Monday, 15 September 2014

Protect the Internet

Waiting until the last minute as is my normal pattern, I have finally posted a comment to the Federal Communications Commission regarding Proceeding 14-28 titled “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”. Today is the deadline but I assume that everyone that actually has concerns about this topic knows that and is either suffering from procrastination like I have been or has already filed their comment, so this isn’t necessarily a call for you to get cracking and get your comment in too. On the other hand, if you haven’t yet planned to do this, you should: FCC Send Us Your Comments page

For the record, although my comments will appear on the FCC’s site in a day or so, here’s what I had to say:

Much of my life depends directly on an open and free-flowing internet. A part of this is that on a very small scale I am a web developer and hosting service. This represents a significant portion of my work and my income. In addition to that, I get virtually all of my news online. The vast majority of my communications come in and go out through the medium of e-mail. Although telephone calls to my immediate area are carried over copper pairs provided by Whidbey telecom, my local telco, most of my calls travel over the Internet using VOIP. I don’t watch television, I don’t subscribe to a dead trees newspaper, and the physical mail that comes to my post office box represents a tiny fraction of the incoming information to this household.

It is crucial for me, and I believe for the future of American society, that the Internet continues to serve all of its users, both publishers and consumers as well as merchants and customers, with scrupulous fairness in terms of transmission capacity and speed.

The business model that has made the Internet what it is today is relatively simple. On one side are the consumer facing ISPs who provide transmission to and from their customers, frequently local, who connect via telephone line, cable services, wireless or cellular connection, and doubtless a few creative niche alternatives that I’m forgetting at the moment. On the other side are the publishers of content, essentially anyone with a website, who either develop their own data centers and connections to the broader network or rent facilities from commercial hosts. Between these two sides exists what we call “the cloud”, the backbone carriers and all of the various interconnections and telco hotels that connect the consumer-facing ISPs on the one hand with the publishers on the other, both of whom charge their respective customers for their services, both of whom pay their upstream providers for connections to the cloud.

There has been one addition to this pattern, probably starting with the founding of Akamai in 1998, and that is what’s called the Content Delivery Network. This allows any publisher with a website hosted on a single server to engage the services of a CDN with globally dispersed proxies to speed up the experience of a user in Portland Oregon, for example, when browsing pages of a site located in Miami Florida or London England. Functionally this is an augmentation of the existing cloud. Clients of a CDN are using that system so that their sites appear to be nearby to users regardless of their physical location. Although the acceleration offered by a CDN directly benefits only the users of that system, by taking significant traffic off of the primary backbone providers every web browser in a specific location will tend to see content loading more quickly even on other sites. It’s hard to see this development as anything but positive.

Does such a system create a fast lane and a slow lane for Internet users? I believe the answer to that is clearly negative.

To take the question one step further, will the recent proposals from ISPs like Comcast to publishers like Netflix, in which those publishers pay a premium to those ISPs for faster delivery, create the dreaded two speed Internet? I have no direct knowledge of the mechanism by which this faster delivery will be accomplished, my assumption is that what is being offered is additional bandwidth across the cloud supplementing the current backbone providers. If this is the case, when Netflix pays extra to deliver their content more rapidly to Comcast data centers, all Comcast customers will benefit and no one will be relegated to the dreaded slow lane.

However, this is true only insofar as the ISPs continue to provide the same level of bandwidth between their data centers and the cloud that they were providing before the special service to those high-volume publishers was implemented. If Comcast and and Netflix contract to add a half gigabit per second of direct connectivity between Netflix and a specific Comcast data center, and Comcast maintains their existing cloud connections unchanged, no slow lane is created. In fact, customers viewing other sites will see an improvement in performance during those parts of the day when video traffic from Netflix is highest. However, if Comcast turns around and reduces their existing connections by the same half gigabit per second, customers viewing other content will see no immediate change in performance but over time, with growth in network volumes, their experience will begin to suffer.

Therefore the existence of these additional service contracts between publishers and ISPs has the potential to benefit the public, but only insofar as those ISPs do not reduce their current pattern of connections to the cloud which all their users will be exploiting in common. Whether ensuring that such contracts actually enhance network services requires a redefinition of the Commission’s structural approach to regulating Internet service providers or not is best left to the attorneys, I have no preference either way as long as the result of those contracts is an improvement for all users.

There is one question that has come up in the past that must not be forgotten: any attempt that an ISP might make to prioritize one type of traffic over another or to favor the traffic from one source over another, once that traffic has reached its data centers, must always be prohibited. This must apply regardless of the reason, whether an ISP simply doesn’t like BitTorrent, disapproves the politics of certain sites, or wants to block VOIP traffic to protect their own telephone business is irrelevant, there must be no favoritism shown by an ISP for one packet over another once that packet arrives at the datacenter.

If I Were King, net neutrality would be the law of the land with or without my comments.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

book coverAmerican Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America
Colin Woodard
Viking Penguin, 2011, 322 pp plus backmatter

In 1991 Joel Garreau, then national news editor for the Washington Post, wrote The Nine Nations of North America. He was attempting to create a system that would help organize the efforts of his reporters when he realized that the news could not be organized geographically along state lines. Instead he defined areas of common social values and trends, only one of which (Quebec) actually followed political boundaries. Colin Woodard saw the organization of North America through a very similar lens, but did not want to create only a snapshot of the current social reality as Garreau had done. Woodard describes the beginnings of each of his eleven “nations”, the personalities and politics that controlled their early days, and the migrations from each.

Woodard’s map has some surprises, he calls New England “Yankeedom” and shows it covering not only the states we normally describe with that term, but also Canada’s Maritime provinces as well as much of Minnesota, all of Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention Chicago. The Hispanic-influenced region he calls “El Norte” includes Southern California and large parts of Texas but also all or most of several states in northern Mexico which he suggests would be eager to leave Mexico to join an independent nation based on his lines on the map. Like Garreau, Woodard considers Miami to be the capital of a nation that includes all of the Caribbean islands along with most of Central America and the northern coast of South America. Sadly, because this nation is mostly outside of the US he identifies it and then chooses not to cover it.

“Tidewater” is his name for coastal Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, the original home of a number of America’s leading thinkers in the early days. In contrast to that, he asserts that those who formed the basis of the “Deep South” came not from Europe like the other settlers but from the plantations of the Caribbean, and that the social structure, most particularly relating to slavery, was entirely different from that of Tidewater. “Greater Appalachia” was formed later in the western parts of Tidewater states, largely by those who had come “from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain” who sparsely settled an inland area with fiercely-loyal clans and no government.

Woodard speaks with great admiration for what he calls “New Netherlands”, the smallest of his defined areas comprising metropolitan New York City. He discusses the anti-feudal politics of the Netherlands that he says grew out of the reality of individual land owners recovering land from the sea, and that a small polity like the Netherlands had become an aggressive international trade center and the needs of serving an international market had cured it of all the religious and nationalist biases that were so strong in every other area he discusses. Last week we celebrated the 350th anniversary of New York City, starting with the point at which the British Navy occupied New Amsterdam. Rather than attempt a military resistance, the Dutch burghers quickly sought a peaceable surrender. The British recognized the economic value of the community and though they insisted on naming it after the Duke of York they allowed the unique freedoms of the city to be maintained. New York City clearly maintains much of this character to this day, despite the fact that descendents of those burghers no longer represent a significant part of the populace.

By contrast, the nation he calls “Yankeedom” was not oriented towards freedom of the individual, but was committed to communities of like-minded, and like-worshiping, persons. Woodard shows that much of this character is preserved in communities as far west as North Dakota, although the Western areas populated by Yankee migration do seem to have lost all of early Boston’s religious intolerance.

By a delightful fluke it happened that I was reading American Nations at the same time I read James MacGregor Burns’ Fire and Light, a history of the Enlightenment. As much of the political and social development of the original colonies was a reflection of intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, some of the parallels enlightened me more than perhaps reading either alone would have. I’ll cover that title in a few days.

I greatly enjoyed reading The Nine Nations several years ago and was delighted to see the same concept developed further by Woodard. Although the boundaries defined in the two books are different in detail, that largely reflects the time frames dealt with. Garreau was focused on newsworthy activities during the ’80s and ’90s rather than the origins of regional differences, Woodard’s historical approach naturally led him to focus on the original areas of influence. I don’t think you need to have read The Nine Nations to appreciate the eleven nations, although I certainly commend both titles.

American politics is currently facing significant demographic changes, as old white people like me are dying off, the young continue to insist on thinking differently than their parents and grandparents, and immigrants from Asia and Latin America continue to bring different values along with their exciting culinary contributions. The immediate changes we are facing on this front, potentially delayed one or more presidential election cycles due to low participation on the part of some of the most rapidly growing cohorts, is largely unrelated to the sectional histories Woodard provides, but the processes of change that he limns here provide valuable background to anyone trying to make sense of America’s direction at the start of the third millennium.

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative LifeTibetan Peach Pie cover
Tom Robbins
Harper Collins, 27 May 2014, 363pp

Right on the back cover it says, “this is not an autobiography”. Robbins goes on to claim that the book is not a memoir either. This is either total nonsense or irrelevant, the compelling text takes us from Robbins youth in Appalachian North Carolina, where his mother dubbed him Tommy Rotten, through 41 vignettes leading to his current comfortable life at La Conner, Washington at the ripe old age of 82. He doesn’t actually describe his life as comfortable, I infer this from a recent New York Times story about his residential compound (the link to which I can’t currently find).

In the early chapters he does a good job of showing us that he earned that sobriquet. For example, at seven Tommy and a friend named Johnny robbed a bank. Armed with cap pistols the two marched into the Northwestern State Bank in Blowing Rock, and demanded “a lot of money”. A quick thinking bank employee hurled several contact-sensitive firecrackers against a wall and the two boys, thinking they were under fire from bank guards, fled the scene. No charges were filed, the town was amused — excepting only the boys’ parents.

Robbins details the range of events he was part of, the places he lived and traveled, and the women he shared his life with. I’m sure there were numerous dark and hard times, but we are spared those. What he gives us is a collection of the stories he has told to those women, which he claims they insisted he should publish. The women had good sense on this point, through all these unpredictable events we share a reflection of the author’s embarrassment, as he generously chose to include anecdotes that don’t necessarily reflect well on his judgment and life skills.

The stories feel real. I could relate to quite a few of them myself. The text is witty and literate, the reader is amused but not left rolling on the floor gasping for breath. The only downside for the reader is if that reader is also a writer — the mastery of storytelling demonstrated is bound to lead to envy. Where I might struggle to craft an apt and surprising metaphor every week, and then cherish and overuse it, Robbins thinks nothing of piling on with multiple displays of superior wordcraft in a single paragraph.

In most autobiographies and memoirs there really isn’t any point other than making the reader feel good about the author, and perhaps to understand the forces that propelled him through life. Tibetan Peach Pie may or may not help us understand Tom Robbins, but you can’t help feeling good after reading it. I can’t call this book important but it was certainly enjoyable and I think I can recommend it to anyone. With the possible exception of the very young who might be inspired to emulate the antics of “Tommy Rotten”.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Should we bomb Syria?

In news stories over the last few days there have been frequent mentions of the Obama administration weighing airstrikes on Islamic State units and facilities in Syria. Should we go there? No, absolutely not.

This is partially a linguistic question, complicated by the administration’s continued references to “ISIL”, one of the two common transliterations of the latest terrorist menace.

But this isn’t a geography question unless your maps are more than a few weeks old. Through a swath of what was recently eastern Syria and western Iraq ISIL (or ISIS if you prefer) has founded a new state. The Islamic State (IS) is the germ of what ISIL hopes will be a renewed caliphate, intended to govern the entire Islamic world once they’ve managed to kill all the annoying Shiites, Alawites, Sufis, Yazidis, Jews, and Christians in their way.

If I Were King, I would stipulate the existence of this new state and order air support for those troops that are fighting ISIL in both the territory they’ve conquered as well as in Iraqi territory where ISIL intends to extend its domain. For now, the area under ISIL control is neither Syria nor Iraq and is fair game, assuming the obvious security implications for every western state. We don’t need Bashar al-Assad’s permission to attack an enemy state on their own territory, even if Assad still thinks of said territory as part of his benighted country.

23 September 2014UPDATE: United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon agrees. While the Obama administration has provided several legal justifications for attacking ISIL inside the nominal borders of Syria, Mr Ban’s statement, if not a ringing endorsement of the attacks, clearly recognized my argument above in that those attacks took place “in areas no longer under the effective control of that government”.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger

Comcast, one of the least-pleasant businesses in the US today, has filed to takeover Time Warner Cable, another company that hardly wins the hearts and minds of their customers, although TWC doesn’t consistently attract the animosity that Comcast reaps. If I Were King I would just laugh at them, but the FCC will be deciding whether the public interest will be served by allowing the merger. A couple of weeks ago (right at the deadline for comments) I filed the following with the FCC:

In the matter of the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, I urge you to deny approval.

This merger would grant a spectacular share of the internet access market to a vendor that is clearly not worthy of it. I have no problem with a company growing to the point of serving 60% of the market, nor do I object to companies serving just a few percent of the market merging to form a company with the resources to grow. However, Comcast and TWC are both poor vendors who are not likely to grow in scale due to the excellence of their service, the responsiveness of their customer support, or their efficiency and pricing. (They exhibit none of these things.)

I have chosen to use our tiny local telco (Whidbey Telecom) rather than Comcast based on quality of service, but I have heard the complaints from Comcast users in the neighborhood. I’m glad that I have the choice.

If these two companies combine, they will have a level of market strength that will severely impede the ability of any future contender to enter the market. Short of that, they will have nothing to restrain their abuses of both monopoly and monopsony power that results from this merger. The monopsony power vis a vis the content creators this merger would give them might well be enough reason to deny this, on top of the monopoly power over cable and interest subscribers that is already sufficient to deny.

Please, deny this application and let these two businesses have the time to learn how to grow on their own merits rather than wasting money that could go into improving their businesses on buying market share.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

FFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton, 2014, 271pp

I am not a sports fan. I once attended a Seattle Mariners game — we had great seats, front row at third base. I was bored by the end of the first inning. I did enjoy a few Everett Giants games, but in the minor leagues the baseball is probably not the important part. Giants games were outdoors, they had far better hotdogs and beer than anything at the Kingdome, and the tickets were free because I only went when the Empress Larkin was in charge of the alto line in the national anthem. Oddly, I seem to actually enjoy sports movies; The Natural, The Replacements, Bull Durham, and Moneyball all come to mind. In the last case, I also read the book, and was somewhat surprised to learn that Michael Lewis could actually make baseball statistics interesting. When Flash Boys came out, relating to a somewhat more interesting subject, I had to take a look.

As the book opens, Lewis relates that 205 eight-man crews were laying fiber between the South Side of Chicago and Carteret, New Jersey. The crews had no idea what they were building, but if they had all gotten together to plot their work on a map they would have seen that they were laying a conduit along a straight line, therefore the shortest distance, between two data centers. The route had not been selected for speed of digging, in fact they spent a great deal of time boring through mountains rather than deviate from that path. a digital signal from the Chicago Board of trade and NASDAQ data centers required 16-17 ms to make the round trip. Some traders had discovered a Verizon route that cut the time to 14.65 ms and were able to make significant money on the times they found themselves on “The Gold Route”. Those crews were laying a conduit to carry 400 strands of fiber along a path that would require only 12 ms, and they planned to lease the use of the cable for millions. A high-speed trading firm wanting a pair of those fibers (one each way) was asked to pony up $300,000 a month and several million in start up costs. And they all signed up.

Why on earth would these brilliant players shell out that kind of scratch to save 2.35 to 5 ms to send a few messages from Chicago to Trenton? Well, it wasn’t a few messages, it was thousands per minute. And the high-frequency traders (HFTs) had discovered that if their connections were fast enough they could learn a buyer’s interest in a stock, including the price the buyer was offering, and rather than arrange the trade at the best price in the market, they would buy the shares for a penny or two less and pocket the difference when they delivered the shares to the buyer. So who cares about a few pennies? Well, just about anybody that can do it a million times a day. The HFTs could do that, and though there is no real accounting for their results, Lewis estimates that their advantage earned them over $10 billion per year. Even if investing holds no interest to you, that kind of money probably does.

Lewis identifies several participants in the marketplace who discovered and attempted to eliminate these games; one was a manager of electronic trading at Royal Bank of Canada (Brad Katsuyama), one a communications wizard who had worked for MCI, Qwest, and Level 3 but really wanted to be in finance (Ronan Ryan), and one a Russian programmer working for Goldman Sachs (Sergey Aleynikov). Katsayuma led a group that formed IEX, a trading platform based on introducing delays in transmissions to eliminate the time differences that some of the HFTs were using to exact their hidden tax on most transactions, some of which Ryan made possible. IEX is currently treated as one of the “dark pools” but with far greater transparency than any others in that group and is working on the process of becoming an actual exchange. Their current volume is similar to Deutsche Börse, higher than Hong Kong, but less than 5% of the size of NASDAQ. I see that IEX traded over 116 million shares on the 4th, they got a lot of attention when this book hit the market.

Lewis also looks at the risk of things like the “flash crashes” that have staggered markets a few times, but only in passing. The question that this book really addresses is whether or not the HFTs are a positive part of the market. As Lewis documents, they have been trading in ways that come close to theft but they have also forced the buy/sell price spread down which benefits everyone. Some argue that the HFTs contribute by “making a market”, but Lewis points out that they don’t actually perform that function when a stock is under pressure which is the only time it really makes a positive difference. My conclusion is that the HFTs may have been important in providing the volume that made today’s trading so inexpensive, but what the HFTs are actually doing on those networks is a net loss to the economy.

If you have a mind to learn how to play the HFT game for fun and profit, you could learn a lot from this book but it isn’t going to teach you the nuts and bolts of how to do it. Flash Boys does a great job of illuminating the processes of today’s markets for those that are interested, and like I said at the outset, Michael Lewis, who wrote a book that made baseball statistics fascinating, writes in a way that makes even the backrooms of the market’s heavy hitters sound interesting.

Bank of America’s $17 billion atrocity

The Justice Department is bragging about the $37 billion in fines they’ve assessed related to mortgage-backed securities as well as trumpeting the fact that they’ve started to rake in penalties that exceed the cost of operating the department. The latest and greatest item is the $16.65 billion  settlement with Bank of America over wretchedly-underwritten loans at Countrywide Financial during the height of the housing bubble. I’m hoping to keep this item short, but it’s hard considering how many things are wrong with it.

First, of course, is the question of whether or not these assessments will accomplish anything in terms of changed behavior, which remains to be determined but seems unlikely at the moment. Over the past decade or so we’ve been moving in the direction of fines that, while stunning numerically to most of us, are just seen by the businesses as another cost of the game.

Second is the secrecy with which many of these deals are being hammered out. These are not settlements at trial where the specific misbehavior of miscreant companies is laid out and the disposition of the funds is clearly delineated.

Third is the question of how real the numbers are. In the BoA settlement, some $7 billion is “soft dollars” that the bank will spend on relieving the burdens of individual mortgagors. To start with, many, if not most, of these loans were bundled and sold to investors. If BoA reduces a family’s mortgage balance it’s the investors who are going to be paying the price, although to the extent that BoA is being paid to service those loans their servicing income will likely be slightly reduced going forward. For those loans in which BoA is actually holding the assets, the reduction in principal will reduce income, and thus 35% of those reductions will actually be borne by the Treasury.

Finally, exactly why is BoA being held responsible for Countrywide’s actions taken before they took over? Although the pressure that Hank Paulsen applied to BoA to coerce the takeover of Merrill Lynch in 2009 isn’t as clear here, my recollection is that there was a less overt and less specific pressure from Washington for BoA to take over Countrywide the year before. BoA’s CEO Ken Lewis clearly was acting on his own initiative when the bank bought 17% of Countrywide in 2007, but the complete takeover of Countrywide appeared to be something desired by the government to prevent a financial disaster.

I’m one of the growing number of observers that think a permanent change in corporate behavior requires not fines levied against the companies but prison time for the individuals involved. Even if the natural inclinations of the banks and their boards is to grab every nickle that isn’t red hot or nailed down, if their employees have reason to believe they will be wearing prison jump suits if they cross the line future occurrences will drop.

If I Were King, I would have been delighted to see Countrywide just collapse. I would have been particularly amused if, when the bankruptcy court closed the offices and sold off the assets, the computers were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar to someone who would turn around and wipe the disks and use the systems as the first really big Bitcoin mint. Mortgagors would then see their payments returned “Addressee Unknown” by the post office, and the investors who financed all the paper would discover that there was no way to connect their investments with actual properties. That would have been a fiscal stimulus of the first order! Sure, there would soon have been robo-signers cranking out fraudulent documents to remedy this, as actually happened anyway, but after the first few hundred bankers and lawyers involved were sent up the river that would certainly stop.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ukraine: What next?

It has been obvious for several weeks that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been actively supporting the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons. It was reasonably clear that when the Malaysian airliner was shot down it involved a Russian antiaircraft system that had been moved into Ukraine, operated by quickly trained rebels, then quickly dispatched back into Russian territory when the rebels mistakenly targeted the commercial airliner.

Good intelligence information indicates that Russian artillery units have been active on behalf of the separatists, firing into Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the porous border. In the last few days there have been documented cases of Russian units in armored cars crossing the border into Ukraine, both still images and video have been recorded. The Ukrainian Army has captured at least four active duty Russian soldiers.

In other words, Russia not only placed troops into Ukraine to take over Crimea, but is now actively attacking the sovereign state of Ukraine militarily. In response I see suggestions that additional sanctions should be imposed on Russia. I can think of one truly appropriate sanction that should be immediately imposed; Russia’s membership in the United Nations should be terminated, including their privileged role on the Security Council.

The following sections are from Chapter I, Article 2 of the UN Charter:

2. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

3. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Russia is clearly operating in Ukraine in violation of the UN charter. In addition, when the UN was formed the Soviet Union was granted the highest membership status along with the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and France. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian federation took over the Soviet membership on the presumption that the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation was merely a name change. This was patently absurd, in 1945 the Soviet union was a significant power and rightly ranked with the other permanent members of the Security Council. Forty-five years later the one-time superpower had a withered dramatically. At that time there were 15 republics making up the Soviet Union, Russia is only one of those, further diminishing its stature. The Russian Federation was a grand new sovereign entity, carved out of Soviet Union but certainly not a successor. They should have been required to apply for membership as the new country that they were, and would certainly not have been given a permanent in the Security Council based on the situation in 1991.

If I Were King I would ask my economic advisors to evaluate the possibility of additional economic sanctions against the Russian Federation in response to their current disregard of international norms. But I would also direct my ambassador to the United Nations to demand the expulsion of the Russian Federation and terminate all treaties benefiting Russia that were simply inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia has had autocrats of various stature for most of its recorded history. Some of them were worthy and talented rulers by the standards of their time such as Peter, Elizabeth, and Catherine. Vladimir Putin is only a pale shadow of Russian emperors of the past, and acting as if the rules for invading foreign sovereign states had not changed since the days of Catherine the Great further diminishes him. The rest of the world should not treat Putin as the legitimate leader of a major power when he is no more than a kleptocratic spoiled child somehow in command of the Russian heartland. only when Russian troops have been with drawn from the Ukraine, Russian military support for the rebels has ended, and Crimea has been restored to its rightful place within a sovereign Ukraine should Russia’s application to rejoin the UN be considered.

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Cover imageEverything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2005, 238pp

Having misread a blurb regarding this book, I was hoping to gain support for my idea that the nutritional benefits of, say, butter and rice cakes are actually proportional to their levels of flavor. Sadly, I received no such reinforcement but I’ll stick with that belief anyway. What Johnson does advance in this book is the surprising concept that television, video games, and the Internet are actually making all of us smarter. As far-fetched as that might sound, he makes strong case.

He starts with games. As a boy Johnson deeply explored fantasy baseball games at a time when these were strictly on paper. He enjoyed analyzing the many factors that went into success of a player and a team, and the differences between various tools involved in his exploration. Touching on significant research he examines modern video games, the fact that they’ve forced the player to spend hours of time that isn’t particularly enjoyable simply learning the rules needed to complete the game. Johnson marvels at the growing complexity of video games from the likes of Pac-Man, for which a single page describing patterns to watch for was all the documentation extant, to Grand Theft Auto III, for which a 53,000 word “walk-through” exists that many find essential to playing the game. Where the cynic expected games to offer the path of least resistance to players, in truth they have become impressive challenges, much like the efforts he put into hypothetical baseball. Johnson applauds the devotion of what others see as slackers to learning and mastering the complexity of these games.

He then moves on to broadcast television. He recalls how Newton Minow, an FCC Commissioner, declared TV to be a “vast wasteland” in 1961. He looks closely at the growing complexity of prime time shows. He takes the police procedural genre for one set of examples, noting the absolute consistency and linearity of Dragnet (1951-1959), relating that Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) introduced a second subplot, normally comic, to start and end each show while the bulk of the time was still spent on a purely linear story. Years later, in 1981, came Hill Street Blues, a program that routinely had six or eight simultaneous plots developing, some of which had started in previous episodes and some extending into future ones. This development was followed by other programs until the Sopranos routinely involved a dozen distinct threads with 20 or more recurring characters. (He doesn’t mention them, but two of the procedurals from Don Johnson that were followed in the royal rec room, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges, reinforce the idea.) In other words, during several decades broadcast television was changing from the most simple of entertainments to dramas nearly as complex as a novel.

Johnson sees the internet in the same light. Not only does it provide resources for enhancing other parts of life, including access to helpful information about video games and staggering amounts of discussion about television (look for the extensive analyses of both the drama and the medicine in House, M.D. that can be found on-line), but it has pushed us into a new way of learning. He quotes Steve Jobs as positing that the difference between television and the internet is the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. But the whole book points out that we have been moving from the former to the latter in other pursuits.

Johnson asserts an underlying change that he calls the “Sleeper Curve”, an increase in societal mental acuity that is quietly enhancing the intelligence of just about everybody that participates in our increasingly-complex society. Where George Will sees “an increasingly infantilized society”, Johnson sees “a kind of positive brainwashing” in the same media that Will, and many other observers, deride.

Despite watching this happen, I didn’t see what it really meant. Before getting too excited about your kids’ media habits, consider Johnson’s view and look closely at what is actually being watched. Odds are good that they are stimulating young minds rather than creating the zombies that so many parents fear are sitting on their sofas, when parents prefer more identifiable homework.

Alas, I’m not sure this helps me personally. I rarely watch broadcast television and the only game I seem to play is Freecell, which can be mastered in thirty seconds and I mostly use to let my brain wander without doing much of anything. Did you think that video games were just modern pacifiers? In most cases, as Johnson points out, the answer would be no, but in my case it’s true. I do think the internet has had a positive impact on my intellect, but I’m completely missing the benefits of games and TV.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Constitutional Right to Farm

Americans have a pretty reasonable set of rights vis a vis the government, I’d prefer the range were a bit broader but there’s no question that we’re well ahead of almost everybody else in the world. China and Russia may not like it, but their protestations that our rights are some “western conspiracy” are absurd, they grew directly from the early days of the Enlightenment. That may have started with English and French philosophes, but every part of that applies to humans in general rather than humans in a particular place.

One right that we are not guaranteed is a right to farm, but then there doesn’t seem to be a lack of farming, and the constraints on that activity are primarily economic rather than governmental, so it’s no surprise that James Madison didn’t include any reference to agriculture in the Bill of Rights, nor has any subsequent amendment. In Missouri, however, Amendment 1 is on the ballot. The heart of this would amend Article I, Section 35 of the Constitution of Missouri to read:

That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by Article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.

That certainly sounds like something any Chamber of Commerce or state legislature would go along with, clearly a harmless bit of rural boosterism. Except that the organizers see it as a way to prevent regulation of agriculture, such as attempts by the much hated (at least in Missouri farm country) Humane Society of the United States to advocate rules on the amount of space and fresh air that laying hens must be provided. In North Dakota, the only other state with a similar amendment, there haven’t been any real changes as a result. (I learned of this issue from a New York Times article by Julie Bosman, “Missouri Weighs Unusual Addition to Its Constitution: Right to Farm” in today’s issue.)

But if they reject reasonable regulation of their operations, how far do they intend to go? Will they be spraying the wetlands protected for migratory birds with DDT? Allowing unimpeded fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers? Depleting aquifers for thirsty crops and leaving cities to live on Perrier? What about bringing back slavery? All of these are historically-accepted “farming and ranching practices” in the US.

The vote is tomorrow (5 August 2014), and the farm community has spent over a million dollars pushing it. It’s a primary in a non-presidential year so turnout will be low, hordes of angry farmers arriving at polling places on their tractors could put it over, despite the overwhelming opposition by just about every newspaper in the state.

If I Were King I’d just smile, knowing that much of the country’s strength, as the early leaders of the Enlightenment knew, is based on the ability of the citizens to organize and campaign to change the way they are governed. Regardless of who is in charge, or whether this is adopted at the polls, this case may make the farmers feel better but won’t change much.

Update – 6 August 2014 – Amendment 1 passed with a 50.1% yes vote. The Missouri secretary of state has until 26 August to certify the results, at which any person who voted against it can demand a recount based on the slim margin. I’m not sure whether to be appalled or amused at the possible legal antics to follow.