Monday, March 02, 2015

Republicans in Congress are backing up over the FCC into a wall

Last Thursday, the FCC voted to do 2 things:

1. They preempted state laws in two states that prevented community broadband services from expanding into unserved areas.
2. They reclassified ISPs as common carriers to allow enforcement of strong net neutrality rules.

Both of these actions will serve to undermine the dominance of the incumbent carriers we all know and love: Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner, ATT and Centurylink.

Conservatives in Congress, furious at this action, are working on bills that would undo the FCC's work if signed into law. But that same faction lacks the supermajority needed to override a veto. This is all for show, anyway. You know, playing to their base in the peanut gallery.

But this stream of events suggests something else. It seems interesting that Republicans in Congress would even bother since they must have read the news that conservatives around the country support municipal broadband. A great example is Colorado where 8 communities voted for local control to build their own networks, one by a majority of 92%. Community Broadband Networks has done a survey to find that the majority of community broadband networks are in conservative jurisdictions. There is an obvious disconnect between Congress and their constituents on this issue. Community Broadband Networks has observed that the disconnect is one where Congress stands on ideology whereas the local governments see the practical advantages of municipal networks: jobs and relief from incumbent service providers who refuse to invest in their communities.

For example, a Republican leader in the state house of Tennessee is strongly in favor of municipal broadband. Republican State Senate Leader, Janice Bowling published an op-ed piece supporting the FCC's pending action to give rural areas the legal space they need to build their own networks. On the other hand, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) says that the recent votes are a step towards a total government takeover of the internet. Blackburn also seems to think that the FCC is without authority to re-classify ISPs as public utilities.

For all their bluster in Congress, it is worth noting that the law and judicial precedent is on the side of the FCC. In the BrandX case, Justice Scalia made a salient point in his minority opinion of the ruling. Scalia noticed that cable companies were offering internet services like email and web page hosting in order to be classified as information services, even when they owned the physical infrastructure: cable. He said that just because you offer additional information services on top of the cable you own doesn't make you an information service, and said that the FCC is without authority to classify cable ISPs as information services. In other words, if you own the pipes, you're a common carrier.

The FCC's vote to reclassify ISPs as common carriers will almost certainly meet a legal challenge in the courts, but I doubt any of them will be successful. Once it becomes clear that the nexus of those cases turns on who owns the pipes, I believe that the cases will be roundly dismissed by the courts.

I've considered the possibility that Republicans may try to pass a law to change the definition of "common carrier", but the term has a long history in common law and will be very difficult if not impossible to change. With so much history and precedent at stake, the courts will be reluctant to disturb a body of law that millions of people rely upon. Conversely, if the FCC had a Republican majority and reversed the decision last week, that would not hold up in court if challenged. Scalia says that the FCC simply has no discretion on classification based on his own reading of the law.

I'm glad to see the FCC finally sticking up for regular Americans and holding the incumbent carriers accountable for their actions. Let's hope they get the support they need when the rubber hits the road.

Friday, February 27, 2015

How to create an alias to open and edit text documents in Linux

Several years ago, I got in the habit of writing in two documents every morning. A morning page, just like The Artist's Way says and a gratitude list. For awhile there, each morning I would open the file manager in my Ubuntu Linux workstation, navigate to the folder where the documents could be found and opened them, manually.

Then I got smarter and just opened LibreOffice and found the recent documents list and opened them there. But that still required the mouse. I knew there was something better, something easier. I had been playing with the Bash shell and marveled at it's utility. Hey, if you had spent decades on Windows, you would marvel at Bash, too.

I began to consider how to write a script that would open my documents. So I developed something like this in my favorite text editor, vi:

#!/bin/bash

libreoffice -o "/path/to/document/gratitude list.odt" &
libreoffice -o "/path/to/document/Morning Page.odt" &

Every Bash script starts with a shebang and the path to the shell that will be used to interpret the script. That's what line 1 is about. Line 2 is blank. Lines 3 and 4 contain the commands that open the documents I want to write in every morning. So lets break down line 3 and 4 since they are the same, but they point to different documents.

Each line is a command to run LibreOffice, open the document and send the process to the background in the shell. LibreOffice is my productivity suite of choice. It's free, open source, and does everything I need to do to create documents like correspondence and spreadsheets. There is a nice presentation application too, if you're into public speaking with statistics. Oh yeah, it's Microsoft Office compatible, too, so you can share documents with your friends.

LibreOffice can be opened by clicking the icon for it in a menu in Linux or Windows, but it can also run as a command in Linux. There is even a man page for Libreoffice in Bash, just type:

man libreoffice

With the above command, the options at the command line will be revealed. That is how I found the command to open a document:

libreoffice -o &

Then I added the path to the document with an ampersand to send the process to the background. When I run that command, the document opens and I can edit the document, save it, and then close it. When I close the document with ctrl-w, the background process is terminated in the shell, too.

Once I had the script, then I created an alias. The Linux environment has configuration files for everything and Bash is no exception. To create the alias, I added the following line to my .bashrc file:

alias mw='~/path/to/document/script.sh'

Then I closed my shell, opened it again and typed alias to get a list of aliases that have been loaded in the shell. In this case, I was looking for 'mw' for "Morning Writing", for me.

I use Gnome 3, the desktop environment for Linux distributions like Ubuntu. It is also known as the Gnome Shell and It's a dream to work with. It's minimalist simplicity and style make it easy for me to navigate to where I want to go. Now with the script and alias in place, from the desktop, I can open my morning documents like so:

Windows key (I know, it's ironic, but it works)
te (for terminal with Bash),
Enter
mw (to run the script from the terminal)
Enter

No mouse, no hunting around, just seven keystrokes and I'm up and running in a few seconds. You can do this for any document you want, so long as the application you run to open the document has a corresponding command in Bash. Every Linux application has a Bash command line option to run it.

Sure, I could create a functional equivalent in Windows, but it's not as easy as Linux. Why? Word doesn't like being called from the command line, I know, I've tried. I could record a macro, but that is recording the mouse movement. In Linux, I got it done with far less effort than in Windows because Linux doesn't hide the motor from me like Windows does.

This is why I use Linux. Once I found a life with Linux, I got bored with Windows, and I get what I want done with greater ease.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Well, we thought emulsifiers were safe, now we're not so sure

Reuters, among many outlets carried the story about emulsifiers:
"(Reuters) - Common additives in ice cream, margarine, packaged bread and many processed foods may promote the inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease as well as a group of obesity-related conditions, scientists said on Wednesday."
Sciencedaily.com has more scientific detail based on an article releasesd in the journal, Nature:
"Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods to aid texture and extend shelf life, can alter the gut microbiota composition and localization to induce intestinal inflammation that promotes the development of inflammatory bowel disease and metabolic syndrome, new research shows."
Hey, the gut bacteria again? Like the artificial sweeteners story? This is just one more warning shot across the bow of the standard American diet. Eat processed foods? Prepare for a life of greater discomfort. Ignore the warning? Prepare for a life in bed or no life at all.

The human body is just not built for all the chemicals we put in our food. But there is a way to avoid them, even if you are tempted to buy them. Here's what I do:

When I eat something, I notice how I feel after I eat it. If I don't like the way that I feel after I eat something, even if I enjoy the flavor, texture or whatever about that food, I avoid eating it or limit consumption of that food to the point where the discomfort goes away. The body is a natural barometer of our environment. If you abuse it, you will feel it, just like if you treat it right, you will feel it, too.

For example, I've tried many different things for breakfast. From cereal with milk, to oatmeal, to burritos to finally, apples. Organic apples. I feel best when eating apples for breakfast. They're cheap compared to McD's and the health care bill that comes with that. I say McD's because on the way to work, while I'm eating apples, I see people lined up in their cars, motors idling, waiting for their Egg McMuffin, hash browns and coffee. I honestly don't know how they live on that. So I'll take my apples, thank you.

I've developed this sensitivity and awareness of food with years of paying attention and experimentation. Anyone can do this. All it takes is a little time and patience.

I guess the follow up question is this: how can the food corporation executives who approve this stuff sleep at night? How can they look themselves in the mirror in the morning and go to work, thinking that this sort of story will just fade away? Do they find themselves amused that they put one over on the FDA before stories like this come out?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Deathprint" of energy sources

Seems kind of odd that the one of the most vilified energy sources has the smallest "deathprint" or mortality rate than all of the other sources of power. Can you guess which source of power that is?

Nuclear.

Even after Chernobyl and Fukishima, nuclear still has a smaller deathprint than every other power source, even solar. But you wouldn't know it if you followed the histrionic sermons of Dr. Helen Caldicott or the mainstream press. Chernobyl is one of the most thoroughly studied nuclear disasters in history, yet peer reviewed studies of the event put the maximum death toll at 43 people. Total "deathprint" is about 90 people for the entire history of nuclear power. Forbes has put together a nice article and table on the subject of deaths in the energy industry. Here is the table:

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)

Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S.                              15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)

Oil                                            36,000    (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas                                4,000    (20% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass                       24,000    (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop)                                440    (< 1% global electricity)

Wind                                               150    (~ 1% global electricity)

Hydro – global average                1,400    (15% global electricity)

Nuclear – global average                   90    (17%  global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Everything involving carbon, even biomass, has a very high mortality rate. Yet, given the very low mortality rate of the nuclear industry, nuclear has a much higher regulatory burden and the results show.

Carbon fuel interests have deep pockets and use that money to fend off regulators. We saw that at Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that caught fire and caused one of the largest oil spills in history, with deaths of at least 11 people.

There is more to the story, though. The environmental damage from carbon is starting to hit closer to home. On a monthly basis, we are seeing headlines of small disasters around the US. Examples include a refinery explosion in Torrance, California that deposited white silica ash over neighbors near the plant. We also learned of a CSX oil train derailing, catching fire and dumping oil into a nearby river. No one died in either accident, but toxins were released into the air.

No one disputes that nuclear accidents have happened, but few will be able to say that nuclear accidents happen as frequently, and do nearly as much environmental damage as carbon fuels do. From coal ash spills to oil spills to natural gas explosions, nuclear energy doesn't even hold a candle to carbon. The reason for this is containment.

In the vast majority of nuclear reactors, there is a very tight regulatory procedure in place. Waste is very dense because the energy density of nuclear energy is very high - nuclear has an energy density 1 million times that of the carbon-hydrogen bond. That means the waste can be stored in a very small volume of space compared to carbon fuels. Carbon fuels are everywhere and as liquids and gases, they are very hard to contain. Unfortunately, the indirect deathprint from all these spills and releases may never be fully known. Months or years after carbon fuel accidents, people will still feel the effects of a refinery blast or oil spill into a river, but who will count from there?

Nuclear is simply a better alternative to oil on the basis of containment and energy density alone. It's far easier to manage, has a stricter regulatory regime and has fewer accidents by a mile than oil, coal or natural gas. But they don't even get a pass compared to carbon. Perhaps we need to consider nuclear power as a way to displace and finally discard carbon until renewables can catch up. At least then, we can put more focus on preventing accidents rather than cleaning up after them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Carbon wins again and again in public policy

I saw this meme on Facebook this morning:


As I looked at the picture, I began to wonder how accurate this was. Turns out that it's pretty accurate, but it doesn't give the whole story about per unit costs. While it's true that carbon energy interests receive enormous subsidies, it's important to note that the per unit costs by source is much, much higher for renewables than for carbon fuels. Check out the table below from Politifact:

Solar       $59.60

Wind       $31.33

Biofuel    $10.46

Nuclear    $1.71

Coal         $0.38

Oil/gas     $0.27

Wind and solar subsidies are more than a hundred times greater per unit (in this case, an energy equivalent of a barrel of oil), than coal and gas. But because of the sheer volume of production, carbon energy costs far more in aggregate subsidies than for newer technologies.

Energyfactcheck.org also has some interesting statistics here, two of which really stood out to me:
A 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 74% of Americans support “eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries” in order to “reduce the current federal budget deficit.” (Source: Wall Street Journal, http://on.wsj.com/jRJmqU)
By contrast, the 2012 United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll found that “almost two-thirds—64 percent—of those surveyed said that Congress should extend federal tax credits that encourage production of alternative-energy sources.” (Source: National Journal, http://bit.ly/KRLSzx)
How is it possible that subsidies for carbon fuels continue despite strong opposition? It's all about the money. Here is one more from Politifact, same page:
In cumulative dollar amounts, over the lifetimes of their respective subsidies, the oil, coal, gas and nuclear industries have received approximately $630 billion in U.S. government subsidies, while wind, solar, biofuels and other renewable sectors have received a total of roughly $50 billion in government investments.  (DBL Investors, http://bit.ly/uV14lf) 
This is why the Koch Bros can raise $900 billion from their network of billionaires to get the government they want. They're getting huge subsidies for their industries while claiming a sincere desire for a free market as libertarians. If just one family can do that, what does that say about our form of government? That we're ruled by an oligarchy.

This is not just something we have to accept. In order to change it, we have it accept it for now, with a mind and determination to change it. But how do we get true reform of government?

I know, know. I sound like a broken record when I say this, but to get true reform of government, we will need to get money out of politics. There is no other way to change public policy. Once the money is removed as a factor in politics, then political objectives and agendas must stand on their own merits. Here are two SuperPACs working towards the goal of fundamental campaign finance reform to consider:

Mayday.us
Friends of Democracy

I am sure there are many more organizations working towards the same goal, it's just that these two stand out from my research. Maybe in 2016, we will finally wise up as a nation and pony up the cash needed to get candidates in office dedicated to campaign finance reform. Both of those sources have unseated Congressmen or rattled the cage enough to get some attention. More positive action could be on the way.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Nuclear and renewable energy might consider an alliance against carbon

While researching another article, I found this:
"Some of the earliest documented instances of opposition to the development of commercial nuclear power in the United States originated from designated representatives of the coal industry. They were the first people to mount sustained opposition to the use of taxpayer money to support the development of nuclear power stations."
That is from Rod Adams and the Atomic Insights blog. That article runs at length describing the beating coal was taking from nuclear power in the 60s and how coal used proxies to hobble nuclear power. As I read that article, it became clear to me that nuclear and renewables had a common enemy: coal. I've never seen any evidence to suggest that the nuclear industry lobbied against renewable energy. But here, it's plain to see that coal did not like the competition it was getting from nuclear.

Coal isn't the only lobby working furiously to ensure that nuclear remains a cottage industry. Mr. Adams believes that coal, oil and gas together have been happy to help the antinuclear crowd with financing and talking points:
"My analysis of the same events includes a wider range of actors, puts some blame on the antinuclear industry, and points to the underlying financial support for all who oppose nuclear energy that is available from the coal, oil and gas establishment, a group for whom the dream of unlimited amounts of clean power is a nightmare of epic proportions."
In a nutshell, the renewable power lobby might just be an unwitting useful tool of the carbon interests, a pawn offered to trip up nuclear power, to delay as long as humanly possible, mainstream discovery of what nuclear power has to offer. Take a look at the chart below:
Notice the incredibly slow rate of progress of renewables and nuclear. Notice also that coal use remains relatively constant for the next 25 years, while natural gas yawns wide into a dominant position edging out coal only slightly. This is the best estimate we have from our own government to project where our energy will come from. This is based on current and projected public policy outcomes. Hear that phrase, "public policy"?

The solution to our energy problems is not a question of technical knowhow. This is a question of political will. Coal, gas and oil will be nearly impossible to displace unless nuclear gets a clear shot at dominance in production in the near term. I've never seen nuclear power interests lobby against solar - OK, maybe I didn't look hard enough, but it would be obvious in my search results if they did. I believe that renewable power and nuclear power are not mutually exclusive nor are they adversaries.

I've also had a chance to watch Pandora's Promise on Netflix. It is well worth the watch even if they don't delve too much into thorium. What is important here is that some environmentalists are waking up to see that they need nuclear to win the fight against coal, oil and gas. Sure, the movie has it's critics. Every movie has critics. But in this case, there is a cogent rebuttal from a practicing nuclear engineer who knows what he's talking about and can separate the hype from reality.

Look at that chart again and see the overwhelming power and force of coal and gas. If renewables ever had an ally, it's nuclear power. Why? Nuclear power can scale like no other energy source on earth because the energy density of nuclear is a million times greater than the carbon-hydrogen bond. Nuclear power can make carbon fuels obsolete with a smaller footprint, in a shorter amount of time than renewables can do it. Nuclear is a great mid-term solution to the energy problem until renewables can get some traction.

In my review of the supposed conflict between nuclear and renewables, both lobbies seem to have missed a common adversary: carbon. Both can often be found fighting each other when they really should be working together. Renewable energy is obviously the best long term solution, but both nuclear and renewables reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

In case anyone wondered, both involve mining. Obviously, nuclear power requires mining, but if we use thorium as the fuel and spent uranium fuel as a source of neutrons to get thorium going, then mining is minimized. Thorium is a by-product of rare-earth mineral mining as well, and rare-earth mineral mining isn't going away anytime soon.

On the other hand, solar and wind advocates seem reluctant to admit that solar power requires mining. Here, the Mining News provides some details about the need for minerals in the solar industry:

"Renewable energy requires metals and minerals The increased production of renewable energy is also driving increased demand for mined metals and minerals. New solar panels require arsenic, bauxite, boron, cadmium, coal, copper, gallium, indium, iron ore, molybdenum, lead, phosphate, selenium, silica, tellurium, and titanium dioxide.[3] Wind turbines use concrete, bauxite, cobalt, copper, iron ore, molybdenum and rare earth elements.[4] The rare earth elements (REE), also known as rare earth metals, are particularly important in wind turbines as they reduce the weight and size needed for magnets in wind turbines.[5] - See more at: http://www.miningfacts.org/Blog/Mining-News/Mining-needed-to-meet-mineral-needs-of-renewable-energy/#sthash.xpxOkO0e.dpuf"
The long term solution (centuries) is renewables because they will capture energy from the sun, the moon and the core of the earth. Solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy can do it all. But given the dominance of carbon now, renewables are going to need a lot of help to catch up if that chart is accurate. They need to see nuclear as an ally not an enemy, and vice versa. Together, they can be an effective force against the carbon interests and they have good reason to work together. They are simply not big enough to defeat the carbon interests alone. But working together would combine their power. They are not mutually exclusive. Even nuclear power can recycle spent fuel and nuclear warheads as fuel. They recycle.

Ultimately, it comes down to fundamental campaign finance reform. Nuclear and renewables are not going to make much headway unless we deal with the money in politics. Look again at that chart above. That chart is a reflection of public policy and as long as big money influences politics, well, carbon has the money and they are going to make the rules until we remove the influence of money in politics.

It can be done, but it will take time. Here are two resources to consider:

Mayday.us
Friends of Democracy

Friday, February 20, 2015

What is the priority for an oligarchy? Surveillance.

If you read tech news, you might have heard how the NSA and the GCHQ have been compromising the firmware of computers and phones. First the hard drives. Everyone who has a desktop or laptop computer has a hard drive. The hard drive has a tiny computer inside called a disk controller. The disk controller accepts and interprets commands for data access, read and write, from the CPU of the computer. The US and UK governments have learned how to compromise the software in that disk controller and make it servile to their commands.

How was this done? We don't know exactly how, as disk drive manufacturers deny complicity with the government. But we do know that it can be reverse engineered just for the purpose of surveillance.

The second piece is the SIM card. Everyone has one in their phone. They are used to identify the phone and to provide encryption keys to keep the communications from the phone safe. Now we learn that the NSA and GCHQ have stolen billions of encryption keys just for the purpose of compromising security on the phones.

What has been done is astonishing in scope and breathless in chutzpah. All in the name of what!?! The War On Terror. You can read many accounts of the story with all the gory details with a few pointed searches, but I've found one that covers both at TechDirt.

Since most of the accounts that I've seen so far cover the details so well, I want to cover an angle on the story that hasn't really been brought up. Why?

For more than a decade, we've been told that all this surveillance is necessary in order to maintain the safety of the people. The mindset is that if the security agencies save just one life, every compromise they have made is justified. But the reality is that the war on terror is a war on privacy and that war has but one purpose and it's not to maintain the safety of the state. We have that even without all the surveillance.

Don't forget that security agencies aren't the only ones with the means to compromise hardware security. Eventually, their exact methods will be leaked to the really bad guys, the people who want your credit card numbers and social security numbers. Security compromise is a double-edged sword.

We live in a country where the middle class has near-zero influence on public policy. Anyone below also has zero influence on public policy. Therefore, the people who do have the influence on public policy are giving the orders for this level of surveillance. We're probably speaking too broadly when we say the 1%, but lets keep the discussion simple and start there.

Warren Buffet, one of the richest men on earth, has this to say:
"Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically."
I suggest that class warfare extends to surveillance. It's already been proven that America is an oligarchy where the only people who have influence on public policy are the 1%. They're writing the checks and I'm not talking about taxes. I'm talking campaign contributions.

Look at it another way. When more than 5 million people lose their homes and the people who get bailed out are the bankers, do you think that the bankers might even be a bit worried? When hedge fund managers make out like bandits by moving aluminum from warehouse to warehouse, adding incremental costs to aluminum for everyone else, and they get caught, do they worry about it? Probably not if government has got their back. How about the LIBOR scandal, a scam that cost consumers and government at all levels more than $10 billion? That's a really great way to manipulate interest rates for profit, at least until you're caught. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan? That cost us more than $1 trillion, with many millions lost to reconstruction of Iraq and contractor scams.

If hedge fund managers are so scared that they're planning to jet to New Zealand when the uprising starts, then surveillance of the scope and magnitude perpetrated by the NSA and GCHQ makes perfect sense. If you're a billionaire, getting access to that data is not a problem.

The surveillance state is not about the war on terror, it's a war on the middle class with one central purpose: give the 1% the means to monitor everyone else so that they can bail when they need to, or apply force when its still possible to do it.

If we live in a constitutional republic, there is simply no justification for security agencies breaking into hardware to gather *everything* we have on disk or phone. But someone at the top has found a justification in their own mind to get this done and do it quietly before anyone can stop them. The scale of the compromise is so massive, that we can easily conclude that *everyone else* is an enemy of the state from the perspective of the top 1%.

But we don't have to accept this as our future. We can make changes. We can restore our democracy. How?

By insisting on fundamental reform of campaign finance laws. Hey, if 500,000 Walmart employees can get a raise all at once, we can make changes in campaign finance laws that provide the incentives required for our elected representatives to listen to the rest of us. There are two organizations that are well known and working hard to reform campaign finance:

mayday.us
The Friends of Democracy

Get involved, make a donation to the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs. Join the Friends of Democracy to support candidates who are serious about campaign finance reform. This is how we get started with returning the government to the people, you know, everyone else. This is the best place to start effective reform of the government. There are no better options short of revolution.