Sunday, April 30, 2006

Don't Neuter the Net

Many people seem to have the wrong idea about the principles at stake in the debate over Network neutrality. It may look like an issue of free speech, or encouraging high tech businesses, but I think it's really about cross subsidies, and favoring some business models over others. The proponents of Neutrality (prohibiting internet carriers from charging different prices for different kinds of data, or different prices to different customers) correctly point out that neutrality makes certain business models much more attractive, and they also argue that allowing carriers to discriminate would prevent some people from getting heard. The first argument misses the point, and the second is just wrong.

The proponents point out that the open policies that network providers have always supported to date have allowed many new businesses to flourish, and that they might not have been able to succeed if the rules had been different. This is true, but it misses the point that with other rules, other businesses would have been developed instead. (And no one can say with any confidence what those businesses would have been, or whether the overall economy would have been better or worse off.)

The companies that are considering charging different rates for different packets (or to different customers) would be pursuing a different customer base, and a different business model. There's little reason to believe that the current model is better or worse than any alternatives. The way we find out which is better is to allow companies to compete and see what their customers want to buy. Remember that AOL (like other ISPs in other eras) started out by offering a limited version of the net, giving advantages to the services they provide, or that paid for special access, and making it harder for their customers to reach others. This wasn't a matter of censorship: their customers were perfectly able to go elsewhere. AOL, at the time, just provided an easier starting experience for many customers, and this gave them the ability (and a reason) to make some services easier to reach than others.

I see prohibiting these different models as akin to the subsidies we currently provide to sugar and other crops. If we were to change the rules now, it would drastically interfere with the business model being pursued by many businesses, including candy and soft drink manufacturers, a big part of the economy. But maintaining the price supports is also a restriction, and it's mucking with the incentives, and giving people, companies, and the economy a false picture of the relative costs of different inputs. If we remove the price supports, the taxpayers would be better off because they wouldn't be paying growers, and they'd be better off because the economy would find a different equilibrium that made more efficient choices about what crops to supply, and what services and products could be produced at a profit. People would change their patterns of consumption, and with more money in hand they could choose either to spend more money on more expensive soft drinks, or spend the money elsewhere. Continuing to subsidize sugar because it keeps current price patterns stable only makes sense if your objective is to not effect the political balance of power among winners and losers in that trade-off.

The proponents also argue that all bits are the same, and companies shouldn't be allowed to discriminate among them. but this, too, is fundamentally misguided. There are many reasons to want different treatment for different kinds of bits. Browsing the web is interactive, and people want the net to be responsive, but email is store-and-forward so there's no need for those packets to be handled with the same urgency. Once people start watching movies or live video feeds over the net, those packets will need to be handled with even more dispatch, since a late or missing packet matters there in a way that it doesn't when you're browsing web pages. If some ISPs want to experiment with providing differential service for different purposes for different prices, that would enable many new kinds of business plans. Forbidding it would require the same kind of regulation we had of trucking until the early to mid nineties. It's not directly visible to consumers, but prices have fallen a lot since then, and there has been considerable innovation in packaging and pricing in that industry. Letting the carriers set their own rules and rates allows them to discover what distinctions matter to customers, and focus their business on delivering the services that make a difference.

And as to free speech? Use a different ISP if yours has restrictions you don't like. Free speech shouldn't mean that someone is required to carry your message; it means that the government shouldn't take a position, and shouldn't restrict the positions that people are able to publish using whatever means they can arrange.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

No need to Worry

The Economist had a nice long article explaining why we don't need to worry about peak oil. They made many good points, but the discussion of alternative fuels left one thing out: alternative energy sources. Petroleum in the ground produces net energy gain when you pump it out of the ground, refine it, and burn it. Electricity is a means for transmitting energy from one place to another. There isn't raw electricity waiting in the wild to be harvested and used. (There is raw hydro, geothermal, etc., but the Economist didn't mention those.) They mentioned electricity and steam as alternatives to petroleum in the early days of the automobile. (What did the steam and electric cars use for fuel, anyway?)

The points they did make were relevant: the end of oil has always been 20 or 30 years away—that's more indicative of the fact that it's seldom worth exploring for more reserves when you've already identified enough to fill our needs for the next 20 years. According to many experts, there are enough development projects currently funded (in known reservoirs) to expand output by about 18% over current production capacity. They also pointed out that even if American oil companies are having trouble getting access to new reserves, that doesn't show much, since there are so many other countries developing the ability to pump and refine from new sources. It really is a global market, and the worst that might result from that development is that the American companies would suffer; but the oil would still be available to us as long as we're willing to pay for it.

The writers also explained why even if there was a peak, it wouldn't be a sharp peak, leaving us with plenty of time to find replacements after prices rise. I can explain away the current price rise in gasoline at the pump as a transient effect, but the marginal changes will always look like transient effects: the underlying causes are harder to track and don't look as much like immediate causes. The most important sign of long-term increases in prices would be that long-term oil futures rise. And they haven't been going up. The experts with the most access to info, and the most to gain or lose think that prices 6 months or a year out aren't going to be significantly higher than they are now.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Attacking Zebra Mussels

A new approach to attacking invasive species, according to Science News. Chemists and zoologists at the University of Cambridge have invented an approach to reducing the number of Zebra Mussels in locations like water supply pipes where they're an expensive nuisance. The twin problems with attacking filter feeders are that they shut down their feeding when they detect toxins, and that high levels of toxin will likely afffect other organisms. In this case, they coated small particles of a toxic substance (potassium chloride) in a benign and degradable coating (vegetable oil and soap). Filter feeders accept and concentrate the particles, and are eventually poisoned. The coating degrades in a couple of hours, and once dispersed, potassium chloride (sometimes used as a salt substitute) is relatively harmless.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Books that confirm our prejudices

I received a catalog from CATO that lists Trapped: When Acting Ethically is Against the Law. John Hasnas tells us that

federal business regulations do not target only morally culpable conduct; rather, they enforce arbitrary rules of behavior created by regulators, often punishing behavior that is not morally blameworthy. [...] Businesspeople are routinely convicted of violations of statutes they never knew existed on the basis of evidence that doesn't incriminate them specifically.
The blurb doesn't mention the point that often people are faced with multiple conflicting regulations that require them to both do and to refrain from doing the same thing, on pain of fines and imprisonment.

There are probably many details here that I'm not familiar with, but the underlying point isn't going to be surprising, so I'll wait for a stronger recommendation before ordering a copy. If you're skeptical that this happens or want to know how nasty the bureaucrats can be, maybe you should order a copy.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, takes the position that reasonable people (realists) ought to stop allowing religious people a free pass to raise faith-based viewpoints in discussions of fact-based issues. He argues against moderation and tolerance in polite conversation because the moderately religious are forced by the logic of their position to accept the arguments of those who take their religion more literally. If we grant standing to minor logical indiscretions like the virgin birth, the recent creation of the universe, or the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, those who accept those unlikely things (on the basis that the bible says its' so) will refuse to disagree with others who argue that they've learned less benign things from their infallible bibles such as that homosexuality is a sin.

I think he's right that the moderate religious position is logically incoherent. We depend, for peace in the western world, on the participation of people who claim that the bible is literally the word of god, but are extremely selective in what they attend to in that book. When others make claims with a similar basis, the religious have no counter-argument, and the moderate position is that we should accept a diversity of opinion as healthy. Unfortunately, this argues for tolerance of extremists, and acceptance of their claim that some set of people should be slaughtered or removed from civil society as rationally based.

We cannot, Harris says, reject the extreme forms without rejecting the moderate forms as well. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide any guidance for how to carry out this proposal in a society in which the religious outnumber the rational. In fact, in his talk at the Long Now Foundation's lecture series, he agreed with a questioner who pointed out that it's a hard conversational stance to take, and had no suggestions.

Harris spends a chapter explaining that Islam is more a problem in the modern world than other religions because the faith has significant fundamental beliefs (accepted even by the moderates) that justify the resort to violence. Even more than moderate Christians, moderate Muslims are forced to accept the claims to righteousness of their extremists. The moderates believe in the importance of Jihad, accept the claim that apostates deserve death, and agree that death pursuing Jihad is honorable. With positions like those, why would it make sense to call them moderates, or to allow them to join rational conservations? I've never having had a conversation about these subjects with a self-professed moderate Muslim, so I have no experience to add, but these arguments seem plausible.

The first four chapters do a reasonable job of justifying this point of view, though much as Harris wants it to be a call to action, it's not clear what rational folk (the Brights) can do about it given our lack of numbers.

In the last two chapters, Harris stretches into less justifiable territory. Chapter 5 attempts to provide foundations for "A Science of Good and Evil", but misses the mark. His attempts start from an assumption that the proper foundation for ethics are the recognition that creatures that feel pain deserve our respect and forbearance. But he apparently hasn't found the extensive literature that starts from this assumption. I've been unconvinced that this is the right place to start, and Harris doesn't add anything new to the argument. He also seems to be unaware of W. W. Bartley's contributions to epistemology. Instead, he tries to argue from a sense of "moral intuition", and then from a claim that evolution has endowed us with a feeling of happiness that can serve as a guide to morality. He jumps from these arguments to an attempt to justify torture in extreme circumstances. These arguments aren't at all convincing.

In the final chapter, Harris attempts to establish that he has some common ground with people who consider themselves spiritual. He believes that there is some deeper knowledge of consciousness that traditional mystics have found the right tools to reveal, if only they would drop the religious nonsense, and study consciousness carefully. I was unconvinced again. He seems to think (without saying so explicitly) that consciousness may endure after death, that it is produced and maintained by something beyond the physical body of the person that perceives it. He cites Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, but must not have understood the explanation. I'd be interested to read an argument that the Sufis or the Zen Masters have access to knowledge about consciousness that the rest of us could benefit from, but this wasn't it.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Michael Williamson: The Weapon

Michael Williamson's novel The Weapon is tiresome, but with plenty of adventure. The protagonist, Ken Chinran, is a boastful special agent who is assigned to many secretive, dangerous missions. The book follows him through a brutal training regime, intended to harden him and weed out the weak, and into his deployment as a special agent. The story is presented in enough gruesome detail to weed out many readers as well.

The novel was a nominee for the Prometheus award; I read it as a member of the finalist nominating committee. I stopped reading about 50 pages from the end, which is not at all normal for me, but I'd had enough, and from what I'd heard from other reviewers, the disquieting events I was reading at the time were only going to get worse.

Chinran can personally take on (unarmed) a handful of conventionally trained and armed troops and disable them all in less than a minute. The reason the book is a plausible contender for the Prometheus is that he is part of an elite unit defending Freehold, a peaceful, free, market-oriented planet. The emphasis on defense of liberty, and the idea that a peaceful society has to be able to and willing to defend itself in order to survive in a hostile environment is thoroughly justifiable. But the story tries to make the case that this extends to indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on the opposing side. It doesn't succeed, in my view.

Chinran's personal reaction to the events he participates in are at least in the right direction: he is revolted in several cases by what he has done, but remains convinced that he did the right thing, and continues to follow orders. There's a particular campaign he leads which ends in a scene reminiscent of Viet Nam's My Lai Massacre. In this case, Chinran and his squad has been attempting to instill fear of his peacekeeping force in an environment in which all tribes are at each other's throats. Their campaign uses surprise, fear and threats to cow successive villages into giving up arms at least temporarily. Chinran justifies the strategy to himself and the reader because they're only using threats, and not actually killing anyone. Because of their superior battle acumen (all the members of Chinran's squad are as highly trained as he is), they are able to get the drop on village after village, and when entire families are lined up, the fighters are usually quick to capitulate.

Eventually, however, they come across a village in which the head man is defiant, and refuses to give up his grievances with his neighbors. Chinran concludes that the logic of the situation requires that they massacre everyone in the village in order to maintain the believability of their threats. (Chinran, as leader of the squad, takes the first shot as he orders the massacre.) But in the aftermath of the massacre, everyone in the squad needs counseling and time away from the battlefield. The campaign is halted, and they move on to the next battle.

If they had intended from the beginning to perform indiscriminate killing in the name of maintaining the peace, I could see Chinran's argument. I'd still question the underlying morality, but at least it would have been internally consistent. As it is, the logic of the situation (their reliance on an ethic that threats were acceptable, and killing to be minimized) required that once their bluff was called, they should have given up on the campaign and tried a different tactic. They weren't willing or able to continue the campaign under the changed rules, so the massacre didn't serve the purpose Chinran proposed for it. The campaign was over, and the slaughter didn't preserve any options they could morally make use of.

I can easily imagine that similar forces were in play in the incident with Lt. William Calley at My Lai in Viet Nam. (Though I admit to knowing few details.) But an American or any military that believes in some kind of just war moral theory isn't going to continue a campaign on those terms for long. Indiscriminate slaughter of civilians is the wrong answer

I had considered giving up on the book several times much earlier. There is little character development, and no unifying conflict other than repeated jibes at societies that aren't as free as Chinran's Freehold, and the subject populations that allow their governments to micromanage their lives.

The book tells about a series of engagements that establish and develop Chinran's skills and abilities. He undergoes basic and advanced training and a sequence of training assignments before being assigned to head a sleeper cell on Earth in case a threatened war develops. Since Chinran's home doesn't have the population base that Earth does, their self-defense plan is to sow havoc behind the front lines sapping Earth's will to continue.

At the point in the book where I finally gave up, Chinran's elite forces have killed millions of civilians in cities all over the world, and spread panic that will kill many more. Chinran wanders around a devastated Minneapolis, and is sick about the effects he has caused. But the other reviews I've seen tell me that he will willingly do it again and worse. I'm not going to read the rest of the book.

There is a right to self-defense, and it does entail violence and the death of innocent bystanders. But part of the theory has to be knowing where to draw the line at wholesale targeting of non-combatants. Aiming for military targets and accepting civilian casualties because your enemy has located them close together can be justified. It might be effective to target the civilians first, but I don't think you can claim it's a moral way to wage a war.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Fear of Flying

I'm a skeptic when the flight attendants ask passengers to turn off their electronic devices. Years ago, I saw a reference to an IEEE Spectrum article that apparently provided the justification for the airlines' paranoia on the subject, and so I tracked down and read the article. My recollection of the article is that it contained only a hypothetical mechanism by which electronic devices inside the airplane could radiate through the skin, and resonate depending on the specific surface geometry of the airframe. In some cases, the signal might be picked up by external antennas serving the plane's navigation systems. The article (as I remember it) didn't mention any concrete cases, so I discounted it.

For many years, my practice has been to turn on my iPod (previously the CD Player) once I was settled in my seat, and not turn it off unless an attendant noticed that I had it on and directly told me to turn it off. If the pilot noticed interference, I reasoned, she could ask the passengers to turn stuff off, and I'd happily comply. (I can see why cell phones and wireless devices would be a problem, but why would a CD Player be radiating significant amounts of RF interference?) If they couldn't tell that anything was happening, I believed, it must have been all superstition on the part of the airline industry. After all, they've given us plenty of reason to believe that if they can blame the rules on someone else, they are completely unconcerned about inconveniencing us, and little reason to believe that the safety rules are updated when conditions change. (Have you noticed that they're still explaining how seat belts work? How long has it been since you could assume that 99.99% of potential passengers were familiar with seat belts?)

The Mercury News had an article a few days ago saying that there was a new study showing that Cell Phones are causing interference. As usual, there's not enough information in the article to tell what the study looked at or how significant the results were, so I googled for the new article. The authors are mostly worried about the proposals that cell phone use be allowed in flight, but they also mentioned a telling incident involving a DVD player. The most alarming fact in the article, though is that the Aviation Safety Reporting System database that used to track anonymous reports of safety problems reported by crew members or the public has discontinued some services due to budget cuts.

I'm not particularly a fan off more government reporting and regulation, but when they've crowded out private alternatives, it can be dangerous to drop the government funded programs.

Back to the errant DVD player. The new article reported:

In one telling incident, a flight crew stated that a 30-degree navigation error was immediately corrected after a passenger turned off a DVD player and that the error re-occurred when the curious crew asked the passenger to switch the player on again. Game electronics and laptops were the culprits in other reports in which the crew verified in the same way that a particular PED caused erratic navigation indications.

This was the kind of specific detail that I've been claiming for a while was missing in the previous article, and which would have been convincing. So I went back to look at the older article. This looks like the article I found back then, but it does report specific incidents quite similar to this one:

A report selected from the ASRS database illustrates this type of incident. In March 1993, a large passenger aircraft was at cruise altitude just outside the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when the No. 1 compass suddenly precessed IO degrees to the right. The first flight attendant was asked to check whether any passengers were operating electronic devices. She said that a passenger in seat X had just turned on his laptop computer.
The report continues: "I asked that the passenger turn off his laptop computer for a period of 10 minutes, which he did. I then slaved the No. 1 compass, and it returned to normal operation for the 10 minute period. I then asked that the passenger tum on his computer once again. The No. 1 compass immediately precessed 8 degrees to the right. The computer was then turned off for a 30-minute period during which the No. 1 compass operation was verified as normal.

Whoops. Well, nowadays, I use an iPod, and it's hard for me to imagine that they radiate as much RF as a PC or even a DVD player. But I may start turning it off for landings, which is what the experts seem most concerned about.

Here are some more excerpts from Spectrum:

All in all, we found 125 entries in the ASRS database that reported PED interference. Of these, 77 were considered highly correlated, based on the description of observed PED use and interference occurrence. The reports included cases of critical aircraft systems such as navigation and throttle settings being affected. Based on the random sample entries from 1995 to 2001, we estimate that the average number of reported interference events might be as high as 23 per year. There is considerable uncertainty about how many incidents actually occur in a year; a number of factors could make the number higher-or even lower-than the estimate of 23. Some reported incidents have not been entered into the database, and some of the reported incidents may not be interference events (that is, they might be false positives). But the data certainly suggest that PED interference events occur a few times each month.
At present, we believe that passenger use of electronics on board commercial aircraft should continue to be limited and that passengers should not be allowed to operate intentionally radiating devices such as cellphones and wireless computer equipment during critical stages of flight.
The practice of including an identifiable random sample of incidents was dropped (because of budget cuts), the ASRS can no longer be used to do statistically valid studies of all types of incidents, including those involving PED interference. Congress should provide budgetary support to reinstate the random sample entries or, better yet, to enter all the received reports.

Isn't this something the airline industry should fund privately if the government is letting the ball drop?