Private Cities and Technologies of Liberation

If you’re reading this blog and not Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, there’s something wrong with you. That’s where I’m doing my substantive blogging – though that’s admittedly not very frequent lately.

My most recent posts:

Norman Borlaug, the Greatest Person Ever, has Died

Since he’s not a eccentric pop star, Norman Borlaug’s death is unlikely to be particularly newsworthy. Here’s a short video outlining his contributions to human wellbeing:

PC has a nice round-up of obituaries, etc.

One Laptop per Governor

It seems that someone is sending free laptops to US Governors (Hat tip: Schneier). The FBI is worried that they contain malware:

According to sources familiar with the investigation, other states have been targeted too, with HP laptops mysteriously ordered for officials in 10 states. Four of the orders were delivered, while the remaining six were intercepted, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

The West Virginia laptops were delivered to the governor’s office several weeks ago, prompting state officials to contact police, according to Kyle Schafer, the state’s chief technology officer. “We were notified by the governor’s office that they had received the laptops and they had not ordered them,” he said. “We checked our records and we had not ordered them.”

State officials in Vermont told him they’ve received similar unsolicited orders, Schafer said. Representatives from that state could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Schafer doesn’t know what’s on the laptops, but he handed them over to the authorities. “Our expectation is that this is not a gesture of good will,” he said. “People don’t just send you five laptops for no good reason.”

A couple of random thoughts:

  1. If government really does provide value for people, why wouldn’t some public-spirited citizen send in a few laptops. Maybe they thought Governors’ IT budgets were too small and wanted to help out. People give to charity, why not government. If there’s “no good reason” to donate resources to government, is there any good reason for it to exist at all?
  2. I declare the future to have officially arrived at the time when the cost of a computer is less than the discounted value of future earnings from malware installed on that computer. Of course, consumers will recognize this and either avoid free computers (if the disutility of malware exceeds the full cost of a computer) or demand additional compensation (if not). Either way, I predict malware-producers will attempt to pass off infected computers as clean. It’s easier to bundle a good and a bad if consumer don’t know they’re getting a bad. Perhaps we’ll see lots of laptops left in places where they can be easily-stolen? Knockoffs of premium (clean) products sold cheaply on the pretense of being used, stolen or otherwise undesirable? I can’t wait to find out.


The Space Frontier Foundation looks like an interesting organization. Their central goal of colonizing space is obviously a long-term one (though we should not underestimate the law of accelerating returns), but I suspect they’ll have an important role to play in the short term agitating for the removal of regulatory barriers to present-day commercial spaceflight.

The Space Frontier Foundation is an organization composed of space activists, scientists and engineers, media and political professionals, entrepreneurs, and citizens from all backgrounds and all nations. We are transforming space from a government-owned bureaucratic program into a dynamic and inclusive frontier open to people. We are determined to convert the image held by many young people that the future will be worse than the present, and we reject the idea that the world’s greatest moments are in its past.

Our central goal is the large-scale permanent settlement of space. We believe people have the “right stuff’ and that everyone will benefit from opening the space frontier. We believe that free markets and free enterprise will become an unstoppable force in the irreversible settlement of this new frontier, and that our world is on the verge of a truly historic breakthrough – cheap access to space.

We are changing the basic assumptions about space. Foundation speakers present a future that excites and inspires citizens from all nations, and through awards and briefings, our ideas are driving the portrayal of space into new directions. According to Dr. Robert Zubrin, “The Space Frontier Foundation is pound for pound the most effective space group in the world.”

Hat tip: Seasteading Institute.

SpaceX Launches Commerical Satellite, Doesn’t Need Coercive Taxation

Awesome. Next step: SpaceSteading.

A pioneering rocket company that wants to take over the job of sending U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station launched an imaging satellite into orbit late on Monday for a Malaysian firm, its first paying customer.

Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 1 rocket lifted off from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll in the Western Pacific at 11:35 p.m. EDT/0335 GMT on Tuesday carrying the 400-pound (180-kg) RazakSAT satellite, designed and built by ATSB of Malaysia.

The spacecraft has black-and-white and color cameras to take high-resolution pictures of agricultural lands, forests, urban centers and other targets in Malaysia for commercial and government customers.

It was the fifth flight for Space Exploration Technologies, a privately funded California firm founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, a co-creator of the PayPal financial services company that was purchased by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.

SpaceX’s first three launches in 2006, 2007 and 2008, fell short of reaching orbit.

Its fourth launch last September successfully put a dummy payload into orbit.

In addition to its Falcon 1 rocket, which can put a half-ton payload into orbit for about $8 million, SpaceX is developing a heavy-lift Falcon 9 rocket that can carry 11 tons to low-Earth orbit, or four tons to an orbit 22,300 miles above the planet, for about $40 million.

A Big Step for Cloud Computing

Google is releasing a Chrome OS:

So today, we’re announcing a new project that’s a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be.

Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Because we’re already talking to partners about the project, and we’ll soon be working with the open source community, we wanted to share our vision now so everyone understands what we are trying to achieve.

Speed, simplicity and security are the key aspects of Google Chrome OS. We’re designing the OS to be fast and lightweight, to start up and get you onto the web in a few seconds. The user interface is minimal to stay out of your way, and most of the user experience takes place on the web. And as we did for the Google Chrome browser, we are going back to the basics and completely redesigning the underlying security architecture of the OS so that users don’t have to deal with viruses, malware and security updates. It should just work.

Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple — Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the web is the platform. All web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite web technologies. And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform. (…)

We hear a lot from our users and their message is clear — computers need to get better. People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates. And any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet.

I’ve been using Chrome as my default browser since it was released. I occasionally still need Firefox for one thing or another, but I rate the hell out of Chrome’s simplicity for everyday use. I can definitely see the OS as a useful dual-boot option for laptop and desktop PCs, as well as netbooks.

I, for one, welcome our new decentralized, cloud-based overlords.

Selling Weed on Twitter

It is state-sanctioned medical weed, though (Hat tip: @goodiemonster):

California won’t let the gays marry but it does let people micro-blog (medical) drug deals. Meet former Northwestern J-school student Dann Halem, who is building an online business selling weed on Twitter. How is this possible you ask? (…)

The @artistscollctve Twitter account went up last week and, in the vein of a more #420 friendly Kogi BBQ, the medical marijuana delivery service also boasts “On-Time GPS” and the availability of “green crack.” Artists for Access is a “creative non-profit” operating under something called a 501 3c non-profit license, “as far as the law is concerned, we’re good.”

Technically legal in California, Halem’s dicey business model is legit from a state standpoint, but not federally. You can’t just call up an get a bag, but knowing the multitudes of dodgy loopholes that exist in the CA medical marijuana policy (i.e. insomnia counts) it’s probably not that hard to score a prescription. Line up your doctor’s notes ASAP! Because this opportunity may not (probably won’t) last.

I’ve heard of a few people buying non-medical weed via forums, but not nearly as many as I’d prefer. The internets could drastically reduce the (currently very high) transaction costs of purchasing the poison of your choice. The problem, of course, is the lack of security and trust needed to organize transactions online secretly.

Arto Bendiken has developed a couple of Drupal modules which could help with this. Agora provides the infrastructure for a market, while Lockdown provides security in case the narcs come calling. They both look ridiculously awesome, and I just wish my geek-fu was strong enough to fully understand all the technical details.

Systems like this could go a long way in making black markets more efficient, but I think the problem of trust remains. I suspect it would be useful for anyone trying to develop this sort of thing to look at how meatspace black markets have always worked – considering the ways in which initiation rituals serve as a costly signal and the incentive-aligning effects of vouching, for example.

The future is already here, and it’s reasonably evenly distributed

This video from 1981 (hat tip: Jerry Brito) shows the remarkable progress of information technology in recent years.

That which which seemed amazing yesterday is taken for granted today. Hyperland (1990) from Douglas Adams is even more remarkable in how exciting it made hypertext seem.

If we think back even further, someone 300 years ago would find the way we live today – or even the way we did in 1981 – absolutely unimaginable. Talking to someone on the other side of the world through some strange contraption? Witchcraft! This is why we shouldn’t discount future technological innovations – indefinite lifespans, bioengineered superintelligence, desktop nanotech – based on their pure strangeness and unfamiliarity. We are in the midst of self-reinforcing and accelerating economic growth. Decent institutional arrangements have allowed markets and other means of technological innovation to produce new knowledge at an unprecedented rate. Knowledge begets more knowledge, as we use past innovations to more effectively produce new ones.

This sort of growth is not the norm if we consider human history as a whole, and it’s possible that an exogenous shock could force us out of our positive feedback loop. I wouldn’t bet on that happening, and think those in the near future will have levels of wealth and capabilities only the most imaginative of us can dream of today. We tend not to notice change as it’s happening, but its cumulative effect is enormous. The Singularity will come, but nobody will notice it.

Regulation Will Kill Millions

A good point from the Fight Aging blog:

I have said in the past that, from a pure research timeline perspective, by 2040 we’ll plausibly have all the technologies needed to repair and reverse aging. Unfortunately when we look beyond the laboratory, the field is strewn with roadblocks of legislation, slowing everything down. Even the time taken for new businesses to raise capital, try, fail, and try again is less than the delays imposed by the ball and chain of regulation.

Apparently, around 100,000 people worldwide die per day from age-related diseases. If regulation postpones the achievement of acturial escape velocity by even a year, it will have killed 36.5 million people. Not quite the biggest act of democide in history, but it will be if the delay is much more than two years. In opportunity cost terms, slowing anti-aging technology is in fact much worse than was killing someone born too early to have the prospect of a radically extended lifespan. If you kill a 30 year old destined to die by the age of 90, you’re robbing him of 60 years of life. If you deny a 60 year old anti-aging technology, you could be robbing them of a thousand years of life.

This is why I get so angry at the bioconservatives wringing their hands over the intrinsic value of human nature: they are killing more people than Hitler  ever dreamed of. Of course, regulators have been mass murderers for some time.

Technology and Freedom

Reason has a review of David Friedman‘s recent book Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World.

In Future Imperfect David Friedman presents a wide variety of possible futures, “some attractive, some frightening, few dull.” Looking through a lens of science fiction and fact, Friedman explores how libertarian ideas can help us adjust our lives and institutions to technological change ranging from computer crime to nanotechnology, from contracts in cyberspace to aging research.

I started reading the online draft of the book a while ago, but somehow never finished it. I’ll have to remedy that at the nearest opportunity. Friedman discusses privacy and surveillance, digital money, encryption, and biotech.

The question of whether new technologies will enhance freedom or reduce it, either through calls for regulation or by giving the state more effective means of control, strikes me as one of the most important questions we can ask. I don’t think it’s at all possible to stop accelerating technological advancement, but we need to think carefully about the political institutions best able to deal the changing nature of the world (and if technology is going to centralize power, I’ll be much more likely to follow David’s son into the ocean).  I’m generally optimistic, and damn well want my immortality, abundance, and superpowers. We can’t, though, just assume that new technologies will always and everywhere lead to more freedom and welfare. That’s why David’s book is so important.