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When to Tolerate Intolerance

April 5th, 2014 7 comments

If someone in a position of authority makes public statements of intolerance towards a class of people, should that person be forced to step down? Most people would say yes, as they are demonstrating an outward intolerance which could easily translate into discrimination against that class of people.

But what if the same person made a contribution to a cause associated with intolerance? Is that the same thing? Arguably so; it may be a political contribution, but it is effectively an active statement of support.

However, should a person be barred from career advancement, or from holding any position of authority, because of their beliefs?

The answer to that is clearly “no.”

Somewhere in there is a line that is crossed, and it’s not all that easy to identify. If the authority holds public office, there is a somewhat higher standard, as there would be if that authority makes decisions that can easily affect people of the class they disapprove of. Public statements are willful, outward expressions, signaling an intent to more than just hold a personal belief.

However, we are also talking about taking actions which could, albeit in a limited fashion, deprive someone of a specific career. In stating any public opinion on this, I believe it is important to carefully specify how certain lines are being crossed and exactly where they are.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was promoted to the position of CEO in the organization. Eich, however, had made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to support California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages. As far as I can determine, that’s all that there is; he has made no other public statements on any such issue, nor has he apparently taken any other actions which might impact anyone.

Eich had served for two years as the chief technology officer for Mozilla, with the donation known. However, when he was made CEO, that apparently was too much for some. Half of the foundation’s board members quit and a large number of employees and local citizens expressed their outrage.

As a result, Eich stepped down as CEO, arguably forced out by those unhappy with his personal beliefs.

The question is, is that justifiable?

It could be argued that as CEO, Eich would be in a position to make specific decisions that significantly effect people in the LGBT community, at the very least those who work for his company. As an official in a private organization, however, can he be punished for something that is simply more likely? A public official must live up to a higher standard, must avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Does the same standard apply to the head of a private organization? Can someone be denied a position because of what they may do? I think not.

Eich could be in a position to steer the company towards certain policies or toward supporting certain movements. The question is, should he be judged based on what he actually does, or what he could potentially do? Again, I think a person in such a position is only accountable for what they actually do.

Also, as the CEO, he represents that organization, is the public face of it, and therefore whatever beliefs he has also reflect on the organization. This is perhaps the strongest argument for forcing Eich to step down, as such representations can seriously affect the organization, fair or not.

Personally, I am loathe to participate in anything like this, which, frankly, smacks of persecution. No one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs.

I think a key factor, however, lies in the fact that this was not simply a belief that Eich held, but rather a belief he took action on.

His donation would have publicly stripped an entire community of a valued civil right. This was not just a private belief: Eich was taking action to force this belief on others. This goes well beyond Eich simply believing something but having tolerance otherwise. It showed that he would willfully and actively affect the lives of others based on his belief.

If a person, for example, believes that Christians are somehow harmful, this person should not be discriminated against because of that belief. If that same person is in a leadership role, then perhaps they should be carefully watched to see if they take action on the belief. However, if they try to get a law passed which, say, bans Christians from holding public office, that is a completely different matter.

Of course, this gets into a sticky area: what specific political causes could trigger such a response? Clearly, just voting for a certain political party is absolutely unjustifiable as a cause for denying anyone a position. No, this is about supporting a specific cause.

But is this just about people supporting causes we don’t like? The answer is just as clearly no—if Eich had, for example, contributed to a campaign to privatize social security, that would not create anything near the same furor. One could argue that such a campaign could adversely affect large numbers of people—though pretty much any political policy could do that.

There is a significant difference between supporting policies which are based upon beliefs regarding how society and its resources should be run, and supporting policies which legislate discrimination against specific groups defined by innate characteristics.

The line being crossed is, in fact, specific: we’re talking about a policy that discriminates against a class of people. We’re talking about someone in a position of authority, someone who acts as a representative, who took willful steps in that act of discrimination. That it was a political act of discrimination rather than a private act is a distinction without a difference.

Then there is the matter of which position is being denied. It is not as if Eich is being denied any job; he was not pushed out of his relatively high-profile CTO position despite his contribution being known. In this case, he was denied a leadership position—one which reflected on the company’s image, one which essentially said that everyone in the organization had or would have confidence in his judgments—something clearly contrary to fact.

When I first saw this story, my immediate reaction was against the call to remove Eich; I saw it as many now do, as persecution based upon beliefs. However, as I consider the specifics—in particular, the fact that Eich took positive action to discriminate, and that he would be in a leadership position with implications well beyond any specific actions he takes in that position—I changed my mind.

I probably would still not personally call for his ouster. However, I would not judge any such call as unjustifiable.

Categories: Corporate World, Social Issues Tags:

Network Neutrality Dealt a Heavy Blow

January 15th, 2014 4 comments

The D.C. circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision today to essentially give Telecoms sweeping powers to manipulate Internet access, control content, and do their worst to make the Internet more expensive and snarled.

Telecoms can now freely block content as they please. If there is a competitor to their own services or services provided by an affiliate, they can throttle or block them; if there’s an app they don’t like, they can cripple its traffic.

Consumer advocacy group Free Press lamented the ruling. “We’re disappointed that the court came to this conclusion,” Free Press CEO Craig Aaron said in a written statement. “Its ruling means that Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies—and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will.”

More importantly, they can now charge whatever fees they wish for faster speeds. Netflix or Amazon wants to stream video? Well, they better pay huge wads of cash to the Telecoms if they want their current speeds to continue. Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T can now decimate their businesses unless they pay the Telecoms whatever the market will bear.

Which means that you, the consumer, will be paying more and more in the long run, because those fees will without any doubt whatsoever be passed on to you. The Internet just got a whole lot more expensive—and the Telecoms, already gorged with profits, will be swallowing all of that up.

Now, remember for the past several years how the Telecoms have been whining about how that excess revenue is absolutely vital to fund rollouts of faster fiber service nationwide? Well, they said that when they got permission to raise fees years ago, and they lied then—there is almost no doubt that they are lying again now:

In the U.S., there’s no practical competition. The vast majority of households essentially have a single broadband option, their local cable provider. Verizon and AT&T provide Internet service, too, but for most customers they’re slower than the cable service. Some neighborhoods get telephone fiber services, but Verizon and AT&T have ceased the rollout of their FiOs and U-verse services–if you don’t have it now, you’re not getting it.

Meaning that, despite years of promising that they would give us all bright, new, shiny bandwidth in exchange for today’s ruling, we will get only what profits them the most and not on baud more.

Expect the Internet to get less efficient and more expensive. I hope I am wrong, but we’re talking about a newly-unfettered corporate will now able to do almost whatever they want in a market ripe for exploitation. It seems impossibly naive to expect anything but a worse consumer experience.

A Small Victory; Media Lobbyists No Doubt Beginning Work to Erode It Away

March 23rd, 2013 3 comments

Publishers, in our modern, internationalized world, have established market segmentation: pricing their product separately in every country or region based on the maximum profit they believe they can derive from each market. Sometimes this is enforced by software and hardware restrictions; for example, you buy a DVD in America, that DVD will not work in a DVD player sold in Japan, Europe, Africa, or China, due to region encoding. Even without that restriction, language/subtitle segmentation allows for discrimination. As a result, a DVD/Blu-Ray set which sells for $20 in the U.S. (like Skyfall, for instance), sells for ¥3,045 ($32) in Japan (and it used to be $38 before the yen took a recent dive).

This might not affect you like it does me; living in Japan, I have a hard time getting media priced like it is in America. Market segmentation also makes my TV viewing options suck; if a TV show gets here at all, it is usually 2-3 years late. Hulu Japan at least allows me to watch whenever I want, but has the same terrible selection and late acquisition of titles.

However, there has been an issue in contention for a while regarding first-sale doctrine. This is the legal principle that once you buy a material item, it is yours to do with as you please. You buy an orange, for example, it belongs to you; you can slice it, peel it, juice it, resell it, or throw it out the window—and the seller of the orange has no say in what you do. This applies to physical copies of copyrighted work as well, allowing you to sell that book you bought to a used bookstore, or to someone on eBay.

Publishers have been trying to eradicate this in order to bolster their sales. The fact that electronic media can be licensed had given them the idea that anything can be licensed. Sony has put labels on their CDs which they try to make enforceable as a contract: break the seal and you accept the terms. Physical packages of software come with license agreements which forbid resale. Even when they have no legal force on their side, publishers attempt to claim various rights, like when they claim it’s illegal for you to put a CD into your computer and import the songs into iTunes. (At least I am pretty sure that’s legal; the music industry has been going full-blast in attempts, often successful, to have laws rewritten to their profit.) If the law does not go their way, they pour money into massive (and usually successful) lobbying efforts to change it, or else manipulate the laws to serve them.

This came to the forefront when Costco realized that watchmaker Omega watches were much cheaper on the gray market. Costco bought up the lower-priced versions, and sold them at a discount in the U.S. Realizing that first-sale laws did not support them, Omega tried a trick: they printed a copyrighted image on the back of the watches and tried to use copyright laws to restrict sales that defeat market segmentation; they also argued that the watches were not made in the U.S., and therefore, first-sale doctrine did not apply. They won in the Ninth Circuit; they would have lost in the Supreme Court, but Kagan, who would have ruled against them, recused herself and the court was split.

While a lower court slapped Omega down for illicitly using copyright law to defeat first-sale doctrine, the circuit court ruled that first sale doctrine only applies to goods manufactured in the U.S. In other words, if you manufacture something outside the U.S., you can get around first-sale and put restrictions on material goods as you wish.

This just got reversed in another case, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In this case, a Thai student in New York paid his way through college by importing textbooks sold cheaply in Thailand and selling them in the U.S. He was sued by a publisher, and just now won in a 6-3 Supreme Court Decision. In the decision, the justices ruled that first-sale does not apply only to goods made in the U.S., and that:

…nongeographical interpretation would make it difficult for publishers to divide foreign and domestic markets, but there is no principle of copyright law that suggests that publishers are entitled to such rights.

This has good and bad implications. The bad implications include the possibility that publishers will hike up prices for books sold in countries where poor students will not be able to afford them:

[T]he likely outcome of this decision is that Wiley and all other publishers will now raise prices in countries that now get cheaper prices. These tend to be developing countries, so essentially poorer students abroad will be suffering the consequences. Some will no longer be able to afford the books at all, even though the marginal cost of one more book to a publisher who has already made the investment for the American market is essentially zero. As a result, it would not be surprising if we see students in these countries substituting with piracy.

I do not agree. The publishers will simply do a little more work to differentiate the texts so international versions will not be usable in U.S. schools, or they will find another trick to allow them to price as they please.

And let’s not forget, the bulk of market segmentation is not to give badly needed resources to needy students; most segmentation is about raw greed, the ability to charge whatever the market will bear to greater precision, ergo I have to pay almost twice as much for music and movies here in Japan.

In the end, we have an immediately significant win in an otherwise losing battle to maintain consumer rights and prevent corporations from using extreme means to shake every last penny from your pockets as they use lobbying efforts and legal manipulation to hold you upside down. Alas, those efforts will probably soon make decisions like this one moot.

Categories: Corporate World Tags:

Marketing Research Tells Us That You Want to Pay More for Less

March 2nd, 2013 2 comments

Many companies use focus groups, and give you what you say you want.

Apple forgoes focus groups, and gives you what you want but didn’t know you wanted.

Time-Warner Cable makes up their own facts, and tells you what you don’t want, even if you are sure you want it.

And what it says you don’t want is good service.

It should come as no surprise that TWC ignores popular demand and instead insists that no one wants Gigabit Internet:

Speaking at the Morgan Stanley Technology Conference, Time Warner Cable’s Chief Financial Officer Irene Esteves seemed dismissive of the impact Google Fiber is having on consumers. “We’re in the business of delivering what consumers want, and to stay a little ahead of what we think they will want,” she said when asked about the breakneck internet speeds delivered by Google’s young Kansas City network. “We just don’t see the need of delivering that to consumers.” Esteves seems to think business customers are more likely to need that level of throughput, and notes that Time Warner Cable is already competitive .

In case you didn’t notice the stench, that’s all a pile of something well-digested and fetid.

Wired nails it on the head:

Experts believe that this reluctance has less to do with a lack of customer demand and more to do with protecting high margin broadband businesses. Companies like Time Warner Cable make around a 97 percent profit on existing services, Bernstein Research analyst Craig Moffet told the MIT Technology Review this month. But Verizon is more interested in wireless broadband, on which it can make an “absolute killing,” by charging per gigabyte for usage, broadband industry watcher and DSL Reports editor Karl Bode told Wired earlier this year.

In other words, rather than spending money on high-speed networks due to customer demand, telecoms are instead cashing in on the least they can offer while charging ahead on technologies which offer the highest profit margins—and since they move in lockstep with little or no real competition, customers get no say in the matter.

Telecoms are like any other corporation: get as much money by any means necessary. In the early 1990′s, a variety of telecoms successfully lobbied states to get them to drop regulation limiting their profits on services that were, effectively, monopolies. In exchange, the telecoms promised delivery of near-universal 45 Mbps fiber-optic broadband throughout these states by deadlines ranging from the 90′s to 2015. Most states agreed, leading to hundreds of billions in extra profits for the telecoms—who soon after this killed most of their fiber-optic programs. The extra profits the telecoms have made over the past 20 years from the rate hikes they were allowed could have paid for nationwide broadband.

Do we have that? Not even close. And now these same companies are saying it won’t come because we don’t want it. Specifically, “We just don’t see the need of delivering that to consumers.”

Of course not. If they can charge $100 a month for 15 or even 5 Mbps in so many locations, who would want to spend all that gravy on new networks instead of simply running off with the cash?

These same profit-rich corporations are instead whining about how they don’t get to invalidate Net Neutrality and charge even more, once again claiming that they need to charge more so they’ll be able to invest in broadband—the exact same shell game they played on us before.

Meanwhile, they reveal that they have no intention of truly improving their networks to the extent people want and need.

No, consumers don’t want Steam to be able to deliver HD games quickly. They don’t want high quality video conferencing. But most importantly, consumers do not want, under any circumstances, Apple or Hulu or Netflix or Amazon to deliver 1080p video over Internet.

Because that would threaten the cable contracts many of the ISPs enjoy with millions of American households, leading to a la carte video services that could be cheaper and more convenient than the crap delivered now. No, consumers don’t want that.

Comcast in California does offer 105 Mbps speeds in major cities… for $110 a month, if you commit to long-term service ($200 a month if not). If you don’t live in a major city in most states, you could pay that much for 30 Mbps.

Here in Tokyo, KDDI offers Gigabit Internet for $60 a month. I know it’s not as expensive to wire up Japan as it is America, but you would think that at least in major Californian cities it would not be double the price for 1/10th the speed… essentially 20 times more expensive for equivalent services… after 20 years of overcharging for enough to pay for it all and then some.

Categories: Corporate World, Technology Tags:

Another Telecom Attack on Network Neutrality to Grab Profits and Suppress Free Speech—International Edition

December 6th, 2012 Comments off

There’s a conference in Dubai which is only now breaking out in the news. It’s a conference to discuss a 25-year-old international treaty on how the Internet works worldwide.

These people talk about how they only want to increase access to people in the third world, and make the Internet better for everyone:

“The brutal truth is that the internet remains largely [the] rich world’s privilege, ” said Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, ahead of the meeting.

“ITU wants to change that.”

The people running the show claim they’re not doing any harm:

Gary Fowlie, head of ITU liaison Office to the United Nations, insisted in a phone interview that his organization’s effort to revise outdated telecom rules is not an attempt to change the way the Internet is governed.

“This whole idea there would be some kind of restriction on freedom of expression, it just doesn’t fly with what the ITU has stood for,” he said, stressing that as a U.N. entity, the ITU is bound to uphold Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression through any media.

Sounds great, until you realize that “ITU” stands for “International Telecommunication Union.” That right away should be a giveaway. The next hint:

But the [ITU] said action was needed to ensure investment in infrastructure to help more people access the net.

Red flag time! Hear those alarm bells and sirens going off? Any of this sound familiar? “We want to help people get access to the Internet. That requires infrastructure.” This is the inevitable preface to the next statement: “We need money to do that. Let’s talk about how we can make more money.” And thus we arrive at the actual motive behind the lobbying, and upon closer inspection, find the justifications to be specious.

Yep. It’s just like when the U.S. Telecoms tried to gang up and buy their way to Internet ownership in the U.S. Virtually nothing is different: the telecoms are whining about how they’re losing so much money because of the big, bad Internet:

Some telecommunications companies are looking at WCIT as an opportunity to address the business reality that new technologies are severely eroding traditional revenues from old-style voice calls. Customers are no longer making phone calls as they once did, and are instead using an application layer on the Internet to carry voice and video. Landline services are increasingly being replaced with mobile communications services that are themselves increasingly being used to provide data connectivity. Beyond voice, the companies argue that large content providers are making revenue from customers’ access to those services over their Internet connections.

So these companies see this treaty as a way to “re-balance” revenue streams between carriers and “over-the-top” providers. Claiming that regulatory help is needed to ensure the ongoing investment in the Internet’s infrastructure, they have dusted off an old concept known in telecom circles as “sending network pays.” On its face, the idea is simple: The network or ISP of the sending party should pay for the delivery of their traffic (just as with cross-border telephone calls).

That’s the same bullshit argument made by the U.S. telecoms, the billionaire’s cry of poverty. “We’re losing revenue from people using Skype instead of making international phone calls, so we need to make up the money somewhere else.”

What a complete load of crap. As if these people are not making huge profits on all-new revenue streams in several different areas, many of which derive specifically from the Internet usage they now claim cannibalizes their revenues.

Let’s see. I pay for my Internet connection—a monthly fee which easily exceeds, by quite a bit, what I used to pay for my traditional land line. I also pay for cell phone use—in fact, I pay, in a way, for no fewer than three different Internet connections, one the aforementioned home connection, and two more times for the data plans for my wife’s and my own cell phone plans. Each of which costs about the same.

Repeat this throughout the entire world, and you begin to understand that the telecoms have never had it better. If they want to cry poverty, I demand they first cough up their balance sheets for close inspection. Because I will bet you quite a bit that their profit line is probably not very far behind Big Oil and Big Pharma.

Once again, they try to make it all sound more palatable by saying they are going after big corporations:

One of the other concerns raised is that the conference could result in popular websites having to pay a fee to send data along telecom operators’ networks.

The European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (Etno) – which represents companies such as Orange, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom – has been lobbying governments to introduce what it calls a “quality based” model.

This would see firms face charges if they wanted to ensure streamed video and other quality-critical content download without the risk of problems such as jerky images.

Etno says a new business model is needed to provide service providers with the “incentive to invest in network infrastructure”.

Again, the same bullshit argument they made in the U.S. 6 years ago. And it’s still full of crap. They already have all the incentive they need to expand infrastructure. They already have huge profits. The content providers who send bandwidth-intensive content already pay for sending this data, as do the users who consume it. And we have seen before when Telecoms make promises to expand infrastructure in exchange for the ability to charge more, and they never do what they promise.

What they really want here is virtual ownership of the Internet. They want to be able to wring every last penny, yen, pound, and deutschmark that they possibly can by charging for something, then charging for it again, and then charging someone else for the same thing as many times as they can manage.

Piggybacking this wave are governments scared shitless over the freedom of expression the Internet represents and the threat this is to their control over their populaces, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by people who know the Internet better than anyone—like Vint Cerf, co-creator of the TCP/IP protocol and regarded as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” who wrote this message of warning:

Today, this free and open net is under threat. Some 42 countries filter and censor content out of the 72 studied by the Open Net Initiative. This doesn’t even count serial offenders such as North Korea and Cuba. Over the past two years, Freedom House says governments have enacted 19 new laws threatening online free expression.

Some of these governments are trying to use a closed-door meeting of The International Telecommunication Union that opens on December 3 in Dubai to further their repressive agendas. Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticize their governments.

The ITU is bringing together regulators from around the world to renegotiate a decades-old treaty that was focused on basic telecommunications, not the internet. Some proposals leaked to the WICITLeaks website from participating states could permit governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech — or even justify cutting off internet access by reference to amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

Cerf then urges us to remain vigilant against those in power corrupting one of the most invaluable advances in communications and freedom of expression in human history:

A state-controlled system of regulation is not only unnecessary, it would almost invariably raise costs and prices and interfere with the rapid and organic growth of the internet we have seen since its commercial emergence in the 1990s.

The net’s future is far from assured and history offers much warning. Within a few decades of Gutenberg’s creation, princes and priests moved to restrict the right to print books.

History is rife with examples of governments taking actions to “protect” their citizens from harm by controlling access to information and inhibiting freedom of expression and other freedoms outlined in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We must make sure, collectively, that the internet avoids a similar fate.

Indeed.

Let me reiterate something I feel is very important: the Internet is the single most important advancement in communications technology in the history of the human race. More important than the printing press, more important than radio and television.

Why? Because the Internet is the first human technology which allows worldwide dissemination of speech and ideas which is not controlled by the wealthy.

Before the Internet, if you wanted to speak beyond the reach of your own voice, if you wanted to deliver an idea beyond just the few people you have contact with, if you wanted to speak to more people than you could gather in a local public place—you had to beg at the feet of the Gatekeepers.

The Gatekeepers are the ones who used to control communication. They are the publishers and the regulators. They are the wealthy and empowered who controlled all means of publishing content. Want to write a book? Not unless we say so, and thanks, we’ll keep almost all the profits for ourselves. Want to speak over a network? Not unless you can make us big profits, or lend a popular or sympathetic face and voice to opinions we wish to propagate.

Much of this was justified by the expense of said networks. Publishing books and building broadcasting networks isn’t cheap, and the available resources were few. So there was not much complaint about the lack of freedom to communicate.

However, the Internet changed all that. This blog can be accessed worldwide—and I don’t have to pay much to publish it. I can write almost anything I want, within reasonable law, and within seconds, people in Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Israel can read it. I pay about $10 a year for the domain name, and maybe $100 a year for hosting; I could get cheaper pricing than that, or I could pay nothing and instead have a blog hosted by WordPress or some other blogging service.

This ability to speak to the world has never before existed.

That is a greatly unappreciated fact of the Internet: how it has opened the doors to potentially anyone in the world communicating with a large portion of humanity, openly, freely, instantly, and (usually) cheaply.

A freedom and availability that would be threatened if the ITU got what they wanted.

So pay no mind to the weeping billionaires and multinationals, or the angry dictators fearful of losing control. Disregard the claims of the super-rich telecoms crying poverty and claiming they only want to give fiber-optic to children in Africa. Ignore the claims of sock puppets for dictators that no one is trying to squelch freedom of expression. Recognize these for the obfuscation, distortions, and lies that they are.

And whenever possible, write to your legislatures: give the Internet to the Telecoms, we will vote you out. Threaten free speech over the Internet, and we will overthrow you. We have only just received this freedom, and we refuse to surrender it.

Owner’s Rights, Copyrights, and Licensing

October 29th, 2012 Comments off

I’ve been on my high horse about licensing for some time, and, from recent events, I think more and more that such a concern is justified. There are cases going before the courts now about reselling textbooks from overseas.

Students at U.S. colleges hurt from outrageous prices and resale-avoidance schemes related to textbooks; any college student knows the frustration of hundred-dollar books, rip-off college bookstores, dodgy buy-back setups, and textbook “editions” obviously designed not to improve the book but to make used book sales impractical.

Now the publishers are fighting back against students who found a loophole: publishers sell identical textbooks cheaper in other countries, so why not import? Well, because publishers don’t like loopholes, so they used licensing to shut it tight.

The problem: licensing is basically a way of saying, “you don’t own what you just bought.” Intended to protect intellectual property, it is now being used to protect physical property in a way that could have serious implications on ownership.

Seven years ago, I expressed it like this:

Think about it. Plug in any other kind of product into that equation. What if a store that sold you oranges tried to sue a company that made juicers on the grounds that they had rights and controlled what you did with an orange after you bought it? That the orange seller deserved a cut of any sales having to do with changing the form or consumption of the oranges after the sale? That you would have to pay extra if you wanted to do anything with the orange except peel it and eat it straight? That turning it into juice would require an extra fee to the orange grower, or that using the rind in baking confectionaries would be prohibited?

Ridiculous, right? But maybe not so much.

Take, for example, a guy who bought several original boxes of software, with install disks and serial numbers; the software was not being used on any computer. He tried to resell the software on eBay, but the software maker shut him down, and won the case. The license agreement said you could not re-sell the product.

The case is important because the sale was not of the intellectual property per se, but of the physical set in which it was obtained. The critical point is that copyright laws were intended to keep people from copying and reproducing intellectual property. For example, I take Microsoft’s latest software, slap a new name on it, and sell it as my own software—that’s a copyright infringement. Copyright law was not intended to keep people who had bought physical originals from reselling them. But that’s where it is right now.

Have you ever bought a used book? You may not be able to in the future. It’s intellectual property, after all. Selling the physical container of that, apparently, is not OK—according to the recent textbook case. It could mean that publishers could slap a license on any book that says you cannot resell it (this already applies to all ebooks, after all), and presto, no used book stores.

It could even mean libraries are under threat. Even if borrowing is allowed, it might carry an extra price. Anything is possible under licensing. I have little doubt that librarians will have to carefully read the license agreement of books they want to add in the future.

But hey, it stops there, right? Well, not really. A few years back, Costco tried to import and resell Omega watches sold for substantially less overseas. Omega sued, and tried a trick: stamp an image on each watch, copyright the image, license it, and use copyright law to keep others from buying and reselling. The case tied in the Supreme Court, allowing Omega victory at a lower court to stand, albeit in a limited way (and Obama appointee Kagan, who recused herself as she had represented Omega in this case, could well have sealed it at the Supreme Court level had she ruled).

Now, apply that to the oranges. Let’s say somebody who makes oranges stamps the peel with their logo, which is copyrighted. Boom. It’s intellectual property, terms can be dictated by license, and suddenly you don’t own the orange you just bought.

I know, you’re still not buying it. Pun intended—you won’t be “buying” much of anything in the future if this comes to pass. You’ll be renting it. And that’s my point. One rule about businesses: if they can find a way to raise prices and exert more control, no matter how ridiculous, they will do it. That is the nature of business: to go to any extent to make money.

And recent court cases are opening doors that fly in the face of what we used to believe was the fundamental basis of property ownership: you bought it, you own it. Business is trying to rewrite that: you didn’t buy that, you only signed a license agreement to temporarily consume it.

Still not a believer? Wait and see. The problem is, by the time you’re convinced, it’ll probably be too late to do much about it.

Categories: Corporate World Tags:

Copyright Holders Wield Far Too Much Power

August 7th, 2012 4 comments

Today’s legal and technical systems give far too much power to copyright holders, in ways that range from annoying to ruinous. Content owners have bulled their way into most every crevasse, dictating unreasonable terms and causing headaches wherever they go–and usually to no good effect.

DRM in HDMI cables, for example, made my brand-new DVR completely unusable for perfectly legal recording of hi-def TV shows, for example. Content providers have litigated their way to getting a cut of blank media sales, extorting who knows how much without even any proof that they lose any sales to piracy. And speaking of extortion, they have started an industry of nuisance lawsuits, preying on people with unreliable IP address identification, forcing them to pay thousands of dollars in what amounts to a shakedown, or face even more than that in legal fees alone. Meanwhile, copy-protection schemes forced on paying users create all kinds of limitations and annoyances–while non-paying pirates have full and free use of media at the highest qualities.

One of the many results of this campaign is policies concerning content-playing services like YouTube, which bend over backwards to please content owners. You may have noticed that if you make a home movie and add a bit of your favorite music to it, YouTube will probably mute the audio or apply restrictions and ads; fair use is not recognized, nor are international variations in law. It doesn’t have to be a directly-applied soundtrack, it can be just a snippet of music playing in the background; that’s enough to have your content taken down on copyright violation grounds.

However, content owners are given far too much leeway. One recent example occurred when a hapless YouTube uploader tried to put up a video of himself outdoors collecting a wild salad. There was no music playing, just this guy talking in a natural setting. The music licensing company Rumblefish demanded the video be taken down. Apparently, the birdsongs in the background were claimed by the company to be part of their copyrighted catalog.

NASA, however, is a more recent victim, with the news services playing the villains. NASA created a video of the LCROSS spacecraft crashing into the moon, and placed in the public domain–as are all NASA videos, being paid for with taxpayer money.

Well, not so much. The Associated Press claimed ownership, and YouTube obligingly conceded, taking down many accounts for “copyright violations” when they uploaded the NASA video to YouTube. One can only guess that the AP simply copyrights all video and audio that they pass on, even public domain content they have no right claiming ownership of.

But that was three years ago–and NASA continues to be plagued. This week, one of NASA’s own videos on NASA’s own YouTube page was claimed as the private property of the Scripps News Service, which had the video taken down.

Scripps eventually apologized for the “mistake,” but the content companies continue their practices of throwing copyright notices over broad swaths of content, whether they actually own it or not, penalizing countless people, many of whom have done nothing wrong–and most of whom constitute no threat or harm to any copyright holders. It has simply become a broad game of marking territory and punishing people without review or standing.

Categories: Corporate World, RIAA & Piracy Tags:

Didn’t Take Long for Microsoft to Screw Up Skype

June 14th, 2012 1 comment

First it was the “Skype Home,” an unnecessary screen with data most people have no need for. When you use Skype, the primary task is to contact someone–not to check who has been seen in the last two months (I know already) or have to dismiss annoying ads. And yet Microsoft made the “Skype Home” the default screen, and you can’t change that. Going on line, I found a lot of people like me who hate the damned thing.

Then there was that fracking awful “rate your call” screen at the end of calls, like I want to spend a minute every time doing that–especially when most problem occur due to bandwidth glitches, which Microsoft can do little or nothing about. No way to stop that either, as far as I can tell.

And now? Microsoft figures it’s a great idea to put giant ads in the middle of your Skype call. Not banner ads, which would be annoying enough. Not text ads, like Google. Nope. They want to shove your contact’s image to the side and present an ad as big as they are, like you’re talking to two people, but one of them is an annoying ad.

What happened to Skype making money from people on paid accounts? Probably it just wasn’t enough for Microsoft, they probably figured that there was an untapped revenue stream, so screw the users and screw the app itself.

They claim that you can get rid of the ads, but only by going to a web page and opting out (seems simple, but I’ll bet good money it doesn’t work like you expect), but you can count on the fact that eventually, it’ll become a non-dismissible “feature.”

They already are trying to gold-plate the turd of an idea by claiming that the ads will give users something to talk about. They are even calling these things Conversations Ads:

We’re excited to introduce Conversations Ads as an opportunity for marketers to reach our hundreds of millions of connected users in a place where they can have meaningful conversations about brands in a highly engaging environment.

What does it look like?

Conv Ad Screenshot For Pr With Unilever Magnum Ad-Thumb-485X351-22183

Well, they’re right in that it will spur discussion. “Goddammit, another fracking ad!” “Yeah, me too. Frack Microsoft. Let’s get a different chat program, one that doesn’t suck.”

Seriously, I am considering switching to FaceTime on the Mac, or maybe Google’s GMail video chat. It’s probably as good as Skype if not better, it’s just that Skype is what everybody has been using. But if I continue to get frustrated, annoyed, and pissed off every time I use it, then I won’t give a damn if I have to drag people over to FaceTime, I’ll just do it.

Apple’s Outrageous Worker Abuse? Yep–It’s Mostly Fake.

March 17th, 2012 5 comments

I’ll get to the new iPad review soon, but before that, I just wanted to say a few things about Apple and Foxconn.

It turns out, according to new reports today, that most of the outrageous abuses people have believed about Apple have been largely fabricated.

Now, over the past several months, there has been a great deal of attention focused on Foxconn, a contractor for many electronics firms, including Apple. It started with what was reported to be a cluster of suicides a few years ago. People were outraged; surely this was a result of oppressive conditions at the plant, an impression fueled by the general image of Asian factories being inhumane sweatshops with workplace conditions right out of the industrial-revolution era.

Added to that was a case of “Apple Outrage,” generally resentment from detractors of Apple, who, annoyed by the computer giant’s good press, enjoy jumping on any of its faults. The story was further driven by a media which loved the ironic contrast of the popular consumer-friendly company, run by a supposedly spiritually-tuned Steve Jobs, hiding potentially dark, cruel secrets.

In short, it got attention. At the time, the suicide “cluster” was more easily explained; on the story, I wrote:

Since then, there has been a lot of focus on Foxconn and suicides. Many are reporting a “cluster” of suicides, insinuating that Apple’s secretive nature is somehow linked to an oppressive work environment at the contractor. Note this Huffington Post article titled “Apple Supplier Foxconn Reports Eighth Suicide THIS YEAR,” with “THIS YEAR” in all caps, as if it is a shocking number. That sets the tone for the article, which, typical for articles like this, otherwise insinuates a shadowy, oppressive, iron-fisted horror chamber with Apple somehow tied in.

Terrible, right? Apple’s policies are killing these poor, oppressed workers, we’re led to believe. Except that, as stated above, Apple is just one of their clients; why put “Apple Supplier” at the start of the headline? And in fact, instead of the suicides being a sign of terrible stress, the opposite may actually be true. A few more responsible writers actually looked at the larger context and applied the Chinese national suicide rate–13.0 per 100,000 for men, 14.9 for women–and found that for the 300,000 workers at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant, there should be between 39 and 43 suicides per year. So by now, by mid-year, we should have seen about 20 suicides at the plant so far. Instead there have been 8. In that context, one can hardly make an argument about workers being horribly oppressed.

So the attention is not new–but it did flare recently. One thing that made it flare up were visuals–Foxconn installed nets to deter people from jumping off the tops of buildings, adding to the false impression that it was practically raining employees. More irony, with art this time–the media loved it.

But another thing that made people irate were the reports of horrible abuses. There’s a guy named Mike Daisey who does a stage show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, who re-ignited the controversy by reporting on his trip to China, where he claims to have met with workers and saw first-hand the crippling effects of employer abuse–this is from Ed Schultz’s show:

SCHULTZ: We are joined tonight Mike Daisey. Great to have you with us. His monologue called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” And it’s performed at the public theater in New York City. For 18 months you have been doing this, 19 cities across the world. First of all, I’m intrigued, congratulations. I have not seen your performance, but you come to us tonight with absolute rave reviews. I’ve talked to people who have seen you. And you just sit down at the desk and you tell it like it is about what you saw in China. And I’m intrigued what motivated you to do that?

DAISEY: I have always loved technology. I have loved Apple, actually. I loved the devices. And I knew a lot about them, because I’m kind of a tech geek that way. I realized on day that I didn’t actually know — I knew how to take my computer apart, but I didn’t know how it had actually been made. And I started researching it. And a lot of these stories that are coming out now, human rights groups have been reporting on them for the better part of a decade. So none of this is actually controversial. This is actually how things are done across the electronics industry. So I felt compelled to go to China and actually dig in the story.

SCHULTZ: And you went there in 2010, correct?

DAISEY: Yes.

SCHULTZ: OK. What did you see?

DAISEY: I saw all the things that everyone has been reporting on. I saw under-age workers. I talked to workers who were 13, 14, 15 years old. I met people whose hands have been destroyed from doing the same motion again and again on the line, carpal tunnel on a scale we can hardly imagine.

SCHULTZ: Making Apple products?

DAISEY: Yes. And making products across the electronics industry. All our electronics are made in this fashion.

SCHULTZ: What do these people get paid in China to do this? What does Apple pay them? I mean, this is all about cheap labor, isn’t it?

DAISEY: It is. Cheap labor is the engine that fuels this entire enterprise. It should be said that there is a different standard of living. And it’s one of the reasons that all this industry goes to the area. That said, it’s still true that the amount people are being paid is low enough that they feel like they need to work that incredibly excessive amount of overtime. And then they’re practically required to do it until they drive themselves into the ground.

Daisey went all over the media, spreading this story. Telling people about how workers were being crippled regularly because of the unsafe conditions, driven into the ground by forced shifts lasting more than a day. He told of one worker who, while Daisey was in China, worked a 34 hour shift until he died. He painted a picture where people were being driven to kill themselves over the horrific conditions.

This created a furor, sparking protests against Apple. However, it didn’t exactly ring true to me, mostly for the same reason the suicide story did not. I not only remembered that, but I also remember two times in my own experience where there were union actions against different places where I worked, and the claims made by disgruntled workers were, for the most part, a concoction of wild accusations, specious rumors, and speculation based upon the worst imagined conditions, but then expressed as the gospel truth. The kernel of truth tends to get buried beneath all of the hyperbole. So I know that things can get distorted even more than Steve Jobs himself was capable of.

In addition, Apple has not been–contrary to rumor–either complicit in nor apathetic about such matters. For years, Apple has performed their own checks on contractors to make sure they are not committing worker abuses, and they have made these reports public, even though they are often used to unfairly vilify Apple.

This also irritated me about Daisey’s claims–he said that he was glad that Apple is “actually starting to react,” when it had been working to stem any such abuses for years, a fact Daisey either didn’t know about or didn’t care to look up.

When a co-worker brought up these issues with me and asked my opinion (knowing my affinity for Apple products), I said what I felt: that probably Apple was taking advantage of cheap labor and that the workload and conditions would be ones we ourselves would not enjoy… but that most of the accusations being made were likely not true. I figured that this guy Daisey was predisposed to believe the worst, took at face value everything that he was told–and then exaggerated further for effect, being so passionate about it.

What I did not know is what was just revealed by a journalist, who, with the producer of This American Life, confronted Daisey on his reports. The show that broadcast Daisey’s account has now retracted their episode because Daisey was making most of this crap up:

Cathy Lee, Daisey’s translator in Shenzhen, was with Daisey at this meeting in Shenzhen. I met her in the exact place she took Daisey—the gates of Foxconn. So I asked her: “Did you meet people who fit this description?”

“No,” she said.

“So there was nobody who said they were poisoned by hexane?” I continued.

Lee’s answer was the same: “No. Nobody mentioned the Hexane.”

I pressed Cathy to confirm other key details that Daisey reported. Did the guards have guns when you came here with Mike Daisey? With each question I got the same answer from Lee. “No,” or “This is not true.”

Daisey claims he met underage workers at Foxconn. He says he talked to a man whose hand was twisted into a claw from making iPads. He describes visiting factory dorm rooms with beds stacked to the ceiling. But Cathy says none of this happened.

When confronted with all of this, Daisey pulled a Limbaugh, claiming to be an entertainer and not a journalist:

“Look. I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work,” Daisey said. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism. And it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Yes, I am sure that he regrets it now that he is completely disgraced. I am sure that he did not make the rather cold calculation that if he presented it as “theater,” then he would not have received a millionth of the attention that he did.

And I am sure we can take him at his word now, when he tells us that he “stands behind his work.” A galling claim, considering how much he lied, and in the midst of that lying, he accused Apple of dishonestly influencing a labor group who were investigating the Foxconn plant.

Worse, calling it “theater” when he made the direct claim, on news shows, not at all “in character,” after having been introduced as “telling it like it is,” as a factual report of what he personally saw… that’s not theater, that is out-and-out fraud.

How did he defend that? Like this:

Rob Schmitz: Cathy says you did not talk to workers who were poisoned with hexane.

Mike Daisey: That’s correct.

RS: So you lied about that? That wasn’t what you saw?

MD: I wouldn’t express it that way.

RS: How would you express it?

MD: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip.

Ira Glass: Did you meet workers like that? Or did you just read about the issue?

MD: I met workers in, um, Hong Kong, going to Apple protests who had not been poisoned by hexane but had known people who had been, and it was a constant conversation among those workers.

IG: So you didn’t meet an actual worker who’d been poisoned by hexane.

MD: That’s correct.

So he meets some disgruntled workers who tell second-hand tales about people they heard about who were poisoned by chemicals, and believes that it is OK to represent this by telling that he himself saw these people firsthand.

Frankly, Apple should sue the crap out of this liar and give every penny he dishonestly earned spreading those lies to Foxconn employees.

Because, in the end, this is not about Apple using Foxconn workers for they enrichment–it was Daisey who was doing exactly that. He used them to sell his one-man show, to gain fame and fortune.

Once again, this does not mean that there are none or never have been any abuses. There may be–but we don’t know. Apple may be bullshitting us as badly as Daisey was–but we have no evidence to support that. Workers at Foxconn may be abused and oppressed–but we have nothing but rumors, mostly now discredited thanks to Daisey, to back up that suspicion.

Foxconn could just as well be what they present themselves as being–an above-average workplace for China, treating its workers as well as can be expected, in conditions that the workers find appealing enough to apply for jobs in massive numbers. Again, we just don’t know for sure. There’s no convincing evidence either way.

So take it for what you will.

Categories: Corporate World, Mac News, Social Issues Tags:

SOPA, PIPA Shelved

January 21st, 2012 2 comments

The bills are in storage but not necessarily dead. Their seemingly inevitable momentum, however, is, at least for the moment, halted.

Ironically, these bills, which are supported by both political parties but overwhelmingly by conservatives, was taken down in no small part by something conservatives would have expected to come from the other group of business interests: a corporate strike right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

The thing is, the biggest giant to go on strike and stop producing for society was Wikipedia, a not-for-profit foundation. Yes, other for-profits joined in, like Google and Facebook, but those giants did not shut down, probably for the same reason true Randian corporate strikes never happen: they don’t want to stop making money.

Alas, the politicians are doing little but playing an evasive waiting game, knowing that momentum like we saw recently is hard to build, and they can just quietly come back to this issue in weeks or months. Hopefully, the protests will not subside.

SOPA, PIPA, and the Erosion of the Separation of Corporate and State Police

January 18th, 2012 3 comments

While it’s a slightly encouraging sign that the White House has signaled its opposition to the SOPA and PIPA legislation, it does so only on some technical grounds, not on what I would think are the more fundamental grounds, leading to the distinct possibility that the worst of these acts will eventually pass.

If you get a copy of the legislation (PDF file), you’ll note an entire section (starting on page 34) which allows a “qualifying plaintiff”–effectively a corporation holding copyrights–broad powers to act against anyone they feel is infringing on those rights. All they have to do is try to send mail (pages 35-36), if any addresses are available, and the action has started. If there’s no mail or if no one responds in seven days (page 38), then their powers expand considerably. The corporation can then get a court order which will go into effect in any jurisdiction (no more of this filing individual actions in each district) which will, within 5 days, shut down the web site’s account, force financial services (e.g., VISA or PayPal) to cut off their accounts (page 38-39), force advertisers to cut off all ads for the site which could include normal search engine results (page 40), and allow the corporation to send threatening messages to the site’s users (page 41). If the site owner still hasn’t shown up, the corporation can get a court to force them to comply and fine them (page 42).

Let’s say you have a monetized blog and a music label doesn’t like how you quoted lyrics from a song they own. They can not only send you a cease-and-desist order, but now that is backed up by an effective nuclear arsenal of legal weapons which, within 12 days, can utterly destroy your web site. You might be on vacation, or simply didn’t post an email address. Too bad, sucker–Sony Music just had your site taken down, all your links struck, all your accounts shut down, and sent threatening messages to everyone who left comments on your site or whose IP got any content from you.

Or let’s say you have an online business selling items, which may include items which make fair use of copyrighted material, say in the form of satire, protest, or other protected speech. If the corporation which owns that content wants to, they can take you down–and your powers to fight back are now excruciatingly limited, considering that they can smother your livelihood virtually at will.

More to the point, they can threaten you with all this–unless you do exactly what they tell you immediately. If you want to fight it, you might have to travel a great distance at great expense on a very short timetable, hauling your attorney along with you–while the corporation threatening you has to exert only minimal effort and expense. This could make for the mother of all nuisance lawsuit runs.

The proposed laws would effectively give the music and movie industries a host of powers they have tried to abuse in the past but could not. Instead of having to threaten lawsuits in which people could defend themselves, they can now threaten immediate action which could cost the accused even more if they tried to defend themselves. No more “pay us $3000 or we’ll sue you” nonsense–now we’ll start hearing about threats where people are forced to cough up much more, once the amount of damage they can incur with only minimal expense has increased greatly.

Note also that these copyright holders are being given similar powers as law enforcement. I can’t be the only one concerned about this as a trend, can I?

The same copyright holders who routinely sue people for outrageous amounts based only upon an IP address, when it is clear the targets had nothing to do with the infringement? The same copyright holders who have made a habit of shaking down individuals for thousands of dollars apiece against the threat of costing ten times more to fight what may be specious allegations in a court of law–in effect, hundreds of thousands of sham nuisance lawsuits? The same copyright holders who then opened the door for innumerable scam artists to wield the same legal weapons as means for even greater shakedowns of the general public?

The same copyright holders who paid off politicians to get the DMCA, and made it the law of the land that stealing one song could incur fines of up to $150,000?

These same people are now paying money (let’s face it, our government was up for sale long before Citizen’s United) for legislation to get these new acts passed, ones where the copyright holders are given access to similar powers as law enforcement? Where they will be able to, with the same flimsy standards of “proof” that they have abused for years now, have any person they choose lose their web site and possibly their livelihood, have their access to advertising shut down, close off any methods of receiving income, and even force search engines to erase any sign that they exist? Even lead to their imprisonment?

Yes, yes, I know they will not start doing this to everyone. But from their past actions, it is clear they will cast a wide net and will not hesitate to ruin people who are clearly innocent in order to maintain the illusion that they don’t make mistakes because their system of collecting evidence is a sham. And yes, I know they are not becoming a new armed police force who can act independently and with impunity. But they are beginning to take on roles that traditionally have been wholly in the realm of public law enforcement.

This is what concerns me most: the precedent that is being set. The precedent that corporations are now active participants not only in creation of absurdly lopsided legislation (which gives then extraordinary awards for pedestrian crimes, the effects of said infringements being in fact very much debatable), but are also becoming active participants in the process of enforcement of these laws. Corporations as police, corporations which can act not just to sue people but to immediately erase their businesses in an age where many businesses are based on the web. And then, later, sort things out and maybe impoverish them or send them to jail for a few years. Based upon legislation they wrote to their advantage and then paid lawmakers to make into the law of the land.

Surely I cannot be the only one who sees this not only as an exercise in rabid plutocracy, but also as a trial balloon for future expansion?

To Spite One’s Face

September 22nd, 2011 2 comments

It’s about time that we started publicly tearing down the asinine idea that raising taxes on wealthy people will be a drag on the economy, based on the idea that people who are taxed more will be less productive. Frankly, that’s a steaming, heaping pile of nonsense.

The basic premise behind it is that the more you tax people, the less they will be willing to work. For example, if someone makes ten million dollars a year, and you raise his tax rate from (let’s imagine that anyone really pays the marginal rate) 35% to 45%, meaning that (again, fantasizing that there are no breaks or shelters and that every dollar of income is taxed that much) his take-home drops from $6.5 million to $5.5 million, then this hypothetical person, seeing a million dollars vanish, will feel less like working. His productivity will fall, and as a result, the government will take in less in taxes overall, and the economy will slow from all the people like him making similar decisions, and no one will want to pick up the slack.

This is about the stupidest thing I have ever heard, right up there with the Laffer curve. Yes, if you raise his total tax burden to an absolute 95% (no loopholes, breaks, or shelters) if he makes $10 million, and lower it to 10% if he makes half a million, then yes, probably you’ll find people who will draw down and go for the lesser amount. But only with such extremes, and only in such stark terms, without room to maneuver. However, those extremes do not and will not exist. The top marginal rate of 35% kicks in at just under $380,000, and the 33% rate at just under $175,000 (for someone filing as single). The savings in terms of total percent are gradual until you get to the bottom of the 25% bracket at just under $35,000. What this means is that there are no huge savings for a wealthy person in lowering their income, and will not be unless the tax brackets are very poorly designed indeed.

If a wealthy person now facing a 35% marginal rate sees that rate raised by 10%, or even 20% or 30% more, they are not going to scale back the amount they work and try to earn. Not unless they have some bizarre, neurotic impulse to shoot themselves in the foot out of resentment over being, in their opinion, taxed too much. Many will feel over-taxed, but few if any will see that as reason enough to stop trying to make money. Quite the contrary, in fact–it is far more likely that such a person would actually increase their efforts, as most such people aim at achieving specific levels of wealth, achievement, or overall success, and not at just slightly more advantageous relative rates of take-home pay. This would make no sense in the real world. A CEO who declared he’d scale back his work hours and not perform as well for the company because his top marginal rate rose from 35% to 40% would probably be fired, and rightly so.

A Randian thinker, however, might suggest that “productive” people (because people who do back-breaking labor at minimum wage are not the productive ones, I suppose) would go on strike in protest to such horrific tax rates. This, of course, is stupid piled on stupid. If there are two scabs waiting to pick up the work of every menial laborer, then there are a hundred hungry businessmen with no sense of class solidarity whatsoever who are just salivating to get the chance to fill in the void that would be left by a businessman idiotic enough to throw in the towel. If there are people in Southeast Asia willing to do the same factory work as Americans for a tenth of the pay, then there are a hundred times more eager entrepreneurs who would give anything to take home 55% of several million dollars per year.

This stream of replacements wanting to make money off of a business venture would not dry up even in the extreme 95%-absolute-rate fantasy. Think about it: there are people who work 80 hours a week scrubbing floors for minimum wage. Do you think such a person would back away from a chance to bring home half a million dollars out of an income of $10 million, working the same hours but in a business suit in a nice, clean office? And don’t tell me that you won’t find hungry, creative, productive people in large supply; productive people are clobbered every day in business by simple competition; lessen that competition and they will emerge.

No, no businessman will call it quits because of higher tax rates unless they had achieved their goal and sated their desire for wealth already, and if such rare people were to retire, there would be no end to other people–creative, productive people–who would immediately pick up the slack.

Seat Fight

June 2nd, 2011 Comments off

An airplane leaving Dulles for Africa was turned around, escorted back by fighter jets, and had to burn off fuel for half an hour before landing.

The reason: airline seats.

Well, it was a little more than that. In order to squeeze every last penny out of flights, Economy seats on airlines are now packed so tight that one person reclining their seat can result in the person seated in the row behind being hit by the reclining seat back.

That’s what happened–a passenger reclined, hit another passenger, and a fight broke out. The pilot, following procedure, had to report it and return, despite the fact that the offended/offending passenger had calmed down and the scuffle was over.

There is no real excuse for the passenger’s behavior–no matter what, you do not get into a fight of any kind when on a plane in flight. That’s a rule, and if you can’t follow it, you shouldn’t be flying.

That said, while I cannot condone such behavior, I can sympathize with the general situation. And the solution is not just to have better-behaved passengers.

Honestly, it’s time for a regulation to be set, creating minimum space between seats. If such a regulation exists, then it has to be modified to increase the amount of space. If prices go up, so be it. But this is beyond ridiculous, it is stupid and dangerous, and not just because of potential fights between passengers.

Seriously: time for new regulations on seat spacing.

Obama and GM

May 6th, 2011 3 comments

Republicans attacked Obama for the GM bailout, claiming that when the government intervened, it was a “major power grab” that effectively put GM under the control of the federal government–and, in the eyes of many right-wingers, under Obama’s personal command.

Well, in early 2009, the company was near collapse, threatening to destroy the American auto industry and put huge numbers of Americans out of work. Today, as a result of the intervention, the company is not only back on its feet, but posted a $3.2 billion profit. It’s not perfect, but without doubt far and away much better than it was before Obama came in.

So, will Republicans–who claimed Obama owned the industry–give him credit for its success?

Perspective

March 21st, 2011 2 comments

Here’s a charming news story:

Higher yen could help U.S. companies exposed to Japan

U.S. companies with big sales in Japan like Aflac and Tiffany may see sales pinched in the wake of the country’s massive earthquake, but the yen’s recent sudden strength could offset those losses.

Yes. Never mind the Japanese companies that got literally flattened by the disaster, and how an unnaturally strong yen could devastate an already trashed Japanese economy. No, we have to think about those U.S. companies that might lose a few percent of sales in Japan.

Nice to see that Wall Street still has the right spin on things.

Just a Reminder

March 8th, 2011 3 comments

Here is the far-sighted Steve Ballmer, from an interview on April 30, 2007, after the iPhone was announced but before its release:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

Hard to believe that was just four years ago. In the same interview, he also called Apple a “one-trick pony” because it is “a hardware company.”

Today, Apple’s iPhone holds 27% of the cell phone market–ten times the 2% or 3% Ballmer predicted–and is challenged mainly by Android, an OS given away for free and used by many cell phone makers. Where is Microsoft? Fighting to remain relevant in the cell phone market, Microsoft’s market share is shrinking, currently at only 10%–down from about 40% when Ballmer gave the interview. What’s more, Neilsen, which came out with those ratings, noted that “an analysis by manufacturer shows RIM and Apple to be the winners compared to other device makers since they are the only ones creating and selling smartphones with their respective operating systems.”

Apple, in other words, is both a hardware and a software company–whereas Microsoft, ironically, is primarily a software company–far more of a “one-trick pony” than Apple. Apple, in fact, is branching out, as a reseller (the highly successful iTunes store now resells third-party music, video, books, and software), an advertising firm (iAds), and yes, is even starting to establish itself in enterprise solutions. Apple, in fact, is spreading out into new areas, while Microsoft is just struggling to hold on to what it has, and is shrinking in some areas. It is telling that despite Microsoft still holding perhaps 85-90% of the worldwide OS market share, Apple now has a market cap of $331.66 billion to Microsoft’s $218.06 billion.

One has to wonder if Ballmer still prefers his position to that of Apple’s.

Being Popular Is Not a Monopoly

February 19th, 2011 1 comment

There are severe complaints against Apple regarding its new terms for magazine subscriptions:

The Justice Department and the FTC are both interested in examining whether Apple is running afoul of U.S. antitrust laws by funneling media companies’ customers into the payment system for its iTunes store—and taking a 30% cut, the people familiar with the situation said. The agencies both enforce federal antitrust laws and would have to decide which one of them would take the lead in the matter. …

Under Apple’s terms for the new service, companies that sell digital subscriptions to content on Apple devices would be required to make it available for sale through apps at the company’s iTunes App Store at the best available price.

Buying magazine or other subscriptions through the iTunes store would require just a few clicks and use billing details already on file, giving users an incentive to use Apple’s system. Apple would prohibit media companies’ apps from linking to stores outside its App Store or from offering better terms to subscribers elsewhere, making it difficult for them to attract buyers to their own sites. Legal experts say some of those rules could pose antitrust problems.

Banning apps from linking to external sites “sounds like a pretty aggressive position,” said Eric Goldman, director of Santa Clara University’s High Tech Law Institute. “It seems like that’s purely in the interests of Apple trying to restrict people doing transactions they don’t get a cut from.”

Sorry, but this sounds rather biased against Apple. For example, in that initial paragraph, the reference to a 30% cut is made to sound somewhat insidious: “a 30% cut, the people familiar with the situation said.” The writer is suggesting that the 30% cut is some dark secret, when it’s a very open policy of Apple to take 30% of all sales through its iOS stores.

Later in the article, the 30% commission is referred to as “excessive” and “obviously anticompetitive.” However, Apple is in the position of a retailer here, and retailers often take far more than 30%. It perhaps depends upon the industry–some retailers might mark up items by a few percent, but some do it by far more. Significantly, digital sales are new and so a new standard is being defined. This is really just the publishers whining and trying to strong-arm their way into defining standards to suit them best, using the claims of anti-competitiveness as a tool to accomplish this.

The fact that Apple is a retailer, and that the iOS platform is the equivalent of a store, makes most of the objections seem rather ridiculous. For example, the publishers complain that Apple is demanding the “best available price,” Of course Apple wants to be able to offer an item for sale at the best available price–it would be objectionable only if Apple demanded that they get to sell at a lower price than anywhere else. Asking for the same price as elsewhere is the opposite–Apple is demanding that it not be unfairly undercut by others.

As for Apple’s convenience, requiring just a few clicks, that’s not unfair either–it’s simply Apple’s efficient setup. Is a supermarket violating antitrust by having an express checkout lane, or a bank by using ATMs?

The stronger objection seems to be related to the rules prohibiting apps from linking to stores outside of Apple’s, but frankly, that’s another very understandable policy. Combined with the demand that Apple not be undersold elsewhere, effectively, that’s like a store not wanting to carry a product bearing an announcement that a buyer can get a lower price by walking to the competitor’s shop next door. Would Safeway carry a brand of milk which, on the carton, advertised that a customer could “Go to 7-11 and get a better price” for the exact same product?

One might argue that Safeway does sell magazines at newsstand prices and that the magazines, within the product, offer much lower subscription rates–but, ironically, that’s a different issue. Safeway is not trying to sell subscriptions, but rather the newsstand version–very different products. It’s like Safeway selling a carton of milk advertising a tour of a dairy farm, something Safeway would have no part of.

Apple is offering subscriptions, so the outgoing links are not for a qualitatively different sales method. Now, if Apple only offered one-shot sales and not subscriptions, that would be different, the objections might be valid, especially if the publisher were trying to sell at a lower price but Apple both refused any part of it and denied the publisher from advertising it. But as it is, Apple is not doing so, and is simply saying that it doesn’t want its own product used to steer customers away from its own store.

Many times I have seen similar claims against Apple–that it is monopolistic because it has high market share in some areas. Certainly there are grounds to grumble about how Apple is rather controlling and protective of its playground. However, a monopoly is not just when a company enjoys good sales, it is when a company abuses its market share to cut off the competition.

People point to Apple having huge market shares in music sales, phone sales, tablet sales, app sales, etc. However, when Apple enjoys having the lion’s share of the market in these cases, it is because Apple was the first to come out with a qualitatively new product well before anyone else, and maintained a popular brand image as well as an excellent if not superior design. That’s not being monopolistic. A monopoly is not when you get 99% of the sales, it’s when you get 99% of the sales by using your 85% market share to beat down others.

If Apple threatens music companies to cut off their sales unless those companies agree to unfair practices–like letting Apple have lower prices than anyone else, or prohibiting sales via other retailers–then that’s a fair claim of monopolistic practices. But if Apple simply says, let us have the same price as others and don’t use our store to steer customers away from us, that’s not an unfair demand. Nor does Apple having the biggest slice of the sales pie make it any more monopolistic.

Categories: Corporate World, Mac News Tags:

Knowing When to Dial It Back

January 16th, 2011 Comments off

Have you ever been surfing the web in a quiet place, maybe at home where others are sleeping, or maybe even in a coffee shop with gentle jazz playing over muted conversation–and then stumbled across a web page that starts playing loud music or some stupid ad and you forgot your volume had been turned up all the way? Beyond startling yourself, it can be pretty damned embarrassing. Worse if you just opened six or so links and you have to figure out which new page is blaring at you, before you remember that you have a mute button for the computer itself and scramble to hit it.

There are some things web pages should never do, and one of them is to start playing unsolicited audio content.

The schmucks at ABC News now load a 30-second video commercial on every single news story page you access. I don’t mean that when you try to access video, I mean when you try to access print. A video window accompanies every story, and it starts playing video, whether you like it or not. And the audio is always on by default, no matter what you set previously. The pause button is grayed out, so you can’t stop it. If you let the news story run, it plays for 2-3 minutes–and then you get another commercial, followed by the next news story in the queue.

The only more annoying thing I can think of are the long commercials–sometimes also 30 seconds–run before videos on “Funny or Die,” where sometimes the clips themselves are only a few seconds long.

Such “must endure” commercials are bad enough usually when you ask for video content (the same commercial tends to repeat every time, for example). It’s even worse when a 10-paragraph story is divided into three pages so you have to reload and get the commercials all over again every time you “turn the page.”

But to start playing video, with no warning or option to turn it off, is simply asinine.

I’ve said it before, I would not use an ad blocker at all if the ads would simply stay still. For appropriate ad content, I would even voluntarily sign up to some kind of service where I would tell them what kind of stuff I want to buy so they could ad least make the ads less irritating. But that’s not an option. So instead, the more intrusive they get, the more I avoid those sites. The scripted “pop-up” rectangles you have to dismiss (got around the pop-up blockers, didn’t they?), the floating ads which annoyingly bounce up and down the side while you scroll–these are getting more and more distracting and maddening.

I had backed off on my ad blocking, but now I am ramping up again, as well as adding to my do-not-visit list. I know they gotta pay for stuff, but it’s as if they completely ignore the annoyance factor. If movie theaters have to advertise, for instance, they would get no business if they stopped the movie every five minutes, had people go up to every patron and thump their shoulders, and then shout an obnoxious ad message at them before resuming the show.

Do Not Follow

December 2nd, 2010 Comments off

Boy, this would definitely not have happened with the FTC under Bush. The commission is recommending that online users have a right to expect online privacy, and propose that Congress pass a “Do Not Follow” system in which, by pressing a button in a browser, a user could opt to not have his or her online activity monitored.

Before you get all excited, it is not (necessarily) about the RIAA tracking your IP address as you download the latest Black Eyed Peas album from The Pirate Bay. Instead, it’s about advertisers collecting, analyzing, combining, using, and sharing your “purchasing behavior, online browsing habits and other online and offline activity.”

What caught my eye in this report was a statement in protest of this proposal, by Mike Zaneis of the Interactive Advertising Bureau:

Most people would rather get a relevant ad rather than an irrelevant ad, which is by definition, spam.

This explains a lot. First, the guy thinks that a message is spam only if it’s not relevant. That’s an interesting definition–and dead wrong. Spam is unsolicited advertising, not non-relevant advertising. Now, spam is less annoying if it’s about things you want to buy, but it’s still spam. But Zaneis didn’t even use the term “wanted,” he said “relevant,” which is a significant distinction.

Second, the statement completely sidesteps the more important issue–privacy–as if a user’s expectations of privacy were completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, when in fact they are absolute in this case. This is not about annoying people, this is about protecting people from invasion and predation.

Of course, when advertising is your business and predation is your primary tool, you would naturally want to redefine unfavorable terms describing exactly what you do as being something else.

Naturally, the industry would prefer to keep on doing what they’re doing: invade your privacy, usually in an aggressive manner you are not even aware of, and bury you in ads. Allowing people to navigate the Internet without such predation is not what they want:

The online advertising industry, Mr. Zaneis said, would suffer “significant economic harm” if the government controlled the do-not-track mechanism and there was “a high participation rate similar to that of do not call.”

And if the government were to make it illegal to point a weapon at people and make an aggressive plea for monetary transfer, the mugging industry would also suffer “significant economic harm.”

Here’s an idea: Give people the option of telling you which ads they want to see. It does not have to be tracked by name, location, or IP address–instead, have a dialog box in the browser where a person can select categories of ads they would prefer to see, with the option of adding keywords. That data would then be used to target the ad types, while keeping user data anonymous. This allows advertisers to deliver targeted ads, makes the browsing experience much more pleasant, and protects privacy, all at the same time.

Add the ability to state a preference for static (non-moving) ads, and I myself would probably uninstall my ad-blocking software.

Forward to the Past

September 15th, 2010 2 comments

I have complained often in the past about how the airlines are slowly squeezing the seats together in Economy class so they can get yet another and another row of seats they can get a bit more money out of every flight. Domestic flights are bad enough, but for international flights, it’s sheer torture, even without the other usual hazards of airline travel (people who sit next to you being second on the list).

I remember way back when “Economy” seats were far enough apart that you could have a window seat, and with passengers in the two seats next to you, you could still stand up and exit the row without them getting up. After a few years, you had to squeeze by, and they had to angle their knees to help you. Today, it is a physical impossibility to exit without your neighbors getting out of their seats (unless you are five years old or have the ability to pass through solid matter).

Well, they’ve got their game plan to make it even worse. Witness the next generation of airline seats, the “SkyRider” design:

Skyrider

28 inches between seats. Keep in mind that there are a lot of people who are more than 28 inches from back to front. (One has to wonder if there are laws which do not allow you to charge people a premium for transportation based on their physical makeup, especially if it entails progressively squeezing people to get more money from them.)

I saw this a few days ago, but seeing Sean post on it brought it back to mind. Note that in the illustration above, they do not depict a person between the rows, and for an excellent reason. Forget not being able to open your laptop, this design will make it impossible to get out your iPad. Or get out of your seat without an complex system involving cables and a hoist.

As it happens, I have special connections within the industry, and have acquired a design schematic of the next generation seat design after the SkyRider, borrowing from “classic” models:

Slaveship

OK, slight exaggeration. But you know they would if they could. How far are we evolving, where we are on track toward paying for this.

Categories: Corporate World, Travel Tags: