Argument for Libertarianism

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

Dear 23andMe Customers,

I’m writing to update you on our conversation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and how it impacts you.

If you are a customer whose kit was purchased before November 22, 2013, your 23andMe experience will not change. You will be able to access both ancestry and health-related information as you always have.

23andMe has complied with the FDA’s directive and stopped offering new consumers access to health-related genetic results while the company moves forward with the agency’s regulatory review processes. Be sure to refer to our 23andMe blog for updates.

Delving Into Bitcoins And The Deep Web


Several days ago, the USD/BTC exchange rate soared to dizzying heights, reaching almost $250 for one unit of the virtual, decentralized currency. Then it crashed to $55. But since then, it has gone back up to $100.

I’d heard of them before, but I had assumed it was some sort of pyramid, and that the train had already passed. Pyramids are only good for those at the top. It’s the creators of currencies who get rich, not their users. In short, I was skeptical.

Still, as someone on a perpetual lookout for lazy and socially unproductive ways of making money, I knew I had to check it out.

And I discovered some rather interesting things.

First, Bitcoins can’t be just created out of thin air. Just like gold or other minerals, they have to be “mined” by solving complex cryptographic puzzles. In practice, some users pool their computing power for this task. There is a theoretical limit to the total amount of Bitcoins that can enter circulation: 21 million. So you can’t inflate it like you can with any fiat currency.

Second, they offer real advantages over conventional currencies. There are no banking or transfer charges, because you are your own bank. Your Bitcoins are held in an encrypted file on your hard drive, and can easily be transferred between your own accounts, or “wallets,” and other accounts. These transactions can be completely anonymous, because your wallet isn’t linked to your “true name” (paging Vernor Vinge).

This anonymity means that you can, in relative ease and safety, avail yourself of online black markets selling all kinds of cool shit of dubious legality.

For instance, on April 15th 2011 – since known as “Black Friday” in certain circles – the DoJ flunky Preet Bharara shut down the three biggest online poker companies operating in the US. In the ensuing panic, dozens of others left of their own accord, voluntarily restricting access to US players to avoid any legal ramifications. But a few continue to operate here. Perhaps the most interesting case is that of Seals with Clubs, a site where you gamble with Bitcoins. This is an example of an innovative and dynamic enterprise that has bypassed real life problems to create a product that people enjoy and that is likely to continue to grow, especially if governments start taking a harder line against online poker. (Incidentally, the games at Seals seem to be very soft, even at high stakes – or at least that is the impression I got from observing them for 15 minutes or so. Definitely something to look into if you get some portion of your income from poker).

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Investigating Bitcoins led me, of course, to the “deep web,” the Silk Road, and even weirder places. I will retrace the journey, should you wish to undertake it yourself.

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Translation: Skolkovo In The Ratings

Russia claims one of the top places in a new ratings system of national innovation compiled by Bloomberg.

According to the latest studies, the US was recognized as the world’s most innovative country in a new rating. This is not surprising for a country that hosts the likes of Apple and Microsoft. But Russia at least had the highest ranking among the BRICS.

The rating of the most innovative countries was compiled by the Bloomberg news agency. Specialists studied more than 200 countries and autonomous regions. Their total number was reduced 96, out of which the top 50 were selected.

The rankings were built on the basis of seven criteria. First, the intensity of R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. Second, the level of labor productivity – that is, the GDP per worker and per hour of working time.

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Tales From The Beijing Embassy

China - not only toys, but tokamaks too.

China – not only toys, but tokamaks too.

Four cables from Cathay, courtesy of this excellent Cable Search tool.

The first cable (Cable 1) is one of the last dispatches of Ambassador to the PRC Clark T. Randt, a long, analytical piece from January 2009. But it’s also perhaps the least interesting of the four.  This is because it is only a rehashing of the standard narrative that can be found on most editorials on the subject: the post-Mao economic liberalization; fast industrial expansion; pollution and demographic problems; etc. China’s prospects are underestimated, as I’ve argued in the past. For instance, he cites projections that China will overtake Japan in five years years and “could rival the United States in overall scale” by the late 2030’s. But these are surely very, very pollyannish (from the US perspective) since in actuality China overtook Japan this year (2010) and its real GDP is already 70% of America’s.

The real threat to Chinese – AND global – growth prospects are resource constraints. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a US government official, Randt cites estimates having China reach peak oil in the early 2010’s and peak coal “in the next 15 to 25 years” (I think coal production will plateau as early as 2015). However, these shortages will be partly mitigated by huge alternative programs – he cites China as being the world’s largest producer of renewable power and Cable 3 mentions plans to construct 70 new nuclear power plants in the next decade. He is almost certainly wrong in his optimistic ideas that China will buy into the US global order, rather than seeking to remake it in its own images (as all aspiring hegemons try to do). To take an example, the wish that China will make itself into a “reliable partner” for the US and other donor countries is put into question by Cable 4 from the very same embassy, in which a Kenyan ambassador expresses an African preference for Chinese aid over Western “conferences and seminars”. The cable finishes with some platitudes about the US needing to “push for the expansion of individual freedoms, respect for the rule of law and the establishment of a truly free and independent judiciary and press”, which must surely have the publisher of this cable spinning in his British prison cell.

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I’d Sooner See The World Burn Than Compromise With Rogue Scientists

Or at least that’s what seems to be going around in the mind of Condoleezza Rice, if this cable (Cable 1) from September 2008 is anything to go by. After successfully persuading countries like Brazil to let the American scientist Christopher Field run unopposed for an important position in a Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), US diplomats began behind the scenes lobbying to block the appointment of an Iranian scientist as its co-chair, since that would be “potentially at odds with overall US policy towards Iran.” Though Mostafa Jafari is admittedly a “highly-qualified scientist”, he is also “a senior Iranian government employee”, and so “close collaboration and often travel to or extended residencies in each others’ countries” between Field and him simply wouldn’t do. Disgracefully, if true*, Pachauri “agreed to work on this issue.” In the event, an Argentinian candidate was appointed co-chair, while Jafari was relegated to a far more junior position.

That said, it’s not of course the case that the US is uniquely responsible for climate fiasco after fiasco. Obviously, these cables don’t paint the US in a good light, what with its underhanded tactics to force countries into signing up to the Copenhagen Accords (a grossly inadequate treaty because of its soft targets and lack of enforcement mechanisms). But thanks to China’s sabotage** in the closed-door negotiations in Copenhagen – even cajoling developed countries against setting their own targets, while manipulating them into taking the fall in public – this is what we got. And while I understand the position of poor countries like the Maldives or Bolivia that it’s nowhere near enough to prevent devastating AGW, or Addis Ababa’s complaints about the absence of formal US guarantees of financial aid in exchange for their support (Cable 2), nonetheless there is a logic to the US strong-arming poor countries into the Accords since this at least gets “the international community moving in the right direction.” (A bonus in that cable is seeing Ethiopians arguing, just like Russians, for restricting foreign funding of NGO’s on the grounds that it undermines indigenous civil society).

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Top 10 AGW Denial Myths

I’ve long viewed the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial movement with a certain sense of bemusement. The causal links are rock-solid – could it really be a coincidence that atmospheric CO2 levels started rising at the very same moment as industrial civilization got into swing, within decades reaching magnitudes big enough to decisively interrupt the glacial-interglacial cycle that previously held steady for hundreds of thousands of years? Is it really surprising that given the heat-absorbing properties of CO2 (known to science since the 18th century), global temperatures entered into a period of steep ascent since the 1970s, rising by around 0.9C from the 1900-1910 period to the last decade? Occam’s Razor anyone? And considering that only 6C or so separate us from the Ice Ages, when ice sheets descended into central Europe, southern England was a polar wasteland scoured by icy, dust-laden winds and dessication affected even the tropics, should not even the possibility of seeing the world warm by up to 6.4C during this century – corresponding to the high end of the IPCC’s forecasts in 2007 – invoke a certain level of concern?

I plan to write more on climate change, since it is going to be one of the key trends of this century (along with resource depletion and growth in computing power). But for now – and to forestall any future objections – I would like to take a moment to expose the top myths and misconceptions of AGW deniers.


It’s all a conspiracy – scientists want research funding and environmentalists want to impose socialism on us.

Frankly the idea that tens of thousands are colluding in a massive conspiracy is risible. If anything it is the denier camp which has economic incentives to promote their views, given the funding they receive from the fossil-fuel industry. The Bush administration scientists pursued a campaign of disinformation and outright censorship regarding AGW. So who are the real conspirators?

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