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]

Missing the wider story

Today’s big political story in the UK is the resignation, due to expenses she had claimed, of Maria Miller. Her ministerial post had been that of “Culture Secretary”; her brief had included the role of regulation of the media, and the whole wretched power-grab known as the Leveson Report.

It won’t have occurred to most of those in the Westminster Village who write and chat about such things, but for me, as a slash-and-burn small-government type, what I’d like to think of is that we get rid of such an Orwellian-sounding post as “Culture Secretary”.

The business of sport, media and the arts should not be under the control, or even vague oversight, of the State, in my view. Since when, for example, have the doings of Premiership footballers been the proper concern of politicians? In an age of crowdfunding platforms, and due to the continued philanthropic involvement in such matters, as well as plain good entrepreneurship, why should money be forcibly taken from people in tax to spend on art galleries or whatever? Why should a state interest itself in how the television industry is run (abolish the BBC licence fee, etc)? Getting rid of this ministry would be a part of a wider retrenchment of the State to what arguably are its core functions. At the very least, the scrapping of this post, and the associated quangos it deals with, would signal that we haven’t given up on the noble idea of rolling back the State.

Needless to say, I am dreaming impossible dreams. It may have something to do with it being such a gloriously sun-kissed April morning here in London.

The Heartbleed bug

The Heartbleed bug is one of the more serious computer security vulnerabilities I have seen. It was discovered yesterday and is just starting to hit mainstream media now, so I will summarise my understanding of it.

It affects some web sites that use HTTPS secure connections. The purpose of HTTPS is, among other things, to encrypt data sent between your computer and the web server, so that anyone who sees the data in transit across the internet cannot read it. So it is used whenever you log in to a web site or enter personal information. You know you are using it when your web browser displays a little padlock icon somewhere.

The bug is in a software library that implements HTTPS, called OpenSSL. Not all web sites use this library, but many do. The bug affects certain versions of the library. Importantly, though, the bug has been in the library since December 2011, and has only recently been detected and fixed.

During this time, an attacker who knew about the bug could send a request to a web server, and get back some random information from the server’s memory that should not be public. This information could be almost anything known by the web server software. It is a lucky dip: the attacker can not choose what information he will get. Importantly, though, it can include server certificates, and user names and passwords of the web site’s users.

Having obtained a certificate, an attacker could spy on data transferred from the user to the web site, including passwords and any information entered. This is not trivial, but can be quite easy in certain circumstances. For example, anyone can sit in a coffee shop and intercept WiFi traffic of other customers using WiFi in the shop, but they will only get information about the other coffee shop customers. On the other hand, the NSA can presumably spy on all data sent to any web site. There will be attackers with levels of sophistication between these extremes. Normally a web browser will shout warnings at you if a HTTPS connection has been intercepted. Having a web site’s certificate enables an attacker to silence such warnings.

User names and passwords can also be obtained directly using the Heartbleed bug. This only happens on certain web sites, and the details retrieved are random. It is not possible to quickly obtain all details of all users. Rather, every time the attack is made, one or two users’ details might be revealed. That said, the attack can be repeated, and in two years it can be repeated a lot. So a determined attacker could gather details of many people in this time. This is real. Users on Reddit were claiming to have seen Yahoo Mail passwords as recently as a few hours ago. Right now, Yahoo Mail is fixed.

So what can you do? Realise that you are affected, but don’t panic. There is a very good chance none of your details have leaked. You can not be certain, but you already were not certain. There are likely many more security holes that are not yet common knowledge. However, on services that you have particularly sensitive information, it would be wise to first check that the bug has been fixed, and then change your password.

You can check if the bug currently affects a given service with an online tool. If the service is at all high profile, it is a fairly safe bet that it is already fixed. But you can not tell if your details or a service’s certificate have been leaked in the past. Unless a service takes action, credentials and certificates obtained in the last two years can still be used by attackers to log in or spy on communications. Hopefully web administrators will communicate whether they have been affected and whether they have changed their certificates, so watch for announcements.

When you change your passwords, now is a good time to stop using the same password for every service you use. Start using a password manager such as LastPass, 1Password or Password Safe. All of these are acceptably safe in my opinion, but there is some interesting discussion on this topic. The great thing is that a password manager will generate a different, random, impossible to guess password for each site you use, meaning that if someone does find out your password to one service, the damage is limited to that service.

If a service offers two factor authentication, where you use a smartphone app which generates an ever-changing code, use that, because it means knowing your password alone is useless to an attacker.

If you run a web server that uses HTTPS and handles users’ information, educate yourself, upgrade, and inform your users.

More generally, if you can possibly arrange to live your life under the assumption that everything you have ever done on the internet could become public knowledge tomorrow, you could save yourself a lot of trouble. Keeping secrets is hard.

Calling Colonel Stauffenberg…

… or however that name would best translate into Korean… Just make sure there is not a thick table leg between the briefcase and the psychotic dictator in need of urgent removal from the material plane of existence.

I mean seriously guys, forget the wacko ideology for a moment… if you are anyone who is anyone in North Korea, and you would quite like to still be smelling the fragrant aroma of kimchi this time next year, how much of a hint do you need that it is long past time that Chubby Chops went to meet his ancestors?

Is that the dawn of a brighter future I see over yonder?

It seems the prospects for Scotland to depart from its long standing political union with the UK (in truth one really can say ‘…with England’ as no one actually thinks this is about Ulster and Wales) has noticeably improved.

Indeed I cannot help wondering if the dawn of Scottish Independence, or as I prefer to call it, English Independence, will be followed by the thundering sounds of Scotland’s entrepreneurs driving their cattle south, as they decamp en-mass to London before Glasgow is renamed Havana-on-Clyde and they awake one day to find their Sterling bank accounts now denominated in Cuban Pesos, and not the convertible ones.

I foresee a considerable increase in the overall exuberance levels of the London Party Scene, and yet another (whiskey tinged) puff of air into the immense property market bubble currently floating over the Thames.

Samizdata quote of the day

There was a time when an element of the Labour party was Methodist in a non cocaine, stealing money, and rent boy sense.

- Paul Marks

Globalisation and the rise of the “1.0 Percenters”

“Those soaring incomes of the top 0.01% are only going to apply to those very few indeed who can make that leap from performing on the national to the global stage. And there’s really not enough of such people that I think it’s something that we’ve got to worry about. 0.01% of the US population is, for example, 3,000 people. Seriously, what does it actually matter to the rest of us what they earn? Especially as they’re not earning it by moving from taking 10 cents each to a $1 each off each of us 300 million, they’re doing it by moving from taking that same 10 cents each of each of us and then making up the other 90 cents by taking fractions off the other 7 billion people on the planet. As I say, this isn’t a foolproof, watertight, explanation of what’s going on. But now we’re seeing that it is the top 0.01% taking that extra income the evidence is at least consistent with my explanation. That it’s all being driven by globalisation: and as such there’s not a dang thing we want to do about it.”

- Tim Worstall. Yes, you may have noticed that I spell globalisation with an s, not a z. Pax Americana hasn’t yet spread to my London-based laptop.

The Institute of Economic Affairs and its support for Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014

One of the most encouraging things happening to the British pro-free-market and libertarian movement is the outreach work being done by the Institute of Economic Affairs, to students at British universities and in British schools. In this IEATV video Steven Davies and Christiana Hambro describe what they have been getting up to in this area. They are a bit stilted in their delivery and demeanour. Steve Davies in particular is a rather more relaxed, animated and persuasive public performer than this short video makes him seem. I get the feeling that there were retakes, as they negotiated car doors and seatbelts when on camera. But if any of this inclines you to be put off, don’t be, because the process these two excellent people are talking about in this video is definitely the genuine article.

They mention the Freedom Forum. This has, says Davies “rapidly become the biggest gathering of pro-liberty students and young people in the UK”. The latest iteration of this, Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014, is happening next weekend and its detailed timetable has just been announced. If this get-together was just a one-off annual event with nothing else related to it happening, that would definitely still be something, although I do agree with those who say that the title of these things is a bit of a mouthful. But LLFF2014 is a great deal more than just an annual event, being but the London manifestation of a much bigger program of intellectual and ideological outreach to universities and to schools throughout the UK.

Recently I dropped in at the IEA, where Christiana Hambro and her IEA colleague Grant Tucker made time to tell me in person about what they have been doing. I also picked their about people who might be good to invite to talk at my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings. For me, the most interesting thing that they said to me was in answer to my question concerning to what extent their outreach activities were piggy-backing on the earlier efforts of the Adam Smith Institute, efforts which have been going on for many years, under the leadership of ASI President Madsen Pirie. What Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said was that when it came to outreach to universities, then yes, their work does depend on earlier ASI efforts. University economics departments are tough nuts to crack open with contrary ideas, and the best way to get to universities is by working with free market and libertarian student societies, rather than relying on the intellectual hospitality of academics. The ASI has done a huge amount to encourage such groups over the years, and without such groups what the IEA is now doing in universities would have been harder to accomplish.

But in schools, it has been a very different story. The ASI has done plenty of work in schools as well over the years, but what Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said to me was that basically, in schools, the IEA’s outreach operation is basically operating in virgin territory, with economics pupils all of whom have heard of Keynes, for instance, but none of whom have ever heard of Hayek. Another way of putting that might be to say that when it comes to preaching free market economics to British schools, this is a town that is plenty big enough for the both of them.

Schools are also different from universities in often being much more open to different ideas than universities are. Universities are dominated by people who take ideas seriously, but this can have the paradoxical result that many universities and university departments become bastions of bias and groupthink, all about deciding what is true and then defending it against all heretical comers. Schools, on the other hand, some at least, are more concerned to persuade their often indifferent pupils to care, at all, about ideas of any kind, which, again rather paradoxically, makes many such schools far more open to unfamiliar ideas than many universities. A teacher may be a devout Keynesian, even a Marxist. But if these IEA people from London can help him stir up his pupils’ minds by showing economics to be an arena of urgent and contemporary intellectual and ideological conflict rather than merely a huge stack of dull facts mostly about the past, then he is liable to be very grateful to these intruders, even if he flatly disagrees with their particular way of thinking.

Present at this Liberty League Freedom Forum that is coming up next weekend, which I will be attending (just as I attended LLFF2013 last year), will be some of the products of all this outreach. Someone like me has heard most of the featured speakers before, some of them many times. But many of the people at LLFF2014 will be hearing talks from people only a very few of whom they have ever encountered before. Here are some of the topics which they may find themselves learning about: Public Speaking and Networking, Doing Virtuous Business, How To Be A Journalist, and (my personal favourite) Setting Up A Society (i.e. a school or university pro-liberty society).

As for me, no matter how many times I hear Steve Davies speak, I am always keen to hear what he has to say about something new, and this year, I am particularly looking forward to him answering the question: “But who will build the roads?” In my opinion, when Libertaria finally gets going, somewhere on this planet, defence policy (often regarded as a big headache) will be very simple. Just allow the citizens of Libertaria to arm themselves. But, building “infrastructure”, while nevertheless taking property rights seriously (instead of merely taking seriously the idea of taking people’s property from them to make infrastructure) will, I think, be much more tricky. I look forward very much to hearing what Davies has to say about this.

Too bad that his talk clashes with the one about Setting Up A Society. I’d love to sit in at the back of that one also, and maybe I will pick that one on the day. That such clashes will happen is my one regret about this event. But you can see why they want to do things this way. As well as big gatherings, they also want small ones, in which new talent feels more comfortable about expressing itself, and flagging itself up as worth networking with, by other talent.

I recall writing a blog posting here a while back, in which I described a talk I heard the IEA’s then newly appointed Director Mark Littlewood about his plans for the IEA. Right near the end of that piece, which I think still stands up very well, I wrote that: “there is now considerable reason to be optimistic about the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs”.

There still is, and even more so.

Georgian welfare

I am reading Pride and Prejudice, annotated by David M. Stoppard. It’s the part of the novel where Elizabeth is starting to figure out that Darcy might be an all right bloke after all. Mrs Gardiner and Darcy’s housekeeper are discussing him:

“His father was an excellent man,” said Mrs Gardiner.

“Yes Ma’am, that he was indeed; and his son will be just like him — just as affable to the poor.” [34]

Note 34 reads:

Helping the poor was an important function for one in Darcy’s position. The large numbers of people in this society with meager incomes, and the fairly limited means of public support available, meant that the need for such assistance was often great, especially in years of poor harvests.

Shortly after, and related:

“He is the best landlord, and the best master,” said she, “that ever lived. Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name. [37]

Note 37 reads:

The tenants would be those renting land on the estate and farming it; they could have frequent reason to deal with the owner, especially since owners could help fund improvements to the land that would raise productivity and benefit both owner and tenant.

So it turns out that it is not the case that the state is the only thing standing in the way of the rich laughing as the poor starve. And poor harvests? Thanks to globalisation, the “poor” have it easy now-a-days.

Russia… lets keep a sense of proportion

The subject of Russia has been on many peoples minds ever since the shenanigans started happening in the Crimea.

Russia needs to be taken ‘seriously’ but please people, they ain’t Nazi Germany circa 1935. They are a busted flush. Ukraine? Yeah, unfortunate but history does not apportion its favours with kindness. If they try the same in the Baltics, well sure, lets go to war with them. No kidding. Seriously, lets rip Russia a new one. Oh and Poland says “Thanks for giving us Kaliningrad, Vladimir! Or as it will henceforth be known, Królewiec!”

But I doubt that is how it will play out, because I think Putin is not even nearly that delusional.

Even if the USA picked up its toys and went home in a huff, which they won’t I might add, more’s the pity for the hapless US taxpayer, the effete dissipated welfare addicted gender quota apportioned peoples of Europe that dwell so prominently in the imaginations of Real Men From Texas (or wherever), are actually quite capable of keeping the Russian Hordes, in their rust covered jalopies with siphoned fuel tanks, from sweeping across the steppes and threatening to once again park themselves somewhere near the Fulda Gap, presumably out of nostalgia for a place with half decent food. Russia… big dick, but no shoes.

I have often said the difference between British and American arrogance is the Brits think they run the world, the Americans think they are the world. Yet somehow the world will bumble along even if either don’t get involved with spanking Putin. The US should just fixate the collective paranoia on China because that actually is something of a Good Old Fashioned Looming Threat, of the kind much loved by people like Boeing and Lockheed.

The wrong sort of inspiration

Have you ever heard or read a speech in real life or fiction that left you inspired, moved, exalted, perhaps even blinking back tears… only to remember a minute later that you fundamentally disagreed with every word?

Samizdata quote of the day

The only thing the West needs to do to see the final end of Russia as the historical threat it has always been is… do nothing. Talk a bit, posture a bit, make a few disapproving clucking sounds when Putin has one of his bare shirted Mussolini cosplay days, but essentially… do nothing. Just wait and watch. Russia’s catastrophic demographics and fragile resource based economics are doing everything the West needs.

- Perry de Havilland

Tim Worstall finally gets the information on climate catastrophe

One of the many ways in which the debate about “climate change” (as the climate catastrophists now describe their catastrophic and catastrophically silly opinions) is that those on the side of the free market who publicly surrendered to the climate catastrophists (back in the days when “climate change” was still known as “global warming”) are seeking to renegotiate their original surrender.

Most of us free marketeers started out reckoning that there might be something in all this Global Warming talk. At first we were ready to believe what we did not want to believe. But then we looked into it a bit, and we then concluded that what we wanted to believe was what we actually did believe, and now do believe with ever growing conviction. Climate catastrophism was and continues to be made-up nonsense. It was and is driven: by anti-capitalist lefties who found a substitute for their fading fantasy of mass human immiseration in another fantasy about an immiserated environment; by corrupted scientists looking to keep on feeding at the public trough; by corrupt businessmen ditto and on a far grander scale; and by media people looking for catastrophic headlines to grab attention, sell newspapers and boost hit-rates. With lots of overlap between these various categories, and probably with several more categories that I have temporarily forgotten about.

But a few free marketeers, either for tactical reasons or out of genuine conviction, continued to trust the climate catastrophists. One such was Tim Worstall, who now writes, at the Adam Smith Institute blog:

As you all know I’m boringly mainstream in my views over climate change. The scientists tell us that we’ve got to do something, the economists that that something is a carbon tax so I say, great, let’s have a carbon tax.

Or rather, that is what Worstall said at the start of his piece, but from which he then immediately starts to retreat. For his next sentence reads as follows:

And then we get information that rather changes this so far sterile debate:

He then quotes from the Wall Street Journal, on the subject of the latest pronouncement from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

It puts the overall cost at less than 2% of GDP for a 2.5 degrees Centigrade (or 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature increase during this century. This is vastly less than the much heralded prediction of Lord Stern, who said climate change would cost 5%-20% of world GDP in his influential 2006 report for the British government.

In other words, the “climate orthodoxy” used to be that there was going to be a climate catastrophe, very soon, and people like Worstall said: Okay, so what do we do? But now, the more honest among the climate scientists, hammered away at for the last decade and more by their “climate skeptic” critics, are instead admitting that their precious catastrophe is, to put it mildly, unproven. There will be no catastrophe very soon, they now concede, and very possibly no catastrophe at all. We don’t know, really.

Which is exactly what that debate that Worstall says has been so “sterile” has been all about. It is understandable that Worstall wants to declare that a vitally important argument, full of sound and fury and signifying a hell of a lot, that he picked the wrong side of and has stayed on the wrong side of, year after year, was “sterile”, but this need not impress anyone else.

Finally, Tim Worstall has got the information.

Should the rest of us climate skeptics welcome Worstall, and all the other ex-swallowers of or ex-believers in immediate climate catastrophe, into the land of the sane, or continue to sneer at such people for having been so wrong for so long? Personally, as you can see, I choose to indulge in a little sneering. But I also note that this hideously belated and still absurdly muddled admission of error by Tim Worstall is yet one more sign that this highly significant debate continues to move in the right direction. The debate isn’t moving fast enough to save the world a huge slice of its wealth, with much more squandering to come. But, every little helps.