Friday, January 25, 2013

Is This the Greatest Thing on the Internet? It Just Might Be ...

We'll end tech ... fortnight? ... here at the Angry Bureaucrat on the lighter side of things.

I came across this video a few days ago, and it just might be my favorite thing on the Internet ever, at least thus far. It's brilliant - watch it to the end:


It's the most impressive product of YouTube channel Bad Lip Reading - click on the link to watch more. Whoever is behind this site also takes on the NFL, the Presidential debates, and much more - and they produce a version of Twilight that is far more interesting and entertaining than the original.

So, though tech in American definitely has its problems, at least awesome videos like this are hiding out there to find, as long as your ISP's bandwidth cap allows you to watch them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Marginal Tax Rates Will Get Much Higher As Our Tech Advances


As you may have noticed from my last few posts, I have tech on the brain - so in this post, I'm going to put on my futurist hat and think about the intersection between technological advancement and tax policy.

First the futurist part: I don't think we're quite there yet, but I think we're standing shortly before the advent of the next great phase in humanity's technological advancement - what I expect historians will call "the robot age," though it could also be called "the age of artificial intelligence" or something like that. Regardless of what it's called, the point is that I think we're about to get to the point where robots are going to take over far more jobs now done by people than robots currently do.

Robots have been used in advanced manufacturing for a long time already - but we are now getting to the point of being able to build robots that can:
Many blue-collar and white-collar jobs have been eliminated by technology (and robots) already, and it's not hard to imagine a future where most (if not all) even semi-menial work is done by robots - personally, I can't wait for my very affordable robot maid (a la the Jetsons), who will take care of all the work around the house for me, and I can't wait for my self-driving car that takes me wherever I want to go while I'm able to work, sleep, or play while I ride along.

However, this robot revolution has serious implications, obviously - if much (most?) of what we currently consider to be "work" is done by robots, we humans in general will have to work much less than we do now, even to maintain a much higher standard of living. Sure, there will be work available in designing, building, and servicing our ever-growing army of robot workers, managing companies and society in general, etc., but there will be limits to the amount of work available for that - what should everyone else do?

Furthermore, it's not hard to see that, under the current capitalist system, HUGE, UNFATHOMABLE RICHES will accrue to whoever owns the robots, since the robots will have both large intrinsic value as tools and perform most of the valuable work there is to be done.

Therefore, I can envision two futures - one in which wealth equality grows ever-greater, with a very tiny, super-wealthy elite who own most of the robots and the means of robot production, while the rest of humanity, left with no work to perform, is mired in poverty.

An alternative future (one that I think is more likely to come to pass) is a future in which, as technology advances, marginal tax rates on the tiny, super-wealthy elite continue to increase - probably well above 90% for the top tax rates. I am guessing that, in this future in which few people need to work (indeed, in which there only IS work for a relatively small number of people), the government will simply guarantee a minimum (but probably relatively high) standard of living - certainly higher than the average standard of living today. The people who are capable of advancing human technology will work (some, but probably not as many hours as they currently work) and will therefore be quite wealthy, certainly substantially more wealthy than the minimum standard of living guaranteed by the government. Obviously, humanity on the whole would enjoy a lot more leisure time. I'm sure some people would/will recoil at the thought of this level of government redistribution, but I don't see how someone could instead desire a dystopian future in which most of humanity is (completely unnecessarily) mired in poverty.

I hope I live to see this future, and I hope it's the second future - I would be quite happy to work less and enjoy a higher standard of living, thanks to robots. So, bring it on, future robot overlords!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tech Market Failues: "ISP Data Caps Just a 'Cash Cow'"

It may look kind of boring, but this is what a market failure in action looks like.

In my ongoing series of posts about tech (and the problems facing tech in America), today we turn to one of the topics that gets me most riled up - data caps put in place by internet service providers (ISPs).

The New America Foundation recently published a rather in-depth report detailing the extent to which ISP data caps are nothing more than tools used by ISPs to extort as much money from American consumers as possible - extortion made possible by oligopolistic practices and lack of competition among American ISPs, especially broadband and wireless ISPs. The report also outlines the damage that this extortion is likely to do to the American economy and America's ability to innovate in the years to come.

From a summary of the report by Ars Technica:
Why do so many Americans now live with Internet data caps—and what are these caps doing to the future of broadband? Those are the questions posed by a new paper from the New America Foundation, which wants to shake up the lethargy that has descended over the data caps debate by pointing out just how odd the caps truly are. "Internet service and mobile providers appear to be one of the few industries that seek to discourage their customers from consuming more of their product," write the paper's authors. "The reason for this counterintuitive business model is that in the noncompetitive US marketplace, it is highly profitable."
The arguments presented here aren't novel, but they do act as a fine summation of the anti-cap position (and the report is only 13 pages, making it a quick read). First up, the paper questions the very existence of data caps, which are now imposed by most major wireline and wireless Internet providers in the US, by noting that monthly limits have little to do with moment-to-moment congestion. While Internet providers like Comcast realize this and have taken steps to address actual congestion, many of them still impose monthly limits to stop "excessive use" of data.
The truly curious thing about the entire debate has been the way in which caps have mostly remained steady for years, even as the price of delivering data has plunged. For example, paying for transit capacity at a New York Internet exchange costs 50 percent less now than it did just one year ago, and many major ISPs aren't paying at all to exchange data thanks to peering. So why don't prices seem to fall? When I have asked this question in the past, ISPs have responded with a variety of answers, but one of the most popular is that the costs to move data are in fact dirt cheap, but the labor needed to build and maintain the network is not, and such operating expenses are not one-time, but ongoing.
The authors of the new paper contend that all explanations are more or less hand-waving designed to disguise the fact that Internet providers are now raking in huge—in some cases, record—profit margins, without even the expense of building new networks. (Apart from Verizon FiOS and Google Fiber, most cable and DSL operators in the US still offer service over upgraded versions of networks they built and paid for long ago.) While Internet users have to endure a ceaseless litany of complaints about a "spectrum crunch" and an "exaflood" of data from which ISPs are suffering, most wireline ISPs are actually investing less money in their network as a percentage of revenue, and wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon are seeing huge growth in their average revenue per user (ARPU) numbers after phasing out unlimited data plans—which means money out of your pocket. In the view of the New America authors, this revenue growth is precisely the point of data caps.
The concern here isn't just that Americans will spend too much for Internet access, but that they will also find themselves deterred from using hot new services thanks to concerns about data usage. Such limits could encourage users to adopt ISP's own unlimited services for telephone and television, for instance, rather than those services delivered over the Internet. "Over the longer term," was how it 2011 Credit Suisse presentation put it, "consumption based billing could reduce the attractiveness of over-the-top video options (e.g., Netflix and Hulu)." Critics have long speculated that this was in fact the ISP plan all along.
In a competitive market, how can Internet providers get away with holding prices steady even as their own costs drop? The New America report provides a simple answer: the market is not actually competitive, either in wireline (where most people have one or two good choices, and often just one truly high-speed choice) or in wireless (where AT&T and Verizon dominate, and where their customer "churn" rate is below one percent). Caps are "a strategy for ISPs to increase their revenue per user," says the report. "The trend is driven in large part by a woefully uncompetitive market that allows the nation's largest providers to generate enormous profits, as well as enable them to protect their legacy business models from new services and innovators."
One has only to look at an ISP like France's Free to see what an innovative Internet competitor looks like; unfortunately, things have gotten so bad in the US that cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Chattanooga have opted to build their own fiber networks to get the job done, while companies like Google are trying to prod existing ISPs into greater efficiency and higher speeds by building select fiber networks of their own—an implicit counter-argument to all the "we need data caps and have to charge high prices" doom and gloom that one hears from most ISPs.
Yup - the ISPs arguments for data caps are false, and ISP data caps are hurting you personally and the American economy in general. Speaking personally, I am certainly not happy with my own internet service options here in DC - if I want fast internet, my one choice is Comcast, and if I want no data caps, my one choice is to pay a premium for Comcast Business Class. It's bullsh*t.

Why can't there be a fiber-to-the-home connection everywhere? Chattanooga, TN and Burlington, VT managed to do it without Google - why can't every city and town? According to my the back-of-the-envelope calculations (based on the numbers given in this article), it would cost about $130 billion dollars to install gigabit fiber internet to every urban household in the United States, covering 82% of US households. That may sound like a lot of money, but it is less than half the cost of just one of the Pentagon's weapons programs, the ill-fated F-35, which is expected to cost $323 billion up front and $1.5 trillion over the life of the weapons program.

How much more useful would it be to the United States to have cheap, gigabit fiber internet EVERYWHERE than to have yet another weapons program that doesn't really work?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Annual Angry Bureaucrat Happy Birthday Bleg, and a Big Thanks to You for Reading

Thankfully, my food doesn't depend on blogging, but, well,
you know, feel free to donate to keep the site up ;) Image source.

(You can blame Freakonomics for introducing me to the term "bleg.")

Well, the blog is two years old as of yesterday - it's hard to believe that it's already been TWO YEARS since I started posting about whatever happened to interest me as a way to clarify my own thinking, generate ideas, connect with friends and strangers, and try to contribute to the greater public discourse in some small way. This past year has been a particularly big year, both for the country and for me personally - the country re-elected its first black President (which I think is almost more important than his initial election to office - I thought the USA would find it much more difficult to actually be governed by a black man than to elect one as President), and my wife and I had our first child, the Babycrat. We have big plans in store for 2013 - we'll see what all we're able to accomplish!

About the blog - I've had a great time writing it, and I plan to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. According to the sidebar, I've posted 350 articles thus far! There's a lot of great stuff back there in the archives, so if you're relatively new to the site or only visit occasionally, check out the archives or try out the search button and see what you find. I even browse my own archives sometimes and am occasionally surprised by my own past posts! I remain particularly proud of my Wedding Week posts, so be sure to check those out, if you haven't yet.

Obviously, I'm not a professional blogger, and I don't write this blog to make money. Readers who have been around for a long time may remember that I tried putting up ads for a little while to help cover some of the costs of running this blog (yes, this blog requires resources other than my time, which I happily donate), but the ads didn't bring in any meaningful sum and made the place as gaudy as the Vegas strip, so I took them down.

Nevertheless, I'd rather not be in the red as a result of this blog, so I figured I'd go the NPR route and take the blog's birthday as a once-a-year opportunity to invite any of you all out there who feel so inclined to donate "whatever amount fits your budget," to quote Steve Inskeep, if you value this blog and want to help me pay the bills for running the site.

The best way to contribute is via PayPal to angrybureaucrat@gmail.com (since PayPal doesn't charge fees for a simple personal transfer/gift) - but if you don't have a PayPal account, you can donate with any credit card via the Support button on the right.

Whether or not you're inclined to donate to support the site, I am deeply thankful for the support you show me through your readership, comments, questions, insights, disagreements, criticisms, and general engagement.

Thanks, everyone, for another fantastic year - and I look forward to another great year of blogging in 2013!

-The Angry Bureaucrat

P.S. While I was looking for images to accompany this post, I also found this awesome picture, and didn't want it to go to waste:

Oh yeah - you keep rockin' that bloggin', old dude. Image source.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Congress Robbed Us Of in 2013 with the Copyright Law

In keeping with a mini-series of tech-minded posts, since I've got tech on the brain at the moment, I'll take a second to lament the excellent works that should belong to We, the People, but don't - because of Congress's awful tech policy (the exact manifestation of which is copyright law, in this instance).

Recently, the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke put together its annual list of books that would have entered the public domain this year, if not for the ridiculous copyright laws passed by Congress in 1976 and 1998. Among the books that should belong to We, the People, are such excellent works as:
How about the movies that We should own?
As I've posted before on this blog:
So, this means no low-cost access to these (and tons of other) works; no Norton Critical Editions to advance scholarship, learning, and understanding; no competitive imitation; no derivative works (like translations, musical adaptations, and dramatizations); and no free e-book versions to put on your Kindle, Nook, or iPad.

Now, I am all for authors and other creative types being able to make a living off of what they do, but U.S. copyright law as it exists is a perversion of the Founding Fathers' intent for U.S. copyright protections. Copyright law, as laid down by the Founding Fathers, existed to protect temporary profits on works in order to encourage those same authors to produce more works, not to guarantee authors and their heirs 100+ years of income from a one-off hit.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution empowers the U.S. Congress "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." So, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 fails the sanity test, then, since no reasonable person should interpret the Framers' "limited Times" to mean "to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier."

By comparison, the Copyright Act of 1790 granted copyrights for 14 years, plus an additional 14 years if the author was still alive and applied for a copyright renewal. Here's how the term of copyright "protection" has grown over time:


There is no excuse for this, other than the Walt Disney Company's existential terror at the thought of losing their monopoly over Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and such characters. It's funny how, ever since Mickey was dreamt up, U.S. copyright has been repeatedly extended shortly before Mickey was to enter the public domain, eh?

So, instead of fostering the production of creative works in order to increase the collective cultural and intellectual wealth of the Republic (which was obviously the Framers' intent in the Constitution, since they subjugated the rights of "Authors and Inventors" to the "Progress of Science and useful Arts"), Congress now protects the monopoly profits of immortal corporations and authors' estates (i.e. the authors' less talented offspring) in near-perpetuity - for example, under the current law, any intellectual property created in 1923 or later will not be eligible to enter the public domain until 2019 at the earliest.

Why do We, the People, stand for this?
Just two short months ago, I had a brief, fleeting vision of the possibility that the U.S. might implement a sane copyright regime - but no, the House Republican group that proposed the reforms turned tail and ran like the cowards they are when the RIAA and MPAA lobbyists went berserk.

So, there continues to be bipartisan spinelessness when it comes to implementing sensible copyright laws in the US that are in line with the Founders' wishes about copyright - that the point of copyright is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," not to "ensure perpetual corporate profits from intellectual property." We're also not going to get any help from the Supreme Court - surprise surprise (why do we still have a Supreme Court anyway? It seems so very useless).

What's to be done to save (or, perhaps more accurately, resurrect) the public domain? Unfortunately, the only solution at the moment seems to be to elect pro-copyright-reform politicians - of which there are apparently none.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Things Are So Much Better Now - "Travel Times in the 1800s" Edition

Happy New Year, everyone!

I took a nice long vacation over the holidays to give the grandparents plenty of time with the Babycrat - I hope you all had a very Merry Christmahanakwanzika and Happy New Year too.

In addition to taking a long time off, I've been working on some personal tech projects, which have taken a little time away from blogging. That means I've got a bit of tech fever on the brain, so my next few posts may be somewhat tech-centric - like today's post!

Although I find much wrong with the world today and have tons of ideas as to how to improve the world and society in general, I also find it helpful and encouraging to look at how life used to be, in order to remind myself that now really is the best time to be alive ever in the history of humanity.

Today's example of how it's the best time to be alive ever in the history of humanity: travel times.

A scant two hundred years ago, it would have taken me about a month to travel from Washington, DC to my hometown in Tennessee - the below maps show how long it took to get from New York City to various destinations in the eastern half of the United States:


Railroads had made a huge dent in travel times by 1930, when a person could travel across the country in less than 4 days - amazing!


[Original map source - Flowing Data.]

And now, I can fly to Los Angeles in just a few hours, or to Europe in half a day - fantastic.

So, yes, as angry and frustrated as I get with the world today, it sometimes good to step back and remember - it could be a whole lot worse. I could have been born in 1750.