Saturday, July 30, 2016

The spread of technology

A further sign of the spread of technology in the United States, and in particular assumptions about technology.

The Social Security system has provided online access for several years. Online access is now needed to check your Social Security earnings statement (they are no longer mailed each year). It can also be used to apply for benefits, get tax statements, and find other information about your Social Security account.

Likely in a (probably misguided) response to recent government computer hacking, President Obama issued an executive order that agencies provide more secure authentication for online services. The Social Security Administration has responded with a new requirement. Those logging into the Social Security web site must provide a text message enabled cell phone and request a one time code by text message each time they log into Social Security.

So it now appears that Social Security recipients who might have computer access are also assumed to have a cell phone and know how to receive text messages.

Social Security's web site has already been annoying. Those still working need to log into the web site once a year to check their earnings statement. So what did Social Security do? Set a password expiration of 6 months. So every time you log into their site once a year you need to pick a new password.

Unfortunately, the added text message requirement is probably going to result in many elderly having more trouble managing their Social Security account (or more telephone support, which isn't necessarily very secure). Meanwhile, most cyber attacks are executed not by breaking into a consumer's account, but by phishing (convincing some low level employee to email big data files out) or by some semi-official access to the internal network of a company or agency. We can only hope they are figuring out how to improve this security.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is it really about climate change?

An initiative on the Washington state ballot this fall shows some of the realities of politics. On the surface, the ballot measure is designed to fight climate change by imposing a tax on carbon emissions. What could be wrong with that? It seems to be exactly what any number of environmental and advocacy groups have been calling for. Yet the Washington ballot proposal is opposed by almost all of the groups calling for climate change legislation. Looking at this opposition shows the reality of the politics of climate change.

So why do environmental groups oppose a carbon tax? There appear to be two primary reasons:

First, the tax is revenue neutral. Rather than providing the government with money for new programs, the proposal uses the carbon tax to reduce other taxes and provide tax relief for low income individuals. These opponents appear to be more concerned with getting more money for new programs than in reducing carbon emissions. They want money used for programs ranging from environmental protection to helping "communities of color."

This insistence on using the tax for new programs also shows one of the long term problems of a carbon tax. If a carbon tax is implemented, a reduction in carbon emissions will result in a reduction in tax revenues. This gives the government and those benefiting from government money an incentive to (behind the scenes) promote carbon emissions. Traditional sin taxes (e.g. cigarette taxes) result in the same conflict -- eliminating tobacco use will result in a budget shortfall.

The second reason the ballot initiative is being opposed is a statement by the founder of the initiative. He said that liberals were more concerned with bigger government and race / class politics than simply dealing with climate change. He suggested that the Republican Party might be the better vehicle for carbon reduction.

That's all it took. It conflicts with the accepted narrative that Republicans are evil and took away a supply of, when all is said and done, patronage money which can be used for political allies.

This is an example of "bootlegger and baptist" regulation. Advocating a carbon tax is the "baptist" cause here, while the "bootleggers" are trying to get money for pet programs (or for that matter, the proposed tax cuts). One organization, the state Audubon Society, is brave enough to go against bigger government interests and support this measure as a way to do something about carbon emissions. They are a brave lone voice in what is likely to be a quite hypocritical campaign.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Indy publishing as practice

I was talking with an author last night and realized a change in the nature of published books the last few years. This author has published three books. These are self published books (now called independently published). Indie books are the fastest growing segment in publishing, made possible by Amazon and the rise of ebooks. In the past a new author had to sell a book to one of the large publishing houses. The alternative was to pay to have a "vanity press" print the books. Self published books were (often justifiably) assumed to be bad since publishers are supposed to pay authors, not the other way around. So prospective authors would often write a number of books before one was finally bought by a publisher.

Today authors can go the traditional route or they can go the new route of publishing electronically on Amazon. Alternatives exist but Amazon is the largest eBook platform around. Publishing a book on Amazon costs nothing, just sign up for an account, say where to deposit the royalties, and upload the book.

So back to the author I was talking with. He wants to write for one of the big publishers but doesn't think he's good enough. So he's writing multiple books a year in the hope he'll be good enough in the future for the big publishers.

After hearing this I realized that in the past an author's first, generally bad, work was discarded until the author is good to be published. Today authors are publishing these initial attempts, sometimes regardless of quality. If an author becomes a bestseller, people want to read everything the author has written. In the past the early work is mercifully unknown, or the author can rewrite it with the hindsight of experience. Today that early bad work is out there for everybody to see. I expect to see some number of  embarrassed authors in the future.

This is not to say indie books are bad. Big publishing houses are known to publish bad authors, and a bestselling author may have to put out a "contractional obligation" book he never wanted to write. There are also a lot of very good indie authors. Some don't want to go with a large publisher. Others have a style or genre of book big publishers aren't interested in at the moment. Established authors sell their older work as ebooks since the big publishers don't keep books in print more than a couple years anymore. So there's a lot good stuff out there but also a number of practice books.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Classified Hillary

While the FBI will not charge Hillary Clinton for putting classified material on her private email server, Congressional Republicans are responding. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has apparently asked that Mrs Clinton not receive any classified information during the campaign. And Senators (presumably all Republican) have introduced a bill to prohibit any Federal officer or employee who has been reless with classified material from keeping a security clearance. Obviously targeted at Hillary Clinton, it would be interesting if they passed the law and it denied her a security clearance as President.

However, Congress should take care, members of Congress have actively disclosed classified material in the past, more serious than just being reless. Many in the intelligence community would welcome revoking Congressional security clearances.