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]

Arnie’s the Girlie Man!

So who’s the Girlie Man now?

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law a bill that will ban foie gras in California by 2012, unless a “girlie man” alternative to forcefeeding can be found to produce the delicacy.

I shall open my pot of inhumanely produced goose foie gras this weekend and savour it twice as much with a fine Sauternes. Next time I go to France I shall make a point of stocking up.

Tracking RFID – it’s everywhere

CNet.com has a round up of articles about RFID:

Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores
Companies brace for privacy debate, as potentially intrusive applications arrive faster than expected.

European supermarket chain extends RFID push
Tesco will use the technology in more stores, focusing this time on tracking cases and pallets, rather than individual items.

Tracking technology gets a reality check
At Baltimore pow-wow, hype over new RFID technology is tempered by concerns about cost, privacy and quality.

With RFID, corporate might makes right
Retail powerhouses such as Wal-Mart gather in Baltimore to push development of controversial tagging technology.

IBM readies large RFID push
Big Blue plans to invest $250 million in a new business unit to support products and services related to sensor networks.

Not dropping like flies

I get paid to write the occasional article about environment issues. One story which intrigues me is the often repeated claim that “Half of all living bird and mammal species will be gone within 200 or 300 years”. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the source of much of this garbage.

Because half of all the world’s mammal species are supposedly in Australia, this equates to five species of mammal becoming extinct every year, or one mammal extinction every 2.4 months.

Not only can I find no reports of five mammals becoming extinct each year in Australia, but in 2003 a previously extinct species of wallaby was re-introduced to Australia from New Zealand. The UNEP media releases site contains no references to species becoming extinct, concentrating on announcements about hiring bureaucrats and how they spend money on studies. At least UNEP is honest about its priorities.

Are there really no mammals becoming extinct in Australia these days?

Silent lucidity

Libertarian types are all over the blogosphere, but you never actually meet any in real life, of course. So claim many people who have felt the need to inform me that the blog to which I occasionally contribute does not conform to mainstream thinking. I am not sure whether these people expect me to weep softly, wail loudly, or recoil in shock and horror when they share this revelation with me, but if they do, no doubt they walk away from our exchanges disappointed.

To me, the fact that individualists are thick on the ground in the blogosphere is no bad thing. I am not totally surprised that people whose views are not represented in mainstream media would take to their own media in droves, be it to connect to those like them or to communicate their ideas and beliefs to those who may not be familiar with such thinking. Usually, such blog-based conversations involve both of those objectives. For example, I would not liken Samizdata to a recruitment drive, but neither is it mere preaching to the choir. At the same time, Samizdata is not a love-in for those who share the same metacontext. When I read people writing about “what Samizdatistas believe,” I have to laugh: Some of the most fierce, raucous debates I have ever witnessed have taken part between Samizdatistas.

But a conversation I had this week got me thinking – and no, I am sure it is not an original thought – that the reason individualists may seem so hard to detect in day to day life is because many of them have decided to assign politics and related discussions to the circular file of their lives. To them, the system is broken and they do not wish to spend their lives talking about how it got that way, figuring out how to put it back together, or contemplating how much worse things are going to get. Beyond jaded, they just do not get involved in any way. These people may never have heard the terms individualist or libertarian, but they may well qualify for either of those classifications. And because they do not go around wearing any party’s badge on their lapel, or touting any party line that comes down the pike, it is easy to imagine that they do not exist.

And imagining as much is probably quite comforting to those who strictly adhere to party politics. As long as they are certain that their thinking is in line with some large consensus of public sentiment, then they have some hope and some delusion of accuracy and relevance to hold on to. Forced to choose between that and shunning political matters altogether, how much of a dilemma would any of us actually face?

Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores

Wal-Mart Stores, Procter & Gamble and other big companies pushing the electronic tracking tags said they’d use them only in warehouses to more easily locate and account for stock arriving in cases and palettes. By the time the merchandise hit store shelves, they’d have removed the tags. The placement of tags on items consumers actually take home was projected to be at least 10 years away, last year’s argument went. Some said it may never happen if costs remained prohibitive.

Though relatively rare today, RFID tags are marching toward stores and shopping baskets across the country–raising questions about the implications for consumers. Also experimenting with RFID are Albertsons, Best Buy, Target, as well as European chains Metro and Tesco. Elizabeth Board, executive director of the public policy steering committee for EPCglobal said during a panel discussion:

There is a concern that EPC (tags) can be tracked everywhere and that retailers want to track you at all times of the day. It’s not realistic, but it has caused a lot of confusion.

She expects that fears about privacy invasion will continue to be a public relations problem for the technology. RFID supporters must do more to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding it.

Retailers and consumer-goods companies are hesitant to agree to removing tags from items at the time of purchase for several reasons. One reason is that RFID tags could help with returns by exposing people trying to get a refund for a product they never really bought, or one they purchased from another store.

One of the valid concerns about RFID is what companies plan to do with all the detailed data they’ll be able to collect about consumers, said Daniel Engles, director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Lab, an RFID research group.

Samizdata quote of the day

There are more instances of the abridgment of freedoms of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

– James Madison

Melvill safely back on terra firma

The reports I am reading elsewhere indicate they have made it, although things got a bit dicey. From the sounds of it, they had RCS problems when they left the atmosphere. I do not know if Melvill regained orientation during the exoatmospheric flight or had to wait until the shuttlecock re-entry.

Early reports are that they made the altitude necessary for the X-Prize flight; now they have to do it again within the next two weeks. Hopefully the controls problem can be worked out.

It is a tribute to the design that the craft could tumble going out of the atmosphere and yet return intact. It is also a tribute to the pilot and an answer to those who think robots are the answer. Robots make craters. Pilots usually bring the ship back in one piece.

Now we wait for more detailed reports on the flight.

More It looks like the problem was not RCS. Melvill shut down the main engines 11 seconds early to stop the roll rate buildup. That sounds like some sort of main engine burn asymmetry. Again, we will just have to wait. But they do appear to have made the necessary altitude.

Update Melvill put the blame for the roll on himself. It was not a fault with the ship. Perhaps Melvill has just invented the space age equivalent of PIO (pilots will know what I’m talking about).

All is go in Mojave

I just had a very short chat with ‘a trusted source’ 😉 out at the Mojave test facility. The weather is beautiful and the flight is expected to go. I welcome any of our honoured readers who work out there on the runway’s edge to report to us as events unfold.

Inheritance – more thoughts

Last week I stated my hope that the UK Conservative Party was showing possible signs of courage, as well as smart political opportunism in voicing support for slashing, if not completely abolishing, inheritance tax. The posting triggered a lot of comments, most of them nice and supportive of my view, and only a few in support of the tax.

One commenter claimed that inheritance taxes were a good thing because they broke up rich dynasties which the commenter thought acted as a brake on economic dynamism.

Is this actually true? In the 19th Century, for instance, Britain was indeed a class-bound society in many ways and the richest families enjoyed a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of the humblest farm labourer. But Britain was in many respects an astonishingly vibrant and upwardly-mobile society too, often in certain respects even more so than today. Sir Robert Peel, the great Tory Prime Minister of the 1840s, was the grandson of a humble cotton weaver. Richard Cobden, one of the great advocates of free trade, a Member of Parliament and hero of classical liberalism, rose from conditions of great poverty. The list of rags to riches folk in Victorian history is long and makes for wonderful reading (it also puts my generation to shame, frankly.) Rich families, either deriving their wealth from the land or from elsewhere, were simply incapable of hogging the whole economic pie and denying any entry points to others.

As the writer Jenny Uglow pointed out in her marvellous book, The Lunar Men, the brightest and best entrepreneurs circumvented the old ‘Anglican establishment’ entirely on their way to creating the world’s first true industrial nation.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that those who inherit wealth may gain a temporary advantage which appears ‘unfair’, but in an expanding economy with new ideas, opportunities and ventures springing up all the time, it is hard to see how a person who has not inherited such wealth can say he has been denied a chance to make a good life for himself. (This, by the way, is not the same as privileges created by the State to favour select groups over others. That is a different argument).

And of course in reality rich businessmen over the centuries have realised that it was in their own interests to encourage and widen opportunities for the less well off, which is precisely why they endowed so many schools, libraries, musical orchestras, art galleries and the like, as well as political and cultural causes of all kinds. The ‘rich dynasties’ of Britain certainly did not, as far as I can see, act as a serious drag on the country’s economy. If there was a drag factor, it was more to do with the slow rise of collectivist economic doctrine towards the latter stages of the 19th Century, and the rise of State power and influence, which did much of the damage.

A final thought: some folk may imagine that inheritance taxes are okay because the persons affected are dead, so they would not care. Well, quite apart from the contempt this shows for the wealth a person has sought to acquire during a lifetime, it also rather ignores a simple point, which is that many people view their life goals as not simply to make themselves rich and happy, but also to build a better and fuller life for their children and grandchildren. That desire is itself a powerful incentive to work hard and create wealth, and is a spur to growth and the transmission of socially beneficial values.

X-Prize victory at hand; Prize for orbital flight announced

Unless there has been a change in plans while I slept Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne will fly again in a few hours. This is the first of the required flights in their attempt at the Anseri X-Prize of $10 million. This time they will be flying with the required equivalent weight of passengers in the cabin. The prize clinching flight is scheduled for October 10th.

Some weeks ago the Da Vinci project in Canada announced a first flight date of October 2nd but I have not been following them closely. Armadillo Aerospace is still moving ahead at a steady pace: build a little, test a little, break a little, in the old fashioned hands-on engineering way. Peter Diamandes’ Zero G tourist flights – in an airplane! – are now flying and generating revenue.

The next prize, for the first orbital flight, has been announced by Robert Bigelow:

Company founder and millionaire Robert T. Bigelow told Aviation Week & Space Technology that he will announce as early as this week a new $50-million space launch contest called America’s Space Prize.

The objective is to spur development of a low-cost commercial manned orbital vehicle capable of launching 5-7 astronauts at a time to Bigelow inflatable modules by the end of the decade.

Bigelow has committed $25 million of his own to the purse.

All in all, 2004 is an exciting year for those of us who have dedicated our lives to opening the space frontier.

Note: I will unfortuneately not be present to photo blog this launch. At the moment I am damned fortuneate I can afford a pie for supper and I have been scrambling to keep my broadband connection bill paid. That is the ups and the downs of freelancing… with much assistance from customers who pay whenever or never. Freedom ain’t easy.


This is a great story:

British researchers have trained dogs to detect bladder cancer by sniffing human urine, opening up the possibility that dogs – or electronic noses modeled on their snouts – may one day be used to detect the disease.

The study, published in the British medical journal BMJ on Saturday, is the first to demonstrate scientifically that dogs can detect cancer through smell, its authors said.

Animals. Diseases of the rich. What more could you ask for in a news item? I agree that sex, celebrities, bad behaviour by an American Presidential candidate, Nazis and football are all absent, but several of these themes could be woven into this yarn in due course.

At the risk of being accused of saying that Chinese people are dogs, which is not at all what I am trying to say, I have long understood that Chinese doctors use smell – of urine, breath and so on – as a major diagnostic tool. So it does not surprise me a bit that dogs, with their famously keen sense of smell, might have a lot to contribute to medicine. This is not a “How very odd” story. It is not odd at all. I am only surprised that no one has thought to study this possibility sooner. I suppose such research depends on moderately cheap diagnosis by other means to be researchable without enormous expense. On the other hand, if the other diagnostic methods were already very cheap, there would be no need to bother with dogs.

My favourite bit of this New York Times report is this one:

In an intriguing side note to the British study, all six of the dogs detected cancer in the urine of a man who was thought to be cancer-free and was used as a control. When he was tested further, he was found to have a kidney tumor, and his life was saved.

That is the best sort of scientific evidence: the killer (to use a wildly inappropriate metaphor) anecdote.

More here, with links to the BMJ article and to a BBC report last week.

On how legal traditions shape teaching traditions

Alert readers will have noted that I often write here about education. What happens is that I dash off a piece for my Education Blog, and then say to myself: this will just about do for Samizdata. And since I now find writing adequately for Samizdata harder than for my private blogs, and since Samizdata has many more readers, here is another such piece which I hope will suffice for here, provoked by an essay I am in the middle of reading, by Paul Graham. (Thank you Arts & Letters Daily, a daily resource without which I could not now do.) The first few paragraphs of this esssay grabbed my attention, and I am now about half way through it.

In that previous reaction to Graham’s essay, I made much of the idea of an essay being “persuasive”.

I am right, and wrong, says Paul Graham. Yes, a lot of education is rooted in legal education, but, he says, too much. An essay, he says, is not – or should not be – lawyering:

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it’s not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It’s not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can’t change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion – uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of “essay”, you can see where the conclusion comes from. It’s the concluding remarks to the jury.

As I often find myself saying, to justify my enthusiasm for argument: my dad was a trial lawyer, and so were both my grandfathers. My family’s basic activity when dining, when we weren’t eating or listening to classical music on the Third Programme or Family Fun Chat on the Home Service, was arguing. And if no one was disagreeing with a dominant consensus, someone would, just for the fun of it. “Defending a position” is, I think, a pretty good way to get at the truth, provided more than one position is being defended, which is exactly what is happening when a jury is involved. The adversarial principle is, I would say, a whole hell of a lot better than a “necessary evil”.

Think only of the clash of conclusions – of, in Dan Rather’s words, “political agendas” – that recently got the truth of the Rather documents fracas out into the light of day in the space of a few hours. → Continue reading: On how legal traditions shape teaching traditions