The sound … and power … of silence

The Thinker by Rodin

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

From “The Sound of Silence”
Lyrics by Paul Simon
Simon & Garfunkel
1964

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 of her classmates, may have delivered the most moving speech ever made simply by saying nothing. Make no mistake; her “speech” was devastatingly effective. People are moved by emotion. The sight of a woman silently weeping might make this “speech” the most effective ever delivered.

Which calls for a repeat of my 2013 post on why gun control is inevitable. Emma Gonzalez yesterday did much to advance the date. Continue reading “The sound … and power … of silence”

Why are we surprised by the consequences of our Wild West tech economy?

The Thinker by Rodin

Whoops. Well it looks like Facebook has some egg on its face, and its share price is off ten percent or so last time I looked. The problem? Facebook unwisely let Cambridge Analytica create a Facebook app. If you played their app, it gave them access not just to you, but all your friends Facebook accounts.

Cambridge Analytica claimed their app was for academic/research purposes, which is how they got the permission. As we now know they copied tons of data about you and your friends: about fifty million of us American, or about one in six of us. They mined the data to learn about our passions, biases and foibles. They thought they could persuade people to vote for Donald Trump or against Hillary Clinton from what they learned about you and your friends from the app. Although Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote by three million ballots, Trump won the Electoral College thanks to 50,000 or so votes in three key states.

We’ll probably never know if this alone swung the election. It probably didn’t hurt. But what really helped Trump were the many state laws mostly in red states that narrowed the voter pool to favor those who tended to be white. It’s curious that those laws, all perfectly legal, don’t earn our scorn while this breach of Facebook’s rules has everyone up in arms all of a sudden.

Anyhow, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is really sorry and has taken some steps that might prevent this in the future. Meanwhile, all this information about us is outside of Facebook somewhere, maybe still on Cambridge Analytica servers, maybe sold to other parties. This is data about us that we voluntarily and probably mindlessly gave away to Facebook is of course just a drop in the buckets of hacks and misappropriation of data that happens every day. It’s not going to get better. In fact, it’s going to get worse. Recently passed rules repealing net neutrality basically allow ISPs like Comcast to sell our use and search patterns on the Internet to any interested parties. This is not by accident; it’s by design. It’s part of Trump’s MAGA plan.

So Zuckerberg is sorry but I think what he’s most sorry about is the nine billion dollars of his personal wealth that got wiped out. It may stay wiped out until he can earn our trust again. The hashtag #deletefacebook is trending. The Washington Post is happy to show you how to get off Facebook. But really, what did you expect? This is one more foreseeable consequence of our wild, wild, “anything goes” Internet. It also demonstrates why you might want to rethink your love of Libertarianism. We aided and abetted this misuse because we like free stuff and Facebook is free, or sure appears free. And besides, you can spend hours a day playing their Farmville app … for free!

Implicit in this fiasco is the expectation from some that Facebook (a) was capable of ensuring that apps would not be misused and (b) cared about the problem. Facebook though is really an extended startup company. It succeeded by being fast and being agile, and that meant breaking the rules or in cases like these setting the expectation that there were no rules.

It’s hardly alone. Many of these successful startups and lots of the unsuccessful ones operate the same way. Gaining market share, traction, usage, page hits and metadata about people like you and me is their true capital. At some point though you become big enough where you can monetize this information. Facebook was something of a laggard in this area. Twitter is too, and just recently reported its first profitable quarter. Facebook though may be unique because it excels in micro-targeting. If you need to reach someone between 40 and 45 in towns of less than 50,000 people who prefer their toast dark brown and support LGBTQ rights, I’m betting they could find these people and you could throw an ad at them. That’s how much they know about us because we tell them somewhat indirectly in our many posts to our Facebook friends, likes and shares. Why wouldn’t Cambridge Analytica use this platform, particularly when they likely suspected the agile, entrepreneurial culture at Facebook would make this easy? Did they worry that Facebook would catch on to their scheme? Maybe. Did they care about the consequences if they did? Nah. Their mission would be accomplished long before Facebook got around to figuring it out, which they never did. You can’t be both agile and careful.

What do Facebook and these other companies care about? It’s not too hard to figure out: making gobs of money. With no government oversight and a Congress and administration that encourage tech companies to be entrepreneurial, all they saw were green lights. Maybe some executives worried a bit that this strategy would ultimately be counterproductive. Clearly there weren’t enough of them for it to matter and I doubt the size of their stock options depended on how careful they were to look out for the company’s long term interests.

The honest Facebook reaction should have been, “Why on earth should you care? We’re a profit-making company, like every other company on the planet. You knew this when you signed up. Besides, we give away our platform for free. We allow you to easily connect with extended friends you would otherwise probably quickly forget about.” Unless the heavy hand of government gives them a reason to care, they probably will just go through the motions. They are not motivated by your concerns or concerns about how governments like Russia use their platform against our election laws. They are motivated to minimize damage like this when it occurs so as to cut the company’s losses.

If you want to hit them where it hurts then #deletefacebook. I use Facebook but I don’t particularly like it. What we really need is the equivalent of the World Wide Web in a social network. The WWW was created to run on top of the structure of the Internet. It’s free and open source. If we must have social networks, we need an open source social network of peer-to-peer social media servers where you carefully control information about yourself and who it goes to. I’d like to think that’s in our future.

But this Facebook brouhaha and the many other “oops” like this in our tech economy shows the downsides of these proprietary platforms. Facebook should hope for regulation. That way maybe it will eventually survive. With these significant and predictable problems users may simply walk away when they realize the dubious virtues of platforms like Facebook really aren’t worth their largely hidden costs. Here’s hoping.

The Manchurian President

The Thinker by Rodin

Six years back I opined about liberals I loathed, which says a lot for a liberal. I still loath two of them (Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann) but I’ve changed my mind on Cenk Uygur. I might not have, but retirement has given me a lot more free time, so I’ve been streaming The Young Turks on my Roku device.

Uygur is as abrasive as ever but he’s also down to earth and funny. Also, in the more than a decade since he’s been promoting his brand mostly via YouTube, he’s toned things down a bit and upped his game. The Young Turks now have their own professional studio in Culver City, California, have attracted a lot more followers, have plenty of supporters on Patreon and perhaps most importantly have become more entertaining. Uygur by the way is hardly young, although he is Turkish American. He’s 47 years old. But he’s attracted some interesting talent and now has something of a cohost, Ana Kasparian. Kasparian is at least young (31) but does not qualify as a Turkish American. She’s born in the USA but her parents are from Armenia, which is not too far from Turkey.

So the cheesy sets are gone and the talent, which was not usually buttoned down in suit and tie, now at least wear sport coats. More to the point, they are an interesting and persuasive group of progressives. They are a sort of the anti Fox News. Last night I was watching this video. It’s well worth your time if you have about twenty minutes to spare:

If you read my blog, it will eerily echo this post of mine. Cenk and I are perhaps channeling each other; he just does it for TV while I do it with words in an obscure blog. We both agree though that Donald Trump is clearly our Manchurian president. What do I mean by a Manchurian president? I am referring to the 1959 book by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate. The novel is about three American soldiers abducted during the Korean War and brainwashed in Manchuria, so that one of them kills a presidential candidate, allowing his running mate to use the incident to promote the dictatorial laws he needs to try to do away with our democracy.

Remember when Trump was claiming that Barack Obama was not born in America? He saw Obama as a Manchurian president, presumably a participant in some grand conspiracy. I’m not suggesting that Trump was not born in America. He certainly met the legal qualifications for being president, as did Obama. The big difference is that it’s clear that if the Russians got the goods on him, which they certainly didn’t on Obama.

Uygur points out that almost immediately after a deal between Exxon-Mobil and the Russians was killed, Rex Tillerson was out as Secretary of State. Why? Uygur argues that Trump was told to select him because the Russians wanted him. Remember that Trump courted Mitt Romney for a long time, then abruptly dropped Romney for Tillerson? Tillerson had no qualifications for the job, after all and had never held a public office. But he was close to the Russians and ran the only oil company out there with the technology to successfully exploit Russian’s oil reserves. When Rex couldn’t make that happen, he was no longer of use to them. Moreover, Rex was not a moron. He could see the Russians were doing some awful things including this latest chemical weapons attack in Great Britain against a number of Russia’s bad actors. Rex turned out to be one of our worst secretaries of state ever, but he wasn’t a traitor.

It’s not coincidence that Trump has a blind spot when it comes to the Russians. It’s not a coincidence because the Russians have the goods on him. As I noted in the February 18th post, the breadcrumbs are all around Donald Trump and they clearly lead right back to the Kremlin. Trump simply won’t take any actions that make things worse for the Russians. He won’t implement additional sanctions required by law. He hasn’t explicitly said that he believes the Russians are to blame for this latest chemical weapons attack either. To an extent Republicans in Congress are aiding and abetting this conspiracy. Just two days ago the House Intelligence Committee (actually just a subset of Republicans on it) decided that there was no Trump-Russia connection and issued a hastily written report. Mission accomplished, apparently.

Over time special counsel Bob Mueller will show otherwise. Given his indictments against certain Russians, he already has a case that proves Russians interfered in our election. He has already proven that people within the Trump campaign had active ties with the Russian government prior to the election. Just a few pieces of the trail remain to be put into place. Mostly this involves tying Trump’s wealth to Russian banks, mostly via money laundering. It’s highly likely that the Russians also have evidence that will compromise Trump and that’s how they are leveraging him for their interests. If Mueller can’t get this out before the midterms, then after the midterms when Democrats take the House, a newly invigorated House Intelligence Committee probably will. It may be as simple as releasing his tax returns, which it can authorize.

Unfortunately for the Russians, Trump is hardly their ideal Manchurian president. He is easily exploitable by simply pandering to his biases: wealth, women and flattery. As a president though he is extraordinarily ineffective and vacillating. One of Trump’s strengths though is his ability to lie. He does it many times a day and does it shamelessly. He has no problem saying he didn’t collude with the Russians because he feels neither shame nor guilt. The ideal businessman is bereft of these qualities, as success is quantified in things like profits, income, status and market share. It’s impossible to feel ashamed if you never felt shame.

So while Trump can work in Russia’s general interests, his ability to do so well is affected by his bumbling style, his inability to plan and his massive ego. But it’s not hard at all to see these breadcrumbs all around him. In fact, it takes willful blindness not to see them. His defensiveness alone should make it obvious. With this intelligence committee report, he went to announce in all caps on Twitter that they found NO COLLUSION, one of many tweets like this. The committee found NO COLLUSION simply because they chose to abruptly end the investigation without even consulting Democrats on the panel.

And speaking of breadcrumbs, when this is all over it will be interesting to see how compromised the committee’s chairman Devin Nunes is. Someone who steals to the White House with inside dope learned by the committee as soon as it is aired likely is in this up to his neck too. As this investigation widens, it’s likely that Mueller will reveal a much larger level of conspiracy than simply between the Trump campaign and Russia. It will likely tar, feather and send to prison many members of Congress. Devin Nunes is likely to be on that list.

Project Muni

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at muninetworks.org. If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.

Looking past the midterms

The Thinker by Rodin

Sometimes I think Trump wants to lose. Granted, Trump has made a career of losing. To the extent he has made money it is mostly from branding. Branding has some real advantages: mainly, you rake in fees (usually recurring fees) and someone else inherits the risk. This is true of many of Trump’s properties.

The shine is off the Trump brand as his presidency implodes. The owners of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Panama City want to kick out the Trump organization and take his name off their tower. It’s proving an uphill struggle but they have plenty of reason to persevere. With only about a third of the building occupied, the owners are losing money, bigly. Few love Trump anymore and pretty much everyone realizes now that his brand is more bronze than gold.

Trump finds new ways to turn off voters every day, and there are still eight months until the midterms. There used to be a daily scandal. These days you get a half -dozen new scandals a day. Trump is in meltdown according to his own staff, most of which have left him. It’s now literally impossible for me to focus on any one particular scandal. However bad it is now, it’s likely just to worsen day by day, leading toward a cacophonous crescendo on November 6 when voters finally get to weigh in on the Trump presidency. It’s not going to be pretty for Trump and Republicans.

How bad is it? It’s so bad that finally Republicans are starting to pull away from Trump. Just in the last couple of days he decided he didn’t believe in due process (most likely because he had no idea what it is), he pissed off the NRA and he is starting a trade war he is destined to lose. If he doesn’t back off on a trade war it will continue to sink stock markets, raise prices (possibly reintroducing inflation) and dramatically increase the risk of recession. If there is anything dearer to Republicans than staying in power, it is probably the value of their stock portfolios. They are realizing that Trump is becoming a toxic asset in their portfolio.

It’s unclear when Republicans will finally decide that they are better off without him. If they don’t get the message before the election due to all the scandals, I do expect them to get it after the midterms. There’s a Democratic tsunami approaching.

To begin with, Democrats will retake the House, which likely means a replay of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One of the first orders of business will be for Democrats to open real inquiries into the tsunami of Trump scandals, which can only lead to Trump’s impeachment in the House. I put the odds of Democrats retaking the Senate at now better than 50/50, probably 60/40 and likely to grow. It would take 67 senators to throw Trump out of office.

Regardless there will be a huge amount of Republican hand wringing after the midterms. Republicans will have to ask themselves how they can survive as a party. As for going back to the racist Tea Party rhetoric: that trick was played in 2010. It’s not enough anymore to win elections. Millennial voters are going to come out in huge numbers to prove they can’t play this trick again. They will be Democrats for the foreseeable future and they are unlikely to lose their political engagement. As for Republicans, demographics alone means they will be a dying party unless they somehow rebrand toward the middle.

It’s unclear whom Republicans can attract to their smaller government message since they’ve made such a mess with it. Which means that the party will either go down (possibly splitting into two or more parties) or like a sailing ship after a hurricane, what remains of the party will realize it’s time to throw the fallen masts into the sea and stand up a jury rig. Republican senators will have a hard time not voting to convict Trump in his Senate trial when it’s in their own interest. What’s in their interest? Not only maintaining what will be left of their federal power, but also in retaining what power they can in statehouses. The parties that control statehouses draw district-voting boundaries after the 2020 census. What’s the probability of that if Trump somehow hangs on and tries to win reelection in 2020?

There are plenty of tealeaves for easy reading. Just this week alone Democrats picked up two state seats in special elections, one in Connecticut and one in New Hampshire. Since the 2016 election, Democrats have flipped 39 seats in both state and U.S. house special elections, not to mention the Alabama senate seat. The main reason they are winning is because Democrats are coming out to vote in droves. Their enthusiasm will only continue to grow between now and November. Come November 6, the pressure will be explosive. Trump has succeeded in keeping the focus on himself, which feeds the outrage of those who hate him. So they will be out in multitudes. Most likely Republicans will be demoralized and sit it out. Trump is likely to give them plenty of reasons to stay demoralized too.

As bad as things are for Trump now, when he has effective opposition in Congress he’s going to truly feel the heat for the first time. He will probably be looking for exit strategies. It may even come before the midterms. For example, if Special Counsel Mueller has sufficient incriminating evidence against Trump, Trump’s lawyer might make a plea deal with Mueller: Trump would agree to resign if Mueller does not recommend any criminal prosecution of Trump in his report. Trump may already be getting the message. He may be looking for scapegoats for his impending resignation. He just needs the thinnest façade to sell his supporters. It will likely be some variation of “deep state”, “fake news”, “witch hunt” and “they are all out to get me.”

Curiously, the best case for Republicans in the midterms would be if Trump resigned sooner rather than later. This might move the issues in the midterm from Trump and onto other issues. Most likely though Trump’s bloated ego won’t allow it, so this denouement is much more likely after the midterms than before it. But if it happens, well, perhaps you read it first here on Occam’s Razor.