Security with a government backdoor isn't secure

Today's tale of gibbering stupidity from those who would rule us. So, the Transportation Security Administration over in the US has been asking all the people who make locks for travel bags to conform to certain standards. Standards which allow the TSA to have master keys to the luggage being transported by the population of course. There's echoes here of the FBI's fight with Apple, with the more general arguments over the encryption of digital data and so on.

Well, fair enough you might think. At which point the TSA wants to show off how well it does, asks a newspaper to come see how it works. Which then publishes pictures of the master keys. Near immediately these are scanned and run through a 3D printer from those newspaper or magazine images:

THE TSA IS learning a basic lesson of physical security in the age of 3-D printing: If you have sensitive keys—say, a set of master keys that can open locks you’ve asked millions of Americans to use—don’t post pictures of them on the Internet.

A group of lock-picking and security enthusiasts drove that lesson home Wednesday by publishing a set of CAD files to Github that anyone can use to 3-D print a precisely measured set of the TSA’s master keys for its “approved” locks—the ones the agency can open with its own keys during airport inspections. Within hours, at least one 3-D printer owner had already downloaded the files, printed one of the master keys, and published a video proving that it opened his TSA-approved luggage lock.

Forget the gibbering stupidity for a moment and consider the underlying tale here. Any system of security, any system of encryption for example, that has a government backdoor is simply not secure. Theresa May might want to take note of this. We might want to take note of it in fact. It might, just possibly, even be true that we'd like there to be a way for our protectors to study the activity of those who would do us harm. But those backdoors will leak and there will then be no security at all.

The bad consequences of Brexit


We already know that if the UK votes to leave, then no British firm will be able to sell goods to Europe, British visitors will be barred from there, we'll all lose our holiday homes there, and no UK football club will be able to sign European players; but even worse consequences might follow. Almost certainly, without the protection of EU environmental regulation, British rivers will turn to blood, and a multitude of frogs will emerge from them. With no winds blowing across the Channel the dust here will probably turn into lice, and swarms of flies will descend.

With no Common Agricultural Policy, our livestock will all become diseased, and this will cause boils to break out in people. Without the ability to send our weather across to Europe, thunder and hail will stay in Britain, and swarms of locusts will feed on the flattened crops.

If the UK leaves, the light will be gone from our lives and a thick darkness will envelop the land. It is highly likely that the firstborn of every family will die. While people might be ambivalent about this happening to the Queen, it would be a tragedy for everyone else.

We have to get the message across that the only way to avert these disasters is to remain within the EU.

Remembering Rand

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was born 111 years ago today, in St Petersburg, Russia. Through, in particular, her hugely influential novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was (and still is) responsible for more young people becoming interested in the ideas of individual and economic freedom than any other author. One can see why. Rand offers young people a philosophy which reminds them of their own worth, gives them heroic models to aspire to, and provides a coherent world view that seems to answer all their questions. In the novels, the key protagonists are ambitious, purposive, independent and strong – ruthlessly self-interested and yet deeply moral. The morality of self-interest conquers all, she insists. The altruism that philosophers and clerics teach us is destructive and contrary to reason. It has consigned us into obedience to mystics and bullies who claim to know what is good for us. It is evil because it destroys and diminishes human life, instead of promoting it. Human life is the standard of morality, and your own life is the purpose of morality. You should not consent to be a sacrificial animal for others, but be confident in standing up for your own interests, and acting on them.

But that does not mean doing whatever you like. Though you should strive for your own happiness rather than serving other people’s, you need to be clear what happiness is, of what things are really important to you. Rather than indulge every passing whim, you need to take a long-term view of what is actually in your rational self-interest.

To Rand, what marks out human beings is their reason: their ability to understand the world by forming and organising logically consistent concepts based on their perception of reality. We betray our species and our selves if we do not use this powerful tool of knowledge.

Capitalism is usually regarded as immoral because it is not altruistic. But Rand believes that its basis in self-interest makes it the only moral system in history. There is no need for force to make people conform to some altruistic ideal. Indeed, the one rule of capitalist morality is that nobody may initiate the use of force. Instead, rational self-interested individuals get along by freely trading with each other, without any need for compulsion – benefiting not just themselves, but their trading partners in the process. The basis of capitalism is not conflict, but collaboration, between self-interested people. That is precisely why reason and freedom from compulsion have been associated with happy and prosperous times; while attempts to create some altruistic paradise have instead produced misery and squalour.

ASI publications are now available in Farsi!


ASI publications have now been made available to readers in Iran, thanks to the Network for a Free Society and CAPTO. The publications have been translated into Farsi and published on CAPTO's website. Books available include "Public Choice- A Primer", "Foundations of a Free Society", and "The Condensed Wealth of Nations", all by our Director Dr. Eamonn Butler. The link to the books in Farsi can be found here.

Also featured on the website is a humanities based magazine "The Excellent Organisation", which this month features selected pieces from "Freedom 101" by ASI President Dr. Madsen Pirie, and "Foundations of a Free Society" by Dr. Eamonn Butler.

The magazine, "The Excellent Organisation" can be found here.


Steve Masty: an obituary

0 Stephen J Masty, a longtime friend of the ASI, died on December 26th in London. He was one of the first friends I made when I taught philosophy and logic at Hillsdale, and was one of my most engaging and witty students. He went on to study at the University of St Andrews, and came down to help us out in the early days of the Institute. He was a talented cartoonist, and designed some of our graphics.

He moved to D.C. to work as a columnist with the Washington Times and as a speechwriter to several key Republican leaders. He was noted in the D.C. political and media community as a talented writer and witty raconteur.

He did a spell in Afghanistan with the Mercy Fund, producing leaflets and cartoons to help people, especially children, cope safely with the dangerous debris left after the Soviet withdrawal. He went on to spend much of his adult life as a development expert, working on projects in South Asia and Africa, as well as in the Middle East. He wrote and directed development movies, and one of his privatization video songs, recorded by local celebrity Captain John Komba, reached the top of the Tanzanian music charts!

In the early 1990s he managed the American Club in Peshawar, accompanying on his guitar some of the satirical songs he had written. He became a legend in the region, as he later did in Kathmandu, for his eccentric charm and bonhomie.

When in the UK, he made the Savile Club his home, and was well known and well liked by the other members. Some of his cartoons of them adorn the Club's walls, alongside pictures by Augustus John and others. He wrote novels, children's cartoon books, and movie scripts, and eventually took out British citizenship. It was characteristic of him that he had a letter in the Times that very week complaining about "foreigners coming to take our jobs!"

He led a colourful life, surviving a Taliban siege of Kabul and an earthquake in Kathmandu. He leaves us with many fond memories of good times spent together. The ASI has lost a talented and valued friend.

(the photo shows Steve in DC between two other ASI supporters)

The ASI's best of 2015


Madsen Song: Easy Love by Sigala.

Musician: Charlie Puth.

Movie: The Martian.

Book: Chavs (updated edition) by Owen Jones.

Restaurant: East India Club Dining Room.

Cocktail Bar: Ozone Bar of the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong.

Article: The New Statesman's piece on the mountain Labour must climb to regain power.

YouTube video: Anton Howes on Innovation & the Industrial Revolution.

Political moment: Waking up to learn I'd won my election bet.

Toy: Phantom 3 drone.



Song: Well it sure ain’t The Writing’s On The Wall by Sam Smith.

Album: I suppose after all the hype it has to be 25 by Adele but it’s pretty dreary stuff.

Musician: Neither of the above, sadly.

MoviePaddington - one of the funniest films of all time, surely (OK, it came out in November 2014, but I only saw it in on the way to Peru in March).

Book: Am I allowed to say Magna Carta – A Primer by Eamonn Butler?

Restaurant: La Rosa Nautica, perched on a pier in Lima – with the Jumbo floating restaurant in Hong Kong a close second.

Article: Matt Ridley: ‘The Climate Change Agenda is a Conspiracy Against the Poor’ in The Spectator.

Political moment: The look on David Dimbleby’s face when he opened the envelope containing the UK general election exit polls and realised the Tories had won.

Person: Charlotte Bowyer – a hole opened up in the office when she moved on



Song: Run Away With Me by Carly Rae Jepsen (My top 63 list is here).

Album: E•MO•TION by Carly Rae Jepsen – one of the best pop albums of all time, in fact, up there with ABC's The Lexicon of Love.

Musician: Carly Rae Jepsen (surprise surprise).

Movie: Inside Out.

Book: The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, by J Michael Bailey – essential reading to understand one of the major debates of the year. Or the Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo – I just need to apply it to my desk as well as my house!

Restaurant: The floating restaurant Jumbo in Hong Kong, followed by Megan’s Kitchen in Wan Chai, which did a (delicious) hot pot broth so spicy that I wept and spent most of the day doubled over in pain. Totally worth it.

Article: Has to be my own posts on StraightUpLondon.com, which Ben, Philip and I have set up to review London’s restaurants and (eventually) cocktail bars.

Political moment: Ireland legalising gay marriage in a referendum – the first country to do so by popular vote.

Person: Rachel Dolezal.



Song: Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean (a triumph for tropical house and beliebers across the globe)

AlbumThe Mars Volta - De-loused in the Comatorium (terrified warblings from ‘03)

Musician: Carly Rae Jepsen (my introduction to pop music)

Movie: Mad Max: Fury Road (if only for the Fallout 3 nostalgia)

Book: Albert Camus - The Myth of Sisyphus (assuaging my existential doubt in the least philosophically robust way possible)

Favourite sports moment: Chelsea’s decline (and, by extension, Jose Mourinho in all his petulant glory)

Political momentDave and Xi chillin over a pint.

Person: Donald Trump (for taking it upon himself to berate a Saudi prince over twitter).



SongFrank Fiedler - Transhimalaya (full list here).

Album: DJ Richard - Grind (full list here).

MusicianTuluum Shimmering - eight or nine albums in one year, all very good, is pretty impressive.

MovieQueen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry).

BookDictator (Robert Harris) or Blindsight (Peter Watts).

RestaurantShotgun, Soho.

Article / blogpostWould cracking down on guns in the US really reduce violence? (Robert VerBruggen).

Political moment: Madsen's correct prediction of the general election.

Person: Donald Trump.



Song: Wild Beasts, Wanderlust (it's 2014 but I think I only first listened to it in 2015).

Album: Maccabees, Marks to Prove It.

Musician: Laura Marling.

Movie: Slow West OR Mad Max: Fury Road.

Book: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows.

Restaurant: Murano. Italian posh nosh. What more could you want?

Article: Hugo Rifkind: My Week: Robert Peston.

Political moment: Miliband doing "mockney" during Brand interview/Miliband pledge stone.

Person: Wiggo, for breaking the hour record.



Song: White Lightning – The Cadillac Three.

Album: Cold Beer Conversation – George Strait.

Subbing Musical for Musician: Hamilton.

Movie: TIE! Mad Max: Fury Road / Inside Out.

Netflix Original Series: Narcos.

Book: Yes Please – Amy Poehler.

Restaurant: The Dairy (Recommendation: Ben Southwood)

Article: A Bow to Charleston – Peggy Noonan, WSJ.

Political moment: Mitt Romney 2016 (any day now...)

Person: This angry patriot.



SongHouse Every Weekend, David Zowie. My school leavers’ trip to Zante (aka Baes Abroad 2K15) would not have been the same without this song.

Album: If You're Reading This It's Too Late, Drake. All songs make for excellent taxi music, relaxing music, or even telephone holding music if you’re cool enough.

Musician: The Weeknd.

Movie: Straight Outta Compton

Book: Girl on a Train

Restaurant: Oblix at The Shard. Tasty food with an equally tasty view.

Article: “The Dalai-Lama is as sexy as a fungal nail infection”, Rebecca Reid. (Discussing the hypocrisy of the Dalai-Lama saying his successor should be an ‘attractive’ woman)

Political moment: When Kanye West announced that he’s going to run for president in 2020. Iconic.

Person: Shigetaka Kurita (The man who created emojis)

Ten initiatives to help young people: 10. Young person's business package


  Government should help young people who wish to start up their own businesses by putting together a "young person's business package."  There is unused space at both local and national government level that could be converted into start-up work spaces.  These could be made open plan with desks, computers and wifi, with shared facilities such as toilets and vending machines.  These could be rented very cheaply to people under 25 looking to start a business.

Government could also take an active role in matching young people with mentors from among those who have followed this route successfully themselves.  The business community can be asked to participate, supplying lists of mentors to teams within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who can then match them up to young people starting up a business, in order to provide them with help and guidance.

Finance should be available in the form of loans.  Many start-up businesses require very little initial capital because they tend to grow organically, lifting themselves up by their bootstraps.  But there are stages where some capital is required, and government should join in a scheme with banks and businesses to make it available as loans to start-ups deemed to be sufficiently merit-worthy.

There is considerable evidence that young people are inspired to become entrepreneurs when they are in contact with other entrepreneurs.  Government should work with business to set up a series of school visits by successful entrepreneurs to talk from their own experiences about the nuts and bolts of starting and running one's own business.  Schools should be encouraged to apply for such visits and to make time available for them.

Local governments should be asked to run one-day workshops for young people, with sessions throughout the day on various aspects of entrepreneurship.  These should feature successful people, plus professionals such as tax experts and people with skills in marketing and advertising.  School students should be given time off school to attend them.  The aim would be to impart a thorough grounding into what it takes to launch a successful business, and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls.

The aim of the "young person's business package' should be not only to impart the essential information, but also to motivate people to strive to become successful entrepreneurs.  It is contact with others who are following this path, and with those who have already trodden it successfully, that can do this.


Why shops stock up on christmas goods so early


For the past few weeks I’ve heard/read several people bemoaning the fact that shops are stocking Christmas goods earlier and earlier.  You only need to see a tree and tinsel in the shop window in late October and there will be a mass moan.  Here’s what the moaners don’t understand – you cannot really blame the shops for opening earlier and earlier, it isn’t really their fault.  If the critics knew about non-linearities and feedback effects they would understand what is happening.

To see why shops are opening earlier, consider this simplified feedback model.  Suppose we have M & S, Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s in the city centre.  A long time ago all four shops used to stock their Christmas goods from December 1st.  One day M & S try to obtain the advantage over the other three by stocking their Christmas goods a week earlier (from November 24th).  Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s have three choices; they can do nothing, they can emulate M & S, or they can go one better and stock their Christmas goods earlier (say, from November 17th).  If they do nothing they risk losing a week’s vital Christmas trade from opportunist shoppers to M & S; if they emulate M & S then there’s nothing stopping M & S doing the same again, leaving Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s on the November 24th date and stocking their Christmas goods a week earlier (from November 17th). So, quite naturally in response they pick the best of the three options by stocking their Christmas goods earlier than M & S.  But it doesn’t stop there – what then happens is that each one of their competitors will look to outdo the other by choosing a date earlier than the others.  This continues over the years – and if you obtain the statistics you would find a pattern of increased early Christmas stock to match and/or outdo the competition.

This is what happens when feedback effects occur; the shops are continually under pressure to stock their Christmas goods earlier and earlier to obtain an advantage, which is why you see all these shops beginning their Christmas trading at times that are, to many of you, premature.  Their hand has been forced, lest they lose vital trade time to their competitors.  The shops are subject to "feedback" effects – whereby a particular parameter x changes and via a "feedback" route the change in x causes further change in x (thus x is "feeding" back to itself). Feedback systems, depending on the kind of feedback involved, can produce varying "curves" of change when plotted on graph paper – some of which are quite chaotic.

There is a ‘but’ of course – if it were just down to procuring an advantage by trading earlier then M & S, Debenhams, John Lewis and Jarrold’s would all begin their Christmas trading earlier and earlier to the point where it is far too early for Christmas considerations.  But, of course, it isn’t like that – there is a balance to be struck, because the shelf room they take up with Christmas stock amounts to a loss of shelf space for other more saleable goods if they are displayed too premature for the festive season.  The decorations, wrapping paper, cards, bumper chocolates, etc would be counter-productive stock if they were displayed in August in the hope of obtaining a festive head start on the rival shops – which is why the balance between being too early and too late in the year is of huge importance.

Ten initiatives to help young people: 7. Charter cities


London acts like a magnet, drawing enterprise, industry and talent to its orbit, and leaving other cities, especially in the North, with fewer jobs and opportunities.  The proposed "Northern Powerhouse" is designed to redress this situation to some extent.  Young people below the age of 25 find it particularly difficult outside London because of a shortage of starter jobs.   A further initiative would be to allow selected Northern cities to opt for "Charter City" status, under which they would acquire a series of powers to determine locally things that are otherwise decided nationally.  This would include business rates and a raft of regulations.  Start-ups would be made easier, with specific measures to reduce the costs of starting businesses and the time it took to do so.  

The idea would be to attract investment and jobs, and to create new opportunities for local residents and those who chose to move there.  Young people would benefit from this along with the rest of the population, but there could be specific measures under the "Charter City" status targeted at the under 25s in particular.  They could be exempted from Council Tax.  They could be given assistance with accommodation.  Firms that took on people aged under 25 could be rewarded for doing so by lower rates and taxes.  Planning and zoning regulations could be eased for them.

The proposal for "Charter Cities" borrows something from the Enterprise Zones of a generation ago, but would in addition learn from some of their shortcomings and improve upon the original idea.  Much could be learned from a study of how successful cities abroad manage to make themselves attractive to new businesses and to draw in investment.  For the most part this consists not of handouts and subsidies, but of government, both local and national, removing some of the burdens it imposes on business, and lowering the barriers they must cross to establish themselves.

Germany's "bonfire of restrictions" post World War II led to the German economic miracle, and Hong Kong's famously liberal approach to businesses led to an explosion of wealth and opportunity.  The "Charter Cities" would aim to capture some of that approach and achieve some of that success.  Governments, local and national, would have to think long-term, postponing some of the revenues they could achieve in the present for the prospect of much greater revenues in the future, and the expansion of businesses generated by the measures would provide young people with the prospect of advancement.

Do later sunsets really lead to a safer society?


On a seemingly-arbitrary Sunday each spring and fall, we all dutifully change our clocks by an hour, often griping about the hassle. Sometimes we do this only after missing an appointment, making the transition even worse. Even in a modern world where electronic devices update time for us, the shift of an hour messes with sleep patterns and daily routines – anyone with kids can tell you babies don't respect Daylight Saving Time (DST). Why even bother with the shift anymore? What's the point of moving an hour of sunlight into the evening?

In a new paper forthcoming in The Review of Economics and Statistics, we find that shifting daylight from the morning to the early evening has pretty hefty returns for public safety. When DST begins in the spring, robbery rates for the entire day fall an average of 7 percent, with a much larger 27 percent drop during the evening hour that gained some extra sunlight.

Read the full article here.