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]

“Mr President, our Germans are better than their Germans”

My title of this posting is taken from that fine film, “The Right Stuff”, based on the book of the same title by Tom Wolfe. The character who uttered those lines in the movie was Werner von Braun. The reference is to the fact that at the end of the Second World War, a group of German scientists working on the V2 and other rocket systems were captured by the Allies and ended up working on the US space programme, while another lot of Germans ended up working for the Soviet Union.

Via the Andy Ross blog, here’s a review of a new book on von Braun.

Of course, no reference to von Braun would be complete without the following song from Tom Lehrer.

More thoughts on food

I guess the rise in commodity prices – as I alluded to in my post below on farming – has galvanised a fair bit of commentary on the business of producing, shipping and selling food. Perhaps it is a welcome sign that in an affluent age such as ours, when so many people are utterly divorced from this most basic human activity, we have been reminded of it. Anyway, it tells one a lot about the state of the culture that this is considered a good headline in the Daily Telegraph: “Big supermarkets are not evil.”

Of course they are not evil. But at a time when any business, even if it has to operate in a ferociously competitive one like retail, is regarded as morally dubious if it is simply big, it is at least good that some in the MSM are, however belatedly, sticking up for such enterprises. About the only thing I can think of that counts as a legitimate criticism of supermarket chains is when their bosses exploit, or actively seek, to get governments to pass eminent domain, or compulsory purchase, laws to make it easier for them to build their sites. That is a just cause for free marketeers to complain about. Otherwise, though, bleating about supermarkets is largely nonsense. If they do “force” smaller shops out of business, the truth is more often that regulations, high taxes and extortionate rents are hurting small shops. It may well be that low-price supermarkets, which exploit economies of scale, are biting into the margins of some mid-tier shops that neither have the benefits of bigness nor the niche attractions of a high-margin, specialist retail outlet. But I suspect that a lot of the dislike of this trend is more aesthetic than economic. Oh the vulgarity!

One issue that tends to be overlooked is that in our prosperous age, we have lost some of that early awe, even excitement, that people used to get when they had walked into a massive shop for the first time. Back in the early 1950s, when there was still some rationing in Britain, my father remembers how impressed he was by walking into a supermarket in Canada. You could, he noted, buy anything from a suit, a tractor, to a tin of salmon. He thought that was fantastic.

Return of the thunder lizards

Could we bring back a Dinosaur? It is a fascinating idea. After watching a documentary on the ‘Dinosaur Mummy’ found in the badlands of the Dakotas I was forced to ponder the idea once again, Since last night I saw adverts for a Discovery documentary on this very topic that will be on next week I decided I should record my ideas on the subject post haste.

Pretty much everyone has seen the movie ‘Jurassic Park’ where scientists find strands of dino DNA inside assorted biting dino-pests preserved in ancient amber. The problem with this scenario is no such viable DNA has ever been found. It is highly unlikely any has survived intact over the many millions of years seperating us from the end of the Cretaceous when dino-kind had a very bad day.

Given the unlikelihood of finding a T Rex blueprint, one might think the idea of bringing them or any of their relatives back is an idea well and truly dead. “Time to consign the idea to the pages of fantasy stories!”, one might say… but not so fast!

There are other approaches to the problem. Researchers are churning out genomes of many, many species per year even now, including that of the Mammoth and the Neaderthal. The rate at which this happens is expected to reach a species per day per machine in less than a decade. That opens up a whole new possibility: reverse engineering.

Let us say we have the genomes of most living dinosaurs sequenced and sitting in databases on our computers of the 2030’s. “Living dinosaurs? Where?”, you say.
Open your window. Listen to those little dinos chirping, cheeping, singing and in general making a racket as they fly about. They are direct descendants of the dinosaur Raptor clade. Not a side shoot: a direct, bona-fide descendant.

So for a start let us run our AI programs and use our species genome data base to work our way backwards through bird ancestors. The results will not be a full dinosaur genome but we will be getting closer. We might even find some 100,000 year old bits of DNA from dead species in the Russian tundra with which we can cross check our calculations.

We can work the other direction to some extent as well, if we work backwards in the mammalian, crocodilian and reptilian trees until we get to the common ancestor between each of them and the dinosaur clan. It will be rough and full of holes, but it adds constraints and that is what we need.

It is still not enough though. The next step requires we that we understand how DNA and DNA regulation actually builds a creature. If we can infer the DNA required for a feature we can tweak our model genome to fit. Now the coup de grace: if you have seen a documentary called ‘Dino Lab’ you will know where I am going. We now have the ability to roughly model the entire animal and to use AI learning programs to understand how it moved and what its metabolism was like. We have fossilized stomach contents. We have examples of skin and organs fossilized in the ‘Dino Mummy’. With a few more orders of magnitude of computing power, we might run Monte Carlo simulations of entire sections of ancient ecosystems until we find the best match to fossil evidence.

With those constraints on reality we will, before the end of this century, be able to infer with reasonable confidence the genome of a dinosaur and, if we wish to do so, bring it back. It will not be a perfect reproduction but it will certainly be good enough to make a day at the zoo a rather exciting affair!

News shocker: farmers are producing food

This unintentionally hilarious news story at The Observer reveals a great deal about the mindset of the urban, ecologically aware types that write for that newspaper:

Soaring food prices are threatening to inflict widespread ecological damage on the countryside, as farmers abandon environmentally friendly schemes that have improved much of the landscape.

It is a matter of debate whether these schemes have improved or harmed the landscape: such an observation has as much to do with a certain aesthetic taste as anything else. For years, policymakers have thrown vast gobs of taxpayers’ money to discourage farmers, such as in my native Suffolk, from growing crops like wheat, barley, soybeans, beans and so on. Now that the price of wheat has skyrocketed, encouraged by such developments as biofuels and rapid growth in emerging market economies, the economics of “set aside”, as the daft policy is known, looks completely indefensible. So farmers are acting as entrepreneurs should in the face of rising prices for their produce: they are growing more crops. If that means that land that had been set aside for cute little meadows is now being ploughed up and sown with wheat, well, that is just too bad. Do the Observer journalists argue that there should not be some change in land usage at a time of rapidly rising food prices? There is no point in bashing the current government for such rising prices – I don’t think even the most fanatical Gordon Brown hater thinks he is to blame for this – if farmers are not allowed to exploit market forces in the way they should have been allowed to do all the way along.

For what it is worth, the Suffolk farmer’s son in me rather objects to the countryside being regarded by the Guardianista classes – many of whom have no idea about husbandry – as a glorified park for them to ramble around in. It is, as this article reminds us, primarily a place of work, where food is produced. It is sometimes useful to be reminded that the landscape has been moulded by the hand of Man. I personally rather like to see large, golden fields of wheat. But then I’m kind of strange in that way.

Phoenix Lander, live

If you are interested in watching the Phoenix Mars Lander land, click here.

Phoenix is down! Congrats to the Phoenix team!

How to mess up an economy

Here is a long and good article about the destruction of the economy of Venezuela by Hugo Chavez, the president who recently attempted – unsuccessfuly, thank goodness – to get himself voted president for life. I know I am preaching to the coverted around here by pointing out the sheer folly of what this thug is attempting, but sometimes you have to keep pointing to such examples lest people in other parts of the world forget just what a disaster state central planning is.

It never fails to strike me how such a resource-rich nation like Venezuela can be ruined by a political operator like Chavez, and contrast that with how a small colony, with hardly any resources at all apart from sheer entrepreneurial spirit, like Hong Kong, can rise to be one of the richest places on the planet.

For a great guide to some of the key drivers of wealth in countries down the ages, this classic by David Landes is greatly recommended.

Samizdata quote of the day

Meaning is a bit like happiness, the more you go looking for it the less you find

– The incomparable Lucy Kellaway

Freedom of speech? How about freedom to read?

In some countries an interest in ideas, and history, even quite recent history, can get you arbitrarily arrested. It can happen even if you are an academic whose research is being paid for by the government of the country.

On Tuesday they [the police] read me a statement confirming it was an illegal document which shouldn’t be used for research purposes. To this day no one has ever clarified that point. They released me. I was shaking violently, I fell against the wall, then on the floor and I just cried.

What sort of place has ‘illegal documents’? And how would you get one? In this case the document obtained by the masters student in question was published by the US government, and simply downloaded from an official website.

– China? Russia?

In the country concerned, the term ‘illegal document’ does not actually appear in any legislation. It is not, in theory, illegal merely to possess any document there – except for some unusually broad and harsh laws about indecent images. What sort of place is it that the police make up the law as they go along, and threaten academics for having the intention to read about the subject they are studying?

– Saudi Arabia? Egypt? → Continue reading: Freedom of speech? How about freedom to read?

The usual suspects

Under the title ‘Physicists raise questions on EMR capabilities’ Janes, (a subscription only publisher) reports:

Two US physicists have claimed that the European Mid-course Radar (EMR), due to be installed in the Czech Republic in a planned expansion of the US ballistic missile defence system, is substantially underpowered, and will form part of “a defence system that is unable to provide any discrimination services against missiles launched from Iran to the eastern half of the continental United States”. George Lewis, associate director of the Peace Studies Program at Cornell University, and Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are both opponents of US missile defence plans.

Anyone who has followed military space systems should be quite familiar with the consistently negative and consistently incorrect claims of Dr. Postel. If one were to believe his writings in Scientific American and other publications in the 1980’s we should never have tried to build anti-missile systems because they are impossible.

One must wonder if Dr Postel is sullying the good name of Physics in defense of his political preference for a global OK Corral gunfight, a world seemingly frozen in a timeless instant before the first gunfighter makes a false move. With only two gunfighters that standoff might well last a very long time and thankfully did. With more players the chance of a miscalculation ending in a free for all grows exponentially.

Thankfully, the good doctor was wrong in his eighties predictions about what would be possible now, so we are rapidly moving away from his MAD dream world.

The first decades of the age of nuclear weapons were an historical anomaly, Our newly operational systems will mature rapidly over the next two decades and in so doing will re-instate the natural balance between offense and defense.

Samizdata quote of the day

In Third Way Britain both the bureaucrats and the nosey neighbours get to spy on you sunbathing nude in your garden.

– A line from a gloriously rude review of an absurd book by our soon-to-be former Prime Minister.

The Labour meltdown

The Labour Party has suffered a crushing defeat in a by-election for one of its supposedly safe seats. The odds now must be rising that Gordon Brown will be challenged for leadership of the party. Having been given the job in a coronation last year rather than face a democratic election, his credibility is in shreds. Quite who would want to step up to challenge him is another matter. Labour looks to be headed for defeat at the next election, which must happen by 2010, and who wants to be the man or woman at the helm when or if that happens?

Watching the BBC television networks this morning, I see Labour folk blaming the government’s woes on the economy. This is pretty disengenuous. Yes, of course, the darkening economic situation is a worry for millions of people and Labour – which shamelessly tried to claim credit for the previous fat years – is now suffering from the effects of rising economic worries. But the reasons for the public anger go much deeper. There is a sense that this government is lazy, out of ideas, corrupt, incompetent.

I also like to think that the government’s assault on freedom, particularly civil liberties, might have something to do with the public anger, plus its shameful behaviour over the EU Constitution, sorry Treaty, being rammed through parliament in flagrant defiance of Labour’s previous election promises. It would be nice to imagine that authortarianism was a reason for hatred for this government.

Polygamy update

Its always so gratifying when you can say “I told you so”, especially when you have an appellate court backing you up.

As I noted a month ago, it seemed to me there were serious questions about the State of Texas taking custody of all 460-odd children living at the YFZ Ranch, a fundamentalist polygamy sect located in Eldorado, Texas, just south of my home in San Angelo.

Background (shamefully omitted from my first post): The YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch was founded by the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints) a few years ago. The FLDS split off from mainstream Mormons back when the Mormons officially gave up polygamy. They have run into trouble with the law at some of their other locations, and their current “Prophet”, one Warren Jeffs, is actually serving time as an accessory to (statutory) rape in connection with an underage marriage in his church. Their Eldorado ranch was raided after an anonymous call, since determined to have been a hoax, in which a “16 year old girl” (actually a woman in her thirties with no connection to the FLDS) claimed to have been beaten and raped there.

The Texas Court of Appeals heard an appeal relating to the seizure of children at the ranch, and threw the state out on its ear. Basically, the Court of Appeals found that the state had presented no evidence that met the statutory requirements for summarily seizing children from their parents, namely, that the children were in imminent physical danger and that there was no alternative to seizing them.

The appeal related only to 38 children, and so its not entirely clear yet exactly what its effect will be on the other 400-odd children (the number jumps around as some are found to be adults, and others are born). The language of the opinion is pretty sweeping, though. The state presented exactly the same case with respect to all of the children, and the Court of Appeals even indulged in a bit of obiter dicta, noting (even though none of the children in the appeal were pubescent girls) that the state had not even presented evidence that the pubescent girls at the ranch were in imminent physical danger.

The local court was in the process of grinding through the “60 day hearings” (so called because the state has to come back and make a full case 60 days after the emergency seizures). An attorney I know who is involved in the case told me the 60 day hearings had been cancelled. At this point, I see little alternative for the state other than returning the children to the ranch, but the state has obviously been planning to shut down the YFZ Ranch for some time, and I don’t expect it to just give up and go home. Careers are on the line, after all.

Certainly the FLDS is a distasteful lot, but this seems a pretty clear case of state overreach. The core of the state’s case can be fairly summarized as a claim that being raised in the FLDS is per se abuse. The Court of Appeals declined to start down that dangerous road, and should be applauded for it.