April 09, 2018

Don’t Give Up Your Contacts

When you give an app or social network access to your contacts, you are giving it access to your friends. You owe it to your friends to protect their privacy as best you can and hopefully they’ll do the same for you. Yes, there are some apps like email, messaging, and voice or video calling which have a legitimate need for contact information. Most don’t and they shouldn’t have access to it.

Yesterday was an all time personal high for unwarranted attempts to get at my contacts. I not only refused them all, I also returned a ring.com security system to Costco because, as soon as I downloaded the Android app needed to use it, the app refused to finish setup until I gave both it and Google Play Service access to both my microphone (maybe justified) and my contacts (not gonna happen). More below on the particularly dangerous Google Play Service.

Here are the attempts to get access which I remember yesterday:

  1. The Android Amazon Alexa app which wouldn’t even let me see the shopping list I had dictated until I told it who my contacts are so I can use Alexa to call them. I don’t want to use Alexa for calling but there wasn’t even a “later” button. Got around it by quitting the app (also not easy to do) and restarting it.
  2. My Garmin vivoactive HR It wants to tell me about email, texts, and calls when I’m hiking. I told it to concentrate on getting my pulse right.
  3. Facebook on my PC (I don’t allow it on my phone). It told me for the zillionth time that I’d have more friends if I’d just upload my contacts. I’m not about to do that to my friends.
  4. LinkedIn on my PC told me I’d get a fabulous job offer soon if I’d only upload my contacts. No thanks; I’m retired. And I wouldn’t hire anyone who uploaded me to LinkedIn.
  5. And the ring.com app.

The ring.com app didn’t ask to use my contacts and microphone directly; it just told me that it couldn’t even set itself up unless I gave Google Play Services access to these things. What is Google Play Services? Google Play Services is a good technical idea gone astray (or rogue). It manages downloads from the Google Play Store and updates (fine); Google says “with Google Play Services, you can authenticate Google services, synchronize your contacts, access the latest user privacy settings, and use higher quality location-based services that use less energy.” What they don’t say directly on the download page is that apps like ring.com which use Google Play Services also apparently get access to what Google Play Services has access to. If I had previously allowed Google Play Services to access my contacts, then ring.com could have gotten access without asking me. Not good and not gonna happen

In continuing my search for security cameras, I’ve been sending a question to tech support at the camera company websites asking what permissions their apps require. So far I’ve gotten no answers but it is still the weekend. I’ve also downloaded some apps to see whether they want me to give permissions I don’t want to give. That’s a pain. App stores ought, as a matter of course, to list all the permissions an app will need if you download it. I’d like to see this information on packaging and online descriptions for all products with their own apps. I don’t want a home security system at the expense of my friends’ online security.

I’m not waiting for the government to manage my privacy for me; I’m not at all sure I want that. We can make online privacy better by being informed consumers and – above all – not compromising the security of our friends by broadcasting our contacts.

See CC’ing Will Get Your Friends Speared for how and why to protect your friends when sending email to a list;

Don’t Believe Caller ID for how exposing your contacts can help scammers effectively scam your friends;

Alexa: The End of a Great Relationship and Your Android Phone is Eavesdropping for my growing paranoia about the Internet of listening things.

April 06, 2018

Say No to Government Censorship - Always

Jeff Jarvis' (@jeffjarvis) twitter description reads: "#resist @BuzzMachine blogger and j-school prof; author of Public Parts, What Would Google Do?" He is almost always right on issues to do with journalism. But I'm afraid his antipathy to Donald Trump (to put it it mildly) may be influencing his judgment. We had the following twitter exchange (btw, I consider Jeff a friend and hope he still feels that way about me). The background is that the Sinclair Broadcast Group ran promos taped by the anchors at the many local TV stations they own which, among other things, complained about "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country" [I've quoted the full text of the promo way below].




At this point NBC anchor Katy Tur joined the tweetstream.


Katy has not answered the questions in my tweet above but is entirely possible she never noticed it.

Below is the KOMO TV version of the script as quoted in the Seattle PI that the Sinclair anchors were "forced" to read in the promos (not in the news itself). I actually don't find it objectionable. There's some puffery but it is a promo. It's certainly true that there is plenty of "fake news", opinion masquerading as news, unchecked "facts" and plenty of sloppy reporting on both the left on the right and even in the middle. But in my PoV, the important point is that it would be terrible, now or in the future, to have the government award licenses based on politics or government opinion of whether a station is practicing true journalism.

"Hi, I'm(A) ____________, and I'm (B) _________________...

(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

(A) But we're concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories... stories that just aren't true, without checking facts first.


(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control 'exactly what people think'...This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

(B) At KOMO it's our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically 'left nor right.' Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.

(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual... We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.

(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback"

April 03, 2018

Very Bad Web Page – Kill Your Browser!

If you see the web page below on your computer, do not click anywhere on it! It will also talk to you and say your computer is infected. Do NOT call the 855 number given! Do not believe that it comes from Microsoft! You won’t be able to close the window. It is trying to infect you with a virus.  Immediately use control-alt-delete to bring up Task Manager and kill your browser.


Do the same thing if you see this dialog:


Mary got there by clicking PayPal in a Google search results page in what was apparently a hacked PayPal ad on Google. I tried in both Chrome and Firefox and was also misrouted to this malignant site. However, the same ad still shows up on Google Search and now leads to PayPal as it should.

Hopefully there’ll be some explanation from Google as to how this could happen. However I cannot be sure that this was not a hijack of a DNS server somewhere in the lookup path. I also don’t know that PayPal ads are particularly targeted. It could have been whatever ad Google served first would have misdirected to the evil site. Be careful!

If you are with law enforcement, the web address displayed still responds. That may be a lead.

UPDATE: The malignant page is hosted on Amazon's AWS according to a lookup of its IP address. I've notified the abuse email address at Amazon.

April 02, 2018

What Should Tower Over the Square?

THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK by Niall Ferguson brilliantly explodes the myth that if we just had a big and open enough network, the world would be a wonderful place. If you haven’t read the book, you may want to read my post last week about it before reading this post (The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica). The gist is that revolution without subsequent order looks more like what happened in France than what happened in America during the late 18th century. The “square” of the tile is any one of a number of horizontal networks to which we all belong; the “tower” is the hierarchical structure (city, state, corporation) which goiverns the square.

Ferguson believes that internet-enabled disruption is at the tipping point of causing a world catastrophe if someone doesn’t establish control over the huge networks like Facebook and Google.

“…can a networked world have order? As we have seen, some say that it can. In the light of historical experience, I very much doubt it…

“Globalization is in crisis. Populism is on the march. Authoritarian states are ascendant. Technology meanwhile marches inexorably ahead, threatening to render most human beings redundant or immortal or both…

“…technology has enormously empowered networks of all kinds relative to traditional hierarchical power structure…”

Ferguson deliberately uses the word “networks” to mean three things: physical networks over which data flows, social networks, and networked groups like ISIS who have mastered the use of the first two types of networks. Controlling ISIS requires controlling the networks which enable it. Apparently he also believes that control over these networks should and will thwart the rise of populism (Trump and Brexit, for example) and other threats to hierarchical order.

Of course management of these networks actually is hierarchical, as Ferguson points out: “Despite their appearance as great levelers, social networks are … ‘inherently unfair and exclusionary’. He attributes this to “the tendency for well-connected hubs to get even better connected”.

“…there are now two kinds of people in the world: those who own and run the networks, and those who merely use them. The commercial masters of cyberspace may still pay lip service to a flat world of netizens, but in practice companies such as Google are hierarchically organized, even if their ‘org.charts’ are quite different from that of General Motors in Alfred Sloan’s day.”

Are Google and Facebook management the hierarchical structures (towers) which should manage the unruly internet square? Not according to Ferguson:

“One can argue for and against censorship of odious content. One can marvel that companies and government agencies would spend money on online advertising so indiscriminately that their carefully crafted slogans end up on jihadist websites. However, arguing that Google and Facebook should do the censoring is not just an abdication of responsibility; it is evidence of unusual naivety. As if these two companies were not already mighty enough, European politicians apparently want to give them the power to limit their citizens’ free expression.”

I agree with that! So who should be doing the regulation? It’s a critical question if you’ve been convinced by Ferguson as I have that some regulation is necessary. Remember that the networks to be regulated are richer and more powerful than most countries (and better managed). Ferguson says:

“The alternative is that another pentarchy of great powers recognizes their common interest in resisting the spread of jihadism, criminality and cyber-vandalism, to say nothing of climate change. [nb. The original pentarchy was Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia who more or less kept the peace in Europe for a century before WWI.]  In the wake of the 2017 WannaCry episode, even the Russian government must understand that no state can hope to rule Cyberia for long… Conveniently, the architects of the post-1945 order created the institutional basis for such a new pentarchy in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, an institution that retains the all-important ingredient of legitimacy. Whether or not these five great powers can make common cause once again, as their predecessors did in the nineteenth century, is the great geopolitical question of our time.”

I think I know the answer to this “great geopolitical question”: NO! The UN is a haplessly corrupt institution; the Security Council a perfect study in dysfunction. Giving the UN the power to limit our citizens’ free expression is an even worse idea than leaving this to Google and Facebook.

If we don’t want to trust the owners of the networks to be the exclusive regulators of themselves; if we don’t think the UN can do the job (hard not to laugh at this suggestion); if we think some regulation is required – from whom should it come? Comments welcome and this will be a subject of a post soon.

March 30, 2018

The Economist Is Right; It Would be a Mistake to Take His Advice

In a New York Times op ed Donald J. Boudreaux, who is is a professor of economics and a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, repeats the economic truisms that free trade is a more than zero sum game (total gains are more than total losses) and that trade wars are less than zero sum game. For good measure he points out that the total number of US jobs is higher than ever and that trade-related job losses are a relatively small part of the churn in the job market, which is also caused by technical innovation and changing tastes.

“Fears of losing jobs to trade are inconsistent with our larger embrace of innovation and competition. More ominously, given that trade-induced job losses are a tiny portion of all job losses, such fears are wildly overblown — so much so that they now have America and the world on the brink of a potentially calamitous trade war.”

His implicit argument is for unilateral economic disarmament; that has been and would be a mistake. It doesn’t take much understanding of game theory to understand why.

Although there is mutual advantage to be gained from free trade between two countries, there is even more advantage to be gained by either country if it cheats. If a country can tap our market at will and we are restricted in what we can sell to them, that country gains an advantage. In the case of China, as an example, our companies can’t tap their local markets without sharing technology. That technology then can end up in the hands of Chinese competitors. That’s cheating.

Question: How do you stop cheating?

Answer: With a credible threat of retaliatory tariffs.

Question: What if they don’t believe you?

Answer: Impose the tariff.

Question: But both sides will be hurt. How does that help?

Answer: May lead to negotiations and back to a fair deal. May discourage future cheating. May not work in this instance.  Alternative is the unacceptable one of allowing the cheating.

This isn’t nearly as scary as the mutually assured destruction that kept (keeps?) the US and Russia from using their nuclear weapons against each other. The principle is the same: your opponent has to believe you’re willing to take a step which harms you as well as the opponent or the opponent will cheat. Renouncing the threat of tariffs (or force) is like putting up a sign saying this house has no burglar alarm and the occupants are unarmed.

The US currently has a huge advantage in trade gamesmanship: we’re the world’s biggest market and we’re self-sufficient in most essentials (rare earths are an important exception). Almost every trading partner would lose more than us from a mutual cutoff of trade. Doesn’t mean we should be a bully. Does mean there’s no sense in being a patsy.

Recent stories are that China has responded to Trump’s tariff saber-rattling by entering negotiations. I hope that’s right and the negotiations succeed. Fair trade is a more than zero sum game. Also hope Trump means what he says – that he’ll accept free trade if it’s fair trade.

 For what should've happened long ago, see Customer Call - A Prehistory.

March 27, 2018

The Square and the Tower and Cambridge Analytica

Niall Ferguson’s book, THE SQUARE and the TOWER: Networks and Power, from the FREEMASONS to FACEBOOK, was published before Facebook’s Cambridge Analytical debacle; but Ferguson clearly predicted the dangers posed by cyber-oligarchies. From the book:

“‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ said Evan Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter in May 2017. ‘I was wrong about that.’ The lesson of history is that trusting in networks to run the world is a recipe for anarchy…. Some today are tempted to give at least ‘two cheers for anarchism’. Those who lived through the wars of the 1790s and 1800s learned an important lesson that we would do well to re-learn: unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose some kind of hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.”

Ouch! I thought the same thing as Evan Williams. Mary and I saw how technology aided a revolution against a corrupt regime (The Fax Will Make Them Free). I believed in the Arab Spring before it morphed to the horrors of Syria. I loved Alexa before I became afraid to have her listening to us (Alexa – Cover Your Ears). I lobbied for an internet free of regulation and believed that much more good than harm would come from this open network. I knew old oligarchies would be toppled; I was right about that; but I didn’t understand how quickly new – and dangerous – oligarchies would become dominant.

Ferguson points out that most revolutions turn out badly. The American Revolution is an exception. The French Revolution with its subsequent waves of vicious bloodletting and rotating ideologies with a final transition to tyranny is more the rule. But the American Revolution didn’t topple the local hierarchies and leave the mob in control of the streets; it was a revolution in large part by the local hierarchies against remote authority.

Rapid dissemination of knowledge is no panacea. Ferguson compares the invention of the printing press to the invention of the internet (acknowledging, of course, how much faster internet penetration has been than near-universal literacy was).  the success of Luther’s Reformation’s required faster and freer dissemination of ideas than from pulpit to parishioner; Guttenberg’s invention and plummeting book prices provided that. “While some slaughtered, others studied,” Ferguson writes. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were positive consequences although not the intent of the Reformation. Increased religious strife once the church hierarchy lost control had devasting consequences for many. Finally, Ferguson says, civil authorities substituted for the church authority and re-imposed religious uniformity on a nation-by-nation basis. His lesson: you need to have vertical hierarchies even after – or especially after – a revolution topples an old hierarchy.

The title of the book is based on the tension between horizontal networks like the internet or a town square and vertical networks like most companies and governments. In Sienna there is a tower next to the square; Ferguson says the tower is exactly as high as the square is wide to deliberately symbolize a healthy balance between horizontal and vertical authority. Sienna, for a long period, was very well-governed by a term-limited council (vertical) drawn from the dominant mercantile class (an exclusive but horizontal network).

The internet revolution has been successfully disruptive. In theory the internet is horizontal, but it has led to the dominance of a few new vertical hierarchies richer and more powerful than most countries. Will they regulate themselves? If they regulate their content, do they become the most dangerous censors the world has ever known? If they don’t regulate their content, do they become a lawless zone that reaches into every home and business? Who controls how they use what they know about us? That knowledge is what pays for the “free” service they provide us.  Should governments regulate “the internet”? Can they? Do we trust governments or will they make a regulated internet their tool for regulating us? That’s happening now in China according to Ferguson.

The Square and the Tower is a powerful if frightening picture of the dangers and choices we face. I’ll write next about Ferguson’s answers to some of these questions. Unfortunately, I think he does a better job of asking than answering. But we have a better chance of finding answers once the right questions have been asked – and once our illusions about the automatic benefits of horizontal networks are shattered.

March 22, 2018

Oil Prices Are Going Down: The Wickenburg Indicator

Only a fool would predict commodity prices, so I’ll do that. I’ve been to Wickenburg and I know oil prices are headed down

Wickenburg’s in Arizona, a little more than an hour northwest of Phoenix. It’s on the Hassayampa River. Most of the time you can drive on the river bed, but the cottonwood still flourishes on the banks because the river runs under the sand. Wickenburg was a mining town: gold, copper, and a few other metals.

WickenburgRight now Wickenburg is full of horse trailers and the cowboys who own them. These aren’t just any cowboys; they specialize in steer roping. The headers rope the horns and the footers rope the hindfeet. Winners get buckles and saddles. Although there are a few professional ropers in Wickenburg, a large percentage of these “cowboys” actually make their living in the Bakkan oil fields far to the north. They frack; they sell sand for fracking; they sell water for fracking; they produce the oil that’s driving OPEC and Russia crazy and that has helped spur the American economy.

For the last couple of years American abundance drove world oil prices down. The frackers fracked less wells and roped more steers. OPEC and Russia blinked and cut back their own production. The price of oil almost doubled. The horse trailers turned north early this year; the frackers are going home to get back to work. Sorry Putin: you can steal Crimea; you can steal a Russian election; you can hack at America’s politics; but you can’t set the price of oil. That’s done in Wickenburg.

If you’re not convinced yet, let me tell you about the gold mine guy. We met him on the road and asked directions; he invited us to see his goldmine. Bought it a couple of years ago because oil prices were low and gold prices high. He’s selling it and going back to North Dakota to frack some more. Don’t know if that means gold prices are going up but do know that oil prices are going down.

March 03, 2018

Proposed Alternative Town Meeting Resolution on Climate Change

Thursday I posted my reasons for objecting to the 350VT resolution proposed for Stowe and other town meetings. Far below is my proposed substitute resolution. Immediately below is a summary of the changes I am proposing.

I changed the whereas clauses to make them more science-based.

The call to ban new fossil fuel infrastructure including gas pipelines is removed since substitution of natural gas for coal and oil is the reason why the US is the leader among developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The biggest change is to urge the state to make GHG reduction the goal for which renewables are just one means rather than making renewables themselves the goal regardless of efficacy or cost. The target date is changed from 2050 to 2030 so we can actually measure what we are doing.

There is a list which I'm sure is not complete of alternatives for reducing GHGs which should be weighed against each other as means to reach the goal of GHG emissions.

Although I largely agree with the strategies recommended to the Town for reducing local GHG emissions, I've added some alternatives 350VT didn't consider.


Advisory Resolution on Climate Change

Whereas atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, have been rising due in a large degree to human activities;

Whereas the earth has been warming for about 20,000 years since the last glacial epoch;

Whereas the combination of these two factors raises the probability of rapid and disruptive climate change worldwide;

Whereas it is prudent to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses in the most cost-effective ways available while realizing that climate will continue to change and mitigation of climate change effects may also be necessary;

And whereas the use of renewables alone for such reduction is neither environmentally nor fiscally responsible;

Now, therefore, let it be resolved;

  1. That the Town urges the State of Vermont to:
    1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
    2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;
    3. Ensure that the transition to lower emissions of greenhouses gasses considers impact on all residents.
  1. That the town will do its part the goal of lower emissions by committing to efforts such as:
    1. Reducing transportation emissions by enhancing public transportation and bike lanes, increasing opportunities for usage of electric, hybrid, and natural gas vehicles, and providing commuter parking area;
    2. Weatherizing town buildings and schools where applicable;
    3. Identifying sites for both solar photovoltaic and solar hot water panels including town and school building rooftops;
    4. Supporting initiatives for the reduction of personal energy consumption.




March 01, 2018

Renewables Are a Means, Not an End

Especially if the goal is to reduce greenhouse gasses.

An organization called 350VT has caused an advisory item to be placed on the town meeting agenda for my town of Stowe and many other towns around the state whose first plank is to “Halt any new or expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, including but not limited to pipelines”. It also calls on the state to “Firmly commit to at least 90% renewable energy for all people in Vermont.” Interestingly the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not mentioned anywhere in the resolution.

 If these resolutions are adopted by towns and if the state government heeds them, the result will be an INCREASE, not a DECREASE in GHG emissions. On environmental grounds, the resolutions should be amended or defeated.

The United States has reduced GHG emissions more than any other developed country largely because it has replaced coal and oil with natural gas in electrical generation and as an industrial boiler fuel. Burning natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than burning coal and 26% less CO2 than burning oil or propane for each BTU or kilowatt-hour produced. We have increased our use of renewables significantly also; when not over-priced, this is a good thing. But the major reduction is because we have cheap natural gas available and we’ve used it.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing. Nuclear power is a perfect example of a “non-renewable” highly effective way to reduce GHG emissions. But we won’t be building any new nukes in Vermont soon.

Vermont is reducing its emissions thanks to the Vermont Gas pipeline extension to Middlebury. Almost every new customer of that pipeline is substituting cleaner natural gas for oil or propane. One of the biggest customers of that pipeline is Middlebury College, which likes to boast that it is carbon-neutral. There’s some irony here: 350VT is the Vermont affiliate of 350.org, an organization co-founded by Middlebury professor Bill McKibben. The classrooms Bill teaches in are heated by natural gas from just the kind of pipeline extension 350.org and 350VT are against. Natural gas allowed Middlebury to stop burning very dirty #6 oil and was an essential part of its achieving carbon-neutrality. If pipeline opponents had had their way, Middlebury would still be burning oil. Hmmm.

350VT advocates encouraging electric cars. This is not a bad idea but they are ignoring the inconvenient fact that incremental electricity in New England is produced mainly by burning natural gas, especially with New England nukes shutting down. Although there are huge supplies of inexpensive natural gas just west of us in central Pennsylvania, there is not enough pipeline capacity from there to meet the winter demand by New England electrical generators. This winter old oil and coal plants had to come back online and a tanker full of Siberian liquified natural gas (LNG) discharged in Everett Harbor. Why hasn’t pipeline capacity increased, you ask? Because organization including 350.org have successfully opposed proposed new pipelines even though the price of not having them is more GHG emission (and higher costs for consumers).

Making renewables a goal instead of a means is environmentally irresponsible; it is making the perfect the enemy of the good.

Opponents of natural gas use point out that its main component, methane, is itself a much more potent GHG than CO2. This would be relevant if methane were released instead of burned; it would be relevant if a large amount of methane were released in extraction or transportation; but they aren’t. It would be relevant if atmospheric concentrations of methane were increasing as CO2 concentrations certainly are; however, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever and despite a world which consumes more beef than ever (bovine flatulence and manure are major methane sources).

I intend to offer an amendment to the 350VT advisory resolution at Stowe town meeting. It will replace the call for an arbitrary percentage of renewable energy and the ban on “new fossil fuel infrastructure” with a call for the state to:

  1. Target a specific goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont by 2030 using the most effective means available;
  2. Consider all alternatives for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including but not limited to renewables, conservation, increased access to hydropower, and substitution of natural gas for coal, oil, and propane;

We are trying to reduce the probability of rapid human-caused climate change, not create a business case for any particular energy technology. Renewables are one of the means toward that end.

The Stowe version of the 350VT resolution is here; the proposed substitute resolution is here. I’m quite happy to amend it before town meeting in response to comments on this blog or comments on Facebook.

[full disclosure: I am the founder and chairman of NG Advantage, a Vermont company which delivers compressed natural gas (CNG) by truck to large users who don’t have access to a pipeline. Last year our customers reduced CO2 emissions by about 160,000,000 lbs., about the same reduction as can be attributed to all the commercial wind turbines in Vermont. We delivered gas to be used by Middlebury College before the pipeline got down there; but I support the pipeline although it cost us the Middlebury business.]


February 13, 2018

A Surprising Letter from David Koch

Recently we got a letter from David Koch. As you would guess, it is a request for support for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which he co-founded. What I wouldn’t have guessed before reading is that there is nothing in the eight pages I disagree with and much which is compelling.

Some of the letter could’ve come from the left as easily as the right:

“We are rapidly becoming a two-tiered society where the well-connected thrive and everyone else falls further and further behind.  What’s worse, all of this corporate welfare and the government picking winners and losers is moving us towards as society characterized by cronyism, government dependency, and poverty where individuals and groups are pitted against each other as they compete for government largess.”

Nowhere in the letter (or on the AFP website) is there a complaint against welfare payments to individuals.  There is no discussion of the social issues often associated with the right. The letter is pro-immigration. Koch is afraid of growing socialism; he doesn’t like Bernie Sanders any more than Bernie Sanders likes him.  Koch puts the blame for this lurch to the left squarely where it belongs:

“There is more behind this turn towards government [control] than the economic stagnation and falling standards of living of the past decade.

“I believe the answer lies in the fact that across America, people are seeing that those who are well-connected in Washington and, yes, the wealthy, are winning favors and thriving while the rest of the nation falls further behind.

“…why is it that countless other large companies can get artificially cheap loans while people starting out can’t get any?

“…American consumers …[pay] double the world price for sugar while a small handful of sugar farmers are getting rich off government subsidies and quotas.

“…at the same time as Americans were hurting and record numbers were signing up for food stamps, countless American companies were getting huge corporate welfare payments or thousands of tax breaks that other Americans can’t utilize…"

He quotes a bumper sticker I haven’t seen: “our system isn’t broken… it’s fixed.”  David Koch is honest enough to admit that, although ethanol mandates are one more example of crony capitalism, Koch Industries makes ethanol.

What Koch doesn’t say but I believe is that Americans feeling the system is rigged are responsible not only for Bernie’s near victory over Hillary but also Trump’s actual victory. The Clintons as well as most of the people who ran in the Republican primary are part of the establishment which benefits from a rigged system where success depends on connections and big government and big corporations are in each other’s pockets (or, more accurately, in our pockets). Bernie and the Donald were both perceived as outsiders. If you add their supporters together, that’s an outraged majority.

Yes, there is great irony that this letter is signed by the owner of the second largest privately-owned corporation in America. Bernie’s website points out the extreme platform of the Libertarian Party in 1980 as evidence of what the Koch brothers want and David Koch was the Libertarian candidate for vice president that year. On the other hand, Bernie works for the biggest government in the country and would like to make it bigger.

The lesson of socialism is an equality of misery for most people except those who benefit enormously by being close to the all-controlling government (see Venezuela or North Korea for current examples). But crony capitalism suffers from many of the same faults.  Too often Democrats ignore the dangers of socialism; too often Republicans ignore the danger of oligarchy. Right now the danger is that so many Americans are disaffected and prone to lurch from one extreme to the other.  Part of the solution is to un-rig the system.  Americans for Prosperity seems to be dedicated to that un-rigging.  I’ve signed their petition against corporate welfare and may support them further.

February 08, 2018

Software Nerd Goes Hard

Result works but isn’t pretty

Patched pc

Q: How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Can’t be done. It’s a hardware problem.

I’m a software guy (58 years of programming) but I had a hardware problem.  Closed the screen of my almost new laptop on my portable mouse while getting up from my airline seat.  The screen was crushed and had only a shimmering rainbow on the bottom and the right side radiating from the ugly black imprint of the mouse.

The machine was useable at home where it’s docked to an external monitor but I have some travel coming up when it needs to be self-contained.  Sending the machine back to Lenovo was possible, but I know from experience that would mean being without it for two weeks and having to set up another computer.  There are no authorized Lenovo dealers within a hundred miles.

Tried a local computer repair place, hoping they could order a replacement screen and only take the laptop for an installation day. Apparently they couldn’t find parts from their distributor, probably because the machine is a new model and not many people have managed to break their screens yet.

Reluctantly decided to do hardware myself; after all, I did fix a vacuum cleaner after watching a video and two weeks ago I hung a window shade to Mary’s delighted surprise.  Searched YouTube for a how-to replacement video. Plenty of videos but all for older models. Googling “X1 Carbon fifth generation replacement screen” did lead me to LcdOLed on Amazon (surprisingly it’s often easier to find products on Amazon with Google than with Amazon’s own search).

I ordered. But LcdOLed contacted me through Amazon and said there are multiple screens for this model (touch, non-touch, different resolutions, WLAN antenna etc.). They advised me to open up the machine to get the part number.

“Can you point me to a video for that?” I asked.

They did and I ordered the tools needed to remove the screen. Fortunately, when I asked Mary to look over my shoulder, she diagnosed that the reason I couldn’t get the screen out is that the model in the video was different from my computer.

Serious googling. Found the Lenovo training video for its techs. Looked hard but doable. However, on the chance that once I took it apart I’d never get it back together, I didn’t want to liberate the screen until I had the replacement. Eureka, the Lenovo tech site could map my serial number to a part number.

“Send it,” I emailed to LcdOled.

“OK,” they said. “If it’s the wrong one, you can ship it back. We’ll get it out right away before Chinese New Year shuts our shipping down.”

Gathered my courage for a day after it arrived and started on the job last night. Lots of things to do in the right order. I watch each video twice on a spare computer before each step.

  1. Turn off the internal battery (software step to build my confidence)
  2. Remove the SIM holder (insert paper clip. I can do that.)
  3. Remove the back (last step which doesn’t void warrantee)
  4. Disconnect camera cable from motherboard (finally spotted the little clip that needed to be lifted by watching the video on how to put camera cable back.) Clip
  5. Disconnect LCD cable
  6. Disconnect hinges from case
  7. Remove LCD unit
  8. Remove LCD bezel (supposed to do with fingers but I had to use a tool)
  9. Remove LCD hinges (the other side of them)
  10. Remove LCD strip bezel
  11. Remove LCD unit
  12. Remove other end of LCD cable (now I’m good at the little clips)

Then you substitute the new screen and reverse all the steps. The bezel didn’t quite go back completely; that’s why the scotch tape in the picture above. One tiny nasty black screw disappeared. If you have a tremor, you should be sure you use a magnetic screwdriver. Hopefully the screw’s not rattling around inside waiting to short something. Hinge seems strong enough with two rather than three screws.

But, worth it all, its works!

February 05, 2018

Protecting Civil Liberties

There is no way that the allegations in the Nunes memo, even if they are all true and there is no mitigating evidence which was withheld, exonerate the President from allegations that he or his campaign collaborated with Russians or that he attempted to obstruct justice. Conversely, what Trump did or didn’t do is not relevant to whether the Justice Department and FBI have misused the FISA process.

We need the Mueller investigation to continue.  My first hope is Mueller finds that there were no serious offenses by Trump.  That would be best for the country so long as it is true. If there were offenses, I hope the evidence is strong and clear.  Weak charges would also be bad for the country.

We need the investigation into the FBI and Justice Department to continue.  Of course, the Democratic memo should be released once it is vetted for possible security problems. The FISA Courts, set up after 9/11, were a deliberate dangerous compromise to find a way to deal with the threat of terrorism while preserving our Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable government surveillance.  Because FISA is secret, it can easily be abused.  There must be oversight by Congress; Congress needs to be able to cry foul.  The partisan system is good for assuring that oversight is not just cheerleading.

One of the dangers in the FISA Court is that the judge hears only from the FBI and Justice.  That has to be since you don’t want to tip off the target of investigation.  However, the one-sided nature of what the judge hears puts a burden on the prosecutors and investigators to tell the judge everything significant that they know and puts a burden on the judge to be curious about sources.  If the judge wasn’t told that the Steele memorandum was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary campaign, that is at least a violation of trust.  If the decision to grant a warrant to spy on Carter Page was based mostly on the memo whose origin was not revealed to the judge, this is a very serious violation of Carter Page’s civil rights, no matter what he may or may not be guilty of.  The FBI and Justice need to be told that withholding material information from the court is NOT OK IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCE.

There must always be oversight of the FBI.  Such oversight is not anti law enforcement or unpatriotic.  The FBI has some great accomplishments.  It also has dark spots in its history starting with J. Edgar Hoover, harassment of Martin Luther King and Einstein, and, according to both Trump and Hillary Clinton, continuing in the tenure of James Comey.  It is sad to see my liberal friends criticizing investigation of the FISA incident because they are afraid that it will somehow exculpate Trump or at least distract attention from the Mueller investigation.

The defense of civil liberties often means defending unpopular or even obnoxious causes and people. Currently, we must have a thorough investigation of the allegations against Trump and also oversight of the investigators.  No matter how much you may wish Trump impeached, you should want the evidence to be solid and credible AND CONSTITUTIONAL.  On the other hand, no matter how much you want Trump to stay in office, you should want the investigation to continue free from obstruction.

Whether Trump is innocent or guilty, the FBI and Justice can still be guilty of unconstitutional behavior.  Whether the FBI and Justice are guilty, on the other hand, has no bearing on whether Trump colluded or obstructed justice.  Both Trump and his opponents are conflating these issues; we shouldn’t let ourselves be confused.

February 02, 2018

Vermont Trailers v. the Tanker from Siberia



Truck with Logo_0



In the recent winter cold snap, the LNG tanker GASELYS hooked up in Everett near Boston to discharge what’s assumed to be Siberian natural gas into the dangerously depleted pipelines of southern New England.  The arrival was well reported as was the irony of an almost energy-independent US being dependent on gas from sanctioned Russian producers.  Much more quietly, trailers from NG Advantage (NGA) were already delivering natural gas from Vermont to our southern neighbors whenever we had adequate supplies and they didn’t (full disclosure: I cofounded the company and own a stake in it). NGA will continue these deliveries as long as there is a need.

Both LNG (liquified natural gas) tankers and CNG (compressed natural gas) trailers are examples of virtual pipelines, delivery capacity that moves to routes where it’s needed.  However, the unloading facilities for LNG tankers are huge; the one in Everett was built when it was thought the US would run out of natural gas. CNG can be unloaded much more simply from trailers into existing natural gas pipelines.  The gas NGA delivers to southern New England currently comes mainly from Canada though a pipeline which enters the US at Highgate, VT.  It’s an easy argument that it’s better for us to be dependent on North American supply than Siberian; an even easier one that it’s better to create jobs in rural New England than in Siberia.

There are two main reasons why southern New England has an increasing appetite for natural gas on cold days: the shutdown of nuclear plants and a switch from coal and oil to much cleaner natural gas for electrical generation. When natural gas is used to generate electricity, there is 50% less carbon dioxide emitted than when coal is used and 26% less than when energy comes from oil.  Moreover, there is no soot and almost no Sulphur dioxide or nitrous oxides when natural gas is burned nor is there any black smoke.  The switch from coal and oil to natural gas is a huge environmental plus and is the reason why the US was able to meet its carbon reduction goal under the Kyoto treaty it never signed even when the actual signatories weren’t.

There is a huge supply of natural gas just a few hundred miles west of New England in the Marcellus shale. Normally the east-west pipelines are adequate to carry what New England needs. But, during winter cold snaps, the demand exceeds pipeline capacity. The cost of natural gas can increase tenfold or more on the spot market. Oil and even coal powerplants replace gas-fired generators so that there will be enough gas to keep houses warm. The air gets dirtier and electricity gets more expensive, even in Vermont, which gets much of its electricity from the New England grid now that Vermont Yankee is closed.

There were plans to build much more east-west capacity.  But new pipelines didn’t get permitted. Three arguments were used against them:

  1. I don’t want a pipeline through my town to serve people in New England;
  2. We shouldn’t build permanent infrastructure for any fossil fuel even if we’re replacing a fossil fuel which emits more pollutants;
  3. The pipelines are only needed part of the year so they don’t justify the investment or right-of-way required to build them.

In my view, argument one is simply NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). NIMBY’s been around since before the Roman roads were built.  Property owners need to be properly compensated but the greater good must prevail or we’d have no infrastructure.

Argument two makes the perfect the enemy of the good; it boils down to polluting more now than we have to because we don’t yet have an ideal energy source.

Argument three is sometimes right. It would not be justified, for example, to build a pipeline from Vermont to southern New England to relieve a fraction of winter shortage.  Where a physical pipeline isn’t justified or hasn’t been built yet, a virtual pipeline can deliver the energy needed. If there comes a time when the energy isn’t needed or a pipeline is built, the trucks can go work somewhere else.  For example, NGA delivered natural gas by truck to Middlebury, VT before the Vermont Gas pipeline to that city was finished. Middlebury business and institutions got some of the economic and all the environmental benefits of natural gas earlier than they would have otherwise.

Environmentally, it’s better to burn Siberian natural gas than coal or oil; but it’s much better to burn North American gas and create jobs here.  NGA and its competitors don’t have the capacity yet to make occasional tanker visits unnecessary; but we’re working on it.

See also:

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Vermont Shouldn't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

January 25, 2018

Microsoft Is Uploading Files from Your Computer

You may be in breach of nondisclosure agreements.

While setting up a new computer, I was horrified to see this default security setting:


This says that documents you’re working on, spreadsheets, confidential presentations, personal pictures, clever algorithms, or anything else on your computer may be uploaded to Microsoft at any time without your knowledge. How does Microsoft decide what is “personal”? Do they notify you or do they ask you if they are uploading personal information? What if the document is top secret but impersonal?

How much of your company’s confidential information is already at Microsoft? What if the document contains material non-public information about a public company; will the SEC hold you liable if it gets out? Maybe you obtained the document under a confidentiality agreement and aren’t allowed to share it; you just did.

How is Microsoft protecting your data, which it shouldn’t have in the first place, from unauthorized use by its own employees or hackers? How does Microsoft know that you are on a secure connection while it is happily transmitting your data? The only assurance in their privacy statement is that they won’t use this data to target you for specific advertising.

Are you worried about government surveillance? The government may be getting your data from Microsoft with or without a subpoena. Are you involved in a lawsuit? How long before opposing council demands your documents from Microsoft.

Having this option on by default is an outrage. [Note: I found it turned on in Windows 10 on a Lenovo X1 Carbon; it is possible that the setting is different in different versions of Windows or on different machines. Note also that this "feature" is part of Windows Defender, the default ant-virus program distributed with Windows. You don't need to worry about this if you are using other anti-virus programs. ]

 Here’ s how to check the setting and turn off document pilfering in Windows 10:


Start by clicking the arrow circled below in the taskbar.

Next click the shield.


Scroll down and you’ll be able to turn off this worse-than-intrusive option. However, your shield like mine will now have a yellow exclamation point. Microsoft wants you to know you are unsafe because you won’t let them spy on you.

January 16, 2018

The Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shore

There are two major reasons why we accept immigrants.

One is purely selfish: some immigrants have skills or money to bring which will make America better. These potential immigrants can presumably be identified. It shouldn’t matter where they’re from or what their race or religion is so long as they are bringing something of value. We have various programs like H1B for people with skills we need and EB-5 for people with money. They need examination and I think we should actively be recruiting those with skills; but there is no crisis here.

The second reason is much more important to America and the world. There are people who need refuge and we are able to grant it to some of them.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

That’s what it says on the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. That describes most of my ancestors when they came two generations ago. Yes, the places they left were shitholes, at least for them. That doesn’t make them shit, just wretched refuse yearning to breathe free.

My grandparents were fleeing pogroms in Russia and the Ukraine. They contributed to their new country and I hope we who were lucky to be born here have contributed as well. But there was no way to know what they or their progeny would add when they came. They wouldn’t have qualified for H1B or been able to pay half a million dollars for an EB-5 visa.

At least partially because of prejudice, America refused most Jewish refugees from the Nazis even as it became apparent what would happen to them in Nazi-occupied Europe. As a Jew, I don’t want to see us turn back Moslems fleeing catastrophe.

There are so many refugees that the US can’t possibly take them all. Unfortunately, there are so many refugees from conflict that we must prioritize them over people who “just” want to be free or “just” what a chance to make a better living. In a world plagued by terror we have to vet refugees as best we can rather than let them teem into Ellis Island the way my ancestors did. We do have a right to insist that refugees adapt to our country and follow our laws. But we have a responsibility to provide refuge.

America is no longer great if we cannot lift our lamp beside the golden door.

January 11, 2018

Marijuana and the Constitution

It took the 19th amendment to the US Constitution to ban most manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverage in the United States. Why then was Congress able to ban marijuana and a host of other substances by simply passing a law? Good question and one worth addressing when this congressional prohibition is at odds with what most American apparently want and actions taken by the states. The question of congressional power is especially worth examining given a dysfunctional Congress which complains about enforcement of its own law but seems incapable of the simple act of amendment.

Section 8 of Article 1 of the US Constitution gives Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. Clearly that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate sale of marijuana and its importation. Article X of the bill of rights says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” For most of American history, these two clauses were read together to reserve the power to regulate intrastate commerce to the states. That’s why it took a constitutional amendment to impose prohibition.

In 1942 a Supreme Court decision Wickard v Filburn essentially took the words “between the states” out of the commerce clause.  From Wikipedia:

“An Ohio farmer, Roscoe Filburn, was growing wheat to feed animals on his own farm. The U.S. government had established limits on wheat production based on acreage owned by a farmer, in order to stabilize wheat prices and supplies. Filburn grew more than the limits he was permitted and was ordered to pay a penalty. In response, he said that his wheat was not sold, so his activity could not be regulated as commerce, let alone "interstate" commerce…

“The Court decided that Filburn's wheat-growing activities reduced the amount of wheat he would buy for animal feed on the open market, which is traded nationally (interstate), and is therefore within the scope of the Commerce Clause. Although Filburn's relatively small amount of production of more wheat than he was allotted would not affect interstate commerce itself, the cumulative actions of thousands of other farmers just like Filburn would certainly become substantial. Therefore, according to the court, Filburn's production could be regulated by the federal government.”

The background of this ruling is that in 1942 eight of the nine justices had been appointed by President Roosevelt, the architect of the law being challenged – as good a reason as any for term limits. The US was also at war and draconian regulation of all kind was tolerated.

Fast forward to 2003 and Gonzales v Raich, a case challenging the federal government’s right to prosecute the instate use of medicinal marijuana in California where a referendum had legalized such use. Relying heavily on the Wickard v Filburn decision, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the feds did have this right because the intrastate use of marijuana might interfere with interstate commerce in pot (even though such commerce was illegal).

Justice Thomas wrote in dissent:

“Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything—and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.”

It's not a good idea for the federal government to have unlimited powers even if it weren’t dysfunctional.

Justice O’Conner wrote in her dissent:

“Relying on Congress’ abstract assertions, the Court has endorsed making it a federal crime to grow small amounts of marijuana in one’s own home for one’s own medicinal use. This overreaching stifles an express choice by some States, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently. If I were a California citizen, I would not have voted for the medical marijuana ballot initiative; if I were a California legislator I would not have supported the Compassionate Use Act. But whatever the wisdom of California’s experiment with medical marijuana, the federalism principles that have driven our Commerce Clause cases require that room for experiment be protected in this case.”

I think she is right. People the world over are resentful of over-reaching central authority (see Brexit, Catalonian separatists, Iranian demonstrators, and the election of Donald Trump for just a few examples). We in the United States are fortunate that the states and the US Constitution are a mechanism for resumed local control. We don’t need a revolution to ratchet back central power, just a return to federalism as it was practiced for most of our history. Invalidating federal control over instate drug use and sale will not make all drugs legal everywhere any more than the end of prohibition made alcohol legal everywhere. Control will just go back to the states and localities – and the feds will still be free to combat international smuggling or even interstate drug commerce.

 The Court is reluctant to reverse prior decisions but has done so. Brown v Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools, expressly undid Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that separate but equal is good enough.  I hope the Court will give itself the opportunity to reverse the overreach of both Wickard v Filburn and Gonzales v Raich. 

Meanwhile, Congress should stop blowing smoke and promptly undo its own unwise listing of marijuana on the same schedule as heroin in the possibly unconstitutional Controlled Substances Act. See Marijuana and Congress for more on that.

January 08, 2018

Marijuana and Congress

The haze of bipartisan Congressional hypocrisy is thicker than the air in a marijuana bar. I’m for legalization; it’s time for Congress to stop blowing smoke and start legislating.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug like heroin and proclaims it more dangerous than fentanyl and oxytocin (Schedule II), was passed by Congress in 1970. It has been amended many times since but congresspeople have not seen fit to remove marijuana from Schedule I.

If Congress did exempt marijuana from the CSA, which already exempts tobacco and alcohol, pot would not become legal everywhere. States would be free to ban or regulate it anyway they saw fit; exactly what outraged congresspeople say they want.

Under CSA the Drug Enforcement Administration has the authority to remove a substance from the various schedules. The DEA has rejected petitions to allow use of marijuana for medicinal purposes several times; the latest rejection was in 2011 and was upheld on appeal in 2013.

In 2013 President Obama’s Justice Department issued the Cole Memorandum essentially instructing federal prosecutors to lay off prosecuting marijuana offenses in most case. If Obama had just instructed the DEA to delist marijuana, we wouldn’t be having the debate we’re having today; but that’s history. Trump could give the same order; but we’ve seen that what one president can do by executive order, another can undo.

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a lifelong foe of marijuana use, rescinded the Cole Memorandum in what he calls a “return to the rule of law”. He didn’t mandate federal prosecution of cannabis cases but made non-prosecution less certain. His memo said:

“In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions. These principles require federal prosecutors deciding which cases to prosecute to weigh all relevant considerations of the crime, the deterrent effect of criminal prosecution, and the cumulative impact of particular crimes on the community.”

Senator Bernie Sanders lashed out:

“No, Attorney General Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin. No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that marijuana should be classified as a Schedule 1 drug beside killer drugs like heroin. Quite the contrary.”

While I agree with Bernie about the pharmacology, he is deliberately overlooking the fact that it is Congress and not the Attorney General who put pot on Schedule I. Does he really want Trump’s AG to overrule Congress? Where is the Sander’s bill to declassify marijuana?

There seems to be Republican as well as Democratic support for legalization:

“I am obligated to the people of Colorado to take all steps necessary to protect the state of Colorado and their rights,” said Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a conservative member of the Republican leadership who has rarely broken with the Trump White House.

The senator seemed flabbergasted by what amounted to a federal assault on the expanding $1 billion legal pot business approved by voters in Colorado… (NYTimes)

Gardner apparently doesn’t think his obligation to the people of Colorado includes doing his job by pushing for amendment of the offending federal law. Presumably he’d support delisting.

Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, a leading Trump ally in the House, said the decision would deny relief to suffering cancer patients, including children. He said the move by Mr. Sessions was “heartless and cold, and shows his desire to pursue an antiquated, disproven dogma instead of the will of the American people. He should focus his energies on prosecuting criminals, not patients.” (NYTimes)

Gaetz has a good point about the suffering caused by the prohibition of medicinal use of marijuana. An article in VTdigger details how assisted-living facilities, which receive federal funds, won’t allow the use of marijuana for pain-relief even though such use is legal under Vermont And New Hampshire law.  They are justifiably afraid of running afoul of the feds. It’s up to Congress to remove this threat. Gaetz should consider proposing legislation.

Nancy Pelosi: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s [sic] decision bulldozes over the will of the American people and insults the democratic process under which majorities of voters in California and in states across the nation supported decriminalization at the ballot box.” (NYTimes)

I don’t remember Ms. Pelosi pushing for federal deregulation when she was Majority Leader of the House. She apparently doesn’t remember that Congress, presumably following the will of the voters, made pot illegal. And I doubt if she really wants the AG to substitute his reading of the will of the people for Congressional mandates.

There is a good chance that there would be bipartisan support for the feds getting out of the marijuana regulation business. But would Sessions’ boss, President Trump veto such a bill if it passed Congress? Unlike Sessions, whom he certainly doesn’t feel a need to defer to, the President hasn’t said how he personally feels about pot use.

From the same NYTimes article: As for the president’s evolution on marijuana, Ms. Sanders [nb. his spokeperson] said Mr. Trump “believes in enforcing federal law. That would be his top priority, and that is regardless of what the topic is.”

If the federal law were changed, enforcement wouldn’t be an issue. Time for Congress to put their votes where their mouths are and “follow the will of the people.”

See also Marijuana and the Constitution for a discussion of whether Congress actually has the constitutional right to ban instate use of marijuana.


January 04, 2018

AT&T-Run Network Announces “Ruthless Preemption”

If you think this is some nightmare result of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voting to rescind the 2015 “Net Neutrality” regulations, think again. “Ruthless Preemption” is a feature of a so-far non-existent network called FirstNet for which the federal government has given AT&T a 25-year operating agreement, the exclusive right to sell FirstNet services to first responders, and lots of valuable radio spectrum.

While we technical types have been debating Net Neutrality regulation as a mechanism for curbing the last-mile oligarchy, AT&T has managed to walk away with another big gob of access spectrum in return for the slow deployment of an inferior service that addresses a need which no longer exists and leaves the real needs of first responders without a solution.

The genesis for FirstNet was an interoperability problem in the response to 9/11. Police and fire department radios were on different frequencies; they couldn’t talk to each other. The 9/11 commission recommended an interoperable network be built for first responders. Nothing happened until 2012 when Congress added FirstNet and a bureaucracy to run it to the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of that year. Still none of this network has been built; late last year AT&T was awarded the contract.

But a lot has changed sine 9/11/2001. First responders, like the rest of us, have smartphones; they can even use their smartphones as walkie talkies and can look at citizen-uploaded or drone-taken videos of whatever catastrophe they are responding to. Fire Department smartphones can talk to police smartphones can talk to ambulance smartphones. Computers in first responder vehicles stay online on the cellular network. FirstNet boasts that it is built on LTE, the technology now used for almost all cellular communication. So, with the interoperability problem gone, why do we need FirstNet?

There is the “Ruthless Preemption”, the cyber equivalent of a wailing siren and a flashing light which assures that that first responder communications won’t be caught in a digital traffic jam. But we don’t need a new network to implement preemption where it is justified. In fact, if the first responders are on the same network as everyone else, there will be much more bandwidth available for them to preempt if needed.

In rural areas of the US we are painfully aware that there is not universal cell coverage. FirstNet says it will build out to 95% coverage; but first responders go everywhere. One of the very real problems we all face in an emergency is that cell towers are destroyed or can’t operate for long without grid power (see Puerto Rico or Vermont after Irene). AT&T says they may have mobile towers to deploy but hasn’t committed to a response time. The solution is obvious, but it isn’t FirstNet. First responders should have satellite phones. Satellites are not affected by local catastrophes; they are solar powered; and satellite service is available everywhere except under a rock.

The next argument for FirstNet is that it will help increase broadband penetration in rural areas. Problem is that the FirstNet’s agreement with the US Department of Commerce only requires a download speed of 768kbs and upload of 256kbs. The FCC minimum definition of broadband is 32 times faster on download and 12 times faster for upload. This is fake “broadband”; it won’t solve the economic and social problems caused by lack of broadband in rural areas. At FirstNet minimum speeds no one is going to be uploading or downloading incident-scene videos. And only 95% coverage is promised. The rural problem is exactly that last 5%.

Terry LaValley, chairman of the Vermont Public Safety Broadband Commission, which recommended that Vermont join FirstNet, said “The speeds are a minimum which may or may not support a voice call.” He went on, according to VTDigger, to say  that these speeds allow sending and receiving texts. Text messaging in 95% of places some years in the future is hardly a breakthrough for first responders. I have a device from Garmin called an InReach. It costs $300 retail. For $50 dollars/month (also retail) I can use it to send and receive unlimited texts anywhere in the world where the sky can be seen. It uses satellite so no danger of local towers being invisible or out of service. It also sends a trail of bread crumbs so people can track me on Google maps. I’m not sure why a device like this isn’t built into every first responder vehicle. We could have that today.

Writing in The Atlantic, Steven Brill says “the prize for the most wasteful post-91/11 initiative arguably should go to FirstNet.“

TechCrunch says:

“For AT&T, the victory provides a new source of revenue from local police and fire departments, who will presumably come to rely on FirstNet for their emergency communications. It also gets a serious boost in its spectrum, along with free cash from taxpayers. But for all of us, it seems billions of dollars will be spent to create a specialist comm channel, when existing technologies are more than up to the task of providing these highly reliable services.”

Even though all 50 states have signed on to FirstNet (free money and draconian threats), I think the only visible results will be more spectrum for AT&T to sell in urban areas and no significant new buildout in rural areas. First responders will meet their real needs with devices which use the cell network when they can and satellites and perhaps mesh networks when they have to. Rescinding “Net Neutrality” means that prioritization and preemption if needed can be built into the broader Internet and cell networks to avoid digital gridlock in an emergency. Most first responders will never sign FirstNet contracts when their needs can be met more quickly and more effectively with non-AT&T solutions.

I hope the false promises of this boondoggle don’t lead anyone to say “mission accomplished” as far as first responder communication or rural broadband deployment.

January 02, 2018

The End of Net Neutrality Regulation COULD Mean the End of Last-Mile Oligopolies

Landline networks like the old phone system and the new(er) cable systems do lend themselves to monopoly or at least duopoly outcomes. Building these networks is both very expensive and requires myriad government approvals. Once a system is in place, it is hard for anyone to raise the capital to duplicate it. Even a network of wireless towers is hard to compete with. It’s hard enough to get a permit to build a tower to serve unserved areas (“it’ll ruin my view”; “it will stop the wildebeests from migrating”). It’s much harder to get permitted for a tower whose “only” purpose is to increase competition.

It is a fact that we have little competition for Internet access, especially in rural areas. This lack of competition and mediocre service from incumbents is why most of my friends in the tech world supported the “Net Neutrality” regulations promulgated in 2015, which allows the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the Internet under the same terms as it regulated the phone network. The FCC did not regulate rates for Internet access, although it gave itself the authority to do so. They are furious that the FCC rescinded this regulation last month. They are right, in my opinion, that there is too little competition in access. They are wrong, also in my opinion, that regulation is the way to solve the local oligopoly problem.

Regulation acknowledges monopoly and protects it. Incumbents like utilities learn to live with regulation. They hire staffs of regulatory lawyers. They avoid innovation – it’s expensive and may raise regulatory issues. If innovations succeed, the incumbents argue, the regulators will make the utility give back the profits. If innovations fail, the utility’s shareholders will have to pay the cost. Most important, protected monopolies don’t have to worry about competition in the marketplace. They can count on the burden of regulatory compliance and the relatively low return of regulated businesses to make it impossible for a would-be challenger to raise capital. These are the reasons why the regulated phone network was almost an innovation-free zone for sixty years.

But now the net neutrality regulations have been repealed. Ironically, startups in the last mile access business are using that repeal as a fund-raising pitch. Daniela Perdomo is the cofounder and CEO of goTenna, a company which provides meshed connectivity for messaging and location sharing without using any connections to commercial networks. She says “Society requires connectivity to function and to advance but we are leaving telecommunications in the hands of a few large corporations. The lack of a choice is a problem.” To an innovator, every problem is an opportunity,

GoTenna is no threat to AT&T – yet. But, because goTenna doesn’t require any infrastructure, it was able to bring basic communication to parts of hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico immediately. Solar-charging is plenty of energy for goTenna to operate so they require neither an electrical grid nor generators. Mesh networks like goTenna gain capacity with each user they add so they can grow without enormous capital expense. Needless to say, no permitting required. So far goTenna users can only talk to other in their mesh. But if meshes connected by sat phone….

Veniam provides meshed networking between vehicles. This mesh does have access to the full Internet which it reaches through a combination of cellular connections and WiFi hotspots; among other uses are free WiFi for bus riders (and passenger information for the transit providers). At any moment a connection to the Internet may be directly to a hotspot or hopped through a mesh of vehicles. There are currently Veniam nets in Porto, Portugal, New York City, and Singapore. An obvious future use of Veniam is critical communication between autonomous vehicles.

I think that growth of companies like goTenna and Veniam will be super-charged by the end of Net Neutrality regulation. Lack of innovation and mediocre service from incumbents creates a need. Investors will like that there is no longer a threat, in the US at least, that regulators will decide that some service they are offering isn’t properly “neutral”. Even defending such a claim could stop a small company in its tracks. It’s possible that one of these companies or a company like them will want to offer a “fast lane” for emergency service or communication between autonomous vehicles. Under the “net neutrality” rules they wouldn’t have been allowed to. There is no longer a threat of “rate-of-return” utility price controls.  Regulation smothers innovation.

I may be an optimist to think that deregulation will topple the access network oligarchies. But I know that regulation would preserve the unsatisfactory status quo.

Full disclosure, I am indirectly a very small investor in both goTenna and Veniam.

December 27, 2017

America Not So Great

News about the new Lanzhou to Xian highspeed train in China made me sad. Service started this year with 35 roundtrips/day. Travel time is reduced from seven hours via the old train to 2.5 hours on the new train, which runs at 155 mph.

I’m happy for people who travel between Xian and Lanzhou or make connections on this route. I’m sad for my own country. When is the last time you remember us making a big improvement like this? We’re not even keeping up with the decay of our own existing infrastructure.

Contrast the new train with Amtrak’s flagship Acela service.  Acela has a top speed of 150 mph but can’t run that fast over most of its curvy and congested route. Its fastest scheduled time for the 226 mile trip from NYC to Washington, DC is two hours and forty five minutes, fifteen minutes more than the Lanzhou-Xian train takes to cover its whole 457 mile route. Pretty pitiful.

The reason for the difference is not the train technology but the track. Railroads in the US were laid out in the last century. Most routes haven’t changed since. That’s why there is a 30-mph curve in Olympia, WA on the new Portland-Seattle route. The curve was the scene of a fatal derailment of the train’s inaugural run.

The Portland to Seattle run helps point out our problem. Original plans for the route included straightening the curve according to a Wall Street Journal story based on planning documents. The plan was dropped because of cost, says the story, although as a former state stimulus czar, I suspect that the time required for permitting the straightening would have made the project ineligible for stimulus funding, which was only available for ostensibly “shovel-ready” projects. The article does talk about “fraught acquisition battles” and “reluctance to use eminent domain”. In other words we can’t get anything built because we allow opponents to drag out projects endlessly, and we don’t have the political will to pursue the greater good when there are local consequences.

At least as disgraceful is that a fairly simple technology called “positive train control” hadn’t yet been installed on the line; this technology would have prevented the train from entering the 30-mph hour curve at 80. Service is now not going to resume until positive train control is installed. Critics are asking why service was allowed to start without it; a better question is why positive train control isn’t everywhere in the US. It was mandated by Congress in 2008 with a 2015 deadline. Railroads lobbied successfully to have the deadline extended. It’s cheaper to lobby than actually do something, even something that safety requires.

It’s we who must choose to make America great again… or not.

See also Everything is Shovel-Ready in China.

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