Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Internet Will Disappear"

I live in Utopia. Where do you live?
So sayeth Eric Schmidt at the Davos Forum today. Of course, what he's saying is that the technology that brings us a digital communications platform (and cat pictures) will become so ubiquitous that we will stop thinking about the nuts and bolts of the infrastructure, and merely use the tools as they are built into everything from smart walls to refrigerators to cars. And ultimately, that is what must happen. But I submit we won't see it anytime soon. And the very argument for why the internet will become ubiquitous is the reason why it won't disappear.

First, there's internet connectivity. Back in the 90s, we were talking about getting to an 'internet dial tone', an internet that was like a phone. You picked it up, and there was simply ALWAYS a dial tone. You could always call someone, and if they answered you could talk. Well, not only are we not there, we're not close. Internet connectivity is different, inherently more fragile, subject to many more breakdowns and failures. I had to reset my router earlier today - back in the day, did anyone ever have to reset their phone? With TCP/IP you have seven layers, you have routing tables, you have all sorts of disruptions, both intentional and accidental, and you are accessing it all from huge, fragile, monolithic general purpose operating systems that literally have millions of points of failure.

Now, over that you're going to stretch the so-called "Internet of Things" - a TCP/IP stack, a lightweight operating system, a web server and some other execution platforms like a JVM, Flash, or a PHP interpreter, and maybe a mail server on virtually everything you can see. These IoT OS platforms will be in ROM - there won't be any storage on these devices - and any vulnerability will be hard coded into the device forever. If you want to see the contours of this ugly, chaotic near-term future, just look at the discussions around home routers. They all run some small, scaled down, old Linux kernel (because it's free) and they all have decades of accumulated vulnerabilities that cannot be (easily or effectively) patched. And now we're going to roll this same model out to our homes, our cars, our front door lock, our teevee, our pacemaker, our insulin pump. And hey, what could possibly go wrong?

This is a complex and complicated technology. We've done our best to make it usable by everyone, regardless of their willingness to learn how computer networks work. And that was a worthwhile goal - give people in all walks of life access to the world's accumulated knowledge (and cat pictures). But sadly, we haven't been able to keep up our end of the bargain. Why? I know this is going to shock you, but the answer is corporate profits. Could we back up, start over, and build an operating system that was safe, bulletproof and easily useful? Could we build a system that failed gracefully, that was hardened against attack, that could provide a scalable OS that would work from an irrigation system to a supercomputer? Yes. Yes we could. We now understand enough about the interaction of the OS and the network to do that. But then, you see, no one would own it. Apple and Microsoft couldn't profit from it. There's a reason why businesses have switched their data centers to open source operating systems - and there's a very different reason why people haven't switched their computers.

One of the 'problems' - one that cannot be overcome - is that we have, at this point, five different operating systems, nearly infinite variations of those OSs, and uncountable hardware platforms running them. The goal is not universal connectivity - making the internet 'disappear' - the goal is to find some kind of lock-in, some way to prevent people from achieving that goal. And the open source community provides that, but it's not a for-profit enterprise, so it can't compete with the marketing arms of the huge corporations.

So here's what you can expect. The internet is not going to 'disappear'. It's going to become a bigger part of our lives, patching vulnerabilities and managing something on the order of a dozen different operating systems on our home networks, from our router to our teevee to our refrigerator to our front door to our car. This is not a formula for ubiquitous internet services disappearing into our life - this is a contest for dollars that will result in a fragile, fragmented internet and a lot of people getting hurt.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

White People Confuse Me

A funny thing happened on the way to the future
We are seeing, with increasing frequency, thoughtful essays on the Democrat's political constituency, particularly with an eye to where they need to increase their numbers. The premise is that the traditional Democratic coalition of young people, minorities and college educated urban whites is strong, and the weakness is in middle-class and blue collar white workers. And it's true that even though the economy seems to be improving, those improvements aren't being experienced by older and blue collar/non college educated workers. And when they look at the traditional Democratic policy agenda, they see a lot of effort effort and capital expended to support the poor and minorities, and very little in the way of policy proposals that would improve their own lives.

The Democratic advantage in voter demographics is solid at a national level - somewhere between 3 and 6 percent and increasing as the share of the electorate retained by aging southern whites continues to fall. But this is not the point - the lesson to be learned from watching the national Republican party turn over the asylum to the inmates is that the singular role of political organizations is to win elections, and alienating and excluding large segments of the population is a very poor strategy for winning. The Democrats SHOULD always be thinking about how to broaden and deepen their coalition, and trying to peel off some disenfranchised Republicans is a good way to do it.

That said, this is what I don't understand. Under Obama, the lives of the middle class have not improved. Wages are flat, and they already had health insurance through their employer. They make too much money to qualify for assistance programs, and too little money to get out of debt or go on vacation. Increasingly, workforce automation, smarter computers and software and other productivity improvements are reducing the number and quality of employment opportunities for many, especially those without a college degree. So they look around, and they say "Hmm, the Democrats have not helped me - perhaps I'll vote Republican". And that's as it should be - when one is not happy with current conditions, one should consider one's options carefully.

But that's where the wheels come off. If they do consider their options carefully, what they'll see is a Republican party with a laser beam focus on actively and aggressively making their lives WORSE. In other words, the thing that confuses me is why people unhappy with their current financial state would ever consider voting Republican. Their policies would, like gasoline on a fire, only serve to accelerate the decline of the American middle class.

Now, of course the answer is, like most Americans they don't actually KNOW the policies of the two parties - they just vote for change when they aren't happy. And that's obviously true, to some extent. But if these targeted sub-groups of voters can't or won't understand the policy goals of the party or candidate they're voting for, isn't it pointless to try to convince them NOT to vote Republican? Wouldn't those narratives and entreaties be ineffective if the people are so disinterested or apathetic that they aren't willing to consider them in the first place?

Just as with advertising in general, one begins to have serious doubts about the efficacy of campaign messaging and advertising. If you can only communicate effectively with your most committed base voters, if all your campaign messaging and slick production values aren't heard by those you are speaking to, then elections are going to be decided based on events and trends outside the control of the political community.

It is a bafflement...

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Music Post!


I drove into Millbrae this morning to run a few errands. On the way the car iPod played, consecutively, songs by Rancid, The Carpenters, Grateful Dead, Charlie Daniels Band, ABBA, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Soundgarden. This kind of whiplash juxtaposition of genres and styles always makes me smile, but I started wondering about it. After all, I put these songs on that iPod. Every song on there is one that I love and have a significant history with. If they are all so random and dissimilar, why do they all fall into the classification of mikey's favorites?

The conclusion I arrive at is that, rather than choosing music based on band or genre, I seem to choose music at the granularity of individual songs. And the thing that can initially attract me to a specific song is often a very small, highly specific thing like the drum line in the chorus of Metallica's "Fuel", the first 60 seconds of "Cherub Rock", or that 'happy/ominous' riff in "Hooligan's Holiday", a single line like "Time to count the voices in your head" in Kilzer's "Green, Yellow and Red" or "Standing in the sun with a Popsicle" in the wonderful "Without a Trace", or even just a unique guitar sound like in Bush's "Comedown" or Boston's "Hitch a Ride" or even Springsteen's "Born to Run".

But the main thing these songs tend to have in common is melody. They are singable - they have a distinct and distinctive tune, and even when they are only playing in my head I can sing along. Much of the reason I am so fond of punk, particularly the punk of the 90s represented by Rancid, Greenday and Offspring is that the songs are perfectly melodious - listen to Rancid's "Salvation" and tell me it wouldn't make an excellent elevator instrumental. That's the thing that binds me to the likes of Guy Clark, Tim Armstrong, Roger Clyne, Dave Pirner, Brad Delp, Axl Rose and Linda Ronstadt.

I am not promiscuous musically. Once a song becomes a favorite, it tends to remain one forever. I add new favorites rarely, largely because it's just that much harder to be exposed to new music these days, and so much of it is sonically unpleasant. Gaslight Anthem's "We came to dance" and The Sounds "No one sleeps when I'm awake" are still considered new favorites even today. With the singularly amazing Google Music, I can play any song I want, and while it's playing it will make me think of another song or two, so I play them, and they lead me to others, and before you know it, just like that, I have a whole new playlist populated by old favorites that I can play obsessively for the next week or so. For someone like me - someone who loves music without being particularly into music, it is the perfect solution, a non-stop supply of joyful noise.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

It IS Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

We don't really mean it
At its very essence, the entire Charlie Hebdo narrative stands at the nexus of Religion and Democracy. Theocracies are inherently and structurally undemocratic, so it stands to reason they would have laws against insulting or mocking religion - at least the religion preferred by the theocrats - and these kinds of laws are widely viewed as being violations of human rights. In western democracies, however, the juxtaposition is muddier, with speech both protected and criminalized on various bases.

Which brings us back to France. Days after holding a gigantic rally for freedom, a rally attended by political leaders from all over the globe, France proceeded to launch a major crackdown on people who commit the crime of "hate speech" or "supporting terrorism". That's right. As the nation defiantly defends the right to insult Muslims by violating their religious taboos, more than fifty people have been arrested for insulting Jews or speaking out in support of the murders. Both are ugly, foul expressions, but it must be recognized that Muslims found the Charlie Hebdo cartoons ugly and foul. That these are hypocritical events that cannot be justified under any coherent legal or constitutional construct is undeniable, but they point to a larger underlying problem - the tolerance for the protection of offensive speech in liberal democracies is variable, depending less on the content of the speech and almost exclusively on who would be offended.

None of this is about people who claim to defend free speech rights but blame the cartoonists for their own murders by printing images of the Prophet even after they had been warned that there might be a violent response. There is a special corner of hell reserved for people who are opposed to government censorship but are willing to allow anyone to censor their speech using violent coercion. But rather if you are willing to support a legal and constitutional framework that would tolerate some speech that one group finds offensive, under that framework you should be willing to tolerate any speech that any group will find offensive. It's impossible to try to thread that needle selectively - you come up looking as bad as a government that prosecutes people for 'sorcery'.

Look - I get it. Liberal democratic values require a certain courage from both the government and the population. Whether it's constitutional provisions curtailing surveillance, search and seizure or censorship, it's understood that you're taking on additional risk in order to live your professed values. That was for many years a basis of the pride people took in their western democratic traditions - we collectively believed that it was worth any potential cost to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. And make no mistake - a hundred million "Je Suis Charlies" later, the French are nowhere near living the values they claimed in that street demonstration last weekend.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

But Islam is a Religion of Peace!

The killing IS the point
Since the Islamic bloodletting has come to France, apologists for religious mythology have struggled to make a convincing argument that the problem was something other than fanatics acting on the religious dogma in which they were indoctrinated. But ultimately, it can't be done - there's no way to separate the act from its motivations, and there's no viable argument that the attacks in Paris would have happened outside the framework of religious mythology.

Here's the problem. No one ever 'owns' a religion's holy scriptures. They are intended to be interpreted, re-published, translated, preached and taught by all adherents. You can claim they say one thing, but it simply doesn't matter. They say what the believers believe they say. And in a harsh interpretation like the Takfiri Wahabism that is driving so much brutal violence around the world today, those holy books describe anything but a "religion of peace".

This is one of the reasons that religious mythology is such a toxic overlay on modern societies. A particular belief system can exist for centuries, growing and spreading in peaceful coexistence, and then, in the blink of an eye metastasize into something horrible that appeals to people who are poor, oppressed and/or illiterate or marginalized. And just like that, neighbors are slaughtering neighbors over mythical slights or historical events going back generations. Just like that, "God" becomes something vengeful, hateful and intolerant.

You can believe whatever idiocy you choose. I have no investment in how you live your life. But when you decide that your ridiculous taboos extend to me, that your pathetic "fatwas" become a life or death crisis for people who don't share your faith, when freedoms are constrained by violent coercion, well, that's the point where we ARE going to have to go to war. It doesn't matter if Charlie Hebdo was crude, or racist. The thing that matters is they're dead. A belief in Islamic doctrine, as interpreted by many adherents, killed them. And that cannot be apologized for, that cannot be justified, that cannot be "yes, butted". That has to be resisted.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Charlie (Hebdo) Mike

Oh look. They were equal opportunity dicks
So once again religious fundamentalist wackaloons, in a reaction to a perceived 'insult' of their imaginary super-being, have lashed out violently, killing a dozen people in Paris over a satirical cartoon. And once again we must endure an endless circular "yes but..." discussion that refuses to ever reach the obvious conclusion. Sure, they say, violent terrorism is never OK, but what kind of people mock and  blaspheme a specific religious dogma? Are they not just tweaking the tiger's tail? Or they say, yes, this kind of religiously motivated violence is awful, but you can't use the act of a few extremists to tarnish the mythological beliefs of a billion people. Some want to make the case that these murders are just completely unrelated to Islamic doctrine at all.

Both positions are hideously undemocratic, simultaneously bowing to the violent extortion of our own values and enabling the ongoing Islamic violence that is killing, wounding and ruining the lives of millions around the globe. You cannot pretend to support religious liberty without being willing to include the right to blasphemy. If my (lack of) religious belief is politically and constitutionally equal to your religious belief, if my right to self-expression is outside of the constraints of your mythological  belief system - which is a given that cannot be logically challenged - then the only viable societal structure is to let the citizens in a democracy believe what they want, and say what they want.

The current front-end problem is Islam, just as a few hundred years ago the problem was Christianity, but the much larger problem is religion. When you indoctrinate people to believe that concepts like apostasy and blasphemy are punishable criminal offenses, you create a world where endless hatred and bloodshed are not only common, but necessary and endless. If you can use a lifetime of religious indoctrination to turn everyday citizens into bloodthirsty murderers, you MUST question that dogma. Watching that French killer fire a round into the head of a helpless, wounded French policeman tells me everything I need to know about how they have been convinced to turn their backs on their own humanity.

Let's be very clear. This was a tactical operation, but it has a very significant strategic component. Al Quaeda knows very well what it takes to mobilize everyday Muslims to violence - make them targets. In the country of Marine LePen, it won't take a great deal of brutal bloodletting to drive the French far right into action against Muslims qua Muslims. So what can we do? Essentially, nothing. It's a perfect "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation where if you crack down on the Muslim community you fuel recruitment and attacks, and if you don't you expose yourself to more small-scale and lone-wolf attacks.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Dynamic Duo

The job comes with a very nice desk
When the 111th Congress was seated in January of 2009, the Congressional majority leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi appointed Douglas Elmendorf to head the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is responsible for providing non-partisan economic and budgetary analysis to the Congress, including the critical process of "scoring" economic legislation - that is, providing a factual baseline for both its impact on revenues and deficits. This is very important in modern budgetary debates because it limits the ability of political operations to make wild, irrational claims about their given economic agendas. In fact, because it is so utterly non-specific about where the revenues will come from, the CBO was unable to score Paul Ryan's infamous "Path to Prosperity" budget, which prevented the Republican Party from making any actually credible claims.

Which brings us to the 114th Congress, to be seated next week. With Republicans in the majority in both houses, as you might expect, fact-based legislative analysis isn't a priority. The Republican Party has brought exactly the same legislative agenda to every single Congressional session since at least Ronald Reagan's Presidency - lower taxes on businesses and the wealthy, fewer regulations on businesses, reductions in spending on social safety net and community support programs. The problem they have always confronted is finding a "good government" based justification for this agenda. They claim these policies are necessary when the economy is good, when the economy is bad, when unemployment is high and when unemployment is low, when deficits are high or when the budget is in surplus. That makes their challenge hard enough - but claiming that the net upward transfer of wealth coupled with reductions in government spending will create significant GDP and jobs growth is almost impossible using some kind of fact-based presentation.

Enter the concept of "dynamic scoring". Dynamic scoring is an analytic process, championed by Republicans, supply-siders and Laffer-Curve aficionados.  It means that the analyst is expected to take into account the positive feedback loop supposedly created by lower taxes and fewer regulations, recognizing that the very economic processes that reduce direct revenues create GDP and employment growth that must be factored into the overall analysis. The problem is that, even if you believe such an effect occurs, there is no formula or algorithm for determining how significant such an effect might be. Much worse than that is there is no historical evidence for such an effect at all, but Republicans are in the majority, so that's not going to be an important consideration. And the aforementioned Doug Elmendorf was never amenable to such proposals, but our new Congressional leadership has a solution for that.

All they need to do is, as the incoming leadership, replace him with a more ideologically compliant economist and just like that the CBO, long a respected non-partisan analytic organization, will become the kind of low-budget party apparatchik that the Supreme Court is becoming. And make no mistake, they will have no problem finding an economist who claims to know precisely how to measure the growth-stimulative effects of tax cuts and account for the associated indirect revenue growth. What will this get them? Just like that, no less an august and respected body than the Congressional Budget Office will be unhesitatingly declaring that tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% will be economically beneficial to the middle class and even the poor. Everybody wins, everybody gets a pony.

And so we begin 2 years under the economic and legislative stewardship of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Harry Reid is sharpening his filibuster, and President Obama is filling his veto pen with rich black ink. We know the political tactic in play - insert toxic provisions in 'must pass' legislation and dare the White House to veto the bill - and now we're starting to see what the political messaging will look like. Confronted with a growing economy, a booming stock market, falling unemployment, small deficits and low interest, the Republicans will have a hard time telling too many whoppers, but with the help of a compliant CBO they can still offer up some pretty big fibs.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why I (Grudgingly) Respect Pope Francis

Like a Lamb to the Slaughter
Anybody who reads this blog knows well my hatred and disgust for religious mythology, and my contempt for a society that allows religious doctrine to inform social or political ideology. And I have no doubt that the American media covers the statements and activities of religious, particularly Christian leaders in far more depth and detail than can possibly be justified. Religious leaders, with their scriptural doctrines of sectarian and tribal hatred and fear, traditional misogynist enforcement of gender roles, and their blatant, endless quest for wealth and power have always tended to be Conservative, not just socially but politically too. No matter how many times you throw the Sermon on the Mount in their little pinched faces, you got nothing but endless support for policies that favored the status quo.

For this, along with myriad other reasons, the American electorate has moved relentlessly to the right for the last fifty years, to the point where claiming to be a 'liberal' is toxic, and we have been forced to lay claim to a different, fuzzier title: "Progressive". And as long as people could self-righteously point to globally recognized religious leaders to justify their fear and hatred of people not exactly like them, the divisiveness could never get better - it could only keep getting worse.

Now along comes this guy who not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. He doesn't just call a spade a spade, he calls it a fucking shovel and reminds people that sometimes they have to pick it up and help dig. He says money in the church is a problem, he says that entrenched bureaucracy in the church is a problem, he says the focus on image and pomp is a problem, and crucially he says that hatred is not a part of Catholic dogma, and that resources are to be used to better the people in the community rather than to live lavishly. Now the chances that the Church will permit this attack on their generational privilege to continue are small, and Francis will probably serve a very brief Papacy, but every day he's the Pope he forces a dialog that never could previously occur. He makes the people and the media talk about the liberal values in the Bible, not just the hatred and power and control. He causes people to question the Christian values of those who would destroy the social safety net, take food and assistance from the poor, and poison the planet for short-term profits.  In short, he makes it easier to be liberal by making it harder to be a fascist.

Look. The Catholic church is a monster, a gigantic cancer on the body politic, and along with the other Abrahamic centers of magicks and mythology, the sooner it is a mostly forgotten part of human history the better it will be for our species. But until that happens, if, as a very large domestic institution it occasionally serves the needs of the community rather than merely preying on them, that in itself would be a very large improvement.