Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is "cramming" the new normal in American business?

I read with interest this article on how some small companies are using deception to get money for their "services" onto the cell phone bills that many Americans pay. Money that could be used for something more compelling, you know, like food. It is good to see that cell phone carriers are working hard to deal with these extraneous charges, but they are also tempted by the lucre, to the tune of 30-40% of millions of dollars. This is called "cramming".

This is hardly the finest example, and it turns out, cramming is a common practice in many service industries. In the article, "Why Business is Brain-Dead--and How to Wake Up", we are treated to a parade of accounting and billing statement line-items that are assumed to be true costs. Here, we see one example after another of deceitful ways to bill customers for "services" without adding any real value to the purchase.

Microsoft is infamous for its licensing costs for software. You might be familiar with Microsoft Office, the cash cow after Windows. How many versions of Microsoft Office are there? Why, there's even a chart to show you what is available. This is fine if you're just thinking of you and maybe your family.

But, say you're a business owner and you want to run your business on Microsoft software. That includes servers like Windows Server 2012 Standard, Enterprise and Galactica. Then there are application servers like Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Sharepoint, and Microsoft Exchange. There are many flavors of each of these application servers to choose from, each with different costs for licensing.

Guess what? There is an entire industry devoted to figuring out how to extract the most value for the buck when it comes to licensing Microsoft software. Here's just one company that you can pay real money for the service of shepherding you through Microsoft licensing. Microsoft makes money by keeping their licensing confusing.

I am familiar with the closing pitch after every sale: Would you like extended warranty protection with this purchase? Are extended warranties worth the money? If the seller expects to make a fat margin from the extended warranty, the answer is probably no.

Has it always been this way? I don't know. I do think that at some point in time, American business sort of lost it's way. We went from adding value to products to finding ways to subtract value after the purchase. We went from buying something to own it, to getting sucked into service agreements, leasing and licensing. Residual income is a big deal these days, probably because working for money really sucks if you think that there is a sucker born every minute.

For the rest of us, we must work to put food on the plates, maintain shelter and send our kids to college. We must add value to our existence in order to enjoy the way of life we've become accustomed to.

There are a few exceptions. I'm writing this blog on one of them right now: Blogger. I don't know how they do it, but Google has been adding value to their products from day one. They started out as just a search company. Then they added email. Then Blogger. Then Google Drive. Google Music. Movies. A wealth of programming tools. A free browser that is fast and secure and it runs on Linux.

They're out there, those exceptional companies that add value to your purchase, even when you don't ask for it. They want you to have the best experience and they want to answer any questions you might have about your statement in the mail. I look for those companies, you know, the people that want to earn the money I pay them? Yeah, I look for them, in earnest. When I find them, I have a hard time switching to some other provider. I guess I tend to be loyal when I see service done with commitment and passion.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A rough sketch of the future of recycling

When I was a young man, I read the following statistic: Every year, Americans throw away enough aluminum cans to to build the entire fleet of commercial aircraft in existence today.

Reading that passage made a lasting impression on me. For much of my life, I've been thinking of recycling and how I use what I buy. I think about the consequences of breaking something. For example, I drop a glass, it breaks, I clean up the mess and throw the shards away. I go to Ikea to buy another glass to match what I already have. With that purchase, the computer records the purchase as demand. That pulls a string to ask someone to send another glass. That pulls another string to ask someone to make another glass. That pulls another string to ask someone to mine the resources necessary to make that glass. That leads to the original claim to the territory where those resources are located.

As I look to the Oquirrh Mountains southwest of Salt Lake City, I see the scourge of a mining operation where they have completely despoiled the once beautiful mountains there. I wonder of the benefits of mining that range and who, exactly, enjoys the greatest financial rewards for such depraved behavior. Is it really necessary to wipe out such beauty when so many treasures can be found in the landfills far and wide across the globe?

In the hopes that someday, we might transcend the need to mine this great earth in the most ugly and unpleasant ways, I offer here, a vision of what complete recycling might look like.

Imagine a world where we have built something that could best be described as a universal recycler. You put garbage in, anything at all, and out the other end, come pure elements from every corner of the periodic table. Of course, this would take tremendous energy to accomplish. But with thorium or even fusion power - perhaps we might learn to tap the more than 1,000 terawatts of power we receive from the sun every single day - we could recycle everything. I mean everything, no matter the source.

Setting energy sources aside, imagine a future where nothing, absolutely nothing goes to waste. Anything and everything, from gum wrappers and the gum balled up inside to car bumpers to hearing aid batteries, all of it, goes into the universal recycler.

The concept of the universal recycler draws upon something I learned from a company called "The Big Green Box". They started out just recycling batteries, but then they said that we could send them all of our electronic junk, phones, tablets and other gadgets. They take these items, sinter them down into the basic elements and sell the results on the commodities markets. This would include elements like gold, silver and the rare earths.

We could do this with everything that we no longer need anymore. No matter how noxious or bulky, no matter the composition, we could put it all through the universal recycler and get pure, raw materials out that can be used for new products. Once such a system scales, then we're talking about ripping up every landfill there ever was and disgorging all that refuse to the universal recycler for the return of the elements therein to the manufacturing sector. We could even go after that floating island of plastic in the north Pacific, you know, the one that is larger than the state of Texas? Yeah, we could clean that up, too.

How would it work? We concentrate a lot of heat in many crucibles, enough to melt everything down to their constituent elements so that the lightest float to the top as liquids or gases and we collect and separate each element according to density or atomic weight. This could be very similar to how oil is cracked to give us diesel, gasoline and butane.

I know, it's science fiction. But we need to start thinking outside the box that we have built for ourselves so we can stop raping the mountains that were here before we were born and go after the mountains of trash that we have all over the earth. We have to start somewhere, and a vision is how it gets started.

For just a few minutes, close your eyes and imagine what this future would look like with me, and go on to enjoy another fine day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A government protected monopoly is not a private enterprise

When I think of some of the icons of American capitalism, GE, GM, and Google, I think of companies that are in direct competition with the world. Each of these three must allocate their resources in such a way as to provide their services at a price that is competitive with other offerings here and abroad.

Our telecommunications companies like Comcast, Time-Warner, AT&T and Verizon would like us to believe that they are engaged in similar competition, as if they are engaged in the art of private enterprise. To the extent that they are not protected by patents, copyrights, state and local franchise agreements, free trade agreements, anti-union laws, etc, you could say that they are.

For today, I would like to emphasize the point that in their respective domestic markets, each of the 4 biggest telecommunications companies have had the luxury to operate a private monopoly. For every city they operate in has agreed to a local monopoly. For example, When Comcast enters into an agreement to provide cable television service to residents in any given city in the United States, they are granted an exclusive right to do so, in the form of a franchise agreement. That means that no other cable television provider may operate a similar business within the boundaries of that same city. This is a private monopoly.

The same thing is true of the phone services offered by AT&T and Verizon. In fact, before 1982, AT&T had a government granted monopoly on phone service throughout the entire nation. This monopoly was created by government intervention and it was broken up (not completely destroyed) by government intervention. There was a time when you could not connect your own device of choice to the phone line without permission from the "phone company". That's what we used to call AT&T.

Since the breakup of AT&T, every city had the option to choose their telephone service providers. Even then, each city provided their respective choices with a government granted monopoly, a franchise agreement, with terms that could run a whole decade or more.

This is what is behind the facade of private enterprise, free enterprise, or whatever you want to to call it, that the telecommunications giants place before us in the public sphere. When they advertise, lobby, or simply do their business, 100% of the time, they are operating in a market that is guaranteed by the government.

You might protest and say that AT&T and Verizon are in competition with each other. Yes, they are in the mobile phone market. But in the landline business, they have mutually exclusive territories. That includes the internet service business. By the way, we still use landlines and they are not going away anytime soon.

The same thing is true of Comcast and Time-Warner. They both operate in mutually exclusive territories with franchise agreements that have very long terms. To switch from one to another is an incredibly onerous process, one that would take many years to complete. So not only do they have a government granted monopoly, but due to their infrastructure investments, they have a de facto monopoly. Even if a city wanted to change their carrier, it's a long and expensive process to make that change.

This arrangement can have many benefits, but it can also have many pitfalls. Let me see if I can enumerate a few of them: complacency, condescension and corruption. These are all attitudes I have observed in the behavior of each of the telecoms. I would like to work on Comcast today, since I'm a "customer" and I'm also most familiar with them now.

I want to also point out at this juncture that Comcast too, is offering voice service in competition with the incumbent carrier, CenuryLink. While there is definitely some churn between these two very large companies, no serious economist is going to tell us that two competitors is competition. What we have here is called a duopoly, a monopoly between two competitors with government granted monopolies in their respective trades.

This is not free enterprise. This is not even private enterprise. This is most certainly not a free market. But this does explain why cable and internet subscription fees have consistently risen faster than inflation for at least the last 20 years. The latest FCC report indicates that in the recent past, subscription fees have increased at a rate four times faster than inflation. These are no doubt, monopoly rents.

So it is a curious thing indeed for me to see people, serious people, talking about a government takeover of the internet in the context of the debate over net neutrality. A casual review of the history of the Internet reveals that the foundation of what we know as the internet today was created by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, "DARPA", a federal agency in the US government. Isn't that interesting how something so great as the internet was not created by one of those "private enterprises"?

It is even more curious to me to see people railing against the very notion of community broadband and how "government should not be engaged in the business of providing internet service". Yet, these same people make no mention of any of the private monopolies we have in place. So I have every right to express indignation when these same so-called "private businesses" use their monopoly power and rents to buy legislation that blocks communities from creating their own solutions.

This is what I mean by complacency: Comcast has a few extra hundred million laying around, so it can invest in Universal theme parks to compete with Disneyland. Remember, this is the same company that doesn't mind jacking up your rates for cable and internet access 4 times faster than inflation - that's the condescension part. The corruption? That comes when they bought laws in 20 states that prevent cities from creating their own broadband networks when Comcast refuses to upgrade their networks. Or when Comcast (or Verizon) allows their Level3 connections to clog up in order to score a deal with Netflix. Verizon got the next deal. Yeah, those monopoly rents are so wonderful...

This is why community broadband makes sense. This is why community broadband is in operation in more than 400 cities nationwide. This is why community broadband is the future.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thou dost protest too much, Comcast, Time-warner and Verizon

Consider for a moment, the enormous market power of the top internet service providers, Comcast, Time-Warner, Verizon and AT&T. Each of them are very profitable private concerns with huge market share. Each of them also commands a monopoly in their respective service areas. Each of them has tremendous lobbying power in Congress and in state legislatures. All of them are cognizant of one very big threat to their businesses: community broadband.

They are working hard to convince the Congress and the legislatures that they shouldn't have to compete with community broadband (aka, municipal broadband). They contend that private enterprise will always outperform government. Private enterprise will always provide better customer service, uptime and speeds when it comes to broadband.

But what they don't tell us is that community broadband, now available in more than 400 cities nationwide, provides 10 to 100 times the speeds offered by the incumbent providers for about the same price or less. If private enterprise is so great, why is this happening?

This is because each of the incumbents (Comcast, Time-Warner, Verizon and AT&T) have been entrusted with a monopoly franchise to operate in local jurisdictions they serve. In any city, there can only be one phone company, and/or one cable company. You can't have more than one, that just isn't practical.

So what did they do with that public trust? When Congress opened their wallet in the 1990s to provide hundreds of millions in subsidies and grants specifically for the purpose of network upgrades the incumbents laid off employees and gave bonuses. Network upgrades? Are you kidding? This is free money!

The result of this sleight of hand is that when communities wanted faster service, they could not get it from their monopoly service providers. After years of pleading with incumbents, many small towns and cities gave up and figured out ways to create their own networks, just like Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina.

Blindsided by this trend, the incumbents went to the state legislatures to pin down and limit community networks so that they could not expand beyond their original footprint. The message is, you will take what we have to offer, no questions, no complaints. We'll give you higher speeds just as soon as we can figure out how to finance that house on the coast of Spain for our CEO first.

Now two of the biggest community broadband cities, Chattanooga and Wilson, are petitioning the FCC to remove barriers imposed by state legislatures that prevent them from expanding their service. These community services are not only providing faster service, they are making money doing it, and doing it well. This pays dividends for their respective jurisdictions in the form of money that can be used for expansion, upgrades, and customer service. I know, pretty novel concept, huh?

Christopher Mitchell of Community Broadband Networks, notes with interest, that the courts have recently ruled that pre-empting state laws that preclude local choice in broadband providers is well within the authority of the FCC. Let's hope that Congress gets a hint that the Blackburn Amendment isn't going to pass and if you voted for it, you're going to feel the heat in the mid-terms.

In the end, we wouldn't be having this discussion if the incumbents respected the public trust of their respective franchises and honored the people who gave them the franchise in the first place. If the incumbents are replaced by community broadband, you will know why it happened.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When punishment becomes familiar

If you have kids, or remember what it was like to be a kid, you might find the following cycle familiar:

  1. Do something wrong.
  2. Get caught doing something wrong.
  3. Get punished: time in the corner, grounded, spanked, for some, beaten.
  4. Notice that your parents aren't around unless you do something wrong.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Escalate the punishment with every repeat of steps 1-4.
  7. As an adult, wonder what the hell happened in therapy.

Kids love attention from their parents. They need attention because by design, they are not entirely capable of taking care of themselves. As they grow older, they learn from us what life is about. They see everything adults do, especially the parents, as survival strategies. So they want to do what we do.

But if we don't give our kids enough attention, then they discover, often by accident, that the way to get attention is to get into trouble. Often, neither the parents nor the kids see this happening, for the mind cannot see outside of the problems it creates. Unless they get outside help, they may never see what is happening or understand why.

I've come to understand that if I respond to an honest mistake, an honest question, an innocent trespass by my daughter, with punishment, that will become familiar. She will think that is normal behavior. She won't understand why she is being treated that way, but she will accept it as normal and try to adapt. This is a survival strategy. She relies upon us.

So when she does something that I think is "wrong", I have to ask myself the question, "What is wrong here? What is the appropriate response?"

I don't respond with punishment. I respond with a gentle "no" and pull her away from where she was. I don't want to establish control over her. I just want to give her choices so that she can make an objective assessment of her choices without worrying about me. It is not my job to be the lesson. The lesson speaks for itself. My job is to show the way to live in peace with kindness and respect.

When parents yell at their kids, when they spank them, when they beat them (I know, I know, as a culture, I shouldn't have to include this, but there are still some people who beat their kids), that's attention. Everything we do for our kids is attention our kids are craving. Even if it is bad attention, our kids will adapt and assume it's normal.

Every form of attention has a positive feedback loop. If you punish your kids repeatedly, expect to dole out more punishments. Expect the punishments to escalate because all the kid will see is attention. The punishment becomes better than the neglect, so the kid figures how to get more by doing more irritating stuff.

Conversely, treat the kid with respect, honor and as a little human being, and you can create an opposite feedback loop. Praise the kid when they do something good, give her a high-five, and she will reciprocate. Teach the kid to read and praise the kid, and she will learn to read. If the kid makes a mistake, gently review the mistake with her and show her how to do it right until she learns or shows you a better way to do it. Kids can do that, you know? They can show you a better way to do things than before.

Either way, what you do for your kid will become familiar to him or her. She will seek out what you do in others because that is familiar. If you punish her, neglect her, or berate her, she will seek that out in a mate. If you treat her with respect, give her choices that mean something to her, and reward her for progress, she will seek that out in a mate.

If you want to bark at your kids to be quiet, when they are adults they will find mates that do the same thing. If you want your kid to obey your every command, they will do it and find a mate or even friends that command them. But if you want to have kids that think objectively about everything and everyone they meet, you may want to consider a change in course.

Trust me, it works. It's familiar. Humans crave familiarity. They crave it through school, work or to prison. They want to know that their life is predictable, reliable and safe. Yes, for some adults even prison can seem to be safer than the outside world.

So take your pick. You can choose negative reinforcement of the behaviors you desire to see in your child or positive reinforcement. Just remember that whatever you do will become familiar, a way of life for your child. This is what I think about every day that I'm with my kid.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The case for free software in the classroom

Many years ago, my Dad told me that when he got married, the priest who performed the ceremony said to him, "Bring 'em to us between 2 and 5 years old and we got 'em for life." In other words, bring them in early for indoctrination and they will believe in and honor the church. He never brought us in.

It appears the same strategy has been applied to our schools, but here, in an entirely different context. Since about 1997, kids have been treated to schools with a computer at the desk, and from the beginning, they were running Windows.

This must have seemed like a coup for Microsoft. First, they can ensure that kids are familiar with Windows and that since they are familiar with Windows, they will seek out Windows when they buy a computer. Businesses already running Windows will be happier knowing that kids in school are learning something that they are already using.

Microsoft has worked very hard to earn the free promotion of Windows that they receive when schools run Windows. With early exposure, Microsoft found a ready market of kids and young adults who wanted Windows on their computers.

Unfortunately, this is not what public schools should be doing. Public schools should not be in the business of picking winners and losers to be sure. But they should never be used as a platform for promoting proprietary software.

A number of schools are now finding that not only can they save money by eliminating Windows in the classroom, they are finding that it is easier to manage and maintain Linux in the classroom. As more classrooms adopt Linux, it is becoming easier to weight the costs and benefits of migration to and using Linux compared to Windows.

Removing proprietary software from schools will, if used properly, encourage kids to learn how the technology works. Allowing kids to tinker with the software running on their computers, even to make mistakes that cause problems on the computer, provide learning experiences that they can't get on a system that is locked down - the path that the Apple crowd is on. They have nice shiny technology, but they never really learn how it works. Kids on Linux will be able to see what is under the hood at any time - to make it, to break it, to get to know it.

I know from personal experience. My trip on Linux has proved to be far more interesting than any experience I have ever had on Windows. In 2007, I switched to Linux and never went back. I started with the intention of seeing how long I would last on Linux without Windows. As the operating system matured, so did I. Eventually, I reached a point where I no longer needed Windows and I shudder at the thought of ever going back. I am confident that my kids will never see Windows or iOS running in our home. They see plenty of Windows and Mac out there, but here, at home, they will have a chance to know how their computers work.

This is the difference between Windows and Linux. Windows teaches kids that you don't really need to know how your computer runs. Software comes on a CD, or as a download, and that you pay for the license to use it. Actually learning how software works seems verboten with Windows and Mac.

Linux and other open source software is the opposite. Linux encourages me to tinker with the computer, the software, and sometimes, the hardware. The source code is there for me to read and learn how it is done right. The community of Linux users is there to help me find my feet, my arms and then to eventually coordinate them while using Linux.

This trend with technology has not gone unnoticed:
"We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster." -- Carl Sagan
When we allow proprietary technology into our classrooms, we must ask a simple question: "Are we promoting the ignorance of the technology we use?"

The simple answer is yes. The solution and the alternative? Linux and open source software.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A thought experiment: The case for drug tests for business licenses

I'm writing this article as a thought experiment. I will start by saying that I am totally against the war on drugs and I see the current regime of severe punishment for mere possession of drugs counterproductive. The harsh sentencing guidelines that judges have to deal with provide no latitude for treatment over prison and seem almost uniquely designed to keep our prisons full.

The evolution of the war on drugs has led to drug testing in the workplace, a practice that is now common and even traditional for large firms. Government agencies routinely test for drugs for their employees. But they don't seem to test for drugs for most benefit programs, you know, like the TARP program, a part of the bailout plan for the big banks after the collapse of the housing bubble. What I offer for consideration in this article is drug testing for a business license. The regime is as follows: all persons named on the license must submit to an annual drug screen to make sure that they are free of drugs. If they fail the test, they lose the business license.

This does in a way, make sense to me. Businesses put their private property up for hire. The owners hire and fire employees. The owners create a dependence upon them for their services and infrastructure. I, for one, would like to know that I'm not enabling someone's drug habit, especially someone at the top.

The business is dependent upon the decision making skills of the employer, the owner. The people who depend upon the business need to know if their money is going to finance, either directly or indirectly, the sale or purchase of illegal drugs. Wouldn't you like to know if you're working for a ration employer who is free of drugs? I sure would.

Would you do business with a company where you knew the CEO was using pot, cocaine or barbiturates? Would you feel comfortable knowing that ultimately, any dispute with a front line employee could ultimately be decided by an owner who has a habit?

I favor treatment over prison in cases of drug use and possession. But I do think that as a citizen, I would like to see drug testing for business licenses. This might go a long way to cutting demand because a business owner who has time, might think he has the time to drift off.

Even as a thought experiment, it's hard to see all of the ramifications of instituting such measures. Humans are very creative and when they really want something, they will find a way to get it. That's just how we are and that is why the drug war won't work and never will. Even my idea here for testing for drugs for business licenses probably won't work when put to the test.

How many businesses would fold because of test failures? How many jobs would be lost? We don't know. Without drug testing for business licenses, we would never know for sure. The only thing we can be sure of is that if we don't like the service we're getting, we can go somewhere else with our money.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Marsha Blackburn must be pining away for a job at Comcast

I see in the news that Rep. Marsha Blackburn is going to offer an amendment that would prevent funding of any effort by the FCC to preempt state laws that limit or prohibit municipal broadband adoption and/or expansion. I guess the the dark side of the Force got to her before common sense did. You know, Comcast. Verizon. AT&T. Yeah, those guys.

Here is what is happening. Over the last decade or so, cable and phone companies figured out that there is the possibility that cities and small towns could do an end run to get faster speeds at reasonable prices for internet access. More than 400 such places have done exactly that, causing some bruised egos and bleeding in the bottom line.

Why build better infrastructure for your customers to deal with competition when you can beat them into submission at the state legislature? That's what Marsha Blackburn's amendment is all about. It's about removing local choice from cities and towns for internet access.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice, with Vint Cerf on the board of directors, has also taken notice and has urged a "NO" vote on this amendment.

If you want to see the end of the cable/telco duopoly on internet access, pick up the phone and call your representative in the House and provide them with an undiluted portion of your opinion and urge them to vote NO on the Blackburn Amendment.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mind to mouth

I have a daughter of 19 months. She's learning to talk and as I watch her try every day to say words that we can understand, I have noticed that she's speaking in sentences, too. Just not sentences we understand. Whatever she is saying is only known to her.

I know she knows words because she responds appropriately to what I say. She moves and acts in ways that are consistent with what I ask her to do. I'll say, "Go give that to mommy," and she will do just that. So I know she understands what I'm saying.

If she understands what I'm saying, and she understands what she is saying, then she doesn't seem aware that we don't understand what she is saying most of the time. I can hear her say parts of words, but not all of the word she is trying to say. She probably hears the words in her head and understands the meaning of what she wants to say, but she doesn't have full motor control of her mouth to form each sound yet. I wonder if she knows that this is happening. Probably not.

The following video shows my daughter having a conversation with me. Have a look.

As you can see from the video, she can wax eloquent while speaking what sounds like gibberish to us. She seems fully aware of what she wants to say in her own mind, but doesn't know that what is saying is unintelligible to me. Notice that she knows where Mommy is and where the snow is.

As she grows older, she will learn to form the words and all of us will marvel at the first time she can say something that all of us can understand. At that point, she will use words more and more to get her needs met rather than gestures and just sounds.

I offer this example not just to show Emily's development. I offer this also to make a point. Some people never grow out of this phase, but with a twist. Some people can say what they understand, but will be completely unaware that other people don't understand what they are saying. There is a break down in communication from within the brain where there is know acknowlegment.

To put it differently, what I am saying in a conversation requires context to be understood. No one can get inside my head to understand the context of what I'm saying, just like I can't know the context of what Emily is saying because her worldview is so completely different than mine.

This is a problem on many levels, from personal to geopolitical. I've seen this while observing the discord between the two dominant parties, the Democrats and Republicans. When Democrats try to talk to Republicans, the Republicans are listening to what is said in an entirely different context than what the Democrats are thinking. The reverse is true, also.

It is not easy to take communication in context. I have this problem and I'm a pretty active listener. Active listening is the mental task of asking questions without saying them, while listening to what is being said. As someone who is hard of hearing, I try to take in everything, body language, tone, pitch, rhythm - any clues I can find to understand what people are saying. I use that information to establish context.

When we're dealing with an adversary, we may be more concerned with getting what we want than actually listening. This can impair our ability to negotiate because we can't understand what others are saying in the context of what they want, what they see as right. We hope that a 3rd party can act as arbitrator so that we can be sure what we're saying is properly understood by the adversary in context.

I know this from my own experience. I've written letters and said things to other people, that later, when I asked them about it, they said they didn't understand what I was saying. Upon hearing that, I found myself bemused and a little bit confused. I thought they understood, and had that sense about me for weeks, even months only to find out that the other person had no clue what I was talking about.

This lack of understanding can be innocent or intentional. Sometimes, people can choose to say, "La la la, I can't hear you!" Other times, we think we understood what was said to us, when we didn't.

Person to person, nation to nation, we find that communication, in all of its forms, is the foundation for peace. We can't just say what we want to say, we need to get acknowledgement that what we said was understood. We might ask, "What was the middle part again?"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Do we live by freewill?

Years ago, I read an article suggesting that if man has freewill, so do electrons. I don't know exactly why I find this so fascinating. I make decisions, I act on them and look for the results. Every keystroke on this computer is the result of a decision I made. Or is it? The comments on the article linked to above provide an interesting exploration of the question of whether or not we truly have freewill. I honestly don't know, but I can tell you that I want to believe that I do.

I want to believe that the choices I made up to this moment are mine, and mine alone. You probably do, too. I mean, what is the meaning of life if none of the choices we make are ours to be made? What if we're just descending through the Pachinko game of life to our ultimate demise, all through cause and effect, with no choice in the matter?

As fascinating as I find that, here's something that will really blow your mind (as it is happening to my mind right now): if matter has freewill, does it cooperate?

The random number experiments started in the 90s seems suggestive that the particles we know of as matter do cooperate. What were those experiments all about? They started with sitting people down in front a computer that displayed a 1 or a 0 at regular intervals, with the digits selected at random. Then they instructed the subjects to make more 1s than 0s appear. The results showed a statistically measurable deviation from random - more 1s than 0s appeared when the subjects thought about it.

Then they scaled it out to servers dishing up 1s and 0s at random, 24x7, across the world. They found major deviations from random just before the OJ Simpson verdict was read. The big one occurred about 4 hours prior to the September 11th attacks. In all of these events, millions of people had their attention focused on one major cultural event, either consciously or subconsciously.

These scientists were seeking to establish a connection between coherent consciousness and the behavior of matter. That could be seen as a form of cooperation. After reading about those experiments, I felt that my own conviction was confirmed, that being nice to your computer will yield a more pleasant user experience. It doesn't matter if you're using Windows, Mac or Linux. Be nice to your computer and it will be nice to you.

Your computer relies upon quantum mechanics to function. I suspect that the brains of all animals requires quantum mechanics to function, too. In other words, while it is true that much of our existence is supported by chemical reactions, there is something more going on that can't be explained by chemical reactions alone. The random number experiments suggest that consciousness can affect other systems that employ quantum mechanics to function, you know, like computers.

Looking around me, I see that matter cooperates. From protons, to atoms to planets, I see cooperation. From microbes to humans, I see cooperation. The only way that I see matter staying together is through some sort of cooperation. Electrons and protons have opposite charges. Were they to meet, there would be instant annihilation. To compose an atom together suggests some form of cooperation. Whether that cooperation comes from a great creator or the individual will of the particles themselves is one of the great mysteries in my mind.

The takeaway for me in all of this is that in order to live, we must cooperate. We must cooperate with other people and our environment. The point at which we die is the point at which the cells in our body no longer cooperate. The point at which civilization dies is the point at which we refuse to cooperate with each other, freewill or not.

If we have freewill, then we still have a choice. Or do we? If we fail to cooperate, we might just survive, but to truly live, we must cooperate in some way with our surroundings - the environment, the people and the culture.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Mind the gap

A few years ago, I wrote an article to propose progressive taxation not based on wages alone, but based on the gap between CEO and and worker pay. Apparently, I'm not the only who noticed the problem and proposed a solution. The Truth-Out website is running an article to show that there is a lot of citizen activism happening to start reigning in CEO pay.

It is interesting to note that the debate on minimum wage has been framed to exclude discussion of this gap. Why is it OK for the gap between CEO and worker to be left out of the debate? Probably because its easier to justify holding down the minimum wage without bringing CEO pay into the debate.

As the debate has moved to CEO pay, people are trying to pin down the exact ratio between CEO pay and worker pay. There is a meme floating around suggesting that CEO to worker pay is 475 to 1. I don't recall seeing that number anywhere else. Politifact has done a good job of fact-checking that number and suggests that the most likely ratio is somewhere around 300 to 1. That is still a very high ratio, even when not compared to most other countries where the ratio is no higher than 50 to 1.

Even at 300 to 1, I doubt any economist would say that ratio is sustainable. CEO pay, when left unchecked, leads to flat or sideways stocks, lower pay for workers, lower enthusiasm for the work to be done and a sense of unfairness and unease. Is there anyone who would seriously contend that one man can be 300 times more efficient than another?

The populist movement to reign in CEO pay while regulators do nothing is indicative that the government has forgotten who they work for. The action at the state level is telling, and it's only getting started.

The lax attitude on taxation and on regulation are based on wishful thinking, a false premise of, "Gee, that could be me there. *I* could be raking in the dough, so why would I want to do damage to a position I want to attain someday?"

Here's why. Try to think of the economy as an ecology. Now imagine an ecology where there is balance. There is no dominant species. Everything finds a place to live, something to eat. Sure, you'll have extinctions here and there, but in general, everything that dies at the top of the food chain feeds the bottom. That's the tax on the 1%.

The number on the check is now disconnected from the labor or performance of the CEO. This is because CEO pay is largely a matter between friends. The pay of the programmer for the company is not decided by friends of the programmer. The pay of the programmer is decided in an adversarial process known as the traditional hiring process. Interview, research and offer a salary if the market decides that is right for the company. A deal among friends cannot contemplate market forces - it is socialism, but you won't hear a CEO say that.

That is what people are complaining about. It is economically sustainable for CEO pay to be decided by his buddies when everyone else has to perform according to expectations in the market. We saw that in the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. With a lot more oversight and citizen activism, we can restore some balance to our economy.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A reasonable expectations of privacy

Many years ago, I heard a song by Sting called, "Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me)". The song is a very interesting exploration of privacy in the modern world at the time of the release of "Ten Summoners Tales". In the song, Sting notes that "you can run my name through your computer, still know nothin' 'bout me". That got me thinking about practical limits of privacy encroachment and expectations - the inspiration for this article.

We think of privacy as a right, but at the same time, we do many things that are public, for all to see. I can't recite all of the actions that I take that are public. A few that come to mind are whenever I make a purchase at any store, that is a public action. Everyone around me can see what I bought. Purchasing something at a brick and mortar store is a very public way of expression desire and satisfaction.

Anything we do on the internet is a public activity in most cases, unless the connection is encrypted, then there is some privacy from the prying eyes of anyone who is not logged into the same site. A notable exception is making a purchase online. The connection goes from public to encrypted and private when you click "buy". What we do in social networking is, in a sense, public, depending on how we wish to share what we want to express. Often what we say is permanent and very difficult to remove.

On the flipside there is private action. What can we expect to be able to do privately? Anything that is not done online and in the home is private. I have every expectation of privacy here, at home. When I go out and drive about, then I am less private, but what I do in the car is private until someone looks in my windows.

Even much of what I do on the computer at home is private unless I'm browsing the web or posting something on social networking sites. I make a point to never post anything in social networking sites that I want to keep private. Once it's online, its nearly impossible to remove and any effort to do so will incur what is known as the Streisand Effect

When pictures of Barbara Streisand's home began to circulate on the internet and Streisand got wind of what was happening, she attempted to hide and/or take down posts of the picture. As publicity grew of her efforts, demand for the pictures grew and circulation of the pictures grew to the point where it became impossible to remove the pictures from the internet. Information just wants to be free, know what I mean?

I have no expectation of privacy at work. There are cameras everywhere. Everything I do on the screen is recorded. Every phone call is recorded. Despite all the surveillance, I don't consider this a violation of privacy because I'm paid to work with clients of the company and if something goes wrong, I want to be able to point to the records and be able to say, "that wasn't me", or, "I didn't do that". In the workplace, I think of this more like a service. It keeps everyone accountable.

There is another perspective to consider at work. My employer is paying me to work and to keep customers satisfied. He needs to be able to measure my productivity and all of this surveillance can help to measure my work so he can balance his costs against his income. I now have a reliable and disinterested third party, a set of machines, recording everything that I do so that what I produce can be measured and compensation can be justified.

Even if I do have a right to privacy at work, I have to consider that I'm using a company computer, office furniture, climate controls, telephone and facilities. I don't worry about privacy at work. I have a smart phone that can send and receive emails, make phone calls and provides access to social networking. If I need to do something private, I don't have to do it on company time and hardware.

If you're looking for privacy, there are plenty of very reasonably priced remote residences without internet connections peppered around the nether regions of our country for you to choose from. But if you want to be a part of society, culture and the river of creativity that is social media, you might have to let go of some privacy to enjoy a place in modern humanity.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Review: Greenhouse for Chrome

As you can probably guess, I'm a bit of an activist on the internet. My pet issues are net neutrality, inequality and patents. So I like to follow my politicians to see what they're up to and where they've been getting their campaign money. In elections, I have a strong tendency to vote for anyone other than the incumbent. We need new blood because the people in power now are having a hard time adapting to new ideas.

So I just happened upon an app that can help with understanding where my elected representatives stand. Or, more precisely, who's money they stand on when they speak, write legislation and vote. Yesterday, while just reading Facebook, I found news of a kid that has created an app to do just that: Greenhouse.

So I took it for a test drive on my Chrome browser at home. Greenhouse is a great tool for finding out how our politicians are funded. Here's how it works. First, install the plugin. Then open up your favorite political website like Politico, Talking Points Memo or even a news site like Find a story with a politician's name in it. They'll be easier to find because now they're highlighted in green.

Now roll your mouse over a highlighted name. A popup appears to show you a tally of industry money received as campaign contributions. Now you know the major industries that support your favorite congressman. The source of data is, a respected source of campaign finance information. I think it's a nice app, but unfortunately, it doesn't cover state politicians. Maybe that's in the works.

One other feature is that the popup has a link to tell you if the representative has committed to fundamental campaign finance reform. Even if they haven't, I believe that reform is on the way. Slowly but surely, we'll find a way to solve the problem of money in politics. This is just one tool to help along the way.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Local control for internet access

The city I live in is probably months away from inking a deal that would connect every house and business to a line that will give them access to gigabit internet speed. Several cities along the Wasatch Front have seen their city councils vote in favor of the same deal. I expect that by the end of the year, the deals will be signed and work will begin to complete the unfinished UTOPIA networks.

There is a huge swarm of politics surrounding this issue, with incumbents putting millions into their fight against community broadband. The newcomer, Macquarie, doesn't seem to realize how big this fight is, and hopefully, they will.

But throughout the debate, I see one central theme: the idea that business will do the job better than government. The argument against community broadband is that private enterprise will always outperform public services. That only holds true if there is real competition for customers. In the realm of internet access, there is very little competition. We know this because in more than 400 cities and towns across the country, community owned broadband has not only proved superior to private offerings, they have clobbered the incumbents for speed and price.

To head off this challenge, the incumbents like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner, AT&T and Centurylink, have put money into campaigns to prevent adoption of community broadband at the state level. 20 states have passed laws that hobble or prevent the adoption of community broadband. I find this ironic because in many of those states, local control is a hot-button issue. Many of these same states profess a desire for independence from the federal government, but the laws impose top-down control on cities and towns that want to make their own choices when it comes to internet access.

Even the chairman of the FCC has noticed this irony and power struggle. There is now the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), another organization working to rally resources around helping cities and towns overcome the obstructionism of the incumbent carriers. Take a look at their board of advisers and you will find among them, Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the internet as we now know it.

If incumbent carriers really don't want consumers to have a say in their choices for internet access, they most certainly aren't capitalists. A capitalist will always want a choice of suppliers, but in this case, the incumbent carriers don't want customers to have a choice. What does that say about a company like Comcast or Centurylink?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Hobby Lobby: Corporations and separation of church and state

I've been taking a day to read the hubris over the very recent Hobby Lobby decision by the United States Supreme Court. There are many very interesting analyses to go around. In particular, I've found two on the Politico Utah Hub, a place designed for the people of Utah to bat the issues around. It seems very agreeable and civilized for debate.

Two posts were of interest to me. One from a lawyer who points out that corporations aren't people, but the people who act through corporations are. He asks a simple question: do we give up rights when we act through a corporation. He doesn't seem to think so. I happen to disagree and I'll explain why in a few moments.

The other article suggests that the justices of the court are making moral judgments rather than legal judgments. The second article notes that the opinion does very little to protect freedom of religion because it can allow employers to impose their religious beliefs upon others. The choice for employees then becomes: buy your own insurance at higher cost or just accept what we offer, sucker.

I also note that there is talk of a new urgency for a single payer plan. Pundits are pointing out that if employers get to pick and choose which benefits to offer based upon their professed religious beliefs, there will need to be a reliable place for people to get coverage. The insurance exchanges are starting to look really good right about now because they offer pretty good insurance (I know from personal experience and will share more in a future article), and that coverage is portable. The end of employer sponsored health insurance may be near, they say. I mean, lets get real here. How many CEOs will suddenly sprout wings and halos with this ruling?

That's it for the news. I want to focus now on the first article on the question of constitutional rights within the context of corporations. Corporations are a legal fiction designed to permit people to take risks with limited liability. They were originally designed to provide a way to accomplish very big tasks over generations. The bigger the task, the greater the potential liability. A noteworthy example is Union Pacific, a corporation created to build a railroad across the country. That task took 6 years and a lot of labor to build.

But there is something else in the past that America seems to have forgotten. For much of American history, corporations were prohibited from making political contributions of any kind. Many of the laws prohibiting such conduct provided for stiff criminal penalties. So, if money is speech, that was a serious restriction on a so-called constitutional right. That went by the wayside around 1890.

Corporations are creations of the state. The people delegate power to the state, the states create corporations. Who is on top again? Oh, right. The People are on top.

But you wouldn't know it from that ruling. The court (and many pundits in favor of the ruling) forget that corporations are creations of the state and subject to the will of the people. No one in their right mind actually believes that corporations are people because corporations are a legal fiction. There is a social contract that we can expect when we do business with and as a corporation. We are giving up some rights to get the privilege to act with limited liability when we act through a corporation.

What else do we get as a corporation? Perpetuity - you often get to choose when the corporation dies. I remember learning about the film industry, that corporations are changed like socks - to produce a film, a corporation is created. When production is done, the corporation is dissolved to prevent any blowback in the form of litigation after production is complete. People are not treated that way. They get one life and that's it.

I think it's disingenuous to promote the idea that corporations have the same rights as people for another reason. When we do business with an entity, we come to rely upon that entity. We may even be faced with a monopoly player in the market that happens to be a private, closely held corporation. If that corporation gets to make decisions based on theological principles, that corporation is, in a way, imposing the religious beliefs of the people who run it upon me.

More to the point, corporations, as creations of the state, are extensions of the government. Allowing religious beliefs to influence corporation activity could possibly be construed to be a violation of the separation of church and state. The owners of corporations, especially the really big ones, seem prone to forgetting that they exist at the pleasure of the people. That's the social contract bargain for limited liability and perpetuity, but once forgotten, who cares if the People are supposed to be on top?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Corduroy's Day a philosophical review

Quite some time ago, I got a set of books featuring a bear named Corduroy. There were four books in all, "Corduroy's Day", Corduroy Goes to the Doctor", "Corduroy's Party", and "Corduroy's Busy Street". They all share common characters and art themes and they are simple, easy to read books. I've read them so many times, that I have at least two of them memorized.

At first, I didn't like these books, but read them to my daughter Emily anyway. After awhile, I started to notice something about them, a common theme across all of them. Each book is about the simple pleasures of life.

I find a particular interest in the first book, Corduroy's Day. Here we see a bear's day, from waking to sleeping. He has time to himself in the morning, spends time with his friends, goes for a walk, takes a bath, and falls asleep. Sorry, didn't mean to blow the plot, but I did leave out significant details for you to discover on your own later.

There is something I really like about the last page. That page has an idyllic image of the bear sleeping after a wonderful day. The adult in me says, "Wait. Doesn't he have a job? Who makes his house payment? How does he buy food?" Then the parent in me says, "Just suspend your disbelief for as long as it takes to read this book."

Corduroy enjoys many simple pleasures in this book. But what I take away from it is this: No matter how good your day is, you're still going to have to sleep at the end the day.

You can go to Disneyland, buy a new car, make a killing in commodities trading, or just have a great time with friends. You can try for new highs and new adventures, climbing, skydiving, spacewalking, winning elections, driving a really fast car on a track, sailing the seas, whatever. No matter what you do, you will have to go to sleep at the end of the day.

This is not a complaint about the human condition, rather, it's an acknowledgement of it. Corduroy reminds us of the simple pleasures, but he also knows that in order to enjoy yet another day, a good night of sleep is a welcome requirement.