Archive for April 2013

I see a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the wonders of our coming ‘post-scarcity’ world, mostly because so many people are unemployed and can’t see how they can possibly work again. In this brave new future, everyone will be able to have whatever they want, no-one will have to work and we’ll all be happy and fluffy.

Except it will never happen.

There will never be enough resources for everyone to have as much as they want without scarcity. Even if I was the only being in the universe, I could easily use more resources than are available to me. For any amount of resources you can think of, I can think of a use for more. If I want to turn the solar system into a Dyson Sphere all of my own, then no-one else can have it. If I want to turn every galaxy into a giant super-computer to calculate prime numbers, you can’t use it for running your super-complex MMO game.

This is an example of what you might call the ‘Who cleans the toilets on the Enterprise?’ problem. I’m not sure that Star Trek has ever claimed to be a post-scarcity world, but a number of trekkies have claimed it is. Yet somehow, people are still found to do all the boring, dirty and dangerous jobs on the Starship Enterprise, rather than demanding starships of their own. If there’s no scarcity, why would anyone choose to clean the toilets on the Enterprise?

The problem with the whole ‘post-scarcity’ idea is that it mostly comes from people with little imagination. They’re happy to live in an apartment with a cat and a TV, and anyone who demands entire galaxies for their own use is just being silly. The reality is that the ones who are happy with very little are being silly; one person who wants to own galaxies and spawns off numerous copies of their personality can use up the entire universe and leave nothing for the ‘sensible’ people.

Pretty soon they announce that there must be rationing of the ‘post-scarcity’ resources to ensure people only use them sensibly. So you’re suddenly back to scarcity, this time artificially created a ruling caste. Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are a good example, a ‘post-scarcity’ world where the synthetic intelligent Minds ensure that humans only get whatever scraps the Minds feed them. Fortunately, as in much left-wing fiction, the ruling caste is almost entirely composed of altruistic philosopher kings, so everyone is happy.

In the real world, of course, the ruling caste would get their Zil space limousines, while the rest would live in caves and fight for the rulers’ favour. When resources are power, the very people most attracted to power are the least likely to give any of it to anyone else.

But let’s suppose for a moment it did work. The wondrous philosopher kings can amicably share all the resources of the universe so everyone is happy and everyone has everything they want and no-one has to work for a living. Then what?

Well, we all sit around being pampered with no reason to do anything. And, being bored, we start having kids. Pretty soon, the population of pampered, unproductive people is rising much faster than the resources available to sustain us. Oops.

Then we’re back to square one. The ruling caste is now telling us how many kids we can have, and ensuring we can only have a ‘sensible’ number, even if we want millions.

So whenever anyone tells you about the glorious new ‘post-scarcity’ future, what they’re really talking about is their new ‘post-freedom’ future where everyone must behave ‘sensibly’, even if they have to force you to do so.

You know you’re flying too often when you recognise the actors in the flight safety video.

The difference between trade publishing and self-publishing reminds me a lot of the difference between Hollywood movie releases and the old B-movie method.

Hollywood puts the movie in hundreds of cinemas, hopes for a big opening weekend, then forgets about it because the next weekend’s movie is coming soon. If the movie doesn’t do well in the first weekend it rapidly disappears, even though the movie might have been a success if released a week before so it didn’t conflict with some other entertainment venue which kept people out of the cinemas that weekend.

B-movie producers would release the movie slowly, judge the reaction, see if any changes had to be made, and try to build up an audience over time. Unless it was abysmally bad, they could probably make a profit, but it might take a few years.

In a similar way, the trade publisher throws a book out onto the book store shelves for a few weeks until they’re returned, sells them as remainders and forgets about it. A self-published author might make very little money on their first novel, make more after they rewrite the blurb, change the cover and fix any issues early readers complain about, and sell thousands of copies a few years down the line when they’ve released other books that brought in some dedicated fans.

So, Margaret Thatcher is dead. Not exactly unexpected, but a sad loss nonetheless.

I’d hardly be the first to defend her mistakes. The Poll Tax, for example, always seemed to be a cynical attempt to push Labour voters off the electoral roll. Closer EU integration was a disaster. Global Warming perhaps even more so.

But Britain of the 70s was a socialist nation on the fast track to Third World status. The government ran most of the economy, and the unions ran the government. Since WWII there had been a cosy collaboration between the far-left in the Labour party and the wet-left in the Tory party, and scarcely a right-wing politician to say no. The end result was massive inefficiency and bloated overmanning in industries that produced lots of things no-one wanted to buy, when the unions could actually be bothered to go to work. The country was bankrupt and even Idi Amin was offering to send financial aid to help out.

I’m barely old enough to remember much of the 70s, but one of my earliest memories is sitting in the dark, trying to read by candle-light, because the miners were out on strike in sympathy with the bin men and the power stations were shut down (or whatever nonsensical combination of demands happened to have come together that week). Another is regularly being sent to the baker to buy bread, and then having to go home empty-handed because rampant inflation had increased the price yet again.

Thatcher ended that. She broke the power of the union leadership and returned it to the union members. She privatised many nationalised industries and let the inefficient and incompetent collapse. She slashed tax rates, so successful people no longer had to choose between leaving the country or handing most of their income to the government.

For pretty much the first time since WWII, Britain was a country where you could be a success if you weren’t politically connected or a senior union official. The brain drain of skilled workers had been continuous as those who could get out fled to any country where they could lead a better life, many to America, many of the rest to the Commonwealth. Then, while Thatcher was in power, it stopped. Why go when Britain finally valued them again?

And the particularly amusing part is that it was all the unions’ fault. In one of the best examples of left-wing political stupidity prior to their suicide pact in the recent Canadian elections, the unions lead a massive strike campaign in the run-up to the election, turning a small Labour lead into a massive lead for Thatcher.

Sadly, the good times couldn’t last. The left hated her because she stood against everything they believed in. The wet left in her own party hated her because they feared she’d lose the election. So they finally stabbed her in the back. John Major continued similar policies for a few years until the economic recovery was done, then voters threw him out in favour of the New, Improved, Not Socialist Labour Party.

Which spent the next thirteen years bankrupting the country again.

Needless to say, the brain drain rapidly returned and by the time I emigrated in the mid-2000s, Canada had a waiting list of three years or more. It will only get worse as Cameron’s wet-left Tory party replaced Labour with almost identical policies and the 70s returns in re-runs.

For those who missed the 70s in Britain, or don’t understand how it could have been so bad that people were finally willing to throw out the entire post-war consensus, the TV SF of the time may be a good place to start; shows such as 1990, with Edward Woodward as a crusading journalist helping illegal emigrants escape from the UK after the government imposes exit visas to imprison those with skills, The Guardians, with resistance against a totalitarian government of a more fascist persuasion, and the final Quatermass series, where Britain is in the advanced stages of complete social breakdown. Survivors, of course, was very popular because the prospect of 99% of the population dying of a fatal disease could hardly seem worse than a few more years of Ted Heath or James Callaghan in power.

These shows might have been futuristic, but none of them were particularly unbelievable in an era where newspapers talking about the possibility of a military coup. None of them, of course, have been regular repeats; partly, to be fair, because some are not very good — 1990, for example, has one of the least effective totalitarian governments in history — but also because, in left-wing mythology, the 1970s are the utopia to which Britons should aspire. Surely no-one could seriously have imagined the government might have to stop people leaving?

Is it just me, or is ‘Cold Fusion’ the modern day Perpetual Motion Machine? Whereas they used to generate perpetual motion with cogs, weights and levers, now they generate it from ‘cold fusion’, which sounds more plausible because no-one knows how it could work.

Which is not to say that it will never happen — muon-catalyzed fusion, for example, seems to work but requires more energy than it produces — but I’ve seen precisely zero evidence that any of these devices do anything more than a good old-fashioned Perpetual Motion Machine.

Another day, another taxpayer-backed electric car manufacturer in trouble:

Hopefully this means the electric car bubble has almost burst. Though that guarantees that in twenty years we’ll have to suffer more ‘documentaries’ claiming it was all a giant conspiracy and not because electric cars suck.

So I finally figured out the ‘Failed to generate fraud prevention signature’ error when trying to register for Tera Online:

Turns out that you can only register from Internet Explorer, because no-one could possibly think of using any other web browser. To be honest, that may be a good thing, because my brief foray into the game didn’t give me a strong desire to spend much more time there… just another generic MMOG so far.