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]

How dare they solve our problem!

There is a fascinating article in today’s Observer, “Out of the lab and into your frying pan: the advance of cultured meat”.

(The best comment is from “Tintenfische”: “You call that cultured meat? Pah, not even close. Last week my steak took me to the ballet and a symposium on the evolution of beat poetry as seen through the eye of the beat.”)

The author of the article, Zoë Corbyn – I’ve always liked the name Zoë – describes the background:

To a certain extent, the science of culturing meat is relatively well understood. The process begins when a cell is taken from an animal and grown up in a lab to permanently establish a culture (called a cell line). The cells can come from a range of sources: biopsies of living animals, pieces of fresh meat, cell banks and even the roots of feathers, which JUST has been experimenting with. Cell lines can either be based on primary cells – for example muscle or fat cells – or on stem cells. Stem cells have the advantage that with different nutrients, or genetic modifications, they are able to mature into any cell type. There is also no limit to how long stem-cell lines can live, so it is possible to use them indefinitely to produce a product. Once a good cell line – for example, one that grows fast and is tasty – has been selected, a sample is introduced into a bioreactor, a vat of culture medium where the cells proliferate exponentially and can be harvested. The resulting meat cell mush can be formed into a plethora of unstructured items, from patties to sausages – with or without other ingredients added for texture. Conventional meat has a variety of cell types from which it derives its flavour, including both muscle and fat, and the companies are trying to broadly replicate that.

Not everybody is happy that this hoary science fiction trope seems to be on the point of commercial viability. Apparently an advertisement in the Brussels metro…

…contrasts a barn of cows surrounded by greenery to a “meat lab” surrounded by transmission towers. It is the work of the European Livestock Voice campaign – set up last year by a number of European farming industry groups to stress the potential social impacts of upending the meat industry.

Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them. The would-be purveyors of a guilt-free equivalent of meat to vegetarians are also opposed from the other side:

The website Clean Meat Hoax was launched last year by an informal group of 16 animal rights scholars and activists. It rails against cultured meat on the grounds that it still suggests that meat is desirable, and that animals are a resource people can draw on. It contrasts with the more pragmatic position other animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) have taken in favour of the technology on the grounds that animals’ lives will be saved. “What is incredible to me is how uncritically this technology is being celebrated and I don’t think that’s an accident – we don’t want to consider the possibility that we can stop eating animals,” says site founder John Sanbonmatsu, a philosopher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

“Less pragmatic than PETA”: not a concept one meets often. I think the Clean Meat Hoax people have something in common with the opponents of vaping. What really distresses them is that after all their years of exhortations to make the smokers or meat eaters repent, the jammy bastards might be enabled to cease doing the bad thing just like that, with no redeeming pain.

“Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate” says one of its founders

“I’ve been with Extinction Rebellion (XR) from the start”, Stuart Basden explains.

And for the sake of transparency: that previous paragraph is all about me ‘pulling rank’ — I’m trying to convince you to listen to what I have to say…

And I’m here to say that XR isn’t about the climate. You see, the climate’s breakdown is a symptom of a toxic system of that has infected the ways we relate to each other as humans and to all life. This was exacerbated when European ‘civilisation’ was spread around the globe through cruelty and violence (especially) over the last 600 years of colonialism, although the roots of the infections go much further back.

As Europeans spread their toxicity around the world, they brought torture, genocide, carnage and suffering to the ends of the earth. Their cultural myths justified the horrors, such as the idea that indigenous people were animals (not humans), and therefore God had given us dominion over them. This was used to justify a multi-continent-wide genocide of tens of millions of people. The coming of the scientific era saw this intensify, as the world around us was increasingly seen as ‘dead’ matter — just sitting there waiting for us to exploit it and use it up. We’re now using it up faster than ever.

Euro-Americans violently imposed and taught dangerous delusions that they used to justify the exploitation and reinforced our dominance, while silencing worldviews that differed or challenged them. The UK’s hand in this was enormous, as can be seen by the size of the former British empire, and the dominance of the English language around the world.

This article is a year old, but someone on the UK Politics subreddit called “WhereHasCentrismGone” posted it with the comment that it made the now rescinded decision by the police to include Extinction Rebellion in a list of extremist ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent anti-terrorism programme seem more reasonable. I think it was out of order for the police to put XR on a terrorism watch list – their stunts annoy but are not violent – but we should be grateful to Mr Basden for reminding us that XR should be avoided by anyone who seriously wants to protect either the environment or their own mental health, seeing as the organisation is an anti-scientific cult fuelled by the neurotic self-hatred of privileged dilletantes in rich countries.

Another reason why the Internet is so useful

As it appears to be fashionable these days for those in some quarters to denounce modern technology such as social media (ironically, usually doing so via social media, or the internet), let’s take some time out this holiday season to shower praise onto that platform, Youtube. It it is sometimes stated that the younger generation of adults knows little about DIY around the home, lacking the upbringing or training to do anything more challenging than change a light bulb. Sometimes factors such as the decline (in relative terms) of home ownership, or the supposed waning influence of DIY enthusiast Dads and the inadequacies of those much-maligned Millennials, are mentioned. While there is some truth in that, it is also worth noting that it has never been easier to find out ways to learn how to fix problems by firing up the internet and looking for demonstrations on how to solve an issue, such as sorting out a Kindle problem (which I did the other day and trouble-shot a problem), strip wood floors and revarninsh them (same) or clean old antique furniture with boiled linseed oil (ditto). When a gizmo goes wrong, chances are that a guy (it seems to be a man thing) has done a Youtube item about it, and shared it.

Here is an example from a person under the brand name of MrFixIt DIY.

Sometimes experts get it right!

I now lurk on Twitter, and more recently, also on Facebook. Today, on Facebook, via Matt Ridley, this:

Still don’t know the link etiquette when quoting social media discoveries on a blog, so no link.

Usually, the most remembered prophecies are the ones that were proved totally wrong. Metal ships will all sink, aeroplanes can’t fly, cars will never catch on in Europe because chauffeurs, and so on. But this prophecy was – pretty much – right. And what’s more it came from someone running the very business he is prophesying about. He didn’t get everything about the mobile phones we now have. (No explicit mention of texting.) But, as Matt Ridley says: “Pretty good.”

Somewhere on the www there are presumably collections of such successful prophecies. Links please!

Also, what’s still to come for the telephone? Brain implants? 3D virtual reality transmission? Thought control of children? (Thought control by children?)

For a more immediate prophecy, I recently read this fascinating little blog posting by Jordan Peterson, about high tech telephone conmanship. Jordan Peterson being Jordan Peterson, it’s very grim and dark and miserable, and yet another circumstance that The Individual will have to defend himself against, and go a bit mad failing to defend himself against. But still, well worth a read if you missed it.

And also, e-scooters.

And, inevitably, see what Natalie said yesterday in the previous posting, which I only just read.

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.