Saturday, January 31, 2015

Subsidies for ISPs create capital, not networks or jobs

Techdirt has found an interesting map of the current FIOS network from Verizon. Techdirt goes on to say that even after receiving billions in subsidies from many states to help Verizon build out their network to 100% of residents and businesses, FIOS still only covers 12% of the US population. Did Verizon ever give any of that money back when they backed out of the deals? No.

Instead they converted that money into capital for pumping their stock, delivering dividends to the 1% who happen to own most of their stock, and bonuses to their C-class executives. As the Techdirt article notes, Wall Street hates building networks. Networks are expensive, take years to recover the investment and they tend to serve everybody instead of just the shareholders.

This is not an isolated case. The abuse of subsidies for privately held communications networks is endemic to the last mile carriers. When I say last mile, I mean the companies that sell direct to consumers and businesses. That would be companies we know and love, like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner, Centurylink and ATT (I would use the ampersand in their name but it never comes out right due to a coding bug in Blogger).

Robert Cringeley runs a blog about networks. He's quite familiar with how networks are built, how much they cost and how big companies operate when presented with a subsidy. Cringeley has documented the waste and fraud in ISPs subsidies in all their gory details on his blog. To sum it up, over a decade, the major ISPs pissed away $200 billion and more since that article was written in 2007. Rather than improve or build out new networks, ISPs converted those subsidies into stock options, bonuses, and dividends. In a word, capital.

When businesses create capital, they don't create jobs. Jobs are for the rest of us. Capital is for the men and women at the top.

If governments at all levels are so willing to invest in networks, and are continually getting burned by their investments in privately held networks, then perhaps they could turn their watery gaze to community broadband. Community broadband has far more scrutiny and transparency than those companies run by CEOs who negotiated a fat salary with their friends on the board. Isn't it funny how they like to refer to their business as "private enterprise"?

More to the point, community broadband service providers have to answer to politicians, local politicians, who have to answer to their constituents. Mind you, these are constituents who can pay a visit to the city council, the county board or what have you. The bonus is that in over 400 communities nationwide, the communities that built their own networks have prospered handsomely from their investment.

More than $200 billion since 1994 has been siphoned off the American economy by private ISPs in a way that has created few if any new networks and no new jobs. Cities like Chattanooga, TN, Wilson, NC and even Cedar Falls, IA, have all enjoyed the benefits of community broadband with gigabit speeds. Community broadband can fill the vacuum left by the private ISPs. They can build the networks that all of us want, with an entity that has the local community in mind first. Community broadband can and will create and attract high paying, middle class jobs. What a novel concept.

If you would like to see community broadband in your neighborhood, check out the following sites for education, guidance and perhaps even a little assistance:

Community Broadband Networks
The Coalition for Local Internet Choice
Next Century Cities

Friday, January 30, 2015

Thoughts on why Waze is used to track the police

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

UTOPIA cities get a little closer to fiber for every resident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Community Broadband Act

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

How religious fanaticism plays a part in American public policy

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

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

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

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

The most interesting aspect of the debate is this: there are no other major religions in this country promoting the idea from the Christian right wing that creationism be taught as science. For example, I checked the website of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that supports Jewish causes. Their policy position is that creation theories have no place in the science class. Next, I checked out Islamic websites and they said that evolution was compatible with Islam. Buddhists say that evolution is compatible with their teachings, too. It would seem to me that Christians are the sole source of demand for equal time for dogma in the science class.

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

I've given some though to why some Christians are so determined to get their creation hypotheses into the debate on the origins of life. Although I touched on some of reasons here in an older blog post, I believe I found one important reason: Christian parents want to save their children the misery they might experience at the hands of a wrathful god if they should ever accept a scientific view on where we came from. 

Ham says that the age of the earth cannot be accurately determined because none of us were there when the earth was created. He says that radioisotope dating, measuring the ratio of isotopes in a given sample to determine its age, is not really that accurate and that none extend beyond a few million years, therefore it cannot be trusted. Never mind the scientific consensus that disagrees with him.

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

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

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

When President Reagan took office, Congress passed sweeping tax reform that started the ball rolling on Reaganomics. Reagan's opponent in the 1980 primaries was George H. W. Bush, who called Reagan's ideas, "Voodoo Economics". Bush was clear that Reagan's tax policy proposals would balloon the deficit, and they did. Reaganomics is also known as Trickle Down Economics for the reason that it was assumed that upon keeping more money to themselves, the wealthy would spend more money. 27 years, two bubbles and two long wars later, we discovered we were wrong about that, on September 30th, 2008.

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

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

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

This is why we need separation of church and state. Public policy must be decided on the evidence, not on belief, or theology. We need people in power who are willing to admit they are wrong in order to change course when a change in course is needed. Men with the conviction of religion seem to have a really difficult time admitting to a mistake in public policy based on religious belief. That's because religious conviction tends to blind grown men from the truth, for if it comes from God, it must be true.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Low wages are not a structural problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

An open letter to HP: Lamenting the fatal flaw of the HP Elite v2 keyboard

Dear Ms. Whitman, CEO, Hewlett-Packard,

A few years ago, when starting a new job, my new co-workers suggested that I might try the HP Elite v2 keyboard. I borrowed one at work for a short time and noticed immediately how pleasant it was to type on that keyboard. I loved it.

Soon after I got one for work, I got another for home and made sure that I always had one at work and at home. The keyboard is light and thin. It has very short keys for a very short keystroke. My fingers seem to bounce back from the keyboard in a way that I have not seen on any other. It is easy for me to crank out characters and to find the home keys.

The Elite v2 is a dream to type on and I really don't want to use another. It is by far, the best keyboard I have ever used, but there is one fatal flaw with that keyboard.

There is no USB cable version of the same rig. I have one at work and now no longer have a working example at home. The flaw in the Elite v2 is the Bluetooth controller. They tend to fail after a year or two on my computer at home and I'm really tired of buying keyboards and living with the anxiety of end of production for that keyboard and imminent Bluetooth failure. I will never buy another one of these keyboards again, unless they make it a USB cable powered keyboard.

Perhaps you're aware of the problem and have planned obsolescence in the most glaring and obvious way. I get it. HP makes great printers. I have seen HP printers groan on for 10 years or more and they keep churning out clean, easy to read pages. But this keyboard is so singularly unlike an HP product, I have a hard time believing that it should even bear your mark.

I needed a replacement, so I went to Best Buy and could not find the Elite v2, and really didn't want one. So I bought the HP K3500 keyboard, with some hope that it would match the experience that I had with the previous keyboard. Amazon reviews were saying that you had made improvements to the Elite v2 in the K3500 and although it is a nice keyboard, it is not even close to the Elite v2. The K3500 is also a Bluetooth keyboard, but I'm hoping that this one will last longer than the other one. And I am finding some way to get used to it, so for $20, it seems like it will do the job. I still want to return it, though. I have a few days to go and I might have found a replacement already.

The Elite v2 still makes my heart sing when I type on it at work. The problem I have with that keyboard, the only problem, and what I think of as the fatal flaw, is that Bluetooth controller. Eventually, the controller dies and every few years, I find myself buying another one.

Madam CEO, I'm done buying Bluetooth keyboards of any kind. I'm never going to buy the Elite v2 again until I see that it has a true USB cable to plug into my computer. Bluetooth is nice for the occasional typists, but for writers like myself, only the best will do.

So I'm checking out SIIG, IRocks and there is a Dell model that have piqued my interest. I'm sure with time I will find what I need. Maybe even Monoprice has a keyboard for less than $10 that will do the job. But you won't see me buying another one of your keyboards for a long time.

Please, please, please! Give me the Elite v2 keyboard with a USB cable for power and all is forgiven!

Or you can just forget the whole thing and I will find some other manufacturer to get the job done right.

Thank you.


Scott C. Dunn

Monday, January 19, 2015

Passing money among themselves

In the United States, the top 1% own 40% of all the wealth. They own 50% of all the stocks. The top 20% own 93% of all the wealth, leaving 7% remaining for the bottom 80%. Since 2009, 95% of all new gains in the economy have gone to the top 1%. It is as if the wealthiest one percent have spent the last 30 years designing an economic system where they get to increase their wealth by passing money among themselves while everyone else works for wages that do not improve their standard of living.

The only way that this condition could exist is through government intervention in the market. It's sort of socialism, in reverse. This is not sustainable economic policy, and there are only two loud voices in Congress bellowing or screaming these facts out: Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

There is much that we could do about this and Warren and Sanders are offering up many, many solutions, to a deaf, dumb and blind Republican majority. The Democrats appear mostly unwilling to discuss these issues, but lately, they seem to be rediscovering their backbone.

First off, there is the trade deficit. Republicans just love to whine, moan and groan about the budget deficit. They claim that their economic policies (Reaganomics) really do work and they are desperate to prove their point. Well, we have an excellent natural experiment underway in Kansas with Governor Brownback. He cut taxes for the wealthy, cut social programs and now his economy is in the dumps. His state is enjoying none of the gains almost all other states are enjoying right now. The other state that is missing out? New Jersey with Republican Chris Christie at the helm. Republicans are getting more than just a little bit antsy about the results and they are starting to back peddle on Tinkle Down Economics.

The new Republican Congress will attempt to impose the same fantasy on the rest of us through federal legislation. But as we can see, not only are most Republicans not scientists, only 6% of scientists identify as Republican, Governor Brownback proves once again that they are not even economists. So it would seem fitting that none of them would talk about the trade deficit.

Fortunately, there is an economist who is speaking loudly and clearly about the trade deficit, Dean Baker. Baker has written a few books on the subject and many articles, too. In a nutshell, we've been running a strong dollar policy since the early 80s and enhanced that policy in the 1990s. As a result, the strong dollar has created a massive trade deficit of about $500-600 billion every year. That money is being siphoned off to other countries creating demand there, not here. Replacing that demand would create about 6 million jobs alone.

The people who have the means to benefit from this state of affairs are members of the 1% class: CEOs and boards of directors. They can leverage the delta between currencies and take most of the profits for themselves and their shareholders. By sending jobs overseas, they suppress employment here and keep wages low. The strong dollar policy has been one of the largest factors in wage stagnation for the last thirty years. But there are a few others that have yet to be discussed.

During the 1950s, America experienced a great economic boom. Wages and income for the middle class rose steadily during that time. The standard of living increased for everyone. Conservative are reluctant to recall the very high tax rates under Eisenhower, but they are even more reluctant to recall that for most colleges and universities, education was free.

The voices calling for free education are becoming louder and clearer. Several European countries already offer free higher education for all, some for anyone in the world, regardless of citizenship. Not too long ago, Germany abandoned tuition for public colleges. Why? Because they know that people are educated, they can pull a higher income, they make better choices at the polls and they are more engaged with their government.

But here, in America, we have a Republican Party that is intensely averse to anything that might possibly raise wages in America. Oh, they talk a good talk on Meet the Press, but their policies go exactly in the other direction. The Democrats are not much better as they are far from the progressive party they used to be in the 60s and 70s.

Big business seems more intent on grabbing more profits for themselves than sharing that prosperity with others with a higher education. God forbid that they should have to pay more money for the skills they need to compete with the world.

Lastly, there is infrastructure. We have left much of our infrastructure in neglect. Bridge collapses have made the headlines in recent years. We drive over roads littered with potholes and other hazards, and curse the crews improving our roads. But here, in Utah, I see the road crews every day, working on something. They know something about infrastructure here. But at the federal level, they seem to know not that building infrastructure helps everyone.

50% of our bridges are at or near end of life. We spend about 2.4% of GDP on roads. Bernie Sanders says that Europe spends twice what we spend on roads. China? 4 times as much. Estimates to put our roads and bridges back on track vary, but the consensus is, it would cost $1.1 Trillion. Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate that would get us back on track and add 13 million jobs to the economy.

Deficit hawks on the other hand warn us that such ambitions have no place here. God help us if the labor market gets tight and wages have to go up to meet demand, right? Nevermind the demand that such work would create in our economy, or the return on the investment by reducing commute and travel times as well as the tax revenue generated by the demand. No, if you listen to the upper crust of Congress, they're too busy extracting profits to do anything about infrastructure.

There are some in Congress who prefer things as they are. At least someone in Congress is noticing that there is a middle class and they need help. We can do it through infrastructure and education. Who else is willing to step up and save the middle class?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A life of relative peace

After many years of experimenting with philosophy, I've arrived at a sort of prime directive, the overarching rule for all other rules to follow: err on the side of peace.

While it is true that some of my blog and comment posts border on invective and rant, that's politics. In life, in person, with every interaction with someone else, I focus on that one prime directive. Whether at work, at home, engaged in commerce, driving my car, or just going for a walk, that is the one rule that I have in mind when it comes to other people.

In my house, there is no screaming, yelling, slamming doors, breaking things, or other manner of emotional distress. I follow the prime directive because I know that everyone is already prone to suffering. They don't need any help from me to suffer.

This isn't to say that everyone is suffering here, but the point is, people left to their own devices will find ways to suffer. It's one of the conditions of mankind that is very difficult to accept.

For example, yesterday, as I was holding my youngest daughter Natalie in my arms, I was rocking back and forth in a rocking chair, and I could feel that my hand nearest her bottom was getting very warm. Her face suggested some form of concentration, her brow furrowed with intensity, even at the early age of 1.5 months. She was, in a manner of speaking, busy.

Meanwhile, my oldest daughter, Emily, looking for thrills, decided to rock back and forth atop a rocking ottoman that came with the rocking chair. While I was looking intently into the eyes of Natalie, Emily had found the limits of stability provided by the ottoman, falling backwards with her head landing squarely on my shin.

My shin was OK. But Emily was shaken and stirred. She was crying and needed attention just as my infant daughter had completed her business. My wife was in the shower, completely unavailable at the moment. I had to triage.

I placed Natalie on the changing table while I attended to Emily - don't worry, Natalie can't roll over yet - and gave Emily the hug and comfort she needed. Then I changed Natalie and we were good as new. Emily trotted along with me as I walked with Natalie in my arms, hopefully, to sleep.

I could have chastised Emily for rocking the way she did on the ottoman and I could have lectured her on her mistake. But she was already suffering. She was already learning from her mistake at the price of a temporarily painful collision between her very hard head and my equally hard shin. The difference, apparently, is the concentration of nerve cells in each location.

There was nothing more that I could have added to the experience for Emily. If she was going to learn how to be careful, that was it. She only needed comforting when the experience had run its course and she was ready to play again. No additional suffering required.

I could say that she needs to change, but I have also learned something else: I can't change people. Besides, change is automatic. People naturally change their behavior in response to stimulus or lack of it. When I change, they change, but I don't get to decide how they change, I get to decide how I change. People also change as they grow older. Their perspectives, their brains, their body chemistry - it all changes over time.

At my place of work, there is an iron law against emotional distress. I work in a very technical environment on storage systems composed of hundreds or thousands of hard drives, with terabytes of information in tow. There is an implicit understanding that you don't want to cause emotional distress to an employee or co-worker performing maintenance, repairs or upgrades to a system that is the heart or part of the heart of the customer's company. A mistake could run into thousands or millions of dollars lost. So we all err on the side of peace, at work.

When dealing with customer service reps, I must admit that I have had a somewhat more difficult time, particularly with insurance companies and ISPs. With most everyone else, I'm fine. But I still remind myself of that overarching principle to err on the side of peace. I make a point to keep calm, avoid invective, avoid insults, and stick to the business at hand. Besides, my odds of getting what I want are longer if the customer service rep, who represents a company that has my money, is in emotional distress.

In commerce, if the vendor's front line employee is emotionally distressed, he cannot think, he will take longer to access the information required for him to take the desired action. And if he doesn't have the authority to take the action I want, I'm going to have to wait while he explains the problem to his supervisor, and that will be much harder if he's under duress.

But if I'm cool and collected, stick to the facts, and avoid comments like, "You have my money and you're refusing a refund so that you can finance the CEO's second house on the coast of Spain." Well, I don't always avoid comments like that, but sometimes, I feel pressed and that comes out. Especially if I've tried multiple times to rectify the situation nicely.

Even so, I still have better results with peace than invective.

In this life, I don't have any personal adversaries. I don't have to look over my shoulder for anything that I've ever done in recent memory or the distant past. I don't worry about my neighbors. I don't worry about the NSA because I'm simply not worth the trouble to observe. I don't worry about the IRS because I pay my taxes and I have yet to fail to get a refund every year.

In fact, government is one of the least things that I fear and walking the line of peace is without a doubt easiest with them for me. This is because in the past, I have filed more than 300 Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act, and similar requests at the state and federal level. When I took a class to learn how to do this, the instructor told me that the disclosure officer is your friend. If you piss him off, he's going to round file your request and you will never hear from him again.

So I was always on my best behavior when pursuing information through open government laws like FOIA. I have had some very interesting conversations with disclosure officers and learned things about government that I just didn't learn in school. But the biggest takeaway is this: people in government just want to go to bed knowing they did the right thing. So I avoid causing any unnecessary suffering for them, too. They're just doing they're job for a paycheck and the few disclosure officers that I did meet, really seemed to enjoy their job.

As a middle aged man, the experience and wisdom I have collected along the way makes it easy for me to sleep at night. By erring on the side of peace with everyone, everywhere, I have a clean conscience to follow. May you also find a way to err on the side of peace.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Feeding the world in a glut of food

Truthout has an interesting article on the PR campaigns of the GMO food industry and industrialized farming. As GMO advocates put, the only way to feed the world is to use GMO seeds. There is no other way to meet rising demand. This despite the fact that the UN has published a report that says that the best way to feed the world is through small scale organic farming.

So I did a search for crop or food glut stories. In the mix were stories about the low price of oil and its impact on the biofuels market. What we're seeing is that worldwide demand for oil has dropped, with prices following in short order. This has reduced demand for fuels made from corn and other crops. That in turn has aggravated a glut of food worldwide.

If there was any food shortage in recent years, it was caused by the use of food to make fuel. I could see trouble as early as 2006, when I read another interesting article at Car and Driver magazine. This article details the total sham of biofuels. The cost of biofuels far outweighs the benefits of them and worse, the use of food to make fuels tends to spike food prices. The worst part of biofuels? For all that effort, biofuels make up a tiny fraction of the fuels market and have almost zero impact on oil prices and our dependence on oil. Oh yeah, biofuels have a huge carbon footprint, too.

So the oil glut has caused a food glut. Seems that the GMO industry and the biofuels industry have a match made in heaven, right?

I used to watch the Sunday talking heads show, Meet the Press. I took notice of all the ADM commercials, talking about how they're going to feed the world. What they didn't mention was that their plan was to feed the world with patented genetically modified food.

I find it so fascinating that the food industry is so averse to labeling their food as genetically modified when it's so. I mean, you got a patent for it. Aren't you going to trot it out for all of us to see so we know what's in the food? Aren't you proud of it? Well, they must not be that proud of their product given the millions of dollars companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill and Bayer pump into opposition to GMO labeling campaigns.

They worry that people will not buy their food if they must label it as GMO. So deception is OK in a free market, right?

Back to feeding the world. If GMOs are going to feed the world, maybe they could explain the food glut in India. Or even in the US. Truthout has links to these and other gluts around the world in their article. This despite estimates that place worldwide food production as enough to feed 14 billion people. Earth to farmer: we have only 7 billion people on the planet. We're making more than enough food. The problem is getting it to the people who need it.

As I write this article, I'm reminded of an old movie I watched long ago called Limit Up, featuring Nancy Allen. You might remember her from her role in Robocop as the sidekick. Limit Up had an interesting morale premise. People in the world are starving not because of a food shortage. No, they are starving because they don't have enough money to buy the food.

To me the argument for GMO foods rings false all around. We're making more than enough food with them. We're destroying the land with over-production, anyway and we need to make changes quick or we're really going to have a food shortage. Naturally, the GMO industry has anticipated this with plans to sell us seeds that will grow in hostile environments.

But if the world found it's way to small scale, widely and finely distributed organic farming, as the UN report says, we reduce the pollution from the chemicals that industrial farming uses on crops. You should see the suits farmers wear to apply those chemicals. It's enough to make me want to buy organic. Organic farming is regenerative, putting carbon back into the soil and leaving the soil as close as possible in it's original condition. Organic farming reduces greenhouse gases.

By the way, most of the farm subsidies larded up in the farm bills usually passed by Congress are not for organic farming. They are for conventional farming with all those wonderful chemicals they would like us to eat without labels. That's one reason why organic food is more expensive.

The upshot is this: if you buy more organic food, even just a few items with each trip, you increase demand. That demand is recorded in a computer somewhere, sending a signal to farmers worldwide to use organic farming methods. I vote with my wallet and buy organic for that reason.

The difference in philosophies is this. Agribusiness would like us to centralize food production for better profits and to maximize political control. They stand to lose enormous sums of money if decentralized, small scale organic farming takes hold. But the gains to consumers by supporting organic farming are enormous. Many of the problems we face today, from global warming to pollution are a result of industrialized farming. A return to earth friendly farming will not just save the earth, it will save us.

Perhaps now we can heed the words of  Thomas Jefferson who once said, "We must not be tyrants of the land."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How private infrastructure for public use fails us

When most people think of infrasture, we think of water, electricity, roads. We know from experience that public infrastructure, when properly managed and regulated, does a wonderful job of serving the people. No matter who you are, or where you live in a city or town, you know that you can get electricity. The same is true of water. These are two basic utilities that everyone can get. There is no discrimination.

Our public roads provide a similar example. The roads do not discriminate against traffic based on point of origin or destination. Our network of roads is designed with that in mind. To enforce discrimination against traffic would increase transaction costs dramatically. Every trip would have to be tracked in a database. Then someone would have to analyze the traffic and then someone would have automate the analysis to provide real-time discrimination. And someone would get the bill.

Unscrupulous actors could program the system to create shortages, or to benefit themselves directly or indirectly. This is what happened with Enron's participation in the electric power crisis in California in 2000 and 2001. Enron, owner of an enormous private infrastructure, manipulated the market to serve speculators rather than the people. As many of us remember, Enron crashed famously in a sea of corruption, paper companies, bankruptcy and corporate fraud.

Perhaps not so famously, we see Comcast, Verizon and even Centurylink, speculating in the broadband market. For years, our major ISPs have been telling us that data caps are required to spur investment in their networks to provide better speed and reliability. A data cap is an arbitrary limit on how much data a customer can transfer up or down, on his or her internet connection without being charged more money by the service provider. Data caps are a deceptive way to create shortages.

ISPs maintain that the cost of providing service increases with time. Inflation, wages, equipment, even the cost of meeting regulation requirements. Yet, they are not very willing to share with us what the marginal cost of transport is. That's proprietary, right?

What the internet does is transport data. When you download a file from the internet, you're asking the internet to fetch data for your viewing. This could be a web page, a picture, a podcast, or a movie. All of these actions involve something called transport. The transport happens through computer programming using a protocol called TCP/IP. It's just a system that allows my computer to talk to your computer and vice versa. The internet uses this protocol and others like it on a massive scale to transfer information.

Over the years, the equipment we use to transfer the data, the modems, switches and routers, have all improved. Even the media has improved, from copper to optical fiber. We have increased our speeds from 14.4 baud to megabits to gigabits in the span of 20 years. The cost of transport has been dropping faster than the market can adapt.

To put this in perspective, most people are connected to an ISP providing somewhere between 10 and 20 mbs (megabits per second). This would allow you to download an entire CD of data, about 700 MB, in about 3 minutes. Here is a table for comparison. Downloading CDs and DVDs is something that I do from time to time to install a new operating system. Most people use the internet to watch movies, videos, social media and email.

The cost of transport is falling fast enough that consumers are not fully informed of the marginal cost of transport. This is great if you're a cable company or telco. Raising rates and instituting data caps seems normal based on the way the media portrays the problem. Unless you go to sources of information that provide another point of view. Like

The cable and telco companies are working very hard to save a dying business model. They want to keep the consumer uninformed about the cost of transport, so that they can set pricing based on profit margins rather than keeping customers happy. They use their private monopoly power to keep competition out, usually with legislation written by them just for that purpose. By keeping competition out, they can maintain the scarcity in the market they need to justify their pricing. Remember, their primary objective as a private corporation is to serve the profit motive, to finance that second home on the coast of Spain for the CEO. Oh, wait. That was last year. This year, he wants a McLaren 650s.

Internet speeds around the globe are rising at a pace much faster than here in the US. Why? Government has stepped in to ensure higher speeds for consumers. Japan is my favorite example. The Japanese government long ago forged a public-private partnership with NTT, the largest telephone company in Japan, to build a network for everyone. The government bankrolled the buildout and NTT gets to sell access, but they must also sell access to competitors at wholesale. As a result, Japanese consumers see much greater competition, lower prices and more reliable service. The fastest service can be found in Seoul, South Korea, and it's a public service at 1 gigabit per second.

The profit motive simply isn't enough to build and maintain these networks for the public good. The profit motive provides incentives for artificial scarcity, speculation and corruption. Infrastructure is a public good and the value of infrastructure is diluted by the profit motive. This is why Comcast and Time-Warner, two of our biggest infrastructure owners, are also two of the most hated companies in the US. The profit motive overcame the public good.

This is also why public infrastructure works well when properly managed and regulated. Chattanooga, TN has internet access provided by the Electric Power Board. Since the EPB is motivated by the public good rather than profit, they have happy customers. They are accountable to the public they serve through municipal government. They are focused on their purpose and they're making enough money to cover the costs of business while saving money to improve the equipment and maintain it.

In contrast, Comcast is reluctant to invest in their network, preferring a model of scarcity to pump profits rather than to serve the public good. Comcast owns a private network as public infrastructure, but they don't act like a public infrastructure company.

Community broadband is the public option. I am not advocating community broadband to the exclusion of private providers. I am advocating a public option to keep the private networks honest about the cost of transport. There are those who will tell us that private enterprise will beat government every time. But one look at Chattanooga tells us that when it comes to public infrastructure, private enterprise is getting their butt whipped.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Community broadband is now a national issue

Life is what happens to you when you're making other plans. So I was planning some other topic for today's blog when I noticed this headline on Feedly: "POTUS Rocks the Broadband World!!" That headline appeared on one of my RSS feeds from Craig Settles' blog, Building the Gigabit City. In his article, Settles explains the President's plans to get affordable broadband to everyone in this country by assisting community broadband deployment efforts. This is just an amazing development.

I mean, Obama appointed a long time cable industry lobbyist as head of the FCC. As I reviewed the articles I've read on the topic, this ship is finally turning around at the top and I had no reason to believe that we'd get to this point. In recent weeks, Obama has called on the FCC to implement some form of Net Neutrality. He has also called upon the FCC to reclassify the major ISPs as common carriers under Title II. Now this? I guess Christmas is coming a bit early this year.

To be sure that this wasn't just a blip, I checked around. ArsTechnica picked up the story. Community Broadband Networks has a post on this story, too. Scanning the news headlines on Google News, this isn't even a tick on the radar, but the fact is, this is really big news. Obama has announced a concerted effort by various federal agencies to remove the barriers within the states that prevent community broadband adoption. This should be a major headline, yet there is nothing in the major news outlets about this.

Since this is a non-partisan issue, I don't expect the leaders of the US House to issue threats to defund this effort. Why not? Because in Colorado alone, eight cities voted to take back local control of their internet choices with greater than 75% majorities to overcome laws that hobble community broadband in their state. The towns range from liberal to conservative. It didn't matter. What mattered is that they all knew they had a common adversary: private internet service providers like Comcast, Centurylink and AT&T.

Now Obama didn't talk about that in his video now on YouTube. But people familiar with the story know that entrenched incumbent carriers, worried about competition, have been working furiously to delay the inevitable: community broadband. This is the problem with private monopolies in any area of industry. Self-preservation becomes more important than customers.

So it is with real hope that this administration can help to remove the obstacles put into place in 2001 that prevented UTOPIA, the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency, from reaching out and helping consumers statewide with reasonably priced, high-speed, reliable internet access. Community broadband is here, now, in more than 400 cities across this nation. But you wouldn't know it by looking around Utah.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I still don't believe in the gloom and doom of global warming

Not too long ago, I wrote a post about the gloom and doom of global warming and offered up several technologies that can help provide energy without generating carbon. I think changes in how we generate energy are important but there are best practices that also reduce greenhouse gases that can be employed by anyone.

First there is regenerative farming, a way of farming that sequesters CO2 into the ground and is closely associated with organic farming. Scientific studies have shown that agribusiness contributes about 30% of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. No new technology is required here, we could just change our practices to reduce global warming.

The focus of regenerative farming is to leave the soil as we found it, as close as possible to its natural state. There is zero tolerance for synthetic chemicals as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides tend to disrupt the life cycle of the soil. The use of such chemicals contributes to global warming since all pesticides come from oil, and their manufacture, distribution and promoting all require energy and their use only benefits a small minority of people.

One other practice to consider is small scale organic farming. We've become very dependent on large scale farming for our food, but that practice has many downsides. First, it tends towards monopolies in food production. Then the monopolies become arrogant with their power and flout the regulations that serve and protect the people, the consumers. They have become very secretive about their practices and are non too happy when they're called about runoff from their farms.

The United Nations has released a report stating that organic farming on a small scale is the best way to feed the world. I agree. I also think that organic farming on a small scale is more secure since food production would be decentralized, much safer from terrorist attacks than our massive breadbasket. Small scale farming will save fuel when food is produced and consumed locally rather than shipped from state to state or from country to country. If you have a neighborhood garden, support it with a purchase of their food. If you don't, you may be able to grow your own.

If you're not too fond of thorium, and there are more than a few of you out there, then consider the artificial leaf, developed by Dr. Daniel Nocera and others. Artificial photosynthesis is a process of using sunlight and catalysts to generate fuels for energy production. In the case of the artificial leaf, the fuel produced is hydrogen, the cleanest fuel there is.

With the artificial leaf, the economics of hydrogen change dramatically. Why? Because sunlight is used to split water, the hydrogen is then used to power our world through fuel cells. This can be economical because about 1000 TW of power falls on the earth each day and we only need about 16 TW to power the planet.

Unfortunately, the company founded by Sun Catalytix was scooped up by Lockheed Martin, a giant monopoly of a company. Sun Catalytix was bought not for the artificial leaf. it was bought for batteries being developed by the company. This is a problem when government lets a corporation get too big. They can buy anything they want and they can stifle innovation in the process. Let's hope that Lockheed Martin does the right thing because they bought all the patents, too.

I think a central point of global warming awareness is to decentralize energy and food production, a practice that will help to decentralize political power. When food and energy production are decentralized, political power is distributed, not concentrated. When we all have our own solar panels on our rooftops, we are using power from a source other than an oil or coal company.

When we buy produce from a local farm, or even a neighborhood farm, we remove political power from large conglomerates who seem to prize their ability to hide ingredients we don't want to eat in our food. Examples include the lack of labeling of GMO food, changing the names of ingredients to obscure their presence from the consumer and calling GMO food "natural" or even organic, a pet dream of the major food conglomerates. When we grow our own food, we know what went into it and we can relax when we eat food we are familiar with.

So remember that its still early days and there is much we can do to disarm the threat of global warming. As I said before, it is not a question of technology. The technology is here. Reducing or eliminating the threat of global warming is purely a question of political will. Perhaps now, more than ever, there is meaning to the phrase, "think globally, act locally".

Monday, January 12, 2015

Scientific proof that consumers are the job creators

I believe that I have found scientific proof that consumers are the job creators: the law of diminishing marginal utility. The law says that the utility of a product decreases with the number of units consumed. To put this in context, when you go to an all you can eat buffet, the restaurant owners know you can eat only so much before you're full. They measure consumption and price the admission per person accordingly. I know this for myself. I love Indian buffet and one plate is about all I can eat.

The law applies in every area of economics you care to consider. Apples? Well, there are only so many apples you can eat before they rot, so you only buy enough for a few days or a week. TVs? Where do you want to watch TV? You only need one TV per room, right? Many people have more than one TV, but once they're done buying TVs, they're done. No more until the next newfangled model comes out.

Cars show an even more obvious aspect to the law. One person doesn't really need two cars unless redundancy is required. Most days he will drive the car of his preference. If that breaks down, he drives the other car while his preferred car is repaired.

The diminishing utility of the things we buy is apparent from consumer goods to food, to homes and washers and dryers. Along with the diminishing utility of the things we buy comes a decreased willingness to pay more for more. Cheaper by the dozen is the maxim here. We buy paper towels, but we buy them in bulk in one big package. Once we have one, we have no need to buy another one as we are not willing to store more than one and one lasts a long time. Same with toilet paper and other non-volatile goods (stuff that doesn't decay quickly).

Now, lets place this in the greater context of inequality. Scratch a conservative and he will tell you that the billionaire class are the job creators. But they wouldn't have businesses without demand for their services. People who aren't billionaires provide that demand.

A billionaire will only buy so many phones, probably just one for daily use. He doesn't need a backup as he can have a new phone in a few hours. Even billionaire Nick Hanauer admits that he only needs a few jeans. He's not going to buy 400 just because he's wealthy.

I once knew a wealthy man who sideswipped a Kenworth truck, taking out the left-rear quarter of his car. The truck was fine, but his car was going to be in the shop for a few weeks for repairs. In just a few hours, he had a new car, same model, not the same color, but they were both fast and fun to drive. After that, he had no need to buy another car.

Wealthy people don't really create that much demand. Why? There are only so many to go around for businesses to support. Wealthy people are wealthy because they don't like to spend money. They are averse to debt and prefer to use cash they have in the bank. This is not the picture of your typical consumer using credit cards to buy the things he wants on time.

We're talking about the 1% here. They have 40% of the wealth in this country. Since about 2009, greater than 90% of all the new growth in the economy has been vacuumed up by the top 10%. Some put that number higher. These are people who are consumed with accumulating more money, not spending it, so I don't expect them to pump the economy. The last thing they want to see is for wages to go up when labor markets get tight. Better to lay low and save money, right?

On the other hand, the vast majority of us are consumers. We don't run businesses. We get a paycheck and go home to be with our families or to enjoy our free time. At the same time, we have witnessed a wage stagnation for more than 30 years as inflation makes life more expensive. Yet, somehow, we are expected to buy and consume more of what is produced by business.

What is happening is that the wealthy are working hard to wring more and more wealth out of the economy as if that's a good thing. They are enjoying some of the lowest effective tax rates in history. The percentage of their income consumed to satisfy basic needs is so small that it's a rounding error. The percentage of their income spent on things they want is still very small. They have time and money. What to do?

The smart ones invest in technology that could help us all. Elon Musk is the best example to come to mind. He founded Tesla Motors, pioneering a new way to sell cars, electric cars. He founded SpaceX to help commercialize space travel. He has a vision for travel by land called Hyperloop, a system that will allow consumers to travel by vacuum tube at speeds up to 800 miles per hour.

Sadly, some of the wealthy seem to think they alone can run the country. Rather than invest in R&D, they choose instead to invest in senators and representatives willing to sit in a Skinner Box, begging for money for about 4 hours a day, every day. Continuous pressure, repetitive messaging, with spoonfuls of rewards for laws well crafted in favor of the benefactor produces what we have today. A regulatory scheme that favors businesses and the people who run them so much, that most of the new wealth is vacuumed up by the wealthy before the middle class ever sees the fruits of their labors.

We've been doing Tinkle Down Economics for more than 30 years and it hasn't worked. The wealthy aren't going to spend their money just to keep the economy going and there aren't enough of them to keep it going. The middle class spends far more money than the wealthy are willing to spend, and they spend it much faster than the wealthy do because they have to.

When the wealthy write laws, they are writing based on their own experience and making the assumption that what worked for them will work for everyone else. But they have enough money that they are insulated from the effects of their laws, and they often profit from those same laws. They might complain about "one size fits all" government, but they are the most guilty of imposing it on others with their ideas when they shut out input from everyone else.

By the way, there is one area of economics where the law of diminishing marginal utility seems to fail. That is security. The wealthy pay huge sums for security. Cameras everywhere, bullet proof cars, gated enclaves, exclusive vacations, body guards and the police state. The middle class didn't wake up one day wishing for a police state.

But a class of people with the power to push through treaties like the Trans Pacific Partnership, or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, without input from the public, is not planning on a treaty that benefits everyone. In fact, once the wealthy get comfortable spending money on politics, they are looking for ways to get entrenched through government intervention in the market. Some call this the Conservative Nanny State.

The wealthy may talk about free markets, but they sure don't mind government intervention in the markets when it suites them. Tinkle Down Economics suites them. Most of them, anyway. Once a man gets beyond things like buying a home, putting his kids through college and saving money for retirement, it's just a numbers game where everyone else is supposed to lose. As we have seen through scientific evidence, looking at piles of cash encourages people to cheat. Crunching numbers tends to leave people bereft of compassion. We're supposed to admire these people?

This is why Tinkle Down Economics doesn't work and it never will. Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower understood this. But the modern Republican, lost in the fog of Ronald Reagan, does not. Hopefully, there is a conservative out there, in Congress, who knows that consumers create the jobs and is willing to act on that knowledge. I'm not worried about the liberals on this one. Many of them already know this.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Utah legislature doesn't really care about local control when it comes to broadband

Every week, I read some new story about how some other city in another state is planning, funding, building or enjoying fiber to their homes. My source of news?, a part of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. These two sites are totally consistent with a philosophy that works to distribute power rather than concentrate it.

It is at the Community Broadband Networks site (, that I learned about Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city with a power utility that built a gigabit network for its residents. This city is attracting entrepreneurs and creating high paying jobs with that network. Chattanooga proves once again that all networks create jobs. From rivers, to railroads, to roads, and finally, to fiber, with every new networking technology, new jobs are created.

So it is with disappointment that I read the news about Utopia, a community broadband project between 13 cities that is sort of falling apart. For the people who have Utopia, they love it. For several years, I lived in a house that was 1.5 blocks away from having a connection to that network. I waited for years, never got one.

My only choice for one and a half years was Qwest, now known as Centurylink, with a measly 5mbs, and only 80% was guaranteed. By luck and persistence, I managed to get Comcast connected to my house and by the time I left that house, I had a rockin' 50mbs. Then I moved.

In my new home, the only wired choice is Centurylink, which tops out at 20mbs here. I have wireless providers to consider, but they are not as reliable as cable or DSL. Not even close since line of sight is required to make it work. The lack of a Comcast presence here suggests a palpable cooperation between Comcast and Centurylink. For some reason, I've landed in two houses where Centurylink was the only choice for internet access. It seems to me that Comcast has ceded this territory to Centurylink.

But I want Utopia, anyway. Well, I might have had it except that years ago, as Utopia was forming, the incumbent carriers, Comcast and Centurylink, both sweet-talked the legislature into passing model legislation for hobbling community broadband so that privately held monopolies could continue their rule.

The model legislation I speak of is called the "Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act" and can be found here. Turns out that Utah was the first to pass such legislation, which, as reports that I've found have it, was authored almost entirely by AT&T. Utah enacted that model legislation into law in 2001. 19 other states have followed. It is anticipated that with Republican majorities in many state houses, more states will adopt the same legislation at the behest of the largest internet service providers in the country.

The organization that promotes such legislation is called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a conservative organization almost completely dominated by commercial interests. In this case, ALEC offers essentially off the record support of the interests of the incumbent carriers that we all know and love: Comcast, Time-Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Centuylink. They are all private monopolies, with enormous power to influence public policy at the expense of the consumer. You can find a somewhat dated list of ALEC members in the Utah state house here.

So today, I read yet another story about how local communities across the country are funding, building and/or enjoying internet without our beloved incumbent carriers, and I'm reminded of the malaise in Utah. Sure, we have the Utah Broadband Project. But it's a website designed to pay lip service to the incumbents. They may have a database that helps Utah residents figure which addresses have the service they want, but the dataset is in a format that is only supported by proprietary software that is expensive to buy and install.

As I read that story, I am reminded of how 13 cities who just wanted faster service could not get it from Comcast or Centurylink. I am reminded of how those cities sunk hundreds of millions from bonds into their network, only to meet the business end of two lawsuits designed to delay their progress. The two lawsuits were filed by Comcast and Qwest, and both of them lost, but Utopia was delayed, costing them millions in revenue, millions in legal fees.

Did the Utah legislature intervene? No. But they were happy to help privately held networks in the hopes that the "free market" would prevail. If the free market were to truly prevail, there would be no need for community broadband in more than 400 cities across this great country of ours.

Rather than help these 13 cities, the Utah legislature is content to let them bicker and fight in a mire of bond debt, while other cities in other states see their revenues rise with community broadband as new businesses and jobs move there, where the gigabit access can be found.

The dream of privately held networks providing reasonably priced, reliable and fast access to the internet is just that. A dream. Privately held public infrastructure just doesn't work. We've tried it and failed. Many times. Infrastructure is built and maintained by governments for a reason. We need the infrastructure to be held by an organization that will span generations, that will have reliable funding to ensure maintenance and upgrades, while treating everyone equally for access. That's what we do with our roads. Oh, yeah. We want that business to be accountable to the communities they serve. We don't want them focused on financing the second home of the CEO on the coast of Spain.

The internet was once known as the information superhighway. It still is, but not in most places in the United States. Go to South Korea, Japan, Finland and Switzerland, and you'll find faster speeds at lower prices. South Korea has rolled out Gigabit access nationwide for $20 a month! But ISPs in the United States will have none of that. Why not?

Because most of our ISPs have made enormous investments in content. Time-Warner is wedded to an enormous content library going back nearly a century. Comcast is in a partnership with NBC-Universal. Two of the biggest internet providers alone have control and access much of the content created here in the US. Slower speeds for us means bigger profits for them.

This is why we need community broadband. The state of Utah is all about local control. The Beehive State is all about local self reliance. Go to any supermarket in Salt Lake City and you will see a section or even an entire aisle dedicated to emergency preparedness. You will find buckets of food prepared to last 20 years or more that you can keep in your cold room.

Cold room? It's a room bound by a thick wall of concrete on all sides and it's just for food storage. It's sort of a Mormon thing, but as I was shopping for houses last year, I saw many basements with a cold room. I have a friend who has one, too. This is part of the local self reliance philosophy of the Beehive State.

But when it comes to internet access, well, the state legislature has declared that local self reliance doesn't apply. Why, they think it would be better for us to rely upon Comcast or Centurylink for our internet access, with service controlled by a few men back east, complete with absentee ownership of networks here, in Utah.

See, if you want to run for office here in Utah, local control is a great topic to show your concern for federal oppression of Utah. But when it comes to internet access, local control is a non-issue. Cities should not be allowed to build and maintain their own networks in competition with incumbent providers who seek a nice fat profit rather than to serve our communities. Besides, you can get more money from Comcast than you can from Utopia for your next campaign, right?

This is what I think about when I see that Los Angeles is planning a gigabit network. Or that Chattanooga, TN or Wilson, NC have their own gigabit networks. Or that several cities in Colorado defied their state legislature and voted to restore local control. Or that several cities are using the franchise renewal process to deny Comcast the right to Time-Warner infrastructure if they should ever merge.

Rest assured, the Utah Legislature will stand up for the incumbent providers long before they ever consider the possible success of Utopia, if given half a chance, let alone repealing the model legislation that has hobbled Utopia since 2001.

Yeah, I'll be thinking of all that when Pioneer Day rolls around.