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]

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.

Planned obsolescence

Leaping from link to link like a young gazelle – part of the appeal of the internet is that it is the only place where I get to do the gazella arabica thing nowadays – I came across an interesting article by Ernie Smith called “The Many Ways Planned Obsolescence Is Sabotaging How We Preserve Internet History”.

He writes,

The world of technology has a problem, and it’s not something that we’re talking about nearly enough. That problem? We keep making old stuff significantly less useful in the modern day, sometimes by force.

We cite problems such as security, maintenance, and a devotion to constant evolution as reasons for allowing this to happen.

But the net effect is that we are making it impossible to continue using otherwise useful things after even a medium amount of time. I’m not even exclusively talking about things that are decades old. Sometimes, just a few years does the trick.

A quick case in point: Google has a set date for every type of Chromebook architecture to fall into an “end of life” status, where it will no longer be developed or updated, despite the fact that it’s effectively the modern version of a dumb terminal.

And the timeframe is surprisingly short—just 6.5 years from the first use of the architecture, the machine will stop auto-updating, despite the fact an equivalent Windows machine will still be usable for years after that point.

Like many people, I find the whole phenomenon of planned obsolescence infuriating. Unlike many people, I do not believe that my feeling of fury should be assuaged by forcing other people – in this case software companies – to do my bidding. But I would still like it if planned obsolescence were less of a thing.

It’s Tom’s Diner for computers, and you are most welcome to discuss the political and ethical issues involved.

But if you did enough of that yesterday, just wallow in the computer nostalgia. Here’s a website: http://textfiles.com/. Not “https://textfiles.com”, just “http://textfiles.com”. It has stuff like Alien vs Predator. Wallow.

A reminder to Conservatives of why they should not abridge the right to keep electronic communications private

Boris Johnson’s aides say they’ll ignore a vote ordering them to hand over WhatsApps and Emails

Buzzfeed have been quick; the vote in Parliament to which the story refers took place only a few minutes ago. It may all be theatre: according to the Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow, the government will probably say it does not have the legal power to comply with the vote even if it wanted to. It could reasonably cite the European Court of Human Rights (and before you ask, that court is not part of the European Union, though as Paul Marks is fond of observing, the two are intertwined).

What a farrago. I did consider posting this in Samizdata’s sister blog, The Great Realignment, but although this vote is part of yet another Parliamentary scheme to stop Brexit happening, its implications for civil liberties are what interest me most. In the era of the Twitter flash mob, it is within the realms of possibility that even obscure folk like you and me could be the next targets of public rage, and the Right Honourable Members are not averse to putting themselves at the head of the crowd. How would you like it if a fishing expedition by a bare majority of MPs could force you to turn over your emails and WhatsApp messages?

Discussion point: compulsory vaccination

Stop return of measles by making MMR jab compulsory, say GPs.

The Guardian headline makes it sound as if all GPs (General Practitioners) have said this. In fact only four named doctors are quoted, and when one reads the article the “compulsory” of the headline is not fully justified, but I think most GPs would agree with the government moving from a “nudger” to a shover on this issue.

The MMR jab should be compulsory for children before they are allowed to start primary school to stop the resurgence of measles and mumps, leading GPs are demanding.

Schools should ask all parents to prove their four- or five-year-old has had their two recommended doses of the vaccine before they can attend, they say in a letter to ministers seen by the Guardian.

They want school entry procedures toughened so that the only exceptions made to the new rule would be for children whose parents have registered a conscientious objection to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine or those whose health means they cannot have it.

The four London GPs, who include a former government adviser on health policy, have urged the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to embrace the proposed change in policy.

Many a libertarian shuffles their feet when questions of herd immunity come up. The ghost of Typhoid Mary laughs. What do you think?

Stephen Davies on the Wealth Explosion (1): How Europe was and was not exceptional

About two hundred and forty years ago, the human species began to experience a wealth explosion. Poor people, who had been living and dying on the edge of starvation for millennia, began to get less poor, and slightly richer people started to become even richer, and much more numerous. Every graph measuring human comfort, wealth, progress, length of life, and so on, switched – historically, in the blink of an eye – from being a nearly horizontal line to being a nearly vertical line. This wealth explosion began in North West Europe, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe and to the USA. Now, poor people everywhere are getting less poor in unprecedentedly vast numbers. It’s a different world, and for just about everyone, a hugely better one.

What caused this wealth explosion? And why did it first erupt where it did, in Europe?

For some time now I have been getting to grips with a new book by Stephen Davies entitled The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity.

The central and most striking arguments in this book concern how Europe was – and just as significantly, was not – exceptional, as a potential detonator of this wealth explosion.

Clearly there was something exceptional about Europe, or the wealth explosion that we all now enjoy would not have started here. And equally clearly, all the positive ingredients needed for the explosion had to be present here for it to start happening. But the mere presence of all these positive ingredients, says Davies, is not what made Europe exceptional. Until Europe started exploding economically at the end of the eighteenth century, it had been, globally speaking, an economic and cultural backwater. All of these ingredients – demographic, economic, social, institutional, intellectual, spiritual – had been present, in greater strength and for far longer, in other parts of the world, most notably in China. The economic and cultural centre of the world, at least until the late eighteenth century, was not Europe but rather the lands around the Indian Ocean. So, why did the wealth explosion not happen there?

The answer that Davies supplies in The Wealth Explosion is that Europe was exceptional in being the only one of the world’s great civilisations that was not, at the historical moment when it mattered, politically unified. No European “hegemon” emerged in the centuries just before the wealth explosion got started, in the way that single imperial regimes had emerged to dominate Russia, the Middle East and India, and as had long been in successive imperial command in China.

This was the decisive negative ingredient that Europe possessed but which was lacking elsewhere, and this was what made the difference. The wealth explosion got seriously explosive in Europe because, when it started and from then on, nobody in Europe was powerful enough or motivated enough to stop it. On the contrary, the rulers of Europe never stopped competing with one another, and were therefore strongly incentivised to keep their wealth explosion going, despite all the upheaval that it caused. Economic stasis, and cultural stagnation of the sort that would have stopped the wealth explosion, was not, for the various contending rulers of Europe, an option. They needed guns, guns which had to keep on getting better. They needed money, to pay for the guns, and for the ever increasing numbers of people needed to develop, fire and later to carry the guns into battle. They needed the wealth explosion, no matter how much it was empowering new classes of citizen producers and citizen warriors. So, they let it happen. They even encouraged it. At which point the only way not to be beaten by the wealth explosion was to join it. And there we have it: the modern world.

The above is my best shot at summarising what I think is the most important line of argument in The Wealth Explosion. I had intended to write a single, quite long, mostly glowing review of this book. And I tried, I really tried. But the task defeated me (especially the “quite” long bit). Despite its small size for such a subject (only 248 pages) The Wealth Explosion contains so many interesting ideas besides those summarised above, so much pertinent historical detail, and so many judgements based on the voluminous writings and discoveries of other historians, that I found it impossible to say everything that I wanted to say about it in one blog posting, while remaining confident that anyone at all would want to wade through all that I had written. So, I abandoned the attempt to say everything, and instead decided to make a start by merely saying something. I now intend that there will be several more postings here about The Wealth Explosion (in the manner of these recent postings here by Patrick Crozier about Ulster).

That’s the plan anyway. I’ll end this first posting about The Wealth Explosion by saying that, although I don’t now want to elaborate on why I find the central argument of this book, as outlined above, to be so persuasive, I do find it to be very persuasive, and the book in general to be fascinating. And since the historical event in question is arguably the biggest single fact that there is about the world that we now live in, that makes this a very good book indeed. How do you write an excellent work of grand historical theory? You ask important questions and you supply convincing answers. You support these answers with many other interesting and closely related truths, and with reports of relevant debates among and with your fellow historians. This is what I think Stephen Davies has done.

Meanwhile, to learn more about The Wealth Explosion, read the review of it that Ananya Chowdhury did manage to write, for the Adam Smith Institute blog. Or, read what Stephen Davies himself wrote about his book and its conclusions, for CapX. Or, if you like it when people are good at talking to camera as well as good at writing (Stephen Davies is very good at both), listen to what Davies said to the Cato Institute about his book, as recorded in this video.

Mercedes benz with the prevailing wind

The Mail can be a little sensationalist sometimes. I am hoping that some of our well informed and technically aware commenters will tell me that the following story is ridiculous:

How ALL cars could spy on you like Mercedes by 2022: EU plan could see location-tracking devices fitted in new vehicles despite privacy concerns

All new cars could be fitted with devices to track down drivers that are speeding, driving irresponsibly or have fallen behind on finance payments, under controversial new plans.

From 2022 the EU wants all cars made inside the Union to feature location-tracking devices so they can monitor speed, driving behaviour and whether motorists are using safety features properly.

The black boxes have sparked a privacy row with drivers concerned they are ‘being watched’, as trackers can be activated without their knowledge.

Yesterday Mercedes was at the centre of the uproar after bosses admitted all new and used cars sold by them are fitted with trackers.

A silly and alarmist piece, right? What is being proposed is beyond the capacity of current technology, surely? Not to mention legally out of the question, irrespective of whether Britain is in or out of the EU. That’s right, isn’t it, guys? Guys?

Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight to and from the Moon has been covered extensively in a raft of books, television programmes and films. A few weeks ago I watched the Apollo 11 film of that name. This is a documentary that features, so the film-makers say, previously unseen footage, and it certainly is a remarkable film. One of the good things about it is that it does not involve any narration: the film and the action do the “talking”. I watched it on a large IMAX screen at London’s Science Museum. I heartily recommend it. I actually found it rather moving. That sequence of when Armstrong takes control of the Lunar Module and flies to the surface, with Aldrin counting out the altitude, knowing they have precious little fuel to spare, is one I can watch over and over. (Armstrong is one of my all-time heroes. The very fact that he conducted himself in such a modest way since the mission ended only reinforces that.)

The space missions of the 1960s were, of course, part of a much bigger set of actions involving the US, former Soviet Union and other select powers. Let there be no doubt: the Moon missions were a big “front” in the Cold War. We libertarians will debate whether all the spending on such a programme was justified (I will come back to this point in a bit) but it strikes me that the success of the Apollo missions were surely a valuable morale booster for the West and for America. It showed that for all the Soviets’ early successes in beating the US in some aspects of space flight, that by the mid to late 60s that edge had gone.

Putting the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin et al up there was a way for the US to poke Moscow in the eye. But it was about much more than that. It appears to me (born in May 1966) the product of a time when governments still had tremendous confidence in technology, as did much of wider society. And yet as we know, the end of the Moon programme coincided with events such as various environmentalist campaigns calling attention to the real/alleged damage Man was doing to the environment; it also overlapped with the Vietnam War, the oil price shock and the challenge to established Western assumptions about energy. And there was the rise of radical feminism and the Civil Rights campaign.

A lot of people have noted how the space programme contrasted with all the tumult and messiness of wider American/Western society at the time. At more or less the time that Armstrong was taking his “giant leap” for Mankind, Jimi Hendrix was playing his version of the Star Spangled Banner at muddy Woodstock (he’d probably be condemned by today’s left for being a reactionary conservative for playing it at all); Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc. Several major public figures, such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered. The space programme was, on the other hand, all clean, with white rockets and gleaming craft; it had a focus on scientific precision and a celebration of human efficacy. It was about what Man can do and achieve, given rational focus on a goal. It was also a very technocratic thing, and an example – which is often trotted out by politicians who like big vanity projects – of a big government effort actually working pretty well. (From the moment that JFK gave his speech about the Moon in 1962 it took just eight years to pull that feat off. It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.) The men (and some women) at NASA looked different from the rock musicians and protesters of the time: whenever I see photos and old films of the chaps at Mission Control, for example, they all have air force-style buzzcuts, narrow dark ties and have names like Dave, Deke and Al. They drive Corvettes , live in small neat homes with pools (this impresses a Brit) and talk with clipped Midwestern or occasionally more gravelly Texan accents. They play golf. Al Shepard even took a golf club up to the Moon. How middle class is that?) They don’t look like Janis Joplin fans and probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.

→ Continue reading: Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

Don’t think of it as a “power cut”, think of it as an “electricity holiday”

The BBC reports that the National Grid will “learn the lessons” after nearly one million people across England and Wales lost power on Friday.

But what lessons will those be?

The power outage happened at about 17:00 BST on Friday, National Grid said, with blackouts across the Midlands, the South East, South West, North West and north east of England, and Wales.

Industry experts said that a gas-fired power station at Little Barford, Bedfordshire, failed at 16.58, followed two minutes later by the Hornsea offshore wind farm disconnecting from the grid.

The National Grid director of operations quoted in this BBC article, Duncan Burt, has said that “he did not believe that a cyber-attack or unpredictable wind power generation were to blame”.

I do not know whether to disbelieve his disbelief. Those concerned with managing the UK’s power supply might have good reasons to keep mum about our vulnerability to cyber attack, and less good reasons for playing down the unpredictability of wind power.

Tim Worstall speculates,

One reading could be……wind farm closes down immediately as wind speed is too high. Gas plant on idle can’t spin up for some reason. Drax is low capacity because it’s burning wood chips, not coal.

On the cyber front, even if this power outage was entirely an Act of God in the insurance sense, the next one might not be. The bad guys have seen how much more damaging power cuts have become now that we are so reliant on the internet. As cashless payments become more common it will only get worse. I love cashless payments! What bliss to no longer have to worry about finding change when you’ve just found the last space in a crowded car park, manoeuvred into it with incredible difficulty while holding up the rest of the traffic, and only then remembered that you have to pay for the damn thing. But an entirely cashless society, as they seem to be moving towards in Sweden, might turn out to have its Orwellian nature tempered only by its lack of resilience.

A final observation: I have read a lot of comments from supporters of remaining in the European Union along the lines of “You think a few hours delay on the railways was bad? Just you wait until we leave the EU without a deal.” However, just as with the chaos caused by the Gatwick drone shutdown, that argument cuts both ways. All their frantic efforts to say “No Deal” must not be allowed to happen because it will cause vast queues at the ports and airports start to look a little silly when the same consequences seem likely to arise every time the wind surges or a cyber attacker gets lucky.

Water shortages solved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no! We might not have to overthrow capitalism after all

“Climate change: Trees ‘most effective solution’ for warming” reports the BBC.

Researchers say an area the size of the US is available for planting trees around the world, and this could have a dramatic impact on climate change.

The study shows that the space available for trees is far greater than previously thought, and would reduce CO2 in the atmosphere by 25%.

The authors say that this is the most effective climate change solution available to the world right now.

But other researchers say the new study is “too good to be true”.

I do not know enough to say whether this paper by scientists at the Swiss science and technology university ETH Zurich really is too good to be true. But the paper was published in the respected journal Science, and seems to be being taken seriously by the scientific establishment.

I cannot help remembering that when Tony Abbott was Leader of the Opposition in Australia and he suggested the planting of twenty million trees as a climate change mitigation measure, he was roundly mocked.

It is a measure of how cynical I have become about the entire field that my first thought when I read this report was “why are they letting this be said now?”. Do not let us be consumed by cynicism: the answer to that might honestly be “because that seems to be the way the latest research is pointing”. It would be nice if so. Planting a lot of trees would hurt fewer people than almost any other massive state-backed programme I can envisage.

Samizdata quote of the day

Government crowds out productive research by betting on the wrong horses—those who seek funding by dipping their hands in the public till. As Ridley puts it, “If the government spends money on the wrong kind of science, it tends to stop people working on the right kind of science.” Before you cheer for politicians promising medical breakthroughs, realise their actions may prevent the discovery of cancer cures.

Barry Brownstein