Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What should Net Neutrality mean?

Just as the FCC is ready to repeal "net neutrality" Google and Amazon provide us with a dispute which brings up the question of what net neutrality should mean and how far it should go.

The regulatory definition of net neutrality is currently making sure that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) treats all traffic on its network equally. High bandwidth video gets the same priority as low bandwidth email. The FCC has proposed repealing those regulations, meaning that ISPs could give preference to certain services, charge consumers more for certain services, or charge the service providers (e.g. Netflix, Google, Amazon) more to attach to the ISP's network.

There have been recent arguments that we don't truly have net neutrality under the current regulatory regime because big Internet powerhouses (Twitter, Facebook) have been censoring content to fit their own political agendas. However, these arguments haven't gotten too much traction since those censored tend to be considered right wing racist hatemongers by net neutrality proponents (who tend to be more liberal in their politics).

Now we see a dispute which again calls into question the meaning of net neutrality. Amazon and Google have been fighting over Amazon's refusal to allow certain Google products to be sold on their website. So Google has announced it will not allow YouTube access from Amazon devices starting January 1. If this goes through, consumers who want to watch YouTube will need a non-Amazon device such as Google's Chromecast. And those who want to watch Amazon videos are out of luck if they own a Google Chromecast. So consumers who have been assured that their ISP won't block any network traffic discover that they're still out of luck because their devices can't use that traffic.

So where should net neutrality go? It's clear that just allowing equal access to Internet traffic won't provide equal access to the Internet. Internet providers and device makers are doing exactly the things net neutrality proponents are afraid of. So should we now regulate Internet device makers (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Fire TV, Chromecast, etc) to be sure they provide equal access to all content makers? Regulate social media since they have the power to silence some points of view (and who decides which viewpoints should be silenced)?

If the current net neutrality rules remain, will it really mean an open Internet? If they are repealed, will selective content from ISPs be any worse than selective content on either end of the network?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why did Michael Flynn Lie?

In the wake of the Michael Flynn indictment and plea bargain several experts have wondered why Mr. Flynn lied to the FBI. His contacts with Russian and other officials were apparently not illegal. They were also over a month after the election, so had nothing to do with Russian interference with the election. So why wasn't he honest about his Russian contacts during the presidential transition?

It seems like the experts are ignoring the obvious. President Obama announced sanctions against the Russians for interfering in the election. There were frequent stories in the press claiming or speculating about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In this environment, an admission that Mr. Flynn had talked to the Russians during the transition in December would be transformed by the press into an admission that he had colluded with the Russians during the campaign. With the inctment a few days ago ABC wrongly reported just this and there is media speculation that Flynn will now tell all about campaign collusion.

Mr. Flynn likely also thought his phone calls were private. He wouldn't know the government was listening in on his conversations (though given today's technology, we should probably all assume our conversations are not private). So he may have thought they couldn't prove he had made the calls.

Given the constant calls for Russia investigations from the media and congress, is it any wonder Michael Flynn didn't want to give anti-Trump forces ammunition for their campaign against he new president?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

HOT CARS saves lives

Senator Al Franken, further establishing his role as Giant of the Senate, is co-sponsoring a bill to protect children. Called the HOT CARS act, it requires that cars be equipped with a system to help prevent the driver from accidentally leaving a child in the back seat when leaving the car.

Bill Maher rightly mocked the proposal, arguing the democrats are hurting themselves by further over-regulating society. He is quite right that it shouldn't be the car companies' responsibility to be sure we don't check whether the kid is in the back seat.

Also consider this from the standpoint of cost. There are about 40 deaths per year due to children left in cars in the US. Of these about half are children accidentally left in a car, which the law would in principle prevent. Total US car sales in 2016 were 17.6 million. Assume the prevention system only adds $1.00 to the price of a car. At that small incremental cost consumers would be paying about $800,000 for every life saved. If the prevention is a more likely $10.00 to $50.00, it means consumers would pay $8 million to $80 million per death avoided. I bet if we spent money in additional driver training or fixing a few unsafe intersections in cities we can save far more than one life per $8 million.

And what is this system to protect children? The article about Bill Maher linked above says motion sensors (don't know where the author got that). But motion sensors make no sense, they'll go off when the dog is left in the car (as is also often done, with a window down) but will not go off for the motionless sleeping baby. However, the bill itself doesn't say the car needs to detect that a child is present, only remind the driver. It must be both a visual and auditory alert. So apparently in the future the car's display (not sure what low price cars without displays will do) will say "don't forget any children in the back seat" and a recorded voice will say "don't forget your children". Guess how annoyed consumers are going to get? Hopefully they'll know to blame Congress. Of course, given human nature, people will quickly tune out any reminder and end up forgetting the child anyway.

The bill also shows Congress's habit of drafting sloppy legislation. It is more apparent in the House version of the bill. The House version has the same visual and auditory alert requirement, but says the alert must come from "the rear seating positions". So apparently the rear seat itself must tell you to check for children, not just the car.

All in all, Bill Maher has it right. Every right wing claim about the nanny state and democrats is validated by this bill. If it doesn't die a quiet death in committee, or worse is passed, democrats have only themselves to blame for losing elections.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lack of Health Coverage, Lack of Planning

I've just seen the same type of story as the "I am Obamacare" woman some years ago. In fact, it's quite similar as this person also has a tumor in her uterus. Unfortunately, I can't give any more details due to privacy.

It is interesting though to hear the complaints about our health care system when the woman found out she can't sign up for insurance (would need to wait a month for open enrollment and it wouldn't take effect until next year). Her local hospital also won't take her as a charity case so she's had to spend part of her savings to pay for doctors. I'm guessing she doesn't have enough savings to pay for her needed surgery.

I haven't gotten into the details of why this woman doesn't already have health coverage and don't intend to (I don't need to trigger a bunch of name calling on social media) but my guess is she doesn't have coverage available through any employer (not sure if she has a job or if her business is full time). Apparently she also didn't see any need to sign up through the Exchanges (Obamacare) and now she finds she doesn't have insurance.

She complains that Obamacare was supposed to get rid of pre-existing condition requirements. This is true, but ONLY if you sign up during open enrollment or some other defined time.

So we get more complaints about our health care system, and again it's somebody who didn't bother to plan ahead.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Political Creativity

Both sides of the political spectrum are playing some interesting politics.

On the left there is a website, combined with Twitter ads, which argued that the latest Obamacare repeal attempt was "pro-abortion" because women would lose insurance and abort their baby to avoid paying for the birth, thus attempting to fool anti-abortion activists into opposing the Republican bill.

On the other side, a House subcommittee has released a report excoriating the CFPB for levying too small a fine on Wells Fargo for their unwanted account scandal. This is Republicans (normally pro business) arguing that the (much disliked by conservatives) CFPB is soft on Wall Street.

They're getting more creative, turning around the other side's arguments.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Will electric vehicles replace the internal combustion engine?

The push for electric vehicles continues, with predictions that they will dominate the market in a short time. Yet will they?

In the long run, electric vehicles will replace internal combustion vehicles. Once battery technology becomes good enough to provide a large enough range, fast charging, etc. at a lower cost than gasoline or diesel they will obviously dominate the market. But will this happen soon?

To answer this I look at two past technological changes and apply them to electric vehicles.

The automobile:

The automobile replaced an existing technology, the horse, over a period of about 20 years (1900 or so until 1920). Automobiles existed before 1900 but were more a curiosity than a real transportation option. While horses were still found in cities into the 1930s they had become relatively uncommon by the 1920s.

Why did the automobile replace the horse? Because of its advantages. Horses were expensive to keep and had to be "maintained" (fed. exercised, stalls cleaned, etc) daily. An automobile, in contrast, could be left unused for days or weeks at a time. Early cars still required a fair amount of maintenance and broke down frequently, but were still an advantage over horses. This was especially true when low priced automobiles like the Ford Model T started to be sold. By the 1920s automobiles also allowed much longer distance travel than horses.

So the automobile replaced the horse as the dominant form of land transportation in a short time based on its clear advantages to the owner.

The Compact Disc

The second product I look at is the compact disc. The CD was introduced around 1982. By 1990 CD sales exceeded vinyl record sales and went on to also replace cassette tapes a few years later.

Why did the CD replace vinyl? Longer play times, more durable, better quality, and smaller size. Price was not a large factor, CD prices continued higher than cassette prices long after CDs dominated the market.

What does this mean for electric cars?

Electric cars differ from both the original automobile and the compact disc. There's no clear economic or product advantage to the electric car. Electric cars have short ranges and long "refueling" times relative to gasoline. They have no price advantage, electric cars are relatively expensive and manufacturers apparently lose money on their sales. Because of the short range, they often need to be a "second car" used only for short local travel.

Instead, electric cars rely on two advantages. One is government subsidies, which can help offset the higher price. The other is the "feel good" factor. Electric cars are supposed to be better for the environment. So electric car sales have largely been limited to urban, wealthy, "environmentally aware" consumers as a second car.

Even so, there are predictions of the demise of the internal combustion engine in 10-20 years. How likely are these predictions to be true? Based on a comparison to other products, not very likely. Most products which rapidly take over markets do so because they have a clear advantage over existing products. This is not true of electric cars. Instead, these predictions all appear to be based on the assumption that governments will make electric cars more desirable than internal combustion engines, or alternately will legislate electric cars.

Legislative mandates are the most likely approach to electric cars taking over the market. Yet will this work? Governments have been mandating increased fuel economy for over 30 years yet fuel economy has not increased anywhere near as fast as the mandates would suggest. Instead, fuel economy standards have distorted the market, with vehicles like station wagons disappearing (because of relatively low mileage), to be replace with minivans (which were originally classed as trucks, and may still be). SUVs have steadily risen in popularity, often growing quite large, even as gas prices increase. Automobile trends lately have (at least in the United States) often gone in the opposite direction of those desired by government.

A Better Analogy

So what is a good analogy for the introduction of electric cars? Organic (and natural) foods. Organic foods have steadily gained market share, starting as a niche market at specialty "natural foods" stores, now spreading to mainstream grocery stores. While organic foods have gained market share, they continue to lag behind non-organic products, being higher priced and at times don't have as good a visual appearance as non-organics.

Why? The selling point for organic foods is they are better for you, they are more environmentally friendly, and you can feel good when you buy them. Compare this to the advantages of electric cards -- they are more environmentally friendly and you feel good buying one. And as with organic foods, so long as they are more expensive and have other disadvantages, electric cars will not replace internal combustion cars.

How electric cars will dominate

Today there is one way electric cars will dominate the market -- government mandate. The question is whether government officials can convince voters to allow the mandate to take effect.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Trump White House Remodel

In the news the last couple days is that Donald Trump is taking a "working vacation" for a few weeks. The media, ever looking to paint Mr. Trump in a negative manner, has brought criticism of President Obama for his vacations, with Mr. Trump tweeting that he didn't take vacations. Now they're saying Mr. Trump is hypocritical.

But it turns out there's a good reason for the vacation. The West Wing of the White House is being remodeled, with everybody moved out for the next few weeks while workers fix water leaks, install new heating and air conditioning, replace carpets, paint, etc. So far the media has reported this as necessary repairs which were begun and authorized under President Obama.

But this is the Trump Presidency, so I'm making a prediction. Likely before the end of Mr. Trump's vacation and definitely within a week or two of the completion of the renovations we'll be seeing news stories describing the remodel in a negative manner and the blame will go to Donald Trump. The remodel will be too extravagant, too expensive, or crass and tasteless.

After all, the press's job lately has been to show us how bad everything has become under Donald Trump.