual credibility of such things, are accompanied by calls on the powers-that-be to “do something” about it, including the likes of bans on advertising for sinful foods, funding for sports and so on.

First point: even our waistlines are expanding, is it any of the state’s business? At present, one might argue that because we have socialised medicine in the form of the National Health Service, taxpayers, both slim, chubby and positively enormous, have to pay for the consequences of bad health habits. So the neo-puritans will argue for controls on how we all live to reduce the tax cost of bad habits, which is an example of what economists might call a ‘negative externality’. Surely though, the approach that would encourage good habits and treat citizens like adults is one based on private medical insurance. If people want to cut their insurance premiums, then they will have a strong market-driven incentive to do so. In a private sector model, there may be much more encouragement from health providers to get in shape and give up the triple cheeseburgers. Of course, there will always be feckless people who do not give a damn and end up demanding some kind of handout when things go wrong, but I do not see why the liberties of the majority of us should be tossed away to deal with people who are too weak willed or plain stupid to act differently. In any event, I imagine that as in the days before the NHS came along, there will be health care available for those who cannot afford it – as James Bartholomew pointed out in his book – provided through charitable means. I actually think that a charity which supports doctors might, for example, insist that if a poor person wants to get medical care for his or her obesity-related problems, then as part of any treatment, that person has to do something about their problem.

Such an approach may, at first sight, appear to be ‘unaring’ or harsh, but I think there is no greater respect that one can give to one’s fellows than to accord them the ability to act like adults.

Goodness, all this venting has made me hungry. Anyway, as I head towards the kitchen, may I recommend this collection of articles by Reason magazine on the obesity issue.

Bon appetit!

When you annoy someone, they often act annoyed… go figure!

There is a strange article in the LA Times called The Governor’s cold shoulder to Muslims, in which Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California criticises state governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for refusing to meet with him. The title suggests this refusal amounts to cold shouldering ‘Muslims’ rather than just certain Muslims (i.e Shakeel Syed).

After waiting for more than a week, and following up with at least 10 phone calls to the governor’s office, I had gotten no response. I felt it was my duty and my right as a citizen to avail myself of a public forum to reach the governor. When a reporter from the L.A. Times called, I spoke with him and, on Aug. 16, The Times correctly reported my perspective: The fact that the governor had ignored my request to meet was disrespectful and insulting.

Of course, what with being the governor of a large state, I would guess Schwarzenegger is not exactly an easy man to get a meeting with, so I am not quite sure why Mr. Syed thinks not being able to meet with him amounts insult and disrespect. Moreover he then tried to apply pressure to Schwarzenegger by attacking him in the LA Times for not meeting with him, whilst noting the Governor was quite happy to meet with “rabbis and others who support Israel”.

He then acts surprised that Schwarzenegger’s communications director stated that: “We did not meet with Mr. Syed [because] it was inappropriate for the governor to meet with someone who uses the media to demand meetings and threaten political retaliation.” In other words, as Mr. Syed annoyed the person he wanted a favour from (to meet him), he was surprised that the person he annoyed was, well, annoyed enough not to meet with him.

In the earlier LA Times article, it said…

Muslim leaders on Tuesday called Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger disrespectful and insulting for ignoring their request to meet about the war in Lebanon so he could explain his appearance at a rally supporting Israel that was attended by thousands.

What does Schwarzenegger need to ‘explain’? Clearly he supports Israel (the dead give away is that he attended a rally supporting Israel) and if some Muslims in California do not like that then perhaps they should consider not voting for him. Which bit of that needs an ‘explanation’? Arnie obviously values the Jewish vote rather more than the Muslim vote.

But then if Schwarzenegger wanted some even better reasons for refusing to meet someone from the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, those would not be hard to find. Mr. Syed supports making it illegal to say or print things Muslims find deeply offensive, making the categorical statement “We call for laws that prohibits defamation of all Prophets and faiths”. So the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California thinks the sensibilities of religious people trumps the First Amendment and therefore the rights of people who might think religion is so much superstitious claptrap to say what they please about a historical figure or a person’s beliefs. Just a guess but I suspect the rabbis Schwarzenegger met were not urging him to pass any laws against making movies like The Life of Brian or other forms of satire which clearly defame religion.

Syed does not just demand tolerance, to which he is of course entitled, he also frequently demands respect, which is not something a person should get as a matter of right. I hope Schwarzenegger continues to tell him to get stuffed.

The final nail in the coffin

Please read this article. I will leave you to your own conclusions.

(h/t: Tim Blair)

Great article on one of the world’s greatest sportsmen

Right, I am taking a break from scribbling about the iniquities of inheritance tax, dumb airline security and so forth to link to this terrific article by Ed Brayton about golfing phenomenon and American icon, Tiger Woods. Even if you do not give a two-foot putt about the game, this article is a fine study of the sheer force of will that has propelled a man to become the master of his sporting world:

I have to admit to being absolutely fascinated by Tiger Woods. I’ve followed his career closely, despite doubting him initially. I remember watching the press conference when he announced that he was leaving Stanford and turning pro. I particularly remember watching Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, talk about the $40 million contract they had signed with Woods, and I remember laughing out loud and ridiculing Knight when he said that Tiger Woods would transcend the game of golf the way Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali transcended their sports.

No way, I said; not a chance. No matter how good he is, no matter how much he dominates the sport, golf will never be anywhere near as popular as basketball or boxing and that will limit his fame and his standing in relation to the rest of the sports world. Golf is too much an exclusive sport, too tied in with the rich and the well born to have the kind of universal appeal that other sports have. And it’s solitary, one man by himself, with no defense to be played and no one on one competition to fuel rivalries. Yeah, I’m glad I didn’t put any money on that prediction.

Brayton’s blog, Despatches from the Culture Wars, is definitely worth a regular visit, too.

Not one of us

Decidedly. This is one of those sentences, from one of those articles, that you read again and again in the hope that it might bear some reasonable meaning on closer inspection. No-one could really think that, could they? Today’s prize for greatest misplaced faith in the state goes to The Guardian’s Hywel Williams:

Middle Eastern tribalism, just like the African variety, is the direct result of colonial interference which frustrated the indigenous development of state-building.

For Mr Williams, the state is by definition good… but only when it is doing what he wants, promoting what he believes is social progress. The state is only the state for him when it is a mid-20th-century north European welfare auction. Otherwise it is a reversion to some more primitive social form, not a real state. If becomes an instrument for evil, then that is because it is not a proper state; someone must have interfered with it.

Nasty states that express tribalism are not in the ‘Western tradition’, but they are caused by colonialism in the Middle East and Africa, while Putin’s Russia on the other hand looks “to its Slavic roots”, and while Bush’s America is (apparently) a tribalism of politicised evangelicalism.

It is perplexing how ‘tribalism’ will stretch to cover everything Mr Willams does not like, but still he purports to think that local states for local people are a good thing (if permitting the English self-government is going too far, tantamount to endorsing apartheid). “Modern democratic states” are what he wants. But to be acceptable they should all be alike in this, in that, and in the other respect. His way of government is best. How is that different from imperial interference?

High quality history on the BBC

On Tuesday August 22nd BBC Radio Four’s ‘PM’ programme had a piece on what would have happened if Otto Von Bismark had drowned (which he almost did) off Biarritz (a French resort that I have long wanted to visit) in 1862. The historian Nicolas Davies was interviewed and explained that Bismark was not a very important person in 1862 – just a representative of Prussia in France… but in fact Bismark was already the most important minister of Prussia and had convinced the King to collect extra tax money in order to expand the army without the approval of the Prussian Parliament, thus cutting the control of the purse strings by the legislature and undermining hopes of constitutional government in Prussia (and setting it off on its lawless road to expansion).

We were also told that the death of Bismark might have had an effect on the ‘French Republic’. I am sure that his Imperial Majesty Napoleon III would have been interested to learn that he was living in a ‘Republic’.

When peace activists find themselves at war

Michael Totten has an interesting interview with a couple Israeli members of Peace Now. Although I think many of their views are wacky in ways only old socialists can be, they say many things I cannot imagine all too many CND members saying.

The pathologisation of all human action

It seems that academia is in league with the legal profession and the growing army of largely pointless psychologists and ‘counselors’ who treat the myriad of syndromes which we are told plague society.

Blackberry email devices can be so addictive that owners may need to be weaned off them with treatment similar to that given to drug users, experts warned today. They said the palmtop gadgets, which have been nicknamed ‘crackberries’ because users quickly become hooked on them, could be seriously damaging to mental health.

…and what is quite literally the ‘money quote’…

[She] added: ‘Employers provide programmes to help workers with chemical or substance addictions. ‘Addiction to technology can be equally damaging to a worker’s mental health’.

It is not hard to see where this is going. Owning a Blackberry can be pathologised into ‘Information and Communication technology (ICT) addition’ and clearly any company not providing professional help for ICT addiction could well be negligent (i.e liable to be sued) for ignoring work related harm caused to employees.

Academics love pathologising things as that leads to grants for ‘further study’, psychologists love it because they can make a fortune as ‘counselors’ treating the afflicted, lawyers love it when academics pathologise something as that means a company can be sued for causing someone to ‘catch’ a ‘recognised syndrome’, and of course politicians love it because that means clearly there is something here that must be regulated and perhaps even taxed more to discourage it.

But what is the solution if your Blackberry is messing with your mind? Turn the fucking thing off when you go home. Sorted. My bill for your therapy session is in the post.

Late-stage postmodernism

Re-arrange the following words to form a well-known phrase.

Their by petards own hoist:

“A CRIMINAL investigation has been started by Scotland Yard into an advertisement from the Gay Police Association (GPA) that blamed religion for a 74 per cent increase in homophobic crime…

Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Campbell, who leads the domestic violence and hate crime unit, disclosed the investigation in a letter to Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP. He wrote: “The original advertisement has been recorded as a religiously aggravated hate crime incident following a crime allegation by a member of the public.

“This crime is now the subject of a proportionate effective and objective criminal investigation. The police senior investigating officer is in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service. Any decision to prosecute is the sole decision of the CPS.”

Do not just read the article, savour it. For the time is fast approaching when this chaotic edifice will collapse into a little black-hole of nothingness under the massive weight of its own absurdity.

Postmodern statism is eating itself

Airport security and monopoly

Economist Joseph Stiglitz writes in the Financial Times (sorry, subscription required to get to the link) that normal competitive pressures to improve service are not working in the British airports industry. The privatised British Airports Authority, now owned by Spanish based group Ferrovial, has nothing much to gain, he argues, from improving security because it gets no real benefit in terms of consumer response, but it does have an incentive to boost profits through cost cuts, which must, he says, come into conflict with security. Does he have a point?

The way in which BAA operates seems to me to be, at first glance, greatly influenced by government and its regulatory agencies, so I think it would be hard to come down too much on BAA’s neck in this case. The regulatory environment surrounding the current security furore is largely driven by government and looks likely to remain so. So it is probably academic to speculate how security would operate in a ‘pure’ free market environment. If it were possible for people to shop around for different levels of security, it would be interesting to see how businesses would responsd. If airlines could directly negotiate their own security policies with the customer without having to mediate via an airport business or government, then you might get an interesting spectrum. Some airlines would market themselves as high-security, enforcing tough checks on passengers, banning certain types of luggage. If you want to fly on such an airline, fine. Other airlines might go for a more relaxed approach, and passengers would fly in the knowledge that they were taking more of a chance in exchange for not having to put up with intrusive security. Come to that, I am in favour of busineses such as child-free airlines, for reasons spelled out by Jeff Randall recently).

And even if BAA were to remain dominant as an airports landowner, if passenger numbers dropped off alarmingly due to heavy-handed security and massive delays, then sooner or later shareholders of BAA would revolt, or sell the business, and new entrants to the airports business would offer something better. The problem with this subject of course is that we have become so used to the idea of a whole network of big airports being run by one former state-established company that it is sometimes hard to imagine something different. But it could change and there is plenty of thinking that can and should be done on how to use the incentives of the market to improve passenger service and give people the security they want.

Some related thoughts about airports and privatisation issues here.