Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Category archive: Libertarianism
Here (pp. 143-5) is how Thiel explains the difference between humans and computers, and how they complement one another in doing business together:
To understand the scale of this variance, consider another of Google’s computer-for-human substitution projects. In 2012, one of their supercomputers made headlines when, after scanning 10 million thumbnails of YouTube videos, it learned to identify a cat with 75% accuracy. That seems impressive-until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly. When a cheap laptop beats the smartest mathematicians at some tasks but even a supercomputer with 16,000 CPUs can’t beat a child at others, you can tell that humans and computers are not just more or less powerful than each other - they’re categorically different.
The stark differences between man and machine mean that gains from working with computers are much higher than gains from trade with other people. We don’t trade with computers any more than we trade with livestock or lamps. And that’s the point: computers are tools, not rivals.
Thiel then writes about how he learned about the above truths when he and his pals at Paypal solved one of their biggest problems:
In mid-2000 we had survived the dot-com crash and we were growing fast, but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10 million to credit card fraud every month. Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of transactions per minute, we couldn’t possibly review each one - no human quality control team could work that fast.
So we did what any group of engineers would do: we tried to automate a solution. First, Max Levchin assembled an elite team of mathematicians to study the fraudulent transfers in detail. Then we took what we learned and wrote software to automatically identify and cancel bogus transactions in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach wouldn’t work either: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics. We were dealing with an adaptive enemy, and our software couldn’t adapt in response.
The fraudsters’ adaptive evasions fooled our automatic detection algorithms, but we found that they didn’t fool our human analysts as easily. So Max and his engineers rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious transactions on a well-designed user interface, and human operators would make the final judgment as to their legitimacy. Thanks to this hybrid system - we named it “Igor,” after the Russian fraudster who bragged that we’d never be able to stop him - we turned our first quarterly profit in the first quarter of 2002 (as opposed to a quarterly loss of $29.3 million one year before).
There then follow these sentences.
The FBI asked us if we’d let them use Igor to help detect financial crime. And Max was able to boast, grandiosely but truthfully, that he was “the Sherlock Holmes of the Internet Underground.”
The answer was yes.
Thus did the self-declared libertarian Peter Thiel, who had founded Paypal in order to replace the dollar with a free market currency, switch to another career, as a servant of the state, using government-collected data to chase criminals. But that’s another story.
Libertarian Home have been having their meetings in several different venues of late. Last night’s event was in the Prince of Wales, Covent Garden, which is on the corner of Long Acre and Drury Lane. I got there a bit early, and filled the time by strolling along Long Acre towards where the old Alternative Bookshop once was, hoping for photoable diversion, and I was not disappointed. Through a window, just across the road from Covent Garden tube, I spied, and photoed, this:
I’m pretty sure I don’t like it, but it’s definitely a Thing worth photoing. This time I remembered to photo enough information about the place to be able later to identify it. The outside didn’t actually say what the place is, merely the address. But that was enough for googling purposes. It turns out this is a Fred Perry place, where Fred Perry and Co ... does things. And this wooden Thing is a combination of reception desk, seating and window logo. The Fred Perry enterprise makes, I assume sporty stuff and in particular sporty clothing, although that’s only a guess. That Fred Perry website is all design but bizarrely little information.
It would be a lot more logical to have a reception desk, some seating, and a company logo in the window, each separate, each doing their own job, each replaceable as and when, or if decreed to be imperfect in some way. Why do all these things need to be connected? They don’t. They need not to be connected. And the reception desk bit must be very inconvenient actually to do receptioning on.
Thinking about this some more, this Thing makes me think that the Fred Perry enterprise is all about “design”, way beyond the bounds of intelligence or sanity or usefulness. The website exudes the same atmosphere. It tells you almost nothing, very prettily. The whole company seems like one of those arrogantly stylish twats whose attitude is: I don’t have to explain myself. I have your attention. I am not going to deign to use it by actually talking to you. I am wonderful and wonderfully stylish me. That is enough for mere you. Consider yourself lucky to be even seeing me.
But then, I guess that I am not their target demographic. I am neither sporty (as in actually doing sport), nor stylish (as in myself wanting to look stylish).
While trying to find some kind of link to this enterprise, I learned that Fred Perry, the man himself, Wimbledon tennis champion in the year whenever it was, was also the 1929 world champion at ping pong. Blog and learn.
This coming Friday I have another of my Last Friday of the Month meetings at my home in London SW1. This coming Friday is, after all, the last Friday of the month, so the logic is inexorable. Every Friday (even if the last Friday of, say, December 2014, happened to be Boxing Day, as it was) there is a Last Friday of the Month meeting at my home.
I have been having email problems, in the form of people using gmail suddenly not receiving my emails, so even if you thought you were on my list but hear nothing via email, be assured that this meeting will happen. Try emailing me (which should work) and then telling your spam filter not to reject my reply, which you will have to do despite it being a particular individual reply. I know, crazy. I hope to write more about this problem in a posting at Samizdata, Real Soon Now.
Or, if you intend coming to this particular meeting, you could leave a comment below, and I will respond saying message received and look forward to greeting you.
Anyway, this coming Friday (Feb 27), Pete Comley will be talking about inflation. He has recently published a book on the subject, which you can learn about in this posting at Comley’s website. And you can hear what Comley sounds like and a little of how he thinks by listening to this short interview with Simon Rose of Share Radio.
The thing about Comley is that he takes a long-term - very long-term - view of inflation. He began a recent talk I attended by discussing inflation at the time of the Roman Empire.
And in the long-term, there are not one but two major influences on inflation. There is, of course, the supply of money, by the powers that be who have always insisted upon supplying money. And when they make too many coins, too many bank notes or create too much bank credit, the price of regular stuff in shops goes creeping, or rocketing, up. But there is also the demand for that regular stuff. In particular, human population fluctuates. At some moments in history, population shoots up. At other times it falls, or at the very least the rate at which it increases falls. Just now, in country after country, the birthrate is falling, and that has consequences for inflation.
Before you say it, I’ll say if for you. Many simply define inflation as the first of these two processes but not the second. Inflation is what money issuers do to the money supply. A price rise caused by rising demand is simply not inflation. It is a mere price rise. Fair enough. It certainly makes sense to distinguish these two processes from each other, however hard it may be for consumers to do this when both are happening to them. And if you do that by restricting the definition of inflation in this way, then be aware that Pete Comley’s talk will be about inflation thus defined and about price rises sparked by rising demand, and for that matter about price stability caused by static demand. (He says, by the way, that we might be about to enjoy just such a period of price stability. And although you can never be sure about such things, better handling of the recent financial crisis, and we might have got there already.)
There is also the question of what causes money issuers to inflate, in the second and more restricted sense of inflation. They seem to do this more at certain historical junctures than at others. Inflation, restrictively defined, does not just cause bad economic experiences; it is itself caused, more at some times than at others.
All very interesting, or so I think. Libertarians like me tend to be quite well informed about recent monetary history and about the evils of fiat currencies, the Fed, the Bank of England, and so on and so forth. We tend to know a lot less about similar episodes in the more distant past to what he have recently experienced. In general, we are more interested in the fluctuating supply of money than in the way that population fluctuations influence prices.
Pete Comley has a small but particular soft spot for me, on account of me having been the one who drew his attention to this book about the long-term history of prices (The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer), which seems to have had quite a big influence on his latest book, which is called Inflation Matters. It certainly does.
I kept the Samizdata posting short, and there follow a couple of paragraphs I decided not to include, because … well, I just decided not to. The posting, which was basically just saying how about this for a clever guy go and watch him was becoming too unwieldy and too full of ponderousness. So, the rest of this is me recycling my cuts here. I can’t really put what follows as a quote, but it sort of feels like maybe I should. Anyway, here we go.
There are around a dozen or more fascinating notions expounded in Thiel’s talk. One thing in particular interested me, because it is an argument that has always interested me. Extreme pessimism, says Thiel, often causes people to think that there is nothing to be done, because whatever they do is bound to fail. Very true. But extreme optimism (optimism being my preferred stance when trying to do anything) is also dangerous, because it is liable to tell you that you don’t need to do anything. Good things will happen automatically. Says Thiel: avoid both extremes. Steer a middle path. Do of a bit of both. All of which may seem very obvious to you, but I have never heard it put quite like that, and certainly not so succinctly.
Another nice and counter-consensual thing Thiel says is that failure is over-rated, because you generally only learn one of the reasons why you failed, when in fact there were probably about half a dozen.
See the early comments at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, for other bits of cleverness from this extremely clever man.
More Thiel spiel here.
Yes, the talk this evening went well, I think. Lots of people said they enjoyed it, and they didn’t have to do that. They could have said, as my mother said about things I did that she didn’t like, that it was “interesting”. But they didn’t say it was interesting. They said they enjoyed it. I’m guessing they really did. I did.
However, in the course of the talk, I alluded to a clever question asked by Ayumi Meegan, after a talk given by Richard Carey at my home a while back, and instead of calling here “Ayumi”, I called her “Mayumi”. Twice. She being present this evening, and me identifying her, by name, wrongly. Not good. I hope that a correction can be added, as and when any video of the talk appears at Libertarian Home. I am grateful to meetings organiser and Libertarian Home Supremo (and video man) Simon Gibbs for telling me that I had made this mistake, twice, so that I was able to apologise to Ayumi immediately. Ayumi Ayumi Ayumi.
Also, I hope Simon will add the name of David Mitchell, the comedian to whom I alluded in my talk while failing to remember his name, at all. I didn’t even get that wrong. I mentioned a clever short video lecture by Mitchell that was mentioned by Rob Fisher in a comment on this posting here.
No doubt if I ever do get to watch this performance on video, I will learn of even more serious blunders in what I said, but those will do to be getting on with.
Meanwhile, for the benefit of anyone who heard the talk and is now checking out this blog, hello, and here is something I quite like to do here, quite often, which is to post quota photos. These being photos put up here simply to ensure that something gets posted here, each day, as it almost always does. I mentioned this rule of mine in the course of the talk. Although, I suppose these particular photos aren’t really quota photos, because without them there would still be the ramblings above here today.
Whatever,these particular photos are of three of London’s Big Things, namely the BT Tower, the Gherkin and (when it was still under construction) the Cheesegrater:
The twist here is that all these Big Things are in a state of photographic blurriness. The focus is instead on mere things, in the foreground. Yet, the Big Things are still entirely recognisable, which is one of the key qualifications for being a Big Thing in the first place. For the same reason, Big Things are instantly recognisable from a great distance.
Click on these little pictures to get them a lot bigger, and also a lot blurrier, even though all they are is the same thing only bigger.
I’m giving a talk tomorrow evening to (for?) Libertarian Home, and am, as usual when I give a talk, fretting that I am now weeks behind with preparing it.
Today I had a haircut. The talk will probably be videoed and I am too old to do the tramp look. It makes me look like a real tramp. The effect of the haircut was much as it usually is, only instead of the Cary Grant look in the second After picture there, back in 2006, now it’s grey Cary Grant. With a big bulge under the chin. And ugly. And unable to sit cross-legged like that. More classic BMdotcom fashion analysis here.
Basically, what I am saying is: I’m busy and wish me luck.
Like half of London, it would seem, I’ve been suffering with a cough and a cold and a headache, finding it hard to sleep. For some reason it all gets worse at night, especially the headache. Why?
So a couple of incoming emails from Simon Gibbs, concerning some of the pictures I took at that Cost of Living Debate which he organised last October, really cheered me up.
The first email said that one of the pictures I had taken, of one of the speakers, had enabled Simon to flag up, on YouTube, that speaker’s videoed performance, more attractively than might otherwise have been possible. A photo was attached…:
... which Simon described thus:
One of your digital photos on my TV, via the Virgin Media YouTube app.
Then, very soon after that email, another one, longer:
I managed to make some more appear.
The video quality is okay, but the camera was pointing statically at the whole panel. You zoomed in on individual speakers while in action (or at rest), then I was able to crop and add titles and the resulting thumbnail is better than any individual frame of the video.
Here “better” means “better able to encourage someone to click from a list of videos through to the video itself”, meaning they will stand out from the crowd.
And another picture was attached:
I am delighted that my photoing obsession has assisted Simon in his much more strenuous activities. And I got in for free.
Which reminds me that I should long ago have done my own selection of snaps from that evening, and stuck them up here. I may yet do this, and maybe quite soon.
From time to time I like to stick bits from books up here, usually quite short, but sometimes quite long.
With the short bits, there is no legal or moral problem. Fair use, etc. But with the longer bits, there might be a problem. Here’s how I operate. I put up whatever bit it is that I think deserves to be made much of, on the clear understanding that it might disappear at any moment. Because, if anyone associated with the book I have got my chosen bit from complains and says please remove it, I will do so, immediately.
Many might think that such persons would be being rather silly. I mean, what better way could there be to reach potential readers of the entire book in question than for readers of a blog, and a blog written by someone who already likes the book, to get to read a relatively small chunk of it? Win-win, surely. Because of course, I only put up big chunks of writing if I approve of what the chunks say.
But what if a publisher is trying to insist on the principle, that copyright damn well means what it says? Such a publisher might want to proclaim, and to be seen to proclaim, a no-tolerance attitude to the copying of bigger than small bits of any its books. Even if that particular book might be assisted by this particular recycled chunk being here, the larger principle might feel far more significant to the publisher. That principle being: If we allow this, where will it then stop?
And I get that. As I say, if any publisher or author did complain, for these kinds of reasons or for any other, then I would get it, and the bit from the book in question would at once vanish from this blog. So far, I’ve had no such complaints. Which could just be because they reckon this blog to be too insignificant to be worth risking a fight with. They wouldn’t have a fight, but they might have a rule about letting sleeping puppies, like this one, lie.
Whatever. All I am saying here is that if I put up a big bit of a book, and anyone connected to that big bit cries foul, then the big bit will immediately vanish from here, with no grumbling, or worse, self-righteous campaigning, attempts to mobilise other bloggers, etc. etc.
Think of all this as an example of Rule Utilitarianism. And I am myself a Rule Utilitarian. My libertarian beliefs are not the absurd claim that libertarianism is inscribed into the very physical fabric of the universe, an inherent fact of life itself, which we humans either recognise or fail to recognise, but which are there anyway. Tell that to the spider I just squashed into the pavement on my way home to write this. No, I like libertarianism because it works. Libertarianism is a set of basically fairly simply rules which all we humans either choose to live by or choose not to live by. If we choose to live by these rules, life is good, happy, comfortable and it gets better and better. If we don’t live by such rules, life goes to shit and stays there.
And here comes the Rule Utilitarian bit. Even if this particular bit of thieving, by the government or just by some bod like you or me, is very insignificant, and even if what the government or the bod like you or me wants to spend its or his or her ill-gotten gains on is wonderful, absolutely wonderful, my rule says: No. Not allowed. Don’t get into complicated discussions about just how little thieving is too little to be bothering about, or just how noble a noble project has to be for it to be noble enough to be financed by a spot of thieving, because that way lies the slippery slope we are now on, where the government gobbles up at least half of everything, to very little benefit for anyone other than itself. Stick to the rule. No thieving, no matter how petty its scale or how noble its supposed object.
So, I get Rule Utilitarianism. And if any publisher decides to inflict his Rule Utilitarianism, in the manner described above, upon me, I would get that, and act accordingly.
What got me wanting to spell all this out is that I have recently been reading Dominic Frisby’s excellent Bitcoin book, and I find myself wanting to put bits of it up here, quite longish bits. And in general, having just followed the link at the top of this and read some of them, I feel that postings of this sort are among the better things that I do here, and I want to do more of them. But, to all of the bits from books that will follow, I want to attach the above mentioned caveat about how the verbiage that follows may vanish without warning, and a link to this posting is the way to summarise what is going on in my head without me banging on for however many paragraphs there are here.
Pictures of Guy Herbert
The illustrations for Christian Michel’s talk this Friday (plus some thoughts from me)
At the Libertarian Home cost of living debate
Michael Jennings at the Rose and Crown
Rob took photos
On meeting an American lady friend who likes to read my stuff about cricket
Happy Friday (eventually)
Something at Samizdata
ASI Boat Trip 4: Groups of posing people
ASI Boat Trip 3: Drink!
ASI Boat Trip 2: My photos were indeed better than they looked last night
What to call the sneerquote Salesforce /sneerquote tower? (plus a quite profound tangent)
Last night at my place
The Lib Dem cat is out of the box
BrianMicklethwaitDotCom quota quote of the day
Lilburne on a T-shirt and Lilburne on a mug
Michael Jennings talking about Russia this Friday
Mark Littlewood photoed by me and by this other guy
A slightly foreign part of London
Anton Howes – James Lawson – Will Hamilton
Nothing from me here today
Well that’s a relief
Green screen blue screen
Frank Turner on playing in an arena
Sam Bowman on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism
Other things last Wednesday
Remembering another Christian name (and flagging up another talk)
Detlev Schlichter talking about Von Mises (and being videoed)
When you are old you tend to assume that confusion is your fault even if actually it is not
Bits of music at non-musical blogs
Aiden Gregg meeting photos
Daniel Hannan’s latest book(s?)
The next five Brian’s Last Fridays
Simon Gibbs last night at the Rose and Crown
Jamie Whyte on deferring gratification less as he gets older
Guido in the Spectator (and in Free Life)
Anton Howes at the Rose and Crown
The next four Brian’s Last Fridays (including December 27)
Why I admire short term weather forecasts but why cricket people don’t
Antoine Clarke on life and libertarianism in Britain in 1913
Perry Metzger on taking seriously the declared objectives of opponents
Steve Davies talk last night
Google Nexus 4 photos
Pictures of LLFF2013
Doing libertarian business at the Libertarian Home social
Talking architecture at the Libertarian Home social
Bad times for the NHS
Brian’s Fridays will resume on the 25th of this month
Are Christian social conservatives using the Tea Party to impose social conservatism?
And on my other personal blog …
Doctor Theatre - here very briefly but now there
Talk by Frank Braun about Bitcoin at my home on Aug 3rd
BrianMicklethwaitDotCom has been seen elsewhere!
How gun control works and how it will defend Libertaria
Pictures of the Libertarian Home meeting in Southwark last night
Is Samizdata dying?
Liberty League Conference speakers
NFL fans and their name-and-number shirts in Trafalgar Square on Saturday
More pictures from the James Tooley lecture yesterday
David Friedman on the similarity between fractional reserve banking and insurance
Three videos from the USA that I recently watched
A potential challenger for Gary Not-Obama
Go Not Obama!
Sean Gabb’s recent statement about the Libertarian Alliance
Underestimating Paul Marks
I can now copy and paste from .pdf files
The free market encourages curiosity
Me and Patrick Crozier talk about the banking crisis and its possible consequences
St Valentine’s Day talk by me on architecture
David Botsford a decade ago
More LA Conference speaker photos
I see no purpose in separating questions from talks
Malcolm Hutty on protecting the internet
Another link enema
Google rolls out computer controlled cars
10/10/10 launch for Norlonto Review
Tim Evans looking happy
Making those Big Statements one slice at a time
Steve Davies lecture - photoing and videoing the lecture - post-lecture chat
Why my libertarianism has the look and feel of socialism
I flipping told him
Voice and exit
BrianMicklethwaitDotCom modified cliche insult of the day
Quick video work by the Oxford libertarians
Antoine Clarke on the Massachusetts election and the online effect
Talking about The Hockey Stick Illusion with Bishop Hill
The right to photograph
Trying to become an adequate interviewer of promising libertarians
Samizdata and Zimbabwe both on the up and up?
Pictures of Anthony Evans
Antoine Clarke talks about Facebook and Twitter – Guido and … Ian Geldard?
I’ve just sold Jesus!!!
Was it Sweeney? And what else were they trying to suppress?
Why I vote against AGW
Why I object to Madam Scotland and why I don’t
At least libertarianism is understood over there
Great speech by Kevin Dowd in Paris which should be available to listen to soon
Vince Miller with cat
UK libertarian bloggers 2.0
Who are all the UK libertarian bloggers?
Two Samizdata comments on the sinking of Brown and on the sinking of the Daily Telegraph
Patri Friedman versus Chris Tame
At Samizdata: cricket - crime - Kevin Dowd quote
James Tyler’s speech at Policy Exchange
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
My confusion about free banking
The Rand revival - and some thoughts about Rand’s failure to understand architectural tradition
Brian Micklethwait’s Education Blog is now on indefinite hold
Truth is true
Photoing the Police
Nothing from me here today but something on Samizdata about cannabis
Meme for the New Depression
Commenting about the Dowd lecture at Samizdata
Link to Samizdata piece about arguments from incredulity
More random links
A little drunk blogging
Michael Jennings on shoring up the bad old economy versus building a good new one
Linkin Park - one leg short of libertarian
Thoughts concerning FDR’s warmongering nature
My Oxford talk on Google video – or summarised by a friendly blogger
New addition to blogroll
Preparing for Oxford
Blogging elsewhere and talks elsewhere
At Liberty 2008 all day
Guido Fawkes conflates the Monetarists and the Austrians – needs to chat with Antoine Clarke
Reasons to be a bit more cheerful
Antoine Clarke on the financial turmoil and the US election
Tom Burroughes on the banking crisis
Notes on libertarian tactics August 2008
Not in the top twenty
On the nature of the evolution argument
Armed is less dangerous
The British Public continues to dislike too-high-and-rising taxes
This is why I put stuff up here every day
Signs of civilisation
Antoine Clarke talking about the US Primaries
Another don’t-get-it-right-get-it-written Samizdata posting
The drive to see smiles (and they have to be real)
Michael Jennings on private law in Hollywood
Nothing untoward happening!
Links to me elsewhere – and a photo of Marc-Henri Glendening
Aid rewards low growth
Talking with Antoine Clarke about Sean Gabb
Lib Dems edge towards school choice
Links and guns
Ideas and opportunities
A talk and a photo
On the appeal or lack of it to Young Europeans of “capitalism”
End the medical monopoly!
The double thank-you moment
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?
How compulsion deranges the spreading of ideas
The Conservatives prepare for power
Screw you Dove – good on you Ruth Kelly – the right to avoid gay adoption
More on the Lib Dems
Antoine and me on democracy and libertarianism - and me on how to podcast
Perry de Havilland on the thinking behind Samizdata
What are conferences for? What should they consist of?
Leon Louw talks about the habits of highly effective countries
Load - fire - howl in agony clutching foot
Do the Lib Dems just tell everyone what they each of them want to hear?
They are only games
Talking with Tim Evans about the Libertarian Alliance
When everything is copyable
Remembering the Alternative Bookshop experience
Latest Brian and Antoine mp3 - Middle East, Mexico, USA
Patrick and Brian mp3 about libertarianism and spreading libertarianism
Bashing on for Samizdata
Unsweet birds of freedom
‘Libertarian’ now beats ‘Marxist’
Capitalism sermons and Bentley wings
Old days not perfect shock
It’s murder down there
Last night’s talk
I am not too clever
A brief posting on causation and responsibility
What The Tyranny of The Facts said
A little education blogging
Daniel Cuthbert - wrongly convicted “hacker” - and photographer
More on Katrina
Katrina as art – and Katrina as proof of What I’ve Always Said
On free trade and on being persuasive (and unpersuasive)