It often seems as if our opponents live in a different universe. Perhaps they do.
In my ongoing quest to read science fiction with sensible politics and economics, I thought I would give Robert Charles Wilson a try and am reading his novel Spin, which is very enjoyable so far. On his web site he has published some talks he has given, including this:
This reminded me of the famous pencil essay. He is writing about all the things that went into making a TV advert for a car:
Of course, he doesn’t mention what mechanism makes this collaboration possible, but we all know what it is.
It is hard to know where to begin. This story has everything. Facepalm-inducing levels of stupidity; obviously unworkable policies; nannying; doctors who would rather control people than patch them up; meaningless statistics; government interference in minutiae; this old chestnut:
So far these are plans “seen by The Telegraph” to introduce more control over food by, say, making biscuits smaller. In a sane world it will never happen but it is an insight into the direction that those in power would like to see things go. I have noticed how quickly what once would have seemed unbelievable can become normal: would a smoker on a plane in 1998 have believed it would be banned in pubs nine years later?
A typical reaction to global warming skepticism is to point to all the institutions that endorse global warming and argue that this would require a grand conspiracy if global warming were false.
I argue that all that is needed is for incentives to align in a certain direction. The awarding of grants, the publication of papers and the media attention all point in one direction and there is positive feedback between them.
As reported in the New York Times, Diederik Stapel literally made up results of psychological experiments that were never done. It is not necessary to go quite that far.
Journals and reviewers can play a part:
So there are incentives to take an easy path of painting a simple, neat picture because it is more persuasive and saleable.
It is not just money; the rewards are the respect and admiration of one’s peers. In my talk on open source software on Friday I mentioned that this is one of the reasons individuals give away their source code or donate their time to open source projects. It feels good to make something that others find impressive.
I am lucky enough to work in software. There, the most aesthetically pleasing solution is usually the best one. And software can not easily be faked; it becomes apparent very quickly if it does not work. I can imagine software that appears to do what it claims to do without actually doing it, such as an encryption program that leaks your secrets. Open source software has largely solved this problem. In fact, science could learn a lot from open source software.
Since the Cyprus crisis the price of Bitcoins has rapidly increased. Felix Salmon wrote one of the better articles about this. But the article has its problems.
He opens by talking about someone who lost all his Bitcoins when his computer was hacked. This is avoidable by storing funds in an off-line wallet, which is just a file containing a private key used to transmit funds. It is not much different from storing gold, except that it takes up less space, backups can be made, a thief would need to both steal your wallet and know your password, and it is possible to pay money in to an off-line wallet. You only need to expose your wallet to the Internet to pay money out of it. All this requires a certain amount of skill and knowledge but so does any method of storing value.
Salmon uses the word “anonymous” carelessly. Bitcoin is not anonymous and not intended to be. It is pseudonymous. Every transaction is visible, and it is possible for the government to find out, for example, which bank account was used to buy some Bitcoins. You can probably take steps to make this so expensive that law enforcement could not afford it. But that is a practical point, not a mathematical one, and it would be a mistake to think that anonymity is built in.
Salmon complains that Bitcoin needs too much technical expertise to use. But not everyone need use Bitcoins directly for them to serve as a store of value, any more than people need to handle physical gold themselves. That one has the option to do so if one does not trust others is nice, but trusting others for convenience is possible too. If Bitcoin were widely adopted, I would expect to see secondary currencies backed by Bitcoin to be used as cash, and the equivalent of Visa and Paypal to be implemented by someone.
Salmon points out that the value of Bitcoin is very volatile and closely tracks media coverage of it. This is because there is a fixed supply (there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins) and new people are still discovering the currency. After every media report the number of people who want Bitcoins increases. Once everyone knows about it who would want to buy it, the price should settle down as the overall demand for money is not so volatile.
Salmon’s main point is that Bitcoin is doomed to fail because as it is adopted its price will increase rapidly, which hyperdeflation will mean no-one spends it. But such a situation can not persist; as soon as the price settles spending will resume.
Although I am optimistic, there are plenty of ways it could fail. Something better might come along, or governments may attempt to put a stop to it and may succeed enough to make it fail.
Or in twenty years’ time you could find yourself having bought one 21-millionth of the global money supply for a very good price.
It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:
He has also written favourably about fracking.
The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.
The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.
Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:
Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:
My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.
The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:
It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.
A court in Iceland has ruled that a 15-year-old girl can officially use her name. It seems that in Iceland there is a Naming Committee, and they can reject names that are not grammatically correct, or are “too masculine”.
There is a lot wrong with this. But I am most confused about one thing.
Why does anyone care about the opinions of officials? None of my friends has ever asked to see my identity papers.
I have been on the fence about intellectual property for a long time. The suicide of Aaron Swartz set me thinking about it again.
The non-aggression principle allows the use of violence in defence of property. This is because if I spend an hour of my life mixing my labour with the land to make a widget, and then someone steals my widget, they have stolen an hour of my life. Some might say that if I spend an hour of my life on some intellectual pursuit then it is possible for someone to steal that hour of my life by stealing my ideas. Violence is then justified in response. But is that really what is going on?
Imagine I spend time writing a novel, print it on paper, then hand over the printed paper to Bob in exchange for money. Bob copies my novel out onto another piece of paper and sells it to Charlie. Clearly no theft has occurred; the state of my possessions is unchanged. If I devote a significant portion of my life to writing a novel because I hope to make a profit, and Bob makes so many copies that I am unable to, still no theft has occurred. I still have the original copy of the novel I wrote. What I have done is mix my labour with paper and ink to make some paper with a novel written on it. That it takes intellectual effort to make a novel that people want to read rather than paper scrawled with gibberish does not make Bob’s actions into theft.
Perhaps I can come to some agreement with Bob. I sell him my novel if he agrees not to make copies of it or let anyone else see it. If he does, I can attempt to punish him in some way appropriate to breaches of contract. When Bob shows my novel to Charlie and Charlie makes a copy of it, I can punish Bob. But I have made no agreement with Charlie, who can make copies with impunity.
If it is difficult to make copies of novels and only a few people can do it, I might be able to make a business selling paper copies because no-one who is able to will want to break agreements with me. But once someone invents a device that allows anyone to easily make copies, my profits will be affected. But still no theft has occurred. I can not resort to violence.
If I am clever I might invent some way to encrypt my novel and make sure it can only be viewed on devices registered to specific individuals all of whom have made agreements with me. But if David, who has made no agreement with me, examines the device, finds a flaw in it, and starts to make copies of my novel, still no theft has occurred. David is using his ingenuity to modify objects he already possesses.
Aaron Swartz copied scientific papers onto his computer. He did this by getting his computer to ask JSTOR’s computer to transmit them, and JSTOR’s computer did so. For this he faced 35 years in jail.
My son always wants to watch motorbikes on the telly. While watching an old episode of motorcycle adventurer Charley Boorman traveling through India by various means, I took note of Charley’s description of the ambulance service in Mumbai. He said that until recently there were no ambulances, so a group of entrepreneurs set up a service.
One of their investors is Accumen Fund, who say: “We use philanthropic capital to make disciplined investments – loans or equity, not grants – that yield both financial and social returns.”
All good, voluntary stuff. Socialists hate it.
I can not imagine anything that would give me more pleasure than to buy you a beer in a thousand years’ time.
- Michael Jennings, possibly exaggerating somewhat given the pleasure that might be imagined available over the next 1000 years.
Which is all very good except that, as Tim Worstall is forever pointing out, jobs are a cost. I can see why Boris, a politician, would see votes in talking up the thousands of jobs, but I hope he understands this. When he chooses between scheme A and scheme B, I would hope he does not pick the most expensive, more labour intensive one.
And it is unadulterated good news. The greens’ opposition to fracking may be working now, but the political will will be there the moment the first blackouts hit. So I do not imagine things will get much worse than that, and then there is enough energy for a few more technological revolutions.
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