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.

December 19, 2017

Chinese View of US Tax Cut

Certainly the tax bill, which is now close to becoming law, is far from perfect. Just as certainly it has some things in it that needed to be done like lowering the industrialized world’s highest corporate tax rate, doubling the standard deduction for individuals, and wiping out many (but not enough) loopholes. It will increase the deficit if there is not enough growth stimulated to offset the lower rates.

So is the bill as whole a good thing for the US economy?

In China they are asking, of course, what is the effect on China. Here’s some answers from China’s Global Times.

“…some Chinese companies may consider moving to the US, where the corporate tax rate will be 20 percent [nb. Since raised to 21%]…while China may inhibit the momentum of capital and manufacturing outflow through policy adjustments, such changes could have an impact on the domestic economy and taxation system….

“Second, as a result of the US tax cuts and the anticipated interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, global capital will be attracted to the US, pushing up the value of the US dollar….

“Third, the US tax plan also involves individual income tax. When the tax cut is combined with US immigration reform, the country may be able to attract high-technology talent from other countries. China should guard against the possibility of a brain drain…. [nb. I’m not sure what they mean by immigration reform]

“Last but not least, tax cuts in the world's largest economy will have a global spillover effect. While stimulating the US' economic growth and attracting capital inflows, the tax reduction plan may set off a wave of similar cuts across the world, intensifying economic competition and prompting countries to move toward a taxation and legal environment that is favorable for the most dynamic companies.

“The UK, France and other European countries are reportedly working on tax-cut programs. If other developing countries also cut their corporate tax rates, China's manufacturing cost advantages will be eroded and the nation may experience outflows of high-technology talent and intellectual property. The Chinese government needs to be prepared and have comprehensive plans for all potential scenarios.”

Note that the tightly-controlled Chinese press are not fans of President Trump. Nevertheless he would probably be pleased to read Chinese fears that the tax changes will MAGA.

December 15, 2017

The Bicycles of Lanzhou

Lanzhou is a Chinese city , which you’ve probably never heard of , with a population of 3.6 million. It has a history: it’s here that the Silk Road crosses the Yellow River (on chained barges way back when). The Japanese never captured Lanzhou during WW2. It’s a major industrial city and a center of the Chinese nuclear industry as well as home to Institute of Modern Physics, Chinese Academy of Science. Lanzhou was once one of the most polluted cities in the world but in 2015 it won China’s climate progress title.

The climate progress wasn’t because of the bikes; they’ve only become significant again in the last year. At the end of the 20th century, traffic in Chinese cities was mostly bikes. Thy turned into scooters and motorcycle then into Audis and Mercedes as prosperity spread. At least twice a day the new cars froze into fuming gridlock.

Like many cities with a pollution and congestion problem, Lanzhou deployed municipal bike rental racks. They didn’t get much use, often looked like the picture below. IMG_20171208_214213766

People had the usual complaints. The racks weren’t conveniently located at either end of a trip. At your destination you might find a full rack and not be able to return the bike without going somewhere else. With so few bikes on the road, drivers didn’t expect them; and, even though some bicycle lanes had been designated, riding was extremely dangerous.

But private enterprises, which flourishes in the nominally communist country, had an answer. A new breed of rental bike quickly sprawled over the sidewalks. The innovation is that these are rackless bikes. There are no fixed bike racks. Each bike has a GPS, a cellular data connection of some kind (cell coverage is excellent in Lanzhou), and a locking clamp  on the rear wheel. IMG_20171208_213407611_LL

Since bikes are sprawled almost everywhere in the city, there is usually one very near the beginning of your trip. If you don’t immediately see one, the bike app on your phone will tell you where the nearest ones are. Remember, bikes transmit their location. You use the app to unlock the nearest bike and you’re off. When you finish a trip, you leave the bike outside the door of your destination and engage its rear wheel lock. Engaging the lock ends your rental.

Bikes are faster than cars during rush hours. Last year when I was in Lanzhou there were almost no bikes on the streets. This year there are so many bikes that they have become a new hazard to pedestrians but car traffic does seems to have thinned out. A bike is a normal way to get to a business appointment. People complain about the unsightly sprawl of bicycles everywhere; but the bikes are being used. American riders, however, would be shocked to see absolutely no bicycle helmets.

I understand that the same two companies whose bikes are now ubiquitous in Lanzhou are in other Chinese cities as well. My friend Fred Wilson, who is a Citibike fan in NYC, noticed that Shanghai has solved the rack problem which devils him at home. China has successfully gone back to the future and made progress against both congestion and pollution.

November 30, 2017

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

State of Vermont

In my last post I blogged that the world’s CO2 output is still rising despite various treaty commitments and huge expenditures on renewables. However, the US stands alone in having exceeded the emission reduction it would have been obligated to had we signed the Kyoto treaty. This accomplishment owes something to deployment of renewables but is largely the result of substituting natural gas for coal in our power plants.  Even though natural gas is also a fossil fuel, it emits less than half as much CO2 per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated than coal.

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.

Our wind generation rose rapidly a few years ago but has since plateaued. It was 293,000 Megawatt-hours in 2016.

As with the nation, natural gas is a bright spot in Vermont. The electricity we’re now importing from the rest of New England would be far more expensive if the price of the natural gas used to produce it weren’t historically low.

Very close to home Vermont Gas (VGS) and NG Advantage (NGA), a company I am chair of (please note I do have a pony in this race) deliver natural gas to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Vermont Gas sells pipeline gas to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in Vermont. NG Advantage (NGA) trucks gas to large users including factories, asphalt plants, and hospitals located beyond the reach of pipelines; NGA buys the majority of its gas from VGS.

All NGA customers once used oil as a fuel. Because natural gas had become much cheaper than oil on a per BTU basis, they were at a disadvantage compared to competitors located on pipelines. They spent millions of their own dollars (no grants available) to upgrade their boilers to natural gas once they knew we could deliver it to them. Some might well have gone out of business without the savings we could help them achieve.

But they save more than dollars. The smoke that comes out of their stacks isn’t black anymore. They no longer emit SO2 and have virtually eliminated NOx.. Their neighbors like the change; first responders appreciate that natural gas is safer than oil or propane because it is lighter than air and can’t cause a sea of flame in an accident or pollute ground water. Replacing oil with natural gas reduces CO2 emissions by 26%, about 5 lbs. per gallon. Last year alone NGA customers reduced CO2 by at least 160,000,000 lbs.

What does that mean?

It’s the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road.

It also stacks up favorably against CO2 savings from wind turbines. Let’s assume that the 293,000 of Megawatt-hours (Mwh) of electricity generated by wind in Vermont last year reduced CO2 by the full amount of the New England average, 571lbs/Mwh; that’s a total savings 168,768,000 lbs. In other words, NGA’s natural gas was responsible for about the same amount of CO2 reduction as all the wind turbines in Vermont. I’m proud of that. Next year NGA will do better.

Exclusive of sales to NGA, VGS sells almost twice as much gas as NGA. If they weren’t selling that gas, their customers would probably heat with oil or propane as most Vermonters do. If VGS weren’t selling that gas, there’d be another 300 million or so pounds of CO2 discharged annually in Vermont and their customers would be paying more for burning a dirtier fuel. Last year VGS completed an expansion to Middlebury and took over some service NGA used to provide. That’s a good thing; made gas even cheaper for those people and added residential customers whom our equipment isn’t suited to serve. I hope VGS will expand to Rutland where NGA also provides service. If that happy day comes, NGA will use its trucks to serve institutions somewhere else.

But What about the Negatives?

I wrote about fracking safety here and claims that “fugitive emissions” of natural gas outweigh the CO2 reductions in net greenhouse effect here. The facts are that drilling for natural gas is much safer than it’s ever been (but, of course, must be done right).  According to an extensive study by Argonne National Laboratory (done during the Obama administration), the environmental benefit of natural gas use far outweighs the environmental cost of leakage and leakage continues to be reduced while extraction increases rapidly. Moreover, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere, on the other hand, are increasing. That’s one problem natural gas can help with.

And in Conclusion

Renewables alone are not sufficient to reduce atmospheric CO2 as quickly as many people believe it must be reduced to avoid catastrophically rapid climate change. Nuclear power and natural gas both have an important role to play in that reduction. Unless there is massive permitting reform (or massive subsidies), nuclear is very expensive and very slow to deploy. Even where there are massive deployments of solar and wind, natural gas “peaker” plants are needed to fill in for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Thanks to new technology, America has huge new natural gas supplies economically accessible. We are buying American energy because we have product at the best price. We are becoming a supplier of natural gas to the world rather than a dependent on risky foreign oil.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Wherever it displaces coal or oil, there is an enormous environmental benefit. Those who oppose natural gas use, no matter how well-meaning, are delaying the day when we can burn less coal and oil. They are imposing the extra economic and environmental cost of dirtier, more expensive fuels on their neighbors, their communities, and the world. We don’t want to make some theoretical perfect fuel the enemy of all the good that increased natural gas substitution can do.

We want to drill (safely, of course), build pipelines where justified, and truck natural gas where pipelines don’t reach and aren’t economic. We don’t need incentives or mandates for this part of our environmental mission; we only need to make sure that our regulatory and permitting processes are reasonable. Natural gas adoption pays for itself. That’s sustainable!

November 28, 2017

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Increased use of natural gas has so far been the most effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. Natural gas is an excellent complement to renewables for electricity generation since it can be used effectively at almost any scale to fill in when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.  Not surprisingly, those who sell competitive sources of energy like nuclear, oil, and coal are not fans of natural gas since it beats them on price, at least in North America. Many, but not all, marketers of renewables object to natural gas because it is a “fossil fuel” and because it is not carbon-free, despite the fact that natural gas is helping to reduce emissions and making renewables more practical.

I’m in the natural gas business so you should assume that I’m affected by self-interest like any businessperson. Nevertheless, this and my next couple of posts will be about why we should be using more natural gas to make the world a better place and why declining to do that means more carbon emissions and makes the perfect (carbon-free fuels) the enemy of the good (less emissions of CO2 and no emission of SO2 and other noxious gasses).

Let’s Start with the State of the World

Despite various climate accords, worldwide emissions of CO2 have continued to climb:

image from naturalgasnow.org

Germany, which has invested very heavily in renewables and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, has actually had a small increase in emissions for each of the last two years and has announced that it will miss the emission reduction goals it set for itself. Part of Germany’s problem is that it decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Germany also made a political decision against fracking so natural gas is expensive there (and comes in a dangerous degree from Russia). Renewable can’t replace the baseline power; Germany is burning more coal. The results are blowing in the wind.

And Now the State of the US

Our CO2 emissions continue to go down:

image from naturalgasnow.org

 

The United States is the only nation to meet the climate control goals set for it in the Kyoto Treaty – even though the US Senate never ratified it.   According to the EPA, almost all the US reduction in CO2 is result of a massive switch from coal to natural gas for electrical generation. This switch was driven by simple economics: the invention of horizontal drilling and the development of hydraulic fracturing made natural gas cheaper than coal. Fifty percent less greenhouse gasses are released per unit of energy when natural gas rather than coal is the source of that energy.

The US switched from coal to natural gas largely because natural gas is less expensive. Government didn’t drive this switch. Certainly, the Kyoto treaty had nothing to do with it.  Nevertheless, the switch and the consequent environmental benefits are “sustainable”. They are not dependent on either regulation or subsidy. The US leads the world in carbon reduction because we have allowed new technologies to reduce the cost of cleaner energy. We haven’t insisted on perfection; we have achieved good.

Next post, the state of the State of Vermont

November 16, 2017

I want Judge Moore to be Guilty – That’s a Problem

Roy Moore shouldn’t be a US senator IMO; but he’s running for the senate from Alabama where I’m not a voter so my opinion doesn’t count. Until last week it looked like Alabama voters would elect him easily despite (or because of) the fact that he lost his job as chief justice of that state’s supreme court twice, once for disobeying orders to take the ten commandments down in the court house and a second time for refusing to recognize gay marriage. Public officials are not entitled to substitute their own opinions for law (although it is certainly honorable to resign rather than enforce a law you don’t agree with).

Now there are specific and credible (but not proven) allegations by five women that Moore abused them when he was in his thirties and they were in their teens. I was happy to hear the allegations and hope they are true so that he won’t become a senator.

I’m wrong to feel this way.

I want people to believe that he is guilty of the women’s charges so he won’t be elected senator; but I already didn’t want him to be elected because of both his fundamentalism and his previous disregard for the law. The women’s charges may well not be proven by election day; but I want him to be considered guilty anyway , not innocent until proven guilty. I want it to be impossible for Alabamans to make a decision I don’t want them to make.

Similarly many people I know and like want Trump to be guilty of colluding with the Russians so they can undo the choice the electorate made.

Other people would like Hillary Clinton to be guilty of various crimes, at least partly to prove that they were right not to vote for her. (Times change: Bill Clinton probably would’ve been removed from office for the Monica Lewinsky affair had it happened today. At least those allegations were true.)

Obviously, if Trump did collude with the Russians, he should be impeached; but I hope that he didn’t. If there was a real quid-pro-quo in contributions to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s acts as Secretary of State, she should be prosecuted; but I hope there wasn’t.

It adds to the danger of the times when we consider people guilty just on the basis of accusations because we want to criminalize our opponents.

But I still hope Roy Moore is defeated.

November 13, 2017

Google Now a Target for Regulation

Headline in the Washington Post:

Tech companies pushed for net neutrality. Now Sen. Al Franken wants to turn it on them.

The time was – way back around the turn of the century – when all Internet companies believed that the Internet should be free from government regulation. I lobbied along with Google and Amazon to that end (there were no twitter and Facebook then); we were successful over the objection of traditional telcos who wanted the protection of regulation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under both Democrats and Republicans agreed to forbear from regulating the Internet the way they regulate the telephone network; the Internet flourished, to put it mildly.

Fast forward to 2015. Google and other Internet giants and their trade group, the Internet Association, were successful in convincing the Obama FCC to reverse that policy and regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulation which helped to stifle innovation in telephony for decades. The intent, according to the Internet Association, was to protect Net Neutrality (a very good name) and assure that ISPs didn’t either censor or prefer their own content over the content of others – Google, for example. The regulation was acknowledged to be preemptive - ISPs weren’t discriminating but they might.

This spring Trump’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, announced the beginning of an effort to repeal the 2015 regulations and return the Internet to its former lightly regulated state. The Internet Association and its allies mounted a massive online campaign against deregulation in order, they said, to protect Net Neutrality. One of their allies was the Open Market Initiative, which was then part of The New America Foundation. More about them below.

I blogged to Google:

“You run a fantastically successful business. You deliver search results so valuable that we willingly trade the history of our search requests for free access. Your private network of data centers, content caches and Internet connections assure that Google data pops quickly off our screen. Your free Chrome browser, Android operating system, and gmail see our communication before it gets to the Internet and gets a last look at what comes back from the Internet before passing it on to us. You make billions by monetizing this information with at least our implied consent. I mean all this as genuine praise.

“But I think you’ve made a mistake by inviting the regulatory genie on to the Internet. Have you considered that Google is likely to be the next regulatory target?”

It didn’t take long.

In August the European Union declared a penalty against Google. Barry Lynn of the Open Market Initiative posted praise for the EU decision on the New America website. According to the NY Times:

“The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left and helped Google shape those debates…

“Hours after this article was published online Wednesday morning, Ms. Slaughter announced that the think tank had fired Mr. Lynn on Wednesday for ‘his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.’”

Mr. Lynn and his colleagues immediately founded The Open Market Institute. The front page of their websites says:

“Amazon, Google and other online super-monopolists, armed with massive dossiers of data on every American, are tightening their grip on the most vital arteries of commerce, and their control over the media we use to share news and information with one another.”

Sen. Al Franken and the Open Market Institute held an event which led to the WaPo headline and the article which begins:

“For years, tech companies have insisted that they're different from everything else. Take Facebook, which has long claimed that it's a simple tech platform, not a media entity. ‘Don't be evil,’ Google once said to its employees, as though it were setting itself apart from the world's other massive corporations.

“But now, some policymakers are increasingly insisting that firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter really aren't that special after all — and that perhaps it's time they were held to the same standard that many Americans expect of electricity companies or Internet providers.

“Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the latest and most vocal of these critics Wednesday when, at a Washington conference, he called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.”

I’m not happy to have been right; on the contrary, I’m appalled. The last thing we should want is the government regulating Internet content, especially at a time when both the political right and the political left are anti free speech. But there is no principled argument that Google’s potential competitors, the ISPs, should be constrained by regulatory oversight while Google, much bigger than any of these competitors and much more dominant worldwide, can exert its dominance freely. Google truly opened a Pandora’s box and let out a regulatory genie.

As much as I am against regulatory oversight of content, I do believe that the government has a very proper role both in antitrust and in truth in advertising. These are some of the tools which do need to be used to keep new or old oligarchs from ruling the world.

November 01, 2017

The Zen of Bicycle Tire Changing

Mary and I just spent a wonderful five days biking down the coast of Portugal from Porto (from whence Port Wine gets its name) to Praia de Sao Pedro de Moel. Much of the ancient forest we cycled through had burned to a crisp in the last few months (more in a future post). The beaches were wonderful; the weather atypically beatific for this time of year.

We were on an unescorted tour which meant that our bags magically got from hotel to hotel but that we were responsible for getting ourselves and our bikes from place to place. There was a GPS with a track on my handlebar and we had fairly detailed maps so navigation was simple except when you needed it most – getting in and out of cities, especially over a bridge which required instant decisions on whether there was a bike path on the outside of the guardrail, a wide shoulder on the inside, or just ride in traffic and pray. We did some of each but not always the right choice for the bridge we were on. Portuguese drivers, however, are understanding and forgiving.

Besides a GPS and a burn phone to call for help, the tour company provided us with a repair kit. I paid little attention during the briefing since I haven’t had a flat in five years of riding in Vermont. I do have a tire repair kit at home which daughter Kate gave me and I had leafed through the instructions once.

Day two. Mary stops fairly suddenly. “Bear, I think I have a flat.” Yup, the rim of her rear tire is on the gravel bike path (actually, as we saw, gravel and glass). Front wheels are easy to takeoff. On these bikes removing the back wheel means disentangling the gears from the chain, big opportunity to get covered with grease. But what you really need to be paying attention to is the relationship between the sprockets, the chain, and the derailleur (the thing that keeps tension on the chain). I didn’t.

Next step is to use three handy shims that were in the kit to get one side of the tire out of the rim. At this point Mary had found instructions and was reading to me as I worked. We did have spare tubes so I didn’t need the patch kit. Mary, as instructed, felt around the inside of the tire and did find and remove a piece of glass which was waiting to puncture the new tube.

“This #### tube is too big for the rim,” I growled.

“Partially inflate the tube to make it easier to handle,” Mary read from the instructions. I did; now it more or less fit. For no good reason I had removed both sides of the tire from the rim but finally figured out one needed to be replaced, then the tube put on, finally the other side tucked back in. Easier said than done. I had 300 degrees of tire in the rim.

“You are now at the hardest part of your task,” Mary read. “It is preferable that you tuck the tire in with your fingers rather than use a tool which may puncture the tube. Most important is patience.” Yeah, sure. But finally the whole tire was back on the wheel. I inflated it with the hand pump, screwed the cap down tight on the stem, and got the hub hopelessly entangled with the chain because, of course, I hadn’t paid attention to how I removed it. Fortunately, we had my intact bike to use as a model of what the reassembled rig was supposed to look like so, lots more grease stains later, it was all put back together.

Just as I was ready to triumphantly turn the bike right side up, I noticed that the new tire was completely flat!

More in despair than hope, I pumped it up again. This time I heard the air hissing out from the valve as I screwed the cap on. I backed off from tightening the cap and the hissing stopped. Put some more air in, put the cap halfway on, and were back on the road. Total time 1 hour, 15 minutes. Had to skip lunch.

Next day my back tire went flat. Couldn’t inflate the first new tube I tried; pump just wouldn’t move. We had asked to have extra tubes dropped with our luggage so had another which did inflate. Total time of repair 20 minutes. I’m educable.

But I also like to think of myself as an engineer by inclination if not by training. Thought a lot about the tires the next night. The valves were different than what we’re used to in the US: Presta instead of Shrader.

Screenshot-2017-10-30 bicycle tube valves - Google Search

Maybe, I thought, the little valve on the top needs to be turned to open and then turned again to close BEFORE the cap is put on. That would explain both problems. I tried partially unscrewing the cap on the tube I hadn’t been able to inflate and then pumping. It worked.

“I’m going to fix the valves on both the tubes I replaced,“ I told Mary before we started off on the next leg. Managed to deflate both. Theory was right but practice more difficult. Total time lost 35 minutes. In Vermont they say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But you know engineers.

October 23, 2017

The Vermont Legislature MUST Understand the EB-5 Disaster

If we don’t know what went wrong within state government, how do we know it won’t happen again?

The EB-5 program promises US green cards to foreign investors who put $500,00 to work to create private sector jobs. In Vermont the state Agency of Commerce was responsible both for promoting and administering the EB-5 program. On the state’s watch hundreds of millions of dollars were apparently diverted by the promoters of various projects. Governor Shumlin assured investors that the state was “auditing” these projects. Vermont’s clean brand was a key part of the sales pitch to investors

 It is by far the largest scandal to surface in the E-5 program nationwide. The investors may lose both their money and the chance of a green card since diverted funds didn’t create jobs. Jay Peak, home to several of the projects, is in receivership. Some Vermont contractors, who have had to wait years for payment, have gone out of business. There’s an empty hole in the ground in downtown Newport, dug in conjunction with a project that was supposed to bring biotech manufacturing to the Northeast Kingdom but, which, accordingtothe feds, was almost a complete fraud.

How could this have happened on the state’s watch? The legislature has not held a single hearing to find out.

Let’s assume that all state officials were completely innocent of any criminal wrongdoing (it may take a special prosecutor to find out if this is true). If that’s the case then something is terribly broken inside state government. The federal government wants to immediately remove the state’s oversight. Well it should since we still haven’t discovered how the oversight was so incredibly deficient. The investors, the contractors, and the state’s brand have been deeply damaged. But the legislature seems incredibly uncurious about how all this could have happened.

Did the conflict between the Commerce Agency’s promotional and supervisory roles make this inevitable? If so, does Commerce have other such conflicts? What about other agencies? Does Agriculture both promote farming and administer various farm programs? Are there conflicts like this in the vast reach of Human Services? How do we know another huge scandal isn’t brewing? Does the Attorney General’s office have an impossibly conflicted role in both defending state government and state employees and enforcing the state’s laws?

Do we need to reorganize parts of state government? Do we need some new laws? These are questions which are best answered through legislative hearings. These hearings should not be a witch hunt. They certainly shouldn’t be partisan. But, before further damage is done by and to the state, these hearings must happen.

See also:

Governor Scott Should Follow his Soul, Not the Advice of the Attorney General

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

October 16, 2017

Governor Scott Should Follow his Soul, Not the Advice of the Attorney General

Last month Governor Phil Scott said that the idea that the state is immune from all litigation “doesn’t give me a good feeling in my soul” and that it undermines trust in government. He said that he would consider appointing a special prosecutor to make sure we understand how Vermont happens to be the locus of the biggest EB-5 scandal in the nation. Last week he said he doesn’t believe now would be the right time for such an action because of the state’s pending lawsuit against the developers. Lawsuits take a long time. “Not now” could well be after unsolved problems which led to the EB-5 scandal further damage the state.

Scott says he is relying on the expertise of Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who’s doing “what he thinks is his best to represent the state of Vermont.” The Attorney General’s office is defending the state against a lawsuit alleging state complicity in the EB-5 fraud and, like any good lawyer would, is trying to have the case dismissed. However, the Attorney General, whose client is the GOVERNMENT of the state of Vermont, not the people of Vermont, is giving very bad advice from a public policy point of view.

Donovan argues that, if the state waived its sovereign immunity, state government would collapse. Without sovereign immunity “you wouldn’t have anybody working in government or anybody willing to make a decision in government exercising their discretion for fear of being sued,” he said. That argument is insulting as well as wrong.

Local governments don’t have sovereign immunity; people still work for them. Those of us in the private sector don’t have sovereign immunity; we make decisions (and get sued) all the time; we still do our jobs. Doctors don’t have sovereign immunity; they make life and death decisions – and put up with being sued. Teachers have no sovereign immunity. State workers won’t resign en masse if the state waives its sovereign immunity in a case which has blemished our reputation and which is, just as Scott feared, undermining trust in government.

Moreover, Donovan’s statements make clear that, since his office does have a responsibility to defend the state government and the state workers named in a lawsuit, the AG’s office has a conflict in fully investigating what went wrong. “The AG”s office is alleging fraud against Quiros and Stenger, that’s where we should focus,” He said. Certainly the AG’s office should be pursuing the case against Stenger and Quiros – one might even ask what took them so long – but what if government officials were criminally involved with these two (something which certainly has NOT been proven), would the AG’s office have to back off from the prosecution because any such allegation would damage the interests of its client, the government of the state of Vermont?

If the AG’s office can’t investigate possible state malfeasance, then there is the need for an investigation separate from the AG’s office. Moreover, even if the actions of state employees were entirely legal (as they may have been), shouldn’t the Governor, whose watch this did NOT occur on, want to know exactly what went wrong? Shouldn’t he want to know what went wrong now in case there are similar scandals brewing? Scott’s soul was right; public trust in government is extremely low. Now is the time for him to take advice from his soul and not from the AG.

All direct quotes in this piece come from a VT Digger article.

See also:

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

October 13, 2017

Trump’s Attacks on First Amendment Rights Are Appalling

Could the Trump Administration shut down NBC?

First Amendment to the US Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

President Trump tweeted “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” He was enraged at what he says was a false story on NBC. Later he doubled down on his anti First Amendment sentiment: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it,” I heard him say on CSPAN.

I’m not a member of the “resistance”; I support some of Trump’s policies and some of his actions; but I am appalled by these statements. Even if the NBC story is 100% wrong (it is thinly and anonymously sourced), the press has a right to be wrong. Reporterrs and editors often are. We can’t have a free press if there is some government agency deciding who is telling the truth and who gets to keep reporting. The whole point is that the press IS able and MUST be able to write whatever they want. We can turn off NBC in our houses but the government can’t do that to us. It’s OUR First Amendment right.

OK; we all agree on that. But could an administration which was so inclined actually take away NBC’s license? It’s unfortunately time to think about that.

On a superficial level, there’s no problem. NBC the network does not have a broadcast license because it doesn’t broadcast; it supplies content. Each of its over-the-air affiliates has its own license from the FCC. NBC owns only eleven stations; there are almost 200 separately owned affiliates. There would be a lot of licenses to take away, many held by rich and powerful people.

Moreover, since the demise of the “fairness doctrine” – needed when there were just a few broadcast licenses available in each area – the FCC has only considered technical and bureaucratic conditions in awarding and renewing broadcast licenses. Stations must stay within their allocated frequencies; can’t sell banned drugs; can’t knowingly abet a fraud (but let’s watch that!); have to pay their fees, file for renewal on time, and tell the truth in the paper work they file with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In theory a station could be shut down for pornography; that’s why certain words were banned on TV and radio. But that hasn’t even been threatened lately.

But let’s be paranoid. Broadcast licenses are worth hundreds of millions of dollars even now that most content stays on the Internet and isn’t broadcast at all. Suppose that the affiliates of an obstreperous network were suddenly threatened with license revocation for trivial technical violations – they probably exist and could certainly be alleged. Suppose a routine filing to move an antenna or make some other technical change were suddenly delayed almost indefinitely for “procedural” reasons. Might not the owner of the license pressure the network which supplies it with news to stop pissing off the President. All members of the FCC are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. FCC Chairman have been known to follow White House “guidance”. Business people have been known to bury their personal scruples to protect their investors.

It appears that the IRS was weaponized to some extent during the Obama administration. Could that happen with the FCC in the Trump administration? Unfortunately it’s the President himself who suggests the answer may be “yes”.

October 10, 2017

Fear Leads to Fascism

In an emergency, we’re used to giving up some liberties. If you’re in a fire, you do what the firemen say. In general we obey police orders. A city can impose a curfew to protect lives and property. A mandatory evacuation order can be given. In an extreme, marshal law can be declared and most civil liberties suspended (Lincoln did that).

There’s probably something in primate DNA which suspends our usual obstreperousness and makes us take orders in a dangerous situation.

But there’s a dark side to this survival trait: when we’re afraid, we forget that we want to be free. We listen for a strong voice, look for a master who will protect us, and focus on the immediate danger which has frightened us rather than the long-term risk that our protector will become a tyrant.

I saw this danger first hand a long, long time ago in 1968 when I was a National Guardsman mobilized for the Chicago Convention riots. We were stationed in our armory which abutted a park in the then-decayed northwest side of the city. We patrolled the park because that’s what soldiers do and because our helicopters landed there. It was hot, boiling hot. We were heavily armed.

 “I’m so glad you boys are here,” an old lady said. “We haven’t been able to come to the park at night for years.” She was Polish; her children had long since gone to the suburbs. The neighborhood was definitely not Polish anymore. And it wasn’t safe for her. She was happy to have an army on her street. We were no threat to her. We made her safe. She wasn’t worried about a civil society. She was afraid.

Mary and I bought our first handgun the day after the first night we spent in an isolated summer home. All the talk in the neighborhood was about the armed robbery that had just occurred at the drugstore. We weren’t giving up our freedom; but we also weren’t confident that government could protect us from the special danger addicts present. We acted (rationally, I think) but out of fear.

The City of Burlington can’t figure out how to protect its citizens – or even its police – from a group of dangerous miscreants in City Hall Park. Calling a social worker instead of a cop doesn’t work; but the cops are expected to act like social workers. Meanwhile people aren’t as safe as they should be downtown. People who are afraid will vote for drastic solutions (see election 2016).

The US is at danger from a North Korean sociopath armed with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The North Korean arsenal has grown from test devices to a serious threat during Republican and Democratic administrations alike. It must be dealt with. Americans - afraid of an increasingly dangerous world including ISIS, Iran, North Korea and, of course, homegrown terrorists of the right and left and demented killers - elected Donald Trump. Will he over react? Is over reaction or under reaction more dangerous now?

This is a dangerous time for the country. To survive as the kind of civil society we want to be, we must both avoid over reaction and avoid under reaction to evil, which leaves people afraid. We do have to make our streets safe (yes, that means patrolled by police); we do have to take violent people off the streets no matter what mental illness, addiction, childhood experience made them dangerous; we must confront nations and non-nations which threaten us with harm.

Those of us inclined to vote for leaders who think dialog is always better than confrontation must think of the harm that ducking confrontation may cause. Those inclined to vote for authoritarians because we’re frightened need to realize authoritarians don’t give up power lightly. We all need to work for and find pragmatic candidates who know there are no easy answers; that not acting is itself an act.

A frightened electorate will vote for frightening leaders. Leaders who don’t keep us safe pave the way to despotism.

October 04, 2017

Your Android Phone is Eavesdropping

Are the Russians listening too?

I’m getting paranoid about devices listening to me.

Gotham Gal recently blogged about friends who started to get ads for things they never searched for but had recently talked about (not talked about online, just talked about with a group of friends). Alexa was the first suspect; she was there and she listens. But Alexa somehow would have had to sort out all the different voices and have some way of associating them with people and the computers and phones they use to search the web. Nevertheless, I always switch Alexa’s listening off unless I specifically want to talk to her.

Commenters on Gotham Gal’s post pointed a finger at the Facebook smartphone app. It would recognize its owner’s voice. It would know exactly where in the database to put the possible new interest and how to serve ads which catered to it. I don’t use the Facebook app or Facebook itself much, so I filed my suspicions away for future investigation.

Yesterday I realized that my Android was eavesdropping.

Screenshot

“say OK Google” it said in the search box of the home screen. If I said “OK Google”, I could then give it a voice command like “navigate to the nearest saloon”. Very good for handsfree driving. But, if it’s listening to see whether I say “OK Google”, then it has to be listening to everything I or anyone else says in the car and whatever I listen to on the car’s audio system. Maybe it ignores all that until it hears “OK Google” and maybe it doesn’t. How can I be sure? What if it thinks it heard “OK Google”; then I know it’ll send what it hears next to the Google cloud for interpretation.

What if it’s been hacked? There’s a story in today’s Wall Street Journal saying that Russians are hacking the smartphones of NATO troops. I don’t want to be alarmist but does that mean that if the phones are listening to the troops then the Russians can as well?

No thanks, I don’t want it to listen.

So, of course, I googled how to turn off “OK Google”. The instructions, even from third parties are simple but also misleading. If you go into settings for the Google app, you can turn off “OK Google”. Trouble is that doesn’t turn off listening, If you then say “OK Google”, you get an alert telling you that you turned off the functionality. The only way the phone can give you the alert, obviously, is if it’s till listening. Problem NOT solved.

But you can turn off eavesdropping. You go into settings for the phone, choose apps, choose the Google app, choose permissions, choose microphone, and turn it off. You’ll get the warning below and there are serious consequences for turning this off.

Warning

Once you have told the Google app it can’t listen, it won’t. Not even if you tap the microphone option at the right of the search box. It goes into listen mode in this case but never says it is ready for you to speak or even says it won’t listen. You have to type in your request. So you pay a price for stopping the phone from listening. For me the security is worth the price. If I want to talk to Google, I turn its ability to listen back on.

Android ought to support a mode in which the phone only listens AFTER the microphone button is tapped and this ought to be the default. Security is too important to have all new phones in an insecure mode. There is also no good reason, although there are some bad ones, to force a choice between convenience and security in this particular case. The microphone button ought to be an on-off switch for the microphone. Even better, there should be a hardwired mute button for the mike, as there is on Alexa, so it can’t be hacked on.

Note: I have a Moto Z2; it is possible that other Android phones behave differently. If you have an iPhone and you can wake it up by saying “Siri”, then it is always listening to you. You don’t know who else may be.

See also: Alexa – Cover Your Ears

September 28, 2017

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

There is a chance that Vermont will investigate itself and find out how the biggest scandal in the EB-5 program nationwide happened here under state supervision. When asked at a news conference about the idea of appointing a special prosecutor, Scott said “[It’s] the first I’d really contemplated something of that magnitude, but it could be something that could be beneficial. We’ll talk about it.”

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Scott said of the EB-5 program. “We’ll see what happens in the near future, but I want to make sure that we release all the information we can so that … people have some trust with the government,” he continued.

Scott’s point about releasing all information possible is spot on. So far the attorney general’s office, whose role is to defend the state and state employees, has done everything it can to prevent the release of information needed to understand what happened. On the one hand the AG’s office argued that, because of a doctrine called sovereign immunity, a lawsuit against the state should be dismissed and the legal process called “discovery” can’t be used to compel the state to release its records or former state employees to give testimony. On the other hand, according to VTDigger, the AG’s office also says that 50,000 pages of state documents about Jay Peak are exempt from release under the relevant litigation clause of the Vermont Public Records. These two arguments together are a dangerous catch-22 which comes close to a cover-up: 1) litigation can’t be used to compel disclosure; 2) because there is litigation, the Public Records Act can’t be used to obtain information.

Scott also said, correctly IMO, that arguing the state is immune from lawsuits doesn’t inspire faith or trust in government. “When I read the media reports, when I hear immunity, and that’s the basis for an argument that we won’t know what’s happening — that the state is immune from litigation — that doesn’t give me a good feeling in my soul.”

The EB-5 projects under investigation are not the only EB-5 funded projects in the state. But, even projects without a hint of scandal will have a harder time raising money both because the feds are threatening to and probably will shut down the state’s authority to regulate these projects and because the Vermont brand as a good place to invest has been damaged. Most important, we can’t trust a government which hides its own mistakes and protects possible wrong doing. If you agree that we need to investigate this scandal ourselves, please write or call the Governor’s office and support the idea of a special prosecutor. If you think the legislature should be more aggressive in investigating the executive branch, please write your legislators. Posting on Front Porch Forum is effective as well.

More at Vermont Should be Investigating Itself.

September 27, 2017

Live Discussion of Does Vermont Need a Special Prosecutor for EB-5 Scandal

I'll be on Mike Smith's show "Open Mike" on WDEV at 10:30 this morning to discuss how Vermont government ought to investigate itself to determine state government's role in the EB-5 mess in the Northeast Kingdom. The Attorney General's office is the lawyer FOR the state and is claiming, in that role, that the state is immune from prosecution and discovery in this matter. So hard to see how the AG's office can also investigate state agencies and officials.  Do we need a special prosecutor to determine what went wrong and assign responsibility? I think our brand, which was heavily used to market EB-5 investments. is endangered if we leave all investigation to the feds. At the very least, legitimate EB-5 projects in the state will be unfairly tarnished. At the worst we - and others - lose faith in the honesty of our state government.

The show is live streamed from the WDEV site and you can call in with your opinion.

More at Vermont Should be Investigating Itself.

VTDigger has been key to unearthing facts about this scandal. Their coverage, which has earned national recognition, is at https://vtdigger.org/eb5-an-investigation/.

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