Monday, September 30, 2013

Firing employees over Obamacare

So. It looks like a government shutdown is imminent due to the insane Tea Party zeal to repeal Obamacare. The Tea Party claims to be working hard to protect us from the damage that could be done by Obamacare. In this case, the cure is worse than the disease. A government shutdown would do far more damage to the economy than Obamacare will do, despite everything that Fox News says.

At least the government will continue to run with Obamacare. If the Tea Party refuses to fund the government, and I mean *all* of the government including Obamacare, we're in for a rough ride. The tea leaves say that the Tea Party will refuse to fund the government without removing funding for Obamacare.

There is going to be another round of discussions on the debt ceiling in a matter of weeks, too. That is going to be a much tougher discussion that the Tea Party Republicans are betting on with greater leverage to remove Obamacare. It's not about Obamacare. Their fight is about humiliating a president to make sure they can gain some seats in the next midterm elections. Their scorched earth policy is not about saving money for small businesses. They only need to pander to a few really big businesses to get the money they need for re-election.

On the subject of a default, there is at least one economist who says that a default might be a good thing. If the Federal government defaults on its obligations, that could bring about a drop in the value of the dollar big enough to offset the trade deficit. According to Dean Baker, economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, if we balanced our trade, that would add about $750 billion to our economy and create about 7 million jobs. When it comes to the debt ceiling fight again, we might wake up the next day to find that the dollar is no longer the world reserve currency.

The Republicans claim to want to remove regulations so that businesses can run smoothly. The regulations are in place to protect workers and the environment. Let me give you an interesting example. See the image below?

Here's an employer who is really upset with Obamacare. He's probably a Republican, but he doesn't say. It might not matter to the employees who were fired, though. Why were they fired? They had "Obama for 2012" stickers on their bumpers. Was this employer trying to save all of us from the dangers of Obamacare? Maybe. Could he have gone about it differently? Sure.

How many good employees did he lose? We don't know. They weren't fired based upon their performance at work. They were fired for free speech, for having an opinion. That is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution on the first order. Here's an employer so bent on personal freedom, that he was willing to fire anyone who supported his opposition openly.

It would appear that to the employer in the letter, employees are just pawns in a much bigger game to him. This employer was willing to commit financial violence in the name of achieving a political objective: making Obamacare so distasteful as to turn employees against Obamacare for reasons unrelated to Obamacare.

Is that the best you can do, big boy? Fire your employees who disagree with you so you can get your way? Sure, you can run your business any way you want. I get that. But how many lives did you interrupt? How much money did you cost the government? Was it really worth the effort? If the employees ever find out why you fired them, will you be happy with the litigation you'll have to deal with for your actions? Notice here, how important it was for the employer to remain anonymous. He might not be too proud of his actions.

We wouldn't be having this discussion if the "best healthcare system in the world" wasn't so ungodly inefficient. Blame it on the insurance companies, or blame it on the doctors if you like. Both of them are being coddled and protected from the one thing that could bring this whole farce under control: competition from the rest of the world.

Americans pay dearly for their healthcare. 18% of GDP is the cost of our healthcare system so that insurance executives can have their summer homes in Spain and so that a cardiologist can pull down $250,000 a year on average. Other industrialized countries pay about half of what we pay and they have better outcomes. How did we figure this out? Data. Lots of data.

If international competition works for electronics, clothing, cars and tech support, then it's going to work wonders with healthcare. The internet could make that happen in a big way. A high speed connection and a webcam can allow a visit with the doctor in India. The internet is enabling collaboration between people all over the world.

With more eyes on the problem, we could devise trade rules that allow doctors from foreign countries to train and practice medicine here with much greater ease. But doctors have lobbied against easing up on trade barriers for many years now, and they have the money to back that up.

I'm a big fan of Dean Baker because he's a free market economist. He's noticed that doctors and insurance companies have been protected from international competition through "free trade" agreements. He's even suggested some ideas on how we could trade with more efficient healthcare systems and reduce costs. If we cut our healthcare costs by half, we would be seeing budget surpluses rather than deficits.

This fight over Obamacare is a ruse to distract us from a much better solution. We could just globalize healthcare.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Obama has a chat with Iran

I see in the news that Obama had a nice phone chat with the leader of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. This is a major breakthrough as the US and Iranian leadership have not spoken directly in more than 30 years. Interestingly, Rouhani tweeted details of his conversation with Obama. Very interesting.

There are many who fear that Iran's nuclear program is designed to build the materials needed to make bombs. You know, so that they can pummel their favorite adversary, Israel, with nukes. Nevermind that the US provides Israel with billions in funding and weapons assistance. Would Israel have nuclear bombs without US funding? Not likely. Nuclear bombs are expensive, difficult to make and to maintain.

The media have dutifully reported Iran's denials of a weapons program. Iran's nuclear program is supposed to be for peace. I think that's plausible since they too might like to get away from the dirty business of oil for energy.

I think I would have more confidence in Iran's defense of their statements if they made one significant change to their nuclear power program. If they want nuclear power, they only need to follow China on the high road to thorium power plants.

The benefits of thorium power plants over are many and often overlooked by the mainstream media. I've pointed out a few of those benefits in this post. But there is one that I didn't cover in much detail: non-proliferation. Thorium power plants produce very little plutonium, and what little is produced is extremely hard to extract. If you thought uranium enrichment was fun and expensive with uranium power plants, wait until you see how hard it is to run a weapons program on thorium power plants. The U-233 from thorium power plants also comes with U-232, which makes enrichment for bombs even more expensive and time consuming.

There are some who say that the U-233 produced in thorium based reactors is a proliferation risk. If that were true, given that thorium is four times more abundant than uranium in the earth's crust, we would have done that long ago. Making bombs from U-233 is more dangerous, more expensive and much more difficult to do than with plutonium. If there were such a proliferation risk with thorium, we would have seen it by now. But we don't.

If Iran really means business about using nuclear power for peaceful intents, then it must adopt a thorium based nuclear energy system, namely, the thorium molten salt reactor. Hopefully, Obama will tactfully mention the benefits of a thorium fuel cycle in any discussions of a nuclear program with Iran.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why are we using uranium instead of thorium for nuclear power?

Many years ago, during the Nixon Administration, a precipitous decision was made: whether to use uranium light water reactors or to use thorium molten salt reactors. Some might say that the decision was based on the need for atom bomb materials, and in many ways, they would be right.

Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer, has been researching the potential of thorium as a source of nuclear energy. He happened upon documentation in government archives that describe a working molten salt reactor using thorium as fuel, back in the 1950s and 1960s. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory ran a thorium molten salt reactor for more than 22,000 hours (a bit less than 3 years), before it was shut down. He explains many of the benefits of thorium based power in 5 minutes here

Sorensen found audio recordings from the Nixon administration regarding the subject of nuclear power. In this presentation, at about 12 minutes into it, we hear Nixon marshalling forces to put a uranium nuclear power plant in California to create jobs. The competing project used thorium and was based in Tennessee. Nixon had powerful alliances that wanted a power plant in California to ensure his re-election to office and they were successful in meeting their objectives.

With uranium reactors, it's relatively easy to extract bomb materials from the reaction products. That's not so true of thorium. Bomb materials are extremely difficult to extract from the thorium fuel cycle.

While it's possible that in the main, nuclear fuel for bombs was a primary consideration in the choice of uranium nuclear reactors, evidence presented by Sorensen indicate that a much larger consideration was to put jobs in California to assist Nixon in a future re-election campaign. Seems like just a political decision, right? No big deal?

What are the implications of this decision? Three big implications come to mind. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, three of the biggest nuclear reactor accidents in my memory. Had we been using thorium molten salt reactors, none of these accidents could have happened.

The thorium molten salt reactor, by design, cannot have a runaway reaction. The molten salt is kept in a reaction vessel by a drain with a frozen plug. A fan blowing on the plug keeps the plug frozen. If something goes wrong, the plug melts and all the reacting materials are drained into passive cooling tanks.

The Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor produces less than 1% of the waste that a uranium reactor makes. The radioactivity from that waste lasts only 300 years compared to 10,000 plus years for uranium waste. Waste from uranium reactors can be reprocessed in thorium reactors, too.

Thorium reactors are about 300 times more efficient than uranium reactors. One ton of thorium can replace 31 billion barrels of oil. Think about that. The US has giant reserves of thorium and could become completely energy independent. Our dependence on foreign oil goes away, almost completely. Our need to maintain bases all over the world to protect the oil supply goes away. 9/11? Wouldn't have happened if we used thorium for fuel.

The energy density of thorium is so high that a small ball of thorium in your hand is enough for your entire lifetime energy needs. Thorium radioactivity is not nearly as dangerous as uranium. Thorium can be mined straight from the ground and needs no extensive processing to get the right isotope as with uranium.

Now that I've seen what happened, it is astounding to me that one man could set us on a course so completely wrong. It doesn't matter if he's liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. What matters now is that we change course for our kids.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Every man for himself

I read today, an interesting article on the perceived decline of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution I currently use. I note this with interest because the article clearly identifies trends that suggest a decline in the use of Ubuntu Linux. The cause? The company that manages Ubuntu, Canonical, has pursued selfish interests apparently in order to make the distribution profitable. As far as I know, Canonical has never made a profit.

Canonical has made many controversial decisions about Ubuntu. For example, there is the Unity interface, an interface designed by Canonical but is not widely used by the community. I tried Unity and hated it. I use Gnome 3 instead. Canonical is promoting their own display software, Mir, which as far as I know, few other distributions are planning to use. Over the years, Canonical has been vetoing decisions by the community and leaving the community feeling a bit cold.

This is in contrast to Red Hat, a publicly held company that only sells free software, that does more than a billion in business every year. The Red Hat Linux distribution is software you must buy before you can download it, but once you buy it, you own it. What you pay for, really, is service and support.

Red Hat has a community project, Fedora, as a testing ground for new software. I've used Fedora and I like it, but I'm more familiar with Ubuntu. I also like the ease with which I can get the media codecs to work in Ubuntu. Fedora, being dedicated to free software, attempts to avoid the pitfalls of patents in media codecs like mp3 and mpeg software, and so avoids using codecs that support patented media formats by default. That makes things a bit more complicated, but not impossible. Fedora, in contrast to Ubuntu, plays nice with the community and they work together very well.

A quick look at distrowatch shows that Ubuntu has been on the decline relative to other distributions of Linux. Ubuntu is no longer number one as it used to be. It's descendant, Mint, has almost double the downloads of Ubuntu. The father of Ubuntu, Debian, is a completely free software distribution that is doing a bit more than the son. Mageia has been gaining on the top three and is said to just work. I'm going to try it out on a virtual machine today. I note also that Mint and Debian are excellent community players.

I bring this to your attention because in another arena, Congress, I see a similar conflict playing out. There is a faction I see in Congress known as the Tea Party. They have to be the most selfish faction I have ever seen in Congress. They seek to impose an "every man for himself" ideology upon the rest of us. They seek to isolate men from each other and to set them in competition with each other. They seek to do the work of a tiny and extremely wealthy minority.

The Tea Party leaders in Congress, particularly, Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, have become targets of criticism within even the GOP. These two men, merely free agents in a bag of skin, are pursuing goals that may eventually tear this country apart with a government shutdown. They are not cooperating. They say that they are funding the government but denying funding for Obamacare.

I got news for you two, Lee and Cruz. Have you ever heard of set theory? You know, what is in the circle is part of the set and what is not in the circle is not part of the set? Yeah, that theory. As long as Obamacare is law, it *is* a part of the government. If you want to fund the government, you must fund *all* of it.

Likewise to any distributor of community software. If you want be a part of the community, you cannot dictate terms to the community. The decline of Ubuntu is evidence of isolation of Ubuntu from the community.

The decline of the United States is a a direct result of the unwillingness of Congress, particularly, the Tea Party faction, to take input from the rest of us. In a democratic republic, leaders are servants, not masters. It would be nice if Congress could comport themselves like servants once in awhile.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Fair Use

The public domain has been under considerable attack in recent decades. The content industries have been working hard to clear away all possible competition that could persuade potential customers not to buy their newest wares. While the courts don't have to protect the public domain, they certainly cannot allow copyright protection for works already in the public domain.

The courts are noticing, however, that they must protect fair use in order to bring copyright law within alignment of the First Amendment. Fair use speech or expression is an important part of expressions protected by the First Amendment. What is fair use?

Fair use is the use of small excerpts of copyrighted works for criticism and commentary. Fair use allows the rest of us to guide and add to the narrative of our culture. The best example of fair use that I have ever seen is Jay Leno's Headlines on The Tonight Show. The Headlines segment aired on Monday nights and featured Leno showing a variety of newspaper ads and other printed media with errors. The errors are often grammatical, spelling and even photographic errors, all communicating an unintentional, yet hilarious message.

To my knowledge, neither Leno himself, nor NBC have ever been in litigation over Headlines, and I doubt that The Tonight Show has ever sought a signed release for any of the materials shown in Headlines. Yet, NBC/Universal is quite zealous in prosecution of anyone who would infringe upon their copyrights. NBC/Universal demonstrates their copyright maximalist posture by forcing visitors to the Headlines site to endure a commercial twice if the user selects "full screen" after viewing part of the video in the browser.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken notice of an interesting turn in the courts. They have noticed that a really bad Supreme Court decision, Golan v. Holder, permitted the removal of millions of foreign works from the public domain, restoring their copyright protection, while also noticing the importance of fair use. The EFF notes that the court said that fair use protection is required for copyright laws to remain in alignment with the First Amendment protections for free speech.

The EFF noted fair use examples that would normally be illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, must be protected as free speech under the First Amendment, else, the DMCA would be unconstitutional. Such examples include software that allows the reading of DVDs despite the scrambling of that data in the format of the DVD. Such software was created to allow Linux users to view DVDs on their computers. This is known as the freedom to tinker and to share that knowledge with others.

The copyright industry has become known as "Big Content" for a reason. Big Content is incredibly focused on eliminating access to public domain works, and removal of all protections from even incidental violations of copyright. In the digital age, with so many ways to view copyrighted works, it is easy to incidentally violate copyrights without even knowing it has happened.

It is time for the media, the courts and Big Content, to recognize and remember that primary beneficiary of the copyright laws is not the artist. Not even by a long shot. It is the People. The copyright laws encourage production of culture with a temporary monopoly on the sale of that content. But when protection for that content expires, the public enjoys the right of reuse of the same content. It is the wider context of the First Amendment that should be considered when any provision of copyright is reviewed in litigation. In that wider context, the People come first.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thoughts on the human instinct to cooperate

I now work for a firm that places an emphasis on cooperation, helping others to learn and continuing education. My new employer emphasizes these three areas of work in ways that I have never seen done in other firms that I have worked for. The posture of my new employer has elicited in me great anticipation of opportunities to learn, train, help and teach.

Early interactions with my new classmates and soon to be workmates have also given me perspective on their experience at other companies. For example, one co-worker had previously worked for a company that put their new employees in the shark tank with very little opportunity for training and professional development. Overtime was not paid, either in cash or comp time. There were few incentives for employees to cooperate and competition was encouraged. With a CEO and corporate board narrowly focused on maintenance of stock price rather than employees, the company in question has experienced declining fortunes relative to my new employer.

It is interesting to see the contrasts between companies that cooperate and generate goodwill and those companies who seem to think that competition is the solution to all problems of inefficiency.

For example, Vivek Wadwha has noted an interesting contrast in culture between Google and Facebook. Where Facebook inserts more ads, more sponsored posts and imposes greater privacy intrusions, Facebook elicits the wrath of their users. Google on the other hand, is generally perceived as more benign than Facebook, primarily because Google has worked hard to generate goodwill with their community of users and partners.

The contrast is generally one of selfishness vs cooperation. Over the years studies have been done to show that selfishness contributes to better chances for survival than cooperation. Most of that work is premised on the ideas discerned from the work of Charles Darwin. However, I take those studies with a grain of salt because many of those studies ignore the many examples of cooperation that Darwin found and the methodologies imposed isolation between the subjects of the experiments.

Studies of cooperation vs competition usually employ some variation of the Prisoner's Dilemma. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a deceivingly simple experiment in game theory. Two prisoners have been arrested and charged for a crime. If one rats out on the other, he goes free and the other guy goes to jail, and vice versa. If both cooperate, they do less time than if they both betray each other. But in most studies, the prisoners are not allowed to talk with each other.

A recent study found that the dynamic changes entirely when both prisoners are allowed to talk to each other. What came out of the study is that selfish behavior is great for short term survival of individuals, but cooperation is much better for long term survival of a species. This correlation is evident in humans and in the animal kingdom.

Google thinks long term, they think big, and they're not afraid to share what they've learned with others with contributions to open source software. Google contributes to open standards, (to my knowledge) they do not initiate patent fights, and they encourage people to code with their "Summer of Code" events, among many other examples of goodwill.

There isn't much goodwill on the part of Facebook that can be cited. Wadwha sees this contrast as evidence that eventually, Facebook will become a technological backwater, like AOL, Myspace and Microsoft. Google will outlast many of their competitors not just because of their technological proficiency, and they recognize that skill and experience alone aren't enough. It is Google's goodwill that can provide a lasting foundation for success.

Selfish action assumes a scarcity of resources. Cooperation and goodwill assume abundance and/or the ability to create more resources through cooperation. While it is impossible to hurt someone else without hurting yourself, the converse is also true. It is impossible to help someone else without helping yourself.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Great Recession: Was this trip really necessary?

I remember the bailout of 2008 all too well. It lasted well into 2009, 2010. Bankers went bonkers and said that if we don't bail them out, they're going to put a gun to their head and pull the trigger.

Bankers acted like they didn't have enough money to cover their butts then. But through the wonders of databases, bankers have in a sense created a second set of books, hiding the true size of the banking system. To get around the noses of regulators, bankers figured out ways to hide the numbers by structuring transactions to avoid detection, hiding the true value of their assets. What has been hidden is called the shadow banking system. In the same way that we can indirectly measure and detect dark matter, we can detect dark money.

How much dark money are we talking about? About $100 *trillion*. Remember all that hand waving and gesturing to the effect that the banking system would blow up if the US government didn't ante up $800 billion or so to save those banks? As the richest country in the world, a small set of citizens of the United States own or control a good chunk of that $100 trillion. Given this astounding figure, it is likely that the banking system would have recovered well, but some not so well placed investors would not have been happy with the source of funds chosen for that recovery.

It is interesting that regulators could miss that much money. But what if the incentive to find that dark money just isn't there? $Trillions can easily capture an agency in any country with all sorts of incentives to nudge, wink and look the other way while on that paid vacation to Monaco.

That kind of money easily justifies a 1% sales tax on securities trading worldwide, where $5 *quadrillion* changes hands every year. $100 trillion in hidden assets means that we really didn't need to go through this Great Recession as the bankers were happy to tell us we needed to do.

Years, ago a scientist named William Teller did a great analysis of the math behind quantum mechanics and the relativity theories from Einstein. He noticed that potential energy was a variable used to balance the math in quantum mechanics and relativity. He estimates from that work that the potential energy in the volume of a single hydrogen atom is about 10^92 ergs, a humongous amount of energy. Abundance is everywhere. We only need to look for it. Apparently, the same is true of our financial system. 

Perhaps that entire drama surrounding the bailout was for naught.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


As the autumnal equinox approaches, I am reminded that it's my dad's birthday in a few days. On his next birthday, he will have completed his 71st year on this plane(t). Dad's a great fan of science fiction. I can't remember a day when I didn't see him with a dog-eared paperback book in his hands when I was a boy. Dad turned me on to Arthur C. Clark, Larry Niven and Piers Anthony, three men who started to give me a sense of the grandeur of the universe.

I still like science fiction, but I don't really have the time to read it. So I watch movies instead. I've become a big fan of the movies featuring Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky and Minority Report. I have also enjoyed Tron, Tron II, Lawnmower Man, Strange Days, Total Recall and the Matrix Trilogy. One of my all time favorite movies is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many of those movies are virtual reality movies, but all of them feature some technology that is truly science fiction, even today.

When the equinox comes, particularly in the fall, I tend to reflect on what my life has become relative to where I've been. There are many things in my life now, that would have been considered science fiction in my lifetime.

Here's an example. I have a nice 19" LCD monitor that I use for my computer. I can't remember exactly when I bought it anymore. Probably sometime around 2006 or 2007. I only remember that my wife Alice was in my life at the time, so I got it sometime after 2007. These flat screens seem so out of place when I think about it. They display the images from the computer nearly perfectly and when I look behind them, well, there isn't much behind them.

The LCD monitor exists in stark contrast to the massive, bulky CRT monitors that I have had before. I didn't imagine such a thing before they came into my life. If you had shown me an LCD when I was 15 years old, that would have been science fiction to me. I would not believe it to exist then, but it was plausible that they would someday come into existence.

The LCD screen is just one example of science fiction born into reality in my life. In the past, there was such a thing as "flat screen envy", and having a flat screen on your desk at the office was a sign of status. I kid you not. As an IT worker, I have had people begging me for a flat screen and my reply was, speak with your supervisor. Now, flat screen monitors are mundane, taken for granted and considered the standard display. Many people have two monitors at their desk.

The cell phone, laptop computers, GPS, and giant Tee-Vees up to 90" these days, are the science fiction of the 1970s. We just didn't have these things in common use that ordinary consumers could buy. The first commercial space flight will launch in a few years to transport a few wealthy passengers in sub-orbital flight. In about ten years, sub-orbital flight may be as commonplace as jet flight is today.

The computers we have today are much faster than the supercomputers of the 1970s and 1980s with billions of transistors. The graphics card in my computer as I write, is capable of hundreds of GIGAFLOPS, billions of computations a second. In 1990, that would be a supercomputer. All of it is science fiction come to life.

Years ago, when I a teenager, Dad took us on vacation in Hawaii. He took us scuba diving in the reefs around Hawaii, which was a fascinating adventure in and of itself. I learned how to submerge while breathing through the scuba tubes. I learned how to take the mouthpiece out and put it back in, while resting on my knees, 25 feet underwater. I'll never forget that experience.

Dad made two very interesting comments about that experience. First, while we were all swimming together, Dad said that all he could do was count, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" to make sure that all of us were still there, 25-30 feet underwater, swimming with him. The second comment he made was that 50 years ago, even the richest man in the world could not do what we could do then. Imagine that. The richest men in the world 80 years ago did not have scuba diving to resort to for recreation.

The internet, computers, cell phones, and a long list of other technologies we enjoy now, did not exist at some point before us, or even during our lifetimes. We had to make do with rotary phones, land lines, and paper. Lots of paper.

The equinox is an interesting time for me every year. The golden sunlight coming through my windows at sunset are a reminder that time is passing and that winter is coming. When I reflect on what I have seen in technological change, I note that my dad has now seen much more change. The world is a far different place to him than when he was a boy. Same for me, too.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Gigabit comes to my town, but not my house - yet

In Utah, we have the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency, aka, UTOPIA. They were started in 2001 to provide residents with decent internet speeds since the incumbents, Qwest (now Centurylink) and Comcast, weren't willing to do the work required to bring that about. At least not until Utopia got going.

I have a case in point. At my house, Centurylink is unwilling to offer more than 5mbs. That used to be fast. But today, well, that turns the World Wide Web into the World Wide Wait. I still can't get much more than 5mbs from Centurylink. So I needed Comcast as they were the only alternative. Hey, that's private enterprise for ya, right?

I couldn't get Comcast when I moved in here. I spent a year and a half working with Comcast to get service. Every few months, I'd call, check for availability and then give up. From time to time, there would be some expo in town and Comcast would have a booth. I'd talk to them every time. Then one day, I found a very enterprising lady who accepted my challenge. Get me connected and I'll subscribe. She did that and I've enjoyed 12, 25 and 50mbs since.

Today, Utopia announced 1 gigabit service for homes and businesses in their service area, which is about 20x faster than what I get now. Service starts at about $65 a month. Sweet. When can I get it?

Oh, wait. I'm not connected yet. Their last rollout stopped short of my house by one and a half blocks. So I'm contacting the city and Utopia. I'm eventually going to find out when they will connect my house.

With a Utopia connection, I can get the triple play at a very reasonable price compared to Comcast and Centurylink. Not that I would want to, though. I'm fine without TV. I'm using that magic jack thing for the occasional fax that I might need to send. But the network remains.

A gigabit connection means that I could conceivably work from home if my employer had gigabit access, too. Work, phone, TV, internet and who knows what else, all through one pipe. Utopia is doing what we should have done long ago: treat internet access like a utility rather than a luxury. Utopia is a true common carrier and proves the point that Net Neutrality is a Ruse.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Low value neighborhood

I have T-Mobile for phone service. I like their service for the most part. Their signal has been good in most of the places that matter. But for some reason, my home doesn't matter that much to T-Mobile. My calls are dropped often and data speeds leave something to be desired.

I called T-Mobile about this and spent several minutes on hold while they researched the problem. The conclusion? T-Mobile has 51 recorded complaints from my neighborhood about the same problem. What is cause of the problem? The closest tower to me is a slower, older, 2G data tower. The solution? Replace it with a new 4G LTE tower. They add that the problem is not expected to be resolved soon, but do not expect resolution any later than the end of 2015.

So I did some shopping and found that Verizon offers what appears to be a pretty reasonably priced plans that are comparable to what I have. My wife's plan won't expire until 2015, but given our poor signal here at home, I think it might be worth the early termination fee to move on. I'm getting really tired of dropped calls from T-Mobile and the move might spur them on to fixing the problem.

Then I have Centurylink. Their internet access plans for this neighborhood are terrible. I can't get anything better than 5mbs here from them. I have to use Comcast if I want faster speeds and most properties that I use on internet don't really function at less than 5mbs. In fact, Centurylink only guarantees 4mbs or better. After spending a month nursing their poor excuse for a modem, I gave up and went back to Comcast. I have a pretty good introductory deal and hope to keep it that way. At least until UTOPIA shows up.

UTOPIA might have been able to run fiber down my street past my house (but stopped a block and a half away) were it not for a ridiculous lawsuit filed by Qwest (now Centurylink) to stymie their efforts to provide broadband at reasonable prices and speeds. Here's how low Qwest was willing to go: Qwest moved for discovery on more than 20,000 telephone poles, one at a time to keep UTOPIA from rolling out fiber to the home.

We have another problem, the "Municipal Cable Television and Public Telecommunications Services Act", an act that protects local incumbent interests from communities that want to run their own cable systems. Why would a community want to do that? Small towns and communities are getting fed up with cable and telco companies when internet access is slow, and the incumbents refuse to upgrade.

The Community Broadband Networks website has documented numerous cases where cable and telcos have reluctantly upgraded their infrastructure when city hall moves to create a public internet service. Cable companies and telcos just love to sit on their networks, providing inferior speeds and customer service while protected by their agreements with local government. But when local governments decide to build their own networks, incumbent interests got all huffy about it.

What did they do? They worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council to craft legislation that would prevent local governments from running their own public networks. 19 states have pass such legislation and Utah was the first state to do so.

So yeah, I live in a low value neighborhood. I have Comcast, but that is only after spending more than a year and half to try and get service from Comcast. I had to beg them to hook me up so that I have a better option than Centurylink. Just writing that last sentence makes me think of the lines in Communist Russia. The irony is that I have a choice of two private monopolies and the government provided option, UTOPIA, actually provides better service than the private options.

Russia proved that pure government isn't the solution. T-Mobile, Comcast and Centurylink are proving that lax or unregulated utilities don't work, either.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Quality of life is a choice

There is another aspect to The Frugal Life that merits discussion. This aspect concerns our buying choices. For example, should we go to Walmart to pay the lowest possible price, or should we go to someplace more upscale to get better quality? There is an old adage that says, "you get what you pay for". Today I'd like to share my personal experience with that concept.

In the summer, I like to wear sandals. It's hot, sometimes muggy and when we go for walks, I want my feet out in the open, enjoying life. For 3 years in a row, I bought these sandals from Oshmans Sporting Goods for $15 a pair. I managed to wear them out in a year each time and found that a hard spot would wear through and caused pain on the balls of my feet.

On the fourth year, we were walking through a mall when my wife Alice suggested that I get a new pair of sandals, something that wouldn't wear out so quick. I relented and agreed to walk into a place that just sells sandals. While there, a salesperson helped me to select a pair on Alice's suggestion. I walked around in them and immediately noticed an improvement in how my feet felt. But they were $70.

Then again, I looked at their construction, liked the way they looked, figured that they weren't going to wear out like the other sandals I had been buying and felt really comfortable. Had I done that years ago, I would not have bought $15 sandals three times. I would have saved myself the effort and time and money, which is more than the cost of the $70 sandals. My feet are happier now. Without knowing what she had done, Alice had reminded me that you get what you pay for. As you'll see below, I get to return the favor to Alice.

From time to time, Alice wanted to go shopping for shoes. We went to places like Payless Shoesource, Shoe Carnival and even K-Mart to find shoes that she want to wear. This seemed to work OK, but a friend's voice rang in my head, telling me that we stand on our feet all day. Let's get something better. I made suggestions to go somewhere else for a better buying experience, but Alice persisted in going after the bottom dollar on shoes.

Then a few weeks ago, Alice began to complain that her heels hurt. After some discussion, she determined that it was her shoes that were causing her pain. She needed some relief so we went shopping for new shoes. But this time, she was willing to go to Dillards on my suggestion. If you don't have Dillards in your town, Dillards is a department store just a notch below Nordstroms to get an idea of what I mean.

When we arrived, Alice browsed for shoes and wanted to try them on herself, taking shoes from the displays to try on. Alice was not really familiar with how these department stores worked. I suggested that we get a salesperson to help answer questions and find a shoe that fits. Once a salesperson was consulted, I just carried our daughter Emily around while Alice worked with the shoe salesperson.

Now I felt confident that eventually Alice was going to find a pair of shoes that she liked. They were going to cost a lot more money, but they would last, they would fit, and ultimately, they would not cause her pain. We settled on a pair of shoes from Ecco and a pair of sandals from Born. I love Ecco shoes myself, so I was really happy to see her get fitted with her new shoes.

Alice loved both of them and enjoyed the experience. I told Alice that this shopping experience was something I wanted to do for her for a long, long time. I explained to her that when I buy shoes, I am making a long term investment in my feet, so I don't go cheap. I also explained to her how it pains me to see her buying cheap shoes when she could have something better and feel better about the purchase. I just wanted to roll my eyes every time she wanted to go to Shoe Carnival. But one stop in Dillards has brought great relief to Alice and relieved me with a sharp decrease in the frequency of our trips to the shoe store.

We live in a throwaway society. When we buy cheap, we buy again, over and over. What I've learned over the years is that the return on investment is better than proportional with the quality of the item we buy. And some of the benefits are intangible.

For example, when we moved into our home, we bought a new refrigerator that cost about $700. It worked and worked well for what we needed to do, but it was noisy and small. This year, we bought a refrigerator for $2000 that is plenty big enough for our growing needs with one growing kid. But it also has a linear compressor that is warrantied for 10 years and is very quiet. We also learned that these days, water filters are pretty standard on high end refrigerators, and we had a water hookup that connects to the cold water line on our sink in the kitchen. We installed the filter and opened the valve to have filtered water for drinking and ice. Very cool. We won't be buying another refrigerator any time soon. That's an intangible benefit.

I don't expect to be seeing a repairman, either. Why? When I went shopping for a refrigerator, the salesperson at Home Depot was only pointing me to the LG refrigerators and I asked why. She said that they weren't being returned by customers, they just run. I liked that and bought one. That refrigerator may be expensive today, but over the years, it will just run and provide plenty of space while keeping our food cool or frozen, with cool filtered water for drinking. The intangible benefit for me is that the sound of the compressor won't wipe out the consonants in the dialogue when I'm watching a movie.

Buying on the cheap leads to a mind of scarcity and leads to buying over and over again. Buying a quality item when you need it leads to a life of abundance because you won't have to buy that item again anytime soon. Paying with cash means that you aren't on the hook every month to pay for someone else's summer home. Abundance is not an action, it's a state of mind that you choose to have.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Frugal Life

The Great Recession has returned many Americans to frugal living. Many cannot find jobs even during a recovery. Many have lost their homes through predatory lending practices and stagnating wages. Many people who have lost their homes are living with their parents. Many have lost jobs that they've worked at for years only to be staring at the clock or calendar wondering when they will get their next interview.

There is something to be said for the frugal life. Frugal living isn't about self-deprivation. It's about buying only what we really need and use. The days of impulse buying are gone for many Americans, including myself. I don't walk into a store unless I am clear about my intentions to buy something. I'm not a window shopper.

When I go to Costco to buy food for my family, I see the big screen TVs, but I already have one, so I don't think about buying the latest model when mine will do. I don't fantasize about buying that thing that I want. I wait, save some money and then buy it with cash. I don't use credit cards anymore, as credit cards are a giant form of hidden inflation that makes everything more expensive.

When people buy things on time, they are using money they don't have, and driving up demand. That drives up the price. Another way that the cost goes up is interest on the balance on the card. Many people are paying greater than 10% interest on their credit card balances, even though most savings accounts are only paying 1/2 of one percent interest.

I have cut the cord for TV. No satellite, no cable. Just YouTube and Netflix. No more do I have commercials beating on my brain to buy something I don't want. My general rule of thumb is that if it's a product advertised on TV, especially food, I don't need it or want it. With Netflix and YouTube, I can watch videos on any subject matter I want. I can watch movies when I want on Netflix without any trailers or commercials. I don't really care that much about disputes over retransmission rights between cable and a television network. The best part is that I don't feel like I need to sit and watch something on TV just to "use" the cable or satellite service.

I buy clothes when I need clothes, not to appeal to the latest fashion. I keep my meals simple and bag my lunch for work. I don't subscribe to bottled water delivery. I buy my own health insurance so that I can pick and choose employers. Every so often, we have some Indian buffet at a local restaurant where we can choose the portion size and pay a flat fee. And the list goes on.

But the point I want to drive home is this: there is a lot of talk about how the top 1% are abusing everyone else in the country. That abuse is not without consent. When we buy things we don't need or want, buy it on time and subscribe to services that we don't need, or try to buy houses we can't afford, we're directly supporting the 1%. 

My dad used to tell me that I'm cheap and that I'm trying too hard to hold onto money. He said that I have a backwards gene I inherited from my great grandfather. I learned long ago that money doesn't buy friends, money doesn't make me happy and accumulating money isn't the only game in life. I would not describe myself as cheap, rather, I'm frugal. I buy only what I need when I need it, and wait until I have money saved up to buy what I really want.

Every time I buy something with cash, I am denying money to the 1%. Years ago, I worked a sales job in retail as an experiment. What I learned in training is that a retail business makes $8-10 for every $100 you spend on a retailer issued credit card ("Would you like to put that on your Sears Card?"). The same retailer will make $3-4 per $100 spent on a third party credit card. The profit goes down to $1-2 per $100 spent if you just use cash. That's why I don't buy things on time unless it's a house or a car. I save money.

What does all of this have to do with technology? Technology makes all of this work. Credit cards, subscription services, health care, they all run on databases. They all use tech to run. If you're unhappy with the 1%, dialing back your spending is the very first place to start to retake your country back. 

I have no credit card debts. This affords me greater purchasing power than I would have with debt. When I just buy what I need and use, the house remains free of all the junk that could clutter up my house. When I buy with cash, I take comfort knowing that I don't have to answer to a creditor next month. That creditor is a member of the 1%.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

China could lock us out of the thorium race

Whenever I have a chance, I watch videos on thorium at home to learn of the many benefits of the thorium molten salt reactor compared to uranium solid fuel reactors. In the videos I've seen, there are two trends that really stand out. First, thorium advocates have noticed that there isn't really a shortage of rare earth metals here in the US. But when we mine thorium, we also get a bunch of rare earth metals with it, and the waste products from thorium energy production include both stable and radioactive rare earth isotopes, some with medical and scientific uses.

The other trend that I've noticed is that China has been demonstrating leadership in thorium energy production. China is also a leader of rare earth metals production and a byproduct of their rare earth mining activity is some thorium. Cell phones, computers and TVs all need these rare earths to function.

If China remains a leader in thorium energy production and research, they will also remain as the world supplier of rare earths. As long as they maintain that lead in rare earth production, even if wages in China come close to US wages, rare earth production in China will tend to keep electronics production in China. I don't hear this problem discussed in political discourse.

There is another problem on the horizon discussed in the videos I've seen. China is a member of the World Trade Organization, that's not a problem in and of itself. But as a WTO member, China has adopted America's aggressive intellectual property regime. There is some discussion of China amassing a patent thicket so broad and wide on thorium energy production, that they could raise the cost of American use of thorium energy production to the point that we cannot compete as a manufacturer with China.

China intends to acquire and maintain a lead in the technologies that will drive manufacturing to their country. Thorium energy production technologies is one arena that China is well positioned to dominate. I don't see any of our politicians doing anything about it. On the economics side, China buys our bonds to keep our dollar strong so that manufacturing work will land there. That's the only reason they buy our bonds, so I doubt very much they are worried about a default on our debt. Now they can combine two points of leverage to keep manufacturing in China.

By maintaining hegemony in thorium and rare earth production, China can eventually lock the US out of the thorium energy market, either by influencing American energy policy to discourage thorium energy production, or by amassing a patent thicket as a barrier to the market. Either action could give China a competitive advantage in energy production, driving energy costs down while labor costs rise to maintain incentive for manufacturers to locate in China.

American mining companies can find plenty of rare earths on American soil and when they do, they find thorium. Unfortunately, there is no demand for thorium, so American companies have to fill out paperwork to meet the regulatory requirements of disposing of thorium when they find it. Wouldn't it be nice if instead of treating thorium as waste, mining companies could just send thorium to a thorium power plant for processing and get paid for it?

There is enough thorium on this planet to power humankind for at least the next 1000 years. Instead of treating it like waste, we could develop leadership in thorium energy production and achieve energy independence. With a ready market for thorium, we can reduce our costs for rare earth mining and processing and once again lead the world as an energy independent nation.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What if intelligence correlates with cooperation among humans?

I had a wild thought yesterday. Well, I was in class today and freezing my butt off in an air conditioned room after having shaved my head the day before. That makes for great heat transfer in moments of deep thought. Yeah, I had a really deep one yesterday.

So here's my thought: what if there is a correlation between the desire to cooperate and intelligence? This thought sort of comes from an idea I had when I was in high school. I got picked on a lot in school and tried to find ways to recover from my defeats by thinking. My idea then? That the jocks and bullies in school were at an intellectual disadvantage. Why? They need to dedicate more brain cells to fire off impulses that moved muscles. The logic is that the more muscles you have, the more you must dedicate to moving all that mass. Get it?

So I'm in class, learning new stuff, and it occurs to me that in my new job, I'm going to be a writer. I'm not just a writer, I'm a technical writer, and I'm a problem solver, too. I guess all that stimulation got me going.

But I think that the logic I am suggesting holds true. Negotiating peacefully takes more brains than beating your adversary senseless with a stick. Cooperation takes more brains, too. A casual survey among the animals seems to suggest that man is one of the most cooperative animals in the world, second only to the ants. I think that there are network effects that contribute to the size of the brain when humans engage in cooperative efforts.

Research published in Nature Communications shows that previous notions about the superiority of selfishness over cooperation are not born out by the evidence. The latest research and experiments show that cooperation is what allows a species to survive and that selfishness will drive a species to extinction, or at least, to smaller brains. Even Darwin noticed cooperation in the habitats he studied, expressed surprise to see it and suggested that animals need and express love.

The initial investment of negotiating a peace and writing laws that everyone can live with is high and requires a lot of patience, thought and planning. These are skills that testy adversaries like the Visigoths portrayed in pop culture don't have. In the long run, taking the time to negotiate peace, form governments and write laws has an interesting side effect: when those big brains are not being used to fight adversaries: they can be used to make life better.

Consider this question: can you think when you're in fear? Can you contemplate the really big questions like, "What is the source of gravity?", or "Why are my hands so big?", or "Why are we using uranium instead of thorium for nuclear power?", when you're worrying about physical threats? With few if any physical threats from adversaries, we can focus long enough to consider these problems and more. We have time to tinker and create inventions and works of art that please people and make life better.

But under constant threat of assailants or predators, we wouldn't have the time to live. We would only have the time to survive.

One look at economic development among the international community bears this out. Those who are constantly engaged in war in their homeland, particularly in the Middle East, and Africa, have to devote more resources to the lower functions of the brain, namely, deciding between fight or flight. In war, you don't get time to contemplate the big questions. Much of the time in war is spent, fighting, grieving and moving to safety. Higher order thought is replaced by the urge for revenge or submitting to defeat.

Charles Darwin expressed surprise in his observations of cooperation in the animal kingdom. Yet what we are conditioned to believe is "the survival of the fittest". That phrase reminds me of how my dad used to talk about putting two humans in a pit to fight over a sandwich. He never talked about the possibility that those two humans could just relax and share the sandwich. Yeah, sharing. What a concept.

Many theories have been put forward to explain the size of the human brain. Some say it's cheap calories from cooking food. Others say its a natural consequence of our ability to dominate the environment. But honestly, we couldn't just sit around and cook food without cooperation from others. That's why I think that when humans cooperate, they make room for bigger brains.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Wait. Why is the NSA eavesdropping on us again?

I just read a fascinating piece in the New York Times about the NSA's long running efforts to weaken or compromise encryption standards and methods, worldwide. The extent of the overreach of the NSA into the private affairs and communications of American citizens is simply astounding. What is this for? Does the NSA value and treasure liberty? Not for the American people it doesn't. Does it value the very Constitution upon which its existence depends? No, it does not. Even one of the original authors of the Patriot Act says that the NSA is completely out of line with their efforts.

Apparently, the NSA has forgotten that they work for us. Oh, wait. Maybe they don't.

The NY Times report shows in significant detail, the challenges the NSA has tried to overcome, to ensure that it has complete access to all communications it can find. They have been working hard to compromise Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption to make it easier to decode traffic with SSL websites, just one example among many.

NSA claims regarding their ability to listen to SSL traffic might be believable to the extent that they are able to coerce popular internet properties like Google, and Yahoo to hand over their private keys for SSL encryption. Why would they even bother to ask? They have to ask for the keys because they simply don't have the computing power to brute force attack a 256-bit SSL key. The laws of thermodynamics dictate that to break such a key, the energy output of our sun for decades or a supernova, take your pick, is required.

But there is something else that is almost completely overlooked in the public debate over privacy. Why this massive effort to collect the data? The government plays the terrorist card. Why worry about terrorists? Because US forces are in the Middle East, making trouble for countries that have oil. Why rely upon a source of energy that requires cooperation from the Middle East? I guess they're just looking for something to do.

We could eliminate much of the terrorism problem with a diligent effort to develop alternative sources of energy other than oil or coal. A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to thorium for nuclear power. We came close to using thorium rather than uranium in the 70s, but egos got in the way and we now use uranium.

Thorium power production has many benefits that are explained here in a 5 minute video. There is much more to the story on thorium, but here is the short list of benefits:
  • Thorium is very well distributed worldwide. No single country has a lock on supply.
  • Thorium is 4 times more abundant than uranium and much less expensive.
  • Molten salt thorium reactors are much safer than solid fuel uranium reactors because they don't require high pressure steam systems, they shut down passively during a power interruption and do not require the elaborate safety systems that uranium plants require.
  • Thorium leaves 1% of the waste that uranium power production leaves behind.
  • Nuclear waste from thorium power production is radioactive for maybe a few hundred years rather than a few hundred thousand years of uranium fuel waste and some of the waste products can be used for medical and space exploration purposes.
  • Thorium power plants can be made smaller, more widely distributed and run more efficiently than uranium power plants.
  • A golf ball sized ball of thorium will provide a lifetime supply of power for one person.
  • The supply of thorium on this planet can power the world for at least the next thousand years at current rates of energy use.
With a change to thorium for nuclear power production, we could provide our country with a deep and wide baseline of power production and become completely independent from oil, coal and gas for the vast majority of our power needs. In the context of the terrorist problem, we could change ourselves rather than try to change everyone else to our liking. If the US were truly energy independent, our extensive military presence around the world would not be necessary. Likewise, our extensive intelligence gathering would no longer be necessary either. We could actually cut back wide swaths of the military industrial complex and still be OK.

If every continent had their own thorium power production systems, fights over oil become irrelevant. Coal becomes obsolete. Imagine what would happen to the world if we could harness thorium to power the world. That kind of power can scrub the atmosphere of CO2 down to pre-industrialization levels. It can power high speed levitating transport systems. Thorium is a stepping stone to fusion power plants. This is not a pipe dream as many countries are working on the problem of bringing thorium power production online including: China, Canada, Norway, Germany and the US. China is considered to be the leader in this effort at the moment.

The only things stopping us from using thorium is apparently a lack of experience, and a conventional nuclear industry that sees no easy transition to using thorium without stepping into some healthy competition. The efforts of incumbent power interests to block the funding of thorium research projects are well documented and suggest that a competitive threat from thorium is real.

To end the war on terror, we need to stop using a power source that requires cooperation from the Middle East and other sources hostile to our interests. They don't have to change their attitude, but we can. How's that for a change in perspective?

Friday, September 06, 2013

Are kids any better than their parents with computers?

I'm noticing that a myth is slowly being pierced and exposed to show an emerging problem. The myth? The myth is that most kids are better at computers than their parents. The fact is, that most kids don't know how to use a general purpose computer any better than their parents. I found two example articles demonstrating the concerns here and here.

For the last few generations, it seems a given that kids will know the tech better than their parents. I know that for my generation, my family, I know the tech better than my parents. I've lived with computers for all of my adult life. But it wasn't until 1997 that I learned to install an operating system myself, and that is one measure competency with computers. If you don't know how to install an operating system, you are at the mercy of someone else who does, if you want to use computers.

Generation Y and Z appear to be the first generations that don't know general purpose computing better than their parents. A large proportion of the Baby Boomers were in adolescence or adults during the personal computer revolution starting in the 80s. We saw computers come into our homes, mature and grow into very useful devices for personal work.

But most kids these days, don't know how to repair an internet connection. They don't know how to avoid viruses. They use easy passwords. They are in a sense, naive about computers in general and remain that way, often, after suffering a few setbacks with their computers. Even if their computer crashes, won't boot, they lose their data or their computer becomes infected with a virus, few if any, will investigate the problem beyond asking for help from someone else to fix it.

I suspect we have come to this point because the parents really don't know enough about computers to help their own kids. Many parents have made no effort to encourage their kids to learn how to use them. Parents are very busy. They have other priorities. If kids want to learn computers, they are pretty much on their own. I know I was, but somehow I figured it out as an adult.

So today's kids go for the low hanging fruit. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter come to mind. But if they run into a virus, they seek assistance from the nearest geek. Geeks are not really that cool until you need their help to restore your computer to running condition now, are they?

There is another trend emerging that doesn't get much press: The war on general purpose computing, particularly for consumers. Apple and Microsoft have been the biggest promoters of this trend. They don't want you installing your own operating system for you might find that there are alternatives. They don't want you peering inside your computer with the command line to see how it works. You might hack it to do something you that is not supported by Apple or Microsoft. Whatever happens to be supported may have more to do with economics and politics than your sense of curiosity.

It's worth noting that Google seems to take a rather dim view of the attitude promoted by Microsoft and Apple. They understand that consumers own their computers and provide ample tools for re-imaging hardware running Android. Android is open source software. Easy to learn, modify and replace if you want to. I know people who have replaced the original operating system in their Android phone with a free (as in freedom) version of Android called CyanogenMod. You could try to do this with Apple or Microsoft hardware, but it will be a struggle not worth the effort.

I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to take a class where I could learn how to work with computers. Years ago, i learned how to install Windows NT server. That experience opened my eyes to how computers work in a way that most users never see. I began to see computers as commodities rather than delicate devices that must be carefully maintained. The data is delicate. The hardware is pretty tough and can withstand mild to moderate abuse.

We have an amazing legacy to work with here. General purpose computers are a great place to learn how computers work. From programming to installing applications and servers, the current generation needs to know how computers work in order to keep the reigns on the government and the corporations that serve them. If they don't the government and corporations will rule them.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Password, please.

I've been working in IT for 14 years. During my time in IT, I've encountered an interesting array of passwords. I've developed a certain philosophy about passwords through the years that works well for me. As admin, I've reset the password for users many times when they forget their passwords. I've also been given passwords used by owners and other management staff so that I can work on their computers when they're away from work. This experience has given me a sense of choices people make for passwords they want to remember.

I'm on the subject of passwords this morning because someone caught my attention with a link to an article by Bruce Schneier. In the article, Schneier delineates the problems associated with easy passwords. Passwords are getting easier to crack with time. This is because people who crack passwords for fun and profit are also sharing their insights with each other.

For example, there are now huge collections of passwords that have been found on the internet. Using one of these password dictionaries, a black hat can quickly run through a billion possibilities for a password. If you're using an easy password like "fatcat8" or candycrush4163", it's probably already in the dictionary. Words are the first thing to go in it.

As Schneier notes, even character replacements are bountiful in the password dictionaries. "Pa$$word", for example, has already been taken. There are many other examples, but you get the idea.

XKCD has a famous comic (cited Schneier's article) regarding the re-use of passwords and how that is making life easier for black hats. If you're using the same password on multiple sites, it only takes one breach to allow someone to ruin your life. At best, that will cost you an afternoon of replacing your passwords on all of your favorite websites. Whatever you do, don't think about reusing a password for your online banking accounts.

As a system admin, I have been given passwords by other people who trust me to work on their computers. As a general rule, I avoid this and simply change the password of the user I'm going to work on so that I don't need to learn the password. I follow a principle I call"irrefutability". As an example, when other people enter their credentials and they have not shared that information with me, I avert my gaze. In 99% of the cases I work with, I don't want to know someone else's password. So when they enter their password, I look away to make sure that I don't know it.

I like password managers like Keepass and PasswordSafe. I especially like the open source password managers because other programmers can look at the source code to see what the program is doing, make improvements if they have the skill and to alert the community if a bug is found. Bugs are fixed faster, as a general rule, in open source software than in closed source software.

While it is possible to try and crack the files created by password managers such as Keepass, brute force attacks on the encryption are simply not physically possible within a lifetime. There are two reasons for this. One is that as key length increases, so does the time required to run through every possible combination for the key.

Schneier also notes that the energy required to flip through every combination is discrete and definite. For example, a brute force attack on a 256-bit AES key requires the energy of stars. He uses our sun as an example to show that if we captured *all* of the energy of our sun for 32 years, we might be able to flip through 192 bits. If we captured a supernova we could power through 219 bits of a key.

In terms of energy, humans simply don't have the energy required to count through every combination of an encryption key. So while there might be reason to fear letting a password database from Keepass escape, it's going to be awhile, perhaps before the sun goes nova, before the password for that database is cracked. Unless an easy password is used.

While password cracking is a problem, the bigger problem is often the gray matter choosing a password. Choose an easy password and you are just asking for trouble. Using a password manager to generate a password for you is better. A password generator is going to be completely random in choosing characters. With a password manager, you can easily save a different, completely random password for every site you visit.

So be safe with your passwords. Don't use easy passwords. Use a good password manager. Don't share passwords with anyone unless you have complete trust in them. Change your passwords from time to time. Now git along and enjoy the web.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The glorification of competition

I've noticed that we often revere people who are winners, or dominant in their field of work. Bill Gates was for a long time, revered as a business man. George Bush was revered by many as the previous president and Obama is revered by many as our current president. Dominant companies grow rich and are admired. They are often gifted by governments with privileges other companies do not enjoy.

The attitude of many CEOs is that of someone who "did it all by himself", a self-made man (or woman). This idea that a CEO rose to the top by his own efforts is common in American culture.

But nothing could be further from the truth. No one rises to dominance without the cooperation of others. The power of a single man is a function of the power that others are willing to give to that one man. When a single man rises above the rest, our culture holds him up as a model citizen, someone who has vanquished all competitors and owns the market or field of work he is in.

Steve Jobs is one example. He co-founded Apple with Steve Wozniak, was eventually fired from Apple, and returned years later to revitalize the company to the great fortunes that Apple now enjoys. While it is true that Jobs was a leader, he didn't do it alone, and he could not have done it without the cooperation of others in the company he founded. There was also a woman behind Jobs, providing support, comfort and encouragement. Even the government helped Apple. Yet we are quick to make Jobs as an icon in our culture, someone to be admired and adored. Why?

Human history is replete with leaders, some great, some fearsome. Whatever the level of leadership men and women rise to, no leadership is possible without cooperation from others. There is no "self-made man", for if there is or ever was, he has been lost in obscurity, somewhere in the tundra, the Ozarks or Tibet, living alone, eeking out a peaceful existence, never to be heard from again. It is only through cooperation from others that leaders rise and there is no exception. Be it Stalin, Kennedy or Einstein, no one makes it to the top without cooperation from others.

Yet, American culture beats the drum of competition every hour of every day. As if that is the only way to succeed, to get ahead, to enjoy life living large. Not a word is given to cooperation. Competition all the way is what the media shows us.

Recent research published in Nature Communications shows that our previous notions about the superiority of competition over cooperation are not born out by the evidence. The latest research and experiments show that cooperation is what allows a species to survive and that competition will drive a species to extinction. Even Darwin noticed cooperation in the habitats he studied and expressed surprise to see it.

In technology, cooperation is required for success. Standards must be devised to make technology work and talk with other technologies. Even patent owners must cooperate with others so that technology can be used at reasonable costs. Apple and Google both must use free and open standards in order to compete in the marketplace, they must cooperate for all of this wondrous technology to work.

When I look at our leaders, I think of all the handshakes they had to make in order to get to the top, to realize their vision and to hang onto to the riches bestowed upon them. In order to realize their vision, they must share it with others and gain their cooperation. No one can lead alone.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Review: Google Navigation on Jelly Bean, Android 4.3

I have been a fan of Google Maps on my phone for a long, long time - since the original G1 to be exact. I enjoyed finding directions easily and being able to plan my trips to avoid traffic, too. But the G1 had a tiny screen. My HTC one had a tiny screen, too. Even with the larger screen of the Nexus 4, I find that I need a bit more help.

Enter Google Navigation. I didn't find Google Navigation until I got the HTC One with Android 2.3. On that phone, Google Navigation calls out the directions over the phone as I drive. The voice is somewhat feminine, mostly robotic on the HTC One, but on the Nexus 4, the voice is now definitely feminine and easy on the ears.

I've come to appreciate Google Navigation for another reason: missing a turn. When I miss a turn, Google Navigation recalculates the route and gets me back on track. This means I don't have to pull over to the side of the road recreate my route. Google does that for me, on the fly. On the Nexus 4, it's quick, too.

If you have an Android phone and you've never used Google Navigation, that might be because they don't make it easy to find. Its appearance is rather subtle. Once you find your destination in Google Maps, then you are presented with a choice of routes. Select your route and a map appears to show you the route on the map.

With a bit of discernment, you can find a little blue arrow pointing north in the bottom right-hand corner of your phone. That's the Navigation icon. Tap that to get started. To hear the sound, you should be equipped with an audio cable to connect your phone to your car audio system. A 3.5mm audio plug is standard on Android phones and new cars these days, so if you have an older model car, you'll have to use the phone speakers or a headset.

With audio connected and the route started in Navigation, you're ready to roll. Just drive and as you progress on your route to your destination, directions will be promptly called out as you reach each turn. Directions are called out with plenty of time for you to make adjustments to your position so that you can execute a turn or merge to an interchange ramp on time. Google Navigation won't put you in a position where you have to cut across 4 lanes of traffic to make your exit as you drive down the highway.

Directions can be subtle, too. Most directions call for a right or left turn, sometimes a U-turn. But from time to time, especially on the highway or freeway, you will hear something like "keep to the left at the fork". If you come to a fork in the road, Navigation provides early directions to be sure that you are in the correct lane when approaching a fork.

I have used Google Navigation to get to many destinations without even checking the route and did not get lost. It's rare to get lost these days with Google Navigation. In the early days, mistakes were common and I had to use greater care. But I've become confident that even with a time constraint, I don't have to worry about getting lost while driving.

One other feature I like is that I can use Google Navigation while I'm playing music. As directions are called out, the music is partially muted so that I can hear them. Then the music volume resumes to normal during playback. This is nice for long trips where I want to play music but am not familiar with the territory. It works during phone calls, too, but you'll find that the other caller's voice is partially muted when directions are called out, so I don't recommend Navigation during a call. Besides, multitasking on the road is probably not a good idea.

Google Navigation is well worth the minimal effort required to setup. It also works together with Google Now, a new card reminder system in the latest version of Android. With Google Now, I get a card that shows the time to commute to work. If I'm out, Google Now will show the time to get back home. Tap on either card and a map will pop up, showing the route in Google Maps. Once in Google Maps, getting Navigation to run is a tap.

Google Maps has become a great tool for getting around. If you have an Android phone, take some time to get acquainted with Google Maps and Navigation. With a little effort, you'll hear directions being called out while you drive, too.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

It's time for a 1% tax for Wall Street

I just read this fascinating article on high speed trading on Wall Street. In the article, we learn that Terrence Hendershott, a professor at the Haas business school at the University of California at Berkeley, has discovered how the biggest Wall Street trading firms can make zero risk trades in the stock market. How could that be?

Some trading firms on Wall Street have figured out how to beat the street by simply having a faster connection to the trading servers that everyone else on Wall Street. This connection gives some traders advance notice of the stock prices thus allowing them to trade on advance information. These very special traders gain advance notice of a stock price due to latency in the network feeds.

If you have your trading server in the same room and connected directly to the servers that manage all trades in the exchange, you learn of the next stock price quote before all others. This is called "latency arbitrage", which means that if you have even a few milliseconds advantage over everyone else, you can trade on that information. With advance information, you can profit on every trade with zero risk.

Does this create jobs? Unless you're a very good programmer, network engineer or lawyer, probably not. But if you are, you're going to make a very good living doing that work for Goldman Sachs and other firms who can weasel in on a good connection to the trading servers.

Does this help the small time investor, you know, the guy who just wants to manage his IRA account? No, it actually drains profits from the people trying to grow their retirement accounts. The money has to go somewhere and it's certainly not going into the value of the stock. All they are doing is taking advantage of a few milliseconds of advance notice of what the stock price will be before they trade a stock. No one else has that kind of information or connections.

This has been going on for years and as computing power increases, so does the frequency of the trades. Traders say that there is no way around this problem, that there will always be someone with an advantage. I'm inclined to agree. The way things are set now, a small, select and privileged class of people can make trades all day long with zero risk. For the rest of us, well, we assume the risk.

There is a suggested solution, to freeze the market at short, regular intervals, so that no one gets advance notice of a change in stock prices. That solution attempts to address the fact that traders who perform latency arbitrage are taking advantage of information that no other traders have and profiting handsomely for it. I can appreciate the suggestion and I think that for awhile, a solution that is tested and shown to be effective could work.

However, I understand a small bit about the hacking world. Let me give you an example. Years ago, when DVDs first came out, they were formatted with an encryption system call CSS. The system would only work in DVD players and on Windows and Mac systems, but not Linux. The encryption system was broken in 3 days by programmers and engineers who wanted to play DVDs on Linux. 3 days. 3 days to break a system that was years in the making.

No matter what system our securities exchanges come up with, the incentives to hack the system to find an unfair advantage are too great. A 1% tax on trades in our exchanges is in order. The United Front Against Austerity has an interesting proposal for such a sales tax. How much money would 1% yield? Well, more than $5 quadrillion passes through Wall Street every year. Hmmm. Our economy is valued at $16 trillion. A qadrillion is one thousand trillions. Do you think we'd have a federal budget deficit anywhere with a small tax on that kind of money? I don't.

A 1% tax on securities trading would hardly be noticed by the small guy, and retirement account trades could be exempted if we wanted - we want that exemption. Such a tax would almost certainly put the kibbosh on high frequency trades and get our economy back to basics. You buy a stock because you believe in what the company does, not to flip it for a few cents profit on thousands of shares every few seconds of every trading day.

A 1% tax on Wall Street trades would most certainly pay for the the federal debt in a year. This is not a pie-in-the-sky dream. Lawmakers are talking about it, but they're doing that talking very quietly. You won't see much about it in the news.

High frequency trading isn't helping anyone except the wealthiest of the wealthy and allows a privileged few to profit on trades with zero risk. It is but one example of how nearly all of the economic benefits of technological innovation are being diverted to the very top. That is behavior that can destroy a democracy and a culture. A 1% tax seems quite reasonable to pay for the messes that kind of behavior can create. Wouldn't you agree?