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]

Boring Jobs vs. Automation

The BBC have been soliciting stories about boring jobs. An example:

I put pepperoni on 14,000 pizzas per day at a factory in Nottingham. If the conveyor belt broke down, we made smiley faces on the pizzas with the pepperoni. So if you ever see a smiley pizza, that’s why.

It is mostly a list of things that can be automated away, because boring implies repetitive. In software development we try to never do the same thing more than a few times. Software is easy to automate compared to physical things like putting toppings on pizza, but any boring job looks to me like an opportunity for an inventor.

Food production seems to be the source of a lot of these jobs. Perhaps robotics lecturer Steve Davis can offer some insight:

More recently, the availability of highly effective pick-and-place robots allowed automation to move upstream and undertake operations with actual food products on production lines. However, these systems are currently only generally installed on the high-volume, long-life, single-product lines. Smaller companies, which constitute over 90 percent of European food manufacturers, have been much slower to incorporate automation. The reasons for this include limited low-cost labor and expertise, market volatility, a belief that automation is unsuitable for the assembly of soft, variable, fragile, slippery/sticky natural products and the predominance of short-term orders, which discouraged capital investments in automation.

The cost of the machinery might be reduced by making more general purpose machines that can be sold off the shelf in larger quantities. And the skill level required to configure the machines can probably be reduced, to a point, with clever user interface design.

Pick and place robots are fun to watch, too.

Samizdata quote of the day

Present reality is that science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That’s the not-so-tongue-in-cheek message in Science on the Verge, a new book by European scientist Andrea Saltelli and seven other contributors. Science on the Verge is a 200-page indictment of what to the lay reader appears to be a monumental deterioration across all fields, from climate science to health research to economics. The mere idea that “most published research results are false” should be cause for alarm. But it is worse than that.

Just about everything we take for granted in modern science, from the use of big data to computer models of major parts of our social, economic and natural environment and on to the often absurd uses of statistical methods to fish for predetermined conclusions.

Terence Corcoran

Cryptography is good

Stack Exchange is a site, or a collection of sites, where people post questions on various subjects, other people post answers and yet others vote on whether they like both the questions and the answers. High-voted posts “float to the top of the heap”. Here is a post from the “Information Security” stack exchange that recently “trended” as one of the most popular questions overall: How to explain that “Cryptography is good” to non-techie friends. And here are extracts from the two topmost answers in terms of votes:

“If lack of encryption allows FBI to catch terrorists, then lack of encryption allows criminals to loot your emails and plunder your bank account.”

The rational point here is that technology is morally neutral. Encryption does not work differently depending on whether the attacker is morally right and the defender morally wrong, or vice versa.


I would take their argument and replace “cryptography” with “locks and keys on our houses” and see if they still agree:

If more terrorists and criminals would be caught by not having locks and keys on our houses, I would not blame warrantless searches by government and companies in our homes.

I know little of cryptography, but those arguments seem good to me.

Facebook and Tor

I enjoyed this tweet. Regulars might recognise the name.

My Number

The new unified identification system with its associated up-to-the-minute database will streamline government, reduce fraud and tax evasion, make it easier to stop people “falling between the cracks” of different government departments, provide a convenient single means for citizens to prove their identity, and protect us all from terrorism. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

What will bring about all these benefits? It sounds very like the UK Identity Cards Act 2006, but that cannot be since various malcontents forced the Act’s repeal in 2010. While it is true that for the British Civil Servant no setback is ever permanent, for now the torch has passed to Japan, where the latest version of the Eternal Scheme is called “My Number”.

Even in such a cooperative and law-abiding culture as Japan there are the inevitable troublemakers:

More Japan citizens sue gov’t over My Number system

Around 30 citizens in central and southwestern Japan filed lawsuits Thursday with regional courts, demanding the government suspend the use of identification numbers under the newly launched My Number social security and tax number system.

The lawsuits are the latest in a string of cases in which residents and lawyers argue that the right to privacy is endangered by the system, which allocates a 12-digit identification number to every resident of Japan, including foreign nationals, to simplify administrative procedures for taxation and social security.

Mitsuhiro Kato, who heads the lawyers’ group in the lawsuit with the Nagoya District Court, said at a press conference, “There were cases in which personal information was (illegally) sold and bought. Once the use of My Number expands, the state would come to control individual activities.”

According to the lawsuit, the action to collect citizens’ personal information without their consent infringes on their right to manage their own personal information. The plaintiffs are also worried about the risk of their personal information being leaked given the insufficient security measures currently in place.

My Number legislation has been enacted to make it easier for tax and other authorities to discover cases of tax evasion and wrongful receipt of welfare benefits.

But public concerns have grown over the government’s handling of personal information under the My Number system following massive data leaks from the Japan Pension Service in the wake of cyberattacks in May.

Here is a little more about that massive data leak from, or rather hack of, the Japanese pension system: 1.25 million affected by Japan Pension Service hack.

But fear not:

The hacked computers were not connected online to the fund’s core computer system, which keeps financial details of the pension system’s members, officials said. No illicit access to the core system, which contains the most sensitive information, such as the amount of premiums paid by and the amount of benefits paid to each individual, has been detected, they said, adding that they are still investigating the incident.

It is remarkable how when we read about these government data security breaches in any country, the most alarming possibilities always seem to have been avoided. Some special providence must protect government databases.

The public face of My Number is provided by popular actress Aya Ueto and a rabbit-like mascot with numbers in place of eyes called “Maina-chan”.

El Niño 2016 strikes

NASA, via The Guardian (and other old media) is trumpeting catastrophe again. “February breaks global temperature records by ‘shocking’ amount” says the headline. “We are in a kind of climate emergency now,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.

On the other hand, towards the end of that article, they mention the El Niño. At Watts Up With That, Bob Tisdale provides some analysis and graphs. I think figure 6 provides the most useful overview, showing up to 0.17 degrees C per decade warming depending on who measures it. I suppose this might just be warming since the little ice age, or man-made but not terribly frightening.

A Guardian commenter wrote: “We spend so much time debating and arguing over things like benefits and the economy. Stories like this end up disregarded. The truth seems terrifying – this is the single biggest crisis facing all of humanity.”

I replied: “It’s either the single biggest crisis facing all of humanity, or an el Nino that fits in nicely with the between 0.12 and 0.17 degrees C per decade warming we’ve seen since satellite measurements began (which is what all this turned out to be back in 1998). Personally I hope the economy does well, because people with the wealth of middle-class westerners can cope better with a bit of bad weather than can subsistence farmers in the kinds of places that don’t have economic freedom.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Twentieth-century eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents from passing on traits they deemed deleterious. Now 21st-century eugenicists contend the government should require parents to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious to their children, whether they want to or not. What sort of horrors are parents who want to take advantage of modern gene editing likely to impose on their hapless offspring? Fixing genes that increase the risk of ill health and perhaps adding those that boost their chances of having more vigorous bodies, nimbler brains, and greater disease resistance.

Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be eugenicist central planners. Government diktats about what sort of children people can have are always wrong.

Ronald Bailey, making many excellent points why the state needs to stay away from this entire subject… which of course it will not. Fortunately in this era of cheap air travel, genetic engineering can and will be done in a clinic pretty much anywhere if the market for that service exists, which it will.

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