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]

Shoes ‘R’ Us

For the last 15 years, or so, I’ve earned my daily bread in and around the arena of Unix programming, whether that has been managing databases, programming in various flavours of shell script, writing technical specifications, or teaching programming. When one is living in ‘Unix World’, there are certain conventions that one must adhere to, and the central one is wearing sandals.

Fortunately, being a contrary sort of person, I’ve managed to resist this. I have occasionally succumbed to the continuous 24-hour donning of SuSE Linux polo shirts, the drinking of large quantities of real ale, and the growing of beards (once), but until this year I’d managed to avoid the big one.

But alas, no longer. With the collapse of the database and telecom networking industries in the Thames Valley, where I’d carried out many cosy assignments, I was forced out of my air-conditioned sub-one-hour trips to Abingdon, Camberley, and Reading, and plonked into the sadistic clutches of Thames Trains, Network Rail, and the London Underground, as all the consultancy work contracted into a small hard-core area of central London.

So what’s all this got to do with sandals? Well, I’m a cold weather person. I like snow. I like skiing. I like warm fires, and thick blankets, and cocoa round the hearth. What I really can’t tolerate is hot humid weather of the sort we’ve been having this summer in London and its surrounding regions, especially when trapped within a Thames Train cattle-truck where the windows won’t open and the air-conditioning has failed, or at any time on the Bakerloo line, where I swear the humidity last week hit 763%. Or at least it felt like it did. → Continue reading: Shoes ‘R’ Us

La Vita not so Dolce

Yesterday the Telegraph published an interesting account of life in Italy, namely Rome. The author opens his article with the following paragraph:

“How lucky you are to be living in Italy.” “That must be heaven.” “I do envy you.” If you live in Rome, as I do, you get used to comments like these. But you soon realise that the idyllic vision of Italy suffers from just one drawback: it is almost complete rubbish.

I must admit this caught my attention since Rome has long been my favourite place of escape for a long weekend. The scenery, food, wine, weather, shopping… Indeed, what’s there not to like?

For the first few months after you move here, all is indeed perfect. The sun is warm, the people are welcoming, the language is a joy, the food is delicious, the wine is cheap, and everyone is a pleasure to look at. You congratulate yourself on your wisdom and you pity your friends who are still locked up in their grey, northern offices.

The enchantment, however, does not last long:

But then you begin to realise that in this new paradise you face a major problem: it is virtually impossible to earn a living. Take Rome. To live here with a minimum of dignity (renting a small flat, eating out occasionally, but no car and no proper holidays), you need a good 3,000 euros a month pre-tax, say 1,800 euros post-tax (roughly £2,100 and £1,250 respectively). However modest this seems, it is not what you will get. While in the Anglo-Saxon world most adults expect to be able to live independently off their salaries, in Italy most don’t. They stay with their families. Indeed, a staggering 70 per cent of single Italian men between the ages of 25 and 29 live in subsidised comfort at home, where their meagre earnings do very nicely as pocket money. And when they do move out to the stability of marriage or cohabitation, it is generally into a flat that is provided by the family.

…after a while, you begin to appreciate the true cost of the many undoubted joys of living in Italy. You realise, for example, that the flip-side of the cheerful noise and chaos is the mind-boggling complication of life here, the Italian inability – no, refusal – to organise anything or to think ahead.

How does the EU fit into the picture?

In other words, Italy is, in many ways, a banana republic. That is why, until recently – until they realised what a forlorn hope it was – the Italians were so mightily keen on the EU: they were praying that Brussels would save them from themselves. As a British ambassador once said to me: “Italy? No one takes it seriously. The place is a joke.”

And finally, there is the conclusion that Luigi Barzini came to 40 years ago at the end of The Italians, his classic portrait of the nation:

The Italian way of life cannot be considered a success except by temporary visitors. It solves no problems. It makes them worse. It would be a success of sorts if at least it made Italians happy. It does not. Its effects are costly, flimsy and short-range. The people enjoy its temporary advantages, to be sure, without which they could not endure life, but are constantly tormented by discontent The unsolved problems pile up and inevitably produce catastrophes at regular intervals. The Italians always see the next one approaching with a clear eye but cannot do anything to ward it off. They can only play their amusing games and delude themselves for a while.

Interesting… Any comments, insights or opinions?

Secret history

If you are interested in space history, have I got the link for you.

This is the now declassified National Intelligence Briefing given to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in January 1967 on the topic of the soviet lunar program.


Sharp edges on sale in Spain

I recently returned from an extremely relaxing weekend in the fine Spanish city of Barcelona with my girlfriend. I have fallen for the great Catalan metropolis, the home of the weird and wonderful architecture of Gaudi.

During a stroll around the old city centre, I came across one of the most astonishing shops I have ever seen. It was a shop selling just about every kind of sword, knife and gun. Samurai swords nestled among racks of old Winchester repeater rifles, copies of 15th century broadswords, cutlasses, calvalry sabres, hunting knives, old pistols. Amazing.

I do not speak Spanish very well, so I wasn’t able to discover from the shop owner as to what kind of laws exist in Spain regulating the sale of such weapons, but it was clear that laws in Spain are far, far more liberal than is the case in Britain. And on the basis of trips to other parts of Continental Europe, it would appear that the law is also more liberal than in the UK.

Why this is so is something on which I don’t have an easy answer. Spain is a country less infected, so it seems to me, by political correctness and the culture of ‘victimhood’. Whatever else you think of it as an activity, a country that embraces bullfighting as one of its most popular ‘sports’ clearly has not fallen under the rule of Guardianistas (although I find bullfighting pretty revolting).

We often slip into the comforting notion that we in the free Anglosphere are so much less regulated than our European peers, and in the realm of business and finance, this is true, on the whole. But let’s give credit where credit is due. It appears that in certain aspects of life, Europe is actually more liberal.

Oh, and the tapas tasted fantastic.

Biometric passport ‘back door to ID cards’

This Telegraph article gives a slightly different angle to Guardian’s story yesterday as it talks about the ID pilot scheme in the context of a new biometric passport:

David Blunkett was accused yesterday of using a pilot scheme for a new biometric passport as a test run for a national identity card. Civil liberties campaigners said the Home Secretary was disguising his true purposes in a backdoor attempt to gauge public reaction to ID cards.

Over the next few years, passports are to be adapted to resemble credit cards containing biometric information, such as iris patterns or fingerprints.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said:

The Home Office is being disingenuous. They know that they can’t trial ID cards without parliamentary approval, so they are doing it through the back door… They have admitted that the information gleaned from this so-called passport trial will be used for the purposes of an ID card.

The state is not your friend.

Girl’s stuff

This needs to be read here:

I’m still reading this blog, and I’m still not feeling like blogging for it. And I’ve finally figured out why. It’s a boys’ club. Not that I don’t love boys, but it’s one thing hanging out in the bar with them and quite another trying to get them to take you seriously when you’re talking, um, golf, with them. Digital ink, ID cards, government inquiries, Mars, US politics, transport … it’s a man’s world. And frankly, I am not man enough to go up there and start talking about shoes. Don’t interpret any of that as insulting: I read Samizdata every day, and find it not only interesting and righter than lots of other places, but diverse and entertaining as well. In a very very male kind of a way.

Hm. Yeah. Good point, er, what did you say your name was again? Alice. Yeah. So. Tell us about shoes then. How are they designed? – do they use the latest materials for those super-thin high heels? – you know, the ones the Space Programme made for the outsides of Shuttles, I bet they do, and get those acrylic surfaces, first used in the automobile industry I believe (although I’m open to correction on this – I’m not any sort of techno-fanatic you understand), for the Ford Psychopath ZPX100 Concept Car in 1971 which never made it into production but which looked really cool, like a Dan Dare rocket …

That’s enough about shoes. Get a load of this:

Shaped like a giant jellyfish and sheltered from the sun beneath its own artificial clouds, the world’s first underwater luxury hotel is to open beneath the waves of the Persian Gulf within three years.

The 220-suite Hydropolis Hotel in the Arab emirate of Dubai will cost £310 million to build. It aims to charge guests up to £3,500 per night and to provide them with the last word in undersea luxury.

It will be built of toughened, clear plastic Plexiglas, concrete and steel. Guests will be able to experience the sensation of sleeping in the sea by booking a bubble-shaped suite – including a clear glass bath tub – offering views of the sea life all around.

For those worried about terrorist attack, it will boast a high level of security, including anti-missile radar. If disaster does strike in one section, it can be sealed off with watertight doors.

Babe magnet or what?

Actually, Alice might quite like a night in that.

From lawyers to informants

I don’t think that this article from August 13th, by Paul Craig Roberts, has had any mention here. If it has, apologies for not noticing. If not, better very late than never, I hope you agree.

Opening paragraphs:

When will the first lawyer be arrested, indicted and sent to prison for failing to help the government convict his client? You can bet it will be soon. Once the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Justice (sic) complete their assault on the attorney-client privilege, they will rush to make an example of a lawyer, lest any fail to understand that their new role in life is to serve as government informants on their clients.

Just as government bureaucrats used the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to assault the Bill of Rights and our constitutional protections, they are now using “accounting scandals” and “tax evasion” to assault the attorney-client privilege, a key component of the Anglo-American legal system that enables a defendant, whether guilty or innocent, to mount a defense against the overwhelming power of the state.

This is the sort of thing that David Carr has been writing about in Britain, for some time now.

Magic ink on magic paper

Ever since Instapundit pointed out, during all that faking of stories scandal, that the NYT may be politically all over the place on pages one, two, etc., but that on page n as n tends to infinity it has great technology coverage, I’ve been making a point of looking at that, and he’s right.

This, for example, from the New York Times today, sounds really interesting:

Standing on four metal legs, under two banks of fluorescent lights, was what appeared to be a modest-size billboard, measuring about 9 feet wide by 4 feet in height. Across its face, which looks like paper under glass, was a full-color advertisement for a soft drink maker. A few moments later the ad disappeared and was digitally replaced with a different one, and then another, like a screensaver cycling through images on a laptop computer screen.

But the surface of this billboard is not a liquid crystal diode screen – the energy-hungry display common to laptops and increasingly to cellphones, digital cameras, digital organizers and flat-screen computer monitors and television sets. Neither does this billboard share the light-emitting-diode technology that makes million-dollar-plus video screens light up the night in Times Square, Las Vegas and sports arenas around the world.

What makes the electronic billboard in Jersey City possible (and those installed for trials in London, Tokyo, Toronto and Panama City, among other locations) is an innovation by a New York-based display technology company whose name, Magink, is a combination of the words magic and ink. Its approach to imaging departs from the way most text, graphics and images are electronically presented, including the way expensive plasma screens work, as well as cathode-ray tubes, the old workhorses still found in most television sets and desktop computer monitors.

By creating a paste made of tiny helix-shaped particles that can be minutely manipulated with electric charges to reflect light in highly specific ways, Magink can produce surfaces that look like paper but behave like electronic screens, rendering high-resolution, full-color images without ink – or, as Magink executives like to refer to the process, with digital ink.

Ran Poliakine, chief executive of Magink, said the idea was to create visually compelling ads that could be replaced frequently – perhaps hourly, based on consumer response – and could be controlled remotely, all with far less energy and at a far lower cost than a video billboard.

It looks like paper. It’s cheaper than the usual screens, and easier to update. “Digital ink.” Wow.

I’m not any sort of techno-buff, but it sounds as if this technology differs radically from the usual screen technology in that it starts out being pretty big, but is rather hard to make small enough to fit on my desk. But they’ll get there, surely.

I don’t know about you, but when I am faced with a twenty page article on the internet, I do a print-out. Paper is just so much nicer than that screen shining so brightly at you. It’s the difference between reading something on the surface of a torch, and reading something on a surface. This stuff doesn’t shine light at you in an exhausting glare. It just reflects it, the way paper does.

It often happens that advertising cleans out the tubes of a new way of presenting messages, if only because novelty itself is the lifeblood of advertising – it gets your attention even if it does look cranky, because it looks cranky. Ten years later, it isn’t so cranky anymore and the advertisers are losing interest. But the R&D has had a big early contribution and Western Civilisation marches onwards. Just one more reason to love advertising.

Because what this really sounds like to me is the future of … reading!

It is all about command and control

The Guardian reports that ID cards are to be pilot tested in ‘a small market town’ by the home office. Biometrics will be tested – facial, iris and fingerprint recognition systems.

I am horrifiied that the government is inching towards making us instantly identifiable and knowing too much. Once they have ID cards they will be that much nearer to integrating tax and passport systems, no doubt under the cover of anti-terrorist rhetoric. “To be controlled in our economic pursuits means to be…controlled in everything” said Hayek. To control us they need to know us, this is a fight we must not lose.

Paul Staines

Ed. update: White Rose has more on the subject as it keeps a closer eye on issues of ID cards, privacy, surveillance and other vagaries of state…

What is Geoff Hoon for?

Yesterday saw some interesting developments at the Hutton inquiry:

Mr Doberman: Have you anything to say for yourself, Mr Hoon?

Hoon: Yes. It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there. It was someone else.

Mr Doberman: So you didn’t do it?

Hoon: No. It was that other bloke, you know, the other fella. But it certainly wasn’t me.

Mr Doberman: But you still take the full buck-stopping Cabinet salary as a Secretary of State for the Ministry of Defence?

Hoon: Oh yes. I love earning well over a hundred and thirty grand a year.

Mr Doberman: For doing little that anyone can clearly discern?

Hoon: Yes, Mr Doberman. That’s right. I really do know absolutely nothing. I was only obeying my permanent secretary’s orders.

Mr Doberman: So what are you then, Mr Hoon? Are you a hopeless liar? Or are you a hapless goon?

Hoon: No, it’s ‘Hoon’, ‘Geoff Hoon’.

Mr Doberman: Thank you, Mr Goon. No further questions.

So it seems today is Antony Charles Linton Blair’s Big Day Out. His last Blairite ex-friend in the Cabinet, Geoff Hoon, has stitched him up big time, good and proper, a man obviously unprepared to fall on his sword to protect the Master. Which is just as well, seeing as the Master was going to drop Hoon down a chute, feed him to the wolves, and forget him as yesterday’s bad rubbish.

So like rats in a trap they’ve all finally turned upon one another. And a certain James Gordon Brown circles the rats, grinning from ear to ear. And who can blame him? I suspect the Master will still make it through today though, almost in one piece, but with the Hutton report hanging over him like the sword of Damocles. But it’s going to be a helluva dogfight, it seems, to get rid of Hoon, who doesn’t appear to be doing the decent thing and going gracefully.

And then it’s going to be that great big Cabinet office for Blair with not a friend in sight, Brownites to the left of me, Brownites to the right of me, here I am, stuck in the middle facing the Chancellor. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

Latest Duncan Fortune 500 betting odds? Blair out by bonfire night (November 5th), retired, injured hurt. I must brush up on some biographies of Gordon.

ID card pilot scheme

Today’s Guardian reports:

The home secretary, David Blunkett, is to stage a pilot scheme this autumn to test the introduction of a national identity card despite the lack of strong cabinet backing for the idea.

The Home Office confirmed last night that a six-month trial, testing the use of new generation fingerprint and eye-scanning technology, would be completed by April to “assess customer perceptions and reactions” and estimate costs. It is believed that the trial will be carried out in an as yet unnamed small market town with a population of about 10,000.

Note, as did Guardian home affairs editor Alan Travis, the creepy use of the word “customer”.

UPDATE: Paul Staines comments at Samizdata.


Is this beautiful or what?

(Labelled version here. Descriptions of how the Hubble Space Telescope took the photo here).

(Link via slashdot).


This infrared image taken by the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii is claimed to be one of the sharpest ground-based photos of Mars ever taken. (Descriptions here and labelled version here).

Sadly, I think that the position of Samizdata’s representative in the first hundred may already be filled.

Further Update:

Having just adopted the advanced astronomical technique of opening my window and looking in a vaguely easterly direction, I have to agree with Dale that Mars is extraordinarily bright, particularly given that it is only about 30 degrees above the horizon right now, and I am in the middle of the light pollution of a metropolitan area of eleven million people. I will go out and have another look in a few hours when it is directly overhead, and I have to go somewhere on the weekend where there are fewer lights. I also have to take careful note of what other planets are viewable and where they are in the sky, as the comparison is no doubt interesting.