One of my favourite, regular visit websites is Dezeen. At least half of the stuff there is of very little interest to me. But, I find myself wanting to look at about a quarter of it more carefully, and a single figure percentage of what it sticks up tends to interest me a lot. That’s a lot of interestingness, when you consider that Dezeen is, as of now, updated several times every day.
In particular, Dezeen often features an interesting new gizmo, news of which can be easily rehashed into one of those ain’t capitalism grand postings that we love to do here, as often as we are able to tear our eyes away from the ghastliness of politics.
So, for instance, today, Dezeen has a description of a supersonic airplane, the distinguishing feature of which is that instead of the airplane having lots of windows for its highly paid passengers to look out of, it instead has cameras recreating the visual effect of looking out, and much more continuously and impressively than is possible when you are relying on real windows. Like this:
Quite how exactly this arrangement fakes the real experience of looking out of a continuous window shaped like that, I do not know. Will 3D effects be involved? But considering that the faster an airplane goes (this one is intended to be very fast indeed) the more expensive it becomes to carve windows into it, and considering that the cost and bulk and weight and quality both of cameras and of screens are all variables that are moving in exactly the right directions, this struck me immediately as one of those “Why did I not think of this?” ideas. By that I do not mean that I could do the actual work of contriving such an airplane, merely that I ought to have realised far sooner than today that other much more engineering-savvy people than I would very soon be talking in public about such notions, and that they presumably have been doing this for quite some while, without me noticing it.
I would further assume that the structural benefits to having an airplane which does not have a lot of quite large holes scattered all along its fuselage must be considerable. Yes:
“It has long been known that the windows cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage. They require additional structural support, add to the parts count and add weight to the aircraft,” said the company.
On the other hand, if what is required inside the airplane is concentration on the job to be done when the airplane has landed, as might well be the case, then other imagery can go in the “window” instead. Or, presumably, no imagery at all.
Relying on cameras for a task like this means that if the worst happens and the cameras all go haywire, nobody dies. A few people merely have a somewhat less amusing trip than they might have been anticipating. Do the pilots have an actual window in front of them? That might be wise, but maybe not.
Whatever the details are, and indeed whether or not this particular airplane ever gets anywhere near taking to the air, I’m impressed. And talking of people who are much more engineering-savvy than I am, I wonder what our commentariat thinks about this notion.
It is a routine complaint about modern life that “we” now have far too many gadgets for our own good, and maybe some of us do. (I just googled too many gadgets and got “about 150,000,000 results”.)
But then again, have a read of this, by blogger “6000″, who now lives in South Africa, about his last conversation with his beloved uncle Alan, who died yesterday in a hospital in the Isle of Man:
My brother had been over to see him on Saturday and while I wish that I could have been there too, I enjoyed a 20 minute conversation with him over Skype. My last memory of my Uncle Alan will be his disbelief at the technology in front of him as I showed him Cape Agulhas lighthouse and the turquoise Indian Ocean. He always loved anything to do with the sea. We even shared a joke or two. It might not have been the same as actually being there with him, but for me, it was a special moment – even more so now – and I hope that for him, it was a bit of escapism from his hospital bed.
The way to judge the value and impact of a new technology is not to look at the typical or average uses of it, but at its most meaningful and significant uses. Yes, modern toys are routinely used to exchange trivial chit-chat of no great significance. But so what? Where’s the harm in that? Even supposedly insignificant chat often means something very significant to those doing the chatting, even if some nosy eavesdropper with nothing better to do than moan about other people’s conversations might not be so diverted by it. I imagine that if you had been listening in on 6000 and his uncle last Saturday, you might not have been that amused. Like I say: so what?
And nor should “we” be badgered into looking only at the bad things that new technology can do, or help people to do. Yes, some of the newly enabled chit-chat is significant because it is malevolent. Modern toys are indeed used to do bad things, and to conspire to do other bad things. And airplanes incinerated cities. Cars have long been used to make getaways after bank robberies. Trains took innocent people to murder camps and soldiers to be slaughtered in wars. Sailing ships were used by pirates. Money gets stolen, and is then used to finance other crimes.
But are the facts in the above paragraph convincing arguments against the very existence of laptop computers, Skype, smartphones, airplanes, cars, trains, sailing ships or money? No. The good done by new technology when used by good people to do good things is by far its most significant consequence. Long may this continue to be true.
Ok, it is Friday, so how about this item on “How Technology Is Transforming the Wine Trade”.
Tech has not, yet, transformed the subsequent hangovers from excess, however.
Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalism
The question is, why haven’t the moon’s resources been thoroughly plundered by now? Why hasn’t it provided us with the energy necessary to colonise the rest of space? I’ll tell you why: it’s because capitalism is weak and timid.
In principle, it shouldn’t be this way. Capitalism, said Rosa Luxemburg, always needs a periphery. There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities. Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating “intellectual property”, there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.
The geographer David Harvey points out that the world capitalist system needs to find $1.5tn profitable investment opportunities today in order to keep growing at its historical average of 3% a year. In 20 years’ time, it will need to find $3tn
Let he who dares accept the challenge in proper fashion. Still, betcha Richard Seymour will be the first to complain when the space barons do start exporting capitalist property relations where no man has gone before.
One of the intellectual highlights of my year has been hearing Anton Howes (whom I first noticed while noticing the Liberty League) expound the idea that the British industrial revolution was, at heart, an ideological event. The industrial revolution happened when it did and where it did because certain people in that place and at that time started thinking differently. To put it in Samizdata-speak, the metacontext changed. Particular people changed it, not just with the industrial stuff that they did, but with what they said and wrote.
I first heard Howes give this talk at my last Friday of the month meeting in July of this year. Happily, Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home also heard Howes speak that night, and immediately signed him up to do a repeat performance, this time with a video camera running, for Libertarian Home at the Rose and Crown.
And the good news is that the video of this Howes talk at the Rose and Crown is now up and viewable at Libertarian Home. If spending half an hour watching a video does not suit, then you might prefer to read Simon’s extended summary of the talk. The same video is also up at YouTube.
I wrote a bit at my personal blog about that subsequent evening, and there is lots else I want to say about what Howes is saying. But one of the rules of blogging is not to let hard-to-write and consequently not-yet-actually-written pieces interrupt you putting up easier-to-write pieces that you actually can write and do write.
So: Anton Howes is a clever guy. Watch the video. And watch out for him and his work in the future.
You don’t need to speak German to understand this.
An entertaining story from the Guardian:
Obamacare website developers rush to fix bug suggesting hacking methods
Flaw in Affordable Care Act site records hack attempts through its search box and re-presents code as autocomplete options
I have just fixed to do one of Christian Michel’s 6/20 talks at his home in west London, on January 20th of next year.
In the spirit, which Christian encourages, of lots of us being libertarians but not droning on all the time about libertarianism, I have chosen a subject that will, I hope, cut across and rearrange the usual ideological divisions at these evenings.
Here’s the bit of the email I sent to Christian, explaining what I had in mind to talk about:
What Digital Photography is doing for us and what Digital Photography is doing to us.
I will speak first about the recreational pleasures and economic benefits of digital photography, making fun and memories for us, and communicating information about products for sale and work progress, or lack of progress, accidents, and so on. In general, I would say that the fun side of digital photography is quite well understood, but that the (other) economic impacts of digital photography are less often talked about.
And I will also muse more speculatively, about the effects that digital photography is having on our lives, minds and culture. What difference does it make to how we live, how we experience the present and the past, and how we feel about such things as privacy, and the right to turn over a new leaf when changing from crazy adolescent to responsible job-seeker? Or from crazy adolescent to solid married person? What does digital photography do to personal relationships? I have trouble predicting what I’ll say in this bit, because I have lots of further thinking to do.
I have never spoken formally about this subject before, and will be making guesses and asking questions, as well as supplying answers. In both parts of my talk I will solicit assistance from whatever audience shows up. Almost all of us have experience of using digital photography (perhaps in surprising ways), and have thoughts (perhaps also surprising) about its impact on our lives.
Christian’s reply included this:
The second part of the talk is clearly the more interesting one, at least to me. You have much time to develop it.
I have already written here about the economic impact of digital photography, here, and here. But what of the second part of my intended talk, the part that Christian would prefer me to concentrate on? Does the Samizdata commentariat have any thoughts as to how I might set about answering the questions above about the difference that digital photography makes to how we live, and to how we feel about how we live? Any thoughts along these lines would be greatly appreciated.
I think it was the experience of dashing off the commentary on these wedding photos that got me thinking about giving this talk. In that posting, I speculated about how the contrasting ways in which photography was done in the past (very clunkily and expensively and rarely) and now (with ridiculous ease) has affected our picture (literally) of the past. That’s the kind of not-quite-obvious effect I am looking to be told about.
One of the ideas behind CAGW is that, even if the current CAGW scare turns out to be the great big fraudulent fuss about nothing that most of us here now believe it to be, it would be wise to have in place the political machinery for coping with any future collective human disasters of a similar sort that might require collective human action to survive them, before such a disaster really does threaten to strike, and this time for real. Better safe than sorry. Better to get prepared now. CAGW may be a lie, but this is one of several ways in which it is regarded by those pushing it as a noble lie.
Paul Murphy identifies an important weakness in such thinking. Crying wolf can make the real wolf, if he does finally show up, more rather than less dangerous:
The deeper issue here is not that the political action now strangling western economies is politically motivated, but that accepting the arguments for seeing warmism as sheer political fraud means accepting that the talking heads citing science to sell it to the masses are either deluded or dishonest – but because no wolf today doesn’t mean no wolf tomorrow, it also means that warmist politicization of the research process has to be seen as having destroyed the credibility of all involved, and thus as having greatly weakened the world’s ability to recognize and respond to a real threat should one now materialize.
Quite a few libertarians of my acquaintance (including, I seem to recall from comment threads here, our own Johnathan Pearce) think that libertarians, to quote the words said to me on this topic a few days ago, “miss a trick” by failing to describe what should happen in the event of such a real collective disaster. Yes, CAGW is almost certainly a lie, noble or just plain wicked. But what if something like that really does look like it really is about to happen?
My personal answer is that the decisive variable will probably not be political preparedness, but scientific and technological and economic preparedness. Not: Will we be politically organised to do the necessary? Rather: Will we be able to do the necessary? If our species suddenly finds itself facing a real collective disaster, the political will to tackle it will surely be there. What may be lacking, however, is the means to avert disaster, and even to understand it correctly. The best defence for humanity as a whole, just as it is now for the people in your town facing flood risks or tornadoes, is to be rich and clever and alert. Anything that gets in the way of that is bad.
Murphy is quite right that this ghastly CAGW episode has degraded our collective alertness. Even warnings of disaster from impeccably scrupulous scientists, utterly unconnected with the CAGW argument, will now be taken only with vast pinches of salt added.
For those who do think that political preparedness might make all the difference, I’d add that, in addition to being richer, cleverer and more alert (not least because in a free society a wider range of potential dangers will have been speculated about – e.g. by science fiction writers) than a less free society, a more free society is also more public spirited. You can never, of course, be sure, in the event of a one-off global crisis. But, when collective action really is necessary, free societies tend, quite aside from doing everything else better, to do even that better than unfree societies.
An unfree society may be great at imposing immediate unanimity, but what if what it immediately imposes unanimously is panic and indecision? (Think Stalin when Hitler attacked the USSR in
1942 1941.) And what if it then imposes a wrong decision about what needs to be done? A collectivity that is hastily assembled by freer and more independent persons is just as likely to act in a timely manner, and is far more likely to have a proper argument about what must be done, and hence to arrive at a better decision about that.
Besides which, what is often needed in a crisis is not so much collective action, but rather individual action for the benefit of the collective. That is a very different thing, and clearly a society which cultivates individuality will prepare individuals far better for such heroism than will societies where everyone is in the habit only of doing as they are told.
I will be interested to hear what commenters have to say about this.
Michael Eisen is a biologist, who studies the fruit fly drosophila with especial interest as nearly all biologists appear to do for some reason some of our learned readers will, I hope, explain to me. In his own words,
A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).
And the price was rising steeply almost as he watched. Why? I had often wondered this myself. Not that the development of the fruit fly has generally been my first choice for a riveting read, but I did once come gulpingly close to pressing the “Buy now with 1-Click” button for Connie Long’s Easy Guide to Sewing Linings before noticing just in time that it was going for more than two hundred pounds. It is now down to a mere £86 new / £44 used. I was kind of hoping for under £10. I am an idle waster who noted the strangeness and passed on; Doctor Eisen is a research scientist. He duly researched and explained all.
Two coms companies, Lavabit and Silent Circle, are working to make e-mail rather harder for the likes of the NSA to snoop on.
I would be interested to hear from our more tech savvy readers what they think of the proposals when they get more details.
Regulars here will know my interest in the phenomenon of Custom Built Headquarters Syndrome.
So now, I can’t help suspecting that maybe what Roger Kimball says, about the disaster that is Apple’s latest version of something called iWork (says Kimball:
I’ve never seen a shoddier release. The fate of particular pieces of word processing and spreadsheet software may not much signify much in the world at large. But among the population of people who use and depend on it, there is grave unhappiness. Apple really messed up on this, and it is interesting if unedifying to ask what it portends about the giant company’s future.
…), and this new Apple HQ building that now has the go-ahead:
… are somehow connected.
It seems that Steve Jobs himself was responsible for setting this particular architectural wheel in motion.
Instapundit reckons Apple only did their shambolic software launch just now to make Obamacare look better, arf arf. But there is a more serious point to be made about this comparison. The difference between the public sector and the private sector is not that the private sector never screws up, as this Apple screw-up illustrates. And it is most certainly not that the public sector never builds itself dysfunctionally lavish buildings. The difference is that as and when the private sector screws up, it suffers. Money is lost. In this case, Apple market share is being lost even as I blog this. Apple will either sort this iWork mess out quick, or watch a lot of people move over to Microsoft.
If a custom built headquarters causes a private sector screw-up, as I surmise may just have happened to Apple, the building may then get sold on to other more capable people, or be partly rented out, to cut costs.
When the government screws up, taxpayers will foot the bill both for the screw-up and for all the money they then throw at it to unscrew the screw-up, and as likely as not the people who presided over the screw-up will end up with even bigger buildings to luxuriate in.
To escape Obamacare, your only hope is kayak.com. I watched the whole of that Saturday Night Live skit last night on Youtube, but now, Youtube refuses to play it to me, what with me not living in the USA. But trust me, it’s very funny. Will the BBC ever show it, I wonder?