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]

I wish I were reading a happier version of this story

Has anyone else been guiltily transfixed by the mystery of Danish inventor Peter Madsen, his now-sunken submarine, and the missing Swedish journalist Kim Wall? I truly do not wish to make light of the fact that a woman is missing, presumed dead, but I was undeniably fascinated by the whole idea of a crowd-sourced, privately built submarine. In any other circumstances I would have been delighted to learn that such a thing existed.

Here are some news reports on the story:

Danish submarine owner arrested over missing journalist

Submarine in missing journalist case sunk on purpose, Danish police say

Kim Wall and Danish submarine: What we know and what we don’t

Police in Two Countries Searching for Woman Missing Since Sub Sank

When commenting, please bear in mind that a criminal investigation is ongoing – and that all should be entitled to the presumption of innocence.

‘Self-driving car’ actually controlled by man dressed up as a car seat

The Guardian has the story, here.

“Look at the phone in your hand – you can thank the state for that”

The title of the piece by Rutger Bregman in today’s Guardian describes its main thrust well:

And just look at us now! Moore’s law clearly is the golden rule of private innovation, unbridled capitalism, and the invisible hand driving us to ever lofty heights. There’s no other explanation – right? Not quite.

For years, Moore’s law has been almost single-handedly upheld by a Dutch company – one that made it big thanks to massive subsidisation by the Dutch government. No, this is not a joke: the fundamental force behind the internet, the modern computer and the driverless car is a government beneficiary from “socialist” Holland.


Radical innovation, Mazzucato reveals, almost always starts with the government. Take the iPhone, the epitome of modern technological progress. Literally every single sliver of technology that makes the iPhone a smartphone instead of a stupidphone – internet, GPS, touchscreen, battery, hard drive, voice recognition – was developed by researchers on the government payroll.

Why, then, do nearly all the innovative companies of our times come from the US? The answer is simple. Because it is home to the biggest venture capitalist in the world: the government of the United States of America.

These days there is a widespread political belief that governments should only step in when markets “fail”. Yet, as Mazzucato convincingly demonstrates, government can actually generate whole new markets. Silicon Valley, if you look back, started out as subsidy central. “The true secret of the success of Silicon Valley, or of the bio- and nanotechnology sectors,” Mazzucato points out, “is that venture investors surfed on a big wave of government investments.”

Even the Guardian commentariat were not having that. The current most recommended comment comes from “Jabr”:

Whatever reasonable insights this article has (none of which are anything we haven’t heard before many times), they pale into insignificance compared to the one central and glaring fallacy, dishonesty, hypocrisy and absurdity at its core (and it’s remarkable that the writer seems oblivious to it): the writer is left wing. The specific branch of state activity where much US government innovation comes from is the federal armed forces of the United States, which every leftist hates more than anything. GPS wasn’t originally developed so we could find our way to the nearest organic kumquat shop – it was developed so that Uncle Sam could kill people more efficiently.

Thank goodness that leftists weren’t in charge of government investment decision-making at the time, because none of that investment would’ve been made and none of this technology would now exist – they’d have spent it on diversity coordinators and other progressive nonsense. Clicking on the writer’s profile, it says “The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders and a 15-hour Workweek.” So there we have it. I rest my case. That’s what society would’ve looked like, had the writer had his way – not a society which invested billions into military technology, but one which actively promotes indolence.

I would guess that most readers here will be closer to Jabr’s view than to Mr Bregman’s, but will not agree with either. But enough of my guesses as to what you think, what do you think?

Guardian comment of the day

Technology has become another way for men to oppress women, says Lizzie O’Shea’s sub-editor. For example,

Millions of people bark orders at Alexa, every day, but rarely are we encouraged to wonder why the domestic organiser is voiced by a woman.

And it is all because of “sexism in the tech industry”. Therefore my nomination for Guardian comment of the day, if not longer, goes to monkeyrich:

You’d have to ask Toni Read, Miriam Daniel and Heather Zorn – the three women who created Alexa, managed the team which engineered it and released it to the public.

It is not just the Guardian, by the way. Cristina Criddle in the Telegraph wrote in 2016, “Female digital assistants that do not fight back reinforce the connection between a woman’s voice and submission. In fact, it encourages it.”

No, they do not.

“But if Pavlov had been given the task of introducing communism, he’d have quickly proved, by experimenting on dogs, that this way of life isn’t suitable for a living soul!’

So spake a brave and wise Czech man to a Soviet Army Zampolit (Political Officer) in an angry exchange after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, per the wonderful, semi-biographical novel The Liberators by Soviet defector Viktor Suvorov. (BTW did the young (or old) Mr Corbyn ever condemn that particular Soviet invasion?).

But I digress. It turns out that scientists have now (perhaps inadvertently) tested a sort of socialism (we all know that the paradise of communism was always just around the corner under socialism) on dogs, and it turns out that they don’t like it.

Dogs have their own innate sense of fairness and did not learn this from humans as previously believed, a new study has concluded.

You might wonder what tree they were barking up, so let’s have a look:

In tests, wolves and dogs would both refuse to take part if they received no reward for pressing a buzzer while a partner animal got one for doing so. The same was true if they received a lower quality prize.

It was thought that dogs had learned the importance of equality – seen as a sophisticated trait found in humans and some primates – during the domestication process, but the study found the wolves displayed a greater reluctance to take part once they realised what was going on.

See how the piece smuggles in an unscientific value judgment?

So dogs don’t like being ripped off? Who does? I once met a falconer who told me that an eagle he knew remembered a ‘breach of contract’ when the owner’s son didn’t give him his due piece of meat, contrary to established custom and practice. He told me that when the son came back from University, the eagle still showed him great hostility, which lasted for years afterwards.

So it appears that dogs don’t like doing the work and others getting the rewards. The dogs are quite lucky, as they haven’t been slaughtered for opposing socialism, or just not being ‘in’, unlike 100,000,000 humans.

Some of the findings might appear to corroborate old folk tales…

the dogs in the study had been “highly socialised with humans in their first weeks of life” but did not have a pet-owner relationship.

“Nevertheless, they were still more eager to please the human experimenter than were the wolves,” the researchers wrote.

But is this science? Where, I ask myself, are the controls? I had a thought, why not use as a ‘control’ not just a wolf, but a dog raised in North Korea, where it will have only known socialism. But then again, I understand that they have already eaten the dogs there, during a famine caused by socialism…

Samizdata quote of the day

Noting the “unintended but disconcerting” link between nation-state activity and criminal activity, Smith adds that governments need “to consider the damage to civilians that comes from hoarding these vulnerabilities and the use of these exploits”. The “Digital Geneva Convention” Redmond recommends would therefore require governments “to report vulnerabilities to vendors, rather than stockpile, sell, or exploit them”.

Richard Chirgwin

Unintended? Not so sure about that.

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.

A muddle of psychiatrists

Here is a fun little article in The Independent about psychiatrists who think Donald Trump is mentally ill, and it is their professional duty to warn people. They are saying this sort of thing:

I’ve worked with murderers and rapists. I can recognise dangerousness from a mile away. You don’t have to be an expert on dangerousness or spend fifty years studying it like I have in order to know how dangerous this man is.

This sounds like complete nonsense, but it turns out that “clinical evaluation for predictions of future dangerousness, have become integral to the function of the legal system” — so it is qualified nonsense.

I don’t know about psychiatry; one commenter dismisses it as junk science. Most of the other commenters think it is a bit silly to attempt to diagnose a politician from viewing public appearances.

I think experts, especially when direct measurement of the phenomena is impossible, have a tendency to mistake shared opinions for objectivity. Politics amplifies that effect. See also climate science.

Yuval Noah Harari on how the knowledge economy reduces war

In this earlier posting about a book I had been reading, I talked about how reading can turn sort of knowledge into knowledge of a more solid sort. The author says something which you already sort of knew, but as soon as he says it, you know it much better. Often such knowledge consisted of things you already knew about separately, but you hadn’t connected them in your mind.

Recently this happened to me again. Like many others, I have lately been reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. And I soon learned that Harari, like Steven Pinker, has noticed that the world has been becoming a lot less warlike.

I already agree with Harari that a major reason for this reduction in warfare is nuclear weapons. On page 17 of my paperback edition of Home Deus, he says this:

Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into a mad act of collective suicide, and therefore forced the most powerful nations on earth to find alternative and peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. …

Quite so. But next comes this thought, which I had not, until now, put together in my mind:

… Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and war became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.

I knew that war is diminishing, in fact I have written blog postings about what a big change that is for humanity. And I knew that the knowledge economy is now becoming a bigger deal than the mere possession of agricultural or resource-rich land. Who now does not? But call me dumb, as maybe some tactless commenters will, but I had never – or never very clearly (only “sort of”) – made the causal connection between these two things. Taken together, the rise of the knowledge economy and the arrival of nuclear weapons, themselves a consequence of recently acquired knowledge, amount to a transformation in the cost-to-benefit ratio of war. It used to be that war incurred some costs, heavy costs if you did badly, but if you did well, war might yield handsome gains. Not any more, except when it comes to places still stuck in the logic of quarrelling over physical resources.

A more respectable reason, besides me being dumb, why I had not made this rather obvious connection is that there has been another process that has masked the peaceful nature of knowledge-based economies, which is that when “knowledge” first arrives in a society, its first impact is not to cause peace to happen, but rather that particular sort of war that is so misleadingly categorised as “civil”, i.e. war of the worst sort. Look at sixteenth century Germany, seventeenth century Britain, eighteenth century France and twentieth century Russia and China. All were in those times cursed by newly “educated” generations who each fervently believed that they possessed knowledge, of why and how they should rule the world, but who were really themselves possessed by various sorts of ideological frenzy. So maybe I can be forgiven, as can others who took a while to see or who still do not see the connection between knowledge and peace. It’s because the connection between knowledge and peace takes a while to even happen, and at first it goes in the wrong direction rather than the right one. To put it another way, it takes quite a while for “knowledge” to shed its sneer quotes. To put it yet another way, there are experts and there are “experts”.


Finally, all those silly season, slow-news-week fashion commentary pieces, about how this or that colour that isn’t black and never will be is now “the new black”, can cease. Vantablack is the new black.

This new black has been contrived by a bunch of nano-techies working for something called Surrey Nanosystems. The point about Vantablack is that it is really black. They claim that Vantablack absorbs all but 0.036% of the light that strikes it. Normally, if you shine a torch at a black surface, you can see the light from the torch registering on the supposedly black surface, in other words being reflected rather than absorbed. But Vantablack just gobbles up all the light and continues to look totally black. You’ll be double-checking your torch to see if it is working. This is a godsend for space telescopers, and for the makers of very high-end cameras of all kinds.

The original target for Vantablack was the suitably money-no-object space telescope business. Space telescopes need to minimise – really minimise – the number of light particles that bounce about inside them in the wrong places and blur the resulting images, and Vantablack absorbs light particles to a unique degree.

But Vantablack also has potential applications in art and in the world of luxury design, which is why I first heard about Vantablack at Dezeen, the design website that I frequent. And then, quite recently, I encountered mention of Vantablack at David Thompson’s blog, in one of his lists of internetted oddities, and then at Instapundit (who feared it might be an April Fool prank). I imagine it has been much the same for all internetters with any interest in such things, large numbers of whom will by now have heard of this remarkable, newly invented-stroke-discovered material-stroke-paint, which is blacker than the blackest black ever not-seen before. The Vantablack story combines hot button highest-technology issues, like nano-tech (which was how they did it) and space exploration, with a visual outcome which is very bizarre, but the basic nature of which can be understood by almost anybody. An ideal combination for virality.

→ Continue reading: Vantablack

Italy keeps up its traditional ways

…of backwardness, protectionism and cronyism. Sorry, Italy, I love you in so many ways but this is just Third World:

The International Business Times reports, “Italy court bans Uber across the country over unfair competition for traditional taxis”

An Italian court banned the Uber app across the country on Friday ruling that it contributed unfair competition to traditional taxis. In a court ruling, a Rome judge upheld a complaint filed by Italy’s major traditional taxi associations, preventing Uber from using its Black, Lux, Suv, XL, Select and Van services from operating within the country.

Optimistic thoughts about self-driving cars

Self driving cars are coming and they are good.

Safety is an obvious benefit. Some people I have talked to about this talk about overcoming fear to get into a self-driving car. But over a million people per year are killed on the road. It is clearly technically possible to make a car very safe: if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once. You can’t do that with people, who make the same mistakes over and over again. Furthermore I don’t anticipate anyone marketing a self-driving car until it is orders of magnitude safer than a human because in the case of an accident the reputational damage to the developer would be so high. I expect self-driving car accidents to be reported in the press even more vigorously than exploding batteries in cellphones are today. And cases of exploding batteries, even in the case of the infamous Samsung Note 7, are vanishingly rare. If car accidents were anywhere near as rare as that we would already be living in a much better world. And that’s just safety.

I think self-driving cars have the capability to completely change the landscape. Charlie Stross talks about what a time traveller from thirty years ago would notice when they visited. Such a traveller might notice different fashions but the urban landscape would be very much the same. To paraphrase Charlie, the most obvious difference would be that people are walking around staring into glowing bits of glass as if they were windows onto the sum-total of human knowledge.

Thirty years from now things could look very different indeed.

No-one will own their own cars any more — at least not as a matter of course. When the only advantage of owning one’s own car is the ability to store one’s own junk in it, it simply won’t be worth the cost. It is already possible to do some short commutes by Uber for a few thousand pounds per year, rivalling private car ownership. A company could operate a fleet of self-driving cars on a very similar model and make big savings on scale. So for any given journey you just tap your destination and select what kind of vehicle you would like, and it would roll up to your door in a few minutes. No paperwork, no maintenance, no re-fuelling, no keeping a big car for the occasional times you need it, and no difficulty moving a large object because hiring a specialist vehicle is equally straightforward.

For that matter, cars can be far more specialised because they don’t need to look like cars any more. No-one has to sit in the driver’s seat looking out and it won’t crash so you don’t have to wear seat-belts. If you need to do some work on the way to your destination, hire an office on wheels. If you want to travel by night, hire a hotel room on wheels. Some journeys don’t need to be made by people at all: to drop off a parcel, hire a self-driving locker. Forget drone deliveries, Amazon will use self-driving delivery vehicles.

There is no longer any need for car parks or cars parked along residential streets. Our time traveller will wonder where all the cars have gone: children will be playing in the streets once more and houses will have gardens where once there were driveways.

I am not sure how busy the roads will look. Automated cars can travel close together and co-ordinate with each other so there will be no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. But as travelling is easier and cheaper people will do it more. People will live further from their place of work because journey times will be shorter and consistent. No more leaving half an hour earlier *in case* of a traffic jam. You will know exactly how long it will take every single day. If people put up with two hour commutes today, there is no reason to think they won’t in future. But that two hours will reliably get them a lot further. So it will be easier to change jobs because a given house will be in range of more jobs, and it will be easy to have offices in different locations because a given office will be in range of more houses. There will still be advantages to working close together, and people often don’t like *living* close together, so perhaps people will continue to work in cities but live in them less.

Towns and cities will look different because much of the land used for roads can be reclaimed for other uses. There is no need for giant roundabouts or other large, complicated junctions that are used today to improve traffic flow. In many cases even roads with two lanes can be converted to narrow, single lanes because bi-directional traffic can pass at specific points. We can finally get rid of the temporary Hogarth Roundabout flyover.

Cars will probably be mostly electric because they can drive off and recharge themselves. I suspect they will travel very fast on highways because there is no safety disadvantage and people will demand shorter journey times.

Today, old people can find themselves immobile. Children have to scrounge lifts. With self-driving cars, anyone can go anywhere. You can send your children to a better school in the next town instead of nearly bankrupting yourself moving into the catchment area.

There are likely to be problems along the way. My vision so far relies somewhat on all vehicles on the road being automated. I think there will be a short time during which automated vehicles will have to co-exist with human-driven ones, but the advantages will be so huge and so immediately apparent that people will switch to exclusively using automated cars faster than they adopted smartphones.

I am not sure how well things will work out for people living in remote areas. Right now I can get an Uber in three minutes. This is because of the population density where I am. People in the sticks will have to wait longer for a ride and costs will be higher. But, then again, population distribution and economics are likely to change.

Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.

There will be technical difficulties making the first car that can completely self-drive on any road. There are software, infrastructure and mapping problems to solve. If there were no human driven cars the problem would be easier, but I think there will be a few years when human and automatic cars will have to co-exist. Only a few years: but it is still a hurdle. However, there are people who are working on it and they think it is possible and they are making progress. There is no reason to think it is impossible. And the benefits are so huge and so universal that it is hard to imagine any amount of human effort into this problem that won’t quickly be paid back. We won’t be able to predict the moment of success but when it comes, change will be fast.

There may be computer security challenges, but in an intelligence race between bad guys and good guys I have some confidence that the good guys will ultimately win. Failures here will be as embarrassing as car crashes or exploding batteries to manufacturers.

The government will regulate where you can go and track your every move. This is a problem anyway: self-driving cars don’t fundamentally change it. And people always choose convenience over freedom and privacy so it is going to happen anyway.

How many man-hours are wasted sitting in control of a vehicle or being stuck in traffic? Further economic growth will come from the time and effort freed up. Self-driving cars are coming, and they are good.