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]

If you like your health plan you can…

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

What is digital photography doing to us?

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.

What if there is a real collective disaster?

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.

Indeed.

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.

Sunday night strangeness: why does an academic book about fruit flies cost $23,698,655.93 on Amazon?

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.

Interesting developments on the privacy front…

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.

An Apple launch disaster and a new Apple HQ building

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:

AppleHQCircle

… 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?

The green tide is now receding

Further to yesterday’s SQotD, which was an MP dissing the Climate Change Act, I spotted this propaganda, on the big expensive greenhouse type front door, in Victoria Street near where I live, of the governmental organ that now calls itself the Department for Business Innovation & Skills:

EnergisingBritain

Those wanting to say that my title for this posting is nonsense won’t have to go very far to prove themselves right, in their own eyes. All they need to do is go to the Department for Business Innovation & Skills website, where they will find no prominent mentions of anything about Energising Britain with such things as oil or gas, but plenty of mentions of things like Offshore wind industrial strategy and Multi-million pound investment in offshore wind industry to unlock billions in UK economy. Unlock billions from the UK economy, more like.

I agree, sort of, in other words, with a commenter on that SQotD, who said:

Too late, the scam has been running long enough that there are now too many snouts in the trough.

The above piece of propaganda that I photoed may not be an actual lie, in the trivial sense that 13.5 billion quid may indeed be being invested in Britain this year in oil and gas, despite everything that the Department for Business Innovation & Skills may have done to discourage such investment by instead prattling on about wind farms for the last decade or more. But as an exercise in saying what the Department for Business Innovation & Skills is now concentrating on, it is a lie. The racket continues.

But this is often the way with big government bureaucracies. The truth, and a consequent forthcoming shift of policy emphasis (that later cascades into a truly new and totally different policy), often first impinges in the form of public lies about what they are now doing, even as they persist behind the scenes with the old discredited nonsense.

Never underestimate the reverse-impact of public relations departments, in the form of them telling the other people in the building what they now all ought to be doing. The collapse of the USSR, no less, began as a big old Soviet lie about how the USSR was going to start being efficient and nice and good, by doing something called “Glaznost”. It was wall-to-wall bullshit, but it was wall-to-wall bullshit that helped to change the course of history. The USSR, like “green energy”, “climate change” and so on, was another huge scam that went on for far, far too long, and by the end snouts in the trough was all it was. And the snouts only changed things when the trough was getting seriously near to totally empty. But change things they did. Millions had already died, and millions more had endured lives of utter misery, and in this sense, the change came too late, far too late. But change like that is never not worth doing. There is still a future worth improving, for many millions more.

Suppose you were a green fanatic who had weaselled your way into the Department for Business Innovation & Skills, and got yourself a job giving money stolen from British taxpayers to friends of yours who construct wind farms for a living, and emitting Niagaras of lies about how that was going to “energise Britain”. How would you feel about walking past all this stuff about oil and gas, every time you went into work in the morning?

You might think that all that lovely oil and gas tax revenue would perhaps enable you and your lying friends to keep the wind farm scam going that little bit longer, and if you did feel that, you might well be right. But I don’t think, on the whole, you’d like what you were seeing every morning. Just keeping your little scam going for a few more years until you are safely retired is hardly what you had in mind when you began it. Then, it was a cause, and you and your pals would be all over the history books, in a nice way. Now, history is looking like it might be taking a somewhat different turn.

For starters, there is no mention in this big lump of verbiage, of green, either as a word or in the form of the actual colour green. There is only a rather garish, shamelessly industrial, orange. “BRITAIN” in big letters also has a nasty, nationalistic taste to it. Whatever happened to saving the world?

More fundamentally, “oil and gas” is everything you hate. Oil and gas is vast, clunky metal structures noisily gouging dirty old energy to set fire to out of defenceless Mother Earth like it’s 1925, or if it now isn’t that, you still think it is, as do millions of others who also think: Hurrah! It’s a whole generation of people saying: Bollocks to wind farms, let’s get rich, again. It’s the whole world saying: “Climate catastrophe? Let’s not worry about that when it doesn’t happen, okay?” Despite all the wind farm idiocy that the Department for Business Innovation & Skills is still shovelling out, I think I smell change here, and for the better.

LATER: Green bloodbath in Australia.

SEE ALSO: Alex Singleton, at the ASI blog, says that Parliament’s cushy consensus over climate change is dead.

Samizdata quote of the day

No one worries too much today about causing pain and suffering to our computer software (although we do comment extensively on the ability of software to cause us suffering), but when future software has the intellectual, emotional, and moral intelligence of biological humans, this will become a genuine concern.

- Ray Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. At some point a computer ceases to become property and becomes an individual.

Al Gore, call your office

There has been a 60 per cent increase in the amount of ocean covered with ice compared to this time last year, they equivalent of almost a million square miles. In a rebound from 2012′s record low an unbroken ice sheet more than half the size of Europe already stretches from the Canadian islands to Russia’s northern shores, days before the annual re-freeze is even set to begin.

From today’s Daily Telegraph. The article goes on to explain how we might now be in a cooling period for the Earth, rather than, as the CAGW alarminsts say, a warming one.

The changing predictions have led to the UN’s climate change’s body holding a crisis meeting, and the the IPCC is due to report on the situation in October. A pre-summit meeting will be held later this month.

I bet that meeting will be a barrel of laughs.

 

George Clooney has a private spy satellite over Sudan

This is old news to some but new to me, and to the Huffington Post, judging from their headline. I had thought Clooney to be the standard Hollywood “liberal”, looking down from a lofty height on the barbarians below. Instead he is looking down from a lofty height on one particular barbarian below in order to deter him from atrocities and warn his potential victims. Cool.

Next stop, armaments.

Which might get hairy, given that some private individuals and nearly all states of the satellite-owning classes are prone to think of themselves as gods already, even without the power to strike down malefactors from the heavens.

3D printing as blogging

Here is a short (under four minutes) video, of a designer and exhibition curator Tom Dixon talking about the changes being brought to the world by 3D printing.

Whenever something new comes along, people typically describe it with a noun which says what it is like, but also with an adjective attached to explain how it is different from that. Think “horseless carriage”. (What will “driverless cars” be called twenty years from now?)

So it has been with 3D printing. This is “printing”, sort of, but not printing as we know it.

Listening to Dixon makes me think is that “3D printing” is actually less like printing, and more like blogging. The crucial difference it makes is in enabling people with opinions about how a … 3D thing … should or could be, but who has not been able or who could not be bothered to interest a Big Manufacturer (think Mainstream Media for bloggers) can now just go ahead and make it (just like a blogger publishing his hitherto ignored opinions). And this new-style designer can sell his new design on the internet too, because distribution has also, already, been taken out of the hands of old school Big Distributors (unless you count Amazon and eBay as Big Distributors). Not all such new designers will do as well as they hope, in fact almost all of them will not. But a few will surely succeed spectacularly, and many will presumably be making lives and livings that could not have been made before.

Dixon uses the phrase “taking matters into their own hands”. These words were my first version of the title of this posting.

Artificial Intelligence vs. Natural Stupidity

“[T]here is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

- H.L. Mencken

A growing movement in the United States seeks to dramatically increase unemployment by imposing ever higher price floors on salaries. The recent conversion in the US of millions of full time jobs to part time to evade new health insurance requirements for full time employees was apparently an insufficient increase in human misery – the elimination of most entry level work on even a part time basis is now also apparently a goal.

For example, see this New York Times article reporting on a recent on fast food workers strike”one day strike by workers at fast food restaurants.

Now, to be fair, most of the people clamoring for new impositions on employers like health insurance and increased minimum wages are in fact unaware that their efforts will simply throw people out of work rather than helping them. Their goal, and I take them at their word, is to attempt to help the poor, not to destroy all hope they have for the future. The fact that their proposals (and sadly, in many cases, actual laws) do exactly the opposite of what they intend is difficult to convey to them.

This seems to be for two reasons. The first is that they are often completely unacquainted with economic thinking, and are unashamed of it or at least believe this ignorance to be irrelevant as economics is not needed (in their view) to analyze their proposals. Second, and worse, they completely focus on their desires over the likely real world effects of what they propose.

Attempts to point out the actual effects of a proposal (and how they are the opposite of what was intended) are often met with one of two responses, and sadly sometimes both. The first is blind repetition of the original rationale (e.g., “but poor people can’t afford to raise their families on what they earn at a fast food restaurant!”) without any attempt to address the question of whether the proposed remedy will in any way fix the original problem. The second is the demand “well, what would you propose doing?”

(As an aside, I will describe one my more vicious tactics, which I’m mildly ashamed of and invoke only when particularly frustrated by combined cases of “well what do you propose?” and “but there is a problem!”

I sometimes mention that my father has been dead for years and I miss him terribly. When I propose to sacrifice the children of the minimum-wage advocate to Baal to propitiate the god and ensure my father’s resurrection, and mention that, if they don’t like the proposal they should give me an alternative, frequently they decline to offer one. Sadly, they rarely see the parallels to their own suggested fixes for the problems of the poor either.)

The desire to help by destroying extends everywhere these days — one can barely open a newspaper without encountering it. For example, there is now a “labor activist” jihad against unpaid internships, which has, sadly, seen some considerable success in US courts and regulatory agencies.

The result is already predictable. Internships are starting disappear entirely. People clamored for such internships not because they enjoyed working for free but because they desperately wanted to get real-world job experience onto their résumés so they could get a paying job later. Legions of college students, deeply in debt from loans pushed on them by the state and having majored in utterly useless topics like “Communications”, will soon find themselves unable repair the damage their education has done to them even by offering to work for free in exchange for experience, and will be even less employable. Victory for the self-proclaimed “advocates”, misery for the putative objects of their “assistance”.

A sort of minor victory for the market appears to be brewing, however.

It will not, sadly, provide jobs for the poor and unskilled. Jobs can only be provided by an employer who stands to make more by employing an individual than that individual costs to employ, and, in the case of workers at the bottom of the skills ladder, paying an employee less than they cost has been made illegal by the state.

These new developments will, however, at least lower the cost of goods that are sold to everyone, including the poor, and they may keep the economy from contracting under the dead weight of yet more labor regulation.

I am speaking, of course, of automation. More and more companies, faced by the “helpful people destroying others lives” lobby, are figuring out ways to replace their employees with machines.

I opened by mentioning the recent fast food restaurant strikes. Should the various “labor organizers” succeed at increasing the cost of restaurant labor, one result may be that such jobs could vanish altogether. A startup called Momentum Machines is already working on fast food restaurants with completely automated kitchens. They claim that they will be able to produce a better, tastier and more consistent product as well. Whether this particular firm succeeds or not is almost irrelevant — if they do not, the idea is out there, and others will follow in their footsteps.

Similarly, faced with increasing pressure to improve pay and benefits for semi-skilled assembly line workers, Foxconn, the Chinese contract electronics manufacturing giant, has decided to replace almost all of those workers with robots. Whether this was entirely because of the helpful assistance of “activists”, including some who simply made up stories about the company for lack of real problems to discuss, or is simply because the time is ripe, I cannot say. Regardless, Foxconn has already deployed its first 20,000 robots.

I find it hopeful that, even if we cannot prevent the legions of well-meaning destroyers from wreaking additional havoc on the lives of others, we can at least bypass their more egregiously foolish ideas. They may be able to eliminate jobs for millions, but they will not be able to eliminate the industries they target, which will simply operate without human employees.