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]

Samizdata quote of the day

No one worries too much today about causing pain and suffering to our computer software (although we do comment extensively on the ability of software to cause us suffering), but when future software has the intellectual, emotional, and moral intelligence of biological humans, this will become a genuine concern.

- Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. At some point a computer ceases to become property and becomes an individual.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age ; The Phoenix Exultant ; The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright.

Politics, which is the recourse to the use of force to organize interpersonal relationships, was unknown to the majority of the citizens of the Golden Oecumene.

I am always looking for science fiction that is not lessened by the author’s flawed worldview. In the Golden Age trilogy I found that and then some.

There are three volumes but this is one long novel. I found it to be money and time well spent.

This is a far future tale set in what is almost a post-scarcity economy: humans have immortality thanks to mind recording; vast energy and computational resources; can tailor their sensory experiences however they wish; and can choose between living in their own invented universes, the real world, or anything in between. But the laws of economics still apply: the author realises that there is still scarcity of human effort and attention. Phaethon, the protagonist, is attempting to achieve “deeds of renown, without peer”, and it is a struggle. Says the author in an interview he gave:

There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes).

There is artificial intelligence, the most advanced of which are self-aware computers called Sophotechs who have intelligence vastly superior to humans, and it is possible to argue that the existence of these would make humans redundant. However, from the novel:

“It is true that the Sophotechs can perform any of these operations more swiftly and more efficiently than can we. But it is also true that they cannot do everything at once, at every place at once, as cheaply as everyone wishes. There is always someone somewhere who wants some further things done, some further work accomplished. There is always someone willing to pay much less for work moderately less well done.”

The setting is the Golden Oecumene, a solar-system spanning civilisation. In the interview the author describes the depicted society as a libertarian utopia with no public property. This state of affairs has persisted for so long that characters find violence unthinkable. If there were to be violence it would be dealt with swiftly by robotic constables. There is a parliament which does very little, and a rarely used court system. Most contractual disputes are worked out by Sophotech arbitrators. Finally, there is the College of Hortators. → Continue reading: The Golden Age

Town planning and views

My starting position is that anyone should be able to do anything he wants on land he owns, as long as it does not initiate violence against someone else.

From Brian’s post about a bridge, to a site called Dezeen, to an interview with the architect of a building in London called the Cheesegrater. One side of the building is slanted, which must reduce the total floor space, but why?

The main constraint on Leadenhall was the view to St Paul’s [Cathedral]. London is unique in being partly controlled by views; you have to leave certain views open to St Paul’s and we were on one of those views. So we made use of this and we cut it back at an angle and that gave us that prominent section and profile, [which can be seen] from all over London.

So London imposes planning rules that control views. This makes me wonder: can I own a view? In some sense if I am using the view I have homesteaded it. If my neighbour spoils my view by building something in front of it, he has made me less wealthy. Would I be right to sue him? Can we abolish planning without spoiling anyone’s views?

Mark Shuttleworth on open source and privacy

I recently blogged about how open source software is one of the answers to government using technology against us. Mark Shuttleworth, space tourist, venture capitalist and founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, was answering questions yesterday about a new smartphone he is working on.

We’re entering a really interesting phase where in a sense our very own tools spy on us.

We will certainly have an easier time providing transparency on the origin of the code in the platform than, say, your average android device, where it’s all a big hacky mush. The core OS which will be updated regularly on the Ubuntu phones is all traceable directly back to standard Ubuntu source and binary packages.

There will be a core piece on each phone which handles the hardware, consisting of kernel and drivers and firmware and interfaces to things like the radio. That’s where unhealthy things could creep in from manufacturers and carriers. We can offer… constructive guidance there.

I am not sure the comparison to Android is entirely fair, though some phones are more open than others. What can be done about remaining blobs of closed source code on phones? The resistance to opening this code comes from device and chip manufacturers as well as mobile network operators.

There may be blobs in the first generation device. The way to a blob-free future is to show demand from folks who care about that, not to be ideological about it.

Incidentally, the same discussion also contained this nice piece of evidence of open source software creating wealth:

Thanks for empowering millions of people from developing countries like India (I’m from India) to have an alternative to Pirated Windows XP. We can’t afford OS like Windows and the simplistic nature of ubuntu (native graphic and audio support with indic language support) really helps many people in the villages to learn computers.

Hayek on economics prize

Appropriately enough, in a discussion about (Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman, someone mentioned a speech by (Nobel laureate) Hayek that he gave after winning the prize:

I do not yet feel equally reassured concerning my second cause of apprehension. It is that the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess. This does not matter in the natural sciences. Here the influence exercised by an individual is chiefly an influence on his fellow experts; and they will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence. But the influence of the economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.

There is no reason why a man who has made a distinctive contribution to economic science should be omni-competent on all problems of society – as the press tends to treat him till in the end he may himself be persuaded to believe. One is even made to feel it a public duty to pronounce on problems to which one may not have devoted special attention.

I am not sure that it is desirable to strengthen the influence of a few individual economists by such a ceremonial and eye-catching recognition of achievements, perhaps of the distant past. I am therefore almost inclined to suggest that you require from your laureates an oath of humility, a sort of hippocratic oath, never to exceed in public pronouncements the limits of their competence.

Or you ought at least, on conferring the prize, remind the recipient of the sage counsel of one of the great men in our subject, Alfred Marshall, who wrote:

“Students of social science, must fear popular approval: Evil is with them when all men speak well of them”.

This works for all kinds of lauded experts, not just in economics but in climate science, nutrition, psychology and education, for example.

Economic Development Administration breaks some windows

An agency of the US Federal Government, the Economic Development Administration, has as its stated aim:

To lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting innovation and competitiveness, preparing American regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy.

They also want to make, “Investments that promote job creation and economic prosperity through projects that enhance environmental quality and develop and implement green products, processes, places, and buildings as part of the green economy.”

After discovering malware on some computers, they started destroying all their IT equipment:

EDA’s CIO concluded that the risk, or potential risk, of extremely persistent malware and nation-state activity (which did not exist) was great enough to necessitate the physical destruction of all of EDA’s IT components. EDA’s management agreed with this risk assessment and EDA initially destroyed more than $170,000 worth of its IT components, including desktops, printers, TVs, cameras, computer mice, and keyboards. By August 1, 2012, EDA had exhausted funds for this effort and therefore halted the destruction of its remaining IT components, valued at over $3 million. EDA intended to resume this activity once funds were available. However, the destruction of IT components was clearly unnecessary because only common malware was present on EDA’s IT systems.

The cost of the entire episode, including hiring contractors and obtaining temporary replacement equipment was $2,747,000.

This figure will be added onto the USA’s GDP, of course. But we all know that this is not really an exception to the rule that government agencies do the exact opposite of their stated intentions.

See also coverage of this story at Forbes and The Register.

By the way, does it even make sense to attempt to promote both job creation and economic prosperity in the same breath?

Thorium

When we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other people, we started to learn how to become a civilised people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of a carbon-hydrogen bond. What does that mean for human civilisation? Because we’re not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out.

So says Kirk Sorensen in a 5-minute YouTube video summarising the benefits. See also his company Flibe Energy and the Energy From Thorium Foundation. Between this and fracking there really is no need to worry about energy. That whole debate is simply between those who are for and those who are against civilisation.

The problem with Doctor Who

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.

Private space telescope

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.

Open source software vs. the NSA

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.

Eat Less Meat

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.

Roadside Pub

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.

Say Wetherspoons:

“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.