We’ve found a witch; may we fine her?

Paul Raven @ 14-02-2011

Via Freakonomics, an odd story out of Romania:

A month after Romanian authorities began taxing them for their trade, the country’s soothsayers and fortune tellers are cursing a new bill that threatens fines or even prison if their predictions don’t come true.

[…]

In January, the government changed labor laws to officially recognize the centuries-old practice of witchcraft as a taxable profession, prompting angry witches to dump poisonous mandrake into the Danube in an attempt to put a hex on them.

After reading that piece, I can’t say I’ve got much pity left for AP’s struggle to monetise their business for a new era; it’s full of dumb racist clichés and stereotypes, for a start (“the land of Dracula”… that’s really the best you could do?), and extraordinarily thin on actual story. But then so is almost every other write-up I can find on the web right now – anyone out there got a Romanian connection for the local viewpoint?

But the Freakonomics mention is my real reason for posting, because – flippant as it may seem – they make an interesting point:

… if I were Queen Witch (for a day), I might frame my argument a bit differently: As soon as the government starts to punish all fortune-tellers — including macroeconomists, financial analysts, government officials, sports pundits and the like — for their wayward predictions, I will gladly join the throng. Until then: no deal.

It’s a matter of accountability: if you make a living from predicting stuff, you should do less well if your predictions are regularly wrong. Personally I’d suggest that governments aren’t in the best place to enforce that sort of accountability – it’s not really in their best interests, as they’re arguably the most consistent sinners – and that this a job for reputation economics and radical transparency. Indeed, as foresight becomes an increasingly important part of pretty much every industry and ideology, increased scrutiny of accuracy is inevitable; there’s probably a really good business model or two lurking in that idea space.

I’m not sure why the witches are so upset, though; homeopathy is a taxable “profession” in the UK, for example, and shows no sign of dropping off the map as a result. No matter what technological leaps me make, I suspect Barnum’s adage – which, appropriately enough, wasn’t even his own adage – will hold true for a long time yet…


Romania’s balloon-launch moonshot

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2009

The MoonIt’s been a while since space exploration was the sole province of national behemoths like NASA, despite the relative infancy of the commercial space sector. A small budget might prevent you from launching human payloads, but there’s still plenty of options at the bottom end of the funding scale… along with some tantalising enticements for an outfit with big dreams[image by ComputerHotline]

Romanian company ARCA is one such outfit, and they’re taking a stab at the Google-funded Lunar X Prize using comparatively cheap and simple technology:

a balloon that can carry ARCA’s European Lunar Explorer (ELE) space probe into the upper atmosphere, eliminating the need for a traditional launch pad and allowing ARCA to launch close to the equator from a sea platform. The “0” pressure balloon design is similar to a giant black hot-air balloon that uses solar energy to heat the air inside, instead of the burner that normal hot-air balloons use.

Once the balloon soars above 11 miles (18 km), the three-stage rocket slung below will fire and boost itself into low Earth orbit. ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing.

ARCA’s lander itself isn’t really designed to do much when (or rather if) it arrives on the Lunar surface; because of the way the X Prize is defined, reaching the Moon is more important than achieving anything there. But as with most private space-launch initiatives, it’s all about proof-of-concept – once they know they can make the journey, they can start thinking about what to cart along next time.

Balloon-launch projects always remind me of Zion Cluster from William Gibson’s early novels, which – if I remember correctly – was colonised by exactly this sort of cheap-and-cheerful bootstrap approach.