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]

Justin Bronk on Ukraine

Here is an information-dense video with far more than the usual talking points on Ukraine. It is not just about what is going on. It is useful understanding that helps with how to reason about what is going on.

Topics covered include:

  • Manpower and production;
  • training on Western weapon systems;
  • survivability of tanks;
  • effects of long range weapons;
  • possible trajectories of the war over the next year or so;
  • the USA’s self-interest in the war.

It provides good context for the usual talk of things like F16 deployments and map changes.

What should the government do?

Here is a good answer.

Things you can not say at Davos

…are said at Davos.

This is an AI translated version of Milei’s speech, in which he uses words like “parasites”.

A Good Speech by Milei

Javier Milei gave a speech:

He says a lot of good things of the sort that have been said on this blog: socialism causes economic failure and costs lives; the individual is more important than the state; it is better if everything not forbidden is permitted than if everything not permitted is forbidden; politicians are not God; fiscal deficit is bad.

I hope that he means it, and that he can do it, and that he is not undermined by the civil service, or by whatever Argentina has in the way of a “deep state”. It would be good to see Argentina getting wealthy again. It would be bad if there are further disasters and they can be conveniently blamed, by those with bad ideas, on these good ideas that Milei is talking about.

Thoughts on AI

There is undoubtedly a revolution going on in computing capability. I remember the first time I opened up ChatGPT and asked it to write me a poem, and then realised: this is something I am not used to computers being able to do.

Computers can now respond to natural language with natural language. Let that sink in.

This is not just hype. This is a new tool completely unlike any tool we already had.

These new tools are likely to change forever the way certain types of work are done. It is important to not be left behind: AI might not take your job, but people using AI might. If you can, it is worthwhile taking the time to figure out how to use it to your advantage. Thanks to the natural language capability, it has become easier: what was previously done by meticulously gathering data sets and annotating, pre-processing and cleaning them, has been done for you with these enormous pre-trained models. What previously required learning an API and some programming can now be done by having a conversation with a chat bot.

It is not just language models, there are image, video, speech and music generation tools, too. I have mostly been playing with ChatGPT (the £20 per month service that gets you access to the GPT-4 model that is much better than 3.5), so that is mostly what I will talk about here, but it is not the only thing. “Mixed mode” is something that is around the corner, too: the combination of these models to handle natural language, visual and audio information at the same time, interchangably.

There is much potential, but there is much that is immediately useful. Right now, what can we do?

→ Continue reading: Thoughts on AI

You are wrong about the number of people who agree with you

Vlad Vexler noticed that nearly everyone online was certain that Putin sent a body double to Mariupol rather than visiting himself. Then he ran a poll, which revealed that most people weren’t quite so sure, and actually more people thought it was more likely that Putin did go himself.

The point being that it is very hard to tell from the shouting and hollering in, say, social media commentary, what proportion of people really agree with a thing.

That institution might underestimate how much of the general population are actually not on board with these projects. It could happen because some of the leading newspapers, most of the universities, much of the discourse in the social media forums normalise something that might in fact have only persuaded a section of the population. It could be even some kind of elite, some kind of educated elite or some kind of urban elite or whatever. But that institution, let’s say the BBC, might go on as though actually 80% of the population are persuaded and it’s only 12% that are sort of not quite there because they’re irrational or because they are backward or don’t see things that way. But they’re a minority anyway. The problem isn’t whether these social justice projects are right or wrong; the problem is you’re assuming an act of persuasion has happened that hasn’t happened. […]

It’s so toxic to broadcast to the country and pretend that the 20% represents the 80%.

It can work the other way, too. In Vexler’s example, if the BBC writes an article and 7000 comments complain about it and only 1000 comments agree with it, it might become scared of shifting tides of culture, that the majority are against them, and they might start to take defensive measures; to treat as normal a minority opinion.

Vexler argues that these kinds of misjudgements cause political shifts and are dangerous for democracy. Even on a small scale I think it is unhelpful to go around thinking that Twitter, for example, reveals very much about what people are, in general, thinking.

You are almost certainly wrong, one way or another, about how many people agree with you*.

*Unless you are libertarian. Then the answer is 11

Brian Micklethwait interviewed on the subject of the history of libertarianism in London

I have updated the Brian Micklethwait Archive with a recording of an interview kindly given to me by Mal McDermott.

On 25th January 2020 Mal interviewed Brian on the subject of the history of the libertarian movement in Britain.

The interview of course contains much insight into libertarianism in London. From Brian finding a copy of The Machinery of Freedom in a bookshop in Staines, to the Alternative Bookshop and the Libertarian Alliance, to Samizdata and Libertarian Home.

Being a conversation with Brian, there is much digression. Discussed are the USSR, the NHS, the importance of being understood, the influence of getting people to give talks, the left wing pivoting from the working class to the environment, the creation of wealth, optimism and the freedom of children. There is much Micklethwaitian wisdom to enjoy.

The interview can be listened to on YouTube.

On the left, once you’re persuaded, you’re also persuaded of a political model for how to do it … we must elect a socialist government or topple the government and replace it with a socialist regime, and then we will make everyone socialist. … By its nature it’s a highly cooperative enterprise … A perfectly reasonable reaction to becoming a libertarian is to do what I’ve done for the last fifteen years … which is to write lots of blog postings about kittens. Because I like it. … One of my reactions to believing in freedom is that I’m free to go off and do that.


Tax cut freak out

We have about the highest level of taxation we have had in the UK since the 1970s. In the 2021-2022 tax year tax receipts were 30.3% of GDP. In 2009-2010 they were 25% of GDP which was the lowest level in the last 20 years and occurred under a Labour government.

The recently proposed tax changes are: cancel an increase in corporation tax; reverse a recent (unpopular with the left) 1.25% increase in national insurance contributions; cut basic rate of income tax by 1%; change stamp duty nil band from 125,000 to 250,000 (the average house price is 281,000); remove the 45% additional rate of income tax (paid by 629,000 people earning more than £150,000, to the tune of about £1.5bn (thanks to KJP for the correction)).

Such changes are welcome to me, but do not appear to be particularly radical.

And yet everyone, from the IMF to forex traders to buyers of government bonds to Torygraph columnists, not to mention literally everyone on Twitter, is completely freaking out about it.

Most commentators seem to be aghast at the very concept of tax cuts. Few commentators are talking about spending. Are these tax cuts really so big and costly, or is it that nobody believes that a smaller state can lead to economic growth, instead believing that government tax and spending is a zero sum game, and that anything other than a steady increase in tax and spending is terrifying?

Meringue exports

One big problem of Brexit is that it’s created a big category error in everyone’s thinking. Problems are categorised as being caused by Brexit instead of by trade regulation.

Nobody notices the EU could just choose not to restrict food imports from the UK. Or vice versa. French people’s inability to buy British meringues is unseen.

Because we use egg, there was a real problem with ‘do we need to get a vet in to certify the egg?’ and we were being pushed from pillar to post from [the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] and the Department for Trade and it was so difficult to understand.

Is there really any need to check food at the border? Might one not reasonably assume that British food legally sold in Britain is safe? Stopping diseases at borders might be somewhat useful but this is something that can be activated after the detection of a specific problem, just as it presumably is within the EU.

The real reason for these regulations is to make work for regulators.

Perun on the war in Ukraine

Perun is a gaming YouTuber who started making PowerPoint presentations on the war in Ukraine and they are so good that his channel has since become extremely successful.

The two most recent presentations are particularly good. In Who is winning? – Mythbusting the Ukraine-Russia war, Perun looks at claims of kills of each side vs. inventory (Russia’s overstatement is reaching its limits), the idea that attacking Kiev was a feint (a bad idea if so), various claims that Russia could do better if it wanted to (it is trying its hardest) and discussion of how well Russia is doing towards Russia’s own claimed goals (not well). All of this is done without sensationalism, with well-explained reasoning, with evidence where available and descriptions of the limitations of the evidence. There is no cheerleading here: claims that Ukraine has more tanks than before the war started are examined critically, as are Ukraine’s claimed successes.

However, as reasonable as it sounds to me, I am not very well placed to judge Perun’s military analysis. I think I understand some economics, though, and he makes a lot of sense in The Price of War – Can Russia afford a long conflict? Certainly the inverse of Gell-Mann amnesia applies. He points out that the price of the Ruble and the Russian stock market are at this point propped up by market interventions. “The Russian stock market is doing ok. But only because nobody’s bloody allowed to sell their shares.” (Did I mention Perun is Australian?)

He points out just how “hilariously” bigger the economies of all the Nato countries combined are compared to the Russian economy, and how that means that the West can continue to support Ukraine indefinitely while still growing, and Russia can only get poorer as the war goes on. He downplays the importance of Russian hydrocarbon exports to the West, because in the long term we can wean ourselves off them, and that leaves Russia selling them at a discount to India, and with a hefty bill to construct pipelines to China.

One aspect covered in both videos is the difficulty of Russia controlling the Donbass region in any useful way. Assuming Ukraine does not just give up and agree to hand it over, the Russians potentially have to defend it from attacks forever. That would make keeping it expensive and extracting any gas from beneath it difficult.

According to Perun, it does seem as if Western support for Ukraine and shunning of Russia, if kept up for long enough, will be very unpleasant for Russia. They would be better off giving up sooner rather than later, and even then Russia is in a bad way if the West pours aid and investment into Ukraine and does not return to investing in and trading with Russia. One possible problem with this is confidence:

The West needs to recognise its own strength. It’s always funny watching countries like Germany act really afraid of Russia, frankly, when economically Germany’s got about as much heft as the Russians do. Sure, Germany’s dependent on Russian gas but Russia is dependent on gas sales to Germany, too. The West seldom acts like it is the 40 trillion dollar gorilla that it is. It needs to acknowledge that is has muscle; it needs to be willing to use that economic muscle.

Digital Markets Act

With the Digital Markets Act, the EU wants to make competition between tech giants more fair. What could possibly go wrong?

In his weekly podcast, Linus Sebastian gushes about all the wonderful things it will bring: ensuring interoperability of instant messaging services (so you can more easily abandon Apple devices even if all your friends have them and use iMessage); the ability to use alternative app stores (which is what Epic games was hoping for so it could sell Fortnite VBucks to iPhone users without paying Apple); the right to uninstall pre-loaded apps (aka bloatware); no self-preferencing (e.g. putting your own products at the top of search results); more rules about combining personal data without consent; no more requiring developers to use certain services to get their apps onto app stores, making it easier to, for example, use alternative payment processors; allow app developers fair access to supplementary functionalities of smartphones (for example access to NFC for third party apps on iPhones).

“This is just such an obvious list of things that no consumer should oppose,” says Linus. And he is right. All these things would be very convenient.

But Linus does not consider the means by which these things are being attempted. One wonders what minor inconveniences he would not resort to legislation to solve. The non-aggression principle does not occur to him. Never mind the motivations of the people behind it or the time-proven tendency for all state regulation to have unintended consequences.

At 18:48 he responds to a commenter. “BFire just outed themselves as someone who doesn’t get it. ‘More government control. You’d think Canadians would have learned.’ No! This is a government body stepping in to reduce corporate control. Everything here is about loosening an iron fist. How is it not clear? This is one of those things: I just don’t get it. How can you oppose being allowed to remove crap you don’t want from your devices?”

Linus has fallen into a semantic muddle. No-one is being allowed to do anything. People are being forbidden from doing things. The answer is easy: if you want to be allowed to remove crap you do not want from your devices, simply buy devices that do not take that control away from you. The beauty of this is that it does not require any violence!

Linus must know on some level that violence is involved. His next sentence: “Companies being forced to make their products inter-operable. How can you oppose pro-consumer legislation?”

Perhaps one might oppose it because it is legislation which means that force is used. You might also oppose it because it may not lead to the utopian world its proponents imagine. Alec Muffet tweets that enforced interoperability will weaken end-to-end encryption of messages (and he goes into much more detail in a recent essay). There is a consequence that might not actually be unintended by the state actors behind this legislation and that might well harm the very consumers they claim to help.

The whole thing is also obviously unnecessary. In the video there is some discussion of Google search results becoming a bit rubbish lately since many more of the top results are just adverts. Luke Lafreniere (the chap on the right who works with Linus) talks about using Duck Duck Go to get better results, not just for privacy. So there is a free market solution to these problems that is already working.

At 29:39 Luke straight up announces that he would consider not buying Pixel phones if other phones allowed him to remove all the crapware. He seems completely unaware that the problem of crapware is already solved: simply buy devices that do not have crapware.

But for all the practical considerations, there is an easy way to counter all of this from first principles. Violence is bad, and the ends do not justify the means. You just need to have the semantic discipline to see through such constructs as “pro-consumer legislation”.

This is not going to work

UK online safety laws to be strengthened:

The new communications offences will strengthen protections from harmful online behaviours such as … deliberately sharing dangerous disinformation about hoax Covid-19 treatments.

Social media bosses face jail if they do not do as they are told.

Meanwhile, attempting to be the sole arbiter of truth turns out to be not quite so easy:

Facebook’s actions won’t stop The BMJ doing what is right, but the real question is: why is Facebook acting in this way?

Why, indeed?