The twilight of net neutrality?

April 24, 2014

The Internet was created by research paid for by American taxpayers, and, since it was first opened up to the public, it has operated under the principle of Net Neutrality — the principle that it is equally open to all, regardless of their views, social status or ability to pay.

Now Tom Wheeler, a former telecommunication lobbyist appointed by President Obama to head the Federal Communications Commission, has proposed a change in policy — to allow some companies to pay extra to get better access.

Just two months ago the White House itself gave a good explanation of why that is a bad idea.

Rights of free speech, and the free flow of information, are central to our society and economy — and the principle of net neutrality gives every American an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in both. Indeed, an open Internet is an engine for freedom around the world.

12217_large_neutral-bitsPreserving an open Internet is vital not to just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity.  Because of its openness, the Internet has allowed entrepreneurs — with just a small amount of seed money or a modest grant — to take their innovative ideas from the garage or the dorm room to every corner of the Earth, building companies, creating jobs, improving vital services, and fostering even more innovation along the way.

Absent net neutrality, the Internet could turn into a high-priced private toll road that would be inaccessible to the next generation of visionaries. The resulting decline in the development of advanced online apps and services would dampen demand for broadband and ultimately discourage investment in broadband infrastructure. An open Internet removes barriers to investment worldwide

This is from The White House Blog: Reaffirming the White House’s Commitment to Net Neutrality (Feb. 18, 2014).   Evidently the FCC didn’t get the word, or maybe it was the White House spokespeople who didn’t get the word.

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The giant vampire squid becomes gay-friendly

April 24, 2014

The Mafia, as has been said, is not an equal opportunity employer. But even if it was an equal opportunity employer, it would still be a criminal organization.

Likewise, while Goldman Sachs is cultivating a reputation for being gay-friendly, it is still the same financial predator that is always was, still what Matt Taibbi called the “giant vampire squid,” inserting its tentacles into every crevice of the American economy and sucking out the blood.

giant_squidHuman Rights Campaign, the gay rights organization, honored Goldman Sachs at its annual dinner last year, and named Lloyd Blankfein, its CEO, as its national corporate spokesman for gay marriage.   It’s nice that a few gay people will get a shot at high-paying jobs at Goldman, but that doesn’t entitle the firm to a plenary indulgence, or get-out-of-jail-free card, or whatever you want to call it from the harm it has done to ordinary Americans, including gay people, through its financial manipulations.

As Matt Taibbi has documented, former and future Goldman officials in government successfully lobbied for repeal of the regulations that held banks back from reckless speculation with their depositors’ money.    They then pursued a policy of pump and dump, bidding up the price of investments, such as subprime mortgages, that they knew were worthless, then bailing out at the key moment and leaving the suckers holding the bag.

Goldman and similar Wall Street manipulators did more harm than to just bankrupt a few unwise investors.  Their financial manipulations brought about the Wall Street crash of 2008 and the wave of layoffs and mortgage foreclosures that followed.  Gay people suffered as much as their straight neighbors.   As Kathleen Geier pointed out, gay people as a group as not especially affluent — contrary to the way they’re typically depicted on TV.

Some of us liberals like to point out how conservatives can be suckered into voting against their economic self-interest by cynical appeals to feelings about social and cultural issues[1].   However this may be, they aren’t the only ones.

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John Pennington: My Great Wisdom at 75

April 23, 2014
  1. I learned at age eleven, at the sunburned end of the first day the public pool was open, that pale skin is not superior.
  2. Real food has one ingredient.
  3. Never buy food from someone who gets an annual bonus.
  4. There is nothing corporations won’t do for profit. Take toothpaste. What used to be one or two kinds per manufacturer now takes up ten feet of shelf space because they now make the same stuff in twelve different flavors.
  5. The US is a great place, a huge country with astonishing and beautiful things to experience.
  6. The US is a lousy place where only money matters, plagued by too many people who view themselves as chosen because they have a lot of it.
  7. The US has been a bully from Day One. Every two years on average we invade a small country in order to seize its riches, destroy its government, and impoverish its people.
  8. By 20 I was sure I was a mature adult. It turned out that wasn’t exactly true.
  9. Hatred is an equal opportunity religion. Every religion has followers who somehow miss the central message about love, tolerance, and compassion, and spend their time murdering people they don’t know.
  10. Revenge is equally stupid, with the same result.
  11. Politicians should be amateurs who go home when their sentence is up.
  12. Corporations, like religions, should be prohibited in politics entirely.
  13. Money isn’t speech. Speech is speech. Corporations aren’t people. People are people.
  14. Fundamentalist Christians are trying to impose their version of Sharia on us.
  15. Gay is not a “lifestyle”. Your kids can’t be “recruited”, either.
  16. You’re not going to look great when you get old. Don’t worry about it.
  17. The older you get, the more weird things grow on your body.
  18. Every abortion marks a failure. Regardless, anti-abortionists should get the hell out of your womb.
  19. I’ll worry about abortion when all of the 13,000 daily unnecessary deaths of living, breathing children cease to happen because anti-abortionists did something about it.
  20. People who are a lot smarter than you are not necessarily right, and the world is full of rich fools.
  21. You can be happy at any age. Unfortunately, you can also be unhappy at any age, but happy is better so let yourself be happy if you can.
  22. Spanish is not a foreign language. The US is not America. Puerto Ricans are not immigrants.
  23. Immigrants should learn the prevailing language of their new country. In much of the US that language is Spanish, and the immigrants are Anglos.
  24. There is no official language in the US. If there were to be, perhaps it should be Navajo.
  25. Being dead is no big deal, and worrying about it is a waste of time. Now, dying is another matter. If you want to worry, worry about dying. But that won’t change anything either, so why bother.
  26. The older you get, the more time you have.
  27. Everything changes. Everything.
  28. All of humanity is of no consequence. Neither is the Earth, or even our solar system. In fact, our Milky Way Galaxy, where the closest of uncountable stars is much too far for humans to reach in a single lifetime, is only one of billions. This shouldn’t make us feel insignificant. We should feel amazed at being part of this astonishing universe.

Source: My Great Wisdom At 75 from Class War in America.

NSA: a bureaucracy in search of a function

April 22, 2014

Edward Luttwak, a historian and long-time consultant to the Pentagon on military strategy, wrote an article in the Times Literacy Supplement of London recently arguing that the National Security Agency’s all-encompassing surveillance is simply the result of a bureaucracy looking for a way to justify its existence.

Compared to the days of the Cold War, he wrote, there is little scope for the NSA is trying to keep track of scattered Islamic militants who don’t even use phones for communication.  The NSA’s response was, in its own way, a stroke of genius.  Don’t just track people who are threats to the United States.  Track everybody who is a potential threat, which means tracking everybody.

Luttwak’s article is behind a pay wall, but Peter J. Leithart wrote a good summary in First Things magazine.

In a TLS review of Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files, Edward Luttwak traces things back to dynamics within the post-9/11 intelligence bureaucracy. In Luttwak’s telling, it’s a case study of bureaucratic expansion.

He argues that “Only a few hundred were really justified of the many thousands employed to service collection antennae on land, at sea and in the air operated by the signals’ branches of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, and of the many thousands of translators, cryptologists, decoders, super-computer operators, and analysts of all sorts as well as more thousands of managers. As the Cold War receded, there was an increasing danger that the fiscally prudent on Capitol Hill might uncover the situation, and demand mass firings.”

Edward Luttwak

Edward Luttwak

After all, “the sum total of emitters in Afghanistan was tiny, while communications identified as suspect worldwide were scarcely more numerous. . . . things looked up for the signals intelligence business with the 2003 Iraq war, but again the volume of business was not substantial, compared to the huge size of the installed capacity – so long, that is, as it was suspects that were to be intercepted.

If there wasn’t enough work, the solution was not to cut personnel, but to make more work: “the answer to the problem of the shortage of suspects was simply to intercept ‘possible’ suspects as well.”

On the other hand, he charges, the CIA doesn’t do what is necessary actually to have a major impact on terrorism – they aren’t engaged in operations: “terrorist groups simply cannot be defeated without action on the ground, to infiltrate them with volunteers, to detect them in the dodgy places where they can still emerge, to lure them into false-flag traps, and such like – all the activities that the CIA performs splendidly in films, but which in real life interfere with intra-office, other-office, interagency and intra-embassy meetings, so that in reality they are not performed at all. . . . Operators are outnumbered even by fairly senior managers, they are outnumbered by the lawyers in the General Counsel’s office, they are outnumbered by the human relations and affirmative action.”

When Congress increased the CIA budget, little went to improving operations: “The CIA knew exactly what to do with the money: it promptly added new layers of management on top of the old ones, just in time for the arrival of a whole new intelligence Directorate for all intelligence organizations placed over it, increasing the administrator/operator ratio to levels scarcely credible.”

The intrusions that Snowden revealed arose, Luttwak claims, in a context of incompetence and cowardice: “the mass intercept of everyone’s telecommunications became just another way of evading the penetration and disruption tasks that need to be done – the tasks that the CIA will not do because of sundry inconveniences and possible dangers.”

via Snowden and Bureaucracy | Peter J. Leithart | First Things.

In  Luttwak’s opinion, Edward Snowden is a true patriot for revealing the extent of the NSA’s improper opinions.  He said Snowden should be invited to return to the United States and granted amnesty for his lawbreaking.   He said the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency should be scaled back to what is needed to collect information, and a new agency, separate from the CIA, should be created to conduct operations against terrorists as Israel’s Shin Bet does.  The new agency should consist of people who speak foreign languages, understand foreign cultures and are willing to get out of the office and take risks.   This all sounds reasonable to me.

Click on The interception scandal for something else by Luttwak on Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.  He thinks the disclosures will result in a drastic change in U.S. policy.  I’d like to think he’s right.

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

April 22, 2014

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.

###

Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.

Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014

Voyages_of_Zheng_He_1405-33

More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.

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Most people live in or near India and China

April 21, 2014

These maps illustrate an important fact that I find hard to get my mind around – the immensity of the populations of China and India.   They aren’t just individual countries in the way the USA, the UK and Russia are countries.    They equal or exceed the populations of individual non-Asian countries.   There are provinces of China and India that are more populous than important European countries

Half the World

Double click to enlarge.

The top map shows that the combined populations of China, India, Japan and a couple of neighboring countries exceed the populations of the whole rest of the world.

The bottom map shows the world divided into equal segments of 1.2 billion persons each.  They show that the populations of (1) part of China plus Japan and (2) part of India plus Bangladesh and Burma are equal to the populations of  (3) all of North and South America plus Australia and New Zealand, (4) all of Europe plus western Asia, (5) all of Africa and (6) the rest of Asia.

worldpopulationbillions

Double click to enlarge.

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Seek less to be understood, as to understand

April 20, 2014

StFrancisPrayer

The case against government and civilization

April 19, 2014

Montani Semper Liberi: Mountaineers Always Free

==State Motto of West Virginia

James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist, in his book, THE ART OF NOT BEING GOVERNED: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, (2009) calls into question accepted ideas about government versus anarchy, civilization versus barbarism and the nature of progress. It is an account of a mountain region including parts of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, plus northeast India and four provinces of southern China, which is home 100 million people.

Scott’s argument is that the tribal people of this region, which he calls Zomia, are not backward and not at an earlier stage of human development.  Rather they have made a rational choice not to be subject to government and to be free of despotism, serfdom, taxation, military conscription and slavery, which is what civilization has meant to most people for most of history.

scott.notgoverned.coverHe tied it in with a larger framework which is not the familiar story of the rise and spread of civilization, but an unfamiliar story of evasion and  escape from the spread of civilization.   The invention of agriculture made civilization possible.  I created a food surplus large enough to allow people to be employed full-time as overseers, priests and soldiers.  This was beneficial to rulers, but not necessarily to their subjects.  I recall reading that ancient remains of hunter-gatherers show them to have been bigger and healthier than those who worked the land.   The lives of laborers who built the Pyramids were more nasty, poor, brutish and short than the free nomads in the deserts beyond.

There always were people who fled to inaccessible mountains, forests (like Robin Hood), jungles, marshes and the open sea to be free of control — the Berbers in North Africa, the runaway Russian serfs who formed the Cossack nation, the runaway slaves who joined with natives to form the “maroon” communities of North and South America, even those white American pioneers like Daniel Boone who preferred life beyond the frontier of settlement.   But their story has been neglected, Scott wrote, because they left few artifacts and virtually no written records.   Upland southeast Asia is part of that story.

Civilization in China, as elsewhere, originated in fertile river valleys where there was enough of an agricultural surplus to support a government and an army, which gave rulers the means to bring more people under their control.  Scott said that the rulers of China, and their imitators in the small kingdoms to the southeast, were less interested in increasing the territory under their rule than in increasing the number of people under their rule.  Conquering generals were expected to bring back captives to increase the subject population.   The Great Wall of China and the Chinese border troops were more to keep their subjects in than to keep invaders out, according to Scott.

Southeast Asia was largely populated by people whose ancestors were pushed out of what’s now southern China by the expanding Han Chinese.   Some organized governments on Chinese and Indian models, based on royal courts and hierarchies of rank.   These centered in rice-growing areas.  The advantage, from the standpoint of governments, is that rice and other grain crops are easy to identify, hard to relocate and easy to confiscate.   Rulers wanted their subjects, in Scott’s phrase, to be “legible”.

The hill people of southeast Asia didn’t want to live like this.  They chose to live in mountain regions that were hard to get to.  Ethnic groups, according to Scott, were differentiated not so much by location on the map as by altitude.   They defined themselves by how much hardship they were willing to endure to make themselves inaccessible, versus how much they wanted to trade with or raid the more settled people below..

Zomians mainly engaged on foraging, or in slash-and-burn agriculture (swiddening), which involves cutting down the trees, burning the underbrush, planting a crop for one growing season and moving on.   They planted root crops, which were hard to spot and hard to seize.  New World crops such as the sweet potato quickly found their way to Zomia.   (The Irish took to the potato for the same reason.  Potatoes were hard for English landlords and tax-collectors to seize, and the potato mounds tripped up the Irish horsemen.)

The hill peoples had flexible and changeable social structures, much to the frustration of the valley kingdoms whose rulers never were completely sure who or what they were dealing with.   They often were multi-lingual  and multi-cultural, adopting different customs depending on whom they dealing with.   When invaders came, they tended to scatter and fade away, breaking up into smaller units.

Southeast Asia kingdoms had established religions, usually based on Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism.   The upland peoples followed individual shamans with fluid doctrines and, in times of crisis, often followed charismatic prophets who appeared seemingly from nowhere, but often were defectors from the civilized communities.

In his most debatable chapter, Scott argued that there was an advantage to being an oral culture rather than an illiterate culture, and that rejection of literacy may have been a choice rather than a pre-existing condition.

Written laws and histories are a means to give kingdoms a fixed identity and hold them together.   An oral tradition is easier to adapt and change.   This, of course, is contrary to the idea that people who lack a recorded history live in a culture that is timeless and unchanging.  I think of the Comanche Indians, who wandered the Great Plains on foot for centuries, but as soon as they encountered stray horses left by the Spanish conquistadors, transformed themselves into some of the fiercest and most effective mounted warriors the world has ever seen.

These are all generalities, but, as Scott noted, every upland culture was different.  Each had its own mix and match of traits from different cultures.   He made had a lot of specific things to say about the Hmong, the Karen and other peoples, most of which didn’t register on me.  I’m more interested in the overall picture.

The inhabitants of Zomia were not angels and their societies did not represent an anarchist idea of utopia.  Some had a trading relationship with neighboring civilized communities.  None of them were barbarian invaders like the Vikings, Mongols or Huns, but  some were thieves and bandits, and some have been slave traders.   The region includes the Golden Triangle, a central of the world opium trade.

However, the main objection to the upland peoples by the Chinese, by the southeast Asian kings, by the British and French colonial rulers and by the modern governments is the same — that they are hard to pin down and command.   The possibility of evading control of government becomes less every year, barring some civilization-destroying catastrophe, which Scott does not consider.

The main thoughts I took away from this book were:

1.  The desire for freedom – that is, the desire to live one’s life without taking orders from overseers – is not limited to American or European culture.  It is found in many different cultures, probably all or almost all of them.

2.  As the world’s cultures go, we Americans are not, as a whole, especially freedom-loving.  As somebody pointed out, we think of ourselves as heirs of Athenian democracy, but the way the USA is organized is more like the Persian Empire.   We accept much more supervision in our daily lives than not only our ancestors, but than much of world’s peoples through history.

3.  As an offset, we have the possibility, which has only emerged since the American and French revolutions, of creating governments that serve the welfare of their subjects, and are accountable to their subjects.   This is a new experiment in human history, not certain to succeed, but worth trying to make succeed.

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Hope, change and Hillary Clinton

April 18, 2014

are.we.ready?John Atkinson writes as follows in Common Dreams.

Remember “hope and change?” At the time, few thought to ask what exactly we were hoping for and what exactly we were changing to.

And of course, what we got was a great slogan, better speeches, very little change and even less hope.

Here’s what Obama promised:

Shutting down Gitmo;

Ending warrantless wiretapping;

Ending foreign wars;

An end to trickle down economics;

Greater regulation of Wall Street and the financial sector;

A public option for health care;

Protecting social security, Medicaid and Medicare;

Serious action on climate change;

Greater equality in opportunity and more broadly shared prosperity …

Here’s what we got: An administration that set up Goldman Sachs south in the Treasury, doubled down on domestic spying; expanded a drone policy that creates between 40 to 60 new terrorists for every one it kills; health care reform that is better than the status quo, but which rewards corporate insurers as much or more than it does citizens; international trade agreements that favor corporate interests, while eviscerating domestic wages, scuttling environmental performance, and crippling US industrial infrastructure. It’s so bad, they’re trying to negotiate it in secret … … …

So now enter Hillary Clinton and the deluded Democrats who hopd for her Presidency.  Maybe it’s time to ask what, specifically, we will get; what we can hope for, and whether it will usher in changes Americans overwhelmingly want … …. .

And here’s the answer – If we nominate Hillary Clinton we will get another DLC Democrat who mouths progressive values during the campaign, then shifts to the right when (and if) elected. In short, citizens get no real choice. … …  …

The fact is, the people’s interests aren’t being represented in Washington and they won’t be if Hillary Clinton is elected. Her record is clear. She’s an ardent proponent of trade agreements; she’s consistently supported the interests of Wall Street over Main Street; she’s been hawkish on foreign policy; weak on civil protections; hawkish on the deficit (until very recently) and mum on many other issues that demand a progressive advocate.

Click on Hillary Clinton and the Future Failure of Progressive Hope and Change for Atkinson’s whole article.

Hat tip to Mike Connelly for the link.


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