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]

Tactical voting websites and my microwave oven

“Tactical voting sites have spread confusion and animosity. In fact, we don’t need them”, writes Dan Davies in the Guardian. “We” here means Remainers who seek to know whether voting Labour or Liberal Democrat is the best way to stop Boris Johnson’s Conservatives winning the election and enacting Brexit.

But never mind all that. If you want to dally with those old flirts, the opinion polls, I have a post up at the Great Realignment. Back in the world of Things, Mr Davies indirectly described why modern microwave ovens are so much more annoying than the ones from twenty or thirty years ago.

Consider my microwave. It is a Samsung MS28J5215, you will be thrilled to learn.

It has a Healthy Cooking Button (never use), a My Plate Button (not my cup of tea), a Power Defrost Button (like in Power Rangers), a Soften/Melt Button (my feelings towards it haven’t), a Plate Warming Button (I can never find the plastic thingy that you put the plates on), a Deodorisation Button (I do sometimes clean the microwave, actually), a Child Lock Button (useless, the microwave is too small to hold a child), a Turntable On/Off Button (it does? Gosh, I wish I’d known), a Stop/Eco button (I do sometimes stop the machine but I do not Eco it), a Start/+30s button (great, love this button, nukes stuff for 30 seconds) and finally
a Microwave Button. The inclusion of the latter is odd in the same way as the inclusion of Death among the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is odd. As either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett said somewhere, when you’ve got Death on the roster, the exact career roles of Famine, Pestilence and War are worryingly hard to define.

About a quarter of a century ago we sought to buy a microwave for my father. He was a widower and had lost touch with modern technology. If he was going to use it at all it had to be very, very simple. Stephen Hawking used to say that his publishers warned him that every extra equation he put in A Brief History of Time would halve the sales of the book. It was like that with every extra button or program on a microwave and my dad’s likelihood of ever using the thing. Eventually, the proprietor of a little independent electrical goods store in Swansea found a dusty little box in the back room that, wonder of wonders, contained a microwave he had probably given up on ever selling. It had two dials, How Hot and How Long. It was a good microwave. My father did use it.

As Dan Davies writes,

The underlying problem seems to be that in the online political era, clever and enthusiastic people seem to choose projects based on what might go viral rather than what really needs to be done. Because nobody really needs one of these websites, let alone three or four competing ones. Anyone who can understand the concept of tactical voting and why they might want to do it is equal to the very easy task of doing their own research (the tactical.vote website even tells you how, in 200 words). People who don’t want to vote tactically usually have their own, often strongly felt, reasons for not switching to Labour or the Lib Dems.

The idea that there is someone out there who would vote tactically if they could just get a convenient packaged recommendation is basically a myth; such people are really rare. In online conversations with people who volunteer for these projects, the only case I’ve really heard for them is that they might be helpful if your grandparents ask you how to vote, which is clearly a hopeful daydream.

It’s the dumb thing that smart people always do – assuming that the only reason other people haven’t done what you want is that you haven’t explained it to them yet. Unfortunately, politics doesn’t really work like that.

It’s a circle of life thing

Activists campaign to have a law passed to protect the environment: “Plastic bag backlash gains momentum” – 14 September 2013

Victory! The law is passed: Plastic bag law comes into force on 5th October 2015 – 2 October 2015

Reports tell of the good it has done: Plastic bag charge: Why was it introduced and what impact has it had? – 25 August 2018

But wait, there seems to be problem: ‘Bags for life’ making plastic problem worse, say campaigners – 28 November 2019

What a privilege it is for lovers of nature to be present at the birth of a baby environmental campaign. Be with us as our cameras watch the young pressure group grow, until the day comes when it is strong enough to overturn the law that caused it to exist. The circle is complete.

Do not mutate the state at too great a rate

Via Guido, I found a good article on evolution and billionaire-bashing written from a mildly left-wing perspective by the science writer Tom Chivers:

There’s a principle in evolution, which is that a gene mutation with a small effect can sometimes be good, but mutations with large effects are almost always bad. Imagine you have a species of deer. It’s a quite successful deer, pretty good at running away from cheetahs. But its legs are fractionally too short for optimal running. If it has a mutation that changes the length of its legs by half an inch, there’s about a 50/50 chance that it’ll be in the right direction, and even if it’s in the wrong direction it might not be fatal. But if it has a mutation that lengthens its legs by two feet, it’ll almost certainly render it incapable of running at all.

And later,

By analogy, the economic system sort of works. It is making people better off and healthier and longer-lived (and, it seems, happier). We could improve it; make its legs a little longer. Making billionaires pay significantly more tax (Gates said he was happy to pay double, remember) seems a making-legs-half-an-inch-longer sort of idea. It might make a few of them move to Grand Cayman, but it should increase tax revenues, and not increase the unemployment rate or damage the economy too badly. If it doesn’t work out like that, at least you haven’t irretrievably screwed a global economy that is slowly lifting people out of poverty, and you can change it back. As McDonnell said on Today, there’s plenty of room for a flatter, more equal society, without getting rid of billionaires entirely.

But “making it impossible for there to be billionaires any more” seems more like a making-legs-two-feet-longer sort of idea. The economic system creates very rich people, often but not always as a reward for creating or selling things that people want, such as Harry Potter or Microsoft Windows or petroleum. I don’t know exactly how you’d change the system to stop it doing that (and Corbyn hasn’t, I think, been specific), but it’d have to be something pretty radical and profound. And then you really do run the risk of doing terrible damage to the workings of the economy. Maybe Corbyn, Russell-Moyle and McDonnell are sufficiently farsighted and brilliant to be able to do it without screwing it all up, but I am unconvinced.

Samizdata quote of the day

Oh no. I’ve accidentally stayed up way too late reading about the 1560s attempt to set up copper mining and smelting works in Cumbria using German experts.

Anton Howes, historian of the origins of the Industrial Revolution.

The above is the first of a series of tweets. Read them all here. Howes was asked what exactly he’d been reading. Answer: This book.

I signed up to the Anton Howes Age of Invention newsletter a while back, and am always pleased when another installment shows up in my incoming emails.

The lost chord, correction, TUC booklet

Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys

I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen

The Lost Chord was an immensely popular song of the late nineteenth century. It described how the singer had found, then lost, a chord played on the organ that seemed to bring infinite calm.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly
That one lost chord divine
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine

In like fashion did I, my friends, linger in the library of Her Majesty’s Treasury in my lunchtime many years ago, seeking to put off the moment when I would have to go back to my humble office and do some actual work. Like the fingers of the weary organist upon his instrument, thus did my skiving fingers wander idly across the spines of the publications the Treasury thought might help its minions control public expenditure*. By a chance equally slim did I find the booklet issued by the Trades Union Congress that I am going to talk about in this post. And by a fate equally tragic did I fail to take note of the title, author, year of publication or even the colour of the cover, and lost it again forever.

Which is a bit of a bummer really. This post would have been a lot more convincing if you guys didn’t just have to take my word for it that the damn TUC book ever existed. Then again, it was nice to be reminded of The Lost Chord which was the favourite song of an old chap I once knew who fought in the First World War.

This booklet. For anyone still reading, it was about “Technology in the Workplace” or summat. I got the impression that it had been published in the last years of Callaghan’s government. (This story takes place during Thatcher’s premiership.) It did not bring me infinite calm. It brought me a Hard Stare in the Paddington Bear sense from another patron of the library, because I was going “mwunk” and “pfuffle” from trying not to laugh.

The booklet was all about how when the bosses tried to introduce new technology, workers could use the power that came from being a member of a trade union to block it. It did not go so far as recommending that all new devices such as “word processors” and “computers” should be rejected out of hand, but it made quite clear that no such new-fangled gadgets should be allowed in if it meant the number of jobs for typesetters or stenographers should go down. The power of the unionised worker to resist such impositions was, of course, greatest in our great nationalised industries.

The pages of the little book were clean and perfectly squared off. I do not think anyone other than me had ever read it. Yet it seemed to come from a long-ago time or a foreign country, probably East Germany, so great were the changes that had come to Britain in those few years since it was published.

Yes, Britain changed. And now it’s changing back.

Jeremy Corbyn promises free broadband under Labour.

Labour’s proposal seems very popular, although, hilariously, support drops steeply when the question moves from “Do you like Labour’s plan to give you free stuff?” to “Do you like Labour’s plan to nationalise BT Openreach?” – but even then a solid third of the country hear Jeremy Corbyn say, “we’ll make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home in our country”, and also hear that the Labour manifesto is to reiterate the radical 2017 commitment to ‘sector-wide collective bargaining’ – and seriously believe that the “very fastest full-fibre broadband” is going to be brought to them by the unionised workforce of a nationalised industry.

*Or as the Treasury Diary handed out free to staff members one year described it, pubic expenditure.

Climategate ten years on.

Remember “Climategate”? There has been a TV show made about it. Lucy Mangan of the Guardian gives it four stars:

Climategate: Science of a Scandal review – the hack that cursed our planet

In 2009, a vicious attack was launched against groups fighting global warming. Scientists still can’t get over the death threats. And the world is on fire.

I dunno. As I always say whenever I post about these matters, I am willing to believe in global warming caused in significant part by man. But ten years after Climategate cursed the world and set it on fire you would have expected more of a… temperature rise.

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.

Galileo in darkness

Kieren McCarthy has written an article for the Register that brings together two themes of interest to many Samizdata readers:

“One man’s mistake, missing backups and complete reboot: The tale of Europe’s Galileo satellites going dark”

In mid-July, the agency in charge of the network of 26 satellites, the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (EGSA), warned of a “service degradation” but assured everyone that it would quickly be resolved.

It wasn’t resolved however, and six days later the system was not only still down but getting increasingly inaccurate, with satellites reporting that they were in completely different positions in orbit than they were supposed to be – a big problem for a system whose entire purpose is to provide state-of-the-art positional accuracy to within 20 centimeters.

Billions of organizations, individuals, phones, apps and so on from across the globe simply stopped listening to Galileo. It’s hard to imagine a bigger mess, aside from the satellites crashing down to Earth.

The article concludes,

In the meantime, a dangerous amount of political maneuvering means all the engineers are keeping their heads down. Which is a shame because by all accounts, there is a lot of good work going on, not helped by organizational silos.

In short, Galileo is a classic European venture: a great idea with talented people that has turned into a bureaucratic mess in which no one wants to take the blame for problems caused by unnecessary organizational complexity.

Readers of the Times try to help Greta out

The problem:

Greta Thunberg stranded as climate summit moves from Chile to Spain

In the centuries before powered flight, getting from California to Madrid was an arduous business, necessitating a long yomp over the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, and then a turbulent sea voyage across the Atlantic.

Greta Thunberg has 28 days.

The teenage climate activist and pioneer of “flight shame” has appealed for help to travel from Los Angeles to a UN climate summit in Spain without releasing so much as a wisp of unnecessary carbon dioxide.

In perhaps the sternest test of her convictions yet, she must complete the journey of at least 6,000 miles by rail, sail or electric car before December 2.

The solutions:

Richard77:

Perhaps she should consider using Skype.

Ian Howlett:

Just find a normal scheduled flight with an empty seat and get on. The plane will be leaving anyway, whether you’re on it or not.

Anthony Morris:

If it wasn’t so far she could just walk on the water .

The birds fall silent

“Twitter to ban all political advertising, raising pressure on Facebook”, reports the Guardian.

Having sent one tweet in my life, I am ill placed to say whether this is much of a loss to the world. Twitter is under no obligation to allow political advertising but Jack Dorsey’s stated reasons for forbidding it sound like a newly-ennobled Victorian peer attempting to efface the memory that he made his money in trade. Mr Dorsey, an advertising billionaire, thinks that the spread of political messages online “should not be compromised by money”.

We have always been at war with Vapasia

India bans e-cigarettes as global vaping backlash grows

India has announced a ban on electronic cigarettes, as a backlash gathers pace worldwide about a technology promoted as less harmful than smoking tobacco.

[…]

“The decision was made keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today,” India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told reporters in the capital, New Delhi.

[…]

The government said it would advance tobacco control efforts and contribute to a reduction in tobacco usage. Punishments include up to a year in prison.

[…]

According to the World Health Organization, India is the world’s second-largest consumer of traditional tobacco products, which are not covered by the new ban, killing nearly 900,000 people every year.

[…]

India is also the world’s third-largest producer of tobacco, the WHO says, and tobacco farmers are an important vote bank for political parties.

Keeping the poor from wealth and the sick from health

“Bulgarian authorities bust gang suspected of illegal organ trading”, reports the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

Bulgarian law enforcement authorities have dismantled a four-member organized criminal group suspected of illegal human organs trading, an official said here on Friday.

Two of the gang members were arrested on Tuesday evening when they were trying to leave the country at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on the border with Turkey, and the other two were detained later, Siyka Mileva, a spokesperson for the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, said at a press conference.

The evidence gathered so far indicates that the gang has been active since Feb. 2019, recruiting donors and recipients of kidneys, and transporting them to a clinic in Turkey where transplantations were performed, Mileva said.

All the criminals, donors and recipients are Bulgarian citizens, she said.

The recipients paid the gang between 50,000 euros and 100,000 euros (55,500 to 111,000 U.S. dollars) for a kidney, of which from 5,000 euros to 7,000 euros were paid to the donors, and the surgery cost between 20,000 euros and 25,000 euros, Mileva said.

The donors were of low social status, she added.

Thanks to the splendid work of the Bulgarian authorities their low social status will now be lower still, as in “criminal”. The people who needed the kidneys will have their status changed from “sick” to “sick and in jail”.

I first heard this story on the radio. Unfortunately I cannot remember which station I was listening to, but I do remember that the report specifically said that all the participants, including the would-be donors, were willing participants in the exchange of kidneys for money. Both sides were better off in their own judgement; the poor wealthier, the sick healthier. This evil had to be stopped.