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]

Free Carlos Ghosn

In other low probability news, Carlos Ghosn has escaped from house arrest in Japan, possibly in a cello double bass case.

Mr Ghosn strikes quite the Randian hero. Grandson of a Lebanese entrepreneur living in Brazil with a Nigerian mother, he moved to France to study and then moved his way up the ranks in Michelin tyre factories. After 3 years there he was a plant manager. After 18 years he was CEO of Michelin North America. Then he went to work at post-privatisation Renault and made it profitable. He took on roles at Nissan, too, an by 2005 he was CEO of both Renault and Nissan. In 2016 he became chairman of Mitsubishi too.

Maybe he upset someone at Nissan because they reported him to the Japanese government for under-reporting his compensation to the Japanese government. Now he is “suspected of masterminding a long-running scheme to mislead financial authorities”, the worst possible crime in the view of authorities but considered not at all immoral in these parts. He has also generally been attracting the ire of people who do not like it when other people earn a lot of money.

“In 2016, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who was at the time the finance minister, pressured Renault into reducing Mr. Ghosn’s compensation.”

I mean, what the fuck? Fuck off Macron.

“His own pay far outstripped those of his counterparts in Japan — he earned four times the pay of Toyota’s chairman in 2017 — and he was unrepentant.”

That is definitely Randian hero territory. They want you to repent. But never repent! It will not help you.

Ghosn says it was all plot and treason by Nissan executives who did not want him to integrate Nissan, Mitsubishi and Renault. One problem is that once Japanese authorities decide to prosecute, they nearly always get a conviction. Running away was probably his only option.

But it is hard to escape from the World Government. Interpol want him, Turkish authorities arrested pilots who helped him escape, and now the Lebanese authorities are hauling him in front of judges. It remains to be seen how helpful they will be. There is no extradition deal between Lebanon and Japan.

Crowd-funded cyber-policing

In what I like to describe as anarcho-capitalism in action, the pseudonymous Jim Browning is investigating, reverse-hacking, harassing and disrupting people engaging in tech-support fraud. His work is made possible by YouTube advertising revenues and Patreon donations.

Just a few days ago, with help from YouTuber Karl Rock who makes videos about life in India, he was able to shut down a call centre that was robo-dialling people and convincing them to pay for non-existent security software. Typically, they then call back a few months later and perform a refund scam, which involves offering a refund, pretending to refund too much money, and fooling people into returning the difference.

In his softly-spoken way Browning is also performing the service of educating people about how these scams operate so that they might better avoid falling foul of them.

It is not just him: there has emerged a network of people who are working in various ways to disrupt this sort of crime. BobRTC is a way for people to phone up the fraudsters and waste their time. Scammerblaster is a group of people who take reports of phone numbers being used for fraud and use a network of servers to bombard them with enough calls to render the number inoperative.

All this can be more effective than state policing. Indian authorities can be slow to act on reports of crimes where the only victims are in foreign countries. Jim Browning speaks of one occasion where he was listening in to a call where the American victim had been sent to buy gift cards so he called the local police who were not interested in taking action because the crime had not yet taken place.

Nonetheless state authorities do sometimes take action when they are sufficiently embarrassed, as in the case of a call centre raided after it was featured in a Canadian TV programme.

Blogging is now so much easier

Artificial intelligence, or at least the kinds of algorithms that are, perhaps erroneously, so named, has many useful applications that will doubtless generate much wealth, freeing us from mundane tasks. As with anything, there are risks. Private criminals will of course find ways to use any technology. But, as a libertarian, I think it is more interesting to consider how it might be used by the state.

It’s not too early to ask whether the US, or the West in general, is at risk of being run by a totalitarian technocracy. Many people are alarmed by the emergence of a Silicon Valley elite that is becoming richer and more powerful than even the great industrial powers of the 20th century. Others believe that, rather than a threat, this kind of tech innovation is an opportunity to create a better world.

I am an optimist about humanity. I believe that technology can be used to create the means of self-organisation and freedom. So why should we care about a new wave of technology that, if used

The first paragraph above was hastily typed by me. The next two paragraphs (ending in a truncated sentence) were generated using Talk to Transformer, a web interface to an instance of OpenAI’s GPT-2 language model. The model you can play with on the web site is larger than the one that was released back in February. It can generate much longer tracts of coherent text, but I think this instance of it is limited to conserve computing resources.

Its output is rather uncanny, but it can follow the style of its input and stay on topic. By trying different opening sentences or paragraphs, I have made it write stories, newspaper articles and Amazon reviews. At times it looks suspiciously like it is copying directly from whatever material it was trained with (presumably text scraped from the web). However I tried Googling some of its output and could not find anything identical. At the very least, details are changed, such as when I gave it the text, “Who do you think you are? Lewis Hamilton?” and it generated a newspaper interview with Nico Rosberg talking about how proud he is to be a female racing driver.

Have fun with it, but do remember to get some work done.

Update: It seems you can ask it questions by prepending your question with “Q:”. For example:

Q: who is Perry de Havilland?

Perry de Havilland was an American aviation pioneer who worked on both aircraft design and aeronautics research. He was instrumental in developing both the Bristol Blenheim and the North American F-86 Sabre jet aircraft.

Samizdata quote of the day

These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people “do,” almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.

— Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of medical ethics and health policy and “a chief architect of Obamacare”.

Spaced Out review

Found on the 8-12 shelf, Space Case by Stuart Gibbs is a science fiction adventure story set on a realistic moon base in which its twelve-year-old protagonist helps to solve a murder mystery. Its sequel, Spaced Out, is about a missing person mystery. A relatable protagonist, some science fiction with proper science, a location with opportunity for adventure and an engaging mystery: these ought to be great ingredients for a book my son could enjoy.

The first problem, however, is that the protagonist is very negative about living on the moon. It would be possible to complain a bit about the poor food and the lack of space while also being excited and in awe of the achievement of living on the moon. But no, there is no upside. Even the boredom is only relieved by terrible events, leading the protagonist to yearn for boredom once more. And he’s not an inspiring chap who faces his challenges head on, with aplomb. He mostly moans about things or is scared. Instead of being relieved to get out of the micrometeorite storm alive, after the discovery of a hole in the top layers of his suit, the author dwells on his fear and dislike of returning outside even when the threat of incoming meteorites disappears.

Minor spoiler in the next paragraph…

→ Continue reading: Spaced Out review

Elf surveillance

Getting the next generation ready for the surveillance state.

National anthem of Libertaria

The excellent Dominic Frisby is crowdfunding a music video for his National Anthem of Libertaria. He is very much out there spreading good ideas, including in such unfriendly territory as the Edinburgh Festival. I applaud his efforts.

Arise libertarians
Above totalitarians
Our guide is the mighty invisible hand
Reject state controllers
Collectors and patrollers
Our choices are better than government plans

Taxation is a form of theft
Free markets and free trade are best
Free speech, free movement, free minds and free choice
Our actions are all voluntary
Not coerced or compulsory
War we abhor, socialism does not work

No debt or inflation
No stealth confiscation
No pigs in the trough at the gravy to drink
No state education
To brainwash our nation
No experts dictate what to do, what to think

We scorn your fiat currency
Gold and bitcoin is our money
We own ourselves and we live and let live
We take responsibility
Life, love and liberty
Leave us alone, let a thousand flowers bloom

Right to buy

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, thinks that housing is too expensive to buy, and that renting accommodation is too unpleasant: often poor quality, overcrowded and lacking long term security. His idea is to force landlords to sell their houses to their tenants at a government approved “reasonable” price.

This will all work out fine and there will be no unintended consequences.

Writing in CapX, Tim Worstall says everything about it than can reasonably be said. Meanwhile:

Climate change scientists starved of media coverage

According to the Independent they are, anyway.

The study showed climate change deniers were featured in nearly 50 per cent more media articles than expert scientists.

Naturally, the Indy cements its point by putting a video of renowned climate scientist Greta Thunberg at the top of the article. They also put up some graphs and, discussing them, can not quite bring themselves to use the study’s terminology of CCC (climate change contrarian) and talk about the non-existent CCD (climate change denier) data set. A testament to the Indy’s devotion to reporting accurately the true official expert view.

The Indy even gives us a lovely example:

For an example of how some media outlets mistreat environmental issues – Fox News had a debate about the Trump administration’s move to weaken the Endangered Species Act yesterday.

A former senior Interior Department official was defending the act, while a random editor from the conservative website Townhall was defending Trump.

One of those people is vastly more qualified to talk about the act than the other – Clue: It’s the one who worked for the government…

So not about climate change, and “worked for the government” is a synonym for “scientist” as far as the Indy is concerned, it would seem. Good work, guys.

As for the study, I am curious about how they selected the media outlets for comparison, but I have not yet looked. And I wonder what would happen if we measured media attention given to non-expert climate change alarmists?

In any case, even on the face of it the study does not quite show what the Indy thinks it shows:

Here we show via direct comparison that contrarians are featured in 49% more media articles than scientists. Yet when comparing visibility in mainstream media sources only, we observe just a 1% excess visibility, which objectively demonstrates the crowding out of professional mainstream sources by the proliferation of new media sources, many of which contribute to the production and consumption of climate change disinformation at scale.

I guess “crowding out of professional mainstream sources” is something the Indy would want to play down. Other than that it is the same old story: the peasants are revolting and the nobility are afraid.

Water shortages solved

Today’s quote of the day was from a longer conversation about water, starting with the conventional wisdom that climate change will inevitably lead to global water shortages. It is not immediately obvious why this should be so, given that melting ice, for example, presumably leads to there being more non-frozen water about.

The impression from the mainstream media is that any water-related problem can be caused by climate change. Floods? Climate change. Drought? Climate change. A summary from NASA suggests that some places, the places that get plenty of rain, will get more rain: so much that it floods. And other more typically dry places will see more droughts. So there is not necessarily a contradiction. On the other hand it is not clear how reliable such predictions are.

Different climate models provide different answers about what will happen to rainfall where. You can almost pick the result you want for a particular place by picking which climate model you want to listen to. You can take the mean of all the model outputs but that only seems useful if they all broadly agree, and even then they could all be wrong. The question of the usefulness of climate models is a big topic. The way they are tuned seems to allow for a lot opportunity for bias to creep in. Also the resolution of GCMs is not high, and the resolution affects the results, especially for precipitation.

In any case, there is a practically unlimited supply of water in the oceans, it is simply a matter of energy to turn it into drinking water and transportation to get it where we need it. With photo-voltaic panels becoming cheaper and more efficient as solar generation capacity has been growing exponentially for the last 25 years, energy is cheap. For desalination there is not even an energy storage problem, since we can make water during the day and water is easy to store. The technology is effective, simple and cheap.

As for transportation, I have heard there is some new technology called an aqueduct.

So there are no technical difficulties, it is not particularly expensive, and with poverty on its way out there seems little to stop any water supply problems from being solved.

As Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, put it, we will reach the “jaws of death – the point at which, unless we take action to change things, we will not have enough water to supply our needs”. It was ever thus. Luckily the action is not difficult.

Space regulations

United Launch Alliance is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that can put payloads into orbit on expendable rockets. They launched 7 payloads for commercial customers in the last decade, none since 2016. Their only customer is the US government.

In 2018, Spacex launched 14 payloads for commercial customers on their re-usable rocket. They are doing it for a fraction of the cost. Even the US government is using Spacex. ULA must be worried. What are they going to do?

ULA, and its parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have stood virtually alone in their support of the FAA’s rules revision.

What is this?

“I don’t blame ULA,” Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told SpaceNews. The revised rules the FAA proposed favor large companies that have bureaucracies in place to comply with onerous requirements, he said. “But for new entrants, small launch companies, reusable launch companies, the rules are backbreaking. It’s a tremendous barrier to entry. It’s almost as if the Russians and the Chinese wrote these rules.”

And now we know how ULA hopes to beat the competition.

Games and money

The BBC is breathlessly reporting cases of parents whose bank accounts have been cleared out by their children playing games with in-game purchases.

We are technically savvy but didn’t think to put a password on and my son, who was 12, ended up spending around £700.

It was on his own phone and he managed to download Clash of Clans through a Google Play account, enter his own children’s bank card details and buy lots of in-game items.

It is possible to prevent this. My own children often ask to buy in-game items, which tells me I have somewhat succeeded in training them to ask first. Steam has a PIN code that only I know. The iPad requires my fingerprint before it will take money. And Google Play is set up to require a password. So far, so good.

I installed Mini Golf King on my phone for my son who is five. He knows he’s not allowed to spend money in games, yet this game successfully tricked him into spending £300 on in-app purchases.

[…]

People will say “well, you should be supervising him”. I was! I was in the room.

But the game is a children’s game, rated PEGI 3 [suitable for players aged three and above].

I would allow him to watch a U-rated film and I assumed PEGI 3 games were safe to play with casual supervision.

Now things are getting tricky: user interfaces are hard to get right even when you are trying not to confuse people. I can remember a handful of occasions where I have done something daft with a computer, have been met with no sympathy at all from support staff, but objected that the problem is that the user interface was misleading. There are worthy complaints here.

Now politicians are taking an interest. There is always this instinctive call: The Government should Do Something! I do not see the need. Complain instead to marketplace. Google Play, the Apple App Store and Steam are in a position to enforce user interface standards and they can probably do better with default settings, spending limits, and better-designed family accounts.