Pondering “loss of net neutrality” and Masterpiece Cakeshop — the underlying debates are similar

There are useful parallels in the issues behind both the network neutrality debate (that is, the Trump administration’s determination to end it all on Dec. 14) and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case regarding (in over-simplified rhetoric) balancing anti-discrimination (against gay couples) with free speech and property rights (the latter may be more relevant in the end).  True, net neutrality isn’t back in court yet, but it probably soon will be.

I’ll walk this plank starting with the net neutering (pun?) first.  I have to admit, I personally would feel more comfortable if telecom companies were forced to keep the legal designation as utilities (common carriers), which will end some time after Dec. 14.  But regulating the designation category of any business can have unintended consequences.

So, first, we have to ask ourselves:  may we regulate very large businesses more closely than some small businesses?  Libertarians may not like the idea, but in practice the need to do that is very well established in our system.  We needed “better regulation” after 2008 of large financial institutions to prevent massive Ponzi setups.  Likewise, we’ve long had some regulation in broadcast television.  We’ve had rules that prevent movie studios from owning theaters (they seem to be circumvented sometimes), supposedly to prevent too much power in which films consumers see staying with the largest studios. It’s easy for me to imagine extensions of these rules that would prevent me from producing a film literally from my own books, in order to enhance employment opportunities for union writers. Ajit Pai is correct in opposing too much regulation.  But – it’s true – with big companies, we have different concerns, like anti-trust laws.  The FTC and DOJ can still enforce these against anti-competitive practices by the Comcasts of the world.  As a single author and micro-business person, I can’t monopolize an industry or threaten it.

So then we ask, what is a “utility”.  A telephone company (Ma-Bell in the past) is a utility, but a TV network is not – the later is a content company (and it is regulated because airwave space, like real estate, is finite).  A cable company, however less regulated than a legacy airwaves network, is a content company.  A telecom company offers Internet, digital voice phone, and cable, so it is a hybrid of common carrier and content company.  A social network like Facebook is a content company (and that gets into Section 230 as to whether Facbook is really a “publisher”).  A hosting provider like Blue Host functions like it was a utility for Internet content publishers, but it’s possible imagine that such a company has some influence over content (look at what happened after Charlottesville and the Daily Stormer problem). Most of these companies have fiduciary responsibilities to investors, so regulation is a sensitive issue.  Where does the public interest fit in?  There seem to be competing interests and various ideological scenarios that can play out.  For example, I could imagine (after Charlottesville) some day winding up with a system where no one self publishes until he/she demonstrates some “community engagement”.  But it’s also hard to imagine how such a rule could comport with economic self interest (even if the abrogation of net neutrality would let it happen legally).

I do think that over time small business has reason to worry, if Congress and the courts don’t force some sort of regulatory balance.  Small business could be forced into franchising to afford the branding that large favored websites have.  They could have new requirements for security (https everywhere), website rating, or “pay your own way” reportability some day.  And hurting “really small business” in favor of the oligarchs will not promote local manufacturing; it will not “make America great again” as Trump wants.  So the “Dems” have some reason to want to regulate.  Yet, I have no right to demand that the regulatory environment protect me from more accountability myself, even if that means that a couple years from now many consumers might not be able to access this posting through their own Internet Service provider (which I still doubt will really happen).

I’ll interrupt myself for a moment – and note the PBS interview where one speaker notes that in Portugal, there is no net neutrality and only one provider, and consumers have to pick “bundles”.  Can ordinary sites be accessed in Portugal, like on a hotel’s broadband?  (I was there in 2001 and could.)   The important thing from my perspective is that a consumer be able to get access to everything as today in one package, still reasonably priced if at the high end (as with cable offering all possible channels).

A quick check of Godaddy and other hosting companies still shows inexpensive hosting and an expectation that their business would continue as usual.

I’m left grasping for straws on what the principled answer to Aji Pai’s libertarian-leading claims should be.  You need some regulation, but where do you draw the line?

So then, we circle back to “gay rights” and “marriage equality”  — where we’ve made so much progress even as the safety of the country is threatened (previous post) and as tribalism frays the political process (as with Trump’s election and his horrible appointments in some areas, even if Trump is all right on gay people himself). And we come to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, argued before the Supreme Court Tuesday.

There are three areas at issue:  property rights, free speech (as connected to religion), and discrimination.  Although I sympathize with the libertarian focus on private property rights (as Jacob Hornberge explains on Intellectual Takeout), civil rights law with respect to public accommodations (retail businesses open to the public) is well established.  The owner can’t rightfully refuse to sell a cake to a gay couple.  Saying we don’t serve “gay weddings” is a bit more ambiguous. I am sympathetic to the idea that the cakeshop owner shouldn’t have to design a cake showing a same-sex couple as décor – but what if his business is based on made-to-order cakes?  What if an artist at a county fair refuses to draw black people, or even transgender people?  The artist has made himself a public accommodation.

How all these things could affect me – it’s all pretty distal.  I could, for example, start a small press (I’ve thought about it) or a small movie production company – because I’m aware of a few projects around the country that could use help that have something in common with what I do.  As a small business – yes, unfettered Internet access from the public would matter (so net neutrality could matter). But the right to chose my own content to promote would matter.  Publishers, and movie studios, like any content-oriented business, pick the content that they want to promote. “Property rights” is what allows them to do that (which they can’t do the same way in places like Russia and China, where the government demands the content producer serve some higher statist common good, just like movie studios had to during WWII). It’s all too easy, though, once I start selling to consumers with a store – what about providing for other kinds of consumers – like blind ones – that I don’t have the scale to serve. I’ve been pestered quite a bit in the past few years to become more involved with scalable operations – to the point that it jeopardizes my time to spend on content and research.

Supplementary legacy posting in network neutrality ending.

Supplementary legacy posting on Masterpiece Cakeshop and legally married same-sex couple in Colorado.

(Posted: Friday, December 8, 2017 at 11:30 AM EST)

North Korea, EMP, and martial law: mainstream media needs to wake up and do the fact-checking now

On Sunday, July 1, 2018, a favorite gay disco of mine, Town Danceboutique (Washington, D.C.), closes (after a year of notice) for real estate development.

But Wednesday July 4, 2018, the entire country could well be in North Korea’s nuclear crosshairs, if the timetable that seems to emerge from recent news really holds. And I’ve had at least one person claim to me that by them much of the nation could see martial law.  I’ll come back to that.

We know that on November 28, North Korea tested its largest missile ever, on a parabolic path that took it 2800 miles up, to land short of Japan with no payload. Your Physics 101 test problem would have its maximum range if fired on a “baseball home run” path to be about 8000 miles over the Great Circle, enough to reach all of the continental U.S.

Experts seem to disagree on how much the weight of even a miniaturized thermonuclear weapon would reduce the range. Credible analysts also say that the missile seemed to break up on re-entry, into perhaps three pieces, and that other aspects of the North Korean photos, like the background star constellations, were doctored.  All of this may suggest that technically it is still much more difficult for North Korea to lob a thermonuclear weapon over the US than the doomsday preppers believe.  Still, six months sounds like a reasonable benchmark.

So Trump may feel pressured to create a pre-emptive attack   well before June 2018, even given the horrific predictions of what happens to South Korea, and perhaps Japan, even Guam.  “The war will be fought in their back yard, not ours”, Senator Lindsey Graham rants.  This is one game where there is no home field advantage, no walk-off win;  you have to win on the road.

Recently NBC News reported (story and video by Cynthia McFadden et al, link) on the possibility that the US could disable North Korean missile control with a stealth cruise missile or fighter attack (similar to those in this week’s controversial maneuvers with South Korea) blaring non-nuclear flux microwaves (E1 level), which would destroy electronics but not kill people, most of whom (outside the privileged in Pyongyang) live without electricity anyway. But the missiles are certainly hidden underground and perhaps shielded in Faraday fashion. Still, this sounds like the “least bad” military option Trump has.

That leaves us with one other nagging problem that the mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about.  That is, the possibility of an EMP attack, not only on South Korea or Japan, but even on the continental U.S.

Former CIA chief James Woolsey has already warned us (March 7, 2017 post) that North Korea could launch a small device from its “Shining Star” satellite.  But the more obvious question would be, is it easier technically for North Korea to detonate a weapon at high altitude in flight, possibly over north central US, than at the end of the route at a target?  No mainstream publication seems to have taken this question up yet.

Last week, Fox News ran a story reporting that Kim Jong Un had threatened such an attack (see Nov. 7) – and it’s pretty obvious that he would.  I see from YouTube that Fox has run similar stories before,  But the mainstream news sites have given very little explicit attention to these possibilities.  I do recall a story on Vox concerning solar storms (Sept 13, 2016) and a later similar one in the Wall Street Journal. And I also see that I’ve covered the mainstream media’s reticence on this matter on Sept. 8, 2017.

Still, it seems that the mainstream media owes us a major factfinding effort on questions like (1) the preparedness of the three major power grids for huge transformer overloads (there is talk of “neutral ground circuit technology”), and (2) the preparedness of the tech industry for extreme disruption, by distributing cloud data (which they already do) around the world, and the possibility of building Faraday-like protections for their servers.

Keep in mind, the electromagnetic pulse threat has two major components.  The E3 component, which is a delayed effect from thermonuclear weapons and is similar to extremely large coronal mass ejections from solar storms, is destructive to power grid transformers and other circuitry, at least with current technology. The E1 component is what destroys consumer electronics and ignitions of many cars.  (There is a good question as to whether solid state drives are more immune than traditional hard drives, for example, since they the new stuff is less sensitive to ordinary magnets).  The E1 component can come from smaller (fission) nuclear weapons (more likely from a DPRK ICBM or mid range missile or possibly satellite), and also comes from non-nuclear microwaves (which are much more local because they are usually detonated at low altitude closer to targets – the US military can use them in Afghanistan now).

With all this discussion, we should not lose sight of the cyber threats, which I think are more difficult for an enemy to carry out (against infrastructure) than popular legend suggests, but here is a prediction for an incident even this week.

Conventional reporting suggests that Kim Jong Un’s insistence on becoming a nuclear power is purely defensive.  I would wonder if the old Vietnam era Domino Theory applies:  he could later try to force us to leave South Korea or lift all sanctions.  The EMP peril is a very novel threat because of our unprecedented dependence on technology.  An enemy could conclude, if his own people will eat grass, that we aren’t resilient enough personally as civilians to recover from loss and hardship and be ever more tempted into aggression. North Korea has almost certainly tried to work with other terrorists like ISIS out of shear resentment of western values.

It does seem that the mainstream media is distracted by the more obvious stories about Trump’s presidency:  the Flynn and Manafort investigations, Trump’s claim he can get away with “obstruction of justice”, the Jerusalem move announced today.

I won’t moralize here about civilian preparedness (like “The Survival Mom” on Facebook) as I have before and will again. But that does bring back the idea of martial law, which an authoritarian president presumably could want to find an excuse to implement so that he has more “control”.

The Wikipedia article (on martial law in the U.S.) gives a detailed history of is use, most recently in 1961 in Montgomery Alabama as a response to the “Freedom Riders” – that was shortly before I graduated from high school, and I don’t recall this news.  Hawii was under martial law from Pearl Harbor until 1944.   It is difficult to suspend habeas corpus under US law, given especially the Posse Comitatus Act, which is supposed to shield civilians from military intervention – yet enemies are likely to regard American civilians as (un)deserving combatants.

I am not so cynical as to believe that Trump wants to see half the country without power for a year so he can seize control.  Consider Dan Trachtenberg’s film “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016). That reminds me of conspiracy theories where right-wing authorities start war and live in luxury underground.  Who wants that?  The sci-fi conspiracy to escape from Earth (if possible) makes more psychological sense to me.

I would be more concerned that if a real catastrophe occurred, and most of the country were without power for months, the entire government would fall and foreign powers, which could be China, or could be Islamist, could take over.  That does bring up personal morality again, and that’s another post that’s coming.

We’d better not blow this.  It’s hard for me to join “identity groups” so concerned about narrow oppression (bathroom and “religious freedom” bills) when there are issues like this, at least as potentially dangerous to me personally as was the Vietnam War (I stayed out of combat because of education and “privilege”) and later AIDS (I never got infected).  The lessons that Scarlet O’Hara had to learn sound appropriate.

I will challenge the major networks and news outlets to get to the facts (and not leave this to conservative sites and groups like Resilient Societies), and I am available for hire (at 74, in “retirement”) to help them do this.  I’ve really collected and organized a lot of material. What a way to go back to work.  I even bought a suit and updated my Linked-In profile, while there is still time.

I wish I could get back to believing in Google’s plans for quantum computing as our future.

Update: Dec 7  (“Pearl Harbor Day”): 10 AM EST

Probably by coincidence I got a letter to my own mailbox in my condo building about a planned power outage for “improving a portion of the energy grid that serves your area.”  Upon checking, this may be related to a specific problem some months ago before I moved in. But Dominion Energy of Virginia has been mentioned as one of the few companies so far preparing to install neutral ground circuits that are supposed to protect transformers from extreme surges, as with solar storms or possibly terror attacks.

The mainstream media really does need to start “connecting the dots” on this one and not leave it to right-wing sites, amateur bloggers, and suspense and sci-fi novelists to figure out.

 

(Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 11 PM EST)

In a real world, when you look for work, identity politics doesn’t help

On Thursday, December 13, 2001 at precisely 9 AM CST a Netware message flashed across my computer monitor as I assisted an internal user with a production problem at work (at ING in Minneapolis). It read “Your account has been disabled, please logoff now.”

I completed the call, then logged off, and have never logged on to a work computer in a similar salaried professional job since that moment.  Moments later, my manager was herding me into a conference room where I learned my severance agreement.  It was very generous, because I was over 55 (actually 58) and could retire.  In some scenarios, given how my life went, I could be much better off, even financially, with this outcome than if I stayed.

Still, I would need to find some work.  It turned out, as I have documented in my DADT III book, that family circumstances intervened and I eventually “landed” rather well at the end of 2010.  That gets beyond the point for the moment.

The traditional I.T. job market was tumbling after Y2K (and then 9/11).  Back in the 70s and 80s, mainframe computer programming had tended to provide stable salaried employment, and had that reputation, compared to other occupations. It had the advantage of not requiring formal licensing. It had a disadvantage, as with most salaried jobs, that employers could demand unpaid overtime to complete projects on time and for production “Nightcall” support. Since programmers tended to be somewhat introverted and individualistic (I could go off track and mention James Damore now), they were less likely to organize than workers in manufacturing occupations.

In the 1990s, countervailing forces came into play.  The sudden emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web, as well as client-server programming (especially object-oriented), which has a cryptic-looking style compared to procedural programming in older mainframe languages) tended to fracture the market. Employers needed to keep older mainframe programmers around until Y2K was completed to do all the conversions.  Older programmers found the newer stuff, while opportunistic, difficult to master in an ad-hoc manner;  it’s easier to master something if you develop it yourself and put it into production and are responsible for supporting it.  Newer workplace environments made this harder to do with the new web-based applications.

So after Y2K, the mainframe market tended to break into short term gigs, where staffing companies produced the people and paid them hourly and per diem.  Employers with older systems, especially state government departments, needed contractors with very specific experience, in terms of languages, packages, and end-user interfaces.  The same group of contractors tended to rotate among these positions as they gradually withered.

Now I have seen an uptick in old-fashioned mainframe jobs in the past two years or so, mostly because of all the problems in health care.  When the Obama administration tried to develop the Affordable Care Act, contractors found that professionals with the maturity required to put together systems like this properly were in short supply as they had dwindled and “retired” like me.  That is one reason why Obamacare has had so many problems.  This observation does not bode well for other systems, especially those that support critical infrastructure like power grids, and this could evolve into a critical national security problem as I have already explained here.

In my own case, I did have a few interviews for these positions. Often the interview with the end-user client (like a state government agency or a health care PPO, implementing HIPAA, for example) was by phone only.  I never quite scored to get back in.  There were a few curious problems, and I do wonder if my online reputation (pre-Facebook) could have made me more or less unemployable, because I had demonstrated a propensity to write publicly (journalistically) about all that had happened in my past once I had departed from a particular job or situation.

So that left me with the “proletarian” market (that is, becoming a “Prole”). There were three big issues:  (1) low starting pay (sometimes augmented with commissions); (2) personal regimentation; and (3) manipulative salesmanship.   You can get a sense of this by looking at a resume table of the jobs that I had or “almost had” after 2001.

I actually did find a job “telemarketing” (or “telefunding”) for the Minnesota Orchestra, from spring 2002 to summer 2003. Though part time and starting at $6 an hour plus commissions (which did start to work out in time), the job provided a sense of stability and daily anchoring, and I could still walk to it on the Minneapolis Skyway.  There was a tendency for any job you had to become your “universe” and blunt some of the focus of the world’s outside turmoils, although 9/11 tended to start to fracture this complacency.

The ”regimentation” is literally a way to “pay your dues”, as test of “whether you can work”, like in a fast food place.  It sounds rather Marxist.

But the sales culture is about whether you can play ball (rather than spectate) and manipulate others to buy things.  One of the most troubling interviews happened in 2002 with PrimeVest, about contacting potential leads to convert whole life policies to term. That might be a good idea for a lot of people.  But the interviewer became defensive about all the analytical questions I asked of his presentation, as if I could play the role of “The Good Doctor” just a little and find all the perils and flaws.  (It is relevant that I had worked 12 years in life insurance IT and was not going to be fooled.) On 2005 I would get calls about becoming a life insurance agent or financial planner from at least two other life companies.  But it seems that what people do for leads is troll Internet logs to find contacts.  Yet, there is a culture out there saying that cold calling and manipulation is legitimate, necessary for a functioning (or maybe “functionable”) economy.  But one other thing that I found was that many of the “sales” jobs were related to helping low income people stretch their money.  These jobs could have occurred in industries like title loans, payday loans, credit counseling (I would work as a debt collector), and distributing telephone cards or fixed debit cards.

I even looked at a job as a uniformed gate agent for Atlantic Coast Airlines at a job fair in 2004 at Dulles Airport. ($9.85 and hour then.)   I didn’t get the job, but (for the effort of a thirty minute public speech on how the workplace was changing, basically right out of my first book) I got two free (except for about $10 fee( roundtrips that year (to Atlanta and then to Tampa)   I still use the large inventory of Florida photos I made then on blogs.

But other applications really were for grunt work –  retail clerk in a video store (no longer there), or a movie theater (Landmark could have been interesting).

I covered a key point that came up in substitute teaching in the previous post.

Here is my point:  I had to deal with things, myself, as they were.  I had to “pay my dues”.  There was no thought of falling back on membership in some oppressed class and appealing to intersectionality or gay identity politics.  It could just as easily argued that I had worn my privilege too much at various points in my life (my parents had money and financial and personal stability, my student deferments during the Vietnam era which kept me out of combat when I finally went in, my “whiteness”.  A lot of people do have to take more risks than I do just to get by.  And having kids changes things.  I did not.

Furthermore, even if I joined a “movement” to protect me, I would have to “perform” according to the norms of the movement and “take orders” anyway.

This all builds up to something as the world turns.  I don’t want to become an elderly male Scarlet O’Hara.

(Posted: Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 10:19 PM EST)

Productive adults don’t want to have (as many) children as before, and that points to other problems

Population demographics is back again.  This weekend, Ross Douthat offered an op-ed “The Sterile Society”   Some of what he says seems to fall out of the sexual harassment scandals – that we won’t let men be men anymore.  Indeed, there is a fear in some circles that we lost a sense of the value of chivalry and heterosexual complementarity.

Douthat goes through some ways how reducing teen pregnancies and divorce have boomeranged.  No, there aren’t happier marriages.  Fewer families with ample children to carry on a prosperous civilization (the movie “Children of Men”) are being formed in the first place.   Douthat refers to other studies supporting the idea that women really want more children but maybe the men don’t.  He seems to be invoking what George Gilder called “Sexual Suicide” in a damning book back in 1973 (and then “Men and Marriage” in 1986).

I could recall my own attitudes as a teen, documented elsewhere, that there is nothing inherently “sexually” exciting about people depending on me for physical needs.  Up to a point, where I focused on academics and employment, that could be a good thing.  But then, as economic and personal workplace pressures mounted, marriage and family sounded like a private afterthought.

Hyperindivdualism, beyond having blurred the value of lineage as a kind of vicarious immortality, seems to have built a world where personal responsibility is atomized, and our past dependencies on others are kept hidden, like in a recycle bin. Yet, real life can present challenges, where we suddenly are thrust into situations of providing for others whatever our choices.  These can include caring for parents, sibling’s children (sometimes with inheritances – like the series “Summerland” or film “Raising Helen”); or being thrust into parenting roles when working as a substitute teacher, as I found.  This sort of sudden quasi-parenthood is a lot more meaningful for someone who did have his or her own children, or at least adopted them. Indeed, public and tax policy should be very diligent in how it handles responsibility for dependents other than one’s own natural children. Having kids is the most straightforward way to put “your own skin in the game” before being heard.

Curiously, the Sunday Times has a counter position by Alanna Weissman, “Doctors fail women who don’t want children”.

Michelle Goldberg supplements things with a piece, “No Wonder Millennials Hate Capitalism”.  Yup, the various GOP tax plans seem to slam the “losers” or disadvantaged or struggling, and act as if they wanted to defend an ideology of moral superiority for those at the top. It’s as if they want to protect the most privileged of us from getting our hands dirty taking care of accidental dependents who fall into our paths with leaking shoes we have never worn. Yet, having babies is what teaches people how to do that, and until recently conservatives generally wanted to encourage more children (at least “the right babies” – you know the debate about Sharia taking over Europe some day). Providing for others seems to constitute its own imoral leg, and would be there even if we could subsist in a world of mental sex and fantasy only.  “Right and wrong”, whatever Dr. Phil thinks, usually involves non-binary situations.

(Posted: Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)

Civil Asset Forfeiture and due process

One of the major issues often articulated in the libertarian community is civil asset forfeiture.

Time again, we hear stories of police taking cash and sometimes other goods from people they stop on highways, without charges.

German Lopez has a particularly galling story on Vox about Phil Parhamovich, who apparently was driving through Wyoming with about $91000 in cash, on a concert tour, intending then to drive to Madison WI, to buy a music studio and make a major career change.

Hear Laramie WY (ironically, the town where Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998) he was pulled over in a routine traffic stop, and searched.  The police wound up keeping the $91000 despite not charging him with anything, and the state until recently refused to budge on returning it.

Lopez now reports that, after the story appeared in Vox, the state agreed to refund the money.

Several observations apply. One of the most obvious is why law enforcement is “funded” this way, by what police can keep when they seize something.  Another is why they can keep anything when the driver is not charged with a crime or a person of interest, and when no illegal or suspicious material is found.  There sounds like a pretty obvious question in this case about any probable cause.

I was stopped for speeding when driving through the Chicago suburbs Labor Day morning in 1997 when driving out for a corporate job transfer to Minneapolis. The cop did ask me about weapons and drugs, for no reason.  Police do say that random checks help them find possible terror suspects. The cop then noticed a stack of copies of my authored “Do Ask Do Tell” book and was impressed that I was an “author” and let me go without a ticket.

In 1998, I was stopped in St. Paul on University Ave in an area of wide streets and little traffic, on the way back from a speaking engagement at Hamline University on my book. That’s the most recent ticket I can remember.  But I still had crutches in my car, from my earlier hip fracture, but the cop never said anything about that.  I wound up paying an $85 “administrative fee” to have a “first offense” removed after a year.

Of course, one can always wonder about the practical wisdom of carrying a lot of cash.

Laura Williams, in a guest post on Rick Sincere’s blog, explains how drug laws, especially regarding marijuana, are in part motivated by the opportunity for forfeiture.

Wikipedia scene of Ames Monument north of Laramie.  I visited it in August 1994.

(Posted: Saturday, December 2, 2017 at 10:45 PM EST)

Downsizing in retirement, my own observations, Part 3: rent or own?

I wanted to follow some followup on the questions I posed May 13 about seniors qualifying for rental housing or condo purchase after selling an oversized house.  Many of the issues I had to “preview” relate to the fact that I was living in a 1949-built house owned legally by my (late) mother’s trust, not technically by me.  But I do have the powers as the sole acting trustee.

I’ve had conversations with two separate high-end modern high-rise properties (both built in the 70s-80s) and both told me that they would rent to a retired senior who could demonstrate more than sufficient assets in a checking account (one that will not lose principal other than from making actual payments) to cover the term of a lease.  Lease amounts tend to lead to lower monthly rents for longer terms, but rental prices are set algorithmically daily based on supply and demand in a specific geographical area;  most corporate large landlords use these automated processes to set rents.

There is a possible risk that a lease would not be renewed (as if the renter could not come up with the same reserve guarantee for a renewal, or if a building were sold for condo, or if market rent spiked suddenly).

I did wind up purchasing a condo for about one-third of what the house sold for, even allowing for extra expenses (and replacing a heat pump compressor immediately on me).  Mathematically, it is likely that the remaining gain in liquidity will last longer (allowing for property taxes and condo dues, and some repairs) than a larger amount would spent entirely on rent.

As I indicated on my (personal) “Notes” blog in a recent post, there can be restrictions on how the liquidity gain in a trust (irrevocable in the name of a parent or ancestor) is spent.  Some trusts discourage the sale of an estate house (on the theory it should stay in the family) or try to prohibit downsizing real estate holdings unless there is a specific special need on the part of a trustee or beneficiary.  I found that a condo purchase for cash in the name of mother’s trust seemed to be OK with everyone (at one time I wanted it to be in another trust in my own name only).  This might not have been the case had a mortgage been necessary.  (A reverse mortgage might be allowed.)

Special needs are met in a variety of senior housing developments for rent (sometimes purchase).  Some offer meals and have HUD-subsidized rents.  Typically there is a qualification formula that includes a specific percentage of the person’s total assets (I think it is 0.8% per year right now) to count as income.  This arrangement is certainly subject to the whims of policy (Congress or the administration).  There are other high-end properties (like Goodwin House in northern Virginia) that require a large deposit to rent, but then allow move-in to an assisted living unit when that becomes necessary.  Use of trust money for the trustee’s own special medical needs sometimes requires medical supervision, monitoring and approval.

The general lesson from all of this on trusts is that they are “convenient” for someone inheriting an estate in usually avoiding probate court.  But they often restrict how liquid assets (beyond the distribution instructions to other family inherit-ees), are used, and impose fiduciary responsibility on the trustee that discourages further distributions (other than providing some income to beneficiaries) until after the trustee’s own death.  They usually are quite serious about the trustee’s being able to handle to unpredictable possibility of his own needs (like stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc.)

There was somewhat of a reversal in the expectation that, after closing on the sale, there would be a period of time before I picked a property to buy.  In exchange for a higher initial sales price, I accepted an arrangement where I had only three weeks to leave after closing. But I also picked out the condo much sooner and there was an arrangement to make sure funds would move properly in the split settlement with two title companies.  This agreement could not have worked in a situation where a senior goes on a waiting list to get into a HUD-subsidized unit because of a special need.

There was less time to look at a large number of possible purchase properties than I had anticipated in my own mental “preview”. (This excluded looking a possibly cheaper properties in other cities — unless I went through the complications of living in an extended stay place for a while and keeping everything in storage.)  You normally can’t look at a (used) property without a realtor making an appointment and generally need to have a “done deal” on your own sale first.

Condo purchase did encourage a condo property policy (which is slightly more expensive when a trust owns the condo) and security system installed by the cable company.  Once again, a very distant reflection of the network neutrality debate:  telecom companies should be able to tailor specific packages and service add-ons for individual consumers as long as they allow all lawful Internet content to be available for those who want it.

(Posted: Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 at 12:30 PM EST)

 

Cato Institute holds forum on “Marxist Origins of Hate Speech Legislation and Political Correctness”

Today, Tuesday November 28, 2017, the Cato Institute held a 90-minute symposium “Marxist Origins of Hate Speech Legislation and Political Correctness”.

The basic link is here.  (Cato will presumably supply the entire video in the live space soon.)

The event was moderate by Marian L. Tupy, and featured Danish author Flemming Rose (author of “The Tyranny of Silence”, now a Cato fellow), and Christina Hoff Sommers. Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute.

Rose focused at first on UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1965), Article 20, Paragraph 2, which included a definition of “hate speech” to include “any advocacy or national, religious or racial hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence…”.   That is, incitement is more than incitement for near term lawless action (as in the US); it includes encouraging others to discriminate. The US and most European countries voted against this at first, but most European countries have come around to this notion in their hate speech laws today.  Authoritarian countries favored this approach, because dictators think that they can stay in power if various minority groups are placated.

Rose traced legal sanctions against both hate speech and fake news distribution to the early days of Communism, back with the Bolshevik revolution (like the 1981 movie “Reds”) where news distribution was viewed in terms of propaganda.  Fake news manipulation (as a propaganda exercise) by foreign enemies is more likely when those who view themselves as educated and elite (“Hillary-like”) have little personal contact with those who are not;  in 2016 the Russians seem to have taken advantage of unawareness of “populism” by more conventional policy pundits.  But it should be obvious that fake news runs the legal risks of libel and defamation litigation, which may be a little easier to parry in the US than in Europe.

Rose also made the point that minorities need free speech to advance themselves, rather than regard free speech as an incitement or invitation to others to continue discrimination.

Authoritarian and leftist interpretation of hate speech law tends to give very little credit to the individual to be able to think and learn from himself, but assumes people will vote in terms of tribal interests, which often is true (as we found out with the election of Trump and Russian meddling). Rose included some panels of modern European fake news law, from Germany and Italy.

Sommers talked about the rapid expansion of campus speech codes, with ideas like trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces, since about 2010.  This seems to have developed rather suddenly. Sommers attributed the rise of these campus speech codes to an ideology of “intersectionality”, a theory of multidimensional group oppression.

At least two questions from the audience came from undergraduate college students, one at GWU, who said that influence of “intersectional” thinking had been quite shocking to him. Milo Yiannopoulos had spent a good part of his “Dangerous” book explaining the perils of this idea.  But other writers, as in the transgender community recently, have tried to make a lot of it.  Again, there seems to be a loss of the idea that self-concept should come from the self (a tautology) and not inherited group identification.

Several thoughts need reinforcement. One is that “hate speech” codes don’t draw a clear line between actual commission of acts and becoming connected to others doing bad things (like “watching” and journaling but not intervening — the “no spectators” idea).  Another is that these collectivist behavior norms regard “systematic” discrimination against identifiable groups (or “intersections” of groups) as akin to actual violence and aggression against the constituent individuals.  Still another idea is that “meta-speech”, where commentators or journalists speak about the discriminatory value systems of the past in order to impart a sense of history, sometimes may come across as an invitation or gratuitous reminder for aggressive politicians to try the same behaviors again;  speakers should be expected to put their own skin in the game.  Finally, there is a loss of interest in individualism itself, partly because “hyper-individualism” tends to leave a lot of people behind as less “valuable”. There is more emphasis on belonging to the tribe or group, or at least in meeting standards of supervised community engagement.

Many attendees had seen the breaking news of (Communist) North Korea’s missile test today on their smartphone just before the session started.

(Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2017 at 10:30 PM EST)

Don’t honk at drivers who resist turning right on red; you can’t see all the hazards yourself

Here’s some more stuff on safe driving.

At some intersections in northern Virginia, right turn on red is permitted (or not forbidden by sign) but obviously dangerous as obstacles block sight of oncoming vehicles at higher speeds (allow speed limit plus 10).  Furthermore, at some intersections, pedestrian traffic is heavy and wrong way bicycle traffic (however illegal) happens.

So sometimes I do not turn on red.  And drivers behind honk, even though they cannot see around the corners.

Yesterday I had an occasion where a driver honked continuously and tried to run me off the road after I turned when it turned green.

There are discussions about this problem online, such as on Reddit. No, I’m not using my smartphone. No, it’s not “stupid” to ignore the “protection” of a left-turning vehicle from the other direction, because that driver doesn’t necessarily check the lane closest to me (and could come into my lane).

Driver should no that a driver in front of them is not legally obligated to turn right on red, and may see dangers that “you” can’t see,

One time in Minneapolis, a driver passed me to turn right when I didn’t turn and the cops immediately stopped him.

There’s another issue: slow driving in the left lane.  Agreed.  One shouldn’t do it.  But in this area there are many situations where traffic merges in from the left (one of the most notorious is from the center median rest areas on I-95 in northern Maryland).  Then the driver in heavy traffic cannot get up enough speed to move over quickly.  Many drivers don’t reduce speed even when they see a driver needs to merger.

There seems to be an attitude that some combativeness in driving (like in cycling) is necessary and somehow virtuous.

One other suggestion:  communities should increase the green light delay time (or increase the yellow time) on very wide intersections.  This might have prevented the fatal crash in Florida involving Venus Williams.

If you’re in the UK or Commonwealth country (other than Canada) and drive on the left, then this blog post applies to left turners.

(Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2017 at 6 PM EST)

Downsizing in retirement, my own observations: Part 2: home-based business issues

One of the concerns I had prospectively and when in “preview mode” about selling the estate house and specifically buying a condo, was the issue of running what is legally viewed as a home-based business in the condo.

In the house, I had a normal county business license typical for “writers” and a sales tax license from Virginia, so that I could legally sell copies of the four books I have authored. While most sales are from Amazon, my cooperative publisher expects me to be open to buying copies of books and either wholesaling them to bookstores (especially independent) or retailing them directly to consumers.  That s why I have a payment portal, however used, on another blog, with SSL encryption.

The business licenses and sales tax licenses required the connection of my residence address with the county and state (even a UPS store would not do;  it had to be a location where business really could be conducted, either an office or a home). Before closing on the sale of the house, then, I had to cancel these licenses so that the old address was no longer attached to the house I would sell in any public record. Actually, I found no evidence that title companies or buyers try to check for this.  However, as a I.T. person familiar with relational databases (SQL) and “direct connect” or replication processing, it’s all to easy for me to imagine how this could start.

The same question will come up in my new location, for me to resume the capacity to “sell”.  Generally, condo associations have rules that can restrict home based businesses.  High-rise condos (and probably coops) may tend to be stricter than townhome developments, and may well have rules stricter than the local county or city.  But homeowners associations sometimes restrict businesses in gated communities even where the land is individually owned.  I covered this problem in August in some detail on this set of legacy posts.  But generally, most of them are concerned mainly with businesses that cause consumers regularly to come to the property, or which require physical changes to the property or signage on the property.

It is common for condo by-laws to state that units are for residential use only. Sometimes they forbid “vocational” or “professional” use, or “exploratory”, which I am told means that the owner doesn’t live in the unit but uses it only for business.  Some have clauses banning non-profits, fund-raising organizations (like for political candidates) and religious organizations from operating from residential units (and some suburban cities have townhome developments set aside by zoning specifically for these purposes).  Generally, they don’t have a problem with a writer or blogger simply using the Internet from the unit, as long as everything is lawful (although I would wonder if the blogger was involved in extremist activities).  I would presume that in most cases telecommuting to work would be all right, as would home-based customer service jobs that require only a normal PC and stable Internet connection.

Condos vary on their policy on short-term rentals like Airbnb.  Generally, large suburban complexes will ban hotel-type renting;  but expensive condos in trendy areas of large cities are often built with the idea that such rental use is allowed and even encouraged;  these units are popular with some celebrities. It can be difficult to “catch” an owner violating a ban, but recently some condos have begun using automated tools to scan the Web for violations.

Still, it may be worth looking in to finding an expensive “office” in a small town as an official business address, and possibly try to do so in combination with other authors or small business owners.  It wouldn’t be necessary to go there often.

Another possibility is to conduct business at events in other cities, as with my recent trip to the Miami Book Fair.

In my “previews” I did talk to one rental agent for a typical high-rise apartment (rental only, not ownership). They did not have objection to “quiet” home based businesses that are otherwise legal in the county or city. However, I can imagine circumstances where a controversial tenant is forced to leave if he or she is perceived as attracting danger to others in the unit, but I have not heard of any specific cases of this.

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 24, 2017 at 11:45 PM EST)

Activists warn users about FCC vote Dec. 14 to reverse net neutrality rules; will telecom companies really do anything drastic?

Here we go again.  Yesterday, shortly before boarding a plane to return from a long weekend in “Paradise” (the south Florida beaches – and the Keys, not in such good shape), I got a coercive email form FTFF (Fight for the Future) urging donations and “taking action” for a call-in (link)  The FCC, if you haven’t heard, will vote on suspending Obama’s network neutrality rules, taking the vote on Thursday Fec. 14, 2017.  It’s a little unclear how long the “unchanges” would take to happen.  Expect more litigation.  Ajit Pai gives us his own words on this PDF.

The Washington Post this morning produced a brief article by Brian Fung almost as menacing, hinting that the FCC will soon allow the cats into the refrigerator, with telecom companies dictating which sites readers can have.  (More details in Post here).

Back around the time of the July 12 protest more moderate sites like Vox had opined, and warned on a slower, less equal Internet as probably inevitable.  Indeed, panicky protests from activists scaring readers with sensational emails aren’t

Kate Cox from the Consumerist has an analysis of NCTA’s informal promise (June 30 here) to honor free speech from the small fries. “18 cable companies promise to honor net neutrality; none will guarantee you in writing.”   Along these lines, Comcast had made a lukewarm reassurance to users in this blog post. And see “broadbandforAmerica” weigh in here.

Bloomberg, with its modestly libertarian leanings, has several articles.  The first one I found is a bit muddy, but the Tyler Cowen offers a reassuring perspective here.

Along these lines, it’s important to remember that the regulatory authority would move from the FCC back to the FTC, which cannot make rules about throttling content, but can enforce rules about “transparency.” The FCC would also abandon its classification of backbone telecom companies as “Title II” utility providers.

But a formal editorial in Bloomberg suggests Congress intervene, and require what sounds like common sense: that telecom companies not interfere with normal access to legal websites as it works today, but allow paid fast lanes when the scope is limited (like for medical services, enhancements for gaming or streaming, etc).  Speculation in the past has suggested that doing so would degrade ordinary service, but not if bandwidth in a geographical area has enough capacity (which it doesn’t in some poorer areas). Bloomberg mentions the incidents after Charlottesville this summer when Cloudflare and then other major Internet companies denied Daily Stormer the capacity to be connected or register through their services, so you can make the argument that private companies already have the ability to control what their users are allowed to see based on somewhat arbitrary grounds.  (Daily Stormer’s content was called “immoral”, but not, compared to child pornography or perhaps sex trafficking ads, illegal). While the Stormer content seems quite extreme and unprecedented in the minds of average users, this does sound like a slippery slope.  But Comcast, at least, has promised it would never block lawfully permitted (even if offensive) content (NYTimes article 11/22) and hopefully other major companies like Cox and Verizon will say the same thing.

Bloomberg is hinting, however, that the threat that activists perceive that the loss of net neutrality (which we didn’t have until 2015) to small business or to small websites face, needs to be viewed in the context of other problems, such as erosion of Section 230 (with the Backpage controversy), and concerns over terror recruiting and fake news.  Companies in both telecom transmission and content hosting or service businesses have to wonder about their fiduciary responsibilities to investors, and it could get harder to serve users whose content doesn’t pay its own way. So, yes, the editorial suggests a sensible compromise, which needs Congress.

I would add that DOJ’s litigation to hinder merging of Time Warner with ATT does suggest that “even” the Trump administration is concerned  (in the anti-trust sense) about monopoly and lack of competition.  So, if there is any competition at all, will large telecom companies have any reason to hinder consumer access to all legal content?  I would think not – but we do wonder about incidents like Stormer and rising extremism.

I noticed when on a Southwest flight yesterday that the airlines do their own version of withdrawing net neutrality.  They offer free wifi to passengers, but only to show their content.  You can pay $8 for regular access.

The Wall Street Journal has a fairly balanced perspective by John McKinnon Nov. 20 here.

Wired has a comprehensive story (leading to other links) by Klint Finley explaining that the Administrative Procedure Act, design to prevent capricious regulatory policy changes following partisan administration change, could form the basis to a legal challenge to Pai’s intentions.

“Leftist” Truthout gives this analysis, getting into the regulatory environment pretty well.  Trickle down doesn’t trickle?   Think Progress also talks about erosion of a program giving poor people phone service — and I can recall in my early days of retirement job hunting that distribution of phone cards came up as a possibility.

On Nov. 14, I had posted a legacy blog summary of Pai’s reappointment, and on Oct. 28 this one about his recent testimony in House hearings.

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 6 PM EST)

Update: Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 at 1 PM

The Wall Street Journal weighs in heavily again today, as with Ajit Pai’s own libertarian op-ed that says that loosening regulations will help most users and consumers.  Yes, Reagan-style Republicanism (not Trump) is good for a lot of more sentient consumers.  MacKinnon and Knutson have a newer piece predicting that telecom companies will make deals with large content companies like Facebook and Google to speed up their content.  That worries me because small businesses and niche bloggers who have their own separate hosted sites need to set themselves up this way to “brand” themselves rather than depend on “somebody else’s free service”.  Ajit Pai probably believes that hosting companies (like BlueHost) can set up deals with the large providers (Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc) and pass the benefits (for slight increases in hosting prices) on to customers who have their own sites.  I suspect it would take some time for all of these changes to happen, maybe most of 2018.

It’s interesting that FCC Commissioner Clyburn has his own piece opposing Pai’s move on the FCC site, here. It’s noteworthy that he thinks telecom companies could disrupt small site access “on a whim”, which sounds unlikely in a real world. There were few such disruptions before 2015 (although I do remember a controversy about BitTorrent).