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]

Libertarian Solution podcast

I am only just starting to discover podcasts, and the first libertarian one I found that I liked was The Libertarian Solution. Three guys talk about news stories that interested them over the past week and possible libertarian solutions to whatever the problem is that the news story is about.

This week’s podcast [Pocket Cast] featured:

  • An article by a former narcotics police officer on how war on drugs spending is far greater than spending on crimes with actual victims. There was discussion of how this is might be driven by the incentive of police making money from asset forfeiture, and how private police would have a feedback mechanism that public police do not thanks to sovereign immunity: you could sue them for not meeting a service level agreement.
  • An advertisment for an animated movie called Silver Circle about the Federal Reserve.
  • A news story about how undercover police in one state routinely infiltrate protests, presumably to gather information. There was discussion of whether gathering names of protestors is a valid function of the police, and also why an outed undercover cop was holding his gun like that.
  • Discussion about a survey that revealed that two thirds of people would prefer it if the full report into CIA torture was not published, and whether this means people would prefer not to know about it and why.
  • The dangers of blindly signing contracts, illustrated with South Park clips, and the benefits to a business of making sure its customers do understand and are happy with a contract.

At least some of the three are members of the Libertarian Party, and while my views were not in lock-step with theirs, I found them reasonable and thoughtful enough to be interesting, with just a little banter and rhetoric to keep it from being too dry. Not a bad listen while doing the ironing.

Stephen Hawking on AI

Stephen Hawking mentioned the singularity to a BBC reporter.

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. […] It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. […] Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

The article does not elaborate. It is quite possible Hawking does not see this as a bad thing, or includes in his analysis the possibility that humans might become machines.

I am slightly more concerned by the fact that I heard about this on BBC Radio 2, and by the way it is reported to its middle-aged, middle-class, probably slightly afraid-of-change listeners. It seems only a few short steps and a moral panic from here to some really stupid legislation. I would be happier if people researching how to make AI safe got a bit further along in their work before that happens.

Killing your own cows

In Nepal people are apparently killing half a million animals for religious reasons. Celebrities are protesting. Animal rights activists want me to email the Nepalese government to “to ensure this is the last time it ever happens”.

The trouble is, “ensure this is the last time it ever happens” is just a polite way of saying “jail people for killing their own cows”. In fact, thanks to an Indian interim law banning the transportation of animals to Nepal, 114 people have been arrested and 2,500 animals stolen by the Indian government.

I do not find this event aesthetically pleasing. I do approve of reducing the suffering of animals; but not at the cost of doing violence to humans.

I have also come across the suggestion that, since the sacrificed animals will not be eaten, stopping this event may do something to help with poverty or starvation. But interfering with people’s private property only ever makes poverty and starvation worse in the long term. Update: And in any case it seems like the meat and hides do get used.

Contracts with gagging clauses

A hotel has a policy of charging guests an extra £100 if they leave a bad review of the hotel on any website. Should the state permit individuals to enter into such a contract?

When a couple was so charged, they went and talked to the press. “What happened to freedom of speech?”, they asked.

John Greenbank, north trading standards area manager, said it was a “novel” way to prevent bad reviews.

He said: “I have worked for trading standards for many years and have never seen anything like this. The hotel management clearly thinks they have come up with a novel way to prevent bad reviews, however we believe this could be deemed an unfair trading practice.”

The beautiful thing is that the state turns out to be completely redundant in this case. Things did not work out so well for the hotel, and it now serves as a terrible warning for anyone else with similar ideas. Now its reputation is trashed on Trip Advisor because of freedom of speech. And because The Internet. Though I do wonder about libel…

Samizdata quote of the day

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO [Congressional Budget Office] scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in – you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed… Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical for the thing to pass….Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.

– Professor Jonathan Gruber, “one of the key figures in constructing the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare”, via Reason, via David Thomson.

Bitcoin: The Future of Money?

Dominic Frisby’s book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? is now available.

The first chapter describes what Bitcoin is and how it works. The achievement of this chapter is that Dominic has described Bitcoin in plain English without missing any important details and without simplifying to the point of error. Too often when I read writing intended for the general audience about something I know about, I notice how wrong it is and how ill informed the general audience must be about all things. Not here.

Technical description out of the way, the rest of the book deals with the culture of Bitcoin’s early adopters, the various scandals we may have heard about and what they mean, what Bitcoin means for the state and for you, and what the future might hold for Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general.

The longest chapter is about the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, who wrote the original paper and developed the first versions of the software, and who has successfully remained anonymous. It is not particularly relevant to understanding Bitcoin, but it is very intriguing, and I think there is a good chance Dominic has reached the right conclusion about Satoshi’s identity.

There is discussion of the problems of inflationary fiat currency: the author has read his Detlev Schlichter. There is discussion of how the decentralised nature of Bitcoin sidelines governments and opens up new markets with people who are otherwise difficult to trade with. And there is discussion of the problems, too: the volatility, the technical challenges, and the dangers of being defrauded in a new marketplace where we are still learning what are the best business practices and how to decide who to trust. Finally, there is some advice about where to buy Bitcoins. It is not out of date yet!

The book is concise, complete, correct, entertaining, and a very good introduction to what Bitcoin is all about.

Brad Pitt on Guns

They are all coming out of the woodwork. First we have Bono talking sense about economics, now Brad Pitt talks sense about owning guns.

The Radio Times reports that Pitt doesn’t feel that he and his family are safe unless there is a gun in the house.

“The positive is that my father instilled in me a profound and deep respect for the weapon,” he said.

An entertaining Guardian commenter

This exchange, on a sad and silly story about Lego ending its partnership with Shell in response to a Greenpeace campaign, made me smile. Someone complained about Greenpeace. Someone else replied: “Oh you mean like protecting our children’s future then eh? Bastards!” RoomSixteen pointed out:

“Greenpeace is one of the greatest threats to your children’s future. If not for Greenpeace, we’d have rolled out nuclear long ago, not to mention GMO like Golden Rice.

Greenpeace is against fusion, for heaven sake! How evil can you be?

“Greenpeace a bigger threat to my kids future than the corporate machine eh?”, came the reply.

Yes. The ‘corporate machine’ has afforded you a lifestyle that allows even your useless progeny a chance at a dignified life and not, as is Greenpeace’s most fervent ambition for them, a life of hard, manual labour 24/7 as subsistence farmers.

Later, and I am editing a bit:

Their campaign against Golden Rice has cost more lives than the invasion of Iraq.

[…]

Vitamin A deficiency kills half a million children each year. Times ten, that’s five million third world children, for starters – say a fifth of those would have survived if Golden Rice had been marketed in their countries, that’s a million children. Plus a million those who’ve gone blind.

But that’s only half of it. GMO R&D is proceeding at a snail’s pace, because investors know the great, noisy unwashed will camp outside their windows if they do. That’s one of the main reasons we don’t have drought/salt/flood resistant crops in the fields yet. And strawberries the size of baseballs, of course, but that’s a first world problem.

Much the same could be said about nuclear (although the causation is not quite as straightforward) because thanks to Greenpeace, we’re only doing now what should have been done 20 years ago, namely designing better and cheaper reactors to replace coal plants and provide cheap and plentiful energy. And energy is the lifeblood of welfare: the more you have, the better your life.

This guy is a real trooper; he is probably saving a good few naive young Guardian comments readers from believing in the toxic worldview there.. And it is good strategy, too. I have long noticed that the appeal of the left comes from their portrayal as the Nice Ones. Pointing out that they are Killing Poor Children is exactly what is needed to fight them.

He is also educating people about economics: “And yes, Monsanto makes money on bt corn, but so does the farmer, otherwise it wouldn’t sell.”

Modernist Cuisine and Nuclear Reactors

I rececntly ordered a water circulating heater for sous vide cooking. I do not like cooking all that much, but the controllability and repeatability of sous vide, along with the opportunity to play with a new gadget, appeal to my not-so-inner geek. To make the most of it, I ordered a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home. It is a home version of the original Modernist Cuisine book that comprises six volumes and 2,400 pages and deconstructs the science of cooking. It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement in cooking, an attempt to make cooking more science-y. This appeals to me also because normal cookbooks are oppressive: “Do this!” they say, without ever explaining why. From their random examples I am unable to build a mental model of what is going on, so I can only follow the instructions blindly and wonder why I failed. And the jargon in cookbooks is incomprehensible; I am much more likely to be able to understand a science book.

Nathan Myhrvold is a principal author of Modernist Cuisine. He was the CTO of Microsoft and later went on to found Intellectual Ventures, which buys patents and licenses then to companies who are being patent trolled, though others have accused them of patent trolling themselves. An offshoot of this is Intellectual Ventures Lab, which does research and applies for patents and contains the kitchen where the cookbook was developed.

Myhrvold is a global warming believer, though he annoyed all the right people when he appeared in a chapter in Superfreakonomics suggesting that we might reverse the effects of man-made global warming with other man-made technology, instead of by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And he is a proponent of nuclear power as a solution. Intellectual Ventures Labs began work on a travelling wave reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that runs on U-238, which reduces the need for enriching. TerraPower is now one of many subsidiaries, and is developing the reactor.

Between this, thorium, and a host of other reactor designs, I am hopeful about the technology of nuclear power, we just need the politics to catch up. A micro nuclear reactor was proposed in Alaska but, “the project never began the mandatory, lengthy and extremely costly process of gaining approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…which takes tens of millions of dollars and several years”.

Bono

Bono is annoying. This was supposed to be a post in which I gloated about how, if I had an iPhone, I would be making use of the U2 removal tool, too, the story being that Apple gave away the latest U2 album for free and enough people complained that they had to offer a way to remove it.

And I would support my argument with stupid Bono quotes. But it turns out he is harder to pin down than that.

If globalisation means a better life for more people, we’re all in favour of it. If it means a better life for less people, we’re all against it.

Non-commital but hard to disagree with. And then there is this analysis:

While Bono has become synonymous with campaigns such as Drop the Debt that fit his right-on rock star image, he also has a well-developed sense of how capitalism works. U2 has acquired a business empire with an estimated worth of nearly (EU)700m. Much of that is due to their artistic talent, but a substantial portion has come from careful management of business opportunities.

Bono’s idea for helping the Third World involves the destruction of trade barriers and protectionism, and investment in the development of self-sustaining businesses. His economic instincts are pro-globalisation, but in a perfectly sensible business way. One of his big ideas to help the Third World, the launch of the ethical brand Product Red, with partners such as Motorola, Gap and Giorgio Armani, is based firmly on capitalist principles.

That is from an article criticising him for tax avoidance, of all things.

I am almost starting to like him. It is very annoying. Still, I do sympathise with @twitflup via The Daily Poke:

Just woken up to find U2 downstairs watching TV and eating my biscuits. Will their presumptions that I want them in my life ever end?

Direct health care: register your interest

Recently I wrote about Simon Gibbs’ idea to find doctors willing to offer direct health care, providing better care at good value to customers and making a profit at it. Now his site Libertarian Home is gathering a list of people in the UK interested in such a service.

Register to express your interest in purchasing, for your own needs, a monthly subscription for GP services such as check-ups, disease management, minor treatments, obstetrics, and advice.

Simon explained to me that he wants to find a cluster of people who make a potentially viable business for someone, and put them in touch. You will be signing up to be notified of opportunities.

I hope he can help make this work. For the right price I would welcome such a service: it would be valuable to just have access to a doctor who I could chat with at leisure for general advice and not feel like I was being a nuisance.

Central planning causes empty shelves in Cuba, say BBC

Years after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba remains a bastion of communism, central planning… and shortages of basic goods.

I am not surprised that there are empty shelves in Cuba. I am surprised to be reading such things on the BBC.

despite Cuba’s proximity to the US, Washington’s 50-year-old trade embargo – which was designed to squeeze this island’s communist government from power – means there’s no American investment here. There’s no Starbucks, no Coca-Cola plant.

Some might see that as a good thing. But they might not find shopping for essentials quite so quaint. I once approached my big local supermarket full of optimism. I now know I’m likely to find a mixture of half-bare shelves and ones stacked with a single product: cheap ketchup, say, or adult incontinence pads.

Basic items disappear whenever Cuba struggles to meet its import bills. For weeks there was no toilet paper or cartons of milk. Now even the delicious local coffee is “lost,” as Cubans say – “esta perdido”.

Mind you there’s plenty of “partridge in brine,” should anyone fancy that. I’ve seen the same pile of cans on display for more than two years at $25 apiece. Perhaps a central planner ticked the wrong order box.

The story is even promoted from other stories under the banner “in today’s magazine”.