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« August 2011 | Main | October 2011 »

Google Finds Nothing is Shovel Ready, Not Even for Free Fiber Build

"Regulation can get in the way of innovation. Regulations tied to physical infrastructure sometimes defer the investment altogether." – Kevin Lo, head of access at Google, as quoted in Total Telecom.

Google is deploying fiber at its own expense in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri to demonstrate the value of one gigabit (a gigabit is a billion bits – a lot) per second residential Internet connections and perhaps to show at&t and Verizon and the cable companies how the search giant might fight back if its growth is restricted by their restrictions or limitations. Thousands of communities competed for this bonanza including the whole State of Vermont (see the video here). Kansas City, KS won and Kansas City, MO was added later. Among the selection criteria was the ability of the community, if chosen, to move at Google speed.

Whoops. Google just learned the same lesson that President Obama learned in Stimulus 1: nothing in America is shovel ready. Even when a rich company is willing to spend its own money on a project which almost everyone agrees is of huge economic benefit (spelled J-O-B-S), red tape and entrenched interests get in the way.

Google's Lo says that local governments should be given more power to decide where they enforce zoning regulations. The implication is that Google's deployment ran afoul of zoning ordinances and that variances were not easy to come by, perhaps even in cases where the impact is de minimis. Usually all it takes is one person objecting and the hearings can go on almost forever.

Google is also having trouble getting pole attachment rights quickly. The article doesn't say whom the poles belong to, but it's highly likely that either the phone company or electric utility (or both together) owns them. Usually, since poles tend to be in the right of way and are owned by regulated utilities, there are laws which do require allowing qualified use of them. However, poles do have to be inspected before additional load can be put on them; some poles will always need to be replaced. Electric utilities may not give high priority to Google's project; the local telco may not be in any hurry to see such a fearsome broadband competitor deployed. So actually getting the pole attachments can take a long time.

And Google says that it cannot easily acquire rights of way.

These are local issues; when federal dollars are spent or federal regulation of some kind invoked, the gates a project has to go through are even more onerous and time-consuming. That's why almost no stimulus dollars were spent for construction except for repaving. That's why another stimulus will NOT result in the kind of infrastructure investment America needs; we might have to spend dollars repaving the same roads we did last time.

But many American companies – not just Google – are cash rich. Many American companies have projects ready to go but are waiting for permitting and the inevitable endless appeals. We can have a private construction boom without spending a borrowed dollar of government money if we can reform permitting so that it takes a reasonable and predictable amount of time and if we can circumscribe the ability of appellants to hold virtually any project up for an indefinite period at no cost or risk to themselves.

One sour grape: Here in Vermont we have enlightened pole attachment rules which assure speedy deployment and we have given local authorities the ability to waive hearings for some telecom projects with de minimis impact. I'm sure we would've moved at Google speed; wish we'd been put to the test.

Related posts:

Irene Lesson #2: Nothing in America is Shovel Ready – Until It Has to Be

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

Two Theories Are Threatened by CERN Experiments

"No theory is carved in stone. Science is merciless when it comes to testing all theories over and over, at any time, in any place. Unlike religion or politics, science is ultimately decided by experiments, done repeatedly in every form. There are no sacred cows. In science, 100 authorities count for nothing. Experiment counts for everything." Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York, writing in the Wall Street Journal about the slim but real possibility that a recent experiment at CERN has caught neutrinos moving faster than Einstein's famous theory of relativity says they are able to.

What about the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warning? What would happen to Dr. Kaku's career if he were writing about the possibility of that being upset despite the current "consensus" of experts? Bill Clinton recently said "If you're an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial [of anthropogenic global warming]." Context makes it clear that Clinton considers skepticism to be denial; it's not! Well, as Kaku said, there's a difference between politics and science.

See below for an account of another experiment at CERN which may be more threatening to the theory of anthropogenic warming than the neutrino experiment is to Einstein's speed limit.

Before Einstein postulated the theory of relativity, scientists believed that mass and time were constants and in the Newtonian physics which predicted that, if you continuously apply a force to an object, it will accelerate without limit. Einstein said that, as the object approached what he said was the constant and inviolable speed of light in a vacuum, time would slow down from the object's point of view and the mass of the object would increase from the point of view of an observer who is stationary with respect to the object's initial position.

Physicists did not rush to embrace this strange view of the world, especially given Einstein's poor academic credentials. However, Einstein used his theory both to explain observed anomalies in the orbit of Mercury, which were not explicable with Newtonian physics, and to make some detailed predictions about light bending in the presence of a gravitational force. This prediction was confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919.

Although these observations disproved Newtonian physics, they didn't "prove" Einstein's theory of general relativity. An accumulation of experiments and observations indicated that general relativity is a more useful way to explain how the universe acts in extreme conditions than Newtonian physics. Kaku says Einstein "quipped that you don't need 100 famous intellectuals to disprove his theory. All you need is one simple fact." Perhaps the CERN experiment has uncovered that fact, probably not but perhaps. And scientists are reacting as they should: poring over the data, looking for experimental error, devising more experiments to confirm or invalidate the CERN experiment, and remaining skeptical but open to possibilities.

It is probably true that human activity – specifically the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide – has some effect on climate. Although there are many theories, we don't know how significant that effect is. It's unscientific to deny the POSSIBILTY that the effect is significant; but it's equally unscientific to deny the POSSIBILITY that we are not affecting the climate significantly. Even the extent of warming – independent of cause – is debatable and ought to debated.

So does global warming exist at all? Depends on your timescale. Twelve thousand years ago there was a mile of ice covering the spot in Vermont where I'm writing. It's gotten warmer since then. On the other hand, the planet spent most of its history being hotter than it is now. It's cooled off periodically during glacial ages like the one which we live in. There is evidence that it's warmed some, not a lot, since the beginning of the industrial age. But even that evidence is – and should be – subject to question since our ways of measuring the temperature of the earth have changed a lot recently and don't go back very far. For example, arctic ice is at a "record" low; but the record keeping has changed completely since we've had satellites to measure the extent of the ice. In 1906 a wooden ship transited the Northwest Passage; we know the ice cap retreated then, too; but we have no direct comparison.

There have been lots of temperature oscillations and there is an apparent correlation between them and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Now is the only time we as a species could have had any influence; the increase in CO2 could be an effect of the warming rather than the cause; there could be a positive feedback loop between the two. Obviously there are other factors besides human activity which affect climate. It is critical that we understand the interplay between these factors and their relative significance so we can gauge how much of an effect our emissions are having. That investigation must be pursued with an open mind – which means a skeptical mind.

Theories are strengthened (not proved) when they both explain past events and accurately predict future events. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has so far not been impressive in either respect. It is one possible explanation for a recent warming trend; but it gives no guidance as far as the temperature changes and oscillations which clearly occurred before we burned any fossil fuels. In the last decade, even proponents of anthropogenic global warming concede that, although the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued to increase, the observed rate of warming has slowed by 50%. This observation invalidates some of the most extreme models of global warming although it doesn't refute the thesis that, over longer periods of time, increases in greenhouse gasses will lead to higher temperatures. Global warming was supposed to lead to droughts; recently more of the world seems to be suffering from flooding than droughts. Does that prove that all theories of global warming are wrong? No, but it shows that the climate is more complex than the models which predicted the droughts… or that those models are simply wrong. No matter how many scientists say that they are "convinced" that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, it is still a theory which, for credibility, needs to make accurate predictions. On the other hand, there is no proof that we are not forcing the climate warmer.

Coincidentally, the results of another experiment at CERN called CLOUD may be more threatening to the theory of anthropogenic global warming than the neutrinos are to the general theory of relativity. It was recently demonstrated that the same particles which are present in cosmic rays lead to cloud formation in lab conditions. The experiment was actually designed to disprove a suspected link between cosmic rays and clouds (good way to design an experiment), but, instead demonstrated that the link is quite credible (but didn't prove it exists). The cloudier the earth is, the cooler it gets since clouds reflect sunlight back into space. Everything being equal, which it certainly isn't, the more cosmic rays that reach our atmosphere, the cloudier and cooler it'll be. It's also known from observation that the solar wind (a stream of particles from the sun) pushes cosmic rays away. The amount of solar wind varies with storms on the sun's surface (sunspots). There seems to be a correlation between sunspot activity and average temperatures; but, until now, there hasn't been a demonstration of a mechanism to explain that correlation. It could be that the temperature of the earth is much more significantly affected by sunspot activity than by human activity. Coincidence or not, the recent deceleration of warming has coincided with a decrease in sunspot activity. Note that this experiment is not nearly sufficient by itself to establish the relative contribution of sunspot activity to climate – or even whether it is significant.

At least in short term, it's much more important for us to understand the mechanisms behind climate change (acknowledging that climate is something that does change) than it is for us to know whether the speed of light is always a constraint. If CO2 emissions are causing rapid climate change, then we need to start a crash program of building nuclear power plants, fracking for relatively low carbon natural gas, and investing billions in clean technologies for abundant coal and CO2 sequestration. Knowing the emergent demand for cheap energy of the developing world, we can't just tinker around the edge of supply with expensive alternative sources – even though we want to keep doing research into making them more effective. If manmade warming is not significant but the climate is warming and likely to continue to warm for other reasons, then we can continue to use our abundant supplies of coal and should do more to reclaim gas and oil. In that case the money which would have gone into developing and deploying low-carbon energy sources will be needed to protect or relocate low-lying populations and deal with climate-induced catastrophes. If the climate is just oscillating (for the moment), then we can use low cost energy to improve standards of living around the world – including creating jobs here at home.

These are huge decisions and we need science to be at its skeptical best in helping us make them. We likely will have to act on incomplete information since theories are much easier to disprove than prove. But we don't have to act on politically-tainted information. Funding for CLOUD was hard to come by –and long delayed. Apparently for reasons of political correctness, CERN was even more circumspect in announcing the results of CLOUD than it was announcing the speeding neutrinos. Press coverage of CLOUD dwindled after a day or two. There haven't been a rush of announcements from labs seeking to duplicate or disprove the CLOUD work – or even to extend it. If you think global warming is a threat, you ought to be adamant that we increase research into its cause – no matter where that research may lead.

Related Posts:

A Question Which Should Be Asked

Pictures Trump Words

The Ice-Free Arctic – Excellent Coverage in the NY Times

How NOT to Convince Anyone about Global Warming

Don’t Like Smart Meters; Opt Out at Your Own Expense

If you stand nine feet from a smart meter for twenty-four hours/day for a year and a half, you'll get about the same dose of radiation that you get during a ten minute cellphone call when you're holding the phone to your ear. (math below).

A smart electrical grid is a good thing. It gives us consumers more information and choices, ways to save money, more net-metering opportunities for those who want to generate some of our own electricity, and the opportunity to replace oil for both home heating and transportation. Jobs will be created as businesses discover ways to reduce the energy-cost of their operations. Even if we choose not to make use of the smart grid information ourselves, we will still benefit because our local utility can use the information to fix outages faster and more cheaply than before (often before sleeping consumers even report them), reduce the amount of power which has to be purchased to meet demand, smooth out expensive peaks, and eliminate the cost of manually reading meters. Lower costs for our utilities mean lower rates for us – perhaps not lower than they have been but certainly lower than they would be otherwise.

So what's not to like?

Part of implementing a smart electrical grid is the installation of smart meters: electronic replacements for the electromechanical meters we've been using almost forever. Unlike the old meters, the new ones communicate information about demand and line voltage back to the utility in near real-time. The timely information from these meters is essential to the benefits the smart grid can deliver. In much of Vermont and many other places, low-power radio is the most practical way for the meters to communicate with the rest of the grid.

Some people are afraid of the electromagnetic energy generated by the meters during communication. They shouldn't be. If you stand 9 feet from a smart meter while it is transmitting (at most one twentieth of a second every 15 minutes), you are exposed to a power density of about 4 microwatts per square centimeter (µW/cm2). For comparison, if you hold a cell phone to your head during a conversation, you are exposed to anywhere from 1000 to 5000 µW/cm2. Stand one foot away from your microwave while it is operating (not even close enough to look in), and you are in a force field of 200-800 µW/cm2. So if you stand nine feet from a smart meter for twenty-four hours/day for a year and a half, you'll get about the same total dose of radiation that you get during a ten minute cellphone call when you're holding the phone to your ear, assuming the low end emission for a cellphone. All numbers here are taken from a study done by the California Council of Science and Technology (CCST) entitled Health Impacts of Radio Frequency Exposure from Smart Meters. CCST points out that, even if your smart meter somehow got stuck in transmit 50% of the time and you were standing a foot from it forever, you would not receive more radiation than the FCC guidelines allow.

Some people are afraid that their privacy will be violated because their utility will be able to determine short-term electricity use. It is true that monitoring electricity use can be an indication of when you came and left home, when you dried the laundry, and perhaps other aspects of your behavior. Even with dumb meters, for example, police sometimes use extreme electricity demand to indicate that someone is growing large quantities of pot under grow lights. There do need to be limits on how this data is used and who has access to it. There also need to be rules to assure that you have access to your own data. However, compared to what your Google searches reveal about you or the trail of electronic crumbs your cellphone leaves behind even when you are not talking, this is a very fixable privacy problem with small risk.

Reasonable or not, some people just don't want smart meters. That leaves us with four choices:

  1. Deny everyone the benefits of smart electric grid because a few people don't like smart meters.
  2. Require everyone to have smart meter if they want to buy electricity, just as we require everyone to have a dumb meter today.
  3. Allow anyone who doesn't want to have a smart meter to say "no thanks" and have everyone pay the extra cost of manually reading his or her meter and less grid management information.
  4. Allow anyone who doesn't want to have a smart meter to say "no thanks" and charge those who make the choice the extra costs they are imposing on the system as a whole. In other words, if you don't want a smart meter, you don't get a share of the benefits of the smart grid.

Central Vermont Public Service has proposed choice #4 to the Vermont Public Service Board. Their calculation of the extra cost is $10/month. Stowe Electric Department (of which I'm a board member) has not yet filed a proposal with the PSB on this issue nor has the Board taken a position However, speaking only for myself, I think it's good to give people a choice when choice is possible – and I think people need to be responsible for the cost of their own choices. I'm for option #4.

Related posts:

Irene Lesson # 1 – Smart Grid Great for Power Restoration

House Flatlines – Smart Grid to the Rescue

What's a Smart Grid and Why Does It Matter?

The Perils of Partisanship

What will it mean to her or his election chances? What do the political experts think? What do the polls say? What political advantage was he or she seeking when she or he proposed this or that? And will he or she achieve it?

What's missing in the litany above are all the important questions: was the proposal a good idea or not? Does it have the right objectives? Is it the right means to achieve those objectives? What are the negative consequences of acting? Of not acting? Are there better alternatives? How will it work? How do we know? How do we decide?

It's easy to see that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can't be effective if he believes what he said: "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." We need him to give priority to the economy, the deficit, jobs to the extent government can do anything to create them, national defense, etc. etc. In fact, though, much of the media (including we bloggers) and many Americans discuss politics and partisan advantage instead of policy almost all of the time. The obsession, itself, is bipartisan.

For example, Shay Totten is a bulldog of a reporter for Seven Days. He did a great job of being a one man twitter hub during the chaos immediately after Irene. But his article about why Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin appointed long-time Republican Neale Lunderville as Vermont's Irene Czar for the next four months forsakes substance for political speculation:

"Gov. Peter Shumlin's appointment of a top GOP operative to oversee the initial recovery actions in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene was cronyism and political genius….

"This appointment is about one thing and one thing only: Shumlin's reelection and the political power that GMP wields in Vermont

"With one shrewd, calculated appointment, Shumlin took away the opportunity for an opponent to say that a Democrat mucked up Vermont's disaster recovery efforts."

The important questions of whether this is a good appointment and whether Lunderville is the best person for the job are simply not addressed. (In my opinion, he is – substance here). Totten acknowledges that Lunderville has been both Vermont's transportation secretary and administration secretary. Did he do a good job in those positions? That's relevant but no discussion of it here. There are no interviews with people from the legislature or state government who worked with Lunderville. There is no suggestion of who might have been better-qualified. The article has only snarky speculation of what motives – beyond getting well-qualified help with Vermont's recovery – Shumlin may have had.

Some Republican "operatives" have been critical of Lunderville – maybe the only time they ever agreed with Shay Totten. They're afraid that Lunderville'll make Shumlin look good by making the rebuilding a success, by helping the state be better than it was before the storm hit. Like McConnell, they care more about the next election than the fate of the State.

It is true that politicians – and all office holders in a democracy are politicians – are surrounded by people who are more concerned with spin and partisan advantage than substance, as I learned when I worked in Governor Richard Snelling's administration 30 years ago. To put things in perspective, he said: "First, we have to decide what the right thing to do is; then we'll think about the politics. Otherwise we'll just confuse ourselves."

Yesterday President Obama announced a deficit reduction plan. "With the 2012 election just around the corner…." is the way the coverage I saw on CBS began. Clips of the President talking about millionaires paying their fair share and Republicans sticking to their class warfare script. Nothing in that coverage about the amount the tax would raise; how much of an increase it is for whom; what percentage of their income they already pay in tax (or don't). There was no attempt to verify or disprove the Republican claim that the proposed tax increase will fall mainly on job-creating small businesses.

If we the people don't insist on getting the meaty facts, if we gorge on the sugary coverage of the partisan effect of each proposal, then we'll get more of what we ask for. We have big decisions to make; we need to know more than what someone may have been thinking about the effect on his or her re-election when she or he framed a proposal. Even if re-election was all the politician was thinking about, we need coverage of the substance of the proposal long before we need speculation about the motives behind it or even the likely effect on the next election.

Related posts:

CEO Lesson: Decide First; Spin Second

Shumlin Appointment of Lunderville as Irene Czar Great non-Partisan Decision

Great Docs and Technology Saved My Life Thursday

"You flunked the stress test," was the essence of the call Tuesday morning. I'd thought I aced it. "Don't do anything you don't have to. We'll get you in to see a cardiologist ASAP."

"But I got through the whole test," I told the cardiologist that afternoon. "The EKG was normal; they were surprised that it took so long to get my pulse up but that's because I climb mountains and play tennis all the time." I was in denial, just as I've been when I got the first mild chest pains during warm up for racquetball last spring and played through them; just as I was when my chest tightened at the beginning of most spring climbs and I kept walking (but a little slower). My denial had faded some in early summer when I woke up twice with chest pain, took two Excedrin, and went back to sleep. But it was only a little pain; really just pressure on my sternum. And it stopped happening.

Because I time everything and my Garmin watch tracks my pulse, I knew I was climbing mountains more slowly and reaching lower maximum pulse levels even though the pain went away. I hiked alone so people wouldn't have to wait for me (Bruiser, my labradoodle, can always find something to sniff while he's waiting). It bothered me that I was losing at tennis, usually in the second and third set when it was an effort to get my arm up to serve. I tried jogging to get in better shape and couldn't quite run a mile on the flat. But I am 68, getting older, but… So I asked my doctor to make an EKG part of my upcoming physical.

"There's a slight abnormality," she said. "And you have a lousy family history. I think you should take a stress test." I really did think I aced the test. I felt good. I could see the inside of my heart on the echocardiogram and it even had cool Doppler, which used color coding to show the velocity of blood and tissue in both directions. It looked like there was a cheerful little guy standing in the middle of my heart waving his arms up and down (the valves) and cheering me on "Yay, Tom. Yay, Tom." They took video of the heart at rest; then the treadmill up to 142 pulse; then more pictures so they could compare the stressed heart to the resting one.

"Much of the muscle wall of your left ventricle is not participating in the pumping after stress," the cardiologist said. "The test has only about 10% false positives. The most likely cause is a blockage in one or more arteries. You could die suddenly from that condition, most likely from a piece of plaque breaking off and corking something crucial. You should have an angioscopic examination to find where the blockages are." That means, in case you don't know, that a catheter is threaded through your groin or wrist artery into the arteries which supply the muscles of the heart. It injects die, which makes the blood flow show up clearly on a monitor.

"And then what," I asked?

"If the blockage is not too widespread, they'll put in a stent immediately as part of the same operation while the catheter is still in place."

"I've heard about stents," I said; "aren't they overused?"

"They're not overused here in New England," said the doctor. "The financial incentives are different and we tend to be very conservative in the use of stents." He explained that the most statistically significant trial of stents vs. medication alone vs. bypass surgery is somewhat inconclusive. The long term survival rate was about the same with either medicine alone or stents plus medicine. However, in the first three years, quality of life is better with stents because the blockage is immediately dealt with. Long term results are about the same for bypass surgery as stents for relatively simple cases and better with surgery for complex cases. Stents do sometimes have to be redone. There is, of course, more mortality associated with the bypass operation itself and recovery is lengthy and painful (as I know from friends and my father). One reason why results from all three approaches tend to converge over time is that people develop new blockages at new sites after the first blockages are cured – either because they haven't changed their lifestyle or because they can't change their genes.

Since the big trials were done, a second generation of drug-eluting stents has been developed which should be better than either uncoated stents or those coated with the first generation of medicine; so quite possible the next big trial will show significantly better outcomes for stents than either medicine alone or bypasses when there is an option to use stents instead of bypasses. The drugs discourage the body from growing new plaque inside the stent but do increase the risk of clotting. To counteract that risk, you take blood thinners for a year.

I checked all that on the web with the help of my brother Lee, who is a pediatrician with a strong interest in and knowledge of overall health. And I scheduled a second opinion just before the angiogram was scheduled to begin Thursday. I had no doubt I wanted the diagnostic information from the angiogram; I was skeptical I wanted to go right into having a stent inserted and knew, although I'd be awake through the operation and when we learned what the angiogram showed, I'd be much too dopey to give informed consent to anything at that stage.

"The EKG was normal," I said. I'm now back in denial. The report even says that my "functional capacity was above normal. I don't do anything with good form; maybe my heart doesn't either. You've already explained to me that it's normal to find some blockage in almost everyone, even children. How will we know I really need a stent? Maybe there isn't any serious blockage."

"There's a 99% chance, in my opinion, that you have a serious blockage – by which I mean a blockage of over 70% - in at least one artery," the cardiologist explained. "If there's no blockage above that level, we'll do nothing and have to reconsider what's causing the symptoms. If there are one or more blockages above 70%, if there aren't too many and they aren't too complex, we'd like to stent immediately. If it's worse than that, we'll stop and can consider options later with the new information we have. You wouldn't want the surgeon to put in stents if he doesn't think they'll work, would you?" He also told me, politely, that I'm not more qualified to determine whether I need stents than cardiologists are.

"OK," I said begrudgingly. "Numbers I can live with. Less than 70%, no stent. Too complicated, we put off the decision. Over 70% and relatively simple, stents away. But, if the decision is on the cusp, two things I know that the surgeon needs to know: I will stick with any post-op regime and I'd gladly take some risk to be able to stay active." We had a deal. Time to get prepped for the operation.

The surgeon was ready so two nurses prepped me fast and efficiently. IV already in, I said good-by to Mary (we were both scared) and was wheeled to the operating room on a gurney. The surgeon threaded the catheter in through my right wrist and guided it to the arteries serving my heart; I'm not quite sure how. I'd hoped to watch the catheter on the TV screen next to the operating table – maybe I did – but the sedative you get for this operation makes you forgetful even though you can respond to requests to move this way or that. I do remember him saying that they'd found 98% blockage in a major artery and showing me that on the screen. I could see that the thick flow of blood simply stopped at one point and became a tiny stream. "Can you stent it?" I remember asking.

A balloon is threaded over the catheter and the stent is paced over the balloon. The balloon is inflated in the blockage and compresses the plaque back to the artery walls (angioplasty); the same inflation expands the stent so it stops the walls from rebounding. Catheter removed from the tiny hole in my wrist. "It's done," he said some time later. "Do you want to go home tonight?"

The surgeon went off to talk to Mary and show her the video. Soon she rejoined me in recovery; I was out of the hospital at 6PM; amazingly just five hours after the operation began. In a week I can resume full activity and will, quite possibly, hike faster and win at tennis.

I was really stupid to ignore the first symptoms, especially to try to walk them off by hiking alone (please don't do the same). I am lucky to live in a time when techniques like echocardiography exist. The previous stress test I took relied on EKG only – and showed no problem. The EKG showed no problem this time; it only showed up on echocardiogram. I was also lucky to be treated by an amazingly skilled and compassionate team associated with Fletcher Allen Health Care. We're very well-served having them here in Vermont.

Irene Lesson #3: Critical Data Belongs in the Cloud, Not Under It

"As flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene swamped the Waterbury state office complex, seven employees from the Vermont Agency of Human Services rushed inside to rescue computer servers that are critical for processing welfare checks and keeping track of paroled prisoners living around the state," according to a story by Shay Totten on the 7days blog Blurt. Two of the employees - network administrator Andrew Matt and deputy chief information officer Darin Prail - lost their cars in the parking lot as the river rose but kept on working to assure that our servers were not lost. "We didn't know how much time we had," Matt said, "and our job was to save the servers."

The story continues: "The employees' quick thinking is being credited with saving the state's largest agency from disaster. AHS oversees not only the Department of Corrections but runs programs that serve thousands of Vermont children, families, senior citizens and individuals with disabilities. Within days, AHS was up and running again — its servers installed at an alternate site."

Two lessons:

  1. Vermont is lucky to have such dedicated employees who took action regardless of personal hardship and even though experts said that particular area wouldn't flood.
  2. State servers and the data on them don't belong in state. The more critical the application, the more important that it be running in a cloud with several replications and that it NOT be vulnerable to any catastrophe that might hit the state. The Internet makes the actual physical location of servers irrelevant to users. It's more important that they be well-connected in cyberspace than they be located physically close to their users.

I know from Mary's experience in the State Emergency Operations Center, which also had to evacuate the Waterbury complex, that their computer systems became unavailable just when they needed them most. Sure, you can argue that all of the servers should've been on higher ground; but you never really know what kind of catastrophe is going to strike. In an emergency communication and power outages may be widespread as well as physical damage to buildings almost anywhere. When a disaster strikes, you want your critical data and servers (as well as your less critical ones) to be as far from the impacted area as possible; that means out-of-state. It is routine in cloud computing for Amazon or Microsoft or Google or whoever hosts the cloud applications to replicate them in several different locations so you don't have to worry about out-of-state catastrophes either.

Another reason for outsourcing state computing to the cloud is to make it possible to handle spikes in demand without having to have huge amounts of expensive standby capacity during normal times. When the recession first hit and unemployment claims skyrocketed, the newly unemployed had to endure the extra pain of unresponsive or unavailable servers because of the sudden surge in claims. What is an unmanageable surge of volume to Vermont or even California is a blip that a hosting service like Amazon won't notice. They won't run out of server capacity; they won't run out of Internet access capacity; and they won't be affected by instate earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods just when you need them most.

Some people argue that critical state data – welfare records, for example – are only safe if hosted in state. That sounds right but it's wrong. The greatest threat to data is disgruntled or crooked employees. State employees know where the state's critical data is and may have a particular grudge against an individual or a department. Google employees are much less likely to have a grudge against anyone in Vermont or know anything about the specific nature of the data hosted on their servers. Moreover, the big hosting companies spend a fortune on both physical security and hacker-proofing. No state is going to be able to match that. Of course web-accessible applications need to be developed to be hacker-resistant; but that's true whether the hosting is in or out of state.

Employees of a cloud service are unlikely to go to the extremes our state employees did to save us from data disaster. But, since resources in a cloud can be replicated in several locations at little cost to the customer, such heroics won't be needed.

A final reason for moving state computing into an out-of-state cloud is cost. The big hosting companies have huge economies of scale which they share with their customers. Forward–looking companies have moved to cloud computing so that they can focus on what's best for their customers and products and leave the physical care and feeding of servers to those who do nothing else. Many investors I know won't look at a new company which plans to spend scarce capital on servers; inhouse servers are usually a waste of capital, an unnecessary risk, and too inflexible in dealing with unpredictable demand.

BTW, what goes for the state goes double for its towns. We don't know yet how many town records – computerized or otherwise – we're lost in Irene. A town size disaster is much more likely than a statewide one. And towns have even less resources to devote to servers and their proper backup and possible disaster recovery.

I understand that Vermont had to get up and running quickly and probably had to buy some new computers to do so. Nevertheless, one of the ways that we can learn from Irene and be stronger than we were before is to get our servers into the cloud and out of harm's way.

Related posts:

Owning Servers is Passé

Irene Lesson # 1 – Smart Grid Great for Power Restoration

Irene Lesson #2: Nothing in America is Shovel Ready – Until It Has to Be

Irene Lesson #2: Nothing in America is Shovel Ready – Until It Has to Be

"There's no such thing as shovel-ready projects," President Obama told the New York Times last year, reflecting on why the Stimulus Act didn't do what he had hoped it would do.

Less than two weeks after Tropical Storm Irene carved 166 gaps in the Vermont highway system and closed 450 mile of road to travel, there were only 33 closures and 340 miles had been reopened according to Transportation Secretary Brian Searles. More than twenty towns were initially cut off from the rest of the state; all were reconnected in less than a week. Rivers were wrestled back into their old channels – or into new ones. Temporary bridges were built immediately where the permanent ones couldn't be repaired. Miles of washed away roads were either rebuilt in place or newly carved higher up on the cliffs. Of course much of this work will have to be redone before winter sets in; more will be redone in the years ahead. When the construction is truly finished, we'll have a better and more flood-resistant highway and railroad system than we did before.

When we have an emergency, we get shovel-ready in a hurry. The new Guidelines for Instream Work from the website of the Agency of Natural Resources say that the agency "recognizes that recovery from this state-wide flood disaster will require extensive in-stream work… Conditions that existed prior to the flood may, in cases, not be desirable or even possible to recreate." In normal times it can take years to get permission to work in the water; it is almost impossible to get permits to relocate a stream. Now permission can be given on the phone if necessary. In another common sense move, the agency suspended limitations on operating hours for gravel pits and allowed closed pits to reopen. We need the fill.

From my experience as Vermont's Chief Recover Officer (Stimulus Czar), nothing is shovel-ready during ordinary times – just as the President said he learned. Like other states, we spent most of our allocation of highway funds repaving roads and making minor repairs that were in the existing right of way and didn't require permits. It takes more than 20 years to get approvals and fight your way through appeals, restraining orders, injunctions, and other delaying tactics before anything substantial can be built with either public or private money. If Congress appropriates more stimulus infrastructure money, as the President just asked, only states like Vermont with an ongoing emergency will be able to spend it on projects of any significance. The rest of the states are in danger of having to repave the same roads that they already repaved with the money from Stimulus #1.

All over the country there is infrastructure which needs to be built or rebuilt. You don't have to be a Keynesian to see that it makes sense for government to concentrate its construction spending during periods of unemployment, both to get better prices and to put people to work. You don't have to be an economist to understand that it is OK for government to borrow to build a new asset which will pay back the debt by improving the economy and that it is not OK for government to go into the hole to perform routine maintenance. So the President isn't wrong to propose more infrastructure spending; but he seems to have completely forgotten what he told the New York Times – we're not shovel-ready; we can't ramp up our infrastructure build during the current malaise; we're in our own way. The money he is asking for, if appropriated, will NOT get spent on long term projects. It will NOT generate the return necessary to pay the further debt the federal government will take on.

The President approvingly discussed Lincoln's support for the transcontinental railroad and the economic growth that came from knitting our resources together. He's right about that. But he didn't mention that, if the railroad has been proposed in more recent times, we'd still be fighting off appeals from the Pony Express whose business the railroads did destroy, from adjoining landowners who never thought that other people would be able to get to where they located, and from Luddites who believed that the pounding of locomotives would cause the earth to split and release Hellfire (I'm not making that up!).

There was a token mention of regulatory reform in the President's speech: "We're cutting the red tape that prevents some of these projects from getting started as quickly as possible." But he doesn't say how we'll do that. There is no mention of expediting projects in the fact sheet the White House supplied to go with the speech. The President can act on his own to reform the federal permission process and speed up projects and cut red tape. He could have announced some executive action without waiting for Congress; he didn't.

But Congress – including Republicans – should take him at his word. They should pass permitting reform as part of any appropriation for infrastructure. If we could cut approval of projects from more than twenty years to two; if we could stem the ability of anyone who doesn't like a project for almost any reason to impose almost indefinite delay on a project, we would have a major infrastructure building from both the public and the private sector beginning almost immediately. That would happen even without an appropriation. But an appropriation without breaking the permitting logjam and reforming the appeals process will neither create long term jobs and an improved economy nor justify even more debt. We can protect the environment just as well in two years of hearings as we can in twenty

This is, after all, a jobs emergency. We need a happy medium between the necessary rush and chaos of repairing emergency damage and the now nearly endless process of appeasing and fighting special interests to build anything at all. We can do that. We can be shovel-ready when we want to.

Related posts:

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

Stimulus Interviews on NPR and Fox Business

America's Industrial Revival

Shumlin Appointment of Lunderville as Irene Czar Great non-Partisan Decision

WCAX just ran a story saying that they have learned that Vermont' Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin will appoint Neale Lunderville to head up Vermont's recovery from Irene. Neale previously served as both Transportation Secretary and Administration Secretary under Republican Governor Jim Douglas and headed up Douglas' first gubernatorial campaign. Assuming the WCAX story is correct (and they sound very confident of their sources), this is great news for Vermont. I know Neale well from when I served as Stimulus Czar and State Chief Technology Officer, both of which positions reported to him. There is nobody, absolutely nobody, better to do this job.

Neale will help assure that rebuilt Vermont is better than what we had before Irene; he'll think of long term consequences while dealing with the dreadful urgency of lives and institutions which need to be put back together quickly. He'll stay calm while working nearly around the clock (getting a few hours sleep on an office floor or couch rather than wasting time driving home is nothing new for Neale). Neale has excellent judgment and leadership skills. It's obvious from this appointment that he's respected by leaders of both political parties even though he was the Douglas Administration point in many tussles with the Legislature.

Obviously having been both Transportation Secretary and Administration Secretary is perfect experience. Much, but not all, of our rebuilding from Irene has to do with transportation infrastructure; another large segment has to do with getting state government itself back in business after the devastation of offices and computing equipment in the Waterbury flooding – the Agency of Administration is responsible for the functioning of state government and for some (unfortunately not all) of the state's information technology; Human Services has, at least until now, maintained its own computing capability and computers.

Legislators from both parties respect and trust Neale. He deserves much of the credit for the relatively smooth passage of Governor Douglas' last budget and many of the positive ways which the state dealt with declining revenues. Neale already has a good working relationship with many Shumlin administration leaders including now Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding (State Treasurer during the Douglas years), Special Assistant Susan Bartlett (formerly Chair of Senate Appropriations), Commissioner of Buildings and General Services Michael Obuchowski (formerly a very influential leader in the Vermont House), and Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine (formerly Chair of Senate Health and Welfare). Neale and Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon were a very effective team during the Douglas years and they'll have a chance to work together again.

Sadly, some of the first comments I've heard on the appointment story have been negative for partisan reasons. "Shumlin should never have appointed someone who'll probably run for Governor someday as a Republican." "Neale shouldn't help Shumlin look good." Fortunately both Shumlin and Lunderville are doing what's best for the state and leaving partisanship aside for another day. We all have a stake in Vermont's success – doesn't matter who gets the credit for it.

A question I’ve heard is “why do we need another bureaucrat to coordinate all the other bureaucrats?” From my stimulus experience, I know that we do. State and Federal Government both operate in silos of (un)responsibility. In a crisis those silo walls need to be broken down, rules need to be changed fast, turf-fighting eliminated, cooperation made mandatory. In the short term, according to my wife Mary who’s representing the Red Cross in the State Emergency Operations Center, needed coordination, cooperation, and imagination is happening. But, when people go back to their day jobs, the tendency will be to step back into the comfortable silos. I’m sure part of Neale’s new job will be taming both federal and state organizations to assure that we do the right thing regardless of whose toes get stepped on or the way we’ve always done things before. There will be opportunities to rebuild transportation, communication, energy, and housing infrastructure in synergistic ways so that the new whole is better than the old parts. It takes a czar with the confidence of the Governor and the Legislature and State workers to make that coordination happen.

I sure hope the WCAX story is right. It's very good news for Vermont; couldn't come at a better time.

Related posts:

The Changing of the Guard – Shumlin's A Team

My New Gig

Four Good Moves by the Obama Administration

The President and his administration are on a roll. I doubt if he sees it that way, but he and his team have actually had a very good week of doing good things for America and its struggling economy despite outrage from both the left and the right. Press coverage has concentrated on the politics and political ramifications of these actions; so let's take a look at the substance.

  1. The Justice Department sued to prevent the planned acquisition of T-Mobile by at&t. The US economy already suffers from substandard wireless service and high prices due to the near duopoly held by Verizon Wireless and at&t. Even if antitrust weren't a legitimate government function (which I believe it is), in this particular case the power of the duopoly is reinforced by its control of a public asset – radio spectrum required to provide wireless service. Poor policy decisions by the FCC and Congress have let these two companies corral way too much of the available spectrum; the at&t bid for T-Mobile – by their own account – is about giving at&t control of even more spectrum. The alternative to antitrust action is constant micro-managing of the duopolists and the entire industry to prevent anticompetitive actions.

     

    T-Mobile has been a feisty and pesky competitor. No other competitor can arise to take their place if at&t ends up owning the spectrum which T-Mobile used to offer its service. Note that co-duopolist Verizon does not object to this merger. But #3 trying-harder Sprint, which would suffer if the duopoly grows stronger, does object and has filed their own suit.

     

    Some commentary has concentrated on the jobs that would be lost in a merger because of "efficiencies" between the two companies. Wrong jobs to look at. The real problem is the jobs that could exist and should exist in all the communications-dependent industries in America and won't exist unless we have the best communication infrastructure in the world.

     

    BTW, both The Wall Street Journal and the Communications Workers of America hate this actionby Justice. The WSJ thinks that the government is thwarting at&t's attempt to serve its customers better and the CWA cares more about folding non-union T-Mobile workers into its at&t contracts than either the overall loss of jobs within the two companies or in the broader economy.

     

  2. The President suspended a pending EPA rule on ozone, which would have stymied development of many kinds in many regions of the country and forced some shutdowns out of proportion to possible health benefits. According to the New York Times (which disapproves of this action):

    "Cass R. Sunstein, who leads the White House office that reviews all major regulations, said he was carefully scrutinizing proposed rules across the government to ensure that they are cost efficient and based on the best current science. He said in a letter to [EPA Administrator] Ms. Jackson that the studies on which the E.P.A.'s proposed rule is based were completed in 2006 and that new assessments were already under way."

    This is certainly a change of heart for the administration since major rules don't reach the White House for final and public review unless the administration is already bought in. Critics are particularly outraged because this rule, although nominally aimed at ozone, was largely a backdoor way to reduce CO2 emissions without actually saying so.

     

  3. The Federal Housing Finance Agency sued 17 leading banks which sold nearly $200 billion of securities backed by subprime mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We, the people, have already spent over $150 billion just bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, not to mention the bailouts to the banks themselves. Past time to try to get some of it back; we need it and there need to be consequences for bad-acting.

     

  4. The State Department issued a final Environmental Impact Statement saying that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline poses "no significant impacts" to resources along its route. Although this does not constitute final approval of the 830,000 barrel per day pipeline from Canada to Texas, it's a huge step forward towards a more secure and friendly source of a significant amount of oil. Opponents argue that tar-sands oil, which is what the pipeline will deliver, produces significantly more CO2 than other sources given its methods of production; not so, says the report – only 2% more CO2 than produced by the Venezuelan crude currently refined on the Gulf Coast. This argument is silly, anyway, since the Canadians are developing this huge resource whether we like it or not and will simply ship the oil from their West Coast ports to China if we don't want it. The energy could then power more job creation in China.

     

Yeah, you can debate the politics of all these actions until the cows come home. Sure, political advisors probably looked at them from every possible angle. But the important question is not "will these decisions help Obama get elected?"; it is "were these the right things to do for the country?". I think they were.

Related posts:

America's Industrial Revival

AT&T Bids to Shut Down Mobile Competition

America’s Industrial Revival

This Labor Day America stands on the brink of an industrial revival. During the next decade millions of Americans will be re-employed in manufacturing. Tens of millions more will be newly employed in jobs supporting manufacturing and serving the needs of manufacturing employees. The financial sector will shrink and the industrial sector will grow. Balance of payments problems will disappear; tax revenues will increase while tax rates go down.

Why? you ask. How?

Six reasons for the successful reindustrialization of America:

  1. Energy. We are energy rich; most of the world is energy poor. As the relative labor content of manufacturing goes down, the cost of the non-human energy used is more and more important. Robots needs their watts or they won't work. With new techniques for extracting it, we are rich in natural gas. We are very rich in coal – rich enough to sequester the CO2 created when it is burned if that is needed. We have massive reserves of oil and can extract it safely. We are just south of huge untapped hydro resources in Canada. And we can build a new fleet of nuclear plants (although not in time to help this decade). At some point solar technology will improve so that electricity generated in our deserts reduces rather than increases our overall energy cost. It's hopeful that the Obama administration recognized the importance of energy cost and supply to job creation with two actions this week: State Department approval of a pipeline from Canada and suspension of overly-strict rules ozone rules promulgated by the EPA.
  2. Improving standards of living in the third world. Japan used to have huge cost advantage over the US in manufacturing costs because their labor was cheap. As Japanese laborers moved into the middleclass – just as our workers had already done, that advantage disappeared. Those jobs moved to China and Taiwan and Thailand. But workers in all those places are leaving poverty, joining the middleclass, and demanding better wages and safer working conditions. They are also consuming more themselves. There will no longer be an imbalance between what countries like China produce and what they consume. As wealth and aspirations equalize around the world, we will no longer be at a disadvantage when we pay a decent wage and provide decent working conditions (so long as we are efficient and have cheap energy).
  3. Rare earths. China tipped its hand too early when it began restricting export of rare earths needed for many of today's products to force manufacturers to locate factories in China in order to get needed supplies. Those same rare earths are found in America – mainly in shut-in mines. The mines are being reopened. Once we move to effective and speedy environmental review, we'll lead the world in production of those needed materials. We'll export some; factories will also be built here to take advantage of needed supplies.
  4. We're a huge country. That means we have a supply of almost anything somewhere. It also means that, when one part of the country suffers a disaster (as we are in Vermont right now), the rest of the country is likely to be unaffected by that particular event and can lend a crucial helping hand. Like climbers tied together by a rope, we're all safer and stronger for the connections. We will become shovel ready once again and improve the various kinds of infrastructure which link us together.
  5. The government is running out of money for pursuing an "industrial" policy. Government money targeted at favored people and industries has the effect of suppressing much more diverse private investment. It's not that government bureaucrats are always wrong or private investors always right; but private investors cut the losers and support the winners. Government focuses on just a few areas and then supports its investment decisions with more subsidies, mandates, or bans on competition. In corny ethanol, for example, we are not only incented to turn food crops inefficiently into fuel; competing imports are banned; and refiners are required to blend ethanol into their gasoline. Removing tax breaks and direct subsidies will "stimulate" more jobs than leaving them in place.
  6. Cheaper housing. Many people have been hurt by plummeting house prices. But these prices were artificially high driven there by cheap (and unwise) credit. In many ways the housing market was a Ponzi scheme run by financial institutions (and government). Sure, those who got out early made a lot of money; the rest of us just got caught when the music stopped. As the price of homes outstripped incomes, a bigger and bigger part of all of our budgets went to pay interest on bigger and bigger loans and the financial industry mushroomed as it transferred the capital (minus lots of overhead) from "investors" buying strange mortgage instruments to the sellers of houses. With housing much more affordable now, the next generation of workers won't need to borrow as much to own a home and more capital will be available for reindustrialization. With luck, the financial sector will shrink when it loses the lucrative task of financing housing inflation.

Could we screw up this opportunity to reindustrialize? Sure. We could let Luddites trap us into energy poverty and block the mining of rare earths. We could make our employment costs unrealistically high. We can refuse to build or permit the infrastructure we need to take advantage of our great size and diversity of resources. We could continue a crazy quilt of subsidies and tax breaks even though we can't afford them. And we can continue to bail out the banks while pretending to help homeowners.

But we won't. We will flourish.

Related posts:

Jobs Rx: Make America Shovel Ready

Energy for Jobs – Vermont Version

What Government CAN do to Create Jobs

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

The End of the Age of Incentives

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

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