August 29, 2004 9:01 PM

A Day of Protest

I spent today in New York protesting the Bush administration's policies, along with several hundred thousand other people. The big event was a march up 7th Avenue past the convention site, but later we went to an "unauthorized" protest in Central Park, where I got a picture of myself shaking hands with the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate Michael Badnarik.

I took a couple hundred pictures today, some of them moderately interesting, but I'm so worn out I can't stay awake any longer (and it is only 8:45pm), so I'll blog more extensively about these events tomorrow.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 28, 2004 10:01 PM

Welcome, Samizdatistas and Friends

A thread has started over at Samizdata about my recent entries on foreign policy and national defense from a libertarian perspective. I welcome the opportunity to explore these issues further.

A few quick notes about some of the responses I received:

First, one gentleman over at Samizdata with the handle "veryretired" referred to my views as "pacifist". This is far from the case. I am not a pacifist. I believe it is fine to stop and punish malefactors with the use of force. He may note that I spoke favorably of the deterrent effects of heavily armed militias and nuclear arsenals — I suspect most pacifists would not be willing to call me one of their own.

However, although I am not a pacifist, I am indeed a libertarian, and as a libertarian, I believe that governments, if they should exist at all, should limit themselves to enforcing contracts and defending the citizenry from violence. Since I see no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was a threat to the United States or United Kingdom, I do not see a case for involvement by the governments of the U.S. or U.K.

Arguably, the situation in Afghanistan was different since the Afghanis were harboring a hostile force that had used violence repeatedly against U.S. targets. (Note I say "arguably" — the Afghani situation is quite complicated.)

Now, "veryretired" might then ask what is to be done about third world dictators if large foreign countries will not overthrow them. I will not spend much time here on noting how often the U.S. and U.K. have created third world dictatorships to suit their agenda in "the great game" — I've already done that in an earlier post, and it could easily be argued that at least a few of the dictatorships in existence in the third world are not the product of Western meddling. One must then answer how the poor inhabitants of the small number of remaining dictatorships could be helped.

As I have said, I do not feel that individuals are in any way constrained the way governments are. In a libertarian society, individuals are free to contribute their own resources to charitable causes even if governments are not. If "veryretired" is strongly concerned about the problem of tin-pot dictators, he may undertake personal actions towards eliminating them. He is, naturally, free to recruit others to join him, and to solicit their funds. What he cannot do, however, is to use the force of the state to compel others to contribute their hard earned money to your good cause.

"veryretired" also refers to my position as "amoral", presumably because I do not wish to use the forcible taxation power of the state to pay for the good cause of his choice. However, if "veryretired" claims to be a libertarian, presumably he does not see anything amoral in the state refusing to fund homes for the poor, public art, space exploration and numerous other "good causes". Why is this cause fundamentally different? Certainly people die because of third world dictatorships, but they also die for lack of medical care, and no libertarian would argue the state should provide for that. (If "veryretired" meant that I was being amoral in some different fashion, I welcome his clarification.)

"veryretired" also asks:

When would Metzger have had the US adopt a Swiss foreign policy? Give us a date, and examine honestly the conditions in the world and the likely consequences. I would very much like to see some specifics instead of all the airy theorizing that usually goes on about this subject.
The date? Well, the U.S. did not exist before July 4, 1776, so presumably thereabouts would have been good if I had a magic wand and a time machine. Sadly I have neither.

The likely consequences of this? I would suspect that we would not, today, be worried terribly much about attacks on the United States, and our rate of economic growth would be substantially higher. Both of these would be in the direct interests of the citizenry of the U.S., which is, after all, the group to which the U.S. government is accountable.

In another comment on Samizdata, Andrew Ian Dodge wrote:

The trouble with the pacifist libertarian response to Saddam is that is ultimately suicidal. Saddam (or at least his secret service) had links with Islamic extremists. After all he paid a bounty to Palestinian "martyrs". I think it would have been a costly mistake to wait until someone supported by Saddam attacked the US.
Again, let me note that I am not a pacifist, but I am thoroughly unconvinced that Saddam Hussein was any sort of immediate threat to the United States. More to the point is that if the U.S. had maintained a policy of armed neutrality in the past rather than one of constant interference in the affairs of other nations, there would be very little incentive for anyone to attack us. One can argue that adopting such a policy now is dangerous, but isn't it more dangerous to keep on going as we have?

An old friend of mine, Tim Starr, wrote to mention to me that the Swiss have not been entirely free of terrorist incidents. For example, Palestinian terrorists attacked an El Al plane in Zurich in 1969, and some Swiss tourists were killed at Luxor in 1997. However, I don't think that the Swiss were, per se, the target of such attacks. In the former case, Switzerland was merely a convenient place to attack Israelis, and in the latter, it appears that the Swiss tourists were not targeted for their nationality but as part of a campaign to frighten away foreigners of all nationalities. There have been several other incidents involving Switzerland, but I can't find any evidence that in any of them Swiss nationals were targeted because of their nationality.

Christian Dreyer, in Switzerland, responded to me in this blog entry. I'm afraid that I don't per se understand his point. He notes that the Swiss adopted neutrality more from necessity than from desire, but that does not impact whether the policy has been a successful one. Similarly, he says it would be bad for the U.S. to "withdraw into its own shell", but he doesn't explain why this would be bad for the citizens of the U.S., and that is, after all, the meat of the question. Lastly he notes that Switzerland is becoming less neutral these days, but again, that does not in any way tell us whether armed neutrality is the superior stance.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 28, 2004 12:54 PM

What is the Role of the State?

As it turns out, I am not the sort who believes the State is a necessary institution at all. However, many libertarians do think that a minimal State is useful. (This is sometimes termed a "night watchman" State).

Turn your mind, for the moment, to the "state of nature", a philosophical construct that folks like Hobbes, Locke, and others considered in attempting to understand the proper role and form for governments. The "state of nature" is the world before laws, institutions or agreements of any sort.

Much of human activity is directed at producing and transforming resources for our use. We grow food to feed ourselves, and that takes work. We produce tools so that we can grow the food, and that also takes work. In the state of nature, each of us has to spend a substantial amount of our personal time guarding the resources we have developed. It is not enough to grow corn — one must also hold on to it long enough to eat it. However, spending one's time guarding one's resources means that one is not out producing more resources with that effort. Hobbes refers to this problem as the "war of all against all" — a situation in which no one can has security or can be productive.

Some thinkers argue that, since this situation is highly undesirable to everyone, people seek a way to correct it. We develop, implicitly or explicitly, a minimal social contract with our neighbors. This social contract is a simple truce: I give up on trying to steal the things you make, in exchange for your doing the same. I will not do violence to you so long as you do not do it to me. I will respect my agreements with you so long as you respect them as well. This truce allows us to halt the Hobbesian "war of all against all". Thus assured of personal safety for ourselves and our chattels, we can engage in commerce and the division of labor, resulting in a better life for everyone participating in the armistice. Those that violate the truce by engaging in violence or theft have little reason to complain about our treatment of them, because it is no different from what they have done to others.

The minimal State, then, is an arrangement to enforce this very basic social contract. It enforces agreements among the participants in the State (who we sometimes call citizens), defends them and their property, and does nothing more. (I would argue that it is possible to perform these activities without a State, but that is another discussion entirely.)

You might want to take note of the interconnection between purpose and action in the minimal State. The minimal State does not, for instance, build art museums, because it does not exist to promote art but to enforce agreements and provide mutual defense. In order to build an art museum, the State would need to acquire the resources with which to build it. If people are willing to donate those resources freely, there is no need for the State to build the museum — it could be built privately. If people are not willing to donate the resources freely, then the act of forcibly taking the needed resources turns the purpose of the minimal State on its head &mdash instead of enforcing the decision by the participants to respect each other's lives and property so that their own lives and property will be respected, the State then becomes an agent for some to abscond with the property of others. I may think it is a good idea to build a home for orphans, but if I take your resources against your will to do it, whether I'm an official of the State or a private citizen, I have violated the truce. To obey the truce, I must convince you to voluntarily provide resources for my goals, whether by trading with you or appealing to your charitable instincts.

In short, if the justification of the minimal State is that it exists, at the behest of a collection of sovereign individuals, to enforce a mutually beneficial truce among those who choose to participate in it, and to organize mutual defense against those who choose not to participate by violating the truce, then that justification does not reasonably permit the expropriation of resources for the purpose of projects that are merely laudable.

Note that this view of the minimal State cannot provide a justification for initiating warfare in distant lands which are not a threat its citizens' safety, regardless of how laudable it might be to re-arrange the social structures of those foreign places to suit enlightened tastes. However, by the same token, neither position prevents individuals from engaging in such activities on their own, at their own risk and with their own resources.

The view that I've just described is the so-called "minarchist" libertarian position. Note that it is not, in principle, very different than the anarcho-capitalist position that some libertarians take. The distinction is merely that the minarchists feel that a night watchman State is required to enforce the truce, and the anarcho-capitalists believe that the same function can be provided without a monopoly enforcement mechanism. However, both otherwise have nearly identical positions.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 27, 2004 11:42 AM

New Jaw Grown on Patient's Back

The BBC reports on a man who had lost his jaw bone due to cancer. Doctors have grown him a new one:
After taking a 3D computer tomography (CT) scan of the patient's head, they used computer aided design to recreate the missing portion of the jaw-bone (mandible).

The design was used to construct a teflon model, which was then covered with a titanium cage.

The teflon was then removed, and the cage filled with bone mineral blocks, coated with bone marrow and a protein which accelerates bone growth.

They then implanted the scaffolding they had created under a muscle in the man's back, and waited. Bone grew into the scaffolding, which was then transplanted into the man's jaw. The transplant has "taken", and the patient is eating solid food again for the first time in years.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 26, 2004 6:06 PM

Transhumanism is Dangerous, says Francis Fukuyama

Reason Online reports:

"What ideas, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?" That question was posed to eight prominent policy intellectuals by the editors of Foreign Policy in its September/October issue (not yet available online). One of the eight savants consulted was Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. His choice for the world's most dangerous idea? Transhumanism.

I'm amused to see that Transhumanism is being taken seriously enough to be denounced by the intellectual famous for telling us that we have reached the end of history. (Fukuyama's idea of the end of history is the liberal Western democracy. At least this is a more pleasant thought than that of Fukuyama's inspiration Hegel, who believed history ended with the 19th century Prussian state, or another philosopher inspired by Hegel, Karl Marx, who thought the end of history would be the dictatorship of the proletariat.)

For those not in the know, "Transhumanism" is the idea that it may be desirable for humans to transcend their current biological limitations by technological augmentation or transformation. We are all currently limited in our lifespans, and in our physical and intellectual abilities. The transhumanists ask, why be limited? We nearly have the ability to modify ourselves in wonderful new ways, ranging from biochemical modifications all the way up to uploading our consciousnesses into computers. Why not, they ask, be more than human?

I must confess that I, too, espouse this "dangerous idea". I think it would be very pleasant to have a better memory, more intellectual capacity, the ability to think more clearly, a longer (or unbounded) lifespan, etc., and I see very little wrong with taking steps in that direction.

If it offends some people who don't like the idea of changing themselves, well, they can remain as they are. Live and let live. The libertarian principle says everyone should get to live their lives in peace provided they let others do the same, and if they prefer to die after a mere 80 or 100 years, or to leave their minds at their current capacity, I have no objections — so long as they don't interfere with me peacefully pursuing life, liberty and happiness in my own way.

However, there are those out there who aren't happy about people thinking these kinds of thoughts. Fukuyama is hardly the only person worried about the strange doings in the technosphere. Bill Joy has made a bit of a name for himself spreading his own brand of technological alarmism, and there are numerous others.

Am I worried that these anti-technology maunderings will slow the rate of technological progress? Not really. Even if the majority adopts a radically luddite policy (and, in fact, especially if they do), those that disobey will gain a strong competitive advantage. There is therefore fairly strong economic (and by the same token, evolutionary) pressure towards disobedience of such a stricture. In a world with hundreds of countries, some people somewhere will do the sorts of research that the "civilized" deem inappropriate. If the civilized really forswear the same technologies, they won't have the tools with which to stop the "uncivilized" anyway — they'll be out-gunned. There is therefore a very strong reason to believe that, at best, luddism could only slow down technological progress for a while — it could not stop it.

More to the point, although people often fear change, I think that it would be very difficult for governments to organize to stop it very effectively. They would have to do things like banning scientific research, improvements in computer technology, and such. I don't think that is going to happen. Even with substantial negative attention brought to bear, it only took a few years between Dolly the Sheep and the first successful production of cloned human embryos in South Korea. I doubt other attempts to slow progress will be particularly more successful.

The transhumanist idea that Fukuyama worries about is already out there, and ideas cannot be unthought. The transformation of much of the human race will happen. The question now is only whether to join in, or to stay behind, frightened of the opportunities the future will bring.

[Thanks to Monica White for the pointer that inspired this.]

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology

August 26, 2004 2:20 PM

Next Steps for Apple

A few years ago, I mistakenly wrote off Apple as dead. Their sales were falling, their technology was stagnant, and I honestly didn't see where they could go. I was wrong.

As usual, Steve Jobs demonstrated he's still got amazing business and aesthetic sense. Apple's new technology, which is an improved version of the software created by Jobs' startup NeXT, is a seamless fusion of the Unix operating system with the prettiest GUI in existence.

Macs are easier to use than Windows for novices, and they are now very pleasant for experienced users and programmers, too. Apple by all rights should be selling product hand over fist. However, their market share has not taken off — it is still only a few percent of the market.

I think that is because Macs are perceived as too expensive. A lot of the market for personal computers is now in the deep sub-$1000 range, and Apple doesn't really offer much there. They have one product under $1000, the eMac, and the lowest price you can buy one for is $800. Add a few needed accessories and you're way more expensive than the $500 low end machines being flogged these days by Dell. Apple doesn't promote the eMac at all, either — it is largely a stealth product.

Apple might well be saying "we don't need that low margin business" but I think that's a big mistake. Selling much lower priced machines will not cut into Apple's sales or margins at the high end, but it will drive a market for Apple software and accessories that Apple needs. Just as importantly, it will get many people who never thought about Apple seriously addicted to the ease of use and quality of the Mac, which (over the years) will drive a lot more sales at the high end of the market. People who buy Macs never look back, but people who buy Windows boxes often don't know what they're missing. In the long run, gaining a solid presence at the low end would be very good for Apple's market share.

I think Apple should design a very low cost offering, aimed at the $500 to $800 market segment. Minimally configured, such a machine should provide a user with acceptable performance but very few frills, much like the low end Dells. Unlike Dell, Apple fully controls the price of their own operating system, so they can likely shave an extra $50 off of Dell's cost basis. Dell has to pay Microsoft, and Apple does not. Apple can also likely count on lower support costs, since their machines are much easier to use. They might not even have to sacrifice much in terms of aesthetics — an ugly case and a pretty one can often be the same price.

Such a machine would not make Apple very much money, but it would not need to. It would serve to re-establish Apple as the brand of choice for new computer users, students and schools, and then, ultimately, addict lots of those people to Macs for the long term. The product line would not cannibalize Apple's existing market at all. Power users who can pay $2000 would not be interested in a no-frills computer. It would, however, greatly interest software vendors to see Apple's market share rising, as it would encourage them to develop more for the platform. All in all, I think it would be a great win.

Now if only Apple would listen to me.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Miscellanea

August 26, 2004 1:03 PM

Weebl and Bob

Net Entertainment Link of the Day:

Weebl and Bob is an ongoing series of flash animations depicting the lives of two ellipsoids who rock rhythmically back and forth and lust after pie. They are occasionally joined by a mushroom-shaped ninja pirate named Chris, a wooden donkey named Donkey, a wee bull named Wee Bull, political activist jars of jam, a monkey with mean D.J. skills but no toilet training, and many others.

I suggest starting at the oldest episode in the full list and working forwards.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Miscellanea

August 26, 2004 11:39 AM

Science News in Brief

I try to blog about neat scientific advances that I hear about, but it is getting harder to keep up with them. The pace these days is just overwhelming. Here are just a few things I've noticed recently.

The BBC reports about a group that has found ways to use "vaccines" to substantially down-regulate allergic responses.

The Gene Expression blog reports on an instance of one species of fish splitting into two species within twenty years. (I'm always amazed that people can still claim that evolution is "unproven".)

Science Magazine published a paper reporting the use of femtosecond laser pulses in combination with STMs to observe the motion of individual carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface.

The BBC reports that Statins have been shown to slow HIV infections.

The BBC reports that a single protein in the brain, called NPS, appears to act as a major signal in both sleep and anxiety signaling pathways.

The FuturePundit blog reports that silencing either the TLR4 gene or the related CD14 signaling gene resulted in the substantial reduction of age related weight gain and bone loss in mice.

New Scientist reports that increasing the production of a protein called PPARdelta in the muscles of mice resulted in a two-thirds reduction in weight gain when the animals were fed a high fat diet. More interestingly, the mice also were able to run 92% longer than the controls. Both effects appear to have resulted from a doubling in the production of so-called "slow twitch" muscle in the mice.

There were a lot of other articles I've seen recently, but those were a few highlights. I know lots of people out there are skeptical of the notion that we're approaching some sort of "Technological Singularity", but as a passive observer of the science literature, let me note that discoveries that would have made front page headlines of mainstream newspapers a few years ago are now happening so often that they barely get mentioned in the news sections of the science press. The rate of discovery in molecular biology has become especially stunning — gaining access to complete genomes has opened up the floodgates as never before.

I'm becoming hopeful that major uncured illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, many cancers, etc., are going to be completely understood, and possibly even fully treatable, in the next decade.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 25, 2004 8:52 PM

Foreign Policy

I am sure I'll get flack from some people about my last post. They'll say "So what is your suggested alternative to our current foreign policy? It is easy to attack other people's ideas, but it is much more difficult to present an alternative."

Fair enough. I'll tell you what I'd prefer our government's foreign policy to be, assuming we need to have a State at all. My proposal is pretty simple: Swiss-style armed neutrality. That means no invasions, no military threats, no foreign aid, no "covert operations", no military bases outside the country, no attempts to influence the internal affairs of foreign countries whatsoever.

No one blows up bombs in the streets of Geneva. No one from Switzerland gets kidnaped in third world countries to protest the evils of Swiss foreign policy. Wherever they go, at worst, people think of the Swiss as boring — it is rare that anyone feels the need to buttonhole someone from Zurich or Lugano and tell them off for what their government does.

The Swiss are not pacifists, though. They have a very strong militia for defense, and in times past when Europe was less peaceful, it would have been extremely costly for an attacker to invade them. Even if (in the case of particularly strong enemies) an invasion might have ultimately succeeded, it would have yielded very little of value at an astonishing expense.

Such a foreign policy perfectly suits the minarchist excuse for government &mdash that it exists to protect its citizens and their property from violence within the borders of the country. It is pretty inarguably perfect for that purpose. (I'm not a believer in the necessity of even a minimal state, but that's not today's discussion.)

I think the U.S. would do just fine with such a policy. It is unlikely that many countries could attempt an invasion of the U.S. given our geography. With a strong militia, armed to the teeth, no such invasion would likely succeed even if someone was foolish enough to try. In addition, we have a large nuclear arsenal, which should make any potential attacker worry about the fate of their home territory. The nuclear weapons pretty effectively deter any attempts at missile based attacks, too. Realistically, were we neutral, we would not be attacked at home if we were even moderately careful.

For a while, we might still get terrorist threats from people who hadn't realized that we had withdrawn our forces from overseas and weren't going to bring them back, but those would fade after a while. In the long run we'd be fine.

Such a policy is also far, far cheaper than the one we pursue now — the economic benefits alone would be more than worth it.

Some might argue that we would not have a force capable of deterring attacks on U.S. shipping — especially oil shipments — without a strong military capable of foreign intervention, but I don't believe that such a use for the military is good idea in the first place. For one thing, it distorts the market for commodities like oil because the market price does not reflect the true cost (including armed security) of importing the commodity. My solution would be for the oil companies to simply hire private security to guard their own tankers and leave it at that — if the cost is high, then let the market price for oil reflect that.

Some might also argue that a strong military is needed to defend U.S. citizens overseas, but I doubt that. As I noted, how often are the Swiss targeted for political reasons?

Lastly, some might argue that we have an obligation, as a nation, to defend the interests of those under the thumbs of totalitarian regimes abroad. As I've noted elsewhere, however, U.S. foreign policy has propped up and indeed created totalitarian regimes far more often than it has attacked them. This is a simple instance of the universal rule that governments don't do what you want them to do — they do what public choice economics causes them to do. We can dream all we like, but governments are made up of people with their own agendas.

Furthermore, as I've also noted elsewhere, I have no objection to people spending their own resources and risking their own lives liberating the downtrodden in the third world, or persuading others to do so voluntarily, but the Non-Coercion Principle that we libertarians follow says that we don't use force to get others to spend their money and risk their lives for our causes, no matter how noble our cause may be. Whether the purpose is curing cancer or building a football stadium, coercion is still coercion, and libertarians don't coerce others into paying or doing.

By the way, this is all pretty standard stuff. Libertarians have been advocating this position for decades, and I don't understand how it can be the least bit controversial among people of our political clan at this point.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Security

August 25, 2004 2:59 PM

Libertarians and War

Once upon a time, the U.S. overthrew a democratic government in Iran run by a prime minister named Mohammed Mossadeq. Our replacement was absolute rule by a guy named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who styled himself the king of kings, and we spent a lot of effort keeping him in power. Eventually, people in Iran got fed up with him doing things like running torture chambers and operating the country as his own private piggy bank, and they overthrew him. Sadly they replaced him with a nutty theocracy run by a guy named Ruhollah Khomeini, but you couldn't really blame them — desperate people rarely pick the right revolution to fight for.

Did the U.S. say "hey, we understand that they're upset with us, we've got a long history of screwing them, lets leave them alone?"

Of course not, because we didn't even remember that they had a reason to be pissed off at us. The U.S. has about zero national memory of all the times we've screwed various third world populations to the wall in the name of "Realpolitik". We then act puzzled about why they might dislike us — the know-nothings in the White House go so far as claiming that the problem is that various people around the world "hate freedom", as though the murderous thugs in third world countries who torture their citizens with our funding were a form "freedom". (None of the 9/11 hijackers came from "free" countries as we understand the term, but they all came from countries that could claim to be strong allies of the U.S., and in many cases these countries are the recipients of lots of U.S. aid which funds the local dictatorship. I suppose that is how we show our support for "freedom".)

Anyway, back to our narrative. After the Iranian Revolution, we decided that one of Iran's neighbors, Iraq, was a great proxy for our war on them, so we handed that country's brand new dictator, a fellow named Saddam Hussein, lots of help. Hell, we sent Donald Rumsfeld to go and shake his hand, and tell him that it was okay if he went off and killed a bunch of his own people for good measure, so long as he attacked Iran. We knew he was a murderous thug, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Later he turned around and invaded one of our even more special friends, Kuwait, and we were forced to break off our good working relationship with him. Eventually, of course, we ended up deciding to get rid of him — why we picked the particular time we did is unclear, but the public excuse was that he had biological or chemical weapons, and that he'd been involved with terrorism against the U.S., although it turned out that neither was the case. Who have we paid off and propped up this time to help us meet our goal? Everyone in sight.

Meanwhile, recall that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s. We could think of no better solution at the time than to hand lots of money, weapons and training to various "freedom fighters", such as a fellow named Osama bin Laden, who we hoped would take care of the Soviets for us. Eventually, of course, this lead to little problems like the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, and giving shelter to bin Laden and company, who turned out not to really be our friends. We decided to invade, but we didn't have any nearby bases. Did that stop us? No! Following our usual pattern, we found dictators in nearby countries like Turkmenistan who were willing to give us use of their military bases in exchange for our looking the other way and handing them a bunch of money.

Why has all this stupidity happened? Because the U.S. is run by a government, and governments pretty much always end up behaving stupidly. When a business acts stupid (and they all do eventually), the market punishes it by taking away its money and power. When a government acts stupid, there is no market mechanism to punish it, and no competing government to womp it in the marketplace, so it almost always perpetuates the stupidity instead of getting rid of it.

What I want to know, though, is not why governments act stupid — thanks to lots of good research over the years I think that's now fully understood. I'm not even asking why most people trust their governments — that just strikes me as a subset of the general question of why so many people believe utterly unbelievable things, such as the idea that the Bible is the perfectly accurate message of a supernatural being.

What I want to know is why so many seemingly rational people who claim to be libertarians are out supporting this madness. Take, for example, the folks over at Samizdata. Most of the time they seem to be perfectly reasonable folks, but for the last couple of years they've been seized by the notion that the war in Iraq is not merely justifiable but indeed laudable. I've seen this same disease afflicting many libertarians around the world. They ignore the hundreds of billions in forcible taxation needed to pay for the war, they ignore that the excuses for the war proved ultimately false, and they ignore all the innocents killed, all on the basis of various vague justifications like "fighting terrorism" (though there is no evidence that the war in Iraq has done anything at all to reduce the threat of terrorism) or the fact that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator (fully ignoring all the other ruthless dictators we're actively supporting worldwide with money taken by force from U.S. taxpayers.)

Worse, these "libertarians" even forget straightforward libertarian principles about the use of force in acquiring resources. Sure, a person can decide he wants to support some "good cause" like cancer research or knocking off a third world murderer — but to a libertarian, no amount of "good" to be done by supporting a cause justifies taking money by force to pay for it. If a large number of Samizdata contributors (or anyone else) wanted to personally support efforts to depose third world dictators, that would be one thing, but what they advocate instead is that my money be used to achieve their goal, and that it be taken from me by force if I won't agree. Individuals can do whatever they want with their own resources, but they can't decide to commit other people's resources. That violates the Non-Coercion Principle.

So, at last getting to my question of the day, does anyone have a good explanation for what has gotten into these "libertarians" who are out cheering for the war? I'd be very curious to hear people's explanations. No, I don't want to hear more of their rationale for the war — I'm familiar with their arguments and I don't need them repeated. I'm interested into some sort of insight into their mental state. What takes a person who distrusts all uses of government to the point where they'll support something as indefensible to a libertarian as the Iraq war, and parrot obviously false claims like "this will stop terrorism"? (Some might say this happened because 9/11 deranged a lot of people, enraging them so much that they can't think clearly, but that seems like a poor explanation to me — I watched the Trade Center towers fall live and in person, with people I knew inside, and I'm not out arguing that we should invade randomly selected third world countries.)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 25, 2004 12:03 PM

US War Deaths Approach 1000

Cryptome has released the latest update to its Iraq War Casualty Calendar. The count stands at 992. This implies that the count may go over the 1000 mark during the Republican National Convention.

Perhaps if this becomes widely enough known the mainstream media might pick it up -- spread the word.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics

August 20, 2004 1:23 PM

ETC Group is run by High School dropout

The ETC Group, which I've blogged about before, puts out a constant stream of bizarre, ill informed attacks on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Who runs the group? According to this article from Forbes:

His name is Pat R. Mooney, and he is a high school dropout from Canada with no scientific training.

Unfortunately, he's very effective even though most of his attacks are based on extremely bad science:

[H]is Ottawa organization, the ETC Group, is widely credited with being one of the first to raise health and environmental concerns about genetically modified food. Its efforts, along with those of other outfits like Greenpeace, led to a public relations fiasco for the biotech industry. In Europe the name Monsanto, which sells genetically modified seed, still exemplifies the ugly American multinational. Because of the fear Mooney helped generate, Nestle and others don't sell food with GM ingredients in Europe. Restaurants post signs assuring customers meals are virtually GM-free.

Now Mooney, 57, has set his target on nanotechnology, the business of manufacturing on a molecular scale.

My translation: nanotechnology could help rid the world of disease and poverty, but an ill-educated Luddite in Canada with a talent for getting press attention will be fighting hard to make sure that doesn't happen.

By the way, genetically modified plants had (and still have) the potential to radically reduce malnutrition in the third world, but people have managed to scare themselves so thoroughly about the technology that these crops may never be widely grown. Some countries even refuse food aid if it contains genetically modified grain. Thanks to the luddites, millions may die needlessly of starvation. Every time you see a picture of a child starving in the third world, remember Pat R. Mooney. (You should also remember anti-globalization protesters, government bureaucrats and lots of other folks, but that's another story.)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology

August 20, 2004 12:57 PM

Hash Function Roundup

Ekr has posted a good summary of the recent results from Crypto '04 on the cryptanalysis of hash functions. The general gist is that, as of right now, SHA-1 and its "SHA-2" descendents have not yet been successfully attacked, but most of the others have.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology, Security

August 20, 2004 12:44 PM

Tyler Cowen on Economic Growth

Tyler Cowen is apparently writing a new book explaining why economic growth is so crucial to improving people's lives. Quoting from his blog entry about the book:

The importance of the growth rate increases, the further into the future we look. If a country grows at two percent, as opposed to growing at one percent, the difference in welfare in a single year is relatively small. But over time the difference becomes very large. For instance, had America grown one percentage point less per year, between 1870 and 1990, the America of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990. At a growth rate of five percent per annum, it takes just over eighty years for a country to move from a per capita income of $500 to a per capita income of $25,000, defining both in terms of constant real dollars. At a growth rate of one percent, such an improvement takes 393 years.

I'm looking forward to reading it.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

August 16, 2004 5:50 PM

More Hash Functions Broken

Following up on this rumor from earlier today.

There is still no confirmation out there of the break in SHA-1, but this preprint, which went up today, reports collisions in MD4, MD5, HAVAL-128 and RIPEMD, all achieved with very little CPU time. That pretty much covers all the cryptographic hash functions in use.

It feels as though once someone found the right thread to pull on, the whole sweater started to unravel.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology, Security

August 16, 2004 4:48 PM

Why France Doesn't Work

The New York Times Reports (though sadly only with registration and for a limited period) that a new book, entitled "Bonjour Paresse" (the Times translates this as "Hello Laziness") by Corinne Maier is becoming something of a best seller in France.

Quoting the Times:

"Imitate me, midlevel executives, white-collar workers, neo-slaves, the damned of the tertiary sector," Ms. Maier calls in her slim volume, which is quickly becoming a national best seller. She argues that France's ossified corporate culture no longer offers rank-and-file employees the prospect of success, so, "Why not spread gangrene through the system from inside?"


Her solution? Rather than keep up what she sees as an exhausting charade, people who dislike what they do should, as she puts it, discreetly disengage. If done correctly - and her book gives a few tips, such as looking busy by always carrying a stack of files - few co-workers will notice, and those who do will be too worried about rocking the boat to complain. Given the difficulty of firing employees, she says, frustrated superiors are more likely to move such subversive workers up than out.

One might argue that Ms. Maier is supporting evil behavior, but perhaps that's not entirely the case. Her argument is largely that French companies are not meritocracies and that they do not reward work, so why bother working?

Why indeed? In a country where work is legally limited to 35 hours a week, taxes are high, and failing companies are coddled by the government, perhaps there is indeed little rational incentive to do much. Take a bit of an objectivist viewpoint for a moment. If all else fails, isn't "striking" the "right" thing to do? Is such a book not, in a way, a call to "shrug" in an environment in which no other mechanism seems effective?

I'm being slightly facetious here. It is probably a violation of one's agreement with one's employer to do nothing for one's salary, and I doubt that Ms. Maier is an objectivist of any stripe. Indeed I would expect that she is hostile to that sort of philosophy.

However, one reaps what one sows. I'm hardly surprised that a country that has long made it difficult to get ahead now finds people wondering why they should even try.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

August 16, 2004 4:01 PM

Rumors of breaks in SHA-1

This will probably be incomprehensible to many of my readers — if you don't know anything about cryptography you might not even care about it. See this Wikipedia article if you would like an introduction to the topic of cryptographic hash functions.

Chen and Biham were due to report some attacks on SHA-0 this week at Crypto. Last week, it was reported that Antoine Joux had extended this work into a full scale method for finding collisions in SHA-0 with time complexity of 2^51, and would also be reporting his results at the conference.

Ed Felten is now reporting that a rumor has started at Crypto that someone has further extended the Joux attack to an attack on SHA-1 and may announce the details at conference later in the week. Since SHA-0 is only of academic interest but SHA-1 is deployed in lots of cryptosystems, this is naturally getting lots and lots of buzz.

As a side note, if this proves to be true, even if it is only a certificational weakness, it will be very embarrassing to the NSA. It is almost certainly the case that they would not release an algorithm that they knew had even a certificational weakness, thus implying that if there is such an attack, they did not know about it when they corrected SHA-0 into SHA-1.

It is unclear how such a break would impact HMAC when used with SHA-1 without knowing more details, if there are any details. Stay tuned.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology, Security

August 10, 2004 3:03 PM

Stupid Virus Blocking

This entry is directed at the frustrated computer system administrators of the world. The rest of you may have no idea what I'm talking about.

Worried about computer viruses striking your network?

My method of stoping viruses from striking my users is phenomenally effective, yet incredibly cheap. I simply block all email attachments bearing Microsoft file types that my users are unlikely to have any real desire to get in email.

At the moment, that means I have a Postfix configuration that contains the following header_checks:

/^Content-(Type|Disposition):.*(file)?name=.*\.(asd|bat|chm|cmd|com|cpl|dll|exe|hlp|hta|js|jse|lnk|ocx|pif|rar|scr|shb|shm|shs|vb|vbe|vbs|vbx|vxd|wsf|wsh|zip)/ REJECT Sorry, we do not accept .${3} files.

For those that don't understand what that means, it instructs Postfix to look for message headers indicating any of a long list of attachment types, and if it finds one, to refuse to accept the message, indicating "Sorry, we do not accept filetype files." to the sender. If you don't use Postfix as your MTA, I'm sure that you can do similar things in most other sane MTAs. (If you use Microsoft Exchange as your MTA, you are out of luck, but then again you are probably out of luck anyway.)

This approach is a bit heavy handed, but I find that most of those file types are never included in any sort of legitimate email. Who would want to legitimately mail someone a .pif or .lnk file?

The big plus of the approach is that at the cost of one line of configuration, you pretty much ditch any possibility of ever seeing the next Microsoft Outlook virus. No one will ever send you an infected .exe or .scr file because you reject all of them — you will never have to worry that your virus scanner's rules are not up to date or something similar.

What are the minuses of doing this? Well, first, some users will occasionally want to get zip files in the mail. If you have no choice, you can let them through, but in practice I've never gotten complaints about this and I forward mail for lots of people. Second, this will not stop macro viruses that infest .doc and .xls files and the like. It isn't a complete substitute for having a virus scanner, though it does remarkably well.

In general, this is a really cheap and efficient barrier to put at your outermost MTA, and the people and organizations I know who have done it have never regretted it.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Security, Software

August 09, 2004 9:42 PM

A Softer World

I was looking at Warren Ellis' blog this evening, where I came across "A Softer World". I've never seen anyone so thoroughly understand the feline mind before.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Miscellanea

August 08, 2004 1:26 PM

More Victories for King Ludd

The New York Times is reporting (sorry, the link will stop working soon) that "animal rights activists" have managed to temporarily derail the construction of a biology laboratory at Cambridge.

The story leads with a photograph of several protesters, one of whom is carrying a sign which says "animal testing delays medical progress".

Of course, that's beyond merely untrue — it stands reality on its head. There is no good alternative to the use of animal models for most medical research. A few days ago, I reported on a breakthrough recently made on Alzheimer's Disease thanks to animal experiments. Animal experimentation is the reason we have the information we needed from that test — no rational person would agree to be injected with an experimental substance and then killed and autopsied a few days later, so we need to use animals for such tests.

Almost all of modern medicine, from vaccines to surgery, has been developed using animal models. Had we avoided all animal testing over the last several centuries, human lifespan today would be dramatically shorter.

On a similar note, I was recently reading an article in Wired about Craig Venter's project to sequence the genomes of vast numbers of previously unknown microorganisms. Venter's team is, essentially, sailing around the world, collecting a few gallons of water out of the ocean every couple hundred miles, and shotgun sequencing all the DNA in the living matter within the sample. Less than a percent of the microorganisms on the planet have ever been observed, let alone sequenced, so this is really neat work. The team is not only getting the first real glimpse at how large the population of microbial species really is, they're also getting an amazing sampling of previously unknown genes.

Unfortunately, it appears that lots of people, including the luddite ETC Group, are organizing oppose his work. They've even gotten his expedition halted in a few places where he crosses in to various territorial waters. Why? I really can't explain their rationale. I can't make out a coherent reason for opposing such research in anything they say. They make weird claims about "biopiracy" (whatever that might be) and such, but really it appears their major dislike for Venter is that they hate technology.

The article in Wired describes the bizarre events that happened when Venter arrived at Tahiti, which is ruled by the French. Remember in reading this that his activities consist of grabbing a few gallons of worthless ocean water here and there and studying the single celled microorganisms within — he isn't stealing ancient artworks or running a slave ship or any such.

Venter was immediately notified by Rockville of a fax from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs politely informing him that his application to conduct research in French Polynesia was denied. The ministry understood that the Sorcerer II's mission was to collect and study microorganisms that might prove helpful for health and industry, but France wished to protect its "patrimony" by restricting "extraction of these resources by foreign vessels." "It's French water, so I guess they're French microbes," Venter told me when he got the news.

[...] [W]hen the Sorcerer II reached the French Polynesian island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas archipelago, the port captain there informed Venter and Howard that their vessel was not allowed to leave the harbor. Impounding a private foreign vessel merely on suspicion is against international law, and Venter protested to the US State Department, which informed the ministry that it considered the act a violation of the honor of the United States. The Sorcerer II was allowed to proceed as a normal tourist vessel, but with a warning not to attempt to take any samples.

Venter later got permission to continue sampling, but with unusual restrictions considering that he was taking nothing more than a few gallons of seawater:

[...] When I wake up the next day, Venter is in the main cabin reading an email from his office; Howard leans over his shoulder. Dill is setting the table for breakfast. "So the big news this morning is [...] the French are going to send a gunboat out to escort us," he tells me.[...]"They want to make sure we sample where we said we would. We're not supposed to tell the State Department about this. It might put a chill on French-American relations. Being as how they're so cozy right now and all," Dill says. "They'd like to know if we'd like to invite an officer on board, too," Venter says. "How do you say 'fuck you' in French?"

This trend towards luddism seems to be spreading.

I wish I had the ability to explain the position of such groups coherently enough to be able to attack them point by point, but I'm afraid that my contempt is a bit too strong for me to be able to do that. I really don't believe they have a rational position so I find it difficult to try to explain their position. ETC, for example, frequently puts out bizarre press releases about scientific work that they obviously don't understand even slightly. Most of their documents are so filled with technical mistakes that it is hard to even count all of them.

However, even though they don't seem to have much of a coherent or accurate argument on their side, such groups frequently are pretty good at getting a lot of attention. I think this is because fairly few people in the news media or in politics have any real personal understanding of science and technology, so they are not able to make informed judgments about the wild claims that are made.

I have to admit that I don't understand luddites well. Human welfare has been radically improved by technology. The progress we've made towards reducing poverty and human misery has been nothing short of breathtaking. Even Marx seemed to understand this pretty well. I get the feeling that the people who used to embrace communism now have switched to technophobia.

As a postscript, let me note that even the most radical anti-technology activists out there like the Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski, seem to make use of at least some technology in their lives. I doubt Kaczynski could have survived through the winter in his cabin without steel implements and an iron stove for heat. No one would know of Kaczynski's ideas but for his willingness to use of technology to write them down (even paper and pencils require pretty significant ingenuity and effort to produce). Even written down, high technology, including computers, has been the primary means by which his ideas have been disseminated. Some such people argue that they are merely using technology temporarily to try to fight technology, or that they do not oppose "appropriate" technologies like wood stoves. (Kaczynski doesn't seem to make any such arguments, though, or at least, none that I can see.) Even so, there is tremendous irony in anti-technologists making use of even primitive technologies, and further irony in their communicating by any method other than speech. I suspect, however, that the irony is lost on them.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Politics, Science & Technology

August 06, 2004 8:49 PM

The Be Good Tanyas

I bought The Be Good Tanyas first album "Blue Horse" a while ago on the recommendation of friends. I liked it a lot, so I recently purchased their second album, "Chinatown". It just arrived. So far, so good, though I haven't heard the whole thing yet.

For those not familiar with their sound, they seem heavily influenced by what is now termed "American roots music". They are a little folky, a little bluesy. I'm not much of a folk music listener, but I go by Duke Ellington's maxim that "if it sounds good, it is good"...

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Music

August 06, 2004 5:27 PM

More People May Get "Mad Cow" Than Previously Believed

The BBC is also reporting that variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a.k.a., vCJD, a.k.a. the human analog of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. BSE, a.k.a. "mad cow" disease, may be carried by more of the population than was previously believed. The incubation period of the disease may also be longer in some cases than was expected. Bad news for people who like eating cows that have eaten other cows.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 06, 2004 5:15 PM

News Flash: Anti-Drugs Campaign is Failing!

The BBC is reporting this absolutely predictable story:

US drugs tsar John Walters has admitted that Washington's anti-narcotics policy in Latin America has so far failed.

Naturally, of course, merely because it hasn't worked to date is no reason for doubt.

[Walters] predicted positive results would be seen within a year.

I wonder if an Idea Futures market on the success of U.S. drug interdiction would find many takers on the "drug war succeeds" side of the bet.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

August 06, 2004 12:51 PM

Article from Neuron on Alzheimers

The article I referred to yesterday appears to be text available in full here.

Thanks to Steve Bellovin for the link. Steve also pointed out that the Wall Street Journal carried coverage today about a conference where that work was presented — apparently the conclusions are rather controversial. Having just read the paper, though, I'd say it looks like pretty good work assuming the results are reproduceable.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 05, 2004 12:35 PM

C. Elegans Mutation Rates Underestimated by 10x

The latest Nature is publishing a paper that describes an elegant experiment designed to directly measure the mutation rates in the well known "model organism" Caenorhabditis elegans.

The researchers raised hundreds of generations of C. elegans, carefully making sure they knew which generation was which by selecting a single organism to parent each new generation. (C. elegans is hermaphroditic and capable of self fertilization.) They then sequenced portions of the genome in each generation.

This direct measurement revealed a mutation rate an order of magnitude higher than had been previously estimated.

If this turns out to be correct, it has implications for everything from evolution to cancer mechanisms to aging.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 05, 2004 11:01 AM

Immunotherapy Halts Alzheimer's in Mice

A prominent feature of Alzheimer's disease is the development of "plaques" of a deformed version of amyloid protein, known as "beta amyloid". A long-standing hypothesis has held that the accumulation of beta amyloid plaques resulted in a cascade of problems, including the development of neurofibril tangles in the brain.

This article reports a study in which the injection of antibodies targeting the beta amyloid plaques into the brains of mice with a close analog of Alzheimer's disease managed to trigger a response in which the immune system cleared the plaques. Neurofibrillary tangles associated with the disease cleared spontaneously shortly after the amyloid plaques vanished. [Update: I've found another somewhat better report from Science Magazine here]

The treatment only worked in mice with early stages of the disease.

This is a very preliminary sort of result, but it is really quite exciting. Even if it does not lead to an immediate Alzheimer's treatment for humans, it does lend extremely strong evidence to the hypothesis that the beta amyloid accumulation in and of itself is the major mechanism triggering the symptoms of Alzheimer's, and that blocking the production of beta amyloid or clearing the plaques would halt the progress of the illness.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology

August 04, 2004 8:49 AM

Optometrist for Visionaries

Today's Dilbert is nothing short of brilliant.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Miscellanea

August 03, 2004 10:06 PM

Is Piracy a Major National Security Threat?

Businessweek has an interview with David Israelite of the DoJ about piracy and its effects.

In it, he makes a rather remarkable claim:

Q: You've said that the theft of intellectual property is a national security problem. Why?

A: First of all, we talk about it being an issue of economic national security. Our economy is so based on intellectual property ideas that, unless we can protect them, we're really looking at a situation where it's going to hurt our ability to survive as a country.

Secondly, so much of what we do now involves computers, whether it be with software or other types of communication lines. Often, intellectual property is a key component to the things we do to protect ourselves as a country.

Lets have a look at these two claims.

First, there is the question of economic losses from piracy. The entire US movie industry's revenue stream is somewhere like $40B. The US recording industry's revenue is something like $15B. (These numbers might be off a bit but they're the right ballpark, which is enough for this calculation.) That's $55B total. The U.S. economy as a whole is somewhere in the vicinity of $12,000B. That means if the entire music and movie industries vanished without a trace, the economy would (worst case) shrink by something like 0.4%. Note that this does not take in to account new economic activity that might be engendered by piracy, which might be substantial.

Even assuming that we had much more than 0.4% drop in economic activity with the demise of the movie and record industries — which I seriously doubt — it would still hardly count as something that could, and I quote David Israelite, "hurt our ability to survive as a country". I suspect that, given the figures from recent recessions, we could manage far worse without our "survival" being at stake.

Second, Mr. Israelite notes that people use computers and communications lines, and then somehow implies that computers or communications systems would be threatened were intellectual property threatened. I will note that I am writing this blog on a computer using no proprietary software whatsoever, and my server has no proprietary software on it either. Obviously our use of computers and the internet could continue unabated were proprietary software to vanish. If Mr. Israelite has a specific point on this, he has made it rather poorly.

Overall, I judge the claims he makes to be poorly founded. However, the promulgation of such claims is rather predictable in the light of Public Choice theory.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Intellectual Property, Politics

August 03, 2004 9:16 PM

Is Georgia getting real economic reform?

The Economist reports that Georgia (the country, not the state) has a new economy minister named Kakha Bendukidze who's hell bent on cutting taxes, reducing the size of government and privatizing everything in sight, as well as eliminating things like restrictions on foreign banks and legal tender laws.

Best quote:

As to where investors should put their money, "I don't know and I don't care," he says, and continues: "I have shut down the department of industrial policy. I am shutting down the national investment agency. I don't want the national innovation agency." Oh yes, and he plans to shut down the country's anti-monopoly agency too. "If somebody thinks his rights are being infringed he can go to the courts, not to the ministry." He plans, as his crowning achievement, to abolish his own ministry in 2007. "In a normal country, you don't need a ministry of the economy," he says. "And in three years we can make the backbone of a normal country."

Could Georgia be on its way to real reform? I have no idea. I've seen these sort of promising stories before, and politics usually gets rid the reformers before they get rid of the bureaucrats. However, if there was real reform on this scale, Georgia might turn into a quite nice place to invest someday. It probably bears watching over coming years.

(Much thanks to Samizdata for the link.)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Politics

August 03, 2004 1:18 PM

DIMACS Workshop to focus on Idea Futures

DIMACS at Rutgers University runs some interesting workshops. One that was just announced focuses on "Markets as Predictive Devices". Given that my old acquaintance Robin Hanson is one of the instigators, I assume that it will focus pretty heavily on Idea Futures.

For those unaware of the concept, it is a means to quantify predictions by using markets. The notion is to set up tradable contracts, much like futures contracts, which pay off not if guesses about the price of wheat or oil are correct, but if guesses about the future direction of technologies or world events are correct. It is hypothesized that the implied predictions given by the market price of the contracts will be more accurate than the educated guesses of pundits, because traders will have a monetary incentive to follow their heads rather than their hearts. There is some (as yet limited) evidence that this hypothesis is true.

I first saw the concept of Idea Futures under another name in "The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner (which incidently also coined or popularized a bunch of modern computer security jargon, such as the terms "worm" and "virus"). However, it was Robin who really formalized and spread the concept of Idea Futures, first in the magazine "Extropy", and later in more academic contexts.

Some of you may remember a DARPA proposal to set up betting markets on the odds of terrorist incidents, which was later withdrawn under heavy pressure. Robin's work was the basis for that idea.

(Some of you may also remember my recent blog entry about a company that is enabling trading in idea-futures like contracts.)

I'm not sure whether or not Idea Futures will have a dramatic impact on society, but the concept certainly has intellectual appeal. Perhaps someone should start trading a contract on whether Idea Futures will have a widespread effect (if only they could formulate the claim well!)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Economics, Science & Technology

August 01, 2004 9:03 PM

Another Very High Res Microscope

The Whitehead Institute at MIT reports that they are working on an extremely high resolution electron microscopy rig to permit direct imaging of the shapes of molecules. The article on the web is a bit low on detail — if anyone knows more and can tell me about it, please do.

Mechanisms that speed up the analysis of macromolecules will be of substantial importance to biotechnology and (ultimately) nanotechnology, so mechanisms that can achieve it, like (possibly) this one, and like Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy, could be very important enabling technologies.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Send Feedback | Permalink | Categories: Science & Technology