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)