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]

Who do the watchmen watch?

What are the odds that the NSA, GCHQ, etc. do not spy on the elected officials that oversee them?

What prevents subsequent blackmail of said officials by said agencies, other than policies that would be utterly trivial for agency officials to violate at whim?

Detlev Schlichter is back

Incoming from Detlev Schlichter. He is back blogging. His second recent posting, the one after the one that just says he’s back, is about Bitcoin. He thinks that the Bitcoin principle, so to speak, even if maybe not Bitcoin itself, has a future:

Central bankers of the world, be afraid, be very afraid!

My own sense is that, just as Schlichter says, the world’s rulers are now stuck in a monetary prison of their own making, from which they cannot now extricate themselves. Quite a few of them understand approximately what is wrong with their current policies, even as many others of these people have no clue. Many others favour the current state of the banking system, because it enriches them even as it impoverishes most others. But even those banker/politicians who do understand what harm they are now inflicting upon the world and would like to stop, don’t know how to. It is one thing to be in a prison and to know that you are in a prison, quite another to escape from the prison.

To switch metaphors from the prison to the hospital, the world’s banking system is now alive rather than dead, but not in the sense that the patient is up and about, playing beach volleyball with its children like a tampon advert woman. It is alive merely in the sense that a terminally ill patient, lying in a hospital bed after a horribly intrusive death-postponing operation, sinking slowly rather than fast, is also alive rather than dead.

Only outside monetary influences, such as Bitcoin or such as variations on the Bitcoin theme, will bring back a world of true money.

The fact that, if you put some of your wealth into Bitcoin, you just might lose damn near the lot is a feature not a bug. Government guarantees that you won’t lose out no matter how unwise your decisions may prove to be are the problem, not the solution.

Schlichter spends quite a lot of his piece denouncing a certain Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at Boston University’s School of Management, but he ends his piece by quoting him again…

If not controlled and tightly regulated, Bitcoin – a decentralized, untraceable, highly volatile and nationless currency – has the potential to undermine this longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency.

… and agreeing with him! That’s a feature rather than a bug.

Welcome back to the blogosphere, Herr Schlichter.

LATER: And as I should have added, I am hosting a talk tomorrow evening about Bitcoin etc., given by Dominic Frisby (that’s Dominic’s thoughts on the recent Bitcoin disaster/price plummet (which Bruce Hoult explained here)). There is not a lot of room left for more would-be attenders, but there is, as of now, some.

Samizdata quote of the day

The truth is that the NCCL was right both to have PIE as an affiliate and to defend its members against charges of ‘corrupting public morals’. Why? Because a key role of any civil liberties group worth its name is to defend the rights of association of the most loathed sections of society, to ensure that even the profoundly unpopular enjoy the same liberties, most importantly freedom of speech, as the respectable and the right-on.

– Brendan O’Neill

So much misinformation! MtGox and Bitcoin – what really happened?

In an earlier post here on Samizdata, Bruce Hoult posted some very informative comments about MtGox and Bitcoin that we thought it warranted a higher profile, so…

So much misinformation!

What has happened is that people who bought Bitcoins on MtGox thought they owned them. They did not, according to the Bitcoin system. MtGox did. MtGox kept their own records of who ‘owned’ what. And MtGox were incompetent.

Which should have been apparent from the start: MtGox learns Bitcoin

The proper way to use Bitcoin is to keep your wallet of Bitcoins on your own computer. And back it up. Several times. Print it on paper if you want — it will likely fit on one side of A4 in not very small print. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. It is a bearer certificates. If you lose your wallet or forget the password then those Bitcoins are gone out of circulation forever.

That is not what happened with MtGox. They gave Bitcoins that people thought they owned (but did not) to other unauthorised people. It is theft. Just like a bank robbery. Those Bitcoins still exist, just in other hands.

This has absolutely no effect on people who keep their Bitcoins on their own computer (or phone). There are the same number in circulation as before. Bitcoins still can’t be counterfeited or inflated.

If you want/need to use a place similar to MtGox to turn normal money into Bitcoins then DO NOT LEAVE THEM IN YOUR ONLINE WALLET THERE. Make yourself an identity and wallet on your own computer and make a payment from your account on the Bitcoin exchange to your own identity. Then you are perfectly safe.

Well, you are if you do your backups diligently.

Or, if you want to turn normal cash into Bitcoins, find someone who has Bitcoins and wants cash, agree a price, have them do a transfer of Bitcoins from their wallet to yours (using the actual Bitcoin system, not an exchange), and hand them the cash.

The recent problems are not with the Bitcoin system, they are with finding trustworthy and competent ‘bank’ or ‘escrow’ services who will not lose or steal what they hold in trust for you.

To amplify on the previous.

Assume you want to use Bitcoins to buy a used TV, and both you and the seller have Bitcoin software and wallets on your own computers: You make a transfer from your Bitcoin wallet to theirs, using the Bitcoin software. You wait about 10 minutes for the next block of world-wide transactions to be created (mined). If you are paranoid, you wait for another block to be created, pointing to the one with your transaction.

At this point the transaction is recorded on thousand of computers all over the world. They all agree that Bitcoins have been transferred from you to the seller. The transaction is irrevocable.

Now you ask the seller to send you the TV. There is a risk that they will not send you the TV, even though they have the money.

This is exactly the same situation as any on-line auction site, or newspaper classifieds or whatever.

The solutions are the same. You can not get your money back, but you can damage their reputation in whatever venue you used to arrange the deal. Or you can meet them in person and do both sides of the swap in person. Or you can use a trusted third party as escrow — you give them the money, and the seller gives them the goods, and when they have both they pass them on.

The problem is to find a competent and trustworthy escrow service.

What is happening with Bitcoin

It looks as if a large Bitcoin exchange, Mt.Gox, has disappeared, along with large numbers of customers’ Bitcoins. The sequence of events is described in one Reddit post, and the media reaction is predicted in another, along with some advice:

…the lesson is not that we ought to seek out “regulation” to save us from the evils and incompetence of man. For the regulators are men too, and wield the very same evil and incompetence, only enshrined in an authority from which it can wreck amplified and far more insidious destruction. Let us not retreat from our rising platform only to cower back underneath the deranged machinations of Leviathan.

In general, Reddit seems to be the best source of information.

There are people predicting that this is the end of Bitcoin, and others pointing out that Mt.Gox is just an exchange, and not a very well run one at that, so good riddance because Mt.Gox has been blamed for price fluctuations in the past. Of course, there will be no state bailout. We might be about to learn what happens to a free market currency in a big crisis.

Samizdata quote of the day

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes, known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

– James Madison

A supersonic jet with cameras and screens instead of windows

One of my favourite, regular visit websites is Dezeen. At least half of the stuff there is of very little interest to me. But, I find myself wanting to look at about a quarter of it more carefully, and a single figure percentage of what it sticks up tends to interest me a lot. That’s a lot of interestingness, when you consider that Dezeen is, as of now, updated several times every day.

In particular, Dezeen often features an interesting new gizmo, news of which can be easily rehashed into one of those ain’t capitalism grand postings that we love to do here, as often as we are able to tear our eyes away from the ghastliness of politics.

So, for instance, today, Dezeen has a description of a supersonic airplane, the distinguishing feature of which is that instead of the airplane having lots of windows for its highly paid passengers to look out of, it instead has cameras recreating the visual effect of looking out, and much more continuously and impressively than is possible when you are relying on real windows. Like this:

Windowless-Jet-by-Spike-Aerospace_dezeen_ss3

Quite how exactly this arrangement fakes the real experience of looking out of a continuous window shaped like that, I do not know. Will 3D effects be involved? But considering that the faster an airplane goes (this one is intended to be very fast indeed) the more expensive it becomes to carve windows into it, and considering that the cost and bulk and weight and quality both of cameras and of screens are all variables that are moving in exactly the right directions, this struck me immediately as one of those “Why did I not think of this?” ideas. By that I do not mean that I could do the actual work of contriving such an airplane, merely that I ought to have realised far sooner than today that other much more engineering-savvy people than I would very soon be talking in public about such notions, and that they presumably have been doing this for quite some while, without me noticing it.

I would further assume that the structural benefits to having an airplane which does not have a lot of quite large holes scattered all along its fuselage must be considerable. Yes:

“It has long been known that the windows cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage. They require additional structural support, add to the parts count and add weight to the aircraft,” said the company.

On the other hand, if what is required inside the airplane is concentration on the job to be done when the airplane has landed, as might well be the case, then other imagery can go in the “window” instead. Or, presumably, no imagery at all.

Relying on cameras for a task like this means that if the worst happens and the cameras all go haywire, nobody dies. A few people merely have a somewhat less amusing trip than they might have been anticipating. Do the pilots have an actual window in front of them? That might be wise, but maybe not.

Whatever the details are, and indeed whether or not this particular airplane ever gets anywhere near taking to the air, I’m impressed. And talking of people who are much more engineering-savvy than I am, I wonder what our commentariat thinks about this notion.

Samizdata quote of the day

Academic freedom once meant protection from politics; now it means protection for politics.

Peter Wood, quoted earlier today by David Thompson.

The bleeding heart of Dominic Frisby

Many of us libertarians complain about how our anti-libertarian adversaries seem to do so appallingly well in attracting support from celebrities, and most particularly from showbiz performers. I agree with what Johnathan Pearce said here about this yesterday. Showbiz people are and should most definitely remain entirely entitled to express their opinions about politics or about anything else. But, they must then be willing then to be criticised by those who don’t agree with what they say, just like any other opinion-monger. JP makes a point of mentioning by name some showbiz people whose thinking he admires, which is also good. But I often hear other libertarians indulging in blanket condemnations of the thought processes of all showbiz people, declaring them to be inherently less capable than others of thinking clearly and arriving at wise political ideas. They then go on to curse the world for paying so much attention to these terrible people.

Quite aside from the obvious fact that many showbiz people are very smart, this is a tactically very silly way to think and talk. Showbiz people have at the very least demonstrated their expertise in communicating, in engaging with audiences. Many of the curses aimed by libertarians at showbiz people whose political views they do not agree with sound to me more like sour grapes than serious argument. Most such complaints would surely cease if we libertarians were to start attracting showbiz people to our cause in serious numbers. Meanwhile, if we think that showbiz people typically proclaim bad political ideas, then our task is to persuade such people to think better and to proclaim better ideas, rather than us merely moaning that such people somehow have no right to be heard opining at all, about anything except showbiz. Maybe it is in some ways true that celebrity opinion-mongers shouldn’t be paid attention to, as much as they are. But they are, if only because being paid attention to by lots of people is the exact thing that these people specialise in being very good at. Maybe people are foolish to get their foolish political ideas from politically foolish showbiz people. But many do. Whether we like it or hate it, recruiting at least a decent trickle of showbiz people is a precondition for us achieving any widespread public acceptance of our ideas.

I also believe that showbiz people may have quite a lot to teach us about how to present our ideas persuasively.

The above ruminations being all part of why I find Dominic Frisby such an interesting and appealing individual. He is an all round actor and entertainer and voice-over guy, and he is in particular an experienced and successful stand-up comedian. He is also a libertarian, and he has recently written a book called Life After The State, which I have recently been reading. I think it is very good, and I have already given it and its author a couple of admiring mentions here.

On the back cover of Life After The State, Guido Fawkes says:

Things are so bad that in our time only a comedian can make sense of an economy based on printing money.

This makes Frisby sound like a British P. J. O’Rourke, which is to say a writer who uses politics to get laughs, and laughter as a way to think about politics. But although it is true to say that Frisby is a comedian who writes about politics, he does not write about politics to get laughs, or even make much use of laughter to get attention for what he writes. The comedy experience that Frisby has brought with him to this new and distinct task is the experience of having to make himself clear and to hold the attention of an audience. If a comedian’s audience loses track of or interest in what a comedian is saying, it won’t get his jokes and it won’t laugh. But what Frisby wants with this book is not laughter, but to be understood. There is plenty of wit. There are plenty of felicitous phrases and nail-on-the-head, SQotD-worthy sentences. But a laugh a minute this book is not.

So, if Frisby is no longer playing the comedian when writing his book about the state of the world and about why the state of the world would be better if there was less statism in the world, what kind of arguments does he present, and how does he present them?

There was a big clue in the talk I recently heard Frisby give at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the one I mentioned here in this earlier posting. In the course of this talk, Frisby described himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”.

Now there’s a phrase to raise Samizdatista hackles, to cause rats to be detected, red rags to be charged at. The suspicion here will be that anyone who self-identifies as a bleeding heart libertarian is not really any sort of libertarian at all, and probably more like a traitor in our midst. I have not read enough from other self-identified bleeding heart libertarians to know how true or fair such accusations are. (That link is to a piece at Counting Cats, but it is by a regular commenter here, “Julie near Chicago”.) What I definitely can report is that the particular bleeding heart libertarian who is Dominic Frisby is definitely not guilty in the way that this label might here cause him to be charged.

Frisby starts out, in Life After The State, by describing what is wrong with the world, the kind of sufferings it contains, the kind of wrongs in it that ought to be righted. There is huge inequality, not just in matters of what people get paid for the work they do, but in things like healthcare and education. What the wrong kind of bleeding heart libertarian presumably argues, or is accused of arguing, is that because poverty is terrible and because poor people ought to get better healthcare and education than they do now, and because all decent people want the best not just for themselves but for people generally, and especially for the poor and the unlucky, well, that means that we need to soften our line on such things as state welfare, state education, the national health service, and the like. But what Frisby says is that because people at the bottom of the heap ought to get better chances in life than they now get, that is why unswerving and principled libertarianism is the absolute right thing, no ifs no buts. He doesn’t word it quite as belligerently as that. He does not constantly italicise, the written equivalent of banging the table. He is Dominic Frisby. I am merely me. But I trust I am clarifying the distinction that I am trying to clarify.

All of which is central to the project of persuading people generally, and showbiz people in particular, to become libertarians. Showbiz is full of people who want all that is best for everyone, but who are, as part of all that, very wary of aggressively eloquent rationality. (Typically, this is how their villains talk.) What they want to know is whether your heart is in the right place. Do you even have a heart? If you do, does it ever bleed? Yes, yes, we hear what you think. But what do you feel, and what do you feel about what others feel? Do you want the best for everybody, or do you merely want the best for your nasty, boring little self and your nasty, boring friends?

For well over a century now, that particular brand of collectivists called socialists has done a brilliantly successful job of convincing people generally and showbiz people in particular of socialism’s niceness. Socialism, say the socialists, is about wanting what is best for everyone. Socialism’s opponents may be all very clever and rationalistic and skilful at advancing their own arguments and interests, but they are all of them heartless, uncaring bastards, at best deluded. As a result of this relentlessly successful line of argument, millions of people who really do want the best for everyone have flocked towards socialist banners. Yes, many socialists have been cynical and manipulative, and more like the kind of people that most socialists complain about. But, say the other socialists, bad socialists like that are bad because they betray socialism, they fail to do socialism. They are traitors to the cause. Socialism could never have had the colossal and colossally damaging impact that it actually has had, if the leading socialists had all come across as mere schemers and contrivers and arrangers with no hearts, and still less if all the other socialists attracted to the cause were like that also.

Dominic Frisby’s father was the noted playwright Terence Frisby, and Terence Frisby was himself a socialist. But the thing that is wrong with socialists like Terence Frisby is absolutely not that their hearts bleed. They want a kinder, more generous, more fair, more comfortable and more entertaining world, especially for those who are now very poor and very unlucky, and good for them. Their folly is in supposing that the way to contrive these outcomes is for socialism to be inflicted upon the world, and for freedom to be done away with.

In short, Dominic Frisby is both a nice guy and a clever guy, and a notably effective and significant contributor to the libertarian cause. When some of his many showbiz friends take a look at his book, as some of them surely will, they may find themselves surprised at how much they agree with what it says.

Learn more about Frisby and his ideas by exploring his website, by reading his stuff, and watching some of his video performances and creations.

Or, be at my home in a week’s time, on the 28th of this month, when Dominic Frisby will be giving a talk on the subject to which his second book will be devoted, namely Bitcoin, crypto-currencies, etc. Confusingly, a lady called Dominique was to have been my speaker that evening, but she had to postpone and will now be speaking at my last Friday gathering on May 30th. Meanwhile, February 28th turned out to be a date that was just right for Dominic, because he is now eager both to find further readers for his first book and to sign up members of the crowd which will be crowd-funding the publication of his second book.

The crowd-funding of books, especially of books intended to persuade rather than just to entertain, being a subject that deserves an entire posting to itself.

Showbiz folk can talk economics, but cannot expect to be free from pushback

“I’m thinking of making T-Shirts for Guardian readers and Progressives. The first one would say: I GET MY OPINIONS FROM MILLIONAIRE ROCK STARS AND ACTORS.”

Taken from a comment by someone called Stuck-Record at Tim Worstall’s blog. Tim was describing how he left a comment on an article by the actor, Bill Nighy, in defence of a “Robin Hood Tax”; Tim’s comment – which he said was entirely civil - was deleted. The Comment is Free site of the Guardian clearly cannot take dissent from some pro-marketeers. (I expect Tim drives them mad with his dissection of their views on a daily basis.)

The red lights on the mental dashboard go on in my head when the words Robin Hood come out. The false assumption of the tax proponents is that you can tax an activity – such as bank trading – without the impact in any way being felt by us ordinary folk. More cynically, politicians might like the idea because the actual cost impact will not be easy to see (wider bid/offer spreads for exchanging money, lower returns to investors, cuts to service and jobs in banks, etc.)

Of course, not all actors and music folk have collectivist, interventionist views on things like economics, or other things. The US actor Rob Lowe seems pretty intelligent, ditto Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine, etc. I don’t have a problem as such with actors/others talking about such things – we should not fall into the ad hominem fallacy of saying that non-specialists on subject A cannot talk about it (democracy is based on such a position, is it not?). However, actors, singers or whatever who want to get into the arena cannot expect to be treated any more gently than an economist or other specialist in an area of controversy. Being a luvvie doesn’t get you special favours.

One commenter managed to get past the CiF “checkpoint Charlie” to leave what I thought was a pretty good point:

The whole flaw is laid bare in this one sentence – a tax can be tiny or it can raise billions, it is unlikely to do both. Those billions you claim can be raised are a powerful incentive for organisations to circumvent the tax; on something as ephemeral as financial transactions that’s quite easy to do. It would merely hand volume to New York, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Of course France, Germany et al are in favour of it. It would be a EU wide tax that would fall most heavily on the UK and you even point out that a whopping 50% of the money raised could be spent on domestic causes – oh fantastic, we adopt a tax that could be damaging to one of our major industries and get to spend half of the proceeds on our own country. Do you honestly believe that Germany would accept a similar deal in relation to a green tax on luxury motorcars or France on farming?

Samizdata quote of the day

The academic left has created a great deal of mischief by appropriating wholesome words for unwholesome ends. This game has been perfected with diversity, inclusion, social justice, and sustainability – all words that mean roughly the opposite of what they sound like.

Diversity on college campuses denotes both lockstep conformity on identity group politics and radical stereotyping of people by race. Inclusion means excluding anyone who dissents from the prevailing orthodoxy. Social justice often means overriding fundamental freedoms and individual rights to impose arbitrary rule by elite redistributionists. Sustainability means transferring authority to decide how to use our resources from the marketplace to ill-informed bureaucrats.

Peter Wood

(hat tip to Michael Jennison)

An amusing little factoid.

The least dangerous sport at the Winter Olympics is Biathlon. This is also the only sport at those games that involves the use of firearms.

(HT to the Australian Liberal Democrats for noticing this).