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]

Well-rounded education

The Foundation for Economic Education website is really rather good. Following links from Perry’s SQOTD about Venezuela, I hit upon an article questioning the idea that an education should be well-rounded. I have been skeptical of this idea since being forced to study things in secondary school that seemed like a waste of time.

…we need to get rid of the idea that all kids need to learn the same stuff in schools. I think a corollary is getting rid of the idea that kids need to be well-rounded, which is one of the reasons why we have so much standardized curriculum.

This is an attractive idea. Specialising is more productive. People who are not good at mathematics get can get by, especially now that there are tools and information online. The same goes for other areas of knowledge.

This concept of “agility” seems to be a good description of how people function in the real world:

Well-roundedness means being prepared for anything by knowing a diverse array of stuff; whatever the situation, there is a chance the person will know something about it. Agility is the ability to adapt to change, not because one knows diverse stuff, but because one knows how to learn what one needs in any situation. The well-rounded person isn’t stymied by math because they know a little math. The agile person isn’t stymied by math because when they confront a math challenge, they use whatever tools they can to figure out a workaround.

There are some things the article misses. Perhaps learning about a diverse array of things when young, thereby learning how to tackle diverse problems, is a good way to become “agile”. Perhaps sampling a diverse array of things when young is also a good way to figure out what it is you would like to specialise in. Perhaps the author has unduly conflated standardised curricula with learning diverse topics.

One of the problems with my state secondary school education was the rapid time division multiplexing of topics. I would have preferred to focus on one thing at a time. Not everyone is like this*, and supply of different types of education for different people (perhaps via some kind of “market”, who knows?) might be of value, and is separate from the idea of education on specialised topics.

(*) — Incidentally, many parents seem to worry about their children obsessing over one particular thing and not being “well-balanced”. But multiplexing of diverse interests can be done over a scale of months rather than hours. I think such obsessions usually turn out to be temporary and are best left to run their course, or else they will be long-lasting and productive. I hope so: my own children are currently specialising in computer game testing.

Automated truck trial

I have written before about automated cars. Today the British government announced that it will allow a trial of automated lorries on motorways to go ahead next year. The idea here is that a human drives one lorry, and automated ones follow close behind, saving the cost of extra drivers and reducing air resistance.

The Automobile Association complains about it.

A platoon of just three HGVs can obscure road signs from drivers in the outside lanes and potentially make access to entries or exits difficult for other drivers. On the new motorways, without hard shoulders, lay-bys are every 1.5 miles. A driver in trouble may encounter difficulties trying to get into a lay-by if it is blocked by a platoon of trucks going past.

I think they are overstating the problem because there are already convoys of human driven lorries on motorways. It is already a good idea not to drive alongside them for any distance. Something I do see as a problem is reported matter-of-factly by the Telegraph:

The Government has provided £8.1 million funding towards the trials, which will initially take place on a test track before being carried out on motorways.

I left this comment on the Telegraph’s news article:

If some private company was spending their own money I would have no complaint. If it is a good idea, people will do it and they will invest their own money in it. I have no idea why the government thinks it is a good idea to hand out free money to anyone who goes begging with the right story.

As for the idea itself, I can imagine it working. The lorries can drive just inches apart so unlike others I think slipstreaming will work and there is little risk of cars getting in between the lorries. Someone asked about trailers and a powered trailer may also work but I can also easily imagine that some electronics would be cheaper than a heavy mechanical coupling.

The real test of the idea is whether someone can make a profit at it with their own money (third party liability included). It is the government subsidy that is causing the controversy here.

Uber drivers collude

Uber drivers are supposedly colluding to cause the Uber algorithm to increase fares by logging off en masse.

Dr Mareike Mohlmann, of Warwick Business School, said: “Drivers have developed practices to regain control, even gaming the system. It shows that the algorithmic management that Uber uses may not only be ethically questionable but may also hurt the company itself.”

It sounds like a fair game to me. Any driver who does not participate will have the advantage of being able to snap up passengers first. And higher prices will simply reduce demand. Only people willing to pay more will use the service.

The system works as designed, except that the interface is clunky. A better way might be to allow drivers to set their own prices.

Hammond’s Britain

I do not like British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.

I often hear it said that the UK is considering participating in unfair competition in regulation and tax. That is neither our plan nor our vision for the future.

Whose side is this man on? He considers it unfair on French people if British people are not sufficiently mugged when transporting goods across the border. At least we have an adversarial system and he can be opposed.

“The truth is that the British people will not believe the fake U-turn of a Tory chancellor in a French newspaper, while he is still going ahead with billions of pounds in corporation tax giveaways in this parliament, and refuses to rule out further cuts,” said shadow minister Peter Dowd.

Oh dear. I had rather hoped that Britain might end up more like Singapore or Hong Kong.

No place for hunting

British leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn does not like hunting. He is not happy that the owner of the football team he supports is financially involved with a TV channel that shows programmes about hunting.

As an Arsenal fan I’m disgusted that Stan Kroenke is involved in such a brutal, unethical and unnecessary activity. This is not sport. Kroenke should stick to football if he wants to be involved in sport. ‘Blood sport’ is a contradiction…

He did not add that all this was simply his opinion, that there is room for reasoned argument about the ethics of humans killing animals, that any state sanctions against humans killing animals amounted to favouring violence against humans over violence against animals, or that making programmes about a legal activity is a matter of freedom with which the state should not interfere. Instead he added, “there should be no place on television or anywhere else for it.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg

I do not agree with everything Jacob Rees-Mogg says, but he is saying some things that I am very happy to hear being said by a prominent British politician. He is saying them on the BBC, no less, and sometimes to audiences who applaud him on BBC Question Time.

On the subject of trade after Brexit, emphasis mine: “Trade will continue because the British people want to carry on buying German cars, and the Germans want to carry on using UK financial services, and that’s done by individuals not by states.”

On the subject of foreign aid, on Question Time, to applause:

Sponsoring the Ethiopian Spice Girls and the various other things where money has gone are not money well spent. And I think that should be done by, ladies and gentlemen, your private charity. All of you, I expect, give to charity and you can choose. It’s not for politicians to take your money in general taxation and give it to charitable causes.

He then goes on to point out that the best way to help developing nations is to trade with them, and that the EU is an impediment to that.

I have also seen him on more than one occasion make the point that there is a limit to how much money can be raised by taxation and that we are near to it.

Here he is in parliament talking in terms of limits to the role of the state, which is not a discussion that happens very prominently in the UK: “I don’t think it’s the job of the government to tell me how much sugar to give to my children. […] The tax system is not there to tell us how to live our lives.”

I know he very much annoys people on the left, and it helps that he is an engaging and entertaining speaker who I think has an ability to talk to ordinary people without pretence or condescension, something the Guardianista class fails at.

Update: I wrote this before I knew #MoggMentum was a hashtag, I swear! Delingpole makes one of the points I was trying to make, perhaps with better words: “Judging by their applause and cheers they were elated that, perhaps for the first time in Question Time’s recent history, a politician on the panel was prepared to talk to them straight, credit them with a degree of intelligence, and forebear from the usual virtue-signalling platitudes.”

Bike rental chaos

Competition between companies is all well and good, but it is important that you seek Permission from the Relevant Authorities before doing anything at all. Anything else would just not be Sustainable. It would be Chaos. Neoliberalism Gone Mad!

For example, if there is more than one company renting out bikes, pretty soon careless customers of the new upstart Chinese Infiltrating Globalist Menace company will be Dumping bikes all over the place and interfering with the nice customers of the Official company with the Council Contract who are carefully placing their bikes next to the State Approved Bike Racks.

This is the sort of Irresponsible Behaviour that can tarnish the carefully cultivated reputation of Right Thinking bicycle renters and confuse Consumers who might not understand that there are two different companies renting out bicycles with bewilderingly different tarrifs and branding. And it is simply Reckless and Greedy business practice to enter a market without consulting Stakeholders about the Need for two competing businesses.

I approve of competition but not Unfettered, Unregulated, Inefficient competition of the sort that can leave a Bad Taste and clutter up the town. It is just not civilised and Something Must Be Done.

Health, safety and growth

John Noakes, who died today, was a children’s television presenter who would do things like climb Nelson’s Column without a safety harness. I have seen comments about health and safety rules preventing such acts of bravery today. Indeed, another presenter on the same programme had the advantage of scaffolding many years later. But in this case it is not that health and safety rules have gone mad, it is that working conditions have improved because it has become cheaper to improve them. Presumably modern scaffolding is cheaper to erect due to advances in materials and techniques. In other words, due to economic growth. Even television steeplejack Fred Dibnah himself pointed out, “to circumnavigate the wall of that chimney, which might be sixty-odd feet circumference, with scaffolding is going to cost a heck of a lot of money. That’s why steeplejacks can still earn a crust of bread.”

As admirable as Fred’s craft was, it is a sign of progress if people can no longer earn a crust of bread doing it because scaffolding costs a heck of a lot less.

My late night pondering aside, there are some good videos of people at height behind those links. I particularly recommend watching as much Fred Dibnah as possible.

Universal right to be overseen by the state

Guy Herbert brought my attention to a question in a survey being run by the Biometrics Institute, “a global, independent membership organisation for biometrics users, researchers, and suppliers”.

The question begins with, “below are a number of views that have been expressed at various Biometrics Institute meetings” and respondents are asked to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with a variety of statements, including:

The allocation of a formal, biometrically-based identity by the State should be a universal human right for every child

I think that is what they call a “positive right”.

This sort of backwards thinking is quite common. The Guardian reports on the bureaucratic horror show in India that makes it hard for poor people to do certain things (like book train tickets). Rather than tackle the bureaucracy, UNICEF talks about “what remains to be done” to “achieve universal registration”.

The right to have all your interactions with others overseen by the state is not much to celebrate.

A muddle of psychiatrists

Here is a fun little article in The Independent about psychiatrists who think Donald Trump is mentally ill, and it is their professional duty to warn people. They are saying this sort of thing:

I’ve worked with murderers and rapists. I can recognise dangerousness from a mile away. You don’t have to be an expert on dangerousness or spend fifty years studying it like I have in order to know how dangerous this man is.

This sounds like complete nonsense, but it turns out that “clinical evaluation for predictions of future dangerousness, have become integral to the function of the legal system” — so it is qualified nonsense.

I don’t know about psychiatry; one commenter dismisses it as junk science. Most of the other commenters think it is a bit silly to attempt to diagnose a politician from viewing public appearances.

I think experts, especially when direct measurement of the phenomena is impossible, have a tendency to mistake shared opinions for objectivity. Politics amplifies that effect. See also climate science.

Optimistic thoughts about self-driving cars

Self driving cars are coming and they are good.

Safety is an obvious benefit. Some people I have talked to about this talk about overcoming fear to get into a self-driving car. But over a million people per year are killed on the road. It is clearly technically possible to make a car very safe: if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once. You can’t do that with people, who make the same mistakes over and over again. Furthermore I don’t anticipate anyone marketing a self-driving car until it is orders of magnitude safer than a human because in the case of an accident the reputational damage to the developer would be so high. I expect self-driving car accidents to be reported in the press even more vigorously than exploding batteries in cellphones are today. And cases of exploding batteries, even in the case of the infamous Samsung Note 7, are vanishingly rare. If car accidents were anywhere near as rare as that we would already be living in a much better world. And that’s just safety.

I think self-driving cars have the capability to completely change the landscape. Charlie Stross talks about what a time traveller from thirty years ago would notice when they visited. Such a traveller might notice different fashions but the urban landscape would be very much the same. To paraphrase Charlie, the most obvious difference would be that people are walking around staring into glowing bits of glass as if they were windows onto the sum-total of human knowledge.

Thirty years from now things could look very different indeed.

No-one will own their own cars any more — at least not as a matter of course. When the only advantage of owning one’s own car is the ability to store one’s own junk in it, it simply won’t be worth the cost. It is already possible to do some short commutes by Uber for a few thousand pounds per year, rivalling private car ownership. A company could operate a fleet of self-driving cars on a very similar model and make big savings on scale. So for any given journey you just tap your destination and select what kind of vehicle you would like, and it would roll up to your door in a few minutes. No paperwork, no maintenance, no re-fuelling, no keeping a big car for the occasional times you need it, and no difficulty moving a large object because hiring a specialist vehicle is equally straightforward.

For that matter, cars can be far more specialised because they don’t need to look like cars any more. No-one has to sit in the driver’s seat looking out and it won’t crash so you don’t have to wear seat-belts. If you need to do some work on the way to your destination, hire an office on wheels. If you want to travel by night, hire a hotel room on wheels. Some journeys don’t need to be made by people at all: to drop off a parcel, hire a self-driving locker. Forget drone deliveries, Amazon will use self-driving delivery vehicles.

There is no longer any need for car parks or cars parked along residential streets. Our time traveller will wonder where all the cars have gone: children will be playing in the streets once more and houses will have gardens where once there were driveways.

I am not sure how busy the roads will look. Automated cars can travel close together and co-ordinate with each other so there will be no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. But as travelling is easier and cheaper people will do it more. People will live further from their place of work because journey times will be shorter and consistent. No more leaving half an hour earlier *in case* of a traffic jam. You will know exactly how long it will take every single day. If people put up with two hour commutes today, there is no reason to think they won’t in future. But that two hours will reliably get them a lot further. So it will be easier to change jobs because a given house will be in range of more jobs, and it will be easy to have offices in different locations because a given office will be in range of more houses. There will still be advantages to working close together, and people often don’t like *living* close together, so perhaps people will continue to work in cities but live in them less.

Towns and cities will look different because much of the land used for roads can be reclaimed for other uses. There is no need for giant roundabouts or other large, complicated junctions that are used today to improve traffic flow. In many cases even roads with two lanes can be converted to narrow, single lanes because bi-directional traffic can pass at specific points. We can finally get rid of the temporary Hogarth Roundabout flyover.

Cars will probably be mostly electric because they can drive off and recharge themselves. I suspect they will travel very fast on highways because there is no safety disadvantage and people will demand shorter journey times.

Today, old people can find themselves immobile. Children have to scrounge lifts. With self-driving cars, anyone can go anywhere. You can send your children to a better school in the next town instead of nearly bankrupting yourself moving into the catchment area.

There are likely to be problems along the way. My vision so far relies somewhat on all vehicles on the road being automated. I think there will be a short time during which automated vehicles will have to co-exist with human-driven ones, but the advantages will be so huge and so immediately apparent that people will switch to exclusively using automated cars faster than they adopted smartphones.

I am not sure how well things will work out for people living in remote areas. Right now I can get an Uber in three minutes. This is because of the population density where I am. People in the sticks will have to wait longer for a ride and costs will be higher. But, then again, population distribution and economics are likely to change.

Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.

There will be technical difficulties making the first car that can completely self-drive on any road. There are software, infrastructure and mapping problems to solve. If there were no human driven cars the problem would be easier, but I think there will be a few years when human and automatic cars will have to co-exist. Only a few years: but it is still a hurdle. However, there are people who are working on it and they think it is possible and they are making progress. There is no reason to think it is impossible. And the benefits are so huge and so universal that it is hard to imagine any amount of human effort into this problem that won’t quickly be paid back. We won’t be able to predict the moment of success but when it comes, change will be fast.

There may be computer security challenges, but in an intelligence race between bad guys and good guys I have some confidence that the good guys will ultimately win. Failures here will be as embarrassing as car crashes or exploding batteries to manufacturers.

The government will regulate where you can go and track your every move. This is a problem anyway: self-driving cars don’t fundamentally change it. And people always choose convenience over freedom and privacy so it is going to happen anyway.

How many man-hours are wasted sitting in control of a vehicle or being stuck in traffic? Further economic growth will come from the time and effort freed up. Self-driving cars are coming, and they are good.

Friday cat post

Here is a tweet about a cat video:

This is the best internet video I’ve ever seen

I am sure there is some sort of political message in this response to it:

Food was given to the brown cat when he rang the white cat’s bell, teaching him all the wrong lessons.