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]

AGW skepticism and creationism

Rand Simberg is not a happy man:

“….here’s the problem with the comparison between creationism and climate skepticism. Evolution is a scientific theory. It is the one that best fits all of the available evidence. There is also a creationist theory that fits all the evidence: God did it, complete with evidence that evolution occurred. The problem with the latter theory is that, while it might be true, in some sense, it is not scientific, because it isn’t falsifiable. “Intelligent design” also isn’t a scientific theory — it’s merely a critique of one. And hence, it does not belong in a science class, except as an example to illustrate what is science and what is not. If people want to challenge the theory of evolution, they have to come up with an alternative one that is testable, and to date, they have failed to do so.”

“In contrast, even accepting for the sake of the argument that the planet is really warming abnormally (despite the cooling trend of the past decade), there are numerous scientifically testable alternative theories to explain this, which is why AGW skeptics “are better able to get their message across in the mainstream media than creationism supporters.” In fact, as has been pointed out on numerous occasions over the past several years, belief in AGW has taken on the aspects of a religion itself, complete with sin, a corrupt priesthood, indulgences for the rich to buy absolution and into green heaven, and the persecution of heretics.”

I could not agree more. I have nothing against people who contest evolution and Darwin’s ideas, but it is odd to conflate a skeptic about man-made global warming (where the evidence is far from settled) with someone who thinks that life on Earth was brought about by a Supreme Being.

And here is Simberg’s signoff:

“I have a modest proposal. Instead of promulgating either the Christian religion, or the Green religion in our science classes, let’s get teachers who actually have degrees in science (as opposed to “education”), so they don’t need “teaching materials,” and teach kids how to do math (including statistics), think critically, and actually formulate testable and falsifiable hypotheses and test them, so that they will be inoculated to all religions, when it comes to learning science.”

And this surely is the key. If we want people to learn science, a crucial thing is that it involves understanding the scientific method in all its rigour and painstaking discipline.

Brian Micklethwait recently, on a similar topic, asked the question of how much it really matters if people believe that the Earth and life on it were created rather than evolved. It is a good question.

Foiled by the Israel Defence Forces. Damn.

While driving up Israeli Highway 90 along the west bank of the river Jordan from the Dead Sea to Galilee last Friday, I passed the turnoff to the actual site on the river Jordan where St John the Baptist baptised Christ. I really couldn’t miss the place where the Holy Spirit descended on Christ in the form of a dove and God said he was pleased with his son, so I turned down the road, and drove towards the Jordan.

Half way to the river, I found this


bapt1.jpg

The Israeli army had erected a barrier preventing anyone from continuing down the road to the river, with barbed wired etc, and a sign saying “Military Area. No Photography” or some such. (The area was closed to visitors from the 1967 war until 2010, but it was supposed to have been open since then). There was nobody there, but as being arrested by the Israeli military in the middle of the West Bank is not my preferred activity on a Friday evening – they are probably particularly annoyed when you ruin their Shabbat – I really didn’t want to take any risks. Thus I drove drove some distance back down the road before turning around to take photographs, and then only used the camera in my phone, which makes it less obvious what I am doing than holding up my digital SLR. I don’t know the reason for the closure: possibly just that the River Jordan is in some sense the border (although in this part of the world, who the fuck knows where the border is?) and they don’t want people too close to it.

In any even, in truth I didn’t want to stay too close to it for too long either. The Israeli built and controlled highways are safe enough. Highway 90 is by far the shortest route from south-east Israel to north-east Israel – which was why I was driving on it – but it was clearly built principally for security purposes. In the event of another war, the Israeli army can undoubtedly be mobilised along it very rapidly. However, being off the highway with a car carrying Israeli plates is probably best avoided.

Immigration issues

As regular readers here know, immigration is an issue that even people who are libertarians with a strong hostility to state barriers to movement disagree about. The nub of the issue can be expressed thus: immigration+welfare state+weak indigenous culture = social discord. Or: immigration+free market capitalism+strong sense of civil society = strong, dynamic country.

Over at the CATO think tank in Washington DC, a number of writers, such as Bryan Caplan, Daniel Griswold, Richard K Vedder and Joel Kotkin argue that immigration, particularly without the distortions and false incentives of a big welfare state, is a force for good and an expression of the desire of people to better their condition not just materially, but in other ways, and that believers in liberty ought to be on their side. In as much as immigration, legal or otherwise, causes certain costs, then there are ways of dealing with this other than a simple blanket ban, which is what some people, mostly, but not exclusively on the right, are calling for.

This is an impressive collection of essays and provides a bit of a counterweight to cultural pessimists, some of whom, ironically, are immigrants themselves.

Another good thing about this collection of essays is that with the exception of Caplan, I had not heard about any of these authors before, so I was pleased to find a large assembly of such insightful writers to follow in the future.

Here is a paragraph from one of the essays, by Joshua C. Hall, Benjamin J. VanMetre, and Richard K. Vedder:

When examining these various views on immigration it’s important not to fall subject to the all too common misperception that one’s immigrant status dictates one’s position in the debate, viewing immigrants as pro-immigration and nonimmigrants as anti-immigration. This is clearly not the case as Brimelow (1999), Hoppe (1998) and Borjas (1999) are some of the most prominent skeptics of immigration and are immigrants themselves – anti-immigrant immigrants.

In fact, the anti-immigrant immigrant is not a new phenomenon. It stems from the growing instinct for individuals to think that their generation is the Great Generation and that those who follow are somehow inferior. So it goes with immigration. One can speculate that the individuals who arrived on the Mayflower lamented newcomers arriving to Massachusetts on subsequent boats in the 1620s as lacking the motivation, the ingenuity, or some other positive attribute allegedly possessed in abundance by those arriving earlier.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin lamented the allegedly deleterious effects of new German arrivals to Philadelphia by disparagingly speaking of how Pennsylvania was being “Germanized.”

In the mid-19th century, the great American inventor Samuel F. B. Morse denounced new arrivals from Ireland and spoke of the dangers to America arising from the Roman Catholic faith of the newcomers. A half-century later, Woodrow Wilson pronounced that new arrivals from Italy and eastern Europe were of an inferior stock compared with those coming earlier from the northwestern part of the same continent. So it is not surprising when Borjas (1999) and Brimelow (1999) lament the arrivals to America after 1965 as inferior to those coming in the 1950s or early 1960s. The question that ultimately arises then is, if conventional political ideology does not explain differences in opinion on immigration then what does?

I should add that these essays have a strongly American flavour, but some if not all of the arguments the authors make apply to certain other countries as well.

A little game

The above picture is of the Church of Jesus Christ the Adolescent, which is found on the top of a hill in Nazareth in Israel. It presumably gets its name from the fact that Jesus Christ did apparently spend his teenage years in Nazareth. I post the picture merely because everyone I have shown the picture to so far has laughed at the name.

Thinking about it more, though, asking people to complete the phrase “The Church of Jesus Christ the…” with the most entertaining ending is possibly almost as much fun as “For all its faults,…”.

(Yes, I think Evelyn Waugh played with this exact idea in The Loved One. It is still fun, however).

Samizdata quote of the day

Hartnett wants the citizenry to stop giving cash to their cleaners, gardeners, and to small tradesmen and other potential tax cheats and economic criminals so that they can no longer avoid paying taxes. Hartnett’s vision of Britain is a society of snoops and denunciators. “Households have a duty to ensure that other people do not evade paying their share of tax. The people who are worried about it should use our whistle-blowing line to tell us. We are getting better and better at finding people who receive cash.” Nice touch. A tinge of the former GDR’s Stasi culture for the British way of life?

- Detlev Schlichter

Bankers’ pay

“Nationalising RBS was a monumental error; no bank must ever bailed out again. Resolution and bail-in procedures to properly wind-down even the largest institution must be ready for use the next time there is a crisis. The government’s takeover of part of the banking industry in 2008 – combined with a stagnant economy and a flawed narrative about the real causes of the crisis – has triggered a cultural shift that will turn out to be disastrous for Western capitalism and prosperity.”

- Allister Heath.

This is also very on point:

It is impossible to run a bank – especially one with a large investment bank unit – as part of the public sector. One can only do it for a very short period of time, as the US institutions found during the Tarp episode; they paid the money back very quickly to liberate themselves from the state’s shackles. Permanent state ownership means political considerations take over; and the pressure builds to pay bank employees like civil servants.

By the way, while I was relaxing after a nice weekend in the country last night, I watched the DVD of the Atlas Shrugged movie (it shows the first third of the story, or thereabouts). I quite liked the film, although it lacks that sparkle I like to see in a big topic like this. (The actress who played Dagny Taggart is good, as is the actor who plays Hank Rearden. The rest are so-so). But even so, one thing that grabbed me from the start was that this might have been a documentary about the financial problems of the West, rather than a piece of fiction.

Madsen Pirie’s second little economics video

I really liked that first Madsen Pirie short economics video, about the subjectivity of value, flagged up here. Now number 2 has emerged, on the closely related topic of price control. I happened upon this second video here, which would suggest that these things are getting around and being noticed. They should.

The short video lecture is the perfect medium for Madsen. Many is the time that I have had a short lecture on this or that topic bestowed upon me, by Madsen in person. From most others this would be intolerable. From him, it was welcome, because you had the feeling he had really thought it through, having bestowed it also on many others, each time slightly better. He has been working on these little videos for years, maybe realising it, maybe not. Almost always, when technologically enhanced things emerge that are really good, the person doing them has been doing them for quite a while by hand, as it were, before the technology came along to make the thing even better.

If the rest of these little videos are as good as the first two, they could add up to a classic set.

Blender makes movies cheaper

I recently had one of those eye opening web surfing sessions where I find lots of new awesome stuff to explore. I was checking up on the progress of Raspberry Pi, itself a very exciting project to make and sell an ARM-based PC board for $35. They say:

We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere; we actively encourage other companies to clone what we’re doing. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children. We think that 2012 is going to be a very exciting year.

I saw a video of a demo of Raspberry Pi running XMBC, which is open source media centre software designed to run on a PC connected to your TV and display all your photos and videos and play your music. During the demo, a movie is played and I happened to catch the title “Peach Open Movie Project”, which caught my attention.

It turns out that this is a short animated film made by the Blender Institute. Blender is open source computer animation and 3D design software. The Blender Institute in Amsterdam funds Blender related projects. For the past few years they have been making a short film each year. Peach was the codename for what became Big Buck Bunny. The film is completely open, Creative Commons licensed, and you can buy the DVD with all the assets, 3D models, scripts and tutorial videos showing you how to do all this stuff yourself. It strikes me that if you are a motivated teenager who wants to get into 3D animation your life is vastly better than it would have been 5 years ago in terms of the wealth of information available to you.

So far there are three Blender Institute movies and a computer game. My favourite is Sintel, a bittersweet fantasy about a girl and her dragon. Currently the Blender people are working on a fourth movie: project Mango. This is a “VFX-based” movie, which I take to mean real actors and filmography composited with 3D computer graphics. Blender can do camera and object tracking, so you get things like digital makeup and augmented reality. One of the main aims of these projects is to improve the Blender software, so at the end of each one, Blender is better; the free tools for making movies are better.

One of the guys working on project Mango is Ian Hubert who makes the sort of SF art that I love. He made a short film called Dynamo in his spare time, and is working on another independent, no budget movie called Project London that is made by compositing 3D digital elements onto live action. His showreel is particularly impressive.

If you look at the quality of these projects as compared to a big Hollywood movie like Avatar you will find that the gap is not so wide; certainly it is less wide than the same gap measured a few years ago. All this is being done using freely available tools that are getting better all the time. These tools and these projects may be offshoots of commercial projects or spare time projects, but now they exist the next iteration of artwork done with them will be better. We are all richer as a result and none of this is going away. It is one small aspect of economic growth that is very visible.

It is possible to get a sense of a what a lot more growth would bring: an economy where the essentials are cheap enough to leave us with even more time to work on projects like these; whether making movies or developing circuit boards or designs to be 3D printed.

Now consider this comment left on Eric Raymond’s post about SOPA. Shenpen is talking about the problem of software and movie piracy and how the business models are flawed. The problem, he says, is that music is not scarce.

So the long-term answer is much more simple: selling non-scarce things is going to be stop being a for-profit business in any form whatsoever.

Take music. There will be no profits. There will be no music industry. And most musicians will not be able to make a living out of it. It will stop being a viable business model and a way to make a living altogether. Sure, some musicians will make a living out of fundraisings, advertisements and live performances, but it no longer will be a reliable way to make a living.

Is it wrong – how? The profit motive is great for a lot of things and not so great for a lot of other things. Some things – like sex – are best given for free. Take away the commercial motive and what you get is a lot better music. Sure, musicians will often have to work a day job and thus have less energy to invest in making music. This will reduce quantity – so what? As for quality, I think that will counterweighted by that then they won’t invest their energy into making plastic crap but genuinely good stuff, stuff they themselves would want to listen to, stuf they want to remembered for. When money gets out of the picture, artists often discover they have better tastes than formerly thought.

Why do we have to limit our imagination to the way these things are being done now? Record sales, movie sales etc. did not exist 150 years ago, why should they exist in 50 years from now? Time for some innovation.

This kind of innovation is just what we are seeing. Anyone can make a feature film or record an album and put it on the Internet. As the tools improve, so does the quality of the work done. It would be nice to make a living out of movies and music, but if the cost of living is low enough, and with freely available tools, high quality movies and music will be made even if it is not possible.

Alternative Samizdata quote of the day

I don’t think earning about the same as Kenwyne Jones of Stoke City is cause for apoplectic outrage.

- Mark Littlewood of the IEA on the UK political storm about the head of the world’s sixth largest bank getting a bonus of something under one… meelion… pounds. (US readers may wish to read that again. A million, not a billion.)

Stoke City is currently the 8th best soccer team in England. It has 44 players in its squad.

Dumpster diving in the name of “security”

This is one of the more ridiculous incidents of security theatre that I have read. I know it is preaching to the converted to post such a link to Samizdata, and the increasingly farcical nature of the United States government surprises no one who reads here, but the post deserves to be spread far and wide. Reading Mike Masnick’s account of how the knuckleheads providing “security” at the US Capitol conduct themselves, one can better visualize the inherent idiocy of the entire operation.

Samizdata quote of the day

[W]hile SOPA/PIPA may be stalled for now, a big part of the reason is that tech companies got into the lobbying game, too…That’s right, slowly but surely, Congress is sucking the tech industry into their world, making us play by their rules. We have to pay them off, literally with cash, or we get slaughtered.

…Well, we’re now playing by big government rules. Congress can set up a fight pit with Hollywood in one corner and Silicon Valley in the other. Who cares what happens. The money will just roll right in.

This is how criminal organizations run protection rackets. Congress is doing just that, only it’s completely legal.

- TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington on the spanner thrown into the works of SOPA/PIPA (for now)

“Caught up in …”

From the latest Radio Times:

9.00 Wonderland: My Child the Rioter

Last August’s riots provoked a legal backlash that has seen often lengthy prison sentences handed down to those involved. This documentary enters the homes of the some of the families affected, including that of Eileen and Alan Bretherton whose son Liam recently served in Afghanistan but got caught up in the unrest while home on leave. Now he is an ex-offender with a promising military career in tatters.

“Legal backlash” is, I suppose, one way to describe a severe punishment.

But the phrase that really caught my eye in this was where it says that son Liam got “caught up in” the unrest. You hear this phrase a lot these days, to describe what someone did, in a way that suggests that what he did was really done to him, by a malign outside force. The Unrest, you see, forced him to go out looting. The Unrest called round, knocked on his door, dragged him out into the street and there compelled him to misbehave. Liam didn’t do rioting. The rioting “involved” him. There the Unrest was, catching Liam up in itself. How could Liam himself be held responsible for what Unrest did to him?

Truly, we do live in a Wonderland.

And what of that “legal backlash”? (There goes another phrase which makes a bunch of decisions appear like a mere collective emotional spasm.) Well, next time Unrest decides, for its own inscrutable reasons, to reach out and grab people, more of them will surely decide to resist being caught up in it, now that there has been this legal backlash against the last lot of those picked on by Unrest.