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]

A technical question from a regular Samizdata commenter

Well it all seems a bit quiet around here. I guess all the other Samizdatistas have lives, at the weekend anyway. Today, even I have had enough of a life to have nothing much that I want to say here. (I was watching rugby internationals on my television.)

However, regular Samizdata commenter Julian Taylor does have a question:

Does anyone know of a good reliable (not Garmin preferably!) GPS unit that can handle personal use, auto use, marine and is also waterproof with a long battery life? None on the market seem to have this capability.

This question up at Julian’s blog, Camera Anguish, for the last ten days. And do you know how many answers the so-called blogosphere – this mighty engine of knowledge, this magnificent organ of enlightenment, this aggregator extraordinaire of wisdom – has managed to supply? 0. This is not how things should be and I want to change it.

So, does anyone? Know of a good reliable GPS unit that can handle personal use, auto use, marine, and is also waterproof, and with a long battery life? Samizdata commenters are often rather good at discussing technology matters, so go to work, people.

I personally do not. I would need to be surer than I am now about things like what “GPS” stands for to be able to comment knowledgeably. Something to do with satellite navigation? My life seems to work okay without such knowledge. But surely others among us can do better. So get thinking, please, about those personal, reliable, waterproof, etc., GPSs.

But remember, not Garmin.

The impossibility of completely censoring the Chinese blogosphere

I don’t know how long this fascinating New York Times article about blogging in China will survive as something you can read without any payment or other complication, so I quote from it now at some length.

Chinese Web logs have existed since early in this decade, but the form has exploded in recent months, challenging China’s ever vigilant online censors and giving flesh to the kind of free-spoken civil society whose emergence the government has long been determined to prevent or at least tightly control.

Web experts say the surge in blogging is a result of strong growth in broadband Internet use, coupled with a huge commercial push by the country’s Internet providers aimed at wooing users. Common estimates of the numbers of blogs in China range from one million to two million and growing fast.

In my opinion, that is the key to this development. What matters most is its sheer scale. Sure, censorship works, in the sense that you are not allowed to say that the entire government – listed by name – are a pack of corrupt scoundrels who should be replaced by this other group of virtuous persons, again listed by name. You cannot praise democracy, or freedom, or Falung Gong, or whatnot. But how do you stop this kind of thing?

“The content is often political, but not directly political, in the sense that you are not advocating anything, but at the same time you are undermining the ideological basis of power.”

A fresh example was served up last week with the announcement by China of five cartoonlike mascot figures for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They were lavishly praised in the press – and widely ridiculed in blogs that seemed to accurately express public sentiment toward them.

“It’s not difficult to create a mascot that’s silly and ugly,” wrote one blogger. “The difficulty is in creating five mascots, each sillier and uglier than the one before it.”

Answer: you stop it. But only after countless thousands of bloggers have had their chuckle, and after many dozens of them have copied it and pasted it.

By far the biggest category of blogs remains the domain of the personal diary, and in this crowded realm, getting attention places a premium on uniqueness.

For the past few months, Mu Mu, the Shanghai dancer, has held pride of place, revealing glimpses of her body while maintaining an intimate and clever banter with her many followers, who are carefully kept in the dark about her real identity.

“In China, the concepts of private life and public life have emerged only in the past 10 to 20 years,” she said in an online interview. “Before that, if a person had any private life, it only included their physical privacy – the sex life, between man and woman, for couples.

“I’m fortunate to live in a transitional society, from a highly political one to a commercial one,” she wrote, “and this allows me to enjoy private pleasures, like blogging.”

What those concluding paragraphs hint at is the real punch of something like blogging. It is not that defiantly political things are being shouted from the rooftops. That is still far too dangerous. What blogs are doing is enabling an alternative attitude to assemble itself, as it were, and an alternative tone of voice to develop and to be communally celebrated. What is at stake here is not only what is said, but how it is said. Friendly chat around the table replaces the booming official megaphone. (Thought while proofing this: banning overt politics may actually amplify this particular contrast.) → Continue reading: The impossibility of completely censoring the Chinese blogosphere

The Olympic bill starts to rise

Via Stephen Pollard, I read this:

The cost of staging the London Olympic Games in 2012 is set to double. Senior officials organising the Games say construction costs have been seriously underestimated by Tessa Jowell’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Being a council tax paying Londoner I read on, with a tensed-up face, and I did not have far to go for the bad news. Here is the next damn sentence:

A rise in costs could spell financial disaster for Londoners.

And is this really going to help?

The Observer has learnt that the government has in recent days appointed consultancy KPMG to begin a reappraisal of its Olympic costs.

Which reminds me of that committee that Lenin set up to look into the problem of bureaucracy.

Building the Olympic Park in east London was projected to cost £2.37bn. The city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, assured Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that any overruns would be met by Londoners. On these figures that amounts to an extra £1,000 per household. This means a steep rise in council tax is on the cards in London, as the Chancellor is unlikely to meet any shortfall.

The price of that priceless look on Chirac’s face is starting to become a bit clearer, and a lot higher.

Actionable ideas for the Vancouver World Urban Forum

From David Tebbutt:

This is the promise: “The Habitat JAM will gather your input and add it to thousands of others to identify actionable ideas for the Vancouver World Urban Forum agenda and influence the Forum’s content. It will start conversations and build new networks that bring enormous potential to global problem solving.”

It sounds more like a threat to me. At best, manipulated bullshit. Problem solving is a fine thing, but the fewer conversations and networks devoted to “global” problem solving, the better, I would say. This is, I think, because “global” bundles together lots of difficulties into one huge impossibility, which you then blame on global capitalism. But the way to actually solve problems is to do what actual capitalists actually do, which is break the problems up into solluble particles.

Still, “actionable” means that someone will at least be able to sue these people, yes? No. Non-responsibility for resulting chaos is of the essence of gatherings like this.

Keeping fit at the keyboard

If you thought that going to the gym allowed you to burn off that stress and get away from the office, think again. A new hi-tech gym means you can type away on a keyboard and do an aerobic workout at the same time. Not quite sure this is going to work when it comes to pumping the weights, though.

The pensions morass

I have just finished reading James Bartholomew’s fine book, The Welfare State We’re In, which lays out, in tightly argued detail and a welter of colourful character sketches, the disaster wrought by state welfare in Britain. One of his chapters deals with the state’s actions in the area of pensions, now a red-hot controversial area for politicians not just in Britain, but in much of the industrialised world where populations are greying and birthrates falling.

Today, it appears that Britain’s finance minister, Gordon Brown, may have pre-emptively stiffed a report, due out next week, from the Pension Commission panel. The Commission is thought to be advocating measures such as tackling the disincentives to saving caused by means-testing, and in raising the state pension age to 67 or more.

Whatever happens, Bartholomew’s diagnosis of our ills is a powerful one and lays out the brutal fact that our political class, if judged by the same laws as applied to financial firms like insurers, banks or fund managers, would be indicted for fraud on an epic scale. It makes one weep to think of the opportunity that was lost in the destruction of Britain’s fast-growing private savings culture prior to the First World War.

I can also strongly recommend Bartholomew’s blog.

Is Dilbert a health hazard?

I have long gotten a laugh from Dilbert, the socially inept engineer comic created by Scott Adams. Usually, Dilbert is harmless, but occasionally he causes real damage. Last Sunday’s cartoon, which features Dilbert’s mother in an excessive shopping adventure that ends with organ harvesting struck me as rather amusing, but according to Scott Adams’ blog, dozens of people failed to see the humour in it:

Recently I killed thousands more people. I don’t have exact numbers yet. The problem stems from my comic that ran on 11-20-05, implying that retail stores might harvest organs from bad customers and sell them on eBay. I’ve received dozens of letters (long ones!) from very angry people who assure me that the Dilbert comic will reduce the number of organ donors. The concern is that people will think their parts will end up on eBay and so they won’t be inspired to donate.

This would only have an impact on exceptionally dumb potential organ donors. But as you know, that’s a large block of the general population. Now I have to wonder how many people are smart enough to read an entire Dilbert comic and still dumb enough to think that the first person on the scene of an accident might be there just to harvest organs for eBay. It can’t be more than 1%. Let’s see, we estimate 150 million people read Dilbert, so 1% would be 1.5 million. And only 10% of them might have donated an organ anyway, so I’m probably killing 150,000 people.

It’s times like this when “oops” doesn’t seem sufficient.

I bet you did not know that cartoonists could be so dangerous. If you ever meet Scott Adams, approach with extreme caution.

What’s up with Le Carre and drug companies?

I have devoured pretty much most of John Le Carre’s spy stories, such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, A Small Town in Germany and Smiley’s People. His novels have a chilly, grittily believable quality that stands in contrast to the sophisticated romps of Ian Fleming (Who is actually a pretty good read, as Anthony Burgess once said). More recently, Le Carre, bereft of a Cold War to provide his theme, has turned his attention in a different direction. He has turned it towards the supposed evil of global capitalism and big drug firms.

The Constant Gardener, a film which hammers the allegedly rapacious activities of drug companies, has now been turned into a film starring the British actor Ralph Fiennes (whom I once saw live giving a somewhat histrionic performance in London in the Ibsen play, Brand). The Social Affairs Blog, has a fine demolition job of the book and film here by UK academic Kenneth Minogue. Minogue’s treatment of the film is brutal.

Now I can see why, as pointed out on this blog concerning the firm Pfizer, some drug companies get a deserved hammering. But what I don’t quite understand is the sheer venom directed at drug firms in general by people who presumably must realise that developing and researching drugs can be highly expensive. If drug firms cannot be sure that their products won’t be instantly copied by other manufacturers, who can be sure that drugs to combat AIDSand other killers would make it to the marketplace? The issue of intellectual property rights does of course remain a very tricky issue among libertarians, but do the opponents of any such property rights imagine that we can or should leave drug development to the State, given the experience of our own Soviet model of national health care? It seems as if the attacks on drug firms stems from a desire to seize the hard work and graft of others because one has a “right” to curative drugs.

But if, as Le Carre and others contend, we should give drugs to the poor of the Third World for nothing, the bill for this could be enormous. I don’t really like the idea that the wealth creating capabilities of people should be held in partial ransom by the open-ended needs of billions of other people.

On the subject of AIDS, it is always worth reading Andrew Sullivan, who has HIV, on why he loves drug companies.

Who you gonna believe?

Somebody with a political axe to grind, or someone who has literally bet their life:

When it comes to the future of Iraq, there is a deep disconnect between those who have firsthand knowledge of the situation — Iraqis and U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq — and those whose impressions are shaped by doomsday press coverage and the imperatives of domestic politics.

The ones with a political axe to grind (and the uninformed who follow their lead) think Iraq is a lost cause or a mistake:

A large majority of the American public is convinced that the liberation of Iraq was a mistake, while a smaller but growing number thinks that we are losing and that we need to pull out soon. Those sentiments are echoed by finger-in-the-wind politicians, including many — such as John Kerry, Harry Reid, John Edwards, John Murtha and Bill Clinton — who supported the invasion.

Those with firsthand knowledge and a stake in the matter believe the contrary:

American soldiers are also much more optimistic than American civilians. The Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations just released a survey of American elites that found that 64% of military officers are confident that we will succeed in establishing a stable democracy in Iraq. The comparable figures for journalists and academics are 33% and 27%, respectively. Even more impressive than the Pew poll is the evidence of how our service members are voting with their feet. Although both the Army and the Marine Corps are having trouble attracting fresh recruits — no surprise, given the state of public opinion regarding Iraq — reenlistment rates continue to exceed expectations. Veterans are expressing their confidence in the war effort by signing up to continue fighting.

I have long believed that, whatever its flaws, the Iraqi campaign is on the road to strategic success. Figuring out who is winning requires that you ask a deceptively simple question: which side is making better progress toward their strategic objectives?

I think the answer is very clear – the US and its allies are making progress toward their strategic objectives, and their Islamist/Baathist enemies are not.

We have removed three potential WMD players (Iraq, Pakistan, Libya) from the scene as a direct or second-order consequence of the Iraqi campaign. We have removed one of the major terror-supporting states (the Saddamite regime) from the picture. We are introducing by far the most democratically accountable government into the Mideast (other than Israel), and are destabilizing the long-term prospects for neighboring dictators who, coincidentally, sponsor terror to one degree or another. We have forced the Islamists to fight in the Mideast, and as a consequence are eroding their support as they do what they do, which is attack civilians. We have badly disrupted international terrorist networks.

As for the Islamists, well, what ground have they gained toward their stated goals of a pan-Arab caliphate, the eradication of Israel, the acquisition of WMDs, or the destabilization of the West?

I don’t see any real gains on their side, and I see real progress on ours. Sure, progress has come at a cost, but only the most naive (or those with ulterior motives) would believe that we could neuter the Islamist threat without any missteps or losses.

Those on the front lines think we are winning a fight worth fighting. It is those in the perfumed salons who don’t think we are winning, and who don’t think the game is worth the candle. I know who I believe.

The sign of soundness

Samizdata’s informal motto is “guns ‘n’ girls”, but in this post you get neither. Instead you get a picture taken in Brussels of a fine, hand-rolled cigar and an American flag:

Richard Miniter

The man is Richard Miniter and the photo comes from this interview in The Brussels Journal under the title “America Is Winning the War on Terror, Says Expert”.

It is not just a game

In Spain, when Barcelona play Real Madrid, there is more then just three points at stake. And when Barcelona go to the Bernabeu and win, there is a lot of significance attached to it.

That is what they did on the weekend; Phil Ball looks at the history and the implications.

The most startling fact about Saturday’s game was not so much the two wonderful goals scored by Ronaldinho but rather the fact that after the Brazilian’s second and Barça’s third, several sections of the Bernabéu began to applaud him, and by implication, the whole team. Florentino Pérez looked on from the Director’s box in stony silence.

Madrid experts have been speculating all Sunday on this one, but the last living memory that any journalist has of the Madrid supporters applauding the eternal enemy was back in 1983 when Maradona ran Real’s defence dizzy in the clásico of that year. Was this a sign of Madrid’s sporting supporters, or was it just their way of protecting themselves psychologically?

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Worst Case Scenario for Africa

One of the concerns appearing on the radar is the impact of a flu pandemic upon Africa, where a rudimentary infrastructure for health is combined with the largest number of individuals with HIV and AIDs. A common mistake is to view this latter group as the most vulnerable to a flu pandemic, with a potentially catastrophic death rate.

Recent comments by Dr. Robert Webster, at an avian-influenza conference, organised by the Council for Foreign Relations, in New York, theorised that HIV positive patients and those suffering from cancer could act as incubators for the virus, leading to more virulent strains. However, there is evidence to support the view that immunologically compromised individuals will not facilitate the spread of the pandemic:

Stephen Wolinsky, chief of the infectious diseases division at the Feinberg School of Medicine, concurred that prolonged shedding of the virus was a definite problem but referred to a study published earlier this week that stated that immunodeficiency may in fact be a benefit in the face of avian influenza.

The study, published in the journal Respiratory Research, indicated that the young and healthy may be those most seriously affected by avian influenza, as the body’s immuno-response was to produce a storm of cytokines that can lead to respiratory difficulties.

Wolinsky opined that, for Africa, the lack of access to doctors and hospitals may prove to be a greater concern in the fight against avian influenza than the continent’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This region has been identified as a potential outbreak region for the pandemic. Farming practices that bring farmers into close proximity with poultry, are compounded by non-existent public health schemes and a large proportion of the population suffering from ill-health and malnutrition.

The H5N1 virus overstimulates the immune system, and many of its powerful effects are caused by what medical expert call a “cytokine storm”, after the immune molecules excited by the disease.

It was the cytokine storm that overwhelmed so many victims of the 1918 flu pandemic. Aids patients may be spared that fate.

But equally possible, with their immune defences down, they could succumb easily to the disease.

“In that situation,” said Laurie Garrett, “vast populations of HIV positive people could be obliterated by the pandemic flu.”

Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, was identifying the worst case scenario.