I enjoy watching the BBC’s new Doctor Who episodes. They are fun and light and occasionally even have good science fiction ideas. But there is a problem I have always struggled with, and I stumbled on this beautiful description of it:
Now, one might think that a 900 year old time travelling alien who has fought and survived genocidal interstellar wars would have a slightly more mature perspective on socio-economic conditions in late 19th century Britain than would a bien pensant upper-middle-class Islington leftie BBC employee living in the early 21st century. But one would be wrong.
I imagine similar criticism might be made of almost any TV series.
From commenter Steve 2 via another comment about LETELU via David Thompson via Brian.
ARKYD is a crowd-funded space telescope. You can pay to take pictures with it. The funding goal is met but there are seven days remaining to pledge $200 in return for the right to take a sensible space telescope photo of your chosen space object. The satellite also has a screen on its side. For $25 you can have a picture of the satellite displaying a picture of your choice with the Earth in the background. What frivolous capitalist fun!
Edit: the company making this telescope want to do asteroid mining. They have been answering questions about this on Reddit.
From a security point of view, the trouble with cloud-based applications and closed source software in general is that you can never tell whether there are flaws that will leak your information or even back doors put there deliberately to allow third parties to get at it.
Open source software gives you many advantages.
You can understand exactly what the software will do when run. Strictly speaking you can understand what any software does, but source code written in a high level language serves the purpose of both telling the computer what to do and telling humans what the program is intended to do. This is because classes, functions and variables in the program are given English names. Programmers may even write comments in the source code to annotate it. The names and comments may be misleading but this becomes apparent when you look at what code does as a whole. If you can not personally understand the program, you can be reasonably sure others do. One thing that gives me confidence is that previous flaws have been found and fixed.
You can be sure you are running the same software you have gone to the trouble of understanding because you can compile it yourself. You can compile the user applications, libraries, operating system kernel, drivers and even the compiler yourself if you want. More usually you will entrust most of this work to others such as Linux distributions. Programs downloaded from such sources are cryptographically signed. Becuase the source code is available anyone can check that the source code produces the same program that is provided pre-compiled.
So there is little likelihood of a back door in open source software. Linus’s Law states that many eyes make bugs shallow. This means that bugs in open source software, especially the most important and most widely used open source software, get fixed quickly. In The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond described how the Linux style of development leads to superior code quality. All this means there is less likelihood of accidental leakage of your secret information.
Should they decide they do not like us encrypting our files or obscuring our online activity, it would be very hard for authorites to take open source software away. The nearest they have got is the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act which was intended to protect music companies who wanted to put DRM into music by making trusted computing compulsory. The idea was that computers would be required to have a special chip that would only let them run programs that would be cryptographically signed by some authority. You would not be able to run your own programs.
The bill got nowhere and such laws are unlikely to because open source software is so ubiquitous. It runs the Internet. Samizdata runs on a computer running the Linux kernel using GNU libraries and uses an open source web server, database and blogging software written in languages compiled by open source compilers and interpreted by open source interpreters. So do everyone else’s web sites. Most of the electronic gadgets in the world that have any software at all have open source software in them, including phones and TVs. None of this is going away.
As much as Google and Microsoft have brands to protect, if the government makes laws big companies have to follow them. Governments have no such hold over open source programmers who are geographically, organisationally and ideologically dispersed.
The people who write GNU Privacy Guard or OpenSSL are not going to put a back door in their software. If they did it would be spotted and someone could simply fork the project.
It is possible that certain algorithms have mathematical back doors and that the NSA has hired all the people clever enough to find them. It is possible that the NSA tried this with a cryptographic random number generator and were caught out. We can be somewhat confident that the NSA can not break AES encryption. There are other encryption algorithms available.
Nothing is certain, but open source software gives us some control over our computers and some defense against governments that closed corporate software never can.
The British government wants to “eradicate undernutrition globally”. It has a department for it. This can not be good. There is also a committee of MPs who have released a report.
There is an argument in the report that since the population is expected, by Benny Dembitzer as far as I can tell, to increase to 9.3 billion people by 2050, and since consumption of meat is increasing, that there is going to be a general food shortage. Meat is singled out for being an inefficient use of resources. From the report:
Simply urging the Western world to stop consuming meat is neither feasible nor desirable. Moreover, nor is it necessary: meat production based on pasture-fed systems (e.g. pasture-fed cattle), as opposed to the mass production of grain-fed livestock, is markedly less problematic.(69) The Food Ethics Council therefore suggests a ‘less but better’ approach, with meat promoted as a occasional product rather than an everyday staple.(70)
Note that the Food Ethics Council is funded mostly by the Joseph Rowntree and Esmee Fairbairn charitable trusts. Even private organisations can be wrong.
So why is pasture livestock “less problematic” than grain-fed? Note 69 points to question 62, part of a series of testimonials which seem to make up most of the evidence used to make the report. I’ll highlight the most fun bits.
Q62 Fiona O’Donnell [committee member]: Finally, as carnivores, can we keep consuming meat in the way that we are? It is probably a rhetorical question.
Tim Lang [Professor of Food Policy, City University, London]: Is the “we” here? Do you mean us?
Fiona O’Donnell: Yes.
Tim Lang: The rich world, no. Let me be very hard, and I will speak now as a public health man. The case or reducing meat consumption in the West from our astronomic levels is overwhelming; it is a public health gain if you reduce it. The report that I led and that Oxford University and others fed into, on food security and sustainability and on sustainable diets, showed that there is a win-win for the environment and for public health if you reduce our meat consumption. It is not meat qua meat; it is processed meat. The evidence there is getting stronger and stronger.
Camilla Toulmin [Director, International Institute for Environment and Development]: It is also intensive livestock production.
Tim Lang: Exactly. You will get agreement from us. In our world, the three of us and the previous panel, we are worried about this assumption that 50% of grain or 40% of grain to the world must be diverted down the throats of animals to then give us meat. There are cases when that can be useful, depending on the climate. To factor in a meat engine, which is like a juggernaut driving our definition of what a good food system is, is crazy. It is a crazy use of resources, it is crazy economics and it is crazy public health.
Andrew Dorward [Professor of Development Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies]: Can I just add two things to that? Firstly, I would broaden it to livestock production. For example, butter is not very good for us either and eating too much cheese makes for the same sorts of problems. In terms of livestock production, it is basically the consumption of grains in intensive systems that is bad. Where you have more extensive systems, where you have pastoral systems and where you have more extensive upland systems in the UK, it is a different argument. For the intensive grain systems, the health and the environment, the food security and the water demand arguments are really overwhelming.
It is mostly incoherent ranting. Are they arguing for less intensive farming of animals to solve the problem of too much meat consumption, or something else? I’ll see how far I can get by assuming that this is about using resources in the most efficient way.
It seems to me that if people are hungry they will start to bid up the price of grain and stop buying meat anyway and that the problem will solve itself. I am not sure why pasture livestock is preferable. I suspect it is even less efficient than grain livestock, assuming all land is equal. It may be that grain for humans is always more efficient than grain for animals, however since there is land that is not suitable for grain that might as well, in that case, be used for livestock. There is also a hint here that grain production needs more water. But all this is a non-problem in a free market. In a free market the land is always used in the most efficient way and whatever shortages of grain or water come about will move the prices and hence the demand automatically.
This seems to be a big problem with the concept of “sustainability”. If you think that current levels of meat production are unsustainable, then if you are right they will not be sustained. If you are right, it doesn’t matter what anyone does. Coming up with innovative policies to reduce the consumption of meat seems to be a bit pointless unless what you really want is to reduce the consumption of meat even if you are wrong about its sustainability, or you are concerned about being blamed by the voters for its un-sustainability. I rather think that it is sustainable and we will end up eating less meat anyway to please these sustainability “experts”.
If some fundamental resource shortage does increase the price of food, an interesting question is at what point does food become so expensive that it takes more than one person’s labour to produce enough food for one person? I expect with 9 billion people (some of them rather more clever than the assembled committee members and witnesses at making food production more efficient) we are still a way off mass malnutrition caused by resource shortages. At some point hydroponics and 3D farming become cost effective.
Still, the rest of the conversation is a fascinating insight into the minds of the elite:
Q63 Fiona O’Donnell: Do you think the market price will choke off demand for meat? There is only so much horse meat you can put into a burger.
Tim Lang: You are back to a mass psychological problem. Meat has, historically, been associated with progress and feast days. The problem is that feast days are every day. Wearing different hats, let us just move to horse-burger land. Look at what is exposed there. You have got a culture that is now centred around plentiful meat and meat as the centre of the plate. These are deeply rooted—in different ways in different countries—cultural goals.
Camilla Toulmin: You are right that meat is too cheap. Meat production does not, in fact, cover the full costs of production. Until it does that, we are going to see too much of it around.
Q64 Fiona O’Donnell: We would almost be heading towards a vegan diet then for a lot of people, especially poorer people, in order to be healthier. Are we doing enough work to look at how we then should have a nutritious balance and how we produce it?
Tim Lang: The short answer is: no. I referred very early on to this issue of sustainable diets. There is a bubbling debate. I could spend my whole week, like Camilla, in the air going to meetings—they are cropping up everywhere. Last week I was in a one-day meeting, though I was only there for half a day, where experts from all over the country were brought in. I will quote, without naming, a leading nutritionist, who said, “Look, veganism can deliver a sustainable diet and can deliver a healthier diet, but the issue is culture and choice.” Without a shadow of a doubt, the ubiquity and cheapness of meat and meat products, as a goal for progress for Western agriculture, let alone developing world agriculture, is one we have to seriously question now for reasons of climate change, emissions, ecosystems and local reasons. Many of us in this debate referred to the Steinfeld et al./FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report. This month, the new version of that report is going to come out, so I strongly recommend the committee has a look at that. I am not allowed to say what is in it.
Do these people listen to themselves? Meat is cheap and ubiquitous therefore we need to eat less of it. Climate change!
Andrew Dorward: This is something we all personally need to take very seriously, because it starts with us, not with telling policymakers what to do.
Fiona O’Donnell: I will take that away, if nothing else, from today.
Camilla Toulmin: In 20 years’ time we will look back at it in the same way as we now look back at smoking as it was 20 years ago.
Do not underestimate the power of these people. They may seem like idiots and professors talking nonsense among themselves but look what they have done with smoking. In 1999 I had to change seats on an aeroplane because there was too much smoke. Now people are cast out of society for lighting up at the far end of the empty railway platform. And it started like this.
Lots of conversations like that, then the report, now the news articles. Say the headlines: “Families should only eat meat as an occasional treat because the surge in global demand is unsustainable, according to a committee of MPs.” They are making the idea seem normal.
The committee also urged the Government to redouble its efforts to slash the amount of discarded produce – estimated to be around 30% globally… The committee wants ministers to set producers and retailers targets for food waste reduction, with sanctions imposed when they are not met.
The thing about food waste is that there is no such thing. There is a rational economic decision to choose excess food production to optimise for something else instead. In my house I sometimes buy or cook more food than I need because the computing resources needed to calculate exactly the correct amount are more expensive than the food that is thrown away. Everyone else is making similar choices. If the government invents innovative new policies to reduce “waste” X they necessarily make Y more expensive and thereby allocate resources less efficiently than before.
If existing policies are found to cause market distortions that cause food to be thrown away that would not be absent the policy, then these should of course be abandoned. But this should be applied generally to all policies that distort markets.
And it called on the UK to look at whether nations should stockpile food to protect themselves from price spikes.
Don’t we have market solutions to this already? Speculators?
They also warned that some biofuels are driving up prices and making them more volatile and, in some cases, could be even more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.
Good thinking. Don’t stop there. Let me help you along. What do biofuel targets have in common with food waste targets and meat production targets?
The above is a lesson in how the ideas of certain classes of people – academics; politicians; journalists; social scientists – become law. These are the early stages, but something is afoot.
The pub chain Wetherspoons, whose chairman Tim Martin seems to be of sound mind, is opening a pub at a motorway service station. Cue whining and moaning from assorted fake charities and do-gooders of the kind who complain about the “message” that allowing such a business to exist “sends out” and advise drivers against even one drink with lunch because, though it does not follow, people who drink to excess cause traffic accidents.
“We believe the majority of people that use the pub to drink will be people that aren’t driving – coach parties or people travelling with others.
“We won’t be asking them whether they are driving. It’s up to them.”
This is individual responsibility that alcohol lobbyists do not acknowledge.
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:
Total up the man-hours necessary to bring even a cheap conventional color TV into your home, and the result, I suggest, would be absolutely staggering. And that work in turn rests on an absolutely colossal body of prior knowledge, all of it generated piece-by-piece and preserved and transmitted over generations.
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:
So even something as inherently humble as an automobile commercial stands as striking evidence that we, as a species, have an absolute genius for collaboration. Even without conscious intent — and after all, of all the billions of people necessary to produce that ad, only a handful of them actually wanted it to exist — we can still create something in which our collective ingenuity is embedded and embodied.
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:
Ministers have suggested that if companies fail to sign up to the Responsibility Deal voluntarily the government could legislate to force them to act.
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.
Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments. The young professor who backed the two student whistle-blowers told me that tweaking results — like stopping data collection once the results confirm a hypothesis — is a common practice. “I could certainly see that if you do it in more subtle ways, it’s more difficult to detect,” Ap Dijksterhuis, one of the Netherlands’ best known psychologists, told me.
Journals and reviewers can play a part:
If Stapel was solely to blame for making stuff up, the report stated, his peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals were to blame for letting him get away with it. The committees identified several practices as “sloppy science” — misuse of statistics, ignoring of data that do not conform to a desired hypothesis and the pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be.
The adjective “sloppy” seems charitable. Several psychologists I spoke to admitted that each of these more common practices was as deliberate as any of Stapel’s wholesale fabrications. Each was a choice made by the scientist every time he or she came to a fork in the road of experimental research — one way pointing to the truth, however dull and unsatisfying, and the other beckoning the researcher toward a rosier and more notable result that could be patently false or only partly true. What may be most troubling about the research culture the committees describe in their report are the plentiful opportunities and incentives for fraud. “The cookie jar was on the table without a lid” is how Stapel put it to me once. Those who suspect a colleague of fraud may be inclined to keep mum because of the potential costs of whistle-blowing.
So there are incentives to take an easy path of painting a simple, neat picture because it is more persuasive and saleable.
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said.
What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman.
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.
H/T Watts Up With That?
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:
So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.
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:
The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.
Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:
Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.
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:
Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.
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.
“I’m very happy,” Blaer said after the ruling.
“I’m glad this is over. Now I expect I’ll have to get new identity papers. Finally, I’ll have the name Blaer in my passport.”
Why does anyone care about the opinions of officials? None of my friends has ever asked to see my identity papers.