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]

Wear it wild

Here is the current draft of a letter I am considering sending to the head teacher of my son’s school.

I am writing to share some thoughts about the upcoming Wear It Wild day and similar events. There is a good chance that none of this is news to you, but I want to make sure because I do not think that communication to schools from the Worldwide Fund for Nature conveys the whole truth about that organisation.

I am sure that on “Wear it Wild” day the children will have lots of fun at school and learn a lot.

However, while helping animals in need is uncontroversial, the Worldwide Fund for Nature is a political organisation and its ideas and methods are not.

The WWF espouses a particular worldview, philosophy, moral outlook and political agenda. The organisation lobbies governments. As a small example, before the UK general election they published a report entitled “Greening the machinery of government: mainstreaming environmental objectives”, which is currently available from their website under “About WWF” / “News” / “Make the government machine go green“.

This report reads like a party political manifesto. It contains recommendations about the role of the state, the structuring of the economy, the allocation of resources, the redistribution of wealth and the regulation of industry.

All this means that it is reasonable for people to disagree with the objectives and teachings of the WWF.

Wear It Wild is a very clever piece of public relations. Children are encouraged to dress up in return for what a recent text message from the school describes as a “suggested donation”. Since no child wants to be left out, this strategy relies on peer pressure, leaving no real room to opt out.

While I am not suggesting that the school should not participate in such events, I do have some ideas about how they might be treated:

  • I hope that the school treats organisations such as the WWF with due criticism and skepticism, in the same way that, while visits to and from industry are educational, National Coca Cola Day would be treated with criticism and skepticism.
  • I hope that ideas and information from the WWF are filtered before they reach the children by teachers who are aware of the nature of their origin.
  • I hope that primary-school-aged children are not made to worry unduly about how terrible the world is because it is full of evil people who are deliberately destroying nature. I am not intending to exaggerate but rather am predicting how my five-year-old son is likely to interpret simplified explanations of some of the WWF’s communication. For example, without due care, what the WWF calls “habitat destruction” and might be described by others as farmers trying to earn a living and to feed their neighbours, could be described by my son as “baddies hurting tigers”.
  • In future communications to parents about similar events, please stress that donations are voluntary and that participation is not dependent upon them.

Please take my ideas and concerns into consideration in this and future dealings with outside organisations.

Enid Blyton

I recently returned from a family holiday in a rented cottage. A nice thing about staying in such places is poking around in the bookshelves, and having time to read random books. I ended up reading aloud to my son Five On a Secret Trail by Enid Blyton, partly for the nostalgia.

The Internet didn’t exist when I first read Enid Blyton, so I know little about her but vague memories of adventure stories. Obviously I ended up looking her up on Wikipedia, and boy, is that page a hoot.

Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books

This sounds like fun, and it is.

Many of her books were critically assessed by teachers and librarians, deemed unfit for children to read, and removed from syllabuses and public libraries.


From the 1930s to the 1950s the BBC operated a de facto ban on dramatising Blyton’s books for radio, considering her to be a “second-rater” whose work was without literary merit.

By now I am very much starting to like Enid Blyton. Literary critics and the BBC hate her: this is strong praise in my book.

Michael Rosen, Children’s Laureate from 2007 until 2009, wrote that “I find myself flinching at occasional bursts of snobbery and the assumed level of privilege of the children and families in the books.” The children’s author Anne Fine presented an overview of the concerns about Blyton’s work and responses to them on BBC Radio 4 in November 2008, in which she noted the “drip, drip, drip of disapproval” associated with the books.

Fred Inglis considers Blyton’s books to be technically easy to read, but to also be “emotionally and cognitively easy”. He mentions that the psychologist Michael Woods believed that Blyton was different from many other older authors writing for children in that she seemed untroubled by presenting them with a world that differed from reality. Woods surmised that Blyton “was a child, she thought as a child, and wrote as a child … the basic feeling is essentially pre-adolescent … Enid Blyton has no moral dilemmas … Inevitably Enid Blyton was labelled by rumour a child-hater. If true, such a fact should come as no surprise to us, for as a child herself all other children can be nothing but rivals for her.”[134] Inglis argues though that Blyton was clearly devoted to children and put an enormous amount of energy into her work, with a powerful belief in “representing the crude moral diagrams and garish fantasies of a readership”.

In other words, Blyton writes about children having adventures with goodies and baddies and it’s all jolly good fun, and the protagonists are middle class to boot. Literary critics hate that, and I rather like it. I also like the portrayal of children as independent and capable. In Secret Trail, George goes off camping on her own and her parents are unconcerned. The children suspect they are onto some criminals and they investigate instead of running for help. Someone complains of a broken ankle and Julian does not call an ambulance, he diagnoses it as just a sprain. Jolly good stuff.

Eric Raymond writes of literary criticism being at odds with good science fiction:

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

We do not want character development and moral dilemmas, we want adventure and sense of wonder. I can always spot a good SF read when the Amazon reviews are all complaining about two dimensional characters. Enid Blyton’s critics are unwittingly recommending her in the same way. My son wants to hear about camping in thunderstorms, hidden caves and mysterious ruined cottages.

There are also complaints of sexism and all the other isms. On the subject of the former in fiction, John C Wright (whose Golden Oecumene trilogy I reviewed, and, as I discovered Googling for that link, Brian Micklethwait received email about back in 2004) has interesting things to say.

STFU with your “vote or STFU”

I find myself being exhorted, by various Facebook friends who think they are being clever, to “vote or STFU“. Apparently, the right to vote is rare and precious, should not be wasted, and if I do not vote I lose the right to complain about the government.


This is all nonsense.

Firstly, nobody loses the right to complain about violence being initiated against them by anyone for any reason. Voting has nothing to do with it.

It is possible to dislike the policies of all candidates. In that case I am told I should vote for the least worst candidate. But this is not necessarily a good strategy. The least worst candidate might be evil, and win, and everyone will think they have a democratic mandate to do evil things. Low voter turnout could be a good thing, making governments nervous and full of self doubt.

My only alternative to voting, I am told, if I am so clever and don’t like any of the policies on offer, is to stand for election myself and find out how popular my own unique set of policies is. There are various problems with this. I am not a talented politician. Even if my policies were very popular, I would lose because of this. I have limited resources and wasting them on something I know I will fail at is pointless. I should spend my energies elsewhere doing something productive. And my policies are not popular. They are the correct policies, but the electorate still thinks that voting for other people’s money is in their best interests. Perhaps one day they will learn, and I hope to help them: there are more ways to be politically active than voting or standing in an election, such as spreading ideas or developing political strategy.

Finally, my vote is in any case statistically insignificant. Even if I didn’t live in a “safe seat”, the margin is unlikely to be 1. Even this blog post is more influential than my vote.

Sense on the BBC

After a televised pre-election debate between UK opposition party leaders, I watched a political magazine programme called This Week on BBC One. I was pleased to hear former Conservative minister Michael Portillo repeat and reinforce to BBC viewers what might have been the only sense to come from the debate:

The other thing that struck me about the debate was the unreality of it all. The first question was from a young person who said, “you’re passing this enormous burden of debt to the next generation”, and Nigel Farage, in his own way, addressed that question. The others just kind of ignored it and started promising how much more money they were going to spend.

And this idea that we’re living under austerity — it was Nigel Farage, actually, who made the point — that the national debt has doubled during this government. Each year the government spends on us £90 billion more than it raises from us and the rest is passed to the next generations to pay back.

And I think the reason Nigel Farage reacted in the way that he did to the audience, whether he was wise to do so or not, was that every time somebody talked about spending more money there were great cheers, and every time someone tried to talk about reality there was stony silence.

Yes, people seem very keen to vote themselves other people’s money.

The Executive Order

Libertarians on Reddit are calling out an executive order from Obama that appears to allow the federal government to seize property from anyone who donates money to anyone that the federal government does not like. The New York Times makes it sound far more reasonable and mundane.

How bad is it?

The NHS and the single thank-you

I was ill recently. In the end it was “just a virus” but I had symptoms enough one Saturday that I braved the local NHS walk-in centre. This is where you end up if you have the bad manners to get ill on a weekend.

It was functional, in its way. I was told there would be an hour-and-a-half wait and that is what it was. There are no doctors, only nurses, but they are skilled enough to determine whether you are likely to survive until Monday, or so I imagine. But the economics of this kind of place are such that every body through the door is nothing but a drain on resources, and no-one is making any effort to conceal this fact.

Truly it is a miserable place to be. I do not expect a medical waiting room to be jolly, but I saw not the merest hint of a smile from any staff, and the receptionist was very grumpy about my address being out of date on her computer. There is no welcome; no sympathy; no bedside manner.

If you want to find a deep root cause of problems with the NHS, I submit the inevitable hatred of the staff for the burdensome customers.

Here is another piece of evidence: when I said “thank-you” to the nurse, she replied, “you’re welcome.”

Samizdata wat of the day

From the end of a BBC news article:

More than 500 Britons are believed to have travelled to join IS.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said the UK government’s position was “probably going to lead to accusations of double standards”.

He said if Britons went to Syria and were suspected of trying to join IS they would get their “collar felt at Heathrow” – but there “seems to be a silence about people going to fight on the other side”.


Mumbai slums better than expected

In episode two of Our Guy In India, truck mechanic and Isle of Man TT racer Guy Martin visits the biggest slum in Mumbai, Dharavi. He is surprised to find how nice it is.

Most of what we see of Dharavi in the programme appears well looked-after: clean and tidy and with lots of decoration. There is also a lot of commerce. The people are well dressed; the children well fed. There are refrigerators and large televisions. The walls and floors are decorated with “right fancy tiling”. Some residents are more middle-class than might be expected: Guy meets a man who works as a backing dancer, choreographer and dance teacher.

The narrator explains that Dharavi generates £300 million in trade per year, though I am not sure how this is measured. He goes on to say that 85% of residents have a job; that anyone can set up a business; only 3% of Indians pay income tax; and many slum businesses are (unsurprisingly) unregistered.

We see one business that grinds spices, another making tread plates for stairs, another selling phone calls (though mobile phones are more common). Guy visits the Children’s Education Society’s Banyan Tree English School, which the sign says is a computer education center authorised to teach a course called MS-CIT. Also available here are free medical checks and treatment for children under 12.

It’s not all good. Some areas are so densely built-up that it is dark at street level in the daytime, though we see inside a house here and it is not unpleasant. And there is no running water or sanitation, though people are managing somehow. I also suspect the programme does not show the worst of it. What I do see is life getting better for poor people in India.

The programme is currently viewable online, at least in the UK, though I do not know for how much longer.

An angry voice for UKIP

Another Angry Voice seems to be a bog-standard lefty-green blog bashing out mostly boring and predictable articles about how all the political parties are too right wing and if only proper lefties could get in power we could have an even bigger state and poor people would stop being wage slaves and… yawn. What bores me most is the obsession with rich vs. poor, when the real battle is state vs. individual, so it all misses the point and does not seem worth engaging with.

But some of his UKIP-bashing is doing the rounds on Facebook. And it is making me want to vote for UKIP even more.

According to AAV, UKIP are Thatcherite ex-tories, which just makes them sound like the proper Tories that the current lot are not, which is, if not ideal, an improvement.

In another article in which AAV is confused about the meaning of “tax avoidance” and “tax evasion”, he points out that “Farage declared that ‘straightforward’ tax avoidance isn’t ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ and that most tax-dodgers are only good-hearted people trying to rip off the rest of the taxpaying public for the good of their children!” Translation: Farage understands that of course people should not voluntarily hand over more tax than they are required to pay. I like Farage even more.

We also learn that UKIP MEP members do not bother to turn up to the European Parliament (why encourage them?), that Farage did not bother to engage with the EU on fish policies (let’s just ignore them and leave the EU), that they voted against clamping down on ivory trade (it makes more sense to legalise it) and that they have not voted in favour of taxing foreigners for some imagined benefits to the UK.

Finally, we learn that the Green Party is the only other route out of the EU, but unlike UKIP, they will not give us any “neoliberal orthodoxy of privatisation, deregulation, tax cuts”.

That seals the deal, then.

Addendum: In unrelated news, my current favourite computer game has been labelled Thatcherite by an idiot. I should read these kinds of bloggers more to discover more good things that they hate.

Libertarian Solution podcast

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

This week’s podcast [Pocket Cast] featured:

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

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

Stephen Hawking on AI

Stephen Hawking mentioned the singularity to a BBC reporter.

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

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

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

Killing your own cows

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

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

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

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