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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars

Great confidence is being expressed about how robot cars are about to change the world. Robot cars, says a typical headline that Google (one of the prime movers in this new technology) has just today alerted me to, may be coming sooner than you think. But doubts are also being expressed:

A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can’t.

Case in point: Google’s self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can’t do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow.

Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved – or is on the verge of solving – all of the major issues involved with robotic driving.

“Essentially”. That’s a word that often means “not”. And “on the verge of” often signals a problem that turns out to be hideously intractable, as year after year passes with nobody any nearer to a definitive answer. I seem to recall an entire British high speed train project being abandoned because they just could not make the tilting of the carriages work perfectly. It worked okay, but okay wasn’t good enough. It had to be perfect, and perfection proved elusive. Here is what wikipedia says about that, for whatever wikipedia may be worth when reporting a story that remains controversial.

Even that constantly repeated refrain about how robot cars are coming “sooner than you think” is, if you think some more, an acknowledgement from robot car boosters that there are actually widespread doubts out there in the regular, non-techy world about how well these devices really will work, and how completely, above all how quickly, all the problems that they will face have really been and will really be solved. Yes, the techies will eventually get their robot cars working, probably. But for a few more years yet, there will surely be a nasty little clutch both of known unknowns and of unknown unknowns to deal with, all of which will have to be thoroughly dealt with. Crucially, such problems will all have to be solved. If robot cars get the go-ahead and work flawlessly for two months, followed by a lurid catastrophe like something out of a disaster movie, when a bunch of robot cars all follow each other into a swamp or over a cliff, or just run amuck and kill dozens or even hundreds in one catastrophe like in a plane crash, then their introduction will be judged a failure rather than given nine out of ten for technical accomplishment and an A plus for effort.

This strikes me as a lot more immediately promising:

MercedesRobotLorry
→ Continue reading: Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars

How do you say “astounding stupidity” in Hungarian?

It appears the government in Hungary wants to ensure than there is essentially no significant IT sector within their borders, with all the knock on joys to a modern economy that will bring.

Hungary’s government plans to levy a new tax on Internet data transfers, according to the draft 2015 tax bill submitted to parliament late on Tuesday, which could hit Internet providers and the country’s telecommunications companies.

The draft tax code contains a provision for Internet providers to pay 150 forints (60 US cents) in tax per gigabyte of data traffic, but would also allow companies to offset corporate income tax against the Internet tax.

To tax data is like subsidising idiocy by taxing insight. All states do amazingly stupid things but this one is a real doozy.

Samizdata quote of the day

But when we look around in Europe today, we see that not only is Europe not whole and free, we see the ghosts from the painful 20th century returning to our midst. Ghosts that we thought we’d never see again, that we had buried deep in history’s trashbin.

Today, when we look around us, we see it all again. The annexation of territory, the violation of borders, religious conservativism pairing with political authoritarianism and imperialist bravado. 80% of Russians support annexation through military aggression in Crimea, where the Anschluss – and I use that term most seriously here – the Anschluss of territory was justified by the presence of co-ethnics. Moreover, there is widespread support for an anti-liberal attack against decadent Western “permissiveness,” be it in freedom of speech or choice of life-partners. Indeed, we see that liberal democracy has not only failed to win the battle of ideas against authoritarianism, it has failed even to prevent the resurrection of that once vanquished demon, fascism. The nationalist fervor east of us is expressed in arts in a way that makes Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will look like a liberal programme – I suggest you look at the video of the so-called “biker show” staged on August 8 this year in Sevastopol. It is on You Tube. It is a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk. Everything is there – music, art, ballet, motorcycle gangs, it’s all there.

– Estonian President Toomas Hendrik

Discussion point: Belgian vs Burka

‘Drunk’ Belgium diplomat specialising in protocol is arrested for tearing full-face veil off a Qatari princess

A senior Belgium [sic] diplomat specialising in protocol [!] has been arrested for tearing off the full-face veil of a Qatari princess after she asked him for directions.

In the latest example of the difficulties involved in imposing a so-called ‘burka ban’, Jean-Marie Pire did not know the identity of the massively wealthy VIP before attacking her.

She approached him with two other women in broad daylight in central Brussels last week, asking for directions to the famous Grand Place.

The kind of full face veils favoured by some Muslim women are banned in Belgium, just as they are in neighbouring countries including France.

‘I said I don’t talk to anyone if I can’t see their face,’ said Mr Pire. ‘With this reply, I wanted to make it clear that the veil is banned in Belgium.

‘Because the person asking me a question didn’t seem to hear me, I lifted her veil. I know I shouldn’t have done that, but what she did wasn’t legal either!’

The woman, who has not been named, said she suffered cuts and bruises after her earrings were violently dislodged, along with her veil.

I assume that any woman wearing the full Islamic garb is either a slave or a fanatic, but it was the diplomat “specialising in protocol” in the tradition of Kira Yoshinaka who first used force. She just asked him for directions. Admittedly, she was breaking the Belgian law against full face veils, but it is an unjust law of which she may not even have been aware. And somehow I don’t think all the British people cheering his vigilante enforcement of that law would be quite so keen on a random Belgian taking it upon themselves to impound some unfortunate British tourist’s car if he were to break, through ignorance or indifference, the Belgian law requiring a red warning triangle and a reflective waistcoat to be carried in a vehicle at all times.

The left and anti-semitism

It is not an accident that the three key planks of the Left-wing outlook today – the anti-Israel anti-war sentiment, the shallow anti-capitalism of Occupy, and the worship of those who leak info from within the citadels of power – should all have had issues with anti-Semitism. It is because the left, feeling isolated from the public and bereft of any serious means for understanding modern political and economic affairs, has bought into a super-simplistic, black-and-white, borderline David Icke view of the world as a place overrun and ruled by cabals and cults and sinister lobby groups. And who has always, without fail, been the final cabal, the last cult, to find themselves shouldering the ultimate blame for the warped, hidden workings of politics, the economy and foreign turmoil? You got it – the Jews.

Brendan O’Neill.

That parts of the left has a penchant for anti-semitism, and other forms of mad conspiracy-mongering, is not a new observation. Take this link, for example, from Discoverthenetworks.org

Sensible people, the Swiss

Swiss voters reject plan to establish world’s highest minimum wage

Swiss voters have rejected a proposal to create what would have been the world’s highest minimum wage after siding with the government and business leaders in a referendum.

That should read “…after siding with the government, business leaders, and those Swiss people who could least afford to be unemployed.”

The plan, which would have pushed up the basic annual salary for a 35-hour week to £27,000, was rejected by 75% of voters. It would have required employers to pay workers a minimum of 22 Swiss francs (£14.66) an hour.

Government ministers opposed the proposal, made by the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions and supported by the Socialist and Green parties, arguing that it would put smaller companies out of business.

Fortunately for some of the poorest Swiss people, their so-called protectors overreached themselves.

#TwitterisblockedinTurkey

Shortly after the Twitter ban came into effect around midnight, the micro-blogging company tweeted instructions to users in Turkey on how to circumvent it using text messaging services in Turkish and English. Turkish tweeters were quick to share other methods of tiptoeing around the ban, using “virtual private networks” (VPN) – which allow internet users to connect to the web undetected – or changing the domain name settings on computers and mobile devices to conceal their geographic whereabouts.

Some large Turkish news websites also published step-by-step instructions on how to change DNS settings.

On Friday morning, Turkey woke up to lively birdsong: according to the alternative online news site Zete.com, almost 2.5m tweets – or 17,000 tweets a minute – have been posted from Turkey since the Twitter ban went into effect, thus setting new records for Twitter use in the country.

May it continue thus.

The elephant in the auction room

Qatari money fuels record price at ivory auction, reports Adam Sage of the Times.

An auction of elephant tusks in France has fetched a world-record price and illustrated the enduring lure of ivory for collectors.

Quite why the Qatari riyal in particular has the power to drive up prices Mr Sage does not say. One of the big bidders was a Qatari. That is the only justification for the headline. Strangely enough Mr Sage was also the author of another Times piece from a month ago that might give a slightly more plausible explanation for record prices at an ivory auction in France:

Ivory worth £6m is ground to dust next to Eiffel Tower

Three tons of impounded ivory were crushed next to the Eiffel Tower yesterday in an operation designed to highlight French opposition to the illegal wildlife trade.

However Mr Sage did not appear to perceive any possible connection between the two stories.

Samizdata quote of the day

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

Michael Totten

The unimaginable happens on Greek television – to Greek television

Last night I, and millions of others, saw a little bit of television history. Television history is not when they do a particularly fine historical drama. It is when the drama happens to television itself. Yesterday it did, to Greek television anyway, when Greece’s equivalent of the BBC was shut down, in mid show, live, on television. The BBC showed it, last night. Then they showed one of the sackees saying, in English, to the BBC, that the public sector of Europe was indeed rather too “bloated”.

Someone described in the headline above this piece as the “Europe TV chief” has said that Greek TV should be switched back on immediately:

The head of Europe’s public broadcasters has arrived in Greece to show support for 2,600 fired state TV and radio staff and demand that the country’s conservative government put the stations back on the air.

I had not realised that there was a “head of Europe’s public broadcasters”. Blog and learn.

Jean-Paul Philippot, president of the Switzerland-based European Broadcasting Union, said he would meet with Greece’s Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras to hand him a petition signed by 51 European broadcast executives calling for the broadcaster’s signal to be restored immediately.

A “petition”, “calling for” business as usual to be restored forthwith. Yes, that’ll do it. Clearly, these people fear that they and their underlings could be next, as they could if the Euro-crisis gets worse, as it will.

What I particularly like about this drama is that it changes what is imaginable. Public opinion does not tend to waste its time desiring what is unimaginable. But when what is unimaginable becomes imaginable by actually happening, that can also change what is then desired.

Paying attention in Cyprus

cyp1

In December last year, I had some delicious seafood in one of a chain of restaurants in Cyprus. The chain was actually South African owned, and the style of cooking was actually Cape Malay. The restaurant didn’t mention either of these things in its advertising, signage, or on its menue. There was a vague suggestion that it was Cajun. (Being very vague about where they come from is a skill South African businesses picked up in the apartheid era, and they haven’t lost it). When I got my bill and paid by credit card, I was intrigued to see that the merchant bank was not a local Cypriot bank, but was a South African bank. I was slightly mystified by this at the time (other than that it is no secret that, well, interesting capital flows go through Cyprus), and wondered if the restaurant and the bank shared ownership for reasons similar to the reasons why the mafia also finds it convenient to own lots of restaurants.

Possibly, though, the situation is simpler. The Cypriot banks were and are bust. A South African company doing business in Cyprus does not trust the Cypriot financial system and is avoiding it as much as possible by bringing its own bank. Perhaps my payment for seafood was going directly to somewhere else in the euro area rather than to a Cypriot registered institution. Possibly it was going further afield. Some of the species of seafood on the menu were not native to the Mediterranean, so there were certainly foreign payments to be made, and that part would at least be legitimate to some extent. (To be fair, seafood may be one of the world’s most globalised industries, and this is true of almost any seafood restaurant anywhere). Someone, though, may have suspected what was coming.

When due process is not due

A regular Samizdata reader (who for fairly obvious reasons has asked to remain anonymous) submits this slightly horrifying story of what has recently happened to a friend resident in Spain. People familiar with the Spanish justice system – this is not a country where you wish to get in trouble with the law – will not find it surprising. Still, it is different, somehow, when it happens to you or someone close to you.

Occasionally one hears a story of a government overreach which makes one think that something like it could not happen in a Western Democracy, at least not on a regular basis. And if it does, it surely is due to some kind of a mistake, to which bureaucracies are so prone, or due to some corrupted government officials acting illegally. That was what I thought, after a friend who suddenly disappeared, severing all contacts with friends (although thankfully not family), reappeared after having spent four months in a Spanish jail. When this middle-aged suburban mother of young children told me that she got lucky, seeing as a maximum term for a pre-trial detention according to the Spanish law is four years, I thought that she must have misunderstood something “lawyery” – turns out, she did not (more info in Spanish here). What is worse, according to that document Spain is by no means different from several other European countries, and is not the worst among them, either.

As of now, my friend is still less than keen on discussing the legal aspects of the matter, and she has never been much interested in these things anyway. But, to paraphrase that dead revolutionary: you may not be interested in Law, but Law is interested in you. After having her apartment turned upside down and having been dragged to jail following a knock on the door, she was brought before a judge, whom she told that she just happened to have been once-friends with someone connected to something much bigger than herself or anyone she has ever known.

It took the Spanish authorities four months to corroborate her statement. In the meantime, she spent those four months in appalling conditions, with only a weekly through-the-glass visit from her husband, plus a monthly conjugal visit. No heating (in winter), filthy cells, two women sharing a cell with a toilet. Her kids still think she was away for some kind of professional training. It would have taken longer (as noted above, up to four years) if it was not for her lawyer. She made friends in jail with women who cannot afford a lawyer, and others who were extradited to Spain under the European Arrest Warrant and do not even know anyone in Spain. They are still in jail. Word is (I have not checked) that all the “Big Fish” with that big affair apparently are home free after about a month and a half in jail. The State is NOT your friend.