Net neutrality was overturned by the court, not by the FCC

On May 1st 2017, the US court of Appeals ruled that the FCC had the authority to name ISPs Title II organizations. This meant that ISPs had to abide by the rules pertaining to net neutrality.

What often goes unreported is that the court also held that ISPs could opt out of this arrangement by telling customers that they are not an unedited conduit to the internet.

“While the net neutrality rule applies to those ISPs that hold themselves out as neutral, indiscriminate conduits to internet content, the converse is also true: the rule does not apply to an ISP holding itself out as providing something other than a neutral, indiscriminate pathway—i.e., an ISP making sufficiently clear to potential customers that it provides a filtered service involving the ISP’s exercise of “editorial intervention.”

They also added:

“…That would be true of an ISP that offers subscribers a curated experience by blocking websites lying beyond a specified field of content (e.g., family friendly websites). It would also be true of an ISP that engages in other forms of editorial intervention, such as throttling of certain applications chosen by the ISP, or filtering of content into fast (and slow) lanes based on the ISP’s commercial interests. An ISP would need to make adequately clear its intention to provide “edited services” of that kind…”

These quotes were taken from pages 15 and 16 of the majority opinion in the case.

The reality of the “Net Neutrality” rules is that there was nothing stopping ISPs from throttling, blocking, or offering different tiers of service as long as they made it clear to consumers that they were doing it. On top of that, the court ruled that ISPs were able to do it under 1st amendment protections so the FCC is unable to override it. The FCC was only able to enforce net neutrality as long as the ISPs claimed to be an unfiltered conduit to the internet. The good news is:

“There is no need in this case to scrutinize the exact manner in which a broadband provider could render the FCC’s Order inapplicable by advertising to consumers that it offers an edited service rather than an unfiltered pathway. No party disputes that an ISP could do so if it wished, and no ISP has suggested an interest in doing so in this court. That may be for an understandable reason: a broadband provider representing that it will filter its customers’ access to web content based on its own priorities might have serious concerns about its ability to attract subscribers. Additionally, such a provider, by offering filtered rather than indiscriminate access, might fear relinquishing statutory protections against copyright liability afforded to ISPs that act strictly as conduits to internet content.”

In other words, if the ISPs do decide to start filtering content in some way they will open themselves up to litigation for what they do allow access to. They filter at their own peril. This makes it unlikely that the current players will do so.

The important thing to remember is that ISPs were able to filter before the recent action by the FCC and they can now. Title II status does not protect against ISPs filtering, blocking, or throttling despite popular opinion. The rules did not apply the way the public thought they did.

Talking to political opponents Pt. 1: Fear

If we want to advance our political viewpoint we will have to start convincing people that we don’t agree with. Even if you don’t win them over to your side you can at least establish a sensible basis of communication. That could come in handy when you need to work with them on a goal you can both agree on. In the shorter term I would just like to see less screaming at each other.

Arnold Kling is my inspiration when it comes to talking about politics. The tag line of his blog is “Take the most charitable view of those that disagree.” I think that is the key when it comes to talking to political opponents. I’ll talk about how to do that in another post but I will talk about why in this one.

So why take the most charitable view of political opponents? Because they are worried if not scared outright. The more strident the objection the more fear I hear. Unfortunately, the typical reaction to that fear is to become fearful in kind. That leads to harsh responses and the fear spiral is well on its way. Welcome to the current political climate!

I really think that recognizing fear is the key to starting actual discussions as opposed to yelling at each other. You can’t help but temper your response once you see fear in the other person. Only a psychopath would egg on fear once they detect it.

My suggestion for engaging with political opponents is to recognize and address their worry/fear. And no, calmly informing them how wrong they are is not going to accomplish that. There have been plenty of studies showing that people that have their views challenged with “facts” only makes them entrench further. I think this is because the underlying fear that motivated the outburst has gone unnoticed. If it is brought up they are told that their worry/fear is evil, wrong, or just stupid. Having what motivates you dismissed only reinforces the fear. Hence, the person giving out “facts” just doesn’t get it and is clearly an opponent to what is true and right.

If you really want to talk with your opponents, and I think this is a very good idea, you will need to do it in a way they understand. That means you will have to actually understand where they are coming from. You will have to know and understand them to the point that you could pass for someone in the same political camp as your opponent. Stay tuned for my next posts about the Three Languages of Politics and Political Turing Tests for some ideas of how to do that.

Health insurance can make health care more expensive

We all know healthcare is expensive. The question is why is it expensive? The typical answer is that it is all down to “greedy” insurance companies, drug companies, and even doctors. One of my favorite economics aphorisms is that blaming greed for high prices is like blaming gravity for plane crashes. The fact that, as a whole, individuals and companies always try to do what’s in their best interest isn’t very instructive. We need to look at the rules of the game in order to figure out why things end up the way they have. The current state of health insurance actually encourages people to spend much more than necessary. That in turn leads to higher costs for healthcare. As weird as it sounds, health insurance as it is currently thought of may be contributing to one of the biggest problems of health care, the cost. Here are three examples from my own life.

I had just moved back to the States and was trying to get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. I had gotten an insurance plan but it didn’t cover pre-existing conditions. When my doctor told me I needed an MRI, I was shocked at what they cost. The hospital told me that it would cost $2500. Of that, I guess that insurance companies would probably pay $1200-$1500 because of pre negotiated rates. I found what is essentially Priceline for MRIs and was able to get the MRI done for $650. That’s less than what the insurance company would have paid and probably less than what my deductible would have been as well. By being forced to look for a deal far less money was spent than usual. 

I take a pill twice a day that helps me walk better. The active ingredient has been known for many years and is available through a compounding pharmacy. I would have to take 4-5 a day and a month’s worth of pills would run me around $40-$50. A company saw these results and made a timed release version so you only have to take two a day. My insurance pays $2200 a month for those pills. My copay? $30. Why does the company charge so much for those pills? Because they can. How can they? They were given a monopoly on the sale of the pills for 15 years because they jumped through the hoops and paid the costs of getting FDA approval. So I pay less, take the pill less often, and $2150 more a month is spent than necessary. 

I take a medication once a month that is supposed to stop the progression of MS. It’s expensive, my insurance pays $7200 a month for it. The company that makes it offers a copay assistance program. They pay the copay and I pay nothing out of pocket. They were having some trouble getting it set up through my insurance company though. They informed me that if they couldn’t get it sorted out I would qualify for the free medication program. I really wanted the copay assistance instead. Why? Because my maximum out of pocket expenses per year is $5000. With the copay assistance, the drug company would pay all of my out of pocket expenses for the year. They essentially put $5k in my pocket but it is the most expensive option in the end. 

The way health insurance is set up, we are incentivized to game the system, sometimes without us even being aware that we’re doing it. The thing is, right now nobody that has health insurance knows or cares what drugs and procedures cost. Doctors don’t either. Price awareness and the necessity of comparing prices brings discipline to markets. That discipline is what keeps prices down. If we’re not going to do single payer healthcare, and I don’t think that’s likely, we need to overhaul the incentives that people face if we want to get the prices down. What might that look like? I’ll dive into that in the next post.

Why Healthcare Can Never Be A Public Good

Should health care be a public good? What does that mean? For most people the idea of a public good is simply something that is a good thing for society. Along those lines it is also assumed that the price of that good, if it is thought about at all, is low and made available to everyone. As it turns out there is more to it than that.

If we think about an actual public good we can get a feel for one of the basic requirements. Once a street light has been installed, anyone can use it at any time without any additional costs. It doesn’t matter how many people are on the street or looking from buildings along the street. In theory, someone from space could see the light from that streetlight. Regardless of the number of people, they will be able to use the illumination from that light.

Economists say that the light from the street lamp is non rivalrous. Just because one person is using the light doesn’t mean someone else can’t. Now contrast that with health care. It’s different because every minute of a doctor’s time, every hospital bed, and with every bandaid, if someone is using it no one else can. This is why health care can never be a public good. Unlike light, there is a finite quantity of health care available and each additional bit that is used has an associated cost.

That doesn’t mean that the state can’t provide that service but it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a reason that system is called a “single payer” system. Every aspect of health care has to be paid for and allocated. While what is and isn’t a public good may sound like an issue of economic semantics, it is vitally important to internalize the difference if we want to improve healthcare in the US.

Both the ACA and whatever it is that Republicans are proposing are about health insurance not healthcare. The underlying problem is that healthcare is too expensive, of course insuring against that will be expensive too. Policy targeting insurance accessibility does nothing to address the actual problem and will actually make things worse. My next couple of posts will be personal examples of that. While I am showing how current expectations of health insurance and the incentives they set up are making things worse, just keep in mind that all aspects of healthcare are personal and all need to be paid for somehow. We need to think about lowering costs, accessibility will follow. Stay tuned for some practical examples…

Standing for the anthem, a couple of questions

There are two questions I have about the not standing up for the national anthem brouhaha that I have not seen addressed. First of all, why do we play the national anthem at a sporting event at all? I understand why it would be played at official national or military ceremonies, that makes sense. But a football game? Imagine playing the anthem before a church service, that’s how out of place it feels to me. Am I the only one that feels like this? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone else questioning why we play the anthem before sporting events.

My second question is for the athletes not standing for the anthem. Police brutality is out of hand and they are not being held accountable. That’s the reason given for not standing. OK, got it. At what point will you stand again? Will you ever? What will be the indicator that you are no longer ashamed of the entire country?

Confusing incidents perpetrated by a few people with the state of the entire country is a pretty common problem. Whenever something terrible happens there is inevitably someone on my Facebook time line saying, “I don’t know what is wrong with this country,” or something along those lines. The fact that most people in this country react with horror at the terrible thing goes unnoticed because they are too busy throwing the country out with the bath water/under the bus/ to hell in a hand basket. The fact that black folks have been killed by police without repercussions for the entire history of this country has never fazed any football players. Of all of the times to choose to be ashamed of the country, he has chosen the one time when millions of people are agitating for justice over the very thing he’s worried about. If anything, now would be the time to be proud of “the country,” or at least of the people in it. So does he start standing when go back to not caring? I don’t get it…

Preemptive Supreme Court ruling post

I have already heard some preemptive wailing and gnashing of teeth over the possibility that the Supreme Court will strike down parts of the ACA as it is being implemented today. As always, when a ruling goes against a group’s beliefs, political motives are blamed. Of course if the ruling goes in favor of your beliefs, the court is held up as being wise and truly understanding the law. This really doesn’t seem like an overly political issue though. Everything I’ve read makes me think this case is about implementing the law as it was written. Sure, political motivations are what brought to the case to court but that’s beside the point.

If the court does rule against the status quo, I hope there are some lessons learned. One, you actually have to implement the law that is passed, not what a lot of people think it means. Two, super complicated bills make it difficult to understand what you’re actually passing into law. And finally three, if you have to make the bill super complicated in order to get it passed at all you aren’t doing yourself any favors and the bill probably shouldn’t be passed.

I’m fully anticipating the court ruling against the Democratic (with a capital D, the party) way of thinking. I’m also anticipating a public backlash blaming conservative judges for striking down a law they don’t like. The irony of course is that they won’t be striking down a law, they will be ordering it to be implemented correctly. That is not a political decision, it is a legal one.

The Internet, social media, and me.

I have had three distinct relationships with the Internet. I started using it back in the early 90s. The World Wide Web had not come into existence yet, everything was text based. I mostly trawled music and photography listservers for information. When I got my own computer in the late 90s, there were actual webpages! Most of my internet use was centered around music (I loved Napster!) and reading about photography. It was still mostly a passive thing though. I’d order stuff and read newsgroups but that was about it.

Things changed dramatically in 2004. My friend Jenny inspired me to get a LiveJournal account and I started blogging. That quickly led to me getting my own website so that I could post pictures, papers, and other things along with my blog. I distinctly remember the thrill of creating content for the web. Suddenly I was part of the Internet, not just someone that read it. I put my thoughts, my pictures, my life on the web under my name with my own address. I was a creator, I had carved out my own space and made it mine. I was pretty good about keeping that up through about 2009 or so. While I still posted blog posts and pictures after that, my frequency slowed considerably. Why? Facebook.

I joined Facebook in 2003 I think. At the time I did it just to keep track of my cousin while she was at school. I didn’t really start using it till the middle of 2007 when my fellow students in Yemen encouraged me to. It was an easy way to keep track of people I knew from all over the world and it helped me reconnect with friends from high school. By 2009 I was very busy on Facebook. Keeping up with friends is addictive, especially when you had so much catching up to do.

When 2012 rolled around, I had started to get a little weary of Facebook’s shenanigans when it came to privacy, the ads, and general ickiness. That’s when app.net was launched. The goals of the service resonated with me. No ads, users were the customers, not advertisers, and developers were given free rein to use the service in any way they saw fit. The main use was microblogging (similar to Twitter) but there were a lot of other services being built around it like blogging and podcasting. This coincided with my first stint on disability so I had a lot of time to invest in the service, and invest I did. App.net became my primary social outlet despite the fact that I didn’t know anyone on it when I signed up. It was such a compelling experience that I spent a ton of time on it. I was really excited about the possibilities that the platform offered beyond microblogging and couldn’t wait to see what else developers were going to make of the service.

Unfortunately, app.net has devolved into what I had so strenuously denied it being for so long, a paid Twitter clone. Microblogging is really the only thing it is used for now. Sadly, the people that are invested in the service continuing are only interested in microblogging. I still use it but only because I’ve met some really cool people there and I like talking to them.

My use of Facebook really slacked off while I was using app.net heavily. Now that I’m trimming back on app.net, I don’t have a big desire to invest as much time in Facebook. When I look back at all of the energy and information I put into my social media presence, I’m struck by how little I have to show for it. Yes, I have a bunch of stuff in my timelines on both app.net and Facebook but what good is it? Can I find the interesting link I shared or mini exposition on whatever it was I thought was interesting at the time? Not a chance. Can someone else come across what I’ve written and start up a conversation? Will anyone ever Google an explanation I’ve given and be helped by it? How could they?

When I look at my posts on my blog from 11 years ago I feel as though I’ve lost something vital to my writing because of social media services. My posts on my site resonate with me much more than my posts on Facebook do. And that’s assuming that I can even find my posts on Facebook. What I realize is that I no longer feel like a creator, I’m back to feeling like a passive user. It’s not that I don’t make things and put them on the Internet, but I don’t feel as though I own them. They don’t feel as though they are mine. I am making content that either is transitory by design in the case of microblogging, or enriching a company’s product. The feeling of ownership is a subtle and tricky idea, especially when it comes to things on the Internet, but I miss it.

So what to do? I miss the old feeling of accomplishment of making something on the web. I want to feel like a creator again so I’m coming back home. I hope to make this site my primary outlet on the web. It is a place that anyone could come across. I am able to search it for previous writing and I have total control over how it looks and how I present it. I’ll still use social media to be social. Both app.net and Facebook are great for conversations but anything I make will be here.

Here’s to my fourth relationship with the Internet, hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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Microsoft has Awoken

Microsoft has been a mess for years. Windows 7 was a solid, but decidedly dull operating system. People that needed to use Windows liked its stability and security but I think it would be a stretch to say that anyone was excited about it. The next version of Windows took a lot of chances and really tried to change some things up but Windows 8 ended up being a bit of a disaster for them. It was too big a change and unfocused. I’ve heard very few positive reviews from users. Even the people that do like it took a while to get there. Microsoft also really missed the boat on mobile. While their phone OS has gotten really good reviews, no one seems to use it and the app ecosystem just cannot seem to get any traction. They now represent low single digit percentages of users in the smart phone world.

Compared to Apple and Google, Microsoft has had a real image problem with consumers. Aside from the Xbox, there was no sizzle from Microsoft, no sexiness. Yes, they still had a lock on the business world but it was difficult to find anyone as passionate about Microsoft as people are about Apple and Google. On January 21st, Microsoft had a special event around Windows 10 and some other technologies. History may show that event as being when consumer sentiment started to shift in Microsoft’s favor.

It’s been a while since a new version of Windows was exciting and yet that’s what Windows 10 seems to be. It shares a lot of similarities with Windows 8 as far as how it looks but Microsoft has learned some lessons. They have fixed a lot of the things that people didn’t like about Windows 8. No more charms, the start menu is back, and there seems to be a better way of switching between desktop and touch interfaces. The phone and tablet interfaces look really good. I’ve always thought that Windows phone had an interesting approach and I think that Windows 10 has taken more steps along the path to being really good. I’m not as convinced about the desktop, nor am I sold on the switching between tablet and computer mode but maybe that’s my Apple bias showing…

The big news is that Windows 10 will be on computers, tablets, phones, and even the Xbox. I’ve always wondered why Microsoft hasn’t made more hay with their Xbox branding. That is one aspect of their product mix that people were actually passionate about. Better late than never I suppose. Of course the big excitement of having the same OS on all of the devices is that the same programs should be able to be on all of them. That could be a huge deal for the phones. If Windows developers could easily port their computer apps to the phones, Windows phones might start to close the app gap it has with other platforms.

Combine Windows 10 with all of the cross platform services Microsoft has and it looks like they have a focused, unified company for the first time in a decade. Windows 10 plus Skype, OneDrive, and Office on everything is a compelling product. Microsoft as a unified product, I never thought I’d see the day. As a certified nerd, I was impressed with the way Microsoft was able to seemingly get its act together all at once.

The best was yet to come though. People that follow Microsoft already knew all about Windows 10. What nobody saw coming was the announcement of HoloLens. It’s an augmented reality headset that projects “holograms” into your field of view. It’s not a virtual reality headset that completely replaces your environment, it adds objects to your environment. The video at the top of this post gives you some idea of the possibilities. You could throw screens into your field of view either to watch TV or to carry on a video chat. You can project images onto real life objects. That could be used for fun (like the minecraft example) or for real life modeling. It really reminds me of scenes from Ghost in the Shell. Microsoft is claiming that the things you build as a hologram can be sent directly to a 3D printer and become actual objects. Yes, there are all sorts of nick knacks you could build but think about the possibilities in the construction, medical, and maintenance fields.

Members of the press were allowed to use the prototype HoloLens. Going by what they said, the video doesn’t really do it justice. They say it is absolutely, jaw droppingly amazing. They were given a real time tutorial of how to replace a light switch, complete with 3D annotations to the switch that was right in front of them. Apparently the Minecraft demo was amazing. They did something similar to what they did in the video, blow a hole in the wall of the room and see into another world. They were also able to walk on mars, just like on the video. Do watch the video to get an idea of the possibilities. Incredible stuff. Even more incredible? It’s going to ship this year.

This could very well be the next step of computing. It certainly has the possibility of completely redefining how we interact with technology. How excited am I about this? If Microsoft were the only company that offered this and you needed to use a Windows computer to use it, I’d buy one. Yes, I am that excited about this. The good news is there is talk of at least one other company making similar technology. It’s also hard to believe that other big tech companies like Google and Apple aren’t working on something like this as well. I anticipate having some choice in providers as this technology becomes mainstream.

I never thought I would be interested, let alone excited, about what Microsoft does. It’s awesome to see a massive tech company flex its muscles and give us a view of the future. It’s even more amazing to have them bring it to us. Well done Microsoft.

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In Defense of Debby Boone

I am astonished at what was happening with music in 1977. That was the year that punk broke into the mainstream with The Sex Pistols and The Clash both releasing classic albums. Disco was cresting in popularity with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Seminal albums by Television, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Bob Marley, Kraftwerk, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Billy Joel, and even Meatloaf were released that year. Other albums like Aja from Steely Dan and Rumors by Fleetwood Mac epitomized the state of mainstream rock in 1977. Hip Hop was taking its first baby steps in parties in New York City. So what was the biggest hit of the year? You Light up My Life by Debby Boone held the top spot on Billboard’s chart for 10 weeks.

These days, any mention of You light up My Life to music connoisseurs is bound to elicit eye rolling and possibly a sneer in response. “That’s why punk music had to come around, crap like that is unforgivable.”

Before I explain why I don’t share that sentiment I just want to make sure everyone understands that I know that it is pure pop cheese. It is maudlin, it is syrupy. I don’t have a problem with Boone’s dedication of the song to her, “Lord and Savior,” but for many that just adds to the cringeworthyness of the song.

If I think all of those things are true, why do I not think that this is exactly what punk was made to combat? Surely it’s easy to see how Debby Boone and the Sex Pistols are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Well sure. Stylistically, politically, and personally they don’t have anything in common. I do think that what saves You Light up My Life is that it is honest. There is an authenticity to it that comes through. She believes it and absolutely nailed that performance. Most of us are hardwired to detect phonies. Debby Boone wasn’t one and that resonated with the public.

No, in my mind punk was musically rebelling against the likes of Captain and Tennille, Pablo Cruise, and all the other countless acts that peddled similar soulless, contrived material. There’s no question that You Light up My Life was made to be sold but Boone’s performance is what made it hit the stratosphere. That honesty is what it has in common with Anarchy in the UK.

I firmly believe that if more pop music had been made with the same honesty as You Light up My Life, the punk movement wouldn’t have been as necessary from a musical standpoint. Hate on Debby Boone for what she represents if you must but don’t saddle her with reason that punk had to come and bloody some noses…

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MA Recordings; Wonderful music but frustrating

 

Here’s a new audio blog! It’s been a long time I know… This one is mostly about some new music for me. MA Recordings continues to amaze and frustrate me. The music is amazing but their insistence on publishing to CD only is making me a bit crazy.

Begoña Olavide has a variety of things available on iTunes and Bandcamp, including an album named “Mudejar” but it doesn’t sound like the same recording. I managed to find a track from album Calamus on YouTube. I think this is the best album to get if you’re new to this kind of music.

That’s medieval Spanish music with Arabic, gypsy, and even Sephardic influences in it. I love it completely.

Vlatko Stefanovski and Miroslav Tadic are a guitar duo with a unique sound. There are all sorts of influences in there from Eastern Europe, Spain, and even American blues. Here is a live performance of one of the songs on the album.

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