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]

Why a traveller loves Uber

I hate taxis. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Hate them. Loathe them. Detest them.

This is a fairly common feeling amongst frequent travellers. You arrive in a foreign and unfamiliar place on a plane or train. You are tired. You are not familiar with local prices. You are not familiar with local customs. You probably know the name of the hotel or other place that you want to go to, but you possibly don’t know where it is or what is the best route to take you there.

So you get into a taxi. It is just you and the driver. You want him (or her, but it never is) to take you to your destination. You are putting yourself in a sealed and locked car with someone you have never met before and, and who you will never do business with again. He doesn’t know who you are and never will, and you don’t know who he is, and never will. In the event that you have grounds for a complaint, it might be possible to identify him through his medallion number or licence number or something, but you are not going to think to do that (being very tired) and even if you do, complaining later will involve procedures, languages, laws and customs that you are not familiar with. A driver who takes advantage of you is extremely unlikely to suffer any consequences whatsoever.

As a consequence of all this, there are an absolutely endless number of ways in which taxis drivers will take advantage of foreign travellers – particularly ones who have just arrived at airports and railway stations. These vary from mild dishonesty to outright criminality. All of the following have happened to me, at one time or another. Vaguely from least bad to worst bad.

  • The taxi driver takes a long route, so increasing the fare
  • The taxi driver flatly refuses to take you where you ask to be taken, but decides to take you to a different destination entirely, because he is being paid a commission by a different hotel/bus company/museum/airport/warlord/country than the one whose services you want to use. (Insisting that he does not understand you for linguistic reasons when he clearly does often happens in this and many other scams)
  • Taxi driver refuses to understand expressions like “What will it cost me to go to x?” or “Turn on the meter” in English (or indeed any other language) and is completely unable to understand gestures like pointing to your wallet, or pointing to the meter, or any such thing. At least, not until the end of the journey, at which point he will insist on a fare four times what is reasonable.
  • The taxi driver agrees on a fare, but at the end of the journey insists that he did not agree on that fare, and asks for a different amount of money. The fact that “fifteen” sounds very similar to “fifty” in English, and similar, can be particularly effective here.
  • Having agreed on a fare, the taxi driver drives you to a point in the middle of nowhere – but worryingly close to the Syrian border – and insists that you give him more money than was previously agreed upon, and refuses to go anywhere further and tries very hard to prevent you from finding another taxi driver until you agree
  • The meter is rigged. When a passenger who does not know better – a foreigner or someone otherwise from out of town – gets into the taxi, the driver pushes a button on the meter which causes it to charge three times as much as it does regularly
  • At the end of the journey, you only have a banknote that is many times the fare, and the driver insists that he has no change.
  • At the end of the journey, you pay your fare, and the taxi driver gives you forged money as change
  • At the end of the journey, the fare is 90 pesos. You give the driver a 100 peso note. He shows you the note you gave him back at you – a 10 peso note, indicating that you gave him the wrong amount. You give him another 100 peso note, failing to realise that he switched the notes and you have just paid him 90 pesos too much. (You are particularly vulnerable to this when it is dark, you have just got off a long flight, and the local money is unfamiliar. Actually, this is true of most of the above, but I was particularly annoyed with myself when I fell for this one that time in Buenos Aires. For the record, the forged money was also in Buenos Aires).

These scams all have to do with one of three things: the choice of the route, the setting of the fare, and the exchange of money. When I use Uber, all three of these issues are solved, utterly. Firstly, Uber’s satnav/GPS system tells the driver what route to take, and I as a passenger am shown the route on a map. If the driver diverts too far from that route without a good reason, I make a simple complaint, my money is refunded to me, the driver suffers reputational damage, and he does not get paid. The fare is decided by a third party (whose terms and conditions the driver has agreed to) and quoted to me in advance, either as a flat amount or a fare per mile. The “meter” is controlled by that third party, and cannot be rigged. And I pay the money to a third party, and the money is essentially held in escrow until I have completed my journey and have said I am happy with it. The driver knows he gets paid if he does his job properly, and I know that there will be no attempt to scam me over money. Because I know he is not going to scam me and he knows I am not going to scam him (and anyway, because there is recourse if one of us does) there is no reason for us to not trust one another, and we are therefore invariably polite and friendly to each other. Which makes my day nicer, and very likely his also.

I am extremely reluctant to get in a taxi in a foreign city, full stop. However, I will use Uber any time.

On the false choice between Privacy and Security

Many commentators are referring to the current fracas over strong encryption and other security technologies, including especially Apple’s refusal to provide the FBI with hacking tools for the iPhone, as a trade-off between privacy and security.

Even people who feel that strong security technologies are a good thing often position things as a trade-off of this sort.

I would like to reiterate something many of us already know: this is an entirely false dichotomy.

Backdoors in security systems don’t just eliminate privacy, they also make systems insecure.

The current fight isn’t just to make sure that the government cannot learn that you’re reading dissident publications or to make sure the government cannot automatically find everyone who has opinions it doesn’t like, although those are certainly worthy things to want.

The current fight is about whether we will impose a technological infrastructure which will be exceptionally vulnerable to attackers in order to provide nothing more useful than some very, very short-term advantages to people investigating crimes.

This pits the interests of everyone in society who depends on technology for their safety, which is to say, more or less everyone, against a tiny group of law enforcement officials who find their jobs somewhat more difficult.

We should remember that the damage caused by insecurity in our critical systems is not theoretical — it is pervasive problem even today. We saw only this last week a hospital forced to pay ransom to restore its computer systems. We’ve seen instances in the last year of the US federal government losing data on literally everyone with a recent security clearance to enemies unknown who presumably are very, very interested in knowing who all those US government agents might be. Untold millions of dollars are stolen every day in various sorts of computer fraud — everything from credit card fraud to fraudulent IRS e-file refunds. We already know that you can do horrible things to SCADA systems and the like that could potentially kill people, and whether you believe that’s already happened or not, it is clearly only a matter of time before people die that way.

All of this is because of lack of security in computer systems — a lack of security that the FBI, Cyrus Vance Jr., and other special interests propose to make dramatically worse on a permanent basis, in order to make their jobs somewhat easier for the short term. Imagine what things will be like in a world where Cyrus Vance has a slightly easier job but maniacs who have stolen US government master crypto keys can cause thousands or millions of automated cars to crash, killing their occupants.

So, please stop making it sound like it is merely the right to privacy that is at stake. Certainly the right to privacy is crucial for our society, but even those who do not agree with privacy should understand that back doors are not about making a trade-off in favor of increased security but in favor of pervasive insecurity.

This is not about security vs. privacy. We’re talking about nothing less than deranged short-term thinking that privileges the convenience of a small part of the machinery of law enforcement over the safety of almost everyone in our entire society.

Set down these laws

The laws of ancient Rome were engraved onto Twelve Tables that were displayed in the forum for all to see. Cicero lamented that in his time the old tradition of memorizing them all had fallen into disuse.

The laws of ancient England were recorded on vellum. As are, it seems, the more voluminous laws of the modern United Kingdom. The Cabinet Office lamented that in our time this thousand year old tradition was about to fall into disuse, and offered to keep paying to continue a custom that those soulless modernizers in the House of Lords had wanted to jettison on grounds of cost.

My correspondent ARC writes,

“It would appear that minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock is indeed a Tory when it comes to thousand-year-old traditions. The claim was that using paper would save £80,000 per annum, but he has prevented the change. Being a staunch Tory myself when it comes to such things, I approve wholeheartedly.

There is, alas, no suggestion in the story that any alternative way of reducing the current annual cost of inscribing new laws was considered.”

This is one situation where it it might be beneficial to increase rather than decrease the cost and inconvenience of government. Calves died to give us these vellum scrolls. We dishonour them with this new-fangled mechanical printing. Let us demand that the originator of each Bill personally inscribe his proposed law onto a vellum scroll in a traditional Insular Minuscule hand. And why stop there? Let us follow the earlier and even wiser example set by the assembly of one of the Greek colonies in Italy, Locris, where according to Demosthenes it was decreed

that a man who shall propose to make any new law shall do it with a rope about his neck, which he shall be strangled in, if he do not carry his point: which has been such a guard and defence to the laws, that there has been but one new one made in more than two hundred years.

There should be room in our hearts for pity…

for the striking London black cab drivers whose hard won skills have been rendered obsolete by Uber and Addison Lee, just as we should remember with pity the thousands of drivers of hansom cabs whose hard-won skills with horses were rendered obsolete by the coming of the internal combustion engine. I am not being flippant or sarcastic. To lose one’s accustomed livelihood to new technology is a tough spot to be in, and there will be many reading this, some of them highly paid at present, who should look at Trevor Merralls’ situation and tremble.

But that pity should not extend to offering to keep Mr Merralls forever in the style to which he has become accustomed simply because he was born working class, or to stifling the opportunity for self-employment that Uber offers to its drivers (also working class), or to depriving Londoners who could not afford black cabs of the ability to take a cab at a reasonable price at any time day or night, and which will, as one of the Guardian commenters put it, “actually go to exotic destinations like Lewisham”.

Exterminate All Mosquitoes

Zikavirus, which is now spreading rapidly throughout South America and the Caribbean, is just the latest mosquito-borne disease to plague mankind.

Mosquitoes spread Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, a variety of forms of encephalitis (Eastern Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, LaCrosse Encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, and others), West Nile virus, Rift Valley Fever, Elephantiasis, Epidemic Polyarthritis, Ross River Fever, Bwamba fever, and dozens more.

I’ve been unable to find a reliable overall death toll for mosquito-borne disease. However, it is likely that at least a million people die a year from malaria alone. Countless more die from the other diseases. It is known that the number of people infected with one disease or another by mosquito bites every year is in the hundreds of millions.

In short, the mosquito is one of mankind’s greatest enemies.

Thanks to the recent development of CRISPR/Cas9 based gene drive technology, the human race is now at last on the cusp of having the capacity to drive those varieties of mosquito that feed upon humans (which are a minority of the 3500 known species) entirely into extinction, by producing mosquitoes that will produce fertile male descendants but no fertile female descendants. [See my explanation after the end of this essay on how this might be done.*]

Few actions could reduce human misery and improve the condition of mankind so greatly as the permanent elimination of mosquitoes and the myriad of diseases they spread throughout the world. It would be worth doing even if it required decades and vast expenditures to accomplish. The fact that it can be done at fairly low cost and quite quickly (over years rather than decades) is almost icing on the cake.

I am certain that some people will vocally and perhaps even violently oppose this work, both because of an irrational fear of genetic engineering technology and because of a misplaced belief that eliminating mosquitoes will somehow damage the environment. The general consensus is that it will not. However, I strongly feel that even if there was minor collateral damage to the environment, it would be well worth that cost to prevent at least a million deaths a year.

Some would caution we should consider an act such as the deliberate extinction of a whole class of parasitic insects with great caution and take such steps only quite slowly. However, in a world where a child dies of malaria every 40 seconds or so, I think we should, if anything, be racing ahead as fast as we can possibly manage.

Now that we have the capacity to exterminate mosquitoes, not to do so strikes me as a gravely immoral act.

→ Continue reading: Exterminate All Mosquitoes

Immortal instead of selfish?

I did not know this:

Dawkins began writing the book in 1973, and resumed it in 1975 while on sabbatical. At the suggestion of Desmond Morris, the zoologist and author of The Naked Ape (Jonathan Cape, 1967), Dawkins showed some draft chapters to Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape, who strongly urged that the title be changed to ‘The Immortal Gene’. Today, Dawkins regrets not taking the advice. It might have short-circuited the endless arguments, so beloved of his critics and so redolent of the intentional stance (in which we tend to impute mental abilities to unconscious things, from thunderstorms to plants), about whether selfishness need be conscious. …

That is Matt Ridley writing In retrospect about Dawkins and The Selfish Gene.

“Immortal” would certainly have been accurate in a way that “selfish” was not. But perhaps having what was arguably a mistake in the title caused heat as well as light in the responses to The Selfish Gene, and thereby enabled this great book, in the end, to spread more light than it might have done if more precisely titled.

Ridley continues:

… It might even have avoided the common misconception that Dawkins was advocating individual selfishness.

Indeed. Actually, Dawkins has rather orthodox leftist views about such things as individual selfishness (unlike Matt Ridley). But by incurring the ignorant wrath of PC-ers, Dawkins has, I think, been driven away from unthinking leftism, towards more thinking non-leftism, of the sort that Matt Ridley espouses. He is certainly not a member of the PC tribe.

This is a common story. Oafish PC virtue signalling has caused many a good leftist to find himself on the wrong end of his own opinions, and thus to learn at least some of the errors of his ways.

Had he called The Selfish Gene instead The Immortal Gene, might Dawkins have remained, or been allowed to remain, a more orthodox leftist? And if he had, would he, for instance, have been so ready to denounce Islam as strongly as he has, alongside his denunciations of Christianity? Would he now be so ready to mock feminism, and thereby incur yet more PC wrath? (“We believe strongly in freedom of speech … However …”) Dawkins probably would have got involved in such scraps anyway, but he might have had more to lose.

Matt Ridley’s central point is that, whether correctly titled or not, The Selfish Gene combined being original science with successful scientific popularisation in a way that is very rare.

Cheap 3D printing is getting better

I receive emails from Google about, among other things, 3D printing. These 3D printing emails link to pieces that mostly confirm my current prejudice about 3D printing, which is that it is an addition to the technological armoury of current manufacturers rather than any sort of domesticated challenge to the conventional idea of manufacturing being done by manufacturers. Far from making manufacturing less skilled, 3D printing is, as of now, making manufacturing more skilled. Which is good news for all rich countries whose economic edge is provided by being able to deploy an educated rather than merely industrious workforce.

Here is the kind of story that these emails link to:

my colleagues and I have found a way to print composite material by making a relatively simple addition to a cheap, off-the-shelf 3D printer. The breakthrough was based on the simple idea of printing using a liquid polymer mixed with millions of tiny fibres. This makes a readily printable material that can, for example, be pushed through a tiny nozzle into the desired location. The final object can then be printed layer by layer, as with many other 3D printing processes.

The big challenge was working out how to reassemble the tiny fibres into the carefully arranged patterns needed to generate the superior strength we expect from composites. The innovation we developed was to use ultrasonic waves to form the fibres into patterns within the polymer while it’s still in its liquid state.

The ultrasound effectively creates a patterned force field in the liquid plastic and the fibres move to and align with low pressure regions in the field called nodes. The fibres are then fixed in place using a tightly focused laser beam that cures (sets) the polymer. …

The patterned fibres can be thought of as a reinforcement network, just like the steel reinforcing bars that are routinely placed in concrete structures …

In earlier pieces I have done here about 3D printing, commenters have compared the current state of domestic 3D printing with the state that domestic 2D printing had reached in the days of the dot matrix printer. Remember those? Maybe not. They disappeared from common view quite a while ago now.

The above description of miniature reinforcing rods makes me think that something like a 3D printing analogue to the 2D domestic laser printer may be about to emerge. Laser printers supplied, once their price had fallen to something domestically tolerable, unprecedented clarity and flexibility to domestic computer users. The process described above, and all the other 3D printing advances that those google emails tell me about, will, if all develops well, supply unprecedented internal strength, and hence just all-round quality, to cheaply printed 3D objects.

None of which means that specialised 3D printing by specialisers in all the various different sorts of 3D printing that are now coming on stream will cease to be a way to make a living, any more than specialised 2D printing experts have all now been run out of business by amateurs in their homes. (Quite the opposite – that link being just one for-instance of a hundred that I might have picked – I just happen to have particularly noticed taxis covered in adverts.) It is merely that, in the not too distant future, domesticated 3D printing may actually become seriously useful to people other than hobbyists and 3D printing self-educators.

However, even as supply gets ever cleverer, when it comes to domestic 3D printing there remains the problem of demand. As I asked in this earlier posting here (commenter Shirley Knott agreed): What 3D printed objects will be demanded domestically in sufficient quantities, again and again with only superficial variations (in the way that black-on-white messages on paper are now demanded) to make domestic 3D printing make any sense? No answer was supplied in those comments three years ago, and I have heard no answer since. So the above ultrasound-arranged reinforcing rods trick will almost certainly turn into just another manufacturing technique for old-school manufacturers to apply to their old-school specialist manufacturing businesses. Which means that this posting becomes just another Samizdata Ain’t Capitalism Great? postings. Which is fine. On the other hand, few can see killer apps coming, until suddenly they come. So maybe a future beckons, which sees us all eating out, but making other, inedible stuff in our kitchens.

The reinforced concrete reference also makes me even more eager than I long have been to see how 3D printing impacts on the world of architecture, architecture being another enthusiasm of mine. Postings like this one at Dezeen make it clear that this is a question that lots of others are wondering about also.

Never has a reshuffle been so aptly named

The daft old beardy has been at it a day and a half now and the only person he’s managed to actually eject is the shadow Culture Secretary. No, wait, I’m wrong – news just coming in – Pat McFadden is also out!


Never mind. Some poor schmuck dim enough to once think a career in politics would be a good idea, sacked by a man who looks as if he would be happier if their roles were reversed. OK, Jeremy Corbyn will eventually finish reshuffling. It may happen while I am writing this post. I do hope it is soon. Much longer and he will be in danger of shuffling off this mortal coil himself. The results of the reshuffle will not rejuvenate either Mr Corbyn or the Labour party.

In one of the science fiction author Larry Niven‘s short stories it is mentioned that when teleportation booths were still very new, some naive people put the booths inside their houses. It didn’t take that many house clearances by teleporting burglars before people realised that might not be wise. I thought of that story when I first heard that Jeremy Corbyn was likely to be elected leader of the Labour party. Some have attributed his success to an imprudent decision by Ed Miliband to lower the cost of becoming a supporter of the Labour party to a paltry £3, which encouraged far-left entryists and not a few malicious Tories to vote for Corbyn. However that was only part of it – Corbyn also won among longstanding party members. The main factor in his victory was, as in Niven’s story, a technology whose consequences were not yet properly understood. That technology was social media. Facebook and Twitter were where the idea of joining the party as a supporter and voting for Corbyn, the outsider, the joke candidate, the perennial loser given a chance out of pity, went from snowball to avalanche. When the existing members saw the avalanche building they, too, were caught up in the excitement. Suddenly the quasi-revolutionary hopes of their younger days seemed possible once more.

I don’t think this conjunction of factors will ever happen again. Political parties the world over are quietly upping their membership fees, instituting probationary periods before a new member gets to vote on the leader, and deciding against open primaries. The example of the UK Labour Party has shown them the need for a wall between your house and the teleportation booth.

In which I fill out an online “consultation”

I had some incoming from Uber yesterday. The TFL consultation on their proposals to bugger-up-all-competition-to-the-cossetted-black-cab-mafia is underway. I am usually rather sceptical about these things but Uber is such an obviously Good Thing that I participated anyway. You never know, it might make a difference.

A rant that delivers the goods

Stefan Stern wrote the standard Guardian article about the awfulness of Uber, only this time it wasn’t Uber it was a bunch new to me called “Deliveroo”: “Deliveroo and its ilk are serving up low wages, insecurity and social division”. He wrote,

But we have clearly not even begun to think deeply enough about the implications for workers in all this.

A commenter called “narnaglan” replied,

There is nothing in this for you to think about. Deliveroo has nothing to do with you, since you are not a shareholder. The people who work for it choose to do so and are not forced. It is entirely legitimate, and ethical.

Your only response to Deliveroo, if you have a feeling that they are not doing it “right” is to start your own business, where the delivery people are under contracts and conditions that you feel are acceptable. If you are correct in your assumptions, Deliveroo will be driven out of business, and your new, ethical delivery service will immediately dominate.

But you will not do this.

Why? Because you are comfortable sitting on the sidelines telling other people how to live and run their affairs. You are not willing to take risk yourself, and have no original ideas of your own. All you are able to do is react to what other people invent, and criticize it through your distorting and inverting Guardianista Socialist lens.

Deliveroo and all other businesses that allow people to start work are useful and beneficial. The more companies in the market like it, the more jobs there are, and the better off people are. Someone with an idea will disrupt Deliveroo, which is the latest in a line of home delivery services that have existed for at least 18 years, one of the first being the Room Service delivery service that did not even have a website.

You people simply do not understand the market, innovation and how things really work. All you know how to do is destroy, call for people to be made unemployed and business to be made inoperable because you think you have the right to tell other people how to live, how to organize and what private contracts they make between themselvs are ethical.

You are wrong. About everything.

Tim Peake excitement

The UK media is getting quite excited about British astronaut Tim Peake and his trip to the International Space Station. I was watching on Sky News. Their guest expert was space journalist Sarah Cruddas, and after the launch they allowed her to gush excitedly about private space travel for a couple of minutes.

She was not entirely coherent as she was talking excitedly — but that is the point. She mentioned “Space 2.0”, a new term to me, and Elon Musk, and Planetary Resources who want to mine asteroids which contain enough wealth to make everyone a billionaire. She talked positively about wealthy people making money in space. She talked about how Internet access in the developing world has an “absolutely revolutionary effect on the number of people on our planet who will have access to knowledge”, improving education and increasing the pool of talent and getting them rich. She talked about businesses making space travel more efficient. She talked about the UK space industry, which “does exist and should be celebrated”.

It struck me that all this private enterprise and wealth creation should be brought up and positively plugged during a government space launch.

In the ’50s and ’60s it seems as if it was normal to be optimistic and excited about technology. In the ’90s and recently we seem mostly to hear about how greedy rich industrialists trample the poor and destroy the planet. Perhaps that pendulum can swing back the other way.

Kardeshev 1.5?

I am sure most of you have by now heard at least a garbled version of the discovery of a very unusual object in the skies, a possible alien mega-structure. I have not been following the mass media but they probably went for the spectacular in their reporting.

Well, it could be spectacular, but only if after a few years or even decades of hard science it does not turn out to be something else. Some science news outlets have compared it to the discovery of the pulsar by Jocelyn Bell. There was no known explanation at the time for something in the heavens that could generate a pulse train that was so precise you could set your time standard to it.

Still, an alien civilization is a candidate explanation, even if the only thing we can say is “We’ve got something we’ve never seen before and some of our wild ass guesses, including an alien civilization, have not yet been ruled out”. I want to make this absolutely clear before I get to the fun stuff.

Now… what if it turns out to be true and we find we have a neighbor who is building structures in space large enough to obscure up to 20% of its sun’s output for significant periods of time? That is one serious civilization, one that is well on its way to becoming a Kardeshev Type II.

But let us turn things around. If they exist, what do they know about us?

The star in question is about 1400 light years away from us. That means what we are seeing happened back in the dark ages, back in an era oft written of in books by Dr. Sean Gabb in his historical novels. Whatever we are detecting now of their technology happened that long ago. Fourteen Hundred Years of advancement beyond what we can see. One and a half millennia. Just imagine it.

Lets go further. Fourteen hundred years ago they were building structures that could block 20% of their star’s light when passing in front of it. That is not the capability of a new space faring civilization. In our terms, it is probably several millenia beyond where we are in our space capabilities, possibly even more.

So how many thousands of years ago did they map a lovely little life bearing world? They almost certainly have thousands of years of data on our star and planets. But their data shows no sign of civilization because their most recent data about us comes from our 600AD.

Unusual situation then. We would know there is a space faring civilization out there… and they would only know there was a life bearing world with no signs of a technological civilization here.

So… I wonder when the generation ships of the colonists will show up?

I’m just having a bit of fun. But What If?