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]

The First Man and the unfashionableness of optimism

A week or so ago I went to see The First Man at the cinema. At first it seemed to do a good job of turning historical figures into real people. The domestic lives of the astronauts contrasted with the bravery of their test flights. There were lots of scenes of worried housewives which seemed believable enough. Armstrong is portrayed as a serious engineer with good attention to detail. He makes some mistakes which his bosses put down to being distracted by his daughter’s ill health. After she dies, Armstrong is understandably never truly happy. He does not express his emotions, and tells one friend who tries to talk to him, “if I wanted to talk to someone, do you think I would be standing out here [away from everyone]?” I like that line: I have felt like that at times.

When the Gemini 8 flight has problems, his wife hears about it and she goes to complain that her audio feed has been switched off to protect her from hearing about what is going on. Don’t worry, she is told, we have everything under control. No you don’t, she retorts, “you’re a bunch of boys playing with balsa wood models.” There is a certain truth to that line which I enjoyed: it is hard to have complete understanding of a complex enough system, and there is a certain playfulness to engineering.

There is a montage about protestors complaining about the cost of the Apollo program and listing better ways of spending tax dollars such as by helping poor people. We see Gil Scott-Heron on stage reading his poem Whitey On The Moon. It made sense to portray these things in the movie.

A lot of Armstrong’s colleagues are killed. The Apollo 1 cockpit testing scene is hard to watch if you know what is coming. A lot of the movie is spent with Armstrong taking the deaths hard. There are a lot of funeral scenes. There is a scene where Armstrong’s wife makes him explain to his kids that he might not survive Apollo 13.

They fly to the moon. I have a big criticism of the cinematography: I am sure spacecraft do not vibrate that much. There must be other ways to portray speed and acceleration. They fly home. Once home, Armstrong’s wife visits him in quarantine. He seems sullen. She seems sullen. The End.

And then it hit me: no-one is happy about going to the moon. There is no pride, no sense of achievement, no celebration of the accomplishment whatever. All we learn is that we are doing it to beat the Soviets, it costs a lot of money, there is a huge human cost, people worry and suffer, relationships are strained. This is a joyless movie. It portrays no up-side. The closest we get to any kind of positive commentary on the Apollo project is when Armstrong first applies for the job. The superiors ask why he wants to go to the moon and he answers with a speech about mankind’s need to explore. The superiors seem skeptical, but pleased: the message is that this guy can be trusted to say the right things. Being happy about going to the moon is for the stupid masses.

On my bookshelf I have a couple of anthologies of the Eagle comic from the 50s and 60s.

Phosphates for The World

They feature cutaway drawings explaining wonders of technology, present and future, all of it wonderfully unapologetic. We are doing awesome things and we will do even more awesome things soon, kids are told. Today’s teenagers are bombarded with worry and pessimism. BBC Focus magazine is a science magazine that seems to be aimed at young audience and it features an article about climate change and how having children is bad. The Week Junior seems to be full of articles about endangered animals and banning plastic. If I did not know that most of the terrible problems are not terrible problems and that the world is in general getting better, I might be a bit despondent about all that. If I was an impressionable youth I might rebel against it; I hope they do.

A letter from Marcel Bich

In 1973 Marcel Bich wrote a letter to shareholders when Société Bic was made a public company.

These principles of management have been developed over the past 20 years since I founded the company and then managed it. They were not shaped by a formal education in a French or American business school but are the result of the tough school of business which I entered at the age of 18 by the smallest door. Nobody will deny me the title of “money maker” as our company started in 1953 with an initial investment of 10,000 new Francs and today, it has grown to 150 million francs par-value share capital, all through internally generated funds, representing on average of almost doubling each year over the last 20 years.

Bic lowered the price of pens from something normal people could not afford to the point where they were disposable and cheap.

Bich didn’t just profit from the ballpoint; he won the race to make it cheap. When it first hit the market in 1946, a ballpoint pen sold for around $10, roughly equivalent to $100 today. Competition brought that price steadily down, but Bich’s design drove it into the ground. When the Bic Cristal hit American markets in 1959, the price was down to 19 cents a pen. Today the Cristal sells for about the same amount, despite inflation.

Of course, there are those who do not like this. But never mind that: back to the letter, Bich sounds like an excellent chap:

We are fiercely anti-technocratic. The way to keep the price of beef down is not by government price regulation, but by producing beef efficiently.

Technocracy is a widespread disease today. Starting at the top with the ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration ), it reaches all levels. It is particularly attractive to French people, Cartesian by nature. It results in a large number of administrators and organizers, but when it comes to rolling up your sleeves and doing the actual work there is nobody. Technocracy results in high production costs and, much more critical, low morale among employees who become discouraged and bored with their jobs in which they cannot take any initiative. By placing confidence in workers, employees and executives, everything becomes simpler. Contrary to popular belief, private enterprises have a greater chance of success today than they ever did. As proof, just look at the increasingly serious difficulties in which large state -owned companies find themselves.

It is an excellent letter.

Cosplayers and gamers

Some Guido commenters were wondering why socialists in the UK are so far removed from “working class” people. One pointed out that the left is mainly “wealthy people cosplaying socialism”. Another replied: “The Marxists gave up on the working class when they realized they were too comfortable under capitalism to lead the revolution.”

I wondered if the idea of cosplaying socialists was new, and Google instead led me to an article about what computer games might be like under socialism, written by a socialist. It contains this somewhat honest rephrasing of the mantra that real socialism has not yet been tried:

the lack of images of a socialist future is a huge challenge to the Left because it leaves us only with the failed examples of “actually existing socialism” from the 20th century.

And the naive idea that problems can be solved by people Just Getting Along and Working Together:

the institution of horizontal structures and regular assemblies on the workplace would create a culture of cooperation and participation

I wonder why, if workplace democracy produces a better product, there are not successful companies that practice it. Perhaps the idea is that capitalists want more profits, not better products, and the two are unrelated. In any case it does all sound rather wonderful: this vision of workers under no pressure to perform yet performing to their full ability, all sharing resources and maintaining creative control, funded by government art funding when there is work to be done and supported by universal basic income and Flexicurity schemes when there is not.

Except that there will always be work to do because cyclical layoffs are “due to poor planning or to the inconsistency of game development cycles”, and in Socialist Game Development we will have instead “a low level of competition between companies and a high level of coordination between projects”.

The article goes on to explain how by “letting citizens democratically decide what to produce, how to produce it, and what to do with the surplus” we can avoid planned obsolescence while still enjoying “fast developments in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics” which will give us more time to play games in the first place. We can all stay at home and claim our UBI while contributing unpaid labour in the form of “user generated content and modding”. And if the bosses refuse to pay the UBI, “it’s the socialists’ duty to constantly remind them of the possibility of their heads ending up on a spike”. See? Socialism not only works, it is also nice.

It does all sound a bit risky, though, what with those failed examples, and I am comfortable. I think we should stick with letting people discover greater efficiency in the search for increased profit, and then we can all enjoy creating new games in our spare time when capitalism makes everything cheap enough.

EU plunders Google

Google worked with others to make software for phones. They did not have to do this, and nobody had to use their software. People just found it useful enough that they agreed to use Google’s software with certain conditions attached that they found agreeable. The EU, under the guise of arbitrary rules limiting voluntary interactions, is going to plunder 5 billion Euros from Google.

A friend on Facebook writes, “No! Fuck off fuck off fuck off! This money will get pissed away and squandered (probably on drink by Jean-Claude Juncker) […] their view seems to be: ‘If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidise it.'” (I think Ronald Reagan would agree with that last part.)

The CEO of Google points out that Android has created more choice, not less.

Food science vs government

Terence Kealey has a policy analysis on the Cato Institute entitled Why Does the Federal Government Issue Damaging Dietary Guidelines? Lessons from Thomas Jefferson to Today. I found this from a comment by ‘Bloke in North Dorset’ from Tim Worstall’s blog.

It is a very good document. It begins with a history lesson on government food advice. In 1953 people were having heart attacks so the government had to Do Something about it. Ancel Keys said it was caused by eating too much fat. But science is never that easy.

As Yerushalmy and Hilleboe pointed out at the 1955 WHO seminar, and as they expanded in their 1957 paper, the data thus suggested the citizens of poor countries (who largely ate vegetables, including starchy vegetables such as maize/corn, rice, and potatoes) didn’t die much of heart disease (but they were vulnerable to other diseases); while the citizens of rich countries (who ate a lot of meat, which includes much fat) died largely of heart disease (but were protected from other causes of death).

The document explains how understanding gradually increased but that even today the relationships are not fully understood. Adding government to the debate was not helpful.

On being challenged on the incompleteness of the science, Senator McGovern said “Senators do not have the luxury that the research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in,” which is the opposite of the truth: research scientists are at leisure — and are perhaps even obligated — to explore every possible hypothesis, but senators should not issue advice until every last shred of evidence is in, because they may otherwise issue misleading or even dangerous advice. As they did in 1977.

In fact the government advice was out of date for 60 years:

Although by 1955, within two years of originally proposing it, Keys had abandoned the dietary cholesterol hypothesis, for another 60 years the federal government continued to warn against consuming cholesterol-rich foods. It was only in 2015 that its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee classified high-cholesterol foods such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster as safe to eat: “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

This 60-year delay shows how asymmetrical the official science of nutrition can be: a federal agency can label a foodstuff dangerous based on a suggestion, yet demand the most rigorous proof before reversing its advice.

This is the sort of thing that comes from applying the precautionary principle. But taking precautions turns out to be risky action.

To Mark Hegsted’s question in his introductory statement to the Goals — “What are the risks associated with eating less meat, less fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol?” — we can now reply that if, in consequence, people were to follow his advice and eat more carbohydrates and more trans fats in compensation, the risks are of precipitating early death from atherosclerosis. Irony of ironies.

The document describes multiple causes of the disconnect between the real understanding and the public policy. Scientists are not perfect:

The popular view is that scientists are falsifiers, but in practice they are generally verifiers, and they will use statistics to extract data that support their hypotheses. Keys, for example, was not a dishonest man, he was merely a typical scientist who had formulated a theory, which — by using poor statistics — he was able over the course of a long career and many publications to appear to verify.

And the government makes things worse:

Governments may be institutionally incapable of providing disinterested advice for at least four reasons. First, the scientists themselves may be divided, and by choosing one argument over another, the government may be making a mistake. Second, by abusing the precautionary principle, the government may be biasing its advice away from objectivity to risk-avoidance long before all the actual risks have been calculated. Third, because of public pressure, it may offer premature advice. And fourth, its advice will be distorted by lobbying.

I imagine that much of the story described here, at least the science history part, is well understood in retrospect and uncontroversial. Its lessons might be applied elsewhere. What currently controversial science suffers from poor statistics and is being distorted by government involvement, I wonder?

Branding as a service

In discussions about the necessity of regulations to protect consumers, I have argued that brands can fulfill the same role. In order to maintain a good reputation they need to provide reliability of service. For small businesses, branding can be licensed or franchised. If your small business injures customers it will lose the right to use the brand. All these things can happen through voluntary interactions.

This happens all the time. Owners of burger restaurants use the McDonald’s brand. People who want to drive people around for money use the Uber brand.

So I find it perplexing that lawyers are arguing that paying for the right to use branding can turn a person into an employee.

Jolyon Maugham, a barrister, said that there was an “unresolvable tension” between Uber’s claimed status as a intermediary and the fact that it has built a brand so powerful that it has entered our lexicon. “Uber is trying to enjoy the legal benefits of being a broker on the one hand, and establish themselves as a massive customer-facing brand,” says Mr Maugham, who is taking action against Uber to establish that it should be paying VAT.

There may well be legal technicalities around this, but the idea that there is any tension between being a broker and having a customer-facing brand is bizarre. For one thing I recently bought car insurance from a well-known broker and would have to look at the paperwork to see who the insurer is; it is of little consequence to me.

The Independent has some more details about a related court case involving a company who introduce people to plumbers.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, hailed the judgment as “one of the biggest decisions ever made by the courts on workers’ rights”.

“If you wear the uniform, if you drive the branded vehicle, if you only work for one business, you are employed. That means you are entitled to the appropriate protections and adjustments which go with the job, to enable you to work safely and productively. Everyone has the right to a healthy working environment, and to that end businesses need to recognise their duties to their workers.”

Alternatively, millions of people will be poorer because the state is arbitrarily limiting the types of business model and voluntary interaction it will allow; preventing innovation.

In an amusing Twitter thread, Aemilius Josephus points out to Jolyon Maugham, “self-employed barristers market under shared brands by being in chambers”.

Ejecting people from restaurants

The Whitehouse press secretary was required to leave a restaurant because the restaurant owner did not like her views. This seems like a perfectly civilised and non-violent way of objecting to views or actions. A restaurant owner should be free to require people to leave for any reason; the restaurant is private property.

The Guardian article quotes Walter Shaub‘s tweet:

There’s no ethics rule against Sarah Sanders fans being cartoonish hypocrites in defending merchants discriminating against gay people but howling when a merchant rejects a human rights violator based on her involvement in harming babies & children. Ridicule will have to suffice.

The Guardian article does not mention the obvious response:

Conservatives aren’t arguing the restaurant didn’t have the right. Not asking for the government to step in and force the restaurant to serve her. Not going to the Supreme Court either. Let the free market decide.

It is surprising how often it is necessary to spell out the difference between not liking something and wanting the state to intervene to stop it.

EU votes yes to copyright reform

The EU, or at least 15 out of a committee of 25 MEPs, has voted yes to the link tax, censorship machines and meme banning bill, previously written about here by Natalie Solent. There is still a possibility it could be blocked. From The Next Web:

However, there is a way to change that. Plenary is the European Parliament’s tool to bring matters out of committee and put up for a vote in the Parliament itself, i.e. have all 751 MEPs vote instead of only 25. But there needs to be enough support in Parliament for this to happen, so opposers have already started campaigning for a plenary session.

Julia Reda is saying that this new vote could happen on 4th July. The Save Your Internet campaign site has information and is urging people to write to their MEPs.

Not enough people to exploit too much

Thanks to Brexit fruit is going to be left to rot in the fields. How can we cope without a reliable supply of cheap foreign labour and zero-hours contracts to cover the seasonal summer work? All this will push the cost onto society in the form of more expensive grocery bills.

Meanwhile, those evil Capitalists at Amazon are exploiting cheap labour and forcing people to work zero-hours contracts to cover the seasonal winter work, pushing the cost onto society in the form of tax credits.

Globalisation in reverse

I clicked on a link to an article about food marketing failures and came upon a notice that due to GDPR, the publisher just could not be bothered dealing with people from Europe for now. It turns out the even the Los Angeles Times thinks people from Europe are too much of a pain in the ass to talk to.

If they can not cope, what chance does a small US-based pizza restaurant with an online ordering system have, having been told that they have to comply with GDPR in case any customers from the EU visit?

Things look set to get even worse for the Internet within the EU. But it is not just the EU. Amazon will stop shipping things to Australia because of a global sales tax. Trump seems very keen on tariffs. The UK does not appear to be in any hurry to turn into a small-state unilateral-free-trading nation after Brexit. In fact we are likely to have to choose between outright full-steam-ahead socialism and slowly-boiled-frog socialism at the next election.

Governments really do like their borders. As Guy Herbert says: The nation state is still our biggest problem.

Pig cruelty

Some farm employees kicked pigs and stabbed them with pitchforks. An organisation called Animal Equity who do undercover investigations with the aim of reducing cruelty to farm animals used hidden cameras to capture the evidence. They gave it to the press, who confronted the farm, who fired the employees.

Helen Browning, who owns an organic pig farm in Wiltshire, insists that consumers need to know more about where their meat is coming from so that customers can make informed choices in supermarkets.

She said: “You can see if something is organic. Ours are organic pigs and you can sometimes see free range or outdoor bred, but actually nothing tells you about perhaps the less attractive side, so nothing will tell you if pigs have been in farrowing crates or kept indoors.

“Most of us buy free range eggs now because it’s clearly labelled whether they have been barn reared, they’ve been in cages or they’ve been free range. We need the same for pigs.”

Co-op is the largest supermarket chain to promise to stop using pork from pigs that have been kept inside their whole life in its own-brand products.

That will come into effect from July and is something that only Waitrose is currently committed to.

The British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, said:

What are you talking to me for? This has nothing to do with the state. Everything is working as it should. People who care about the welfare of animals took it upon themselves to investigate and convince other people that this is a bad thing. The farm has received negative publicity and will suffer in the marketplace unless it mends its ways, which it has started to do by firing the employees involved. And food retailers have identified a demand for meat from animals that have been treated more kindly and are working towards meeting it. The market works.

Now go away. My department only has two part-time employees and we have some disputes over field boundaries to advise people about so we are very busy.

Oops, sorry, wrong universe. He actually said that he has pledged to restore the UK as a leader in animal welfare.

Samizdata movie spoiler quote of the day

This universe has finite resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.

Avengers: Infinity War spoilers below.

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