All posts by tim

Another Example of Inane Regulation

Another Example of Inane Regulation

Governments have regulatory regimes in place for a number of areas of commerce, some more and less important. Recently, some of the more self-serving and corrupt arrangements have been brought more into the public consciousness, primarily due to the efforts of start ups to upend the systems that are currently in place. Uber works city by city against taxi and limousine lobbies, which have immense control in major cities like NY. Why is a Medallion licence worth over $1M? But that is not the point of this post.

Tesla is another example of a company that is challenging the traditional status quo. While they make electric vehicles and have been on a tear recently in the markets, Tesla also has set up a retail model with direct sales to consumers. They argue that without dealers, they are able to more effectively advocate for the concept of the electric vehicle, and it has certainly helped with their publicity. So what’s the problem?

NJ just banned Telsa’s model, mostly at the behest of the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, a lobbying organization for car dealerships. They will need to convert their stores to “galleries”, or shutter them completely. All of the arguments I’ve read so far from NJCAR pushing the legislation to ban Tesla’s approach lack strength, and mostly rely on the safety and recall implications of having separate dealers, competition (but its with each other on margin over dealer cost…), and the economic benefits to smaller towns of having dealerships placed there (that wouldn’t be if the legislation and requirements did not exist).

Frankly, having car dealers all over the place is a very poor use of scarce economic goods. What efficiency is gained by having so many resources devoted to selling cars, and inherently non-value adding activity? It’s work and economic activity that sure, generates tax dollars and provides jobs, but its akin to tax preparation – it’s an activity that does not really need to be done. We would all be better off if folks were focused on more productive efforts.

It is sad to see an entrenched business group lobby to protect their economic moat and be so easily successful. The system of dealerships is a hidden cost that anyone that buys a car bears, and is protected by law. If Tesla’s model really added less value, it would not be successful, and would fail of its own accord. The market does not get to decide here.

 

An Uninformed Public

This TED talk from David Puttnum was on the front page this week, and being the inquisitive one I took a look. It is about the media, and potentially how it should be managed to help create a more informed populace. Worth a watch.

I certainly sympathize with some of the problems with the contemporary media. It certainly is prone to focus on the wrong things, the minor problems, or the inflammatory issues. The media exaggerates the truth, picks stories to sell papers (or ads), and in some sense does lead to a more polarized and divided public. There is also doubt that a cornerstone of democracy is an informed and deliberative public, that can evaluate and consider the points of a debate and make educated choices about government. However, one of the comments said it best though (paraphrasing) – “why should we assume that it is wrong for folks to be disenchanted with government, politicians, and the overall political process?” Should we make a change to how we treat reporters and the media because of these problems?

I tend to disagree with his prescription for these ills. “Reasonable” standards always activate my skepticism. Who is a judge to say what “reasonably” might cause harm here? We’ve long had standards for speech that was protected and that which was not because it was harmful – from Oliver Wendell Holmes – “the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” If it does not lead to a clear and present danger, but instead only causes potential disillusionment with government, I see no reason or justification for silencing it. Releasing Ed Snowden’s information could clearly under such a standard be “reasonably” foreseen to cause harm under this type of standard, and something a judge could potentially clearly claim, to our detriment. Who would watch the watchers in this case? To be an effective watchdog, the press needs the freedom that also enables its excess at times.

I tend to think that the freedom of the press is one of the most important freedoms we have (J.S. Mill), and putting another check on it that is adjudicated by government seems more foolish than wise. There are other ways to create a more civically minded public that don’t have the potential to degrade our freedom and enable potential abuses of power.

US Intelligence Budget

US Intelligence Budget

WaPo put together this fantastic infographic several months ago on the national intelligence budget, highlighting the overall split among agencies, missions, and individual expenses of each of those agencies. Really fascinating to be able to break down the spend and learn a little about how we prioritize and how we gather the majority of our intelligence.

Much has been said recently about the intelligence community, but little attention has been paid to the spending that underlies it. This is obviously critical spending and also requires a lot of secrecy, but without transparency we also lack the ability to provide much public oversight of its activities. Most members of Congress are also unaware, and if they are aware cannot share what they have learned (e.g. Ron Wyden). It’s a balancing act, but it illustrates the difficulty that we face in controlling what our government does. Important to learn more about it either way – I think I need to read more about the history of the intelligence apparatus, the Church Committee, etc.

Interesting to note we spend about 3 times as much on our intelligence programs as we do on NASA, although that’s always my selfish benchmark.

Net Neutrality

http://gizmodo.com/what-happens-to-music-after-net-neutrality-1503676551?utm_campaign=socialflow_gizmodo_twitter&utm_source=gizmodo_twitter&utm_medium=socialflow

Wanted to pass along this interesting piece that breaks down what the recent net neutrality decision might mean for music services.

The decision is quite disappointing, and I hope the FCC is able to fight against the headwinds to reassert control over the internet. Categorizing the internet as anything other than common carriage makes no sense.

This article has a number of great points, including that competition doesn’t exist for ISPs (there’s a reason that they are among the !most hated companies…), so the market won’t be able to reflect consumer preferences for an internet that treats content equally. Smaller internet companies will suffer as they cannot compete on tolling arrangements with ISPs, leading to less innovation, worse choices for consumers, and higher prices (if the ISP gets to print a nickel, where do you think it comes from?).

Really disheartening decision. Pretty good example of lobbying dollars used yo increase rents to normal folks on the internet. Hopefully the internet will soon be recategorized as a utility, which it surely is.

Will write more later.

Articles on Health Reform

Thought I would put together a quick post of some of the articles I have seen on health reform recently, as it has been in the news constantly due to the hc.gov rollout, individual market changes, and other miscellaneous happenings.

http://www.propublica.org/article/why-health-insurance-cancellations-shouldnt-be-a-surprise/

This interview goes through many of the recent issues that have been brought up by the ACA and some relatively intuitive explanations of each. Specifically, I wanted to comment on two areas.

One is the debacle on messaging that the law has faced especially in the individual market. Is this part of the “you must pass this bill to find out what’s in it” ethos? How did so much misinformation, on both sides, come out of this bill? Its contents prohibit many of the ‘features’ that these lower cost plans used to offer (high deductible and lifetime maximums and other gimmicks that kept sticker price down), so no wonder that they had to be eliminated and canceled. It is poor politicking that the political talking points that became such important campaign messages (you will be able to keep your plan if you like it) when they were so blatantly false. Looking back on Master of the Senate, the health care bill seems like the perfect candidate for a bill that required the time in debate to actually learn what was inside it and educate the public on the finer points of the law. Of course, given how information has spread on it since its passage, this might not have helped us get to the truth at all.

Secondly, the implementation of ACA is a narrative in governments efficacy. It’s truly amazing how many resources were used to put together healthcare.gov – for the creation of a website – and how badly it has failed. Granted, it’s a complex website, but the government manages a lot of complex projects. It showcases the lack of proper talent available to solve these new digital problems, and a lack of ability to manage scale. Government is good at some things, but not at others. We should have a frank discussion about what it can and cannot do, which we often avoid.

http://www.dailydot.com/politics/healthcare-obamacare-healthsherpa/

Healthsherpa is a website build by 3 developers in a few weeks, and it manages to fulfill similar functionality of hc.gov. Perhaps government should figure out a way to harness the latent talent out there to solve problems (gamify it and offer a reward?). In recent years, the MTA in New York has opened contests for folks to build apps relating to the subway system. I’ll have to look into how much it has accomplished, but it is a potential model for use at the Federal level. Of course…

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/healthcaregov-and-the-inevitably-digital-future-of-american-governance/281097/

This article takes a more cynical view than I would, but I do agree that we need to make changes in how we deliver new laws especially as they become even more digital. Why not figure out a way to harness development outside of government bureaucracy? I think it can be done, and should be done. A slow and lumbering Federal government is I’ll equipped to deal with today’s issues; we are also seeing this with large corporations versus smaller, newer, and less rigid companies. Smaller companies have largely out-innovated their larger cousins, and are driving a lot of the new ideas and problem solving we are seeing.

http://www.propublica.org/article/loyal-obama-supporters-canceled-by-obamacare/

Another example of how much people do not understand about the law. This particular couple had their plan canceled and replace with a worse one even though it met the minimum requirements of the law.

PPACA is, in part, a leveling exercise. Whereas previously health care insurers could segment the population much more narrowly, now they must rely on larger actuarial groups and charge the same amount for broader numbers of people (and can only alter pricing for a small number of variables). This leads some to subsidize others in a closer relationship than before. This couple may have been very healthy and ticked all of the boxes for a cheap plan, but now they are thrown in a pool with those that do not, and insurers are legally prohibited from discriminating positively or negatively to groups such as this couple. It’s one of the central purposes of the law; health insurance is a zero sum game, and to give health insurance to those that could not afford it (through subsidies from the Feds, which we pay for in taxes, or benefit gains like coverage for preexisting conditions, which is very expensive) the rest of us were always going to pay more, in aggregate.

Is this right? Probably. Health care has always struck me as one of the “economic goods” that has a most moral character, and is poorly ethically rationed by price. However, the messaging has not included the fact that we are supporting our fellow Americans in this endevour. The messaging was all gains and no acknowledgement of where the costs would lie. It should be no surprise that there is widespread sticker shock as people become aware of those costs.

I’ve always disagreed with the factors that allow differing prices: family size, age, geography, and smoking status only. I think that consumers should pay more for their health choices, much like how I would pay more for car insurance if I get into more accidents. This is made more difficult by the fact that many health conditions are not preventable, but this doesn’t mean we should completely avoid the thought. While we are at it…

http://www.realclearpolicy.com/blog/2013/11/08/differing_definitions_of_discrimination_724.html

What should those factors be? This quick article brings up some interesting points on what is actuarial discrimination and what is not. In health care, should we charge women more because of these factors? If we should not, why should men pay more for car and life insurance? How deeply should we regulate actuarial tables and outcomes?

While most of my commentary here has been rather anti-implementation of the law, I wanted to end with an op-ed penned a few months ago in the Guardian…

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/30/single-payer-cure-healthcare-reform

I start my approach to healthcare from two very basic premises. First, healthcare must be recognized as a right, not a privilege. Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the healthcare they need regardless of their income. Second, we must create a national healthcare system that provides quality healthcare for all in the most cost-effective way possible.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time going into the later parts of his argument on the benefits of single payer (everyone seems to like Medicare…), but I want to agree with his two premises. Income and economics are not a just way to ration and access health care; it just isn’t fundamentally right for a service that can separate death from life. How to do this cost effectively is a problem that only a small army of people is trying to solve today.

The Case Against Email That Makes Warranted Searches Impossible

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/11/the-case-against-email-that-makes-warranted-searches-impossible/281277/

Very thought provoking letter from a developer who was producing a privacy ensuring email and communication system, who later backtracked and shut down his project because of what he believed could be unleashed.

While we tend to focus on the lack of transparency available in the electronic mediums of communication we use every day, the opposite is also a potentiality. If I have something hidden in my house and am suspected of a crime, law enforcement can get a warrant and legally and physically gain access to investigate. If encryption was good enough, it is possible that they would never be able to unlock hidden secrets, no matter how dire the situation or clear that there was a legal reason to do so. We (this developer, really) could create a system that ensures that information cannot be decrypted. By creating this, would we be enabling terrorists or others to avoid all of the actions we take to try and stop them?

However, what is right here? Are we to fear what we can create? It gets back to the basic question of whether we value security or privacy more, and how much of one we are willing to trade to get the other. I tend to believe in the Mill-ian let no idea go unsaid as it strengthens our ability to see the truth, either by being the truth, or providing a point of argument to strengthen our own conception of what is right. Stopping free speech inherently dulls this search for truth. And I believe similarly for technological progress – by creating deeper and deeper ways to encrypt information, we also create the incentive to figure out how to break that encryption. If we limit the technological goals that we pursue too dramatically, we risk having the skills to get us there atrophy. (Kind of like when we abandoned the Saturn V…)

On a similar but unrelated note, I’ve often thought about how the internet could fragment due to some of these pressures. As the US and others lose control over the web’s governance (perhaps rightfully so after we have demonstrated our inability to be benevolent guardians of the web), and as it falls more under the dominion of powers looking to add more limits to its inherent functionality, will we see a rise of ‘parallel’ internets with different sets of rules? Imagine small communities networking themselves together to avoid being spied on by others, and rejecting this broader network we have created. It is kind of similar to what could be enabled by this enhanced privacy within the internet itself – just depends if they are separate whole networks or just shielded networks within networks.

We will have to see – there seems to be a lot of pressure to get away from the prying actions of others recently, both for privacy’s sake and otherwise. The internet is such a vehicle for democratization – just look at Bitcoin’s surge in the last few weeks…

Continue reading The Case Against Email That Makes Warranted Searches Impossible

Local Governments Fight for Businesses

http://www.buffalonews.com/business/delaware-north-says-tax-breaks-needed-for-new-headquarters-in-buffalo-20131028

I wanted to quickly post this article from my hometown of Buffalo, as an example of some of the dealings that smaller cities and municipalities are often pushed to make.

It’s somewhat of an arms race – local governments are pressured to make sure that they are doing something for the local economy, so are often in the position of offering incentives to businesses to expand, grow, or relocate into a particular city’s limits. Tax rebates, grants, and other financial incentives have become very common for cities or counties to offer businesses. And why wouldn’t they? Take a rust belt city government such as Buffalo, fighting not only for every marginal job and bit of economic growth but also for an identity and a sense that things are improving. It only makes sense that they do everything they can to encourage expansion.

However, given that cities do this, businesses have their pick. After doing the analysis of what they need, what market is best, and what they can afford, a business can threaten and cajole to get as much out of those governments as possible and sell their expansion to the highest bidder, while pocketing as much as they can along the way.

It’s more than sad that this manifests itself as Delaware North basically threatening to leave Buffalo unless they can get as much money out of the taxpayer as possible. That cannot lead to good or optimal economic decision making or allocation of resources – someone has to lose. “Revenue dollars won’t justify construction of the building” – so don’t build it. A parking ramp won’t bring in enough revenue, then likewise. “Being based in a hub city” or a better talent pool would improve the company – great. Sadly, Boston may be a better home for Delaware North. However, what should we be willing to give up to see them stay?

A city does not build a competitive or sustainable advantage one financing deal at a time. It does nothing to tackle the actual problems that prevent a city such as Buffalo from growing organically.

This phenomenon is also common with sports stadiums, which often “need” gigantic financing packages from governments, despite the fact that sports franchises (and organizations like the NFL) make quite a lot of money themselves.

This is a cursory muse on the topic, but just wanted to cite the very blatant example.

Gerrymandering

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2013/10/11/gerrymandering_isnt_to_blame_for_dc_impasse_120300.html

I saw this article recently and it definitely gave me pause.

It is now common knowledge that polarization is at some of its highest levels in recent decades. Each party has largely been scrubbed of those that do not tow the overall party line, which has led to more homogenous parties. Naturally, this has also pushed the parties more to the extremes. Primaries do not help – as all candidates have to pass through a trial by fire from a narrower political spectrum compared to the past. (For a great visual of this, see XKCD – GREAT.) There seems to a natural ebb and flow to polarization, but we are at an extreme.

I have to admit that I was surprised. I do not think I had ever really encountered an article that took a data centric view at whether gerrymandering has actually changed elections. It is oddly reassuring to have that point asserted.

Gerrymandering is one of those points that is so infuriating no matter what side of the political spectrum one falls on. Districts such as Louise Slaughters’ “earmuffs” between Buffalo and Rochester are case in point. Who would come to the conclusion that this makes sense to represent a certain population effectively? District lines are arbitrary, and when the power to make them is given to individuals, especially state legislatures, the tendency to use that power for self-benefit is overwhelming. Incumbents love to have their seats manipulated to be more safe.

Without doing enough research to know precisely what options and policies I would support in this area, I do know that I would support a more rules based approach. On what criteria? I am not sure. Some limit on the ratio of the border length to the area of the district (to prevent massively concave and ridiculous geometry) would be one potential idea. We could easily create an automated system of manipulating districts that would be more fair and less under the control of party bosses. Whether or not we could ever agree on what that system should optimize for is another question all together.

Why do we spend money on the space program?

Oftentimes, I hear arguments against some of the spending we do and whether it really is valuable. Mostly, this is directed at programs which do not have immediate tangible impacts, such as the space program.

8read through a post at Quora with a subject similar to that of this post, and I wanted to reproduce a very interesting and thoughtful reply from someone who was asked this same question. From Wiki: “In 1970, shortly after the first lunar landing, Stuhlinger received a letter from Sister Mary Jucunda in Zambia, Africa, asking how billions of dollars could be spent for space research when many children on the Earth were starving to death. Stuhlinger’s thoughtful response is often cited to justify such expenditures.” I’ve copied the text of the letter below.

May 6, 1970

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has  touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from  the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart. I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument. About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently. One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory. He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!” But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country. About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering. To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?” To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others). All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space. You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth. Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others. For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, and timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use. It  has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites  equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for  worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by  an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume; it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power. Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary.  Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip. If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand  technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways  into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances  and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and  airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better  communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools  for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry.  However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth. We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work. Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reactionbetween the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product. As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth. It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968.  Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space.  Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.  Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times:  pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation. It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in  which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies,  the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack  these tasks with confidence. What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger

Associate Director for Science

Overdue Article Review

I have been under reading during the past few weeks, and have thus been quite behind on categorizing and picking out the noteworthy articles that I have seen. This will be a potentially longer edition, as I have a long Pocket backlog to get through.

Laws Are Not Enough – An interesting read about some of the differences between the accounts of the NSA surveillance issues. Most of the defense is around the legal safeguards that are in place, but the potential for abuse exists as long as there are not actual barriers to those actions that are legally impermissible. Police are restricted legally from doing a whole host of things that end up occurring fairly regularly. It would be best if the all seeing eye had some physical limits to its use.

The FBI Can Remotely Activate the Mic on my Android Phone – And speaking of the NSA, it looks plike my love of Android may leave me more vulnerable than the average person. Ouch!

NSA revelations could hurt collaboration with ‘betrayed’ hackers – In recent years, the NSA and other government agencies / organizations that deal with cyber issues have relied on the hacker community for help with spotting vulnerabilities, helping find solutions, and as a talent pool. As it become more clear that their overall philosophies are at odds, does it make it more difficult for these organizations to function? Hackers raised on the internet are more than anti-establishment; freedom is a virtue the internet has always cherished and enabled since its early days.

The suburbs are dead – I have never liked the suburbs, seeing them as homogenous bubbles where folks don’t really get to see much of society. Fascinating how that view is shifting and may no longer be true. Also, turning entire malls into apartment communities sounds like an intriguing idea, and is very cool.

Made in the USA – Manufacturing is often touted as a potential future driver of American growth, but I think that this hope is misplaced. While it is important to make stuff, it isn’t going to bring back jobs in the manner that folks in power seem to promise. Manufacturing is either going to add low wage jobs such as the assembly of the new Moto X profiled in this article (looks like an awesome phone), or add higher wage engineering jobs that require a deeper education (and fewer in number than the GM line workers of the past). There seems to be such nostalgia for the labor security that came with big union shops like auto, but the old contract cannot be competitive anymore (and was subsidized by tariffs and other costs on the consumer). We need to figure out how to make a new social contract that can create this economic security, but manufacturing jobs are not going to be it.

Twitter’s free speech problem – I tend to like Twitter’s stance on a lot of these issues. From being the most direct in not cooperating with the Feds on PRISM, to its sanctity ideal of free speech (nice shout out to JSM in the article), it holds many ideals that I tend to agree with. What is frightening here is the tone of the article, as well as the growing importance of internet companies on the front lines of establishing and protecting rights. The article seems to suggest that Twitter needs to be the one to monitor and moderate such “abuses”, but who is to decide that? If someone threatens you over the phone, do we assume that it is the place of the phone company to screen and stop that activity? We have a system of laws to deal with this, and while the internet certainly makes the process more difficult, it should not put Twitter or any other company in the role of judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense. Twitter understands that it is a vehicle for speech, and is wary of getting involved in these issues, and I think that is right (so many examples of this, ISPs being asked to punish for copyright violations for instance). The real problem here is the incredibly slow manner in which our legal code has changed with the times.

Administration overturns ban on some iPad, iPhones – This week, the administration vetoed an import ban on several iProducts that violated parents from a significant rival. While patent law is certainly in need of repair, don’t we need a real revisiting of the whole of patent law? This action is arbitrary at best. Will the Feds do the same if Apple is successful in lobbying for a ban on Samsung phones? Picking winners and losers…

The $4 million teacher – Fascinating look into the private teaching market that has developed in Korea. Definitely pros and cons of their way of doing things – students go to school practically twice a day, but the system encourages outstanding teaching. Our teachers and schools seem to be incapable of attempting much softer innovations (the constant battleground over charter schools), much less something as radical as described in this article.

Big fish, little fish, and the SEC – What I fail to understand about the recent SEC proceedings is why Tourre has taken the fall for the abuses of the industry. There were probably hundreds if not thousands of such transactions throughout the Street in the years leading up to the crash. While this does not absolve his actions, it is sad to see such spotty and seemingly arbitrary enforcement of the law.

The payday playbook: how high cost lenders fight to stay legal – I reserve a special distain and outrage  for businesses that only survive and profit by taking advantage of those that do not know any better. Herbalife, Rent a Center, payday lenders – all argue that they perform vital services for those in need but instead render little service and make people’s lives worse. I consider these businesses unethical if not criminal. The tactics described in this article to keep the petitioners off the ballot is simply disgusting. More people need to be aware of this.

Why Americans all believe they are ‘middle class’ – The most used phrase in politics right now, the ‘middle class’ has interesting roots and usage in a society that tends to avoid class distinctions. Everyone thinks they are middle class today, and this shapes our policy, votes, and how our country ends up.

Google flip-flops on network neutrality – This article makes me very disappointed in Google. Net neutrality is an important idea, and I hope it gets enshrined in the future. The internet is a utility: the modern age electricity changing how we do work and how we live. Like electricity, it should not be overly monitored. Last time I checked, I was not prevented from plugging in a specific type of coffee maker within my own home. Plugging in a server is no different. Of course, if I ran a nuclear reactor in my apartment and overloaded the network, I could understand their involvement. Google, do something similar.

Man shot by Austin cop – Why does this continue to occur? “Not following police policy” gets people killed. And usually, these things fade into the background without leading to any changes.

Germany’s clean energy plan backfired – I bring up the example of Germany a lot in discussions on clean energy and how it can and cannot be supported. Largely, it is a zero sum game. Someone has to bear the costs, and whether through government or business, it ends up at the taxpayer or the consumer (of course, unless the environment itself bears the cost). In that kind of an environment, it is important to consider how those burdens will be distributed before crafting policy. Removing nuclear energy seemed like a good idea, but is it really if it brings coal plants back online and raises emissions? Either cheap coal returns, or electricity prices go up. Too often, our governments do not seem to have an honest conversation about where the costs will go, and we end up making sub-par policy as a result.

Decline of homeownership – Homeownership has declined for a number of reasons, and this article examines a few. Joblessness especially among younger Americans, mobility, and the breaking of the homes-always-go-up-in-value fallacy have all contributed. There are a number of changes taking place in this generation that may lead to a very different consumer of the future. Ownership of hard assets like homes is simply less attractive for a mobile person, and they tend not to be particularly good investments. One of my favorite statistics, slightly unrelated, is the rate at which 18 year olds have drivers licenses – in the 70s, it was close to 90%, while today it is below 70%. Will the young ever own homes of their own?

Why privilege is so hard to give up – I could write a whole essay on this, and perhaps in the future I will. I categorically reject the premise of the article. “Privilege” is such a misnomer here. What we are talking about here is injustice. Folks being pulled over for driving while black, women subjected to a glass ceiling, whatever example you want to give, this is an example not of someone taking advantage of “privilege” but of some being subjected to forces that are wrong. Why would someone define this issue thus way? Why would we seek to “abandon” privilege and “give up” status that shoukd be free and open to everyone? Let us treat this issue as it should be treated, and alleviate these injustices where they exist. The privileged should not be pulled down, instead those without privilege should be brought up. Even if this writer were correct on privilege, the prescription is impossible. One cannot simply “give up” something that occurs simply because of who they are. Let’s set aside the fact that the author “schools” others on the “facts” of this social science. No wonder the author has people disagree with the arguments – as they are veiled in language that comes off as offensive. I had such a negative reaction to this article. I’d invite a debate on it.

That’s all for now. This has been a hodgepodge of articles. At some point, I will do this regularly enough to focus posts on specific themes and issues. As I get up to speed, we will get there.