Monday, June 30, 2014

The justification of spite

Some time ago, a friend of mine sent me a sad story about CodeSpaces, a collaborative coding site that was hosted on Amazon's Elastic Computing service, EC2. On June 17th, they experienced a distributed denial of service attack, an attack that prevented people from getting access to their website. The people behind the attack demanded money to have the attack lifted, but CodeSpaces did not pay up. Instead they held firm.

While the attack was ongoing, the attackers were able to gain access to the CodeSpaces hosting account and deleted just about everything to ensure that CodeSpaces could not continue to operate since they refused to pay the ransom for the denial of services attack.

This is a very severe attack. First the denial of service attack to prevent customers from getting access to the website, and then the the complete and total destruction of the company data, including production data and all backups. Once the attackers gained access to the hosting account, they had complete access to everything and even made backup accounts to be sure that they could still get back in and finish the job even if the account they were using was disabled or the password was changed.

This is clearly premeditated, very well planned and organized as far as attacks go. One can only imagine what must have been going on in the minds of the attackers, what they were hoping to achieve and the level of confidence they may have had as they pursued their objectives. When they saw that they weren't going to be able to extort money from their victim, they destroyed the business that was their victim. That is vindictiveness in the extreme.

From what I know of the story, the attackers are still unknown and have probably covered their tracks very well. I also see that two-factor authentication could have been used by the company, but it was not implemented. Worse, the company did not have a disaster recovery plan. That could have saved the company.

While reading all of this, I have considered the possible mindset of the attacker. How does an attacker justify spending 12 hours deleting everything in sight that a company has created for paying customers? "Look, all they had to do was pay me and they could have kept their business" is what I imagine them to be saying in their minds. That suggests an awful lot of confidence in their position. The attackers were confident that they could destroy the business if their demands were not met and they could do so without detection or tracking.

Or could they?

A long time ago, I learned about something called karma. After reading the local news for years, I got really tired of seeing stories about people doing really nasty stuff to other people. I could see the karma coming back for the perpetrators of crime. I see this both in violent crime and in white collar crime. But in all cases, I see something coming back to haunt the bad guys.

I am reminded of Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists of all time, a man who came up with some simple laws of the universe more than 400 years ago. Objects that are at rest tend to stay at rest. Objects that are moving tend to keep moving unless another force acts on that object to bring it to rest. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

That last one has always been in the back of my mind since I first read it so many years ago. I have adapted it for my own use, a sort of principle that I follow to this day:

"If you push really, really hard on the universe, be prepared to duck."

This is to say that whenever I push on the universe, against anything or anyone, I can expect that the universe will respond in kind. I don't slam doors. I don't break things out of anger. I think before I speak and consider the feelings of others when I do speak. I avoid doing that which makes my chest burn with guilt or my stomach tingle with fear. My body is my ethical barometer. This is what I feel and what I use as my guide.

But the perps who destroyed Code Spaces may not have access to that barometer that everyone has if they want to. They may not mind living a life where they will never really know for sure if someone is lurking around the corner, ready to exact revenge. They may not mind a life where they will always have to look over their shoulder, and never really know for sure if they are safe asleep at night. Yes, even criminals have to sleep sometime. How much money must be paid to ensure the loyalty of the people around the criminal? Is that enough? Can they ever be sure? They may even believe that enough money in the bank will help to numb the sensation of fear, uncertainty and doubt they must consider about their fate every waking hour as a result of their chosen "profession".

How does a criminal find sleep let alone love if there is no way to be sure he can trust anyone?

It must be a very dark heart indeed to be willing to destroy a company like that. But no matter how confident the perps were, there is no such thing as "getting away with it." Across the spectrum of wrongdoing, from cyber attacks to physically violent attacks, they all have the same result. The mind never forgets. The heart never forgets. And with that, sleep will not be easy to come by.

Somehow, in the mind of the criminals who attacked Code Spaces, their spite was justified. I honestly don't see how spite could be justified, even for money. This is something we must consider when confronted with such a soul that can justify and rationalize everything. I'm not saying we should ever condone destruction, but that we must be prepared when confronted by the same.

To be sure, Code Spaces should have had a backup plan that has been tested and known to work. But the perps? Who knows how the pendulum swings?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Does ambition arise from instinct?

I had an interesting conversation with someone about the perils that lay ahead for women who choose mates that lack ambition. During that conversation I noticed that he brought up the subject of instinct, as if instinct has anything to do with ambition. Ambition is not a product of instinct. It is a product of the mind. We know this because as Thomas Jefferson once observed:
"Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society."   --- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Issac McPherson on the subject of patent monopolies
"Late in society"? Could it be that many humans have not even come close to adapting to economies built of money? What if evolution simply hasn't caught up to the arbitrary nature of economics? Given that 3 billion people are faced every day with using a hole in the ground rather than a toilet, I think most humans have not completely adapted to money and ownership of property. I sincerely doubt that instinct anticipates anything like what we think of as "ambition".

Diversity in life, as it is in humans, is that everyone will have different levels of ambition. Not because ambition is a successful trait, but because genes will try every possible combination to ensure the greatest possible chance for reproductive success. Genes know nothing of ambition, only survival. I'm reminded of the following quote:
Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.
― Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
Not everyone can have a high level of ambition. If we did, we'd be a warrin' all over the place and there would be no peace. Besides, ambition is in the eye of the beholder. Some men want to make more money. Some men want to make great discoveries. Some men want to be great writers, actors or artists. Some still want to start and master the enterprise. Some just want to make a nice sandcastle. Note that I don't equate war with ambition. War is simply evil and nothing more.

These days, ambition is seen as the desire to captain some industry and amass great fortunes. So how does that bode for the progeny of the those anointed with ambition? There is plenty of literature on the distance between ambitious parents and their children.  Some high value CEOs hardly ever see their kids because, well, they're working 60-80 hours a week. But if they're really raking in the dough, they send their kids to private school, out of sight out of mind. Just ask Chris Hedges.

Some women might actually find less ambition to be more attractive. Perhaps they are looking for a father more devoted to family and time with the kids than time at the office. Now that is a far more likely to be attributed to genetics and instinct than to "ambition".

Some women may actually prefer a more humble mate than one who thinks he can conquer the world and subject the world to his will. Ambition is a continuum. Some men want to rule the world. Others just want to buy a house with a large backyard so that they can enjoy the view of the sky while laying on the grass - with their kids.

Whether or not a little more or a little less ambition will contribute to reproductive success has more to do with the attitude that parents have towards their kids. Either you believe the kids are there for you or you believe that you are there for your kids. I take the latter position. My job is to provide my kids with 24/7 tech support for life. There is no greater ambition.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What a gas. Hydrogen, that is.

When I was in high school, I happened upon a report at a library that described the benefits of hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen is everywhere. It is one of the most common elements in the universe. One proton, one electron, just hanging out.

Hydrogen and oxygen make up what we know as water. We know it as H2O two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. Water covers 78% of the surface of our home, the Earth. Hydrogen is a limitless source of energy for all practical concerns.

Hydrogen is therefore, a component of all life, too. Every organic molecule, proteins, enzymes, even fuels, have hydrogen in its composition.

Using hydrogen as a fuel is novel in the sense that when you burn hydrogen, what you get is water vapor. That's it. Scientists have tried for many years to make hydrogen an economical fuel. In terms of abundance, it's a great fuel. In terms of extracting hydrogen from other substances, not so great.

For example, electrolysis is a common method for extracting hydrogen from water. We call that process "splitting water". We've known how to do it for centuries, but it takes a lot of energy to crack it. Some have made very interesting advances in splitting water, but we still need to get the energy from somewhere.

Dr. Daniel Nocera has found a way to split water using a catalyst and sunlight. This is ingenious in conception and design. The catalyst can even make water potable when exposed to sunshine while splitting water. There are still many bugs to work out, but this seems like a viable option in the near future.

One big problem with using hydrogen as fuel in a car is storage. Hydrogen has a very low density - fill a balloon with hydrogen and it rises, like helium, only better. This is great for balloons and blimps, not so great for storage as fuel.

So scientists have been working out ways to store it. They've found all sorts of metals and ceramics to store it, but none are very practical or economical. Storing hydrogen in another fuel for cracking later is probably our best option. Toyota and the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council may be able to bring a hydrogen car to market as soon as 2015 with a novel concept: store the hydrogen as ammonia and then crack the ammonia in the car.

This is a tantalizing option. The catalyst is cheap and easy to produce, using abundant elements, and ammonia can be stored in low pressure containers. This could be the breakthrough we've been looking for to create a hydrogen fuel economy.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Serial killers seem to act on instinct

Not too long ago, I found a very interesting headline on serial killers. The gist of the article was that sharks are a lot like the serial killers we find in the papers or news. At once, upon reading the headline, I think that the headline has it in reverse. It should read, "Serial killers are a lot like sharks", but the difference is, sharks kill to survive. Besides, serial killers don't eat their victims, as far as I know.

So I did a search for articles that have made the same connection and the common theme is that the pattern of stalking and hunting is nearly identical between shark and human serial killer. I am reminded of Fox Mulder, the intrepid FBI agent of the X-Files television series. He uses his training to find the most unusual killers, studying the geography, the choice of location, timing, etc. Yes, real detectives use all of that to find them. They call it profiling a serial killer.

Although I find the similarities between sharks and human serial killers interesting, what I really find of interest is that some scientists are making the case that human serial killers are relying upon instincts to hunt. I'm surprised that instinct is even a consideration in assessing the motivations of a serial killer since one of the primary instincts in humans is to cooperate with other humans to survive.

One conclusion I draw from all of this is that serial killers have been so horrifically abused as children that they lack a significant part of higher cognition that is required for cooperation. They most certainly don't ask for help and once they get started, asking for help is not an option. So cornered, they must rely upon instinct to remain unnoticed in their activities, to continue doing what they do.

Although humans have a natural instinct to cooperate, if that instinct is not nurtured, things head south in a hurry. Over the course of my life, I've seen horrific stories of brutal dictators, serial killers and suicides/murders. I've often asked myself what drives people to these extremes.

I think that the basis of all evil is a simple inability to cooperate in a way that is mutually beneficial. Evil is an inability or unwillingness to say "please" or fear or inability to ask for help. When normal people are faced with a situation that is beyond their abilities to solve, they ask for help. Normal people help others. Serial killers, psychopaths and the like, don't ask for help. They don't cooperate unless it's a completely one-sided deal.

I don't think that people are born evil or are inherently evil. I think they learn evil from their environment and nothing more. The only antidote to evil that I know of is love. Love should be applied in large quantities to humans, early and often. That is how evil is prevented.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The cooperative universe

Sometimes, I think about reality and what "it" is. Max Planck, the famous theoretical physicist, one of the fathers of Quantum Mechanics has this to say:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." (emphasis mine)
I have noticed that in humans and elsewhere in the animal kingdom, where there is cooperation there is peace. Yes, there are predators and prey, but even the predators know, by instinct, not to eat all of the prey. They can't for if they do, well, they become vegetarians. Everywhere I choose to look, I can find cooperation.

Birds seem to vote on where to fly together. Ants cooperate to forage for food, collect it and store it. Plants live side by side, with symbiotic bacteria and fungi eating and creating fertilizer for the plants. Some actually fixate nitrogen to make that fertilizer. In almost every case, I can see more cooperation than conflict.

Turning to my own body, I am composed of trillions of cells. Each of these cells are specialized by design to do a little slice of the work of living. There is no negotiation. Only cooperation so that all may live another day. I've observed the death of mentally ill and very elderly patients and upon those observations, I've come to the conclusion that death to the body occurs when the cells can no longer cooperate and coordinate their action.

Turning again to that quote by Max Planck, I find myself looking for evidence of that mind. What is that fantastic source of energy that makes electrons orbit their nucleus? What energies make an atom vibrate? What energies provide us with the sense of repulsion when we bump into a door?

Sometimes I worry that I don't have the discipline to do this or that thing. Then I look at the walls. They have discipline. They've been in the same position for years, unyielding to my actions, permanent for all intents and purposes for my life. But the constituent atoms, like the atoms in rock, are cooperating to be a wall. Atoms everywhere are cooperating in some fashion to give us this reality. 

If there is any discipline to be found in matter, a good place to look is the proton. The estimated half-life of protons is about 10^35 years. That's 10, followed by 35 zeros. That's a long, long time.

Some scientists say that if man has freewill, he derives such a will from matter. If that is true, perhaps the greatest suffering of man comes from failure to cooperate with the will of his constituent atoms. The unwillingness to cooperate with others. The inability to say, "please". The use of force against another. Atoms seem agnostic, maybe even indifferent to our subjective whims and wills, but we still know suffering when we fail to cooperate with others.

Atoms have been of service to life for a billion years on this earth, cooperating, facilitating, teaching, and learning. Heisenberg says that we can know where a particle is going, but the more we know where it is going, the less we know about its location, and vice versa. The only way we could know anything is by the cooperation of the particles within us and without us.

Mankind, of late, seems to know of itself, neither velocity or location. But when we do figure that out, perhaps we can finally cooperate and live in peace. Together.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From Democracy to Monopoly

I can remember how we used to laugh at the communists. I remember talking with my dad about the troubles in the USSR during the cold war. I remember the stories. You know, like the story about the farm that lost an entire crop of tomatoes because someone forgot to make the boxes needed to carry them to market.

I remember the talk of long lines for toilet paper. How the government owned everything and how there was no market. There was no competition. So people suffered because there was no incentive to produce the goods that society needed.

Yeah. That's the old communist USSR I remember.

Then under the watch of Ronald "Grampa" Reagan, the Berlin Wall crumbled. The old USSR fell apart because it just wasn't working anymore. Poland, Czechoslovakia and the other communist satellites were freed from communism.

Here in America, something else was happening. Industry after industry began to consolidate. Where there were thousands of gas stations and hundreds of gas companies serving America, there are now only a few. There are fewer banks now than before. Fewer cable companies. Fewer supermarket chains. Just about every industry has consolidated down to just a few really big major players.

7 corporations control almost everything we buy for food.
6 corporations control almost all of the media.
1 or 2 competitors exist for internet access just about anywhere you care to live.
Some have suggested that 10 corporations control almost everything we buy.

When the market is consolidated, enough, the market leaders tend to cooperate rather than actually compete. One man may sit on the board of directors in several companies competing in the same space. When many men and women do this, we call it an interlocking directorate, a sort of union of corporations. Collusion between the companies could be easily obscured by holding informal meetings at the country club, at special industry "retreats" and other such gatherings.

We've seen such collusion between high tech companies such as Apple, Google, Adobe and Intel. These companies had agreed not to poach each other's employees in order to keep salaries down. They were all sued by employees affected by their agreements and settled for a mere $325 million. Seems like a lot of money, doesn't it? It's just a drop in the bucket.

What we think of as American competition has really turned into one giant game of collusion, deceiving the consumer into thinking that they're getting a good deal in a competitive market.

"But, but, capitalism is by far the best way to allocate resources!" Really? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, who is to say when $1 trillion has been spent on two wars while nearly a billion go without clean water in the world. Heck, in Detroit, they're starting to turn off the water for for nearly 150,000 residents who can't pay their bills. At the same time, when business is past due, they get a pass. Even the UN is getting involved here.

Who could have predicted all of this consolidation, collusion and predatory finance? Marx?

No, I'm not a communist. I'm not a pure capitalist, either. I don't believe in pure ideologies of any kind. I believe in the middle road, the middle ground, in avoiding the extremes. I guess I'm kind of a ideological Buddhist. I can't even say that I have the answer to what is going on now. But I can say that the path we've been on just isn't working for all of us.

There's a better way, and I'm pretty sure that pure conservative ideology isn't it. It's going to be a mix of conservative, liberal and a dash of something else. But to take the pure approach is extreme, counter-productive and alienating to many of the people that government serves. Why should government serve only the richest people and corporations?

Because that's how capitalism works. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

We only need to decide if that's the way we want to continue or to make a change.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Exit Clause

The mayors of the great cities of these United States have taken notice that incumbent internet service providers will not provide better service if there is no competition. Unfortunately, these same service providers have built-in gotchas for their franchise agreements with the cities they serve. The franchise agreements are designed to preempt the possibility of competition. The big one is called the non-compete clause. This part of the agreement prevents the city from developing it's own resources in direct competition with the incumbent service provider.

For example, the city could use a public electric utility to provide internet access as some cities have done. You can find an interesting example of that in Fayettville, Tennessee. Alas, the incumbent ISPs have found 20 states willing to pass laws that prevent such use of utilities.

Perhaps it's time to review these agreements to see exactly what they do and whether or not these agreements protect the interests of the people living within. So I've submitted a GRAMA request to my own city just to check it out. In a future post, we'll have a look at one of these agreements to see how they work.

In case you didn't know, GRAMA is the Government Records Access and Management Act of the state of Utah, it's an analogue to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Like FOIA, GRAMA is a useful tool for extracting information from local and state government agencies in Utah. In this case, I'm sending a request to the city and have requested a digital copy of the franchise agreement for Comcast and Centurylink. That should make the cost of duplication of the documents zero or hopefully, close to zero.

One important point I want to share with you about "sunshine laws" like FOIA and GRAMA: I've learned more about how government works through sending requests for documents than I ever did in school. Sunshine laws provide real insight into how our government works and helps citizens to determine if their government is working for them.

The goal then, is to review the agreements, find out when the agreement expires and suggest important amendments upon renewal. Here are a few amendments I've been thinking about:

  1. There should be a moving definition of "broadband" that is based on the moving average of the top 10 fastest networks in the world. The top 10 is a measure of the average symmetric speeds for the top 10 nations. This list is determined by the Communications Workers of America. This should be revised at least once a year.
  2. There should be a new standard in pricing such that, comparative pricing in the top 10 ten countries should be the new standard. For each country in the top 10, the price per megabit of speed is calculated. The average of the price/speed ratio for all top 10 countries is used as the standard for pricing. Incumbent ISPs would then be compared against this ratio.
  3. If the incumbent ISP is unable to match or exceed the speed average of the top ten in speed and pricing, then the city is free to develop their own network to provide the necessary infrastructure for internet access.
The goal here is to establish world-class internet access to rival that of Japan or South Korea. Currently, worldwide, we rank about 30th or 31st, depending on which data you use. The incumbents will try to tell you that we have a "vibrant, dynamic and competitive market" for internet access. Well, if you're like me, you have only one ISP that provides better than 5mbs for access. Even if you just have two, that isn't even close to what we could call a competitive market.

I think it's time to hold ISPs accountable for their lack of enthusiasm in upgrading their networks. ISPs have been fighting hard to discourage or even outlaw community broadband. They do so on the failed proposition that private enterprise will always outperform government in every respect. But in more than 400 cities and towns across this nation, the incumbent ISPs have been proven wrong, over and over again. (Here is a cool map to find those cities!)

As legislatures wake up to citizens moving to where the access is, they are beginning to see that they've been had by the incumbent ISPs. The profit motive is a fine motivator for innovation and success, until monopoly is achieved. Once a monopoly is achieved, the only thing left to do is to raise barriers to new entrants to the market.

That is not a bug in capitalism. That's a feature.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Politics Anonymous

I read with interest how a case in Washington state could make life difficult for the millionaires and billionaires who want their contributions to political campaigns to be anonymous. Here we see the Grocery Manufacturers Association in a fight against an initiative that would require genetically modified organisms to be labeled when sold as food. To defeat that initiative, the GMA used a secret fund that kept the names of the contributors secret. The GMA was unable to get a lawsuit against them dismissed and the case will move forward.

Some may recall the case of Citizens United. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of unlimited money in campaigns based on the belief that there would be disclosure of the names of the contributors in campaigns. So far, there hasn't been anything like disclosure for political contributions. At the same time, they are saying that money is speech, so they should get the protection of anonymity.

I guess the question that comes to mind is this: if the wealthiest people in the world are so passionate about their cause that they are willing to put money into the pot to defeat threats to their cause, why so shy? They have the money, they've already won. They usually get what they want with a check. So why not be proud enough to put their name on the check and let the world know what they believe in to be right?

I don't have the answer to that, but I can surmise that they are worried about consumer backlash. Seems odd doesn't it? The GMA wants consumers to buy their products, but they don't want consumers to be angry at them for supporting conditions that do not further the interests of consumers.

The lack of disclosure creates a problem that few discuss: outside money. Imagine if you will, an important referendum in your home town. Passions about it are high on both sides and plenty of ink has been spilled over it. After the election, your side has lost and then it is revealed that an anonymous source from outside the state has made a major contribution to your opponents in advertising and support. You don't know who they are, but you know that they had very little interest in local control.

That is just in the states. There have also been stories about foreign governments and corporations influencing American politics at the local and national level. Anonymity facilitates the use of outside money in local campaigns. The sources of outside money can influence local conditions from afar, without consequence because they don't live in the same jurisdiction affected by the laws they seek to pass or defeat.

Anonymous money is a way of saying, "Yes, I want to pass a law that adversely affects other people more than me, but I don't want them to know who is doing it to them." That's what the GMA is saying to *us*. The rest of us.

The GMA happens to a happy supporter of GMOs. They claim that they're safe. They claim that they reduce pesticide use - yet glyphosphate is turning up in breast milk. They claim that they're feeding the world. All of these claims have been debunked. But they're happy to flood the market with GMOs and hide their war against laws that require labeling of GMOs on food.

If they're so proud of GMOs and how they're going to feed the world, maybe they could tell us why thousands of farmers in India have committed suicide because they can't make enough money to support their families raising GMO crops.

If they're so proud of the patents on the seeds, they shouldn't have a problem with putting a simple label on it. Especially if the people want GMOs to be labeled.

To the GMA, "though doth protest too much".

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Lottery, American Style

When we had satellite television, I found myself watching Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, with my wife. The plot? A poor family living in the country had been nearly bankrupted by medical bills. They were lucky enough to find a bone marrow donor for the mother who had Leukemia, now in remission. But they were stuck in a house that they couldn't live in after a fire. The happy ending? They get a new house, a new barn and a new car. Can you see the product placements everywhere?

But that isn't the most interesting part of the show to me. What interests me is the eye-watering scale of the rewards in this show and other reality shows and game shows. When the game show, Deal or No Deal started, they were offering a million and sometimes more for people to guess which suitcase had a million bucks in it. American Idol, America's Got Talent, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and even Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader were all offering a million or more as the grand prize.  Even the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes has offered $1 million a year for life.  $1 million is equivalent to at least 20 years of income for most people, many of which can only dream about just accumulating that kind of money in their job, profession or trade.

In previous articles I've noted how the extreme concentration of wealth in this country has really gotten out of hand. Proof can be had by just searching for "banana republic" in your search engine of choice.  Even Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand's biggest fan, has expressed concerns about this. These giant prizes are to me, evidence that the upper class knows that everyone else is getting restless and shafted. They may not be concerned with another Bastille Day, but they seem rather concerned that Americans are getting burned out and bankrupted at the same time. Hence, the bread and circuses.

During the last decade, I saw a huge increase in the production of reality shows and game shows that somehow return the riches to a few chosen people. It seems like the upper class is throwing crumbs or a few pieces of bread to the little people as they watch the circus, while the accretion of wealth at the top accelerates, with little notice.

Could the source of these gigantic prizes be a guilty conscience or are they intended as a distraction? I don't know. Maybe it's both.

Now there is nothing wrong with a little generosity. But there does appear to be a confluence of events. On the one hand, we have suffered a tremendous economic collapse now known as the Great Recession. On the other we are witness to gigantic transfers of wealth in this generation from the lower classes to the upper class. This is what happens when wages stagnate for 30 years while executive pay rises by more than 270%.

Anyone who is still working now amid 6.8% and greater unemployment will realize a subtle increase in buying power. That buying power is magnified and concentrated among the people at the top 1%. The top 1% had and still have the power for years to organize these game and reality shows as well as the "generosity" in the prizes. It's a perfect distraction for the rest of us to watch while wealth and power continue to concentrate among the top 1%.

Such displays of ostentation in mass media are also the carrot on the stick. They are intended to inform us that wealth is something we could have if we could only win the lottery. This notion seems particularly relevant with the rise a few years ago of Ted Williams, the Golden Voice. During his rise, I've seen him pop up in the news and as a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. There is no doubt he has a great voice.  But just how did he get there?

He was a homeless man for years and one day, he was panhandling at a freeway off-ramp when fate took a turn.  A man who worked for a television production company gave him some money while exchanging some words. The man in the car noticed Ted's voice and returned, offering more money for an opportunity to make a video and put it up on YouTube. The clip went "viral" and soon, he was receiving offers from major networks. He is said to have remarked that, "I feel like Susan Boyle."  He seems to have won a lottery, eh? Now his voice introduces Ryan Seacrest on American Idol.

Hard work and dedication to one's chosen profession or trade, combined with a complete education don't really matter any more because the game is stacked against the middle class. If we're focused on a lottery rather than our own abilities, then we're distracted. That's perfect because the upper class does not like competition. You might recall this quote from one of the world's richest men of the 20th Century, John D. Rockefeller. He said, "Competition is a sin."

I was surprised to find some confirmation of this trend in an article on the Huffington Post by none other than Arianna Huffington. "Shorting the Middle Class" is a short financial history of the last 30 years illustrating the relationship between key events and trends during that period. What does it mean to short a security? It means to bet that the value of the security will be less in the future than it is now. That is a bet on failure.

Arianna's article demonstrates how elite investors have been shorting the middle class in mortgage investments and insurance scams. First, millions of people who want to own a home are offered mortgages that are impossible to keep with variable rate mortgages and then these securities are packaged and sold to one or more groups of investors. They are impossible to keep because these investors are aware of the trends with wages, knowing that wages will either stagnate or fall. Another group of investors buys securities or insurance that pays off when those same homeowners default on their mortgages.

While the mechanics of what happened are interesting history, Arianna makes two very interesting points. In 30 years, the salaries of top executives of the Standard & Poor 500 have gone from 30 times what their workers make to more than 300 times. Of course, for a few years after the credit crunch of 2008, executive pay faltered because the stockholders are seeing the lack of performance and voting with their shares.  There are some who are actually starting to talk about ways to improve corporate governance, but given current realities in Congress, improvement is not likely.

Another point that Arianna makes is that a new social and financial class has emerged. The "formerly middle class". These are people who had a job, a house and two cars. They were making good money until the Great Recession. These same people are finding it very difficult to return to their previous status. And at the moment, their numbers are swelling quite quickly with no end in sight.

Executive compensation seemed to have peaked in 2008, but shortly after that, executive compensation continued to rise. A recession is the point at which employers refuse to pay for labor or labor refuses to work for what they've been paid. We reached that point. The collapse of the housing bubble reflects what employers are refusing to pay for labor.  Some might say that the Iron Law of Wages is at work.  The Iron Law of Wages says that wages will always tend towards subsistence for labor.

You may have noticed that they've been trying to find ways to cheer up the working class. Tax credits for first time home buyers, earned income credits, Make America Work credits, rebates and other incentives come from the government, but this is no replacement for a standard of living. Healthcare reform was stymied by an intransigent conservative wing proffering an "every man for himself" motto.

Consider what we've been told for the last 80 years or so. Go to college, get a job, buy everything on time and make payments. It's OK to be in debt. The first form I can recall learning to fill out in High School was a credit card application. How is filling out a credit card application a life skill? I can also remember that in my home economics class, there was little emphasis on saving.  Based on that experience, I would say that Rob Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad was right. The educational emphasis, at least when I was going to school, was to get people into jobs. The upper classes are more concerned with teaching entrepreneurial skills than how to get a job.

Most Americans, having found a job, find it hard to move from one job to another. The lack of savings makes it hard for an employee to exercise economic mobility. Imagine what our country would be like if we all had a year of expenses saved up. Knowing we have a choice to move or not to move reduces the chances for resentments, corruption, and the temptation to commit a crime against an employer. When  employees are paid enough, they begin to stop thinking about the money and spend more time thinking about the work.

So on the one hand, employers would probably prefer to have a captured audience working for them. On the other hand, if employees had real freedom to choose their jobs due to a large savings account, then only employees who really wanted to work in a job would be on the job. More to the point, many more millions of people would be doing what they want to do rather than what they have to do just to pay the bills.

I don't know what the answer is, but continuing the conservative economic policies that started with the Reagan Revolution is not an answer. It is the direction opposite of where we should be heading. The Reagan Revolution as envisioned by the Tea Party is bringing about the mindset of the Hunger Games rather than the peaceful coexistence we all want. Their vision seems to be very few winners and lots of losers. In that vision, the country loses.

Wealth doesn't exist in a vacuum. It arises as a result of cooperation from others. So when the wealthy begin to believe that they don't need the rest of us, it's time to remind them that money isn't speech. Here and here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The network rules life

I read with interest, this blog post by Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC. Wheeler is actually quite profound in his opening paragraphs. He points out that Chattanooga, TN is next to a river, a natural network. Yes...a natural network. Wheeler also notes other networks to follow the river - the railroad, the paved road and the telegraph and telephone networks. They all brought economic prosperity to the city of Chattanooga.

I believe he is on to something. Networks are natural in life. From blood vessels to the veins in a leaf, to rivers, we see networks. Ants create their own ad hoc network wherever they go. Bees do the same thing. Every living animal uses a network of some sort to communicate threats, water, food and shelter. This has been going on for about a billion years, starting with bacteria that communicate to each other, to humans.

Wheeler's analogy and observations are spot on, but what he doesn't mention is that community networks are a public interest rather than a private interest. They level the playing field for all who want access. So it should come as no surprise that private network operators like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and others are concerned that government should be competing with private interests in the realm of internet access.

Last night, the city of Lindon voted down a proposal to move forward on Milestone 2 with Macquarie Capital's proposal to finance and build out a network that is unfinished and has a trail of debts to repay. According to the blog, one of the members of the city council is married to a vice president of Vivint a home security and wireless internet access provider. That same member of the city council had no trouble grabbing the ears of the others and tugging them away from a solution that could build out the Utopia network in their fair city.

What that council member didn't talk about is the consequences of going dark on that network or the lack of any viable alternatives to Utopia. We can almost always count on a private interest to trump a public interest if they have enough power. The incumbent network providers are hell-bent on preventing the public interest from interfering with their profits and last night, they showed their true colors.

In nature, the networks benefit everyone - networks are symbiotic. The network offered by Vivint, Comcast and others, will always bend to the will of the shareholder before the public interest is ever considered. That means, the networks they build only serve a very narrow interest.

While we are free to drive on our roads, we tend to forget that they are infrastructure. The opponents of community broadband will consciously omit the fact that roads, sewers, electricity, they are all infrastructure. So is the network that makes up the internet.

If all the roads were toll roads, no one would be able to get around without going bankrupt. Seems that private network operators would prefer to see their customers as indentured servants than as citizens. Community broadband is a way to eliminate the trolls on the road, by serving all, equally and fairly.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

You're ahead of me? So, uh, where are you going?

I went to California over the Presidents Day weekend earlier this year. Drive there on Friday, return on Monday, the holiday. 22 hours of driving altogether. I had suggested that we fly, but Alice wanted to see the countryside. It seemed doable, but on reflection, it is better to fly, even with the expense of airfare. Unless we're going to be away for a week or more, driving isn't worth the effort.

While I was driving, I noticed that speeds on the highway were higher than before. There are long stretches of Interstate 15 in Utah that post an 80 mph speed limit. That is a very high rate of travel for most people, so I was surprised to see that while I had cruise control set at 80, I was in the right lane while people were passing me. I just don't see any point in going much faster at that speed. The cost of gas simply doesn't outweigh the time saved, and the margins for error become much thinner at that speed and higher.

Even while doing 80, I noticed that people were tailgating me. So I'd move over and let them pass if I could not overtake a slower vehicle fast enough for the tailgater's patience. Mostly, I'd drive right, and pass on the left, that's one of those "rules of the road".

As I watched this process over and over again, I began to notice, as I usually do, that cars that I had passed before, I passed again after a brief bathroom break. Sometimes these were people that passed me earlier. Like the Volkswagen Jetta driver that I passed once, and passed again after a potty break, but the second time, he was having an extended conversation with the highway patrol.

I really don't understand how anyone could get a ticket on the 15. It's a wide open road and there is plenty of room to hang out in the right lane, even at 80 mph. Yet, people still managed to get the attention of the highway patrol. I've seen them riding alongside me at greater than the speed limit here and there in the city, so I think they are on the lookout more for stupidity than just plain speeding.

As I watched people passing me, sometimes in a huff, I had to wonder, where are you going? I know we're all going somewhere, but what kind of a hurry could you be in if you're going that fast? Eventually, you'll take a potty break and I'll pass you. Then I'll take a potty break and you'll pass me. We'll do this dance on the highway as we pass each other, two cars on the highway. You'll still be on the same planet now, won't you?

But then as I was driving, my mind turned to the billionaires on the planet. They have made more money than most people can dream of. Where are they going to go with it? We'll see them time and again in the news, but where are they going? How does making more money make them any happier than they are now?

The following quote (often wrongfully attributed to George Carlin) said it best:
"Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body." --- The Vision of Buddhism: The Space Under the Tree, by Roger J. Corless (paraphrased)
Going faster, doesn't necessarily satisfy the mind unless it is faster than somebody else. Without a point of reference, you don't really get a sense of the speed. Even then, what satisfaction do we really ascribe to going faster? The sensation of seeing this great land of ours go by faster isn't nearly as satisfying as passing the VW Van poking along at about 60mph.

The same is true for money. For many people, making more money is nice, but making more money than *other* people is better. While most people may have this desire in moderation, very wealthy people can have this desire in spades, to the point of addiction. Research has been done on this topic to show that a) after $75k, what's the use of working longer hours to earn more money? and b) most people would rather hold other people down while making the same amount of money than to be making more money than before, but with other people making still more money.

I know, it's confusing. But don't worry. Einstein said that everything is relative.

If you look at what other people are doing, you'll think you should be doing that, too, and wonder why you're not doing it. So you're neighbor just bought a Ferarri? And now you're worried that somehow you missed the boat? That you should do that too or you'll be left behind? Believe me, if you're surprised that someone bought a car for $200k in your neighborhood, you shouldn't be surprised when he moves. That kind of money for a car means a better house in the very near future.

More to the point, everyone has a different path. Some of us are destined to be rich. Some of may simply have a greater tendency to be rich. Some of us were born into rich families. But what is really important to understand is that money doesn't make you a better person than someone else. Just ask Lloyd Blankenfein, one of the masterminds behind the financial meltdown of 2008. He's fabulously wealthy, but he has the kind of conscience that says it's OK to bet that millions of people will default on their mortgages.

In fact, I'm not even sure if being a better person is a worthy goal in the relative sense. I can't be a better person than someone else. I can only take actions that help me to find happiness. I try to err on the side of peace. I consider others before I speak. I treat others as I would like to be treated. I view people with the lens of compassion before anything else.

When I think of being a better person, I think of being a better person than I was yesterday - not if I'm better than someone else. The man I am today runs rings around the man I was mumble-mumble years ago. I'm more efficient in the sense that I have learned the hardship of chasing trivial pursuits. Often, what was important to me in the past, is no longer important to me now. What makes me a better person is not how much money I have in the bank, or the car I drive, or even which celebrities I happen to know. Nowadays, my measure is the number of days in a row without drama.

Wherever I happen to be going, I don't have to get there faster than you, because where I'm going is a state mind and nothing more. That state of mind is peace. Would you care to join me here, in peace? I hope so.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Incumbent Carrier Dystopia

Here in West Valley City, we are actively looking for alternatives to Comcast and Centurylink. Lucky for them, there are no credible alternatives yet, but they are fighting hard to keep it that way. How do they do it?

They create franchise contracts that have non-compete clauses. In other words, the city on the other end of the franchise is not allowed to develop their own resources for providing internet access that would directly compete with incumbent providers such as Comcast and Centurylink. Even if the incumbent providers are not willing to keep up with the rest of the world in speed or quality of service, the city has no exit clause.

Now these franchise agreements may not exclude new entrants to the market, but when a new entrant arrives, incumbent providers have the advantage given that they have already pulled cable to each house. The infrastructure is already there. So while the new entrant is building out, incumbents can file lawsuits, astroturf the media to act like the new entrants simply can't do the job, or undercut the new entrant to the point of bankruptcy.

Incumbent carriers and service providers will also get their top dogs into various advocacy groups. For example, in the Wassatch Front, we have Utopia, the underdog consortium of cities that were so fed up with incumbents, they sought to build their own utility for internet access. This new utility would provide world-class speeds, something that the incumbent carriers have steadfastly refused to do, while charging ridiculous rates.

After the incumbents beat up Utopia to the point where it was saddled with debt, unable to grow, a new hope arrives in the form of Macquarie Capital. I've been to the meetings to learn more about this company, and the proposal they are offering to the 11 Utopia cities, including West Valley City. Macquarie has offered a win-win proposal that will put gigabit fiber access to the internet in every home and business in the city.

The cities will make enough money to pay off their old debts, the residents get gigabit fiber access if they pay for premium access for around $70 a month, or they can law low and take 3mbs in exchange for a utility fee of $18-20 a month, half what Centurylink would charge for the same service.

To fight off this proposal, Centurylink has found a proxy in the Utah Taxpayers Association and have installed their VP to mouth off about how bad they think the Macquarie deal is. This is astroturfing at its finest. Of course, the Utah Taxpayers Association doesn't advertise their affiliation with Centurylink, but anyone looking at the "" website needs to know that industry connections are there, fighting to keep their monopolies going.

I live in West Valley City and want to see Utopia succeed. I want to get away from subscription rates that rise faster than inflation with Comcast and sub-par service from Centurylink. The incumbent carriers would gladly tell us that as a private enterprise, they will provide better service than a government run internet service will. But they don't tell us that numerous private internet service providers will operate that fiber network and provide great customer service on top of that, with real competition.

Comcast and Centurylink are not in competition with each other, but they sure act like it. I've seen Centurylink cede territory in my neighborhood to Comcast, denying me a reasonable alternative to Comcast. Why? Maybe someone lost a bet in a golf game. I don't really know. But I have only one meaningful internet service provider here. That is not a free market.

Monday, June 16, 2014


I'm a believer of labeling when it comes to food. We require food processors to inform consumers about what the food contains, starting with the ingredients and moving on to calorie counts per serving, grams of fat, grams of sugar and so on. All of this helps the discerning consumer to make a decision about whether or not to buy and consume a particular product.

In recent years, it has become widely known that processed foods are produced using genetically modified crops, such as soy and corn. But so far, we have not seen a label on those foods to indicate such sources of food in America. Never mind that 64 countries around the world require labels to identify genetically modified food. The purveyors of genetically modified seeds, such as Monsanto and DuPont, insist that if the food is labeled to identify genetically modified food, then people won't buy them.

Seems reasonable. We aren't familiar enough to genetically modified food to know for sure they are safe, right? I know I wouldn't buy food that is genetically modified if I had an alternative. Unfortunately, 90% of soy and 80% of corn in the US is genetically modified.

But because there were no labeling laws in place when they were introduced, we have no way of knowing what is and what is not genetically modified, or, "GMO" for short. Monsanto and companies like them, have been dreaming of a day when everything will be GMO, they will have patents on every gene, and there will be no further discussion. Everyone will just have to accept their monopoly, right?

Here is a notable quote:
"The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GMOs] that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender" - Don Westfall, biotech industry consultant and vice-president of Promar International, in the Toronto Star, January 9 2001.
That statement shows how determined the GMO industry is to force their products on the rest of us. Somehow, some way, through deceit, treachery, whatever it takes, no matter what the cost, they must get everyone eating their food. Then they have profits guaranteed, without worry for competition. Is that the American way? I should hope not.

Technology doesn't just work for the 1%. It can be put to work against the 1%, in this case biotech companies who want to spread genetically modified seeds around the planet without adequate safety testing.

More than a million Android phones are activated worldwide, every day. There is a nifty program for Android called Buycott. This program can scan a barcode on any food, identify the source, the parent companies of the source, and help to determine if that product is genetically modified and if the source has actively worked against labeling of GMO food.

If you're concerned about food monopolies, this is the tool to use. Scan any packaged food to see where your money goes when it comes to food politics. If money is speech, Buycott is duct tape.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The schizophrenia of carriage and content for incumbent ISPs

The incumbent ISPs have a dilemma. One the one hand, they realize the value of their content business. Comcast, for example, has spent the last decade working out a content business to stay relevant. They have acquired immense holdings in various media companies like NBC/Universal in their attempt to create a vertical monopoly. They seem to be trying to make themselves, I don't know, indispensable?

Verizon has it's FIOS service to offer, a fiber to the neighborhood service that offers speeds and rates that are very competitive with Comcast. Verizon also offers TV service to their ISP subscribers, and although it doesn't hold any major interests in entertainment companies, it does have agreements to sell such services with other companies. Like Comcast, you can get a triple-play with Verizon.

On the other hand, they are both networks and they carry data. Their content services are in direct competition with their data services, such that they have a genuine conflict of interest. Sure, either service you use, they will make money. But whatever they do, it is in their interests to stifle other properties and to promote their own. That's just the way it is.

Subtle detour: I have come to hate TV because I can't watch the programs I want to watch when I want to, and I have to sit through their commercials. So I wait for what I want to watch and watch it on Netflix so that I don't have commercials polluting my brain. Trust me, dear advertisers, if I want your product or service, I will find you and call you. Until then, sit tight. I'm busy.

I am also noticing discontent in my brain about sitting and watching anything. I'd rather be reading something or writing something. Watching someone else live out a fictional life on a screen is beginning to make less and less sense to me as I get older. I'm a writer and the adventure of pouring words from my brain onto this screen is much more interesting. I also have a growing family that provides family-oriented drama for free. I don't have to watch TV to get that. Even reality television makes less sense to me now compared to something called life.

Watching TV is what you do when you don't have any plans for your life. Life is what happens to you when you're making other plans. Just ask John Lennon.

End of subtle detour: I'm using Verizon and Comcast as two examples who seem to have a really hard time reconciling a conflict of interest. They sell TV services, but they also sell internet access and are fully aware that people will cut the cord if they can to watch their favorite content. So Comcast and Verizon bring in data caps, a limit which, when passed, will incur extra fees because "you've been watching too much video content that we don't sell to you directly." To them, that is a sin.

For Comcast, the cap is set at a fairly comfortable 250 GB of data. I'm a Comcast subscriber because that's the only service in my neighborhood that offers greater than 5mbs. Last time I checked my data usage, I was at about 49 GB of use out of 250 GB available. What is also interesting is that enforcement of the data cap is suspended, at least for me, anyway. Verizon has a similar utility to check usage, you know, to get us used to the idea of data caps.

I don't think I've ever come close to busting that cap. I see that in April, we hit 170 GB of usage, but that is still a long way aways from 250 GB. You have to watch a lot of video to get numbers like that. I certainly don't do that downloading Ubuntu CDs.

Data caps? You mean like, too much data? Yes, you can download too much data, even if, with network upgrades for increased capacity, the costs per bit for the ISP go down.

I know that for Comcast, when data caps were introduced, they were explicit in saying that the caps did not apply to watching Comcast programming over the internet. It's sort of their way of saying, "Hey, you're paying to use our service and we give you the bits for free, so why not?"

I know why not. Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. I don't like to do the triple play, you know, where you get internet, phone and TV all for one unreasonable price. Especially when there is little to zero competition as I have in my neighborhood. I surmise that condition is rampant in most cities in America, with the exception of cities with community broadband.

Businesses have a pretty hard time regulating themselves. We know this because we have experience that proves it. Think Deepwater Horizon, Duke Energy and Exxon-Valdez and you get the idea. The public interest is usually bound and gagged in the trunk of big business, and if government should happen to pass by in the hopes of getting a nice job with big business, well, they will look the other way.

So we have to create incentives for the businesses of the world to do the right thing, not just for their customer, but for everyone else who is not their customer. We need to do that for the environment and the economy because businesses don't exist in a vacuum. There are network effects to their actions that are often unanticipated until it's too late.

For the incumbent internet service providers, they have a proven self-interest in local monopolies. They have worked hard to eliminate any competition that might undermine their ability to milk every last cent the market has available. That includes new entrants to the market and community broadband options. Maintaining a monopoly and a captive audience are the prime directives of the incumbent ISPs, lest there be a cut in CEO compensation or a shareholder lawsuit, or both.

So if the incumbent ISPs really want a monopoly as a carrier, then we need to remember not to put all of our eggs in one basket. If you want to be a carrier, you cannot own any interest in the content you carry, capiche? That means the only thing that concerns you is carrying the bits across your network to the designated recipient and no more, while meeting your service level agreement. The service level agreement defines the minimum speed you're required to provide. If you fail to meet that minimum, you've breached your agreement.

To put it a bit more simply, if you carry content, you have no financial interest in the sources of that content. For example, if you're Comcast, you can't own any part of NBC or Universal Pictures. If you're Verizon, you can't have any special deals for certain content providers like Disney or ESPN.

Separating content from carriage ensures net neutrality because a bright red line, or a wall, has been put in place between carriage and content. No longer will internet service providers be confused about their roles in the communities they serve. You can create content or you can carry it, but you can't do both.

Community broadband doesn't share this confusion with the incumbent ISPs. Like the Keymasters in Ghostbusters and The Matrix Reloaded, they know their single, undivided purpose. Community broadband ISPs are devoted to one purpose and one purpose only: carriage, and they do that very well. You won't see them cutting deals with Nefflix for faster service. It's already there.

Unfortunately, the incumbent ISPs have peppered America with laws that stifle community broadband in order to prevent their entry into the market. But more importantly, the incumbent ISPs have prevented communities from making their own choices about how best to provide access to the utility of the 21st century, the internet. Even the FCC has taken notice of this fact.

Many states and communities are realizing that enacting legislation written by the incumbent ISPs was a mistake and some are beginning to reverse course. Why? They are starting to see what gigabit access can do to revitalize their communities, create jobs and enhance life around town. They are realizing that more often than not, that commercial interests are not always in the public interest.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Do we really need prioritized packets?

In reading the discussion to my blog, "Moving the fight over net neutrality", and other threads, I noticed a discussion of classification and priority. Classification and priority refer to classifying the types of information being sent and how to set priorities for those types of information. For example, we might want to set a higher priority for voice and video than for P2P file transfers. This makes sense.

But it is also a slippery slope, especially for ISPs with a vested interest in extracting maximum cash from their monopoly. If we're talking about a competitive market, then classification and priority is fine because consumers would have a choice. Consumers could choose an ISP that has no service that competes with Netflix. Comcast has video services that competes with Netflix. Even Comcast will admit that watching Comcast sourced video will not be counted against the same data cap they impose on Netflix data. See what I mean?

Another facet of the argument that is not getting any notice is this: Netflix didn't make any deals with last-mile service providers in other countries. They also didn't make any deals with community broadband providers, at least not that I'm aware of. So far, Netflix has only made deals with Comcast and Verizon because, as John Oliver has shown, both of those incumbent providers are not shy about slowing down Netflix traffic to make more money at the expense of Netflix customers.

I believe that the classification and priority arguments are tenuous arguments at best, designed to keep a foot in the door for the incumbent providers to continue to extract more money from their direct competition for entertainment, nothing more. Netflix is sort of a canary in a coal mine, and they are showing us who has an interest in slowing them down. We just need to keep an eye on that canary.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I'm better than you. Will you love me?

"Shame is the rocket fuel of success." I heard that long ago and never forgot it. Shame is the absence of love, a communication by one to the other that "you're not worthy of love", and, "there's something wrong with you". Unfortunately, the word in the media is that if you have money, you will be loved by America. Never mind that you're a mere human being with feelings, needs and desires. Even if you have a bit of shame, no worries, you can use money to cover that up so no one will notice.

I have seen many rat races in my life. A rat race at school where popularity was the big deal. Whoever was the most popular seemed to have it all. They got the dates, they went to the prom, maybe they were even crowned as king or queen of the prom, they got the best grades and so on.

Later in life, many went to college, some went straight to work out of high school. But in the end, it came down to possessions. I got a nice house Santa Clara. Check. I got a nice S-Class Mercedes. Check. I have a thriving business or, I'm a C-class executive. Check.

My house is better than yours. Do you love me? My car is better than yours. Do you love me? I make more money than you. Do you love me? Will you be my friend?

These are the thoughts that come to mind as billionaires lament that they're victims in the court of public opinion. Tom Perkins, one of the billionaires I speak of, thinks that billionaires are being persecuted and says so in a letter. Considering that billionaires own the media in 7 corporations and their many subsidiaries, it's hard to believe that they're being persecuted in the court of public opinion.

But, hey, if your ideas have no merit, you can always pay someone to put them into law. Just ask Justice John Roberts. Yes, not too long ago, the Supreme Court reminded us again that money is speech and that there should be no aggregate limits on how much one person can spend on a political campaign. Do the wealthy feel loved now that elected officials only need to turn to a few heavy hitters?

I guess what comes to mind is that if the wealthy believe that they are so much better than the rest of us, if they are truly superior to the rest of us, why do they need laws that cater to and protect their interests? I mean, if they're so much more efficient than the rest of us, why erect another barrier to entry in the market?

Such barriers can include but are not limited to, copyrights, patents, "free trade agreements", non-compete agreements, non-disclosure agreements and tax havens? Why do the wealthy need all that extra help from the government? If they subscribe to social class esssentialism, the belief that they are really superior and necessary in order for society to function, then they shouldn't need any more protection from the government than the rest of us.

But that is what they get in the Conservative Nanny State. The Conservative Nanny State is a place where the wealthy can collude in gentlemen agreements to not poach employees in order to suppress wages. They can form business associations, in a sort of union, to promote anti-union laws that protect the interests of the business owner rather than the worker. They don't go to jail for their crimes. They just pay a fine. Just ask Lloyd Blankenfein, Alice Walton or Robert H. Richards IV. The Conservative Nanny State is a place where ordinary men are not entitled to subsidies, grants, private monopolies and lenient judges - that is only reserved for superior men who can handle that kind of responsibility.

Or can they? The 2008 meltdown says no, they can't. The fight over net neutrality says no. The concentration of political power into the hands of a tiny 0.5% of our population says no.

I'm not saying it's wrong to be rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich. There is something wrong with being rich and buying elections and buying laws that prop up a dynasty in your name. That's a problem that needs to be addressed when study after study say the same thing: America has become an oligarchy. We don't have to prove the point.

We only need to take action. The question is, where do we start?

We could start by convincing politicians to take money out of politics. From there the answers get easier because then new laws are more likely to be passed on merit rather than money.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The myth of the rational actor in the marketplace: obesity

Conservatives in Congress believe in limited government and that if left alone, the rational actors in the market will sort things out to create a level playing field for everyone. Seems logical, right? But does that match reality?

The rational actor is the card that is almost always played in debates on the free market. Is the market really free? Not really. We need third party arbiters of transactions to keep transactions fair. They're the banks and transaction processors. Banks include Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Bank of America to name a few familiar names.

Transaction processors also include Visa, MasterCard and Paypal. They provide 3rd party verification of the transaction so that we don't get into a he said-she said fight over who pay how much for what. There are checks and balances between them and us. For the most part these systems work and work well. Sometimes there are problems, but the fees paid for the transactions processed pay for arbitration when things don't go right.

So far, we can see rational actors.

Now close your eyes and recall the last time you were at your favorite supermarket. Your Vons, Albertsons, what-have-you. You're in the checkout line. You see rows and rows of candy, magazines, gadgets and energy drinks. Just in case you missed them before, these items are ready for your consumption. Have you made up your mind yet? Or are you going to pass on all that goodness?

Now look at the people in front of you and the people in front of you. Check out their carts. Economy size bags of Fritos? Check. 24-can packs of Diet Coke? Check. 4 or 5 pounds of red meat? Check. Overweight? Check.

I've seen the match between the shopping cart and the body, and it's fairly consistent. I've seen the giant displays of junk food at the supermarket the week just before the Super Bowl. We are not talking rational here. We are talking super-sized eating for recreation.

No animal on Earth eats for recreation except humans. Animals eat food that regulates intake automatically. They know when they're full and when they've had enough. They know how to conserve energy between meals, too.

Two-thirds of the American population are overweight. One third is obese, with a BMI index of greater than 30. Tell me how rational that is. Worldwide, we make enough food to feed 10 billion people. About half the food we create will go to waste. Why? Because the rest of the world doesn't have enough money to buy it.

Watch any golf or talking heads program on Sunday. You'll ads from Monsanto, ADM and DuPont telling us how they're feeding the world. What they don't say is that they're using genetically modified seeds to do it. Seeds for crops that have insecticide built in, that you can't wash off. Seeds that are almost completely unprofitable for the family farmer to grow because the seeds can't be saved to grow the next crop without breaking the terms of the license for the seeds. Farmers are committing suicide in India because they can't feed their families with money earned from growing these seeds.

Feeding the world, huh?

Top that off with lobbying in the US that makes it almost impossible to pass a federal law that requires the labeling of genetically modified food. Is a misinformed market rational? Can it ever be rational? Just ask states like Vermont, Hawaii and Washington. The states are rebelling, but Monsanto assures us that they will prevail in court. Monsanto actually wants us to remain ignorant of the types of seeds used to grow the food. Why? We won't buy it if we see the label.

Oh, wait. That might be rational.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Moving the fight for Net Neutrality

It's a given that Washing is bought and paid for by the top 1%. Sure, they want to be the lucky folks who make all the decisions, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. When it comes to broadband, we see those consequences as slow connections compared to other developed countries, fights over priority access and continual political lobbying and misrepresentation of the facts. Monopoly power provides for perverse incentives.

There are many who are now claiming that reclassification of the ISPs as Title II common carriers is the solution. I am one of them and although I promote reclassification, I am concerned that this won't happen. Even if it did, it might not be enough. There is little to zero political will for reclassification among the top 1%. Remember, we're dealing with captured regulators, people who work for an agency filled with the desire to work in a cushy 6-figure salaried job with one of the monopolies they regulate. That agency is the Federal Communications Commission, aka, the FCC.

We're dealing with a problem that stems from a decision made back in 2001 by then FCC chairman, Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell. Michael is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a "union" of monopolies. Imagine the kind of collusion that can happen in *their* board meetings. "Ahhhh...I can just smell the grass at my second home on the west coast of Spain." Yeah, that kind of monopoly, and we're paying for it.

It may seem like the battle is lost, but remember, the internet is made up of hardware and software, with a lot of people mixed in. Robert Cringely has identified a decades old problem that could free up a lot of network capacity that will soon be solved. It's called bufferbloat, the built-in tendency for network hardware to maintain buffers that are too large. This tendency can make networks unusable, but it makes for great sales for the people who sell network capacity.

Bufferbloat is an important technical problem to solve, but it doesn't solve the policy question. Yes, the ISPs are trying hard to keep congestion up so that they can sell more capacity. They want to make as much money as they can on selling capacity before the bufferbloat problem is solved. Even if that problem is solved, it still doesn't solve the problem of priority.

Assume for the moment, that the FCC does pass new regulations that allow a sort of "fast lane". This might seem like a great idea until you have an industry disrupting idea, turn it into a website and start to try to sell services to customers. The incumbent players can see your site, and if they don't like it, they might not be able to snuff you out, but they can make access to your site mighty slow until you pay up. They may even be able to make you pay enough that running your shiny new business becomes unprofitable, or at least, unpalatable.

Because the policy makers are bought and paid for by the 1%, and the same 1% don't want to have to deal with competition, they will find ways to make other people pay enough that competition is negligible or non-existent. Remember, monopolies tend to capture regulators.

Here is where we can move the front. That front has already seen scorched earth for the incumbent providers. That front is community broadband. In over 400 cities across this great land, citizens are accessing the internet on low-cost, very high speed fiber, without interference from incumbent carriers. And yes, we call it, "community broadband".

Most of these cities are small and are simply not worth the money to service. Cities like Princeton, Massachusetts have voted overwhelmingly in favor of building a network for themselves. Monticello, Minnesota has worked hard to build their own network, was sued by a local incumbent and now has two networks, one public, one private - with the private network trying to lowball the public one until there is a call on the bonds that financed the public network. Then the private network can put the screws to the public again.

In just about every example where fiber has been installed, from Chattanooga to Spanish Fork, the economy does better, people are happier, real estate prices rise. This is what incumbent carriers are fighting against - a better life for the rest of us.

I believe that the net neutrality battle becomes moot when community broadband takes over and provides open-access service to the communities they serve. Priority will not be an issue because community broadband has an economic interest in adding capacity. The incumbent providers do not share that interest.

One other thing that needs to be done to set the matter straight for the incumbents a revision of the no-compete clause of the franchise agreements. A mechanism needs to be put in place that says, "if you can't keep up with the world in setting speed and pricing, we build our own network alongside yours and flip the switch." Putting that into the next agreement will get the ISPs to sit up and take notice of the will, of the people.

Why? Because all power resides in the People.

Friday, June 06, 2014

How the conservative agenda reduces the tax base

The debate over inequality was sparked by the 2008 financial sector meltdown. People woke up on September 30th, 2008, to realize that 30 years of wage stagnation just wasn't working for them. Wages weren't keeping up with inflation, and home prices had been in a bubble rising faster than inflation. So millions of Americans found creative ways to finance their homes, and a truly middle class lifestyle that became increasingly out of reach. I remember how people were getting second mortgages for cars and vacations with the idea that their home prices would keep going up.

But that's not sustainable with stagnating wages now, is it? I mean, who is going to buy the same house at the new, higher price if wages stagnate?

The financial industry bet against the middle class with their credit default swaps, a form of insurance against mortgage backed securities in the event that those same securities lost value due to defaults on home loans. Goldman Sachs was the biggest winner in all of this. Not only did they win their bet, but when the loser couldn't pay for their end of a lost bet, Goldman Sachs got bailed out by the Federal Government. Meanwhile, millions of people were losing their homes.

The network effects of stagnating labor income was taking its toll everywhere and no one among the elite seemed to care enough about it to do anything about it.

It has been said to me by some conservatives I know, that raising taxes on the rich won't yield enough money to finance the government. While that may be true, lowering taxes on the rich has not produced the jobs that the rich said they would create with those tax cuts. Not with the Bush tax cuts, and not even with the temporary corporate tax holidays we saw during the Bush administration. You know, those tax holidays where billions held in offshore accounts were brought home with a 5% tax instead of 35%? Yeah, those tax holidays.

What did they do with the repatriated money? Why, they laid off thousands and paid shareholders a dividend! How prudent!

Some say that if you taxed all of the money of the 1%, you might get $35 billion out of them in a year. That is not the point of the tax. The tax is not to take all of their money. The point is to finance the government. The size of the American economy is estimated to be greater than $16 trillion.  A rough calculation shows that the federal budget is about $3.45 trillion, or roughly 20% of GDP. To put this in perspective, all health care costs account for roughly 18% of GDP.

As wealth accumulated to a small minority, we could see that whatever the wealthy were skimming from the economy just wasn't enough. The wealthy have known for centuries that capital will always outperform labor in the economy, and they were reaping gains just managing capital, without really producing much themselves compared to the people who worked for them. Their efforts are multiplied by employing other people. That's a feature of capitalism, not a bug. Just ask Thomas Piketty, an economist who used 200 years of data to prove it.

Wealthy capitalists claim that if they are taxed further, there will be diminishing returns. Yet the efforts of capitalists to suppress wages over the last 30 years has been the untold success story of the wealthy. The Iron Law of Wages says that wages will always tend towards subsistence. All we have to do is pay them enough to stay alive and we'll be fine, right?

When capitalists play that game, they are only asking for trouble. Then tax rolls go down. People start to notice that the real job creators are the people who buy things. Lots of people are needed to keep the economy going, and they need to spend money to do it. Henry Ford figured this out long ago. He paid his workers enough money to buy the cars he was building. But if you look at Walmart, they are paying subsistence wages. Why? Being a billionaire is just not enough. "When I go on vacation, I want to *feel* like I'm on vacation while everyone else is working!"

So who is really paying the taxes? The middle class, or at least, what is left of it. During the 30 years after the election of President Reagan, you might know him as "Grandpa Reagan", the tax burden slowly shifted from corporations and the wealthy to the middle class, and there is no end in sight to the trend. While tax burdens were increasing for the middle class, their wages were not keeping up with inflation.

All of this has been happening with hardly anyone noticing the benefits that the wealthy receive in The Conservative Nanny State. Not only do they get subsidies and grants galore. They get patents and copyrights to extend monopolies. They get "free trade" deals negotiated in secret to help protect their interests, like protecting doctors from global competition. They even get a central bank to raise interest rates whenever the unemployment rate gets too low. Yes, those neoliberal economists have got it all wrapped up for consumption in American economics courses all over the country.

Between 2009 and 2012, 95% of the growth in the economy went to the 1%. So uh, what did the wealthy do with all that lucre? Tax havens! You know, places like Barbados, Cayman Islands and even Ireland. That is money that won't create jobs in America, won't be spent here, and we'll never see it - even if the federal government gives them a tax holiday. Why not? Because a billion just isn't enough to get by these days.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Review: The Timer Tab

I like to attend a periodic social function that provides for timed speaking opportunities for all who want to speak. I've found that attendance in such gatherings has helped me to focus my thoughts and what I want to talk about. This activity has helped me to develop the discipline to only talk about what is most important to me this very moment, and to avoid the "ahs", "ums" and clearing my throat to keep the voice working. You know, to hold the floor.

From time to time, I volunteer to be the timer. I've tried using a watch, a kitchen timer, the clock on my computer and the timer on my Android phone. But all of them were a distraction from the proceedings. I needed two hands to operate each one, and even the phone distracted me from the speaker. I needed something better.

As the speed of the internet increases, so does the variety of applications available. I'm writing this on Blogger, an application that requires a pretty fast connection to load, but once loaded, it runs fine. We don't usually think of Google+, YouTube, Pandora or Netflix as applications, but that is what they have become for us.

I like to use Chrome as my default browser. Chrome has the speed, utility and applications that I need to do my work. I use Chrome in tandem with my Gmail account and that makes it easy for me to increase the utility of my browser of choice. There is an app store that goes with Chrome and a huge ecosystem of application development has grown from it. Google Play is where I found the timer of choice, quite by accident, The Timer Tab.

But don't let that fool you. This little gem works in any browser, on any operating system. The author just happened to have the wisdom to put it in Google Play, too.

So let me tell you why I love the timer tab. I'm a keyboard man, almost totally anti-mouse. When writing or doing data entry, the mouse is a waste of time. Manual dexterity on a keyboard is far, far more accurate on a keyboard than a mouse, and the keyboard is much faster. I can nail a button much faster with a keyboard than with a mouse if the tab order is properly set. In any application, particularly web forms, you will find that you can tab through the form after filling out each field. I look for this when it comes to filling out forms on the web.

The Timer Tab is well suited to tab through all of the buttons. It has three functions: Timer, Alarm Clock, and Stop Watch. For the meeting I use the timer. I can tab through every field and button to get to the countdown field, enter a number and then press Enter to start the countdown. Even after pressing Enter, the cursor is still blinking in the box with the number. Often I have to countdown from 3 minutes, with a reminder at one minute. So when 3 minutes are up, I can backspace over the existing value and enter the number 1, and press Enter again to start a new countdown. Press the space bar to pause.

This is by far, the most elegant and simple timer I've ever seen, anywhere.

There is an alarm clock, with similar functionality, but I haven't used that much yet. What is very interesting about this is that the alarm clock will continue to work between browser sessions. I can set the alarm, close the browser, bring the browser back up and go back to the Timer Tab, and there is the alarm, still set and waiting for me. This is done through cookies used by the browser to track the user and preferences of the user.

At work, I fill in web forms all day, working support requests for upgrades. I have to switch between tabs in a browser often. Ctrl-PageUp and Ctrl-PageDown make switching between tabs easy in Firefox and Chrome. At home, I don't have to switch between tabs so much, but it comes in handy. Note to those still working with Internet Explorer, you can't use that keyboard combination to switch between tabs, you'll use Ctrl-tab to do that.

The stopwatch is what I use at work. I use it to track my time in every task I do. I just tab to the Start Stopwatch button, and press Enter to start a new stopwatch. Then I go to work. When I'm done with the last task, I switch tabs and come back to the stopwatch. All I do is press Enter to start a new stopwatch and away I go to the next task. If I need to pause the stopwatch, I just press the space bar, like with the timer.

This application is a dream to use for tracking time. If you are a taskmaster on your computer and need to track your time for anything, this is the app to use to keep your time. I recommend this to any taskmaster, anywhere a computer is needed. Give it a try, you won't be disappointed.