Sunday, May 29, 2011

Capitalist Culture

Instead of vilifying him for being an idiot, we should be praising Michael Moore for being a millionaire.

 The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (Princeton University Press, 2010) is an anthology that gives an high level view of the broad history of trade and commerce.  (My full review published by Libertarian Papers here.)  In separate chapters, David Landes and Michael Hudson identify the difference between creative and corrosive capitalism. The latter dominates in societies that deny the former.  The editors generally point out that in any society, some people will take the best advantage of whatever modes are offered for personal advancement.

In Rome, glory came from looting provinces.  Making money was not honorable.  So the wealthy left the management of their businesses to their freemen and slaves.  In America today, we allow both the marketing of technology and gaining government subsidies.  It is not just that both are legal, but that culturally, we do not distinguish between them.  Instead of vilifying him for being an idiot, we should be praising Michael Moore for being a millionaire.  He should get a hero's medal for selling large volumes of what people want to buy voluntarily.  

Instead of praising clever children who memorize the Presidents in order, we should be teaching them that "LinkedIn started out in the living room of co-founder Reid Hoffman in the fall of 2002. The five original founders were Reid Hoffman, Allen Blue, Jean-Luc Vaillant, Eric Ly, and Konstantin Guericke." (Company "About" here. )  I am not sure how to commemorate the chic restaurants in Rep. Nancy Pelosi's district that won exemptions to opt out of Obamacare.  The avoidance of regulation should not be taken lightly. 


Deirdre McCloskey developed her theories on "Bourgeois Virtue" over the past two decades.  She now has two books out, with a third on the way.  She investigates the topic from many standpoints.  Generally, she finds that the things we are taught to dislike about being middle class include the social graces that benefit and profit us all. 
A potent source of bourgeois virtue and a check on bourgeois vice is the premium that a bourgeois society puts on discourse. The bourgeois must talk. The aristocrat gives a speech, the peasant tells a tale. But the bourgeois must in the bulk of his transactions talk to an equal. It is wrong to imagine, as modern economics does, that the market is a field of silence. "I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following. . . . What news on the Rialto?"
For one thing, talk defines business reputation, as at the Iowa City cocktail party. A market economy looks forward and therefore depends on trust. The persuasive talk that establishes trust is necessary for doing much business. 
Bourgeois Virtue" by Deirdre McCloskey, American Scholar vol. 63, no. 2, Spring 1994, page 249,  here.
Today we have social media. Corporations hire people or not, and fire them, based on what is revealed on Facebook and Twitter.  Reputational gossip has become all the more intense.  In a global culture, other people in other places grew up with different expectations entirely.  Rather than forcing conformity and avoiding risk, hiring managers who want their firms to profit should have the mechanisms in place analogous to those engaged by entrepreneurs. 
Market theorist Henry Girard Manne suggests that insider trading is one of those. 

In the anthology cited above, the chapter on the Middle East by Timur Kuran pointed to a biography of a Cairo merchant.  Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma'il Ibn Taqiyya by Nellie Hanna is a detailed account of one merchant in one place.  It so happened that he had his choice of courts, four of them, from different schools of law, in which he could register contracts.  Abu Taqiyya flexibly extended his trade network by crafting the clauses in his agreements.  Benjamin Franklin would have called it "prudence."


We see the "castle" as a paradigm, not just because we are at war with our neighbors - Hobbes' war of all against all being the reason for government. For us, the home is primary protection against the elements. In a society of open courtyards, verandas (a Hindi word, likely borrowed from Portuguese), decks, roofs with hanging gardens, patios, arcades and colonades, concepts of safety, security, and ultimately, property rights, must have other paradigms. As he became wealthy, Isma'il Abu Taqiyya extended and expanded his personal space until his large home dominated his street.  He shared that street with a partner who made the same arrangements. They also did this with their warehouses (wikalat), which served as storage, emporia, and guest lodgings.  Public life was gradually excluded from private contexts as the visitor moved inward from the business into the home.

The piazza is a public space, but among urban Americans in the 19th century, it came to be a somewhat pretentious word for the front porch.  For Americans, the front porch became the margin between the public street and the privacy of the interior home.  Adults could sit and rock while children played games.  Friends and neighbors could stroll pass and bid hello and good day.  An industry arose to create special furniture for this special space.  Europeans assigned to work in Detroit like Ann Arbor because our restaurants extend to the street, using the sidewalks for table spaces.  The margins between public and private spaces are blurred.  It would be difficult to discuss anything illegal or immoral in such a context.  Business and social life become transparent when conducted on the street.  In such a context, you grant privacy by minding your own business.

Therefore, rather than the castle which holds against the storm, a commercial society of productive traders, offering values in voluntary exchange, is better served by a theoretical model of ready communication.  Jane Jacobs made the same point in Systems of Survival.  It is the Trader's Ethic to be open and available to deals with strangers.  Thus, capitalism is inherently globalist and democratic. 

A Man's Home is His Market
Thank-you Notes
City Air Makes You Free
Knowledge Maps

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Copy Rights and Wrongs

The Google Books Settlement Agreement and the conflicts that caused it touched on only some of the problems of intellectual property and rights to it.  The settlement was rejected by US Appeals Court Judge Denny Chin (summary here from Columbia U's Copyright Project and full text PDF of ruling from The Public Index).

Much is wrong with all of the argumentation from all parties.  The simplest fact is that Google provided a service to store library books and make them available to patrons via Inter Library Loan.  At root, it is no different than a climate-controlled building for storage, library cards for access, and padded envelopes for mailing - with one exception: the process creates another copy ...  many other copies... as many copies as anyone could want.  In fact, I made two copies of Judge Chin's ruling and put them in different directories, one in the "NecessaryFacts" directory for these posts; and the other under "CJ Others" for any future academic criminal justice discussion of copyright laws and violations. 

Michael Crichton was not alone in seeing this coming.  Back in 1983, in his book Electronic Life, he said that the inherent copyablity of electronic media removes it from all of our previous expectations of property.  He recommended that artists forego the concept of royalties.  Just get your money up front and move on to the next project.  While he did have a lot of those projects, I do not doubt that he cashed the royalty checks all along the way for each of them.  Back then, I cited Crichton's thesis in articles that I wrote touting a world of "softlife" reproducing itself without copyrights.  Of course, when Defense Computing magazine took an article that I wrote about Soviet computer technology, claiming that the lack of a copyright statement made it anyone's property, I called them up and talked them out of a hundred bucks.  Self-interest and hypocrisy can be so hard to tell apart.

So, too, with this problem.

Among the facets are so-called "orphan works" for which the copyright holder is lost, perhaps dead, generally hard to find in any event.  If not for Google, they would remain orphans.  Now that they are rescued, reproduced, archived, indexed, and available to the world, they have new value.  When the authors themselves are not clamoring for cash - a rare event or these would not be orphan works - then non-self-interested others hypocritically want someone else (anyone else not making a profit- but not they themselves investing their own resources) to do this for free, track down the authors, and force an arbitrarily fair amount of money on them. 

I find works of mine out on the Internet and usually I do not care, as long as the presentation looks nice and serves a moral purpose.  I already got paid what I asked for.  (There is a parable in the New Testament about that. See Matthew 20:2.)  Once - as in the case of Defense Computing - I found the Frances Lehman-Loeb Art Center of Vassar College presenting an article that I wrote on the definition of "coin."  I pointed out the plagiarism and offered to write them a new one at a fair price.  They took the page down and never replied to my offer.  (The offender was an undergraduate history major volunteering at the museum.) 

An artifact speaks of its maker.  Artifacts are semata: bearers of meaning.  Thus, you can attach property - without "mixing your labor" - simply by putting your sign to it.  That, in fact, is the basis not only for marking cattle, but, in our time, for creating money, even Federal Reserve Notes, which have no intrinsic value but have value entirely through meaning (symbol).

Symbols are not objective.  They depend on cultural context.  When the culture changes, the meanings change.  We no longer live in a time when the production of books is a barrier to the transmission of ideas.  Books always were sold for the printing, the paper, the binding, and not for the value of the ideas inside.  Evangelists give away the Word of God.  Even the Ayn Rand Institute gives away Atlas Shrugged to high schoolers who enter their essay contests.

Among the tangled roots is the fact that we get our ideas of property from a long history with land.  Exclusivity is based on a physical law: two objects cannot be in the same place at the same time.  Rivalry is based on the fact that the same object cannot be in two places at the same time.  But now they can.  Unlike a plot of land, two people can access the same copy of a work of art at the same time without being in the same place. To each, their view is personal and private.  Even only a few years ago, cassette tape machines had two different functions for PLAY and RECORD. Now they are the same function. 

The physics and metaphysics of land do not apply to cyberspace.  The court should have removed itself as lacking competent jurisdiction.  The institution best suited to bringing spontaeous order is the market.  The libraries owned the books.  Google owned the means of preserving them while maintaining public access. 

When these books were printed, our technologies were not contemplated.  It should remain there.  Times change. 

 Copyrights were invented as monopolies in 17th century England.  The first law was passed in 1709 (Queen Anne's Law of 1710).  Sooner or later, implants or something will give us all personal permanent memory.  Where will the law be then?  You will never forget a book you read and you will be able to recite it perfectly.  Musical performances and plays may also become self-replicating memes.  Sculpture will probably prove resistant to copying, though we do have 3D Modeling now. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Opening locks without keys is one of the challenges historically associated with computer hacking, like gaming and Chinese food, chronicled in Steven Levy's classic, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Anchor Doubleday, 1984;O'Reilley 2010;  but available all over the Internet as a PDF).  So, it is fitting that at the SUMIT_2010 Conference (Security @ the University of Michigan IT, October 7, 2010), Deviant Ollam of The Core Group was again a guest speaker.  Sandwiched between techies Whitfield Diffie and Christopher Hoff, and government agents Melissa Hathaway and Marcus J. Ranum, Deviant Ollum was a hit with the crowd.  After his talk, outside the auditorium, he set up a corral of tables with locks and tools for people to play with; and he answered questions for about an hour.

His on-stage demonstration was fascinating, compelling, shocking, and revealing.  We throw shackles on our cages of servers, buying them at hardware stores and big box stores, and never considering how vulnerable they leave us.  It is pretty easy for someone to let themself into your racks, insert or copy what they want and then leave without a trace.  Or almost without a trace.  Deviant Ollam's presentation included forensics, showing the evidence of tampering.  But you have to know what you are looking for and looking at.
"Physical security is an oft-overlooked component of data and system security in the technology world. While frequently forgotten, it is no less critical than timely patches, appropriate password policies, and proper user permissions. You can have the most hardened servers and network but that doesn’t make the slightest difference if someone can gain direct access to your network equipment and server racks."  - Deviant Ollam, The CORE Group. "The Four Types of Lock: Physical Security is Data Security."
Shortly after that October 7, 2010, conference, I got interested in the problem of archiving and reporting on modern paper money (here on Necessary Facts).  I made a presentation about that at ArbSec, a local Ann Arbor computer security group that grew out of the DefCon734 chapter here.  Via ArbSec, I met A2 Locksporting, the lockpicking club.  Attending club meetings once a month, I learned how to pick a lock. 

Numismatists study all forms of money.
The threat of counterfeiting led governments to make their notes more secure.
It also led the USA government in Washington to install software,
firmware, and hardware on all personal computer scanners.
If you scan a current-issue Federal Reserve Note, they will know about it.
The EURion Project here on NecessaryFacts.

I also learned how to take a lock apart and put it back together, how to match a lock to its key, and other techniques.  It so happened that because of the Levy book - which I read when it came out, having hacked my first password in 1977 - I always kept keys. I have lots of them.  They can be useful.  You can make a lock "bump" with a old key.  An old key can be recut.  It might work on its own: locks are disappointingly generic.  If you only care about keeping out honest people, you can save money, time and grief, by paying attention to the codes on the locks, buying four or five identical ones at the same time. 

If you browse for lockpicking tools, you will find many sellers.  The Ann Arbor Locksporting Club seems to like Lockpicker's Mall. I like their website. From 2004-2010, I reviewed websites for the American Numismatic Association and I learned to look for reliable information, free articles, and open and honest statement of who owns the site and the company and where to find them in real life.  They meet those requirements. 

Core of Lock disassembled.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


 It is an easy claim commonly found in school books that cities evolved from agrarian communities that themselves were formed when pastoralists pursuing herds narrowed their ranges, domesticated animals and plants, and settled down.  In truth, cities evolved from the camps of successful hunter/gatherers who met to exchange their supluses.  Jane Jacobs suggested this in The Economy of Cities.  Her theory was validated by the excavations at Çatal Höyük in Turkey.   

First, Jacobs was an urbanist.  An immigrant from Scanton, Pennsylvania, to New York City and an activist in Brooklyn, she fought against the so-called "urban renewal" of the 1960s; and she was largely successfully at least in forestalling what was really urban removal.   She advocated for old mixed-use buildings in diversified neighborhoods, which was the opposite of intentions from planners such as Robert Moses who intended large new single-use structures for uniform neighborhoods. 

Also, Jacobs was self-educated.  Working as a secretary and freelance reporter, she attended on her own Columbia University's open college or extension school (now the School of General Studies).  She studied what interested her, and at one point was almost forced into a degree program which she successfully resisted.

Her other books include: 
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
  • Cities and the Wealth of Nations, New York: Random House, 1984.
  • Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, New York: Random House, 1992. 
 Her theories on the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age were validated after the excavations at Çatal Höyük were resumed.  She suggested that the first commonly accepted trade commodity was not wheat - and certainly not useless silver or gold - but obsidian.  Obsidian for points (arrowheads; spear tips) was broadly desirable by hunters.  However,

Monday, May 9, 2011

CSI: FLINT 2011 - Who Guards the Guardians?

On May 6, I presented two classes to middle schoolers participating in "Super Science Friday" at the University of Michigan Flint campus. In all about 500 pupils attended two each of 25 different sessions.  Some were laboratory demonstrations, others were hands-on engagements.  Topics included website design, trauma response, the chemistry of cooking, music, and termites.  My session was titled "Who Guards the Guardians" and explained misconduct and fraud in science as it applies to junk science in the courtroom and misconduct in police laboratories. 

To support the discussion, I created a blog, here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Reflections on Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I saw it the moment it opened, 12:10 PM, Friday, April 15. The work was credible. I found it impossible to imagine seeing the movie without having read the book. So, for me, it was a matter of my own visualizations versus their realizations.   Overall, the movie is everything I wanted and a bit less.  This is true, also, of  Pride and Prejudice or the Star Trek franchise.  Atlas Shrugged is primarily for fans.  

[Note: These comments are based on earlier posts to Rebirth of Reason and Objectivist Living discussion boards.  They are edited and amended for this presentation.]

The film has been compared to My Big Fat Greek Wedding which had near-zero traffic at first but which stayed in theaters for a year, building a following.  Atlas can go to dollar cinemas at the malls for months to come.  Producers of the 1939 Wizard of Oz were reluctant to take on a story that was not popular and which failed as a film in 1910.  I hope that we don't have to wait 30 years for the next attempt. 

I felt that Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt did the most credible job of projecting the character. Taylor Schilling delivered her lines well, but she has not deeply felt what it is like to grow up around trains, major in engineering, and all the rest. Her acting, like all of their acting, was competent acting. But Beckel really looked and felt like an oil man from Colorado  (In the book, Wyatt is a young genius, and Beckel is not young, but that is a quibble.)  Grant Bowler did not feel like a man who bought his first steel mill at 25, after being hungry on the streets at 12. The exchange of the bracelet could have been done closer to the book.  The ride along the John Galt Line could have been shot from the nose of the cab.   But it was not my movie to make.  I appreciate the work of those who did, the producers, director, and actors.  I was happy to see Armin Shimerman as Dr. Potter.  Shimerman played the Ferengi, Quark, on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series.  (Quark runs a bar; and the Ferengi are consumate traders.)  At a Trekker con, I asked him if he had read any Ayn Rand.  He said that he read The Fountainhead and would be revisiting Rand to add depth to his character.
On the Objectivist Living discussion board, Kat, on 15 April 2011 - 10:05 PM, said:The Owen Kellogg scene was almost comical because the guy was such a dweeb you would think Dagny would be firing him rather than giving him a promotion.
I replied:  I liked that. I understood it, to the core. In a rational world where people who are motivated by the ideas portrayed in Rand's work, who do you think would be in charge? Our world is a collectivist tribalist remnant which is only now discovering individualism. Even the LP convention organizes people alphabetically by state. Is that individualist thinking?  Dagny would see the brilliant mind. When she said that she was "grooming him for management" what do you think she meant? He just needs a couple of classes or seminars in public speaking and project management. It is in our world of the collectivist corporation and the altruist state that the Owen Kelloggs of the world do not find leadership within complex organizations.
The theme of "the mind on strike" is deeper as every social structure knows social loafing.  We call them "slackers" because when not pulling their own weight, it is their segment of the line that hangs loose. The demise of General Motors, Chrysler, and Bear Stearns was due as much to internal expropriation of talent and "sanction of the victim" operations as anything the government did -- after all, every firm suffers government intervention in some way, though, granted that software development is not the same as investment banking and heavy industry.  But, that, too, points to the deeper theme: common wage employees who see themselves as sole entrepreneurs offering their best effort for the the highest rewards were not welcome in the corporations that failed.  Long ago, they were attracted to other kinds of work, other employers, as other workers were drawn to the failing corporations for non-objective motives. 

Even though Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical detective story about the theft and recovery of genius, this is primarily a political movie, as many people read  Atlas as a political novel.  However, the book's three parts were named for metaphysical axioms.  Dialog and narrative integrate epistemology with ethics all through the book. 

Ultimately, while the conflict between government and business is obvious, deeper is the nature of those in any social context who carry the project on their shoulders despite the loafers.  ("Social loafing" is a known fact.  In economics it more formally labeled the "problem of the free rider" or defined by various "externalities."   The counter presentation is the "tragedy of the commons."  Tragic though it be, no one suggests doing away with the commons.)  That applies to the people within a corporation - or within a government agency: police and military face the problem of "goldbricks."  In the book,  it always comes back to metaphysics and epistemology.  The movie does not hinge on those conflicts.

It could.  In a different day, a different Atlas could be an explicitly philosophical movie, derived from metaphysics and epistemology, in which the political conflicts are seen as expressions of deeper motives.

 It could be told from the point of view of John, Frisco, and Ragnar at Patrick Henry University with Profs. Akston and Stadler and follow forward from there, peaking at the 20th Century Motors, bringing Galt to the Taggart Transcontinental, Ragnar at sea, and Frisco a playboy, ending with Dagny's decision to create The John Galt Line.  "Let him come and claim it," she says.  "He will," Francisco replies.  End Part I.  The central "action" would be arguments among the boys and Akston on the proper course of action, on their isolation from Stadler over the State Science Institute.  You might think that a movie cannot be carried by dialog, but what makes Pride and Prejudice, a perennial favorite?  It is the only movie I have watched three incarnations of -- and not a gun, bomb, or starship...

A psychological Atlas could portray the disintegration of James Taggart, from "Don't bother me!" to his realization at the State Science lab machine that he wants to die.  That would be the dark shadow that illuminates Hank Rearden's self-discovery -- a story that could play out in a laissez faire utopia.   Rearden's conflict is really within himself and reflected in his relations with his family, hallmarked by his wife.  The government was largely irrelevant there, but the theme was the same and the action followed the same path: he quit working for his family; he also quit working for the government.  And, as for the mind not working, his was not properly engaged on the problem of Dagny Taggart.  Until Francisco d'Anconia gave him a kick start, Rearden's thinking about romance was not actually thinking at all. 

If you search YouTube for fan-made Atlas Shrugged trailers, you will find several efforts.  This is one of the best by high schoolers:

We will see other complete productions of Atlas Shrugged, created with animation software that allows the director to choose from the full range of Hollywood greats.

Anthem as a Graphic Novel
Firefly: Fact and Value Aboard "Serenity"
That Goddam Ayn Rand Book
Valentine's Day: Love and Money