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]

On dismissing questions about democracy with cliches

I’m more than a little sick of people quoting Churchill (and generally mangling the quotation badly) in discussions about democracy as though his famous remark on the topic was a substitute for clear thinking.

Blithely saying “yes, it’s the worst form of government… except for all the others! hahaha!” doesn’t really lend any new information or depth to a discussion about legal systems, decision making and institutions.

Indeed, bringing up the quotation seems to often be a way of de facto avoiding meaningful in-depth discourse rather than a way to illuminate discourse. Perhaps I’m excessively caricaturing here, but one almost imagines the subtext as: “Ha, ha, yes, isn’t it funny and uncomfortable that this goddess I worship, Democracy, is such a fickle and awful violator of my trust. In fact, so deep is my devotion to Her in spite of Her terrible behavior, and so uncomfortable is this realization that my devotion may be misplaced, that I’d rather not have this discussion at all. So, how about the baseball playoffs?”

This is not useful. Turning away from a problem that makes you uncomfortable doesn’t fix the problem, it just perpetuates it. I recognize most people don’t agree with my view of the necessity, morality or efficacy of having a state, but even among those of you with the mainstream position on that topic, there is a lot of legitimate, and even important, discussion to be had here.

For example, there is always a central question about goals versus methods. That is to say: is the point to have as good a set of laws and as well managed a legal system as possible, with voting being used as a tool to try to achieve that, or is the notion that the maximally faithful expression of the general will is in itself the goal?

If it is the latter, of course, one must accept the idea that at intervals “the people” will vote for censorship, suppression of minorities, genocide, and even worse. If it is the former, then voting is a decision making process, and one must ask, really ask, if it is truly so important that one make sure that every last person, no matter how uninterested, uninformed, or frankly stupid, should get their input into the decisions being made?

As just one more of many example of this: the drafters of the U.S. constitution (and we know this because we have their writings) feared the very sort of Imperial Presidency we’ve developed. They wanted a very limited Presidency, and they wanted the President to be elected quite indirectly. Indeed, at the start of the U.S.’s experiment in government, the Electoral College was a meaningful body, and the Electoral College members were often chosen by state legislatures and not even directly by the people. This was specifically intended to impede the potential for large, ignorant mobs to have too much of a hand in the selection of the President.

Now, if your goal is to give “the people” as much say as possible in the selection of the President, well, this probably seems like a bad thing, and indeed, the electoral college would seem like an institution to be subverted or defanged to the greatest extent possible. If, on the other hand, you are trying to make sure that on average the decision made is reasonable (though perhaps not a particularly imaginative or interesting one) and that extreme decisions (especially extremely bad ones) are very unusual to impossible, this choice makes considerably more sense.

When people whip out the old “democracy is terrible except for everything else!” chestnut, and wink at you, what they’re ultimately doing is impeding thinking about this sort of thing, and certainly impeding having a meaningful discussion about the available points in the design space for institutions. Don’t be one of the people who quotes it as a substitute for having a real conversation.

(BTW, as an aside, most people get the original Churchill quotation badly mangled. It was:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

That comes from a speech before the House of Commons on November 11, 1947. You will note that he’s far less glib than the average person misquoting him.)

People will die!

If you don’t watch this video, people will die!

Why you should support the “And A Pony” Party

I am writing today to solicit your support in favor of the “And A Pony” Party, the only party that truly cares.

Other parties advocate minimum wage laws, but only the AAPP advocates raising the minimum wage to $175 per hour and giving all workers a pony. (We ask why our political opponents lack the courage to stand up for our working people.)

Other parties favor preserving old-age pensions, but only the AAPP proposes tripling all old-age pensions annually and giving every retiree a pony. Why do our opponents fail to support our position? It can only mean that they hate the elderly, don’t want them to live well in their golden years, and wish to deny them the companionship that only a pony can provide.

Other parties propose providing all citizens with health care paid for by someone other than themselves, but only the AAPP proposes giving all citizens free health care, weekly massage and spa treatments, and a pony. Our opponents clearly do not care sufficiently about the well-being of all our nation’s citizens, and refuse to join us in this call.

Other parties propose spending more money on education, but only the “And A Pony” Party is bold enough to insist upon reducing class size to one half (that is, two qualified and state licensed teachers per student) and providing a pony for every child in school. Surely every child will learn better if provided with two full time teachers, and what could be more important than educating our youth? We call on our political opponents, who do not seem to care about our children as much as we do, to stand aside in favor of those who truly are concerned for their future.

Other parties would like to reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil, but only the “And A Pony” Party proposes to provide every family, completely free of charge, with as much electricity as they could ever use, generated entirely by clean technologies, and a pony, too. Our opponents, who are in the pockets of big energy and the anti-pony lobby, would have us continue to enrich the fat cats forever, and would deny families vitally needed ponies.

Other parties believe the government should reduce unemployment, but only the AAPP proposes to give a good, high paying job to every worker who wants one no matter what their skill level or age, and a pony. Would our opponents give every worker a good, high paying job? They have been in power for decades, and yet they have not delivered for our people. It is time for a change!

Other parties pretend that they want to do something about the growing problem of hunger in our country, but only the AAPP promises to provide every creature with a functioning digestive tract within the bounds of our nation’s borders as much free, nutritious and well prepared food as they can possibly eat, as well as a pony. (The astute will note that we are therefore promising to give every pony a pony. This is correct. You will note that the other political parties do not promise to give every pony a pony, let alone provide free meals to all ponies, thus demonstrating that they are indifferent to the suffering of our nation’s noble equines. Indeed, it appears they do not care about the hungry at all!)

Other parties pretend to care about the plight of the homeless and advocate for more public housing, but only the “And A Pony” Party would give every citizen, living or dead, an eight bedroom mansion complete with a fully heated swimming pool, a tennis court, and a stable with a pony in it. Our heartless opponents pass the indigent begging for scraps on the street every day and cannot find even a trace of kindness in their hearts for their plight, let alone work, as we will, to assure that every citizen gets a mansion and a pony.

In the next election, you face an important choice. If you truly care about the future of your nation — if you truly want to see our people live the lives of prosperity, happiness and pony ownership that they deserve — there is only one possible party you can vote for: the “And A Pony” Party. I sincerely hope, for the sake of our country, that you support us in our quest to help our children, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, the old, and the poor.

Samizdata quote of the day

Socialism is tribal economics.

Guy Herbert

(These four words suddenly clarified something I’ve been trying to explain for years with mixed success.)

Samizdata quote of the day

We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

— Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987, speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Reagan’s speech was exactly thirty years ago today.

The crossings between the East and West Germany were finally opened two years later on November 9th, 1989.

[Edited: Apologies for the error, this post originally indicated the wall fell in 1987.]

(The quote starts at 10:46, but the whole speech is generally quite good.)

How not to be a victim of computer malware

[A slightly unusual topic for this blog, but I was assured by the powers that be that it was of interest.]

For my friends who don’t know much about computers:

I do computer security work professionally. People always ask in the wake of yet another internet attack “what should I do to protect myself.”

The advice is always the same. Do what computer professionals do. Don’t do what you imagine computer professionals do, because you’re probably wrong.

  1. Always run the latest version of the OS and software.
  2. When security updates appear for your operating system or software, apply them as soon as possible, meaning that day. Configure your system to automatically apply updates if possible.
  3. Back up your computer frequently. Since normal humans cannot remember to do that, get software and/or a service to do it for you.
  4. Don’t use the same password with two different services, period. Since you cannot remember hundreds of different passwords, use a password safe, and remember only the password for it.
  5. If a web site offers two factor authentication (that is, you can set it up so it both requires a password and a code your phone generates), turn that on.

Every professional security person does those things.

If you ignore my advice, you’re going to get screwed one day, period. You might still get screwed even if you do follow my advice because the world is dangerous, but I can guarantee you’ll get screwed if you don’t.

Every organization that got infected recently by the ransomware worm was ignoring (1) and (2). Their suffering was avoidable. Do you want to suffer like them? Those that forgot (3) are really suffering because they have no way to recover. Why do you want to suffer? Every day, people get badly, badly screwed because the password that they use everywhere gets stolen and it is de facto impossible to remember every place you use it. Why set yourself up to suffer?

As to the question “who would attack me? No one is going to attack my computer, I’m unimportant”, the answer is that it isn’t individuals doing the attacks, it’s machines that are programmed to try to attack other machines by the hundreds of millions. You’re not being personally targeted, but that hardly matters when everyone on earth is being attacked. Your obscurity will not protect you. Even if you think there is nothing for the attacker to gain by taking over your machine, they’ll want it anyway, so they can set up a botnet to send spam from it, or use it to bring down other people’s web sites, or to take over yet more people’s machines.

And some corollaries:

1a. If your machine is too obsolete to run the latest OS, replace it. Quit being the jerk who won’t replace their eight or twelve year old computer and complains that the manufacturer “owes” you updates as you shake your fist at heaven. It isn’t even possible for them to support everything they ever made forever, let alone sane. Stop being that person.

1b. When Microsoft kept offering to give you Windows 10 for free, and you got angry at them for offering to give you a much more secure system FOR FREE, and when you got onto Facebook to post “stop bothering me, Microsoft, I don’t want to get a free, much more secure update to my buggy older OS”, you were the one who was being annoying and stupid, not Microsoft.

2a. When you get upset that the phone or computer that asked you to update is asking you to update, and you refuse to update because you find it “irritating”, what you’re basically saying is “I find it irritating that the manufacturer is trying to protect me from getting my machine taken over and all my work destroyed. I’ll show them, I’ll refuse so that some asshole in Kazakhstan can steal the contents of my bank account. That will teach Microsoft a thing or two!” Quit being an idiot. If someone pulled you out of the way of an oncoming car you wouldn’t get angry with them for it, so don’t get angry with the vendor for doing the equivalent for you.

3a. Backing up your computer can be done automatically. It isn’t even painful to get going. If you find this irritating to set up, imagine how irritating it will be to have none of your data after you have lost everything.

4a. No, your really clever password is not actually unguessable to a machine that can check tens of millions of passwords a second.

And finally, every once in a while, I hear from someone, generally an older person, that they’re just unable to keep up with new software and the like. “The new version looks different. I don’t want to update because the buttons might be in different places.” My advice, my sincere advice, is that if you can’t keep up with small changes like that, or if you can’t figure out how to use two factor authentication for your bank account and the like, get rid of your computer. It’s not safe for you to use one. Really. People still can live good lives without them. You can get the news by newspaper, you can talk to your grandchildren on the telephone. Not being able to keep up with this stuff is kind of like not being able to safely drive a car. If you’ve got a problem with your eyesight and can’t drive safely, the answer isn’t that you keep driving and kill people on the road, the answer is you stop driving.

On Civilization

The true mark of the civilized society is not that it defends the rights of people who are loved by the bulk of the population, for those people need no defense. No one, after all, will arrest a popular person for saying or doing popular things. The true mark of the civilized society is that it defends the rights even of those who are universally reviled.

Indeed, in a truly civilized society, there would be no question but that you would defend the rights of people who disgust you provided they do no violence to others.

Our society is not civilized.

“The Onion” Article of the Day

The Onion remains America’s Finest News Source™.

Quoting today’s masterpiece in full, though you should click through for the picture:

“WASHINGTON—Stopping and turning around as he made his way across the South Lawn after hearing the unmanned aerial vehicle hovering just feet behind him, outgoing President Barack Obama tearfully shooed away a loyal MQ-9 Reaper drone attempting to follow him out of the White House, sources confirmed Friday. “Go on now—get out of here!” said the former commander-in-chief, his lower lip trembling and his eyes welling with tears as he affected a stern tone of voice in an attempt to scare off the faithful hunter-killer drone that had spent the past eight years obediently at his side. “You can’t come with me anymore, you got that? Can’t you see this is for your own good? Now scram. What are you waiting for? Go!” At press time, a heartbroken Obama had thrown a rock in the drone’s direction, causing the unmanned aerial vehicle to flee into the sky, where it paused to look back one last time at its old master before flying off toward a Yemeni tribal wedding.”

The New York Times, on the Minimum Wage

Back in January of 1987, about thirty years ago, before it opposed economic theory on principle, The New York Times wrote an editorial against the minimum wage.

In a short piece provocatively entitled: “The Right Minimum Wage: $0.00”, they said, among other things:

[…]It’s no wonder then that Edward Kennedy, the new chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, is being pressed by organized labor to battle for an increase.

No wonder, but still a mistake. Anyone working in America surely deserves a better living standard than can be managed on $3.35 an hour. But there’s a virtual consensus among economists that the minimum wage is an idea whose time has passed. Raising the minimum wage by a substantial amount would price working poor people out of the job market.[…]

The newspaper was hardly expressing the sort of fully libertarian view I would prefer — the editorial suggests wage subsidies and state sponsored job training as an alternative to minimum wage laws. However, it is still noteworthy that thirty years ago, the New York Times’ editors still possessed the fundamental understanding that raising the price of something lowers demand, and that labor isn’t an exception.

It is worth reading, if you can, if only to remember how far the terms of the debate have slipped over the decades. Today, the editorial board of the same newspaper strongly favors doubling the minimum wage, to $15 an hour, which, in inflation adjusted dollars, vastly exceeds any level it has had in the past. No serious consideration is given in the more recent editorials to the notion that doubling the price of low skill labor might result in unemployment. This is quite a change, and not one for the better.

No, Andrew Cuomo, we should be more cynical than ever

Why you should feel cynical about government projects, part umpteen thousand.

New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, proudly tweeted this today:

“Right now, there is a lot of cynicism and skepticism about our projects. We’re going to restore credibility. #2ndAveSubway will open Jan 1.”

Andrew Cuomo's Cynical Tweet About Cynicism

He is referring, of course, to the imminent opening of a small segment of New York City’s long planned Second Avenue Subway.

Let us recall that planning for the Second Avenue subway began in 1919. That’s quite literally just short of a century ago.

Let us recall that construction began in 1972. That’s 44 years ago.

Let us recall that what is opening on January 1 is not even remotely a full Second Avenue subway. It is just three stations, at 96th, 86th and 72nd streets.

Let us recall that to get just these three stations, and just since the latest phase of work resumed in 2007, $4.5 billion, that’s billion-with-a-b, have been spent. That’s $1.5 billion per station. That’s $3.75 billion per mile for the 1.5 miles built to date, by far the world’s most expensive subway line.

The line has about 13 other stations to construct according to current maps, so completing this single subway line would cost about another $20 billion dollars. If we judge on the basis of the per-mile cost of Phase 1, the seven miles still remaining would cost another $26 billion. However, for projects like this, costs generally go up with time, not down, so the price may even be far worse.

No, Andrew Cuomo, this minor expansion of the transportation network, which is not yet remotely complete after a century of work, which has cost an astonishing sum and will cost vastly more if it is to ever be complete, has only reinforced cynicism, and has done nothing to restore credibility in government projects whatsoever.

The New York City subway system was mostly built privately, until the government forcibly took it over. Since the takeover, the system has stagnated, leaving a major metropolis with a public transportation network that has barely been improved since the First World War.

The system is grotesquely filthy, so noisy that scientific studies say routine users suffer hearing loss, is slow, is unreliable, is vastly overcrowded, often reeks of human excrement, is a sweat-box throughout the summer months, and yet, in spite of huge numbers of passengers, loses money year after year.

So what would I do to fix it? That should be obvious.

Should Britain adopt the EEA option?

My friend Preston pointed me at what the Adam Smith Institute calls the “EEA Option”, which would apparently provide many of the free trade and movement benefits of EU membership without being in the EU or beholden to most of its rules.

Certainly worth a read as people start contemplating what one would want the negotiated exit from the EU to look like.

On the false choice between Privacy and Security

Many commentators are referring to the current fracas over strong encryption and other security technologies, including especially Apple’s refusal to provide the FBI with hacking tools for the iPhone, as a trade-off between privacy and security.

Even people who feel that strong security technologies are a good thing often position things as a trade-off of this sort.

I would like to reiterate something many of us already know: this is an entirely false dichotomy.

Backdoors in security systems don’t just eliminate privacy, they also make systems insecure.

The current fight isn’t just to make sure that the government cannot learn that you’re reading dissident publications or to make sure the government cannot automatically find everyone who has opinions it doesn’t like, although those are certainly worthy things to want.

The current fight is about whether we will impose a technological infrastructure which will be exceptionally vulnerable to attackers in order to provide nothing more useful than some very, very short-term advantages to people investigating crimes.

This pits the interests of everyone in society who depends on technology for their safety, which is to say, more or less everyone, against a tiny group of law enforcement officials who find their jobs somewhat more difficult.

We should remember that the damage caused by insecurity in our critical systems is not theoretical — it is pervasive problem even today. We saw only this last week a hospital forced to pay ransom to restore its computer systems. We’ve seen instances in the last year of the US federal government losing data on literally everyone with a recent security clearance to enemies unknown who presumably are very, very interested in knowing who all those US government agents might be. Untold millions of dollars are stolen every day in various sorts of computer fraud — everything from credit card fraud to fraudulent IRS e-file refunds. We already know that you can do horrible things to SCADA systems and the like that could potentially kill people, and whether you believe that’s already happened or not, it is clearly only a matter of time before people die that way.

All of this is because of lack of security in computer systems — a lack of security that the FBI, Cyrus Vance Jr., and other special interests propose to make dramatically worse on a permanent basis, in order to make their jobs somewhat easier for the short term. Imagine what things will be like in a world where Cyrus Vance has a slightly easier job but maniacs who have stolen US government master crypto keys can cause thousands or millions of automated cars to crash, killing their occupants.

So, please stop making it sound like it is merely the right to privacy that is at stake. Certainly the right to privacy is crucial for our society, but even those who do not agree with privacy should understand that back doors are not about making a trade-off in favor of increased security but in favor of pervasive insecurity.

This is not about security vs. privacy. We’re talking about nothing less than deranged short-term thinking that privileges the convenience of a small part of the machinery of law enforcement over the safety of almost everyone in our entire society.