December 04, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman, Putin, and Frackville

MBS and Putin
President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman( (MBS) famously high-fived each other with blood-stained hands at the G-20 Summit. The two share a habit of disposing of their opponents in particularly gruesome ways, perhaps to set an example. Who will save the world from them?

Not President Trump (pictured in the background). He says that American interests force us to overlook their behavior. (To be fair, previous presidents of both parties have condemned such behavior and then done nothing.)

Not the editorial pages of the Washington Post and The New York Times. Putin and MBS are not swayed by liberal public opinion. Not the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, either. These two are not swayed by conservative opinion.

Not Europe. It’s still dependent on Saudi oil and Russian gas.

Certainly not the UN.

Probably not China – unless that’s in China’s interest. And we might not like the result if Russian and Saudi influence is replaced by increased Chinese strength.

Not the US Congress. Bloviating may be effective at home but it’s not much of a force in world affairs.

But Putin and MBS are already being stopped. On Saturday, after the high-five, they shook hands in private to cut oil production in their countries despite the fact (and because of the fact) that both of their economies are completely dependent on oil exports. They had no choice; but they haven’t escaped the trap they’re in. They can either cut production or watch oil prices fall further; in fact, both will happen.

Who did this to them? Who dared to thwart them?

Frackville.

Frackville
Actually the borough of Frackville wasn’t named after the technology which has dramatically lowered the price of US natural gas and which has made the US practically energy independent and also the largest producer of oil in the world once again.  But Pennsylvania in the Frackville neighborhood is where fracking for natural gas first made a difference  and “Frackville, US”  is quickly diminishing the clout of Putin and MBS.

When oil was over $100/barrel, US frackers in Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota deployed their technology at an incredible rate. Saudi Arabia decided to starve them out by letting oil prices fall below $30/barrel. Big mistake. Saudi Arabia was the country that couldn’t afford $30 oil; it had to convince OPEC and Russia to join it in cutting production. Sure enough prices went back up to near $70; but the US frackers went back to work. During the years of low prices they learned to make their technology more efficient. $60 was the new $100. Up went the US rigs; down went prices. Whoops.

There is no out for Putin and MBS. Low prices mean they will eventually be overthrown because of economic collapse in their countries. High prices mean more US production (and others are learning to frack) and lower sales for Russia and Saudi Arabia. Same result.

The US can now laugh at the idea of an “oil embargo”. As we (slowly) build pipelines, we will be able to supply our allies and rivals with oil and natural gas and let them laugh as well. There are no high-fives here for oil-dependent despots.

If Saudi Arabia and Russia interfere in the next US election, they’ll likely favor candidates who propose fracking bans and no more pipelines.

Strange how things work out.

See Oil Prices Are Going Down: The Wickenburg Indicator

November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Visitors Run Risk of Gobbling

 

Brave visitors to our house today.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

October 24, 2018

What’s Next with Roe v Wade?

In 1973 the Supreme Court acted more like a legislature than the federal court of last appeal when it declared that State laws banning abortion in the first two trimesters of privacy were unconstitutional. This decision ended an era of hypocrisy in which rich guys’ pregnant girlfriends could get abortions (often in Canada) and poor couples had shotgun weddings. Also women had very dangerous illegal abortions. Polls then indicated that Americans favored the legalization of abortion. I certainly agreed with the decision then and still strongly think that access to safe and legal abortion ought to be the law.

The problem with Roe v Wade is that it doesn’t have any firm basis in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is supposed to interpret the Constitution and law; it is not supposed to make new laws even when the need is clear and the public is in favor. Making new laws is what Congress and the states are supposed to do This isn’t just a dry legalistic argument; a Supreme Court which can promulgate what is essentially a law can also unpromulgate that law.

When there was a majority of liberal justices, conservatives thought the Supreme Court had become too important; now that there is a majority of conservative judges, liberals are very uncomfortable with the authority the court has. Both are correct. Nine unelected men and women with life tenure shouldn’t be passing laws. They shouldn’t be responding to public opinion or protests on either side of a controversy; that’s exactly why they have life tenure.

Laws are meant to be changeable. If people decide they don’t like a law Congress passes, they can vote for legislators who will repeal it. When the Supreme Court decides that this or that is constitutional or not constitutional, the decision stands unless and until some future Supreme Court reverses it. The Court is supposed to be following legal principles, not the popular will. So, by good design, there is no way to reverse a Supreme Court decision except the very lengthy processes of amending the Constitution or waiting for justices to die or retire and meanwhile electing presidents who will nominate justices who are likely to reverse the decision. These rancorous days it may also be necessary to have a president who is from the same party as the majority of the Senate in order to make any appointments.

In the context of Roe v Wade, the passion over Supreme Court nominations is understandable even though the bad faith and hypocrisy on both sides is a disgrace. Justice Scalia, who was an opponent of Roe v Wade, wrote “[B]y foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.”

The anguish has certainly been prolonged. Almost every Supreme Court appointment since that decision has been focused on how the nominee is likely to vote on a possible reversal of Roe v Wade. Various alleged (or real) character defects of the nominee are raised. Those who think the nominee is likely to do what they want on Roe v Wade disbelieve the alleged defects; the allegations are believed by those who think the nominee will vote as they would like him or her to do. Because abortion has become a partisan issue (except for New England Republicans), Supreme Court nominations have also become intensely partisan. Most senators know how they’ll vote before the hearings begin, sometimes before they know who the candidate is.

So what happens next?

Since Roe v Wade in 1973 the Court has ruled on five other abortion related cases; in two cases Roe v Wade was upheld by a slim 5-4 vote.  It is almost certain that the Court will hear more case on the issue. Even with a conservative majority which would probably have never voted for Roe v Wade, it is not certain that the Court will overturn the decision. A legal principle called stare decisis (it’s already been decided), discourages overturning past decisions. However, the Supreme Court does not have to and does not always follow stare decisis. One of its most important decisions, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools by declaring “separate but equal” an oxymoron, specifically overturned an earlier decision, Plessy v Ferguson.

If the Supremes overturn Roe v Wade, they don’t outlaw abortion, but they do allow states to do so. Some states have enacted trigger laws which would immediately take effect and ban abortion within their borders. Other states never bothered to repeal antiabortion laws from as far back as the 19th century and these would come back into effect. The situation would be cruel and chaotic, exactly what stare decisis is made to prevent.

On the other hand, if the Court affirms Roe v Wade, the controversy won’t end. Each abortion case ends in some amplification, clarification, and adjustment of the decision. The state of medical science keeps changing; there are also infinite ways states can regulate medical procedures, some of which are “impermissible” bans on abortions, others of which the Court has allowed. Since the Constitution has no guidance on these issues, the Supreme Court continues to act as a super legislature. We will continue to ignore every facet of the qualification of a Supreme Court nominee except his or her likely action on this one issues. Protests which belong in the state capitals will continue at the Supreme Court, which is supposed to ignore such things.  Crucial public policy will be made by the happenstance of who is President when a justice dies or leaves the Court.

A third possibility is that the Court overturn Roe v Wade but use stare decisis to stay its decision by not allowing any changes in state abortion law to take effect for five years. This hiatus is to assure that there is time for each state legislature to do its job in the full glare of local public opinion. No 19th century law will automatically go back in effect. Citizens will be able to pressure their legislatures to overturn triggers. Some states probably will end up banning abortion; most won’t. But the decision will be back in our hands and those of the representatives we do elect and can replace.

I’m not comfortable with any of these outcomes but think that some variant of the third possibility may be best.

October 17, 2018

M's Marvelous Mashup

The Video

You may have to watch twice to see the sprinkler squirt Deer Mary.

Cast of Characters

M: My eight-year-old granddaughter who has engineering interests and skills

Arlo: A home video camera system

LinkTap: An Internet-controllable faucet

IFTTT: If This Then That. A cloud-based service used to connect smart things to each other

Deer Mary: An alpha tester

The Problem

Critters eat gardens both at M’s house and mine. I used Arlo before to capture images of critters in the garden but now it’s time for action.

The Solution (a mashup)

When a critter is spotted, we want a sprinkler to come on and scare it away. Critters come at night after M’s bedtime so she can’t just turn on a sprinkler when they’re spotted. We need automation! Our game plan is to have Arlo open the LinkTap faucet to which a sprinkler is attached, but Arlo and LinkTap don’t know how to talk each other. That’s what IFTTT is for.

The Workplan

  1. Get Arlo set up and working

Inside the Arlo box is a quick start guide. This is where the girl engineer starts. She learns that Arlo talks to the Internet through a box called a gateway which connects to the Internet through the home router and to the Arlo cameras by radio. Once she has her father’s permission, she uses an RJ-45 cable from the box to connect the gateway to the router being careful to listen for the click which means the cable is secure. She finds an available power outlet for the gateway’s adapter and plugs that in. The quick start guide says that lights will blink until two are solid green indicating the gateway has connected to Arlo service in the cloud. Got’em; two green.

Next you need an Arlo account. M goes on the web and sets up the account entering the serial number of the gateway, which her eyes can read much better than mine, into the web page. She names the gateway “puppy” for reasons best known to her.

After putting batteries in an Arlo camera, it’s time to introduce the camera to the gateway by pushing “sync” buttons on both. Three green. Perfect. From the Arlo web page, we can see little sister in front of the camera. Step 1 is done.

  1. Get Arlo working with IFTTT

M goes to IFTTT.com and creates an account there. There are lots of pre-packaged IFTTT “applets” on the service but none connecting Arlo to LinkTap. We’re going to have to create our own. M already understands the idea of “if this, then that” from Scratch lessons. We search for Arlo and there is a prepackaged “if” which lets IFTTT listen for an alert from Arlo indicating that it’s seen something. In setting up the alert, M lets IFTTT into her Arlo account to tell the Arlo service where to send the alert.

We want to test the Arlo-IFTTT connection with something easy; so, at first, we make the action one that is also pre-packaged on IFTTT: send a text message. M waves her hand in front of Arlo’s eye; in a few seconds we have the text message. Step 2 is done.

  1. Get LinkTap working

Another quick start guide; another gateway to connect to the router; another device that needs batteries and syncing; another web account to set up. M’s an old hand at all this now. We can turn the sprinkler on and off from the LinkTap web page. Step 3 done.

  1. Connect LinkTap to our IFTTT applet

This turned out harder than I thought. LinkTap has not set up a connector on IFTTT but does have instructions for using HTTP to make your own connection on their website. If you don’t know what HTTP is, you don’t want to know (OK, it’s a basic web protocol); and it isn’t time to teach M HTTP yet either. Her lesson here was seeing me going into deep nerd mode for about 12 hours to debug my non-working HTTP, Google for answers and diagnostic tools, correspond with LinkTap tech support in Australia, and come back in the morning with working code. I think she also saw that it was valuable to have unit tested each piece so that we knew where the problem was when the end-to-end solution didn’t work.

Voila. Critters beware; you will be soaked.

What will M do next?

See also:

Arlo: DIY Home Security

Arlo Captures Critter

Arlo by Night

 

October 04, 2018

Amazon Wants Congress to Suppress Competition

Retail Giant Trying to Prevent Workers It Doesn’t Hire From Getting a Job

It’s great news that Amazon wants to raise its own minimum wage to $15/hour. Shows the economy is growing and workers are more in demand. Companies which compete with Amazon for workers will also end up paying more. Great, even though we will also pay a greater retail markup for goods.

It’s terrible news that, in the company’s own words, “Amazon’s public policy team will be advocating for an increase in the federal minimum wage.”  

Suppose you’re a local retailer in, say, Vermont and you’re only paying $12/hour to your workers. You don’t have the option of massive automation that Amazon has. But you and your workers might be able to compete with Amazon for some products because your cost of labor is lower. If Amazon has its way, that will be against the law. You must pay what they pay even if it drives you out of business.

Suppose there is no Amazon warehouse in your state or suppose that you don’t meet Amazon’s qualifications for one of their sought-after jobs. Can you take a job at $14/hour while you build your skills? Not if Amazon has its way with Congress. If you don’t qualify for a $15/hour job, you get no job at all.

There couldn’t be a better example of a giant corporation trying to use government to snuff out competition. Bernie Sanders loves what Amazon is doing. To be charitable, he doesn’t understand the effect on small competitors or workers Amazon doesn’t hire. BTW, what do you think the editorial policy of The Washington Post, which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns, will be on this issue?

October 01, 2018

Are You a Climate Change Denier?

Be careful before you answer; you could be mistaken.

Thanks to climate change, I recently sailed from Bergen, Norway to Lerwick in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. If I’d made this trip just 6000 years ago, I would’ve had to walk. The North Sea, to my ignorant surprise, is very shallow, less than 400 feet deep most of the way across. That’s one of the reasons we sailed past so many oil rigs.

Most of the gene pool in the Shetlands is Scandinavian today. Those genes sailed on Viking boats following roughly the same course we did. The Shetland Islands were larger then and many of the forts built by and against the Vikings have tumbled into the sea along with the decaying cliffs. Climate change.

But there were people in the Shetlands before the Vikings came invading. Both Neolithic and modern humans walked across what is called Doggerland to get to what is now the British Isles. Periods of glaciation apparently wiped out or drove out the early Homo species as well as us Homo Sapiens several times over the last 600,000 years. Watch out for climate change! Our species was finally there to stay about 8000 years ago when the latest warming trend was well-established. The earth kept warming, though; and by 6000 years ago Doggerland became seabed and Britain became the British Isles. (see an excellently sourced Wikipedia article for facts cited here).

Which brings us to a lavishly illustrated and well written NYTimes article last week bemoaning the loss of artifacts in Scotland’s Orkney Islands to the still-rising seas. Correctly the article blames the crumbling cliffs on climate change. There is this very interesting sentence: “Since 1970, Orkney beaches have eroded twice as fast as in the previous century.”

The implication is clearly that the threat to artifacts has been heightened by anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. Let’s assume that these measurements are accurate and that they can be applied worldwide and that the fluctuation since 1970 is not just a random fluctuation (obviously none of these assumptions are literally true). The implication is that human activity has doubled the rate of sea rise. Looked at another way, if there’d been no anthropogenic input, the sea would still be rising – as it has been for the last 20,000 years – at about half the current rate. All of these artifacts, the Micronesian islands, and all the other areas on earth near sea level would still be slated for inundation just like Doggerland and the former land bridge across the Bering Strait – only it’ll take twice as long. If you don’t believe climate will continue to change, with or without human input, you are denying climate change!

Of course the cycle could reverse as it has before, even though we know very little about what caused these earlier changes. Then we’ll have advancing glaciers rather than rising liquid water to contend with. It’s happened to our species before. Climate changes!

Why am I ranting about this? Clearly I am convinced (“belief” is for religion and not for science) that climate changes; anyone who denies that is clearly uninformed. My concern is that we may be spending vast sums on perhaps dubious ways to prevent climate change instead of spending that money on ameliorating the effect of change, which may be inevitable. If areas of the world are going to become uninhabitable because of rising seas or rising temperatures, shouldn’t we be preparing to help people leave those areas? If other areas will become habitable, as the British Isles did 8000 years ago, shouldn’t we be thinking about how to move people and agriculture there?

Instead we’re allowing and even incenting coastal development with subsidized insurance as if the seas will magically stop rising Coverage of damage from Hurricane Irma, despite the obligatory references to manmade climate change, has been refreshingly accurate in attributing the rising monetary damage from storms to denser and denser seaside development.

We know that climate changes. We know that the direction of climate change for the last 60,000 years has been generally towards warmer (longer term it’s been towards colder). We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas (meaning it traps heat which might otherwise leave earth for outer space) and that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing lately and can reasonably attribute a major part of that increase to increased emissions from burning fossil fuels (and non-fossil fuels like wood). Despite a lot of sloppy science and science-writing, we don’t know with any precision how much anthropogenic activity is accelerating climate change. We can’t know that without knowing how much temperatures would be rising in the absence of this activity. We need a baseline but we don’t yet have the science to explain past climate change so we can’t possibly say what climate change will be in the future with or without human intervention.

Many argue that there’s been an increase in warming since the anthropogenic sharp rise in atmospheric CO2. Some of the observations are debatable; but, even if there were no arguments about the facts, the conclusion that the increase in CO2 caused the increase in warming is debatable (that doesn’t mean it’s wrong). The more we learn about natural phenomena, the more we observe that change is rarely smooth but proceeds in a saw-toothed jagged (fractal) pattern. It is wrong to assume that the last 60,000 years of warming have followed an even slope up; they haven’t. It is premature to assume that a 50 year trend is more than a statistical blip or the result of some cause we don’t yet understand.

Climate science is one of the most important studies (with government subsidies) that we ought to be pursuing. But money put into that field will be wasted if it is only spent on reinforcing the politically correct but unproven (but possibly true) thesis that we are both causing the bulk of climate change and that we can significantly slow this change.

Natural climate changes. Can the intellectual climate change enough to allow us to understand the natural climate without slogans, invective, and semi-religious or partisan beliefs (of any flavor) clouding our view? Those who don’t believe that climate will change without human help, don’t believe in climate change any more than those who somehow deny that the climate is changing at all!

See also:

Past Climate Change – the Pictures

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Believers and Deniers

September 27, 2018

A Tale of Two Antennas – The Cord Cutting Saga Continued

Old antenna  New antenna
Way back in 2011 I blogged that I bought an antenna for over $200 and was about to start watching free local TV channels over the air. The satellite dish was toast. On the left above is the antenna still not installed. The DIRECTV dish, service now provided by at&t, is still in use.

A couple of things happened along the way. The times I tried to mount the antenna I had only limited success with the heavy thing. Mainly Mary and I started a new company, NG Advantage LLC, and things got busy.

But I’m retired again and still want to get rid of the dish.

DIRECTV service costs over $150/month. We get almost all of our entertainment from Netflix or Amazon Prime so don’t need the satellite for that. Local news and PBS and BBC via PBS are available over the air as are some of the shows we watch mainly on CBS. We can’t get CNN (which I rarely watch anymore) or Fox News (which balances BBC) online except story-by-story, but we’ll learn to live with that.

Antennas have gotten much simpler because it’s easier to process the new digital TV signals than the old analog ones. On the right above is the new antenna. It and ones like it are widely available for about $25. It can hang on a wall or preferably a window. Even a software guy can mount that.

You don’t need a complicated antenna like the one on the left unless you have to rotate your antenna to look at broadcast towers which are located in different directions or you are very, very far away from towers. In our case ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Fox are all in the same place on top of Mt. Mansfield 9 miles away and in clear view of our house. The Federal Communication Commission has a web page which shows you where your nearest towers are located and what signal strength you can expect for each network. Below is our map and the description of the signal for our CBS affiliate WCAX.

Los Wcax

Over-the-air broadcast theoretically has better picture quality than cable or satellite because it is not compressed; I’ll let you know if I see a difference. There are also extra channels available over the air. For example, our local PBS station has not only the main station available on cable and satellite but also PBS Kids, PBS Plus (“more local programming”), and @create. Don’t know anything about any of them yet.

This has been tested but still not installed. I’m waiting for the Amazon Fire TV Recast, which will serve as the over-the-air DVR and serve the stream to all my TVs, tablets, and phones but won’t ship until November. We’re not planning to start any new companies before then (or ever).

 

September 24, 2018

Fear of Ziplining

I’m afraid of heights. Used to close my eyes on roller coasters but got over that. Once crawled all the way around the metal porch at the top of a lighthouse we were visiting because I was too terrified to stand up.

“Do you want to try ziplining?” Mary asked.

“Uh…”

For my 75th birthday, Mary arranged a five-day, 140-mile bicycle trip on a rail trail called Le Petit Train du Nord in nearby Quebec.

Railtrail

Notice that Mont-Tremblant is in the middle of the journey. Since we’re tourists on bikes and not bikers on a tour, we decided we’d take a day off in the middle and explore the ski area. So what should we do on our day off? I had some nerding to do in the morning and Mary went out to reconnoiter.

“Well, do you want to try the zipline?”

“I guess,” I said. Maybe we won’t be able to get a reservation, I thought.

No such luck. There was a tour leaving in ten minutes. Five separate zips. The longest such torture course in Quebec. “Can we just do the last short one? We’ve never done this before.”

C'est impossible.” The cruelest words in French.

“Is there an age limit?”

“You have to be seven or above.” She sold us senior tickets. How’s that for an oxymoron? senior tickets on a zipline. Below is us on the first platform before the first short zip – but one that takes you to 90km/hour (60mph) and 300 feet over an abyss.

Zipplatform

I’m much more scared than Mary if you can’t tell. In her right hand is a little metal car which a friendly guide places on the cable you see behind my left shoulder. It is attached to the harness by the blue and yellow straps hanging down from Mary’s waist. The gate I’m leaning on opens. You walk down four terrifying steps which project into space; there is no fifth step.

Steps

You lean back into your harness. You lift up your legs… The picture below is not me; it’s from a brochure.

Harness

Whoosh. Sixty mph is really fast. In theory you don’t need to hold on. I have a death grip on the blue and yellow straps. Oh, no. I’m spinning around and going backwards. Bang; the metal car hits a brake at the other end where the catenary of the cable turns up towards the low platform and clips in. A guide either slows you down or reels you in the rest of the way.

“The next one is much longer.”

“Each one is longer than the last,” says a fellow victim who’d done her homework.

I was still plenty scared. However, it seemed that people who held on to a black handle where the straps attach to the car didn’t spin. This time I had a death grip on the black handle. Sixty mph for 3000 feet is a long time; but I didn’t spin.

“The wind is against us on the next zip. You can’t hold onto the black handle. You also need to draw your legs up into what we call the cannonball so you’ll go faster.”

“What if we don’t?”

“You won’t make it to the other end.”

Mary and I did as we were told. Sure enough, I spun. But that just left me back to the wind so I could see without my eyes tearing. Actually wasn’t so bad.

But one woman didn’t obey orders. She ended dangling from the low point in the cable. A guide hooked his car on the same cable and went out hand-over-hand to her; clipped onto her; and hauled her up hand-over hand to the platform. Would have been ignominious.

The competence of the guides (from a company called ZipTrek Ecotours) made it much less scary than it would’ve been otherwise. They clipped us in, reeled us in, and helped us unclip and were meticulous in explaining what to do and in safety checks for every zip.

By the fifth zip, I let go with both hands.

Volia! and Merci, Marie for making me do it.

August 29, 2018

Regulations are Herbicide for the Weeds of Innovation

Innovation is a weed, not a pampered flower. It grows in the cracks; it grows where it’s not wanted. It’s almost, but not quite, unstoppable. You should be very suspicious that Google and Facebook are suggesting “some” regulation as a way of stopping the behavior which empowered their growth. The herbicide of regulation will kill would-be competitors.  Competitors will be a much more effective brake on the power of these monopolies than any regulator will be.

To further stretch the metaphor, incumbent businesses monopolize the sunlight whenever they can. They cast a mighty shadow. They demand subsidies to prevent them from falling down and crushing everyone. They will only grow in your neighborhood if you pay them to (see Amazon searching for a new headquarters or Foxconn’s Michigan con).

New innovative businesses can bring down the mighty oaks of monopoly. I had the privilege of being part of that creative destruction when then-innovative Voice over IP (VoIP) deflated the bubble of the international telephone voice cartel, run for the benefit of all the giant telcos. The price of calls to India and China from the US went from over a $1/minute to pennies within a year. Guest workers, travelers, and soldiers could afford to call home. Also call centers could be located abroad, to be fair. You might even blame globalization on this success in reducing communications costs.

The carriers fought back, of course. Internationally they tried to give regulatory power over the Internet to the ITU, the UN body which administered the mechanisms of maintaining cartel pricing called international settlements, basically a penalty for any company that dared to lower rates paid to those which kept rates up. See Price – Splitting the Pie – Why Not Just Bill and Keep? for probably more detail than you want on how the cartel operated.

In some countries where huge payments to governments (or government officials) were made by the incumbent telco (which might also belong to the government), the incumbents were successful for a while in blocking VoIP. Even India and China blocked it initially. But the price of having a communication barrier between these countries and the developed world was too high. The regulations stayed on the books but were not enforced.

In the US regional carriers tried to get the FCC to regulate VoIP like a phone monopoly. They even wanted VoIP software in a box regulated because it could be used for voice. The FCC, however, first under Clinton and then under Bush, decided to forbear from such regulation. This forbearance was codified in the FCC’s “Pulver” decision in 2004. I lobbied for this and certainly had an interest in it as a VoIP provider; Google also supported this effort to leave the Internet free of the regulation which had stifled innovation in voice services.

Now we have Skype (old news) and Vonage (even older news). The price of domestic calling is part of an unlimited minutes bundle and only some continued cartel-like behavior among cellular carriers keeps the price of international cellphone calls up – although “free” VoIP is often an alternative.

VoIP, of course, is only one example of what has been possible on a largely unregulated Internet. There are some things which need to be stopped in my opinion. Law enforcement needs to be able to trace the use of the Internet in committing crimes just as it can, with a warrant, tap phones and open mail.

The massive invasions of privacy which we allow out of ignorance, or because we consider them a fair price to pay for “free” service like Google Search and Facebook, need to be fully revealed with at least the weapons of FTC enforcements and class-action suits to discourage misrepresentation.

It has just been publicized that Verizon’s Yahoo subsidiary reads mail in its customers’ inboxes so that it can bundle the customers into categories like “investor” or “traveler” and sell access to the categories to advertisers. To be fair, if they know about it customers CAN opt out. They can also switch from Yahoo Mail to gmail or Microsoft, both of which say they don’t do this (“anymore”, in the case of Google). In this example competition can act as an effective deterrent to this action. No regulation necessary.

But what if Facebook is engaging in a practice you don’t like. If your social life revolves around Facebook (mine doesn’t), you don’t have a practical alternative. I haven’t found a search engine whose results I like better than Google results even though I know my searches are being watched and monetized.

So do we need regulation to protect us from Facebook and Google? Whose lobbyists do you think will write that regulation? Whom do you suppose the regulators will be captured by?

We need innovation to give us alternatives to the giants: a better way to search or even a substitute for what we call searching today which will break the Google monopoly (which was earned in part by very good service). We need social media sites that our friends will flock to or ways to congregate online which don’t require an intermediary.

But revolutionary innovation never seems to fit old regulation. If the Internet giants can spread the herbicide of regulation on the grounds from which innovation would come (using their own current success as an excuse), we won’t get the new companies which can and would bring down the old trees which have grown too far to the sky.

Late breaking: Trump’s call to regulate Google et al because of bias (which all humans have) makes me even more convinced that regulation is more dangerous than helpful. The regulatory herbicide is hard to put back in the bottle. I hope my friends at Google et al will see the danger in their call for regulation “lite”.

August 15, 2018

Tweets from @realedontrusk themselves

[No twitterbots were used to create this post]

2 things u need 2 know: I am v rich & v smart. I am richer & smarter than u.

I make or unmake rules; I do not follow.

In old days I would’ve sucked up 2 press 2 get them 2 cover what I said (& they would’ve screwed it up). Now don’t need them; I tweet; u read. They have 2 reprint (altho doesn’t matter).

Press ppl don’t like me because I don’t suck up 2 them. Tough. Their business model is broken. Mine isn’t. If it was, would fix in a tweet.

Press ppl didn’t like FDR “fireside” chats on radio because direct to real ppl (I know that kind of stuff). Beginning of end for press but they didn’t know then. Don’t know now because they r clueless.

Crooked establishment wants 2 shut me up. Use FBI and SEC 2 investigate my tweets. 1st amendment?

Press whining because I call them liars. They called me liar 1st. Throw stones & hide behind 1st amendment when I throw back. They’re losers & whiners & biz model broke.

Ppl that don’t like me r stupid or crooked or worse. They call me names. I always hit back. They whine like press.

U can retweet me. If u say something good about me, I’ll retweet maybe. Minute of fame 4 u.

My lawyers don’t want me 2 tweet. They say gets me in trouble. Makes their job hard. I say do your job. If I took your advice would be poor & stupid.

Saudi Arabia is smart & rich. I like 2 deal with them. They have no press problems. No ex-wife problems either.

MAGA & buy $TSLA.

August 07, 2018

Discussing Primaries Live on WDEV Today at 11AM ET

I will be live on WDEVat 11am ET today discussing why primary system favors extremes and discord and the easy fix with Bill Sayre. (am 550, fm96. 1, 96.5 & 101.9, stream http://wdevradio.com/stream/).

Call in on 802-244-1777 or 877-291-8255 to add your opinion or ask a question.

See below for related opinions:

Primary Power

Why Almost Every Vermonter Should Vote for Phil Scott on Primary Day

Vermonters can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place on August 14th. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

August 06, 2018

Why Almost Every Vermonter Should Vote for Phil Scott on Primary Day

August 14th is Primary Day in Vermont, where we can freely vote in any party’s primary. This year there are three ballots: Republican, Democratic, and Progressive. The only hitch is that, once you choose a ballot, you can only vote for candidates on that ballot; you can’t split your primary vote (except with write-ins). Choosing a ballot doesn’t tie you to a party in any way in the future; it certainly doesn’t prevent you from splitting your vote across party lines in the general election as I often do.

This year I recommend that Vermonters, regardless of party affiliation or lack of affiliation, vote in the Republican Primary for Governor Phil Scott unless they are vitally interested in the outcome of the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, which is the only seriously contested statewide race in that party. Scott has earned support both for the economic benefits of his policy and, IMO, for having the political courage to change his mind on the charged issue of gun control. It is also vitally important that there be a moderate Republican alternative to a legislature dominated by Democrats. One party rule is not good no matter which party exercises it.

It will be a shame if this election turns on the issue of gun control, even though people are passionate on either side. General election voters will consider a variety of issues. However, primaries in non-Presidential years traditionally have appallingly low turn-out; in 2014 only 7.7%, 36,100 people decided whom the candidates for Governor of Vermont would be. A small turn-out election is easily dominated by people who are committed to a single issue. That means, frankly, that Phil Scott could lose the primary to Keith Stern, who is running on the gun control issue. I have no personal beef with Stern and he is certainly entitled to run on his beliefs; but it would be a loss for Vermont if Scott is not the Republican nominee. We don’t want to reinforce the general political wisdom that politicians need to cater to the extremes of their party in order to survive primaries; we want to prove that thoughtful people actually bother to turn out and vote in primaries.

Were Keith Stern nominated, he almost certainly would not be elected. So, even if you are passionately opposed to any change in gun control laws, your best strategy to avoid a real draconian threat to second amendment rights is to have Phil Scott back in office and acting as a brake of a left-leaning legislature. A vote for Stern is a protest vote; a vote for Scott is a vote for a moderate candidate who can be reelected governor.

But let’s go beyond gun control. Scott’s policies have been good for Vermont. He assured that the tax laws were modified so that changes to the federal tax law did not result in a $30 million increase in Vermont state income tax; he stopped the legislature from raising residential property taxes although he could not stop them completely from raising the non-residential property tax, even in the face of much-higher than estimated tax revenues. It’s scary to think what might happen to taxes next year if Democrat and Populist domination of Montpelier is complete.

Only Scott’s veto threats are sufficient to get a legislature dominated with a majority which is apparently terrified by the teacher’s union to even consider the educational reform we need for the sake of children and taxpayers. A vote for Scott in the primary is a vote to keep education reform on the table.

Scott and Stern have been in three debates:

WCAX Primary Debate

VPR Primary Debate

Channel 17/ VT Digger Debate

I hope you’ll vote for Phil Scott on primary day; but, even if you don’t, it is still very important that you do vote. Our ballots in the primary actually make more difference than in the general election, since there are more choices and less people voting. In order to make sure we have good candidates to choose from in the general election, we have to vote in the primary.

You can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place onthe 14th. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

See also: Primary Power

August 02, 2018

Primary Power

Primary Voters Rule the US. General election voters just get to do damage control.

Did you like the final choice you had to make in the 2016 Presidential election? I didn’t. Who’s to blame for the choice we ended up with? Hints: it’s not the “fake media” or the Russians; it’s not even those who voted in primary elections who deserve the blame. Answer: those who don’t vote in primaries are leaving America, its states, and its localities with a poor choice of candidates, political polarization, and increasingly ineffectual and even corrupt government.

In 2014 (the last non-presidential primary year in Vermont), only 36,101 people voted in Vermont’s four gubernatorial primaries; that’s 7.7% of those eligible to vote. This 7.7% decided which of the six candidates running got to be in the finals for governor. These 36,101 people decided whom the 193,087 people who voted in the general election had to choose from. Whose votes counted for more? Obviously those who voted in the primaries! These primary voters had a wider selection to choose from and each of their individual votes had five times greater weight in the sparsely attended primary than each vote in the better attended general election.

It wouldn’t matter that primary voting turnout is so low if primary voters were representative of voters as a whole. But primary voters are anything but representative: they are the most committed, right or wrong, to various causes. They tend to be the extremes of their parties. You can see that when you look at the vote in the 2016 presidential primary in Vermont, where turnout, as usual, was better than in the non-presidential year. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary with 115,863 votes or 86.1% of votes cast in the Democratic primary. Donald Trump had 19,968 votes or 32.7% of the Republican votes to win that nomination. Where did the middle go? It was no-show in the primary. Notice also that when there are multiple candidates in a primary, each single vote becomes even more important – especially in a state like Vermont where a majority is not required for primary victory.

People who are committed to the extreme of a single issue are motivated to protect their views in primaries. Those of us who worry about nuance and need to know a candidate’s views on multiple issues have a lamentable tendency to say “I haven’t done enough homework so I’ll sit this primary out.” Frankly, there’s no excuse for us. The over-representation of zealots in primaries has made it impossible for politicians to deal reasonably with touchstone issues like abortion and gun control let alone the bread and butter issues of taxing, spending, and national defense.

Most Americans support reasonable limits on gun ownership. We realize that there already are gun control laws and that the second amendment hasn’t withered away yet. We don’t think any set of laws is beyond some improvement and are willing to debate what is improvement and what is not. But those who believe that any change to these laws is a slippery slope to a defenseless citizenry turn out in primaries.  A candidate with a reasoned approach to gun control can win a general election; but it is almost impossible for such a candidate to win a Republican primary. On the other hand, the most draconian approach possible to restrict gun ownership is a very good tactic to appeal to those who turn out for Democratic primaries. What do we (usually) get? two candidates with extreme views, neither of whom dares make any compromise lest she or he lose the next primary.

Similarly, most Americans support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion but also support reasonable limits on that right as the fetus matures, a ban on third trimester abortions, for example, unless the woman’s life is in danger. In the Democratic Party it is political suicide to suggest any limits, no matter how reasonable, because any limits are a slippery slope towards taking away women’s right to choose in the eyes of Democratic primary voters. And it is the rare Republican (except in Vermont), who can support any right to abortion and win that party’s primary. The candidates we get are the candidates the primary voters choose; they can’t afford to seek a reasonable middle.

Primaries are an experiment within the American experiment of federal democracy. Candidates used to be chosen by party insiders and the general elections were the only chance general voters got to weigh in. The party insiders, who wanted to obtain or cling to power, often tended to choose the candidate who would get most general election votes; that process favored centerists (and was also enormously open to corruption). Open primaries were a populist reform; they did help break the power of the party bosses. But, since the vast majority of people don’t vote in primaries, the reform is leading to bad government.

This problem is easy to fix; we don’t need to go back to bosses choosing candidates in what would now probably be smoke-free rooms. All we need to do is actually vote in the primaries.

Vermont’s primary this year is August 14th. You can vote in any one of the Democratic, Republican or Progressive primaries without having any permanent affiliation with any of these parties. You can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place on election day. Your vote will have more effect on primary day than in the general election. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

August 01, 2018

The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority

More wisdom from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

This rule has been hiding in plain sight; but Taleb drags it out in the open as the most important asymmetry affecting our daily lives and perhaps the future of civilization. The title of this post is a chapter head from his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, from which many of the examples below are taken.

We like to think that, in our democracy, the majority rules: usually that’s not the case. Many airlines don’t serve peanuts or any snack which has touched a peanut because some people (a small minority) are greatly allergic to peanuts. The non-allergic can survive without peanuts; the allergic can’t tolerate them. That’s an asymmetry and the “intolerant” minority rules. This particular outcome is beneficial on the whole.

Similarly, when Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday, the school lunches in my public school, in which Catholics were a minority, were always fish on Friday. Didn’t hurt the rest of us to eat fish once a week (except it was even more revolting than the other dishes on the school menu); but observing Catholics couldn’t eat anything else. Minority rule because of the asymmetry but no big deal.

Sometime the minority veto can be beneficial, according to Taleb. For reasons I won’t go into here, he is against genetically modified foods (GMOs). He knows that he is part of a minority which benefits from an asymmetry: they won’t eat GMOs but the majority has no aversion to non-GMOs. Hence the growing shelves of “organic” food in grocery stores which crowds out the non-organic food. I’m not at all convinced that I want to pay more for “organic” food without knowing a lot more about why; but that’s for a different post.

But now things get more sinister. Taleb, a Coptic Christian from Lebanon, says that Christians used to be a majority in Egypt. But there’s an asymmetry:

“First, under Islamic law, if a non-Muslim man marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam – and if either parent of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy [nb. in this case, converting away from Islam] is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty….

“Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead over the centuries to the Copts becoming the minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriage….

“Egypt’s Copts suffered from an additional problem: the irreversibility of Islamic conversions. Many Copts during Islamic rule converted to the dominant religion when it was merely an administrative procedure, something that helps one land a job or handle a problem which requires Islamic jurisprudence.”

According to Taleb who is partial to the Shia Muslims he grew up with in Beirut and fiercely opposed to Sunni Salafism (and Saudi Arabia which is its main sponsor). He cites this asymmetry: Jews and Muslim minorities like Shiites, are content if they are allowed to follow their own laws; Salafis say everyone must follow their law and feel they have an obligation to Jihad against those who don’t.

Taleb asks: “Should a society which has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”

He answers his own question:

“Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, it will eventually destroy our world…

“So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western principles’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.”

Although I agree with Taleb that Salafi extremism is an existential danger given both the asymmetries he cites and enormous funding and support for this extremism from Saudi Arabia and can even agree that we can’t tie our hands behind our backs with our own rules while fighting back, I don’t agree that we can deny free speech to anyone who denies free speech to us nor withhold Constitutional protections to anyone who disagrees with “American Values.” Who would get to decide when someone who wants to change a law – or even amend the Constitution – is actually attacking our values or just trying to make the country better? Should the student radicals who shout down speakers they are afraid to listen to be denied free speech themselves? I don’t think so (as much as I wish they’d shut up).

Taleb makes valid and interesting points on how and why decisions in a democracy are often made by minorities and about asymmetries. He raises the crucial question of how we can fight Salafi extremism given the asymmetries that advantage it. But he doesn’t answer the question of how we preserve our civilization both against those who would destroy it and the means we may have to use to defend it. There is certainly no pretty answer not can the question be avoided on at least a case by case basis.

For more on tolerating intolerance see:

Don’t Panic!

For more on the thoughts of Nassim Taleb see also:

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

July 24, 2018

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Ethics don’t scale, Taleb says in his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.

People tend to be virtuous in small groups, he says; but, once the groups get large, ethical rules lose their force with respect to the group as a whole although not within the subgroups. This can and does lead to inter-subgroup hostility and bad behavior. People do things to members of other clans that they wouldn’t do to clanspeople. Because virtue doesn’t scale, you can’t just declare everybody to be one huge group and have a nirvana of good behavior and trust.

Putting Shiites, Christians, and Sunnis in one pot and asking them to sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire while holding hands in the name of unity and fraternity of mankind has failed (Interventionists aren’t yet aware that “should” is not a sufficiently empirically valid statement to “build nations.”) Blaming people for being “sectarian” – instead of making the best of such a natural tendency – is one of the stupidities of interventionistas. Separate tribes for administrative purpose (as the Ottomans did), or just put some markers somewhere, and they suddenly become friendly to one another.

Partition is certainly a very harsh prescription. A lot of what Taleb writes is harsh. But it’s obvious that the constituent states of what were once Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are happier individually and in total than they were when lashed together. BTW, Taleb does think the US federal model can be a viable way to deal with scale.

He quotes Geoff and Vince Graham (without saying who they are):

I am, at the Fed level, libertarian;

at the state level, Republican;

at the local level, Democrat;

and at the family and friends level, a socialist.

See also:

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

July 20, 2018

Internet Extortion Follow-up

The extortionary email I posted Tuesday has apparently been sent all over the country. KrebsonSecurity has a good post here; note the language is word-for-word what Mary got. This scam appears to be the descendant of a snail mail scam from January in which the hacker claims to know of an adulterous affair; the language in the snail mail is very similar to that in the email.

Krebs had a good suggestion to add to my list of how not be vulnerable: cover the camera on your PC when you’re not using it.

At least one reader of the email version of my blog unsubscribed because the post, which contained the extortion email, apparently triggered an ISP’s spam filter. The ISP notified my reader that I was sending bad stuff and suggested blocking me. Good news, I guess, that the spam filter was working. Maybe I should have posted a picture of the email rather than its text.

I notified the FBI, which has a form for such complaints at https://complaint.ic3.gov/default.aspx. I also emailed the Vermont Attorney General’s office at AGO.CAP@vermont.gov and signed up for scam alerts at http://ago.vermont.gov/scam-alerts-signup-form/.

See Attempted Internet Extortion for the text of the email and other security hints.

July 17, 2018

Attempted Internet Extortion

Mary received the threatening email below:      

I do know, xxxxx [redacted. a throwaway password Mary once used on sites that shouldn’t require a password], is your pass word [sic]. You may not know me and you're most likely thinking why you are getting this e-mail, correct?

Well, I setup a malware on the adult video clips (adult porn) web site and guess what, you visited this web site to experience fun (you know what I mean). While you were watching videos, your web browser initiated working as a RDP (Remote control Desktop) with a key logger which provided me access to your display and also web camera. Right after that, my software gathered all your contacts from your Messenger, Facebook, and email.

What did I do?

I created a double-screen video. First part shows the video you were viewing (you have a good taste rofl), and second part shows the recording of your web cam.

What should you do?

Well, in my opinion, $2900 is a fair price tag for our little secret. You will make the payment by Bitcoin (if you do not know this, search "how to buy bitcoin" in Google).

BTC Address: 1HNcrm3pBwD299it5SfcerzrFqVKzy2cBz

(It is cAsE sensitive, so copy and paste it)

Note:

You now have one day in order to make the payment. (I've a specific pixel within this e mail, and at this moment I know that you have read this e mail). If I don't get the BitCoins, I will, no doubt send your video to all of your contacts including members of your family, coworkers, and so on. Having said that, if I do get paid, I will destroy the video immediately [sic]. If you really want evidence, reply with "Yes!" and I will certainly send out your video to your 5 friends. It is a non-negotiable offer, thus please don't waste my time and yours by responding to this message.

Even if Mary were in the habit of browsing porn sites and was desperately afraid of being found out, we would not have coughed up the bitcoin both because giving in to this extortion would have led to nothing but further demands and because this would-be extortionist pretty clearly is blowing smoke.

If he or she really knew Mary was watching porn, he or she would have given the name of the site as proof. If she or he had access to Mary’s contacts, she or he would have listed one or two. Mary doesn’t use Messenger, so the claim to have her Messenger contacts is spurious. Facebook contacts are stored on Facebook and not user computers. Key loggers (malware which records all your keystrokes and can be used to steal passwords) doesn’t have access to either the display or the camera although the threat of a two-way video is probably what make this extortion frightening enough to work for some people, especially male people. The email does not appear to contain a tracking pixel to tell the sender when it has been read although, just to be sure, I’m working with only a copy of the text.

What does give this a hint of authenticity is that the password I redacted in the first paragraph is one that Mary has used. My suspicion is that the would-be extortionist has hacked some site to get passwords or just purchased a trove of them on the dark web.

If you are afraid you are vulnerable to a hack like the one the sender claims to have perpetrated but probably didn’t, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Install antivirus software if you don’t already have it.
  2. Use your browser in Private mode when visiting any website which is unknown to you or faintly suspicious. Private mode prevents websites for leaving behind cookies. On Firefox you get a private window by selecting “New Private Window” on the File menu BEFORE going to a suspect website. On Google Chrome, select “New Incognito Window”. On Microsoft Edge, select “New InPrivate Window”.
  3. Unless you know a website well, never allow it to download anything to your computer. All mainstream browsers block downloads unless you give specific permission for them in a dialog box. Porn sites offer downloads to prevent tracking; this software is likely to be malware.
  4. Change passwords often.
  5. Don’t pay blackmail! There’s no reason to trust the blackmailer, and you both confirm your guilt by paying and open yourself to further demands.

See Internet Extortion Follow-up for some updates.

July 05, 2018

America the Restless

It’s the Fourth of July as I write this. I’m proud to be an American. I’m apprehensive but hopeful for my country.

We’re prosperous: more jobs than people willing and/or qualified to take them. That’s a high-class problem to have. This is a wonderful time to tackle the problem of multi-generational joblessness and poverty. Shame on us if we don’t.

Almost none of our armed men and women are in combat although many are still in harm’s way. With energy independence clearly in reach, we can be especially judicious in avoiding quagmires – at least in the Middle East. We can use our own vast energy supplies to help our friends (Europe) escape dependence on energy from our adversaries (Russia and Iran, for example).

Yet we are anything but complacent, which is a good thing IMO. “The establishment” is being thrown out of office worldwide, sometimes by the left, sometimes by the right, and even sometimes by a left-right coalition (Italy). Power has, as power will, become too concentrated. The new leaders are certainly not always better people than the old leaders; some are worse. Revolutions lead more often to chaos and then tyranny than to a democratic utopia, as Niall Ferguson brilliantly explains in The Square and the Tower; nevertheless entrenched power eventually sucks the wealth and hope from a society as it grows stronger and stronger.

The deplorable bank bailout in the great recession was a clear example that both traditional American political parties had become welded to wealth and committed to the protection of the wealthy even when they (the wealthy) have gambled and failed. Ruthless globalization (of which I was a proponent) disproportionately benefited the already successful. Employers always favor massive immigration to keep wages down; labor wants immigration restricted to keep wages high. Industrialized countries have generally struck a balance in which a lack of workers doesn’t stifle growth and a flood of immigrants doesn’t crush wages.  That balance was lost when “the center” in Europe especially and the US to a lesser extent allowed a flood of illegal immigrants. The center (aka establishment) has now seen the backlash; it isn’t pretty.

I’m uncomfortable writing the last few sentences; I’m a descendant of fairly recent immigrants (Jews) who weren’t very popular when they arrived but were allowed to stay and eventually prosper. The America I’m proud of was built mostly by immigrants. We can’t shut the door behind ourselves.  We also can’t be hypocrites who limit immigration by law but then criticize the enforcement of the law.

But I’m hopeful. We the people are at least facing the questions the establishment would just as soon have had left to them. We are questioning ourselves. We may force Congress to act rather than let policy be set by presidents and courts. While the President often tweets vitriol and falsehoods and certainly hasn’t drained the swamp (I’m making no excuse for him), he also breaks the stultifying bonds of political correctness and points out (rudely) that some emperors have no clothes. He speaks to those left behind by the elites (as does Bernie Sanders); he may even listen to them. “The resistance” mobilizes marches and conducts registration drives; that’s good, not bad. Democracy flourishes on dissent and debate. The last thing we need are safe zones where uncomfortable issues can’t be raised (that’s a hallmark of tyranny).

We are America the restless. Our success is certainly not guaranteed. But complacency would guarantee failure and prosperity gives us room to try and try again.

Happy Independence Day.

June 11, 2018

The Hillary Clinton Administration

After I outed myself as a Trump voter (which does not mean a Trump supporter right or wrong), friends and others less friendly have asked whether I now think that vote was a mistake. Fair question. There are certainly mornings when Trump’s first tweet gives me voter’s remorse. I can only answer the question by postulating what the country would look like 500 or so days into Hillary Clinton’s first term and comparing that to where we are.

I was surprised to see I listed so many things that would NOT have changed regardless of which one of them was elected. Obviously some of the things I listed as Trump or Clinton positives you may consider as negative and so switch them to the other list.

Things that would be same (although different in the details)

James Comey would be fired, would have written a book, and would be on a book tour.

There would be a special prosecutor investigating whether the Clinton campaign pressured the DNC to illegally discriminate against the Sanders campaign, whether there was illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama White House, and whether firing James Comey was obstruction of justice. The FBI Inspector General would still be on the verge of releasing a damning report.

The President would say the special prosecutor is conducting a witch hunt and would claim executive privilege for White House communications leading up to Comey’s firing.

There would be a health care funding crisis. ObamaCare as passed wasn’t economically sustainable. Clinton would have had to deal with that and the inability of Congress to pass meaningful reform.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would each be preparing to run for President in 2020 with a platform far to the left of the President.

The school shootings would have happened and Congress would not have made any meaningful changes to federal gun law.

There would be no immigration reform.

The trend for increasing prosecution of leakers, which began in the Obama Administration, including the subpoenaing of reporters’ records would have continued in the Clinton Administration as it has under Trump.

The carried interest deduction for hedge fund managers would not have been repealed.

Banks would have relief from Dodd-Franks.

Ethanol would still be mandated and subsidized.

ISIS would be on the run.

The Supreme Court would have made the same decision in the wedding cake case.

There would still be an opioid crisis no one knows how to deal with.

There would be speculation about the whereabouts of the first spouse.

The swamp would still be the swamp.

Things that would have been better under Clinton IMO

Discussion between and about international leaders would still be civil.

Appointees would not be trash-talking world leaders.

There would not be an undertone of racism in the President’s remarks.

Clinton would be more suspicious of Putin than Trump appears to be (very important to me).

Clinton would not be supporting abstinence-only sex education as a substitute for contraceptives and information about their use.

Presidential appointees would have been better vetted and not had to be shuttled out of the door almost as fast as they came in.

The country would be on the verge of a Republican mid-term landslide given that Clinton is not as popular in her party as Trump is in his, the location of Senate races favors Republicans, and midterms traditionally go to the party which is not in the oval office. (I’m not sure this would really be a good thing: Republican performance in Congress doesn’t deserve a big reward.)

Things that are better under Trump IMO

The economy couldn’t be stronger in terms of employment and (finally) increasing wages. There’s a combination of reasons for this but Trump gets some credit.

The readjustment of corporate tax happened and is resulting in the repatriation of money and jobs. Major other tax reforms didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t have happened under President Clinton either.

Our energy production is being allowed to grow although there is a danger that under-regulation will replace over-regulation.

We are out of the feckless Iran deal.

We are not acknowledging North Korea as a long-term nuclear power as Clinton supporters like Susan Rice have urged. Too soon, of course, to chalk up an accomplishment for Trump, though.

We are using our buying power to pressure China on both unfair trade practices and support for North Korea.

Our support for Israel as the only democracy in its neighborhood has been strengthened and we’ve helped create an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the many Arab countries.  Facing the reality of Palestinian corruption and misrule may lead towards peace; but that’s probably wishful thinking in the Middle East.

The FCC has reversed itself on so-called “Net Neutrality”, which I think was a dangerous grant of power to Google, Facebook, and Amazon who don’t need any help as well as an opening for government censorship.

Gorsuch (rather than Elizabeth Warren?) is on the Supreme Court. In a time when imperial Presidency is an increasing danger, I feel safest with a strict constructionist on the bench.

The Supreme Court will probably rule that compulsory agency payments by government employees to unions are unconstitutional. This will weaken the ability of teacher’s unions locally and nationally to thwart educational reform.

Charter schools have a fighting chance.

Things I think could be better

(the list is too long for this blog)

See I Voted for Donald Trump

June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

How do we make sure that all Americans have a secure source of energy in the future? The question is important even if the Trump Administration answer that we ought to be mandating the use of coal and nuclear plants has more to do with politics than energy.

Where’s the problem?

Our electrical grid is ancient in design and implementation. It is vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. The grid was located to deliver power from coal and nuclear plants which are aging out of service. It was designed to take advantage of the predicable baseload power such plants generated. The grid wasn’t designed for either the intermittency or locations of current wind and solar power sources. The failure of the obsolete and poorly maintained grid in Puerto Rico is extreme but should be a wakeup call.

Even though the electrical grid is increasingly insufficient for modern reality, we are increasing our dependence on it. More and more cars (still a very small number in absolute terms) are electrically powered. Currently we use the fossil fuel in our cars to take us away from areas where electricity has failed and even to power our cellphones during a blackout. We’re not ready for a time when an electrical failure also implies a transportation failure. Think how much worse the crisis in Puerto Rico would be if ambulances, trucks, and cars couldn’t move.

For good environmental and economic reasons, the use of electric heat pumps rather than oil or gas burning furnaces is being promoted (I have two). Again, though, we are increasing our reliance on an electrical grid which is not sufficient for its current tasks. The power fails (perhaps because of a long cloudy windless spell) and people are without heat, light, and transportation to get them out of Dodge. They can’t call for help and help can’t get to them. Not a pretty picture but not far-fetched either.

“Antifragility” is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. Wikipedia defines antifragility as “a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Our energy distribution system in fragile by any definition; it should be antifragile. The Internet, as an example, is antifragile as a communication network because of its lack of a central point of failure, the diversity of resources which make it up and, most important, dynamic routing.

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

  1. Allow the electrical grid to evolve. Our ludicrous permitting process makes it nearly impossible regulatorily and prohibitively expensive to build a new power line. We have electricity shortages in New England but can’t find a way to bring abundant, cheap, clean Canadian hydropower south without going through somebody’s backyard or constructing a transmission tower where someone might see it.
  2. Allow gas pipeline infrastructure to grow. We are retiring our nuclear plants in New England; we need more baseline electric power generating capacity. We don’t want to burn coal and, in the winter, natural gas generating plants run out of fuel. There is a surplus of natural gas in the Marcellus just to our west. It can’t get to New England because there isn’t enough pipeline between here and there and capacity expansions have been blocked politically. The gas distribution network is also a useful alternative to complete dependence on the electrical grid as a way to bring power to homes, factories, and vehicles.
  3. Allow distributed generation and energy storage to grow. Both renewable and non-renewable local energy projects are priced and delayed out of reach by the combined lobbying power of those who don’t want nearby development and those who’d prefer no economic growth.
  4. Don’t mandate one energy source over the other. Such mandates, as we’ve see now with the proposed coal and nuclear mandates and the ethanol mandate, are usually political inspired. They induce fragility by constraining choice. Obviously, environmental constraints on emissions and wastes are appropriate, however; so long as they’re not written for the explicit purpose of favoring a popular energy source (see Renewables Are a Means, Not an End ).
  5. Stop “incenting” electric cars. Electricity is not an energy source. Every watt that a Tesla runs on has to be generated. Nationwide, that means that Teslas are coal-powered a third of the time and fossil-fuel-powered most of the time. It is more energy efficient to burn natural gas directly in a car than to burn it in a power plant, run the electricity over lossy lines, charge a battery, and then use the electricity to turn the wheels. Less CO2 emissions as well. People may prefer electric cars and should be able to buy them; but distorting the economics with subsidies makes our entire energy infrastructure more fragile.
  6. Repeal the Jones Act, which prohibits carrying goods between US ports in foreign vessels. This winter LNG was shipped from Siberia to Massachusetts at the same time as LNG was being exported from Louisiana to Asia because there are no American LNG tankers, which would have been allowed to go directly between the two states.
  7. Do build a new electrical backbone which is distributed, cyber-attack resistant, and which can carry power with little loss from any region of the country to any other as supply and demand vary. All electricity sources become more economically viable with a more capable grid. Because of our huge size, the wind is usually blowing somewhere and the sun shining somewhere (during the day). The fact that the US started as a huge free trade zone (even when it was small) and that we now stretch from sea to shining makes us antifragile so long as we have the transmission and transportation networks to conquer distance.

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

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