“Nobody’s Tool”

In Terry Gilliam’s artsy futurist film “The Zero Theorem” (2013), precocious and charismatic teen Bob (Lucas Hedges) tells the besieged computer operator Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “I’m nobody’s tool”.  (Hedges would play a similar role in “Manchester by the Sea”.)

It’s true, I “went public” with a controversial persona narrative with my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in the 1990s – specifically striking a nexus between the past history of conscription with the debate over gays in the military (as it had evolved then under Bill Clinton).  I would wrap every other issue, mapped onto the tension between individualism and the need to belong to the group, around it and become a commentator, a pundit, someone who, however, needed to keep a certain objectivity and distance (even emotional aloofness) expected of journalists.

As President Trump complains, it’s too easy to criticize when you sit on the bench ad don’t play.

So, in the “aftermath” of the book(s), websites, blogs and now social media accounts, I have made it absolutely impossible for me to earn money (in “retirement”) by selling somebody else’s message, or being someone else’s spokesperson.  No, I can’t have Sean Spicer’s job.

After my layoff and forced retirement from old-style mainframe I.T. as a post 9/11 sequel at the end of 2001, at age 58 (73 now), I learned “the truth” about what the world seemed to expect of retirees: Sell! One of the earlier interviews (while I was still in Minnesota) as with PrimeVest   The interviewer became defensive about my questions over his presentation, even though I agree that for some consumers, converting whole life to term is a reasonable strategy. But a $40 trillion market?  The interview was concerned over how “analytical” I seemed. I checked and investigated everything.  “We give you the words,” he said.  To a writer who has followed his own direction, that phrase sounded very insulting, like throwing an inadequate tip at a bartender (which I once did).

There would other attempted offers to throw husckerism at me. True, life insurance agent or financial planner sounds legitimate enough. But I don’t want to troll people’s Internet ad hits in order to cold call them.

I also find myself resisting attempts to get me to “join a resistance”.  HRC is on my regular donation list, but I felt a little taken back by a recent email inviting me to be trained to become a grassroots activist or part of a resistance.  I know that Barack Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago at one time, I have my own message set.  I don’t need to have an organization tell me what to say.

Even worse was a similar ploy from the political right. GOP candidate for a runoff in a Georgia House race, Karen Handel, writes, addressing me personally (by an automated plugin – again insulting) “This is the email I didn’t want to have to write. But after seeing the latest public polls – I have no choice.” She whines that bigwing Democrats have raised so much money for her opponent, so “Will you help me fight back?”

No, I like to think of myself as better than that.  But of course I know the argument.  I saved well when I was working.  But I also have some of what the left-wing considers a poison pill, inherited wealth.  I don’t have to make everything I do pay for itself.  I don’t have to sell other people’s messages for a living. But I can imagine people thinking, if there weren’t people like me around to dilute them, they could make a living by “selling” because everyone else would have to.

I’ve railed about identity politics here before, but the way I argue policy issues is relevant here.  Of course, I agree that current GOP plans for health care (variations of the Americam Healthcare Act) could, as structured now, throw millions off affordable health insurance, while solving problems of premium hikes for unneeded coverages for some people adversely affected by Obamacare’s implementation (and probably exacerbated by some states). I agree that the changes could affect racial minorities adversely.  They could also affect gay men (depending on what happens with PrEP and protease inhibitors).  But I don’t argue something because it hurts “me” or anyone as a “member of a group” (even though “belonging to groups” has become, unfortunately, the legal cornerstone of the way equal protection of the laws works).  One of the reasons AHCA would affect people in certain groups is the way it would shift the responsibility for Medicaid back to the states.  So it becomes a federalism problem.  States should do the right things, but we know from the history of Civil Rights through the 1960s that sometimes they didn’t (and we lost young men like Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney as a result in what was the moral equivalent of crucifixion).

I don’t respond personally to “Leftist” appeals for “resistance” because this policy hurts members of their particular client groups (even if I belong to one of them, and everyone belongs to something). I think you have to solve the problem analytically.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have kept an effective private health care sector in a way that works, and we could do that. I think you can have assigned risk pools again, so that rich people with pre-existing conditions can pay their own way (an inherent advantage of the GOP setup) but you have to subsidize the premiums of people in the middle class and below (tax cuts alone aren’t enough, you need subsidies, but you don’t need to use Medicaid as the vehicle for subsidies), or use reinsurance for excess claims.  You have to be determined to make it work, and you have to pay for it.  So maybe you can’t give the rich all their tax cuts.

Likewise, I reject group-oriented resistance politics on an issue like police profiling.  I understand Rudy Giuliani’s claims about how “broken windows” policing in the 1990s made New York City much safer than it had been in the 1970s when I lived there. But I have so say, that particularly a couple of independent films (“Whose Streets?” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” and well as “I A Not Your Negro”) have pointed out that in some communities, police departments have regularly extorted fines from black residents with the “garbage jail” approach. This is illegal and even criminal and not acceptable.  Why won’t the usual system of litigation put a stop to this?

I’m left to ponder the mentality of the doomsday preppers, who think that civilization cannot be depended on, and that it is morally imperative for everyone to learn to become self-sufficient locally and within the family.

(Posted: Monday, May 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

Volunteering usually needs to get personal

Conservatives often prompt the idea that the needy can be served by volunteerism even better than by publicly owned and run services (as we can see right off from the health care debate).

It’s rather logical to ask, then, if volunteerism, working in service to others for free, is to be expected on moral grounds from those who are able.

Right off the bat, I call to mind some passages in the 2007 book “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero, where the authors maintain that only within the nuclear and somewhat extended family can a determination “from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs” be made. I remember how that quote of Karl Marx was thrown around the barracks of Fort Eustis back in 1969 when I was in the Army.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has voiced similar ideas, that “It Takes a Family” (his 2005 book) to socialize people into meeting real needs.

But you can encircle the family with communities, and those with a country, so you can imagine how a moral expectation of service can fan out.

I can imagine, however, a mentality, where the poor could view some sort of structured personal attention or care from “the rich” as a moral entitlement, even in a “free” and conservative society.  Off hand, that doesn’t strike me as particularly encouraging for developing healthful self-concepts among the disadvantaged.  I’m recalling a time in kindergarten, in early 1949, when the teacher (who ran the class in her home) separated the class into “brownies” (who stayed downstairs – and I was one, despite that everyone was “white”) and “elves” (who got to sit in the living room upstairs).  I felt like I was put into a defined underclass, yet entitled to expect attention.  Maybe that did help shape some of the development issues I would have in the grade school years.

We don’t start out on life in the same place in line, to be sure.  OK, we can get into the whole debate on the role of “privilege” in setting up moral expectations of people. There are different kinds of disadvantage.  Of course, being born into poverty or in a totalitarian culture normally hurts once likely future station in life.  But there is a perpendicular situation:  within a particular family, which may be well-off, one is born with disability or a general lower level of capacity.  It can happen between twins or multiple births in the womb, or just among siblings.  So the social conservatives are right in saying that inside the “natural family”, if it is about the right size, people learn to develop affection and bonds to others in the family or group who may be less capable.

The tendency to look at some people as “better” than others relates to the real concerns about the outside world knocking that practically everyone in my generation dealt with.  Less capable people could become a drag on the group if faced with security problems.  Among men, the biggest and strongest often stepped up to defend the clan and took the casualties.  There was not a lot that could be done about most disabilities, so there wasn’t a lot of talk that helping those with disabilities was an expected thing to do.  On the other hand, the expectation of adhering to the personal discipline of confining sexuality to heterosexuality marriage was seen as a personal equalizing force, giving stability and sustainability to a families, tribes and whole countries that faced external perils.

Obviously, today things are a lot different.  Many people (myself especially) are not tied to families, and see pleas online to get involved personally with the needs of others in a way that would have been seen as inappropriate or unwelcome in earlier generations.  “Gofundme” has become a social norm today, when it strikes an older person like me as grating and self-indulgent.

Practically all communities have organizations that serve the poor.  Many are faith-based.  They offer services like healthful food preparation and delivery (sometimes owning their own gardens for fresh foods), various monthly community assistance (like groceries, clothing, HIV testing,, as well as meals), to specialized services needed by specific communities (elderly, some LGBTQ, asylum seekers and refugees, single mothers, those with mental health or substance problems).  Often the communities ask for lots of volunteers for special events (Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, monthly assistance).   Sometimes there are home-building or rehab events (as with group homes for the disabled, or with Habitat for Humanity) The interaction between the volunteers and those being helped will vary, not always being encouraged. Sometimes it seems that the purpose of the activity is more to build social capital among the group (often faith-based).

Volunteering has become more subject to bureaucracy.  Now there are usually automated background checks of volunteers, especially for those who will drive vehicles or work with minors.

I do find that occasional volunteering to be problematic.  I don’t accomplish much or make much difference when I am there.  Further, there are situations where unexpected personal risk is involved, like driving into unfamiliar and dangerous neighborhoods to make deliveries.

I think it should be more promising to look for more specialized opportunities where one can use one’s own expertise.  With my background, for example, I could perhaps direct chess tournaments attracting low income youth.  Or I could do something with my classical music background, although that can become problematic if it involved pandering to notions about popularity.  If I were involved with music, I’d be more interested in seeing some particular neglected works(not just my own as I composed) performed. As a self-published book author, I do get questions about being more supportive of community book stores (hard copies instead of Internet and Kindle) and of literacy initiatives.

But actual interaction with clients will often be problematic for me.  That is something I did not learn through familial socialization the way others have.  I didn’t learn to place emotional value on having someone depend on me. In the decades of my own upbringing, you would learn that partly through heterosexual courtship leading to marriage and parenthood within it.  Otherwise, my own somewhat “sheltered” upbringing really didn’t require me to interact personally with people with earthier temperaments;  some of it was avoided by placing unwelcome interaction in the category of teasing or even bullying, avoidance of somewhat physical competition on other people’s terms.  That artificial isolation and introversion continued during my long-track information technology career as an individual contributor, where I basically interacted with just “the choir”, people with cognition similar to mine. This diffidence really showed up when I worked as a substitute teacher in the mid 2000’s, and, with low-income or disadvantaged students (especially middle school) encountered interpersonal demands that one normally needs to have been a parent to encounter.  Or perhaps one would learn it through helping raising younger siblings (I had none) or raising as sibling’s children after a family tragedy, something which sometimes happens in inheritance situations (like “Raising Helen”). It’s notable and ironic that when I was growing up, eldercare was not seen as a challenging issue because our grandparents didn’t live as long as they can now.  My own eldercare situation from 1999 on to 2010 had aspects (how old even I was as well as Mother) that would not have happened often in earlier times.

Focused interaction with clients requires commitment to a narrower set of person-related goals than I have experienced until now.  I like being the public person who forces others to “connect the dots”.   The level of personal commitment needed requires (as the character Ephram on “Everwood” once wrote in a fictitious essay) the “ability to change” and share an outcome for a group. The one time I was the most personally engaged was in the mid 1980s when I volunteered with the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas as an AIDS “buddy” (rather assistant), although somewhat on my own terms.

On a couple of occasions, both in the early 1990s, I got feedback from two different organizations that I would not be effective unless I was more involved with the group, including spending more time with it and being more integrated to the group’s specific goals.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at 10 PM EDT)

Ransomware attack could provoke anti-tech reaction from Trump, but this particular attack may be easier to meet than it sounds

The “Ooops” page that many workplace computer users saw, displayed by hackers from the WannaCry worm last Friday, seemed almost cordial, as if making a mock of the Brexit vote last year, or of Donald Trump’s election.  It looked like a customer service page.  Can I get my data back?  Sure, if you pay up in time.

This almost looks like a hostile takeover.  Or is it a rebellion against the behavioral and personal performance norms of the civilized world in the digital age (and post)?  We’re in charge now, the welcome screen says;  you do what we tell you to do, and you’ll be OK.  The bullies win.  Might makes right, because there was no right before.

There are a lot of remarkable facts about this one.  First of all, the problem seems to have come from a leak of one of the NSA’s own tools, through Snowden and Wikileaks-like mechanisms.  The government wants its own back door, and it got left open.

Second, it seems to have affected certain kinds of businesses the most, mainly those overseas that happen to be less tech oriented and have less incentive to keep up.  It’s remarkable that one of the most visible victims was Britain’s National Health Service, and it’s easy to imagine how libertarians can use this fact to argue against single-payer and socialized medicine systems.  The government-run system didn’t give employees a personal incentive to stay tech-current.  (The what about intelligence services and the military?  They’re still government.)

But it is true, individuals and tech-oriented small businesses know how to keep up and do keep operating systems and security patches updated.  So do larger businesses with a core interest in tech infrastructure.  Your typical bank, insurance company, brokerage house or other financial institution usually keeps the actual consumer accounts on legacy mainframes, which are much harder for “enemies”  to attack (although insider vulnerabilities are possible, as I learned in my own 30-year career).  Typically they have mid-tiers or presentation layers on Unix systems, not Windows, and these are harder to attack.  Publishing service providers and hosting companies usually put their customer’s content on Unix servers (although Windows is possible, and my legacy “doaskdotell” site is still on Windows, and seems unaffected).

On the other hand, in Europe, most of all in Russia and former Soviet republics, there is a culture of cutting corners and sometimes using pirated software, which is much easier to attack.

A typical workplace infection might destroy all the data on employees’ own desktops (like Word memos) but not source code on a mainframe or Unix server, and not customer data.

This kind of ransomware cannot directly affect the power grids.  The computers that control distribution of power  run on proprietary systems (not Windows) normally not accessible to hackers.  However, in the book “Lights Out” (2015), Ted Koppel had described some ways a very determined hacker could try to corrupt power distribution and overload critical transformers.

There are other particulars in this incident.  Microsoft patched its latest server against the NSA vulnerability in mid March 2017.  All modern companies and ISPs or hosts would have applied this patch.  But there could have been a risk of this worm getting unleashed before the patch.

Windows 10 does not have the vulnerability, but apparently all previous versions did.  While media reports focuses on Britain’s NHS using Windows XP, it would seem that any PC with an earlier Windows operating system could be vulnerable it not patched after May 13, 2017.  Even the monthly update, applied May 12, might not have the fix.

From the best that I know, Carbonite or other cloud backups are not affected.  But users who do not network their Windows machines at home and who make physical backups (like on Seagate drives or even thumb drives) regularly are not the same danger of losing data.  I haven’t seen much information on how quickly the major security companies like Trend, Webroot or Kaspersky update their detection capabilities.

The fact that the worm spread among Windows computers in a network, without action by any users after the first one as attracted attention. It seems as though the original infection usually comes from email attachments disguised to look as if they came from inside the workplace.  But it is possible for an unprotected computer to be infected merely by visiting a fake website (the way scareware infections can take over a computer, often based on misspellings of real sites with “System Response” and 800 numbers for fake support). There are reports that infection is possible in unnetworked computers by leaving certain ports open (like 445) without adequate firewall.

Another problem is that, since introducing Windows 8 and later versions, Microsoft has become much more aggressive about pressuring users to replace operating systems on older hardware.  Often the loaded versions of operating systems like Windows 10 Creators Update, while loaded with the latest security, don’t run very well on older PC’s.  In the interest of providing gaming and tablet capabilities, Microsoft has made its systems less stable for people with ordinary uses (like blog posts).  Microsoft’s own PC’s, as compared to those with third party hardware (HP, Dell, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo, etc) may have fewer problems with updates inasmuch as they don’t have to deal with third party firmware (often from China) which may not be perfect.  Stability has become a much bigger issue since about 2013 with the introduction of Microsoft’s tablet systems.   I had a Toshiba laptop fail in 2014 when going from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 because it overheated due to inadequate engineering of the power components.

There was a stir over the weekend when CBS reported that President Trump had ordered emergency meetings at DHS, as if he had intended to take some kind of action on his earlier “no computer is safe” idea.  His use of Twitter seems to contradict his previous dislike of computers as a way to get around dealing with people and salesmanship. I had wondered if he could propose liability rules for companies or individuals who leave computers unprotected and allow them to be used in conducting attacks (as like home PC’s that become botnet nodes in DDOD attacks).

It was a couple of two young male programmers (each around 22), one in Britain and one in Indiana, who helped break the attack.  One programmer found an unregistered domain as a “killswitch” and found he could stop the worm by buying the domain himself for about $11.  I started wondering if Trump would talk about a killswitch for many portions of the Internet, as he threatened in December 02 2015 in early debates. “Shut down those pipes.”

My other legacy coverage of this incident is here.

Wikipedia screenshot of the user greeting.

Malware Tech is one of the resources fighting the work.

(Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 2 PM EDT)

Retirees could face rental qualification issues as they downsize

This blog is not the normal place where I discuss personal history details, but personal experience does jive with policy and business issues for me when it comes to retirement and growing older, just as it has with gay issues.

I did come out of my “career ending” (so to speak) IT layoff at the end of 2001 with ING (now Voya) in better shape than most, with very ample severance and retirement pension.  And I did land from a seven-plus year eldercare experience, with a lot of hired caregiver help in the last 18 months (over $100,000 worth) much better of that I might have.  For example, in 2013 the “estate” amounted to private insurance to cover my dental implants (no, Medicare doesn’t cover them).

You don’t get to drop out of the competitive world and yet stay in “public life” (to quote one of actor Anthony Hopkins’s more notorious characters) forever, as you know it is a mathematical certainty that you will have a last day, a last supper (so to speak), a last plane trip, a last film, a last blog post. At some point it is likely (though not certain) that “my” brain will have to deal with the idea that it is over.  It gives me more reason to ponder the afterlife (the “Focus” areas as much as the Hallow Heavens, as the Monroe Institute puts it), the nature of how “I-ness” (a “strange loop” of Hofstadter) embeds itself into some sort of permanent distributed consciousness.

One of the issues is downsizing.  I am in an “inherited” house, which technically belongs to a trust.  There can occur some situations where this could be risky (like recovering from a big natural disaster).  It could be easier for me to focus on my “journalism”, fiction and music if I was in a modern, secure building, like I was in Minneapolis (the Churchill) from 1997-2003.  I could be more credible with others.  Yes, I have “space”, but housing others involves time and risk and is hard to set up to do properly (this has come up with the asylum seeker issue, as I have written here before). There is a particular risk of holding real estate assets whose value could disappear in a major WMD terror attack.  Yes, we don’t like to talk about it.  Renting might be safe.  Of course, you can get into Stansberry (or Ron Paul) -like debates on how personal nest eggs can disappear quickly because of global currency manipulation – who knows where Donald Trump’s stumbles can lead? I do understand the appeal of the doomsday prepper position after all, but am not equipped to deal with it. I remain dedicated to solving problems and making civilization work and sustainable.  (Hey, I voted for Hillary.  I wanted Al Gore in 2000, and we might have avoided 9/11 and the War in Iraq.)

I’ve recently started looking at the issue of how retirees who have assets but less income than normally qualify for an apartment.  I covered this on a legacy blog post in late April after looking into this a little while in NYC.   I would much rather live in a secure building with the “general population” than in a 55+ community, which is probably more expensive but may be easier to qualify.  Some of these communities are located farther in the exurbs (or all over Florida) and it would be hard to reach normal urban cultural activities from them – but some have their own theaters, for example.  Many senior centers bring in artists to perform but they are likely to be less intellectually challenging and more conventionally “popular”.

I’ve seen many comments that many apartment developments, those run by large property companies, do not want to use savings for qualification.  I can understand the reluctance:  investments can lose value, or be spent.  It sounds as if it is possible to convert (by having your financial institution sell some assets and set it up) some savings to secured cash accounts, for a year’s rent, and this may work with some landlords.  You would want to keep your name on rent for future periods (beyond a normal security deposit) in case something catastrophic happens to the building. That may or may not be safer than having cash tied up in conventional condo or co-op ownership.

Sometimes builders buy tear-downs from seniors in houses and let them live rent-free for a while, during which period the senior needs to find an apartment.  A senior might need to do it this way to have the cash to set up such a rent deposit account. Furthermore, pension income or even social security income could go down in the future due to problems at a previous employer or due to a more hostile political climate.

I was also told, and this seems disconcerting for someone with little family left, that the senior should be prepared to provide references to the landlord.  This is difficult if he or she hasn’t worked steadily in years but has lived on assets.  It does suggest that, given longer life spans and fewer kids,  seniors should consider trying to work as along as possible — even if it means some objectionable consumerist and myopic personal hucksterism — rather than ride on assets and play the pundit game (as I did).   There was a hint to use volunteer organizations for references.  But imagine the coercion involved in such an idea.  That gives the bureaucracy of larger charities in a position to judge the characters and reputations of people who need references – and encourages some charities to put more pressure on retirees to support their narrowly focused agendas.  This is a very disturbing comment.

I won’t go too far further into this problem here today, but in the past I’ve gotten feedback that it is difficult to be effective in any volunteer organization without really “belonging” to the group.  I’ll go into this more in another post soon.  Again, rather disturbing, but it is part of the whole problem of maintaining social capital among people without their own families, as even some libertarian writers like Charles Murray have noted.

Typical 55+ discussion.

(Posted on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

Could undoing Network Neutrality rules really mean smallfry sites would have to pay off telecomm providers to be connected? Really?

Let’s imagine an entrepreneur invents some new superfast FIOS or cable technology that would be very effective for long high-definition videos, perhaps 3-D, perhaps even holographic or virtual reality.

A telecommunications company like Verizon, ATT or Comcast wants to offer it to some residential customers. It invites high profile, high-volume content distributors like some major movie studios, some (perhaps selected) cable channels, Amazon, and social media giants like Facebook to sign on and pay extra for the more efficient streaming of their content to largely more affluent consumers in some urban communities. Furthermore, these companies give price breaks for connecting to content that they own (for example Comcast has direct ties to NBC and Universal Pictures and Focus Features).

This sounds like it would not be allowed now under Obama’s network neutrality (after the FCC ruled that telecommunications companies were the legal equivalent of telephone companies of the monopolistic past, even after the breakup of “Ma Bell”, which, by the way, gave me more than a few job interviews when my own adult career started around 1970). It sounds as though the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, appointed by Donald Trump, wants this to be allowed.

Is this really a problem? If the service were available to home consumers (even only in certain locations) as an add-on to normal service, I don’t see a problem. Ordinary internet sites, including those owned by small businesses and free commentary blogs like mine, would work for consumers the same way they always had. However, a consumer who wanted to watch a 3-D comics-based movie on her home entertainment center when it first came out and wanted to pay for it this way with extra service would be able to.

Where I would be more concerned is if the hypothetical new service replaced the old one, and because of the physics of how it is offered, ordinary sites were no longer available. Only high-volume sites from large companies (especially those owned by one of the telecoms) that had paid to be connected to this service would be available on this hookup to some consumers. Such a consumer might believe that her smart phone with ordinary 4G LTE wireless provides adequate access to “ordinary” sites, which need to be mobile friendly anyway. That’s not so much of a problem for bloggers any more, because WordPress and Blogger make sites mobile-easy automatically anyway.

How probable this scenario really is, would depend on looking at how the hardware works.   I remember community college courses on the OSI model back in the 1990s. It’s that kind of stuff.

The reason I paint this scenario is largely that a number of advocacy organizations have been publishing veiled warnings that ISP’s might actually charge individual sites to be connected to their networks. This would obviously be devastating to small businesses, especially those that depend on niche blogs (the way Ramsay Taplan, the Australian “Blog Tyrant”) says the way they should be marketed. That lays aside rogue independent journalists like me who offer our blogs “free” in order to be noticed, and more about that later. In fact, the “DearFCC” petition letter promoted recently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to pander to this idea (legacy post). Even “mainstream” news sites like the Washington Post have dropped these hints. Sometimes I wonder if this does border on “fake news” and if Donald Trump could actually be right.

An environment where every domain had to pay every company to be connected could favor “free service” publishing services: that is, Blogger, WordPress, Tumbler, etc., which are predicated on there being just one domain to connect. There’s the interesting side observation that it is already much easier to make “free service” blogs encrypted under SSL and “https everywhere”, because that works by domain name.  That goes against conventional wisdom that a blog is much viewed as much more “professional” when it is tied to a domain named and paid-for domain name. BlueHost and other vendors have developed ways to equate these to “add on” subdomains, so the SSL issue may change in the relatively near future. That would imply, to me at least, that in a non-net-neutral world of the future, hosting companies (like BlueHost) would take care of the connection fees.  It’s also important to note that “free service” platforms don’t offer direct support and can terminate users wrongfully and capriciously (the “spam blog” problem).  And will the business model for free services hold up forever?  It’s always “risky” to put all your marbles on someone else’s free service, so conventional wisdom goes.  You have to add that people use Facebook (especially fan pages as opposed to “friends”, along with controversial news aggregation), Myspace (in the more distant past — the way Ashton Kutcher used it), Instagram and Twitter to supplement self-publishing, and these mega-rich services would always be able to pay for special treatment in a non-neutral environment.

Other sites have noted that Ajit Pai claims he will secure pseudo-voluntary compliance promises from big telecoms that they will not interfere with ordinary operation of the Internet for ordinary content providers and consumers. There is some question as to how “voluntary” these promises would remain and whether the FTC (not FCC) could enforce them with fines. If Pai is credible, then the net neutrality scare talk (not all of it from the Left) is indeed “hot air”, about a problem that doesn’t exist.

Another observation is that we have had years of Internet service, from the late 1990s until 2015, when net neutrality became formal under Obama, without any of these rumored consequences. Frankly, the world in which I started writing online, around 1997, with 56K modems through AOL, wasn’t all that bad. I actually stood out more then than I do now! But, as Timothy B. Lee recently wrote in Vox, ISP’s have tended to “voluntarily” stay on good behavior since about 2008 because they expected Net Neutrality to come about, even before Obama was elected.

It’s a fair question, too, to wonder what happens in other western countries – Europe, UK, Australia, and Canada especially. My impression is that they have some strong neutrality rules.

Furthermore, it seems relevant that some companies have already tried super-fast Internet in some local areas, like Google FIOS, which I thought had been set up around Kansas City, Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, and a few other places, but has a clouded future. Could the specifics of hookup to these networks affect the way any new innovative services want to charge for providing fast lanes for their content?

Finally, I’ll add a remark that some pundits seem to think that people shouldn’t give away content “for free” on the Internet at all, that everything published online should carry its own weight, as I noted on a legacy blog post yesterday. I would like to see Reid Ewing’s little film “It’s Free” become available again. But the details of that are for another day.

(Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Center for Immigration Studies holds panel discussion on the risk of asylum fraud

Today, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, the Center for Immigration Studies held a briefing in the Bloomberg Room of the National Press Building in Washington DC near Metro Center.

The moderator was Mark Kirkorian, Executive Director.

Panelists included Andrew Arthur, a Fellow at CIS, author of a paper “Fraud in the Credible Fear Process: Threats to the Integrity of the Asylum System.”; Mark H. Metcalf, former judge in Miami and prosecutor in Kentucky, author of “Built to Fail: Deception and Disorder in America’s Immigration Courts” and “Courting Disaster”; and Todd Bensman, criminal intelligence analyst.

The CIS website has an article by Dan Cadman on state-based visas which disagrees with Cato’s position last week (May 3).

The Talking Points mention some cases of asylum abuse, such as Rabei Psman, Ahmed Ferhani, El Mehdi Fathi, Ramzi Yousef.

Some people implicated in terror attacks in Europe had faked their asylum systems, although we know that many terrorists (especially in the US) are second generation people of legally arrived people who did not assimilate well (like Boston and Orlando).

The panelists presented a “business model” where smugglers bring people across the southern border into the US for money, and sometimes rehease the immigrants on what stories of credible fear to tell. Oddly, the smugglers don’t have an incentive to determine whether there really is credible fear (that was an audience question). In some cases, radical Islamic extremists have been smuggled across the border after traveling from the Middle East (or sometimes Somalia)

The panelists suggest that the US could enforce existing law by now accepting asylum applications for people passing through “third party” countries (with clandestine “safe houses”) which themselves could grant asylum according to their own laws.

One woman in the audience from a Hispanic caucus in Congress asked the panelists to re-explain the difference between refugees and asylum seekers, the latter being “already here” and usually “uninvited”

I (saying that I was an independent blogger with strong ties to both LGBTQ and to libertarian-or centrist leaning conservatives and somewhat to faith) asked about the “moral” pressure that some congregations (evangelical and catholic) place on members to house asylum seekers (or sometimes undocumented people) in “spare bedrooms” in their own homes. This has sometimes happened in the LGBT community. I mentioned the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba from 1980 by comparison, and also mentioned the questions about parole from detention with financial sponsorship.

The general answer was sympathetic to the idea that people have a moral obligation to help personally, as is particularly the belief in communities of faith.  The panel reinforced that empathy by noting that this is a nation of immigrants and many immigration controversies have occurred in the distant past. The panelists seemed to believe people should probably house only people they know (often relatives). But there was an implicit libertarian admission that “private” communities of faith (or sometimes activist organizations) are in a better position to identify people who have been in the country for a while (affirmative cases, sometimes with overstayed visas) than are government agencies or the immigrations system. Social capital really matters.  Even so this could be confounded by the pattern that some attacks (San Bernadino) have happened from people who have been here legally for a long time and were a shock to people who knew them.

The panel was aware that some groups want to encourage “sponsorship” of parole from detention.  While well-intended, the practice could provide an underground incentive for more people to attempt migration with unfounded asylum claims.

Metcalf mentioned a case in Miami where someone from Colombia made a credible fear claim based on LGBT persecution, but he said he denied asylum after deciding that the claim was false and the person might not have been gay. But I got the impression that the LGBT cases may tend to be credible a higher percentage of the time than other claims. LGBT people were victims and witnesses of the Pulse attack (Mateen was US-born) and also in Paris.

There was some discussion of the pay of immigration judges vs. border asylum officers (much lower).

CIS will provide a complete video of today’s event in a few days.

Metcalf: “Failure by the numbers” (the statistics here are important; they’re huge)

Arthur: “Fraud in the Credible Fear process

(Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2017 at 1:15 PM EDT)

Update: Wednesday, May 17, 2017  (2 PM EDT)

CIS has published the complete video and accompanying transcripts from the 70-minute presentation here.  My question is included at 16:19 in the last video, the QA. There is a secondary link to a panel transcript.

Update: May 22, 11:30 AM

Here’s a shot of the Berks County Detention Center in Leesport PA (really closer to Reading, SW of US 222 and PA 183 off County Welfare Road).  It’s big and hidden away so people aren’t aware of what’s going on.  When I asked for directions in a convenience store in Leesport, the attendant seemed to be aware of the hidden controversy.

Jail nearby

(End update)

Families of San Bernadino terror attack victims sue Facebook, Twitter, Google over “propaganda” arguments that evade Section 230

Families of victims of the fall 2015 terror attack in San Bernadino, CA are suing the three biggest social media companies (that allow unmonitored broadcast of content in public mode), that is Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Similar suits have been filed by victims of the Pulse attack in Orlando and the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.

Station WJLA in Washington DC, a subsidiary of the “conservative” (perhaps mildly so) Sinclair Broadcast Group in Baltimore, put up a news story Tuesday morning, including a Scribd PDF copy of the legal complaint in a federal court in central California, here. I find it interesting that Sinclair released this report, as it did so last summer with stories about threats to the power grids, which WJLA and News Channel 8 in Washington announced but then provided very little coverage of to local audiences (I had to hunt it down online to a station in Wisconsin).

Normally, Section 230 protects social media companies from downstream liability for the usual personal torts, especially libel, and DNCA Safe Harbor protects them in a similar fashion from copyright liability if they remove content when notified.

However, the complaint seems to suggest that the companies are spreading propaganda and share in the advertising revenue earned from the content, particularly in some cases from news aggregation aimed at user “Likenomics”.

Companies do have a legal responsibility to remove certain content when brought to their attention, including especially child pornography and probably sex trafficking, and probably clearcut criminal plans. They might have legal duties in wartime settings regarding espionage, and they conceivably could have legal obligations regarding classified information (which is what the legal debate over Wikileaks and Russian hacking deals with).

But “propaganda” by itself is ideology. Authoritarian politicians on both the right and left (Vladimir Putin) use the word a lot, because they rule over populations that are less individualistic in their life experience than ours, where critical thinking isn’t possible, and where people have to act together. The word, which we all learn about in high school civics and government social studies classes (and I write this post on a school day – and I used to sub), has always sounded dangerous to me.

But the propagation of ideology alone would probably be protected by the First Amendment, until it is accompanied by more specific criminal or military (war) plans. A possible complication could be the idea that terror ideology regards civilians as combatants.

Facebook recently announced it would add 3000 associates to screen for terror or hate content, but mainly on conjunction with Facebook Live broadcasts of crimes or even suicide. I would probably be a good candidate for one of these positions, but I am so busy working for myself I don’t have time (in “retirement”, which is rather like “in relief” in baseball).

Again, the Internet that we know with unfiltered user-generated content is not possible today if service companies have to pre-screen what gets published for possible legal problems. Section 230 will come under fire for other reasons soon (the Backpage scandal).

I have an earlier legacy post about Section 230 and Backpage here.

(Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Live a good life and feel entitled

Early Sunday afternoon, in between rounds of the Maryland Film Festival, I walked up Charles Street in Baltimore and walked into a grill, which I will not name for search engines, hoping to have lunch.  I had about 40 minutes before I needed to be heading for the nearby Parkway Theater.

There was a sign said to wait for seating, and the place was almost full.  Two employees were fixing a machine and attending to a handicapped customer.  For ten minutes no one saw me, or even looked in the direction of the entrance.  Finally I was seated and an order taken.  But the order (for a simple benedict) had to be cancelled when it was apparent it would not get cooked in time.

I walked into a McDonald’s on North Street, next to the Parkway, and even here there was no one behind the register for a moment.  Finally, I got a pre-cooked McMuffin and swallowed it and went to the movie just in time.

Lesson, you may have the money to pay for food, but somebody still has to be paid to cook it and bring it to you.

I see that Baltimore is looking at minimum wage laws, and that right now the Maryland min seems to be $8.75, probably much less for tipped workers.  But in both eateries, there was obviously less help available than needed to serve the demand that obviously existed.  I think there were only three employees in the grille; maybe someone didn’t come to work, or maybe no one will work at the wages offered.  I even wondered if we were seeing the immediate impact of Donald Trump’s ICE undocumented immigrant crackdown.  Suddenly, there is no help in places you count on for “service”.

It’s easy to blow this up into a moral lesson about privilege, class, and depending on the underpaid labor of others.

Underserved wealth and station in life can become preoccupations of leadership on both the far Left and far Right, but with different parameters.  It seems so negative to become so preoccupied with “grading people”, yet we need to see people earn rewards that are commensurate with what they deserve.  Is this like grades “according to ability” as on one grade school report card, or is it an absolute thing?

Consider how scattered “those Republicans” are with respect to who should pay for the excess health claims of the sick, and those with pre-existing conditions. I’ll lay aside the claims that Trumpcare is set up to support a tax break for the very rich.  I’ll also note a comment I added yesterday. That Obamacare apparently does have the reinsurance scheme that would help with this problem if only Republicans would allow it to be used (the fourth comment on the previous post, about an MIT economist).

In the New York Times May 7. Patricia Cohen writes “On Health and Welfare, Moral Arguments Can Outweigh Economics”.

Cohen points us to a couple of New York Magazine pieces, where rural right wing Republican say “sick people don’t deserve affordable care”  (the “Lead good lives” argument, or is it “personal responsibility”) and even “The GOP’s best health care is to stick it to mothers”.  I thought that the Republicans were worried about low birth rates in better-off white people.

Yes, it’s easy to blame bad behavior on a lot of health care issues.  You can say that about smoking, alcohol, drug abuse, and now opioids.  Vox has added eliminating sugar – all of it – to the mix (although plenty of us don’t get obese or diabetes from normal sugar consumption).  I’d have to throw in the sexual behaviors in the male gay community – remember the moral debate over “amplification” and AIDS in the 1980s?   Indeed, you look around, it often seems that the healthiest people usually have been the most intact from adolescence through adulthood.

Social conservatives often place the responsibility of learning to take care of others, the less-well off, with the “natural family” as in that 2007 manifesto by Carlson and Mero.  Courtship and dating, and then marriage – making it contain sexuality – and the rearing of children, teaching them to care for younger siblings – and caring for the less well off in an extended family – is supposed to teach everyone to learn attachments to others who do have real needs.  They can point out that inherited wealth often comes with strings attached – taking are of other family members or raising deceased siblings’ kids.

But I suppose their idea of health care parity could extend to social media.  To their way of thinking, someone in my shoes should feel morally obligated to respond to new “GoFundMe’s” for money for protease inhibitors or PrEP in my own community.  (Seriously, paying for the latter is probably a big issue in college-age health care for gay men.)  Or maybe you should respond to all Facebook friends who talk about losing coverage for stuff like MS medication, diseases that no one can avoid with “behavior”.  Particularly if you have wealth you didn’t earn.

Update: Tuesday, May 9

Laurie Garret (“The Coming Plague” around 1995) has a stinging op-ed on CNN, “Worst is yet to come on health care: GOP’s message to Americans: You’re on your own“.  She notes the “personal responsibility” argument and how it breaks down (like for genetic disease, for openers).  She also warns that the GOP plan could add to hostility to Americans from abroad personally.

Vox, in a piece by Matthew Yglesias, explains how Medicaid expansion works under Obamacare, and the consequences of GOP’s gutting it. In the 1970s, I worked on New York State MMIS (through Bradford) so I should have known to pay more attention to this.

(Published: Monday, May 8, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

Maybe TrumpCare can work, if you do all the homework; Trump leaves out anti-gay language in today’s religious freedom EO

Once again, we’ve seen two controversies today that in some ways relate to how people care for each other or “their neighbors” in a free society.

Here’s a sample criticism of the GOP’s plans to return to state high risk pools in the American Health Care Act that passed the House today, 217-213, a column by David Lazarus, contact reporter, “The GOP’s big lie: Healthcare bill protects people with ‘pre-existing conditions’”.

I think you could make the GOP plan work if you pump enough money (through the states) to support increased premiums for those in the group, with subsidies that most people (except the wealthy) would need to make the premiums reasonable.  They would need to be actual supports or payments, not tax credits (as many have no taxes).  But for the most extreme cases (like the hemophilia case mentioned) would also need public reinsurance to cover the claims.  Even people without pre-existing conditions can have extreme claims from accidents (the Christopher Reeve problem), so a reinsurance mechanism sounds necessary

The fact is, in a society that values human life, it has to be paid for somehow.  The general experience with other western democracies is that most people are more comfortable with the idea of funding the more extreme and misfortune-driven needs with taxation, or public funds.  If we had a Canadian single payer system, health care wouldn’t be so controversial. We’d be used to it.

Otherwise, we have to face the issue of “moral hazard”.  In the insurance world, it’s always problematic to force companies to group coverages to force people to add coverages that they personally will never need, to pay for someone else’s risks, when they buy an insurance product.  I think there is a good analogy with property insurance (homeowner’s and autos).  Imagine if umbrella insurance (covering identity theft and social media liability risks) were required to be part of every homeowner’s policy. But that’s where Obamacare-style thinking could have been headed.

Yes, there are counter arguments when it comes to healthcare, such as gender parity (and it takes two to  tango).  At the end of life, women tend to live longer and need more services (although this is complicated by Medicare and all other issues in eldercare).

I had first rate health group insurance when I worked for ReliaStar and fell in a convenience store in 1998 in Minneapolis.  I kept full salary, got the experimental surgery I needed immediately at the University of Minnesota (and a medical supply company donated the device because it wanted to demonstrate it), recovered completely, as back to work in 3 weeks, and walking without crutches at an Oscar party in about two months, and was covered 100%.  Yes, insurance companies do a better job than average of taking care of their own employees, almost as if we were professional sports players. Yes, there is some cherry picking.

So, as a song(Yul Brynner singing) in “The King and I” reads, this is all “a puzzlement”.  Trump, Price, McConnel and Ryan have some more work to do and more problems to solve. But Donald Trump has insured his own employees for years, as do his two sons now.  I would think he would be familiar with how reinsurance works.

On Trump’s religious freedom EO, allowing religious organizations more freedom to endorse political candidates: Most of “us” are relieved it does not contain the provocative language pandering to the most extreme religious notions, which make other people’s personal lives everyone’s business. My more detailed story is on a legacy blog here.

TrumpCare (or “Repeal and Replace) would have to deal with touchy situations like lifelong HIV medication and even PReP.

(Posted: Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 7:15 PM EDT)

Should states be allowed to sponsor immigrants? Cato holds a forum on Capitol Hill

Today, the Cato Institute sponsored a one hour lunch event “State-Based Visas: A Federalist Option to the Immigration Impasse” (link; complete live-stream video link). It was moderated by Cato fellows Alex Nowrasteh, David Bier and Peter Russo, and took place in the House Rayburn Office Building.  This did not complicate the event;  cell phones and cameras were allowed (they aren’t in some parts of the Capitol itself).

Speaking for the proposal, and about a bill in Congress soon to get a Thomas number, was Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Senate Homeland Security Chairman, and Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO, 4th District).

The bill would allow states to sponsor a specific number of temporary work or student visas, with a number related to population, following security standards under DHS already in place under federal law. States could enter compacts with one another, allowing some immigrants to work in different states.  Immigrants would have to follow certain registration guidelines within their sponsoring states.

Senator Johnson discussed the inability of some manufacturing employers to fill positions.  This concern is well known in some areas, like migrant farm workers, where in 2016 filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“Inside Man” on CNN) showed what it was like to work piecework picking oranges in Florida. But the labor concern is particularly acute in some trades, like electricians and plumbing, and machinists, probably much of it related to construction.  He mentioned a company in Oshkosh WI as an example.  I have some personal familiarity with the area from my six years of living in nearby Minneapolis (1997-2003),

Johnson gave a rundown on the employment of illegal or undocumented immigrants. The US has 324 million people, of which 42.5 million are immigrant, and of which 11.3 million are illegal. 6.6 million of these are in six states:  CA, TX, FL, NY, NJ, IL.  Of the undocumented population, 1.8 million are considered highly skilled and 5.9 million are low-skilled, but often fill positions “Americans don’t want” or can’t even do physically.

Johnson also commented on the collapse of work, especially among American males, in the 21st Century, as covered before in a Cato book forum. He linked it to welfare and the over-medicating of people on government-paid programs, as contributing to the opioid epidemic. He also noted that many of the Fortune 500 companies were started by first or second generation immigrants.

Ken Buck followed and more or less reinforced the same remarks (I found myself wondering if he would mention the problems of baseball pitching at his Coors Field in Denver, given last week’s Nationals series).  He did acknowledge that there was a need to reinforce the southern border wall in some areas, and that “trojan horse” smuggling of drug cartel members or even radical Islamic terrorists was a genuine security concern, which justified Americans’ feeling cautious in their desire to help undocumented people or asylum seekers.  But he also hinted that politicians had sometimes overplayed the fear card.

Bier, however, has a piece critical of Wall proposals, and somewhat supportive of Trump’s “hire American” where he does get into H-1B and H-1A visas.  The Wall Street Journal has an article, passed out for the meeting, by Jason L. Riley.

I suppose someone could criticize me, with my business model, for not needing to hire anyone at all, and for not “playing ball”.  That fits into a discussion of Tyler Cowen’s book “The Complacent Class” which I will review soon.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 3, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)