Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Upgrading Profits

Why is it that businesses are no longer content just to earn a fair profit? Why must they continually look for ways to make extra money for the same product or service?

Lately, there’ve been several articles about various telecommunications firms discussing a new “upper-tier” Internet service. They plan to install faster lines, higher bandwidth, better switches, and so forth. Of course, there’s a catch. In order to send data across these faster pipes, they will have to get money from both ends – not only will I, the recipient have to pay for service, but so will the content provider. So either Google will have to pay every time I go to their page, or they will be relegated to the older, slower pipes. Ditto Yahoo!, MSN, CNN, Amazon, eBay, and so on. Note that this is not a raise in an existing fee, it is a completely new charge.

Here’s why this is a bad idea:

1. I’m already paying for the network. If you are going to upgrade it, charge me for the upgrade. Charging the websites I go to is only going to end up being charged back to me in the end, and I’d rather pay one bill to Verizon than one to Verizon and one to Google and one to Yahoo! and one to eBay and…

2. The only reason that I get on the Internet is to get to the information offered by the content providers. If you make it more difficult for them to get the information to me, then you are trying to kill the only thing that makes the network valuable in the first place. The concept is the same as a television network charging a producer for broadcasting his show, or a theater charging the movie studios as well as the ticket buyers – without the shows or the movies, there’d be no point in the network or theater.

3. The big Internet companies can afford to pay a “reasonable” fee – as I said before, it’ll simply get charged back to their customers, one way or another. But what about new companies? They can’t afford to start off charging high rates, so they’ll be forced to use the older, slower pipes. That keeps them at a disadvantage, making it harder for them to compete, to get a foothold in the market – thus stifling innovation and promoting monopolies.

4. I’ve already seen one example of “Two-tier” service: cable television. As an area upgrades to provide digital cable, the analog service quality begins to decline. Some of the channels get removed, some signals seem degraded, access to pay-per-view is no longer provided – meanwhile, the price stays the same or even increases. Certainly, the older equipment is unlikely to ever be upgraded, causing it to fall further and further behind. The net effect is to encourage customers to switch to the newer, higher-quality service – which is, incidentally, also more profitable. Once a telecom has invested in their new high-speed high-profit pipes, does anyone really expect the old lines to be upgraded? Ever? And what happens to the smaller content providers when the old lines fail?

I’m declaring my intent publicly – when and if my Internet provider switches to a two-tier service system, I will switch to another available provider, even if that requires me to spend more money. Since profit is apparently the only concept these companies understand, the only answer is to hit them in the bottom line. I encourage you to do the same thing, and to spread the word.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Freedom of the Press Release

I hate having to defend someone I don’t like.

I don’t particularly like Vice-President Cheney. In my opinion, the modern-day purpose of a Vice-Presidential candidate is to look good, shore up support for the Presidential candidate in a different home region, and, in the case of a former challenger for his party’s nomination, provide some extra electoral votes for the big guy. Dick Cheney doesn’t look good. He’s from Wyoming, a state tied with six others for the least electoral votes – even the CITY of Washington, D.C. has the same number! To make it worse, Mr. Cheney is from the same general region as Mr. Bush – the West. And certainly, Mr. Cheney was never even vaguely a contender for the Presidential nomination.

For Mr. Bush to select Mr. Cheney as a running mate required that he give up all these potential advantages that another person might provide. There has to be some compensating advantage or reason – and when I think about that, the words “kingmaker” or worse, “puppeteer” leap to mind. I am very uncomfortable with the thought that my President, my Commander-in-Chief, might be little more than a mouthpiece for his Vice-President. Still worse when that Vice-President gives the appearance of being deeply beholden to various special and corporate interests, especially the oil and defense industries.

With all that in mind, you can imagine how much it bugs me to be forced to defend Mr. Cheney. But the press has the wrong end of the stick this week, and I don’t see many people stepping up to say so. Dick Cheney went out this past weekend on a hunting trip with a friend. The trip held no particular political importance, wasn’t an official function, and wasn’t related to his duties. It turns out that he made a tragic mistake in the course of the day that has hospitalized that friend. This is news – not because it is politically important, but because the Vice-President is an inherently newsworthy figure, so anything he does is news, especially something unusual and tragic. (All the more so that it includes so many comedic elements – political humorists are having a field day.) I don’t see any problem with the media reporting the incident, or with the satirists poking fun at it – that’s part of the deal when you accept the office, or even when you hang around with the VP.

The press corps, however, seems to believe that they were entitled to full details provided directly from the White House as soon as the incident occurred. There’s been a few editorials on the subject batting about the terms “cover-up” and “withholding information.” Alan Dershowitz hints that Cheney may have been drunk at the time. But worse than the editorials have been the so-called “balanced” news stories that take their pot shots by publicizing the “media’s reaction.” For example:

“Amid criticism of the White House for waiting to announce the shooting accident…”

“US media slams Dick Cheney” and “The Vice President seems to be avoiding the press, however, that hasn't stopped the media from taking pot shots at him.”

“The accident raised questions about …the White House's failure to disclose the accident in a timely way.”

I read editorials frequently, but I prefer that they be labeled correctly. Constant mentions of “press reaction” by the press itself strike me as a way to cover opinion with a patina of honest reporting.

But why is the press so upset in the first place? Because they weren’t given the full story right away. The reporters seem to have forgotten a basic truth – the freedom of the press is a freedom for them to publish and for them to go find out, not a guarantee that they’ll be handed every story on silver platter. A government cover-up of official actions is one thing, but this incident was a private matter. It could later become a civil or criminal matter, if Mr. Whittington should decide to sue or press charges, but right now it is purely private. Mr. Cheney and the White House were under no obligation to say anything.

In fact, it might be better for us all if the media stopped depending on press conferences, releases, and handouts for our news, and went out there and looked and told us what they found.

Monday, February 6, 2006

Serious Cartoons

There’s been a major flap over two cartoons lately. I’ve already discussed one of them, the blasphemous portrayal of Muhammad that has led to a technical act of war between Lebanon and Denmark, among various other riots and demonstrations. This issue apparently has legs; I may come back to it later. For now, though, I want to mention another cartoon, of interest only to U.S. citizens.

You’ve probably seen the cartoon, a Washington Post editorial image drawn by Tom Toles, depicting a quadruple amputee soldier being treated by “Doctor” Rumsfeld. It drew an unprecedented response from our military leaders – the so-called “24-Star Letter,” signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Vice-Chairman, and the senior officers of all four services. Ever since that letter was made public, the Chiefs have drawn flak for it. They’ve been accused of attempting censorship. They’ve been accused of ignoring other issues, like body armor, to defend our troops from a cartoon. And in this Les Payne column, they’ve been accused of trying to shift the meaning of the cartoon in order to defend their Commander-in-Chief from richly-deserved criticism.

They’ve been accused of so many things that I begin to wonder if everybody else read the same letter I did. Their letter clearly states that no subject is forbidden – “The Post is obviously free to address any topic…” The letter is short, probably shorter than most of the critical responses Post editorials draw from their readers – it certainly didn’t take a huge amount of time to write, so the Chiefs probably still had some time that day to deal with other issues.

As far as the accusation of shifting the focus…I am certain that every one of those 4-star officers has personally met and talked with a number of amputees in Bethesda and Walter Reed – they’ve probably each met and talked with at least one quadruple amputee. They've met with the family members of those amputees. They’ve seen how such injuries affect the lives of their troops, both in such direct meetings and in detailed reports on the total numbers of casualties, costs of treatment, proposed plans to assist wounded soldiers, and so on. They know exactly how painful and life-altering such injuries are, as well as anyone can who has not experienced them directly.

And they are responsible for each and every one of them. I personally have a very limited responsibility for sending soldiers into combat zones – and even that weighs heavily on me. Say what you like about those six senior officers, but none of them got there without recognizing the value of those personnel serving under them. They all know the risks their soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines bear, and recognize that their orders and policies send those servicemembers out to face those risks.

With such personal knowledge and personal responsibility, it is no wonder that the Chiefs were offended at the cartoon, and felt it necessary to respond. They deserve the right to express their opinions, too. If you read their letter for what it actually says, rather than for whatever hidden meaning you might think lies behind it, I think you'll understand their feelings.

Friday, February 3, 2006

Religious Establishment

Religious tolerance is a contradiction in terms.

The recent reaction of the Islamic community to that Danish editorial cartoon is a perfect example. I understand that Islam forbids any depiction of Mohammed. The intent of that prohibition is apparently to prevent idolatry, specifically to keep Muslims from worshipping the Prophet himself as opposed to Allah – and I can’t see anyone praying to a rather insulting caricature – but let’s put that aside and just consider the rule itself. Despite the occasional protestations from Imams and Mullahs and other Islamic experts that Islam is a religion of peace that preaches tolerance for other people and religions, the entire Muslim world seems to be in an uproar because a NON-Muslim in a primarily NON-Muslim country violated this rule of THEIR religion. It has led to protests, riots, boycott threats, death threats, terrorism threats, and burning the Danish flag. This is tolerance?

Of course, Islam is far from the only offender. Does anyone really think that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints gave up polygamy voluntarily? No, that was a case where the various Christian sects and the Catholics all agreed that such immoral behavior could not be tolerated – so the legal persecution drove the Mormon Church to change their views.

Need another example? Assisted suicide. Anathema to any Christian religion, so it is illegal. In the one state that legalized it, the Justice Department did its best to find a loophole to persecute…excuse that misspelling, of course I meant PROsecute…doctors who aided terminally ill patients to end their lives on their own terms. The furor over Terri Schiavo is a related example. Congressmen, in an effort to appear moral for their constituents and the cameras, interfered in a case where they had little knowledge, less comprehension, and no business.

In general, our religious freedoms are not protected by the First Amendment – they are protected by an “armed truce” between all the different faiths, mostly Christian, that run this country. In the no-mans’-land between them, the minority faiths – Islam, Atheism, Wicca, and so on – manage to survive. If ever one particular sect becomes ascendant, well, the truce will end, and our nation built on freedom will quickly become a tight little theocracy. The pageantry of the Presidency, Congress, and the Courts will no doubt continue, as will the rhetoric of freedom and democracy, but that will be nothing but a shell. Don’t believe that, either? Look at the makeup of the Supreme Court these days, and ask yourself how much farther it would go if the President and 60% of the Congress were not only the same party, but the same church. If justices didn’t retire fast enough, well, impeachment is always an option.

So unless you are SURE that your church would be the majority…pray for the stalemate to continue forever.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Thus Oil Does Make Cowards of Us All

I have long believed that our dependence on petroleum for our industry and economy has forced the United States into damaging positions in international affairs. Certainly, our current adventure in Iraq has other reasons to justify it. But would we truly have been concerned with Hussein’s genocidal tyranny if we didn’t need cheap Iraqi oil to fuel our cars and factories? Our record in Africa suggests that we would not. And while I suspect that nothing less than the conversion of the United States government to an Islamic theocracy would truly satisfy Bin Laden, I also know that if we were not so intimately involved in the Middle East, much of his, Al Qaida’s, and other “Islamic” terrorists’ venom would be directed elsewhere.

The current nuclear crisis in Iran, however, truly shows just how much the power of oil corrupts. We all know that the only country to feel the full horrifying effect of nuclear weapons is Japan. As a result, their national identity, public opinion, and government policy includes a massive horror at the spread of nuclear weapons throughout the world. Despite this, the response from Japan regarding Iran’s apparent intent to produce the materials needed for their own atomic bomb has been mild at best. Why? As this article in the L.A. Times reports, 16% of Japan’s energy imports come from Iran. They cannot afford to make an enemy of such a major oil supplier…and as a result, they are forced to betray their own beliefs.

There’s only one possible answer, for Japan and for us. We need to develop alternate energy sources, not only to cover the growing demand, not only because the oil supply is limited and will someday run out, but to free us from the oil umbilical that forces us to meddle in countries that hate us. Where’s Daniel Shipstone when we need him?

If you didn’t get that last sentence, read Friday by Heinlein. Then read everything else he ever wrote – it’s worth your time.