Friday, January 30, 2015

Thoughts on why Waze is used to track the police

Social media has become the norm rather than the exception. It is one of the fastest ways to share information with people you know and to learn from people they know. There is a new traffic application out there called Waze. This application runs on most smartphones and it's main purpose is to help people learn the best route to their destination, in real time with social media.

Waze has come under criticism recently for a function of the application that allows people to mark locations of police cars on the side of the road. This has become such a concern that the chief of police of Los Angeles has weighed in on the matter. The LA Times reports as follows:
"It is not always in the public's best interest to know where police are operating," Beck said, explaining the letter. "There is a criminal element that are able to ply their trade and ply their craft more effectively by knowing where police are."
Excuse me, Chief. I think it's important for you to remember who you work for. That would be members of the public at large. Yes, it's true that the criminal element can use the application to watch you, but if they really wanted to know where you are, they won't need Waze to find out. A well-financed operation will have no trouble finding you.

Perhaps the police are now extra touchy since Ferguson. I can understand that. But one of the factors that brought Ferguson on is the militarization of police. Here is an interesting analysis of the problem:
"There's a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people."
This observation is not from one of our great political leaders. It is from a fictional character in the rebooted television series, Battlestar Galactica. It's a fantastic series if you haven't had the chance to watch it (available on DVD at Netflix, sadly, not for streaming). But it serves well as an allegory to current and recent politics in America.

Over the last 20 years, we've seen the military scooping up surplus military gear and buffing out their departments. The police in America kill more citizens per year than just about any other industrialized nation and the trend isn't letting up. When the police get too confident in their work, they tend to get very aggressive. National headlines about police shootings against unarmed citizens are a monthly if not weekly occurrence and a simple search on Google will yield many results.

It would seem to me that marking locations of police cars on the road is a function of citizen safety considering the elevated aggression of the police. In other words, if the people do not feel safe around the police who are supposed to serve them, shouldn't they have a right to track and monitor them?

That would seem to be a reasonable question, but perhaps not so in the minds of the police.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

UTOPIA cities get a little closer to fiber for every resident

I've been following FreeUTOPIA on Google Plus, Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to news about fiber infrastructure for internet access in the UTOPIA cities like West Valley City, FreeUTOPIA is one of my favorite spots to go. The other one is Community Broadband Networks.

So I am glad to see that Milestone 2 is out, an examination and exploration of how a public-private partnership would work with Macquarie Capital to build a fiber network for internet access to every business and home in the UTOPIA cities. For me, that's West Valley City. There are a few things that stand out about this deal for me:
  • The final cost per address is estimated at $22.60 per month. Macquarie estimates that re-working the deal to account for five cities bowing out trimmed the cost by $8.57 per month.
  • The revenue split is much more generous than previously expected, allowing the cities to keep 75% of wholesale revenue after the first $2M per year. It’s expected to completely cover the debt service by 2021 with just a 24% take rate for premium services.
  • The basic level service has also been improved. Instead of 3M/3M service being included at no extra cost, it’s been bumped to 5M/5M. This matches Google Fiber speeds on the free tier. The data cap stays put at 20GB per month.
I am glad to see that they've worked out the problem of costs associated with the cities that decided not to go forward with this deal. The cities that opt out will have to deal with their own debts. But the cities that opt-in could see their debts paid off in 7 short years from start to finish. And that is with a very low take rate for anything above the basic service of 5mbs up and down. I will be signing up for that gigabit service when it comes. Why? We won't know what we can do with it until we have it. But I do know for sure it will be better than anything I can get from Centurylink or Comcast.

I have wanted this for a long time for obvious reasons. I want to oust recalcitrant, reluctant incumbents who want to cherry pick customers for their own benefit while ignoring the rest. Case in point. Centurylink, my current internet service provider, is advertising gigabit service, but only offers it in a small two-block area of St. Paul, Minnesota.

In my neighborhood, Centurylink is the only wired offering as they seem to be coordinating with Comcast to make sure there is very little actual competition between them. Besides, it looks like Centurylink wants out of the landline business, so they may not be around much longer to offer internet service. Seems they're transforming into an IT services company. They're probably feeling the pinch from cell phone carriers as people cuttng the cord for phone service and I'm one of them. There is no wired phone service here and I have no plans to start one. There is simply no need for it.

If Centurylink goes away, then all the more we will need UTOPIA to provide internet access when their chief competitor, Comcast, will not. This transition will take years for Centurylink to accomplish, but they are not alone in abandoning wired phone service. Verizon and ATT are both planning an exit from wired phone service in favor of internet and cellular services. They could probably do that with more grace, but who needs grace when you're a monopoly-sized corporation?

There will be a public vote on the Maquarie deal when all the planning and investigating is done. I expect that there will be intense advertising and lobbying campaigns and probably even a new set of lawsuits to quell this uprising. Comcast and Centurylink have both been ardent opponents of UTOPIA and both have filed lawsuits in the past and it wouldn't surprise me if they both proposed an ALEC approved piece of legislation designed just for this kind of situation.

But the more that incumbent carriers fight the community broadband movement, the more companies like Comcast and Centurylink shine a light on their motives. They have both clearly shown how the profit motive can overcome the public good and betray the public trust in them. UTOPIA, a community broadband network, will help to pay off the debts incurred by the cities who want to move forward, provide up to gigabit internet access speeds for anyone who wants it, and a base connection of 5mbs up and down for everyone who is connected, for about $22 a month.

Just as in other cities like Chattanooga and Cedar Falls, Iowa, we may finally enjoy the prosperity a fiber network brings to everyone that is connected, in just a few years time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That giant sucking sound? The wealthy fleeing from pitchforks in jets

The wealthy need an escape plan? Economist Robert Reich brought this to my attention on his Facebook Page. Apparently, at a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, people are taking note that at least some hedge fund managers are making plans to get away from civil unrest around the world due to rising inequality. Have they lost their minds?

Or maybe they didn't notice that through scams like the LIBOR scandal, the housing bubble of 2006 or the low interest loans banks got at the Federal Reserve Discount Window shortly after the 2008 crisis, and other government bailouts, the 1% have amassed more wealth at the expense of others. After everyone else discovered what happened, they were might unhappy. These events brought about the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement.

Perhaps the 1% are unwilling to admit that through their lobbying, they have created an economy almost completely tilted towards the side of business rather than the consumer. This is, I believe the core of the problem with inequality.

If the wealthy among us are planning to flee, then they know that by their own hand, they have destroyed a democracy here and an economy worldwide. But maybe, they don't know how to stop and reverse without a reversal of fortunes.

For more than 30 years, we've trusted our governments, letting them deliver tax breaks and subsidies to business in the hopes that business would in turn create jobs. What did we get in return? A massive shift of income from labor to capital. Gigantic pools of cash hoarded offshore in the hopes that one day, the money can be repatriated as dividends and bonuses for C-class executives. We have done so much to get businesses to create jobs by giving them breaks and subsidies, and yet, they still leave us mired in recession levels of unemployment and wage stagnation. What we have now can best be described as The Conservative Nanny State. A state that takes care of business, not the consumer.

30 years is apparently not enough time to prove that neoliberal economics works, that's Trickle Down Economics to people who have been around long enough to see President Ronald Reagan in action. Supply side economics (another name for the same thing) doesn't work and never will because businesses will always seek to replace labor expenses with capital. That means cutting jobs or freezing wages for profit.

In that 30 years, so little has been done for the working class that they don't have the money to buy the goods and services that grow the economy. They have seen access to education, health care and economic mobility decline as wages stagnated. To add insult to injury, they have seen access to the polling place decline as well through laws intended to disenfranchise as many people as possible.

So, having made a mess of the United States economy, and other economies around the world, hedge fund mangers, billionaires and multi-millionaires are preparing to flee in the event of civil unrest? Not so fast. Do you really think you're going to get to your plane fast enough to escape the pitchforks if they come?

Considering the speed of social networks, it's not going to happen like they're planning. Even billionaire and early Amazon investor, Nick Hanauer agrees on this point. Besides, if even 300 million people get determined to find a fleeing billionaire, through social networking and sharing of information, they're going to find him. Information cuts both ways.

Why not figure out a solution that works for everyone? For example, there is a very close correlation between inequality and voter turnout. Why not make election day a national holiday so that everyone can participate? Another way to increase voter turnout is to get rid of the money primary, a system of selecting candidates described in Larry Lessig's book, The USA is Lesterland. In a nutshell, the largest donors to political campaigns get to decide who gets to run and win in the primaries. They determine the field of candidates the rest of us vote on. That is not a democracy. That is oligarchy. If people know they're voting for fellow citizens they can relate to, they're more likely to vote.

I know, finding solutions is difficult when you're the one who created them. Einstein figured this out long ago. This is not a problem that can only be solved by the 1%. This is a problem that everyone must participate in the solution to solve it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Community Broadband Act

Now that the President has brought the issue of community broadband to the national scene in his State of the Union Address and during a trip he made to Cedar Falls, Iowa, members of Congress are starting to wake up. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey has introduced a bill to make room for competition in local broadband services. The bill prohibits the states from enacting or maintaining laws that hinder the progress of community broadband service.

To put it another way, the bill provides that cities and towns have their own authority to choose their internet provider when they have been denied services from an incumbent service provider. This bill would pave the way for cities and towns across the country to a choice: they could rely upon a recalcitrant incumbent provider to someday provide faster speeds, or they could build their own networks. The state legislature would not have the power to prevent any community within their state from building their own networks.

There is an interesting thing going on here, from a somewhat technical perspective. The text of the bill is not available on the GPO site yet. But Scribd has the entire text available for anyone to read. The bill also has the support of Chris Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks, a part of the Institute for Local Self Reliance:
"We believe these decisions about how best to expand Internet access are best made by local governments, who are most informed of the need and challenges. We applaud Senator Booker for this bill to ensure communities can decide for themselves if a partnership or an investment in network infrastructure is the right choice."
Community Broadband Networks also notes that this bill has language that is the same as bills introduced in 2005 and 2007, but since then, Republicans in Congress have decided that since Obama supports this kind of legislation, they do not. Nevermind that community broadband is overwhelmingly supported at the state and local level wherever it is introduced, regardless of party affiliation.

I'm now tracking this bill with email updates from govtrack.us and am looking forward to more updates. Govtrack.us gives this bill about a 7% chance of getting out of committee and only a 2% chance of passing Congress. Why is that so? Large commercial interests such as Comcast, Verizon and AT+T would very much like to avoid local competition of any kind when they can maintain a captured market with government intervention that they have secured for years now.

If you want better internet access from a community provider that places the public good above profit, support this bill. Call your Congressperson and let him know about S.240, the Community Broadband Act and that you want him or her to support this bill.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How religious fanaticism plays a part in American public policy

Here is a picture of Senator James Inhofe. Now check out the quote associated with him:

That is his response to climate change, and I'm not exactly impressed with his response, either. But I am worried that religious influence can hinder public policy efforts to reverse global warming and environmental policy, in general. Inhofe seems to forget that he is a steward of the earth, by his own book, the Bible. So, when he quotes the Bible, he is cherry-picking quotes.

Here's a Bible quote Inhofe probably missed as a champion of fracking:
Jer. 2:7. I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and you made my inheritance detestable. 
As I write this, I'm reminded of the former Interior Secretary, James Watt, a man who's sole political purpose seemed to be to destroy the earth in time for the 2nd Coming. Where do such men develop the conviction that it's OK to pollute the earth? I'm not sure, but I think I found a clue. By accident, I found this very interesting video and have spent a few evenings watching it:


It's more than 2 hours of time, but well worth the watch. The debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham is instructive. While Nye delivers only science facts, Ham delivers persecution and belief. I find it astonishing to see Ham assert that what science can infer about the past is nothing more than a religion. 

The most interesting aspect of the debate is this: there are no other major religions in this country supporting the views of the Christian right wing that creationism be taught as science. For example, I checked the website of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that supports Jewish causes. Their policy position is that creation theories have no place in the science class.

Next, I checked out Islamic websites and they said that evolution was compatible with Islam. Buddhists say that evolution is compatible with their teachings, too. By the way, I think that Buddhism is a faith that is about as close to science as you can get and still call it a faith. Note also, that there are historical references to Buddha. It would seem to me that Christians are the sole source of demand for equal time for dogma in the science class.

I look back on the debate between Nye and Ham and see how hard Ham has worked to twist the logic to suit the desired results. I also see that Ham is making political arguments, not scientific arguments to support his contention that kids should be taught creationism as science. Ham believes that Christians have been shutout of the debate on the origins of life on this planet. He also believes that we need to change the terms of the debate to more properly allow his side an opportunity to participate in the debate.

I've given some though to why some Christians are so determined to get their creation hypotheses into the debate on the origins of life. Although I touched on some of reasons here in an older blog post, I believe I might have missed one important reason: Christian parents want to save their children the misery they might experience at the hands of a wrathful god if they should ever accept a scientific view on where we came from. No, I didn't miss that one, I got it covered here.

Ham says that the age of the earth cannot be accurately determined because none of us were there when the earth was created. He says that radioisotope dating, measuring the ratio of isotopes in a given sample to determine its age, is not really that accurate and that none extend beyond a few million years, therefore it cannot be trusted. Nevermind the scientific consensus that disagrees with him.

He wants scientists to at least admit that what we know about the past can at best be couched as another religion. This would convenient place his book on equal footing to the path of declaring America as a Christian Nation. He knows well that in order to accept the world view of him and his followers, much of the scientific method must be abandoned in order to interpret evidence of the past. This sort of attitude is not acceptable in scientific or public policy.

He goes on to say that the Bible was written by people who were there. Really? How is it then that there are no historical accounts of Jesus? How is it that the existence of Jesus cannot be scientifically verified by anyone? And finally, if there is no way to verify the "facts" of the Bible, any of them, why are the rest of us expected to accept the book of Genesis as the only viable model for the creation of life on earth, or the Universe? Oh, I know, it's a matter of faith.

Considering the attitude of seemingly grown men like Inhofe and Ham, both of whom have found access to the levers of power in public policy, there is a problem. For them, public policy is not a matter of faith if they believe that God will fix the problems with their ideas. Does a true Christian does not tell God what to do, or make wishes upon God? I think not.

When President Reagan took office, the Congress passed sweeping tax reform that started the ball rolling on Reaganomics. Reagan's opponent in the 1980 primaries was George H. W. Bush, who called Reagan's ideas, "Voodoo Economics". Bush was clear that Reagan's tax policy proposals would balloon the deficit, and they did. Reaganomics is also known as Trickle Down Economics for the reason that it was assumed that upon keeping more money to themselves, the wealthy would spend more money. 27 years, two bubbles and two long wars later, we discovered we were wrong about that, sometime in 2008.

Closer to the present, we see Governor Sam Brownback running smack into the same experience but at a local level in Kansas. In May, 2012, Brownback signed into law one of the largest tax cuts in Kansas history, but that state is enjoying few if any of the benefits of the growth we are seeing now in the rest of the nation. Why? Brownback is an evangelical Christian, injecting his religion into economic policy rather than following economists who are engaged in the science of how the economy works.

Brownback's actions reflect the desires of many in Congress to do the same thing, but they are not economists either. The conservative side of Congress seems entirely bent on pursuing this fantasy that Reaganomics will actually work someday, if we could just give it more time. But that again, is a matter of belief not science.

These are radical Christians, very similar to the radical Muslim clerics in the Middle East. These radical Christians got us into two wars, brought us the Great Recession while sparing Wall Street at the same time, and brought us global warming with all their theological fervor.

This is why we need separation of church and state. Public policy must be decided on the evidence, not on belief, or theology. We need people in power who are willing to admit they are wrong in order to change course when a change in course is needed. Men with the conviction of religion seem to have a really difficult time admitting to a mistake in public policy based on religious belief. Just ask Mr. Inhofe, or the Republicans in Kansas. Or Mr. Ham. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Low wages are not a structural problem

Yesterday, I just blew $881 on new tires and registration for my SUV. I was lucky to have the cash on hand. In our family, we've been saving money, looking out for unnecessary spending and avoiding credit. We don't eat out much, vacations are rare and my extended family plays Secret Santa so we don't go into debt for Christmas. We're part of the 38%. What?

A recent study shows that 62% of Americans can't cover an unexpected expense such as an emergency room visit or a $500 auto repair. 38% of  respondents in the survey said they can cover those bills with money on hand in savings or checking. More Americans are keeping a budget with an eye towards accumulating some funds for a rainy day. More Americans are avoiding credit cards.

This is good news. If enough people can do this, they can learn how to be cheap and keep their money instead of throwing it to the billionaire class. That is a big part of what it will take to turn things around. There are many millionaires and billionaires who started out with nothing (that's what they say, anyway). They were cheap, they scrimped and they didn't have much, but they did have a vision. Mind you, I'm not talking about the people who inherited their wealth. They're another kind.

This trend is evidence, a symptom of a far greater problem: an unwillingness on the part of employers to pay more money for their labor. Here is a case in point. Economist Dean Baker notes an article about a Denver businessman who complains that he's having trouble finding qualified candidates to fill the jobs he needs to fill. He complains that when he needs an accountant, he gets 700 resumes, but when it comes to tech, there are no takers. Baker is right in asserting that if Mr. Binder, the Denver businessman, offered more money, he might find it easier to fill his positions.

I've seen it myself. I used to work for a company where I happened to overhear a conversation between the the Chief Operations Officer and one of the owners. They had just put out an ad for an open position for a part time receptionist job that paid $9 an hour with no benefits. They got over 100 resumes. And they had a good laugh about it in the dark days of 2009. Yeah, that's real funny, right?

Maybe that was nervous laughter, like, "Jeez. I'm sure glad that's not me." Both of these men had college educations, both were well established in the top 1%. I know, I was there. But I didn't sense that much compassion from them about the situation.

Baker did make one final point in his article. There are many businessmen who complain that they can't get qualified candidates not because they're not out there, but because they fail to understand basic economics. If you offer enough money, you'll find your candidate. Rather than do that, these businessmen will claim it's a "structural problem". That's BS for, "I'm too cheap to pay for the talent I need."

But there is another way that business has gone cheap on America. They want their talent without having to pay for the education that talented people need to acquire the skills businesses demand. They'd rather go offshore. High tech companies do that for fun and profit.

During the State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a proposal to give every American two years of community college for free. I've done some searching on the costs of Obama's proposal and couldn't find any reliable tallies. Hmm. I found several estimates that place the cost of his plan at $60 billion. Here's one of them. That is a speck on the windshield of a $3.5 trillion budget. Besides, there are a few other industrialized countries that offer free education, some to anyone in the world. Finland, Sweden, Germany and Norway come to mind. Note that socialist countries do produce billionaires, despite very high income tax rates.

College is expensive in America, even community college. Here in Utah, a 3 unit course is (last time I checked) $400. If most people can't handle an unexpected expense, and they're having a hard time saving money for rainy day expenses, there are a few options. They could go to school on credit. Hey, that's cool. Someone in the billionaire class gets interest income. Or they could delay that education. Hey, that's cool. Someone in the millionaire class has another reason to keep wages low.

If there is a structural problem, as that Denver businessman put it, the structural problem is not with the labor market, it's with the access to education. But it would seem to me, that under the status quo, most people are being asked to do more with less and less. At the same time, people at the top are watching their incomes rise as they take 95% of all the economic growth before the people who created that growth can get to it.

That Denver businessman also seems to not know that when you pay people more, you generate more demand for your products. Yes, that's right, if you pay people more money, they may either buy your product, or generate demand for it indirectly. Henry Ford understood this. He was the guy who invented the assembly line to manufacture cars in the early 20th century. Most people in business today seem to have forgotten about him.

What we've been doing isn't working and we need to make some changes. Consider the economy like an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, if you give more, you will get more. If you're selfish, you will get less, unless you can get the government to intervene in the market for you. Which is exactly what has happened for the last 30 years. Instead of rooting for the employee, the source of economic demand, the government has sided nearly every time with the employer.

That's nice if you're a businessman, but given the state of the economy in the last 7 years, it's not so great for the source of demand: the consumer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A fight over $11 for one day of Insurance I can't use from Aches Health Plan

I have a family and to reduce the chance of going bankrupt over health care bills, I carry health insurance. Last year, I was working a contract job and took out an "Obamacare" policy to protect my family. That policy is great for preventive maintenance, but if you're going to have a baby, watch out. They will pay 80% and then you're on the hook for the rest.

Fortunately, I was hired into a permanent position last year and needed to cancel my policy at the start of the new year, when my new employer-based health insurance kicks in. A couple weeks before the planned transition, I called Arches Health Plan, our carrier and gave notice of cancellation. The customer service representative told me flat out, I'm paraphrasing here, "I'm sorry, sir. You'll have to wait until December 31st to cancel. Please call back then."

I know. That seems weird, huh? Why should I have to wait until December 31st to cancel? Well, I almost took her at her word and waited, but my wife, Alice, insisted that I call sooner. So I called on December 30th. At the end of the call, I had a firm verbal confirmation that the policy would end effective, Midnight, December 31st.

On December 31st, Arches promptly took an electronic transfer of the monthly premium from our bank account, without notice. Over the next several days, through several phone calls and attempts to set the matter straight, I worked with Arches and Healthcare.gov to correct the problem.

Arches did admit that I had requested cancellation prior to the desired end time of 2014-12-31 @ 11:59. But for some reason, unknown to me, they insisted on automatically re-enrolling me for a new policy starting on 2015-01-01, and ending it on the same day. That means that they felt justified in deducting $11 from the refund that they ultimately provided.

I wanted to fight them on this, but my wife said that I have better things to do. In a way, I agree. It seems like such a small thing, so why bother, right? Well, I'm a bit incensed about it, so I'm writing about it. I'm hoping that shining a little light on this practice will encourage this co-op to correct the practice and stop it. If I get a refund of that $11, that's a bonus.

To increase the light shining on Arches, please share this article with your social networks.