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While we follow the soap operas at Westminster, Brussels and Washington other things happen in the world. Some of them will have effects that may still reverberate when the names “May” or “Merkel” or “Trump” have become no more than answers to pub quiz questions. Harry Phibbs, writing in CapX, has depressing news:

Anti-scientific EU rules are hindering work to save millions of lives

Let us consider another EU imposition. It is a rule that inhibits our contribution to the fight against malaria. According to UNICEF this disease is “the largest killer of children” on the planet. That agency estimates that malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, about a million a year. Most of those children are under five years of age, with 90 per cent of cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Research suggests that while the number of deaths has fallen since 2010, in the last couple of years progress has stalled.

The good news is that a gene editing application has been developed which could eradicate malaria. It is called CRISPR — Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — and is considered “cheaper, faster, and less error-prone than any gene editing technology that came before it”. It could help preserve endangered species, improve welfare for farm animals — and save the lives of millions of children. The idea is to make mosquitoes immune to the disease.

But

In July, the BBC reported that the “European Court of Justice ruled that altering living things using the relatively new technique of genome editing counts as genetic engineering.” It added that “scientists who work in the areas of gene editing and genetic modification warned that the ruling would hold back cutting-edge research and innovation.”

Denis Murphy, professor of biotechnology at the University of South Wales, said the EU rules would “potentially impose highly onerous burdens on the use of genome editing both in agriculture and even in medicine, where the method has recently shown great promise for improving human health and well being.”

I must be honest here. As I read that article, mixed in with the genuine sadness and anger I felt about the way the EU’s restrictions look likely to hinder the development of a technique that could have alleviated large amounts of human suffering, I also felt a certain ignoble exhilaration. The European Union is being as bad as I always said it was. I had found a devastating answer to “Name me one bad thing the EU does, then!” It is possible that partisan passion is blinding me to the good reasons the ECJ might have had for caution. Ecosystems are complicated. Messing about with them has a habit of going wrong. Think of the introduction of rabbits to Australia or Mao’s attempt to eradicate sparrows from China.

One of the skipped-over paragraphs from Mr Phibbs’ article that I covered with the word “But” is this one:

“The team began with just two edited males, designated mosquitoes 10.1 and 10.2, into which the drive was inserted. After two generations of cross-breeding with hundreds of wild-type mosquitoes — and in mosquitoes, two generations can pass in less than a month — they produced 3,894 third-generation mosquitoes, of which 3,869 (99.5 percent) had the resistance gene. Just two mosquitoes were able to spread the trait to thousands of progeny — and malaria resistance along with it.”

The speed of that geometric progression scares me. Once started, the spread of these gene-edited mosquitoes could not be easily reversed.

But maybe it does not scare you, and you know more of genome editing than I do. My knowledge of biology is that of an attentive reader of pop science. Can any of you tell me more about this subject? Is the EU being as bad as I always said it was?

An Open Letter to a Terrible Podcast

[I’m intensely interested in the current generation of space entrepreneurs. They really do have the capacity to transform the future of our species. I’m obsessed enough to listen to several space-related podcasts and watch a couple of Youtube channels on the topic. For reference, good podcasts include “Planetary Radio” for coverage of planetary science missions and government space policy, “Interplanetary Podcast” (an irreverent program produced by the British Interplanetary Society), the “Aerospace Engineering Podcast” (a recent addition I don’t yet have a strong opinion of) for insights into new technology, and I watch Youtube episodes of “TMRO”, “The Everyday Astronaut”, and Scott Manley’s show, all of which have interesting content. “TMRO” in particular is wonderful at conveying enthusiasm for the progress being made these days. “Planetary Radio” is much stodgier and more government space program oriented, but has excellent content and typically covers the whole spectrum quite fairly.

And then, there’s “Talking Space”, a podcast that I’m no longer willing to listen to. I rarely tell people that I’ve stopped subscribing to their content, but in this case, I felt compelled to write them a note — it’s unusual to find people in this media segment who so faithfully channel Ellsworth Toohey. Even though almost no one who reads Samizdata will have heard their tiny podcast, I’ve included the entire content below:]

I regularly listened to your program until your episode just after Falcon Heavy’s test flight. I was disgusted at that time with your astonishingly negative attitude about that launch, and unsubscribed for a while, but I decided to give you another chance. Having just stopped listening halfway through “To the moon, Elon!”, I think I’m through with your podcast permanently.

The BFR, if it flies, will be the first fully reusable orbital launch vehicle in history, and will also be one of the heaviest lift vehicles in history. Musk claims it will reduce launch costs by a factor of about two orders of magnitude. Even if it only reduces launch costs by a factor of ten and not one hundred, it will be a major milestone in human history, and I don’t believe that I’m exaggerating.

Not a single mention of that had been made by the time I shut off the episode. All I heard was “it might take a years longer than Musk says” and “this will cost money, where will it come from?” and the even more offensive “Yawn” remark where one of your hosts expressed actual boredom with the news.

On the cost, Musk has a long track record of securing the funding he needs, and as to the former, when he was asked about the timing at the press conference, he absolutely owned up to the fact that they were unlikely, saying that the dates in question were optimistic and based on nothing going wrong.

We all know by now, after his work at several companies, both that Musk rarely makes his dates, but that he almost always manages to achieve the the engineering goals he’s set. SpaceX had its first orbital launch only ten years ago, but is now the world’s leading launch provider, with only the Chinese government launching more often, and given the customer contracts they have in hand and the continuous increase in launch rate, by next year SpaceX may be approaching the Chinese launch cadence. There’s very little reason to doubt that they’re technically capable of building BFR or that they’ve got real revenue that they can apply to R&D, given that even a cursory estimate shows that their operating revenue is now into ten figures.

As for the ridiculous “Yawn” comment: presuming BFR launches, and I presume it will given enough time, it will dramatically alter the cost of human access to space. If the costs end up where Musk claims they will, the price of things like human colonization of cislunar space will be in the feasible range for the first time. If they end up 10x past what he thinks they will be, they’re still going to cut the price of access to space by 90%. This changes everything, even for science missions, which will benefit tremendously from far cheaper launches.

Spending your time nattering about how much you dislike Musk (which was a clear subtext) or are bored by him, how unlikely it is that he’ll get the money needed for development when he clearly managed to get the money needed for the development of all his projects to date, and how he might miss his date by years when that’s utterly immaterial, demonstrated to me that you guys are not my sort of people. You utterly miss the interesting part here — I can imagine your analysis of the first passenger railroad being something like “but the cross-ties are made of wood and will rot! They’ll have to be replaced at intervals!”.

Further, even if Musk doesn’t manage this and Bezos (who is working to the same goals) does, it still doesn’t matter — the world is about to be transformed, and all you can do is look for excuses to grumble.

I realized, in the midst of listening, that I understood the name of your podcast at last. It’s “Talking Space”.

Not “Doing Space”. “Talking Space”.

The lot of you are talkers, and the same sort of talkers who have naysayed pretty much ever interesting development since private development of space technology began in earnest. People like Musk, and Bezos, and Beck, and Haot, and all the others, who are putting their money on the line and their skin in the game, are the doers.

I’m done listening to talkers who have nothing to say but negative things when they themselves haven’t done anything. Musk’s people managed to go from zero to launching 20+ commercial orbital missions a year in a decade. What have you gotten done that makes you feel you can look down on SpaceX’s achievements?

I’ll conclude by saying this even more bluntly: the people responsible for human progress don’t spend all their time negatively gossiping from the sidelines about people who have done far more for humanity than themselves. We need more competent entrepreneurs, not more nasty talking heads.

China’s hardware hack: massive implications if true

Bloomberg is running an utterly astounding story about a massive Chinese hardware hack that if true will have considerable political impact but truly enormous economic implications.

This will have a long-term bearish effect on China’s hitherto unchallengeable position as the overwhelmingly dominant manufacturer of computers, phones and high tech IT component.

And yet… I hesitate to immediately take this entire story at face value, precisely because the geo-political/economic implications are so dramatic that I can hear the sound of a great many axes grinding.

Still, it is certainly something I can well believe the Chinese government would do, even with the associated risk to China’s IT marketability. But then the same is probably true of the US government, I would not put such a thing past them either.

You had me worried there for a moment, CERN!

We girls do get ourselves in a tizzy sometimes. Even me, and I’m an unusual girl, being into boy things like science. As a sixth former my dream was to become an astronaut, or, failing that (edit: or in addition to that), a particle physicist who would unlock the secrets of the universe at CERN. Those dreams weren’t so crazy, either. I did go to Oxford to study physics, and I did make some use of my degree in parts of my subsequent career. I never made it to CERN but I know people who did. For these reasons I have a motherly concern for the future of science, with particle physics being particularly close to my heart. When my old college and the Oxford Department of Physics send me their respective begging newsletters I throw them both away but I never fail to commit the physics one to the depths of the recycling bin in a respectful manner.

That is why I was so worried when I read this report from the BBC:

Cern scientist Alessandro Strumia suspended after comments

A senior scientist who said physics “was invented and built by men” has been suspended with immediate effect from working with Cern.

Prof Alessandro Strumia, of Pisa University, made the comments during a presentation organised by the European nuclear research centre.

Cern issued a statement on Monday suspending Prof Strumia pending an investigation.

You can see why I was worried for a moment: there was no accusation of scientific misconduct by Professor Strumia. It seemed almost as if CERN were punishing unconventional political beliefs. But then all became clear. Why did I not see it before? Like true scientists, CERN proposed to investigate the Professor’s hypothesis. He has said, “People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn’t, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.” Obviously CERN would dispassionately examine the relevant data and draw conclusions as to how well it aligned to his hypothesis.

What a relie…

It stated that his presentation was “unacceptable”.

How do you know in advance whether it was acceptable or not, CERN? OK, I was being a sarcastic cow as per usual when I pretended to think that you ever had any plan to investigate whether what he said was true, but you haven’t even done your wretched little thoughtcrime investigation yet.

And so it goes on:

“Cern always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment,” the statement reads, calling the presentation “contrary to the Cern Code of Conduct”.

The organisation said it was “unfortunate” the views of the scientist, who works at a collaborating university, “risks overshadowing the important message and achievements of the event”.

Prof Strumia, who regularly works at Cern, was speaking at a workshop in Geneva on gender and high energy physics.

He told his audience of young, predominantly female physicists that his results “proved” that “physics is not sexist against women. However the truth does not matter, because it is part of a political battle coming from outside”.

He produced a series of graphs which, he claimed, showed that women were hired over men whose research was cited more by other scientists in their publications, which is an indication of higher quality.

He also presented data that he claimed showed that male and female researchers were equally cited at the start of their careers but men scored progressively better as their careers progressed.

Carelessly, the BBC let us see a glimpse of a graph of one of his slides which did seem to kinda sorta suggest that… I will say no more. He may well be wrong. When scientists make confident pronouncements about matters outside their area of expertise they often make fools of themselves. But fair play to him, he did put the ball in his opponents’ court by publishing his data. In an older tradition of reporting this might have been the prompt for the BBC to provide an analysis of the figures. But the modern BBC prefers to outsource its analysis to semi-random people on Twitter. Some woman who must be listened to because her twitter handle is “DrSammie” tweets, “I don’t even have any rage left for the whole CERN sexism thing because, truth is, I’m not at all shocked or surprised knowing some of the attitudes of people I have met. It aint unique to any one scientific discipline.” I do hope she is able to find a new supply of rage soon; a modern female scientist must never be without rage.

Just to top it off, the BBC finishes by this charming little lie of omission. The article says:

In 2015, Nobel laureate Prof Tim Hunt resigned from his position at University College London after telling an audience of young female scientists at a conference in South Korea that the “trouble with girls” in labs was that “when you criticise them they cry”.

Way to go, BBC. Don’t let the readers know that the next words Hunt said were,

Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Emphasis added. It was a joke. But it is not wise to joke against the dominant religion, as Sir Tim Hunt’s subsequent treatment demonstrated. Nor is it wise to put forward for discussion ideas contrary to that religion, as Professor Strumi’s treatment demonstrates. Perhaps it is a still too early to bring up Galileo Galilei’s dealings with the Holy Office. But when I read that the first reaction of some of the most prominent scientists in the world, endlessly lauded for their “scientific daring”, to new ideas from one of their number is to is to deem those ideas “unacceptable” – not “wrong for the following reasons” but unacceptable – I cannot help remembering that Galileo complained to Kepler that those who denounced him would not even look through his telescope.

“I’ve long said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without Hell.”

A quote attributed to USAF Colonel Frank Borman, the oldest living astronaut, businessman, one of the first men to orbit the Moon. He sounds like a splendid chap. This ‘b’ word is of course, is anathema to many in the political elite, as RBS limps on after a decade of State support, and many of the forecasting errors of a decade ago remain unliquidated. As others have noted, just as when a tree falls the light let in through the canopy allows new blooms.

But coming back to our hero, he has recently given an interview on his impressions of his time as an astronaut. He seems to be have set a high bar to be impressed.

“When asked if it was ‘cool’ to fly around weightless, Colonel Borman replied: ‘No.’

He said it was interesting to watch ‘maybe for the first 30 seconds, then it became accepted.’

And Colonel Borman denied ever saying he thought a poet should have been on board.

He said: ‘No, I didn’t- if I did, I didn’t- the last thing I would have wanted on our crew was a poet.’

Mr Cassius Clay, you were not the Greatest. As for the Moon:

He described the Moon as ‘devastation’ and said it was: ‘Meteor craters, no color at all. Just different shades of gray.’

And Colonel Borman revealed he had no desire to step foot on the Moon, as Buzz Aldrin did seven months later.

He said: ‘I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn’t mean that much to me.’

‘Somebody else wanted to do it. Let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world.’

Well, perhaps NASA could ask him to compare the Moon with Detroit?

As he said, he loved his family.

‘The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth- my family, my wife, my parents.’

‘They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.’

‘The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth- my family, my wife, my parents.’

‘They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.’

And the mission itself?

Lovell was mesmerized by space and exploration, and wanted desperately to explore the moon. I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War.

‘I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that’s the only thing that motivated me- beat the damn Russians.’

Would he run in 2020?

A Labour MP who won’t let Theresa May beat her on authoritarianism

Lucy Powell MP has taken to the pages of the Guardian to tell us “Why I am seeking to stamp out online echo chambers of hate”.

She writes,

Closed forums on Facebook allow hateful views to spread unchallenged among terrifyingly large groups. My bill would change that.

and

Because these closed forums can be given a “secret” setting, they can be hidden away from everyone but their members. This locks out the police, intelligence services and charities that could otherwise engage with the groups and correct disinformation. This could be particularly crucial with groups where parents are told not to vaccinate their children against diseases.

Here is a video of Powell talking about her proposal.

Her Private Member’s Bill, like all Private Member’s Bills, has very little chance of passing. But it has cross-party support. Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and David Lammy all count as members of the permanent ruling coalition, but I had thought better of Jacob Rees-Mogg.

If it did pass, I can see no logical reason not to extend its provisions to ban private face-to-face conversations. Why should the mere fact that the hate speech is conveyed by sound rather than text make any difference? Dangerous physical proximity allows the doings of these groups to be even more effectively hidden away from anyone but their members. These groups meeting in people’s living rooms literally lock out the police, intelligence services and charities that could otherwise engage with them and correct disinformation.

Do not read this!

The BBC reports:

European Parliament backs copyright changes

Controversial new copyright laws have been approved by members of the European Parliament.

The laws had been changed since July when the first version of the copyright directive was voted down. Critics say they remain problematic.

Many musicians and creators claim the reforms are necessary to fairly compensate artists.

But opponents fear that the plans could destroy user-generated content, memes and parodies.

Leaders of the EU’s member states still need to sign off on the rule changes before the individual countries have to draft local laws to put them into effect.

The vote in Strasbourg was 438 in favour of the measures, 226 against and 39 abstentions.

MEPs voted on a series of changes to the original directive, the most controversial parts are known as Article 13 and Article 11.

Article 13 puts the onus on web giants to take measures to ensure that agreements with rights-holders for the use of their work are working.

Critics say that would require all internet platforms to filter content put online by users, which many believe would be an excessive restriction on free speech.

Article 11 is also controversial because it forces online platforms to pay news organisations before linking to their stories, something critics refer to a “link tax”.

Julia Reda MEP, who has fought hard against this, says,

Catastrophic Article 11 vote: The European Parliament just endorsed a #linktax that would make using the title of a news article in a link to it require a license. #SaveYourInternet #SaveTheLink

and

Article 13 vote: The European Parliament endorses #uploadfilters for all but the smallest sites and apps. Anything you want to publish will need to first be approved by these filters, perfectly legal content like parodies & memes will be caught in the crosshairs #SaveYourInternet

A small silver lining to the cloud is that this move by the EU is particularly unpopular with just that crowd who usually love the EU most.

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.

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?

Elon Musk just made a lot of enemies in Britain

There is a lot to admire about Elon Musk. I thought the space car was glorious. The whimsicality of it, which so many objected to, delighted me.

It is sad that Mr Musk has now shown that his whims can take a nastier turn.

British cave diver considering legal action over Elon Musk’s ‘pedo’ attack

A British cave diver who was instrumental in the rescue of 12 children trapped in a northern Thailand cave says he is considering legal action after the inventor Elon Musk called him a “pedo” on Twitter.

Vernon Unsworth told the Guardian on Monday he was “astonished and very angry” at the attack, for which Musk offered no evidence or basis. The billionaire initially doubled down on the comments made on social media, but has since deleted them.

Apparently it started when Mr Unsworth was rude about Mr Musk’s offer of his mini-submarine to help in the rescue:

Previously, Unsworth had described Musk’s offer to help the rescue effort as a “PR stunt”, and had told CNN Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts”.

If nothing else had been said, my sympathies would have been with Mr Musk. Even if it was something of PR stunt, I am sure Musk did genuinely want to help save lives. Still, I dare say tempers often flare in these high pressure situations. One man’s praiseworthy offer of aid can be another’s dangerous distraction from an urgent task.

However then Mr Musk went on to call Mr Unsworth a “pedo”, not just once – in which case it might have been written off as a random zero-content insult like calling someone a “bastard” when you neither know nor care whether their parents were legally married – but repeatedly. Mr Musk’s “evidence” for this allegation out a blue sky was that Mr Unsworth is a white guy living in Thailand. Musk said that that in itself was “sus”, meaning suspicious.

Angry comments are coming thick and fast to the Times article “Thai boys’ rescuer Vern Unsworth could sue Elon Musk over paedophile smear”. If even a fraction of those commenting on the Times website and those of other British newspapers who have said that they are about to cancel their Tesla order follow through with it, Musk’s UK operation could be in real trouble. That comes on top of the doubts already raised about the company by Tesla’s failure to live up to some of Musk’s earlier extravagant promises. For all the fame of the brand, the number of Tesla electric cars in the UK is still only in the low thousands, and Times subscribers are exactly the sort of people who would be most likely to buy them.

Charismatic individuals can push forward scientific innovation. They can also screw up big time.

Two days before the EU (probably) votes to end the free internet. Should we care?

In two days, on 20th June, the European Parliament Legal Affairs Committee will vote on the proposed Copyright Directive.

By design the process by which the European Union makes laws is opaque. They would have been quite happy to slide this past the slumbering European public, but some people have woken up to the fact that it is an ill-drafted and authoritarian piece of legislation.

Opposition within the EU is being led by Julia Reda, a German Pirate Party MEP. Here is her summary page on the proposed law. Article 11, popularly called the “link tax”, and Article 13, popularly called “censorship machines”, are particularly sinister.

As it stands Article 11 would mean the end of blogging:

Anyone using snippets of journalistic online content must first get a license from the publisher. This new right for publishers would apply for 20 years after publication.

And if you think that sounds bad, wait til you see Article 13:

– Freedom of expression limited: Upload monitoring software cannot tell infringement apart from legal uses like parody, specifically enabled by exceptions and limitations to copyright. Filters also frequently malfunction. As a result, legal content will be taken down.

– Independent creators harmed: Platforms will receive instructions as to what content to automatically remove from large commercial rightholders. When independent creators have works removed by filters that are covered by exceptions or otherwise misidentified as infringing, they will effectively be deemed “guilty until proven innocent”, having to fight to have their legal creations reinstated.

– Surveillance risk: The proposal requires the installation of what amounts to surveillance technology. Due to high development costs, content monitoring technology will likely end up being outsourced to a few large US-based providers, strengthening their market position even further and giving them direct access to the behavior of all EU users of internet platforms.

– Startup killer: This requirement places a huge burden on internet companies and discourages investment in user-generated content startups, preventing EU competition to the targeted dominant US platforms from arising, effectively locking in YouTube’s dominance. (See Allied for Startups)

– Unintended targets harmed: Community projects like Wikipedia would likely need to implement such filters, even though they only accept freely-licensed uploads. Code hosting platforms would also be affected, “undermining the foundations upon which Free and Open Source Software is built”. As would scientific repositories, “undermining the foundations of Open Access”.

Interestingly, this proposed law is bitterly opposed on the usually pro-EU Reddit Europe. See this post currently “stuck” to the top of the subreddit.

There and elsewhere I have seen commenters – particularly the young, computer literate generation that are more usually seen rolling out pro-EU banners at Labour party events – state that this issue alone has turned them against the EU. At a time when both Government and Opposition waver in their resolve to stick to the result of the referendum it is at least arguable that we should be glad when the EU’s velvet glove slips to show the iron fist underneath.

I am not going to spin this out. I think we should care. Letting freedom be significantly curtailed for 450 million people for temporary political advantage and the chance to say, “I told you so” seems a poor bargain. If the EU succeeds in passing this law, Theresa May will be taking notes. Julia Reda has a “What you can do” page. For the sake of our friends in Europe, and for our own sake here in the UK, I think that if you are a UK or EU resident you should do those things.

But perhaps you disagree?

One day the Times headline writers might figure out what actually helps save rhinos

The paper edition of the Times that hit my doormat this morning had an interesting headline: “Hi-tech kit keeps rhinos safe from poachers”.

The online version has an even more interesting headline: “Hi-tech kit and ex-spies keeps South Africa’s rhinos safe from poachers”.

Neither headline is untrue, both the hi-tech gadgetry and the spies are helping preserve the rhinos, but both are missing something. My use of the “Deleted by the PC Media” tag is a little inaccurate, as is my use of the “Hippos” tag, but we seem to lack a tag for “Rhinos” or for “Never even entered the PC Media’s pretty little heads despite the facts staring them in the face from their own reporting”. See if you can guess what the missing factor is from this excerpt:

South Africa, home to 80 per cent of the world’s 29,000 rhinos, loses about three a day to poachers, the vast majority in state parks. Private reserves have become essential to preventing the animals from extinction, as long as the owners can afford to protect them.

Turning the 150,000-acre reserve into a 21st-century fortress in the African bush costs £1 million a year but the investment has paid off. The park has not lost a rhino in the past two years. It is hardly surprising. At each of the park’s four gates, guests visiting its five-star lodges, as well as staff, only enter after systems have checked numberplates and fingerprints against a national criminal database and are tracked and monitored until they leave.

Kruger National Park is far less secure and the rate of survival among its 9,000-strong rhino population is poor. Sixty per cent of all poaching incidents in South Africa occur there. Too often its rangers, police and officials are in the pay of poachers. Rhino horns can fetch up to £70,000 per kilogram in Asia, where they are imagined to cure a range of ills from hangovers to cancer.