Category Archives: Internet

Blind leading the blind

Last week’s article touched on a defect in humanity that spurs a tiny minority to use violence to achieve their ends. This week the focus will be on a similar defect that spurs a different minority to use deception as their tool of choice. I suppose I’d rather be duped than threatened (at least I have a chance of seeing through the deception and walking away) but it is nevertheless any unsavory side of humanity. The power of the Internet has given rise to a new class of conman, the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) peddler. They are like an Infomercial that doesn’t disclose it’s an Infomercial. These peddlers extend a helping hand, claiming they have access to special, secret knowledge that “they” don’t want you to know about – and they offer it to you all for free! As the saying goes in the Internet era – if the product is free, you’re the product. That’s not always a bad thing (witness Facebook) but it should raise your BS radar when someone is trying to steer you toward or away from certain products. A healthy dose of skepticism is always warranted.

One of the biggest of these Internet phenomenons is the “Food Babe”. Although she has no background in chemistry or biology she speaks and publishes as though she is an authority on those subjects. Her success makes sense: a) we all eat food, b) we all want to be safe and c) nearly none of us has the requisite knowledge base to separate the wheat from the chaff of her information flow (see, I made a food pun there).

By way of example, she recently published an article on the “dangers” of cottonseed oil. Not that hydrogenated oils are particularly healthy in and of themselves (irrespective of their source) but her arguments here are just silly and betray her chemical ignorance. Hydrogenated oil is hydrogenated oil, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Trying to impugn it because the source in this case is ‘not food’ (cotton) is chemically laughable. It’s like saying mined salt from the ground is dirty because we know there is dirt in the ground but salt extracted from the ocean is pure and clean because water is clean. Her argument is incoherent, jumping back and forth between GMOs are bad to pesticides are bad. Well which is it? GMOs allow fewer pesticides to be used. There are ancillary negatives surrounding GMOs (seed patents, government strong arm tactics on behalf of Monsanto, etc.) but those are merely policy issues. GMOs themselves are biologically a non-issue. Those that fear them just don’t understand how chemistry or biology work…and then they peddle that fear to gain followers and links. This article was simply a formulaic anti-GMO screed with cottonseed oil as the vehicle for that screed, she could have written the same article using any GMO crop.

Unless you have a degree in chemistry or biology you’d be hard pressed to spot the BS she is shoveling. I have a degree (Ph.D.) in chemistry. My BS radar immediately went off reading the article. People like her succeed because the general public does not have the time or skillset to uncover the truth, so rather than take a chance they go along with whoever appears to be an “authority.” It’s the same technique politicians use to get elected; an uninformed electorate goes along with whomever sounds best or seems trustworthy. And so in both cases we end up with bad advice and bad policy. Trusting what our fellow man tells us is an admirable trait, it is unfortunate that it is so often abused by those have figured out how to exploit it.

Trust, but Verify

By the time you read this the election will have been decided. No matter who won, the Earth will continue to rotate on its axis and life will go on without nary a concern over the grand egoists in Washington (or Atlanta) who would presume to be our guardians. And that is as it should be. Children require guardians; adults do not.

But, if you are desirous of returning to the womb and feeling comforted in the knowledge that selfless and wise public servants will protect you from all harms, then by all means you have the right, nay, the obligation to demand they prove beyond a reasonable doubt their wisdom and selflessness. In the past all we had as evidence of their competency was their word, or the word of a B-list celebrity on their behalf. If the race was important enough, there might actually be some investigative journalism (back when journalists actually took pride in their work and fully vetted their facts and sources). Whoever was most capable at marketing themselves – apropos in a market driven economy – would ultimately be the winner.

But this election cycle has seen a sea change in terms of trust. As old Russian proverb say, “trust, but verify.” Surely Trump’s puppet master Putin has taught him that one. The Internet has conferred power to the powerless. It has democratized information distribution as the citizen journalist plies his wares in the form of blogs, YouTube videos, and social media memes; a million different opinions and viewpoints all vying to be heard. Some good, some bad, but the for the first time in history everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard (even if fewer today listen as each wrestles for control of the podium). It is the anonymizing power of the Internet that made such platforms as Wikileaks and Anonymous possible. Were they printed media sources they would have been instantly squashed by those in power seeking to silence the Truth they disburse.

History shows that wherever technology ignites the flames that will clear the old ways for the new, there is resistance; the obsolete rarely goes gently into that good night. From the likely apocryphal tale of Dutch workers whose jobs were threatened by industrialization throwing their “sabot” into machinery to undermine its efficiency, to today’s taxi unions pushing to outlaw or undermine crowd-sourced systems such as Uber or Lyft we see the similar desperate grabs at retaining power in journalism. CNN’s Chris Cuomo (wrongly) asserted that only they, the anointed acolytes in The Media could read and interpret the contents of WikiLeaks email dumps. I believe Martin Luther took similar issue with the Pope over proper authority to interpret the Written Word. The Protestant Reformation ensued.

If we are to be ruled like children, then we the People have the right to learn all we can about those who would presume to rule us, by any and all means necessary. Those who would attack the truth because they find its means of delivery distasteful are undeserving of our trust or obedience.

Stepping Up to the Plate?

Slow internet. No words invoke greater apoplexy in modern man than these. Oconee County, being largely rural, has suffered through its share of less than ideal Internet connectivity over the last decade. So it is little wonder that county officials recently engaged representatives of Corning Optical Communications to discuss the possibility of wiring the entire county for fiber optic Internet access. As a resident myself, nothing would please me more. However, as an ethically consistent human being, I cannot opt to ignore a little thing like theft even when that theft might benefit me personally.

Inroads to high speed Internet have been slow not because of capriciousness but rather due to simple economics. Investments are made only if the prospect of a meaningful return is sufficient to compensate for the risk involved. What would you say if someone asked you to invest your retirement savings into a project that might yield a payback of less than 1% after 75 years? If you’re unwilling to make such a poor investment, then who can blame the telecoms for reaching the same conclusion. Capital intensive projects like running underground cables for miles and miles only to serve a handful of customers just don’t make economic sense unless those customers are willing to pay hundreds of dollars a month. And since nobody is willing to pay that, it doesn’t happen. Local governments don’t help either as various right-of-way statutes heap unnecessary costs on the process (see OCGA §46-5-1(a) and 48-5-423).

In the meeting, according to the Oconee Enterprise, Administrative Officer Jeff Benko observed that, “…in areas where the private sector has not stepped up to the plate, there’s an opportunity for the government to intervene.” In other words, where my parents have not stepped up to the plate by buying me a Ferrari, there’s an opportunity for my bank-robbing uncle to buy one on my behalf. “Stepping up to the plate” is the economic equivalent of providing something at a false cost because no one is wiling to pay its true cost.

This project was estimated to run about $1400/home served. If everyone voluntarily wrote a $1400 check that would be grand. It would be true democracy, marketplace democracy, in action. Consumers vote their preference every time they open their wallet. But we live with a political democracy as well, so as long as 51 out of 100 people want something, then it’s perfectly acceptable to reach into their neighbor’s wallet and take what is needed. Some might suggest paying for it with bonds is ethically sound as someone is voluntarily lending money to the county. But that logic is specious insofar as the bond must eventually be repaid and the only way to do so is with taxes and as we all know, taxes are theft. Indeed bonds are even more cowardly as they shift the repayment burden onto future taxpayers who have no voice in what is decided today.

Repeat after me: just because it is something I want, that does not make it is ok to use political means to force others to provide it for me.

The Interview

Last week Sony Entertainment (Columbia Pictures) bowed to pressure from a cyber-terrorist group known as the GOP (Guardians of Peace) and announced that the comedy “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, would not be released to theaters or online. The primary impetus behind this decision appears to be the threat of “9-11” style attacks on any theater that might dare show it. Being unsure of the credibility of the threat it would appear Sony decided to err on the side of caution and thus retracted the film from its anticipated Christmas release.

That decision was met with near universal indignation by basically the whole world. Many found it outrageous that a small group of people (believed to be North Korean government) could dictate to others what they may or may not see. Even President Obama weighed in on the decision, stating that he thought Sony had “made a mistake.”

Ok, so to summarize the events thus far: group of people A is using the threat of violence in order to influence the behavior of group of people B so that group of people C may not experience something that group A does not approve of. When abstracted this way does this pattern now seem more familiar? Yes, government. The only thing different about this situation is that people who are themselves usually in group A (governments and those that support their actions) now find themselves in group C. Not so much fun when someone else is doing the threatening, is it? As Americans, with our long tradition of (mostly) respecting freedom of expression, we are particularly outraged to be denied our basic human right to bear witness to fart jokes. In public we pretend that film banning doesn’t occur here, but privately we must admit that it does. Films have been banned in the US at various governmental levels for varying lengths of time (see: Monty Python’s the Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Tin Drum, The Profit, and Hillary: The Movie).  Most recently the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Google to remove “The Innocence of Muslims” video from their website. America is hardly free of the stain of participating in group threats of violence to prevent others from witnessing particular media.

But yes, we should be upset that anyone would try to use the threat of violence or intimidation in order to influence what we may or may not watch. However, if one wishes to shed all remnants of hypocrisy, then one must also acknowledge that government, all governments, use this exact same method (threat of violence) in order to ensure that the will of some arbitrary group of people living in spot A is imposed upon some other arbitrary group of people living in spot B. Sometimes these threats seek to enforce a ban on a film and sometimes they seek to enforce other arbitrary edicts masquerading as “law”. The ends matter not; it is the means that are illegitimate. If one is rightfully offended that North Korea might seek to use threats of violence to alter ones behavior, then one should likewise take equal offence when anyone, anywhere, at anytime, seeks to alter the peaceful behavior of another with violence or intimidation irrespective of what honorific they endow themselves with.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending. A few days later Sony reversed their decision and announced that “The Interview” would appear both online and in theaters, albeit in a limited fashion. Considering how hard someone tried to make sure I couldn’t watch it, well, naturally now I had no choice but to go out of my way to watch it! Was it worth it? Well, as they say, there’s no accounting for taste, but, I did enjoy it. As long as one is exposed to puerile humor in small, intermittent doses (like capsaicin) it can be amusing. This film was not meant to be a political satire. There is no stinging tongue-in-cheek critique of North Korea (although unexpectedly the Kim Jong-un character zinged his American interviewer with the fact that per capita the US has more people in prison than North Korea (thank you drug war)). There is just some good old-fashioned escapist daydream-as-a-plot in which the main character kills the bad guy, saves the country from nuclear annihilation, and becomes the hero he always believed himself to be.

Not Neutrality, Part 3

Last week’s article on Net Neutrality focused primarily on what not to do. Net Neutrality shares an ideological pedigree with every other government backed “solution” intended to solve the problem fostered by government itself. The solution to the (mostly) unfounded fears of Net Neutrality advocates is more competition, not more government one-size-fits-all programs. The only way to get more competition is to reign in government’s ability to restrict it.

The overriding problem is structural. The world we live in is the result of decades of misguided policies and government induced market distortions. Like some perverse game of pick up sticks, this state backed structure retains its form no matter how many pieces are removed, impervious to all “reform.” The state has wrought a Gordian knot so intractable the only solution is to cut it.

At the ground floor of this structure are local municipalities that grant utility providers exclusive monopoly privileges in exchange for the fig leaf of “oversight”. If an outside Internet Service Provider (ISP) wishes to enter that market they have no choice but to negotiate either with the municipality itself or its pet public utility for access to “public” infrastructure such as utility poles or underground conduit. The fees charged for such access can double the cost of the entire project, turning an economically viable endeavor into one that is hopelessly unprofitable and results in the ISP throwing up their hands in disgust and walking away. This encourages either no service or monopoly service. Just as a sperm cell induces a protective response in the egg it fertilizes, so too does the first ISP in a region use the powers of its municipal host to keep out all would be competitors. For example, they may negotiate a contract that requires the municipality or public utility charge any future competitors much higher rates for access or a guarantee of exclusive access, thus effectively securing their monopoly position. In at least 20 states so far some ISPs have pushed for legislation that blocks municipalities from competing as ISPs themselves. Such legislation is typically cloaked in the rhetoric of “saving jobs” to pass the sniff test of public opinion. Not that “municipalizing” an industry is ever a good idea, but to the extent that it is possible for this to occur without the use of any taxes, subsidies or eminent domain, there is theoretically no ethical issue with such competition. Although I would seriously question whether such tax-free competition is possible, the easiest way to test that is to remove the power of taxation and eminent domain, not create a rat’s nest of exceptions and restrictions.

To ultimately solve these issues we need fewer, not more laws. We need fewer grants of monopoly privilege for both private and “public” interests. Municipalities should have no rights to grant charters or licenses to any business. This removes the whole notion of “public” utilities. With that antiquated framework swept away, we would witness competition between electric, gas, water, sewage, phone, and Internet providers solve an array of problems that are intractable under the current “public” system. For example, restrictions in Georgia on the generation of solar power, water rationing during drought, and poor and expensive phone service, are all easily solved in a competitive environment. For Internet access one solution could be totally free access but the consumer pays the content provider directly. Or a consumer pays their ISP but there exists an explicit contract where the ISP guarantees maximum speed to all content. Or a million other approaches that neither you nor I can predict. We must dispense with the “should” attitude of “it should work this way or that way.” “Should” implies the necessity of an enforcer to make that “should” a reality. “Could” is more appropriate. It acknowledges the uncertainty of anyone being prescient enough to know what is best. To paraphrase Yoda, “No should! Could or could not, there is no should.”

Competition permits the creative power of millions to come to bear on solving problems. They pursue it in hopes of “winning” the best-solution-lottery that will yield happy paying customers. Municipal monopolies maintain a legacy status quo system by restricting all allowed approaches to just one. If one is knowingly ingesting poison the solution is to not also simultaneously ingest an antidote; the solution is to stop ingesting the poison.

Not Neutrality, Part 2

The moniker “net neutrality” is perhaps one of the most masterful strokes of political propaganda, right up there with “ethnic cleansing” and “quantitative easing” when measured for overall obfuscation. When asked their opinion, many are hesitant to take a stand, as they retreat behind a wall of an honest lack of knowledge on the subject. For the most part this is due to a perceived requirement that one must possess a deep technical understanding of how the internet works in order to have an informed opinion. Unfortunately this plays right into the hands of its proponents; “it’s complicated, trust us, we know what is best”. In fact this complexity tactic comes directly from the pundit’s playbook; witness the recent condescending Jonathan Gruber revelations (“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.”) In fact, the essence of net neutrality is not at all complicated; it is just good ol’ fashioned crony capitalism in 21st century garb.

Putatively complicated subjects are often best understood through metaphor. In this case we cast the large content carriers (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google) as manufacturers. The manufacturers need to ship their product to distributors. The ISP’s (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon) are the shipping carriers. Currently it is entirely uncontroversial that shipping carriers charge more to ship large things quickly than they do to ship small things slowly. So if we rename “net neutrality” as “shipping neutrality” things come into focus. Under “shipping neutrality” the large manufacturers want the government to force the shipping carriers to charge everyone the exact same amount regardless of size, weight, or speed. In fact, they want the shippers to ship everything at “next day air” speeds but charge first class letter rates. Net neutrality is nothing more than two parties disagreeing over pricing for a service. The cronyism comes in to play when one side demands the government take their side and implement a price ceiling. Of course such naked rent seeking would never fly politically, so it is camouflaged under the guise of protecting freedom, equality and baby kittens. Who could be against baby kittens?

But, as with all types of economic protectionism (tariffs, subsidies and other price controls) it is the consumer that is ultimately harmed. To discern this harm we must extend the metaphor a bit further. If the shipping carriers could not recoup their costs from the shipper then they would have no choice but to collect it from the recipient (postage due surcharge). Nothing is free and someone must pay.

We should be striving to make the internet more, not less, like a package shipping network. For example, if our neighbor receives a large delivery and we receive a small one, we do not subsidize his shipment through a “monthly shipment access fee”. If we receive no shipments in a particular month, we pay nothing. With free competition we would likely see a similar situation with internet access develop: no monthly charges, pay for only the amount and speed you demand as you actually consume it.

Today with internet access we pay the same amount month after month regardless of the extent to which we utilize that service. Although some may pay a bit more for faster service, the fact remains that light users subsidize heavy users. Under net neutrality this subsidization ‘inequality’ would only become more extreme. Heavy Netflix users will cause ISP’s to increase access rates for all consumers because they are legally prohibited from collecting anything extra from Netflix or basing consumer’s charges on their usage patterns; all in the name of ‘fairness’ of course. Would it not be a better outcome if through competition ISP’s charged Netflix more to ensure priority for their content and Netflix in turned passed that cost onto their customers alone? Internet access for everyone else would get cheaper and faster as ISP’s plow that ‘Netflix’ profit into bigger and faster pipes.

An even worse outcome of net neutrality would be if ISP’s were prohibited from raising anyone’s rates. This would result in a fixed price but ever slowing speeds as the network became more congested. At which point the voters would cry out “to do something” and we would then see a new “internet delivery tax” collected by the government and doled out to ISP’s that promised to wag their tails and do their master’s bidding (such as identifying all users on their network, tracking “suspicious” behavior and shutting down websites deemed by the government to be “politically incorrect”.)

So net neutrality supporters, be careful what you wish for, you just might get the world Edward Snowden feared.

Not Neutrality

“Net neutrality” certainly sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Who could possibly be against “neutrality” given its ability to evoke an emotional tie to equality, fairness, impartiality and egalitarianism? Only someone who is sufficiently ethically consistent that they will aver the use of aggression in all situations, rather than merely when popular opinion provides a safe harbor for that stance. Neutrality is not neutral when imposed at the barrel of a gun. Proponents of net neutrality seek not neutrality, but rather protectionism. For example, applying the principle of net neutrality one could legitimately argue that the state should restrict the ability of some companies to spend more money on marketing or R&D than their competitors. If they were allowed the freedom to spend as desired this might promote a competitive disadvantage leading to a market no longer consisting of “neutral” players. Competition bad, neutrality good.

Net neutrality has been in the news this past week due to a not-so-secret-secret vote by the FCC concerning some proposed Internet traffic rules. Proponents of net neutrality want the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a Title II medium (telecommunication service) from its current Title I designation (information service). This would transform the Internet (in the US) for all practical purposes into a public utility. Now consider the reputation that public utilities have for innovation, choice, and service and the whole notion of net neutrality should make you shudder. Free or low cost phone service over the Internet? Well you can say goodbye to that if the FCC is ever allowed to micromanage the net. Be grateful Congress did not allow the FCC to regulate cable; had they done so we’d still be stuck with three channels and rabbit ears.

Net neutrality, like all appeals for regulation, is about fear i.e. fear of hypotheticals. It is a solution in search of a problem. Indeed anti-trust legislation is based upon a similar principal. It seeks to destroy that which has never existed (a market monopoly) before it can do that which it has never done (raise prices). If one proposes dragon slaying as a solution, chances are they will be motivated to uncover dragons where none exist. Net neutrality is likewise the latest in a long line of state sponsored dragon quests. Net neutrality proponents have an irrational fear that dragons (big companies) will take over the forest (dominate the Internet) and thereby incinerate the little guy. The problem with this of course is that these dragons don’t exist. The Internet has been very much non-neutral since day one and none of their fears have come to pass. Under this benign regulatory neglect we have witnessed not oligopolization but rather innovation, growth, competition and more, not less, access for the “little guy” (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc). Their fears of the Internet turning into a virtual walled garden are not supported by 20 years of unregulated growth.

Companies like Netflix, Hulu or Apple pay big money to ensure the pipes carrying their content remain full. Why? Because we, the paying customers, demand it (anything to avoid the dreaded “buffering, buffering” message)! The network providers in turn use those big bucks to build out infrastructure to ensure content delivery occurs as promised. But if net neutrality proponents have their way, such premium payments would be disallowed, because everyone’s content must be treated “equally”. How again exactly does that help us, the customer?

If the public demands faster internet and prioritized content then the only means to achieve this is through the same process that has brought the internet to the state it is in today: an unregulated free market where individuals, not internet czars at the FCC, choose what services they want by voting with their dollars.