let’s get specific

Tim points out that Vint Cerf’s advocacy for network neutrality doesn’t mean that every venerable internet expert agrees with it.  True!  Google for “Dave Farber” or “Bob Kahn” and “net neutrality” and you’ll find plenty of articles… from 2007.

I think this debate has stagnated.  People are continuing to act as if the FCC’s plan is a complete unknown. This enables the lazy “evil corporation/incompetent government” frame that we all know and love. At one point this was at least semi-appropriate.  People — including those like Cerf, Farber and Kahn — made guesses about what was likely to happen, largely based on their own position along the regulation/markets ideological spectrum. “The government is trying to outlaw QoS!” “The ISPs are going to charge for Google!”  Both of these positions were hyperbolic.

But look, there’s a difference now: the FCC has announced its NN principles, to thundering… well, there hasn’t been much reaction, actually.  Everyone’s just pretending that nothing happened and sticking to their guns.  “The principles are too vague!” they cry, even though those principles say that allowances will be made for necessary network management, that throttling heavy users will be okay, that malware can be filtered, that copyright law can be enforced, and that managed services can be developed and sold.  That wipes out a significant swath of the ISPs’ objections.

Yet no one seems to have noticed. Here’s Farber responding to the new principles — he doesn’t particularly object to them, he just thinks they’re too vague and that they might make ISPs wary of trying to innovate (as if the research costs to network management are so great that the potential for work product to be shot down makes it impractical; please, this is software).  He also says they’ll lead to a bunch of lawsuits, though he simultaneously says we should instead rely on the DOJ and FTC to handle this (in a rule-free environment!), which makes just about no sense to me.

I digress.  Look: the FCC has put some of its cards on the table.  Not all!  Rulemaking still needs to occur (if it didn’t, opponents would be even more outraged).  But the agency has signaled that it’s not actually going to do the incredibly idiotic things that neutrality opponents claimed it would. Those people need to acknowledge this fact, and come up with a clarified set of objections. What is it, exactly, that the FCC’s stated plans are going to stop you from doing? Right now I’m just seeing a bunch of now-irrelevant FUD; some talk about how great a monopolistic IPTV market would be; and some hand-waving about “new business models”, which I take to be a synonym for “rent-seeking”.  It’s time to admit that the FCC isn’t the one being vague.

free software

Tim Lee has written the best primer on the history and philosophical basis of free software that I’ve yet read.  It’s definitely worth a look, even for those who know the basic contours of this stuff.

The comparisons between this particular movement and purely political movements can be extended further than you might think — right down to some of the same issues that Kerry and Tim have been discussing this week in an entirely different context, where the removal of licenses/laws isn’t enough to address for the pernicious effects of less clearly-defined norms and dynamics.  It’s also been an important part of my ideological education: watching the continued success of free software despite the seemingly pathological dysfunction of many of its contributors has gone a long way toward convincing me that our society isn’t (necessarily) doomed.

I consider my incorrect semicolon usage a political act

I probably don’t need to tell you this, since it’s spreading through Twitter at a furious pace, but FakeAPStylebook is excellent; you should be following it now, when it’s free, rather than paying $15 for a less funny version of it when you spot it by the register at Border’s.

It made me wonder, though: of drug dealers, professional videogame players and style guide authors, who do you think contributes least to society?  I feel like pro gamers are solidly in the positive column, if only thanks to the wealth they generate through Mountain Dew endorsements.  The other two are trickier — you’d have to figure out how many drug dealers participate in violence, and how much violence the style guide authors elicit.  Anyway, I think it’s certainly an open question.


Matt has taken my offhanded complaint about DC beer prices and placed it within the context of social justice, noting that DC’s high wages account for its high beer prices (our average drink prices are comparable to New York’s; our median annual wage, at $57.1k, is somewhat higher than New York’s, at $52.8k; both are significantly above the national median of $42.3k). His basic project is all to the good: thus is the charge of any thoughtful person concerned with the common weal and/or our ability to drink away worries about the state it’s in.

However! I object to his specific analysis of the situation for two reasons.

The first concerns the relevance of the wage figures Matt cites — I think the average DC beer-buyer is poorer than those numbers imply.  Matt’s reliance on pan-workforce statistics is understandable, but still insufficient for the task at hand. One needs to look at the bar-going slice of the population in order to characterize the market for happy hour beer. Sadly, the BLS does not consider this a focus of their work. However! Both New York and DC are on the high end of the marriage age spectrum, so let’s assume that bar-going rates are roughly similar for both populations. I contend that DC’s drinking class is likely to be impoverished relative to New York’s, for two reasons. First, DC’s young professionals are likely to have a substantially larger average debt burden than those of New York, given that we have twice the incidence of graduate degrees and, one imagines, student loans (UPDATE: proof!). Second: while I don’t have stats to back it up, the incidence of unpaid internships in this city must be abnormally high, even when compared to New York’s wage-depressed economy of starry-eyed small-town dreamers.

The second objection is based on evidence that the supply of alcohol in DC is artificially constrained, producing higher prices than would otherwise be found. I’m pretty sure that Matt’s aware of this effect, because I think I stole the idea from him. Namely: the terrible regulatory situation faced by DC bars. A search for retailers licensed to sell alcohol for on-premises consumption in New York, NY yields 14,718 records. An extremely generous summing of DC’s licensed alcohol sellers — I included everyone but grocery stores, liquor stores and caterers — shows 1,039 licensees. Normalizing this to population is challenging: liquor licenses aren’t administered at the MSA level, and it should be obvious that a larger proportion of DC’s happy hour attendees are from the suburbs than is the case for New York. But Wikipedia puts the workday population of DC at around a million, so let’s run with that number. If we do, we can see that DC has 1.039 milli-watering holes per capita (mWHPC), versus a robust 1.760 mWHPC for New York City (using per capita rates across the entire population — not just the bar-going segment — because of our our assumption that the demographics (if not the economics) of bar attendance are similar in both cities). Even using the formal population of DC (591,833) leaves New York in the lead, with a DC score of 1.756. And this is to say nothing of New York’s later last call, which provides the city’s residents with 8.3% more drinking hours per bar (marginal though they may be).  Normalizing the mWHPC score to DC’s last call, New York emerges with a commanding 1.91 mWHPCw(2AM) — nearly twice as much as DC!*

The significance of this disparity is bolstered by looking at alcohol consumption stats.  These are actually pretty hard to track down on an MSA level, and obviously state figures won’t do when making comparisons to DC. This admittedly-dated survey is about the best I could find, and shows a rate of alcohol use over a 30-day window that’s five percentage points higher for DC than New York. All else being equal, one would assume that the per-capita quantity of bars would be higher in harder-drinking cities.  Yet in this case we see exactly the opposite.

This all suggests to me that wages aren’t the whole story — at least when that story is told in comparison to New York — and that regulatory forces play a significant role in distorting the DC market for alcohol by keeping supply artificially low relative to demand.

* As I went to sleep last night I realized that, unless something has changed since I last stayed out late and DC bars are now open for 24 of the day’s 26 hours, my math is wrong. The real percentage increase caused by a later last call should probably be substantially higher, even though a contrary effect should be introduced by applying something like a discount rate to the extra hours themselves.  So I can’t really propose a firm number, though using no discount and assuming drinking begins at 5pm would give you an adjustment weight of 1.22; it therefore seems safe to say that New York’s weighted score should be no more than 2.15.

special offer: still-abnormally-high prices

This drives me nuts. Not that drink prices in D.C. are so high, per se — that’s fine, businesses should charge what they can for alcohol. But the brazenness of it sometimes gets to me.  Don’t put a goddamn placard out on the street proudly advertising your $4 domestic bottle happy hour special.  Don’t charge me $7 for a Yuengling. Gussy it up! Hide the gouging!  When you fail to do so, it’s sort of insulting.

sticking up for mad science

Not to undercut Ryan’s point, which seems to me to be correct — geoengineering probably is much harder than its boosters currently think, and anyone who ignores the experts calling for first taking a crack at emission reduction is a dope — but I think his point’s getting a bit lost in all the me-too-ery. Here’s Kevin Drum:

But geoengineering isn’t something that a single country can pull off. It’s a global problem, after all. That means treaties and conferences and endless debate over costs and benefits and what the target temperatures ought to be and who’s responsible for side effects. There just aren’t any easy answers here.

I’m pretty sure this is wrong: geoengineering is something that a single country could pull off.  That’s sort of the whole point. The Atlantic got a bunch of experts to say exactly that earlier this year — actually, they say it’s something that Richard Branson could manage if he were so inclined.

And, contrary to what’s being asserted, I think history makes it clear that undertaking massive scientific and engineering projects that put foreigners at risk is something that’s actually pretty easy to get away with. I mean, consider that time we gassed tens of thousands of Indians to death. Or that time we were worried about the Manhattan Project igniting the atmosphere (PDF) but went ahead with it anyway. Or US agribusiness’s release of GM food products into the wild. Or all the space junk we’ve flown up over and crashed down past foreign countries. And that’s to say nothing of the environmental devastation that the first world has wrought upon any number of countries with resources we fancy.

Again, this isn’t to minimize the argument that geoengineering is unlikely to be the simple cure-all that some imagine. I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but that seems right to me.

But if we decided we wanted to do it, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine anyone stopping us. That’s the appeal of these solutions: they sidestep the collective action problem that CO2 reduction represents.  You could (and should) attach to geoengineering proposals the same collaborative hurdles that emission reduction requires.  But you don’t really have to.  I’m sure you’d see some flushed faces around Turtle Bay if we started pumping sulfur dioxide out of military jets circling the globe, but no number of submarine meetings of the Maldives cabinet could seriously dissuade a superpower from undertaking some mad science in the face of what it earnestly believes to be an existential threat.  Hell, it might even be possible to dump SO2 into the atmosphere in a sufficiently diffuse way that other countries couldn’t easily prove we’d done it.  You know, like how the government is using chemtrails to build an electromagnetic superweapon.

a solution to listening to Redskins games on the bus

Now that the team’s season is definitely going to be a disappointment, I’ve finally figured out the answer to my radio-listening woes.  It’s no fancy transcoding or other such nonsense.  It’s just a godawfully ugly site that lists affiliate stations.  And not just for the Redskins!  Hell, there’s even a similarly-named site for baseball broadcasts.  I don’t know why these sites don’t wind up higher in the Google rankings; they’re extremely handy.

After finally stumbling onto this, all it took was some trial and error with the linked URLs and the FStream iPhone app (the stream URLs ending in .pls are good bets).  Handy!

guaranteed broadband

Matt sent me this link, which mentions that Finland has just declared broadband access a legal right. By next summer, all Finnish citizens will be entitled to a 1mbps connection; within a few years that speed requirement will climb to 100mbps.

Perhaps predictably, I think this is great. Big government! Technology! Heedless disregard for cost or affected corporations! What’s not to like?

Actually, though, the English-speaking press seems a little fuzzy on what exactly this announcement it means. It appears to be a guarantee of access, not a promise of internet service paid for by the state. It’s also not quite as novel as it sounds: a French court declared net access a human right earlier this year (though I believe that decision was expected to be quickly overturned).

But whatever the specifics, a lot of people will no doubt find the idea of enshrining network access as a right to be frivolous or silly. They shouldn’t.

I think the temptation is to romanticize rights as timeless philosophical axioms; to connect them to an imagined state of nature from which your preferred understanding of the social contract then arises. It’s no doubt difficult to admit technology into that picture. But what’s the second amendment if not a guaranteed right to technology? “Arms” is, admittedly, a bit more poetically vague than “100mbps broadband connection”. But considering all the headaches that’ve been produced by that bit of American lyricism, it’s hard to blame the Finns for being specific.

To me it seems simple: society needs to guarantee its members the ability to do certain things, like defend themselves and communicate and participate in the economy. If the march of progress makes it absolutely or practically impossible for them to do so without access to some enabling technology, then the ability to use that technology will have to be guaranteed, too, right?

is it really this hard?

The New Yorker ponders why and whether blackmail should be illegal.  I have to say, I don’t get it: this seems really simple.  You’re restricting the incentives that can be offered for committing a destructive act, while acknowledging that in some circumstances the act itself is necessary.  In this way it is hoped that the destructive acts that are undertaken will be those that are most fully justified on their own merits, rather than being prioritized on the basis of external financial factors.  There’s some similarity between this and the ban on compensation for organ donation, though of course the situations are not perfectly analogous.

But maybe I’m just saying this because I’m a Letterman fan.

if anyone has a brilliant idea about how to get the complete staff of TSA’s Burlington branch fired

Shoot me an email. We should chat.

Long story short, the skies were kept safe tonight from any designs I had on synthesizing a maple-based plastique while in flight. TSA acted professionally, in the sense that they said “sir” as they went about their officious buffoonery.

If you haven’t already, you should read this interview with former* TSA chief Kip Hawley, conducted by Bruce Shneier. It will make two things immediately clear.

First, this agency was run by a man named Kip.

Second, the frustrating and apparently arbitrary nonsense that you, I and all other air travelers are continually subjected to is just what it seems. When the agent tried to explain to me that the listed weight of my proscribed carryon (in grams) was evidence of its violation of the volume limit? When the woman next to me was told that the difference between the limit, in millilieters, listed on the TSA.gov printout she was holding and the limit, in milliliters, being enforced against her owed to some arcane fact involving unit conversion and Canadian passengers? These are not merely the failings of overtaxed and undertrained staff. The whole agency is awash in arbitrary authoritarianism. Shneier pulls the curtain back, and the man behind just sits there smiling at him. He’s named Kip! Glad to meet ya! But he couldn’t possibly comment on that thing you just said, because if he did, one of our vaguely-defined but utterly-relentless enemies might realize the obvious thing that your non-expert mind just thought of during a fit of idle pique.

I understand why a Democratic administration can’t undo this nonsense. But I am looking forward to the day when a new Republican administration decides to help itself to an easy PR victory by undoing the liquid ban and, hopefully, driving a naked, horsewhipped Kip Hawley — or whomever has continued his legacy –through the laughing streets of DC.

There. Now I feel better.

* It appears that Kip is out as of the Obama administration, but a permanent replacement has not yet been named. Hopefully they will either be more thoughtful, or at least have a name of similar hilarity, making it easyto update this post.