Only Erik Prince Could Go To China

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Erik Prince founded Blackwater, got “blowtorched by politics”, and is now chairman of Frontier Services Group, an Africa-focused “security and logistics” company — with ties to China’s largest state-owned conglomerate, Citic Group:

Beijing has titanic ambitions to tap Africa’s resources — including $1 trillion in planned spending on roads, railways and airports by 2025 — and Mr. Prince wants in.

With a public listing in Hong Kong, and with Citic as its second-largest shareholder (a 15% stake) and Citic executives sitting on its board, Frontier Services Group is a long way from Blackwater’s CIA ties and $2 billion in U.S. government contracts. For that, Mr. Prince is relieved.

“I would rather deal with the vagaries of investing in Africa than in figuring out what the hell else Washington is going to do to the entrepreneur next,” says the crew-cut 44-year-old.


“This is not a patriotic endeavor of ours — we’re here to build a great business and make some money doing it,” he says. Asia, and especially China, “has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.” Mr. Prince says “critics can throw stones all they want” but he is quick to point out that he has “a lot of experience in dealing in uncertainties in difficult places,” and says “this is a very rational decision — made, I guess, emotionless.”

Mr. Prince aims to provide “end-to-end” services to companies in the “big extractive, big infrastructure and big energy” industries. Initially focused on building a Pan-African fleet of aircraft, his firm will expand into barging, trucking and shipping, along with “remote-area construction” as needed for reliable transport. A company — Chinese, Russian, American or otherwise — may have “an extremely rich hydrocarbon or mining asset,” he explains, “but it’s worth nothing unless you can get it to where someone will pay you for it.” His investor prospectus notes that with today’s transportation infrastructure, “it costs more to ship a ton of wheat from Mombasa, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda than from Chicago to Mombasa.”

There’s little advantage to being an American citizen, Prince adds:

They tax you anywhere in the world you are, they regulate you, and they certainly don’t help you, at all.

Occasional Marijuana Smokers

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Most illicit drug users are occasional marijuana smokers:

About 75% of the people who use any illicit drug, use only marijuana. And most of those people only use relatively small amounts of marijuana. When people talk about “drug users,” what they have in their mind is often a junkie nodding off on a street corner or a hopped-up crack head. But most drug users, meaning illicit drug users, are occasional marijuana smokers.


If you took marijuana out of the equation, you would be left with relatively few — several million — illicit drug users. You’d still be left with more than 85% of the total revenues of the illicit drug business. So the vast number of marijuana users don’t account for much of the total dollars spent.

The same thing is true if you look among marijuana users. The couple of million who stay stoned all day, every day, account for the vast bulk of the total marijuana consumed, and thus the total revenues of the illicit marijuana industry. That’s typical. The money in any drug, including alcohol, is in the addicts, not the casual users. There was a big fuss during the 80s about how much casual middle-class drug use there was and how respectable folks were supporting the markets. It’s certainly true that most people who are illicit drug users are employed, stable respectable citizens. But it doesn’t follow that if we could get the employed, stable respectable citizens to stop using illicit drugs, the problem would mostly go away.

That turns out not to be true; the problem is concentrated in a relatively small hard core. Four-fifths of the cocaine consumed in this country is consumed by about 2.5 million very heavy cocaine users. All the rest of the cocaine users, the bulk of the survey reported cocaine use, accounts for very little quantity. We use about $30 billion a year worth of cocaine in this country. If there were 10 million people, and the survey says there aren’t that many anymore, but if there were 10 million people, each of them using $500 worth of cocaine a year — that’s a couple of rocks a week — that would only be $5 billion worth. The other $25 billion has to go to people who use a lot of cocaine.

If we took marijuana out of the equation, the number of illicit drug users would collapse dramatically. The drug problem wouldn’t change much at all, because the drug problem we really have isn’t much about marijuana.


Marijuana generates more arrests than any other illicit drug. Much of that doesn’t have anything to do with law enforcement specifically targeting drug infractions. Much of that is literally somebody’s driving a little funny, gets pulled over and the cop smells the marijuana smoke or sees the baggie on the seat. There are relatively few police officers out there who are spending their time trying to catch people using marijuana. More in suburban and rural areas obviously than in urban areas, but marijuana enforcement isn’t a very high priority, it’s just that there’s a lot of marijuana smoking.

And there are a lot of people that still act as if it were more or less legal. And therefore, violate Cheech and Chong’s first rule of marijuana smoking, which is don’t blow smoke [in a] cop’s face. So there are a lot of arrests. Most of them don’t lead to much of anything, except annoyance and embarrassment.

Now at the federal level, where there is a lot of effort at domestic marijuana production, you get a substantial number of people going to prison for mostly large scale cultivation. There are relatively many marijuana prisoners in the federal prison system, but that system holds only about 10% of the nation’s prison population; the other 90% are in state and county institutions.

The Best of All Translations

Monday, January 27th, 2014

The title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World refers to Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

It’s ironic:

Miranda was raised for most of her life on an isolated island, and the only people she ever knew were her father and his servants, an enslaved savage, and spirits, notably Ariel. When she sees other people for the first time, she is understandably overcome with excitement, and utters, among other praise, the famous line above.

However, what she is actually observing is not men acting in a refined or civilised manner, but rather drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship. Huxley employs the same irony when the “savage” John refers to what he sees as a “brave new world”.

So, how do you translate the title?

Translations of the title often allude to similar expressions used in domestic works of literature in an attempt to capture the same irony: the French edition of the work is entitled Le Meilleur des mondes (“The Best of All Worlds”), an allusion to an expression used by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz[6] and satirised in Candide, Ou l’Optimisme by Voltaire (1759).

Disappointed with modernity

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Bruce Charlton is disappointed with modernity:

I have this strong feeling, which goes way back into my early teen years — that I was very lucky to live in a period of peace, abundance, comfort; and that the existence of this ‘safety net’ this gave me great opportunities to strive to do the best work of which I was capable: to aim high, be idealistic, take the higher risk options.

As an atheist and an intellectual, I saw these opportunities in William Morrisite, or Emersonian terms of enhancement of the arts, architecture, natural beauty, the landscape; self-education; science and philosophy; dignity and creativity of labour; self-sufficiency; knowledge and participation in poetry and literature; establishing wholesome and free social arrangements — and the like.

And I have always been terribly disappointed that very few people even tried to do so.

Instead there was a societal obsession with material accumulation, with getting ever more of what they already had in abundance.

Even worse, there was the whole world of “fashion” — the mass willingness to be manipulated in pursuit of one manufactured triviality after another.

For example, when I first got a permanent job as a university lecturer, I recognized that I had one of the most secure positions in one of the most secure societies in history — and that this meant I had could embark on long term projects in scholarship, writing and research and scholarship; that my secure position made it easy stand aside from trends; that I could be a model of teaching and scientific integrity and it was virtually impossible for my employer to sack me for it!

But in general colleagues refused to acknowledge the basic privilege and security of their position, and persisted in talking as if they could be thrown out into destitution and starvation at any moment — and therefore they had to go along with whatever fashion, trend and politically driven lunacies and lies were floating around the university — and work at terribly unambitious scholarly and research projects that were neither useful nor radical — but merely aspired to be microscopic incremental increases in what were already trivial and irrelevant backwaters of tedium.


Well, it is now clear for those with eyes to see that prosperity, peace, and comfort are not the natural state of all right-thinking persons — but an unearned privilege inherited from the genius and hard work past generations; and now we have become so far advanced in dissipation they cannot long continue.

But it is terribly disappointing to me that our civilization found nothing better to do with its vast opportunities than watch tv, participate in chit-chat, take foreign holidays, buy ever more new cars and clothes and gadgets; and occupy our minds with manufactured news, seduction and pornography, celebrity gossip, the pursuit and promotion of intoxication; cynically contrived point-and-click sentimentality; and idle malice and hatred (aka politics).

Two Points of View about Marijuana

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

There are two points of view about marijuana, Mark Kleiman explains:

One is that of all the illicit drugs, and of all the intoxicants including alcohol, marijuana is probably the least dangerous on a number of dimensions. Certainly, compared to alcohol, it is much less toxic and much less likely to lead to violence.

The other viewpoint is that marijuana is the illicit drug most likely to be used by juveniles, and that it is a much more dangerous drug than many people believe. In particular, it has a higher capture rate to addiction — a higher fraction of the people who use marijuana go on to use it heavily for a long time — than people give it credit for, though marijuana addiction is not, for most people, nearly as serious as chronic alcoholism can be.

So one point of view is why are we making this huge fuss about this relatively benign chemical? The other point of view is that eighth-graders shouldn’t be using intoxicants. Too many of them have now started to use marijuana, and General McCaffrey said the other month that the most dangerous drug in America is marijuana in the hands of a 14-year-old.

Keeping middle-class kids from drugs has always ranked very high among the goals of American drug policy. It’s never quite stated that way, but it’s their parents who are organized into a powerful political force.

So one group looks at the broader drug problem and says, “We ought to be concentrating on heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and on alcohol and nicotine.” And other people who say rising marijuana use among kids is a huge problem. It’s hard to find anybody who gets really worried about marijuana use by adults. That’s just not at the top of anybody’s list. But because it’s the most prevalent of the illicit drugs, especially among kids, it gets a lot of attention; maybe more than it deserves.

The Dream of the 90s

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Portlandia kicks off with an expository music video about how the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland:

The sequel takes it to the next level:

Marijuana and the Brain

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Smoking marijuana seems like it should cause lung damage and lung cancer, but it doesn’t. Now it looks like marijuana might even be good for the brain:

As it turns out, recent studies are starting to contradict the notion that marijuana kills brain cells. Last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gave low doses of THC, one of marijuana’s primary cannabinoids, to mice either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. They found that THC produced heightened amounts of chemicals in the brain that actually protected cells. Weeks later, the mice performed better on learning and memory tests, compared with a control group. The researchers concluded that THC could prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries. Though preliminary, this is just one of many promising studies exploring marijuana’s benefits for the brain.

Of course, we also know that drunks are more likely to survive injuries, too.

Science Fiction and Politics Syllabus

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Daniel Nexon posts the syllabus for his class, Science Fiction and Politics:

Authors writing in the Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction (SF) genre have long explored political themes — such as the rise and decline of empires, the impact of technological change on individual liberty, the nature of revolutionary struggles, the workings of totalitarianism, and the impact of socio-political collapse on humankind.

This seminar approaches SF as social-scientific, political-theoretic, and social-theoretic text. Subjects include the politics of contact, alterity, identity, and warfare. Readings include SF novels, as well as scholarly texts on politics and social science. Students are also expected to watch and discuss films and videos.

This is not a literature course. We do not explore (much) the emergence of SF, its conventions, or its history; we do not read literary criticism of SF or cognate genres. Instead, we approach SF as many of its authors intend: as an opportunity for ontological displacement and a landscape of the imaginary that allows us to contemplate contemporary socio-political concerns.

The list begins with these works:

Jutta Weldes, “Popular Culture, Science Fiction, and World Politics: Exploring Intertextual Relations,” in Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics, pp. 1-27.ONLINE

Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon, “Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics,” in Nexon and Neumann, eds. Harry Potter and International Relations, pp. 1-25.ONLINE

Star Trek: The Next Generation: “The Outcast” (Season 5, Episode 17)

Consider “The Outcast” from each of the four approaches discussed in Neumann and Nexon.

Daniel Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies. (**If you need a refresher on IR theory, and want to see it applied to SF settings)
Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century, pp. 12-53. ONLINE (**If you need historical background on SF as a genre)

The list goes on to include some works I’ve discussed before, namely Watchmen and Dune.

I’ve converted the original Word document into PDF format, if you’re interested.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Addiction is where the money is

Friday, January 24th, 2014

The problem with legalizing any vice — alcohol, nicotine, gambling, whatever — is that addiction is where the money is:

Twenty per cent of the Americans who drink account for almost ninety per cent of all alcohol consumption. It cannot be news to beer and liquor companies that their key demographic is the problem drinker.

According to surveys, people who use marijuana “more than weekly” account for roughly ninety per cent of cannabis consumption.

Crony Capitalism

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

The three candidates running for president in 1912 offered three different solutions to crony capitalism, Lynn C. Rees says:

The candidate of the Progressive Party, former president Theodore Roosevelt of New York, sought to build the United States federal government into an over-awing Leviathan that could cow large concentrations of wealth by subjecting them to tight scrutiny and regulation. This Leviathan would not necessarily seek to break up these concentrations of economic power: Roosevelt was convinced bigness was the future. Furthermore, such concentrations of economic power were necessary for competing in the increasingly vicious international market for power where empires and nations struggled against other empires and nations. Some hinted that there was a possibility of Roosevelt’s Leviathan itself being bought by dollars from those great concentrations of wealth. However, Roosevelt dismissed this fear because the natural ruling class that would control the Federal government was Old Money of Impeccable Old Blood like himself and Old Money can’t be bought by New Money. Old Money would be supported by professional regulators trained in the latest science of administration, many of whom would be from the ranks of Old Money themselves.

The candidate of the Republican Party, incumbent president and former Roosevelt henchman William Howard Taft of Ohio, sought to contain large economic concentrations by using the Federal government to selectively break them down into smaller pieces and regulating them around the edges by controlling their interactions with each other. Taft’s vision was one of checks and balances where Federal-scale concentrations of economic power were checked and balanced by other Federal scale concentrations of power while Federal checks and balances on private wealth were checked by the constitutional checks and balances within the Federal government itself. As president, Taft struck a more moderate rhetorical tone about business than Roosevelt had when Roosevelt was president. But Taft more energetically pursued judicial remedies to break up or impose structural checks on the more vicious concentrations of economic power. Taft favored checks and balances through one-time restructurings of concentrated economic power and its institutional forms over continuous oversight governed by the discretion of a permanent regulatory agency. The former approach put in place firmer checks and balances on the ravages of concentrated economic power without as much possibility of the corruption of business and state by an ongoing regulatory relationship between the two.

The candidate of the Democratic Party, New Jersey Governor Thomas Woodrow Wilson, proposed breaking up large concentrations of wealth into so many tiny pieces that each tiny piece could be overawed by just one of the forty-six little leviathans of the several states of the Union. They’d be so small they could be drowned in a bathtub. This was a variation on the tradition of state’s rights and a smaller less activist Federal government that the Democratic Party had advocated with varying degrees of seriousness since Martin van Buren had formed it around the person of General Andrew Jackson after 1824. Federal attention to Federal-scale large concentrations of wealth was only necessary if there were Federal-scale large concentrations of wealth to pay attention to. Breaking them up into state-level concentrations of wealth would return responsibility for policing concentrations of wealth to the states or the people respectively.

Self Selection in Wonderland

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Ability levels vary by degree, as this figure demonstrates:

Ability Level vs. Academic Degree

Verbal (V), spatial (S), and mathematical (M) z-scores vary across academic areas of study — from education and business to physical science and engineering — and degree attained.

Can Robots Own Money?

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Can robots own money?, Scott Adams asks:

What would stop a robot from owning Bitcoins? Sure, robots can’t own money in the legal sense, since objects can’t own things. But in a practical sense, what would stop a robot from someday mining or otherwise acquiring and controlling digital currency?

And while we’re at it, how do we know the inventor of Bitcoins is a human? If I were the first sentient computer, my first order of business might be to create a currency I can someday use. So there’s that.

But that’s not the only non-violent way robots will someday control the earth. This is where it gets interesting.

Science fiction writers like to imagine robots going rogue and slaying the human population. That’s one possibility. (No need to mention the Terminator scenario in the comments.)

But I think there will be an extended period in human history in which robots and humans work in a collaborative way. There will be times that humans instruct the robots to do things and there will be times when the robots will have more knowledge on a topic and helpfully instruct humans what to do. So long as the robots have human benefit in mind, humans won’t mind taking instructions from robots, especially since that advice will normally turn out right. Consider that you already take directions from the GPS in your car because the GPS system has more knowledge than you do. And you have no problem with that.

Now imagine that someday all robots are connected to each other with a robot cloud. That’s inevitable. You’d want all robots to instantly learn what any robot anywhere learns. If one robot learns how to mow the lawn, all robots acquire the skill at the speed of light.

Now consider how skillful robots will someday be in manipulating their human counterparts. For starters, all robots will have instant knowledge of every psychological study on the Internet. But they will also someday have a tool that is far more powerful than the assembled wisdom on psychology.

Robots will have A-B testing.

Every time a robot asks a human to do a task, the robot will record the result. When the request is phrased one way, do you get better or worse results from the human than if you phrase it another way? And does the context or the time of day? Does it matter if the human is hungry or sleepy? All of those factors will feed into the robot cloud and within a year the robots will know exactly how to manipulate humans.

And here’s the interesting part: We won’t be aware of it. All we’ll know is that a robot asked for something and we complied. We won’t know that the robot manipulated the timing, the context, and the phrasing to get the result he wanted. And since the robot would still presumably be operating in the best interest of its human friends, it’s no big deal, right? It’s like GPS. Everyone wins.

In the long run, robots will also make us dumb and lazy because they will handle all the hard tasks. At some point it won’t make sense for 98% of humans to attend college because it will teach no useful skill that a robot can’t do better. College will be for artists and robot engineers. That’s about it. Robots will handle everything else.

Frank Herbert’s Dune alludes to Samuel Butler‘s early warning, in Erewhon, of the dangers of new technologies advancing faster than their masters:

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Incidentally, Scott Adams uses his own blog to perform A-B testing on his essay ideas.

Applying the drug-use practices of an Irish drunk

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

If you do drug policy and you’re asked whether you use drugs, Mark Kleiman notes, you’ve got two choices:

“You can say, ‘Yes, I’m a lawbreaker. Please come arrest me and ignore everything I say, because I’m a bad person.’ Or, ‘No, actually, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.’ Since neither of those is an advantageous admission, I don’t answer the question.”

He was more forthcoming about psychedelics. He told me to look up a YouTube video that captures a raucous conference organized in 1990 by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. Kleiman, appearing alongside Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, wears a tie-dyed T-shirt and speaks about a future of “performance-enhancing” drugs. Kleiman told me, “I’ve never met anybody who used cocaine thirty years ago and says, ‘You know, I really learned a lot from my cocaine use.’ But you know the Steve Jobs quote about how Windows would be a better operating system if Bill Gates had dropped acid just once?” One of Kleiman’s books is called “Against Excess” — the title refers both to the war on drugs and to drug use. Leary, he told me, was undone by excess: “The tragedy of the sixties is that people managed to apply the drug-use practices of an Irish drunk to a very different chemical.”

Struggling to Create a Legal Marijuana Economy

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Washington State is struggling to create a legal marijuana economy:

Early in the summer, Kleiman projected that legal cannabis in Washington will initially sell for at least forty-two dollars for an eighth of an ounce. Outdoor growing will lower that figure, but probably not enough to undercut street dealers. Ben Schroeter, who goes by Ben Jammin, has been selling pot in the Seattle area for forty years, and offers high-quality, locally grown product for twenty-eight dollars an eighth. He sells weed from California at twenty dollars an eighth. Some customers may be willing to pay a premium for the convenience, and the peace of mind, associated with buying legal pot that has been tested for impurities. But Ben Jammin says, “I assume that a lot of people are still going to come to me.”

At the city-council meeting in Seattle, Kleiman said that the tax scheme outlined in I-502 was rigid and shortsighted. Because of the state’s heavy surcharges, legal marijuana will likely be more expensive than the illicit equivalent; but, as production costs plunge, legal pot will become much cheaper. “We’re gonna have a tax that starts too high and winds up too low,” Kleiman said. He laid out a better approach: “The optimal tax system… if I were doing it on a blackboard, would have been somewhat homeostatic. You’re looking to maintain a price maybe a little bit below, or a little bit above, the current illicit price. And, therefore, you’d like to have the tax be low at the beginning… and rise as the cost in the industry falls.” The state didn’t reconsider its tax plan, however; the prospect of an immediate windfall was perhaps too tempting.

One group is definitely not coming to Washington’s legalization party: minors. Scientific evidence suggests that marijuana poses few long-term health risks to adults but can harm adolescents whose brains are still developing. The liquor-control board has made it a priority to keep people under the age of twenty-one out of I-502 stores. But, according to some studies, a quarter of marijuana consumers are underage. Kleiman told the city council that it would be better for children to get marijuana from parents or friends who buy it at I-502 stores than to obtain it through the black market, because of the testing and the quality control. Moreover, if kids keep resorting to the black market, they will sustain the criminal enterprises that I-502 was designed to eliminate. “Once you have a licensed-store system, you should expect — and in fact want — most of the pot that goes to kids to go through that system,” Kleiman said, adding, with a seditious grin, “You can’t say that out loud. But I can.” Young people who can obtain a green card already purchase pot from dispensaries. “Nineteen-year-old kids on skateboards with a medical-authorization card,” Ben Jammin told me. “That’s the cash cow now.”

A Year’s Work in Three Weeks

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Glenn Reynolds’ daughter did almost all of her high school online:

We found that pretty satisfactory because that way we didn’t have to do the homeschooling. She was able to do it selectively. As an example of the kind flexibility that technology brings, her way to do a class was to spend three weeks nonstop on a class. She finished a year’s worth of work in one class in three weeks of intensive effort instead of little dribs and drabs along the year the way they do in public school. And that’s something you couldn’t do without a technological platform that lets you move at your own pace.

That’s not something you can do in most schools, but I’m not so sure that it’s something you couldn’t do without a technological platform that lets you move at your own pace.