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]

An Anti-Soviet agitator retires from the BBC

Seva Novgorodsev, dubbed: ‘The DJ who ‘brought down the USSR’ has retired. Well I was pleasantly surprised to learn that an anti-Soviet even got a look-in at the BBC, but this was at the World Service, until recently funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (even greater wonder!) and in Russian language broadcasts. I have no idea if this man is as well-known as the article states, but I do like the sound of his using ridicule against the Soviets, something we should all use for Statists.

Seva’s programmes were meticulously prepared and scripted. He timed the intros to all the songs he played and crafted links that fitted perfectly.
“Then gradually I started to insert some jokes,” he recalls. “I knew that people were bored stiff in Russia, especially the young people, who were under oppression of their family, of the school, of their youth party organisation. And Russia is a huge country and especially in provincial places, life is excruciatingly boring.”

He would also take a dig at the Soviet love of ‘science’, and I don’t mean Lysenko.

Beatlology was the name given to a series of 55 short programmes about the Fab Four – it was, he says, “a pun on a lot of unnecessary scientific papers that the Russians used to write, because if you had a degree it would add 30 roubles to your wages”

The latter reminds me of the some points on Samizdata, science is hard here and credentialism here. Oh dear, are we having the gap left by the Soviet Union slowly filled in?

The Unbearable reality of arctic Russia

Terrible news from the far north of Russia as the autumnal equinox nears. Russian scientists in a weather station are unable to take daily readings of sea temperatures, as they are besieged by polar bears. Unfortunately, it seems, bears are not scared of flares, the scientists’ only means of defence, and the scientists have no weapons to ‘deter’ the bears. Perhaps Bjørn and Benny, as I shall call the bears, think of the scientists as a pleasant change from seal.

The BBC blames warming of course. What a dreadful irony, polar bears preventing the gathering of data on global warming. Now if hippos were to turn up, these concerns might be taken more seriously. In the meantime, some warmists might become vocal advocates for gun rights…

The blockchain and what it might do to banking and finance (and other things besides)

In a matter of months, this word, blockchain, has gone viral on trading floors and in the executive suites of banks and brokerages on both sides of the Atlantic. You can’t attend a finance conference these days without hearing it mentioned on a panel or at a reception or even in the loo. At a recent blockchain confab in London’s hip East End, the host asked if there were any bankers in the room. More than half the audience members, all dressed in suits, raised their hands.

Bloomberg Magazine.

Okay, what the F**k is a blockchain (one word or two?), I hear you cry?

A block chain is a transaction database shared by all nodes participating in a system based on the Bitcoin protocol. A full copy of a currency’s block chain contains every transaction ever executed in the currency. With this information, one can find out how much value belonged to each address at any point in history.  (Wikipedia.)

Here is a book by Dominic Frisby, whom I have met and is known to Samizdata contributors such as Brian Micklethwait, about Bitcoin, and the blockchain system. There is now quite a literature about Bitcoin, some of it with a strong “hell with fiat money” sort of bent, others with a more agnostic approach. Here is one such example by Paul Vigna. Going onto Amazon or other search engines for such books brings up a lot of hits.

More broadly, the point of the article to which I linked at the top here is that very serious financial industry figures are now piling in; sure, some of them will have problems, and the history of how some people get carried away is instructive. But just as instructive is that, even after a period of difficulty, such as when the dotcom boom went sour, we were left not just with a lot of garish stories of excess, but some valuable business models that worked. And that, I suspect, will be the story around Bitcoin – not that this will be the one to succeed, but that the technology surrounding it will have a major change on how finance and other activity happens.

Science is hard

Science is really, really hard. Someone posted a report on Reddit about an attempt to replicate some psychology experiments, and how hard it was. The comments thread is fascinating. I particularly enjoyed a description of how research results can be “turtles all the way down”. This comment also suggests to me a mechanism for the formation of group-think.

These sorts of difficulties need to be borne in mind when reading excited reports in the media that simply paraphrase the university’s press release about the research. And when considering claims that particular branches of science are “settled”.

3D printed glass!

One of the dominant themes of architectural development of the last few decades, and never more so than right now, is the architectural use of glass. Architectural glass used to be a means by which Architectural Modernists could fry, freeze and embarrass the lower orders, in the name of Architectural Modernism. Transparency, “structural honesty”, blah blah. But in the last few decades architectural glass has got hugely better and more varied, and architectural modernity has gone from ugly and clunky to really quite stylish, at least when they are trying.

And now, here is favourite-website-of-mine Dezeen, reporting on what the fact of and the possibilities of 3D printed glass are and might be:

Designer and researcher Neri Oxman and her Mediated Matter group at MIT Media Lab have developed a technique for 3D-printing molten glass, meaning that transparent glass objects can be printed for the first time …

Cool. Metaphorically speaking.

Oxman’s team have used the technique to produce a range of vases and bowls, but Oxman said that the new glass-printing technology could be used at an architectural scale.

Which is what gets Dezeen’s juices flowing, because they are very big on architecture, as am I.

The process, for which a patent application has been submitted, can create an infinite variety of glass forms, just like a traditional 3D printer.

“The additive manufacturing of glass enables us to generate structures that are geometrically customisable and optically tunable with high spatial resolution in manufacturing,” Oxman told Dezeen. …

“Because we can design and print outer and inner surface textures independently (unlike glass blowing) we can control solar transmittance.”

By the look of it, the early uses of this kit will not be for building. They’ll be for making weird bowls and drinking glasses and lighting kit and jewellery and the like, and to begin with only for people with money to burn. But, that’s all part of how start-up and R&D costs are paid. Capitalism soaks the rich, and thereby eventually brings wonder-products to the mass market, in the form of cheap stuff that the most rapacious monarchs of the past could only dream of possessing.

Another use for this sort of technology might be for such things as solar panels, including quite small ones. The phrase “solar transmittance” certainly suggests that this thoughts like that have not escaped Neri Oxman and her collaborators. My techy friends are telling me that solar power is nearing economic viability. 3D-printed glass can surely only help with that.

Yet another reason why I would really like to live to the end of the next century, instead of only half way through it this one if I’m very lucky.

Automotive security bill

I was somewhat surprised to learn about the possibility of taking complete control of a Jeep Cherokee using a laptop and a mobile phone. It seems as if the car makers have added software features to their cars without properly understanding how to make them secure. I work with embedded software that merely has to prevent movies from being copied. If the hacking methods described by Wired are accurate, there are some quite obvious precautions we take that the makers of Jeeps appear not to. I am glad not to be working on life or death software; I expect more from people who do.

Nonetheless, this should all be fixed soon.

Carmakers who failed to heed polite warnings in 2011 now face the possibility of a public dump of their vehicles’ security flaws. The result could be product recalls or even civil suits, says UCSD computer science professor Stefan Savage, who worked on the 2011 study. Earlier this month, in fact, Range Rover issued a recall to fix a software security flaw that could be used to unlock vehicles’ doors. “Imagine going up against a class-action lawyer after Anonymous decides it would be fun to brick all the Jeep Cherokees in California,” Savage says.

Free speech and free markets seem to be working, then. Which makes this seem unnecessary:

It’s the latest in a series of revelations from the two hackers that have spooked the automotive industry and even helped to inspire legislation; WIRED has learned that senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal plan to introduce an automotive security bill today to set new digital security standards for cars and trucks, first sparked when Markey took note of Miller and Valasek’s work in 2013.

As an auto-hacking antidote, the bill couldn’t be timelier.

Meh. It sounds to me more like the government has come along after the problem is already being solved to take the credit. I suspect such a bill will end up protecting car makers from civil suits if they merely have to show they have complied with inevitably flawed regulations.

That which does not kill us makes us stronger

Scientists find mutation that protects against ‘mad cow’ disease after studying cannibal group

Scientists have found a genetic mutation that imparts complete protection against the human form of “mad cow” disease, which could lead to new ways of tackling similar incurable brain diseases.

The researchers discovered the mutation after studying the genes of the Fore people of Papua New Guinea who until recently had practised a form of cannibalism where a related disease was transmitted by eating the brain tissue of the dead.

[…]

At the height of the kuru epidemic in the mid-20th Century, the disease was killing about 2 per cent of the Fore population every year. Some villages had become so severely depopulated they risked dying out, with few if any women of child-bearing age left alive.

However, the scientists believe that people who had been born with the resistance mutation may have helped to re-populate the Fore villages, leading to a rise in the number of individuals who were resistant to kuru.

If I had more brains my first thought on reading this article in the Independent would have been, as it was for Professor John Collinge, director of the Prion Unit:

“This is a striking example of Darwinian evolution in humans – the epidemic of prion disease selecting a single genetic change that provided complete protection against an invariably fatal dementia.”

But if I had more brains I wouldn’t need a second thought.

The Police State tentacles are everywhere

Yesterday a medical doctor friend told me that these days you have to show ID and sign for laboratory glassware. You may perhaps even be asked why you need it.

When I was a kid, you picked up an Edmunds Scientific or other catalog, used the money you earned mowing lawns and bought your gadgets and glassware by mail order – unless you were lucky enough to live in the same city in which case you went to their outlet and came straight home with it on the same day. No questions were asked. Lab glassware was just part of being a future scientist in a nation of free people.

Why has this changed? The Drug War. It is yet another culturally disastrous bit of police state monitoring enabled by fear mongering about meth labs. Well, to put it simply, I do not care. The people responsible for these sorts of regulation are much more socially damaging in their efforts because they undercut our liberty, our ability to act as free and autonomous citizens. It is my right to buy something ‘because I feel like it’ and to use it for ‘whatever the hell pleases me’ just because I am an American. I need no other reason.

I have no sympathy for the drug warriors. I want them unemployed. As to the people who think up these un-american regulations…

“Hangin’s too good for ’em.”

The driverless-car revolution: how far, how fast?

There was a news article a week or two back saying that driverless cars currently under test in California had been involved in four collisions. This sounded bad until you dug into the details and it turned out that in each and every case it was a human driver at fault. As Nassim Taleb points out there is no such thing as confirmatory evidence, but this in no way falsifies my theory that driverless cars are already safer than their human-directed equivalent.

This makes me think that the driverless car revolution is on the way and is going to take place far sooner than most of us think. Yes, there are legal issues to be resolved. Yes, government will drag its feet. Yes, there will be horrible accidents of the sort only computers can cause. Yes, there will be a transitional period of mixed human and computer driving. But it will happen and it will – over all – be better. But given it is going to happen I wonder what it will be like? For instance:

  • Will cars continue to be user-owned? Will we even have “our” exclusive cars or instead use cars in the same way we use taxis today?
  • Could this make micro-cars more attractive?
  • Will styling continue to be so important?
  • Is there anything to prevent a speed-limit of 120mph, or higher, on motorways? If so, what future inter-city trains?
  • Will this advantage electric cars?
  • If buses can self-drive is there any future for commuter trains?
  • If cars can drive themselves to and from our doorsteps will we still need driveways?
  • Is this good or bad news for Uber?
  • What will cabins be like without the need for a driver and a steering wheel?
  • Will there be implications for the layout of vehicles?
  • How soon will it become illegal to drive a car on the public highway?

It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Hopefully they'll look better than this.

Hopefully they’ll look better than this.

Wrong, wrong, wrongety-wrong, wrongbert, wrongble and wrong

A little over a year ago I asked the following question:

Has the day come when election polls are nearly always right?

Famously, in the last US presidential election, Nate Silver correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. His prediction for the election before that was correct for 49 out of 50 states.

Both times, I had hoped it would turn out otherwise. My hopes had been a little higher than they should have been because of the residual glow from the Shy Tory factor, first exhibited to a dramatic extent in the 1992 UK general election and still apparent, though in lesser degree, for several elections after that. I had known about that factor in my guts before that election, from listening to people on the tube, and had correctly guessed the final result would be more Conservative than the polls claimed. As the results came in I did not rejoice that the Government would be Conservative, but I did rejoice that the Chattering Classes had been confounded, their bubble burst, their conversational hegemony broken open and their flary-nostrilled noses put out of joint. Yeah.

Unfortunately not-yeah since then. I haven’t eaten a hearty post-election breakfast with schadenfreude sauce about the polls for many a year now. George Bush winning in 2004 was splendid fun, of course, but it was no great surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. The polls had given him a consistent small lead for months before the election.

Betteridge’s law of headlines strikes again. That day had not come. The polls in the General Election of 2015 were wrong, wrong, wrongety-wrong, wrongbert, wrongble and wrong.*

As was I, but least I had the nous to put in a question mark.

So, elections just got interesting again. Goody! But none of the articles I have yet seen adequately explain why the Shy Tory effect was successfully allowed for by the pollsters in the UK General Elections between 1992 and 2015, only to burst forth again now, nor why political polling in the US has generally managed to factor in Shy Republicans just fine. Except for the 2014 midterms.

The one place where the UK polling companies did fairly well this time round was Scotland, although they still underestimated the scale of the SNP’s triumph. Wishful thinking led me to suppose that the estimates being chucked around of 48 seats for the SNP were exaggerated; in the event they were too cautious. Going back to 2011, it is part of Scottish Nationalist mythology that the victory of the SNP in the Holyrood election of 2011 was completely unpredicted by the polls. However the very last polls were quite close to the actual result when it came to the constituency vote, but much less close when it came to the regional vote in the Scottish Parliament’s semi-proportional voting system. Probably the polls recorded a shift of opinion in the last few weeks of the campaign, which is all you can ask of them. When you think about it, polls cannot predict anything; the people who look at them do that. The final polls for the Scottish referendum were out by a not-bad 5% or so, in the usual direction of underestimating the small-c conservative side.

All in all, a British or American polling company attempting to sell its wares to interested political parties or news organizations on May 6th 2015 could have made a fair case that they were on top of the Shy Tory problem. So what happened on May 7th? What will happen on November 8th 2016, and will we have any idea beforehand?

*This is funny but nothing to do with this post. Americans and people under 50: don’t ask.

Galileo reborn

“This week Short, probably Britain’s greatest-ever chess player, suggested that women were biologically worse at chess and that “rather than fretting about inequality, we should just get on with it.” The reaction has been predictably bitter.”

[…]

“I like Nigel Short. I went to see him play his 1993 world championship game against Kasparov. But I’m dismayed he said this — even if it turned out he was right — because it can become self-fulfilling.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

*

“Eppur si muove!” (“And yet it moves!”)

– Some say these words were muttered defiantly by Galileo Galilei after he was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth goes round the sun.

*

“I want more women to do computer science, not because of my views on gender equality but because I want more people in general to do science. The chess debate will make that harder. It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course. Hearing that you are also hard-wired to be worse at it is not going to help.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

*

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration”

Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his robust defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public debate.

*

“Whatever biological influence on mathematical ability there may or may not be, there is indisputably a far greater influence: culture. Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

Age of Adaline

Friday night is usually my movie night out here in the desert and there was nothing in particular I really wanted to see. After perusing the options, I settled for ‘Age of Adaline‘, the story of a woman of the 1920’s who through an accident and a process explained through a bunch of made up technological gobbledygook stopped ageing at twenty-nine.

Part of the movie was fairly good, a study in the fear of being different and the pain of watching those you love grow old while you remain the same and try to stay under the radar.

There were two things I found wrong with the movie, both of which are ignorable if you just want an unusual love story. Whomever came up with the narrated ‘scientific’ explanations should be taken out and shot. They were painfully idiotic. The script writers would have been better off if they’d just said she had a genetic mutation which did not kick in until her body was put under a life threatening stress she’d never before experienced.

And second of all… Hollywood cannot deal with the idea of people living long lives. They believe that healthy extended lives must by necessity lead to boredom and emotional problems. They nearly always fall back on a plot device that anyone who has it will yearn for a return to the Mayfly life or even immediate joyful death as in “Zardoz”. This movie is not as bad as some. It hints that the accidental process which gave her long life would be discovered in 2035, with the implication that perhaps it was then used.

What I find humorous is that very wealthy A list actors, producers and directors will be among the first in line to embrace the initially very costly technologies of life extension and anti-aging technologies, perhaps right behind the techies who are already inventing it for real in labs all over this planet. They will sing a wholly different tune when it is they who face age and death as fashion options.

Personally, I long for the day when we eliminate both of the presently unavoidable scourges of humanity: death and taxes!