Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Debating Net Neutrality

I've been debating net neutrality for quite some time now on Facebook and on Google+. Well, mostly on Google+, I guess Google+ is more intellectual than Facebook, but I don't really know for sure.

In reviewing the debates I've had on Google+, I've noticed a few interesting patterns. The first one is pretty obvious: there is a severe dearth of facts coming from the faction that hates the idea of reclassifying ISPs as Title II common carriers. Even when they come up with something so specific that it could be a fact, they are loathe to come up with a reference, you know, a link.

Maybe that's because there is this fantasy that the market is rational and that it will correct itself from the abysmal service we're now getting from ISPs we all hate. Even when pressed to provide concrete examples, opponents of reclassification are unwilling to provide the proof needed to support their position.

Another pattern I've noticed is that opponents of reclassification seem to have missed something: things got this bad even though no reclassification has been done. Proponents of the status quo will tell us over and over again that reclassification will reduce our ISPs to humdrum services that will slowly devolve to mediocre services that will never get better. Here's the problem: we already have that.

We've given the ISPs subsidies and tax breaks for more than a decade and they have really done nothing close to keeping up with world class ISPs in other developed countries like Japan, Norway, Finland and South Korea. Really, we're not even close.

If we really want to revive our staid internet carriers, there are at least two things that need to happen:

1. Reclassify our ISPs as carriers under Title II. This will have three particularly obvious effects: it will force carriers who own the pipes to share their pipes at wholesale pricing, drive selfish investors away and it will force carriers to divest or spin-off their content properties.
2. As investors flee from traditional ISPs due to reclassification (as predicted by so many people who don't really know for sure), we need to remove state barriers to community broadband so that internet access becomes what should have been from the beginning: a state owned, transparently regulated utility. When internet access is sold as a utility service, suddenly, the network becomes neutral about where content is coming and where it is going.

This is not a political issue as it transcends the entire political spectrum. Conservative communities in Colorado have voted in favor, and sometimes overwhelmingly so, of communities to build their own broadband networks, even after rigorous barriers have been passed into law. Democrat, Republican, conservative, and liberal alike, they all agree that the status quo sucks and they are looking for something better. And they are doing it without Congress.

While members of Congress are scoring points in favor of hobbling and stifling internet access, communities are going it alone. Conservatives hate to see the FCC get involved because they think it's a state's rights issue. Never mind the millions they get from incumbent carriers to keep the status quo. Liberals in Congress tend to oppose net neutrality because they are friends to copyright interests, and anything that keeps the spigot small means more DVD and BluRay sales.

Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of money in Congress means that they aren't listening to the rest of us. They don't see the more than 400 communities that have already built their networks, with many of them delivering gigabit access to their residents. And they certainly don't see those community broadband networks delivering the content without hindrance based upon origin and destination. Why not? Because community broadband networks are loyal to the communities they serve, not some jerk of a CEO in a corner office on 5th Avenue in New York, intent on using his bonus to buy his second home on the coast of Spain.

The monopolies are here because government allows monopolies to exist. The public monopolies, community broadband, are doing a great job of servicing their residents, by any measure. The private monopolies like Comcast, Time-Warner, ATT and Verizon are plowing their money into political contributions rather than their networks. They are setting up alliances to prevent encroachments like community broadband and Title II reclassification. Most of the problem arises from government, or the lack thereof. How did that happen?

The slow erosion of campaign finance regulation is how it happened. Once large companies figured out that they could pay for the laws they wanted, the regulators and regulations they wanted, they gave up on competition in the market. Now they compete in the government. Citizens United is the Supreme Court case that brought the issue to a head, to national recognition. Private monopolies and the lack of fundamental campaign finance reform got us here.

But we can get Congress and our state legislatures to listen to us again. Once we remove the incentives for big donors to spend their money on candidates and for candidates to rely upon them, then the Congress, and our state legislatures will once again be dependent upon the people, alone.

That is how we can restore freedom to the internet in the United States. But you won't hear any of that from opponents of net neutrality, reclassification or community broadband.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Centurylink, Part IV - an adhesion contract, a win at the FCC

Note: this is a belated blog post concerning my relationship with Centurylink as a customer and end-user of their service. The events described herein occurred more than a year ago, in late 2013. At the time, I didn't think there was much interest in this, so I discontinued the series. But in the last few days, one of my readers brought it up and wanted to know how things ended between Centurylink and I. This is how the story ends.

This is a continuation of a series of articles ( Part I, II, and III) to chronicle my struggle against a large corporation unwilling to provide adequate internet access speeds. That is, Centurylink and I agreed that they would provide internet access at a max speed of 5mbs, guaranteeing 80% of that speed at 4mbs per second. It appears that they could not even do that.

I tried their service for a month only to find that I had to babysit the modem every day to make it work properly. I even started logging my observations in the hopes of establishing a pattern of behavior.

After many calls and emails, it became clear to me that Centurylink had no intention of fixing the root cause of the problem: DSL. They seem quite determined to not upgrade the line to my house to fiber. If they would just do that, I would not be writing this series of blog posts. Perhaps they have made a tacit agreement to not really compete with Comcast. They may also be aware that eventually UTOPIA will be available for our house and that I would just as soon abandon both Comcast and Centurylink.

For those who don't know, UTOPIA is community broadband, a project born out of frustration on the part of 13 cities who could not get decent service from either Centurylink or Comcast. Neither of the two incumbent ISPs were willing to increase speeds and upgrade service until UTOPIA came along. Unfortunately, UTOPIA halted their rollout about one and a half blocks away from my home. I guess Comcast and Centurylink don't really think they can compete with a government run ISP. Isn't private enterprise always more efficient than government? Maybe not.

So what was Centurylink's response when I cancelled my service and filed a complaint with the FCC? Impose a $200 early termination fee and try to collect. I reviewed their statement, and sent them a check, with a catch.

No, I didn't pay for the early termination fee and I didn't pay for unusable internet service. The bill was for $237 and change. I paid them for the phone service and taxes associated with the phone service - nothing more - for a net payment of $11.46.

So what's the catch? I modified the check to include an adhesion contract on the back of the check. The idea is that their check processing system is automated with little or no human inspection of the checks. What does the adhesion contract do? It says that all claims between the parties are satisfied with endorsement of this check. I don't use it lightly and have only used it once before, and it worked then. It could very well work in this instance, and it did, as they zeroed out my balance.

Here is what the adhesion contract says:
“Endorser acknowledges full satisfaction of any and all claims, and this check represents accord and satisfaction amongst the parties of any outstanding claims.”
When this check is endorsed, the endorser is waiving all outstanding claims against me and should have little recourse in any legal proceeding to collect any other outstanding amounts. This also means that whatever upfront costs I assumed to set up service are waived, too. I can't recover those. I regret not being able to collect those funds back, but I have to choose my battles. I lost more than $100 on this deal with Centurylink and I'm not happy about it.

I checked my online bank account a few days ago and sure enough, they did cash the check. I now have a nice hard copy of the check, front and back for use in any further proceedings.

At least with the adhesion contract, I'm attempting to set a legal limit on any further exposure to Centurylink since terminating service with them. At this point, I could deal with the debt collectors and the credit records while my complaint with the FCC is being worked out. Once the debt collector sees that there is an adhesion contract on the back of the check, that could present a problem for him to collect anything from me, legally speaking.

I didn't have to fight much with Centurylink to prevail. Centurylink conceded and I won. But there wasn't much to win. I was glad to win, but I won on their terms. Had they amassed their considerable legal team against me, I'm sure they would have found some way to win. It is very likely that they had at least one ally on the commission at the time.

So I went back to Comcast. Their speeds were far superior to Centurylink and I believed that they offered much better customer service. You may find this hard to believe, but I hate Centurylink more than I hate Comcast. Given the choice, I would choose Comcast over Centurylink without further consideration.

More than a year later, I've moved to a new home on the other side of the valley. Once again I see the same situation. Centurylink is the only wired service provider here, and it would seem that Comcast has ceded the territory to Centurylink, perhaps in exchange for some other territory.

Service has been decent so far, although I do wonder if ftp and http downloads for my linux updates has been throttled. With M-Labs from Google, I test very well at 22mbs, but have only 1mbs upload speed. That's pretty stingy of Centurylink. I just did a test here by updating the linux kernel and found speeds close to those advertised, so maybe my concerns are a bit premature. I will have to wait and see.

For now, I'm getting halfway decent service with Centurylink. I've got things set up the way I want them and I don't really have any complaints about them, either, for now.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Mayday.us is leading the charge to get big money out of politics

I just finished watching this video by Larry Lessig, the leader of the the Mayday.us SuperPAC, a political action committee dedicated to ending all SuperPACs. The single purpose of this SuperPAC is to get big money out of politics. To put it more succinctly, to paraphrase the words of the Supreme Court, to make our elected representatives dependent upon the people and the people alone - not big donors to political campaigns.

Larry is one of the coolest people in politics today. He has a firm grasp of technology, law and politics. He's been around longer than I have and has seen people come and go. He knows where we've been and where we're going if we don't change course. He is, in my opinion, the ultimate peaceful activist.

Since he is a law professor, I think it's cool that he can mount a legal defense of a copyright challenge to any of the videos he posts on YouTube. He is a notable figure in the free software movement and is a very passionate and persuasive speaker. He seems perfect for the leadership position he alone has created.

The single purpose of Mayday.us is to fund candidates who will work to enact fundamental campaign finance reform. Here is a list of candidates that Mayday.us supported in the last midterm. Every candidate on the list has made a firm commitment to enact fundamental campaign finance reform to remove the corrupting influence of money in Congress in order to receive support from this SuperPAC.

The Mayday.us FAQ shows that they are non-partisan, that they are sticking to a single issue: getting big money donors out of politics. That single purpose attitude is what I like most about this SuperPAC, and that attitude allows the organization to stay focused on one goal, without a whit of deference to partisan politics.

The ramifications of true campaign finance reform are tremendous in a very positive way in just about every part of government. Consider for just a minute what that would to do antitrust law. One reason we have giant monopolies running most of our major industries is unlimited or unregulated campaign contributions. Contributors can remain anonymous and the amounts they can give are unlimited when they are anonymous. This greasing of the palms has allowed mergers and acquisitions to proceed, unabated, promoting the consolidation of entire industries at the expense of the consumer to the point that 10 parent companies produce nearly everything we consume.

Even before Citizens United, this has been going on for a long time, as over the years, the courts have been chipping away at campaign finance laws to remove the limits we once had, or affirmed that under the current policy, there were no limits.

Without effective regulation of campaign contributions, it's easy for a monopoly like Microsoft or just a very large company like General Electric, to use money to get a soft touch from regulators and policymakers.

Creating a policy that requires elected office holders to rely upon many people for many small contributions rather than a few very deep pockets, means that candidates will have to support policies that have a much broader appeal. You know, populist. When we create incentives for candidates to appeal to a much broader audience, they will have to promote policy ideas that actually have merit.

Take the recent budget bill that is still in transit through Congress to avoid a partial shutdown of the government. Some of the provisions, like allowing even greater gambling on Wall Street with funds that are federally insured funds in consumer checking and savings accounts, and giving Apache land to a foreign corporation for exploitation - are simply ludicrous.

It's clear that the riders on that spending bill had two purposes. The first is obvious - payback to their sponsors. The second is not so easily seen - the riders are so odious that if the opposition fights them, and the spending bill fails to pass, and the government shuts down, who will get blamed?

At the same time, anyone looking at the riders will know that these provisions offer no consideration for all of the American people. They're embarrassing. But if the American people had any power to remove people who are sitting in what are effectively safe seats, compromise would be a word in common usage in public discourse on Meet The Press and Face The Nation.

The only way to fix Congress is to start with how they fund their campaigns so that members have to listen to the rest of us. Without that, we have what is essentially taxation without representation. When members of Congress are dependent on the people alone to fund their campaigns, we will once again have a Congress that works - for all of us.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Republican Mandate that never was

Republicans in Congress are rubbing their hands with glee now that they will see majorities in both houses in Congress. Republicans will start next year with 54 members of the Senate and 246 members of the House. This is the largest majority they've had since the Truman Administration which ended in 1953.

Many Republicans seem keen to point out that Democrats lost, fair and square, and that they now have a mandate to defy, hobble and spit upon the sitting Democrat in the Oval Office, President Obama. But they sure seem slow to admit that voter turnout in the midterms was the lowest in 72 years.

This isn't just a problem for the Republicans. It's a problem for the Democrats, too. Democrats fair much better when voter turnout is higher. When voter turnout is higher, Republicans can actually claim a mandate to do something. But with such a low turnout, that only gives Congress permission to do nothing.

So Republicans are claiming a mandate with just 36% of adults casting votes. Considering all the new voter suppression laws, Citizens United, and the low quality of candidates that both parties have sent to Congress, a new question comes to mind. Is low voter turnout a feature or a bug?

This isn't an accident and didn't happen overnight. This is a trend that has spanned decades. There seems to be a confluence of trends that either inhibit or prevent people from voting. Many people are very busy working and they are thinking about money, not politics. They are thinking about feeding their families, paying the rent and where their next paycheck is going to come from. A weak economy is a feature, not a bug, designed to keep people working, away from politics, away from the street where they can cause trouble.

The Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court ensured that Congress goes to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, that means the highest bidder is among the wealthiest in this country, a small minority so sure that they can single-handedly run this country for everyone. They live in Lesterland. A land where about 142,000 of the wealthiest people in this country decide who gets to run for office. Then the rest of us get to vote for their choices. I don't know about you, but that is a supreme turn off for young voters. This is a feature, not a bug.

Then you have voter suppression laws in many states across the country, particularly in the deep south, that seem squarely aimed at discouraging minorities from voting. Proponents of such laws claim that they're making reasonable demands, but the results say something else. Such proponents are awfully quiet about voter fraud after such a low turnout. This is a feature, not a bug.

We cast our votes in black box voting systems. Our voting systems are run on proprietary software, so no one really knows what the code is doing except the vendors. We cannot even trust our voting machines or the systems used to tabulate the votes. For the next generation of voters, that's a big turn off. They know something is up. This too, is a feature, not a bug. We need open source voting systems that we can trust.

So for the Republicans giddy with power, get real. Remember that your majorities come at the cost of lower voter turnout. You may have received a majority, but only by design, not by the merit of your ideas. Voters need to get their butts to the polls for every election, true enough, but you're not doing much to help that. Note also that statistically speaking, Republicans are bound to have a bloodbath in the next election, especially if turnout goes way up in 2016.

Democrats have a problem in that the candidates they put out for us to choose from are not really that liberal. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are true Democrats, Social Democrats and they are willing to fight for the rest of us. They are vociferous in the Senate and they are building legacies that Ted Kennedy would be proud of. I know, Bernie is an independent, but he sure acts like a Democrat from the 1960s and 70s.

So when I see that Hilary Clinton is our best shot at the presidency in 2016, I must admit to some mild nausea. Clinton is part of the neoliberal economics faction that crashed the economy and helped to run voter turnout into the ground. Unless I hear her talking like a Jimmy Carter Democrat, I'm going to be looking for third parties like the Green Party.

If the trend continues and the Republicans succeed in taking both houses and the presidency, they are going to run a scorched earth campaign to destroy the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, science funding, the space program and the Post Office. Oh how they love to gore the Post Office. Every element of American infrastructure will become a profit center for their biggest donors. They will claim a mandate to do it, too, even with low voter turnout.

Unless we can get big money out of politics and elect Congressmen and women who speak for the rest of us. There are two very interesting campaigns to do this: 

I know more about Larry Lessig's PAC, Mayday.us. They have raised more than $10m to fund candidates dedicated to real campaign finance reform. Not so sure about the other one, but both of these PACs seem to drive the same goals. Get rid of Citizens United, get real reform signed as law.

I hope we can do it before it's too late.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Case For a Weaker Dollar

After much reading and learning, I find that a pattern is emerging. For the last 30 years, we've been fed a line about why we need a strong dollar. A strong dollar meant that our country was strong, and gas would stay cheap. Neither promise came true.

While our dollar was strong, first the Japanese ate our lunch. Then China came along to eat our breakfast. And the Middle East ate our dinner while we watched the news, all before we could even get to the table.

Someone benefits from a strong dollar and it isn't the middle class. When was the last time you heard of someone in the middle class going to Europe for 2 or 3 weeks? Hardly anyone in the middle class can get the time off to go on vacation, and if they do go, they take their computer, their cell phone and anything else that ties them to work to be sure that they have a job when they return. I sincerely doubt that the middle class has an opportunity to worry about the exchange rates.

That would leave the upper class to worry about that, if they worry at all. They want a strong dollar to make it cheap to import goods from afar. A strong dollar keeps fuel cheap, and that means lower shipping costs. They want a strong dollar to take advantage of cheap labor in places like China and Vietnam.

If the dollar were to become substantially weaker in world markets than it is now, a few interesting things would happen.  For one, cheap labor would no longer be as appealing as it was. Not only that but if the price of oil goes up, the cost of shipping goes up, piling onto more expensive foreign labor.  As we can see, the effects tend to compound on each other.

Some in the mainstream press and in Congress, particularly the Tea Party types, worry about China.  They say that some day, China will start to unload their US debt.  But at least one economist has made it clear that China buys US debt in order to support the value of the dollar.  China sees the writing on the wall: if the dollar becomes weak, *they* will see huge unemployment numbers. China is a much larger country and the effects of a shift in currency value would be much more pronounced. That one lone economist, Dean Baker, has noticed that the threats from China are hollow.

A weak dollar would make foreign oil more expensive than it is now. So what? Since 1973, we got the message that the Middle East can set the price of oil and we decided, for a short time anyway, that we can make more efficient cars. When we didn't, Japanese, Korean and European car makers were happy to oblige. Now that the Big Three automakers were saved from bankruptcy by the Federal Government, they have a chance to change their ways and make cars that sip gas. If gas were to hit $5 a gallon or more, SUVs would get smaller or stay in the garage.  We'd use public transportation. We'd walk, ride bikes or telecommute to work. One way or another, we'd work around high gas prices like the internet works around damage.

It seems ironic that a weak dollar would make this country strong again. We'd be making things again.  We could build infrastructure again. Andy Grove wrote a rather long piece, that in sum, says that we can't afford the things we don't make. When we make things, we get the experience needed for innovation to occur. And we save on the shipping.

All those MBAs who were trying to dress up the bottom line with foreign manufacturing seem to have forgotten the source of innovation. The source? The manufacturing floor. Each time we make a widget, we refine the process down to the simplest steps, eventually refining the process down to a science.

We can't do that with a strong dollar, and we'll never get a chance to make the things we buy unless move the dollar down with other currencies. A weaker dollar will not only bring jobs home, it will bring innovation back home, too.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

3D printing could make patents obsolete

When most people think of patents, they think "residual income", "Edison" and "Wright Brothers". Few if any ever consider the downstream effects on future innovators, you know, patent lawsuits for infringement, chilling effects on innovation from litigation threats and the like. The Founding Fathers put language in the Constitution for the protection of inventors and their works based on the assumption that inventors who get a patent will disclose their work so that other people can build upon their work.

For a closer examination of the intent of the men who wrote the Constitution, lets see what the relevant clause says:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;" --- US Constitution Article 1, Section 8.

Think about it. When courts consider patents, most of the time, like you and me, they're concerned with whether or not the "inventor" has a right to royalties for his "invention". I have yet to read a case, any case, where the question before the court was, "Does this patent actually advance the sciences and the arts." Usually, the court asks a narrower, more subtle question: "Is there any prior art? Has this ever been done before?"

But there is something else the Framers of the Constitution had in mind. They wanted patents for the disclosure of the invention so that if the inventor dies, the invention does not die with the inventor. They knew that great inventions would create economic growth, you know, jobs. The goal was to ensure that the invention should reach as many hands as possible.

3D printing will enable the proliferation of inventions without patent protection in ways that we are just beginning to see. 3D printing is taking place all over the world, in many scales, too. From the micro to the macro, 3D printing is revolutionizing how we make things. Almost anything that is solid can be replicated using 3D printing.

Ironically, the patents relating to 3D printing itself have been holding the technology back. Many of those patents are expiring this year and analysts predict that the industry will explode going forward. 3D printing is not alone. In almost every industry, patents have been shown to slow down innovation because after the patents expire, the previously protected technology really takes off.

As the market opens up due to expiration of 3D printing patents, we will be witness to a new manufacturing revolution. Perhaps someday soon, someone with the power to do it will finally see a reason to abolish all patents so that we can all be free to innovate.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Most of the water on Earth is not on the surface

They say you can't judge a book by it's cover. Appearances can be misleading. Turns out, that's absolutely true about the Earth. We know the surface of the Earth fairly well. We roam all of the continents. We have explored the poles, the highest mountains and the lowest valleys of the oceans. We know that water covers about 71% of the surface of the Earth.

Scientists have recently found evidence of an ocean about 400 miles below the surface of the Earth. But this ocean is estimated to be 3 times the volume of all of the water on the surface. That means there is far more water on the planet than we can imagine and it's probably been there for a very, very long time.

96% of the water on the surface of the planet is in the oceans. It is entirely possible that the water below the ground is fresh water. It is a wonder then about what kind of life might be present there. At 400 miles below, the temperatures there would almost surely support life below. I'm not sure about the pressures, but since we know that life persists at the bottom of our oceans, it's likely to have evolved there, far below the surface of the earth.

Reading about this discovery reminds me of another article I read several years ago. It was about hydrogen eating bacteria. I can't find the reference as of this writing, but what I recall is this: upon the discovery of this bacteria, they estimated the mass of such bacteria to be greater than that of all other life on the planet. Just one family of bacteria, deep below the surface, eating hydrogen at the boundary between the rocks and the water, could outweigh us all.

Perhaps we're not the rulers of the planet we make ourselves to be. But at least we won't be running out of water anytime soon.